In case you missed it, our short story anthology, Nocturnal Embers, was released at the beginning of the month and became one of Amazon.com’s hot new Dark Fantasy releases. A huge kudos to the authors who helped make that possible, you guys are super stars and deserve a lot of recognition. My “short” was placed last in the book, mainly because I had written a 30k word behemoth that got edited down to 26k. What was in that 4k, you ask?
I had included two of my infamous flashback scenes which JR and I decided were better off excluded. Sometimes you feel certain elements of a character’s back story should be brought out, and while that may or may not be true, there are also moments where you understand their pain well enough without the added emphasis. So, I’m sharing them with you, one in this post and another in a subsequent entry, in part to prod any fence sitters, but also to share outtakes with anyone who might be interested.
A set up to the scene: The flashbacks center around Tony Marlin and Evan Crenshaw, two ill-fated lovers from the same werewolf pack in Missouri. Yes, you can probably guess what makes them ill-fated lovers. This takes place in the early 90s when the concept of “coming out of the closet” was still met with a lot more cultural taboo than it is today. And if humans are narrow-minded, werewolf packs can be even worse.
The apartment had been cozy, with more possessions filling it than Tony would own later when times were lean and his residence many miles away. A rug spread across the living room floor, it softened the blow of Evan’s footsteps as he traced the same path back and forth ad nauseum. Tony stared at the guitar placed atop the coffee table rather than keep his gaze fixed on the apprehensive werewolf. “We knew this was comin’,” he said. “Some things’re just inevitable.”
Evan refrained from a response at first. His feet slowed, however, until he came to a stop and drew a sharp breath inward. Something about the way he spoke made the hair on the back of Tony’s neck stand on end, and not in a pleasant way. “You knew this was comin’. I didn’t. Thought folk knew to leave well enough alone in this damn pack.”
“Folk don’t know shit.”
“They know about us.” His eyes finally met Tony’s, a gaze fraught with more panic than Tony would’ve cared to see when he looked back at Evan. Stomach twisting in a rapidly-forming knot, his throat turned dry. Evan afforded him no chance to recover. “What’re we gonna do, Tone?”
Hearing the words given unction made the entire scenario real all-of-a-sudden. Tony lifted a foot up to the couch so he could wrap his arms around his leg, but by the time his chin rested on his knee, his spirit had plunged fifty fathoms. Evan frowned, walking closer to where he sat. Tony shrugged, not apt to answer just yet. If he had to be honest with himself, he didn’t know either.
Tony wished he had stolen the chance to talk to Gran Marlin one final time before she passed away. At the ripe old age of sixteen, when most boys were flirting with the pick of the female litter, he admired his crushes from a distance. It wasn’t that he lacked the courage to ask them out, but more often than not, they didn’t look at him the same way he did them. When you boiled it down to its barest essence, Joplin High School suffered a severe lack of homosexual students.
If the human world was still far behind, the werewolf packs were even worse. The few dates he managed during his formative years were human and among that group, none serious enough for him to take anywhere near his family. Two messy break-ups came on the heels of allegations of distance, but it was the price Tony paid for holding not one secret, but two. None of that changed until Evan came along.
Their shifter community was the last place on Earth Tony expected to find romance. It found him anyway, however; in a crowd of other single werewolves Tony had been forced to spend an evening with under the guise of finding a mate. The sea of people seemed to part, and just as the old doubts reared their ugly heads, he spied another young man seated across the room, the same conflicted look on his face. He had risked a lot in walking over, but within minutes both men had confided the world in each other. It was the night Tony knew he’d found the person he’d been looking for all along.
Evan sat beside him on the couch, knocking Tony from the pit of recollection. A hand settled on his shoulder, prompting Tony to draw a deep breath inward and exhale it slowly. He lifted his head and lined Evan in his sights. “Still think we should run off,” Tony said, frowning.
“Wish it was that easy. We ain’t got enough savings to pack up and move.”
“What if I do? We’d have to sell most of this stuff and live lean ‘til we got back on our feet, but we could go anywhere we want.”
“Like to California or someplace like that?” Evan snorted. “Tone, what’re a couple of country fellas gonna do in the middle of the big city? Just ‘cause it’s bigger don’t mean the folk there’re gonna be any friendlier to people like us.”
“I hate the way you say that.” Tony’s frown deepened, eyes narrowing. He lowered his foot back to the floor and folded his hands on his lap. Evan inched closer while Tony’s gaze fell back to the guitar, latching onto it as an anchor point. The room suddenly felt colder. “Like we’ve got some sort of disease ‘cause we ain’t most folk.”
“You and I both know it ain’t natural.”
