At thirty-eight years of age, Chandler finds himself single and caring for his brother Raymond, who suffers numerous health problems.
Mired in grief from the multiple deaths of close family members, he recedes into himself, crippled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Early one morning Chandler’s life is flipped on its end when he encounters his neighbor, twenty-five year old Marcus.
Nothing about a relationship with this young man makes sense. For one thing, Marcus is… well… YOUNG. He’s also biracial and has all kinds of tattooed muscles!
The streetwise Marcus introduces Chandler to an entirely different lifestyle, pulling the would-be hermit from his shell, albeit kicking and screaming. But how long can such a relationship last, and what about Raymond? Chandler fears a guy like Marcus, seemingly perfect in every way, won’t be able to truly accept Chandler with all his baggage.
An unexpected bombshell detonates and Chandler learns some unsavory details about Marcus, who he really is, and what he’s done in the past.
Finally, it’s Chandler who must decide if he can accept Marcus’ baggage.
CHANDLER HEARD the rhythmic thumping in the distance, but couldn’t quite put it into context. Drums? Hammering? A knock on the door? He struggled for a moment to focus, to wrap his mind around every bit of sensory input, yet he felt paralyzed. Disembodied, perhaps. He reached out, trying to touch something, to grasp for anything real. He could neither see nor feel but was consumed by the bleak void surrounding him, engulfing his soul.
The pounding intensified just enough to jolt him from his half-asleep state, at last jarring him from the night-terror paralysis, and his eyes shot wide open. He gasped, sucking in a spate of much-needed oxygen, and rapidly pushed himself up from the mattress. His feet hit the floor before he even had time to exhale, and he shot out of bed to rush down the hallway.
“Raymond! Raymond!” He flung open his brother’s bedroom door and reached inside, groping for the wall switch. As the overhead light burst its painful illumination across the tiny room, he saw Raymond roll over onto his back. His large frame twisted pretzel-like on the small twin mattress as he held his forearm over his face, shielding his eyes from the merciless glare of the bright light.
“Ray! Are you all right?” Chandler stepped into the room. “You were pounding on the wall… again.”
“Oh. I was?”
Chandler couldn’t tell if the slurred speech was merely grogginess or something more serious. “Sit up,” Chandler said. “Sit up for a second and talk to me.”
Ray moaned and shook his head in protest. “I’m okay. I must’ve just been dreaming or something.”
“Are you sure?”
“Dammit! I said I’m all right.”
The last time Chandler had awakened in the night to the sound of pounding, he’d dismissed it, assuming Raymond was having a dream, and had gone back to sleep. When he got up the following morning, he found Raymond on the floor, having suffered a stroke.
Chandler’s greatest fear.
A stroke, or cerebrovascular accident, had crippled their mother—his and Raymond’s. Chandler had been there when she, at fifty-seven, had been rendered hemiplegic. The stroke had stripped her not only of both sensation and movement in the left half of her body but also of her independence and arguably her dignity.
Chandler had been there. He’d been there for every second of suffering the duration of her three-year struggle. At first unable to so much as twitch her pinky finger, after a grueling schedule of dogged, unyielding therapy, she walked. Chandler had been there as her cheerleader, her therapeutic coach. Her drill sergeant at times. Her ass-wiper and personal servant.
He’d been there, too, when his father collapsed in his driveway, unable to take another step. The horror of the incident replayed in Chandler’s mind in a never-ending loop. An implacable movie reel. Chandler watched his father go down at least a thousand times in his mind’s eye. Ten thousand. A million.
Dad’s stroke had graciously been far less severe than Mom’s. But the myriad health issues complicated his care. First, the delirium tremors haunted him. Alcohol withdrawal so severe the doctors feared permanent dementia. For six weeks Chandler sat by his father’s bedside, until one day the fog miraculously lifted and the dad Chandler had always known returned. Sort of.
With Mom, every moment caring for her had been a blessing, the experience a reward unto itself. She’d praised and thanked him daily, truly appreciative of every little sacrifice. And truth be told, he’d never regarded any of it as sacrificial. Caring for the person who’d given him life, for the woman who’d raised him and provided for him for so many years, had been a privilege.
Not so in Dad’s case. The reality of his situation hardened his heart. Bitter and angry, he lashed out at Chandler, resentful of all he’d lost. And Chandler became the warden, a representative of his father’s limitations. Physically Dad recovered, regaining most of his mobility and sensation. A residual limp evidenced the stroke had happened, causing him to drag his right foot slightly as he walked, and a tremor in his right hand made it difficult for him to write legibly or to hold his coffee cup. Overall, the disabilities were minor, at least compared to Mom.
But when his kidneys failed, resulting in dialysis three times a week, he knew he’d never again enjoy a normal life. Then the heart surgery. The gall stones. The cataracts. Life never got better.
That should have been enough.
