Castle Roland

Forever 1 - Beginnings

by Jack Schaeffer


Chapter 10

Posted: 5 Feb 15

FOREVER 1 - Beginnings
By Jack Schaeffer
Copyright © 2014 - 2015. All rights reserved.

_"A beginning is a very delicate time."_
from Dune (1984) by Frank Herbert, David Lynch

I was nervous, my mind all over the place, and it showed in my driving. I slammed on my brakes, narrowly avoiding rear ending the car in front of me. Earlier, I had pulled out of the gas station into traffic and nearly caused another car to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting me – I never even looked! This Monday morning drive to work might very well be my last if I didn't get a grip. What was my problem?

I had spent Sunday just chilling in my apartment. After a neighbor upstairs helped with the Wifi password for the apartment complex, I was able to get my IPad going, and I spent hours surfing the internet and downloading music on ITunes. I even did a little porn watching and the usual related activity, just to pass the time. It was fun. But two dimensional sex was losing its appeal – I had my heart set on the real deal. Hopefully soon.

I also did a lot of thinking, which is something I like to do. My mind seldom shuts down, even when I am doing relatively little else. It's always working on something. Yesterday it was stuck on the nagging feeling something was missing in my life, beyond the obvious no boyfriend and no sex life. Sure I had money now – more than I could ever spend – but money doesn't buy everything a man needs. It was a deeper thing, and it was nagging at me just beneath the surface.

Like most guys, I can only really focus on one thing at a time. So when I started getting frustrated with "something's missing" problem, I shoved it into a mental box, and decided to focus instead on something I had wanted to do my whole life but never had the chance to before – travel. I had never seen the ocean in real life – at least not since I was an infant, and I'm not sure even then – so a beach held a real attraction for me. Plus I was wanting some sun. Our Chicago winter had been particularly harsh this year, with much colder than normal temps and a crap load of snow. They were calling for possibly more tonight. It was April 2nd, for crying out loud! I was cold and wet and I wanted out of it for a while.

One of the great things about the internet is you can find pictures of whatever you want with a simple Google search. So I typed in "beach", "sun", and "sand" and was taken to thousands of pictures of matching images. One in particular leaped off the screen at me – Kailua Beach in Hawaii. It sparked a search for best beaches of the world, and surprise, Kailua Beach was on the list, though not the top pick. Most of the really high ranked beaches were in other countries, and while I had the means to get there, I did not have a passport so leaving the country was out of the question for now.

I was thinking differently about the money, too – and it concerned me a little. It was starting to become almost like Monopoly money in my mind. If I didn't watch it I could see myself doing really stupid, wasteful things with it. There is a thrill you can get when spending it, almost like what you get on a roller coaster or something similar. There's a rush of pleasure in the purchase. But then it's over, and you're left with whatever you bought, or worse, nothing tangible to show for it at all. I needed to find the balance between fearful miser and foolish spendthrift.

I didn't want to break the bank my first week, but I also wanted to live a little, too. Sharon had said a vacation might be a good thing for me, and I couldn't think of a reason to disagree, so I spent Sunday afternoon researching options for a vacation in Hawaii. It's a tropical paradise but still in the U.S., so a passport was not needed. There were lots of accommodation options, but the ones which appealed to me the most were of course the most expensive – private homes for rent. Some of them were mansions, exquisitely beautiful with private pools and extraordinary views. A few rented for as high as twenty grand per night! Way too much for just me. The one I really wanted to stay at wasn't cheap though – it was $2,500 per night. I would have to ask Todd if such an expense was okay, as I wasn't comfortable with making the decision to spend such large amounts of money on my own. I hoped he would say it was fine, because I was craving the privacy you can get with a private house set apart by itself versus a resort full of people. I needed some time to think and process and figure out what my next steps were going to be. And the house I picked out sure looked like a little bit of heaven on earth on the website.

As I was getting ready for bed last night, I was reminiscing, too, about all the events and people from Denver. I missed Sharon and Billy a lot, and it had only been two days. I already sensed a hole in my life because they weren't there anymore. I even found myself wondering about Clyde and whether or not he had stopped to get flowers for Shirley like we had talked about.

I sadly realized I had had more fun and excitement and real conversations about real subjects in my two days out there than I had had in Chicago in over two years. Well, maybe it was an exaggeration, but things in Chicago had really never happened for me. I was still in the same place I was when I first moved to town. In every area of life.

Then I had an epiphany – I knew what was missing from my life in Chicago. It was a single, simple thing – hope. Hope was missing. Hope for a future, hope for a relationship, hope for a career, hope for a real purpose in life. My life wasn't bad or totally pointless - it just didn't have any energy to it anymore. Hope provides the energy and drive to keep moving forward, toward the things hoped for. Somewhere along the way I had surrendered hope altogether and settled for going through the motions to nowhere.

Which was why I was driving like a fool not in his right mind. I was fretting over what in the world I was going to say to Marcus this morning when I got to work. How much do I tell him about Denver and all that had happened? And more importantly, how do I tell him I don't want to work for his company anymore?

Because the fact is – I didn't. My job was a big reason for my sense of hopelessness. I was a 24 year old guy with a college degree in Business Management. The place I worked at was small and there was absolutely no room for advancement or direction for me to grow in. I suppose I could go back to school and become a certified accountant – it would make Marcus extremely happy. He'd been wanting an accountant on staff forever. But I had no desire to be an accountant. In fact, I still didn't know what I wanted to be. But it definitely was not an accountant.

When by some minor miracle I made it the office in one piece, I parked the car and sat there for a minute, trying to collect my jumbled thoughts. I didn't want to delay and not say anything to Marcus. I wanted to get on with my life. But I also didn't want him to be mad at me for quitting. After all, he's the one who gave me the job in the first place. And let's face it – it was a gift. I didn't know crap about bookkeeping or running an office when I started. But he gave me the chance and the time to grow into it. Finally a semblance of a plan sort of gelled together in my mind. Time to suck it up, cupcake.

My desk had several neat, short stacks of papers on it, along with the direct deposit pay stub for my paycheck from last week. Ordinarily I check my bank balance religiously every Friday morning to make sure my paycheck made it in there – I had usually already spent most of it. This week I had completely forgotten about it. Interesting.

I was hoping I could talk with Marcus first before Mary arrived and started her investigation into my non-approved activities. Unfortunately they walked in together, Mary chatting up a storm and Marcus looking like he was well on his way to a migraine. I wondered how they had gotten along last week without me.

Marcus saw me at my desk and said quickly, "Hey Jack, could you come into my office right away?" He had a pleading look on his face as if to say "Save me from this woman!"

I got up and followed him in, lest Mary turn her sights in my direction next. He closed the door behind me and bid me take a seat in front of his desk.

He sighed heavily as he sat down in his chair behind his desk. "Ahh. Peace and quiet. Honestly, that woman is great at her job, but does she have to talk a million miles an hour about absolutely nothing important? Exhausting. And that's just the walk from the parking lot. Next time I'll pretend I have a call and wait for her to go in first." I smiled and said nothing. Welcome to my world, Boss.

"So Jack, how was last week? Get everything taken care of with your family?"

I had decided to tell him a watered down version of the truth. I'm a terrible liar – I can't ever keep my story straight. I figured if I sort of followed the outlines of the truth I could stay out of trouble yet still keep things fairly private.

