GENRE: Gay Erotic Romance
LENGTH: 44,076 words
Owen has been struggling with addiction since he was a teenager, but it takes a DUI involving another vehicle for him to finally face his issues. The road to recovery is a rough one, and for Owen it's a journey made harder by bankruptcy, loneliness, and repressed memories.
His new apartment doesn't help either. It's small, worn, and hot as hell. The only way to reach it is a tedious stretch of stairs that seems like the final insult on top of a whole pile of misery.
Thankfully, the mess comes with one bright spot: intense, pretty Sebastian, who seems to have a knack for keeping his head up and finding the beauty in everything.
Note: may contain sexually explicit scenes of a homoerotic nature.
As though it was new to him, as though he did not take the trip several times a day, the sight beyond the fire door always managed to make his heart sink and his expression crumple. That would be when his eyes would widen, or narrow, depending on which emotion was stronger that day, while they took in the seemingly unending stretch of the next set of stairs. Twenty-seven. And the passage got narrower. The lack of windows made it seem darker. Random artwork that was either complete junk, or lost masterpieces, as those things tended to be, lined the walls with silver-headed screws twisted through their frames. Smells stuck in that particular staircase: boiled potatoes, cheap meat, and dirty laundry. They were the 'stairs that must be counted,' lest one begin to believe they would go on forever and give up hope at the midway point.
It was just past that midpoint, stair number fourteen, where the steps temporarily levelled out. Though unseen to the eye from the start, a square of tiles, almost two metres wide and across, branched off to the right, and led towards two wooden doors. Owen was pretty sure that the left one -- the one that conceptual thinking would tell a person led to the space below his own apartment -- belonged to Sebastian. The other door, barring an area not nearly deep enough for an apartment, considering space and design, had to belong to some kind of storage space or utility function.
Normally, at that point, Owen would pause and take a breather. As stale as the air on the second ascent was, if he waited long enough, the pause was usually sufficient to give him the energy to forge forward. From there he would stumble up to the final platform, ignore the two apartments on the right, and practically fall through his own door. Then he'd spend the next several moments lamenting life and consequence, bad choices and unreasonable expectations. It was a tiny little pity party that fuelled the voices that called out for libations and numbing.
Yet, while Owen did his usual stop and pause, with the plastic bags digging into the meat of his palms, and the thickness of the air growing heavier by the second, it was a smile that came to his lips instead of the desperate drags of oxygen. He tilted his head once, twice, and again -- had that been there before? Was it new? Or was it truly the first time Owen had noticed the design? Because there on the surface of Sebastian's door, reaching and curling around the brass "four" that identified it, hand-drawn with surprising detail and meticulous symmetry, were thick green ivy and purple blooms twisting and twining together.
It was a beautiful addition to the door even if, on closer inspection, it appeared to have been done with simple marker. Owen reached up and traced it with his fingers, almost reacting to the sudden impulse to knock, yet reining the thought back the moment he understood it. He was sweaty, and he was tired. Besides, what was he going to say? I saw your door and it looked so pretty that I suddenly wanted to see your face? As if it was, somehow, a reflection of the man within? He couldn't do that. He'd look like a goddamn idiot.
Instead, Owen grinned, shook his head, and turned his attentions back to the final leg of his journey. There, his eyes caught the cracked vinyl of the first step up from that point forward. It was an odd design -- the way the sheet of flooring had lifted, been kicked and trodden through the years -- and Owen recognized it immediately. Repetition had caused him to memorize the elongated triangle, squished-circle and odd tail-like crack behind it. It was a shape that always made him think of some bizarre horror-version of a Dr. Seuss duck. And that's when it hit him, as shocking as if someone had whacked him with a baseball bat, as bright as a light bulb switched on at midnight: all this time, every single day, on every trip up and every trip down, he'd passed that spot, and with his eyes on the floor and his head lowered, Owen's attention had been caught up by some grotesque image of destruction, and he'd missed the thing of beauty that had been right there all along. A lifting moment of cheer, halfway up the worst dredge of the accursed staircase -- there, at that spot that sparked his woe-is-me musings every single time -- had gone unseen because he'd been too downtrodden to lift his head. To look up.
The thought made him smile. He huffed a self-disgusted laugh and lowered the grocery bags to the floor. He dug through until he found the jellybeans and unwound the bow of the purple Easter ribbon so he could tie the candy to the doorknob. Sebastian would have no clue who had left it or why, but it would serve as Owen's thank you for making him realize it was time to start lifting his head.