When Chandler didn’t move from the doorway or dim the overhead light, Raymond apparently realized he had to at least humor Chandler, and he dragged his legs off the side of the mattress and pushed himself upright to a seated position. He immediately reached to the nightstand for a cigarette. Chandler winced.
“Hold both arms out for me.”
“Why?” Raymond’s thick voice rasped, grumpy in much the same way their father had been. “I said I’m fine.”
“Please. Just do it, and stick out your tongue.”
As Raymond lit the cigarette, Chandler watched his movements, confident he had full use of both limbs. He then took a drag and exhaled a long stream of smoke that lingered in a noxious cloud within the confines of the tiny bedroom. Chandler waved a hand in front of his face.
“Stick out your tongue,” he repeated.
“Jesus Christ!” Raymond opened his mouth and stretched his gray tongue down past his bottom lip. Noting it curved neither to the left nor right, Chandler at last was satisfied.
“All right. Make sure you put that out before you go back to sleep.” He nodded to the cigarette in Raymond’s hand.
Chandler closed the bedroom door and padded his way to the kitchen. The digital clock on the coffee maker informed him the time: 4:47 a.m. There’d be no point trying to fall back asleep, so he stepped over to the sink and filled the coffee carafe with water. Next to the coffee maker sat a less-than-three-pound can of Folgers and a Tupperware container filled with filters. He’d never been pretentious enough to buy a grinder and the trendy flavored coffee beans. Chandler stuck to the basics. In all things.
He poured a generous measure of coffee creamer—at least a quarter mug-full—into his favorite twenty-ounce coffee cup, then waited for the carafe to fill with coffee. In his youth, he never used creamer, but he had somehow gotten accustomed to it and now couldn’t bear the bitter taste of black coffee. He loved the rich creaminess yet still couldn’t stand the mediciny flavor of sweetener. He had to have his coffee with cream only. No sugar. No flavorings. And the creamer had to be liquid, non-dairy. The half-and-half dairy cream tasted curdled to him. The powder didn’t dissolve properly. And it had to be the perfect temperature. Not scalding. Not lukewarm.
As fastidiously as he ritualized his coffee, he likewise maintained a steadfast morning routine, which included two cigarettes he smoked on the front porch. Though Chandler told himself he was a non-smoker for all intents and purposes, he’d opted not to completely kick the habit. He had to jumpstart his day with a double shot of nicotine and caffeine, one of the only indulgences he allowed himself. When he gave up his two-pack-per-day consumption eight years prior, he’d been successful in part by limiting his smoking to restricted places and times. The morning coffee and cigs on the porch were the last to eliminate, and he never did.
The fact that Raymond smoked like a chimney completely obliterated any benefit his abstinence provided, at least to his home. Chandler had been very specific and insistent that he didn’t want Raymond smoking in the house, but after repeatedly catching him smoking in his bedroom, Chandler had finally conceded that Raymond could smoke there with the door closed. Still, Raymond pushed the boundaries every chance he got, carrying his lit cigarettes out into the kitchen and living room, smoking in the bathroom.
Chandler didn’t like the house smelling like an ashtray. Then again, he didn’t like the way Raymond seldom bathed, or the fact he cooked everything in oil at high temperatures, splattering grease all over the kitchen. He didn’t like that Raymond’s bedroom and bathroom reeked not only of stale tobacco but also of dirty laundry, urine, and general filth. If Raymond lived alone, Chandler knew he’d one day see him on an episode of Hoarders.
Fortunately, Chandler had his own bathroom off his bedroom. He didn’t share the main bathroom with Raymond and thus Chandler tried to avoid it. The initial arrangement when Raymond moved in was to keep his own bathroom and bedroom clean and to do his own laundry. Yet he never cleaned, and when it got to a point Chandler couldn’t stand it, he’d cave. He’d take a gallon of bleach, elbow-length rubber gloves, and an array of brushes, sponges, and cleaning products into the bathroom and scrub it spotless. A few days later, it would already be well on its way back to its default condition: filthy.
Since Raymond seldom left his bedroom for any length of time, Chandler found it impossible to get in there to clean. His occasional reminders to Raymond that he needed to tidy up his space were usually met with grunts and dirty looks, but if Raymond happened to be in one of his sour moods… things quickly turned ugly.
Those ugly times proved scariest.
JEFF ERNO began writing LGBT fiction in the late 1990s. Although an avid reader and amateur writer from a very young age, Jeff pursued a career as a retail store manager in Northern Michigan. When his first gay-themed novel was published, he was shocked that anyone would even want to read it. So far, he’s published over thirty novels. Jeff lives in Southern Michigan, where he works part time at a convenience store.
Jeff’s writing credits include a variety of themes and sub-genres including male romance, Young Adult, Science Fiction, erotica, and BDSM. He is the winner of a 2012 Rainbow Award and an Honorable Mention in 2011. His style is unpretentious and focused upon emotionally-driven, character-based stories that touch the heart. Jeff is especially passionate about young adult literature and combating teen bullying and youth suicide.