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    Chapter 33 Two Hearts and a Lifetime Sitting in Rory’s car after the town meeting, Milan took in a breath and then another, his gaze on the closed doors of the town hall. He looked at Rory who sat leaning over the steering wheel looking out into the evening. It was taking more than a minute to process the last two hours. “I wasn’t expecting all of that,” Milan confessed into the silence. “I mean, everyone sort of hugging me and talking at once, and all those hugs. I feel like I’ve been squeezed into a pancake.” Rory burst into a short laugh. “And Iris, playing us up like some sort of celebrities. What ceremony is she’s talking about? I don’t do well with crowds, Rory.” “You did fine in there. Everyone already loves you, Milan.” “And your brother,” Milan continued, because there was no other way to call Chris. He knew Rory’s feelings towards Chris. Chris was Rory’s brother in all the ways that mattered. Milan couldn’t forget it. Chris wrapping strong arms around Milan’s thighs and lifting him up after Iris’s announcement, then running around the hall like a mad man. Milan had clutched Chris’s shoulders, bunching his t-shirt tight in case Chris dropped him. “He really likes you,” Rory said, pleased. Milan rubbed his cheeks. “At least it’s over now,” Milan said. “Yes. No more Rick.” Rory agreed. “The Swamp Lands are now one with us. Elle and Johan will help the transition. The council will handle Cade and Dolon, and all loose ends. Dad will let me know what happens, what they decide.” “What about Biosense?” “We’ll have to see what the council decides. They’re probably having a meeting right now,” Rory said, leaning over to kiss Milan’s cheek. “I’m proud of you. You handled Sanctuary’s requests well.” “What is she? Does she always listen to us? ” Milan asked, curious about the feminine voice that had invaded his thoughts in the town hall. Sanctuary’s presence felt unreal and thrilling at the same time. He was thrilled that she was part of him in a mysterious mystic way. She was definitely part of Rory, added to his strength as a thick pillar steadied a massive dome. It felt unreal to have something so powerful know his thoughts. “She’s Sanctuary,” Rory said, his voice matter of fact. “She is the town’s very pulse. I think of her as the Goddess’s messenger. She lets us know when something is going wrong in the town.” “Or when something is going well,” Milan said, intrigued even more by Sanctuary. She gave him the same vibes Iris and Grandma Asta gave him. “Yes, that too,” Rory said. “Thank you for standing with me, Milan.” Milan reached over to brush dark hair out of Rory’s eyes. Rory gave him the courage to stand at the town hall. Rory gave him courage, period. He felt as though he could take on the world and all challenges as long as Rory stayed with him. Milan’s phone buzzed and he checked the message from Ayu with a smile. ‘How did you know to send her?’ “Rowen’s found Ayu,” Milan said, showing Rory the text. “I thought it was interesting when she asked if she could pick him up. Now I know why.” Rory smiled. “Ayu’s in for a ride with that one.” “It will be interesting to watch,” Milan agreed. “I’m glad Ayu has found someone to call his here.” Rory sat back and started the car. “If you’re up to it, I want to take you somewhere.” “Where?” Milan asked, wearing his seat belt. A small part of him wished they would go back to the hot spring at the caves. He loved that place. “You’ll see,” Rory promised, pulling out onto the road, and driving away from the town hall. *** Rory drove to High Point, the highest part of Portento. High Point was a wild meadow tended by Hunter’s people and those like Iris, with old trees, tall grass and wild herbs. Its expanse ended on a high cliff that overlooked the town. Rory watched Milan’s wolf run around trees, through tall grass and wild herbs in circles. Milan was in high spirits this evening, his beautiful fur shining in the moonlight. When he came close to Rory, Milan pounced on him playfully, and then ran off. Rory ran after him, not holding back his powerful stride. He jumped on Milan, bringing him down. They rolled on the ground, and then played hard. Milan was happy. He laughed when he managed to get away from Rory and ran. He so loved to run. Rory loved watching him be so carefree and let Milan play undisturbed. High Point was Rory’s second favorite spot in Portento. He was glad that Milan was enjoying it. When Milan got tired of running around and taking in the scents of the surrounding trees, Rory took him to the smooth rocks at the edge of the high cliff. Milan’s gasp at the sight below was worth it. The streetlights looked like an avalanche of stars washing over the town, twinkling between a lush coverage of green. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ Milan told him, rubbing against Rory’s side. ‘How did you find this place?’ Rory settled on the ground, content when Milan curled close to him. ‘My mom used to bring me here. I’ve never brought anyone else before. It always felt like our place.’ ‘Oh, Rory,’ Milan pressed against him. ‘I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows this place exists. I just don’t like coming here with anyone else.’ Milan nipped Rory’s ear, then licked it. ‘Noted.’ ‘What’s noted?’ ‘That I’m not anyone else,’ Milan said, amused. Rory turned to look at Milan, his golden eyes filled with love. He curled around Milan, his bigger wolf providing warmth for Milan’s much smaller one. “All my secret places are yours, Milan,’ Rory told him, meaning it, content to watch the night dawn with Milan beside him. He didn’t know a better paradise than this one *** “Ciao, Rory,” Ilaria said in greeting early Sunday morning. She had called Milan’s Skype and gotten Rory, as Milan still slept. “You look well.” “You too, Mamma,” Rory said, adjusting the laptop on the desk, as he sat down in his chair, pushing hair out of his eyes. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, I just woke up.” “That’s alright, Rory,” Ilaria smiled. “It’s good I got you, anyway. Your father called me last evening. He asked my husband to take on a heavy challenge. I’m to help, but I’m not sure we are up to it.” “What did he ask?” Rory asked, curious, sleep disappearing at the prospect of bringing back Milan’s parents to Portento for good. “He asks we take over Biosense leadership,” Ilaria said. “It will mean a lot more work, for me, for Kiyo. It would mean less time with Ayu and Milan.” “They have us,” Rory said. “They have my family if you need it.” Ilaria studied him for a minute, and then nodded. “You really would do anything to keep Milan happy, wouldn’t you?” “Si,” Rory said, copying Milan’s replies to Ilaria. “Anything.” Ilaria chuckled and nodded again. “I see that. I suppose that is the one thing we have in common, Rory. When I get back, will you let me discover more about your kind?” Rory stared at her, biting his lip. “In a mother in-law kind of way,” Ilaria said, pressing palms to her cheeks as she said it. “Oddio, I have to keep checking that I’m not insane every time I think of that word.” “What word?” Rory asked. “Mother in-law,” Ilaria said, her voice trembling as she spoke it. “Connor is very adamant that you two are together for good. I have now gained a son in-law, while my own son is only seventeen. It’s surreal.” “Think of it as getting double the advantage,” Rory teased her. 'Dad, thanks for pulling the Takedas back,' he sent Connor. 'We really do need them,' Connor said, then disappeared. “Don’t adopt any children until you’re both thirty,” Ilaria warned, making Rory laugh and Milan sit up on the bed. “It will turn me into Nonna too soon.” “You’ll be a cute Nonna,” Rory assured her, knowing if he got children, they would be born via surrogate. He and Milan would need to discuss that in a few years. “The prettiest one in town." “Mamma?” Milan mumbled as he got out of bed, wrapping the sheet around his shoulders as he got out of bed. Rory rolled his chair back and allowed Milan to perch on his lap. “You called so early.” “Is it?” Ilaria asked, looking at the time on her phone. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon.” “Six a.m. for us,” Milan said, resting his head on Rory’s chest. “I could sleep some more.” “Always sleepy,” Ilaria teased. “Ayu get home okay?” “Yes,” Milan said. “He’s staying here with us.” “That’s good to hear,” Ilaria said. “Your Papa wanted to talk to you. Are you up for it?” “Yes.” Milan sat up then, perking up. “Is he better?” “Much,” Kiyo said, appearing on screen, when Ilaria shifted her laptop to her husband. “Look at you so healthy, Milan. Rory, I wanted to thank you. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for what you’ve done for my son.” Rory squeezed Milan’s waist, and smiled at Kiyo. “I did it for both of us,” Rory said. “It wasn’t easy for me to see him in pain either.” “When I come back, maybe we can talk more?” Kiyo asked. “There is so much to learn, I will need your help.” “I’ll be happy to help, Sir,” Rory said, glad Kiyo wasn’t scowling at him. “Papa,” Kiyo corrected. “What?” “Call me, Papa,” Kiyo said. “Same as my boys, you’re one of them now, or am I wrong?” Milan grinned and Rory shook his head. “No, sir—, I mean, Papa. You’re not wrong.” “Good,” Kiyo said, with a nod, closing that topic simply. “Milan, don’t give Rory trouble. Pay attention to your studies. I heard from Ilaria and Ayu that you want to be an architect. You’ll need to keep up with your math and physics.” “Yes, Papa,” Milan said, nodding his head, insanely pleased that his father was well enough to ride him on his grades. “Now that you’re better, expect more pushing from me,” Kiyo promised him. Milan chuckled and leaned back into Rory’s arms. “When are you coming back?” Milan asked, and Rory took in both Kiyo and Ilaria’s expressions. They seemed happy. Happier than when he first met them both. “We’ll let you know, Cucciolo,” Ilaria said. “When your Papa is without any pain and has taken time off. We’ll come back by spring time.” Time enough for Ilaria to adjust to the idea of Milan not needing all her time, and that her husband was taking over the wild beast that was Biosense. “Okay.” Milan nodded, not begrudging them the time away. They didn’t end the call right away, instead talking to Ilaria and Kiyo about Turin and their lives there. Milan’s parents made Rory curious about Turin and Italy. He wanted to see the place Milan was comfortable calling home. He made a note to ask Connor of the possibility of a trip to Italy. After the call with Milan’s parents, Rory and Milan went downstairs for breakfast. Matt and Topher were awake, and they already had a visitor. “Hey Jet,” Milan said in greeting, going to hug Jet. “You’re here early on a Sunday.” “I never left last night after a bunch of us came back here,” Jet said, rubbing Milan’s t-shirt. “Cool t-shirt by the way.” Milan glanced down at the white Linkin Park t-shirt he was wearing. “Thanks, I have a grey one like it I can give you,” Milan said. “Awesome,” Jet grinned. “My mom made peanut butter cookies. I hid them in the pantry when I came over and found you weren’t around. Want them for breakfast?” “You’re the best,” Milan said, following Jet to the pantry where he had kept the cookies. Rory sat at the kitchen table and met Matt’s amused gaze. “You and Jet?” Rory asked, needing to know Matt wasn’t messing around with Jet without reason. Jet was a good kid. Rory worried for him. “It’s private,” Matt stated, clearly not about to share more. “And?” Rory insisted, holding Matt’s stubborn gaze. “And,” Matt’s gaze softened when he heard Jet laugh with Milan. “I’m taking it slow, getting to know him. Same as you did with Milan. He’s yet to hit his eighteen birthday, Rory.” “Right,” Rory smiled. “That’s some restraint, Matt.” “Got it from you,” Matt said. Rory sighed, empathizing with Matt’s efforts and sat back in his seat. “Well, I’m happy for you,” Rory said. “I hope you two connect soon.” “I don’t get you two. Matt, you should just give in. Take him over and get to know each after. You're both wolves, after all,” Topher said, drinking down a green concoction of vegetables from a large blender bottle. He was the health nut of the family. “I’m not you, Vadisi,” Matt replied. “Besides, I like discovering things about Jet. Like taking my time for when we’re truly together. Rory would understand.” “I hope that’s not for breakfast,” Rory pointed at Topher’s bottle, deciding on a change of subject. Matt rarely changed his mind. “You should try it,” Topher insisted, holding out the bottle to Rory. “It’s good stuff, gives you energy, keeps you clean.” “And gives you the runs,” Matt provided, with a laugh. “That was one time,” Topher said, “plus who knows what else you had eaten that day.” “Keep trying,” Matt said, shaking his head, clearly not about to drink the blended vegetable mix. He got up and went to wash his hands. “I’ll make eggs and bacon for us, Rory. Milan?” Milan appeared at the pantry door, holding a bowl of peanut butter cookies. “How do you like your eggs?” Matt asked him. “Are you going to cook them?” Milan moved to lean on the counter as Matt wiped his hands and found a frying pan. “I’m a great cook,” Matt boasted. “Eggs, bacon or sausage and hash browns.” “Then, I like scrambled eggs,” Milan said then. Jet went to wash his hands at the sink. “I’ll help you,” Jet said, when Matt looked at him. Milan smiled and moved to sit at the table next to Rory. For the next ten minutes, Matt worked on scrambling eggs and frying bacon and sausages, with Jet working on the hash browns. Milan got up, washed a bowl of apples and returned to the table to cut them into slices. He passed the slices around the table as they waited for breakfast. Rory was glad to hear Topher and Matt talk to Milan about school, about his now official best friend Jack, about the pack house and if Milan wanted a proper tour, not the one Maryanne gave him, which was rated PG. When Milan laughed, Rory smiled glad to see him relaxed with Matt and Topher. He needed Milan comfortable enough to rely on Matt and Topher if Milan ever needed anything. Jet placed plates of food for Rory, then Topher. He was placing Milan’s plate before him when Jade came into the kitchen, from the main house, carrying an apple pie. “Morning! Before you ask, Mom made the pie,” Jade said, placing the large pie in the middle of the table. “She told me to bring it in cause she thinks you guys will starve to death otherwise.” She squealed when she saw Milan and leaned over Jet to kiss Milan’s cheek. “I saw you Friday night at the restaurant. You danced with Rory that was awesome to watch by the way. But then, you guys left so fast I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jade Vadisi, Topher’s little sister. We’re in the same grade even though I never get to see you. Maryanne said you were hanging out with her Friday, and I wanted to join in. But, I was caught up with practice—” Jet stuffed an apple slice into Jade’s mouth and she pinched his left bicep. “Breathe,” Matt said. “Ignore her, please,” Topher said, winking at Milan. “She’ll talk you into craziness.” “Jade’s band was awesome. What name do you use?” Milan asked, making Rory, Topher and Matt groan. “What?” “You’re a fan?” Jade almost screamed, pushing Jet away from Milan. She pulled a chair close to Milan and crouched on it, her green dress riding up over her tights. “Oh, this is so awesome. Our band’s called The Werefolks. I’ve been trying to convince these guys that our act is good enough to break out of the town, but they won’t believe me.” “It doesn’t make sense for you to leave Portento to play,” Topher grumbled out. “You’re making enough money at the restaurant.” “We’re not in it for the money,” Jade insisted. “We write our own stuff too. We’re having a concert festival for the spring equinox near end of March. Milan, you’ll come, right? It’s going to be so much fun. Everyone will be there. After this, Topher will see our band is good enough to go on the road.” “I’d love to go,” Milan said, excited. “Rory, we’re going, right?” “If it’s what you want,” Rory answered, knowing he was signing up for the three days of concert madness that was spring equinox festival. “Like I would give them a chance not to show up,” Jade scoffed, accepting a plate of eggs and sausage from Matt. “I heard you do art, Milan. Will you make art for our band posters? It would be really awesome if we featured it this concert.” Rory met Topher’s gaze as his mate launched into talking about t-shirts and posters for Jade’s band. The two connecting like the oldest of friends, it was beautiful to watch. ‘Your sister is great,’ Rory told Topher. ‘She pulled Milan in without making him feel like a new comer.’ ‘Jade’s special gift,’ Topher smiled. ‘I’m afraid we might have to let her try a tour out there.’ ‘That’s been coming, Toph,’ Rory said, knowing that Topher worried for Jade’s safety outside the town’s boundaries. ‘She’s good enough, and you know it. We’ll just have to figure it out for her.’ ‘Rory’s right. We’ll deal with it when it’s time,’ Matt soothed, urging Jet to sit next to Topher and placing a plate of food before him. Jet blushed when Matt ruffled his hair and sat down next to him. Rory was sure Matt didn’t have to wait there. Jet looked gone for Matt. Rory sat back watching his family have breakfast, setting tradition for their future Sunday mornings. Chris and Maryanne joined them soon after, with Maryanne sitting on Topher’s lap, while Chris squeezed in between Milan and Jade joining their concert conversation. They ate too much and talked. It was the best Sunday breakfast Rory could remember. *** Rory drove Milan to school on Monday morning. It was nice showing up together, this way none of them had to wait for the other. Milan’s reception was different too. More students greeted him ‘good morning’ than he could count. “It’s weird,” Milan insisted at lunch when Rory sent off a group of girls who wanted to find out if Milan was available for a Wednesday party. “I felt like I lived in an island with you and Jack a week ago. Now, everyone is talking to me.” “You’re one of us now,” Rory said. “It’s not weird at all.” Milan breathed in and took Rory’s hand, squeezing it. “Will it always be like this?” Milan asked, when he looked up and found more than a dozen gazes on him and Rory. “No,” Rory said, grinning. “It will wear off soon. They’re a little excited about the future right now.” Milan laughed then and shook his head. “You’re enjoying this too much.” “Kind of,” Rory said, getting up when the warning bell rang. “I’ll take you to your Italian class.” “Will you learn it?” Milan asked, when they reached Milan’s class and Rory held him back from entering. “I’ll learn sexy words so that I can use them on you. Tell me one right now.” “Sono pazzo a di te,” Milan said, then smiled wide. “I have to go now.” “What did you just tell me?” Rory asked, holding on to his hand. “Discover it,” Milan leaned up and kissed him. “Go to your class, Rory.” “You can’t talk to me in Italian like that, and then tell me to leave you,” Rory complained, pulling Milan into his arms and kissing him again. Possessive, needy, he wondered if they could leave already. “Alpha, you might have authority over me outside this school, but in here, you’re under mine,” Milan’s Italian teacher said from behind him. “Let my student go. It’s time for class.” Rory groaned and allowed Milan to push him away. He hid a laugh when Milan blushed and ran into class. Rory turned and faced Mrs. Antonio. “I’m leaving now.” “I see that,” Mrs. Antonio said, as she entered her class. She held the door and moved to close it. “Ah, Rory, ‘I’m crazy about you’ is what he said. I do offer tutoring in my free time, in case you’re interested.” Rory tried to catch a glimpse of Milan, and then blushed as Mrs. Antonio gave him a knowing look and closed the door on his face. ‘I'm crazy for you too,’ Rory sent to Milan, his heart skipping when Milan flooded their bond with warmth. Later, after school, Rory found himself sitting in an armchair in the living room watching Jack. Milan was in the kitchen doing his homework, as he played catch up on his classes. He had gotten Jack’s homework too, which was how Jack ended up at their place. “Nisin insists on seeing Milan before his change,” Jack said, pacing the length of the living room. His hands in fists, he was eager to get back to his mate. “I thought you’d let me drive Milan over. Grandma Asta has been clear in her explanation, but Nisin is nervous.” “When is the change?” Rory asked. “Tomorrow or tonight if we can get transport into the Swamp Lands,” Jack said. “Have you talked to my uncle?” “It’s not so easy,” Jack said, blowing out a nervous breath. “I’ll call him for you,” Rory said. “As for Milan—" “Please don’t say no,” Jack begged. “I wasn’t,” Rory said, with a small smile. “Milan will make the choice, Jack.” Jack stared at him, and then nodded. “Right. You’re right.” “Sit down for a second, will you?” Rory insisted when Jack stood watching him. ‘Baby, will you come with me to visit Nisin?’ Rory asked Milan. ‘Uh…,’ Milan’s brain was occupied with Calculus homework. ‘Yeah sure, I’m finished with the worksheets I got. I need to stop by my house too.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I left a carrying case full of stuff for my drawing tablet there. I need it for Jade’s project. It will only take a minute.’ ‘Cool, let’s go then,’ Rory got up and looked to Jack. “I’ll drive Milan. We have somewhere to go after.” Jack nodded, thanked him and hurried out to his car, eager to get back to Nisin. *** Jack’s house was a few minutes away from the main town. A cozy ranch-style house built for comfort, very modern on the inside. Jack opened the door for them, and led Milan to a bedroom on the right of the house. He opened the door and Milan saw Nisin resting in bed, under blankets. He looked healthier than the last time they met. His meds corrected, he was less pale. “Ciao,” Milan said, moving to perch on the edge of the bed. Jack hovered behind him. “Jack, it’s Milan,” Nisin said as he sat up, getting comfortable. Jack ignored his chiding and moved around Milan to arrange Nisin’s pillows and pull the covers around him. “I’m fine, Jack. I promise.” Jack pressed a soft kiss on Nisin’s forehead, pulled him into a tight hug, then let go with difficulty. “I’ll be in the living room with Rory,” Jack said, looking at Milan. “Tell me if anything happens, or he needs anything at all. Okay?” “I promise,” Milan said. “Okay,” Jack stared down at Nisin, then when he didn’t move Nisin gave an annoyed huff and waved him out. “Right, I’m leaving.” “He’s just worried,” Milan said, when the door closed behind Jack. “You should have seen Rory before. I had it worse. How are you feeling?” “Worst question to ask someone sick in bed,” Nisin countered, then smiled when Milan chuckled. “You’re right. I hated it too,” Milan agreed. “So, let’s forget I asked. You wanted to see me?” Nisin reached out to take Milan’s left hand, and Milan shifted closer to him, getting comfortable on the bed. “I heard about what my dad did to your family,” Nisin said, staring at their clasped hands. “I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t obvious. When my dad sent me to yours, he dropped some hints. I couldn’t tell your dad about it though because he had promised to let me meet you.” “You wanted to meet me?” Milan asked, surprised. “Yeah,” Nisin smiled, looking up to meet his gaze. “I’d never met anyone like me. Well, let’s just say I didn’t get to meet many kids my age. The way your dad talked about you, the things he did for you, I was jealous and wanted to meet you.” “Oh, Nisin.” “It’s okay, your dad was really nice to me,” Nisin said. “He made me feel a bit of the care he gave you. It wasn’t the same, never the same, but it was something.” Nisin squeezed Milan’s hand, dropping his gaze to their joined hands. “I felt bad that I couldn’t tell your dad about mine.” Nisin shook his head. “You see, my family is not as close as yours. It never will be, but Cade is still my dad.” “I understand,” Milan said then, thinking he knew what Nisin was trying to do. “I’m sorry I knew nothing of you.” “My dad made Kiyo keep my presence in his lab a secret,” Nisin said. “Kiyo wanted to protect me, so he kept it quiet.” Milan nodded, already knowing his father’s intentions. “They told me my dad will leave Portento,” Nisin said after a minute. “He won’t remember working for Biosense, but he’ll remember me.” “Does that make you sad?” Milan asked, wondering what he would feel if Kiyo were to forget having worked so hard to heal him. In a way, the hours Kiyo spent in his lab were a way to know how much he loved Milan. Then again, Cade's hours in Biosense were to line his pockets with money. “Not really,” Nisin gave him a short smile. “He never really paid attention to me, like Kiyo did with you. I’m hopeful, actually.” “Hopeful?” Milan asked. “That this change will give me my dad back,” Nisin said, his tone shy. “Is that stupid of me?” “Never,” Milan shook his head. “Not at all, Nisin.” “I’m glad to hear it from you,” Nisin said. “Will you ask them to treat him well for me? He might not be the best man, but he’s my dad, Milan. Please?” “Sure,” Milan promised, knowing he would ask Connor for this. He felt responsible for Nisin, somehow. “You just worry about getting through your change. Don’t think about anything else.” “About that,” Nisin said, blushing like crazy. “What-what’s it like?” Milan thought about the night Rory changed him. His free hand moving up to touch the spot on his neck where Rory had bitten him. The shock of it, the pain that followed and Rory’s frustration at not being able to help him. Waking up to Rory’s blue eyes and knowing what he was to him. That night was clear in his head, so clear; he thought it a rebirth, something he wanted to keep deep inside, cherishing it for a lifetime, because it had given him a new start, a new life. A different adventure. “Resurrectio,” Milan told Nisin. “Neither good nor bad, easy or hard, just rebirth. I can’t measure….or describe the experience for you. It will be unique, to you, for Jack too. When it’s done, I’ll be your brother, Nisin. La tua famiglia. Your family. Cause only us two will understand what we’ve survived. Do you agree?” “I agree,” Nisin said, with a single decisive nod. Milan pulled Nisin into a tight hug. “Don’t worry about your Papa. I’ll see to it.” Nisin tightened his arms around him, and they stayed like that for a little while. *** After their visit with Nisin, Milan watched Rory drive to the Takeda house. “When is Nisin turning into one of us?” Milan asked. “Tonight,” Rory said. “Matt will take him in and make sure Elle and Johan assist.” “Should I ask Iris?” Milan asked, reaching for the amulet he now wore all the time. It fascinated him when the leather string around his neck remained on even in his wolf form. “No,” Rory shook his head. “Contrary to your experience, Iris is quite frightening to most in this town. Only one with power to match hers or a stronger will can stay with her longer than a few minutes. You saw how she silenced the town with Rick.” “So people like you and your Dad?” “Yes. Dad has Alpha blood. I’m Alpha, with Sanctuary backing me.” “What about me?” Milan asked, as Rory turned into the Takeda driveway. “You’re my mate, and Sanctuary recognizes you as Moon to this pack. Your will is extraordinary too. Your faced so much pain for so long,” Rory stopped the car and faced him. “Iris is like a walk in the park for you.” “I’m stronger than I feel then,” Milan joked. “Yes, actually. You really are strong, Milan.” Rory reached out and touched his ear. “And all mine.” Milan took Rory’s hand and rubbed his thumb over Rory’s knuckles. “Fair enough, I won’t call Iris to Nisin, but Grandma Asta should be there for him at least.” “She’ll be there, in her own way,” Rory said. He looked at the house that was now dark except for the third floor. “Ayu is here.” “I’ll go see him, and grab my stuff,” Milan said, kissing Rory’s jaw. “When I come back, you’ll let me drive us home.” “Whoa,” Rory lifted his hands ready to protest. “I’m not asking to drive your precious sports car, just thus pickup truck. I wanna drive, Rory. You promised to let me practice,” Milan insisted, glaring at Rory when he looked unwilling. “Fine,” Rory said, with a frown, sitting back in the driver’s side, turning on the radio. “Hurry back.” Milan opened his door, vowing to smooth that frown when he came back. He ran into the house, not pausing to remove his shoes. It was surreal going up the stairs in a full run, and not feeling out of breath. In his bedroom upstairs, he paused at the entrance when he saw the stripped bed. Old sheets covered his dresser and his desk. Rory had brought all his books to the pack house. Their wing had a library that now had all of Milan's books, with more to come. Milan knew then that he would never return to the Takeda house to stay, and it felt right. The pack house was now his home. A sense of nostalgia filled him as he walked up to the large photograph of the Milan Cathedral. He couldn’t have known, that day he stood here with Rory making a silly joke, where their journey together would bring him. He trailed gentle fingers over the picture frame and smiled. Changing direction, he went to the closet and found the carrier bag filled with the tablet accessories he needed. Holding it in his left hand, he went out into the room and paused when he saw the connecting door open. Going through it to the bathroom, and to Ayu’s door, he opened it and stopped when he saw Ayu and Rowen on the bed making out. Rowen hid her face into Ayu’s shoulder when she noticed him. “Way to intrude, Milan,” Ayu said in greeting. “I’m just—,” Milan grinned and caught the pillow Rowen threw at him. “Aren’t you happy you still had your clothes on?” “Shut up,” Rowen shook her head, moving to sit next to Ayu. Milan’s grin widened and he moved to stand at the foot of Ayu’s bed. “So?” Milan looked to Rowen. “What are your intentions with my brother?” “We’re so not doing this,” Ayu stated, throwing a pillow at Milan too. “What? You did it to Rory when he showed up.” “That was different,” Ayu insisted. “No, it wasn’t.” “Uh, it was,” Ayu said. “Come on, you know it wasn’t.” “Both of you stop,” Rowen said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you two.” “You’re kissing my big brother,” Milan said, folding his hands against his chest. “You get to deal with me.” Ayu burst into a laugh and shook his head, resting back on the headboard. “What?” Milan demanded. “You’re cute when you act all taller and stuff,” Rowen said. “What’s cute is you two voicing each other’s thoughts, like a married couple.” “Look who’s talking,” Rowen scoffed, and threw the pillow closest to her at him. Milan laughed then because he was elated to see his brother entangled in a girl. The hope that he wouldn’t be the only one in his family sinking roots in Portento filled him. It felt good to belong to this town as a family. “I’m gonna go,” Milan said, pointing to the door. “Will you two be here then?” “Maybe,” Ayu said, taking Rowen’s hand and winking at Milan. “Okay,” Milan grinned again. “Welcome home, Ayu.” “It’s good to be home, baby brother,” Ayu said, and threw the last of the pillows on his bed at Milan. “Now, get out of here. We’re busy.” Milan laughed and closed the bathroom door behind him. He left his bedroom in high spirits. His memories of this house were only two months long, but they were the happiest memories he knew. He hoped his parents would return to stay. ‘Cucciolo, how much longer?’ Rory asked. ‘Coming,’ Milan said, going down the stairs to the living room and the front door. Milan opened the front door and turned to look back at the living room. Yes, he wanted to see his family happy here too. Outside, he stopped when he saw Rory leaning on his white pickup, watching him. “Took you long enough,” Rory teased. “I got sidetracked,” Milan said, looking up to the third floor. Rory followed his gaze and smiled after a minute. “Ohh,” Rory said. “Big bro and Rowen have found a perfect hideaway.” “Only until our parents come back,” Milan said, coming down the steps to where Rory leaned on the driver’s side door. He accepted Rory’s quick kiss and moved back, holding his hands out for the keys. “Are you sure about this?” Rory asked, dropping them into his palm, then opening the door for Milan. Milan climbed behind the wheel and dropped his bag on the console between their seats. He stuck the key into the ignition and turned the engine on. “Very sure,” Milan said, wearing his seat belt. He smiled at Rory. “It’s cool to see your wolf running next to the car and keeping up, but I’ll go nuts if you’re in the passenger seat. All that raw sexy power at my mercy.” Rory growled and cupped his face, taking his lips in a hard kiss. When he pulled away, Milan took a minute to remember what he was doing. Rory closed his door and went around to the passenger side. Rory climbed in, wore his seat belt and sat back. “Take me home, baby,” Rory said, and Milan gripped the steering wheel, thrilled. He stepped on the gas pedal and groaned when the truck revved hard for a full minute. Removing his foot from the gas pedal, he looked at Rory with a sheepish grin, before he reached for the gear handle to shift to drive. Rory didn’t look amused at all. “Aren’t you happy we’re not driving a stick shift,” Milan soothed. Rory jerked when Milan stepped on the gas pedal and made his turn too hard, sending the truck into Ilaria’s trimmed evergreen bushes. “I’m not sure I’m happy at all right now,” Rory said, as Milan managed to turn in the right direction, heading to the gates. “Oh, don’t worry, my Italian grandmother taught me how to drive,” Milan grinned at him as he headed out of the driveway. “She taught me to drive how I feel.” “How do you feel right now?” Rory gripped the handle above his window when Milan increased speed. “Wild, Rory, just wild… “Milan!” *** Epilogue Days after the Spring Equinox Festival, at the start of April, an old ceremony started. In the ancestral caves of Portento, lighted with magic, and streams of flowers falling from the high ceilings, made of magic too, a circle formed. Each man, woman and child of wolf blood, bound to the pack, and sworn to the town of Portento. Hand to shoulder, forming a vast and complex web, the werewolves of Portento gathered to usher a new Alpha and his mate. In the middle of the circle, at its tightest part stood three, who had led to the best of their ability. Connor, Kutler and Lechter: each one with scars, each one with wins and disappointments. Standing by them were their mates, with the exception of Connor. Iris of the earth stood in Johanna’s stead. They faced Rory, Topher and Matt. Beside them, standing with nervous energy were Milan, Maryanne and Jet. Grandma Asta moved to the middle of their loose circle and urged Rory and Connor to step forward. Milan watched with unbridled excitement as Connor held Rory’s right hand at the elbow, with Rory locking their arms in a warrior’s handshake. Light the color of gold dust danced down Connor’s arm wrapping around their clasped hands for a moment, before it changed to red dust and climbed up Rory’s arm, shimmering into him. Connor let go of Rory’s arm, and took the knife Grandma Asta handed him. With practiced ease, he made a cut on his palm and dripped blood to the ground between them, followed by Kutler and Lechter. Rory then took the knife and did the same, followed by Topher and then Matt. “May I remain strong to guard this town,” Rory spoke, as he dripped blood over Connor’s, “as my ancestors before me.” “May I remain strong to support and provide for this town,” Topher spoke, as he dripped blood over Kutler’s blood, “as my ancestors before me.” “May I remain strong to learn and guide for this town,” Matt spoke, as he dripped blood over Lechter’s blood, “as my ancestors before me.” A wave of light burst from the ground, rising up above their heads, and hovered, waiting… Rory turned to Milan, holding out his right hand. Milan breathed down his anxiety and took Rory’s hand allowing himself to be pulled beside Rory. Grandma Asta stepped up to him, holding the dagger. Milan winced as she took his right hand and made a cut on his palm, the pain stinging. She held out the knife to Topher who did the same for Maryanne, and then to Matt who did it for Jet. When they were done, Grandma Asta had them hold hands with their mates. “Repeat after me,” Grandma Asta said. “Heart of my heart...” Milan met Rory’s blue gaze, his hand clutched in Rory's right, their blood turning into one, heart racing as he said the words Grandma Asta spoke. “Heart of my heart, soul of my soul, blood of my blood,” Milan said, meaning every word. “I stand with you, for you and by you, now and forevermore.” It took him a minute to realize that Rory spoke the same words with him, love shining in his eyes. ‘I thought this was a ceremony to make you Alpha?’ Milan asked, Rory as everyone faded away. ‘It is,’ Rory smiled. ‘Sounds like an Outlander wedding to me,’ Milan mused, looking down at his neat blue shirt and dark slacks. This was not what he would have wanted to wear at his wedding. He had standards. Rory laughed aloud, drawing Grandma Asta’s censoring gaze. Milan wrinkled his nose at him, and shook his head. ‘I haven’t forgotten you want a wedding,’ Rory promised, leaning to kiss his nose. ‘You’re only becoming this town’s Moon, Milan. Look up and see the Goddess’s answer to your pledge. I promise to give you that wedding when you're ready, Milan.’ As though hearing Rory’s words, Milan looked up in time to see the brilliant light waiting there shoot down and engulf him, filling him with joy and a profound sense of belonging that quickly spread out into the people in attendance, and beyond to the rest of the town, leaving no soul untouched. Tears filled Milan’s eyes at the feel of it, and he turned to Rory in awe. “It feels like home.” “And it always will,” Rory promised, kissing him then, sealing it. After the ceremony, there was a party at the pack house. Milan mingled, talking to everyone who approached him. It was getting easier to deal with people. It wasn’t his thing, but Rory thrived on this. Milan saw Rory and Matt busy helping with roasting meat at a large bonfire, laughing with Chris and others Milan recognized from their regular visits to the pack house. His new life gave him so much, so many people. He smiled when Rowen took his hand and dragged him to sit with Jack and Nisin at one of the packed tables. He ate and drank, and wondered if he could escape with Rory to the house. When he looked around and saw Rory talking to Iris, he gave up on that idea. Milan consoled himself with the fact that he and Rory would be flying out in the morning, heading to Italy for their spring break week. They would have plenty of moments there. When he could, Milan escaped the noisy party and found a quiet spot to hide in the backyard. He was sitting on a bench swing under a huge tree when Connor Morgan joined him, sitting next to him. “Hiding?” Connor asked. Milan smiled and nodded. “I’m a little overwhelmed today.” “I figured,” Connor said, sending the bench swing into motion. “You and I haven’t gotten enough time to talk since you moved in. Might as well sit here with you, it will keep people from looking for you.” Milan nodded, staring at his clasped hands. He liked Rory’s father, wondered often how to get close to him. Rory already had such a great relationship with Milan’s parents. Suddenly, Milan remembered a story Grandma Asta had told him. “Uhm…,” Milan started. “Grandma Asta told me about the fishing scream.” Connor looked at him, his expression hard, and Milan gulped, biting his lip. “And the girl who liked to tease you, chasing you around with a snail,” Milan continued, his tone hopeful. Connor stared at him for a minute, and then broke out into a loud laugh, covering his face. “Asta really doesn’t save me any face. Why would she tell you about that?” Milan grinned then. “She said it would make it easier to get to know you.” “Was she right?” Connor asked. “Maybe,” Milan said. “Who was that girl? She must have liked you a lot.” “She did,” Connor said, with a nod, his voice heavy with nostalgia. “She was Johanna Morgan, Rory’s Mom, and she would have loved to meet you, Milan. She would have taken one look at you and tried to find out if she can tickle you until you pee yourself from laughter.” “Really?” Milan grinned, when Connor shifted to look at him. “Really,” Connor said. “She liked dancing, and children. I called her the pied piper…she was really so good with them. You would have liked her too.” “Will you tell me about her?” Milan asked, eager to discover more about Rory. “Why, yes,” Connor said, happy to tell. “Where shall we start?” “How about that screaming saga,” Milan suggested, making him laugh again. *** Milan, Italy Rory walked the vast, snowy creative world that was the Milan Cathedral rooftop. So, many details to take in with a simple glance, one needed to look, look again and take a photograph just in case a detail went unnoticed. The beauty of it all was in the dedication, he decided. How humans would give so much time to the creation of such a huge building. He could understand how his mate would find the cathedral so fascinating. Gargoyles, carvings on marble, amid spires and statues, he could see the awe in this. Yet, even here, faced with the astounding, the only creature he found inspiring stood studying a gargoyle sculpture above him. Milan took a photo of the gargoyle, and then turned to look at him, smiling with accomplishment. Rory hurried to his side, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders as they went to the edge to stare down at the piazza below. The large square was filled with people, tourists, locals, their conversations filling the bright morning. Milan wrapped an arm around Rory’s waist. “It’s perfect,” Milan murmured. “What?” “Us, here, during spring break. I can’t think of anything more perfect,” Milan said, turning into him. “Neither can I,” Rory said, holding Milan. He looked up when he caught movement on one of the spires. His sharp eyes picked out the shape of a man, warrior class, Rory gauged. He was camouflaged with magic to keep the anxious human gazes from seeing. The shape turned to Rory as though sensing his gaze. The man appeared, for a split second, nodding at Rory in acknowledgement before he was hidden again. Guardians, Rory thought, noting a dozen more around them, each one sworn to protect him and his mate. Yes, this was perfect, Rory decided, for the first time believing that he could get Milan everything he wanted. They would see the world together, he decided. Milan would be the architect he wished, and maybe end up building a new addition to the pack house he so loved drawing, in time. They had it now, Rory thought, lots and lots of time, a lifetime together. Rory pressed a kiss on top of Milan’s head. “I love you, Milan.” “I love you too, Rory Morgan.” *** Fin
  2. 81 points
    Sanctuary Returns ‘The children,’ Rory prompted sanctuary as he waited for Johan and Elle outside the town hall. ‘How many were they?’ ‘Five souls,’ Sanctuary answered. ‘Too young, their families searched, but their bodies are buried in the deepest part of the swamp.’ ‘Why did none of the warriors take Rick down?’ Rory wondered. ‘He is sly, and patient. He struck when they least expected it. He left no trace of himself.’ Rory sighed, and started a slow pace along the step the steps. ‘This is a mess. I don’t even know where to start.’ ‘Your father will know. Let him finish this for you,’ Sanctuary mused. ‘You might be Alpha, but he is still more experienced.’ Rory nodded, and felt relief when he saw Johan and Elle walking up the steps. Behind them five of the warriors from the Swamp Lands, and ten men and women ranging in age followed them. When they reached him, Elle smiled in greeting while Johan held out a hand his right hand to Rory. Rory grasped it at the elbow, in the old way, a warrior’s greeting. “We’re ready for the gathering, Alpha Rory.” Johan nodded to his people behind him. “If our requests are met, then we shall vow allegiance to you, as Alpha, and join the fold.” “Then let’s get it over with,” Rory said, leading the way into the town hall. “How is your mate?” Johan asked. “Is he adjusting to his new life?” Rory couldn’t help his smile at the thought of Milan. “Quite well,” Rory said. “He’s moved into the pack house. We’re taking it day by day.” “His wolf has great potential,” Elle said. “The pain you both endured is not easily borne. Born of a trial by fire, he is much stronger than you could imagine.” “I suppose it’s an adventure we’ll have to see through,” Rory said. Rory opened the double doors of the town hall, and wasn’t surprised when all eyes in the room turned to look at them. Around three hundred people had made it to the meeting. The high table ahead was set up for the council. There were eight now, without Rick. Chairs in the first few rows of the right column were left vacant for the guests from the Swamp Lands. Rory noted Milan sat at the front of this row with Rowen and Maryanne on each side. Connor was already leading a discussion on Rick’s crimes. Rick was chained to the ground on a single chair in front of the high table. His mouth taped with a black seal made with Sage’s magic. There was a blue ring of power circling Rick’s chair too, it kept him contained. Rory led his group to the empty chairs, urging them to sit. He thanked Rowen who got up and moved down a chair, allowing him to sit next to Milan. “Why do we need to discuss this farther?” Hunter asked, the shifter glaring at Rick. “Either send him to the dungeons, or end his sorry life. There can be no pardon for the murders he is already guilty of. Delaying his sentence is an insult to the victims and their families.” “No one wants to pardon him,” Iris pointed out. Her gaze shifted to the rest of the town. “The people suggesting the dungeons are playing a dangerous game. Keeping him in the dungeons gives him time to plan. Time to cause trouble again, we really cannot allow that. As far as I’m concerned, Rick’s fate is sealed. So, why don’t we discuss the real reason why this town meeting was called?” “What can be more important than the murder of the Pack’s Moon by one of the Council?” a burly man in the crowd demanded. “Rick lied, and brought false evidence. He could be working with humans outside the borders for all we know. That’s important.” More added to that comment, insisting that Rick’s life should end by the Alpha’s hand. Others insisted on the dungeons, so that he may repent his wrong doings. Chris was particularly vocal about Rick meeting his end. “I demand justice for my parents and aunt,” Chris said, standing. He was at the front of the left row, his hands in fists when he looked at Rick. “There is no need to delay this. Please!” Connor slammed his right hand on the high table, forcing the room into silence. “The council acknowledges all your concerns,” Connor said. “Rick’s crimes are unpardonable. I don’t disagree. However, I have been waiting for our guests to arrive and now that they have, I would like to introduce them to you, Johan and Elle McRieve.” Johan and Elle stood. Elle looked beautiful in her red wool dress, and Johan every part the warrior in his leather trousers and a soft white shirt. Their faces enough to let anyone know they fought hard for all they had. Johan wasn’t much of a talker, so Elle spoke for both of them. “We’re here at Alpha Rory’s request. Our settlement has long lived in the wild swamps of this town. Please forgive any disrespect we may cause during this gathering.” “What settlement?” Lisbeth Jones, the town’s mayor, asked. her eyes narrowed as she looked at Elle and Johan. “I don’t recognize you.” “You wouldn’t,” Connor said, lifting his hand to stop Elle from responding. “They have not mingled with us for years. The Swamp Lands are their home; it’s the deepest part of Portento.” Murmurs filled the room, and Rory reached for Milan’s hand, squeezing tight. Milan responded by covering their clasped hands with his free one. He rubbed Rory’s knuckles, as though giving him strength. Rory glanced at Milan sensing a restless in Milan. “How can that be possible?” Linda asked, her eyes wide. Connor had kept the existence of Elle and Johan close knit, only telling Kutler and Lechter. “It is possible,” Elle said. “Very possible when your way of life is threatened and all you want is to seek sanctuary.” “Portento is already sanctuary,” Lisbeth pointed out. “What could possibly threaten your lives within our borders?” “Love,” Elle said, her words hard, where there should have been softness. “I am an ancestor of a child born from the mating of a human and a wolf. For decades now, we have harbored all such pairings in the Swamp Lands. A real fear grows that the council will kick us out of Portento should they discover such pairings. We are here now to see if our stories can be heard and cherished in the same way yours are.” “How many live in the Swamp Lands?” Lisbeth asked. “A few hundred or so,” Elle said, gripping Johan’s hand when the council members started to protest. “The last wolf/human pairing happened decades ago,” Linda said, shaking her head. “They left town.” “No, they did not,” Rory said, getting up, his gaze narrowed on Lechter, needing to have this out with him. “After the council voted, the pair found sanctuary in the Swamp Lands. Elle’s parents saved them. Every pairing that attempted to settle among us, and was rejected, ended up in the Swamp Lands. The Council has failed Sanctuary.” Lechter stood then, anger in his eyes. “That’s a serious charge coming from a Morgan.” “It must be spoken,” Rory said, glad that Milan kept holding his hand. “I feared you would do the same to me and my mate.” “You’re different,” Lechter said, shaking his head. “You’re—" “What?” Rory asked. “The Alpha? So? You have disliked humans for ages. You’ve pushed for them to get kicked out. You campaigned for Milan’s family to get kicked out. I saw it happen. You even had Chris convinced, my own blood.” “That’s before I knew who he was to you,” Lechter admitted. “I—" “You would not have changed your mind,” Rory cut in, quite sure when he met Lechter’s gaze. It was easy to see, to almost feel, the anger that had grown inside Lechter. His love, his mate, murdered by humans, in turn, he decided no human would touch the place she called home. The place she loved him and their son, Matt. Rory shifted his gaze to Matt who stood guarding the man who might have killed his mother. ‘I’m sorry I must do this, Matt. I told you I would.’ ‘Get it over with,’ Matt replied. Rory nodded and returned his attention to Lechter. “Your opinion matters in the council, in this town. Your blind hatred forced all these people to live in seclusion in the Swamp Lands. My mate and I would have joined their settlement had Rick not escalated his plans.” “That’s absurd,” Lechter said. Milan stood then, making them a pair. “It’s not actually. My mate was human. Everyone in this room knows that,” Rory said then, making the town behind him gasp in surprise. “He had his change days ago. You were there. If it weren’t for Elle and Johan, I might not have known how to go about it. So, I might thank you too for pushing me to discover the past.” “Rory,” Lechter murmured. Rory shook his head and Lechter fell silent, his gaze on Milan, then Elle and Johan. After a minute of silence, Lechter sat down and Connor took over the meeting again. “Elle,” Connor said. “I want to thank your people for helping my son and his mate through his change. I also want to extend an invitation to you to join the Council.” “Only if you allow our people to punish the man you call Rick,” Elle insisted. “Why?” “He has taken five of our young ones,” Elle said, pain in her voice. “Sunk them in the swamp and left us to cry tears of blood. He created fear for all of us. We could not cross the swamp into your lands to seek help. Every time we tried, he sunk another.” ‘What is she talking about?’ Milan asked, turning to Rory as they sat. ‘I’ll show him,’ Sanctuary murmured, surprising Rory. She was swift about it too, giving Milan the same images Rory had gotten when he fought Rick. The reaction was immediate. Tears filled Milan’s eyes and he bent over, making Rory pull him into his arms. “I am well aware of this crime,” Connor said, looking at Rory and Milan, worried. Rory ignored Connor's concerned look and focused on Milan. Milan clutched Rory’s t-shirt, eyes closed. ‘You didn’t have to give him everything,’ Rory chastised Sanctuary, pulling Milan into his arms. ‘He’s freaking—’ ‘I know what I’m doing. You’re the one who doesn’t know your role here. Feel it, Alpha,’ Sanctuary cut him off. ‘What he does for the town is different than you. You’re strength, he’s the compassion, you need him to end this meeting in peace.’ ‘We couldn’t have done this earlier?’ Rory complained, aware that Milan’s freak out was not going unnoticed. He remembered the disgust that filled him when he knew what Rick had done. ‘Why would you give him this memory?’ Rory closed his eyes, and reached in for Milan, as Johan decided to speak up, when Elle couldn’t anymore. “Calling it a crime is an understatement. Rick has caused unimaginable pain,” Johan said, his voice gruff. “One of those children was our daughter. She was only six years old. She was playing on the edge of the swamp when she disappeared. We found her a week later at the bottom of the swamp. We didn’t know what he was, only that if no one made an attempt to cross the swamp, that year we would be free of the pain of losing a child.” “His punishment falls to us,” Elle insisted, deep anger brewing when she looked at Rick. “Give us that, and we’ll do whatever else you need, even if it means we leave.” ‘Milan.’ Rory bit back a moan as Elle’s pain filled them both, affecting Milan more than it did Rory. Rory was harder, built to withstand brute force, and the ugliest of matters. Milan, his Milan, Rory wanted to fold him into his arms and protect him from everything. But, Milan was not having it. Milan clutched Rory’s shirt tight, then slowly sat up, his eyes closed. ‘Yes, you can take it,’ Sanctuary said to Milan, pride in her voice. ‘Diffuse it.” ‘How?’ Milan asked, feeling like he might never feel happy again in his life. He clung to Rory, holding his hand tight. Without Rory, he might have drowned with the weight of it. ‘Her pain is deep,’ Milan examining it for a moment, ‘but, it’s not as raw as it was with us.’ “Will you leave him alive?” Chris asked. “No.” Johan growled out, his hands in fists, his anger fueling Elle’s pain. The memory of their daughter filled them both and it was all they could think about now. “I have no objection then,” Chris said, as though sensing their pain. Rory gave a silent gasp, as Milan seemed to draw Elle and Johan’s pain into himself, pulling it away even from Rory. Then he flooded their bond with hope. Hope for a happier future, because he couldn’t erase the memory of their daughter, neither could Sanctuary. Milan knew about hope. Was filled with it, and now that he had escaped his own pain, he was full of possibilities. Sanctuary took that hope and directed it to Elle and Johan, pushing it into the thread of pain. Rory opened his eyes and looked to Elle and Johan. Johan’s fists eased, and Elle took in a deep breath, as though a weight lifted off her shoulders. ‘You did well,’ Sanctuary praised Milan when he let out a soft sigh. ‘It will get easier with time.’ ‘Don’t show him anymore horrible memories,’ Rory warned her. As tension left Milan and he relaxed, the pain disappeared. Sanctuary held her silence, though she was still present in the backdrop. Rory now understood how Connor might have been crippled without his mate. Milan was his second half. The most important part of this town, Rory decided, looking at Milan with a new light. Nothing could happen to him. Connor stood up and walked around the high table to face Elle and Johan. “Then, the matter of Rick is left to you,” Connor said. “Please note that we too have scars. I hope you choose his punishment well.” “We shall. Before we continue, I would like to bring in a gift of our goodwill,” Elle said, her voice soft, shy where she had not been before. “Do you accept it?” “Yes, of course we do,” Connor nodded. Elle looked toward the closed doors of the hall. A minute later, the door opened and in walked a woman with long brown hair, a red scarf around her neck, and a slight limp as she walked. She looked familiar. Rory almost couldn’t place her until he heard the soft cry from Matt. Matt abandoned his post by Rick and ran to meet her before she reached the front. Pulling her into a tight hug and lifting her clear of the ground, vibrating with emotion. Rory looked to Lechter who stood frozen at the high table. There were no words to describe the clear shock on his face. “Rosemary Lechter has been under our care for eight years. Her recovery has been slow; she was near death when we found her, sunk deep in the swamp. We thought her dead. We gave her a home, and she has lived among us, teaching the children how to read. We called her Sena as she could not remember her name for a long time,” Elle explained. “It wasn’t until Iris came to visit when Milan had his change that Sena regained her memories. She refused to return until we had this meeting.” “But her mate’s bond?” Connor asked, looking to Lechter, who still looked shocked. “Sena almost died,” Elle said. “All her bonds near severed by the pain and the brutal nature of her attack. This matter cannot be explained by one as young as me. You must find Grandma Asta for that.” Lechter came around the high table and fell to his knees before Elle. “Thank you! I am in your debt,” Lechter said to Elle. “Please, get up,” Elle reached for Lechter and pulled him up. “You owe us nothing.” “Nevertheless, I shall try to repay the kindness you have shown my family,” Lechter said, tears in his eyes. Elle patted his shoulder, and stepped aside to allow him to walk to Rosemary and Matt. Lechter wrapped them both in his arms, a harsh sob escaping him. Rory felt happy for Matt, but envied him too. He would do anything to see his mother again. To have Johanna meet Milan and hug him as she used to, full of sunshine and laughter. Looking across the aisle, he met Chris’s gaze and read the same longing there. ‘She’d be proud of you,’ Chris told him with a nod. ‘Your mate is handsome.’ Rory smiled and squeezed Milan’s hand. ‘I can’t wait for you to find yours, Bro.’ Chris stared at him for a minute, then grinned. Elle stepped up to the high table, looking directly at Iris. “The souls living in the Swamp Lands seek justice for the lives lost. Daughter of the earth,” Elle said, begging Iris. “Please send the man named Rick to the underworld with the vines of Hel.” “Elle McRieve,” Iris said. “Your request is heard, but I cannot give you your answer without the consent of two others. You must seek their aid.” “Who must I talk to?” Elle asked. Iris smiled at her then directed her gaze to Rory and Milan. “Your true Alpha and his mate, Milan,” Iris said. Elle wasn’t the only one who looked at them. The entire room turned their attention to Milan and Rory. Milan groaned at the attention. ‘This is kinda high profile, Rory.’ ‘You’re high profile, baby.’ Rory teased. ‘Iris is so having fun with this. How are we involved in a sentencing? Rick sounds like scum to me. She should just give Elle what she asks for.’ ‘We can’t avoid it, baby,’ Rory told Milan. ‘We’re going to need to stand up and go to Elle. Can you do it?’ Rory felt anxiety race through Milan and panic rising. For a minute, Rory thought Milan might not manage it but then Milan got up first. His courage racing wild, it was sexy. Rory followed him and listened to Milan take in a steadying breath. Rory took Milan’s hand and led him to Elle, stopping right behind her. He took Milan’s hand and placed it on Elle’s left shoulder, while he touched her right. “Daughter of the earth, we second Elle McRieve’s request,” Rory said, answering on behalf of Milan, as well. “Little Alpha,” Iris said, getting up from her seat. She came around to where Milan stood her gaze full of affection. “I felt your compassion flooding the room. You might not know it, but you’ll be a wonderful influence on all of us. I grant your request. Rick’s ill fate shall not continue. I’m sorry your families have suffered him.” Rory let go of Elle and pulled Milan to his side. Iris approached Rick. The chains Sage used to hold him disappeared and the seal on Rick’s mouth tore open. Rick let out a relieved gasp and shouted, pointing a finger at Rosemary. “You bitch, I killed you. I finished you!” “You tried,” Rosemary’s voice came in a whisper, the damage to her throat clear as she pulled off her scarf. There were deep gouges on her neck. Matt looked away from her when he saw them, grief tensing his shoulders. Rick had taken her voice. “You didn’t succeed. I saw you kill my friends, and when I tried to save them, you stuck me with wolf’s bane and dragged me to the murky swamp waters. You did your best to kill me, but Sanctuary saved me.” Rick stared at her with hatred. “Still, I took years from you and Hillam, at least. He turned into a raging beast without you. There was satisfaction in watching his pain. I’ll take that much.” “Iris,” Connor urged as the town hall erupted into angry shouts at Rick’s words. Milan clung to Rory’s arm when dark green vines broke through the floor, quickly winding around Rick from his legs, up his thighs, then his torso to head. Thick and round they wrapped tight, tighter, then Iris murmured words and the vines dragged Rick down into the floor. In seconds, Principal Rick disappeared, and the floor restored to normal, as though he never existed. The room went silent, as though everyone was afraid to break the spell. The only thing moving was Iris as she waved a hand over the space Rick had sat. Milan imagined she was warding off bad spirits. ‘Iris is frightening,’ Milan noted. ‘Not many people can handle her presence,’ Rory said, agreeing. ‘She’s too powerful.’ ‘Should we sit?’ Milan asked. ‘It’s not over yet,’ Rory said, nodding to his father who now stood facing the town. “These last few weeks have opened my eyes to many issues,” Connor said. “Troubles under the surface of the town: murder, human prejudice, and corruption. I feel ashamed to have not known these things were happening in Portento. Too many have suffered under Rick’s greed. Others because of my own blindness, I can’t believe an entire settlement of souls went unnoticed. On behalf of myself, the Beta and the Third, I apologize to all of you who call Portento home.” Connor bowed his head, and Kutler and Lechter both lowered their heads to the town’s people. When Connor straightened up, he continued. “I would like to propose new changes in the town’s council and a new look at our policies on humans. I want you all to vote on the acceptance of the souls living in the Swamp Lands. We all understand what a mate means to our people. No one should face judgement because of the goddess’s choice. However, everyone in this town needs to be on the same page on this.” Silence filled the town hall at that remark. Rory felt Sanctuary talking to Milan, though he didn’t hear their conversation. Peace flooded him soon through their bond and Rory guessed Sanctuary was having Milan fill the room with more…hope. Rory hid his smile when Mildred Cohagen stood up in middle of the right row. “I would like to say something,” Mildred said, sounding nervous but determined. Her husband sat beside her holding their baby and their daughters sat beside their father. “Sure, Mildred, go ahead,” Connor said. “Well, we’ve all sat here and listened to a list of crimes committed by a man we thought we knew. All of which were designed to break Portento apart. It’s now too clear that Rick was a selfish and evil man. I don’t think it is fair to vote on the future of people who are deserving of living in this town. None of us needed a vote to live here.” “Why not vote when there might be humans among these Swamp Lands people,” a man in the left row said, standing up. “How can we be sure they are good people?” “Rick was a wolf, one of us. Look at what he did.” Mildred pointed out. “Those in the Swamp Lands have provided nothing but kindness to the Third’s mate and Alpha Rory’s mate. They did this despite their losses at Rick’s hands. They are blessings to the town. I think we shouldn’t vote on this. We should offer full acceptance. Anyone else agree?” For a moment, no one spoke, and Rory feared this would turn into a political battle. Then Mildred’s husband stood, followed by their twins. Jack stood, sparking the rise of all his friends. The three hundred or so people in the town hall all stood one by one, until there was no one sitting. Even the man who had shown doubt now stood, albeit still wary of the idea. Mildred came out on to the aisle. She walked to the front and hugged Elle. “My name is Mildred Cohagen,” she said. “If you ever need help, all you need do is ask.” Elle’s eyes filled with tears as she returned Mildred’s hug. “I am Elle McRieve. I thank you for your acceptance.” More people came up to greet Elle. Soon Mildred led Elle back to her seat. More introduced themselves to the others from the Swamp Lands, and the question of whether to accept them into the fold was answered without a vote. Rory and Milan started to go sit, but Iris stopped them. “Well, now that we have that sorted,” Iris said, her voice enough to silence the room. “As one of the council, I would like to remind everyone of the events last week. As you all know, Rory fought his first duel at Biosense a week ago. He defeated Rick’s challenge to take on the role of alpha. He is now Alpha of the Pack. Beside him is his mate, Milan Takeda. After all the sadness, do you agree that it is time to celebrate? Our town shall have a strong future despite the troubles. Am I right or what?” A round of applause roared in the town hall and amid agreements and whistles. “Then, the council shall convene to plan the ceremony,” Iris said, coming to stand beside Milan and pulling him into a hug. She liked Milan, Rory realized, very much. *** The Council relocated to the Mayor’s office. Lisbeth was eager to discover more about Elle and Johan, Hunter cut straight to the point. “With Rick gone, we are left with quite a few loose ends,” Hunter said, moving to sit on of the armchairs in Lisbeth’s huge office. Iris perched on the arm of his chair, nodding her head in agreement. “The high school for sure needs a new head,” Linda said, sitting next to Hunter. “The vice-principal can fill in, but you know that position must be held by a council member.” “Hunter,” Kutler said, standing next to Connor. “What do you think?” “I don’t have the patience to deal with teenagers,” Hunter shook his head. “Iris?” “No,” Linda, Lisbeth and Lechter all said at once, shaking their heads. Iris laughed. “I can do it,” Iris said. “I like young minds. So full of potential, they are. Why do you all look so frightened?” “If you want work, I’ll give it to you,” Connor said. “Kutler needs help negotiating terms with the Swamp Lands on the logging. He’d love your input there.” “I’m likely to side with the Swamp Lands,” Iris told him. “Kutler?” Connor prompted. “I would love your help,” Kutler said to Iris, with a strained smile. “Fine, I’m sure that will be entertaining anyway,” Iris said. “Who will you make Principal then?” “Elle,” Connor asked, looking to her. “You’re the only one without a current post. Sage runs her hotel. Linda is at the grocery store. Lisbeth is here. That leaves you.” “You would trust me with your children?” Elle asked, a bit awed by this invitation. “You have a nurturing nature,” Linda said, in agreement. “They’ll also learn from you.” Elle smiled, and nodded, looking to Johan in excitement. “Then, I’ll accept,” Elle said. “Great,” Connor sat down on a bench set by the window and turned to Lisbeth. “Biosense. We’re in a disadvantage with them so close, Lisbeth. Cade Ogawa was too close, even with Rick’s help.” “Cade Ogawa is a complication,” Linda said, staring at her nails. “His son is my son’s mate. We cannot bring him harm. Nisin is one of us now.” “Complication is right,” Lisbeth said with a shudder. “Biosense is huge, Connor. They will get curious if a branch goes silent with no explanation.” “What about the Takedas,” Iris suggested. “Both are doctors who spent their lives doing research one or another. Can’t we enlist their help with Biosense?” Connor sighed. “Ilaria flew out of here like a bat out of hell. They might have to stay and takeover Biosense. How do we convince her to come back?” “Simple,” Iris smiled. “Her son. She would do it to protect Milan.” Linda nodded. “That’s an idea. Still doesn’t give us a solution about Cade and Nisin.” “His fate would be death,” Lechter said, making Linda sit up, her gaze narrowed at him. “Relax, I’m not asking for that. Cade is too ambitious. You don’t get to his position with a passive attitude. We can’t kill him. We can’t have him staying in Portento as Biosense head. So, why don’t we strip him of his memories?” Linda thought about it for a moment, and then turned to Sage. “Can you remove all his Biosense memories?” “That will get complicated if we have someone else taking over Biosense,” Sage said, pacing the length of Lisbeth’s desk. “If the Takedas agree, don’t you think they’ll want to know everything Cade was working on?” “Use your magic to catalogue all that information,” Iris suggested. “It will give us insight into how Biosense works, and insulate the Takedas from the mothership.” “What do we do with Cade when I’m done?” “Hand him to the guardians,” Connor said. “They’ll make sure no one can reach him. Nisin may visit him as he wishes. The Welfare Office can handle that, can’t they?” “I’ll handle it directly,” Linda said. “Nisin will be my son in-law. I’ll make sure it’s done right.” “Connor, you’ll talk to the Takedas?” Sage asked. “Yes,” Connor nodded. “Finally, Dolon and Lloyd,” Hunter said with a sigh. “Dolon’s condition can be reversed. The hospital is already on it, he didn’t get too much of that poison Rick wanted. His parents are worried though. Their son attacked an Alpha’s mate.” “Rory will reach out to them after Dolon gets better,” Connor decided. “Besides, I’m hoping this has taught Dolon a lesson. He should stop pushing Rory and Chris’s buttons now.” “They burned Lloyd’s body yesterday,” Lechter said. “He didn’t make it.” “I’m curious about why Rick didn’t have the same stench as Lloyd and even Dolon from that poison,” Hunter said. “I could barely stand in the hallway when he was at the end of the room.” “Rick was corrupted from the start,” Connor said. “I would have smelled that corruption, but he took measures to hide it.” “How?” Linda asked. “This,” Sage held up a bunch of dried wolf’s bane. “It will blind any wolf’s senses, even an Alpha. He must have used it long enough. I doubt anyone knew his real scent.” “Should we ban wolf’s bane from the town?” Linda asked. “What’s the point?” Kutler asked. “If someone is determined to get it, they’ll find it.” “How do we know if there are no more Rick’s hiding among us?” Lisbeth wondered. “The golden pair,” Iris said with a smile. “You mean Rory and Milan,” Connor said, narrowing his gaze at her. “Yes,” Iris said, looking tickled. “I felt it today in the hall. Milan took Elle’s pain and turning the room away from anger and disagreements. Sanctuary is alive again, playing her part. Those two will keep Portento clean.” “They’re still too young,” Kutler said. “So much to learn.” “I’m willing to nurture,” Elle said, looking as excited as Iris. “Me too,” Iris said. “Are you sure I can’t teach at the high school?” “What would you teach?” Hunter asked, placing a hand on Iris’s knee. “History,” Iris said, taking Hunter’s hand and placing it on his lap. “I have a long memory.” “You’ll frighten the children,” Hunter teased. “Children need frightening so that they don’t repeat history,” Iris said, her voice making even Connor shiver. “Iris, that’s a no on frightening children. Work with Kutler.” Lisbeth stood up. “I’m glad to see the end of this trouble. It’s sad about Rick. Iris was right about a celebration. Rory is eighteen. It’s the right time to start learning how the council works. Plus, he’s graduating from high school this year.” “Then spring is the perfect time for celebration,” Sage said, making magical flower petals rain down in the room. “The trees will have woken, the flowers blooming, the ice melted.” “Rory wants to take Milan on a trip to Italy,” Iris said. “I heard them talking about it in whisper from the trees. We can help them plan for it.” Connor rubbed his eyes and stood up too. “That would include engaging the services of the guardians.” “Anything for them,” Iris insisted. “Think of Milan as my son from now on, Connor Morgan. I’m your in-law.” Connor chuckled at that and when Iris got up, he raised his arms in surrender. “Yep, totally, I understand. Let’s end this meeting. I have things to do,” Connor said, heading for the door. “Sage, let me know what happens with Cade. I’ll call the Takedas tonight.” ***
  3. 77 points
    Chapter 30 Sinking fingers into dirt Rory woke up to a warm weight on his stomach. Rubbing his eyes, he lifted his head and smiled when he saw Milan’s head resting on his stomach. Milan sprawled on the rest of their huge bed, his feet tangled in the sheets. His mate traveled in his sleep. Rory dropped his head back on his comfortable pillow and sunk fingers into soft dark curly hair. He dreamed of this paradise so many nights of this paradise, that he kept touching Milan to know it was real. Milan was now with him, in his bed, his house…his life. Two days and his spirit felt near settled, he couldn’t imagine what two weeks would be like. After that there would be two months, then two years, decades. His blood surged with joy at the prospect of all those nights spent with Milan by his side. Rory took in a deep breath, holding in the scent of mandarin oranges. He breathed out slow and turned his head to look at the time on the bedside table. It was about six o’clock. His clock beeped and he reached for it fast before the alarm went off. He turned off the alarm, and sat up with care, holding on to Milan, so that he wouldn’t wake up yet. He cradled Milan’s head, lifting him up with care and moving him to their shared pillows. Milan shifted then, moving into his arms with a soft sigh. Rory bit back a chuckle and wrapped his arms around Milan, holding him tight. Milan kept sleeping. The wide windows in their bedroom showed off the early morning. Snow fell beyond the windows, turning their world into a winter wonderland. Today would be cold, Rory thought, adjusting the duvet over Milan’s shoulders. Two weeks ago, he would have worried about Milan going out in the cold. Now, he was glad that worry ended. His new concern involved Milan finding his place in the pack house. Rory worried Milan would find life here too different, compared to the Takeda house. Two days in and Milan had not voiced discomfort. Yet, Rory was aware of the tightly coiled knot growing each day Milan woke up. Rory kissed Milan’s forehead. He wondered when Milan would talk about it. *** Milan woke with the sun in his eyes. He let a soft sigh escape and reached for Rory. He turned when his hand touched cool sheets. Sitting up, he stared at the empty space next to him. Rory woke up early. The two days since he moved into Rory’s house, Milan always woke alone. It shouldn’t matter. After all, he had woken up alone all his life. Yet, it felt weird to go to bed with someone and then wake up alone. Folding his legs, he pushed hair out of his face and glanced at the clock on Rory’s side. He frowned when he saw the time. Nine in the morning. He was lucky he was taking time off from school this week. It was already Friday. He talked it over with Rory and decided it was better to start school on Monday. Jack brought him the school work he needed to catch up. A soft knock came on the bedroom door and the door opened before he could invite his visitor. “Hi Milan,” Maryanne greeted him, entering the bedroom. She looked pretty in a long black polka dot skirt and cute frilly top. Her brown hair piled on her head with pins. She waved at him, her smile infectious. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” Maryanne said, coming to sit on the side of the bed. “Rory would have my head.” Milan shook his head with a smile. He liked Maryanne. She was older than him by a year, and went to the same school as Ayu. She was also Topher’s mate. Milan blushed every time he saw them making out in the kitchen. Which was often. “I don’t have classes today,” Maryanne said, reaching for his left hand. “I thought we can hang out. We haven’t gotten a chance to know each other.” Milan squeezed her hand tight, grateful for her. She included him when he felt a tad intimidated by the tight-knit web in the pack house. He was trying his best to get along with everyone, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his family. Missed the solid acceptance of their love. Here, he was the outsider. Rory would pinch him if he heard him say that, but Milan couldn’t help feeling it. “What do you say?” Maryanne prompted, tagging on his hand, when he didn’t reply in time. “I’d love to hang out with you,” Milan said, smiling at her. ‘Morning, Cucciolo,’ Rory spoke to him through their private connection. It still felt so intimate to do so. Milan wondered how much of Rory felt from him. ‘Morning.’ Milan replied. ‘You didn’t wake me,’ Milan chided. ‘I told you to whenever you’re about to leave.’ ‘Didn’t have the heart to wake you. I’ll be home in the next fifteen minutes.’ ‘Okay.’ Milan pushed the covers away. “Rory had to help plow the streets early,” Maryanne said, studying him. “Topher went out with him. They got a call from Alpha Connor.” “Does it happen often?” Milan asked, intrigued by this new side of Rory. He hadn’t known the number of responsibilities Rory had until now. “When the snowfall is too heavy,” Maryanne said. “The Sheriff’s office runs a service, but when everyone is called out, Rory, Matt and Topher help out where they can.” Milan nodded. He now knew that Topher and Matt were Rory’s best friends, as well as the pack’s Beta and Third. Titles he discovered were important in the grand scale of things. There was still so much to learn. Milan got out of bed, adjusting his t-shirt, and the waistband of his pajama bottoms. “Let me shower real quick, then we can have breakfast,” Milan told Maryanne. “Sounds good. I’ll wait,” Maryanne said, sprawling on the huge bed, her skirt fanning out around her. “You look pretty today,” Milan said as he entered the bathroom. Maryanne grinned wide. *** Rory entered the house through the garage completed a week ago thanks to Jack Bennet. He paused to remove his boots, and stepped into a short corridor outside the kitchen on socked feet. He paused at the door into the kitchen when he heard Milan laugh. “Wait, wait, you’re adding too much,” Milan said. “Let me, gosh, no matter how awesome the machine, the batter will overflow if you put in that much. I did it once and the batter ended up on the counter. Marie made me clean it for hours.” Maryanne laughed, and Rory peeked in to the kitchen to see Milan standing next to Maryanne by the cooking range. The waffle maker on while Milan poured in batter. He closed the top and stood to wait for their waffles to cook. When it was ready, Maryanne opened the lid, her excitement hard to ignore. When the waffle turned out well done, she gave a happy shout and hugged Milan. “I haven’t ever made edible waffles. This is awesome, Milan. I love you. You’re not allowed to ever leave this house,” Maryanne gushed, smacking a kiss on Milan’s cheek. She let go of him as he placed the waffle on a plate and started to make the next one. “Let me try.” Rory watched them for a second more, then wanting to join in the fun, entered the kitchen. Milan looked up the second he entered the kitchen. His ready smile enough to turn Rory into a soppy fool. He walked up to Milan and wound an arm around him, pulling him into a hungry kiss. Milan leaned into him, allowing the kiss. When Rory broke it, he started to move away but Rory wouldn’t let him go. Instead, he kept holding Milan around his waist. “Rory,” Milan started. “What are you making?” Rory asked, resting his chin on Milan’s shoulder. “Maryanne can’t cook to save her life, you know. We’ve had to get breakfast from the main kitchen.” “That’s so rude,” Maryanne scowled at him. “I can boil water, with the kettle, and make coffee, with the espresso machine. How much more cooking does a girl need?” Milan chuckled prompting Maryanne to open the waffle maker before she burnt the new batch of waffles. Rory kept holding Milan, even when he took over the waffle-making from Maryanne. It felt good to stand in their kitchen, making a late breakfast, with no looming news over their heads. Rory’s stomach growled and Milan chuckled. “Hungry?” Milan asked. “Starving,” Rory murmured, pressing a kiss on Milan’s left ear, making him shiver. “You can have a waffle,” Milan suggested as he placed a new batch on the plate next to Maryanne. “It’s better when we’re all eating at the same time,” Rory said, glancing at Maryanne without moving his head from Milan’s shoulder. “How come you didn’t go to school today?” “It’s Friday,” Maryanne said. “Don’t have any classes. Milan promised to hang out with me. I usually help out the welfare office today. I thought we could hang together.” Rory sighed, wishing he could spend the rest of the day with Milan. Too bad he couldn’t, he had a meeting with Elle and Johan. They had finally agreed to come into the main town. They didn’t want to meet at the pack house, so he was to meet them in an open space right outside the swamp. “Rory,” Milan cut into his thoughts. “Mm.” “I want to wash the bowl,” Milan said, holding the bowl he used to mix batter and a spatula. Maryanne was busy cutting the waffles and placing them on a large platter. She moved away to find maple syrup and honey. Rory buried his nose into Milan’s neck and breathed him in. Mint and avocado from his shower. It pleased him to know that Milan used his hair shampoo. ‘I like you smelling like my shampoo.’ Rory pressed a kiss on his neck and Milan leaned into him. ‘I’m still annoyed with you for leaving me this morning. Move.’ ‘I wanted you to sleep longer.’ ‘I told you to tell me when you leave,’ Milan insisted, going to the sink. Rory followed him, wrapping his arms around Milan’s waist as Milan turned on water and started to wash the bowl. ‘I’ll wake you next time,’ Rory promised. ‘You said that yesterday,’ Milan pointed out. Rory rested his head on Milan’s shoulder again and let out a sigh. ‘Milan,’ he groaned. ‘I really have no power when I look at your sleeping face. It’s really hard for me to wake you.’ ‘Don’t be cute with me.’ ‘I’m being serious,’ Rory said. Milan chuckled as he placed the bowl in the draining rack. He flicked water at Rory’s face, and Rory tightened his hold on Milan in retaliation, turning him around to kiss him. A quick, hasty kiss as Maryanne entered the kitchen and gave them a short whistle. “Time to eat, guys,” Maryanne said. Milan kissed Rory’s cheek and pushed Rory to sit at the island table. “I’ll get you orange juice,” Milan said as Rory sat, and went to the fridge to get the bottle. “Looks like we need to do shopping. There’s barely any food in here.” Rory turned to Maryanne. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to Linda about stocking this part of the house.” “I’m heading to the welfare office today, with Milan,” Maryanne said as she sat. She got a waffle and immediately drenched it with maple syrup. “I’ll do up the forms to set up the secondary house.” “Thanks,” Rory smiled at her as he got five waffles and placed them on his plate. Milan placed a glass of orange juice for him, then Maryanne, and finally sat down beside Rory. Breakfast was everything Rory could have hoped. He felt happy watching Milan and Maryanne get along, joking about cooking, and teasing Rory when he ate too fast. Rory made sure Milan drank his orange juice. He wondered if the method Maria used for fresh juice was written in the book she gave him. Just because Milan was now healed didn’t mean he should stop eating healthy. He was a freshly turned wolf. He needed plenty of rest, and eat well. “Iris mentioned a town meeting?” Milan cut into his thoughts. “She said to ask you about it. What’s the meeting for?” Rory picked up his glass of orange juice and drank deep. His meeting with Johan and Elle had a lot to do with the town meeting. The wolves in the Swamp Lands had a lot to negotiate before they decided to join the council. Maryanne and Milan would be required to attend the meeting in an official capacity. It would be good for them to know what the meeting was about. “Milan,” Rory shifted in his seat so that he could look at Milan. “Since you moved into this town, there has been a lot going on in the pack house.” “A lot how?” Milan asked. Rory glanced at Maryanne and she gave him a short nod, urging him to continue. It was time Milan knew the truth anyway. He now had to help Rory lead the pack. “The Portento Pack has laws,” Rory said, taking Milan’s hand. “One of those laws deals with humans living or moving into Portento. To protect who we are, what we are, humans are often moved out of the town, as fast and as quickly as possible. For a long time, decades before me, before my father, all wolves in Portento have followed this law. Sometimes, it caused more trouble than it should have. It has led to long-standing prejudice against humans. And, a fracture in the town’s people.” “That’s why no one wanted to socialize with us,” Milan said, in surprise. “Mamma told me that apart from Linda at the grocery store, no one wanted to get close to her at work. She always felt like an outsider.” “Not her fault,” Rory said, shaking his head. “She didn’t seem to mind going to work and getting home to Marie and you guys. Linda was a good friend to her. I didn’t think she needed more.” Milan stared at their clasped hands. “No wonder she wanted to leave.” “Milan.” “It’s okay,” Milan said, squeezing his hand. “Continue. What’s changed?” “Everything,” Rory said, with a small smile. “When I discovered you were my mate, I decided to find a way to change the law of not letting humans stay in this town. On that journey, I discovered Johan and Elle who live in the Swamp Lands. Their people have embraced human mates, and build a strong community. Then, our coming together, you and me, fulfilled an old prophecy by the goddess called The Morgan Lore.” “What’s the prophecy?” Milan asked. “Portento is considered sanctuary to all in need. Most times, those in need have been of our kind. Enchanted souls who face unimaginable pain from the humans beyond our borders. They seek refuge within our borders. However, there are humans too who seek sanctuary. The goddess calls them her chosen children. You and Nisin are the first I’ve met. Those in the Swamp Lands are another example. Elle’s ancestors came from one such as you.” “So, the town meeting?” “Yes, the town meeting is going to serve as a way to amend that law, to include you, your family and all those in the Swamp Lands.” Milan took in a deep breath, holding Rory’s hand with both his hands. “Is this what you’ve been dealing with alone?” Rory smiled and leaned over to kiss Milan’s forehead. “I told you I would deal with anything for you.” “So, what else are you discussing at the town meeting?” Maryanne asked, piling their plates into a small stack. “Well, there is the matter of Rick,” Rory said. “He violated all the laws possible in this town. His vengeful heart almost destroyed you, your father, and Cade Ogawa.” “Cade Ogawa is Papa’s best friend,” Milan said, his tone full of regret. “I never met him, but Papa speaks highly of him. He’s the big boss at Biosense.” “Yes. A big boss who tricked your father into creating poison using Rick’s blood. He knew about Lloyd turning himself into that horrible wolf,” Maryanne shuddered. “Who knows what would have happened if he succeeded.” “He’s Nisin’s Papa,” Milan said, with a frown. Rory brought Milan’s hand to his lips. “Which is why his fate shall be decided at the town meeting. Rick approached him first. It’s impossible to know we exist without one of us revealing it. Rick would have deliberately met Cade and revealed himself. Cade would not have pulled in his best friend without the proof of wolves from Rick.” “It’s all wrong,” Maryanne shook her head. She met Milan’s worried gaze and shrugged. “I know Cade is a friend to your father, but what he did, after knowing, allowing the creation of that poison is wrong. He is not a good person.” Milan bit his lip and shook his head. “I don’t know what’s okay. I just…Nisin doesn’t deserve to lose his Papa.” “Well, it will all get decided tomorrow,” Rory said, pulling Milan on to his lap. He held him tight. “The town meeting is happening tomorrow afternoon. Everyone is required to attend.” “Even me?” Milan asked, resting his head on Rory’s chest. “Especially you,” Rory said, caressing his cheek. “You’ll keep me from killing Rick. Otherwise, I’ll just give in to my anger that he stabbed you and kill him.” Maryanne chuckled and got up to take their dirty plates to the sink. As she washed, Rory held Milan for a few more minutes. “Okay. I’ll come with you. What are you doing today?” Milan asked. “Meeting Johan and Elle,” Rory said. “It might take a while, as they want to give me the list of things the Swamp Lands want negotiated. Then I’ll come back home and hang with you.” “I’ll be with Maryanne,” Milan said, meeting Rory’s blue gaze, reaching up to rub Rory’s stubble, then tracing his lips with his thumb. “Wherever she’ll take me.” “I’ll find you,” Rory said. “I miss you already.” Milan held him then, and pressed a chaste kiss on Rory’s left ear. “Hurry back then.” *** Discovering the offices behind the huge house he called home, Milan moved from one door to the next, amazed by the organization. It was like working in a real company or something like that. His parents lived a migrant life, so he had never gotten the opportunity to see them in real offices, only labs and hospitals. This was so different. “The Welfare Office takes care of any issues people might have in Portento.” “Like what?” Milan asked. “Well,” Maryanne rested her left arm around his shoulders. She was taller than him and at a comfortable height to do so. “Our town is just like every other town out there. We take care of the elderly, and any children who came to us needing sanctuary.” Maryanne stopped them at the counter in the welfare office. She picked up a clipboard and found her name. “Like today, we’re on the roaster to drop supplies off to a Ms. Maggie Steel. She just gave birth three weeks ago. She lives alone, but one of the ladies from this office is staying with her.” “Oh cool,” Milan took the clipboard from her. “It’s almost like social work.” “Yeah,” Maryanne smiled. “Much easier than security which is where Topher, Matt and Rory end up most of the time.” “What happens in the security office?” Milan asked, taking the pen Maryanne gave him to sign his name on the clipboard next to Maryanne's. “Dealing with rowdy teenagers, spells gone wrong with the warlock kids, sometimes adult warlocks who are more scary. Fires, breaks in the barriers around Portento,” Maryanne shuddered. “People are into weird stuff in this town.” Milan followed Maryanne behind the counter into an open hall. It was already busy with hundreds of cartons awaiting delivery. One of the ladies handing out the cartons saw Milan and Maryanne and hurried to them. “Hi Annie!” Maryanne greeted her. “Maryanne,” Annie said, her gaze on Milan. Her brown hair in a tight ponytail. She studied Milan with a curious gaze. One that left him wanting to step behind Maryanne. Milan didn’t like Annie’s study of him. “Is this him?” “This is Milan Takeda Morgan,” Maryanne introduced him. Her addition of Rory’s name to his had Milan’s gaze widening. ‘Since when am I a Morgan?’ Milan asked Rory. ‘Maryanne is introducing me with your last name.’ ‘The moment you let me change you,’ Rory said, his answer smug. ‘Does that mean we’re married?’ Milan asked in surprise. Why hadn’t he thought of it that way? Being Rory’s mate was for life, he knew that. Still— ‘You pulled me into your house with my eyes closed. I can’t believe you. I so want a real wedding, Rory Morgan, a real proposal before that, you punk!’ Rory chuckled again, his laughter flooding their bond. ‘I love you being a Morgan, Milan.’ Milan rolled his eyes and shook his head, returning his attention to Maryanne and Annie. They both looked at him with interest. He had clearly missed a comment or question. He ignored it and jumped right in. “Well, where are the supply boxes. I’ll carry them, Maryanne. I hope you’re the one driving. I haven’t gotten a chance to practice since I landed here. I might send us into a ditch if I drive.” “I’ll drive,” Maryanne said, with a short laugh. Annie frowned, turning away with a blush as she led them to three huge boxes filled with groceries and baby supplies. Milan took up the first box, loving the ease with which he picked up the box. He had so much strength now, he loved it. Heading out of the room, he went outside the back door to the car Maryanne pointed out was theirs to use. Maryanne followed him with the second box, and when he went to get the last box, he found Annie waiting for him. Milan smiled at her, then started to move around her to get the box, only for her to block his way. “Why would he choose you?” Annie asked him. “There is nothing special about you. You were once a human. Why?” Milan stepped back and met her gaze, not surprised when he saw anger in her eyes. She wasn’t friendly. Milan decided to play stupid. “What are you talking about?” “You don’t even know anything about Portento, or our people. How will he make it with you?” “Oh, you mean Rory?” Milan asked, staring at her with wide eyes. “He’s strong and smart, you know. He can handle anything.” She scowled at him and he grinned. “You’re so serious,” Milan said. “Stop thinking so hard, and let me by. I need to get that box.” “I’m having a serious discussion with you.” “You’re not,” Milan said, meeting her gaze. “Step aside.” A hand shot over his right hand, slender fingers wrapped around Annie’s neck and Milan turned to see Maryanne glaring at Annie. “He said step aside,” Maryanne said, her tone chilly. “Who are you to stand in his way?” Milan reached out and took Maryanne’s hand, pulling it away from Annie’s neck. Annie stumbled back, drawing the gazes of everyone in the hall. Milan steadied her and moved her to the side. “Annie, was it?” Milan asked. When she nodded, he patted her cheek. “I won’t answer your questions because I don’t think you have the right to an answer. Not when you asked them the way you did. However, whatever I need to learn to help Rory, I’ll learn it. Don’t worry too much. I’m a quick study.” Giving her a short nod, he picked up the last box. “Maryanne, let’s go.” Maryanne gave Annie a warning glance, then led the way out of the hall. She didn’t talk until they were on the road heading to Maggie Steel’s house. “You’re going to get a bunch of them acting like Annie,” Maryanne said, shifting gears, her jaw set. “They think they have the right to have mated with the Alpha. It pisses me off when they act that way. Clearly, the goddess has made her decision, who are they to question it. They forget, Rory’s your choice too.” Milan leaned over to kiss Maryanne’s cheek. “Thank you for being angry on my behalf.” “I’ll beat them to the ground for you,” Maryanne said. “You don’t even have to ask.” Milan chuckled, folding his arms against his chest. Maryanne looked at him with a skeptical glance, a brow raised. “What?” “It’s the first time,” Milan said. “First time for what?” “First time to be someone’s envy,” Milan laughed. “It’s not a pretty thing, but I can’t say that I’m not tickled about this.” “Gosh, you’re cute,” Maryanne said, reaching for the radio dial. She tuned to a local station playing rock music, and settled in for the drive. Milan enjoyed spending time with Maryanne. Maggie Steel’s house was close to Jet’s farm. After their delivery, Milan wrote Jet a message asking him if he was around. Just their luck, Jet was home from school too, so they drove up to the large farmhouse. Milan hugged Jet hard when they saw each other. He couldn’t help a chuckle when Jet blushed from Maryanne kissing his cheek. “I’m helping my grandma plant strawberries in the green house. Want to help?” Jet asked. “Sure,” Milan said, eager to get dirty. It would be his first time planting anything. His mother never allowed him near dirt. “You’ll have to promise to do my manicure later,” Maryanne said, waving her red nails at them. “Ask Rowan to do it,” Milan teased her. “No way, that little warlock will turn them black,” Maryanne protested, as they headed to the green house. In minutes, Milan’s fingers were sunk deep in optimized soil. He lifted them out, enjoying the texture of the soil running over his skin. Grinning like a crazy man, he sunk his fingers deep again, excited by the feel of touching dirt. *** Rory found Milan at Jet’s farm. His mate was busy potting strawberries, a smudge of dirt on his cheek as he planted a fragile strawberry seedling into a pot. He looked happy. Excited to be working with Jet and his grandmother, while Maryanne stood a few feet away. She had a plate of strawberries beside her, which she popped into her mouth and chewed with relish. She winked at him when she saw him walk in. Rory brought his finger to his lips stopping her from alerting Milan to his presence. He came up behind Milan, wrapping his arms around Milan tight, getting a kick out of Milan jumping up in surprise. Rory kissed his cheek, moving his mouth along Milan’s jaw to his neck, leaving a trail of kisses. “Stop that,” Milan said, his tone amused as he steadied the pot he held. “If you make me break the roots, you’re going to help me plant the next one.” “Should we take some home?” Rory asked. “Can we?” Milan asked, looking at him, pleading. “I don’t know if they can survive the cold outside the green house,” Rory frowned. “We can put them on the kitchen table.” “Just two pots then,” Milan said. “Then in the summer, we’ll try to plant our own. I’ve never planted anything in my life.” “Then we’ll plant a summer garden,” Rory said, rocking him from side to side. “How are Elle and Johan?” Milan asked. “They're well. They wanted to see you today. Said it was sad I didn’t bring you along,” Rory said, thinking of Elle’s disappointed gaze. She had a real soft spot for Milan. “Well, I can see them tomorrow if they show up for the town meeting.” “They will,” Rory said, he had gotten their promise. Milan finished with the strawberry he was planting and lifted the pot, proud of his work. “It looks good. We should take this one,” Rory said. “We’ll take care of it together.” “Like a pet?” “Yeah, sure. A strawberry plant pet,” Rory said, with a chuckle. “I can get behind that,” Milan said with a satisfied nod. “Want to go on a date with me?” Rory asked. Milan placed his strawberry pot on the worktable and turned in Rory’s arms to look at him. His brown eyes wide with excitement. “Are you being serious right now?” Milan asked, lifting his dirty fingers up so that he wouldn’t touch Rory’s nice blue sweater. “Quite,” Rory nodded. “We never got to go out on a date. I want to take you out, Milan.” Milan smiled, staring at Rory. When he didn’t speak, Rory peered at him, wondering if he had stunned him with the request. A chuckle broke when Milan got up on his toes, cupped his jaw with his muddy hands and kissed him. It was the sweetest kiss he ever received from Milan, Rory thought as he wrapped his arms around Milan and lifted him against him. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Rory said, when they broke their kiss for a second. “Yes,” Milan said, smiling hard. Rory fell a bit more in love with Milan in that second. He couldn’t imagine a moment in his life without Milan Takeda. It just wouldn't be worth living. ***
  4. 75 points
    “Guys, guys, gimmie a break.” CJ’s plea silenced the barrage of questions assaulting him. “I just told you everything I know. Sorry, Thiago, but I think Ozzie and I need to get to my parents. I’ll call you as soon as we know more. We’ll do this again whenever you have time.” “Fuck you, homes. You’re nuts if you think I’m going home now. I’m coming with. I’ll call my mom and let her know what’s happening.” CJ’s sad half-smile conveyed satisfaction. The Squad hung together in good and bad times, and always had each other’s backs. “Fine, you call your parents.” Channeling his fathers’ lessons, he started planning the way César did and issuing orders as Brett would. “Tank, you let Danno and Trip know in case my dads haven’t called them. Ozzie, get us an Uber. Harley, text the rest of the gang so they know what’s going on.” Nobody objected to the demanding tone and absence of please. This was an emergency and they were ready to follow their leader without objection. The short ride to Georgetown had all four men focused on their phones as messages streamed in; Carson said he would meet them at the house after he dropped off his date. Kim, Harley’s girlfriend, sent her regards and promised prayers for the injured soldier. Patrick told them he was on his way to his mother’s house. CJ rushed to the front door while Owen, Harley, and Thiago followed a step behind. Adrenaline coursed through his bloodstream; his fingers were unable to follow brain commands. He input the wrong code on the lock twice, then fumbled and dropped the keys while trying to open it the old-fashioned way. Frustrated, he resorted to banging on it with his palm. “Shhh.” Brett held a finger to his lips as he threw the door open. “Tom’s talking to his ex-wife.” “…because he didn’t want you to hear it from a stranger, Hilary. Yes, I knew he had me as the emergency contact, and I promised I wouldn’t tell you. I also promised if something happened, I’d call you, and let you know whatever I heard.” Tom Kennedy sat on the couch facing the floor-to-ceiling front windows, but his arms and legs were in constant motion. Tapping heel-to-toe on the floor, he repeatedly ran a hand over his shaved head, while the other one held the phone. “That was CJ banging on the front door. He was out to dinner and one of his dads called him.” Tom waved at the newcomers with a grim expression. “Jesus, Hilary, how many times I have to tell you I know nothing else?” Tom took a long pull from the beer bottle on the coffee table. “Look, sorry I sound upset, but I am upset. I’m freaking out as much as you are.” CJ hugged JP, and after Owen, Harley, and Thiago dropped the food on the kitchen counter, they repeated the greeting. “Hilary! The man who called me wouldn’t even tell me where he was calling from. He said Brad was alive and being flown to Germany. He said there were casualties. His unit’s on blackout until the relatives of the dead service members are notified. None of his fellow soldiers are gonna call us no matter what Brad may have told you. But the man promised someone at Landstuhl would get in touch as soon as our boy got to the medical center.” The early-spring evening was cool and windows were open. Hands inside his hoodie’s pockets, CJ gave himself half a hug. He did not know if the chill he felt was due to weather or circumstances. When he heard the rumble of a motorcycle, he assumed it was Dragon since Harley was already with them. He motioned for one of the other guys to open the back door. Devon Marvin Jefferson, an African-America DC native, belonged to the fathers’ group of friends calling themselves The Elite. The tall, muscular man graduated from Howard University’s School of Social Work and was employed by the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services agency. César and Brett had relied on his advice to help their son deal with his exile from Miami, and later with Ritchie after the boy lost both parents in a boating incident. The conversations between CJ and Dragon forged a special bond between them; the younger man often called on the older one when facing challenges. “Hey, Dragon.” Owen raised the bottle in his hand. “Want a beer?” “Yeah, I have a feeling I’m going to need a couple of them before the night’s over.” “That was a motorcycle engine. I’m guessing it’s our friend Dragon. All the other bikers are already here.” Tom did not bother to look at the new arrival; his eyes remained firmly affixed to a spot on the floor. “Okay, I’m not sure what else I can tell you. Of course I’ll call if I hear anything. No matter what time.” The call finished, Tom stood and gave everyone a sad smile. “You guys could have finished your meal, you know? Not much we can do.” CJ had not seen the police officer look so haggard since he was shot years before. That was a weekend CJ did not want to relive. “Right! As if… Not a chance I could have eaten.” CJ wrapped his arms around the taller man and held him while Tom began to sob. If the red-rimmed eyes were an indication, this was not the night’s first bout of tears. “Okay, what are we doing? Has anyone checked flights to Germany yet? Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s right next to Ramstein Air Base where I used to live. We need to fly to Frankfurt and—” “CJ!” César’s shout made him stop talking. “Slow down, buddy. Why don’t you join the other guys and eat whatever you brought home?” “Your dad’s right.” Tom clasped his shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “You should eat. Anyway, there’s no reason to go flying off to Germany until we know more.” “Bullshit! I’m not letting Brad be in a hospital by himself. Not when we can be there.” He turned around and stared at his friends sitting at the breakfast bar. “Harley! You’re better at this shit than any of us. Get online and find me flights from Washington to Frankfurt.” “Dude, slow your roll.” Brett grasped CJ’s arm and turned him around so they could look at each other. “The Pentagon has military-wide standards they’ll follow. There’s no need to go flying off halfway around the world until we know more.” César approached them and the two fathers bracketed their son. “You have school to worry about anyway. It’s not like you can just up and leave. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but—” CJ shook free of Brett and took a step away from his fathers. “What I’m thinking is my brother’s hurt, and I’m going to see him. The same I’d do for Ritchie. Or for Ozzie. Or for any of you.” CJ’s tone kept rising. He recognized his growing anxiety and sought to calm himself with regular, deep breaths. “And screw classes. If I managed to survive missing a shitload of them for a stupid election, I’ll manage this. They can all flunk me for all I care. I’ll take them over next semester.” “CJ, that was your first semester in school. And you had the support of higher-ups. This is different.” “Damn right it’s different. This isn’t fucking Clinton. This is Brad!” “Here, I poured you a glass.” CJ was so caught up arguing with his parents he failed to notice Owen approach. “César, Brett, please give us a minute alone.” “Thank you.” CJ sipped his wine, trying not to guzzle it down. He realized he was overexcited and needed to calm down. These were the times he missed pot. “Sorry I’ve been ignoring you.” “You haven’t. But I think you need to chill.” Owen leaned in and gave his husband a kiss. “I don’t know why the dads bother to argue with you. By now, they should realize they can’t win. Remind me never to become so overprotective with our kids.” CJ chuckled. Owen definitely knew how to improve his moods. “Nah, we’ll be even cooler dads than those two.” “I’ll hold you to that. Now, you do realize the trip may not accomplish much. At most, I see it giving you a little peace of mind. And helping Brad realize he’s not alone at a—“ The ringing made everyone turn and stare at the coffee table where Tom had left his phone. It took a fraction of a second for him to snatch it up and answer without looking at the screen. “Hello?” After a moment listening, Tom’s shoulders dropped, he sighed, and reclaimed his seat. “It’s Patrick,” he announced to the room. Owen steered CJ back toward his fathers and the others. “Dads, stop arguing with him. CJ’s made up his mind. No matter what anyone says, he’s going to Germany. Let’s work on this together. Harley, what do you have?” “Bruh, there’s a gazillion flights. Looks like the most popular ones leave here in the afternoon and land in Germany the following morning. About eight hours flying and a six-hour time difference. I checked for you; you don’t need a visa. You have to pick an airline, though.” “Don’t listen to what any of them say. You do what feels right to you. Even if my dad fights you on it. Hell, I’d be going too, but I think I need to stick around here. I’m headed over to Mom and Mac’s place and I think I’ll stay there until things settle down.” Patrick asked to speak with CJ after his dad finished filling him in on what he knew; Hilary was hysterical when she spoke to her youngest son, and her husband suggested Patrick call his dad for details. CJ studied the faces of the men staring at him after ending the call and focused on Dragon. “What do you think? Preach says I should go for it.” The carefully worded reply was typical of the tall man’s approach to conflict resolution. “I agree with your fathers and Tom you may not accomplish much by flying to Germany. However, the importance of seeing for yourself how Bradley is can’t be discounted.” Although he spoke to CJ, everyone else paid rapt attention. “Often, bringing a sense of peace to those affected is as much a priority as healing the wounded. That includes physical and mental wounds. You should do what you feel’s right.” Dragon echoing the words of the injured soldier’s brother brought a smile to CJ’s face. “And let’s face it, you may not solve anything, but I doubt very much you’ll do any harm. If Brad’s conscious, the presence of someone dear to him may just improve his chances of recovery.” With Owen’s calm demeanor paving the way, they reached an agreement soon after Patrick’s call: CJ and Tom would fly to Germany the next day. CJ admitted he was spoiled, wanted to fly business class, and knew last-minute tickets were expensive. Tom balked at the cost, but César and Brett talked him into letting them pay for the flights as their contribution to the effort. They pointed out Tom would benefit from the added comfort during the long flight, and did not want him to feel pressure about flying anything other than coach. Harley made the reservations using César’s credit card. Prior to their departure, Tom received two more phone calls, so they had a better idea what to expect upon arrival. Once on the ground in Frankfurt, CJ insisted on driving the rental car, claiming his knowledge of German would help reading street signs. It was a flimsy excuse, but he felt Tom was still too distraught to be behind the wheel. At the hospital, the liaison officer assigned to them explained Brad was in surgery again. “He won’t be out for a couple of hours, Mr. Kennedy. You mentioned you’d driven straight here from the airport. May I suggest you go to your hotel, rest and freshen up, and then return? I’ll arrange to have the orthopedic surgeon and your son’s primary physician available to speak with you then.” CJ remained quiet while Captain Israel Menendez gave them an abbreviated report on Brad. He was experiencing déjà vu about dealing with similar conversations after Brett was injured in a helicopter crash. “Excuse me, Captain. We were unsure what to expect and didn’t bother making hotel reservations. Could you suggest a place?” “I’ll do one better.” The man reached into his desk’s top drawer and retrieved a piece of paper he placed in front of the two visitors. “This is a list of lodging close by. If you pick one, I’ll call and book rooms for you. All these cater to American visitors to the hospital and the base.” “How about the closest one?” Tom glanced at CJ who nodded. It was an easy walk since they only had overnight bags with them. After checking in, they agreed to meet later, once they had cleaned up and changed. Uncertain about what to expect back at the hospital, the two men stopped to eat. When they returned a couple of hours later, Brad was out of the operating room and in recovery. “I can’t discuss the nature of the mission Sergeant Kennedy was involved in at the time of his injury. It’s classified. What I’m allowed to tell you is that when the vehicle hit the improvised explosive device, your son was driving. The man in the passenger seat perished, but the other occupants survived.” The medical explanations did not register in their entirety with CJ. The physicians discussed recovery period, transfer to a stateside facility, and the very likely possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder. They all assured Tom and CJ the military would do its part, but the best medicine would be having a strong support system. CJ almost laughed, thinking how his friend would be smothered with attention by The Squad and others. “Did anyone else survive?” Brad‘s groggy first words were hard to understand, and CJ marveled they were about his companions. The nurse warned them about the sedative in the saline-drip feed. “Hello, son.” Tom sat next to the bed and held one of Brad’s hands. “Yes, they did. There were casualties when the IED went off, and during the firefight afterward, but most of your unit survived. How do you feel? Are you in pain?” “No… I don’t know… Guess I’m okay.” Brad did not seem surprised Tom was at his side but he blinked twice when he saw the other visitor standing at the foot of the bed. His gaze rested on him before settling on his own lower body. “CJ...” The pause stretched as he stared at the foot of the bed. “Did I lose both?” The detached way he asked was otherworldly. CJ could not decide if his friend was that cool, or if his demeanor was the result of the narcotics coursing through his blood. He decided to avoid discussing the soldier’s lower limbs for the time being. “Damn, Red, you didn’t have to go to all this shit just to get you some attention.” The comment was in line with what CJ had seen his father do; Brett was a master at using humor to defuse tension. “Asshole…” Brad’s twitching lips formed something akin to a smile. His retort earned him lopsided grins from his visitors. “Am I gonna walk again?” There was neither hesitation nor delay in CJ’s response. “Fuck, yeah! Damn right you’re gonna walk again, bud. And run. And jump. And anything else you want to do.” The remainder of the conversation was short; Brad fell asleep. Prior to dozing off, he seemed to smile again when CJ promised him the best pair of store-bought legs money could buy. Both had been amputated below the knee. The early spring sun was below the horizon when Brad awoke next. The summons from a nurse interrupted CJ and Tom’s reading; they trudged back to the intensive care unit together. “Hi, Dad. Hi, CJ.” Brad sounded much more alert than before. “Sorry I passed out.” “Don’t be silly, son.” Tom ran a hand over his son’s messy red hair. “You need a haircut. Feel any better?” “I’m not sure… Where am I?” “Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, right by Ramstein Air Base, my old stomping grounds.” CJ patted his friend on the shoulder hoping there were no wounds beneath the gown; bandages abounded all over the man’s body. “You sound much more alert.” “Yeah… The nurse told me they didn’t add painkillers to the IV when they changed the bag.” He pointed at a small contraption by his hand. “I think he said to push the button if I feel pain.” “Morphine?” “I have no idea. But he said it would knock me out. Right now, my right foot hurts like a bitch and I think I need to push it.” He did, and as predicted, was asleep soon after. Over the next couple of days, as Brad’s condition slowly improved, CJ felt like a journalist filing reports with their newspaper or station. Following each interaction with his friend, he would share information with those waiting back in the United States via e-mail. He and Tom spent most of their time at the medical center, unwilling to venture far in case Brad woke up. In fits and starts, during each lucid period, Brad recounted what he remembered. CJ shared comments from their friends back home, and Tom video called Hilary at least twice a day so she could see their son was improving. “The prognosis is actually very good.” The young doctor spoke to CJ and Tom after Brad had once again fallen asleep following the most recent examination. “The legs are gone. Phantom pain will be an issue, but his other injuries will leave only a few scars. The burns to his right side are minor. There’s no need for skin grafts. No sign of infection in the abdominal cavity and x-rays show all shrapnel was removed.” “I promised him bionic legs and the ability to walk.” CJ’s comment earned him a smile from the physician. “Was I wrong?” “Not sure about the bionic legs part. Who knows what Veteran Affairs pays for these—” “Money will never be an issue.” CJ raised a hand to silence Tom when he made to speak. “I’ll make sure of that.” The Army doctor seemed surprised but shrugged her shoulders. “In that case, it’ll be up to him. Depending on how hard he’s willing to work, he could take his first steps on prosthetics in a few months. But I’m warning you, it won’t be easy. Physical therapy will be excruciating. And his mental attitude will guide his progress. Too many of our wounded warriors lose the recovery battle when they find themselves struggling alone.” “Ha! Not a chance that’ll happen. Brad has an entire squad back home ready to push and help.” An exhausted CJ made it to classes on Thursday. After spending three days with Brad, he returned to Washington while Tom remained behind. In Germany, they learned the average stay at LRMC was under a week. The older Kennedy would come home on the same C-17 cargo plane returning his son to the United States.
