Brown leaves crunched as Tate Astbury walked to the granite headstone symbolizing the division of his life into two parts: Before and After. Winter lingered in the air; that clean, cold scent seeped into his bones, bringing back childhood days in New England with family celebrations and weeks that carelessly slipped by into spring then summer.
That was Before. Before the guilt festered. Before he saw two people in the mirror instead of one. Before he took the one person who meant everything to him for granted.
Tate approached the headstone with the name he learned to spell at the same time as his own, the date of birth he shared, and the date of death he didn’t. He plucked off the dried leaves and twigs that had fallen on the plaque and put a single white rose down.
“Never thought I’d make it past thirty, yet here I am, thirty-three years old. All the dumb shit I’ve done since you…since I last saw you, you would think I’d be the one interred.” He should’ve been. They had done everything together. Death shouldn’t have been any different.
Tate squinted, staring across the field of headstones to where a couple stood holding hands in front of a grave.
“It’s gotten easier. Like, some days, I don’t think about you or what happened right away.” Until he looked in the mirror. Then he saw the irreplaceable soul whose face he would never forget, a blessing and a curse. “You’d tell me to quit being so dramatic and get on with my life. But today it’s hard, so cut me some slack, aight?”
A cardinal perched in the tree above him and whistled, its song like someone calling for its dog. And then it shit, missing Tate’s head but landing on his shoe with a splat.
“Fucker.” Tate laughed, figuring he must look like a crazy person out there laughing alone. Well, not entirely alone. There was that bird with a wicked sense of humor.
“I get it. Enough with the pity party. I’m going to celebrate with the boys later. But this one’s for you.” He unscrewed the miniature Jack Daniel’s bottle, not his favorite but his twin brother liked the brand, and poured the entire contents on the grave.
“Happy birthday, Mazi.”
Ocean air, icy and smelling of fish, stung Quinn’s cheeks and nose when he surfaced from the subway, phone in hand and talking to the woman who had been more of a mother to him than his own. Amy Thurling, his former nanny, was giving him the pep talk he needed to get in the right headspace for work.
“Remember how hard you fought for a chance for a shoot with this photographer and try for a few hours to put your personal life aside. I know it’s not easy, sweetie,” Amy said. None of it was easy.
“You’re right, and I will. I know I will.” There wasn’t time to fall apart. There wasn’t time to do anything but get his act together and be professional. Well, semi-professional. He was fifteen minutes late. “But what am I going to do without them?” He’d lived with Yumi and Sasha since he was barely twenty years old, depended on them, loved them. A life without them and his son seemed so lonely and isolated. And depressing.
“Stressing over the unknown will drive you crazy, and you don’t know if they even want you to move out. Have a little faith, okay? Call or text me later and let me know how you’re doing. Now go kick some ass,” Amy said, ending their conversation.
Towering brick warehouses in shades of red, brown, and tan—the former lifeblood of Boston Harbor—lined the streets. A quick check on his phone for the address told him his destination was two buildings away. Steadying his breath, he walked up to the wooden double doors, pulled at the hem of his coat sleeves, and lifted his chin. Time for Britney Bitch. Projecting confidence he didn’t feel, he entered the converted warehouse as Quinn Bouchard, kick-ass high fashion model.
A small crew set up the octaboxes, softboxes, lighting umbrellas, and reflectors for the perfect lighting and paid no attention to Quinn’s arrival, forcing him to figure out where wardrobe and makeup were in the large, open space. If this were any other day, he would march in and own the room, fearless. But it wasn’t. The lack of attention tore a chunk off his already flagging confidence. Fake it until you feel it. Chin held high, he wandered into the room mentally feeling like the kid who’d been called last during gym class.
The blank screen on my phone mocked me. What the hell had I done to deserve the cold shoulder treatment? Things had been rough between us for the past year, sure. But being ignored by a guy that’d had my back for nearly ten years was a new low.
I’d been in Boston for a couple days, leaving the sunshine and warmth of my California home to visit him, and aside from the I’ll try to see you text I’d gotten when I landed, it’d been radio silence. I left a voicemail in an over-the-top whining voice earlier in the day inviting him to meet me at the bar this evening and sent him a text when I’d arrived at the bar hours ago. He’d never cared if we went to a gay bar in the past, so whatever kept him away had more to do with me than my choice of venue, and that hurt like an SOB. I tried not to let my disappointment ruin my night, but it kept gnawing at my gut.
At least I wasn’t alone.
“Your boy Jules still ignoring you?” Tate, my older brother from another mother, asked. A tatted-up Boston native with a tough exterior and a generous heart, Tate called Los Angeles his second home. He was a co-owner of X-Trips, the stunt company I worked for. We met at a dojo in LA five years ago and the crazy motherfucker persuaded me to become a stuntman once he found out I was a former national gymnast. Best decision ever.
