The Deep of the Sound (A Bluewater Bay Novel)

The Deep of the Sound (A Bluewater Bay Novel), by Amy Lane
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
9781626492752
eBook release: 
Jun 15, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
9781626492769
Print release: 
Jun 15, 2015
Word count: 
84,300
Page count: 
308
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.

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Cal McCorkle has lived in Bluewater Bay his whole life. He works two jobs to support a brother with a laundry list of psychiatric diagnoses and a great-uncle with Alzheimer’s, and his personal life amounts to impersonal hookups with his boss. He’s got no time, no ambition, and no hope. All he has is family, and they’re killing him one responsibility at a time.

Avery Kennedy left Los Angeles, his family, and his sleazy boyfriend to attend a Wolf’s Landing convention, and he has no plans to return. But when he finds himself broke and car-less in Bluewater Bay, he’s worried he’ll have to slink home with his tail between his legs. Then Cal McCorkle rides to his rescue, and his urge to run away dies a quick death.

Avery may seem helpless at first, but he can charm Cal’s fractious brother, so Cal can pretty much forgive him anything. Even being adorkable. And giving him hope. But Cal can only promise Avery “until we can’t”—and the cost of changing that to “until forever” might be too high, however much they both want it. 

Runner-Up: Best Gay Contemporary Romance in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Going Out

“You going out today, Calladh?” Uncle Nascha sounded surprised. He’d slept in the battered recliner the night before, and the corduroy wrinkles obscured his face so much Cal hadn’t seen his eyes were open in the dark of the living room.

Cal had just come in from the boat dock to grab his forgotten lunch, and he didn’t state the obvious: he was wearing his hip waders and old slicker, and it was five o’clock on a misty, freezing morning in February. There was nowhere to go but out.

“Yeah, Nascha—if I can catch enough freshwater cod, the chef at the Global’ll buy ’em from me.” Nascha knew this. Cal worked two jobs—one was as a busboy at the Global Restaurant and Casino and the other was his own independent fishing business. Between the two of them, he could just barely afford the payments on Nascha’s ramshackle beachfront house and someone to come look after Nascha and Keir.

“Your brother will miss you when you’re gone.”

Cal closed his eyes. “I know, Nascha. But you need to make him take his pills anyway.” Keir didn’t listen to Nascha quite like he listened to Cal, but Cal couldn’t help that. Cal had set the meds out in the little weekly plastic thing, the white one for day and the black one for night. God, he hoped he’d gotten it right. Adderall, risperidone, Cymbalta—ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety, OCD, possible bipolar—it was a powerful cocktail, and they’d gone through . . . hell, vehicles, teachers, sheriffs, and half the kitchen to get it right. Keir was prone to hitting things with rocks and fire when he was anxious or upset. Nascha used to be able to deal with him, but Nascha had his own drug cocktail now, Exelon ranking high on the list. Nascha didn’t always remember that Keir needed his medicine—morning and evening cocktails—without Cal or a caregiver around. He also didn’t remember to turn off the stove or take the bread out of the toaster or keep Keir inside the house.

Mostly, he didn’t remember that Keir was no longer a little boy running down the street screaming in a voice that would shatter glass. Keir was twenty now, with a powerful body and a fondness for all of Cal’s fishing knives (which Cal kept locked in the safe out by the boat), and a disturbing habit of tracking the girls in their neighborhood.

“Cherry’s rounding the corner, yellow dress, shows her ass when she bends over. Stop yelling, Cherry. Stop yelling, it leads to hitting.”

Keir’s fixation on girls wasn’t limited to the extremely young, but what was Cal supposed to do? He’d told the doctor who dispensed the meds, but his only response had been to up Keir’s medication.

Cal knew—just knew—that his parents would have been able to deal with Keir. His mother and father had been so . . . capable, had such pure hearts and such practical joy in dealing with their fractious, damaged son. But they’d gone for a drive after heavy rains six years ago, and their battered pickup had been washed off the side of a mountain in a mudslide.

Cal’s dreams of college, of playing sports, of meeting a boy the way his mother had met his father—all of that had been washed down the mountain too. At barely eighteen, he’d been left in charge of keeping things together, and part of that was making sure Keir had his medication, and Uncle Nascha got his too. And living with that gnawing worry, every day, from dawn until dusk, past dusk, until he was just too tired to see anymore.

“I don’t mean go out to work,” Nascha said, snapping Cal back to the present through eyes gritty with lack of sleep. “I mean go out tonight. It’s Valentine’s Day this week, Cal—don’t you have a school dance to go to?”

Oh. Okay. So Cal was in high school now. He understood.

“No, Nascha—no dances for Cal. Cal doesn’t go to dances, remember?” Cal doesn’t go to dances because Cal doesn’t really like girls, he thought ironically. Yet one more thing he hadn’t been able to talk to his parents about since their car had gone tumbling down into the river.

“If Cal was on the reservation,” Nascha said, his voice ironic too as they spoke of Cal in the third person, “Cal could dance with the two-spirit children, and nobody would think less of him.”

Yeah, sure, it always sounded like Mecca when Nascha talked about the reservation, but Nascha had left when he’d been not much older than Cal. Cal understood that Indian Gaming had improved things somewhat on the reservation—but that didn’t mean he was a fan of all the changes it brought about in the nonreservation parts of the state.

“Maybe I just want to be left the fuck alone,” Cal snarled, feeling bad even as he did. Nascha and Keir were his family—his only family. He couldn’t afford to piss them off, because they were all stuck in this tiny house together, and they were all each other had.

Cal would lie in bed awake sometimes, exhausted and aching because he needed more.

“Maybe you just need to go dance,” Nascha said calmly, not taking offense. Just like when Cal had been a fractious kid, losing patience with Keir because he’d been fixating on the same damned cartoon for weeks, Nascha had never lost his keel.

Cal loved that about him. It was why, in spite of his increasing anxiety over leaving Nascha alone with Keir, he couldn’t bring himself to put Nascha in a home either.

But God, he was exhausted.

“Well, I’ll let you know if a dance opens up for me,” he muttered, swallowing against the tightness in his throat.

“Calladh!” Nascha spoke sharply, and the long-ingrained habit of responding to his elders with respect crackled through Cal’s bones, snapping his spine erect and widening his eyes.

“Yes, Great-Uncle.” His hip boots were clean, thank God, so he could walk across the worn brown carpet and into the living room. The old television—36”, but pre-flat screen, so it took up about a third of the space in the small room—was set low, but a parade of Viagra commercials and spoiled rich women reflected off Nascha’s face, even as he turned his attention to Cal.

“You listen to me. I know sometimes I forget—sometimes your mother is still alive, and your father, bless their hearts. Sometimes you and Keir are boys and your family is staying with me and I am so happy. But when I remember, I see what time has made of you, and you are old before your time.”

Oh. This was the Uncle Nascha that Cal had loved as a child. The Uncle Nascha who had been young at heart, and kind, and who had offered patience and peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches and native stories about the gods who fought each other while the people watched, leaving behind mountains in their wake. The Uncle Nascha who would wander away when his parents were having money troubles, and come back in a few days, smelling of cigars and whiskey, with more cash than should be legal in this world.

Cal kneeled in front of his great-uncle’s chair. “It’s not so bad,” he said roughly, thinking that it wasn’t anything, any sacrifice at all, as long as Nascha could be like this, be the elder and the confidant and the grown-up all the time.

“You should sell this house, Cal,” Nascha said, and his voice warbled, became fractious. “The reservation would pay money for it, set up a casino and a marina—you could make enough money to put me in a home, to take care of your brother. You could go out and live your life.”

Cal took a deep breath, and then another, willing his face to stay stoic, willing his eyes not to burn. “But what is my life without my family?” he asked, trying hard to smile.

Nascha sighed. “Is that what I say to you when I can’t remember?”

