I never set out to write a book about gratitude. In fact, I never set out to write a book about any particular theme.
I’m the guy who picked up his laptop one day and decided to use it for something other than watching porn. I had discovered the gay romance genre about a month earlier and said to myself, “Brad, what do you have to lose?” Before I faced a blank white document screen, though, I sat on my front porch and pondered my options. I decided this would be my first book, not my only book. A debut should demonstrate that I can deliver the basics: three-dimensional characters that engage the reader, a compelling, well-paced story, naturalistic dialogue, emotion, and some hot sex. I decided to write a novel based on the tried and true “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy” formula. That novel became The Nothingness of Ben. When I saw Carson was looking for plain and simple contemporary stories for November, it seemed like a natural fit.
I wrote a book that begins in tragedy, because I like when a happy ending is both earned and deserved. The story opens as the main character, Ben Walsh, is walking along Forty-Fourth Street seven days before Christmas. Ben is an Ivy League lawyer on the rise in Manhattan, with A-list friends and a “sky's the limit” future. As he’s walking, he receives a phone call informing him that his parents have been killed in a car accident. The next morning, Ben returns home to Texas and the reality of his three teenage brothers. That's when he meets Travis Atwood, the handsome next-door neighbor who has become a surrogate older brother to the Walsh boys in Ben’s absence.
It’s a difficult road for Ben and Travis, but I don’t believe readers would want it any other way. The book ends eleven months later on Thanksgiving, and by that time, there’s plenty to be thankful for. Although I never set out to write a book about gratitude, it turns out that’s exactly what I did. Because sometimes the worst possible thing imaginable leads us to the place we were meant to be all along.
In the scene below, Ben and Travis are still in the “bromance” stage of their relationship. Ben is gay but Travis isn’t. Yet. Ben comes to Travis for help with his custody issue. If Ben doesn’t return to Texas and assume guardianship of his brothers, they will be split up among two uncles and an aunt. Ben and Travis are sitting on the back porch. It’s December in Austin, Texas. It’s cool but not cold. The trees are brown. The university students have left and the neighborhood is quite. Travis has brought two bottles of Shiner Bock to the patio table where they sit down and begin to talk…
Ben took a swig of his beer and let the icy sensation slide down his throat. “I need to make a decision,” he said.
“You’re in a bad way, Obi-Wan, if you’re coming to me for advice.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
Ben decided he liked Travis’s nickname for him, an obvious but still clever Star Wars side reference to Ben’s name.
Travis took a drink from his bottle and then asked, “This about custody?”
“Of course. My Aunt Julie thinks I’m in no shape to be a parent. She thinks they should be raised in a more traditional setting, even if it means splitting them up.”
Travis rubbed the top of his head with his right hand, scratched behind his ear, and then matted down his short red hair in a petting motion.
“What do you think?” Travis asked.
Ben looked at him. “I don’t know. This is serious shit. If I fuck it up then I’m fucking up three lives. And I don’t know if I can do it. I have a life back in New York. I’m supposed to walk away from all that?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you said yesterday, don’t split them up. You have an opinion.”
“Of course I have an opinion. Is all that really more important than your brothers? They need you right now, and you may not know it yet, but you need them too. Your parents died, Ben, and those three boys are the only other people on the planet who know exactly what you’re going through. How do you think that splitting them up and you hightailing it back to New York is gonna do anybody any good? Dressing it up with excuses ain’t gonna change what you’re doing. You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits.”
“Me being a failure as a parent isn’t going to make them biscuits either.”
“Making a few mistakes here and there is a hell of a lot better than living with that kind of regret. I’m telling you, Ben, if you leave ’em behind now, they ain’t never gonna forgive you. In fact, Quentin may never speak to you again. And no matter how successful you become or how much money you make, you’ll never be able to come back to this moment and fix it. Your aunt is two sandwiches short of a picnic, and I would tell her so to her face.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Besides, Julie is only half the problem. Quentin is just so….” Ben paused. “He hates me.”
Travis shrugged again, a gesture that suited him.
“Can you blame him? He’s a smart boy—he knows what’s going on. If you’re thinking about splitting them up, then I’m sure he knows it.”
“Oh, he knows.”
“And besides, he don’t hate you. He hates your absence. There’s a difference.”
“I’m not sure he even wants me here.”
“Well, now you’re just being silly. He misses you like crazy. Take it from your replacement.”
Ben was stunned. It had never occurred to him that his absence had left a void in his brothers’ lives—or that someone else could fill it.
“All you got to do is be there. They don’t need you to be the perfect brother. Ninety percent of life is showing up. I think somebody famous said that.”
“I think so.”
Ben took another swig of his beer and looked around the brown backyard, some raked leaves still in a pile next to the chain-link fence. The neighborhood grew silent again, like the night before, except for the rumblings of nearby freeway traffic. Ben could feel Christmas approaching. He put his hands over his face and took a deep breath.
“What if it’s too much?”
“Christ. Stop being so dramatic.”
“Don’t underestimate how selfish I can be.”
Travis reached over and pulled Ben’s hands away from his face.
“Then let it be too much.”
“What does that mean?”
“Whatever comes your way, accept it. Accept what you can’t change. Let it rain. That’s what they used to say in Al-Anon.”
Ben looked into his eyes, remembering something. Why did Travis seem so familiar? For a moment he thought he might lean over and kiss him, but then he realized how crazy that sounded and panicked.
“I should go,” Ben said, getting out of his chair. “I told them I wouldn’t be gone long.”
Travis stood up and sighed, looking disappointed, as if nothing he said had sunk in.
“Thanks for talking to me. I heard you. Really.”
Ben turned to go, but then stopped and asked, “What are you doing for Christmas?”
Travis grinned. “Your father had already invited me to spend it with your family. Now, I think I’ll just stay in and watch some movies or something.”
“If you’re watching movies, then you should definitely come over, because that’s what we’ll be doing too. I know that much about my brothers. Maybe we’ll do a theme—things blowing up, saving the world, that kind of stuff. A real testosterone fest.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. And Deep Impact.”
“The Day After Tomorrow.”
“Always room for Jake. And Speed, of course.”
“It does sound like fun. Count me in.”
Ben said good-bye and left Travis on the back porch to finish his beer. He crossed the street to his house and bounced up the front stairs. He felt better, that was for sure. Talking to Travis had gone a long way toward clearing his head. He went into the house, hoping to find his brothers hanging out in the living room, but there was no one. Must be upstairs, he thought. No rush. He felt confident about tomorrow and the meeting with the lawyer, and because of that, he knew there would be plenty of time to get to know them.
He heard something splattering against the window and looked out to investigate. It had started to rain. And for some reason that he couldn’t explain, that made Ben smile.
Buy the book at Dreamspinners Press (Available November 23): Stop by Goodreads for an awesome givaway.
Contact the author: