Death of a Bachelor
M.A. Hinkle © 2018
All Rights Reserved
First Prologue: Cathal Crushes Olives and Damon’s Dreams.
December 31st, 1997
The man sitting at the end of the bar was older than Damon, maybe twenty-four. He had a thin, foxlike face and long, dark hair that he twirled around a finger as he wrote on a napkin, and he was wearing a Cherrywood College shirt under his suit jacket. A martini sat untouched in front of him, and his eyes were lost in thought. Definitely gay, but he wasn’t…intimidating. Unlike every other man who wasn’t on the dance floor or making out with someone else.
Damon sat next to him and gestured to the bartender for a beer. He was already a little drunk, but if he wanted to relax, he’d have to get a lot drunk. The other patron continued writing out a math problem. He finished his equation, considered it, and then scribbled the whole thing out, his brow furrowed. Scowling, he drank the martini at one go. Only then did he glance in Damon’s direction. “Fuck off,” he said, biting the olive from the swizzle stick. “I’m not looking for company tonight. I came here to get drunk.”
Damon colored, but he kept the embarrassment from his voice. “Why’d you think I came here for anything different?”
“There’s plenty of room, but you sat by me.” He looked at Damon, taking him all in, and his eyes narrowed further. The scowl fit his face too well, and Damon didn’t appreciate his scrutiny. “And guys like you don’t come here for the conversation.”
Damon didn’t care for the man’s tone. But he was the first to admit he didn’t know what he was doing—and, anyway, he was drunk enough not to care. “I wasn’t aware anyone came here for conversation.”
The man snorted. “It’s not the fucking sixties anymore. Gays can have meet-cutes as easily as everyone else.” He gestured to the bartender for another martini, rubbing his forehead.
Damon didn’t know what he meant, and he wanted to ask what kind of guy this man thought he was. But he had a feeling that would piss him off, and he was looking for a good time. Instead, he took another drink of his beer. “I’m Damon,” he said, without expecting much.
The man accepted another martini from the bartender and sipped it, looking at Damon over the top. “Cathal.”
Damon drummed his fingers on the bar, wondering if he ought to cut his losses and head to a straight bar after all. But he settled for finishing his beer in one long drink.
Cathal watched him. Not friendly watching. At this point, Damon didn’t know how to leave, so he signaled for another beer. “What were you working on?”
Cathal glanced at the napkin and made a face. “Bullshit. It doesn’t matter.”
Damon screwed the cap off his second beer and took a drink. “Who comes to a bar and does their homework?”
Cathal raised his eyebrows. His face was dangerous, but he couldn’t be that bad. Too scrawny. “Who comes to a bar already drunk?” He tilted his head to the side and smiled. Not a nice smile. Damon was starting to wonder if he had a nice smile, or if he always looked like someone had pissed in his drink. “Oh. I know. Guys like you.”
Damon frowned, feeling the first stirrings of anger. “You said that before. What do you mean?”
Cathal leaned toward Damon. His voice was calm, unhurried, but his eyes were full of fire, the sort that burns unnoticed and then flares up to take a tree down in seconds. “Guys like you. Guys who are maybe straight, maybe not, who come to one of our places for a little fucking fun and then go home to their wife or girlfriend or whatever. Never mind that it’s guys like you—guys with enough gay in them to be scared when they see one of us—who cause the goddamn trouble in the first place, because you’re not man enough to face down what’s inside you.” He drank the rest of his martini and bit off the olive again, viciously. “Don’t say you play for both teams if you’re only going to bat for one side.”
Damon blinked. It wasn’t only that he was surprised by the onslaught. He was hurt, too. “Are you this much of an asshole to everyone, or just me?” His temper was throbbing now, but he wasn’t drunk enough to punch Cathal. Even though he wanted to be, because he could never match him with words.
“Everyone,” said Cathal, like he was proud of it. He got up. “If you want a fuckbuddy for the night, that’s fine. So do plenty of guys here. But go find someone who doesn’t care if you’re throwing the rest of us under the bus, because I do.” He reached to tuck the napkin into his pocket; Damon grabbed his wrist, even though he had nothing to say. Cathal shot him a look that promised every possible bad thing in the known universe. And some unknown things.
Damon let go of him, scowling. “I’m not like that. I’m not.”
Cathal smiled that prim, insipid smile again. “Yes, you fucking are.” He walked off without another word.
Damon sat there, stunned. Then he turned around and finished his beer at a go.
Second Prologue: Jane Austen Never Swore, But Cathal Reads Stephen King
July 24th, 1998
“So are you nervous?” Era asked, sweeping her skirt out beneath her legs as she sat across the booth from Damon.
Damon couldn’t make his eyes settle on her face, even though the perfect calm he always found there would have made him calm, too. “Nope. Everything’s great.”
She seized his wrist before he could bite off a hangnail. “I thought you quit biting your fingernails.”
Damon turned his hand so he could hold hers. That helped, a little. Era held his hand like she was ready to catch him if he fell. But she treated everyone that way.
“Your palms are clammy, too,” she said, running her thumb over his. “You are nervous. Whatever for?”
Whatever for. She actually talked that way, like she’d strolled out of a Jane Austen movie. Damon studied the wallpaper, even though he’d seen the pattern of stripes and dots a million times. Smithson’s was his favorite restaurant. It was supposed to make him comfortable. His voice came out rough. “I’m only meeting your best friend.”
