Sunday, October 16, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 5

Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue by Charlie Cochet
For the last six months, Detective James Ralston has worked the nightshift as security for the Pacific Blue Hotel, and every night at 2 a.m. his rounds lead him to the radio room where the handsome and mysterious Franklin Fairchild sits listening to waltzes as old as the hotel itself. James is drawn to Franklin, but Franklin is a man at the end of his rope, and James has no intention of getting caught up in whatever trouble Franklin is in. A heated encounter late one night sends James down a disturbing path and has him questioning everything around him, including his very sanity.

Strange happenings, mystery, romance, a bit of history.  Roll them all together and what do you have? A great read and an amazing story.  Normally, I knock off half a bookmark for novellas just on principle because I prefer long novels but when they are written as well as Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue, I just couldn't.  If you enjoy paranormal, then you definitely need to check this one out, even if you don't normally go the novella/short story route, this is worth the read.


Into this River I Drown by TJ Klune
2014 Lambda Literary Award Winner for Best Gay Romance

Five years ago, Benji Green lost his beloved father, Big Eddie, who drowned when his truck crashed into a river. All called it an accident, but Benji thought it more. However, even years later, he is buried deep in his grief, throwing himself into taking over Big Eddie's convenience store in the small town of Roseland, Oregon. Surrounded by his mother and three aunts, he lives day by day, struggling to keep his head above water.

But Roseland is no ordinary place.

With ever-increasing dreams of his father's death and waking visions of feathers on the surface of a river, Benji's definition of reality is starting to bend. He thinks himself haunted, but whether by ghosts or memories, he can no longer tell. It's not until the impossible happens and a man falls from the sky and leaves the burning imprint of wings on the ground that he begins to understand that the world around him is more mysterious than he could have possibly imagined. It's also more dangerous, as forces beyond anyone's control are descending on Roseland, revealing long hidden truths about friends, family, and the man named Calliel who Benji is finding he can no longer live without.

North to Zombieville by Meg Bawden
The year is 2028, and Dallas and Raleigh Jenson are torn apart when a worldwide zombie apocalypse ravages their home of Townsville, Australia. After a year of searching, Dallas, a former Australian army rifleman, finally reunites with Raleigh, but it’s not like old times. Not only do they have zombies to contend with, but also other humans, changed by desperation and willing to do anything to survive.

Dallas and Raleigh have changed too. So much so, that Dallas struggles with the idea that Raleigh no longer needs or wants his protection. But they will need to rely on each other and find strength in their love as they are forced to evade zombies and watch their friends die. As they fight for their lives in a brutal landscape where every supply and every step toward a potential cure is a battle to the death, only their trust in each other can keep them from perishing.

Motel. Pool. by Kim Fielding
In the mid-1950s, Jack Dayton flees his working-class prospects in Omaha and heads to Hollywood, convinced he’ll be the next James Dean. But sleazy casting couches don't earn him stardom, and despair leads to a series of poor decisions that ultimately find him at a cheap motel off Route 66, lifeless at the bottom of the pool.

Sixty years later, Tag Manning, feeling hopeless and empty, flees his most recent relationship mistake and takes to the open road. On a roundabout route to Las Vegas, he pulls over to rest at an isolated spot on Route 66. There’s no longer a motel or pool, but when Tag resumes his journey to Vegas, he finds he’s transporting a hitchhiking ghost. Jack and Tag come to find much-needed friends in each other, but one man is a phantom and the other is strangely cursed. Time is running out for each of them, and they must face the fact that a future together may not only be a gamble... it may not be in the cards.

Silver Bells by Hunter Raines
Jud Hess has loved Derek Gentry since they were children. When they became lovers in college, he thought they were destined to be together forever. All that changed with Derek's tragic death only four years later, on Christmas Day.

Now, more than a decade after that horrible event, Jud clings to a promise he made the night before Derek died. He vowed that he would never, ever, be with another man. And he's clung to that vow with every bit of what's left of his heart.

But Derek's death brought an unlikely gift. After his lover died, Jud began to see spirits. And although ghosts have become his constant companions, the one spirit he longs to see only appears to him at Christmas. Or at least, he used to.

This year, Derek doesn't come. But someone else does; a man who brings with him the kind of erotic temptation and a need of his own that Jud is helpless to resist.

To end a decade of loneliness, Jud will have to give in to the sultry seduction of a stranger...and betray the spirit of the man who should have been the love of his life.

Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Anal play/intercourse, male/male sexual practices.

A Christmas story at Halloween? Yes, Silver Bells may be a Christmas romance but it's paranormal and Halloweeny all the way.  Just when Jud thought his life with Derek was getting started, life throws him the biggest and baddest curve ball he never saw coming.  For ten years, Jud has lived the life that curve ball redirected his journey to and he thought that journey would last the rest of his days.  Once again, a curve ball shakes him up again, this time instead of tragedy it's in the form of a very handsome man with dark and intense eyes named Ty Sullivan.  If you want to know where Jud's story turns, you'll have to read Silver Bells yourself and trust me, you won't regret it. The sexiness of the story may stand out more than the romance but the romance is clearly there and the heartwarming feels had me from beginning to end.


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Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4

Between the Devil and the Pacific Blue by Charlie Cochet
THE PACIFIC Blue Hotel did something to people. Hell if I knew what it was.

With every passing day, it became harder and harder to remember how I ended up here, and I wasn’t the only one with that problem. It was like everyone else in this place sat in the same boat, drifting through a thick fog in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle waiting to be sunk, unaware of when or how they got there.

I’d been working security on the nightshift at the Pacific Blue for the past six months. It felt more like six decades. Plenty around here didn’t make sense to me. The hotel had been built in the late 1800s. That didn’t befuddle me. This was New York City. There were scores of old buildings around still in use. What I often found myself wondering about was why a bunch of old rich guys spent a fortune building a hotel made to resemble the lost city of Atlantis and then named it the Pacific Blue? And why stick it on a street known at the time as Death Avenue? Sure, the West Side Freight Line stopped running back in the early 1940s, but it had killed and mutilated enough people by then to have earned the name. Even the West Side Cowboys assigned to ride in front of the train to warn pedestrians hadn’t stopped people from ending up dead.

Tenth Avenue had come a long way since then. It no longer consisted of crumbling pavement surrounded by factories, warehouses, and meatpacking plants. Now we had towering office buildings and a couple of attractive government buildings that could moonlight as prison blocks. Either way, neither century’s landscape inspired thoughts of the seaside. Then again, most of the hotel guests were permanent residents, some who looked as old and worn as the hotel itself. I suppose those poor souls could easily fool themselves into believing they were surrounded by sandy beaches and rolling blue-green waves. There were few new arrivals at the Pacific Blue, and they didn’t stay long. This wasn’t exactly the Marriott.

Daryl, the night porter, had finished dimming the last of the lights in the main lobby over an hour ago. Inside the Pacific Blue I couldn’t get a phone signal, much less Wi-Fi, so I hadn’t been surprised when I saw Daryl manually turning down the lights. I’d counted maybe half a dozen employees on the nightshift, all of them probably old enough to remember paying ten cents for a quart of milk. By now residents and guests were tangling with the sandman, which meant it was getting to the time of night I enjoyed most. Just me, my thoughts, and the ghosts that came with them.

I checked my watch and glanced past the front desk, down the dimly lit hallway just to the right of the main lobby. The faint glow of lamps and the soft hum of some faraway melody came floating out of the radio room. I stopped in front of the pink-and-gold-veined marble desk and tapped the oxidized bell. It was a miracle the thing still worked. A few seconds later another miracle happened; the manager heard it. An old man who looked as rusty as the bell I just rang came shuffling over.

“I’m gonna start my rounds, Leslie.”

Leslie gave me a nod and shuffled back to finish his nap. I liked the old guy, even if he did forget most of the conversations we had. Not that I minded. The old boy’s weary gray eyes had a way of lighting up whenever he spoke about “the good old days,” back when he’d been a lad of seven, walking into the arms of the Pacific Blue for the first time. What a grand gal she must’ve been then. Her decorative moldings of swirling foliage free of cobwebs and her patterned walls of pink and turquoise hues fresh, vibrant, and untouched by growth and decay. Now she was like a shimmering Hollywood starlet who hadn’t managed to make the transition to talking pictures. With each passing day, she faded away a little more.

Walking down the deserted hall, I stopped just short of the stone archway and listened. It was a waltz, one of those sweeping, haunting ones that carried memories of a distant past. The kind whose imprint lingered well after its final note had faded, much like the man in the gray three-piece suit settled on the salmon-colored armchair listening to it. His eyes were closed, long lashes resting on fair cheeks, a smooth angular face with a strong jaw and a good mouth. He was tall, slender, handsome. The kind of guy who only stopped in dumps like this on his way to something better. Except Franklin Fairchild had gotten lost along the way. His hair was black and neatly styled, his eyes dark and bright as a midnight sky. How did I know about his eyes? I’d seen them every night for the last six months.

“Mr. Ralston,” Fairchild greeted quietly, his nice lips lifting slightly on one side. His eyes were still closed, but once they opened, they’d be intense and haunting, kind of like that waltz. “Your lurking is distracting.” He opened those impressive eyes and turned his head slightly, his gaze capturing mine and holding on. “Much about you distracts me.”

The way his voice subtly dipped in pitch had me taking an interest in the faded blue-green carpet at my feet. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, Mr. Fairchild. I was just doing my rounds.”

Fairchild gave a soft laugh that crawled under my skin and made itself at home. He had a nice voice. Lulling, quiet, and in no hurry to get to where it was going, much like Fairchild himself.

“Funny how your rounds lead you here every night at 2:00 a.m. Worried I’ll skip out on the bill?”

He was teasing me, but it somehow fell flat. My guess was insomnia wasn’t the only thing keeping Fairchild up at this hour. “Not really,” I replied with a shrug, and that was the God’s honest truth. Though if he did try, I didn’t think I’d be too upset about it. That alone should’ve been my warning to stay away from him.

“Just worried, then?”

Franklin Fairchild had been here six months, arriving the same night I started my first shift. He only left his room late in the evening after everyone had gone to bed, and then all he did was come downstairs to listen to the radio. As far as I knew, he took all his meals in his room, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t have visitors, and didn’t interact with another soul other than to say the cursory “thank you” when necessary. I seemed to be the exception to the rule. It made me feel kind of responsible. I didn’t much care for that.

“You seem like a smart guy, Mr. Fairchild. I’d hate to see those smarts splattered all over the pavement.” He was right. I was worried. The Pacific Blue had a habit of drawing in folks looking to uphold the old Death Avenue moniker.

Franklin’s big dark eyes widened, and his cheeks went rosy in hue. It was a good look for him. Obviously he didn’t think so, because those nice full lips frowned at me.

“I see” was all he said. He turned his gaze back to the radio, which was now playing a lovely little melody about “The Day You Came Along.”

How apropos.

“Sorry if I offended you.” I realized then how much that sounded like an apology. Aside the fact that it was about as common an occurrence with me as a government tax break, I had no clue what the hell I was apologizing for. I wasn’t the one possibly thinking about taking a swan dive off an eighth-floor balcony, passing my misery on to some poor bastard who didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. Well, that was just great.

Fairchild stood, his slender frame rising from the chair with all the ease and grace of a dancer. He was about my height and size, without the added bulk. There was the slightest bit of crookedness to his nose, one noticeable only to someone who’d suffered from his fair share of broken noses. What I didn’t understand was how a refined guy like Fairchild ended up with a broken nose. I was pretty good at sizing people up, finding their angle. It was my job. Six months, and all I knew about the man before me was what my gut told me. And that was that Franklin Fairchild was a man at the end of his rope.

“Good night, Mr. Ralston.”

