later2nite: (j at pifa)
A few readers who've commented on this story have said it's actually three fics in one the way it was written about three different time frames in Justin's life. That made me think of separating each part into a one-shot.

*This one covers a one year span, starting when Justin is 29 and a half and has moved back home from NYC and ending when he's 30 and a half.*


 photo 547f9967-0a15-4df9-9324-d8c39ddeb8a8_zpsmliuwxxn.jpg



Title: THE MAKING OF AN ARTIST - COMPLETE STORY
Author: [livejournal.com profile] later2nite




Prologue:

"Brian, you're destroying my flow." You whisper the words without turning your head, lengthening a stroke of your brush on the canvas in front of you until it matches the one in your dream.

"Your flow?" He's in no mood. "It's two in the goddamned morning, Justin. You and your flow should be in bed. Blowing me."

You'll blow him when you finish working, but for now, he feels woefully neglected. You suspect he's jealous. Jealous of a painting. You'd laugh if you weren't preoccupied with mixing a touch of ash gray into the crimson.

You don't stop blending until you see the color of despair.

----------

It's two forty-five when you finally wipe the paint from your palette knife. You glance at the half-finished canvas in the corner of your attic studio and struggle to cast off the gloom, waiting until you're good and ready to tiptoe down Britin's creaky stairs and join your husband in bed.

Blowing him into oblivion at the crack of dawn, you lick your lips and settle in for a little more shut-eye while he heaves his breath in and out. "Wake me when you get it up again, old man. Don't think you're leaving this house till you fuck me."

"Hey, you're pushing thirty, Sunshine. That pretty face of yours is gonna age like Robert Redford's did if you don't start keeping some decent hours. Roll over."

You're not surprised when he proceeds to rim and ram you as if he were a teenager again, your seemingly offhand remark anything but. You curl up under the comforter when he shuffles out of bed, thankful for small indulgences like sleeping as long as you please after he heads for the office each morning.

Not intending to budge until noon, you admire your partner's still-perfect backside before it disappears into the shower. "Brian? Bring ice cream home tonight."



Chapter 1:

Your eyes are already acclimated to the darkness when you enter your studio in the middle of the night. Stealing quietly out of your sleeping husband's arms, you were somehow drawn up to the attic, concluding a very long time before that fighting the haunting vision never works. Obediently, you've given yourself over to its power.

Locking yourself in, you hesitantly approach the easel in the corner while the painting beckons from under its cover. You unveil your work in progress and regard it with a critical eye. The perspective's a little off, but you need to create the shade you'd seen in your dream before it fades from view. You pick up a clean palette and three tubes of pigment, setting off to chase the color of hopelessness.

Soon buried in your work, time has no meaning as you slide further and further away, losing pieces of yourself as you go.

----------

"THE EMOTIONS ARE SOMETIMES SO STRONG THAT I WORK WITHOUT KNOWING IT. THE STROKES COME LIKE SPEECH." - Vincent Van Gogh

You don't know how long he's been banging on the door and calling your name, but the muddy din outside your studio somehow brings you back. 'Open up, Justin!' slowly registering as his command, the alarm in his tone tips you off to what you'll find when you do.

Setting your palette on the table, you drag your knuckles across your tear-stained cheek and rub your forehead, willing yourself to get it together. You hide your work under its snow white sheet and start to back away, Brian's impatience robbing you of your normal recovery time. When you open the door, you avoid his eyes at all costs. "Let me just rinse—"

"What the fuck, Justin?!"

You don't finish your thought because Brian's are too urgent.

"The door was locked. Didn't you hear me? It's three-thirty. I woke up alone, and . . . Hey, look at me." He takes your face in his hands. "What is it?"

"Go back to bed, Brian."

That's the one thing he has no intention of doing. "Talk to me. Come on. What is it?" He crushes you into his chest, his soft breath tickling the side of your neck.

If you hadn't loved this man with all your heart for almost half your life, you'd be embarrassed by the trail of snot staining the front of his tee shirt where your nose is pressed. You release your brushes and knives from your grip as he reaches for them, slumping to the floor in a heap when he walks to the sink and turns on the water. The heels of your hands dig into your eye sockets while he carefully cleans your instruments and lays them out to dry, only falling to your sides when you feel your husband's lanky frame lowering down next to you.

"It's okay." He gathers as much of your drooping form as he can hold, his chin settling squarely on top of your head. "I'm here."



Chapter 2:

You carry a mug of steaming coffee up to the attic at eleven forty-five a.m., finally spurring your butt into gear. The quality time you'd spent in your sunny kitchen with your bacon and eggs and the morning paper was just what you needed, but after placating Lindsay and her gentle nagging, you suppose taking the entire day off is out.

"Are you still thinking four pieces?" she'd inquired in that saccharine-sweet timbre she reserves for goading you into production. "Sidney's so excited. He's cleared the west wall for you."

You'd rolled your eyes at the phone. Inking the deal with Sidney Bloom to show exclusively in his Pittsburgh gallery has turned you into royalty as far as he and Lindsay are concerned, the name you'd made for yourself in New York their veritable cash cow. "Yeah, four pieces." You'd yawned and stretched and then yawned again. "I need a few more days, but they'll be ready in time for the opening. It's the fifteenth, right?"

"Yes, Justin, it's the fifteenth. I've got the framers coming out to your place on the tenth, though. That's okay, isn't it?"

You'd squinted at the clock above the breakfast nook. "Um, it's eleven thirty. How long does that give me?" Fucking with her has become somewhat of a game. You were loading your plate into the dishwasher when you heard her sigh.

"A week. It gives you a week. Tell me now if I should reschedule the opening."

"Relax, Lindsay." You'd laughed. "I'll be finished in time. Are you still using Thomas Brothers Framing?" Adam Thomas is the owner of one stellar ass, not to mention his remarkable deep-throating skills, both of which you and your husband have exploited together on more than one occasion.

Setting your coffee down on a work table, you eye the four canvases with their looming deadline in mind. You'll handily meet it. You might even throw in a fifth as a surprise. Never hurts to up the ante.

----------

"THERE ARE PAINTERS WHO TRANSFORM THE SUN INTO A YELLOW SPOT, BUT THERE ARE OTHERS WHO, THANKS TO THEIR ART AND INTELLIGENCE, TRANSFORM A YELLOW SPOT INTO THE SUN." - Pablo Picasso

"Hey, Sunshine! Guess what your partner brought you?!"

You're sitting on your bedroom terrace with a sketchpad and pencil when he gets home and scours the mansion looking for you.

"Justin?"

"Up here with the sunset." It's all you have to call out, Brian walking through the French doors to join you soon after. "Hey." You look up as he leans over, your lips eagerly meeting his.

