Carter Riggs was at ease, just pushing the mower around the side yard of his brother’s house. The grounds were large—a double lot—and the house was grand. The garage apartment he would be moving into eventually was a nice size, and Carter was looking forward to finally getting settled into the semblance of a life again.

He only had two more weeks at the Butler County Halfway House before he’d be released on parole. He’d found a decent place to perform his community service hours, which he wasn’t dreading much, and he surprisingly had high hopes for his future.

It was a condition of his early release to find an approved non-profit entity for his community service, and his parole officer had told him working at the small church where his brother and sister-in-law attended Mass was a great place to finish out his time.

As Carter trimmed around the last tree in the side yard with the push mower, something caught his eye, and he looked up to see his sister-in-law waving at him with a glass of lemonade held in the air and a big smile on her pretty face.

He shut down the mower and walked over to the back deck which was about four feet above where he stood in the yard. Tasha handed the glass through the slats along with a napkin and two cookies. They were in the shape of small hands which had to belong to his three-year-old nephew, Paul.

Carter laughed. “How kindergarten teacherish of you, Tash.” It was funny because that was Natasha’s profession, and Carter couldn’t imagine her doing anything else.

She smiled brightly at him. “Opie called to say he’s on his way to take you back to that house. I put your laundry on the front porch, Rigger. How come you don’t bring your sheets? You have some, right?” Tasha asked, a sad tone tinging her voice, which made him appreciate her kind heart even more. Carter was the reason Opie had met her in the first place, though the circumstances were a bit unusual.

Carter felt his face flame at her comment. He didn’t bring his sheets because he was having nocturnal emissions issues again, which he hadn’t had since he was a teenager. He guessed it was good on one front—he hadn’t had any sexual desires for quite a while, so the fact he was having dreams about having sex was a step in the right direction.

Of course, it was too embarrassing to explain such a thing to his sister-in-law, especially considering everything that had happened in the past. Besides, she was kind enough to do his regular clothes so they weren’t a wrinkled mess. He didn’t mind taking his underwear, socks, t-shirts, hand towels, and sheets to the laundromat with him, where he worked as a night attendant.

It was located just blocks down the street from the large house where he resided with several other convicts, and the money he made from the part-time job at the laundromat helped him pay his brother back for the lawyer Opie had hired to get him an early release from jail.

Carter’s transgression wasn’t nearly as evil as many others, but he’d still committed the crime, and he did the time. Doing four-and-a-half on an eight-to-ten bid for attempted murder and aggravated assault was indeed a blessing. He owed Opie his life for getting him out of that awful place because Carter had made a few enemies he was happy not to see every day.

“Hey, it’s fine. I take ‘em with me to work, and I wash stuff for free. I just like how you do my shirts and pants, Tash. Don’t worry about it, okay? How’s Bastian?” he asked, feeling a tender spot for the kid in his heart.

Sebastian was Tasha’s younger brother, turning twenty-one very soon. Carter knew for a fact that Natasha was happy the kid had lived to even see legal drinking age. It was a fifty-fifty proposition at one point in time.

Carter did his best to stay away from Sebastian, because he knew the guy saw him as the reminder of a horrible memory in his life, and Carter didn’t want to cause the kid any grief. Carter understood how Bastian might feel about him, and he couldn’t blame the guy one bit.

“He’s good. He’s looking at grad schools for next year as a matter of fact,” Tash explained to Carter.

It wasn’t a surprise that Sebastian was going to go to graduate school. Opie had told him during their monthly visits that Bastian was working hard to graduate early. The year he was in rehab gave him time to work ahead, and when he began taking general studies classes for college, it was no surprise the young guy had breezed through undergrad.

“He wants to go away for school. Mom and Dad are driving him crazy, and he is doing a lot better now, so I’m supportive,” Tasha told him. Yeah, well, at least he’s alive, Carter thought.

