Lonely Hearts Excerpt
As far as Elijah Prince was concerned, gay weddings could choke on their own cheery goddamned glitter and die.
He sat alone in the back of the overflowing reception hall, framed by floral, ribbon and balloon garlands aesthetically balanced on the head of the most fabulous of pins. The decor came courtesy of the high-priced wedding planner one of the grooms, Walter, had imported from his native Chicago, because only the best would be procured for his darling Kelly. The chairs and tables, decorated with runners of Italian silk, were Disney-movie themed, because Kelly ate, breathed and farted Disney.
The grooms had arrived at the reception via a fucking horse-drawn carriage. The wedding party’s table was bedecked in Tangled colors and paraphernalia: little-girl purple and Rapunzel-hair gold weaving between toy figurines and play sets. The space for parents and immediate family sported colors and action figures from Beauty and the Beast, a sea of bright blue and a gold which should have clashed with the Rapunzel yellow yet somehow didn’t.
Elijah was at one of the sections reserved for the choirs and orchestra. His table’s theme was light blue and white, for Frozen. It made him want to gag. He was the only social orphan at the music table, possibly at the entire wedding. Giles Mulder, Aaron Seavers and Mina Stevenson were at the table legitimately. Giles and Mina were in the Saint Timothy orchestra, Aaron choir, and they all three had roles in one form or another in the all-male and all-female a cappella groups from their college.
Aaron had already broken ranks, leaving the wedding party to snuggle at the music table with Giles, but though Elijah attended Saint Timothy too, he was in zero musical groups. No doubt someone, probably Aaron, had pleaded with Walter and Kelly on Elijah’s behalf to give him an exemption to sit with the musical people.
It didn’t matter how bitter and nasty Elijah was. Giles and Aaron had decided to adopt him, and apparently they intended to never leave him behind. Elijah often loathed the level of their intrusion, except when he was weak enough to admit it was sometimes the only thing keeping him going.
“What are your plans for this summer, Elijah?” Mina asked this as Aaron made his Anna figure flirt with Giles’s Kristoff. When Giles had Kristoff respond with bald innuendo, Mina laughed and launched a handful of table confetti at them so it appeared to come from her Elsa doll.
Elijah nudged his plate hard enough to knock his Sven figure onto its side as he slumped deeper into his seat. “Pastor Schulz got me a job at the cafeteria. Doing dishes and taking out the garbage.” He felt bad about the note of complaint and cleared his throat. “I’m glad to have it.”
“You’re still moving into the White House with us this fall, right?”
Elijah nodded without enthusiasm. The White House was the old mansion north of the music building that traditionally provided off-campus housing for music students. Aaron and Giles would be there, as would Mina and her friend Jilly. Elijah was slated to room with Giles’s old roommate, Brian, who with Elijah would be the other non-music person. It was all tidily arranged.
Except everyone else would be paying rent, whereas Elijah’s portion would be paid out of the pity fund Walter Davidson, née Lucas, had set up for Elijah because he was now officially without parental support. The money in the trust would cover his tuition and any books and supplies his summer job wouldn’t.
A familiar chuckle sent a shiver down Elijah’s spine, and he let his gaze slip to the tall, smiling young man wearing sunglasses at the other end of their table. Baz Acker would be at the White House too.
Mina caught Elijah’s hand discreetly under the table and squeezed. “Let people care for you, okay? You’re owed a little kickback from the game of life.”
“It feels weird.” Elijah buried his Sven figure deeper under his plate and cast a caustic glare Aaron’s direction, waiting for him to point out Elijah used to hate how no one would help him.
Aaron fixed his gaze on his plate, his pretty-boy expression taking on shadows. “I know. But it gets easier, I promise.”
It should have comforted him, this reminder that yes, Aaron did understand. He’d been a stalwart protector of Elijah since he found out they both had remix variations on shit-tastic parents. But as usual, Elijah exhibited an allergic reaction to kindness. “Maybe I should find an even sorrier sap than me to coach through his hell, since it worked so well for you.”
Giles glared at Elijah and punched him in the arm.
“You’re going to be fine. It hasn’t been long since…everything.” Mina put a hand in the center of Elijah’s back. “Give yourself space to find your feet. Take comfort in people removing some of your concerns.”
“I’ve helped myself since I was in middle school. I don’t like this attention, the owing people.”
This comment turned the gentle massage at his back into a pointed nudge. “When you were helping yourself in middle and high school, your parents hadn’t attempted to gun you down in the middle of a college campus.”
