Marc jerked upright in bed, instantly alert, but uncertain what had woken him. A hint of light made it through the blackout curtains on his only window, enough to show he was alone in his room. He snagged his phone off the bedside table, but no one was calling him. No texts, and the alarm wasn’t going off.
Only a little after noon. He’d gotten home from his overnight at the shelter less than two hours ago and crashed right away.
Why the hell am I awake?
The distant chime of his doorbell, then muffled banging.
He sat up, covers falling to his waist. No one ever knocked on his door. The Beware Pit Bull sign on his front gate deterred solicitors, and he rarely ordered anything that needed to be delivered. People didn’t ring his bell for no good reason, and that sent Marc diving for a pair of workout shorts.
Sleeping in the nude wasn’t conducive to quickly answering the door.
The stairs challenged him a little, but whatever. Two hours of sleep. At the bottom, he pressed his eye close to the peephole. A young Latina, maybe late teens or early twenties, stood on his stoop. Familiarity hit him in the heart. Her face was thinner, her hair longer, but he knew her.
He snapped the two locks and flung the door open. “Maddy?”
“Hey, Marcos.” Madeline Romano haunted his stoop like a ghost from the past—which she very much was. Maddy was the little sister of his high school best friend, and he hadn’t seen her since he was sixteen years old.
“It’s Marc now.” Stupid thing to say. “What are you doing here?”
“I need your help.”
“Okay. Come in.”
He stepped back, shut the front door once she was inside and out of the January cold, then ushered her toward his lumpy sofa. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, I’m fine.” She was pretty far from fine, or she wouldn’t be here after eight years. “Did I wake you up?”
Marc glanced down at his backward shorts. “Um, give me one sec, okay?”
He fled upstairs for proper clothes. Whatever was wrong, he didn’t need to hear it in his underwear. After finding clean briefs, he put on jeans and a sweater. Maddy hadn’t moved from the couch. She clutched at a small purse like she expected it to disappear at any moment.
“How did you find me?” Marc asked as he sat next to her.
“The internet. You stayed in the city.”
“I did. Where are you living?”
“Philadelphia. Sort of. It’s where we moved to when I was twelve. I’m home on winter break. Senior year of college.”
“Good for you. What school?”
“Damn, chica. Congrats on that.”
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks.”
“What’s Anthony up to?” Marc hadn’t thought about his former best friend in a while. After Marc’s parents had kicked him out at the end of his junior year of high school, Anthony’s family refused to help him or let them remain in contact. Marc hadn’t had any real way to keep in touch, anyhow. No money, no phone, no place to live. Maintaining a friendship hadn’t been part of his survival plan, and the one time he’d sought Anthony out, he discovered the entire family had moved. Apparently to Philly. And after enough years passed, finding Anthony again stopped feeling important.
After all, Anthony had never come looking for him.
Maddy squeezed her purse tight enough to make the leather squeak in protest. “He’s why I’m here.”
Marc’s heart kicked. “What happened?”
“After you left, he became a different person. Moody, angry, acting out. He quit the soccer team. Started getting into fights. He barely graduated, and our parents didn’t know what to do. A few months after graduation, he was arrested for possession.”
That news punched Marc in the gut. Anthony had always been about getting a soccer scholarship that would carry him to college first, then all the way to Europe. He’d dreamed of being a big-name soccer star, and he’d hated the idea of drugs. He’d turned his nose up at weed and didn’t even like to drink at parties.
“He got probation the first time.”
“The first time?” Marc squawked.
“Less than a month later, he was arrested again. He served four months.”
Anthony had been in prison for drug possession.
“It destroyed our parents,” Maddy said. “None of us understood what happened. Why he changed like that. When he got out, he was clean for a while. Even got a job at a car wash. We all thought he was doing good. Then Mom’s jewelry started going missing. Cash was missing. He kept staying out.”
“He was using again.” The words were bitter in Marc’s mouth.
“We had a family intervention. Rehab, or they’d kick him out. He chose rehab, got his act together and came home. He went to meetings, got a job. He was fun to be around again. Everyone thought he was okay until this past summer. Same thing, different day. But instead of rehab or begging for another chance, he just left. He left, and no one knows where he’s been for months.”
The heartbreak in Maddy’s voice put hot tears in Marc’s eyes.
“Fuck.” He blinked the tears away, then tucked Maddy close to his chest, acting on instinct. She clung to him without crying, and he tried not to tense up.
