One

 

THE TASTE of metal on the back of his throat tainted the loathing boiling in Jake’s belly. His tongue was numb to the acrid bitterness of the gun’s muzzle pressed into its spongy flesh, but the roof of his mouth smarted and bled from the barrel scraping along its soft membrane. A bit of powder and oil joined the specks of blood, floating on the spit pooling on his tongue, a peppery sharpness cut with a hint of razor blades and pain.

It was all a welcome taste, muddling the sourness in his belly brought on by cheap whiskey and the lethargic drag left in his body after splattering his bare thighs with come. It dried, stuck to his hair and skin, a pungent, musky smear flaking off when he shifted.

He’d barely moved since he’d pulled his father’s gun out from the box he’d tucked onto a bookshelf, then sat down at the battered Formica table he’d scrounged out of a dumpster a few years before. Overcome by the world’s heavy boot pressing down on the back of his neck, Jake slid the magazine into the gun and wrapped his mouth around its deadly hole, licking at its rim with the tip of his tongue.

The night was hot and wet, slicking his bare back with sweat, but it was a familiar caress, more familiar to Jake than the touch of his now-dead mother’s dry lips to his unshaven cheek. Los Angeles staggered beneath its late summer’s oppressive weight, a muggy blanket of tarry skies and still air, and in Jake’s carved-out apartment, the dull swish of the industrial fans built into the former warehouse’s walls simply pushed the stagnant, damp heat around. Koreatown’s flashing lights and come-hither neon pounded through the night, shoving its way into the cordoned-off space.

His hand shook, like it always did, and Jake caught a whiff of the booze sweating out of his pores. His lungs were full of the gun’s scent, breathing in its prickly stench with each muffled gasp. The empty whiskey bottle rattled on the table when he jerked back, propping himself against the chair’s duct-taped vinyl back.

“Just do it, Moore,” he whispered hoarsely around the gun’s muzzle. “What the fuck is keeping you here?”

His life—like his ground-floor shoebox apartment—was a jigsaw puzzle of others’ bits and pieces. The dinette set he sat at was salvage like everything he’d scattered about the far end of his tight rectangular space, a discarded bit of flotsam from someone else’s life he’d gathered to shore up his own existence. His light blue couch was a thrift-store pick, too stained with magic marker childish scrawls to sell but in damned decent condition, and milk crates propped up a faded red wooden door, its paint crackled from the California sun. Only his welding gear, set up by the front door, and his bed were new, the mattress sitting on its frame in the coolest corner of the long room, tucked into the niche between the outer and bathroom walls.

Nothing that couldn’t be sold or thrown out.

What people would make out of the twisted spires of metal he’d sculpted during his fits of need, Jake had no idea. The scraps he’d brought home and welded together quieted some of the snarling anger he couldn’t shake, but he hadn’t been able to lose himself in the shapes and fire since… forever. He was past the point of caring about all of it, but even with the press of shame spiking through his thoughts, his finger refused to squeeze on the trigger.

Such a fucking coward. His father’s words hammered through Jake’s drunken haze. A fucking pussy who should have been scraped out of his mother.

He’d grown up hearing that rant. Hell, Jake could chant bits of it in his sleep if he wanted. He never needed to. His father’s words… other people’s scalding-hot words… always found him in the middle of the night, creeping along on their sharp knifelike hooves to trample over his soul. He’d bled out in his nightmares, crying for mercy.

None came.

None ever came, and Jake woke most mornings drenched in the fears he’d sweated out during the storm of his dreams and aching from the tatters in his soul.

The porn magazine on his bed fluttered, snagged on a bit of breeze seeping through the canted broad windows along the long wall. Its pages were sticky, caught on the drops of Jake’s releases. He’d left it where it’d fallen, sliding from his thigh when he’d stroked himself for the fifth time that week. Those pages—those damned pages—were his downfall, especially the center spread of the long-legged, blue-eyed young man sitting on a luxurious pile of tapestry pillows, naked as the day he was born, with his knees spread open and his left hand fondling the length of his pale cock.