Fairchild swept past me, the faint smell of aftershave, soap, and something else caressing me on its way out. The room wasn’t the only thing left cold and empty from his departure. I looked down at the armchair he’d vacated to find a gray jacket draped neatly over the side. I picked it up and sprinted from the room, catching him before he reached the elevator.

“Hey! Wait!” I held the jacket out to him. “You forgot this.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled and reached out to take it. His fingers grazed mine, and the spark it caused gave me a start. I couldn’t say whether it was my running across the carpet or if it was something else, but it was enough to make me drop the suit jacket like an idiot. I swiped it off the floor, doing my best to remain aloof. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Clumsy me,” he purred.

“No problem.” I felt a little tremor go through me when his fingers brushed over my hand again. His gaze held mine long enough to tell me all I needed to know but briefly enough not to share it with anyone else. Then he turned and disappeared inside the elevator the porter held open for him and Daryl, who gingerly stepped in after him. He stood so close to Franklin I thought he was going to step on the man’s toes. Maybe it was time for Daryl to get himself a new pair of bifocals.

Walking off toward the main lobby, I gave myself a nice little speech. I couldn’t take Franklin up on his offer, no matter how long it had been since I had a guy in my bed. Good-looking men weren’t exactly throwing themselves at my feet these days. Then again, when had they ever? There’d been a time when I was getting my kicks and didn’t much care who I was getting them from. Those late-night rendezvous inside deserted toilet stalls no longer held the appeal they once had.

What did Franklin Fairchild want with me anyway? Maybe what he wanted wasn’t so different from what I wanted. Pants around the ankles, grunting, groping, giving it, and getting it good until our knees felt wobbly, and then “Thanks a bunch, pal.” We would each go on our merry way, and that was that. Except it wasn’t, because he was a guest, and I was the help.

There was also the possibility that Fairchild had gotten a little bit too deep under my skin over the last few months, and letting him go on his merry way might not be as easy as it sounded. I was past believing in happily ever after. Jesus, I was working a second job as security for a run-down hotel because the few hours a week I worked cold cases wasn’t enough to pay the rent and all the therapy bills. I’d tried to be all I could be, until an IED nearly killed me and partially blinded me in one eye. Again I wondered how the hell I’d gotten here. And this time I wasn’t thinking of just the hotel. There were times when I felt like a stranger in my own home.

“You’re a laugh a minute, James,” I muttered to myself as I made my rounds. It was the late hour messing with my head. Not that I would have been asleep at this hour anyway, hence using the time to make some extra cash. There wasn’t a whole lot to secure around here either, which made my job that much easier, and my license to carry a concealed weapon unnecessary. I doubted the chipped, gaudy ceramic seashell ashtray would fetch much at the pawnshop.

I got on with the rest of my rounds and came to the conclusion that if I didn’t shake off the lingering feel of Fairchild’s slender fingers, I would be a goner. Not to mention it was going to be one hell of a long night. Lucky for me, a drunk stumbled into the lobby, taking up a good deal of my time. I listened to the poor bastard’s war stories, not bothering to mention I had plenty of my own. I escorted him out, handed him a few bucks, and told him to get himself a couple of hot meals and some coffee. When I punched out at the end of my shift, I decided the best thing to do would be to stay away from Franklin Fairchild.

The next night I managed to hold on to my conviction for a whole hour. I was real proud of myself too. My body was no better at heeding the warning. As I neared the radio room, the sweeping melody of one of Franklin’s waltzes made my pulse flutter. I stepped into the archway and pretended his subtle smile didn’t send my heart racing or give me butterflies in my stomach. Damn. He was something else.

“Mr. Ralston,” Franklin said softly. He wore the same gray three-piece suit I’d seen him in every night since we met. His eyes were closed, and he sat in the same chair he always did. I didn’t delude myself into thinking his nightly routine had anything to do with me, so I put it down to him being a creature of habit.

“Good evening, Mr. Fairchild.” Maybe tonight I’d string enough words together to form some kind of conversation. Preferably one where I didn’t end up insulting him.

Fairchild stood and walked toward me, or rather the doorway I was blocking. Guess he wasn’t in the mood to chat. Not that he ever was. I stood still as he swept by, then caught his arm before he could leave.

“Hold on.”

Fairchild arched an eyebrow at me, and instead of letting go, I pulled him closer. He allowed it. His midnight eyes searched for something in my gaze before he turned his face away.

“Every night you sit in this room until I arrive, and every night you say just enough to get me riled up before you leave. I’m getting whiplash from your signals here, Fairchild.”

“Please.” Fairchild’s eyes grew glassy, but he put a finger to my lips before I could open my mouth to speak. “I have to go.” He moved his hand to my cheek, and I leaned into the touch. His thumb caressed my skin, a familiar scent I couldn’t place filling my nostrils. “Let me go.”

I did as Fairchild asked, even though I felt sick doing it. My reaction surprised me. I didn’t want him to walk away, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. He leaned in, and my breath hitched as he planted a tender kiss on my cheek. His lips lingered against my skin, and I took advantage, turning my face ever so slightly so I could brush my lips over the corner of his mouth. He smiled and pulled away.

“Until tomorrow night, Mr. Ralston.”

I swallowed hard and watched him walk away, aware of the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was the guy messing with me? If he was, why was I letting him? Maybe it was time to get some answers.

At 2:00 a.m. the next evening, I made my way to the radio room. The moment I heard some perky pop tune playing instead of a waltz, I knew something was wrong. I stopped in front of the archway and felt an odd sensation in my chest. I didn’t like it. The salmon-pink armchair was empty. So was the rest of the room. I turned off the radio and sat down in what I had dumbly come to consider his spot. It had been a long time since I’d bothered feeling any kind of way about anything, and now it was coming at me from all directions. Damn it all.

Into this River I Drown by TJ Klune
you and i
TO MEET my father, you’d have to go for a bit of a drive.

The town I live in is not exactly the epicenter of the known universe. I can’t even say it’s on the outskirts. You know that type of place that you drive through on a road trip to more exciting places, the kind that you have to scour the map for just to find out where you’re at? You pass a worn sign on a highway (that you don’t know how you ended up on and you can’t seem to find a way off)—Roseland, Oregon Pop. 876. Established 1851. Elevation 2345 ft. Gateway to the Cascades!

Exit 235A will be up on your right, almost buried behind pine trees. If you don’t know it’s there, chances are you might just drive right on by, never the wiser of the town that lies a mile to the north.

From 235A, you’ll hit the only road into Roseland—Poplar Street. You’ll probably notice that the road feels a bit bumpy under the tires of your car. It hasn’t been repaved in God knows how long. The city council has said year after year that it’s just not in the town’s budget to have Poplar Street resurfaced. It’s more important that we keep the town afloat in these trying times. It’s hard to argue against covering pot holes as opposed to closing the library. In that, the council is always right.

“Council” makes it sound a lot more important than it actually is; really, it’s just Mayor Walken and Sheriff Griggs making the decisions. And by that, I mean it’s Sheriff Griggs; Walken hasn’t had an original thought since 1994, when it was said he decided to quit chewing tobacco and take up smoking instead, because it was a healthier choice, especially if you smoked the ultralights. Now, the cigarette companies can’t call cigarettes lights or ultralights anymore, as it seems they all still cause your lungs to turn black.

I TRIED a cigarette once, after asking my Aunt Christie for one when I was seventeen. She told me to take it around the back of the house so I wouldn’t get caught. She slipped her bejeweled lighter into my hand with a smile and a wink. I hightailed it around to the back, put that cigarette between my lips filter first, and lit up, taking in the deepest drag I could. I swallowed the smoke with the intention of making it come back up and out my nose (because it would look so cool). But it only took a moment where my throat worked to push it down into my lungs, where the smoke hit my lungs, that I realized I was not destined to be addicted to nicotine. I started coughing painfully, smoke pouring out of my mouth in gray bursts. My eyes watered as I started to gag. I dropped the cigarette onto the grass with the intention of grinding it out with my heel, but my body had other plans, retribution for the poison I had put in me.

I threw up all over my shoes. The cigarette went out with a hiss.

Great gales of laughter poured down from above me.

I spit onto the ground, trying to rid my mouth of the excess saliva flooding my teeth. I wiped my face with my sleeve and turned to look at the cackling loons above me. In the window, staring down, were four faces, all so very similar, lit up with delight. What was different was the way they laughed. Aunt Christie shook her head as she snorted, her curly blond hair hanging down in her face. Hers was a low, throaty chuckle. On her left were two of her sisters, the youngest of the group, my other aunts Nina and Mary. Theirs was a high-pitched giggle, a sound that should grate the ears and cause the skin to prickle. But it never did, instead reminding me of bells. They shook their heads as tears sprang from their eyes.

They are the Trio, and they are mine.

But it was the last woman who was laughing at me that meant the most. The last woman, who I had not heard laugh in what felt like ages. Hers was a loud thing, a big thing. She laughed big for a woman her size. It was almost hard to believe that such a great noise could come from someone so small. It was wondrous to behold, like finding a treasure once thought lost.

Her name is Lola Green and she is my mother.

So I rolled my eyes up at them as they hooted down at me, asking me if I felt like such a big man now standing in a pool of my own cooling vomit. They asked if I had learned my lesson. They asked if I would ever do something like that again.

I didn’t tell them but I told myself: yes. I would do it again. If it meant they would laugh, then yes. If it meant I could hear my mother laugh like nothing in the world mattered but that moment, then yes. Of course, yes. I would do anything just to hear her laugh like that.

MY AUNTS—Nina, Mary, and Christie—moved in the day after my father left. I was sixteen when they pulled up in Christie’s big, loud SUV. They descended on our home, buried in grief at the sudden loss of Big Eddie, scooping up the pieces of me and my mother that had shattered to the floor. They tried to put us back together, holding the pieces in place until the glue they had placed upon us had hardened. But we were fragile still. My mother’s sisters knew once something is shattered, it can never be put back together in its original shape. Undoubtedly some pieces are lost or fit into incorrect places. The whole will never be as strong as it was once before.

So they never left.

THE road is bumpy on Poplar, as I said. You’ll see storefronts, lit up in the gathering dusk, and see a few people walking on the sidewalk, some glancing at your unfamiliar car as it bounces down the road. You’ll think that Roseland looks like a place that time has forgotten, and you won’t be wrong. I wouldn’t call us stuck per se; I just think the rest of the world tends to move a bit faster. We’re not forgotten. We’re just behind.

I don’t think I want it any other way.

As you enter the main drag, you’ll see a banner across the road announcing the “Jump into Summer Festival” and think how quaint it looks, how fitting for a little place such as this. You might feel like going for a drive. You want to ignore how a passenger in your car snorts with laughter, joking about how creepy the sign is, that it’s probably just a way for the town to get unsuspecting outsiders in to sacrifice them to the local god. You want to ignore it, but it is kind of funny, so you don’t. You chuckle and continue on, the banner disappearing overhead.

Driving down Poplar Street will eventually take you past a gas station with a single gas pump at the front. In Oregon, you’re not allowed to pump your own gas, so a thin black cord stretches out next to the pump, causing a bell to ring every time it’s driven over. Inside the store, there are a couple aisles of chips and Twinkies. Suntan lotion, hot dogs rotating on a silver cooker. Coolers with beer and soda. Ice cream, if the mood should strike. There is a garage next door that can handle small repairs like oil changes and windshield-wiper replacement. And there is a sign that spins above the station slowly, one that lights up when darkness falls—Big Eddie’s Gas And Convenience.

My father. Big Eddie.

But he’s not here at the station. Not this spring eve. Not anymore.

