Lost in the dark, Jeremy was drawn to the flame of a man who'd only stepped into his shadows to light a cigarette. It was the first warmth he'd felt in a long time, and little did he know how much help it would bring.
The brisk snap of the lighter produced a small flame that wavered in the blustery evening. Nix inhaled and brought the tip of his cigarette to glow before he snapped the metal lid of the old Zippo shut. Twin plumes of smoke drifted from his nostrils while the pulsating rhythm inside the local gay club pounded with dull enthusiasm. He swayed in place with the beat, kicking himself for leaving so soon to get a bit of breathing room, and missing the song he had requested to the cute deejay.
Standing at his station by the door, with large, muscular arms folded over his chest, Dante was busy ignoring a group of kids who hadn’t been able to produce a photo ID. Nix could see beads of sweat shining on the bald head, the beads made more prominent by the neon lights flashing on and off over the bouncer’s head. Dante was an old friend of his. Large and dark skinned with bad English and a great sense of humor. He looked mean, but anyone who spent more than five minutes with the gentle giant soon grew to appreciate his warmth and kindness. Nix smiled softly. Dante reminded him of his big brother, Ade. Sometimes he grew homesick just coming to the club on certain nights.
“Sorry, kids, no booze for you if you forgot to bring your fake ID.” He chuckled to himself before taking another drag on his smoke. Back home, in Louisiana, all Nix had to do to get into a club was take his older brother with him. Ade was a giant of a man and could easily make Dante look like a scrawny weakling. Just one look at his larger brother and they were let into bars to drink themselves stupid. Which they often did. Ade was all the fake ID Nix had ever needed.
He had come a long way from the bayous of the swamp, landing himself in Quebec. He spoke enough Cajun to quickly pick up the local French, or to get yelled at. It was all good, though. He loved this town.
“Yo, Nikki, you stand out there too long, tourists gonna think you’re a street performer and start throwing change at you,” the bouncer said.
Nix grinned and ran his hands along the shaved parts of his skull. He wore a mohawk, the tail thick and braided. It hung to the small of his back like a whip. A tribal pattern tattoo started at his left ankle and worked its way up that side of his body, ending just at the hairline on the left side of his skull. Then there were the piercings, some of which were privy to only a few handsome men. “You know me, Dante. I like to be stylish.” He tipped his friend a wink, then took the final drag on his cigarette before tossing the butt and crushing it with the heel of his motorcycle boot.
“You comin’ back in? ‘Cause I didn’t stamp your hand.”
“Well. I don’t think you’d forget me too easily, so I think after all this time, you don’t have to brand me like a slab of beef.”
“That’s what he said.” Dante chuckled, causing Nix to burst into laughter. When their mirth had passed, Nix walked to the door. He leaned against the wall to feel the beat of the music against his back, then closed his eyes and rocked his head slowly to the music.
“So, when that brother of yours comin’ up to visit you?” Dante asked after passing a VIP group through the door.
Nix cracked open an eye, then closed it. “I don’t know. We aren’t talking right now.”
“Why that?” Nix opened his eyes at the sounds of Dante busying himself for a moment to shut the velvet rope, then listen to someone speak in his earbud briefly. “I say, why that?”
“You know, your English has really improved,” Nix said.
“And you’re changing the subject. You two get into a fight again?”
“Don’t you owe him money? Didn’t he wipe the floor with you at poker last year?”
“What? Nooo, no, but still. You been moody for the past two months, haven’t even asked me to go ride that big motorcycle you fixed up.”
“Yeah,” Nix said after a long moment. “You know how Ade is. He makes a promise and death couldn’t keep him from breaking it.” He pondered for a moment on whether he wanted to go into the whole sorted mess, then finally let it out. “You’ve seen pictures of my niece, Jade, right?”
“Yeah. She looks a lot like you.”
Nix smiled at that. “She’s my buddy. Well, before I got out of prison, hell… I just found this out six months ago—Kelly got pregnant again while I was in the joint. They got a brand new baby and never told me. I think Kelly was mad because I was in jail. She sent me a letter right after I got in, telling me that the nickel I was currently doing was the best peace Ade was having, because it was five years where he knew where I was going to be. He didn’t have to worry about me being stupid or getting hurt.” He felt a tightness in his chest. “But it really hurt that they didn’t share that good news with me. I was locked up in that place, I couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, and she knew that was something I would have been happy about. She couldn’t even give me that.”
“How long you been out?” Dante asked.
“Three and a half years. The baby is eight now, just turned if I did my math right. But Ade’s mad at me.”
“Why he mad at you?”
“Well, a few weeks ago, I couldn’t let it go, so I sent her a condolence card and a bottle of Jack to apologize for her mother.”
Dante burst into laughter. “You’re a barrel, Nikki. To the top, a barrel.”
“Thanks, man. I think I’ll head in for a while.” He pushed away from the wall and was allowed back in, much to the cries of protest from others who had no permission to join him inside. Outside had been chilly, almost downright brisk, unless you were standing under the lights above the door. Inside, where all the men, and a few women, were dancing, the body heat alone was raising the temperature of the joint. Far in the back of Nix’s mind, however, he was back in the small three-room cabin on the swamps.
He and Ade had grown up in abject poverty with a mother who had gone crazy and her mother, who not only was crazy but gave crazy a whole new outlook. Granny was what was known as a witcher woman back in the swamp. She dabbled in voodoo when the kids weren’t looking, not as though she hid it from them. She worked with some dangerous stuff and didn’t need two children getting underfoot and causing her problems. Their father, a little banty rooster of a man, was an out and out bastard. He was dead and gone while Nix was still in the womb. Sometimes, when Nix let himself think on it, he wondered how much Granny had to do with his dad’s death.
