INCENSE AND PEPERMINTS
Pax let himself out for a run at 6:45 that cold January morning. Middle of the month and the street still looked like a graveyard for discarded Christmas trees. He frowned when he realized a new one had been added to the pile outside his building. It still had its tinsel and a couple of ornate silver bells dangling from its bedraggled branches.
Who in the world would have kept a tree so long and tossed it out with stuff still on it?
He stopped and stared. He recognized the antique decorations. They belonged to his elderly neighbor, Sam Dalton.
Pax sighed. Sam had left town for a trip back home to England the previous evening. Talk about leaving clean-up till the last minute. Pax blinked.
The tree wasn’t out here last night.
He knew he had to check on the old guy. Sam had once left town with his CD player on repeat and Pax had been forced to listen to the album Aliens Ate My Buick for ten agonizing days.
Should I go check on him or go for a run? Ugh. I need a run but I don’t need to listen to his crappy music for the next two weeks. I can’t just go for a run. What if something’s happened?
He stomped back inside and took in the trail of pine needles leading up the stairs and into the courtyard. Uh-huh. What a surprise. The trail grew thicker and led straight to Sam’s front door. How did I not notice this when I came out a minute ago?
Pax knew something was wrong the moment he saw Sam’s front door standing ajar. Sam often left it open for reasons known only to him, but with Sam on his way to London, his door shouldn’t have been open at all.
I saw him at the mailbox, leaving a note for the mail carrier. Did he forget to close the door before he left?
Pax was embarrassed. He hadn’t seen it left open when he came home late last night. He’d been thinking about his lousy dinner date and today’s crazy work schedule. Sam had been the last thing on his mind. Now he fretted, mentally slapping himself.
Had the door been left open?
Oh, God. Did somebody break in last night?
No. He didn’t think so. For a condo building in the heart of North Hollywood, theirs was a safe haven. The lights weren’t turned on. Was that a good or bad sign? And definitely there’d been no lights on last night in Sam’s unit. He would have noticed it.
Burglars don’t turn on lights, stupid.
He’d talked to Sam in the morning, gone to work then headed straight out for drinks and stopped home to shower and change for his dinner date. He’d noticed Sam at the mailboxes and they’d talked. He’d even filled out Sam’s Hold Mail request form and gently chided him for leaving it so late.
Then Pax had gone out for the evening and hadn’t even glanced at Sam’s door when he came home around eleven o’clock. The four condo units grouped together in their eastbound corner should have meant that the residents all knew each other’s business a little too well. The truth was, Sam was the only neighbor that Pax knew. And that was because the old guy frequently asked him for help.
Pax moved to Sam’s entryway, rang the bell and peered up the stairs that led from the door to the first floor of Sam’s unit. Nothing. He pushed the door open a little farther.
“Sam?” Pax took the carpeted stairs slowly, listening for sounds of distress. Sam’s suitcases stood at the top of the stairs. Oh, man I was right. Something’s wrong. He wouldn’t have gone anywhere without those. But how weird. I saw him with them down at the mailboxes.
He ran the scene over in his mind, remembering how he’d smiled at his funny, fussy eighty-six-year-old neighbor who’d dressed in his best, old-fashioned tweed suit because “Where I come from, this is how one dresses when traveling.”
Sam and Pax’s units were mirror images of one another, except that Sam’s walls were covered with ten-by-eight photos of himself with various celebrities and enlarged stills from the many movies and TV shows he’d worked on as an extra.
Pax checked the living room and kitchen then moved toward Sam’s bedroom and found him lying face down on the floor, his landline phone beside him, the receiver inches from his outstretched hand.
How devastating. It was such a sad picture. The old man must have needed help and didn’t get it. Sam’s body lay twisted, an agonized look on his face. His other hand lay palm up beside him, a strange blotchiness to it. Sam’s dyed black hair, always slicked back had fallen over his ears, revealing a bald spot Pax had never noticed before. He knelt to feel for a pulse but already knew it was too late. Much too late. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
Pax swallowed, hardly able to believe he was starting the day by reporting a death. He’d never seen a dead body before and just now realized there was a drop of blood on the floor near Sam’s mouth.
“I’d like to report a death.” He closed his eyes. I’d like to report a death? Really? “I mean, I’m reporting a death. I just found my neighbor on his bedroom floor.”
“What are you doing in his bedroom?”
Pax frowned, suddenly wide awake. “I came looking for him.”
“You broke into his apartment?”
Pax gasped. “No. His front door was open. I was worried. I was going out for a run. He was supposed to be traveling last night so I thought it was odd, and then I saw his suitcases at the top of the stairs. He wouldn’t leave without them.”
“No. The deceased.”
Were 911 operators supposed to be this rude and making a person feel like an axe murderer?
Pax gave it to her. “Sam’s in unit 211. I live right next door in unit 212.”
“Is it the building on the corner of Riverside and Colfax?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“South west corner?”
“Are you sure Mr. Dalton is dead?”
“Um, yeah. He’s not moving. He’s lying on the floor, like I said. There’s no pulse. He was reaching for the phone. The receiver’s near his hand. Maybe he had a heart attack.” Pax had a sudden burst of clarity. “I saw him by the mailboxes yesterday. I’m thinking maybe he started feeling sick and came back upstairs to call for help.” He took a deep breath. Why hadn’t Sam used his cell phone?
