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There are some things in life you can’t unsee.
My grandmother’s new smartphone dings with her first text. I stare down at an ancient and rather large, erect penis nested in gray on the six-inch screen in my hand and nearly bobble the phone. Gross. I blink to clear the image, but it remains burned on my retinas.
Grams asked me to transfer the contacts from her museum-worthy flip phone, and I’m entering them one at a time. It’s the sole reason I’m staring down at a wrinkled ball sac. Geriatric dick pics. FML.
I must have made a sound because Grams joins me at her dining room table. “What’s wrong, love?”
Words fail me, so instead I tilt the phone her way.
“What on earth?” Grams coughs into her hand. “The name is too tiny for me to read. Who does it belong to?”
I make a mental note to increase text font size for Grams and say, “Gavin MacKinnon.”
“I’d heard the rumors of course, but I didn’t believe it.” She clears her throat. “Phoebe, I’m sorry you saw…”
Me too. Penises shouldn’t be used like emojis. Ever.
“I’m going to call Gavin right now and give him a piece of my mind. Be a dear and show me how on my new toy.”
I initiate a voice call and pass the device to Grams, who steps into the galley-style kitchen, a mere three feet away. We’re both brunettes, though at the age of seventy-two, a hair stylist helps Grams maintain hers. We both have violet-blue eyes, but hers glow with intelligence and humor. Mine don’t. Cameras shoved in your face for months on end dull the sparkle. But that’s what happens when your uneventful life becomes newsworthy.
Grams has trouble hearing. As a result, she speaks loudly. I can’t help but overhear.
“My granddaughter got an eyeful of that picture.” A pause. “Yes, it’s impressive,” she huffs. “Oh. You mean right now? This isn’t something you saved and sent?”
Grams! She can’t be discussing… Oh, no. No. No.
She giggles. “Fine. I’m on my way but keep it up.”
I’m certain Grams doesn’t realize I can hear.
“That’s not an attractive thing to say, Gavin. If you lose it, it won’t be my fault. Of course, I’m hurrying. Unlock your door.” She tsk-tsks in apparent exasperation. “Use your left, God gave you two hands, didn’t he?”
Now I know exactly what they plan to do about his stiffy.
Grams grabs her purse and keys off the counter. “Sweetie, I have to go. Lock up when you leave for the university. Don’t you have an afternoon class?”
She looks elegant in her dark blue pantsuit paired with two-inch heels in candy apple red. Grams rushes out the door before I blink, all without the benefit of a calf check, which means she either doesn’t care or Grams manages leg stubble better than me. The fact I’m tabulating her pre-coitus habits proves how screwed up my life is right now.
Mother in jail? Check. Grams left me for a booty call? Check. And the third check that completes my pathetic triumvirate—I live with Grams at Shades of Willow Glen, a community complex for retired people. I’m surrounded by the technology-challenged senior set in Silicon Valley. Except for Gavin, who grasps the concept of sexting but missed the manscaping memo.
I won’t complain about living with Grams in her stylish, if small, apartment. She welcomed me into her home when my life fell apart. I’m wait-listed for student housing, but Mom’s earnings—regardless of whether she scammed them—are too high for me to qualify for assistance. The odds of student services contacting me with an opening is probably worse than me hitting all six numbers in the lottery.
Framed family photos taken in kitchens and various restaurants over the years cover the wall in the dining room. In her living room, a photo of Grams, Mom and me on the couch at our Las Vegas house taken three summers ago hangs on the wall behind the sofa. Grams says she wants to be surrounded by her family even if it’s only two-dimensional.
I avoid looking at the pictures of Mom. Too many mixed feelings. Too much hurt. I’m at the brutal end of a long list of people she betrayed.
A loud knock at the door makes me jump. I glance through the peephole to see two security guards. They aren’t cops, but the memory of Mom’s arrest makes me lose the ability to see anything beyond the badge and uniform. I breathe deeply.
