3 | Priorities


"Dessert? Bought pudding and chocolate cake." Miles glanced at me.

"Thanks. Maybe later," I replied as I stood still. I gripped my phone, secretly anxious for a call or a text from an unregistered number. Jill's quick phone call surprised me as much as it was informative. I had to keep it short and casual, or else Miles would think I was having another panic attack.

Part of me just didn't want Miles to notice anything unusual.  I glanced around the spacious basement.  Paint-smeared cans, scrapped lifesize canvasses, and soiled, overused rags littered the floor of the studio, and most of them were just days-old trash waiting to get stuffed into large garbage bags.

It was the only room in the house where my artistic friend didn't observe cleanliness and order to an impressive degree. It was also the only room where I was least welcomed in. Miles loved working on his art in total solitude, quiet and undisturbed.

White lights lit the basement but not too brightly. He probably liked the fairly mysterious lighting. Maybe it helped him get in the mood to paint?  

He stood in the middle of the room, and his pants looked overused with patches of different paint colors.  "You're the only girl I know who doesn't like chocolates."

"I'm just really full," I replied. My stomach just protested at the thought of artificial flavorings and processed sugars. The juicy, meaty steak he'd cooked for me was enough to satiate my appetite.  "Want a slice? I'll get some."


Oh. Why was I in here again?  Did he want to talk about something?  "Need help with something?"


His immediate reply made me sit still beside his paint cans. I stared at his broad back while he continued to paint. "So you...need to talk?"

Was he going to mention the kiss now? Right now? Shucks.

"I think," Miles mumbled while his impressively precise hand painted dark strands on the canvas. "You should ask yourself that."

"Um...okay?" I scrunched my brows at his vague response.   

Tiny beads of sweat glistened on his forehead when  he turned away from the canvas to grab something from his paint stash.  "So?" Miles stayed focused on the painting.

It featured a woman with long hair as dark as a raven. Her slender body rested on something slanted. 

"What happened back at the show?"

"Nothing." I bit on my lip. My voice almost wavered. Sheesh. Such a terrible liar.  "Just the usual."

"Did anyone unwelcome approach you?" Miles turned to glance at me. His grin was mild and quite forced. My odd behavior after the fashion show definitely piqued his curiosity.

"No. Just needed a proper meal, and a good night's sleep." I paused to chastise myself internally. I should just tell him what triggered my anxiety again. However, at the moment, I just didn't want to burden him with my personal problems.

Miles wouldn't complain, but he's busy with his own career, and I should just learn to deal with my own issues singlehandedly.  "Did an agent or director tell you to lose a few pounds again?"

"No."  I held back a smile.

He still thought I was having trouble eating properly.  He cared a lot, sometimes without directly saying or showing it.  "What did Jill say?"

"Um...Mom drove Dad to the hospital again," I replied.

His long and careful hairlike strokes halted at my reply. Miles cleared his throat, as if surprised by the news. "Emergency?"

"Yeah. Breathing problems again, but...Mom said the pulmonologist will send him home in a few days. Or earlier, if his appetite improves and if he doesn't show any allergies to the new medication."

At my hesitant tone, Miles paused for a moment and studied the colorful painting.

Seconds of awkward silence filled the room and made me uneasy.  I could tell he felt the same.

Miles only kept eye contact to a minimum whenever he was anxious or bothered by something.  "You wanna go home?" He picked up a thicker brush. His back slouched and remained facing me while his paint-smeared fist clenched beside his hip.

"I can't." I rubbed my palm against my forehead, unsure of what else to say.  "I booked three shoots. Dates are next month."

"But, you wanna go home for a bit?"

"Not really," I said. "I need to save up more."

"If you need money, just say so."

His response almost made me sigh. "Not your obligation, but, thanks."

"Just say so if you need it for the bills or..." Miles didn't press on, but his tone denoted a fair amount of doubt.

"Thanks, but no thanks. Can we talk about something else?" I covered my face with my hands to muffle a long sigh. My mom wanted me home, for sure.  But I still had jobs to finish this month and the next, commitments to fulfill, and paychecks to collect.  I couldn't afford to just drop work to fly back to New York for a family visit.

