Excerpt: Sinful Vows
Book 3: Sinful CORE
Unexpressed emotions will never die.
They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.
Ten years ago…
Foxy’s Bar, North Royalhurst, Ohio
Thursday, July 20th, 11:43 p.m. Daylight Saving Time
THICK, HUMID AIR clung to his lungs and skin, along with the acrid odor of tar. He released the bar’s glass door and stepped onto the recently paved parking lot. As he walked to his truck, he glanced to the street, lit up by the cracked neon sign shaped like a drunken fox, and checked the traffic. Not seeing any cars on the road, he relaxed and fished his keys from his pocket. He’d had seven beers and a shot of Fireball. Or had it been nine beers and two shots? Didn’t matter. Four was his usual limit and he rarely drank shots, but with the wife and kids gone for the weekend, he hadn’t wanted to go back to the quiet house. He preferred his wife’s endless chatter, their toddler son’s babbling, or the cries of their three-month-old over the silence. The quiet ate at him. Took him deep into his head. Revealed his demons.
“Hey, wait up,” a man shouted as loud music momentarily filled the night.
He turned just as his drinking buddy, Jim, exited the bar. The man staggered, righted himself, then continued toward him. He’d met Jim about six months ago, and would have a few beers with him if they ran into each other at Foxy’s. Which was a couple times a week. He wouldn’t exactly say he knew the man well—they usually bullshitted about their jobs, sports or talked with the other regulars—but Jim was an okay guy for a bar friend.
“No more booze for me,” he said, grinning and half stumbling against his truck. “I reached my limit two hours ago.”
Jim chuckled and used the back of his hand to wipe his mouth. “I hear ya, man. My wife is gonna be so pissed at me.” Light from the lamppost standing in front of the truck touched along his glassy eyes and crooked smile. “Nothin’ new there, right?”
From what he gathered, Jim’s wife—he couldn’t remember her name, but it was something with a Y at the end…Britney, Tiffany—was the breadwinner. If he recalled correctly, Jim had moved to the Cleveland area because of his wife’s job. All he did remember about her was Jim bitching that she blew him shit for not living up to his potential, not pulling his weight around the house, and not bringing in enough cash.
Not knowing what to say, and eager to head home and crawl into bed, he shrugged. “We misbehaved, didn’t we?” He smothered a yawn, then used the key fob to unlock the truck. “Honestly, my wife would probably blow me shit, too, if she saw the shape I’m in tonight.”
Jim also leaned against the truck. “You okay to drive?”
“I’m five miles from my neighborhood. I should be good. You?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Not willing to risk it. You mind givin’ me a ride? You’re over in that new development, Pine-something, right?”
Damn it. He did not want to detour. He wanted sleep. “Yeah, it’s Whispering Pines.”
“Well, I’m right on your way. I’m gonna pay hell for leaving the car here, but it beats getting a DUI. Tiffany threatens to make me sleep in the shed for lesser things,” Jim said with another chuckle.
Since he liked Jim, and didn’t want his wife giving him hell, and because the guy’s house was on the way, he agreed. Once they were in his truck, and buckled up, he exited Foxy’s parking lot. They drove in silence for a few minutes, then Jim let out a sigh when they stopped at a red light.
“I’m drunk,” Jim began. “Drunk as a skunk.”
He grinned. “Tonight was fun. My head probably won’t say as much in the morning.”
“No lie there.” Jim glanced at him. “I know you.”
Though buzzed, he picked up on…something. He couldn’t put his finger on why, but unease weaved its way through him. “What’s that mean?”
“It means I know you. I know who you are.” Jim sighed and turned in his seat to face him. “I remember you.”
Apparently, his drinking buddy was more wasted than he’d thought. “Of course you know me.” He chuckled. “We’ve been drinking together off and on for six months.”
“No. I mean I know you,” Jim repeated. “I…I’ve been trying to work up the courage to say something, but until tonight, I didn’t have it.” With a shrug, he grinned. “I guess those shots of Fireball did it for me.”
The light turned green, and he began driving again. “I think I’ll be swearing off shots for a while.”
“Same. But for me…look, when I said I know you, I’m talking about way back. Nine years ago. I wasn’t sure it was you at first. After a few months, I was positive.”
