Night Owls

by shukyou (主教)

 

“Dad.”

Marcus opened his eyes, willing himself not to look at the bedside clock. The number would just depress him.

Dad.” The voice came from the three-foot-high silhouette standing backlit in the bedroom doorway. He had just started sleeping with the door open weeks ago, when some part of him had finally just given in.

“What’s up, buddy?” he asked, voice scratchy with sleep. How many hours had he managed? Three? Maybe four, if he was lucky? The little silhouette shuffled its feet in its pajamas and didn’t respond. “Did you have another nightmare?”

The dark outline nodded.

“You think you could try to go back to sleep?” Marcus asked, pawing for his glasses. “Just give it a shot?”

There was a pause, and Marcus really, truly hoped that this time, finally, his five-year-old son would shrug, turn around, and head back to his room, and that would be the end of it for the night, and he could shut his eyes and not open them again until much, much closer to his wake-up alarm.

Two minutes later he was dressed, or at least as dressed as the late hour demanded, which only ever involved pulling the previous day’s clothes over the boxers and t-shirt he slept in. He’d long since given up bothering with socks, but Cash demanded them, sticking out his feet one at a time as Marcus knelt before him by the front door. First socks, then shoes. He’d tried to show Cash how the little bunny ears went over and under, but now was not the time for lessons. Cash’s pajama pants were fine for public viewing, but the night air had started to take on a bit of early autumn chill, so Cash obediently reached for the sky while Marcus pulled his favorite hoodie over his head and down, until Cash’s face emerged, his dark curls pushed into his face by the hood.

They didn’t speak as they did their now-familiar routine. There was nothing to say that hadn’t already been said. Marcus stuffed his keys into one pocket and his phone into the other, then let Cash lead him out into the hall and down toward the elevator, tiny fingers wrapped around Marcus’ larger ones.

The night was always quiet in their apartment building’s parking lot, especially on weeknights like this. The complex’s parking lot was shared by an office building on the other side, and during the day it could be hard to find a spot. But after hours like this, the spaces were largely empty, with all their daytime occupants at home, snug in their own little beds, fast asleep, just like five-year-olds and their dads should be.

Instead, they walked, a little two-man parade of sorts, weaving their way up and down the asphalt rows. They even traveled about parade speed, as Cash, who had always been on the small side of the child height/weight growth chart, had short little legs and no desire to expend much energy. The point wasn’t to go fast. Speed had nothing to do with it. The key was distance, endurance. Eventually the bad dreams would give up, something only Cash could determine, and he would declare himself safe until morning, and they would go back to bed, secure in the knowledge that the nightmares had been outrun for one more night.

Of course, how long this would take, only Cash could tell. Sometimes it was twenty, thirty minutes. More commonly, it was a matter of hours. Once Cash had kept them going straight until dawn, when Marcus had been able to use the logic that surely nightmares could not survive daylight. It had been a genius move at the time, and one he’d regretted ever since, as Cash had then begun fighting sleep as soon as he’d seen the sky start to darken in the evenings. He now fought it every moment that he could.

Step by step, around and around, like they did almost every night these days, Cash and Marcus led the bad dreams on a slow, steady chase. Marcus staggered groggily through every step, but Cash kept up their pace with an almost-martial determination. He had a five-year-old’s absolute certainty that the night terrors would eventually give up and leave him in peace, just as he truly believed the only way to get them to do so was to keep moving until they had been outlast. Lately, though, Marcus had been to wonder which would give out first: the nightmares or himself.

~*~

Marcus hadn’t chosen the apartment building specifically because it was in a quiet neighborhood; he’d chosen it because he’d needed a place, and it had been available and affordable and not too far from public transit. He’d signed the lease before Cash had even existed, so things like schools and parks and playgrounds had barely been on his mind. Now he found himself wishing for even the smallest nearby playset. Maybe the nightmares would go away faster if they had to chase Cash across the monkey bars.

But at least the relative quiet meant that no one yet had called Child Protective Services on the man who took midnight walking marathons with his young child, never mind whose idea it was. Once in a great while, Marcus would see someone heading out for an especially early morning, or rolling in after an exceptionally late night. For the most part, though, for the duration of their walks, Marcus and Cash might as well have been the only two people left in the world.

Thus, he was surprised the night he saw a city bus actually brake at the shelter stop in front of the office building, and even more surprised to see someone hop off and start walking over to the apartments. By his phone, it was nearly two in the morning on a Wednesday — now technically Thursday, for that matter. Who the hell was coming back to a boring place like this at an hour when only the interesting people were still awake?

Cash saw the person, and his steps faltered, his eyes gone wide. Marcus was embarrassed that to until that moment, he hadn’t even connected the arrival with the potential for danger. Not all the interesting people awake at this hour were interesting in a good way, after all. He took a step until he was between Cash and the person, knowing all the while what a ridiculous non-deterrent that was; Marcus was barely five foot eight, and he might tip the scales at 150 after a particularly hefty meal — not exactly the kind of figure that sent potential wrongdoers running.

As the person walked closer, though, it became clear that Marcus had at least three inches and thirty pounds on him. He was wearing a tight, long-sleeved shirt and skinny jeans, both in black, and a loose stocking cap slouched over the back of his head, letting a whole mess of straw-yellow hair fan out the front. He looked about as dangerous as a butter knife.

Cash was pressed to his leg anxiously, though, so Marcus thought he’d take the initiative. If nothing else, maybe he could prove to Cash that this was a real human being, and not a figure from one of his nightmares. “Hi there,” he said, lifting a hand in a semi-wave of greeting.

“Hey,” said the man, hefting a small backpack over his shoulder. He looked at Cash, then back at Marcus, a frown creasing his brow. “Everything good?”

Oh great, Marcus thought, now he was the suspicious one. “Just … needed a little fresh air,” he said, trying to find some way to explain himself that didn’t now involve this guy’s calling the cops on a brown man and a young child. “Sometimes he’s got a little trouble sleeping.”

The man’s concerned expression softened, and he smiled down at Cash. “Hey, I get it. You’re a night owl like me too, huh?”

Cash hadn’t seemed interested in interaction to that point, but the man’s curious turn of phrase obviously got his attention. “Night owl?” he echoed.

“Yeah,” the man said. “You know owls, right? Birds with the big eyes?” When Cash nodded, he continued, “Well, sometimes people are like owls. We sleep in the daytime, and then at night, we do our best work. Whoo whoo!” He flapped his elbows a little, wing-like.

To Marcus’ surprise, Cash laughed at that. Cash wasn’t usually outright scared around strangers, but he wasn’t completely friendly to them either. To see him go from one extreme to the other in such a short period made Marcus wonder if he was the one dreaming. Cash had always been a bit reserved and clingy by nature, and the last few months had only made it worse.

“Well, I’d better get back to my nest.” The man shot off a little salute to Cash, then nodded to Marcus. “You two have a good night.”

“Yeah, you too,” said Marcus, while Cash gave a little good-bye wave. They watched together as the man walked back toward the building, and as he did, Cash started on his walk again. He didn’t say anything else about the man, or anything else at all as they continued their circuit of the empty parking spaces, hand in hand, around and around. But once in a while, under Cash’s breath, Marcus thought he heard the faint notes of owl noises.

~*~

Cash slept through Saturday night, which made Marcus beyond frustrated, then made him feel bad about being frustrated. He should be happy that both he and his son were able to get a full night’s rest — but it always felt like some perverse timing on Cash’s part when they skipped a night of walking on a day Marcus didn’t have to get up early the next morning.

Sunday, though, they were back on their rounds. Marcus was especially put out because he’d just managed to fall asleep not twenty minutes before Cash had woken him up, claiming that the nightmares were at it again. He’d even pushed harder than he usually did, promising that Cash could sleep with the lights on, that he could sleep in Marcus’ room, that he could sleep in Marcus’ room and with the lights on, if he’d just agree to go back to sleep. But Cash was having none of it. It was time to outrun whatever was hiding in the dark.

The worst part was that Marcus knew all it would take would be to get Cash to lie down and close his eyes for five minutes. Five minutes, maybe less, and he’d be sawing logs again, working toward getting his full recommended complement of sleep so as to be ready to face the next day at kindergarten. His exhaustion was plain to see on his little face, especially the plum-colored circles beneath his eyes shadowing his light brown cheeks. He’d insist, though, that he wasn’t tired, and he’d use every ounce of his strength to keep his eyes open as Marcus read book after book after book. Marcus had gotten away for a while with reading the employee manual from the supermarket where he was a manager, but then Cash has gotten wise to the scheme and pitched a royal fit, which was the exact opposite of going to sleep.

The next day, Marcus was all but dead on his feet. He staggered through the day, authorizing delivery shipments and placating customers who were pissed that their eighty-three-cent plums had rung up for eighty-four cents apiece. He gave himself a bump on his imaginary performance review for not screaming at them about what real problems were.

There were three other kids in the building that went to the same preschool, and one of their moms had proven herself a candidate for sainthood by volunteering to drop off and pick up all four of them every day, so all Marcus had to do was make sure he was home by the time Cash arrived at the front door of the apartment. From that point on, the evening pretty much belonged to Cash: making him dinner, giving him a bath, and lately, trying to convince him to go to bed as early as humanly possible. Sometimes it even worked.

The cruel thing was that Marcus was now having even more trouble putting himself to bed. He had reached the deeply ironic point of simply being too exhausted to sleep. He would lie down with his eyes closed, but he couldn’t fall asleep, which only served to make him mad at himself for being unable to sleep, which riled him up and made it even more difficult for him to doze off. It was a vicious, patently stupid cycle, and he hated it and he hated himself for being unable to break it.

Sometimes he tried to watch TV or read Facebook to try and shut down his brain, but those weren’t good solutions either. Everything on TV was depressingly vapid, or vapidly depressing, and Facebook just reminded him of all the fun things people he used to know were doing. He hadn’t spoken to most of them in a while, much less had any meaningful social interactions. It was hard to fit those into a life that was about going to work, being a single dad, and trying to go to sleep at the earliest possible moment, in the vain hope of catching eight full, if not unbroken, hours of rest.

In his worst moments, tears of frustration welling up in his eyes, he thought about drinking himself to sleep. But no, there was no alcohol in the house, and he wouldn’t let there be any for that exact reason. What would happen if Cash came to wake him and he was dead drunk? Would Cash go out and walk the parking lot by himself? The thought was too awful to contemplate. No, he had to remain lucid and rousable, even if all he got out of it was being sick and sad and eternally awake.

He loved Cash. Of course he did. Ever since he’d seen the little grainy grey scratches on the sonogram screen Tiffani had texted to him, he’d loved that little guy with his entire being. But sometimes love broke your heart, and sometimes it just broke your spirit.

Wednesday night found them on the fourth consecutive nighttime walk, all of which had taken upwards of three hours before Cash was finally satisfied and willing to go back to bed. Marcus felt like he’d entered a permanent zombie state, staggering around both day and night on muscle memory alone. He deliriously wondered if eating brains would help.

He was in such a trance that he didn’t notice anything around them had changed until Cash stopped in his tracks and began waving. Marcus turned his head just in time to see the bus pull off in the distance, and the man from before walking over, waving back. He was wearing the same skinny jeans and hat from earlier, but his long-sleeved shirt now had a Twisted Sister t-shirt pulled over it. “Hey there, night owls!” he called as he approached.

Whoo whoo!” hooted Cash, which made the man grin. “Night owls!”

“Yeah, night owls!” The man held out his hand low for a high-five, which Cash gave him. “Go us!”

“Hi,” said Marcus, who did not go for a similar greeting. “Are you visiting someone here, or…?”

The man shook his head. “Moved in a couple weeks ago. Jacky Steinsiek.” He extended his hand again, this time for a more adult-appropriate handshake.

“Marcus Alsaihati.” Marcus took Jacky’s hand and gave it a polite shake of introduction. “And this is my son Cash.”

“Nice to meet you both,” Jacky said. He looked around the empty lot, as if to confirm to himself that, yes, it was still the middle of the night. “So you guys come out here often, or what?”

Marcus opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again. Honestly, he’d never even considered the need to explain to someone else just what, exactly, was going on here. Sure, he’d mentioned to Cash’s teachers that Cash had trouble sleeping and sometimes they walked around at night to wear him out. But it felt way different being confronted with the facts while caught in the act. Surely there had to be a way to frame this so he didn’t sound like a complete parenting disaster. Right?

Before he could think of a suitable response, though, Cash said, “The nightmares are after us.”

Jacky’s thin eyebrows rose. “They’re after you?” he asked, still looking at Cash.

Cash nodded sadly, squeezing Marcus’ hand. “They show up when you go to sleep. So you gotta be … you gotta be a night owl.” He said the last two words with grave, almost reverential conviction. “And then they think you don’t go to sleep, and then they go away and go bother somebody else.”

Marcus braced himself to put out the fires of any negative reaction, up to and including mocking laughter, but Jacky just nodded and folded his arms across his chest. “God, don’t I know it,” he said, still looking at Cash like this was a reasonable conversation for two human beings to have, and not the semi-delusional ramblings of a five-year-old at two a.m. in a parking lot. “Mine go away when I play my night owl music for them.” It was then Marcus looked a little closer and realized that what he’d thought was an ordinary backpack was in fact an instrument case with shoulder straps.

Cash’s eyes went wide. “Can you play night owl music now?” he asked.

“Nah, buddy,” answered Jacky with a chuckle. “I’d wake up all those people, and they’d be real mad at me.”

Cash nodded. “My dad calls me buddy,” he informed Jacky, pointing to Marcus as though Jacky might, in the past few minutes, have forgotten completely about the nature of their relationship.

“Well, you must be a pretty good buddy, then, huh?” Jacky offered his hand for another high-five, which Cash gleefully took. “I was just playing music, though, before I got on the bus to come home. I go to a special restaurant and I play for all the other night owls like you and me. But now I’m going back so I can go to bed.”

“Okay,” said Cash, who to Marcus’ amazement turned and started walking back toward the apartment building. Marcus let himself be led, and Jacky walked along with them, keeping pace. Jacky looked at Marcus and gave him a silent, questioning thumbs-up over Cash’s head. Marcus returned the gesture. Yes, whatever spell Jacky had cast to convince Cash that it was time to give up and go back inside, Marcus was completely okay with it.

In the elevator, Cash stood on his tiptoes to press the button to the fourth floor, and Marcus was surprised that Jacky didn’t reach for another. When they arrived, Jacky stepped out behind them, then pointed down the other end of the hall. “If you guys ever need anything, I’m just down there in 4J.”

“J is for Jacky,” Cash said, nodding seriously.

“Yeah, J is for Jacky.” Jacky laughed. “You’re smart like an owl too, huh?”

“He’s definitely too smart for his own good, most of the time,” Marcus said, ruffling Cash’s hair. “We’re in 4C.”

“C is for Cash, right?” asked Jacky, winking at Cash.

Marcus couldn’t believe he’d never realized that one before. Cash, for his own part, looked thrilled by the sudden revelation. “C is for Cash!” he exclaimed at a volume way too high for that hour of the night. Marcus reached down and scooped him up, and Cash wrapped his legs around his father’s waist like a koala. He was getting heavy, but not too heavy, not yet. Marcus didn’t know what would happen the time he couldn’t do this anymore.

“Hey, I bet we left those nightmares outside, right?” Jacky pointed to the elevators. “No more tonight, right?”

“No more tonight.” Cash nodded, then put his head on Marcus’ shoulder.

Jacky gave a firm nod, then a little wave. “Night-night, night owls,” he said, turning down the hall toward his own apartment.

“Good night,” Marcus said, holding Cash tight as he went to do the same. He glanced down the hall one more time as he unlocked the door, but Jacky was already all but inside, and Marcus caught only a glimpse of his instrument case before the door shut.

Cash was already halfway to dreaming by the time Marcus lay him down in his bed, and by the time he could flip the light switch off, Cash’s breathing had already gone deep and rhythmic. Marcus found himself pondering the strange encounter they’d just had, and he managed to give it a full sixty seconds of deep, intrigued contemplation. Then his head was on his pillow and he was aware of nothing until the alarm rang, telling him he’d slept all the way to 6:30 and it was time to start a brand new day.

~*~

Friday afternoon, Marcus was gathering together dirty clothes in preparation for the weekend’s chores when he heard a knock on the apartment’s front door. “It’s open!” he called to Cash, who did not carry a key. He listened, but instead of hearing the door open, he heard silence, then another knock a few seconds later. Had he accidentally locked it by force of habit? He tossed one last lone sock into the hamper, then walked over to let Cash in.

It wasn’t Cash on the other side, though. It was Jacky, his hands shoved into his pockets. “Hi!” he said, giving a nervous little grin. “So, um, Cash is kind of asleep on my couch.”

“Oh, Christ,” Marcus sighed, raking his fingers through his hair. “I’m so sorry–”

“It’s fine!” Jacky waved away any worries, and it was then Marcus saw that the backs of Jacky’s hands and a few of his fingers were tattooed with intricate monochrome designs he hadn’t noticed in the dark. “Seriously, it’s totally fine that he’s there. But he showed up and I kind of wondered if he’d gone AWOL.”

“Entirely without leave.” Marcus leaned back inside and glanced at the clock on the stove. “He usually gets home around this time, but I– You said he’s asleep?”

“Out like a light, yeah. He came in and sat down, and put his head down, and that was it. Which … I gather is not a usual thing for him?”

Marcus shook his head. “Yeah, we’ve been having some trouble with the whole concept of sleep lately.” That was an easy gloss for it, but Marcus didn’t know how much he felt like getting into it with a total stranger, nor how much he expected said total stranger to care about the dramatic intricacies of his life.

Jacky looked at Marcus, who was still wearing his work polo with the supermarket logo, but had already tossed his dirty work khakis into the laundry basket and replaced them with ratty sweatpants. “You in the middle of something? Because he can totally stay for a bit. I’ve got to take off around eight, but he’s fine until then.”

Every good-parenting nag in Marcus’ brain told him absolutely not, that there was a fifty percent chance that he was imposing on the generosity of someone who didn’t deserve it, and a fifty percent chance that this charming stranger was actually a pedophile Republican child molester werewolf, or something equally terrifying. But he was so tired, and the idea of being able to get some things done without Cash underfoot was just too appealing, and his resolve snapped in two. “Is it … are you sure?” he asked.

“Absolutely. I’m just working on some sheet music. He’s absolutely not a bother. He’s more like a throw pillow.” Jacky pointed down to his apartment. “I’ll keep the door unlocked, so come get him anytime. Or if he wakes up, I’ll walk him back over.”

“I–” Marcus ran a hand across his face. “Thank you. I just … thank you.”

“No problem. Seriously.” Jacky shrugged with a grin. “Maybe you can get a nap too, yeah?”

It was a suggestion Marcus absolutely did not plan to take Jacky up on, and it was absolutely what he did. He sat down on the couch for a moment to sort the clothes and towels into piles, and the next thing he knew, it was two hours later and he had drooled a small lake into one of the pillows. “Oh, shit,” he mumbled, pulling himself upright. He splashed some cold water on his face and tried to tame the untameable dark thicket of his hair, then changed into a more casual t-shirt and jeans so he didn’t look like the complete mess he was.

When he opened the door to Jacky’s apartment, he was surprised to find that it was neat as a pin. He didn’t know what he’d expected — probably all the stereotypes of bohemian tattooed college-aged musicians and their infinitely cluttered creative spaces — but this looked more like a model home, ready to be photographed. Even the stacks of sheet music were arranged artistically across a low desk. A collection of small trumpets and trumpet-like objects he couldn’t fully identify rested on shelves on the walls and upright along the floor, which Marcus supposed answered the question of what had been in the instrument case.

Cash was still there on the couch. He wasn’t asleep, though; he was wide awake and talking, kicking his bare feet against the couch as he told one of his long and rambling stories about something that had happened at school. Over behind the stove stood Jacky, boiling a pot of water. “Hey,” he said, interrupting Cash’s tale, “is he good with mac and cheese? It’s organic.”

“It’s organic, Dad,” echoed Cash, who certainly did not know what that meant.

“Oh, that’s–” Marcus blinked several times. “No, he’s okay, he just–”

“Jacky eats mac and cheese all the time,” Cash told Marcus. “And hot dogs but they’re vegenarian. He’s a vegenarian.”

“You don’t have to feed him,” Marcus said. The child-molesting lycanthrope situation had been proven false thus far, but now Marcus had to worry in the other direction that he was imposing.

“Hey, I was making it anyway,” said Jacky, shaking the box. “You want some too? It’s my one culinary accomplishment.”

That was how Marcus, Cash, and Jacky all wound up sitting around Jacky’s small but immaculate dining room table, with large bowls of macaroni in front of them. Jacky had poured some frozen mixed vegetables into the boiling water, and to Marcus’ surprise, Cash hadn’t objected to their presence. Instead, he told Marcus all about what it was to be a ‘vegenarian’, obviously conflating the goals of people who actively tried to heal animals and people who just didn’t eat them, without really understanding what either of those categories fully entailed. Marcus was grateful for the filibuster in part because it was nice to hear Cash so animated about something again, and in part because … well, he didn’t really know if he had anything to say to Jacky.

Not that he thought he might not, but he honestly didn’t know. He didn’t even know that much about Jacky, period, aside from that he was apparently a late-night trumpet player who was great with kids, fastidious about his housekeeping, and able to produce multiple boxes of mac and cheese on command. …Which, he supposed, when he put it like that, was kind of a lot to know about someone.

Around 7:30, Jacky said he was sorry but he’d better start getting ready to go to work, and that was when Marcus realized how long they’d been just sitting there over empty bowls, listening to Cash hold court. He offered at least to do the dishes, but Jacky told him not to bother: “This is going to sound like such a lie, but I like cleaning. It’s my way to unwind.” So Marcus made sure Cash said thank-you for every kindness Jacky had done for him that evening, then took him home for his bath.

As Cash navigated his toy boats through the soapy water around him, Marcus knelt down by the side of the tub. “Hey, buddy, can I have your eyes on me for a second?” He pointed at his own face until Cash stopped playing and looked at him. “I want you to make me a promise. A real serious promise, okay?”

