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Monday, September 1, 2014

eARC Review & Excerpt: First Exposure by Alan Chin

Alan Chin was born in Ogden, Utah, where he was christened, Alan Lewis Hurlburt. He was raised in San 
Jose, California where he enjoyed an undistinguished childhood. After graduating high school, Alan served four years in the U.S. Navy where he learned and practiced the trade of aircraft mechanic while stationed at the naval air station in Kingsville, Texas. 
Alan attended four years of night school at San Francisco State University, studying the field of Data Processing. Afterwards he enjoyed a twenty year career working his way from computer programmer, to software engineer, to network designer, and finally to manager of several software engineer development groups. 
In 1991, while still working full time, Alan went back to night school and years later graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BS in Economics and a Masters in Creative Writing.
In 1999, Alan retired from his career in Information Technology to devote more time to his three hobbies: writing, traveling, and tennis. During that same timeframe, Alan legally changed his name to Alan Chin, so that he could share the same family name as his life partner, Herman Chin. 
Alan turned serious about his writing in 2003, and began working on his first novel, Island Song. He has now published two novel with Zumaya Publications - Island Song and The Lonely War. He is currently searching for a publisher fr his 3rd novel, while writing a 4th novel and two screenplays. 
Alan currently lives and writes half of each year at his home in San Rafael, California, and he spends the other half of each year traveling the globe. 




Author: Alan Chin
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Genre: Gay Fiction/gay romance
Buy Link: BoldStrokes

Length: 264 pages

Release Date: 8/1/14

Straight, married Petty Officer Second Class Skyler Thompson battles homophobia from his Navy buddies, the military, and his wife when he takes a second job creating flower arrangements at a gay-owned florist. But rather than yield to pressure and quit, he refuses to give up the joy of creating beautiful arrangements, battling homophobia for artistic expression. His dream is to leave the navy and open his own florist shop. Ezra Dumphy—his shipmates all call him Dumpy because of his obesity—is a gay sailor who likes to dress in drag. He is shunned by his shipmates, tragically lonely, and uses drugs to cope with his solitude. What he wants more than anything is someone to share his life with. Can these two men, opposites in every way, help each other achieve their dreams?

Review
My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars



Superbly Written. An unforgetable read.

No, it is nowhere near or even similar to The Plain of Bitter Honey which was a thought provoking and sometimes philosophical read. This reads more like about life in general with characters working and living within the navy, their personal lives, their work, their dreams and their frustrations. It just so happens that there are quite a few gay men here, some colorful, some not so colorful. And then there was Ezra Dumphy.

Ezra had a crush on Petty Officer Second Class Skyler Thompson for some time now and had been secretly and lovingly taken pictures of the man. It was not an idolization for romance's sake as it was because the man exuded a confidence he himself lacked and because the man was simply a good man. He never tormented Ezra, or Dumpy as others called him, because of the way he looked and acted. He treated Ezra just like any other, even when reprimanding him for a job sloppily done or just being careless. Without really realizing it, Skyler was Ezra's protector.

Skyler's life is not blissful at all. His financial woes are aplenty, his personal problems with his wife and father was something he really did not want to think about. That he is the sole bread winner is not helping matters when his only means of earning money is through the navy which took him from his family months on end. When his wife's grandmother's health deteriorated, the family  situation at home also deteriorated. He needed to earn extra to keep food on the table. When he gets offered a job at a florists, it was a shock but he was desperate. He never thought this would spur him on to dream of a better future once more.

The lives of Skyler and Ezra was not a stuff out of fairy tales. Author Alan Chin wrote their story as a matter of factly making this one of the more real books I have read in a long, long time. Not only does he deal with society's expectations bluntly, he also writes about how the people affected by it could go either the right path or towards the more unreliable and negative path to destruction. How each individual deals with their life's journeys, this is the beauty of this book.

What really grabbed my attention was how the author used flowers as symbols of life. The mere action of stripping thorns off a rose, taping a flower stem to prep it for the arrangement, the cutting of the floral foam to shape, each action seemed mundane at first but reading more into the book it was soon apparent that not only did the author know flower arrangement but that he used the movements as an introduction into the psychology of each individual. 

Reading this, I felt at times lost in  the dreamy splendor of the flowers as described for they were vividly written in, but I also got lost within the minds of both Ezra and Skyler. They were beautiful characters and quite unforgettable. Their lives, the way it all panned out in the end, may not have been what I was prepared for, but it surely made an impression I could not soon or will ever forget.





Excerpt

 Prologue

A gentle hand grasps a wooden handle sheathing a thin, sharp blade, the kind normally used to gut fish, and slices into a sizable wedge of Styrofoam. The wedge gradually takes the pleasing shape of angel wings.

