Chapter 1- Mark
The after-work sun crept between the mountain peaks coating the road in a golden glaze. Aching for a stretch, Mark shifted his shoulders. The hour-and-a-half drive sure needed to end soon.
Casey leaned forward, dabbing her lips in fire-red lipstick with the help of the sun visor’s mirror. With steady hands and a still face, she was like an artist sculpting a masterpiece on an airplane experiencing life-threatening turbulence. Mark didn’t even have to look at her to know. He’d spent most of the last ten years staring.
Mark, or Mr. Introvert as they called him in college, preferred staying in the background. Growing up, he seldom had friends, but his parents were never around much to notice. Mrs. Lane was a pediatric nurse and Mr. Lane was a traveling photographer. With no siblings, very few acquaintances, and more bullies than he could count, Mark was a loner and preferred it that way. But when he hung out with Blain Prazzel and John Motley, his perception of sociality twisted.
It was Fall 2004, Mark faltered over his suitcases through the door of the dorm room. Oak framed twin beds lined three walls. Next to each was a personal walk-in closet. Oak desks stood in the center, propped against each other, back to back with two on either side. Wooden seats were pushed up against each desk and a bulky TV sat atop one of the desks.
Mark’s brow drooped at the whooshing of running water booming behind a closed door to the right. He sighed. The bed propped against the window had a leather duffel bag stretched across it and an open laptop propped on a plump pillow. Royal blue sports sandals sat beneath the footboard.
Mark inched over to the bed diagonal of the taken one and dumped his backpack, laptop case, and a suitcase. Pressing his palm against the mattress, he frowned. Even a mattress pad wouldn’t grant him a good night’s sleep. Cutting his eyes away, a ball of frustration clogged his throat. Sharing his space, an uncomfortable one at that, demolished the worth of the full ride provided by his scholarship.
The bathroom door slung open and out came a tall, olive toned, gray-eyed preppy dude. His collared polo and khaki shorts reminded Mark of the things he’d brought along.
Great, and this asshole may take my clothes. He’d been sure he was done with bullies as he strolled across the stage, kissing grade school and its sour memories goodbye.
“Hi, I’m Blain.” Blain’s husky tone shook as he patted his hands dry on the front of his shorts and extended one to Mark.
Mark dropped a brow and stared.
“Shy, huh?” Blain chuckled and flopped down on his bed, running his fingers through his thick, dark hair. “So, where you from?”
“Me too!” Blain said. His baritone timbre and flashy smile took Mark back to the jocks and pretty boys: the ones he wished he could be. But he was too shy to give it a go and always found himself doing their homework or eating their fists when they were in a bad mood. God. And I have to share a room with this guy?
With the faintest smile, Mark said, “Cool.”
“Hey.” Blain dug his elbows into his knees as he moved up to the edge of his bed. “There’s a party going on tonight at one of the frat houses. I heard there was gonna be some nice ass there. Coming with?”
Mark sat tongue-tied for a few seconds. Was this guy inviting him to a party? To hang out with fraternity guys? And girls? Pretty college girls? Mark shook his head.
“Because I have to study.” It was bogus rolling off his tongue. Mark was more than prepared for classes that didn’t start for another day or so. Some courses he could pass with his eyes closed.
Slapping his chest, Blain spread a toothy grin and said, “Me too! Wow. I didn’t take you for the nerdy type. A baseball player, but not a nerd.”
Mark smirked. “Yeah? Me either.” A baseball player? Though he’d hiked and jogged religiously, no one had ever taken Mark for a baseball player.
“Yeah, well, my dad owns an accounting firm, so I don’t have a choice but to prepare to take over when he retires. He’s been preaching about networking and building a team. Ya’ know, bull shit.”
Mark raised a brow and cocked his head at the guy. “Really?”
“Yeah, man. If you want or if you’re still around this summer, I can get you in there for an internship.”
Mark’s eyes went wide. “Um, sure.”
“But only if you come to this party with me.”
Shit. Mark frowned. He hated being cornered or manipulated. But if this kook was telling the truth, he’d benefit. And if Blain was lying, Mark knew where to find him. Huffing and clearing his throat, he said, “Fine.”