Because he only ever uses it in case of an emergency. Damn it. This was an emergency.
“I have an officer coming right now. Please wait outside for him and have ID for him.”
“My ID?” he asked.
The call ended as soon as she said, “Yes.”
The 911 operators were sure a lot friendlier in movies and TV shows. He was surprised. He’d assumed she’d stay on the line with him but then Sam was dead and beyond help. Oh, man. The sweet old guy was really gone.
He moved away from the body.
“Hello?” a voice asked from outside the bedroom. Pax jumped at the unexpectedness of it. He walked back to the living room and saw Henrietta Taylor standing by Sam’s suitcases. Henrietta was a Polish actress who came for a vacation in 1975 and never left. She’d married and divorced five times, bought her condo here, and had worked exclusively as an extra on CBS TV comedy series since the 80s. She was also the local busybody, which occupied her rare free time.
“Hi.” Pax couldn’t help his flat tone.
“Why are you in here?” she demanded.
How did she know I was here? She lived way across the other end of the courtyard. Pax heard a yip. Of course, her trainee busybody, Cade Westmore, an actor who’d made a name for himself playing an amnesiac patient on a daytime soap opera.
“Everything all right?” Cade asked from the front door, his always-panting Pomeranian named Butterscotch twisting in his arms. Cade was black-haired and blue-eyed and very handsome, but too twinky to be Pax’s type. He was almost the opposite of Pax’s short brown hair and brown eyes. Cade looked dark and broody. Pax was dark and broody.
Cade climbed the stairs and stood beside Henrietta, whose long blonde hair fell in waves over her shoulders. She tightened the dressing gown around her as though trying to ward off some imagined blow from Pax.
Pax repeated what he’d told the 911 operator.
“But he can’t be dead. He’s on vacation!” Henrietta exclaimed.
Cade gave her a wry look.
“Okay.” Pax had become used to Henrietta’s odd conversational style. When she wasn’t lamenting her own lack of a sex life, she’d prod Pax for information about his own. She had a theory that all gay men had sex day in, and day out.
“Henri,” he said, “I have to get my driver’s license. I have to meet the police.”
“The police!” Her eyes widened. Maybe she was in shock. “Where is Sam?” she demanded.
“Bedroom. Please don’t touch anything.”
“I’ll make sure she doesn’t,” Cade said.
Pax gritted his teeth. Sam was allergic to dogs and if he were alive he’d would freak out knowing Butterscotch was in here.
“I’ll hold on to her,” Cade said, as though reading his thoughts.
Henrietta and Cade blew past Pax. Henrietta’s dramatic gasp resounded when she reached the bedroom. Pax glanced at the photo of Sam on the wall in front of him. It had been taken on an episode of Dynasty over twenty years ago. Sam, dressed as a butler, stood beside a smiling Joan Collins. He always played the butler. Lately he’d been getting more work as an upgraded extra playing dead bodies. He was so thin and scrawny-looking in spite of a healthy appetite, that he’d found a new career and suddenly had enough money to fly home to see his sister.
His sister. Oh, man. Pax knew that Sam had no family in LA and that somebody would have to tell her. How do I contact her? He worried over this as he went down the stairs and into his own apartment to retrieve his wallet.
It stuck him as ironic that almost all sixteen residents of the building were in the entertainment industry. Half were actors. Some, like Pax, were staff writers and producers on TV shows. There was a marketing executive for a PR company and a retired dancer who was always getting surgery on some part of his body. Maybe I know way more about my neighbors than I thought. Or even wanted to.
Pax waited out front for a few minutes, mulling over the uselessness of it all.
Sam’s death was already affecting him. Pax had come here five years ago at the age of twenty-five from Cleveland, Ohio with a communications degree and acting aspirations, but soon got lucky by landing a writing gig. Then another. Now he was part of a team of writers at a “think tank” at ABC studios. Their job was to come up with new comedy ideas and they did, but he’d never worked with such an argumentative, mentally twitchy bunch of people in his life. He had six months left on his contract and he couldn’t wait to move on. Maybe he’d even finish the novel he’d been writing for the last five years.
Whatever work he did, acting always tugged at his soul, though he never told anyone. In LA, it was the kiss of death to confess a desire to act. It was a joke. Not to Sam it wasn’t, who kept trying, kept auditioning. Kept the faith. He’d humiliated himself recently by going on what they called a blind audition as a punk rocker. He’d knocked on Pax’s door asking him to take photos of him in his crazy get up, which included ill-fitting leather pants and a lime green wig.
What Sam’s death had done was to kill any last minute fantasies Pax harbored about giving acting another try. It also made him determined not to be out here living alone when he turned eighty-six.
A paramedic van pulled up. A young, eager man in a fire fighter’s uniform sprinted from the vehicle. “Hey,” he said, “I’m Tom Williams from Station 89. I believe you have a dead body.” He paused. “It’s my first day on the job.”
What should I say to that? “Er, ah, congratulations.”
Pax turned toward the building but Tom Williams, first day on the job, held up his hand.
“I’m supposed to ask for ID.”
Pax looked at him, wondering how long this guy would last in his new gig, and wondered if he was really an actor or writer. Sam, whom Pax had known since they’d both moved in a couple of years ago, had once told Pax, “You’re too down to earth to be an actor. You’re too smart. Actors have such frail egos they need to be whipped regularly. But they need to be whipped with lettuce leaves.”
