Nothing To Lose

An Out To Sea Novel

Chapter Thirteen

 

© 2022 E.M. Lindsey

 

All rights reserved.

 

 

This serial novel is not meant for sale or distribution without the express permission of the author. These chapters are not authorize to appear on any other site except emlindseyauthor.com

 

 

Text is unedited and is subject to change before final publication. This book will be released on amazon after the completion of the serial novel.

 

Content Warning: This chapter contains microaggressions in the form of ableism and racism, as well as a character acting aggressive after a date.  No violence occurs, but please take care if these things are triggering for you.

*** 

“I’m glad we’re doing this again.”

 

Peyton’s head snapped up from where he was staring at the food on his plate.  They were at a little Korean barbeque place which made Peyton wonder if Austin thought he was Korean.  He didn’t necessarily mind because in spite of the fact that the date was killing his appetite, the food was amazing.

 

He pushed a little bundle of enoki mushrooms through a thick drizzle of black bean sauce, but didn’t take a bite.  “It’s good.”

 

“I fucked up again, didn’t I?” Austin asked.

 

Peyton let out a tiny sigh and glanced up at him. He felt a little bit like a hypocrite because he did that all the time—seeking validation out of fear that he wasn’t making people happy with how hard he tried.  But the tone in Austin’s voice crept under his skin and sat there, uncomfortable and itchy.

 

“This is fine,” he finally said.

 

Austin shook his head and leaned on his elbow, tipping his head closer.  “I didn’t choose this place because you’re Asian.”

 

Peyton blinked at him, not sure if he should be annoyed or not.  Either Austin was perceptive, or he’d known what Peyton was going to think.

 

“This is my favorite spot.  It got me through my divorce,” Austin went on.  He reached for his glass—a tall draft beer that still had a ton of foam—and sipped on it.  He swiped a thumb over his top lip and Peyton noticed that his fingers were delicate and thin.  “I begged my ex for weeks—hell, months,” Austin corrected with a bitter laugh, “to try counseling before we just signed the papers and called it a day.  But he was such a stubborn asshole and it made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of a fight.”

 

In spite of himself, Peyton found himself softening.  “I’m sorry.”

 

Austin shrugged.  “It’s fine.  I mean, in the end, it was for the best.  It’s just hard to see that in the thick of it, you know?”

 

Peyton knew—sort of.  He’d never been in love like that before.  Not enough to get married and commit himself to someone.  But Austin was the second person he’d met in the last few weeks who’d been through it.  Of course, Hudson’s story was a little worse.  It was harsh and full of all the cruelties that terrified Peyton about getting back into the dating world now that his body was…different.

 

And the idea that not even a spouse would stick by someone when the worst happened?

 

He couldn’t get a good enough read on Austin to tell whether or not the guy would run or stay, but he was leaning toward the former.  Which was also why his meal was sitting heavy in his gut.  He still hadn’t told him about his disease or his stoma or his surgery.

 

But it was time, he realized.  He didn’t want to go on a third date without at least reading the look on Austin’s face when he told him.

 

“I’ve never been in a serious relationship before,” Peyton admitted, setting his chopsticks down.  There was no chance in hell he was eating now, but if this went badly he could pack it all up and share it with Linden while his brother swore vengeance against Peyton’s bad date.

 

Or…maybe he could take it to Hudson and…

 

“You know that’s not really a turn off in spite of what a lot of people say, right?”  Austin’s voice cut through Peyton’s thoughts and he blinked rapidly for a second.

 

“No, I know.  I mean, that’s not what um…what I was getting at.”  He cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders.  “By the time my business was successful enough that I had time to date, I uh…I got sick.”

 

He saw the way Austin pulled back just slightly, but otherwise his face was open and patient.  “What happened?”

 

Peyton took a breath and glanced away.  “Nothing catching.  Or terminal.  It’s not,” he stopped and laughed because it wasn’t exactly easy to talk about this thing that everyone saw as the shitting-your-pants disease.  Which yeah, that was fair.  He didn’t know anyone with a diagnosis who hadn’t been come at least close to it.

 

But it was so much more.

 

It was the fatigue, and the body aches, and the scarring.  It was the cold sores that made eating hell, and the pain in his guts that was with him every waking second.  It was the medication that made him swell up and lose the sight of the body he once had.  It was never, ever feeling like he had control and knowing there was no cure—there was only management.

 

And then there was that choice he was given which, in the end, was no real choice at all.

 

“Peyton?”

 

He bit his lip and looked back at Austin.  “I have Crohn’s.”

 

Austin’s brow furrowed before his eyes went wide with realization.  No doubt he’d known some gut-health warrior on Instagram who claimed they’d healed their body with oils and salts and exercise or whatever.  Peyton was plagued by them constantly.  Every time he tagged his disease on social media, some rando would end up in his DMs touting their CBD MLM promising to cure him.

 

Right then, Peyton could see the war on Austin’s face as he waited for him to speak.  Austin couldn’t tell if it was serious or just something kind of…gross.

 

“At first, it was just pain.  Then fatigue,” Peyton went on, putting the man out of his misery.  “It was being managed by medication for a while, but it just kept getting worse, no matter what I did.  Then I had scar tissue build up in my intestines so badly, I almost died.”

 

Austin sat back.  “Shit.”

 

Peyton let out a small laugh.  “Yeah.  And, um.”  He cleared his throat, then shrugged.  “So... you’re the first person besides my friends and family I’ve told about this.”

 

Austin softened.  “Yeah?”

 

“It’s not pretty,” Peyton defended.  He didn’t want this moment to be soft or sweet.  “They had to take a ton of my lower intestine, and…uh.  And my colon.”

