Loose Cannon

NSFW--This excerpt contains adult content.

Chapter One

2011

It felt good to hit.

After the day he’d had, or rather, after the week—oh, hell, after the life he’d had—it was a jolt of pure electric pleasure up his arm and down his spine to punch this bastard in the face. To watch as his cheeks rippled under the force of the blow.

The guy hadn’t gotten three hits in. Church was demolishing him.

For the first time since he took off (and don’t think about that, not yet, maybe not ever), he could feel his burden lightening. It’d been so long since he’d done anything but put one foot in front of the other that fighting back was sweet and heady, sex and candy.

He was a week and a half past his seventeenth birthday, he hadn’t eaten in two days, and he was going to be sleeping under a bridge tonight, but for now, this moment?

He was winning.

The guy staggered up, and Church only had to bump him to send him down again, a beached whale on the alley gravel.

The glee hadn’t begun to fade yet, but his anger had. The sky had been spitting rain since that morning, and his clothes were damp and heavy, cooling his temper further. He took a look around to figure out where he was. The neon sign of the twenty-four-hour liquor store blazed a couple blocks away. That was where the guy had started following Church to deliver a blistering tirade about Church’s personality and chances in life, just because he’d asked the dude to buy him some beer.

So they hadn’t gone far, which was a relief. When Church got pissed, his brain pretty much shut off. They could’ve swum to China, and he might not have noticed from beneath the adrenaline haze narrowing his vision.

Tired now, Church waited for the guy to get up. When he didn’t move, Church wandered closer, ready to kick in case it was a trick, and saw the blood spreading out in a pool beneath the guy’s head.

That was when Church knew he’d finally fucked up beyond fixing. He’d reached the end of the line, and this time there wouldn’t be anyone arguing that he was a mixed-up kid who had a shot if he could get away from his family. This was all on him, and he was fucked.

As if he could already feel their eyes and hands upon him, he hunched his shoulders. The pressure built, and all he could think was oh shit oh shit oh shit.

Blue, wet nighttime asphalt beneath his pounding sneakers. Murky water splashed and dampened his socks and pant legs. He left the main thoroughfare—which was empty at this time of night anyway—and entered a residential zone. The cramped old houses crouching along both sides of the road had dark windows and lawns marred by junked-up cars or mildewed children’s toys left out to rot.

Church was alone.

He made it about thirty more feet before he realized that if no one was chasing him, no one had seen.

No one would help.

He stopped, panting, and kicked the post of a bank of gray mailboxes hard enough that his toes sang. The need to get lost burned through his veins like heroin. Instead, he swallowed hard and walked up the sidewalk to the nearest house. He rang the bell until someone answered.

“Call an ambulance,” he told the wary old guy through the closed screen door.

Then Church sat down to wait.

 

* * *

 

2012

On his eighteenth birthday, Church was transferred from Roseburg Juvenile Detention Facility to Woodbury Residential Treatment Center, where he would serve the rest of his sentence. The sprawling campus hosted eleven cottages, a cafeteria and a school serving grades eight through twelve, in addition to offering online college credit to the older guys. The buildings were chipped redbrick, the sidewalks cracked, the walls so thick with their annual coats of paint that they might’ve been load-bearing even without their beams.

None of it—not the cramped rooms or mismatched furniture or the long, solemn lines of marching boys—bothered Church much. According to the brochure they’d given him, Woodbury was supposed to divert first-time juvenile offenders from serving time in prison, offering life skills and therapy to help at-risk youth forge new lives while still holding them accountable for their actions.

Sounded good to him. Church would talk about his feelings from dawn to dusk if it meant the last of razor wire and orange jumpsuits.

He’d been assigned to Monarch cottage, which housed behavioral cases ages fifteen and up. As the female staff member at the desk explained the schedule and rules, he studied the walls behind her: alarm boxes, shelves laden with boxes of blue nitrile gloves and thick binders with labels like Crisis Intervention Plans and Resident Treatment Plans. There was a padlocked bin marked Confiscated in the corner. A whiteboard listed various names alphabetically, with details printed beside them—status within the program, any health problems and any risks posed.

He found his own entry: Edgar-Allen Church, New Admission, None, Aggression.

He supposed that was fair.

When the staff lady was done, she sent him down a long hallway lined with bedrooms rather than cells. Getting a bedroom was improvement number gazillion over lockdown. Not as good as the lack of strip search (currently in first place) but better than finally being back in street clothes. There were alarms on the windows, he’d been told, but the doors didn’t lock.

He wasn’t an inmate any longer. He was a resident.

In the last bedroom on the left, he found two sets of bunk beds and a boy about his age sprawled on one, reading. He was handsome in an earnest, sensitive way, his face narrow, ears sticking out a little. He had a thick mop of light brown curls tumbling over his forehead almost to his strong jaw, and he wore a nervous smile as his blue eyes ran over Church.

Church wasn’t expecting to impress the kid. He wasn’t ugly, but he definitely had some things working against him that people had a hard time getting past. He was tall and lanky-skinny, with overgrown dark hair that stuck out all over, heavy black eyebrows—no unibrow, so maybe God didn’t hate him so much as strongly dislike him—and a big, honking Roman nose. Plus, he was half-Puerto Rican, which didn’t bother him any, but pissed off a lot of other folks for no damn good reason. A guy in school who’d wanted to kiss him had called him exotic once, though, so he had that shit going for him.

For the record, Church hadn’t kissed the jerk. Even at fifteen, he hadn’t been that hard up.

With a nod of greeting, Church claimed one of the naked mattresses and started putting on the sheets he’d been given.