The left hand clutches the stem of a white rose; the other strips thorns with the same knife, finally cutting the end at an angle. Nimble fingers meticulously twirl pearl-colored tape over the stem. The bud is wired into a cluster of other roses attached to the wings. Bows and ribbons and baby’s breath are sagaciously applied, enhancing the arrangement’s elegance.

A man loads the delicate arrangement into a pink van that Mary Kay would be proud of. Later, he carries the arrangement through an open doorway of a church. He stands alone, the chapel silent as deep space.

He walks the arrangement down the center aisle and lays it flat, then steps aside to admire his creationÑa rare and beautiful masterpiece, draped atop a mahogany coffin.


Chapter One

Thirty miles west of San Diego, the supercarrier USS Abraham Lincoln turned into the wind in preparation for aircraft landing. On the flight deck, Petty Officer Second Class Skylar ThompsonÑa neat and deceptively slim sailor in dungarees that were still early morning freshÑnoticed the change in course. Hot air streamed past, fluttering his pant legs and pounding his face with velvet fists. The great vessel, with its ninety jets and helicopters, hulking superstructure topped by a jumble of rotating radar antennae, and expansive flight deck, rumbled beneath him, carrying a tuning-fork-like vibration up his skeleton to every part of his being. He spread his arms and leaned into the breeze, balancing gravity against an invisible resistance. For a moment, he was weightless, flying a few yards above the deck, a surfer riding the crest. It felt epic, overwhelming; he could almost touch freedom.

He glanced over his shoulder into a pristine sky. At the dividing line between the two immensities, sea and sky, lay a thin line of land, but what he searched for soared ten thousand feet up in that blue dome. He saw a white dot and followed it with his eyes, watching it grow and take shape until he recognized the distinct outline of an S-3B Viking jet roaring its way along the three-dimensional highway that terminated on the aft end of the flight deck, the groove. His stomach tightened, knowing that bird carried the most important cargo of any jet he had ever handled. Anxiety saturated his body like fine silt.

He looked over at the camera crews that had arrived by helicopter thirty minutes earlier. In an effort to capture every nuance of this historic event, they were inching toward the center of the flight deck, away from the superstructure, in order to get pictures of the bird touching down. “Stupid bastards,” Skylar mumbled to himself as he waved them back.

They ignored him.

Screw ’em. If they’re willing to risk their lives for a damned picture, it’s not my ass in a sling if someone dies. He had experienced a twinge of pride when the brass had selected him to be the flagman who would direct the plane while it was on deck, which, given the importance of the cargo, meant he was the best flagman aboard, possibly even the best the navy had to offer. All the spit and polish that had gone into this mission, however, had worn that pride down to fatigue. He couldn’t wait to be done with this assignment so the ship could sail back to port and he could lose himself in some waterfront dive. He took a firm grip on his wands as his eyes tracked the incoming jet all the way to the groove.

The wind became a whining roar. Sparks flew as the arresting gear caught the cable. The jet slammed to a halt and the ship seemed to heave a sigh.

Picture perfect. Skylar jogged toward the bird. Some jet jockey will get a promotion for that one. A swarm of green jerseys scrambled to disengage the plane from the cable. As soon as the hook lifted and the cable began to retract, the jet became Skylar’s responsibility. He wore a yellow jersey and cowl, and held two red wands. He adjusted his goggles, which were slippery because of the sweat oozing down his face, raised his wands high, and began directing the jet to the designated parking slot.

His lean, twenty-six-year-old body moved with the flamboyant flair of Baryshnikov. That was his trademark. No matter what the task, he tried to embellish it, go beyond what was merely needed and find art in the execution. That trait was one reason the officers held him in such regard. And knowing that the news cameras were trained on him, he added a tad more bravura than usual.

He guided the Viking along the deck and waved it into a turn in order to park it facing the camera crews and a podium that stood below an enormous banner on the superstructure that read: “Mission Accomplished!”

The jet revved its engines and veered starboard. Skylar spotted something out of the corner of his eye as the jet pulled into a tight turnÑsome nitwit running across the deck holding a camera. Skylar’s full attention focused him, and he recognized the baby-faced sailor, Dumpy Dunphy, because Dunphy worked in his squadron. Dumpy was a nickname tagged him because there was a lot of him, and all of it jiggled. Skylar didn’t know his real name. Everyone had always used his nickname, and although Skylar didn’t approve of degrading labels, he couldn’t help thinking of Piggy in Lord of the Flies every time he saw him.

“Dunphy!” Skylar yelled, even though there was no way Dunphy could hear over the roar of the jet engines. “Get outta there.”