 

Austin’s face was unreadable, but he knew the man was just trying to figure out what that meant.

 

“I have a stoma now.”  His hand moved reflexively to his stomach.  “It’s not reversible…and it’s not very attractive.”

 

Austin gave him a look and said in a tone that settled on his nerves, “I’m sure that’s not true.”

 

Peyton raised a brow at him.  “Have you ever seen one?”

 

Austin looked a bit contrite, and he shrugged.  “No, but I have a hard time imagining something on your that isn’t attractive.”

 

The words should have been flattering, but Peyton had never been the sort of person who was impressed by empty compliments.  The reality was, his stoma was messy and kind of terrible to look at.  And there really was no dressing it up to make it more palatable.  The fact remained, he had an inch and a half of intestine now protruding from his stomach.

 

It saved his life, of course.  It reduced his pain and made it so he could bake again, and run his business again, and he felt human.  Linden and Taylor never hesitated to remind him of that, whenever he felt low, and it was those words which took the edge off how different his body was now.

 

“Well, you haven’t seen it,” Peyton shot back.

 

Austin cocked his head to the side.  “May I?”

 

Blinking in shock, Peyton cleared his throat.  “That…I’m…”

 

“Look, maybe that’s like a fifth date sort of thing, but you’re clearly worried about it.  And I might have some experience with this sort of thing,” Austin told him.

 

Peyton bit his lower lip.  “How’s that?”

 

“My ex,” Austin said, then laughed and shook his head.  “I know that’s the mark of a bad date—when the other person can’t stop bringing up their ex, but he was a huge part of my life for a long time.  He uh…he got sick,” Austin said, lowering his gaze to the table.  Peyton tried to read his tone because he still didn’t trust that Austin was being genuine.  “The treatment left him disabled and that’s what led to the end of our marriage.”  Austin lifted his gaze and though his mouth was turned down, Peyton couldn’t get a read on what was in his eyes.  “He was angry at what happened and no matter what I did…”  He trailed off and shrugged.

 

Peyton wasn’t sure what to say.  He’d heard this before—people claiming they knew what it was like because they were in the proximity of someone who was going through an illness or disability.  And he could understand how a marriage could end that way.  If he’d been with a partner, there was every chance he would have driven them screaming into the night, never to be heard from again because he had been bitter, and he had been angry.

 

And while Austin had blamed his ex for their lack of counseling, he didn’t seem angry about it.  Just resigned.

 

“Anyway, you’re not him,” Austin finally finished with a small laugh.  “And I’m not comparing the two.  But I have been there before, and I can promise you, I will get it right this time.”

 

The words didn’t sit well.  Get it right this time?  Like he was some kind of experiment?

 

What Peyton needed was an outside perspective.  He couldn’t call his brother or Taylor because they wouldn’t understand, but he did have a neighbor that would get it.  Hudson wasn’t exactly in the dating game—at least, according to him he wasn’t—but he’d still know where Peyton was coming from.  He’d understand the questions deeper than anyone else Peyton knew.

"I think we should call it a night," Peyton blurted.

 

“I fucked up, didn’t I?” Austin asked after a beat of silence.

He had no idea how to answer that, because yeah, he had.  But Peyton had no idea if it was Austin's fault, or if it was his own hangups and fears creeping in again.  Austin had said all the right things- in theory, anyway.  But they'd come out wrong, and they hit Peyton in a way that left his skin humming with discomfort.

 

Peyton realized he hadn’t spoken in a good long while, and he cleared his throat.  “Sorry, this is just…new for me,” he said.  “I didn’t date a lot before my surgery, and I think I’m still adjusting.  I’m not calling it off.  I just need to take it slow.”

 

“Hey, no worries. I can do slow,” Austin said.  He signaled for the bill, then passed over his card while he boxed up their leftovers in the containers the server dropped off.  Peyton didn’t help, and he shook his head when Austin offered him the bags.

 

“I won’t eat them,” he admitted.  “Leftovers tend to sit in my fridge until they start growing new life.”

 

Austin laughed.  “Same.  But I can probably leave them in my office and lunch thieves will feast.”

 

Peyton chuckled as he pushed up from his chair, but his humor died when he saw Austin’s gaze hunting over his body, probably for some sign of his stoma bag.  He fought the urge to cover his waist, and instead turned around to push his chair in.

 

When he moved back, Austin was hooking the bag over his wrist, looking unbothered.  Peyton knew he was probably being too hard on him.  Of course the man wanted to see what he looked like.  That was natural.

 

Peyton just couldn’t stand the idea of being on display.  It was why he wasn’t the Stoma Guy online.  It was why he didn’t advocate.  Living as some sort of public figure, reduced down to his disease, his successes, and his failures was too goddamn much pressure.

 

He just wanted to bake his sweets and kiss cute men and move on from all of his pain.

 

And right then, with Austin behind him as they headed out to the car at the end of another failed date, he wondered if it was too much to ask.

TBC...

Chapter Fourteen 

Start At The Beginning

***

Chapter Fourteen Preview: 

Bowing his head, he knew he had to come clean.  He dug into his pocket, pulling out his phone, and he opened up his photos.  He had exactly four photos of Austin saved, and he wasn’t really sure why, but they served a purpose now.

 

“Remember how I told you about my shit ex?”

 

Peyton scoffed.  “Yeah.  And fuck that guy.”

 

Hudson bit the inside of his cheek, then turned the phone to face Peyton.  “His name is Austin.  He lived on the north side of the city—we both used to.  He got the house in the divorce, but we sold it and split the cash... and I think he bought a condo nearby.”