Neil Dalton’s foundation is already cracking. Grief, guilt, and PTSD have ruled his life since a terrible crime tore his world apart last year, and he’s dreading a holiday visit with the family he simultaneously needs and resents. Then someone from his past shows up and rattles that shaky foundation right out from under him.
First a war nearly destroyed Jeremy Kelley. Then his family threw him out when he needed them the most, and now he’s barely holding on emotionally. He spends his last dollar to get to Chicago and prays his former best friend doesn’t leave him out in the cold.
Together, Neil and Jeremy spend the holidays with Neil’s family in their hometown of Omaha. They struggle to deal with families, flashbacks… and feelings that haven’t even begun to fade since their last failed attempt at more than friends. As they try to repair their fractured psyches and rebuild damaged bridges, they rely on each other more than ever, but they can’t deny the mutual attraction that’s existed since before they were both emotionally battered and scarred. If they couldn’t make it work back then, how in the world can they pull it off now?
This book was previously published and has been lightly revised.
I hated the walk home from my grief counselor’s office, especially this time of year. It was the second week of December, and the evening was cold the way only a winter evening in Chicago knew how to be. That windy, dirty chill that threw grit in your eyes just before it climbed under your skin and into your lungs. Nights like this, only an idiot would walk anywhere he didn’t have to.
Especially when that idiot didn’t have to walk the fifteen blocks from his counselor’s office to his apartment with the “L” rumbling down its tracks below his feet and sometimes above his head.
I walked, though, because I still couldn’t get on the train. I hadn’t been on it in just over a year—God, has it really been that long already?—and didn’t see that changing anytime soon. My counselor told me again tonight not to push myself. That I would get there in time. How much time was anyone’s guess.
And I couldn’t smoke on the bus, so I walked. I made it about two thirds of a block before, wind be damned, I took the wrinkled pack of Marlboros out of my jacket. I pulled off my glove and freed a cigarette from the pack, then fished my lighter out of another pocket.
As soon as the smoke was lit, I shoved the lighter back into my jacket and my hand back into my glove. It was a pain in the ass, maneuvering a cigarette to and from my mouth with my fingers tucked into thick ski gloves, but the night was too damned cold for bare hands. Bring on some emphysema with a side of lung cancer, but fuck frostbite.
In between inhaling and exhaling smoke, I paused to cough a couple of times, wincing at the ashy bitterness on my tongue. I was slowly getting used to the taste, faster now than I had the last few times I’d taken up smoking. Usually I quit before I got used to it. This year I’d started early, and though it still wasn’t my favorite flavor in the world, it wasn’t so bad now. At least it tasted better than cold car exhaust.
As I walked and smoked and tried not to freeze my ass off, I let my gaze slide up the tall buildings towering above me, because looking at long-memorized buildings was easier than thinking about my conversation with my grief counselor. I’d been here almost a decade and wondered if I’d ever feel at home in this place. Chicago wasn’t like cigarette smoke, something that would choke me at first but eventually went in and out of my lungs with ease. This city was crazy. Buildings so tall they could step on you. Streets so long they could strangle you. The whole damned thing spread out so far in so many directions I sometimes wondered if it would fold in on itself and swallow me whole. Days like this, I wondered if it already had.
So leave already, Neil.
And go where, exactly?
I flicked the spent cigarette into a pile of dirty snow and stuffed my gloved hands into my coat pockets. I buried my face in my parka’s high collar and walked a little faster.
The nicotine hadn’t helped. I was still as tightly wound as I’d been when I left Jody’s office. My mind was still scattered, my concentration all over the fucking place. I always felt so goddamned lost after an appointment with her. Sometimes I wondered why I kept going back, but being lost was better than… than whatever it was I’d felt before a coworker finally convinced me to make an appointment six months ago.
“It’ll take time, Neil,” Jody had assured me today and every week since June. “No one’s expecting you to have a handle on all of this overnight. Be patient.”
Said the woman who got to close her file folder at the end of our hour and be done with it while I went home and tried not to sleep so I wouldn’t dream.
I almost took out my cigarettes again, but I was only half a block away from home. If I started smoking now, I’d have to stand outside at the base of my apartment stairs while I finished it, and it was too cold for that shit. Maybe it was just as well I only smoked in the wintertime. Nothing kept me from staying out on my balcony and chain-smoking like a relentless, fume-flavored Chicago wind trying to freeze my balls off.
I crossed the last street and walked a little faster toward the stairs leading up to my apartment. A homeless guy shivered at the base of the stairs, huddled beside what looked like one of those green bags they issue in the military. Probably another vet who’d come back from a war—maybe Vietnam, maybe the Middle East; one seemed as likely as the other these days—and wound up on the streets.