“Yeah, well, they did plenty of shit almost as bad before, but nobody saw.”
“I think it’s why we want to help you. We know you faced worse, and it upsets us.”
“Yes, but these people donating to the damn trust fund don’t know me. They only feel sorry for me.” Given the burgeoning tally of how much poor Elijah money Walter had collected, a whole lot of people felt sorry for him. It weirded him the fuck out.
“They won’t feel sorry for you if they talk to you for more than five minutes,” Giles drawled. This time Aaron punched him in the arm.
Mina ignored them both and kept soothing Elijah. “Maybe some feel sorry. But anyone there that day, any of our parents and families—we understand exactly what kind of hell you were living with. We want to take some of it away from you.”
You can’t erase hell with a check. Before Elijah could figure out a less caustic way to phrase that, Walter’s friend Cara stood up to make a toast, and the conversation came to a blissful end.
The first attendant’s speech was cute, but a little too much so. When it ended with someone clinking a spoon against a wineglass, inspiring the grooms to kiss, Elijah slipped a flask of cheap whiskey out of his suit coat pocket and took a heavy pull. When everyone whooped and catcalled because Walter pulled Kelly across his lap and kissed him deeper, Elijah emptied the flask some more.
“Go for the tonsils, Lucas,” Baz Acker called.
Elijah tipped his head all the way back, fully intending to drown himself in blissful, drunken oblivion, but before he could, Giles leaned across the table and swiped the flask from Elijah’s hand.
“Hey.” Elijah glared and tried to retrieve his alcohol.
Giles moved it out of reach. “You’re sleeping in the same room as me, and I’m not spending the night listening to you retch into the toilet.” He tucked the flask into his jacket pocket and passed over a bottle of water. “Salvo is going up to sing. Mina will want you to watch.”
Elijah pasted on a polite expression as Salvo assumed their position on the stage. Though Elijah still didn’t want to be here, Giles was right about Mina, and he kept his grouchiness to himself.
They performed an a cappella version of “Something That I Want”, which Elijah knew from watching the girls rehearse was a song that played over the credits of Tangled, Kelly Davidson’s favorite movie of all time. The song was cheesy and this Disney movie shit was totally fucking OTT, but Mina sang wicked lead, and Elijah tapped his toe despite himself. Kelly got up and danced with them, sort of singing but mostly vacillating between blushing and flirting outrageously with his groom, who sat on a chair in front of the stage and ate up the performance with a spoon.
As the song concluded and the audience clapped, Salvo retreated to the wings, and the Ambassadors got up from the table to take their place.
Saying the Ambassadors were hot was like saying water was wet. Each member was either out-and-out gorgeous or exuding so much raw character their rougher mugs only added to their draw. They smelled good as well—this close up, one good deep breath filled Elijah’s sinuses with enough man sweat to give him a semi. Aaron was in the Ambassadors, and while he wasn’t Elijah’s type, he wasn’t painful to look at, especially when he was lost in the joy of a song. In the same way Kelly had joined Salvo for their number, Walter became an honorary Ambassador, and his winks and smiles poked through Elijah’s natural crankiness and cranked up his libido. Walter was Exhibit A of gay-boy crack: flirty, charming, sexy. It was no accident Walter was the one singing about being a heartbreaker tearing girls apart. Anyone with a pulse would go home with Walter.
There was another Ambassador Elijah couldn’t stop watching, though while he was even more handsome than Walter, he also came with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Intellectually Elijah knew the limp and occasional hitch as Sebastian Acker danced was from the hush-hush accident in high school that had severely eclipsed his vision and graced him with a partially titanium skeleton. Yet there was no question the harrowing events of the nightmare afternoon with Elijah’s parents only a few short months ago had done anything but aggravate those ancient wounds.
How did you say I’m sorry when your dad shoots someone in the shoulder? When someone takes a bullet so you and others around you don’t have to? What did it mean when said hero had already saved you once before—but then, as now, never had so much as a casual smile for you in the aftermath?
Baz smiled tonight—a dark, delicious leer pulling at Elijah’s gut.
Elijah endured the Ambassador’s performance in sullen and sadly sober silence. Beside him Giles whooped and applauded when Aaron sang solo. When Walter descended into his adoring audience during the final chorus and the Ambassadors urged everyone to close in on the groom, Giles rose, laughing, to join them.
Unfortunately, at the last second he also grabbed Elijah’s hand.
