Back again from the vaults is Saints & Sinners, the first solo story I ever published. It also has a Valentine’s theme, so what better time to bring it back out? Enjoy!
Saints & Sinners
Ephraim Kopczynski’s original plans for Valentine’s Day had been to sit alone in his small apartment, watch the first reality TV marathon he found, and order in Chinese. Instead, he was sitting outside his friend Andrew’s house, having second thoughts about going inside to the singles party Andrew was hosting and had insisted he ‘needed’ to attend.
“You need to get out,” Andrew had said. “You’ll have fun, I promise. There’s no couples or any of that junk—just a bunch of single people looking to drink and party and have fun.” And even though Ephraim didn’t do much of the drinking, partying, or fun-having, part of him was begging to get out of the house and do something that wasn’t accompanying singers on the piano or coaching someone’s voice.
Now, sitting in his car outside Andrew’s, Ephraim was having second thoughts. Maybe it would be best just to go home and curl up on the couch with some wontons. He wasn’t going to know anyone at this party; Andrew’s circle of friends was completely different from his own. He was going to end up spending the night sitting awkwardly with people he didn’t know and had nothing in common with, being ignored and feeling like an outcast, while the people around him got stupid drunk or high as a kite. The wontons were sounding better and better by the minute. Crab rangoons sounded pretty good, too; maybe—
Ephraim was startled out of his fantasy by the sound of Andrew calling his name and yanking open his car door. “You’re not thinking of running away, are you?”
Ephraim’s hesitance was answer enough, and Andrew took his arm and tugged him out of the car. “C’mon. You’re already here and you look great.”
Ephraim wasn’t so sure about that. He was wearing dark jeans and a blue button-up with the sleeves rolled to his elbows—nothing fancy, nothing eye-catching, nothing impressive. Another night looking like the good boy that he was. It was too late to back out, though, because Andrew was leading him into the house.
For a moment, Ephraim just revolved in place, trying to take it all in. Andrew’s parents were on vacation and he had turned their house into the ultimate Valentine’s party spot. White twinkle lights were strung around the ceiling and covered in red, white, and pink drapes of gauzy material. Streamers, confetti, and various décor, also of the same color, were spread throughout the house. On the way to the living room, Ephraim spotted a ceramic bowl filled with colored condoms. Just what kind of party was this?
“You didn’t just drag me into an orgy, did you?”
Andrew laughed, his blue eyes crinkling at the edges. “Not tonight, sweetheart. Another time?”
“I don’t think so.”
Andrew laughed again. “C’mon in here.”
In the living room, a dark haired man had pulled his shirt over his head and was showing off the tattoos on his shoulder to a girl Ephraim recognized as Andrew’s former roommate, Carrie. The man grinned at Carrie and pulled his shirt back on.
“You already know Carrie,” Andrew said, gesturing from Carrie’s candy apple red hair to her knee-high hooker boots.
Carrie winked at him and fluttered her fingers.
“Ephraim, this is Jason. Jason, this is Ephraim. He’s a good boy. He’s here to get out, but not to get hurt, or I’ll kill you.” Andrew’s tone was serious, but he was smiling good-naturedly a heartbeat later.
Jason grinned, revealing pointed white teeth that contrasted his dark skin. His eyes were dark, too, and for a moment, Ephraim wondered if he’d even be able to see a difference when they were lust blown and—
Ephraim smiled at him shyly. “Hi.” He sat down in an armchair nearby, watching Jason peripherally, but not saying anything to him. Jason was wearing ripped jeans and a well-worn shirt of a punk rock band whose name Ephraim thought he recognized; he was so comfortable and casual that it came off as commanding, like a black hole—felt, but not seen, and in control of anything that came too close.
“When’s this party going to start?” Jason asked Andrew, who was shuffling through music.
“As soon as people get here.”
Jason sighed, a little restless.
“You can go get yourself a drink, if you want. You know where everything is.”
“Yes!” And then Jason was gone, off to the kitchen and the alcohol. Ephraim stared at the spot Jason had just been, imagining the feel of Jason’s hands on him, the pressure of his weight on top of Ephraim’s body, the heat of his bare skin on Ephraim’s. Maybe this party wasn’t going to be a total bust, after all. When it was over, he could live on half-formed fantasies of Jason for a few months at least.
A van full of people arrived, some of them immediately disappearing to a guest bedroom, some filing into the living room to talk, dance, drink, or a combination of the three. No one really noticed Ephraim and he didn’t expect them to. Neat clothes, tidy brown hair and matching eyes, and a shy personality weren’t exactly an attention-demanding combination. He ended up standing off to one side, watching out of the way.
Ephraim glanced over to see Jason standing nearby, looking at him with those dark eyes that made Ephraim feel fluttery. “Hi.”
“You don’t know too many people here, do you?”
Ephraim shook his head, letting his bangs fall in his eyes. “Andrew, Carrie a little. I know your name.”
Jason smiled. “Not your usual party crowd?”
“I don’t party, ever really.”
Jason’s dark eyebrows rose. “No shit.”
Ephraim gave a half-embarrassed, half-indulging smile and shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Do you live around here?”
Ephraim nodded. “Like, ten minutes that way.” He jerked his head to the left.
“I’m ten minutes that way.” Jason’s thumb pointed perpendicularly to Ephraim’s motion. “You work with Andrew?”
Ephraim shook his head. “We went to high school together. I work as an accompanist.”
“Yup. Accompanying recitals and teaching voice lessons.”
“You sound like you’d rather be doing something else.”
“I write music. I want to write a musical. In the mean time, I like what I’m doing. It’s not a bad job and it’s in a field I like.”
“See, I wish I could say the same thing, but being a busboy really isn’t in the field of anyone’s dream job.”
“You don’t want to go into professional housekeeping?”
Jason snorted. “Mechanics, more like.”
Ephraim nodded absently. He knew next to nothing about cars.
“You don’t know anything about cars, do you?”
Ephraim blushed slightly and ducked his head, caught. “Do you know anything about pianos?”
“I can play chopsticks.”
“I can drive.”
“Well, there you go. Sounds good to me.”
“Do you want a drink?” Jason held up his plastic cup.
Ephraim shook his head. “I don’t drink.”
“Okay.” Jason didn’t seem bothered. “Is it okay if I do?”
“Sure. Just don’t get drunk off your ass.” Ephraim hesitated for a moment. He didn’t have any claim on Jason, no right to tell him what not to do. He barely even knew him.
Jason grinned at him, though, and went to refill his cup, letting his fingers trail across Ephraim’s lower back before he left. Ephraim’s breath caught and he felt a shiver of excitement. He went to sit down on the couch until Jason returned and sat beside him.
“I wouldn’t hurt you, no matter how drunk I am.”
Ephraim’s eyes widened; he hadn’t been expecting that kind of blunt honesty and it inspired his own. “That’s not it. I don’t like it when people forget me.”
“I know I don’t know you all that well, yet, but I could never forget you.”
As Ephraim’s belly tingled, he couldn’t help the smile that broke across his face.
“Hey, guys!” Andrew’s voice was flirty as he dropped down between them, squeezing into space where there really wasn’t any. “Are you having fun?”
“I’m glad.” He turned to Jason. “Ephraim is a good boy—I mean that. Hurt him and die.”
Jason nodded. “I got it.”
“Good!” Andrew laughed and went to go find the drink he’d lost for the fourth time that hour.
Jason turned to Ephraim with serious eyes, and softly said, “I don’t want to corrupt you.”
Why hadn’t he dated a bad boy before? Ephraim wondered, as his entire body felt the tingle. “I’m not worried.” He smiled. “Isn’t that supposed to be the attraction here, a bad boy and good boy?”
Jason smirked. “Saints and sinners, baby.”
Ephraim wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Being a saint doesn’t sound like too much fun.”
“Being a sinner’s not so great, either.”
Ephraim watched Jason’s eyes as he said it, saw the seriousness in his face and eyes, the story waiting just below the surface. There was much more to Jason than people saw.
