Sasha Michaels is a psychic with an affinity for houses. And he’s homeless. Go figure. After months of sleeping rough, he stumbles upon an abandoned house, and the lonely place beckons him inside. He’s finally safe . . . until someone comes blundering in to his hideaway.
House-flipper Nick Cooper lost everything in the recession. Desperate to revive his business, he turns to a loan shark to fund his comeback project: flipping an abandoned house full of potential. But it turns out the house has an unexpected occupant.
Nick and Sasha make a deal: Sasha can stay in exchange for helping with the renovation. To both of their surprise, the closer they get to the loan shark’s due date, the stronger their feelings for each other grow. Problem is, Nick isn’t the only one with feelings for Sasha, and now the house doesn’t want to let Sasha go.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
drug use, explicit violence, non-consensual touching
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, age gap, bisexuality, child abuse / neglect, coming out, family, financial gap / class disparity, heritage, homelessness, hurt / comfort, protection, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
I wasn’t sleeping. No one really did when spending the night on a bench in a seedy park. Too easy to get mugged by a crackhead. Instead, I stared up at the starless Milwaukee night and lamented my lack of four walls and a roof. The three layers of clothes I wore warded off the autumn chill, but I worried what winter would bring. I could wander south like some of my brethren, but at the heart of it, I was a Wisconsin guy born and raised. This was my home, no matter how battered and bruised it left me.
“Hey, kid,” called a scratchy voice in the dark.
I sat up and saw Willie’s dark figure ambling toward me. The cold must’ve been bothering his trick knee, because he leaned a little too heavily on the shopping cart that contained all of his worldly belongings. He was old and mostly harmless, but I pulled my bag closer to me anyway. You couldn’t be too careful out here.
“What’s up, Willie?”
The old man sat down next to me on the bench, sending a waft of air, acrid with meth-sweat and filth, up around us. I switched to breathing through my mouth.
“Saw you playing your guitar on the bridge today. From the looks of your case, I’d say you hauled in at least fifty bucks.”
It had only been twenty-three, but it was always best to downplay any cash I might have . . . even if it was only Old Willie asking. “It wasn’t that much, and I spent most of it on dinner.”
“Well, that’s too bad. I know a guy we could pick up a half gram of crystal from real cheap. Turn around and double our money easy.” He gave me the side-eye, checking for my reaction. I forced myself not to clench my teeth as I replied.
“No, thanks, man. I’m not into dealing. Besides, I don’t have that kind of cash.” I did, but the last thing I was going to do was drop what I had into a half-cocked drug deal. Suddenly, I wanted to get out of here, away from the drug talk. I might be in dire straits, but I’d never turn to dealing. I’d seen the toll that shit could take on not just the user, but their families, their friends, everything they touched. A shiver rolled up my spine.
I stood, slinging my guitar case onto my back and lifting my bag. “Nice seeing you, Willie, but it’s cold out here. I’m gonna see if I can find hot coffee or something.”
“Okay, kid. Try the gas station over on Twentieth Street. They should be open.”
I gave him a pat on the shoulder and walked away. It took twenty paces before my nose cleared of his scent. I wasn’t the freshest either, but at least I made an effort.
It was late, or early, depending on how you looked at it. I crossed the little park heading to the street. A cop car drove past me a little too slowly; the second time I’d seen it that night. At best, the cop would tell me to be on my way. At worst . . . well, I didn’t want to deal with that. I wasn’t drunk or high or causing trouble, and I was so tired of people treating me like a criminal just because I was poor. I needed to get out of this place, with its heavy shadows watching me, and remind myself there was such a thing as normal in this world.
The tiny, no-name city park gave way to nearly empty streets as I cut through the parking lots of gas stations and Asian groceries. The worn concrete buildings and closed corner bars still displaying old Schlitz signs in the windows were echoes of a time when the city had teamed with blue-collar jobs and a hope for the future. No one could be hopeful on this street now.
I rounded the corner into a residential neighborhood lined with mature trees and pre–World War II family homes. It was the kind of neighborhood where parents worked jobs with uniforms and punched clocks, and they trusted their latchkey kids to hold the fort down until they could get home with their buckets of fast-food chicken for noshing on in front of the TV. In other words, a lot like the neighborhood I’d grown up in.
As I walked past the sleeping homes, a soft hum woke up the sixth sense in my mind. When I was young, I’d manifested psychic abilities, and walking down a neighborhood street had excited me. I had an affinity for homes . . . well, all buildings really. And in turn, they had an affinity for me. They always seemed to know I could hear them.
The best way I can describe my gift is that human emotions imprint on the places people live, work, and spend time. The structures absorb those emotions, and I can read them. Mostly, I only sense a low vibration of warmth, affection, sorrow . . . But if the vibrations are strong, well, other things happen.
My range isn’t wide, but in a populous neighborhood like this one, the vibes tend to mix together like an odd, harmonious chorus in my mind. Sometimes a place will resonate more strongly than the others, rising above as if in solo and calling out to me with its story.
