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The 42 Days of Christmas Series from MLR Press continues and today I’m posting an excerpt provided by Rick R. Reed.
Christmas Eve should be a night filled with magic and love. But for Anderson, down on his luck and homeless in Chicago’s frigid chill, it’s a fight for survival. Whether he’s sleeping on the el, or holed up in an abandoned car, all he really has are his memories to keep him warm-memories of a time when he loved a man named Welk and the world was perfect. When Anderson finds a book of discarded matches on the sidewalk, he pockets them. Later, trying to keep the cold at bay hunkered down in a church entryway, Anderson discovers the matches are the key to bringing his memories of Welk, happiness, and security to life. Within their flames, visions dance-and perhaps a reunion with the man he loved most.
"Don’t do it! Please don’t do it!" Anderson whispered, watching from the shadows and knowing it would do no good to put much breath behind his words. He could scream until his lungs were raw; it wouldn’t change the fact he was losing his home.
They wouldn’t listen.
His "home" was a 1992 Chevy Impala, brown, nearly indistinguishable from its scabs of rust. It had all four tires, all bald, one flat. The windshield was cracked.
But he had called it home for the past several nights. Outfitted with a sleeping bag he had found in a Dumpster in an alley off Clark Street, the automotive residence was almost palatial for Anderson, who had grown accustomed to shivering in doorways throughout Chicago’s arctic winter nights, warmed by cardboard and newspapers.
"Please don’t take it away," he whimpered. He clenched his fists as he watched a Chicago city tow truck hoist the old car up and maneuver it out of its spot, where it had been abandoned in the labyrinthine underworld of lower Wacker Drive. Anderson had hoped the vehicle would go unnoticed until at least spring.
Wouldn’t that have been just grand?
A cold wind blew through the lower level street, which ran beneath the city’s tony Michigan Avenue. Anderson watched the car disappear, moving through the darkness of the tunnel, hooked to the back of the truck with its whirling lights. He wanted to stamp his feet, he wanted to cry, he wanted to run after the truck and throw himself on the mercy of the driver, pleading that it was Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake.
But he would do none of these things. Anderson was used to being quiet, to walking around invisible, as if his homelessness had transformed him into a ghost.
People didn’t notice the homeless. They averted their eyes when they saw him coming, perhaps afraid that he would ask for spare change or that he would remind them of their own vulnerability or-God forbid-he might try to touch them. After all, he hadn’t bathed in weeks. He knew he stunk. His beard had grown riotously over the past several months, along with his hair, and both were greasy and matted. His skin and clothes were grimy. And the clothes? The wool coat, the jeans, the flannel shirt, the sweater, and hiking boots? They had all degenerated, the fabrics almost rags, the boots worn beyond usefulness, a hole patched in the left one with a piece of cardboard.
Anderson knew he must be a horror at worst, an object of pity or scorn at best.
He hadn’t always been this way. Less than a year ago, he was one of them, the people he saw bustling along Michigan Avenue, or coming out of dry cleaners or grocery stores, or later at night, in and out of nightspots along Clark Street or Halsted. People who were warm and clean, wearing new clothes as though they thought nothing of it, and-most importantly-people who had homes to go to, a place to lay their weary heads at night. They were people who ate on a regular basis, consuming what they wanted when they wanted, and took it all for granted.
Yeah. He had been one of them, not so long ago. He trudged up a metal staircase that would take him to upper Wacker Drive, where he could mingle among the daytime crowds in the Loop. Today, Christmas Eve, downtown Chicago would not be quite as bustling with working people. Perhaps he could hole up in the lobby of an office building for a while, where it was blissfully warm, before being chased away by security.
Yeah. Good luck with that. Anderson emerged into the wind and the sleet, which felt like needles pelting his skin. He looked to the east and saw a bank of deep gray clouds, bruising, hanging over the roiling slate waters of Lake Michigan. He knew the clouds were just waiting to unleash inches, perhaps even feet, of snow by late afternoon.
Dreaming of a white Christmas? You got it, buddy. Nice if you’re inside, perhaps next to a crackling fire and beneath the glow of Christmas tree lights.