If you continue up Poplar Street, past the old mill that sits crumbling like a giant who left behind its playthings, past the empty fields that used to belong to the Abel family before the bank foreclosed on their house, over the Tennyson Bridge, the Umpqua River roaring underneath, and hang a left onto Memorial Lane, you’ll find my father.

You’ll pass under an old stone arch emblazoned with the legend LOST HILL MEMORIAL. No one can tell me how this name came to be. There are no hills here; it could be said that they are lost, although no one can say where they went.

You’ll travel past the Old Yard section of the cemetery, where the stones are crumbling, their markings faded and illegible. Some dates stick out still, reminders of impossible times—1852, 1864, 1876, 1902. But if you continue past those, you’ll see a form that sticks out above other stones. If you stop your car, get out, and walk toward the west end of the cemetery, the form comes into sharper focus. It’s as tall as a normal man, but much smaller than the man it’s supposed to represent. Nothing in this world could be as tall as him.

Stone wings surround a form that always causes me to ache. Gray hands reaching out. Head slightly bowed, the eyes cast down. Gray hair, falling in waves onto smooth shoulders, forever frozen. An angel, you see. An angel watching the ground beneath her. She’s beautiful, even if she is made of stone. If you lean down, you’ll see words below her perfect feet, carved in fine, clear writing. Here, finally, in this place, is where you will find my father:

MAY 27 1960—MAY 31 2007

Fifteen words. Fifteen words is all there is to describe the man who was my father. Fifteen words are all that is left of him. Fifteen words that do nothing. They do nothing to show what kind of man he was. They do nothing to show how when he was happy, his green eyes lit up like fireworks. They do nothing to show how heavy his arm felt when he’d drop it on my shoulder as we walked. They do nothing to show the lines that would form on his forehead when he concentrated. They do nothing to show the immensity of his heart. The vastness that was his soul. Those fifteen words say nothing.

The only time my mother and I ever really quarreled in our lives, with any heat behind it, was deciding what his marker would say. She wanted it to be simple, to the point, like the man himself. He wouldn’t want the superfluous, she told me. He didn’t need more.

I railed against her for this, anger consuming me like fire. How dare you! I shouted. How dare she keep it so short? How could she not make it go on and on and on until those who made such markers would have to harvest an entire mountain for there to be enough room to say what he was, what my father had stood for in his life, all that he had accomplished? How could anyone understand the measure of a man when those fifteen words said nothing about him?

She watched me with an angry hurt that I tried to ignore. My throat felt raw, my heart pounding in my chest. My blood roared in my ears. My eyes were wet. My hands clenched at my sides. Never before had I felt such anger. Such betrayal.

The measure of a man, she said finally, is not the words that mark his end, but everything he’s done since his beginning.

She walked out of the room and we never discussed it again.

But she knows. Those fifteen words?

They do nothing.

The angel who watches over him must feel this is enough, though, because she never has anything to add. She just stands there over him. Watching. Waiting.

Sometimes I wonder what she is waiting for.

MOST out-of-towners who pull into Big Eddie’s Gas And Convenience will probably expect a man with a name such as Big Eddie to walk out, larger than life, a massive presence that cannot be ignored.

They can’t know that Big Eddie died when his truck ran off the road and flipped into the Umpqua. What they’ll find instead is a short man, just recently twenty-one years of age. Most people in Roseland have a problem believing I came from Big Eddie’s loins, given my size. I was small for my age as a kid, and I’m small for my age now. But any words to the contrary about who I came from were always put to rest when people saw my eyes. Big Eddie’s eyes, they always said. Emeralds. Bright, like fireworks. There is no question I am my father’s son, even if physically the rest of me takes after my mother. I’m small, like her. Our coloring is the same—light skin, brown hair that curls when it gets too long. And my hair was always long before Big Eddie became trapped in his truck, most likely knocked unconscious when his head hit the window as the cab of his truck began to fill with water. It was always long before he died, and he died not because of the impact caused by someone who then fled the scene and has never been found, but because of the water that rose, filling up the cab where my father lay, still strapped in by his seat belt. My hair was always long before my father drowned.

Big Eddie liked to shave his hair short, until there was just scratchy stubble covering his scalp. I can still remember how it felt under my fingers when I was a child, how it prickled against my fingers, how it felt when I rubbed it against my cheek.

Four days after he died, and one day before I fought with my mother over fifteen words, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, Big Eddie’s clippers in my hand, his towel around my shoulders. I didn’t flinch when I turned on the clippers. My hands did not shake. My lips did not tremble. I did not shy away from the sight of myself—shadowed, hollowed-out eyes, skin devoid of color. I didn’t flinch as I brought the clippers up to the left side of my head and pressed them against my skin. It only took minutes before I was shorn and there could be no doubt that I was my father’s son.

Green eyes like fireworks. Hair that prickled against my fingertips. Sometimes, I let it grow back until it starts to curl. Then I shave it down again.

My mother and my aunts didn’t say a thing when they saw what I’d done that first time.

I love my mother. I love the Trio.

But I am my father’s son.

SO IF some spring evening you were to pull into the station, this is what you would see:

Perhaps you’re lost, and needing to fill your tank before finding your way back to I-10. Perhaps you’re visiting relatives in town, or in the next county over and just driving through. Perhaps you know me, though I doubt it.

You pull up to the pump, causing the bell to ring from somewhere inside the store. The door to the convenience store opens. You see me, young, and you laugh quietly to yourself. Is this supposed to be Big Eddie? you wonder. Talk about misrepresentation!

You roll down the window. “Fill it up?” I ask, my voice low. Quiet. It’s not rude, you think. Just reserved. I look shy. I look tired. I look distant.

“Yeah,” you say. “Unleaded. Regular. Thank you.”

I nod as you lean forward and hit the latch, releasing the cover to the gas tank. “He’s cute,” one of your passengers might say as soon as I am out of earshot.

“He’s creepy,” another one says, shuddering. “This is so going to be one of those horror movies in the direct-to-DVD bin. He’ll ask us if you want him to look under the hood and he’ll break something and we’ll be stuck in this town. Ninety minutes later, all of us will be dead except for one, and that person will be chased into an abandoned meat-packing plant while the gas jockey chases you with a chainsaw and a hook hand.”

The people in your car try to muffle their laughter. You don’t say anything. But if you did, there are only a few words you think of when you look at me. There’s only a few things that you could possibly think. So, while your friends laugh, you think sad. You think depressed. You think blue.

But, most of all, you think lonely.

And you’d be right.

The tank fills. “That’ll be $32.11,” I tell you when I come back to the window. You hand me your card and I take it inside to run it. It’s almost full-on dark now. Bugs are buzzing near the neon sign. You hear birds off in the trees. A breeze ruffles your hair. Somewhere, a dog barks. Another joins in, and another. Suddenly, they stop.

And then….

Do you feel it?

There’s something else. Something, just out of reach.

Gooseflesh tickles its way up your arms. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Lightning flashes down your spine in low arcs. There’s something else, isn’t there? Something else in the air. Something else carried on the wind. Something… unexpected. Something… different. Something is coming, you know, though how you know is a question you cannot answer.

I don’t feel it. Not really. Not yet enough to name it. I’m still buried in grief. Lost in myself.

But soon.

I walk back to you and hand you your card. Our fingers touch for a moment, and you feel like you should say something, anything. I smile quietly at you as I tell you to have a good night, and I’m about to turn and walk away when you stop me.

“What’s your name?” you ask, your voice coming out in a rush.

I appear startled at this. Hesitant. Something flashes behind my eyes and again you think lonely. You think blue, but it’s the color, not the emotion, and you don’t know why. Everything is blue.

I tell you my name. Slowly.

“Big Eddie?” you ask faintly, wondering why you are saying anything at all. Your passengers listen raptly, as they feel it too now, though later none of you will admit it to each other.

I glance up at the neon sign circling above us. And I smile. You see much in that smile, illuminated by the light. There seems to be a measure of peace there, if only for a moment. There is strength, you think. Hiding somewhere under all that sadness.

And expectation. Like I’m waiting for something. Something to finally happen. Something to come along and say you are still alive, you are still whole. There is no reason for you to be alone because I am here with you.

Then the moment passes. “That was my father,” I say. “Have a good night.”

You nod.

“Let’s get out of here,” one of your passengers whispers. “I found a way back with the GPS on my phone.”

You nod again and watch as I go back inside and sit down behind the counter on a stool. I’m watching my hands when you finally pull away.

YEARS from now on a very ordinary day, something you see triggers a memory of a time you stopped in Roseland, Oregon. You’ll think of me for the first time in years. You remember my name, but only just. You’ll wonder, as your heart starts to thud in your chest, if something finally happened. If things changed for me. If that look of longing, of waiting, led to something more. You’ll think on this fiercely, a slight ringing in your ears that you won’t be able to ignore. But then you’ll be distracted by something mundane and I will slip from your mind. An hour later, you’ll have forgotten that racing of your heart, the sweat under your arms. You’ll have forgotten the little things you saw, that feeling of knowing, knowing something was about to occur.

But I have not forgotten.

My name is Benjamin Edward Green, after my father, our first and middle names transposed. People call me Benji. Big Eddie wanted me to carry his name, but felt I should have my own identity, hence the switch. I never minded, knowing it bound us further. It was a gift from him. Because of him, and everything that is about to follow, my time of waiting is almost over. Events have been set in motion, and once started, they will not stop until it is finished.

This is at once a beginning and an end.

This is the story of my love for two men.

One is my father.

The other is a man who fell from the sky.

North to Zombieville by Meg Bawden
June 23, 2028
THE LAST rays of sunlight danced over the small waves in the ocean. The full moon hung halfway in the sky, and darkness crept up onto the beach. Sunset brought that extra bit of beauty to the Strand, and Dallas knew he’d made the right decision to come here with his husband. Dallas entwined his fingers with Raleigh’s as they slowly walked down the cement footpath beside the beach. Between the footpath and the sand was a stretch of very green grass where picnickers could set up a blanket and food, and there were plenty of times when Dallas and Raleigh had done just that. But not tonight. Tonight they were going somewhere else. And as much as he’d like to walk on the beach with Raleigh, with the soft sand between their toes, they were dressed to impress in suits and dress shoes.

“Where are you taking me?” Raleigh leaned into Dallas.

It was early winter, but cold didn’t bite the air. Townsville, North Queensland, didn’t get cold, unless you counted the occasional times when it’d get down to nine degrees Celsius at five in the morning. Dallas grinned, releasing Raleigh’s hand so he could wrap his arm around his husband’s shoulders and pull him in close. Dallas was wider and packed with muscles, but they looked around the same height, and only if someone looked closer would they see that Dallas was slightly taller.

“If I told you, how would that be a surprise?”

Raleigh chuckled. “Can I guess?”

“No.” Dallas laughed as he shook his head. It wasn’t hard to guess where they were going.

“Come on, let me try.” Raleigh pressed a kiss on Dallas’s freshly shaven jaw.

“No.” Dallas guided them toward the busy street beside the footpath. He waited until the number of cars dwindled enough for them to cross the road, straight toward their favorite restaurant. It had been a while since they’d been there, but it hadn’t changed much.

Colorful lights decorated the Strand Delight, bright and happy. It wasn’t unusual to see the restaurant at its full capacity, which was why Dallas had booked months ago.

Raleigh grinned toward the restaurant. “You, Mr. Jenson, are a charmer.”

“I know,” Dallas teased. He had to extract himself from Raleigh so they could dodge the tables and occupied chairs by walking inside single file and maneuvering themselves into the door. He grabbed Raleigh’s hand again when they made it inside.

Even though the dining rooms were at full capacity, it wasn’t as loud as it could have been, and that’s what Dallas loved about the Strand Delight. People in here had learned to respect others, knowing that a lot of people came in for dates.