As I neared the corner, a house with plastic toys lying in the yard beckoned me closer. I approached the porch steps and rested my hand on the railing, opening myself up to the energy of the wood beneath my palm. My breath hitched as the spirit of the house touched my soul and slowly filled me with its tenderness for the occupants inside.
In my opinion, contentment is a vastly underrated emotion. Happiness, true elation, is difficult to sustain long-term. You’d either cross over into mania or you’d get so used to the feeling that your internal benchmark would shift, making it seem ho-hum. Which is actually sad. Contentment, on the other hand, is like a long feeling of okay. A sigh for the soul. Things might not be perfect in your life, you might have a micromanager boss or a persistent ache in your back, but overall, your life is going swell. The bad moments won’t keep you down, and you retain your capacity for appreciating the good ones.
A light deep within the house came on. Someone getting up for an early shift or maybe just taking a piss. I adjusted the guitar on my back and continued down the street. I passed an elementary school and rounded another block. I was thinking of splurging on an Egg McMuffin when I felt it. A tug in my chest.
I turned to see what had pulled at me. Across a short expanse of overgrown yard was a large, stately colonial. Thick vines climbed the brick and clung to the mortar, giving the home an ominous quality in the darkness. But the sense coming from it didn’t feel dangerous, only abandoned. The house called to me with a mixture of loneliness and desperation. I held my hand out, letting the cool vibrations roll over my skin.
I strode up the walk, unable to ignore the call. The neglect made my body feel hollow. The windows on the lower level were mostly boarded over with plywood. A niggling sense of heaviness on my left arm steered me, causing me to skirt the porch and go around the side instead. There, the vines climbed over the windows and choked the gutters. I reached the backyard with its foot-long grass and giant bushes that blocked the rest of the neighborhood from view. It wasn’t four walls and a roof, but the privacy of the backyard lent a feeling of safety that I’d rarely experienced since taking to the streets.
I stepped up onto the rear porch and the nearly rotten wood gave way slightly to my weight. I opened the rusty screen door and tried the knob on the inner door. Locked tight.
How? I might be able to play almost any instrument set in front of me, but picking locks was not in my repertoire. I could track down Five Finger Felix (not his real name, but he answered to it) and ask him to come back tonight to help me break in, but no. If he knew there was a big, vacant home over here, he’d have it overrun with squatters by the end of the week. No one ever accused Felix of being discreet.
My side felt tingly and weighted again. I let the house steer me where it wanted me to go, stepping off the porch and rounding to the left side.
The heaviness vanished, and I stopped. I glanced down at a small basement window, and then bent to get a closer look. It was tough to see with the dark shadows cast from the lilac bushes, but a barely perceptible, otherworldly haze around the window forced my eyes to focus on it. There was no glass in the rotting frame, only a sheet of heavy black plastic. I pushed on the sheet. It came away easily, the adhesive on the old tape long dried out.
I slipped the guitar off my back and set it on the ground next to my pack. I was thin enough to have no problem fitting through the tight space, but was it such a good idea to venture in? No telling what hid in the black void of the basement.
I couldn’t turn my back on the house now. Bad idea or not, it needed me.
I wiggled out of my jacket, not believing I was doing this. Breaking and entering wasn’t my style. Then feetfirst, I sank down on my butt and scooched forward. I sat there for a moment, legs dangling inside, unable to sense the bottom of the black abyss. Then, with a deep breath, I steeled my nerves and dropped in.
“This place is a real shithole.”
I cuffed my brother lightly on the side of the head. “Shut it, Damey. She’s got good bones. And if all you’re going to do is bitch, you can walk your ass back home.”
My excited fingers fumbled with the rusty door lock, while Damien picked at the peeling paint on the crumbling porch railing.
“These vines are going to be a bitch to scrape off.”
“Yeah, it’s not going to be fun, but I can’t have the place looking like the Addams family lives here.”
“Steven’s gonna be pissed that you bought this place without him. What’s the point of having a brother for a realtor if you aren’t going to use him to take care of these things for you?”
“The bank auction was today, and Steven’s still in South Beach trying to recapture his youth with the Spring Breakers. I didn’t have time to wait.”
“Why the hurry? Didn’t think you’d even want to get back into house flipping after what happened before.”
“The market’s recovered.”
“But has your bank account?”
I ignored the question and pushed open the door of the early 1900s colonial. A waft of musty, stale air and dust motes greeted me. The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the dirty windows, illuminating original hardwood floors and a hand-carved mantel piece. The place was more beautiful than I’d hoped, and my face split into a huge grin.
“Look at this!” I said, practically bouncing over to the mantel to trace the intricate scrollwork. “They don’t make things like this anymore. A little scrubbing and staining, and it’ll be good as new.”
Damien kicked at one of the fallen bricks from the fireplace’s facing. “Yeah, it’s great.”