“No.” Elijah clamped a hand on his chair to keep himself from being dragged off to the gulag.
Giles tugged Elijah to his feet. “Yes. It’s a fucking wedding. You can resume being a caustic asshole tomorrow, but today is Walter and Kelly’s happily ever after, and today you’re going to dance.”
Elijah wanted to argue, to wrestle out of Giles’s hold and describe the full detail of how he wasn’t dancing at a wedding, ever, but Giles was stronger than he seemed for a scrawny geek with big ears. And Elijah might be a caustic asshole, but no, he couldn’t make a scene. Not today, not with these people.
It was hell. The whole day had been acid down his back, but this dance, this moment, surrounded by the great music nerd herd, Baz less than six feet away from him as he flirted with Walter and Kelly’s friends—this was dancing on knives. Everyone smiling. Everyone happy. Everyone laughing, connected, joyously united for those they loved.
Everyone but Elijah.
He moved woodenly, trying not to stand out. Trying not to look like the short, skinny freak he was. Mina drew him into a circle with her and Jilly. When the song was over, Mina squeezed his hand. He stiffened, thinking she’d haul him off for yet another fucking heart-to-heart/pep talk, but she let him go and went to the stage. There must be another Salvo-Ambassadors number.
Whatever. Elijah wasn’t staying for it. He’d done his time. He’d danced and faked merry. Now he needed to find somewhere to hide until this was over, do his best to forget it ever happened. Retreating to his chair, he scooped up his jacket, made sure his cigarettes were still there, then dug inside Giles’s suit coat for his flask.
He’d closed his fingers around it when the music started up. Soft, lyrical strings caught the edge of his heart. Glancing up, he saw Giles, Mina and a few other orchestra people playing at the edge of the stage. In the center, Aaron and Walter’s friend Rose stood at the mic as Salvo and the Ambassadors fanned out around the room.
On the dance floor, Walter and Kelly stood alone, poised and ready to dance.
The song was “I See the Light”, another Tangled number. Aaron sang the male part of the duet, and Walter’s friend Rose did a less-than-Mina soprano, but mostly the music fell away in the brilliant presence of the two young men on the dance floor. Walter glided with suave grace, and Kelly followed with an untutored gait as charming as Walter’s practiced moves. Around and around the floor they spun, the soft lighting mimicking the lanterns from the song’s source scene in Tangled, the whimsically elegant atmosphere amplifying the moment until it resonated like a string.
It shafted Elijah through the heart.
The flask fell from Elijah’s hand, as did his jacket. Hypnotized, he watched the two men dance, the song cracking open the rough leather casing he’d wrapped around himself.
Perfection. Happy ending. Walter and Kelly Davidson would end up in a fucking suburb. They’d adopt, or have a surrogate for their kids. Same went for Aaron and Giles—oh, Elijah had seen their faces. They wouldn’t go quite this fucking Disney, but they’d be just as goddamned cute. Probably do some big song-and-dance number for the proposal too. They’d have the singers strung out around the perimeter same as this. They’d have an equally exquisite moment for the ceremony itself, one defining and celebrating the two of them. They’d have each other forever, and their union would be witnessed by a thousand friends.
The song ended, and everyone clapped, many also wiping away a tear. Elijah bent to retrieve his things, but his hand trembled, and when he dropped the flask a second time, it skittered away from him into the crowd. He thought about leaving it, but only for a second. He may not get a happily ever after, but he damn well was having his fucking whiskey.
This time when he picked it up, he gripped it tight, clutching it to his chest as he rose. He stood on the edge of the dance floor, which was filling up with the wedding party as the orchestra-chorus began “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.
Elijah glanced around desperately for an exit. He found one, but not before his gaze once more grazed Baz, and weakened by the hole in his armor, Elijah let his gaze linger as the truth seeped into his heart.
I’m never going to have this. Not this kind of family. Not these kinds of friends. Not with an Aaron or Kelly or Walter or Baz or anyone. No one’s ever going to love me this way. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, even if they did.
He let himself have one moment of wallowing in misery, and then he packed the pain away, back into the dark corner it had lived in since as early as he could remember. He ducked through the beaming, swaying guests and escaped out the side door, safe in the knowledge nobody was going to miss a scrawny, scowling loser, knowing while he wasn’t ever going to get a happily ever after, he could still find a way to get high.