“Hello. I’m Tobias Benton,” the other boy said, sitting up and straightening his collar.

“Church.”

“Nice to meet you.”

When he was done with the bed, Church sat, eyeing his new roommate. He’d learned in Roseburg that there was a wide variety of guys who got in trouble. Some were fuckups, some were stupid, some were mean, some were psychos. This one—Tobias—didn’t give off the usual tip-offs for any of the above, and he didn’t have that beaten-down manner that long-term victims gave off, either. His jeans and shirt fit well, his haircut was good, and his shoes were brand-name. He wasn’t a system kid. He looked like he should be on a sitcom, where problems came bite-sized and always got fixed by the end.

“Guess we’d better get the important stuff out of the way if we’re gonna be living together,” Church said. “Do you snore?”

“I don’t think so. At least, my old roommates never complained.”

“Good. Me neither. You got any pet peeves?”

“Pet peeves?”

“As a roommate. If there’s something likely to set you off, better to mention it now, yeah?”

“Oh. I like my stuff really neat? Is that one? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t, um, move my things. Or touch them. It’s nothing about you, I promise. I’m just picky about where they go. What about you?”

“Don’t steal anything.”

“I wouldn’t.” Tobias’s eyes widened. “I mean, that’s not my issue.”

“All right.” And now the delicate one. “Are the bathrooms communal here?”

Tobias’s brow creased for a second. It cleared at roughly the same time that his face flooded bright red. “Ah, no. You can take care of that, um, in the shower.”

“Cool.” Church relaxed a bit. He wasn’t a prude by any stretch, but one of the weirdest things about living in lockdown had been getting used to the nightly not-so-furtive sounds of near-strangers jerking off five feet away.

“So what is your issue?” Church asked. “Unless you don’t like to talk about it.”

“Wayward,” Tobias said, as if that explained everything. It did, sort of. It meant regular teenage hijinks taken to extremes, and it covered everything from drinking to joyriding to refusing to go to school. Church couldn’t imagine how this Beaver Cleaver-wannabe had ended up in a place like this. “You?”

“Assault. Here from Roseburg.”

Tobias chewed on his bottom lip. He wasn’t as tall as Church, maybe five-eleven, and though he was built sturdier and no doubt stronger, he lacked that sharp edge that meant he knew how to use it. That was worth more than all the muscle in the world.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Church said. “Unless you start something.”

Tobias took a deep breath. “How do you feel about gay people? Is that—is that starting something?”

Church blinked at him. “No. I mean, I’m gay, dude.”

“Oh.” Tobias’s shoulders relaxed so fast Church was surprised he didn’t fall over. “Oh, okay.”

“Do you think they put us in here together because of that? The whole keep-the-gay-away thing?”

“Nah. This is the only room with open beds.”

“Huh.” Church fumbled with his entry paperwork. “There’s a lot of crap here.”

Tobias put his book aside and tentatively got up. “I could help. If you want.”

“What’s this job-trade thing?” Church picked up a pamphlet. On the cover was a staged photo of a happy teenager holding a cake. Tobias peered at it.

“Oh, you have to pick a skill to learn. The idea is that when you finish your program you’ll have something to fall back on besides crime.”

Church frowned. The options were limited: cooking, janitorial, auto maintenance, computers and carpentry.

“Janitorial? Anybody really pick that?”

“Hardly.”

Of course, that made Church think of his mother, who’d been a maid back in Puerto Rico before she’d moved to Colorado to attend college and ended up married to a man who’d found everything about her culture about as valuable as the dirt under his heel.

He grunted and waved the pamphlet as a distraction. “Any suggestions?”

“Don’t pick computers,” Tobias told him. “All the computers are ancient, so unless you want to learn how to use AOL, it’s useless. If you go with cooking, you get to eat anything you make.”

But Church’s eyes lingered on the carpentry option. For a moment he could smell wood stain and shavings and metal. He remembered the heaviness of the plane clutched tight in his fingers, remembered the feel of hands bigger than his own directing his movements as he scraped the tool across the oak board, strips curling up and dropping to the floor. Remembered Miller’s steady voice giving directions and later, the way he’d gently smoothed ointment on the blisters on Church’s palms. Church’s stomach tightened with an echo of the thrill he’d felt then, the way his skin had hummed, just from that simple touch.

It was gonna hurt every single day, but he checked the box for carpentry all the same, then rubbed at the dull ache in his chest with the heel of one hand. His calluses were long gone.

By nightfall, Church was exhausted. Tomorrow he had school and his first session with his therapist, neither of which he was looking forward to, but he had a couple of classes with Tobias, so it’d be manageable. Actually, after he took a shower and jerked off all by his lonesome, he headed back to his room feeling pretty damn good. He hadn’t been this relaxed in over a year, not since— No, he couldn’t. That brief memory earlier had been enough for one day. Church might be self-destructive, but he wasn’t a masochist.

Tobias was cool with leaving the window open, and once the lights were out, Church closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The air reeked of pine and hot summer earth and—more faintly—the nearby Dumpsters, and it might’ve been the best thing he’d ever smelled.

“Hey, Church,” Tobias whispered. “Happy birthday.”

Church sighed into the darkness. “Thanks.”

 

* * *

 

Church had never had anything as normal as a best friend before. Fortunately, Tobias balanced this out, because he was so normal he was almost a parody of himself. He said things like “ma’am” and “if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it” and “I apologize, it wasn’t my intention to hurt your feelings.”

That last one got him beat up a little, because guys who ended up in places like Woodbury didn’t get their feelings hurt. They didn’t have feelings, even. They were concentrated bloodlust and ego, packing race-car engines in their chests where their hearts should be.