“I’ll have to put a gas insert in. Buyers don’t like dealing with the maintenance of wood-burning fireplaces. Come on! Let’s find the kitchen.”
A set of French doors separated the living room from the dining room. Most of the glass panes were broken, but the wood was in great shape. “Check these out! They just need some new glass and stain. Don’t think I’ll keep them here though. This wall has to go to create an open-floor plan. But wouldn’t they be nice in the master? I could use them to separate the sitting area from the sleeping area.”
“We haven’t even been upstairs yet, and you’re making plans for the master bedroom? How do you know it has a separate sitting area?”
“This place is huge. If it doesn’t already have one, I’ll make one. Use your vision, Damey! Don’t you see the potential here?”
“Potential for bankruptcy . . .” he muttered.
I pretended not to hear him, my mind spinning with renovation plans as I assessed the home’s condition. Damien sneered at the cracked plaster, obviously wondering how his broke-ass brother planned to pay for the repairs. None of his fucking business.
We came to an abrupt halt in the kitchen doorway. All the air in my lungs expelled in a long whistle.
“Damn, Nick. That’s not good.” Damien groaned.
The ugly remains of a seventies remodel gone wrong was bad enough. The property had been abandoned for several years, so I’d known I’d have to update the place. But the layer of green mold coating the walls, ceiling, and the cabinets was thick enough to mow.
“Either a roof leak or a busted pipe somewhere upstairs,” I speculated, stepping forward to see if I could spot where the moisture was coming from. “I’ll have to get the mold remediation guy out in the morning to test and make sure it’s not toxic, but I don’t see any black mold, so we should be okay.”
Damien pulled the edge of his T-shirt up over his mouth. “I’m outta here, man. I’m allergic to that shit. See ya at Mom’s Sunday.”
Damien waved his middle finger behind himself as he strode out.
I was glad he’d bailed. Hadn’t wanted him to come in the first place, but since he lived right around the corner, I couldn’t exactly have hidden the fact that I’d purchased the abandoned property. Especially once he saw my Cooper Remodeling truck parked in front. The nosy bastard hadn’t even stopped to tie his shoes before he’d come running over. Ten bucks said he’d call Steven within five minutes to tattle on me.
I reached down to switch off my phone. The last thing I needed right now was another brother lecturing me, even if it was out of concern. I wanted time to revel in this amazing house that I’d gotten for a steal.
I let my eyes unfocus a little so I could see past the furry mold and peeling linoleum. The room was huge! I could add an island and still have space for a nice breakfast nook by the large, southern-facing windows. New quartz countertops and dark-stained cabinets, and it’d be perfect.
Off the kitchen was a decent-sized bathroom with hookups for a washer and dryer. Good. An old house like this might have one of those creepy basements with only the rock foundation for walls and home to a thousand spiders. Potential buyers would hate having to drag their laundry all the way down there. A nice laundry area would give me an advantage in selling the house for a profit.
I was about to seek out the basement when a shuffling noise came from upstairs. I paused to listen. Squirrels? It was common for the rodents to nest in the attics of older homes. The yard had several overgrown trees with branches close enough to the roofline to make that possible.
The shuffle noise sounded again, this time accompanied by the soft creak of a floor board.
Could someone be in the house? No way. I’d walked around the foreclosed property and peered in as many windows as I could before making a bid on it. The place had been locked up tight. Must be an animal. Probably a bastard raccoon. I was halfway up the stairs to investigate before I remembered the crowbar I’d left in the back of the truck.
“Whatever you are, fucker, you better not have rabies,” I called out, hoping the sound of my voice would scare it off.
I reached the top of the steps and peered into the first bedroom. Nothing but yellowing wallpaper.
Then I pivoted toward the next room and came face-to-face with a man.
“Holy shit!” I leaped back and raised my fists.
The stranger lifted his hands as if surrendering to the police. “I don’t have rabies.”
“Who are you?” I yelled, still trying to catch my breath. “Why are you in my house?”
“Sorry. I didn’t think anyone owned the place.”
Without taking my attention off the guy, I did a quick scan of the room beyond. It was obvious from the layers of sleeping bags in the corner, stacks of clothes, and neatly arranged personal items that he’d been squatting here for a while.
The guy’s eyes widened, and he dropped his hands. “No! I have a few plastic knifes over there next to the peanut butter jar, but that’s it. I swear.”
Sure as shit, the guy had the makings for sandwiches sitting on a box in the corner.
I eyed the squatter. He was young. Early twenties maybe? Just a kid. He was as tall as me, but thin. I had thirty pounds of muscle on the guy easy. The tension in my neck eased. If he wasn’t armed, the kid was no threat.
“Look, I’ll go. I just . . . Let me get my stuff.” He ran his hand through the nest of dark hair and narrowed his eyes at his belongings. No way would he be able to carry it all with him unless he had a car.
“How’d you get in here?” The question came out harsh with the adrenaline still coursing through my system.
“Uh, basement window,” he said absently, as he slipped into a pair of worn combat boots. “The first time anyway. Now I come in through the balcony.”
