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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
2018 - Fall - Fight Back Entry

Lifting the Veil - 1. Chapter 1 The Tree

Warning: Mention of physical abuse and suicide.

Chapter 1 The Tree

 

 

Chester, forced by conditions to slow down, began picking his way cautiously through the overgrown field of tall, brown, brittle weeds. He’d already stumbled once when he caught the pointy toe of his dress shoe on something unseen, and his slippery soles were proving to have zero traction on the dead vegetation.

Despite some misgivings, he continued up the incline, breathing heavily. His destination might be a mystery to him, but he knew where he didn’t want to be—just couldn’t be—and he didn’t give a fuck how it looked. Standing in a graveyard watching dirt being thrown on Mark’s casket would have been too much to bear.

He’d felt like a hypocrite during the entire funeral service, acutely aware most eyes in the small group of mourners were fixed on him and his reactions, waiting to witness tears that didn’t come. Well, he’d attended—done his duty as the widower—but no way was he was going to fake a grief he wasn’t able to feel.

It was a step too far, especially since his arm still hurt from the last time it’d been wrenched behind him, scant days before. It used to be one of Mark’s favorite opening moves when something set him off, and he’d eventually learned exactly how much to twist without breaking anything.

But, oh God, the pain. Pain, as tendons stretched and muscles popped… an agony that made him whimper like a child and beg forgiveness for something merely imagined.

In the end, it turned out to be Mark’s parting gift to him, a complement to the ugly hidden bruises circling his neck. Experience told Chester it would be weeks yet before all his physical aches subsided. No, grief wasn’t within his reach on this day. At most, all he could feel was a dull anger mixed with fear. The anger was new.

Chester, feeling close to suffocating during the service, had yanked off his tie and opened his irritating collar as soon as he’d gotten into his get-away car. He hadn’t had one high enough to cover the damning evidence, and fretted over wearing a turtleneck to the funeral, thinking it both inappropriate and a red flag to his family. The last thing he needed was probing questions.

Fortunately, he’d remembered a vintage, over-sized, dark grey shirt with one of those ludicrous collars that made him think of Elvis, and a faint but ugly paisley pattern, buried in Mark’s side of the closet. He was good with a sewing machine, and altered it sufficiently enough to do the job. Along with a little concealer, his subterfuge had been a success. He could imagine the shock if the attendees had gotten an eyeful of the near solid ring of purple, black, and yellow… his husband’s final masterpiece.

Having been numb for days, he allowed his thoughts to wander to that night, and the full horror of it slammed into him. He was caught off guard when an avalanche of tears suddenly sprung forth, blurring his vision and causing him to stumble once more. What the hell? When the call had come that Mark was dead, he’d sunk to the floor of their apartment, but not a single tear had been generated. Fuck! Why now?

It was over. It was all over. Were these tears of relief? He hadn’t broke, and none of his family, or Mark’s few—other than maybe his always hard-to-read mother—were any the wiser. His secret was safe. Mark’s secret was safe.

He hadn’t taken a false step during the entire ordeal, and those few mourners likely thought he’d left the service because he was devastated. Poor Chester. That perception was just fine with him. He’d succeeded, and his shame was his own. He’d always guarded it closely, and he always would.

He tripped a couple more times in succession while wiping furiously at his eyes, but it was wasted effort. Yeah, it was just a reaction after all the stress… had to be. He’d learned a long time ago that tears achieved nothing… they only made things worse.

Finally topping the rise, with his pulse racing and his lungs gulping air, he stood motionless. One tree stood out on the down side of the hill, and Chester fixed his watery vision on it. It struck him as being weirdly out of place, but there was something about the alien-looking goliath that spoke to him immediately. It appeared to shimmer as he blinked rapidly, before suddenly coming into focus.

The tree looked skeletal, all its leaves gone save for a few withered and curled remnants, but it was ethereally beautiful, with branches that barely cleared the ground reaching out in seeming invitation.

Mark… Mark, weeks from his twenty-fourth birthday, would soon be skeletal too, the flesh gone from his handsome face and powerful body.

Something twisted in his chest as he stared at the tree, and he got lost in a memory. A picture formed in his mind of the boy he’d met while attending his final year of high school. Mark had been a fascinating stranger who’d moved into a tiny house, a few doors down from Chester, partway through the first term.

