JONATHAN SHIVERED in the early morning air but not from the chill. He wrapped his arms around himself and groaned as his wound tugged against the movement. He relaxed slowly as the pain eased. From where he stood, he could see between the two apartment blocks to where the sun glinted off the Brisbane River. Five years ago he used to watch the ferries puddle their way up and down the river, dropping passengers here at Hamilton and across the way at Bulimba. He’d missed that view for a long time. He wondered if he’d miss the house now that he was leaving it.
The house was gray—morning gray, Anthony had called it, but it had always looked like unwashed, neglected underwear to him. The lines of the house were precise and symmetrical, unlike the yard. The front lawn bore scars, just like his chest. They were from his Cruiser skidding to a stop the night Anthony had sent him to kill Mark. His eyes burned as he thought how close he’d come to doing what his boyfriend told him to.
At the time, he didn’t think he had any other choice. It was kill or be killed. Literally. By the end of that night, Mark had been the only one left uninjured. Liam’s leg had thankfully healed quickly where Anthony had stabbed him. Anthony was still in hospital with a self-inflicted knife wound to the stomach, and Jonathan… Jonathan was done with that life. Anthony’s knife in his chest—so close to his heart it was clearly intended to be fatal—had cured him of whatever delusions he’d held onto that let him believe he was in love with the man. Even Anthony’s assertions that Jonathan was responsible for him being in a wheelchair since the car accident two years before wouldn’t get him to stay.
He was out of it now, or at least he would be as soon as the removalists came and took his stuff away. Then he could begin to heal. The first step had been to learn to breathe again after his lung collapsed when Anthony stabbed him. The next step… he didn’t know what the next step after this was. He wasn’t going to admit it to anyone, but he was just as terrified now, starting a life of his own—on his own—as he was when he thought he was going to die.
The trembling began again. Dizzy. Couldn’t catch his breath. He leaned beside the front door and forced himself to bring his mind back to the here and now and looked around again. There was a new section of fence now, and the Cruiser had been repaired and sat at the curb, waiting for him. His cousin must have had the damage repaired while Jonathan was in the hospital—learning how to make his lung work again after his boyfriend had tried to kill him. He shook the thoughts from his head. He had to stop thinking like this or he’d go mad.
Sleep last night had been impossible. The house had been cleaned, but nothing was going to completely remove the blood splattered on the white carpet. His blood.
A low rumble burbled through the air, and a truck turned onto the street. Jonathan’s heart raced. “You can do this,” he whispered, although he wasn’t quite sure which part of “this” he was talking about. It could be dealing with strangers on his own, or it could be leaving Anthony—finally. He pressed the heel of his hand over the dressing on his chest. Staying with Anthony was no longer an option.
The truck stopped and turned to reverse into the driveway. The high-pitched beeping made Jonathan jump and, to calm himself, he focused on the two men sitting in the cab. The driver looked young and blond, the passenger older and shriveled, his hair sticking out in unkempt tangles.
“Two people. Not Anthony. You’re outside, everything’s marked. You don’t need to go inside with them at all if you don’t want to. You can do this.” He counted his breaths in and out. The beeping stopped, the engine cut out, and the driver’s door opened.
Long, well-formed legs slipped from the cab, by-passing the step completely as a muscled body slid to the ground. Khaki cargo shorts bunched enticingly around a spectacular package before settling loosely around slim hips as the man’s boot-clad feet landed on the ground and he stood away from the truck. Jonathan moved his gaze up the body. The worn T-shirt did nothing to hide the trim stomach and prominent pecs and the sleeves framed the rounded deltoids perfectly. Jonathan sighed as he lifted his focus higher to see the man’s wide smile.
“You Jonathan Watson?” His voice was low and rich, a dribble of lava over rock. “We’re Handy Removals. I’m Ben.” He gestured to the man still sitting in the truck. “That’s Col. You have everything you need to move ready?”
While he spoke, the other man—Col—got out of the truck and strode toward them. He wore navy Stubbies, the short shorts barely covering what they needed to, and a navy singlet. Both were faded and limp from many washings. Salt-and-pepper hair peeked from the top of the singlet and under his arms. His cheeks and chin sported at least a week’s growth of the same mottled hair, but a circle at the top of his head was shiny smooth, framed by the unkempt tonsure. His legs were spindly but loose skin hung on the thighs, indicating a probably recent and significant weight loss. His upper arms told the same story.
“You got dogs here?” It was more a demand than a question.
“Good. I hate killing dogs.”
“He’s not serious. Can you show us what you want moved? We’ll get started.” Ben grabbed Col’s arm. “Come on, Col. Time to move furniture.”
“I’ll show you the pieces that need loading,” Jonathan said. He strode into the house and hurried to the living room. He took a deep breath as he moved into the open space before turning to watch the removalists enter.
