Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Random Paranormal Tales Part 2


Wolf Hall
Summary:
Once upon a time, a family lived up on the wild northern moors. They were clever and attractive, close-knit and polite.And everyone left them strictly alone...

Halloween is a wild, weird night in the lonely moorland towns of the north. It’s dark and cold, and cracks can open up in the fabric of the safest world.

Davey Bell has been trying to live safely. He’s struggled through a rough adolescence and has a decent job, a home of his own. He agrees to a meeting with his ex, even though Burdo got him into so much trouble in the past.

But Burdo has plans, armed robbery amongst them. When Davey recoils from his efforts at blackmail, Burdo swears he’ll track him down. There’s something inhuman about Burdo’s rage, and Davey panics and runs from him. The town is small, the darkness beyond it absolute. Davey has lived there all his life, but he takes a wrong turn on the moorland road and is suddenly lost.

It’s the first night of winter, and set to freeze hard. Not much chance of survival for a man without shelter, a man on the run from his past… Then Davey stumbles into the forest, and his fears of Burdo and the cold dissolve to nothing at the sound of deep, bestial growls.

The moon is full. Ancient moorland legends are coming to life in its silvery radiance. Out of the woodland steps a strange young man, and the snarling beasts fall back. He’s offering sanctuary, but at what price? He’s the most beautiful creature Davey has ever seen. If Davey follows him in fascination through the gateway of Wolf Hall, what secrets will unfold before the dawn?


You just knew Davey was going to face trouble when his encounter with old friend Burdo but he didn't realize his life would change in the aftermath.  This is a great short story that will hold your attention from beginning to end and a must little gem for your paranormal library. Davey and Lowrie's connection might be immediate but there's a lot of drama that happens in this Harper Fox short story that I hated to see end when I reached the last page.

RATING: 

Ghosts and Flames by Kaje Harper
Summary:
When Ben's best friend Grant died, all Ben's unspoken hopes for love died with him. Grant's return as a ghost eased Ben's heart, and even saved his life, but that could never be enough. So Ben left town. Now in a Florida hotel room he discovers that he failed to leave Grant's specter behind. When the meddlesome ghost urges Ben to go out and have a drink at a bar, he isn't expecting to run into supernatural trouble, or a sexy man like Talon. But that combination may turn out to be just what Ben needs to learn to live again. If he survives the experience.
















A Silence Kept by Theo Fenraven
Summary:
Manhattan-based Mikal Gray rents a summer getaway and discovers there's already someone in residence: a very persistent ghost. His friend, Alice, sends help in the form of a sexy ghost hunter named Seth. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the haunting and discover the heart always searches for what it needs...and often finds it.

This novella starts off with a bang, to see Mikal tell Dave off brought a huge smile to my face, even if we didn't get to read what Dave did as it happened but in Mikal's inner monologues instead, you just knew it was gratifying.  I loved Mikal's reaction when he first "meets" Thomas, true classic ghost story moment.  The immediate attraction between Mikal and "ghost busting" Seth was palable and had I read this in a print copy, I have no doubts those two could have set the pages alight with just the looks they shared.  This is the first the story of Theo Fenraven that I've read.  I have a few in my Kindle and all are on my TBR list but it is the first I've read.  It was a perfect choice given the time of year but Halloween or not, I recommend this tale and the author most heartily.  The only reason I am giving A Silence Kept 4-1/2 bookmarks instead of 5 is it's length.  I would have loved to read Thomas' story in greater detail, but that's more of a personal preference as I have always been drawn to 300+ page books more so than the short story/novella. However, I must admit over the past year I'm finding the shorter tales very intriguing, as to how much emotion authors can pack into so few pages, a true testament to their talent.

Rating:  

Hainted by Jordan L Hawk
Summary:
The Good Guy: Haint-working runs in Dan Miller’s blood. Not everyone can help the restless dead cross over, especially when the haunting threatens the Living. But the death of his parents six years ago forced Dan to give it up in exchange for raising his brother and sister, all the while struggling to keep their rural NC farm afloat.

So when the flamboyantly goth Leif Helsvin shows up on Dan’s doorstep looking for help with an evil necromancer named Runar, Dan’s first instinct is to turn him down. With two teenagers to look after, he’s already got all the trouble he can handle. Besides, the sexy Leif is too much of a temptation, and Dan is firmly in the closet.

The Bad Boy: Pierced, tattooed Leif never has sex with the same guy twice. It keeps things simple, especially since his oath to stop Runar has him constantly drifting from one town to the next.

But this time, it looks like Leif is going to need help, in the form of the very down-to-earth Dan. Since Nice Guys are off the menu, Leif just has to keep his hands to himself for as long as it will take to stop Runar’s latest scheme. But as Leif finds himself drawn deeper into Dan’s life, he quickly realizes he’s not just in danger of breaking the rules, but breaking his heart as well.

Wolf at the Door by K Drew
Summary:
For Nicholas Ashbee, life has been a struggle. Growing up in the desolate town of Constance left him bitter and resentful, craving a more engaging life. While training to be a nurse, he is lucky enough to land a plush internship at luxurious Blackwood Manor on Staten Island, home to the wealthy patrons of his college. Nicholas is in charge of caring for Lilith, the sweet and aging matriarch of the Blackwood family who is slowly dying from a mysterious ailment. Nicholas must also deal with her brooding young husband, Sebastian, whose stunning beauty immediately captures Nicholas’s attention.

However, there’s something odd about the inhabitants of this remote manor hiding from the outside world, and Nicholas becomes increasingly suspicious of the Blackwoods when a young man from the neighboring area goes missing after being seen with Sebastian. Perhaps the Blackwoods are not the loving couple they pretend to be and their respectable life is merely a faΓ§ade masking an ugly secret. Will Nicholas’s undeniable lust for Sebastian place him in danger, and will he discover the truth about his employers before he falls prey to the wolf at the door?



Wolf Hall
The moon cleared the mist and sailed high. After a very long time, Davey realised that he wasn’t running. He wasn’t very fit. Hormones had lifted him out across the fields but now he was just down to muscle and bone. He was walking heavily, his breath scraping in his chest. His feet knocked frost out of the heather with each step. He hit a sweep of bracken and waded through it waist-deep, and it was like being part of a frost-pattern forming on glass. Emerging, he blundered on, until at the place where even bracken and heather couldn’t hang on and the hilltops were scoured by the wind to bare rock, he came to a shuddering halt.

He was lost. Somehow, within a couple of miles from the streets where he’d lived all his life, he’d crossed a horizon and entered an alien landscape. The hills were cresting in the wrong places, the valleys or hopes that gave all the little towns part of their name – with increasing irony according to how rundown and despairing they were – dipping at weird angles. Everything was bathed in pale radiance. The Blood Moon, this full moon was called, and Davey would never have understood how something so ethereal could have earned the name, except that his junior school had been scrupulously fair about comparative religions and given fair crack to everyone, even the Jehovah’s Witness minister and the authentic local witch. There were three harvest moons, she had explained. August then September for barley then wheat, and the third…

At the Blood Moon you harvested the beasts. It wasn’t a cruel thing: you had to have meat for the winter. You tried to choose the ones that wouldn’t make it through the cold.

Davey stumbled off the moor and onto a single-track road. He stood gasping and shivering, wrapping his arms around himself as the wind sliced away his body heat. He wouldn’t make it through one night’s cold, let alone a whole winter. It might have been best if he’d lain down and let John Burdon harvest him right away. A road was better than a trackless wasteland but he still didn’t know where he was. The lights of the village had vanished far off behind him. He couldn’t have found his way back even if he’d dared to try.

Shit. Hot tears pressed upward in his throat. A kind of background loneliness he’d been aware of all through his teens and into his new adult life welled up and consumed him. If he did die out here, who would notice? Burdo might, if ever he found him, but only as a hunting beast frustrated of its prey.

Surely Davey had shaken him off by now. Slowly, too tired to make the effort of concealment any more, he began to walk along the exposed road.

There was a sign. It was an old fingerpost board, weathered almost blank. One arm pointed off to Durham, thirty miles away and no more use to Davey than Mars. The other said – no distance specified – Wolf Hall.

Davey laughed, a strange sound in the inhuman stillness. He wasn’t about to set off towards a place called Wolf bloody Hall in the middle of a full-moon Halloween night, was he?