The first thing to catch his eye, after he’d almost walked into him on the sidewalk, was the pink triangle worn prominently on a green canvas jacket. He hadn’t thought about that pin in ages, but the memory pierced him as he recalled Mark’s challenging eyes after he’d stared open-mouthed at the iconic gay symbol. That had been the beginning.

It wasn’t until weeks later that they’d talked for the first time. What he remembered most was how much he’d stammered and how heated his face had gotten, finally interacting with this man he’d dreamed about every night since that first encounter. He could still feel the echoes of that embarrassment all these years later.

Mark had been a loner—quiet, noticeably bright those few times he spoke up in class, and beautiful. He was perfection to an infatuated Chester, with his longish and wild dark hair—a defiant throwback that matched his hippie-like wardrobe—and yes, his aloofness. He’d had no idea what that standoffish, antisocial attitude would become.

He’d been drawn to the man like a moth to a porch light, this enigma who could appear angelic one moment, and frightening the next. The casual disinterest—and a demeanor bordering on surly—had been intriguing to an innocent Chester. He couldn’t have given up if he’d wanted to after that deep voice had finally acknowledged him… not back then, and not years later. The first time Mark had pulled him roughly into his arms, the yeasty smell of beer on his breath, had been life-changing.

One kiss. That’s all he’d given him before he sauntered away without a backward glance. But it had done its work. Chester was his from that moment on.

It didn’t matter he wasn’t treated the best, ignored at times, and that Mark had a tendency to yell at him when he was angry. All that mattered were the times he let Chester love him. In those moments, in the beginning, he could be astonishingly tender and kind, and would reveal a vulnerability that became increasingly rare as time passed.

He hadn’t thought of that Mark in years. That was not the one who was now buried beneath the earth in the cheapest composite-wood box the funeral home stocked, but, in hindsight, there’d been signs he existed. He’d just never let himself give them any credence. The man had even warned him in a few reflective moments, but Chester refused to listen.

Wiping his tears again, Chester, feeling dazed and a little overwhelmed, turned around to get his bearings. He spotted the roof of his car in the now distant parking lot. This park had been the place he would escape to those few times he could evade Mark’s control, but he’d never explored this unkempt little valley before. It could even be private property, but there were no buildings in sight… or people.

He didn’t understand what he was doing here. There was no reason to fear going home—not anymore. The boogeyman had vacated the premises, and he was never going to hurt him again. Yet, here he was, standing on a hill in the biting cold, alone and… afraid… afraid of what his life was, and where his thoughts were going.

Usually, he picked an isolated bench away from the picnic area, spending what little time he had trying to convince himself to leave an abusive relationship that kept him off kilter every day of his life. He got no enjoyment from it, and he hated the pain. Yet, his attempts to find the courage had always been futile because Mark’s hold on him was unassailable. Even when his husband had ranted and raved and told him to get out, Chester had stayed. That was his most shameful secret.

He turned back to the tree, and for an instant, experienced a surprising peace as it pulled at him. It struck him again how there was something about it… something familiar… something compelling, like it would embrace… hide… soothe… rescue him. It was a ridiculous notion, but still, it beckoned.

The weak sun chose that moment to be bashful, and Chester shivered as he walked down the gentle slope. He should be heading the other way, back to his car, but the compulsion was too strong.

Sinking down onto the surface of a massive root, Chester felt immediate comfort as he leaned back against the trunk. He wondered what kind of tree this was that spread out rather than up, its largest branches looking like gnarly old arms. It had to have been here for a century or more. Pulling his thin jacket’s collar up, he closed wet eyes, wincing at the pain lancing through his head but feeling a strange calm nonetheless.

His thoughts stuttered and stalled as he settled in, before eventually returning to his dead husband. His mind was playing tricks, and he sensed the man’s presence as he breathed deeply and remembered those times the man would pull him close to keep him warm, always remarking on how Chester was a wuss who couldn’t take the cold.

Mark would complain halfheartedly, but he would do it, even lending his jacket on occasion. It’d been a long while since those arms had given comfort, but he could almost feel them wrapping around him now.

This past year, he’d seen them more as restraints, and with each failure his volatile husband experienced, his big hands brought more punishment, more often. Even on the good days, a slap or a pinch was a given. Mark’s anger, inflamed by straight vodka, succeeded in destroying anything good in his life—including every job he was able to talk his way into. Chester was sure that growing rage would be the end of him one day, and he’d actually resigned himself to it. The idea of fighting back never crossed his mind.

