When it comes to Alex Jeffers, I usually settle in for a story with some fabulism or other flavour of the speculative (see the brilliant collection That Door is a Mischief), beautiful prose, and a rich emotionality. In Not Here. Not Now. Stories and Novellas, however, “You Deserve” delivers a slow-building tension instead of some sort of magical otherness. Almost from the moment the tale begins, there’s a coiling sense of something bad, as we join Max, a boy riding with his handsome friend Rory in a boat, and then slide forward and backward through different moments in the boy’s life as he tries to explain and understand this handsome boy, his own feelings, and the world that has led him to this moment.
On the surface, “You Deserve” has one of my most beloved elements to a story: a found family. Max is struggling with believing he is safe, or wanted, or loved. Adopted by two dads (he calls them Big Dad and Little Dad, which is adorable), one of whom is laid off, their new family decides to go to the summer cottage for the whole summer. The other dad is a writer, and is working on a nonfiction book about their adoption of Max; this is one of those aside moments that coils more tension, as they take a moment to let Max know he’ll get to read it before its sent in and he can veto anything he doesn’t want the world to know. Max himself doesn’t really want to think about it, but as his feelings for Rory grow—and grow complicated—his mind slides back to the past, to what got him here, to things said to him, and done to him.
Ultimately, despite this being a really, really dark story full of (mostly off-page) violence and all-too-real horror, Max seems to manage to hold onto a thread of fragile hopefulness, and even at the very end of the tale, despite some truly creepy intimations of action and thought, I caught myself hoping that Max would be okay. I shouldn’t be surprised. Jeffers has made me care for so many people in his work, why would this be any different?