It’s just one week (aaahh!!) until Next Stop Love goes live! I just got the last proof copy of the paperback and oh my gosh, y’all, it looks like a real book. I’m so happy. 🥰
I can’t wait to share this book with you guys. So y’know what? I’m going to post the first chapter right here for you to read ahead of time. Subscribers to my mailing list got access to the first SIX chapters in ebook form already (you can still get that here if you like!). But I thought everyone else might like a little sneak peek too.
Just 7 more days! Eeeeeee!!!!
The moment Julian stepped off the subway, the low-level nerves that had been plaguing him all day ratcheted up into something much closer to panic.
It was mid-afternoon, and the platform was bustling with the standard combination of tourists, shoppers, and students. Somewhere, a violinist was busking, the high melody competing for auditory space with the screech of brakes and the wash of overlapping conversations and footsteps. The familiarity of it should have made Julian feel more grounded, but the crush of people and the unceasing noise made his stomach clench.
He shouldn’t have come back. New York City had never felt like home to him. He’d never quite gotten used to the inescapable packed-in feeling of living in a sardine tin.
And New York didn’t seem to care much for Julian, either.
Someone jostled Julian from behind, and he shot the guy a glare, his shoulders tensing.
He still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d come all the way down here today. Desperation, probably. Desperation and one final, stubborn seed of hope that refused to fucking die.
Blowing out a breath, he jerked the hood of his sweatshirt over his face and started up the stairs. By the time he reached the sidewalk, he at least had a little room to breathe. The ever-present sounds of traffic and distant construction didn’t crawl up his spine the way subway brakes did, and the sight of wispy clouds sailing across the open, blue sky reminded him that he wasn’t trapped in some claustrophobic, ’80s-era dystopia. Just good old Greenwich Village. Brick buildings, leafy trees, and—thanks to New York University, a couple blocks away—plenty of bars, cafes, and cheap food.
Not so bad when it came to Manhattan neighborhoods.
Julian shrugged off as much of that panicked feeling as he could and headed into the brisk October wind.
It was proving near-impossible to find a job in the small town south of Poughkeepsie where he’d landed after the gig in Philly fell apart. People there seemed to have a hard time seeing past the tattoo that climbed up his shoulder into curling tendrils of smoke on one side of his neck. The hiring manager at a local warehouse had written him off as a dangerous Triad gangbanger. It didn’t matter that the Triad was a Chinese organization and Julian was third-generation Korean. Or that the closest thing the town ever got to gang activity was when the local teens got stoned and tagged abandoned buildings. Julian was Asian, and he had a visible tattoo, and apparently, that meant he was Triad.
Finding a job in the city would probably be easier, but it definitely wasn’t smarter. There had been an excellent reason for Julian to move out of state three years ago. Several, in fact. All of whom would be quite happy to kill him on sight. If he had any sense of self-preservation at all, he would forget the entire ill-conceived impulse to return and take the next train home.
But that tiny, idiot seed of hope propelled his feet forward anyway.
A jolt of homesickness hit him when he laid eyes on the art center. The posters in the windows were different, and they’d updated the sign that hung above the front door, but everything else was exactly the same as he remembered. The uneven discoloration of the resolutely square brick facade, the wrought iron gate at the base of the front steps, the cheerful lavender of the door. Even the smell was the same when he walked inside—paper, and pencil shavings, and paint, and the mellow scent of crayons.
Julian pushed his hood down and went to speak with the young Latina woman behind the front desk. Her hair was bubblegum pink, and she appeared to have an entire sleeve of floral tattoos blooming up her right arm, under the pushed-up sleeve of her cardigan. That was a good sign, right? At least the Greenwich Village Center for the Arts was unlikely to have a problem with Julian’s ink.
“Hi,” Julian said. “I’ve got an interview with Harold Fisk in a couple minutes?”
She didn’t look up from scribbling on a sticky note beside her keyboard. “Name?”
“Okay . . .” She shifted the sticky notes aside and tapped something into her computer. She was surrounded by pamphlets for classes and upcoming art exhibits and MOMA and the Met. More pastel sticky notes were lined up in rows all along the edge of her desk, covered in pencil sketches. They looked like frames for an animation. “Yep. Last guy hasn’t come out yet, so I think they’re still talking. He should be done soon.”
