When Andrew Craig dies, he leaves his brother Jason a list of places that he wanted to visit but couldn’t. Attending a school reunion, London, Stonehenge, these are all on the list and Jason is determined to cross everything off and work through his grief at the same time.
Closeted soap actor Mark Wesley is shocked when a blast from the past looks him up, and devastated when he realizes he will never have a chance to make things right.
Together Jason and Mark agree to work on the list. But what happens when Jason and Mark grow closer, when passion and even love begins to grow?
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Rainbow Gold Reviews – 10/10 – “….Beautiful and heartbreaking in one emotionally charged, well written novella.
There hasn’t been a RJ Scott book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I couldn’t help but wonder, could this be the book that didn’t work for me? Well I guess I will keep wondering because this wasn’t that time….
….This novella, well I can’t say enough good things about this one. I loved it and would highly recommend this to you if you are looking for a story with some heartache and a whole lot of love….”
Bike Book Reviews – 5/5 – “….This book is a lovely little treasure that I can’t wait for you to read! Thanks Rj for another beautiful read that will be at the top of everyone’s re-read list!….”
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Prism Book Alliance – 4/5 – “….Scott has the ability to write characters who are real without being over-drawn. She leaves many details just out of sight, because they are not essential to the core of her story. We are not handed great amounts of angst, nor are there horrific traumas unexpectedly revealed. Yes, there is a mystery that needs explaining; and there is sorrow in Mark’s youth that needs to be exorcised. Scott gives us just enough to help us embrace both Jason and Mark for all the good things they are, and to understand their motivations as they rediscover each other through their shared love of Andrew and grief over his untimely death.
Romances can take many forms, and that variety is one of the things that appeals to me most about the genre. “The Bucket List,” however, is pretty purely a romance. In its purity and simplicity lies its success. Sometimes, less is more….”
Love Bytes Reviews – 4/5 – “….RJ packed a lot in to a small space and I liked it all. A little plot, a little sex, a little travel, a little grief, and a little healing. She uses a delicate touch, giving us just enough drama from the past to keep in interesting, and some grief over Andrew’s death, but it didn’t get mopy. I liked it very much!
Oh yes… That cover? Hello! So pretty!….”
Multitaskingmommas Book Reviews – 4.5/5 – “….This is definitely one of the best and fastest read written by RJ Scott and, well, it left me feeling really, really good. Definitely one to add to that list or just go for broke, sit with a cup of tea and finish in an afternoon….”
Jason Craig cursed under his breath. How many times did he have to say the same thing? Why wasn’t this guard listening to him?
“Excuse me, sir, I’m here to see Mark Wesley.”
The guard ignored Jason for the third time. So far, the built-like-a-brick-outhouse rent-a-cop—Bill, according to his nametag—had let in a delivery of doughnuts, two bouquets of flowers, and the teased-blonde-haired interviewer from the local news station with a microphone in her hand and a cameraman following closely behind her.
The guard had let each of these in with a smile, and not for the first time, Jason wished he had thought about this in advance and maybe booked an interview—if it was at all possible to actually get an appointment with an actor on a closed set.
“Excuse me. Please,” Jason tried again. This time, the guard actually looked down at him from his lofty six and a half foot height and frowned.
“I heard you the first three times, sir, but you need to move on now,” he said. At least his tone was civil even if he hadn’t deigned to really talk to Jason.
“I have to get in to see Mark Wesley,” Jason replied.
“Join the line,” Bill said. He nodded toward the group of thirtysomething women on what looked like some kind of MILF day out. They were all pointing and giggling and shrieking whenever the door opened. Jason sighed. He’d been lumped in with the fans congregating to catch sight of the stars. He wasn’t a fan. Hell, he hadn’t even watched anything Mark was in. According to the IMDB profile for Mark Wesley, he played some kind of rich-boy lothario who bedded and connived and generally filled the bad-boy role in a soap that had been running a very long time.
Who am I kidding? He might have looked at IMDB recently, but at the end of the day, he actually had somewhat followed Mark’s career for years since Andrew, his brother, would mention things about Mark every now and then. He’d already known the boy who’d left town one night and never come back was now gracing the walls of many a fan’s bedroom.
