His smile was faint. It made his eyelids sink heavily. “Don’t worry. That was a special occasion I let a friend talk me into. Won’t happen again.”
He was tapping restlessly against the steering wheel as we pulled up to a red light, and my eyes slid down the veins in his forearms, up along the back of his bicep to where it met his sleeve. Jacques had been handsome like an underwear model, perfectly toned with a winning smile and golden-brown hair that fell the same exact way every day. But it was all of Gus’s minor imperfections—his scars and ridges, crooked lines and sharp edges—and how they added up that had always made it hard for me to stop looking at him, and made me want to see more.
He leaned forward to mess with the temperature controls, his eyes flicking toward me. I jerked my gaze out the window, trying to clear my mind before he could read it.
“Do you want to be surprised?” he said.
My heart seemed to trip over its next beat. “What?”
“About where we’re going.”
I relaxed. “Hm. Surprised by something disturbing enough that you think it belongs in a book. No thanks.”
“Probably wise,” he agreed. “We’re going to interview a woman whose sister was in a suicide cult.”
He shook his head.
“Oh my God,” I said through a shock of laughter. All at once, the tension I’d imagined dissipated. “Gus, are you writing a rom-com about a suicide cult?”
He rolled his eyes. “I scheduled this interview before our bet. Besides, the point of this outing is helping you learn to write literary fiction.”
“Well, either way, you weren’t kidding about staring into the abyss,” I said. “So the point of this lesson is basically Everything sucks, now get to work writing about it?”
Gus smirked. “No, smart-ass. The points of this lesson are character and detail.”
I faux-gasped. “You’re never going to believe this crazy coincidence, but we have those in women’s fiction too!”
“You know, you’re the one who initiated this whole lesson-plan element of the deal,” Gus said. “If you’re going to make fun of me the whole time, I’m happy to drop you off at the nearest suburban comedy club open mic and pick you up on the way back.”
“Okay, okay.” I waved him on. “Character and detail. You were saying …”
Gus shrugged. “I like writing about outlandish scenarios. Characters and events that seem too absurd to be real, but still work. Having specificity helps make the unbelievable believable. So I do a lot of interviews. It’s interesting what people remember about a situation. Like if I’m going to write a cult-leading zealot who believes he’s an alien consciousness reincarnated as every great world leader for centuries, I also need to know what kind of shoes he wears, and what he eats for breakfast.”
“But do you really?” I teased. “Are the readers honestly begging for that?”
He laughed. “You know, maybe the reason you haven’t been able to finish your book is that you keep asking what someone else wants to read instead of what you want to write.”
I crossed my arms, bristling. “So tell me, Gus. How are you going to put a romantic spin on your suicide-cult book?”
His head tilted against the headrest, his knife-edged cheekbones casting shadows down his face. He scratched his jaw. “First of all, when did I say this interview was for my rom-com? I could just as easily set aside all my notes from this until I win our bet, then get back to work on my next official novel.”
“And is that what you’re doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “Trying to figure out if I can combine the ideas.”
“Maybe,” I said doubtfully. “Tell me the specifics. I’ll see if I can help.”
“Okay. So.” He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. “The original premise was basically that this journalist finds out his high school sweetheart, a former drug addict, has joined a cult, so he decides to infiltrate it and take it down. But while he’s there, he starts moving up through the ranks really quickly, like waaaay past the woman he went there to save. And as he does, he starts seeing all this stuff, this proof, that the leader’s right. About everything. Eventually, the girl was going to get scared and try to back out, try to talk him into leaving with her.”
“So I’m guessing,” I said, “they leave, honeymoon in Paris, and settle down in a small villa in the south of France. Probably become winemakers.”
“He was going to murder her,” Gus said flatly. “To save her soul. I hadn’t decided if that was going to be what finally brought the cult down—got all the leaders arrested and everything—or if he was going to become the new prophet. I liked the first option because it feels more like a closed loop: he wants to get her out of the cult; he does. He wants to bring the cult down; he does. But the second one feels more cyclical in a way. Like every damaged person with a hero complex could end up doing exactly what the original leader of the cult does. I dunno. Maybe I’d have a young man or woman with a drug habit show up at the very end.”
“Cute,” I said.
“Exactly what I was going for,” he answered.
“So. Any ideas for the not-terrible version of this book?”
“I mean, I liked that south-of-France pitch. That shit’s fire.”
“Glad you see things my way.”
“Anyway,” he said. “I’ll figure it out. A cult rom-com does sound like a thing. What about you? What’s your book?”
I pretended to puke in my lap.
“Cute,” he echoed, flashing me a grin. Speaking of fire, sometimes his eyes seemed to be reflecting it, even though there wasn’t any. The car was nearly pitch-black, for God’s sake. His eyes shouldn’t be allowed, physically or morally, to glint like that. His pupils were disrespectful to the laws of nature. My skin started burning under them.
“I have no idea what my book was,” I said when he finally looked back to the road. “And little idea what it is. I think it’s about a girl.”
He waited for me to go on for a few seconds, then said, “Wow.”
“I know.” There was more. There was the father she adored. There was his mistress and his beach house in the town he grew up in, and his wife’s radiation appointments. But even if things between Gus Everett and me had warmed (the fault of his eyes), I wasn’t ready for the follow-up questions this conversation might yield.
“Why did you move here anyway?” I asked after a lengthy silence.
Gus shifted in his seat. Clearly there was plenty he didn’t want to talk to me about either. “For the book,” he said. “I read about this cult here. In the nineties. It had this big compound in the woods before it got busted. There was all kinds of illegal shit going on there. I’ve been here about five years, interviewing people and researching and all that.”
“Seriously? You’ve been working on this for five years?”
He glanced my way. “It’s research heavy. And for part of that time I was finishing up my second book and touring for that and everything. It wasn’t like, five uninterrupted years at a typewriter with a single empty water bottle to pee in.”