Gambling on Love
When Gary and Abe came out to each other in their final year of high school, a longstanding friendship turned into a new love. Keeping their feelings a secret was easy until a coach caught them together in the locker room, and their fragile relationship shattered around them. Panicked, angry, and rejected by his mother, Gary fled town, breaking Abe’s eighteen-year-old heart.
Eleven years later Gary returns just as unexpectedly, crashing into Abe's truck during a blizzard. He’s as arrogant and stubborn as ever—and just as irresistible. Time has changed them both in ways they never imagined, but the heat that flares between them is enough to thaw any ice.
While Abe discovers what Gary did to survive in the city, Gary realizes that Abe has grown into a man with needs to match his own, and they fall in love all over again. But Gary’s determination to carry out one final order from the rich, older man he lived with—and obeyed—for years means that a dead man's plans might split them apart again . . . this time for keeps.
Publisher's note: This title is an edited second edition, previously published in 2011.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
The summer before senior year . . .
The heat of an August afternoon poured down like honey from a cloudless sky and made it too much effort to move. Gary lay on his damp towel, squinted at the blue arch above, and panted like a dog. He wore denim cutoffs, still soaked from his dip in the river, but the air was heavy, sticky against his bare skin, as smothering as winter clothing.
“Think we could sleep in the river?” Abe asked. “Because I swear, when I woke up this morning, I felt cooked. The sheets stuck to me. I can’t take another night of it.”
Gary turned his head, a slow roll, and adjusted his vision from far to near. Abe was worth looking at these days even if he hadn’t grown into the wide shoulders and muscles that had replaced his adolescent scrawniness. Slate-gray eyes and a sweep of thick, straight hair, black as soot, no shine to it, just a distracting sense of softness, added to his appeal. Gary swallowed an appreciative hum and tried to keep his hands where they were. There was a scatter of water droplets across Abe’s chest, clinging to tanned skin and the few sparse hairs around his nipples. Gary wanted to lick them away, one by one, taking his time, with Abe’s fingers tight in his hair, guiding him lower when he’d finished his task.
“Worth a try. Might get your toes nibbled by a fish.”
“You saying my toes look like worms, Fox?”
Fox. Gary hated that nickname when anyone apart from Abe used it. It wasn’t for his dark red hair, but his reputation of being too smart for his own good. People were wary of him. He knew what they were picking up on, even if no one had said the word gay. Not yet. It might be a new millennium, but here in their small town on the border between Idaho and Montana, things were slow to change. Nobody was out. Everybody suspected Gary was in the closet and silently judged him for it.
Everyone except Abe. Abe liked him, always had. They’d met in fourth grade and been best friends ever since. And everyone liked Abe, which was probably why— Gary cut his thoughts off, unwilling to cast himself as Abe’s sidekick when that was so far from the truth. He smiled, beguiling, innocent. “Well . . .”
“You little shit.”
The growl that went with the words was halfhearted, the move to punch Gary’s arm a sketched-out wave. Gary got off on provoking Abe enough to make Abe wrestle him to the floor and administer a tickling with strong, merciless fingers. He lived for moments like that, with Abe’s weight on him, Abe’s breath warm on his face, but it was too hot for that today.
“A year ago, I was taller than you,” Gary reminded him. That would never be true again. He supposed he might have a few more inches to go before he stopped growing, but he’d never catch up to Abe, who at seventeen was already six feet of strength and raw masculinity. Arousal flared. Jesus, he’d better hope Abe didn’t look down and see the bulge pushing insistently against wet denim.
Abe knew Gary was gay. When he’d asked about it several months earlier, Gary had told him and braced for a frown, a grimace, a step backward. Abe had shrugged indifferently and planted a kiss on Gary’s forehead, a loud smack of a kiss followed by a hair ruffle. “Yeah, I thought so. Listen, I cut math class to work on my car. Can I borrow your notes?”
Math suited Gary, always had. There was one answer to a question, a clean, clear answer, and a teacher couldn’t take marks off him arbitrarily, the way the ones marking his essays did. He could score perfect, over and over, and he loved that feeling. But he disapproved of Abe’s truancy.
“I don’t know. Can I borrow your car?”
“When hell freezes over.”
“You don’t have your license yet, so you can’t drive it solo anyway.”
Abe had winked. “Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t run.”
They’d grinned at each other, a small knot of anxiety unraveling inside Gary’s gut. Abe had been cool about it. Well, of course he had; they’d been friends for years. This wouldn’t change anything.
Abe probably didn’t realize how often he featured in Gary’s fantasies though, and given that Gary had seen Abe naked dozens of times, he had plenty of material. Abe wasn’t body-shy. His parents had been hippies in the seventies, and enough of it had stuck that they’d brought Abe up believing the body was beautiful and nudity natural. They’d still freaked out when they found the stash of porn magazines under Abe’s bed.
In a way, Gary had been relieved to see the porn confiscated. He’d spent way too many guilty hours flicking through the magazines with Abe, side by side on Abe’s bed, the only sound in the room the rustle of flicked pages and their increasingly heavy breathing. And way too many guilty nights jerking off afterward, over and over, until his dick resembled chewed string and his wrist burned.