Growing irritated, he glanced at Jim. “Positive about what? We didn’t meet until six months ago.”
“Positive that you were at Camp Hope. You know, the place we went for conversion therapy.”
He gripped the steering wheel. Fought the rage. Fought the humiliation. Camp Hope. His personal Hell. The place that invaded his dreams to create nightmares. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s okay,” Jim said, softening his voice. “My wife has no idea, either. I’ve been pretending to be straight since I was seventeen just to get my parents to leave me the fuck alone.”
In an effort to control his anger, to keep his cool, to keep from hitting Jim, he wiped a hand along his worn jeans. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he repeated, even though he did. He’d suffered at Camp Hope for an entire summer. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, his mom had found a box loaded with gay porn—magazines and DVDs—and a number of dildos in the attic. She and his minister father had immediately confronted him, accused him of carrying the Devil inside and tried to beat it out of him. Several months later, when he’d still refused to admit the magazines and devices were his, they had swept him off to Camp Hope after school had ended for the year. The problem was, that box hadn’t belonged to him.
It had belonged to his father.
“C’mon,” Jim said with exasperation, then hiccupped. “Your daddy was the preacher who used to come by a few times a week to help us pray the gay away.” He laughed, but it was false laughter. There was nothing funny about what had gone on at Camp Hope. “Yeah, you kept to yourself, didn’t hang out with the rest of us, but I remember you and your daddy.”
His mind blurred with images of the boys at the camp, until one stood out from the rest. Jim. “Your memory is warped by booze. Wasn’t me,” he said, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, and praying for sobriety. Fuck. This couldn’t be happening. What were the odds? He’d been born and raised in a small Georgia town, and was now living in North Royalhurst, a nice suburb just outside of Cleveland. Yeah, he’d picked up on Jim’s southern accent—one he himself had been sure to lose years ago—but again, what were the odds? And what if Jim told? His wife hadn’t a clue what he’d gone through, and never—ever—needed to know. That year had been the darkest time of his life. He didn’t want to relive it, didn’t want his wife thinking he was secretly gay. He couldn’t care less if a man wanted another man, but he wasn’t that kind of man.
“I’ve kept in touch with a couple guys from camp. I don’t know if you remember Steve, Todd and Greg, but they’re all openly gay. Steve’s living in Columbus,” Jim said, his tone sad, forlorn.
Panic moved through his chest like heartburn. He still talked to those guys? Had Jim told them about him? Jim knew his last name, the name of his business, wife and kids. He also knew where he lived and had his phone number. What if he passed that information to one of their campmates? What if they also tried to contact him?
His stomach soured as he pictured the shock and betrayal on his wife’s face. If Jim claimed he’d been to a conversion camp, chances were, she wouldn’t believe the man. But if two or more made the same claims… The panic worked through his chest to lodge in his throat. His mouth dry, he had a difficult time gathering spit to swallow.
Jim released a deep breath. “It’s hard to live a lie. When we were at the bar, and Chuck and Troy were talking about the size of the bartender’s breasts, I was more interested in the butt on the guy playing pool.” He shook his head. “How do you do it? How do you keep it secret?”
He finally swallowed, only to have acid from his churning stomach rise up and burn the back of his throat. “For the millionth time, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you have an online friend?” Jim continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Or do you go to a gay bar in another city?”
“Look, man,” he began, keeping his voice neutral and desperately trying to hold his shit together, “I am not gay. You don’t know me, and I was never at a camp with you. You’re drunk and need to let it go. And if I hear you telling anyone that I’m gay, I’ll make your life hell. Understand?”
“Whatever,” Jim mumbled, then laughed and shook his head.
How could he laugh about any of this? There was nothing funny about the situation, and nothing amusing about what had been done to them. It sickened him. Enraged him that he was once again being accused of something he wasn’t.
“Stay in denial. Me? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of my wife. I hate pretending I want to climb on top of her. I hate that I have to pretend I’m having sex with a man instead of a woman just to get it up.” Jim ran a shaky hand along his forehead. “I might be drunk, but I think I’m also drunk enough to work up the courage and tell her the truth.”