As the wedding guests applauded, Sebastian Acker tracked Elijah’s exit behind the darkened panels of his glasses. That last, naked glance ghosted on his conscience the same way everything about Elijah did. Leaning over to Marius, Baz spoke quietly in his best friend’s ear. “Gonna nip outside.”
Marius frowned and nodded at Damien, the third leg of their dynamic trio, who was also the Ambassadors’ student director. “Don’t be long. He said something about doing last call, in case people go to the hotel early.”
Last call. The comment sent a jolt of sorrow through Baz, which he did his best to smother from Marius’s notice. “Right. I’ll keep it quick.”
“If you miss it because you were getting high in the Tesla, I’ll never forgive you.”
“I’ll be there.”
With a squeeze of Marius’s shoulder, Baz wove his way through the crowd, winking and flirting in an attempt to hide his discomfort. When Baz slipped around the corner of the building, he found Elijah a polite distance away from an amicable group of middle-aged smokers. His shoulders hunched as he sucked on a cancer stick between swigs of alcohol.
Safe and sound.
Reminding himself Elijah was out of the woods, Baz returned to the reception. Howard Prince was in jail, and there was no way he could shoot an Acker and do anything but stay there. Except no matter how Baz reassured himself, the urge to shadow Elijah, to protect him, hadn’t faded away after the shooting.
For now, however, Baz had an entirely different dragon to slay.
As Baz returned to the reception, Damien nodded toward the rest of the upperclassmen Ambassadors leaving the banquet hall. “We’re going downstairs. Marius found a room we could use, where we can have some privacy. I have everybody but Aaron. You mind fetching him?”
Baz spread his fake smile as wide as it could go. “Not at all.”
He was glad for his sunglasses as he approached his friend, who was chatting with Giles and two Salvo members near one of the speakers. When Baz smiled, nobody knew the gesture didn’t make it all the way to his eyes.
“Ambassador, you have one final performance of the year.” He ruffled Aaron’s hair. “Let’s go.”
Aaron followed Baz out of the room. “Is something wrong? You look upset.”
“Nothing’s wrong. Nothing I didn’t know was coming, anyway.”
“You learned the Pink Floyd song, right? The one Damien handed out before the graduation ceremony?”
Through the heavy tint of his sunglasses, Baz saw Aaron blink. “Yes, but what— Oh.”
The Ambassadors had been Baz’s lifeline since he joined as a freshman. They hadn’t given a shit he was gay—some, of course, were happy to hear it and had shown him a good time. They didn’t care about his senator uncle and crazy political family except to crack a few jokes about where was his Secret Service. They did care about his grim high school history and the reason for his disabilities, but they loved him enough not to bring it up, to help him move away from the past.
The Ambassadors were everything to Baz. But once a year, they had to have this moment, when the graduating seniors sang their last song. This year the remainder of Baz’s first-year class would say goodbye—not Baz, because he’d put off reality as long as possible. He’d had an extra year to avoid the inevitable because anyone in music therapy or other five-year program was still with him, but that year was up. He couldn’t make time stand still completely.
He couldn’t keep his Ambassadors around forever.
They wove their way through the crush toward the basement of the marina, passing silent rooms, a small kitchen, a storage area. In the distance, Baz heard the other Ambassadors speaking in hushed voices.
In the center of the room, Damien cleared his throat. “It’s been a hell of a year. We got six new amazing members. We gained a sister choir—and don’t think for a minute they’re not gonna kick your asses in any tournaments you enter together.” He squeezed Baz’s hand tight. “We had our scares. Our challenges. But we made it through. Every man here is a hero. A brother.” He let out a shuddering breath and lowered Baz’s hand. “I’m gonna miss each one of you like a fucking arm.”
Baz told the tears to fuck off. “You’ve got a lot of arms, man.”
Damien swung Baz’s hand, lifting it, a quiet acknowledgment. “Yeah. I do.” He pulled out a pitch pipe, blew the note and counted them in.
For the fifth time in his life, Baz sang the graduating Ambassador brothers goodbye.
The group had been singing “Goodbye Cruel World” at their final concert since the early eighties, when pulling a Floyd was current. The arrangement was pretty pedestrian, but it never altered. Maybe the original composers could have done better, but this wasn’t a moment for flash. This was sending graduating members home.
Baz didn’t let himself dwell on that, not during the song. He pushed Damien up under his solo. He felt Marius beneath him, rumbling the basement floor of the bass section with a resonance no one would ever be able to replicate. Baz swelled with his brothers, with Aaron and Sid and all sixteen of the Ambassadors. He belted the last chorus with his whole soul, his heart. The final note hovered in the air, held until the last Ambassador ran out of breath. They kept still another four beats after, suspending the moment as long as they could.
