Chapter One




Six months ago:


“YOU have one new message. Message sent at 6:43 a.m.”


“Morning, mijo. Yes, I know, it’s nearly seven and you’re not even awake yet, but I’ve been up all night trying to think of a way to tell you what I need to tell you.

“Remember when I told you I was napping more and more lately, feeling all tired and run down, and we thought maybe I caught the flu from one of the patients? Well, I finally got to the doctor, and I had some tests run. Something about being safer than sorry or some shit. I’m not even sixty yet, and I’m getting treated like an old woman. Can you believe it?

“There’s no nice way to put this, boy, so here goes: your Mama’s liver is a little fucked up. Biopsy says that it’s cirrhosis. Have I ever told you how not fun it is to attend a biopsy? It’s not so much fun receiving one either.

“Don’t you dare try to call me right now. I’m also not flying your ass to Peru to baby me so don’t even think about it. Just listen to me. I won’t answer any calls until tomorrow, and I mean it, boy. Just. Listen.

“We caught it early, and I should be able to finish the contract before I go into serious treatment. I’ll be staying in Peru until it’s safe for me to travel. We don’t know the cause for it yet. It could be the drinking biting me in the ass after all. It could be a lot of other things. We know it’s not any of the alphabet hepatitis, since I got my boosters a year ago. Are you current on your jabs? You should check up on that. Grab the HPV one as well, and don’t ‘aww Mama’ me. If you need the cash to cover it, I’ll wire some to you. No argument.

“How are you on condoms? Need to get more? Wait, never mind, you’re not sixteen anymore. You can buy your own. And you better be.

“And about your health, here is why I wanted to speak to your voice mail instead of you, because the voice mail interrupts me less. This… I want you to… God, mijo, I would be lying if I am not a little scared, but not for me. I am scared for you. I know, you’re grown and taking care of yourself, but we both have our excesses, you know that, and the thought of you having to deal with anything like this later in life, when I might not be there to help you, scares the shit out of me. Sooo… I want you to think about yourself right now, while you’re young and can’t fuck it up too badly. Try to cut down a little, you know, on the drinking and the drugs and the men—don’t ‘aww Mama’ me again. There’s probably a man in bed next to you right now. I know you. If you are anything like me before I had you, I hope you’re not listening to this with a hangover as well. Let’s just say that. Consider doing it for your mama, okay?

“Call me tomorrow, around three in the afternoon, okay? I love you.”


“Hey, Jonathan, you coming out of the bathroom any time soon? We’re packing a new bowl.”

I hit the button to save the message without even seeing the numbers. Or the phone, for that matter. The rest of me didn’t feel like moving much.

My mouth worked automatically. “Sure, Rach, be right out.”

At the promise of oblivion, to forget what I’d just listened to, my body got into gear, and I rose from the floor, heading for the door.





I NEEDED sleep, badly. Crimson Dream Tribal had a show that next night, and while it was going to be just a few hours at the local Greek place to liven up the Friday night baklava-munching crowd, it was still a gig. A paying gig. After that would be the usual throw down get-together house party that was already getting started downstairs and all around the house, but it wasn’t the noise that kept me up. I’ve slept through tornadoes louder than that.

The orgasm I’d just had wasn’t easing me to sleep either.

My bedmate made short work of the condom we’d just used, tossing it in the general direction of the trash can before slumping next to me, already drifting into the land of Nod. “’Night….”

I smirked, tousling his straight blond hair before lightly smacking him upside the head. “Gonna wander. Don’t steal the pillow.”

“Ow.” His voice was too sleepy to sound upset. He even chuckled, half muffled by the pillow. “Jackass.”

Moving from the facedown position I’d collapsed into after we came, I ignored the twinge of discomfort in my ass and slowly rose to my feet. I attempted to smooth down my hair as I looked around for whatever I’d been wearing before Patch got his hands on me—a black canvas kilt with metal studding around the waist—and put it on sans underwear. Millions of Scots couldn’t be wrong; regimental was the only way to wear a kilt. I was no Scot, but who really gave a shit?

I took one more glance at Patch on the mattress. He slept deeply, looking as young and innocent as he very fucking well wasn’t. Envy overtook the lust that earlier overtook the buzz I had before we hit the sheets. Normally, once I got to sleep, I was out cold, but it was damned hard to get there lately, while Patch could nod off at the drop of a hat, like he had nothing on his mind, no worries. Asshole.

Thankfully, there was no one in the upstairs bathroom, one of the few places in the house where anyone got any alone time. I grabbed a washcloth, not caring who it actually belonged to, wet it in the sink, and quickly wiped under the kilt so I wouldn’t have “itching like a son of a bitch post coitus” to add to the reasons why I couldn’t fall asleep. Tossing the wet washcloth back where I found it, I looked in the mirror and spotted a large crack that nearly took one of the top corners off. Fuck, that wasn’t there when we moved in. There goes the security deposit on this piece-of-shit hovel.