His heart raced with worry as he stopped at another traffic light. If Jim told his wife, and he came out of the closet, would he try to get him to do the same? What if Jim had pictures from camp? He’d kept in touch with three of their campmates, did that mean he had a camp roster? What if Jim tied one on at the bar and started blabbing to the regulars?
“If you tell your wife, she might kick you out of the house,” he said, hoping to reason with the drunk bastard. “She’s the one with the money, right?”
“Don’t care. I was thinking about moving to Columbus. I’ve got a secret stash squirrelled away. It’s only three grand, but that’s enough to get me started, and Steve said he could help me find a job.”
Shit. He has a plan. “I think you’re making a mistake.” The light turned green and he began driving. “Wait until you’re sober before you decide to do anything.”
Jim slapped the dashboard. “The first mistake I made was claiming I was straight,” he said, his voice rising. “The second was marrying Tiffany.”
He stiffened and quickly looked to the dash. “Don’t take it out on the truck,” he warned the other man as his patience quickly faded. He needed to hold onto it, though. Jim was losing it. His tone had been almost manic. He needed to talk Jim into keeping his cool and his mouth shut. Loose lips didn’t just sink ships, they sank a man’s marriage and career.
When Jim hit the dash again, he fought to control his hands. He wanted them around the man’s throat. He wanted the man silent.
“I’m twenty-six and miserable.” Jim slammed his fist into his palm. “Damn it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life this way,” he shouted. “I want to be accepted for who I am.”
He looked to Jim, to where the glow from the dash touched along the tears streaming down his cheeks, and wondered what the hell to do. He had two small kids. His landscaping business had finally taken off and was doing well. He and his wife had also recently moved into a brand-new house. Life was good. And the man next to him could destroy it.
“If you want to live a lie, that’s your business.” Spittle flew from Jim’s mouth as he continued his drunken tirade. “But I won’t do it anymore. I won’t! I won’t!”
As Jim kept shouting the same two words over and over, his head buzzed and his ears rang. Memories surfaced…his hands bound sometimes with ice, other times with copper heating coils, the needles jabbed into his fingers, shock therapy…the cleansing in the lake, the whistle of his father’s belt just before it connected with his bare ass. The dark closet. His preacher daddy’s version of a hot box…
Jim’s shouts penetrated the memories, broke through the muffled haze in his head and unleashed the rage that had been festering inside him for nine long years. He swung his fist sideways and connected against the center of Jim’s throat. The man wheezed and clutched his neck. After checking the rearview and seeing no other cars, he slowed the truck, reached over and smashed Jim’s forehead along the dashboard. Gripped the back of Jim’s thick hair, and did it again and again until the man no longer made a sound.
Sweat trickled down his cheek. Breathing hard, his heart pounding, he swiped it away, then brought the vehicle to the proper speed limit. “Why couldn’t you keep your mouth shut?” When he punched Jim in the arm, the man slumped against the door. The interior of the truck was too dark to tell if Jim’s chest rose and fell, but his eyes were closed, his mouth hung open and he no longer wheezed. “Oh, no,” he muttered as dread gripped him by the balls. “No! No!”
He hit the steering wheel with his palm, then ran his hand through his hair. Jim couldn’t be dead, could he? He’d only bashed his head against the dash three, maybe four times. Was that enough to kill a man? He’d go to prison. He’d lose everything.
“Fuck!” He shouldn’t have gone out tonight. Shouldn’t have had so damned much to drink. His head swam with alcohol and fear. After dragging in a few deep breaths, he refocused, considered his options. “Okay, you’ve got this.” Foxy’s only had one security camera and that was aimed at the register. Jim had left the bar several minutes after he had, so no one could say for sure he’d given the man a ride. They could think Jim had decided he was too drunk to drive and walked home.
He shook his head as he drove past Jim’s street and toward his own home in Whispering Pines. Though he’d had his share of fights, he’d never initiated them. He didn’t have a quick temper, and considered himself a negotiator, not a fighter. And, yet, he had a dead man, who he had beaten, slumped next to him. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Jim. If the man had never said a word or accepted his lie about the camp, Jim could be stumbling his drunk ass into his house rather than facing…what? What was he supposed to do with Jim’s body?