“Can I make an appointment, then?” Jason asked, a little desperate.
“You should write to the studio, sir. Meanwhile, you may want to go stand over there. Some of the actors will be out later to see their adoring fans as per usual.” The guard sounded firm at first, but the second part of the sentence was dripping with sarcasm.
“I’m not a fan,” Jason protested. He looked over again at the chattering women. A couple were staring at him and pointing. Shuffling his feet and suddenly feeling uncomfortable, he wondered where to start to explain so he could get in. “I tried to find out where Mark lived and wanted to track down his family…” He stopped. I sound like some kind of creepy stalker fan. “Look, can you just maybe give him a note for me?”
Bill looked like he was ten seconds away from calling the cops on Jason. That would be just freaking great. How would he explain an arrest record for stalking to the education board when he was back at school? Finally Bill motioned toward a pile of books and notes and teddies that sat on the chair in his small hut.
“You can add a note to the pile.”
The pile? Jason didn’t have time for a note to be added to any kind of disorganized heap. He had exactly two days to get in, talk to Mark, and get him to agree to number one on his brother’s crazy-assed bucket list. The reunion is Saturday. We need to get home.
“If you could move away, sir,” Bill said.
Part of Jason wanted to take a stand and not move, but rebellion wasn’t really part of his makeup and he walked a few steps back. A voice to his side had Jason twisting on his heel. “Excuse me, my friend made me come over.” Jason faced one of the women from the group. He forced a mask of civility into place. Never let it be said his mom didn’t raise him right. “She thinks you are that Scottish guy from Days. You know, the one with the stepparents who turned out to be practicing voodoo and who ended up kidnapping the sister with the twins.”
“I said you weren’t him and that you were actually a lot better-looking than the Scottish guy, whose name I forget, Niall or Nick or something. Also, up close, you look way younger.” She tilted her head and let out a soft tinkling laugh, then placed a hand flat on his jacket. Jason instantly stepped backward. He wasn’t sure what Days was, but it didn’t sound like a good thing, not the way the rest of the group of women were staring at him like he was a side of beef on sale at the market.
“No. I’m not. I just need to…” He trailed off as two other women from the group joined the first, all three laughing and giggling and touching him. They’re touching me. Looking the guard directly in the eye, he hoped he telegraphed the sheer naked fear inside. Bill wouldn’t even glance at him, but there was a definite smirk on his round face.
“You could be a soap star, though,” Woman One simpered.
“Are you here auditioning?” Woman Two asked. She pressed scarlet-tipped fingers into his biceps and leaned into him. “Niiiice…”
“No, I’m n-not an, uhm, actor. I’m here to visit—” He took another step back when the remainder of the group joined the first three. Fifteen to one was not fair. It was only then, when he was surrounded, that the guard chose to intervene.
“Ten minutes, ladies,” Bill said. “Then the cast are coming out for photos.”
The group melted away from Jason like butter from a knife, and there were a lot of cackling laughs as they grouped around the narrow entrance and the gated hut the guard used. Resolving to get this sorted out, Jason excused himself as he passed by each woman and finally made his way through the heavily perfumed crowd and back to the guard.
“Please can you just tell him that Andrew Craig’s brother is here?” he called over the raised voices and chattering.
“Yes. Andrew Craig. I’m Jason, his little brother.”
Seeming to take some kind of pity on Jason, Bill scribbled the name in a notebook. Jason wasn’t sure what changed; maybe only barely making it out alive from a pack of rabid housewives was a badge of honor that Bill wanted to reward. Jason made his way back to the wall and away from the group. He didn’t have to wait long. The door opened and people stepped out. Who had come out, Jason couldn’t see over the small sea of women in heels, but there was a lot of excitement.
He went on tiptoes, but he couldn’t see Mark, no one with dark hair, just two women and a blond man. Inspiration hit—maybe he could ask one of them to tell Mark he was here. He tried his best to make his way through, but the women had formed an impenetrable wall and he was too polite to shove. By the time Jason made it to the front, the door had shut and anyone from the show had gone.