"Hey, yourself." He throws his suit jacket and tie back inside on the bed. Then he rolls up his shirtsleeves and climbs onto the chaise lounge beside you. "You okay?"

"Not really."

He draws in a long anxiety-ridden breath and slips his arm around your shoulders. "Justin, I—"

"I need pink and gold," you cut him off. "This isn't working." Holding up the stub of graphite, you cherish the way he studies the horizon, wanting to see what you see.

"How many sunsets have you painted in your lifetime? All of them pink and gold. And orange and yellow and lavender. I've personally seen a hundred and sixty-two."

"But none of them were this one." Your head dips to rest on his chest. "So what'd you bring me? And I hope it's Rocky Road this time."

"Butter Pecan. Sorry."

Your jeans and tee shirt litter the terrace floor when Brian comes back upstairs with the pint of ice cream and two spoons. "Care to relive our wild and adventurous youth?" You point to his chaise lounge and open the carton, setting the lid and the spoon you won't be needing on the low table between the chairs.

His clothes join yours in a matter of seconds. "You're not seventeen anymore, Sunshine. Sure you can still fold yourself into a pretzel like that?"

"Lie down. Let's find out." Straddling his thighs, dusk descends as you share spoonfuls of Butter Pecan and sensual kisses, his appreciation abundantly clear when twelve years haven't diminished your ability to contort yourself into a pleasure-giving vessel in the least.

Afterward, he pulls your torso up flush with his and clamps his arms around your back. "Are you gonna talk to me yet, Justin?"

"Brian." Closing your eyes, the sound of his beating heart fills your ears. "Don't do this. Not tonight."



Chapter 3:

"Come on, Justin! You've been skirting the issue for days!" Your husband just won't let it go as he follows you into the laundry room, a fierce look of determination plastered all over his face. "Have you forgotten about reading me the riot act all those years ago for shutting you out? And now you're doing the same thing to me!"

"Brian, please. I can think of so many other ways to spend our Saturday." You throw a load of paint rags into the washer and measure the detergent in a cup. "Do we have to do this now?"

"When would you like to do it?" He folds his arms in front of his chest.

"Never?" Setting the water temperature on cold, you start the washer and attempt to leave the room. You're left with no choice but to exhale loudly in aggravation when he becomes an immovable barrier in front of the door. "This is nothing like that." You meet his dogged stare. "I don't have cancer, and I'm not afraid you're going to leave me. I'm not doing the same thing to you at all."

"No? You're not trying to handle this on your own?"

Maybe you haven't been the most forthcoming in recent weeks, but it's not because you want to hurt or deceive him. You think it's more about self-preservation than anything else.

"I just want to know what's going on up there." He places a hand on your shoulder, his stance softening. "Why you lock yourself in your studio during the middle of the night and sneak back into bed hours later as if you'd never been gone."

"Not . . . every night." You hang your head and look at your shoes.

"You really freaked me out that time I found you sobbing."

He may have a point. Memories of stirring Debbie's chicken soup and a pigheaded partner who'd rather have thrown you out of his life than level with you come back to bite you in the ass. "I'm sorry, Brian. I'm not meaning to shut you out. It's . . . it's just hard to talk about." You feel safe in his arms when he hugs you, sensing your resolve weakening.

"I'm here whenever you're ready."

Hesitating only a moment more, you take his hand and walk out of the laundry room, crossing the service porch and heading for the back stairs. The ones that run all three flights up to the attic. "I've heard a picture's worth a thousand words."

----------

"I FOUND I COULD SAY THINGS WITH COLOR AND SHAPES THAT I COULDN'T SAY ANY OTHER WAY — THINGS I HAD NO WORDS FOR." - Georgia O'Keefe

"The framers will be here on Monday. Maybe you can manage to take the day off?"

"Monday. Hmm." Your husband squints off into the distance, mentally consulting his jam-packed calendar. "Sounds like a great day for an orgy to me!" He kisses the side of your face, standing with you in front of the five large paintings that will attract Sidney Bloom's buyers to your show faster than he and Lindsay can schmooze them into opening their checkbooks. "These are beautiful, Justin."

"Thanks." You wish you had more to say, but now that you've brought him up here, you're not quite sure where to begin. "Brian, I . . . Maybe we should just . . ."

"Although they weren't covered while you worked on them. It's that one, isn't it?" He points to the easel in the corner and then squeezes your hand in his.

"I don't even know why I started it. Something just takes a hold of me, and it doesn't let go until I mix it and dip my brush in it and splatter it into life. It's like I don't even have a choice, you know?"

"I get it. But the emotional tailspin you fall into when you barricade yourself in here at night worries me. What the hell are you fighting?" He's hit upon the very question to which you've given up all hope of finding an answer.

You hold your upturned palm out toward the corner and gnaw on your bottom lip. "You won't be satisfied until you see for yourself, so go ahead."

"Justin."

Raising your clasped-together fingers up to your mouth, you kiss his before turning him loose. "Just don't expect me to hold your hand. I'm not gonna paint today, and I don't feel like getting sucked into the black hole on this perfectly nice morning." You turn away as he inches toward the easel of disaster, occupying yourself with taking an inventory of the pigment jars on the shelf above the sink. Daring to envision a best-case scenario where your partner quietly investigates and leaves it at that, you laugh to yourself and come to your senses. You know him. You're waiting for his gasp when he lifts the sheet and gets an eyeful.

"Jesus Christ! Justin, this is—"

"Gruesome? Depressing? Crazy-making? Take your pick." Rearranging cans of solvent for no earthly reason, you hear him mumble a string of profanity as he stares at the canvas and then lowers its cover again.

Brian makes his way back to you and hugs you from behind. "That asshole never paid for what he did." Nuzzling the side of your neck, his voice breaks, barely a whisper. "To both of us."

"Now do you see why I don't want to talk about it?" Waves of relief ripple through your body, all the hedging and equivocating finally over. "I feel vulnerable enough when I'm working on it. I don't want to go there when I'm not working on it."

"Come here." He nudges you around to face him, blinking away the moisture pooling on his eyelashes. "I thought we'd dealt with the bashing and all the trauma it caused. Closed that chapter of our lives. But the pain's still raw even now." Wrapping his arms around you, your husband's stature tilts down to rest on yours.

You're transported to a place in time when physical and psychological limitations ruled your days, utterly unable to walk through a crowd of strangers without clinging to his side. It's been more than a decade since you've literally needed to lean on him.

Maybe he needs to lean on you.