A small balcony at the back of the room looked out on the backyard. The overgrown trees were just right for hiding an intruder from the sight of neighbors, not that there were many neighbors who could see this side of the house. The old Milwaukee neighborhood backed up to a wooded city park. The privacy of the backyard was one of the home’s selling points.
The squatter snatched a large pack from somewhere and began jamming clothes into it. He’d need at least three of those bags for all his stuff.
Not sure what to do with myself, and unwilling to turn my back on him just yet, I studied him. His hair was overgrown and bushy and knotted with curls, and his face hadn’t seen a razor in a while, but he appeared clean enough. The water was shut off in the house, so he must be getting regular showers somewhere else. His face was pale, and he had to keep pushing that hair out of his eyes so he could see what he was doing. Shit, he looked nervous, maybe even scared. I’d seen his type before. Guys who were down on their luck and had few, if any, options. Back when my company was flipping houses all the time, I used to hire guys like this, day laborers, to assist on jobs. As long as they were sober, I’d been happy to throw some work their way.
“Hold up.” I sighed. When the guy didn’t stop his frantic packing, I reached out to touch his sleeve. “I said, hold on a minute.”
He glared at where my hand rested on his forearm before he stepped away. “You’re not gonna call the cops, are you? I didn’t damage anything. Okay, I smoked in the house once in a while, but honestly, that’s it.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
His eyes narrowed on me. “Sasha.”
“What kind of name is ‘Sasha’ for a dude?”
“Really? What’s your last name?”
“What kind of name is ‘Michaels’ for a Russian Jew?”
“The kind whose grandfather decided not to saddle his future kids with ‘Mikhailovich’ when he left the Soviet Union.”
Sasha rubbed a shoulder, and then bent to snatch up one of the many blankets that made his bed on the floor.
“I’m Nick. Nick Cooper.”
Sasha grunted and began folding.
“You got somewhere to go, kid?”
“I’m twenty-four years old. Not exactly a kid.”
“Well, do you?”
He gave a small headshake, and glanced out at the falling twilight. “Might be room over at the United Methodist shelter. I’ll have to find a place to stash my things first, though. Last time I was there, some assholes made off with my shit while I slept. Only reason they didn’t get my guitar is because I was curled up with my arm around it . . .”
Sasha motioned to where a beat-up guitar case leaned against the far wall. He averted his eyes from me.
“How long you been staying here?”
Sasha shrugged. “A few months. More like six. Again, I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone owned the place. It’s such a lonely old house. Figured I’d be long gone before anyone came around.”
“An out-of-state bank owned it. I just bought it today. They don’t let people tour foreclosed properties before purchase, so I didn’t know you were here.”
“You bought a house without seeing the inside? That’s . . . risky. Have you seen the kitchen yet? The place looks like a science experiment gone mad.”
“I saw it. It’s fixable. I was going to have to gut the kitchen anyway. I’m going to renovate the place and sell it.”
The ghost of a smile touched Sasha’s lips. “Really? I mean, that’s cool. That you’d fix it up and not just knock it down to build a parking lot or something.”
“No parking lot. They don’t make homes like this anymore.” I knocked on the plaster wall. “You know, with character. A new kitchen, some cosmetic work, and it’ll make a good family home again.”
Sasha trailed his fingers down the nubby plaster wall gently. “Yeah. She’ll be happy to get rid of that kitchen.”
She? Uh, okay. In any case, the guy seemed to have genuine affection for the old place. Could he see the same potential in it as I did? If so, maybe I should keep him around. I could use someone on my side when Steven the Great finally showed up to tell me what a mistake I’ve made.
I leaned in the doorway and crossed my arms. “What’re you doing for light here without electricity? Candles?”
“I have a camping lantern. One of those where you turn the crank a bunch of times and it stays lit for about ten minutes. I don’t need much light anyway. I go to sleep early so I can get up for work in the morning.”
My brows shot up. “You have a job?”
“Uh, yeah,” he answered sarcastically. “I work the opening shift at a coffee shop on National Ave during the week. And I do some busking around town for cash. Once in a while, I’ll play in a bar gig or a coffee shop or something, but that’s not regular.”
“So you work, but you’re squatting in an abandoned house? Why?”
Sasha scowled at me again, and I stifled a grin.
“I’m trying to save money, all right? Do you know how hard it is to afford rent in this town on your own? Not to mention, every landlord wants two references and a credit check. Baristas and buskers don’t exactly rate as the most financially stable people with the credit bureaus. I’m doing the best I can.”
I raised my hands. “Sorry, man. Not judging. Just trying to understand.”
Sasha’s scowl faded as he reached for a sleeping bag. He smoothed out the wrinkles and began to roll it with the precision of a well-practiced Boy Scout. Suddenly, I felt like an asshole for making the guy leave. He wasn’t hurting anything. And I’d heard terrible stories about sleeping in homeless shelters. Shit, if it weren’t for my family’s support when my business had gone bankrupt and my ex-wife moved out with her share of what was left, I could’ve ended up on the streets myself. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t let a homeless guy stay here. What if he trashed the place?