Jake promised himself he’d burn the rags every single time he finished jerking off to the men between their covers, but each time, he simply thrust them away and reached for a bottle of booze. Tonight was different. He’d come and there was nothing but disgust for what he’d done, what he’d imagined doing to another man, what he’d wanted done to him.

His skin was too tight on him, and he ached for a release he’d already reached, but it hadn’t been enough. He was going to rub his cock raw if he kept going.

He just couldn’t… keep going. It was too much. Too much to fight anymore and too hard to hide anymore. Up until a week ago, he’d been able to tuck his want for other men into a dark hole deep inside of him. Years of being able to pass… of pretending he didn’t get hard if another man’s eyes lingered onof being able to tell himself he was fine alone and didn’t need anyone, much less a man—all of it was shot to hell the moment he’d seen a black sports car pull up to the boarded-up salon across the street from the fabrication shop he worked at.

The man who’d gotten out—God, only three weeks ago and his life was shit for it—that man did something to Jake’s control, shattering it into a million pieces. He’d gotten out—lean, long-legged, and with narrow hips—and turned, as if sensing Jake watching him. Their eyes met, a long flicker of awareness arcing through them, and Jake blushed, his dick lengthening under his boxers and straining to be released from his jeans. He couldn’t make out the color of the man’s eyes, not with four lanes of traffic between them, but the sizzle was already more than Jake could stand. The man was sex scraped off of the pages Jake pored over, then hated himself for, a confident dark-haired trap begging to be sprung and baited with a poison strong enough to kill Jake if he ever so much as took a teeny taste.

Then the man winked and Jake fell away, swallowed into the darkness he’d fought so hard to keep at bay.

His phone rang, jittering across the table, and he jerked back, the gun sliding from his mouth, its barrel wet with his spit. Jake sucked in clean air, still damp and stinking of tar and street trash but cleaner than the oily filth of the gun’s length pushed up nearly into his uvula. Shaking, he set the weapon down, then fumbled for his phone, his fingers numb and unresponsive.

The number was all too familiar, and the voice on the other side of the line sounded as tired as Jake felt. She cleared her throat, working around words she’d said more than fifty times before, always with the backdrop of clattering bedpans, intercom announcements, and the occasional screaming of the infirm.

“Mr. Moore?” The nurse—a round-faced Latina if he matched the voice to the right face—mumbled out his name as if someone else might have answered Jake’s phone. In the five years since she’d been calling, no one ever had, but she always sounded… hopeful, perhaps wishing she could speak to anyone besides Ron Moore’s fucked-up son. “Mr. Moore, we need you to come down. Your father’s having an episode again, and we don’t have the staff to—”

The buzzing in his brain drowned out her words. He didn’t need to hear them. He’d heard them countless times before. His old man was breaking down, and there would be no turning back the hands of time for either of them.

“Sure.” He cut her off before she could start in on his duties as Ron’s son. He’d been their only child, a pregnancy his mother struggled to keep and one his father blamed for the destruction of his life. “Let me….”

Jake was drunk, swallowed whole by a cheap amber whale and being digested in its sour juices. His truck was too important to lose—hell, a night in jail was too much to risk—so driving himself to the nursing home was probably out of the question, but he didn’t have jack shit in his pocket to pay for a car.

“Give me a few minutes.” He eyed the coffeepot sitting on the card table he’d mended and now used as a kitchen counter. “I just need—”

“I hate to have to bring this up but….” Her sigh was long-suffering, and the guilt in her voice was mostly gilding for her lie. “If your father continues to act up, you’re going to have to find someplace else for him to be. We’ve too small of a staff to give him the attention he—”

“I said I’ll be right there,” Jake growled. He couldn’t afford another place, not on what he made, and his father was reaching the end of his rope. There were no more second chances. His father’d been forced out of too many homes too many times, and the old man grew more and more aggressive with each new home he moved into. Sighing, Jake pleaded, “Please. Just give me… give him some slack. He’s dying, for fuck’s sake.”