“Does that include you?” he’d asked Sam who’d smiled, revealing his fake-white camera-ready teeth.
“Of course, dear boy. I always speak from experience.”
Tom Williams spent several seconds studying Pax’s driver’s license and seemed to hand it back with great reluctance. Pax led him into the building’s courtyard, where by now, Henri was in full-blown hysterics telling several residents about how awful it was finding Sam’s body.
“Wait.” Tom Williams held up his hand. “Who found the body?”
“I did,” Pax said.
“Yes,” Cade said, coming toward the group with Butterscotch in his arms. “Pax found him.” He gave Pax a sympathetic look. “I have to take Butterscotch out, otherwise I’d stay and…” His gaze swiveled to Henrietta who looked furious as the other residents drifted away. Cade slipped past Pax and as Butterscotch moved in his arms, Cade almost took a fall. Pax caught him.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cade whispered. “I’m so dizzy these days.”
“Don’t apologize, please. Are you okay?” Pax realized that both Cade and his dog were breathless. Then Cade’s nose started to bleed.
Cade rushed away, leaving Pax open-mouthed.
“He’s getting chemo poor thing,” Henrietta said when she noticed Pax’s focus.
Pax was stunned. “I had no idea.” He felt bad now. He’d always dismissed Cade as some kind of Henrietta acolyte. Maybe the guy was just lonely and scared. I was right. I don’t know my neighbors at all. He longed to ask Henrietta more questions but they had a job to do.
Tom entered Sam’s unit and recoiled when he saw the body. Clearly he’d never seen a dead man before either. “I need to call the police,” he said, looking pale. “I’m, just here to verify.” He pulled out his cell phone, took a photo, walked around the room a little then asked Pax to wait downstairs.
Pax dutifully left and encountered Henrietta, now wearing one of her cream-colored track suits. She’d once guest-starred on The Golden Girls and stole Rue McClanahan’s costume out of her dressing room. Henri was proud of her show souvenirs. He wondered if this was one of them and decided it was too pristine. She twisted her hair into its customary chignon and poked a pencil into it to keep it in place.
“Christmas needles everywhere,” she muttered. “Who’s been dragging their tree around?” She fixed Pax with an accusatory stare. “Was it you?”
“No. It was Sam.”
“Oh.” She heaved a sigh. “I’ll ask the maintenance guy to clean it up.”
“I’ll ask him if you like.”
“No. I’ll do it.”
Pax smothered a smile. Henri had been trying to bed the handsome Mexican handyman for the entire time Pax had known her.
“We’re not back allowed up?” she asked, tossing another glance at Pax. She had a charming way of mangling the English language when she was upset.
He shook his head then took a deep breath. “What’s going on with Cade?”
Henrietta cocked a brow in his direction. “He has essential thrombocythaemia. They call it ET for short.”
“And what’s that?”
“A very rare form of blood cancer.”
Pax wasn’t sure why he felt such a swirl of emotions. Perhaps it was a mixture of finding Sam and then learning a young, vital man was suffering from cancer. “Is it curable?”
“It’s treatable, and yes, it can be curable,” Henri said finally. “It’s been hard for him. He didn’t have the money for chemo.”
“He doesn’t have health insurance?”
She gave Pax a withering look. “It doesn’t cover everything.”
“But he’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild. They have the best health insurance in the world.”
Henri shook her head. “He hasn’t earned guild minimum this year—yet— since his show dropped him from a series regular to a recurring character. Then he got sick. The insurance covered some things but not others. Now things are not so great financially for him.”
“My God. I had no idea.” Guild minimum was twelve and a half thousand dollars. Pax knew only too well that eighty percent of SAG’s members never made that much money in a single year. Poor Cade.
They were interrupted by the front door buzzer. Pax glimpsed two police officers and a pair of paramedics with a gurney. Silently he let them in and Henrietta launched into her frenzied rendition of finding Sam.
“You found him?” one of the other officers asked her.
“No.” She tilted her head toward Pax. “He did.”
“Please come with us,” the officer told Pax.
Henri seemed miffed that Pax got to have all the fun and as he followed the officers up the stairs, she put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve started an online fundraiser for Cade if you’re interested in donating.”
“I am. Sure.”
“I’ll email you the details.”
Inside the unit, Pax felt claustrophobic. Somebody from the coroner’s officer arrived and two more uniformed cops showed up and began knocking on people’s doors.
“Why isn’t there much furniture in here?” one of the officers asked Pax as the others moved around the apartment, opening and closing things with their gloved hands.
“He had a bad case of bed bugs. He went to Palm Springs a month ago and we suspect he brought them home via his suitcase.”
“And you know this because?”
“We’re friends.” Pax shook his head. “Were friends. He was forced to tell me because he’d given me a framed picture and he was worried it was infested.”
“No.” Pax bit his lip. “He hired a company to treat his furniture and they put everything outside the building to let things dry and somebody came by in a van and stole every last piece. Sam debated replacing it all and decided to go home for a short vacation instead.”
Pax sighed, thinking about the nights he’d sat up editing Sam’s promo reel and transferring it to DVDs. Sam harbored fantasies of going home to London and getting work there.
“You have no idea how much I miss having a proper cup of tea and crumpets,” Sam had told Pax on numerous occasions.
The police kept asking Pax questions and he answered. He stood leaning against the sliding glass door that led to the balcony overlooking the neighbor’s garden, such as it was. They’d let their lawn go brown and the only thing left was a leaning clothes line.
