About Shadows You Left:
“Sierra and Brooke tell a story that grips with teeth and fists and will not let you go, an unputdownable character-driven complex novel that is gorgeously told, has deeply compelling characters, and takes you on an emotional roller coaster.”
-Corey Alexander of Corey’s Book Corner
The white picket fence.
That life was never meant for him.
For years he’s been bouncing from city to city—from one cage fight to another.
That’s his outlet. That’s pain Erik can control.
But in Seattle, everything changed.
River’s an artist.
He’s a pretty boy.
He does yoga.
Someone so soft shouldn’t be intrigued by Erik’s rough edges.
His life was quiet. He had a simple routine.
Designing tattoos, avoiding drama. Well, mostly.
Then Erik comes along—scarred and dangerous, shrouded in mystery.
A mystery River can’t resist trying to solve.
Maybe a secret as dark as his own.
Neither of them expected a relationship so complicated, so intense.
Neither of them expected…each other.
Erik and River are both trying to escape a shadowed past.
But the thing about shadows is: the faster you run, the faster they chase you.
There once was a dragon who had a taste for lively things, things of green and gold—lush things, untamable things. But as soon as he had what he wanted, everything turned to soot in his mouth. This dragon had lived in the attic of Erik’s mind for decades, spurred on by stories told at his bedside about fiery breath and leathery wings, brave knights, and caves full of riches.
But stories were just stories. The dragon from his mother’s old book had been a lullaby for Erik, the child who was afraid of the dark, and not Erik O’Malley, the Friday night draw at last week’s fight.
He remembered his mother’s voice, her fingertips on his cheek. “You’re my little dragon, you know that?”
Erik wrapped a piece of medical tape around his palm and over his knuckles, covering a ridge of torn flesh and muddied bruises. Scabs littered his fingers and broken capillaries dusted the top of his hand. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink and tilted his head, examining the maroon mark high on his cheek.
Dragons are meant for skies, not cages, Erik thought. Unless they’re fighting in them.
He ran a hand through dark hair and pushed it out of his face. Three tiny pinpricks decorated each ear. They hadn’t seen jewelry in months. Two empty holes lingered beneath his mouth, where hoops used to hug his bottom lip. Knuckles slammed against his chin, jaw, and mouth too often to risk wearing them anymore. It wasn’t worth the potential scar if they got ripped out.
Something clattered in the busy kitchen on the first floor. He glanced at the tile under his feet, then at the claw-foot bathtub crowded against the wall, next to the sink. Someone shouted in Thai. Kitchenware hit the ground, and a storm of voices cut through the floorboards into Erik’s dingy studio apartment.
There were pros and cons to living above Thai on the Fly. Discounted basil fried rice, an abundance of green curry, and having the friendliest family in Capitol Hill as downstairs neighbors made the pro list. Sharing a ventilation system with a busy restaurant and having a brick wall on the other side of his window wasn’t all that glamorous. Erik didn’t need glamorous, though. He didn’t even want glamorous. But a view of the city—the street, at least—would’ve made his three-hundred square feet feel more like home.
Not that Erik wanted home, either. He’d spent the last five years hopping from one place to the next, renting cheap apartments month-to-month, all reminiscent of an emergency exit. Easy to flee. Unbothered by being left at the drop of a hat.
He touched the split skin on his cheek where Connor Michaelson had landed the sharp point of his elbow three days ago. Erik tore the tape with his teeth before placing two small pieces over the wound. Dark red peeked around the edges, but he looked acceptable.
“Ricky… Remy, Richard… Something?” Erik trailed his fingers across the back of the couch as he crossed from the bathroom to his bed, snatched his phone off the dresser and opened the email from Styx Tattoo Parlor. Appointment Confirmation: Erik O’Malley consultation with— “River,” he said softly, and quirked a brow. “Who the fuck names their kid River?”
He tucked black jeans into a pair of ratty, steel-toed combat boots that’d carried him from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Phoenix to Portland, and seven months ago, from Portland to Seattle. Those boots had been with Erik at seventeen, running from ghosts, and they were still with him now at twenty-two, living a new life in a rainy city.
Sometimes he wondered how far they’d let him go before they fell apart.
Erik swiped through River’s Instagram, looking from one tattoo to the next. Forest scenes. Watercolor animals. An owl’s face on the back of someone’s neck. River was talented, but talent aside, he was the only artist available now, since Erik’s go-to guy had moved to New York over the weekend.
The newest picture on River’s Instagram was of a detailed sleeve boasting colorful wildflowers threaded with thorny vines. Distantly, Erik was impressed. Presently, Erik was sore and tired, but he didn’t want to lose his deposit, and if he didn’t leave now, he probably wouldn’t leave at all.
One deep breath later, Erik was shrugging on a tattered denim jacket and locking his apartment door behind him.
“Erik!” Sally Tam, the matriarch of Thai on the Fly’s family business, adjusted her hair net as Erik appeared at the bottom of the stairs. She jutted her small chin at him and smiled. “Anything I can leave on your doorstep? We’ve got extra red duck.”
“I’ll take it if you’re offering. Any chance I can steal a couple bags of ice when I get back?”