Verbatim. “It’s what I know to be true,” Cal said, finding his feet again, remembering who really was the grown-up. He bent and kissed his uncle’s forehead, hating himself for the brief moment of hope. “Dottie will be here at eight. She’ll feed you both. I’ll try to get her to remember the medicine.”

Dottie was in her sixties—which was good because it made her exempt from Keir’s pathological hatred—but she was also apparently from a time when healthy men didn’t rely on pills to keep them tethered to the earth. She was good at keeping them fed, at reminding Uncle Nascha he needed to use the john, at getting him out to walk around the neighborhood, and at not taking Keir’s shit—but she was just as likely to “forget” the meds and pretend they had no use at all. Those were the days Cal came home to find Keir banging his hand against the wall until it bruised and Nascha in tears because he didn’t know who the crazy man in the living room was.

It was really better for all involved if Nascha, when he was bright and alert in the mornings, could remember the medication for both of them.

“Cal!” Nascha called to his retreating back, and Cal couldn’t take it anymore.

“What?” he demanded, losing control of his voice and his composure. “But make it quick, old man, because my fish today are buying our groceries, and right now there’s only about enough spaghetti left for lunch.”

Nascha’s look of hurt followed Cal out the garage door and into the dory rocking gently on the waters inside.

Some people kept their cars in a garage—but Cal’s battered blue Ford F-150 was parked in front of the mossy lawn of the house itself. His parents had been driving the same kind of vehicle when they’d fallen down the mountain, but Cal had long since gotten over his fear. The truck had been cheap, and it ran, and it was one of three reliable things in Cal’s life since that rainy April when half the mountain had slid away and carried most of Cal’s hopes with it.

The rest of Cal’s hopes—and his father’s only dream—sat in the little docking bay attached to the house. The covered bay protected much of the twenty-foot dory, and Cal hopped in with the ease of someone who had been steering such a vessel for most of his life.

The back end of the dory was flattened, to make the outboard motor effective and keep it going where Cal pointed it, and Cal handled the craft expertly—and with great wariness. Even in the quiet waters of the sound, the unexpected could turn deadly. Given that Cal’s parents had been killed by a simple drive through the San Juans, Cal made that truism his mantra.

He navigated the boat steadily through the mist, grateful for his tightly woven wool sweater. It had been his father’s, purchased from one of the reservations in Alaska, and something about the small-gauged knitting of the high-loft wool made the zip-up sweater almost waterproof—and blessedly, blessedly warm.

Cal liked things old school—he wasn’t a fan of the casinos or the tourists or the television show, no matter how good those things were for the town. He really didn’t like all of the strange people mucking about in the pure vistas he’d grown up in. The way he fished reflected that. He didn’t have a fish-finder or sonar—just himself, and his nets, and his little boat.

And the fishing territory his father had unerringly staked out, year after year. Just his. Cal knew the landmarks, the distance from his home shore, the line of sight to the Canadian shore, the dimensions of the rugged slopes of Mt. Olympus in the distance—Cal knew the relation of all these things to the waters his father had fished, and he knew that within these boundaries, there would, hopefully, be fish.

Cal murmured a prayer to whatever gods his uncle prayed to—Musp the transformer, Bluejay the trickster, and whoever else might be listening—and cast his net. Count, breathe, putter through the black water and mist until the cinch at the top began to close, and stop, allowing the boat to drift while he stood, minding the way the dory would feel like it was tipping over before it recovered.

Then, using a smaller net, he culled the fish, throwing out the salmon because it wasn’t their season, and the hake because they were threatened, and hoping for cod or rockfish in the seine net.

His first haul he pulled in a couple of four or five pounders, and these he dumped in the center of the boat, knowing the dory was made to hold nearly a ton, and that odds were good he’d never fill it with that much fish in a day.

Still, he was making a good haul, sorting carefully, his fingers and arms aching with the work. It was good work, a part of him thought. Honest work. Somehow, when he was out on the sound, he never found himself wondering about the scholarships he hadn’t taken or the places he’d never seen. Somehow, on the bay, it was enough.

Cast, cull, haul, dump—backbreaking and soothing, his day continued, until he thought he had time for two, maybe three more tries. He was just pulling the net tight, the better to cull the purse seine, when he felt it. A force—a terrific, muscular pull, lunging from the side of the boat. The net distorted and the dory leaned dangerously to the port side, and Cal cast about with the culling net, trying to fight off whatever had the seine.

Something huge—gigantic, too big to be in the sound, something that should have been in the open ocean—thrashed underneath his net, knocking it out of his hand. Oh fuck— He floundered, draped half over the side of the dory, trying not to lose a piece of equipment he couldn’t afford to replace.

By luck, the culling net had gotten hung up on the purse seine, and he snagged it, pulling the seine close to him and ignoring the perilous tip of the boat. The waters out here were freezing, deep, and unforgiving. If he went so far as to tip over the dory, the odds of getting it upright with him in it before he froze to death were sad and thin.

He fumbled with the net, trying to open the seine to set free whatever leviathan he’d accidentally caught, and found that it had cinched too tight to open, and the weight on the transom was making the bolts creak with the strain.

Holy fucking hell. He had to catch this fucking fish or it would kill him.

He tossed the culling net aside, grasped the seine net in both hands, braced his feet against the side of the dory, and hauled.

His back, chest, and shoulder muscles popped with the strain, and still that thing fought, trying desperately to escape, trying desperately to live.

Him or me!

Pant by groan, Cal hauled one hand over the other until most of the net was in the boat and the monster’s struggles echoed against the outside of the dory, banging a hollow, pounding tattoo across the rolling waters of the sound.

It made a sudden, frenzied resurgence, and Cal screamed, grabbing the fishing gaff, bunching his body to spear this fucker, still it, make it just fucking stop!

He wrapped the net around his forearm for stability and leaned over the side of the boat.

Oh holy God. It was huge, ugly, a primal vertebrate, a ridge of bone on either side of its body, and a sharp, prong-like snout—it must have been seven feet long, and oh, fuck.

The matte scales were unmistakably green.

Oh no. Not one of those. I can’t sell that!

He went to drop the gaff so he could grab the knife and cut the thing free, but it gave a seismic convulsion, dragging him up and almost over the side of the boat. He dangled, watching the fish submerge again, and behind him, he heard a bolt popping as the transom threatened to burst.

It was tearing his fucking boat apart.

Helplessly, he hauled back on the net and hurled the gaff at the thrashing sturgeon, stunning it. The gaff stayed stuck in the creature’s skull, and he was reaching into his pocket for his knife, thinking it was best just to cut his net and cut his losses, when the fish gave another titanic heave.

Cal was forced to grab the net with both hands again. The damned thing could still pull him over, even with a gaff in its head.

For a few moments all he heard was his own tortured breathing and the echoes of the giant green sturgeon pounding against the boat. With a groan, deep from his stomach, clenching every formidable muscle in his body, Cal hauled the fish over the side of the boat.

It wasn’t dead yet—in fact it threw itself around some more, the rough scales on the top of its body ripping through Cal’s waders and through a sizeable bit of flesh on his shin as well.

Cal’s scream and kick to the thing’s head had less to do with survival and more to do with anger and pain, but it wouldn’t have mattered. There was no way—not for one man—to free the fish from the net and keep the boat from capsizing. As it was, Cal finally had a chance to reach for the six-inch serrated fishing knife in his pocket. He unfolded the knife and hurled it with deadly accuracy, splitting the fish between the eyes and cleaving its prehistoric brain in two.

It continued to convulse in weakening cycles, and Cal stood over it, panting, until it finally played itself out.

Oh hell. This thing probably outweighed Cal two-to-one. Who in the fuck was going to eat this giant fucking illegal fish? And more to the point, how was he going to get it from the boat to the back of the truck?

It took an hour to return to shore because the weight was so great the tiny outboard motor groaned and wallowed like a pregnant sow in a mud bath.

