Their plan was perfect…until the world stopped.
After the Navy boots him out, Tristan is screwed. Without an honorable discharge or a college degree, his job prospects are grim. If only he knew a service member who was willing to get married, make Tristan a dependent, and transfer his GI Bill. Such as, say, a former coworker who’s single, gay, and wants his family off his back about his refusal to settle down…and who maybe feels guilty for his role in Tristan losing his career.
Casey has never liked Tristan, but the plan is irresistible. In fact, it’s perfect. Now Tristan has health insurance and a place to live, and he’s going to school. Meanwhile, Casey’s conscience is assuaged, and he’s still sleeping his way through town while his family is none the wiser. The guys stay out of each other’s way, and it’s all good.
Right up until a pandemic locks everything down.
Suddenly it’s just Casey and Tristan…and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In a time when they’re both desperate for strength, support, and human contact, they find them in the most unexpected place: each other.
But when feelings come into play, is it something real? Or just two lonely men making the best of terrifying times? And how in the world do Casey and Tristan tell the difference?
Until the World Stops is a 72,000-word standalone gay romance.
As the events of 2020 have unfolded, in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve debated when and how to incorporate that reality into my work. It’s not something I want to make light of or capitalize on, but it has become a part of our lives, and one that doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. There comes a point when—if I’m to write about life—I need to write about the ugly parts too. For that matter, writing is how I process the world around me, and as time has gone on, I’ve found myself needing the catharsis of looking this reality in the eye and putting it into words as best I can.
Most importantly, however, this is a time when we all need hope and even moments of peace. While pure escapism is important to me, so too is finding that hope and peace when everything feels so bleak.
So it’s with that in mind that I give you a couple of guys finding a little bit of light when all the world feels dark.
TITLE: Until the World Stops
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
LENGTH: 72,000 words
GENRE(S): Contemporary, Military
TROPES: Fake relationship, forced proximity
Content warning: COVID-19
“They’re really booting you out? Over a Facebook post?”
MA2 Tristan Holloway folded his arms behind his mostly untouched beer bottle and stared at the small table between us. “Yeah. Admin separation, and my lawyer is pretty sure they’re not going to let the grass grow. Two months, and I’m gone.”
I whistled, sitting back in my chair. “Damn. That’s harsh.”
“Yeah, it is.” He laughed bitterly and reached for his beer. “Guess I shouldn’t have ‘incited mutiny’ or ‘disobeyed a lawful order.’”
I rolled my eyes. “For fuck’s sake. I think you were stupid to post it, but they’re making… I mean, you didn’t incite mutiny.”
“Yeah, well,” he muttered into the bottle, “not much I can do about it now.”
Watching him across the table, I actually felt sorry for him. We hadn’t gotten along at all since he’d been transferred to our shitty little base on the Down East coast of Maine, and there’d been times where finding out he was getting booted would’ve made my day, but he wasn’t actually a bad dude. Not someone I had any desire to be friends with. Not someone I wanted to work with. But someone who didn’t deserve the shit hand he’d been dealt, which was part of why I’d bitten the bullet and taken him out for beers tonight after shift. I could think he was an asshole and still believe he deserved a couple of drinks and a designated driver after getting shafted like that.
And…quite frankly, I owed him more than a drink. Though I hadn’t joined our chain of command in using Holloway’s post to sink his career, there was no denying that the way things had gone down was partly my fault. I felt like shit about that.
A few weeks back, one of our co-workers who was friends with him on Facebook had shown me the post. I’d confronted Holloway, and true to form, we’d gotten into it. Though I outranked him and I was his supervisor, he never hesitated to tell me exactly how he felt about things, including my leadership methods and where I could stick them. I’d never escalated that to our chiefs or made a big thing out of it because I’d always assumed he was one of those E-5s who’d been left jaded by his time at sea and in combat, and with some time and patience (okay, maybe I wasn’t that patient) he’d mature into a solid cop, a good Sailor, and maybe even a decent leader. I just had to keep at him and hope his mouth didn’t get him in trouble with our upper chain of command. Which it had.