It hadn’t been the porn but the memory of Abe’s arousal he’d used as kindling: the shape Abe’s dick had made as it hardened inside his jeans, the way Abe’s scent had changed, musk and sweat heavy on the air. The magazines had featured a depressing number of women, a reminder that Gary didn’t have a hope in hell of making his fantasies come true.
“Are you falling asleep on me?”
Gary blinked, startled out of his reverie. “Huh? No, I was thinking about stuff.”
Abe’s gaze traveled over Gary’s body, lingering pointedly on the telltale bulge in Gary’s faded, thrift-store shorts. “I don’t want to know, huh?”
“No.” Gary made the single word a warning. Clouds raced in from the west, clustering thickly, white now, but they’d turn gray and heavy with rain soon. The air was humid, too close to endure, laden with static. If Abe touched him lightly, they’d feel a spark jump between them, but only Gary would feel the deep-down ache of longing for more. “You don’t.”
Abe’s hand tightened, not into a fist, but a reflex curl of his fingers, shock flaring on his face. “You got that thinking about me? Jesus, Gary.” His voice had grown soft, tense.
Gary couldn’t take that—Abe being kind or, more horrifying still, showing pity. “It’s not as if I can control it, for fuck’s sake,” he snapped. “You’re lying next to me close to naked. Yeah, I think you’re hot. So do half the girls in our year. Deal with it.”
“Only half?” Abe asked, but the joke was forced and Gary didn’t want to drop into their usual banter. Not now.
“Being gay’s not catching, in case you were worried. And you’re big enough to fight me off if I can’t help myself and try to jump your bones.”
“I wasn’t worried. Look, stop being a fucking jerk, okay?” Abe sat up, his chest and arms glossed with sweat, starred here and there with fragments of dirt and grass. He didn’t look happy and with Abe, what played out on his face was what he was feeling. Right now he was apparently twitchy and on edge. Well, wasn’t that fucking peachy. “There’s a storm coming. We should probably go.”
“You can if you want. I don’t feel like going home right now.”
“You’d have the house to yourself. Your mom’s probably going straight from work to church, right?”
“Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, it’s her and God,” Gary said with a shrug. “I think she’s got a thing for him, but does he ever buy her candy or send flowers? No.”
Her religion kick wasn’t new. It had begun after Gary’s dad died of lung cancer, so it wasn’t hard to connect the dots. Gary missed his dad in a vague, dutiful way, but not the thick pall of cigarette smoke that’d hung around the house, staining the walls and leaving Gary’s clothes reeking. Smoking didn’t tempt him, not after listening to his dad’s way of greeting the morning with a cough and a spit into the toilet bowl. Gross.
“You’re weird, you know that?” Abe told him, like it was news.
“And going to hell according to the preacher man she’s listening to, but he doesn’t like dinosaurs either, and as a Flintstones fan, I gotta say, he’s full of shit. I mean, who doesn’t love Dino?”
Abe opened his mouth to reply, then shook his head. “Never mind. If you don’t want to be alone in the house, can I come over or what?”
“Oh, you want to come over. Well, why didn’t you say so?” Gary mocked. Definitely not his best work, but thinking about his parents always brought him down.
They gathered up their things, then pedaled their bikes hard to beat the rain. At Gary’s house, he led Abe up to his room without thinking about it. They always hung out there, with the door locked and his mom safely on the other side of it. Not that she ever joined in any of their conversations—as if—but it was impossible to talk freely with her a silent presence, staring out of the window and drinking her coffee in small, careful sips, her hands cradling the mug tightly as if she expected that to get taken away too, like her husband.
The room was dark, but Gary snapped on the red overhead light instead of opening the curtains. Daylight would expose too much shabbiness. The faint glow from the low-wattage bulb—he’d stopped thinking it was cool a few years back, but the damn thing wouldn’t die—was far less revealing, even if it made his head ache.
“This place stinks of dirty socks and you.” Abe spoke with the brutal frankness of an old friend. “It’s a toss-up which is more rank. Do you ever open a window?”
“Fresh air kills, man. Full of carcinogens.”
With a disbelieving snort, Abe sat on the bed. It was a double, wide enough for Gary to sprawl out on, starfished across the cheap, rumpled sheets. Big enough for two, not that he’d ever tested that theory.
Abe still looked moody, subdued and brooding about something.
Gary figured it had always been a matter of time. He had been an idiot to let his guard down now that Abe knew the truth. He sat at the head of the bed, leaning back against the wall, a pillow cushioning his back. “So is this the break-up talk because I got a boner for you? Do I have to promise to forget your locker combination and avoid eye contact in the hallways?”
“How about you try not to be a jerk for five minutes.” Abe’s attention was on his hands, folded in his lap, his fingers wound together, the skin over the knuckles pulled tight enough that bone gleamed white through the thin covering. “Think you can do that for me, Fox?”