Chapter 4:

"I NEVER PAINT DREAMS OR NIGHTMARES. I PAINT MY OWN REALITY." - Frida Kahlo

"You seem distracted, Justin. Are you okay?" Lindsay's angular, puzzled face is lined with concern. She hopes you snap out of whatever it is she sees before long, her buyers never failing to loosen up the purse strings after a glass or two of white wine and an amiable chat with their favorite artist. "You guys usually arrive much earlier than this."

Your husband draws you into his side even closer, shooting the mother of his son a pointed warning. "Justin's just fine. He's fabulous, all right?" Kissing the side of your jaw, your five o'clock shadow tickles his lips. "Don't you have a painting to straighten? A bouquet to arrange? Perhaps an hors d'oeuvre to prepare?"

"Oh, Brian! Well, I guess I'll leave you alone for awhile, Justin." She gives you a quick hug before she flits off to find Sidney.

"Thanks." Squeezing his hand, you're grateful he knows when to run interference for you. "I need to—"

"Want some company this time?"

"Sure." Your preshow ritual hasn't changed in seven years, Lindsay and Sidney having learned to keep their distance it until it's completed and you indicate you're ready to begin.

Brian knows the drill, too. He's observed it many times, hanging out in the background unless he's needed to buffer an interruption away from you. Now he lingers with you in front of the first piece that hangs on the Bloom Gallery's west wall, understanding it'll be anywhere from five to ten minutes before you move on to the next one while you mull over what you'll say about it when engaged by the gallery's knowledgeable clientele. He likes to claim you're saying good-bye to your works of art, but he gets that it's so much more than that.

You can't help thinking how right it feels to have him go through the process with you tonight, loving him for standing beside you and keeping mum for however long it takes. By the time you've meditated on the last piece, you've not only composed your remarks but you've also wrapped your brain around the events that had gone down earlier that afternoon, thoughts of the miraculous breakthrough inevitably creeping into the silence. You can't say you minded the intrusion, though, the story of recovering your long lost memories certain to preoccupy your mind for days to come.

It started when something inexplicable had forced you out of bed that morning to shower with your partner after your early morning fuck, compelling you to climb your way to the attic as he drove off at the ungodly hour of seven thirty a.m. Bemused by the absence of your familiar dream, you wondered what was pulling you in while you deftly mixed the color of optimism. The tears flowed as usual, fueling you as always, but somehow it wasn't the same. You lashed out with your brush, furious streaks telling your tale, yet there was light at the end of the tunnel. Feeling cold and wet and blind and at sea, your ears were filled with the strains of music. You didn't know why, and maybe you never will, but an eleven-year void was suddenly erased.

You'd lost all track of time when Brian appeared in the open doorway, your abstract no-locks policy recently expanded to include your very real studio.

"Justin," he whispered, approaching with care. "You've got to get ready . . . the opening . . ."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did tell you." He laughed, happy to hear it was you and not the broken Justin who normally painted the thing in the corner he'd grown to abhor. "I said I'd be home early today. So we could get to the gallery."

"Your eyes. They don't lie, Brian." Turning away from the easel, you neared him, smiling when he insisted he told you he'd be back by four. "At my prom. I saw it in your eyes when we danced to that corny song. And later when you leaned me against your Jeep and kissed me." You stood on tiptoe, slipping your hands to either side of his face as your lips met his. "Was it because I was only eighteen? A dumb, stupid kid? Is that why you waited four more years to tell me? And only then because a fucking bomb scared you shitless?"

"What the hell happened today? Did you and Daphne have one of your marathon phone fests or something?"

"I remember, Brian. All of it. I've been painting since you left, and . . ." Glancing once more at the canvas, you saw the gaps in your life reflected in your strokes, newly found memories attached to each one. You took him by the hand, eager for him to see the painting's transformation. "You loved me. It's all here. You loved me, didn't you?"

"Justin." He groped for the words to convey what he felt when he focused on your lifeless body levitating above the blood-soaked pavement and then again while he stared at your tuxedoed forms dancing atop your grave.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't go that far. It's still fucking disturbing." Tilting his head, he recoiled when the centered jewel jumped out at him from its hiding place among the gore, his brain deciphering the hologram-like image with a start. "Justin," he repeated as his own likeness peered back at him through the small pane of glass, only discernible when viewed from the perfect angle. Shifting his gaze, his line of sight had caught it just right. "The hospital."

"Uh-huh. I saw your face in the window so many times while I thrashed in that bed."

"Christ. It's been years. I thought you'd never remember."

"But I have. I remember everything now. It wasn't just guilt over the bashing. You loved me. Even back then." You wove a hand around him and reached for the sheet on the work table with the other, watching it flutter to the ground at your feet. "You fell in love with me on the night of my prom." You sighed as you lay with your husband and undressed, the sweet sound of him not denying it the last coherent thought to run through your veins.

"Are we ready to start?" Lindsay eases back into the picture when she sees you and Brian lift flutes of Pinot Grigio from the caterer's tray, pleased that you've emerged from isolation just in time.

You look toward the front of the gallery, where Sidney's already greeting the usual suspects. Recognizing a few stuffed shirts and high society dames, you can't have anything but a good night.



Chapter 5:

"Are you coming to bed anytime soon?" You lean over your husband's shoulder from behind as he lies in his chaise on the terrace, kissing the side of his neck.

He traps your hand on his chest with a flattened palm. "You done working?"

"Yeah. Come on."

"Why don't we sleep out here?"

"All night? I thought you had an early meeting tomorrow."

"I do."

"It's getting cold."

"I'll keep you warm."

Your eyebrows zigzag a little more with every odd statement he makes. "Sleep outside in one chair?" Freeing your hand, you stand up and walk around in front of him. "What's wrong?"

Brian sips at his whiskey, keeping his head down. "When did you have it framed?"

"Oh, that." You glance at the new addition above your bed through the French doors. "This morning. Just a spur of the moment thing, actually. I called Thomas Brothers to set up an appointment, and Anthony said Adam was out of town but he could come out right away because he didn't have anything booked until the afternoon. I didn't call you to come home because Anthony's the str—"

"It creeps me out."

"—the straight one. What creeps you out? The painting?"

"Yes, the painting." He squints into his tumbler. "It's . . ."

"It represents a new beginning. I think it's the most significant work I've ever done, considering the role it played in recovering my lost memories."

Brian sets his drink on the table and finally looks you in the eye. "That's what it is for you. For me, it dredges up an agonizing past I'd rather not relive every time I walk into our bedroom. Can't you see that?"

What you see is a partner who's weathered many a storm with you, your hard-won, resilient relationship with him finally turning out the way you'd always imagined it could be. How insensitive of you to overlook what your albatross-turned-savior has been doing to him all this time. "Fuck. I'm really sorry, Brian. I've been so self-absorbed." The fateful thwack of a baseball bat shattering the best night of your lives crackles in your ear, no longer a mere story that happened to someone else. "I haven't been thinking about your feelings."