Jason deflated, then decided he would wait for as long as it took for Mark to come see him. What he was waiting for, he wasn’t sure. Was it to have the guard come get him? Had Bill even given the note to Mark? Was the actor aware he was here? When the women walked away, all with huge grins and two exchanging oohs and aahs of having had their breasts signed by the blond Adonis, Jason was left standing alone with only Bill for company. He looked up at the guard expectantly.
“I sent in the name,” Bill said simply.
“And nothing. Mark’s people have the note.”
Mark’s people? They wouldn’t know the name Andrew Craig. What was the point in giving it to them? The name should be given to Mark. It had been so many years, but surely Mark would recall Andrew. “They won’t know who Andrew is. Look, please. I need to see him. Can I write a longer note? To explain?”
“Like I said, they have your name.”
Jason contemplated his next move. What if he told Bill why he was standing here? He’d already said he’d tried to find out where Mark lived and placed himself squarely in scary stalker territory. Would it help if he told Bill about Andrew dying? Would that get him any compassion points to get through the door marked Private? Grief washed over him, and the memory of his brother’s voice filled his head.
“First thing, little brother. And this is the important one. Find Mark Wesley and make him see you. Explain to him. Tell him the keeper of his secrets has died. He’ll know exactly what you mean. And for fuck’s sake, get him to the reunion.”
“My brother died,” Jason said. Bill looked at him, and for a second, compassion softened his hard features.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Mark was his friend… I have to…”
The guard shook his head. He’d probably heard all kinds of reasons as to why people needed to get inside the closed set. Seemed like bereavement wasn’t going to swing it.
* * * * *
Mark Wesley slumped back on the closed toilet seat, and the last remaining ounce of energy left him in a noisy sigh. Two minutes’ peace. That’s all I want. But that wasn’t happening.
Mark blamed Evan. His agent had told him how good this fly-on-the-wall documentary would be. Emma Watkins is at the top of her game at the moment, she’ll give you good exposure.
What Mark hadn’t realized when he’d signed up for it was that it meant being constantly followed around by her and her cameraman. Which in turn meant no time to himself. Including bathroom time. They’d followed him for two weeks solid already. Consigned to digital film was hours of him acting, learning lines, going for dinner, and sleeping. They also asked far too many questions that slid close to things he had agreed with his agent wouldn’t become public.
Jeez. Did she never give up? She was inside the men’s bathroom and outside his stall door. Quickly, he glanced up, expecting to see the cameraman leaning over the top of the stall next to him. He could see the headlines now: Soap Actor Takes Crap, full frontal pics page five. Didn’t he even get a minute’s peace in the men’s room?
“I’ll be out in a minute, Emma,” he said. He was aiming for patience, but instead there was loosely restrained irritability.
“Just give a guy a few minutes to himself,” Mark snapped. He heard the noise of her heels on the tiled floor, some muffled talking between her and the camera guy, and the sound of the closing door. One more hour, that was all he had to handle. Then she was gone to edit whatever she could from his boring life. Cautiously he opened the stall door and checked by the sinks. They really had left. He wouldn’t put it past Emma to have faked leaving just so she got a shot of him doing up his fly.
Crossing to the sink, he washed his hands and checked himself in the mirror. His skin had the orange tint of makeup, and in this light he looked like he had a badly applied fake tan. Getting in the makeup chair every day was not one of the perks of the job. He loved his work, and getting paid well for what was essentially a nine-to-five job was a definite plus in his eyes. Didn’t mean he enjoyed his privacy being disregarded, though. The door opened and rounded on the interloper with temper on his tongue, only relaxing when he saw it was his agent, Evan Rogers.
“If you don’t get that woman out of my face—”
“Mark, I get that you’re pissed—”
“She followed me into the goddamned bathroom, Evan.”
“I’m just as upset as you are—”
“Bullshit, Evan. She hasn’t followed you to film you taking a crap.”
“She filmed you doing that?”
“No, fuck, I wasn’t… I was just hiding…”
“I get it’s been intrusive—”
“You don’t know.” He and Evan had even done some playacting for the documentary, pretend business meetings discussing film options. Make-believe film options. But still, a couple of meetings was nothing like the kind of intense focus that had been on Mark.