Then, the alternative was Durham and death by hypothermia. Already he was starting to care less about things. His shirt was clinging oddly to his back, the soft hairs on his arms stiffening, gathering a faint white sheen. The road forked at the sign. He had to choose.

In the event his weary feet chose for him. The tarmac ran out on the Wolf Hall branch of the road, became a bed of pine needles. They made for soft walking. He barely noticed that grey pillar trunks had begun to rise around him, that as well as feeling the cold he was hearing it, a high, sweet keening of wind through the tops of the trees. Nevertheless the track was more sheltered than the moor top, and gave Davey the sense of walking down the aisle of a beautiful church.

Something bounded past him through the trees. It was warm, about waist high, and brushed him so closely that its displaced air buffeted him. He staggered and dropped to his knees. Immediately something else shot out of the darkness: he ducked on instinct and it leapt him, not shifting a hair on his head but forcing a deep, rank scent of belly-fur into his lungs. “Jesus Christ! What the fuck was that?”

“Nobody. Don’t worry about it.”

Davey jerked his head up. The one thing weirder than asking a question in this wilderness was receiving an answer. His mouth dropped open. Towering above him was a half-naked, silver-limned young man. “You know you’re not funny,” this vision informed the darkness and the trees beyond the track. “You think you are, but you’re not.” He put one hand on Davey’s skull and drew him to lean against his thigh. The tight-muscled leg was clad in denim. He held Davey in place as if he owned him – gently scratched the short hair back from his brow, a caress Davey’s mother had known he enjoyed, but nobody else in the whole wide world. “Leave this one to me. Do you hear?”

A sound between a snarl and laughter answered him. The grip on Davey’s skull tightened – not hurting, just casually possessive. “No,” the young man told the darkness. “No, I won’t come and play with you. Not going to happen, not ever.”

The cluster of pines became silent – then, in one rush, empty. The young man stood tensely listening for a few seconds, then squatted down beside Davey, keeping his hand where it was. “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice grave and cultured. “I’m so sorry you were troubled by my – er, my family dogs. They’re boisterous on nights like this, and I’d like to say they mean no harm, but – ”

Davey tore away from him. He landed hard on his backside in the frost. “But what?” he yelled, delayed fear catching up with him, boiling into rage. “They’d have eaten me alive if you hadn’t stopped them?” This was bloody typical, Davey decided. The beautiful creature crouching beside him might not be tweed-clad and toting a rifle on his shoulder, but they were all the bloody same, these rich posh twats who bought up the derelict farms around here and used them as hunting lodges, while honest men struggled to afford the rent on their flats in the world below. “Who the hell are you? Why aren’t you…” Helplessly he took in the broad chest, moon-silvered satiny skin. No yawping lout should have curling brown hair down to his shoulders, or caramel eyes that caught the moon and turned it into gold. “Why aren’t you cold?” he finished lamely, running out of steam. “That’s it, isn’t it? I’ve died out here. I’ve fucking frozen.”

The young man laughed. There was no resemblance between that sound and anything Davey had heard before. It was quite devoid of cruelty: rich and sonorous, penetratingly kind. “You haven’t died. You will, though, if you stay out here much longer. You’d better come with me.”

Ghosts and Flames
Ben stared out at the neon lights blinking garishly in the twilight beyond his hotel room window. Florida at Christmas. It was just weird-sunny beaches and women in shorts and strings of colored lights on palm trees. But after all, that was why he was here. Because Nevada at Christmas was too damned familiar, and too achingly empty.

He leaned closer, watching the way the lines of red and gold broke apart, reflected in the gentle swells of the surface of the ocean. His breath fogged the glass. And when he stepped back to let it clear, a man's reflection was slowly revealed through the receding haze. Ben sighed and didn't turn around. In the glass, a pair of clear blue eyes gazed at him intently.

"You're dead. I fucking well know you're dead, and if I turn, there will be no one there, right?"

In the reflection, the handsome dark-haired man in fatigues shrugged one shoulder apologetically. His hand reached toward Ben just a little.

Not turning, not turning, damn it all to hell! Ben turned. The room was empty.

Shit. Ben threw himself on his bed and closed his eyes. It had been almost a year since the letter had come: ...sorry to tell you...Grant...killed in action... A short cool note, with just the basic facts. If he'd been home in the small town they'd grown up in, the grapevine would have let everyone know within hours of the chaplain showing up at the Williams' front door. He could have gone over, done...something. Although, after all, knowing sooner wouldn't have made Grant less dead.

Grant's mother had known how close they were and mailed him a letter. But she'd sent it slowly, by snail mail, and never called him. It had arrived too late for him to go to the funeral. He sometimes wondered if she had seen something in his relationship with Grant that the two of them had never acknowledged themselves.

He pressed his palms to his eyes until his vision sparked better than the sky on the Fourth of July. He'd wasted their precious time. Wasted it on drunken evenings and shooting pool and taking pretty, meaningless girls home. Until suddenly Grant was gone, and there was this gaping hole inside Ben, and he realized what he had failed to see.

In the stuffy motel room, a touch, fainter than a moth's wing, brushed across his cheek. He froze, waiting, but the touch was not repeated. Ben sighed. "Grant, I know you want to help. I know you stuck around because I was so fucking lost without you. And I..." He didn't say I love you, because he'd never said it in life. He was damned if he would start now. "But, Grant, you're a ghost. You know it. I know it. And this...this thing we're doing... It can't go on."

He'd thought he was crazy the first time he smelled that combination of cologne and skin in the darkness, a week after Grant was put to earth in Arlington Cemetery. He'd ignored it over and over, each time he caught a reflected glimpse of a familiar muscular body in some reflective surface, each time a wisp of touch ghosted over him. He'd been shaking and sleepless and about to break down and see a psychiatrist when Grant's ghost had proved its existence.

Ben had been caught up in the violent troubles of his then-girlfriend Miranda. And one night, Grant had woken him from a sound sleep and chivvied him out the window of his bedroom moments before a planted incendiary device had set the place on fire. In the months that followed, as Ben tried to help his new girlfriend survive determined attempts on her life, Grant had proved his worth over and over.

Until finally Ben decided that if he was crazy, it was essential to his survival. And he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into believing Grant existed. God, at first that had healed his heart, to think that Grant's spirit transcended his death. Then, when the smoke cleared, he and Miranda were still standing, but the shade of Grant Williams was between them.

Not Grant's fault. Ben wasn't sure if Grant even realized that Ben had tipped over from best-buddies-got-your-back to something more. But for Ben there had come the blinding realization that what he wanted was lovers-got-your-ass. With a ghost. With a fucking...make that non-fucking...occasional translucent untouchable remnant of his childhood best friend. And now he really needed a shrink. Except he'd never find one who would believe him.

He'd really tried to make it work with Miranda. And Grant had seemed to egg him on, writing the name of Miranda's favorite movie in the steamy shower mirror, wafting a butterfly to perch on her wineglass on the patio as they had brunch, even steering Ben to find her car keys when she misplaced them. And all it had done was to focus Ben ever more intently on Grant himself. God, he had to love the man, trying so hard.

Ben had broken up with Miranda, as gently as he could, and left town. For two weeks, he'd been travelling, south and east. He'd run from everything that spoke Grant's name to him, from all the places they had shared. And for most of that time, he'd thought it had worked. He'd imagined he'd left Grant and his insane attraction to the man behind. Until yesterday, sitting in his dark car outside the hotel, unwilling to go inside with the marks of tears on his face. He'd felt that butterfly brush of ghost fingers across his cheek. And known that his insanity had followed him. Or Grant had.

From across the room there was the faint sound of paper shifting in a breeze, despite the closed window. Ben sighed and straightened up. Although he couldn't see anyone, a page of hotel stationery had floated off the desk to land on the floor. He walked over and picked it up reluctantly. "Okay, buddy. Give me a second."

With the ease of long practice, he folded the paper in strips and then tore it into small squares. On each square he wrote a letter, completing the alphabet with some extra A's and E's and S's. Then he spread the letters face-up on the slick surface of the desk. "Go for it."

The letters stirred in that small current of air, shifted, slid, until a few lined up in a row: IM SORY

Shit. "No, Grant, not your fault." Automatically, he added some more R's, M's, N's, and O's to the array. "You're not responsible for my bad moods."

