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 14: The Heart of It
Idling in the lot outside of Jaye’s office, Dixon had the engine on but the radio off. The sound of the wind blowing against the side of the vehicle was lulling enough for his strained state of mind. Once in a while, a good hard gust shook the Expedition, making Dixon feel even more like an unwanted surprise tucked inside some perfunctory wrapping lying in wait to be opened. The jostling was nature’s way of trying to figure out what he was really up to in there.
Jaye came out of the entrance, coat bundled, head down, hands pocketed, eyes sharp as he watched his step and made a beeline for his sedan. He got right up to it and stopped, key in hand. After a three-count, he turned around and squinted right up at Dixon.
Pushing the button to lower his window, Dixon gave a lame greeting of, “Hey.”
Some surprise he was.
“But I…” Jaye pointed to the car with confusion. “I drove today.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dixon said apologetically.
“So,” Jaye looked around, as if for a clue. “Why are you here? Is something wrong? Was there a call, or emergency, or — ”
“No. No, nothing like that. Sorry. Didn’t intend to freak you out or anything,” he said, knowing how he sounded suspiciously glum.
Jaye’s hands dropped to his sides. “You look like someone ran over the dog, but we don’t have a dog.”
He opened his mouth to say something else, then shut it, then walked around the Expedition. Dixon pressed the button to raise the window again. A moment later, Jaye was seated beside him, facing him with a profoundly expectant expression. He even folded his hands in his lap.
“It was just nice to sit here, knowing you were inside. I don’t know.”
“What does that even mean?”
Dixon groaned and let his head fall back against the headrest. He closed his eyes and said, “Grant said I should talk to you.”
“Grant. Said you should talk to me,” Jaye parroted back. “As if you previously planned on not talking to me?”
“Cash wants to pay for our airfare and hotel costs to go to Sheridan.”
“Oh-kay,” Jaye said slowly, still squinting at Dixon. “And that’s good news, or…?”
Dixon sighed heavily and gave up.
“I hate Cash.”
“For offering to pay for shit?”
Dixon shot Jaye a sideways glance but didn’t respond.
“For making me ride his dick every day? For existing? D, all of the above?”
“And this Tony guy is like a part of Cash, so…”
“You hate Tony.”
Dixon made a groaning noise to express his resistance to admit that much.
“It’s like if one of Marcus’s accomplices came expecting favors from me.”
“Does Marcus have accomplices?”
“I’m not saying it right.”
“Tony isn’t gonna hurt me.”
“Physically? Of course not. Mentally? Emotionally?” Dixon shrugged, hands turned palm up. “I’m trying to be a realist here. I am. But this is going to mean someone seeing you as ‘Johnny’ all the time, forever. It won’t go away.”
“But I am Johnny,” Jaye told him. “I’m Johnny right now. It’s just a name, Dix. Tony being nearby wouldn’t change who I am.”
“Oh, come on,” Dixon said with some anger. “That’s a fucking line. Don’t bullshit me. You know what I mean. You know there’s a difference between when I was the guy who didn’t even think of leaving Marcus after getting his fucking nose broken for daring to ask to go to a party, and the guy sitting here right now. I mean, I hope to hell there’s a difference. I don’t ever want someone to see me as that delusional coward again. That guy was ashamed and small and worthless and a mess.”
Jaye dropped his gaze and shifted closer. He reached out and took Dixon’s hand.
“Look at me.” Dixon did so, feeling defensive with the last person he wanted to feel that way with. Jaye’s eyes were bright, clear, and unconfused. “You’re not that guy. You’ll never be that guy again. Ever. But when we change, people notice. They change with us. Tony isn’t Jinx anymore. So what makes you think he’s going to assume I’m still Johnny?”
“I don’t know how to protect you from this,” Dixon confessed, getting to the heart of it at last. It raced up on him and he had to look away. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. Jaye grabbed him behind the neck, dragging him in and resting their foreheads together as if determined to narrow Dixon’s focus whether he liked it or not. “You knew instinctively how to protect me from Marcus, but now I’m fucking it up, and — ”
“Dixon Andrew Rowe — yes, I’m going there. I’m using the middle name — I’m not expecting you to turn into some other guy in order to fill this weird role you think you need to fill right now. You’re not me. You’re not Cash — and thank fuck you aren’t. You’re you. And I love you. You give me things without even trying that I’ve been searching for and not finding in everyone else in my life since I was born. You don’t even have to try. It’s just who you are, and that’s a fucking miracle,” he laughed. “You’re so worried about caring for me in the perfectly right way as soon as you detect I might get upset, that you turn yourself inside out, twisted up like a crazy gymnastic pretzel on acid, just to try to manage it. Just to try to become this vision in your head of the impossible, exact right thing, when all I’ve ever wanted was just to have someone who cared at all. Who stuck in to the end, through the hard shit without diverging off on their own path along the way and consequently leaving me alone again. I don’t need a thug protector in my life anymore. I need you. You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“Fuck,” Dixon hissed. “I made it about me, didn’t I? You’re going through all of this with Cash and Tony and I’m the whining bitch again, aren’t I? I — ”
“Dixon. Stop,” Jaye pleaded softly. “I’m not worried about Tony. I haven’t even decided if I’m going to do it or not yet. But he’s a friend, and I feel I owe him a visit just to see how he is, okay? That’s all. I’m okay. I really am. But I know you’re not. That’s why I did what I did last night, trying to distract you and all.”