The last time security showed up, they complained Grams parked over the line and took two spaces in the lot. This transgression earned a ten-dollar fine. Grams and her friends—in protest of the outrageous fee issued for a simple mistake—declared all-out war on the guards.
I plaster a smile on my face and open the door. “Hello,” I manage. “Can I help you?” My voice wavers on the last vowel.
“We need to speak to Mrs. Makenna,” the taller, thinner guard says enunciating each word like a complete sentence. We. Need. To. Speak. To. Mrs. Makenna. But he infused menace in his tone like an angry robot bent on eradicating all humanity.
“I’m afraid you just missed her, but I’ll tell Grams to call down to the gatehouse when she gets home.”
The shorter, rounder guard straightens his spine, waving a piece of paper clutched in his hand. “Command Center,” he corrects, through clenched teeth.
“Of course. My bad.”
I start to close the door, but Skinny wedges his foot into the space. “See that she gets this warrant of code violation.”
Perspiration pops along my spine like a glass of iced tea exposed to desert heat. Warrant. Will Grams get arrested, too? Then the short dude shoves the paper at me, and I realize it’s not a warrant for her arrest, but an official notice Grams violated her lease by harboring a visitor for over ten days.
“Young lady, you need to leave or you both can find a new place to live. Section B, Article Thirteen states guests aren’t allowed to stay beyond the designated time period.”
It takes a special kind of mean to kick someone out of their home. This is the second time in forty days I’ve been told to pack up and go. It’s numbing.
The guards sneer at me. They’ve found a land mine to detonate under Grams by evicting her granddaughter. Yes, it’s a rule, but none of the tenants adhere to it because many have long-term guests stay without issue, until now.
“If you stay, we’ll submit the paperwork to the governing board. Your grandmother will be fined the maximum amount for each additional day you sleep here and she’ll face eviction,” says Skinny.
The other guard chimes in, “But if you leave tonight, we’ll forget you stayed past the ten-day limit, as a favor to your grandmother.”
The guard moves his foot, I close the door, and twist the lock. Sliding to the hardwood floor, I rest my head between my knees while regulating my breathing to avoid passing out. I’m so screwed. Dad died before I was born. Mom and Grams are my only family. I have nowhere to turn. I refuse to ask Mom’s boyfriend for anything.
He dragged her into this mess.
There’s no way I can afford to rent a place in this area. Studios cost four figures to rent per month and I don’t have that kind of money. I pull my phone from my pocket to search the internet for the nearest youth hostel, but the only one near me is booked solid until mid-January. Crap.
I type cheap places to stay in San Jose in my browser. I scan the links, ignoring the clickbait to hotel booking sites I can’t afford. The ReVu site looks like a promising source to search for places, so I land there and check out the website. A few posts mention Pump It Fit as a cheap place to work out and shower. They’re always open, even during holidays.
One contributor suggests loitering there to skip out on the expensive motel rates rampant in the area, which must be the reason it popped up in my search. Monthly memberships start at ten dollars. No registration fees either. But, another ten gets you an assigned locker for thirty days.
The reviewer suggests crashing on a massage table fed with quarters. A shudder rolls through me. In Las Vegas, my hometown, even slot machines no longer accept change. At least at the better casinos they don’t. Anything you drop coins into belongs in the part of town you want to avoid.
The gym’s location appears to be within walking distance to Fortis University. I have a scholarship there, courtesy of the Theo Celles Foundation and Mom—before her arrest.
The landline rings. I move to answer the call. Picking up the receiver I hear an automated voice: You have a prepaid call from Helen Sharpe, an inmate at the Henderson Detention Center. To accept this call press five. To decline this call push seven. To block this caller press nine. I hit seven and hang up. While I’m tempted to hit nine, Grams hasn’t given up on her daughter.
I check my mobile. It’s two o’clock. I have to clear out of here tonight. I want to check out my options before telling Grams about the guards’ latest attempt at payback. Grabbing my backpack and helmet, I lock up. I climb on my bike for the three-mile trek to the gym. When I pass the gatehouse, I’m tempted to stick my tongue out at the guards, but I don’t want to cause more trouble for Grams.