He tentatively allowed his thoughts to go to that early evening before the phone call. In a frantic, body-convulsing moment, with Mark’s crazed eyes inches from his own and his fingers tightening brutally around his throat, he’d managed to expel enough air to beg for his life. Two words… pleasedon’t.

Though he was pleading for Mark not to kill him, he really didn’t expect a reprieve—and wasn’t sure he even wanted one. It might have been better to have kept quiet, but his survival instinct had other ideas.

He’d been too terrorized to make eye contact after he was released from death’s grip, but it was the exact moment the man had sent another chair sailing through the air and walked out the door.

Chester had sobbed briefly—in shocked relief he supposed—once his lungs gulped enough oxygen, but soon got up and cleared away the mess that always accompanied the fury. He fought serious dizziness while working furiously to repair a broken slat with wood glue and fill the dented drywall with compound. He’d become adept at these things.

He had to be prepared for Mark’s reappearance, and there could be no reminders of what had happened… that was his responsibility. This time, though, there’d been no return. Only a half-heard phone call, followed by a visit from the police, and then a surreal trip to the morgue.

Sighing, Chester pictured a different face now. The one filled with a remorse he’d always believed genuine after a violent episode. He couldn’t possibly count how many times he’d seen it in their years together. He could recall some remnants of the accompanying apologies—ones that used to mean something to him before they began to ring as empty words. Yet, that shame-filled face had continued to fascinate him, and he would watch it closely while he gave the expected absolution, telling Mark everything was all right.

Right up until his unexpected death, Chester had found it convincing. He was robbed of the last one, but Chester hadn’t needed to see it to know it was there before his husband walked out the final time. It was the closest the man had come to actually killing him.

The tree felt solid and strangely warm against his back. He was looking out towards the nearing sunset while tears fell like silent rain. Here, in solitude, Chester admitted to himself he was finally grieving.

The previous four days were a blur as he’d gone about organizing everything. It gave him something to do, and he’d spurned any help because he was used to being isolated from those who’d offered. It was a hard habit to break, and he just wanted it over with—all that went with this sudden suicide he couldn’t… wouldn’t explain. He would not expose their life, so let them all speculate as to why Mark took the path he did. Chester would protect him, even in death.

As scared as he was of the man, he’d loved him, but lately he’d come to think of that love in the past tense, and for some reason that made him feel guilty. The lack of tears, until arriving here, had heaped on to that feeling, and now he needed to face some truths.

The fact was, at the core of his being, he’d grown to harbor hate for his husband. As this new acknowledgement was allowed to surface, his heart lurched at the remorse he felt. It was painful to admit, but it wasn’t some big revelation, and he wondered if that hatred was what had kept him from shutting down altogether.

There had been a time when a fierce and determined love outweighed the fear, and all he’d wanted to do was help Mark defeat his demons. But, he’d eventually accepted he was powerless as the stretches of peace became shorter and shorter. The monster who’d slept beside him every night, hadn’t wanted his help.

Chester never knew all the details, but the explosive anger most assuredly derived from a childhood the man would never talk about, and an abusive drunk of a father who’d disappeared a couple of years before Mark and his mother moved onto Chester’s street. A sure way to set him off—really set him off—was to bring the man up. He’d learned that lesson the hard way.

Mark’s mother was a shell of a woman, reluctant to speak of the past. He’d pushed, but got very little in the way of answers. No bond existed between her and her son, but there was no animosity either. In the same room, not that it occurred very often, they’d been shadows to each other, barely speaking, and never about anything of consequence.

It was depressing to watch, and Chester had given up expecting any kind of assistance from her. She had to know what he endured, though, and what her son was capable of. She’d seen Chester’s bruises and the periodic physical limitations, yet never once asked any questions.

Groaning at the stab of pain in his shoulder as he hunched his body against the plummeting temperature, he wondered if he’d become a shell too. Mark had been his entire life, with everyone else kept at arm’s length. He had nothing now. Their apartment—his apartment—was rife with memories he didn’t want to relive, and the man’s presence filled every doorway still.

Chester had no idea who he was without his husband, and he was weary. He hadn’t been able to help him, hadn’t been able to stand up to him, and somewhere along the line, he’d lost the ability to love the man. Mark had a valid point the times he’d called him useless… those oh so many times. In his mind, he’d known it for what it was—conditioning—but it had worked, and knowing its purpose didn’t change the fact the best parts of him had ceased to exist a long time ago.