"Can we put it somewhere else?"

"Yeah. Let's get it down." You pull him inside and take off your shoes, both of you standing on the bed and carefully detaching the large piece from its hooks. "We can drag it out to the pool house. Or maybe the stables. No one will find it in there."

"I didn't mean . . ." He looks puzzled, but you're only getting started.

"I know what you mean. You're afraid you won't be able to perform with it hanging right above your head. But I'm not gonna let that happen. We're gonna dump it as far away from here as we can."

"Won't be able to perform? Me?" Brian scoffs at your incorrigible ass, shaking his head from side to side. "You're a brat, you know that? You're a thirty-year-old brat." Helping you prop the painting against the wall outside your bedroom door, he can't wait to get his hands on you.

He's going to have to hold that thought, though.

"A thirty-year-old brat? Did you just call me thirty? Fucking thirty?!" You stop for a second to work out the current date in your mind, such trivial information rarely on the tip of your tongue because Lindsay keeps track of where you need to be and when. Hardly believing it's the last day of your twenty-ninth year, you don't lose it until your husband makes a sweeping gesture out of pointing toward the antique grandfather clock at the end of the hallway.

He wishes he had a picture of your face to keep for all posterity when you see that it's eight minutes after midnight.

"Fuck! I'm fucking thirty! How did this happen, Brian? Fuck!"



Chapter 6:

"THE PEOPLE WHO WEEP BEFORE MY PICTURES ARE HAVING THE SAME RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE I HAD WHEN I PAINTED THEM." - Mark Rothko

"Forget it, Brian. Not happening. Now can you get out of here and let me wallow in misery alone?" Yanking the quilt up over your head, you dive under the pillows and squeeze your eyes shut, willing the cruel world away. With any luck, you'll wake to discover it was all a hideous nightmare and won't have to deal with the old age issue for a long, long time.

"Stop being a fucking princess and come downstairs with me. Everyone's waiting on your ass. Unless . . ." Your husband thinks back. Twelve years back. Wasn't he was forcibly hauled off to a twisted celebration of his own birthday, set up by a little twat who unlocked the loft door with his key and enabled the gang to barge in? "Hey, Mikey!" Brian shouts out of your bedroom door. "Get up here! Bring Emmett and Ted with you!"

Just as you'd dreaded, kicking and screaming are fruitless, your slight build no match against the four guys who dig you out of your cocoon and lug you down to Britin's great room. Erupting into cheers and applause at your not-so-grand entrance, your partying guests are having way too much fun.

"What is it, Sunshine?" Debbie's no help while you struggle with your captors. "Thought you could hide from the big three-0?"

"Sweetheart!" Your mom rushes over for a hug when they set you down on your feet and unhand you. "What do you think?" She points out more gaudy streamers and balloons floating around than you've ever seen assembled in one place. "Molly and I did all the decorations!"

"Uh, thanks." Trying not to wince, you're pissed off that your sister's not sharing whatever she's tripping on. "It's a lot of . . ."

Ben seems to be the only one who understands your plight, materializing in front of you with a cup of spiked punch. "Here, Justin. You'll feel better after you down a few of these." He laughs and puts his arm around Michael.

"He'll feel better after he stops queening out about his advanced age." Brian reels you into his side and plants a kiss on the top of your head. "Face it, dear. You're one of us now."

Pouring half the punch down your throat, you can't help but crack a smile when the tide suddenly shifts, Michael not about to let that one slide.

"Oh, and you didn't queen the fuck out when you turned thirty?! I had to cut you down from the fucking rafters! At least Justin hasn't attempted to scarf his life away!"

"Not yet!" You begin to loosen up a bit in spite of yourself. Leaving Brian and Michael to reminisce about the good old days, you wander over to the sofa and plop down next to Daphne. "If you say happy birthday, I'll never speak to you again. They're getting so big." You don't know how she copes with her boisterous twins, who're rolling around on the carpet and pulling on her legs like a couple of, well, toddlers. "What are they? Like two now?"

"Almost." She pulls identical Matchbox cars out of her bag of tricks and hands one to each of them, hoping it buys her some sanity. "Josh was so disappointed that he couldn't get away from work. He wanted to come with us to wish you a hap-. Oops. Just about said it."

"Don't even think it. I'm glad you're here, though. I need to tell you something, and I didn't want to do it on the phone. When you said you'd be here in Pittsburgh for my, um, you know . . ."

"What's going on?"

You take a deep breath. "Let me just start by saying you looked really pretty at our senior prom. Your dress. Your hair. Gorgeous." You're expecting her stunned, incredulous stare. "I had a breakthrough a few weeks ago, Daph. Like a heavy curtain was lifted and the darkness faded away. All my lost memories. They're not lost anymore. I can see everything now."

"Really?! Justin, that's awesome!" She gives you a big hug, but she needs answers. "How?! What?!"

"Come with me. I've gotta show you something." Waving Gus over, you ask him if he'll keep an eye on Trevor and Travis. "See if J.R. will sit here and play cars with them. We'll be right back."

You climb up the staircase with Daphne close behind and stop in the hallway outside your room. "Brian kind of freaked when I had it hung over the bed, so it's gonna go somewhere else." Maneuvering the piece from its resting spot facing the wall, you scoot it around so she can see it, mindful not to scratch the frame on the hardwood floor. You'd hold it up at eye level if it weren't so damn heavy, making do for now with flipping on the overhead light fixture in the hall to enhance the multilayered images. "Working on this is what opened up the floodgates."

You give her ample time to soak it all in, waiting until several minutes have elapsed. "Daphne?"

Still reverently hushed, she stands transfixed, a lone tear trickling down her cheek.



Chapter 7:

Neither of you has heard a phone ring or thought about business in days. Just what you wanted when you rented an Atlantic City beach house and insisted your husband join you on a much needed stress-free getaway. Entrusting Kinnetik into Ted's capable hands and switching off the work side of his brain hadn't been easy, but he'd given it a try and finally relaxed. He actually thanked you for being such a bossy better half and dragging him there soon after you'd arrived, all too happy to take the mai tai you ordered him out of your hand.

Now buckling your seat belts as your flight back home prepares to land, you kiss, not ready to end the laid-back week you spent playing and doting on each other.

"Let's promise to do this twice a year. For our sanity, if nothing else." Lacing your fingers between his, it occurs to you that you just might be the happiest man alive. "We really needed this."

"Twice a year? I'll go broke! You saw how much I lost at the tables."

"How do you think they build those megaresorts? With your money. We should have just eaten at the buffets and stayed out of the casinos."