“We’re all dying, Mr. Moore,” she snipped back. “Some of us just aren’t being assholes about it. Now come deal with your father, or tomorrow morning you’ll find him and his things out on the street with the rest of the trash.”

 

 

“DAL, WHAT do you think about painting the whole building a bright pink? You know, so it stands out.” Celeste took a step back, wobbling on her heels as she caught the edge of a sidewalk crack. Her meaty arms jerked up, a quick flail, but she recovered easily, patting at the blonde tower of hair she’d lacquered with Aqua Net before they’d gone out. “And for God’s sake, see what the city can do about these walkways. We pay a hell of a lot to live in WeHo. The least they can do is make sure we don’t break our necks walking the damned streets. So, pink. I’m thinking Gulp-Down-After-Clubbing baby pink.”

“Pink might be a little much,” Dallas mumbled absently, staring off toward the oversized brick warehouse across the street. “I want to make a statement not….”

There was movement in the fabrication shop, a shadow crossing over a shower of sparks and blue fire, and Dallas peered over his Oakleys, straining to make out a familiar face in the blobs of darkness. A second later his stomach tickled in excitement at the tall, broad-shouldered man striding out of the building’s open bay doors.

There was a lot he didn’t know about the man. Okay, he knew next to nothing about him, but there was something vulnerable in his rugged, pleasant face and bitable mouth. He’d taken a discreet photo with his DSLR while he’d idled his Tesla the first time he’d come to check out the building on Santa Monica. Dallas initially dismissed the site as unusable. It was too far from WeHo’s epicenter, and its parking lot, while generous, would require resurfacing. He hadn’t even gotten out of the car to look inside, simply peered up through the passenger side window and ticked off all the reasons the building wouldn’t work for him.

Then the hottest man he’d ever seen in his life walked out of the shop across the boulevard, and Dallas knew he’d found the right place after all.

The man’s shoulders and arms were to die for, sculpted and hard beneath a thin T-shirt, and when he’d slowly shrugged off his heavy work jacket under the scorching Los Angeles sun, Dallas spent a good minute talking himself out of running his hands over the man’s sweat-dampened firm chest. Someone Dallas couldn’t make out in the building’s shadowy interior tossed the man a bottle of water, and there was another minute of negotiations and photo taking while the welder gulped down mouthfuls to cool himself off.

Any guilt over stalking the workman fell away when Dallas went home that evening. He’d almost talked himself into erasing the images before looking at them, a tiny tug-of-war between ethics and desire. The argument against deleting the photos won out, his barely rational logic reassuring himself the man in question wasn’t as he’d seen, simply a fantasized construct he’d cobbled together in his mind.

He wasn’t.

No, instead Dallas spent a good part of the evening studying one shot in particular, focusing on the man’s hazel eyes and the light brown freckles scattered over his tanned cheeks and nose. He’d been caught in midspeech, white teeth behind a lush bottom lip, and the scruff over his jaw was a bit gingery, ruddier than the man’s short brown hair and dark eyebrows. His slightly canted nose looked like the result of an elbow rather than a punch, just enough of a bump to push him from handsome to interesting.

And his hands…. Dallas hadn’t realized he had a hand fetish until he’d stretched out onto his sofa and studied the man’s roughened fingers and palms.

He’d winked at the man the next time he spotted him, stupidly flirtatious in an area not known for its friendliness, but Dallas hadn’t given it a second thought. Their eyes had met, and the electric shock running between them short-circuited Dallas’s common sense. Or at least that was what he told himself when the worker jerked his head back and squinted, pinning Dallas in place.

They shouldn’t have had that moment. There were four damned lanes between them, four and a half if he counted the half-assed left-turn aisle at the cross street, and Dallas should have been able to do anything short of sticking his tongue out at the man or flipping him off and remained unnoticed.

Instead he’d caught Dallas in a wink and reeled back in response.

“All the hot ones are straight,” Dallas muttered to himself as Celeste carried on about palm trees and coconut smoothies. “Or assholes. And sometimes, if Mrs. Yates’s little boy is very, very lucky, they’re gay assholes and he dates them.”