She had Julian sign in and then directed him to a small, deserted classroom where he could wait.
Julian dropped his backpack on one of the seats scattered around the room, but he was too antsy to sit down. He started poking around the edges of the classroom.
Flyers pinned up on the walls promoted various showcases and competitions, the occasional yoga class, and the weeks-over Comic Con. Tacked up in any remaining space was what seemed to be the students’ work from the past week or so. Based on the subject matter, this room was dedicated to life-drawing classes for high school students and adults.
Julian’s hand twitched as he looked over the sketches, itching to find a pencil and paper somewhere and . . .
Drawing had never paid the bills. Art never put food on the table, or kept a roof over his head, or made him safe. It was just a distraction. He’d only come here so he could get rid of the nagging hope trying to take root in his soul. Take the interview, fail miserably, and maybe he’d finally get it through his head: Hope was a privilege he couldn’t afford.
Julian scrubbed a hand through his hair, turning toward the easels crowding the middle of the room. He shouldn’t have come here at all. What was he thinking? That he could find some stable ground again? That he could do more with his life than just scrape by and survive?
He had to snap himself out of this—this fit of nostalgia, or whatever it was, that had overtaken his good sense.
Grabbing his backpack, Julian strode to the door. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t do the interview. He had to get out of here before—
The door snapped open as Julian reached it. He startled back a step with a quick, automatic apology.
“Oh, excuse me,” said the man who had opened the door. He was holding a clipboard and had the slightly distracted, not-quite-walking-the-earth quality stereotypical of many art teachers. He even had a paint stain on one sleeve of his ill-fitting sports jacket. “Are you Julian Moon?”
“You’re the one who went to Dalton, isn’t that right?” the man asked, consulting his clipboard. He was an inch or two shorter than Julian, and looked to be in his forties. White guy with thinning, nondescript brownish hair. “Class of ’15?”
“Well . . . yes. But I—”
“Ah, yes, I see it here. But you didn’t mention anything about being in Tyrell’s class.”
“Mr. Knowles?” Julian asked before he could think to feign ignorance.
The man with the clipboard smiled. “So you do know him. Why didn’t you say so on your application? He’s on the board here, you know.”
“I didn’t think it was relevant,” Julian said. “Most custodian jobs don’t require you to have taken art in high school.”
The other man laughed and shook Julian’s hand warmly. “Harold Fisk. Glad to meet you, Julian. Come on back.”
Julian sighed and followed Mr. Fisk into his office. It was okay, he told himself. He still had time to blow this interview. He wouldn’t even have to try. He’d gotten really good at failing over the years.
Harold Fisk’s office was one of the most intensely art-teacher offices Julian had ever seen. Several dirty coffee mugs littered the desk, all of them about an arm’s reach from the big graphics tablet set up next to the computer monitor. The shelves around the room were packed with graphic novels, comic volumes, manga, and art books for an assortment of animated movies. Whatever shelf space wasn’t loaded down with books was crammed with paper, inks, and paints. Opposite the desk, taking up most of the other half of the small room, was an ink-stained drafting table with more pens, pencils, and brushes sticking out like porcupine spikes from the organizational tray on one side. The office smelled like old takeout, stale coffee, and paper. And crayons, of course. There was no escaping the crayons in this building.
“Take a seat,” Mr. Fisk said, gesturing to the chair crammed into a narrow space between the desk and the drafting table.
Julian sat, half convinced the chair had been brought in specifically for conducting these interviews. It was the only piece of furniture in the room that didn’t have a random assortment of items flung over it. Even the stool under the drafting table had a half-used pad of Bristol board resting on the seat.
“Tyrell’s going to throw a fit when he finds out it’s really you,” Mr. Fisk said, sliding into the chair behind his desk, which had a sweatshirt draped haphazardly over one arm. He pushed his wire glasses up his nose and grinned at Julian. “When I saw you’d gone to Dalton, I took the liberty of asking Tyrell if he knew you. He had nothing but good things to say.”