Marc knew the dangers of living on the streets better than anyone. He knew all of the different fates that could befall someone, especially an addict. He’d seen acquaintances overdose on bad shit. Seen them beaten up for what little they had on them, be it cash or dope. Seen them killed outright for standing on the wrong corner.
“How can I help?” Marc asked.
“I saw in the paper about your homeless shelter. It’s awesome that you do that.”
“Thanks, but Anthony’s never come to the shelter.” He wouldn’t have been admitted by Dave or Tate, even if he had. The shelter was for LGBT teenagers, not twenty-four-year-old former soccer stars. And no one brought drugs inside. “Why do you think he’d come back to Wilmington? Your family moved to Philadelphia not long after I lost touch.”
“It’s a guess. I’ve searched all over Philly. All of his old hangouts, his old friends. Dad even checked in with his detective buddy, and no one can find him there. Plus he talked about you a few times after the last rehab.”
And here Marc hadn’t thought anything else could surprise him today. “He did?”
“He wondered what you were doing, if you were okay. Said he owed you an apology, and part of staying sober was making amends. I figured searching here was worth a shot.”
Marc wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Anthony could be right around the block, shooting his own death up his arm, and Marc wanted to cry almost as much as he wanted to punch something. “If he came back to Wilmington, he’s never tried to make contact with me.”
“But don’t you know people? Someone who could help us find him?”
“I’m not sure.” Marc had more resources for this kind of thing than Maddy, but addicts weren’t quick to snitch on each other. Not unless money was involved, and Marc didn’t have a lot of spare twenties to flash in front of people for what would probably be worthless information.
One thought came to mind, though. An acquaintance who might be able to give him a lead.
He ran back upstairs for his cell phone, dialing on his way back to the living room. It rang until he expected voice mail. Then a sleepy voice said, “What’s wrong?”
His best friend and shelter co-founder, Tate Dawson, slept through the day on Saturday, same as him. “Long story, but I need a small favor. Do you have Donner Davis’s phone number?”
“Um, I know Jonas has it. Why?”
“Can you text it to me? I’ll explain later.”
Marc hung up and waited for the number. Ever since the charity fundraiser last November, Tate and his boyfriend Jonas had been hanging out with Donner and his partner Ezra more frequently. Marc knew Ezra from his coffee shop Half-Dozen, and had met Donner once, right after Christmas; he liked the pair. Donner was a full-time bartender who also ran what was basically a traveling soup kitchen with Jonas and another friend, and they saw dozens, if not hundreds, of Wilmington’s homeless every week.
Maybe Donner had seen Anthony.
“Do you have a recent picture of him?” Marc asked.
“Sure,” Maddy replied.
“Send it to me, okay?”
The photo she texted to his phone made his heart pound. Anthony was still as handsome as ever. Jet black hair, olive skin, rugged features. Beard scruff on his chin and cheeks. He was older, obviously, and thinner. His eyes had a deadness to them that tore at Marc’s heart. Like he’d forgotten how to live.
He called Donner, who actually picked up on an unknown number.
“Hey, it’s Tate’s friend Marc.”
“Hi, Marc. Is Tate okay?”
“Yeah, he’s fine.” Marc glanced at Maddy. “This is going to sound a little odd, but I need a favor. I just found out that an old friend of mine has been using and living on the streets, and I was hoping I could send a recent photo of him over. Maybe you’ve seen him at Street Feed.”
“Of course, send it over.”
“Thanks. Give me a sec.” Marc fiddled with his phone. “Okay, on its way.”
Donner’s end went silent for a while. Long enough that Marc expected bad news. “I think I have a few times,” Donner said. “Pretty sure only when we’re set up north of Pennsylvania Avenue, so that’s probably his hunting ground.”
Marc’s heart nearly beat out of his chest. “Thank you. That’s totally helpful.”
“I hope you find your friend, man.”
“I appreciate it.” He hung up.
“You have a lead?” Maddy asked.
“I have an area.” Marc knew the city well enough to figure out a few spots where Anthony could have landed.
“Then let’s go.” She shot to her feet.
“Give me a minute to get something.”
He went back upstairs to his bedroom. In his nightstand, beneath his stash of condoms and lube, was a black wooden box. He pulled it out and removed the .22LR Ruger he kept for personal safety. Checked the ammunition. He doubted they would need it, but Marc wasn’t putting Maddy at risk by not taking it with them.