Church could already tell that Tobias had the street smarts of a chicken crossing a road, but after a few rounds with Church’s fists, people knew to leave Tobias alone.

Of course, they were gunning for Church by then, but that was all right. Church could take it.

He still liked to hit, even if he felt stupider about it afterward than he used to. The fighting screwed up his program, and it wasn’t fun having to be on his guard anytime he stepped out of his room, but once the blood was flowing, he didn’t much mind.

But anyway, the whole point was that Tobias was a unicorn in human form. Featherlight and wincing, he’d touched Church’s bruised cheek after that first fight, and said for the millionth time he wished Church hadn’t gotten in trouble for him.

“They deserved an ass-kicking,” Church said.

“We should feel sorry for them.” Tobias handed him an ice pack. “We can get away from them and go back to being happy. They’re stuck with themselves forever. That’s a long time to feel that hateful. It’s a pity, really.”

Like, what was that, even?

Tobias’s favorite superhero was Superman, for crying out loud. No one liked Superman the best.

Jason Todd after he became the Red Hood. That was the way to go.

 

* * *

 

When he’d been in Woodbury for eight months, he and Tobias were in the great room (which wasn’t that great, since most of the furniture was built in the fifties and smelled like you’d expect), supposedly doing homework but actually talking about comic books, when the front door opened.

One of the intake staff walked in with a new kid at his heels, and Church broke off midsentence to stare. Obviously the kid was a boy, since Woodbury didn’t take girls, but his features were so delicate that at first Church was sure he was female. The broad shoulders and narrow hips registered at that point, and Church decided the kid was a boy after all. Probably the most gorgeous boy he’d ever seen, too. He had thick, tumbled golden waves that fell to his shoulders, a startling contrast to his flawless porcelain skin. His cheekbones were high and graceful, and his mouth was pink and pretty. Everything about him straddled that line between genders, and even though he was beautiful, it was an uncanny sort of beauty, almost disorienting, and Church sort of wanted to touch him and push him away at the same time.

“Huh. Ghost is back again.” Tobias gave Church a look. “He’s not a bad guy, but watch your step around him, especially until he gets to know you. He’s got a rep for a reason.”

Church doubted this, because Ghost didn’t look particularly tough. He wore tight black jeans, janky black boots with the laces untied, and a holey T-shirt that’d seen better days. He was too skinny by half. Then he glanced over, catching Church and Tobias watching him, and smiled slowly. His teeth were very white and seemed very sharp, and for all his beauty, he gave off an air of being half-rabid, like he’d be more than happy to strip flesh from bones. One of the staff members said something to him, and his expression became sweet once more before he turned back.

“We’re the only room with open beds.” Church wasn’t sure how he felt about having that tricky kid for a roommate.

“He won’t bug you if you leave him alone.” Tobias bit nervously on his thumbnail. “But seriously, don’t start trouble.”

Ghost didn’t come to dinner with the rest of them. He vanished with a staff member into the cottage office instead, which left everyone else free to gossip about him in the cafeteria. The guys who knew him took great pride in being able to pass stories along, which basically amounted to: no one fucked with Ghost.

He was what the staff called a chronic recidivist. He worked his program, spouted all the right words to get out, and then reoffended without thinking twice. Ghost had been in and out of Woodbury three times since he turned thirteen, and he was well liked because he was laid-back, drily amusing, and didn’t start shit. He was a hard one to get a rise out of apparently, but once he was risen, he was risen.

Like the time that—rumor went—someone tried to climb in bed with him in the middle of the night and Ghost punctured one of the dude’s testicles with a shiv made of a toothbrush handle, then tore the dude’s throat open with his teeth.

So yeah, everyone liked Ghost, but no one fucked with him.

 

* * *

 

The first thing Church noticed about Ghost?

Ghost was weird.

When unsupervised with the other boys, he was sarcastic and watchful and hard-eyed. In group therapy he was thoughtful and sincere about mastering his issues—which Church never fully got a grasp on. When he was with staff, he was sweet and well behaved, and when he was with Church and Tobias in their shared bedroom, he was irreverent and sly and downright devious.

The second thing he noticed about Ghost?

None of those early observations mattered, because it was all an act.

In fact, even months later, there were only two things about Ghost that Church thought were real.

For one, Ghost had admitted that he was as likely to have men drag him behind Dumpsters to beat the crap out of him for looking like a girl as he was to have men drag him behind Dumpsters for sex. In case of the first, Ghost never went anywhere without at least one blade, and in case of the second, he never went anywhere without condoms.

“It’s the duality of man,” Ghost told Church one day in that deep, rich voice that was the only blatantly masculine thing about him besides his dick. “Love in one hand, death in the other, although I’m hard-pressed to say which is which.”

“Very wise,” Church replied, not knowing what the hell “the duality of man” meant.

“It’s my wisdom that got me here, Churchy.” Ghost folded his hands across his chest like a statue of a priest or something. “I’m the patron saint of prostitutes.”

Three guesses what got Ghost sent to Woodbury.

The other real thing was the nightmares. Ghost had them more often than not, and Church got in the habit of keeping clean, balled-up socks by his bed so when Ghost started making those helpless whimpers in his sleep, Church had something convenient to throw. After Ghost sprang upright, Church would say, “Okay?” and Ghost would flip him off, and they’d both go back to sleep.

Church was pretty sure Ghost didn’t consider them friends.

Church did, though.

 

* * *

 

Since there was as much manipulation pumping through Ghost’s veins as blood, he showed Church all the shortcuts that convinced the staff that you were learning how to be a superb human being. Tobias, on the other hand, knew how to milk the system for real opportunity, and after a while, Church wasn’t sure how much of his virtuous behavior was an act designed to get him out, and how much was actual progress.

Ghost was in and out of Woodbury three more times over the next three years. In between visits he’d occasionally send postcards scrawled with dirty limericks or little pornographic sketches that Church was shocked made it through the postal system.

When Tobias left, though, it was for good, and if it weren’t for the twice-weekly letters that arrived like clockwork, Church might’ve ended up backsliding.

But it was enough to know he hadn’t been forgotten.

 

* * *

 

2016

Present Day

Funny that he could spend almost four years at Woodbury without suffocating, and now, barely a week from release, he was having a hard time breathing.

“What do you mean you’re in L.A.?” he asked.

“U2’s playing,” Nick said over the phone. He sounded contrite at least, not that it was gonna help. “My brother insisted.”

Church’s knuckles whitened as his fingers clamped down on the privacy partition between the pay phones. Next to his pinky finger was an anatomically improbable sketch of a penis in magic marker. Underneath was written DIC. Every single time Church had used this phone, he’d wanted to track down the artist to ask if he’d been interrupted before he could finish or if he simply couldn’t spell.

He took a deep breath and counted to ten, thinking about the possible consequences of losing his cool, all the things that Ghost would say if he were still at Woodbury. It was habit now when he got angry: one robot coming up.

It was probably a DIC move to be pissed at a guy for caving to a dying brother’s desire to see some stupid band, but this sure screwed Church over. October was only a day old and it was already shaping up to be as crappy as September had been.

Now that he had finished his program here at Woodbury, Church was supposed to be ready for reintegration into the community. That meant parole meetings and outreach and support and a host of individualized requirements to prove that he was holding up his end of the bargain.

One of which was that he wasn’t allowed to live alone yet. He could leave, but only if he had someone to stay with who would be a “grounding influence.”

Tobias was living at home while he was in college to save money, so he wasn’t an option. Church hadn’t even bothered asking if Ghost counted. In fact, other than Nick, who used to be a staff member at Woodbury and now occasionally lent his couch to the odd graduate, Church didn’t know any grounding influences.

Well, except for him.

“I’m sorry, Church,” Nick said. “I can try to make some calls for you, but I doubt I’ll find anything anytime soon.”

“Forget it. Thanks anyway. Sorry about your brother.”

Church hung up and stood there for a long minute, hand still resting on the black plastic receiver. He wasn’t thinking so much as giving himself time to adjust to what he would have to do. Behind him, from the line, came a couple of grumbles.

“Fuck off,” Church said over his shoulder.

Ricky Jimenez, fourteen-year-old gang member and all-around shit-starter, called, “You talking to me, esé?”

“Yeah, Menudo, do something about it,” Church replied, but it was halfhearted and Jimenez snickered. He knew Church wasn’t gonna do jack when he was so close to getting out.

Assuming he could find a damn couch to sleep on.

“Piss or get off the pot, Church,” one of the staff members said, and that was an order he couldn’t get around, so he lifted the receiver again, ignoring Jimenez’s groan at another delay.

His fingers dialed without hesitation. It’d been years since he’d called this number, but it’d be in his brain until the day he died. It was engraved on his bones by this point. In his whole life, it was the only number he’d ever had in his pocket that he’d known, without a doubt, he could call for help and wouldn’t be slapped down.

Of course, that’d been before Church fucked up.

His throat felt about the size of a drinking straw as the phone rang. He wasn’t sure what to hope for. An answer? Voice mail? An automated message from an operator explaining that the cell phone he was trying to reach had been dropped into a toilet because the owner would rather buy a new one than talk to Church?

But there was a soft click, and then there was that voice.

Painfully familiar. Warm as ever. It went through him like a knife through warm butter. Church squeezed his eyes closed.

“It’s Church,” he said, forcing the words out. He sounded rough and stiff and pretty much like an asshole. “I’m in a bit of jam. I, uh, wouldn’t ask, but.” But there’s no one else. He didn’t say that last bit, because that was a little more pathetic than he wanted to be today. Besides, it wasn’t like it was a secret.

And Miller Quinn, whose kindness Church had repaid with humiliation and violence and nearly five years’ worth of silence, said, “What do you need?”

Chapter Two

When Miller came out of the office, Shelby was lying in wait like a trap-door spider. He didn’t jump, because his sister was not only horrible, but predictable.

“It was him calling, wasn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes.” Although part of Miller still didn’t believe it. He curled his shaking hands into loose fists so she wouldn’t see.

“Thought so. The first thing out of your mouth was ‘What do you need?’ And as soon as you answered the phone, your face started doing that thing it does, of course. You’re such an idiot.”

“That thing it does,” he repeated.

“The tense thing. You know, that constipated look that you get whenever you know there’s going to be conflict that you can’t get away from.” She peered at him. “Yup. That’s the one.”

Miller tried to relax his jaw muscles. “I do not look constipated.”

“Well, not anymore,” she said reasonably. “You’re not making the face.”

“Right.” Miller went around her and headed for the front of the store. It wasn’t quite eleven, and the Saturday-morning rush at Quinn’s Contracting Supply had ended. Other than Em working the counter and a couple of renovators looking at drawer pulls in the cabinetry section, the place was empty, as close to tolerable as it ever got, too heavily air-conditioned and smelling of cut wood and clean metal.

“What’s he want this time?” she asked. “A kidney?”

“Shel. Come on.”