“That’s . . . uh. That’s very nice of him, but the praise is unwarranted.”
“Really? I haven’t known Tyrell to be prone to fits of unwarranted praise. He said you were quite the talented artist. And dedicated. Had your pick of undergrad programs, as I understand it.”
“Maybe outdated would be a better word,” Julian said, shifting in his seat. “I don’t draw anymore. I didn’t even graduate high school.”
Mr. Fisk frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you mind if I ask you why that was?”
“I, um . . . had an accident,” Julian said, trying to keep his tone even. He didn’t like the bitterness that colored his voice when he poked that particular memory. Almost three years and he still wanted to knock things over whenever he thought about it. “After that, everything just . . . spiraled.”
Mr. Fisk nodded thoughtfully, peering at Julian through his glasses. “Well, let me ask you this, then: If you don’t draw anymore, why did you apply to work here?”
Because I’m an idiot.
“I used to love this place when I was a kid,” Julian said. “I would come by every day after school, even if it was just to sit on a bench in the gallery and draw the people coming through . . .” He caught himself and shrugged to make it seem like he didn’t care about such impractical, childish pleasures. What did it matter if he’d made his first local friends here? Or if some days—especially those last two years of high school—he’d felt more at home scrunched up in front of an easel in the back corner of a classroom than he did in his family’s apartment? Or if this was the place where he’d realized that art wasn’t just a casual pastime but a passion he couldn’t shake?
Fuck’s sake. Julian was supposed to be blowing the interview, not getting all weird and sappy. “I must have had a fit of nostalgia or something.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Fisk said, far too shrewd for Julian’s liking. “You really don’t draw anymore?”
“No,” Julian said firmly. “I don’t see what that has to do with mopping floors.”
Mr. Fisk sat back in his chair and scratched his ear, heaving a sigh. “All right. Here’s the deal. Far as I’m concerned, the custodial job is yours.”
It took a second for this to sink in. “Wait, really? You’ve only been talking to me for two minutes.”
Mr. Fisk shrugged, apparently amused by Julian’s reaction. “I like you. Tyrell seems to like you. Provided you pass a background check, I don’t see any reason not to offer you the job.”
Open your mouth and say, ‘Thank you, but no,’ Julian told himself sternly. Tell him, ‘No.’
“Oh,” he said.
So close. Just one more little letter and it would have been right. Half a syllable.
“It might put a wrench in the cogs of the other opportunity I wanted to present to you, however,” Mr. Fisk said, squinting at the ceiling.
This wasn’t how this interview was supposed to go. Julian was supposed to show up, be a huge disappointment to everyone in every respect, and be sent on his way with a dubious promise that someone would contact him later. He wasn’t supposed to be getting immediate job offers based on the glowing reference of a teacher he hadn’t spoken to in three years.
He was supposed to be killing that little sprout of hope in his chest, not letting its roots dig deeper.
“What do you mean, ‘other opportunity?’” Julian asked.
“Well, I don’t know if you noticed when you were applying for the custodial position, but we recently had one of our teachers leave, and we’re hoping to replace her. So I thought, since you had a background in art . . .”
“You’re kidding.” Julian had seen the teaching gig listed right next to the opening for the custodian job, but had dismissed it outright. The hope in his chest might not be entirely rational, but it wasn’t delusional. The post had required a portfolio of recent art as part of the application. Julian didn’t even have any of the things he’d worked on in high school, much less anything new. Besides, Dalton might have a great art program, but it was still just a high school. Which Julian hadn’t even successfully graduated from.
Mr. Fisk shook his head. “Dead serious. We’re having a heck of a time finding someone to take the position. It’s part-time—one or two classes a day—and it’s for the younger kids. Usually, we try to hire one of the undergrads from NYU’s Art Education program. But with it being mid-semester, and with the kids’ classes meeting early in the afternoon, we’ve been running into a lot of scheduling conflicts.
“Tyrell told us particularly that you might do a good job of it,” Mr. Fisk continued, as though Julian wasn’t gaping at him in disbelief. “As long as you wouldn’t mind changing hats, as it were, over the course of the day. You’d get paid for both jobs, of course.”