  5. 74 points
    Amore Consumato Vibrating with excitement, Milan stood in the bathroom brushing his hair. He swept fingers through the soft mass when he was done and wondered if he shouldn’t get a cut. It had grown longer. A gift from the change, he thought. Dropping the brush into its holder on the bathroom counter, he pinched his cheeks and smiled at the red flush there. He was no longer pale and sickish. He took that as a serious accomplishment. Milan left the bathroom and was in the closet getting dressed when he heard the Skype ringtone. Pulling on his white One Ok Rock t-shirt, he rushed to the bed and his laptop to answer the call. He smiled wide when he saw Ilaria’s face fill the screen. “Buona sera, Cucciolito,” Ilaria greeted. “Come va?” “It’s going well,” Milan said, happy to see her. “How is Papa?” “Better. Much better,” Ilaria said. “Ayu is with him now. He is saying goodbye as he prepares for his flight back to you.” “Ah,” Milan settled on the bed, adjusting his t-shirt. “You look happier, not as worried.” Ilaria nodded, her dark hair moving around her like silk water. Her face looked bright; her eyes rested, no more shadows, even though it was one o’clock at night in Turin. “Mi spiace, Milan,” Ilaria said. “I’m sorry.” “For what?” “Acting like a crazy woman the last few days,” Ilaria said. “I—” She broke off for a minute as though thinking hard, and then continued. “It wasn’t easy seeing your Papa so ill. It’s the first time for all of us to see him like that. He has been a rock for me…and to see him down…I-I just wanted to get my family away from there. I know I was unreasonable, but—” “I understand,” Milan cut in, hating the contrite look on his mother’s face. He understood her perfectly. One might not think it, but Kiyo was Ilaria’s pillar. The reason she stayed strong for him, for Ayu. Without him…well, the breakdown at the hospital was a clue as to what would happen next. “It was a lot to happen to all of us,” Milan continued. “A lot to take in, I’m still processing it too.” This was the best he could give her. He had hated disliking her for wanting to pull him away from Rory. Ilaria had given him a gift with the extraordinary efforts she put forth to take care of him. She was such a mother, that he sometimes forgot she was human. She made mistakes. She always forgave his. Now, it was his turn. “Ti amo, Milan,” Ilaria said, as though reading his thoughts. “You must never forget that. No matter what shape you take, who you love, what you love, what you want to do, why, when, all of it. You remain mine, il mio bambino. I will love you a lifetime and more. You understand?” Milan smiled. “I love you too, Mamma.” Ilaria let out a relieved sigh and tried for a smile. “Let’s not be on opposite ends ever again. It hurts too much.” “Yes, Mamma, for me too.” Tears slid down Ilaria’s cheeks and Milan wished he could hug her through the screen. “Oh, Mamma, don’t start crying,” Milan begged when she sniffled. Ilaria reached for a tissue from a box next to her, and wiped her eyes. “You’re turning into a crybaby,” Milan teased her when she blew her nose. “Don’t make fun of your Mamma,” Ilaria said, pressing the tissue to the corner of her eye. “Is Rory’s family treating you okay? Have you checked the bag I gave you? I left money there to spend in a wallet. Tell me if it runs out. I will talk to Rory’s dad about groceries and all other needs.” “Rory’s family is very good to me,” Milan said, knowing it was useless to talk her out of calling Connor Morgan. “How is school?” “I’ll start again on Monday,” Milan said. “It felt like the best thing to do. A friend is bringing me work from my classes. I’ve made up most of it.” “Va bene. I trust your judgment on that,” Ilaria said, and then she launched into telling him all the gossip from their neighbors in Turin. She talked for thirty minutes straight, until he had to stop her, as he needed to finish preparing for his date with Rory. “Where is Rory?” Ilaria asked. “We’re going on a date,” Milan said, with a wide grin. “He wants to pick me up, so he went to prepare in his old room.” “Oh, you’re wearing the t-shirt?” Ilaria asked, frowning at him. “Cucciolo, stand so that I see what you’re wearing.” “He said it was casual,” Milan said, getting off the bed, turning the laptop so his mother could see his black jeans and white t-shirt. “This is good enough.” “What are you wearing on top?” “The blazer you had that tailor in Florence make me,” Milan said. “Si, si, that will work,” Ilaria snapped her fingers. “Dress shoes?” “No way, my converse shoes will work.” Ilaria smiled. “Then, I want pictures. Make sure you send them to me.” Milan agreed, promising to get Rory’s picture too. “I have to go now,” Milan said, when he looked at the time. “Rory is almost here.” Ilaria was reluctant to let him go. “Your brother is leaving on the four a.m. flight. I’ll drive him to the airport. You and Rory can pick him up when he lands. Yes?” “Okay, text me his flight details,” Milan said. “Oh, I wanted to talk to Papa too.” “You can talk to Papa tomorrow when I call again. You tell me when you’re not busy. It doesn’t matter how late, I’ll answer.” “I will let you know, Mamma,” Milan blew her kisses. “I have to go now. Kiss Papa for me.” “Okay, okay.” Milan grinned because Ilaria kept looking at him. He reached out and ended the call afraid she might talk to him all night, if allowed. Happy to have cleared the air with her, Milan went to get the dark blazer she bought him, and wore it over his t-shirt. Adjusting the belt on his jeans, he wore socks and jammed his feet into his converse shoes. He was adjusting the laces when Maryanne came into the bedroom. “Oh, Milan,” she said, her voice in a singsong. “Your date is downstairs. He is breaking hearts looking insanely sexy. You’re lucky he’s your mate. Otherwise, all the chicks in the back offices will swarm him. I have Topher and even I’m tempted to have a bite of him.” “Maryanne,” Milan chided. “What?” Maryanne went to the windows that showed off the front yard and pulled back the curtains. “Look at that guy.” Milan hurried to stand beside her, leaning on the wall when he saw Rory standing by his red mustang, looking sexy as sin. Who knew black would look so good on him? Rory wore a black jacket over a black tee and black fitting jeans and his feet in sexy black boots. As though sensing Milan’s gaze on him, he pushed off the car, and looked up to the window, meeting Milan’s gaze. Milan took in air unable to believe Rory was his for good. It still felt like a dream, and he was going to wake up and find himself stuck in a bed hyped up on damn good meds. Maryanne patted his shoulder proving his idea wrong. The surprise of this being reality had his heart beating on a rampage again. Maryanne turned him away from the window. “Go on,” she said, pushing him to the door. “He’s been waiting for you forever, Little Alpha.” Milan left their bedroom and ran down the stairs, opening the front door with his heart pounding in his chest. He gasped when he found Rory waiting at the doorstep. He flung himself into Rory’s arms as though they hadn’t spent the afternoon together. Rory kissed him, holding him close. “Hey, you,” Milan breathed, when they broke their kiss. “You look delicious, smell even better,” Rory said, squeezing him tighter. “You look real good too,” Milan said, reaching up to caress Rory’s clean-shaven jaw. Rory took Milan’s hand and led him to the car, opening the passenger side for Milan. He waited until Milan settled to close the door, and then jogged around to the driver’s side. Once inside, Rory started the engine and they headed out. “Where are we going?” “To have fun,” Rory promised. “There’s more to this place than cold you know.” “So, you won’t tell me what we’re doing tonight?” “Nope.” Rory flashed him a grin. “Okay,” Milan said. “Did you have a nice talk with Mamma?” Rory asked. Milan glanced at Rory, not surprised his mate would know about his call with Ilaria. Rory felt more than he did in their shared bond. Milan knew he wasn’t reaching in as much, knew if he wanted, he could discover all there was about Rory through their bond. Yet, he was holding back, unable to delve into Rory’s personal space. Rory knew it too. It hurt Rory that Milan dared not venture deeper. Milan felt that much. Still, he kept his distance. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. Permission or a—, he couldn’t describe it. “Yes,” Milan answered Rory about Ilaria. “She looked happier. She’s had time to think, said she was sorry for trying to make me move back to Italy. You know, I thought I would be sad having her so far away, but it feels nice somehow. I think we needed time apart. Does that make me a bad child?” “No, it doesn’t,” Rory said. “If you want we can visit them before they come back during spring break. You can show me that cathedral you said you’re named after.” Milan laughed. “I was named after the city, not the cathedral.” “Yeah, the cathedral has your name too.” “A lot of buildings end up having my name. There are even cookies with my name. I don’t know whether I should complain that I came first, or they should complain that I took their name.” Rory chuckled. “It doesn’t matter because you’re the only Milan to me.” “That one’s too sweet,” Milan said, shifting in his seat to study Rory. “How long have we known each other?” “A lifetime,” Rory stated with a straight face. Milan laughed again. “Doesn’t it feel that way?” “It does,” Milan agreed. “When I read books and the characters end up together too fast, I always think the writer is being unrealistic. No one gets together that fast. I thought it was a fantasy since all I ever got were people staying away from me.” Milan’s gaze dropped to where Rory held his hand. “Now—” “Now?” “We’re the cliché, and I don’t care,” Milan said. “Actually, we’re not,” Rory said. “Maryanne and Topher are the cliché. Nisin and Jack are the norm. We’re not.” “Why not? We’ve known each other for two months, barely and we’re attached for life.” “My people mate within hours of meeting each other,” Rory stated. “What?” Milan sat straight in his seat. “No way that’s Nisin and Jack. Nisin is complicated. Jack wouldn’t have it easy with him.” Rory grinned. “Fortunately, Jack is more straightforward than me. And, he didn’t have to deal with meddling parents. He and Nisin are a couple. Jack insisted on telling him everything the first night they met. When Jack heard your change was complete, he took Nisin to the Swamp Lands. They talked it over with Grandma Asta. Nisin’s conversion is set for some time next week. Johan and Elle wouldn’t let Jack do anything until the people in the swamp lands join the town.” “So, where is Nisin now?” “Jack took him to his house. It’s been days since anyone saw Nisin. Jack is being very protective of him.” “Aren’t you worried about Nisin?” Milan asked, concerned. “Shouldn’t you send people to check on him? We should drive to Jack’s place.” “Milan. Don’t meddle in private matters. Nisin is Jack’s mate. I disliked your father very much when he tried to stop me from seeing you. I argued with your mother when she tried to take you away. Let’s not play that role with Jack. He is the best person for Nisin right now.” “But—,” Milan broke off and stared at Rory, and then he sighed and leaned against the door. “You’re right. I just feel bad that I haven’t stopped to think about Nisin since that day Rick attacked. I mean my father just disappeared on him. He must be going through so much. I—and his Papa is also in trouble.” “He has Jack. Believe me. He’s in the best hands possible. Jack won’t let anything happen to him. Do you trust me?” “Yes.” “Then believe me when I saw Nisin is fine.” Rory slowed down the car. Milan looked out to see where they were. Rory turned into a short drive that led into a parking lot full of cars. An attendant helped them find a parking spot close to the entrance. Rory turned off the car, and sat looking at the lighted gardens ahead. “Where are we?” “The Rose Restaurant,” Rory said. “It’s run by Rowen’s mom. Topher’s sister has a band. They usually play here on Fridays. She gave me tickets yesterday. “It’s a pretty place.” Milan undid his seatbelt and started to open his door. “Wait,” Rory said, opening his door and getting out. Milan watched Rory hurry around the front and come around to his side. Rory opened Milan’s door and Milan came out with a smile. He waited as Rory locked the car, and then they headed into the restaurant together. Their table was in a corner by the windows, set for two, private and with a great view of the stage. Milan removed his jacket and placed it on the back of his chair. He adjusted the amulet on his neck as he sat down and smiled at Rory who watched him. “What?” “I’ve dreamt of this moment so long,” Rory said, his smile infectious. “I can’t believe you’re out with me. I’m just enjoying it.” “You’re Alpha of an entire town. I’m the one who is supposed to say that,” Milan said, looking to the stage, where the band played a perfect rendition of Icecream by Sarah McLachlan. Ilaria liked her music; as a result, Milan now knew all McLachlan music. The singer had a great voice, soulful, as she perched on a stool, beautiful in peach. “The band’s great.” “Jade will like you then,” Rory said. “She thinks Topher and I don’t care.” “I doubt that,” Milan said, picking up the menu, and reading it. He couldn’t remember the last time he sat in a restaurant to order food. He was too young when he first got sick. After that, there was no eating out anymore. He glanced at Rory over his menu. This milestone was also thanks to Rory. “What’s good here?” Milan asked. “The short ribs,” Rory said, pushing his menu to the side. Milan did the same and rested his elbows on the table, meeting Rory’s amused gaze. “Order for me,” Milan said. “I’ll eat what you have. Why aren’t we cliché? You only gave me Jack and Nisin’s example. They don’t count. Nisin is sick. Jack probably wants to fix him.” Rory moved the salt holder aside and took Milan’s right hand, straightening Milan’s fingers so that he could trace Milan’s palm. “Fair enough,” Rory agreed. “Maryanne and Topher found each other at a party when they both turned eighteen. You’ve seen them in our kitchen.” “I left the room yesterday,” Milan mused, remembering Topher and Maryanne making out against the kitchen counter. “Yeah, it’s gotten better. They couldn’t keep off each other when they first met. Most wolves mate within hours of meeting their fated partners.” “So, we’re different because you waited?” Milan guessed. “More than waited,” Rory said, shifting his gaze to Milan’s palm. “I had to have Grandma Asta give me a bracelet to control the need to claim you. Your mother would have put me down otherwise.” Milan gave a short chuckle at that. “Was it that hard?” Rory’s hold on his hand tightened, his tracing finger pausing to rub on a line on Milan’s palm. “I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone touching you, even your brother.” Rory shook his head. “Worst case scenario, I would have turned into a mad man and kidnapped you. It would have been a shock to you. Strange thing is I didn’t know what the hell I would do with you once I got you. I had never seen a wolf/human pair before. Grandma Asta saved us both from that ending.” “So, we’re that special huh,” Milan mused. “Quite.” “We’re not usual,” Milan said. “Far from it,” Rory said. “You’re a gift from the goddess to me.” Milan nodded in acceptance. His life was not conventional; of course, the love of his life would not be someone ordinary. Wasn’t it his good luck too to find Rory at seventeen? There were many who never found the right person at all. Milan decided to take it as is. “I met someone at the welfare office today. Her name is Annie. She didn’t think I was good enough to be the Alpha’s mate. Thought I didn’t understand anything about the town. Maryanne thinks there will be more who think like Annie.” Rory made a face. “What they think doesn’t matter. Nothing can change who you are to me, or who you are to this town.” Milan smiled at Rory’s answer. Storing away the solid support, he moved on from Annie. “Why Portento?” Milan asked. “Why are their wolves here? Why this place?” Rory played with Milan’s fingers as he talked about Portento’s history. Milan listened as Rory talked about the founding trio. The alpha who begged for sanctuary for his family and how the goddess answered by creating a barrier around Portento, ensuring their safety. How she made them promise to offer sanctuary to all who needed it, as she had offered. “We’ve kept at it for centuries, generation to generation. We don’t always get it right, but we’ve done well.” “You were right about your roots running deep,” Milan said. Rory let go of his hand when their drinks came. Milan sipped his passion juice, his gaze straying to the band. The lead singer had disappeared. The band now played instrumental music and he didn’t recognize the tune. “I’ve never belonged to a place before. My family and I, we’ve always been on the move. You know that.” “If you had to stay, would you miss the travel?” Rory asked, drawing Milan’s gaze. Milan thought about that for a moment. The fear he felt when his mother asked him to leave for Turin. It was new, and unexpected. That fear tied to Rory, more than Portento. He didn’t want to be away from Rory. “I like being anchored.” “Do you mean that?” Rory asked, holding his gaze. “I do,” Milan said. “Milan, living in Portento with me doesn’t mean you can’t travel if you want. This is not a prison but sanctuary. If you ever feel that you want to travel, all you have to do is say it. Can you promise me that?” Milan smiled and nodded. “I promise.” Sipping his juice, a thought filled his head. “By the way, are there wolves living beyond the town’s borders? Are there humans who know about us?” “Our kind works hard to keep our existence secret from humans. Of course, there are settlements of wolves across the country and others abroad, but I don’t know any like Portento. Our town is the exception, a haven with a majority share, unlike out there where humans have precedence. Portento tries to keep minimal contact with everyone to keep our location hidden.” “Only those in desperate need can find Portento. Rowen says her mom knows a lot more of the settlements around the world. Rumor is that her mom fell in with a bad group who hunt our kind, and needed to find a place to keep Rowen safe. Her extensive research brought her to Portento’s borders.” “Bad groups, with people like Cade Ogawa?” Milan asked. “They want to research on werewolves?” “Worse,” Rory said. “Extremist who think we’re a blight on the world. They kill our kind without asking questions. The group is ran by humans, one of the reason why everyone in this town is wary of them. They hunt us down like beasts.” Milan shivered at the thought of being hunted down like an animal. “Do you have gatekeepers?” Milan asked. “You know, like a videogame. You can’t enter sanctuary without meeting the gatekeeper.” “Yes, we have several gatekeepers. We call them guardians,” Rory nodded. “They keep watch for trouble. Or, stand guard when important assets of Portento leave for any reason.” “So, Portento is the Atlantis for your kind,” Milan said. “You only get in if you are worthy.” “Our kind,” Rory corrected. “I guess you could say that.” “How did Biosense get so close?” Milan asked, his frown deepening. “I mean—there must have been an uproar when we moved into the main town.” Rory fell silent when their waiter brought their plates of food. Their waiter was polite and efficient, placing their plates and ensuring they had everything they needed. He hurried away soon after, leaving them alone. “The Mayor brought Biosense,” Rory said. “Portento is like any other town. We need money to maintain many things. So, she found Biosense to provide a new hospital, while we gave up a small part of the forest where Biosense has set up. I can’t really say more on it, as I don’t know the details. We’ll find out tomorrow. As for you, and your family, your presence was different. It tipped a scale.” Rory watched Milan take his first bite of food made outside home. “Is it good?” “Delicious,” Milan said, feeling like he might eat Rory’s share too. The short ribs were mouth-watering. They melted in his mouth as soon as he took a bite, his appetite surging like a beast. “Mm, we should eat here every day.” Rory grinned his approval and started on his food. “Were you upset about your mate being human?” Milan asked, curious. “Were you…disappointed?” “No.” Rory ignored his food to look at him. “Not even for a moment. I was just glad to have found my mate. I turned into a stalker to be honest. I lived on that tree behind the Takeda house for a few days, watching you.” “What?” Milan’s eyes wide at this revelation. “It was snowing out.” “I didn’t care. I just wanted to keep seeing you.” Milan gaped. “Come to think of it,” Milan narrowed his gaze. “Did you ever work at the grocery store?” Rory grinned. “Nope, but it was the only way I could meet you without freaking you out.” Milan sat back in his seat watching Rory pick up his fork and dig into his food. Any doubts in Milan’s heart disappeared with that confession. He didn’t know how he had gotten so lucky, but he would take it. All of it, the town, Rory, his being a wolf, it was all a blessing, he decided. Milan continued eating, their topic changing to Rory’s favorite music, especially when the band covered his song. Rory had a thing for the Bad Wolves. He’d heard their music in Rory’s car more than once. They laughed a lot, ate a lot, lost in their own world. When dessert came, Milan took a piece of vanilla cheesecake with his fork and he held it out for Rory. “Taste this.” Rory stood, taking his chair and brought it closer to Milan. Milan smiled when Rory sat and leaned closer to take in the bite of cheesecake. They were inches apart now, Milan shifted so that there was no space between them. His left shoulder brushing Rory’s right. He ate a bite of cheesecake too, looking up to Rory. Rory held his gaze. “It’s good, isn’t it?” Milan asked Rory, loving the taste of the cheesecake. He had so many things to taste. “I haven’t tried cheesecake before. I love it. I might get addicted to it.” Milan fed Rory a second bite and grinned when Rory leaned in to kiss him, sharing the taste of vanilla cheesecake. “You’d better be addicted to me first,” Rory teased, ending their kiss. ‘By the way, you’re hiding from me,’ Rory told him. ‘I’m sitting right next to you.’ Milan countered, taking another bite of cheesecake and holding it out to Rory. ‘I’m even letting you eat my cheesecake.’ ‘You know what I mean,’ Rory took the fork from him, and pulled the plate closer to his side. He took a huge bite of the cheesecake, and smiled at Milan. ‘Rory, you thief.’ Rory chuckled and fed Milan the next bite, making sure to make a mess of it. He leaned in and licked Milan’s chin and the corner of his lips, making Milan chuckle. ‘Cheesecake or Milan,’ Rory mused, pushing the empty plate aside. ‘I definitely prefer Milan.’ Milan rubbed Rory’s clean-shaven chin, charmed. The music changed, turning lively. There was a dance floor near the band. Milan watched as people moved to dance. “Let’s dance,” Milan suggested, getting up. He held out his hand to Rory. “Come on.” “Don’t want to talk anymore?” Rory asked, removing his jacket. He placed it on the back of his chair, allowing Milan to lead him to the dance floor. “Dancing is a way of talking too,” Milan said, when they reached the dance floor. Holding Rory’s hand, he swayed to the music. When Rory crowded behind him, and moved with him, he grinned because he wasn’t an expert at dancing, but it felt good to move to the beat with Rory. Rory touched him: his waist, his hips, up his arms, pressing little kisses on his neck setting him afire. The dancers around them turned into a blur, the music the only thing that filtered through. Beat after beat, he moved with Rory, until Milan turned to face Rory. A soft breath escaped when Rory pulled him in tight, their faces inches apart. Milan forgot the world. Rory’s blue eyes the only thing that mattered here and now. Milan rose up on his tiptoes, and closed the small distance between them, kissing Rory in the middle of a dance floor. Lost in the heat of the kiss, in Rory’s arms wrapping around him. He drew back when whistles and claps broke through. Heat suffused his cheeks as he realized they had an audience. Rory grinned, happy, and kept holding Milan when he tried to step back. Milan groaned and pressed his face into Rory’s chest. ‘You weren’t so shy a minute ago,’ Rory teased when they moved away from the dance floor, heading back to their table. ‘I don’t know what came over me,’ Milan sighed, rubbing his hot cheeks. ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ “I’m glad you did,” Rory said, sitting down in his chair. Milan excused himself to go to the bathroom. His face felt overheated and he needed to use the toilet. Milan finished peeing and moved to wash his hands at the sink. Staring at his face in the mirror, he bent over and splashed cold water on his face. When he looked in the mirror again, it was to see his brown eyes turned gold. He felt buzzed and hot, extra hot. Dancing with Rory did that to him. Having Rory’s hands on him set him on ablaze. Leaning over to splash more water on his face, Milan turned off the tap and straightened up. “It’s not the first time he’s touched you,” Milan said to the unfamiliar gold eyes he was starting to love. ‘There was the cave. You liked it.’ His cheeks burned thinking of that day at the cave. At the time, he had been so worried that his newfound connection with Rory was in danger. Then Rory brought him to the edge, and those thoughts disappeared. The ecstasy in that moment, Milan bit his bottom lip, remembering it to detail. He was hard, just thinking of it. He wanted more, and didn’t know how to ask for it. Milan wondered whether it was the same for everyone. Having Rory close made him want to rip all of Rory’s clothes off and explore to his heart’s content. That need so deep, he felt crazy with it. ‘If you come out here, we can get out of this restaurant and I’ll let you do that,’ Rory’s sexy voice filled his head, fueling the consuming need to fling himself into Rory’s arms. ‘Milan.’ The door to the bathroom opened and Milan sucked in needed air, hating the intrusion. He hurried out of the bathroom to avoid the very interested newcomer’s gaze. Back at their table, Rory stood watching him. Blue eyes shimmered with gold and Milan’s steps slowed at the answering fire in his blood. This night was no longer about a simple date. He saw it now. Rory took Milan’s jacket, and met him, taking Milan’s hand. Milan closed his fingers around a hot palm, feeling as though he clung to a live wire. Rory led him out of the restaurant and to their car in silence. Rory unlocked the doors, and opened the passenger door for Milan. When Milan started to go around him, Rory had other ideas. Pressing Milan against the car, dropping Milan’s jacket on his seat, he took Milan’s lips, kissing him hard, a beast starved. Milan clung to Rory, reaching up to wrap his arms around Rory’s shoulders. Rory used it as leverage lifting Milan, taking more, drowning Milan in their shared desire. *** Their true first time turned into an education. There was no elegance in their coming together, instead a mish-mash of sensation, a learning. Nips and caresses on soft skin, tickles, and squeezes, stubbed toes, torn zippers on jeans, and a band t-shirt with a ripped sleeve. They fell on their bed, pushing all the covers to the floor. Milan slid his palms over Rory’s hard stomach, tracing contoured muscles, trailing soft hair down, lower, to treasure. Rory’s hiss of pleasure when Milan took his length in his palms. Strong and powerful, holding Rory’s thick length was awkward at fast, but then it got familiar, obsessive especially when Rory went mad with pleasure. Milan could not forget the feel of Rory’s fingers gripping his hair when Milan decided to taste Rory. His shout of surprise when Milan sucked him and the tremble of Rory’s body when he came. Hours later, both of them slicked in sweat, Rory slid inside him, feeling too large, too much, Milan’s fingers dug into Rory’s arms. Pain bloomed amid the pleasure, Rory held him still when he would have moved. Milan closed his eyes, and fell into the depths of Rory’s love. Their bond snapped in place, a full vibrant color that shot through Milan’s very being, with no barrier left. Rory’s pleasure flooded him, pushing the pain aside, Milan gasped and met Rory’s gaze as Rory surged into him. Once, twice, countless times, heat building, burning. Milan accepted Rory’s open kiss, coming apart at the seams the deeper Rory took him. They turned into one, and when Milan couldn’t take anymore, he exploded with a cry, spilling between them. Rory kept going, hungry for Milan, taking what he had wanted for so long. Milan met his every touch, his every kiss, with his own, until they were both immersed in each other, thoroughly and completely. *** Morning came, bringing with it the sun through the windows with no curtains. Rory turned his head away, to find Milan tucked into his side, face buried into his shoulder. His soft breath brushed against Rory’s skin. Milan had flung a possessive arm over Rory’s chest, his thigh riding high on Rory’s right leg. The sheet Rory had found at around four in the morning tangled around them. Rory smiled, brushing his fingers through Milan’s hair so that he could see his mate’s face. Reaching for his phone on his side of the bed, Rory snapped a picture of them, and saved it as his wallpaper. Milan’s phone already had a picture of them at the green house holding their strawberry plant. Returning his phone to the bedside table, Rory was content to watch Milan sleep. He knew the exact moment that Milan woke up. Brown eyes with a mix of gold seeking him out, Milan’s arm tightening on him when he saw him. “Morning.” Milan blushed, a marvel after all they had done to each other last night. He buried his face into Rory’s shoulder. “Morning,” Milan said, his voice sexy low, it sent thrills through Rory. “You stayed today.” “No snow,” Rory said. “Plus, it’s a Saturday and the sun is out. It will be a warm day.” “I love sunny days,” Milan said, eyes closed, not moving from his comfortable position. Rory shifted, wanting to hold Milan. He pulled him into his arms, adjusting the sheet around them so that he could move his thigh between Milan’s, wanting more skin contact. Milan rubbed his legs against his, and yawned. “I wanna sleep some more,” Milan murmured. Red marks clear on his neck down to his shoulder, and the bite mark Rory gave him when turning him. It had not faded, remaining to show everyone that Milan was claimed. Rory traced the fading red marks, making Milan lean into him. “Sleep, Baby.” They spent the morning in bed. Milan slept, Rory read the One Piece manga Milan was reading, careful to keep Milan’s place marked with a bookmark. At ten o’clock, Milan woke up. Wide awake he sat up, kissed Rory with wild abandon, then rushed to the bathroom. Rory sat up with a laugh, marking his own place in Milan’s book. He placed it on the table on Milan’s side of the bed. Arranging their pillows, Rory paused when he found Milan’s leather drawing book hidden under the pillows again. Milan flushed the toilet in the bathroom, and Rory heard him open the shower stall door. Rory took Milan’s diary, curious about what Milan was drawing now. A pencil marked the last drawing Milan made, and it was a fantasy drawing of the pack house. Milan had given it a life of its own, turning it mystical and wondrous, with vines growing around it. “Do you like it?” Rory looked up to find Milan watching him from the bathroom door “It’s beautiful,” Rory said. “All your drawings are.” “You’ve been sneaking a look,” Milan stated, his tone matter of fact. Rory knew Milan would have discovered it through their bond. There were no secrets between them now. “To read your thoughts,” Rory said, closing the diary and returning it to its hiding place. “You put what you’re thinking about most in this one.” Milan studied him for a moment, and Rory waited for a scolding for the snooping. “Wanna take a shower with me?” Milan asked, and then entered the bathroom without waiting for an answer. Rory got out of bed fast, running after Milan. He wished they could laze around in bed all day, but they needed to get ready for the town meeting. He couldn’t wait to finish the troubles with Rick, so that he and Milan could have more time. That’s all he wanted, more and more time. ****
  6. 70 points
    *** NOAH *** A loud noise wakes me up suddenly. “Sorry, sorry, go back to sleep, I’ll be quiet,” Jordan says hovering over the bed. “What time is it?” I ask looking for the clock. “Five in the morning.” “What are you doing up so early?” A lot has changed in our lives, but one thing hasn’t — Jordan never gets up this early. Usually I get up first and then I start the long process of waking up Jordan. It’s basically our daily morning routine! He had a phase, after our break up years ago, where he was getting up early. I was so happy! It didn’t last long. “I couldn’t sleep,” Jordan replies. “I only fell asleep a few hours ago,” I say with a yawn. “I know. Go back to bed, we still have lots of time.” I didn’t get that much sleep last night. That is all Jordan’s fault. We were up quite late last night. No, not because of that. It’s usually because of that. But last night we stayed up late talking. Both of us are a bit anxious, but mostly excited. Today is a big day. “It’s okay, I’m getting up. I still have to iron my clothes, shower, and shave.” “I’ve already taken out your clothes and ironed them.” “You what?” I say sitting up. “I ironed them. I put them right over there. Don’t act so surprised.” I am surprised. This is a big deal. “In all the years we’ve been together, not once have you ever ironed my clothes.” “I’m sure I have at least once,” he replies. “Maybe in a dream you did once.” “Well, you’re welcome.” I can tell he is excited too. This is a momentous day for us. We’ve talked about it, scrutinized over every detail for months. Now the day is finally here. We’re standing at the threshold. Once we take this step our bond will be even stronger. I get out of bed and walk over towards Jordan. He is furiously looking through a drawer trying to find something. He doesn’t even notice I’m behind him. When I wrap my arms around his torso, he jumps just a bit. I press my chest against his back. “It’s all going to be okay, don’t worry.” “I know,” he says placing his hand on top of mine. “It’s just ... we’ve been planning this for so long now and it’s finally happening … I just don’t want anything to go wrong. Say if I don’t —” I cut him off. “Everything will be fine. Since when do you worry about these things? That’s my job, remember?” Jordan is always so calm. It’s sort of touching to see him so vulnerable. “I’m not worried. I have you. I’ll be okay.” This has been one incredible journey. It’s been filled mostly with moments of joy, but also some challenges too. I know I couldn’t have done it without Jordan. He has been my rock all these years. He never once let me fall. He was there when I graduated, and when I started my master’s degree in history. He supported me when I decided to go to teacher’s college. I still remember walking with him on my first day to work. I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know what to expect teaching history to a bunch of high school students. I was petrified that I would say something dumb, or do something stupid. But Jordan kept me calm the entire way there. He kept telling jokes, making me laugh. He told me he had faith in me, and knew I would be a fantastic teacher. It was just what I needed to hear. At first, when I started teaching, I wasn’t sure if I should hide my sexuality from my students and the other teachers. For one, it’s not everyone’s business (straight people don’t go around proclaiming their straight), and two, I didn’t know how it would go over with the school or parents. Eventually, if a colleague asked, I would tell them. I didn’t see a need to hide who I am. But I’ve generally been a bit more reserved with my students. I’m proud to say I’ve also been there for Jordan, supporting him through both the wonderful and difficult times. Unfortunately, not everyone on Jordan’s volleyball team was all that supportive of him at first. He could tell some people didn’t feel comfortable around him in the locker rooms. No one said anything to his face, and Jordan said he was okay, but I know it affected him. This was his team. He poured his heart and soul into it. Then some of the other teams in the province found out about Jordan’s sexuality. That’s when things got really ugly. I was at one of his games when an opposing player started to taunt Jordan for being gay. What he said was extremely vulgar and offensive. I was furious. I wanted to beat the shit out of him. I’m positive the referee heard (I was sitting in the stands and I could hear!), but he pretended like he didn’t. As for Jordan, I thought he was going to explode. But he didn’t even flinch. He just walked away. Liam though, bless his soul, made a scene. He would not let it go. Even though it was an awful moment, what happened next was amazing. Jordan’s team rallied behind him. Even the people who were initially reluctant came to Jordan’s defence. An attack on one was seen as an attack on all. I could tell in that moment Jordan was really proud of his teammates. Was everything perfect after that? No. Far from it. There were still issues here and there. But the situation improved a fair bit. Then a few weeks later something unexpected happened. Chris, the team captain, was expelled from school for plagiarism. Turns out, he did it a lot! Liam nominated Jordan to be the new captain. Jordan was adamant he wouldn’t win. He was sure some people on the team still weren’t too thrilled he was even there. But he did, and by a wide margin. In the end, Jordan was a remarkable captain. He mentored the younger players, really boosted everyone’s confidence and morale. I’m so glad he got the opportunity. And to think he almost didn’t because of my own insecurities. In his final year Jordan decided not to join the team because of school. He wanted to focus all of his attention on getting into medical school. He did still practice with them. He stayed on more in a mentorship role. As for the year he was captain, how did they do in the end? I’d love to say they won the provincial championship, but they didn’t. They came very close though. They lost in the semi-finals. There was one silver lining though. In the quarter-finals they were up against that team with the homophobic player. I could see the joy on Jordan’s face as his team annihilated them. The minute the whistle blew, Jordan grabbed my hand, pulled me onto the court, and planted a big kiss on my lips. It was simply electric! And a giant fuck you to everyone who gave him shit for being gay. But, of course, not everyone was happy about that moment. Someone complained about our public display of affection. The coach responded they can go fuck themselves. He pointed out that no one complained about the straight players kissing their girlfriends. Hypocrites. That’s just one example of some of the bigotry and hate that we’ve faced as a gay couple over the years. But that said, I should point out that overall, the vast majority of people have accepted us. Being gay in this city has not really been a huge issue. Yes, there have been moments, and sometimes you have to be careful where you are, but I’ve generally never felt unwanted or unsafe. We truly are blessed to live in such a great city and a great country. Now, as I was saying earlier, we’ve had lots to celebrate too. I was there for Jordan when he graduated. And I was also there the day he got his acceptance letter for medical school. He was too nervous to open the envelope, so he asked me. I still remember the way his eyes lit up when I screamed that he got in! I was so proud of him in that moment. And I showed him just how much as we celebrated that night. Hands down, probably some of the best sex we’ve ever had. Jordan was on fire! I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to walk properly the next day (I was fine). The weeks leading up to that day were nerve wracking. Jordan is always so calm and collected, but I could tell he was stressed out. It was his dream to become a doctor, and he didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t get in. I’m glad we didn’t have to cross that bridge in the end. That said, things really changed for us after that. Medical school was extremely difficult. Jordan was continuously swamped with work. Some days I barely saw the guy! And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jordan continued to work part-time! I told him to quit. I told him I’d work more (his first year of medical school, I was in teacher’s college). I started to tutor more kids at night. That year, to cut down on costs, we decided to share a two-bedroom place with Jenn. That was an interesting year, to say the least, especially because Jenn was no longer single. The year after, when I started teaching, we were able to get a place on our own again. But during that time Jordan continued to work. I don’t blame him. Paying for a master’s degree, then teacher’s college, then medical school, has not been easy. We are in A LOT of debt! But it’s okay. Not once have we ever fought about money, which is a relief! And we both got to follow our dreams. Eventually Jordan will make a lot of money. That’s what I’m banking on! (Kidding, of course). Now, I’d love to say it’s almost over, that Jordan is almost done. Nope. He just finished his medical program. In a few weeks he starts his residency at a nearby hospital. He also wants to specialize in paediatrics, so that will add on a few more years. Even though he won’t be making much, at least now he will have an income. That will help. I was also waiting for this moment before I returned to school. Because I’m an idiot I’ve decided to go back part-time to start working on my PhD. So yeah, it’s not over yet for either of us! “Where is Jenn?” I ask Jordan as we wait by the door. Evan, our loyal companion, is sitting beside us. He thinks he’s coming too. Not today, buddy. “She texted me. As usual, she’s running late. She’ll be here in a few minutes.” Then there is Jenn. She hasn’t changed a bit. Not one bit. I’m not surprised she’s running late. After she graduated, she took a year off, then went back to school as well to get her master’s degree in journalism (she now works as a reporter). That was the year we all lived together. Why was it interesting? Well, for one it is Jenn. I have to say though that she always respected our privacy. At first, I was wary of having sex with Jordan when she was at home, but I got over that pretty quickly! I can’t share a bed with Jordan and not fool around with him. It’s practically impossible! Besides, Jenn started dating too soon after. At first, I think they were going to try to hide it from us. A claim they vehemently deny. But I don’t buy it. All four of us were hanging out at our place one night. Jordan and I were both exhausted so we went to bed early. The next day I got up earlier than usual. I was hungry, so decided to make myself some tea. And who do I see exit Jenn’s bedroom? A very shirtless Aiden followed by Jenn (in the heat of the moment the other night he forgot his shirt in the family room). They both froze when they saw me. I broke into a smile (I bet Jordan the two would hook up within the first month, and I was right). Jenn says they were going to tell us, but then why was Aiden sneaking off so early? Yeah. I thought so. After Aiden finished school, he moved back to Canada from Australia. He originally went to Montreal for a bit, but then moved down here. They hooked up like two weeks later. It was so obvious they liked each other. I don’t know why they were pretending! So, yeah, that led to an interesting year! Aiden was over all the time. Jordan, naturally, was thrilled. So was I. I really do like Aiden, and I think the two of them are really perfect together. Thankfully, Aiden and Jenn spent most nights at his place, so Jordan and I were spared from hearing what those two did in bed together. After that year, Jordan and I moved out, and Jenn and Aiden got a place together. Last year, they made it official. They had a huge wedding in Halifax, Jenn’s hometown. Jordan was Aiden’s best man, and I was Jenn’s ‘maid of honour’ (she insisted on calling me that, and I didn’t really care). As one could imagine, Jenn was a total bridezilla. There were moments that I … yeah … but I still love her. “Did you get all the stuff we need?” Jordan asks as we step outside the apartment. “Yep, I have everything.” “Including the documents? We’ll need those —” “Jordan,” I say cutting him off. “I have everything, trust me.” “Okay,” he says. Jenn is there waiting in her shiny new car. We don’t own a vehicle. We’ve been saving for today. Plus, you can’t really buy expensive things when your partner has huge student loans. Besides we don’t even really need a car. We’re still living in the city, though not right in downtown. We moved a bit further out. This place is closer to my work and not too far from the hospital. At one point in time though, it seemed like he would have to leave this city, or live apart for a while. At first, Jordan was offered a residency in Montreal. The transfer would have been easy for him because he’s fluent in French, but it would have been a problem for me. For one, I start school here in September, though I would have deferred. Two, my French sucks. I’ve taken some French classes along the way, and I can speak a bit, but not enough to teach. There are English-speaking schools, but not as many jobs. In the end though, we didn’t have to move. Jordan got a placement here as well. I’m glad we stayed. This is our city. It’s where we found each other, and found ourselves. It’s where we fell in love. Toronto is home. It always will be. “Aiden just texted me,” Jenn says. “They just left. Should be there soon.” Aiden is bringing Jordan’s mom. She came to Toronto a few days ago. There was no way she was going to miss today! And there was no way we were going to do this without her! She’s honestly been amazing. She is one of our strongest supporters. She’s gone out of her way over the past few years to make me feel like I’m part of her family. Honestly, her warmth and compassion know no bounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother-in-law. I know why Jordan’s mom has moved mountains to be there for us. Obviously, she loves her son and me (I joke with Jordan sometimes that she loves me more than him). But it’s not just that. She’s really tried her best to fill that void left in my heart, and my life, by my own mother. In the end, my mom didn’t call. I hate to say this, but she’s not part of my life anymore, though it’s not as bad as it was before. Overall, I’m okay with that. I’ve moved on. I’ve accepted reality. But I would be lying if I said I was completely over her rejection. Part of me hates that I no longer have a relationship with someone who I was once extremely close to. I’ll see an interesting recipe online, and right away, instantly, I’ll think about my mom. To this day, I’ll be in the kitchen experimenting, making some crazy concoction, and I’ll want to call her and tell her how it turned out. I miss not being able to just sit down and talk like we used to. I know this sounds crazy, but to this day I still love her. It’s odd even after all this time … after all we’ve been through … part of me still cares for her, and always will. And I’m okay with that. I’d rather my heart be filled with love, as opposed to hatred. All of this hasn’t just been hard on me, but on my family as well, especially my dad. He has lived up to his promise. It’s been remarkable to see his transition. He is one of our biggest champions now. He even went to the Vancouver Pride parade one year! Once he saw how happy I am, and got to know Jordan (he really loves Jordan), the fact that his son is gay wasn’t an issue anymore. Without a doubt, I know he is extremely proud of both of us. He supported my career choice. He was fully behind my decision to go to teacher’s college. He loves the fact that Jordan is becoming a doctor. My dad talks about us all the time to his friends, his family, even my mom’s family. That though has been problematic. My mom’s family is full of bigots. And my dad has fought with several of them several times. Once, to a family gathering, he wore a shirt that said something like ‘Proud of My Gay Sons’. My aunt was not amused. But as the host, she couldn’t ask him to leave or take it off. My dad can be a bit of a shit disturber at times. It’s one of his many qualities I love. My dad’s unyielding support though, initially led to a lot of problems between him and my mom. He tried to hide it at first, but the two were clearly fighting a lot. And I hated that. I hated that my sexuality was putting a strain on their relationship. They had a huge fight over whether I should be invited for Christmas that first year. My dad was adamant that I come home, but my mom was against the idea. She even threatened to leave the house if I was there. But then my siblings threatened to boycott if I didn’t go. I could tell the situation was spiraling out of control. I had to work hard to get everyone to calm down. In the end that year, Jordan and I went to Montreal instead. I know my dad, siblings and nephews and nieces were all upset. It was the first Christmas I spent away from home. The kids just couldn’t understand why Uncle Noah wasn’t there that year. It’s not that I didn’t want to see them. I did. But I didn’t want to share a meal or spend time with someone who despises me. Plus, I didn't want to leave Jordan’s mom alone. That didn’t feel right either. Jordan said it was okay if I went to Vancouver on my own, he wouldn’t mind. He’s been incredibly supportive when it comes to my family. But I told him there was no way in hell that was going to happen. I told him I was going to be where he was. For her part, Jordan’s mom said it was okay if both of us went to Vancouver. She said if it helped patch things up with my mom, she was all for it. That is what a mom is supposed to say! But it didn’t feel right leaving her alone. I wanted to spend time with the woman who supported us from day one. But after that, I could tell my family was on the verge of collapse. My dad and my siblings were really starting to resent my mom. I was afraid my parents were going to break up because of me. And I honestly didn’t want that. I didn’t want their marriage to end because of my sexuality. I decided I would do whatever it takes, put my own issues aside, my pride, to help my family stay together. My issue wasn’t how my mom would treat me. I was okay if she ignored me, or continued to spew hate. I knew I could handle that. I was not, though, going to subject Jordan to that crap. Not a chance in hell. All that said, there was only so much I could do. The rest had to come from her. Eventually, my mom came to the same realization. I learned from my sister that my mom understood that in order for us to stay together as a family, she would have to tolerate my lifestyle. I honestly hate that world ‘tolerate’. I don’t want to be tolerated I want to be accepted. But I know acceptance is a long way off with her, if ever. She clearly does not approve of my life, and has made it clear she will not encourage my behaviour. Still, even though she said she would tolerate me, she didn’t make it easy. The next Christmas, she didn’t object when my dad asked me to come home. He really wanted all of us to be together again for the holidays. I also wanted to go back, to see him, my siblings, and their kids. I hadn’t seen any of them in more than a year. I told my dad I’d do whatever he wanted me to do, so long as it didn’t cause him problems. In the end, Jordan and I spent Christmas Eve in Montreal (I also wasn’t going to ditch his mom), and then flew to Vancouver that afternoon. We got in quite late and went straight to the hotel. I know my dad wanted us to stay at his house, but we all knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. I told my siblings I would see them the next day at my dad’s brother’s place. We figured it would be best to meet in a neutral territory for the first time. But soon after we got in, around 11 o’clock at night, we heard a knock on the door. In his absent mind, Jordan figured it was someone from the hotel, and didn't bother putting on a shirt, and opened the door. Yes, we were about to, you know. Turns out it wasn’t hotel staff, but my father, brother and sister. They said they couldn’t wait. They missed me and wanted to see me that night. So, once the kids were in bed, they came. I was flabbergasted. It was so good to see them! I was about to cry. Thankfully, I had all my clothes on. It was also the first time they met Jordan in person. They probably saw more than they wanted to at first, well excluding my sister. My brother and dad looked away. Not her. She smiled! Pervert. The next day we all met again at my uncle’s place. The kids were ecstatic to see me, and I was just as ecstatic to see them! They were all confused why I wasn’t staying at grandpa’s house. That one was hard to explain. The one thing though that wasn’t difficult to explain was my relationship to Jordan. Much to the objections of my mom, both my siblings told them about my sexuality, and my partner. Naturally, they had a lot of questions at first, but now they totally understand. All of them took an instant likely to Uncle Jordan. He is a good guy, if I can say so myself. As for my dad’s family, everyone was amazing. They welcomed us with open arms, as I expected. But it wasn’t all positive. My mom pretended like I wasn’t even there. She’d leave the room if either Jordan or I were there. Was I surprised? No. Was I disappointed? Absolutely. A couple of times though I caught her looking my way, or looking at Jordan. So, what would I do? I'd put my hand on Jordan’s shoulder, or around his waist. Should I have antagonized her? Probably not. Did I feel bad? No. Eventually though, when I was alone, she approached me and said hello. Again, I was surprised. Because we were in company, I didn’t want to make a scene. So, I said hello. She asked how I was. I replied and asked her the same. She answered and then excused herself. That was it. Baby steps, I figured. I really had this urge to go introduce Jordan to my mom, just to piss her off. Even though Jordan said he’s love to see her reaction, he convinced me it was a bad idea, and it would only make matters worse. Unfortunately, he was right. Don’t get me wrong, Jordan is still a clown at heart, but he really has matured! We stayed in Vancouver a few days so I could show Jordan my hometown. I later learned from my sister that my dad wanted us to come to the house before we flew back to Toronto. My mom said I was welcome to come back, but Jordan was not. She could tolerate me, but not him. In her mind he is the one who corrupted me and tore me away from my family. She believes if it weren’t for Jordan, I wouldn’t be gay. And for that, she’ll never forgive him. Naturally, that pissed me off. But Jordan, sweet, sweet Jordan, was okay. He said it was fine if my mom never acknowledged him. If it meant there was peace in my family, he could live with that. He even said he would stay at the hotel, and that I should go. Again, I told him I was not going anywhere without him. I don’t know exactly what happened, if my mom changed her mind, or someone said something (I assume it is the latter), but the morning of our flight, my dad called and told us to get ready. He was picking us up and taking us to breakfast. It became painfully obvious right away where we were going. I told him it was a bad idea. I was not going to ditch Jordan. But he assured me Jordan was welcome too. And so, with a lot of trepidation, I stepped into my parents’ home. And there was my mom, sitting in the kitchen. She greeted us nicely. I wouldn’t say she was warm, but she wasn’t rude. And she acknowledged Jordan too. Again, no hug or hand shake, it was a bit icy, but it was something. Even though Jordan despises her (for good reason), he was polite and charming, as usual. I’m positive my brother or sister said something. Someone made some sort of threat. There is no way she changed her mind on her own. But neither of them would say. And I realized, for everyone’s sake, I should just let it be. Since then, I’ve only seen my mother on two other occasions. Both times she was polite. She even spoke a bit to Jordan. Again, it all felt a bit contrived, a bit formal. But it’s better than nothing. Sometimes it feels like some of the hatred in her heart if slowly, and I mean like the speed of a turtle slow, starting to melt away. I don’t expect her to ever call me, send me a gift, or anything like that. But we can at least now be in the same room together. She doesn’t cringe when she sees Jordan. That’s a start, I guess. That of course leads me back to today. Would it have been great if my mom was here today? Absolutely. Before I came out, I would have bet money she would be by my side on such a momentous occasion. The pain of her rejection has dulled over time, but it is amplified on days like today. But it’s honestly okay. Jordan and his unconditional love makes up for all of that. He loves me for who I am. And always will. What more can a guy ask for? Plus, my father, brother, sister and their children are all here. I’m not alone. I have my family. “Hey, Noah, did you forget this folder in the car?” Jenn asks as she locks up. Before I can even answer she flips it open and sees the paper inside. “Oh my God! Finally! This is so much better than I ever expected.” She starts to laugh. I look at Jordan. Oops. She knows. “Give me that,” I say to her. “That stays between us!” Jordan says to her. “But it’s so awesome! And so, so fitting for you. I’m so going to use your middle name. Jordan Juliet Young!” “And if you say it one more time, you’ll see what happens,” he says. “But I have to know — why did your parents choose Juliet as your middle name?” “They didn’t,” he sighs. “It’s supposed to be Julien,” Jordan says in a very sexy French accent. “It was my grandfather’s name. But somehow the ’n’ got mistaken for a ’t’ and it was printed that way on my birth certificate. And because my dad was lazy, he never changed it. So, it stayed as Juliet.” “It’s perfect,” Jenn says with a huge grin. She is going to enjoy this. “I’m going to call you two Romeo and Juliet from now on.” Jordan just glares at her. Poor guy. He’s never going to live this down. “You’ll always be my Romeo,” I lean in and whisper into his ear. And soon I’ll be able to call him by another name too. “Shall we?” Jordan asks extending his hand. “Absolutely.” I say placing my hand in his. “I love you, Jordan.” “I love you too, Noah.” “Yes, yes, the two of you are in love, we get in, great! Now let’s move! We’re on a schedule!” Oh, Jenn. ——— Fear, To be. Insecure, To want. Ashamed, To love. For too long, My truth Hidden, By guilt. My heart Caged, By misguided loyalty. My soul, Afraid of Rejection, Withered away, In the dark, Searching for Acceptance. Approval, I thought, Would set me free. It did. But not theirs. My own. Courage, To be. Audacious, To want. Willing, To love. Accepting My truth, Erased That guilt, Opened My heart, Unshackled My soul. In the dark, A piercing blue Guided me to Salvation; To you. In your eyes, I found myself. In your arms, I have no fear. By your side, I truly am free. Free to be, Free to want, Free to love. ————— The End.
  7. 69 points
    “What up, Legless?” On his first full day back in Washington, CJ stopped by Walter Reed Medical Center to visit his injured friend. “You dipshit.” Brad’s laughter was contagious. He bumped fists with a chuckling CJ and adjusted his position on the bed. “I betcha the stinkin’ fuckin’ Arab who planted that IED had no idea it would lead to me getting a new nickname.” “You’re in mighty good spirits.” CJ sat on the bed’s edge next to the soldier, delighted to find him in a happy mood. Three weeks after arriving from Germany, Brad’s body continued to heal. His disposition showed marked improvement from when CJ last saw him before leaving on the motorcycle trip. “Fuck, yeah. I’m ready to get out of this shithole. Where’s Ozzie?” “He said to tell you he’ll come by tomorrow. He had a meeting at the Nature Conservancy. You know he starts work there fulltime at the end of summer, right?” “Yeah, my cousin’s going to be in the real world at last. You guys leaving town again in a couple of days?” “Headed to New York. Since this is the last time we both have the entire summer off, we’re trying to get in as many trips as possible.” CJ thought through his next words, not wanting to say something that might upset his friend. “We made plans last year to spend time on Fire Island. At Tony and Colt’s place.” Now came the tricky part. “We’ll also stop by to check on Chipper’s sister. She’s due like yesterday, so we figured we’d go visit her and the kid. Their mom’s flying up from Buenos Aires for the birth. It’ll be good to see Susana again.” “Oh, yeah, that reminds me.” Brad stretched an arm and grasped the edges of a folder resting atop the swivel table by the bed. He retrieved a squarish envelope from inside and handed it to CJ. It was addressed to Baby Prado. “Would you take it with you and give it to Cristina and her husband? I had Paddy pick it up for me. It’s a congratulations card.” CJ was delighted with how well Brad was handling the woman he crushed on through high school giving birth. “You got it, bud. Anything else I can do for you?” “Nope. I think everything’s set at home. You were right about that Leo guy who works with your dads. He’s one of the good ones.” Leo Dallas, the retired Marine owner of Leatherneck Construction, was the primary contractor for Third Line Development. “Not sure if you heard, but he added ramps, reconfigured a couple of doors, and fixed up the downstairs bedroom and bathroom for me.” “I knew he was going to do the work. I heard your old man mention installing an elevator so you could use the second floor. That still on?” “Doesn’t make sense, CJ. The wheelchair’s a temporary thing. Once I get legs, I can handle the stairs. Bet you didn’t know Leo refused to charge for the work or the materials.” “Seriously?” “Yeah. He said it was the least he could do for someone who’s worn the uniform. He’s come by to see me and told me he has a nephew in the Marine Corps right now.” CJ tried to suppress the smile bubbling on his lips. He remembered fucking Eli in the darkened, unfinished basement by the outside light’s glow. Leo’s nephew had left with a smile on his face. “Eli! You didn’t get to meet him before he enlisted. Cool as shit guy. The summer before you and your brother moved down, he worked for Leo when they did my dads’ basement. One of the nicest guys I ever met.” “Maybe I’ll meet him if he ever comes back to DC. So, how long are you and Ozzie gone this time?” “We’ll be back by the Fourth.” “That’s great. I’m pushing to get out of here by then. I can recover at home as well as in here. If you’re back in time, we can watch the fireworks from your dads’ rooftop.” On Friday, Chipper and Ethan met CJ and Owen at Penn Station; together, the four traveled the rest of the way to Fire Island. The beaches on the thin barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island were a summer refuge for New Yorkers. Amongst the villages dotting the enclave, Cherry Grove and The Pines catered to the GLBT community. “What if your sister goes into labor while we’re over here?” Buffeting winds threatened to lift Ethan’s ball cap off; he turned it around and jammed it over his head until the bill struck the back of his neck. With no paved roads connecting the small island’s car-accessible end-points, vacationers relied on regular ferryboat service to reach their destinations. “Mom calls me, and I make my way back to Manhattan.” Chipper adjusted his sunglasses and ran a hand through his hair. The four friends clustered on the boat’s top deck, ignoring the carousing and flirting surrounding them. “Not like I’m going to be in the delivery room or anything. By the way, Ethan, thanks for inviting me out.” “Save your gratitude for Colt and Tony. They’re the ones who control the house, and the ones who organized this weekend. Sean and I don’t even have a full share.” Leasing a beach house on Fire Island for the summer was expensive; groups came together and split the cost and occupancy privileges. “What happened to whatshisname?” CJ stared at Chipper as the man sat on the pink Adirondack chair next to his. They spent Friday and Saturday either around the pool or on the sand, a cocktail never far from reach. Last night they had gone dancing, toasted CJ and Owen’s first anniversary at midnight, and Chipper had dragged home some pretty actor-wannabe for a fuckfest. “Ugh! He left after we screwed. Scared him off.” “Braggart!” Sitting on the pool coping with their feet in the water, Colt and Tony bumped fists. Laughter brought both perilously close to spilling their coffee. “I mean, we’ve all seen you naked. Your tackle’s nice, but nothing to run away from. What was he? A virgin or something?” “Jerk! Hardly a virgin. Trust me.” Chipper sipped from his own steaming mug while wiping sleep off his eyes. “It had nothing to do with dick size. He said he didn’t do confused guys when I told him I was bi.” “You’re confused?” Tony sounded perplexed himself. “Fuck no, I’m not. I know I like both. He said he couldn’t have a relationship with someone who might leave him for a woman.” “Mate, you brought back a trick, and you discussed relationships?” The men shared Owen’s surprise. “And he got upset because you might leave him for a woman? What if you left him for another man? Would that be okay?” “Don’t look at me, mate. He started it. None of that shit makes sense to me. All I wanted was some dick and ass. I think the guy’s one of those that thinks if you have sex it means you’re interested in pursuing something. Haven’t these people heard of sport fucking?” “Give it a break, Chipper. I’m all for hookups if that’s what someone’s into. But we’re not all wired the same. After you guys made a big deal of our anniversary at midnight, we talked to another couple for a while. They were surprised we turned down the offer for a foursome. One said we were too young not to fuck around.” CJ stood and stretched while yawning. “I need more coffee. Anyone else?” “You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.” Also yawning, Ethan stood on the threshold holding a mug. “I just took the last of it and started a new pot. Why are you arguing with Chipper so early in the morning?” “It’s not that early. And where’s your other half?” “An hour out. He just called and woke me up. And you avoided answering the question.” “Jeez… Give the lawyerly approach to questions and answers a break, Ethan. We weren’t arguing.” CJ recounted the conversation while peering into the kitchen through the glass doors. “So that’s where you walked in.” “I’ll give this one to CJ. No two relationships are the same.” Ethan peered over the rim at CJ and smirked. “Except for your dads, their neighbors, and you and Ozzie. You guys are like clones of each other. You’ll always be together.” CJ leaned over the back of Owen’s chair and planted an upside-down kiss on his husband. “You better believe it, buster. That’s us. Together forever.” “Together forever and never to part Together forever we two And don't you know I would move heaven and earth To be together forever with you” The impromptu, simultaneous rendition of Rick Astley’s 1980s classic by Colt and Tony elicited peals of laughter. “I love that song! Damn! I gotta learn it.” Chipper jumped off his seat and headed inside. “I’m gonna turn on the sound system, guys. Okay?” “Knock yourself out.” Tony slid off the pool’s edge into the water. “Oh yeah, that feels good. Hey, CJ. You were talking of acceptance without understanding. I’ve got two of those. Transgendered people and gay men with wives.” General nodding indicated agreement from CJ and consensus amongst the group of friends. “The first one I doubt I’ll ever completely understand. Feeling as if you’re one thing trapped inside another would be maddening. The other one, I can understand some of the reasons why it happens, but I’m not sure I could do it.” “Hey, coffee should be ready by now.” Ethan used a thumb to point behind him. “But before you go, let me tell you about one of the partners at my firm. Real old guy, in his eighties. Retired, but still comes in a couple of days a week and does some work. After he found out I was gay, he started talking to me. Turns out he’s been married to the same woman for over fifty years even though he’s always been into guys. It was what was expected, so he did it. I asked about cravings for sex with men. He joked they disappeared over time due to him ignoring them. He supports gay rights like crazy, but he’s not sure he’d do things a different way. He wouldn’t want to give up his wife.” CJ shrugged. “To each his own. Not for me. I may feel a little sad for him, but that’s based on my own life, and the time I live in. Maybe he’s happy for real, and I say more power to him. I hope he has no regrets.” Eventually, Sean’s arrival with a bag of fresh bagels drove everyone inside. They took turns in the kitchen with Tony directing brunch preparation. While the food cooked, Colt mixed a pitcher of mimosas. By the time the meal was over, the pitcher was refilled more than once. For the second year in a row, CJ discovered a wine he liked while on Fire Island. He reached for the bottle of Sawmill Creek 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir—a product of New York’s Finger Lakes region—and refilled his glass. “How come Mario and his girlfriend aren’t here?” “A couple of reasons.” Colt motioned towards his own empty wineglass, and CJ complied with the silent request. “With the increased traffic expected at PRIME this weekend, and with Tony and Sean both away, we felt having a family member on the premises would be advisable. My brother-in-law’s one of the few people we trust implicitly.” “I liked them when I met them back in December. Hopefully, I’ll see them this coming week. What’s the other reason?” Colt steered them through the growing crowd of men in the house and around the pool until they ended up leaning against the wooden deck railing. The afternoon sun warmed CJ’s face. Inhaling the salt-tinged air, he swayed to the dance music coming through the sound system. Combined with the wine’s taste and the feel of rough lumber against his lower back, he delighted in the sensory overload. The view was not too shabby either. The foliage and structure framed a group of mostly young, fit, nearly-naked men enjoying themselves. “Mario claims the moment you introduce a straight man into a gay crowd, the dynamics change. It’s even more pronounced if you add a female to the mix.” Colt scanned the crowd and nodded toward a new arrival wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit. Attire varied; it ranged from Speedos to the classic preppy look of polo shirt, khaki shorts, and deck shoes. He and CJ were both shirtless. “We kind of agree with him. Anyway, he’ll have plenty of chances to hang out here in the future.” “How come?” “Keep it quiet for now. Tony and I plan on a toast in a little bit to celebrate your anniversary, and we’ll make an announcement then. Our offer on this place was accepted last week. We’ll close soon, and be able to visit year-round.” “Really? That’s lit. Congrats! Something like this must cost a fortune. I’ve never looked at how much these beach houses go for.” “Not cheap, but we think it’s a good investment. We’re paying less than you and Ozzie did for your place in Washington.” “Ugh! Don’t remind me. We get the house back at year’s end, and then we start remodeling. My cousins are heading up the effort. They already warned us to get our checkbook ready.” “Do it right, and don’t skimp, CJ. If it’s going to be your forever home like you and Ozzie mentioned, it’s worth spending the money.” “That’s our thinking. But you gotta remember I’m twenty-one and Ozzie’s twenty-six. We’re so young, sometimes I freak out thinking I might live in the same place for the next sixty years. We might change our minds.” “As long as you don’t overspend if trying to flip the property you’ll be fine. When I worked in finance, I always preached a long-term approach. Same applies to real estate. If you decide to sell ten or fifteen years down the road, you’ll recoup your investment and then some.” “Hope so. But we think this will be the place we call home for a very long, long time.” “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Going back to our conversation earlier today—” “Which one?” “The one about sport fucking and different types of relationships. Tony and I were talking about you and your husband. We know you’re solid, but wonder why you decided to tie the knot so young. No issues with the monogamy, but that’s also surprising. How come?” A tiny smile played on CJ’s lips as he scanned the party searching for Owen. “There’s a lot to it, Colt. I grew up with a military stepfather. Dickhead wasn’t abusive, but he was strict. Frivolity wasn’t encouraged, and I think that helped me mature a bit faster.” CJ paused, trying to shake off the tinge of hatred that now and then surfaced when he thought about deceased Air Force Major Richard Peterson. It was something he tried to suppress out of love for his brother; he did not like to trash Ritchie’s father. “Anyway, I came out, moved to Washington, and for a while the people I interacted with the most were my dads’ friends. I was surrounded by a bunch of thirty-something gay men who treated me as an equal. That helped me grow up some more. I also got to see a bunch of different types of relationships. The dads set some rules, but for the most part, were rather permissive.” Memories of his first summer in DC flooded his mind. “Lost my virginity at fifteen, screwed around with a few guys—some my dads heard about, some they didn’t—met Owen somewhere in there, and then he moved to the US. After a while, I realized I was happy just being with him.” “Why get married so young?” “Oh, there’s a couple of reasons for that too. One’s that it makes it easier for Ozzie to stay in the country. He’s married to a US citizen, and that helps him become one himself.” He paused again, trying to decide how much to reveal. “The other main one’s we both want kids. And we want them soon. Dad’s only twenty years older than I am. I think that’s helped our relationship develop to a point he’s not only my father but also one of my best friends. It might not have been that way if he was older. I want a similar connection with my kids. Don’t tell anyone, but we hope to have the first one by this time next year.” By lunchtime Tuesday, the house stood empty. Everyone headed back to Manhattan after breakfast, but the partying was not finished. “So y’all staying for a week?” Mathew Calhoun may have lived in Washington for years, but his Alabama roots were unmistakable thanks to his drawl. “Y’all better not be bringing back a ton of boys to party in the apartment. Your dads and I don’t need the neighbors complaining about sex noises.” Matt, César, and Brett jointly owned the Manhattan pied-à-terre CJ and Owen used more often than any of the other men did. “Get a grip, Doc.” CJ transitioned from calling all his fathers’ friends uncle as he aged; his relationship with them evolved into one of friendship as equals. “You know us better than that.” While CJ and Owen frolicked on Fire Island over the weekend, Dr. Calhoun and his partner, Dasan Ash Turner, arrived from DC to spend an extended weekend in New York. They were returning home the next day and invited the younger couple to dinner at Caffè dei Fiori. The Italian eatery—on Lexington Avenue a five minute walk away from the apartment—offered what some described as elevated food inside a three-story townhouse. “He’s jealous and projecting.” Dasan was somewhat more subdued than the other Elite members, but once in a while came up with a winner. “Ever since he turned forty back in May, all he does is complain about getting old. I should leave him behind and have him go partying with you.” “Nah, he’s right. He’s too old. You can stay, Dash. We’d love to go party with you.” CJ had a soft spot for the man from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was the first HIV positive person he had met, had not been reticent when asked questions about how he had been infected and was candid about what it was like to live with the virus and the stigma still attached to it. “I don’t think so. Although I disagree with Matt about the old part. Remember, I’ll be thirty-eight myself next month. My party days are behind me.” “Your loss, mate. I don’t think either one of you’s old.” Owen removed his reading glasses after perusing the wine list; everyone at the table had pointed at him when the server brought it over. “We do plan on going out over the next few days, but there’ll be no craziness. Neither one of us enjoys hangovers.” “Speaking of hanging over…” Dasan paused while his gaze shifted between CJ and Owen. “Before we left Washington, I had a call from the agent who brokered the rental of your house.” Dasan had helped coordinate a two-year lease with a German conglomerate, when he represented the couple during the purchase of a place in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in December 2017. “His client would like to renew for another year. Are you guys interested?” The homeowners stared at each other, their mouths hanging open in surprise. “I…” CJ’s hesitation made Dash chuckle. “Damn! I—” “Not interested.” Owen spoke with conviction; there was no hesitation in his reply. “We want it back.” “You guys sure? I’m certain they’ll sweeten the offer if we pursue the matter.” “Nope.” CJ shook his head. “Ozzie’s right. We’ve talked about it, discussed it with the cousins, and we’re ready to tackle the remodeling. It’s going to take time. Plus, with me graduating next May, we’d love to move in sometime in the summer. Hopefully, before I start my job.” “How much work are you planning on? And how long do they think it’ll take? For real. This type of project tends to go over budget in both time and money.” Conversation over the remainder of the evening revolved around the changes they planned for the 120-year-old property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On June 28, 1969, in and around the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, the struggle for equal rights by the GLBT community exploded. A New York City police raid on the bar ignited the fuse. In those days of archaic laws and hostile oppression, the reaction by bar patrons was atypical: they fought back. Their numbers, augmented by sympathetic neighborhood residents, fueled a riot leading to six days of demonstrations. Conflicts with law enforcement occurred outside the tavern, in nearby Christopher Park, and along neighboring streets. Attitudes and laws began to change that day. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating the area as a National Monument. The city transferred the small park’s title to the federal government, facilitating the creation of a National Park Service unit. The Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and portions of the surrounding neighborhood were labeled a National Historic Landmark for their association with the Stonewall Uprising. In his message, the president stated, “…the designation of a national monument at the site of the Stonewall Uprising would elevate its message and story to the national stage and ensure that future generations would learn about this turning point that sparked changes in cultural attitudes and national policy.” On June 28, 2019, fifty years after the uprising, the world came together to rejoice in the momentous anniversary. The World Pride celebration returned to North America to mark Stonewall 50. The month of conferences, fashion shows, art exhibits, countless parties, and a multitude of smaller events culminated on Sunday with the annual parade. The laws had changed, acceptance continued to grow yet oppression remained. Pope John Paul II railed against the initial international celebration in Rome in 2000; Orthodox Jews did the same in Jerusalem in 2006. Religion continued to lead the hateful charge with homosexuality still a capital crime in Muslim nations. The GLBT community refused to buckle and hide in the shadows. The 2019 defiant celebration was proof. “Mate, I can’t believe you talked me into this. The sun’s just coming up.” Owen sipped from his mug and adjusted the backpack’s straps over his shoulders. He was not a fan of early mornings. “Stop bitching, Oz, You agreed to this days ago. It’s kind of cool to check out the Today Show from the outside instead of being in the studio.” CJ’s appearances on the NBC morning television show took place during the 2016 presidential race, and later during the promotion of Bullies Beware. Today, they planned to be at Rockefeller Plaza as part of the audience. The show had promised several segments dedicated to the World Pride/Stonewall 50 celebration, and CJ had suggested being outside with hundreds of other people would be a nice way to start their own day. “Hey! I know you.” Leaning against the metal barricade containing the crowd, CJ was surprised when Savannah Guthrie spoke to him. “How are you, CJ?” Weather permitting, the show’s hosts stepped outside the studio and mingled with fans several times throughout the broadcast. During a commercial break, the woman who had interviewed CJ in December approached him. “Hello, Savannah. We’re doing great. Looking forward to the concert.” As part of their special programming for the day, singer Adam Lambert would be performing on the plaza. The woman shifted her attention to the blonde standing behind him for a moment. “When you were here promoting your book you mentioned you were married. Is this your husband?” “Oh, yeah. Sorry, I’m being rude. This is Owen Liston. Owen, you know who Savannah is.” “Of course, mate. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Guthrie.” “Oh, please, call me Savannah. Hey! I have an idea. Would you guys be willing to come inside, and chat with us on camera?” Owen hesitated, but when he nodded his agreement, CJ followed suit. Savannah motioned for someone to join them; the assistant producer ushered the couple through the crowd and into the building. After discarding their ball caps, having their hair styled, and submitting to makeup application, CJ and Owen waited off-camera until invited to join the show’s personalities on the set. They were given an idea of the line of questioning they could expect, and neither had a problem with it. “We’re joined by two unexpected guests this morning.” With little time to add their bio to the teleprompter, Hoda Kotb—the show’s co-anchor—referred to hastily scribbled notes in front of her. “CJ Abelló has been our guest before, and today he’s joined by his husband, Owen Liston. Welcome to the Today Show, guys.” “G’day, Hoda. It’s a pleasure to be here.” “Oh, I’m in love with your accent already.” “One of the many reasons I fell for him.” CJ’s goofy smile elicited a groan from Owen. “Thank you, Hoda. CJ’s being silly. He fell for me ’cause my family’s in the wine business.” Kotb, known to sit at the anchor desk with a wineglass during the show’s fourth hour, was quick to retort. “I definitely want to spend time with you guys! I assume you’re in town for the Pride festivities. Why?” “I’m a history buff, Hoda. I… We felt it was important to celebrate an event that’s impacted both our lives so much. The Stonewall Uprising started a movement we’re the beneficiaries of.” CJ’s words and smooth delivery held the reporters’ attention. “Marriage equality is one of the victories we rejoice in. The Supreme Court acknowledging our right to wed came as a result of years of work by countless individuals. But the drive for equal rights for the GLBT community isn’t over. There’s still inequality. These events should remind everyone the struggle’s not over.” Savannah shifted her attention to Owen. “Your husband’s had his fifteen minutes in the spotlight and more.” Someone in the production team was a fast worker; an image of CJ on stage at the pre-election night rally in Philadelphia appeared on the wall of monitors behind them. “He was a passionate representative for Secretary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.” An image of CJ pointing a gun at a man brandishing a baseball bat filled the screens, while descriptions began scrolling on the teleprompter. “The following year, he was once again in the news when he saved the life of an elderly woman during the protests in Charlottesville. The picture of him holding a firearm went viral at the time. Something unexpected from someone many considered a liberal.” An image of Bullies Beware’s cover joined the previous ones on the split screen. “Last year, he again gained notoriety when he co-authored a book bemoaning bullying and encouraging victims to fight back. How do you feel about his activism?” “I support him one thousand percent.” Owen’s reply came so fast it was evident it was not a composed, rehearsed comment. “Doesn’t mean I agree with all his positions. We’ve had more than one row over issues like gun control and the death penalty. But he’s always amazed me with how thoughtful he is when developing positions on controversial issues.” “How come we haven’t seen you out in public as much as him?” “What? Talking to you with millions of people watching isn’t public enough?” While the interviewers chuckled, CJ was surprised at how well Owen handled the questioning. “I’m a tad less flashy than my husband.” “What Owen’s modesty fails to highlight”—CJ’s pride in his mate was unmistakable—“is he’s helping improve our world every single day. As an environmental attorney, he works to protect our natural wonders for us and for future generations. It’s an endeavor I wholeheartedly support.” “What does the future hold for both of you?” Hoda discretely nodded towards a side monitor counting down the time remaining in the segment. “I’ve worked with the Nature Conservancy all through college. This coming fall, I become a full-time staff member. My goal is to continue bringing together the public and private sectors. To forge alliances. To help find science-based solutions to the problems facing our environment. And to leave this world a little better than I entered it.” “What about you, CJ?” “Finishing school. This fall I’m entering my senior year at Georgetown University and getting ready for the real world’s my priority. I’ll continue to support causes I believe in, but not too much in public.” CJ paused for a moment while checking the remaining time. “If I could plug one of them… Heroes’ Haven is an organization working to support disabled veterans. A cause near and dear to my heart since my father’s a retired Marine Corps officer, and one of my best friends—a brother, really—returned home after a stint in the Army missing two legs. I encourage everyone to check their website, and show some love by supporting this wonderful group.” “Thank you, gentlemen. We’ll get a link to Heroes’ Haven up on our website. We’ll be right back.” Sometime later, as they made their way toward the Stonewall Inn, CJ received a text from Peter Davis. The founder and executive director of Heroes Haven let him know the appeal on national TV flooded their web page with inquiries, and donations were pouring in. “Bloody hell, it sounds like a United Nations gathering.” The cacophony of myriad conversations in multiple languages assailed their ears as they neared the Stonewall Inn. “I know, right? Listen to all those great accents.” The world had come to New York City once again. CJ grasped his husband’s arm when they reached the entrance to Christopher Park. “Let’s ask someone to take our picture in front of the sign.” The throng thickened with each step taken toward the famous bar. “Forget it, CJ. We’ve had drinks in there before, and we’ll do it again. Not worth it today. May as well let the tourists have the opportunity.” CJ thought it funny Owen did not consider the two of them tourists. With the amount of time they spent in New York City, the distinction was not inaccurate. “If Madonna makes another surprise appearance and performs, I’ll never forgive you.” The music icon had shocked bar patrons with an impromptu show on the last day of 2018. “How about ice cream instead?” Five minutes into a stroll that any other day took a total of two, they gave up. The waves of people lapping at the entrance of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop down the street from the park made them realize it would take some time to reach; the sea of visitors and locals was not about to part for them. “No way, mate. Give up on any of these places.” Owen pointed at the mobbed Starbuck’s. “Wanna try to get a couple of Cokes from one of the street vendors? I have my flask full of rum in the backpack.” “Sounds like a plan.” CJ cajoled his way to a hotdog cart, bought two sodas, and guided Owen in the other direction toward the perimeter of the crowd clustered around the triangular park. “Check it out, Oz. Typical entrepreneurial New Yorker.” Someone had leaned a small ladder against the lamppost at the corner of Waverly Place; the hand-painted sign next to it offered the opportunity for people to climb, and have their picture taken by the brown sign for the intersecting road. CJ had taken a similar picture next to the marker for Gay Street during his first visit to New York. Late in the afternoon, they returned to the Upper East Side apartment for a nap. Chipper and Ethan joined them for dinner; afterward, the four made their way down to Chelsea. Even though it was early, the line outside PRIME already threatened to turn the corner at Ninth Avenue and Nineteenth Street. “Shit! I don’t think the happy hour crowd ever left.” Ethan sounded surprised. “I’ve never seen this long a wait this early.” “Be happy. It means your boyfriend’s raking in the bucks.” CJ clasped the man’s shoulder and propelled him towards the entrance. “Get ready for the hateful bitching.” When the doorman waved them inside without checking identification or collecting the cover charge, CJ’s prediction came true. Those near the front complained about them. The club remained crowded the entire night, and by the time they caught a taxi, they were sweaty and tired. Saturday they woke up late, went for a jog and breakfast, and afterward lounged around the apartment. For over thirty years, Dance on the Pier had been one of the jewels on the New York City Pride crown. In 2019, the event was held on Pier 97 at Hudson River Park in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. Dancing with Owen and their other friends next to the flowing waters, CJ reveled in the bliss that came from being surrounded by so many other men indulging in everything that felt good. The couple’s sobriety during the event put them in the minority. It was a last minute decision to abstain, brought on by the massive amounts of alcohol imbibed over the previous week. But it gave them the opportunity to view and recall the festivities without the intoxication haze most revelers would remember it through. “OWEN! CATCH!” The Aussie turned his head in time to watch the spheroid fly at him. Catching the ball, he clutched it to his chest with a hand and extended the other arm to block imaginary tacklers. “Damn, CJ. You’re not the only rock star in the family anymore.” Ethan’s forceful backslap made CJ stumble forward a few inches. The crowd was so thick further movement was impossible. “Jerk! I almost bumped into the kids in front of us.” The two pre-teen boys turned and glared when called kids. Their mothers looked at the sky and rolled their eyes. “Sorry, guys.” CJ’s apology mollified the kids. “I’ve been telling everyone about Ozzie forever, Ethan. About time some of you boys realized he’s not some wallflower.” When the next ball came at him, CJ grabbed one of the youngsters’ arms and helped him catch it. Pointing at a player, CJ showed the boy how to throw it back underhanded. “That was fun, mister. How do you know those guys?” “Those are the Gotham Knights. My husband”—CJ thumbed at Owen standing behind him—“plays for the Scandals. That’s the team back home in Washington. We’ve met some of the New York players at tournaments.” The group had gathered at Colt and Tony’s loft apartment, walked to Seventh Avenue, and claimed a spot a couple of blocks from the parade’s starting point. From the heart of Chelsea, it would meander down to Greenwich Village toward Christopher Street before turning north on Fifth Avenue and ending on the edge of the Hudson Yards neighborhood. CJ’s Love Trumps Hate t-shirt wasn’t unique. Owen’s rainbow-hued kangaroo one attracted plenty of stares. “We’ll be back.” Mario Martellini, Tony’s younger brother, grasped Owen’s hand and pulled him alongside as he scurried forward. Curiosity made CJ and Mario’s girlfriend tag along. “I need your help. When we get a break in the crowd, I want you to call a couple of the players over. I want to take a picture showing off their uniform.” PRIME was a sponsor, and the bar’s name was prominently emblazoned on their shirts’ front. The group of friends repositioned itself at the spot from where Mario selected to take pictures. The change in location brought a change in atmosphere; the air was redolent with the sweet smell of marijuana. “Do you miss smoking?” Owen asked when CJ inhaled lungfuls of air. “Meh. A little. I know I’m going overboard abstaining. I’m sure the State Department would never find out if I did, but I don’t want to lie if I’m asked. What about you?” “Not really. You know I’d rather have a glass of wine anyway. By the way, thank you. “For what?” “For New York City this time. As much as I always wanted to live in the US, I never imagined spending as much time here as we do. I love Washington, and that’s home, but there’s something about New York…” Owen’s tone bordered on reverence. “Who would have thought I’d know people in this parade. Every time we’re here, the city seems to unfold for us. Each layer peeled back reveals new secrets, new marvels, new opportunities.” “Damn, Oz, you’re being poetic. I think DC can be the same, but there the emphasis is politics. We’re immersed in it all—“ “Fuck yeah!” Chipper’s outburst interrupted CJ’s rumination. “I gotta go, guys. My sister’s at the hospital. She’s in labor.”