I felt for him. I really did. I felt for all the people living on the streets, especially in this kind of weather.
These days I was also scared to death to engage anyone with whom I wasn’t already well acquainted, so I tucked my face a little deeper into my collar and started up the steps.
I stopped with one foot hovering over the next step. Habitual fear made me want to run like hell into the building, but curiosity slowly turned me around.
The homeless guy craned his neck, looking up at me from under the bill of a Dodgers baseball cap. He had a good two or three days’ worth of stubble on his face, and he was gaunt, pale, and exhausted, but as soon as the streetlights illuminated his eyes, my heart stopped.
“Jeremy?” I hurried down the stairs, completely forgetting about the ice and nearly winding up on my ass for my trouble. I regained my footing, and when I had my feet beneath me, found myself eye to eye with Jeremy Kelley, my childhood best friend.
“Thank God,” he said through badly chattering teeth. “I was hoping you still lived here.”
“Yeah, I do. And—”
“Look, I know this is out of the blue,” he said quickly. “I can explain, but please, don’t—”
He stopped, and his eyes were terrified as they locked on mine. I didn’t have to ask why. The last time we saw each other hadn’t ended all that well, and he probably wondered if I was going to leave him out here, though I hoped to God he knew me better than that.
I looked him up and down, wondering how the fuck he hadn’t died of hypothermia in military-issue boots, a pair of jeans, and a parka that wasn’t made for any winter north of the Mason-Dixon line. Whatever had sent him to my doorstep, he was desperate and in no shape to be out here another minute.
I gestured up the stairs. “Let’s get you inside before you freeze. Come on.”
He released a cloud of breath. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Jeremy reached for his bag. His hand was bare and bright red, and his fingers couldn’t quite grasp the frayed green straps.
“I’ll get it.” I pulled off my gloves and handed them to him. “Here, put these on.”
“Thanks.” He took the gloves and, with some effort and swearing, managed to get them on his hands.
I hoisted the heavy bag onto my shoulder. “Jesus, man, what do you have in here?”
The Jeremy I’d known most of my life would have had some sort of snarky retort or called me a pussy for groaning under the bag’s weight. This Jeremy just lowered his gaze and murmured, “Pretty much everything I have.”
I didn’t say anything. I gestured up the stairs, and we went inside. His gait was stiff and slow, probably from being so cold, but he didn’t seem hurt or sick. Still, I worried about him more and more with every floor the elevator creaked and groaned past on its way up to the fifth, and every step we took to my apartment door.
The bag’s strap bit into my shoulder through my parka, and I shifted my weight to balance it while I dug my house key out of my pocket. I found the key, put it in the door, mused silently to myself that this was what I got for not telling the landlord months ago that my deadbolt was sticking, and finally got the fucking thing to turn.
Inside I eased Jeremy’s bag onto my couch and turned to him as I unzipped my parka.
He hugged himself tighter, still shivering in spite of the heat in my apartment.
“How long have you been out there?” I asked.
“Awhile,” he said, obviously trying still his chattering teeth. He unzipped his jacket with badly shaking hands. “Listen, I hate to drop in on—”
“Dude, don’t worry about it.” I nodded down the hall. “If you want to grab a hot shower and warm up, I can put on some coffee.”
He met my eyes, and something in him deflated. No, relaxed. Like he’d been bracing for something and had finally dropped his guard. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
I held his gaze. “What did you think I would do? Just leave you out there?”
He opened his mouth to speak but hesitated. “I just, after the last time…”
“It’s in the past,” I whispered, and I was sure he saw right through to the part of me that still thought about him like I did the sweaty night before we parted ways. “It’s in the past, which is where we should leave it.”
Jeremy swallowed. “Right. Agreed.”
And at least for now, the subject dropped.
He draped his jacket over the back of a chair, and after I’d started the coffee, I helped him with his bag. I showed him to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and while he got in the shower and the coffeemaker did its thing, I slipped out onto the balcony with my cigarettes. This was my eighth cigarette today, which was a lot for me. A hell of a lot. Especially this early in December. The annual bad habit, the one I always started on Black Friday as I counted down the days until I went home for Christmas, had started early this year. No surprise there, according to my counselor. At this rate I’d probably be chain-smoking by Christmas Eve. I wondered if I’d be able to kick it the week after New Year’s like I always did, or if it might hang on until February or something.
Whatever. I cupped my hand around the end of the cigarette to block the wind and flicked the lighter. I’d deal with quitting after I dealt with all the reasons I’d started again. Just like I did every year. This year more than any before it.