“Mark? You okay?” Evan looked concerned. He made sure the main door was completely shut and leaned against it. “Talk to me.”
Mark sighed and rested his hands on the sink, bowing his head. “Yeah, just needed some space, is all.” No sense in lying to the guy who guided his career and who was the only other person to know all, or nearly all, of his secrets. No point in arguing with one of his only friends in the business.
“Just another hour,” Evan said. “You can do it.” He grinned. “Imagine the vacation you can have on the proceeds from this work. It’s money for nothing.”
“And you,” Mark deadpanned. Evan took a percentage of his earnings and would be doing okay off this documentary. Mark didn’t begrudge him, though. Evan worked hard and had gotten him this gig as the resident bad guy in the number-one daytime soap. That in itself was kudos and had made Mark a nice bank balance that sat pretty much untouched. Mark shouldn’t be shouting at the guy.
“I’m raising my rates,” Evan teased. “I want to take you for enough money to get a five-star hotel and a private beach.” He poked a finger at Mark’s chest. “With several naked gorgeous women to choose from.”
Mark smiled. Evan’s rate was a standing joke. “Don’t know what Mary would say about that. Ten years of marriage and you want a new woman?”
Evan wrinkled his nose. “I didn’t say I would touch the scantily dressed women. Just to look at the menu. I’d have some naked guys for her as well.” He snapped his fingers. “You should come and get yourself a guy.”
The last he said in a whisper; even so, Mark frowned at him. They didn’t talk about Mark’s preferences in public. That was way too dangerous.
“Look, I’ll be out in a minute,” he said.
“No worries, I’ll keep her off your back. But there was a reason I was looking for you. Some guy gave a note to Bill, and I wanted to let you know before you go back on set.”
“What is it?” Mark was curious. Evan dealt with fan mail, passing the whole lot in bulk to Mark when Mark had time to actually look at it. He didn’t usually pass over random individual notes.
“It’s not just the usual, so I thought I’d run it by you first, and it mentions that town you used to live in.”
“Yep. The guy says his name is Jason and that he’s a younger brother of—hang on…” Evan checked the note. “Andrew Craig?”
Jeez. That was a shock from the past. Andrew Craig, from Cooper’s Yard, and his brother Jason. God.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard those names,” Mark said. It really had been. Just after his fifteenth birthday, Mark had moved away from the town he’d lived in from birth. Even though he should probably have gone back and seen Andrew, explained things, he never had. Life got in the way. Andrew had his own life now, anyway, he was sure.
“You know him, then?”
“I remember Andrew Craig and his brother,” Mark said. “From way back.”
“Before the reinvention?” Evan asked gently. Mark frowned. He hated that Evan called it that, even though that was essentially what it had been. Rising like a phoenix, a new Mark Wesley had been created from the old one who had too many shitty memories.
“Yeah,” he answered simply because he didn’t need to elaborate at all. Evan knew more about that time than anyone else. Except for Andrew Craig.
“What do you want me to do? We can’t let him on set as it stands; security won’t pass him.”
Mark considered the question. Andrew Craig was such a fond memory. They’d been as close as fifteen-year-old boys could be. Riding bikes around the neighborhood, climbing trees, noticing girls. Well, Andrew noticed girls. Not so much, Mark. Nope, he noticed boys.
He’d thought about his old friend sometimes. He knew how easy it would be to find where he lived and what he was up to. He never did, though. Never enough time, never the right moment. And the way they parted, what Mark had said? That was a memory he didn’t want right now.
I wonder if Andrew ever thinks of me in return? And why is Jason here? What does he want?
Andrew Craig. The only boy Mark had ever told everything to. The only person who knew all of the secrets Mark had inside. Knew what had happened with his less than stellar family life. Knew he had liked boys over girls.
“Can you go out and tell him that I’ll come find him when we finish. Tell him one more scene and I’m done.”
“What about the rest of the interviews with Emma?” Evan looked down at the note and back up at Mark. Mark could tell he was calculating times and schedules in his head.