Nothing would change in the world if he left it. Because of choices he’d made, his family was already used to being without him, and the distance was verified in the awkwardness at the service. His friends weren’t even really friends—he was never allowed those—just acquaintances from a workplace that was pure drudgery.

Except for Jordy. Despite his resistance, Jordy, who worked on the same floor, had managed to forge a connection with him. He hadn’t exactly breached his walls, but he’d gotten Chester to drop them a few times in weak moments. Jordy… yeah, he could make him laugh, and his kind eyes were beautiful to look into. The man could actually make him feel joy, if only for a minute here and there, before cautionary fear took over.

Jordy always seemed to know when he was in pain—his eyes and his voice would soften, and one time he’d rushed to support him as he went out the door to the stairs. He’d asked once about a darkened wrist, but accepted one of Chester’s practiced lies, at least on the surface, and never pried again.

But he’d made the offer to be there if he ever needed help, and tried to get him to take his phone number, unsuccessfully of course. Yeah, he knew… something, and Chester had felt both the mortification and the danger of it.

Hopes of something better were dashed a long time ago. Mark, and his own lack of spine, had seen to that. He’d had dreams at one time, and should have taken a stand when Mark nixed his long-standing intentions to attend college. But, at that time, he was so hopelessly in love that he’d accepted the plans for their future: moving away, getting hitched, and relying only on each other. Telling himself it was romantic was how he justified the intense disappointment. What a fool he’d been.

One of his knees protested as he brought them up closer to his body, but in his world, something always ached. He was so tired… so incredibly tired, and his eyes grew heavy. As his mind slowed to match his breathing, he imagined the tree embracing him, pulling him inward to a place of peace and warmth….

 

“Chester… Chester!”

“Mark? Is that you, Mark?”

“Yes, baby, it’s me.”

“I don’t understand… how… it’s… it’s so dark. Where… where are we… why can’t I see you?”

Silence followed his question.

“Answer me, Mark! Is it… because you’re dead?”

“Yes… I’m dead, and we… we’re in different places.”

“Oh. Is it dark where you are? I can’t see anything.”

“It’s not dark… it’s… different.”

“What does that mean?” Chester heard laughter. It was a quick bark, but it rang with real humor, like it could—sometimes—in the old days.

“You, always with the questions.”

Chester had to think about that. Yeah, he did ask a lot of questions when they first became a couple. It used to piss the man off. His husband must be thinking of the way he used to be. “Mark?”

“Yeah?”

“Is it okay if I ask you something?”

“It’s why I’m here, Chester.”

“Oh. Okay. Why did you do it?”

“Why—”

“Why did you do that to your wrists? It looked so awful… and… and why did you leave me here all alone?”

“Because… you know why, Chess. I had to.”

“No one has to do that.”

“I did. I had no choice.”

“Was it because of what I said? When I asked you to… stop? I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t have killed me.”

Silence again before Chester heard a wailing sound. He waited, unsure, and a little frightened as he recalled those big hands crushing his throat.

“That’s bullshit. You know damn well I could have, and I never wanted to do that.”

“Mark—”

“I died because of what I did, not anything you said. I could have ended your life that night—I came so close—and there was only one way to guarantee it wouldn’t happen. I needed to set you free. I hoped you’d leave me, but you never did, and you never would have.”

Chester thought about his husband’s answer, and knew he was right. A part of him had always known his death was a possibility, and he’d accepted it. “Why… why did you have to hurt me?”

“Because I was sick.”

“If… if you knew that, why didn’t you get help? Sick people get help. I really wish—”

“It takes something I didn’t have. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t either. I wanted to stop being so angry… I really did.”

“Why did I make you—”

“You never made me angry.”

“Yes, I did. I would do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, and—”

“I was always angry, Chess, and I took it out on you. It wasn’t anything you did or said.”

“But, why then?”

More silence followed, but Chester’s conditioning kept him quiet.

Finally, Mark’s voice returned, and there was an echo to it, as if it were farther away. “My dad. He was always angry too.”

“Did he beat you?”

There was silence again, and this time it lasted longer.

“Mark? Mark, please?”

The voice that eventually spoke was fainter. “The beatings were easy. I could take them, but the other stuff….”

