Prologue

 

“IT’S CRACKED,” Cypress whispered, “right down the center.”

Sort of like him. Sort of like everyone.

“I want to fix it, patch it, but I’m frightened to.” Cypress took a deep breath, held it for a second, waiting for something to happen, but it didn’t. He let it out, knowing he was going to be laughed at.

The laughter never came, so he went on. “If I use slip, it might survive, but what if I get the consistency wrong?”

He could hear the sigh behind him.

“I know, I know, you’re right. I’ve nothing to lose. Nothing at all.”

The silence reigned, and he rolled his head on his neck. “I wish you were a little more forthcoming sometimes. I’m lonely.”

He held the pieces in his hands. Sometimes you couldn’t mend what was broken. Sometimes you simply had to start again.

“Who are you talking to, Cy?” Josh came into the studio, a spark of life and color. “I’ve been hunting you. I want to go play.”

“Play?” He placed the pieces in a shallow crate on his workbench.

“I’m bored. Come out with me. Let’s bubble and invent something wonderful.” Josh took his hand, kissed the corner of his mouth. “Please.”

“Sure.” Bubbles were always good. He had Josh to thank for the hot tub, anyway.

He walked outside, the sun like a spotlight, burning away the ghost of his Lonan. The two of them were like planets in orbit. Passing but never touching.

He stretched, feeling his bones loosen up.

“There you are. I’ve missed you.”

Cypress blinked at Josh. “Where have I been?”

“In your head.” And Josh got that, he knew.

“Ah. Sorry.” They muscled the cover off the hot tub, then fired up the bubbles. “What do you want to drink?”

“I brought strawberry banana smoothies.”

“Nice.” He did like a nice fruity smoothie, and Josh had learned all these recipes from his friend Zack, who was a personal trainer.

He pushed away the thought of the crate with the broken pieces. He’d explore that later. Maybe he’d fix it; maybe he wouldn’t.

Maybe it would return to the earth.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

ZACK SAT in the dark, glad he’d finally remembered to plug in his phone. It had been dead for two days while he searched for a charger.

His place was kind of a wreck.

He dialed a familiar number first, then hit the red button. No. That number was out of service. Okay. He’d meant to call Josh anyway.

Zack found the favorites and hit Josh’s name.

It rang and rang, and he almost hung up, but then he heard a breathless “Hello? Zack? Man, hey!”

“Hey. Are you busy?” Was that his voice? It was raw, as if he hadn’t used it in weeks.

“Never. What’s wrong?”

“I—” He swallowed hard. The program emphasized communication. Asking for help. He was good at this shit. “I need help, Josh.”

“Yes.”

He sat there, the pain in the center of his gut so big that tears prickled his eyes. Josh was a good man. A good friend. No questions. Just yes.

“I’m kinda stuck.”

“Stuck? Stuck how?”

He took a deep breath, noticing how shaky it was when he let it out. “Well. I’m at home. But I’m out of food. And laundry. Kinda everything.”

“Okay…. Do you need money? I can PayPal you or wire you some right now.”

“No. No, I’ve got some savings. I just…. I can’t leave.”

“I don’t understand.” A bottle opened, fizz sparking through the phone. “Start at the beginning, buddy. Start at the top.”

“I’m in crisis, Josh. Super-duper.” There. He’d said it. “If I go to the store, I’ll slip.”

“Okay. I can be there… it’s what? Noon? I’ll be there by the small hours, okay? I swear. Can you hold out that long?”

“I think so. I’m so sorry.” He lost his voice there for a moment, the tears so close to the surface.

“Don’t. Don’t. Talk to me.” A door opened, Josh barking out, “Kris! I need you!”

“I am…. I swear, I’m just sitting right here. I don’t know what else to do.”

“Good. You talk to me. We’re going to come. You’re going to love Kris’s new truck. It’s fancy. I love it.”

“Is it? I could maybe order pizza. I didn’t think of that. And a two liter.” Just talking to Josh was easing his panic.

