MY HANDS SAT POISED OVER the keyboard, my fingers hovering, ready for the words to begin flowing. But just like every other day, nothing happened. I strained to hear those quiet whisperings inside my head that I always counted on to guide me as I wrote, but there was only silence. It was as if my characters could see what a mess I was, and even they didn’t want to be near me.
I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my hands over my face in frustration. Prickly hairs scratched against my palms, reminding me I needed to shave. The shrill ringing of my phone suddenly cut through the air, startling me. Following the sound, I dug through the pile of dirty clothes next to the bed before I finally found it. I grimaced when I saw the name on the screen, but I swiped my finger across it anyway. I knew if I ignored her call, she’d just keep trying.
“Garrett, please tell me you have words for me.”
I bristled at the abrupt words. “I’m doing just fine, Charlotte. Thank you so much for asking. And, how are you?” I said with more than just a touch of snark.
I heard her laugh. Charlotte had been my editor since the beginning of my career. We knew better than to take each other’s attitudes or criticisms personally, and I think that was part of what made us such a good team. When she spoke again it was in a gentler tone. “Point taken. How are you? Still living the life of a mountain man?”
Glancing around the cabin, I cringed at the empty beer cans littering the floor and the dirty dishes piled high in the sink. The curtains were drawn, cutting out the bright afternoon sun, and I hadn’t stepped foot outside the door since I’d arrived, except for the two times a month I was forced to go to the nearest store for supplies.
“You have no idea,” I answered.
“Well, good. Hopefully, all that fresh mountain air has those creative juices flowing because Simmons is breathing down my neck wanting to know when your next book will be finished. You only have a couple of months left,” she reminded me.
I pinched the bridge of my nose as I felt another headache coming on. Simmons & Son was one of the leading publishing companies in the United States. I was grateful for the start they had given me, but sometimes I wondered if I wouldn’t be better off self-publishing. At least then, I’d only have to answer to myself instead of having a publisher breathing down my neck all the time. It was difficult enough to try and write when my life was a complete mess. Factor in the deadlines they had set for me and the pressure was just too much.
“Which Simmons?” I asked.
“Which one do you think?” I could practically hear her eyes rolling. Everyone knew that Harrington Simmons III was next in line to take over the company once his father retired, and he never let anyone forget it, imposing strict guidelines for all the authors under contract and rigidly enforcing them.
“Look, I know you don’t like Harrington, no one does. He’s a sniveling little weasel who’s just trying to look good in front of Daddy. But, like it or not, your contract states that you’ll produce at least one book per quarter. The deadline for this quarter is coming up soon, and I need to know what to tell him.”
I looked over at the blank screen on my laptop and sighed. “Tell him I’ll have it done in time.”
Anxiety swelled in my chest as we hung up and I wondered how in the world I was going to pull it off. I knew I should try to write again, but a part of me just wanted to crawl into my bed and hide under the covers. I eyed it longingly, but my phone rang in my hand just then, making me jump so hard I nearly dropped it. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks and now all of a sudden it was like Grand Central Station.
“Hello?” I sighed, not bothering to check who it was.
“Oh, so you are alive,” Travis responded. I rolled my eyes at the obvious sarcasm in his voice. Travis was one of my very best friends, but he wasn’t known for pulling any punches. His brutal honesty was one of the things I liked best about him though. That was, until I was on the receiving end of it.
“Last I checked, yes,” I said, earning a laugh from his end.
“That’s good to hear. So, when are you coming home? I know you left so you could focus on your book, but you’ve been gone long enough to write a whole series. Not that they won’t all be best sellers like your others, but it would still be nice to finally see your ugly mug around here again.” His words were said jokingly, but I could hear the underlying sadness and confusion, and I squeezed my eyes shut as guilt slammed into me.
It had been several months since I’d taken off from Chicago, leaving my home, my family, and my friends behind. None of them had thought much of it at first, having grown used to my quest for solitude when working on a new project. But as time passed and I still made no move to return home, the questions had begun. I knew my excuses were running thin, but I just didn’t feel like talking about it with anyone, least of all my best friends. Only one person knew the real reason I was staying away, but even thinking about him made my throat tighten up.
“I’m not really sure. I still have a lot to do on this project.” At least that time, I’d told the truth. I definitely had a lot left to do. Still, I felt like a total jerk.
“Well, you have just a little over two weeks to finish up and get back home,” he informed me.
“Why is that?”
“Jasper’s birthday,” Travis said, sounding confused that I hadn’t remembered. There was a long pause and then I heard him sigh through the phone. “Look, Garrett. I know your career is important to you, I get it. Mine is too. But you can’t get so caught up in it that you forget about the people who love you. We’re your friends and we need you. You already missed Christmas and Akio’s wedding. It’s time for you to get back here.”
His words caused an ache deep inside my chest, and I squeezed my eyes shut. It had been hard to walk away from them. Travis, Akio and Jasper had been my best friends ever since we met our freshman year of college. They were like brothers to me, and it had been painful, spending the holidays away from them.
I’d had my reasons for staying away, but Travis’s words made me realize that I’d been acting like an asshole; and worse yet, I’d been hurting the people I loved the most. I didn’t want any of them thinking that my career was more important to me than they were, but I wasn’t ready to tell them the truth either.