After several hours of unpacking and listening to Blain chatter on about the different races and smells of women he’d had or wanted, Mark was relieved when it was time to head out. But another guy, this one tanned with a brawny chest and tall with sky blue eyes, barged in with a sack across his back while they were checking for wallets and phones. Though his luggage reminded Mark of someone homeless, his baseball cap, jeans and t- shirt were fresh and crispy.
“Hey man, I’m Blain.” Blain extended a hand.
The tall guy groped it with his open palm and nodded. Gravelly, he said, “John.”
“Me and Mark, over here, are going to a party. Wanna come? Supposed to be more than enough to look at.”
“I’ll come, sure. As long as there are drinks.” His deep voice cracked a little. “What time you guys leaving?”
“Whenever you’re ready.” Blain flopped down on his bed and Mark did the same.
After tossing his sack on the bare mattress across from Mark’s, John peered in the body mirror, turned his face cheek to cheek, then said, “Alright, let’s go.”
Bits and pieces of that night still made Mark blush. Flashes of bong smoke, bare tits, and the stench of alcoholic vomit stuck with him. Bulbous street lights flashed from either side of the stony pathway. Evergreen canopies and morning dew clung to the air. The bitterness of vodka and pale ale swirled around Mark’s tongue. Stomping on, with the help of his new-found buddies, Mark was overwhelmed with joy, a rolling gut, and slurred words.
“We got you,” Blain grunted, hoisting one of Mark’s arms up as it tried sliding off his shoulder.
“No. Ugh. I love you guys. I never―” Snatching his arms from Blain and John’s shoulders, Mark bent at the waist and fell to his knees. Heaving, liquid spewed up his throat, dousing the ground and coating the backs of his hands.
“Are you sure you’re a drinker, dude?” John asked through breaks of his explosive laughter.
“Come on, we gotcha,” Blain said, grasping Mark’s shoulder. John did the same. They dragged Mark to his bed, caring enough to flip his sandals off, and pull a sheet over his limp body.
Though he’d sworn off alcohol and parties after that night, Mark continually found himself a part of Blain’s escapades. He and John dragged Mark to parties and clubs on and off campus. One party just so happened to be a rush they’d tricked him into, leading to the trio’s pledging. They’d study names, mottos, and missions. They were bruised and battered with holey, wooden paddles, tossed around like rag dolls, and caught open-handed slaps and thumping fists to the chest. Aches, bruises and sleepless nights were the norm for a few months. Mark had never cried so much in his life. But Blain and John pulled him through, forcing him into the clutches of the big brothers night after night, with them at his side. Of the ten guys they started with, only four, the trio and Kyle, made it through. But things only got wilder from there.
Especially when they went up to the cabin.
Blain had always had the keys, leading Mark, and everyone else on campus, to believe he had owned it before he officially inherited it. There were many parties and hazing events that took place in that private piece of wilderness. Back then, it offered the typical fraternity guys a chance to live the social dream. They’d party all day, winning praise from their peers and, in some cases, professors.
As they’d gotten older, cabin visits adopted a twist in agenda. It was more about just going fishing and spending time with your closest friends and, in Blain’s case especially, kids. Still, Mark didn’t mind driving up. There was something about the wilderness that relaxed his muscles and banished day to day migraines. He loved the sound of the birds playing around in the tree canopies as his boots crushed the gravel and greenery on his lone hiking ventures. Taking in the view of the surrounding mountain ranges and sucking in the breeze that lingered along Lake Tahoe was refreshing. But mostly, he loved the solidarity.
After Mr. Prazzel’s fatal heart attack, the certified public accounting firm and cabin was left to Blain. This came as no surprise. Mark, Blain, and John interned there every summer during college, as promised. After the massive restructuring, Blain became managing partner, John became partner, and Mark was financial comptroller.
Mark couldn’t be happier with the arrangement. He was comfortable with silently laughing in the background, egging the guys on and tolerating their antics. He was much better at calming John’s explosive temper or covering for Blain when whoever he was dating became curious about his infidelity. They made Mark into the man he was, and he owed them everything, with loyalty being at the top of the list.
