THE coffee was good that morning, as it had been every other morning that week since Christian had started coming here on his way to work, but it did nothing to dispel the cloud lingering low over him or the aching in his chest. Some days it was worse than others; today was definitely a bad day.
The palm trees and the glorious Southern California summer sun made no difference. If anything, they made him hurt more.
He glanced around the cafe, people watching, trying to distract himself, trying not to dwell on how he had woken alone once again and pressed his face into the empty pillow next to him. The bell above the door jingled and a man entered wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with a Metallica logo. He was a little shorter than Christian, a little less muscular, and a whole lot paler, his skin virtually translucent on the most exquisite face Christian had ever seen. Christian didn’t realize he was staring as this ghostly man walked to the counter, digging in his pocket for change.
As he looked down at the silver in his hand, jet-black hair fell over his eyes and he reached up to brush it back. Suddenly the man looked up. Christian’s heart seemed to stutter to a halt as large, pale-green eyes met his. The man did not look away but stared in return and then slowly, to Christian’s absolute shock, he smiled, a dazzling smile, all white teeth and glittering eyes.
Christian dropped his gaze back to his coffee in confusion. He had no idea why this stranger had just smiled at him or why his heart was hammering like it would burst through his ribs and bounce out onto the table in glee. Random people didn’t smile at him in coffee shops, and he didn’t smile at random people. Christian didn’t smile anymore, period.
A shadow fell over his table, and he looked up, finding the stranger suddenly so close that that troublesome heart of his seemed to clench and tense along with his whole body. He had only had that feeling once before in his life, and he had never expected it again.
“Hi,” the man said. Up close his coloring was even more stunning. His face was even whiter, his hair blacker than black, his eyes like endless, shimmering pools of sea water.
Christian stared mutely. He did not know why the man was bothering him; he only hoped he would go away as quickly as he had arrived.
The man seemed nervous. He gestured to Christian’s cup. “Can I buy you another?”
Christian looked down at his coffee and then back up at the stranger blankly. He frowned in confusion. He only ever had one cup here and he only ever stayed twenty minutes. Why would he want another cup and why would this man want to buy it? His frown turned to a glare. Why exactly would he want to even approach within a hundred yards of a man who had such a tight blanket of grief wrapped around him that even people on the street sidestepped him? Couldn’t he see that Christian belonged to a dead man? What gave him the right to blatantly approach Christian in public and think he could just take what he wanted, offering his coffee as some sort of cheap bribe?
“I don’t come here to get picked up by strange men,” he said coldly.
The stranger blinked a little and the hopeful expression fell from his face. A flood of blood enveloped his pale cheeks. He turned away quickly, head down, almost scurrying to the door, clutching at his coffee, setting off down the street without looking back.
Christian sat back in his chair. Asshole. Just because you’re having a bad day, doesn’t mean you have to ruin someone else’s.
HE HAD only been in the office five minutes when his phone rang. Eban had called him every day at the same time since Christian started back at work four days ago. Christian had inherited Eban. He had been Conrad’s best friend, not Christian’s, but out of all the things Conrad had left behind, Eban was definitely the best. As strong and solid on the inside as he was on the outside, Eban had been the very rock that had held Christian up for the past six months.
“How was your coffee?” This had been Eban’s standard question as the week had worn on and Christian had fallen into the coffee shop routine. It was a little teasing, and Eban had asked him the previous day if he behaved like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets when he went into the coffee shop.
No, I don’t take my own cutlery or ask Jews to move from my favorite table, Christian had responded sardonically. Eban had hooted with laughter.
“The coffee was fine,” Christian told him. “The company not so good. Some random guy tried to pick me up.”
“Wow!” Eban said enthusiastically. “That’s great. Was he hot?”
Christian didn’t expect Eban’s reaction to be so encouraging. He expected him to be as angry and outraged as Christian was. “It’s not funny. I found him offensive.”
“Why? Was he offensive?”
“He….” Christian hesitated, suddenly feeling foolish. “Wanted to buy me a cup of coffee.”
Eban was silent a moment. “That’s it? That was his pickup line?”
“Yeah.” Christian wished he’d never brought it up now.
“And you found that offensive?”
Christian was silent. How stupid he must appear to Eban. His gaze fell on the picture of him and Conrad which still graced his desk. Taken a year ago, it was the two of them standing on the edge of a cliff with the endless blue of the ocean behind them. They had gone away to some remote island in Greece with Eban and his then-partner Damien. Damien had taken the picture. The reason Christian was laughing so much in it was that Conrad had whispered in his ear that he was going to take a picture of Damien and Eban next and encourage Damien to stand too close to the edge.