“I better finish the rest of the trim work. I need to be ready when Opie gets here so I can shower and be on time for work. Mr. Lindell bitches if I’m a minute late,” he told Tash as he downed the lemonade and handed her the glass. He shoved the cookies into his mouth and winked at her as he started the mower again and took off to finish the backyard by cutting around the flower beds and the mature trees in the yard, having used the riding mower for the open spaces.

It wasn’t a chore to keep the yard looking like a botanical garden. Carter loved doing the work around the place. He’d always enjoyed yard work growing up, even if Opie thought he was crazy. It was funny how different the two brothers were but how they understood each other without question. It was a miracle, really.

Just as Carter pushed the mower into the large garage after he’d hosed the underside, the blast from the horn on Opie’s massive truck caught his attention. Carter closed the door to the side room where Opie stored the lawn equipment and hurried around the side of the house to see his brother loading the laundry basket from the front porch of his home into the backseat of the double-cab truck. “I’da got it,” Carter called to him.

He saw Opie look up and grin at him. “I got it just fine, little brother. Thank you for doing this, okay? You don’t have to come over here and cut the grass every week. There are lawn care businesses here in Beckett Creek, or even Brimlee, that I could get to do it easily enough,” Opie reminded, just as he did every Monday.

Carter waved him off. “I owe you a lot of money, Opie. This is part of how I’m trying to pay it back, okay? If it weren’t for you and that lawyer lady you hired, I’d still be in Farmington State. I owe you a lot for my freedom,” he reminded.

Carter climbed into the truck and used the front hem of his dirty t-shirt to wipe the sweat from face. Opie got into the cab and blasted the air-conditioner, turning the cooled seat on for his brother. “Rigger, it’s because of you Bas is even alive. Trust me, Tash doesn’t let me forget what you did for him, not that I ever would. Hell, without you, I’d have never met Tash and have Paul. You don’t owe me anything,” Opie reminded—again.

They drove in silence for a few minutes because Carter didn’t know how to respond to his brother’s comments. He never did.

Finally, Opie began speaking again. “Did Tash tell you Bas is able to use crutches now instead of having to use the chair all the time. That’s why he wants to move out from Billie and Jay’s. His shoulders and arms can comfortably hold up his body weight so he can get around well with the braces they made for him at the rehab facility. His shoulders are almost as broad as yours now.

“You should go see him when you get out of the halfway house, Rigger. I know you think he doesn’t want to see you, but that’s not true at all. His real hang up is he doesn’t know how to thank you. I think it would be good for him if you talked to him, you know. Anyway, when do you start working at Sacred Heart?” Opie asked.

“I’m supposed to meet the guy who’s overseeing the work on the building and rectory in a few weeks. He’ll call me, or so that crabby old priest told Mr. Kerns,” Carter explained.

Mr. Kerns was his parole officer, and Carter was grateful the man was at least personable. Mr. Kerns also attended that shitty little church off Mozark Lane. When Opie had taken Carter there to see it, he thought the whole damn place should have been plowed under.

They all met at the church, where Opie introduced Carter to that crabby old priest who said some shit in another language that didn’t sound like nice things. Mr. Kerns made Carter apologize for saying it was a shithole, even though that was exactly what it was, and Carter could tell his brother and Mr. Kerns both agreed with him, though they weren’t willing to admit it in front of the priest.

Carter quickly concluded the priest didn’t like him at all, but he knew the old bastard thought Opie was a saint. If it weren’t for Opie’s connections in the first place, the county would have condemned the church like it had the rectory. Carter knew his brother and sister-in-law loved the old place where they’d had Paul baptized, so he’d agreed to do whatever it took to fix up the building to return it to its former glory.

Carter didn’t have any skills to build anything, but he could clean up the gardens behind the church and be the groundskeeper, just as he’d done at the prison and at the warden’s house before he’d earned parole. It was as close to a calling as Carter ever thought he’d have, working to create a beautiful garden, so it wasn’t all bad.