“Oh, am I being too mean to the juvenile offender who took advantage of you?”

“He did not—”

“I could break that damn punk’s jaw,” she said, and Miller stopped short, pivoting to stare at her. She was pretty in that mom way that said she didn’t have time for a better haircut, and she had the same square, blocky build that Miller did. Her hands were tucked in the pockets of the ugly red aprons they all wore over their jeans and T-shirts, despite the fact that most everybody who came in here knew who they were. The aprons were a tradition, and traditions were the lifeblood of the Quinn family, even when they made no sense. Her chin was set at that familiar, defiant angle that meant she wasn’t sorry a whit, no matter what the effect of her words might be.

“Shel. He was a kid.”

“He left bruises on you, Miller,” Shelby bit out. “After everything you did for him, he used his fists on you, and now he’s calling for another favor after half a decade of ignoring you? Fuck him.”

“Your daughter’s going to hear you if you don’t keep your voice down,” Miller said under his breath.

Shelby rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like she’s never heard the F word before. Like she’s never used the F word before—she’s fifteen, not five. And don’t try to wriggle out of this. I don’t want that jerk anywhere near here. He can rot on a street corner for all I care.”

It was Miller’s fault that Shelby was so vitriolic about the whole thing with Church. After all, he’d never told her what happened that night, so she didn’t know that Miller had deserved those punches. Not that she’d agree if she’d known. Miller could set fire to his hair and she’d be pissed at the lighter company. But even now, he couldn’t bring himself to explain. He was too ashamed of his behavior. The very thought had his gut in knots.

“You’re making the face again,” she said. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Miller turned to go. Well, he tried to—she caught his arm at the elbow with a grip like a lobster. She studied his expression with narrowed eyes.

“What does he want?”

“A couch to sleep on.”

Her mouth flattened. “And you said yes.”

“He needs help.” Miller looked away and went for a tiny fib. “It’s just until he can find another place.” In six months, he added silently.

“Why are you doing this? I’m bewildered, Miller. You’re so damn dug into your routine that I have to give you two days’ notice for dinner at my house even though you eat with us almost every week, but a three-minute conversation with that bastard has you ready to drop everything.”

“That two days’ notice is so I can try to find something better to do,” he said, in a last, desperate stab at changing the subject. “One of these days, with any luck, I’m going to be too busy.”

“Like you’re too busy to call Grover back? Or you’re too busy to date? Or do you mean you’ll be too busy with all of the many friends you go out with?”

“Wow,” he managed. That was not the change in subject he’d been going for. “Don’t hold back on my account.”

She didn’t soften. His sister had rebar where everyone else had been born with a spine. She was so strong, in fact, that she was incapable of comprehending weakness, let alone handling it in her little brother.

“And yet,” she went on, “for him, you throw the doors wide open. Why is that, do you think?”

He really wanted to get out of here before Shelby said something that pissed him off. He might end up yelling, and he hated that. “I don’t know.” When she raised her eyebrows, he shrugged, feeling helpless. “I don’t.”

“Do you even know why you let him glom on to you in the first place?”

“He had it rough at home and he needed a safe place. And I liked him. He was a good kid.”

She harrumphed.

“He was. You thought so too, before everything went to hell. He…” Miller rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “He made me laugh.”

“That’s why God made comedy clubs.” Shelby sighed. “If you’d start dating again, you could meet a girl who makes you laugh without also punching you in the face, and then finding an idiot sixteen-year-old to tell you jokes wouldn’t be such a life changer.”

He decided to ignore the whole dating thing, because that was a thornier issue than he was up to dealing with right now, and instead touched her arm. “Please? I’ve got to put my mind at ease where he’s concerned. Don’t make me fight you on it.”

“You wouldn’t have to if you’d do what I want,” she retorted, only half joking.

“I need to do this,” he said. “The way I left things with him drives me crazy. Can we be all right? Please?”

“Maybe.” She bared her teeth at him, but it was sullen rather than mean, and then wrapped him in a hug. “But only if you call Grover back. You’re sending him mixed messages and it’s freaking him out. At this rate he’ll be offering to put out to keep our interest, and it’s going to crush him when I tell him we only want him for his financial prowess. So today, right? You’ll call him—”

“Jesus.” Miller disentangled himself, but she grabbed his hand before he could escape. He yanked but it did him zero good. He’d have to hurt her to get away, and he could never, ever do that. He wouldn’t mind poking her with a sharp stick sometimes, though. “I told you I would.”

“The property isn’t going to be available forever. We have to move on it soon if we’re going to do this.”

“I know.”

“A second store is good. It means more money. It means you’ll have more freedom to make changes, too. You’re always complaining that nothing changes around here—well, if we expand, you can stock all those ugly paint colors that I hate.”

“I know.”

She gritted her teeth. “You’re being an asshole.”

He knew that too, but didn’t admit it, because then she’d ask why. She wanted reasons for why he was dragging his heels on the expansion plans, and the truth was that he didn’t have any. No good ones, anyway. He didn’t have anything beyond I really, really don’t want to.

“This is going to be good for me and Em,” Shelby said. She propped her hands on her hips like a superhero about to crush scumbags beneath her red rubber boot heel. Miller did not care for the image or his place in it. “She’s talking about MIT now, Mill. You know how much MIT charges for a year’s tuition? An arm and a leg. Which they then beat you over the head with until you give them your other limbs too. I only have a few years to rake in those bucks, so we need this.”

She wasn’t wrong. They were doing more than well enough to justify a second location, and all of Grover’s numbers suggested that the newer store would be impressively profitable. Shelby would manage the other property and Miller would stay with this one, and that meant growth and money for college and success, and that was all good.