The emptiness in his voice made the stuffy room—yeah, it stunk—seem colder. Gary bit at his lower lip, worrying it until it stung. “Sure. Yeah. Say what you need to say.”
“I’m gay, I’m in love with you, and I can’t handle it.” Abe said it in a rush, then slumped forward and put his head in his hands. “Shit. Shit.” His right hand lashed out and down, punching the bed with enough force to make Gary put his hands down, bracing himself, his world rocked, physically and emotionally.
Gay? Abe, gay? No fucking way was that possible. In Gary’s dreams, sure, but not for real. Abe had dated girls, kissed girls, and slipped his hand up their T-shirts to fondle their tits. Gary had heard all about it, in excruciating detail. No sex, but that was down to caution, not lack of opportunity. No one wanted a baby to support, not at their age. One problem Gary was spared, at least.
The rest of what Abe had said finally registered with him. In love? Oh God. That was fucking scary. He liked Abe, and lusted after him with heartfelt appreciation, but love was a step over the edge of a cliff with a hard landing. Still, hearing Abe say it made something twist inside him, a complicated response, half yearning, half panic. Abe would be so fucking easy to fall in love with.
The final part of Abe’s little speech made it unlikely he’d ever take that step, though. It didn’t take a trained therapist to deduce Abe wasn’t happy to discover he was gay. Gary hated seeing Abe miserable.
“I told you. Gay’s not catching. It doesn’t make you gay to have a dude think you’re hot. If you’re unhappy, stick to being straight. It’s worked fine for you the last seventeen years. You’re probably just going through a phase.”
God, listen to him spout bullshit. He should take over from the preacher next time the asshole got sick.
“I wish.” Abe looked at him directly. “Don’t you get it, Fox? I’ve known what I was for years. Before you, I bet. I saw you working shit out and I wanted to say, hey, me too, but I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to be the freak kid beaten up and laughed at. I don’t want that for you either, but I can’t stop thinking about you and what I want to do to you.”
He inhaled sharply, a muscle in his jaw jumping. “God, earlier, knowing you were hard over me . . . You’re lucky I didn’t grab you, because I don’t know if I could’ve stopped myself, that’s how bad it’s gotten. I’m walking around and I see you, and I— Fuck, why is this so hard to say?”
“You don’t seem to have a problem talking.” Gary felt numb, stunned. All this was too much to take in. His dick was rigid and his skin thirsty, hungry for a touch. “I know what it’s like to feel that way. And I know you’d stop, but I can’t picture me telling you to.”
Abe made a small sound, pitiful, needy, and Gary couldn’t do it anymore. He didn’t give a fuck if things ended with the whole town outside waving pitchforks and burning torches; he wanted his mouth on Abe’s and his hands on the ass he’d been dreaming of for months. Years.
He leaned forward, going to his hands and knees to get close to Abe. Abe swallowed visibly, a faint tremor running over him, but his mouth met Gary’s without hesitation, opening to the push of Gary’s tongue a moment later.
Gary arched closer to press against Abe, shameless, avid, the movement made without conscious thought behind it. Abe stroked his bare back, soothing him, though Abe was the one trembling, not Gary.
“Are you sure?” Abe whispered against Gary’s hair, dipping his hands lower, brushing the waist of Gary’s shorts, and pushing the fabric lower by an inch or two. That might have worked with gym shorts, but not with denim. Their hands met, fumbled over the snap and zipper, somehow freeing Gary’s dick. It stuck up, tall and straight, a pole waiting for a flag. Jesus, his balls were a mashed-together throb, tight and aching. “It won’t be easy. We can’t tell anyone. We can’t be, uh . . .”
“Out,” Gary supplied. “We’re in the fucking closet. I get it. It’s cool. Stop talking so fucking much.”
It wasn’t okay, but he’d have agreed to anything that put a smile back on Abe’s face and kept those big, warm hands moving over him. He could feel the frantic thud of Abe’s heart through the T-shirt he was about to peel off him, could smell the longing and taste the need.
When he fell back on the bed, Abe fell over with him, his kisses still tentative, but so fucking sweet they made Gary’s teeth ache. Gary reached down and cupped Abe’s ass for the first time.
Felt good. Felt so fucking good.
The following May . . .
Gary watched the last student emerge from the locker room and stopped pretending to read the notice board. Half the stuff stuck on it was out of date or obscured by graffiti anyway.
Everybody, including the coach, had left. Everybody but Abe. With a smile he couldn’t hold back, Gary slipped through the door and into the warm, steamy air. It smelled ripe in there, the damp atmosphere holding the sweat and musk that’d built up over the years. He should’ve been in class, but Abe had a free period, so he wouldn’t be rushing to dress, not when he knew what Gary had planned.
Not that Abe had believed him.
“You can’t. Not at school. Shit, Gary, are you crazy? In the middle of the afternoon, when anyone could walk in?”
“There isn’t another class in there. Yours is the last one of the day, and you know Coach Dyer always takes off to grab a coffee and a smoke. Loosen up, Abe. We graduate soon and I’ve never sucked you off on school property. It’s a waste of a hot fantasy.”
“No, Fox, okay? No.”
