Julia McBryant has a new MM contemporary romance out: Neon Saturday Night. And there's a giveaway!
Audie and Calhoun continue their long-distance relationship through college. They sneak off to Myrtle Beach. Audie drives to Charleston when Calhoun gets the flu.
They meet for a fake fishing trip on the Outer Banks. But Audie needs to belong, and because of his traumatic past, he feels like he has little to offer in a committed relationship. While he and Calhoun have fun together, they also have a difficult time negotiating Audie's need to give as much as he takes and build an authentic relationship together.
Calhoun says his job is to learn to be loved. But Audie wants to be more than a fun top and a tragic boyfriend.
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“You know what it means to be hurt,” Jax says finally. “I don’t know what hurt you, not really. Same’s I talked around it and didn’t tell you all of it, not the whole truth or the real part of it. But you know. You saw it right away and so did I. Henry and Calhoun don’t know what that means. That’s why they can try to put us back together and maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t.”
“I’m afraid of sharks,” Audie says suddenly. He can’t hold it suddenly, can’t stop it. “But I’m really just afraid of the ocean and I swore I’d never get in it again.”
Jax cocks his head at him. “Someone did something to you.”
Audie tells him about his father and the pontoon boat in the Charleston harbor, about being eleven years and told to swim, just swim to his daddy and they could go home, about the four hours of sheer terror, the thirst and his father’s laughter. ‘
“You’d get in, if you made that go away,” Jax says.
“You can. And you need to tell Calhoun this story.”
“I’m not telling Calhoun this. I never should have told you.” Audie casts again. He tosses an empty back up above the high tide line.
“Henry taught me I owe him the truth.”
“I told him the truth. I have a shark phobia.”
“You didn’t tell him shit and we both know it, Currell. Same’s I told Henry I slept around. I told him something. I never told him why. Never told anyone why.”
“Why’d you do it?”
Jax looks over the horizon and squints into the sun. “I was fucking lonely, Audie, the hell do you think?” He straightens up. “How deep will you go?”
“Go out to your thighs. I’ll go with you.”
“I’m not your father and you’re not eleven. Do you trust me enough to tell me that fucking story?”
Audie hesitates. “Yes.”
“Did I trust you enough to tell you why I slept around?”
Audie stares at the vast expanse of water and wonders at its secrets. “Yes.”
“Then trust me enough not to get your ass eaten. I’ll go ahead of you so you know there’s nothing there.”
Audie begins shaking. But he looks at Jax and realizes that he’s right, for some goddamn reason he does trust him. Jax takes his hand. It’s not sexual; it’s not the way you hold the hand of a lover. More the way you’d lead a blind man, or the way Audie imagines a preacher leading someone down into a river. But Jax holds Audie’s hard firmly and takes him into the water, one step at a time. Audie looks down anxiously, watches his feet. Jax suddenly laughs and points. “See the teensy ray?” he asks, the water at their knees. “Like a little pancake.” And it is, small and gray. They keep going until they stand up to their waists when the waves come in. “You’re safe,” Jax says. “Look how clear the water is.”
Audie stops. Turns. He can see in every direction. He looks. There are no sharks. None that he can see. He knows there are sharks, knows it in his bones: this is Nag’s Head, the Carolina coast, sharks up and down it, black-tips and makos, duskies and sand tigers. But the sharks are far away, and the chances of them hurting him so small. He stands and dives. Stands. Dives again. Suddenly he’s swimming, swimming strong, the way he learned as a boy in the Low Country, in the creeks and estuaries of the Cooper River. Jax swims next to him. Audie flips, backflips. He rides the waves and swims under them, a part of this vast, mysterious thing, just one more creature in this strange universe governed by the pull of the moon. A world of undrinkable water, of whalesong, of menace and beauty, crashing whitecaps and glass-calm. Jax doesn’t leave him alone. They finally swim back to shore.
“You aren’t eleven anymore,” he says quietly.
“I’m not,” Audie says.
“And you never have to be again.”
They share a towel.
“Your trunks are wet,” Calhoun says, when Audie comes into the living room.
“Do you want to go swimming?” Audie asks.
“I’ll be fine, if you go with me.”
Calhoun scrambles to his feet. “I’ll put my suit on.”
They hold hands as they walk into the waves. When the waves roll at their chests, when the water is clear, after Audie looks around them, he wraps around Calhoun, tips his chin to the side, and kisses him hard. They hold each other as the saltwater crashes in front of them, as they bob in the waves. Audie feels Calhoun harden in his suit, tent it out. “That was the best kiss ever,” Calhoun says, when Audie sucks his lower lip and pulls back.