“Do you happen to know who his next of kin is?” one of the other officers asked Pax.
“He has a sister. Her name is Anita. We’re Facebook friends, though I don’t know why. She sent a friendship request some months ago, but I’ve never actually met her.”
“Do you have her number?”
“Anyone else in this building communicate with her?”
“Only via Facebook. Henrietta Taylor, another neighbor is also one of her Facebook friends. Anita’s never been out here and the last time Sam went home was several years ago.”
“And she’s Mr. Dalton’s only living relative?”
“I know there’s no family in Los Angeles. She’s the only one he speaks of. He was eighty-six and his sister is a year older. There were ten of them. The rest are dead. That’s all I know.”
“You have any other way to communicate with her?”
“No.” I think already told you that. Next you’re going to ask me if their parents are still alive. “I know Anita and Sam sent private messages on Facebook and Skyped every Sunday.”
“Where’s his computer?”
Pax pointed at Sam’s suitcases. “I don’t know. I guess it’s in one of these.”
The officer nodded. “Right. Your computer’s next door? Mind if I use it?”
“Not at all.” Since the paramedics were emerging from the bedroom with the gurney carrying poor Sam stuffed into a black body bag, Pax was relieved to be able to leave the unit. He led the officer to his own place and unlocked the door. Inside, the officer gave an appreciative glance at Pax’s endless bookshelves filled with hard covers, and his menagerie of plants.
“It’s like being in a green house. He sniffed. “Something smells good.”
“Cherry pie,” Pax said.
“Really? You bake?”
Pax gave him a grin. “No. It’s a plant. Real name heliotrope. I grow it on the balcony. The smell is heavenly, isn’t it?”
“I’m glad it’s not an actual pie. I’m supposed to be on a diet.” The officer looked disappointed, regardless of what he said.
Pax turned on his laptop on the dining table and accessed the Internet. The noisy blue jay that visited him every morning made his odd, spitting sounds outside. “I forgot to feed the birds,” Pax said. He left the cop to do his thing and went outside. His view was worse than Sam’s. He got to look right into the apartment of an untidy man in the building next door. The man was fond of watching bullfights on TV and playing loud bachata music all day.
He glanced over at Sam’s balcony, half expecting him to be there, face raised to the sun as he got in a little tanning. Even when it was cold like today, Sam always said it was warmer than a British summer.
The blue jay made a hell of a racket until Pax opened the bag of wild bird food and filled the two feeders on the balcony wall. The other birds in the area always waited for the blue jay to eat before coming to feast themselves.
Something was different today. The blue jay pecked at the seed and flew away. Nobody else came.
They know. Sam’s gone. Pax felt suddenly desolate and went back inside and walked to the kitchen to guzzle some chilled bottled water. He couldn’t get the image of Sam lying on the floor out of his mind.
The officer pounded on the keyboard in a way that made Pax cringe and he called out, “Can I get you some water?”
“No, thanks. I’ve sent Anita Dalton a message. Do you have a number where I can call you in case I have any more questions?”
Pax came back to the living room. He handed the officer a business card from his wallet.
“Thanks.” The officer stood and moved to the door in two strides. He returned quickly with a piece of paper. “Mr. Dalton is at this mortuary pending his next of kin’s decisions. The coroner has signed the death certificate. Death by heart attack.”
“I see. Thank you.” Pax felt oddly emotional. When he was alone again he sank into his desk chair. He accessed his files, bringing up his hard copy of Sam’s promo reel. He watched it, realizing now how tired the old man looked, but he’d still had a sparkle in his eye. Sam’s moments on screen were all small. The reel was a good one because Pax had pieced the scenes together in quick flashes. Too bad Sam wasn’t well known enough for people to appreciate the fact that he would live forever thanks to the magic of film.
Nobody but Sam’s scattered friends would probably want to see his smile, his crazy gigs, or immortalize him in Facebook likes and shares. When his computer pinged, he opened Henri’s email revealing the gofundme fundraiser.
Pax saw the hope and fear in Cade Westmoore’s face in the photograph accompanying the campaign.
Cade had raised five thousand dollars so far and his story was heartbreaking. His cancer was curable but debilitating. He often had no energy and his symptoms including violent headaches, hearing loss, severe nose bleeds, blurred vision, and a swollen left side, exhausted him. His chemo and an aspirin regimen had begun three weeks ago, but Cade could no longer work. He’d been forced to quit his sporadic TV series appearances.
Pax couldn’t take much more right now. He did not want to lose another neighbor. And man, Cade was so young. Twenty-eight. Through slightly teary eyes, Pax read that Cade volunteered his free time to the Children’s Hospital teaching craft classes to terminally ill kids. He also volunteered at the East Valley Shelter walking dogs.
And I judged him so harshly. I brushed him off as a twink.
From what Pax read, Cade had made good money but bought his condo and a car, and donated a lot to charity. Young people never expected to get sick. At least he hadn’t been spending his money on drugs and good times. Pax made a good living and didn’t hesitate to donate five hundred dollars from his checking account and made both the sum and his name anonymous. Before he clicked to finalize the payment, he stopped and wrote a note.
In Memory of Sam Dalton. Hope this helps.