“Oh, that’s cool. You can even do that online. Pizza rolls from Austin’s. Those are the best.”

“I can. I can do that. It, well, I’ll tell you all about it in person. Okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t have anyone else to call.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. Seriously. You know you’re my friend, man. More than that. We’re in this together.”

“I know. I know. But you’re not in Austin anymore, and I tried to go it alone. I did.” He was breathing hard now, panic pushing in.

“I’m next door to Texas, man. Right next door. You ordered them pizza rolls yet?”

“No.” He reached for his laptop, then opened it. “Right. Pizza rolls. Ranch. Two liter of Dr Pepper, right?”

“Yeah, meal of champions, man. You remember when we would have that and watch the world’s worst movies? DodgeBallRepo Man?”

“The entire Scary Movie franchise. How’s your art?” He wanted to keep Josh talking so he didn’t have to.

“I’ve been painting like my ass is on fire. I’m taking a sabbatical right now.”

“Are you? So I’m not killing the artistic flow?”

“I am. Kris and I were talking about heading down that way, so now we have an excuse.”

“Oh, well, that’s good.” Zack hoped it wasn’t a lie, but he was selfish enough not to care too much.

“It’s not a lie. I miss your face. I need to see you.”

“I’m good with that. I am. I ordered pizza rolls.”

“Cool. I love you, man. I’m coming.”

“I know. Thank you. You always have my back.” Not like Ray. Not a bit like that bastard Ray.

“Forever. I swear to God. You know, we ought to go up to Taos; they have great pizza there.”

“I do love good pizza.” He was a personal trainer, but Zack believed in the eighty/twenty rule. Eighty percent of the time he ate baked chicken and steamed broccoli. The other twenty, he ate pizza and drank Coke.

“Me too. I went out with Cy the other day, and we ate Navajo tacos. You would have loved them.”

“Good salsa? We should get tacos while you’re here.”

“Mostly ground-up chile with water, but it’s okay. You know I love tacos.”

“I know. I love veggie nachos.”

“We’ll have both. Kris will want chimichangas.”

“With queso.” He felt so normal for a moment, so real.

“God yes. You, me, Kris, and… can we have guac too?”

“I hear the guac up there is good.”

“Delicious, but you know how I feel about Kerbey queso.”

“I do. God, now I really am hungry. I’m glad you made me order food.” His shoulders were relaxing inch by inch, but they were sore from being so tense.

“I know, right? Now you have food before we get there, and we’ll feed you when we show.” Josh’s care and friendship wrapped around him like a hug.

Hell, he might sleep if he ate and his stomach stopped growling. “Thank you, Josh. I mean it.”

“You’re welcome. Whatever it is, you’re not alone.”

“I know. I do. Now.” He took a deep breath, then another. “Can I call again? After I eat?”

“You can. I have the car charger. I’m coming, Zack. I’m on the way.”

“I’ll be here. Not going anywhere.” Possibly ever again.

“I love you, man. Wait for me. Call me whenever.”

“Okay.” He felt brave as fuck when he hung up, but he had to pee before the food came, and maybe find a clean plate. “Love you too.”

He had already headed to the bathroom before he realized Josh hadn’t heard him.

So Zack texted the words, just so Josh didn’t think he was doing anything drastic.

It was going to be okay, and if it wasn’t, friends were on the way.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

CIMARRON DURAN frowned out his dining room window. Kris Cerny wasn’t supposed to come over until Thursday at seven. They’d sit on the porch, drink three beers each, and chat till ten.

Three thirteen in the afternoon on a Tuesday was not right.

He checked the kitchen, just to make sure it was clean. He hated having people over when things were a mess.

Maria was on it, though, the morning’s coffee cup gone.

He grabbed his hat and headed out of the house, the sun beating down and bleaching the world out. Something had to be wrong.

“One of my bulls get out?”

“No.” Kris stepped out of his truck and came to stand on the steps. “No, I need a favor, man.”

“Absolutely.” Cerny was more than a neighbor; he was a buddy.

