Fake Boyfriend Breakaways: A Short Story Collection, page 7
Kids may have dreams of being a cop or a hero or an NHL star like my stupid brother, but Ash and me, this has always been our dream. And we’re not only succeeding, we’re fucking nailing it. We’ve never been busier, and our social media following gains more fans every day.
We’re booked solid, the shop’s making a name for itself, and while we’ll be paying off student and business loans for what seems like forever, we’ve put a major dint in them since we started the business five years ago.
I take a look at the rest of my bookings for today but pause at the blacked-out block for the afternoon. It’s the same for Ash. I swear it wasn’t like that this morning.
“Ash?” I call out.
He doesn’t answer. Maybe he’s still with his last client. Although, he was almost done when I left to get food. I check his workroom, but he’s not there.
Noise from the other side of the shop catches my attention, and I follow it to my room where I find Ash setting up my workstation just the way I like it.
“What’s happening in here?”
Ash doesn’t look at me as he says, “Tattoo cover-up.”
I narrow my eyes. “Your tattoo? Which one?”
I know which one. Not long after getting together, my knucklehead brother and Ash got matching tattoos.
Mi Vida: My life.
They’re both idiots. Never tattoo something that will remind you of a boyfriend or girlfriend, people. Otherwise you end up here.
Ash levels me with a look—one I’ve seen many times on him before. It means to stop playing dumb. Even if it’s hard for you. I snort at Ash’s voice in my head, and he glares at me more.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” I ask. “I know you’re not with him anymore, but—”
“I’m ridding myself of reminders,” Ash says. “I need to.”
“Is this because of the press conference?”
I feel for Ash. I really do. He and Ollie were together for four years. All of which Ollie said he couldn’t come out because of hockey. Now, a year after their breakup, my brother’s on TV coming out to the world, and he has a new boyfriend to boot.
“It’s not because of the press conference. Although, I might’ve sent an impulsive text when I saw it. And now I feel shit about that too.”
I approach my best friend and run my hands up his arms, from his elbows to shoulders and back again. “You’re allowed to be mad, you know.”
Ash shakes his head. “Nah. He’s not my life anymore. I don’t have a right to him.”
“That’s not true at all. He—”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I want to not care. Ollie and that Lennon guy—”
“Clark,” I correct. When Ollie introduced us to his boyfriend, Lennon, it turns out they didn’t even know each other. They’d literally just met in a public restroom. We’d been on Ollie’s case about coming out so he and Ash could get back together, so he lied and said he had a new boyfriend. He didn’t know Lennon’s real name, so he introduced him as Clark. It took over six months for them to tell us the truth, so the name has stuck with our family. It’s a weird punishment for lying to us.
Us Strömbergs put the fun in dysfunction.
Ash rolls his eyes. “I want to be able to see them in tabloids or on the news and not wonder why him and not me. I want to not send myself crazy.”
“And you think erasing your tattoo will achieve that?”
The reason he’s never gotten a full sleeve on that arm is because he didn’t want to detract from the very thing he now wants to cover up.
Ash grits his teeth. “I don’t know, but it’s something. I need to not think about him for a while.”
“Healthy,” I say dryly.
Ash accidentally drops a container, and it falls to the floor, spraying black ink all over the linoleum. “Shit.” He scrambles to pick it up, but his hands shake, and his whole body trembles.
With a sigh, I grab his arm and pull him to me.
“Ink,” he croaks.
“Hug.” I hold him close even though he’s stiff against me. I wrap my arms around him tighter until he gives in and buries his head on my chest.
My heart pounds hard like it always does in Ash’s proximity, and I pray he can’t feel it. I don’t think my usual “I just went for a run” excuse will pass this time.
“Why is your brother an asshole?”
I huff. “He’s adopted.”
Ash laughs. “No, he’s not. Out of all of you, you’re the one who looks adopted.”
Ash’s hand runs over my brown hair. We’ve always had an affectionate relationship, so the move isn’t weird, but it does things to me now that it never used to.
I’m the only Strömberg who’s not blond. I’m totally thinking Ma had an affair or I was switched at birth or something. That’d totally be a legit argument if I didn’t have my dad’s eyes and the trademark Strömberg height. Ollie’s literally the shortest at six four.
Ever since Ash and my brother broke up, I’ve struggled to keep Ash in the best-friend box.
“Are you sure you want to do the cover-up?” I ask again and step back.
I swallow hard. “Do you still love him?”
I honestly don’t know what I want his answer to be. It’s been a year since they broke up. He always tells me I’m like the child of a divorced couple, pining and wishing for them to get back together, and he’s right because it was so easy to squash the need I have for Ash when he was with my brother.
Now, he’s like this possibility who’s not actually a possibility. He’s engaged to someone new, first and foremost, and he’s crying over Ollie like he isn’t over him. Not to mention even thinking of him this way breaks all sorts of bro-code. Ollie would have my head.
“Of course not. I have Taylor.” Ash swallows so hard, I see his Adam’s apple bounce.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t still have feelings for Ollie.”
