Title: All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Author: Kirby Quinlan
Publisher: KQ Press
Cover Artist: Kirby Quinlan
Length: 50,000 words
Release Date: October 12, 2015
Blurb: Let go of the past. Live in the moment. The future will take care of itself.
Tailor Sway is a professional organizer on the brink of divorce. When he is hired to appear on a reality TV show called “Hoarded Houses”, he has three days to help a collector of Christmas decorations clean up her property before it’s condemned by local authorities.
Everything is going according to Tailor’s carefully laid plans. That is, until Brayzen Mapleridge, a mega-famous pop singer known for his wild, daredevil antics, shows up.
Forced to pay for a recent stunt which has turned into a serious legal matter, Brayzen is given the opportunity to avoid jail time by doing some hard labor in front of the cameras. But, it’s not an easy thing to do while being chased by all who trail in the wake of a major celebrity. Is Brayzen sincere about helping, or is it all just part of a well-crafted publicity campaign?
Despite some initial clashes between Tailor’s uptight determination and Brayzen’s carefree attitude, the two develop an unlikely partnership that quickly blossoms into a sizzling attraction.
But, Tailor’s unresolved conflict with his husband, Grant, an emotionally scarred veteran of the Iraq War, still looms in the background amidst a whirlwind of TV cameras, relentless paparazzi, eager fans, and scathing headlines. Despite all these complications, will it be Brayzen’s own meddling mother who puts the brakes on their steamy love affair for good?
Worst. Day. Ever. And I’m not even at work yet.
No matter how much I plan and prepare, shit still goes wrong.
Calling the auto club? Forget it. They’ll take forever to get here and being late today is not an option. So, I get out to grab my emergency tool kit from the trunk.
Motors roaring as they pass.
The choke of exhaust fumes.
It’s Portland, Oregon. Morning rush hour.
A solid stream of traffic speeds past my head as I kneel down on the gnarled roadside.
This is not what I want to do right now. But whatever. After what happened earlier, I need something to take out my frustration on.
Jacking up the car, I unscrew the lug nuts and wrestle the old tire off, replacing it with the spare I keep in the trunk. I pull, pull, pull and push, push, push until sweat is pouring from my forehead and my hands are stained with black grease. The tire iron falls to the road, clattering against the cement. I hope those lug nuts are tight enough.
I think I did it right, but I don’t know for sure.
My husband usually handles this stuff.
Shit like this never happens on regular days, of course. Only on days like today. Like when my husband leaves an envelope full of documents I’m not supposed to see on the dining room table the morning I leave for a three-day business trip.
Looking down at my wedding ring, seeing it covered in grease, I’m forced to wonder if our marriage will survive this episode. Damn you, Grant. You’ve really pissed me off.
From the glove compartment, I take out a plastic sandwich bag full of wet-naps and use those to try to clean myself off. I’d rather not wipe my whole body down with this antiseptic smell, but it’s better than showing up looking like an auto mechanic.
In most cases, I catch a flight to wherever the show is, but this one is local. The production company offered to pay for a rental car. Why didn’t I let them? No, I said, the site’s only forty-five minutes from my house. I’ll be more comfortable driving my own car. My ten-year-old Corolla.
I notice my reflection in the window. Sweat matting down my short, brown hair. The irritated expression on my face. The grease all over my white polo shirt.
Peeling it off with disgust, I walk to the trunk to put my tool kit away and find another shirt in my suitcase. The sight of my naked torso draws a few approving whistles and honks from passing cars. All female, I assume, but I’m not looking.
I grab for a clean polo shirt, settling on a black one. I check my watch. Not much time.
And then: A beige BMW slows down and comes to a stop beside me. The driver is a woman, forty-something. A cougar-type dressed to the nines in a pink business suit, all done up with perfect makeup and hair. A realtor maybe? Cosmetic sales? I notice her vanity plate in front reads LAW-4-U. A lawyer, great.
