Congratulations to Cécilia Ader Andersen on winning the short story contest advertised in the first edition of HeartCore! About the story: James came to Cécilia when working on her novel. He is a minor character in the novel without much of a background, so she decided to give him one. And while doing so, she knew his story would be one that could help others find peace as well.
It was the year 1916 and a war was raging in Europe, but on a small island off the coast of southern Canada, everything was peaceful. Just a small handful of men had volunteered to sail across the treacherous ocean to join in the war effort, and although no one had heard anything of them since, no one was worried. No one cared too much. At least not the people who did not read the newspapers, which was almost the entire population of the island.
Down by the shore of the island stood a house a little way from the local village, where Evelina and her 22-year-old son James lived. The house, which overlooked the edge of a forest, was built haphazardly, a gravity-defying construction of scrap metal and wood. The windows hung loosely on their hinges and the roof looked to be one storm from collapsing on itself. The handle on the front door was rusted hard and unyielding.
Evelina, who had just been to town to buy some carrots and onions for dinner, came back with a big bag filled with much more. She stepped onto the porch and disappeared into the house with a content sigh. However ugly and depressing the house looked from the outside, the inside was charming, cozy and altogether very inviting. Evelina took off her shoes and slipped her feet into a pair of woolen socks instead, before walking over to the kitchen. She nibbled at a piece of stale bread before cutting herself a slice of the lemon pie she had baked the night before. She glanced out the window and saw her son, before bringing water to boil on the stove to do the dishes.
James emerged from behind the trees and stepped past the edge of the forest. His expression was the same as it always was – downcast and tortured. His lips were pursed as though he was thinking of something bothersome and there was a deep crease between his eyebrows. His footsteps were heavy, giving him the impression of being weighed down by a pair of invisible hands. Yet he was holding his head high, refusing to bow down to anyone or anything.
Here was a man who was angry at the world.
James had been wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, and his two years in prison had been some of the worst in his life. After being vindicated and released, James came back a changed man, and although James refused to talk about it, it was clear for everyone to see. Everyone used to look up to James, used to admire his unwavering kindness and almost constant positive take on life, but ever since coming home, he was locked in his own shell, a prisoner of his own mind.
James looked up at the house, his frown deepening, and deviated from his path, turning instead to go around it. He knew his mother was home, and he wasn’t in the mood to see anyone.
When he turned the corner, James stopped in his tracks, and his heart started beating fast against his ribs. The breath in his lungs froze. James’s eyes found Ben, who was sitting on the half-finished south side wall of the annex he had been hired to build, a glass of water in his hand. James wondered briefly how on earth Ben could withstand sitting in the full glare of the sun. As soon as Ben saw James standing a good way from the small annex in construction, he smiled an inviting smile. It was all James needed to make up his mind, something he had tried to do for months.
With hesitant steps, James came over to Ben, shyly returning the smile in earnest. Lately, there was only one person who could produce a smile on James’s lips. James hesitated for a couple of seconds before he leaned closer and kissed Ben on the mouth. It was a quick press of lips against lips. Panicking, James pulled his head back and hurried away. Bewildered at first, Ben hopped off the wall, caught up with James and tapped him on the arm. James whirled around with a scared look in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” James muttered apologetically. “I don’t know why I did that.”
Ben looked at James with half a smile, his eyes were not unkind. “You’ve never done this before, have you?” he asked in a calm voice meant to soothe James’s fear.
“What? Kissed another man?”
James sighed. “I’ve never kissed anyone before,” he admitted after a moment of hesitation.
Unsure, for just a second, about how to proceed, Ben then placed both hands on either side of James’s face and kissed him back. For the first time in what felt like forever, James relaxed the muscles in his shoulders and the shadows in his mind seemed to recede to the back of his brain.
Evelina, who was doing the dishes and absentmindedly looking out the window, watched the two young men find each other. When her heart started beating fast with gratitude, she closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, before walking away from the window to give James and Ben some privacy, knowing the gods would hear her thanksgiving. A moment later, she felt a warm breeze brush against her right arm, and she understood it as the gods’ way of saying, “you’re welcome.” A second breeze against her cheek whispered, “and thank you for being patient with him.”
Outside, in the baking sun, James let Ben kiss him deeply. A warmth, completely unrelated to the heat in the air around them, spread through James’s body, limb by limb, and he knew that his defenses were melting – and he didn’t care. Ben’s lips were soft and gentle, and James felt safe. He felt seen for the first time.
What James didn’t know, was that this was the first time Ben was kissing another man without the heavy weight of fear pressing down on him. Back in Europe, where Ben came from, men kissing men was a crime, and Ben had seen many of his friends being taken by the police simply for loving the wrong person. Knowing it was just a matter of time before he too would be arrested, Ben had eventually fled his homeland, deciding that the outbreak of war was the perfect time. And in leaving everything behind, Ben never looked back. He was a skilled architect and builder, and he had quickly found work on the island. Evelina had approached him just a few months ago and he had gladly accepted the job of building an annex for her son. Ben had then grown more and more fond of observing James from afar; there was something about James that reminded Ben of himself.