MISSNG MRANDA

"Yeah, some. Mostly missing what I hoped we could have had, if that makes sense." He couldn't, wouldn't, admit what had really brought those tears to his eyes.

TRY AGAIN

"No. She wasn't right for me, however wonderful a girl she was." He bit his tongue. Change the subject. "Why are you still here? I'm safe now, crisis over. Shouldn't you be moving on, going into the light, something?"

YOU WANT ME GONE

Ben busied his hands, giving Grant a question mark and an exclamation point. "No, man. I don't want you gone. But this can't be what you are meant to be doing, trailing around after me with no existence of your own."

NOT SURE

"When you...died. Was there someplace else you could have gone? Instead of staying here?" In all the frantic action of protecting Miranda, there had never been time to discuss the hows and whys. Or maybe Ben hadn't wanted to know.

NO CHOICE

Ben sighed. That wasn't quite an answer.

WHY R WE HERE

"Metaphysically?"

IN FLORIDA

Ben shrugged. "No reason. I was just looking for something different, and I was getting low on gas, and this seemed like an interesting town."

THEN WHY HANG ABOUT IN HOTEL

Because I chose to sulk in a dark room mooning after you. Grant would have hated that. Grant was always about the bright lights and the action, having fun at ninety miles an hour and dragging Ben out of his habitual reserve into that warm circle of light.

"Don't know, bro. Maybe we should hit the bars." Ben pushed back the chair and checked his wallet. He had money; he could afford to go out. Maybe getting drunk would make things look better. And if not, the hangover would be an excellent distraction in the morning.

Ben wandered down the main strip of town, eyeing the local bars. A couple obviously specialized in adult entertainment. XXX and Girls Girls Girls signs flashed enticements that he had no trouble resisting. He paused, considering a faux-Irish pub called O'Toole's, when a puff of air on his cheek turned his head. His eye was caught by the dying flicker of a neon tube on its last legs. Chambers.

"There?" he muttered. "You've got to be kidding. That's a dive."

The sharp pain at the back of his neck marked a tug on one hair. Grant had learned that trick when he'd had to wake Ben from a drugged stupor last month. It was not one of Ben's favorites. He rubbed the nape of his neck. "Okay, I'm going. Jesus. Pushy ghost."

Ben waited for traffic to clear and then crossed the road. Up close, the bar was even more disreputable. The outside of the window bore smears of something greasy, incompletely cleaned. The door was painted wood and marred with stains. The step had a strange layer of dust half an inch thick. Ben hesitated, feeling a deep reluctance to go in.

As Ben stood irresolutely, a man stepped forward out of the shadows in the alley beside the building. The man stalked toward him, moving with an almost unnatural smoothness. He was a heavily muscled blond of about thirty, with the cocky air of a fighter. He stopped just a couple of inches too close to Ben and eyed him arrogantly. "You don't want to go in there, man. It's a crap bar. Try Sharky's, five doors down. They'll treat you right, and the women are hot."

Ben drew himself up to his full six-foot height, which still put him about six inches below this guy's eyes. Jesus, what is he, a basketball player? He didn't let himself step back and kept his eyes cool. "Why do you care?"

The man shrugged, something hostile flaring in his startlingly green eyes. "I don't. Just doing a stranger in town a favor."

"You're sure I'm a stranger."

The man smiled thinly. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure. Or you wouldn't be going in the Death Chamber."

Ben couldn't help glancing at the sign again. It still said Chambers, and despite the electrical meltdown in progress, there was no unlit Death to the name.

"Maybe I like to check these things out for myself," Ben said stubbornly. A tiny touch at his back felt like encouragement. "If you really don't care, then you can just buzz off."

The big man snarled, and Ben cursed under his breath. He reacted badly to being coerced, and this wouldn't be the first time it got him in trouble. But just as Ben was bracing for the man to take it personally, a stray alley cat came squalling out of the darkness. The scrawny tom fastened itself around the big man's leg, delivered one sharp bite, and shot off suicidally through traffic to the other side of the road. The blond fell back two steps, cursing and grabbing at his ankle. In the space granted to him-and Ben thought perhaps that was Grant-ed-he pushed open the green door and stepped into the bar.

The light in the bar was low. It came from oil lanterns and candles rather than the darkened ceiling fixtures. There were a few empty wooden tables, a bare stage too small for more than a trio, and a scant few feet of dance floor. Along one end of the room, a big mahogany bar loomed solidly. Behind the bar, shelves of bottles gleamed in the flickering light. Unlike the exterior, everything was clean and polished. The air smelled of cedar and wine and candle smoke.

At first Ben thought the place was empty. But then he made out the shape of a seated figure behind the bar. The man was hunched, motionless, head on his arms as if sleeping. In the heavy, warm atmosphere of the room, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Ben stood still, hesitant to awaken his host. Then a candle wick flared with a soft pop, and the man at the bar raised his head.

He was younger than Ben expected, probably just legal to be selling booze. His hair was sleek and dark, falling in long waves to his shoulders. The shape of his cheekbones and his eyes hinted at some mixed race, and his skin was dark in the ambient light. He stared at Ben with eyes as green as those of the blond outside.

"Um. Are you open for business?"

The bartender smiled. "Hell, yeah. Got anything you want." He waved at the array behind him. "What's your pleasure?"

"Dos Equis dark?"

"Sure. Bottle okay? Cold?"

Ben took two steps closer. "It's beer. Why wouldn't I want it cold?"

The smile became a grin, showing even white teeth. "Lot of visitors from the continent around lately. They drink it warm over there. Heathens." He reached into a refrigerator, pulled out a bottle and a frosted mug, and popped the cap with a practiced twist. "Three-fifty." He set the beer on the bar.

A light push on the nape of Ben's neck made him turn and snarl, "I'm going," under his breath, before he remembered his audience.

But the bartender just tipped the mug at him in question. "Want me to pour it?"

"Sure." Ben went to the bar and slid onto one of the tall stools. He watched as the bartender's slender hands eased the beer out of the bottle and down the side of the glass with smooth skill. When he set the mug upright in front of Ben, only the slightest rim of white foamed the surface.

Ben fumbled out a five, slapped it on the bar, and picked up the mug. The beer was dark and smooth. He swallowed gratefully, wondering suddenly how long it had been since he'd tasted good beer. Miranda's ex had been a drunk, and Ben hadn't touched alcohol around her. Not since that night... He remembered drowning Grant's loss in home-brews at the local bar, until a glance in the bar mirror had shown a familiar face over his shoulder. Back when it all began. He tossed off the rest of the beer and kept his eyes averted from anything reflective.

A Silence Kept
After the breakup with Dave, there was no way I could face Fire Island for the summer, so I made a bold move and went in the opposite direction.

“Some place isolated,” I told the realtor, Cindy Miller. “Not too expensive, but with obvious charm and seductive views.”

“I have exactly the right property for you,” she oozed. “Only ninety minutes from Manhattan and very affordable. Will you be the only occupant?”

I clenched my teeth against a surge of anger and pain. “I will. When can you show it to me?”

She picked me up on Sunday morning and drove northwest to New Paltz in the Hudson River Valley, and then north on 32. I’d never been there, but it was away from everything familiar and everyone I knew, so immediately, it had my vote. While my friends partied on the island, I would be here… partying with the trees.

I looked out the car window and frowned. “There’s a lot of green.”

Cindy grinned, giving me the patented salesperson shtick. Why did they always sound like they’d sell you their mother if the price was right? “You wanted isolation, and you will love this place.” She turned left onto Shivertown Road. “It was a farmstead back in the late 1800s, but it has been updated, renovated, and made available to rent by the current owners.” Her eyes slid sideways. “It’s a beautiful place. Lots of wildlife, within walking distance of a small lake, and you could have it immediately.”

“Uh-huh.” I slumped in my seat, becoming aware again of the depression that had haunted me for weeks.

I hadn’t been eating well. I hadn’t been sleeping. I’d even been tempted to take up smoking again, but some last instance of self-preservation kicked in and wouldn’t let me. I threw out the unopened pack I’d picked up on an impulse, then had second thoughts and retrieved it, giving it to a homeless person the next day. I couldn’t believe how much they’d gone up in price since I’d last indulged. Someone should enjoy them.