Your vacation mindsets stay with you all the way down to baggage claim, only to disappear after Brian spots the tragic headline screaming out to him from a nearby newsstand and buys the local paper. You literally can't believe what you're hearing when he stops and reads the front page aloud, snatching it from him to see for yourself: Prominent fine art dealer and gallery owner Sidney Bloom -- devastating car accident -- hanging on by a thread in County General Hospital --

Brian skims the article over your shoulder. "Lindsay's probably a fucking mess. Does it say when it happened?"

"Um . . . last night. This is so unreal."

"We've gotta talk to her." He reaches into his pocket. "No goddamned cell phones! Fucking beautiful! That's the last time I let you talk me into going away without—"

You turn around in the middle of his rant and hurry over to the nearest rental car counter, rattling off your emergency and pleading with the agent to give you an outside line. Not surprised to hear Lindsay's number roll to voice mail, you take a deep breath. "Hey, we just got back from A.C. and read about Sidney. Are you okay? We're leaving the airport right now. No phones with us, so we'll call you as soon as we get to the house. Bye."

Paying extra for a car service to cut off slowpokes and speed you home, your tension doesn't subside until you pull into the driveway and find Lindsay's SUV parked off to the side. She and Gus pile out of it as soon as they see you.

"Help your dads with their luggage," she tells him, both of you handing off your rolling bags.

Brian reaches out to her with a peck on the lips and a warm embrace. "What the hell happened? He's near death?"

"It was a drunk driver. Ran a red light doing sixty and hit him broadside. He never had a chance."

"Jesus." You slowly shake your head. "He's already gone?"

Lindsay's eyes tear up, her voice breaking. "His wife was making arrangements to have his organs donated when I left the hospital this morning. It won't be much longer till they pull the plug."

"Let's go inside." Brian's arm circles her shoulders. He gets a good look at his lanky thirteen-year-old bellhop from behind. "I think you grew another foot while we were gone, Sonny Boy."

You unlock your front door in somewhat of a daze, still not quite grasping the idea of Sidney's imminent passing. "Thanks, Gus. You can leave them right there." You motion to the bottom of the staircase and ask if he wants a soda, the four of you ending up at your kitchen table before long in the midst of a family huddle.

"And since Sidney's wife wants me to run the gallery, I'll be doing it alone until I can hire more help. I'll have to go in early and stay late at night. And Mel's court case is just heating up, so she's working long hours, too." Lindsay takes a sip of the tea you'd made her. "We talked it over, and we just thought it'd be best if Gus stays here full time for awhile." She eyes Brian first and then you. "If it's okay."

"This has always been Gus's home, too. You don't have to ask something like that. Right, Brian?"

"No more driving him back to the Pitts on Sunday night after the weekend? Whatever shall we do with ourselves and all the gas we'll save?"

"See? I told you they'd say yes!" Gus's chair screeches on the terrazzo when he pushes away from the table and leaps to his feet. "My backpack's in the car!"

----------

"IF I CREATE FROM THE HEART, NEARLY EVERYTHING WORKS. IF FROM THE HEAD, ALMOST NOTHING." - Marc Chagall

"Well, I've had enough sorrow and grief for one afternoon. How about you guys?" Brian peels off his suit jacket and makes a beeline to the liquor cabinet the minute you walk in the house. "It's been a long day."

You head into the den with Gus. Slumping down on the couches, you kick off your patent leather dress shoes at the same time, all twenty of your cramped up toes breathing in relief. Though emotionally drained after the three hour ordeal of Sidney Bloom's funeral and subsequent graveside service, you're always available for the closest thing you'll ever have to a biological son. "You okay? You were really quiet all the way home."

Gus shrugs, searching through the video games he keeps in the end table drawer. "I don't know. It's just my mom. She was so sad."

"It was sad for all of us."

"Yeah. It's good she sat with us and everything, but didn't it bother you that she kept clinging to my dad?"

"That doesn't bother me." You watch him fidget with the newest version of Assassin's Creed, turning it over and over in his hands. "Brian's very protective of Lindsay. They've loved each other since their college days; they'll always love each other." Feeling his confusion, you wait till he slowly looks up, his questioning eyes seeking yours. "Your father and I are life partners, Gus. The love we share is completely different. You're mature enough to understand that, aren't you?"

He nods like his old self again and plugs his game into the console, the universe as he's always known it happily back to making sense. "I wish my moms had what you and Dad have."

"They don't?" You'd thought it a little strange today that Melanie hadn't been there for her wife, but a sudden clamor in the dining room instantly wipes out any and all lesbianic concerns.

"Fuck! Not again!" your aforementioned life partner roars. "Justin!? Have you seen this!?"

"What is it?" Rushing to his side, your first inkling is to calm him down.

But then he shoves a short handwritten note under your nose. "I found it taped to the whiskey bottle! The first place he knew I'd go when we got home. His resignation! Effective immediately!"

You wad up the scrap of paper in your fist with a loud huff. "What the fuck's going on with these housekeepers? Daniel's the second one to walk out on us this month!"



Chapter 8:

"Listen, Gus. I don't know what you're doing to make them quit, but whatever it is, you better knock it the fuck off."

"I'm not doing anything to make them quit, Dad! Mrs. Beasley liked me. She really did!"

You turn off the oven and join them at the table, setting a serving platter of lightly seasoned roasted chicken breasts next to the rice pilaf and tossed salad. "I'm sure Gus isn't driving them away, Brian. You're just aggravated with the situation." Bending down, you press your mouth onto the sole set of lips you've chosen to kiss for the rest of your life.

"Hell, yes, I'm aggravated! You've stopped working early every night this week to make dinner, and I'm out of excuses why I can't do it." Brian helps himself to modest portions of food compared to the amounts you and Gus routinely put away. "So when do we interview the next prospect?"

"When we find the next prospect. We've gone through the entire list." You take a roll and pass the bread basket over to Gus. No way he's to blame for the parade of new cooks and housekeepers giving their notice soon after they get the lay of the land and settle in. And what about the last three consecutive job seekers who declined employment after you'd merely shown them around? You wish you knew.

"Can I cook tomorrow night, Justin? My moms taught me how to make tacos. They're really good. And Dad won't have to think up another excuse."

Brian raises an eyebrow while you and Gus snicker at his expense. But the more important issue is the elephant in the corner the mention of Lindsay and Melanie has riled. Fearing the worst from the moment Lindsay called and asked if they could come out to Britin that evening, you're still hoping your instincts are off. For Gus's sake.

"Come on, Sonny Boy. Help me clean up." Brian stacks your empty plates and carries them to the sink after your laughter-filled wisecracking competition disguised as a family meal. "We'll let Justin do some more painting before your moms get here. Any idea what this little visit's all about?"

