The Week Before the Meeting…
“Come in,” I responded to the knock as I hung up the phone. I’d just talked to my co-parent, Lark, about the visitation schedule. She had a business trip to New York which had unexpectedly come up that weekend, and she wanted to take Judah, our son, with her so they could visit my parents while they were in town. I thanked her for even considering it, hoping it would get Mom and Dad off my back for a while. They didn’t approve of much of my life, but they did love my son, and for that I was grateful.
My sister Rory walked in with what appeared to be a ream of paper held in her crossed arms. “I’ve got something I want you to read, and then you and I are going to have a heart-to-heart, Kenny. I’m going to guess you’ll want to pursue this one, but it’s going to take both of us selling it to Mom and Dad. It’s a direction I doubt they’ll approve that we take,” she stated as she sat down in the tan leather wingback chair across from my desk, picking at something on her skirt to keep from looking me in the eye. It was definitely her “tell” that she was up to something.
“What direction?” I asked as I studied her behavior. She was definitely hiding something.
My sister was beyond infuriating with the way she approached me regarding something she didn’t want to talk about but had no choice. “Erotica,” she answered.
I laughed at her in disbelief. “We already do erotica, Rory. Don’t you read what we put on the shelves? I’ve got four authors who are pumping out dirty stories almost every month.” I worked with the writers directly, and my sister, Aurora handled the business side of Catnip Publishing.
When Lily Graves Catrelle, our mom, decided she wanted to stop managing the day-to-day aspects of the business, she put Aurora and me in charge of it, with the big decisions still having to go through her and Dad. Our condition for accepting their terms was we’d handle business from Spokane, not New York. Neither of us wanted to live in the same city as our parents because they weren’t exactly supportive of my lifestyle, and Aurora took it personally, god love her.
We were twins, and we had a deep connection. We’d fight with each other, even at the age of twenty-eight, but we stood side-by-side when it came to outsiders giving either of us shit. I could always count on Rory, and she knew she could always count on me… well more so, lately. There was a time when that wasn’t exactly so.
“Not that kind of erotica, Kenny. Gay Erotica. I know you’ve had exposure to it, Porn King,” she chided, referring to the time she used my laptop and hit on my favorites. I couldn’t help it. I was a sucker for ‘Star Wars’ fanfiction, and when I stumbled onto a story where Luke and Han got it on, I was hooked and never looked back.
That was how I found some of our current erotica authors. I’d troll fanfiction sites, and when I saw a good story, I got in touch with the author and solicited them to offer original work to the publishing house to be considered for publication. It was a great way to discover new talent, and it had worked for us when we decided to expand the romance line to include erotica. Nothing had taken off yet, but every publisher hoped to discover a diamond in the rough to put their name on top of the publishing world.
“That was strictly for business development,” I joked, having argued with her more than once, especially when I tried to write off my cable and Wi-Fi bills as business expenses the prior year. She laughed as she tore up my expense voucher. Aurora was one in a million.
“Whatever, Pervy McPenis. Anyway, I had lunch with Candace Byrd the other day, and before you start bitching about it, don’t. She and I have become acquaintances since we both signed up to work on the reading initiative for Spokane Public Schools, and we have a lot in common. Besides, she’s not a threat to our business because she’s on a whole bigger playing field than us,” Aurora argued before I had the chance to bitch about our rival—who really wasn’t a rival. Rory was right—Candace was on a much larger stage than us.
My sister ignored me and continued. “She brought me a manuscript, and I think this one could be just what we’ve been looking for to give us more exposure and credibility,” she stated as she flopped a thick stack of paper on my desk.
“Can’t I get it on a drive? That’s a harsh waste of Mother-Natures resources,” I complained.
She cocked an eyebrow. “When did you become such a tree hugger? Besides, the author doesn’t know Candace handed it off to me yet. There’s no way she’d give me an electronic copy without permission. Anyway, read this over the weekend and give me a call. You’re going to want to talk to me about it after you finish it.” Again, with the cryptic bullshit?
I picked it up and saw it was untitled and there wasn’t an author’s name on the cover sheet. “Who wrote it?”
“It’s one of their big names, but she’s guarding the identity until we decide whether we’re interested or not. If we are, I think we need to move quickly. You have Judah this weekend?” she asked as I tossed it into my open briefcase.