Pax gave up the idea of running that morning. Christmas and New Year had been a disaster and the unseasonably cold winter had left him in a funk. That and the fact that his think tank teammates all seemed to be in relationship hell made the idea of burning off some energy appealing, but to be honest, too much work. It didn’t take much for him to skip pounding the pavement these days. He felt dispirited and crushed. Sam’s death had made him realize his whole life was work then home. Had been for a long time. His social life was a chore he undertook to keep his business relationships afloat. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something really fun with another person.
Even sex had become a solo occupation.
He made coffee and pondered the last time he’d had a good time socially. It surprised him to recall lunch a few weeks ago with Sam at a new Thai restaurant in the neighborhood. Sam always knew the cool places and became absorbed with supporting local businesses each and every day. He had music nights at his home where Sam and a group of old actors and actresses played antique records. The last evening had been fun, except for the fact he’d just discovered his bed bug problem and lost all his furniture. They’d all danced the tango to crackly old 78s on his vintage Crosley player and sat on the floor.
Oh. Yeah. And he and Sam had scored dollar seats to the Hollywood Bowl where they’d shared a meal and a bottle of apple cider watching the remarkable Dudamel conduct the Chinese superstar pianist Yuja Wang playing Gershwin.
Wow. I spent a lot more time with him than I thought.
Pax pruned and watered some plants, drank two cups of coffee and felt foolish when he checked the Internet to see if Sam’s passing had made the entertainment news feed. Of course, he hadn’t. Pax turned on his Internet radio, hunting for the “oldies” station he’d found by accident. He smiled to himself when the old Strawberry Alarm Clock song came on. Incense and Peppermints. He stood in the doorway of his balcony listening to the lyrics.
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time…
The color of time.
What is the color of time?
He stared out at his view outside the balcony door. It was the deep purple of his cherry ripe. A wave of nostalgia swept over Pax and he ran to his laptop and sent emails to his parents in Wisconsin, and long-lost relatives and friends around the world. Then he called his cousin, Dru, who lived right here in LA but he rarely spoke to because he couldn’t stand her husband. He got a frosty response and he almost ended their call but she said, come over for Friday for dinner and game night. The kids miss you.”
He was happy he and Dru had reconnected and shut down the laptop. Time to get ready for work.
As he was leaving, his cell phone rang. An emotional Cade Westmore kept thanking him for his generous donation. He babbled, sounding as though he might be crying.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked. “I made my donation anonymous.”
“It’s anonymous to people who see the fundraiser but not for me and Henri. We can see who’s donated and I just don’t even know what to say. That money you just gave me will help pay for my chemo. Thank you, Pax.”
“No problem.” Pax was determined now to donate more. “Can I share the fundraiser with some friends?”
“Oh my God. Really. You’d do that?”
“Of course. I should have done it already. Guess I’m pretty rattled about Sam.”
“I can understand that but what I don’t get is why are you doing this? You hate me.”
The man’s candor shocked Pax. He didn’t hate Cade but it must have been obvious that Pax didn’t think much of him.
“That’s not true,” Cade said.
“You think I’m a goofy twink.”
The words hovered between them, then Cade actually laughed.
“I guess I did and I judged you. I’m sorry about that.”
“Hey, I’ve been called worse things. Listen, I won’t keep you. You’re probably heading to work.”
“I am.” Something made Pax ask, “What are you doing today?”
“Getting chemo.” He sighed. “I had blood tests yesterday and I’m tolerating the two therapies very well.”
“Where do you go for your chemo? Which hospital?”
“I go to Cedars-Sinai but the chemo is in pill form, thank God. They always make me take it there. I also get an injection of Interferon three times a week. They make me take the chemo pills there because of the side effects.”
“Are dizziness and nosebleeds among them?”
“Yes. I was getting the nosebleeds anyway but since I started treatment they’ve been getting worse. That’s why they started me on Interferon.”
“But you’re doing okay?”
“Yes. I’m worried what happens when I have to take a break from the chemo. I have to stop next month because the chemo can cause heart problems and even give me leukemia.”
“What will you do then?”
“Henri found an acupuncturist in Santa Monica who deals only with oncology patients. With the money you donated I’d like to start going to him this week if I can get an appointment.”
“And he’s in Santa Monica?”
“Yes. And it’s a hell of a drive for me right now but people say he’s amazing. He’s blind, you know.”
“A blind acupuncturist?” Oh, my God. Pax tried not to visualize the doctor sticking needles into Cade’s eyes by mistake.
Cade laughed again. “I know it sounds crazy but he is the best.”
“What’s his name?”
Oh, boy. “I’m going to Google him. Make your appointment. I’ll drive you. Just let me know when.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I’d like to do that.”
“Wow, thank you,” Cade said.
“Do you need help walking Butterscotch?”
“Sometimes, yes. She has a heart murmur and it seems worse suddenly. She’s on medicine for it but I think she’s worried about me.” Cade’s voice broke. “Henri’s been fantastic with her.”
“Between me and Henri, we’ll take care of her. Let me know about your blind voodoo guy.”
“He’s an acupuncturist.”
“Yes. And I’m still going to Google him.”
Cade said nothing and Pax sensed that he was smiling on the other end of the phone. They ended their call on a happy note…in spite of everything.
Pax spent the better part of his work morning researching Cade’s form of cancer. ET was rare and even rarer in such a young man, but Pax felt encouraged that all the treatment options usually ensured a full recovery.