"Yeah, I guess so. It was a lot more involved than I expected though."

"Oh, how so? What did you have to do?"

"Well, it turned out I had a relative on my dad's side who passed away and left me some things. I've never even met this person, so it was totally unexpected. But the lawyer handling it all said it was legit so there it is."

"Wow, Jack. Big surprise. So, if it's not too personal, do you mind my asking what did they leave you? You don't have to say if you don't want to."

"No, it's okay. Just please don't tell anyone else here, okay. I don't want to talk about it." I sighed. Here goes nothing.

"It turns out they left me a house and some money. But it's out in Denver."

"Denver? A house?"

"Yeah. The lawyer had a plane ticket for me to go out there to sign all the paperwork but I had to go last week or it wouldn't work, something about legal deadlines. I now own a house in Denver." He had a very surprised look on his face, but then he broke into a smile.

"Well, Jack, good for you. Good for you. I can't think of a better guy to have this kind of good fortune fall on him. I'm really happy for you. So have you decided what you're going to do with it?" Here it comes – the really hard part. I took a deep breath.

"Yeah, but this is hard for me to say. I really, really appreciate everything you've done for me here, Marcus. You and your wife and Fred. I mean, I was so lost and you gave me this job and helped with the apartment. You keep giving me raises and I know I don't really deserve them." He started to interrupt me. "No, no. Please let me finish. What I'm trying to say is no matter what, I will always be grateful for my time here, and for all you've taught me." I was nearly in tears. My heart was breaking even though my mind was telling me to press on.

"But I've decided it's time for me to move on from here. I've enjoyed my job – a lot – and I've learned so much. But we both know there's no career path here for me. I don't want to be an accountant, much as I would love to keep working with you. And hey...I mean, I own a house out there. Not too many 24 year olds have a completely paid off house." I stopped because I had run out of breath. I couldn't read his face. I decided to be quiet and wait.

He processed it all for a few seconds, then looked straight at me. "Jack, first of all, you don't have to be afraid I'm going to be upset with you for leaving. I've known this day would come from the first night I hired you. You are much too smart and mature to stay in this job forever. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised you've stayed as long as you have. I probably made it too comfortable for you. But I knew when you were ready, I would lose you. And I'm cool with it.

"I'm proud of you, Jack. It's a big step, moving across the country like this. But I agree – you have an opportunity financially with having a house already waiting for you, and I can understand the appeal for a young man such as yourself to uproot and try something new somewhere else. Plus I'm sure Denver is a damn sight more interesting than the Chicago suburbs. Have you thought about what you will do for work?"

I was blown away by his reaction. Not what I had feared at all. I was really struggling now not to lose it. This man had been so good to me – I thought he would be upset I was leaving him in the lurch and instead, he was genuinely happy for me. Amazing man.

I cleared the lump in my throat. "Yeah, I have actually. I've already lined up an opportunity to work with a financial services group. They said they would teach me the ropes, kind of like you did here. It's a chance to go a little deeper I think and see if I want to pursue finance as a career of sorts. I can always go back to school and pursue an MBA, too."

"Good, Jack. Smart move. Never leave yourself out of a job if you can help it. Well, after working with you for the past two years, I'm sure whoever gets you on the payroll will be happy to have you. I know I'm gonna miss you around here myself." It was the last straw. I could feel the tears drop on my new blue shirt as I held my head down, embarrassed at my lack of control. This man loved me – or at least really cared for me. I was going to miss him, too.

Thankfully, he said nothing more as I struggled to hold it together. I finally managed to stop the water works before they got out of hand, and looked up at him. His eyes were a little red around the rims, too.

"You gonna be okay, Jack?" He asked.

"Yeah, I think so. Thanks for understanding. It was...tough to get out." He smiled, then laughed out loud.

"You thought I would be tough? You still have to run the gauntlet with Mary Ricketts."

I groaned. "Oh, don't remind me. I'm dreading it."

"Hey, Jack. It's your life. Tell her just what you want to, and leave the rest out. She's a good person. Just a little too nosy for her own good sometimes. But you were right, she can work, I'll give her that. She picked up the slack with you being gone with no problem."

I stood up to go. "Anything else?" I needed some air.

"Nope, not for now. I suppose we will need to talk about transition and your replacement, but we can save that discussion for later. I want to think about it for a bit. I may have some ideas that may make it easier on all of us."

"Okay, well I'm gonna get back to my desk then and get receivables going." I turned to leave.

"Hey, Jack." I turned back around to face him. "I meant what I said. I am really, really happy for you. I hope everything works out great for you out there." I nodded and quickly turned and walked out. The tears started again, so I headed straight for the bathroom to get myself in control.

When I got back to my desk, Mary was waiting to pounce. I had expected this, and I was ready.

"So, Jack. Welcome back. Looking sharp there today, with the new do and the new threads. What gives? Somebody you wanna tell me about?" Fat chance, woman.

"No, Mary. Just needed a haircut and some new shirts. Most of my clothes are getting old." Short and simple. Short and simple.

"Well, you're looking good today. I like the new Jack. Very dapper. Makes you look older, more mature. Good for you."

"Thanks, Mary."

"So, how'd it go last week? You know, with the family issues?"

"What? Oh, yeah, well it went fine I guess. Not much happened." Just my whole life was flipped upside down.

"Nothing? No stories to tell, no family drama?"

"Nope. Nothing." I replied. But then I decided I might as well tell her I was leaving. Her feelings would be hurt if she heard it from someone else, and we had worked together closely for over two years. It would affect her, too.

"Look, Mary. There is something I do need to tell you." She visibly perked up. "I've decided I'm gonna leave here and pursue an opportunity somewhere else."

Her mouth dropped open. "What? You're leaving? Why? When? What opportunity?" Now I'd done it. She would fire questions at me until she had exhausted all angles. I tried to cover it all as fast as I could.

"Well, I have a chance to work with a financial services group doing deeper level finance work. They will train me so I can learn on the job. I already spoke to Marcus and he's happy for me – says it sounds like a great opportunity. And besides, Mary, I can't stay here forever. I need to move up in a career path of some kind. And it can't happen here."

"Hmmpf. You got that right. Nothing much happens here. But hey, I get it. You're young, energetic, you want the brass ring. I say go for it. Good for you, Jack. So when are you leaving?" She was happy for me? Didn't expect that.

"Not sure yet. I just decided to absolutely leave yesterday. Marcus and I will have to talk about transition. I would assume two weeks though, at least, unless he has a different plan." I really hoped two weeks would be enough. Now that I had decided to go, and nobody was mad at me, I wanted to get on with it.

"Sounds about right. Did he say what he was gonna do about your position?"

"What do you mean?"

"You he gonna find a new office manager or change the position at all?" She was sounding weird again.

"I really have no idea. I assumed he would just replace me with someone to do the same work I already do. But he did say he wanted to think about it a while. Maybe he will change it somehow. You'd have to ask him."

"I just might do that, Jack." Just then the phone rang, and she had to answer it. Our day was off to a normal fast paced Monday.

At lunchtime, I decided to go out to my car and call Todd Martin. I had a lot of questions, and I needed to see if he was okay with the money I had spent over the weekend. I found his card in my wallet and dialed. He answered on the first ring.

"Jack Schaeffer! How are you, man? Get back to Chicago okay?"

"Yeah, I did. How are you today, Todd?"