I stepped to the side to avoid the crack and got a better look at myself. The face that blinked back at me looked as tired as I felt. Outside, I played the role of exotic-looking rake to a T. My skin held the natural mocha tan of Hispanic heritage only slightly diluted by having a gringo for a dad. From him, I got my eyes, still bright green through the haze of exhaustion. My thin mustache and goatee both remained tightly groomed, though I’d need a shave in the morning to take care of the shadow creeping up on my cheeks. My hair, long enough to hit the small of my back, didn’t look half as bad as I expected after our tussle. Patch loved to grab handfuls like reins nearly as much as he liked calling me “papi” while pounding into me.

Annoying habits, both, but at least I liked having my hair pulled. I haven’t broken him of the “papi” habit yet. He found it ironic and funny, a result of a freshman Spanish class he didn’t finish. In trying to call me an “old man,” he completely ignored the fact that “papi” implied something much closer than what we actually were. He was also nineteen, so that said a lot for what he found funny and ironic.

At closer inspection, the bags under my eyes looked enormous, and there were those damned lines, small ones at the corners of my mouth. Laugh lines, my ass. I didn’t feel like laughing too much when I saw them. Did I look this tired to everyone, or was it just me?

Next points of inspection were my ears, and more importantly, the two newest additions to the line of silver hoops that adorned the curves of both, three on one ear, four on the other. No redness, no swelling, no nasty gunk, they were healing fine. Maybe next time I could afford to visit a piercer, I’d finally get my lobes done. Or maybe not. I’d cross that bridge should I ever come to it.

One quick leak later, I headed downstairs toward the noises, thanking every god I knew that no one had started a drum circle at this hour. While I could have stood a few hours of dancing, at least enough to wear me out, the neighbors got bitchy if we drummed more than once a week, and our once a week was planned for tomorrow. Or today. Whatever.

A gaggle of bodies sat chattering across beat-up couches and the dirty carpeted floor of the living room in front the TV that played some horror movie I’d never heard of. A few faces turned to acknowledge my presence, and a couple of people waved, smiling faintly like they knew me, but most were riveted to some poor sap’s CGI-assisted mauling. I didn’t bother waving back, not recognizing any of their faces in the dim, flickering light of the ancient TV. Who were they again? Why were they here at stupid early o’clock? Fuck it, I needed air.

I got to the glass sliding door leading to the back deck and pushed it open before realizing what a terribly stupid idea it was to choose this door instead of the front one. The hazy pot smoke screamed “beyond lies temptation, Jonathan” like a flashing sign. A group of six girls, all topless, passed around a well-used purple glass bong. We’d named it Grimace, after the big purple McDonald’s mascot, and also after the look someone would have before coughing their lungs up if they weren’t careful with the toke. At least I knew some of these girls, three of them, in fact. One, my svelte, pale best friend, peered up at me through black-and-red-striped bangs.

“Where’s Patch?” Bloodshot eyes slid over my equally topless form as she arched an eyebrow to punctuate the question.

“How am I doing, you ask?” I barely held back the sarcasm. “I’m doing fine, Rachel, and you?” I broke eye contact to smile cordially at the other girls, taking a seat near the circle. The house’s walls were absurdly thin; the answer to her question had been pretty damned obvious. You couldn’t fart in one room without the people downstairs hearing it, never mind get your freak on quietly, so no one really bothered with discretion.

One of the other familiar girls, a tiny little redhead named Chrissy or Carol or something, elbowed the other familiar girl, tall, brown-skinned Tam, and they both gave knowing laughs.

“Guess you wore him out.” Tam chuckled at me, took a hit from Grimace, and passed it along the circle.

Rachel, to her credit, said nothing more about it, but kept staring at me, wide gray eyes trying to see through my words, and waiting. There wasn’t much I could do about her scrutiny right now, at least until the bong made its way in my direction.

I brushed a loose bit of hair from my shoulder and winked at Tam, who dutifully blushed. At least everyone else on the deck thought I was charming. “You know me. I’m a loud man to keep up with.”

Ah, the familiar sex boast, as easy as putting on a broken-in pair of Docs. Surrounded by curious ladies most of the time, I’ve accepted my role as the rainbow-colored sexual oddball, just man enough to be sexually frank and play-flirt with, but too gay to be a threat. Hell, they seemed to get more enjoyment out of mine and Patch’s sexing than their own with men actually interested in bedding them. Ah well, it’s good to have a niche.

“You know, if you ever feel like using up all that energy to make a girl happy….” The redhead—her name was Cindy, I was sure of it—waggled her eyebrows, much to the amusement of the group. Except for Rachel, who glared at her and shoved Grimace and the lighter into her hands.

I kept acting as if I didn’t see the glare. “I’m flattered, really, hon, but there’s a small problem. Well, I wouldn’t call it small, but see, even with all this boobflesh around….” I paused and lifted the end of my kilt to the view of the gathered. No shame here. You didn’t live in this house with this group without seeing my lanky ass stride about sans pants at least once, and it was only fair, with all the tits about. “Not even the slightest twitch. I stopped lusting after tits shortly after I started eating solid food.”