It should’ve been good anyway, except that it also meant that this store, their father’s flagship store, was officially Miller’s. It meant that everything he’d always told himself was temporary was permanent, and the thought of still more countless, interminable days spent haunting these aisles exhausted him.

He told himself to man up. People did things they didn’t want to do every day. His sister was the poster child for single-motherhood, and that was pretty much the definition of working your flesh from your bones and living in misery in the meantime. She was good Quinn stock, which meant it was second nature to her to suck it up, to dig deep, to do all the things that defined strength and goodness and rightness. All those traits that would’ve sounded like platitudes coming from anyone besides their father. Coming from Gus Quinn, they’d been commandments.

Miller wanted to be the kind of man who didn’t let his family down. He just wished with all his might there was a different way to do it.

“My daughter is going to college,” Shelby added, giving him that demented-mom look that always made him want to cringe. “I want better for her.”

And that killed all his resistance.

“I’ll call Grover,” Miller promised, though the words fought him until his throat felt like he’d swallowed sandpaper, because he wanted better for Em, too. He’d have given anything to go to college, and he wasn’t half as smart or talented as his niece. If she could get into MIT, she’d be set, and she deserved it.

He must’ve sounded pathetic, because Shelby glared. Not at him, really, so much as at the world in general. “If I knew how to keep you from being miserable, I’d do it. You know that, right?”

“I’m not miserable,” Miller lied automatically.

As if she hadn’t heard him, she said, “Of course, for that to happen you’d have to tell me the source of your misery. Using sentences. Although that’s probably asking too much. Grunting and pointing are a bit beyond you, too, now that I think about it. Maybe a smoke signal or two wouldn’t be out of your reach, though.”

“Getting mean,” he pointed out mildly.

“I can’t help you if you won’t let me.”

“Don’t need help.”

She laughed at him, but she did that a lot, so he couldn’t work up any steam about it. “I swear, sometimes you’re so much like Dad that I get this Pavlovian urge to punch you right in the nose. I love you more than anything in the world except for that brat at the front counter, Miller, and it is completely impossible not to want to crush your face like a sand castle when you say shit like that.”

Miller frowned, trying to picture his face turning into a sand castle, but Shelby was going on, “So if letting that asshole sleep on your couch will make you feel better, then I’m done complaining. For now, anyway.”

“Really? You’ll be nice about Church staying with me?”

“If you’re gonna call Grover, the least I can do is get off your back about your need to take in stray rabid dogs. If he steps a toe out of line, though, I’ll take a crowbar to his stupid fat head. And if he even looks at Em—”

“He won’t.”

“She had a crush on him when she was younger. Lots of girls fall prey to—”

“He’s gay, Shel,” Miller said quietly.

“Oh.” Her brow furrowed. “Well. Whatever. I hope for your sake that he’s not going to be bringing anyone back to your place.”

Miller jerked one shoulder in a shrug and looked away.

“When does he get here?”

“Next Friday. I’ll have to pick him up. Can you cover for me?”

“It starts,” Shelby said darkly. “Yes. I’ll cover. This time.”

“Hey, adults!” Em called from up front. “How much are the vinyl-armored straight cord end plugs?”

In unison, Miller and Shelby called back, “Two eighteen!”

“Okay!”

Shelby pursed her lips. “If you’re looking for someone to make you laugh, there’s this woman with the PTA—”

“And on that note, I’ve got work to do.” He started walking away.

“Her name’s Linda,” Shelby replied, following him.

“That’s nice.”

“She’s brunette.”

“Okay.”

“You like brunettes.”

“True.”

“And she likes hockey.”

“Hockey’s nice,” he agreed.

“She said the Sabres are gonna win the Cup this year.”

Miller winced. “That’s not a point in her favor.”

“Maybe she meant last year.”

“Doesn’t help.”

“So you’ll call her?”

“Nope.”

They got to the front of the store, where Em was putting a credit-card slip in the register and thanking an older guy for his business. The phone rang, and Shelby headed to the far counter to answer it, calling back, “You’ll like her if you give her a chance!”

When Em’s customer left, she smiled sympathetically at Miller. “Is she trying to get you to call Ms. Hallian?”

“Is that Linda from the PTA?”

“Yeah. Don’t go there.”

“You know her?”

“Ms. Hallian coached my volleyball team last year.” Em gave him a doubtful glance. “Look, I totally don’t want to undermine a fellow female by implying that only traditionally male modes of communication have value, but she’s a woo girl.”

Miller frowned. “What’s a woo girl?”

Em suddenly shrieked, throwing her hands up in the air and hooting, making him jump. “Oh, my God, all of you teenage girls are so powerful and beautiful and we’re going to reinforce your self-esteem with sports sooo much! Woo!”

“Jesus.” Miller’s throat tightened.

The enthusiasm vanished, replaced by Em’s natural teenage ennui as she lowered her arms. “Yep. She’s awesome, but the likes of Ms. Hallian are not for you, Uncle Mill.”

Feeling like he’d dodged a bullet, Miller patted her on the shoulder.

 

* * *

 

Between all the arguing with Shelby and the painful conversation with Grover (not to mention the phone call from Church, but he’d think about that later), Miller ended up taking a rare trip to Davey’s.

It was the only bar he ever went to. Miller had plebian tastes, and a six-pack from the grocery store was a lot cheaper, but Davey’s had something that the local Safeway didn’t—half-drunk women. The mere idea of which had Miller’s shoulders slumping.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested. He was only thirty. He had oats to sow and then some, and he jerked off every morning in the shower. It was more that the idea of going out to a bar and making small talk and buying drinks in the hopes that one of those polished, pretty women would give him a chance was exhausting.

