“Unbelievable. Fucking … unbelievable!”
The contralto, from-the-stomach grunt thundered on all sides, but Zach Logan didn’t flinch. The deep moodiness of Adele’s voice, streaming through his earphones, had transported him to another world.
“Ten freakin’ percent probability of precipitation!”
Wedged into the corner of the bus shelter and updating his Facebook status, Zach turned up the volume.
“Can you fucking believe this?”
Zach killed the music and lifted his head. He wanted to but did not — could not — move. All he could do was watch as a guy with a scruffy beard wrung out his longish dark hair, huffing with each movement.
“For Christ’s sake!”
Zach, hypnotized by the hard, pink nipples showing through the man’s shirt, suddenly felt the quiet awakening of an ache he hadn’t felt in months. Then came the piercing scream that made his heart pound in his chest. He levelled his gaze at the stranger’s wild apple-green eyes. “Are you all right?”
The guy, rocking back and forth, stopped and looked up. “Sorry. It’s just…” He sighed. “Jesus, Joseph and Mary … can’t they get it right?”
Zach shrugged. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“They say warm and sunny, we get wet and cool,” he snapped. “They say rain and windy, we get a goddamn heatwave. And today…” His fingers curled into fists. “I left my umbrella at home this morning because they said there was a freakin’ ten percent chance of rain. Look!” He thrust his right fist towards the glass roof of the bus shelter. “It’s a freakin’ hurricane!”
Zach stared into the intent and probing eyes, the excitement beginning to build again. Then he saw the blackness in them and knew something wasn’t right. But what was he supposed to do? Call the police? They didn’t know each other, and Zach wasn’t sure he cared enough to intervene. He’d heard too many stories about people trying to diffuse a volatile situation and ending up dead. Most of those stories came from his over-protective mother, who didn’t want her little boy talking to strangers. He wasn’t a boy anymore, and his mother was long dead. With someone before him in need, or who at least looked like they were in need, shouldn’t he try to help? “I don’t think it’s an exact science.”
“I mean —”
“It’s not science at all. It’s goddamn voodoo!”
Zach burst out laughing but stopped when he saw the guy’s fiery eyes were trained on him. Then his body went rigid. He remembered the conversation he’d overheard between two of his colleagues about the recent spike in escapes from East 9th Campus, the city’s mental health facility. The last escapee — a tall, dark-haired male — had claimed temporary insanity in the killing of his father. And he hadn’t been caught yet, either. Zach swallowed hard. Is that him? Let it not be him.
Maybe the guy acted ‘crazy,’ but he didn’t look the part. With his face twisted in knots, he looked like a lot of people sprinting through the rain and annoyed at how far off the forecast had been. Even Zach had been caught off guard by the abrupt change in weather. Listening to Junction Morning Live before heading to work, the meteorologist had called for clear, sunny skies. A perfect summer day. That all changed just after lunch when the dark clouds blanketed the city. About ten minutes into his walk home, the threatening skies unleashed their wrath. He whipped out his pocket umbrella, which the fierce winds immediately ripped from his hand and carried off down the street.
Zach checked the time. He’d been holed up in the bus shelter for more than twenty minutes and the rain showed no signs of letting up. He raised his head, and he again found himself staring at the man, who looked critically at him — like he was the enemy that needed to be annihilated. He glimpsed the headlights of the car as it swerved onto the street. It was a taxi with its rooftop light illuminated. Zach moved to the bus shelter entrance to flag it down and bolted for the vehicle when it pulled up to the curb. This was his moment to escape the stranger whose worth he’d been quietly questioning. He was about to open the back door when he spun around. “Can I drop you somewhere?”
“Really?” The word rippled with shock and doubt, and was then swallowed up by the rain pelting the asphalt.
Zach, his wet clothes cool against his skin, didn’t wait for an answer and barrelled into the taxi. He felt resistance as he went to pull the door closed and looked up. Those mesmerizing eyes stared down at him. He slid across the seat. The guy scrambled into the vehicle and offered up an address on Seventh Avenue.
As the cab navigated the city streets, Zach stole sidelong glances of the Adonis slouched back in the seat and staring out the window. What’s he thinking about? Is he all right? Do I really care? He licked his lips, a new vision coming to him. They were stripped down to their underwear and holding each other in a clenching embrace. There was that ache again, gnawing at him.
The car swerved onto Seventh Avenue and came to an abrupt stop in front of a grey stone building. The man edged forward and, after a brief struggle, yanked his wallet out of his back pocket.
“Don’t worry about it.” Zach smiled, trying to dispel the shock and doubt twisted into the guy’s face.
There was a long silence as they stared searchingly at each other.
“Thanks,” was the grunt-like reply, followed by the bang of the door closing.
Ten minutes later Zach, in the front hall of his Hanson Road home, peeled off his wet clothes as he thought about what had just happened and tried to decode its meaning. He felt nauseous. No, that wasn’t it. He was disappointed in himself. He’d wanted to ask the guy’s name but didn’t have the courage. Why? Knowing his name would have forged a bond, made Zach care about his situation and his worth.