"Good, can't complain. What can I do for you, Jack?"

"Well, I think I did a not too smart thing. I went down to the Boeing headquarters here in Chicago and toured a mockup of the new 747 plane. I know you said I shouldn't, but I couldn't resist. It was so beautiful and I hate flying first class with all the rabble. So I put a down payment on one. It was only 117 million, and you have two years to come up with the remaining 250 million. You were right. They take a Centurion card everywhere. Is that okay?" I was nearly choking trying not to laugh at my joke.

"Ha ha, Jack. Very funny, you little shit. Now tell me you didn't."

"Naw, man. I'm not that stupid. Besides, what could one person do with a plane that big? But hey, I did spend some money. I helped a couple at the airport on Friday get seats together on my plane. And I went on a little shopping trip for myself and got some clothes and an IPad. I hope that's okay."

"Sure, Jack. Of course. No problem. Unless you spend above a certain threshold in a calendar day, I don't even get a heads up from the system. The bills are just paid, no questions asked." Really?

"So what is the threshold?" I asked.

"No way, Jack. I'm not telling you. That's all I need, you spending a shitload of money just to trip the system so I catch it. I can already see you're gonna be a pain in my ass, aren't you?" I heard the smile in his voice. I liked Todd a lot. He and I were going to get along great. Too bad he was straight. Maybe I could talk to his wife and she would share him once in a while. Ha! Fat chance.

"I'm just asking. It's not like I have anything I really need to buy right now."

"Well, let's just say it's in the high six figures and leave it alone." Holy crap! Did he just say I could spend close to a million dollars in a day and he wouldn't even be warned about it? I thought I was beyond shock anymore with the money, but I was wrong.

"Yikes! Okay, worries. Not gonna happen, Todd. But that does answer one of my questions."

"Oh...what?" He asked.

"I want to take a trip to Hawaii, and the place I want to stay is kind of pricey."

"How pricey is pricey, Jack?"

"Like $2500 a night." I braced for his scream.

"Jack, that's not pricey. Sure, for the average guy, or even the average upper class guy, it might be a little steep. But trust me, you can handle it. Go and have a blast. Enjoy yourself. How long are you planning to stay?"

"I'm not sure. I was thinking a week. I wanna get out of Chicago and get to some sun and just veg out and think about life, ya know?"

"I get it. Sounds wonderful to me, too. Go for it. You need any help making plans on where to stay and how to get there? I'm good with all the little detailed shit. I'm here to help if you want it." He was sounding too good to be true.

"I'm good for now. I'll let you know once I've made up my mind what I'm doing. But there is the other matter we discussed when I was out there. My student loan?"

"Oh, yeah. Right. You got the numbers for me? I'm ready when you are." I gave him my current remaining balance - $16,374.22 and the account numbers and contact information. He assured me he would have it handled before the week was over. That was easy.

"So Jack, when are you coming back out to Denver? We should talk about some options for you, if you're up for it. Plus my wife Margie would love to meet you." Why, I wondered. I was nobody.

"Well, actually that was the other thing I needed to talk to you about. I've decided to quit my job and move to Denver in a little while, probably right after my trip. I really liked it out there, and I think I would like to get a little more involved in the day to day activities with the trust. That is...if I wouldn't be a bother."

"Not at all, Jack. Are you kidding? It would be great to have you out here, and I wouldn't mind walking you through everything we're working on for you, make sure you're on board with it all. Nothing too deep, just skimming the surface so you get an idea." I knew I liked this guy. He knows not to overwhelm me with too much information at one time. Smart man.

"I like the sound of that. Let's do it. Soon as I get back from my vacation."

"Hey, Jack, have you given any thought to where you are gonna stay if you move to Denver? You know you have a house out here, right?"

"Yeah, I remember seeing it on one of Larry's lists. But I never found out much about it. Is it nice?" I had no idea about real estate or owning a house. Way above my previous pay grade.

"Uh, yeah...I would think so. I've never seen it, but it's out in Littleton, about 20 minutes from downtown Denver. Sits on 700 acres on a mountain side. Sounds pretty nice to me."

Crap! Crap! Crap! I was going from a one bedroom apartment to 700 acres? Geez, how was I supposed to manage all that? I hated cleaning my little apartment and it only took an hour. I could feel an anxiety attack threaten.

"Jack, you there? Jack...where'd you go?" He sounded frantic.

"I'm here. Just give me a minute, okay." I tried to calm my breathing. This emotional freak out response of mine was getting old. "Alright. I can breathe again.'s just...I hear numbers like that and it gets overwhelming really fast for me. I'm trying to get over it."

"Numbers like what, Jack?" He asked, with genuine concern in his tone.

"700 acres, high six figures, crap like that. I mean, I live in a tiny one bedroom apartment. Now you're talking a house on 700 acres of land. How am I supposed to take care of it? It's way more than I can handle. I was thinking it was a small townhome or a simple single family home in a subdivision somewhere."

"Nope, none of those. But you know, it's taken care of already by the Smyth family - Charles and Maggie Smyth. He does all the landscaping and maintenance and general labor, and she does all the cooking, cleaning and household management things. So really, there is nothing for you to do. You'd have live in help. If you want them, that is. According to Larry, they asked to stay on and keep the place going until the estate got resolved. They've been doing it for close to twenty years, I think. Phillip Franklin hired them from a hotel he stayed at a lot. You'd have to ask Larry for more details."

"What if I don't like it? Or I'm not comfortable with live in help? What if they don't like me or don't want to stay on? Then what?" I asked.

"I'm sure they'll like you, Jack. But, hey, if they don't, then we put the house and land on the market and we sell it. And we get you a great condo in the city. Or whatever you want. You can live wherever and however you want to, you know that right?" He was being gentle with me, which I appreciated. I would get over being a ninny about the money, eventually. I hoped I would, anyway.

"Well, I guess it couldn't hurt to at least visit it and see what it's like. I mean Phillip and Amanda loved it, I understand. So maybe it's great. I'll check it out when I get to Denver later."

"Sounds good, Jack. Hey, why don't you give me the name of the place in Hawaii you were interested in renting and let me see what I can find out for you? Once you know when and if it's available, we can talk about flights and rental cars and other things you might need." His assistance would actually be a relief, as I had struggled to figure out availability online when I was surfing yesterday. Maybe Todd could call them directly or something. So I gave him the info.

"Alright, Jack. I'll get on this right away and let you know what I find out. By the way, check out your bank balance today. I transferred some money to you this morning. Gotta run. Bye." He hung up, leaving me staring at my phone. What had he done?

My empty stomach preempted any further money business. I buzzed over to Buffalo Wild Wings for lunch and ordered wings with my favorite flavors – chipotle dry rub and spicy barbeque, 6 of each. I washed them down with a large Diet Coke, and then used the wet napkin things they have on the table to try to get the sticky sauce off my fingers. I finally gave up and hit the bathroom to wash up.

I was standing in front of the mirror, soaping my hands, when a guy a few years older than me clearly leaned backwards from the urinal behind me and scoped out my ass. I mean he looked right at it for several seconds, then looked up at my face in the mirror and smiled. No mistaking his interest. I smiled back, letting him know I appreciated his attention. He lifted an eyebrow as if to ask, "Interested in getting to know one another a little better?" But in a split second I realized I had just decided to leave Chicago. What sense did it make to get involved with this guy, hot as he was, when I couldn't really have a relationship with him? Sure, the sex might be epic, but my heart would just get broken in the end.

