This is an exclusive prequel scene for my upcoming book ‘Symbols’ written for the wonderful people at Love Bytes Reviews—the makers and the readers alike. I’m very happy for getting the chance to give you a little insight into Matt’s and Shane’s world.
Shane is one of the main characters in ‘Symbols’, a six-feet-eight bodybuilder with a scar on his face, tattoos all over his body, and a gruesome event in his past. In this scene, he serves his first day of community service in a retirement home and meets a very special person.
I’m not a native speaker, and due to time restrictions, I couldn’t get the prequel scene properly edited. So please bear with me for any oddities and typos you may find. Thanks to my wonderful editors, ‘Symbols’ itself is in top shape, and I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to work with these awesome people.
Shane pulled away the collar of his scrubs with two fingers. Just two or three full draws of breath should make the vertigo go away. Yet the blue fabric rustled alarmingly, and he let go of it before it’d tear up. Better to suffocate than to ruin his working clothes on his first day on the job. At least the nurse handing out the gear had promised to ask around for scrubs his size. That was nice of her because she didn’t have to—or she was just terrified enough of the scarred, inked giant serving his sentence of one hundred community service hours in the retirement home she worked in. He heaved a sigh, though basically he had no reason to complain. The whole staff had treated him with professional politeness, from the concierge up to the manager. It wasn’t his colleagues’ fault that over the years he had learned to see through these masks at a glance. How could he miss the stiffening up, the flash of panic in their eyes, or adding that extra foot of distance between them? Thoughts like these didn’t help. They never had, and they never would. He should just concentrate on the work and nothing else.
Once more, he checked the small note the task dispatcher had given him.
Kitchen: level 01, room 0-10.
If these numbers followed any logic, it was a cryptographic masterpiece. He was on the right floor… most likely. And he had walked the square of the halls twice. So much for the plan of making a good impression on his first day. Another sigh crept up his throat and slipped out of his mouth.
“You’re the new one?” A deep, male voice came from behind. “Kitchen’s over here.”
Shane spun around. The man wore chef’s whites, but given the variety of stains on them ‘chef’s colorfuls’ describes his outfit better. His apron tightened over a round belly, and his cheeks glowed in a fiery red. This fella could have sprung from a children’s book about a cheerful cook, and Shane pressed his lips tight to keep the grin off his face.
The chef sized him up before nodding once. “At last they sent me a guy who isn’t blown away by a gentle summer breeze.” He beckoned Shane over with a meaty hand and vanished around the corner.
With a little goodwill, those words could actually pass as a compliment, and Shane just stood there rooted in place. He was a pro when dealing with shock, fear, or even disgust, but his strategy for praise truly sucked. If he didn’t hurry up, the chef might change his mind about him anyway, so Shane trotted down the hall. He could still overthink this ad nauseam later.
They passed through a door and entered what had to be an antechamber of the actual kitchen. At least a dozen trolleys stood lined up at the white-tiled walls, plates with plastic covers stacked neatly onto the carts. The indistinct aroma of food hung in the air, and for a retirement home, it smelled surprisingly good.
“It’s no rocket science.” The chef picked up one of the plates. “Room number, name of the guest, and age. It’s all on the labels. Got it?”
Shane was a straight “B-plus” student. Okay, he wasn’t straight, and technically he wasn’t a student anymore since the—occurrence—with Jer and Hayden, but he had enough brains for this. “Got it.”
Once more the chef eyed Shane. He nodded, his double chin bobbing up and down. “Well, I think we can put some more plates on your cart.” He bared his teeth in a lunatic grin. “Those guns aren’t for decoration only, are they?” The chef’s bellowing laughter echoed through the small room.
Another compliment. Shane could get used to taking them from strangers. He joined in laughing.
Ten shrieking old ladies and fifteen people pretending to sleep. Maybe only fourteen sleep pretenders. The old man in room 2-53 might have been taking a nap for real. He had snored very convincingly anyway. All in all, not too bad a balance for the first day of a gruesome-looking felon working in a retirement home. Shane shook his head to fling these thoughts out. He wasn’t a felon, and for once he should cut himself some slack. Huffing, he picked up the next plate.