Opie told Mr. Kerns he was sure Carter could help at the church, so between his daily work at the church to satisfy his parole and his night job at the laundromat where he drew a salary, Carter Riggs was set to be one busy son of a bitch. That was okay. He didn’t have a lot else going on, so it was best to have things to do to help him ignore the loneliness.

Opie and Carter didn’t really speak the rest of the twenty-minute drive to Brimlee. Carter had dozed off for a few minutes and was startled when he felt himself being shaken, so he opened his eyes to see the halfway house out of the front windshield. “Damn. Guess I dozed. Anyway, thanks for the ride, Opie. I truly appreciate everything you do for me, bro. I’ll talk with you soon,” Carter told his brother as he grabbed his basket from the back seat and waved goodbye.

Once he was in his room and had put his things away, Carter grabbed a clean towel, boxers, and a t-shirt to take with him to the bathroom for a cold shower. After he was clean and his body temperature had dropped, Carter dried off and pulled on his t-shirt and boxers.

As he was crossing the hall to his room, he heard a whistle and turned to see one of the inhabitants of the house, Speedball Coyne. It was no mystery how the guy got his nickname because he’d been arrested for possession and still seemed to be tweeked every time Carter saw him.

“Hey, Speed. How’re things?” Carter asked as a courtesy. He didn’t give a shit about the answer. He had somewhere to be, but the guy was a junkie and sometimes he could be violent without the least bit of provocation. Carter didn’t have time for crazy.

“Things could be damn good if you’d be lookin’ to hookup before you went to work,” the man offered with a wink. Unfortunately, that wink pissed off Carter every time the creep offered one sexual favor or another in exchange for cash so the guy could buy clean piss for his next drug test. Being in that house was nearly worse than being in prison.

“Sorry, man. Tapped out. Have a good one,” Carter offered as he hurried into his room and locked his door. House rules were if Carter was in his space, he could lock the door. If anyone needed to get inside, they’d knock, and it was his decision whether to open the door or not.

When he left the house to go to his job, he could lock his door but was required to leave his key with the house monitor, Vernon. The man was a retired cop who had no problem going through everyone’s shit when he was bored. It was a condition of being allowed to live in the house, and while Carter hated it, the time was approaching where he would have his own apartment over Opie’s garage, and he was counting the days. 

The dream of privacy was what kept Carter going every day he had to stay in that fucking halfway house. It was the promise of something that resembled Carter’s old life, and he was aching for it.

After he was dressed, Carter walked down the hallway to the front desk where Vernon monitored the residents. “Here you go, Vern. I’ll be back at twelve-thirty,” he told the man as he handed over his room key and signed the book to leave the property.

“Time’s flying by, ain’t it, kid?” the older man commented. Carter wasn’t sure what Vernon was smoking, but every day dragged on like his life was in slow motion. He wouldn’t exactly agree time was flying.

“Yeah, sure. Hey, when you go through my underwear drawer, do me a favor and refold everything. I like to keep a tidy room,” Carter offered sarcastically to the former cop before leaving the building and hopping the bus to take him to the laundromat.

The sooner the routine was behind him, the better off Carter believed he would be. The prison chaplain had tried to get him to talk about what led to his incarceration, but the story wasn’t his to tell.

Carter would sit stone still during the group sessions he had to attend while in prison, never opening his mouth about why he was inside, except to say the man he attacked had it coming.

The prison officials and other inmates might not appreciate his unwillingness to discuss what led him to nearly beat the life out of another human being, but Carter respected Bastian and his privacy.

It didn’t matter the group consisted of a bunch of cons. They didn’t deserve to know Bas’ life story. The only person who could rightfully tell that story was Sebastian, and until he decided he was ready, it would be a secret he shared with Carter Riggs until one or the other of them dropped dead.

The bus stopped at the corner, and Carter hopped off, heading toward the building where he worked. He glanced through the large picture window to see only four people were using the machines that evening, which held some promise. With crossed fingers, he hoped it would be a good, fast-moving, night.