The S-B3 completed its turn, and the engine exhaust caught Dunphy dead on, propelling him across the deck. He tumbled dangerously close to the edge. Skylar flagged the jet to a halt and ran to yank Dunphy to his feet, then shoved him toward a hatch leading below. “Report to me later,” he barked before turning his attention back on the jet.

Skylar guided the Viking to its designated spot and gave the cut engines signal. Green jerseys raced to secure it to the deck.

The canopy opened as the engines wound down. The reporters surged close as George W. Bush, wearing a puke-green flight suit, rose from the cockpit and gave the reporters a thumbs-up. He descended a ladder that Skylar had moved into place, and applause from the crew supplanted the whine of the engines.

Skylar stood at attention while his commander in chief saluted the flight deck crew and posed for a photo op. This was the most important event of Skylar’s career, yet he couldn’t beat down his loathing of this man to appreciate the moment. For the first year of the Bush presidency, Skylar felt that Bush led a passive and nondescript administration that would, no doubt, be whisked out after one term. But then the Trade Towers fell and Bush had maneuvered the country into another dead-end war, so all bets were off. What the hell is it with Texan presidents and war? Even though Skylar didn’t care about politics, he knew today’s mission was being staged at taxpayers’ expense to give the “W” the unwarranted image of a warrior. It smacked of fraudulence and left a vile taste in Skylar’s mouth.

Once the photo shoot ended, the brass escorted the commander in chief below. The flight deck crew hustled the Viking to the elevator and lowered it to the main hangar deck to get it out of sight. The brass didn’t want the squat, bug-looking plane visible when the president made his speech. They only wanted the sleek fighter jets on display.

Skylar helped the crew guide the Viking to a parking slot and secure it. Dunphy raced up to unload the storage compartment of the plane parked next to the Viking. When Skylar saw him unloading a crate from the jet’s belly, he walked over and grabbed him by the arm. “Are you stuck on stupid? What were you thinking?”

Dunphy stared at him with those cornflower-blue, puppy dog eyes whose lashes were snowflake white. He brushed back his hat, showing a wave of pale hair. “I just wanted a snapshot.”

Skylar glared into his eyes, trying to determine if the nineteen-year-old was stoned. Most of the enlisted crew chugged booze and smoked weed like they were indestructible, but Dunphy had a reputation for spending most of his time experiencing an inner, parallel universe, made available through doors opened by hallucinogens and opiates. Where he acquired these drugs was anybody’s guess, as was what he experienced while soaring in some intergalactic reality. Skylar saw a vacant stare, and those dilated pupils told the story.

“You could have been vaporized by Secret Service,” Skylar said. “And it’s my ass on the line if Captain Blake saw you. Shit, I signed you on deck to observe and assist, not crawl up the president’s ass.”

“Maybe Blake didn’t see?”

“Hello, those camera crews? The entire world saw. We’re fucked. I’m fucked!”

He let go of the arm and flipped open the lid on the crate Dunphy held to his chest. It was crammed with liquor bottles. He closed his eyes, knowing the day was whooshing down the toilet and he was being sucked under by its vortex. He thought of giving Dunphy a royal butt-chewing and marching him to the squadron’s commanding officer, which, of course, would get Skylar’s ass out of the sling. But he had always felt a bit sorry for Dunphy, who constantly struggled to fit in but never could. He was literally the proverbial round peg in a ship chock-full of square A-holes.

Skylar knew that the need to belong was elemental, and particularly important during the early years of growing into manhood, even though that need remained with everyone, sublimated and redirected, all of our lives. It was an essential human necessity, and the crew had robbed Dunphy of that by shunning him, some even going so far as to make homophobic slurs to his face. Skylar couldn’t begin to fathom the loneliness this kid experienced every waking hour of every day. Dunphy was utterly isolated and adrift on a ship crammed with fifty-five hundred men. At the same time, he felt a twinge of respect for Dunphy’s courage to stick it out. Every time Skylar saw the kid in the showers, he couldn’t help zeroing in on the tattoo inked over Dunphy’s heart that read, No Tears. A lump came to Skylar’s throat just thinking about it. He knew that for most people who were tattooed, it was a sign of some feeling of inferiority; they were trying to establish some macho identification for themselves. He was sure, however, that Dunphy’s tattoo held the opposite psychology. For Dunphy, it had to do with survival.

“Is this for the brass?” Skylar asked in a softer tone, already knowing the answer.

Dunphy shook his head.

“Which Einstein organized this?”

“Who else?”