I pocketed my lighter, and for a moment I concentrated on nothing but taking in and releasing a few deep breaths of smoke. Once the nicotine had started working its magic on the very edges of my frayed nerves, I leaned against the half-rusted railing and looked into my apartment.
Jeremy and I had lost touch a few years ago, around the time he was going back to Iraq. Well, no. We hadn’t lost touch in the sense that we drifted apart and meant to stay in contact but didn’t. The silence of the last few years had been by design. Or at least, the first few weeks of it had been. I didn’t know that either of us thought it would drag on quite this long. I wasn’t really sure why it had.
But five years later, out of nowhere, he was here. Why now? And why at the bottom of my steps at eight o’clock at night when it was freezing cold outside?
My gut twisted into knots. Jesus, what if I had stopped to get something to eat? Or I’d gone back to work to put in some overtime? Or gone out drinking like I did last week, despite having to work at seven in the morning? How long would he have waited for me?
And why was he waiting for me?
He’d been in the military just about eight years now, since a few months after graduation, and last I’d heard, his second enlistment was for four years. So there was a good chance he’d just gotten out. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in about two days, maybe three, which happened to be how long it took to get from where his family lived in Florida to Chicago via train or bus. There were hotels, motels, and hostels all over this city, not to mention shelters if he was desperate, but no, he’d apparently come straight here from whatever mode of transportation had brought him into this godforsaken town.
Whatever had driven him here while he was dressed for anywhere but here, it wasn’t just an impromptu visit with an old friend. Something wasn’t right.
I had a feeling he’d also had neither the time nor the money to eat along the way, so I smothered my cigarette and went back inside. I opened the pantry and realized just how long it had been since I’d gone grocery shopping. My mother would have shit kittens if she’d seen how little I’d been eating over the last year. Of course, the minute I tried to tell her why, she’d have shut down and said she didn’t want to hear about it.
But I was hungry now, and Jeremy was probably starving. There wasn’t a lot in here, though. Money wasn’t exactly bursting out of my wallet these days, so hopefully Jeremy wouldn’t mind something simple and cheap. I could order takeout, I supposed. Maybe cut into those funds I’d put aside for my upcoming annual holiday visit.
As I grabbed a box of macaroni and cheese off the shelf, double-checking the date to make sure it hadn’t been in there too long, I wondered if I should have used my sparse bank account as a “get out of spending Christmas at home” card.
Sorry, Mom and Dad. Can’t afford to come visit this year. Counselor’s co-pays are eating me alive, and cigarettes aren’t cheap. Maybe next year.
Yeah, right. Like I’d ever live that down.
I checked the fridge to make sure I had butter and milk. Shockingly, I did, and they weren’t expired either. A pre-Christmas fucking miracle.
I laughed softly at my own silent sarcasm as I put a pot of water on the stove.
About the time the water had boiled and I’d added the noodles, Jeremy came into the kitchen. He had on a clean pair of jeans and a slightly wrinkled US Army T-shirt, and some color had returned to his freshly shaved face. His almost black hair was longer now than the last time I’d seen him. Still short, but definitely not army severe anymore.
And I still didn’t know why he was here. If not for the heavy circles under his eyes or the deep furrows between his eyebrows, I might have fooled myself into thinking he was just here for a visit. Except we also had a history that had kept us apart for almost five years, so “just a visit” wouldn’t be on his agenda or mine unless there was some hatchet burying involved. Or at least trying to stumble through an awkward conversation that was half a decade overdue.
“Coffee?” I asked.
Something in his shoulders visibly relaxed, and he nodded. “Please.”
I pulled a couple of cups out of the cabinet. “I figured you were hungry too. I hope this is…” I gestured at the pot.
“It’s fine, believe me. I’ll eat anything that’s in front of me right about now.” In spite of the worry and exhaustion in his eyes, he smiled. “Thanks.”
As I poured our coffee, I said over my shoulder, “You still take it black?”
“Black as I can get it.”
I handed him one of the cups of coffee. I preferred mine polluted, as Jeremy had always called it, and poured some milk into my cup before returning the carton to the fridge. Neither of us spoke for a long moment, just sipping our coffee and waiting for our food.
After a while he said, “Man, I can’t thank you enough for this.”
“You didn’t think I’d leave you out there, did you?”
Jeremy sighed. “Not really, but I kind of didn’t think my parents would either, so…”
My heart dropped. I set my cup on the counter with a dull tap. “Your parents found out, didn’t they?”
He wrapped both hands around his own cup like he still hadn’t gotten warm yet. “Yeah. They did.”
“You told them?”
“Nope.” One syllable had never contained so much bitterness.