Dallas guided Raleigh to the hostess and smiled. “Hi. We have a table for Dallas and Raleigh Jenson.”

The hostess smiled in welcome. “Good evening, sirs. Certainly.” She looked down at her large reservation book, scanning it until she reached their names. “Oh, I see you’ve booked a balcony table. Please follow me.”

Raleigh stared at Dallas. “You booked a balcony table, Dal?”

Dallas winked at Raleigh and dragged him toward a set of wide stairs. Couples and families dined on the top floor too, and the hostess led them outside to where two large tables were situated on the balcony with the view of the Strand. It was beautiful… and expensive, with an added fee for the booking of those tables. They’d only ever eaten once at that table, and Raleigh had firmly told Dallas that they were only booking that table again for very special occasions. Dallas thought that this was one of those occasions.

“Please take a seat, sirs.” The hostess waited until Dallas and Raleigh had sat down before she passed them menus. “Our fine dining specials tonight are our roast wild boar with chestnuts and our kangaroo goulash with spiral pasta and sour cream. Please take your time in deciding. Our waiter won’t be long.”

With a wink, she left them alone.

At that moment, they were the only ones on the balcony, but Dallas wasn’t naรฏve enough to think it would stay that way. It was a Friday night in one of the most popular parts of Townsville.

Dallas stared out at the small waves, listening to the laughter and loud voices that floated up to the balcony from the walkway below. As loud as it was on the streets underneath them, he loved hearing it.


Dallas turned to Raleigh, his lips curling. “Happy Anniversary, Leigh.”

Raleigh cocked his head. “Thank you, love.” He reached over and Dallas grabbed his hand halfway, entwining their fingers. “How was I so lucky to marry such a romantic man?”

“I’m pretty sure I’m the lucky one.”

Raleigh rolled his eyes but smiled anyway. It was a common “argument” they had and it was their little game. They had met at Dallas’s sister’s wedding, where Raleigh had tagged along with the wedding photographer for experience. Raleigh had accidently backed into Dallas while trying to take a photo, which resulted in Dallas’s beer spilling all over Raleigh’s nice gray suit. Being the gentleman he was, Dallas had helped Raleigh clean up. Well, if cleaning up meant hooking up in the bathroom. Sasha, Dallas’s sister, never let them live it down.

Dallas stared into Raleigh’s pretty blue eyes, his chest tightening at the thought of how much he loved this man in front of him. Raleigh was his world. Did that sound corny? “I love you, Leigh.”

Raleigh swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I love you too.”

“Oh my God, do you have vaginas?”

The teasing voice jerked Dallas’s attention away from Raleigh. He turned to the lady who strode toward their table with a wide grin. It took a moment for Dallas to recognize her, but when he did, he laughed and stood, bringing her into a hug.

“Fucking hell! If it isn’t Janey Jones.”

Janey squeezed him tightly. She may have been a woman, but Janey had strength in her that some men could only dream about. She squeezed Dallas tight enough that his back cracked.

“Dallas fucking Jenson.” She pulled away from him but kept her grip on his upper arms. She shook him. “Damn, you’ve put on some muscle, boy.”

Dallas snorted and turned to Raleigh, who stared at them in confusion. “Baby, this is Janey Jones, the woman I used to work with in the Army a couple of years ago. Remember I told you about her?”

Realization dawned on Raleigh, and he stood, grinning at the dark-skinned woman. “Nice to meet you, Janey. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Janey grabbed Raleigh’s hand and shook it. “Well, aren’t you polite! Now tell me, Jenson, who’s this sweet arse?”

Dallas sympathized with Raleigh’s apparent alarm at Janey’s rough nature. It wasn’t that Raleigh was always polite, but more that when he’d just met someone, he certainly wouldn’t call them a sweet arse.

“Janey, this is my husband, Raleigh Jenson.”

Janey took a step back, her eyes roaming over Raleigh’s very fine body. “Husband? Jeez, Jenson, when did you get married?”

“Two years ago. It’s actually our anniversary on Monday.”

“No shit?” Janey grabbed Raleigh again, crushing him into a hug. “Well, congratulations, sweet arse!”

Dallas grimaced at the sound of Raleigh’s bones cracking. When she let him go, Raleigh’s wide eyes turned to Dallas again, causing him to laugh.

“Thank you?” Raleigh smiled at her, seemingly unsure.

“No problem. So what’s with the same last name, then?” She switched her gaze between them, one dark brow raised. “I thought, when you gays got married, you hyphenated it or kept your own surname.”

As insulting as it sounded, it wasn’t meant to be taken that way. Janey was the most accepting person Dallas had met, other than Raleigh, but she took everything with a grain of salt.

Dallas hesitated. He didn’t really think it was his story to tell. Raleigh no doubt took his hesitation as a cue.

“Sometimes we do,” he said with a genuine smile. “Except me. I’m… not exactly a fan of my family. They kicked me out of home when I was fifteen, for being gay. So when I married Dallas, I wanted to take on his surname.”

Janey nodded with narrowed eyes. “Got one of those families, do you? Bastards, the lot of them. I married a bloke about five years ago, and his family didn’t like me one bit. It’s because I’m black and an aboriginal. Bunch of racist arseholes, they were.”

Raleigh frowned. “That’s terrible.”

“I know, right?” She shook her head furiously. “Anyway, we don’t need people like that in our life.” She good-naturedly slapped Raleigh on the arm. “If your family wants to kick you out just because you like some cock up the arse or your cock up an arse, fuck them, I say.”

Raleigh looked like he was trying not to laugh, but at the same time seemed mortified by her brash words. “Yeah, fuck them.”

Dallas wasn’t as successful, and he laughed. Raleigh very rarely swore in public, but it wasn’t exactly surprising that Janey had him cursing. She could have made a priest swear.

“Are you here with Roger?”

Janey growled, throwing her hands to her hips. “The bastard cheated on me. About a year ago. I threw him to the curb, literally. I’ve never seen a grown man cry until that day.”

“Jesus. Are you kidding?”

“Nope. Bloody bastard. He was doing the hanky-panky with the next-door neighbor. Bloody slut, she is. She’d do a tree if she wouldn’t be arrested for it.”

Dallas resisted the urge to growl as well. Janey had done everything for Roger, and the bastard had gone and done that to her. If he ever saw Roger again, he would be giving him a beating as well.

“Nah.” Janey shook her head as she continued, “you’re looking at the new owner of the Strand Delight, Jenson.”

Dallas’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding?”

Janey cackled, loud and boisterous as usual. “Not kidding at all.” She turned to Raleigh. “You see, I got out of the Army to start a family with Roger, my husband at the time. I joined my mum in her bakery. The kid thing never happened. We tried, but it just never came about, you know? I’m glad of that now, though.” She returned her attention to Dallas. “Anyway, after I left Roger, I knew I wanted to do more with my life. Mum passed away two years ago, and me and the bro sold the bakery. I didn’t know jack shit about baking. Neither did Nick. But I knew a fair bit about fine dining. Before I joined the Army, I was a chef down in a Sydney restaurant. All the fancy-pants people used to eat in it. You know the ones, with too much money. So when I saw this place up for sale, I thought why the hell not?”

Dallas chuckled. “Sounds like a bloody good idea to me.”

“Right?” Janey snorted. “Anyway, when I saw your name on our reservation book, I just knew I had to come over and say hello. And you—”

Raleigh swallowed noticeably when Janey turned her attention on him again.

“You weren’t the wedding photographer Dallas got it on with at his sister’s wedding, were you?”

A flush rose up Raleigh’s neck. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, that was me.”

“Oh sweet arse, we heard all about that encounter on Monday at work, from your husband here.”

Dallas choked on his own saliva. “Oi, Janey, don’t tell him that.”

She waved her hand at him impatiently. “That’s before he knew you were going to be more than a one-night stand, though. But anyway, you should have heard what sort of sex stories I used to tell Jenson. I’ve never seen such a big man like him blush before.”

It was true. Back in the day, before Raleigh, Dallas had been all about one-night stands. He was pretty wild in his early twenties, but it was nothing compared to Janey before she met Roger. Back then, she had Dallas blushing worse than a virgin meeting a porn star for the first time.

“Really?” Raleigh grinned teasingly at Dallas, who knew he was never going to hear the end of it. “Did I get good reviews?”

“Oh, honey, I vividly remember the words ‘I’d like to fuck that tight arse for a week straight.’”

“All right, Janey,” Dallas said loudly, very loudly. “Nice seeing you.”

Both Janey and Raleigh laughed, their faces filled with amusement, although Raleigh’s was covered with a blush as well.

“I should be letting you get back to your dinner. I’m sorry I interrupted, Jenson. I just wanted to come and catch up with you. For the interruption, your first set of drinks is on me!”

“No, that’s absolutely fine. We don’t need that at all, Janey.” That was his Raleigh, ever the polite man.

“Oh shush, sweet arse. What can I get you handsome blokes?” Janey winked at Raleigh.

“I’ll have a Tooheys Extra Dry,” Dallas said.

“Of course you will. You never change, Jenson,” Janey teased.

“I’ll have a Corona, please,” Raleigh said.

“See, you should learn manners off your husband, Jenson.”

Dallas snorted. “Go and get our drinks, woman.”

Janey’s jaw dropped. “Sit your arse down and be polite, bastard.” She slapped Dallas on the arse as she strode past him. She waved her arm without turning around. “Drinks coming up, sexy men.”

Raleigh watched her go, his eyes dancing in unadulterated amusement. “She’s… a character?”

Dallas snorted. “That’s Janey. Sit down, baby.”

They took their seats again.

“You didn’t tell me she was so hilarious.”

He shrugged. “That’s her. Funny, brash, and could probably take down any man she wanted. She’s strong. The strongest woman I’ve ever met.”

Raleigh nodded. “I like her. You’ll have to keep in touch with her.”

“Can you imagine Janey in our home?”

“That’s true.” Raleigh nodded with a grin. He gazed pointedly at Dallas. “She’s already accused us of having vaginas.”

“True. I imagine she’d be asking where our cocks were once she saw how… family orientated our home is.”

“At least she’s better than Richo, though. That man is a pig.”

Dallas rested his elbow on the table, pressing his face into his palm, his chest rumbling in amusement. Richo was his best friend, and he was a pig. Or at least by bachelor standards. Richo liked to play around with the girls, a lot, but didn’t care for having a neat apartment. Raleigh was a clean freak, so having Richo over was like starting World War III.

“Richo has his moments.”

“If by moments you mean putting his dirty feet on my clean coffee table, then yes, he has his moments.”

Dallas shook his head in amusement. “Baby, that was only once.”

“Or the time he ate chips on my lounge seat and left pieces on it everywhere.”


Raleigh paused, realization crossing his beautiful face. He seemed to recognize that he’d once more gone off on a tangent. Dallas knew that as much as Raleigh didn’t like Richo’s uncleanliness, he loved Richo himself. He was the perfect best friend for Dallas, as he always had Dallas’s back. Raleigh clearly liked that about him. Raleigh could trust Richo to take care of his husband. It’d been hard for Raleigh to admit that to Dallas, but Dallas was glad he had.

“Sorry,” Raleigh said, ashamed. He hated arguments as much as Dallas. “He just frustrates me sometimes.”

“I know, Leigh.” Dallas grinned at him, reaching for his hand again. He raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss on Raleigh’s palm. “But you don’t have to worry about him for two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” Raleigh frowned, his eyebrows doing a cute little furrow. Dallas always loved it when Raleigh frowned.

“I’ve booked a holiday for us.”

“What? When? Why? Where, Dallas?”

“Fiji. We leave next week.”

Dallas could almost see Raleigh’s mind ticking as his lips curled in thought, his nose scrunching.