He had ice in the back of the truck, which was great, because he was going to need to replace his fucking net. The damned fish had torn great gaping holes in it that would let anything not the size of a Volkswagen pass right the hell through. He wouldn’t have been able to afford to replace the net and buy ice again that week, so if he was counting blessings, well, he was still fucked, but at least it wasn’t another kick to the nads.

Which were sore, actually, from the herculean effort of hauling that fish over the side of the boat. Jesus, he’d been straining everything, hadn’t he?

And he needed Keir’s help to move the damned fish.

He hated going inside between getting home and hauling the fish to market—usually, he avoided it at all costs. Keir didn’t take well to disruptions of his routine, and Cal always seemed to arrive right in the middle of Keir’s favorite show, Avatar. Cal thought that maybe Nascha had DVRed a bunch of episodes for him and just played them at a certain time because no cartoon ran that long. He was grateful, but having Keir’s routine locked in that tightly . . .

It meant Cal was going to need to beg, cajole, yell, threaten, and reason with his brother to get those powerful shoulders and thick thighs working in service of the giant fucking fish.

“Cal, you’re not supposed to be home right now.”

Keir looked up from the television, cupping underneath his chin the giant mixing bowl that they allowed him for cereal.

“I know. I need your help.”

“You always come in between one and two. It’s only twelve thirty.”

Cal took a deep breath and steadied himself on the kitchen counter. It all hurt. All of it—the fucking rip across his shin hurt the worst, but Jesus. “I know, Keir. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I interrupted your show, but I can’t manage this fish. Could you please help?”

In his head he remembered his mother explaining how sarcasm didn’t work with Keir, and getting frustrated and yelling didn’t work either. Keir was a robot boy—you fed in direct instructions, you gave him a specific schedule, and if you fucked with that, you got a confused, angry, muscular fireplug of a man who liked to batter his fists on things.

“I have to watch my show.”

“Nascha can DVR the show,” Cal snapped, and then took another deep breath. “Please, Nascha, can we tape the show?”

“Yes, Cal— Do you need my help with the fish?”

Dottie was sitting kitty-corner to Nascha on the couch, watching the Cal and Keir show, and when Nascha spoke she shook her head frantically at Cal. But Cal knew—even better than Dottie, probably. The medication Nascha had to take to keep his brain from rotting had the reverse effect on his bones. One slip, and his hip would be shattered, and Cal had heard the doctor when he explained that perfectly healthy people went quickly downhill from there.

“I just need Keir,” Cal said, trying not to talk between his teeth. “Keir, could you please put the cereal down, let Nascha tape your show, and join me outside to help me get this fucking fish out of the goddamned boat and into the motherfucking cocksucking pickup.”

“You’re not supposed to swear, Cal.”

“Keir, please! We need the money, damn it— We’re almost out of cereal!”

Keir actually stood up. “We can’t run out of cereal! I eat cereal in the morning and cereal for lunch and then I eat a healthy meal!”

Oh thank God. “Then get your boots on and get your ass out here so I can move this fucking fish!”

“Can I wear my boots with my pajamas?”

Cal stopped and looked at him. He was wearing one of four pairs of flannel pajama bottoms their mother had made him the Christmas before she died. He rarely wore anything else in the house, and Cal got it. Wearing the pajama bottoms meant that his day inside was not over—just interrupted.

“Absolutely. Just . . .” His shin throbbed, and he got a look at the time on the microwave clock. “Please. Just hurry.”

At least the fish itself proved a distraction.

“What kind of fish is this?” Keir asked. He had round, brown eyes as opposed to Cal’s almond shaped ones, and his hair was straight and black when Cal’s was streaked brown and red from the sun and some of their father’s blond genetics. But they both had the broad cheekbones and solid jaws of Nascha’s people, and the skin that was darker than fair and more fair than rust. Right now, Keir’s brown eyes were intent on the flat, tiny eyes of the monster. Cal was pushing it out of the boat and Keir was pulling, and Cal hoped none of the spines on the tail would get him when it slid out—Keir wasn’t great with physical pain.

“Green sturgeon,” Cal grunted. God, let it come out. Please . . . could he use a winch? Did he have a winch? Could he get the neighbors to help with it? But the neighbors would need to know what Keir had just asked.

“Green sturgeon are protected,” Keir recited. “You can catch crabs, cod, rockfish, salmon in season—”

“I know what I can catch!” Cal snapped. “But that’s not what wanted to be caught!”

“But they’re not in season. Green sturgeon are protected. You can catch crabs, cod, rockfish, salmon in season, abalone, halibut . . .”

Cal tuned him out, got his legs underneath him, and shoved. The dory tipped just that bit more, and the fish went slithering out onto the waiting dolly, sending Keir on his ass.

Keir hollered because he’d scraped his hand, and thankfully the subject was dropped.

An hour later, after shoving the dolly to the truck and then hauling it up a wooden ramp that Cal had made after Nascha’d sprung his knee, Cal managed to transfer the rest of the catch to the back of the truck as well. He’d bound Keir’s hand, and given him stern instructions to comb his straight, black hair out of his face, because he looked feral, like a wild animal, and then Cal took advantage of being home and made sure everybody was medicated before he left.

By the time he got to the Global, it was almost too late to sell the damned fish.

And Smith gave him grief—oh, a fuck-ton of grief.

“What color is this fuckin’ fish, asswipe?” Smith demanded, taking off his greasy white cook’s hat and running his hand through thin strands of what might have been blond hair.

Cal glowered at him, curling his lip in defiance. “None of your guests are gonna see the fuckin’ color,” he snarled. “Nobody’s gonna give a shit. It’s not like I set out to kill it, Smith. Wandered into my net waiting to die—”

“Well, wasn’t that sweet for you, ya fuckin’ fairy!”

A delicate crimson veil slid between Cal and the rest of the world. He pinned Smith to the back wall, which was like a sparrow pinning a vulture, given Smith used to wrestle for a living and it had all run to fat.

“You pay me for this fish, you useless piece of puke, or I am taking my business elsewhere forever!”

Smith’s fetid breath washed over Cal, and his stomach heaved and turned on nothing, because the fish had destroyed his lunch with all its fighting, and Cal didn’t have the pocket money to buy himself so much as a sandwich.

Cal increased the pressure to Smith’s windpipe. “What’s it gonna be?”

“You know it’s probably too tough to do anything but make acres of fuckin’ fish salad, don’t you?” Smith said in disgust, but he dropped his eyes, and Cal knew he’d won.

“Call it a delicacy. Put it in the smoker. Fucking shave it and use it for toilet paper, but I need the goddamned money!”

Keir was down to his last week’s meds, the truck needed a new carburetor, and Cal needed another goddamned net!

“You don’t expect me to buy the rest of the catch, do you?” Smith asked, whining a little, and Cal knew as a businessman that insisting on that would go too far.

He turned his head and spat. “Naw. I’ll take it to the Marriott. It’s all rockfish and sole. They always need more.”

He hoped.

Yeah, the Marriott on the fringes of town took the rest of his catch, but by the time he got his cash there, he was late for his job back at Global. He still smelled like fish and blood as he hauled ass through the back door of the Restaurant and Casino, running for the men’s changing rooms, grateful for the employee shower. He stripped and grabbed a shower sample, lathering up the entire tube in his brown-streaked black hair and under his armpits and creases. The cut across his shin wasn’t bleeding anymore and with luck it would draw together soon and heal closed. Or maybe not. It was red and angry and puffy. Oh please God—he didn’t want stitches and he didn’t give a fuck about another goddamned scar. Just . . . just make it through, he thought somewhat wretchedly. Make it through. If he could make it through, he could get up in the morning, fix the transom, use the money in his pocket to fix the net, to buy the medicine, to pay Dottie, to replace the carburetor, to fix the roof, to buy ice for his next trip out, to . . .

He was holding his face under the spray and trying to order all that shit in his head when he heard George Oswald, supervisor, fuck buddy, semi-scumbag tear-assing through the locker room.

