by Lynn Kelling
As he approaches his twenty-second birthday, the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack in an alley that nearly cost him his life in a few different ways, Jaye Larson thinks he’s left behind the ghosts from his years spent incarcerated, but when he’s delivered a mysterious letter with terrifying implications, old monsters rear their ugly heads. His normal new life in remote Zus, Alaska, with his lover, Dixon Rowe, the heart of a found-family that supports Jaye in ways he’s never before dreamed possible, is threatened by old deals and ties he begins to fear may never be broken. While old alliances strive to draw Jaye backward, Dixon and the rest of their family are called to step up to keep him steady. When the letter turns out to be just the first clue in a chain leading both Jaye and Dixon back inside the walls of the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon, all of them are left facing carefully-held secrets and terrible new truths that refuse to be ignored. (M/M)
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Chapter 1: Beginning in the Ending
Time had been draining away at an alarming speed, with only a week left before Jaye Larson completed his sentence and would be officially released from the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon. The closer the end came, the less Jaye felt prepared to handle it. He had nothing waiting for him on the outside — or rather, no people. Just an empty cabin in the middle of nowhere. But there was no money, and no one who gave a fuck about him existed on the face of the whole planet, other than the people who’d become his family inside FCI Sheridan. Now, his gang — the Disciples — were his family, and he was losing them. Most of all, he was losing Cash.
The deal with Cash, boss man of the Disciples and a bad-ass, tattooed, scarred and scary motherfucker, had started out as a straightforward barter. In exchange for sexual favors and the ability to have full ownership of Jaye’s body, Cash had agreed to protect Jaye to the best of his ability. Cash had most of the prison deathly afraid of him — so much so that when his enemies came after him, they targeted his crew rather than the man himself. That meant Jaye had often found himself in the crosshairs of one evil piece of shit or other. Yet, he’d survived through sheer force of will alone.
Even after two years together, night and day, every day, Jaye knew little about the full extent of what Cash had done both to land himself behind bars, and otherwise. He never bragged, or let old stories slip, even to boost his own reputation. There were some little clues, like the three blue-ink tears on his face, to hint at the lethal quality of his actions. Cash bore the gnarled remnants of those old fights and crimes on his body, had tattooed mysterious, countless symbols into his skin, was muscle-bound, bald and angry as hell. He didn’t have a soft side, and it wasn’t an act.
Jaye now had over seven hundred days of memories filled with all of the ways Cash had looked out for him. Sure, Cash had scared off the rival gangs and thugs hard up for someone pretty to fuck over in any way possible. He had done his best to keep the guards off Jaye’s back, too. He also made sure Jaye ate when he was having a rough time, or if his mental health went on the fritz. If someone did hurt Jaye — and they had, plenty of times — Cash meted out payback in spades. Eyeless and blinded Tio was proof enough of that. However, even all of that didn’t do enough to cover everything Cash had been to Jaye.
He’d been family.
A solitary, unbreakable lifeline when Jaye had been ready and willing to die.
He’d kept Jaye together when he’d fallen completely apart and somehow caused him look forward to waking up in the morning when everything else kept on tearing him down.
He’d been kind when there was no reason. He’d kissed Jaye, laughing. He’d made love to him daily, tenderly, giving Jaye as much pleasure as he took for himself, without being asked or expected to do so.
And Jaye knew what his leaving meant for Cash.
It meant all of that was gone. Maybe Jaye would be alone out there, in the world, but Cash would be alone too. Only, he’d have nowhere to run, no escape in sight. He was here for the duration, with years tacked on years and no end promised, except in a body bag. He’d have no promise of someone who appreciated him sharing his lonely nights in the cell, or even that he’d hear from Jaye again. Jaye hadn’t been able to promise it. He didn’t want to give Cash hope of something he wasn’t sure he could deliver. Jaye wasn’t making any plans past walking out of Sheridan and into the rest of his life. There were no guarantees, and Cash wasn’t stupid. He knew how it was.
Maybe Cash had cared about someone before, like he’d cared about Jaye. But as the months whittled down to weeks and then days, Jaye saw something in his boss that had never been there before.
Cash was scared.
He didn’t show the crew, and he tried not to show Jaye, but when Cash was inside him in the dark, Jaye could feel how tight Cash held on, how hard he breathed, and heard the desperation in his moans.
Neither of them knew what to say. They weren’t good with words, or talking about emotions.
So they kept putting it off. There was a goodbye coming, which they had no way to know how to face.
It made Jaye jittery. The voices came back, louder than they’d been in a long time. His nerves were fried.
The corrupt guard who’d given him hell his whole sentence — Ecker — was in prime form. He took Jaye whenever he could, fairly regularly, to get bent over and reamed out with both his baton and his pathetically tiny dick. Since Jaye knew Cash had no way to make the rapes stop, and that Cash was already upset about Jaye going, Jaye kept it to himself as much as he could. Still, he was worn right out — emotionally, physically, mentally.
It made him slow. Unobservant.
That’s why he hadn’t seen it coming.
It was seven days before his release when they raided Cash’s bunk. Jaye had been coming back from a work assignment. He hadn’t been in Unit Four to see it go down, but had heard the commotion and quickened his approach.
Five guards kept Cash out of the cell while they tore up his shit, including the sketch Jaye had made for him of a blue jay over an open field, with mountains in the distance, done painstakingly as a gesture of deep gratitude. Remembering his promise to his mother, Cora, when she’d still been alive, that he would always try to fly free, no matter what it took, Jaye had wanted to give that to Cash too. Even if it was just a drawing, it still meant something.