The sweltering, crowded kitchen was adjacent to the stairwell. Beyond it, a counter with two registers and a seating area with booths lining both walls led to the street-facing front doors. He leaned against the staff exit until the heavy door swung open and smiled his thanks when Sally nodded to him, flapping her hand in an exaggerated wave as he left.
Sally never questioned the bruises or blood. She never asked why he paid rent exclusively in cash, or why he sometimes masked a limp. Neither did her son, or her husband, or any of the other Tams who rushed around the restaurant.
Sometimes he heard them gossip, tracked their curious gazes when he crept past the kitchen before sunrise on Saturday mornings, but no one asked, and if no one asked, he didn’t answer.
January nipped his jaw, the familiar breath of a new year. People hustled down the sidewalk, hopped on the Metro, and slid into Ubers as they navigated the soggy, chilly streets.
Thankfully, Styx wasn’t too far of a walk.
Erik strode past the bagel shop two blocks from his apartment and crossed the street onto Broadway. Eccentric artwork spanned the sides of buildings—a silhouette of dancers captured in neon spray paint, mandalas etched in pastels over brick and concrete. Capitol Hill never seemed to sleep. There were always open eyes watching people come and go, immortalized in a three-story mural, hidden under an umbrella, or flicking here and there on the faces of passersby. It was a neighborhood in Seattle where people found themselves stumbling along after midnight, looking for a food truck or a quick fuck. Or maybe that was just Erik.
He stopped by a locally owned coffee shop three doors down from Styx and ordered something obscenely sweet to counter the three extra shots of espresso he asked for.
“Quad avalanche white mocha with hemp?” The barista, a young woman with fiery hair, offered a thin smile as Erik took his drink. “I guess it’s never too early for four shots, huh?”
“Never,” Erik rasped. His lips quirked in a half-smile, but the barista’s eyes fluttered from his mouth to his busted cheek, and finally to his hand. He watched her follow the outline of the letters on his knuckles, B I T E, and lifted two fingers off his cup to wave. “Have a good one.”
The longer people looked, the more they saw. Bruises over bruises. Scars on top of scars.
Erik was a walking billboard for the kind of trouble people pretended not to be attracted to. He used to be a reckless kid, self-serving and wild-eyed, and now he was a lawless cage fighter, solitary and unpredictable. He embraced the first-glance assumptions most people made about him and kept the truth to himself.
The neon sign in the window flickered when Erik opened the door. A customer flipped through a bound portfolio, and a woman stood behind the counter, staring defiantly at a computer screen. He’d met her before, in passing. Cheyenne, he thought. Her eyes narrowed and her face tensed, sculpted with charcoal eyeliner and opalescent highlighter.
“Who you here to see, sweetie?” She tucked a piece of teal hair behind her ear and eyed Erik over the top of her reading glasses. “Oh, it’s you. Nick’s client, right?”
“Yeah, now nobody’s client. I have a consultation with a different artist this morning.”
“I see a lot of faces. Remind me your name?”
“Right, right, okay, let’s see…” She clicked around on the computer before her red-painted mouth split into a grin. “There you are. Ten o’clock with River. You won’t be disappointed,” she added quickly. “Got your placement in mind?”
Erik glanced at his left hand, the one that wasn’t wrapped in medical tape, and nodded. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Perfect. C’mon back, then. I’ll show you to his station.” Cheyenne’s heeled boots click-clacked on the linoleum floor. She held the door for him, and he glimpsed the chunky silver rings on each of her fingers. They walked into the back, a wide-open space divided by waist-high walls that split the room into five private stations. “Second one on the left,” she said.
Erik glanced at the walls, adorned with flash stencils and original paintings, a few aesthetically pleasing candelabras, and high-resolution photographs of inked bodies.
“River,” Cheyenne said. “Your client’s here.”
River’s attention snapped away from a sketchbook. He tilted his head, regarding Erik with a careful smile. Stubble coated his jaw and cheeks. His face was all soft angles and obvious youth, handsome in a way that reminded Erik not to squeeze his coffee cup as tightly as he currently was. He’d seen River before, crouched over a limb with a buzzing tattoo machine in his hand, flashing smiles at clients or sketching at his desk. Fleeting glances during long sessions had usually ended in a half smile or a quick nod, granted after River wiped ink from freshly needled skin or when Erik studied the artwork plastered around his station for a little too long. They’d never spoken, but Erik had noticed him enough to remember the complex collage of tattoos that covered his left arm.
River bounced a pencil in the hollow of his thumb. “You must be Erik,” he said.
Glances across the room had not done justice to his eyes, to a look that was both thoughtful and appreciative.
Erik was suddenly aware that he’d paired a denim jacket with jeans and absolutely hated himself for it, because honestly, who fucking does that? Assholes do. “And you’re River,” he replied, doing what he did best and feigning confidence in the face of something—someone—abruptly and unexpectedly interesting.
About the Authors:
Taylor Brooke (they/she) writes Queer books filled with magic and attitude. After an exciting career in Special Effects Makeup, they moved to Oregon and settled in the mountains with their plants and one-toothed cat. Connect with them on Twitter @taysalion
Jude Sierra (she/her) is a Queer Latinx poet, author, academic and mother working toward her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric. She also works as an LGBTQAI+ book reviewer for Queer Books Unbound. Connect with her on Twitter @judesierra