“Need some help?” Her eyes leer up and down my body. “Nice abs.”
“No, thanks. I’ve got it.” I throw her a discouraging half-smile as I struggle to close my suitcase zipper. She was the seventh person to stop and offer help in ten minutes. That’s Oregon for you, friendliest drivers in the country.
“Hey, do I know you?”
“Probably not.” I don’t bother to check her face again. I hear that question all the time.
I hurry to wipe down the rim of the flat with a rag before placing it into the recess that holds the spare. Then I carefully reorganize my trunk, making sure the jack, iron and everything else are back in place. Being neat and orderly, even when I’m in a rush, always makes me feel better. In control. I check my watch again. I can still make it on time.
“You look familiar,” she says. “I can’t place it.”
Passing cars lay on the horn as they speed by, having to swerve to avoid her car.
I wave her away with a disinterested flap of my hand, not making eye contact. “Thanks anyway. Really. It’s done. I’m good.” I slam the trunk to let her know the conversation is over. Pulling the black shirt on, I stretch it over my chest and tuck the bottom into my jeans.
“You’re sure I can’t help?”
I take a deep breath before answering. Despite my best efforts to be polite, I feel my agitation seep through. “What are you gonna do, file a petition for me? I mean, seriously. How would you help in that outfit?”
Her expression wilts from adoring to appalled.
I’ll admit, it did sound more condescending than I intended. I hate to be rude, but some people don’t know how to take a hint.
I’m about to apologize, when: “Fine! To hell with you then, asshole! Sorry I asked.” Her tires screech as she peels away.
Sliding behind the wheel, closing the door behind me, things are finally quiet.
I like the quiet right now.
I take some hand sanitizer out of the center console and squeeze a liberal amount into my palms, rubbing it into my hands and forearms to make sure I’m completely disinfected.
Time to step on it if I’m going to make it.
Almost there. The sun hovers low in the sky, blinding me with intermittent beams between buildings. A parade of gated mansions flickers past my car window one after the other in the morning sun, like a zoetrope. This isn’t the type of neighborhood I’m used to being sent to.
The affluence is staggering. Some of these houses are larger than a school, nestled atop lush, manicured lawns and shaded by tall trees.
I arrive at Concord Parkway, only to find the street is blocked. Barricaded by police. Behind the barricade, there are cars parked up and down on both sides of the street. A throng of people milling around. This is all highly unusual.
“I’m with the show,” I tell the officer. “Where am I supposed to park?”
“Not on this street,” he says in a curt tone.
“I don’t know. Not here.”
It’s clear he won’t be any help, so I drive two blocks over and find a place on the street to park.
I do a brief check in the rearview mirror. My teeth. My hair. I spruce it up with my fingers a little, trying to make sure I look halfway decent.
Quick reminder of the client’s name, “Charlotte Moore.” I glance through the first couple pages of the file they sent me. For whatever reason, I always get that feeling like I’m falling before every one of these, even after all these years. Taking a deep breath, I step onto the curb and head toward the house.
Wow, this neighborhood. Each passing mailbox is a full-blown work of art. One is a river rock monolith engraved with the owner’s surname. The next is a dolphin sculpture carved out of ebony burl and shrouded with tropical flowers. The next looks like an iron chess king with thick rivets — and so on, down the entire street.
The sidewalks are mobbed with people. Why are they all here?
I check the numbers.
1202, 1210. Then, I see it on the horizon. The panorama of landscaped beauty is interrupted by a single lawn that is weedy, patchy and the color of wheat.
This is it. 1222 Concord Parkway. A dilapidated bungalow. A holdout from another era which is now sandwiched in an awkward way between two multimillion-dollar estates. The house may have been nice in its day, but being much smaller and older than any of the others on the block; it’s as unsightly as a bleeding sore on a swimmer’s body.