Room 3-45, Estelle Vespucci, 85
A shrieker or a sleeper? A sleeper. Her name just sounded too tough for yelping at the top of her lungs. He knocked at the door and opened it.
Though Mrs. Vespucci was sitting in her bed, she wore a red, silken dressing gown, a bronze floral pattern meandering over it. Her face was sunken and wrinkly, yet her gray eyes radiated a lively gleam. Each and every strand of her silver hair aligned perfectly with the others. That was how a movie diva in the thirties must have looked like. He had been right about her not being a shrieker, though she wasn’t a sleeper either.
“It’s about time.” She tapped her golden watch with her index finger, and her rings clinked against each other. Mrs. Vespucci’s gaze flitted over Shane’s frame and settled on his arms. “There’s more ink on you than bare skin.” She pulled up an eyebrow in derision. “Who made those tats? Some wannabe artist in juvie?”
Shane’s mouth dropped open. He may not have been used to compliments, but he was even less used to slander. No one dared to insult him—at least not to his face. “K. L. Jonsson,” he stammered. “She’s a well-known tattoo artist.”
“Pah!” Mrs. Vespucci waved her hands in an excessive bow. “I know every single artist who deserves this name, and I don’t know this crétine.”
So apart from sleepers and shriekers, there existed a third type: the bitcher. And Shane could have gone without that type. He swallowed, not alone to prevent the word “bitch” from sneaking out from between his lips. “Here’s your dinner, Mrs. Vespucci.” His voice broke on her name, and he cleared his throat.
She looked at the plate and nodded at the little table attached to her bed. “Put those slops there!”
He obeyed. “Do you need help with your meal, ma’am?” Shane had to ask this, and she just had to say no.
“Do I look like an imbecile who doesn’t know how use a fork and a knife?” A snarl reverberated in Mrs. Vespucci’s words.
“Of course not, ma’am.” Shane took a step back. He needed to get out of here, away from that hag.
Her gaze kept boring into him, making him feel all itchy inside. He swiveled around and reached for the door knob, but the click of a cell phone taking a photo sounded. He turned his head. Mrs. Vespucci pointed the lens of a black smartphone at him, and Shane knitted his brow.
“What?” The harsh noise of her voice rang in his ears. “I need proof for my friends that an actual ogre is serving the meals here.”
He had to leave. Now. Before she could say anything else. Or before he would say something he would regret later. Shane turned the knob, stormed out, and slammed the door closed. Leaning back against the cool wood, he shut his eyes. If he reported this incident, the management would make her delete the photo. Maybe they would even take the phone away from her. No. This was just an old, bitter lady with nothing else to do. If it made her miserable days a little more exciting, she should send the picture to whomever she wanted. He would serve his one hundred hours, and then he would never have to see her again.
One week later
Even reorganizing Shane’s meal delivery route such that Mrs. Vespucci was the last one on his list hadn’t helped to spare his nerves. The shriekers had stopped shrieking. The sleepers had awakened. Just the bitcher was still bitching, and no time was enough to prepare for that slur fest. He had tried everything, but neither disarming friendliness nor simply ignoring her had worked. She had called him a crook, a troglodyte, and a myriad of French words whose meanings he didn’t want to know. On the bright side, she had refrained from taking more photos.
He took the last plate from the cart, breathed in and out, and knocked at the door before he entered.
Mrs. Vespucci had never worn the same dressing gown twice, however she fitted all of them into the small wardrobe of hers. This evening she had chosen a blue one embroidered with golden birds.
“Good evening, ma’am.” He kept his voice low and even, for he shouldn’t irritate the beast any further.
“You’re late.” Her words resembled the hiss of a cobra more than anything else. “On the other hand, it’s not worth waiting for that crap anyway.” As always, she gestured him to put the plate down on the table, and he complied.
If that was all she flung at him this evening, it was his lucky day. “Do you need help with your meal?” Fuck the home rules for forcing him to ask that question time and again.
“I’m still not a cripple.” The skin of her face tautened, giving it even more wrinkles. “But I could use your help with another thing.”
That meant he had to spend more time with her. He bit his lower lip to keep the sigh in. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“Do you know that other male nurse, Marc?” She shook her head in disgust. “He’s always so rude to me. Maybe you could rough him up a little.” She shrugged. “This shouldn’t be much of a problem for a thug like you. And if I like your work, I might even fork out some cash.”
That old bag hadn’t asked that question. She mustn’t have. A surge of electricity shot down Shane’s spine, a shudder following in its wake. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs to the max before letting go of the air. After the car accident, his shrink had taught him this technique to calm down, though it barely ever worked. It definitely didn’t work now. He opened his eyes and pointed his index finger at her.
“Listen, lady. You can call me anything you like, badmouth me, and send pics of me wherever you effing want. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a thug.” He exhaled with a forceful puff. “Made I myself clear?” Panting and shivering, he closed his eyes again.
“The only person I sent the pic to was K.L., commending her on her excellent work.” An unfamiliar gentleness and warmth suffused Mrs. Vespucci’s voice.
Shane yanked his eyes open. She was talking gibberish. “K.L.? K.L. Jonsson? You said you don’t know her.”
She laughed. “I also told you I know every artist who deserves this name. And by any means, K.L. does.”
“But… you… but…” Static filled Shane’s mind, drowning any sensible thought.
“In my eighty-five years on this bizarre world, I came to the conclusion that I learn a lot more about people if I tease them a little.” She cackled, and her lips bent up into a smile. “The very moment you came through that door, I knew you were special.” Her smile turned haughty. “I was close to giving up though. After all, it took you a full week to come out of your shell.”
Her words reached Shane’s brain, but it still failed miserably at giving them any meaning.
Another fit of laughter shook her slender body. “You look white as a sheet. Maybe you want to take a seat?” She pointed at the chair beside her bed.
He let himself slump down. His brain was still out of order… or working too fast. He couldn’t tell.
“I’d offer you a drink, but you’d decline anyway, right?” She patted his knee.
His gaze fixated on her fingers touching his leg. “I don’t drink alcohol.” At least his answer matched her question.
“I thought so.” She tittered again, but her laughter died off and her tone turned serious. “The people in here only talk about their grandchildren and their numerous ailments. Pathetic, isn’t it?” She closed her fingers on his knee. “I’d prefer to talk to a young man with some interesting stories to tell.”
Shane looked up and into her eyes. The lively gleam was still there, but it had softened and soothing warmness shone therein, like a wordless invitation. He had a lot of stories to tell, things he needed to speak out loud to someone who wasn’t his parents or Nick. And this crazy old lady was willing to listen. Maybe he was just as crazy for even considering her offer. Stuff it. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
This idea wasn’t too crazy after all.
Violence is hard to escape because of the scars it leaves—on the body, the mind, and the heart.
Small, skinny, and timid, Matt is the school’s punching bag. He suffers in silence and holds no hope anyone will come to his aid. The last thing on his mind is finding someone special. He’s sure it’s impossible, so why bother trying?
Shane is no stranger to pain. At his old school, he broke a football player’s arms for tormenting his friend, and with his size and multiple tattoos, he looks every bit the thug everyone—Matt included—assumes he is.
Building trust isn’t easy, but a sweet yet passionate romance slowly unfolds. Their road isn’t without bumps, but Matt and Shane navigate them together, finding happiness and security in each other—until another act of violence and its aftermath threatens to tear their lives—and their love—apart once and for all. But like the symbols etched into Shane’s skin, some things are made to last.
Mario Kai Lipinski lives in Herne, Germany.
He is a spare-time author, and his evil day job, teaching mathematics at university level, isn’t that evil after all. Granted, on some days he wants to strangle his students, but it only takes a coffee or two and he remembers how much he loves them. He loves nerdy science stuff too. Does it show in his books? Of course it does.
English is not his native language, and he frequently gets asked why he writes in English. The answer has two parts. Firstly, he has slightly masochistic tendencies. Secondly, most books he reads are in English. So it feels only natural to write in this language too. English is beautiful—until it isn’t. Never, absolutely never, get him started on comma rules.
One reader described his books as “sexually explicit Disney movies.” That hits the nail on the head. Mario is into romance with a capital R and loves his cheesy. He is so good at channeling his inner teenager that sometimes he doubts he even has an inner adult.