The whoops and giggles that followed should have made my little exhibition all the more worth it. I usually liked dancing on that line between friendly and just plain outrageous. But now, I felt utterly tired. And Rachel’s little “too cool for this” eye roll didn’t help, turning the annoyance into pissed. We’d been at the weird little emotional impasse for a while now, since I got the voice mail from Mama, with neither one of us willing to talk about it. Easier to play our parts for the sake of the little band of misfits we called our family.

Cindy passed me Grimace and lighter, and my stomach dropped as I released the kilt back to take it. I remembered Dr. Spaulding’s words, reminded myself that, while weed wasn’t addictive, I needed to cut down, if not completely stop, and that I could actually say no. I was a grown man, after all. Rachel’s stare bored into me as I checked the bowl, smiled, and with fingers that slightly trembled, passed it right along to the next girl without saying a single word. This was normal, Jonathan. Saying no was perfectly normal. It wouldn’t help me sleep anyway. I chattered my face off when I got high.

“You’re tired.” Rachel’s dark gaze had a flicker of something in it: anger, disappointment. What the fuck did she have to be disappointed about? My pass meant more for her when it got around. No way was I going to ask that out loud. That would only kill the group’s buzz, a bigger sin than me being tired and her being pissy.

Best to keep deflecting for now. “Who are those guys?” I jerked a thumb behind my shoulder to the group watching the movie.

Tam, fresh from her two hits, little clouds of pot smoke steaming from her lips as if the weather had suddenly grown cold, happily answered, “We met them at the craft fair today, and they seemed cool. They know Lala, you know, that British hula girl?”

Oh yeah, the friend-of-a-friend vouch. I felt the urge to suddenly run back upstairs and make sure my shit was still where I kept it. I can be friendly around strangers, but I’d learned the hard way about trusting them.

Rachel huffed at me, reading my weird theft paranoia with the ease that came from knowing me for damn near ten years. “She’s Welsh, Tam. Jonathan, you were there when we met them. If you had a problem with inviting them, you could have said so.”

Suddenly everyone’s eyes fell on me. Some of the other girls, the ones I didn’t know, were probably part of the group we were discussing right now. Fuck me, way to look like a jackass. And extra points to Rachel for helping me into the jackass costume. Double fuck me for even bringing it up, knowing full well that even if I had a problem, it wouldn’t have mattered if Rachel wanted these people over. Besides, it wasn’t completely my fault for not remembering any of their faces among all of the other people I saw at the fair. Someone had to mind the booth we had set up while Her Highness schmoozed.

No, that was a shitty excuse. The real reason wasn’t any better, though. I didn’t notice these people at all because I didn’t even care. They were just new entries into the catalog of nameless, faceless joy seekers I’d met before and would never see again. If any of them had anything worth noticing, I would have remembered some names. Like if one of the guys was cute enough to look at twice.

Since I was firmly wearing the jackass costume, I decided to make myself scarce. “No problem, Rach, was just curious. I’m going to see if I can wake Patch up again for round two.”

I added a lecherous grin and got exactly the reaction I wanted, more hoots and catcalls, one suggestion about how to give him head—like I needed the help—and I headed back inside and up the stairs. If Patch was awake, it wouldn’t take much convincing to get him hard and inside me one more time. To hell with being able to walk the next morning. But once I really thought about it, I wasn’t in the mood for the pacifying effect of another orgasm any more than I was in the mood for getting stoned or even drunk. I’d been good all day. Only a few beers, and I’d slowly nursed those. I wasn’t even buzzed. Maybe that’s what was wrong, why I was so tired. Dr. Spaulding would think differently, but she didn’t have to come home to this after each counseling session.

Back in the room, Patch was curled up on his side of the mattress, snorfling softly like a little puppy having a dream, still looking angelic, save for the stitch tattoos on his back and arms. He was a fucking baby, too much swagger and sex appeal for his own good. He’d woken up in my absence, given the two white pills that lay on the pillow he thankfully didn’t completely take over for his own comfort. They came from his secret Valium stash, located only God knows where, because I could sure as fuck vouch for it not being up his ass. He always had some, although he didn’t deal it, and as far as I knew, I was the only one he shared with.

I looked at the pills, and my brittle resolve to not have any more chemicals tonight completely dissolved. Screw it. At least this would calm down the gnawing in my brain enough to sleep. I would pay penance to Our Lady of Recovery, Saint Spaulding, next time I spoke to her. It had been long enough since the last beer that I wasn’t courting a bad interaction, so I simply popped the fuckers dry. After shucking out of the kilt, I stretched out on my side of the mattress, closed my eyes, and waited for drug-assisted oblivion.

Sorry, Mama. I couldn’t do it today. Again.