Then it was over.
They embraced. They man-patted, they wept, they whispered promises to stay in touch, vows they all knew would be more difficult to keep with each passing day, until they were the old Ambassadors lingering alone in the homecoming crowd, grasping for their ghost of this moment, this time. Aaron and the other first-years had the same stunned look of horrible realization they all did when they were the newbs—comprehension that this was only the first goodbye, and someday it would be them singing their last note.
If Baz could have gotten his shit together, this would have been his last call. Someday it would have to be. But the panic this thought instilled in him made his paranoia about Elijah’s safety seem a moderate worry in comparison, so he boxed the fear in the mental cell it had crawled out of.
Baz deliberately left embracing Damien and Marius for last. He flirted with Aaron, teasing him about how he’d have to be Baz’s choir wingman now. He baited Sid about being the old man in the White House with him. He put off approaching his best friends as absolutely long as he could, but at last they found him, and the bastards hugged him together.
“This isn’t goodbye.” Damien’s voice was gruff. “We’re only moving into the Cities, and I’ll be in town a lot until Stevie graduates in December.”
Marius’s cheeks were already salt-streaked as he spoke in his calm, steady voice, so sexy he could seduce a nun. “I’m not moving out of the White House until the end of the month. And as Damien said, I’m not moving far.”
Baz shut his eyes tight. “I know.” But Marius would be in med school. How much time for hanging out would he realistically have?
Marius removed Baz’s glasses, bringing an uncomfortable wave of brightness that threatened a headache, but Marius had already pulled Baz in low, blocking out the light with his hands. “I’m not leaving you alone. I don’t give a fuck how you try and shut me out, you can’t. You’re my brother, and I’ve got your back. Damien and I both do. Always.”
Marius’s and Damien’s vows couldn’t soothe Baz’s soul. They said they weren’t leaving, but they were. They were starting their real lives, ones where the three of them didn’t share a living room and a daily schedule. Damien was getting married. Marius would be right behind him as soon as a girl hooked him in the mouth. People moved on. Everyone did, eventually.
Everyone but Baz.
Damien clutched Baz’s head, kissed him on the cheek, sighed. “Enough. This isn’t goodbye, and we have a wedding to dance at. And one of us has to stay sober enough to drive to the hotel.”
“Well, thank God that’s not me,” Baz quipped. “Though I suppose I have to audition a new driver soon.”
Marius hooked his arm. “You still have a driver.”
Baz punched Marius in the arm, teasing him about how was he going to survive without Baz’s sick wheels. He did what he could to distract himself from the heavy truth. No matter what they said, this was the end.
Distraction, however, never came cheap to Baz, and lingering with people he was about to lose did him no favors. He knew he should celebrate this last moment, drink up their companionship one last time, but he couldn’t. Every second with them now was a reminder they were almost gone. What he needed was a way to check out. He had a handful of narcotics and a few other pharmaceuticals in his car, which combined with the fifth stashed in the glove box would go a long way to smoothing out the jagged edges the evening had left on him. Sex would be good too—a rush, a release and a blissful crash. Except everyone at this wedding came with strings.
The memory of Elijah’s naked gaze returned, but Baz shoved the thought away the same as he always did. Elijah was off-limits. Baz wasn’t able to articulate why. He only knew it was the same kind of instinct as the one urging him to protect Elijah. Ignoring those impulses never came with pleasant consequences.
Except tonight, something had changed. Tonight Elijah lingered in Baz’s mind like a cancer. Made his feet itch, sent him to the bar for four too many whiskey sours. Made him yearn for the pills and better booze in his car.
Sent him out the door via the patio where he’d last seen Elijah.
This time he didn’t tell Marius or Damien where he was going. He was too busy talking up a mental justification for seeking Elijah out a second time, preemptively staunching the panic he’d feel if Elijah wasn’t still standing there or somewhere else equally obvious. It kept mingling with the memory of that terrible gaze, sending his anxiety higher.
His breath caught in exhausted relief as he saw Elijah huddled on the deck, staring out at the lake with the same hollow expression.
Emboldened by alcohol, driven by a loneliness scraping the bottom of his soul, Baz sauntered over to Elijah with a rakish smile. “Hey, sailor. Care for a drink?”