Abe had sounded totally sincere, but here he was, still wet from his shower, sitting naked on a bench, a towel draped across his lap, watching the door. Gary leaned against the wall and smiled. “Oh, yeah. You look like a man who doesn’t want to get blown. Tell me again why this isn’t a good idea. I’ve got to say, with a hard-on visible from space, you’ll need to be really convincing.”
Abe glanced down at his lap as if he hadn’t realized that his dick, anticipating Gary’s mouth, was already nicely stiff. He was flushed pink from the shower, but the color in his cheeks deepened. He stood, the towel in his hand, his body there for Gary to stare at. Gary’s mouth couldn’t decide whether to drool or go dry with longing. How the fuck had he gotten this lucky?
“Yeah, I’m hard. What do you expect? You wind me up and I— Jesus, Fox, get over here.”
Gary closed the gap between them with two long strides across the slippery floor and took a kiss to hide the fact he couldn’t come up with a single coherent sentence. Abe’s skin was hot and damp under his hands, muscles pumped, cock thick and hard. Abe kissed him back with more aggression than normal—passion fueled by nerves, Gary guessed. He felt the same way. This was risky—but that made it tempting.
“Over there.” Abe showed more discretion than Gary was capable of. “In the washroom. If someone comes in, we’ll hear the door open. You can stay in the stall and I’ll say I was changing.”
Gary’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “I’m not blowing you in there.” The toilet stank and the floor was wet and covered with soaked scraps of toilet paper. “I’ll hide in there if I have to, but I’m not kneeling in piss and dirty water. Over by the wall and give me your towel to kneel on.”
Abe bit his lip but Gary reached down, his hand getting busy. A squeeze and a promise, and Abe groaned, rocking his hips, his dick sliding through the tunnel of Gary’s hand. “Okay, okay. We’ve got to be quick, though.”
“Don’t worry about me.” Gary kept his voice down once he’d dropped to his knees. Voices echoed oddly in the locker room, bouncing off the tiled walls, and it made him edgy. “I’ll jerk off later. I want to spend the rest of the afternoon tasting you every time I swallow.”
“You’re so fucking kinky.” Abe shut up, his back against the wall, clutching Gary’s shoulders.
Gary sighed happily and got to work, his plans to make this quick and dirty lost in the pleasure of feeling his mouth stretched wide, the circle of his lips conforming to the shape of Abe’s cock. They’d done this often enough now that gagging was a thing of the past—mostly—and it’d been ages since either of them had yelped, sensitive skin scored by sharp teeth.
He let Abe control the blowjob at first, accepting each thrust with nothing more than an encouraging hum while he waited for Abe’s nervousness to quiet down. He saw his hands, fingers spread wide, on Abe’s thighs, but they looked unfamiliar, as if they belonged to someone else. The thought of another boy touching Abe always made him feel sick and lost, so he closed his eyes and moved his hands. One slid down to cradle Abe’s balls, damp and hot from the shower; the other, he wrapped around the base of Abe’s cock. Sometimes Abe went too deep, leaving the back of Gary’s throat bruised. He didn’t mind, but today he wanted to be the one in charge. He’d set this up, after all, persuading Abe to play along. He should be the one who got to conduct the orchestra. Besides, he preferred it that way, and he suspected Abe did too. They hadn’t been best friends for nine years for nothing, and Gary knew when Abe wanted him to take the lead.
He could smell the faintly antiseptic tang of the soap Abe had used—taste it too, at first—but under the flat taste of water and soap, Abe’s natural scent was still there, ready to be coaxed out with each lap of Gary’s tongue. He loved making Abe gasp and choke out his name, certain in the moment, if not the aftermath, that Abe wanted him, needed him.
They weren’t only friends now. Awareness of each other’s bodies colored everything between them. Gary could get half-hard seeing Abe’s jacket slung across a chair in the cafeteria, remembering how they’d used it as a blanket the weekend before. He existed in a haze of arousal focused on Abe. His porn, what there was of it, lay forgotten, hidden in his closet. He didn’t need it now. All he needed to get off was a memory of Abe.
He sometimes missed the way they had talked, saying nothing much and taking a thousand words to say it, or the hours spent listening to music together, the beat of the drums and the scream of a guitar or a singer working its way under his skin until it was part of him. Now, when they were behind a closed door, they were kissing, not talking. Kissing until Gary’s lips felt numb, rubbery, his chin scraped raw from Abe’s stubble. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t get enough of Abe’s mouth, moving against his slowly, or the flick and thrust of Abe’s tongue.
They knew there was more they could do to each other, but without discussing it much, they stuck to what was easy and didn’t require shoplifting. Neither of them could buy condoms or lube from anywhere local without word getting out, so stealing was their only option, and Abe wouldn’t let Gary risk it. Abe’s dad didn’t use condoms—he’d had a vasectomy years before—so their options were limited if they wanted to stay safe. And they did. They figured they’d have time to explore those other options after high school. Lately they’d both started talking about when, not if. When we’re in our own place. When we can fall asleep afterward every night.