Skylar closed the lid. His anger faded. At best, they were looking at thirty days bread and water. But he remembered the navy no longer put prisoners on those rations. That was his first cheerful thought of the day. “Get this below before the brass sees it.”

v

The majority of the ship’s three-thousand-man crew and twenty-five-hundred-man air wing made their way to the flight deck to hear the president’s speech. Skylar, however, hustled to the squadron’s enlisted lounge where he found a dozen of his shipmates sipping beers and watching Bush’s speech on the television attached to the bulkhead. The screen showed Bush on a podium below the “Mission Accomplished” banner. “In the Battle of Iraq,” the president said, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

The crew on deck cheered; so did the men in the lounge, raising their beers in a salute. A bottle of whiskey passed from man to man, and from the little fluid left in the bottle, Skylar realized his shipmates were already halfway to shitfaced.

As Skylar sauntered across the compartment, he nearly choked on the aroma of warm beer, cigarette smoke, and human sweat. He snatched a beer and cranked off the cap, then perched himself on a chair in a corner where he couldn’t see the damned monitor. He removed a sketchpad and charcoal pencil he always kept beneath his shirt, and began sketching the image of the Viking jet. He softened the lines with his fingers, shading where needed. Skylar had a feel for drawing. He considered himself an artist, albeit an untrained one. While aboard, it was the only thing that gave him true pleasure.

“Why fly him here anyway?” Skylar asked no one in particular. “We’re thirty miles from San Diego, for christsakes.”

Shushes echoed from the men.

Dunphy wandered into the room holding a yellow writing tablet and ballpoint pen. He studied the remaining empty seats with a troubled scowl, as if trying to find the safest spot available. Skylar’s and Dunphy’s eyes met from across the room, and Dunphy rambled toward him and squeezed his bulk into the next seat over. Without a word, he bent his head over his tablet and began writing a letter. A minute later, he glanced up at Skylar, as if noticing him for the first time, and offered him a relieved grin.

Skylar returned the gesture. He scanned the room again. Smitty played bridge at the next table with Stokes, Kelso, and Nash. Hudson perched himself on a table in the center of the group of spellbound crewmen, chewing on a half-burned cigar and his eyes glued to the tube.

Skylar and Dunphy worked side by side, Skylar sketching and Dunphy writing. The first time Dunphy’s arm brushed Skylar’s, he hardly noticed. The second nudge was longer, almost sensual. It caught Skylar’s attention. He glanced down, noticing Dunphy’s hands for the first time, shapely and hairless, showing a particular beauty. Skylar moved his arm, giving Dunphy an inch more room, and began to draw those fingers wrapped around the pen.

The third brush convinced him it was deliberate. He pulled his arm well away and turned to stare into those liquid, unreadable eyes.

Before Skylar could begin to fathom Dunphy’s intentions, the hatch slammed open and Petty Officer Third Class Travis Bolton, the Brutus of the navy, charged into the room. His crew cut was the color of scorched grain; skin shaded a creamed coffee hue. Bruises adorned his face, and one of his muscular arms was bandaged and supported by a sling. Travis was two years older than Skylar, but when they hung together, Skylar felt like Travis was his little brotherÑsomeone who needed looking after.

Their shipmates had nicknamed them, the Evil Twins. They didn’t look alike, but Travis loved practical jokes, regardless of who they offended, and Skylar always backed him up when things went wrong, which was often. This bad boy role gave them both a certain amount of capital in this tough, unforgiving environment. It also awarded them a lot of solitude.

“It’s a fuckin’ zoo on deck,” Travis drawled in his baritone, Baton Rouge accent. He shook his head like a wet schnauzer. His black eyes blazed with restless energy.

“Look who they let out of the brig,” Smitty bellowed. “The mouth from the South walks among us once again. They even let him keep a stripe.”

“Christ, have you seen what’s going on up there?” Travis said, turning his back on Smitty. “There’s more press on deck than fags at a West Hollywood Gucci sale.”

“You’d be the one to know,” Hudson said. He let out a bark of laughter as he and Smitty did a high five.

Travis snatched a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the crate and shoved his way toward Skylar. He cracked open the bottle, took a hot swallow, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

Skylar sipped his beer while he watched Travis stampede through the room with the lithe delicacy of a heavyweight prizefighter. Travis wore one of his hand-tailored uniforms that he had bought in Honolulu and upon which the three stripes of a petty officer first class had been hand-embroidered. Skylar inspected the fresh pale lines on his friend’s sleeves where two other stripes had accompanied the one there now. His eyes shifted to Travis’s damaged face. “Owww, Trav. Fightin’ with your cellmate to see who bends over?” he said, and chuckled. “Hope you boys used protection.”

“Don’t be jealous, Skye; he doesn’t have your boyfriend’s puppy dog eyes and big, cushy ass.” He nodded his head at Dunphy.