Era clucked and squeezed his hand to make him look at her. “I’ve told you already, he’s going to act horrible and not mean a piece of it. He’s—guarded.” She traced the lines on Damon’s palm. “He was only a teenager when he came out, and his family disowned him for it. We’re all the other’s got, so naturally, he’s protective. But he’s kind under the surface. Only there’s…rather a lot of surface. It’s why I haven’t talked about him.”
Damon looked at their linked hands and wished he could tell her why he was really nervous. Era had somehow convinced herself that Damon was good enough for her, but the moment someone else saw them together, the illusion would shatter, and she’d leave him. She was too good, and he knew it. How she didn’t, when she knew so many things, was beyond him, but he wasn’t going to question good luck. He lifted her fingers to his lips, and she favored him with a smile.
Then her best friend arrived. Although he was terrible with names, Damon never forgot a face. This one was sharp, and foxlike, and closed off—the man from the bar. You could mistake him and Era for siblings: they had the same glossy black hair and blue eyes, although his eyes were like ice, not the soft forget-me-not blue of Era’s. For a minute, Damon wanted to run the other way. Then he remembered, bad meeting or not, this was Era’s best friend, and however she laughed it off, she wanted them to get along.
So he got to his feet and held out his hand to shake, hoping he didn’t look like he’d been hit in the face with a shovel.
Cathal, for his part, gave no sign he remembered Damon. His eyes were cool and thoughtful and as untouchable as the permafrost in the Arctic Circle. His hair was longer, and he was wearing a nicer suit, but otherwise, he didn’t seem to have changed. As Era introduced them, he shook Damon’s hand without any hint of a smile.
Era huffed. “I asked you to pretend to be nice. Just this once. Just for a change.”
“I’m not insulting him, am I?” He looked Damon up and down, more obviously. Damon stifled the urge to scowl, despite a prickle at the back of his neck. Cathal was good-looking. But also like a king cobra as it reared up to strike.
To Damon’s surprise, Cathal’s expression softened. “He’s—different than your usual man, Era. I’m trying to decide if this is a trick.”
“It’s not a trick. I like him, and you’re going to hush.”
A blush crept up the back of Damon’s neck at Era’s words. He wasn’t expecting much more than like from her, even though he was already so in love it made his knees weak.
Cathal slid into the booth next to Era. She offered her cheek to kiss, and he did so. He asked polite questions about Damon—college, he was giving it a shot; army, navy, actually, but not long; job, still at the diner where Damon had met Era six months ago. Damon learned a few things about Cathal in return: he was an adjunct physics professor at the local state school, working on a doctorate in astrophysics.
“I’m not sure I’m smart enough to be at this table,” said Damon, forcing himself to smile. Era was also working on her doctorate, though hers was in some specialized branch of English literature that Damon still didn’t understand.
“Most people aren’t,” said Cathal. From someone else, it might have been a joke, but Cathal was serious. Damon searched his face, wondering if he did remember. Then Cathal yelped. “Don’t kick me! It’s the truth. Sheesh, we’re not sixteen anymore.” So maybe he just said that kind of thing. Probably, if their last meeting was any indication.
When they were finished with dinner but before the check arrived, Era went to the bathroom.
Cathal had maintained a neutral expression, softening only when he spoke to Era. Now, his eyes narrowed. He did remember that night at the bar. “Listen quickly. I need to know something, and now.”
Damon bristled at his tone, like he had all that time ago, but he tried to keep his cool. “What?”
“My best friend loves you.” Cathal said it like someone else might say the sky is blue. Damon drew back, heat coming into his cheeks. Cathal ignored this, his eyes not wavering from Damon’s face. “I need to know now—can you love her back? And I don’t mean in the emotional way. I mean all the way.”
Damon blinked. “I—what?”
Cathal spoke as though explaining addition to a child. Did he ever blink? “Does the pendulum swing both ways, or are you looking for a beard? I realize I may have given the wrong impression before. I want to make it clear that I was being an asshole because I am an asshole and not because I don’t think bisexuality exists. But some men marry women because they think they can hide it. Then twenty years later they come out in a loud and messy fashion, breaking their wife’s heart. I’d kill you before I let you do that to my best friend.”
Damon blinked again, this time at the audacity of the question. His hands were fists under the table; he made himself relax, though his voice was still flat. “I wouldn’t date women if I wasn’t interested in women. What kind of a person do you think I am?”
“I don’t know what kind of person you are. It doesn’t change the fact that plenty of my friends messed around with girls so their parents wouldn’t find out.” Damon opened his mouth, but Cathal waved his objections away. “Never you mind, though. I can tell you’re not lying.”
Damon’s belly was full of fire, and he had no way to let it out. “So—”
“So we’re fine,” said Cathal, cutting him off. “I don’t like you, but don’t take it personally. I’m sure Era’s already told you I don’t like anybody. She’s taken hell out of me for chasing her other men off, but that’s because they didn’t treat her right. You will, and that’s all I care about. Never mind I have no idea what she sees in you.”
That, at least, they had in common.
Thankfully, Era returned from the bathroom before Damon could calm down enough to say something stupid. She looked from Damon’s flushed face to Cathal’s cool smile and frowned. “If you were mean—”
“No more than usual, my love.” Cathal looked like he’d stepped out to pick daisies, not like they’d almost come to blows. “You know me. I’m good at getting under people’s skin.”
“That’s for damn sure,” Damon muttered, trying to rub the blush away.
Era looked him over, still frowning. Then she sat, this time next to Damon so she could put a hand on his knee. He resisted the urge to hide his face in her shoulder. “Perhaps you weren’t impolitic after all. I’m impressed.”
Cathal just shrugged, expression unreadable.