“Thanks. He’s a rescue from Northern Canada… Yukon is what we were told when he was released to us.”
“Ah, Yukon,” Dawson said wistfully. “Maybe he came from Brent’s area. He looks like a little husky.”
“With floppy ears and shepherd coloring, yeah.” Chase took a sip of his iced coffee, thinking about how sad Dawson’s story had been. Sometimes, people missed their chance because of stupid circumstances, and it sucked… especially when they were in an environment they didn’t feel safe in, like locker rooms filled with bigoted macho bullshit. He’d been lucky in many regards, but he understood enough to know why both guys had kept their secrets. If only Dawson and Brent had kept in touch. “Thanks for this… it’s good.”
“You’re welcome. You can buy on the next ride.”
Chase shot him a smile, feeling confident there would be a next time for them. “For sure.”
They sat in silence, side by side on one of the picnic tables bordering the busy parking lot. Chase was enjoying the coolness the early evening brought, but dreading telling Dawson his own story. He cleared his throat and twisted, setting his half-empty drink on the table. “Hank thinks I cheated on him.”
Dawson’s head swiveled toward him. “Did you?”
“Not in the way he thinks, but yeah, I kissed someone.”
“Shit happens, man. Did you tell him about it?”
“Didn’t need to. He saw it. This guy I was dancing with, and maybe even flirting with… he followed me into the bathroom… into a stall when I was taking a leak, and it happened. I don’t remember much, but I know I felt… like… overpowered by the whole thing… and… I was trying to get out of it without any drama, because I didn’t want it….”
“Ah, now it makes sense, what I heard. So, what happened?”
Chase took another sip before answering. “Like I said, Hank saw the whole thing. He showed up at “Endings” out of the blue, just in time to see me fucking up my entire life… and his.”
“Yeah… it’s a popular dance bar on the weekends.”
“Stupid name for a bar.”
Chase snorted. “Kind of prophetic, it turns out. It used to be called “Happy Endings” when it opened—which the owners probably thought was clever—but a storm shorted out the blue “Happy” section of the neon sign on the west side of the building, and now only the red “Endings” lights up, on the south side.”
“Oh, so it wrapped around a corner?”
“Exactly… probably because of the windows on the top level. Don’t know why they never fixed it—guess it’s totally fucked—but everyone calls it “Endings” now anyway. You’ve never seen it?”
Dawson shook his head. “Not a bar person, but I thought I knew all the ones on Church Street.”
“Yeah, it’s not on Church. You have to go east on Jarvis a couple of blocks.” Chase stared at his hands, avoiding the gaze he knew was on him. For the first time, he wondered just how Hank knew he’d been there. Had he taken a guess, or had he searched all the other bars for him first? The thought made him feel even more ashamed.
“So, what did Hank do when he saw you and… the guy?”
“He didn’t say anything?”
Chase shook his head. “I’d already hurt him bad, and I guess he saw all he needed to.”
“I turned down his proposal earlier that night. He made a special dinner for us, and then he gave me a rose as he knelt down on one knee. I… I couldn’t speak at first, and he asked me again… he kept talking, saying we could pick out rings together… and I could pick the spot… and the date… and then he asked me what was wrong. He… I can still picture how he looked when I finally found my voice and said I couldn’t marry him. It was awful… I got freaked out and… and I left. Just like that, I fucking left. I left him there… I stood up, dropped the rose, and left. Who the hell does that?”
“I don’t know what to say, man, but… hey, you must have had your reasons.”
Chase tried to quell the effects of the horrible memory, gritting his teeth in determination not to get emotional. “I…I did, and I figured them out, but that doesn’t help me now. He’s convinced I actually fucked that guy.”
“Why would he think you—”
“Because I didn’t go home for five hours after he saw me.”
“So? What does that have to do with it?”
