Prologue The music pounded its way into Eric’s ears and chest. Each thud of the deep bass reverberated through his ribs and vibrated out his fingers. The sound overpowered even the background rumble of too many shouted conversations. He sat at the far end of the bar, perched precariously on the small stool, and watched the crowd with alcohol-dazed eyes. He’d had too much to drink. Again. Once upon a time his brother Keith would have been mad and given him yet another lecture on his irresponsible behavior. Eric grimaced and stared at the writhing bodies that filled the tiny dance floor. Once upon a time only happened in fairy tales. The flashes from the overhead lights were disorientating, the brilliant bursts of light painful and blinding as they cut through the dimness and seared across his vision. Eric swayed rhythmically as he tried to follow the flickering colors that kept time with the driving beat. This was a mistake. He should have gone home once he left the cemetery. No, Eric corrected himself. Not home, the tiny apartment could never be home. He didn’t have one anymore. He had to face that every time he stood before the graves of his father and brother. Everything and everyone that had given his life meaning were gone, and there was nothing waiting for him but the empty and accusing silence. Eric lifted his drink and brought it to his lips. Wetness splashed along his neck; he fumbled before he gave up and watched the glass hit the tiled floor beneath his feet and shatter. Whatever liquid hadn’t spilled down his shirtfront sprayed out in slowed motion onto the legs of those nearest to him. No one noticed. He slipped off the stool and braced himself with a hand on the wet surface of the bar. What would happen if he gave voice to the turmoil and pain inside him? Would the crowd turn and stare if he let loose and started screaming? Eric wanted to laugh, but he was afraid he’d start to cry instead. Christ, there was nothing worse than a maudlin drunk. A hand gripped his arm. The tight grasp steadied him. Eric stared down, and his focus sharpened, allowing him to see the DayGlo bar stamp on the back. The fingers were broad; thick, untrimmed cuticles hid the white half-moon. Eric peered through the fog of alcohol and tried to see the face of the man who held him, but all Eric could distinguish between the flashes of light and dark were the thin lips that moved with a question it didn’t matter if he heard. The hand pulled. It tugged Eric toward the back exit. Eric looked at the mess he had left on the bar. Shreds of napkin and empty glasses surrounded the small pile of change that floated in the puddle of booze he had spilled. With a tiny measure of clarity Eric knew once again he had a choice. He could go along with the insistent hand and its owner in search of a brief moment of oblivion, or he could go home. Alone. The alley behind the bar was a dark space, a void both black and fetid. Trash pickup was still days away, and the narrow area was filled with the ripening odors of rotting food and stale beer trapped within the brick walls, unable to escape into the atmosphere. Overtop of it all lay the sharp, acrid smell of urine. It couldn’t be called romantic by any stretch of imagination, but then, romance wasn’t what Eric was looking for. He turned his face to the side when the thin lips sought his. “Come on, don’t be shy.” The voice panted into Eric’s ear, ragged with a mixture of lust and adrenaline that was palpable. The man stank of it almost as much as he stank of beer and sour sweat. Eric didn’t struggle or protest as his pants were unzipped, and the now familiar-hand ran over the bared skin of his ass in a token caress. The handle of the trash can lid pressed uncomfortably into his stomach as Eric’s pliant body was spun around, bent, and held still. Any more force and he would have vomited. Eric didn’t want that. He needed to keep the alcohol he had consumed in his system. It was cheap anesthetic for life’s pain. His arms dropped down by the metal sides of the can, and his knuckles brushed against the gritty pavement. Gravity strained his shoulders and forced his head further down. Eric grunted as his head spun with the sudden rush of blood. Eric could hear the voice of the man standing behind him; the rough exclamations of anticipation and want. He needed the noise. It was the only thing he had found that would block out the voices in his head. A perfunctory prep and then Eric arched upward at the overwhelming sensation, the dry scraping pain. He could feel the excitement of the stranger increase with the illicitness of the act. Eric just welcomed the burn and closed his eyes. That was his mistake. Without the external stimulation he was trapped in his head, held captive by his memories and falling into