I wrote these little scenes when I was working through the end of Hardcore and needed to be in Van’s head, really understand what he’d been through. They’re unedited, so forgive me that, and spoilers are ahead, so if you haven’t read the story, you may want to pass this by!
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I stood in the dark, the only light from the bulb shining on the negative, projecting her image against the photo paper hanging on the wall. The studio was quiet and the gallery quieter. My thoughts were screaming.
It had been weeks since I’d seen her last. Weeks of questioning everything. I’d let her in without even thinking about it, and it fucked me up, fucked me over. But it was my own fault. I should have sensed it, should have known. But all I saw was her.
Even in the negative on the wall, I could feel her. She wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. Strong and broken all at the same time. As sure of herself as she was uncertain. She floated a little above everyone else, but I knew she needed me, wanted me just as much as I wanted her.
But she betrayed me in the one way I couldn’t have imagined.
The night flashed through my heart again, slashed it open. Coming home to find her there. Seeing the Rothko. Realizing what she’d done. The hurt in her eyes when I told her to leave. The pain in my own. Anger. Regret. I was a fool. I’d always been a sucker. But that’s why my ‘rules’ were so harsh. Three strikes if it’s small. One if it’s big. And what Cory had done was big. Massive. There was no forgiving her.
That didn’t mean I didn’t want to.
I flipped off the light, and she disappeared. The safelight clicked on, painting the room red, and I made my way to the board to pull the photo off. The familiar smell of vinegar hit my nose as I approached the tray with the chemical bath, and I laid the photo down, watching it sink into the solution, my eyes tracing the red ripples reflected in the surface as her image began to appear on the blank paper as if she was summoned.
I couldn’t reach out, couldn’t go back. I hadn’t heard from her either, though every time the gallery door opened, every time someone knocked on my door, I imagined it was her. I’d gone to Logan Tower over and over again, hoping she would be there, dreading the possibility that I’d find her. I just couldn’t let it go. Couldn’t move on. As final as our last meeting was, I just … it wasn’t enough. I didn’t know if anything would be enough when it came to Cory.
The last time we ran together, I’d photographed her in film, and when I developed the negatives and looked them over, I’d stood right where I was in the studio with my chest aching. They were brilliant, though I didn’t know if it was strictly because of how I felt about her. It was just like Rothko. I cared so much, wanted so much for us that it affected my work. You could feel it in every shot, from the angles I chose to the point when the shutter closed. You could see the idea of her, the image of the perfection I felt, even in her flaws.
The image darkened, the details of her hair flying behind her, the shadows in the curves of her arms, her thighs. I sighed and grabbed the photo with my tongs and dipped it in the stop bath. Developing the photos wasn’t helping me get over her. But they were too good. As much as it hurt, I had to do it. I’d hoped it would be cathartic.
A buzz sounded behind me. The door. Fuck. I abandoned the process and washed my hands. When I stepped into the gallery, the light was nearly blinding after being in the darkroom for so long. I blinked against the light and made my way out from behind the gallery walls that were set up all around the space and to the counter just as the door closed. A streak of black disappeared from view outside, and my stomach dropped.
I almost took off after her, but I looked down at the counter and saw an envelope with my name on it, sitting on top of the prints I’d already finished of her, laid out like an homage. The envelope was worn, as if she’d touched it over and over again, folded like it had been in a pocket. I opened it with shaking hands and pulled out the paper inside. Her handwriting was soft and hard somehow, the letters connected only occasionally. My name was at the top. Seeing it in her hand held even more power over me than hearing her say it.
My eyes darted over the words, looking for the answer. Her sister. Jade. Murder and blackmail. I dropped onto the stool. I stopped and read it again slowly. Then again.
She didn’t want to steal from me. She was being coerced. Did it change things? Did it excuse her? I laid the letter down and laid my face in my palms. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sort it out. She’d been right there, so close. I wished I’d run after her. Wanted to catch her just like I did the first night. Wanted her to tell me herself, tell me the truth of it all.
I wanted to go back to a time when she hadn’t lied to me. But then I remembered that she’d lied to me from the beginning. She would have used me without thinking twice if she hadn’t had feelings for me. And even when she did, she still lied.
And that was the simple truth.
(a week later – this one’s rough y’all)
I looked up when the bell over the gallery door rang, surprised for a split second. A girl walked in dressed in all black — leather jacket, jeans, tank — with short, black hair that curled under her chin and eyes blue and bright in her small face. She looked a little like a cat, moved like one. I could only think of Cory.
She marched straight up to the counter, greeting me along the way. “Van Collins?”
I stood and smiled. “That’s me.”
She smiled back, assessing me with no shame. “My name’s Erin. I’m a friend of Cory’s.”
My heart dropped, smile slipping. “Ah.” I tried to recover from the shock and took a deep breath. “Is she all right?”
Erin shrugged. “Depends on your definition of all right. She’s pretending to be, at least.”
I knew the feeling. I shifted, uncomfortable. “What’s going on? Not that it isn’t nice to meet you and all.”
“I just wanted to make sure you got her letter. I know she left it here for you.”
“I got it.”
“And that’s that? You don’t have anything to say to her?”
“There are a lot of things I want to say to her. I just think it’s best if I don’t. She was right, we’re not meant for each other. We’re not as much alike as I thought.”
Erin shook her head. “Listen, man. I get that you’re hurt, and I get why. Do you know what she went through? I just want you to understand what she did for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think it was easy for her to steal from you? Do you think she just waltzed in and took it without thinking twice? We tried. We all tried to find a way out of it for her, for you. Did you know that Jade had Cory’s sister followed until the job was over?”
My hands were freezing cold and numb. “No.”
“Did you know that we had to break in to a guarded warehouse to get it back? She nearly got shot. She risked everything to bring it back to you, and there was only one reason. She wanted you to know the truth. We all believed that there was a way you would see that and accept her still.”
I didn’t know what to say, what to feel as I listened.
“I’ve known her for years. She’s my best friend. And I’m telling you right now that she never wanted to hurt you. I don’t know if it matters to you. But if you’re the person she sees you as, if you’re the person she believes you to be, I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t understand this. She would do just about anything to make this right with you. She’s already done so much. She’s lost so much, and there’s so much in her life that she’s missed. You were her one bright spot. You made her want more out of life when she thought there wasn’t any more to want. Her life was a dead end. Meeting you saved her.”
I shook my head. “I don’t even know what to say to all of this.”
She raised an eyebrow. “In a good way?”
“In a confused way.”
“Well, I don’t really require a response. I just wanted you to know.” She grabbed a sticky note from next to my computer and jotted down a couple of phone numbers and an address. “This is our new info. Just think about it, okay? Because if there’s a chance you can forgive her, I’m telling you that you should. She’s the most loyal friend I’ve ever had, and the most honest with the people she loves. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
“That’s not how she sees herself.”
“Perception’s funny that way, isn’t it? What you see from the inside and what you see from the outside aren’t always the same.” She stuffed her hands in her pockets and gave me a lopsided smile. “Take it easy, Van.”
I watched her walk out with everything churning around me like a fucked up tornado. I’d always been on the fence, from the jump. I just needed something to push me back to her. I thought about her risking her life, risking her future on me, just to bring the painting back. But it was never about the painting. She brought it back to do right by me, and I threw it back at her. I wished I’d known. I wished she’d told me.
A plan clicked into place. I’d get her back and wouldn’t let go again.