Chase met his gaze. “Thanks, Dawson, for your support, but you must see his point. I was wrapped up in what I was feeling… not what he was going through, and I didn’t even think of how much time had passed. That was selfish. For five hours he was going crazy, wondering where I was… after what he’d seen. I just found out he came back to the bar again, not long after he left. I wasn’t there, and, according to him, neither was that guy, so he put two and two together, and got five.”
“But you didn’t, right?”
“See… it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It makes everyone wonder. No, I didn’t. The thing is, how do I get him to believe me? So many times I was going to call him that night, but I chickened out… mistake after mistake after fucking mistake.”
“I wasn’t wondering… and you can’t give up, for his sake and yours.”
“I’ve tried, but it’s no use. I blew it.”
“There must be a way. Why did he think I was the one from the bar?”
“Your hair and height apparently, and your scruff.” He studied his concerned friend’s face, but it didn’t trigger any memory. “Your hair is similar, I think. Other than dark hair, I don’t recall much about the guy… I think he was heavier than you, though… there wasn’t much room in… there.”
“Were you drunk?”
Chase nodded, his prior anger replaced by intense shame. What right did he have to be pissed at Hank? “I wasn’t falling-down drunk, but I sure wasn’t thinking straight.”
“Hey, we’ve all been there.”
Chase shook his head. “He doesn’t think much of drinking.”
“Okay… well, he sure looked upset, and that has to mean something.”
“Yeah… it means he hates me.”
“I doubt it’s that simple, not if he proposed to you. He needs to know the truth.”
“He saw the truth,” Chase said morosely, letting his guard down as his eyes watered.
“Give him time, man.”
“You don’t know him. He’ll never forgive what I did, and I have to accept that. Kevin is a better fit for him anyway.”
“Just an old friend I saw Hank with on Saturday. They looked good together… happy… until they saw me.”
“And you think—”
“I don’t want to think anymore. I just want to go home.”
Weeks passed, and Chase slowly adapted. He continued to see his doctor, and with each session, he came away a little lighter, better armed against the darkness, and carrying more clarity. Except for their previous appointment when, while he was on his way out the door, Dr. Chorney commented that he thought Hank would appreciate knowing the man Chase was becoming. When he asked what his therapist meant, the answer confused him even more. ‘You stand your ground now. It’s an admirable quality.’ He’d smiled an enigmatic smile, and said no more. Chase would have to wait.
He’d left confused about why Hank would appreciate that he stood his ground, whatever that meant, and why Dr. Chorney bring him up in such a cryptic way. It had to mean something, though. The doctor was an expert at throwing him off kilter and making him think. By the next morning, he’d concluded the doctor was trying to build up his confidence as he worked at moving on with his life. Fair enough. If nothing else, it was a stamp of approval.
Rex was adapting well. Chase now had him regularly, sometimes for days at a time. All he had to do was text Hank and then meet him in front of his building at a specified time, and do the same thing to return him. They greeted one another, even made small talk a few lines at a time, but there were boundaries neither one crossed. Anything personal was off-limits. It was sad as hell, and it had been ages since Hank’s dazzling smile made an appearance in his presence. His beautiful, expressive eyes were always shuttered now, giving little away.
Chase tried not to dwell on their new situation too much. At times he thought it was ridiculous to the point of silly—other times it made him angry at how Hank had thrown them away—but most times he just felt numb, and took this new reality in stride. At least Rex seemed happy. Having him at the condo was a godsend, and many an evening was spent on the rug in front of the TV, cuddling with his black and tan comforter, once the dog been worn out for the day.
Dawson, living right across the road, often came over for supper, or just a beer or two. Other times, Chase would drop by his place. The small backyard, shared with the basement tenant, was a nice place to relax, and had a kick-ass barbecue. And of course they biked together almost daily.