Zach wasn’t ready for that.
* * *
The computer screen went black, and Zach reached for his grey satchel as he stood. He pushed in his desk chair and stared blindly at the monitor. It didn’t take long for him to be lost in thought of the dark-haired beauty he’d met eight days ago. That was because the guy was all Zach thought about. In his mind, they’d already become the perfect couple with an enduring and unbreakable bond. They confided in each other their dreams and deepest fears. They laughed a lot. They argued, but never held a grudge. At night, they fell asleep in each other’s arms, smiling at how they’d both been saved to a new life sublime. And for Zach, something even more precious. He came to believe in love again.
The sudden outburst of gruff voices and laughter brought Zach back to the present. He slung the strap of his satchel over his shoulder and left his office.
Zach spun around and smirked as Daniel McAndrew strutted towards him. Daniel’s bravado and confidence were all a part of his showmanship. And Zach didn’t buy it. He knew Daniel was a self-conscious, eager-to-please underling working hard to climb the corporate ladder. They both were. Only Zach wasn’t trying so hard. “What’s up, Daniel?”
“It’s Friday,” Daniel said askance and stopped a foot away from Zach. “We’re all heading to Frankie’s for drinks. It’s tradition.”
“Can’t tonight,” Zach said, glancing at his watch. “I have plans.”
“Big date, eh?” Daniel cupped his hand to Zach’s shoulder. “Good for you, man. You’ve got to tell me all about it Monday.”
Zach rolled his eyes as Daniel moved off. That was Daniel looking after his own interests, keeping his eye on the competition. They weren’t best friends, although Daniel made it sound like they were. And Zach wasn’t interested in playing Daniel’s game. God, he’s an asshole, he thought and headed for the elevator.
There were no plans to speak of, no ‘big date.’ Nothing concrete, anyway. But every day Zach left the office, he hoped to run into that guy on his walk home. And if he did, he’d finally ask his name. No more living off crestfallen fantasies. No more living in the past.
Five minutes later, Zach was outside and zigzagging across the plaza towards Main Street. He walked briskly down the sidewalk, dodging around the other pedestrians, like he was on a mission. He was on a mission, sort of. His brief encounter with Daniel had slowed him down, and that wasn’t good. He couldn’t be late. He had to be where he was eight days ago at the exact same time. He was tempting fate, trying to change his life.
He turned onto First Street and the infamous bus shelter came into view. Stay calm. Stay calm. Someone was there, but he was too far away to tell if it was a man or a woman. He kept moving, and soon he realized it was a man. Not just any man. It was him, although he’d changed. The guy’s brown hair was shaved short on the sides, and long and wavy on top. The scruffy beard was gone. And when their eyes met, Zach’s throat constricted. He’d never forget those probing eyes.
“Hi,” the man said.
“Hey…” Zach cleared his throat. “Hello.”
“Evan,” he said, holding out his hand.
Zach gripped the hand, its smooth, velvety feel making him almost swoon. “Zach.”
“I don’t think you expected to see me again,” Evan said at the release of the handshake, the hint of a smirk on his face.
Zach didn’t say anything, just shrugged.
“I’m not sure I’d have remained so calm if I was the one who’d come face-to-face with a crazy man.” Evan’s smirk stretched into a generous smile. “I’m sorry … about what happened. Not exactly my best day.”
Zach opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Really, he didn’t know what to say.
“I wouldn’t know what to say, either. You probably thought I was crazy.” Evan reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten-dollar bill and held it out.
“What’s that for?” Zach asked, clasping his hands behind his back.
“That day … the taxi.”
Zach shook his head. “It’s not necessary, really.” He saw the doubt gleam in those eyes, but it quickly ebbed.
“Are you sure?” After a short silence, Evan put the bill away. “Thanks. Not just for the cab fare. Thanks for being nice on a day when it was … a game-changer.”
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Zach said.
“It was … to me. I mean…” Evan gave a nervous laugh and dropped his head.
Zach shivered at the raw emotion in Evan’s voice. He had to say something, and wanted it to be meaningful. All he came up with was, “You don’t need to explain, not to me.”
Evan looked up. “It’s just been so frustrating lately. You know how the saying goes, something about paving a new road if you don’t like the one you’re on. I don’t know who said it but —”
“Dolly Parton,” Zach interrupted.
“Really?” Evan rolled his shoulders. “Huh.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to cut in like that.”
A bus roared up to the curb, and the two men stepped back as the doors opened and a woman got off. Seconds later, the bus groaned as it started to roll away.
“And your new road?” Zach asked cautiously.
