Last summer I got a call, like so many others have gotten before me. An old friend from high school had attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived and recovered, mostly. But those first few days of helping support his brother and tracking down the rest of our mutual friends was a nightmare.
So I began channeling my feelings into my writing; it’s what we do to cope. I started a story of three friends, closer than brothers, who grow up together, planning their lives after high school…until a kiss tears the trio apart. It takes ten years and a tragedy to bring my MC back home.
I opened it with a funeral scene drawn from a well of painful memories from the services of my grandparents—events fatally flawed by either political infighting amongst church elders (in the case of my beloved grandmother) or indifferent pastoral neglect (in the case of my maternal grandfather). Writing this scene was cathartic. As my friend improved, so did my mood. I eventually set the work aside, only a few pages in, but it began to haunt me, reminding me of its unfinished state.
When I heard about the anthology, I knew I wanted to write something special for Eric and TJ, and the story I’d begun six months earlier popped into my mind. It might seem like an odd choice to dedicate to these men I admire so much—a story around loss and tragedy—but I realized that this couple would be the last ones bothered by darker themes.
Their capacity for love, their understanding of the human condition as evidenced by their own writings, and their humor in the face of life’s worst jokes are just some of the reasons why I admire them both so much and was compelled to give them the best I could, which meant finishing Last First Kiss—a story of enduring friendship despite fear and heartbreak. It’s about finally coming home and facing the truth and finding love.
There are three kisses in the story. The first one tears the friends apart, the second is a kiss of absolution and goodbye, but it’s the last one that contains the power of hope for a future filled with love.
The Blurb:J. Jeremiah Jones, Danny Anderson, and Henry Keller have been best friends since second grade, but on the day the three are slated to move into their college dorm, J. sees the other two exchange a kiss. J. makes assumptions, and without sparing a moment to find out if he’s right, he flees rather than become a third wheel in their relationship. It takes a tragedy to bring J. back home, where he learns the truth about that day, that kiss, and himself.
The Excerpt: Last First Kiss by LE Franks
“WHAT DOES a gunshot sound like from inside a car?”
Henry gave me an odd look before leaning in to whisper in my ear, “This is not the place, J.” I twitched away from him and jerked at the silver-and-blue-striped tie my sister Aggie had wrestled over my head in the parking lot. There was a pale-yellow spot resting over my diaphragm, and I became fixated on watching it surf my chest until I couldn’t resist lifting it to my nose.
It smelled old and warm and musty—like the odor seeping from an abandoned closet in an old lady’s house. I sniffed again at the yellow spot, but instead of the acrid residue of yellow mustard, there was the lightest hint of the vanilla lotion that always seemed to kiss Aggie’s skin. I picked at the spot with the corner of my nail until Henry slapped my hand away.
“Was it loud? Did it hurt his ears before…” …that bullet killed his brain…? There was a gasp from the pew behind me, and I guessed maybe I’d said that last bit out loud too. I rubbed my side where Henry had just twisted my skin like so much bread dough. I scooted a little farther away from Henry and his fingers.
“Was the window broken?” This time I did ask Henry. I asked him under my breath, just a whisper next to his hard jaw, the muscle there jerking in sympathetic cadence with the preacher’s liturgy. I watched color wash across his cheekbones before disappearing altogether and realized that Henry might actually know the answers to these questions.
“I need you to shut up now, J. I need you to fuckin’ shut up.” It was almost a moan—the sound he made that lifted the vowels out of his mouth, warping them to form a curse, settling onto my skin. Henry folded in half next to me like a crash test dummy—his head resting on an arm bent awkwardly across his lap. I wanted to poke it just to make sure he was still real. Instead, I went back to fiddling with my tie, twisting it between my fingers. Henry stayed down.
Mrs. Jenson leaned over the back of the pew to pat him softly, like he was a dog, and the urge to brush the blue-veined hand off Henry’s back rose like an angry demon from a dark place deep inside. Henry wasn’t mine. He wasn’t anyone’s, as far as I knew. Not anymore.
It had been years since high school graduation and our last moments together that summer—before kicking the dust of this backwater town off my shoes meant abandoning them. I was really in no position to object.
I looked around carefully, just to see if I’d missed someone staring at us, at our weird tableau of shared grief, but all eyes seemed to be fixed on the man standing behind the mahogany casket.
Pastor Richards was leading a call and response. And I’m sure it was all very heartfelt—the congregation perfectly parroting Richards’s diction—but I hadn’t opened the pale-blue program. I wasn’t in the mood, half-afraid of the response I’d give when prompted.
You fucking bastard. You goddamned fucking selfish bastard.
Henry jerked upright the second the thoughts flashed in my head, and I panicked a second, wondering if I’d said that out loud as well, but there was no stirring from the darkly clad women in their Sunday finest. Their floral hats sat proudly atop iron-gray curls like ceremonial headdresses. They surrounded the two of us, just like the Sioux at Little Big Horn did just before they invited the 7th Cavalry to dance; all their faux condolences were like arrows to my heart.
I felt my fist covered by Henry’s warmth. Had he taken residence inside my head, reading my mind again? The last thing I needed was to have Henry poking around, moving boxes and upending trunks filled with the memories of the three of us and so carefully sealed against time, pain… and regret.
I jerked away, dropping the crumpled wad of blue paper on the pew between us, and closed my eyes. The pastor’s monotone droned through the scripture reading of I Thessalonians 4: 13-14. Paul’s admonition to believers not to grieve, as those who do not believe do, was another dig.
Working the tie again, I tried to block out the sounds around me before they filled my mouth, my nose, my ears, even my eyes, sealing the words off inside me, burying me alive like a human sacrifice to my grief.
Henry peeled my fingers from around the mangled polyester, moving my hand away from my body and pressing it flat against his leg. It was warm and hard.
I could feel the muscles shift under the pressure, and it reminded me of the horse we’d rented together when we were fifteen, all three of us sitting bareback atop the dun-colored gelding. Since I was the smallest, Henry had slung me over the poor beast’s neck first, and I sat perched on its bony shoulders while the two of them scrambled to find their places.
Henry, as usual, finally sat back on the rump, his long arms wrapping around the two of us, keeping us together—holding us in place was always Henry’s job.
No wonder he was falling apart.
Humpty-Dumpty had left the building, and there’d be no picking up the pieces this time—Danny had made sure of that.
The fingers lying on top of mine suddenly curled inward, sliding against the tender skin in between. It wasn’t until Henry was holding my hand that I noticed the shaking, and I couldn’t tell which one of us was to blame.
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LE Franks Biography: LE Franks is an author of Gay Romance fiction, living in the SF Bay Area surrounded by inspiration; and after years of ignoring the voices in her head, she’s now giving them free reign in the form of her characters.