“Guess so. Unless his phone isn’t working right.” I drowned in my fourth beer, settling into my emo mood. All I needed were side-swept bangs and guyliner.
“That’s what you’re going with? His phone ain’t working?”
“It could happen.” I shrugged. Tate rolled his eyes.
Julien Bouchard had been one of my closest friends during college. Our lives had split in different directions and on opposite coasts after we graduated from UC Berkeley, but the distance hadn’t mattered because we constantly sent texts.
That changed last year after I flew three thousand miles to see Jules before heading overseas for a job. I was hurting from a bad breakup and needed some friend time. It killed me when he said he was “too busy with work to meet” after we’d made plans. The guy was a horrible liar. Always had been. His pathetic excuse made me feel lower than whale shit—to borrow a phrase from my Irish father—and it took months before I answered Jules’s texts with more than one-word responses. Yeah, I was butt hurt and probably more of a stubborn dickhead than I needed to be about it, but my ex left me in such a screwed-up state I wasn’t thinking clearly, and it’d distracted me at work, almost costing me my life and my friendship with Jules.
“When you gonna move on from that straight piece of ass?” Tate asked, tapping a finger by my beer to get my attention. “I’m tired of seeing you all mopey.”
“I’m not mopey.”
He scoffed. “Aight. And I’m the freaking Pope. He’s got you wound around his little pinky, and he hasn’t even given you the time of day for how long? A year? You know what I think? You keep lusting after your boy because it’s safe and it keeps you from dealing with the crap your ex left behind.”
“That’s some deep pop psychology, right there. Your degree in bullshit is paying off.”
Problem was, Tate was too close to the truth. My little fantasy with Jules was perfect because there was no chance in hell he and I would ever be a thing. I’d yet to bounce back from the shitstorm that my closeted ex-boyfriend, Victor, had put me through. I hadn’t dated anyone since. Victor was full of promises and lies and acted like a dick when he didn’t get his way.
Tate pursed his lips. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Deflection. You can’t commit to anyone.”
“I can.” Even if I couldn’t, I wasn’t going to back down.
“Yeah? Aight, I got a dare for you.” He raised his eyebrows, dark eyes filled with fire that said the game was on.
“What kinda dare?” My mood brightened. This was how trouble started.
Messing with each other was the lynchpin of our friendship. We’d dared each other to do humiliating, stupid shit since we met. Like wearing nipple pasties and G-strings while skateboarding along Venice Beach. Or running down the street wearing a speedo in the middle of winter and clucking like a chicken. Or singing karaoke to a One Direction song and dancing—something I never, ever should have done. Those were the tame, legal ones, BASE jumps aside. We lived for silly adventures, calculated daredevil risks, anything adrenaline-inducing.
“I’ll make it easy on you. You date the next person who comes through that door for the entire week you’re here.”
“A week? Pfft. That’s too easy.”
“Ha! Since your ex, you ain’t never been with a guy longer than a night in over a year.” Tate pointed a scarred finger as I opened my mouth to protest. “Don’t bother denying it.”
I couldn’t. But that didn’t mean I was going to let Tate have the upper hand. “Dating is overrated. Give me a real challenge.”
He smirked, and it was as if the devil himself was behind that grin. “I got it. Since you’re all commitaphobe. How about you propose to the next person who walks through the door.”
My stomach dropped out. Boom. Gone. The very notion of a proposal made my skin itchy. I’d dared myself into a corner and there was no going back now. Besides, it wasn’t a real proposal. Hell, maybe the unfortunate guy might find it hilarious that some semi-buzzed dude proposed to him.
“You, my friend, have a deal.”
Tate raised his glass and clunked it against mine. “It’s gonna be some knuckle-dragging sixty-year-old dude with death breath and a beer gut,” he said, a smirk lining his lips. “Or a lesbian.”
“Not marrying a lesbian.”
“How ‘bout the knuckle-dragging sixty-year-old?”
“There’s nothing wrong with a silver fox. After all those years of experience, I bet they know how to work it, even if it is old and wrinkly and their balls dangle so low they knock between their knees.”
Tate contorted his face like he’d taken a bite of something sour. “I think I puked a little in my mouth. Damn, why you gotta be like that, Dee?”
“You went there first.”
A cool blast of air swished through the bar as the door opened. This was it. The man I was to marry, or at least attempt mounting for the night—maybe the week if he was a good enough fuck.
“Oh my God.” Tate burst out laughing, pointing to the door of the bar. “It’s Jules! Fate is mean to your sorry ass.”