“You aren’t taking all of it?” The burly man, Col, strode into the room and came directly toward Jonathan. Jonathan stepped back, raising his hands defensively before he realized what he had done and dropped them to his sides. His fingers twitched with the need to lift up and protect his stomach and groin, but he forced them to stay down. Not every man was a violent asshole.
“Col, you’re doing it again.” Ben grabbed the elbow of the blue-singleted one and pulled him away.
“What? I’m not doing anything, Benny. I’m a pussycat.” He jammed his broad fists on his hips and glared at the second removalist.
“I know you are, but you can’t come up so close like that to people. Why don’t you have a look in the kitchen and see what’s there to load.” Col took a step back, and—even though Ben was shorter than he was and, in comparison, looked almost effeminate, with gracefully arched eyebrows and neatly trimmed dark blond hair—he grunted an acknowledgement and lowered his shoulders and eyebrows. Ben held his ground and glared at the older man until the last quivering eyebrow hair had settled.
“Fine,” Col grumbled. “Stop this bullshitting around and let’s get the job done.” He turned his fierce stare onto Jonathan. “Are we taking all this?”
Jonathan stepped past the two men as he gestured around the living room and toward the bedrooms up the stairs. “I’ve put orange sticky notes on the pieces to be loaded. There are also several boxes in the kitchen.”
Col strode into the kitchen, muttering. “Bloody orange sticky notes. Bloody queen.”
Jonathan gaped after the horrid man.
“Ignore him. Col’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s not really such a prick.” Ben raised a hand and Jonathan realized, too late, he had probably only meant to clap him on the shoulder. He raised himself from his crouch and lowered his arms but couldn’t meet the other man’s gaze. He didn’t want to see the disgust that would surely be there. Jonathan knew what he looked like. A six-foot-tall black man with broad shoulders and strong jaw, he knew he came across as the potentially violent one of any couple. He was just the opposite. Even though he was much larger and stronger than Anthony, he’d never been able to take control in their relationship. In the early years, taking control had never even occurred to him.
The silence stretched, but the man stayed in front of Jonathan. Eventually Jonathan raised his head to see why he was still there. Hazel eyes regarded him steadily. He was too close, but Jonathan forced himself to stay still, to not step away. If he moved one muscle he’d probably end up running up the street, screaming hysterically. He’d spent a lot of time in the hospital deciding he was going to be in charge of his own life from now on. This was step one.
The perfect eyebrows lowered until they were two straight lines over pale eyes. Sweat broke out on Jonathan’s scalp as the need for flight ratcheted higher. Then Ben took a step back, and Jonathan could breathe again.
“The doc said Col will still be able to work for a while. He’s good at his job, but you can request another crew if you’d like,” Ben said as he held out a tablet and stylus. He jerked his head to the kitchen, where they could still hear the older man’s muttering. Jonathan took the proffered equipment and looked at it. “That’s what we have on our list to pick up and deliver to the new place. All you have to do is tick off each item as we bring it out and then do the same when we get to the other end. Add anything extra you might have forgotten when you registered, at the bottom there, so we can keep track.” He looked at Jonathan for a long time but before the urge to step away overwhelmed him, Jonathan backed up toward the center of the room. “We’ll just get started, then. Tick things off as we take them out.”
Jonathan stared at Ben’s back as he turned and walked into the kitchen to talk to Col, dimly taking in the worn T-shirt and cargo shorts over scuffed steel-capped boots. The shorts sat low on his hips but didn’t expose his underwear like so many other people’s clothes did. Jonathan appreciated that small show of modesty even as he remembered how the shorts bunched when Ben slid down from the truck. The fabric fitted so well over Ben’s hips and butt that Jonathan would have sworn they’d been tailor-made for him, but who would pay for custom-made work shorts?
Jonathan flushed when he realized he’d watched Ben’s backside all the way into the kitchen, but he couldn’t look away. When the man disappeared from view, Jonathan left the house and positioned himself outside the front door so he was out of the way. As he waited he checked the list. He’d created the list while he was still in hospital and was sure there were things he’d missed that were now marked with a sticky note. He listened to the two removalists discuss the best way to approach the move, Ben’s deep baritone providing a soothing counterpoint to Col’s strident tenor. At least Col sounded more reasonable now that he was focused on his work. Within minutes they fell silent—then they appeared at the door with a large bureau. Jonathan stepped back farther to make sure he was out of the way before searching for the item on the list and ticking it off.
Jonathan was amazed at how quickly they worked. Within an hour they had loaded everything Jonathan had marked, laid felt between and over the furniture, and tied it all securely, ready for the trip to Jonathan’s new apartment.
“How’d we go?” asked Ben. Col stood beside the truck, scowling at Jonathan. Jonathan took a small step to the side so that Ben’s body hid the other man from view. “Don’t worry about Col. He’s hungry but hasn’t realized it yet. I’ll stop on the way over to your new place and make sure he eats something. He won’t bother you anymore.” He reached out and took the tablet from Jonathan’s unresisting hands, quickly skimming the information. “Okay, looks like we got it all. You want to check inside just in case there’s something else you wanted?”