Julian wasn’t sure if he wanted to smash something or burst out laughing. He had been running after jobs to no avail for nearly six weeks now, and here he was being told that Mr. Fisk—and Tyrell Knowles, who shouldn’t have even remembered him—wanted to give him two. For a place he liked.
And he couldn’t take either one because this one place he liked was in the city. Along with several people who wanted him dead.
“How much time did you have left when you dropped out?” Mr. Fisk asked him, still frowning thoughtfully into space. “A year, was it?”
“Couple of months,” Julian said.
“Hmm . . .”
“Mr. Fisk,” Julian tried.
“I gather you don’t have a portfolio.”
“What about a sketchbook? Or an Instagram? Something of that nature?”
“I don’t draw,” Julian blurted, the words coming out angrier than he anticipated. “I’m not an artist. I’m a high school dropout trying to get my life together. And not doing a very good job at it, to be honest.”
Mr. Fisk regarded Julian from across the desk. No scatterbrained art teacher should be allowed to look so canny.
Julian dropped his gaze to his lap, resisting the impulse to apologize for the sharp outburst. He was supposed to be blowing this interview, after all.
“All right,” Mr. Fisk said at last.
“I understand if you want to withdraw the original offer,” Julian said tightly.
“No need,” Mr. Fisk said, with an amicable shrug. “If you want the custodial job, it’s yours. And if you change your mind about pursuing the other one, you let me know. Tyrell thought you had a real gift.”
“Like I said—” Julian began.
“Outdated,” Mr. Fisk finished for him, smiling. “I heard you. I’m just an over-eager art teacher. We tend to assume all our students have the same bone-deep need to create as we do. But if you are happy only mopping our floors, Julian, I am the last person to stand in your way.”
Julian should have declined that job, too. But somehow he found himself taking it on. It was the only offer he’d been able to get since his last gig fell apart. It was the smart thing to do, right? To take whatever job was available before he ran out of money and ended up on the street again? Nothing was preventing him from continuing his search elsewhere, while he was waiting for the background check to go through.
Mr. Fisk had Julian fill out all the initial paperwork before he left the room, and then shook his hand again and welcomed him aboard. Julian staggered down the steps onto the sidewalk when he was released, feeling dazed.
He checked his hood was up as he walked back to the subway. By the time he turned the corner onto Sixth Avenue, he was already regretting accepting the custodial job. The offer of the teaching gig kept nagging him. He was itching to find a way into the art world, and here was an opportunity to do just that. Hell, he was already forming lesson plans in his head.
“Fucking idiot,” Julian muttered to himself, trying to shake the thoughts loose as he started down the subway steps. He wove through the small crowd of people going the other way with practiced ease.
It probably wasn’t as bad as he was making it out to be in his head. Right? It wasn’t like any of the people who hated Julian’s guts hung around the Greenwich Village Center for the Arts. Manhattan was a big place, and the likelihood of Julian running into Vito, or any of the others, was pretty slim. As long as he stayed away from where he knew they hung out, he should be fine.
He’d only gone maybe half a dozen steps when a spike of adrenaline shot through him.
He didn’t understand why, at first. His body reacted to the information before his brain realized there was any information to be had. Then it registered: Down at the base of the stairs, a man in a plain black sweatshirt with close-cropped brown hair was trailing after the rest of the lately disembarked crowd. In his right pocket, Julian knew without having to see it, was a wicked-looking switchblade.
As soon as Julian glanced at him, the other man looked up. Recognition flashed in his eyes, followed very closely by naked, all-consuming hate.
“Shit.” Julian spun, shouldered through a tight gaggle of students, and booked it the hell out of there.
That’s it for chapter one! If you want to sign up for my mailing list and check out the longer sample, you can find that here.
Or if you’re already hooked (I hope so!) the ebook is available to preorder at the links below. Plus, I should have the paperback ready to order from Amazon on or before the 22nd, so watch this space!
Thanks for reading!
Text and images copyright © 2020 by Rachel Stockbridge. All Rights Reserved