Carter went to the back room to clock in and wave to Eunice as she left out the back door while he checked on the orders to be ready for the next day. There was a steamer, an ironing board, and an iron to press the clothes the laundry took in for overnight service. There were two washers with signs on the top designating them as ‘Service.’  He opened the one machine when it stopped spinning, and he saw it was women’s blouses, which brought a frown.

Along with working on the landscaping crew in prison, Carter had worked in the laundry, though nothing ever had to be ironed with a small iron. They didn’t have one because one of those damn fools would use it to kill someone. They had the sizeable pressing machine for everything, so the small iron was a mystery.

Mr. Lindell had shown him how to hand-press various cotton garments, but Carter wasn’t exactly proficient at the task. He pulled the blouses out of the washing machine and hung them on hangers until he could get to them. Carter shook them, hoping to rid the garments of some of the wrinkles because the less wrinkled they were, the less time to press them—or so he hoped.

After the machine was emptied, Carter pulled a few paper towels from the roll, squirting sanitizer into the drum before wiping it out. He moved from one empty machine to another, humming along with the satellite radio, happy Mr. Lindell’s taste in music aligned with Carter’s own.

After the machines were cleaned, he checked the dryers and cleaned out the filters. He filled the vending machine, which offered detergent, color-safe bleach, old-fashioned chlorine bleach, fabric softener, stain remover, and dryer sheets.

He thought about working in the laundry at the prison where the music was replaced with yelling among the inmates or the sounds of screaming for one reason or another, Carter decided hearing country songs was a much better accompaniment for his tasks.

He was singing along with an old song he remembered Opie trying to learn to play on the guitar he’d gotten for Christmas one year when they were kids, and it made Carter smile. They had some good times as kids. Carter was just grateful he still had his brother in his life. His folks left him behind when they heard the guilty plea. Anymore, it didn’t really matter.

Oren and Bernice Riggs hadn’t really wanted Carter when he was born, telling him he was the product of a broken condom as if it was a family joke. To Carter, it wasn’t funny. When their parents moved away from St. Louis after Carter was sentenced, Opie moved down near the bootheel to be closer to him while he did his time in Farmington.

Opie got a job as a loan officer at the bank in Beckett Creek where Tasha’s family lived and where Bas was convalescing. Carter asked his brother once if he moved down there because Tasha’s family lived in town. Opie told him, yes, but Carter knew the truth. Opie was afraid for Carter in prison, so he moved south to support his little brother. It was a plus that Tasha and her family lived nearby. Carter would always be grateful for his brother’s love and strength.

The bell over the front door rang cheerily… too cheerily to be over the door of a laundromat, in Carter’s opinion. He walked out to see a shorter man with short, dark-brown hair and dark eyes glancing around the room. He had a basket of laundry, and he appeared to be lost entirely. He was sexy enough Carter decided to go offer some personal assistance with anything he might need.

“Hello there, I’m Carter. Can I help you?” he asked, hoping he was giving off a sexy—not stalking—vibe to the handsome stranger. The man was wearing a blue t-shirt with a faded school name on it. It fit him perfectly, in Carter’s opinion. The fact his nipples were hard was quite captivating.

The man looked at him and smiled the most fantastic smile Carter had ever seen. “I’m Mack, and I’m here to do some laundry. I was just trying to figure out which machines were free,” the man told Carter as he looked around the room to see most of the washers’ lids were up, and all but two dryers’ doors were open, signifying they were all available.

Carter chuckled. “Hmm, let me see. Well, if you have whites you want whiter, the water in this one runs pretty hot, and if you pour in half a packet of color-safe bleach, you’ll be quite impressed with the results,” he explained as if he was selling the machines.

“Now, this one here runs a little cool, so if you have darks you want to do on permanent press, I’d recommend this one. The cycle is a bit short, but for darks, it’s what you’d want. If you have bed linens, this machine has the best spin cycle,” Carter told the handsome stranger as he walked over to the fourth machine on the right. It was unfortunate he knew such intimate details about washers and dryers, but it was his job, and if the handsome stranger needed assistance, well, he was the right man to provide it.

