A True Story of Narcissists, Borderlines, and a Country on the Brink

Can a toxic relationship change your life for the better?

Serena and Greg are the perfect match: she’s a sexy, fun, charismatic yoga instructor, and he’s a laid-back regular joe with a heart of gold. And their whirlwind romance lifts them to dizzying new heights. But when the presidential election throws the country into a deep political and cultural maelstrom, one of the couple’s personalities suddenly splits in two.

Stuck in the midst of escalating psychological attacks, a steady stream of gaslighting and lies, as well as a mysterious disappearance on a tropical vacation, their tumultuous relationship slowly begins to reveal sinister secrets that bind the two together – secrets that expose lifelong wounds, as well as eerie parallels to America’s relationship with its president.

Only by rising up to their inner demons and following the guidance of their Higher Selves will both they – and their country – stand a chance of finding true peace and happiness.

Step into a deeply authentic and emotional novel that artfully weaves together astute political commentary, insightful reflections on psychological abuse, and a striking yet sympathetic picture of toxic codependent relationships.

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Excerpt from Rising Up © Copyright 2024 Jackson Liva

CHAPTER 1

It came on like a dull slide down a long, dark pipe. They’d forgotten to close the drapes, the full outline of their bodies etched in the moonlight. Her leg, powerful and smooth, wrapped tightly around his lower body as slow, rhythmic breaths tickled his chest. Was he still asleep? If not, why was her leg transforming into the scaly skin of a boa, hints of cool blue and green threading its coils around him? Greg traced the hand on his chest, watching it transform, sticky moisture dripping from its head, tongue flickering, cloudy eye coming into focus. A coil stretched past his shoulder, compressing his neck. He took in his last breath, deep and purposeful like the moments before submerging in water, succumbing to a calm force, subtle yet powerful, pulling him down the pipe into a deep black. Now, only the void.

He chose the only option available—to ride it out. Otherwise, the deep pang of fear would get the best of him. The serpent led the way, and all he had to do was follow. Years ago, he’d wished for a waking dream, to be able to master that strange world where everything warped into an emotional mess. But having that long-held desire fulfilled meant surrendering to a power greater than himself. Arriving at a depth where mastering the void made no sense. Yet, everything made sense in the brief moment that lasted a lifetime. The answers were there, all of them. And they were coming too fast to hold on to.

Four Months Earlier…

After rushing home for a quick shower, Greg arrived a few minutes early for their first date. Sitting in a chair by the window of the Redwood Cafe, a pot of mint tea to share in front of him, he settled into the cafe’s serene atmosphere, heart racing. An eclectic mix of Italian grotto furniture and Hindu wall art perfectly captured the pseudo-spiritual tide permeating a once simple mountain town. He thought about moving everything over to the low table in front of the damask couch with its comfy pillows he longed to sink into. But a young tie-dye couple had already snatched it, phones propped up on their crossed knees.

Gloomy frowns and occasional disgusted huffs suggested they were following the news. Their glass ceiling-breaking candidate had just lost the election, and folks were trying to make sense of the unsettling cloud that had swiftly descended into everyone’s lives from a gilded escalator. Greg pushed his own dark thoughts aside. He didn’t want the election to overshadow his recent good fortune, even if it threatened to derail an assumed historical trajectory that caught him and most people he knew by surprise.

His gaze drifted over Broadway, watching the droplets of rain trace their way down the glass, centipedes seeking a path home. An anxious wave crashed through his chest while catching his reflection in the window, pushing back a tuft of dark curls threatening to hide his smooth forehead. He had been here before, like everyone else who wrestled with nerves tied to a deep history of relationship trauma—first dates, first days of school, love letters responded to or discarded without care. He was old enough to have experienced it all and still marveled at how quickly these painful buried moments could resurface as unsettling currents of emotions. His eyes sank inward, drawing a long, slow, deep breath to calm the raging waters within. He didn’t want to blow it with a woman whose profile had so deeply resonated with him.

He opened his eyes to stillness. Serena’s figure gliding past and through the door, where she made her way to the seat on the other side of the table. Thick, dark, ginger hair hung down past shoulders, held back with a feminine incline that invited him to move closer. No different from her pictures, and despite being forty-two, she could have passed for thirty-five. Her composure, the quiet way she moved, put him at ease.

Slender fingers wrapped around her cup as she took tiny sips during their time together. He would later describe her to friends as classically beautiful—not a phrase he used often, but somehow befitting of his perception of her during those first few weeks, masking a darker quality he was not yet conscious of.

He knew more about her than he let on, having established her identity and researching her background as much as possible. It was part curiosity, part self-protection. He didn’t like surprises. After all that drama with the last woman he dated, it was imperative that he suss out the emotional health of his next lover.

“My kids are twelve and fifteen.” Serena answered a typical question Greg threw at her, revealing a proud smile mothers wear whenever talking about their children.

