Hank’s polite question seemed forced, but Chase refused to let it throw him. He was on a mission. “Actually, I’m doing all right. Better than the last time you saw me. How about you?”
“Listen, I was considering coming over tomorrow after work to pick up more of my stuff, and I thought maybe—”
Hank cut him off brusquely. “Sure. Whenever you want.”
“Okay… great. It’s not like there’s much. It’s mostly Mom’s paintings and a few dishes, I think.”
“And your bathroom stuff. I packed that up for you.”
“Right, thanks, I appreciate that.”
“No big deal,” Hank said in a flat tone.
The weird formality of their conversation was a reminder of the distance Chase had created between them, and it made him nervous as he worked up the courage to continue. “Look, any chance you want to go for dinner, or a coffee or something? I’d really like to have a talk and try to explain—”
“Thanks for the offer, but I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“Another time then? Maybe Saturday… or Sunday?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
Chase paused, a sudden surge of anguish taking his breath away. Nothing more came from the other side, until he spoke again. “I get it. Okay, well, I’ll try to get the rest out tomorrow.”
“It’s all boxed up, so it should be easy.”
“All of it? Even my mom’s dishes? That’s—”
“I was careful.”
Why did the man have to sound so curt? “I’m sure you were.”
“I divvied up the photos, and packed your office stuff too… gave you half the sheets, blankets and towels… you’ll see. Take whatever else you want,” he added in the same emotionless tone.
“All right.” Chase did his best to keep his voice neutral, but, for the first time since this all began, he felt a flicker of anger at the man. “I guess that’s it then. We should discuss Rex sometime.”
“There’s not much to discuss. You can take him whenever you want, and we can try to keep it equal if that works for you.”
“That would be the best… only if it’s okay with you,” he said, with some bitterness seeping out.
“It’s fine with me. He’s your dog too, and he shouldn’t have to pay for any of this.”
Chase felt the directed stab of his words, finally hearing some emotion in the man’s voice, but he carried on because Hank was right. “No, he shouldn’t. Since I haven’t got my own place yet—ah—I’ll let you know when I do. We can work out some kind of schedule and see how he handles it.”
“He’ll be fine with whatever,” Hank said dismissively. “Sorry, I have to go now.”
“Didn’t mean to keep you. Bye, Hank.”
The sudden click left him shaking. He had no right to be angry at his ex, but the man’s coldness hurt. He’d always treated Chase so lovingly in the past. He’d never seen or heard this Hank before, not towards him, but he got the message loud and clear: he didn’t want to see him in person. What happened to trying to be friends? A ball formed in the pit of his stomach, and he walked down the hall to his bedroom.
He was frustrated, wanting to talk about all the stuff he’d figured out, but the guy didn’t want to hear anything from him. Was he overreacting? Maybe Hank really did have plans for the entire weekend. But his tone… there was no mistaking that.
The desire to crawl into bed, pull the blankets over his head and let himself go numb, was overpowering, but he knew the consequences of giving in to it. He’d made a promise to himself, and to Cindy. He would never move on that way. Instead, he went back out to the living room, searched for apartments online, and worked on getting used to being by himself.
His mind wandered before eventually settling on his dad, and he wrote him a spur of the moment email asking where he was and how the trip was going. He stared at it without sending, and thought about his family. His mother had been the glue, but she was gone, and after his session with Dr. Chorney, he had a better understanding of his father’s retreat from his children. It was time for the threads to be pulled back together, and someone had to take the first step.
Deleting the polite, rather impersonal email, he started fresh. Opening up was difficult at first, but he thought about how his dad used to be—so easy to talk to—and it let him begin a much needed conversation.
“Hi, Dad. I know this trip is an escape for you, but we are still family, and we have to start talking again. I mean, really talking, like in the old days. Don’t you agree? Mom is gone, and that isn’t going to change, and we—you, me, and Cindy—are all we have. We need you, and I think you need us. I’m not so sure we are coping all that well. I want you to have a good time while you’re away, and I hope you are. Just know we love you, and when you do get back, whenever that might be, I want us to try to become a close family again. Cindy wants the same thing, and you know that’s what Mom would want.
“You should also know I’m staying at your place. I did something stupid, and Hank has ended things with us. Long story short—he proposed—I turned him down, which was a huge mistake on my part, and then I cheated. I got kind of drunk and kissed some guy at a club a few hours after the proposal, and had to pay the price for being so stupid.