It was a blue-collar place, and his jeans, work boots and rough button-down with the sleeves rolled up fit right in. It helped that half the folks in here had known his father, so even if months went by in between his visits, he never lacked for company. Not that he was interested in conversation tonight.

The woman sitting on a stool near the juke was pretty. Her skirt went almost to her knees, and she wore flats. More makeup than he liked, but at least she wasn’t wearing lipstick. He took the seat next to her, which was a statement of intent all its own, considering that Davey’s was never particularly hopping, even on a Saturday evening. She looked over at him, one eyebrow lifted, and he nodded.

It was too warm in here.

He ordered a draft and pretended to watch the basketball game on the TV bolted to the wall, but it wasn’t his sport, and honestly, it wasn’t what he was there for. He glanced at the woman again, and waited until she met his eyes.

“Hard day?” he asked. Not remotely original, but she was sitting alone in the kind of bar that catered to workingmen and cops and the like. She’d have to be an idiot to have higher expectations.

“Nightmarish.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a pharmaceutical sales rep. Well, as of this week, anyway. Does that count?” She smiled, self-conscious and wry, and he smiled back.

“It counts. I’d say congratulations, but it seems like you’re not too thrilled about it.”

“I’ve been in sales for years, but this is…” She twisted her fingers together. “Well, it’s more manipulative than I’d expected, that’s all. Let’s just say it’s a little creepy to think about how influenced doctors are by a rep’s spiel.”

“Wow. That does sound nightmarish.” He tipped his head toward the shelves of liquor behind the bar. “I’d like to hear more about it. Can I buy you another martini?”

She nodded, her cheeks turning pink, and he decided this wouldn’t be a hardship after all.

“I’m Miller.” He offered her his hand. She shook it, amused.

“Allison.”

 

* * *

 

By the time they got to her place, he’d had enough to drink that most of his tension was gone. She hesitated before she unlocked her door, peeking up at him through her eyelashes.

“We can go back to the bar if you want,” he said gently.

Her eyes softened. “No, it’s— I’m fine. Come on in.”

Her apartment was nice, if cluttered. Lots of silky fabric draped over stuff, guttered candles on the windowsills. “Don’t let Screwball out,” she said, and he had a half-second to think Screwball? right before a streak of gray came out of nowhere and darted for the door. He barely managed to close it in time, and the cat ran into his leg. He bent and stroked the furry head, pleased when the cat purred.

“You’re not allergic, are you?” she asked.

“Nope. Have one of my own.”

“Good. Um…” She stepped out of her shoes and wiggled her toes, then stood there with her lip caught between her teeth. “I don’t know how this works.”

She was blushing again, which was a good look on her, and he took her hand. He pulled her with him to the sofa, where he coaxed her into sitting sideways on his lap. “Why don’t you let me lead, then? And if we go in a direction you’re not comfortable with, all you have to do is say so, okay?”

When he cupped her cheek, she turned into his palm. “You’re good at making a girl feel safe, Miller.”

“Well, a happy girl’s half the fun of being here,” he replied, and kissed her.

It was awkward at first, but her smile was easygoing. By the time she squirmed one leg across his knees so she was straddling him, they’d found their rhythm, and he waited until she was making soft, breathy sounds in the back of her throat before he cupped her breast.

When he moved to unclasp her bra, though, she caught his hand. “No, don’t.”

“Sorry.” His chest tightened. He hoped he hadn’t scared her. “Too fast? I can slow down.”

Her face turned red. “No, it’s fine. Can we leave this on, though? I… My boobs aren’t, uh, exactly even.”

“I don’t care about that,” he said truthfully, but the relief of knowing he hadn’t messed up had him smiling at her. “But if it makes you feel better, we can leave it on.”

She nodded.

So he kissed and teased her through the fabric, the lace drying out his mouth. It had her moaning, though, and she was a warm, pleasant weight rocking against his cock. He started to get hard. He wondered if she’d be offended if he aimed them toward oral instead of fucking—it was easier to shut his brain off when he was receiving, and he didn’t mind going down on women. But he worried she’d take it as a sign that he didn’t want her, so he decided not to say anything. He nudged the fabric of her skirt higher instead, tracing small circles on her skin with his thumbs.

She touched his collarbone. “All these freckles across your chest are so pretty.”

He tried not to wince. “The bane of my existence as a teenager.” He wasn’t a redhead exactly—his hair color was best termed red-brown, which might not be poetic, but had the benefit of being accurate—but he had the freckles all the same.

She made a soft humming sound of disagreement. “I like them.”

He kissed her again, stroking and touching and licking until she lost her self-consciousness. She was the one who led the way into the bedroom, stripping off clothes as she went until she was naked except for her bra. He pulled the condom from his wallet before he removed his jeans. It wasn’t presumptuous at this point, he was relatively sure, so she probably wouldn’t kick him out for daring to put it on the nightstand.

When they were stretched out on the sheets, she gave him that questioning, hopeful look that was clear as a neon sign. He smiled agreeably and kissed his way down her body. She parted her legs for him, moaning as the breadth of his shoulders eased her thighs wider, giving him more room. He breathed over the ample curve of her hip and stroked her soft belly, making her arch.

Allison tasted clean and rich, and while the act had never done much to rev his engine, he did like the way her voice got low and thick and appreciative. He couldn’t imagine any man not enjoying the mixture of warmth and gratitude in a woman’s eyes at a moment like this. He used his thumbs to gently spread her wide, then slid his lips and tongue over her, slow at first, then more quickly, listening to the noises she made for cues about what worked best, wondering if she’d want to come like this or if she actually wanted to fuck.