them with nothing to keep him safe. The sounds around him blended, merging with the voices in his head, and despite his efforts to stay present, to stay connected to the pain of the stranger’s rough embrace, Eric felt himself slipping away until he was back in the courtroom listening to noise of the crowd behind him as he watched the Family Court Arbitration Team file back in. It should have been quieter in the courtroom, shouldn’t it? Even after all this time the question still wore on Eric. Shouldn’t moments that held such momentous sway in a person’s life occur in an atmosphere of quiet and somber dignity? But that wasn’t the case. To most it might have only been deemed background noise, but to Eric it was a constant din he couldn’t block out no matter how he tried. It rose and fell; an ocean of words, swells of conversation that he couldn’t ride out, that had no place in this moment. It went on and on, sweeping over him until he couldn’t focus on anything else, until he just wanted to scream for it stop. But he didn’t. The door to the bar’s kitchen opened, allowing a narrow band of light to shine into the alley. Eric could hear the music spill out from the bar before whoever opened the door finished their cigarette, threw the butt on the ground, and headed back inside. The smell of the smoke lingered, momentarily masking everything else. It was difficult to believe the majority of court proceedings, including this case dealing with a minor, were open to the public. Harder still to believe just how many observers showed up for the free entertainment. Bread and circuses, Eric thought with disgust. There was a sudden burst of music behind him, some song he didn’t recognize. Cell phones were supposed to be turned off, but there always had to be one asshole in the crowd. He tried not to fidget, tried to keep his hands flat on the surface of the wood table he was seated behind no matter how much they trembled. He hadn’t thought it would be so much like the movies. But it was. Even the courtroom was pretty much a copy of what he would expect to see on some cheesy television movie of the week or sitcom. Except this wasn’t funny, and Eric wasn’t laughing. He still couldn’t believe this was happening. His dick ground painfully into the cold metal of the lid beneath him. Eric wasn’t hard; this wasn’t about his getting off. He let the filth of the alley, the emptiness of the moment seep into him. Was it too much to hope it would finally replace the pain? He had tried before, but it was never enough. Surely he could forget now. Surely he could finally stop thinking about anything but right here and now. Bonnie was seated in the row behind him. She and her new husband. Sara wasn’t anywhere to be seen. They wouldn’t let her come. They wouldn’t let him see her even this last time. Unable to help himself, Eric twisted in his seat, looking behind him for his sister-in-law. Ex-sister-in-law, he guessed was the more appropriate term. She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t meet his pleading eyes. She just sat huddled next to her new husband and cried softly into her handful of tissues. This was tearing her apart. That’s what she had told him when he had managed to corner her in the hallway outside the courtroom. What the fuck did she think it was doing to him? McMasters glared at him from her side. Excuse me, Eric thought bitterly. The Reverend McMasters. And there, as they say, was the rub. Eric knew that the good Reverend had instigated all of this, this entire sideshow. He had even warned Eric and told him what he would do, but Eric didn’t believe him, didn’t think he could really get away with it in this day and age. Eric had been wrong. He didn’t look up, didn’t try to respond to the hand as it groped between his legs and gave him a half-hearted squeeze. This wasn’t about forming a connection. Finally the stranger gave up and concentrated on his own ragged thrusts, his innate desire to dominate fueled by the alcohol he had consumed and the unexpected opportunity for casual cruelty Eric laid before him. His lawyer nudged him, trying to get his attention to turn him back to the front of the courtroom, but Eric was held fast, stunned by the look of triumphant hatred directed at him from the bench that housed the Reverend and several of his uncharitable flock. Eric still couldn’t believe it was nothing more than his very existence that incurred such enmity. Finally Eric allowed the lawyer to turn him around. The man spoke into his ear, words low and sharp, words that he didn’t hear and wouldn’t understand even if he had. Eric ran his finger around the collar of his shirt and tried not to notice how heavily he was sweating. So much was riding on this decision. The ruling of these strangers could change his