“Before I forget, can I get your number?” Jason pulled out his phone, and Ephraim did the same as they exchanged numbers.
Jason smiled, tucked his phone back into his pocket, and then gave Ephraim that cautious serious look again. “If I asked you, would you try this?” He proffered his alcohol.
Without answering, Ephraim reached for the cup and took a slow careful sip of the liquid. It was sharp and burning at the back of his tongue, but he just shrugged and handed it back. “No big deal.”
“You know, in a way, I just took your virginity.”
Ephraim laughed, and when he stopped, Jason was looking at his mouth. Jason’s eyes darted up to his, and then back down, before leaning in and slowly, sweetly, giving him a full kiss. The second kiss had Jason’s tongue darting into Ephraim’s mouth before his teeth scraped over Ephraim’s lower lip, and Jason set down his drink and tugged Ephraim onto his lap where he could kiss him properly, his hands firm on Ephraim’s back. Ephraim slid his hands up alongside Jason’s neck, feeling his pulse beneath his fingers, before inching them into Jason’s hair. Jason’s tongue was cool and sharp-tasting as it rubbed against Ephraim’s, his lips soft and sure.
When Ephraim’s breath was shaky and uneven, Jason slid him to the side, and said, with a crooked smile, “I’ll be right back.” Ephraim watched him go until he was out of sight.
“Are you guys, like, together?”
A leanly muscled, dark haired man with a sassy attitude stepped closer, drink in hand, and Ephraim shrugged, not really sure how to answer.
“Really?” The boy made a face, and then laughed. “You don’t know him; you need to be careful. He’s fun and all that, but you could do way better. He’s an ass and he’s a bad boy in all the worst ways. He’s not going to stick around and you’re going to get hurt. You don’t look like the type who can handle him.”
The man walked away, and suddenly, Ephraim’s doubts were back. He didn’t know Jason. What did he know about him—that he liked cars? That he liked to drink? That didn’t mean a thing. Ephraim was the sure, careful kind; he didn’t jump into things without fully thinking them through and measuring every possible result. He wrote songs about risk taking, but he certainly didn’t do it himself. So what if he felt confident and secure around Jason? So what if he felt like he could tell him anything? There were probably a million guys out there that could make him feel the same way. What the hell was he doing?
“Hey, baby.” Jason sat down, closer this time, so that their thighs pressed together, and winked at him. He leaned in to kiss Ephraim again, but Ephraim turned his head away.
“Don’t, I … “
“What’s going on?”
Ephraim shrugged, pulling in on himself. “I don’t really know you, at all.”
“What do you want to know?”
Ephraim didn’t answer, feeling himself shut down even more, but Jason didn’t give up. “I’m twenty-four. I couldn’t afford to go to college, even though I got accepted to a couple of really nice schools. I work as a busboy, but I want to go to a tech school to study mechanics and work in a garage. I used to play football, until I screwed up my knee; I had a football scholarship that disappeared with my injury. I sing, not like the greats, but good enough, mostly in the shower or in my truck. My tattoos are my own design.” He hesitated. “What is it?”
Ephraim shrugged again, trying to play off his doubts and insecurities. Maybe he should just go home. “Someone said something, that’s all.”
Jason’s eyes got hard. “They said you shouldn’t be with me because I’d fuck you up and leave?”
Ephraim ducked his head, but nodded. “Yeah.”
Jason looked away for a moment, and then looked back at him. “I’ve done some things, some really shitty things; that’s why people will tell you I’m a heartbreaker and a bad boy and that you shouldn’t be with me. I’m not saying those things aren’t true—most of them are. There are a lot of things I’m not proud of. But I don’t want to be this way forever. I fell into this life, these things, ’cause of my family and my so-called friends, but it’s not who I am.
“You don’t have to believe me. I know this sounds like a shitty pickup attempt to try to get you in bed. But I don’t want to fuck you tonight and never hear your voice again, Ephraim.”
Ephraim looked at him, really looked at him. Jason looked like a bad boy all right. He looked rough and tough and dangerous; he looked like the heartbreaking fuck ’em and leave ’em type. But there was something else, something more, something real that Ephraim could feel, but couldn’t explain.