They smiled, clinked their bottles, and both took another swallow. This competitive banter became a delicate situation for Skylar, and he felt he had to restrain himself. Even though Travis was his buddy, it seemed their conversations always became delicate situations, both of them flirting with that invisible no man’s land between amusing and affronting. Delicate situations irritated Skylar. Who was it that said that Hell is being locked in a room with your best friend, forever? He thought of that moment of freedom he had experienced on deck, his arms spread and his face into the wind, just him and the horizon, and he wanted desperately to recapture that feeling.

“If bullshit were money,” Skylar said, “we could buy our way out of this suck-ass job and do something worthwhile.”

“Give up slavin’ for minimum wage, bein’ away from home for months at a time, brown-nosing the brass, and riskin’ our lives for God and country? Are you nuts? What’s better than this?”

“Right, what was I thinking?”

“So, Skye, what’s it like to flag the president’s bird? Bet you peed your tighty whities.”

Skylar glanced at his sketch of the Viking. “Same as any other. He’s just cargo, only dumber than most.”

“Yeah, but I’ll bet you put some extra Tinker Bell flair into it for the cameras.”

Smitty huffed at Travis, “Which makes you Captain Hook?”

“Naw,” Hudson said, “with that big mouth, he’s got to be the crocodile. What’s his name?”

“Tick Tock,” Dunphy said. “Who doesn’t know that?”

“Shut your piehole, fruitcake,” Travis said. “Nobody asked you shit.”

Skylar thought about all the enlisted men who, almost to a man, were thin-skinned, loudmouthed, and shallow. More and more, he felt out of place in their company. He wondered if the navy deliberately allured individuals who were, wellÉcrude, or if they became that way after they joined as a defense mechanism to this testosterone enriched atmosphere. The question was moot. There was no way to change them or the environment. Whenever he thought about it, however, he felt an inkling of concern that their loutish ways were rubbing off on him.

Dunphy leaned closer, uncomfortably close, to peek at the sketchpad. “Hey, that’s amazing. You went to art school?”

“Naw. Got sidetracked.”

“Yeah, didn’t we all. But, man, if I had your talent I wouldn’t be here shucking orders and eatin’ runny eggs and burnt Spam.”

“Takes more than talent.” Skylar knew how arduous the hardscrabble art world could be for an unknown artist. He had friends that ate or starved on the whim of reviews, art fairs, and group shows, and who only dreamed of sales to collectors. Some had MFAs and adjunct teaching posts, but most produced sketches for third-rate advertising firms. Not one of them made the kind of money from painting that could support a family.

Skylar lifted his beer toward Travis. “You organize this? Pretty risky considering who’s aboard. You must really love brig time.”

“Aw, shit, Skye, the brass’ll be on deck all day, listenin’ to that lying sack of turds. By the time they finish lickin’ each other’s buttholes, there’ll be nothing left but empty bottles in the trash chute.” He took another swallow and nodded at Dunphy. “But wouldn’t you have wet your panties if the brass saw you unloading this?”

Dunphy’s face blushed the color of a ripe peach. He dropped his head, intent on his letter once again.

“Hell,” Travis continued, “Eighteen months at sea, we deserve some party time.” Travis became more animated with each mouthful of Jack. He snatched the pad from Dunphy’s hand.

“Hey, give that back, you Neanderthal.”

“Lookie here, boys,” Travis said, raising his voice, “Dumpy’s writing a love letter to his sweetheart.”

Dunphy stabbed for his pad. The wattle of fat under his chin shook.

Skylar shot Travis a look. “Give it up, Trav.”

“Tommy,” Travis read in a loud voice, “I got your letter, and I’m thrilled you’ll be in Washington when we dockÑ”

Skylar swiped the pad from his hand. “You’re such a dick,” he said, and handed the pad back to Dunphy.

Travis displayed a full set of dingy teeth. “Sounds like Dumpy has two BFs.” His voice held no trace of humor this time.

Skylar’s stomach spun a slow somersault. He laid his sketchpad aside and stood eye-to-eye with Travis. “Say that again, asshole. I dare ya.” He used the vehement tone that he always found startling, like thunder on a cloudless day, and that he had intentionally developed for situations like this.

The room fell silent.

Skylar made his eyes go hard, enhancing the challenge. Travis bunched up a fist and pulled his arm from the sling. Skylar bent his knees to lower his center of gravity.

Before Travis could make his move, Captain Jake Blake rambled through the hatchway, looking stern, unflappable, and fit for his fifty-two years. Beneath his salt-and-pepper crew cut and hiding behind his tortoiseshell glasses were his piercing hazel eyes, which revealed his self-assured temperament. His dress white uniform was crisply pressed and his shoes buffed, communicating respect for his position and underlining his attention to detail. He smiled, but it seemed more the result of a paralyzed face than a cheerful disposition.