If someone had told Anderson he would fall so far so fast even as little as a year or so ago, he wouldn’t have believed them. If that same person had pointed out one of the homeless selling, perhaps, a StreetWisenewspaper, and said, "That’s gonna be you one day soon," he would have laughed in their faces.
It couldn’t happen. Not to him.
Except it did.
One day he was a graphic designer for a little company in the Wrigleyville neighborhood that did custom silk-screened T-shirts, working 40 hours a week and bringing home a regular paycheck. It wasn’t much and didn’t go too far in a city the size of Chicago, but it was his and it afforded him a studio apartment just three blocks from the Lake in Rogers Park on the far north side. That paycheck bought him food, the occasional beer at Big Chicks on Sheridan Road, heat, water, even a broadband Internet connection, although he never could afford cable TV. It made him one of the regular folks, the ones with a place to bed down at night.
And then the cutbacks came. Because Anderson had been with his company for a while, he was not the first to go. But then the place went out of business and no matter how smart or talented he was, there was simply no job anymore. Anderson landed in the world of recession he had only heard about on the news or read of in the papers.
He had unemployment and he could get by. Surely he would find another job before the government checks dried up.
Except he didn’t. The streets were swarming with unemployed graphic designers and his background at a T-shirt company did not put him anywhere near the top of anyone’s hiring list. He even looked into working at grocery stores, restaurants, even fast food. But it seemed there was fierce competition for those jobs as well.
It didn’t take long for the unemployment checks to run out. He begged his landlord for more time, getting further and further in arrears. He even offered to do maintenance, but he was unqualified. Eventually, his cute little studio was no longer his. He found himself evicted, one of those people he used to pity, with all their belongings put out on the street.
It was amazing how fast he found himself on the streets. He turned to friends, couch-surfed for a while, but that door stood open only for so long.
His parents had long been dead; his mother ravaged by cancer and his father in a car accident.
It was a woeful tale made even more woeful by the fact that even his boyfriend, a strapping blond cyclist named Welk, was also gone, claimed by a drunk driver as he rode his Trek to work in downtown Chicago one morning. When Welk expired at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, his life draining out of him on cold concrete, Anderson had thought the world would never be the same without the man he loved in it.
Little did he know how prophetic that thought was.
So, he ended up one of the homeless. At first, it was warm outside and wasn’t too bad. He could sleep in Lincoln Park sometimes, or hole up next to a breakwater on a beach.
His story, he realized after a while, was not so unique. Those living paycheck to paycheck, he learned on the streets, were just a gossamer curtain away from losing everything. It was easy. The spiral downward was not as long or protracted as he once would have thought.
Anderson was not alone. There were thousands like him on the streets of Chicago, competing for spaces every day in the missions and soup kitchens.
It was a lousy way to live, made more disheartening by the fact that the longer he stayed out here on the streets, the harder it would be to ever get back in, where life was comfortable and warm, where there was enough food to eat, and a roof over one’s head to keep one dry and to protect a person from a whole host of maladies awaiting those who no longer had a place to call home.
Anderson looked up as the first flakes of snow began to fall. Once upon a time, he would have been excited by the Yuletide fluff, would have gazed out at it from someplace warm, with perhaps a pot of vegetable soup simmering on his stove and Welk queuing up It’s a Wonderful Life in the DVD player.
His mouth watered at the thought of the soup. He pictured a bowl of thick, brownish redbroth with steam rising above it. He imagined carrots, peas, corn, and potatoes. These days, he found himself fantasizing about food as he once had about sex.
Stop it now, he told himself, stomach grumbling.
Almost as if to match the growl of his gut, an el train rumbled overhead. Anderson watched its course as it made its way around a bend in the famous Loop, shrieking and sending out sparks.
The train! Of course…the train. I can board and ride it all day. It’s warm, dry. I can sleep.
Anderson scratched his beard. But I need money to get on board and I have nothing.As if to prove the point to himself, Anderson patted his empty pockets.