“You really did distract me. That was incredible.”
“Good,” Jaye smiled. “It’s okay to not be okay. This is all out of your element. It’s not for me. This is expected. This is easy. Of all of the things Cash could have wanted from me, he’s just asking me to give a shit about a guy who’s so bad off, he’s suicidal. And I can do that without him asking me a thing.”
“You can’t really be totally fine with going back to Sheridan,” Dixon pressed.
“Okay. I’m not. I admit it. But I think it’ll be good for me. Facing a fear and all. Plus, I’ll have you with me. You can keep reminding me they’re not gonna cuff me and throw me back in a cell.”
“I can. I can totally do that.”
“See? We’ve each got our specialties. That’s why we fit together so nice,” Jaye grinned.
“We do, don’t we?”
“You okay to drive home? You can take a hot bath, drink some wine?”
“God, I don’t deserve you,” Dixon lamented.
“Likewise,” Jaye said, more sincerely than Dixon was prepared to process. He hopped down from the passenger seat, shut the door and gave Dixon a little salute before heading to the sedan. It was time to go home.
Jaye took one last peek through the door into the bathroom at Dixon sprawled out in steaming water fizzing with Epsom salts, given to him by his sister as a way to help reduce stress in situations just like the one they were currently in. It said a lot to Jaye that Brekken knew enough to give him those types of things to have on hand just in case.
An mp3 player had some mellow meditation music playing and Jaye had stoked the fire to get the cabin nice and hot. Dixon leaned back against a rolled towel placed behind his head, wearing a subtle frown that creased his brow, but he looked a lot better than he had earlier.
Jaye inched the door shut, then closed it completely as soundlessly and unobtrusively as he could.
Without wasting a moment, he palmed his phone from the tabletop and went to sit on the floor on the far side of the cabin with his back leaned against the side of the bed, facing away from the bathroom door.
It wasn’t a number he’d dialed often. There had only been a handful of instances of needing to track down Dixon that had warranted him using it at all.
It was picked up on the third ring.
“It’s Jaye, Sesi.”
“Oh, hi, Jaye. I should really add you to my contacts. I keep forgetting. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Look, did you mean what you said before about Tony?” He kept his voice as lowered as he possibly could, speaking barely above a whisper. “About helping him out if you could?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Sesi said with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm. “Maybe you already know this, but back when you came to town I tried to take over taking care of you from Dixon, but he wouldn’t let me,” she laughed.
Jaye grinned. “Can’t imagine why he’d do a thing like that.”
“Yeah, he had this totally obscure excuse of, ‘he’s real pretty,’ if I’m remembering accurately. But that’s the truth. I knew he was already dealing with a lot in his personal life at the time. He’s got this good guy streak in him that he can’t get away from even when it lands him in a lot of trouble, so I figured that was what was happening again. Zus — we’re a community, you know? We’re a big family. We have to take care of each other, whether it’s making sure the elderly folks in town have enough food during the winters, making sure they’re stocked with firewood, or giving the young people reasons to stay, finding them work or ways to take care of themselves — it’s what keeps us going.”
“I get that. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve grown to love this place so much. It has a welcoming aspect that’s really hard to find everywhere else. But at the same time, the people already living here have to be willing to accept a new person for it to work.”
“True. There’s definitely a trial process that happens. I know you’re a guy who lives free of bullshit so hopefully you won’t mind me saying this, but it happened with you, for sure. Some of my people think doing anything taboo or risky is only inviting bad luck, and when one bad winter can mean the end of an entire community, they don’t want to take a chance. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of each spirit they encounter, and respect it. When you worked at the truck stop, you dealt with a lot of different folks every day. They were feeling you out same as you were trying to adjust. And, no offense, but someone with your record probably wouldn’t be working for the municipality as an electrician the way you do.”
“Oh, I know that for a fact. I saw it in Anchorage, with people my mom knew who had done time. It follows you like a bad smell. That’s why I feel like I need to give this a shot for Tony. He’s damn loyal and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. If anything, I think following orders too well is what keeps getting him in trouble. And I’m not saying this is happening for sure. I want to see what we’re working with first. He has to be a little bit self-sufficient. We can’t provide him with nursing care or anything like that way out here. But if he can tackle some basics, I think he’d be more likely to thrive with our support. And maybe he could help out the town, too. Like you said, we need to give young people reasons to stay, or else it’ll be a ghost town. It’ll die. I don’t want it to die.”
