(Gay- M/M New Adult Romance)
In Digital: $6.99
Finding the Strength: Book Two
The one person he trusted destroyed everything. Trusting again won’t be easy.
Eighteen-year-old Marshall’s bright future shattered the day his once friend and lover opened fire on their campus, killing twelve and leaving Marshall with a shoulder wound and devastating guilt over the part he played in the massacre. The press may have dubbed him a hero, but Marshall has nowhere to turn, no one to help him through the anxiety and depression closing in on him.
Until he meets tattoo artist Benny Hayes.
Benny can’t solve all Marshall’s problems, but he can assure him that he’s not defined by his trauma. Marshall wants what Benny’s offering. He wants to live, to love again. But the secret he shares with the shooter casts a long shadow, and Marshall’s fear of it coming to light makes it hard to move forward.
I had studied the front of Benny’s shop many times, but now for some reason instead of seeing just two large windows and the too-bright red neon sign, it gave off a welcoming vibe. It wanted me to come inside. Maybe the change was because its owner had invited me in?
I scanned the area, expecting someone I knew to appear, much like Theo had. But other than a few people on the opposite side of the street, it was empty. No one would stop me or convince me not to go inside. I was on my own.
I opened the door and entered, an electronic ding announcing my arrival. The front room was bigger than I expected, very airy and open with pictures of tattoos on the wall and a few chairs and couches near them. There was a rectangular aquarium near the front desk.
Music and some type of buzzing came from behind a burgundy curtain, which I assumed was where people were given their tattoos. I walked to the front desk, ready to call out a hello, when I noticed a pudgy black cat sitting in the middle of the counter.
“A cat in a tattoo parlor?” I stared at the cat, waiting for it to open its eyes and acknowledge me.
“That’s Canvas. She’s a Bombay and Astral’s mascot.” A girl near my age with pink highlights and a tattoo of the moon with stars surrounding it on her right bicep appeared out of nowhere.
“Um… hi, I didn’t see you when I came in.” I started to fold my hands behind my back, but deciding it would make me look too stiff and weird, I left them at my sides. At least I’d dressed down for my trip here. I wore a pair of gym shorts and one of my old high school swimming T-shirts.
“I was in the supply closet when I heard the bell.” She raised her hand in hello. “I’m Addison, one of the owners.”
She smiled, the silver stud in the side of her nose catching my eye. She came up to my shoulders, and had a body that was thick—a term I’d heard used by some guys back at school. She wasn’t model thin, which wasn’t a fault because she wore her weight well. If I were straight, I would have been attracted to her.
“You’re Benny’s cousin? I’m Marshall. Here for a tattoo.” I smiled instead of wincing at my sad conversation skills. “I mean, of course I’m here for a tattoo, not just to see Benny.”
Two dimples appeared on her cheeks, and she bit her bottom lip to either show she was amused or flirting. She moved behind the counter and ran her hands along the cat’s back, which didn’t even move. “He’s popular, even with the kids.”
Was she calling me a kid? I bristled but chose my words carefully. “I’m nineteen and legal in this state to get a tattoo.”
She did her lip-biting thing again. “You’re the type who abides by the rules, so I know you have a legit reason to be here. Why don’t you take a load off and fill out this form?” She slid it over with a pen. “He’s finishing up with a client.”
Not even wearing a faded T-shirt and crappy shorts fooled her. I never had this problem in high school, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, even if it meant wearing certain types of clothes to fit in. I guess I wasn’t the type of customer who usually came in here. I wasn’t here to impress her. Benny, on the other hand, was another story. But my main goal was getting a tattoo whether he was the one to give it to me or not.
I nodded at her, not interested in the verbal ping-pong. I sat near the aquarium and filled out the form with my info. The phone rang and Addison answered. My attention turned to the fish, especially the guppies swimming in circles, leaving bubbles in their wake.
The music behind the curtain stopped, leaving Addison to fill in the silence while she talked on the phone. After a few seconds the sounds of male voices floated up front and then one shouted a “hells yeah.”
The curtain opened, and a guy in jeans, a white ribbed tank, and an impressive beard that nearly touched his chest came out with Benny behind him. The customer flexed his arm where, under a clear bandage, was inked a black dragon with a red tongue hanging out of its mouth. “You’re the best goddamn tattooist in the state.”
“Try the East Coast,” Addison inserted and then spoke again to whomever she talked to on the phone.
Being partially hidden because of the aquarium, I watched unnoticed. I blatantly checked out Benny, who wore jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Nothing fancy from him, which made me appreciate his look even more. The color of his tee for some reason set off the copper in his hair and beard.
“I may have one or two awards for my mad injection skills.” He locked his fingers around the guy’s wrist for a handshake.
For some reason my wrist tingled, as if he’d grabbed mine. I rubbed it, wondering what it would feel like to be embraced by him.
The friendly aggressive customer kept Benny’s hand in his grip, not that Benny seemed to mind as he set his hand on the guy’s shoulder. “When you’re ready for me to do the other arm, just call me.”
“I wish I could have the other arm done for tomorrow night’s party, but I need to save up the funds first.” He moved his newly tattooed arm from side to side, an awestruck ex stuck on his face.
“I’ll give you a discount since you sent me three referrals. Their tats helped pay off our mortgage this month.” Benny high-fived Addison, who had finally ended her call.
“Expect more, especially after tomorrow night. I’ll see you then, bro.” The dragon-tattooed guy clapped Benny on the back and, with a two-finger salute to Addison, left.
She petted the yawning Canvas. “Your next appointment is here.”
“Appointment? I don’t have one. I’m—” He turned in my direction and stopped midspeech. Within seconds recognition came into his gaze and he smiled. “My man Marshall.”
He probably called other guys the same, but hearing him say it to me gave me the confidence to rise and hold out my hand for him to shake. “You did say stop in anytime.”
“That I did.” He grasped my hand, giving it a slight pump. He didn’t release it, and I didn’t either. He nodded and squeezed. “Good to see you.”
“You too.” I squeezed him back, realizing this was of the longest handshakes I’d experienced. But I didn’t really mind.
Addison coughed, whether on purpose or not, I couldn’t say, and Benny let me go. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, giving me a clear view of his arm tattoos, especially the blackbird near his right wrist.
“Did Addison give you a warm welcome and offer you water or something else to drink?” He didn’t give his cousin a glance.
She tugged on his hair. He blinked in reaction. “I would take that as a no.”
“I’m fine.” I held up my hands, as if that was enough proof to show I wasn’t thirsty.
One of his eyebrows arched, as if he was questioning me. Or maybe I was just paranoid because I was locked in to his every movement. There was just something about him I couldn’t stop staring at.
“Let’s go to my office.” He went to the curtain and pulled it back.
“Your next appointment is at two.” Addison typed on the computer in front of her.
“Enough time for us to talk, and then lunch.” He motioned for me to go first.
She snapped her finger and turned around. “Before I forget, your mother called about Grandma Ruby’s birthday. Call her back.”
“Yeah, okay.” He didn’t sound too sure, but he didn’t give anything away on his face. He waved me to me again, and this time I obeyed.
The room wasn’t as large as the front, but still had enough space. There were three sections cordoned off with black stools and instruments I assumed were used for tattooing, including curtains for privacy. Near the far-left wall was a cubical with a desk and chairs.
“Take a seat in my office.” I followed him inside the cubical, expecting him to sit behind the desk. He sat in the chair next to me.
“I expected you to have a bigger office.” The space was the exact opposite of the front and even the area where people would get tattooed. It was very bland.
“I’m not in here too often. Just when I’m doing paperwork like invoices or billing.” He relaxed in his chair with his legs spread out and his hands folded on his stomach.