Jason reached over for Ephraim’s hand and tangled their fingers together. “My dad’s in prison,” he said in a soft vulnerable voice, and Ephraim could hear the hurt and betrayal in it. “My uncle, too. They fucked up—they fucked up big time. Everyone expects me to be like them, to be a fuckup, too, and it’s easier to just screw around, you know? It’s easier to just be what they expect me to be, to not try to be anything better, because no one will believe in me, anyway. But—but I don’t want to be that way forever. I’m trying to turn my life around. I’m trying to be better.”
For a long moment, they just looked into each other’s eyes, truly seeing each other, and then, without realizing he’d made a decision, Ephraim leaned in and kissed Jason.
As it grew late and most of the partiers moved to another room or found somewhere to crash for the night, Jason spread out on the couch, pulling Ephraim on top of him and covering the pair of them with a blanket. His mouth immediately attached to Ephraim’s and his hands slid down Ephraim’s body, pulling them tight together as they shared one space.
The next morning, Ephraim rolled over on the couch—and then realized that he had room to roll over. He sat up, looked around in the early morning light, and realized that Jason was gone.
At first, a wave of remorse and loneliness swept over him. Jason had left him, just like everyone said he would, and once again, Ephraim had been ditched after someone had gotten what they wanted from him. He never should have come to the stupid party; he should have just stayed home with his fantasies, which never hurt him or left him alone.
He rubbed at his eyes, trying to push the sleep away, and reached for his clothes. As quietly as he could, so that he wouldn’t wake any of the people sleeping on the floor, he wriggled into his jeans and slipped on his shirt, doing up a few of the buttons and adjusting his cuffs. He was lacing up his shoes when he realized—he didn’t regret the night before. Jason had been sweet and kind with him, he’d been open and honest, and Ephraim felt like they’d shared something real, something profound. Maybe Jason wasn’t looking for a relationship, maybe he had just wanted to have fun, and that was okay. Ephraim could go out to a party, meet someone, and have a good time with him. Not everything in his life had to be planned and plotted and scheduled to within an inch of its life. He could just be, could just do what he felt when he felt and live in the moment.
It was an amazing revelation, and Ephraim hadn’t felt so alive in a long time.
He carefully made his way through the house, ready to go home, but when he opened the front door, Jason was sitting on the porch, watching the sunrise through the snow covered trees.
Jason looked up at him, and the mood of his eyes shifted. He smiled. “Ephraim. It was just too hot in there, sorry.”
Ephraim nodded. “Yeah. I—yeah.”
“You thought I left, didn’t you?”
Ephraim didn’t have to say anything—his silence was answer enough. Jason reached back for his wrist and tugged until Ephraim sat down beside him, leaning close to his chest for warmth in the sharp winter air. Jason slid one arm around his shoulders and held his hand with the other.
“You see that?”
Ephraim nodded, watching the pale glints of color peaking between the bare tree branches.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a sunrise. But for some reason, I woke up this morning and I had to see it. Were you mad?”
Ephraim followed Jason’s jump in conversation without a hitch and shook his head, still watching the trees. He was quiet for a moment, and then asked, “What’s your last name?”
Immediately, a smile played at Jason’s mouth, and when he began to laugh, Ephraim could feel it vibrate through his chest. There was still a grin on his face when he answered, “Leetz.”
“Jason Leetz,” Ephraim said slowly, trying out the feel of the name in his mouth.
Ephraim smiled. “Kopczynski.”
Ephraim laughed. “We’ll work on it.”
Jason smiled. “Yeah. We will.”
Jason had an early shift at work and Ephraim didn’t really have a reason to stay without him there. He did have a reason to leave, however—he had a whole new outlook on life and himself to try out. He had his life to live.
And when he got home, there was a text from Jason on his phone. ‘Hey beautiful. Can I take you out to dinner tonight?’ Ephraim had never guessed anyone could really feel the way he felt just then. Maybe musicals weren’t so far from real life after all, and he thought that perhaps his own romance might have just started writing itself.