“How about this?” she asked. “I’ll do a little digging, see if anyone has a room they’d like to rent out for a small fee. That way, he wouldn’t need to cover the cost of a full rent payment, and he wouldn’t need to take care of a whole place on his own either. He could help out the owner in small ways, or just provide company. A lot of the older Native folks can’t read or write — they’re hunters trying to provide for their families, not scholars looking to grow their minds — so if Tony can manage some reading, he’ll have plenty to do to help. There are a few people springing to mind who simply go nutty if they don’t get some regular conversation with others. If we could line him up with a job doing as much as he can manage with his current physical challenges, it won’t pay much but it should get him by.”
A surge of energy shot through Jaye’s arms, legs, up his back to his neck and right to the top of his head. He sat up straighter, leaning forward eagerly.
“That sounds perfect, Sesi. It really does. I’d be grateful if you could.”
“Is this something I should keep to myself?”
Jaye glanced back at the bathroom. The door was still shut.
“Yes, for now. It’s all up in the air anyway.”
“What about Dixon?”
“Yeah.” Jaye used the edge of his nail to trace a groove in the floorboard below him. “That’s trickier. He’s not really okay with any of this yet. I don’t blame him. I know trust issues can be hard to shake, and he’s got some doozies.”
“Is it just because Tony has ties to the gang?”
“Kind of. That’s part of it, but he blames Tony for being there for… things. And not trying to stop them.”
“Do you blame him for that?”
Jaye blew out a breath and thought about how to answer.
“If you need anyone to talk to about that stuff, Jaye, I hope you know I’m here. I’m a good listener, and I’m not actually family, which can be a bonus.”
“Thanks, Sesi. I appreciate it. I don’t know, really. It’s complicated.”
“Was Tony there for things he should have stopped? Or objected to, at least?”
Thinking specifically of the gang bang porno, Jaye felt the old weight of those emotional hurdles sag down on him once more.
He kind of wanted to tell her. Saying the words out loud might help give them less power. Funny how he never felt that way with his prison counselor.
“If I,” he said hesitantly, “tell you something, would you swear not to tell Dixon, or Brekken, or anyone?”
“Of course, Jaye. Brekken is my friend and Dixon is my co-worker, but I can be discreet. It’s part of being a cop. It’s also how I was raised. You keep things close when it’s called for.”
“Okay. Well, there was this one thing I keep coming back to. There was a lot that happened while I knew Jinx — Tony — but this was the worst, for me. It’s something I’ve struggled to get past, just on my own.”
He gave her the basics, about why Cash had found it necessary to pay the debt, and how it went down, without giving any gory details.
“So, I’m pretty sure he was just one of the guys holding me down, that he didn’t actually… rape me. But still. He was there. He didn’t say a word. He helped it happen. But he was following orders. There would have been no way for him to say no to Cash without fucking up his own life in awful ways.”
“Oh my god, Jaye. That’s just horrifying. I had no idea. I’m so, so sorry. That must have been so traumatic for you. Have you been able to talk to a therapist about any of it?”
“No. Not really. They gave me one. A counselor. But I’ve got my own trust issues and it just hasn’t worked out. It’s not something I dwell on. I don’t dwell on any of it, really. Not anymore. But just with all of this stuff about Tony — Dixon doesn’t know about that part of it at all, and it just makes me hesitate, I guess.”
“Of course it does. And I can’t really know what you went through or how this is for you, but I do have experience with needing to fulfill a role in order to do my job and keep people safe. Even if there are other factors going on, you should always listen to your gut and your conscience, first. You know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“What’s your gut telling you?”
Jaye shifted position, drawing his knee up to his chest.
He thought about Cora, lying on her couch, doped out of her mind and unresponsive. He thought of Kris waving goodbye on a darkened street outside a diner when he should have been heading home with Jaye to help keep him safe. He thought about Dixon, crouched on the floor in his childhood bedroom, crying and about to lose his mind over Marcus’s continued abuse and threats. Then he thought about Tony, sitting in a cell, his hands near useless, surrounded by men who knew he took cock and would again with little complaint, if they could get away with giving it to him again beyond the notice of the Disciples or Cash. He thought of Tony wanting to kill himself, facing a world that didn’t want him or had a place for him.
“It’s telling me it’s nice to be needed.”
There were sounds in the bathroom. Water was running down the drain. Dixon was walking around.
“I’ve gotta go,” he told Sesi.
“I’ll get to work on this, okay? Call me whenever you need to, or want to.”
“I will. Thanks, Sesi. He’s not a bad person, okay? I know he’s not. Just because you’ve done bad things doesn’t mean you’re worthless.”
“I know, hon. Believe me. Take care, okay?”
“You too. Bye.”
He set the phone aside and sat there a while longer. When the door opened, and Dixon asked, “Hey. You all right?” Jaye smiled at him and said, “Yeah. I’m good. Just thinking. Did the bath help?”
“It did, actually,” Dixon replied. He wore a towel around his waist and nothing else. His wet hair was tousled and his skin flushed. Seeing him like that made Jaye want to just curl up in bed beside him, but other things had to come first.
“Good. Help me make dinner?”
“Love to,” Dixon smiled.
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