So I dried my hands and when he walked up to the sink, I said, "Thanks for... thinking about me. But I can't pursue anything right now. I hope you understand."

"Sure, no problem. But kid, you got one hell of an ass on you. Be careful with that thing. Somebody might get hurt. Wish it could have been me," he said with a grin.

We smiled big at each other and I rushed out of there before I changed my mind. As it was I mentally kicked myself all the way to the car. There was a part of me that wondered if I was upsetting some kind of sex gods by always turning down opportunities, holding out for true love. Maybe I would never find love, and then I'd be too old or too whatever to draw any interest from guys anymore.

I made it back to the office within my allotted one hour break time. Mary was still out on her lunch, so I secretly logged onto my bank online, something I had learned how to do over the weekend, and almost fell out of my chair when I saw the balance. It should have been less than $1,500. Instead, the screen showed I had a little over $200,000 dollars in my checking account. Holy crap! Todd was totally messing with my head again. I was still staring open mouthed at the screen when Mary walked in from her lunch. I snapped out of it and shut down the web browser on the accounting computer, before she could accidentally see the screen.

Thankfully we both had busy afternoons and nothing more was said about my impending departure until close to quitting time. Marcus called me into his office and asked me to shut the door. "Jack, have a seat. This won't take long. I'm sure you want to get out of here." He didn't know the half of it. I could feel Mary readying herself for round two of the inquisition, and I had said all I wanted to.

"I've been thinking about you leaving, Jack, and I have an idea I want to run by you. I'm thinking of splitting your position into two. As you know, I have been wanting a certified accountant on staff for a long time. Our numbers are looking up and we have a lot more transactions to manage, plus my time is being taken up with more strategic planning and the financial management is getting short changed. So here's my idea. I'll hire an accountant to do all the bookkeeping part of your job, which I'm estimating is like 75 percent of what you do for us, correct?" I nodded. That sounded about right to me.

"The rest I'll merge into what Mary is already doing. The combined position will be titled Office Manager, and I'm thinking of offering it to Mary. She's proven she can handle the workload, and I can probably swing a raise for her with the new responsibilities.

"Bottom line, Jack. You won't have to interview or train your replacement. What do you think?" He asked.

"I think it sounds brilliant. Mary will be super happy. She hinted around this morning she might want a piece of my job. It's perfect. I know she could use the money. And if you can keep her busier, she won't have as much time to be a busybody." I smiled. I really liked his idea. Everybody wins. I was feeling much better about my decision to leave.

"Great. My thoughts exactly. Now, have you given any thought to how long you want to stay on?" I hadn't.

"Actually, no. I still have a lot to do to make the move happen. My apartment, I have to figure out. I'm thinking of selling my car and getting something else out there. Not sure I have much to move. Most of it isn't worth a lot. I really don't know how long it will take to get everything done, Marcus."

"Alright. Well, for now, we'll proceed with this plan, and you keep me posted with your progress on things. And if you need to take time during the day to handle some arrangements, feel free Jack. Just keep payroll going, please. That's all I ask." He was smiling in mock horror at the thought of payroll not being done by Friday.

"Go on, Jack. Go home. Have a great evening. I'll see you in the morning."

"Night," I said, and then made my exit. Thankfully Mary had already left for the day.

The next couple of days passed fairly normally. Marcus told Mary his plan to have her assume the full Office Manager role, and she was ecstatic. She insisted on doing as much of it now as she possibly could so the transition would happen quicker. I think she just wanted her raise faster, but I didn't blame her. And she caught on quickly to things. In just two days she had mastered everything non-accounting related which had been part of my job.

Which was helpful, because I had a lot of accounting work to do. Marcus was right, our sales had picked up and we were creating many more accounting transactions – purchase orders, vendor invoices, sales orders, sales invoices, etc. It all added to my work load. I didn't mind really. Being busy made the time move faster.

On Thursday morning, Todd called to say he had some information about my Hawaii trip. I said I'd call him back at lunchtime – I didn't need Mary snooping and hearing about a big expensive vacation. She would pepper me with endless questions, showing no mercy.

When I got to him, he was full of news.

"Jack, I called the place you wanted to stay near Kailua Beach. The family who owns it is willing to rent it to you, but they only have a three week window open starting a week from this Saturday, and you have to rent it for the full three weeks. You can't break it up. But if you take it, I negotiated a much better nightly rate of $1,500."

"Wow, Todd. That's huge. How did you do it?"

"I just pointed out requiring a three week rental when you only wanted one was a difficult burden so they needed to meet me halfway. I knew they wanted to rent it. They don't have anybody waiting on such short notice to snap it up, so it's yours if you want it."

"Yes, I want it! Can I really stay for three weeks?"

"Sure, if that's what you want to do. You can even make it a kind of home base, and then if you get bored, you could branch out and see other islands on day trips, or even some overnights. You can see a lot of the Islands if you give yourself three weeks."

"Okay, I'll do it. I think I can get away from here by then. But how will I get there? Did you work on that, too?" I knew the answer as soon as the question came out of my mouth.

"Of course, Jack. It's what I do. I have a reservation for a non-stop flight leaving a week from Saturday at 10 am and gets you in to Honolulu a little after 2 pm. I'll have a rental car ready for you, and directions to the property management agent who will accompany you to the house and help you figure out where everything is and how it all works. If you want me to set up some kind of butler service at the house, for cooking and cleaning, I can do that too."

"No, no. You've done plenty. Wow, Todd. Do you always think of everything?"

"'s what I do. I enjoy it, what can I say?"

"Well I'm gonna say thank you, thank you, thank you for doing all this for me. I can hardly wait to go."

"You'll have a great time, Jack. It sounds like an awesome place to hide out for a vacation. Oh, by the way, I got confirmation back from the lender. Your student loan has officially been discharged, paid in full. You should receive a letter stating so on official letterhead in about two weeks."

"Awesome, Todd! Thank you again. But...that reminds me. If I'm leaving here in a week, what do I do about my mail? I mean, I won't be here to get it anymore."

"Go down to the post office and they will give you a forwarding address form. You can have it forwarded to the address we set up for your trust. We create one for every private trust so any correspondence has an official address to come to. Gotta a pen?" Todd gave me the address, which I wrote down. I would stop on the way home tonight and fill out the card at the Post Office. He made everything so easy. I hoped he was getting paid handsomely. He certainly deserved it from my perspective.

We ended our call as I needed to get back to work. My mind started racing to all the things I still needed to accomplish before I could leave Chicago. My apartment needed to be sublet – I had three months left on it. And I needed to sell my car. I didn't want to drive it to Denver. I had no idea how I was going to do either of those two things in a week's time.

I left work a little early and detoured to the nearest Post Office. I found the yellow cards which Todd had told me about to have my mail permanently forwarded, and I filled one out. As I was walking up to the counter to give it to the clerk, I saw a sign advertising Passport applications. I wanted one.

When it was my turn, I handed over the yellow mail-forwarding card, and then asked for a passport application. She pointed me to a side door off the lobby and told me to knock on it and someone would help me. I followed her instructions, and sure enough, 15 minutes later I had a passport photo taken, my application filled out, and the fee paid. I used the Denver address. I also paid for express processing – I wasn't sure just how soon I may need it.