"Bad news, prob'ly. They were fighting a lot when they said I could live here, and I can tell it's not any better every time I talk to one of them on the phone."

Rising when Gus does, you walk over to him and pull his spindly frame against your chest. "We're here for you no matter what happens. This will always be your home." Visions of sprinting down a long hospital corridor beside the hottest guy you'd ever seen fill your head. You'll do everything in your power to ensure that newborn baby he'd been racing to meet feels wanted and secure. After all, you know what it is to suffer the opposite during these fragile teenage years.

"'M-kay," Gus mumbles into your shoulder. He hugs you back before he grabs the silverware off the table and brings it to the dishwasher.

Brian looks up from the running water, your eyes connecting on their own private wavelength. Absorbing from each other what words can't convey, neither of you has ever been in a better place. You're heading up the kitchen stairs to your studio when you actually hear it.

"I love you, Gus, and Justin does, too. Everything's gonna be fine."

You like to think you had something to do with the evolution of Brian Kinney.

----------

"And now you know. We wanted to tell you in person before Jenny and I leave for Florida." Melanie brushes a tear from her cheek and looks out onto your moonlit pool, struggling to keep it together. Then she turns to Gus and tugs on his arm. "How about you give me a grand tour of this gorgeous house? I've only seen a couple of rooms down here on the first story."

Lindsay watches her son open the sliding glass door for his other mom and lead her inside. Sighing audibly, she shifts in her lawn chair to face you and Brian on the A-frame swing. "She wants some time alone with him to say good-bye. Accepting that position out of state was tough for her, but she's determined to get away and start over."

"Do you need money?" Brian fires up the nightly cigarette and inhales sharply before he hands it off to you.

Savoring a single pull of tar and nicotine, you drop it into your empty beer bottle, the one-drag-three-times-a-day-for-each-of-you approach working pretty well as you wean yourselves from the habit together. "Yeah, if there's anything we can do, just name it."

"Thanks, but I'm okay." Lindsay takes a swig of her own beer, apparently mistaking your patio for a therapist's office. "Mel keeps saying I haven't tried very hard to save our marriage. But if you want to know the truth, there was nothing left to save. We've fallen out of love."

Brian holds his tongue for all of five seconds. Five more than you expected. "So love's dead in Muncher Land. What a bitch." He weaves his arm around your shoulders and scooches you a little closer to him, unmistakable code for it being alive and well in Queerville.

"This place is huge. You guys have made it into a beautiful home." Melanie's eyes are red when she comes back outside with Gus. Their last evening together until who knows when is tinged with sadness, but exploring every square foot of Britin with her personal tour guide is one of the many memories of him she'll take to her new life. "Cool aquarium in Gus's room. I guess they were out of the small ones the day you bought it?"

That makes you laugh. "You know Brian. He never does anything small. Now we just have to get Gus to clean it by himself. We're working on that, aren't we, Gus?"

"Yeah. I almost got the whole tank done by myself last time, remember?"

Melanie hugs her son. "I'm glad I came out here tonight. Lindsay and I did agree he's at the age when he needs to live with his fathers, but it's nice to see for myself how happy he is." She makes eye contact with Brian first and then you. "Gus is thriving, and I thank you both for that."

"Gee, Melanie. I don't detect a trace of the deep and abiding resentment you've held toward me all these years." Your husband's tone is remarkably snark-free. "Could it be, perhaps, a thing of the past?"

"Dead and buried. No hard feelings, huh, Brian?"

"No hard feelings."

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Melanie gets her bag from the chaise where she left it, gearing up to leave. She only has one question. "I just wanna know how the hell you guys can keep any domestic help in this mansion with that emotional, bloodstained painting hanging in the butler's pantry?"



Chapter 9:

"Come on, Justin. Rise and shine." Your husband turns to look at the clock on his nightstand. "Aren't they going to be here in forty-five minutes?"

"I can't. You feel too good. Lie here with me a little longer." You'd pay a king's ransom right about now in exchange for the natural cessation of time, but you know you're in the midst of a losing battle when he inches out of your grasp and his feet hit the floor.

"I'll warm up the shower."

A graceless, unbecoming grunt is your answer to that. Brian pinches the bridge of his nose and squelches his urge to call you a drama queen. He's brushing his teeth by the time you sleepwalk into the bathroom to piss, hot vapor wafting through the air and leaving a foggy mirror in its wake. You contort your face into a gaping yawn, flush the toilet, and question your sanity. Why in hell did you ever schedule this transport to take place so early?

No wonder Brian's so chipper. He's probably been crossing off the days. He sticks his minty-fresh tongue in your mouth when you nearly collide in front of the shower, then he opens the door and pulls you inside with him. Pouring expensive body wash on your chest, he works it into a sudsy lather.

You may have had to drag yourself out of bed to supervise the packing and shipping of your masterpiece-turned-colossal-headache to downtown Pittsburgh, but his slippery fingertips rubbing your nipples into erect stubs as the hot water pings off your back wakes you up in a hurry. Your dicks thickening and bobbing upward, you can't stop yourself from running your right hand through the soap he's whipped up and clasping it around his shaft. "Too bad we don't have time to fuck in here."

"This is good." Brian kisses your lips under the steamy spray while you tug and twist and knead, moaning softly when his come eddies down the drain in record time. The gleam in his eye is blinding. "Who says you're not a morning person?"

----------

"ART IS NOT WHAT YOU SEE, BUT WHAT YOU MAKE OTHERS SEE." - Edgar Degas

You sign the work order and pay the movers in cash, breathing a sigh of relief now that your precious painting will be safe here and out of the way. Eternally grateful to Lindsay for offering to keep it in a closed off storage room at the Bloom Gallery, you thank her again when she joins you in the dimly lit space with two cups of fresh coffee.

"It's no problem. Really. Sidney would have come up with the idea himself if he were still here."

"I should probably trash it, but I can't. Something won't let me."

Lindsay evokes her inner art teacher and thoughtfully inspects the piece, which is propped against the wall beside a clunky old desk she'd recently replaced in her office with a new French Provincial one. "It's mesmerizing, Justin. The dream-like hues. Your impeccable technique. Regardless of the tragic subject matter, it's a stunning work."

"I just wish I knew what to do with it." You scratch the side of your head and drink more coffee, nodding while she assures you it'll stay right where it is until you decide otherwise. You're not surprised when she veers off into more lucrative territory as soon as the conversation permits, namely how prepared you happen to be for your upcoming show.