He still hadn’t told Abe he loved him. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but he’d never been so dependent on someone before. It scared him, but not enough to make him want to back away. He only wanted more.
Gary closed off his thoughts and concentrated on the task at hand. He had another class before he could go home, and he would spend it with his body tense, thrumming with arousal. He liked making himself wait to climax sometimes, tormenting himself with a denial that was more pleasure than pain. Abe had once pinned him down to the bed and told him not to come, grinning because he knew how close Gary was. He’d come before Abe finished speaking, not because his dick was wet from Abe’s mouth, but from the kick of being ordered not to, though he hadn’t shared that with Abe. It was the idea of it, the whole scenario, that set him off . . . and the thought of making Abe wait like that sometime. Some of the thoughts in his head were too out-there to share, too confused to put into words. Even Gary didn’t always know what he wanted until it was happening.
Like now. He was on his knees, but he’d planned it that way. What did that make him, top or bottom? The only certainty was that something in the mix got him hot.
He drew back and teased the head of Abe’s dick with the tip of his tongue before rubbing his cheek against it, getting off on how slutty he must look. Judging by his throaty groan, Abe liked the view.
Fluid was slick over the crown of Abe’s dick, and it wasn’t all spit. He was nearly there. If Gary put Abe’s dick back into his mouth and sped up the bob of his head, he’d get what he wanted.
He settled himself more comfortably on the towel, losing himself in his self-imposed rhythm, mercilessly driving Abe toward his climax.
“Jesus H. Christ!”
Abe cried out, startled, panicked, and Gary jerked around, his wet mouth popping loudly and lewdly off Abe’s cock.
Coach Dyer stood a few yards away, his face blank with shock, but already twisting into a pained grimace.
Gary’s hand was still on Abe’s cock. He felt it jerk and soften, a balloon losing its air. Fuck. Fuck. Five minutes. That was all they’d needed. Less.
“Get dressed, Carter.” Coach’s voice was flat with disapproval and disgust. “You’re both coming with me to see the principal. And not one smart word outta you, Stratton. I don’t want to hear it.”
“Coach, please don’t,” Abe begged, his voice unsteady. He pushed Gary’s hand aside and moved past him, his hands dropping to cover himself. “Don’t. We’re sorry. It was one time. It’ll never happen again, I swear.”
“I expected better than this from you.” Dyer shook his head. “For God’s sake, Stratton, get up. And Carter, put on some goddamned clothes before I throw up.”
It was one time.
Gary stared at the tiles in front of him, white with dark cracks running across some of them. He rose and put his hand on the wall to balance him as a bleak dizziness swept over him. He’d stood too fast, that was all. It wasn’t because Abe had left him, hurrying into his clothes without a backward glance.
It stayed with him when they walked along the empty hallways, the coach behind them, silent now, unhappy, as if he knew what he had to do but didn’t like doing it.
They wouldn’t get expelled for sex on school property—if the administration stuck with that policy, the classes would be half-empty after every prom—and they were both over eighteen, so he couldn’t see that being much of an issue. It wasn’t as if it’d been the coach blowing Abe, after all. Shit, he couldn’t think about that. It made him want to laugh, and he didn’t need to go into Principal Warren’s office fighting a giggle fit.
Word would get out, though. It always did. They’d be outed, with a month of school to endure, and the gossip wouldn’t end when they graduated.
He gave Abe a sidelong glance, hating how Abe averted his face. It didn’t take a Sherlock to work out Abe was ashamed of them and what they’d done, what they were.
One time . . . It had practically been the first thing out of Abe’s mouth. As if everything they’d shared over the past eight months—and everything they’d talked about sharing in the future—didn’t matter at all.
It was over. No matter what happened after they walked past Mrs. Gilroy’s desk and into the principal’s office, what he had with Abe was over.
That made him so miserably angry, nothing else registered. Not the principal’s icy lecture—not focused on the fact they were guys, surprisingly, but on the school rules they’d broken. Not the spitefully smug look on Debbie Gilroy’s face when they emerged ten minutes later. She went to church with Gary’s mom, and he knew she’d been eavesdropping and would be on the phone within minutes, spreading the news. In confidence, of course, to her closest friends, because they ought to know. Not gossip, at all.
More than any other face, it was hers Gary saw when he packed what he needed that night and prepared to leave town. Debbie Gilroy represented everything he hated about the place he’d lived all his life. Petty, small-minded, endlessly inquisitive . . .
His mother was at church, praying for a son she could love, most likely. He passed her empty bedroom on the way to the stairs and didn’t spare it a glance. When she’d come home from work, he’d thrown his confession at her like a stone, telling her he was gay before she could bring up hearing it from anybody else. There had been no flicker of surprise on her face at the news, but there had been no emotion in her eyes for years.
And later that night, there was no doubt in Abe’s eyes when he refused point-blank to leave town with Gary. Then Abe had started crying. Gary hadn’t bothered hanging around to hear his excuses.
Eleven years later . . .