“I already rang your clients and organized other photographers for them. Sean is doing a couple of weddings for you, as is Jessica. And David. I’ve got the leave off work. We leave on Monday.”

“Really? Dallas, please tell me you’re not joking.”

“Would I joke about this?”

“Dallas!” Raleigh shot up and rushed toward Dallas, seating himself in his lap. He pressed his lips against Dallas’s, hard, and kissed the life out of him. Their tongues collided, their hips gravitating toward each other. It may have become R-rated at one point.

A loud crash and screams from downstairs made them pull away. The diners on the top floor were glancing around worriedly, some of the men showing caution as they stood, but making no move to head downstairs and see what was happening.

Raleigh frowned toward the stairs. “What was that?”

Dallas narrowed his eyes and stood, taking Raleigh with him. The screams were filled with pure fear. It wasn’t just downstairs, though. Distant shrieks echoed through the street as well, but when Dallas glanced over the balcony railing, he couldn’t see anything odd. A crowd had formed on the sidewalk and they were peering around the street in confusion. Glass shattered, and then a rush of people scrambled out of the Strand Delight. One lady fell on top of the glass, her legs dragging over the shards, but whatever scared her was more important than the pain she obviously felt from the glass, because she kicked off her high heels and got to her feet to run again.

Car horns and crunching noises similar to pieces of metal colliding with each other filled the air. A car accident, maybe? But there was more than the sound of one accident. It put Dallas on high alert.

“Raleigh, stay here.” Dallas moved toward the stairs.

“Dallas, I’m coming with you.” Raleigh started to follow him.

“No! I said stay here, and I mean it.” It came out as an angry growl. He hadn’t meant to snap, but if something was going on downstairs, he didn’t want Raleigh in the middle of danger. He had defense training; his husband didn’t. “Please, baby, stay here,” he said, softer than before.

Raleigh hesitated and then nodded. He took a step back toward his seat. Dallas felt eyes on his back as he descended the stairs.

The sight he found nearly made him retreat. Tables were upturned, the glassware and utensils scattered over the floor. Bodies lay on top of each other, blood oozing from holes and torn skin. An older lady’s body was askew in the middle of the room, covering a young boy who couldn’t have been older than ten. His body was twitching, but his neck was in pieces, chunks of meat torn from his jugular. The people left standing were screaming or running toward the exit.

The people who had fallen didn’t look right. Their faces had deep gashes, with blood gushing from their cheeks and down their chins. With some, their mouths drooped on one side, their gums dark and bloody. Their eyes were lifeless, as though they were dead on the inside.

People on the streets ran into the restaurant, pausing as they saw the bodies on the floor start to move and shift as though they were puppets on a string, only missing their master. Upon taking in the scene, they’d run out again.

It all seemed absurd, like a B movie that didn’t even make it to the cinemas. Dallas frowned, taking a step up on one of the stairs, farther away from the scene. He stared at one of the women, who rose, her face scratched up badly.

“Ma’am, are you all right?”

She didn’t respond, only groaned in an animalistic way. She started to stumble toward Dallas, her left leg dragging behind her. Her foot was bent backward and she was putting all her weight on her very twisted and broken ankle.

“Ma’am, are you all right?” Dallas repeated, but she ignored him, continuing her walk toward him.

Diners from upstairs came rushing past him, shoving him roughly out of the way.

“No! Don’t go out there!” But it was too late. They weren’t listening to him—fear controlled their every movement.

This had to be a nightmare. It was the night before their anniversary, and he was still in bed, he had to be.

He wasn’t watching the lady, and she managed to catch him off guard and shove him to the ground. She slammed herself on top of him, her teeth bared as she dived toward his neck. He raised his elbow, slamming it into her face. She let out a pained squeal and her head jerked back, making her neck crack loudly. But that still didn’t deter her. This time, she went for his arm.

Over the lady’s shoulder, Dallas saw a man clambering out of a door. The man paused, glancing around the room, obviously searching for something. Survivors. Dallas opened his mouth to ask for help at the same time the woman grabbed a piece of wood from a broken table and slammed it against his forehead. Dallas’s head smashed hard against the floor, and his vision flickered for a moment.

By the time he looked again, the man was gone. Dallas would have to deal with the woman on his own. Using all his strength, he shoved at her twitching body, and she went flying backward into a broken chair. She shrieked as Dallas struggled to stand. His legs felt like jelly beneath him.

He stared at her in confusion. How did she keep getting up? It was impossible. But this entire thing was impossible.


Raleigh’s voice. He had to get back to his husband. He spun on his heel, but before he could get anywhere, a hand grabbed his ankle and he fell forward.

“Dallas, where are you?” Raleigh’s voice was on the verge of desperation. “Dal!”

“Raleigh!” Dallas called back, but the sound of a car horn close by drowned it out.

As he opened his mouth to call out again, whatever had grabbed him clawed up his trousers. He twisted and stopped in shock. A man this time, but he looked worse than the lady. He was older, with a receding hairline; his forehead was peeling and blood was cascading down the side of his head. Only part of his teeth remained in his mouth, and even those were halfway out of his gums. To top it off, he only had half a body. From the waist down, there was nothing but his insides dragging behind him.

“No, no, no. I don’t want to go!” Raleigh’s voice sounded distant among the screams from outside. “He’s alive! No. He’s alive!”

“Raleigh!” Dallas shouted again, but as before, his voice was lost in all the other noise.

Anger and anxiousness welled in his chest, and he let the emotions take over. He kicked at the man holding him, slamming his boot into his face. The man squealed as his skull shattered under the force of Dallas’s kick. His body went limp and he released Dallas.

Rising, Dallas quickly retreated back upstairs to Raleigh and made his way toward the balcony. He paused when he found it empty.

Fear curled in his belly, his skin tingling. “Raleigh?”

He was met with silence.


But still he got no answer. He spun around, surveying the dining room.

“Leigh, where are you?” He looked out toward the street. More and more people ran out of the restaurants along the Strand, and very quickly the streets filled with running, screaming people. He had no fucking idea what was happening.

Dallas ran to the railing, looking over the balcony. It was then that he realized there was a ladder leaning toward the railing. Raleigh must have climbed down it.

Dallas took two steps at a time. His feet hit the ground and he desperately scanned his surroundings. He pulled out his phone and rang Raleigh. It went straight to message bank. He angrily pressed the End Call button.


The scared crowd ignored him for the most part, though a couple shoved him hard as they ran past. Some tried to get into their cars, but with too many people in the streets, they couldn’t go far. A couple of drivers tried to nudge people with their vehicles, but it only had negative effects. Some of the people in the streets were just like the woman in the Strand Delight. Their eyes were dead, their faces and any other exposed skin bloody and scratched.

One of the men nudged with a car spun around, eyes flashing a dark red as he slammed his hands on the hood. The hood made a crunching sound, and the man screamed, spit flying from his mouth as he pounced on the crumpled hood. The woman in the car shrieked and jumped out, kicking off her heels and running down the street with the mobs. But the man obviously wasn’t going to allow that. He ran after her. He wasn’t fast, but he was fast enough to catch her. He grabbed her by the hair, jerking her backward. She screamed again, but he threw her on the ground and tore at her neck like a starving cannibal.

Dallas made to move toward them, but the woman’s scream turned into a gurgle and then nothing. It was too late. Dallas could have saved her life, but he hadn’t. He couldn’t. He needed to find Raleigh. He needed to protect his husband.

“Raleigh?” His voice cracked under the strength of his roar. Yet it was barely audible over the cries of fear filling the street.

The woman from the restaurant dragged herself out of the Strand Delight. She stretched out toward Dallas, a stupid grin on her face that caught bloody teeth flashing at him.

Dallas acted on adrenaline. He ducked beneath her arms, spinning until he was standing at her back, then grabbed her head, twisting it hard and quick until her neck snapped and she fell to the ground, lifeless.

He dropped to his knees, his stomach churning in fear and desperation as the need to vomit slammed into him. But he held it in.

“Raleigh…,” he whispered, biting his lip hard. He needed to find his husband.

Something shone in his eyes from under the lamplight and he immediately zeroed in on Raleigh’s phone. He grabbed it, tapping it desperately, but it was dead. “Dammit!” he growled. “Raleigh, where are you?”

He knew the next course of action, though. He needed to go home, except it wasn’t as easy as he thought. By the time he made it to the car, Dallas had seen more chaos than he had seen over in Afghanistan. People and those things were everywhere. Dallas used his stealth to avoid them as much as possible.

It wasn’t just at the Strand, though. Cars were crashed everywhere on the road, and trying to maneuver around them was difficult. He and Raleigh lived on the other side of the city. It took him two hours to reach it, when it should have only taken forty-five minutes at the most.

By the time he turned into their street, it was anarchy. As on the roads, there were cars parked all over the street. Front doors of houses were left open, and furniture was thrown over front yards. People were everywhere—screaming, running, and fighting. One particular car’s roof was packed up with luggage as though the people who owned it were ready to head out of town. The family had two kids, and the parents were herding them out to the Range Rover.

As Dallas drew closer to them, he lowered his window. “Hey, do you know what this is?”

At first the man didn’t answer. He reached into the open backseat window and pulled out a cricket bat, pointing it toward Dallas. “Get lost, mate.”

The reaction surprised Dallas, and he glared. “We’re all in the same boat.”

“The hell we are. You could be one of them for all I know. Now get lost.”

Dallas just shook his head. It was no use arguing. He barely knew the man anyway. He’d seen him, of course, but this wasn’t a small town where they held street dinners.

As Dallas pulled the car into his driveway, his neighbor came flying out of her house, dragging a small suitcase behind her. She was seventy, at least, and was as lovely as they came. When he and Raleigh first moved in, she’d greeted them with open arms.

“Mrs. Lopez?”

She glanced at him, then stumbled forward. Dallas was too far away to help her, but she righted herself before she fell on the ground. He walked toward her anyway, but she shook her head desperately. “Stay away.”

“What?” Dallas paused, shocked.

“My daughter is coming to get me. Stay away, okay? She said not to talk to any of you. You could be one of them. Mr. Roberts was!”

“Mr. Roberts turned into one of them?” Dallas exhaled and carded his hand through his hair. “Shit.”

A tiny two-door Toyota swung into Mrs. Lopez’s driveway, and her daughter hopped out. “Stay away, Dallas!” Rebecca snapped. She quickly grabbed her mother’s luggage and shoved it into the boot.

“Rebecca, running from this won’t help. You’re putting your mother in danger. It’s best to find a safe place to hide, with plenty of food and water, and hole yourself up there.”

Rebecca snorted. “Don’t tell me how to care for my mother. I saw them on the news, and we’re getting out of here.”

She guided her mother into the car and slipped back into the driver’s side. Dallas knew he couldn’t argue, so he watched as they left. Others in the street were following them. To their death, no doubt.

All that mattered was finding Raleigh and protecting him.

He unlocked the door to his and Raleigh’s house and ran in.


There was no answer. He searched the small home desperately, but there was no sign of his husband. He didn’t even realize that he’d left the door open as he collapsed on the couch in exhaustion and stared at their wide-screen TV. He could wait for Raleigh here, he supposed. Raleigh would come home, wouldn’t he?

An animalistic groan sounded behind him, and Dallas jumped to standing, his fists held in front of him protectively. It was another one of those things. What were they? It was taller and wider than the last two he’d encountered and appeared more human too. The only difference about this one was its very visible veins. Instead of the usual blue, they were black—a stark contrast against its pale white skin. The thing took a step forward. Raleigh’s china collectibles shuddered in their cabinet.

Dallas grimaced. If it broke Raleigh’s china, he would slaughter it without a second thought. That china was important to his husband, passed on to him after his grandmother’s death. It was the only thing he had left of her, and Dallas wouldn’t let this creature—whatever it was—break it.