“I’m so excited we’re doing this,” Casey said, continuing with her eyeliner.
Mark cringed as he glared at the alpine curvature that played with the horizon, protecting them from the sun. His heart thumped at his chest as the night he’d met her played over in his mind, burning his heart for the fiftieth time.
That night, the frat house was crawling with wannabes and drunken girls. Alternative rock blasted, vibrating the walls, threatening to bring the colonial down on its foundation. Mark turned a beer can up, barreling through it and crushing it on the pale wall. Straightening his back and puffing his chest out, he smiled. The dim living room was crowded. They’d moved the furniture so there was nothing but the waist high stereo and the creaky oak floor. And praise from peers. Lots and lots of praise.
“Ah! Mark, Mark, Mark! We made it!” Blain screamed over the jeers of Kyle and John. His bald head glimmered in the dim lights.
John cuffed Mark’s peach-fuzzed crown, reminding him of what they’d lost for social acceptance. “Mark, we fucking did it!” Teary eyed, he cuffed Mark’s neck and shook him. “We fucking did it!”
“God damn right!” Kyle agreed. Though he had shed about fifty pounds over the last two months, his cheeks still jiggled as much as his gut. His tinted head shone from the laser lights that bounced off table-dancing girls. Mark smirked. Screaming old heads cheered the girls on as they hoped to get lucky while they were back in town. It must’ve taken a lot to convince their wives to let them come back to town to beat the shit out of their new little brothers.
Mark shook himself loose of the huddle. He shuddered. The fresh welts from the beating were raw on his rump. But pride and elation made the bruises a minor hindrance. Feeling the cool beer trickle through him, he said, “I gotta hit the head.”
“Hurry back, dude,” John slurred. “We gotta do more shots and Lilian brought us a cake.”
Mark nodded and squeezed through the crowd and a freshman tripped over his shoe. “Shit, dude! I’m so sorry!” the guy said, his eyes wide and tone shaken.
Mark smiled, clasped the guy’s shoulder and yelled, “Blain, John, Kyle, this asshole scoffed my shoe! What should I do?”
The brothers at once replied, “Upside down kegger!” Girls screamed and laughed as John and Blain pushed through the crowd, took the freshman by his legs and arms, and carried him over to the corner. Mark laughed and headed for the only bathroom, but he was stopped by a line that swallowed the staircase.
Scoffing, he pushed through a group of stumbling girls, making his way to the whining screen door. Outside, he burrowed through smokers. Some were preaching about a government conspiracy and how college was a rip-off. Others were whistling and yelling at a group of girls coming up the walkway. The old Mark would’ve waited for them to the clear the stairs before proceeding. But his knees were starting to shake and his stomach felt tight. So, he pushed forward.
Most of the girls cleared his way, but one grazed his side with her shoulder.
“Oh!” She chuckled while catching her footing, “I’m sorry.”
“God, Casey! Come on. We’re already late,” a blonde whined, before slamming the screen shut.
“You’re fine,” Mark said. He stared, trapped in her sapphire gaze. For a second, he thought he’d pissed himself as his belly loosen and knees seized. His cheeks burned.
“Wait, this is your party, right? Congratulations.” She smiled, flicking her shoulder-length, dark curls, and batting long eyelashes that just barely shielded her glimmering baby blues.
He’d never been so stuck on someone’s beauty and sultry voice. He didn’t want this to pass. He couldn’t let her pass. Of the many girls Blain and John tried setting Mark up with to lose his virginity, this was it. She was it. He wanted to suck her plump lips and kiss the mole on her left cheek. How would Blain handle this? he thought.
“I’m Mark,” he said, wanting to kick himself for having a tremoring throat. He’d just endured the ass whipping of a lifetime. His dark, egg-yolk-stained, sweaty, long sleeved shirt, holey jeans, and raw rump were proof of a job well done. The celebration that went on behind him solidified it, too. But he couldn’t bring himself to be smooth enough to get a girl. Have you learned nothing? He yelled to himself.
