Monday, February 7, 2011
In the novel Breathe by Sloan Parker, Lincoln McCaw has lost everything -- his home, his job, his partner -- after he caused a fatal accident. A year later, he's drowning the guilt and despair in whiskey, but he needs to move on. His sister and her kids are counting on him. Then he meets a man who ignites a passion Lincoln thought he’d never find. Too bad one night is all they can have together. Now he needs to figure out how to turn away from the only person who makes him feel alive…before whoever is sending him threats decides Lincoln needs to suffer more than he already has.
Jay Miller is surrounded by grief and misery until he finally gives in to all those years of sexual fantasies about being with another guy. Realizing he’s ended up in the arms of the man who caused his wife’s accident, he tries to pull away. But how can he give up a friendship he needs more than anything -- a friendship and a love that could save him? He may not have time to make the choice before someone else destroys it all.
Hope you found some peace in jail. You never will again.
Lincoln McCaw read the note one last time and crushed the paper in his fist. The bus jerked forward as it came to a stop. No need to check. He was home. The smell of hog manure from the surrounding farmlands and the burning steel of his hometown’s only manufacturing plant filtered in through the crack in the window one seat over. Funny how he couldn’t feel the coolness of the winter air hissing in through that crack.
Maybe he never would again.
He stuffed the wadded-up note into his duffel bag, stood, and headed to the front of the bus. The jail wasn’t far from Edgefield, but he hadn’t wanted Nancy waiting for him outside. Who knew what sort of people lurked outside a jailhouse.
He laughed at that. Who was he afraid of? Men like him?
Six months in the county jail. His fellow inmates and the deputies probably thought he was the worst of the lot. He’d spent more days there than most of the guys who came and went. Some spent less time at the state pen.
But the jail was behind him now. It was over. Wasn’t it?
Not according to the latest “love letter” he had tucked in his bag.
He stepped off the bus. The driver shut the door and pulled away as soon as Lincoln’s boots hit the pavement. Not surprising. Most didn’t want to stick around the three-stoplight town. But Lincoln did. He had a lot of reasons to be there. A lot of reasons he’d never leave.
Clear plastic walls surrounded the bus stop bench, cracked on all three sides and coated in a slime no amount of scrubbing with the industrial strength cleaner they’d used at the jail would remove. No one would wait inside the enclosure, no matter how desperate they were for a bus out of Edgefield.
He checked anyway. Splinters covered the faded wood of the bench. If anyone sat there, they’d get an ass full of tiny wooden daggers. Not the best way to ride the bus. Edgefield was so damn inconsequential nobody at the Metro Transit Authority probably gave a shit about the upkeep on the small-town stop that made up the farthest point of the outlying community bus route.
Home sweet home.
“Lincoln!” Nancy crossed the parking lot behind the bench, waving her arms through the air, a smile spread across her face. She quickened her stride. He did the same and hugged her when they met. The warm embrace reminded him of their mom, reminded him one person in the world loved him. She squeezed tighter.
“Nance, I can’t breathe.”
“Oh sorry.” She released him and stepped back. She wore a brown and orange waitress uniform and those heavy-duty shoes nurses wore, designed for support and long-wearing comfort. Hers were dingy, nowhere close to the white they must’ve started out as, and were on their last leg. They wouldn’t provide much support or comfort. Her disheveled dark hair fell from the ponytail in several places, and she had a hint of makeup smudged under and over her eyes. Exhausted. His baby sister was working herself to death.
Despite that, her eyes shone at him. The smile was also a reminder of their mom. Nancy had always taken after their mother in a physical way. Whereas he looked more like their dad with skin tone and features that gave a nod to their Iroquois heritage.
“Just missed you,” she said.
“Missed you too.”
“I wish you would’ve let me visit. Was it bad?”
“Nah. It was okay.” No need to tell her about the gray food that smelled of dish soap, the foul stench from the unwashed inmates he shared space with, the lack of privacy, the endless hard surfaces of metal bars and concrete floors, or the countless cracks about his short-lived racing career from the two good ol’ boys who’d recognized him.
He’d hated every minute of his time there.
And he deserved far worse.
“Come on. I parked over here.” She tilted her head to the left and pointed to the vehicle she’d driven. His black pickup. The damn thing looked huge in the empty lot.
He missed the truck. He also hated the hell out of it. Like it was the truck’s fault.
Nancy had parked next to the County Cooler, an ice-cream stand run by the Drakes, the elderly couple who’d owned the place since Lincoln had been a kid. Every winter they boarded up the stand and headed south to visit their grandkids in Texas. When the place closed, it always had the look of a shack you’d see Bo and Luke Duke plow the General Lee through as Rosco P. Coltrane chased them down. In Lincoln’s day, local teens needing a dry place to hold their beerfest orgy sneaked in during the long winter months while the Drakes were out of town.
An open window near the garbage bin was missing several slats of wood. Lincoln smirked. Same window he’d used when he first had sex with Tommy Vanderline during their sophomore year of high school. Nice to know some things never changed.
“You wanna drive?” Nancy asked.
His smirk vanished. “No.” He yanked open the passenger-side door, tossed in his bag, and sat.
Then again--sometimes everything changed.
Nancy slid into the driver’s side and wrenched the seat forward until her feet touched the pedals. “Sorry. I thought you might want to. You haven’t tried it out since it came back from the body shop.”
He leaned his elbow on the armrest of the door and stared out the side window. “Can’t. Restricted to work privileges. There and back. That’s it.”
They drove in silence, the darkness surrounding them in the cab, the sound of the truck’s heater filling the void of unasked questions until he couldn’t stand not knowing.
“Did he hit you again?”
He would’ve missed her slight nod if it weren’t for the dim display of the dashboard. She turned away from him as though checking the side street traffic at the next intersection.