Even though desperate times called for desperate measures, Anderson still had not gotten over his aversion to begging. More than the refusals, he hated the way people ignored him if he deigned to ask for a spare quarter, walking by him, gazes forward, as if they didn’t see him.
As if he didn’t exist.
There were lots of people walking past him right this very minute, many weighted down with shopping bags from Macy’s or Nordstrom. Surely they could spare a dollar or two so he could ride the el and get out of the cold.
But not one of them saw him. Not one of them would give him so much as a moment’s eye contact to open the door, so he could ask the question.
He could root through a trashcan or Dumpster, hoping to find a CTA transit pass someone had discarded with money still on it. But what were the odds?
Another train rumbled overheard. Anderson shook with the chill. It must be close to zero out here, he thought. And the snow is coming down heavier.
Anderson headed north, walking up Michigan Avenue. He turned right and took metal stairs down to Grand Avenue, where he knew there was a subway stop. At least he could get out of the cold and the snow, which was coming down now so heavily Anderson could barely see where he was going. Perhaps someone in the station would be kind enough to give him a Christmas present of a train ride.
Anderson made his way down the stairs into the Grand Avenue subway station, the mildew smell of the station rising up as he descended. A rush of commuters passed him going up; a train must have just discharged them. People edged by, giving him as wide a berth as possible. Just as he neared the bottom, a young woman with short black hair, wearing a down coat trimmed in fur, stumbled on the concrete stairs. She dropped her purse and its contents spilled out. Anderson paused and spotted the makeup, the few dollar bills-and a CTA transit card. A part of him told him to grab it and run, that she could well afford another one. If there was enough money stored on the card, it could get him through a good part of the winter.
But no matter how cold it got, no matter how much snow fell, no matter how well the woman could afford to buy another card, Anderson couldn’t do it. He just didn’t have it in him to steal.
He reached down to help her gather her things and she recoiled, gasping at the sight of him and scooting back and away. "That’s okay!" she said, quickly lowering her gaze to hurriedly pick up the things she had dropped.
It hurt Anderson to see the fear and disgust in her eyes.
In the station, Anderson didn’t know what to do. To access the platform, you had to have a card. Sure, he could jump the turnstiles and risk getting arrested; he had seen it done. Some got away with it, more didn’t.
Like stealing the woman on the stair’s transit pass, it simply wasn’t within Anderson to do something criminal.
Among the straggling commuters, Anderson spied an old woman who looked kindly. Perhaps she would take pity on him. With her upsweep of gray hair, her sensible wool coat, rubber boots, and hand-crocheted scarf, she appeared kindly, reminding Anderson of his own late grandmother. There was something lively and warm in her pale blue eyes.
Anderson stepped in front of her and smiled. "Excuse me, ma’am."
The woman stopped, regarding him.
"I hate to ask, but I need to get on the train and, honestly, I don’t have a dime to my name." Anderson thought for a moment and came up with a small white lie. "I need to get to the south side, where my family is." He smiled again. "It’s Christmas."
The woman didn’t say anything.
"Do you think you could spare a couple dollars so I could ride?" Anderson gnawed at his lower lip, hating the position circumstance and the economy had put him in.
"Get the hell out of my way," the woman said quietly, edging by him. She called over her shoulder, "Get a job, why don’t you?"
Anderson was taken aback by the coldness and the almost-hatred in her voice. It was so unexpected and so unnecessarily cruel.
Anderson felt the bright sting of tears at the corner of his eyes. His shoulders slumped. He was about to turn and leave the station when a young guy, about his own age, came up to him. Once upon a time, Anderson would have thought he was cute, and if he had opened the door a little, Anderson might have flirted with him. But now his only reaction was-what now?
"What a bitch," the man said, his gaze roaming over to where the old woman was mounting the stairs. He reached into the pocket of his worn denim jacket that looked too thin for the weather and pulled out a transit card. He held it out to Anderson. "Take it. There’s only one ride left on there. I wish I could give you more, but I’m pretty strapped myself."
Tentatively, Anderson reached for the card. "Are you sure you can spare this?"