  8. 69 points
    “Damn! You guys brought me a present? How’d you know I like the tall, skinny ones best? They always got long dicks and tight asses." The bouncer licked his lips as he appraised the subject of his admiration. “What’s your name sexy? I’m Jure.” The momentary shock left them all silent as Jure leered and a wide-eyed Harley fidgeted. Chipper was the first to crack. His laughter followed a fraction of a second later by CJ and Owen hanging on to each other while chortling. Ethan was the only one to retain his composure. He did snicker before slapping the bulky, bearded doorman. “Lay off, Jure. He’s off limits. With me and straight.” “Oh, hi.” The bouncer spared Ethan a cursory glance; a wink later, he at last paid attention to Harley’s license. He seemed intent on memorizing every scrap of information on it. “Didn’t notice you. I sort of got distracted.” He moistened his lips with his tongue once again, staring at a bewildered Harley. “I’m good at breaking in straight boys if you’re interested, baby.” Jure ran a hand down his torso and cupped his groin. The predatory display elicited groans from CJ and Owen. “Back in Croatia, both my best friends said it didn’t hurt them that much when I fucked them. And then they liked it and came back for more.” CJ decided it was time to rescue his friend. “Ignore him, Harley.” He snatched the ID out of the bouncer’s hand and returned it to his disconcerted traveling partner. “Jure tried the same shit with Ozzie last time we were here. We’ve got to talk to Tony about this shit. He keeps hiring new people, and it takes us forever to train them. So hard to find good help these days.” Jure gave CJ a dismissive glance before focusing on Owen. “Hi, Ozzie. Welcome back to PRIME, handsome. You know where to find me if you want a real beef injection tonight.” “Give it up, mate. Not going to happen and you know it.” Owen gave CJ a conspiratorial wink. “But if you’re interested in being bottom boy for the five of us tonight…” While the man narrowed his eyes, the others again stood silent, mouths agape, until Chipper spoke. “Wait! Let me pick my jaw up from the floor. Who are you, and what have you done with Ozzie? Damn, CJ, you been giving him lessons in sarcasm and innuendos?” “He’s a good student. Let’s go fuck with Sean.” CJ, Owen, and Harley left Washington mid-morning and rode the interstate the entire way to New York City. They would revert to their preferred back roads later in the trip; the first segment of their adventure traversed areas without the visual appeal of upcoming ones. Chipper was already at the Upper East Side apartment when they arrived, having flown in from Miami a few days earlier. Ethan joined them for dinner, and afterward, the five friends rode the subway down to Chelsea. Although the neighborhood was no longer quite the GLBT bastion it once was, it was still home to many gay bars. PRIME was their preferred watering hole in the City because of their friendship with the owners and the head bartender. Inside, they inched their way through the Friday night crowd toward the rear serving area. Retro night was as popular as ever and Cher’s “Strong Enough” exploded through the sound system. It reminded CJ he needed to send the star diva a text or e-mail. He had not spoken to her since right after the wedding. “Hey, boy! A round of redheaded sluts and make it pronto.” CJ did not like the concoction of Jägermeister, peach-flavored schnapps, and cranberry juice all that much, but the name made it hard not to order the shooter whenever they visited the club. Sean Brody stepped back from the bar so his entire body was visible. Smirking at the group of friends while grabbing his crotch, he shook his head so the curly, red hair created an illusory halo. “I’ve got your boy right here, sir.” “You gonna join us, right?” Chipper knuckled the bartender first and the others followed. “I will this round. But I’m not keeping up with you all night. I’m working, and I have a feeling the five of you seem ready to get shit-faced.” “Nah, the three of us are riding tomorrow.” Harley pointed at himself and his two traveling companions. “I hate having a hangover when I’m gonna be on the bike for that many hours. That‘s why I prefer to smoke. But with CJ avoiding cannabis these days…” “Oh, man, Sean. You should have seen Harley’s face when the bouncer offered to pop his cherry. We couldn’t stop laughing.” CJ barely avoided the punch Harley threw at him. “It ain’t funny, CJ. I’m used to going to gay bars with you guys, but that was a first. Nobody’s ever tried so hard to get in my pants when I’ve gone to DIK Bar with you and the Scandals. Those guys always stopped hitting on me after one of you told them I wasn’t gay. I mean, this one kept going and going and going, even after Ethan told him I was straight. And he said he’d done it to his friends in Croatia. I guess that’s where he’s from? Isn’t that the same as Tank? This guy’s bigger but not so muscular. What is it with people from Croatia? Are they all big and gay? At least this Jure guy—“ “HARLEY!” Sean’s shout made several patrons stare at the group for a moment before resuming their conversations. “Here, bud. Have a drink. We need to slow you the fuck down. So you guys headed up north tomorrow?” “Yep. We’ll return in a couple of weeks. The plan’s to stop in New York again on our way back to Washington. But that may change. We’ll let you know.” CJ raised his glass, encouraging his friends to do the same. “Here’s to good friends. Salud!” “Salud, dinero, amor, y tiempo para disfrutarlos.” Chipper’s expanded toast had Sean staring at him after they downed their drinks. “I’m in town until my sister gives birth, Sean. Then I’m headed to Buenos Aires, so I’m practicing my Spanish. It means: health, money, love, and time to enjoy them. It’s an old Spanish saying.” “When’s your sister due?” Collecting the empty glasses, Sean dropped them in the sink’s sudsy waters. Without bothering to ask what they wanted, he began mixing their preferred cocktails. CJ’s was the easiest: Hendricks over ice with a lime. After the first one, he always switched to Sapphire martinis. “The end of June, early July. My mom’s flying up when the baby comes, and she’s staying for a month or so to help Cristina out. I’m sure my dickhead brother-in-law’s gonna hate having her around. He’s such a fucking control freak. Anyway, you’ll be seeing me in here until then. There’s a few auditions I’m trying to line up, but I’m going to have a lot of free time. I’ll fly to Argentina right after I meet my niece.” “No butt-fucking while I’m in the room, okay?” Harley dropped his bag and helmet on the bed closest to the door while CJ and Owen claimed the other one. They stopped twice to fuel the motorcycles and once for lunch but otherwise, the ride from New York to New Hampshire was a high-speed run aimed at arriving at the hotel with time to do something in the afternoon. “Dude, what the fuck? Where did that come from?” The weather was typical for a late-spring, New England day. It was chilly enough they had worn their Perfecto leather jackets over t-shirts and hoodies. Combined with the motorcycle boots and Levi’s, they resembled members of a gang displaying their colors. “Just sayin’… If I can’t have sex, neither can you.” Harley threw himself on the bed and scooted back to sit with his shoulders against the headboard. “I’m so glad to be off the damn interstate for the next few days. I’m looking forward to riding backcountry roads now. That’s almost always where adventure awaits.” “CJ? Who’s this guy? Didn’t we think he was asexual at one point? Chipper said something last night about me acting different, but this is on an entire different level. And now he’s getting philosophical on us too.” Owen rummaged through his bag and retrieved a Dopp kit. “I’m going to wash my face and brush my teeth. We can head out any time after that.” “I’ll do the same after you’re done.” CJ moved the bags and helmets to the chairs next to the room’s small table and replicated Haley’s position on the bed. “As for Harley, I think Kim’s been a bad influence on him.” “You better be nice to her, CJ. I’m not like Thiago or Chipper, who’ll have sex with anyone. We’re talking about the woman I’m gonna marry.” CJ’s jaw dropped at the announcement. He and Owen liked the girl and knew Harley was happy with her. Marriage was something new. “We better be invited to the wedding!” It was the best he could muster. Details could wait as far as he was concerned. They had a few days together ahead, and he planned to squeeze every scrap of information possible out of his bestie. The ride north from Weirs Beach Motel and Cottages to Laconia Harley-Davidson took ten minutes, and CJ marveled at the number of motorcycles already on the road. If this was what the first day of Laconia Motorcycle Week was like, he suspected by the time it ended on Father’s Day it would be much more crowded. It reminded him of the throngs in Daytona Beach except for not seeing too many riders in shorts and flips. He still had no idea how those people could shift gears wearing plastic sandals. A carnival atmosphere greeted them when they slowed down in front of the dealership. White tents obscured most of the paved space in front, and an attendant wearing neon-lime bib overalls directed new arrivals to a temporary parking area on the grassy lot behind the building. CJ caught glimpses of a band stage underneath the largest canvas awning. A pin-striper worked on a shiny, blue Tri Glide beneath a smaller one, and a tattoo artist was inking a man’s calf in another. “Where to, Harley?” “Inside. I texted Keith before we left the hotel. He’s waiting for us.” “Mate, how do you know this guy?” Owen was the only one who wore a helmet during the ride; he locked it on the engine guard before following the other two men. “I’ve never met him. One of the techs at work knows him and put us in touch. I e-mailed Keith I was coming up with a couple of friends, and he told me to stop by when we got in town.” Keith Askins was several inches shorter than CJ; the three visitors towered over him. The forty-something man’s long, scraggly beard ended halfway down his chest and his arms showed multiple grease-streaked tattoos. He resembled the stereotypical biker. Glancing at the three of them, he extended a hand. “Which one of you’s Harley?” “That’s me. And these are CJ and Ozzie. Ozzie’s the blonde.” “Nice to meet you, guys. Are you all in the same riding club? Those are nice jackets. Looks like you’re wearing a uniform.” “Nah, except for HOG.” Harley referred to the Harley Owners Group, the club sponsored by the motor company. “But we’ve been friends since high school. CJ and I met ’cause I started talking to him the first day of classes. His dad has a Road Glide and CJ rode behind him that day.” “Cool, so where are you guys staying?” “Over on Weir Beach? I forget the name of the hotel.” “You’re right in the middle of things. That’s where a lot of the events take place.” Keith stepped away from the service counter when a customer approached, and the others fell in step behind him. “What are your plans tonight?” “Nothing so far.” “What with all the bikes in town we’re kinda busy here. This week we always end up wrenching non-stop. I don’t have a lot of time to visit now, but I get off work at six. Let’s meet for a beer at the Broken Spoke right after. You know where you turned onto US-3 on the way here? It’s right there on the corner.” Owen nodded at CJ. “That works. We want to stop at the HOG tent and pick up rally pins. These two got me hooked on the damn things when we went to Daytona last year.” “Cool accent. Where you from?” “Australia. But I’m on my way to becoming a citizen.” “You’ll have to tell me how you ended up around these two when we meet up after work. By the way, you should stop by here every day. We have food, we have music, we have specials, and there’s a bunch of contests and raffles.” Harley stared through the glass windows at the activity outside and spoke without turning. “Is the tat artist any good?” “You wanna get inked?” “Maybe. It’s been a while since my last one. I’m itching for more.” “He’s good. He’s from Boston, and this is the third year he sets up shop here at the dealership. Come on, I’ll introduce you. What about you guys? You want to get a tat?” “Not me. But maybe CJ. He’s got two of them and I know he wants more.” “I’m good for now. You go with him, Harley. Ozzie and I want to buy t-shirts. I need a new pair of motorcycle-cop gloves too. Couldn’t find the left one this morning.” A while later, they rode back to the lakefront headed toward the corporate Harley-Davidson exhibits. At the HOG tent, near the entrance to the Weirs Beach Drive-In, they showed their membership cards and added a new rally pin to their collection. Harley had some from events he attended with his father in the past, while CJ and Owen had them from the 2018 Daytona Bike Week and a couple from Rolling Thunder in Washington. They strolled through the vendor booths, bought pins and patches, and it seemed Harley tried to eat something from every food vendor. At half past six, when Keith walked into the Broken Spoke Saloon they were sitting at a table, beers in hand, waiting for the server to deliver Harley’s hamburger. The next morning, the sky was cloudy, but rain was not in the forecast, and the temperature had risen. All three wore a t-shirt, a hoodie, and their leather vest. CJ and Harley had brought miniature sewing-kits and affixed Laconia 2019 patches on those the previous evening. “If I can have your attention…” The heavyset man with the long, gray hair and beard stood in front of the group of riders flanked by four other men. “My name’s Lucas. I’ll be your road captain this morning.” At least a hundred bikers had gathered in the parking lot anticipating the ride through White Mountain National Forest. “Let’s get through the pre-ride meeting and we’ll hit the road.” Lucas rested a hand on the handlebar of a BMW R1200GS CJ assumed was his ride. “We have a large group, so these guys next to me will all ride sweep.” All five wore, bright-pink bandanas around their necks for easy identification. “How many of you’ve never ridden in a group before? Raise your hands.” A smattering of arms went up, but it seemed most of those present were veterans of riding with others. Lucas previewed their destination and the roads they would be traveling. They would be climbing peaks with an elevation of around 6,000 feet, so he stressed the importance of knowing their motorcycle’s capabilities. “We’ll ride in staggered formation. Keep a bike’s length behind the rider in front of you. Please remember although it’s a group ride, safety’s a personal responsibility. If you encounter any problems, pull to the side of the road. One of the sweeps will stop to help you.” The White Mountain Trail outing lasted slightly over four hours. They traveled a landscape unspoiled by overdevelopment on gently curving roads, enjoying uninterrupted views of mountains, rivers, wetlands, and woodlands. CJ loved these times best; he could turn his mind off, and concentrate on the ride. Or take advantage of the solitude to delve into whatever he had been thinking about last. During one of the stops, the road captain and sweep riders assembled the large group and took pictures with as many phones and cameras as they were handed. CJ, Owen, and Harley asked for one of just the three of them. Owen was the one who voiced what all three were thinking. “This one’s getting framed and will become part of the new gallery wall at the apartment.” The three friends said goodbye to the group when they returned to the staging area and headed toward the Harley-Davidson dealership again. On the way, Harley motioned for a stop at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant. Somebody mentioned they served Thanksgiving dinner year-round, and he claimed he was in the mood for turkey with all the fixings. “This is what I drew last night. What do you think?” Max glanced between the drawing he set atop the tall, tool chest and Harley. He absentmindedly rubbed the intricate dagger inked on his right temple. “I tried to keep it simple. If you end up with a full sleeve, it can be easily incorporated into the design.” “I love it!” Harley resembled a kid with a new toy; his body vibrated with excitement. “What do you guys think?” “I like it! I think I’ve seen that logo before but I can’t remember where.” Owen scratched his head staring at the drawing of a five-point star encased in a circle with five horizontal bars extending to each side. Atop and below, Max had used a military-style, stencil font to write THE SQUAD. “On a bunch of the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in Ritchie’s room.” CJ had helped his brother build some of those. “That’s the old US Air Force logo. Nice job, Max. You want color, Harley?” “Yeah! It’s going on the left bicep above the Stars and Stripes. Since that one has a lot of red, I think this one should be mostly blue.” “I think I’d want it in just black on me. Since neither one of my other two has color.” CJ chuckled. Max’s grin and shimmering blue eyes were an interesting counterpoint to the shocked expression on Harley and Owen. “What? I’m just thinking about it.” Harley’s energy output may have jumped a little at the comment. “Bruh! That’s frickin’ awesome! We’re gonna have matching ink!” CJ ignored his friend for a moment and glanced at his husband. “Can I, Oz?” The tattoo artist’s confusion became comprehension when Harley said, “They’re married.” “Bloody hell! If you two get that tattoo, the other guys are gonna want to do the same. I’d prefer not to be odd man out. I hate this peer pressure shit, but maybe I need to give in.” Owen shook his head and waved dismissively when CJ and Harley both wrapped an arm around his shoulders and simultaneously yelled, “YEAH!” “Oh, this is gonna be great. It’s like a rite of passage, Oz. When can you fit me and Ozzie in, dude?” CJ rubbed his hands together in anticipation and glee. Max glanced at a piece of paper taped to the side of the tool cart holding inks and other supplies. “Late tonight or this time tomorrow. Since most people go out riding in the early morning, I open up right before lunchtime. I have three other appointments coming in right after this one, and one of them’s a big back job.” “How about tomorrow? I’d rather get you while you’re fresh instead of worn out from going at it all day. One thing, though. We need a hard copy of the drawing you use to create the stencil. There’s a few more members to our little group who may want to get the same thing done. I know for sure my brother’s gonna want it. He’s been bugging our parents about getting inked.” “Not a problem. I’ll make a copy right now and put it in an envelope for you. I’ll include a card for our shop in Boston. In case any of your friends live in the area.” “Actually…” CJ and Owen didn’t have a strict schedule to adhere to for the remainder of their trip. This being the last summer both would have a large chunk of free time, they wanted to travel as much as possible. “Most of us are in the Washington, D.C. area, but one friend goes to Boston University. Oz, what do you think about stopping on the way back and spending a night with Patrick? Maybe we could have dinner with him, Mac, and Hilary.” CJ was the drunkest of the three late that evening when they left the bar. Keith and a couple other techs from the dealership had joined them with their girlfriends or wives. The raucous evening ended when Owen dragged his husband out after CJ bought a round of tequila shots for the entire establishment. Owen told Harley he could not wait for the next morning when CJ realized what the bill was for that stunt. “Fuck the government and fuck the State Department. The day I become emperor, pot’s gonna be legal all over. Fucking Neanderthals and their Victorian attitudes.” CJ’s tirade was more grunted than spoken. “Hell, it would do some of those uptight assholes a ton of good to get stoned now and then. This is why I hate drinking. I’m in pain. I need Advil.” He grumbled all the way to the bathroom. Eventually, they rode to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, ran into people they met the previous day, and immersed themselves in the spectacle of vintage motorcycle races. Having Harley with them meant they had their own commentator. How his friend was able to retain so much information about so many different motorcycles never failed to amaze CJ. The afternoon they spent at the Harley-Davidson dealership once again. Owen stuck by his husband’s side when Max inked CJ, while Harley stepped in and out of the tent. Each time he returned, he shared his most recent conversation or discovery. He spent time inside chatting with dealership staff, or outside admiring motorcycles and discussing them with their owners. After the excruciating pain of the intricate design on his hip six months before, the current session under the needle produced nothing more than slight discomfort. Although no longer in agony, the hangover lethargy led to CJ dozing off while being worked on. Owen, on the other hand, groaned and grimaced when it was his turn. “I swear this is my one and only. I don’t care how many you and Harley get. It hurts!” “Pussy!” CJ’s comment earned him a middle finger. Returning to the Broken Spoke Saloon was out of the question. CJ refused to set foot in the place again. Instead, they ended up at a smaller bar by the shore of Meredith Bay, had dinner, a few cocktails listening to a blues band, and talked to people from so many different states they lost track of the number. Their final day in Laconia they rode around the countryside on their own, stopped at the dealership to say goodbye to Keith and Max, and ended up back at the motel as the sun began to set. While locking their bikes, someone they had exchanged pleasantries with earlier in the day stopped to invite them to an impromptu party around the pool. “We tapped a keg, we have tunes, and the pool’s heated. Drop your shit in your room, put on a bathing suit or shorts, and come join us. We’re just chillaxing.” “Yeah… No.” CJ shivered at the thought of going swimming in fifty-degree weather. “You’re not getting my ass in the pool when it’s this cold. I’m a Floridian. But we’ll come hang. Thanks, bro.” One of their stops earlier in the day, at Owen’s request, was at Hermit Woods Winery. The tasting room was where CJ and Owen hung out, while Harley stuffed his face at the deli. They purchased an assortment of wines and had them shipped. A bottle of their 2016 Heirloom Crabapple found its way into a saddlebag. They carried it with them to the pool area as a contribution to the party. Owen liked the medium-sweet, tangy wine made from Dolgo crabapples, and mentioned it would pair well with the spicy foods they liked. Plastic cups in hand, CJ and Owen sat on a wooden bench watching the cavorting in and around the pool. “Why is it most of these bikers have such long, scraggly beards?” Owen ran a hand over his unshaved face. He had tried cultivating a goatee several times, but the growth was slow and sparse; he always shaved it off a fortnight after. “Don’t be jealous, Oz. Just ’cause you can’t grow one. Hell, Harley can’t either. I think that’s why he’s letting his hair grow. If he can’t braid a beard, he’ll prolly settle for braiding a ponytail. Haven’t you noticed how many of these men have them?” “As long as he doesn’t start going around with a man bun. Those things are hideous. There were so many of them at PRIME I was ready to start amputating.” “Ozzie! You’re being judgmental!” CJ chuckled when Owen looked startled. “So unlike you. And I don’t know about man buns. Some guys look hot with them.” He moved his head closer to his husband’s and lowered his voice. “What I don’t get is why most of the women hanging around these bikers are so skanky.” “Who’s being judgmental now?” “Fine! We’re both judgmental assholes. Oh, shit. Don’t look now but here comes Harley and he looks pissed off. What’s up with all these changes in him? The jokes about butt-fucking, the marriage thing, the philosophical observations…” “Our kid’s growing up, CJ. It’s called maturing.” Owen shifted his attention to Harley when the man sat on the lounge chaise next to their table and grunted. “Hey, mate. What’s going on?” Harley raised his head but instead of saying anything, he glared in the direction he had come from. When CJ looked, Nolan, the guy who had invited them to the party was walking in their direction, a beer in each hand. “Brought you a fresh one, Harley. Since you left the other one behind.” He sat on the edge of the seat and shifted his attention to CJ and Owen. “Hey, guys. Sorry about what that bitch said. She’s not part of our group, so we asked her to leave.” CJ felt as confused as Owen looked. “What are you talking about?” “Harley didn’t tell you?” “I didn’t get a chance.” Harley sipped from the beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks for the beer. The chick he’s talking about made a homophobic comment. When I told her I didn’t like that, and that my two best friends were gay, she went nuts. She looked at the two of you, called you faggots, and said she hoped you’d get AIDS. I told her to go fuck herself with the hot end of a tailpipe and left.” Harley shook his head and took another sip of beer. “Damn, I wish I had a joint.” “You guys smoke?” Nolan smiled for the first time since joining them. “I’ve got some primo stuff. Let me go roll a couple of Js.” “Hold off.” CJ raised a hand to stop the man. “Just take care of Harley. I can’t do it anymore because of a job I’m applying for. Ozzie was never a big smoker, so he gave it up with me.” Nolan stared at Owen and his smile grew. “Dude, you’re a better man than I am. That’s love. I’m not sure I’d give weed up for my wife. Listen, my apologies again. Don’t let a drunken cunt ruin the night for you. Most bikers don’t give a shit who you sleep with as long as you’re cool. I know none of us traveling together do. I’ll be right back.” “See that?” Harley beamed, and CJ was unsure if it was due to the apology or to the prospect of getting high. “That’s what real bikers are like, bruh. Nobody cares what you do in private. Live and let live.”
  9. 67 points
    The vibration against his butt made CJ wiggle twice during dinner; he ignored the phone until the meal was over. As the remnants were cleared, he reached for it. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” “What’s going on?” “It’s Thiago. Nadine’s in the hospital. The baby may be coming earlier than expected.” “Wait, isn’t the kid due in April?” “Yep. Like six weeks away.” CJ tapped away at his phone before sitting again. “Crap. I hope the baby’s okay. Can it even survive being born so soon?” César returned the dirty dishes to the table, claimed the seat next to his son, and rubbed his arm. “Yes, they can. Think positive, CJ. Preemies survive much better these days. Did you reply?” “Yeah. Told him to text or call me.” CJ’s attention remained fixed on his phone, willing it to ring or chirp. Anxiety filled him, concern for Thiago and the baby uppermost in his mind. When the call came through, he nearly dropped the device. “Hello!” While he listened, the other men reclaimed their seats. “Sorry, man. Yeah, family Sunday dinner, and you know the rule about phones.” Slowly, he relaxed, and a smile preceded a grin. “Yeah, well, fuck you too. What happened?” CJ stood, walked towards the kitchen, and reached into the refrigerator for a beer—the wine opened for dinner was long gone. He held the bottle aloft when he faced the family, and Owen raised a hand signaling he wanted one too. “That’s awesome, bro! Congratulations! Hey, Ozzie, the dads, and Ritchie are looking at me drooling for info. I’m gonna put you on speaker.” CJ forgot the beers atop the kitchen counter and returned to the dining table. “It’s Thiago. He has some news for us.” The eye rolling and smiling appeared synchronized. Owen was the first one to speak. “So are we uncles?” “Yes, you are.” Thiago sounded tired. “You have a healthy, bouncing nephew. I haven’t met him yet, but a nurse came out to tell me. I’m waiting until they take him to neonatal ICU so I can go see him.” “Thiago, this is César. Is he okay? Where are you? And how’s Nadine?” “Hey, Mr. A. She’s fine according to the nurse. Her mom was in the delivery room with her. We’re at Howard University Hospital. The kid’s perfect. Ten fingers and ten toes according to the nurse. She said his weight was good for a preemie. I think the ICU thing’s out of caution.” “Dude, this is Brett. Congrats! So, does the critter have a name yet?” “Critter? Fuck you, Captain. That’s my son you’re talking about.” You could hear the new father chuckling. “Of course he has a name. He’s named after my brother and my best friend. I can’t wait for you to meet Fabricio Cesar Baravento.” Monday was President’s Day; CJ and Owen hit the gym early, and afterward drove the Tesla half a dozen blocks to Dog Tag Bakery. The bakeshop run by disabled military veterans had become a favorite place for breakfast treats. “What’d you get?” CJ had remained in the car while Owen hustled inside. “The three coffees and six scones. Half sweet and half savory. Between these, the Redskins onesie, the bottle of 2009 Dom Pérignon, and the Cuban cigars in the backpack, I think we’ve got all bases covered.” “You wanna text Thiago and let him know we’re on our way to pick him up?” “Sure. Hey, are we gonna stop in and see Nadine when we get to the hospital?” CJ’s failure to respond caused Owen to stare. “Well?” “I don’t know, Oz. I’m not sure I can keep my composure around her. I’m afraid my face will show how I feel.” “Your mom?” CJ’s resentment against his dead mother had been the subject of countless conversations between the two. “Yeah… I… It just hits too close. Lourdes discarded me and then gave up parental rights without a fight. I know I came out smelling like roses since Papa Brett was able to adopt me, but still…” He would have had no problem if Thiago’s ex-girlfriend had decided to terminate the unwanted pregnancy. An abortion he could understand; abandoning a child was something that made him uncomfortable. “You can stop by her room if you want. I think I’ll wait until we’re at the hospital before I decide.” Thiago sipped the remainder of his coffee and discarded the disposable cup in the trash bin next to the nurses’ station. “Good morning, I’m Thiago Baravento. I think you have my kid in here. I’d like to bail him out.” The grandmotherly woman behind the counter burst out laughing. “Oh boy, I can smell a first-time father a mile away, and you stink of it. Making jokes, but nervous as all get out.” “Do you know if he’s okay? Can I see him?” The nurse glanced away from the computer screen she had paid attention to since Thiago introduced himself. “You betcha. And if you ask real nice, we’ll let your two bodyguards see him with you.” She winked at CJ and Owen. “Really? But I thought—“ “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You thought because he was in ICU visitors would be restricted. I have news for you, Daddy. We moved your son out of neonatal intensive care this morning. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him.” She looked around conspiratorially. “If you ask me, they screwed up the original due date. That kid was ready to come out.” Thiago shrugged off the hand his two friends placed on his shoulders and turned to hug them both at the same time. “You hear that, guys? Fabricio’s all right! That has to mean he can come home soon.” “Maybe as early as tomorrow. Now, someone left a note about not using the mother’s room for your visit. They’ve set up a separate one for when you’re here. Why don’t the three of you follow me? You can ditch the coats, and scrub down in there. I’ll have your son brought in.” Owen found it hilarious they referred to the practice of holding the newborn against your chest skin to skin as kangaroo care. While Thiago cradled his son sitting in a recliner, CJ and Owen perched on the edge of the bed. “Mate, the nurse said when a mother does this it stimulates milk production.” Owen’s chuckles bordered on giggles. “Maybe you’ll do the same, and can do away with formula and bottles.” “Screw you, homey. Just wait until you have a kid. You’ll have to be careful it doesn’t suffocate in CJ’s chest-hair forest.” CJ watched the father-son duo in wonder. The tiny brown baby had fallen back asleep as soon as Thiago clutched him to his naked torso. “You haven’t fed him yet, have you?” “Nope. It’ll be a first when the nurse brings in the bottle.” “You know what to do?” “I think so. Mom and everyone else have been giving me pointers. I’m sure the nurses will walk me through it when the time comes. I know about burping and the likelihood of getting barfed on.” “That sounds delightful. Not! I remember Mum feeding Liz after she was born.” Sadness clouded Owen’s visage for a moment. He had been six when his sister Elizabeth Liston was born; her death from cancer at eighteen was a shock to everyone. He and CJ often talked about her and the void her death left in their lives. “She would let me hold the bottle for Liz after she stopped breastfeeding.” Thiago’s smile disappeared at the mention of breastfeeding. “That’s not something Fabricio will experience anytime soon. He’ll have to wait until he’s older to play with a tit. By the way, Nadine’s mother talked to me last night. Nadine doesn’t want to see the baby or any of us.” March Madness found CJ in the middle of the hoops hoopla. The annual extravaganza began with each collegiate athletic conference’s tournament and concluded with the national championship game. The Big East Conference held its men’s basketball tourney every year at Madison Square Garden in New York City; he and Owen were in town to cheer on the Georgetown Hoyas. “So, do you have to do anything special for the team while you’re in town?” Ethan fingered the pass hanging from the lanyard around CJ’s neck. “Not really. They’ll let me know if they need me. However, I doubt it very much. They didn’t last year.” CJ still held the title of Special Assistant to the Associate Director of the Academic Resource Center for Student-Athlete Services. A mouthful for being a glorified tutor, but the basketball program also used him in their recruiting efforts. More than one high school athlete had stopped by his parent’s basement for a game of pool during their official campus visit. “Then what’s this official-looking thing give you access to?” “The locker rooms while my school’s team is in them. Stop drooling, pig! The floor while my team’s warming up. There’s also a courtside seat behind the players’ bench reserved for me. I’ll take you down there during the warmups before the game. We can take pictures.” They split their attention between watching the DePaul and Seton Hall game, the sushi containers on their laps, and conversation. CJ sat at the end of the row in case he had to run and do something for the team, with Sean and Ethan between him and Owen. “Mate, why are you and Sean both paying rent when it’s so expensive to live in New York? You two should just move in together.” “Fuck you, Ozzie.” Sean leaned forward and stared at his friend. “Just ’cause you had your fairy-tale wedding, and are now living happy ever after, doesn’t mean everyone has to do the same. Why is it whenever someone gets married or has a baby they start thinking all their friends should do the same? Leave Ethan alone.” CJ came close to choking when he tried to swallow while laughing; he had to put the spicy tuna roll down so he could comb out bits of food from his beard. “If I choke to death, I’m never gonna forgive you. What the hell’s the big deal anyway? The two of you spend more time together at each other places than alone in your own.” “Because…” Sean paused and sighed. “Look, we’ve talked about it. If we’re still together in a couple of years, we’ll revisit the issue.” “Why the wait?” “Because Ethan’s still a very junior member at the law firm. Because if I start going with him to functions, someone’s bound to recognize me at some point. I’m not ashamed of having done porn or having worked as an escort, but not everyone’s as open-minded as you guys, your parents, or their group of friends. Even less so amongst the fucking breeders.” “You’re worried about what other people think?” The surprise in CJ’s voice was clear. “In this case, I am. Not for me, but for Ethan. What if an old trick of mine decides he or she doesn’t want to risk their hiring a prostitute becoming public knowledge and fires him? What if somehow, someone, somewhere sees one of my movies? Right now, it could end up damaging his reputation and interfering with his job. Once he’s better established—or better yet, makes partner—it won’t be as big a concern.” “That’s fucked-up. If anyone who hired you or watched a video you’re in did something against Ethan, they could get in as much trouble by going public.” “For being so smart, sometimes you’re quite naïve, CJ. They could find one of a million reasons to get rid of Ethan. I don’t want to risk it.” “It’s still fucked. Why don’t the two of you move to DC? At least the chances of an old trick recognizing you would be smaller.” “Yeah, but the movies would still be an issue. Plenty of clips of me fucking someone on the internet. And you know well enough once something’s online, it’s there forever.” The following day CJ did not have any commitments until late afternoon, so Owen arranged to visit a section of the Gateway National Recreation Area in the morning. Squeezed into the train during rush hour, CJ found it hard to believe they were headed to the type of natural space he expected to find in a remote area instead of Brooklyn. “You never told me why you wanted to come here.” Owen held onto the metal bar with his knees bent to help balance himself as the train swayed. “The Nature Conservancy’s working on a couple of projects to create wildlife refuges in large metropolitan areas. I want to see what a successful one looks like.” Owen’s connection with the Conservancy helped ease the visit. The office of the Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor arranged for a ranger to meet them in Jamaica Bay and escort them around. “I grew up in Bensonhurst, and the bay was a place I spent a lot of time around.” Hutch must have been in his early thirties and had a friendly disposition. Even though it was the tail end of winter, he still had a tan, attesting to hours spent outdoors. “But back then my mother would have killed me if she knew I went swimming around here.” They turned up their coats’ collars to ward off the late winter chill. It was colder next to open water than in Manhattan’s concrete jungle. “How come?” CJ watched as a wedge of geese flew by. “And how come there’s so many birds around? I thought they flew south for winter.” Hutch chuckled as they stared at the avians. “This is south for Canada geese. They come here from the Arctic. All these islands and the freshwater creeks and ponds are a crucial habitat for migrating birds. And I was prohibited from swimming out here because of the pollution. It’s much cleaner these days than when I was a teenager.” “What changed?” Owen stopped taking pictures and pocketed his phone. “I mean, I’ve read the reports. I know the park came about almost fifty years ago when the City donated the land to the Service. We’re trying to do something similar in other metropolitan areas, and I think a first-hand account is just as important as lists of numbers and legal mumbo-jumbo.” “Cooperation. Local, state, and federal government pulling together with environmental activists and other concerned citizens. When all stakeholders join in and work together, you’d be amazed at what can be accomplished.” Owen smirked and elbowed CJ. “Maybe we’ll hire my husband here to do some lobbying for us when we run into a recalcitrant politician.” “You two are married?” Hutch followed up his inquiry with one aimed at CJ. “What do you do for a living? Are you a lobbyist?” “Hell no! I’m still in college, but I want to work for the government. I hope to land a position at the State Department. And yes to your first question. Ozzie and I tied the knot last summer.” “Congratulations! How come he mentioned hiring you as a lobbyist? If you want to work for the US government you’d be on the other side of the table.” “Oh, I did a little volunteering for a campaign a while back. Ended up meeting a bunch of politicians, and I’m still friendly with a few.” “CJ’s being modest. When he says he’s friendly with a few he means he has numbers for a couple of past Presidents and a bunch of Senators in his phone.” “Shut up, Oz. Today’s about you, not about me. All that’s history anyway. I’m just an average college student these days.” “Not so average if you know that type of people.” Hutch sounded impressed. ”Anyway, considering how the current administration’s decimating our natural spaces by reducing their size and pushing for oil and gas exploration on protected lands, anyone with your type of connections can play an important role. Even an average college student can have an impact as long as they speak up.” “You’re gonna get in trouble with Mr. A.” Ritchie tsked a couple of times, pointing at the phone his brother placed next to his plate. CJ and Owen returned home early Sunday afternoon and called the dads suggesting they have dinner at their apartment instead of the big house. It was something that happened at least once a month since the wedding. “What are you? Ten?” CJ rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out at Ritchie. “You trying to get me grounded? For the record, one of the reasons we wanted to have you bring food over here was so I could have the phone out. Different home, different rules.” “You’re sticking your tongue out at your brother? Who’s acting ten now?” César rolled his eyes. “And what’s so important you need to answer a call in the middle of a family dinner?” “Not necessarily answer, Dad. Most of our friends would text first anyway. Look, in the past three months, we had important calls from Carson, Gina, and Thiago. None were life or death emergencies, but all were important.” CJ glanced at Owen seeking support. “So Ozzie and I decided to modify your rule. We’ll avoid using the phone, but we want them out so we can see a message coming through. After missing Thiago’s texts when Fabricio was born, we decided one of our phones would always be visible. Doesn’t mean we’ll answer, but…” Owen stuffed a fried won ton in his mouth and did not elaborate. “You guys are flying out Wednesday, right?” “Stop talking with your mouth full. Are you trying to change the subject?” Brett took a sip from his beer and returned the bottle to the coffee table. “We leave in the late afternoon. César and I will be in the office in the morning. We’ll bring Wingnut over when we come in.” Third Line Development, and their related companies that continued to sprout like weeds, occupied the second unit on the building’s third floor. They were outgrowing the space, and Brett was already renovating the second floor to suit their purpose. The previous tenant had vacated the space in January, and the fathers would be moving as soon as they finished the remodeling. Their current office would then revert to being an apartment. “You guys better take good care of him.” Ritchie sounded like a concerned parent. “Like we haven’t the other times you’ve been out of town?” CJ focused his complete attention on his brother. “Are you excited?” “Yeah… But I’m also a little scared. What if I don’t get in?” Ritchie and the fathers were flying to Colorado for a few days. They planned to spend time at their place in Vail, enjoying late-season skiing, and then drive to Colorado Springs for an interview and tour of the Air Force Academy on Saturday morning. “I felt the same while I waited for GU to accept me, bro. Relax, you’ll get in.” “Love this song!” Owen closed his eyes and swayed to the strains of “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi’s hit from a couple of summers before. In late 2017, Sebastián Abelló surprised the family with his plans to invest in a restaurant in Washington. Excited about the possibility of decent Cuban food within walking distance, CJ expressed an interest in joining his grandfather in the ownership group. Abuela’s opened in the fall of 2018 with CJ and Owen owning a percentage of the company. “Why are we sitting outside in winter?” Tank held his hands up towards the stainless steel gas heater positioned next to their table. “It’s freezing out here. I think my butt’s gonna be stuck to the chair. I betcha it’s gonna snow again.” CJ had become as adept at rolling his eyes as his father. “Stop whining. That damn tower’s putting out enough heat to keep us warm. And for your information, the first day of spring was ten days ago.” “Give him a break, mate. You gotta remember Tank’s used to Louisiana swamp weather. You know, muggy and full of mosquitos. Just like Florida.” Owen had adapted to the colder weather after moving from Australia as well as CJ had after leaving Miami. Their friend still complained when the temperature dipped below seventy degrees. “Enough about the weather. We’ll order some rice and beans and all those carbs should warm you up.” CJ reached for one of the menus the server had placed on the table. “This is gonna be our big meal today, Oz. I’m in the mood for fried pork chunks and moros.” Tank looked confused. “What’s moros? “Short for Moros y Cristianos. It’s what Cubans call white rice and black beans cooked together. CJ’s grandparents explained it to me the first time I visited Miami. They say it’s a reference to the white Christians and dark Moors who battled over Spain in the fourteen hundreds.” “Not very PC…” “Dude, my peeps are definitely not PC. It’s not overt prejudice, but people of my grandparents’ generation think nothing of referring to a black man as ‘el negro’ or an Asian one as ‘el chino.’ What are you gonna have, Oz?” “Not sure yet. I’m thinking of the vaca frita. So, Tank, what’s up? You said you wanted to talk about something important.” Owen’s fellow rugby player had texted them in the morning, revealed he had a problem he needed advice on, and asked if the couple had time to meet with him. CJ and Owen tried to patronize Abuela’s at least once a week and invited him to join them for a late lunch. Their plans for the day were to study; the half-mile walk to the restaurant was a welcome break. “Danno’s selling Rogo’s.” The blunt announcement, made without preliminary or subsequent explanation, drew a gasp from CJ. “Say what? No way! When? How come we haven’t heard about this? Crap, do my dads—“ Owen grasped his husband’s forearm. “Slow it down, mate. Give Tank a chance to answer.” The inopportune appearance of their server precluded an immediate explanation. Once they placed their orders, CJ pounced. “Okay, son. Spill.” “I just found out last night. He said I could talk about it with our friends, and he would be talking to your dads and the rest of their group this weekend.” Tank removed his ball cap and ran a hand through his hair before replacing it. “It’s all your fault, you know?” “What the fuck? How the hell is it my fault?” “Not yours alone, CJ. Yours and Ozzie’s. He came back a changed man after the trip to California with you two, and the time he and Trip spent in Hawaii afterward. Kept talking about missing the warmth, the beaches, and the surfing.” “Crap! What about Trip? When’s this supposed to happen?” “No idea about Trip. We didn’t discuss him. As for when, he thinks the sale can happen by summer. He said he’s had inquiries about selling the business and the property before.” “Jeez… So, you’re worried about your job?” “That and living arrangements. Remember, I get to live in the apartment above the bar for free. Part of being the manager.” “I wouldn’t worry about work, mate. Any new owner might want to keep you on. If not, you can get another one, or go back to doing massages.” Owen did not address the residential aspect of Tank’s worries. CJ did. “Hey! The housing thing might not be a big problem either. Harley wants to move out of his parents’ place. Maybe you and him can become roommates? I’m sure the dads have an empty unit somewhere you guys can rent. We’ll check with them tomorrow night at dinner.” The conversation lasted through the meal with CJ and Owen reassuring their friend things would work out. They had walked to the restaurant, and Tank had ridden his scooter; all three hit the men’s room before heading back to their places. As they exited the lavatory, a thirty-something, bearded man accosted them. “What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” The black and white checkerboard pants and the white chef’s coat suggested a restaurant employee. “You come in, don’t stop by the office to say hello, and I have to find out you’re here from a server who recognized you?” “Hey, Al. Ozzie and I planned on saying hi.” CJ and Owen shook hands with the man. “We got caught up in our conversation. Have you met our friend Tank before?” The two strangers sized each other up before shaking hands. While Tank was a few inches shorter than his friends, the olive-skinned man stood somewhere between the other three in height. Short, curly, brown hair and a beard not quite as full as CJ’s framed an angular face. Warm, coffee-colored eyes appraised the shorter man. “Alvaro Diaz. I don’t remember you being part of the group in here for happy hour on Fridays.” “Nah, I work most Friday and Saturday nights, so I miss those outings. I’m Tanix Janda. You’re the owner, right?” “One of them.” The man chuckled. “Your two friends here have a piece of the action.” “Tank plays rugby with me. That’s how we met.” Owen clasped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “He’s the manager at Rogo’s, the place owned by the dads’ friend we’ve mentioned before.” “Speaking of your fathers”—Al turned his attention to CJ—“I haven’t seen them in a while. Tell them we can use their business.” “Dude, what the hell you talking about? This place’s always packed.” CJ jostled his business associate with a shoulder. “You getting greedy?” “Hey! I have partners who expect a return on their investment. Anyway, good seeing you guys, and good meeting you, Tank. Stop by anytime. Even if it’s without these two. We take care of our friends in the biz.” Over dinner the following night, they discovered Trip would remain in Washington if Danno returned to Hawaii. Two months after Fabricio’s birth, CJ received a call from Thiago’s mother. She asked for help getting her son out of the house. Except for going to school or work, Thiago had not stepped outside since bringing the baby home. He needed a break, but would not listen to his parents; they thought CJ and Owen might be able to draw him out. With his parents pushing and CJ pulling, Thiago, at last, agreed to resume his Friday night visits to the dojo when he was not working. The first time it happened, Owen and Harley met them at Rogo’s afterward. The four sat at the bar talking to Tank, enjoying a beer while waiting for their burgers. “So that’s it, guys. The place’s for sale. Danno mentioned a couple of inquiries, but no bites yet.” Tank wiped the clean bar surface repeatedly between pouring cocktails. “I don’t know what to tell you, Harley. I want to stay here where I pay no rent as long as possible. Stashing away as much money as possible in the bank. I’ll understand if you want to start looking for a place on your own before I’m ready.” “Bruh, no way. I’ll wait. I’m doing the same by living with the rents anyway. I thought I’d do it for a year, but I don’t mind a couple more months. We can talk about it again in the summer, and see what’s going on then.” “Dude, what the hell’s taking so long? Did they go kill the cow or something? I’m hungry.” CJ had skipped lunch, munching on a protein bar instead, while stuck in a planning meeting for the upcoming student government election. “Dude”—Tank mocked CJ’s tone—“you sound like Harley. Stop bitching. If you’re that hungry, I’ll get you some more nuts.” “Fuck the nuts, I want meat!” “That’s your department, Ozzie.” Thiago stared at his phone atop the bar surface once again. “Mate, stop staring at the fucking phone. Fabricio’s going to be fine alone with your parents. Don’t they look after him when you work nights anyway?” “Yeah, but… I miss him. Hell, now that they don’t stink so much, I don’t even mind changing poopy diapers anymore.” Thiago’s only complaint about the newborn had been the malodorous diapers; the pediatrician suggested a change in the baby’s formula, and he noticed an improvement in the smell afterward. “And I feel kinda guilty. I mean, my parents have been awesome. I hate to go out and force them to look after Fabricio unless I really have to.” “Bud, you’re sooo wound up you’re going to explode unless you take a break now and then.” CJ threw an arm over his friend’s shoulder and gave him half a hug. “Wasn’t it your mother who called me, and practically threw you out of the house?” “Still, I have to—” The ringing phone cut him off, but it wasn’t his, it was CJ’s. “It’s Dad,” he said, looking at the screen. “CJ’s phone, CJ speaking. Hey, Dad. What’s up?” As CJ listened, the color drained from his face, and his hand shook. He reached in his pocket, took out his credit card, and slapped it on the bar. “We’re at Rogo’s waiting for food. But we’ll get it to go. We’ll be over as soon as we can.” The other four men stared at him while he tried to compose himself. He had not felt this lost in a very long time. “Tank, run my card through and make those burgers to go. We need to get to my parents’ place. JP and Tom are there. They just had a call letting them know Brad’s on the way to a hospital in Germany.”