Jonathan shook his head. “There’s nothing.” Everything he’d marked or packed last night was in the truck. He’d made sure to only take the items he’d chosen and paid for himself. “Do you know where you’re taking it all?”
“Sure do. You heading out now?”
Jonathan almost smiled at Ben’s habit of starting his questions part way through the sentence but nodded instead. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“We still need to close up the truck and stop for lunch. You’ll have plenty of time to get there before us and open up. That way we can begin unloading straightaway.”
“Oh, um, sure.” Jonathan waited until Ben moved away before he ducked into the house to check they hadn’t left any mess. The sight of the few squares of undisturbed carpet in the living room and the empty shelf in the bookcase tightened Jonathan’s throat. He remembered purchasing every piece of furniture, the time and thought he’d put into choosing each item, so that it fitted perfectly in its place and complemented Anthony’s belongings. He sighed.
“Maybe it wasn’t all for nothing,” he whispered to himself. “Maybe it will look just as good in my new place.”
His new place. What a joke. Jonathan locked up and walked over to his car. His cousin Liam had found the apartment for him while he was still in hospital. Liam had paid the deposit and three months’ rent in advance, and he’d gone shopping so there would be food in the new fridge he’d bought so Jonathan would have something to eat when he finally moved in this evening. Jonathan hadn’t been inside it yet. He didn’t think he’d ever even driven through the neighborhood.
He opened his car door and lowered himself carefully into the driver’s seat. He’d been discharged from hospital the afternoon before and had spent the entire night packing boxes and putting sticky notes on furniture. His aunt and uncle had left at ten, but he’d continued. He refused to spend even one more night in the house he’d shared with Anthony for ten years.
He leaned his head back against the headrest, feeling every ache and every square inch of his skin, especially over his chest and back. The stab wound was still healing, and his back ached because he’d been using those muscles to compensate for the others that hurt too much. As soon as this move was finished, he was going to take all the pain meds he was allowed, then fall into bed and stay there for at least a week. In his silent apartment.
Taking as deep a breath as his newly-inflated lung would allow him—damn Anthony and his psycho-homicidal bullshit—Jonathan raised his head, inserted the key, and started the car, thanking all that’s holy that it was an automatic and he only needed one hand to drive. There was no way his wound would allow him to use his left hand enough to even steer.
The drive across town was an exercise in pain endurance. If Jonathan hadn’t already had plenty of practice functioning through severe pain, he wouldn’t have made it.
He followed the removal truck until it turned into a McDonald’s; after that he blindly followed the directions of his GPS. Weaving in and out of traffic was more strenuous than he’d thought it would be. As it was, he couldn’t remember whole sections of the drive. Sweat poured off him as he pulled up to the curb, soaking his back and dribbling down his face to drip off the end of his nose and chin. His chest burned, the muscles around the wound strained beyond what they could comfortably handle this soon after being stabbed. He’d told Liam he’d get a cab and would pick up his car in a couple of days, but in the end he hadn’t been able to leave it there. He didn’t want anything of his at Anthony’s house. Not one thing. Never again.
Now he sat at the curb and watched the truck reverse into the drive like it had at Anthony’s place that morning. He wondered how long he’d been sitting there, breathing through the pain, hoping he’d catch his breath soon. If he got out of the car right now, he’d probably collapse. He leaned his head back on the headrest, closed his eyes, and tried to breathe evenly. Deep breaths hurt like buggery so he didn’t even try. Worry gnawed at him. Liam was going to kill him if he did any further damage to his lung.
The three-story apartment building was an old one. It wore streaky gray stucco that was probably once white, three concrete steps with an iron railing led to the green front door. There was no security other than a deadlock on the front door and bars on all the windows. His apartment was on the top floor at the back of the building, near the emergency exit. According to Liam, the bathroom had a mold problem and the kitchen smelled of decades-old oil and grease, but the only thing Jonathan worried about was if Anthony would have access. Liam had wanted to find something better for him, but Jonathan knew he’d be able to afford this one, even if it was some time before he found work.
A knock on the window beside him made him jump so much the seatbelt bit into his chest, and he gasped. Frowning eyes loomed inches away and he jerked back, crying out when the seatbelt scraped across his stitches.
“Are you okay?” Ben’s voice was muffled by the glass.
Jonathan sucked in a calming breath and hit the button to lower the window. He scowled when it didn’t work with the ignition off. He removed the keys from the ignition, released his seatbelt, then opened the door. “Sorry, just woolgathering,” he said as he swung his legs around and pushed himself out of the car and onto his feet, hoping Ben would move back some more.
“What the fuck happened?” Ben stepped forward, his hands reaching toward Jonathan.
Jonathan stumbled back but had nowhere to go, trapped between the open car door and his seat. His breathing, beginning to calm after the strenuous drive, ratcheted up again at Ben’s proximity. His vision grayed at the edges, and he panted. A whimper escaped when Ben grasped his shoulders and drew him forward.