In his haste, Sasha bumped his knee on the box he was using as a table and knocked a plastic bottle half-filled with water over onto the hardwood floor.
“Oh, shit! I’m sorry!” He grabbed a threadbare bath towel draped over the radiator to sop up the mess. He scrubbed the area. When the towel was soaked, Sasha slipped off the flannel shirt he was wearing over a T-shirt and used it to finish the job.
“Dude, you don’t need to use the shirt off your back. It’s just water.”
Sasha didn’t look up as he gave the wood planks one last wipe. “There isn’t much lacquer left on this floor. If I let it sit here, the wood will discolor.”
He said it so earnestly that I swallowed hard to stop from telling him that every floor in the house would need to be redone anyway. It touched me that he had taken such good care of a house that wasn’t his. Not quite believing what I was about to say, I said, “Hey, it’s getting late, and obviously you aren’t cooking meth in here or anything, so I guess there isn’t any harm in letting you stay the night.”
Sasha clutched the wet cloth to his chest. “Really? You’d let me stay? Why?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “You don’t have anywhere to go. And if you got all your things snatched in a shelter, I’d feel like a dick for making you leave here.”
He eyed me with suspicion. After a moment he asked, “And what do I have to do for it?”
“For being able to stay the night. What do I have to do for it?”
“Nothing, man. It’s too late in the day for me to start any work now. Just get some sleep, all right?”
He averted his eyes from mine and took in the room. “Thanks. I have to work in the morning, but as soon as I get off, I’ll come by and get my things.”
“I should be around in the afternoon. Feel free to use the front door. I don’t need you breaking your leg climbing that tree and suing me.” I knocked my fist on the doorframe. “Well, I want to finish looking around, then I’ll be out of your hair.”
I was halfway down the hall before I understood what he’d been asking.
The glow of the camping lantern had long faded, leaving only the silvery moonlight to illuminate the room. I didn’t need it anyway. I’d been lying on the pallet of blankets and staring at the ceiling for hours. The house buzzed with nervous agitation, making my mind anxious. I should’ve been trying to come up with a game plan for where I was going to sleep tomorrow night, but instead, I was overcome by the intense emotions rolling off the walls.
“Oh, House, you have to calm down. I can’t think.” I sat up wearily, wishing I had a cigarette. Plus I needed to piss. Normally, I’d go off the balcony into the lilac bush below, but hell, I had permission to be here now. I could use the back door and piss in the bushes like a civilized person. I stood, my bones creaking too much for my age, and made my way downstairs.
Nick Cooper was a surprise. Not just because he’d showed up out of the blue and scared the shit out of me, but because he hadn’t run my ass out of here with a pitchfork. I still wasn’t sure why he’d let me stay. Judging by the muscles bulging from that T-shirt, he could’ve kicked my ass into next week. Whatever his reasons though, I was glad for them.
At the bottom of the steps, I turned left into the living room. Of course, I knew the room was empty, but that wasn’t what I saw. Before me was the ghostly image of a comfortable family room with clean, but dated, plaid furniture and a plant stand filled with African violets. The fireplace crackled with a fresh log, its promise of warmth making my bare arms break out in goose bumps. As always, there were no people in the vision, only the evidence of their presence . . . a folded-open TV Guide on the coffee table, a Motorola console record player with unsheathed John Coltrane albums lying out as if the listener would return any moment. I’d seen this particular scene before. It was from a time when the home had been especially happy, and it liked to revisit those days over and over.
I clenched my eyes tight, hoping the vision would clear. It didn’t. The energy in the house was too strong tonight. She didn’t like it that Nick bought her without seeing her first. It was like he didn’t really give a shit about her at all. Made her nervous. And when the house was nervous, I felt it like a flutter in my chest. It had helped when he said he planned to sell to a nice family, but what if the house didn’t like them? She didn’t care for toddlers coloring her walls with crayons or moody teenagers who took their aggression out punching holes through her plaster. Worse, what if no family wanted the old home, and Nick had to sell to a group of young guys who brought in a Kegerator and had parties every weekend like that group in 2002 had done? It longed for quiet, respectful occupants.
“Relax, House,” I whispered, petting the cool wooden banister. “Be happy that you’re getting a makeover.”
I made my way to the back door off the kitchen, carefully avoiding the furniture that I’d be able to walk right through. The visions weren’t usually this vivid. Sometimes I would go days without seeing anything, only feeling the psychic pulse of the walls around me. That was what had called me to this place to begin with. The old house had been so lonely, it had practically begged me to move in. Okay, it didn’t actually talk to me with words. That would be crazy. But the place made its wishes known just the same.