“My son’s about to turn seven. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when he’s a teenager.” Greg wore his own version of the knowing parental smile. Sitting across from a mother comforted him. Parents who dated other parents had an instinctual understanding of priorities whenever it came to their children, where shifting or canceled plans often received a pass without upset or the need for an explanation. His last girlfriend never really got that.

“It gets easier in some ways but more challenging in others. But I get a break. They’re with my ex every other week.” She examined his face to gauge a response.

Something about the way she said the word “ex,” the sharpness in her tone, gave him a jolt. It summoned another presence into the café, sinking his gut. Would she turn it back to him? His story was easy to tell, even boring. He and his son’s mother, Paige, had forged a healthy relationship over the years, ensuring a smooth childhood for their son, Gabriel. But now was not the time for all that. Yet, as the conversation unfolded, Serena’s situation seemed quite different, and within minutes, she’d spilled her side of it without hesitation. Part of him admired her bravery, but it left him squirming in his chair.

Before his marriage, when dating people with children made little sense to him, he’d upheld a firm rule imparted by a wise mentor that even mentioning an ex on the first date was a red flag, deserving of a polite thank you before making a quick exit. But did those old rules still apply now? How was he supposed to piece together a potential partner’s complex life situation involving kids, exes, ex-in-laws, and a lingering familial network left over from a failed marriage? Nevertheless, he kept his story quick and to the point, resisting the urge to even mention Paige existed, referring to her once as his “son’s mother.”

But Serena’s ex-husband, whom she’d divorced almost a decade earlier, came up often enough that his specter loomed over them like a starved raven threatening an otherwise pleasant picnic. Greg’s conscious mind twinged at this, a pit expanding in his stomach large enough to upend the chance of a second meeting. But he gave her a pass. Better to let that one go.

“I work in community organizing. I love it, but it’s hard to explain to people.” He responded to a question he’d been asked so often that it had evolved into two versions—one version kept short for those who didn’t seem to care and a longer one whenever he suspected their connection might benefit from revealing more. “I write stories too. That’s my true passion.”

“Really?” Her voice piqued with curiosity, “What kind of stories?” “Believe it or not, I studied religion and philosophy. Two subjects I’ve

always been fascinated by—not even sure why. I guess I’m just interested in what connects us all together, if there is such a thing. Something unseen yet working its magic underneath this external world we think is real. Have you read Emerson’s Over-soul?” He was losing her, swirls of dread forming in his stomach. Did she think he was a nerd? Let’s make a lighthearted recovery to bring her back. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to start talking about the Matrix.”

“Oh, no worries. I’m sure the Matrix exists!” She snapped back with a wanton air hinting at conspiratorial mischief. That made them both laugh, relaxing their initial defenses and cutting away any remaining first-date jitters between them. His stomach settled, and he leaned forward with the sudden urge to eat her. After that, they eased into a flowing rhythm of sharing their best parts, at least those worth sharing in that moment. Like two birds in their prime crossing paths on a branch during mating season, showing off well- groomed, vibrant plumage.

As their short meeting gently wound down to long pauses and held glances, he leaned back in his seat, absorbing her being. Did he want to see her again? Maybe. There was something about her that stirred his heart into a rhythmic dance. But in that waffling, he misread an ominous mannerism hidden underneath the enchanting sensory overload, yet in plain sight for all to see.

Her left eye, with a hint of a cataract fog, burned with an intensity dead set on piercing his soul. Yet, while the narrator of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart suffered torment under an eerily similar spell, Greg reveled in it. In fact, that intensity drew him further into her web, already working to bind him up in its diaphanous threads.

She rose from her chair to say goodbye. And in a bold move, he stood up and swept her into his arms—a parting bear hug that sent her squealing with delight. With her chest enveloped in his, her body melting into his protective embrace, the hook was set when she whispered a gratifying “Thank you” into his ear. That seeded pit began its rapid descent into a deep abyss, pushed down by the foot of Eros.

He didn’t want to let her go, but holding her too long, especially since they’d just met, might kill their fragile connection. He exhaled deeply, edging back but still holding her in his arms while an admiring gloss filled her eyes. The smile looking back at him suggested they’d met before. Maybe in some other life if that sort of thing were possible. She certainly looked familiar in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

What he didn’t know yet was that he’d found a new teacher—one more adept at the task at hand. One who could wield lessons with vicious and penetrating accuracy. Of course, this meant the part of him that oversaw everything, doing its best to guide him, had to let go and prepare to watch with bated breath as he hurtled headlong over the cliff. The best it could offer was the promise of an eternal friend waiting by the door, ready to put all the pieces together once the dust settled after that towering old edifice collapsed from her hammer blows. In that moment, it didn’t make sense to reveal the whole picture to him. He wouldn’t have understood anyway. He’d eventually piece it all together. Though only after hitting rock bottom with no other options.

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