I have no other choice but to make it work. Between the gym and the school library, I should be able to sleep, study, and shower until I find a job and save enough money to rent a room. It sucks, but there are plenty of people who are homeless.
The thought of all the people Mom forced out of their homes makes my stomach cramp. If I could go back in time and stop her, I would. In a heartbeat. It’s a useless wish when reality arrives in the form of two overeager security guards with a grudge against Grams and a real threat to her home. I won’t let anyone hurt Grams.
I lock up my bike and step through the doors of the gym. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. When they do, I’m struck speechless by the guy manning the desk. His dark mane of hair is not long or short, but somewhere in between with a slight wave and a lot of shine. How does he pull off such perfect hair?
Wide shoulders taper to a smaller waist. He’s wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt screen-printed with the Pump It Fit logo snug against his ripped chest. He has tanned, sculpted arms, roped with muscle, without the overdeveloped appearance of a dedicated gym rat. Lion eyes, bold and gold, stare back at me.
I’m hit with the inexplicable urge to wrap my arms around him and press my mouth against his lips. Odd. I never have strong sexual reactions when I meet a man. It’s been my experience they aren’t worth the hassle and never match the hype.
His lips quirk, but he doesn’t smirk outright. “What can I do for you?”
His deep voice is perfect for podcast commercials promoting adults-only resorts with clothing-optional beaches. I clamp down hard on my rampant hormones and scold myself for objectifying a stranger. I’m pragmatic about not getting involved in relationships. I squash my own bugs, and I’ve learned not to delegate my pleasure to someone else. High expectations lead to sexual frustration. Who needs that? Besides, a guy this pretty will usually know it. He’ll break the spell by doing something completely conceited.
He waves his hand in front of me to get my attention. “Are you a member?”
Focus. “Not yet. Is there someone who can show me around? I’d like to see the place before I join.”
His smile goes wide. “Gotta make sure the gym’s worth the ten dollars it takes to commit?”
Hmm. His smile reveals a slightly crooked canine tooth. The tiny imperfection only adds to its charm, while the overall bundle devastates. If I were up for a bit of destruction, he’d be my conqueror of choice, but my life can’t survive more demolition.
“I won’t dig into my wallet without inspecting the goods.” Shit. I did not just say that. It sounds dirty. Like I’m propositioning him.
His eyes light, and he barks out a laugh. “Fair enough. Let me get my colleague to cover the desk.” He speaks into a two-way: “Hey, can I borrow you out front? I’m going to do a quick walk-through.”
The voice on the other ends says, “Copy.”
Before I can blink, a blonde wearing a charcoal-gray shirt with the gym logo embroidered in fancy script arrives. “Hi,” she says with a smile. “Enjoy your tour.”
The gorgeous dude before me says, “I’ll be your tour guide. I’m Tiago, but people call me TJ.” He extends his hand toward me. “What’s your name?”
“Phoebe.” Makenna, I finish in my head. I won’t use Sharpe. I stopped using my legal surname after Mom’s arrest, and had it legally changed. Back in Las Vegas, our name was synonymous with callous greed. I had to distance myself from Mom’s notoriety.
The warmth of his hand surrounds mine. The zing from the contact travels up my arm, across my chest and down to tingle somewhere beneath my ribs. I release his hand.
His pupils dilate a fraction. “All right, Phoebe, we’ll start upstairs. The basic membership provides twenty-four seven access to all the equipment and free weights.”
We walk side by side, and I can’t help noticing he’s nearly two inches taller than my own five-ten. Tiago—I can’t think of him as TJ, because he’s too exceptional for a simple nickname—leads me to the second floor. While the equipment isn’t state of the art, it’s in good condition. The place smells like sweat, rubber mats, and disinfectant. Paper towel dispensers mounted to the walls provide a convenient way for members to wipe down machines after use. And if the Neanderthal before you didn’t clean up, you can do it yourself.