I’d tried to handle the post in-house, mostly by telling him he was playing with fire and that if he valued his career, he’d take it the hell down. He definitely didn’t want any of our senior leadership to catch wind of it, because they had little if any patience for insubordination and had, shall we say, some political leanings that would seriously color their response to that particular post. Chief and Holloway had butted heads over politics from day one, and I swore Chief had been itching for ages to find a reason to use Holloway’s “leftist bullshit” to screw him over. He’d even tried a couple of times to insinuate that Holloway was part of Antifa, something another chain of command had successfully used to threaten a friend of mine into keeping his beliefs to himself.
So I’d confronted Holloway on my own. Holloway had lost his temper. I’d lost mine. It had escalated into a shouting match that had drawn Chief Larson’s attention, and Chief had asked what was going on. That had led to Chief seeing the post in question, and suddenly the whole thing was yanked out of my hands, the response spear-headed by someone who was bound and determined to make an example out of Holloway. Our senior chief, master chief, XO, and CO had all had the same reaction, and with a single Facebook post, Holloway had bought himself a one-way ticket to Captain’s Mast.
Now, because I hadn’t been able to keep a cool head, talk sense into Holloway, and keep the situation out of sight, he was fucked.
Yeah, he’d been stupid, posting publicly about some of the failings of military leadership—including some of the leaders way, way on high—and urging those on deployment to push back against orders to effectively commit war crimes. It wasn’t that I disagreed with him. In fact, I didn’t. Every word he’d written was absolutely right. The problem was that we all knew damn well that the military valued our freedom of speech about as much as they valued our need for sleep. You either toed the line, or you got the toe of someone’s boot in your ass, and that was what had happened to Holloway.
I had to admit it made me feel a little sick, having just reenlisted and now seeing what happened when a Sailor publicly said, “Hey guys, remember you swore an oath to the Constitution, and you’re required by the UCMJ to disobey unlawful orders.” And, okay, he had taken some pretty hard swipes at the current commander-in-chief, but I knew some of the higher ups involved in this fiasco, and I distinctly remembered them making some hella disrespectful comments about the previous president. While in uniform, too, and not just on their personal social media.
So as much as I didn’t like Holloway, and as much as I thought he’d been an idiot to post what he did, he didn’t deserve this. An ass-chewing, maybe. When they’d sent him to Captain’s Mast, we’d all figured he’d get some docked pay and restriction for a couple of months. I’d seen Sailors come away with punishments like that for all kinds of things they technically could’ve been booted out for (insubordinate conduct, underage drinking, drunk on duty, disobeying a lawful order, going UA). A Facebook post? One telling people to disobey unlawful orders? Really?
But here he was.
“It’s bullshit.” I thumbed the label on my untouched beer. “I thought the lawyer said they didn’t have a case against you.”
“Oh, he did. But then he basically rolled over as soon as the hearing started, and when the captain said she wanted to admin sep me, he just went with it.” Holloway sighed. “What does he care? He’s not the one losing his paycheck and veteran’s benefits in sixty days.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Shit, they’re yanking your benefits, too? Like, all of them?”
“All of them. Which…” Holloway pressed his elbow into the table and rubbed his forehead. “Man, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. There’s no way I’m going to get a decent job without an honorable discharge. I don’t have a degree, and now I don’t have the GI Bill.” He huffed a humorless laugh as he picked up his beer again. “And fuck me when I actually find a job with health insurance, because they’re not going to cover my pre-existing jacked-up ankle.”
I winced. We’d all heard the story about Holloway breaking his ankle during a combat deployment. It was his go-to when everyone got drunk, bored, or both, and started comparing battle scars and war stories. Without any VA disability coverage, he was going to be on his own when it came time for that surgery the docs said he’d need within a few years.
Not sure what to say, I asked, “Any idea where you’ll go? I mean, are you going to stay here in Maine, or…”
Holloway groaned. “There’s almost nothing here. Nobody that’s hiring, anyway, and even if they are, I doubt they’d be willing to hire me without the honorable discharge.” He sighed. “My folks said I could move home, so that’s probably what I’ll have to do.” With a grimace, he muttered, “Fuck. That’s just what I need.”
