I’ll Still Be There tells the stories of two couples and their journeys towards love and acceptance. Jess and Eli, close friends since childhood, must overcome their own insecurities, as well as the fear of rejection and disappointment of those closest to them.
The struggle faced by Clay and Silas is much more dangerous. They meet in Newark, New Jersey in the 1950s. A former hustler himself, Clay is running a small network of boys out of a friend’s bar when he meets Silas, a beautiful nineteen year old man who comes to work for him. Though Clay tries to resist his feelings, he finds himself drawn to Silas, and before long they’re together. After a raid on the bar, the men decide to relocate to rural Florida and open a brothel.
Eli has only just begun to come to terms with his own sexuality and his unspoken feelings for Jess when Jess takes him to explore an old abandoned house. It has a reputation for being haunted, due to a double murder and suicide that occurred there in the 1960s. When they reach the room at the very end of the upstairs hallway, they meet Clay and Silas in a way that changes the course of both of their lives. It forces Jess and Eli to confront the deep feelings they’ve harbored for each other for so long, but the experience was so traumatic that it pushes them further apart.
Eli and Jess finally put words to the love they feel for each other, but Eli rejects the possibility that they could ever be together. He joins the military and doesn’t return for several years. When he comes home, he is ready to be honest with Jess about his feelings, and hopes there is still a chance they could again find the love they once had. Jess has made some questionable choices during the time Eli’s been gone, and these choices lead the men back to the haunted house.
The stories of the two couples converge in a dangerous but ultimately cathartic confrontation. There is a resolution not only for Jess and Eli, but for the ghosts as well. As the men develop a friendship with the spirits, Clay and Silas are able to help them get past their fears and find their way back to each other.
There were a couple more photos from Paris—Silas browsing in a flea market, Silas sitting at a café table, holding a cup of coffee. There was a photo of Clay and an old woman, sitting at what looked like a bar. They were both looking up at the camera liked they’d been surprised, but they were grinning. The next one in the stack was of a different sort. It was Silas, wearing only a white towel around his waist, and holding a razor, with the last stripe of shaving cream still on his jaw. He was smiling at the photographer with his eyes, and it was easy to imagine what happened in the moments after that picture was taken.
Eli felt something ripple through the room. He couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. He looked around, frowning, and knew that he should probably get the hell out of there. He didn’t even know why he came, really, except that this was the place where everything had gotten so fucked up. It was the end and also the beginning—if not for him and Jess, at least for him.
The ripple happened again, and Eli quickly shoved the photos back in the dresser. “Okay, I’m going,” he muttered, “right now.”
You don’t have to.
Eli froze. The sound was inside his head, not in his ears, but he knew it was coming from someone else. The room felt colder now, and he rubbed his arms.
Is your boy coming soon?
“My…,” Eli whispered and then let out a hushed, slightly hysterical laugh. “No one’s coming. I’m leaving.” He started for the door.
That voice sounded different. He was pretty sure it was Clay, and it had an air of authority to it.
He comes here a lot. He always looks so sad. We thought he must have been waiting for you.
“He comes here?” Eli asked, startling himself with how loud his voice sounded in the stillness of the room. “Jess comes here?”
Jess, yes, that’s right. Once to look around, like you’re doing. Then later he started bringing things.
Eli frowned. “What things?”
Did you like my photographs?
“What things?” Eli asked again.
Things, boxes. It doesn’t matter, does it?
Eli had no idea if it mattered, but he couldn’t imagine what Jess was doing bringing anything into this house. He glanced at the bed, and realized that Jess must have been the one to cover it. “Do you talk to him too?” he asked.
He doesn’t stay still long enough to hear us. There was silence for a while, and then Clay said, We owe you an apology. We’d never gotten two boys like you in here, before. We didn’t know until it was too late.
“How could you tell?”
Eli heard something like laughter, and then Clay spoke again. Because it was so hard to take over. Usually they give it up right away, because they don’t want any responsibility for what’s happening. They’d rather be someone else. Eli felt, rather than heard, agreement from Silas, before Clay continued. It didn’t seem strange to him that he would want that. It was only how much he wanted it, how suddenly and intensely, that took him by surprise. But he hardly let me see Si at all, until the very end. He wanted to keep looking at you.
Eli nodded and felt a lump come up in his throat. “I loved him, but… I was so freaked out about what happened, and so angry at him for bringing me here, and not telling me first. But then I went away for a while, and I understand things better. I came back here to be with him.”
But you said he’s not meeting you here.
“Well, not here, here. Jesus. I think once was enough for that,” Eli laughed. “Here, home. Pensacola. Not that I really want to stay here, but I would, if that’s what he wanted. But when I went to see him, I found out he was marrying our friend Cassie. He’s—I can tell it’s not what he wants to be doing, but he says he’s in too deep to back out now. The stupid fuck.”
Eli couldn’t quite identify the emotions that pulsed through the room when he said that, but they weren’t at all pleasant.
After some time, he heard Clay again. Not everyone is strong enough to live honestly. It’s a heavy burden to carry.
“That’s bullshit,” Eli said. “It’s just what I told myself when I was nineteen, but I know better now. The burden is keeping something like that secret for no goddamn reason. Just because it’s a small town doesn’t mean people can’t get used to it. I told my parents even though I knew they wouldn’t like it. Jess’s mom, I don’t even think she’d mind. He’s just afraid of disappointing her and all the biddies at her job who are so excited about the damn wedding.”
There was an even longer silence from the ghosts now, and Eli wondered if he’d offended them. It would have been different for them, of course, he now realized. He felt stupid. “I know it was harder back… when you were alive. I know it wasn’t the same. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it was bullshit.”
Finally, Silas spoke. You’re saying it’s better now.
Eli grinned. For whatever reason, it made him happy to be able to tell them. Why he should want to make them feel good, after what they’d done, he had no idea. Still, he liked them despite himself. “If you were still alive, you could get married in nineteen states and the District of Columbia, and more coming every day.”
Boy, don’t talk nonsense. Clay sounded annoyed, but Silas laughed in what felt like delight. Eli was finding it much easier to feel the differences between them now.
“I’m not. It’s true. Things have changed. They’re still… not perfect. But, they’re better, yeah. Even in this shitty, redneck town, and even in the Army.”
I wonder how many people had to die to make that happen, Clay said darkly.
“Well, I don’t know,” Eli said, “probably quite a few. That’s how it always is.”
Can they get married in New Jersey? That was Silas again.
“Pretty much the whole East Coast, yeah,” Eli said, and then in a softer voice he asked “Is that where you’re from?”
Sit down, son. Let us tell you a story.
Eli sat, leaning up against the wall, and closed his eyes to listen.
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Keelan Ellis has been writing stories in her head since she was a young child, but has only recently begun to write them for other people to read. She loves to read, and is not picky about the genre–only the characters and the story. Though she loves to travel and see how people live everywhere, she considers herself an east coast girl for life. I’ll Still Be There is her first published novel.