“Actually, Lark has a thing in New York, so she’s taking him to visit Mother and Father while she’s there. I truly owe her a car for being willing to deal with ’em,” I responded.
“Ain’t that the truth? I still say, if you’d have been honest with everyone in the first place, things might have gone a whole different direction. Admitting you’re gay one month and then calling them the next to tell them you knocked up a chick sort of sends mixed signals, Kennedy.” I knew that, and I didn’t appreciate her constant reminders.
“Rory, KC was never going to accept me being gay, regardless of anything else. And you know why I told them. I thought I would get the chance to rectify my actions with him, and I didn’t want any more secrets. When I found him, I wanted to be able to tell him I was ready for us to start a life out in the open,” I reminded.
Of course, she waved me off, so I continued. “I wanted to explain to him why I did what I did, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life making it up to him. It didn’t work out that way because he dropped out and moved away. His aunt and uncle wouldn’t return my calls, and when I went to see them, they refused to tell me where he’d gone,” I continued.
“Oh, you’re totally over it, aren’t you?” Rory mocked.
“Look, all they’d tell me was I’d broken his heart, and the kindest thing I could do would be to leave him alone. I’m sorry I listened to them, and we both know I’ll regret it for the rest of my fucking life,” I admitted.
My colossal fuck up was never far from my mind, and I didn’t appreciate her reminding me of it in the middle of a workday. Those memories only led to me wanting to fall into the nearest bottle, and I’d just finished three-years-sober, which seemed like a fucking lifetime to me.
It took Lark threatening never to let me see Jude again after she came to pick him up and found me hung over. Rory was there babysitting him, and Lark’s scathing ultimatum was the thing that finally made me get my shit together. I honestly did owe the woman a debt of gratitude on many fronts, but I didn’t want to think about any of that shit at that moment.
“You should try to find him, Kennedy. You guys were together for two years. You were a dick for cheating on him just to see if you were really gay before you called Mom and Dad, but eight years have passed. Maybe he’d be ready to listen to you now?” she suggested.
I sat up in my chair and looked at her, chewing on the words before I responded to her comment. “It’s too late, Rory. I doubt he’d even remember me, and if he does, I’ll bet I’m the last person he’d want to see. He’s a successful author now, you know, so I’m sure our ship sailed a long time ago. Now, I’m leaving early so I can hit a meeting on my way home. I’ll call ya,” I snapped as I grabbed my things and walked out for the day.
When I got to my truck, I pulled out my phone and flipped through my favorites, seeing there was a meeting I could make if traffic cooperated. Thankfully, it was near my house so at least I was heading in the right direction.
Just as I pulled into traffic, my phone chimed. When I hit the first red light, I looked around the neighborhood to see one of my old haunts. It brought the memory of the burn of whiskey in my mouth and throat rushing back.
I remember getting my ass kicked in that bar for hitting on some other guy’s boyfriend because he had hair similar to Thorn’s and, while the green eyes weren’t quite right, they would have been good enough that night to try to get the memory of Thornton Marsh out of my head.
I’d finally gone shopping and bought myself some presentable clothes for my job as a proofreader at a software company. I didn’t write programs any longer because I couldn’t stay sober long enough to be able to write code, but I could proofread the FAQs and the user manuals just fine. It wasn’t going to make me rich, but after I got fired from three jobs for being drunk at work, I knew I needed to sort of get my shit together. I cut down on drinking during the week and on the weekends when I had Jude, but when I didn’t have him, I basically camped out at a bar.
The night in question found me drowning my sorrows. I’d been cleaning out my underwear drawer to make room for my new clothes, and I ran across a couple of pair of Thorn’s boxers I’d had since college buried at the bottom under a bunch of other shit. When I noticed them, I remembered one pair was from the night we shared our first kiss in the laundry room of the dorm where we lived. The other pair was the night we first made love. I teased him I was keeping them as a souvenir. He had a great laugh, and he took my boxers from that night as well.
When the memory hit me, there was nothing I could do but hop in a cab and get to the nearest bar. While I sat there drowning my sorrows with strangers, two guys came in who were obviously together as a couple. One guy looked enough like Thorn I could convince myself it was him, and I immediately lost my mind, propositioning him when his rather large boyfriend went outside to take a call.