“Says who?” Tears welled in Tony’s eyes despite himself. “Who gets to say what is and what ain’t natural? Feelings are natural.”
Evan sighed. He gave Tony’s shoulder a light squeeze, tempting Tony to shrug it off. Instead he froze, with Evan seeming none-the-wiser to the gesture. “If feelings were all there was to this, it’d be plenty natural. We’ve got responsibilities to our own kind, though.”
“Plenty of us are havin’ rugrats.”
“You don’t ever want a few of your own?”
Tony glanced up at Evan, in time to see an expression of hurt cross his face. With a sigh, Tony straightened his posture. “Evan, I ain’t opposed to havin’ children.” As he pivoted to face Evan, his disposition softened. Evan’s hand fell from his shoulder, but Tony captured it and clutched it between his palms. A small smile curled the corner of his mouth. “You want kids?”
Evan rolled his eyes. “Which of us is birthin’ them, Tone, you or me?”
“I always reckoned you for more of the wife.”
Lifting his free hand, Evan whacked Tony’s arm. Tony chuckled and Evan managed a smile in response, even if it remained subdued. “You know, there’s adoption,” Tony said.
“Yeah, there’re sure handin’ kids out to folk like us.” Evan’s smile faded. “Always figured on havin’ ones that were mine.”
“So, there’s that surrogacy thing I’ve heard about. There’re options.”
“We can’t even get married.”
A broad grin spread across Tony’s face. Evan averted his eyes, but looked back at Tony and groaned when Tony slid to the floor, still clutching Evan’s hand. “Tone, don’t do this,” he said, tugging at Tony’s hands, but in a halfhearted manner.
Tony freed one hand to take hold of Evan’s other. “Evan Crenshaw,” he began, waiting until Evan looked him in the eyes before continuing, “Love of my life and the only wolf I ever want gracin’ my bed… would you marry this sorry sap of a man?”
“Oh shut up ‘bout things you don’t mean.”
“Who says I don’t mean it?” Any amusement still present dissipated, allowing Tony to look at Evan with all the seriousness he could muster. He tightened his hold on Evan’s hands. “You are the love of my life and the only wolf I want anywhere near me. It ain’t that I don’t care ‘bout families. I care ‘bout you. I don’t see the need to run off and get hitched to a girl that I ain’t gonna love half as much as I love you. I don’t care what the other folks think.”
Silence settled between them, lingering as their eyes remained locked, Evan’s expression neutral. As he inhaled shakily, Tony lived a year and a half in the blink of an eye. Their first kiss, shared after they left the party to get milkshakes at the local diner. Two weeks later when they slept together for the first time. Their runs through the forest, two wolves sprinting in tandem, and their quiet picnics where Evan would strum his guitar and sing while Tony stared into the horizon. Each time Tony saw the future, he saw them growing old and dying together. He saw Gran and Paw Paw Marlin.
“Where’re we runnin’ off to?” Evan finally asked, his brown eyes shimmering through a sea of forming tears.
Tony laughed, rising enough to capture Evan in his arms and force him to a stand. Evan hollered in surprise while being lifted from the ground, but succumbed to a laugh as Tony spun him around twice before settling him back onto his feet. The kiss they shared rocketed through Tony’s entire body, from head to spine and back again, in an electrical current of unadulterated bliss. At long last, the rest of the world could finally go to hell.
Both hands clutched Evan’s shoulders, the same bright smile etched on Tony’s face. “Get on home. Grab your things an’ meet me where we go runnin’ at midnight. We’ll get out of here ‘fore the pack elders can round us up.” Evan nodded, exchanging another kiss with Tony before fetching his keys and heading out the door. The guitar had been left on the coffee table, abandoned like a child lost in the midst of a tempest.
The radio blared the entire way, the ghost of Jimi Hendrix serenading Tony as he paid more attention to the thoughts in his head than the scenery flying past. The future spun before his eyes, along with every hope and dream he’d manufactured over the span of almost eighteen months. They’d finally be able to move in together. They’d finally share a life away from the scrutinous eyes waiting to cast judgment on them. Finally, they’d be able to breathe.
He turned off the main road. The song switched from Hendrix to Kansas as his car jostled on the dirty gravel and mud which had collected from an earlier rainstorm. Tony parked the car in its usual spot and opened the driver’s door, scanning the darkness for Evan. What he found, however, cut into his heart like a freshly-sharpened knife.
No wolf walked up the path to greet him. No human stood with a few suitcases waving his lover to where he’d hidden. Tony glanced at the forest’s edge, the sound of a million dreams shattering as he ran to the treeline and called out Evan’s name.
There in the darkness, in rural Missouri, truth delivered its opening shot.
There was nobody waiting there to meet him.