I tugged open the back door and stepped onto the concrete stoop. I opened my fly and turned to do my business. The night air was cool. Too cool to sleep outside. What the fuck was I going to do? The few hundred bucks I had stashed away wouldn’t buy me a week in a motel. Kenny, the baker at work, had intimated several times that I was welcome at his place, but the thought of having to suck the fat fuck off for the privilege of sleeping on his pot-scented couch made me sick.
Nick Cooper on the other hand . . . I might be willing to go to my knees for him if he’d let me stay here until he sold the house. Those full lips and that intense stare had about killed me. Dude was a fine specimen of man. Unfortunately for me, my gaydar hadn’t given the slightest ping when he’d stood in the room.
I tucked myself away before I got hard and had to do something about it.
Back in my room, I checked the time on my pay-as-you-go phone. Not quite midnight yet, but I needed to be up before the sun to make it to work by six. If I wasn’t so desperate for cash, I’d call in tomorrow and work on my living situation. For the millionth time, I thought about my zayde’s—my grandfather’s—place in Oak Creek, the home I’d grown up in. I’d still be living there if he hadn’t died, and his whole meager estate hadn’t passed to my deadbeat mother. The only way she’d let me stay there now is if I agreed to give her my paychecks to feed her drug habit. I’d rather sleep under a bridge than spend one night under her roof.
I drew my guitar out of its case and arranged myself on my simple bed with it perched in my lap. I strummed the strings in an absentminded tune, hoping to soothe both myself and the house. My eyes drifted closed as I picked away with my calloused fingers. Behind the dark lids, I saw Nick’s face again. His whiskey-colored eyes and granite jaw, those full lips, begging to be bit. Without consciously meaning to, the tune dropped into a slow, sultry swing. I hummed along in a wordless melody until the house calmed, and the night overtook my restless mind.
“Good thing the power’s off,” I mused, fingering the knob and tube wiring in the attic. “The place is gonna have to be completely rewired and brought to code.”
“Got it,” my intern, Kelly, replied as she entered the costs of an updated electrical system to the budget spreadsheet on her tablet. “One hundred twenty amp?”
“Nah, make it two hundred. Won’t cost that much more, so we might as well do it right. The good news, we won’t have to reinsulate the whole attic. Looks like just the spot on the rear side where that leaky vent is.”
I’d found the source of the moisture in the kitchen easily enough. An old ice dam must have loosened a few of the shingles around a roof vent, allowing rain water to trickle in and down the inside the walls. I’d bet money there was mold behind the tub surround of the upstairs bathroom also. I wouldn’t know for sure until I demoed it all out though.
Damn, the place was going to be an expensive fix. Not to mention, it would take all my free time for the next couple of months. I couldn’t afford to pay my regular crew to help with the work. I needed them on the few remodel jobs I had that would actually pay my bills. No, if I wanted to flip this house, I need to do as much of it on my own as possible. Damien would help. He owed me a lifetime of brotherly debts. I might even be able to rope Steven into rolling up his sleeves for some manual labor, if he wasn’t too pissed off that I’d bought the house behind his back. I still hadn’t returned his angry voice mail.
“And have you made a decision on replacing the roof?”
I shook my head. “No, the shingles are at least twenty years old, but they’re holding up. I’d love to replace it, but there are more pressing concerns. I’ll just fix the spot by the vent. I think the rest is good for another five years.”
“Okay. If that’s it, I’ll work on calculating the budget. Nick, this place is going to cost a fortune. I hate to say it, and I know that you always say you need to take some risks in this business, but you may have gotten in over your head here.”
Jesus, not another person getting down on me for my decision. Why couldn’t anyone else see the potential here? A 2,700-square-foot house filled with original architectural details, for only $65,000? No way could I lose. I just had to be smart about how I spent my money.
“I know it’s a lot, but we can do it.” I flashed her a grin that I hoped was more reassuring than nervous. “Don’t worry. I’ll text you if I think of anything else. Oh, and be careful with the finishes. It has to look quality, but I can’t afford to spend a lot on things people can’t see.”
Kelly sighed. “High-end on a Walmart budget. Got it.” She turned toward the stairs and let out a squeak.
Sasha had peeked up over the railing. “Sorry. Just wanted to let you know I’m here to get my stuff.”
Seemed all the guy ever did was apologize for taking up space. Didn’t know why that bothered me, but it did. “No need to apologize. Sasha, this is Kelly, my intern.”
Kelly closed the cover on her tablet and gave Sasha a look she never bothered to give me, and I fought to stifle a grin. “I know you. You’re in that band who used to play the college bars. You went to Marquette, right? I graduated last year. I thought I saw you around campus a few times.”
Sasha’s cheeks reddened, and he averted his gaze uncomfortably. “Uh, yeah. I used to go there. I’m gonna get my bags now, Nick.”
Sasha turned to leave, but Kelly wasn’t done with him. “I’m in grad school at Concordia. Interior design.”
I had to admit I was curious about the guy. So when Kelly followed Sasha, I did too.
“Do you still play?” Kelly asked, practically stepping on his heels. “I’d love to see you perform again.”