“Okay,” Cash said, nodding.

“I want you to promise that … if you’re going to go anywhere, you tell me first, okay? And that includes Mr. Jacky’s apartment.”

“Okay.” Cash went back to puttering his boats around.

Marcus sighed. “I mean it, buddy. I didn’t know where you were today. Mr. Jacky came and told me, but if he hadn’t, I could’ve gotten scared.” He thought for a moment. “Did Mr. Jacky say it was okay for you to stay over?”

“Yeah,” Cash said, though Marcus supposed there was no way to tell the difference between when a five-year-old thought he’d gotten explicit permission for something and when he’d just assumed consent from not being actively stopped. After all, Jacky’s house looked like the last thing it needed was the presence of a small child. “He says that nightmares come after him too. Did they come after Mommy?”

Marcus tried not to wince. The subject of ‘Mommy’ had been a touchy one ever since Cash had realized that all his friends had them but he didn’t. Marcus wasn’t stupid enough, though, not to notice that the start of the midnight walks had coincided with the first serious questions about why this mythical ‘Mommy’ person wasn’t around. “Yeah, they did,” Marcus said, figuring it’d be a long time now before Cash knew exactly how true that was.

Cash looked up at Marcus with his huge brown eyes. “Did they get her?”

Yeah, buddy, Marcus absolutely did not say. Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.

“Nope!” Marcus announced instead, standing and grabbing for a towel. “Just like they’re not going to get you. Because you’re way stronger and way smarter than they are. Come on, out of the tub before you turn into a prune.”

Despite what must have been for him a lengthy nap, Cash was rubbing his eyes halfway through Goodnight Moon and snoring before the end of The Gruffalo. Marcus had no illusions that this meant he’d necessarily sleep through the night, but it was a start.

~*~

Cash absolutely took to heart his father’s admonition to tell him before he went anywhere. In practice, however, this usually manifested in the following: the opening of the front door, a shouted announcement that he would be at Jacky’s, and a slam before receiving acknowledgment or approval. Jacky always seemed to be home and absolutely did not seem to mind, especially when he confirmed that all that Cash ever did was walk in, curl up into a little ball on the sofa, and fall asleep for hours.

At the same time Marcus loved the arrangement, he hated that he loved it. Was he supposed to feel like a bad father because he was glad he got those extra hours free? Because he was glad. He meant to get a lot done during the time, but mostly he just took the opportunity to sleep. Between that, whatever he could get after he put Cash to bed, and whatever was left after they walked away the nightmares, he was almost scraping together eight full hours a night. It was nothing short of miraculous.

The next time Cash disappeared to Jacky’s on a Monday, Marcus went over to free Jacky in time for his evening gig, only to find Cash still asleep and Jacky unhurried. “Club’s closed tonight,” Jacky explained, “so I don’t have anywhere to be. You want a beer?”

A beer? Marcus could almost remember beer. He’d been too young to drink, and then he’d been a father, and between the two he hadn’t had much practice, but ‘not much’ didn’t mean none. “Yeah, that’d be great, actually,” he said as Jacky let him in. There was Cash, on the end of the couch that had become his napping spot, tucked up into a little ball. “Wow, he’s really sacked out, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” said Jacky, handing Marcus a cold bottle. “He was telling me about some sort of races they ran at recess. There were all kinds of rules, and I wasn’t really following, but he sounded like he was having fun. And then he just sort of conked out mid-sentence, so I guess he wore himself out.”

Marcus looked down the neck of his bottle into the dark liquid below. “Sorry, I — you wouldn’t know, but he hasn’t been running around at recess for a while.”

“No shit?” Jacky leaned back against the kitchen counter.

“No shit,” Marcus said. “He just gets himself so tired at night, and then he’s worn out during the day. He’s usually so full of energy, but … well, he hasn’t had any for a couple months now.”

Jacky bit his lip for a second, then squared his shoulders. “Look. I’m not a parent, and I’ve never been a parent, so what I’m going to say may be way out of line, and you can tell me to go to hell if it is, but … maybe you should take him to see someone. LIke, a doctor-type someone.”

“You’re not wrong. And you’re not out of line.” Marcus exhaled through pursed lips. “Problem is, I did. Turns out, most kids do this kind of thing, and most of them grow out of it sooner rather than later. I’m told I was unlucky enough to catch a particularly obnoxious method of coping with it, and he’s kept it up way longer than kids tend to, but he also has kind of extenuating circumstances. Did he mention his mother?”

“He said she was dead,” Jacky said, “and I absolutely did not know what to do with the conversation from there, so I changed the subject to pizza.”

Marcus laughed. “Good choice. It’s kind of a weird topic for him.”

“So it’s true, though.” And there it was on Jacky’s face, that awful kind of pity. Marcus hated it most not because it was unwanted, but because he felt he didn’t deserve it. People who lost their wives of thirty years had earned this level of sympathy. Not Marcus, not over Tiffani. Tiffani had deserved more herself, but that hadn’t happened, now, had it?

“She died when he was a little less than a month old,” Marcus said, letting that fact stand on its own. “So he’s got no memory of her. None in the slightest. He’s grown up knowing that the kids he knows have mommies and daddies, but he doesn’t have a mommy. And he’s been okay with that, kind of, like he’s been okay with not having blue hair or a lion tail. It’s just sort of a fact. Except a couple months ago, he saw a dead bird on the sidewalk, and we had a conversation about death, and he got the connection there that he didn’t just not have a mommy, but Mommy died. And that–” Marcus closed his eyes and let his head drop back on his neck, untl he was staring up at the ceiling. “That’s just a lot of concepts for a five-year-old to process.”

“And that’s when he started doing his little–” Jacky ‘walked’ two of his fingers back and forth across the air.

“The week after, yeah. He came in one night screaming after an awful nightmare, and he said we had to run away from it, but the inside of the apartment wasn’t far enough away. So here I thought, okay, it’s a nice night out, we can go outside just this once. But he got it in his head that this was the only way to cope.” Marcus looked over at Cash, whose only movement was the soft tidal rise and fall of his chest. “I mostly don’t even think he has real nightmares anymore. I mean, of course he does, everyone does. But I don’t think that’s why he’s getting up almost every single night. He doesn’t even look scared when he comes in, he’s just like … okay, I’m awake now, and this is what we do.”

Jacky nodded, then pointed over to the couch. “So, um, should I not be letting him screw up his sleep schedule like this, or what?”

Marcus shook his head as he drank his beer, which was an unfortunate bit of gestural timing that made him choke a little. So much for looking suave in front of the cool neighbor. “Sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “No, this? This is great. It doesn’t really make a difference to whether he wakes up in the middle of the night or not anyway, so at least he’s getting sleep where he can.”

“And you?” Jacky raised an eyebrow.

“And me,” Marcus said. “So thank you for that too. It’s not like I don’t give him the chance to sleep at home, or anything. He could sleep on our couch, I wouldn’t mind.”

Jacky shrugged and picked at the paper label on his bottle. “Hey, who knows why anyone likes anything better than anything else, right? Especially little kids. I’ve got three older sisters — I’m kind of my parents’ late-life oops! baby — so I was just a couple years older than most of my nieces and nephews, and there’s just no telling what kids are into. And then they’ll drop it. Maybe next week he’ll only want to sleep in the bathtub.”

“Maybe.” Marcus looked over at Cash, who stirred in his sleep long enough to rub at his nose, then passed out again. Maybe Marcus should get him up? Letting him sleep all afternoon and evening couldn’t be good for his sleep schedule. But Marcus just couldn’t bring himself to wake him, no matter what the later consequences might be. “At this point, anything would be worth him sleeping through the night.”

“Well, as long as that’s not happening just yet, maybe next time when you’re both going to be up for a while, you should bring him over to the club,” said Jacky, laughing when Marcus gave him a startled look. “Maybe ‘club’ is the wrong word for it. It’s just a little bar and lounge that has live music. I’m not saying we play a lot to the under-ten crowd, but there’s people that bring their kids in. It’s classified as an all-ages venue.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Marcus looked at Jacky. “Does the dress code allow dinosaur pajamas?”

“I’ll tell the guy at the door to make an exception.” Jacky’s gaze suddenly shifted from Marcus’ face to a space behind him, “Hey, buddy! Welcome back to the waking world, huh?”

Marcus turned in time to see Cash sit up and let forth a lion’s-roar of a yawn. “I’m hungry,” he announced to the room. “I want pizza.”

It turned out that Jacky had several frozen pizzas stacked in his freezer, and Marcus couldn’t get out two words of protest before Cash was over there, peering into the freezer and declaring that he wanted ‘that one’. Marcus tried to apologize, to insist that they couldn’t just invite themselves over, but Jacky ignored him with a smile as he preheated the oven and tore into the cardboard boxes.    Cash was a bit of a pizza purist, and therefore was a bit upset that none of Jacky’s pizzas came with ‘peppanoni’ as a topping. He tried earnestly to explain to Jacky about these little red circles Jacky had clearly never heard about — in the process repeating the mispronounced word until it became nothing short of hilarious — and seemed mildly peeved that instead of helping, his father was laughing so hard he could barely stand up. After several months of being unable sometimes to remember the last time he’d smiled, laughing to the point of tears seemed like an nigh-unimaginable luxury.

How hard Marcus not noticed that he’d become so isolated? He supposed it was easy, a separation by small degrees. His parents hadn’t spoken to him since he’d told them Cash was on the way, but their relationship had been on the rocks well before that. Tiffani had been the popular one, and after she’d died, one by one, her friends had let even their contact with Cash fade. For his own part, Marcus had never had many friends of his own, so there hadn’t even been many to lose there. One by one, he’d let a wall build around them both until even Cash was more loner than not.

Marcus snuck glances at Jacky between bites of pizza. It felt unfair to impose so much upon a man who was essentially still little more than a stranger, but at the same time, he felt like the only lifeline Marcus had seen offered in a long time.

And he was definitely cute. It had been a long time since Marcus had even let himself think in the neighborhood of such thoughts, but Jacky was very, very cute. Not even just in the adorable big-brother way he got when he was around Cash, but downright sexy. He hadn’t exactly planned on having such thoughts when he’d started out the evening, but now they were there, they followed Marcus all the way back home with Cash, sitting in the back of his mind through Cash’s bath and bedtime stories, and once Marcus was alone in bed, they settled on him full force and wouldn’t go away.

Marcus’ non-solo sexual experiences totalled exactly one, the half-drunken dorm-room fuck that had taken his virginity and replaced it nine months later with fatherhood. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t thought about sex; in fact, he’d had what he’d always assumed was a normal level of sexual interest, before becoming a single parent had drained his sex drive completely.

The catch was, of course, he’d been interested in men. And women, he was always quick to add after that, even if he had to admit more than six years later that his night with Tiffani had been mostly a proof-of-concept experiment. It had worked, sort of, at least as far as the fundamentals had been concerned. But the truth, the one that even unspoken had begun to fracture his family ties, was that his primary interest was in other men.