Why the hell was I doing this again? Oh, right. It was summer and no one with cash or brains stayed in the city over the weekend. As I possessed some of the former and much of the latter, I was compelled to seek a place to escape to come Friday night. This would be good for me. I could spend long hours strolling through verdant woods, communing with an impossibly beautiful nature while secretly lusting for a couple of good stiff drinks and wondering how my life suddenly fell apart and whether or not it would eventually go the way of Humpty Dumpty.

She left Shivertown for Old Kingston, and I had to admit, the scenery was awe-inspiring and a little frightening. Living and working in Manhattan, I hadn’t had much to do with what people call ‘the country,’ but I did appreciate the unvarnished reality of it. When she turned onto Gun Club Road, I realized we were deep in the middle of nowhere. I saw nothing but trees; no houses, no roads. “Who owns all this?”

She laughed. “Can I ask what you do for a living, Mikal? You look familiar. Are you in entertainment? Or maybe you model.”

“Uh, no. I’m in the food industry.” I was tall, thin, and dark, and I’d been told more than once I should trade my good looks for money, but instead, I’d joined the catering business belonging to my estranged lover, Dave. What would happen to that job now? The headache I’d woken up with made a splashy return, and I winced as my temples pounded.

She didn’t notice. She was leaning forward over the steering wheel, squinting at the woods. “The turn off is hard to spot…. There!” She rolled a little fast into a gap between the trees, but managed to stay on the road though the wheels skidded on gravel. “Sorry. Almost missed it. I suggest you install reflective driveway markers so you see it coming.”

The trees had grown over the driveway, giving the impression of traveling through a dark tunnel. I liked the effect, even as it sent a chill down my spine. “When does the headless horseman ride?”

“Who? Oh!” She giggled and steered through a curve which abruptly opened onto a large grassy yard in need of mowing. Behind that was a single-story house made of stone and wood. A shallow porch offered a swing and rocker, and potted geraniums added color to the steps. To the right was a tidy barn, painted the ubiquitous red and also boasting stone half-walls. Attached to it was a small corral made of white board fence.

She parked, and we got out. The first thing I noticed was the quiet. Birds were not singing and there was no breeze. Midday heat settled on me like a heavy coat. “It’s air conditioned, right?”

“Central air, yes, but I doubt you’ll use it much. The stone keeps the house cool, and those large maples shade the roof from the sun.”
“People use the barn?”

“I don’t think anyone’s used it in years, but it’s kept in good shape, so you could if you had a horse.” She shot me a look. “Do you?”

“Not at the moment.” I’d wanted one when I was ten and pestered my parents so much, they’d taken me to one of the city stables, Claremont Riding Academy, now closed. Someone had kindly shown us around and while my parents’ attention had been directed elsewhere, I’d slipped away to visit one of the stalls, where the equine resident, though friendly enough, stepped on my sneaker-shod foot. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it, but it hurt like a bitch and I suddenly saw how big a horse really was. I decided I didn’t want one after all, and my parents, thankful I’d finally shut up about it, let the subject drop.

“A trail behind it leads to the lake. I’m told there are fish in it. There is a dock and canoe which you may use.”

“Who takes care of the lawn?”

“Someone comes out from town every week or so to mow, but if the flowers look thirsty, you might want to water them.”

We went up the steps to the glassed front door. “This seems kind of small for a farmhouse.”

She spun the numbers on the lockbox and retrieved a key. “Two bedrooms, one bath with whirlpool tub, a large living room and eat-in kitchen. They didn’t build McMansions back in the day.” She grinned at me and unlocked the door, pushing it open onto a nicely decorated room. “If you’re interested in the history of the place, there’s a library in town that may tell you more, and of course there are newspaper archives. Just look at that fireplace! Isn’t it gorgeous?”

She gave me the tour, and I oohed and aahed in the appropriate places. It was clean, comfortable, and well-appointed with the necessities of modern life, i.e., it had a flat screen television in the living room, DVD player and stack of classic movies, books on the shelves in the guest room, and stainless steel and granite in the kitchen. “Internet?”

She shook her head, her lipsticked mouth a moue of disappointment. “Too far from everything, and the owners haven’t yet installed satellite. This place truly is for those who want to get away from it all.”

I could live without email on weekends, but I’d checked my cell and discovered this was a no-service area. “Land line?”

She pointed to a trim black phone sitting on a small table near the door. “So, do you think this will suit your needs?”

I dropped onto the sage green couch, bouncing experimentally. “Two questions. First, why is it still available in mid-June, and second, why is it so cheap?”

“It was booked at the start of the season by a lovely older couple from Queens.” She self-consciously straightened the embroidered pillow on the over-stuffed chair. “They left suddenly, after a few days.”

Something in her voice put me on alert. “And why did they do that?”

She sat, hands on her knees, gazing at me earnestly. “They said the place was haunted, and they could no longer take the disturbances.”

“Haunted. Right.” I burst into laughter. “And that’s why it’s so affordable?”

She colored. “No one stays here longer than a week before packing up and leaving. Apparently, the ghost is... boisterous.” She leaned toward me, a crease appearing between her brows. “Do you believe in spirits?”

“No. Think that will keep me from hearing it?” Sun poured through the windows, but as she’d said, the house was cool. Haunted, huh? Interesting. Maybe my friend, Alice, would come for a visit. She loved shit like that. Her favorite movie was the original Exorcist.

“I honestly don’t know.” Sitting back with a sigh, she searched in her purse before pulling out a sheaf of papers. “There is nothing else available, and certainly not at this price. Sign these and it’s yours, Mr. Gray.”

We’d left the front door open, and at that moment, a hummingbird appeared, hovered for long moments while seeming to look right at me, then turned and flew off. I’m particularly fond of hummingbirds, and this was the first one I’d seen in years.

I stretched out a hand. “Gotta pen?”

∞∞ ∞∞

When I got to work Monday, Dave was there, making up menus for an upcoming wedding. He was the cook, I was the business end, and we’d been together professionally five years. The personal relationship came after and might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.
“I will not be available on weekends, so schedule accordingly,” I said, sweeping past him into my office and slamming the door. After weeks of tiptoeing around each other, I’d had it.

The door opened immediately. “What do you mean, you’re not available? Most of our events occur on weekends, you dick.”

I opened the laptop and booted up. “Work around me. Hire your nephew. Close. I don’t give a shit.”

He glared down at me. “Are you quitting then?”

“I’m giving it serious thought. I’m not sure I can continue working with an asshole like you.” I said this in an even tone, as if I was discussing the weather.

“Grow the hell up, Mikal. Learn to separate work from the rest of your life.”

“That’s pretty hard to do when I catch your assistant fucking you on a table in the kitchen,” I snarled at him, calmness gone.

“We’re not married, Mikal.”

“But we were exclusive,” I shot back. “We were together three years, and you threw that away for some twink who can’t even make radish roses. Are you insane?”

“I’m in love with him,” he sniffed, running a hand through his close-cropped hair. “It happens.”

I stared at him, remembering how that gesture used to turn me on. I remembered a lot of things in that moment, and some of them were pretty good. Like the time he’d made me chicken soup when I’d been down for two days with a nasty cold. Or the time he’d bought expensive tickets to a concert I’d really wanted to see. The night he told me he loved me, and then went on to prove it three times. How he smelled right after a shower. How he smelled when he hadn’t had one in a few hours, which was even better.

We had history, damn it. We’d created a life together. For a moment—just a moment—I almost relented. The thought of starting all over again with someone new made me want to curl up in bed and sleep until the next millennium. Dave and I understood each other. We knew those little quirks and foibles everyone was reluctant to share until enough time had passed.

But that fucker had cheated on me, and maybe it hadn’t been the first time. I mean, how would I know? He worked long, sometimes odd hours, and I’d rarely been with him, spending most of my time in the office or working from home.

I had some money saved. I didn’t have to put up with this crap. Standing with such force the chair rolled back and banged into the wall, I closed the laptop. “Stick it up your ass, Dave, if you can find any room up there.”

Marching to the front door, I paused, hand on the knob, looking back at him. “That was me quitting, in case I didn’t make myself clear. Better hire a replacement fast. Insurance premium is due next week and the health inspector is coming around on the twenty-sixth.”

I walked away quickly, eyes burning with unshed tears. I’d lost Dave and thrown away my job. My life in ruins. Christ, I was feeling sorry for myself.

Out on the street, I dug my cell out of a pocket and speed-dialed Alice, who answered using her professional voice.