* * *
Three stops later—one for coffee and two others at potential crash pads—Marc parked behind an abandoned gas station that showed signs of squatters. Empty food containers, fresh cigarette butts, newspaper-covered glass windows. Marc had lived in a place like this for a few weeks once.
Traffic was light, giving the gas station building and missing pumps a sense of abandonment. The smell of oil still lingered, as did the fainter odor of rot. He didn’t bother asking Maddy to stay in the car this time. She’d just ignore him again.
He tucked the gun into the back waistband of his jeans before locking the car doors. The heap wasn’t worth much. Most of the machine was pre-first Bush, but the engine had a few new parts on it that might entice thieves.
The building was big and boxy and covered with graffiti. One side had doors for exterior restrooms. Both were unlocked and reeked beyond words. Old syringes and pieces of foil littered the floors of both, and people had recently been using the bathrooms for their intended purposes, but neither showed signs of long-term life.
The back door was marked with a faded Employees Only sign. The lock showed obvious signs of tampering, and the knob actually turned when he twisted it. Rusty hinges squealed loudly enough that he flinched. Maddy stayed behind him as he pulled the door open. The stale stink of old air, rotten food and something he hadn’t smelled in years wafted out.
The rancid butterscotch odor of smoked heroin.
He stepped into a supply area full of empty boxes and littered with trash. Beer cans, liquor bottles, fast food bags, used cigarettes. Tucked in the corner was a half-open door to what might have been the manager’s office. The place had no electricity and the freezing interior was too dim to see far.
Maddy brought up a flashlight app on her phone and handed it over for him to use. He stepped closer to the office and picked up the rhythmic sounds of someone snoring.
Marc held up a finger; Maddy stopped following him. He inched closer and shone the light inside. A skinny figure was curled up in a ball under a dirty blanket, hoodie pulled tight around his face to block the cold. Marc couldn’t see enough of his face to know for sure who it was, and the last thing he wanted to do was scare a stranger awake. Dude could be high on anything.
He squatted, angling the light lower. Caught enough of the man’s face to register familiarity.
“Anthony!” Maddy shoved past him and dropped to her knees next to the sleeping man. She shoved him hard. “Wake up.”
Anthony moaned and mumbled something, then tugged the blanket over his head. Maddy yanked it off him with a force that surprised Marc. She pulled the hoodie down, revealing gnarly hair and a gaunt, dirt-smudged face. But beneath the surface, that was his Anthony.
He knelt next to Maddie. “Anthony, get up.”
Anthony blinked bloodshot eyes open. Stared blankly, then covered them with one hand. “Fuck, I’m hallucinating. Never buying from that asshole again. ¡Gilipollas!”
“You aren’t imagining me, pal.” Marc pinched his ear.
“Ow, fuck.” The hand dropped away. “Marcos?”
He didn’t bother correcting him. “Yeah, it’s me.”
“Why are you here?”
“For you, you jackass. Maddy came to me because she’s worried about you.”
Anthony didn’t seem to notice Maddy right next to him. “Why’s she worried?”
“You’re living in a fucking gas station. Duh. Now get up.”
“Because I’m taking you home.”
“No.” Anthony scrambled to his feet faster than Marc expected. He fled to the corner of the tiny office, hands up like a shield. “They’ll just kick me out again.”
“Not your home, my home.” Marc made the decision in the moment. He hadn’t thought past finding Anthony, much less where to plant him. It was a better plan than dumping him into a rehab facility that he’d probably resent and leave before finishing treatment.
Anthony stared at him like he’d grown a third eye. “Why would you do that?”
“Because you’re not the Anthony I remember, and I want to help get him back. Drugs, dude? This wasn’t you.”
No fucking shit. “Come on, it’s freezing in here.”
Anthony still didn’t move or acknowledge his sister. He couldn’t seem to stop staring at Marc, and it was getting creepy. “It’s been eight years,” Anthony said. “Why are you doing this? Why do you even still care?”
“I honestly don’t know. You were important to me once, Tone. You never stopped being important to me.”
For an instant, Marc thought Anthony was going to burst into tears. Instead, he cleared his throat. “I’m an addict.”
“I kind of figured that one out. But that stops today.”
Anthony crossed his arms. “Says you.”