Before he could turn around and run off, she said, “I’m Casey. Well, some of the people here call me Marilyn but I resent that.” She giggled. “I’ve seen you around. You’re a tutor, right? And on the dean’s list? You’re pretty smart.” It tickled him inside, making him ache the way he did when Blain made he and John watch lesbian porn. Casey was the first girl to compliment his brains, not his newfound status or his friendship with the guys.
“Thanks.” He cursed himself for lacking the cleverness to woo her back.
“Are you leaving?” she asked.
“Uh, no. I’m going for a walk. This is a little overwhelming,” he said, trying his best to smile through a lie.
He winced at her. What? With me? No way this is real, he thought. “Isn’t your friend―”
“She’ll be OK. Honestly, I didn’t want to stay here long. She wanted me to come with her so she wouldn’t feel like a Blain groupie. Whoever that is.” She rolled her eyes.
Mark snickered. Blain had probably fucked half the freshman class by now. “He’s my buddy and brother. This is our party.” She smiled and shrugged. Which was strange. Mark hadn’t met a girl on, or off, campus who resisted Blain’s charm. So, he went on. “Sure, you can come with me,” he said. But his bladder was ready to burst, along with other things. Quickly, he decided to use his perks of belonging to a house now by pushing through to the front of the line to pee. “Do you want me to grab you a drink and meet here in about five minutes?”
“Sure. I’ll go tell Shelly that I’m leaving.”
“OK.” He smiled as his heart thudded.
All the noise around him fell on empty ears. He was deafened by her glow, her sweet perfume, and her smiling eyes. And she wanted to walk with him. She wanted to talk to him. And soon after, he found out she wanted to be with him. And he wanted nothing more than to have her.
Day in and day out, they’d spent every night together. Between classes, they discussed number theory and conspiracies, law, and sports. Casey was an intelligent, outgoing soul, and as charismatic as Blain. Well, she had to be. Being a pre-law then law school graduate granted such an attitude. But most of all, she allowed Mark to be himself. Not the sarcastic frat boy who tortured freshman, but the dorky, shy kid that grew up as a loner.
“Mark?” Casey asked, returning the makeup back to her purse and him back to their current reality.
Though her eyes burned the side of his face, Mark didn’t answer. Instead, he concentrated on the asphalt that disappeared underneath the SUV. Oak trees along the foot of the range provided a persistent evergreen stain in his left peripheral.
Casey’s stare, voice, and presence were too much for him–still. His chest got tight and his heart sank to the pit of his stomach. Every day for the last couple months, he’d wake on the couch alone with tears in his eyes, rage in heart, and that evening replaying in his mind.
That evening, he’d found her sobbing in their dim bedroom. After comforting her (sort of), she revealed the thing that weighed on her shoulders.
“I slept with Sean,” she blubbered. Time froze and Mark’s heart skipped a few beats as his body went numb. He couldn’t speak or cry. Not even faint. He only stared as she begged for forgiveness through glassy red eyes.
Mark knew Sean from the corporate Christmas parties Casey had been dragging him to for years. They’d talk about professional football before Mark excused himself and disappeared at the open bar. Sean wasn’t a half-bad looking guy either. Taut, tan, with dark hair and eyes. Opposite of Mark’s pale, lanky figure, short, platinum-blond hair, and blue eyes.
Sean. What a fucking douche bag.
Though Casey claimed it happened once, Mark couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that she was lying. She worked with Sean. He was her paralegal for God’s sake.
Since her confession, Casey had been more attentive than ever. The way her eyes shimmered with hope and optimism made Mark grimace. He wasn’t sure if it was her attempt at getting sex from him or if she genuinely felt sorry for what she’d done.
But it didn’t matter. He’d been too repulsed to touch or even look her in the eye. There was no telling what they’d say about him–or worse, her.
“Mark, if you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to.” Her voice became stern.
Instead of replying, he read the jade sign off to the right: Carnelian Bay, California. Their destination.
“Mark?” When he didn’t respond, she slapped her thighs. Huffing, she said, “I thought we agreed we would at least pretend to be in a good place with our marriage while we try this.”
Casey was frowning. He didn’t have to look at her to know.