“You didn’t call the cops?”
“I should have,” she said.
“Fuck, yes, you should have.” Lincoln stabbed at the door lock with two fingers. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. He took a deep breath and let off on the button. She didn’t need him being an ass. “When did he come back?”
“The Friday after you left.”
“How long did he stay?”
“Until a couple of weeks ago.”
“I needed--I couldn’t afford the hospital bills without him, or her medicine without his insurance.”
“Well, now you can. Soon as I get a new job.” He’d take care of her like he should’ve been doing for the past six months. If he had been there, Mel wouldn’t have had a chance to hurt her again. “Is he gone for good?”
She didn’t answer.
“He left some of his stuff.”
“You let me know the minute he shows up.” He’d remind the asshole that family looks after their own. “The kids okay? Did he--”
“No!” Her tone was defensive, and she threw him an angry look before she focused on the deserted street ahead. He shouldn’t have asked. She wouldn’t let anyone hurt her kids.
When she spoke again, her voice was under control, more conversational. “Could you stay with Davy and Jessica tomorrow after school? Adam has basketball practice.” Softer she added, “They’ve been home alone a lot lately.”
He stared out the window into the darkness and said, “I’ll be there.”
A block from Nancy’s, they pulled up to a stop sign next to the Late Night Paradise Plaza--home to the only all-night gas station and carryout in town, a movie rental shop, and Sonny’s Tavern.
Lincoln sat taller. “Can we make a stop? I need smokes.”
“I’ll quit again. Just need a pack to get me through the transition.”
She sighed and turned into the plaza’s drive.
The neon signs advertising an ATM machine, lottery tickets, and beer had him shielding his eyes with the back of his hand. There were no neon lights in jail. Sounded like the title of a country music song. Something his fans would have blasted from their car stereos as they drove in on race night. He reached for the truck’s door handle, but her voice stopped him.
“No smoking around the kids, okay?”
He opened the door and said, “You know I won’t.”
“Or in the house,” Nancy called through the side window as he strode for the store.
Lincoln waved an okay sign her way and opened the door to the carryout. A young man passed by the front of the store, hands shoved inside his pockets, head down as if he had to watch his every step. Lincoln froze in the doorway.
Great-looking guy. Nice body.
The kid headed for Sonny’s Tavern.
Great ass too.
Fuck. Lincoln had been away too long. Not a good idea--gawking at straight guys on the streets of Edgefield. But…the kid had stopped, hand on Sonny’s front door, replicating Lincoln’s frozen stance. He was staring at Lincoln, his mouth parted, his eyes conveying a hunger Lincoln knew all too well.
The door to Sonny’s burst outward, almost smacking the kid in the forehead, and two guys exited. The kid moved out of their way, then slipped inside, his gaze on his feet again.
Lincoln’s body screamed at him to follow. He ignored it and entered the carryout.
What was that look? Something?
It didn’t matter.
He passed by the front counter with the smokes and found what he’d really wanted--a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He grabbed two for good measure.
* * * * *
“Jay, did you hear me?”
The front door of Sonny’s Tavern flew open, and cold winter air blasted in.
Another man might have chosen a stool farther from the entrance. Not Jay Miller. The cold didn’t bother him. Why would it? He was already numb.
“They let the bastard out today.” His dad’s voice cut through the haze of alcohol. “Six months and now he’s…” He trailed off.
Jay dropped the beer he’d been nursing for the last fifteen minutes onto the bar. The bottle clanked and rocked, foam building, drops of the precious liquid spilling. He didn’t bother rescuing it. He’d just order another as soon as his dad left, like he planned to do for the next couple of hours.
“Your mother’s still going on about frying his ass, and he gets out the day before…” His dad cut off midsentence again. Maybe he always did that. Usually Jay’s mom was there to continue on.
“Today?” Jay asked.
The look his dad gave him was comical--if anything could make him laugh again--as if his dad thought he was mentally deficient in some way. Maybe he was. How much did you have to drink before the brain cells died off?
“He’s probably already back in town.”
In Edgefield? How long until Jay found himself face-to-face with the man? He nodded. That was all he could manage. Six months in jail and the man who killed his wife was getting his life back. He’d be working and living and loving. And Katie was turning to dust in the ground. Jay would never have his life back. He’d never have anything.
The door swung open again, and a pair of giggles floated in with whoever entered the bar. What the hell were they so happy about?
He had to get out of there. Get away. Escape all of it.
“Why don’t you come stay at our place tonight?” his dad said. “You can sleep in your old room. Then we’ll all visit the cemetery tomorrow.”
The restroom. Maybe if he didn’t come out right away his dad would get a clue.
Jay stood, and the weight of his body proved too much for his unsure legs. He sank onto the bar stool. The beers--which he drank fast and barely tasted--had hit him hard, but news of Lincoln McCaw’s fate had finished the job. It was over.
Except it wasn’t. It never would be.
His dad put a hand on his back. “Hey, Sonny, get us a cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” the bartender said. When he returned with the coffee mug, he added, “He’s had a few.”
“I imagine so.” Jay’s dad pushed the coffee closer.
The smell of it churned Jay’s stomach. Nothing smelled good anymore. Nothing tasted good either. What had he last eaten? And when? Probably why the beer wasn’t settling too good.
His dad was talking again. Didn’t he get it? The last thing in the world Jay wanted to do was give up the beer and face that McCaw was done with his punishment.
“You should come tomorrow,” his dad said. “It might give you closure.”
Closure? There wasn’t enough beer for that.
There was one thing that would give Jay closure. Finally confronting McCaw, looking the man in the eyes, making him understand how much he took from the world, making Lincoln McCaw suffer.
That’d be closure.
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