As he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, he let his hand drift down toward his cock, which he was surprised to find was already half-stiff. Jacky was cute, definitely. He had a nice smile and a cute face. He was beyond slender, straight into slim, but he somehow still managed to have quite an ass to fill out the back of those skinny jeans. Marcus squeezed at his shaft as he thought about just getting a good handful of that. Two good handfuls, even, one on each side. Maybe pressing up behind him while Jacky was at the stove, showing off his powerful macaroni-fixing skills. Jacky was shorter, but he had long legs, and Marcus was sure that his cock would fit right there perfectly down the center. At least, he was certain enough to fantasize about it, and that was what mattered for the moment.

He squeezed his hand slowly up and down his cock, working toward no particular conclusion; this felt too good to rush, and he hadn’t let himself indulge in something like this in a long time now. He didn’t even know if Jacky would be interested, in men in general or in Marcus in particular, but that was a detail better left to reality, and not a fantasy like that.

From there, though, Marcus’ fantasies went hazy, dodging specifics for just general ideas of what sex might probably be like, under some circumstances. He’d been sheltered, but that wasn’t the same as being ignorant. He let his hand move up and down his shaft, wondering what it would be like to have Jacky’s hand there instead. He played the trumpet and several other trumpet-like instruments; he had to be good with his hand, to say nothing of his mouth.

He was working his way toward a climax, moving closer to it by degrees, when the phone beside his bed buzzed. He looked over to see a message notification across the bright screen: Cash left his backpack over here. I’ll be asleep in the morning or I’d say come by then. You still awake? I can put it over your doorknob.

Marcus exhaled. Right, life wasn’t a sex fantasy. It was a place where ‘penis’ wasn’t even to be found on his list of priorities.

With a grunt, he pulled his hand out of his boxers and wiped it across the sheet, then tapped on the message to reply: I’m still up. I’ll come get it.

I’ll bring it by, came the text from Jacky, and not thirty seconds later, there was a soft knock on the front door. Marcus was at least out of bed by then, but he barely had managed to pull on a pair of sweats — loose ones that would keep his erection’s visibility to a minimum, he hoped — and so decided to skip the shirt step and just go straight for the door. This would be a two-second interaction, after all. Maybe Jacky would forget a glimpse of his scrawny, hairy chest.

Jacky was standing there on the other side of the door, alone in the hallway, and the first thing Marcus noticed was that he didn’t look so good. No, he corrected himself, that wasn’t it; Jacky looked healthy enough, but still kind of out of it, like a sleepwalker. Then Marcus smelled the beer and realized that what he was seeing was Jacky drunk. Not just a little, but to the point where he was having trouble staying steadily upright. Frankly, Marcus was impressed that his intoxication didn’t seem to have affected his texting abilities at all.

Jacky held out the backpack, which had Cash’s name embroidered across the back. “Sorry I didn’t notice it earlier,” he said, his words only slightly slurred. He laughed softly and ran his hand through his hair, revealing the dark roots peeking out from beneath his blond mop. “Sorry, I … I was kind of figuring you’d be asleep already. Sorry. Shit, I didn’t wake you, did I? Sorry.”

“No, it’s–” Marcus took the proffered item and took the opportunity to hold it in front of his groin, trying not to think about the morally grey area of concealing a half-boner with a child’s backpack. “Hey, you okay?”

“Me? Fine,” Jacky said, staggering a step back. He sighed. “Shit. Sorry. Shit, sorry for saying sorry. Sorry for saying ‘shit’. Kiddo’s not awake, is he?”

Marcus shook his head. If he was going to wake up, Cash would usually do it after midnight. “Thanks for bringing it,” he said, indicating the backpack. It felt stupid to ignore every elephant in the hallway and talk about this, but at the same time, it was the only safe subject Marcus could find. “I mean, not like there’s anything a five-year-old desperately needs for school. But it’s not his lunchbox, which he likes better than his back-up lunchbox.”

“Back-up lunchbox,” Jacky echoed with a soft chuckle. “Shit, I miss those days. I miss when most of life’s problems could be solved by owning a back-up lunchbox for your regular lunchbox.”

“Yeah,” said Marcus, who didn’t know if there’d ever been a time like that for anyone, but it was nice to imagine there had. “Hey, do you want to come inside…?” There it was, a perfectly friendly offer so the poor drunk guy didn’t have to stand out in the public corridor any longer than absolutely necessary. So straight and not suspicious. Good work.

Jacky shook his head and waved a hand in front of his face at once, looking sheepish. “No, no. I shouldn’t even be over here. You’ve got work tomorrow like a real person.”

It was absolutely true, but it wouldn’t be the least sleep Marcus had worked on in a while. “I’m up. You know. If you want.”

“It’s fine. But thanks.” Jacky grinned at Marcus — then really grinned at him, giving him an eye rake that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. “You know, you’re really working the Hot Dad look tonight.”

Marcus’ eyebrows shot up. “Do what?”

“Yeah.” Jacky licked his lips, then chewed them a little as he nodded. “And that was not a thing I knew I was into. So, um. Good work on that.” His smile faded as he ran a well-inked hand over his face again. “I am gonna go home before I stick any more of my foot in my mouth, okay?”

“Okay,” Marcus said, not sure what the correct response to this situation should be. “You sure you don’t want to–” He stepped back from the door a little and pointed inside, not even knowing what he was inviting Jacky to do. Sleep it off on the couch, maybe, or maybe something more? How did a gesture like this look from Jacky’s side of the door? And what the hell was he supposed to make of what Jacky had said?

Jacky looked beyond Marcus into the darkened apartment — really looked, and even shifted his weight forward a little on the balls of his feet. But after a moment, he exhaled and grinned again. “Nah, I’d better… I’m gonna go sleep this off, okay? Just … little bit of a rough night. Everybody should be in bed. Right?”

“Right,” Marcus said, not sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He swallowed hard. “Good night.”

“Night,” Jacky said, then winked and added, “Hot Dad.” And before either of them could say anything else, he was off down the hall again, staggering slightly but otherwise making his way. Marcus watched to make sure he got in his apartment all right, maybe hoping down to the last second that Jacky would change his mind. But Jacky unlocked his apartment, slipped inside, and shut the door behind him without as much of a glance back the way he’d come.

Marcus shut the door and set the backpack on the kitchen table, making a note to have a conversation with Cash about taking better care of his things. Then he walked back to his bedroom, stripped fully naked, and jerked himself off to orgasm in about ten seconds. He turned his face into his pillow to make sure he didn’t make a sound as he shot ropes of come across his previously clean sheets. Shit, and he wouldn’t have time to do laundry again until the weekend.

Whatever. Worth it.

He fell asleep like that, face-down and barely beneath the covers, and by some utter miracle, Cash chose that night to be one that he slept straight through. So Marcus took the coward’s route and decided not to think about a single thing that had happened the night before. It was probably for the best.

~*~

The next day, when Cash announced that he would be spending his after-school hours at Jacky’s again, Marcus waited only an hour or so before going over. He gave a quiet knock and let himself in, as had become the routine, to find Cash sacked out on the couch again. Nearby, Jacky crouched near the bottom of a bookcase, taking DVDs one by one from a messy pile and replacing them on the lowest shelf.

Marcus exhaled. Jacky’s house was so neat, and here was Cash, a hurricane who didn’t even consider the consequences of his actions. Marcus opened his mouth to apologize for his child’s terrible behavior, but he got about one syllable into it before Jacky yelped and jumped, scattering DVDs. “Oh shit,” he said softly, laughing when he saw Marcus standing there. “I did not hear you come in.”

“Sorry.” Marcus pointed back to the door. “I knocked.”

“It’s okay. I was just…” Jacky gestured to the stack of DVDs by way of explanation.

“You can make Cash put them back,” Marcus said, and when Jacky looked confused, Marcus continued, “or at least pick them up. I know he can’t put them back in order, but he can at least clean up the mess he made.”

Jacky looked at the DVD pile, then looked down at his feet. “No, no, it wasn’t Cash. This was all me. I kind of–” He exhaled as he stood and jammed his hands into his pockets. “It is what my therapist calls a self-soothing behavior.”

“So you just–” Marcus made a little sweeping motion with his paw, like a cat might. “You knock them off and you put them back?”

“I do,” Jacky said. “So … here’s the second embarrassing thing you’ve caught me doing in the last twenty-four hours. Or third, or maybe tenth, depending on how many I worked up to last night.” He cleared his throat. “Which I’m also sorry about, by the way, and I swear to God, I don’t do that when he’s around. I don’t really do it much anymore, period.”

“It’s okay,” Marcus said. “I mean, it’s not okay, it’s — are you okay?”

“Me? Yeah. Fine.” Jacky raked his hands through his hair in what Marcus was starting to recognize as a nervous gesture. No wonder he wore hats so often when he was out. “Hangover like a truck dragged me for a mile, but you can’t say I didn’t have it coming.”

Marcus pointed to Cash, who had wrapped himself up into a tight little knot. “I can take him home, if you want a break from this. He really shouldn’t just be inviting himself over anyway. I bet he wouldn’t even wake up.”

“No!” Jacky shook his head. “Do what you have to, take him where you need to, but don’t think this is an imposition on me or anything. No, God, he’s … he’s the best part of my day. And that sounds really creepy and/or pathetic now that I hear it coming out of my mouth, so I’m going to stop talking now.” Jacky pinched his fingers shut at one corner of his lips and ran it across to the other, miming zipping them shut.

“Do you–” Marcus screwed up his mouth, trying to think of how to phrase this. “Do you want to go out this evening?”

Jacky’s eyebrows shot up. “What, like … on a date?”

“No! No, wait, not no, but–” Marcus wanted the ground to swallow him. He was so bad at this. “Just out somewhere. Like a restaurant. With a play area. Somewhere that isn’t either this building or the supermarket where I work. I feel like my entire world has gotten squeezed down into just those two places. And if I’m not there, I kind of … I don’t know, don’t exist. And I used to exist. I used to do things that weren’t just this. There used to be a me that wasn’t just … just…”

“Cash’s Dad?” Jacky helpfully supplied.

Marcus nodded. “Or General Manager Alsaihati. But mostly Cash’s Dad. God, does that sound awful? Am I an awful person? Am I an awful father?”

Jacky was startled into a laugh over that one. “You are, no shit, the best father I’ve ever met. I don’t know how you do it.”

“You just sort of … do it.” Marcus shrugged. “I mean, it needs to be done, so you do it, and then something else needs to be done, so you do that. Like, don’t tell me I need to raise a child, because I’ll probably freak out and die. But tell me I have to give a kid a bath, and sure, I can do that. And when it’s done, there’s probably something else that needs to get done, so do that. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it’s weirdly self-explanatory.”

Jacky grinned at him in a way that made Marcus feel appreciated and self-conscious all at once. “Yeah,” he said after a minute, “yeah, I’d like to go out. Assuming, that is, you know of a nice romantic restaurant with candlelit tables and a swing set.”

Well, he hadn’t necessarily meant to lay on any date implications with the offer, but now they were there, Marcus found he didn’t want to walk them back. “I don’t,” he said, pulling his phone out of his pocket, “but I bet the internet does.”

The internet, in fact, had several suggestions, and Marcus settled on a local chain Mexican place that was just a few miles away. Once awakened, Cash was thrilled at the prospect of going out somewhere, and the second Marcus let him out of his booster seat, he bolted for the impressive playscape. They ordered their food at the counter and found a table that overlooked the play area, where Cash was barreling around with all the speed and energy of a man on fire.