Sasha entered his room and resumed the packing he’d begun the night before. There were two more ratty duffel bags on the floor beside the sleeping bags. “The band broke up.”
Kelly did one of those flirty pouty things with her lips, but it was clearly lost on Sasha when he didn’t bother to glance her way. “That’s too bad. You guys were good.”
“What kind of music?”
“Alternative rock. Some pop,” she answered for him. “He has an amazing voice. Plays guitar too. You should’ve seen them do that song ‘Some Nights’ by Fun. They always ended their sets with it. He’d have the whole place rocking and singing along.”
“Just a bunch of bullshit covers, mostly,” Sasha said, obviously uncomfortable with the praise.
“Kelly, can you excuse us? I need to talk to Sasha.”
Kelly shot me a hurt glare at the dismissal, but since I gave her so few direct orders, and she really needed me to give her a good evaluation for her course grade, she couldn’t exactly complain. She reached in her purse and withdrew one of the business cards she’d had printed up for her future interior design business, and held it out to Sasha. “Next time you play—anywhere—let me know.”
My eyes caught on the way she allowed her finger tips to graze his hand as he took the card. For some reason, her blatant flirtation irritated me, but it appeared to be one-sided. Kelly strode out the door with a little extra swing in her step, but Sasha had already turned back to stuffing his clothes in a bag.
Once she was gone, I cleared my throat. “A band, huh?”
Sasha ignored the question, and I started again.
“Did you find a place to stay?”
He peered up at me from where he was kneeling on the floor. “Not really, but my manager said I can keep my things in the storeroom for a few days, until I come up with a plan.”
“So you’re going to the shelter?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
I’d never been inside a homeless shelter before, and in my mind, I pictured it like an Army barracks, but more crowded and dangerous. Something happens to men when they are riding the edge of rock bottom, when they have nothing left to lose. That was no place for a young guy to be. Did he have no one to give him a hand?
“Can you swing a hammer?” I heard myself ask before my brain fully realized why I was asking.
Sasha sat back on his heels and looked at me skeptically. “Why?”
“I was thinking . . .”
He raised his brows and nodded for me to continue.
I decided to just lay it all out there. “Look, I have a tight timeline and not enough money to get this house fixed up and sold. My crew is busy working on actual paying jobs, so this place is going to depend on me and whatever I can scare up for weekend labor from my brothers. I can’t pay you much, but if you’re willing to give me a hand, I’ll let you stay here.”
Was I? Maybe hiring some street kid was a stupid idea, but desperate times and all that. “Yeah. I need to be completely done within seven weeks. That’s not long, but it would give you more time to make a plan.”
“I’ve never done construction before.”
“Do you know how to follow orders? If so, I can teach you enough to make you useful.”
He paused, clearly kicking the idea around in his mind. “I work at the coffee shop from six to two most days. I can be here and ready to go by three.”
“Works for me. I have to spend my mornings checking in on my other jobs anyway.”
Sasha looked at his half-packed bags, then stood up. “Guess I can put all this back.”
“Sorry to jerk you around. If you have time now, I can show you the things that need to be demoed first, so we can get started right away tomorrow.”
I led Sasha downstairs, feeling oddly self-conscious. Did I really just invite this stranger to stay in my house and offer him a job? I’d have to make sure he didn’t steal my tools and pawn them for quick cash. No. No, this guy didn’t give me that kind of vibe. He was just down on his luck. Like me. And I’d be smart, lock everything up each night.
This better not come back to bite me in the ass though.
“So the first thing we need to do is gut the kitchen,” I said, waving toward the nasty room. “I have a dumpster being delivered in the morning. Everything has to come out. Cabinets, appliances, that ugly-ass sink. Most importantly, anything with mold on it. I had someone out this morning to test it, and thank fucking god it’s not toxic, but still, it’s nasty shit to breathe, so I don’t want you working in here without a mask on. I have a whole pack of them in my truck that I’ll bring in. When we do the actual demo, we’ll use respirators. Got it?”
“And I want to remove this wall. Open it up to the dining room and create a more open space.”
“Uh, you’ll have to be careful with that. That’s a support wall.”
I narrowed my gaze at him. “How do you know?”
“Well, under that plaster is solid brick.”
I examined the wall. No holes in the plaster. All the moldings securely in place. What, did he have x-ray vision?
“Again,” I repeated slowly, “how do you know?”
“Used to watch HGTV with my grandfather. The only reason I can think of for a brick wall in the middle of a house is if it’s doing something to hold the place up.”
My jaw tightened. “See this?” I pressed the flat wall. “This is plaster. Unless you’re Superman, you can’t see through it. How do you know what is under the plaster?”
Sasha looked at his feet.
I knocked on the plaster with my fist. It didn’t sound hollow. Curious, I went out to my truck and returned with a crowbar. I struck the plaster hard enough to create a spiderweb crack, then pried a small section of the lath away. Sure enough, there was brick under it.
“For the last time, tell me how you knew.”