“And says me,” Maddy snapped. She got in his face, riled up like Marc had never seen her. “I have been scared out of my mind ever since you chose drugs over our family. I love you, but you are sick and you need help. All of this shit started after Marcos was kicked out. That’s why I brought him back to you. Let him help you.”
Marc stared at the back of Maddy’s head, her harsh words tumbling around in his brain. No way had Anthony started using because of Marc. That didn’t make sense. Sure, they’d been best friends since elementary school, but they’d both had other friends. Anthony had college plans. He wanted to have a huge soccer career, and then retire to work on sports programs with low-income kids. He’d had dreams and a future.
“Let me help you,” Marc said.
Anthony wilted, his resolve fleeing. “Okay.”
He started moving forward, but Maddy blocked the way. “Uh uh. Empty your pockets.”
With the slow motions of someone in terrible pain, Anthony removed a plastic baggie from his hoodie that contained foil, a lighter and a tiny gray-black ball. He dropped it on the floor. The lighter clattered loudly on the old tile. Anthony stared at it a beat, then raised his head. Something new shone in his eyes, and it took Marc a moment to understand what it was.
Anthony was in hell. Actual, real hell, and it was one of his own making.
Medicated detox in rehab was one thing, but going cold turkey with nothing to wean him off?
Knowing Marcos was there helped, though. Marcos never seemed to leave his side, tucking in blankets and wiping his face. Holding the barf bucket. Changing sheets a lot. Holding him down when he tried to leave because he really needed a hit right fucking now.
This was dope-sick times infinity, and it lasted forever, until Anthony really, truly wanted to die. And then he woke up and it wasn’t as awful. He napped a lot after that, between feeling sick and nibbling on crackers and dry toast. Always Marcos. Sometimes Maddy, but she was less important.
Marcos had come back.
Anthony woke again feeling less sick. Mostly exhausted. He stretched sore limbs and brushed something warm nearby. Glanced over.
Marcos was asleep on the other half of the bed. He was on his side, facing Anthony, and he looked amazing. Marcos had filled out, put on some muscle. His dark hair was cut short, and his chin and cheeks held a few days’ worth of scruff. As beautiful as he’d always been.
A knight in shining winter coat who’d strode into the mess Anthony had made of his life and saved him from it.
Once you’re on your feet, he’ll leave again.
And that was okay. Anthony didn’t deserve Marcos. Not anymore. Maybe he never had, because Marcos had been strong enough to stand up for himself and admit what he was to the world, while Anthony hid. He hid from the truth and ignored his own feelings, and when those feelings became toxic, he numbed them with drugs. He’d made a complete and utter disaster of his life, and once Marcos saw that, he’d tell Anthony to leave.
I should go. Save him the trouble.
Only, sitting up felt like too much of an impossibility, much less walking to the bedroom door. He was tired and shaky and kind of hungry, despite the rolling nausea deep in his gut. He did, however, have to piss something awful, and fuzzy memories of Marcos pushing his dick into a bottle so he could pee made his face flush hot.
Not again. He’d fucking crawl to the bathroom.
He glanced around the small bedroom, which had no real style or decorations. The water stains on the ceiling and faded wallpaper suggested old housing, and the half-drawn curtain blocked out a lot of light and the view of wherever he’d ended up. There were two doors. The room’s smaller, closed door was narrow and warped and probably a closet, which meant the bathroom was in the hall.
Anthony rolled onto his side, toward the edge of the bed. Marcos snuffled in his sleep. Fingers lightly brushed Anthony’s lower back. He wanted to press into that touch, to encourage Marcos to touch him anywhere he wanted to.
Don’t. He doesn’t want you, he’s probably dreaming.
His insides wobbled all over the place as he sat up, resettling into a vertical alignment after being horizontal for fuck knew how long. Days, at least. The wood floor was cold beneath his bare feet, which he got firmly situated before levering up. Up.
Standing. Standing was good.
The world tilted, went gray, and Anthony hit the ground in an ungraceful heap. His elbow cracked off the hard wood, sending a jolt straight to his shoulder, and he shouted a few choice words in Spanish.
“What?” Marcos was kneeling next to him in an instant, those familiar dark eyes wide with fright. “Tone? You okay?”
“Fell.” Like Marcos couldn’t see that for himself.
“Why were you getting up?”
“Have to piss.”
Marcos frowned. “You could have woken me.”