  10. 66 points
    “I hate you, bruh.” Harley did not look happy while hugging Owen. The two of them and CJ had spent the previous few days together, most of the time on their motorcycles riding through the countryside around Laconia. Now it was time to part ways. Owen took a step back but kept a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You know you’re welcome to come with us.” The ride to DC from New Hampshire was long enough Harley was heading south this morning and planned to spend a night with Chipper in New York City. “Can’t and you know it. I need to get home. Promised Danno I’d spend a couple of days helping him complete the project he’s been working on. What with him wanting to move to Hawaii and shit. And I have to be at the dealership on Monday.” Harley started working with Danno while in high school. The owner of Rogo’s restored American muscle cars as a hobby, selling most of them but now and then adding one to his collection. Nobody knew what he planned to do with the ones he currently owned when he sold the bar and the attached warehouse. CJ frowned and scratched his head. “I still can’t figure out why you keep doing this with him. It was good money while we were in high school, but you have a decent paying job now. I mean, you spend all your days wrenching on motorcycles, and then go tinker on cars with him.” “I like it, bruh. It’s like working on scooters’ fun, but the cars are a nice change. It also means I won’t forget how to work on cages.” The arrangement had been lucrative for Harley. Danno paid him by the hour but also shared a small portion of the profits with him. It meant the young mechanic did not have to worry about spending money during the two years he spent training in Orlando. “Okay. I wish you could stay, but I understand. And since this is the last car project… You have a safe ride, okay? When Ozzie and I get back, we’ll give you and Tank some help looking for a place. If the dads don’t have any apartments available, they might know of something else.” Thanks to the people they hung around with at the motorcycle rally, CJ’s riding playlist had grown. Before sticking his helmet on, he made sure the connection between the Bluetooth earbuds and the phone was active and hit play. Kip Moore’s “Motorcycle” was queued up. “Too bad it’s about a wench instead of a stud.” “What’d you say?” Owen lifted the front of his full-face helmet; it was tough to hear anything with it closed. “Nothing. Talking to myself.” CJ gave his husband a thumbs-up and turned his engine on; it was time to get going. Taking less traveled roads and stopping only once to stretch their legs and admire the bucolic landscape, CJ and Owen arrived in Freeport, Maine three hours after leaving the hotel in Laconia. LL Bean’s flagship store, across from the Tommy Hilfiger outlet, and a block down the road from the Polo Ralph Lauren one dominated the view. The white building with green awnings was by far the largest on Main Street. It might have been the primary thoroughfare in a small New England town, but it felt like an outlet mall. “What are you looking for?” CJ insisted on the detour to Freeport for two reasons. He wanted to stop at the L.L. Bean store and the prospect of riding US 1. The same road that began in Key West, and he had traveled on so many times. “The Liston tartan.” Owen sounded frustrated while flipping through the stacks of flannel shirts. “I’ll ask, but I don’t think they have it. These are all probably generic. I may end up buying the blue version of the one you’re getting.” The shirt and a pair of Bean Boots—officially called Maine hunting shoes—were the reason CJ insisted on the shopping spree. His old pair of the rubber and leather footwear had been stolen from the back of his topless Jeep. The boots, manufactured in Maine since the early nineteen hundreds, were a fashion staple in prep and Ivy League schools; CJ thought they were the perfect shoes for when he had to trudge through wet or snow-covered sidewalks on his walk to and from campus. “Okay, they don’t have it, so we’ll both have the same shirt but in different colors.” Owen bypassed the stack of iconic red and black Buffalo Plaid shirts and looked for his size on the pile next to them. “We can always dress up like lumberjacks for Halloween. Where to now?” “Kicks.” “Ugh. At the rate you buy shoes, we’ll need to make the master bedroom closet even larger before we move to our house.” Rearranging walls on the house’s third floor had allowed them to create an oversized storage space; a section had been designated for footwear. “Asshole! Stop your bitching. I don’t own that many.” “Says the man with every color PF Flyers hi-tops ever made. Hey, check those out.” The sign on the table, rising above the displayed wares, read Hudson Bay Point Blankets. Owen and CJ both ran their hands over the soft, off-white fabric featuring stripes in green, red, yellow, and indigo. The coverings also had smaller bars in black near the edge, not running all the way across. “I think the black ones represent the size of the blanket. I read about these a long time ago.” CJ’s eyes became somewhat unfocused as he imagined one of those on their bed. “Not sure I’d want it as a bedspread, a little too rustic for what we both like. Maybe for our place in Colorado. But it’d be cool to have a big one on the couch. We could use it in cold months when we cuddle to watch TV.” Owen nodded while reading a smaller sign on the display. “The short black lines are called points. The more of them, the larger the blanket. Let’s get a king. We need to have whatever we buy shipped. There’s no more room on the bikes.” “That’s cool. But I want to keep the flannel shirt with. We need to do laundry tonight, and I’ll wash it. I can wear it when we ride at night or if we hit another cold day.” Minimal storage meant minimal packing. Prior to departing Washington, Harley helped rig a removable sissy bar to CJ’s motorcycle, allowing him to strap a bag atop the microscopic passenger seat. The Harley-Davidson luggage doubled as a backrest. They feasted on lobster rolls at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a side street, and Owen vowed to eat nothing but the crustacean while in the state. Nearly four hours later, after riding along the rocky Maine coast on US Route 1, they checked into a cottage on Mount Desert Island; it would be their base of operations for subsequent days. They were about to leave a voicemail when the phone signaled an incoming call from the same number they had just tried to reach. “Hello? CJ?” The voice sounded sleepy. “Oh, shit! I forgot about the time difference.” CJ glanced at Owen sitting next to him and shook his head. “Sorry to wake you up, Silas. Go back to sleep. We’ll call you later.” “No, no, no. It’s okay. Randy or Tyler will barge in my room any time now anyway. I need to get up and start getting ready.” With each word, the kid sounded more alert. “I’m graduating from high school today.” Owen chuckled at Silas’ proud tone. “We know that, mate. This is Ozzie. CJ and I wanted to call and congratulate you before we started our day.” “Thanks. Where are you?” “Acadia National Park. In Maine. We’re at the halfway point of a two-week motorcycle trip. So what time’s the ceremony?” “Ten. But we’re supposed to meet Randy’s parents and Ty’s brother for breakfast before then. CJ?” “Yeah, dude.” “Thanks for what you wrote on the card. And thank you both for the leather portfolio. I love it!” Silas planned to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago to study interior design. “We thought it would come in handy. Something to carry drawings, swatches, and whatever.” “It’s great! It even has loops to hold pens and pencils. I already put the fountain pen Abuelo Abelló sent as a present in there.” “You got one of those too, eh?” “Yeah, he said he bought the same thing for each of his sons and grandsons when they graduated high school. He told me I was the first great-grandson to get one.” CJ thought he heard a hitch in his nephew’s voice. He did not get a chance to ask about it. Tyler’s deep voice came through the connection. “Time to get up, Silas. Take your hand off your dick and go shower. We have to meet the others in like an hour.” “See? Told you they’d be waking me up. Guess I gotta go.” “That’s okay, buddy. Ozzie and I need to go eat too. Listen, I’m not sure when, but we’ll see you sometime this summer. Tell Randy and Ty we want your input on the designs they’re working on for our house.” “For real?” “Hell, yeah. Just remember, the place’s rented now, so work won’t be done for a while. We love you, Silas.” “Congratulations again, mate.” Owen and CJ smiled at each other. “He’s a good kid. Ready to call Patrick?” “Yeah…” CJ scrolled through the contact list and tapped the entry for their friend. “What’s up, CJ? Where are you guys?” Patrick was his usual cheerful self. “Yo, Preach!” The new nickname for the Boston University student majoring in theology had stuck. “We’re in your neck of the woods. Acadia National Park in Maine. Means Ozzie and I have added two new states to our list of visited ones.” “What’s the other one?” “Hey, Patrick. It’s Owen. We were just in New Hampshire with Harley.” “Oh, that’s right. So, what do I owe the honor of the call to?” “We were thinking of stopping in Boston overnight on the way back. Maybe we could hang out a bit and have dinner with you, your mom, and Mac?” “They would love to see you. And you know they would put you up too. One problem though, I’m not there.” CJ was surprised. They knew Patrick had a summer job lined up in Boston. “You’re not? Where are you? What happened to the job?” “I called, told them what was going on with Brad, and that I wanted to spend the summer in Washington to be near him.” “Wow! Speaking of our favorite hero, how’s he doing?” “Bah! Good days and bad days. They told us it would take time for his mood swings to level out, but there are times I want to strangle him. He gets weepy, and the rest of the day he’s useless.” “We’ll make sure we spend as much time as possible with him when we return. If he acts up, I’ll kick his ass. So are you doing anything this summer apart from hanging with your brother?” “Yeah!” Patrick suddenly sounded excited. “I landed a job with the Caps”—the Capitals were Washington’s team in the National Hockey League—“working in their summer camp for disadvantaged kids.” “Sounds right up your alley.” “It is, CJ. We get a new group of kids every two weeks, and I get to teach them how to skate and a few basic hockey moves. I love it.” “Okay, if you’re not in Boston, we’ll skip that stop. We’ll be home in a week or so. Give Brad a hug for us, and we’ll talk when we talk.” “I will. Be safe, guys.” Over breakfast, CJ regurgitated information about the national park he had read in the bathroom earlier. He had taken one of the National Park Service’s pamphlets available in the motel’s lobby the previous night. “Did you know this place was first a national monument and when it became a park it was Lafayette National Park before the name was changed?” Owen’s response was limited to a grunt; his mouth was full of maple syrup drenched waffle. A sip of milk helped him swallow. “No! Really? That’s fascinating!” “My sarcasm detector just went critical. Am I boring you already?” “Never!” Owen’s chuckle made CJ shake his head but the smile did not falter. “Honestly, CJ. Every time we visit a National Parks facility, you pick up those brochures and like memorize them. You’re going to pepper me with facts and figures for as long as we’re in the park.” “Fine! I’ll shut up.” “No, no. And quit pouting. I do enjoy hearing what you learn. How about we wait until the first stop before you give me any more facts? Instead of oversharing this early, give it to me in smaller doses.” “Damn! I keep forgetting you have a small capacity brain. We should look into an upgrade.” He ducked to avoid the sweet roll thrown at his face. “Just one more thing for now. Control over the area fluctuated between the French and English a couple of times. French Jesuits started the first permanent European settlement here. But the English burned it down. I’m glad the Brits didn’t pull the same shit with GU. I may have had to go away to school if they had. And then where would we have been?” Even with maximum speed on park roads being thirty-five miles per hour, riding the twenty plus mile Loop Road should not have taken more than an hour. It lasted three. Every bend of the asphalt ribbon revealed a new vista they had to stop for, admire, enjoy, and photograph. The afternoon they spent in Bar Harbor. “I see you were serious.” CJ chuckled as the server walked away after taking their order. “Different restaurant, same lunch.” “I told you I was going to eat as much lobster as I could this trip. Remember how after Israel you said falafel tasted better over there? Even if what we ate in DC was excellent. Same with these critters. Must be a location fixation.” “Don’t give up the day job. I don’t think you can make a living as a poet. So what do you want to do after we eat?” The seafood restaurant’s menu described dishes in English, French, and Portuguese. When asked, their server explained French was for the benefit of their many Québécois visitors. Portuguese was due to the owners’ heritage. A multitude of immigrants from the sea-faring nation had settled in the New England region and thrived in the area’s fishing enterprises. In keeping with the establishment’s roots, Owen ordered glasses of Portuguese wine. As soon as he placed the order, he tapped away on his phone while CJ smiled. When the server delivered their order, CJ was enthusiastic. “Damn, that tastes good. Tell me about it, Oz.” “You know something? I think Portuguese would be an easy language to learn. Between French and Spanish, I can decipher most of the strange words. The winery’s Quinta Covela. Not sure what quinta means, but I suspect it’s something about a fifth.” “That’s right. In this case, I’m guessing it means farm. I’ve heard it used like that in Spanish.” “Okay, this is a Vinho Verde. Not sure how to pronounce the first word. It means a young, white wine. Something bottled within like six months of production.” “Pronounce it like niño. That’ll be close enough. I’ve heard other words with N H in them pronounced that way.” “Okay… I like it when you teach me. It’s the 2017 vintage, made from avesso grapes, and cheeeap! Average ten bucks a bottle retail.” “We need to get a case or something. I like it. Reminds me of a Liston Verdelho. Dry and kinda citrusy. But a little more mineral. Maybe green apples?” “Brilliant, CJ!” Owen’s approval elicited a smile from his husband. “We’ll make a wine connoisseur out of you yet!” “Wine snob’s more like it. Wine’s a perfect example of getting what you pay for. That last five-buck-bottle I brought home tasted like crap. And the funny thing’s people drink it. I’d rather have less of a better slash more expensive one than drink more of the rotgut. “So, what do you wanna do the rest of the afternoon?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe walk around and check the place out?” It was what they ended up doing. Bar Harbor was a quaint seaside town with typical New England charm; they strolled along Shore Path following the edge of Frenchman Bay from the town pier to Wayman Lane. When they inquired about a whale watching boat excursion, they discovered the charters would begin the following week. The town’s population swelled with tourists over the summer, but it was still early in the season, so some businesses remained shuttered. At low tide, a sand bar connecting the town to Bar Island appeared, making it accessible to walkers. They hiked old roads and trails through the forested island, paying close attention to the time. More than once, they stood still and silent, listening to birdcalls and the whisper of the wind through the pines and birch trees. Warnings about visitors ending up stranded by fast incoming tides remained uppermost on their minds. Back in town, they walked in and out of antique shops and art galleries. The hand-woven, sea-grass baskets purchased at Island Artisans they had shipped home. They also purchased a large watercolor reminiscent of Hudson River School paintings they thought would look great in the dining room once they moved to their house. “You go on ahead, okay? It’s too early. Wake me up when you get back.” Owen tried to burrow back under the covers, but CJ yanked them off the bed. “Oh, no you don’t.” They had reached a compromise the previous night. CJ relented on a pre-sunrise hike up Cadillac Mountain, and Owen agreed to accompany him as long as they rode the bikes instead. “A deal’s a deal. You can’t back out now. Come on, get up.” The grumbling and arguing did not stop until they were sitting on the smooth, rocky top of Acadia's tallest mountain and the highest point on the Atlantic Coast. The spectacular views of Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay as the sun climbed above the horizon at last put a stop to Owen’s complaints. “Fine. You win. I admit it. It was totally worth getting up early to see this.” “Ummm, Oz? I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.” “Asshole!” It seemed everyone they talked to claimed no trip to Maine was complete without seeing one. The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was on the rocky southwest portion of Mount Desert Island within the confines of Acadia National Park; it was their destination after breakfast. The afternoon they spent traipsing around the fishing village of Bass Harbor, talking to fishermen, and watching boats unload their catch. Rugged, grunting men coiled ropes on their vessel’s deck, while buckets of fish were dropped into large, white chests filled with ice. The crews were mostly men, but a woman or two had infiltrated the male-dominated world. They stared in awe as the sun set over the water, and returned for dinner to the same restaurant where they ate lunch, wondering if they had seen the seafood they ordered brought ashore earlier in the day. Saturday morning, they packed the motorcycles and headed north. Their ride flirted with the Canadian border that paralleled US-1 most of the way; whenever they glanced to their right, they looked at New Brunswick. Their destination, Fort Kent, was the northern terminus of the road that began in Key West. They took pictures in front of the sign marking the spot and checked into a hotel for the night. Since neither had ever visited Canada, they walked across the international bridge for dinner in Clair. They discussed riding to Quebec City, but Lola being with them, meant they would have to backtrack if they left it locked in the US. Further north-of-the-border exploration would have to wait. The return to Washington was fast; they rode interstates most of the way. It was also uneventful, except for the murder of crows that toyed with them south of Bangor, and the bone-chilling downpour they rode through in Massachusetts. Monday night, they slept in their own bed.
  11. 66 points
    One ice cold pint of Skol down, and the shock of their usually sedate meeting had begun to lose its potency for Nathan. Sat on high bar stools in one of the town’s two local pubs—The Crumbington Arms—they’d carefully dissected the events of the evening. Usually Mikey would join them, but apparently, according to Father Mulligan, he and the wife were at some butcher’s function or another that night, which explained Mikey’s absence. “Lady Gaga.” Nathan giggled again, like a school kid. “I nearly fell off my seat. Good job I managed to keep my Poker Face. You certainly know how to wind Arlene up.” “What can I say? I was Born This Way! Seriously though, me and her are going to fall out in a big way before the day comes. She’s so damned competitive.” “Lady Gaga?” “No, smartass. Lady Muck. Arlene.” “Why do you do it, then? Volunteer?” “You know why. Because our Head thinks the school should be involved. And it means I can do things outside the school grounds without other teachers involved, without their petty politics and bickering. And, most importantly of all, I get to hang out with the coolest baker in Crumbington.” Nathan rolled his eyes. In front of people, she often referred to him as the coolest baker in the village, knowing full well he was the only one. “Fair enough. So who are you going to persuade to sit in the ducking stool?” “Off the top of my head? I have a list of favourites, but none of them would agree.” “Then you need to come up with a strategy. Get some of the kids on side. Or the parents. Amazing how a little cajoling from the right, influential, resourceful, school-supporting parent can make things happen. Didn’t you once tell me that?” “Actually that’s not a bad idea.” Right then her phone vibrated and shuffled across the table top. “Oh, shit, hang on a sec, I need to take this.” When she wandered off, Nathan looked around the little local. The place had been built in the seventeenth century and had benefited from a scant few modernisations and paint jobs along the way. The flooring was still uneven in places—not so great if a person had consumed one too many; the toilets stood out the back in a lean-to kind of shed, fine in summer but not in January, when a quick pee could end in frost bite. But apart from that, especially in winter with no tourists around, the place with its threadbare carpets and worn chesterfield sofas felt like a second home. Most of the locals seated at the bar, all retired residents of Crumbington, he knew by name. Having Polly and Nathan in the place brought the average age down by a decade or two. The landlord and his wife had run the pub for over fifteen years, and before that had owned a small cafe on the high street. Nathan noticed Polly frowning down at her phone, before shaking her head gently and heading back to him. “Missed his message. My cousin’s just arrived. Dad’s brother’s kid. Two bloody hours late, true to form. My aunt—his mother—asked if he could sleep on my couch while he sorts himself out a place, hopefully no more than a week or so. Family can be a pain in the bum. Do you mind if he joins? Otherwise, I’ll need to head home and let him in.” Funnily enough, Nathan did mind, but said nothing. He enjoyed having Polly to himself. When Mikey joined them, he tended to monopolise the conversation, either wanting to talk about his kids, football, or gripe about customers, suppliers, prices, or another new hypermarket opening within driving distance of their village and trying to steal his butcher’s shop livelihood. Hopefully the cousin was a listener. “Of course. Didn’t even know you had any cousins. He’s a kid?” “A big kid, yeah. A thirty-one year old child called Jaymes. Whatever you do, don’t call him Jim, he hates that. He’s down from North Wales. And he spends a lot of time out of the country, that’s why I’ve never mentioned him. Always getting me into trouble when we were young.” “I’m sure he was,” said Nathan, not believing a word of the last statement. Polly needed no encouraging where trouble was concerned. “Must be a family trait. So what’s brought him down here?” “Something to do with meeting people in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t really paying attention.” About to take a drink of her gin and tonic, a huge smile blossomed on her face. “So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room? Clifton?” Nathan’s face fell. He put down his fresh pint and licked his lips nervously. “Oh, come on, Nathan. It was like—what—fifteen years ago?” “Ten. We were both eighteen when he fell off the face of the planet.” People disappearing from his life felt like a curse. His mother leaving when he was ten, Clifton when he was eighteen, his father passing away five years ago and effectively chaining him to the family business. And although losing his mother and father had hurt, he had been in love with Clifton, and his desertion had scarred him deeply. “Maybe you’ll finally find out why. You were best mates, weren’t you?” “We were a darn sight more than that.” “Well, you never know. Maybe he still has feelings for you.” “Bullshit. He’s married now. Doubt he’ll even remember me.” “Bit of closure, then.” Nathan had been about to respond, when, over Polly’s shoulder he spotted a man stroll into the bar, someone definitely not local; he could count all of Crumbington’s attractive men on one hand. Ruggedly good looking, he gave off an outdoorsy vibe—tanned face, windswept hair, solid build. Even from where they stood, Nathan could tell he was put together nicely beneath his tan leather pilot’s jacket and jeans, broad-shouldered, trim waist, and big strong thighs to match. Maybe his blond hair needed tidying up, but then again the bed hair suited him. When his gaze swung around to take in Nathan, his eyes—blue, grey?—not only remained on him, but the handsome face creased into a broad smile, causing Nathan’s pulse to quicken, his mouth to hang open, and his face to flush. Polly, noticing this with concern, twisted around just in time for the stranger to stride forward and sweep her off the stool into a hug. “Poll dancer. How have you been?” “Put me down, you bloody oaf,” Polly pushed herself out of his grasp and readjusted her clothes. Her teacher tone only made the man grin wider. “I’m not seven anymore and you’re not ten. Even though, clearly, you’re still happy to act like a child.” “Gonna buy me a drink, or what? As you kept me waiting in the cold.” “You were supposed to be here over two hours ago.” “Yeah, well. M25 got snarled up.” “For two hours. Bullshit. And if so, why didn’t you text?” “I’ll get some drinks in,” said Nathan, hopping off the barstool and stepping away from the table. “Let you two duke it out in peace.” “Hold your horses one minute.” Jaymes reached out and placed his hand on Nathan’s forearm. Even through his thick shirt, Nathan trembled at the firm touch. “Shouldn’t I officially meet my little cousin’s boyfriend? Especially if he’s going to be kind enough to buy me a drink.” “I’m not—” began Nathan, horrified. “We’re not—“ said Polly, at exactly the same time, looking equally mortified. At the same moment, the two swung around to look at each other and burst into giggles, which helped soften the tension. “We’re friends from school,” said Nathan. “And he’s gay,” added Polly. “Polly!” said Nathan, his face aghast. “TMI!” Jaymes tipped his head back and burst into loud laughter. He had a nice laugh, Nathan noted, a little like his personality: loud, masculine, unsubtle, and more than a little infectious. “Yeah, anyway. What do you want to—” “Outed by your best friend. Priceless. I’ll have a Guinness, uh—?” “Nathan. Nathan Fresher. Polly’s ex best friend. Nice to meet you, Jaymes.” “Oh, so she talked about me, did she? As I said, I’ll have a pint of Guinness, Nate. Thanks” Brilliant. Nobody ever abbreviated Nathan’s name, not even his father when he’d been alive. The only person who had ever done so, and had also called him Nate, had been Cliff—Clifton. After ordering and having a chitchat with the landlady, Nathan returned to the table balancing three drinks, relieved to find no blood on the floor. “Good,” said Polly. “You’re back. Babysit the child for me, while I go for a pee. Maybe he can give you some advice on your naked football team calendar.” “Your what?” asked Jaymes, brightening up, as a slyly grinning Polly excused herself. “Oh, heck,” said Nathan, setting the drinks down. “Our chairman on the fête committee wants to up-the-ante for the event this year. Wants our local team to do a naked photo shoot for a calendar. All the proceeds would go to charity. I’ve got to convince the team and get them onside.” After downing a good gulp of his drink, Jaymes lowered the glass from his mouth and appeared to consider this, nodding thoughtfully. “Are you on the team?” “I’m the captain.” “So you’ll be stripping off, then?” “No! Well…” Nathan hadn’t thought about whether he would be in the calendar or not. He’d assumed he wouldn’t. “Hold on a minute.” Jaymes put his glass down on a coaster and folded his arms. “You’re the one from the committee who’s been volunteered to get your team out of their kit, yes? And you’re also the team captain, correct?” “Yes.” “Then of course you’re going to be in the calendar. How can you not be? Captains need to lead by example. Otherwise you’ll be seen as a total hypocrite.” Nathan hadn’t thought that far ahead. “It’s a moot point, anyway. None of the guys are going to agree to get naked in front of a camera.” “How do you know?” “Because I play football with them. I know them.” “Hang on. I bet you all get naked together in the changing rooms. And you might be surprised,” said Jaymes, calmly, knocking back another slug of his Guinness and leaving a white moustache on his upper lip. “Maybe the guys will be a little coy at first, but I bet their other halves will back them all the way. Would your partner have a problem with people seeing you in the buff?” “I don’t have a partner. And even if I did, I bet he’d have issues.” “You’d be surprised.” “Personal experience?” “I’d get my kit off at the drop of a hat for a good cause. Got nothing to be ashamed of.” Nathan eyes appraised Jayme’s body again, as Jaymes placed his empty glass back on the table. “Yeah, well. You’re in better shape than most.” “Are you hitting on me?” asked Jaymes, a grin curling one side of his mouth. “What? No!” said Nathan, reddening, before scanning the bar. “Where the hell is Polly?” He craned his neck to see if she was on her way back, but even though the Friday night pub was packed, she stood out in her shocking pink woolly poncho and was nowhere to be seen. Something about Jaymes made him uncomfortable, self-conscious, maybe his candour, his raw masculinity, maybe his proximity—but he was definitely the kind of person you either loved or hated. Right now the jury was out. “Okay, this has to be my last,” said Nathan, tossing back the rest of his lager. “It’s barely eight.” “I know, but I have an early start tomorrow.” “Oh, yeah? What is it you do?” “I’m a baker. Run the bakery on the high street.” “No seriously, Nate,” said Jaymes, chuckling in a way that irritated Nathan. “What is it you do for a living?” “Like I said, I run the bakery. I’m a baker by profession. Fresher and Son. Family Baker. You have a problem with that?” “No, not at all. I just never—” Whatever he had been about to add, wisely he through better of it. “So is there a lot of dough in that? I only ask, because I hear bakers make a shitload of bread.” Jaymes followed up by laughing aloud at his own joke. And just like that, the jury returned. Guilty as charged. Of being a total and utter prick. “You truly are a child, aren’t you?” “Don’t be a doughnut, I’m a practising Buddhist. Seriously though, come on, Nate—” “Nath-an. It’s Nathan. Two syllables, if you can manage that.” ”Come on, Nathan. Was that what you always wanted to do? Your life ambition. To become a baker?” Joking Jaymes had no idea how much he had hit a nerve with that little interrogation. Nathan felt heat in his neck, his anger rising. “It’s a family business. I joined my father straight from school. Although it’s also a front for my other job as a professional hitman. Someone who quietly takes care of people, the types others don’t particularly like. You know, like irritating relatives with puerile senses of humour.” Most annoying of all, Jaymes also found this diatribe hilarious. Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan spotted pink Polly returning, and breathed out a sigh of relief. “So what do you do for a living that’s brought you to our little shithole of a village? No, let me guess. You’re unemployed and on the dole?” “Forestry Commission,” said Jaymes, wiping his eyes, and bringing his laughter under control. “I’m a Senior Environmental Specialist. Mastered in ecology, forestry or land management at Durham Uni. I’ll be working over in Mosswold Forest for six months, at the very least. So, which bakery college did you attend?” “Have a nice life, Jim.” Ignoring the laughter behind him, Nathan strolled over to the bar and thumped down his empty glass, before catching Polly on his way out. “Just for the record, your cousin’s an asshole.” “Tell me something I don’t know. Will I see you Sunday? After the game?” “Are you bringing the neanderthal?” “I imagine he’d have found other apes to swing with by then.” “I bloody well hope so,” said Nathan, scowling. “Chill, Nathan. He’s actually harmless,” said Polly, sighing, before kissing him on the cheek and looking over Nathan’s shoulder. “Bit of an acquired taste, I grant you, but his heart’s in the right place.” “You mean he has one?” “Ha, ha. I promise I’ll be there Sunday. You?” “Yes, then. Around twelve-thirty. Love you, Polly.” “You too, Nate.” Nathan took a step back and eyed her dangerously. “Sorry, darling. Couldn’t resist. See you Sunday, Nathan darling.”
  12. 66 points
    Sometimes CJ missed home. Even if home was a ten-minute walk away. He sipped from the steaming mug and smirked, wondering how long he would continue thinking of his parents’ house that way. Seven months after getting married and moving into his own apartment, the townhouse on Prospect Street still beckoned. Particularly on weekend mornings. Although the setting had changed, the routine remained constant. He woke up before his husband, started the coffeemaker, and sat to page through the Washington Post. He did miss the fireplace. Insulated windows and central heating kept the two-bedroom unit comfortable enough they did not bother with clothes except when expecting visitors. Even on days when the overcast sky and chilly January temperature had the few people on the sidewalk below the window bundled up. The text message chime made him reach for the phone. He typed a response and rose to get a refill, wake up Owen, and throw on sweatpants and a t-shirt while wondering what was so important Carson wanted to come over this early. Trying to decide what to cook for breakfast, he remembered to text his fathers to let them know they would not be joining the family this morning. “Sorry to bother you guys so early on a Sunday.” Carson Sawyer lived in the dorms on Georgetown University’s campus and was at the apartment within thirty minutes of trading messages with CJ. “I almost called you guys last night. I started freaking out.” “Don’t worry about it. You know CJ’s up early most mornings.” Owen sat at the kitchen peninsula, nursing a mug of black tea. “I had to get up anyway. Both of us have to study.” Through the conversation, CJ chopped ham, peppers, and onions for omelets. “He’s right, Carson. You’re never a bother. And all you screwed up was me throwing Ozzie against the wall like I did last night and shoving my—“ “TMI, TMI. I don’t wanna hear details, okay? More so since I haven’t gotten laid since we got back from Christmas break. And not in the condition I’m in.” “And what the fuck condition is that? You still haven’t told us what’s got you weirded out.” Carson looked embarrassed for a moment. “I… I think it’s better if I show you.” He stood, opened his jeans’ button fly, and dropped them to his ankles—he wore nothing underneath. “Wow!” “Damn! Jelly, jelly, jelly here.” CJ and Owen shut up as laughter overtook them. “It ain’t funny, guys,” Carson whined. “Sorry, mate.” Owen shook his head, staring at Carson’s oversized scrotum. “Those low hangers look full and ready to burst. Did someone kick you in the balls? Do they hurt?” “Not… not really. But it’s uncomfortable. They started swelling up a couple of days ago. I thought it would go down, but it’s gotten worse. I went looking on the internet and I think I have testicular cancer.” “Dude! Did you go on WebMD? You can’t do that! No matter what symptoms you type in, they always come back with cancer as the diagnostic.” CJ tried hard not to make fun of their friend. “But I’m the right age! And all I read seems to point at—” “What you read don’t mean shit, son. You need to see a doctor and let them examine you.” “That’s why I called you guys. I haven’t been to a doctor since I started at GU, and I don’t want to go to the student clinic. You think you could get me an appointment with your friend? You know, the Asian guy?” “I felt bad for him, Dad.” CJ reached for the wine glass but stopped with his hand poised above it. “Ozzie and I were shocked at the size of his balls. We were laughing, and he looked scared and embarrassed.” “He just dropped his pants in the middle of your place?” Ritchie sounded surprised. “What’s the big deal, mate? We’ve all seen each other naked before. You’ve been around us so you know. I felt just as bad as CJ did, but it was still a funny sight.” “Babe”—Brett stared at César with concern—“remind me never to tell these two anything that might be embarrassing.” “Screw you, Papa. We’re not heartless, you know? It was just funny seeing the biggest ball sack ever in the middle of the kitchen while I’m trying to cook breakfast.” César sighed and shook his head. “Right. You’re not heartless. You just laughed when a close friend came to you scared he had cancer. What did you do afterward? Text everyone so they could laugh too?” “You know what, Dad? You’re turning into as much an asshole as Papa.” Anyone not seeing the grins and smirks would have thought they were all seriously arguing. “As for what we did, we called Chatri right away. He told Carson he didn’t think it was serious, and to show up at his office first thing in the morning. Even if he didn’t have an appointment.” “So, does he have cancer? How do they know anyway?” Ritchie sounded worried. “Uncle Matt said it hits young guys and I should check for lumps. But I kinda never really do it.” “No, he prolly doesn’t have cancer. I have no idea how they can tell. But you should check yourself. Ozzie and I do. Well, we end up checking each other.” CJ grinned when his brother made a face. “You should just do it every time you pull your pud, bro. You’d be checking yourself a couple of times a day that way.” “Fuck you, CJ. You’re just pissed ’cause you’re getting old, and can’t get it up that often anymore.” “I don’t know about that, Ritchie. Based on close and frequent observations, your brother’s equipment works just fine.” Owen’s comment brought renewed laughter to the men. “Anyway, Chatri said he suspected it was something called orchitis. It’s an infection and they treat it with antibiotics.” “Well, that’s good news. Chatri proved he values your friendship by taking him in right away instead of making him wait. Or sending him to the hospital. You’ve done well picking your friends, CJ.” César sounded pleased. “I have some good news too. Concerning money.” Ritchie was involved in the conversation up to that point. As usual, whenever the subject of finances came up, he seemed to lose interest. CJ marveled at how blasé his brother had become about the family’s wealth. His own interest had increased with time, and he now closely monitored how his money was invested. “Did you win the lottery?” “Close… You know that stock tip Jeff Bezos gave you? The one you asked me to invest fifty grand in for you and Ozzie? I decided to do the same for the rest of us. It’s gone gangbusters. Up double digits in the last month since they added blockchain to their name. It’s like when companies added dot com in the old days. Based on what I’ve heard, we can expect some serious gains later in the year. After they roll out an expanded business plan.” “That’s awesome. I’ll have to thank Jeff next time I trade messages with him. What about the other company he mentioned? The biotech startup in North Carolina.” “I’m going down to Durham next week to meet with them. We can talk about it when I get back. Just remember this is a start-up looking for venture capital. It’s a lot riskier. Brett and I’ve never done this before. We wouldn’t really profit until they go public, or are gobbled up by somebody else. The risk of losing the entire investment is very real.” “Yeah, but if Bezos’ putting his own money in there…” “I agree with CJ on this one, babe. It may not be what we’re used to, but I think it’s a good bet. I’ve read up on Bezos since he started chasing CJ.” Brett gave his sons the finger when his admission to reading raised eyebrows. “I mean, the man gambled on Google, Airbnb, and Uber amongst others. His investments have paid off more often than not.” “I’m with Papa, Dad.” CJ looked at Owen and received a nod. “Considering you guys have been pulling money out of the market, this might be good. If stocks do crash the way you think they will, this could turn into something to tide us over until things get better.” “We trust you, César. We’ll go along with whatever you decide.” Owen sipped from his wine glass before continuing. “But considering how hard Bezos pitched CJ to go work for him, I don’t think the man would steer us wrong.” “Hell, I might just end up working for him anyway. What with the mess the State Department is right now, and the stupidity emanating from the White House…” CJ had been considering alternatives to going to work for the government after graduation. Unless things changed, he was thinking of staying in school for another degree or forgetting about a career in the diplomatic corps altogether and joining the corporate world. After the midterm election results, he hoped the American people would come to their senses in the 2020 presidential contest, and toss out the lying piece of shit. He was not holding his breath; there was a segment of the population that clung to him no matter what he did or said. But there was hope. He had contributed the maximum allowed to Will Haskell’s campaign, and the 2018 Georgetown University graduate had unseated the Republican who held the Connecticut General Assembly seat for as long as Will had been alive. The fight for the White House began in state legislatures, and it was gratifying to have a Hoya in the Connecticut Senate. “Y’all want to explain again how I get to spend a weekend in Vail and spend almost no money? You better use little words. I ain’t all that smart. Ya hear?” “Asshole!” CJ nearly rolled his eyes out of their sockets. “You forget who you’re talking to, Tank. That dense, good ole Southern boy routine may charm your customers and get you laid whenever you want, but we know better.” “You mean if I act dumb I could get laid more often?” Carson may have been smiling, but CJ was certain there was a genuine interest there. The man was obsessed with getting laid; even more so since he had recovered from his swelling episode. “Mate, it would if you looked like Tank. People see a meathead and expect to hear one too.” Owen bumped fists with their bodybuilder friend seated next to him. “No, seriously, guys. After you called and told me how much it would cost, I had almost no time to call Danno in Honolulu to see if it was okay with him. Then I had to rearrange the schedule at the restaurant and pack. Y’all didn’t tell me much to begin with.” CJ sighed but decided Tank needed to know so he could relax and enjoy the trip. “Not much to tell. My dads planned this trip a while back with Tom and JP. Since three of them have the flu, they had to cancel. The dads offered us the plane tickets. We don’t trade cash for shit like that in the family, so they’re free. Since we’re flying into Vail, there’s no need for a rental. Uber and our feet will get us everywhere. We own the place we stay at. The management company that rents it out for us was supplying it for four people staying three nights so no additional cost. They also take care of lift tickets in advance whenever anyone in the family uses the place.” “Stop asking so many questions, Tank. If all we have to spend money on is equipment rental and incidentals…” “That’s you, Carson. Y’all are used to this shit. You forget I grew up poor, unlike y’all. This is like a rich man’s vacation. And I already got a free trip to New York less than a month ago. My sister said I’d gone all bougie then. I can just imagine what she’ll have to say when she hears about this. I can’t help it if I feel like I’m taking advantage of CJ.” Tank may have been borderline whining, but there was also a sense of embarrassment and pride in his voice. Owen raised a hand and the others became silent. “I’ll handle this one. Look, Tank, you’ve heard about CJ and I meeting when he went to Australia. What nobody knows is we had our first disagreement, fight, or whatever right after meeting. Over money. Because he insisted on showing off his black Amex—“ “Bullshit! I wasn’t trying to show off.” CJ reached across the aisle and punched his husband’s biceps. “Ouch!” Owen’s claim of pain did not seem valid coming amidst chuckles. “Fine, he wasn’t showing off, but he kept paying for everything. It bothered me, and I explained I might not be as rich as him, but I could pay my way.” “Yeah, but then you had to deal with the same thing with the dads.” Carson and Tank leaned forward in their respective window seats, their eyes following the exchange between CJ and Owen. “That was like eight months later.” “Tell them what happened.” “Fine. Okay, so, the next summer, CJ went back to Oz by himself. We spent two weeks traveling through New South Wales, and the plan was for us to fly out of Sydney together. I was moving to DC for school. CJ was stopping in Miami for a few days to visit his grandparents first, and César and Brett were meeting him there. They invited me to join them in Florida and insisted on paying the difference when they changed my flight.” “You’d met his parents before, right?” “Yep, at the same time I met CJ. To make a long story short, they forgot to mention they’d also upgraded me to first class. Their little boy couldn’t deal with flying coach.” “Fuck you, Oz. I don’t hear you complaining anymore.” “I gave up. I know when I’m beaten. It took a while, Tank. I had conversations with both dads and realized they were not out to impress anyone with their wealth. They had money and enjoyed spending it on themselves and their friends. That’s where my husband gets it from.” Carson leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes; Tank still appeared unsure. “So how come me and Carson? I thought you’d invite Harley and Thiago. They’re your oldest friends.” “That’s why the two of you are here instead of them.” CJ chuckled at Tank’s confused expression. “Dude, they went skiing with us for my eighteenth birthday. You and Carson weren’t around then. Ozzie and I thought it was fair to bring the two of you with us this time. Although I have to admit, I wasn’t sure you could make it. What with Danno still being on vacation and all.” Tank was the general manager for Rogo’s Bar and Grill, and Danno was the owner. “Heck, I was surprised myself. But when I told him you’d invited me, he said to go for it. He must really like you.” “I guess…” CJ shrugged unsure what else to say. “Then he said some real weird stuff. Something about the time he spent with you in California and then the trip to Hawaii had opened his eyes. He said he realized how much he was missing by worrying so much about making money.” “Huh?” The surprised reaction from CJ and Owen was simultaneous. After a weekend drinking and skiing, the four men returned to Washington late on Martin Luther King Day. They all later admitted to stumbling through Tuesday in a zombie-like state. “What are we listening to?” Ritchie aimed his question at the car’s front seat. “Australian music. Trying to get in the mood. That’s ‘Healing Hands’ by Conrad Sewell. Ozzie keeps track of what’s popular down under, and this was a top hit last year.” The Saturday after returning from Vail, with Ritchie and Lucy in the Tesla’s back seat, CJ and Owen drove to the Embassy of Australia on Massachusetts Avenue. One of CJ’s initial forays into the world of politics and diplomacy after moving to the District was a reception at the building on Embassy Row. He and his fathers were guests of JP at the time. “Do you guys come to this every year?” It was Lucy’s first time attending the celebration and she was all smiles. CJ shifted in the passenger seat to face Ritchie and his girlfriend. “My first one was in 2014 after I moved to DC. Ozzie started coming the following year after his move.” The annual invitations for him and Owen now came from the ambassador. “This is my second one. The dads only let me have one glass of wine last year. But the food was real good.” After Ritchie turned sixteen, César and Brett had relaxed the alcoholic restrictions somewhat. The same way they did with CJ. “I think your parents talked to mine about drinking.” The girl giggled as if sharing a secret. “They told me the usual stuff about behaving, but said I could have wine as long as Captain Brett and Mr. A said it was okay.” “It won’t be as good as some of the stuff you’ve had at the house, Lucy. JP told me they’re featuring South Australia wineries this year.” Although Owen acknowledged quality wines when he tasted them, he seldom admitted any were better than those produced by his family. “JP’s your cousin, right?” “Yep. His mum and my dad are brother and sister.” “So that’s why you two don’t have the same last name. I’ve never talked to him too much. Ritchie said he and Captain Brett went to school together?” Born in Australia, John Paul Smith grew up a Yankophile, much as his younger cousin Owen did. From an early age, he spoke of moving to the United States at some point; his wish came true when he was accepted to an American university. “That’s right. He and Papa both went to UC Berkeley.” CJ always marveled at how those two men meeting in college led to him and Owen getting together. “After they graduated, Papa served in the Marines. JP traveled and was a model for a while, then ended up working at the embassy. They reconnected when Papa was stationed at Quantico.” Ritchie knew enough of the story to pick up the thread. “It’s weird how people meet. I think it’s so cool Uncle Tom and Mr. A were friends, and they met the captain and Uncle Pope the same night. And they all ended up getting married.” “Why do you call him Uncle Pope sometimes and Uncle JP other times?” “That’s what CJ and some of their friends call him.” “It’s a nickname, Lucy. Not many people call him that. But when I moved to Washington, I heard it a few times and I started calling him Uncle Pope. Ritchie picked it up from me. His father was Catholic and named him after Pope John Paul II. Funny thing is JP’s dad left the Catholic Church because of their stand against gay people, and now goes to an Anglican one.” “Oooh… okay. So how did Detective Kennedy and Mr. A meet?” “By accident.” CJ’s comment elicited a groan from Owen. “Hey! It was. My dad was in a motorcycle accident, and Tom was a street cop at the time. He was the officer who responded. Somehow, they ended up becoming friendly. One night they went out to a bar together, and so did JP and my other dad. The rest is history.” “Wow! I guess when Ritchie calls him Uncle Potus it’s also a nickname. Right?” “You got it. His full name’s Thomas John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He’s from Boston and was named after President Kennedy. Potus comes from President of the United States.” “I know your friends Brad and Patrick are his sons. Was he married to a woman first?” “He was. Hilary’s great. That’s his ex-wife. You’ll like her if you ever meet her. Avoid his dad, though. Mr. Kennedy’s a jerk. I almost beat him up once.” “What happened?” Lucy sounded fascinated by the history CJ was sharing. “I’ll give you the short version since we’re almost there. Tom married young and Brad and Paddy were born soon after. He was in the Army, became a cop when he separated from the service, and eventually came out. His dad’s a homophobe, disavowed his own son, and that’s when Tom moved to Washington.” “But why did you almost get into a fight with his father?” “Tom was shot in the line of duty back in 2013. I was at the hospital with him overnight. I was so damn scared… Anyway, his father and mother showed up with a priest. They were talking about how their son was a sinner needing to be saved. They wanted to give him last rites. I didn’t want them waking up Tom, and we got into an argument. The crap that man talked made me want to beat him up. Luckily, a nurse called security, and they threw the jerk out.” “Enough history for now, mate. We’re here. Let’s go celebrate Australia Day.” CJ returned from the dojo and after kissing Owen hello, jumped in the shower. They had decided to stay in Washington over the President’s Day weekend since both were swamped with schoolwork. This evening, they were meeting friends for dinner. He was running late, having lost track of time when he lingered after practice, talking to Thiago about the imminent birth of his kid. He failed to notice Owen walk in the steam-filled bathroom until the Aussie spoke. “Hey, CJ? We’re gonna have to cancel dinner with the guys.” CJ rinsed his face and slid the curtain aside. “Why? What happened?” “The hospital just called. Gina’s being admitted.” “WHAT? Is she okay?” “Duh! Probably not since she’s in hospital. I have no idea what’s going on. The lady just said Gina asked her to call us. I figured we’d skip dinner and go see her.” “That works. Why don’t you call the guys and let them know while I finish up?” Georgetown University Hospital was on the edge of campus furthest from their apartment, on Reservoir Road next to the School of Medicine complex. On the way over, they slipped into the drug store near the apartment to pick up a flower bouquet. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay? We can spend the night if you want.” CJ was concerned but uncertain what to do. Gina shook her head. “Don’t be silly, CJ. I’ll be fine. Hell, they admitted me out of extra caution. I could have gone home tonight. The doctor thinks it was stress related. I never realized how common this is.” “We’re staying in town this weekend, so if you need anything, you let us know.” Owen sounded a lot more relaxed than CJ felt. “Call us when you know what time you’re getting out. We’ll have lunch or dinner together depending on when they release you.” “Sorry about this, guys. The doctor said it’s not unusual. A little rest and I should be okay. After graduation and before I start work, I’m going to Alaska for a couple of weeks. We’ll try again as soon as I get back to Washington.” “So what was wrong with Gina?” César accepted the fried rice container and spooned a good-sized portion on his plate. Things might have changed in certain ways when CJ and Owen married and moved, but Chinese takeout was still the Sunday night go-to meal. “If she was only in overnight for observation it couldn’t have been too serious.” CJ disliked misleading or lying to his fathers, but he and Owen had agreed the timing was not right to come clean. “Not entirely sure what happened, Dad. Woman issues, you know? All we found out was, it was stress related. Most likely because of her upcoming graduation and starting to work right after she returns from vacation in Alaska.” “If nobody’s going to eat the last egg roll, I’m taking it.” Brett reached for it before anyone could object. “Didn’t you say a long time ago she planned to get a masters in communications? Did she change her mind?” “She postponed it. After she finished the job, CJ lined up for her last summer at HRC. Aileen Ridder offered her a full-time position after graduation.” Owen glanced at CJ and gave him a wink. “My husband keeps changing people’s lives. Anyway, last we heard she’s working for a while and saving money. She’ll go back to school afterward. She’s hoping the Human Rights Campaign will offer her a permanent spot in their Alaska operations.” “Can I have a little more wine?” Ritchie had graduated from half-a-glass with dinner to a full one; now and then, he was even allowed more. “This is good.” After César and Brett nodded, CJ passed the bottle of German Riesling to his brother. It was a recent addition to the household’s wine repertoire; the result of a tasting CJ attended organized by his German professor. Unlike the usual sweetness the wine was well-known for, the 2016 Robert Weil Riesling Trocken was, as Owen put it, “…rich in minerals with a surprising lemony taste after it came in contact with air.” “You look tired, bro. How come?” CJ refilled his own glass after Ritchie returned the bottle. “It’s been a long day. I woke up early so I could go to the gym. Then went for a run before my Sunday shift at the Smithsonian. Came back, worked on my application, and I have to study tonight.” “Hey! You’re the one who wants to go to the Air Force Academy. When I hooked you up to get a nomination, I warned you it was going to take a lot of work to get in.” Acceptance to any of the United States military academies was extremely competitive. Physical, medical, academic, and extra-curricular standards had to be met, but it all started with a nomination in one of several categories. In Ritchie’s case, District of Columbia Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton agreed to recommend him after CJ asked and his brother met with her. “I know, but… I didn’t realize how much stuff they look at apart from grades. At least the fact I’m getting my pilot’s license helps. And the boxing team does too.” Ritchie had joined a pugilist club the previous year, and had practice sessions on Fridays; CJ had been there a couple of times, but the schedule conflicted with his own time at the dojo. “But I may need your help with something else.” “What?” CJ replied with a mouth full of food, earning him an oink from Owen. “I think I’m going to run for student government. I need to give a speech and I want you to review it.” “Politics? You have to be shitting me. After all the crap you gave me?” The kid tried to look innocent, but the snicker did not work well. “I may have learned a thing or two while you were doing all that. Anyway, the girl also running for the position I want’s a bitch. If nothing else, I want to beat her. To show the stuck up cunt she ain’t all that.” “Lesson number one, mate: Don’t let anyone hear you trash your opponent.” Owen was definitely trying not to laugh. “CJ and I talked a lot about that. Talking crap about somebody you’re running against can backfire.” The fathers had been quiet while their sons talked; eventually, Brett pointed at his eldest with a chopstick. “You still running for vice-president of GU’s student government?” “That’s the plan. Think about it, dads. Both of us could win, Ritchie could get hooked, and then both of us could end up running for office one day when we’re old enough.” Ritchie shook his head so hard CJ hoped he would not hurt himself. “Not me! I’ll do it in school but that’s it. You can run for President. I just wanna fly jets.” The vibration against his butt made CJ wiggle twice during dinner; he ignored the phone until the meal was over. As the remnants were cleared, he reached for it. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” “What’s going on?” “It’s Thiago. Nadine’s in the hospital. The baby may be coming earlier than expected.”
  13. 65 points
    Saturday lunchtime, with a shop full of customers, Nathan’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Aware he had been anticipating a confirmation call from the Eastbourne solicitors, he popped on his Bluetooth earpiece and answered while still serving customers, not something he normally did or allowed in the shop. But the caller turned out to be Polly. She asked if he’d be okay to pick up Jaymes from his office in Mosswold Forest after closing for the day. Jaymes’ Rover had been playing up, she told him, so she’d dropped him off that morning. Nathan smirked. Later on, he’d happily give Jaymes stick about his pride and joy. After the flurry of messages on Tuesday night, Nathan had arrived home and fired back apologies, in the process agreeing to have beers and a curry with Jaymes and Polly on Saturday night. So while working the till, he agreed to pick up Jaymes. Poor man, perhaps Kell-Bell had more important things to do than climb him like one of his trees on a Saturday night. As soon as the sarcastic voice sounded in his head, remorse filled him. Squeezing his eyes shut for moment, he chastised himself, and told himself not to be weird. Hopefully, Jaymes would be in one of his more upbeat, slightly silly moods, rather than the more serious and pensive one. Seeing more customers entering the shop, he was about to end the call, but then curiosity got the better of him, and he asked why Polly couldn’t pick up Jaymes. Out of the blue, apparently, she’d been invited out on a dinner date. “You’ve got a date, Polly?” Nathan couldn’t stop the tone of amazement filtering into his voice. While using tongs to place two chocolate croissants into a brown paper bag, he smiled at the customer. As an afterthought, he popped in a couple of complimentary macaroons. “No, I uh—” He knew Polly well enough to hear her discomfort. “Just dinner.” “You said a ‘dinner date’. Your words, not mine.” At the till, he handed over the bag and took the cash from the young blond girl, one of the Bennington clan. All of the offspring had the same trademark blonde hair, brown eyes, and chubby red cheeks. Before ringing up the purchase, he mouthed an apology about the call and received a slight shrug in return. After handing back the change, he smiled, and nodded to the next customer. “Can you help or not?” came Polly’s irritated voice. “Ooh-err. Polly’s got a date. Who’s the date with, you saucy minx?” “Oh, my God. I swear, you’re turning into Jaymes. Can you help, or not?” Familiar with his next costumer and her order, he checked before wrapping her order of a fresh baguette. “Short or long?” “What?” came Polly’s startled voice. “Not you, Polly. Sorry, I’m serving right now. Got a shop full of customers. Of course I can help. I’ll drop by after I close up here.” And right then, the truth sank in. Tonight there would be only Jaymes. No Polly to run interference. Could he cope with that, he asked himself? Maybe later, he’d find out. Because, of late, Jaymes’ face kept insinuating itself into his waking dreams, in a not unpleasant way. Dreams could be forgotten upon waking, though, whereas the two of them together for a whole evening should prove interesting. Still, being out and about had to be better than another Saturday night sat in alone, falling asleep in front of the television. “Great. I’ll get him to text you.” “Anything else you need to tell me?” “Like what?” “Like should he expect you home tonight?” “‘Bye Nathan,” said Polly, before hanging up. By seven-thirty, after pulling down the shop shutters, clearing the last of the trays away, cashing up, and racing up the stairs for a quick shower, Nathan paused for breath and texted Jaymes to say he was on his way. On the drive over, the realisation hit home again, that only the two of them would be hanging out tonight. Taking a few deep breaths, he pulled himself together, told himself to stop overthinking things, that Jaymes didn’t bat for his team. Friends, nothing more. But maybe this would be a chance to get to know each other better. Instead of dwelling on the thought, he concentrated on driving towards the ominous darkened horizon of Mosswold Forest. During his childhood, he’d been there many times. At one end of the public car park, he remembered they had a small lodge and shop—National Trust owned—where they sold souvenirs, maps of walks through the forest, and books about the forest’s flora and fauna. Nathan had loved the eerie quiet in the heart of the forest, feeding his imagination at a time when his nose had been buried in fantasy stories about elves and trolls and ancient kings. With his headlights on full and heater warming the inside of the van, he followed Jaymes’ directions into Mosswold Forest, and spotted the small private lane leading away from the public car park. Following the winding road for a good five minutes, he eventually came upon a plain raised cabin in a clearing in the woods. Empty of vehicles, lights burned inside. Not wanting to step out into the cold, Nathan pulled out his phone and texted Jaymes. Nathan: I’m outside in the van. Jaymes’ reply popped up immediately. Jaymes: Come inside. Nathan: Too cold. Come out. Jaymes: Need another 10 mins to finish up. Come in. Nathan huffed out an irritated sigh. In all his days, he had never met anyone so infuriating. Most annoying of all, Jaymes always seemed to get his own way. After pulling on his woollen hat and gloves, he got out of the van and clumped up the three wooden steps to the main entrance. Opening the door, he peered inside but saw nobody around. “Jaymes,” he called out. “In here,” came Jaymes’ voice, from the open door of a smaller office at the end of the cabin. Built entirely of wood, the space still retained the smell of timber along with the ubiquitous odour of soil, trodden into the flooring. Functional and very sparsely furnished, the larger room he passed through had plain grey filing cabinets and simple metal bookcases stuffed with box files. A single remarkable feature defined the place, one whole wall covered from floor to ceiling with a giant map of Mosswold Forest, multi-coloured pins stuck in various places meaning something to somebody, as well as six or seven darts from a dartboard set, which probably weren’t used for business. In between two of the four desks sat a small, lonely blow heater—switched off now—and if there had been any residual heat in the building, it had managed to escape through the door space, window seals, or gaps between the slats of timber. Nathan couldn’t wait to get back to the heat of the van. When he walked inside the smaller office, he was met with Jaymes, laid out on his side across the length of the desk. Stark naked, except for a tree axe with the metal head covering his vital parts, the handle sticking up vertically, he grinned comically. One hand cradled his handsome face, while the other lay on top of his thick, muscular thigh. Nathan’s jaw dropped open. Jaymes most definitely had a good figure, but the sudden vision stopped Nathan in his tracks. “What the fuck are you doing?” “Giving you inspiration. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.” “Are you insane? It’s bloody freezing in here.” “Yeah, I know. Thought you’d never get here. My nuts have shrunk to the size of peanuts. What do you think of my chopper?” Jaymes clamped a hand around the handle of the axe, and waggled his eyebrows. Despite himself, Nathan burst out laughing and felt any tension he’d been feeling drain away. “You are a complete fucking moron, do you know that? Get dressed. You owe me a beer and a curry. I’ll meet you outside in the van.” “Don’t you want a snap on your phone?” “Get dressed, Jaymes!” As he turned, still chuckling, Nathan heard Jaymes moving. Honestly, the things Jaymes would do just to get a laugh. And Nathan hadn’t been kidding. Inside the lodge, the temperature had to be only a couple of degrees above the freezing temperature outside. Despite Nathan’s curiosity and the warm feeling coursing though his body, he did not turn around and grab another eyeful of the man’s amazing body. Friends only, remember? When Jaymes finally joined him in the van, togged out in his trademark jeans and brown leather pilot’s jacket, Nathan had the engine idling and the heater running on full power. Despite himself, Nathan couldn’t keep a straight face. Just looking sidelong at his friend’s mischievous face, he could tell. Tonight, he would be dealing with playful Jaymes—and without Polly to help him. Heaven help me now, he thought. As soon as Jaymes closed the door and belted up, Nathan began the drive back. “See, Nate? Easy as that. Now can I come to your photo shoot?” “Is that what your debauched display was all about? Getting me to agree to you coming to my session?” “Maybe. So? Can I?” Nathan shook his head and grinned, while navigating the small lane. “As long as you behave yourself.” Jaymes clapped his hands and whooped with joy. “And don’t show me up.” “What? By taking my clothes off? Would that constitute showing you up? Because, let me tell you, baby, once the photographer gets a glimpse of this hot body, Nathan Fresher will be totally off the menu.” Jaymes shoved Nathan in the shoulder and laughed aloud. Nathan rolled his eyes, but kept on grinning. “You are such a dork. Hey, who’s Polly going out with tonight?” asked Nathan. “She’s seeing a bunch of girlfriends.” “The hell she is. She’s got a dinner date.” “Has she now?” said Jaymes, his voice curious and mischievous. “That’s not what she told me, the saucy little minx.” Nathan peered out the driver’s side window, grinning. He’d called Polly the same thing. Almost exactly those words. Was she right? Was he turning into Jaymes? “Do you know which restaurant?” asked Jaymes. “We are not spying on her. Give your cousin some privacy, for goodness’ sake.” “You’re no fun.” Nathan drove for a little while without them speaking, wondering how to bridge the next topic. “Surprised you’re not seeing Kelly tonight.” “Kell-Bell?” said Jaymes, apparently surprised by the comment. “Why would I? She’ll be back in Bangor by now. Was only here for a couple of nights.” “Oh, I see,” said Nathan, his fingers drumming the steering wheel. “She’s nice.” “She is.” Nathan turned the heating down. His cheeks had begun to burn. “Is that your type? “Is what my type?” “Long hair? Brunette? She’s a very sexy lady.” Nathan noticed Jaymes’ grin broaden, even though he kept his gaze ahead. “And you call me a dork,” said Jaymes. “Let’s just say that Peter, her husband, who is also my ex-colleague and best mate back in North Wales, clearly thought so. Otherwise he wouldn’t have married her.” “Oh.” “Yes, oh. She stopped by Tuesday to drop off the books I’d left behind. If you’d been a bit more sociable and hung around you’d have found that out. Any more questions? Hang on, is that why—?” “So where do you want to go tonight?” interrupted Nathan, his cheeks aflame by now. “Couple of pints at the Arms and then the curry place on the high street? Or we could drive to the Golden Buddha Thai restaurant just outside Mayfield.” Jaymes hissed out a laugh and slouched back in his seat. “Nah, you know what? It’s bloody cold out, I’m knackered, and I don’t want to waste brain cells trying to think. How about we just grab a Thai takeaway and pick up some beers? Go back to your place and watch some mind-numbing Netflix movie or another?” Which is exactly what they did. Nathan had turned the heating up in the flat before he left and the place felt toasty warm when they got home. Jaymes, as always, made himself at home, kicking off his shoes and helping himself to beer. If he was going to be completely honest, Nathan really enjoyed having Jaymes over, enjoyed his easy company as much as the banter. Part of him wondered if he ought to offer Jaymes his spare room. He still felt a little guilty about not doing so before. Not that he needed the rent money. He’d inherited the business from his father, with the flat above the shop, including a substantial sum from a life policy. Maybe he would bring up the idea of the spare room tomorrow when they visited the solicitor on the south coast. After eating Thai food at the table and then relaxing on the sofa with plenty more drinks, they watched an old comedy about a bunch of widows planning to rob a bank. From time to time, whenever he laughed at some of the action, Nathan sensed Jaymes looking at him, studying him. Halfway through the movie, Jaymes excused himself and headed to the bathroom. Nathan quickly checked the time on his phone—ten to eleven—and also wondered if he might have had a message from Clifton, but since Raul had returned, there had been radio silence. Maybe for the best. Absently, he adjusted the volume on the television. Jaymes seemed to prefer the volume louder. He hadn’t even acknowledged Jaymes’ return, until the man threw himself back onto the sofa, and snatched the remote control out of Nathan’s hands. Without a word, he changed channels from the action film to a rugby game. “Jaymes! I was watching that!” “Boring. They get away with it in the end, anyway, the heist. Predictable really.” Nathan folded his arms. Enough was enough. “My house, my rules. Change the bloody channel back.” “This is far more interesting.” Nathan glared at Jaymes, but the bigger man simply smiled his annoying smile and continued to watch the game, stubborn as ever. “Jaymes. Give me the remote.” “If you want it, come and get it.” “Give me the bloody channel changer!” Nathan tried to snatch the remote back, but with each attempt Jaymes pulled the device out of reach. Losing his patience, Nathan tackled him on the sofa and the two tussled together. Eventually, they both rolled onto the carpet, and although Nathan had been annoyed at first, he soon found himself chuckling. As always, Jaymes’ face shone with mischievous playfulness, but also a fierce competitiveness. No way was Nathan getting the remote. For all his jokiness, Jaymes had size and strength on his side, and before long he had rolled Nathan beneath him, straddled him and pinned both his wrists firmly to the floor. Nathan writhed and squirmed, until Jaymes tightened the grip of his thighs around Nathan’s midriff. “Get off me, you big oaf.” “I win.” “Get off!” Jaymes shook Nathan’s wrists, his head hovering over Nathan’s face. “Say it, Nate. I win.” “Get off me—” “Say it!” Nathan’s stopped struggling, and lay still, met Jaymes’ mock glare, their eyes locked like male bucks clashing horns. Nathan’s chest rose and fell quickly, his breathing loud and pronounced. “Okay, okay. You win, Jim.” At first, Nathan smirked up into Jaymes’ eyes. But then, as though a switch had been flicked, the light in Jaymes’ eyes darkened, and Nathan experienced a sudden spark of arousal. Staring at each other for a few seconds longer, neither laughing anymore, Jaymes brought his lips down to meet Nathan’s. The kiss started out slow, tentative; but not innocent. Jaymes knew how to kiss. And then Nathan caught up, thrusting into the embrace, pushing his tongue past Jaymes’ teeth and into his hot mouth, wrestling Jaymes’ tongue. Which appeared to be all the permission Jaymes needed before twisting his head to take the kiss to the next level, releasing Nathan’s wrists to hold Nathan’s head in place and probe deeper with his tongue, exploring the depths of his mouth. Nathan pushed his groin up to meet Jaymes’, erections rubbing together, causing the larger man to utter a deep, guttural moan and thrust back. Only as Nathan wrapped his arms around Jaymes’ neck, did Jaymes suddenly freeze and pull away. Shocked, he stared at Nathan, before recoiling and lumbering to his feet, wrenching himself out of the embrace, as though only then realising what he had done. “Shit. I shouldn’t have—” Nathan sat up, wondering if Jaymes might bolt for the door. But instead, he threw himself back onto the sofa and put his head into his hands. Crisis of conscience. Nathan needed to pick his next words carefully, give Jaymes a get-out. “Okay, Jaymes, you’ve done nothing wrong here.” Jaymes remained silent. “Look, we can put this down to a moment of insanity, an alcohol influenced delirium, and you can phone Polly now, tell her to come pick you up. Neither of us is fit to drive. Or you can stay over and sleep it off on the sofa or in the spare room. If you can bear to be here. Nobody needs to know what happened. I give you my word I won’t say anything to anyone, especially Polly. What do you want to do?” Jaymes sat on the sofa staring down at his hands before rubbing each of his wrists, as though someone had just removed his handcuffs. After a moment of hesitation he pulled out his phone. Thumbing across the screen, he eventually prodded a number and put the phone to his ear. Nathan felt a tinge of disappointment, but quietly understood Jaymes’ decision. When he looked up, Jaymes was not so much staring straight at him, as into him. “Got her voicemail. Hi Poll. Jaymes. Just wanted to let you know. I’ll be sleeping over at Nate’s place tonight, so don’t wait up for me.” After ending the call, he put the phone away but continued to stare at Nathan. “Which way to the bedroom?” “The spare room’s down the hall on the left.” “Not the spare room, Nate. Yours.”