“They just need a last goodbye thing. I’m going to get that done, get this last take down.” Inspiration hit him. “Tell security to let Jason through to Gino’s, surely they can allow that. I’ll be an hour; two hours, tops. See if he’ll wait.”
Evan nodded and left, and Mark stared at the wall, deep in thought. Maybe Andrew had asked his brother to look him up here in LA. Mark recalled Jason as a skinny kid with braces and the misfortune to trip over his own feet, but with the promise of so much more. The two brothers were close, though, Andrew and Jason, despite the usual sibling rivalries.
It had been so long since Mark had thought of the town that he had left behind. Cooper’s Yard, population three thousand and a handful of change. Or of Andrew. Rolling his shoulders, he looked from left to right to remove some of the kinks in his neck and then left his haven to walk straight into a camera slap bang in his face.
“So talk us through this take,” Emma said. Her voice was brittle. Clearly, Mark’s hiding in the bathroom was a sore point.
Forcing civility into his voice, he began to explain why they had to retake the last scene, but at the back of his mind, he was thinking of other things. He couldn’t wait for Gino’s coffee, a Danish, and to meet up with Jason. He was intrigued by what his old friend’s brother wanted, and maybe, just maybe, he could get an address and look Andrew up.
It was time.
Gino’s was a regular haunt for the cast of the many network shows filmed in the huge hangers on the Burbank lot. A person needed to pass through security to get in to the coffee shop, but it was outside the strict ‘inner circle’ studio guards. Somewhere for the actors, directors, camera guys, PAs, makeup people—anyone, really—just to meet and drink coffee. Mark opened the door and let out two guys from the local weather show who smiled and nodded to him as they passed. The wait gave him a few seconds to inhale the scent of coffee and for his taste buds to tell him it had been far too long since he’d had one of Gino’s caramel macchiato specialties. Well, at least twenty-four hours too long.
He glanced around and discounted the people he recognized until his gaze landed on someone at a far table sitting with his back to the door. If that was Jason, then he had certainly grown, filled out, if broad shoulders were anything to go by.
“Hey,” Gino said in greeting. The diminutive Italian rubbed harder at a spot on his immaculate counter and then stopped to get Mark’s order. “What can I get ya?”
“The usual,” Mark returned. Gino grinned, did his thing with the huge silver coffee machine, and passed the completed coffee to Mark, who exchanged the nectar for dollars.
“Drink,” Gino encouraged.
“Thanks, Gino. God, I need this.” Mark sipped the brew and burnt his tongue with scalding bitterness followed by a spark of sweet. Beautiful.
“You still got that blonde following you around the studio?”
Mark shook his head, then cast a glance around to see if anyone was close by and could hear. “No,” he said quietly. “Thank God, it’s all done now.”
“Can’t see as what she got from following you to drink coffee. I can see the headlines now”—Gino waved his hands in the air—“Actor Drinks Coffee, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.”
“Actor Burns Mouth, more like,” Mark pointed out and grinned. When Mark turned from the counter, he saw the guy in the corner had turned to face them and had an expectant smile on his face. Jason. He looked so much like Andrew, only with more red in his dark hair and with a wider smile. Mark smiled in return, sketched a wave, and then carefully weaved his way through abandoned chairs and half-asleep studio staff to reach the table his friend’s brother had chosen to use. Jason stood and Mark looked up—and up—at the man who was at least a few inches taller than him.
“You grew into your legs, then, Stretch?” Mark said. The teasing caused Jason to smile, but it was a respectful smile and one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “It’s been a long time.”
“Hi, Mark,” he said. He extended a hand, and Mark shook it firmly before placing his coffee on the table and sliding into the chair opposite. Jason really had grown into his height. Always kind of cute as a geeky adolescent, Jason had become a fine-looking man. Gone were the braces and the thick-rimmed glasses that never quite managed to stay on his nose. In their place was a beautiful smile with even white teeth, and a very clear view of Jason’s sapphire blue eyes, exactly the same as his brother Andrew’s eyes. His hair was longer, cut in the layers, and bangs fell nearly to his eyes even with the sculpted style. He must be thirty now? Hell, it made Mark feel old to be sitting opposite the kid he remembered at eleven or twelve.