Next he looked up Dr. Ha and Pax sensed the ha-ha was on him. The doctor was world-renowned and deeply respected in his field. He worked closely with the oncology departments of all the major hospitals and contributed his time to various hospital-funded studies on experimental drugs.
Huh. Maybe Cade could qualify for one of those programs. He busied himself making notes with questions he had for Cade and his doctors. He wanted to know more about Cade’s treatments and his many symptoms and side-effects. He shared the fundraiser with his co-workers who in turn posted it on their walls. By lunchtime, Cade had raised another thousand dollars.
He called Pax around two o’clock. “Did you do all this? Did you get me all this money?”
“I just spread the word,” Pax said. “Where are you now?”
“I’m at the hospital. I’m waiting until they say I can go. Hey, I was able to get a cancelation appointment with Dr. Ha this afternoon. I’m so excited!”
“How are you getting there?”
“I was going to get an Uber. I have trouble with blurred vision after I take the pills. Henri drove me here but she got an audition and I didn’t want to make her wait.”
“I’ll take you. What time is the appointment?”
“You don’t have to—”
“I want to. I can see this is becoming our song. Where do I find you?”
Cade gave him the details and Pax said he’d be there in an hour. He ended their call and took a deep breath. One of his workmates, Justin slid into the chair opposite Pax’s desk.
“Is that your friend who’s getting chemo?”
“How’s he holding up?”
“He sounds upbeat but he has blurred vision right now. He has an appointment with an acupuncturist who only treats cancer patients. Get this. He’s an old Chinese doctor who’s blind, but the reviews on this guy are staggering.”
Justin straightened in his chair and smiled. “He sounds so cool. You know, this has got me thinking.”
“Oh, that’s sounds dangerous.”
“Shut up! So, Cade’s quite a well-known soap opera actor. We should consider pitching a reality show about people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. I’m thinking your blind needle thrower might be a fascinating character. We can follow Cade through his treatments. Of course the production would pay for all his medical needs. He’s a damned nice guy and very charming. The fact that he’s being upbeat is a good sign.”
Pax squinted at him. “You know Cade?”
“My wife knows him. They do volunteer work at Children’s Hospital together but he hasn’t been able to lately. She says he’s very run down.”
“It’s true. He almost fell over this morning standing in the courtyard with me.”
“Wow.” Justin ran a hand through his hair. “Is he okay?”
“Yes. But I feel bad for him. I want to help.”
“So do I. He never mentioned the fundraiser to Sandy, my wife. She assumed he had SAG insurance.”
Pax explained the situation, but Justin didn’t look surprised.
“There’s a stigma in this town about cancer. It’s almost worse than the AIDS stigma.”
“How so?” Cancer hadn’t touched Pax’s life the way HIV and AIDS had so this news was a revelation.
“My mom had breast cancer years ago and didn’t tell anybody. It was awful. People suspected I’m sure because she was wearing wigs at one point, but in this town, anything that somebody gets, even cancer seems contagious. I’ll bet you’ll find Cade’s friends have dropped like flies.”
Pax was taken aback. “I’ll have to ask him about that.”
Justin pulled a face. “People don’t like to be associated with illness here. They think it’s bad luck.”
Pax knew that friends of his who had HIV had told him similar things, but the issue had never been in such sharp focus before. “Let me bring the TV show idea up to Cade. See what he says.”
“Great. Do that. Meanwhile, I’ve got to finish the synopsis on that pitch for the series about the surfer and his model girlfriend who travel the world cooking and bonking. What do you think of the name The Perfect Set?”
Pax laughed. “Sounds good to me. The perfect set is what they call a good wave and of course since she’s a model, she probably has gorgeous tatas.”
Justin pointed at him. “Exactly.”
Pax managed to get a little bit of work done before leaving to pick up Cade. He rarely left the office except for business lunches and nobody blinked when he mentioned his task. They probably saw it as research. Justin had already added it to the list of project ideas on the gigantic white board mounted on the wall. He’d called it The Cure.
Huh. Pax liked it. Even if Cade wouldn’t go for it, the idea of helping very sick people from start to finish appealed to him. He made it over to the hospital at three, which gave them an hour to get to Santa Monica. Sometimes the seventeen mile drive took thirty minutes. On bad days, close to two hours.
He found Cade waiting out front for him. He gave Pax a finger wave and made it to the car, though he seemed fragile and shaky. “I’m okay,” he said as he got inside. “I fell asleep. I had a nightmare.” He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Would you like some music?”
“Not right now. Do you mind?” Cade looked at him and seemed lost in his pain.
Damn that horrendous drug. Can they not find something better to help cure people?
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Pax reached out a hand but Cade drifted to sleep. Pax checked the shortest route to Santa Monica. The onboard navigator insisted the freeway was the best way and he turned down La Cienega, driving in silence. Cade slept heavily and Pax hated waking his passenger when they arrived on Main Street, but Cade seemed to know they were there.
Pax parked at a meter and Cade reached for the door handle and winced. “Man, did I get hit by a Mack truck?”
“Wait there,” Pax instructed and raced around to open the door for him. He slid his credit card into the meter and waited until it had deducted a gazillion dollars for two hours’ worth of time. With his arm around Cade’s waist, he led him into the building.
“I don’t know why I was excited about this. I’m petrified of needles,” Cade whispered.
“I’m here. You’ll be okay.” Pax took him into the stark white front office. Two young Asian women came from around the desk to take Cade.