I was too nervous to mimic his pose, so I sat up straight. “You’ve got a great place here. Very animal friendly with the cat and the fish.”
He smiled in appreciation. “Addie and me found Canvas in our alley three years ago. We adopted her. You’ll be surprised how many people come in here wanting tats of their pets.”
I snuck a peek at his arms. “How about you? Any animal tats?”
“I have a jaguar one on my back. I’ll have to show you it sometime.”
Why not show me it now? I ran my tongue behind my front teeth instead of blurting that out. The innuendo in his statement wasn’t lost on me, but again I might be reading into something that wasn’t there. He could be this friendly with everybody.
“I don’t think I’ll be getting an animal tattoo. To be honest, I don’t know what I want.”
“I have a lot of people who come to me who want a tat, but they’re not sure what type.” He sat up and bent over his knees, bringing him in closer to me. “Let me ask you this—how much are you willing to spend?”
“Up to five hundred.” I was willing to invest in a tattoo because it would be a part of me forever, but if he said more, near the thousand-dollar range, I might have to rethink the idea.
“I can work with that, but it won’t be an arm sleeve or a full back one.”
“Oh no.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t go that far like what you have. I’m interested in something that won’t be too glaring or make me have second thoughts in say ten or twenty years from now.”
He tugged on his bottom lip. “It’s probably best if you get it someplace on your body you can cover up. But it all depends on whether you want the world to see the art. You’re still young, but I have a feeling you know what you want to do with your life. Where do you see yourself by forty?”
There were two things I wanted for myself, both of which were impossible dreams. I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer like Michael Phelps, or if I wasn’t strong enough to move to politics, I could settle for being a teacher and a swimming coach. But I didn’t want to settle. Right now things might be undetermined, but I refused to back away from what wanted for so long. I wanted the best, and that would mean the ultimate prize.
I leaned forward slightly as if I was going to share a secret. “I want to be president of the United States.”
He tapped on his bottom lip with two fingers. He was so close I could reach out and feel… no, stroke his beard. If we were in a different situation and I knew for sure he was gay, I would have gone for it. But I kept my hands to myself.
“I remember your friend mentioning it at the fair. President by forty, eh? It’s going to take a lot of hard work on your part to accomplish that goal in the next twenty years.” Lines emerged in his forehead, as he appeared deep in thought or at least pretended to be. “You sure you want a tattoo? I can’t think of any president who had one or admitted they did.”
“Having a tattoo would be the least of my worries if I ran for a government position as high as president.” I pressed my palms together and folded my fingers on one another. “If I was elected as the leader of the free world, I would be the first openly gay president.”
He sat back in his chair, still tapping his bottom lip. I couldn’t say if his sudden need for space hurt, but it was enough to make me second-guess this conversation we were having.
“It’s good to have goals at such a young age.” He nodded with approval.
The young age comment stung. He made it sound like the seven-year age difference between us was a big deal. We were both consenting adults, and he was happy I stopped in. Maybe I had his signals all wrong, and he acted this way with anyone so they would become his customer.
“Based on what you told me, your goals are impressive. I don’t know many guys your age who own a business, and I can’t think of any openly gay tattoo artists off the top of my head.” I leaned back, acting more at ease than I felt. Although my words were congratulatory, their meaning was more antagonistic.
His hand dropped away from his face although his posture didn’t change. He was actually very still, his gaze direct and strong enough that it made me want to squirm in my seat and apologize for my words.
“When did you figure out you were gay?” His voice was much softer than before.
I didn’t expect him to answer with a question. Also no denial from him. I didn’t have anything to hide. “Ten. It was on my birthday, actually.”
“I think I always knew, but I told my mom when I was thirteen.”
The pressure on my shoulders vanished, and I almost laughed, not because I found what he said funny but because I was relieved. The last person I had asked was Jordan, who wasn’t as forthcoming as I was or how Benny admitted it just now. It felt good to get it out of the way, an unneeded obstacle that would have put some strain on this new relationship of ours.