"Okay. Sorry." Miles turned away from the canvas to wipe his overworked fingers with an old rag. The look on his face appeared blank instead of sympathetic. He stepped closer to where I sat, waiting for me to start up another conversation—perhaps one that didn't involve surprising phone calls and family issues.

"How's your dad?" I asked out of the blue. I tried to maintain eye contact with him. A part of me hoped he was in the mood to talk about his family, even though I wasn't in the mood to talk about mine.

I'd known him for roughly two years now (although we were merely acquaintances then), but his being tightlipped about his own family remained a mystery I had yet to unravel.

"What about 'em?" Miles looked away and grabbed something on the paint-stained table. He bunched up his shoulder-length dark hair with an elastic band.

" were talking to your dad and," I muttered. "I wasn't listening in, but..."

"He said they're coming over."

"Really? For your birthday?" I smiled when Miles only nodded. "How's your Pappa?"

"Fine," he mumbled. "Busy. As always."  He faced the canvas and ripped open a sachet of something he used for mixing oil colors.

A moment of silence prolonged when he didn't say anything else. "You don't visit or call them up," I remarked. I was just curious about his parents.

From what he'd shared about his wealthy family, I knew his parents barely had time for him as they were always tied up with the clan's longtime businesses.  Miles also mentioned once that his parents, more often than not, could get a little controlling and domineering.

To what extent—I had yet to discover for myself.  "Why? I mean...I just noticed you don't talk to them often."

"Says the girl who never calls home and ran away twice now." Miles smirked and turned his attention back to his painting.

"Okay—  No." I chuckled.  "That's an exaggeration." I shook my head and stood up from the chair to get closer to him.

The canvas he worked on stood far from me, but the strong smell of fresh paint and thinner assaulted my nose. I had to smother half of my face.

"Go rest up," Miles advised when he saw me covering my nose.

"What d'you want for your birthday?"

Instead of answering my question,  he ignored me and continued shading the outline of the faceless woman on the painting.

"I need to get you something. Help me out."

"Anything's fine."

"What about a new book?"  Why hadn't I thought of that sooner? He loved to read.  "No? What about cake?  Party stuff?" I asked when he didn't respond. "New boyfriend?"

My suggestion made him scoff.  "Right. 'Cause that's just what I need right now."

His evasive reply got me quiet. I stayed standing a few steps behind him.

Maybe he was already seeing someone new? But that was another story for another time. Clearly he wasn't in a chatty mood, and I knew he needed a couple more hours to complete the paintings.

"Are those finished?" I asked of the smaller paintings in the corner of the studio. I sat on the edge of the table with the disorderly collection of painting materials. I even saw a few knives on the desk, and other sharp tools whose purposes I didn't even want to know.

"Barely," Miles sighed. "The new deadlines are fuckin' exhausting."

"Okay. I'm out." I got back on my feet, stretched my aching back, and fumbled for my phone. "Ow!" I flinched when something sharp pricked my hand. "What the he—" I checked my hand.

On the side of my palm was a thin wound taking form.

For a noiseless few seconds, I did nothing but stare at the crooked line of bright red blood staining my pale skin. The warm liquid oozed and lined the side of my palm while a stinging pain registered in my head.

The heck...  How did I cut myself?

My gasp must've been loud enough since Miles stopped whatever he was doing and rushed towards me in a blink.  "What?"

"I cut my hand."

"With what?" Miles looked around. He sighed when he saw the knife behind me just sitting on the table. He held my wrist gently after inspecting the wound. "I'll clean it up."

"No; it's fine." I pulled my hand out of his grip to stop him from touching my bloody hand. I dismissed his fussing and eyed the stairs, the only way out of his studio and this cold basement.

"It might get infected—"

"I'll just...get the first aid kit upstairs."

"Mykaela—" Miles grabbed my forearm, and our small tug-of-war lasted some more seconds.