The creature roared and ran at him.

Dallas spun, dancing out of reach of its outstretched hands just in time. Much to his surprise, the creature didn’t stop. It went straight through the wall of their brick home without so much as a cry of pain.

Dallas shook his head. This was all wrong. It didn’t add up. This thing—whatever it was—was a creature from literature, not real life. Yet here it was, shaking off the shattered brick on its clothes and spinning back toward Dallas, as if ready for another round.

Dallas needed more than his fists. He needed something bigger. When he found Raleigh, they would both need it. He could head to the Army base, pick up some guns and ammo. For now, though, he needed something else to take down this creature. Like an axe or a hoe… like his gardening hoe outside.

Dallas smirked at the creature and spun on his heels, heading toward the back door. He swung it open, hearing the creature growling right behind him. He reached his hoe and grabbed it, then turned just in time to slam it into the creature’s forehead.

It froze, eyes wide, as black liquid oozed from the wound. Then it fell forward, barely missing Dallas as it went.

Dallas swallowed and tugged the hoe out of the creature’s head. “Time to go get some real weapons and then find Raleigh.”

Motel. Pool. by Kim Fielding
“I WANT to go for a swim.” Jack hopped off the bed, ignoring the small twinge in his ass, and grinned across the mattress. Sam still wore most of his clothing, although his shirt was rumpled and his pants were unfastened.

“It’s too cold out, kid,” said Sam.

“Cold? It’s at least seventy.” Back home in Nebraska, everyone was still bundled up in thick coats and wool hats, cursing as they slipped on the ice or shoveled the sidewalk for the hundredth time. Wouldn’t they all turn green if they could see Jack with his suntan?

Sam zipped and buttoned his trousers, did up the buckle, and drained the tumbler of whiskey he’d left atop his dresser. He rummaged a moment in one of the drawers before grabbing something and tossing it at Jack.

Jack caught the fabric neatly. “Bathing suit?” he asked when he unfolded it. “I thought you liked me like this.” He spread his arms wide, putting himself on display. He knew what Sam saw: tight muscles, trim waist, decent-sized cock.

Jack turned around, showing Sam the butt he’d said was so spectacular he wished he could put it on the big screen. “I’d make posters of that ass,” Sam would say. “Better’n Grable’s legs or Monroe’s tits.” Then he’d usually give the body part in question a good squeeze or a healthy smack. Now, though, he only growled, “Doris is here.”

Blinking slightly, Jack stepped into the swimsuit. It was dark blue with white piping, and tight even on him. No way it would fit Sam, once trim and handsome—Jack had seen photos—but now with a substantial paunch. And a bald spot that threatened to conquer his entire scalp. “I thought she was in New York.”

“She was.” Sam smiled and used his palms to stretch the skin tightly across his cheeks. “She had some work done. She’s hiding out here until the bruises fade. Don’t tell anyone. Top secret, right?”

“Yeah. Of course.” Jack looked down at the garment. “Whose is this?”

“Yours now. Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah, but—”

“How the hell do I know? Probably somebody sent it to me. Companies are always sending me shit, wanting me to put it in one of my films.”

That didn’t explain how the suit got into his dresser. But Sam’s mouth was turned down at the corners, so Jack dropped the subject. “Gonna come with me?”

“Nah. Got calls to make.” He jerked his chin toward the door. “Scram.”

Ignoring the abruptness of the dismissal, Jack loped down the long hallway. As always, he marveled at the wall-to-wall carpeting. None of the scuffed wood and worn lino from back home. Someday when he bought his own house in Beverly Hills, he was going to put carpets everywhere—even in the bathrooms.

He skidded to a halt when he reached the kitchen and discovered Doris sitting at the table, leafing through a magazine. Her blue bathrobe matched her eyes exactly. Her blonde hair, usually carefully styled, was pulled into a ponytail, and the dark circles under her eyes made her look tired. She gave him a wide smile. “Hi, Jacky! When did you get here?”

“A couple hours ago. Sorry—I didn’t know you were here.”

“I was still in bed. Beauty sleep.” She pursed her lips before taking a swallow from the glass in front of her. It looked like orange juice, but Jack would have bet that a good portion of it was vodka.

“Pfft. You’re too beautiful already.” She was still pretty, actually. When she’d married Sam, she’d been a real knockout—Jack had seen those photos too—although never quite stunning enough for the leading-lady parts. She usually played the sister or the best friend. Of course, she hadn’t appeared in anything for years, although sometimes after a few drinks she’d explain that she was planning a comeback. Sam would just roll his eyes and puff on his cigar.

“You look pretty cute yourself, kiddo,” Doris said. “Are you giving an old lady a thrill or heading for the pool?”

“You’re not old, but why not a little of both?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

She laughed and flapped her hand at him. “Go. Get in a few laps before Sam decides to drag you back into his bedroom.”

He felt his cheeks color before he exited through the sliding glass door. The first time Sam had brought him home—to his house in Los Angeles, not this one in Palm Springs—Jack had been thrilled to have captured his attention. Even back in Nebraska, everyone knew who Sam Richards was. Hell, he’d been nominated twice for Best Director! But when they walked inside the mansion, Jack barely had time to be awed before Doris made an entrance into the living room, glass in hand. Jack almost died of embarrassment. But she’d been nice to him then, and later that night, in the privacy of the bedroom, Sam had explained that he and his wife had an understanding. She kept quiet about Sam’s boys and he kept her well supplied with luxuries. “It’s a business arrangement,” Sam said. “Works out for everyone.”

Even now, nearly a year later, Jack still felt disconcerted when Doris openly acknowledged that Sam was fucking him. But she continued being nice to him, so he guessed he didn’t really mind that she knew.

The pool was that exceptional turquoise color that seemed to exist only in California, and the sunlight glinted so strongly that he wished he’d worn sunglasses. He grabbed a towel from the teak cabinet next to the house and spread it over a lounge chair. Yeah, probably it was a little chilly for swimming. But the pool was one of his favorite things about this house, and he never missed a chance for a dip. Back in Omaha, he’d never met a single person who had a swimming pool in their backyard. It was possible nobody in the entire state of Nebraska had their own pool. He was for sure going to have one—a big one—when he bought his own house.

He stretched his arms wide, then high, took a deep breath, and dived into the deep end.

The cold water momentarily shocked his system. If his balls hadn’t already been squished in the tight briefs, they’d have tried to crawl into his body. But he began swimming with smooth, steady strokes. He’d made both the varsity swim and baseball teams, although neither impressed the majority of folks in a state bonkers over football. He certainly didn’t impress his parents, that was for sure. His dad said sports were frivolous, as were the school plays where Jack always got the lead. “When I was your age, I was working,” Dad said. “Helping support my family.” Jack’s mom fussed over his grades. She told him if he studied a little harder, maybe he could go to a junior college. Maybe even get a scholarship.

But none of that mattered now, as he was doing laps at a famous movie director’s house in December under a bright blue sky.

SAM HAD promised a quiet weekend, but by eight that night, the house was full. This was a select crowd, one Jack had seen many times before. There were men Sam’s age. Rich men. A lot of them were in the industry, but others were lawyers or businessmen. And there were young guys Jack’s age, every one of them good-looking. Most of them wanted to be actors, but some called themselves assistants or personal secretaries. Some of the attendees were well-known leading men. At first Jack had been both awed to meet them and amazed that these matinee idols liked dick, but he was over that by now. He knew the score. In front of the cameras, you pretended to moon over some pretty starlet. And when the press went away, you could gather with some like-minded fellows who’d be sure to keep their traps shut. Sometimes Jack contemplated which actress would be his beard, when he was famous enough to need one.

A few women showed up too, but Doris was notably absent. Hiding in her bedroom, perhaps. That was too bad, because Jack liked talking with her. As it was, he spent most of the night stuck with a portly man who owned several Cadillac dealerships and had awful breath, and a sneering kid the man introduced as his “nephew.” Both of them made veiled allusions to three-ways and found excuses to touch him. Jack tried to escape, kept trying to catch the attention of the agent he’d had his eye on for weeks, but Mr. Caddy got in the way. It was damn frustrating.

To calm himself down—and to help him refrain from socking Mr. Caddy and Junior in the noses—Jack drank. Not beer, like he was used to back home, and not the fancy, fruity concoctions Doris sometimes gave him, but whiskey on the rocks, just like Sam. He had several. And when someone handed him a marijuana cigarette, he had some of that too. He was left feeling tired and bleary but not especially happy.

After Mr. Caddy palmed Jack’s ass for the umpteenth time while Junior snuggled close enough for Jack to feel his hard-on, Jack had reached his limit. He lurched away from them and stomped off in search of Sam, who might at least convince his buddies to keep their hands to themselves.

He found Sam, all right—scrunched into a quiet corner of the patio with a dark-haired boy kneeling in front of him, sucking his cock. Sam held a cigar and gazed over the moonlit pool. Jack made a small noise and Sam turned his head to look at him. Sam’s expression didn’t change, and he made no move to push the boy away.

Cursing under his breath, Jack slipped back into the house.

He worked his way through the crowd, snagging a bottle of booze as he went, and walked down the long hallway to the room at the end. He stepped inside and closed the door. Sam and Doris called this the guest room. It was nearly as big as the whole house where Jack had grown up. The carpet was gold, as were many of the decorative accents, and there was a private bathroom. When Jack visited Sam in Palm Springs, he spent a lot of time in Sam’s bed, but he always slept in this room, by himself.

He kicked off his shoes but left the rest of his clothing on. Propping himself on the bed, he uncapped the liquor and began to drink.

JACK SLEPT until almost noon and woke with a throbbing head. Still wearing his rumpled, smoke-smelling clothes from the night before, he made his way to the kitchen. He’d been half hoping Doris would be there, but instead he was greeted with a frown from the Richards’ housekeeper, Juana. “Morning,” he mumbled.

She nodded stiffly and scrubbed at the counter.

“Can I get some coffee? And something to eat? Please.” He wouldn’t have minded fixing his own meal, but the few times he’d tried, Juana had yelled at him in Spanish. He didn’t know what she was saying, but he was positive it was nothing good.

Now she nodded again. He sat at the table, wincing every time she slammed a pan or rattled cutlery. But the food smelled good and the coffee even better, and he thanked her when she brought him an omelet with toast and a steaming mug of joe.

She sniffed disdainfully and walked away.

Jack was using the toast to mop up the last of the egg when Sam entered the room. He wore a suit and tie, and his hair was carefully combed. He walked over to Juana and said something too quiet for Jack to hear. Within minutes the vacuum was roaring in the living room, signaling that Juana had left them alone. Sam sat opposite Jack. “Hand me that ashtray, kid.”

Jack slid the thing across the table. He watched as Sam shook out a cigarette and lit it with his gold lighter. After a single puff, Sam wordlessly offered the cigarette to Jack and lit another for himself. “I have to head back to LA,” he announced.

“I figured you were overdressed for Palm Springs.”

“You can stay here if you want. Doris might like the company.”

“I didn’t come here to keep Doris company.”

Sam quirked his lips slightly but said nothing. They smoked in silence, not quite making eye contact. They finished their cigarettes and Sam lit two more. Finally he looked at Jack. “You weren’t trying to convince yourself I was going to fall in love with you, were you?”

Jack pressed his lips together and shook his head.

“Good. Didn’t think you were that stupid. I know you sure as hell aren’t falling for an old bastard like me. Hell, I don’t even know if you really swing this way. Would you rather be screwing girls, Jacky?”

“I don’t like girls.” Jack had dated a few girls back home, and he’d had sex with three of them because they were willing and any sex seemed better than none. He’d got his rocks off, but it wasn’t earthshaking. When he beat off, he thought about men.