It’s busier in the machine section. Treadmills and elliptical equipment spread out in three rows. Huge ceiling fans mounted in each corner of the room blow cool air over the gym’s occupants. Five flat screens provide news without sound. Closed-captioning scrolls across the televisions for those paying attention. The TV is tuned to national weather and the temp for Las Vegas flashes across the screen. It’s projected to hit one hundred and one degrees today.
I glance away and notice four girls my age tracking Tiago’s progress as we walk around the space.
“Anything besides the basic machinery costs more.” He points to a spin class in session in another room.
I’m mesmerized by the flex of his biceps. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My face flares with heat. I’m embarrassed by my reaction to him.
“If it isn’t a machine or a barbell, it’s not included.”
He talks with his hands. I follow and read the movement of his arms like I’m reading closed-captioning.
“You’ll find prices on the sign next to the front desk, plus registration sheets if you’re interested in classes. They fill up fast.”
We use the opposite staircase to return to the first floor. “Women’s locker room is on the left side of the building. Take a look inside. I’ll wait for you here.”
I step into the locker room. The fact it’s clean and smells like a lemon-scented product is a welcome perk. The walls are painted a lilac color, with snowy-white granite countertops marbled with black. Restrooms at the university aren’t even as well kept. The membership fee is cheap. I don’t get it. They could charge more. I expected a dump, convenient but seedy.
When I exit the locker room, Tiago leans against the mirrored wall, grinning at his phone. I’m pierced by envy. I wish life could be simple for me, too. Texting a friend or posting on social media without a care. Not having to worry about finding a place to crash.
He hasn’t once ogled any of the women working out or glanced at his reflection. So much for vanity.
His gaze meets mine, and the golden warmth of his eyes makes my belly clutch. He slips the phone into his pocket then darts to the left where an older woman struggles to lift a kettlebell.
“Careful, Mrs. Paulson.” He gently takes the heavier weight from her grasp. “Use yellow. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Thank you, TJ.” She beams. “You’re so considerate, just like my nephew, Austin. He’s about your age.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. P.”
Courteous. I assumed he’d be self-involved. I’m embarrassed by that judgment now.
“Thanks for waiting,” Tiago says to me. “We don’t have a pool or sauna, but we do have token-operated massage tables.”
Lordy. He leads me to an area behind the front desk. Four tables along with another three treadmills are located in this small section. Anyone using the equipment can watch the check-in counter. I have a feeling these must be popular when Tiago’s manning the desk.
“Have you ever tried HydroMassage?”
Not unless a flexible, pulsing showerhead counts. “Not yet.”
He leads me to a padded table with a touchscreen mounted on the wall within reach. It appears innocuous.
“Climb on. I’ll pay for your first time.”
Huh? Oh. The massage. Geez. He’s not my first drop-dead gorgeous guy. I grew up in a city where male strip shows rival the number of Starbucks locations. This is the first time I’ve reacted to any dude this way. It must have something to do with the fact I’m hours from being homeless. Clearly, he’s a distraction from the overwhelming anxiety flooding my brain.
“It’ll feel good, I promise.”
Tiago’s voice makes me cave. Dangerous. I might be inclined to do anything while under its thrall. He plunks two tokens into the machine and walks me through the setup. When he first mentioned HydroMassage, I imagined you’d have to wear a bathing suit, but the jets work under the padding and clothes stay on. Perfect. My eyes drift closed as the jets work their way up my body. I may never move off this thing. I moan. I can’t help myself—this feels so good. Tiago snickers at my reaction. But I’m too comfy to care.
When the machine stops, I groan, but I know I’ll be back. I smile for the first time all day.
“Uh, first time for you?” he asks.
“Yes, but it won’t be my last.”
One side of his mouth lifts. “We aim to please.”
I force myself off the glorious massage apparatus and say, “Talk to me about long-term locker rentals.”
“You can’t use them to store drugs.” He grins.