"It's nothing," I mumbled.  The pain under my skin intensified, but I ignored it.  The second I realized he was intent on taking care of it, I stopped resisting.

The side of my injured palm hit his face, and before either of us could react, a bright red smear of my blood already stained his lips.

Oh you clumsy idiot, I chided myself.  My throat constricted at the sight of my own blood on his lips. "Jeez. I'm sorry."

Speechless beside me, Miles let go of my forearm. He lifted his paint-smudged fingers to his lips. He grinned at the splotch of my blood on his skin.  "Kinky. I like it."

"What?" On impulse, my feet took a couple steps back as my cheeks burned up at his comment.  I put my hand behind me and faked a chuckle.  "Not funny."

"You gotta stop giving your parents more reasons to hate me."


I was exaggerating.  Her parents didn't hate me—they were devout Catholics.  Like my mom's family.  The Nielsens were the regular churchgoer type.

Same with their daughter, I couldn't imagine Kel's parents hating someone.  But they didn't really approve of our living situation here in Italy. 

My parents didn't encourage it, either.  I didn't really give a shit.  I liked having Mykaela around.  She kept me grounded and levelheaded. 

The past year, she'd helped a lot.  She took care of household chores, fed me good food, curbed my propensity for alcohol and drug abuse, and she was my unpaid personal nurse that time I was going through withdrawal. 

With her support, I quit drugs. Didn't even need to go back to rehab.  Because of her, I wasn't contemplating reverting to my self-destructive ways as often as before.  Kept me alive and well, basically.

"How's your hand?" I asked while polishing the finishing touches on the life-size painting I'd been trying to complete for months now.  Like the last time I tried painting a big one featuring a female subject, I asked Mykaela to model for me after I patched up her injury.

"Fine." She glanced up to smile at me. Her short dark hair and thick lashes emphasized the paleness of her smooth complexion as she lay still on the couch in the middle of my studio.  Her slim arm hid half of her naked chest, while a long lacy dress covered her skin-tone underwear and beautiful legs.  "Almost done?"

"99 percent," I replied after giving the painting one last color check.  The shading looked decent, the gradients quite realistic.  To me at least.  A gratifying sense of accomplishment took over my thoughts as I stared at the completed artwork.

One more thing to sell and impress my small client base with soon.  Considering I didn't always finish something I started, I felt pretty good about myself right now.

"Can I see?" Kel grinned wider now.

"Yeah. Your job tonight's done," I muttered with a smirk.

"Cool beans..." She gasped upon seeing the finished product, with her arm wrapped around my back as we stood in front of the life-size artwork.  "So beautiful."

"Is it?" I watched her smile narrow her pale green eyes and felt even better about my latest work.  Maybe I should ask her out to dinner to thank her for helping me, once her busy "full-time model" schedule calmed down.

"Yeah. Very."  With a giggle, Kel walked away to get dressed behind the canvas.  "She looks like me, too. Oh! I bought you new brushes by the way."  

"Why?" Did I tell her I needed new paintbrushes?  When?

"Nothing. Just thought of you, when I passed by that  arts and crafts store after the shoot."  She beamed again before giving me a hug from behind.  

"Thanks," I murmured, waiting for her to say she missed me.   I had been hiding here in my studio for three days straight.  Deadlines and all.  "How much did they cost?"

"Shh! I'm busy."  As she kept staring at the woman on the painting, her pale arms tightened around my hips.

I wasn't a hugger, and emotional intimacy made me cringe more often than not.  But with her, it felt kind of natural and effortless.  Whenever she hugged me, it gave me a different kind of comfort I wasn't quite used to.

Then her soft palms pressed onto my fly, reminding me that I wasn't wearing anything underneath my pants.  I knew she didn't mean to, but she didn't stop hugging me as we stood in front of the canvas, just enjoying the silence and privacy.  Her jasmine-smelling shampoo and roses-inspired fragrance distracted me, too.

Shit.  I hadn't rubbed one out in weeks.  My junk actually hurt now.  But I'd rather not say her hug was already giving me a boner.  I wasn't on antidepressants anymore—ergo, it's just my libido acting up again.