“Cal! Cal—where’d you go, you useless sonuvabitch? You’re supposed to be here an hour ago!”

Cal pulled his head from under the spray and shook the water out of his eyes.

“Gimme a sec!” he hollered back. “Had fish rotting in my truck—had to go sell it to Arvin and Smith!”

“I don’t give a shit what you had rotting in your truck, McCorkle—you’re late for this job! Now get your shit together and— Holy fuck, what happened to you?”

Cal had gotten a look at himself when he’d been driving back and forth—he had a bruise on his cheek he couldn’t remember getting and his eyes were bloodshot from the strain of hauling the goddamned fish on board. And the cut across his shin was aching like a motherfucker.

“Sturgeon wandered into the net,” he snapped. “Outta my way. Gotta go get dress—”

“That’s not the only thing that happened, wait—”

“Outta my way, George!” Cal shouldered past him, not wanting his pity. So much easier to deal with his life if he never had to stop fighting, never had to lay down his swords, ’cause when he did that he wanted to put his face between his knees and cry.

“No, man, you cannot go out there if you’re bleeding and looking like death—did you see your arms, Cal?”

Little cuts all over, damned spines on the damned sturgeon. “Don’t wanna talk about it,” Cal muttered, rifling through his locker for his stuff.

That’s when George did a dangerous thing: he put his hand on Cal’s shoulder.

“Get your hand off me!”

He didn’t like George—didn’t hardly like fucking him—but God . . . touch, human touch . . . Cal craved it and hated it at the same time.

He was almost naked, leaning across the bench to the bank of lockers, and instinctively his back arched, his ass thrust out in an invitation he never would have consciously voiced.

George’s hand on his shoulder shook, and George ran it down the damp line of his back to the edge of the towel Cal was clutching around his waist.

He snatched his hand back, like he was trying to do the right thing, and Cal glared over his shoulder. “Spare me the gentleman shit,” he challenged. “I’m just a piece of ass to you anyway—go ahead and take it! Everyone else’s had their bit.”

George dragged a deep breath in, exhaling it shakily in Cal’s ear. He chewed breath mints between the odd cigarette, so he smelled like a combination of spearmint and tobacco that wasn’t bad, really. Suddenly his animal warmth, his muscle and bone humanity, was a comfort Cal craved until his stomach muscles knotted.

Cal didn’t like to crave anything.

George smoothed his hand over the towel, and Cal knocked it away.

“You don’t get that if you don’t work for it,” he sneered, and George knew this game. This was the only game they played.

That quick, Cal was thrown face-first into the locker while George fumbled for his belt.

“Not worried about getting caught, Mr. Manager?” Cal taunted. “Gonna take the time to fuck me but not lock the fucking door?”

“It’s locked!” George snapped, cracking Cal a good one across the ass. “Now shut up and spread it!”

“Make me, corporate man.” Oh yeah—George thought he was better’n everyone else ’cause he went to college, but when all was said and done, he was head of the busboys, just a step higher than Cal who was digging his life out of the mud in the sound.

George shoved two fingers up Cal’s ass without lube or courtesy, and Cal saw stars with the pain.

Oh God, the glorious pain.

He rode that pain, rode it as George dropped his trousers and shoved his cock in dry, rode it as George grunted and sweat behind him. His face was mashed into the locker so hard his lip bled a little from a particularly hard thrust, but Cal didn’t care.

He was lost in the pain, where bills and duty and family didn’t exist, where he was free, like eagles, like crows, flying the red sky of pain above the misty valley of what his life had become.

It was tremendous; he could almost see forever, past the sprung-up town of Bluewater Bay, past the San Juan Islands, to the open waters of the ocean, across the Pacific, to the world.

Almost.

The pain, the roughness, the human contact ended, and Cal was left naked, his cock flopping at half-mast, and George’s cum running from the crack of his ass.

George sighed, burying his face in Cal’s shoulder.

“Kid,” he murmured, his voice almost gentle. “Kid, it didn’t have to be like that.”

He cupped Cal’s scalp then, massaging gently with his fingertips, and Cal leaned his forehead against the metal frame of the locker.

“Sure it did,” he muttered back. “It’s all I got in me.”

George dropped an oddly out of place kiss on Cal’s temple, and then zipped up. “You got ten minutes,” he said, his voice flat and uninflected. “Then my boss’ll know we’re one down.”

Cal nodded, not meeting his eyes. “’Preciate it.” He pulled out his clean underwear and his threadbare black slacks and white shirt. Add one more thing to the list, he thought listlessly. One more thing to buy. Clothes for this job he loathed.

No flying for Cal. Just fishing and being a piece of ass for one more lousy fucking day.

 

Chapter Two

Not Like TV

“Are you going out today, Avery?”

Avery Kennedy rolled over in bed and glared at his phone on the charger. “You’re asking me that now?” Christ. Six a.m.? Was that even legal?

“We need milk, Avery, and food—you got a problem going shopping or are you too ‘busy’ with your ‘job’?”

Avery sat up in bed and put on his glasses, the better to squint at Billy Rivera—current boyfriend and giant fucking tool. Yeah, he was still good looking—square jaw, blue eyes, dark-blond hair, square shoulders, swagger—but Avery wasn’t nearly as impressed with a good-looking guy in a suit anymore.

“My ‘job’ is paying for that ‘food’ you want so badly,” Avery said, letting some of his irritation burn through his exhaustion. “And the rent on this shitty apartment—which you are conveniently living in while you go to your ‘job’ that requires you to buy suits you can’t afford and really fucking nice shoes.”

Billy jerked, obviously stung. “Look, A—we talked about this. I’m in an internship for the business and I got to look the part—”

“Whatever,” Avery grumbled, not wanting to lose sleep over fighting. He took off his glasses and grabbed his phone, making sure it was set for 8 a.m. “You go look the part—I’m going back to sleep so I can wake up and finish the article that’s going to buy your groceries.”

“You didn’t finish last night?” Billy asked idly, going to the closet for one of the really awesome ties Avery had bought from Nordies to celebrate the stupid internship. Oh yeah—they’d been happy at first because sure, it didn’t pay as much as getting a job right out of college might, but the possibilities! They’d seemed endless—six months ago they’d seemed endless. Now Avery was wondering when there was an end to the possibilities and a beginning to Billy getting a freaking job.

Which was hilarious, because the more Billy sat and ate lunch (which he bought with Avery’s money because his check barely paid for utilities in the little apartment in North Hollywood), the more he complained to his new work friends about Avery getting a freaking job.

“No,” Avery mumbled, wondering why Billy was so interested in him all of a sudden. God, where was Billy when Avery wanted to talk? Well, usually Avery wanted to talk around one, two in the morning, so that wasn’t really fair, but geez, didn’t it suck to be woken up and told you weren’t good enough. Again. “I was waiting for some data from the company. It’ll be here by eight.”

“So what was all that typing I heard last night?”

Avery blinked and widened his eyes, playing for time. “You were up? Sorry, babe. Didn’t mean to keep you up.”

“No—I mean, I was sort of thinking about coming to . . .” Billy raised his eyebrows above his blue eyes and nodded his head in the classic C’mon baby, gimme sumpn sumpn gesture, and Avery smiled a little, remembering that Billy’s charm and his humor had attracted him in the first place

“Yeah, well—” he yawned “—next time come ask. I was writing some fanfic while I waited for a response. Got a whole story done, was—”

Billy’s curled lip radiated disgust. “You mean you’re all complaining about being tired and you were just fucking around?”

“I was on the computer getting some crucial data!” God, he was pissed now, and there went any hope of going back to sleep. Urgh, he hated that—fucked his day all up, because first he’d get up and work, then he’d take a nap, then when the rest of the world was on the fucking road or in the grocery store or at the post office, that’s when Avery got to run errands. “I was working, and I took a break and did something I enjoyed. You know, like when you read Buzzfeed at work and send me six thousand stupid links about shit I don’t care about?”