Immersed in a deep discussion about the themed series you've almost completed, neither of you is aware of the couple pushing their toddler in his stroller early Saturday morning out in front of the gallery. Stopping to glance up at its sign, they check out what fine art they can spy through the windows.

"Hey, maybe we should get an oil painting for the living room. I've always wanted something over the sofa. What do you think?"

"I think I've never thought about it before. I build homes for a living, Tamara. I don't decorate 'em."

"Let's go inside and look around."

That's the last thing on earth Tamara's husband would like to do. "I gotta get home and watch the game. Just come back Monday and buy anything you want."



Chapter 10:

"I really hope I haven't done the wrong thing here. I mean it's such a personal work with a tremendous emotional hold on him. We've been keeping it in the storage room, but somehow she wandered in there and found—"

"Lindsay, Christ! What are you talking about?" Your partner signs the last document in Ted's folder and signals for him to close his office door on his way out. "What the fuck are you saying?" he barks into his phone.

Already stretched incredibly thin on this busy Monday morning at the Bloom Gallery, Lindsay sighs and starts over. "Justin's painting. The one he didn't know what to do with. A young woman was in here earlier with her toddler, and she asked me where the restroom was when she needed to change him. I guess I'd accidentally left the door to the storeroom open and she'd wandered in and looked around because she came back out and said she wanted to buy it. I told her several times that one isn't for sale, but she was adamant about purchasing it. I broke down in the end and said I'd speak to the artist and get back to her."

He has no time for this, as his loud groan indicates. "And you're telling me this why?"

"I'm asking your opinion, Brian. Do you think Justin should know someone's interested in buying it? As far as he's concerned, it was never supposed to be seen by the public. It was tucked away safe and sound, both physically and mentally. I don't want to . . . open up old wounds . . ."

The first thing you notice when you enter your husband's inner sanctum at Kinnetik is the absence of any audible conversation even though he's holding his cell phone to his ear. The second is the pained look on his face. He can't be conducting business in this state, and you wonder if that's good or bad. Unwinding the scarf around your neck, you raise an inquisitive brow when he snaps out of it and focuses on you.

"I'll talk to him, okay? He just walked in. Bye, Linds." Brian glances at the time before he leans forward in his chair, your lips meeting together midway over his desk. "You're early. We said lunch at eleven forty-five."

"I'm having a for shit day in the studio. Thought we could leave now and drink our way through lunch at Woody's. Talk to me about what?"

That look again. Uneasy and pensive. Procrastinating as long as he can, Brian finally joins you on the other side of the desk. "Let's sit down." He takes you by the hand and walks to the sofa.

What if they were discussing Gus going back to live with her again? That would seriously bite because you've grown quite attached to your little family of three.

Brian pulls you down with him, practically onto his lap. He pats his shirt pocket out of habit, but his cigarettes aren't there. Haven't been since you helped each other quit. He takes a deep breath. "That was Lindsay."

"Yeah, I kind of gathered as much when I heard 'Bye, Linds.' What'd she say?"

More hesitation, but you've never been so happy to see that classic Brian Kinney smirk emerge a few seconds later.

"You know, drinking our way through lunch is a fabulous idea. Let me just get Cynthia to cancel—"

"Fuck, no! I'm not moving until you tell me what's going on. What the fuck did Lindsay say?"

"She said someone wants the housekeeper repellent. A girl saw it in the storeroom at the gallery and kept insisting she wants to buy it. Lindsay told her that one's not for sale, but she wouldn't take no for an answer. Now she's waiting to hear back from Lindsay whether or not the artist will relent and consider selling." Your husband stops as abruptly as he'd begun, ready to provide any level of comfort and support you might need. Keenly aware of the sleeping monster he's most likely riled, he's prepared for any reaction.

Except the one he gets.

It starts with a giggle and quickly grows, your eyes twinkling with relief. You throw your arms around him and squeeze. "So Gus can stay?"

"Huh?"

"She doesn't want Gus back? It's only about the stupid painting?" You kiss him through your laughter with a loud smack.

"Stupid painting?" He shakes his head. "Stupid painting?! Justin, that thing's been a noose around our necks for the past year! All the pain and anguish it's caused? All your dark moods and mysterious behavior? Fuck! I've been weirded out ever since that first time you showed it to me." Brian turns and looks through his office window, nothing but the image of a blood-soaked canvas staring back at him. He almost winces. "Three cooks and five housekeepers have walked out on us because they couldn't handle it, and now it's stupid?"

You spend less than a minute in contemplation, your thoughts never clearer. "Hard to believe, isn't it? But I think it's served its purpose. I relived the horror of the bashing over and over again every single time I worked on it, but you know what? That's how I got my memory back. And now? All the fears and hang-ups that prick Hobbs left me with seem so distant. Mollified. Laid to rest.

Your spoken thoughts are music to your ears, rolling off your tongue so easily. That's when you catch on they're coming from a place that hadn't existed until this very moment. A place of beauty. A place of peace. A place of healing. "It's like I'm free, Brian. I'm thirty fucking years old, and I'm finally free."

----------

"You really want to do this? It's not too late to reconsider." Brian laces his fingers through yours as you walk into the Bloom Gallery together, his tight clasp on your hand just another example of the unwavering support system he's been. "We can get back in the car and leave if you're having second thoughts about selling."

You smile at your husband, loving him for playing objective sounding board all week while you hashed and rehashed your decision. "I'm fine. Honestly. I told you. We set the cost outrageously high because of the piece's inherent value to me, which kicked the ball into this girl's court. If she buys it, that's great, and if she doesn't buy it, that's okay, too. I only asked Lindsay to schedule a meeting with her today so I can find out for myself what kind of a nut job likes my disturbing art."

"Hmmph." It sounds more like a snort than he intends. "And now you agree it's disturbing. Whatever happened to magical? Cathartic? How many times have I heard you sing praises to the most uplifting canvas you've ever painted?" He could go on. And on, if not for the palpable side-eye boring into his skin.

You're still smiling, though, pausing just outside of Lindsay's office. "Let's get through this meeting, all right? Then it won't matter what we call it 'cause I'm gonna throw the damn thing out if she doesn't have the money. I know it's a monstrosity, Brian. I've known all along." Rising on tiptoe, you throw a speedy kiss onto his lips. A long sigh emanates from under your breath when you turn to go in. "It's an eerie fucking monstrosity."

"Your words, dear, not mine." He follows you through the door, unable to resist a playful swat to the bubble butt swishing in front of him.

"Here's our famous artist now! I knew he wouldn't keep you waiting!" Lindsay appears to be soaring sky-high on happy drugs at first glimpse, fawning all over the young woman sitting on the opposite side of her desk as if she were royalty. "Justin! Right on time! This is Tamara. She adores your work."