They ripped it to shreds.
They found drugs, probably planted by Ecker.
When Cash realized what was going on, he started to scream.
The whole Unit got quiet in a bad, piss-your-pants kind of way.
The sound of Cash’s screaming carried far.
Jaye stopped breathing. Then, he ran.
A pair of guards held him back, wouldn’t even let him go inside the Unit. But he could see Cash through a narrow, shatterproof window.
Cash was fighting, punching one guard in the eye, another in the jaw. They wrestled him down to the ground and all piled on him to keep him there.
Jaye opened his mouth, trying to speak, to yell, to do something.
“Get him the fuck out of here,” Ecker snarled. “Throw him in ad-seg for the week.”
“NO! JOHNNY! I’m never… I’m never gonna see him again… I’m…”
There was no air. Jaye clawed at it. Pushing his lungs hard enough to burst. He couldn’t see, his last sight of Cash smeared and watery.
Pathetically, too broken to be heard, especially with how loud Cash was growling and crying out in pure, rage-fueled panic, Jaye tried to call out to him, “Cash! Please! Please just let me… Let me say…”
They carried Cash out a different door a couple of hundred feet from where Jaye stood. It took all five guards, because he fought the whole way, even in leg irons and handcuffs. It was the last time Jaye saw him.
They never got to say goodbye.
The world had turned sideways and inside-out. Drop four hundred and fifty or so days’ worth of sand through the hourglass. Feeling like he had hardly anything in common with the kid who’d come out of Sheridan, there Jaye stood, with an envelope addressed to Johnny in his hands. It bore no return address.
It had been delivered to his post office box address, which no one but his ghosts and the government had any use for anymore.
Jaye drove back to his cabin, parked in front of it, then sat in the car staring blankly forward for nearly an hour. It was the ass-end of winter and a surprisingly nice day, with the temperatures solidly above freezing. The wind was almost non-existent, making it feel like the whole world had taken an indrawn breath and held it. What would come out when they let it go? A scream? A cry? A whimper?
He couldn’t move from the driver’s seat.
Whatever he did next would be a choice made in light of the fact of the envelope in his possession.
It lay in his lap. He kept running his fingers over the crinkled white envelope and the jagged, handwritten letters spelling out Johnny Larson. It wasn’t Cash’s handwriting, or sent on prison stationary, but Jaye wasn’t stupid either. He knew who it was from.
As Jaye sorted facts and fears in his head, he counted the things that were true. One was that Dixon would be coming home in a few hours. Another certainty was that the confines of the snug little cabin that had been his and Dixon Rowe’s painstakingly crafted home for over a year held no comfort for him in that moment. Sometimes, being in a confined space made him feel better. It reminded him of the pleasures of living out of a cinderblock cell, where no one could sneak up on you and everything was in its place.
This was not one of those times.
Instinct told him one thing:
It wasn’t a letter he held. It was a bomb. A kind even the most paranoid couldn’t understand the fear behind. The only person in the whole world with the ability to comprehend how fucked he was, just because that letter existed, was Jaye himself.
That letter would blow everything up. Jaye’s progress. His mental health. His emotional stability. His ability to form words or do anything.
And it wasn’t even about him anymore. Dixon came first in a lot of ways. He was Jaye’s life, his love, his reason. Nothing that might lie in wait in that envelope would be good for Dixon.
Yet… in Jaye’s mind, from another life, traveling through time, there was screaming. All over again, his heart was breaking. That bald-headed, mean-ass, stubborn and brutal man was bigger in Jaye’s head than anyone. Even Dixon. Though Dixon had saved him too, Jaye had been doing pretty well at the time. He had been relatively sane. He hadn’t had hundreds of convicted felons salivating at the thought of carving him up or raping him to death for any number of reasons. Cash had saved him from all of that, over and over again, for years.
Then there was the kick-in-the-balls certainty that Cash deserved a hell of a lot better than what he’d gotten.
If ever a person had owed another person…
Jaye got out of the car. It was a shitty one, and almost ten years old, with stained upholstery and a faulty stereo, but it had a good engine and a great heater. The gray exterior was beat to hell and rusted at the edges, but he liked it that way. Every dent, scratch, and scuff told a story. Some he knew, most he didn’t. But, there was no way to erase the past. Not completely. An ugly truth was always going to be better than a pristine lie. He was a firm believer that the outside should sometimes match the inside, and cars were the type of possession that should speak to the personality of the owner.
To his right loomed the cabin, set up on its thick foundation, holding back the wild forest beyond through plain old ballsiness. It was a crappy, hand-built monstrosity, but he loved every quirk it held. It symbolized a lot — everything Jaye had lost, everything he’d fought with teeth, blood, and multicolored pain to keep, and everything he’d been tearing himself apart to build. It was hope. It was the future, present, and past. He sensed its warmth, the food stocking the fridge, the soft coziness of the bed, the invigorating sight of his artwork decorating the walls. It was their place. His sanctuary.
He didn’t deserve it. Couldn’t stand it.
To his left a field opened up to the wider world. It was covered in melting snow. The sun beat down on it as hard as it could, withering the ice, forcing white to give over to brown. Straight ahead, the road reached all the way out to the horizon.
Turning, Jaye made his way into the field. When his shoes began to crunch over the frozen mounds and brittle, muddy grass, he enjoyed the sound and feeling of ruining something pure and untouched. He knew he left footsteps, so he didn’t worry much about not taking his phone or leaving Dixon a message.
Some things were never explainable with words anyway.