“Dallas, the pink?” Celeste’s peeved query sliced through Dallas’s musings, a knife along the buttery wonder of what the worker’s thighs would look like if stripped of his old jeans. “What are you… oh. Well damn. That’s a good way to get your head beaten in, but sure, you just go on over there and introduce yourself. Just make sure you make me your beneficiary beforehand so I can paint this damned building bright fucking pink in your honor.”

“Celeste, no damned pink. It’s Bombshells and Beauties, not… shit, I can’t even think of anything disgusting enough.” The man glanced across the street at them, maybe a frown crossing his face. Then he disappeared back into the building, its shadows swallowing the welder back up, leaving nothing on the sidewalk but a few drops of spittle along Dallas’s licked lips. “Shit.”

“Bubblegum,” Celeste offered up, and Dallas turned in confusion. Her thin eyebrows darted in, elongated tadpoles fighting for the center of her forehead, and she sighed, resting one hip on a post near the building’s entrance. “Bombshells and Bubblegum. That’s what you should have said, and for all that is Patsy Stone and holy, would you get your head out of the clouds and stop staring at the eye candy across the street? And while you’re at it, get out of the fucking road before you get run over.”

Celeste’s voice teetered out of her normal husky alto and into the high-pitched tenor of Simon, the slightly overweight boy Dallas met at a New York bus stop more than twelve years ago. A string of diets and industrial-strength foundation garments shaped Simon’s body into the lush pinup figure he’d longed for, but it’d been Dallas who’d styled him into Celeste Glory, shaping everything from her signature ’50s naughty librarian clothing to the strong, powerful walk she’d taken on as her own. There were times when Simon’s overprotective Jewish mother seeped out from between the cracks in her lush character, and Dallas found himself on the sharp end of a nasally reprimand whenever Celeste reached her breaking point.

Right now, Dallas heard every drop of Simon stubbornly lingering in his best friend’s personality.

“What’s the matter, C?” He stepped out onto the sidewalk, hoping it would soothe Celeste’s rattled nerves, but the woman shook her head when he reached for her. “Love, nothing’s going to happen to me. We’re in WeHo for fuck’s sake. Or at least close enough to use its zip code.”

“We’re not in fucking WeHo, Dallas. Look around you. We’re in a fucking industrial park tucked in between the studio’s secondary backlots where they make B movies about screaming stupid women and monsters.” Celeste shuddered, taking a deep breath. Pressing her hand against her generous chest, she bit at her lip, worrying away a stripe of red lipstick. “Honey, I’m trying not to sound like some dramatic queen. I’m not. You and I both know I’m not, but this place… here… it’s not safe.”

“It’s totally safe. I checked the crime stats before I made an offer on the building. We’re fine. I’m fine. And even if it weren’t okay, we can’t keep running away, C. I’m not saying I’m going to go out and wave a red cape in front of a raging bull but….” Dallas reached for her, and Celeste let herself be folded into a soft embrace. She trembled, probably caught up in the memories of a night when she hadn’t been safe and he’d not been there when the dark closed in on her. “Things are different now. Much different. You of all people know if we hide, nothing changes.”

“I just don’t want anything to happen to you,” she mumbled into his chest, probably smearing half a ton of makeup on his white T-shirt. “The way you looked at that guy….”

“Yeah, well, I’m not the gingeriest cookie in the bag, so sometimes, I do stupid things,” he teased. “That being said, I promise you, no ogling hot straight men who look like they can crush my head in one hand, okay?”

“Okay,” she sniffed and pulled away, wiping at the dampness around her heavily made-up eyes. “But really, rethink the pink. It’ll be awesome.”

“You go on being you, Celeste Glory, and when you get your own place, you can make it any color you want,” he shot back, twisting his mouth into a smile. “Because I sure as hell am not painting our lifelong dream fucking bubblegum pink. Now, grab the champagne and glasses from the car, and let’s see what I’ve gotten myself into.”