For some reason, that made Anthony’s rebellious side sit up and take notice. “I’m not a child.”
“No, you’re a fucking drug addict coming down from a hard detox. This isn’t the flu, okay? Your body is flushing out some pretty toxic shit, and you’re going to feel it for a while.”
He grunted at Marcos. “Thank you, Dr. Villegas. I’ve been here before, okay?”
“Yeah, Maddy told me.”
Great, his little sister told his former best friend all about the many times Anthony had fucked up his life and hurt his family. Perfect.
“Christ, you’re still as stubborn as you used to be,” Marcos said. “Will you stop pouting and let me help you to the bathroom?”
“Fine.” Anthony didn’t have the energy to argue that he wasn’t pouting, or that his bladder was a few minutes away from releasing, no matter where Anthony was parked.
Getting to his feet would have been a lot easier if he’d asked for help from the bed, but they were way past that now. The physical gymnastics necessary to get him up from the floor proved two things to him—one, that Marcos was in incredible physical shape, and two, that Anthony wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Tackle hanging out for the world to see. Once he was standing on both feet, straight-backed, with Marcos’s arm around his waist, Anthony brought up the dick-shaped elephant in the room.
“Why am I naked?”
“Because you barfed on, sweated through or shit in every pair of shorts or T-shirt I wrestled you into, and I’m sick of doing laundry,” Marcos replied. So matter-of-fact, like he nursed someone through withdrawal all the time.
“Oh.” Now he really felt like an ass for putting Marcos through all that. “Sorry.”
“We’re past it. Come on.”
They shuffle-walked out the door and down a short, narrow hall to a tiny bathroom that hadn’t been updated since the eighties. Salmon-colored walls, ivory tub. The tiny sink was close enough to the head that Anthony could lean on it with one hand and aim with the other. He missed Marcos’s touch after he released him, but no way was he gonna say that out loud.
He pissed out a hell of a lot of liquid.
Even Marcos whistled when he finished. “Thank you for not letting that go on my bedroom floor.”
Anthony grunted. “You’re welcome.”
“Feel up to taking a shower? No offense, dude, but you reek.”
He’d have to take Marcos’s word for that. His senses were all out of whack. “Not sure how long I can stand up.”
Marcos whipped off the sleeveless tee he was wearing, but left his running shorts on. “Fine, I’ll get in with you and keep you upright. But you seriously need to shower right now before my neighbors start to complain about the smell.”
He stared at the man his ex-best friend had grown into. Work-honed muscles, an unexpected four-pack under a thin pelt of black hair. Strong legs under those shorts, with more dark hair dusting them from top to bottom. So strong. Anthony glanced down at his too-thin frame, ashamed at how his athletic build had wasted away to skin and bone.
“Dude, I’m not gonna lunge at you,” Marcos snapped. “This is so far from a sexy situation right now, and you are layered in days’ worth of sweat and grossness. Get in the shower before I call your sister over and make her help you.”
With a little help from Marcos, they both got in the narrow tub, curtain closed, with steamy water cascading down Anthony’s front. He closed his eyes and gave in to the awesomeness that was an actual hot shower. He hadn’t had one in months. Not like this. Not with someone he trusted standing behind him, massaging a bar of soap into a washcloth.
Anthony had no real shame left, so he simply stood there while Marcos scrubbed him down with something that smelled vaguely medicinal. He relaxed into the sensations of a friendly touch, one meant to help not hurt. Back, arms, legs, torso, neck. Almost every inch.
Marcos slapped the washcloth into his hand. “Wash your junk, dude.”
He braced a hand on the wall and did as told, soaping up his dick, balls and ass. After he rinsed himself down, Marcos turned him to face away, then started washing his hair with shampoo that smelled kind of like tar.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It’s for head lice.”
“I didn’t ask.”
Anthony did pout that time. He didn’t have fucking head lice, but whatever. Marcos was still touching him, every single caress helping to relax some of the wariness and tension he lived with every day on the streets. Proving to his hyperaware senses that he was in a safe place. He could let his guard down.
Marcos wouldn’t hurt him.
Once that stinky shit was out of his hair, Anthony squeezed out the excess water. “Do you wanna do a flea dip, too?”
“Trust me, I considered it.”