The tires of his car skidded on a patch of ice, and Gary gripped the steering wheel tighter, sweat breaking out over his body. His shoulders ached, but he couldn’t relax and sit back. The snow whirling around the car fell too thick and fast for that.
Turning around would’ve been sensible, but the lack of anywhere remotely suitable—and his stubborn belief that turning back was bad luck—kept him inching along what was little more than a track.
“Should’ve stayed on I-90,” he muttered under his breath. “Scenic mountain route, my ass. Like I didn’t see enough of them growing up.”
He’d left I-90 to fill up with gas at Missoula and stretch his legs. Being this close to home after so many years away had felt strange, like wearing jeans he’d outgrown. He’d known when he planned his route it would take him close, but he’d never intended to do more than nod in passing at the place he’d grown up. Nostalgia only went so far. He’d left when he was eighteen, and in eleven years away, he’d never regretted that decision.
The map had shown he could take a road running parallel to the highway and closer to the mountains that loomed up invitingly, silently challenging him. He’d fumbled his lucky quarter out of his pocket. Tails for the road less traveled . . . and tails it was.
He never argued with the results of the coin toss. He’d found the quarter when he was nine, his eye caught by a silvery glint on the sidewalk. The dropped coin had been lying not flat, but on its edge, a minor miracle that’d saved it from being spent on candy because clearly, it was no ordinary coin. To keep it from being lost in the rest of the spare change in his pocket, he’d carried it home clutched in his hand and slipped it inside a small drawstring bag that’d once held marbles. The bag had changed over the years, but it was the same quarter. A boy at school had once swapped it out, thinking he wouldn’t realize. One bloody nose later, that boy had flung the contents of his pockets at Gary and dared him to pick out his quarter from the five or six scattered on the floor.
Gary hadn’t hesitated, his fingers closing around his quarter with complete certainty before he verified the date and the tiny nick on the edge.
Now he wondered if the coin had steered him wrong for the first time. He was lost, and he didn’t know how it’d happened. Getting turned around in a city or the suburbs, where the subdivisions seemed designed to take a visitor in endless loops and down a dozen dead ends, was one thing. Out here, though, where roads were as rare as second chances, how in God’s name had he managed it? Not to mention the embarrassment of getting turned around in his own backyard. Well, okay, twenty or thirty miles away from it, and he had been away for over a decade, so he should cut himself some slack.
He could’ve sworn he hadn’t strayed from the single road marked on his inadequate map. He hadn’t turned abruptly or chosen a direction at a crossroads, yet somehow, here he was, climbing up instead of following a road through a valley, and heading into a blizzard. That’d been what the gas station attendant had called it, at least. From what Gary had seen when he stood shivering in a thin January wind, the gas he pumped moving sluggishly into the tank, the area must’ve had a few already. White drifts cloaked everything that wasn’t a road or the parking lot to a business.
It’d been too early to stop driving and get a room for the night, and the decision to continue and outrun the approaching storm had seemed reasonable at the time. No more than a few flakes had been fluttering down, and the roads were clear, salt and sand keeping the ice at bay. He’d lost time on his long journey already that day by waking late. He’d checked out of the roadside motel in a rush, still damp from a hasty shower with the water running hot for no more than a stingy minute or two.
Rueing his decision wouldn’t do a damn thing to help him now, but he wasted a few moments on indulging in a fantasy, mentally rewriting the afternoon so he stayed on the highway, without making that damn coin flip. He racked up the miles, then pulled off when night fell at a clean, comfortable motel with soft beds, hot water in abundance, and a diner nearby staffed by waitresses falling over themselves to keep his coffee cup filled.
It made a nice mirage, but the reality of the situation required his full attention. He shook off the daydream and concentrated on guiding his car around a series of tight bends, praying he was the only idiot using the road.
His car was a beat-up station wagon, a late-nineties Ford Taurus in an uninspiring silver-gray. It held the road well enough, and the heater worked fine, but he mourned the loss of his company car, a BMW with enough bells and whistles that, after driving it for six months, there were still some functions he’d never gotten around to figuring out. He hadn’t earned it—they were reserved for partners, not their secretaries, but Peter had tossed the keys at him one morning during a meeting and Gary had caught them with a grin. The scene later, when Gary had said thank you on his knees with his mouth too busy to form the actual words, had been almost as much fun as seeing the stunned fury on Christopher Talbot’s face, witnessing Peter’s generosity. Talbot didn’t own the company, but he often acted as if he did. Gary had always enjoyed watching Peter remind Talbot whose name was on the door.
And now, with Peter dead, there was no one to prick Talbot’s self-satisfied bubble from time to time. Gary couldn’t help thinking that wherever Peter was now, he was well and truly pissed to see Gary reduced to driving a POS.
Gary had bought the Taurus from a dealer for cash and driven it back to his small apartment, his nostrils filling with the stink of stale take-out food. Maybe the previous owner had lived in it, because there was a pair of socks wedged under the driver’s seat. He’d hoped someone would steal it from the underground parking lot, but it clearly lacked thief-appeal. He’d loaded it up with everything he owned, a jumble of expensive luggage and battered cardboard boxes, and prayed it would at least get him out of the city.
