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Dre ignored the knocking at the door for a full five minutes before he was struck with a thought that spurred him into action: What if it’s him?
Emerging from his nest of take-out containers, junk food wrappers, glass bottles, and cigarette butts was no small feat. Really, it was a miracle that he hadn’t started a fire and burned the place down. Not that Fletcher deserved any better. Not that he would have even known. Who knew where the man was?
And yet, when he was disentangled, Dre stumbled to the door as quickly as his atrophied legs and alcohol-soaked brain would let him.
It wasn’t Fletcher. Of course, it wasn’t, because the universe hated him, and would take any opportunity to give him hope just to kick his legs out from under him. As brief as his hope had been, it left him as violently as a nuclear explosion.
“You.” He had nothing left inside him to give his voice inflection.
“My God.” Jay gaped, standing there like an idiot with his hand raised to knock again. “What the bloody hell happened to you?”
“Go away.” Dre shut the door. Or, at least, he thought he did. He must not have, because the next time he blinked, Jay was in the living area, taking in the state of the apartment with judgy blue eyes and more than a hint of pity.
“What…what’s happened to you?”
Suddenly too weak and depressed to stay upright, Dre trudged back to the sofa and burrowed back under the trash. It was where he belonged.
Ignoring the interloper, Dre motioned at the television, and the video he was watching started playing again. “And I feel better now,” he sang under his breath as a benevolent hand rinsed oil from a poor, sad baby duck.
The demon in his living room paused the screen. “This has gone on too long. Everyone is worried about you.”
Taking a swig of – well, he wasn’t quite sure anymore – he un-paused the video. “Do do do-do doooo.”
Once again, Jay interrupted. Squinting through the haze, Dre tried to focus so that he could deliver his coldest glare. It was harder than he predicted. Looking at Jay was like taking a trip to the beach. His eyes were the pure turquoise of the Turks and Caicos, back when they had been a thing. His skin was the pale tan of fine sand, and his strawberry-blond hair was the million reds and golds of a perfect sunset. His lips were the dark pink of choral, and his smile was the blinding white the sunl. Too tempting. Too tantalizing. Too dangerous.
“Go away, Jaylin Wright. Or, should I say, Jaylin Wrong. Nobody’s worried about me. Nobody, nobody.”
“Don’t be a moron, stupid. You disappeared. Fletcher disappeared. Everyone is losing their minds. I figured I would find you here, though.”
“Don’t say his name!” Dre wailed. “This is a no Fletcher zone.”
Jay shook his shoulder. “This is literally his apartment!”
Dre glared again, clutching the pillow from the couch to his chest and gazing back at the Dawn soap commercial. He wished he could be a duck. Paddle, paddle, floating in the ocean. Or wherever ducks like that used to be before they went extinct. Did they live in the ocean? Probably. Just living their little duck lives. Until, bam, suddenly, they were surrounded by an oil spill. Darkness, closing in, oozing into pores, into nostrils and orifices until he couldn’t breathe or see or move or…
Arms around him, fingers brushing through his hair and over his face. Jay wiped Dre’s tears, then wrapped him up in a tight embrace.
As Dre cried, Jay shifted, then shifted again. Garbage rustled as he reached under himself and drew out a book. It was stained and a little damp with who-knew-what. It’s Not Your Fault, Coco Bear. Dre tried to snatch it back, but Jay pinned him with one arm and held the book out of reach.
“What the…?” With one hand, Jay flipped it open, and Dre watched helplessly as the dedication, which had so sacredly and reverently enveloped his eyes, became nothing more than profane fodder for Jay’s amusement. “My Dearest Boy, I know things are confusing and upside down right now. It might feel like everything is falling apart, and no one gets that more than me. But I hope you believe me when I tell you that no matter how things end or where we end up, I’ll always love you more than my own soul. Even if we have to be apart sometimes, you’re never far from my thoughts, and you’re always close in my heart. Stay strong, my boy. Oh, and stay close to your sisters. I know that I can trust you when I can’t be there. Love always, Dad.”
“Give me that!” Dre tried to move, but he was powerless against the all-consuming grief and Jay’s brute strength. Although they were the same height and technically Dre was more physically fit, he had inherited willowy wispiness on both ends of his gene pool, and had to work to gain any amount of weight, whether fat or muscle. After only a few days of languishing on the sofa, Dre had lost several pounds, and was no match for Jay’s sturdy hardness.
“This has gone on too long,” Jay decided, after gently closing the book and putting it on the coffee table, next to some pizza boxes. “It’s time for you to pull yourself together. What about your business? What about Summer and Sam?”
“I’m done with them,” Dre harrumphed, fighting the guilt as hard as he could. “They think they’re better off without me? Fine. See how long they last.”
“Okay, now I know you’ve lost it. I’m calling Auntie Lilah.”
Dre managed to sit up so fast that he broke from Jay’s grasp. “No! I’ll kill you! Do not let that witch anywhere near me!”
“Geez! Okay! But we need to do something. Everyone who loves you is worried.”
“Everyone who loves me is gone.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“You don’t love me.”
“I don’t not love you. I’m your best friend. You’re my daughter’s godfather, and she’s worried about you. And I’m not going to let you go on this way.”
“Cassandra’s only two years old. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“She’s a genius. She asks about you all the time.”
“Maybe so, but I’m not leaving this couch. No, sir, not today.” Tired again, he leaned heavily against Jay, needing his comfort and warmth despite hating his guts. “You’ve always been the worst,” Dre muttered against his shoulder.
“I’m going to make a deal with you.” Jay laid his palm on Dre’s jaw. “We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I’ll watch these awful videos with you until you’re ready to leave the apartment. I’ll do anything you want.”