Billy’s look of hurt was unmistakable. “I thought we were connecting,” he said, and Avery sighed and ground his face into the pillow.

“You’re right. We were. But you go sit and eat lunch with all your friends and tell jokes, and me and my friends make GIF sets and write stories about Wolf’s Landing. It’s my chance to play, that’s all. I’ve been working on this piece about fracking for a week—I’m pissed, I’m depressed, and I feel like the world’s gone to hell in a fucking handbasket. Let me have my heroes, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Billy muttered in disgust. “Are you going to submit it and get paid today? Because tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day and I’d really like to go out to dinner—”

“With me this time?” Avery asked suspiciously, because last time it had been to take the boss out to dinner, and there went half a commission in expensive scotch.

“Yeah, with you this time! And with Sandy and Anthony, because I sort of owe them from—”

Avery buried his head in the pillow and growled. “Oh my God. Billy, could you, I don’t know, maybe stop spending my money long enough to hear what I was planning to do with it?”

Billy’s jaw dropped. “What’s it to you, A? Man, the money just appears in the account anyway—why do you care how we spend it?”

“Because I am saving money for a trip to Washington in March, do you remember that?”

“For what? So you and your friends can all wax your knobs about Wolf Hammer and Greg Sandford or what the fuck ever?”

Wolf’s Landing and Gabriel Hanford,” he snarled. “And he’s played by an out actor, so maybe show a little respect. And you know what? Go to work, impress your friends. But I want to split our accounts again, okay? You are so not hearing me when I talk about finances.” Oh yeah, Billy thought he was just going to let that “appears in the account” thing slide. Avery busted his ass too hard to have his boyfriend spending his money without respect.

“Yeah, fine, you do all that paperwork shit,” Billy scoffed. “But when you want sumpn sumpn, you make sure you flash that wallet, big man, because that’s the only way a guy like you can get some.”

With that he threw on his expensive suit coat and slammed the door, leaving Avery wide-awake and fuming.

He knew he wasn’t that great a prize to look at—tall, narrow, all angles, elbows, and ears, with a thatch of dark hair he’d rather comb than cut—but Jesus, that didn’t mean he had no pride, right?

It took him half an hour in his boxers with his phone and the computer to disentangle his and Billy’s finances. It was just a . . . a pulling back, right? A . . . a disentangling, to find something else that worked. They’d done pretty well when they hadn’t been living out of the same bank account, right?

Avery remembered those first couple of months, being so very careful about who had which refrigerator shelf and making sure he treated for movies at least half of the time. Billy had pulled his weight then, hadn’t he?

They used to use Avery’s spending money for shared trips to the movies and weekend getaways to the beach. Nothing too extravagant—Billy had been starting his internship and Avery had been establishing his reliability as a freelancer, but it had been nice. Simple. Avery had liked it that way.

Maybe splitting their finances would get things back to where they’d been at the beginning. Before Billy had decided he was too good to be seen with a guy who looked like a walking haystack and would rather hang with his fanfic forum than people who worried about the shine on their shoes.

***

He finished the personal stuff and proofed his article, triple-checked his facts and ran it through grammar checker when he was done, just for shits and giggles, and got some preliminary research for the article on women’s issues that he had next in the queue. The thing he loved most about freelancing was that he got to make a difference—and he picked and chose the articles that he thought would do that. He’d established a name for himself writing about liberal issues, and a couple of the online ’zines trusted him and asked for him by name. He’d had to work damned hard for that recognition, and damn it if he was going to let Billy or his father or anyone tell him he didn’t work for his money.

At ten o’clock, he was falling asleep at his computer and still pissed, so he went to the one place he knew would calm him down and cheer him up at once.

To Fandom Landing, the fan archive he frequented, to see how people liked his fic.

He’d been depressed the night before, melancholy, so he’d written something full of longing and choice. Detective Gabriel Hanford had lost his partner, Detective Julia Morris, to a rogue werewolf, and now he was mourning their one sexual encounter and everything it could have been. He’d written a fic-within-a-fic, and the outer story had Carter Samuels—the guy who played Gabriel Hanford, in real mourning for Levi Pritchard, who played Max Fuhrman on the show, being comforted by the girl who played Julia. It was a delicate dance between the real and the imagined, the possible and the impossible, the actual actors and the parts they played—made even more delicate by the fact that Carter Samuels and Levi Pritchard were known to be dating.

Avery had been thoroughly ensorcelled by the story, reluctant to leave before he’d wrapped up every end, woven in every spare thread and made it tight and resonant and perfect. God, fiction writing was a rush, but not one he wanted to embrace full-time. Writing imaginary scenarios for the show that had captured his attention just exercised something important in him, and he read the comments and kudos eagerly.

Perfect, and perfectly haunting.

OMG—you captured the actor from his public appearances so well!

Lord, the sex scenes were so hot—the het and the m/m—how do you do that?

Painful, funny, and very postmodern. Ooh! That last one was from Lone Wolf—he was like the fanfic writer of the Wolf Landing fandom! Avery gave himself a moment to preen.

He always read every comment—and because they were his friends and they shared the same obsession, they were almost all positive. He knew that if he veered off his expected path that could change—the internet was a fickle place—but right now? He was going to revel in the glory of having a place that understood him and shared his fascination with one of his few guilty pleasures.

A chat box opened on his fanfic account, and he responded eagerly.

Hey, Gi-Gi—how’s the baby?

He liked this woman—they’d chatted a lot, and he estimated her to be in her thirties to his twenty-six, and she had three kids. But she was funny and warm and understanding, and he could deal with stories of dirty diapers and copious gas and vomit because when he was deep into a news story that was breaking his heart, she and her kids and her happy family would remind him why he wanted to change the world for the better.

Hey, Scarecrow! Baby’s asleep, Thank God. I had fifteen minutes—I could’ve take a dump or read your painfully awesome fic, you bastard. Guess what I picked?

Avery laughed and wiggled his shoulders, pleased as a bunny in clover. Billy could have his fucking Nordies ties and leather shoes. Avery had this, and it made him feel good.

Nice choice—you bought your WolfCon ticket yet?

Are you kidding? Mister G bought us two so he can come a day too. Wants to see what the fuss is about.

Aw, man—that’s the kind of guy Avery wanted. Someone who would share his passions—or at least not think they were stupid.

You’ve got a good guy.

Yeah, I think so. Speaking of, how’s your guy?

We’re going back to separate bank accounts. And when he gets home, I’m telling him I’m taking him off the lease, too.

Avery typed that last grimly. It had been a provisional add-on, with the stipulation that Avery had the last say, but they’d wanted Billy to be able to get keys from the super or to use the pool.

Well, now he’d have to ask Avery for permission, and that gave Avery a petty sense of satisfaction, oh yes it did.

Ouch! Why’d you finally go hard-ass on him?

Insulted my fanfic—no one does that to me, bitches!

Damned straight. String him up, cut him off, chop off his—

Not that far. Just maybe don’t give him my money.

Good idea. Gotta run—just wanted to tell you your fic was awesomeness. Tonight I’ll write you one.

Avery smiled. Gi-Gi wrote the best virgin fictions he’d ever read. Somebody, somewhere, was always losing some kind of cherry, and Avery loved that about her.

I can’t wait. I’m going to buy my ticket now! Later!

He was still waiting for his credit card to clear when Billy texted him.

You couldn’t wait until tonight? I was out at lunch and my card got rejected!

You have your own credit card. Use it.

It’s maxed.

The computer pinged at him. Yup—approved by the bank, and yet unapproved by Billy—the transaction had cleared to fund Avery’s dream of traveling to Washington to take part of WolfCon.

That’s too bad. Go make some more. Mine will just appear in my bank account after my nap, so I’m good to go.

Don’t be a smug bastard, Avery. I didn’t mean that and you know it.

No. I don’t know it. Talk to you when you get home.