“Alice Blakely. How can I assist you?” Alice had been a close friend for years. She worked as a secretary for a department store executive and took rapacious advantage of the 5% discount offered to her.

“Hire a hit man to knock off Dave,” I said without preamble.

She sighed. “Now what?”

“I just quit. I couldn’t stand to look at him without wanting to punch him in the mouth so hard, his teeth would fly out the back of his head and stick in a wall.”

“Honey, that’s always a bad sign, especially at nine in the morning.”
“Don’t I know it.” I stood on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. “I rented a place in the middle of nowhere. Think I’ll pack some stuff and drive out there.” My weekend place had just become my new full-time residence.

“No Fire Island this year?”

“Are you kidding?” The light changed and I crossed with twenty other people, none of whom were paying attention to me talking into my phone because most of them were doing the same thing. “He’s probably fucked everyone who signed up this year. I just don’t know it yet.”

“Why don’t we meet for lunch? I’ll let you sob on my shoulder.”

“Thanks, sweetie, but I really need some alone time.” I walked faster. “Do me a favor? Find someone to pack up my shit and store it at your place until I figure things out? I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”

My chest convulsed with pain. “It’s that bad. I never want to see him again.”

“Okay,” she said in soothing tones. “I have the spare key you gave me. I’ll call someone. It’ll be taken care of.”

“If Dave gives you any shit about this, tell him to fuck off and die.”

“Gladly.”

Touched by her loyalty, I told her I’d talk to her soon and ended the call.

∞∞ ∞∞

I packed a bag with enough clothes for a week, grabbed my e-reader, laptop, and iPod, and drove out of the city. Traffic was light, as it was Monday; most people were working. I stopped in New Paltz for groceries before continuing on to the rental.

Parking under a shade tree, I carried stuff inside. Food was put away, clothes shoved into dresser drawers, personal items placed in the bathroom.

Back in the living room, laptop on the coffee table, I lounged on the couch, staring into the fireplace. “Now what?” I had the habit of talking to myself. I’ve been told this didn’t necessarily mean I was crazy, but there were days when I had my doubts. Dave used to find it endearing.

When had I stopped being endearing to him?

What had I done or not done that made him look elsewhere? Why hadn’t I been enough? Tears pricked my eyes and I swallowed hard.

It had been a long time since I’d felt this alone, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. Exploring sounded like a good time waster and a distraction from thinking, so I grabbed a beer and wandered off to the barn.

The sun sank into me clear to the bone, and I gratefully gulped beer as I crossed the heat-drenched yard. Sweat broke out on my forehead and between my shoulder blades. The barn had a side door, but in front were massive wood panels that slid on metal runners. They were in good enough shape that I could push them open with one hand. I stepped inside and walked to the line where sun met shadow, stopping and looked around.

There were six stalls, three on either side of a wide aisle. Straw faded to white thickly covered the floor. Above, in the haymow, was more straw, stacked in bales tied with twine. I finished the beer, set the bottle down near the door, and strolled to the back, slowly zigzagging back and forth so I could look in the stalls. Except for the ubiquitous straw, they were empty except for the last one on the left. In it was a rusty collection of farm equipment: pitchforks, shovels, a wheelbarrow, something I thought was called a harrow, a plough, loops of chain, piles of frayed rope, other odds and ends, and all of it covered with a thick coat of dust.

When I leaned over the door to get a closer look, a blast of cold air hit me. Exhaling, I saw my breath. I drew back, startled, and instantly, the heat was back. I’d heard of micro climates, but inside a barn?

I moved forward again, into a wall of icy air. The chill of it went all through me.

I didn’t linger. I went out the back doors, which were replicas of those in front, shoving one panel aside enough to let me through, and found a path and followed it through the woods to the lake. Deer flies dive-bombed my head, and I swung my arms to keep them from biting me.

Yup, there was a lake. It wasn’t large. I could probably paddle across it in five minutes, but suitably prepared, it might be nice to spend some time on it. A canoe was tied to a short dock. I mentally added Off bug spray to my shopping list and returned to the house, bypassing the barn altogether.

I picked up the phone and dialed. She answered on the third ring. “I’m here, Alice.”

“The rental?”

“It’s just north of New Paltz. Know the town?”

“Yeah, been there a couple times. Touristy.”

“Come and visit me?”

“What, in New Paltz? Jeez, Mikal. I have to work tomorrow. And I thought you wanted alone time.”

I looked around the room, realizing this was not home. I didn’t belong here. It was simply the place where I’d run to lick my wounds. I suddenly regretted renting the place. Probably, I should have spent the money on a new apartment. “Yeah. I thought so, too.”

There was a pause. “I have some PTO coming.” She paused again. I waited, breath held. “See you in the morning.”

“Great. There’s a guest room. I’ll get it ready for you.”

“You fucking owe me,” she said, but I heard the affection in her words.

I was grinning ear to ear. “Can’t wait to see you.”

We chatted another few minutes and then said goodbye.

∞∞ ∞∞

After dinner, which consisted of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich―classic comfort food―I lay on the couch reading until my eyes drooped. I was tempted to sleep there, but my anal retentive nature wouldn’t let me. All bookkeepers were anal retentive.

I struggled to my feet, locked the doors, turned out lights, made a pit stop in the bathroom, and then crawled between fresh sheets, ready to sleep. The fridge clicked off, and in the sudden silence, another sound presented itself: someone was crying.

I came back to full wakefulness, muscles tensed as my ears strained to hear what seemed to be coming from far away. Yes, someone was crying, weeping so hard it made my heart ache in sympathy.

Who the hell was that?

I bolted upright in bed, eyes wide in the darkness. Could it be…? No, it absolutely couldn’t. I didn’t believe in ghosts.

The crying continued. I didn’t sleep for hours.

Hainted 
“Leif!” The wand fell unheeded from his hand, and Dan stumbled through the swirl of disturbed leaves, reaching for the other man. No, no, goddesses of the Underworld, please let him be all right.

Leif struggled to his knees. “I’m fine,” he gasped. “It knocked the wind out of me, and I’ll have a pretty good bruise on my back tomorrow, but I’m fine.”

Relief shivered through Dan. Leif made it to his feet, leaning against the tree for support. “Thanks. I owe you one.”

Dan took a small sip of breath, meaning to say…he didn’t even know, exactly. The moonlight cut across Leif’s features, revealing every plane of his high cheekbones, the delicate sweep of his brow. His long, pale hair tumbled about his face, tousled and utterly mad, like some fey spirit from the very dawn of time.

Safe. Safe, and relatively unhurt, and yet Dan’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Heat and cold boiled in his chest, until he wasn’t even sure where fear ended and relief began. Gods, Leif could have died if he’d hit the tree wrong, and Dan needed to say how glad he was Leif was okay, but he couldn’t get the words out past the storm of emotion. He took a step forward, and another, until he could practically feel the heat of Leif’s body. Leif’s eyes widened slightly, pupils dilating. The tip of his tongue licked his lower lip.

The unconscious gesture snapped the hair-fine thread of Dan’s control. He pressed Leif back against the tree, needing to taste those lips just once, to feel Leif’s heartbeat, to know they were both warm and alive.

Leif’s mouth froze under his. He started to pull away, to apologize, to rebuild whatever his impulsive action might have torn down.

Leif’s hands closed on his shoulders, and he returned the kiss with desperation, like this was something he needed just as bad. His lips were firm and supple, and tasted like the moonshine they had drunk and something else, something unique and indisputably masculine. The silver hoop in his lower lip was warm from his heat.

Gods, it was good, just what Dan needed. He leaned in tighter, felt Leif’s body against his, hard and sinewy through the layers of their clothing. Leif’s hands threaded through Dan’s hair, tugging and gripping, and he drew away just far enough to nip at Dan’s lip with his teeth, before diving back into the kiss again.

Gods. This isn’t happening. But it was; he could feel not just his own heart pounding, but the shaking of Leif’s body against his; not just the tight urgency of his own erection, but the hard length of Leif’s cock pressed against his hip.

Leif rubbed him through the denim. He gasped and broke the kiss. “D-Don’t.”

Leif stilled. His blue eyes had gone dark with desire, and his breathing was ragged. “I want to make you feel good.”

Dan fought for control against a body with absolutely no interest in it. “And I want you to. But it’s been a long time.”