Friday morning I arrived at work early so I could get a jump on the day. I was in the kitchenette getting some water when Alex Newton, our newest junior salesman walked in, visibly upset. He had been crying, I was sure, but I wasn't going to say anything. He got some coffee, and was stirring his cream into the cup with a ferocious circular motion through the brown liquid.

"Can I ask you something, Jack?" He asked.

"Sure, Alex, what's up?" I replied.

"How is it one minute a woman can tell you she wants to be with you for the rest of her life, and then like a week later, tells you she thinks she's made a mistake? I don't get it?" Oh crap, girl trouble. I'm so not the right guy for this. Help!

"Ummm...Alex, what's going on?" I figured I could stall by asking for more information, and then hopefully one of the other sales guys could rescue me with some real advice for him.

"My girlfriend, Rose, and I just moved in together a few weeks ago. Actually I moved into her place. My lease was up at the beginning of this month, so it made the most sense. And I was great with it. Looking forward to living with her. I mean, I'm thinking this is the girl I'm gonna be marrying soon. It was serious.

"Then I get home last night and she's sitting on the couch with this upset look on her face and I can tell somethin's up. So I ask, and she tells me she's really, really sorry...she doesn't want to hurt me, but she just isn't comfortable with us living together unmarried. I mean like, you didn't know this before I gave up my apartment? Now I have nowhere to live. Fuck!" His coffee splashed a little on the table as he smashed the cup down on the counter. He was getting seriously upset. I needed to get him calmed down. I kept looking, but no cavalry on the horizon to rescue me.

"Alex, calm down and come sit over here." We moved to one of the two tables in the kitchen. "So what happened next? I assume you moved out?"

"Yeah, I packed up my clothes and shit and split. I was too mad to talk so thankfully she got out of there while I gathered my things. I'm sleeping on a buddy's couch until I can find a place to stay. All my stuff's in my car. Damn it, man. I love her. Why did she have to flake on me like this?"

"Did she say she wanted to break off the relationship?" I asked. Scary question, but it popped out. But it stopped him, and he sat there and thought about it.

"You know, she never said that. She just said she didn't want to live together until she was married. When she told me she needed me to move out, I freaked a little and she took off, so no, we never discussed it."

"So Alex, what you're saying is Rose may still want to be with you, just not live with you. So you have some choices to make. If it's not a deal breaker, find a place to live in the short term, ask her to marry you, and start making wedding plans. The faster you get her down the aisle, the faster you get to live with her again."

"Damn, Jack. How'd you get to be so smart about women? You give good advice." Oh, Alex, you have no idea how little I understand women. Men, either.

"I'm gonna call her right now, see if she'll talk to me. Thanks, Jack. Hey, you don't have any other miracles up your sleeves, like an apartment I can rent quick, do ya?" And that's how my apartment got sublet in record time.

My Tumi luggage was delivered to my apartment on Saturday morning right after I finished laundry and cleaning, and I spent half the day admiring it, playing with the zippers and loading and unloading my toiletries in the Dopp kit. I liked my new toys, and I was looking forward to using them for real in a week's time.

I had decided to leave everything in the apartment but my clothes for Alex. He had nothing, and there was no telling how long he might be there. I had no use for any of it, and it made me feel good someone would be able to use it. I was giving back, like Laura Thompson, Marcus's wife, had encouraged me to do. I was sure she would approve.

I still had to figure out my car, but I had an idea. I needed to speak to Mary on Monday to see if it would work.

My final week in Chicago flew by. Marcus had hired Andrea Paulson, an extremely intelligent woman in her 40s with a knack for accounting systems, to replace me. She was professional, diligent, and best of all, she didn't require nor really want any training from me. In fact, I learned a thing or two from her about managing Accounts Payable which might have saved me many hours every month doing the books. Marcus loved her.

The other person who loved her was Mary. She and Andrea got along from day one like they were best friends. They were roughly the same age, and apparently they had a lot in common in terms of personality and family issues and other things which I didn't pay much attention to. I just know the two of them would many times a day be cracking up at some joke or another. I think everyone in the office was relieved Mary had someone to talk to keep her occupied and not nosing into anyone else's business.

I showed Andrea how we did payroll – how the calculations were done and how we uploaded the data to the payroll service. I showed her how to add herself as a new employee and how to figure the payroll tax settings and other admin things. We got the file sent off on schedule and Marcus breathed a noticeable sigh of relief. I think at that point I could have quietly slipped out the door and he would have hardly noticed.

On Wednesday, I approached Mary with my idea for my car. I hoped she didn't think I was meddling in her family squabbles.

"Mary, I have question," I said.

"Sure, Jack. What is it?" she replied.

"Your son Stewart runs an auto mechanics school in Addison, correct?" She did not speak to her son often. He was apparently still angry with her for something she did many years ago, which she had never divulged.

"Yes, I'm sure he still does. It's a decent size school, too. It's my understanding nearly all the students are sought after by the better car dealerships in the area." Still a proud mama, even if the relationship was on the rocks.

"Well, Mary. I have my car which I still need to get rid of. I was thinking of donating it to Stewart for use in his school."

"Jack, you can't do that! You need the money, I'm sure. Can't you just sell it outright?"

"The thing is, it's a used car and it's not worth much. I'm leaving in three days and I really just want to settle it now. It seemed like a good idea, but if you think he wouldn't want it, I'll have to think of something else."

What I was really trying to do was to get her to call him on the pretext of me gifting the car, and maybe it would spark a conversation which could lead to some healing of the rift. I really did care for Mary, despite how hard she made it at times. And I suspected her stubbornness and pride was the real roadblock to Stewart relating to her again.

"No, no, Jack. Don't do that. If you really want to donate it, I suppose I can call him and see if he wants it. When do you need to know?" Yes! She had taken the bait.

"The sooner the better, Mary. It's the last big thing I have left to cross off my 'Leaving Chicago' list."

"Fine, I'll call him at lunch time." Then the phone rang and she was on task again. I really hoped he said yes. My plan was to leave the car there at work and she would have to give him the paperwork personally. It was all I could do. I hoped it worked.

Alex came up to me as I was putting on my jacket to go to lunch. "Hey, Jack. Wait up a minute."

"What's up, Alex?" I asked.

"Listen, I was wondering. I know you're leaving Saturday morning and you said I could move later the same day. Would it be possible to move my stuff in on Friday after work instead? My buddy is having a big blow out party on Friday and I really have nowhere to go. I'm sorry to ask – I really appreciate all you've already done for me." He was looking like a lost puppy, pathetic and cute and cuddly.

"Well, Alex, it's only one bedroom and I only have the one bed. You'll have to sleep on the floor for one night. Are you cool with that?"

"Sure, sure. No problem, Jack. I got the floor. No big deal. Thanks man, I owe you one."

"Oh, Alex. I almost forgot. I have to go to a farewell dinner at some friends' house on Friday, so I won't be home until afterwards. I can give you a key on Friday and you can let yourself in. You know where everything is, right?" He had come over on Monday after work to check it out and sign the sublease agreement with the management company running the place. He was thrilled with the apartment, especially when I told him I was leaving all my leftover things for him. He nearly cried, but saved himself at the last second. It was touching.