“I want my friend with me,” Cade said.
The women bowed and nodded. Pax followed them. The place seemed austere yet welcoming. He guessed that it was clutter-free of magazines and plants because of possible sensitivities for cancer patients. They walked into a room that felt relaxing with its shaded windows and faint bamboo music piping from somewhere.
Cade sat on the bed on one side of the room. Pax leaned against the wall beside him.
Dr. Ha arrived within a few minutes holding Cade’s file in his hands. He sat on a stool near the window. “I’ve received your case notes. Your prognosis is excellent.”
Pax noticed the doctor running his fingers along a page. He was reading in Braille.
“Tell me how you feel right now?” Dr. Ha asked. He looked right at Cade so Pax wondered if he was extremely intuitive or maybe he saw shadows.
“Very tired. Sore. I like the soreness though. It makes me feel alive.” Cade dropped his head and suddenly wept. “I’m more worried about my dog. She has a heart murmur. I think she’s getting worse.”
Pax moved beside him and put his arm around Cade.
“You bring her next time and I will help her, too.” The old man smiled. “I sense your fear and I am sure she does too. So, I want you to lie down. Your treatment starts now.” Dr. Ha moved around the room quickly. An unusual but pleasant antiseptic smell filled the room.
Cade kept crying, tears staining his cheeks as he lay on the bed. “I hate when the tears fall in my ears,” he mumbled, making Pax and the doctor laugh.
Pax moved away and Dr. Ha put his hands on Cade’s head. “That’s good,” he said, patting his forehead. He pulled a rolling table toward him and plucked the first needle from the neat pile on top of it. In a sing-song tone he said, “Close your eyes. We make you good and strong for chemo.”
Cade seemed like a different person when they left half an hour later. He was more like his old, bouncy self. Pax couldn’t believe the burst of affection he’d felt for the doctor, and his neighbor, during the entire procedure. Dr. Ha said he would monitor Cade’s weekly blood tests and wanted him to continue the low-dose aspirin regimen he’d been prescribed by his doctors.
“I want to see you the day before you take chemo each week, then right afterward. So we schedule two appointments each week,” Dr. Ha said. He also wanted Cade to drink a special tea to help counteract the tiredness and burning sensation in his head and feet. “Your bleeding will soon stop from the nose and the mouth. I will see you next week. And bring the doggie!”
Pax was impressed and couldn’t help bringing up the idea of the TV show to Cade.
Cade listened with great interest. “Who would be producing it?”
“My network. ABC.”
“So it’s a union show, right? It won’t get me in trouble with SAG?”
“We’ll make sure everything is okay with your union.” Pax was well aware of the restrictions placed on actors who had their SAG cards. They couldn’t appear in non-union theater productions or small cable shows. Cade seemed intrigued though, and that was a start.
“My agent warned me not to tell anybody I had cancer,” Cade told Pax as they headed home. “He told me I’d become unhirable. Are you sure this won’t kill my career completely?”
“We’ll make sure people are lining up to give you work,” Pax said.
Cade shot him a mystified glance. “Why are you doing all this for me?”
“You’re a good guy. It’s too late for me to help Sam. I—”
“But you did so much for him. You know he drove me nuts. Just like Henri drives me nuts. I’m not speaking ill of the dead but Sam called me all the time begging me to get him work. I was struggling to get myself some work.”
“I had no idea.”
“You gave him the feeling that he was already successful. You hung out with him. Spent time with him. I’m pretty sure he had no idea he had any kind of health problem. That’s the way I want to go. In my home. Quickly. Preferably naked in bed with a hot guy though and not on the floor.”
“Don’t talk that way. You’re not going anywhere. For a long, long time.”
Cade smiled. “So tell me why you don’t like Henri.”
“I don’t know. She’s all right. She just seems to know everything about everybody.”
“She cares, that’s all.”
Pax conceded that it could be true. They made it home in forty-five minutes. Pax took Cade upstairs, insisting on walking Butterscotch for him. Cade resisted but then said, “Thank you, I do need to rest.”
Butterscotch seemed thrilled to be out but did her thing in a timely fashion. He walked her around the block and her tail wagged nonstop. If Cade had a tail, Pax suspected his would do the same thing. As they headed home Pax realized the dog must have known Cade was okay because she wasn’t in a hurry to get back to him. Pax had volunteered for years for PAWS, a group that walked the dogs of terminally ill patients and he’d learned to tell when a patient’s time was coming. The dogs were always anxious to get back when death was close. He couldn’t bear to think of brave, bright, beautiful Cade dying.
He was going to make it. He was going to be okay.
Back inside the building, a pair of police officers stood, talking to Cade in the courtyard.
“These officers came looking for you.” Cade gave him a weird look.
“It’s about Sam Dalton,” the first one said. “We can’t track down his sister and you’re named the next of kin in his will.”
Pax gaped at her. “I am?”
“We both are,” Cade said, looking stunned. “He left us everything. Can you believe it?” He reached down for Butterscotch, who was pawing at his ankles. As he jiggled her in his arms, Cade said, “Sam was Jewish and needs to be buried tomorrow. We have to go buy him a casket. Now.”
“Is everything okay?” Henri asked, coming over to them.
For the first time in his life, Pax was grateful to have his inquisitive neighbor on hand. Cade quickly told her everything and Pax asked, “Will you help us organize it?”