“Ah, girls are all right. They smell nice. But you have to seduce them, at least a little bit. Even the ones who want you badly have to pretend they don’t. I’d rather stick my dick up a tight ass like yours.”

“Or in a mouth like that boy’s last night.”

“Yeah, he’s real pretty, isn’t he? Mouth like a fucking angel. Thinks he’s going to be a movie star, but with skin dark as his, he’s never going to play anything but bit parts. Indians, Arabs, maybe a wop or a kike.”

Jack happened to know that Sam’s last name had originally been Rosenberg, but he didn’t point that out. Instead he stubbed out his cigarette. “How about me?”

“You look plenty all-American, kid. Those lips and those cheeks are maybe a little too pretty for some parts—you’d make a crappy PI—but you can do a leading man. You could be a young Monty Clift.”

Despite his headache, Jack perked up a little. “Really?” Montgomery Clift was from Omaha, just like him. So was Marlon Brando. “How about James Dean?”

“James Dean’s dead.”

“I know.” The accident had happened a few months ago, and Jack had cried for hours when he found out. He’d never even had a chance to meet the man who’d inspired him to head to Hollywood. “So now they need somebody else to play those kind of parts, right? I could do it.”

Sam looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. “Yeah, sure. You could do Dean.”

“So when are you gonna give me a part like you promised?”

“I gave you a part in my last picture.”

“I was hardly more than an extra. I had three fucking lines, Sam.” He’d played a hotel bellhop, which meant he had to wear that stupid uniform with the ridiculous hat.

“Gotta start somewhere. James Dean didn’t start with top billing. And I made sure you were listed in the credits, didn’t I?”

Jack scowled. His character hadn’t even had a name. He was just “Bellhop.”

With a loud sigh, Sam leaned across the table and cupped Jack’s cheek in one palm. “I gave you a bigger part in this picture, didn’t I, Jacky?”

“Yeah, you did.” The movie was set in a high school, and Jack was cast as a leader of a rival gang. He wasn’t a star by any means, but he was in a half dozen scenes and had several pages of dialogue. And the character had a name—Mikey Collins. “And I appreciate it. It’s just….”

“You want big.” Sam chuckled and patted Jack’s cheek. “Give it time. You gotta have patience in this game.” He stood, scraping his chair noisily.

“I’m trying to be patient,” Jack said with a sigh.

“I know. So look. Take a few days here, make Doris feel young and glamorous. Keep her from going nuts by herself. Head back to town on Tuesday and I’ll take you out somewhere real nice for dinner, maybe buy you a couple new outfits. We start rolling on Thursday.”

“Okay. Thanks, Sam.”

Sam walked around the table and bent down to give Jack a long, deep kiss. He tasted like tobacco and whiskey. When he straightened up, he ruffled Jack’s hair. “See ya Tuesday, kid.”

Silver Bells by Hunter Raines
Jud lay on his back and stared at the faded figures on the painted ceiling. In the flickering candlelight, their eyes glistened with a mixture of judgment and pity. The first time he'd walked into the sacristy of the Holy Outpost church a decade ago, he hadn't even noticed the intricate artwork. Much later, when he'd learned that the place of his deepest agony also summoned his greatest desire, he'd seen the saints for the messengers they were.

Though their once vivid colors had grown dull and discolored over the decades since their creation, the painted saints' enigmatic frowns sprinkled comfort down from their lofty perch. As Jud's wait stretched from mere minutes to long, unbearable hours, they kept silent vigil alongside the spirits who served as his constant companions.

"He'll be here."

Anxiety hit Jud like a fist to the gut. The pastel-colored saints swirled and blurred in his field of vision. He blinked back the sting of panicked tears and glanced in the direction of a familiar Texas twang.

A nearly transparent cowboy perched on the wide, shallow edge of the sacristycredens cabinet where Father Chuck Keenan kept his vestments. A ten-gallon hat drooped over the ghost's right eyebrow, casting most of his ethereal features in shadow. He'd been handsome at one time. The slant of a chiseled jaw was unmistakable even through the filmy fog that now made up his form.

Despite his appearance, Neil Woods was no cowherd or ranch hand. Before his passing, he'd been a lieutenant with the Las Vegas Police Department. He'd also been Jud's first ghostly encounter, all those years ago. And his toughest case. A case Jud had yet to crack, despite working on getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Neil's death for nearly a decade.

"I know, Neil. But today feels different. I'm just not sure--" Jud bit off the rest of that sentence. Voicing his doubts would make them real, and he wasn't ready to accept that his lover wasn't coming.

"He always comes," Neil insisted.

Ten years. In all that time, Derek had never missed a Christmas encounter. He showed up at midnight, as though summoned to Jud's side by love itself.

Jud's body ached inside, hurt in places his agonized emotions had scraped raw. "What time is it?"

"Four in the morning," another ghost answered. This one sported an antique soldier's uniform. The gray frock coat hanging to the spirit's midthigh looked like something that might have been worn by the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, but Jud was no expert on American history. He'd have to ask the man for his story someday.

Not today, though. He was off duty.

Despite the half dozen spirits who flittered around the sacristy, today Jud didn't belong to them. They had him the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. On Christmas, he was Derek's.

Jud gritted his teeth and forced his breathing to slow to something resembling normal respiration. But the mounting panic wouldn't ease.

What if Derek didn't come? What if he never came again?

He sucked in oxygen through his nose and forced himself to let it out slowly through his mouth. Father Chuck had taught him that technique ten years earlier, after Jud had stumbled from the church in a sickened daze, the image of Derek's broken body flashing like something out of a horror movie against his eyelids each time he blinked.

He breathed in the cloying scents of hot wax, burning wicks, and incense. Somewhere else in the church, someone slammed a door. Father Chuck usually locked up around midnight, except during the month of December, when he left the main entrance unlatched around the clock. People who'd have otherwise spent the holidays with Jack Daniels, or gambling their last dime at some low-rate casino, turned to Father Chuck and the Holy Outpost instead. Some came to find peace. Others, to find acceptance.

Then there were those like him, who came to find someone.

Jud's eyes drifted closed. He wouldn't sleep; he couldn't sleep, not with the icy dread trickling through his veins, but he could rest a while and imagine all the things he'd do when Derek finally came to him.

Fantasizing about how they'd spend what little time they had together eased some of the apprehension coiling in his chest. His muscles relaxed a fraction, though his cock stirred as desire pooled low in his groin. He clung to the memories of Derek's strong, sinewy body, of his magical mouth, his wicked hands.

We'll be together again, soon. Very, very soon.

He still didn't know how Derek did it. In the last decade, Jud had been visited by thousands of ghosts. Tens of thousands. All of them came to him in their ethereal forms, as insubstantial and otherworldly as any supernatural being.

But not Derek. Death hadn't turned him translucent. He didn't float, or drift through walls. He also didn't shadow Jud at all hours of the day and night.

He came once a year: on Christmas Day. He arrived as fully corporeal as he'd been in life, and he never wanted to talk about anything but Jud. For twenty-four hours, it was like being reunited with a lover who'd been gone somewhere far away--like in outer space, maybe.

Sometimes he even told people his lover was an astronaut. It was sure as shit a lot easier than explaining he fucked a dead man every three hundred sixty-fifth day and remained celibate the rest of the time.

Hell, when he put it that way, the whole thing sounded preposterous, even to him. He might have believed he hallucinated the encounters, perhaps overwrought by grief on the anniversary of his lover's death, except that the ghosts saw Derek too. All right, so a bunch of spirits weren't exactly reliable authorities on the state of his mental health, but Father Chuck was. And he'd seen Derek too.

"What time is it now?" Jud asked no one in particular.

"Four fifteen. Still well before dawn. He'll be here."

Even Neil's low Texas drawl held a hint of doubt now. Funny, how ghosts could still lie to the living even once they had nothing to gain from the deception.

"You know men," a husky female voice said. "They like to keep you waiting so they can make a grand entrance. They want to be sure you're properly motivated to be grateful they showed up in the first place."

Jud didn't have to open his eyes. He remembered that voice, and he could picture the four-inch heels, the black tights, the deep V of her low-cut sweater. The ghost had a beehive of blonde hair that did more for her height than the shoes, completing the Jersey Girl look. Her eyes were rimmed with dark eyeliner and her eyelashes reached impossible lengths. In life, she must not have been one of those women content to strut what God gave her. Judging by the size of her ethereal tits, he'd bet his life savings that the word "natural" had never touched her lips.

A knock on the door saved him from having to answer. His heart leaped into his throat and he went from lying on the floor to standing upright in less than half a second. Even the spirits stopped their aimless drifting long enough to cast curious glances toward the door.

His world shrank, blanking out everything but that knock. Derek never knocked. He simply appeared, like something out of a fairy tale. One moment he wasn't there, then the next he was. Poof. Just like that. Prince Charming come from the beyond to fuck him senseless.


The door handle angled downward. Someone was clearly manipulating it from the other side, but damn, he was taking his sweet time about it. Maybe Jersey Girl had been right. Making an entrance, indeed.

Jud's pulse raced like accelerated thunder. He'd ached for this moment for so long. Each year seemed to grow lengthier, extending the time between Christmases, making the insufferable wait even more unbearable. And after the endless lonely months he'd been forced to endure, it was no wonder he was frazzled and antsy.

And horny. God, so very, very horny.

The door finally swung open. Jud took a step forward, then another. His knees wobbled, and he could barely think through the rush of euphoria cascading through his veins. Somehow, he managed to keep from staggering forward and throwing himself into the powerful arms awaiting him.

The candlelight flared brighter, casting a golden glow over the gap in the door. A shadow loomed there, dark and menacing and...tall.

Too tall. And too broad across the shoulders.

Jud squinted into the blackness. "Derek?" he asked, though every cell in his body told him otherwise.

The newcomer stepped inside the sacristy, and suddenly the room felt smaller. Jud backed up a step. The scent of ginger soap and coffee hit him first. Then, as the stranger stepped closer, the full impact of the man slammed into him, stealing his breath.

His first impression had been spot on. This guy was big, in a powerful, dangerous way. He wore a black T-shirt that molded over his firm chest. Strong, muscular arms stretched the sleeves to bursting. He had a rough-looking face, nothing like Derek's smooth, handsome features. His nose was slightly crooked, like it had been broken once--or maybe more than once. Full lips flattened into a serious line.

Despite the many other obvious differences, his eyes reminded Jud of Derek's. Dark and intense, they pinned him into place and seemed to look right through him.

A sharp jolt of awareness wrung an instant reaction from his neglected cock. His erection raged painfully against the seam of his zipper. Damn, but he needed Derek.

And he needed this man gone.

"You Jud Hess?" Even his voice was gruff, with a hint of something dark and elemental lingering beneath the ordinary words.

"Yeah. And you are?"

"Tyson..." He hesitated for a moment, then extended a large hand. "Ty Sullivan."

Instinctively, Jud slid his palm out and folded his fingers around Ty's hand. He realized his mistake as soon as their skin made contact and the hairs on his arm lifted as though tugged by waves of static electricity.

A sudden rush of heat pummeled Jud's groin. He set his jaw against it, but it was no use. Air slipped through his teeth in a hiss of raw need. He saw Ty's bottomless dark eyes grow round, while his lips parted in an "oh" of surprise.

Jud's entire body trembled. Lust hit with a force that shocked him, but he couldn't stop the potent rush of heat from blasting straight into his balls. Waves of pleasure took him sharply to the edge of control, so close he suddenly understood that if he didn't do something right this very moment, he'd lose the battle over his own body and shake this man's hand right into a wicked orgasm.

He jerked his hand out of Ty's grasp and wrenched himself away, stumbling backward. He would have kept moving if he didn't hit the wall at his back.