Their friendship was comfortable… they seemed to click on so many levels. There were times, though, he felt the other man staring at him, and he suspected there was interest there… a little anyway… or maybe it was just loneliness. Regardless, as much as he liked him, he couldn’t bring himself to invite anything more than friendship. Dr. Chorney told him he would get there, with someone, but there was no timetable he knew of, and would offer no advice other than to be careful with his heart.
He was on his way over to pick up Rex on a Thursday evening, anxious to see him after a tough day at work, and he pulled up to the entrance right on time. Surprisingly, no animal or person was waiting for him. Hank was always punctual, and he’d responded to his text in the affirmative, thirty minutes earlier. It was no big deal, so he pulled into one of the few parking spots available along the front of the building. Getting out of his car, he leaned against the back of it, and waited.
After a few minutes, he sent off a text to say he was there, but it went unanswered, and it wasn’t until ten minutes later Hank appeared at the entry… alone.
Chase pushed away from the back of his vehicle. “Hey, where’s Rex?”
“Sorry. Change of plans.”
“Why? Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. I’m going on a trip tomorrow morning, to Kevin’s dad’s cottage, and it’s a good place for him to just be a dog. You don’t mind, do you?”
Kevin again. Annoyance surged, but he tamped it down. “No, not at all. He’ll have fun, but why didn’t you just tell me that earlier?”
“Sorry, I just got off the phone with Kevin. It was a spur of the moment decision.”
“Okay, no problem, and say hi to Kevin’s dad for me, will you? He’s a cool guy.” He turned to leave when Hank responded.
“I won’t be seeing him, but I’ll tell Kev to pass it along—Gerry’s in the states for a couple of weeks, visiting family.”
Kev. His annoyance heightened. “I see…so it’s just you and him going?”
Hank nodded, meeting his gaze briefly as he did. “See you later.”
“Hank?” he called to the man’s retreating back.
Hank did a half turn. “Yeah?”
“Can we talk?”
“Sorry, I can’t now. I have a lot to do before we leave.” When he turned away again, Chase exploded with anger.
“You’re a fucking coward,” he said loudly, looking at Hank with disgust. He was deliberately issuing a challenge, knowing Hank would hate that.
“I said you’re a coward. You claimed you wanted to be friends, but you’ve put me off since you said it, and you can’t even face me. You owe me some respect at least, don’t you think?”
“Owe you? You’re kidding, right? I don’t owe you a goddam thing,” he spat out with his own sudden anger.
“You sure as fuck do.” Chase took a couple of steps closer, and so did Hank, stepping off the curb onto the driveway.
“Of all the gall… I wasn’t the one who fucked things up between us, or are you forgetting that?”
“No, you didn’t, not initially, but you were damn quick to walk away.” Bullseye! He’d scored a hit that had Hank sputtering.
“Jesus… I can’t believe you… what the fuck did you expect? I… no… look… no… this is getting us nowhere.”
“And there you go again. Run, Hank, run. It’s okay—Kevin’s a better choice for you anyway. Wait… no… scratch that. I’m the better choice, but all you see is your mom when you look at me.”
“How dare you! This has nothing to do with that woman so leave her the hell out of it!”
“Oh… struck a nerve, did I? Doesn’t it, though? You are so full of shit. Your mom was a cheater who destroyed your family—and your dad—and I get it, but don’t fucking paint me with that brush. It’s not fair, and the Hank I used to know would have realized that!” He’d gotten his wish, because Hank was now seething.
“You want to talk about what isn’t fair? Let me see… okay, that would be seeing your boyfriend, who just turned down your proposal with no fucking explanation whatsoever, making out with some random guy in a sleazy bathroom stall, and then staying out half the night without a fucking phone call. Don’t talk to me about fair, you sonofabitch!”
“Hey, no problem here,” he said, holding his hands up in supplication. “We both agree I fucked up, but so did you.”
Hank sputtered again, a thunderous expression clouding his face. “How in blazes did I fuck up?”
“By closing shop and running, and you’re still doing it. People make mistakes, Hank… that’s life, but you wouldn’t even let me explain, and that wasn’t fair… not to me or not to you.”