"I wouldn’t have offered it to you if I couldn’t." He wiggled the hand holding the card. "Go on."
Anderson took it, wondering if some guardian angel, or even Welk, was looking out for him.
"It’s nothin’. Merry Christmas."
Anderson swallowed hard, feeling a lump in his throat. "Merry Christmas to you too."
The guy turned and headed up the stairs, out into the snow.
Today the lovely and fabulous Ally Blue, author of The Bay City Paranormal Series, who I interviewed back at the beginning of the year, sat down with the sexy and talented Rick R. Reed to talk about his book, A Demon Inside. Dubbed the ‘Stephen King of gay horror’ by Unzipped Magazine, Rick boasts an impressive backlist that includes gay horror with a romantic edge, gay romance, and more recently, gay romantic comedy.While the genres may change, Rick’s passion to explore the lives and loves of gay men within his fiction remain one constant for which we can all be grateful.
I give you Ally & Rick…
AB: The first thing that struck me about this book was your depiction of Hunter’s grief for his grandmother — how he gets tired of the sympathy and irritated with the attention, and the numb feeling you get after a while. It was like you’d plonked yourself right down inside my brain during the days after my mom died. You described what I felt during her funeral service and afterward exactly.
My question doesn’t really relate to that, exactly, I just wanted to tell you how impressed I was with that bit Well, okay, I guess it kind of relates. It seemed to me that in a way, Hunter’s grief for his grandmother set his entire adventure in motion. What do you think? How much — if any — do you think Hunter’s deep grief for his grandmother played into his decisions down the road? I think it made him especially vulnerable to you-know-who…
RR: I’m so glad that my portrayal of grief resonated with you. Like you, I experienced many of the same things when my own mother died three years ago. I think the shock and pain of losing someone so close resonates not just for days or weeks, but for years afterward. The world we have become accustomed to is simply not the same place without that person in it. I wanted to portray how we experience many different things other than tears and sadness in the immediate aftermath of losing someone close to us; the experience can be exhausting and soul-draining, which is why Hunter felt irritated. And yes, I do think this loss, along with losing his parents at such a young age (and so violently) made him who he is and colored his choices as he moved forward, forced, finally, to be on his own.
AB: I thought it was interesting that while a lot of books follow hero’s who are "regular guys" — or if they’re rich, they’re rich playboys, ha — but this book has a hero who is rich, sheltered, virginal and extremely innocent when it comes to the ways of the world. My immediate thought was that this adventure could not have happened to anyone but Hunter. Events in his life seem to push him toward Beaumont House, events that may not have happened to someone more worldly. What do you think? Would the story have been possible with a protagonist less sheltered and innocent than Hunter?
RR: I think you’re right; the story is uniquely Hunter’s. His innocence, naiveté, and his profound sense of loss all contributed to his making the choices he did, choices that some people may consider ill-advised or even stupid, but I think they make sense within the context of the character. Beaumont House was a terrifying place and of course he should have left sooner, but it was also a sanctuary for a wounded soul who really didn’t understand the modern world that well and it also stood as a kind of metaphor for his ability to stand on his own. If he chose to flee, that would have been a smart thing to do, but in this character’s mind, it would have also been a deep personal failure.
AB: To what extent do you think Beaumont House itself and the country setting became characters in their own right? I felt like they were characters of their own, in a way, especially the house. The demon-thing was a whole other story though! **shudder**
RR: I definitely think the house, with its history, its perhaps paranormal (and evil) inhabitant, and its remote location all made it a sort-of "character" in its own right. It certainly seemed to have a will of its own, and an ability to not only terrify Hunter, but also to antagonize him in many perverse and odd ways. The house and the demon were one and the same, reflections of each other. The country setting, while perhaps not a character in the same sense, did serve as an isolating factor for Hunter, making it even more problematic to leave.