Needless to say, when the other guy came back and found me sucking on his boyfriend’s neck, he didn’t take it too kindly. I was off the stool and on the floor before I ever knew what hit me, and when I woke up the next morning, not at all sure how I’d even gotten home, I knew it was time to make some changes.
Unfortunately, when Lark dropped by and saw the shit shape I was in, she issued the ultimatum. “Listen to me, Kennedy, and understand what I’m telling you. If you want to see Judah again, you better get your drinking under control, do you hear me? I’ll take him so far away you’ll never find us.” I took her words to heart, and for a month, I was fine.
One night while Jude was there, I was on the internet when I stumbled across an article regarding the next Caine Winslow book to be released. There was a picture of Thorn, likely his head shot, and as I stared into his eyes, I lost it. I could have been sitting with him at that very moment, watching a movie with popcorn while we talked about the publicity shit he would have to do to promote the book. I was such a fuck up.
I drank enough to pass out so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore, and when I woke up, Rory was there fixing Jude breakfast. He’d called her when he couldn’t get me up to feed him, and she came right over.
She also called Lark who showed up an hour later and laid it on the line. “I thought we were on the same page, Kennedy, but obviously, I wasn’t clear. Here it is—if you don’t get sober and quit drinking forever, I’ll take your ass to court and get sole custody. You think about that, you hear me, because I damn well mean it.” That was the wake-up call I needed, and I’d always love and respect her for the kick in the ass.
I reached down and picked up my phone, seeing it was a message from Rory with an invitation to come over to her and Eli’s house the next day for a cookout after I went to my meeting. I sent her a text that I was currently headed to one and would be fine without attending one in the morning. When I pulled into the parking lot of the Methodist church, my phone chimed again.
I have a feeling you’ll want to go to one in the morning, too. Remember, I love you and so does Jude. Don’t do anything stupid. Rory
“More of that cryptic bullshit,” I complained as I bailed out of the truck and made my way to the church basement.
I grabbed a cup of burnt coffee and sat down in an empty chair next to an older man. I saw him eyeing his key ring, and when I saw many bronze chips hanging from it, I turned to him. “Wow, congratulations, man. That’s quite an accomplishment,” I offered, reaching for the three on the ring in my pocket. My early chips were in a dish on my desk in the office to remind me of my journey to sobriety, so it was never far from my eyesight. I had too much to lose if I didn’t maintain my focus.
“It woulda been if I hadn’t fallen off the wagon last week after twenty years sober. I’ve been on a bender since last Wednesday, and I just came up for air last night. I’d have thought nothing could happen in my life to send me back into that bottle, but just when you think you’re in control, you get the reminder you ain’t.”
His words weren’t new but seeing how upset he was about it was eye opening. “So, the craving never goes away?” I asked, somewhat disheartened. I never wanted to drink again, but I had hopes that someday I wouldn’t even give liquor a second thought. Apparently, that was a pipe dream.
“Not really, but it was manageable until last Wednesday morning.”
“What triggered it, if I can ask?” It was incredibly rude of me to quiz the man regarding what made him relapse, but I couldn’t imagine what would cause me to give up twenty years of sobriety. I prayed I lived to see twenty years’ sober.
“I lost the love of my life. My wife died.” I put a hand on his shoulder and felt his body shaking as his tears fell. I could relate to losing someone so important that it seemed your only choice was to dive into that bottle to look for numbing relief. It was all too real to me.
After the meeting, Juan, as I came to know when he stood up to share, and I exchanged phone numbers. I had a sponsor, Franklin Bush, but Juan told me his sponsor had passed away. I promised I’d be there for him, and if I couldn’t help him, I’d make sure someone could.
I went home, went for a run on the treadmill in the basement, and settled in with a ham sandwich and a large glass of sweet tea. I grabbed the thick manuscript and got comfortable in the leather recliner in the living room with some Coltrane playing quietly in the background. I flipped the blank front page open and began reading.
As Ethan Craig stepped into the elevator of his new dorm building, he had hope for the first time in a long time. It was a fresh start for him, and after all, hadn’t he promised his late mother that he’d live up to his potential to honor her memory.
The cramped elevator was full of his suitcase and a few boxes, but when he heard a voice call, “Hey, would ya hold that elevator,” he reached up and grabbed the stainless door to allow the person, who was probably toting boxes as well, to climb in. He knew it could take a while for another elevator because he’d waited for ten minutes himself, and he was a kind, albeit shy, person by nature.
He saw a blond-haired guy in a pair of basketball shorts and a holey t-shirt race across the lobby of the dorm building. The man’s hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail, his eyes covered with a pair of aviator sunglasses. He was well-built and suntanned, and Ethan didn’t think he’d ever seen a more handsome guy in his life, not that he spent a lot of time looking at men.
The man walked into the car and dropped a box right on Ethan’s foot, causing him to dance around a bit. “Shit, man, I’m sorry. It has been a crappy day all around. You okay?” the guy asked as the bell inside the elevator chimed because the door was open for too long.
“I’m fine. Moving sucks, doesn’t it?” Ethan asked, attempting small talk which was something for which he wasn’t known. It wasn’t something he did, talking to strangers, but there was definitely something about the guy that put him at ease.
“Man, that’s an understatement. Jeremy Walker,” the guy responded, sticking out his fist in greeting. Ethan obliged, and then answered, “Ethan Craig. What floor?”
He watched as the handsome stranger reached into the pocket of his t-shirt and pulled out a piece of paper. “Four, please.” Jeremy looked up to see the button already illuminated, and he turned to Ethan with a smile. “You on that floor as well?”
“Yeah, 404. You?” Every cell in Ethan’s body was praying Jeremy was his roommate. He’d been resistant to contacting the stranger who’d been assigned to share his room because if he didn’t like the guy, he’d work himself into an ulcer and not go to college at all.
Something about the interaction seemed all too familiar to me… like I’d read it before somewhere. I continued to read as I drank my tea, and when I got to a point in the story where Ethan skipped one of his classes—a class where he had an assignment due—in order to attend Jeremy’s lecture to take notes and record the discussion because Jeremy was very sick, I couldn’t breathe. The memory came rushing at me like a fucking mudslide, smothering me in the sludge of my fucked-up past…
I’d been up most of the night, coughing like crazy. It was the last day of class before Thanksgiving, and I was sure I was going to die. I’d stupidly played flag football in the rain on Sunday afternoon, and I’d convinced myself I had pneumonia. The coughing was so severe, my roommate, Taylor, had to sleep elsewhere.
When my alarm went off, I heard shuffling in the room, and as I tried to get up, I felt a hand pushing me back down. “You’re too sick to go to class.” I opened my eyes, and after a few blinks, I saw Thorn sitting on the side of my bed in his pajamas. I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating but staying in bed sounded like a good idea until I remembered I’d signed up for an extra-credit lecture in my European History class because I’d done for shit on the mid-term, and I needed to keep up my GPA. If I didn’t go to the lecture, I’d go into the end of the term with a ‘C, ‘ and that would put a lot of pressure on me to ace the final, which I wasn’t sure I could do.
“I’ve gotta go. It’s an extra-credit lecture, and I had to beg to get in,” I croaked out between coughing fits.
“Sit up and take these. I’ll take care of it,” Thornton ordered. I sat up and took whatever he was handing me, swallowing down apple juice between coughing fits.
Once it was down, he shoved something in my ear and a few seconds later, there was a beeping. I opened my eyes to see him examining some electronic device. “One-hundred-one. You’re not going anywhere. I sent Taylor to get you some breakfast, but that ass probably won’t come back. I’m going to shower and change, but I’ll be back. Those pills will probably put you back to sleep, so I’ll bring you something to eat when I get out of class. I’m taking your keys, okay? Taylor already packed up and plans to leave for home as soon as he finishes his test, so you get some rest, and I’ll be back.” Thornton pulled the blanket up around my chin, and I was back to sleep before I even heard the door close.
When I woke up sometime later, I saw him sitting at my desk with his laptop. “Hey,” I called to him, sitting up a little. I felt a bit better, but I still felt like utter shit.
“Hey yourself. How’re you feeling?” Thorn asked as he went to the small fridge next to my desk and pulled out a plastic container to pop into the microwave Taylor and I shared.