Before he handed over the keys to his apartment, he’d taken one last look around the place he’d lived in for five years. For most of that time it’d been a mailing address, not a home. Peter’s house had been his true home, though he’d never officially moved in. Toward the end, Peter had gotten less concerned about appearances and asked him to, but his children, suddenly solicitous, had been around too much for him to feel comfortable spending more time there. Talbot disliked him; Kristina and Mark loathed their father’s lover.
“Our father is not gay,” Kristina had told him once, every word precise, genuine color swamping the carefully applied cosmetics on her face. “My brother and I are proof of that. I don’t know how you’ve persuaded him to turn his back on everything our name stands for, but you disgust me. And, no, it’s not because you’re gay. You don’t get to make me the villain that way. It’s because you’re a predator.”
As far as Gary could see, the Thornfield name only stood for respectability when it came to the present generation. Peter’s father had stayed out of prison because he knew who to bribe or intimidate, and Peter—though he’d quietly diverted the business into more legitimate channels—had all his father’s ruthlessness, hidden under a charm that fooled most people.
Gary couldn’t imagine anyone less vulnerable to a scam than Peter. Telling Kristina the details of how he and Peter had hooked up and the way their relationship worked would have been cruel, so he never had. Sometimes he’d been so fucking tempted, though, especially in the days after Peter’s death, when grief shredded his control and left him ripe for a fight. He’d used up all his denial during Peter’s final illness, it seemed, and moved straight to anger by the time of the funeral.
That had been a month ago. Now the anger was spent, and Gary felt as empty as the apartment he’d packed up. Stripped of his bits and pieces, the place had seemed even smaller, but he hadn’t allowed himself to stand there staring out at the city lights of Seattle and reminiscing for long. The road east and then south—a long journey, the way he’d planned it—waited for him.
He was in no rush to reach his destination. When he did, it would draw a line under everything he’d had with Peter, and he wasn’t ready to do that yet. Peter had also made it quite clear he should use the journey to clear his head.
You’ll drive there, not fly—what can you see from the air but clouds, after all, and God, how boring are they? Drive, explore, and if you get lost, don’t panic—but you never do. I like that about you, along with many other things I’m sure I’ve mentioned from time to time. If I believed in an afterlife, I’d tell you I’d miss you, but I don’t, so I’ll tell you that while I write this, with you waiting for me on my bed and wondering why it’s taking me so long to finish reading a report, I’m missing you as if you were already lost to me.
The thought of that is annoying enough that you won’t get much sleep tonight, Gary. I’ll make the most of you while I can. I can hear you moving, restless, impatient for me to come and fuck you, and that’s the only thing keeping me here writing this. I love you when you’re eager for me. I’m beginning to wonder if I love more of you than that, but I’ve left it too late to burden you with that discovery.
You’ve let me be in charge of you for the last five years. Allowed me to dictate more than letters to you. I don’t see why my death should change that immediately, do you?
Drive. And take your time.
He’d planned to drift to his destination in stages rather than go as arrow-straight as the roads would allow. On paper, his route was a series of unnecessary curves, swooping from state to state, wasteful of mileage and gas, but it took him to places he’d never visited, as well as past his childhood home. Both results held a certain appeal. Without Peter’s daily supervision, Gary dragged out the trip the same way he prolonged any treat, from eating a Boston crème doughnut to opening a gift to sex. His childhood had contained too few indulgences for him to ever take one for granted. He’d spin out the pleasurable anticipation until he couldn’t stand it, not another second of waiting, and the doughnut got crammed into his mouth, the wrapping paper got torn to confetti . . . and Peter got to hear him at his most demanding.
The first day, he’d left midafternoon and stayed the night in Spokane, after racking up two hundred seventy miles or so. The car seat made it feel double that distance, a spring in it digging viciously into his back.
Leaving his route at Missoula took Peter’s wishes too far, though. Gary had no more in the way of supplies than a few bottles of water and an energy bar he’d bought along with his gas, and was guided by a road map folded so often, the print along the creases had been rubbed away. The GPS on his cell phone would have been more useful, but he’d run the battery down and discovered, too late to go back, that he’d left the charger in the last motel he’d stayed at. He was in a reckless mood these days, but that was no excuse for being an idiot.
Growing up, he’d seen plenty of news reports about people freezing to death in their cars, or after abandoning them to walk in search of shelter. Despite that, unlike getting eaten by a shark, the possibility of being killed by a snowstorm had never troubled his youthful nightmares. Snow came every winter and it was a pain, sure, but it wasn’t a danger. A blizzard meant no school, sledding, and hot cocoa with marshmallows afterward. As an adult he’d been inconvenienced by delayed flights in the winter, like most people, but that was as far as it went. Now, with the road rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the rough terrain bordering it, he gave serious thought to pulling over. The only thing stopping him was the fear that if he tried to wait out the storm, the car would end up buried in a drift or slammed from behind by the next vehicle to come along. He’d also eaten the energy bar half an hour ago.