After they had Mack’s laundry settled into the appropriate machines, Carter bought the man a can of soda and handed him a magazine that was less than five-years-old. “I’ll be in the back trying to figure out how to press a woman’s blouse without setting it on fire. Is the music okay? I can change it. We have satellite,” Carter offered.

He saw the handsome stranger perk up with a big grin. “Ironing, you say? I used to work in the laundry sometimes back in sem—in school. I’m well acquainted with various garments and the best way to press them without destroying them. It’s about time I got to impart that wisdom on someone, and since you were so helpful with the machines, I’ll gladly return the favor,” Mack told him with a big grin, grabbing his can of soda and followed Carter to the back of the laundromat.

“I can honestly say the only experience I have with synthetics is a poly/cotton blend, and those were the worst bedsheets I’ve ever tried to sleep on. By all means, give it a go,” Carter suggested.

He watched as Mack glanced down the rack of ladies’ clothes and pulled down a beige blouse with a round collar and some pearl buttons down the front. “For this, the gentle setting,” Mack instructed as he showed Carter how to gingerly press the garment, spitting on the iron on occasion to ensure it didn’t become too hot to scorch the fabric.

“So, are you new to the area or did your washer go on the fritz?” Carter asked as he took over the iron for a cotton-blend blouse after Mack set it to the proper temperature.

Carter believed the man had the most amazing laugh, which fit quite nicely with his trim frame and relaxed manner. He was sexy as hell. “I’m actually new to town. I, uh, I’m in temporary quarters at the moment, and there’s no washing machine in the apartment. I asked my new landlord what was nearby and was told this was the closest self-service laundry, so here I am. It’s Friday, and I start my new job tomorrow with a pretty unreasonable boss. I want to make a good impression, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s possible,” Mack explained with the hint of a chuckle in his voice.

Carter snickered. “I hear that. I’m going to be moving in two weeks or so myself, and I have a new job lined up. From what I’ve heard, the boss is a bastard. I’m hoping like hell his assistant is a lot easier to please, because the place needs a lot of work based on what I’ve seen. I’m looking forward to better times than the past couple of years, you know?” Carter asked as he finished pressing the ladies’ blouse before he hung it on the hanger. He made sure to place it near the other garments, so he didn’t mix them and fuck up the order.

The loud buzzing from the front door caught them mid conversation, so they walked out into the main room to see the machine with Mack’s darks was finished. “Hey, bring ‘em to the back room and let’s press them. You probably don’t want them to fry in these dryers. They’re good for towels, sheets, and stuff like that, but if it’s anything you care about, these dryers run too hot,” Carter assured when he saw there were no customers left in the laundromat.

The absence of patrons was perfectly fine with him because he craved the time to get to know the handsome stranger. The guy was beautiful, and he had the most incredible smile Carter had ever seen. It was turning out to be one of the best nights he’d had in a long time.

“So, are you a Cardinals’ fan? Wait, do you follow sports at all?” Carter asked Mack as he hung his black, cotton shirts on hangers until they could press them. The slacks were a poly-blend, so they just needed to be hung from pants’ hangers because Mack mentioned the iron would ruin them.

“Actually, I’m most recently from Virginia, so I sort of became a Nationals’ fan, but having moved back here, I can get on board with the Cardinals. They’re doing great this season,” Mack offered with a soft grin as he looked into Carter’s eyes.

Carter’s breath hitched as he took in the sight of those beautiful brown eyes staring intently into his own. They were warm, those brown eyes, and they had golden glints which wasn’t something Carter had ever seen before in his life… or maybe he’d never bothered to notice.

He heard a sizzle and lifted the iron in his hand to see the wet shirt had a dry spot. He brushed his hand over it to see there wasn’t a hole which was a relief. “So, how about you? Favorite team?” he heard Mack ask as Carter continued to press the black shirt.