“What other stuff?”

“Do I really need to tell you?”

“Yes! I think I deserve some fucking answers.”

“Well, look at you, getting mouthy. You’re right, though. You do deserve answers.” Chester thought he heard a sob, but that was impossible because Mark never cried. “He raped me, Chess. He used to make me do other stuff. My mom, she knew, but she was afraid of him. I don’t blame her… I did, but not anymore. She was right to fear that bastard.”

“He… he raped you? And she knew?”

“Maybe… I think so. We never talked about it, but she knew what he made me do almost every night… before that. He always blamed her… said she left him no choice because she was a frigid bitch. When he raped me it was because he saw my pink triangle. He said people would talk, but I told him I didn’t care and that I had nothing to hide. I threatened him, and you don’t threaten my dad. I pushed too far.”

“Oh, Mark, I’m so sorry. I wish you’d told me this before. Is that when he disappeared?”

“No. I wish, but no. He decided he liked it… raping me.”

“Mark—”

“He didn’t disappear. I killed him. I murdered my own father.”

“Jesus. What… what happened?”

“I fought back, and he ended up dead.”

“Oh… but you were… what did the police—”

“The police never knew. Only my mom did. I got rid of him, and that’s all you need to know.”

“You’re right, it is. He deserved it, Mark.”

“I know that, but I should have left before…. I wanted him dead—I used to dream about doing it.”

“You shouldn’t have had to leave. You were just a kid.”

“A kid who beat his father with a brick until long after he stopped breathing. It never went away… what he did… what I did… what my mom did. Every day it was there, and every day I was angry.”

“If only we could have—“

“No! Don’t do that! Please. I’m at peace now, and I want you to be too. I need you to be. Don’t think about the past or what might have been. I was too damaged. I knew that. If I had taken another life—if I had taken yours—I would never have had this peace, no matter where I ended up.”

“I loved you, Mark.”

“I know you did. I loved you too. Showing it was hard, but I loved you as much as I could. I’m sorry it wasn’t more, but you’re free now, and that’s because I did love you. If you remember nothing else, please remember that.”

The weight around Chester’s heart lightened upon hearing those words. “I will… I promise.”

“Thank you.” A discernible sigh followed. “Chester?”

“Yes?”

“I know what you’ve been considering, but don’t. Live your life, and don’t mourn the man I was. I don’t deserve that. And don’t ever think death is the easy way out.”

“How could… why not? It was for you.”

“No, it wasn’t… you have no idea, but it was necessary. For both of us. Do you understand now?”

It was Chester’s turn to sigh. This was all so surreal, but he’d needed to hear that. “I think so. I’m going to try to.”

“Good. I have to go.”

“Why? Where do you have to go?”

“It’s hard to explain, and I can’t anyway. Others need to speak, and you need to wake up. It’s snowing, and freezing to death is not the right choice.”

“Mark?”

“Wake up, Chester.” The faint whisper was followed by silence.

Chester called again, but his husband was gone.

 

When he half-opened his eyes, the cloud-covered sun was touching the horizon. He immediately widened them as he recalled his strange dream, and blinked at the moisture on his eyes. It was snowing—the first snowfall of the season.

Snowing? Mark had said that in his dream… how did he know? He sat up straighter, out of a deep indent in the tree. He frowned as he looked behind him. He was certain the trunk had been flat when he’d first leaned against it. Time slowed, and he began to tremble as his mind struggled to comprehend the situation. With every second, it became clearer something which defied explanation had taken place.

Mark had killed his father? With a brick? After years of unspeakable abuse? Did Chester conjure that up in his head while he slept? Did he need an explanation so bad he made one up? No, there was too much detail. Way too much.

And how did Mark know he’d been contemplating staying here through the night, letting the forecasted freezing temperatures take him? He hadn’t even allowed himself to actually acknowledge his plan. Of course, that might be easier to explain. Subconsciously, he knew his own mind, maybe? But… the snow. Was he aware it was snowing while he was sleeping? That was far-fetched, wasn’t it?

Forcing his limbs to work, he stood. One thing for certain… he didn’t want to die. Not anymore. Stomping his feet, he felt some life flow back into him, and with it, the slow realization he’d been given a gift. He wasn’t going to question it, and would choose to believe his husband had peace now. That thought gave him some too. For the first time since the phone call, he smiled. Mark had made his choice out of love.