AB: As I was biting my nails through the scenes of Hunter’s encounters with the demon-thing (OMG that thing was HORRIFYING, argh!), I noticed the parallels between some of the ways it tortured Hunter and some of Hunter’s real-life experiences. I won’t say exactly what those things are, because I don’t want to give spoilers *g* But I did wonder how much of the demon-thing is created from the sufferer’s mind. Not just Hunter, but those who encountered the demon before him. So, Rick, is this demon truly, objectively, observably real in real life? Is it a creation from the mind of the tormented? Is it a combination of the two? Or are we mere humans not meant to know such cosmic secrets? (yeah I’m a Lovecraft fan, so sue me; heh)
RR: Now, that’s a question, as a creator, I really don’t think I should answer. I deliberately left things sort of ambiguous when it came to deciding whether the horror was a real supernatural entity or if it was a manifestation of mental illness. And I also deliberately made it possible for a reader to see it both ways…almost. There are definite clues though in the book that reveal whether I think the horror was real or imagined. I will just say: Remember the photograph of the house that turned up in the beginning and then again at the end?
AB: Lastly but not leastly, what do you wish I’d asked? What do you want to tell people about Hunter, about the house, and about this book in general?
RR: I wish you had asked me how this book fit into my body of work. I have had many labels applied to my writing: horror, suspense, mystery, thriller, and increasingly, romance, and I think A DEMON INSIDE is one great example of what I am trying to do in a lot of my work, which is to merge romance with horror or the paranormal. At its heart, you could look at A DEMON INSIDE as a love story, between two men certainly, but also as a love story of the self and discovering one’s own strengths and weaknesses. A DEMON INSIDE is the book I’d most recommend to ardent fans of horror and it also represents a direction I think I am moving further away from with the newer things I’m writing–I’m finding there’s more and more to be said about the connections people make when falling in love–and that fascinated me. Love and terror are actually, in many ways, both physical and emotional, two sides of the same coin.
AB: I very much enjoyed reading this wonderfully scary book, and I enjoyed serving as the delightful Mr. Reed’s interrogator *g*
Hunter Beaumont doesn’t understand his grandmother’s deathbed wish: "Destroy Beaumont House." He’d never even heard of the place. But after his grandmother passes and his first love betrays him, the family house in the Wisconsin woods looks like a tempting refuge. Going against his grandmother’s wishes, Hunter flees to Beaumont House.
But will the house be the sanctuary he had hoped for? Soon after moving in, Hunter realizes he may not be alone. And who—or what—he shares the house may plunge him into a nightmare from which he may never escape. Sparks fly when he meets his handsome neighbor, a caretaker for the estate next door, but is the man salvation…or is he the source of Hunter’s terror?
It didn’t take them long to round the curve of the driveway and all at once, Beaumont House stood before them. Just as Hunter had imagined, its imposing fieldstone looked solid and formidable against the bright blue autumn sky. Double oak doors, appearing in remarkably good shape, were outfitted with black wrought iron hinges and fixtures, all without a trace of rust. The windows reflected back the sky and the few clouds in it, looking almost black and empty. Hunter fancifully thought of them as eyes and shivered. Yet, not a single pane was broken or cracked. The glass did not even look dirty. He paused, staring at the house, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu, but couldn’t recall how he could have even seen the house before. Ian, beside him, was silent. In awe, Hunter said softly, “God, Ian, I never would have guessed.”
Ian sucked in some air. “It is beautiful, isn’t it? Even more than I remember.”
Hunter took in more details: the roof was covered in black slate tile and again, looked in perfect repair. Black shutters fronted each of the windows. The house put Hunter in mind of what he imagined an English manor would look like and he briefly imagined red-jacketed foxhunters galloping through the grounds. There was a widow’s walk around the rooftop and to one side, a rounded tower completed the imposing façade.
All of it looked move-in ready.
Hunter scratched his head and turned to Ian. “I thought you said the place was falling down.”
“I assumed it was.” Ian’s expression revealed troubled thoughts beneath. He took in the house, eyebrows furrowed. “I mean, no one has been here for decades. The place should be in shambles, broken windows, doors off their hinges, weeds growing through the floors… Yet, it looks so well maintained.” Ian paused. “I don’t understand it. I took care of the property taxes for your family, but never paid out anything for upkeep. This is weird, Hunter.”