“How are you, Jason?” Mark asked politely.
“I’m okay,” Jason said. His tone belied the words, though. Instead of being calm and positive, it was actually tight. “You look… happy.”
What a curious thing to say. “I like my job here, working here…” Stupid. Calm down. You’ve sat opposite a good-looking man before. Just never one that he’d known as a kid. “Do you want some more coffee?” He changed the subject.
Jason indicated the three coffee containers and the empty water bottle. “Any more and they will need to scrape me off the ceiling.”
“I know the feeling. Coffee keeps me going all day.”
Both men sat quietly, looking at each other, and Mark waited as long as he could before he decided to be the one to start talking.
“It’s been a while, Jason,” Mark began. “I’m sorry you had to wait outside. If I’d known you were coming, I could have got you on a studio tour, got you backstage or something. Hell, you could probably be an extra. Do you act?” He wasn’t entirely sure where the verbal diarrhea was coming from, but Jason went from startled to shaking his head.
“I only came here because Andrew told me to.”
“How is Andrew? I’ve been meaning to catch up. I can’t believe it’s been…” Mark trailed away. Something wasn’t right. Jason’s expression was bleak. Devastation cut deep into Jason’s face, and his blue eyes held so much anguish. Why was Jason here? What did he want to tell Mark? He couldn’t be here to tell him… It couldn’t be.
“I’m sorry,” Jason was saying. “Andrew passed away a few weeks ago. He’d had a mercifully short battle with cancer, and he died at home like he wanted to, surrounded by family.” The words were rehearsed. Jason had probably said them so many times. No one used mercifully in a sentence for real.
Shock struck Mark dumb. Grief followed the shock, unbidden. Images of the Andrew he knew, the boy he remembered, superimposed themselves on Jason’s sad expression, and it was all too much. Andrew had been the same age as him, both of them just into their thirties.
“He was only thirty-three,” Mark managed to force out.
“I know,” Jason responded in a low and level voice.
“But. He can’t… We didn’t…” Mark slumped back in his chair. This was impossible. This wasn’t right.
“He left me a list of things he wanted me to do for him. Kind of a bucket list, I guess.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “Top of that list was to find you and give you your own letter.” Jason reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope that had seen better days.
He placed it flat on the table and nudged it gently with one finger toward Mark. In response, Mark pulled away sharply. His chair made a horrible screech on the linoleum, and it seemed that every person in the room turned to look at him. When all he did was sit absolutely still, they all lost interest and the general level of chatter increased again.
“I’m so sorry, Jason,” he finally said. The letter remained where Jason had placed it, and Mark made no move to pick it up. “Losing a brother… jeez… I’m… It must be so hard. Was he married? Did he have kids?”
Jason nodded, eyes bright and worrying his upper lip his teeth. “He married Joanna three years ago and I have a two-year-old nephew, Harry.”
“You do? He did?” Mark smiled through the pain in his chest. “A wife? And he left a child here, a permanent mark.” He wondered if the toddler was a direct copy of Andrew, all mischief and sparkly-eyed and into everything. Mark had first met Andrew when they were little, but his memories of being so young were blurry. He wished he had photos, but his mom had burned everything a long time before she’d died.
“He said I have to wait for you to open the letter,” Jason encouraged. Mark reached for the innocent-looking green envelope and turned it over to look at the closure. Sliding a finger from the corner, he soon had it open and tipped the contents onto the table. A condom and a square card. Picking up the condom, he placed it carefully in one hand. Tears clogged his throat as memory upon memory cascaded in his head.
“He always said… all I needed was…”
Andrew had been so serious. “Just promise me you’ll always stay safe. Always use a condom.”
Andrew’s joking acceptance of Mark’s sexuality had been welcome after so much angst, but Mark’s voice choked in his throat. He couldn’t finish the sentence. Jason reached out and placed a hand over his and squeezed before pulling away. Andrew had been his staunchest supporter when he’d revealed he was gay, well finally revealed, anyway. At first Andrew had been horrified, but that had been bad timing. After a while there was no hesitation in his old friend, just a whole new opportunity for teasing him. Hence the condom.