Taking in the beauty of the glowing horizon, he stretched widely and shivered. He could recall every word of their ‘dream’ conversation, and was now convinced the entire thing had been real, if on a mystical level he couldn’t fully rationalize. He didn’t need to… it only mattered that Mark had set him free.

Chester understood him now more than he ever had when he was alive. The uncertainty of who the man was had been present from their first interaction—and no wonder—but now he could make some sense out of what he’d endured… and what Mark had endured.

He’d witnessed the battles his husband had fought within himself, but had no idea how deep his pain went, or how horrible the reasons were for such quick, almost constant anger… until this moment. Compassion was awakening in him, and with it, he could feel the love again. It was a relief, despite Mark’s permanent absence.

Theirs was a flawed love, terribly so—some might even say sick, and he understood that—but it had been real. Mark had loved him… as much as he could.

That was enough; he’d always known his capacity to love outweighed his husband’s. His death wasn’t Chester’s fault, and he got that now too. Mark had made his choice out of love.

The Mark he’d only ever had glimpses of, had withered and died a long time ago, and it was time to talk to his mother-in law. She needed to know her son didn’t blame her either.

Trudging back up the incline, he still wasn’t sure what had brought him to this place. Was it luck, fate maybe, or a desire to end his pain? Was it Mark who brought him to the tree? And that tree… it had proved to be… magical. He had no other words to describe it. Either way, he was leaving feeling better than he had in months… maybe even years.

He turned back for one last look before he crested the hill. The layered sky was subtly breathtaking, seen through big, lazy flakes of snow. It was an unusual combination he’d never noticed before. And the tree… the tree had taken on an otherworldly cast. It was a piece of living art in a dying field, silhouetted by a retiring sun. Chester shivered again, but not from the chill.

“Thank you, Mark,” he spoke aloud.

He didn’t receive an answer… he hadn’t expected one. Mark was no longer on this earth, and Chester was okay. Watching his feet, he picked his way in the lesser light.

Looking up as he topped the rise, he was surprised to see a figure coming up the hill towards him. There was no mistaking Jordy’s frame, that powerful stride, or his long, heavy wool coat. Standing still, he wondered how the man had found him, and even more, why he’d sought him out in the first place.

“Hi. You okay?” Jordy’s deep baritone asked.

Chester stared into those kind eyes as his friend stopped in front of him. “I am. What are you doing here?”

“I was worried. Are you sure you’re all right? You look cold.”

“I’m freezing, but I’m good. You didn’t need to worry.”

“Yes, I did. I saw the way you were when you left the service. What are you doing out this way?”

“I had to do some thinking. It all—everything felt wrong—so I was sitting under a tree.”

“Sitting? In these temperatures? Did it help?”

Chester glanced behind him, once again contemplating his puzzling experience. Nodding as he took in a tree that appeared a little more ordinary now, he answered. “It did.”

“Good. Mark was the one who hurt you, wasn’t he.”

When he turned back, he saw those eyes flick to his exposed throat. Damn. “Jordy—”

“Look, I’m not prying, and I already know the answer.”

“Yes, you are, but… I don’t mind.” Chester was surprised to find he actually meant it.

“You don’t? I only want to help, and I think talking and saying it out loud is… never mind. You don’t need me to—”

“Hey, it’s okay, really. You’ve been a good friend—my only one, to be honest.”

“I kind of thought that. It’s hard to have friends when you have… that kind of secret.”

“You’re pretty perceptive. So, how did you know where I was?”

“You mentioned this place once, and since you weren’t at your apartment, I tried here and spotted your car. Checked the park first, before I saw the broken weeds.”

“Jeez… are you a tracker in your spare time?”

The taller man grinned. “Nah, just perceptive.”

“Obviously. And just why is that? How… how did you pick up that Mark was… hurting me? Nobody else at work did.”

Jordy sighed. “I know the signs. My sister was married to a man who almost killed her. He’s behind bars now… people notice things, though, Chester.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing… ah, just that people, like family, well, they pick up on stuff because they care. Our secrets are never as safe as we think.”

“I don’t… why are you saying this stuff?”

“Your family, ah—”

“What about my family?” Chester cringed at the thought of his parents and sister knowing his secret.

“I saw the way you interacted today… or didn’t. I could see they wanted to….”

“I don’t want them to know,” he said haltingly.