In fact, I’m sure Ash and Taylor’s relationship was an act of rebellion at learning Ollie was dating Clark. They have nothing in common, and the guy’s a twat. Pretentious, snooty, and … so fucking boring.
“I don’t love Ollie anymore. I’m still heartbroken and sad it didn’t work out, but I can’t go backward, you know?”
“Just know that I’m always here for you, Ash. And I’ll be here if you need to talk about any of the shit going on in your head. I know he’s my brother so you’re reluctant, but I love you just as much as I love him.” Just in a totally different way. “I’ll always be here for both of you. Forever and ever.”
Ash smiles. When we were kids, we vowed we’d be best friends forever and ever. It became a thing and now mostly doesn’t make sense. Want to catch up next week? Forever and ever.
“We should clean up the ink before it stains the floor.” He goes to bend down, but I don’t let him.
“What?” he snaps.
“I’m only going to ask you this once, and then I promise to drop it. Are you happy with Taylor? Truly, one hundred percent happy? Because it’s not too late. It’s gonna be a whole lot harder once you’re marr—”
I’d believe it more if his eyes weren’t cast down, his voice soft and croaky, but a promise is a promise. “Okay then. Let’s get this cleaned up, and then I can stab you repeatedly with needles.”
“You got sketches for me?”
“Even better. I’ve already stenciled it.”
I prefer to sketch and stencil my own work, but I trust Ash and respect him as an artist. I step over to my work bench. “Holy shit, man. This is amazing.”
It’s done over two pieces of stenciling paper because the piece is so large, but it’s a picturesque landscape of pine trees and a lake, and—
“Wait. Is this Camp Frottage?”
During our summer breaks in college, Ash and I were counsellors at a summer camp. Had we not gone into tattooing, I so wo
“Remember how disappointed I was when I found out it was an art camp for kids?” Ash laughs. “The title had so much promise.”
I can’t help laughing too. “You’d think they’d change it after you so helpfully told them what else it means in the non-art world. Can I please tattoo the camp name on your arm?”
Ash laughs. “No. Just the lake.”
“I miss that place.”
“Those were the best summers of my life,” Ash whispers. “It means a lot to me, so …”
“Don’t need to explain. I don’t ink shame.”
Ash smiles, because okay, I’ve totally been known to ink shame. But for real, ink should represent something. Even if it’s a drunken night where you get the word stupid in Sanskrit down your ribs, at least that has a story. And a lesson. It’s memorable and means something. Getting something because it’s “cute” makes tattoo fairies die a slow and horrible death. True story.
Ash and I work together in getting everything set up, but as he settles in my chair, I can’t help feeling hesitant about it.
Ash’s left arm is completely bare except for the one tattoo running along his forearm. It represents his life with Ollie, but just because my brother’s not in the picture anymore, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t important to Ash.
“Are you sure?” I ask again as I glove up. “Getting an entire half sleeve to cover up one tiny tattoo is extreme.”
I expect more dismissiveness, perhaps getting yelled at for babying him, but instead, he lets out a shaky “I’m sure.”
“All right. Never argue with a client, right?”
Ash smiles, but it’s forced.
I apply the stencil and admire the intricate lines of Ash’s artwork. The tattoo gun starts the familiar hum that I associate with new ink, and the buzzing matches that in my veins. There’s no doubt I was born to do this. It’s better than meditation. Better than sex.
As I settle in to work and examine Ash’s face for any more hesitance, I’m reminded of why I’ve never told him about my feelings for him.
Ash has been my best friend, my business partner, my go-to person since forever, and I didn’t want to fuck that up. It was in college when I first knew I liked him as more than a friend.
We grew up together, ever since he moved next door when he was five, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. But there was a defining moment in college where I knew I loved him more than I should. I realized I was attracted to him in a way I hadn’t been attracted to another man before.
I thought all those times I got jealous of Ash going on dates was because he was my friend, and growing up with four brothers, I’ve always hated the sharing concept. But no, the night he and our friend Jordan thought I was asleep junior year and they fooled around in the bed not six feet away from me was the moment I realized I wasn’t just worried about losing my friend. I wanted to be where Jordan was. In Ash’s arms, wrapped around him, and laughing like we always did but with the added bonus of orgasms.
By the time I’d gotten over my confusion stage, Jordan and Ash were officially together.
Then I met Laura, the only serious girlfriend I’ve ever had, and we lasted a lot longer than Ash and Jordan’s short-lived romance. They realized they worked better as friends, but by that point I was in deep with Laura. That lasted about a year.
The timing for Ash and me was never right. Before I could build up the courage to tell my best friend that I had a thing for him and was willing to risk our friendship, our newly founded business, and basically our entire childhood of memories growing up together … Bam. Ollie came home from his first year in the AHL, and Ash fell in love. Ollie was no longer the little kid three years younger than us, following Ash around like a puppy.
Ollie has always been big—it’s a Strömberg trait—but his first year playing pro hockey made him fill out like the fucking Hulk.
He and Ash went from being flirty at a family gathering to dating to living together in a span of weeks.