“’Course, I had to look hard for a pack of extra small,” Andrew had added, which resulted in him and Mark wrestling in wet grass. The memory made Mark smile and want to cry at the same time.
“It’s okay,” Jason said. He’d probably done a lot of that. Sat listening to new grief from each person he told, then had to deal with helping those people come to terms. That wasn’t fair at all.
Mark blinked back the emotion and slid the condom in his pocket at the same time Jason released his grip. Damn Andrew and his shout-out from the grave, his words from all those years ago spinning in his mind.
“You should just be honest, Mark. The people that judge you are the ones that don’t matter. I’ll never stop being your friend just because you want to kiss Danny Foster and not his sister Trisha.”
Picking up the card, Mark turned it over and he blinked as he read the words, then reread them, not really believing what he was seeing.
Because apparently Andrew had seen fit to give him a ticket to the Cooper’s Yard High School fifteenth reunion, their old high school in a town Mark had left too many years ago to recall.
God. No. He’d moved schools, and the last thing he wanted to do was ever set foot back in his old school again. The gymnasium was the scene of his humiliation, of the final nail, of the moment he screwed a lid tight on so many secrets. Why would Andrew give him a ticket to that?
“Fuck no,” he managed to force out. Then his own disbelief was pushed to one side when Jason placed a card of his own on the table. That invite had Andrew’s name on it.
“This is mine. He wanted me to go in his place.”
Tears pricked Mark’s eyes, but he was not going to let the shock make him cry, not in front of Jason, who looked so bleak but was being so damn strong.
“Are you going?”
Jason nodded. “He wanted us to go with each other. I guess he figures that seeing me and the two invites together would hold some sway in getting you to go. I have something I am supposed to read you now,” Jason said uncomfortably. Mark looked up at him, confusion building. “It’s the end of number four on my own list. Is it okay?”
Mark didn’t want to know why this was number four, or what numbers one to three had been. Funeral arrangements? Music? Possessions? I feel sick. He nodded to indicate Mark should continue.
“Andrew wrote this himself just after he was first diagnosed, when he was going through his first treatments. Just in case you think any of this was done when he was near the end and his mind wasn’t…” Jason stopped talking for a moment.
“It’s okay,” Mark encouraged.
“He says I need to say this exactly as he wrote it, so here goes. ‘Mark, take these tickets and use them. The school is a much less scary place when you drive a Porsche and have made a life you can be proud of. Don’t let them win with their dead dreams. Oh and mostly, make sure you meet my beautiful wife and my gorgeous son, you’ll love them. Tell Harry all our stories so he knows his dad.’”
Jason finished and placed the letter back in a scuffed notebook where a small stack of letters were pushed tight and held with a band.
“That’s pretty heavy stuff.”
Jason shrugged. “I know.”
Mark swallowed. Didn’t matter how Jason tried to explain, fear held Mark tight and wasn’t letting him go any time soon. Andrew had known what had happened at that school, so why would he even suggest Mark go back to the place that gave him so much misery?
“I really don’t understand why he wants me to go back to a town that I hated, to a school I hated, to go to a damned party.”
“There has to be some reason,” Jason said. His tone was very calm, but there was a hint of trepidation. He was expecting Mark to laugh this off probably. After all, Mark and Andrew hadn’t seen each other in a long while. Jason probably looked at him and saw an ex-friend who didn’t care enough about Andrew to have even checked up on him.
Mark had so many emotions winding their way through him. All he wanted to do was get a bottle of whiskey and lose himself in grief for a few hours, remember what he used to be and the Andrew he recalled.
He moved Jason’s ticket so it sat next to his, and seeing the two names next to each other was like a knife to the gut. He pushed Jason’s ticket—Andrew’s ticket—back toward him and turned his own ticket over and over in his hand. Then he looked into Jason’s bright blue eyes and saw they held a combination of hope and despair.
Jason’s grief and expectations were a weight on him, and regret, fear, sadness, and pity all fought for dominance. But at the end of the day, acceptance won. He was clearly in some kind of shock but his heart knew he would do this for Andrew.
“Okay,” he said simply. “If that is what he wanted, if it helps, then I’ll go.”