“So is he a Cassius, or a Cashion, or…?” asked Jacky, watching him go.

“Just a Cash. His mother picked it. She said it made him sound lucky. It’s weird, I hated it at first, but…” Marcus shrugged and played with the straw in his drink. “You just get used to it, I guess. I don’t even hear it as strange anymore. It’s just who he is.”

“Well, take it from a John Abraham Steinsiek The Third, sometimes it’s nice to have a unique name.” Jacky shrugged. “My grandfather was John, my father is Jack, and when I came around, I got to be Jacky. I guess everyone expected me to grow out of it, including me, but I never did. Now I do get the fun of confusing people who think I’m going to be a woman, and then I show up.”

“Definitely not a woman,” Marcus said.

“I look pretty in a dress, sure, but looking pretty and looking like a girl are two different things.” Jacky winked as he poked the queso with a tortilla chip. “So how about you? Were you ever a Mark, Marky, or have you always been a Marcus?”

Marcus chuckled. “I was — and still am, on my driver’s license — a Mohammed, actually.”

“Ha, really?”

“Really,” Marcus said, nodding. “But when you’re eight years old on 9/11, and you’re the only brown kid in your class in Lincoln, Nebraska, well, some changes get made. Now there’s nobody who calls me that. It’s a great way to weed out robo-calls, though.”

Jacky frowned. “Wait, eight?”

Marcus nodded again. “Yeah, third grade.”

Jacky leaned back in his chair and laughed at the ceiling for a moment. “I’m sorry, I would have sworn you were older than me. Like, bet my life on it. And here I find out we could’ve been in the same freshman homeroom.”

“I guess it’s true what they say,” Marcus quipped as the server brought over their order. “The kid adds ten years.”

Cash could only reluctantly be convinced back over for his cheese quesadilla, and Marcus had to manage him to make sure he simultaneously ate enough and did not just inhale the whole thing so he could be finished. Cash clearly resented every moment he was not running around with the other kids, but he made it through half his order with slow, careful bites, and Marcus sprung him for good behavior. Jacky laughed as Cash went tearing off again, this time launching himself at the tire swing with such abandon, Marcus was afraid he might make himself throw up. Luckily for everyone on the playground, though, he kept it together and his dinner stayed right where it should.

As they ate, Marcus noticed that Jacky’s foot had come to rest near his, and even as Cash ran off, leaving them more room at the table, Jacky kept it there. At first Marcus figured that Jacky might just not realize the difference between Marcus’ leg and the leg of the table; every time he moved to help Cash with his meal, though, Jacky’s foot followed his, keeping contact. There was no denying it was a deliberate move, which made Marcus’ heart flutter. “This … is kind of a not-bad date, right?” he asked shyly.

Jacky grinned back at him. “Best one I’ve ever been on.”

“And you’re not just–” Marcus waved his hand between them, hoping the gesture would mean something; it didn’t. “The ‘Hot Dad’ thing, that’s not just something friendly neighbors say to each other now, is it? And I just haven’t noticed?”

“I promise,” Jacky said, “that I meant it. And meant it in a way of appreciating both that you are a good dad and that you are very hot.”

“So this is kind of gay, right?”

“Kind of.” Jacky shrugged. “I mean, gayer than not. That okay?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s–” Marcus looked around. The circumstances were laughable: a chain restaurant full of families, perhaps the most heterosexual location on the planet. “This is the first time I’ve ever done a gay thing in public. Or private. Or at all.”

“Wow,” said Jacky, and from anyone else it might have sounded condescending or even downright insulting, but from Jacky it was kind. “Well, welcome to it! And if you think raising a child is self-explanatory, boy, do I have good news for you about liking men.”

“I don’t think it’s that self-explanatory,” laughed Marcus.

“Trust me, you’re already better at it than you think. Put your hand on the table, palm up.”

Skeptical, Marcus did as instructed, and Jacky reached over, covering Marcus’ hand with his own. It was an incredibly chaste gesture, all things considered, and yet it made Marcus’ heart beat on overtime. He glanced around the restaurant nervously, but no one was even looking their way, and the few that glanced in their direction turned away again shortly after as though they’d seen nothing to hold their particular interest. Everything in Marcus’ life was spinning, and everyone around them was just going about their business like it was another ordinary Tuesday night.

“See?” Jacky gave Marcus’ hand a little squeeze. “You’re a natural.”

~*~

Due to an after-school parents event, the next time Marcus and Cash saw Jacky was not the following day, but the following night. The bus pulled up at its usual stop and Jacky hopped out while they were over an hour into giving the nightmares another slow-motion chase. “Hey, night owls,” Jacky called in greeting, waving as he approached. “You got those nightmares on the run again?”

“Or they’ve got us,” Marcus said, “and I’m not sure which.”

Jacky winked at Marcus, then looked at Cash. “Mind if I tag along?”

Without stopping his circuit, Cash reached up and took Jacky’s hand, then tugged him along with them. “Are the nightmares after you too?” he asked.

“Yeah. Big time.” Jacky secured the strap of his case over his shoulder with his free hand. “They got me the other night, too. Real bad.”

Cash gasped. “What did you do?” he asked, looking up at Jacky with great concern. Marcus had to give him a little tug to the side so he didn’t trip in a pothole.

“I tried to chase them off,” Jacky said, and they way he pointedly didn’t look at Marcus said all he needed to about the strategy he’d used. “But you’ve got a better approach than I do, I think.” They walked in silence for another minute or so before Jacky looked down at Cash. “You know they tell you lies, right?”

Marcus frowned. He’d already been through several iterations of the whole they can’t hurt you and it’s just imaginary, not real life discussions with Cash, not that either had seemed to help. Nightmares were just images, though, nothing conscious enough to have intent, malicious or otherwise. What was Jacky talking about here?

“They do?” asked Cash.

Jacky nodded. “Oh yeah. That’s what they do. See, they can’t hurt you themselves. They’re just like a movie that somebody’s playing in your head. But they can tell you lots of things and make you think they’re true. And then you get scared of the things that you think are true, even though they’re lies.”

Every bit of Marcus’ parenting instincts screamed that he should cut off this line of conversation immediately before it gave Cash even more reason to run into Marcus’ room in the middle of the night. But he saw Cash nodding in a way he never did during Marcus’ lectures on why not to be afraid of nightmares, so he let it pass. Maybe Jacky was onto something.

What were the contents of Cash’s nightmares, anyway? Cash absolutely refused to talk about them, so Marcus supposed he inserted his own theories: monsters under the bed, ogres under bridges, big bad wolves. However, Cash never seemed to shy away from that sort of imagery when it appeared in storybooks, and he even laughed at the sharks in Finding Nemo, which would have terrified Marcus at that age. So if those weren’t the contents of his night terrors … what were?

Then Jacky asked the question that made Marcus’ heart stop: “Do the nightmares sometimes come while you’re awake?”

Cash looked down for a minute, then gave a weak little nod.

“Yeah, thought so.” Jacky sighed. “And that’s the worst part, right? If they happen while you’re asleep, you wake up. But if they happen while you’re awake, what do you do?”

“Run away,” said Cash in the softest voice Marcus had ever heard.

“Yeah,” Jacky said. “Good plan, buddy.”

Twenty minutes of silent circling later, Cash declared the nightmares sufficiently outrun and turned the party back toward the building. He accepted bedtime as his due and asked if Jacky could tuck him in — and just Jacky. Marcus agreed and went to change back from jeans into his pajama pants, and a few minutes later, Jacky emerged into the hall, shutting the door behind him. “He out?” asked Marcus.

“Like a light,” Jacky said. He reached for Marcus’ hand. “I know you’re tired, but come hang out with me for a minute?”

Marcus nodded and let himself be led back to the couch in the apartment’s main room. It seemed to him no more or less comfortable than the one in Jacky’s apartment, but Cash insisted that Jacky’s was better. Now Marcus had to wonder what metric his son was using.

Jacky sat down, holding one of Marcus’ hands in both of his own. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Marcus echoed, wrapping his fingers around Jacky’s as best he could. This was the most contact they’d had thus far — they hadn’t even kissed on their first semi-date, which Marcus didn’t know if he could consider a triumph of titillation or a spectacular failure.

“So I am on a lot of drugs,” Jacky said without preamble. “And not the fun kind. Prescription only. The shelf in my bathroom looks like a tiny pharmacy. And it’s a lot because from about the time I was thirteen until around age twenty, I tried to kill myself about, oh, twice a year.”

Marcus’ eyes flew open wide. Whatever sleepiness had lingered from before the walk was banished by that. “Jesus,” he swore quietly.

“It wasn’t because I was abused or unloved or anything like that. I had a great childhood. I’ve got a great family. And every so often, all the chemicals in my brain get together and decide to tell me that the world would be better off without me.” Jacky let go of Marcus’ hand with one of his own and tapped his temple. “And it’s no one’s fault, and I know it’s happening, and I’ve still had my stomach pumped five times because sometimes it’s more than I can take.”

Jesus,” Marcus said again. He didn’t know what to say. He supposed he should be more understanding and sympathetic, should maybe go out of his way to try and convince Jacky that, no, life was worth living and everything was great and all that. But he was too exhausted to focus on anything but that the man sitting next to him on the sofa, the man holding his hand, had tried very hard several times in his life to keep from being here.

“So yeah,” Jacky said after a moment. “I’m telling you this for two reasons. One, if we are going to start doing this, you and me, as a relationship thing, it’s full disclosure. And two–” Jacky took a deep breath as he glanced back down the hallway toward Cash’s bedroom. “Two is that every time I look at Cash, it’s like seeing a version of myself at that age. And since you’re looking at me like I just started telling you I’m secretly an alien, I’m guessing these impulses of his are not from you. Which leads me to … his mom. Am I right?”

Marcus shut his eyes. It was true, so why was it so hard to say? “Yeah, she, she … she killed herself.” He forced it out past the sick, knotted feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t spoken about this in years. And even when it was still new, how many people had he told in the first place? How many times had he managed those words, in that order, about this? “I didn’t know, I–”

“Of course not,” Jacky said, stroking the back of Marcus’ hand with his thumb. “You couldn’t have. Have you ever seriously thought about killing yourself? Not depressed-teenager ‘oh no the world would be better off without me’ generic thoughts, but like … making a plan. Getting stuff together. Working out the best time and place, the one that will inconvenience the least people when someone finds your body.”

“God, no,” Marcus said.

“Well, she did. I’ll bet you a hundred times before she finally did it, she thought about it, to the last detail. It’s comforting, in a weird way. Like … when you’re playing a card game, and you’ve got the bulletproof winning hand, and you just need everyone else to take their turn at the table before your big moment gets around to you. I know exactly what it’s like. Some of the best memories I have are the days before I tried to overdose. I could stop being afraid and anxious. I knew how everything was going to turn out.” Jacky took a deep breath and let it out slowly, visibly considering his next words. “And I’d also make the bet that it’s not going to be too long before Cash starts having the same thought processes.”