I raised my eyebrows. “So… what happened?”
Jeremy ran a hand through his short hair. “They didn’t show up when I came home. They were supposed to meet me at the airport, but they…” His eyes lost focus. More to himself, he said, “They weren’t there.”
“You were coming to visit them?”
He shook his head. “I was coming home. To stay.”
“So you’re out of the army? Permanently?”
“Yeah. Few months ago I was coming up on my reenlistment date, and I just couldn’t do it. I…” He shuddered, fidgeting against the counter like he thought that might keep me from noticing, and cleared his throat. “If I put in another four years, I’d be over halfway to retirement, so I wouldn’t be able to justify getting out then, and I am not giving the army twenty goddamned years.” He drained his coffee cup like he was throwing back a shot of something much stronger. “Dad and I, we talked a few months ago about me getting out and coming to work for him. Figured that would give me a good ten or fifteen years before he retired so I could really get the hang of the company before he turned it over to me.”
“Sounds like a pretty sweet deal,” I said.
“Oh, it was.” He rested his hands on the counter and let his head fall back. “Should’ve been, anyway.”
“One of my exes, this guy I dated a couple of years ago, saw on Facebook that I was getting out of the army.” Jeremy swept the tip of his tongue across his lips. “So he e-mailed me and asked if he could see me again before I left town. You know, for a couple of beers. I thought he just wanted to say good-bye since I was leaving, but apparently he wanted to get back together. I said no. He got pissed.” Jeremy sighed. “So he waited until the day I was flying home, and he dug up every e-mail we’d ever exchanged, and forwarded them to my parents.”
I cringed. “I’m guessing those e-mails were…”
“Yeah. That kind of e-mail.”
Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck as his cheeks darkened. “So not only did they find out I was gay, they found out about some of the
” He paused, shifting his gaze to the narrow strip of floor between us. “They found out a few more details about my personal life than I would have wanted them to find out if they weren’t insanely homophobic.”
I grimaced. “No kidding. I’m guessing you called them or something when they didn’t show up at the airport?”
“Yeah. They told me to get a cab and give the driver any address but theirs.” He stared into his coffee cup as he thumbed the handle. “I don’t know anyone else in Miami, and I had just enough money for a bus ticket, so I came here.” He met my eyes, and the desperation in his was unmistakable. “I’m sorry to drop in on you like this. I just need a place to crash for a little while. While I find a job and get on my feet.”
“You know you don’t even need to ask,” I said. “My apartment’s not that big, but you’re welcome to it for as long as you need.”
He searched my eyes, a hint of skepticism deepening the crevices between his eyebrows. I thought he might ask if I was sure, and maybe reopen the subject we’d never even started to resolve five years ago, but he just lowered his gaze and whispered, “Thanks.”
I finished making our food and scooped the steaming macaroni and cheese into a pair of bowls. We moved from the kitchen to the living room, since my table was half-buried under mail and various other crap. I tried not to let my place turn into a stereotypical bachelor pad, but since no one else ever ate here but me, the table had become more of a storage space than an eating surface.
I was starving, and I could only imagine how hungry Jeremy was, so it was no surprise that there wasn’t much in the way of conversation until we’d both gone back for seconds and returned to the couch.
Jeremy set his empty bowl on the coffee table. “So I haven’t talked to you in a long time.”
Damn it. Apparently we are going there tonight.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” I cleared my throat. “I kept meaning to e-mail you or something, but…” But I don’t know where I stand with you. And even if I did, I’m lucky I can get my shoes on these days.
“Me too,” he said. “Life’s just been so…”
“Yeah.” My stomach twisted itself into a knot. “Life happens.”
“It does. How have you been?”
I looked into my bowl and absently chased a noodle around with my fork. “I’ve been… all right.”
Jeremy’s coffee cup clicked on the table. “Is that ‘all right’ like everything’s really fine, or ‘all right’ like you were after—”
“Don’t,” I said softly and met his eyes. “Please.”
Alarm pushed up his eyebrows. “Neil, is—”
“It’s really not something I want to discuss,” I said.
They rose a little higher. “That bad, huh?”
I set my jaw. “It’s not something I want to discuss.”
“Okay, sure. But if you need to, you know—”
“I know,” I said quietly. “Thanks. Just… not now.”
He didn’t push. Though I was sure he tried to hide it, he looked hurt, and I supposed I didn’t blame him. There’d never been anything Jeremy and I couldn’t talk about besides that last night we spent together. We’d carried each other’s deepest, darkest secrets for years—in some ways we were each other’s deepest, darkest secrets—and swore we’d take them to the grave if we had to.
But this time I just couldn’t go there.