I wasn’t buying it. How did this guy who knew nothing about construction know there was a giant brick wall in the center of the house? I examined it on both sides. Aside from the one hole I just made, the brick was completely hidden. What in the hell was I missing?
Sasha cleared his throat. “If you want to knock down walls, maybe you could open up the one between the living room and the dining room. The brick wall spans the length of both rooms, so you could remove the plaster off and use it as . . . What do they call those things?”
“An accent wall?”
“Yeah, yeah. An accent wall.”
I set aside for now how Sasha could possibly know anything about the brick wall hidden under plaster and allowed myself to picture what he’d described. A brick wall spanning the length of the two rooms would make the place appear larger and more cohesive. The exposed brick would also highlight the home’s character. It wasn’t something you’d be likely to find in a cookie-cutter ranch house.
“Yeah, man, that could really work.”
Sasha didn’t meet my eyes. Something was off about this guy, but damn if it didn’t increase my curiosity about him.
I patted him on the shoulder. “Good idea. Now, let’s figure out what to do about the other side of the house.”
We walked back to the front door. At the bottom of the staircase and to the right was a row of three dark, cramped rooms. Presumably some large family from the past must have divided the area to make bedrooms, but it looked ugly as hell. The walls in all three rooms were covered in hideous yellowed wallpaper with an acorn pattern on it. There were few things in life I hated more than scraping wallpaper.
“I’m planning to take down the walls between these rooms too, and making another living space.”
“A library,” Sasha said before biting his lip. “Sorry. I just think the front part could be a family room, but the back part a library. You know, with built-in bookshelves or something.”
I’d been expecting to have to replace the furnace and water heater, but surprisingly, they were only about ten years old. I could afford to add some shelves. “Not a lot of light in the back though.”
“No, but there used to be another window back there that someone bricked over. You could open it up again.”
He was right. I’d noticed the bricked-over window when I’d examined the exterior prior to the auction. I wandered back to the dim room, with Sasha following. “Good point. And I’m thinking about cutting in another door here to open it up to the kitchen. It’d make a big difference in the flow.”
Sasha ran his hand along the wall and smiled. “This place is gonna be amazing when you’re done with it. I always thought it was such a shame that it was sitting neglected.”
Finally, someone who could see the potential in the old place! I knew I’d gotten a good feeling from this kid.
“I can’t afford to get all new windows, but I’ll have to replace that one.” I pointed to a small window with cracked glass and a frame covered in dry rot. “If we’re going to open the old window back up, I might as well cut this one bigger to match. The morning light will flood this room. Can’t you just see someone reading their morning paper and drinking coffee in front of all those books?” I pulled out my phone to text the changes to Kelly so she could adjust the budget.
“Yeah, perfect! Kind of makes me wish I could afford to buy the place when you’re done with it. So what are your plans for upstairs?”
I glanced up from my phone. “The bedrooms are okay, but the bath situation needs work. I’m hoping to keep the existing tub and refinish it, but I want to replace all the tile and the sink. Install a new vanity. For the bedrooms, I’ll refinish the floors, change out the light fixtures and repaint everything. I think a master suite would increase the home value higher than that tiny fifth bedroom does though, so I’m going to convert that into a new master bath and walk-in closet.”
“And you’re going to have this all done in seven weeks?”
My gut tightened. It was a fuck-ton of work to get done in such a short time frame, but I didn’t have a choice. The home had to be sold ASAP in order to meet my loan obligation.
“I don’t plan to get much sleep.”
“Hope you have more help than just me.”
“I have two guys working for me who will take care of the jobs lined up for my remodeling business. That will free me up to spend most of my time here. I’m licensed in electrical and plumbing, so I can do most of that work myself. My brothers and a couple of buddies will help on the weekends; maybe I’ll pick up some day laborers when I can. I’ll let Kelly handle the interior decorating details. She loves to shop with my money, but she’s surprisingly thrifty. I’ll probably hire out the landscaping. I hate that shit. And I have you.”
“I’ll pay you,” I quickly added. Didn’t want him to think I was using him. “I can only afford minimum wage though. That cool?”
Sasha nodded. “I’m just glad you’re letting me stay. The extra cash will come in handy after my eviction.”
“Sorry about that, dude, but I have to sell this place if I’m going to recoup my expenses, you know? Oh, and I had the water turned on today. Gas too. Not sure where you’ve been showering, but the one in the downstairs bath works now. So does the toilet.”
“Sweet! Your lilac bush will appreciate that.”
I raised one brow at him. “Do I want to know?”
Sasha grinned. “Don’t worry. It was number ones only, I swear. Anything else and I walk down to the BP station.”
“Good to know. Well, I have to run, but I’ll be around when you get off work tomorrow. Here.” I slid a key off the ring in my pocket and handed it to Sasha. “Lock up when you leave.”
“I still have plenty of daylight left. Got something I can start on right away?”
“Yeah, start peeling these fucking acorns off the walls.”