Audie does a backflip. “Why?” he asks, when he comes up.
“Because you weren’t afraid anymore.”
Calhoun touches the bottom and leads him out of the water. They walk right to the bedroom and take off their suits. Audie sheds his rashguard.
“Now we can,” Calhoun breathes.
“Yeah,” Audie says.
“You’ll taste like saltwater.”
“So will you.”
They fall into the bed, side by side, hair still soaked. Audie wraps around Calhoun and kisses him. And he tastes like seawater, oh god he does, like the ocean, like all the secrets of undiscovered whales and unknowable depths, of dolphin names and even the distance tang of shark menace. But Audie knows now you can’t have one without the other: the fear makes the beauty bloom, magnifies it from the everyday to something wild and perfect. He sucks Calhoun’s lower lip the way he likes. Audie doesn’t close his eyes to Calhoun’s beautiful sun-browned skin, blond beginning to streak his wet mermaid tangles.They press against one another, both hard, Audie almost overcome by the sudden depth of his need.
I have a love/hate relationship with Myrtle Beach.
Trying to explain Myrtle Beach to a non-Southerner is like trying to explain LA to someone who isn’t from California, I’d imagine, or Philadelphia to someone who isn’t from Pennsylvania. It’s a walking contradiction: the armpit of South Carolina, the date-rape capital of the state, a bonanza of minigolf and alligator farms and tacky souvenir shops, club drugs and liquor by the pitcher, all topped off by The Strip: a street that runs within yards of the high-tide mark, lined with all the insanity Audie and Calhoun see when they crawl down it, as one does, at a whopping five miles an hour. Signs saying “NO CRUISING” line the Strip. Everyone ignores them. They market the place as a family-friendly destination, full of go-kart parks and lazy rivers, but I’ve seen enough cocaine pulled out of enough bras in dance clubs to know that Myrtle Beach can be one hell of a ride.
I went to Myrtle (down here, we usually just shorten it) for the first time with my best friend, god rest his soul, a (straight) snob of a Charlestonian who I’ll cop to have stolen some bits of for Audie. And like Audie, I goggled at the Confederate flag bikini hanging in the window, in a store that at the time offered piercings as well (they now offer tats too; they were at the time illegal in the Great State of South Carolina). He and I lived together for a summer in that hellscape, and worked at … well, I’ll not give away the name of the hotel, because the owner might kill me. Living in Myrtle Beach is surreal. We got to know late-night diner waitresses with missing teeth; we drove up and down Route 17 and wheeled across four lanes of traffic when the Krispie Kreme HOT NOW light popped on. We never ever played minigolf or went to the beach or put a toe in a lazy river.
I played Fear and Loathing on the Grand Strand a time or two. That chapter’s best left closed.
But my husband and I once turned into Calhoun Chatterton.
We went to Myrtle as grad students, got high as all hell, and yes: there is magical mystery tour of a minigolf place with a Kurt Russell God on the wall bestowing the gifts of algebra and zebra cows upon a mystical lost race of people. Like Audie, I stole my ball at the end. It sits on my kitchen windowsill. We ate pancakes in midnight diners and visited all the tacky souvenir shops and sat on the beach and were young and ridiculous and playing very, very, loud music as we illegally cruised down the Strip.
Pirate golf was also played. Like Calhoun, my husband loves pirate golf.
Myrtle Beach is … weird. There’s a family-friendly veneer with a dark underbelly, a deep strangeness, an otherworldly aspect to it, something like Vegas. It seems trapped in time, a place unto itself. You go there, you leave everything behind you, and you emerge back into the world. What happens in Myrtle stays in Myrtle.
Unless you walk out with a tattoo.
Julia McBryant is, as the saying goes, Southern born, Southern bred, and when she dies, she’ll be Southern dead. When she’s not riding her horse or writing, Julia likes to play with her German Shepherds and rescued greyhounds, make all the crafts (especially those involving glitter), and hike, especially in the North Carolina mountains. She is grateful her husband tolerates both the dogs and the glitter.
However, for the most part, when she isn't writing, she's writing. Her favorite authors include William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pat Conroy, and Flannery O'Connor. She knows next to nothing about pop culture, and always loses at Trivial Pursuit but can kick your ass at Scrabble.
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