Hudson yelled, “Attention on deck!”

The men snapped to attention. A bottle tipped over and rolled to Jake’s feet, leaving a trail of beer in its wake. Jake stepped over it as if it were a landmine.

Travis glanced at Skylar and mouthed a silent, “Fuck!”

“Carry on,” Jake said. “Our commander in chief is speaking.”

The men scrambled to hide their bottles. Jake strolled around the room. He flipped open the crate of liquor, lifted a bottle of JD, and set it back down. The tense air sizzled.

“Seaman Dunphy, front and center,” Jake said, his voice pitilessly sharp.

Dunphy jumped up and snapped to attention.

Jake circled him, scrutinizing every inch of Dunphy, as if he were a lethal virus under a microscope. “Can you possiblyÉexplain to meÉwhyÉin God’s nameÉyou chose todayÉof all daysÉto be a common galley ratÉscurrying under the president’s plane?”

Crewmembers snickered. Jake stared them silent.

“Well, sir, IÉIÉ”

Skylar shot to attention. “Sir! I requisitioned Seaman Dunphy as my assistantÉWeÉIÉOur signals got crossed, sir.”

Jake nodded with mock amusement. “SoÉToday the Big Dog comes aboard, joined by a horde of admirals from Honolulu and San Diego, and you cheese dicks decide it’s the perfect time for a training exercise? That’s the best alibi you got?”

Jake waited for something more from either Dunphy or Skylar. When nothing came, he continued, “We dock at eighteen hundred hours. You two half-wits are on hangar watch all damned night. Fuck it, make that all damned weekend.” He moved to stand only inches from Skylar, their noses almost touching. “And the next time Mr. Braindead needs a crusader”Ñhe pointed to DunphyÑ“you better come up with bigger balls and a better lie.”

Jake walked to the liquor crate and slapped the flap closed. “Now that we’re past that bit of irony, let me make it crystal clear that I do not want another incident brought to light that will embarrass this squadron while the president is aboard.” He tapped the top of the box. “Hudson, take this contraband to my quarters.”

Hudson leaped to scoop up the box and follow Jake out through the hatch.

A moment of silence held the room before the crew’s muffled snickering erupted into befuddled laughter.

Travis leaned his head to one side and frowned. “No pole dancers for you two tonight. Me and the boys was talking about hotfooting it south of the border. You ever see the women in 
Tijuana?”

Skylar knew what came next. Travis’s stories always began with an innocent question and progressed to the description of a voracious whore, buck naked, straddling him, and screaming “bueno!” and “grande!” while he brayed like a donkey. He told the same story in every port, only the nationality of the women changed from one tale to the next.

When he got to the part describing the whore, he shot Dunphy a look. “Not that you’d know what to do with one.”

“Give it a rest, Bolton.”

“Bolton? What happened to Trav, ol’ buddy?” Travis said. “Anyway. Should be some sad May Day celebration for you fuckups who have to stay aboard. Not to worry though, us studs will divvy up your share of pussy and we’ll be fuckin’ like bullfrogs ’til midnight mass on Sunday.”

Skylar choked on his beer. “Are you shitting me? It’s May first? Trav, lend me your cell phone.”

“Right, now that you need something, it’s back to Trav?” Travis shook his head. “No can do, amigo.”

Skylar’s eyes narrowed. “Thanks, friendÑgenerosity is so much a cornerstone of your nature.”

“What I meant, Skye, is that all cells are down while the ‘W’ is aboard. You’re S.O.L.”

Skylar stormed out.

Minutes later, deep in the radio room filled with a symphony of severe voices and humming communications equipment, Skylar handed a radioman a C-note while barking into the ship’s satellite phone, “ÉYes, the card should read: happy anniversary, sweetheart. That’s one dozen red roses. I don’t care how much it costs as long as they’re delivered today.”


Chapter Two

Dunphy completed his tenth round of the plane-jammed hangar deck, satisfied that everything was copacetic. Forty men stationed around the ship held similar positions of vigilance, each overlooking a separate quadrant of the vessel. Only a skeleton watch remained aboard while the majority of the crew and officers enjoyed liberty in San Diego.

He savored the night sounds and smells, trying to relax, but failing. The air was stuffy and warm, helped only a little by gusts of sea breeze eddying around the aircraft crowded together like a flock of sleeping flamingos. He strained to see the hulking shapes of the planes lit only by dock lighting enhanced by moonlight.