Squinting against the glare of the sun, I can see the fence of dirty candy canes. The pile of sun-bleached Santas. The deflated inflatable snowmen. All littering the yard like the scattered remains of an abandoned amusement park. It’s a Christmas funhouse gone to hell, sitting out on full display in the middle of August.
As I approach, what I’d expect to hear — the familiar suburban blend of birdsong, sprinklers and lawnmowers — is drowned out by the buzz of the gathering crowd and a woman’s deep, retching sobs.
“I’m not ready,” I hear the woman cry. “I can’t do this today.”
From what I can make out, she’s middle-aged. Standing about five-and-a-half feet tall and must weigh close to four hundred pounds. Her hair is short, messy and she doesn’t bother to wear makeup.
Closer now, I can see she’s dressed in a dull, flower-patterned muumuu and pink house slippers. A painful-looking lymphedema hangs from one of her legs, which causes her to waddle rather than walk, and her breathing is labored when she moves. Looks like she’s toting an oxygen tank behind her.
Hurrying up the sidewalk toward the house, the familiar black vans from our production company are parked in the driveway and a city code enforcement truck is parked behind them.
I can tell we have a real disaster on our hands with this one. There are red notices from the city plastered all over the front door. The exterior paint is chipped and flaking off in places. The cobwebs. The rotted wood.
Eight partially melted, plastic reindeer cling to the roof for dear life, hanging in a precarious position from a tangle of forgotten Christmas lights.
My friend Bridgette — the makeup girl — sees me and waves me over.
Her look reminds me of how Cyndi Lauper dressed in the 80’s. A loose, purple shirt hanging off one shoulder, jeans and big earrings. A little punky. Lots of makeup and bubblegum chewing, with the crazy orange hair to match. She even talks with a shrill New Jersey accent.
Right now, she’s looks panicked, ready to dust me with a big brush. “Tom needs you right away. We barely have time for a little powder, sweetie, so let’s just do this as we’re walking.” She brushes my face and leads me toward the front porch.
“What’s with all these people out here today?”
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well, I hope it’s not all for nothing because it sounds like she’s pulling out.”
“Great. So, it’s on par with everything else today. You won’t believe the morning I’ve had.”
“Tell me later. Save it for our usual hotel soiree.” She guides me around the festive junk that lines the path.
“Oh good, then I can count on our traditional drive-thru dinner tonight?”
“You know it, sugar. Your room this time.” She does one last swoop of the brush. “There. You should be fine. Kiss kiss.” Giving me a light slap on the ass, she lopes off toward the van, smacking her bubble gum.
Tom, our producer, is at the front door with the code enforcement officer trying to persuade the woman to let us come in, while two camera guys and a boom operator catch the preliminary action.
“You don’t understand,” the woman says.
“No, I don’t think you understand, Charlotte,” Tom says in a quiet but firm tone. “Code enforcement is right here. He’s saying it’s your final notice. All this stuff has to be cleaned up within the next three days or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else they take you to jail.” Tom reminds me of a football coach. He’s strong, but always has a perpetual look of worry on his face. He’s a late-middle-aged, average, all-American guy. Average height. Average weight. Average build. Thinning hair. Soft-spoken. If he walked down the street, he wouldn’t catch your eye.
He’s dressed plainly, in khakis and a navy blue polo shirt with the “Hoarded Houses” logo on it. He gestures like a game show host, trying to show her the state of the property. “Look at it, Charlotte. The city is fed up. Your neighbors are fed up.”
“Oh, fuck the neighbors,” she screams in a sudden rage. She squeezes out of her jammed doorway onto the porch. If it’s possible to waddle and stomp at the same time, that’s what she does. With her oxygen tank trailing behind her, she throws two defiant middle fingers up at the older, affluent couple next door as they sit on their second-story balcony eating a continental breakfast and sipping mimosas. Two tiny Pomeranians bark down at her from between the rails.
“You hear me, Thurston Howell? You ascot-wearing motherfucker,” Charlotte screams. “You, your little rat-dogs and that Joan Collins-looking bitch you call a wife can all go fuck yourselves!” Then, she hocks up a mouthful of phlegm and spits it at the ground.
