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 6: Some Big Hero
“Hi,” Brekken said in a cheerful sing-song voice, wearing a beaming smile. She opened her arms and came forward. “I’m gonna kiss you. Fair warning.”
“Noted,” Jaye grinned. She pecked his cheek with her pursed lips, then gave him a tight hug.
“Happy early birthday,” she said, pulling back and shifting her purse strap on her shoulder.
“You’ve still got more than a day to go, but thanks. I know Dix told you it was a big deal, but it’s really not something you need to worry about. I mean, I appreciate everything, but I don’t want to be a hassle to anyone.”
“Oh, come on, Jaye.” He stepped aside to let her in, then shut the door behind her to block out the cold. “I do know you well enough by now to know you’re not just saying that to be polite. I can tell you mean it, but that’s even more reason why I do need to make a fuss. You have so much to celebrate! And so do the rest of us, to be honest.”
“Make yourself comfortable. You need a drink or anything?” he asked, trying to remember how to be hospitable. Everyday manners still weren’t things that came to him easily. He had to work at normality more than others seemed to need to.
“No thanks. I’m good. He’ll be home soon, by the way. I texted him a few minutes ago.”
“But what was I saying?” She dropped her bag and sat on the couch like she’d been on her feet all day. Settling back into the cushions in a way that spoke of her ease with both the place and Jaye, she let out a heavy breath and let go of some tension in her frame. Jaye noticed it mainly because it was odd for others to feel so comfortable around him. He tended to set people on edge rather than the opposite.
The realization of Brekken’s acceptance caused a painful spark of gratitude, deep in his chest, that he wasn’t sure how to process or accept.
“Oh, right. Celebrating!” She gave him a knowing smirk, as if calling him on his curmudgeonly attitude. She pulled a hairband off of her wrist and tied her long blonde hair up in a knot behind her head. Not for the first time, he marveled at how sisterly she felt to him, when he’d never been blessed with siblings, or had been close enough to someone to feel like they fit the role. He knew Brekken and Grant watched out for him, and not just because he was with Dixon. It underscored for him that he needed to watch out for them too, and repay the favor, but lately it felt like they were doing all of the giving. It made him uncomfortable.
“Maybe you do need to hear this,” she told him. “I know how clever you are, Jaye, but it’s different to have things said to you than to just assume them in your own head. I need you to understand that Dixon has been so different since he’s been with you. I credit you with the whole Marcus thing, and only in good ways. I hated him more than anyone, Dixon included, but you probably know that, right? I mean, come on. He’s my only brother, and that piece of shit was beating on him and doing God knows what else behind closed doors for too damned long. And I knew it. And I couldn’t do anything! But you did. You came in there, and in no time, you’d figured that shit out and made a huge difference. You saved his life. Hell, you probably saved our lives too. I’m sorry you had to deal with all of that, but you’ve made a massive difference in my family. You’re my hero.”
“No. Nope. Sorry. You don’t get to contradict me on that. It’s my opinion. So, yes. I know only a smidgeon of the shit you’ve been through in life, but I know enough to be aware that you deserve the best fucking birthday of your life. Pardon my French.”
“Pardoned,” Jaye smirked. He bit at the end of his thumb, trying to think of a comeback and failing. In fact, the more he stood there and thought about what she said, the more temptation there was to get upset, and she seemed to sense that too.
“Don’t you dare cry on me, Jaye Larson. Let’s change the subject. Dessert. What’s your favorite flavor?”
“Of what?” he laughed.
“Anything. Tell me favorites. Favorite cake? Cupcakes? Um, cheesecakes… ice cream… candy…”
“Candy?” he smiled.
“Whatever,” she said, flapping a hand. “Give me something. Just keep in mind the limitations of my grocery shopping access. Weird stuff takes time to ship in, and we don’t have it for this one. Maybe next time.”
Before answering, he just smiled at her a moment, watching her sitting there in his cabin, cross-legged on the couch, caring about things that wouldn’t benefit her in the slightest, knowing most of his biggest secrets and still invested anyway. She wore an eager smile of the sort he figured came easier to her brother before he met Marcus. In fact, he bet their smiles would have matched identically. Maybe there were photos somewhere of them, arm-in-arm, like two peas in a pod. Both with that red-gold hair — since that would have been before she started to dye it blonde — and bright blue eyes. Brekken still had the innocence that had been stolen from Dixon forever.
She was part of his responsibility now. This woman who wouldn’t have looked at him twice a year ago.