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, I do. Look… I get it… how difficult it is, but sometimes we need our family… or our friends.” A contrite expression replaced the earnest one. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep, but they’re worried about you. I can tell, because I’ve been worried too. My sister… she was pretty lost for a while, and did her best to shut me out.”

“And of course you wouldn’t let her.”

“Nope, I cared too much. Once she let me in, things got a lot better.”

Chester got the message. He looked away, picturing his mother’s face this time.

“Hey, you okay?”

Swallowing, Chester attempted to change the subject. He didn’t want to consider what his family might suspect… nor the idea of opening up to them… not now. “Yeah, I’m fine. Your sister? Ah, okay, I get it. So that’s why you kept pushing to be my friend?”

“At first, yeah. Here, take my coat.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Smiling, but with a look of determination, Jordy shrugged it off and held it out.

When he hesitated, the man stepped closer, and Chester immediately jerked backwards.

“Hey, I would never hurt you.”

He smiled sheepishly. “I know that. Sorry. It was a reflex.”

“No need to apologize… or explain. Now, will you please put this on? You’ve been sitting on freezing ground, and you’re going to catch your death.”

“I’m fine, really.”

“Humor me anyway. Hold out your arm. Please?”

Chester’s thoughts returned to the times Mark had given him his jacket, and how much the gesture had meant to him. Sighing, he gave in and lifted an arm, allowing Jordy to put it on him. His protest was mild as he felt immediate warmth. “Now you’ll be cold.”

“No, I won’t. The cars are ten minutes away, and as long as we’re moving, I won’t get chilled. You’re all set now,” he said as he did up the buttons for Chester. “Ready to go?”

“I am, but my feet feel like blocks of ice.” Breathing deeply through his nose, he felt a little thrill at the scent now enveloping him.

“Take my arm. It’s getting too dark to see up ahead. Are you sure you’re okay? I mean with the funeral and—”

“I’m sure, Jordy. I know this will sound weird, but Mark and I had a talk today, and I finally understand things I needed to.”

“It doesn’t sound weird.”

“No? Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked as he took the offered arm. It felt good, and it didn’t feel wrong.

“I believe in a lot of things, but it’s what you believe that matters.”

Chester pondered his words and smiled. “Yes, I guess it is. So what did you mean when you said at first?”

“Ah, I thought you’d missed that.”

“I’m perceptive too. Had to be.”

The man slowly bobbed his head up and down as they walked. “Yeah, I expect you did. I wasn’t exactly truthful. First, I approached you because I found you incredibly attractive, and then I saw the signs and… and later I saw the ring. You weren’t wearing it the first time we met.”

“It had to be cut off when my fingers were broken.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s all in the past.”

“It’s good to hear you say that. So, have you eaten today at all?”

Chester stopped and turned slightly so he could see his face in the dim light. He had an urge to reach up and brush the snow out of the man’s hair, but refrained. “Jordy, I really like you. You’re a good friend to come looking for me like this, but… I’m damaged goods.”

“That’s your opinion, and I respect it. I really like you too, and I can wait until you see yourself differently.”

“That could take a long time.”

“I’m aware, believe me, but I can wait a long time.”

Chester saw the quick flash of a grin. “But… why would you want to?”

“Okay, I wasn’t being completely truthful.”

“Hey, you seem to make a habit of that.”

“Not really, but I’m trying not to scare you off.”

“You surprise me, Jordy.”

“I do? Why?”

Chester started to answer flippantly, but stopped, and bared himself in a new way. “You’re right. I think I have to learn to see myself differently. Try to see what you see.”

“Yes,” the bigger man said softly. He looked pleased as he searched Chester’s face. “I don’t just find you attractive. I’ve been kind of falling for you ever since I met you, and—oh, God—this is definitely the wrong time to be telling you that, but….”

Chester could tell Jordy wasn’t finished, and he was curious, so he waited.

“Look, I understand you’ve been hurt, I do—you’re hurting, and you need time to heal—maybe lots of it… but I believe in following my heart.”

“Following my heart.” Chester repeated the words softly. He pictured Mark’s face and heard his words. You’re free now. “Okay, so here’s the thing. You’re the one and only person I’ve let past my walls. Mark… he was pretty bad this past year—it was hard to feel any love for him—and seeing you at work every day made a difference. But that doesn’t change the fact I’m damaged. We don’t even really know one another.”

“Are you saying that maybe… what are you saying?”