I swallowed around the lump in my throat. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. I’ll be home in time for Jasper’s birthday. I promise.”
“You will?” The surprise in his voice made me chuckle.
“Yes, I will. I have some things I need to take care of first, but I’ll be there.”
“That’s awesome! I can’t wait to tell the guys,” he said excitedly.
“Thanks, Travis. For calling…and for giving me the kick in the ass I needed,” I told him.
“We all need a swift kick once in a while, and I have just the size twelves to do it,” he joked. It felt good to laugh again.
“So, how is everything at home?”
“Good. Jasper and I have both been slammed with work lately, but it’s good. Your mom stops by all the time to make sure we’re both eating.” I chuckled as I pictured my mom showing up at each of their homes, casserole dish in hand.
“I’m sure she does. She loves you guys,” I told him.
“Yeah. Well, we love her too,” Travis admitted quietly. I smiled at the gentle tone of his voice. Travis was the playboy of our group, never taking anything too seriously and always bouncing from one bed to another. The only things he did take seriously were his friendship with the three of us, his work as a physical therapist, and the way he felt about my parents.
Mom and Dad had tried to have more children for years after I was born, but they were never able to get pregnant again. So, they’d poured all their love and attention into me, never missing a single school play or program, and becoming the troop leaders of my Cub Scouts den.
When I brought my friends home one weekend from college, they immediately took them under their wing as if they were their own, showing them the same love and concern they had always shown me. I’d been embarrassed at first, quickly apologizing to my friends for my parents’ somewhat overzealous attention, but they looked at me like I was nuts, insisting that my parents were awesome.
Travis had lost both of his parents at a young age and was raised by his aunt. None of us knew Jasper’s story because he never talked about his past, but I’d always gotten the feeling that his childhood wasn’t a very happy one. Akio had a wonderful mother and father with whom he was very close, but he was crazy about mine all the same. They all assured me that they loved the attention and told me how lucky I was to have such great parents.
They’d been right, of course. I was very fortunate to have parents who believed in me and supported me no matter what. Not every kid was lucky enough to have parents who not only didn’t blink an eye when I’d told them I was gay, but who had taken the time to educate themselves, so they could have informed conversations with me about sex and how to keep myself healthy and safe.
I felt myself smile as I thought about them, and I made a mental note to call and thank my mom for taking such good care of my friends while I was gone. I’d gotten so lost in my own thoughts that I almost didn’t hear Travis’s next words.
“Akio and Morgan are still in that nauseating honeymoon phase, and they seem to think everyone else should be as happy and in love as they are.” Breathing deeply through my nose, I let the familiar pain wash over me at the mention of Akio’s name. “I just don’t get it. I mean, I’m happy for them and all, but why would anyone want to settle down with just one person when there’s a whole smorgasbord of men out there just waiting to be feasted upon?”
I snorted, pushing the pain aside. “You’re a real prince, you know that, Trav?”
“I don’t know about being a prince, but I have been called a god on numerous occasions. Or at least that’s what they scream out when I…”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I don’t need to hear that shit, man,” I groaned. Travis cracked up and the happy sound brought a smile to my face.
“Okay, I’m gonna let you go. I’ve got a hot date with one of the dancers from Whipped, and I plan on finding out just how flexible he really is.”
Shaking my head, I chuckled. “You have fun with that.”
“You know I will. And thanks, Garrett. It’ll mean the world to Jasper that you’ll be there for his birthday. It’ll mean a lot to all of us.” My eyes burned as I ended the call.
Emotionally exhausted, I slumped down on the edge of the bed and held my head in my hands as I sifted over Travis’s words. Just hearing Akio’s name had caused pain. How would I be able to face him? I lifted my head and scanned the room. I’d left home to try and give myself some time to recover, but looking around my grandparents’ cabin, I knew that hadn’t happened.
I’d always been meticulous about my appearance, but now I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d showered. Instead of finding a way to move past my heartache, I’d been wallowing in my misery. Looking at the situation through fresh eyes, I barely recognized the person I’d become.
Travis may not have known the real reason I’d left, but he was right. It was time for me to get my shit together and go back home. Standing, I went to the bathroom and shaved; then stood under the hot spray of the shower. Obviously, hiding away in the mountains hadn’t done me a bit of good and there was no way I was going to let my friends and family see how far I’d let myself go. Maybe a change of scenery was what I needed to help me get a fresh start.
As I rinsed the soap from my body, I began to consider the possibilities, and by the time I stepped out of the shower, I was a man on a mission. Wrapping a towel around my waist, I went back to my laptop and got to work, finding the perfect place. I had just over two weeks to get my head on straight and stop looking like an extra in The Walking Dead.
I sifted through images of beautiful vacation destinations. Spa resorts, desert oases, New England cottages. Then my eyes landed on a photo and I felt the first stirrings of excitement in months. The pristine beaches and sparkling blue water called to me, and I could almost feel the sunshine on my face already. I’d always wanted to go to Hawaii, and there was no better time than right then.
Jumping up to grab my wallet, I quickly rented a small bungalow-style house right on the water and booked my flight for the next morning. When everything was set, I took a deep breath, staring at the image on the screen. I had no illusions that this vacation was going to magically solve all my problems, but it was a step in the right direction. With any luck, it would have me looking and feeling better by the time I had to face my loved ones again.