Since he wasn’t entirely sure if Marcos was serious, Anthony didn’t press his luck. Marcos turned off the water, then reached past the curtain for a towel. He wrapped it around his own waist, then tugged his soaked shorts to the ground. They stayed behind while Marcos got out and toweled himself off. Anthony remained where he was, leaning on the side of the tub until Marcos returned, dressed again, with another towel and extra clothes.
Getting dressed was an exercise in patience and dexterity, because Anthony swayed and leaned more than helped. His balance was off and he had no real energy to move his gangly limbs. Once he had on a pair of boxers and a too-big tee, Marcos helped him shuffle into a different bedroom than the first one. This had a box spring and mattress on the floor, and a lamp on a side table. Nada else.
“Whose room is this?”
“Yours for now.” Marcos dumped him on the bed.
Anthony bounced, his stomach sloshing angrily at the sudden landing. “Dude, the fuck?”
Oh yeah, he sounded sorry.
“Was I in your room before?” Anthony asked.
Marcos shrugged. “It was easier to keep an eye on you there. Now that I’m sure you won’t roll over and choke on your own vomit in the middle of the night, you can sleep in here. Besides, I need to change the sheets again.”
“Oh.” He started to leave, and Anthony’s heart sank. “Marcos?”
He froze in the doorway, still facing away. “It’s Marc now.”
“Marc. Why are you doing this for me?”
Seconds stretched out into a silent eternity, before Marcos finally turned to face him. Stiff-shouldered, face irritatingly blank. “Maddy came to my door and asked me to help find you, and to get you clean. I’m making good on a promise.”
Any hope Anthony had clung to that Marcos had come to save him because he still cared ghosted away. Gone. Marcos was doing Maddy a favor, nothing else. And why not? They’d lost touch years ago. Marcos didn’t owe Anthony anything, not even the borrowed clothes on his back.
Something flickered in Marcos’s eyes. “Relax a while. I’ll bring some soup up later.”
“Thank you.” As much as Anthony didn’t want Marcos to go, his brain was still too mushy for a long conversation. And Marcos had better things to do than keep babysitting his useless ass.
“I won’t do this twice, Tone. You start using again, and it’s not my problem.”
“I get it.” The need for a hit started clawing at his chest, a hundred tiny mice with hundreds of tiny claws. Dope dimmed the anxiety and the self-loathing, made him care less that he’d ruined his life and made everyone who cared about him suffer.
Dope turned off the part of his brain that still missed Marcos, even after eight years apart, and that knew Marcos would hate what he’d become. And he did hate it. Anthony saw it in his eyes and his posture and his declaration that this was a one-and-done deal. No second chances.
His fingers twitched with the need to hold his lighter. Flick it open. The smoke that always came. The euphoria and peace that took over, wrangling all of his doubt and self-hatred into a tiny ball that wasn’t quite so suffocating—like it was suffocating him now.
He curled around a pillow and tried to make the need go away.
* * *
Marc stared at the stockpile of canned chicken noodle soup that Maddy had left in his cupboard the day before. She’d also delivered a case of sports drinks, a family-sized box of crackers, a loaf of bread and a giant sack of hard candies in assorted flavors. The candy, she said, was to help Anthony with the cravings. Give him something to do with his mouth.
He wasn’t sure how sucking on a sour apple candy was supposed to help with heroin withdrawal, but he trusted her.
Taking care of Anthony for the last seventy-odd hours had been one of the most frustrating, terrifying and kind-of rewarding experiences of his life. Watching someone he’d adored as a child shake and shiver and sob in his lap had broken his heart. Cleaning up vomit and shit (very literal shit) wasn’t his favorite thing ever, but he’d done it before and he’d probably do it again. His ancient washer and dryer were about two more heavy loads away from giving up the ghost.
But Anthony had come down from it all and had actually been coherent for a while. Sure, he’d gone flat on his ass trying to take a piss alone, but Marc couldn’t blame the guy for wanting to be independent.
He could blame the guy for taking heroin in the first place, the stupid son of a bitch.
Marc emptied a can of soup into his dented saucepan and set the heat to medium. The microwave clock taunted him with 4:09. He’d already missed the past three nights at the shelter, and he had to leave in less than two hours to get ready for intake. They opened the doors at six in January and February when the weather was coldest, which meant longer shifts for the volunteers. He wasn’t pulling his weight, and he hated that. Tate and Dave understood, but Marc had a responsibility to All Saints House.