“Oh, well…” Evan flicked his eyebrows. “I guess it’s still under construction. I’ve been applying for jobs but I haven’t received one callback. I have a job. I’m a server at The Stables, I just … I have a master’s degree in modern thought and literature. I’m twenty-nine, and I feel like I should be doing something more with my life. Is that crazy? I don’t have any friends. Well, I do, but they’ve all moved to Toronto or Vancouver. I can’t seem to fucking escape Junction. And my mother, God love her, keeps pestering me about settling down and starting a family. It’s not like she doesn’t know that I’m gay. I freakin’ came out to her when I was twenty.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Christ, I don’t know why I’m telling you this or why you’d care. We don’t know each other. But that day … the weather, I don’t know … I’d just reached my breaking point.” He blinked magnificently “Maybe you believe in fate. I don’t know what I believe, but running into you…” He sighed. “I was on my way to Welland Bridge.”
Zach saw the glint of shame on Evan’s smooth face and, one more time, was at a loss for words. Welland Bridge made his body go rigid. Welland Bridge, or Jumpers’ Central as the locals called it, attracted people from all over Southern Ontario and Upstate New York. People who struggled to fit in. People who desperately needed help but had no lifeline. People who thought plunging into the rocky, fast-flowing Moldova River was their only choice. Area residents were always on the lookout for jumpers, eager to prevent the long traffic delays caused every time someone decided to leap. It was mid-July, and the Junction Gazette kept a running tally of the successful jumps since the beginning of the year. The count, up from two days ago, stood at eighteen.
“Now I know you’re thinking this guy must be crazy,” Evan said cheekily, “but I’m not. Crazy, that is. If I’d made it to the bridge, I probably wouldn’t have jumped. I don’t like heights. But that day I was just so … fucking miserable.”
Evan shrugged. “And now what?”
“Are you still miserable?”
“I’m taking it day by day,” Evan said soberly, then checked the time. “Look, I didn’t mean to ramble on. I just wanted to thank you for being kind to me. It’s made me believe that, maybe, there are good people in this world after all.” He wiped away the tear that rolled down his face, then turned to walk away.
“Evan…” Zach waited for Evan to face him again before continuing. “You’re right. We don’t know each other, but fate, if you believe in it, brought us together. How about grabbing a drink? If it sounds crazy —”
“Why would you want to have a drink with me?” Evan asked with an edge.
Zach scrunched his eyebrows. “It might be nice to get to know each other.”
“I said too much,” Evan said quickly. “I don’t need your pity.”
“Wow. I was just trying to be nice.”
“No one’s ever nice to guys like me.”
“I’m starting to see why. It’s hard to be nice to a prick.” Zach started off down the street, turning back once and throwing Evan a look of disbelief.
God, I’m such an idiot, Zach thought when he reached the corner and waited to cross the street. He’d let himself be swept up in some silly fantasy, idolizing a guy he’d met on the street. Was that really how he thought he’d meet his future husband? Was he that desperate for love? The light turned green and Zach stepped off the curb. When he reached the other side of the street, he felt a hand in the centre of his back. He cranked his head to the right, saw Evan, and kept walking.
“Zach…” Evan grabbed Zach’s arm and pulled him off to the side. “I’m sorry. I’m a prick. A world-class prick, actually. You caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to react. I’m not used to —”
“Not used to what?” Zach asked, his voice flat.
“I don’t know.” Evan rubbed his eye. “Someone being interested in me.”
“You’re kidding, right? Have you looked in the mirror lately?”
If Zach had a type, Evan hit all the buttons. Tall. Dark-haired. Fit and lean, but not one of those muscle jocks who spent all his time at the gym. A gentle demeanour, for the most part. And most importantly, a tri-cornered smile that had that ache burning inside him.
“I have issues,” Evan said. “You can see that. No one wants to be with a guy who’s —”
“Maybe going through a rough patch?” Zach broke in, placing his hand on Evan’s shoulder. “Some days suck. That’s life. And we get through them, like you said, day by day.”
“It’s more than that.”
“So, tell me about it over a drink,” Zach said, his hand falling away. “And maybe, at the very least, we’ve both made a new friend.”
“I probably shouldn’t drink.”
Zach pointed at the Starbucks sign down the street. “Then let’s grab a coffee.”
They stared intently at each other for a moment, then headed to the Starbucks.
Waiting in line, Zach turned to Evan, who flashed him that heart-stopping smile. God, he felt silly when his manhood went hard as steel and slipped his hands into his pockets to conceal it.
They both ordered lattes and, when the drinks were ready, sat at a table in the corner.
“Tell me about your ‘issues,’” Zach said playfully and winked.
“We could be here a while,” Evan said dryly.
“I’m in no rush.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Evan smiled mischievously. “I was sixteen when I was first diagnosed…”
Sipping his drink, Zach listened as Evan spoke, never interrupting. He sat there, his gaze locked on those penetrating eyes, at one point reaching out and placing his hand on top of Evan’s. Then came the shock. He couldn’t believe how intense — despite the details Evan shared of his life and struggles — the ache had become.
What am I doing? This is crazy? But he was hooked, by a stranger no less who’d stirred something inside of him. He couldn’t help but wonder — and hope — if this was the moment he’d finally step out from the shadows of his past.
Or maybe, in the most unexpected way, he’d found his shelter.