He stood still, hearing the thump and riffs from a rock band at the officer’s club. The music made him feel isolated, a man alone at thirty thousand feet and without a parachute. He had grown used to being a recluse while living on the streets before he joined the navy, but tonight he craved some meaningful conversation with someone, anyone, and he realized that he had often felt this way lately. He had learned by the age of eight, and by necessity, that intelligence can compensate for a lack of brute strength and a bully mindset, both of which uncannily befell most of the men in his life. His own unstated rules of survival told him to simply avoid these swine as much as possible, to become instead more cerebral, and to expose his superior mentality only when it wouldn’t incite retaliation. In this shipboard environment, though, avoidance led to a painfully lonely existence. He normally wrote it off by telling himself he didn’t need anyone. Tonight, however, he wasn’t so sure. It’ll be better once we dock in Washington, he thought, but he stood rooted to that spot in the gloom for another ten minutes, wondering if that were true.

He blundered his way to a vending machine and bought himself a Coke. Before opening the tab, he pulled four blue pills from his pocket and began crushing them with the Coke can on the wing of an F16 fighter. While he pulverized the drug, he whispered, “There’s oxymoron, which is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms, and then there’s Oxy-moron, which is a person who snorts OxyContin.”

He grabbed the chain around his neck and pulled up his dog tags and a silver tube from under his T-shirt. He positioned the tube in one nostril and inhaled the powder, then popped the tab and guzzled half the Coke. A warm cloud of euphoria lifted him until he no longer felt lonely. He floated through the hangar for another round.

He passed a lamp fixture embedded in the bulkhead, a half globe that gave the hangar an unearthly luster. The yellow glass was decorated by night insects, large gossamer moths that had immolated themselves on its hot surface. He stopped to study the light seeping through their wings, giving them an opalescent color that fired his imagination. He waited, thinking they would once again take flight, but then his mind moved on, and he followed.

He made a game of slinking between the parked aircraft, 007 sneaking past an imaginary foe, but then he noticed a familiar shape standing on the lowered elevator ramp, bathed in moonlight while gazing at the stars. He recognized Skylar by how his uniform enhanced his lanky physique.

Dunphy crept closer and pulled his trusty Nikon from the pouch on his webbed belt. He was seldom without his camera, his only expression of joy on this steel hell. He balanced the Nikon on a wing, set the exposure, and zeroed in for a close-up of Skylar’s profile. He waited for a perfect expression of wonder to overtake Skylar’s features, waitedÉwaited. ÉClick. His new game became sneaking through the hangar, setting up shots from different angles. Click, click. It was not the first time he had taken candid shots of that ruggedly fetching man. He had long been fascinated by Skylar’s short thatch of fawn-colored hair, sea blue eyes, and strong-boned facial features. Skylar was no pretty boy, nor was he classically handsome, but there was something about how the pieces all fit together that made him captivating, and certainly several cuts above the average swabbie. What made Skylar such an interesting photo model was that when caught unaware, he seemed to glow from the inside out, and that luminosity always found its way onto the film.

A dozen shots later, he crept up behind Skylar and stood close to the only man aboard who had treated him with any amount of kindness. He leaned forward until his nose hovered inches away from those broad shoulders, inhaling the fragrance of lavender-scented soap. He also detected the piquant odor of shoe polish softened by a trace of talcum powder.

He pulled back and lifted his head to scan the same starlit sky, reading it like the dog-eared pages of a favorite novel. That made their slim connection somewhat stronger, more intimate. Thin clouds scudded across the moon. It was what the crew called a “peekaboo night.” He focused on a cloudless patch, through the firmament and beyond the myriad of familiar shapesÑPleiades, Scorpius, and Hercules with its dazzling star, VegaÑand even beyond the dim specks from the most distant stars, surveying the darkest regions of the unknown. His mind emptied and he felt himself become the unknown, until a voice echoed in his head.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?”

It took him a moment to realize Skylar had spoken to him. He struggled to engage his brain to understand and respond. He stepped back to put some distance between them.

“Yeah, the bang put all this into motion. It’s overwhelming.”

“The big bang?” Skylar asked. “Right. Whatever exploded must have been gargantuan.”

Dunphy shook his head. “A few advanced minds think it was the size of a golf ball. Space-time and matter and energy compressed into something unbelievably dense and hot.”

Skylar chuckled. “Unbelievably dense and hot, sounds like Travis Bolton.”

Dunphy had to bend his mind to accommodate Skylar referring to any man as “hot.” Tuning in on his gaydar had never been Dunphy’s strong suit. He tilted his head, wondering if it were possible that Skylar batted for both teams. The notion became thrilling and unnerving.

After a silent pause became awkward, Skylar said, “That was a joke.”

Dunphy flashed him an arid smile, realizing that he had read too much into it. But stillÉas his mother used to tell him before he was kicked out of the house, at the heart of every joke is a kernel of truth.