They look horrified.
Charlotte turns back to Tom, huffing and puffing as she wedges herself back into the doorframe.
“The trucks will be here within the hour, Charlotte.”
“And fuck the trucks too! There aren’t gonna be any trucks! You think you can just waltz in here and start taking my things?” Veins are pulsing from her neck and her face is turning a rather unhealthy shade of purple. The rage fades to tears again and she goes back to wailing. “I don’t wanna go to jail!”
“We don’t want that either. That’s why I’m saying, open the door and let us help you.”
It was always a variation on the same theme with these folks, time and again. Denial, tears, anger, more denial, more tears and so on. The trick is to get through the walls they’ve built around themselves so you can gain their trust. Some melt like butter. With others, it’s next to impossible.
Which one will Charlotte be?
I decide to put my troubling morning on the back burner and focus all my energy on conquering this client’s objections.
“Excuse me,” I say smoothly. “Hello.”
Tom sighs and looks so relieved he almost starts laughing. “Boy, am I glad to see you. We’ve got a situation here.” He leans in and whispers. “I need you to work your magic.” He pats me on the back and ushers me in toward the front door. “Get him mic’d up,” he tells a nearby production assistant.
The code enforcement officer backs up to make room for me to shimmy through. The camera guys reposition themselves to fit me in the shot. The production assistant clips a wireless microphone to my shirt and hands me an earpiece. After a quick test, I’m good to go.
“Hi, you must be Charlotte,” I lean toward her with a big, enthusiastic smile. My eyes dart over her shoulder to get an idea of what we’re facing on the inside. “Wow! You’ve got some neat stuff, I see. But, a lot of it,” I giggle, speaking to her in the same way I would address a kindergarten class. I take one of her swollen hands and press it between mine.
The dank, musty stink of old cardboard — wet and moldy — almost knocks me over. I can see the interior of the house is jam-packed, floor-to-ceiling, with piles of cardboard boxes. There are some transparent plastic bins poking out at irregular intervals, where I can see trays full of glass ornaments, garlands, tinsel, wrapping paper, bows and other decorations. I assume all of these boxes are filled with the same types of things.
I pat her hand and try to keep an upbeat attitude. “My name is Tailor Sway. I’m a professional organizing expert specializing in compulsive hoarding and extreme cleaning. I’m here to help you get a little more organized today.”
She stammers a little, looking perplexed. I see her retreating back into the house a few steps, so I move forward into her space. Keeping my vibe positive and friendly, I touch her on the shoulder; pull her into my embrace like a long-lost friend. Then, looking keenly interested in something in the background, I slip past her through the front door, as if she invited me to walk right in.
Inside, the smell is worse and the air is thick. Hard to breathe. It’s dark and cramped in here. Most of the boxes are cocooned in layers of dust and cobwebs, but a few look like they’ve been dragged in here more recently.
The structure of the house is decaying. Parts of the floor are sagging from the weight of this stuff. There are clothes and trash haphazardly thrown on top of the stacks as well. Worse yet, the floor is an ocean of aluminum soda cans. Rocketshox Diet Cola, in particular. Tossed haphazardly. Left wherever they may fall to invite ants, roaches, spiders, rodents and who knows what other kinds of creatures.
With each careful step, it sounds like we’re walking through a dumpster. The junk is piled so high in some places, our heads almost touch the ceiling when we walk over it.
At her size, it’s a wonder how she manages to fit through the narrow goat path that winds through her house, especially while dragging her oxygen tank behind her. Slim as I am, I have to turn to the side in some places, so I can slink through. I hear the cameramen climbing over the mounds of garbage behind me, a crush of plastic and aluminum.
I take her hand again and lean toward her and begin to whisper, like I’m telling her a secret. She seems receptive.