Avery stood and stretched—and yawned. Yup. Here it came. Nappy time. Jesus, he couldn’t take long—he still had to go get groceries before Billy got home, because they were going to need some protein to supplement this very active fight they were about to have.

Avery thought about Detective Gabriel Hanford, and the noble, no-nonsense way he approached a difficult task, and then laughed at himself. Gabriel Hanford was beautiful, broody, and movie-star perfect, and, for that matter, so was the guy who played him, Carter Samuels. Neither of them probably had problems with a leech-worthy boyfriend or getting taken seriously or being told they’d never be loved again because their abdomens looked more like a xylophone than a six-pack.

Well, Avery didn’t need the movie-star perfect, but he wouldn’t mind someone who was reaching for a better world or an ultimate truth.

Everybody had their burdens and their strengths, right?

Today, Avery and Billy were going to sort out their burdens, and Avery was going to take a stand for playing to his strengths. Words and Wolf’s Landing.

He may have felt trapped in his relationship with Billy for two years, but he was resourceful. He was smart. He’d worked his way through college, and he made a living doing something not everybody could do. Yeah, sure, Billy thought he took trips and got money for sitting around the house wanking, but Avery knew better. Avery’s parents thought he was just fiddle-fucking around until he got a job like Billy’s, but Avery had no plans to lock himself in a box like that.

He took a deep breath and looked around his little North Hollywood apartment. It wasn’t much, but it was all he needed.

Maybe he could live without that much somewhere else.

He’d escaped his parents’ colorless house in the San Diego suburbs with his own smarts and a little hard work. His father might think he didn’t understand the real world, but Avery got it. The so-called “real world” was a trap, but Avery was a wily creature. If he couldn’t make his relationship into something they both could live with, Avery was pretty sure he could wiggle his way out of that trap.

 

Chapter Three

Bottom

Cal got back from his shift at the Global walking stiffly—and not from being nailed against the lockers by his boss.

His shin pulsed with heat and ague. He’d dumped bacitracin on it before he’d left work, but the skin was swollen and hot to the touch, and the cut—which’d seemed to be healing so well—had actually just scabbed over what was threatening to be a bitch of an infection. Every step brought new sweat popping out on his forehead, and he barely suppressed a whimper as he parked in front of the moss-covered lawn and limped into the house.

Dottie was pacing the kitchen, frizzy dyed hair askew, a worried look on her face, and Nascha was nowhere to be seen.

“He’s out in the boat dock,” she said fretfully. “You know how he gets when the sun goes down.”

“When he doesn’t get his meds,” Cal supplied darkly, but she was his only hope for a daily caretaker, although the state did supply a nurse a couple of times a week. He didn’t want to piss her off. God, sundowning—the curse of the Alzheimer’s patient, that terrible disconnect from reality as soon as there was no big glowing landmark in the sky to hang on to when marking time.

“Yeah, well, if he saw more of the world than this crappy house and the mile loop of this back beach road, he’d probably have more to remember!” she snapped back, and Cal took a deep breath, shuddering with pain.

“I’ll check on Keir,” he muttered.

Keir slept like the dead, most nights, although waking up early had once been a problem. Not anymore, and he was passed out as he should be, on the bottom bunk of what used to be their shared bedroom. Keir’s stuffed badger lay clutched in his arms tonight, which told Cal all he wanted about how bad Nascha’s night had been. God. Cal would have slept through this too, if he had a choice.

He limped back into the living room and leaned against the wall, fighting a sudden wave of dizziness.

“You okay?” Dottie asked, her irritation gone almost immediately.

“Cut my leg,” he muttered. “It’s not healing great. Outside? We’ll be back.”

The kitchen door was slightly ajar, and he could hear Nascha muttering to himself, and the hollow thump of his slippered feet as he paced the dock.

“Well, someone’s got to do something. Shouldn’t someone do something? The boy is a mess! Football, studying—he can take his damned test next quarter. Damn it, Owen, get your ass home so you can talk some sense into your kid!

“Nascha?” Cal said hesitantly. “Nascha, you wanted to talk to me?”

“Cal?” Nascha swung around, and his thick-wooled, shawl-collared sweater hung crookedly, and the flannel shirt underneath it hung only halfway down. The tails were coming out from the fly of his jeans, and Cal hated that—hated it—because Nascha had been the one to teach him to tuck his shirt in when he’d been a kid, and to straighten his collar and make sure his hair was combed.

It was so unfair that basic dignity was deserting Nascha now.

“I’m here, Great-Uncle,” Cal said, tears thick in his throat. “What’s up?”

“Where’s your father? I need to talk to your father. And your mother. That woman in the living room—she didn’t know where they were!”

And thank you, Dottie, for leaving him with this tonight. Cal’s vision turned gray at the edges, and he fought a groan.

“What did you want them for?” he hedged. God. No. Nascha took it so hard, every time. Cal’s mom, Beth, had apparently been the one bright spot in his life. After she’d married Cal’s dad and before Keir was born, she’d invited Nascha to live with them, and he’d never looked back. Their deaths had leveled him. Cal was pretty sure that if he hadn’t had to help Cal with Keir, he would have curled into a ball and died.

And on nights like this, Cal thought he might have been on to something there.

“Cal, you’ve got to stop practicing so hard,” Nascha begged. He came forward and raised a shaky hand to Cal’s face. “Look at you. You’re thin and worn, and you’re only a kid.”

His touch on Cal’s face set off a series of fever tremors that almost brought Cal to his knees.

“Well, I’m not feeling great right now,” Cal said, his voice cracking.

“You’re burning up,” Nascha said, snapped into action, perhaps, by Cal’s need. “Beth? Owen? Cal, where’s your parents? They need to come take care of you.”

“They’re not here right now,” Cal said, trying hard to keep his jaw strong. “Maybe you could help me? I just need to sit down on the couch, Nascha. If you help me there, when you wake up in the morning, it will all be better.”

“Where would they go?” Nascha asked unhappily. But he put his shoulder under Cal’s arm, and Cal leaned on his frail weight because he had nowhere else to go.

“They went for a drive,” Cal said, his throat tight. “You know how they like to do that.”

“Yeah, but Cal, they need to be here for you boys. Family—it’s all we got!”

“I know, Uncle Nascha.”

Slowly, painfully, they made their way into the house. Cal tripped making the slight step from the dock to the front stoop, and Nascha held him for a moment when he howled.

“Are you hurt? That coach of yours, he puts you through your paces—runs you too much. Shin splints, right?”

Cal remembered shin splints. He yearned for shin splints. But right now, he was grateful for the old football complaint, because it meant he didn’t have to talk about big fish and horrible days.

“Yeah. Yeah. Let me just . . . just sit and stretch,” he said, thinking if the pain got any worse he’d throw up.

Nascha’s cold hand on his forehead was meant to be tender, but it made all of Cal’s skin hurt. He refused to recoil anyway. God, he needed that hand.

They got him inside and sitting down, and Cal shivered for a few minutes while Dottie got him water and some ibuprofen.

“You’ll take it easy now, Cal?” Nascha asked, worried. “Because this family needs you.”

Cal closed his eyes, and remembered that Nascha meant that even when he thought Owen and Beth McCorkle were still the grown-ups and the breadwinners. It comforted him, even as it broke his heart.

“Yeah,” he said, his throat rough. “I’ll take tomorrow off, how’s that, Nascha?”

He needed to take Keir in for his appointment tomorrow. Sometimes Keir’s doctor—who was a good guy, in spite of being overworked and undereducated on Keir’s conditions—would take a look at Cal’s fishing injuries without a co-pay. Maybe he’d throw Cal a bone and prescribe some antibiotics or something, because Cal’s body felt like it was shaking apart, one atom at a time.

“That’s wise, Calladh.” Nascha nodded sagely. “Your mother will get home and make bread. You need to eat.”

Nascha sat at the recliner and tipped his head back, closing his eyes, and Cal relaxed on the couch, his polyester clothes sticking clammily to his skin. He wanted to get up and shower and get rid of the restaurant smell, but his body wanted to stay on that couch more. Cal grabbed the afghan his mother had crocheted from the back of the battered couch and wrapped up in it, resting his head on the arm. The television—never off for long—continued to play as Dottie let herself out, and Cal fell into an uneasy, pain-ridden sleep.

He woke up at five in the morning with a crick in his neck and a bloated leg about one bacterium away from amputation.

He made a trip to the bathroom, and then to the kitchen cabinet for more ibuprofen. While he was at it, he woke Nascha up and made him take his medication. The old man was fractious and argumentative. “Why do I need medicine? You couldn’t let an old man sleep? Disrespectful little shit—I’ll make your father take a paddle to your ass!”

Well, Dad had done that on a very rare occasion, and Cal was none the worse for wear. His father never punished out of meanness, but out of a fear Cal would do things that could get him hurt. The worst time had been when Cal had taken the boat out without permission and without telling anyone where he was going. Cal had worried his parents sick—and that was a lesson he’d learned in his bones. The people you loved deserved respect.

“You make him do that,” Cal said, wrestling the pill into Nascha’s hand. “You get my dad to paddle my ass, Nascha. But right now you take your fucking pill, okay?”

Nascha slapped his face—not hard or spitefully, but for the obscenity when Cal was supposed to honor his elders. “You watch your manners, boy,” Nascha snapped.

“I will, damn it, just take your medicine!” Cal yelled back, shoving the cup of water at him.

Nascha tossed the pill in his mouth and dry swallowed, and then threw the water in Cal’s face.

Cal screamed.

Oh God, it was so fucking cold, and his skin was so fucking hot and—

“Cal?” Nascha asked, all concerned. He held his hand to Cal’s head. “Cal, are you okay?”

“I’m sick, Nascha,” he pleaded. “I’m sick, and you’re being awful, and I need to take Keir to the doctor and . . .”

And he lost it, at six in the morning, soaking wet and crumpled in a heap between the couch and the recliner, raging with fever.

Nascha went and got him clean clothes and helped him dress, and then put him back to sleep on the couch, mumbling the whole time about how Cal’s parents would make it right.

When Cal woke up again, Keir was awake and ready for his doctor’s appointment, and Nascha remembered what year it was.

But Cal wasn’t getting any better, and as he swallowed down some more ibuprofen and loaded Keir into the truck, he had the feeling that their precarious little family situation was about to get a lot more unstable.

How was he going to pay the bills if he couldn’t work?

 

Chapter Four

Doubt

“Oh yay, the ‘rents,” Billy muttered, angry as he had been perpetually since Avery had separated their finances.

“My father loves you,” Avery said dryly, stepping on the brakes with a frown. God, the stretch of I-5 between LA and San Diego sucked balls. It would be just whizzing along at a decent speed, and suddenly—bam. You’re going nowhere.

“Wonderful,” Billy retorted. “But he’s not gay, so where does that leave us?”

Avery sighed. “Look, man. I’m sorry I split our money up without warning you. You’re right. It was a dick move. But I’ve got to tell you, you just totally weren’t respecting where that money was coming from—and you weren’t respecting me. I mean, is it so hard now?”

“I have to ask you for a lunch allowance like a little kid!” Billy snarled. “And that would be great if we were roommates—that would at least get me the fuck out of going to see your fucking parents!”

Avery couldn’t argue about that. His parents . . . Well, gay might have been a thing in politics, but it was a thing for other people’s children. Acknowledging Avery’s own gayness—hell, his own anything—was really a foreign idea for them.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, sighing. “I just thought Dad could store some of my stuff. I wanted to thin out the apartment before I went to Washington—”

“Oh, great. So you get to go to Washington and I what? Sit at home and wait to go blow my boss?”

Traffic started moving again, and Avery glanced behind his shoulder, and oh, thank God. He could take the next off ramp. Who gave a shit if he was in Anaheim, he needed to get off this fucking road!

He pulled the car onto Valencia and cruised down the main drag until he came to a Denny’s by a bus stop. Abruptly, he made a right into the Denny’s and looked at Billy, at a loss.

“Billy . . . have you been giving your boss blowjobs?”

That epic fight Avery had been anticipating had never materialized. Billy had come home the night of the big bank job (as Avery now thought of it) and had gone to bed, encased in icy silence. And the two weeks after that had been one long arctic blast of Billy working late and then coming home while Avery was working, and ignoring his existence. This trip to visit the parents had been planned before then, or Avery didn’t think Billy would have gotten in the car.

Once upon a time, they had talked, watched television, seen movies, made plans together. Now, they didn’t even say good morning.

“What’s it to you?” Billy said, but Avery remembered when they’d been boyfriends and not antagonists, and he knew what Billy sounded like when he was hurt.

“I . . . I wasn’t trying to break up with you,” Avery said. Hurt. There was no other word for it.

“That would have been a helluva lot cleaner,” Billy said, still not looking at him.

“Do you . . . do you want to break up?”

“What’s sad is that you think we haven’t.”

Oh. Habit. Avery hadn’t seen it, but apparently habit had been what had kept Billy coming home. Habit had gotten him into the car this morning. Oh hell. Avery had been hoping for a reconciliation, and Billy had been relying on a habit.

“I’ll . . .” Money. That’s what had started this, wasn’t it? “I’ll pay rent until the lease is up,” Avery said softly. “When I go to Washington . . . I’ll move up there permanently. That’ll give you a chance to find somewhere else to live.”

Billy glared at him. “What the fuck ever.” But those pretty blue eyes that Avery had once adored—they were spilling over. “What are we doing at Denny’s?”

“You . . . you can take the bus home if you want. It’ll take a while, but you don’t have to go to my parents’ house. Not if you don’t—”

“Fucking classy.” And with that, Billy hopped out of the car and slammed the door. Avery swallowed hard against his own tears and watched him go.

***

“Now, Avery,” Ilene Kennedy said, placatingly, “what’s your friend going to do if you don’t help him make rent?”

“He’s my boyfriend, Mom. Except he’s my ex-boyfriend.”

“Well, I mean, I know he’s a boy, Avery, but didn’t you sign a lease?”

Avery blinked at his mother—a short painstakingly thin woman who exercised religiously and clocked every calorie in a diary, but who never looked outside of her diary long enough to see the forest for the calories. Avery thought she might have had hair like his—unruly curls—but he’d never seen it not slicked back in a ponytail, so he couldn’t say for sure.

“Yeah, Mom. I signed a lease. It’s up in two months. I’d have to pay the rent anyway, and since I’m moving to Washington, he can just stay there.”

Avery had been trying to explain the deal with Billy—which was weirding him out, because it had just happened.

“But why do you have to let go of your lease at all?”

“Because I’m moving?” And he’d been saying it a lot since he’d pulled up to his parents’ house sans Billy—and it had been making more and more sense the more he’d said it.

“But—”

“Out of the state, Mom. You’re not senile—why do you keep forgetting this?”

“Because it’s stupid,” Avery’s father said, walking in from the garage and overhearing. He was wiping grease from his hands as he spoke, and Avery wanted to sneer. His dad worked in a bank, wore a suit, and changed his own oil. Not because he liked to tinker with cars, but because he liked to think he was smarter than the people he’d pay to change his oil for him. He’d actually fried two engines that way, but that was never talked about.

Avery had tried once. In eighth grade—shortly after he’d come out and flush with the victory of getting his junior high a GSA—he’d told his father, “Fred, men who work with their hands are no better or worse educated than you are. They are just talented in different areas.” This was an exact quote from one of his teachers.

He’d spent the next two weeks in his room after school, grounded beyond belief. He used the time to write short pieces for left-wing news publications, one of which had been accepted for a fee of $25, and he’d been hell bent on journalism ever since.

“Why?” Avery asked, tired of the argument but unable to stop taking the bait. “The cost of living is cheaper, I like the climate, most of the state is blue, and I don’t have any ties here.”