Straight people never had this problem. I laughed then because I couldn’t imagine two straight people having this type of conversation.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“It’s not something I think is funny, but more of an observation—”
The phone on his desk rang. He sat up and also took out his cell. “I knew when I didn’t answer my cell and she told Addison to call her back, she would call here again.”
The phone stopped ringing, but he didn’t look relieved. The phone beeped as one of the lines glowed red. He picked up the receiver then. “Yeah? I had a feeling she’d call back. No… I’ll take her call. Thanks.”
I rose from my chair to give him privacy. “I’ll wait outside while you take your call.”
He laid his hand on my arm, keeping me in place. “No, stay. It’s just my mom wanting to know if I’m coming home for my grandma’s one hundredth birthday. I won’t be long.”
“Okay.” Maybe he wanted me to stay so his excuse would be more authentic when he told his mom he couldn’t talk for long.
“Cool.” He stood and turned the phone toward him. Leaning against the desk, he set the receiver to his ear and pressed the button to take it off hold.
“Hey, Ma.” He smiled, his expression pure happiness. He kept the receiver in the crook of his neck and cracked his knuckles.
“I’ll be there the day before the party.” His smile grew larger. “Yeah, my plane arrives pretty early, around seven…. Dad will pick me up? Cool, cool.” He nodded and then did a small fist pump. “You’ll make me huevos rancheros for breakfast? Awesome. Yeah… yeah I know it’s because you love me.”
He became silent while he listened to his mother. Every time he tried to speak, he would stop, and his mouth would stay slightly open. He rolled his eyes and rubbed the middle of his nose, making me laugh. Seeing him agitated gave me a different perception of the man, which was a nice change.
He straightened and waved his hand, as if his mother saw. “Ma, no don’t put Dad—hey Dad.” He rolled his eyes at me and mouthed help. I chuckled quietly, enjoying the show.
“I said I would be there, and yes, I’ll behave.” He picked up a blue stress ball and squeezed it. “I assume Aunt Lorena will be there also? Wanna place a bet she makes me go to church with her, Uncle Walt, and the rest of the kids?” He gave the ball another squeeze and then suddenly tossed it to me. “I don’t have a problem with Lorena, just her messed-up views. No, Dad… listen, I have an appointment waiting, gotta go. Love you and Mom.” He hung up and then exhaled hard.
“You hung up on your dad without saying goodbye?” I tossed the ball to him.
He compressed the ball in his grip. “Just with him. It’s a thing we do with . Sorry you heard that. My parents talk my ear off sometimes. And whenever they bring up my aunt, we get into heated conversations.”
“Sounds like me with my mom. I’m pretty cool with my aunts and uncles on both sides.”
He squeezed the ball a few more times and then set it on his desk. “My aunt can be a real piece of work. She loves to get on her pulpit and preach, but her skill at giving speeches and enthralling the audience helped her get to where she is today. Good thing she’s not on the Supreme Court. Then we might all be screwed, but then again, where she’s headed might be just as bad.”
He talked as if I understood what he meant. He must really not like his aunt. “Sorry, did I miss something? Should I know who your aunt is?”
He shot me a disbelieving look. “Shouldn’t you know the who’s who in Washington since you plan to work there?”
“Washington DC?” If I was supposed to put two and two together, I was failing.
He glanced at his phone and then stretched his arms over his head. “I have another two hours to kill until my next appointment. How about we get lunch, and we can talk more about the type of tattoo you want.”
“Why are you changing the conversation? Who’s your aunt?” I rose from my chair. “You want me to guess?”
“You’ll find out eventually.” He stepped toward the entrance of his cubical and paused. “My aunt Lorena is the first Spanish vice president of the United States, and a Jesus freak.” He held out his arm in the direction of the front of his shop. “Let’s go eat.”
This might end up being one of the most interesting lunches I would ever have.