Shame coursed through him, scalding hot. But Leif cocked his head, and his expression shifted from raw hunger to something more controlled. “How long?”

Dan swallowed. “Since I came back from college. Six years.”

Leif’s eyes widened, and Dan wryly reflected he’d managed to surprise his friend. “Ah.” Leif leaned his head against Dan’s, foreheads touching and breath mingling without their lips actually making contact. “Let’s not make you wait any longer.”

Wolf at the Door
1
THERE’S no shame left in the world, that’s what Sebastian told me, a lesson I learned to be true in a small brown interrogation room in the middle of a busy police station in downtown New York. For hours now they’ve grilled me for information, but I stay silent. I’d rather they think me guilty than mad. They show me photo after photo of Lilith’s brutalized corpse until all I can do is sit there like an exposed nerve rubbed raw. They tell me Lilith appeared to have been attacked by a wild animal, expiring either from exposure or blood loss. I ponder the guilt Sebastian must be harboring. I didn’t think he had it in him, tearing out her throat like that, almost entirely decapitating her in the process. The blood from these violent images almost seeps right onto the table before my eyes, as I begin to hallucinate from lack of sleep. I try to maintain composure in the face of such mounting suspicion, and they glare at me as though I’ve already been condemned.

I must have looked like quite a spectacle when they brought me in. My face was smeared with dirt, my clothes were torn and sullied, and I was missing three pints of blood. After dressing the wound on my neck, they propped me up in a chair and proceeded to prod me in the search for signs of life. I barely lifted my head in the first hour and finally took a drink of water they offered me by the third. All I can do at this point is keep the tears from pouring down my face. My eyes burn like smoldering cinders each time I close them. This must be the beginning of the transformation Sebastian warned me about, the painful baptism toward becoming something other than human. I suddenly feel ill, and they bring me a garbage bucket to expel my guts, but I’m so starved there’s little fruit for all my efforts, and all I can do is heave until the sweat pours down my brow.

I feel like a freak-show exhibit, with invisible bars caging me in all directions, and they stare at me with anticipating eyes, waiting for the show to begin so they can close this case. As the time passes, the interview devolves into a game, and it is no longer a matter of seeking the truth but instead finishing the race and winning the prize. There’s a painting that hangs on the wall, one of those cheap abstract pictures you can buy at any home dΓ©cor store, a generic image made by a generic artist. I cringe at its vulgarity, having been spoiled by the beauty and refinery of Blackwood estate for the past month.

One of the detectives vaguely resembles my mother, and I instinctively shoot her a cold glance. She’s dressed with all the elegance of a lawn gnome, and her stout figure paces the room as she waits for answers that never come. She hammers her fist on the table a few times during our encounter, just like they do on television, trying to jar my senses and force my mouth open. I have to hold back from laughing when she begins to throw out clichΓ©d phrases like “You’re only hurting yourself by not telling us what we want to know” and “Only you can make all this end,” lines as old and tired as the painted cement floor I’ve been staring at for the past few hours.

The other detective is a tall, gaunt specter of a man. Run ragged by years of devoted service to the police, he’s barely even present in the room, remaining in the shadows throughout the interrogation. He’s dressed smartly enough, but his clothes can’t hide the curve of his spine or his thinning hair, and I can see the fist of Father Time tightening his grip around his bony face. He lets the cigarette smolder a little too long in his hand and sneers at me when he expels the smoke in my direction. If we were back in Constance, I’d have broken his nose for that. I was a tough little shit, spending much of my youth wrestling on the dirt parking lot of a derelict trailer park. It was during one of those fighting sessions that I discovered the truth about my sexuality. Rolling around in the mud, tearing the buttons off of Jimmy Beaufort’s Sunday Mass dress shirt, I realized that I harbored strong feelings for him which had nothing to do with aggression. I also recognized why I always quarreled with Jimmy and not with any of the other boys in my class.

The blood never lies. That was another truism Sebastian bestowed on me, and indeed it didn’t. As I straddled Jimmy’s body, I felt a sensation unlike any I had before. The blood surged away from my other extremities and into one particular appendage between my legs. Jimmy had sandy brown hair and a thin build and always had an expression on his face as if he had just heard horrible news. I made him promise not to tell anyone when we jacked each other off behind the bleachers in Slagut Park, even though he later did and got me and himself grounded for the remainder of the month. Playing the martyr, angel-eyed Jimmy painted me as the predator, and I soon earned the nickname “the Faggot of Slagut.” Jimmy moved away shortly thereafter, and I cried every night for two weeks straight before going to sleep, behind the thin wooden door of our bathroom with the flimsy chain lock drawn.

My first real sexual experience came at the tender age of seventeen. I had begun hanging out at cruising spots in the nearby town of Yerik, as I was not allowed into the bars. Each Saturday, I would take the half-hour bus ride out of Constance and make my way to Mulberry Park, in the hope that I would catch the eye of some passing stranger. Walking through the gates of the park was like entering Wonderland, and I would smile as I traversed the wayward path. At first glance, the park looked like any other, with children playing on the swings and couples picnicking on the grass. However, as you moved farther into the bowels of the park, the greenery grew thicker, until it resembled a black canopy and the park turned into a temple, dark and mysterious. The thick foliage began to thrive with life, dotted with attractive young males wrestling with one another in tight jeans, their clumsy hands entangled in various acts of passion. Sometimes I wouldn’t even venture into the forest, but instead I would just watch as these beautiful creatures satisfied one another. There was a long tunnel near the center of the park which spanned fifty meters and was littered with gyrating figures reaching ecstatic climax. I would wander through the tunnel, enjoying the spectacles along the way and admiring the fireworks.

It was here that a voice called out to me in the darkness one sunny Saturday morning, asking if I “needed to find directions.” I stopped dead in my tracks, looking at the smoldering cigarette burning in the shadows. The slim silhouette moved toward the light, revealing himself to be a gaunt Middle Eastern youth, not much older than me. “My name is Vincent,” he said as he looked me up and down and took another drag from his cigarette, as though it were me scorching his throat and soaking his lungs. He took my hand and slowly pulled me close, producing a condom from his pocket like a magician, and then made love to me in the dark. I can hardly say that it was graceful or beautiful, though it was gratifying. I met Vincent a number of times after that, though nothing of substance ever developed as a result. He was charming and would toss me the occasional compliment, like an excited audience member throwing roses after a standing ovation.

Afterward, I would feel such intense loneliness on the bus ride home. I made a habit of wearing sunglasses, the dark shades masking my emotional turmoil, and I would sit in the back row so no one would see the tears streaming down my face. I felt like an underground explorer, calling out into the dark caves, searching for some lost land where like-minded spirits dwelled, but finding nothing. I both admired and despised the transient existence that these men were capable of living, never allowing their emotional armor to be penetrated by pain or love. I quickly learned that, although others might be built for this type of interaction, I did not have the emotional fortitude to withstand it. I longed for something more from life, both romantically and professionally.

My first job was at a gas station around the corner from our trailer park, dealing with the locals as well as the odd tourist who had wandered off the highway and required directions. The job taught me a great deal about human nature, serving sweaty people for sweaty money in the middle of nowhere, all the while hungering for something more. Most would complain if you took longer than the time for an elevator ride to give them their change, and the rest would prattle on about their families and livelihoods, recounting their entire life stories if you didn’t cut them off in time.

Sensing my Midwestern accent might hold me back in my career, I worked to rid myself of it. I trained myself using various means, and the locals would mock me when they caught me performing verbal exercises. They would yell epithets like “Uncle Tom” at me as they drove away, sometimes even spitting in my direction as their car wheels threw up dust clouds in their wake. I developed a harsh exterior working in Constance, one that could be interpreted as gruffness, and it was difficult adjusting to the formalities imposed later in life.

After my eighteenth birthday, I decided to focus on school and try to drag myself up out of the gutter within which I had gestated. I was driven to become more than just an extension of my parents’ ravaged lives and pitiful mistakes, and for a time I succeeded. Perhaps I was a little too successful in my attempt to erase any trace of where I came from. I may have overcompensated. I smoothed down the contours of my personality until I was virtually unrecognizable. I was the valedictorian my graduating year, and though I trembled slightly at the podium, I enjoyed the adulation that came from such endeavors. Following high school, I was fortunate enough to be granted a scholarship to a small nursing school just outside New York City. The pristine white envelope embossed with the proud Desentia College logo looked almost comical jutting out of the tarnished and slanted mailbox of our trailer, pronouncing my future fortune. My mother hadn’t responded when I told her I planned to become a geriatric nurse. She just walked away, turned on the television, and opened another beer, but then she didn’t seem to respond to much of anything I said these days. Nursing is what you aspire to when you grow up in a dilapidated trailer park in Constance, Illinois, where dreams of rock star fame and teenage revolt are replaced with far more practical goals.