Now Damien was gone as well as Conrad, and Eban was as alone as Christian. Christian put it in the drawer of his desk. “See you later,” he told Eban and hung up.
The picture had already been in the drawer of his desk when Christian started back at work after six months on personal leave; he had taken it out on Monday morning. Some thoughtful colleague had evidently put it there, most likely Jack, who he shared a desk with at the Newport Beach publisher’s office. It was unlikely to be Marcus, his flippant and often downright strange boss, who thought the world revolved around him. He ran a relaxed ship, often to the point of horizontal as evidenced by the snores which emitted from his office on a regular basis. Marcus didn’t give a damn about the company and did as little work as possible. Instead, he paid his employees a generous wage to make sure they kept it—and him—afloat.
Marcus had been one of the men to carry Conrad’s coffin. Christian had almost laughed hysterically when Marcus’s skinny frame had taken position with one edge of the coffin on his shoulder. He expected his boss’s legs to buckle, for him to unbalance the other men, and for the coffin to crash to the ground, Conrad’s impeccably dressed body rolling from it, a smirk on his beautiful lips because Conrad would actually have found it hilarious to be dropped from his coffin at his own funeral.
Christian looked up. Jack was probably his closest friend after Eban and also helped carry the coffin, which had doubled the amusement, what with Jack being almost a foot shorter than Marcus. The only people who looked capable of holding Conrad up were Damien and Eban, and even Eban looked like he might drop his end any minute as his lip trembled and his face grew ever more ashen. But he still did a better job than Christian, who had refused to help, and had instead trailed behind. Or rather, behind Conrad’s parents, who stoically ignored him.
Jack was a surfer dude with an infectious smile, his hair as white as his teeth from the sun. “How was your coffee?”
Christian groaned, switching his computer on. “Don’t you fucking start.”
“What did I say?” Jack perused another one of Marcus’s regular, pointless memos before crumpling it up and tossing it into the trash. This was actually Marcus’s main act as boss. Not many of them made sense. Often they related to the work bathroom, chastising men for leaving the seat up or women for using the last of the toilet paper then not bothering to inform someone the dispenser was empty.
Usually they were written under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. Many a time in a bar after work, Marcus barked at Christian, who always had a pen in his top pocket, “Take a memo!” And Christian would have to scramble for the nearest beer mat and scribble down some incomprehensible rant.
Marcus would pretend to read it over, nod in satisfaction, then pocket the mat. He would later type it up at home, even more drunk, and morning would find the office scratching their heads as they tried to decipher the misspelled words, poor grammar, and complete lack of punctuation. Often Marcus used the word “bitches” to open his memos when drunk rather than the standard “To all staff.” Often he peppered his memos with swear words and random slang phrases such as “dude” and “ho.” Often he threatened to “kick all your asses” if his action wasn’t carried out. Usually no one could work out what the action was that he was asking for, though, and they whispered amongst themselves before feeding the memo through the shredder while casting guilty looks at their boss’s door.
A smile came unbidden to Christian’s face when he remembered that one of Conrad’s favorite questions when greeting him after a hard day at the office was, “Get any memos from your boss?” And Christian would usually produce a slip of paper he had stuffed into his pocket for Conrad’s entertainment, while all his colleagues put theirs instantly in the trash. Conrad would wipe tears from his eyes as he read it, then kiss Christian and thank him.
“You’re smiling,” Jack remarked. “The coffee must have been really good.”
Christian looked up guiltily, the smile swallowed by a frown. He shook his head. He was about to mention his harassment by the stranger but thought better of it. Eban already thought he was an idiot; Jack surely would too.
EBAN was busy stirring a pot of something delicious when Christian got home. He tossed his briefcase and jacket on the couch then made his way to the kitchen, pausing at the door as he always did when he saw Eban wearing Conrad’s apron.
He went to the fridge, taking out a bottle of wine. “Someday you’re going to make someone a fine husband, Eban.”
“Not going to happen.” Eban looked over his shoulder with a wicked smirk. “I’m committed to cock.”
Christian laughed as he got two glasses out. His gaze lingered on Eban’s profile as he went back to his stirring. He would be a liar if he said he wasn’t attracted to Eban. He was beautiful. With his startling, amber-colored eyes and jet-black, carefully styled hair, he couldn’t walk down the street without having people stop and stare. He would be a liar if he said he hadn’t imagined crawling into Eban’s bed during his loneliest moments after Conrad’s death. Christian might have thought about it, but the idea in reality was shocking and wrong. Eban had been Conrad’s best friend and now he was Christian’s.