“I don’t blame Hank. You know his mother’s history, and I was guilty of flirting, whether I wanted that kiss or not (which I didn’t). Anyway, I don’t want you to worry. I’m seeing Dr. Chorney again (two visits so far), and while I’m sad about what my life has become, I’m going to be okay. If I have to, I’ll go back on medication, but I don’t think it will be necessary.
“I’m in the process of looking for an apartment, and I found a few listings tonight that look promising, but it’s comforting to be here right now.
“If you could maybe send Cindy a longer email, and let her know how you are doing, I can assure you she would appreciate it. You know how she worries. But, be honest. If you’re not doing well, it’s okay to tell us. We don’t need protecting… we just need you.We are all guilty of saying we’re okay when we’re not. What would Mom think of that? I love you, Dad, and I miss you. Chase.”
He pushed send immediately, and then reread his words. It was the most he’d said to his dad at one time in years. It was both shocking and sad to realize that. He could pinpoint when everything changed. When the prognosis went from hopeful to terminal… It has spread again… incurable… she might have a year… the end will be painful… we’ll try to make her comfortable.
They’d all been dumbfounded at the doctor’s words… she’d looked healthy at the time, having already beaten her cancer, or so they’d thought. After that day, he and his dad had never watched a hockey or baseball game together again. Oh, they’d tried, but that ritual between them had died, and unless they did something with their mother, like watch a movie in her room, they were seldom all together. The whole family would go to separate corners once out of sight of Christine, whose decline was slow, but steady and heart-wrenching. The doctor had been wrong. She’d lasted a year, five months, three weeks, and two days.
Exhausted, he closed the lid of his laptop and leaned back, wishing he could stop thinking. Staring at the ceiling, a few tears leaked out. When would this get easier?
An hour or so later, he brushed his teeth and went to bed. Sleeping alone was hard, but he had no desire to share his bed with anyone but Hank. Turning toward the empty side, he hugged the second pillow and drifted off.
Friday was a busy day at work, but it helped him come out of the funk of the previous evening. Despite Hank’s reticence to see him, Chase began to feel more like himself. During morning coffee, he was able to peruse the online apartment ads without feeling despair. He even found a couple that looked promising. They were on the other side of the park from Hank, and the location could be a good option for Rex. Less upheaval for the three year old rescue dog who’d had a terrible start to life.
His back story wasn’t a good one. He’d come from a northern community, found homeless, leery of human contact, and starving when Animal Rescue rounded him and a few others up. It’d been love at first sight when they’d finally got to meet the one year old, having been on a waiting list for months. They’d been warned about bonding issues with these kind of rescues, but one day was all it took to win his floppy-eared devotion. Chase wanted to protect that trust, although it suddenly occurred to him Hank might not want him living so close.
Lunch was interesting, for different reasons. Reluctantly giving in to Allan’s gentle urging, he joined the other members of the team at a popular nearby restaurant. Sitting in a group was uncomfortable for him at first, with everyone talking and laughing, but he soon began to participate, at least in the talking part. It didn’t take long to clue in that one of the new paid-interns, a good-looking guy named Dawson, showed interest whenever their eyes met. He definitely pinged Chase’s gaydar, and he had to admit those big doe eyes with their long lashes were beautiful. His quick erupting laugh was also appealing, and Chase found himself responding to his attempts at conversation. But, after a not so unpleasant hour, he returned to work with someone else on his mind. The intern was handsome and charming, but he was no Hank.
He was just wrapping up his day when Dawson showed up at the open door to his office. “Hey, boss man, you busy?”
“Oh, ah, no I’m not, but don’t call me boss man, okay? That’s Allan. It’s just Chase.” He leaned back in his chair and peered across his desk. Yeah, definitely another ping on his gaydar, and the man was also nervous. “So, what’s up? You need help with something?”
“No, that’s not why I’m here. I was wondering if… if maybe you’d like to get some dinner?”
“Thanks, but no, I can’t.”
Dawson flushed with sudden color. “Okay, I understand. No harm in trying, is there?”
“No, no harm at all. Nothing personal, but my boyfriend and I just broke up, and I wouldn’t be good company. Sorry.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. It’s okay. Like I said, I understand.”
“You heard?” Chase asked, caught completely off guard. He hadn’t told any of his co-workers. “From where?”