I was a nurse long before I went to school. I had taken care of my grandmother during her last few years. She had moved in just before she discovered she was suffering from stomach cancer. She was unofficially placed under my charge, and I would run home from school to ensure she would have dinner, as my mother, Cheryl, was preoccupied with more pressing issues, namely her weekly trysts. My fear of needles was assuaged when I had to administer my grandmother’s insulin to stave off a diabetic coma one fateful night after my mother felt the compulsion to visit the local bar and didn’t return for three full days.

Cheryl was the definition of arrested development, never advancing beyond the age of fifteen. She had grown up poor on a Cherokee reservation in eastern Illinois. Her mother had produced tapestries, pottery, and other objects of luxury and function which were sold at various marketplaces throughout much of the state. Cheryl’s father had been a high-ranking tribal chief until his premature death when she was only thirteen. She had been exceedingly close to the man, and this emotional blow had come at a crucial point in her life, throwing her into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered.

She began skipping classes at school and capitalizing on the wealth of drugs and liquor available in the community. It was a quick and steep slope my mother fell down, and within two years she was a full-fledged addict, selling anything she could lay her hands on in order to satisfy her habit. My grandmother would later tell me about numerous incidences whereupon she would come home to discover Cheryl passed out in the arms of strange men who were enjoying her charms. When she was seventeen, she left the reservation with her occasional boyfriend and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Constance.

It was not long before her wandering eye spied my father, Griff, in a sleazy bar in the downtown area. Drunk on their youth and cheap liquor, they were wed soon after they met and began their tumultuous marriage. Though the difficulties began directly after the honeymoon, they continued to live together, and Cheryl discovered she was pregnant with me before the month was out. Although there were a number of other pregnancies that followed, my mother decided to abort them after experiencing the excruciating agony of childbirth. I was an unwelcomed surprise in both of their lives, and they met the challenge of parenthood with groans and anguish, particularly my mother. The sun rose and set on her social calendar, and if anyone dared to infringe upon it with talk of obligations or responsibilities, she was liable to walk out the door, which brings us to the topic of my father.

I can’t blame him for leaving. After six years of marriage, he had tolerated more grief than most people do in an entire lifetime. From what I can piece together, Griff had a series of inconsequential jobs, few of which lasted more than a few months. He finally landed a position as a mechanic’s assistant, working at a small family-owned auto body shop. He managed to hang onto this job for a number of years before being laid off and resorting to collecting welfare. On the rare occasions that he would call the house, he would joke that he needed some crackers to go along with his government cheese, to which a long silence would inevitably follow.

It didn’t help that we bear a striking resemblance to one another, and I was reminded of this by every relative at family reunions. He made a feeble attempt at an emotional reconnection at my graduation, but my mother, who was surprisingly in attendance, took this as an opportunity to act out her own personal drama. The scene quickly devolved into a sad soap opera, played out for cheap entertainment. The police were soon called, and the brawl was diffused by some brilliant negotiating by my principal.

Growing up, I envied the other children at school whose parents would pick them up, hugging them adoringly and asking them incessant questions about their day. I was usually left to find my own way home, and as we were located in a rural area, this often meant walking the five-mile journey home. I learned some harsh lessons in those early years, and they would stay with me long after I had left Constance. One summer the situation became so drastic that I was sent to live with my maternal grandmother, while she still resided on the reservation. This was the happiest period of my childhood; life seemed more harmonious in her company. She didn’t rebuke me for using big words or mentioning facts I had learned at school, which my mother often called “useless trivia.” She taught me the tribal myths concerning the origins of the earth and would take me on long nature hikes, telling me about all the different species of trees and birds.

If my parents served as any kind of role models, it was to indicate which life paths to avoid, and I molded myself in the negative space that surrounded them, seeking out balance in the unbalanced world of Constance. All my mother had to her name was our dilapidated trailer with rusted siding, leaky gutters, and unpredictable plumbing. I liked to think of this trailer as my parents’ starter home that never reached its conclusion. The front screen door hung loosely from its hinges, barely maintaining its integrity each time it was opened.

The neighborhood was a motley group of social degenerates, composed of a former addict, a prostitute, a cashier, and a number of unemployed men on welfare. I grew accustomed to this gang of hoodlums yelling across lawns to catch the attention of one another in the early morning hours. The visitors were rarely more savory, particularly those who were spending time with Suzanne, the hooker in trailer three. She had become involved with a drug dealer in the months before I left, and when she broke off their engagement, he tried to burn down her home, scorching one end of her trailer and dragging down the already pitiful property values at Singer Trailer Park.

If Suzanne represented the debauched underbelly of the park, only ten feet away sat her foil, Denise Moyer. With her blonde extensions, red press-on nails, and voluptuous curves, Suzanne not only acted, but also looked like the complete antithesis of Denise, whose mousy brown hair hung down like a mop over her skinny, pitted face. Denise was a devoted follower of the Pentecostal faith and was perpetually attempting to convert the trailer park. She worked as a cashier at the local Piggly Wiggly and was fiercely unlucky in love. Though both women could not be further from each other in terms of temperament and behavior, there was one weakness that the two shared, namely men. Each woman could spot a loser from a mile away, and both were just as easily seduced. Denise was sweet enough and would often help me move my grandmother when she wanted to sit outside in a lawn chair on sunny days.

Denise’s trailer was the only one at the park more hideous than ours. Though it was well maintained, it was absolutely covered in religious decorations. Tacky plastic figures of Jesus and Mary lit up her front windows at nighttime, and a nativity scene was left permanently on her front lawn. Denise would add to this collection come December; it reached its zenith during the holidays, when it looked as though the spirit of Christmas had thrown up on her property. When she discovered that I was gay, she immediately went home and busily began praying for my soul, taking care to inform me of this each time she saw me subsequently.

John Huxley was the only one among the lot for whom I felt any sympathy. He occupied the trailer adjacent to ours and had been a musician in a previous life, working in a jazz band during his youth. He had been a musical prodigy, with intuitive rhythmic abilities, and though he had shown great promise at multiple instruments, he eventually settled on the cello. He had spent his youth in the South, and his talent was so massive that he was sent to study and play in the big city, and soon he was performing for crowds in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. His star rose fast on the music circuit, and he kept company with jazz legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

However, one false step can sometimes be enough to bring down a titan, and in an attempt to maintain his hectic touring schedule, he had started abusing prescription drugs. His addiction rose to such levels that he was thrown out of his band and sent packing. He had been spat out by the industry and washed up on the shores of Constance, a ruined man. He would sit on his front porch in an old, frayed lawn chair, reminiscing about his glory days with anyone willing to listen. His face as broken down as his dreams, he lived in the shadow of his former self and kept his pristine cello packed away safely under his bed like a coffin.

The den mother of this troupe of misfits was Mrs. Moyers. She was the superintendent, and her trailer stood at the end of the lot. She kept vigil over the park like a hawk and could often be seen on her front lawn dressed in her flannel nightgown with her gray hair tightly bound in curlers. Her army of cats would fan out across the park, trampling flowers and capturing rodents of the four-legged variety. “She must have been a witch in a former life,” I commented to my mother one day, to which she replied, “In this life as well.” She ruled with an iron fist and maintained the peace within the park through brute force. She was particularly well known for exiling tenants in the cruelest of fashions, hauling their trailers away at the crack of dawn while they were still asleep inside.

Nothing much was spared from ruin at Singer Trailer Park. Things had a way of breaking down here, not only the property, but also the people. I saw my fate spelled out on the worn faces of the residents each day. I generally tried to avoid the locals, who seemed to me like anchors that would drag me down if I ever got involved. This aversion gave way to a kind of resentment, and I would venture so far as to say that I hated some of them, perhaps because they served as a constant reminder of what my future held. Life had a way of repeating itself in Constance, like the single light on the main street, which blinked on and off like a candle in the wind. The progeny of the previous generation became the parents of the new one, and it was like watching a sad rerun playing itself out in a constant state of repetition.