The truck tires drove over a pothole. The equipment in the back clanked and gave him his answer. Taking a risk, he turned into his development and drove to Shady Circle, where eleven homes—his included—surrounded the cul-de-sac. After reaching his house, he backed the truck into the driveway, then exited. As he waited for the garage door to rise, he glanced around at the other houses. With the exception of lampposts or porch sconces, most of the homes were dark. Good. He needed to make this quick.
Once he hitched the trailer carrying the small skid steer loader he and his employees used for digging holes and trenches, he climbed back into the truck and left Whispering Pines. A half mile later, he turned and took the dirt access road the utility companies used. He drove until the road dead-ended, then parked and killed the ignition.
Acres of undeveloped land stretched into the darkness. He couldn’t see what was before him, but rode past the property daily and knew the land was covered in trees, bushes and patches of tall grass and wild flowers. With the area a short distance from his home, it was the perfect place to hide a body. He could keep an eye on the property, and would know if the police were searching the area.
After taking a flashlight from the glove box, he got out of the truck, then went to the passenger door. Grabbing Jim under the armpits, he hauled him from the vehicle and dropped him on the ground. He gripped Jim by the ankles and decided to drag him to his final destination first, then go back for the digger. Crickets and katydids chirped, and a few fireflies signaled their existence, while the hot breeze caused the trees to creek and sway. Jim’s head thudded against the fallen tree he’d just tripped over, marring the insects’ soothing symphony. After he’d walked forty paces, he stopped, let go of Jim, then carefully jogged back to the truck.
Once he dropped the trailer down and was seated on the digger, he touched the key, but hesitated. Even buzzed, he knew this had to be one of his stupider ideas. Though this digger wasn’t as loud as the bigger models, someone might hear it running. But he was a half mile away from the nearest development—his—and with the high temperatures, people were keeping their windows closed and running their air conditioners, so he had that going for him. His development was also new and the only people who usually traveled to this area were residents of Whispering Pines. That was another thing he also had going for him.
Yes, he had this, and had no choice but to proceed. Shoveling a small grave would take him two to three hours, but with the skid steer loader, he could have the job done in forty-five minutes or less. In case he needed it, he took a shovel from the truck bed, climbed back on the digger, drew in a deep breath, and turned the key.
The machine fired up without issue, its motor drowning out the crickets and katydids. He drove it forward. The digger’s tracks crushed the vegetation, which would leave signs that someone had come through here with heavy equipment. Even if the digger had wheels, it would have left impressions in the dirt. Damn, maybe he should’ve sucked it up and shoveled. But by the time he’d returned to Jim’s body and dug the hole, he’d convinced himself everything would be fine. All would go well.
No one would ever know.
Wiping sweat from his brow, he hopped off the digger, then picked up the flashlight he’d left on the ground, the beam directed at the hole. He eyed the grave which was about four feet in depth and length, and around two to three feet wide. Jim was tall and lanky, but he should fit. He set down the flashlight and, facing the hole, pushed Jim inside. After folding the man’s arms and legs until he was in a quasi-fetal position, he reached for the shovel.
As he began tossing dirt onto Jim, he stared at the man’s face. Regret made him ache. Jim hadn’t deserved to have his life cut short. Not by him or anyone. He would burn in Hell for this. He would—
Jim’s eye slid open.
He jerked back and fell on his rear. Panting, heart racing, he reached a trembling hand for the flashlight, then shined it on Jim. The man released a groan.
“No,” he whispered. “You’re supposed to be dead. I…I swear I thought I killed you.”
He was fucked. Why hadn’t he checked for a pulse? Because he was drunk and stupid. Christ, he could have dumped Jim somewhere. When the man woke and tried to accuse him of being responsible for the beating, he could have simply denied it. But now…now he’d gone too far. He’d dug a grave, had already put him inside. Except, if Jim had suffered head trauma, maybe he wouldn’t remember any of this.
What if he did? What if Jim has the camp roster or photos of me? He could use that as proof against me. The police could check the truck and find his DNA.
All true, yet how could he live with himself if he took another man’s life? How could he hold his wife or kiss his babies with blood staining his hands?