He got distracted when he caught a glimpse of the clock. He had the early shift in the morning and needed to be there to receive deliveries starting at six. He made a mental note to talk to the deck manager about the granite due to arrive next week.

Her thighs tightened around him, and he realized she was getting close, that his tongue was getting tired, and that he’d allowed himself to become so distracted that he wasn’t all that hard anymore.

“Miller,” she murmured, her fingers working through his hair, and she was warm and soft and wet and that was all fine. He worked his hips against the mattress, rubbing a bit to get his cock back in the game, because she was reaching for him like she wanted him inside her. He sat up, sliding the condom on quickly so she wouldn’t lose her momentum, then took hold of himself to get the angle right. She brought her knees up to clutch at his hips, and the smooth skin of her long legs was—well, that was fine too.

So he slid into her, making her sigh, and began rocking against her, slow and deep, trying to catch her clit. She felt good around him, and he didn’t have any trouble dragging it out until she cried out beneath him, and then, as her legs fell open and slack, he put his back into it, thrusting harder and faster. She rubbed his sides with her hands, murmuring to him, and he felt guilty about it, but he had to shut his eyes and tune her out. She… It didn’t help him get close, that was all. So he concentrated on the sensation of her pussy around him, tight and gripping, and lifted himself on his arms, preferring a little space between them—it was the bra, he didn’t like the feel of it against him—and that was better. And near the end, if he found himself thinking about stronger, faceless bodies, about harder shoulders and firmer thighs, well, that was because he liked really athletic shapes. He maybe thought of narrow hips and a taut, slightly hairy abdomen and further down, there was—

He came, and it was…satisfying. He slumped, panting, to the side, pulling out in the process, trying to be gentle. She cuddled up next to him, and though she was a little too warm and he was all sweaty, it was nice to hold and be held. She made a happy sound against his chest, and he stroked a hand through her hair, pushing away the disquiet.

“That was amazing,” she whispered.

He was exhausted. Don’t think, he told himself. Don’t think.

 

* * *

 

It wasn’t until he was at home, taking his keys and wallet and change out of his pockets to dump on the dresser, and found himself holding the business card that Allison had written her new work number on, that the phone call from that morning sank in.

He’d said yes. He wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking, because there’d been this roar in his head the whole time, a roar made up of things that Miller hadn’t thought about in five years. Things that he wished he could avoid thinking about for another five—or fifty—years.

Church was stubborn enough that if he hated Miller, he’d have stayed at Woodbury for another year before he’d ask a favor of this magnitude. So there was a chance, at least, that Church would accept Miller’s apology and they could go back to what they used to be. Friends, maybe even best friends, although the pathetic nature of a twenty-four-year-old man finding a best friend in a sixteen-year-old smart-mouth was not lost on him.

Miller knew he had some issues. Shelby said a nuclear weapon couldn’t get through his armor, but he couldn’t help being aware that the bonds between people were fragile, and nothing felt worse than having someone you cared about slip away. Human beings were work to begin with, even before you considered that Miller had one gear with people he wasn’t related to: awkward small talk.

He’d never had that problem with Church, despite his young age. Or maybe it was because he’d been so young. Miller hadn’t needed to watch himself, and there’d been zero pressure to be anything but what he was. Church was as unrefined as they came, and he’d been so damn eager for someone to see him that on those rare instances when Church had been combative, it’d been easy for Miller to avoid shutting down. It wasn’t personal. Church had been a teenager, and he’d had a rough go of it. He’d galloped heedlessly over any remaining barriers Miller had tried to put up anyway. For the first time, Miller had interacted with someone besides Shelby or Em without feeling like he had to watch every word to avoid revealing something he shouldn’t.

Yes, it was lame that Church had been Miller’s best friend back then. Didn’t make it any less true.

If only Church had let it stay that way. If only Miller had handled it better. If only he knew, for that matter, why he’d been so cruel to the kid that night.

But that train of thought brought the roaring back in his head, so Miller focused on the details instead. He’d have to put Church on the couch for the first couple days, since it’d take a while to clean out the second bedroom. He’d need to stop by the grocery store for some stuff. He wondered if Church would have toiletries and enough clothes. He’d probably need a phone. The kid’s parents were useless, but all Miller had was that single box of stuff that Church had left behind. It was in storage now, so he’d have to drive up and collect it.

He lifted a hand, pressed it to his right cheekbone where the worst bruise had risen. He remembered the words he’d said that night, hateful enough that it had shaken Miller’s very idea of who he was once he’d calmed down.

He wanted to go back to the beginning. Before Church made everything different, back when having Church in his life had been safe.

With his stomach in knots, Miller abandoned the idea of going to bed. He wouldn’t sleep like this anyway, loaded down with thoughts. Instead, he shoved his feet back into his shoes and went out to the big backyard shed where he kept all of his woodworking equipment.

Just unlocking and opening the door had his pulse slowing. He calmed further as he got his ventilation mask on and picked out a blank piece of wood to work on. The whir of the lathe’s motor starting was like a mother’s lullaby to her child. This was what he’d needed all day, to be alone with nothing more than his tools and the scents of warmed oak and astringent finish for company. He’d live in here if he could.

The only thing that marred his time in the shed was the knowledge that his life was still waiting beyond the half-open door.

Excerpt from Loose Cannon by Sidney Bell, copyright 2016, published by Carina Press, TM.