Not gonna deny that I'd been crushing on her, though.  Just because she was such a good influence.  Mykaela helped me work on my self-image, my mental health, and improved my outlook on life in general.

Sometimes I thought of her as my tamer, more intelligent, more levelheaded alter ego.  We just had a lot in common despite growing up with different backgrounds.

My Italian parents had money, while her humble working-class family were mostly immigrants who sought their version of "the American dream".  She grew up with an older sister in a happy household with a normal childhood.

Mine was the opposite. Only child. Often sad. Lonely. Living with psychologically scarring memories that haunted me to this day.

A few times, I imagined her in bed with me so I could show her how much I enjoyed her company.  Sometimes I would lust over her, imagining kissing her in my bed whenever I watched some smut.  But I never acted on it.  

It would only ruin our friendship—our comfortable bond and our ideal living situation.  So I held back.  Just common sense, really.

Sometimes I would daydream about us and ponder asking her to try a serious relationship.  But then I'd sober up and recall how fucked up my family is. And I'd instantly dismiss the thought of having any future with her. 

Once the booze wore off, it slapped me with the harsh reality that I was far from the ideal guy she wanted or needed in her life. 

So for now, I'd keep my dick in my pants and carry on with my routine.  I'd rather be alone and stay her friend than risk losing her just because of these asinine biological urges.  

Besides, she wasn't the kind of girl who would be up for a friends-with-benefits type of thing.  Far from it.

◇  KEL ◇  

"Been ringing you since five. You home?"

"Yeah." I yawned and dropped my blaring phone on the covers, stretching my limbs afterwards. The glue in my eyes made me regret staying up late the previous night.

The digital clock on the nightstand said it was way past lunch, and I should be busy in the kitchen right now, making meals for my roomie.

"What? Something up?" I mumbled in my stuporous state, putting the phone closer to my face.

"You talked to Miles?"

"Yeah. Why?" I let out another yawn. I'd been dreaming, thus my deep sleep, and, strangely, I could still recall details. It was not a happy dream, put it simply.

"Oh. Mom keeps asking me if you booked a flight."

"She knows I can't just leave and go on vacation," I muttered while rubbing the grogginess off my eyes.

"She's still expecting. No work today?" Jill asked on the other end after seconds of silence.

"Later. A quick shoot."

"You alone in the house?"

"Why? Miles didn't wake me up." I hauled the thick covers off of me and tried to sit up, my back and hair feeling sticky with sweat. "Probably finishing a painting in the basement. I was reading till four in the morning."

"A book?"

"Endocrinology Volume Two," I replied monotonously. "Is dad feeling better?"

"You're still studying every day?" my sister asked next.

"You know I don't like going out. And I get bored when he's too busy with his projects."  Miles hadn't had time to hang out lately due to our respective workloads; he'd been busy finishing new paintings for another art show in Milan. I shouldn't complain, but...sometimes I just missed hanging out with him. Which was funny because we literally lived under one roof.

"Been tryna reach you all morning." Jill sounded quite annoyed now.

"Sorry. I slept in," I sighed. "I think I read five chapters, and I was dreaming, like, heavily." In the dream, we were all at my Daddy Jim's funeral. Yikes.

"Nightmares again?"

"Dreamt about you and mom."

"What about?" Jill asked, her tone more impatient than curious.

"We were at the cemetery, with Gaia. Then we went home. Next I was back here, but, not in Milan or here in Miles' house." I blinked repeatedly while trying to recollect the other parts of my bizarre and lengthy dream sequence. "Miles was fighting with his dad about something. I was hiding in the car. Miles had blood all over his hands..."

"Really? Cemetery?"

"Yeah. Weird. Why'd you call?" I repeated the question before my head fell onto the pillows again.

"Mom called."

My sister's tone wasn't ominous or anything, but I just couldn't ignore the sudden impression of malaise that snuck into my thoughts. Did something happen to our dad back home? It had been weeks since I'd talked to them, and now my gut told me I needed to give my mom a call. "Why?"

"Dad's back in the ICU."

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