“Anything that you’d do for your sisters,” Jay corrected with a shake of his head. “I’m married now, remember? You’re like a brother to me.”
“A brother that you’ve slept with.”
“Yes, but that’s in the past. We’re more than that now, aren’t we?”
Dre shrugged. In truth, he didn’t think he could sleep with Jaylin now, even if he could. This couch was sacred. Jay shouldn’t even be here, at the scene of the most divine kiss in the history of humanity. A kiss that could only happen once, never again. Although Dre loved Grace and was happy that their little family was doing well, he wasn’t sure that Jay had what it took to be a good husband for her.
In his not-quite-sober state, an insidious thought took root: Just a kiss.
And then, another thought, one that didn’t seem to come from inside his brain: It won’t satisfy you, My son.
“Hmm?” Dre looked around. “Did you hear that?”
Jay hauled him up. “You’re losing it. Come on. Up you go, into the shower.”
“Yes.” He used the same no-nonsense voice he used when Cass tried to eat rocks at the park. The same voice Dre had used a thousand times a day when Summer and Sam were growing up. “You smell rank. You’re a hot young billionaire, a successful corporate overlord, and one of the best people I know. Whatever Fletcher did to you, he doesn’t deserve you, and you’re only hurting yourself right now. Considering all the times you’ve gotten me out of my own funks, do you really think I’m going to let you throw your life away? No. Now, strip.”
As he ranted and lectured, Jay shoved Dre into the shower, catching him just before he stumbled headfirst into the opposite wall. With his mind having trouble holding onto the slippery reality around him, Dre gazed at the pristine white tiles, dazzled by the flecks of gold and emerald green. Just like Fletcher’s eyes.
“Do I have to wash you myself?”
Dre considered. Not for the sexually gratifying possibilities, but because of the duck. That happy yellow duck with those gentle, cleansing hands. The duck didn’t have to do anything other than be, and the hands did everything else, washing away the blackness that there was no hope of dealing with alone.
Jay misunderstood Dre’s silence, and shamelessly started pulling off articles of clothing that had nearly petrified to Dre’s skin over the last week. “I’ve seen it all before. Believe me when I say I don’t think of you that way anymore.”
“You don’t think I’m attractive anymore?”
“Not like that, no. You mean as much to me as Tristan and Glen. Which is a hell of a lot. I do love you, Dre, and I’m not going anywhere. I know I didn’t show it very well over the years, but I owe you everything. I’m calling it in on your behalf.”
Once Dre was washed and dried, he was forced into some soft pyjamas that were a size too small and so Fletcher that it hurt. He was bundled into a large blanket and placed on the arm chair in the sitting area with his book while Jay collected the trash from the sofa and the rest of the apartment.
“No more takeout,” Jay decided as he shoved garbage down the shoot. “Time for a homecooked meal.”
Sobriety was coming over Dre like a thundercloud. “You can’t cook.”
“Yeah? How much do you want to bet you won’t be salivating over my fillet mignon with mushroom sauce and almond-fried asparagus?”
Dre’s mouth did indeed start to water, and he sat up straighter. “Do you actually know how to make that?”
“Guess you’ll have to find out. Also, my mom sent these, just in case I found you.” Going to the hall closet, Jay rummaged in his messenger bag until he came up with a bag of chocolate. “Trimmings.”
Mmm. His favorite. This brought back so many memories of working at the counter of the chocolate shop, waiting for Aunt Annalise to close up for the day and scrape all the leftover chocolates into a bag for him and his sisters. He wasn’t sure why, but they tasted better than the finished products.
He munched on the discarded delights and watched Jay cook. His adeptness was surprising and he found what he needed in the unfamiliar cupboards and drawers with ease. Obviously, he was no longer the lanky teen or charming coed he used to be. He was a seasoned dad, with dad lines running through his body. It was in the tightness of his shoulders, and the way he always leaned slightly to the left now. His once-curly hair was cut in the most basic, no-nonsense style possible. He even had a bit of a beer-belly.
Yet, there was something else, beyond the physical changes. Something deep and mysterious, intangible and intriguing. Could it be…softness? Kindness? Something. Something that made him more human, and less like a loser frat boy.
Before the answer came, Jay finished in the kitchen and brought their fragrant plates to the sitting area. “Eat,” he ordered, then flicked the screen again. “I want to get through this so I can get back to my girls. Let’s see. The Dawn Commercial, LG, Huggies…Dude, these have gotten worse. Worse than when that guy in chem class cheated on you.”
“Just leave, then. I’m feeling better. Totally, totally good. I don’t need you anymore.”
“No, no, let’s do the Huggies one. Can you believe that people used to use disposable diapers?” Her perked up. “Oh, I remember this one! We all need a hug in the morning, and one at the end of the day.”
Dre joined in automatically. “And as many as possible, squeezed in between, to keep life’s troubles at bay.”
“It’s my belief, for instant relief…”
They finished together. “A hug is the best cure of all.”
Dre looked at Jay. With a sigh and dramatic roll of his eyes, Jay lifted his arm in welcome, and they held each other tightly, humming along to the LG fridge commercial that played next.
Jay gently stroked Dre’s arm. “You’re going to show everyone what you’re made of, my friend, and you’re not going to let anything hold you back. It’s the only way to get what you want.”
Once again, tears brimmed in Dre’s eyes. Jay was right. He remembered the look in Fletcher’s eyes that had haunted him. Dre, just drop it. I’ll never be good enough for them. Dre would show him that wasn’t the case. They could be good enough. They would be good enough. He fingered the children’s book, thinking about the pages hidden within. This would be his grandest gesture yet. The twins would finally respect him. Fletcher would have to come back, and then he would see. Maybe even… But no. He would never think about her. Actually, if he never saw that woman again, it would be too soon.
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~ Romans 15:13