whole life and everything that had given it meaning since the death of his father and brother. After the accident, Eric’s lifestyle, as it was now being called, hadn’t mattered to anyone. Bonnie had been devastated. Without Keith she had crumbled. Eric had done what he thought was right and stepped in to take care of the family he had left. Unspoken was the knowledge that it was the only thing keeping Eric from crumbling as well. It was one of life’s sad little ironies that it took his father’s and brother’s deaths to make Eric attempt to assume the mantle of responsibility they had always wanted him to wear. It would seem that sorrow and guilt were more powerful motivators than all the poking and prodding they had done when they were alive. Moving his new lover of only few weeks out and the pregnant Bonnie in had seemed like the right thing to do. She and his unborn niece were all Eric had left of his brother. At the time, Bonnie had been grateful for the support, both emotional and financial, that Eric provided. It was left unstated that she expected nothing less. It had taken time, but gradually they had been able to function again. Eric and his sister-in-law had never cared for one another, but that didn’t matter now. They could pretend to be a family, and now his niece Sara was at the center of Eric’s heart. God, but she looked so much like Keith. She had his dark eyes and his obstinate manner. Eric loved her on sight. Did it make any difference that deep down Eric had viewed this as his only chance to make things right? A way to move past the conflict that had always tarnished his relationship with his big brother? A way to change those things that couldn’t now be undone? “God damn, you’re tight.” Eric could feel the stickiness run down his inner thigh as it was pushed out by the repetitive movements to join whatever rank fluids already coated the ground on the alley. God, he wanted to puke. He choked as the metal handle dug into his stomach once again, and the alcohol swirled in his gut. But the pain wasn’t enough to block out his memories, and moisture leaked from the corner of his eyes as he wondered what it would take before he could finally forget. When Bonnie had first started dating it had been difficult. There was something about her, some incandescent spark that drew men to her. It was what attracted Keith, and Eric could only view her sharing it with another as a betrayal of his brother. Despite his feelings, Eric babysat for Sara like always, unwilling to let some stranger spend the time with her. That was when the arguments had started. The yelling. Bonnie was still a young woman; she wasn’t the type to spend her time alone. That was her favorite refrain. She deserved to move on with her life even if Eric was content to stay buried in the past. Eric didn’t agree, but then, he didn’t have to. He had no legal standing in Sara’s life. Bonnie held the winning hand. At least until Bonnie had become engaged to the Reverend. He was handsome, with blond hair and a husky physique that hinted at his days of college football. A stable man, he was the direct opposite of Bonnie and her need for excitement, and Eric couldn’t understand their connection. Even though Thomas McMasters seemed to ground Eric’s flighty sister-in-law, Eric could only wonder about what Bonnie was thinking. Eric didn’t even know how they had met. A widower himself, the Reverend had moved slowly, giving Bonnie the time she had said she needed to adjust and get used to his ways. It was only later that Eric understood that not only was McMasters a wealthy man, but that Bonnie was playing a part, seeing herself through McMasters’ eyes as the grieving widow and visualizing herself as his calm and capable helpmate, respected and loved by his welcoming congregation. Perhaps it was that promise of an outpouring of unconditional love and respect that swayed her. Things hadn’t changed for Eric until Bonnie had acknowledged to the Reverend that her brother-in-law, the man she lived with who had practically raised her daughter, was bisexual with a stronger preference for the male of the species. Bonnie had never been able to understand that gender characteristics were less important to Eric than the emotional connection, and he could only wonder what she had told her fiancé. Hell, Eric still didn’t know how his sexuality had even come up; but apparently it did. And hadn’t things gone to hell in a hand basket then? The campaign against Eric had started just as slowly as the courtship did. “Insidious” was the word Eric used to describe it to his lawyer. There was nothing overt at first, nothing too obvious during the engagement. Even the wedding had gone smoothly enough. But afterward, once they were married and Bonnie and Sara moved from Eric’s house