Open less than six months, they filled every bed every night with homeless LGBT teens. Thirty beds wasn’t enough. He wanted to do more for those kids than simply give them shelter and breakfast.
Marc didn’t want any more teens living on the streets the way he had. No kid deserved that kind of fear and uncertainty and pain. And now Marc was harboring an addict he didn’t trust to be alone in his own home—a fact he needed to keep on the down-low. They already battled with private agencies and their internalized homophobia, and the last thing Marc wanted was his personal life to affect the shelter.
His phone blared out Tate’s ringtone. “Hey, man.”
“Hey. How’re you doing?”
Marc had a recovering addict in his bed, but his best friend’s first priority was him. He kind of wanted to reach through the phone and hug Tate, and that was a rare impulse. “I’m okay. He’s awake and mostly aware. Even got his smelly ass to take a shower.”
“Well, that’s progress.”
“Progress will be him eating some soup and not barfing it up on me.”
“And before you ask, I’ll be there tonight.”
Tate made an affronted squawk. “That’s not why I was calling.”
“I know, but you were thinking about it.”
“Okay, maybe. Are you really leaving him alone at your place?”
“No.” Marc wanted to trust Anthony, but he flat-out didn’t. “Maddy’s coming over at five to babysit him tonight.”
“She’s a pretty awesome sister, putting herself out like this.”
“She’s one of a kind. And she loves her brother.”
“What about you?”
Marc stirred the soup, which was starting to steam. “What about me, what?”
“Anthony was your best friend once. You told me that one time we got really drunk on schnapps that you used to have a crush on him.”
He glanced at the kitchen doorway, as if expecting Anthony to be standing there and have somehow overheard Tate’s comment. Which was ridiculous. “I was sixteen, dude. I haven’t seen him in eight years.”
“So seeing him again didn’t bring up any old feelings?”
Finding Anthony huddled beneath the dirty blanket in that abandoned gas station had stirred up old feelings of anger and loss. Seeing how thin and unhealthy Anthony had become because of his addiction had stirred up old feelings of fear and disgust. Seeing Anthony make it through a home detox alive, without Suboxone or anything else, had stirred up old feelings of hope—hope that maybe the friend he remembered was still in there somewhere. Waiting to be seen again.
“Not the feelings you’re thinking,” Marc replied.
“Oh. Well, you need anything, you ask.”
“Appreciate it, Tate, thanks. See you tonight.”
Marc threw a sandwich together for himself and scarfed it down while the soup finished heating. He assembled a tray with the soup, a sleeve of crackers, water and a room temperature sports drink, then carried it upstairs.
Anthony snored softly on the mattress, his entire body curled around one of the pillows as if, even in sleep, he was waiting for someone to snatch it away. His hair was long and unkempt, badly in need of a proper cut, and he hadn’t shaved in days. The scruff gave him a sharper, angrier edge that was both appealing and terrifying. Despite his overall thinness, Anthony’s appearance had a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe that probably worked well on the streets.
He hated thinking of the things Anthony had probably done to make it on his own. Marc had a laundry list of choices he’d made on the streets that he’d hidden away in a part of himself that he didn’t talk about, not even to Tate. Choices that had helped and hurt him, but had ultimately led him to where he was today—safe, in his own home, working at a shelter that helped keep other kids from having to make the choices he’d made.
Except Anthony hadn’t been kicked out onto the streets by his family for being gay. According to Maddy, he’d fallen into his drug habit, refused to get better and had simply vanished.
Our lives aren’t remotely the same.
Despite that, Marc wouldn’t turn his back on Anthony now. Not if he was willing to stay clean and get his life back on track.
He set the tray on the side table, then perched on the edge of the mattress. Anthony’s face pinched and smoothed, eyes moving behind closed lids. Dreaming. His breath came out in shorter puffs, harsher gasps.
“Tone? Wake up.” Marc squeezed his bicep.
Anthony yelped and rolled away, shoving the pillow at Marc as if it could protect him. Marc caught it and held still, waiting for Anthony to fully wake up and identify his surroundings. Awareness stole over his panic, and Anthony’s entire body went slack.
“Sorry,” he said. “Forgot where I was for a sec.”
Marc put the pillow near the wall that pretended to be a headboard. “I shouldn’t have touched you. My fault.”
“Glad you woke me, though. Fuck but I hate nightmares. Especially the ones where you know you’re dreaming but you can’t wake yourself up.”