“I could pay you. I’ll give you money so you can move to Columbus. If I did that, would you leave me alone?”
He’ll want more, his inner voice countered. He’ll extort me. Especially if he has proof I was at the camp and beat him. Jim has to die.
If he were to save himself from humiliation, divorce and prison, Jim did have to die. Still.
He crouched closer to the hole. “Jim, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he rasped. “Why?” A tear cut a path through the dried blood and dirt on the side of his face. “What are you doing to me?”
Guilt ate at him. Jim was only a year older, had his whole life ahead of him. Who was he to decide if he should die today? “I…I’m sorry.” The flashlight trembled in his hands as his stomach twisted and cramped with fear and worry. “I didn’t want to hit you. But you just wouldn’t stop. Why couldn’t you let it go?”
Jim licked at the blood along his swollen lips. “Then it’s true?”
He nodded. “But I’m not gay. My parents accused me of something I’m not, then you started to and…do you have pictures from the camp? Or a roster?”
Relieved, he stood, then flashed the light toward where he’d dropped the shovel. Killing a man during a fit of rage was one thing, but what he was about to do was premeditated murder. His throat tightened, clogged with mucus and the threat of tears. He didn’t want to kill Jim, but there was no other way out of this mess. “I know you don’t believe me.” He picked up the shovel. “And I was worried that if you told, and my wife found out, she might not believe me, either. You could’ve cost me my marriage and ruined my reputation. Do you understand?”
“I wouldn’t have told.” Jim used his left arm to reach for the edge of the hole. “I won’t tell.” He clawed at the dirt. “Please believe me. Help me out of here. My legs are stuck and I can’t move them.” He grunted and tried to adjust his left leg, but he’d done a good job of stuffing the man in the hole, and had made it so his knees and soles of his shoes kept him lodged in place. “Please don’t leave me in this hole. Don’t bury me,” he begged on a panicked sob.
“Don’t bury me!” Fear cut him to the core. From inside the grave his father had dug, he looked to the heavy dirt covering his body and immobilizing him, then to his mother. She stood at the edge of the grave, her arms folded across her chest, and disappointment etched on her face. “Mama, help me. Please. I’m not gay. That stuff wasn’t mine.”
She snorted. “You disgust me,” she said, then glanced to his father, who was breathing hard and coated with sweat. “Finish him.”
Jim’s pleas and cries snapped him back to the present. He focused the light on Jim’s face, but didn’t see his drinking buddy. Instead, he saw himself: sixteen, terrified, dirt surrounding every part of his body except his eyes, nose and mouth—which had been sealed with tape. He blinked a few times to ward off the image. It disappeared, only to be replaced by his father’s face.
His vision blurred with tears. “Do you know what they did to me?” He set the flashlight on the ground, aiming it toward the hole, then used the shovel to scoop the dirt. “My mother couldn’t handle the idea of having a homosexual son. She wanted me dead.” He dropped the earth onto Jim’s legs. “I should hate her for that, but I don’t. She was an ignorant bigot. A God-fearing fool who took what the Bible and my preacher daddy said as fact.”
“I believe you,” Jim said, his voiced laced with terror as he piled on more soil. “I swear I believe you.”
He chuckled and continued to shovel the dirt back into the hole. “You know when my father told me that? Just before cancer took him, and right after he admitted to being the one who was gay. Of course, Mama wasn’t in the room at the time, so she never learned the truth. But I know. I know that my father beat and tortured me and gave those fucking whack-jobs at the camp the right to abuse me in order to keep his secret hidden.”
“I’m sorry,” Jim sobbed, except the voice didn’t sound like Jim’s. It sounded eerily similar to his father’s. “Please don’t kill me. Please!”
He stopped. More unwanted memories fell on him, surrounded and suffocated him. “I said the same thing to my parents the day my father buried me in our backyard.”
Jim’s eyes widened as he stared up at him. “Buried you?”