Occasionally a promising child would beat the odds and escape the prison of Constance, running away to try and find fame or fortune in the big city, though many of these souls ended up returning some years later, often penniless and broken. I was not so much hopeful as angry, and fury can be a great incentive, igniting a kind of ambition that is not easily extinguished. I felt like a climber scaling the peaks of a great summit. Even the smallest shift in the ground beneath my feet could send me plummeting to my demise. That’s the real difference between being rich and poor. If the poor make a mistake, they pay for it for the rest of their lives, and the world never forgets… or forgives. I had managed to overcome the first hurdle and attained entry into a respectable college. Desentia even offered me a small scholarship, which I gratefully accepted. Along with the money I had saved over the years, I squeaked through the system, just barely paying my bills without bouncing a check.

Despite struggling through my first semester, my marks had improved by the end of the year, and I was awarded the coveted Blackwood internship, home to the wealthy patrons of Desentia College. We had been told the success stories of those who had served at Blackwood Estate and how they had gone on to work at some of the most prestigious private hospitals around the globe, earning enormous wages. The boy who had served prior to me was named Toby Maston, and I was told that following his placement, he had enjoyed a number of generous offers from highly acclaimed hospitals throughout the country. Instead of pushing papers or changing diapers of senile inhabitants at a slowly crumbling public hospital, I would serve my co-op luxuriating in the expansive Blackwood Estate.

The only previous experience I had was serving at the Morisetto Nursing Home, a small long-term care facility for the elderly, at which I had volunteered in anticipation of my application to Desentia. I hadn’t minded humoring the patients as they recollected experiences from their youths and grabbed at my sleeves like children, asking for attention or assistance. However, the more demanding patients had tested my nerves, as they would cling to my side, perpetually spewing out requests. I was placed in charge of the palliative care unit, one of the most emotionally draining areas of the facility. Three patients were specifically posted under my care, and I catered to their needs, cleaning their bedpans, washing their soiled sheets, and administering baths every Tuesday and Saturday.

Each patient was allotted a small box next to their door to showcase their most prized items. I would take great care when dusting these trinkets and enjoyed the process of piecing together their lives based on this series of objects. The first patient to pass away was Mr. Hampstead, who was fighting bowel cancer. He had suffered tremendously under this disease, and his passing had been considered something of a blessing, both by his family and the staff.

However, death seemed to be contagious in my ward, and the other two patients, both Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Glint, followed suit shortly thereafter. Mrs. Jenkins died of pneumonia, which had developed from a cold she had likely caught from her five-year-old grandson. He had come with his family for Christmas and had left a horrible gift for her. The final straw was Mrs. Glint, who went into cardiac arrest on New Year’s Eve, promptly earning me the nickname the “Angel of Death.” Though I resented the implications of this mantle, I had to admit that ill fortune seemed to follow me everywhere I went at Morisetto. I was placed at the reception desk and completed my post shortly thereafter. Though I was unhappy to learn that I received only an adequate reference, I was relieved to leave behind my dubious reputation at the nursing home.

Blackwood was the antithesis of Morisetto and its drab atmosphere. It was a sprawling stretch of bucolic property on the lowest and most elite section of Staten Island. I was intended to represent my alma mater and satisfy the Blackwoods’ needs at whatever the cost, personal or professional. After a placement like this, my future was set in stone, and the president of the university himself congratulated me, causing me to blush like a debutant. At that time I was considered quite a promising prospect, Nicholas Ashbee, the prodigal child who clawed his way out of poverty to grasp hold of a future—no doubt that spotlight has dimmed slightly given my present situation.

A mosquito suddenly lands on my hand and begins to draw blood from my thumb, I’m relieved the detectives don’t notice when it withers and falls to the floor. They finally have mercy and desert me in a small gray cell, slamming the door closed behind them. This dank, cramped cell is a far cry from the opulent surroundings I enjoyed only a few days ago, hard to believe that someone can fall from grace so quickly. The bricks are moist from condensation, and through the walls I can hear the faint sound of rain falling outside. I splash some cold water on my face, careful not to wet my bandages, baptizing the small cuts that pepper my cheeks, absolving me of the exhaustion from the past few hours. I look in the cracked mirror at the pale specter looking back at me. My complexion is so sallow I hardly recognize myself, and though my skin has taken on an almost blue undertone, my lips continue to pulse with blood, turning crimson red. I can feel the veins throbbing below the surface, barely contained by my raw flesh.

Beyond the walls, the vague rumblings of a distant storm begin to brew. I lie down on the emaciated and soiled mattress, and its metal springs bristle against my body. I pray for mercy from some force that is greater than me, but the pain continues and simply cuts deeper as the night hours drone on. Deep wounds heal slowly, I learned that too late, and soon the stitches on my neck burst open and blood begins to seep through the bandages onto the thin, coarse sheets molded to the mattress. My only companion in my misery is the sound of the tap dripping. The drops splash against the base of the sink and trickle down the pipe, taking me back, all the way to the beginning, before the poison, to that day in late August when I first set foot on Blackwood Estate. It was like landing on a distant planet, untouched by the cruel hands of time. Leaving behind the dull gray of reality, everything at Blackwood was so vivid, like the last gasp of breath before death.

Author Bios:
Harper Fox
Harper Fox is an M/M author with a mission. She’s produced six critically acclaimed novels in a year and is trying to dispel rumours that she has a clone/twin sister locked away in a study in her basement. In fact she simply continues working on what she loves best– creating worlds and stories for the huge cast of lovely gay men queuing up inside her head. She lives in rural Northumberland in northern England and does most of her writing at a pensioned-off kitchen table in her back garden, often with blanket and hot water bottle.

She lives with her SO Jane, who has somehow put up with her for a quarter of a century now, and three enigmatic cats, chief among whom is Lucy, who knows the secret of the universe but isn't letting on. When not writing, she either despairs or makes bread, specialities foccacia and her amazing seven-strand challah. If she has any other skills, she's yet to discover them.

Kaje Harper
Kaje Harper grew up in Montreal and spent her teen years writing, filling binders with stories about what guys like Starsky and Hutch really did on their days off. (In a sheltered-fourteen-year-old PG-rated romantic sense.) Serious authorship got sidetracked by ventures into psychology, teaching, and a biomedical career. And the challenges of raising children.

When Kaje took up writing again it was just for fun. Hours of fun. Lots of hours of fun. The stories began piling up, and her husband suggested it was time to try to publish one. Kaje currently lives in Minnesota with a creative teenager, a crazy little omnivorous white dog, and a remarkably patient spouse.

Theo Fenraven
Theo Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is hot and sunny much of the year. I'm a writer of m/m romance, mystery, and adventure. I'm also a better than average photographer. Follow my blog, where I talk about writing, self-publishing, my dog Suki, the state of the world, and just about anything that catches my interest.

Jordan L Hawk
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in the wilds of North Carolina, where she was raised on stories of haints and mountain magic by her bootlegging granny and single mother. After using a silver knife in the light of a full moon to summon her true love, she turned her talents to spinning tales. She weaves together couples who need to fall in love, then throws in some evil sorcerers and undead just to make sure they want it bad enough. In Jordan’s world, love might conquer all, but it just as easily could end up in the grave.

K Drew
K. Drew is a Canadian writer who grew up in southern Ontario. Coming from a small city, reading became a means of escape, imagining worlds of wonder and amazement, filled with incredible imagery and fascinating characters. His love of writing first manifested in a career in cinema, producing short films which have shown at international festivals and garnered a number of awards

Drew’s writing is deeply informed by his travels throughout Europe, and the romantic beauty of cities such as Rome and Berlin has left an indelible impression upon this young writer. Likewise, his love of ancient history, film noir and Renaissance art has also fed into his creations

Drew lives with his dog, Mylo, pursuing his passions of travelling, sculpting, and painting. He hopes to pursue a career in writing and carry on a lengthy love affair with readers, exploring more tantalizing and diabolical aspects of human nature.



Harper Fox
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Kaje Harper
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Theo Fenraven
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Jordan L Hawk
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K Drew
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Wolf Hall
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Ghosts and Flames
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A Silence Kept
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Hainted
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Wolf at the Door
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