“Of course I will,” she said.
The officers handed Pax an envelope and he opened it. There was a note from Sam’s theatrical agent appointing Pax and Cade as his inheritors. He’d also given them power of attorney.
“There’s a meeting Friday to outline the terms of the will,” Pax said reading from the note. “But in the meantime, the funeral is taken care of. He wants to be buried at Hollywood Forever.”
“I know. It’s so apt, isn’t it?” Cade asked. He put Butterscotch back inside his unit and Pax drove them all to the funeral parlor which was working in conjunction with the cemetery. It was a bit macabre selecting a coffin for a man he’d been talking to just the day before but Pax wasn’t surprised when Cade gravitated toward a purple coffin with flowers painted on it.
“It’s the color of life,” Pax said, thinking of the song Incense and Peppermints.
“My favorite color,” Cade said.
“Mine too,” Henri echoed.
Between the three of them, they planned and plotted and felt they would give Sam the celebration of life that he so deserved.
“I’d like to play a compilation of some of his old records at the funeral,” Pax said. “And his show reel. I think he’d like that.”
“Yes!” Henri and Cade shouted in unison.
“You’re not such a sour puss after all.” Henri slipped her arm through Pax’s and kissed his cheek.
“He’s adorable.” Cade kissed his other cheek.
Pax couldn’t stop smiling in spite of the circumstances. He didn’t care what it cost, but he wanted Sam’s funeral to be beautifully catered and left it to Henri to select the vendor and menu. “I trust you,” he said.
Going back to Pax’s when they returned to the building seemed natural, as did the amazing kiss they shared. Butterscotch sat at the top of the stairs, head on her paws, watching.
Pax felt so emotional as the kiss deepened then he remembered to close the front door. Cade laughed as they ran up the stairs. Cade may not want to die on the floor, but he was about to get fucked there because Pax couldn’t wait anymore.
He knelt beside Cade who gave him the kind of toe curling kiss that Pax fantasized about. It almost made him come…he put his hand to Cade’s jeans and practically tore off the buttons off his fly. When he finally got inside, he shoved Cade’s boxer briefs aside and sucked his cock out of the opening right into his mouth. Man, for a skinny guy had a huge, luscious cock.
Pax picked him up and carried him to the bedroom. He knew where it was because their layouts seemed identical. He gently placed Cade across the bed and knelt beside him again. They exchanged another deep, searing kiss then Pax gave him an oral workout he would not forget in a hurry. Cade groaned when Pax squeezed his balls with his left left hand, using them as leverage to get Cade’s full length into his mouth. Cad’s ball sac bounced against Pax’s chin as he came hard and fast, grabbing Pax’s head. Pax moaned as Cade erupted down his throat.
He took everything Cade had to give him and reluctantly released him from his hot, wet lips. “You have no idea how good that tasted.”
Cade brushed the hair from his eyes. “I loved that we couldn’t even finish undressing each other….we just had to start fucking on the spot.”
Pax grinned. “We haven’t even gotten to the good part yet, but we will. I’m going to make you feel very happy to be alive in a minute.”
Cade laughed. “I believe you.”
“You’re an actor. Actors love to rehearse. I’m not going anywhere. And neither are you. Let’s just call this a very long run. A forever rehearsal.”
Pax gulped. “I like that idea. I’ve never had a long run. Pax, I’ve had a crush on you for so long.”
“I wish you’d told me.”
Cade touched Pax’s face with gentle fingers. “I just did.”
by A.J. Llewellyn:
The psychic predicted Ky would meet his one and only. What in the world does he do with two guys who both match her description?
Ky Maxwell is desperate for work. When his cushy studio PR job disappears, his former boss takes pity on him, referring him to an independent movie company going into production with a huge sci-fi trilogy.
Ky’s excited until Lisa, his prospective employer, insists on doing an astrological chart of Ky as part of the interview, along with a psychic reading. His crazy maybe-boss predicts a new man coming into Ky’s life. She goes into great detail. He’s a fire sign, probably a Leo, his first name starts with a T, he’s in his early 30s. And…he’s the one!
Ky couldn’t be less interested. He needs work. Love won’t pay the bills. He doesn’t get the job because Lisa believes their stars are out of alignment. Really? The reading is proving to be frighteningly accurate. Since he’s cut off from her, though, he has no idea which of the two wonderful new guys he meets is his forever man. How can he choose? Or will they, too, soon vanish as fast as Ky’s last paycheck?
A.J. Llewellyn is the author of over 250 M/M romance novels. She was born in Australia, and lives in Los Angeles. An early obsession with Robinson Crusoe led to a lifelong love affair with islands, particularly Hawaii and Easter Island.
Being marooned once on Wedding Cake Island in Australia cured her of a passion for fishing, but led to a plotline for a novel. A.J.’s friends live in fear because even the smallest details of their lives usually wind up in her stories.
A.J. has a desire to paint, draw, juggle, work for the FBI, walk a tightrope with an elephant, be a chess champion, a steeplejack, master chef, and a world-class surfer. She can’t do any of these things so she writes about them instead.
A.J. started life as a journalist and boxing columnist, and still enjoys interrogating, er, interviewing people to find out what makes them tick.
How to find/friend me:
Newsletter sign-up: email@example.com – each month I give away a free ebook!
I’m an app! Download my FREE A.J. Llewellyn App for Android here: http://tinyurl.com/lkbc4wm