  14. 64 points
    “What are we listening to?” Tyler Scott ran his eyes and a finger down the wine bottle’s label. “Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Blend 2017 Pinot Grigio. And why are we drinking Two Buck Chuck?” “Here, Ty.” Owen handed the man a different, nearly empty bottle and a glass. “Don’t you know Chef CJ doesn’t like to be distracted while cooking?” “Asshole!” CJ was happy. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving meant he and Owen had their cousins and their spouses at their apartment. The rest of the family was at Abuela’s, but the three younger Abellós declined the invitation to join them. “That’s Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.” “Mate, your cousin always plays an artist’s music to death after we go to a concert. Saturday night we were at the Kennedy Center for a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, and he’s been playing classical music all week.” Owen opened a fresh bottle after Randy slid the now empty one aside. “And don’t knock Two Buck Chuck. Considering it’s three dollars a bottle, the stuff’s okay. We use it a lot for cooking. Not so much for drinking. The flavor notes are kinda mundane.” Taisha had been looking at the wall where the guys hung favorite pictures, nursing her own glass of wine. “I guess the one with the sharks’ the most recent one?” Owen refilled her empty wine glass. “For now. We have one from a GU party and the one we took with Bezos at the HRC National Dinner. We need to hang them.” “So, what are you making, cuz?” Randy stared at CJ while resting his chin atop his own husband’s head. “What’s the wine for?” “Veal scaloppini. The recipe calls for chicken broth, but I’m replacing most of that with vino.” “Damn! You’re such a doodie.” “Are you calling me a shit?” CJ’s smirk and raised eyebrow drew chuckles. “Nah… A doodie’s a dude who’s a foodie. Silas called Ty that one time when he was cooking, and I appropriated the word.” “Speaking of Silas, how come he didn’t want to come over tonight? Isn’t he going to work on our house? I thought he’d want to be here for our discussion.” “The kid loves Cuban food, and we don’t get to eat it that often in Chicago. His part in all this won’t really kick in until we settle on structural changes anyway. Ty and I will give him a summary of whatever we decide. We’re all having breakfast together, right? He’ll be there to help describe the plans for the basement.” “That’s a perfect lead-in.” Rod opened the notebook he had placed on the counter. “I’m ready to take notes. Since the Germans decided to vacate the house early when you wouldn’t extend their lease, we can start some serious planning. I have a few questions to get us started.” “Ask away, mate. CJ and I have been talking about this on and off for almost two years.” “Let’s start with what we know. Ozzie wants a Tesla solar-tile roof. That means—” “How much is that gonna cost us?” CJ wielded the knife in his hand as a pointer. “Ahhh, we haven’t really priced it yet.” “What? Come on, cuz. You’re slacking. How are we supposed to approve things if we don’t know the price? You think Ozzie and I are made of money?” “Yes!” The reply was simultaneous by the cousins and their spouses. An amused CJ shook his head. “Assholes!” Even when the discussion revolved around a serious matter, levity remained within reach. “Mate, we want to do this right, and we’re willing to spend money. That doesn’t mean we don’t want a budget. Remember I work for a non-profit. I get paid shit.” “Cry me a river. You’ll get one, Ozzie. In time. But we talked about the roof and the new HVAC a long time ago. Considering we’re dealing with fairly new technology, it didn’t make sense to cost it out until we were close to starting. Uncle Brett won’t let us overspend anyway.” Although Brett would not be involved in the day-to-day details, CJ knew he and Owen were in good hands with Third Line Development serving as the project’s coordinator. “True dat. Carry on, cuz.” “Crap, you guys are gonna be tough clients, aren’t you? Anyway, Silas, Ty, and Randy have preliminary drawings for the basement. Since we plan to review those tomorrow, we’ll skip that part of the house tonight. I know you said you wanted Ozzie to make all the decisions about the wine cellar, and they’ve all talked about it.” Rod paused to sip his wine. “We know we have lead paint, so our first project will be abatement. Taisha handles a lot of the permitting for us, and she’ll get started this coming week.” The man sought confirmation from his wife; she satisfied him with a nod. “That’s all going to be a pain. With your place on the National Register of Historic Places, we’ll have more hoops to jump through than usual.” “What else do you want to know?” A smile lit up Owen’s face when CJ had him taste the sauce. “That’s brilliant!” “Top priorities after what we already have. From both of you.” “We can discuss those while we eat.” CJ poured the skillet’s contents over a platter of cooked veal cutlets. He carried the pot to the sink, drained the angel hair pasta, poured it into a bowl, and sprinkled fresh, chopped parsley over it. “Okay, boys and girl. Help yourselves. There’s salad and grated Parmesan on the coffee table already. You know the drill. Fill your plates and plop your ass down on a floor cushion or the couch.” Owen stepped over to the beverage refrigerator by the wall unit. “I’ll open another bottle.” Silence reigned while everyone took an initial bite, then the compliments poured forth, starting with Taisha’s. “Ozzie, you’re gonna get fat if he cooks like this all the time. This rocks.” “Nah. We generally eat light and healthy at home. Tonight’s special because you guys are here.” “That’s it, Oz. Butter them up so we can get what we want.” CJ’s joke was mostly ignored; a couple of smirks popped up while everyone savored the meal. “So, Rod, next top priority for me is automation. I want a smart house.” “How smart? Elementary school or college?” CJ wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Cute, cuz. Alexa, lower living room window blinds.” Everyone seemed disappointed when nothing happened. “Doctorate degree smart. I wanna be able to do that kind of stuff everywhere in the house. It didn’t work here ’cause all we have is regular old blinds. And I want to be able to do as much as possible from my phone or tablet.” Rod exchanged the fork in his hand for a pen and scribbled in his notebook. “We’ll have to bring in a subcontractor for that. They may need to do some hard wiring, but I think most of that can be accomplished through Bluetooth these days. What do you want to be able to control?” “Lights and sound, heating and cooling, blinds and drapes, door locks and security cameras. I also want it to—” “You also want it to wipe your butt when you go to the bathroom?” “Shut it, Randy.” CJ could not contain the chuckle. “I swear. I don’t know why you’re involved in this. What do you bring to the table?” “Ohhh, bring to the table… Is that how you diplomat types talk? I bring my good looks and my architectural savvy. You need me, cuz.” “I get it, CJ.” Rod ignored his brother, made another notation, and returned his attention to the meal. “I’ll do a little reading, and once I pick a specialist, we’ll all meet. It sounds like you’ll have a big exposure to hacking and need lots of computer power. Are you guys considering a private server to tighten security?” “NO!” CJ’s quick and emphatic response made Owen laugh. “Are you nuts? You think he didn’t learn anything from all the time he spent with the Clintons?” “How could I forget politics?” The eye rolling was not limited to Rod. “What about you, Ozzie? What else do you want aside from the solar roof and wine cellar?” “A green house.” “To grow veggies in?” “No, you wanker. A green house, as in an environment-friendly place.” “How green?” “As green as possible. Highest possible LEED certification.” Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a third-party construction certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council was the most widely used building rating system in the world. Rod paused with the fork halfway to his mouth. “That’s it?” “Well, yeah. I mean, we’ll have to figure out how we get there. But I want the house to be as eco-friendly as possible. Recycled materials, sustainable products, energy efficient appliances…” “I have a question for all of you.” Taisha had been uncharacteristically quiet. “You spent over two million on the house, and it sounds like you’re going to spend a lot more. Isn’t owning the most expensive house on the block considered a no-no?” “Somebody has to.” CJ’s flippant retort earned him a hard glare from the woman. Tyler intervened in time to save his cousin from a tongue-lashing. “I think that’s because most people are already thinking of selling when they buy, T. I don’t believe that’s the case with these two. Sounds to me as if they have a completely different frame of mind.” “Got it in one, Ty. Ozzie and I want a family. We want to raise our kids in that house. And one day we would like to have grandchildren running around.” CJ shrugged his shoulders. “Look, I know all that’s way, way off in the future. Hell, it may never happen. But both of us value family and hope the place’s always full of relatives and friends. Just like my dads’ townhouse.” “My turn to ask a question.” Randy reached for the wine bottle and refilled his glass. “Do you guys have at least an idea of how much you’re willing to spend?” During the subsequent momentary silence, CJ and Owen exchanged glances. The Australian waved a hand at his husband, giving him the go-ahead to reply. CJ’s reply was tentative. “About a million?” “Jesus Christ!” “Damn skippy.” “There goes the piggy bank.” “There goes your birthday present next year.” “Y’all done?” The reactions amused CJ. “That’s just a number we pulled out of thin air. We discussed it with the dads. You people know they financed the house for us. Since we bought it, our access to my trust fund increased. Money wouldn’t be an issue, but the dads said they would finance the renovations anyway. Once we have it nailed down, they’ll modify the loan.” Rod seamlessly steered the conversation back to the environmental certification. “Back to the green house. My exposure to LEED’s been limited to new construction, Ozzie. One issue I can foresee is the windows. If we want maximum energy conservation, we’ll need triple glazed ones. Those are expensive to begin with. Since we can’t change the exterior because of the historical designation, we’ll need to order custom ones. That means more money and time. Not like we can go to Home Depot and buy standard sizes.” “Do we have measurements?” Owen tried to refill his wine glass, but the bottle was empty. “We need more. Anyone want anything while I’m up?” Headshakes all around was the response. “Gray might have them,” Tyler said. “He’s the one who gave us the basement’s measurements for us to work out the wine cellar’s design.” Rod scribbled in his notebook again. “I’ll check with him when we’re back in the office on Monday.” Gray Young began working for Third Line Development’s primary contractor on the company’s first project. Since then, he had earned his license. He now ran his own crew, supervised projects, and had been tapped to lead the house-remodeling project. “I have a question about the wine cellar.” Taisha focused her attention on Randy and Tyler. “Shoot,” Randy said. “There’s obviously going to be a lot of storage. Is all that off-the-rack or custom?” “Most likely a combination. If we can find the right supplier, using standard systems will save us time and money. But there’s stuff we’ll need to build to the project. Why do you ask?” “I read an article a while back about a Baltimore company that you may find interesting. There’ve been reports on TV and the newspaper about the city planning to demolish thousands of abandoned, dilapidated row houses. Part of their effort to diminish crime.” The opening comment captured the men’s attention. “Knowing what CJ’s involved in with the vets, I think this might be right up his alley. “The Forest Service launched a matchmaking effort to connect non-profits employing former prisoners who deconstruct abandoned buildings in big cities with private companies looking for reclaimed lumber. I forget the number, but tons of old wood end up in landfills every year. There’s a high-end furniture company that buys most of the old floors and walls coming out of Baltimore. “If you guys end up having a carpenter build some of the cabinetry, I could make a few phone calls. Maybe we can get our hands on some of that wood. I think it’d be cool to say the new stuff’s as old as the original house.” “I love it!” CJ’s excitement was palpable. “The effort to rehabilitate prisoners might be up my alley, but I’m sure Ozzie loves the idea of less going to landfills. Hey! I have an idea. We’re gonna end up moving some walls, and that would mean having to patch or replace floors. Right?” Since he was the historical restoration expert, CJ aimed the question at Tyler, who nodded. “So, what if we get in touch with whatever non-profit coordinates the program and hire them? They can send their workers in to remove whatever we plan to replace.” He paused to assess the reaction and was encouraged by the apparent agreement. As usual, Randy could not resist an opening. “So, you want a bunch of sweaty ex-cons running around your house working with wood? Sounds like great porn in the making.” “Asshole! We may need to find a cabinetmaker willing to work with the reclaimed stuff…” The following morning, CJ was surprised when he stopped the Tesla in front of his fathers’ home. He and Owen had texted Silas, asking him to wait outside for them. Randy and Tyler were staying at Rod and Taisha’s place while their son took over one of the basement bedrooms at the townhouse. Ricardo Abelló stood next to his grandson with an arm draped over the teen’s shoulders and climbed inside the car after the youngster did. “Hey, Uncle Rico, what you doing?” “What does it look like?” The man studied the interior of the car and smiled. “I’ve never ridden in one of these before, and I decided I wanted to have breakfast with the boys. Either my mother or my wife would find something for me to do if I stayed behind.” Owen sounded confused. “What do you mean? There’s nothing to do. The entire meal’s catered.” “You obviously don’t know the Abelló women that well, Ozzie. They would find something. Anyway, Randy, Ty, and Silas have kept the details of what they’ve been working on for you away from me. I want to see what my kids designed.” “Umm, it’s only the wine cellar.” CJ made the turn on Wisconsin Avenue and headed north toward the Takoma neighborhood. “More the reason for me to check out the plans. We’ve never done more than a tiny closet for wine storage. From what I heard, this is on a whole different scale.” Ricardo Martín Abelló was over ten years older than his brother, César. Rico met his wife while in college, and after their wedding settled in her hometown of Chicago. With financial assistance from his father, he founded Second Line Restoration; the company flourished and was well regarded for their meticulous work on historical structures. “Mate, if you really want to see a top-notch one, you and Lynne should visit Australia. My parents would welcome you. The Liston Winery cellar would knock your socks off.” “Maybe next year. Your parents did invite us to visit when we met them at the wedding.” Taisha refused to join the men for breakfast. She claimed she had enough of the Abelló boys’ banter the previous evening. There was a lively discussion at the breakfast table while the men scrutinized the design. In the end, they tweaked a few details; the primary ones being there would be an effort to use wood reclaimed during demolition and biometric access to prevent pilfering by guests or teenagers. It was around lunchtime when they all returned to Georgetown and crowded the basement to munch on snacks and watch football. “Hey, Legless.” The smack to the back of his head made CJ stumble. Who knew his aunt had such strength? “Ouch!” Lynne was not finished with him. “How dare you poke fun at a war hero? Shame on you, CJ. I thought I knew you better than that.” Brad Kennedy leaned on his cane to prevent his own stumble. The hearty laughter confused the Chicago woman. “You should see your face, Mrs. Abelló. Your surprised expression matches CJ’s.” The elevator’s noise had alerted everyone in the basement someone was joining them; CJ had been certain it was Brad. He had his own key, so he could come and go at will. “Dude! You’re wearing your legs. That’s awesome!” Brad had been fitted with artificial limbs recently and was still getting accustomed to them. His gait was awkward, and he tired quickly but claimed it was getting easier. “Yeah… I thought it might be a little crowded over here to maneuver the wheels around. About him calling me Legless, Mrs. Abelló—” “Please, Brad. It’s Lynne. How long have we known each other for?” “Thank you. Lynne it is. Anyway, Legless has become my new nickname, and I’m fine with it. It’s descriptive since I lost them. And since it was CJ who first called me that, I have to put up with it. He’s my brother. I’ve called him worse.” Fudge packer was what he often used in private. “Come on, Red. Come sit on the couch. You want wine, beer, or something harder?” “What’s the wine? Liston?” Brad had succumbed to the spell Owen wove amongst their friends—most all Squad members had become wine enthusiasts. “None open, but we can crack one if that’s what you want. Most of us are drinking something from Australia, though.” Owen raised his flute, twirling the liquid inside, allowing the light to reflect off the pink wine. “Ninth Island Sparkling Rosé from Tasmania. Wanna taste?” “Nah, not in the mood for bubbly. I’ll take one of César’s Dos Equis Amber.” In the late afternoon, everyone moved upstairs for dinner. The sun set early and by the time they were ready for dessert the sky was dark, streetlights were on, and the stray pedestrian outside the floor-to-ceiling front windows could be seen scurrying around bundled up against the cold. “If we could have everyone’s attention…” All eyes turned toward Owen and CJ standing behind the kitchen peninsula. “CJ and I have something we’d like to share with you lot.” “Let’s make sure everyone has some bubbly. Ozzie and I would like to propose a few toasts.” Both men held full flutes. “This is your chance, Ritchie. I’m lifting all limits.” “HEY!” “Relax, Captain. We know what we’re doing.” “I sure as shit hope so.” “Shut up, Jarhead.” César grasped his husband’s arm when Brett made to rise. “Let it play out.” “Thanks, Dad.” CJ unfolded a piece of paper he retrieved from his back pocket. “The first one is to all of you. Our family and friends who’ve loved us and supported us. Who’ve stood by us in good and not-so-good times. We’ll never be able to repay you. Salud!” As they lowered their glasses, CJ winked at Owen. “You’re on, Oz.” “Our second toast is to the armed forces, to the veterans amongst us, and particularly to our brother, Brad. We love you, mate. And even though you’re battered, what matters is you’re still with us. You’re alive and kicking.” The line elicited chuckles from the injured Army Ranger and a few others. “Thank you for your service to our country.” Owen barely wet his lips before adding, “Yes I said our country. One of these days I’ll be an American citizen, and I can’t wait.” “Okay, our final one requires a little explanation.” CJ nervously fidgeted with the piece of paper in his hands. “Dads, what do you think about becoming grandparents?” “You getting a fur baby to keep Wingnut company?” Brett’s mention of his name made Ritchie’s golden retriever raise his head, but it was not enough for him to abandon his rawhide bone or the spot in front of the fireplace. “Shut up, Jarhead.” “Fur baby, Papa? You anthropomorphizing puppies now?” “Quarter word!” “Shut up, Ritchie.” CJ thought César sounded like a broken record. However, his dad had a glint in his eyes. “In vitro or adoption?” César’s question lit a fire of comprehension amongst the group; comments and questions flew around the room so fast it was impossible to understand what anyone said. Eventually, when neither CJ nor Owen uttered a word, everyone quieted down. “Okay, you all know Owen’s sister Liz died a little over two years ago. We had a long conversation with her the day before she left us, and we’ve never shared what was said at the time.” CJ took the napkin his husband offered and wiped a couple of stray tears the same way Owen had. CJ passed the sheet he held over to his husband; Owen glanced at it, raised his eyes, and a sad smile formed on his face. “I guess I get to read this. My sister was weak and in pain the last time we visited with her. Although we spent some serious time together, the conversation wasn’t really that long. But she knew what she wanted and gave us a letter with all the details. She ended it with a poem I’d like to share with you.” Silence permeated the room. Not a word was spoken; the only sound the crackling of the burning logs in the fireplace. Owen cleared his throat and read the four lines they had printed earlier in the day: “And when I die and when I'm dead, dead and gone, There'll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on.” “That’s not a poem. It’s a song. ‘And When I Die’ by Blood, Sweat and Tears.” “Shut the fucking fuck up, Jarhead.” César’s outburst broke the spell, and everyone spoke at the same time once again. When the muttering died down, CJ raised his glass. “So, we’d like to propose a toast to Liz. We want to thank her for leaving us the eggs she had frozen during her first bout with cancer. It’s taken some time, and we had a couple of setbacks, but we’re pregnant.” Pandemonium ensued. CJ and Owen once again remained quiet but endured the hugs and kisses rained on them with smiles. Glasses were drained, more bottles were uncorked, and the toasting lingered after everyone reclaimed their seats. “I think I can answer most of the questions you’ve shouted out real quick.” Owen smiled at the grandmothers as both wiped rivulets of tears and at Brett as he blew his nose. “My Mum was in on it. It’s Friday morning in Australia, and she was supposed to tell everyone about it over breakfast. CJ and I have kept our phones off, and I suspect there’ll be a large number of calls and messages waiting for us. Our friend Gina Nichols is our surrogate, and she’s due sometime in late April.” CJ picked up the narrative. “On this side of the world, our brother, Ethan, and our friends, Chatri and Helen, are aware of what’s going on. They helped us navigate through a multitude of legal and medical issues. Ritchie knew we were trying but not how far along we were.” “My dear brother-in-law found out over the summer when he was part of a conversation we had in Miami after battling sharks.” The seamless transitions between the couple almost sounded rehearsed. “The conversation was with Aba. She’s agreed to move to Washington next spring and serve as nanny to her first great-grandchild.” “I swear the two of you won’t quit until you convince me I’m old. A grandfather? At thirty-seven?” Brett wagged a finger at CJ and Owen. Rapidly declining temperatures forecast to dip below freezing overnight did not deter the family from gathering, covered in coats, quilts, and blankets, around the fire pit in the side yard. “Dude, quit bitching. I’m like sooo in my happy place right now. Don’t mess with it.” CJ exhaled a cloud of bluish smoke and rolled the Cuban cigar between his fingers. Surprised expressions and shrugged shoulders greeted the sound of a car navigating the driveway on the house’s other side. CJ voiced everyone’s thought. “Are we expecting anyone?” “Not us.” César waved his cigar to indicate him and Brett. “We’re not either.” Tom glanced at JP for confirmation. Tank’s voice cleared the mystery. “Where are my daddies?” Their friend was followed by another one of Owen’s Scandals Rugby Football Club teammates. A few of the team members had organized a potluck meal for those with no nearby family. “And why have you been ignoring texts and phone calls?” “Hey, Tank!” CJ stood to greet the man. “Sorry, our phones were turned off when we sat to eat. How the hell did you already hear the news?” “Harley. Brace yourselves for tons of messages when you turn them back on. The Squad’s been going nuts. So is it true? Are you guys gonna have a kid?” “Harley?” CJ and Owen asked at the same time while staring at a guilty-looking Ritchie. “Sorry… I texted Lucy, and she said she was going to tell him.” Lucy Wilkinson was Ritchie’s girlfriend and Harley’s sister. “Join us, guys. We’re celebrating. Either one of you want a little brandy?” César’s offer was accepted with nods; Ritchie was sent inside to fetch two additional snifters. “So yeah, Brett and I are going to be grandfathers.” “That’s awesome! Congratulations. So, am I gonna be an uncle or an aunt?” “Damn, son. You’re going to be the most muscular aunt ever.” CJ could not stop chuckling. “Actually, we’re not telling yet. We found out when they did tests to screen for a few things, but we don’t want to jinx anything.” Tank’s gaze swept the gathering until it rested on Sebastián. “Thank you for the kind words last night at the restaurant, sir.” “Bah, nothing to it. It seems my grandsons”—the man waved his cigar in CJ and Owen’s direction—“managed to solve the little difficulty you had with Al.” Alvaro Diaz was the chef and majority owner of Abuela’s, the restaurant Sebastián held an ownership interest in with CJ. “He was so scared of losing his business; he came clean with his father. I had to speak to him about his son being bisexual, but he was more worried about the sexual harassment. I think he talked some sense into the kid.” “Like I mentioned to CJ and Ozzie before and to you last night, it’s been great. Al’s gone out of his way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. New employees get verbal and written rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not.” CJ leaned over and pecked his husband’s cheek. “You done good, Oz.” “The two of you make a good team.” César’s pride in his son and son-in-law was unmistakable. “I have a question about the baby. How come you decided to do it now instead of waiting until you were established at work?” “You.” CJ’s one word surprised his father. “You do realize when the kid’s born I’ll be older than you were when I was, right?” “Yeah… I guess. I hadn’t thought about that.” “Look, Dad. The fact you and I are so close in age has made it easier for you to deal with me. That’s something most of my friends don’t have. Ozzie and I want to be good parents like you and Papa. And like you, we want to be our kids’ friends too. That’s harder when the age difference’s larger. And to be honest, we like the idea you and Papa will be young grandparents. That will be a great experience for your grandchildren.”
  15. 64 points
    Chapter 14 To Everything There Is A Season We were flying to St. John’s, Newfoundland on December 21, which was Friday. Our flight left at 3pm, so Max would only be in school a half-day. The day before, Thursday, December 20, we were driving the horses to a stable we’d used a few times now. The people on staff there were good, professional and worth every penny. We could leave our animals, knowing they were in good hands for the two weeks we’d be away. They also posted pictures of the horses in their care on their webpage daily so you could get a glimpse of your darling if you were worried. Okay, I did check the page! It just made me feel better. On Wednesday we had gotten up and took the horses out for a long ride. Taro seemed so miserable when we left him behind, as Max was in school. I took Taro out for an hour after we’d returned with the other two. We’d visited with Miriam, Doug and the kids on the Saturday before. James understood why we wouldn’t be around on Christmas Day, but Millie got rather upset. She was even more heartbroken when James teased her. “Don’t be such a baby, Millie,” James said. “I want Unc Louis and Don on Chrismiss Day.” She stomped away when her Dad told her she was being difficult. “Not diffit, Daddy!” Miriam picked her up and carried to her room. Don quickly glanced at me, before saying, “Geez, I’m really sorry. I had no idea this would upset her like it has.” Doug smiled. “Her favourite uncle won’t be there for her favourite day.” He grinned. “I think all the rest of us could disappear as long as Louis was here.” I think my mouth fell open. “You must have noticed, Louis. She hangs off of you.” I’d noticed she seemed to like me. “No, I hadn’t. At least not to that extent.” Miriam returned and sat next to Doug. She was such a different person now. Having Doug and her family seemed to have mellowed her somehow. “Yeah, she’s not happy you guys will be away. And taking Max too, her new cousin.” Miriam sipped a glass of eggnog. “But, we need to learn, and she will.” Max seemed taken with this new part of his foster family. He and James had moved closer to the TV and Xbox, and were playing a watery-looking racing game. There was much good-natured joking and laughter. I’d been watching them when Miriam whispered, “So, are you thinking about adoption?” Frankly, it had never entered my head, but it made sense. I blinked at Don, just as the same lightbulb went off in his head. He appeared as surprised as I felt. He answered his sister, “No. Well, not until this moment. It seems like the logical step, if it’s something Maxy would want.” Don reached for my hand. “I guess we need to talk.” Returning his squeeze, I said, “Actually, Don, I really don’t think we need to talk at all. Not in this case.” There were tears in his eyes as he nodded. “No, I guess we don’t, babe.” Doug was smiling, and Miriam clapped her hands silently. “That would be wonderful for all of you!” “Yeah, well, Lous and I may not need to talk, but we certainly need to talk with Maxy. And we will.” At that moment, Millie came back and stood beside us. She clambered up onto my knee and threw her arms around me. “Unc Louis, I will miss you on Chrismiss Day.” I hugged the sweet little girl. “Aw, I’ll miss you too, Buttercup.” I stroked her yellow curls. “How about if I send a special text to you?” She nodded into my chest. “Yes, please.” “Okay, we will send you one and a couple of pictures too.” “Okay.” Max had rolled over to join us, followed by James. “You know what, Millie? There’s a new horse over at our place. Maybe you could come and ride on him if you want. Once we get back home.” Millie gazed at Max. “New one?” “Yup, his name is Taro. Hold on ….” Max pulled out his phone. “Here’s a picture of him.” Millie got down and went over to Max to look. “He is pretty. I can ride on him?” “Sure, why not?” Max smiled at the little girl. “But you need to be good over Christmas time, okay?” The kid’s a natural! I sat back and watched all the interactions around me. Maybe I’d get used to this family thing after all. The rest of the afternoon went off perfectly. We all had a wonderful time. ~~ Once Max had gone to school for his half-day, everything fell into place. I liked to plan but often things still slipped by, or something would come up. Luggage was piled by the front door. The stable was checked over and locked up. I checked all the taps were off; lights off. I’d made sure the car was put away and that the van’s tank was full. I carried all the luggage out to the van. I’d sent Max to school dressed in comfy travelling clothes so we would pick him up there in a couple of hours. In the kitchen I sat down with a cup of coffee and was going over all of my lists when Don joined me. “You’re organized, as usual.” He grinned. “Anything I can do?” “I don’t think so, unless you want to finish the milk off.” He laughed. “You want me to drink a glass of milk? You’re sure you don’t need it?” “Ha, smartass. No, I don’t need it and it will just go down the drain if you don’t finish it.” Don rolled over to the fridge and pulled out the carton. He came back to the table. Still smiling, he opened the carton and drank from it. “Mmm, the only time you can drink from the carton and not get in shit.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Will you ever stop being ten?” Don gazed at me with a smile. “Lous, I have to say that is very unlikely, however, I’m sure you agree, there are times I am much, much older than ten.” “Yeah, okay. There are times you are, I’ll admit.” Don was silent for a moment. He put the carton of milk to his lips, tipped back his head and finished the contents. He closed the container with care and put it on the table. “Louis?” “Mmm, yeah, babe?” I checked off a couple more things from the list before me. “Lous … I know we said we didn’t need to talk but, tell me what you think about us talking to Maxy about us adopting him?” I sat back in my chair for a moment. What did I think exactly? “I think we need to talk to Max about it. Until the second Miriam said it, I’d never even given adoption a thought.” “Do you think it’s too soon?” “Shit, Donny, I don’t know. I mean he seems happy here. But will he feel it’s one more permanent nail in the memory of his parents? I don’t know.” “I never want that … for him to forget his parents.” “No, I know that. But will he feel that’s what he’s doing if he goes along with us adopting him.” Don sighed. “Well, I guess there is only one way to find out, isn’t there?” I laid down my pencil. “Yes, there is. But let’s wait; play it by ear. I think we’ll know when the right moment has arrived.” “Yeah, okay. Makes sense.” Don picked up the carton and put it back down. “Is this all too soon?” “You’ve said that, Don. Are you having second thoughts?” Don’s eyes widened. “No! No, of course not. I’ve just never done this before, Louis. We haven’t. I don’t want any of us to get hurt.” Don dropped his eyes to the table top. Those amber eyes met mine again when he whispered, “I don’t know how I’d handle it if he says no.” “You’ve fallen in love with him, haven’t you?” Don swallowed and sighed. “Yes. I love having him here. Love all of us being a family.” My heart hitched and tears sat in my eyes as I watched my husband struggle with these new emotions. “I love this too, Don. I want it as badly as you. That’s why I think we should wait a little before we broach this topic.” “Okay … okay, Lous. We should let some more time to pass.” “I think it’s for the best.” Silently, Don reached for my hand. We sat that way, each lost in our own thoughts. Yet we were united in our desire for our small family. After a final cleanup in the kitchen, I got Don into the van, ran around and did one final check. I took pictures of the stove to prove to myself in a week everything was switched off. I’d unplugged all the small appliances, other than the fridge. Then I got into the van and we drove over to school to pick up Max. It was lunchtime, so there were a bunch of kids around when we arrived. Max was chatting to a few kids, which I was happy to see, when we pulled in. I turned to Don, who had noticed as well and was smiling. “I like seeing that, Louis.” “Yeah, me too.” “Lous, when did we become, like, parents?” “When? I think the day we took Max for pizza. I don’t think we’ve looked back from that day.” I took off my seatbelt and opened the door. “I like it, Donny. I like it a lot.” He was smiling when I shut my door, after jumping out of the vehicle. Max had noticed us, and I waved at him as I went around to open the backdoor and pulled down the ramp. A couple of the kids came with Max as he joined me. “Louis, this is Leigh and Jack, my friends from Art at Four.” “Hi, nice to meet you both.” I smiled at the kids. “Louis is one of my foster-dads.” Leigh was a pretty brunette; she smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr.?” “It’s Taylor, but call me Louis, please. You too, Jack.” Jack had light brown hair, and was a bit on the skinny side. “Um, thanks, Mr. Taylor.” “Yep. You ready, Max?” “Yes, Louis.” Max pivoted back to his friends. “Okay, so you guys have a good Christmas! I’ll keep in touch. I think they have the internet there ….” He glanced at me; I nodded. “Yeah, they do, so we can talk and stuff.” Jack gave Max a high-five and a fist-bump. “See you, man. Merry Christmas, Mr. Taylor.” “Thank you, Jack. All the best to you and your family.” I waited for Max. He moved around to face me—with a friendly glare—until I realized he wanted a moment alone. I moved quietly up to the passenger side and knocked on Don’s window. “Hey, what’s the hold up?” I gave him the same look I’d just gotten. Don glanced in the side mirror, then to me. “Max and that girl?” “I guess so.” Don grinned happily. “Oh, that’s so sweet!” “That’s Leigh, the one he talks about from Art at Four.” “I see. Well that’s nice for them.” He glanced in the mirror again. “I think they are done.” “Good, because we need to get moving.” I twisted slightly in time to see Leigh bending down and kissing Max’s cheek. He smiled at her and squeezed her hand. My watch was telling me we did have to get moving. I gave Don a kiss and peered toward Max. “Maxy, we gotta go.” “Right, okay, Louis.” He smiled once more at the girl. “Bye Leigh, I’ll text you. Merry Christmas.” “Same to you, Max. Talk soon.” She smiled at me. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Taylor. Merry Christmas.” “And you, Leigh. Merry Christmas to you and your family.” “Thanks. Bye.” She walked away but spun around once to wave. I grasped the handles on his chair and pushed Max up the ramp. “She seems very nice.” “Yes, she is. I like her a lot.” I maneuvered Max into place and locked his chair in. “Are you gonna tell me I’m too young now?” Once I straightened up, I replied, “No, I hadn’t planned on it.” “Oh.” I grinned at him. “I liked people when I was your age, so why can’t you?” “I just thought ….” “Max, you may be too young for marriage, but you can like people. Be friends first, is my only advice.” I patted him on the knee and left the van. I pushed the ramp back into place and closed the back doors. Once I’d climbed in and put on my seatbelt, I started the engine and we moved out of the school parking lot. I headed over to the main highway and went south. I wanted to get on the 401 which would take us across the city to the airport. Don knew I didn’t like talking a whole lot while driving, especially on the highway, so it was a quiet trip. We parked in the Park ‘n Fly lot and then got a special transport van over to Departures. We unloaded the luggage and I found a luggage cart. We were a couple of hours early for our flight and Max and Don said they were hungry. So we found a Tim Hortons, had a hot chocolate, and a doughnut each. After our snack we went to check in and moved through to our gate to wait for our flight to be called to pre-board. I got the pair of them to use the washroom. We then had to wait for Max’s special aisle chair to arrive. Don decided he’d walk with his crutches and his chair would be stored, along with Max’s. The airplane had an aisle chair accessible toilet; however, they were hard to use, so we hoped Max wouldn’t need the bathroom during the flight. But I’d help him if necessary. A steward brought the chair for Max, and we moved him easily. He was getting very good at moving himself. The steward led us through to the plane, and we boarded. Don left his chair at the last moment and used his crutches to walk to his seat. I’d booked ours in the bulkhead section. The steward, Andrew, got us settled. “Um, sir, would you mind coming forward with me for a moment.” He was speaking to me. “Sure.” I followed him into the first-class section. “Thanks. I just wasn’t sure about bringing this up in front of your son,” he was saying, “But for me to seat you there, you need to be able to get the bulkhead door open. Are you able to, if necessary?” I smiled at him. “Yes, not a problem. If I can’t, my husband can.” “Your husband? He’s on crutches ….” “Yeah, trust me, he will open that door. Nothing will stop him.” Andrew stared at me for a moment. When he had determined I was telling the truth, he nodded. “Okay, fair enough. Thank you.” “No problem. Thanks, Andrew.” The steward smiled and returned me to my seat. He then went on with his duties. The flight and landing were uneventful. Max enjoyed the trip, and we were off-boarded first. I went to await our luggage, while Don and Max waited for assistance with their wheelchairs. Once we were all together again, we left the gate and went to find Laura. I spotted her red hair right away. With her was Ma, who was waving furiously. Don rolled forward, but Max was slower. I went and walked with him. “You okay, Max?” “Yeah … you know, Louis.” “I do. These are my family. They talk funny, but they are wonderful people.” Max glanced up at me. “Talk funny?” “Yes b’y. Dontcha know us Newfoundlanders got us a way all our own?” He grinned. “Sort of ….” “You’ll pick it up, don’t worry.” Ma ran over to hug me. She hugged Don and waited for introductions to Max. She shook his hand. “It’s lovely to meet ya, Max. Call me Doreen.” “Hello … it’s nice to meet you.” Laura was joking with Don after she’d said hello to me. Then it was her turn to say hello to Max. “Whatta y’at, Max?” Poor Max! What did that mean? He glanced at me, his eyes begging for help. “That means, how are you or what are you doing?” I’d bent to whisper in his ear. I gave him a response. Grinning, he repeated it. “Best kind, b’y.” With his eyes again on me, he said, “What does that mean?” Everyone laughed. Ma put her hand on Max’s shoulder. “Best kind means good, and b’y, well it’s just something we say ta everyone. Get me, b’y?” Max laughed. “I get ya!” Laura led the way out of the airport to her vehicle. “Best get a move on. Maureen will have the ol’ slut on.” I said to Max, “Maureen will have the kettle on.” Max just grinned and shook his head. We stopped by the Airbnb to accept the keys and leave our luggage. I’d known we’d have to go to Ma’s or Laura’s first thing for a scoff. No way you’d come ‘ome and not go to yer family for a cuppa. Once at Laura’s, we managed to get everyone inside. We settled in the spacious kitchen and watched as Maureen and Laura set out food and a huge pot of tea. Ma took Max through to the big living room to check out the Christmas tree. I went to the doorway when I thought I heard Max upset. My mother sat beside our foster child with a box of tissues on her knee and her hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, ya know, Max. Yer whole life you’ll miss ‘em. Days, like this one, Christmas, will always bring memories of yer parents an’ family.” Max accepted a tissue and wiped his eyes. He gazed intently at my mother. “I’m sorry. I really don’t feel right about calling you by your first name.” She laughed. “Tis all right, b’y. D’ya tink you can call me Gran? Just please not Mrs. Taylor.” “Yeah, Gran. That works.” Max smiled at her. “You know, Louis lent me some of … your husband’s … Grandad’s books. He was a really good photographer ….” Smiling, I left them to talk together. Don was laughing in the kitchen with Maureen and Laura. If the table hadn’t been oak, it would have collapsed under all the food set out on it. I sat down beside my husband. “Laura, are ya feedin’ the five thousand?” I asked her. “Hush, b’y and get stuck inta the food.” Maureen went to collect Ma and Max. We all sat down to eat and drink mugs of hot, creamy tea. After thirty minutes or so of eating and laughing, Maureen exclaimed, “I’m stogged!” We’d just finished eating wonderful cream cakes and tea. “Me too,” I said. I didn’t think I could fit another bite in. Max was still enjoying the cake. “What does that mean?” Maureen smiled. “It means I’m full to burstin’, me duck.” “Okay ….” Max grinned. “I like how people talk here.” “Lucky dat, b’y,” Laura said. “Seein’ yer stuck ‘ere nearon two week.” “Yes, I guess yer right b’y,” Max stammered out. Don was laughing. “You don’t even have to try and talk like them. If you’re here long enough it just starts to happen.” “Y’be right dere, Don.” Ma was smiling. It was good to see her smile. I was glad everyone was getting on, but I wondered why I had worried about it in the first place. “Down at my place, Max, I’ve got several more books by Gavin. Some I ‘ave a couple of copies of. Yer welcome ta them if you’d like. ‘Ave a look when you come by.” “Thanks, Gran. I’d like that a lot.” Don glanced at me, and I shrugged. He knew that meant I’d explain later. It had been a nice meal but we still had things to sort out at our home base. So, we said our good nights. Our Airbnb apartment was on the ground floor and easy to access for the wheelchairs. We just made sure we dried the wheels since there was snow on the ground here. Luckily, not too much at the moment. It was a roomy comfortable place. Max and Don seemed to have little trouble maneuvering around it. We got inside and removed boots and hung up coats. In the living room was a four-foot decorated Christmas tree, along with a nice flat screen tv and stereo. The guys went to watch TV while I took in the kitchen. In the fridge was a small carton of milk and a covered pan, that said: Heat Me on 350F for dinner. I pulled out the food and peered under the foil. Lasagna! I silently thanked our very generous landlord once more. Don rolled into the kitchen, which was much smaller than our own. “Everything okay, Lous?” “Yeah, the Proctors left us a pint of milk and a lasagna!” “Wow, that’s very kind. We don’t need to eat tonight anyway.” Don swiveled around to gaze out the window. “I can help you unpack, baby.” “Yeah, let’s do that. Make sure we can brush our teeth and sleep.” Max said he could handle his own room. “I’ll yell if I need help.” “Okay, Maxy.” Don grinned and followed me into our bedroom. We got everything unpacked and put away. I’d brought a bottle of wine with us and root beer for Max in my luggage. They both went into the fridge. Tomorrow I would have to drive to the grocery store. I found the internet log-on instructions in the information package the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Proctor, had left. I gave those to Max. “Thanks, Louis. I got everything put away.” Max sat at the small desk in his room. “This is a very nice place.” “It is. Very nice.” I smiled at him. Max stopped to stared at me. “It’s weird, you know, in some ways I feel like I’ve lived with you guys for ages. That’s a good thing, right?” I sat on the edge of his bed. “It’s a good thing if you feel it’s right.” “It does feel right.” I got up and gave him a hug. Over the next few days we went shopping and spent time with my mother. We all had a good time, but there seemed something special between her and Max. They shared a lot of time together. Maybe an unconscious understanding of the loss each of them had suffered. We rented a passenger van with a lift. We got everyone in and drove out to experience the Atlantic Ocean. Ma asked if we could drive to Witless Bay, so Max could see it there. I’d reviewed the weather for the 23rd, and with any luck we’d not run into any snow. It was cold, and most of the roads were clear. But here, that can change in a heartbeat. There were chains in the back, and the van had good winter tires. I made sure we had an emergency kit as well. There was a lot of lonely highway between us and Witless Bay, and you could easily become stuck. If it changed while we were away, well, we’d just have to find a hotel to holdup in. Max brought his camera and sketch pad. He was happy and excited to be out. We got to Witless Bay and drove down to so he could see the ocean. The wind was raw, and pushing his chair was rough, but worth it, to see his face. The spray was icy cold, and we couldn’t stay long before we were chilled to the bone. He took pictures. “Wow, man, it’s amazing, Louis. It’s so beautiful here.” I squatted beside him. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” “Yeah. Thanks for bringing me, Louis.” “You’re welcome. Maybe we’ll come back when it’s warmer.” I got to my feet and rubbed my hands together. “You got what you need?” He turned to me then, his eyes bright, and he smiled with a happiness I’d not seen before. His voice was soft when he replied, “Yes, Louis. I have everything I need.” I nodded. I moved behind him and grabbed the handles on his chair. I pushed him back up to the parking lot. Ma and Don had stayed inside the van out of the wind and cold. Once we got Max back into the van, and the wheelchair stored, we drove around to find a place to buy coffee and sandwiches. Ma and I went inside; the weather seemed to be getting worse. As we waited for our order, I asked, “What do you think, Ma? Think we should head back?” “Yes, me duck. I think we’ll need to get a move on.” I glanced at her. “Better to bed down?” “No, Louis. Get on the highway and let’s get back to town. It looks like we may get a lot of it. I rather not be stuck here.” “Okay, Ma. Let’s get out of here then.” We settled our bill and carried our food and hot drinks out to the van. When everyone was happily munching, I started the van and got us back on the road. The snow was falling steadily now. It wasn’t too long a drive but the snow was starting to fall faster. By the time we reached St. John’s, about two inches of snow had fallen. I dropped Ma at her apartment and then drove us home. We did have reserved parking, which was a good thing. The driveway had been cleared as had been the front walk. I silently thanked the owner once more as I first got Don out and then Max. Don has the upper body strength to get himself through the bit of snow on the ground. I hovered behind Max as he pushed himself and gave him a hand when he seemed to tire a little. In the morning on Christmas Eve, I went shopping. We then spent a quiet day together. Later we wrapped up warmly and went with the others to watch the Mummers Parade. “What are Mummers?” Max asked Ma. “Well, it’s usually friends or family who disguise themselves. At Christmas they visit neighbours’ houses. You invite them in, and they sing or recite something; maybe dance. The host must guess who is visiting them before they offer refreshments. Once they are known, they remove their disguises and spend a bit of time talking and sharing a drink before they move on to the next house.” “Oh, thanks Gran. Sounds kinda fun really.” “It is, b’y. Simple pleasures.” ~~ Chapter 15 A Time To Gather Stones Together Christmas morning was quiet. We were all tired from the previous afternoon, plus the evening at the parade, and then we’d joined Ma at church for a Christmas Eve Service. We didn’t get up until nearly ten. Don and I made love quietly, our gift to each other. “Mmm, Lous, I love you. Merry Christmas.” I lay a-top him where I’d collapsed, just enjoying the scent of him and his arms around me. “Merry Christmas, Don.” Suddenly I was just overcome, and Don held me tighter. “Hey, what’s this? Lous, why the tears?” “I don’t know, just everything, Pa, Max … being here. You.” He said nothing, just kissed my forehead and held me. I heard his voice and realized I’d been asleep. “Lous, I’m just gonna move you off me, baby.” “Yeah, sorry. I … I guess I fell asleep.” “Not only you. But right now, I gotta go.” We got up, and Max was out in the living room watching TV. I’d been for a few supplies the previous morning and went to the kitchen to make coffee. I’d gone to a local bakery to purchase a fruit loaf to have for breakfast. I’d found some nice old cheddar at the store which I put out as well. I carried it all out to the living room, along with a carton of chocolate milk for Max. Don poured coffee, and finally, we each sat with our breakfast. There were carols being sung on some television program. We sat quietly eating and watching. The Christmas tree twinkled. Once I’d eaten, I took a few pictures of us and the tree and texted them to Millie, as promised. Don phoned his sister’s, and we all spoke a few moments to say Merry Christmas. Though it’s a happy time, there is always a part of me that is a bit melancholy at this time of year. Perhaps it’s because we often slow down, and spend time with the people who really matter in our lives. I mourn the rest of the year when we often don’t have time. I sat watching Don and Max, and I realized my fear of looking after another person had been foolish. All of this had made my life richer. Max was not a burden. Don, I knew, had his eye on me. “You all right, Lous?” I grinned. “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s open a couple of gifts.” A perpetual child, Don laughed. “Excellent. I love presents!” Max smiled throughout our little exchange. His eyes told me what he was thinking. “I left my stuff in my room. I’ll be right back.” We watched him go. “You think he’s okay, Louis.” I took Don’s hand and leaned toward him for a kiss. “Yeah, I do. He’s dealing with things. Like we all have to when someone dies.” “Yeah. It’s not an easy thing, taking what life hands you.” “Do you still ask yourself, what if, Donny?” “You mean what if I’d listened to you and not taken up motorcycle racing?” “Well … yeah, I guess.” “Sometimes. But Lous, life is too fucking short to live in the past, or regret things you cannot change. Life is to be lived, and that’s what I’ve always done. And legs, or no fucking legs, it’s what I’m going to do.” Max had rolled back into the living room. He’d heard Don’s passionate speech. On his knee were some carefully wrapped packages. His eyes were on Don’s as he moved closer. I got up to help him. “Thanks, Louis. This is for Gran, and this for Maureen and Laura.” I took the gifts and put them with the ones we’d take with us later. “This one is for you and Don. It’s just one; I hope you both like it.” Max handed the gift to Don. I sat next to Don, and we opened it carefully. Inside was a painting. Don gasped a little. “Max, this is wonderful. Wow. Thank you.” It was a picture of the three of us, riding together up our favourite dirt road. It was early morning and the sun was just over the horizon. It was a wonderfully captured moment. “Thank you, Max,” I said. “It’s perfect; it really is.” “I’m glad you like it.” Max grinned. Don handed Max a gift. “Something from us.” Inside was the latest smartwatch thing it seemed every kid on earth wanted. “Wow!” Max tore off the paper. “This is excellent. Whoa! Thanks, you guys!” Don gave me a little box, which held a hand-written note. It said: I owe you one special birthday trip! I grinned. “Thanks, babe. I love it!” And I did. Don took the thick red envelope I handed him. He opened it; his eyes wide. “Are you serious?” “Yeah. I am.” Max was craning his neck. “What is it?” “It’s an afternoon on a race track with various cars that are set up for disabled drivers. I’ve read about them. They can’t be driven as fast but they go!” Don leaned over to kiss me. “Thanks, Lous. I love it.” We sat drinking coffee and chocolate milk, talking about what Max’s new watch could do, and where we’d go on my birthday trip. It was a good morning, filled with laughter. We were to be at Ma’s for dinner about 1:30pm. Traditionally, Christmas Dinner would be just after 3pm. It was cold but clear, and we decided to walk up to Ma’s. It wasn’t far and if it snowed too much, I could always come and pick up the van. We bundled up for the walk. Don went ahead on the narrow sidewalk. I followed pushing Max, who held a pile of gifts. “Um … so, I’ve been checking things out online,” Max said as we walked. Don glanced back briefly. “Yeah? What things?” “So, schools really.” I watched the vapour we breathed out dispel. “Schools? What schools, Maxy?” “Here. I thought I’d apply for college here. One of the schools has a really good visual arts program.” “No reason you can’t do that.” I smiled as I pushed. “Nope, no reason at all. You like it here?” “Yes, Louis. I do ….” Don interrupted. “This is the house, right?” “Yes … let’s get inside.” It was warm and smelled delicious inside Ma’s flat. Turkey, sage stuffing and cloves and cinnamon filled the air. “God, it smells great in here, Doreen.” Don breathed in deeply. “Thanks, Don.” Ma grabbed our coats. “Let’s get everyone inside.” Don used his crutches as Ma’s place was a bit small for two wheelchairs, and Max had to remain in his mostly. We settled in the living room. We had a boozy eggnog, not Max however, and we opened gifts Ma gave us. We gave her a few small items, things she enjoyed, like Laura Secord Chocolate Mints. Once all else was open, we gave her the painting Max had done. She sat with it on her knee, still wrapped. “Tis by you, is it b’y?” She looked up into Max’s eyes. “I painted it, but it’s from all of us, Gran.” She pulled the paper off. “Oh … my.” Time seemed to have stopped for a moment as my mother looked at the scene she loved, now in oils. Tears ran down her face as she held it up. “Oh, Max, it’s perfect … beautiful. It’s my very favourite picture of Gavin’s. I’ll cherish this every day, b’y.” “I’m so glad you like it.” Max was smiling and struggling to hold on to his emotions. Ma got up and went to hug him. We decided to wait for Maureen and Laura before finishing off the gift-giving, and so settled down to talk. “Max, on the way over, you were talking about college …” I said. Max grinned and put down his eggnog. “Yeah, I really think I’d like to come out here for school.” Ma sat up a bit straighter. “Would you?” “Yes, I would. Memorial University has a great-looking four-year course.” Max glanced at Don and me. “I guess I’d be an adult by then, and I could do what I like …” I didn’t know what to say; I’d been staring at Don when Ma spoke. “Well, you’ll be a real family by then, won’t you? I’m sure Louis and Don would support their son.” Max turned to us. “What?” I said, “Ma, we haven’t even ….” Don called for silence. “Okay, enough. Everyone take a breath. I’ll explain everything.” We all were quiet. Don sat forward, hands on his knees. “Max, we’ve only just been thinking—” “I’m sorry. I talked to Miriam this morning, she said to me about you and Louis—” Ma looked upset. “Doreen, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” Don continued, “Max, simply, Louis and I wanted to speak with you and see how you feel about us … well … adopting you.” Max looked as if he were trapped. I just could say nothing. This is not how I’d planned we’d bring up this topic, and not on such an emotional day. “Max, there is zero pressure from any of us,” Don said. “It wouldn’t change much other than to give you a place to start some new roots. You’d belong somewhere, that’s all.” Max was visibly upset. “I would just like a little time to think about all of this. I’m not saying no.” My mother, who was distraught and in tears, ran from the room. “Ma!” I sighed. I started after her, but Max interrupted. “Let me, please, Louis.” I stole a glance at Don, who nodded. “Okay, Max … just a sec and I’ll move the table so you can get by.” Max rolled himself out of the living room and down the hall. “Gran, it’s me. May I come in?” He disappeared inside when the door opened. I returned to the sofa and fell into Don’s arms. “Shit, Donny.” “Mmm. Yeah. Not exactly what I was expecting today. Poor Max, talk about pressure.” “My stomach dropped when he said he wanted to come here for school.” “Yeah, I think of him as ours. We just got him, and now he’s thinking about leaving.” “Well, we can’t force him to do anything, can we?” “Nope, baby. We can’t. I hope everyone just calms down so we can just enjoy the day.” Max and Ma were gone a good while. I basted the turkey twice and then paced. Don finally said, “Lous, for heaven’s sake sit down or make me a drink.” I made him another eggnog. Returning to my seat beside him, I fiddled with a napkin. “What are they doing?” “I don’t know, baby. Talking it out. They seem to get on very well.” “They do, don’t they?” Those words had only just left my lips when there were voices in the hall. Max rolled back in, followed by Ma. “Louis, Don, I’m so sorry for spilling the beans like I did. I didn’t—” “Doreen, please. Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Don reached out to take her hand. “Let’s all just sit down and relax. It’s Christmas Day.” Ma smiled at her son-in-law. “Thanks, b’y.” I smiled at her, and then at our foster son. “You okay, Max?” “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s just do like Don says and relax.” There was noise at the front door just then. “Hello? Lord tunderin’ Jeasus, is dare a party goin’ awn in ‘ere or wha? Quiet as a tomb. Are we in da right place, b’y?” Max laughed, followed by the rest of us, as Laura and Maureen came in and joined us. “Is dis a sewin’ circle or a Christmas Party? Put some music on!” Needless to say, the rest of the afternoon and evening were filled with laughter, talk and good food. At about midnight, Max said he was tired. Don did not look ready to leave, so I was going to take Max home by myself. Ma stopped us. “There’s a spare room, if Max would like to sleep here.” “Can I, Louis? Then you don’t have take me, and well, you and Don can have a bit of time alone.” Max was a bright kid, and I think he wanted some alone time as well. “Well, sure if you think you’ll be okay.” “I will be. I have my transfer board, and I’d like to just go and lie down.” Ma was smiling. I think she was looking forward to the next day when she’d have Max all to herself for a while. It was sweet how they liked each other so much. So, we got Max settled. I think he was asleep in minutes. After playing a few hands of Spit-in-the-Ocean, another couple of drinks and a turkey sandwich, we said goodnight. I hugged and kissed my mum. She apologized again. “Ma, please don’t worry. It will be okay. You get some rest. We’ll come up and see you for a turkey sandwich or two in the afternoon. But call me if you need me to come earlier or anything.” We hugged and kissed her and left. All in all, it had been a good Christmas. Outside, the night was clear. St. John’s was peaceful. Stars glittered above us as we started toward home. I pushed Don’s chair, while he held onto a stack of gifts. We didn’t talk much on the way back to our accommodation. Laughter and music spilled out of houses, and calls of Merry Christmas rang out now and again as people left to go on elsewhere. I unlocked the door, and we went inside. I took the gifts and put them on the kitchen table. Don got out of his jacket. I hung up both. Don was in the living room. He’d turned on the TV and was surfing. “Do you want anything, babe?” I stood in the doorway which led to the kitchen. “Maybe a glass of water, please, Lous.” “Good idea.” I returned with one for each of us. I sat on the sofa. “Thanks,” Don said. He sipped the clear cold fluid. “It was a nice Christmas. Lord, your aunt knows how to wake up a party!” I laughed. “Yes, she is something else.” “Well, she’s got perfect timing.” Don swallowed another mouthful of water. “I’m sorry Doreen was so upset. It was an honest error.” “Yeah. I’m just worried about Max. But he seemed okay during the evening.” “He did.” Don caught my eye. “Babe, don’t fret about this. Let Max have some time to think about things. Don’t push it.” I nodded. Not pushing, not asking how he felt, would be hard for me. I fret, I worry, I push and usually end up regretting it. I swore to myself I wouldn’t; not this time. After our water we went to bed. It felt good to lie down, and we kissed for a while but in the end just went to sleep. Donny hugged me and said goodnight. “But … I will be waking you up sometime. No squealing.” He snuggled into my back, and I giggled. “Mmmm, yes, Sir.” We didn’t hear from Max or Ma, so I called them about 11am the next day. “Hey, Ma, it’s me.” “Who?” Was she joking? “Me, Ma, your son. Your only child.” “How d’ya know yer me only one, b’y? There may be a love child in me past.” I think I rolled my eyes while I laughed. “Ma, you were with Pa since you were sixteen!” “Aye, well, still, I ‘ad a couple o’good year before yer Pa!” “Ma!” “Oh, shocked are ya?” She was laughing now. “I do love ya, Louis. You and Don come on over for a scoff, will ya?” “Yes, we’ll be over shortly. I love you too, Ma.” ~~ The next few days were fun; we travelled a bit more, since the weather allowed it, but all too soon it was time to return home. We’d be back just before New Years Eve. We’d planned a get-together for dinner for all the family we’d missed seeing over Christmas. At the airport, we said goodbye to everyone. My heart was a little heavy with leaving Ma. I’d been back to Newfoundland several times over the years, but this time, leaving The Rock was hard. This time it felt like I was leaving home. The flight back was quiet and uneventful. Don had arranged to have the horses boarded until January 3rd. It would give us a small break. I’d miss them but I was grateful at the same time. We arrived home on December 29th, in the morning. In the afternoon, Don had started the laundry. I’d made a list I needed to shop for that afternoon. Max said he’d like to come with me. Around 2pm, I made a pot of tea and put out some Christmas Cake and old cheddar. We all sat down together. We were quiet, but it was comfortable. That was until Max spoke. “So, I … um … was looking at the perquisites for the Visual Arts Degree I want to take at Memorial University.” Don looked up. “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah, seems I’m on track to have all I need.” “That’s good, Maxy. I’m glad you found something you want to take.” I was listening and said, “We’ll miss you, when you go.” It was stupid, but it felt like he was going already. “I’ll miss you guys too.” Max reached for my arm and gave me a pat. “It’ll be okay though.” It was a sweet gesture and I patted his arm. “Sure, of course it will be.” “No … really. It will be okay because even if I’m away at school, well, I’ll be with you.” Don and I glanced at each other. “I mean, because by then you’ll be my dads, right?” I gasped, and Don said, “Do you mean that? Are you sure, Maxy? It’s a big thing. But we’d love it.” Max nodded. His gray eyes were serious as he said, “So would I ...you guys have been great, and well, I had a dream about my folks the other night. They said to grab on with both hands and to not let go. So, yeah, I mean it.” I put my hand over my mouth, and even closing my eyes couldn’t hold back the joy that dripped from them. ~The End~ Epilogue I finally redeemed my I.O.U. for my missed birthday trip after Max left for University. However, it wasn’t my birthday, it was our twentieth anniversary. I sat on the hotel balcony in the early morning hours with a pot of coffee I’d ordered from room service. The morning sun was glorious. Don was still in bed, and I had time to reflect on the last few years. While we all wanted his adoption, we didn’t move too quickly, but our adoption of Max was finalized a couple of years after he’d come to stay with us. It was few months before this trip that Don had finished writing his book. It was with his editor at Red Ball Publications. I was happy for him. And lastly, Don had just bought a new Honda and started to drive again. He was very happy and enjoyed his returned freedom. His opening the balcony door broke into my reverie, and returned me to the present. “Ah, Lous, baby … life is good, isn’t it?” I looked at my husband, older now, but still the same wonderful man I’d chosen to share my life with, and said, “Yeah, it is.” He moved next to me and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Happy?” I smiled at him and nodded. “Yes, perfectly.” “I’m sorry this took so long, Lous. You deserved your gift a long time before now.” He pulled something from his pocket, and looked into my eyes for a long moment. “You know, I still see you as that teenager sitting on the wall outside the pub, nursing that Coke. And I remember the first time we were together. When you said it for the first time; I love you.” He held up a hand when I opened my mouth. “No … let me finish. I am a demanding and pretty selfish guy, I know that. I have lived my life my way and dragged you with me. You have hung in there when others would have walked away. I want you to know that I love you, Lous. You are all I ever wanted.” Don reached for my left hand. He touched my ring and smiled. “Remember shopping for these? We got the thinnest ones. They were all we could afford once upon a time.” “I remember.” “So, if I asked you again, and you knew nothing at all would be different, would you say yes again?” I nodded. “Yes.” He took my hand and slid a ring onto my finger. The slim band of white joined the gold one. “Happy anniversary, baby.” He reached for me and I leaned forward to kiss him, his kisses still electric. “I love you, Donny.” “And I love you, Marie.” I snorted. Don put his head back and laughed. “You are such a shit, Don McPhee!” “And you love every single minute of it.” Don swallowed his remaining coffee. “Now, Mr. Taylor, I think I would like the pleasure of your company in bed. I have a few things to show you.” “Is that right?” “Yeah, it is.” Don moved back inside the room. I looked over the balcony, at my new ring, and I smiled. Life hadn’t always been easy. It’s what we have and we can choose to live it or watch it go by. I know I’ve done both. Changes are part of life; we cannot protect ourselves from them. Don’s voice interrupted my reverie. “Come on, Louis.” “Okay, babe. On my way.” “I got a hot salami here for ya.” “Ya do?” I walked into the bedroom and quietly closed the door. “Aye, b’y!” My husband waited for me on the king-sized bed. “Don! That is a whole Hungarian salami!” “Yeah, what were you expecting? My dick?” Our love and laughter continue. And no, I wouldn’t change a thing. ~~
  16. 64 points
    “So, you have martial arts practice every Friday night?” Bentley Riff, Carson’s roommate and a junior at GU’s McCourt School of Public Policy was a candidate for president of the Georgetown University Student Association. The previous fall, he had asked CJ to run for the second spot on the ballot. He was not part of the inner circle of friends; his knowledge about CJ’s life was limited. “Yeah, my buddy Thiago and I have been doing it since high school. Although he’s been slacking off lately.” “Don’t be an ass, CJ.” Owen reached for another slice. They had invited Bentley, Carson, and a few of the other candidates for pizza and beer. “The man has a baby to take care of now. Let’s see if you don’t slack off a bit when you become a father.” “Hey, can I ask another question about Brad?” Carson was the newest member of The Squad and had only met the soldier twice: at the wedding, and at the birthday party in New York. “Shoot.” CJ tried to decide whether his next slice would be a meat-lovers or a veggie-delight. He ended up choosing plain cheese. “So, he lost both legs and that’s pretty fucked already. But did he have any other serious injuries?” “Scrapes and scratches all over. Burns on the side of the body closest to the explosion. A couple of broken fingers, and shrapnel embedded in various parts of his body. The day I got there, he was in surgery. They were removing metal from his abdomen. The doctors worried more about that than his legs being gone!” “What happens next with him?” Gina was one of two non-candidates present. Although she was about to graduate, she had campaigned for Bentley and CJ’s slate of candidates and served as the main contact with the GLBT community. Everyone seemed to think having CJ on the ticket all but guaranteed getting that voting block. The ticket’s endorsement by the Student of Color Alliance, the umbrella organization for groups serving students of color at Georgetown, was also credited to CJ and his impassioned presentation in front of them. “He flies back to the states, gets admitted to Walter Reed, and starts rehab as soon as he’s able to. I guess at some point he’ll get artificial legs. I’m not sure what else happens. Haven’t had time to check up on it yet.” Although most of them were drinking beer, Bentley accepted Owen’s offer of wine. “Ozzie, this stuff is incredible.” CJ had agreed to open a bottle of his treasured Liston Verdelho for the evening; he wanted the man to experience what he thought was the best offering from the family’s vineyard. “So, your family sends you guys a couple of cases every month, but it’s not sold in the United States otherwise?” “Nope, we don’t make enough for export. My brother wants to expand production. He’ll end up running the business when our dad retires, so maybe one day.” “Well, I may be inviting myself over a lot next school year if you guys drink this all the time. And the soundtrack doesn’t hurt. This is the stuff my parents played while I grew up. I’m surprised you like country music.” “That’s CJ. He has the most eclectic taste in music ever. All this stuff’s older than him.” At the moment, Garth Brooks’ “We Shall be Free” emanated from the speakers. “Brooks became a favorite when CJ discovered the artist’s sister was a lesbian and he co-wrote a song for her. It’s one of his anthems. He plays this all the time.” ”Hey, CJ! One final question about the election. When we win, I’d like to have a few meetings of the executive committee over the summer. Are you available?” CJ looked at Owen who shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. This will be the last summer Ozzie and I have free together. He starts work at the end of August, beginning of September. We’re traveling some. We’ll be gone most of June for sure. And we’ll spend a weekend or two with friends on Fire Island at some point. But otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be around. We can meet here or use my dads’ place if you want.” “I gotta pee.” Carson stood but did not move. “Hey, even if you’re out of town, the rest of us can meet. I know you guys skype with Ozzie’s family in Australia all the time. We could do the same.” “Go to the bathroom, Carson. We don’t need you having an accident the way Wingnut did last time he stayed over.” CJ shook his head remembering how he had ignored the dog while lost in his studies, and ended with a puddle in the middle of the kitchen. “On the way back, grab me another beer from the fridge, please. If I’m spending the next two days at Lauinger Library studying, I may as well get a buzz tonight.” “Daddy!” Gamon Mookjai slipped away from CJ and Owen and ran to his father. Chatri looked tired. His clothes were rumpled, and dark circles had sprouted beneath his eyes. His wife, Helen began experiencing contractions the previous day, and they had dropped their son off at CJ and Owen’s place on the way to the hospital. “No running, Gamon.” Chatri leaned down and picked up the three-year-old. “Did you have fun spending the night with your uncles? Thanks for looking after him, guys.” “I helped build a castle! With Legos!” His head tucked into his father’s neck, the kid went from sounding excited to sad. “Uncle CJ said I can’t have any. ’Cause I’m too little.” “Yeah, but I promised I’d buy you some as soon as you’re old enough.” CJ and Owen had kept close tabs on the kid, afraid he would try to eat one of the plastic bricks and choke. “It was a pleasure looking after him, mate. They played with the Legos while I fixed dinner, and then we watched a Disney movie.” Owen grinned at the kid, whose head bobbed in agreement. “He can come hang with us anytime. And now that we have a car seat, I’ll even offer pick-up and drop-off service.” After Thiago’s son was born, they purchased a child carrier thinking ahead to when any of their friends having kids would ask them to babysit. “Stop rolling your eyes. Not everyone gets the same offer.” “How are the mother and the new rug rat, Pad Thai?” CJ’s use of the quasi-derogatory nickname earned him a slap to the head from Owen. “You’re still the same twerp I met all those years ago at the gym.” Chatri may have been berating his friend, but he smiled throughout. “Both fine. Helen’s napping, and the baby’s in the nursery right now. Come on, time for you guys to meet your new nephew, and for Gamon to meet his brother.” “So, Gamon means from the heart. What did you end up naming the new one?” “Right hand’s son,” Chatri replied, smirking. “What?” “That’s what his name means, you doofus. We named him after Helen’s father. Come on, let’s go see Benjamin Mookjai.” Owen’s graduation from George Washington University coincided with Gina’s commencement exercise at Georgetown. He had already told CJ he did not want to make a big deal out of the milestone. It was his third degree, and he did not need to don a cap and gown again. Their friend’s graduation was another matter. Gina Nichols was the first one in her family to graduate from college. Due to distance, cost, and the fact she would be flying home to Alaska two days after the ceremony, she had no relatives to help celebrate her accomplishment. CJ and Owen decided to compensate by making a big deal out of it. On Friday night, they threw a party at the Prospect Street townhouse with her as the guest of honor. “Captain Davenport, Mr. Abelló, thank you for doing this. You didn’t have to, and I appreciate it more than you can imagine.” “Actually, Gina, we didn’t have a choice. CJ told us he was throwing a party and told us what we needed to order. I’m surprised he didn’t tell us we had to get out of our own house for the night.” “Jarhead! Stop being a jerk.” César shook his head in apparent disbelief. “Don’t listen to him, Gina. He’s being ornery.” “What Dad means to say is: Papa’s being an asshole. Again!” CJ blew out a perfect smoke ring and brandished his cigar to emphasize the comment. “CJ’s language might be a bit more colorful than what I had in mind, but he’s right. It’s our pleasure to have you and your friends here. When CJ and Owen mentioned most of the guests were going to be members of the GLBT group at GU, neither one of us hesitated. We figured being this close to campus, our place was convenient.” “Everyone can drink as much as they want, and there’s no need to drive.” Owen took a sip from the twenty-five-year-old El Dorado rum Abuelo Abelló sent him as a graduation present. When he googled the brand, he was surprised to discover how rare and expensive the Guyana product was. He told CJ it was not to be shared with anyone outside the family; he was unsure they could replace the limited edition bottling. “And we figured this was as safe as space as anyone could find, what with it being a gay household. Well, except for Ritchie, but he’s used to us and our friends by now.” “I don’t think he pays much attention to sexual orientation.” Gina repeated a remark she had made before. “But I was impressed the one friend he invited tonight is gay. I wish more high school kids were like your brother. Bullying would be history if we could all be as accepting as he is.” “I hope you don’t become a stranger now that you’re graduating, Gina. You’re welcome to stop by whenever you want after you return from Alaska.” “That won’t be a problem, Dad. Ozzie and I plan on having her over to our place—and by default here—as often as possible in the coming year.” CJ was gratified when his prediction about Brad having a strong support system proved accurate. The day after his friend arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, his mother, stepfather, and brother traveled to Washington and remained for a week. Ethan and Sean came from New York for a visit, and so did Chipper as soon as his exams were over at the University of Miami. Chipper’s sister, Cristina, called and sent flowers. Even CJ’s grandparents reached out to offer support. Brad had lost his legs, and the recovery would be long and arduous. However, of most importance, he was alive.
