Twenty years ago, eighteen-year-old Dion Doukas did unthinkable things to protect his brother Dimitry, who was born with Down Syndrome. Today, he's still haunted by those choices. The owner of a low-rent apartment building, Dion spends most of his days dealing with delinquent tenants, drug addicts and less than stellar employees. Then he runs into Nolan Flannigan.
Nolan would do anything for his dying grandfather, and Dion, recognizing a kindred spirit, decides not to throw the senior Mr. Flannigan out on the street because of unpaid rent. Despite their rough start, the two men forge an awkward friendship, and Nolan begins to see just how closed off Dion really is ... and that he'll never get through those barriers unless Dion is willing to open up and let him in.
"My food's getting cold, Nolan. What do you want?"
For such a big man, he seemed to shrink in on himself a little. "I'm sorry about earlier. I don't trust easily, and from what I've seen and heard of you, I just assumed ... Anyway, sorry."
Oh. Hadn't expected that. "It's okay." I waited a few more seconds for him to continue, but he didn't. "If that's all --"
"Um, I ... Have you ever had to deal with ...? This thing with Gramps, well, it's hard for me." His body language tugged at heart strings I'd thought only Dimitry could touch.
I sighed. "You'd better come in and sit while I eat. I hate cold food."
Nolan followed me inside and shut the door. "Are you always this grouchy?" he asked as he made his way to the kitchen behind me.
I ignored his question and sat at the table. "Beer's in the fridge if you want it," I offered, and went back to my chicken. Any further conversation would be up to him.
As I chewed, Nolan went over to get a Bud for himself, then sat across from me. After gulping down half his beer, he said, "Your place is worse than Gramps."
"It gives me what I need to get by," I replied drily. "Are you here to talk about me, or your grandfather?"
Nolan refocused. "Gramps is the only parent I've ever known. He took me in when I was three and raised me. We had a disagreement when I was about to turn eighteen, and I left home. It took me a long time to get over myself and grow up a little. Once I did, I started writing letters to him, a few years ago now, trying to reconnect.
"He welcomed contact and our relationship has been better than ever. I wasn't able to visit him until the day you and I met, since I was working on an oil rig. It hurt my heart to see him, you know? He never let on that he was having difficulties, and whenever I offered money or other assistance, he always turned me down. I wished I would have known how bad things were. It was only because the last few letters I'd written hadn't been answered that I figured out something was wrong, along with the phone call I made to him recently. He sounded so weak."
I'd finished half of my meal while he'd been talking. "So, you feel guilty, is that it? Think his dying is your fault?"
Nolan shrugged, but didn't respond.
"You're still thinking like that pissed-off teenager you said you left behind. This has nothing to do with you, and you being here earlier might have been a comfort, but not much else. It's life. Bad things happen all the time, and you should get used to the realities of human existence. Things suck." I went back to my meal, aware that Nolan was watching me beneath lowered brows.
"Something to say, Flannigan?" I asked.
"You have a real low opinion of people, don't you?"
"With the exception of my brother, it's rare that I've come across a person to make me think otherwise."
"That's really depressing."
I finished my food and got up to take the plate to the sink. "It's the truth, as I see it."
"What the hell happened to you that made you so ... closed off?" he asked, thick arms crossed on his chest.
"None of your damn business," was my terse reply.
"You always this touchy about personal stuff?" he asked, pushing his chair back from the table.
"Don't know what you mean."
Sure you do," he replied. "You have this wall around you that's so thick it's almost impenetrable. How can someone get to know the real you if you don't let them in?"
"Why would anyone want to?" I asked. With the exception of Dimitry, no one else had ever cared enough to try. I'd been hurt badly too many times to count. Leaving myself vulnerable was not an option.
"You'd be surprised," Nolan said.
I turned and leaned against the sink. "Doesn't matter. I'm too busy to worry about that shit." I was lying, but that was neither here nor there. "Anything else I can help you with?"
"No," he replied, "but I'm thinking that maybe you could use some help." I watched him approach me slowly, as if gauging whether I'd knock him out with my fists.
"What do you mean -- mmphf." Nolan Flannigan kissed me, and all thought was lost.