I’d lost my chance. And for a long time, I was surprisingly okay with it. I told myself it saved us the risk. My life with Ash is everything to me, even if I don’t get to touch him. I’d rather take what we have than have nothing at all.
And my brother made him so damn happy.
Until he didn’t anymore.
It seems like a complete waste of a relationship, because not only are they not together now, but any remote chance I had with Ash was crushed the minute he and Ollie got together. I can’t go for one of my brothers’ exes. I really don’t want to be with someone who can say “Your brother did it differently.”
I often think no one will ever compare to Ash, but I also know if I ever want a successful relationship, I need to let him go.
Maybe when he walks down that aisle and marries Taylor, I’ll get closure and will be able to see him as just a friend again like I managed to do while he was with Ollie.
My hand finds Ash’s forearm, and I grip the tattoo gun tighter as I move in to start the piece.
“Wait,” Ash croaks before I get anywhere close to his skin. “I can’t. I just … can’t.”
When I meet his gaze, a tear slips down his cheek.
“Fuck, Ash.” I put the gun down and push the tray with the ink and supplies out of the way so I can pull him in for a hug.
The perfect way he fits against me usually has me on edge, but as I breathe him in, the scent of his aftershave makes me keenly aware of something not being right. It’s not his usual woodsy scent I can smell but something spicier. Taylor’s, I realize. Then I hate myself all over again for pining over a taken man. A man I claim sometimes to have been mine first, but even that’s not true. Ash has only ever been mine in friendship.
I force myself to pull away. “You need more time, and that’s okay.”
“God. More time, more time, more time. It’s like that’s my motto right now. How much time? How long until I feel like everything is right again?”
“I can’t answer that for you. I wish I could.”
“I … I need to go think for a while. Sorry I fucked up our schedules for no reason.”
I take a hold of his hand. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sure you could call the clients I canceled and get them back in.”
“I could do that, yes, but how long has it been since we’ve had some time off? We’re both working six days a week. The shop’s always busy. We can afford to take the afternoon off for once.”
“I’ll clean up here,” I say. “You go.”
He runs his hand over his dark hair. “You sure?”
“What, like it’s super far for me to get to my place?” It’s literally up one set of stairs.
The shop lease comes with the small two-bedroom apartment, and seeing as Ash and Ollie had their own place, I decided to take it. When Ollie and Ash broke up, Ash lived with me until he moved in with Taylor a few months ago.
I miss him. I miss living with him and sharing a space with him. We’ve been a team for so long and have worked together so well that when he moved in, I worried we wouldn’t be able to live in sync like the rest of our lives. We managed during college, but we were older now.
I had nothing to worry about, because living with him had been the highlight of my last year.
Then he went and met … Taylor. Ugh.
“Hey, I got a message last night saying Jordan’s in town,” Ash says. “Maybe we could go catch up with him.”
Ugh at Jordan too. He and Ash never became serious, but the guy still grates on me.
Yet, I still find myself agreeing, because I know Ash is struggling, and I want to be there for him even if it’s killing me slowly.
And Ash is drunk.
Fun. Yay, day drinking.
I don’t even know what he’s laughing at. He and our friend Jordan have been reminiscing about old times, and apparently, the memories are a lot more humorous to those who were there for them.
Ash can barely contain himself and hunches over, using my shoulder as a headrest as he continues to laugh. My arm goes around his back to make sure he doesn’t fall off his stool, because he’s three sheets to the wind right now.
At least, that’s the excuse I’ll use, because any excuse to touch him, I’ll take.
With Ash so close to me, his phone vibrates against my thigh. I’ve trained myself to hide my reactions to his proximity, but as I stare at the side of his tattooed neck and shoulder that’s peeking out from his tank top, I tell myself the lie I always do when I look too closely at him: it’s my artwork I’m admiring. Not him.
Minus a few pieces, every inch of tattooed skin was done by me. I’ve left my physical mark on him, and the same goes for me—most of my tats were done by Ash—but no one knows the chunk of my heart that’s been marked as his for years.
I nudge him and move my lips closer to his ear to speak over the noise. “Your phone.”
He lifts his head, his green eyes glassy. From alcohol or laughing so hard, I’m not sure. “What?”
I roll my eyes and put my hand in his pants pocket.
“You’re about two inches too far to the right.” Ash winks.
My best friend, ladies and gentlemen.
I hand him his phone. “It’s been ringing, jackass.”
I get a glimpse of the screen and am surprised to find Ash’s laughter fade and his face fall at his fiancé’s name.
“I’ve gotta take this.” Ash runs off with his phone to a quieter part of the bar so he can hear.
I hate watching Ash be with someone who isn’t even his type.
He says he’s happy with Taylor, but he’s usually vibrant and lively. That’s been missing lately.
I don’t know if it’s because of Ollie or Taylor, but watching him suffer makes me want to punch Ollie out. He may be a hockey player, but I’m bigger and I work out with two of our older brothers who are MMA trainers. I could still kick little bro’s ass.
I don’t realize how long I’ve been staring at Ash across the bar until Jordan’s deep laugh appears next to me as he moves to the stool next to mine.