“Well, wait until you hear what I need.” Cerny grinned, though, looking pleased. “I have to run to Austin for at least a few days. You think you and your folks could handle the feeding and dogs for a few?”

“Absolutely. Come on in, and I’ll write down the particulars. Your daddy okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, this is a friend of Josh’s. He’s in a bad way, I think.”

“I’m sorry. That sucks. You want a cup of coffee or anything?”

“If you don’t mind. I can’t stay too long, but Josh is running around packing, and I needed a moment.”

“Sure. Have a sit.” He started the coffee maker, got two cups out.

“Thanks.” Cerny doffed his hat, then sat.

He fixed the first cup of coffee, started the second, then took Cerny his coffee and a pad of paper and a pen. “Black, yes?”

“Please.” Kris smiled, his eyes tired. “Zack is a good guy. I just didn’t expect to have to leave today.”

“No worries. Write down anything special. I know the basics, so does Joe.”

“Sure. The only big thing is the vet is coming out tomorrow to look at Maisy.” Cerny began to scribble.

“Her hooves? You use Doc Grath?”

“I do. I had the farrier out last week, and he wanted Doc to have a look. This is a follow-up.”

“No problem. Just say what time. Joe can go.” There wasn’t a better ranch manager in the business. Privately, Cimarron thought Kris could use one, but that was none of his.

Kris seemed to like to play cowboy. Gentleman cowboy, but still.

“Thanks.” Kris made a few more notes. “I really appreciate it.”

“Shit, man. We’re neighbors.” He had been pissed as hell when someone had bought the Gonzagos place, but now? Kris and his little bizarre artist husband were family.

“We are.” Kris sipped his coffee. “Lord. Austin. When did I stop thinking that was home?”

“When you had to sink all that money into fence.” He knew the answer to that because that was when he’d started spending Fridays with Kris. They shared a property line on a shit-ton of acreage.

Kris gave him a faint smile. “I guess so. You get that much put into a place, it becomes yours.”

“Yessir. You cool, man?” Was it serious? Was someone dying?

“I don’t know. I’m gonna be selfish a minute, okay?”

He grabbed his cup, turned a chair around, and straddled it. “Shoot.”

“Zack is Josh’s AA sponsor. If something is really wrong, it involves alcohol and drama, and Josh doesn’t need that right now.”

“Oh man.” He knew that Josh had been working his ass off and that Kris was over the moon at the idea of a sabbatical, of time with the two of them and the dogs.

“Yeah. So I’m kinda dreading this.”

“Is the guy sick or…?” Was he just deeply fucked-up? He knew lots of alcoholics and a few drunks, and he knew that booze and fucked-up was a usual, but not an absolute, sort of deal.

“I have no idea. Zack has always been super Zen. Totally in control.”

“Ah.” That made it worse somehow, he’d bet.

“Anyway, thanks so much for watching out for me.”

“You know it’s no problem. You sure you have to go?” He didn’t want to seem cold, but Christ, Kris and Josh deserved their life.

“Yeah. Zack did Josh any number of solids while he was recovering. We really do.” Kris drained the rest of his coffee. “Okay, that should be all of it.”

“You got my number, right? You can call. Text or whatever.”

“Yeah?” Cerny gave him a grateful look. “Thanks. I hate to interrupt your day.”

“I can cope. Seriously.” He hadn’t had a good friend in a long time, and he enjoyed both Kris and Josh.

“Okay.” Kris sighed, then rose. “I best get going.”

“Don’t you worry. I got your back.”

Kris gave him a half hug. “I owe you one. I’ll check in.”

“Yessir. You be careful on the road.” That was a hard drive, starting out in the afternoon.

Kris waved and nodded, then headed down the steps back to his truck.

Cimarron picked up the coffee cups, washed them, then looked at the clock. Time to put in an hour in the studio before his meeting with Joe.

He spared one more look at the dust as Kris left. “Safe travels, buddy.”

He headed into the studio, locked the door behind him, set a timer, and started to look through his photos. He needed inspiration. Eventually he’d find it.