When Ben broke off the kiss, he moved his head back just enough to look into James’s dark brown eyes. He could see James’s soul more clearly than ever before – a soul that was suddenly blazing with the fiery flame of life.
“I had no idea you felt this way,” James muttered, trying to avoid Ben’s own eyes, but they were too bright to shy away from. Ben’s eyes sparkled emerald and gold in the light of the sun.
Ben cupped James’s cheek in his hand. “You don’t think you deserve to be happy. But you’re wrong.” He was adamant and his eyes said so too. Ben chuckled at James’s unbelieving eyes, and he allowed himself another kiss, this one short, filled with reassurance. “Let me show you what I had in mind,” he added, looking over his shoulder to the annex. With a caring touch to James’s shoulder, he started walking away.
James followed him with a light spring to his feet. He followed Ben all the way over to the annex and entered through a hole in the wall where he knew the front door would be erected. James was absolutely amazed at Ben’s progress – what had just a month earlier looked like a messy mound of wood, bricks, and glass, now almost looked like a house, though there was no roof and some of the walls only went as high as James’s shoulders.
Ben stepped through the house, narrating his thoughts and ideas. He was suggesting placing the bedroom so that its windows would be facing east to receive the morning sun, and he talked about his plan to build in an open fireplace in the living room, laying down bricks for the hearth, which would be enough to heat the whole place in winter. On the off chance it wouldn’t, Ben was also planning on putting in a small wood-burning stove in the bedroom. Throughout the tour, Ben thought he could glimpse the beginning of tears in James’s eyes, and there was a sudden vulnerability in James that Ben had never noticed before. At the end of the tour, Ben grabbed a bunch of animal skins and what looked like an impossible mess of rope and knots. “See those two hooks?” he then asked, indicating two metal hooks jammed into the two pillars upholding the soon-to-be roof of the porch. “You can hang this hammock and lay down the skins to enjoy the afternoon sun,” Ben added. “Do you like it?”
James nodded, overwhelmed, and he unconsciously moved closer to Ben. However, suddenly standing so close to Ben made James slightly lightheaded, and he took a couple of steps away again. Ben noticed and smiled to himself.
There was a brief silence before Ben took James’s hand and held it softly. He buried his own eyes into James’s and awaited a signal of approval. When James let go of a barely noticeable nod, Ben moved closer, so close that the space between them was paper-thin, and he kissed him. Once more, the weight on James’s shoulders lifted, and he circled his arms around Ben’s waist, wishing to disappear into the kiss entirely. They began kissing with feverish urgency, the promise of a wonderfully adventurous journey in the making. James felt safe, safe at his most vulnerable, and he knew that this was the very moment that would take him into a happier future.
For weeks, James spent almost every waking hour with Ben, helping him out as much as he could on the construction site. Ben taught him how to lay down bricks in symmetrical patterns, showed him how to polish wood to give it a shiny sheen, and Ben enjoyed every minute of it, knowing James did too. Intimate complicity grew between them, and James’s mood brightened daily. James finally broke free and he returned to his old self, the one from before going to prison. He tried to keep his giddy happiness to a minimum when he wasn’t around Ben, but he knew that the people around him were starting to notice the change in him.
Therefore, one afternoon, when he could no longer keep the secret, James approached his mother who was in the kitchen. Her hands were sticky from dividing maple syrup into three different jars. “I have to tell you something,” he announced shyly.
Evelina turned around before rinsing her hands in the washing basin. She smiled when she saw her son. “No, you don’t, my sweet boy. I already know,” she said in return. She dried her hands on a cloth draped over the back of a chair and then took James’s in her own. James’s hands were calloused, and she knew it was from helping Ben out.
“How?” James asked. He never failed to be amazed at how intuitive his mother was. “I see it in your eyes. You’ve come back to life,” Evelina answered with tears coming into her eyes. “And he is a wonderful man.”
At hearing this, the very last bricks of James’s protective wall came down. A lump formed at the back of his throat and he stood frozen for a couple of seconds, too dumbfounded to do anything. “I am so sorry,” he tried to say, but his voice sounded blurred to his own ears. “I never meant to cause you any pain.”
“You never caused me any pain, James. Your suffering was painful to see, yes, but you have nothing to apologize for,” she said, placing her two hands on either side of James’s head to force him to look into her eyes. It had been so long since James had let his mother touch his face. Evelina let her thumbs stroke his cheeks. “And when you are ready, I would love to invite Ben for dinner,” she added, and James laughed the laugh she had missed hearing for so long.
About the author
Cécilia Ader Andersen is a Danish-French author currently based in Århus. She is 29 years old, married to her wife Jasmin, with degrees in both Psychology and English literature. During her difficult childhood, reading helped her get through the darkness, and with a dept of gratitude owed to the many authors that shaped her childhood years, Cécilia decided that the best way to give back was to become an author herself. Cécilia has been writing short stories for the past decade, is the author of a poem published in New York, and is currently working on a novel. 2013, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which propelled her writing unto a path where the human psyche is in focus, wishing to detail the intricacies of human behaviour and relations as much as possible. Her main topic has always been the LGBTI+ community, giving voices to those who don’t believe they matter.