After I got back from lunch, the phones went a little crazy. We had introduced an improved version of one of our systems a few weeks ago, and suddenly we had orders coming in at a fast clip. Marcus kept walking around, his smile beaming from ear to ear, like his prized heifer won the blue ribbon at a state fair. I was happy for him. He worked hard to make the company a success, as did everybody else. Mary fielded the phones and transferred calls to various sales guys and I typed up orders as fast as they could write them. Even Alex, who had only been with the company a short time, had two sales in one afternoon. He was on cloud nine. His commission on those two units would pay the rent for a month on the apartment. I was happy, too.

When things finally died down around 4:30, I asked Mary if she had had a chance to call Stewart at lunch. She had.

"Well, did he go for it? Can he use the car?" I asked.

"Yes. He wants it. Said it would be a big help. He's been looking to expand his schedule of class offerings but hasn't been able to for lack of resources for equipment and cars to work on. He's actually excited about it, Jack. Told me to tell you thank you very much." It sounded like it went well, but she had a funny look on her face.

"Mary, are you alright? You don't look happy. I thought you would feel good about helping Stewart with his business."

"Oh I do, Jack. I do. It was a really thoughtful thing for you to do, and I appreciate it, too. It's just that...he said something to me...on the phone kind of upset me." She looked like she could cry any second. Oh boy, now I'd stepped in it.

"What'd he say, Mary? Are you gonna be okay?" She reached for a tissue just as the first tears fell.

"Damn it, Jack. He told me he missed me. He has so much he wishes he could tell me about his life, his school. He's met someone he thinks is the one. Oh, Jack...I've been such a fool. I don't even remember why I've been so mad at him. Do you think he could ever forgive me and give me another chance? I do miss him. So much. I didn't realize how much until I heard his voice." Now the tears were free flowing, with frequent nose blowing as well.

"Mary, I think this is great. Yes, he'll forgive you. Sounds like he already has. He made the first invitation. Go see him. Let him tell you everything and let him be excited like a little kid. And whatever you do, Mary Ricketts, don't go judging his decisions and questioning his plans. He's doing fine without any judgment from you. Oh, Mary, this turned out better than I ever hoped."

"What? What do you mean, Jack? What did you hope?" Oops! My big mouth strikes again.

"Oh Mary, nothing really. I just knew you really missed him. I can tell every time he comes up in conversation, you get this far away look in your eye like you're remembering some good time with him and wishing it could be the same again. I hoped if you would call him about my car, maybe it would spark a conversation and you guys could move past whatever pain there was from the past. And it looks like it worked." I was smiling, genuinely happy for her and her son.

"Oh my...You did this on purpose? It wasn't just about the car? Damn it, Jack, now you've got me crying again." She was smiling through happy tears now, looking at me like I was someone special or something. I wasn't. I just can't stand it when people refuse to get along, especially when they don't even know why any more.

Mary blew her nose and got herself in reasonable order. We decided to call it a night. As we were walking out to our cars, she stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Jack, I'm really gonna miss you, you know that right? You are a really special guy, and it's been a privilege to work alongside you all these years. I hope you get everything you ever wanted out of life. You deserve it, Jack Schaeffer."

She turned quickly and walked to her car. I think she was trying not to cry again. I didn't even try to fight my own tears. I just let them fall as I started my car to head home. I was going to miss her, too.

Friday morning came. It was my last full day in Chicago, and I was a mixture of happy and sad all day. One minute I was near tears thinking about the people I worked with who I wouldn't see anymore, and the next, I was antsy to get going with my new life. I had spent the last two nights packing and repacking everything I was keeping – which was really only my new clothes, some papers, and my IPad. Oh, and my supply of shampoos and conditioners. Can't forget those, Saint Nick would kill me.

Which set off another round of a sadness as I realized I would likely never see him again either. Finally found somebody to cut my hair and make me look good and I was leaving. I hoped I could find someone as equally talented in Denver. My fear was I would end up looking like some wild mountain man.

Around 4, I was summoned to the break room, where everyone was assembled. They had gotten me a white frosted cake and decorated it with "Good Luck, Jack!" emblazoned in purple piping. It was the gayest looking cake, and I loved it anyway. There was some good natured back slapping and thank yous all around, and then after everyone had a piece of cake and some coffee, Marcus called it a day and sent everybody home. He didn't say much then – I was going to dinner at his house later.

I hugged Mary at the door and she held on for a few seconds, as if she was trying to absorb the memory of me or something. When she let go and stepped back her eyes were glistening.

"Now Mary, remember. I will put the title and the bill of sale and the keys to the car in your desk tomorrow morning and leave the car in the lot here. You let Stewart know so he can come pick it up."

"I got it, Jack. I'll meet him here tomorrow afternoon, then he's taking me to dinner. Just him and me. I can hardly wait, Jack. It's been years. I hope I don't screw it up."

"You won't, Mary. You'll do fine. Just remember you love him. I'm so happy for you guys. Take care, Mary."

"You too, Jack. Bye." And she was gone.

I gave Alex my spare apartment key as he was walking out a couple of minutes later. He was all giddy with excitement at being in his new place. I was starting to feel like a squatter in my own apartment. Oh well, it was only for one more night. Then I was off to sunshine and paradise.

Dinner that night was to be a family affair – just the Thompsons and me. Marcus had said Laura was fixing my favorite recipe of hers – a Mexican inspired casserole of meats, cheeses, and peppers which was out of this world. I had no idea what she called it - I called it delicious.

I got there about six, and Fred greeted me at the door. I hadn't seen him since I got back from Denver, so he did a double take when he saw me.

"Damn, dude! What did you do to your hair?"

"What? Does it look bad?" I immediately started flailing at it with my hands.

"No, no, dude. It looks great. It's just a shock. I mean, you took the time to get it done right. Looks amazing on you. Should've done it a lot sooner. You look almost human, man. Well come on in. The rents are waitin' dinner on us." He led me to the kitchen table.

The smells in there were divine. In addition to the casserole, Laura had spread the table with fresh tomatoes, chopped onions, jalapeno peppers, cheeses, guacamole, three kinds of salsa, and several bowls of chips. It was a feast! We gorged ourselves on great food and lasting memories. Laura told the story of how she helped set up my apartment way back at the beginning and I nearly cried when she looked at me across the table. I think she did, because she jumped up and said, "Damn onions. Excuse me." She went running off to the bathroom dabbing her eyes with her napkin.

Over the years I had been in Chicago, I had shared many meals with the Thompson family around their table. They had remained true to their word I would always be welcome in their home. They really were my Chicago family. I wished I had appreciated them even more than I did. It was bittersweet to be leaving them now.

After dinner, Fred and I cleaned up the kitchen so Marcus and Laura could relax a little. She had worked hard to put the meal together. As we did the dishes, Fred was goofing off, snapping his dish towel at my ass, and I was laughing hysterically trying to dodge his attempts. He got me once on the thigh and it stung like fire. "Ow, you jerk. That hurt. You wait, I'll get you back for that."

He took off running and I ran after him, swinging my own wet dishrag, whooping and hollering like we were six years old. It was a riot. I cornered him in the hallway and popped him a good one, and we called a truce. We were both breathing hard.

Kitchen cleaned, Fred and I headed to the basement, our usual hangout. We fired up the Playstation and started a game of Combat. I am not good at video games, which is why Fred always wants to play them with me. He knows he has a better than 90% chance of annihilating me in the early rounds. Tonight was no exception. I didn't care. I liked hanging out with Fred, doing nothing. He made it easy. No pressure.