“Krista. I kind of asked her about you. Sorry if I overstepped.”
Ah, Allan’s trusted assistant. Of course his boss would tell her. “You didn’t, Dawson, and I’m flattered. It’s just bad timing.”
“Oh… yeah… I know all about bad timing. You might even call me an expert.” He smiled, but those big, expressive eyes said something different, suddenly looked vulnerable. “If you ever just want to talk, I’m a good listener, no strings.”
“Thanks. Maybe some other time, okay?”
“Sure, well, have a good weekend then. See you Monday.”
“See you Monday.” He watched the man turn and leave. The invitation had been totally unexpected, and he really had no interest in starting something, but he couldn’t help feeling bad for Dawson. There was a story lurking behind that fleeting vulnerability. Chase had his own troubles, though. Sighing, he stood up. It was time to get the rest of his things from his old apartment. One trip should do it if he packed his SUV carefully. Texting Hank to confirm his plans, just in case, he waited, but got no response.
This time Rex was there, spinning in circles when Chase opened the door, and he melted into a puddle on the floor, right there in the entry. Falling backwards, he allowed the dog to have his way with him. It was nice to be so missed. There was nothing in this world like doggy kisses, and Rex was intent on setting a new record. Chase let him try, finally sitting up, giggling, and playing the ‘where’s my hand’ game with him until he calmed down. Knowing, with all the excitement, Rex would need to go out, he called an end to the love session and got up. He chuckled when Rex went over and sat under the hook that held his leash, his tail thumping wildly against the wall.
“Okay, boy. Let’s go. No, we’re not taking your ball. All right, you win, but we’re not staying out there all night, got it?”
His answer was a whine and a few more spins, making it a challenge to clip on the leash. His face was a constant target for sloppy tongue swipes as he leaned over Rex, held only barely still by the grip of Chase’s legs.
As always, the dog led the human to his favored spot in the adjoining park. After he did his business and Chase had disposed of it in one of the pails provided, he threw the ball into a stand of spruce trees for Rex to search out. As he awaited his return, his eyes swept the park, stopping at a solitary figure sitting at a picnic table on the far side of the big open field.
The man was hunched over, wearing a ball cap, and his back was to him, but Chase knew instantly who he was. His heart sank as he saw proof Hank had no plans for the evening.He was definitely avoiding him. Why else would he be sitting in the park without Rex? He’d obviously gotten Chase’s text. I won’t be here tomorrow. Those had been Hank’s exact words the day before.
A nudge to his knee got his attention, and he leaned down and clipped the leash before Rex could spot Hank. That would be way too awkward to deal with, and all he wanted to do was grab his stuff and leave.
He struggled to breathe—the world felt like it was closing in on him—but he forced himself to keep walking. Hank’s talk about being friends proved once again to be bullshit. His ex hated him because of what he’d done, and Chase had to accept it, along with the emotional turmoil that came with it.
Everything was packed neatly. Hank had even wrapped each of the eleven paintings in brown paper and marked which was which on the side. That would have taken some effort, and it confused Chase. He was convinced Hank hated him, but this was the act of someone who cared… wasn’t it? Or was he seeing something that wasn’t there?
Five medium-sized boxes were marked as well, but the only one Chase cared about was the one that said “Christine’s China.” It took half an hour to get everything to his car, and the whole time he wondered if Hank would appear. Part of him wanted him to, and part of him didn’t.
One last check around the apartment had him stepping into the bedroom. He wasn’t surprised to see only one pillow on the neatly made bed. It didn’t matter anymore. Someday, a different head would be on a new one.
Checking the closet one last time, he had the answer to what happened to his pillow. It was in the corner on the top shelf. At least it hadn’t been thrown away. With eyes burning, he put it under his arm and left the room. No more games. He was letting Hank know he accepted he no longer belonged here.
Hugging his dog, he told him how sorry he was for screwing up his life. Rex’s brown eyes held no judgement—just love, and Chase welcomed the gentle face washing that seemed to say he understood. Too bad Hank didn’t.
Sighing as he stood up, he took one last look around the room, and left. Halfway up the hallway, he realized something. Turning around and walking back, he pushed his ring of apartment keys through the mail slot. An audible whine came from the other side of the door.
“I know, buddy… I feel the same way,” he muttered softly.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to my editor, Timothy. Does it seem to you that Chase is making headway? Is Hank being a jerk? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts if you can. Cheers!