“Christ, you’re unbelievable. Okay, you want to explain? Go ahead then, explain, if you can.”
“Oh, I can, and I will. Yes, you asked me to marry you, and yes I turned you down, but do you know what I was thinking of?”
“No clue,” Hank answered, spitting the words out.
“Exactly my point! Shouldn’t you have wanted to know?”
“I had a few other things on my mind, so excuse me,” he answered sarcastically.
“Okay, at first, but since? Really? You didn’t want to hear why? I don’t get that.”
“Of course you don’t. You didn’t get your heart ripped out of your chest. You didn’t see what I saw, and you weren’t waiting for your boyfriend to come home, picturing him fucking someone else the whole goddam time. So forgive me if I didn’t want to hear any contrived excuses for something inexcusable.”
“Okay, some of what you say is true, and I’ve already apologized for being the world’s biggest idiot, for saying no to your proposal, for not thinking rationally after you left… for drinking too much… for everything… but you’re wrong about me not getting my heart ripped out. I’m sorry, Hank, but my heart was broken too. If that’s what you wanted, you sure as hell achieved it.”
Hank gave a derisive snort, but kept his mouth shut while he glared at Chase.
“All right. This is where we’re at then, but I’ll say my piece before I go. When you proposed, all I could think of was my mom. I had this overwhelming feeling I couldn’t explain at the time, not even to myself, but I can now. It was that I didn’t deserve to be happy when she was dead and buried. Six months should have been enough time to get past losing her, but it wasn’t—not for me—not when it came to a wedding ceremony she wouldn’t get to see or be a part of. I’m not going to apologize for feeling that way—no fucking way. I didn’t handle my mom’s illness well in the past, but I’m better now, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.”
Chase took a deep breath to steady himself. “I experienced this weird mess of emotions when you proposed, but I didn’t understand them, especially while you were staring at me and waiting for an answer… I panicked, Hank. I could hardly fucking breathe—that’s the truth—and I felt an anxiety attack coming on, so I took off because I didn’t know what to say after I said I couldn’t marry you. I… I didn’t know why those words left my mouth… but they did… and I didn’t know how to take them back.
“It took a while to sort through everything, but I figured most of it out by myself, the night you kept watch over me, and I really thought you would want to listen… but even now, after all this time, you don’t give a damn. I’m a victim of survivor’s guilt, according to Dr. Chorney. Look it up if you can be bothered.” Chase took another deep breath, but his strength didn’t desert him.
“I wanted to marry you, Hank… I did, and I’m sorry… you have to know that. I didn’t have any doubts once I calmed down, but I didn’t think I deserved you either. I know you scoffed when I said it before, but I knew I’d been a burden. I was scared and I was stupid and I was ashamed—and I just wanted to forget. So, I drank and I danced, and I’m sure I led that guy on—not intentionally—but what you saw was all that was ever going to happen. I wished I had been aggressive and pushed him away, but I was trying to avoid a big scene, and I thought it must have been my fault he thought he could follow me. I was never good at confrontation….” Feeling drained, he waited for Hank to respond. He didn’t have to wait long.
“It’s a damn good story, Chase. How long did it take you to come up with it?”
The angry glint he saw pissed him off. “Fuck you, Hank. I know who I am, but apparently you don’t. Believe me, don’t believe me, but you should have given us a chance before you latched on to Kevin. I didn’t latch onto anyone.”
“Yeah right!What about pretty boy Dawson?”
“We’re just friends.”
“Uh huh, sure. You’re just a fucking angel, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not, and I’ve never said I was. I’ve made mistakes and I own them… you should own yours.”
“Right. So are you and Kevin official?”
Hank’s hesitation gave him his answer. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no.”
“Yes, seriously! I don’t need to explain myself to you, but that’s what this weekend is about. We’re going to decide where we go from—”
“You’re going to fuck, you mean.” Chase said, his heart sinking. “Congratulations, Hank. I hope he loves you as much as I did.” He turned away, but quickly turned back. “I dragged you through a lot of crap when I couldn’t handle my shit, and I thank you for putting up with me, but I was wrong about not deserving you. I would have been there for you, past or future, if the situation was reversed and you were the one struggling.”
“I know that,” Hank snapped, but some of the previous derision had left his voice.
“Do you? Then how could you give me up so easily?”
“Because this is something different… you crossed a line, Chase, and you walked away from me… you ran, more like it, so don’t say something so ridiculous. I did not give you up.”
“Yes, Hank… you did, and you can’t even own it. At least now we know where we stand, right?” Hank didn’t answer, and Chase, resigned to the fact their conversation had put further distance between them, sighed before getting into his SUV and driving away. Hank was still standing on the pavement as he pulled out onto the road.
“Nothing. Got a beer?”
“Sure. Come in. Where’s Rex… thought you were picking him up?”
“So did I.” Following behind Dawson, he put his hand on his shoulder, effectively turning him around. Dawson peered curiously at him. Chase swallowed. “Can I… would you mind if I kissed you?”
“You want to kiss me?”
“Why? I mean, I wouldn’t mind, but… what’s going on here?”
“All right,” Dawson said, drawing the words out.
Chase took that for a yes. Before he could change his mind, he leaned forward, lightly touching the man’s lips with his own. Pulling slightly back, he stared at his friend’s handsome face. His eyes were closed and his lips were parted. What the fuck was he doing?
Dawson’s face inched closer, the invitation clear, and Chase kissed him again, this time with more pressure. As far as kisses went, it was good—sweet, tender—there was caring there. Chase pulled back again, and watched as Dawson’s eyes opened. For what seemed like an eternity, they stared at one another.
“Not such a good idea?”
Chase shook his head slowly. “Shit… sorry… I shouldn’t have… I don’t want to drag you into something that—”
“Don’t worry about me. Let me get that beer and we can go outside and sit. And you, mister, can tell me what is going on in that pretty little head of yours.”
“Can I have a raincheck? I think I need to be alone.”
Dawson stopped and turned around. “Was the kiss that bad?” He was smiling, and Chase forced himself to return it.
He shook his head. “No, definitely not, but….”
“I’m not Hank.”
“It… it felt like I was cheating.”
“Again, you mean.”
“Like at the bar… you need to let that go. Look, stop being so hard on yourself. A kiss is just a kiss, and you are not a cheater. Life goes on.”
“Tell that to the man I just went off on.I did tell him that, but he doesn’t agree.”
“Oh… that bad?”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this… come here and….”
“Kiss me? Stop. You haven’t been listening. You didn’t take advantage of me, and you sure as hell didn’t cheat on anyone. You think I don’t know where your heart is? Now, do you want that beer or not? I won’t let you kiss me again, I promise.”
His grin was contagious, and Chase snorted. “Was it that bad for you?”
“Hell no, but it’s been so long I might not be the best judge,” he said with genuine humor, and Chase immediately loosened up.
“Okay… I’ll have that beer.”
“Coming right up. So, why no Rex? I was looking forward to seeing him.”
“He’s going away to a cottage for the weekend, with Hank and Kevin.”
Dawson stopped at the fridge door and turned. “Just the three of them?”
“Yup. This is the weekend they’re going to fuck.”
“He said that?” Dawson’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline.
“No, not in so many words, but he said they were going to make some decisions on where they were, officially, and he didn’t deny it.”
“Fuck”—he handed Chase his beer—“good thing I bought another twelve-pack. I think we’re going to need it. And if that runs out, I’ve got wine.”
Thank you to my editor, Timothy, and to all those who read this story and share their thoughts so willingly. Please remember to leave a like on the front story page under the story description if you are enjoying the journey. Cheers!