"So you're really gonna do this? Move to Denver?" he said, as he sat back and threw his controller on the couch next to him.

"Yep. All packed and ready to go. Leave tomorrow morning."

"I'm gonna miss you, Jack. You know that don't you?" He looked a little sad.

"Yeah, I do, Fred. I feel the same way. It's been great to be here and hang out with you, and the other guys on occasion. I'm gonna miss it. I have to start all over out there." Now I was getting a little sad. Crap! Goodbyes were hard.

Fred leaned forward and looked hard at me sitting my chair across from him. "Jack, I need to say something to you. Please don't be mad at me, but I want you to know I hope you find a great guy in Denver and you are the happiest guy on the planet."

I dropped my controller on the floor and sat there with my mouth hanging open. Anxiety and fear rose up along with a flood of bile and Mexican food. I don't know how I willed myself not to throw up, but I did. I was shaking, in near panic mode.

"Fred...I don't know...I mean know? About me?" I was in shock. My big secret was laying there out in the open. He just said it, like we were talking about the weather or something.

"Relax, Jack. Take it easy. And breathe, man. You're kinda freaking me out now." I did as he said and worked really hard to control my breathing. I was getting better at recovery at least. I didn't know what to say, how to respond. I was floundering mentally and emotionally. How could he know?

"Jack, listen. I've known for a long time. Probably while we were still in college, but definitely since you moved to Chicago. It's no big deal, not to me anyway. It never changed anything."

"But how...I mean...I was so careful. I never wanted you to know or make you uncomfortable. I mean, geez, Fred, why didn't you ever say something sooner?"

"It wasn't my place, Jack. It's really none of my business. Except I wanted you to be happy and I knew you really weren't. We'd go out with the guys and they'd be cuttin' up, talking trash about the ladies and just bein' guys, and you'd be sittin' there like you were lost in the woods. To your credit, you hid it really, really well, Jack. Nobody else caught on, not that I know of. Which is surprising, seein' as how you have never once dated anyone or ever even talked about a girl." Or a guy, either.

My head was still reeling, and I sat there rubbing my hands over and over through my hair. What do I do now? What do I say to him?

"Jack...dude, relax. It's okay. I didn't say it to upset you. I'm sorry if it did. Really. I just wanted you to know I get it. I know what it's like to want to have somebody for yourself and watch everybody around you get it and you're left out in the cold. I want you to have what you want, Jack, and if it's a hot dude, then go for it, man."

"Fred, I really don't know what to say. I'm sorry, I guess? I didn't mean to deceive you. I was just scared, ya know? I had no idea how anybody would react if they knew. I just expected the worst. And I had no other friends, Fred. Not after college. You and your family are all I have here. I couldn't take a chance on losing you. And here you knew all the time. Crap, I'm such an idiot."

"Jack, don't be so hard on yourself. Yeah, you should have told me. I could have fixed you up with at least three different guys I know from work. One of them is this creative type in the marketing department. Jack, I'm tellin' ya, if I swung for your side I'd make a run at this guy. He intimidates all the other straight guys at the office. And the ladies flock to him, even though they know he's gay. It's like he's a magnet or something. Lucky fucker."

"Well, it's just as well I guess, since I'm leaving tomorrow." Another missed opportunity. They were piling up in my wake.

"Tell me something, Jack. I'm curious. But only if you want to, okay?" He was being careful of my feelings now. I think I freaked him out a bit.

"Okay, Fred. What do you want to know?" I was scared to ask, but I felt like I owed him for covering for me all this time.

"What's it like to be with a guy? I mean, I don't get it. I don't see the attraction. I see a naked guy at the gym, I hardly notice." He really wanted to know. Problem is, so did I.

"Fred, I would tell you, honestly, but the truth is, I don't know yet. I've never actually...had sex...with a guy." I can't believe I told him I was a virgin. But what did I have to lose now?

"Seriously? You're like 24, and you've never gotten laid? Not even with a girl?"

"Ewwww. No. Never. I feel about girls the same way you feel about guys. A naked woman does nothing for me. Not interested. Now, I see a naked guy in a locker room and I'm gonna be trying desperately not to pop a boner. High school gym class was a nightmare."

He was smiling at me. "Really? I bet that would be tough. Plus I'm sure there were plenty of assholes ready to pound you if it happened, right?"

"Probably. Which is why I made sure it never happened. I took multiple music classes so I could get out of gym class to avoid it altogether."

"So Jack, if you aren't having sex with anybody, how do you...uh...well, you know...get relief?" He was serious. I laughed.

"The same way you do, dickhead. I jack off. A lot!" We both burst out laughing.

"Yeah, I hear ya, Jack. Some nights my hand aches a little. The thing is, I don't just want to get laid anymore for the sake of it. I want the real deal. Would it shock you if I told you I'm thinkin' of calling Allison to see if she'll go out with me again? I heard she was back in the area."

"Fred, are you kidding me? That would be awesome. I never understood why you two didn't get married right after college. You obviously loved her."

"Yeah, I did. But I screwed it up. I started pressuring her for sex. And she really wanted to wait. I got so frustrated I gave up on her. Really, really stupid. I hurt her pretty bad. I only hope I can somehow convince her I've changed and I'm willing to wait as long as it takes."

"Wow, Fred. That's a big step. I hope it works out for you. You two would be great together."

"So Jack, last question. How come you never made a pass at me? Am I not sexy enough for you?" Crap! I knew this question was coming. It's just how he is.

"Fred, you are plenty hot for a guy, I promise. And if I didn't know you, and I wasn't scared of my own shadow, and I met you somewhere, I would at least try to flirt with you. If you were open to it, maybe – and it's a big maybe – then I might be willing to explore further. I never have yet, but yeah, Fred, you're hot enough. The thing is, Fred, once I know a guy, and I know he's straight, he ceases to be an option for me. I'm not interested in trying to change someone or make them feel uncomfortable. You are as straight as they come, and I've known it since I met you. So it was never an issue between us. We're friends. Period."

"Okay, that's cool. I get it. And we are friends, Jack. I hope forever. Of all the guys I met in college, and even at work, I trust you the most. You're the guy I know I can talk to about anything. And I may be wrong, but I think you'd be there for me if I needed you. I know I would do the same for you."

"Fred, thank you. And yes, I've got your back. No matter where I am. So let's try real hard to keep in touch, okay. I know we might not, but I hope we do."

We stood up then, everything needing to be said having been said. We hugged it out like brothers and then I went upstairs to say goodbye to his parents.

Marcus and Laura walked me to the foyer. She tried to give me leftover Mexican casserole, and ordinarily I would have jumped at it. But I had no place to put it now. I couldn't take it on the plane with me. We hugged one another, and there were a few tears, even from Marcus. These were such special people to me. I may be leaving Chicago, but I was determined I was not leaving their lives for good. They were too important to throw away.

I got out of there feeling emotionally wrung out and exhausted. Fred's revelation that he knew I was gay had rocked me. I was filled with regret for having hid behind the mask for so long. What had I missed out on? Would I be leaving Chicago if I had instead chosen to live as the gay man I am, out in the open. No way to know, but I decided right then and there, no matter how hard it might be, I was not going to make the same mistake in Denver. I probably wouldn't be dancing on table tops, belting out show tunes in a feather boa, but I was going to be me – my version of a gay man. I hoped I could pull it off. Do it afraid, Jack. Do it afraid.