“Before we do anything else, I just want you to know that no one is going to be judging you during this process. It’s not about the city, or your neighbors, or family, or anything else. This is about you. You’re worth it. You deserve to be happy. And I don’t think you’re happy right now, living in this situation, are you?” She shakes her head, looking ashamed. I make my voice soft and gentle. “It’s okay. We have a fantastic, compassionate team of folks who have been doing this a long time and are here to do everything they can to help you. But right now, all of us are counting on you to say ‘yes’ so we can have a job to do today. Will you do that for me? Will you say yes?”
“Well, I don’t — know,” she looks confused, like a bashful child, unsure of what to say.
I look at her with pleading eyes and a pouty face, visibly melting all of her resistance away.
“I don’t suppose I can — do all this by myself, that’s for sure. Maybe if you stay with me?” She clutches at my arm, squeezing my bicep.
“Absolutely, I’ll be here every step of the way.”
“Good, because you’re cute.”
“Oh! Well, thank you!” My charms work too well apparently.
“What smells like baby wipes?”
“Oh, that’s — me. I’m sorry.” I sniff at my arms and shirt. “I had a little mishap in my car this morning that involved some moist towelettes.” With a quick chuckle, I’m quick to change the subject. “But, with all that being said, why don’t we take a look at what else we’ve got going on in here?”
Her demeanor brightens, turning somewhat cheerful as she beckons me deeper into the house. I turn back to Tom, who is peeking in from the front door. I give him the thumbs-up sign.
“We’re a go,” I see him mouth into his headset at the same time I hear him in my earpiece. “You’re the man, Tailor.” He then signals the crew to set up the lights and equipment.
“Looks like somebody loves to celebrate the holidays around here,” I say with a playful smile. “So, can you tell me, Charlotte, what’s up with the Christmas theme?”
“Don’t you know?” She smiles at me, trying too hard to flirt. With her stubby fingers, she grabs a handful of plastic mistletoe from a pile and holds it above her head. “It’s Christmas in July.” She bats her eyelashes at me. “Want a kiss?”
I raise my eyebrows in mock shock, laughing a friendly, yet nervous kind of laughter.
“Well, Christmas — even in July — is over, sadly. We’re in August now. So, I guess we’ve missed our chance, but do you know what I would love?”
She suddenly erupts into a series of coughs, so deep and so hoarse that I feel my own throat tightening into a dry heave. She pulls a wad of tissues out of her pocket and wipes the spittle from the corners of her mouth. I show concern, but she waves me away. “I’m okay,” she says.
I clear my throat a little and keep smiling. “As I was saying, I would really love to see what else you’ve been able to fit into this cute little house of yours.”
Charlotte gives me the grand tour as best she can, amid the peeling wallpaper. The matted carpet. The bowing floors. Leading us through column upon column of moldy boxes, cobwebs, dead insects and piles of trash, while the cameramen follow.
“A lot of people love Christmas. But, you must really love it to want to fill your whole house with it year-round. You’ve got enough in here to decorate a small city.”
“Yeah, I’ve got quite a bit,” she says without emotion.
“What do you think is special about it that makes you want to collect so much? Does Christmas have a special meaning to you?”
Abruptly winded, she stops and pulls an inhaler from the pocket of her muumuu, holding it up to her mouth to take a few deep breaths.
After her airways settle back down, she answers.
“It’s — hard to say. I just, like it. Reminds me of my family, I guess.” She spits out her words between short sputters of breath. “When we were all together. Happier times.” She wheezes. “But, sad times too.”
“Charlotte, I noticed your inhaler. Are you an asthmatic?” I asked.
“Sweetie, I’ve got all kinds of problems. They told me I’ve got asthma, COPD, diabetes, you name it. They’ve got me on fourteen different medications.”
“Wow,” I’m shocked she’s able to function. “So, this is really not the type of environment that’s healthy for you to be living in, is it?”