Marcus drew his hand back like Jacky’s touch had just become electric. “They’re just nightmares,” he said, his voice low and defensive. “It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

“I hope so!” Jacky didn’t move or show any offense at Marcus’ reaction. “I would give anything in the world to be wrong here. But I’ve got to tell you, if I am right, you’re not going to see it, because you’re not going to know what you’re looking for. I just need you to know there’s something to be looking for.”

“Christ, I–” Marcus balled his hands into fists. “No, sorry, what? They’re just nightmares. He’s five.”

“And you are the best dad of a five-year-old I have ever met. In my whole life. Ever.” Jacky kept a straight face, but Marcus could see a telltale redness creeping in from the corners of his eyes. “I’d think you were hot regardless, but there’s a big gap between wanting to bang someone and wanting to kiss them like you mean it, and that gap filled is how you’re kind of the best person, period, that I know.”

The idea of Jacky’s wanting to kiss him — much less wanting to have sex with him, what? — threw Marcus for a loop, and he up and shut his mouth. This was a lot to take in on a lot of fronts, and he was too exhausted for even one of them, much less all.

Jacky waited for a moment, then reached for Marcus again. This time, Marcus let him take his hand, then pull him closer, then draw him down so that his head was on Jacky’s shoulder. He tucked his legs up behind him on the couch, feeling a little like Cash always looked when Marcus came over to Jacky’s. Jacky stroked Marcus’ hair softly, and Marcus opened his mouth to say something. Instead, he choked out a sob as the tears started coming and wouldn’t stop.

He wanted them to stop. He needed them to stop. It was stupid that he couldn’t make them stop. For fuck’s sake, of all the people in this drama he’d found himself playing out, he was the one who was doing fine. He’d never tried to kill himself. He wasn’t having night terrors that impacted his functioning. He wasn’t suffering from a complex of mental illnesses. He hadn’t found himself pregnant after a one-night stand. He didn’t have anything to complain about. He was fine. He was fine.

Then why couldn’t he stop crying?

Tiffani had complained, whenever Jacky had seen her during the pregnancy. She’d complained before it, too, all the time. She’d aged out of the foster system years before he’d met her, and she’d never pulled her life all the way together. She only hung around with the people Marcus knew in college because she was the cool older friend of someone’s girlfriend’s sister, or something like that. She’d been twenty-five to Marcus’ nineteen, and she’d felt the world around her had given her a bad deal, and she hadn’t been wrong. And maybe Marcus hadn’t made things better for her, and maybe he’d actually made them worse, but he’d been nineteen and hadn’t known anything. And now he was twenty-five and still didn’t know anything, and was also responsible for the welfare of a child, and who the hell had thought that was a good idea?

She’d told him not to worry, that she was going to raise the baby, and maybe Marcus could come by and visit sometimes, or take the baby to the park if he wanted. Marcus had sworn up and down that he’d take responsibility and be involved, but she’d laughed and told him that it was okay. No matter how much she’d complained, she’d talked with optimism about becoming a single mother, having someone to love, doing a better job than her shitbag parents had done with her.

For the first two days of Cash’s life, Marcus hadn’t even known he’d been born. He’d only found out when the hospital had called him and told him to please come take responsibility for the newborn, as the child’s mother was being placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold. She’d been released a week later and overdosed on prescription painkillers two weeks after that. The thing she’d wanted so much to love had entered into the world and she’d left it.

“What do I tell Cash?” Marcus asked, surprised to hear himself say the words aloud.

“That his mother was sick,” Jacky said, rubbing his hand slowly up and down Marcus’ spine. “That she was as sick as she’d been if she’d had a heart attack or cancer. And sometimes when people get sick, they get better, and sometimes they don’t. But you also tell him that you’re not going to let that happen to him, not without a fight. And you better fucking mean it.”

Marcus sighed miserably. The talking heads on the television and all the crunchy parenting blogs screamed about how parents these days didn’t want to be parents, so they just pumped their kids full of drugs and continued on with their selfish lives. “I just don’t know, there’s so many pills–”

“What, if he broke his leg, you’d say he shouldn’t get a cast because he’s just not trying hard enough?”

Sensing he’d hit a sore spot, Marcus shrank back a little and tucked his legs closer to his chest.

Jacky took a deep, audible breath and let it out through what sounded like pursed lips. “Sorry. Just … that was my parents, when I was a teen. We spent a long, miserable time trying to improve my outlook on life and my self-esteem and my sense of purpose, when really, it was that a bunch of shitty chemicals in my brain were making that impossible. My therapist tells me it’s like they were telling me to cheer up and run without addressing the fact that I didn’t have any legs.”

By now, Marcus had nearly managed to stop crying, though he was still a snotty mess. He moved himself from Jacky’s embrace long enough to reach for the box of tissues on the face and spend four of them cleaning himself up. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered into their papery softness, not even knowing just what it was he was apologizing for. For something. For everything. For nothing.

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” Jacky said, leaning forward and draping an arm around Marcus’ shoulders. “When was the last time you had a good gross cry?”

Marcus shook his head. He wanted to say that, like everything else, had been put on hold for him to be a parent, but that wasn’t quite true. It had been a lot longer than that, back before his father had told him to stop being so self-pitying and his mother had insisted that anything short of full enthusiasm was ingratitude.

“Well, maybe this is just my therapist talking, but everybody’s life blows somehow, and everybody deserves a chance to feel sorry for themselves once in a while.” Jacky pressed a kiss against Marcus’ shoulder. “Especially somebody who works as hard as you. You’re Hot Dad and Super Dad all by yourself.”

Marcus snorted a little laugh there, though the resulting mucus required yet another tissue. “I kind of suck.”

Jacky shook his head as he snuggled closer. “Hey, mister, I got myself into a full-on drunken pity party the other night because I got depressed about the fact that you’re way too good for me. And too straight for me, I thought,” he added, “though I’m glad to see I was wrong about that one.”

“I don’t think anybody has been glad before that I’m not straight,” Marcus said.

Jacky blew a raspberry. “Their loss. I win.”

Marcus looked up a little, just enough to see Jacky out of the corner of his eye. “I really want to kiss you and be super-cool about it, but I am just … covered in snot.”

That made Jacky laugh, and as he did, he pressed his mouth against Marcus’ shoulder to muffle the sound, which was one of the best things Marcus had ever felt in his life. “Rain check,” Jacky said. “Come on, champ, it’s way past your bedtime.”

Marcus didn’t protest as Jacky led him down the hall and into his room. Jacky pulled back the covers, making a space for Marcus to fall all but face-first into the bed. It was ungainly and very uncool, sure, but it wasn’t the worst thing Jacky had seen tonight, and he hadn’t run off yet. So maybe there was hope for them yet.

Before he left, Jacky leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on Marcus’ forehead that was almost paternal, and then one on the corner of his mouth that definitely was not. “Sweet dreams, Hot Dad.”

Marcus wanted to reply with something suave, but the lack of sleep and walking and crying had conspired to exhaust him past the point of speech. He closed his eyes and let it go at that.

~*~

Friday night, the jazz club was hosting a special guest performance, and Jacky, released from his usual gig, declared it Pizza and Movies Night. The rules, he told Cash, were that you had to order pizza, and then you had to pick at least two movies to watch. Cash declared that every night should be Pizza and Movies Night, and Marcus said that it should maybe happen once a year, and Jacky negotiated between the two of them to establish it as a once-a-month occasion. Marcus knew this was opening himself up to having Cash ask every night if it was next month yet, though he couldn’t find it in his heart to complain.

Marcus and Jacky sat on the couch next to one another, but no sooner had they made themselves comfortable than Cash wiggled in between them, declaring it time for Finding Nemo, and that everybody had to watch. This resolve lasted a full three minutes, until Cash declared that he was going to draw all the fishes in the movie, but all the crayons were in his room. “Don’t run!” shouted Marcus, for the benefit of the people below them, and Cash obeyed exactly as long as he was in his father’s line of sight, which Marcus supposed counted for something. He returned and sprawled out on the floor in front of the television, alternating between taking bites of pizza and talking about what colors he needed to use to draw what fish.

Seeing him like this made Marcus want to believe that it was over, that they’d found the solution to Cash’s night terrors and that he’d be like this for good from now on. He wanted to believe it with all his heart, but he also knew that wanting to believe something didn’t make it true. He was just starting to slide down into a spiral of worry when Jacky reached over and took his hand. Marcus smiled as he squeezed it back. He had to admit, things like that made it hard to focus on worrying.

By the end of the film, Cash was starting to droop, and twenty minutes into Finding Dory, he was clearly having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Still, every time Marcus mentioned bed, Cash shook his head and insisted he wasn’t sleepy. Finally, Marcus paused the movie and laid down the law: Cash could keep watching as late as he liked, but only once he brushed his teeth and put on his pajamas. That accomplished, Marcus started the film again, and a bed-prepped Cash didn’t even make it to the end of the scene.

When Marcus stepped out of Cash’s room and shut the door behind him, Jacky was there in the hall, leaning smugly against the wall. “You want to finish the movie?” he asked with a smirk.

“I do not,” Marcus said, chuckling. “I do, though, want to put away the pizza–”

Jacky shook his head. “Pizza’s in the fridge. I even found where you keep your aluminum foil and wrapped individual slices.”

“Fancy.” Marcus found that his mouth had suddenly gone a bit dry. “So, uh … what do we want to do now?”

“I’ll put my cards on the table and say: I really want to get naked, and I really want to get you naked.” Jacky shrugged, nonchalant despite his wicked little smile. “I realize this is all very new to you, and I am in no rush toward anything in particular, but I find that naked is a really good way to start.”

Marcus could feel a hot flush rising in his cheeks. He’d known that the evening was going to come to this, or at least he’d hoped like hell it would, but now that it was here, he was nervous almost to the point of paralysis. “That, um,” he said, swallowing hard, “sounds nice.”

“You still want to kiss me?” Jacky asked.

He really, really did. Marcus took a deep breath and stepped forward, letting Jacky’s arms wrap around his waist as they drew near to each other. “How do, um?” Marcus put a hand experimentally on Jacky’s cheek, determined that was too corny, drew it away, determined that was too impersonal, and put it back. “How does this work?”

“Self-explanatory, remember?” answered Jacky with a wink. “Do what you think is going to be good, and if you’re a little off, I’ll nudge you until it’s right. How’s that sound?”

It sounded like a relief, actually, knowing that he could set the pace without being given license to screw up too much. Marcus took a deep breath and leaned in, pressing his mouth to Jacky’s. They bonked noses a little on the way in, which Marcus supposed was bound to happen, given that Jacky’s nose wasn’t small and Marcus’ nose wasn’t smaller. However, that meant that by the time their lips touched, Marcus could feel that Jacky was smiling. It wasn’t long before Marcus let his lips part and felt Jacky’s mouth move with his, deeping into a real kiss. Jacky tasted like pizza, and Marcus supposed he did too at this point, but whatever. He considered it a valid casualty of his Hot Dad lifestyle.

They just made out like this for a while in the hall, kissing and smiling. Marcus kept his hands around Jacky’s face, stroking his cheeks and neck, while Jacky began to pull Marcus’ shirt out of the waistband of his pants. He pressed his chilly fingertips to the bare skin of Marcus’ lower back, making Marcus squirm and squeak. “Sorry,” Jacky whispered into the kiss, sounding absolutely, thoroughly unapologetic.