He took a deep pull from his beer bottle, then gestured past me with the now empty bottle, probably asking the waiter for another. Apparently satisfied a fresh beer was on its way, he faced me again. “I love my folks. Don’t get me wrong. But my dad is never going to let me hear the end of this, and even if he does… I mean, my parents are great, but just staying with them for the holidays is stressful as all hell.”
“Better than living on the street, right?”
“Oh, you’re not wrong. And considering they live in the Bay Area, it’s either live with them or start shopping for a cardboard box.” His own words seemed to knock some life out of him, and his shoulders slumped. “Man, I really fucked myself.”
He had, but he didn’t deserve this. “You made a mistake. You shouldn’t have been screwed this hard for it.” I huffed out a sharp breath. “This is like… I don’t know. Putting someone in front of a firing squad because they fell asleep on post.”
“Yeah, well.” He met my gaze with exhausted eyes. “Not much I can do about it now, is there?”
I swallowed. “Probably not, no.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment. The waiter appeared with another beer for Holloway. He asked if I wanted one, but I’d barely drunk any of mine, and anyway, I was stopping at one beer since I was driving.
After the waiter had gone, we drank in silence for a few minutes. Then Holloway laughed bitterly as he watched himself picking at the label on his bottle. “You know what I need to do? Find some officer to be my sugar daddy.”
“Think about it.” He shrugged, and he had a faint slur in his voice, so it might’ve been the two beers he’d drunk in rapid succession talking. “Find some single dude who isn’t going to go to college, marry him, have him transfer his GI Bill to me, and then, bam! I’ve got school and health insurance.” He chuckled quietly, shaking his head as he stared at the table with unfocused eyes. “Everybody else gets married to the military for the benefits. Why not me?”
With some effort, I managed a halfhearted laugh. “I mean, that’s an option, but I don’t think ‘military sugar daddy’ is a category on Tinder.”
“Should be,” he muttered before taking another drink.
The sad thing was, he was probably right. It really wasn’t that uncommon for service members—especially younger enlisted—to marry quickly for the benefits the military offered. When I’d enlisted ten years ago, I’d even been warned about women who were basically on the prowl for a military husband in order to get those sweet, sweet benefits. Women like that weren’t nearly as common as people insisted they were, but it happened, and anyway, it wasn’t really something I needed to worry about since I didn’t date women. I had yet to meet a man who was looking to lock down a military husband so they could score some Tricare and a housing allowance. It was entirely possible men like that were out there, but apparently they didn’t bother with me because I made it clear to anyone who read my profiles that I wanted a man in my bed, not a ring on my finger.
Not happening, gentlemen. Move along.
“Would it kill you to settle down?” my mother asked me multiple times at every holiday, get-together, or—God help me—wedding. “You’re almost thirty, and you haven’t had a boyfriend since high school.”
Yeah, I wasn’t even thirty, the three boyfriends I’d had in high school had been assholes, and I rather enjoyed sampling the veritable cornucopia of horny men that Tinder and Grindr had to offer. What was the hurry?
Chill, Mom. There’s still time for grandbabies and all that.
I’ll find someone. I’ll get married. I’ll have kids.
Just…not right now.
Taking a sip from my mostly full beer, I looked at Holloway again.
And I nearly dropped the bottle.
Holloway had gotten himself into this situation, but my failure to keep my head together and handle it at my level had been the reason he’d lost his career and benefits. So…what if I could help him out in a way that assuaged my guilt, minimized the upheaval in his life, and had the added bonus of getting my mom to leave me alone about settling down?
From across the table, Holloway eyed me. “What?”
“I, um… So that whole sugar daddy thing…” I put the bottle down and pushed it safely away. “What if we got married?”
He blinked. “Say what now?”
I sat up a little. “I’m not exactly a sugar daddy, but if we get married, you’re entitled to all those benefits.”
Holloway stared at me for a few long seconds. “Dude, you don’t even like me.”
Okay, he wasn’t wrong, but I shrugged and barreled on. “Pretty sure that’s mutual, isn’t it?”
He seemed to consider it, and then he nodded before taking a pull from his beer. Wasn’t like it was a big secret.