For another hour, the two of them talked about everything… favorite food; places to eat; movies; actors and actresses; and anything else they could come up with as Carter ironed the man’s very bland wardrobe. Mostly it was black shirts and a few white shirts. There were two black jackets for the dry-cleaning pickup on Monday, and Carter actually called the dry cleaners in Ozark to ensure the garments would be returned by Wednesday when Mack said he’d need them.

Thankfully, no other customers stopped by that night, so Carter and Mack had the place to themselves, talking and laughing together. It was fast approaching midnight and they’d actually done all of the laundry orders and ironing left at the laundromat as they enjoyed getting to know each other.

When a song Carter loved began to play over the sound system, he looked at Mack and grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d humor me with a dance?” he turned off the lights in the main room of the laundromat, leaving the lights on in the back where Mack’s laundry was waiting for him. The other orders were packaged up to be picked up the next day, so in celebration, Carter wanted to feel the man holding him in his arms. He had the feeling the guy was into him, and for once, he wanted to just dance with someone, even if it was a kind stranger.

The acoustic guitar strummed the intro before the singer’s voice began the verse. Carter didn’t have to ask a second time before he was in a gentle embrace with arms loosely around his neck, being pushed around an invisible dance floor right there in that rundown laundromat. “I haven’t danced in quite a while, so I hope I don’t step on your toes, Carter. This song…I like it too. I’ve heard it a few times, but I never really listened to the words. What do you listen to, Carter?” Mack asked. As they slowly danced around the room, both of their sneakers squeaking on the Masonite tile squares as Carter turned Mack in circles.

Instead of talking about music, Carter whispered, “I guess right now I’m listening to my heart. Will you beat the tar out of me if I kiss you?”

The song ended, and another began, but Carter didn’t bother to care which song it was because his lips were touching the softest lips of the most handsome man he believed he’d ever seen in his life.

He curled his fingers in Mack’s short, brown hair and held him tightly, sweeping his tongue over Mack’s lips. When the man granted him entrance, Carter lost himself, swirling his tongue with Mack’s as the two of them swayed to the next song. They kissed feverishly, and just as Carter was about to sink to his knees and take the man into his mouth, a bell rang on his phone, alerting him he had about fifteen minutes to get home before his curfew.

He reluctantly pulled away and looked into Mack’s gorgeous eyes. “I don’t suppose you have more laundry to do tomorrow night, do you?”

Mack’s deep chuckle had Carter sprung quicker than anything had in quite a while. “I’m busy until late in the evening, but I might be able to scare up something. How about I bring a pizza? Say, eight o’clock?”

Carter nearly jumped up and down like a fucking horny toad. “Great. I’ll bring some sodas unless you’d prefer wine or beer. I can sneak it in.”

Mack grinned as Carter turned him around the laundromat again as a faster song came over the sound system. “I’m fine with soda. Thank you for making this one of the best Friday nights I’ve had in quite a long time, Carter. Until tomorrow night,” Mack told him before he pulled Carter closer into his arms and gave him a soft, wet kiss.

Mack stepped away and picked up his basket, taking it with him out the front door. He turned back to the front window and actually blew Carter Lee a kiss which set his heart on fire.

Carter locked the door and set the alarm system before he hurried out the back door and secured the locks. He quickly walked the distance back to the halfway house with a smile plastered on his face as he thought about the incredible night he could remember ever having. He arrived at the house three minutes before curfew and heard Vern’s laugh. “You’re a punctual bastard. Night, son.” Carter ran up the stairs to his room, still hearing that song in his head that they’d dance to in the ugly laundromat on a random Friday night. He fell asleep with a smile at the beautiful memory of his time with Mack, the mysterious stranger he’d been lucky to meet. His thoughts had spurred his dreams to go in a beautiful direction he’d never imagined. Those dreams made him think he might have a better life someday. Meeting Mack helped him see it might just be a possibility.

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