“I don’t know. I just buried my husband.”

“Then we’ll be friends, and we’ll get to know one another.”

“No expectations?”

“None. Hope, but no expectations. Your rules, your pace, and if you tell me to get lost, I’ll do it. I hope you’ll at least let me be there for you until the worst is over, but that’s up to you. You’re the boss. So, can we go get something to eat? I’m starving.”

Chester resumed walking, still holding onto Jordy’s arm. Hmm. He’d never been the boss before—never even an equal. “Starving? Yeah, I think I am too.”

“Good. What do you feel like eating?”

“Oh, ah… you choose.”

“No, Chester. It’s your choice.”

“My choice? Okay… um… Chinese?”

“Sounds good. Chinese it is. How about Congee Wong?”

“I’ve never been there.”

“Somewhere else, then?”

“I always cooked, so….”

“Then I have a lot of places to show you. Congee Wong this time?”

“Yes.” A smile crept across his face, for two reasons. It felt good to be the one who made the choice. He’d almost forgotten what that was like. And, he liked the sound of ‘this time.’

Only an hour before, he’d felt so alone without Mark, but not anymore. In this moment, Jordy’s arm felt like a lifeline, but he was determined to stand on his own two feet before he jumped into anything. Still, there’d always been something about the guy.

“Jordy?”

“Yeah? You okay?”

“Uh huh, I’m good. My feet are warming up.”

“You’ve got the blood flowing, and we’re almost there. It’s a lot better footing now. So, what’s on your mind?”

“That I want to go back to school. Take some courses. I’ve always wanted to….” His voice trailed off, unsure why he’d brought that up here and now.

“I think that’s a great idea.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. You can do anything you want to… you know that, right?”

“I can, can’t I,” he answered after blowing out a long breath. “The snow is beautiful, don’t you think?”

“The whole world is beautiful, Chester. I hope you can see that.”

He glanced sideways at the man’s profile before looking up at the falling flakes. He caught one on his tongue, and grinned. “I’m beginning to, Jordy—I’m beginning to.”

 

 

*

Thanks for reading. Please comment if you feel so moved. Also, thank you to my editors, Timothy M. and Valkyrie for their superb work and support.

Copyright © 2018 Headstall; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
2018 - Fall - Fight Back Entry

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2 hours ago, Blueyes57 said:

I enjoyed this one Thanks

Thank you so much, Blueyes! :hug:  It's been a relief to see it well received despite the darkness... cheers... Gary....

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5 minutes ago, Timothy M. said:

I'm always amazed about your ability to make us relate to your characters even when they are so far removed from anything I have ever experienced. We have the same hope for Chester that Jordy has, and if he can find happiness, he can tell himself Mark will be pleased too.

That means a lot coming from you, my dear friend and cohort. :D  You know I had some doubts, but that in itself is not so unusual I guess, so it's affirming to hear you related to these three. Chester got a lot of what he needed at that tree, and I too have hope, that with Jordy's help, he can start to live a life interrupted, and let go of the crippling shame he carries. He needs to get to the point he feels proud he endured and survived... many do not.... He already knows that Mark, as damaged as he was, did love him, and took that final step out of love. Thank you, Timothy, for your constant support... cheers... Gary.... :hug: 

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38 minutes ago, mayday said:

In the beginning I could see no way out of the darkness. None. I am not sure how you have changed that but you have or your story has ? There is hope now. And life and warmth.

Wonderful! Thanks, mayday. :hug:  I want readers to feel what I feel, but I don't want to leave them in anguish, if possible. Hope, life, and warmth... yeah... that's what I hoped for... again, thank you, my friend. for the awesome and encouraging comment... cheers... Gary....

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11 minutes ago, CassieQ said:

Very powerful story.  I'm relieved that Chester is free from Mark...I've read that abusers who choke their victims usually end up killing them and Mark came way too close.  I dont think Chester would have survived another encounter.  He has a good friend in Jordy and it sounds like he might be able to slowly heal.  Great story!

Thanks, Cassie! I'm pleased you found it powerful. I believe you are right about Chester's chance of surviving... and Mark knew how close he came to killing someone else. He might have been an abusive bastard, but there was real love in what he felt for Chester. That's not always the case, but it was here. Jordy is a godsend. :)  

 

Thanks so much for the support and kind words... I read your story and loved it! Cheers... Gary....

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