  17. 63 points
    Luca Giovanni looked around the room. Within were the powers of what many called organized crime. There were senior capos of many of the Families in both the old country and here in the US. There were even a couple of Dons who wanted to voice their opinions directly in the upcoming matter. In total 13 men and 3 women would make the decision. Luca waited a moment while a few latecomers settled in and when the voices had settled, he stood. "Thank you all for attending, and lending your voice to this proceeding." He began to stroll before the two rows of chairs where the Family sat. "Before we start with our final judgment on the disposition of Corbin Reina, I feel the need to review how we arrived in this situation." Luca nodded at a recently freed Stefano. The man stood, and Luca stepped back to allow his senior capo to take the stage. "As most of you know, the Reina Family was one of the more violent, and brazen of our group." A number of those assembled nodded in agreement. "As concerned parties, every one of your Families tried to reason with the Reina leadership. However, this fell on deaf ears." He glanced up at the men and women. "When this failed, representatives from your Families contacted us, the Giovanni, for information gathering. I was chosen as the one to infiltrate the Reina. I was a well-kept secret, known only within my own Family, and I was given the name of Moretti. All record of my relationship as a Giovanni was erased, and I became a competent, though simple enforcer. Attractive to the Reina as a foot soldier. My time with the Reina began seven years ago. And through necessity, during this time I had little contact with my own Family." Stefano took up the slow walk before the men and women. "About five years ago, the Reina were being actively investigated by a man named Charles Harris. He was an agent in the FBI, and he was tenacious. The Reina threatened both him and his family. And when Harris refused to quit, they hired a squad and killed his family. This had the effect of steeling Harris' resolve, and he became obsessed with the truth of his family's death. My place within the Reina was not trusted or elevated enough for me to know this operation occurred. And so I remained ignorant of it." Stefano's expression changed as he searched his memory. "I did find a few thoughtful, intelligent, less bloodthirsty few within the ranks of the Reina. Corbin Reina and his partner Liam Walsh both were kindred souls. And I struck up a friendship with them. Initially, this was to help my cover. Though, later, I came to respect and even," he frowned, "care for the both of them." He looked over the assembled faces. He had their entire attention. "The Reina continued their cavalier ways. And I slowly began to build a bank of evidence against them. Should it have been required, the Giovanni could have used it as leverage to reign them in. But … Corbin ran into an untenable situation before this could occur." He smiled at the nods around the room. All had heard of the apartment fiasco, and the end of the Reina Family. "Corbin worked with the FBI, and Charles Harris specifically. And now we know, Agent Harris was on a personal crusade against the entire Reina Family, Corbin included. How he discovered the men who carried out the hit, we're not sure. But ultimately that led him back to the Reina. And he knew for certain they were responsible for the death of his family." He paused and took a long deep breath. "The apartment operation began. During the confusion of the operation and the Reina downfall, Harris personally killed Liam Walsh, and he framed me for the murder. This had the effect of cutting Corbin off from any support from his old life. And I was forced to flee." He frowned. "I gave what information I had over to my Family, but it wasn't enough to exonerate me. We also didn't know for certain who killed Liam. I needed to speak to Corbin directly. Yet, that was an impossibility while the trials of the Reina continued. And as time went on Harris poisoned Corbin against me. I was certain Corbin feared and hated me. So we would need an extraordinary plan to convince him of my innocence." Stefano looked back at Luca, and the men traded places. Luca smoothed his white shirt as he stood before the Families. "Once the trials ended I waited for word of Corbin's resettlement. Luckily, our penchant for placing Family in the usual towns the FBI tends to utilize for Witness Protection paid off. I was sent word he was here, in Hailey. And I pulled my most trusted and competent people for this operation." He gestured at the restaurant where they all gathered. "Within these very walls, you met Corbin Reina. You took his measure. Yet, you have not seen him at his best. You have not seen him truly tested." His eyes narrowed. "And that is why you are here today." Luca looked each of them in the eyes then he continued. "I will show you the culmination of our efforts, here," he motioned at a screen pulled down before a projector. "And then you will decide the fate of Corbin Reina. Will he be judged as a traitor to his Family, and as a danger to us? Or will you take my recommendation?" Luca nodded at Stefano, and the man started the video. The screen came to life and showed the split screen view of the video feeds in Corbin's cabin. All of the men and women watched, fascinated as the scene played out before them. Many flinched as Corbin shot himself and there were a few gasps of disbelief as Zampa attacked. The clip ended, and soft, low conversation started among those gathered. Stefano gave them a moment then he cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen. As you saw in the video, I was there. Ask what questions you will of me, and I will answer." A man stood, his dark eyes skeptical. "Reina truly shot himself? To save… who?" "That is his partner, a fireman named Paul Boyd. Corbin was willing to sacrifice himself for him." He looked around the room. "Corbin Reina has uncommon courage and honor. He surrounds himself with individuals who exhibit the same qualities. You knew him only as a man who ran to the FBI. As a rat." He motioned at the screen. "Yet, you see here he is not. He is more. He is a man of principal." Stefano raised his chin in a challenge. "Who among you, have a man you think would do the same for you?" The capo that had asked the question slowly sat down. All gathered were silent, and they looked thoughtful. After about twenty more minutes of various questions, the group seemed satisfied. Luca stood before them. "Now, I ask for your judgment. The Giovanni's voice is known, and it speaks for Corbin." He raised his right hand, and his silver ring glinted in the subdued light of the room. "Those in favor of recognition of Corbin Reina, as Don of the Reina." Slowly hands rose into the air. Luca nodded as he counted, and a satisfied smile spread on his face. "Thirteen in favor, four opposed." Luca looked at each of those dissenting. "I trust you will abide by the majority?" One by one nods were given by the three men and one woman who withheld their approval. Luca set his jaw. "Good." He held up the golden ring of the Reina. "I go to deliver this tonight to the man we will count in our number." The crowd broke up into small groups as they discussed the happenings, and the implications of what it was they had decided. Luca left Stefano with them, and he went to find Jenoah and Bruce. They had a trip to make to the hospital. ____________________________________ Recovery seems slow when you have a lot of things vying for your attention. Corbin was two weeks in, and he had finally healed enough to be released from the hospital. Though with strict orders for rest, breathing exercises, and wound care. Paul sat beside him and listened attentively as the doctor explained what would be required for his care. Corbin hated to need help while Paul was happy to provide it. They left the hospital and went down to the parking lot. The fireman helped Corbin get into his truck. "Paul, I'm fine." Corbin flinched a little as the movement stretched the skin around the stitches in his back. Paul noticed. "Yeah. You're fine. And you're gonna stay that way." Paul got him up in the seat. Corbin instinctively sat forward a little so as not to press his back against the cushion. Paul pursed his lips, reached, and very gently pushed him, so he sat flush against the seat. "It shouldn't hurt just to sit. If it does tell me. Because I'll need to let the doc know." Corbin sighed. "It doesn't hurt. I'm just protective of it." Paul stared at him a moment, trying to decide if Corbin was telling him the truth. He finally nodded, then got up into the driver seat. He shut the door and started the machine. "Hey." Paul looked over at the blonde man. Corbin's eyes were honest and so blue, Paul felt as if he could just look at him for hours. The smaller man smiled. "Thanks. For everything." He swallowed. "I know you didn't ask for this." He shook his head. "For any of this. And I'm sorry I dragged you into my mess." Paul smiled. "I'm not sorry." He reached over and put a strong hand on the back of Corbin's neck. "I will pay whatever the price of admission is into your world." The silver ring of the Reina on his finger glittered in the light. "And I'll do whatever you need me to do." He grinned. "Even if you don't want me to do it." Corbin laughed. He gingerly leaned over so as not to injure himself and the two men kissed, slow, sweet, and lingering. They pulled slightly apart, and Corbin smiled. "That sounds good, Paul." He sat back in his seat. "Okay. Before anything else, I need to go see Luca." Paul sighed. Luca and the Giovanni were a reminder of the world he and Corbin had both been mired in. The Don had been very patient while Corbin recovered, but they both had instructions to visit him as soon as Corbin was released. Corbin had already called Luca to let him know they would be there this morning. Luca asked for at least two hours of warning before they came to see him, and Corbin gave it to him. But now it was time. Paul drove them both over to the restaurant. As soon as they parked, two of the Family walked from the door where they stood as sentries. Their escorts bowed respectfully to Corbin and inclined their heads in greeting at Paul. Then they walked them over to the building. "Luca is ready for you both." One said and opened the door. Corbin and Paul entered, and Corbin was a little surprised that their escorts did not accompany them inside. Guard or not, he knew where to go. He led them upstairs to a now familiar door. He knocked gently. "Enter." Corbin opened the door, and the two of them stepped inside. Luca sat at his desk, his hands in their familiar position - fingers steepled in front of his lips, and his chin on his thumbs. Jenoah was to the left of the desk, and Stefano was on the right. Luca smiled. "Come, sit." There were two chairs before the desk, and Corbin and Paul did as Luca asked. Corbin was only mildly surprised that Luca spoke English. "I imagine you have questions for me." Luca motioned at Corbin, sat back and waited expectantly. Corbin glanced at Paul then looked back to Luca. "I do." He straightened and raised his hand with the golden ring. "Why did you give this to me?" He shook his head. "I am not the Don of the Reina. No one will accept that." Luca nodded at the logical question and statements. "You have already been accepted as the Don of the Reina. The Families convened here, shortly after you went into the hospital, and after Stefano was released." He smiled. "So, you are indeed the Don." Corbin looked at him. It was only through a tremendous act of will that he kept an incredulous look off of his face. "I… I see." He stared down at the ring then he looked back up. "I am the Don of a Family with no members and no power." He cocked his head at Luca. "Why do such a thing? Without a way to enforce my will, then I am Don in name only." Luca nodded, pleased with the question. "The lack of the Reina left a vacuum in our power structure. Even now, there are troubles in New York, as the old Reina territory is bickered over, and inter-Family conflict approaches." His eyes narrowed on Corbin. "But … YOU are the Don of that territory. If you were to award this territory to another, the Families have already agreed to abide by your wishes in the matters of your Family." Luca held up a hand at Corbin's look of realization. "I admit, the Giovanni are interested in the New York territory. But should you wish to retain it, I will ensure you have the muscle to do so." Stefano and Jenoah both looked at one another, the question on their face obvious. It was the same one on Corbin's lips. "But, why?" Corbin frowned. "I don't … I don't want the territory in New York. And I don't understand why you would do such a thing for me." Luca nodded again. "Then I humbly request, Don of the Reina, that the Giovanni be allowed to take on the territory of New York. And in exchange - for there must be an exchange, or it will be looked upon badly by the other Families, I will turn over my operation here to you." Again, the look between Stefano and Jenoah. They were both lost, and so was Corbin. "Luca… I don't understand why you would do this." "If you did understand, would you accept these terms?" Luca's hands were now clasped, his fingers entwined and he looked over his hands at Corbin. Corbin looked over at Paul. The fireman stared back at him, and Paul smiled. "Luca has treated us well. He's kept us in the dark a lot… but ultimately, it turned out okay." Corbin nodded at Paul. "So … you'll come along with me?" He licked his lips. "I mean, we can do whatever we wanted with this responsibility. We could go completely legit. Keep the restaurant, make it profitable. As long as all the Family are fed, paid, and happy, then there's no need to do anything below board." "Of course. I'm wherever you are," Paul said, and his eyes told Corbin that he spoke his truth. Corbin swallowed and nodded. "Okay." He turned back to Luca. "Make me understand why you would do this for me." He shook his head and shrugged. "You could easily have maneuvered your way into command of the New York territory without all of this. So, please, explain. And then, if I understand, then yes … I accept." Luca took in a deep breath. "Jenoah, Stefano … you are to both leave this room." Luca looked over at Paul as well. "You too, Mr. Boyd." He smiled slightly. "You have my word, no harm will come to Corbin." Paul looked at Corbin, and the blonde man nodded once at him. He got up and followed Jenoah and Stefano out. Then the door shut behind them. Luca stood up and turned to face the window. His hands were behind him, and he gripped his wrist as he looked outside. His hand opened and closed unconsciously as he thought. He began to speak. "The reason I would give up my operation here - with multiple millions in assets, and even personnel, is because … I am indirectly responsible for the death of Liam Walsh." Corbin felt a cold sensation in his belly. He stared at the back of Luca's head. "Explain." His voice snapped across the desk. Luca actually flinched at the tone. He sighed. "I was the one to leak the identity of the killers of the Harris family to the agent. My connections are vast. And I knew their identities. I also knew it would only be a matter of time before Harris made the connection between the hitmen and the Reina. I thought he would take the information to the FBI, and your Family would ultimately be weakened, or completely removed from power." He shook his head. "I didn't know he would hoard the information, and instead begin his own private campaign to destroy the Reina himself." He turned around. For the first time since he had ever met Luca, the Giovanni wore a look of regret. "I miscalculated. And it cost Liam his life." He brought his eyes up to Corbin's. "Stefano told me of the great love you had for Liam and he for you. And I am haunted that I destroyed something so rare." Corbin swallowed and blinked. His mind swirled with emotion which warred with his logical self. He wanted to launch himself across the desk and throttle this man. "You … miscalculated?" Corbin stood up, his eyes bright with anger. "And, you think this," he waved a hand over the restaurant, "will fix it?" "I don't." Luca looked at him, his hands down and limp at his side. "I have told no one of this. If my nephew knew, I don't know what he would think of me." His eyes were sad. "He truly loved Liam, as he loves you." Corbin frowned and shook his head. He knew there was no real way Luca could have known what Harris would do. He knew that logically, but he still hated him for what he did. He shut his eyes and forced a semblance of rational thought. When his eyes opened, there was a fire there. "I will accept the exchange of the Reina territory of New York for the operation here, the service of your man in the hot spring, all of the personnel here, and any others you have stationed in the state. Idaho is mine." Luca started to speak, and Corbin held up a hand. "AND, ten million dollars to fund operations. Those are my terms. If you don't accept, I will go back to New York, and you will provide the personnel you promised to maintain the territory." Luca breathed slowly, and the two men stared one another in the eye. Corbin could tell the wheels turned furiously in his mind. Finally, he nodded. "I accept, only if you give your word, you will never reveal what it is I told you. To anyone." Corbin set his jaw, but he nodded in agreement. He stepped forward, and the two men shook hands. Both gripped firmly and locked gazes with the other. Luca sighed. "It is done then. I will inform the Families of the swap. They will want to verify with you as well." He looked at Corbin. "Should there be any Family who truly wish to remain with me, I assume you will allow it?" Corbin nodded. He had no desire to keep people who didn't want to follow him. That would be more trouble than it was worth. Luca smiled. "Good." He grimaced. "I think I may have overplayed one hand in that respect. Jenoah is bound at the hip to that boy, Bruce. I fear I will lose my great nephew to you, Don Reina." Corbin softened a bit. "You must know, anyone left with me will be treated well." Luca smiled, the expression not entirely kind. "I expect they will be treated how they deserve to be treated. No better, no worse." Corbin returned the expression and nodded. "As you wish, Don Giovanni." The men concluded their business, and Corbin left the room. He walked downstairs and found Paul sitting with Stefano and Jenoah at a table in the dining room of the restaurant. Paul stood up, his eyes curious. "We're done. Let's go, Paul." As they turned to leave Stefano's voice called out. "Corbin." He turned, and Stefano walked to him. Stefano gently embraced Corbin, careful to avoid his injuries. Then he pushed Corbin to arm's length. "I'm glad you're okay." Corbin smiled. He really had missed this connection with Stefano, and he was happy to have it back. "Me too. Thanks, Stefano." Corbin gave him a knowing look. "We'll see each other again." He patted the man's arm, then he and Paul continued out of the building. Out at the vehicle, Paul opened Corbin's door. "Here, let me help you." The strong fireman assisted Corbin while he awkwardly got inside the cab of the truck. Once Corbin was settled he got behind the wheel. Paul looked over at him. "So… are we mafiosos?" Corbin sighed then laughed. "I guess we are." Paul shook head and smiled. He started the truck. "You know, my best friend, the police officer is going to love this." Corbin looked at him, his face shocked. "You cannot think you are going to tell Chad!" "What?" Paul looked at Corbin, his face innocent. "We share everything." Then he slowly grinned at Corbin's expression. Corbin laughed, and the two men drove away, on the way home. __________________________________ Corbin lay, warm, and snuggled up to his hairy heater of a man. At least he had been. He woke because that man had gotten out of bed. Corbin made an unhappy noise, and Paul laughed. "I'll be back. Jeez, can't a guy pee?" He watched as a perfect, hairy ass disappeared around the bedroom doorway. He heard Paul relieve himself in the toilet, then the sound of the flush. Corbin grinned to himself. He turned and lay on his side, facing away from the door and waited for his big spoon to come back. Zampa stood up from her spot. She had come in sometime last night and wedged herself between their feet. Now she stretched in that very cat-like way. She even walked up close enough for Corbin to give her back a good scratch. She allowed him to touch her for about five seconds, then she jumped off the bed and padded off down the hall. Last week they installed a pet door. Zampa now roamed between Paul's house and property. She had also stopped eating the mice they provided her. It was evident that she was hunting, and doing well. Paul was sure they would never see her again, but, so far, she had returned every day early in the morning to sleep for a few hours with the men. Paul patted her as she walked down the hall, then he entered the bedroom. After a moment Corbin frowned. He hadn't gotten back into bed. He looked over his shoulder, and Paul stood there, looking down at him. Corbin rolled onto his back. "What?" He reached and took hold of Paul's hand. "Something wrong?" Paul shook his head. "No. Everything is … it's perfect." The fireman peeled back the blanket and sheet and gingerly climbed on top of Corbin. Corbin was still healing, and Paul made every effort to avoid hurting him. He sat on Corbin's groin, and he leaned down. The men kissed. Corbin's hands roamed over Paul's chest, sides and his powerful legs. Then invariably they found Paul's thick member. The fireman made a breathy noise when Corbin's hand closed on the shaft. Corbin's own cock was hard, and his hips unconsciously began to move against Paul's backside, sliding it back and forth against the tall man. He did this for a bit then he laughed. "Ah, this is just torturing me." He patted Paul's legs. "You better stop teasing." Paul reached and grabbed the lube. "Let me do the work." He lifted himself and applied a generous amount to Corbin's dick, and the blonde man inhaled at the slick, warm hand as it slid back and forth. Then Paul did the same to his own rear. All the while he looked down into Corbin's eyes. "Paul … what are you …" Corbin licked his lips as Paul positioned himself against his erection. "Ah, Paul …" The fireman closed his eyes and exhaled. Corbin could feel him try to relax, and Paul pressed down with his hips. Paul frowned at the pressure, then after a moment, Corbin entered him. Paul breathed again. "Paul …" Corbin felt the incredible sensation as he slowly entered the fireman, bit by bit. "Are you okay?" Paul nodded and opened his eyes. He smiled down at Corbin and finally settled fully on Corbin's hips. He began to stroke himself, and he used his legs to raise himself slightly. Then he allowed gravity to pull him back down. Corbin groaned and Paul's eyes closed. The fireman opened his mouth. "Ah. Ah god." He breathed heavily. Corbin ran his hands all over Paul's body. He stopped at his nipples, and Corbin gently gripped both of them. Paul gasped, and then his eyes shot open wide. "Ah fuck." He stared down at Corbin's face. "I … I love you." Corbin watched as his eyes fluttered and his back arched. He let gravity pull him all the way down, and as much of Corbin's cock as possible was inside him. Then he released with a moan. Semen shot from him and landed in a streak from Corbin's chest to his groin. Corbin followed quickly, as Paul's muscles clamped down on his penis. The blonde man gripped Paul's legs and pushed his hips into the fireman as he got off. He looked up at Paul, and he finished with a euphoric shiver. The two men stayed in position and panted. Paul looked at Corbin's injury on his chest. "Are you … you okay? I didn't hurt you?" "I'm great." Corbin grinned up at him. "You didn't hurt me. Though you did surprise me." He smiled gently and rubbed Paul's face. "Didn't know you were going to let me do this." Paul smiled, and he nodded. "Sorry, it took me so long." He bit his lip. "But I think we can switch off if that's what you would like." Corbin smirked. "I don't know." He reached and shook Paul's half-soft cock. "I've come to really like having this thing inside me." Paul laughed. "Either way is fine with me." The men got up and took a nice long shower. The sun was out, and so their hot water was virtually unlimited. They got out of the shower and were drying off. Then Corbin's phone buzzed on the vanity. He looked at the number and frowned. "Luca. Hang on." "Ciao, Luca." "Ciao, Corbin." Luca's smooth voice came over the receiver. "The Family has accepted the swap, and there is no longer a threat of violence in New York." "Good to hear." Corbin dried his hair with one hand. "Your fee for the swap has also been transferred. Please, keep the line of communication open between our Families. I foresee a healthy partnership in our future, so long as we both work toward that end." Corbin nodded, even though Luca couldn't see that. "I will. And thank you." He had a little more time to think about Luca's involvement in Liam's death. And he knew there was no way the Don could have known his scheme would go so badly. Corbin had largely forgiven him for his part in the event. "Till next time, Don Reina." "Till next time, Don Giovanni." Paul finished drying and pulled on his briefs. "Things okay?" Corbin put down his phone and nodded. "Yeah. Though I think I need to go to the restaurant today. I need to check in on everyone, make sure they're all really okay with me running the show." Almost all of the men and women Luca had with him had stayed on with Corbin. This meant Luca had eyes and ears on the new Don, and Corbin had no illusions about that at all. As expected, Jenoah stayed in Hailey. And Stefano flew to New York to take on the day to day affairs of the new Giovanni territory there. Now, he was in charge of a group of about forty people statewide. They had various positions. Some in real estate, some in government, healthcare, the hospitality business, and even a few in law enforcement. It meant Corbin had his fingers on the pulse of what happened in the state. Their combined skill sets were vast, and there was next to nothing he couldn't eventually get done. So long as he had patience, and used his resources intelligently. Timothy was assigned as his new handler. The young man seemed to know Corbin wasn't entirely free of the influence of the mafia, but he had no idea how deep the connection remained. Corbin was amused that he had an FBI bodyguard, and was the head of a crime family. The guys dressed, then Corbin let Paul help him up into the truck. As Paul boosted him up, he smiled. "There you are, my Don." Corbin laughed as Paul walked around and got in on the other side. "You don't have to call me that, Paul." Paul looked over at him, and his smile dropped away. In its place was an affectionate, but severe expression. "Do you want me to?" Corbin frowned. If he were to keep the respect of those he commanded, then it was a good idea. "I … if you wouldn't mind when we're around the others?" Paul stared at him, and he nodded. "Yes, my Don." He said the words seriously, and he didn't laugh. He put the truck in gear, and they started on the drive to Hailey. Then the tall man sighed. "What?" Corbin looked at him, worried he may have pushed the fireman too far. "Oh, I'm just annoyed." He laughed and shook his head. "I'm gonna have to learn Italian." Corbin laughed. "Yes. Yes, you will." He looked over and smiled. With a thrill of happiness, Corbin put his hand on Paul's warm leg as he drove. They arrived at the restaurant, and Paul got out. Corbin waited while Paul walked around. The fireman let him out. Jenoah met the two men, and then he and Paul fell into place behind Corbin. As he walked toward the building … HIS building, Corbin felt something new. He felt the power he now possessed, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. He would keep those he loved safe. He would keep them Guarded.
  18. 63 points
    Subject: First Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Friday 12 January Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan Apologies: Michael Shanton Above the wooden double doors of the village hall, the ancient clock showed ten past ten, as it had for as long as Nathan could remember. Would somebody, someday, fix the damn thing? Another interminable day in the shop, he let his eyelids fall shut and couldn’t resist dropping his head forward. Arms folded across the front of his thick woollen sweater, slouched in one of the new plastic chairs with their antiseptic smells, in the hall with its own unidentifiable but not unpleasant melange of odours from across the eons, and he could still smell baked goods. No amount of Boots ginger and mandarin body wash during his revitalising end of day shower could entirely eradicate the smell from his skin. Polly had been right. Baked dough defined him like his own personal brand of cologne. Ah well, he thought, could be worse. His forefathers could have been undertakers. An audible yawn escaped him as the scratchy monotone baritone continued, and he opened his eyes guiltily to check nobody had noticed. At some point in time, he needed to step down from the committee of the annual Crumbington Summer Fête, six volunteer members committed to keeping the traditional festival alive. Debates over the size of toffee apple stands, the depth of coconut shies, and height and colour of festive bunting got very old, very quickly. Sometimes, when others droned on about one trifling matter or another, and he closed his eyes momentarily, he felt sure he might open them one day to find a semi-circle of skeletons seated around him. “Thank you for such a long and unnecessarily detailed introduction, Father Arbuthnot,” announced Arlene Killjoy. “As your newly appointed chairperson, I’d like to warmly welcome you all to the first meeting of this year’s summer fête committee. Apologies this meeting lands on a Friday. In future we’ll stick to midweek and not impinge on your weekends. But as the only new member, can I say what a pleasure it is to be a part this tradition. One that has served our beautiful little village since the early part of the last century.” Residents new to Crumbington loved overusing endearing words to describe their community of dwellings, referencing something from a bygone, halcyon age, one that most likely never existed. Postcards in the local post office described Crumbington as a picturesque village on the border of East and West Sussex, in the southeast of England. With a population of less than one thousand, the village stood as one of the smaller in southern England. Nevertheless, the settlement boasted its own church, village hall—where they sat right now—a small green, and a cosy shopping area with largely independent stores, most selling locally sourced produce. That they were almost entirely surrounded by green belt land—with Mosswold Forest hugging the eastern edge—and you could understand why some residents felt they lived on an island. “Going forward, I’ll be introducing a formal written agenda for each of our meetings, with specific timings for speakers and an allocated minute-taker. We’ll also have action points assigned to each member at the end of the meeting, so that I can keep track of where we are. Because this is the first meeting, unless anyone objects, I’ll record everything on my phone and then write up the notes and actions myself.” As an inquisitive eleven year old, Nathan remembered asking his father why Crumbington was called a village and not a town. His answer didn’t really satisfy, seemed over-simplistic, but he managed to shut the question down. In England, he told Nathan, apart from the size of the population of each settlement, a city was the largest and had a cathedral or a university—sometimes both; a town had to have an agricultural market, while a village didn’t have a cathedral or a market, but usually boasted a church. A hamlet, the smallest of all, had very few houses and usually no shops or church. The only hamlet Nathan had ever seen, involved a cast of local amateur actors and a dreadful theatre production on the Crumbington village hall stage. “Michael Shanton sends his apologies tonight, at the very first meeting nonetheless, so with us today are Doris Watts; Polly Fischer; Father Arbuthnot Mulligan and Nathan Fisher. Welcome everyone.” Born and raised there, Nathan had been shackled from birth to the family high street bakery his father owned and ran with his mother—until she could take no more and escaped into the night. He had been ten at the time, and to this day he could never forgive her. Why had she not taken him with her? And why had she never written or sent a rescue party? Tourists visiting their village used words like sleepy, idyllic, heavenly, divine, to describe the settlement, and likened the place to the backdrop of any one of a raft of rural English books, films, or television shows. Inevitably, they’d drop into their gushing soliloquy just how lucky he was to live and work there. On one such occasion, he found it difficult to keep smiling and not to tell them he considered each day spent there a purgatory. In Nathan’s eyes, mind numbing routine and boredom defined the place, something he had resigned himself to. One thing he and all inhabitants of Crumbington could rely on wholeheartedly. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. “Before we get to the first point of order, does everyone have something to drink?” asked Arlene. Instead of the usual arrangement of tables, she had opted to remove them completely and made them sit in a half moon as though enjoying a support group meeting. Maybe that was her intent. At the final word, Doris Watts, owner of the local florists and seated opposite him, suddenly snorted awake. “Drink?” she enquired, the octogenarian’s glazed eyes scanning the room hopefully. Father Mulligan, the previous chairman, now relegated to committee member, had always laid on a selection of beers and wines for the meetings, which made them far more palatable. “Coffee, tea? Orange squash?” said Nathan, to an instantly deflating Doris. Teetotal Arlene’s first act as chairperson was to cut back on unnecessary expenditure. Doris closed her eyes again. On his death, five years ago, Nathan’s father had bequeathed him the running of the family business along with his place on the committee. All hope of a life of adventure had flown out the window that day. Not that he wasn’t tempted to cut and run. So here he sat. And as his late father had drummed into him, being seen to be part of the community and having personal input into the event, however minimal, ensured their bakery stall stood pride of place at the fête entrance on the village green. This, in turn, provided advertising for their high street shop—Fresher & Son, Family Baker since 1895—which had been there for six generations. Except as the last surviving Fresher, Nathan had no offspring to carry on the name, and most likely never would. Did that mean he would need to get the sign repainted at some point? A familiar stab of guilt pierced him at letting his ancestors down. Since puberty his wet dreams only ever showcased the male form. Not that he could blame marriage as a limiting factor, now that his kind had the right to wed their own, even to have kids via adoption or surrogacy. The main problem? There were two actually. Firstly, running a bakery, which consumed most of his days, hours and minutes, had never been even remotely a passion. Secondly, any half decent looking men in and around Crumbington were single-mindedly straight, and almost all of those were married with kids. Most annoying of all, any local gay liaisons, and there had been one or two, eventually escaped to the real world as soon as they had their get-out-of -jail-free card handed to them. And why wouldn’t they? None of them had any reason to stay. If he said he’d never dreamed about selling up and moving on, he’d be lying. At least tonight he attended the meeting with his oldest and best friend from school. Polly Fischer, local junior school teacher, and fellow survivor, someone who was a master at dragging him out of himself and his stuffy flat above the shop. “Quick drinkie after?” she leaned in and whispered, as though she’d heard his thoughts. “Try and stop me. Not a late one, though. Saturday tomorrow.” Nathan insisted on closing all day Sunday, so most of his business came through the doors on Friday and Saturday. “Did you get an agenda for tonight’s meeting?” “No, but what’s to know? Same old shit. We could do this with our eyes closed.” “Seems to work for Doris.” The two giggled together like school kids. Once a month for the six months leading up to Crumbington Summer Fête, Polly and Nathan met with the other four members to discuss the shape of the festival and the choice of local charities who would benefit from the money raised. Last year, they’d only needed to attend three out of six meetings, mainly because the format had remained largely unchanged for the past ten years. However, this year, after a vigorous campaign and the stepping down of Father Mulligan from chair position to committee member, Arlene Killjoy had been elected chairperson. Fifty-five year old Arlene had moved to Crumbington two years ago from an inner city London borough and to call her outspoken would be a huge understatement. Nathan enjoyed watching jaws dropping as she voiced her unorthodox but compelling views upon her election, to an audience of largely conservative villagers. “So, first of all, the date has been fixed. What was it again, Father Mulligan?” “Twelfth of July. Locked and loaded.” “Thanks you, Father. And now the hard work begins. Hope you don’t mind if I say so,” she began, even though she clearly neither minded nor cared. “But I think our fête is well overdue for an overhaul. Modernisation, so to speak. Last year’s was a fête worse than death, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun. So I’ve been doing a bit of research behind the scenes. Last year, before I even considered getting involved, I attended with my children and spotted the usual bouncy castle, tombola, raffle, white elephant stall, and, of course, Molly Miller’s home produce stall offering cakes, jams, pickles and other preserves. All very charming, and all very traditional. We stayed all of thirty minutes. In total, the event managed to raise around two thousand, four hundred pounds.” Light applause followed her pronouncement, one they knew only too well. The sum had been plastered across the fête website and the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette a week after the event. “Do you know how much our neighbour, Parsnip Green, raised last year?” Those gathered peered guiltily at each other as though this might be something every committee member ought to know. “Upwards of twenty-three thousand pounds. Almost ten times as much.” “It’s not a competition, Arlene,” said Polly. The two had already had words. Nathan felt sure they would come to blows by the time the day of the fated fête arrived. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s a travesty. My children raised more money at their Christmas school play. More importantly, attendance numbers were down by over thirty percent on the previous year. Something needs to be done. I’m recommending we ditch some of the traditional stalls and inject some originality and excitement into this year’s offering. Don’t you agree?” “So what? No baking competition?” asked Doris, mildly affronted. “Of course we’ll have a baking competition. After the success of the Great British Bake Off, we’d be crazy not to take advantage of that kind of publicity. It’s the show that’s brought our little anachronistic event back into the public eye. But I’m thinking maybe change the format, have cakes baked and decorated with a theme, then showcased and judged at the event. I’d even considered whether we could get one of the show’s stars to host the event, but they’re beyond our budget. So let’s think outside the box. Now, before I give you my other suggestions, does anyone else have any?” Her remark had clearly caught members off guard, which was perhaps her intention. Everyone—except Doris, who rested her eyes again—peered at each other for inspiration.` “How about Lady Gaga?” said Polly, eventually, leaning back and folding her arms. “Maybe she could play a gig for us. It is for charity, after all.” Polly slouched low in her plastic seat, her jean clad legs crossed at the ankles, looking like a rebellious teenager. When she glammed up—which was rarely—she looked amazing with her natural blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Nathan knew her well enough to distill sarcasm from her tone. Arlene did not and her eyes opened wide. “Do you have connections to Lady Gaga?” “No.” Slight pause. “But you know someone that does?” “No.” Longer pause. “Do you have connections to any pop stars?” “No.” Finally, the penny dropped. “Can we keep suggestions out of the box, but planted firmly in reality.” “Dunk the teacher,” came the voice of sleeping Doris, her eyes finally opening. “Sorry,” asked Arlene. “At Parsnip Green, they had a dunk the teacher stall. If you threw a sponge and hit a target, the teacher dropped into a big tub of water.” “A ducking stool,” said Polly. “Perfect. Both shockingly barbaric, yet quintessentially English.” “Maybe we could find a witch to burn at the stake,” said Nathan. “That would guarantee a crowd.” “I think it’s a marvellous idea, Doris,” said Arlene, ignoring Nathan’s comment. “Polly, one for you. Do we have any teachers at your school who the kids might want to dunk in water?” “Take your pick.” “I suppose a better question would be,” added Nathan, seeing where this was going. “Are there any teachers who would be willing to take the stand?” “The ones who would be game, are the ones the kids like. The ones the kids dislike, and would be happy to dunk, would never agree to being humiliated publicly.” “Could you not appeal to their better natures?” asked Arlene. “You’re assuming they have one.” “Well, do your best, Polly. I’ll put that down for you to pursue. Now as we haven’t got all night and rather than labour this, I’ll give you some of my suggestions. If you have anything before the next meeting, we’ll set up a WhatsApp group and we can text them to each other.” “I’ll sort that out,” said Doris, the committee communications and website specialist. Without another word, Arlene brought out a notebook from her handbag and opened to a page already marked by a scarlet ribbon. “Keep an open mind as I go through my suggestions. This is largely off the top of my head, but as some of you know I used to be the global vice president of marketing and events coordination for one of the top high street banks, and I know what I’m talking about. So what I have so far is; an amateur dog show; an old fashioned fairground with a carousel, helter-skelter and rides for the kids—already sourced; local youth bands playing during the day; food court with offerings from around the world and, of course, the obligatory beer tent. Maybe even a kissing booth. And in the evening, we’ll organise a social here in the village hall for adults. I’ve already arranged for someone famous to open and attend the day. But before all that, we need something to get people’s anticipated excitment about the day, to give them something to talk about before the event. Nathan, you play for the Crumbington United football team, don’t you?” “I do. So does Mikey Shanton.” “Nathan’s the captain,” added Polly. “How would you feel about being photographed for a Crumbington United team calendar—” “A what?” asked Nathan. Even father Mulligan snorted a laugh. “Yawn,” said Polly, patting a hand against her mouth. “One moment, I haven’t finished. I’m talking about a naked calendar, a bit like the kind those rowers do every year. Or the French rugby team. We can follow up with a fun date auction on the night for all the single players, have them all on stage before the social begins. All for charity, of course.” Right then, in the church village hall, silence fell, an almost biblical stillness as though someone had openly and blatantly blasphemed. Arlene clearly took the lack of response to mean approval. “A friend of mine is a most brilliant professional photographer—” “Wait, wait. Hang on,” said Nathan, holding up both palms of his hands. “Naked pictures of the football team? None of the boys are going to agree to that.” “Tastefully done, Nathan. You wouldn’t be showcasing your nether regions. We’d place footballs in front or have you standing behind goal posts. My friend will have lots of suggestions.” “Ooh, I think it’s a lovely idea.” Eighty-two year old Doris—wide awake now—pressed her veined hands in prayer beneath her double chins. “Arlene, have you actually met any Crumbington football players,” asked Nathan. “Physically, we are hardly the Chippendales. Far from it.” “Please, Nathan. Women—and I am not just speaking for myself here—prefer real men. Not those pumped up on too many protein shakes and steroids. And you’re already considered local celebrities. Am I right, Doris? Besides, my friend can touch you up on her computer before they go to print. How many are in the squad?” “Around eighteen, if you include the temp players, those who can’t make every game. But hang on a moment, none of them are going to agree to this.” “So we’d finally get to see you with your kit off?” said Polly, an aside to Nathan. “Not helping.” “Well, as you’re on the committee, Nathan, I’m making it your personal responsibility to get them on board. Or twelve at least, one for every month of the year. And we need the shoot done next month at the latest if we’re going to get this edited, printed, and ready to sell by the end of April, in time for the actual fête. So I suggest you get your finger out,” said Arlene. “If you need backup, give me a call.” “We’ve got a game this Sunday. I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.” “Good. My photographer friend is here this weekend. I’ve reserved the private bar at the back of The Crumbington Arms so the committee and some special guests can meet. I’ll lay on finger food and soft drinks. You can buy your own if you want alcohol. And bring your other halves, if you want. Let’s hope Nathan has good news by then. I’ve already booked the fairground rides, so Polly, can you find out if any of your teachers are game for dunking and whether you have any decent bands at your school who can play the kind of music people might actually want to listen to?” “I’ll do my best.” “Good. Doris, can you update the website, and announce the date that’s now been confirmed.” “Consider it done, dearie. I’ve made some modifications from last year, to make sure the site works better on mobiles and tablets, too. I’ve also got the online donation page ready to go live, as you asked in your email.” “Well done. And one last thing. As I mentioned, I’ve already confirmed special guests to open the fête. One of our more famous ex-residents of Crumbington, Clifton O’Keefe, will host the day.” “Clifton O’K—Keefe?” stuttered Nathan. Unnoticed and unfelt by anyone but him, a cold wind had blown through the church hall. Only Polly stared at him, understood his discomfort. Even then, she didn’t know the whole story. “Who’s Christian O’Keefe?” asked Father Mulligan. “Clifton, Father Mulligan. He’s a rising star in the American film and television industry. And he’s over shooting episodes for his new series, which will keep him here from February until September. Staying at his grandparent’s place, apparently. My husband’s a part of the production team and called in a favour. Clifton, and his husband, Raul Jurado—famous Mexican ice skater—have also agreed to judge the Crumbington Bake Off best cake award. And they’ll stay for the social including the football team date auction. If that doesn’t draw the crowds in, nothing will. That’s confirmed by the way, Doris, so you can put that news up on the website, too?” In high school, Nathan had fallen in love with Clifton Hogmore, now reinvented and known as the actor, Clifton O’Keefe. Back in school, both of them played for the football team, and Nathan had tried his damnedest to hide his feelings, to be just a friend and nothing more. Until the day Clifton had admitted to having the hots for Nathan. After that, well, nobody and nothing could keep them apart. But they kept everything in the locker room, so to speak. And as far as sex was concerned, Clifton was Nathan’s first and, to this day, he honestly believed Nathan had been Clifton’s. They became inseparable for the next three months. Until the end of term party, when Clifton didn’t show up. He and his family disappeared off the face of the planet, to resurface six years later in Los Angeles with Clifton as Hollywood’s latest heartthrob. And now he was married. Nathan closed his eyes and huffed out a sigh. Nothing out of the ordinary was ever supposed to happen in Crumbington. What the hell just did?