“You have us,” his father said. He’d thrown the rag in the washroom hamper, and Ilene was running in there to make sure that it didn’t contaminate everything else in the hamper with grease. Did Avery’s father know that one act caused all sorts of havoc in her life? Probably. Did he care? Not particularly.

“That’s not incentive to stay,” Avery said, meaning it.

“Avery!” his mother complained from the washroom.

“Mom, I’m gay.”

“You keep saying that!” she said, laughing. She poked her head out of the washroom, where he heard the sink running. Probably hot water and the special degreaser that he’d seen her use. Spitefully, Avery hoped his dad burned up another engine. God, these people did not bring out the best in him.

“Because it’s true. And you keep telling me that all I need is the right girl. I’ve been living with a man for two years.”

“But you’re leaving him!” his mom said brightly, turning off the spigot and coming back into the kitchen, her duty apparently complete now that the nasty rag was soaking. His father in the meantime was running scalding water over his hands and using dish soap to get the grease out of his fingers. The soap was slopping all over the pristine sink, and Avery’s mom was watching in agony as Fred Kennedy wrecked the kitchen she’d just cleaned.

“I’m breaking up with him, Mom. It . . .” Oh Lord. “It actually hurts a lot. And you don’t give a shit. So exactly why do I want to stay here?”

“Honey, friends have falling outs—”

“And you’re not going anywhere,” his father thundered, turning to him, his famous kid-terrifying scowl on his face. Avery was pretty sure his father wore that scowl when he destroyed working-men’s dreams.

“I am,” Avery said, nodding. “I have the hotel reservations, the route, and the money in the bank. All I need to do is drive up there and find an apartment with wi-fi. I can do that even if I pay Billy’s last two month’s rent.”

“Why the hell would you do that?” his father asked. “Ilene, you’re driving me bug-shit. Get away from me with that towel.”

Avery’s mother retreated in wounded, antsy silence, and Avery thought that maybe he should stop for some Advil on the way home. He felt a massive headache coming on, and he had to go home and tell the whole world he was moving. Oh geez—his editors, his landlord, Gi-Gi!

His head gave a violent throb. He was going to have to tell his best friend why he was moving, and admit to her that he’d been part of the doucheyness that had become his and Billy’s relationship.

How embarrassing.

“Because we’re breaking up, and I’m trying not to be a dick about it,” Avery said patiently. Jesus!

“No, not that—that’s your personal business, I don’t want to hear about it.” Of course Fred didn’t want to hear about it. He didn’t even acknowledge it was true. “Why would you want to move?”

“Because (a) I don’t want to be near Billy anymore, and (b) I don’t want to be near you,” Avery snapped. Both things were the truth, but he felt sort of bad about saying them.

“Don’t be a smartass, Avery. Do you really think you’ll get past the California border by yourself? God, you’re fucking incompetent. Have you seen that thing you drive?”

“I drive it, Dad. I see it all the time. And you’re forgetting that I go out of state periodically—”

“I don’t mean flying across country!” God, the way Fred said it, he made it sound like Avery was getting on the kiddie carousel. “I mean driving. You can’t get your head out of your computer long enough to take a fucking leak!”

“That only happened once,” Avery said, crossing his eyes. He’d been in the seventh grade, and damn his mother for telling Fred anyway. God—like he’d been the only kid to play video games to the extremes. “And you know what? I’ve done a whole lot of growing up since I was twelve—it’s what happens in fifteen years.” Oh God. What was it about his parents that made him feel like a little kid—and not in the wide-eyed, Yes, there’s still a Santa way, either. “Seriously, Dad. I’m a grown-up. I’ve paid rent, put myself through school, had a couple of relationships—”

“But no one you can bring home,” his father growled.

And even though Avery knew better, he was still surprised into saying it. “I brought Billy over once a month for two years!”

“That’s not what I’m talking about!” his dad retorted. “And you know it!”

“No, no I don’t,” Avery said, trying not to cry out of sheer frustration. “We paid bills together, we slept in the same bed and we had penetrative coitus—”

“Don’t you talk that way around your mother!” Fred Kennedy thundered.

Ilene put her hands over her ears, distressed. “Avery! That’s not polite!”

“Neither is ignoring who I am!” Avery turned to her, thinking that before he fled the state, he might be able to get this across. “I’m a grown-up, mom. I’ve taken care of myself since my third year of college. I pay bills, I hold down jobs—I’m even sort of good in my field. And I’ve had two relationships that meant a lot to me, that you and dad keep pretending you don’t understand.”

“That’s because—”

“And now I’m leaving. I’m moving away because you two don’t know who I am, and my boyfriend”—ex-boyfriend—“is apparently blowing his boss.” Billy had gotten home at two in the morning every night since the “disentanglement.” How could Avery not have known?

God.

He tried to bring himself back to that moment when he thought Billy had been a good guy and their relationship could work. But spending time with his parents just reinforced that he’d apparently been living with a guy just like his dad.

And he was in no way, shape, or form his mom who would put up with that crap.

“Avery Sanders Ken—”

“Dad, Mom, I’m leaving in two weeks. I’m going to ship my books here until I find a place—you don’t have to do much with them—just keep them dry, and I’ll pay for the postage, okay?”

“You’re asking us to—”

“To please let me use your garage for a couple of boxes. Are you going to charge me rent, because if you are, I can always rent a storage space—”

“You can use the garage,” his mom said, smiling hesitantly like that was going to make all the rest of it go away. “Will your friend want to leave his things too?”

“No, because we just broke up,” Avery said, scrubbing at his face with both hands.

“No, because he’s not going to make it past Crescent City,” Fred said in disgust, throwing a grease-covered dishtowel into the sink.

“Okay,” Ilene said brightly, scurrying past Avery’s father’s wide-shouldered body to grab the towel. “We’ll just count on that, then. Can you stay for dinner, Avery?”

“No,” Avery said. “I’ve got a headache.”

***

He got home, partially hammered on Motrin and a giant triple cheeseburger from In-N-Out, and let himself into the apartment.

Billy wasn’t there, but then, Avery imagined, he probably hadn’t had to catch a bus from Anaheim to North Hollywood, either. Not if he’d been blowing his boss for the last two weeks. Feeling sad and lost and thoroughly beaten, he drifted to his computer and tried to wrap his head around what he’d just decided to do.

Gi-Gi was online. Oh, thank God. Gi-Gi was online.

Heya, Avery. How goes things?

How goes things?

Avery poured his heart out on her, from the short, painful resolution with Billy to the frustration-fest of his parents. He finished feeling silly and guilty and all sorts of dumb for sucking up her time with his personal problems.

So, you’re moving to Washington in two weeks?

He laughed to himself. Yeah. Why the hell not?

That’s awesome! We live north of Portland—we can come visit. You and me, we can see each other more than just at the convention! Won’t that be awesome?

Oh my God.

YES! He found himself laughing semihysterically in his empty, bitter apartment. Gi-Gi, that’s the best news I’ve had all day.

And it was the news that would get him out of California and up past Seattle. It was the news that would let him start his life all over again.

Out there, in the great wide beyond, Avery had people who would understand him. He would have friends.

from Smitten with Reading

[A]n absolutely gorgeous book and I loved and savored every single word while reading it. I definitely recommend this one.

from Rainbow Gold Reviews

Amy has a way of creating characters that will reach into the readers chest and yank their hearts from their chest.

from My Fiction Nook

[T]here's HAPPINESS too, two men trusting each other. Loving each other. SAVING each other. When the HEA comes, you'll feel it in your gut.

from The Way She Reads

[A] wonderful, beautiful, at times heartbreaking but ultimately hope giving story. The Deep of the Sound took my breath away and held me captive from start to finish.

from Jeannie Zelos Book Reviews

[A] really enjoyable read, marrying romance with a story that's full of sadness and drama, tenderness and emotion, problems and solutions and ending in a HEA – my favourite.

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