He grabbed a bottle of water and walked over, sitting down on the bed to face me. He appeared to be worried, and I wanted to reach up and brush my fingers over his forehead to smooth the creases in his brow. “Better than I did earlier. How was your presentation?” I asked. Thorn had been working his ass off on a presentation for one of his classes, and I vaguely remembered it was scheduled for that morning before he left to go to his aunt’s house for Thanksgiving.
He looked down at his hands and then back up to my eyes. His face was a bit red, and I was worried it hadn’t gone well. The guy was a freaking genius, and I couldn’t fathom it wouldn’t have gone well, but everyone had an off day. If it had gone badly, I knew he’d beat himself up about it. His GPA, which was much more impressive than mine, was central to him. He was determined to do his late parents’ proud, based on what I’d witnessed. The kid was living up to his promise.
“I, uh, I didn’t go. I spoke with Dr. Sawyer, and he agreed to allow me to do it this afternoon with only a minimal impact on my grade. More importantly, I recorded that lecture of yours and took notes as well as I could. Unfortunately, not being familiar with the subject matter might make my notes useless. I spoke with the professor and explained your situation. He was kind enough to agree you could turn in your critique of the lecture next Monday. You’ll have to listen to it on tape, which I’m sure isn’t as exciting as sitting in the lecture hall, but hopefully, you can get something useful out of it,” Thorn explained.
Just then, the timer on the microwave went off. Thornton walked over to it and pulled out the plastic container, stirring it and then taking a quick slurp from the spoon. When he was satisfied, he walked over and placed it on the table next to my bed. “Eat while it’s hot. I went to that Jewish deli you love, and Mrs. Levy assured me this would fix you right up,” he ordered, offering the smile I was coming to love. I couldn’t smell anything, but the gesture had my heart pounding. He was perfect. Hell, he was ideal for me, and I wished I had the balls to tell him.
I picked up the bowl and took a slurp from the spoon, seeing it was chicken and matzo ball soup. I wished I could taste anything, but the fact he’d been so fucking kind as to go out of his way for me had me so choked up I could barely swallow. “You shouldn’t have done all of this. When are you leaving to go home? I feel fine, Thorn,” I told him as I touched his arm without thinking. The contact was like a balm to my battered soul.
“Kennedy, you’re my… You’re my best friend. I know how imperative this lecture was for you to attend, so I went. I’ll still be able to turn in my project, so no worries. I called Uncle Rob, and he gave me a few things I can get over-the-counter to help with the symptoms. If you’re still running a fever on Friday, I’m taking you to the urgent care facility because it might be more than just a cold.
“Now, I’d suggest you go stand under a hot shower to open up your head, and by the time you finish, I’ll be back from the store. I’m afraid it’ll be frozen turkey dinners for us tomorrow, but I’ll get Aunt Nora to make it up to us when you finally have the opportunity to come home with me to meet them. I’ll be back.”
I felt the tears running down my face and blinding me from the words on the page. How could I… How could I have treated him so fucking horribly? He’d only ever loved me, and I’d just thrown it away with one stupid decision to be sure I was, indeed, into guys, or namely, Thornton.
The fact I got it up with Lark only served to confuse me more because I was under the impression if I were into guys, a chick wouldn’t do it for me. I didn’t intend to fuck her, but after making out with her and some foreplay, I convinced myself maybe I wasn’t gay.
I allowed myself to believe maybe having sex with her would give me an honest, definitive answer regarding my orientation—one that wouldn’t leave me disowned by my family. I stopped thinking and took her to bed. Our bed. Another thing of which I was ashamed, and all the hurt came rushing back again. The damage I’d done to Thorn… I couldn’t begin to process it. Based on the words I was reading it had been quite severe.
I stayed up all night reading the entire manuscript, mostly through tears with a few laughs and several hard-ons as he described the weekends we’d spend in bed after we got our apartment, having tired of trying to find places to have sex without being caught. I was so fucking scared my parents would find out that I was damn near irrational when it came to the two of us. I forbid any touching in public. Thornton, my beautiful lover, and best friend, never, ever, complained about it.
At six o’clock Saturday morning, I put the manuscript down and went to shower, allowing the memories of some of our lovemaking to consume me to the point I had to rub two out before the water turned cool.