After a few minutes, though, some things were becoming too pressing to ignore. Marcus leaned back from the kiss a little, keeping their foreheads together. “Did you, um, say something about naked?”

“I said something about naked,” Jacky confirmed with a brief nod. “I could say a lot more about naked. Or we could just, you know, get naked.”

Marcus felt that he was blushing again. Maybe he was being self-conscious here, but he had made up his mind to be brave, and he wasn’t stopping now. “Okay,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder at Cash’s door. Marcus had never known him not to sleep straight through this portion of the night, but he wasn’t taking any chances. “Naked should probably be in the bedroom.”

“Lead the way, handsome,” Jacky said, and Marcus blushed again as he did.

Jacky hit the light switch on the way in, illuminating the small, messy room, and Marcus just as quick reached over and flicked it off — so Jacky hit it back on, and this time kept his hand there. Marcus ran the hem of his shirt through his hands as he looked around, not sure which made him more self-conscious: the idea that Jacky would soon see his bare body, or the idea that Jacky was now taking in his general failure at housekeeping. It wasn’t a complete pigsty, and it was just cluttered, not dirty, but it absolutely didn’t match up to Jacky’s high, neat standards.

For his own part, though, Jacky seemed to have eyes only for Marcus. “How about I start?” he asked, and Marcus nodded.

It wasn’t fair to call what Jacky did then a striptease, because there was really no tease in it, just strip. He tugged his long-sleeve shirt over his head, revealing that the ink around his hands and wrists did indeed continue all the way up to his shoulders, then spread out onto his chest and back like paint in water. It was all geometry, angles and arcs and tessellations that worked their way across Jacky’s skinny body. Here and there, Marcus could see what he recognized from his childhood piano lessons as written music, lines punctuated with hollow and filled dots, scrolling in and out of the shapes around them. It was beautiful, and Marcus could only stare with wonder at the thought of how long it must have taken.

He didn’t have much time to ponder, though, because Jacky went next for his belt, loosening it before undoing the fly of his jeans. He hooked his thumbs in the waistbands of both his pants and his underwear, then pushed them both down to his ankles in one smooth shove. He’d come over barefoot, so when he stepped out of the fabric now on the floor, he was totally naked. “Ta-dah!” he announced, lifting his arms into the air.

Marcus tried to be big-picture about this, tried to focus on the entirety of Jacky’s lovely body, but truly, his attention kept being diverted to Jacky’s cock. It stuck out proudly, circumcised and pinker than the surrounding skin. It was a little on the small side, at least as far as Marcus understood sizes tended to go, but he liked that. It fit with Jacky in general, and that thought made him smile.

“You want to give it a shot?” asked Jacky, pointing Marcus’ direction.

Marcus did. He also didn’t, but he wasn’t listening to that part of his brain tonight. He was being brave and letting himself want things. Following Jacky’s lead, he pulled his shirt up and over his head, even knowing that it would turn his wooly hair into even more of an untamed mess. He didn’t even have a belt, so he just undid his own jeans and pushed them down to the floor. He wasn’t as suave as Jacky, though, so he needed to go back for his underwear. Soon, though, he was completely bare and equally unsure about what to do with himself.

Jacky gave a low whistle as he looked Marcus up and down with obvious delight. “I mean it, I did not know this was something I was into, the whole chest hair and steely gaze thing. But you have made me a convert.”

“I don’t–” Marcus ran a hand across his forehead. “Do I have a steely gaze?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jacky said, giving him a thumbs-up. “That special blend of compassionate and authoritative? That is some quality Hot Dad material.”

Marcus cracked a nervous laugh. “You’re making fun of me.”

“I am not.” Jacky took a step forward, then another, stopping when they were close enough to touch but keeping his arms by his sides. “I am really into you. And you are really naked right now, and I’m hoping something good comes of that very soon. What do you think?”

“I think–” Marcus chewed on his lips. “Maybe I want to try kissing again?”

Jacky grinned as he moved into Marcus’ embrace, and Marcus felt his cock jump as he put his hands against Jacky’s bare skin for the first time. Jacky’s fingertips were cold, but the rest of him was so warm beneath Marcus’ palms. Jacky snaked his arms around Marcus’ neck and pulled him close, leading the kiss this time. Marcus whimpered against Jacky’s mouth when he realized that his cock was poking into Jacky’s hip, then whimpered again when he realized that Jacky’s was pressing right up against his. Some part of him feared that this might all be a dream, that he’d wake up from it at any second. But it was real, and he was here, and this was what he wanted.

At last, Jacky broke from the kiss and stepped back, taking Marcus’ hands. “Bed,” he said, moving back until the backs of his calves hit the mattress. He plopped down on it, laughing as he bounced. “Come on!”

How could Marcus resist? He made a slightly less enthusiastic landing, and then Jacky was all over him again, kissing him and rolling their bodies so they were positioned like they had been while they were standing, only now on their sides. Marcus’ heart was pounding so loud he was sure it was going to wake up the whole building, Cash included, but Jacky didn’t seem bothered, and he certainly didn’t stop.

After a while of this, Jacky shifted so he was lying flatter on his back. “I want you to touch me,” he told Marcus as he stretched his arms above his head. “This is the first time you’ve ever gotten to touch another guy like this, right?”

Marcus nodded and swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

“Then go for it,” Jacky said, wriggling a little. “Take your time. I’m enjoying myself.”

Taking a deep breath, Marcus put his hand on Jacky’s chest, letting his fingertips trace the edges of his tattoos. He kept an inventory of everything he touched, remembering responses for future reference. Jacky’s contented smile widened when Marcus’ fingertips brushed the edge of his nipple, and he laughed when Marcus skimmed his hand too lightly along his side, just beneath the sharp edge of his ribcage. He was gorgeous, and he was just letting Marcus do this. More than that, even, he was clearly having a great time.

At last, Marcus’ hand made it down the flat plane of Jacky’s stomach, over his navel, and down to where the well-trimmed curls of his pubic hair began. There he felt himself pause — wanting dick was one thing, but touching one seemed a very large step toward another.

“Go on,” Jacky said, his voice soft and sultry. “Look how hard you make me.”

Marcus felt his own cock jump at that comment, so he squared his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around Jacky’s shaft. Jacky made a pleased noise, so Marcus let his hand brush lightly up and down Jacky’s cock. He even leaned in to get a better look; it was strange, seeing this process happen from such a different angle than he was used to, but Marcus knew he could definitely get the hang of this. He let go of the shaft and let his fingers circle underneath the head of Jacky’s cock, then brushed his thumb across the slit at the top, bringing forth a smear of clear precome. It was strange to realize how sharp it all smelled, this close. Did Marcus smell this strongly? He didn’t think so, but maybe he was just used to himself. This was new and different.

And it was good. Marcus felt on top of the world, knowing that he was giving Jacky this much pleasure just by touching him like this. It was so little effort, and yet he had this beautiful man squirming on his bed, making gasping noises every time Marcus’ fingers hit somewhere sensitive. It was a heady sort of sensation, the kind of power he could definitely get used to.

“Do you, um,” Marcus began to ask as he squeezed Jacky’s shaft at its base, “do you like … you know, real sex?”

“This is real sex,” laughed Jacky. “But if you mean, do I like fucking? Yeah. I like it a lot.”

Marcus swallowed hard. “It always seemed, um … weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird. But all sex is kind of weird. It’s weird and I like it. Why,” asked Jacky with a smirk, “have you been thinking about it?”

“Yeah.” Marcus didn’t know if it was strange to have this conversation with another man’s cock in his hand, or if it would be stranger to have it without that element, so he kept stroking Jacky as he talked. “And do you like … on the top or on the bottom?”

Jacky chuckled deep in his throat, a heavy, pleased sound. “My partners usually assume to look at me that I’m going to bottom, so that’s what I wind up doing most of the time. But it’s fun to change it up too.”

“Oh,” said Marcus, frowning a little as he brushed his fingertips across the soft rise of Jacky’s balls. “That’s, um … legal?”

Jacky laughed out loud at that one. “Yes, it’s very legal,” he promised Marcus with a smile. “The gay police may arrest you for being a snitch, but not a switch.”

Marcus was blushing furiously now, but he still smiled. “Sorry, I really don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You’re doing just fine. Trust me.” Jacky looked down at where Marcus’ hand was still learning the dimensions of his cock. “We’ll get to fucking, if you want. Or we don’t have to. The only rules here are to have a good time.”

Despite feeling foolish, Marcus did relax a bit at hearing that. “Okay,” he said. “Okay?”

“Do you like this?” asked Jacky. “Do you like touching me like this?”

Marcus nodded emphatically. “Yeah, this is nice. This is really nice.”

“I like it too,” Jacky purred, stretching his arms out above his head again before bringing them to rest on the pillows. “I love it when a handsome man gets his hands on me. And when he fucks me,” he added, chuckling when that made Marcus’ grip falter a bit. “I see you like the thought.”

“I haven’t really … I mean, I guess I haven’t thought about it much,” Marcus said. “But it sounds, um, really sexy.”

“It is. And that means it’s absolutely worth the wait.” Jacky sat up a little. “Can I do something for you now?”

Marcus nodded. “Okay.”

“Lie back,” Jacky said, and when Marcus did, Jacky rolled on top of him. “I think you’re going to like this. But if you don’t, just let me know and I’ll stop and we’ll do something else. No hard feelings. Okay?”

“Okay,” Marcus said again, unsure what he was getting himself into. A lot of this was about trust, though, and he was willing to put himself in Jacky’s obviously far more experienced hands.

Jacky smiled and shifted down Marcus’ body, stopping for a moment to kiss and nuzzle at his chest hair like a cat might. Then he was sinking even lower, down to where the line of dark hair started just beneath Marcus’ navel. Jacky kissed at it all the way down, until he was at the base of Marcus’ shaft. Then he opened his mouth and took the head of Marcus’ cock between his lips.

Marcus gasped and clapped his hand over his mouth to make sure he didn’t make noise, then bit his hand to make sure he didn’t come immediately. He saw Jacky’s lips turn up into as much of a grin as they could, considering they still had Marcus’ cock between them. Then Jacky slid down farther, taking more of Marcus’ shaft into his mouth, until there was no more to take and Jacky’s lips were pressed into the wiry black strands of Marcus’ pubic hair. That accomplished, Jacky began to bob his head up and down, looking up at Marcus as he let Marcus’ cock slip in and out of his mouth.

Marcus bit his hand even harder. He was getting a blowjob, and more to the point he was getting a fantastic one from the beautiful man who had seen him have a gross crying jag two nights before yet still wanted to suck his cock. Marcus wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve this, but right now, he wasn’t going to question it. Not when he couldn’t remember having ever felt good quite like this.

It was clear Jacky wasn’t wasting his time, either. This was not slow and exploratory, the way Marcus’ touch on Jacky’s cock had been. Jacky’s mouth knew its way around a dick, and he seemed proud to show off his skill. Marcus moaned despite himself as Jacky’s lips travelled wetly up and down his shaft. Jacky made his way all the way to the head of Marcus’ cock and sucked hard on it for a few seconds, then went back to bobbing his head up and down the whole length.