“Look.” I folded my arms on the table and leaned closer. “I don’t have to like you to see that the Navy did you dirty. This way, we can both say ‘fuck you’ to the Navy, plus you’ll have health insurance and you can get what you need to go to school.”
He narrowed his eyes. “What’s in it for you?”
“Well, for one thing, I’d have a better housing allowance, and I’d get my mom off my back about settling down.” I paused. “I mean, she’ll be on my ass about when are we going to have kids even though she knows damn well I’m not doing that until I retire, but at least she won’t give me shit about settling down anymore.”
“Oh. You think… You really think that’ll work?”
I laughed. “Well, she won’t be giving me a hard time about settling down if I’m married, right?”
“I, uh… I guess.” He shifted in his seat, seeming to sober up as he watched me uncertainly. “Is that the only reason?”
“No.” I drummed my fingers beside my drink. Hell, why not show all my cards? “Okay, look. I feel really bad about what happened. And like if I’d done things differently, you wouldn’t have been fucked this hard.”
He eyed me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if I hadn’t lost my shit at you when I brought up the post, then Chief wouldn’t have overheard us, and things wouldn’t have happened the way they did.” I sighed heavily. “I was trying to handle it in-house, at our level, but then—”
“To be fair, I flipped out first.”
“But I’m the MA1. I’m the supervisor.” I thumped my knuckle on the table. “I was supposed to keep it together and be professional. And if I had… I mean, look. The bottom line is that you wouldn’t have lost your benefits if I’d done my job. I’m sorry for that. If we get married, then you can get back some of what the Navy took away from you because I failed as your MA1. It doesn’t fix it all, it doesn’t make any of it right, but maybe you won’t fall on your face, and maybe I can sleep at night.”
He stared at me, his lips apart.
“You don’t have to do it,” I said. “I’m just putting it out there.”
“Right. I’m just… I’m trying…” He shook himself. “How would that even work?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I mean, we can work out the details, but I figure we go do the Justice of the Peace thing, we tell everyone we’re married, you get signed on as my dependent, and I transfer my GI Bill to you. And when you’re finished going to school, we can just ‘not work out,’ split up, and move on with our lives.”
“But we’d… I mean, we’d still be married. For like four years at least.” Holloway inclined his head. “I like to get laid as much as the next guy, so…” His eyebrow arched.
“So we keep getting laid.” I shrugged. “You go do your thing. I go do mine. We basically just live like roommates.” I paused, considering it. “I mean, I guess we have to put on the married couple thing for family functions and stuff, but it’s a few days here and there. Doesn’t seem so bad, especially since we’re both this far from everyone we know.”
Eyes unfocused, Holloway nodded slowly. “Man, I don’t know if I’m drunk already or what, but it makes sense. And you’d…” He met my gaze again. “You’d really do that? Get married so I can use your benefits?”
I thought about it again. I really did. Because it sounded great off the cuff, but now that it was out there, it wasn’t something we should just impulsively dive into. And the more I thought about it… Hell, the guilt alone had been killing me ever since this debacle had started, and now he’d lost his whole career. All because I’d lost my head just long enough for Chief to overhear and grab the reins out of my hands. Would I really do this for Holloway? Fuck yes I would.
“Yeah,” I said. “Long as you do something part-time or whatever to help out with bills and stuff.”
“Oh yeah, I can do that,” he said quickly. “I don’t want to be a freeloader or—I mean, really? Don’t get me wrong, dude, I appreciate it, but I was shocked as shit when you offered to take me out tonight. This?” He whistled. “This is big.”
“I know it is. But it’ll help us both out.”
“Me more than you. By a longshot.”
“Eh, it’s not such a bad deal for me. Trust me.”
“Are you sure? Shouldn’t we both, like, think about it?”
“Probably.” I shrugged. “But we might want to get a move on before your pay and benefits get yanked.”
“That’s probably two months.”
“Okay, so let’s give it until the end of the month. If one of us comes up with a better solution, or one of us wants to bail, then we don’t do it.”
Holloway stared into his beer for a moment. Finally, he exhaled and met my gaze. “Okay. End of the month, we’ll decide.”
“Sounds like a plan.”And something told me that when this month was up, we’d be investing in a couple of cheap-but-convincing wedding bands.