It was Ade that had been a father to him. Ade was five years older than Nix and had quit school in the fifth grade to work. Which had been fine, because at ten years of age, Ade was almost six foot tall and could pack a heavy load like a work mule. Both boys had been bullied by their peers, but Ade wouldn’t let Nix quit. Not until he was sixteen and too far into drugs and booze to really make a difference. He had begrudgingly signed the papers that would release his younger brother out of school for good, then beat the hell out of him for quitting. It was the first and last time he had ever put his hands to Nix.
“You okay?” a voice called over the din of the music and the faded memories of the past.
Nix shook his head to clear it, then offered a cute young man a smile. “Sure,” he said loudly. “I’m fine. So, what’s your name?”
“My friends call me Sugar.”
“That because you’re so sweet?” Nix smirked. “Because I think I can agree with them.”
Sugar dropped his eyes shyly, then gazed back up to Nix. “You’re cute.”
“So, want to go back to my place for a while? I got better booze than this in my fridge.”
“Hey!” the bartender said as she came over to them. “Don’t pretend that your voice doesn’t carry! And Nix, don’t you listen to him; there’s nothing wrong with our beer!”
“There is if I want to get into someone’s pants!” Sugar barked out his laughter.
“Point taken.” She chuckled.
“It’s tempting,” Nix said. “Very tempting, but I think I’m going to have to say no tonight. I need to get home and sleep off the week I’ve had.” He paid his tab, stuck two fives in the tip jar, and excused himself from the bar.
Nix lived in a nice town home that had been renovated from an old building. Thankfully, it was only five blocks away, or else his walk in the bitter early hours of October would have been miserable. Or more so than it already was. He tried to light up another cigarette as he made his way to the crosswalk, but the wind was insistent that perhaps this would be a good day to quit smoking. Stepping to his left, he entered the mouth of an alleyway where movement drew his attention. He was surprised to see a youth who stood huddled by a Dumpster, and it appeared that he wasn’t having much success at trying to keep warm with that thin denim jacket. Nix kept his sights on him as he lit his cigarette, and in turn, he was pinned with a look of hope, mixed with caution. The youth moved farther back, nothing more than an act of self-preservation at the odd-looking stranger who had stepped so carelessly into his world. Against his better judgment, Nix walked toward the form huddled against the cold brick wall.
“That’s not a great place to stand if you want to get the cold off you,” he said as he exhaled smoke from the weakly burning cigarette. “Who’re you?”
The figure moved away, standing in the deeper shadows. Slight movement told Nix he had lowered his head.
“It’s all right,” Nix said as he eased closer. “I won’t hurt you. I just want to help. Are you all right?” The figure stepped back farther, but Nix just couldn’t shake the intense feeling he was needed. “Are you hurt?”
“I’ll live…” came the hesitant response.
“What’s your name?” Nix repeated softly as he moved closer to the youth, who continued to back away until he was under one of the side door lights. The stranger was handsome with hair as black as night. Nix could tell by looking that the color was natural. It was the kind of black that radiated blue in certain light. He loved that. He didn’t love, however, the look of fear in those eyes, which were rimmed with black eyeliner.
“Jeremy.” There was a long pause, and he spoke up. “Who’re you?”
“Nickolas. People call me Nick, Nikki, or if they know me well enough, Nix.” He paused, then approached the young man once he deduced that there was no weapon hidden in his hand. “You’re shivering,” he said as he pulled off his leather jacket. “Here, I don’t normally do this, but frankly, you look like shit, kid. How old are you?” He watched as Jeremy tossed aside his trepidation and eagerly accepted the borrowed warmth. He was a little slip of a thing, and Nix knew that the cold was probably biting him a little harder than his own self.
“I’m nineteen. I’ll be twenty in July.”
“Do you live around here?”
“Downtown,” Jeremy answered as Nix gestured for him to follow him down the sidewalk. If the kid decided to bolt and take the coat with him, it was no great loss. At least he would be a little warm, and being a biker, it wasn’t as if Nix didn’t have more than one leather jacket back home.
Jeremy didn’t put his arms into the sleeves, but rather held the coat around his shoulders and clutched it beneath his chin like a cloak. The cold was biting into his thighs, making his muscles feel numb, and Nix knew if he could feel it, the boy could really feel it. The kid was skinnier than he was.
“That’s not bad,” Nix said as he walked shoulder to shoulder with him. He had a bad feeling tingling down deep into his stomach, some nagging feeling he couldn’t shake. “You have a place of your own, or you out on the street?” he asked, trying to get a drag off his smoke. There were a lot of kids who’d manage to get past the bouncers and into the clubs and bars just to get some warmth away from the cold of the Canadian nights.
“I stay with some friends. Sometimes,” Jeremy admitted. “I wanted to get into the bar. I saw you standing at the doorway… I should go home. When I came out to my parents, they didn’t approve. They didn’t kick me out, but I left. I didn’t want to shame them any longer. I still love them.” He spoke hesitantly because of the cold. He lowered his face as another brisk gust whistled around the corner of the building as they passed it. Nix wasn’t sure if the memories caused the tears or the sudden chill.
“How old are you? Really?” Nix gave up trying to smoke and tossed the near dead cigarette into the gutter.
“I’m nineteen. I can show you ID if you want.”
“I trust you,” Nix said. “Come on, I’m freezing. I think you need a good, long soak in my tub; it’s pretty big. Maybe that will keep you from catching pneumonia. I have some aromatherapy bathing oils that will do you good. I can get some food into you and let you sleep in a warm bed.” The look on Jeremy’s face told him that the idea of a warm bed to sleep in was heaven.