And besides, Eban was brokenhearted too. Damien, who Eban had been with five years, had dumped him only two weeks after Conrad’s death. Suddenly Christian’s rock had turned to clay, crumbling beneath him as he tried to hold on for dear life. As Christian wept on him, Eban wept even harder, because he now had two bereavements instead of one. And Christian had never been able to give him any sort of emotional support over his loss of Damien, because he had been drowning beneath the waves, unaware of anything but his own broken heart and his own ended life. Eban had suffered alone and continued to do so. The shadow of Damien was in his every word and every smile. He continued to give every drop of himself to Christian, but Christian gave him nothing in return. He was too afraid of handling someone else’s grief when his own consumed him.
Eban had lived with Damien and when they broke up, Damien had immediately put the house up for sale. Christian had taken Eban in and never regretted doing so. Damien’s loss had been his gain. Six months later, Eban still waited for his half of the money from the house, and six months later Christian still didn’t know why Damien had dumped Eban and had never asked.
Conrad had never trusted Damien even though he was polite to him when Eban was around. He always told Christian that one day Damien was going to hurt Eban badly. Christian was glad Conrad couldn’t see what Damien had done to Eban because most likely it would have been Damien’s coffin they would have been carrying if Conrad had got hold of him.
Christian drank his wine and continued to look. Eban was a cop and he looked fucking hot in his uniform. That was a fact and Christian wished it wasn’t. He wished Eban would take his uniform off before Christian got home because it was kind of distracting. He might have removed his gun from its holster and the baton from its holder, but the handcuffs still dangled from his belt, and Christian swore that would give Jesus himself an erection. The strangest thing was that Eban seemed oblivious to the amount of chaos he caused when he walked into a room wearing his uniform. He was conceited for sure, and vain, spending inordinate amounts of time and money on his hair, but his ego didn’t stretch to thinking he was God’s gift to anyone. If one were to ask him if he thought he was good-looking, he would probably shrug his shoulders and say he got by.
Christian held out a glass to Eban, and Eban smiled sadly, as though his thoughts echoed Christian’s own. We’re a pair of sad bastards, drowning in our memories and wishing for a past that’s dead and buried.
“Want to watch a movie?” Christian asked over Eban’s meal, splendid as always.
“Er… I’m going out, actually.” Eban looked a little bashful.
Christian raised his eyebrows in surprise. The two rarely went out. Sometimes Eban went out with some of the guys from his station, and sometimes Christian went out with the guys from work. More often than not, they watched a movie, or each retired to bed to read a book or surf the Internet.
“I’ve got a date. Some guy called Darius.” Eban actually blushed.
Christian almost choked on his pasta. “That’s fantastic.”
“Don’t know about that,” Eban said dryly. “It’s a blind one. He may have no teeth and three eyes, who knows.”
Christian groaned. “Poor you, but hey, it’s a night out.” He gave an encouraging smile.
“Never mind that. Let’s talk about this guy who came on to you in the coffee shop.”
“Why not? Was he hot?”
“Don’t what? Answer my goddamn question, Christian, and stop evading the issue. Was he hot or not?”
Christian lowered his head and pushed at his food with his fork. “No.”
“You’re lying. I’ve known you ten years, Christian, and you’ve always been a piss-poor liar. Now, was he hot or fucking not?”
“Yeah, okay? He was fucking hot; now leave it alone.”
When Eban had left for his date, Christian lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. He wondered if Eban would compare his date to Damien and find him wanting the way Christian had found the man in the coffee shop wanting. Beautiful, yes, but not Conrad.
© Scarlet Blackwell
Author: Scarlet Blackwell
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Conrad Muller’s heart is the center of a web of friendships, fights, and love lost and found in a close-knit group of gay men in Orange County, California. Six months ago, Conrad died, and his organs were donated for transplant. A month later, Conrad’s lover, Christian, receives a letter from the recipient of Conrad’s donated heart.
Christian can’t stop thinking about the letter, and he’s not the only one affected by loss. Conrad’s best friend Eban is also brokenhearted, and he’s struggling with his lover Damien, who has always resented living in Conrad’s shadow. Though Conrad is gone, his friends and his lover will have to cope with their grief to move on and find new love.