And now here he was, trying to get back in touch with Cash, who could only bring bad things to his new, hopeful life, and to people like sweet-hearted Brekken Rowe.
It wasn’t just Jaye’s hide on the line anymore. Now he had to come through for a bunch of people.
“Chocolate cake would be amazing,” he told her, rubbing warmth into his arms as a chill ran down his back. “My mom wasn’t,” he cleared his throat, “always great at getting me a cake, so I’d go look for something chocolate at the store. Kind of became a tradition.”
Brekken’s cheer faded a little at that. “She was a single mom, right?”
“I’m sorry, Jaye,” she said, with more sincerity than he was comfortable hearing. “Birthdays are a big deal to kids. That must have broken your heart. But I’m sure she did her very best.”
“Always,” he agreed. “But it was good practice for dealing with the record-breaking Worst Birthday Ever a few years back, so it all worked out.”
“You must think about her a lot,” she guessed, gently.
“Good days and bad days. You know how it goes.”
He’d visited with Dixon and Brekken’s parents via Skype a few months ago. It had been as awkward as expected. Their mother’s shock at his appearance had been evident, but she’d been polite enough. Mrs. Rowe had been a blonde, just as naturally as her daughter, Jaye guessed. She also had oodles of Southern charm and an accent. Gray-haired, blue-eyed Mr. Rowe had Dixon’s strong jaw and rugged masculinity. Seeing the echo of similarity between the generations had caused Jaye to wonder about his own relatives, and what they might have looked like at an advanced age. He hadn’t had much chance to find out. Neither did they.
He glanced at the front door at the sound of a vehicle pulling up out front. A peek at the window told him Dixon was home.
“Jaye,” Brekken asked almost hastily, sitting forward. “Is it just the whole birthday thing, or is something else wrong? Are you okay?”
He thought of how impatient he was to send the letter to Cash, just to have it done with, and also to hurry along whatever fate was trying to throw his way. He hadn’t felt incredibly patient at the thought of having to wait a while to find out what was going on. At least with the attack that had sent him to prison, and the final, deadly confrontation with Marcus, he hadn’t seen them coming at all. There’d been no time to be scared of the possibilities.
Now, not so much.
He never knew why he said it. Then again, his verbal filters had been mostly broken off long, long ago.
“An old friend has been in touch,” he said without managing to conjure any levity at all.
“An old friend,” she echoed, staring at him like it might help her figure out his meaning. “You don’t mean… Oh, you do. Does Dixon know?”
Heavy booted footsteps ascended to the door, which then opened. Dixon stepped inside, decked out in full Alaska State Trooper regalia. Seeing him like that still did weird things to Jaye’s insides. It was equally alluring and terrifying.
He saw Brekken glance between them both.
“Hey, Dixie,” Brekken said offhandedly.
“Hey,” he smiled, setting down some of his gear. He came over and gave Jaye a kiss hello.
“So what are you gonna do?”
Dixon glanced back to see who the question was directed toward.
She was looking right at Jaye.
“Do about what?” Dixon asked.
“Hold onto my ass and hope for the best, pretty much,” Jaye replied.
“What are you talking about?” Dixon persisted.
“You told her about the letter?” Dixon said with shock.
“Why, what was in the letter?” Brekken asked with wider eyes.
They both looked at Jaye.
“Should I tell her the monster story?” Jaye asked Dixon.
“Please don’t.” He sighed. “This isn’t something you need to be concerned about, Brek.”
“Maybe it is,” she insisted. “Look at him. He’s freaking out and even Marcus didn’t make him freak out. He was cool as a cucumber around that psycho. I’m in this family too, you know.”
“Christ,” Dixon groaned. “Now Grant is gonna hear about this too, because she tells him everything, and it’s gonna turn into a big thing again and — ”
“Stop keeping secrets, Dixon,” she snapped.
Jaye just smiled.
“There was a guy,” Jaye told her.“A guard. He had a beef with my boss, so he went for the easiest target. Me. Tortured me on the regular for the majority of my sentence, factoring in one long break when my friends arranged to have him sent to a different post for a while.”
“Okay, so when you say torture, you mean…”
“Brekken,” Dixon complained.
“Invasive body searches for stashed drugs I didn’t have. Forced vomiting. Anal rape. Over and over and fucking over. Towards the end, it was just straightforward rape, beatings, and brutality.”
“No. Jaye, no,” she breathed.
She got up off the couch. She started to walk towards him, and he was surprised enough to back up a step. Then she was hugging him, and he was hugging her back. Her hair smelled like flowers and his chest was burning. He pushed down on the pain and hugged her tighter.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Pulling back, she held him by the shoulders and persisted, “What was in the letter?”