Flashing your trademark grin, you approach the fair-haired girl and shake hands. She looks about the same age as you. "Hey. Nice to meet you. This is my partner, Brian."

He barely manages a friendly 'Hi' before Lindsay's off and running again.

"I'm not sure if you're aware of this, Tamara, but Mr. Taylor's currently the most noted painter in Pittsburgh. You only need to Google him to learn of his early career successes in New York and the long list of esteemed galleries he's shown in over the years."

She smells dollar signs. You've been in business with her long enough to know. Thank fuck you're into creating art, not selling it. Especially your own. You'd go crazy if your bottom line depended on shameless promotion every hour of the day.

Although Tamara isn't put off in the least. "Yeah, I've read all about you and your impressive background, Mr. Taylor. That's how I discovered the Taylor Art website. Your gallery in New York looks awesome. But it's a painting I saw here that I need to buy. The red one."

The red one. How novel. Now why haven't you and Brian simply been referring to The Red One all this time? You don't even bother to sit. "The red one?"

"Oh, I've often been lost inside its profoundly deep scarlets and crimsons! In fact, the sanguinary nature of-"

You cut Lindsay off mid-sentence with a quickly raised open palm in her direction, keeping your focus on Tamara. "You've been informed of the hefty price tag, I assume? I just can't let it go for less than that. It means too much to me."

"Price is no object, Mr. Taylor. My husband's construction company has really taken off this year, so we're financially comfortable. Not to brag or anything, but we're more than comfortable. I'm redecorating my living room in red, and your painting will be ideal over the sofa. I knew the minute I found it I had to have it."

Yes, you heard correctly. You can't make this shit up. She needs your red nightmare for her new red living room. Who are you to argue? You look over at Brian, who's sprawled on the love seat in the corner. "She has to have it."

Brian's face comes alive, his tongue poking the inside of his cheek. "She has to have it."

"Well, then." Lindsay laughs a little along with the girl in front of her. "I guess you have to have it! Congratulations, Tamara. You've just bought a Justin Taylor original."

"Thank you! Thank you so much!" Tamara thrusts her hand out, shaking with you again to seal the deal. "I love it! The color's perfect!"

"Wonderful. I'm happy it works for you." Seems you just made six figures off a girl who likes red. Is Brian actually gloating? "Um, I think I'll let Lindsay finish this up if you don't mind, Tamara, 'cause Brian and I are late for our next appointment. But, hey, thanks for coming in today." You nod at Lindsay then give your husband the eye. "Come on, Bri."

"Our next appointment? What the fuck was that?" Brian zips up his jacket when you leave the gallery and head for the parking lot. Kissing your cheek, his Cheshire grin refuses to hide. "I thought we had the rest of the afternoon off."

You weave an arm behind his waist and pull him into your side. "Your dick's urgent appointment with my ass? You know you can't wait to get me home and fuck me silly."

"Aah, right. And here I was afraid you had to rake in another hundred thou before we could call it a day."

"Uh-huh."

He aims the small remote on his key ring toward the car, clicking to unlock it.

"I'm onto you."

"Moi?" Straight face and everything. He's good. He's really good.

So are you. "Admit it, Brian. You're more turned on right now than you've ever been in your life. You've been secretly hoping for days she'd come up with the cash and get that thing out of our lives forever." Leaning backward on the passenger side door, you peer up at him through your lashes.

His eyes are closed when he sticks his tongue down your throat, your crotches scraping together. "Guilty," he whispers against your lips. "You?"

"Guilty."

It's been a long time since you've fucked in the car, but this is infinitely better. Funny how sucking his dick all the way to West Virginia while he steers with one hand and fondles your fully clothed ass with the other makes you feel seventeen again.



Epilogue:

Lindsay fires up her computer and clicks on the Bloom Gallery's sales template, positively giddy over the lucrative deal and how quickly it went down. She knows it'll be quite some time, if ever, before she gets out of the way and watches another piece utterly sell itself as yours did. With the staggering amount of work she didn't do, it almost seems wrong to pocket her cut. Typing the date in the appropriate box, she bids that thought a swift parting. Hey, no need to overthink this. "So, Tamara, if I can just get some information from you, we can have your painting delivered tomorrow before five p.m. Name, address, phone number. That kind of stuff."

"Okay, sure." Tamara rattles off her address and phone number while she fishes in her bag through a sea of plastic credit, opting to use her American Express card to pay for the pricey addition to her living room makeover. She wonders what's up with the shift in Lindsay's demeanor when she hands over her credit card and driver's license as valid I.D.

"Hobbs?! Your name is Tamara Hobbs?" Lindsay's face turns into a big fat grimace as she instantly recalls the wrath she felt sitting in a packed courtroom and hearing the decision handed down by one sickeningly biased judge. The blatant discrimination heaped upon her and members of her community by the despicable Regular Roy still festers to this day. She thinks of your sweet, innocent, eighteen-year-old self, critically injured by Satan incarnate in such a vicious hate crime. Eyeing the pretty girl across her desk, she subtly shakes her head from side to side. It can't be. It just can't be.

"Yeah. Why?"

"Your little boy's so cute. I think I heard you call him Christopher that day you were asking where the restroom was and you found Justin's painting in the storeroom?" It's got to be a coincidence . . . It's got to be a coincidence . . . Lindsay writes up the transaction as if her pulse weren't racing and her mind weren't darting in a thousand different directions at once. "Is he named after your husband?" She looks up from the screen and manages a weak smile.

"Uh-huh. Chris always said he couldn't wait to have a son and raise him to be a miniature version of himself. He's getting his wish, too." Tamara laughs and pulls out a wallet-sized family photo to show Lindsay. "Some days Christopher Junior can be a real monster!"

"Oh!" Lindsay might have to throw up. "I mean, oh, I guess one monster in the family is enough." Aiming visible contempt at your former classmate's likeness, she half-expects the picture to start smoldering in his wife's hands and blister her skin. She runs the girl's card and returns it to her along with her I.D. "Pennsylvania sales tax is six percent. So on your hundred thousand dollar purchase, that's six thousand dollars. One hundred and six thousand dollars you and your husband just shelled out for Justin's work of art."

"Yeah, I know." Tamara skews a look at Lindsay and stands to wrap up the meeting that's taken a rather odd turn. "Please thank Mr. Taylor for me again. I'm so happy he decided to sell after all."

Lindsay scoots her chair back from her desk and rises also. Offering a businesslike handshake, she plasters a phony grin over the rage. "Don't worry, Mrs. Hobbs. I'm sure he'll be thrilled to hear that his personal masterpiece will be hanging in your home."


~ ~ ~ THE END ~ ~ ~
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