Skylar fished in his pocket for a cigarette and accepted one from the pack of Marlboros Dunphy offered him. “I only smoke at sea. Rosa would kill me if she knew.”

Dunphy presented Skylar a light and was pleased when Skylar cupped his hands around his own to shield the flame. That slight touch sent needles of ice down his spine to zap his testicles. He flicked at the lighter, but it refused to fire in the breeze. They both hunched closer, coaxing it to life.

Dunphy took a long drag that dizzied him. He slipped the pack and lighter back into his pocket.

Skylar looked at him with an expression both melancholy and avid. After holding his stare for a heartbeat, Skylar glanced at the sky again. “You think there are other beings living on other planets? Like, are those rumors of little green men in Los Alamos even possible?”

The wind rose, pressing against their bodies like a living force. They inched closer so their words wouldn’t be carried away by the breeze, and stood staring into the dome above.

“Living on other planets, sure, why not?” Dunphy said. “Them coming to earth? The distances are too great for any sort of humanoid to journey here, unless they are so smart they know how to travel faster than the speed of light, which is impossible. Any beings that visit us would have to be a race that has evolved into super intelligent androids.”

“What about worm holes?”

“You watch too much sci-fi. See those stars? They could have died and collapsed into themselves a hundred thousand years ago, and we don’t have a clue because we’re only now seeing the light they spawned back when dinosaurs walked the earth.”

They both grew quiet. Dunphy drew on his cigarette and expelled the smoke. The warm night air felt deliciously comfortable after the stifling humidity of the day.

“How do you know all this?”

“They’re called books, Skylar.”

“So you took astronomy classes?”

Dunphy stuck his cigarette between his lips and shoved his hands in his pockets. He suddenly felt cold.

“Naw. Never made it to high school. I left home on my thirteenth birthday. On the streets, you don’t have TV or money for movies. You spend a lot of nights looking up at the stars and a lot of days at the public library trying to stay warm.”

“Really? What was your childhood like, I mean, before you left home?”

“Short.”

Dunphy realized that Skylar deserved a better answer, but he didn’t want to spoil the mood with his depressing saga.

They both dropped their cigarettes to the deck and crushed them. Dunphy struggled to find a new topic, one that had nothing to do with his past. Living it had been hell; reliving it was futile. He liked to stay in the present as much as possible, and right then he reminded himself that he had four more OxyContin pills in his pocket to help him do just that. His fingertips caressed the pills. He glanced sideways looking for a quick retreat, but at the same time he said, “I’m sorry I got you sucked into standing watch. You didn’t have to stick up for me, though. I can take whatever they dish out.”

“Right.” Skylar nodded. “No tears. I get it. What I don’t get is how you swallow crap from every swinging dick on this ship. I mean, I’ve never seen anyone eat so much shit.”

“Hell, this is a five-star cruise in the Bahamas,” Dunphy said, and laughed.

“Compared to what?” Skylar waited, but when no answer came he said, “You don’t want to tell me. Why?”

Dunphy sighed. “Before I left home, my old man beat me every chance he got. The five years I lived on the streets, I ate out of garbage cans and was hassled by thugs and perverts. No, the navy’s good to me, relatively speaking.”

“Garbage cans? That explains why you always chow down like there’s no tomorrow.”

“At enlistment, I weighed ninety-four pounds,” he said, noting the incredulous look on Skylar’s face. He could hardly believe it himself. Only two years ago, he had been a petite, narrow-faced, willowy creature as exotic as an osprey. He was definitely expanding much faster than the universe. “Yep, that’s the great thing about the navyÑthree squares a day, clean sheets, and we never have to march.”

Dunphy studied Skylar’s hands as he talked, noting how big they were, like Dunphy’s father’s hands. But Skylar kept his nails trimmed and clean. His father never wasted time on hygiene, nor had the old man been approachable or self-assured like Skylar. Standing there in the moonlight, Dunphy could appreciate the contrast, but why, he wondered, was he comparing the two men? Why was it important?

What happened to Dad after I left? His father’s light still reached him like a star glow, light waves from his distant past after years of empty space, sieving into his bones.

“Say,” Skylar said, “what the hell is your first name, anyway?”

“Ezra.”

“Well, Ezra, don’t feel sorry on my account. I don’t mind staying aboard ’cause I spent most of my pocket cash making sure Rosa got flowers on our anniversary.”

Dunphy had not been called by his first name since leaving home. He felt tears welling up in his eyes, and his voice sounded funny when he said, “Wow, that’s so thoughtful.”

“Yeah,” Skylar said through a beaming smile, “she’s gonna love ’em.”

Dunphy glanced at the horizon as he inhaled the airborne brine. Over the city, stars drizzled into the pale mouth of dawn.

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