“Wouldn’t know. I don’t remember my dreams.”
Anthony’s lips twitched. “Right. Forgot about that.”
Sometimes Marc woke with the emotions surging through him—most often a sense of panic or loneliness—but he never recalled what he’d actually dreamed. Mostly he was glad for that. “What were you dreaming about?”
“You.” Anthony frowned, his dark eyes going liquid. “Someone was hurting you and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t get to you.”
The genuine distress in Anthony’s voice over a figment of his drug-addled imagination had Marc reaching out without thinking. Anthony curled a cold, trembling hand around his. “It was just a dream, Tone. I’m fine.”
“I know.” Anthony gave his hand a mighty squeeze. “I’m so fucking happy to see you, man. I mean it. I knew you’d land on your feet but part of me always worried about you.” He glanced at the room’s single window. “Where are we, anyway?”
A black eyebrow arched up. “You stayed in Wilmington?”
“It’s not like I had the money to go anyplace else. Besides, this is home. Always was, always will be.” And since the questions were inevitable… “Today’s Tuesday. We found you on Saturday. Happy fucking New Year.”
Anthony blinked at him. “I’m sorry.”
“You spending New Year’s taking care of my idiotic ass.”
“It was my choice.” Marc squeezed his hand once more, then let go. “I know it’s been a while, but I do care what happens to you. I want you to get back on your feet, but Tone? No drugs. I mean it. You can stay here as long as you need, but I want your solemn vow that you’re done with drugs. I catch you using again, and you’re out.”
Anthony swallowed hard, then nodded. “I understand.”
“Uh uh. Promise me. Hand to God, may your dick fall off if you’re lying, swear.”
He raised his right hand, palm out. “I swear to God, Marcos, no more drugs.”
Marc tried to believe in that promise, but he knew from experience that addicts were chronic liars. “And no tricks. Girls, guys, whatever you’re into, don’t bring them here.”
“Okay. No problem. Haven’t gotten it up for anybody in months, anyway.”
Yeah, well, drugs will do that.
Not that Marcos had had much of a sex life lately—something Tate liked to remind him of more and more frequently, especially since Tate started living with Jonas.
Anthony picked at the blanket twisted around his knees with fingers that probably itched to light up. “Are you dating anyone?”
“No. I don’t have a lot of time for that right now. Work keeps me busy seven days a week, so I barely have time to grocery shop and sleep.”
“Really? What do you do?”
Marc hesitated, then told him about All Saints House. Meeting Tate in a bar, but instead of flirting, hatching an idea that took two years to see to fruition. Anthony’s eyebrows went higher and higher the more Marc spoke. “I have to leave in a little while to open the shelter,” Marc said. “Maddy’s coming over.”
“Honestly?” He held Anthony’s gaze. “I don’t trust you.”
Anthony flinched. “Haven’t given you a reason to trust leaving a junkie alone in your house. I get it.”
Do you? Because I don’t.
Deep down, Marc remembered and trusted the boy who’d been in his life since first grade. The boy who taught him how to ride a bike without training wheels, because Marc’s own father was too busy working and drinking to bother. The boy who stole a skin magazine at age twelve so they could stare at naked people. The teenager who gave him complete acceptance when Marc, at fifteen, admitted he thought he might be gay.
The friend whose own life had gone off the rails after Marc was sent away.
That friend was the person Marc didn’t know or trust. The one who stole and lied and used and had gone to jail.
Marc wasn’t entirely sure which combination of the two was sitting in his spare room, staring at him with wounded eyes. “It isn’t just that you’re a junkie,” Marc said. “It’s that I don’t know you. You have the same name and almost the same face as the guy I used to know, but I don’t know you anymore.”
“Maddy’s practically a stranger, same as me.”
He didn’t flinch against the truth in that statement. “Maybe, but she’s a sober stranger who came to me for help. You’re the guy I picked up off a dirty gas station floor and scrubbed down with disinfecting soap after he stopped shitting all over my sheets.”
Anthony’s face pinched as mortification stole over him. Marc didn’t want to relive the past few days, and he didn’t want to embarrass Anthony to death. It happened, moving on.
“Eat your soup,” Marc said. “Try to drink something, too.”
“Why are you doing this? Being so nice about all this?”
Marc shrugged, then stood. With his back to Anthony, because he couldn’t look the other guy in the face without crying, he said, “Because we were friends once,” and walked out the door.