I got home a little after 10 and Alex was sitting on the floor in the bedroom, listening to his IPod with headphones, so he didn't hear me come in. He jumped a foot when he looked up and saw me staring at him from the bedroom doorway.

"Jack, you're home!" he exclaimed, yanking the ear buds in a single pull. "How was your dinner?"

"Fine. I see you got in okay. Find a place for your things for now?"

"Yeah. I just have my suitcase here in the corner for now. I wasn't sure what all you still had to pack or whatever. I can do my unpacking tomorrow. I just needed a place to crash for tonight."

"Speaking of which, where are we going to put you tonight?" He was sitting on a pallet of sheets and blankets, which I knew were not mine.

"I thought if it was cool with you, I'd just sleep in here on the floor. I have my own blankets and shit, so is it okay with you?" It was.

"Sure, Alex, no problem. I'm gonna get ready for bed. I'm beat. I'll be out of the bathroom in 15."

I went in and did my usual evening prep for bed. All my toiletries were packed in my Dopp kit, so it felt like I lived in a hotel now, not really my apartment. I finished up and started to step out the door when I realized I was naked. Force of habit. I fished around on the floor where I had thrown my dirty clothes and put my underwear back on. I figured those would be okay. I didn't have pajamas or sweats. And my two pair of gym shorts were packed.

I got back into the bedroom just as Alex was undressing over by his suitcase. His shirt came off and I was struck by all the muscles in his back. They were rippling as he moved about. He shucked his jeans, and his ass popped out, naked and hard. Obviously Alex went commando. Interesting. And hot. My dick was starting to rise. This could go nowhere. Get a grip, Jack.

Then he bent over to get his toothbrush and toothpaste, and I had to put my hand over my mouth to stifle a squeal. I could see his puckered hole just winking at me while he rifled through his suitcase. I was starting to sweat, and my dick was now rock hard. I sat down on the bed and tried to cover it up with the comforter.

Just then he found the missing toothpaste, grabbed a towel from another pile, and then turned to head to the bathroom. As he walked in front of me past the foot of the bed, I saw his cock in full profile. Had to be 6 inches hanging soft, not too thick, but topped with a dense patch of dark black hair spreading out up his torso and then across his chest. This was a hairy guy. He had a swarthy, olive-skinned Mediterranean look about him. Sexy man. Rose was a foolish girl if she let him get away.

I heard the shower start, so I did what I needed to do. I ripped my underwear down, and started stroking hard and fast. With the visual I had just feasted on, it took less than two minutes before my cum was hitting me in the chin and spreading down my chest and finally emptying on my pubes. I sat there, trying to catch my breath and enjoying the after effects of a great orgasm.

I heard the water shut off, so I quickly cleaned myself up with my dirty towel and hoped the room didn't reek of cum. There was no way I could have slept if I hadn't jerked off. Alex finally came out of the bathroom, still naked, still gorgeous, still making my dick swell.

"Are you okay if I sleep naked, Jack? I don't really have anything I wear to bed."

"Whatever floats your boat, Alex. Good night. I'll try not to wake you in the morning."

"No worries, Jack. I'll want to say goodbye anyway."

He settled face down on his pallet on the floor, and I reluctantly turned out the light. I couldn't see him anymore, but I knew there was an incredibly hot naked man a few feet away. I almost had to go into the bathroom and beat off again, but I finally managed to fall asleep.

The next morning I woke up with a raging hardon – nothing unusual – and a roommate laying on his pallet beside my bed, also with a raging hardon – very unusual. It was beautiful. Not much bigger than it was soft, slightly longer and a little thicker. But a whole lot harder. His foreskin had pulled off the head, leaving it more than half exposed.

He may have sensed me staring at him because he woke up. At first he was a little disoriented, waking up in a strange place. But then he looked down at his hard cock and it seemed to center him somehow. I understood the feeling. He then looked up at me.

"Morning, Jack. I see we both have the same problem this morning." He was smiling, and pointing at my crotch. I hadn't noticed the comforter was no longer covering me, and my hard cock was clearly evident in my underwear. I blushed all over.

He got up and headed right past me, his hard cock leading the way, straight into the bathroom. I heard him pissing in the toilet, and then he popped right back into the room, now somewhat less hard, scratching his belly and chest absentmindedly.

"I didn't flush since I figured you needed to do the same thing. Saves water." He smiled and bent over to find some clothes to put on. There was his asshole, pink and shiny, staring at me. This guy was totally not self-conscious at all. I had to get out of there quick before I made a total fool of myself with him.

I hobbled to the bathroom and shut the door. It took a while, but I was finally able to get my dick down enough to pee. I flushed, then started the shower. I jacked off again under the hot water, hoping it would help keep my mind off of Alex's body long enough to get dressed and get out of there without causing real trouble.

Now back in some semblance of self-control, I completed my morning grooming and repacked all my toiletries into my travel Dopp kit. I put on a clean pair of underwear and hung up the dirty towels – I was leaving those for Alex.

I went back out into the bedroom, where Alex was now sitting on the floor, fully dressed in jeans and a dark t-shirt, listening to his music. He looked up at me and smiled, then went back to listening. Trying to not be self-conscious myself, I got dressed and repacked my dirty clothes from yesterday. I was all set.

When he saw me start to drag the suitcases down the hallway towards the front door, Alex got up and grabbed the last one and brought it to me. I had the large bag, the medium bag, and my brief case. The Dopp kit I put in the large bag. There was nothing left to do but say goodbye.

"Well, Alex, this is it. The apartment is all yours now. I hope everything goes well for you here, and you work things out with Rose."

"Already working on it. Oh, Jack. Wait one sec. I almost forgot." He trotted back to the bedroom and came back a few seconds later carrying a personal check.

"Here, Jack. I figured I'd just give you this now so you didn't have to be worried about whether I was gonna pay up or not." He handed it to me with a proud smile. It was a check for the full amount of his 3 month sublease. "I had four really good sales this week, so between the commissions off of those and some savings, I had the full nut."

"Alex, this wasn't necessary, but thank you. I appreciate it." I didn't tell him I had prepaid the remainder of the lease already myself, so there would be no issues with him having the apartment for the next three months. After the current lease ran out, he could start his own if he wanted to stay. I folded Alex's check and put it in my wallet. I'd decide what to do with it later.

He helped me get the bags to my car, we shook hands, and I drove over to the office. I grabbed an envelope containing the title to the car, a bill of sale for $1, and the keys. I ran all of it inside and put it in Mary's top desk drawer. Mission accomplished.

Back outside, I pulled my luggage from the car, locked it up manually, and waited for my taxi. When it arrived just a couple of minutes later, I took one good look around the lot and at the building where I had toiled for over two years. I had enjoyed my time there, but it was time to move on.

I shed no tears as we drove to the airport. I was excited to be starting the next chapter of my life. And this one would be lived with less hiding and more confidence in who I was as a man – a gay man. I didn't know what all was in front of me, but I had a new determination to face it, whatever may come, with no fear. Or at the very least, I would do it afraid. Bring it on.

Author's Note: If you are enjoying this story, please take a moment to comment in the Forum on CastleRoland – you can click the link labelled "Forum Discussion" just under the story synopsis at the top of this page. Or, if you prefer, send me an email to I would love to hear your thoughts about the story.

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