“Well, what do you want me to say?” He began, cracking a half, cynical smile. “The way I see it, if we are in a good place, we wouldn’t have to come up here for such a disgusting, ugh, thing.”
“People who are in healthy relationships do this. We agreed we were going to at least try it.” She smiled, now rubbing the back of Mark’s neck.
Once again, those lasers peered through his flesh down into his soul, but he bit his tongue, gulping down an insult that would’ve sent her over the edge.
“Look, Mark,” she went on, “I thought we were trying to get past that by doing new things. We both agreed that swinging may help our sex life. I mean you rarely―” She stopped. Casey hated complaints. She only liked solutions; a motto that she preached daily to Mark who, himself, was a realist. “You know what? No. This’ll be fun and you’ll enjoy yourself. Besides, you brought it up to me so. . .”
She was right. One night, a few weeks ago, she’d invited him out to dinner. After four bottles of red, he’d brought it up to her as a joke he shared with Blain and John. Then the swing, spearheaded by Blain, was being planned.
I’m making a two-hour drive into the mountains with you. Obviously, we’re doing this.
“Mark, let’s just stick to our plan–do this for the month and go from there. OK?” She ran her fingertips over his shoulder and down his polo sleeve.
The tautness of her glare made Mark want to flinch. How could something so sexy nauseate him? Finally, he flashed Casey a smile, a weak attempt at being reassuring.
Casey was so sure their perverted misadventures would tame the heap of garbage known as their marriage. He chuckled inside, anticipating it all blowing up in her face.
To keep the peace at home, Mark often pretended to be kind when he couldn’t avoid her or when they weren’t fighting. He did have his moments of doubt, when a piece of him wanted to leave the couch and cuddle in bed. But a bigger piece wanted to be a million miles away from her. He resented his bleeding heart as much as the sleepless nights.
But his buddies were so sure this would work, so sure that this would save him from despair and anger. That things would go back to the way they were, only better. So, he stretched his half-smile full and said, “I know.”
Casey planted her lips on Mark’s cheek, stealing a kiss. The warmth from her aura sent chills up his spine.
Mark slowed to turn left onto a single lane road as they continued up the mountainside. They passed several vacation homes in a variety of styles before approaching a hidden driveway off to the right side of the road.
He pulled into the narrow asphalt driveway that was paved with bull pine, buckwheat, and large shrubs for a mile on either side. Blain’s father was keen on privacy, so it didn’t surprise Mark that he bought a massive piece of mountainside land only for a mile of it to be woodlands and a tar driveway.
There were beds of pink and purple Musk flowers and purple columbine along the last few feet of the driveway, breaking the dreary brown and green foliage that made up the scenery from the road. The end of the asphalt wrapped around the cabin and merged back into itself, leading back to the road. It was a nightmare getting out whenever there were parties going on. But it birthed a love of 4X4 off-road antics for the guys.
The two-story Bavarian chalet sat ahead, nuzzled up against a wall of oak trees that broke around the back, offering a serene view of the crystal blue lake and the mountain range that towered over it in the distance. Thick chunks of gray stone made up the outer walls and each window was hidden under honey wood awnings that matched the door and porch. It looked like it belonged in an eighteenth-century English town.
The pine and oak trees that led the way up the driveway riddled most of the land, making it nearly impossible for the sun’s rays to make their way in to destroy the shade. Only nearly. Shimmering sunlight danced on the brown shingles and wherever it could sneak through. Small animals scurried about, veering in and out of the flower beds, darting back into the dimness of the woods.
At the front of the house, on the dirt yard, sat a black jeep.
“Oh, it looks like Roxie and uh…” Casey snapped her fingers, as if trying desperately to remember who Mark’s best friend was. “Blain,” she blurted, “…are already here.”
Mark flicked his eyes. He hated when she acted petty over Blain. She always complained about how his arrogance made her want to slap the spit out of his mouth. But Mark thought Blain’s pompous attitude was entertaining. Mark tried to get her to see that too. But he gave up when he decided he didn’t care about what she thought about anything anymore.
They climbed the wooden steps and the arched Victorian door flung open. Roxie appeared, wielding a bottle of white wine and a big smile.