Hunter didn’t want to voice it, but he agreed. Aside from the overgrown vegetation outside the house, the place itself was almost pristine, as if someone still lived here, let alone not having been inhabited for more than half a century. Hunter began to wonder if all the overgrown trees and other flora could be tamed into a manageable yard and garden.
“The inside is probably a mess,” Ian said, weakly.
Hunter began striding toward the house. “You do have a key, don’t you? And I would withhold judgment on the interior if I were you.” Hunter paused just outside the double doors, waiting for Ian to catch up. He took in the detail of the floor-to-ceiling French windows on the first floor, how each was topped with intricate designs in leaded glass.
Ian was making his way through the weeds, toward Hunter, cursing as he stumbled. “Yes. I have a key.” He caught up and extracted a large, old-fashioned key from his jacket pocket, coated with rust. Hunter knew Ian could say nothing about the house, but also knew the lawyer would not deterred. “How do you propose to cut through all this?” He gestured at the trees and briars choking the lawn and driveway.
“Simple. I’m sure Wisconsin has a good supply of gardeners and landscapers, many of them, I’m sure, looking for work. They have skill. I have money. It could work. Can we go inside?”
“No guarantees this key will even fit.” He came alongside Hunter and inserted the key into the lock. The doors effortlessly opened, aided by a gust of wind behind them. There was not even a creak.
Hunter was astounded. And chilled. The massive foyer, with its curving staircase up to the second floor, its crystal chandelier, its marble-tiled floor, and its mahogany paneled walls—was spotless. There was not a trace of dust or grime anywhere. The chandelier sparkled as it caught the sun’s rays coming in from outside. The wood gleamed.
Hunter turned to Ian, confused. “Are you sure no one’s been taking care of upkeep?”
Ian shook his head slowly, walking more fully into the foyer. Hunter lagged behind, following his gaze as he looked into the living room, or what Hunter supposed in those days had been called the drawing room. It too was perfection. The windows gleamed, spot-free, in the sun. The wood floors looked freshly polished. The large fieldstone fireplace—a focal point—appeared to have been freshly swept, with a stack of logs on the grate inside, awaiting the touch of a flame.
“I have never authorized a payment for upkeep. Not in all the years I’ve been responsible for your family’s holdings.”
Hunter felt a chill. “Well, someone must be taking care of the place. It couldn’t just stay this way by itself.”
“Indeed. But why?”
Hunter would have liked to tell Ian not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the truth was, he too was as disturbed by the appearance of the house as Ian seemed to be. Delightful and pristine as the place was, it simply wasn’t—natural.
“I have no idea.” Ian turned to Hunter. “This is giving me the creeps.”
Hunter would not admit he was having a similar reaction. It would be all Ian needed to hear, enough for him to urge Hunter back into the car. “Who knows? Maybe there’s some neat freak in the village who comes by and takes out his obsession on the house.”
“That would give me the creeps as well.” Ian turned, his gaze roaming across the drawing room and foyer. He looked pale. “This sounds completely strange and I hope you’ll forgive me, but I don’t want to stay here anymore. My suggestion is we both go outside, get in the car, and head back to the city. On Monday, I will make arrangements for a demolition crew to come in and tear down the place. Then we can see about selling off the land.” Ian looked to Hunter, hoping, Hunter thought, for agreement.
“I want to see the rest of it. We came all this way.”
“That’s your right,” Ian said softly. “But I don’t want to stay here anymore. I’ll be in the car when you’re finished.” He strode quickly toward the front doors, which still hung open.
Hunter watched him go, wanting to call him back. Ian paused, just outside the door and turned around. “Be careful. And be mindful that you may spend your trust fund allowance heating this place, lest you be entertaining any thoughts of moving in.” And then he was gone.
Hunter swallowed, standing in the middle of the drawing room. Fingers of dread played up and down his spine. Hairs stood up on the back of his neck. It wasn’t just the perfection of the place that made him feel so odd, it was another sensation, one he was just now becoming aware of.