“Oh, fuck, fuck,” Marcus murmured around the hand still pressed to his mouth, barely aware that he was speaking at all. “Fuck, please, fuck.” He was never this vulgar in real life, not even before he starting having to watch his language around the sponge-like brain of his son, but this was an aspect of himself he’d never had a chance to explore before. Maybe he was this vulgar, or at least he could be, as the situation arose.

This wasn’t Cash’s Dad here, nor was it the General Manager, nor the Responsible Adult, nor the Good Son, nor the Eventual Disappointment, nor anything else he was or had been before. This was something different he was learning how to be, a sexual being who could experience pleasure in his own time, not in stolen moments or under peer pressure. It seemed he still had a lot to learn about himself and what he was capable of being and doing. He couldn’t wait.

At last, he bit the back of his hand hard as he came in Jacky’s mouth. It occurred to him that he might have given some warning, but by then it was too late; he was thrusting his hips against Jacky’s touch, out of control and completely lost in bliss. It felt good to just give over control and let go.

Jacky sucked him dry, then grabbed the sheets, burying them both beneath the covers as he snuggled up next to Marcus. He put his head on Marcus’ arm for a pillow, then grabbed one of Marcus’ hands and put it, joined with his own, on his cock. He was so hard now that Marcus could feel his cock twitch and jerk just with the slightest touch.

“You taste good,” Jacky purred, his lips against Marcus’ ear. “I’ve wanted to suck your cock for a while now. And it was even better than I’d imagined.”

Marcus smiled as he squeezed Jacky’s shaft. “I did okay?” he asked softly.

Jacky kissed the skin just behind Marcus’ earlobe. “You did great. You are great. You are sexy as hell and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun together.” He thrust into the space between their joined hands, panting harder now. “If you want to keep going, that is.”

“I do,” Marcus promised. “I do, I really do.”

“Good,” Jacky said with a chuckle. He gasped a little as he rubbed his cock against Marcus’ fingers, smearing precome all over Marcus’ hand. “Can you feel how hard you make me?”

Marcus nodded, feeling a twitch in his cock despite its current softness. “Yeah.”

“Do you like it?”

Marcus nodded again. “A lot.”

Jacky grinned as he pressed his face against Marcus’ neck, inhaling sharply. “You smell fucking great,” he muttered as he moved his hips, fucking the gap between their palms. “I want to make you work up a sweat. Get that hard cock inside of me. Get you somewhere we don’t have to worry about waking anyone up and just let you go. I want to hear you come and know I’m the reason why. Tell me you want that too.”

“I want that,” Marcus said, pressing himself as close to Jacky as he could. “I want that so much.”

Jacky moaned softly, and the moan turned into empty air as he gave a few more hard thrusts. Then he was coming too, spilling all over both their hands and Marcus’s side as he buried his face in the crook of Marcus’ neck. As his orgasm subsided, Jacky’s body shook, and it took Marcus a moment to realize that he was in fact laughing. He made almost no noise, but the few sounds that escaped were absolutely giddy with release. “Oh, fuck,” Jacky sighed, grinning from ear to ear. “Fuck, I needed that. I needed that a lot.”

Marcus supposed he’d needed it himself too, except he hadn’t even known he’d needed it. It seemed he didn’t know a lot of the things he needed. He spent so much time looking out for Cash that maybe, just maybe, it was good to have someone looking out for him.

“Stay,” Marcus said, holding Jacky close. “I mean, just for a little while, if you need to go. But for a little while?”

“You got it.” Jacky moved around, shifting onto his other side until they were spooned together, with Marcus’ arm draped across Jacky’s waist and Jacky’s ass pressed firmly up against Marcus’ lower belly. “So tell me a little more about my new boyfriend.”

“Your new b–” It took Marcus a legitimate second to realize that Jacky was not, in fact, talking about some third person he’d never met. “Oh. Um. What do you want to know?”

“Anything.” Jacky shrugged. “Anything you think I should know, I want to know. I want to hear all about you.”

“Is this what boyfriends do?” asked Marcus, nuzzling the soft hair at the back of Jacky’s head.

“This is on the list of acceptable things for boyfriends to do, yes.” Jacky smiled and grabbed Marcus’ arm, settling their bodies together even closer, like they’d been made to fit each other and had just been waiting around until they met their respective matches. “So come on. Start by telling me about your favorite food. The kind of music you like. The last good non-kids movie you saw. The worst haircut you ever had.”

“Worst haircut?” Marcus laughed. “Have you seen my hair? Every haircut has been my worst haircut.”

“Then tell me about your worst worst haircut.”

Marcus thought surely there was no way to respond to that — and then he remembered: the day before his first day of fifth grade, with his uncle at an unfamiliar barber’s, the clippers, a misunderstanding about what setting who wanted, the following month’s worth of insistences from adults that it would grow out eventually. “It’s kind of a stupid story,” he warned.

“Doesn’t matter,” Jacky said. “It’s yours. So start telling.” And faced with the novel situation of having another person interested even in the dumb, mundane stuff of his life, Marcus shrugged and did just that.

~*~

The sound of the door’s being opened awakened Marcus, but he lay still, his eyes all but shut, waiting to hear Cash’s plaintive cry.

It never came. Instead, there was a brief silence, and then the sound of approaching tiny footsteps — not to the side of the bed he’d wound up on, but the far side. “Mr. Jacky?” asked Cash, his voice a whisper that he only thought was no louder than his regular speaking voice.

Beside him, Marcus heard a grunt, and he felt the shift of a body changing its position in the bed. “Hey, buddy,” Jacky answered, his own voice actually as soft as he could make it. “Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

“Un-uh,” Cash said. Marcus could hear him shuffling his feet. “Are you and Dad having a sleepover party?”

Marcus bit his lip almost to bleeding so as not to make any noise, but Jacky appeared to take the question in stride. “Something like that,” he said. Marcus could feel the bed shift as Jacky sat up a little. “Had another nightmare?” There was a pause in which Marcus assumed Cash nodded. “I’m sorry, buddy. That’s no fun.”

“No fun,” Cash echoed. “Is Dad asleep?”

“Yeah,” said Jacky. “He’s really tired. It’s a hard job, being a dad. You’re lucky you’ve got a good one.”

“I got the best one,” Cash said, and Marcus found himself biting his lip again to keep from making a very different kind of sound.

“You want to know a secret, though?” asked Jacky. Cash made an affirmative sound. “Sometimes the nightmares come after him too.”

Cash snorted. “No they don’t. He’s a dad.”

“Even dads have things to worry about sometimes,” Jacky said. “It’s true! So no matter how big you get, it’s always good to have someone who can help you out when you need it most.”

“Is that why you’re having a sleepover?” Cash asked.

“Kinda, yeah.”

There was a pause where Marcus could practically hear the wheels in Cash’s brain turning. At last, he asked, “Can I help out too?”

“Sure thing,” said Jacky, pulling back the comforter just long enough for Cash to dive beneath it. He left the sheet down, preventing any potential nudity-related awkwardness as Cash burrowed between them — and none too gracefully, judging from the oof Marcus knew to be caused by a small knee or elbow straight to the stomach. If he hadn’t been awake already, the commotion would surely have roused him.

But of course, Cash had no concept of this, believing both his entry to the bed and his level of speech to be the pinnacle of stealth. He settled in, then squirmed again and leaned over to kiss Marcus’ cheek. “Good-night, Dad, I love you,” he loud-whispered.

“Love you too,” Marcus replied, expecting that to be the end of conversation for the evening.

It wasn’t quite, though. Cash lay still for several seconds, then squirmed again and rolled over on his side to face Jacky. “I’m gonna stay awake until the nightmares go away,” Cash told Jacky.

“Sounds like a plan,” Jacky said. “But you have to close your eyes too, okay?”

“Okay,” said Cash, who was snoring loudly not sixty seconds later.

So much for staying awake until the nightmares went away, Marcus thought — except no, he was hardly the expert here. If Cash was asleep again, maybe that meant things truly were safe. They might have to run again tomorrow night, and the next, and every night after that, but they’d learn better ways to do it. They’d get smarter, learn better how to trust their instincts. They’d do their best to keep them from each other. All three of them.

“Sweet dreams,” whispered Jacky, reaching across Cash’s sleeping form to take Marcus’ hand. Marcus held it tight, and together they slipped safely into sleep.

 

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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10 thoughts on “Night Owls

  1. I love this so much. I kept a running file of all the lines I loved, but there’s so many! Basically every time Jacky opened his mouth, I was C&Ping.

    You had me from the moment Cash started quietly hooting that first night they met Jacky, and you just drew me deeper and deeper into this world. I love that all three found each other and will have each other’s backs now.

    This is just a lovely story, thank you so much for writing it.

  2. As always, you’ve deftly delivered a story with a powerful emotional core with a wrapper of extremely enjoyable characters. Bless Jacky for being so observant and empathetic; I get the feeling he’s already had a profound influence on Cash’s life, but being able to spot intimately familiar signs is a gift to everyone else in the future.

    RIP Tiffani.

  3. I adored this story. From the opening of him getting up to walk with his son, the way children try and create simple solutions to problems that are actually a bit more complicated to the way it touches on depression/chemical imbalances (if that’s what Cash is suffering from) and Marcus’ reaction to it and just being an unexpected dad so early.

    I also really enjoyed the way you shows Cash and his interactions with the people he cares about and the casual insensitivity (i.e. going through Jackie’s fridge like it’s his, lol) about certain things. This was just brilliant.

  4. Oh god im just flat out crying at 3 in the morning this story was amazing. I loved every word. Thank you so much for writing it.

  5. I would really like to say something more coherent that “OMG, this is so sweet!” except I’m blanking.

    I guess it’s not really all that sweet; there’s definitely some tough stuff happening that tempers it. Your stories are always really good about that balance. I cannot even imagine how Marcus must feel to realize that his five year old might have the kind of mental health issues that lead to a pharmacy in the bathroom.

    The isolation feels real, too. Some friends of mine recently became parents and they have both explicitly stated that they are terrified of ending up isolated from anyone other than each other. Being a single parent can only make that worse. Especially if you’re not very outgoing to begin with.

    I like how the story doesn’t gloss over how hard things might get, but it also feels like things will be ok.

  6. This really hit close to home for me; when Jacky talked to Marcus about seeing himself in Cash, and how Marcus needed to be aware of that, I thought “well shit I wish anyone had talked to my parents about that.”
    This is a really sweet romance. Marcus doesn’t seem to have had much time for fun or really *anything* that’s just for him in a long time and it’s nice to see him find some of that with Jacky.

  7. Ahh this is so good. You are hands down one of my favorite authors and this drove home why, you’re so good with making things feel real and alive on the screen.

  8. Aw, man, hot single dad meets neighbour who’s awesome with kids? You hit all my buttons with this one! And masterfully delivered, as ever.

  9. Wow, I loved this. You have a wonderful ability to show people dealing with heavy, painful stuff but still managing to be optimistic. And the tentative first-time, figuring-it-out sex was really sweet. (And hot.)

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