“They killed him.”
“They killed the guard?” She glanced between them again. “Who killed the guard?”
“We don’t know,” Dixon told her. “But we know what the real message was.”
He looked to Jaye to finish the thought.
“My old crew needs a favor.”
After some more explanation and a private little conversation outside between brother and sister, Dixon and Jaye were once again alone. Jaye was busy cooking chili for dinner. Dixon came back inside, stripped down to work pants and a white t-shirt, his feet bare on the wood, and came to lean against the wall beside where Jaye worked away at the stove.
“We’re never gonna hear the end of this, you know. Grant might fucking drive over here once he hears. Wouldn’t put it past him.”
With a glance over his shoulder, Jaye said, “It’s good to have people who care that much about you. Who have your back. These aren’t your secrets to keep.”
“I’m not saying they are, I just…” he blew out an angry breath.
“Not talking about that shit doesn’t make it less true. Do you realize how crazy it is that I can talk about it? To people who care? Who’ll feel that sorry for me once they hear the truth?”
Dixon came up behind him, took the spoon out of his hand, set it on the stove and drew Jaye into a hug. His hand slid down Jaye’s back. His warm lips touched Jaye’s cheek.
“I don’t want to see you hurt,” Dixon admitted.
“Too late. Years too late.”
“I want to write it up tonight. We need to get it done.”
They ate the chili before starting. Jaye could tell Dixon’s appetite would vanish quickly once they got down to business, so he stopped pushing until Dixon was fed and restless.
Dixon got out a few pieces of stationery from the department, with the logo and contact information for their division of the Alaska State Trooper Zus outpost. Jaye wasn’t sure how Cash would respond to the official stationery, but Dixon insisted on it as verification of his position. Jaye knew it was just a way to compare dick lengths. Cash was definitely packing in that regard, but what Dixon carried was impressive in other ways.
Dixon began to write, speaking what his pen scrawled. “I’m aware you’re interested in hearing from Jaye Larson — I’m not calling you Johnny and this fucker can kiss my ass.” He shot Jaye a glare, then kept writing, “I’m the person in charge of his wellbeing. If you want to talk to him, you’ll talk to me.”
“You’re gonna piss him off,” Jaye told him.
“I don’t care. He’s asking for a lot here.”
“He has guys who kill for him.”
“I understand that. Either he can show me some fucking respect, or he can go to Hell.”
“Come on. We doing this or what?”
Fire blazed behind his cool blue irises. Jaye smiled to see it.
“Maybe instead, I climb up here,” he leaned forward, hand resting on the table, “Strip down, spread myself wide open, and let you fuck me through the wood?”
Dixon bit down on his back teeth. His nostrils flared. Jaye chuckled.
“That’s not helping.”
“Yes, Master. Sorry, Master.”
“I swear to god.”
“I’m trying to get you to calm down. You’re gonna give yourself an aneurysm this way.”
Dixon sat back, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Tell me what to say,” he invited.
Jaye thought about it. “Say… You did a good job on his ink. He hasn’t gotten any new pieces but says he’s saving room for a portrait of the original J.C., whatever that means. I say some things last forever when they shouldn’t. He says sometimes it’s just a matter of paying respect.”
Dixon coped it all down, then kept going. “Jaye’s moved on. He’s not the person he used to be. But if you have something to say, you can write me at this address, or we can speak on the phone.”
Jaye sat there a while, staring at that sheet of white on the dark wood, and the words scrawled in blue upon it. He thought of the past, and the present, and tried to glimpse visions of the future, somehow. Not just for himself, but for his old prison family, too. They were all stuck in Hell. Filled with fire and brimstone, pain and screaming. They were never alone and simultaneously always alone.
“It’s good. Send it,” he said, in his soft growl of a voice.
“I want you to be able to let this stuff go. To move beyond it, not be dragged back in.”
“I want that too. But he helped with that by taking Ecker off the board. He did that for me. Just me. I need to pay my respects. Doesn’t mean I’m getting dragged in. You made your peace with Marcus. Let me try to make mine. We’ve all got our demons.”
He sipped his wine and swirled the dark crimson in the glass.
Dixon’s cell phone began to ring. He glanced at the caller ID and rolled his eyes.
Jaye saw who it was and laughed.
“I love that guy. He’s as reliable as the sunrise,” Jaye grinned.
With a groan, Dixon answered, “Okay, Grant, before you start in — ”
Jaye heard yelling from the other end and kept laughing. How could he not?
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