“It’s hard sometimes,” she says. “I take my pills and use my inhaler, but I still can’t breathe too good.” She turns around and starts leading us forward again.
Looking around the house, then back at her, I feel the impact of Charlotte’s situation hitting home. I realize, this is about a lot more for her than just being on TV.
If we fail to get her the help she needs, it’s a death sentence. She’ll die in this mess.
“Charlotte, do you ever think about…”
I’m cut off by a flurry of police sirens, a lot of them, very loud and very close. They’re followed by the high-pitched wails of what sounds like a hundred little girls at a sporting event.
We all freeze for a second.
All the windows are blocked with boxes, so we can’t see outside. I look to the camera guys for an explanation, they just shrug, as confused as I am.
“What’s that?” Charlotte looks toward the front door with suspicious eyes.
The screaming intensifies; soon drown out by a low hum. A persistent, mechanical throb in the distance, getting progressively louder.
One of the cameramen looks to the other. “Does that sound like a chopper to you?”
“Police helicopter, maybe,” the other says. “Sounds like there’s more than one. Could be local news.”
Then: A musical beat. One with an incredibly powerful bass track. A distinctly hip-hop beat, which vibrates the walls. The cheering gets louder.
“Is this part of the show?” Charlotte asks.
“I wish I knew,” I say with some concern. “If you’ll excuse me for a second, I’ll try to find out what’s going on.”
Climbing through the mounds of debris, I wind my way back to the entryway and squeeze myself out through the front door.
Once my eyes adjust from the darkness into bright sunlight, I’m able to take a full breath again. But, when I see what’s out here, my jaw drops.
*** ARC provided to Bayou Book Junkie in exchange for a fair and honest review. ***
Tailor Sway is having the worst day ever. He found the divorce papers his husband asked to have delivered, he was running late for work and got a flat tire and on top of that, he has to deal with Brayzen Mapleridge, famous pop singer whose antics threaten to make Tailor's control snap. Only Brayzen seems to be more than just a celebrity, and sparks fly every time their paths cross. Still, no matter how attracted they might be to each other, Tailor is still married and Brayzen is supposed to be straight.
I will start by saying that I don't generally read stories where there's cheating, it's not my cup of tea, but the blurb was interesting enough to have me reading despite my reservations. The story is constructed in such a way that even if there's cheating, you can actually relate to Tailor up to a certain point. Having to deal with a husband that has been suffering from PSTD and who is no longer the man that you fell in love with, and who wants a divorce despite Tailor having been with him through thick and thin, is more than enough reason for me. Nevermind that Brayzen was adorable and Tailor and him had great chemistry and seemed to fit a whole lot better than Tailor and his husband.
There's no easy path to their HEA, though, not with Tailor's unresolved situation with his husband or with Brayzen's crazy mom on the rampage. I loved the portion that dealt with the show, and how it served to bring Brayzen and Tailor together.
The writing flows well, the storyline is pretty original, with likable characters that you can root for. All in all, a very good, entertaining read that I'm sure many will enjoy!
Rating: 4 Stars!
Kirby Quinlan was raised by a single mom who sold vacuum cleaners and abandoned by a father who was both a former U.S. Marine and Baptist preacher. After a challenging upbringing, he came out to family and friends at the age of sixteen.
With hopes of making movies, he learned the craft of screenwriting, honing his love of storytelling. He quit writing in 2002, however, frustrated he couldn’t promote the diversity-rich stories he was passionate about. But now, in the world of digital self-publishing, he has found an avenue to finally tell the stories he’s always wanted to tell; the types of stories he wishes had been mainstream when he was growing up.
His first published work was the short story “New World” in the Queer Science Fiction anthology “Discovery”. He has plans for several standalone novels, as well as serial works in his favorite genres, including sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, pulp detective and even western. They are hopeful, action-packed tales of strong, positive LGBTQ characters finding love, fighting oppression and overcoming extraordinary challenges in a real-to-life way.
Winner’s Prize: $20 Amazon GC
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