“It started as their version of hot box torture. They covered every part of me with dirt but my face, and taped my mouth. My mom wanted my father to bury me completely so I’d die, but I think his guilt kept him from doing it. Instead, they left me like that for two days. If I had to shit or piss, I had to lie in it. They gave me no food or water, nothing to protect my face from the hot sun. I think what worried me the most was the night. See, I could kind of move my head, and when I did, the dirt moved too and my head would sink a little deeper. Each time I did that, the dirt would get a little closer to my eyes and nose. Not much, but enough that it had me afraid of falling asleep. What if I moved in my sleep and it covered my nose?”
“If you know that kind of torture, then why do the same to me?” Jim pressed his fingers into the soil and once again tried to pull his body up and out of the hole. In his current position, and with the weight of the earth on his legs, he didn’t have a chance. “Just let me go. I won’t tell a fucking soul. I swear!”
Christ, he was torturing the man. While he hadn’t planned for any of this to happen, he certainly hadn’t intended to prolong the man’s death. He looked down at the shovel blade. A quick blow to the head would kill Jim. If not, the dirt would finish the job. That would be the humane thing to do. After all, he liked Jim.
Determined to give the man a quick death, he raised the shovel and held it as if it were a baseball bat. His body trembled with fear and self-loathing. He wasn’t a killer, wasn’t a psychopathic murderer. He was a husband, father and friend. He was the neighbor anyone could turn to for help. The nice guy.
The guy who’ll go to prison if Jim lives.
“Don’t do it!” Jim sobbed and stared up at him. “Think about what you’re doing. Think about who I am and what we’ve been through.”
“Goddamn it, I know what I’m doing,” he snapped. “And I don’t want to kill you, but I don’t trust you. Sorry, Jim, I can’t go to prison.”
“Wait!” Jim held up his hand. “Lord Jesus Christ, give me the strength to fight Satan and expel the foul spirit of homosexuality from my body,” he said, reciting a prayer his preacher daddy had taught the boys at Camp Hope.
His vision swam as rage rushed through him. He saw his father standing beside his mother, reciting the same prayer while he was held immobile by earth and terror. “Shut up,” he demanded.
“Satan has deceived me,” Jim continued, but, once again, he heard his father’s voice. “Lord God, help me repent, forgive me for my sins and wickedness. Cast Satan and homosexuality from me and—” Jim coughed and spat out the dirt he’d just tossed at his mouth.
“You are the sinner.” He piled on more soil. “You punished your only son because you weren’t man enough to stop living a lie.”
“I didn’t!” Jim coughed again. “Look at me. I’m not your father.”
When he did, he saw Preacher Daddy. Mouth taped. Hands and ankles bound. Eyes wide with fear. And as he continued to shovel, he pictured his father suffering, dragging in that last, delightful breath of air before the earth swallowed him.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
When he’d finished moving all the soil he’d dug up with the digger, his head cleared and his vision sharpened. He gulped in deep breaths and used his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. With Jim now silent, the cricket and katydid symphony once again filled the night.
Other than the insects and night critters, no one knew that he’d just killed a man.
He’d killed a man. Murdered him. Buried him alive.
Though smothered by guilt, a strange sense of relief lightened the burden he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying with him. He hadn’t forgiven his father for what he’d done, nor had he understood that the resentment and hatred he still harbored had been wrapped around his throat like a noose. Choking him. Holding him back from being the man he was meant to be. He’d had higher aspirations than being a landscaper, and had wanted to go to college. But to prove to his parents he was straight, he’d had sex with the first decent-looking girl who would spread her legs for him, then got her pregnant. He resented his father for forcing him into marriage and fatherhood too early, for burying his dreams of college and, later, a high-paying career as an attorney. Instead, he was paid to play in the dirt.
While he moved brush, sticks and leaves around and over Jim’s grave, he considered his next move. Because he was a nice guy, and because he liked his wife and loved his kids, divorce was not an option. He wasn’t even sure why the thought entered his mind. Maybe imagining he’d been burying Preacher Daddy alive, rather than actually seeing Jim, had given him something. Not just the sense of relief he’d experienced once the deed had been done, but hope. For nine years he’d lived with nightmares of the year from Hell. He couldn’t count how many times he’d woken sweaty and disoriented, his body shaking and tears streaming down his face. Burying his father with Jim, though, gave him hope that the nightmares would stop.
But what if they didn’t? More importantly, what if someone discovered Jim’s body?