Ty made no attempt to follow. He, too, looked dazed, and his breath came in sharp, uneven pants.

They stared at each other from a safe distance, neither one willing to speak first.

"I hadn't realized..." Ty murmured after what seemed to Jud like the longest two minutes in human history. "You're...I can't believe...I mean, that was..."

Jud's emotions sizzled. A lightning storm of longing and confusion raged inside him. "What are you talking about?"

Ty lifted his head as though coming out of a trance. "You're a real person."

"Last I checked." He took a deep breath and fought to stay calm. "Look, I think you've got me confused with someone else. And this isn't a good time, anyway. Maybe we can talk about this...whatever it is, next week. Or next month. Make an appointment with my secretary. Come see me during office hours."

The man didn't need to know Jud hadn't had a secretary for over a decade. Or an office. Or anything resembling a real job.

Ty's voice lowered to a growl. "You don't understand. I need you."

Jud's gaze pinned him in place, and Ty was struck by the color of those enthralling eyes. Neither blue nor gray but a shade in between, as enigmatic and peculiar as the rest of the man. What was he doing here at this hour, anyway? Father Chuck had said that Jud always spent Christmas sealed inside the sacristy. Alone.

Ty gave himself a mental shake. It wasn't any of his business if this guy chose to spend his holiday atoning for a year's worth of sins, sleeping off a hangover, or praying to each saint, one by one, in Latin. The only thing that mattered was that he'd finally--finally--found someone who could free him from the curse he'd been living under for the past year.

"No. No way. You have no right to ask me for anything after barging in here like an inconsiderate prick!"

Jud's fury only served to fuel Ty's own barrage of emotions. "I knocked," he gritted out between clenched teeth. "And I didn't see a 'do not disturb' sign on the door."

"It's a church, not a hotel room."

"Right." Ty glanced at the candles splashing soft golden light against the religious artwork on the walls. A blanket and two pillows lay on the floor. A bottle of champagne sat in an ice bucket at the edge of the sacristycredens cabinet. "Maybe you're the one who needs to remember that."

A red stain crept up the column of Jud's throat and flooded his cheeks. He averted his gaze, and Ty took the opportunity to step forward.

Jud shifted his weight from one foot to another and darted a glance toward the door. Ty snorted. Damn if the guy wasn't gauging if he could make a run for it. God, but he looked like a startled deer. And Ty had never been a big, bad wolf.

Nor had he ever wanted to be one. Not until now. Yet standing just inches away from this man, his feelings raged out of control. The closer he got, the more muddled his thoughts became. He wanted to grab a fistful of Jud's shirt and shake the man until he promised to help him. He wanted to lean in and capture Jud's mouth, to ravish those full lips until he begged for mercy.

Most of all, he just wanted to touch.

His fingertips itched. On impulse alone, he reached out and splayed his palm against Jud's chest.

The shock that careened through him this time was nothing like the first intense jolt of lust. He'd experienced the raw scrape of bone-numbing need enough over the past twelve months to recognize a supernatural reaction when he felt one.

But this...this was different. The emotion that surged through his veins wasn't as much aimless lust as deep, desperate desire. The kind of fathomless longing that built and built when hopeless, intense worship turned into denied yearning.

If Ty had been caught off guard by the sensation, Jud looked utterly stunned. He paled and his pupils dilated, black seeping into the blue-gray of his eyes until Ty stared into a darkness as deep as night.

Jud's lips parted. A flash of tongue drew Ty's attention, and he found himself leaning in, desperate for a taste of that sultry mouth. Jud snarled a warning, his breath caressing Ty's lips. The warm, cinnamon-scented heat sent sizzles of unnatural erotic ferocity straight to the ever-growing hardness between Ty's legs.

"What are you doing?" Longing that sounded every bit as potent as the ache burning through Ty tinged Jud's hoarse voice.

"Proving a point." It took all of Ty's resolve to yank his hand away. When he did, he took two deliberate paces backward, putting some much needed distance between them.

Jud shook his head. "I don't understand. What just happened?"

"You, my new friend, just experienced what I've been living with for a year."

A moment of silence stretched into two. Jud ran a hand through his disheveled brown hair, tugging some of the stray strands low over his forehead. "You feel that every time you touch someone?"

The laugh that escaped Ty's lips held nothing but resentment. "No. Actually, tonight's the first time it happened when I touched a real person."

Jud gave him a once-over, clearly skeptical. "So why me?"

"Hell if I know. But until five minutes ago, I'd only gotten that jolt from touching things. A chair, some old curtains, a Christmas tree ornament, the damn window in my apartment...random stuff."

Jud cast a suspicious frown at him, but finally abandoned the sanctuary of the wall at his back, stepped around the blanket, and emerged into the center of the sacristy. Candles cast golden highlights across the dark blue T-shirt molded to his lean, willowy frame. Worn jeans hung low on his hips, held up by a frayed leather belt that had seen better days. A silver belt buckle with a bell embossed on it drew Ty's attention down.

Down to where it had no business going.

His gaze locked on to the bulge at the apex of Jud's thighs. The man was hard as a lead pipe and just as thick. His own cock gave an answering throb and lengthened, pressing against the seam of his jeans.

"I still don't get what this has to do with me."

Ty jerked his head up. Heat rushed into his cheeks, but Jud didn't seem to notice his momentary loss of concentration.

"Yeah, well, that's what you and I are going to find out."

Jud's long lashes shaded his eyes for a fraction of a second before he turned away to stare at a tall bookshelf that held a series of leather-bound journals. Church records, most likely. "I think you should leave."

Shit. Jud couldn't turn him away. Not after all the effort Ty had put into tracking him down. He'd have to lay all his cards on the table. Even the ones that would make him sound insane.

"I have a ghost," Ty blurted out.

"Congratulations." Jud lifted a hand and waved it aimlessly in the air. "Join the club."

Relief sucked the breath out of Ty like a vacuum. At least Jud believed him. He'd thought convincing the man he wasn't a nutcase would be the hard part in all of this, but Jud didn't seem to need any persuading at all.

Ty cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, whether you're aware of it or not, most folks don't have this problem."

Jud lifted a shoulder, but didn't turn around. His raised arm dropped back to his side. "You get used to it."

"Not a chance in hell. That's the reason I'm here. I don't want to get used to it. I want it gone."

"Then hire an exorcist. Father Chuck can give you some excellent recommendations."

"I tried that. Didn't work. In fact, it made things worse. Look, the damn thing's made my life a living nightmare. Either I find a way to get it away from me, or I lose my mind. Three guesses which one I'd rather have happen and you won't need two."

"Even if I could help," Jud said, tracing a fingertip along the spine of a journal, "this isn't a good time. I'm in the middle of something."

Ty glanced around him at the empty sacristy. Annoyance swelled in his gut. Over the past twelve months, he'd tried everything he could think of: Wiccan house cleansings, exorcisms, new age rituals that used rat blood, rabbit fur, pigeon claws, and other ingredients he'd rather never think about again.

And after all that...nothing. His houseguest remained. As did Ty's unbearable reaction to random inanimate objects. Since he'd never as much as gotten a stiffie from a Christmas ornament before the ghost showed up--much less ride out an orgasm that left him shaking and in need of clean underwear--he could put two and two together well enough to determine that if he could just rid himself of the evil spirit, he could go back to having a normal life.

And Jud Hess was the answer to doing both.

Until a few days ago, Ty had just about given up on finding someone who could rid him of his maddening problems. And then he'd found a copy of the Vegas Times on his doorstep. Which was strange, because he didn't subscribe. That day's lead story focused on the corporate attorney-turned-medium who'd solved his fifteenth cold case this year by doing nothing more scientific than communicating with spirits.

Unwilling to ignore anyone who could potentially help him, Ty had set to tracking him down. Finding the man hadn't been easy, but he'd managed. And now here he was, so close to peace he could almost taste the normalcy of an ordinary life.

"I hate to break it to you, pal, but your bizarre Christmas ritual ain't that important. I don't care if you're sacrificing virgins in here. It can wait."

Jud whirled around and pounced on him with a speed Ty hadn't expected. The man stopped himself just short of grabbing Ty by the collar of his shirt; no doubt remembering what happened the last time they touched. His fingers hovered in the air, an inch away from Ty's chest. Even at that distance, Ty's skin practically hummed a proximity warning.

"I'm waiting for someone." Jud's mouth twisted into a menacing sneer, and he dropped his hand. "You wouldn't understand."

"Oh, I understand just fine." Ty forced a casualness he didn't feel into his words. "I understand loverboy ain't coming."

Jud made a noise in the back of his throat. Mournful and grief-stricken, that low keening sound communicated more than words could have said. And it made Ty's gut wrench.

He'd kicked a puppy once, by mistake, when he was six. He still remembered the animal's startled wail, the way the tiny creature curled around itself in agony. And he remembered how rotten he'd felt, how malicious, even unintentionally.

This felt worse.

Jud didn't have to ask him to leave a second time. With a mumbled apology that sounded idiotic even as the words slipped past his lips, Ty turned and headed for the sacristy door.

It slammed behind him with a thud that echoed through his bloodstream. He sucked in a breath, shook his head, and waited for the swelling in his groin to ease. Now that he was outside Jud's immediate proximity, the raw, desperate hunger had to lessen.

When it became clear that the sizzling in his veins had no intention of diminishing on its own, Ty cursed, loud and vehement. Then he crossed himself, murmured a second apology in just as many minutes, and staggered down the church steps.

Author Bios:
Charlie Cochet
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!

T.J. Klune
When TJ Klune was eight, he picked up a pen and paper and began to write his first story (which turned out to be his own sweeping epic version of the video game Super Metroid—he didn't think the game ended very well and wanted to offer his own take on it. He never heard back from the video game company, much to his chagrin). Now, two decades later, the cast of characters in his head have only gotten louder, wondering why he has to go to work as a claims examiner for an insurance company during the day when he could just stay home and write.

He lives with a neurotic cat in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s hot there, but he doesn’t mind. He dreams about one day standing at Stonehenge, just so he can say he did.

Meg Bawden
Meg Bawden was born and raised in North Queensland, Australia. She’s loved stories since before she can remember and has always enjoyed creating characters of her own, even if it did begin with drawing faces on toilet rolls and giving them names. Writing has always been a passion of hers and she’s loved the M/M genre since 2004, the first book she read being Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez.

Writing M/M since 2007, Meg has never had the confidence to attempt publishing her own stories, but in 2015, she decided that it was all about to change thanks to the amazing friends she’s made in the M/M genre and their support and encouragement. So watch out, world, Meg Bawden is coming out to have some fun!

Kim Fielding
I have lived in Illinois, Oregon, Nebraska, and Croatia, but for a long time now I've called the boring part of California home. I have a husband, two daughters, a day job as a university professor, and a passion for travel. I write in many genres--contemporary, fantasy, paranormal, historical--but no matter when and where my stories are set, I love complex worlds and complicated characters. I think that often it's a person's flaws that make him stronger and more beautiful.

Hunter Raines
Hunter Raines leads a double life. By day, she works in a male-dominated environment as a professional proposal writer responsible for securing multi-million-dollar accounts. By night, she pens naughty tales of hunky men doing wonderfully sexy things to each other. Her coworkers think they're the source of her inspiration, and she doesn't have the heart to tell them otherwise.

Hunter is the author of numerous short stories and novellas, and she holds an Honors B.A. in English Literature. When she's not working or writing, she can be found curled up in her library of more than four thousand books, or playing video games with her husband.

Charlie Cochet

TJ Klune

Meg Bawden

Kim Fielding

Hunter Raines
ARe  /  AUBILBE  /  KOBO  /  B&N

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