into the McMasters’ household, well, things had certainly changed then. Suddenly Eric’s phone calls weren’t returned, his messages were lost, and his calls dropped. Eric’s visits with Sara became few and far between. How could he argue when she was playing with friends, having fun and being a kid? Bonnie had demanded. Was he really that selfish? Eric had heard it all. Before he had realized it, he had become an outsider in his niece’s life. Perhaps Eric could have handled things differently. Maybe given time there would have been some common ground he and the Reverend could have found. Honestly, if Eric really would have believed things were this serious, he might even have gone out and found himself a girlfriend to smooth things over. But he had been hurt and angry, lost without Keith as his voice of reason, and now it was too late for any of that. Here he was with two restraining orders against him and this hearing in Family Court to decide his right to see his own niece. Eric felt chilled. They were taking Keith’s daughter away from him. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. “All rise.” Eric heard the words, but they were distorted, the syllables drawn out and indecipherable. His lawyer nudged him, finally taking him by the arm and pulling him upright when he didn’t respond. Someone else was talking. Was it the arbitrator? The Family Court therapist? Did it even matter? A drop of sweat rolled down the pale and pimpled forehead of the lawyer who stood beside him. Not a good sign. Maybe that’s something else he should have done differently. Would a better lawyer have helped? Eric had been forced to sell his house to hire this one, and even then he still owed him money. Money he didn’t have. More words. Should he be paying attention? “Based on the claims presented by the minor child’s mother and adoptive father, the Court feels that it will be in the child’s best interest not to be exposed to the confusion and chaos of the defendant’s alternative lifestyle.” Were they really talking about him? Eric wanted to laugh. What kind of alternative lifestyle had he been able to have in the past several years while raising an infant? People talked about the problems single mothers had trying to get a date; they had no clue what it was like trying to find a man willing to come over and wait until he could get Sara down for the night. Suddenly the flow of words was interrupted by a low noise; Eric thought it was a groan. Was someone hurt? He wanted to look around, but he was trembling too much; legs and arms suddenly awkward and uncoordinated. He was going to be sore tomorrow. Eric knew that. His body felt bruised. This guy had been a biter, and even now his shoulder stung. It would take time for his body to heal. But heal it would. It always did. He couldn’t say as much for the rest of him. It was only when the words burst out of his mouth that Eric realized the noise had come from him. It was the sound of his heart breaking. “No!” Eric yelled. “You can’t do this. Bonnie!” He turned to the seats behind him, searching for Sara’s mother. “Bonnie, please!” There was no pride left as he pleaded. “She’s all that’s left of Keith. You can’t take her away from me. You can’t.” Bonnie was crying harder now, and he tried to go over to her, to talk to her, to make her understand, but there were hands pulling at his arms and then an arm around his neck, choking him, cutting off his air and his ability to speak. “Don’t be foolish!” his lawyer hissed in his ear. “You’re only making things worse.” The rest was a blur. Voices. Hands. Confusion swirled around him. His lawyer tried to get him to sit back down, brushing away the court officers and pushing him behind the table once again. The flow of words continued to roll over him, pulling him under; drowning him beneath their weight, but Eric wasn’t listening anymore. The sound of the gavel was loud and decisive, but he couldn’t hear it. “Hey, man. You okay?” Rough hands pulled Eric off the trash can, rolling him onto the ground. He lay there motionless, uncaring of his disheveled state, just another piece of discarded garbage in the alley. It hadn’t worked. His brain wouldn’t shut off. He couldn’t manage to forget no matter how he tried. “Come on, snap out of it.” Rough hands slapped at his face. But they may as well have been smoke ghosting over him for all the impression they made. The distance between reality and the small, quiet space he had retreated to in his mind had become too great to cross. Eric didn’t move. He could hear the footsteps as they hurried away; later the shrill sound of the sirens after he was found. But he couldn’t respond. He was lost inside his head, too busy trying to explain to the ghost of his dead brother how he had fucked things up once again.