Whatever boost a few mouthfuls of compressed granola and dried fruit had given his system—he placed energy bars above sawdust but significantly below brussels sprouts when it came to edibility, and he loathed sprouts—it’d worn off now. His belly rumbled discontentedly and he craved a stiff vodka tonic to wash the taste of flat bottled water out of his mouth. Of course, he also yearned for a medium-rare steak with all the trimmings, and a heap of golden fries dredged with salt and destined to be dunked in a pool of ketchup, thick, rich, and red. None of those things would probably pass his lips anytime soon.
“It’s a road,” he said, talking aloud because he’d fallen into the habit of doing that on the long drive. The radio was an annoyance, not a companion, in his current mood. At first, he’d pretended Peter sat beside him, and carried on a conversation with thin air. That left him feeling unbearably lonely, so he’d stopped. Besides, Peter would’ve hated the thought of someone, even Gary, putting words into his mouth. “It’s got to lead somewhere, and pretty soon, you’ll recognize the somewhere.”
He didn’t dwell on the fact a road this empty and poorly maintained probably led to a summer campground, useless to him now since it’d be closed for the winter. He had a vague memory of some ski lodges around, but they’d be higher up. Not that he’d ever been to one, apart from on a school field trip once. By the time his class had been fitted out with skis, boots, and poles, it’d been time to go home. Skiing was something the rich tourists did, or the kids like Abe whose parents had money for vacations. Not Gary.
The snow eased off a little, enough for him to be able to see something of the road ahead. Either it climbed steeply, or he’d left the road and was driving up the side of the mountain. Instead of being plastered against his windshield, the snowflakes whirled madly in the wind, buffeting the car like petulant toddlers. They mesmerized his tired eyes until he started to focus on them, not the road. The swish of the wipers back and forth added another strain to the storm’s hypnotic lullaby, and Gary yawned, blinking to keep his eyes from sliding shut. The heated air inside the car was stale and dusty. With a vague idea of seeing for himself how cold it was, he reached out for the switch that would open the driver’s-side window, automatically going for the place it would’ve been on his BMW. Sighing when his fingers met nothing useful, he groped around on the door, risking a single look sideways. It was dusk outside, and the interior of the car was shadowed and dim.
He located the switch and depressed it; the window hissed as it fought to descend but was hampered by the buildup of snow on the glass. It jerked down several inches and the hiss was lost in the wail of the wind. Cold air surged in through the gap in a whoosh of noise and snow.
“Shit!” Gary shivered when the side of his face received a wet slap, the snowflakes that struck it melting instantly and leaving his cheek damp and chilled. He breathed in the fresh air like medicine, inhaling it with quick, shallow breaths, and decided enough was enough. He’d gotten his answer. It was freezing cold out there. He should’ve taken that on trust.
With one hand gripping the wheel, he dropped his other hand to the switch again, glancing down at it automatically. That brief moment of inattention cost him. The car lurched to the side, leaving the road, the passenger-side tires riding not a solid shoulder but a ditch filled with soft new snow. Gary yelped and slapped his hand back on the wheel, leaving the open window to deal with later. The miniature snowstorm inside the car was the least of his worries. With a strength increased by panic, he managed to get the car back onto smoother terrain, feeling as if it were his muscles lifting the car, not the laboring engine and shuddering wheels.
His heart pounded as fast as if he’d been running, the shock of the near crash as painful a jolt as an air horn blasting nearby would have been.
Relief flooded through him. Close call, for sure, but he’d made it. Exhilaration made him stupid, and instead of decelerating, he pushed down on the gas pedal, sending the car forward in a smooth rush. The road ahead dipped slightly, curving to the right, and gravity added to the car’s forward momentum, making him feel like a kid on a roller coaster, clinging to the safety bar and praying he wouldn’t throw up in front of his friends.
His eye was caught by the lights of a vehicle approaching from the left, a vague yellow blur. It was the first sign of life he’d seen in over an hour, and it raised questions that needed to be answered on the spot. A side road—or was he the one expected to give way? Was he joining a bigger road, one that might lead away from the mountains and back to civilization and more familiar territory? Should he turn off and follow it? Yeah, he should.
He braked too hard, too fast, and felt the back tires skid, the car going into a lazy, stomach-turning spin, tires too smooth with packed snow to find a hold. He fought to break out of it, and ended up facing the right way but on the wrong side of the road, his car still moving in a shallow arc.
The other vehicle was a pickup truck with a snowplow on the front, looming up too fast in the dim light for Gary to do anything about the inevitable collision. Thoughts passed through his head, molasses slow. The truck wasn’t moving, so the driver must’ve come to a halt, waiting for him to pass. That also meant the driver wouldn’t be able to maneuver out of his way. If he’d been in his BMW, with its ABS and traction control, he would never have gone into the skid in the first place.
The glacial pace of the passing seconds abruptly changed to a blur, as if time had realized it was lagging behind and needed to catch up all at once. Gary gave the wheel one last, despairing wrench.
Word Count: 75,600
Page Count: 267
Cover By: Jay Aheer
Release Date: 09/17/2016
Release Date: 09/19/2016