I made myself coffee and toast, sent Rory a text I’d be over after my meeting at eight, and I called Franklin. I told him what had happened and asked him if he’d meet me at the community center where they held a meeting early on Saturday morning. I’d gone to that place pretty consistently. It was the place where I’d met Franklin, but since he and Brenda had moved to a small town outside Spokane, we hadn’t been to a meeting together in a while. After the night I’d had, I needed him.
I showed up at Rory’s house at ten, having gone for coffee with Franklin after the meeting to discuss my next steps based on the manuscript I’d spent the night reading. We talked about it, and I felt pretty good with our discussion—considering the subject matter.
I let myself inside Rory’s place to find her husband, Elijah Cross, on the couch with the paper and coffee. “Hey bro,” I called to him.
He lifted his hand and pointed to the kitchen, not turning toward me. I walked in to see Rory still in her pajamas without makeup. She turned to look at me from her place at the stove, and the look she had told me she knew how bad it was. She walked over to me and hugged me, being nearly as tall as me.
“You know, don’t you?” she stated the question we both knew she didn’t really need to ask.
“Yeah. Did you know before you read it?” I questioned as I pulled away from her and poured myself a coffee, not that I needed it.
“I didn’t. After I read it, I called Candace to confirm my suspicions. She told me who the author was—of course, under penalty of death. She said it was because she needed me to understand the necessity to protect his identity. She’d read the story, and she said she knew he needed to tell it. He’s been having trouble with his last Caine Winslow book, and she thinks if he gets this one published, it might free up his mind. It’s your story, too, Kennedy. Are you okay with it being out there for the public to pic through it?”
I thought about it for a minute, but I’d already made up my mind. “Rory, everything—every fucking part of our story in that manuscript is the truth. What I don’t know is how much of the rest of the story is true after we broke up. If it is true, maybe this is the opportunity to write a different ending. Call Candace and find out when we can get him into the office,” I ordered.
“If he sees you, he’ll walk—fuck, he’ll run away without giving Catnip a chance,” she reminded. Hell, she was right, but Thornton had never seen pictures of my family because I didn’t have any at school. I didn’t even talk about my family with him except to acknowledge I had a sister, but he knew her as Rory Catrelle. We’d have to do something about that.
“You’ll have to meet with him. I’ll give you bullet points to ask him questions about the story, and you can get the information I want. I’ll hide in your bathroom and listen. I can have my laptop and send you IMs about whatever he says. Aurora, you’ve got to help me. It might be my only chance at happiness, and I just can’t let it get away again. Please…” I whispered as I began sobbing at her kitchen table which wasn’t expected by either of us.
She wrapped her arms around my shoulders and kissed the top of my head. “Well, meet Lily Graves.”
I sat in the bathroom adjacent to Rory’s office and listened to the discussion she and Thornton were having. I could still hear the pain in his voice as he explained plot points I was interested in fleshing out to turn the story into more fiction than fact, or that was what I was telling myself. I believed it wasn’t self-serving to find out more details about his side of the story—well, not much. I had the feeling if he could separate himself from the pain maybe it could be healing for him, for us.
As I listened, I was on pins and needles. When he brought up the point he thought Rory was jerking him around, I sent her an IM to seal the fucking deal before he got pissed and walked out. I heard her shouting at me, but I didn’t give a fuck.
When I heard, “Mr. Marsh, you can tell me to fuck off, but the emotions in this manuscript are so poignant I can’t help but believe a lot of this comes from personal experience. I get the impression someone you loved and trusted was careless with your heart. Am I right?” I knew I needed to see him, but I had to hear his answer first.
“Ms. Graves, are you able to see the emotion because it’s something you’ve experienced yourself?”
Please, Rory, don’t give it away. It’s not about me. It’s about him. “Actually, I have experience with both sides of the relationship coin, Mr. Marsh. You see, I had a boyfriend back in high school who cheated with a friend of mine. I was young at the time, and it wasn’t true love. It did, however, leave an impression on my heart.
“That’s not why I can see the pain in you, though. Someone I’m very close with was unfaithful to someone who didn’t deserve it, you see. Not only was that person hurt badly, but my friend was also nearly destroyed by the guilt. Life is too short to live with so much pain and regret, I believe.”
God love my sister. She was right, and as I thought about my new friend, Juan, I knew it was the honest truth. “What happened to your friend?” Thorn asked.
“I think that’s something…” Aurora began. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
To be continued…