“Goes without saying, but I meant price, privacy, and security.”
“The gym keeps a master for all lockers but will only use it if drugs are suspected or if you default in rental fees. Second rule: you can’t use them to store everything you own. The gym’s not a hotel, despite what people suggest on ReVu. Anyone caught using the gym like their home away from home risks membership cancellation.”
Shit. There’s no reason why I can’t leave the bulk of my things with Grams. Besides, one locker won’t fit all my stuff anyway. This means I’ll be going back to pick up fresh clothes often. “What’s with the warning? I’m a student at Fortis, not a transient.”
If I say it often enough, maybe someday it’ll be true.
He nods. “No particular reason, but I have to explain the rules to anyone considering the rental. We’re both Gladiators. First year for you?”
He’s at my school. How did I miss him? “Yes, but it’s my second year of college. I transferred from University of the Desert Oasis.”
“We’re both sophomores.” He grins. “You went to Holy Roller U?”
I wrinkle my nose at the nickname. Years ago, the university’s basketball team went to the NCAA finals, a Cinderella team with Final Four dreams. During an interview, the head coach told the reporter, “Each game we roll the dice and play for paradise.” But people misquoted the line and chanted pray for paradise instead. Fans of opposing teams called us the Holy Rollers, because Las Vegas is synonymous with dice and games of chance. The nickname stuck.
I ignore his dig at my old school. “This is a decent gym. Spotlessly clean with reasonable rates. What’s the catch?”
“Huge ghost population.”
“We get a lot of people who sign up, create the auto-payment and never step foot inside the gym again. We have a couple thousand members on the books, but a small fraction of them actually use it.”
He’s doing it again. Talking with his hands. But he’s aware of his surroundings. If I tried talking with my hands, I’d take someone’s eye out. “Don’t you feel guilty about taking their money when they don’t use their membership?”
“Nope. People want to be able to say they’re a member of a gym, but work or whatever keeps them away. They feel better for making the commitment, and people who actually use the gym profit from the low fees. Everyone’s happy.”
“How do I sign up?”
The four girls from upstairs slink toward the treadmills behind the desk. With only three machines, the redhead gets left in the dust when the blonde beats her to the last open spot. The redhead is forced to jump on a vacant HydroMassage table. They openly stare at Tiago in the mirror.
When we arrive at the front desk, his colleague leaves and takes the stairs two at a time to get to the second floor.
I hand him my debit card to run through the monthly auto payment for membership and long-term locker lease. This gym might be the only place preventing me from sleeping on sidewalks, despite what Tiago said about treating the place like a hotel. I’ll be careful. I won’t get caught.
Glancing at my phone to check the time, I note that I’ll have to be out of the apartment soon. I’ll need to pack a bag for tomorrow, grab my books, and my laptop.
While Tiago prints a receipt for me, my gaze meets one of the girls walking the treadmill. She levels a death stare at me like I’ve wandered onto her private Serengeti and swished my tail at the alpha lion. Her message is clear: this pride is full, go find another watering hole.
Tough. I’m not here for the guy with the lion eyes. I need a safe place to stay at night.
Tiago passes me the agreement, and I stuff the copy into my backpack.
There’s a fingerprint sensor instead of a membership card. A four-digit PIN combined with the index finger on my right hand will get me access to the gym.
“You’re clear to start using the gym right away. Do you need password help for your locker?”
All three girls behind the counter glare at me in the mirror while maintaining a pace guaranteed not to make their makeup run.
“No thanks, your pride might rip my head off if I take up more of your time.”
I almost called him Simba, but my filter kicked in. His expression turns puzzled. “What?”
I lean over the counter. “The treadmill trio behind you have been staring holes into me. If I take you away from the den, it might provoke an attack.”
He glances over his shoulder, triggering a round of smiles from the girls. He looks back at me and their smiles disappear.
I can’t stop the snicker at their territorial behavior. “The females hunt, and I have zero interest being their next meal. Thanks for your help.”
End of Excerpt