  19. 63 points
    Candy & Kisses Chapter 9 By Dabeagle email Saturday was the dance. I was a little nervous because I hadn't really danced before, but Cal reassured me. I stood in my room and fiddled with the tie. I'd watched a couple of videos, but I couldn't get the hang of it. "Need a hand?" my dad asked from the doorway. I looked at his reflection in the mirror and sighed. "I can't get this. Can you help me?" He smiled as he crossed the room and took the tie from me. He started to undo the knot I'd gotten it in and he looked at me fondly. "You don't ask for help very much." "I guess not," I said. "I thought I understood the video, but I'm all thumbs with it." "Nervous?" he asked as he slid behind me and draped the tie around my neck. "A little," I said. "This has all been out of nowhere. I'm just...riding the wave, Dad." He started the motions, turning the tie from a pretty piece of cloth to the proper dash of color it was supposed to be. "Your mother and I are very excited for you. I know it hasn't always been easy, but Brandon seems like he was worth the wait." I looked at myself in the mirror and then at my dad's face, filled with pride. "He is worth the wait, Dad. If you'd asked me a month ago, I would have said something different. But now?" He nodded slowly and adjusted the tie slightly. "Enjoy it, son." Brandon came to pick me up and I pinned a pink carnation to his lapel, and he pinned a red rose to mine. My parents took pictures, and I was overcome by a realization. I didn't think I'd ever go through this little dance of suit, corsages and pictures before a dance. My sister and brother, yes. I thought I'd be left out. It was a slice of pure magic as the school gym became a dance hall for one night, and the comparatively ugly ducklings you saw all day transformed into swans for the evening. We laughed with friends, but the world shrank down to just us whenever a slow song came on. "A suit makes you look taller," Brandon said as he dusted my lapel. I smiled at him and leaned in, feeling a spike of euphoria. "You look hot in everything you wear." He blushed and smiled at me. "I guess I should always stay fully clothed around you then, right?" I decided not to take the bait. "Ginnie is all pissed I'm dating you. She wants your abs. She wants me to write a love poem about them." "Maybe a dirty limerick?" he asked with a laugh. "How would that go? What rhymes with abs?" We turned in a slow circle and I leaned back just enough to see his face, then press our foreheads together. "Why me, B? Why in the hell did you ever pick me?" He smiled. "Maybe it doesn't take that much to win my heart, I guess. Just sharing your candy and giving me kisses." He looked deeply into my eyes and I felt a giddy flash that he could see all the purely sexual thoughts I'd ever had about him. It was a relief to know he was more than good looking; that he was imperfect, unlike the abstract I'd had in my mind. He was a jock, yes. He was creative, showing me drawings of buildings and a row of books with architectural styles he had in his room. He was a dreamer, looking up at the stars in the night sky and imagining the future. I had dreams, too. The difference was, now they included a future with Brandon. "What are you smiling about?" he asked me. I wasn't going to get into all that with him right now. We were here to have fun. "I'm just wondering how fast the proctors are going to kick me out of here when I kiss the fuck out of you," I said wickedly. I only had time to note the gleam in his eye before my lips were on his. It didn't last long - the fun police broke us up, but we danced like mad all night. I'd never been dancing, but I think we may have missed two dances, otherwise we were out there having fun. It's also worth noting, he can dance. That 'Aww shucks, I can shuffle my feet' was a total lie. Around nine-thirty the dance wore down. I was guzzling water and leaning on Brandon, who seemed perfectly content to let me do so. We said short goodbyes to our friends, even Cathy and Malik swept past us, seemingly pleased with each other. Brandon escorted me to his car, arm around my waist. I spun out of his grip, taking his hand and doing a quick pull to me, as if we were still on the dance floor. He just laughed at me. I grinned happily and we were just goofy until we climbed into the car. "Thank you," I said, smiling. "I had a great time." "Me, too," he said with a matching grin. He turned the radio on and we kind of wiggled in our seats all the way to my house, talking a little about the best songs we'd danced to and some of the people we'd seen. He turned the car off on front of my house, and I admit I just wasn't ready for the night to end. "Come on in?" I asked. "Uh, yeah. Cool," he said, perhaps pleasantly surprised. We walked in to find my mom making popcorn and my dad digging through their DVD collection. "Hi," I said, wandering into the living room. My dad looked up and smiled at us. "How did it go?" Brandon looped his hands around my waist and set his head on my shoulder. "Your son is an amazing dancer. It was a total blast." "Actually, he can dance pretty freaking well," I said, not quite correcting him. "That's fantastic, I'm glad you guys had a good time." He paused and pulled up a disc. "Hah. I knew we had it." My mom came into the room with the bowl of popcorn and ruffled my hair as she went past. "Your sister is still at that concert. Cal should be home in an hour and a half or so and Amanda is in bed, at last. Want to watch a movie with us?" Some people might think it was lame to watch a movie with their parents and their date. My parents, though, did it to be inclusive - inviting my date to join us in a family kind of way. I turned and arched an eyebrow at Brandon. "Sounds good to me," he said. I looked back to them. "What movie?" "One of the great feminist movies of all time," my mother said. "Brandon, are you familiar with Shakespeare?" "We studied him a little in English. His sonnets, primarily. Other than that, only by reputation," he said. "Well," my mother said, warming to the subject. "The Taming of the Shrew is often misunderstood because there is a section where the woman says something like, if the man needs to fix his shoe, the wife presents her knee for him to work on, stuff like that. So some people like to say," she said as she took a seat on the couch, "that it's the woman being subservient, but the other side of that is the response from the husband, which is them being in balance." "So, wait. We're watching Shakespeare?" I asked. My mother looked down her nose at me. "Hey, I'm all for feminism, I don't know if I want to spend the evening with thee, thou and thus, though," I said with a grin. "Do you see what you're dating, Brandon?" she asked with a laugh. "We're watching a more modern retelling," my dad said, giving my mom a long suffering look. "It's called 10 Things I Hate About You." "Oh. Cool. Let me get changed." I turned and looked at Brandon, somehow more attractive for his suit being a little relaxed from moving in it all night. "I'll find some stuff for B, too." He followed me up and texted his parents to let them know what was up. I pulled out a heavy hanger to place his suit on and one for mine. I shrugged out of the coat and tossed it on my bed. "You totally undersold your dancing skills," I told him as I started to unbutton my shirt. "You want sweats or shorts and a tee shirt?" "You didn't even tell me you could dance at all. If anyone was holding out, it was you," he said, pulling his tie off and unbuttoning his shirt. "I have a tee shirt on under this, but it's pretty sweaty, to be honest. Are we getting under a blanket or just hanging out?" "Whatever you want, really," I asked. "Why?" I pushed my slacks down and folded them over the arm of the hanger. "I just noticed the window was open downstairs. If your folks keep it cooler, a blanket means we can cuddle under it. Cuddling in sweats seems sort of less satisfying. You think?" "I don't know," I said, tossing my own damp undershirt aside and approaching him in my underclothes. I pulled up on the hem of his tee to encourage him. "Either way we're cuddling." He got the message and removed his shirt, tossing it on top of mine. He pulled me in, pressing our chests together - a first for us, with this level of skin contact. I was instantly, readily, and apparently hard. He felt...overwhelming to hold so intimately. Gratifyingly, he was as hard as I was. Somehow it just seemed to make us even, having evidence of him reacting to the moment as much as I did. "I get to touch more of you if we go the blanket route," he said, his voice a little shy. Sultry, too. "Tee shirt and shorts it is," I said, my voice wavering a bit. I placed my chin on his shoulder and he copied me. I sighed, feeling our chests move against one another subtly as each breath moved in and out of us. I was divided in my emotions, one half filled with lust, completely engrossed in the feel of his body and his obvious interest pressing into me. Equally, though, I felt in tune with the world. It was a sense of being where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be, with who I was supposed to be with. A certainty. Knowledge. Fact. "How long before your parents come to check on us?" he asked, his voice pitched low in my ear. "Doesn't matter," I said softly. "It'd be too soon. I could hold you here for a long damn time, B." He tightened his grip slightly and ran a hand up my spine, gently caressing each vertebra on the way and sending a shiver of delight through me, until he was holding the back of my neck. He turned slightly and kissed me just below my ear. "I love you, J." I sighed. "You're fucking doomed," I said and leaned back a bit. He looked at me, his face torn between confusion and concern. "My mother predicted I was falling in love. I hate letting her be right, but I can deal with it this time. You are my missing piece, B. I'm totally in love with you." Jesus, that was liberating. The kiss after wasn't too shabby, either. His hand moving up and down my back, playing my spine like an instrument, was sheer heaven. I didn't want anyone to walk in and ruin this moment; I wanted to remember it, unspoiled. So I did force myself to stop, get us tee shirts and shorts and snag my comforter before long, because the horny half of my feelings was getting the upper hand and I was going to embarrass us in another minute or so. My common sense was rapidly failing, so I steered us downstairs. "Not all red, no puffy lips. Pay up," my mom said, holding her hand out to my father. "What's this?" I asked, not sure I wanted the answer. "I have to admit," my dad said as he picked up his wallet from the side table and dug out a dollar for my mother. "I didn't think you guys would be able to resist each other." I looked at Brandon. "That seemed like we had their blessing, to me. Let's go back upstairs. " Brandon's face grew very red, but he smiled at me. Yeah, that beyond beautiful smile. Instead of going upstairs, we settled on the love seat, me leaning back against his chest, with my hand resting on his knee and his arm draped across my chest, holding me loosely. The movie was actually very funny. There were several scenes that had us in stitches, and when it was over my dad kept repeating 'Scoot!' in a high pitched voice, imitating one of the actresses, leaving us in tears with laughter. That did trail off, eventually. My mother announced the formal end of it by stating, "So!" and looking at Brandon. I turned to warn him, but my mother sharply said my name and then smiled sweetly at me. I put my hand back on his knee under the covers and stroked his leg, just to let him know I was there. Among other things. "Brandon," my mom said. "What did you think about the movie, given what we were talking about with the source material - Shakespeare's play." "You mean with that conversation? The balance between both halves of the couple?" he asked. "Yeah. What do you think?" she asked. "Well, she was totally right to dump him for how he played her. I thought it was kind of 'seen that, done that' when it came to him developing feelings for her. But then he realized he'd been a jerk, and he went totally out of his way to make it up to her. I think that shows she wasn't going to lie down and take crap from him, just because they were dating. He had to respect her if he wanted to be in a relationship with her, and she wasn't afraid to leave if she wasn't getting what she needed - respect, at that point." I looked smugly at my mother, who looked appropriately pleased with his answer. "She reminded me of J a little, actually," he continued. I turned my head quickly toward him in surprise. "Say what, now?" I asked. "Yeah, I'm interested in that," my dad added. Brandon grinned at having gotten my attention and addressed me. "J doesn't take crap from anyone. I'm pretty sure my apology would have gone nowhere if he didn't feel he could trust it, and more that it wasn't just an apology to make me feel better." He smiled at me. "J is with me because it's what he wants, and I'd be smart to never forget that." "Okay, you can keep him!" my mom said and burst out laughing. I glanced at her, but gave Brandon most of my attention with an assessing gaze. "This is an equal thing, though. I don't think if I were disrespectful of you that you'd still be with me, either." "Let's not find out just how much I'll let you walk all over me, okay?" he asked and giggled as my eyes shot wide open. I was reminded of Amy's assessment and knew there was some truth to his words. I didn't like having that kind of power. I wanted to love him, not hurt him. "Yeah, let's not," I agreed. Cal came bouncing in the front door, said hello and goodnight, did a double take at Brandon and me on the couch, smiled again and headed to bed. Mere minutes later, Janice dragged in. She grunted at us and ascended the stairs, clearly not pleased to be home. I swear, she could live as a roadie for the rest of her life and be happy as a pig in shit. I stretched, pushing back into Brandon and let out a large yawn. "Holy crap, I'm tired!" I said, or tried to. "Yeah, it's late," Brandon said. "Staying, Brandon?" my dad asked. I glanced at my dad, back to Brandon, and then back to my dad. "Yeah, he is." "Okay. Get some rest, guys. See you in the morning," my dad said. My mom leaned down to kiss me on the head. "Sleep," she said, the corner of her mouth curling up. Then, in sort of a surprise, she leaned over and kissed Brandon on the top of his head as well and also admonished him to sleep. They headed upstairs and I turned to look at Brandon. "So I need to apologize for volunteering you to stay?" I asked, only half-kidding. "I'm going to go with no on that," he replied, the corner of his mouth pulling up. "Let me text home, though, and make sure I'm not going to get yanked home by anxious, over-protective parents." "Okay. I'm going to be an optimist and go find you a toothbrush," I said. I climbed off of him and headed for the pantry near the kitchen where we kept virtually all supplies. I poked around and was not surprised to hear him speaking. My parents weren't prudes, nor were they under any illusions that us kids wouldn't get up to sexy times in our own good time. At the same time, they believed in educating us and letting us make mistakes and achievements on our own. That wasn't to say we had a license to screw when we pleased, only that they knew they couldn't stop it and would seek to guide us to the best ends possible. While they had no concerns for me in the sense of pregnancy, they had always stressed right person, right time, and self-respect. I had never felt like I was going to need that advice before college, but I think my parents had given their tacit blessing to Brandon and me, our relationship, and how we chose to handle it. That wasn't totally the case even a week ago, but I knew spending a little time with him and seeing how we were together would likely go a long way to ease my parents' minds with respect to how well I'd absorbed their lessons about relationships. In fact, I'd listened intently. I wanted a relationship. I was kind of built for it. I actually was pretty tired, but I figured I had a little left in the tank for my boyfriend. I grabbed him a toothbrush that had a printed image of the Eiffel tower on the cardboard backer. It seemed like the right one for him, given his interests. I went into the kitchen and got a half a glass of water, downed it, and headed back to the living room, hoping that was enough time for him to convince his parents. He was sitting on the couch, looking down at his phone. "Everything okay?" "Yeah, I think. Pretty sure I just lied to my parents," he said as he looked up at me. "Oh?" I asked, frowning lightly. "How so?" "I told them I was sleeping on the couch." "Yeah, you lied," I said with authority and gathered my comforter from the couch. "I'll ease your conscience though." "I didn't say I regretted it," he said and grinned impishly. I held up the toothbrush. "Eiffel tower. Seemed like a fit, to me." He nodded and stood up. I waved him to follow me and he did, climbing the stairs behind me. Over my shoulder I asked, "Do you think your parents actually believed you'd be on the couch?" "Probably not. They aren't stupid, but I doubt they'd want to be giving me permission to sleep with my boyfriend," he said with a nervous snicker. I led him to the bathroom where we both washed up and took turns emptying our bladders. Once in my room, I closed the door and turned toward him. It would be easy for someone to say he just looks like a nice looking guy. To go no farther than that, in many cases. I knew he'd never turn Cathy's head on the street, for instance. Ginnie would stare, especially if he didn't have a shirt on. For me, though, Brandon was the kind of guy that stood out in a crowd. There are some nice looking guys at my school, but nobody fucks with my insides like Brandon does. I walked to the bed and tossed the comforter over it, tugging it for a moment to get it reasonably even. "Are you actually tired?" he asked, his voice wavering slightly. "Exhausted," I said and pulled my shirt off and tossed it on top of my dresser. "Me, too," he said with a sigh, that sounded regretful. I really do need him to speak up for himself. Right now seemed as good a time as any to make that point. "Brandon, listen," I said as I peeled off each sock and tossed them toward the hamper. "You have to speak up. I hate seeing that hurt expression on your face or that tone in your voice. It hurts. I need you to remember this isn't my relationship; it's ours." "I know," he said and bobbed his head once before stripping off the tee shirt I'd loaned him. "It's not like you're abusing me, making me do stuff." "But just now, you were disappointed that I said I was tired. Why can't you just tell me what you want? What were you hoping for?" I stepped toward him, keeping my eyes on his face. He cleared his throat. "You know. I was just thinking we might...fool around a little. But you're tired and I don't want to-" I pushed my underwear down to my thighs and wiggled my legs to get them down on my feet. I stepped out of them, a foot or so closer to him. "I'm not comatose. I am tired, legitimately. Trust me that I woke the fuck up when my parents asked if you were staying." His eyes roamed up and down my body and I stood still, letting him drink in what I had to offer. I'm not a jock, nobody will mistake me for someone who works out. I do think I look okay, though. Right now, I was hoping he thought so, too. "God damn," he said under his breath. I stepped away from him and hit the light, dumping the room into shades of gray. I crossed the room and turned the knob on my bedside lamp three times, which brought it to its lowest setting. It wasn't candle light, of course, but I think it set the mood all right. I climbed on the bed and lay on my side, watching him as he watched me. He wiped his mouth with the palm of his hand and then pushed his own underwear down before climbing on the bed with me. Like our kisses, sex with Brandon was like a dance. We moved to music that only we could hear, a beat that allowed us to keep time with each other. I won't say it wasn't fervent at times, and I won't say it wasn't tender and gentle at times. Like any legendary melody, the music our souls danced to had faster beats with thundering drums and insistent horns. It also had soothing strings and delicate woodwinds. There was a time to hurry, to move faster and a time to luxuriate and live in that single beat as if it were a lifetime all on its own. I will say, as well, I was so mistaken in thinking jerking off to him caused me to splatter myself with any real force. Brandon made me feel like I'd actually ejected a testicle. I also didn't think it was possible for anyone to produce more than I did with him, but I'll be damned - he could drown someone.
  20. 63 points
    I’d been separated from everyone. The Elites didn’t look at me, didn’t talk to me. Shivers wracked me as I was hauled away, my hands bound behind my back with strong shackles. I wanted to vomit up that last meal we’d had, or cry, or drop to my knees and not move. But none of that would help me. None of that would help the others. Years of experience suppressing my emotions helped me stay on my feet and kept me from panicking. I squeezed my hands together behind my back. A wand was shoved between my hands, zapping my fingers. I cursed, my hands now completely numb while painful shocks burned up the nerves in my arms. The synthgar shivered against my neck. I held my breath, hoping it would stay still. They’d take it and kill it. I was back in the same hell as before, even if it was on a planet instead of a sterile space station. They were already starting to isolate me from sensory input. Not talking to me, not letting me even hold my own hands. It was sickening. Worse, I could feel some of that numbness beckoning me. It’d be easier, safer, than the fear and anger. The scent of the flowers was gone, the warm breeze tempered to a cool stillness, and turn and after turn led to windowless corridors. I nearly walked into the back of the guard in front of me, and only barely stopped before his wand slammed into my stomach. I sucked in a sharp breath, arching away from the glowing tip. A door opened on my right, and I went inside. Pick my battles, fight when it made sense. Play docile while you have to. I kept my back to guards. My hands and wrists were so numb I didn’t feel the cuffs disengage, but I had to bite back a cry when my arms fell useless to my sides. Above all, never, ever, let them see you cry. I blinked back the tears, swallowing past the thick lump in my throat. The bed was different and boasted a thin mattress and a pillow. A pillow; I hadn’t had one of those before. The space was rectangular instead of a square box that matched sides perfectly four strides one direction and four the other. My mind latched onto the small details even as I was left alone. I paced the cell. I sat on the bed. I ignored the pillow in case they came and took it from me. Mealtimes came and went without any trays. Darkness had to have fallen outside, right? Even if we’d arrived early in their morning, I’d been locked in this cell for hours. I couldn’t touch anything, not even myself. Sitting still and touching nothing was more exhausting than I remembered. This wasn’t like my cell from before, though. I could hear outside my cell, which helped the waiting. Night fell and the lights dimmed. I crawled onto my bunk facing the door. The sounds of activity faded and soon just the tread of booted feet and the thump and squeak of what must be the guards was left. Silently, I slipped out of bed and crept to the door. I cursed the numbness in my fingers. It was going to hamper my escape, but I was done in this cell. Time to find Anyas. I traced my fingers to the left of the cell door. Stiffening them as best I could, I drilled them into the metal, punching holes into the wall. Holding my breath, I waited for an alarm. Nothing. Either no one was watching me, or they hadn’t noticed what I was doing yet. Security wasn’t what I had lived under before, which is something I’d been hoping for. I curled my fingers and the metal squealed, bending and breaking. Success! The hole exposed the electronics for the lock. Now came the part I wasn’t sure of. Freska had given me a tiny chip to conceal in my clothes. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to lose the feeling in my hands when I tried to use it. That made it infinitely harder to carefully place the tiny green plastic shard that was about to free me. Biting my lip, I cursed under my breath, but I finally manipulated it into place. Click. The door opened a fraction. A wicked grin crossed my face. Something was going my way; it was about damn time. I pried open the door, peeking out. The footsteps were faint, on the far edge of the patrol pattern. Slinking out, I started to follow the sounds. First, neutralize the guards. Second, find the others. Third, get Anyas. Fourth, take over this compound. Fifth, let Freska and Danie do their thing. Sixth, take these fuckers down. Probably not that simple, but my body itched to take care of the first order of business and the second. I needed Captain. He needed me. We were better together. I made my way to a corner, then flattened along the wall. My senses would help me, my strength an asset. Footsteps. Boots. The swish of fabric. The second the profile of the guard came into view, I was on him. I’d held back before, acting like their constructed bodies were too strong for me. This time I held back nothing. Stiffening my hand into a flat blade, I slammed the edge into his neck. There went his ability to shout out. Jumping, I clapped my hands over his ears. No more ability to hear the others. He choked on his cry when I kicked his kneecap and blew it out backward. He dropped to one knee, and then I used my elbow to drive his head sideways, slamming into his jaw and knocking him unconscious. One guard down. I wasn’t even breathing hard. These fuckers were about to pay for a lifetime of abuse, and I was just the guy to dish it out.
  21. 62 points
    Just before six in the morning, Nathan Fresher stood in the stairwell leading up to his family flat. Breathless from his early morning run, he stared down at the letter from Surrey University. A single drop of perspiration landed on the page. Ten minutes ago, he’d jogged past Bob Collier, one of the village's two postmen, who’d barked at him to stop and tossed him their bundle of morning post. Nathan’s heart, already racing from the exertion, had taken on a different rhythm seeing the post on top of the pack, the university name printed plainly in sight. Sprinting home, he’d barely managed to open the front door before ripping open the envelope. Three times he’d read the words on the page. Only on the final read had they sunken in. Incredible. With his meagre A level grades, they’d offered him a place on the Sport and Exercise Science degree programme. For some reason, he’d felt certain they would decline him. Otherwise he might have been more keen to check the college’s online messaging board. Or his personal emails. Good things rarely happened to Nathan Fresher. And now the world had opened up. Fees might be a challenge, came his ever-present cynical voice, although his father had agreed to help him out, should he be successful. Hell, they needed to talk. Today, everything would change. Thrusting the letter into the pocket of his hoodie, he kicked off his trainers and thundered up the stairs to their two bed apartment above Fresher’s Family Bakers. Inside the space, early morning stillness met him. “Dad. Dad, are you here?” Silence. More than likely, he’d find his father in the bakery downstairs, getting under Arthur Meade’s feet. Arthur, the true baker and talent behind Fresher and Son bakery, had been with them since before Nathan’s birth. Mixing dough and baking their daily offerings, he and his three assistants unfailingly had the daily produce displayed or delivered when they opened the doors at six-thirty. A lightness filled Nathan, knowing his life story didn’t have to end with his forefather’s legacy. Since the early part of the last century, the Fresher family had run the outfit, baking for and serving the local community. But maybe the time had come for change. Nathan hoped so, because he could think of nothing worse than being chained to the shop’s routine day after day, doing something for which he had zero passion for the rest of his life. Maybe he’d inherited that particular trait from his estranged mother. Throwing his shoulder bag down on the table, he pulled out his iPhone 5—a Christmas gift from his father—and sent a message to his best friend Polly Fischer. For a fleeting moment, he considered calling, but then thought better about waking her. Not a morning person, he’d witnessed her explosive anger once, shaking her awake from a post-pub Sunday snooze on their sofa. Never again. Besides, if she happened to be up, she’d call him straight back. Together they’d conspired to get him enrolled in the four year degree course. Polly had suggested Surrey University in Guildford, a softer sell for his father. Less than two hours’ drive away from Crumbington, he could be home weekdays when he had no lectures, and especially on Friday night to help in the shop all day Saturday, their busiest day. Mitigate the damage of him studying away, so to speak. Stepping into his single bedroom, he stripped out of his shorts, socks, vest and jockstrap, and dropped them into his laundry basket, before donning a towel and heading to the bathroom. Only then did he notice the door to his father’s bedroom was closed. Whenever his father rose, he always left his door open. Nathan smirked. Although it happened rarely, sometimes his father overslept. If so, Nathan would gently rib him all day. In the shower, he let the hot water soak into his sore body, and ran through in his mind what he would need to organise; course books, accommodation, prep dates. But first of all a formal visit to the campus. Polly would come with him, she’d love that. His stomach clenched with excitement. Polly’s college friend had heard great things about the LGBTQ community meet-ups and events at the college. Maybe Nathan would finally meet some like-minded people. Unlike his father, he was going to be something else in this world, someone who followed their dreams. At only fifty-four, his father—by far the better businessman and face of the family bakery—could carry on running the outfit for at least another ten years. With his regular help, Nathan hardly needed to be there. He refused to feel guilty about the opportunity. Beside, Nathan would still help out. And when his father was nearing retirement, well, they could have that conversation when the time came. But he wanted to travel the world first, and to work in the health and fitness sector. Polly had suggested getting a job as a fitness instructor on a cruise liner, a dream that had stuck. At six-fifteen, dressed in his shop outfit of blue shirt and navy cardigan, and noticing his father’s bedroom door still firmly closed, he prepared a mug of Assam tea with a dash of milk and knocked on the bedroom door. A creature of habit, his father would be furious when he realised he’d overslept. Opening the door wide, Nathan allowed light from the hallway to filter into the room, rather than switching on the harsh room light. “Hey Mr Sleepyhead. It’s almost opening time. Molly’s already here, I can hear her moving about downstairs. Drink some tea and take your time, I’ll go help…” Sensing something innately wrong, he placed the mug down on a coaster on the bedside table, next to the ashtray with the stubs of two cigarettes still sitting there from the night before. Even before he put a hand to his father’s forehead, he knew. By the bloodless pallor of the skin, and the eyes not quite closed, staring at the curtained window. Coldness swept through him then, accompanied by a distant ringing in his ears, or maybe the sound of someone screaming in the distance. Unable to stand, his legs gave way and he perched on the side of the mattress. Staring into the gloom, he took his father’s cold hand and squeezed. A chill dismay descended upon him, at the implications of the scene before him, earlier words floating into his mind, coming back to haunt him. Today, everything would change.
  22. 61 points
    On the last Monday in August, Owen began working full-time at the Nature Conservancy headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia. Two days later, CJ started his senior year at Georgetown University. On Friday of that same week, the two of them, César, Brett, Ritchie, and Rod flew to Orlando. It was a men’s weekend. “Dude, it’s been like a year.” CJ’s embrace overflowed with warmth when he greeted Michael. He, his boyfriend Blaine, and Chipper had ridden up from Miami and met the group from Washington at the hotel. “Blaine!” CJ repeated the hug. “What are you still doing hanging with these losers?” “STOP!” Brett used his best Marine Corps command voice. “Hey, Chipper, nice to see you again, dude. How about you introduce us to your friends. I can see by my son’s greetings those cocktails on the plane are still with him. He forgot we don’t know everyone in town like he does.” “Fuck you, Papa. I’m sober, and I don’t know everyone. Anyway, Michael Quintana, Blaine Emerson, these are my dads: César Abelló and Brett Davenport. The other two are my cousin, Rod and my brother, Ritchie.” Handshakes, fist bumps, and “What ups” floated around the noisy, crowded lobby. Michael’s smile shone brightest when he stood in front of the fathers. “It’s so good to meet after hearing so much about you. From CJ and Owen when we were at Virginia Tech last year, but also from Chipper since we were freshmen.” “It’s good to meet you too, Michael.” César clasped the college student’s shoulder. “You’re from Tampa, right?” “Yes, sir. My dads live there. I wish they could have been here to meet you too. When Chipper first mentioned his friend who had two fathers, I lost it. I knew I wasn’t the only one, but it was so cool to hear about and then meet someone who was like me.” Chipper and his friends balked at attending any Gator parties when César invited them to hang out with him and Brett. The three were staying elsewhere and planned to patronize Hurricanes-centric bars. CJ had mentioned stopping at Parliament House for a drink or two. Chipper claimed that since Harley had visited the gay entertainment complex before, he had to check it out too. They all agreed to meet for brunch the next day. Being a minor, Ritchie was not allowed to go barhopping when CJ and Owen chose to stick with the UM students; he and Rod accompanied César and Brett as they made the rounds of University of Florida collegiate and alumni parties. By the time they returned to the hotel, César was threatening to kill his youngest son. The following morning he complained about the teen’s behavior. “The twerp started chanting ‘It’s great, to be, a Miami Hurricane’ as we walked out of one party. I thought my frat brothers were about to blackball me.” “Sorry, Mr. A. CJ put me up to it.” “Asshole! Don’t be blaming me. Not like I put a spell on you or something. I don’t practice Santeria.” CJ’s quip drew confused looks from his relatives. “Huh?” Ritchie voiced what everyone else seemed to be thinking. Eyes rolling, Owen came to the rescue. “It’s a song. An old one from what Chipper said. They played it last night after we’d had a couple of cocktails. We were at a karaoke bar. Someone picked the song, and then Chipper, CJ, Michael, and Blaine decided to follow along. I had to listen to the bloody thing five times in a row. Right before we left, your brother and his buddy led the bar in singing it along one final time. At the top of their lungs.” The corners of Ritchie’s mouth ticked upwards. “How fucked up were you, CJ?” “Wasn’t. We were all in a good mood, and it’s a catchy tune. I don’t need to be drunk to have a good time, bro.” “Prolly not, but based on the stories I keep hearing it seems to help.” On Saturday, the University of Miami Hurricanes renewed their football rivalry with the University of Florida Gators. César was a generous donor to his alma mater and secured six good seats in the middle of the school’s section. He had planned the trip with a couple of old classmates who also flew to the Central Florida city. Loyal school chums, they vociferously renounced the friendship when he and Brett showed up at the stadium wearing de rigueur blue and orange—UF’s school colors—while their companions sported UM’s green and orange. It took a lot of beer for them to forgive him, but they were all friends again by the end of the fourth quarter. While in California at the beginning of the year, CJ had called Alex Minsky, and the Marine Corps’ veteran stopped by a book signing to have a cup of coffee with him and meet Owen. He had been unable to attend the wedding. It was Alex CJ thought might help Brad. When the corporal who lost a leg in Afghanistan heard what CJ proposed, he immediately agreed. “Yo, Legless!” Brad was home alone, his parents at work. “What the fuck, CJ? Don’t you knock?” Sprawled on the couch in front of the TV with an empty glass and a box of wine on the side table, Brad adjusted the blanket covering his lower body. A pair of blue ranger panties—the Marines called their olive version, silkies—rested atop the back of the sofa. The screen showed a large-breasted woman on her knees staring at the camera, while a hairless, muscled man thrust his pelvis against her. A moment later, Brad tossed the remote control on the coffee table after turning the set off. “Spanking the monkey again? Is that all you do with your time?” CJ tried hard not to laugh, but a few chuckles escaped from him and the man who had followed him inside the house. CJ leaned over to inspect the wine container. “Fuck you! Just because you get regular pussy at home—” “Oh, you’re so deeead. Ozzie’s gonna kill you when he hears what you just said about him. And wait until I mention this shit.” CJ pointed at the container in front of Brad. “No judging about drinking this early in the day. But Bandit Red Blend from a box? What did it set you back? A buck fifty?” “None of your fucking business. We can’t all drink hundred dollar bottles like you. Is this what you came over for? To give me grief?” “Actually…” CJ allowed the momentary silence to linger. Brad was not back to getting drunk every time he drank, but CJ was concerned. Time to see if calling in the Marines worked. “Anyway, not sure he wants to shake your hand considering what you were doing, but meet a friend of mine. Brad Kennedy, Alex Minsky.” CJ took a step sideways, and Brad was able to see the visitor for the first time. His gaze lingered on the metal blade visible below the right knee. Minsky ignored CJ’s comment and offered Brad his hand. “Marine, corporal, Afghanistan, IED. You?” “Ranger, sergeant, black ops somewhere over there. IED too.” Brad shook his head and smiled. “Grab a chair. So, you part of whatever it is CJ’s planned for me?” “What do you mean? I saw CJ and Owen last time they were in LA, and I promised to come visit sometime. I’ve only been to DC a couple of times since the trip when I met this one and his fathers… What? Almost six years ago?” “Five and a half.” CJ threw a couple of loose, decorative sofa cushions onto the floor, and took the opposite end of the couch from Brad. “I don’t have anything nefarious planned, Red. Honest.” “Yeah well, forgive me if I don’t believe you and your fancy-ass words. You forget we’ve been through this shit before. Back in high school. You’ve never been too subtle about what you say or do. Hell, if we weren’t friends, I would’ve punched you out after some of your comments.” “Fuck you, Brad. I… am… always… going to tell you the truth. Whether you want to hear it or not. Always! You want someone to sugarcoat shit for you? Call Willy Wonka.” “Damn! I guess you guys are good friends.” Alex chuckled and glanced at the wheelchair parked next to the couch. “I did promise them to come for a visit, Brad. But when CJ called and told me about his brother having a difficult time after losing his legs, I figured it was as good a time for a trip as any. When are you getting new ones?” “Sometime next month. The doctor said I’ve healed enough.” Brad had visibly relaxed after the initial shock. He reached for the discarded shorts and wiggled around while slipping them on under the blanket. “I know CJ means well, but sometimes he forgets not all of us lead the charmed life he does. It’s hard to deal with his shit when I don’t have a leg to stand on.” The two visitors busted up. “Cute, Brad. Very cute. But inaccurate. You lost your legs, and nothing’s going to bring those back. If you keep looking at the past, at the way things used to be, you’ll get nothing but regrets. Looking ahead gives you opportunities.” Minsky sighed and stared at his fellow veteran. “Look, I think I can relate to what you’re going through. It’s nice outside. Why don’t you throw on some clothes, and I’ll push you around the neighborhood so we can talk. I’ll share my story after we send CJ home. We’ll call him when we’re ready, and he can buy us lunch.” His questioning look was met with nodding from CJ. “Since I came back stateside, I’ve realized everything in our life is a reflection of the choices we make. If you want positive results, you have to make positive choices. I didn’t always make them. It took a lot of pain before I decided to make the adjustments needed for me to remain alive. Not to become one of the twenty-twos.” Minsky’s reference was to the number of service members who suicided every day in the United States. When CJ drove Minsky to the airport on Sunday, he was grinning. Brad and Alex had spent a lot of time together over the weekend. Kennedy agreed to stay in touch with the Marine turned underwear model and to make a better effort at dealing with the demons he battled every day. CJ was hopeful once his buddy got his artificial legs and his mobility improved, so would his outlook. However, he was not done meddling; Brad would simply have to deal with it. CJ was vice-president of the Georgetown University Student Association and an active member of Georgetown University Pride, the school’s GLBT group. He still held a position within the athletic department too. Combined with responsibilities as a director for the family foundation, the Human Rights Campaign DC Steering Committee, and Heroes Haven, he often had to juggle commitments. He thrived on the busy professional and social schedule he and Owen kept. “What are you reading that you keep chuckling so much?” Owen sat on the couch; his laptop and several paper files rested on the coffee table. It was not unusual for them to spend time after dinner with CJ studying, and Owen reading over work documents. “Someone sent me a link to a cyber comic. Get this, the hero’s gay and from Texas. He goes by the name of Longhorn. Claims it’s because he’s a University of Texas graduate. But the artist gave him such a humongous bulge, I’m pretty sure the name has nothing to do with his school’s sports teams.” “Great, I’m working my ass off, and you’re reading comic books. Don’t you have school stuff to do?” “All caught up! This is always one of the busiest months for us event-wise. I’ve been trying not to let things pile up. Anyway, it’s more than a comic book, Oz. It’s a cultural statement. All the big-name heroes are straight because of how things were when they were created. Times have changed. Look at all the gay and lesbian characters on TV shows based on DC or Marvel characters. It’s a step in the right direction. Something that’ll help our end goal of acceptance.” “Fine! Queer illustrated literature. What about the shindig Saturday? Are you ready?” Owen referred to the Harvest Ball. The annual party hosted by a group of students was held in the ballroom at GU’s Copley Hall. “Yeah. Unless something gets screwed up, we’re all set.” Thanks to their friend Carson, CJ became a part of the group of students who underwrote the annual party and agreed to chair the committee during his senior year. “Although I’m sure we’ll all be getting asks for admission ’til the last minute.” Well known on campus due to his varied involvement, friends and acquaintances hounded CJ for party admissions. Each of the underwriters received a limited allocation since fire regulations restricted the number of attendees. His went mostly to members of the GLBT community and to athletes he befriended through his involvement with the basketball program. “You think we’ll have any problems this time around?” The previous year, a drunk guest tried to hit on a lesbian. When a few people offered to help, she waved them away, toyed with the drunkard, and then swept his feet out from under him with a well-placed kick. CJ was certain the maintenance staff did not enjoy cleaning blood off the wood floor where he crashed and split his lip. “We better not! Carson and I talked to his fellow rowers and my basketball players. They’ll keep an eye out. If anyone looks too drunk, they’ve promised to handle it. I’m hoping I don’t have to get my hands dirty if something does happen.” “Great! My bloody husband is now running a mafia family, and his goons are going to patrol the premises.” Owen’s teasing had CJ grinning. “Next thing you know you’re gonna be putting contracts out on people who cross you. And the Squad dared to call me Don Corleone.” “Asshole!” A week after the party on campus, CJ and Owen were back on a dance floor. Ritchie and Lucy—she resplendent in a jade dress, he wearing a matching bowtie and cummerbund—wildly gyrated next to them. The Human Rights Campaign National Dinner was a family tradition, and this year Rod and Taisha Abelló were also in attendance. CJ tapped his cousin on the shoulder and motioned for him and his wife to follow him and Owen; he was thirsty and wanted a drink. “Dude, has my brother left the dance floor since the dancing started?” Owen glanced back at the still moving youngsters and shook his head. “I think they have more energy because they haven’t been drinking. Us old people need more frequent breaks.” Taisha slipped her arm through Owen’s. “I’m not sure that makes sense at all, Ozzie. And who are you calling old?” “Not you, oh fair maiden. You’re like a newborn grape ripening in the sun. Not yet full-bodied, but—” “I think I’m going to retch.” Rod’s gagging sounds elicited chuckles from his companions. “You’re full of crap, and you may be drunk, Ozzie. That was so over the top, I’m wondering if—” “Okay, guys, keep it clean.” CJ adjusted his bowtie and tilted his head toward the bar. “Jeff Bezos’s standing over there. Ozzie and I have to say hello. Come on, I’ll introduce you. I think you’ll like him.” “This is like the richest guy in the world we’re about to meet, right?” Taisha smoothed the front of her dress and patted the hair on the sides of her head. “Yeah… One of them at least. But he’s like one of the nicest guys ever.” Owen’s reassuring tone appeared to calm down Taisha’s jitters. “He is. Funny thing is, two years ago at this thing he received the National Equality Award, and we didn’t meet him. Then a year ago, he came up to me during a book signing, introduced himself, and next thing I know Ozzie and I are at a dinner party at his house. Far from perfect, the man’s still a rock star. He’s become a mentor over the past year and made us some good money with stock tips. Come on, let’s go say hello. JEFF!” “That was fun.” Owen hung both overcoats on the rack by the door and slipped off his tuxedo jacket. “That it was. I still can’t believe how nervous Gina was when we introduced her to Jeff Bezos. What was that all about?” CJ mirrored his husband’s actions, taking off his tie, vest, and jacket and dropping them on an armchair on his way to the kitchen. “I have no idea. I’m sure she’s met her share of famous people working at HRC. Get me some water?” Owen sat on the couch, took off his shoes, and propped his feet on the coffee table. “Jeff was real cool about it. While you and Gina were on the dance floor, he asked me about her. When I told him she was from Alaska and a communications major, he seemed excited. He asked my opinion of her, and he wants to take her to lunch. I think he was in recruiting mode. I know she wants to return to Alaska, but she might settle for a job in Washington State. That’s close.” “Ha! Are you fair dinkum? Is my husband—the family’s godfather—hooking up another one of our friends?” “Asshole!”
  23. 61 points
    Carolina Marie Prado was born on the last day of June 2019. On the first day of July, CJ and Owen stopped at the hospital to see the newborn. “Hi, CJ. Hi Owen. Thanks for coming by to see us.” Cristina sounded tired but looked content. Her husband had gone to work, but her mother was in town. “She’s so tiny!” The newborn was ensconced in the crook of Cristina’s arm. “Thiago’s baby was so much longer. Who does she look like?” “Damien says she looks like his mother. Oh, and of course your friend’s kid’s going to be larger. He’s so tall himself. Damien and I are both much shorter.” “Did you see the flower arrangement your fathers’ sent?” Susana had been out of the room, and her return went unnoticed until she spoke. “It’s gorgeous.” “Susana!” Owen stepped around his husband and hugged the woman. “It’s so good to see you. Congratulations on your first grandchild.” “Thank you, Owen. Hello, CJ. You both look well. When are you two going to give Brett and César grandchildren?” “Mother!” Cristina sounded frustrated. “Please forgive her, guys. She’s been on this kick about wanting everyone to have kids. She laid into Chipper yesterday.” “I did not lay into him. All I did was ask what the deal was with him. I can’t figure out the relationship between him and that couple he spends so much time with whenever he’s in New York.” “Nothing to figure out, Mom. They’re good friends. If there’s anything else going on, we’ll find out when he decides to tell us.” Cristina rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Mothers! Have you two seen my brother today?” “Not yet. He stayed with Ajax and Marina last night. But we’re having lunch with him before we head back to Washington tonight.” Chipper was in the apartment when they returned. “How’d you like my niece, guys? Ugly fucker, ain’t she?” “Rough crowd!” CJ kicked off his sneakers and jumped on the couch next to their friend. “I’m opening up a bottle.” Owen stared at the stock in the wine cooler by the sideboard and slid one out. “You’re an ass, Chipper. Babies are always scrunched up and ugly when they’re born. I’m sure she looked better today than she did yesterday when you saw her.” “Don’t remind me of yesterday. I thought I was going to kill my brother-in-law. You know, to balance things out since we had a new life?” “Oh, shit. What did Damien do?” CJ scooted up on the couch and took the glass Owen offered him. “He’s a dick! No sooner was my sister back in her room, he started arguing with her.” “Mate, you can’t be serious.” Owen ignored the glass he had placed near Chipper who nursed a beer and filled the other two. “Who the hell argues with a woman who just gave birth?” “My asshole brother-in-law does. That’s who. And it wasn’t even a new argument. It was the same shit they fight about all the time.” CJ patted the sofa cushion, inviting Owen to sit next to him. “You mean they’ve been married less than a year, and they’re already fighting? What the fuck about?” “About Cristina going back to work after six weeks of maternity leave. Hell! They fight about Cristina working. Period. He thinks a woman’s place is home raising children. He doesn’t want my sister to have a job at all.” “Maybe I should have married him instead of Ozzie. I wouldn’t mind staying home and being a kept man.” CJ wiggled his eyebrows while sipping his wine. “Asshole!” “No, seriously. Has anyone told him this is the twenty-first century? What the hell is he thinking? Oh well, not my problem. I ain’t getting involved.” “You may need to bail me out when I strangle him.” Chipper raised the bottle, looked at the bottom, and tipped it to swallow the remainder of the beer. “What time you guys headed home?” “Not sure yet. We’ll catch a late train. We wanna have a couple of days at home and help the dads set up for the party on Independence Day.” “Sorry I’ll miss that. Do me a favor? Tell Brad I’ll come see him again before I head to Argentina.” “Will do. Are you flying back straight to Miami at the end of summer?” “That’s the plan. What about you? Any other trips planned before we all return to real life?” “Nothing set in stone. We’ll prolly go away on the bikes a couple of times for an overnighter. And we’ll be in Florida at month’s end. Why do you ask?” “You know how your dad always says traveling’s the antidote to ignorance? How he encourages you to do it as often as possible? Why don’t you come visit me in Buenos Aires?” Although the idea was appealing, they decided to plan a trip at a later time. “Next time he complains about me playing my music too loud, I’m gonna remind him of this.” Ritchie rubbed his hands together; a Machiavellian plot appeared imminent. “Won’t work, mate. You blasting Hip-Hop will have him shutting you down real fast.” Owen struggled to be heard above the brass blasts coming from the speakers. CJ was certain windows rattled up and down the block. Brett took possession of the sound system early; the United States Marine Band playing John Philip Sousa marches was the day’s soundtrack. “The fucker actually turned the volume up when ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ came on.” “You guys should be used to it by now. He does the same thing whenever he plays the Beach Boys.” Brad drained the last of his beer, and raised the empty bottle in Ritchie’s direction; a fresh one was in his hand moments later. “Stop complaining, soldier. I’m not surprised to hear civilians grumbling, but you should know better. Didn’t they teach you to respect the foremost armed services’ branch at that fancy Ranger training?” The grin on United States Marine Corps Colonel Ray Edwards belied the stern reprimand. Brett’s former commanding officer was a burly African-American with a shaved head and was a dead ringer for Charles Barkley. “Hush, Marine. None of that service rivalry allowed.” Mrs. Martha Edwards was the only person anyone ever heard blatantly dismiss the man’s comments. The School Without Walls High School principal leaned down and hugged Brad. “And picking on my war hero former student isn’t allowed either.” “You tell him, Miss Edwards.” Harley’s irreverence was in part fueled by the joint he and Carson had smoked soon after his arrival at the Georgetown townhouse. “Nobody’s allowed to pick on our friend.” “Your loyalty’s admirable, Mr. Wilkinson. Is Ms. Hoang with you today?” Kim Hoang, Harley’s girlfriend, had graduated from Walls the previous year. “Yeah. She’s downstairs with my sisters.” Principal Edwards eyed the bottle Owen held in his hands with anticipation. “CJ, a pleasure to see you as always. Owen, is that bottle from your family’s vineyard?” “G’day, Mrs. Edwards, Colonel. Sorry to disappoint you. It’s not. This one we found at Publix in Miami when we went grocery shopping with CJ’s grandmother during one of our trips. It’s a California product. A 2016 Lodi Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon from Art of the Cooper. Let me pour you some. I think you’ll like it.” Aside from Squad—Ethan Feldman, living in New York City, and Chipper were the only absent ones—and Elite members, the gathering was small. Family, close friends, and a few neighbors were invited to a late afternoon barbecue, and to watch the fireworks display from the townhouse’s rooftop deck. The amount of food burdening the dining room table was sufficient to feed an army platoon; Owen’s concerns about waste were quieted when told the catering company had agreed to deliver anything left over to the homeless shelter he and CJ volunteered at on an ongoing basis. “I’m taking Brad upstairs, guys.” Guests began migrating to the roof deck, and Patrick Kennedy steered his brother’s wheelchair toward the elevator to join them. “We’re going to need a little help carrying him and the chair up the last flight of stairs to the roof.” Everyone left on the ground floor wanted to assist, and the elevator was crowded on the ride to the third floor. CJ and Owen remained behind but joined the crowd a few minutes later pushing a rolling cart with beverages. At night’s end, after the fireworks had elicited gasps and cheers, César offered a toast. “Thank you all for joining us. That’s 243 years of American independence. Our continued freedom is due in large part to our armed forces, and I’d like to recognize those amongst us who’ve served. My husband Brett and his old boss Ray Edwards in the Marine Corps. Tom and Brad Kennedy in the Army. Tank Janda in the Navy. And even if I’m jumping the gun a bit, our son Ritchie, who will hopefully be a cadet at the Air Force Academy next year. To all of you, our thanks. Happy Fourth of July!” Two days later, the house was again mobbed with people. It was mostly teenagers this time. Ritchie asked for a birthday party since his seventeenth birthday would be the last one he celebrated while in high school. Because he skipped a grade in elementary school, he was the youngest amongst his classmates. His actual birthday was on Sunday; on Monday, he was waiting outside the flying school when the doors opened—he was old enough to get a pilot’s license now. Two weeks later, he strutted through National Airport like he owned the place. When he boarded a plane with CJ and Owen, he bragged to the flight attendants he could take over if the pilots became ill. The flight to Miami was uneventful, as was their arrival at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. While Owen drove, CJ called his grandparents to let them know they were safely in town and planned to meet them the following morning for breakfast. “How come we’re having dinner with Aba only?” They had freshened up after checking in, changed clothes, and headed west to the retirement home their grandmother lived in. At sixty-eight, Olga Santos was in near-perfect physical and mental health. Her move into the retirement home had been primarily for the benefit of Juan, her deceased husband. The complex provided the necessary care as he neared the end of his life, ravaged by Alzheimer’s. CJ and his mother had lived with the couple for the first two years of his life until Lourdes married Ritchie’s father. Both grandsons were close to Olga. “Ozzie and I have something to discuss with her.” CJ glanced in the rearview mirror at his brother. “We’re gonna do it in front of you, so we might as well let you in on our plans now. Oz?” “You have to promise you won’t say anything to anybody, Ritchie.” Owen’s tone was as serious as CJ’s. “Not the dads, the other grandparents, or even your girlfriend. Okay?” “Sure…” Ritchie sounded somewhat apprehensive. “What’s going on?” “My mum’s the only person who knows because she was with my sister when Liz planned this out…” Telling Ritchie on the way was a smart move. His shouting had abated by the time they reached their destination, and he was able to refrain from further outbursts when they repeated the conversation with Olga. She handled the discussion calmly and promised to give their proposal some thought. On Thursday morning, the three young men from Washington walked across the hotel’s golf course, jumped the chain link fence surrounding the house’s backyard, and joined CJ’s other grandparents for breakfast before playing eighteen holes. “Not bad, Rubio.” Sebastián Abelló rarely used people’s names, preferring to give them monikers related to their appearance or employment. Brett and Owen were both called blondie. “Gracias, Abuelo.” Owen’s first tee shot sailed the furthest down the middle of the fairway. “We’ve been traveling so much this summer I haven’t been out to the club often.” He occasionally joined César and Brett for a round even though CJ was not a fan of the game. “I’d go with you and the dads, Ozzie. But I think I need a few lessons. I suck at this.” It was Ritchie’s second time playing. “Dude, when are you going to find the hours? Between school, your girlfriend, the boxing club, and flying lessons, I’m surprised you have time to wipe your ass.” CJ ran away laughing when his brother threatened him with the 3-wood from his opening shot. “Don’t listen to your brother, Piloto.” Ritchie was anointed with the new moniker when the Abelló grandparents called to congratulate him on passing the examination’s flight portion. “He’s jealous because you play better than him.” “Don’t start with me, old man. I’ll tell Abuela you were mean. Save it for the dads when you play with them tomorrow.” César and Brett would arrive later in the day and planned on joining Sebastián and the Miami attorney—a fraternity brother of César—the family used to handle legal matters in South Florida. “I’ll take that one.” Ritchie stabbed his finger against the cabinet’s glass front, pointing at the yellowtail snapper resting on a bed of shaved ice. “You’re going to eat the whole thing?” Taisha Abelló had flown in from Washington with her husband Rod, César, and Brett. “That thing’s huge. Where are you going to put it?” “Just watch me.” The teen rubbed his stomach in clear anticipation of having the fish fried and in front of him. “What are you having?” “Trying to decide between the kingfish and the lobster.” Bahamas Fish Market was an unassuming restaurant with bright fluorescent lights, vinyl-upholstered chairs, and laminate-covered tables topped with paper placemats. The entire family swore it served the freshest seafood in Miami. “Florida lobster season doesn’t start until next month. The ones they have are probably frozen.” “How do you know this?” Sadness clouded the kid’s face for a moment. “My dad was a boater. We used to go out all the time.” “Sorry to drag up bad memories, Ritchie.” Taisha gave his shoulder a squeeze. She was aware of his parents dying in a boating accident. “Don’t worry. They’re actually happy memories for the most part. There’s a two-day mini-season for sport fishermen every July. CJ and I loved to go out with my dad. Until he was a jerk when he found out CJ was gay. That year it wasn’t fun at all.” CJ kept an eye on his brother, worried the restaurant would bring sadness; it had been a favorite of Richard and Lourdes Peterson. “Huh?” He had been lost in his own recollection and missed whatever it was his grandmother said to him. “I asked you what time you’d be back tomorrow.” Rosario Abelló turned eighty in a week, and the family gathered this weekend to celebrate. The Chicago contingent would arrive on Friday. “Not sure, but I’m guessing sometime in the afternoon.” The grandmothers planned to cook for the reunion. “Once we’re back and shower, we’ll walk over to the house.” It had taken CJ being exiled from his home, and later his mother and her husband dying, to bring both sets of grandparents close. Lourdes had kept his birth a secret from the Abellós for two years, but that was forgotten and forgiven. Sebastián and Rosario bonded with the other grandparents and stepped in to help when Juan died. “You’re going to miss out on the best stuff, Campeón.” Champ was what his grandfather always called him. “Your cousins may strip the house before you and your rubio pick anything.” “We don’t care about that, Abuelo. And I still can’t believe you’re selling the house. You’ve lived there forever.” A secondary reason for the family coming together was the fact the elderly couple had put their home on the market and planned to move into a condominium unit when it sold. The downsizing meant most furnishings would not fit in the new place, and they had invited the family to select any items they wanted before whatever was left would be donated to charity. “We’re getting old, CJ. The house’s too big and ancient. It requires a lot of maintenance. I’m only four years younger than your grandmother, so both of us are slowing down. Not having to go up and down those stairs will be a nice change.” “Don’t worry about that painting you like, CJ.” Rosario tucked a loose strand of white hair behind an ear. “I already put a sticker with your name on it.” Paul Hampton Crockett was a Miami artist who had gained a modicum of fame due to his paintings and his activism on behalf of HIV positive individuals. An acquaintance of César’s, he created a painting of the grandparents’ house, focusing on the roofline under a bright blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. Purchased as a present by Sebastián and Rosario’s sons, CJ had always loved the architectural details and bright colors. “But, Abuela, you can’t get rid of it! It was a present from Dad and Uncle Rico.” “Bah! It’s only a piece of art, CJ. And we’ve had it for over twenty-five years. As we get older, material possessions mean much less. I’d rather you and Owen hang it in your new house, and enjoy it for a long time. We’ll see it when we come visit.” “Dude, take it. Your dad already mentioned a couple of things he wants.” Brett was insistent. “We’ll put your painting and whatever else together, and we’ll arrange to have it all shipped. You know damn well art’s a good investment. The artist might not be that famous, but I think this piece will be a good addition to your little, growing collection.” “How do you know this guy?” The second energy drink had at last loosened Ritchie’s vocal cords. They left Miami before sunrise, and he mostly grunted on the drive north to the Pompano Dive Center. “Through work.” Owen sipped from his coffee tumbler while CJ navigated South Florida’s morning rush congestion. “There’s this initiative called the Florida Reef Resilience Program that the Nature Conservancy’s a part of. It’s the largest coral reef monitoring program in the world. Anyway, I met Osvaldo at a meeting in DC. We got to talking, and when he found out I was a frequent visitor to South Florida, he suggested I join him on an expedition some time. I called him about a month ago, and here we are.” “And you’re sure it’s okay for me to come with? I’m so tired of not being able to do things because I’m not eighteen yet.” CJ’s laughter echoed inside the SUV. “Bro, enjoy it while you can. I was in such a hurry to grow up, I prolly missed out on normal teenage shit. Now I’m an old married man, and the ball and chain keeps me on a short leash.” “Asshole!” Owen’s hard punch against his biceps made CJ swerve a little as he took the Atlantic Boulevard exit heading east. “You’ll be fine, Ritchie. I told him you were a minor, and he said it was okay. The only thing you won’t be able to do is strap on scuba tanks since you aren’t certified. But he promised you’d enjoy yourself anyway.” “And we don’t have to pay anything?” “Nope. We’re his guests. Although people can sign up for these trips and pay a fee. The dive center donates all proceeds to the Guy Harvey Research Institute. That’s part of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.” The backpack CJ carried as they walked down the pier had towels and sunscreen; all other equipment was aboard. While the boat chugged north, Dr. Toro described what they could expect. “Since you’re not certified, you won’t be able to strap on tanks and join the others.” The man smiled when Ritchie’s face showed disappointment. “But you knew that already. However, I promise you won’t be sitting on your hands. Once we lower the cage in the water, you’ll be in it. We’ll give you a mask and snorkel, and you’ll man one of the cameras.” “Cool! My friends are gonna be sooo jealous. I can’t believe we’re doing the kind of stuff they do during Shark Week. What type of shark are we gonna tag?” When they dropped anchor off the shore of Boca Raton, the boat became a beehive of activity. The graduate students with them did most of the work, while the boat captain and dive master supervised. Equipment was thoroughly checked, the metal cage was dropped off the side, and Ritchie was tasked to help the one female in the group bait the lines. The chunks of fish would hopefully attract the juvenile tiger sharks they wanted to catch. CJ and Owen, wearing shortie wetsuits, were the last two to sit on the boat’s edge and flip backward into the Gulf Stream’s waters. Once the bubbles from their entry dissipated, they held onto the cage’s metal bars, and gave a thumbs-up sign. Ritchie tracked their moves with the camera in his hands. The first animal to approach was a sand shark; CJ had encountered those while snorkeling in the Florida Keys before. Not known for attacking humans, they did harass spearfishing divers. Additional ones joined the initial lone hunter until half-a-dozen of them circled the divers and inspected the dangling lines. When the shiver dispersed, Dr. Toro pointed toward a different animal swimming in their direction and signaled for them to rise to the surface. “That’s a bull shark approaching.” They hung with a hand grasping the safety cage, regulators hanging by their side. “Not what we were looking for today, but let’s try and tag it.” “Those can be dangerous, right?” Ritchie blew his nose and rinsed his hand in the water. “All sharks can be a danger in the right circumstances. We should be safe. If he takes the bait, wait until the crew on board lassos him before moving in.” For the first time that morning, CJ felt apprehensive. “Should be safe?” He had had a couple of close encounters with the beasts before. Owen’s malevolent grin did not calm him. “Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk… Didn’t you call me chicken when I was worried about skydiving?” “Asshole!” CJ removed his mask, spit on the lens, rubbed it with a gloved finger, and replaced it on his head before going under again. “The two of you are grounded. You took your brother diving with sharks, and you didn’t ask our permission?” César’s annoyance amused the men surrounding him as he repeatedly stabbed the elevator’s call button. “What in the hell possessed you to risk his life that way?” “Grounded?” Brett was somehow able to sputter the word, while Ritchie tried to hide behind his brother. “You’re grounding two grown-ass men?” “Shut up, Jarhead. I’m not in the mood for jokes right now.” “I was safe the whole time, Mr. A. I was inside the cage using the camera. It was sick when CJ and Ozzie clamped the doohickey to the fins. Dr. Toro said it’s traditional for whoever does it to name the shark, but they let me do it. It was a female, so I named her Lucy. We’ll be able to track her online.” “You named it after your girlfriend? Won’t she be upset thinking you’re calling her a shark?” Silas Washington and the rest of the family’s Chicago branch had arrived during the day. He was sharing Ritchie’s hotel room, while the others stayed at the grandparent’s house. “Nah… She was all excited when I texted her about it. And she re-shared the picture I posted. There’s like a gazillion comments on it already. From my friends at Sidwell and hers at Walls.” CJ rolled his eyes; he was getting annoyed. “You sound like a fucking woman on the rag, Dad. Stop bitching, okay?” “And you stop being a disrespectful whelp. This is the last time I trust you and Ozzie with your brother.” “Fuck you, old man!” CJ’s infamous temper boiled over as they waited for a foursome to play through before crossing the golf course. “You want respect? You gotta earn it the way you’ve always told me. What the hell was that crack about us being grounded? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m over twenty-one. And I don’t even live in your house anymore. You think swimming with sharks’ unacceptable, but you have no problem when Ritchie gets inside a small plane by himself. You’re being a—“ “ENOUGH!” Brett raising his voice was uncommon. “Both of you are on time-out. César, you’re helicoptering. CJ, you calm down this minute. For the record, your father objected to the flying lessons, but I overrode him. We’re here to celebrate Rosario’s birthday, and I’m not about to let you two ruin the night. If you can’t control yourselves, go back to the hotel right now.” Silence reigned until they reached the chain link barrier separating the grandparent’s house from the fifteenth-hole’s fairway. While Brett and César used the gate, the younger men vaulted over the fence as usual. “I’ve never seen your dad and your brother argue like that. Are they going to be okay?” Silas soft-spoken words carried sufficiently for CJ to overhear. “We’ll be fine, Silas. It’s not the first time the dads and I go at it. Sometimes they forget I’m not the scared, inexperienced boy they took in five years ago. Ritchie, tell Silas about when that one shark charged us.” “Oh man, I thought I was going to pee myself. It had its mouth closed but I’d already seen all those damn teeth. So, it swims towards CJ after circling for a while. By then there were a few around us, and I kept trying to follow them with the camera. When it got close to him, CJ put his hand on its nose and pushed it to the side. It was insane! I’m not sure I could have been that relaxed. Ozzie was…” CJ tuned out his brother, briskly walked to his father’s side, and slipped an arm around his waist. “Sorry, Dad. I shouldn’t have lost my shit that way. But you pissed me off.” While the two teenagers walked inside, the others came to a halt at the patio’s edge. “CJ, the day you and Ozzie have kids, I’m going to remind you of this. We worry enough about you two and all the shit you do. With Ritchie, the concern’s a bit more pronounced. He’s nowhere near as mature as you were at his age. And you have to remember you and Olga are the only blood relatives he has. We took the responsibility to raise him willingly, but I’ll always worry about his safety. The kid’s had enough losses already, and I don’t want him injured, maimed, or killed.” Over the evening—following consumption of a not-insignificant amount of alcohol—peace was restored, and harmony reestablished. The amount of booze ingested by Ritchie and Silas was somewhat higher than usual; they required assistance getting back to the hotel and into their room. The following day, CJ and Randy’s husband, Tyler lounged by the Biltmore’s famous pool drinking mojitos, while the women in the family pampered themselves at the spa. The other men played a round of golf. Dinner that evening was at Christy’s, a Coral Gables dining-scene mainstay for over forty years. The restaurant was famous for its prime rib. The large group occupied the private back room and was anything but quiet. Multiple conversations were crowned by César and Rico recounting stories of growing up with their mother, and a final toast by Sebastián. The next day, the Chicago and Washington contingents flew home. A week later, Sebastián and Rosario embarked on a two-week cruise traversing the Panama Canal and sailing down the coast of South America to Santiago, Chile.
  24. 61 points
    Amazingly, Arlene Killjoy broke the tension by finally returning with a glass of Moet champagne for Clifton. By then Jaymes had released his hold on Nathan but remained fixed at his side, a smile Nathan could only describe as weapon-like plastered on his face. Clifton, his usual unshakeable confidence rattled, had most definitely slipped out of character, and Nathan was still unsure whether to be pissed at Jaymes’ intervention or flattered he’d stood by him. Before Arlene returned, he had been genuinely worried about the two of them engaging in conversation, felt sure Jaymes would once again showcase his love of a fight together with his irritating and childish sense of humour. What Nathan definitely did not want was to be stuck between the two. Fortunately for him, Arlene once again started hogging Clifton’s attention, giving Nathan the perfect opportunity to retreat. Except Jaymes had already begun to move, grabbing him by the elbow, and half hauling him across the room to where Polly tucked into a plate of sushi. On seeing Nathan’s face, she froze mid-chew. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Nathan, yanking his arm away from Jaymes. “What happened?” asked Polly. “Saving your arse.” Jaymes picked up his pint of dark ale from the table. “And a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice.” “I don’t need saving, asshole. I know exactly what I’m doing. Clifton and I go back a long way.” “What happened?” Polly asked again, this time thrusting a fresh pint of lager at Nathan. “I was right. Mr Scumbag, the wannabe-movie-star over there, was trying to smarm his way into your best friend’s pants by getting him to attend some sleazy sex party. Recreational drugs, too, if his reputation is anything to go by. And all this while his husband’s out of town. Pure class. The man makes me want to vomit fur balls.” Nathan looked aghast. In all this time, Nathan hadn’t taken in Jaymes’s face, which—still handsome in a rugged kind of way—had darkened dangerously. All he’d seen the other night was the playful but irritating joker. This angry side of him came as a revelation and tempered his own anger. “Jaymes, he was not—” “Oh, come on. You’re not a child. Poll and I were standing all the way over here and even we could tell what he was up to. Looking at you the way a lion looks at a baby zebra. Licking his fucking eyebrows. When I got to you, I was surprised to see no saliva on his chin.” After a few deep breaths, Nathan calmed for a moment, before turning to Polly. “You told him? About me and Clifton?” “He asked,” said Polly, a little sheepish now. “And, to be honest, he’s right. You did look as though you needed someone to bail you out. But I told him not to go.” “What the hell does this have to do with either of you?” “Wake up, buddy,” said Jaymes, who had now calmed himself after a good tug on his pint of stout. “You’re my cousin’s friend. And therefore you’re mine. And I look out for my friends. So get used to it.” “I don’t need looking out for.” “The hell you don’t.” “Boys,” said Polly. “Play nicely.” Snatching Nathan’s attention away, the phone in his jacket pocket dinged a couple of times in short succession. Taking the opportunity to move away from Polly and Jaymes, he walked towards the pub window to check the messages. Behind him, he could hear the two of them start a heated exchange, but tuned them out. On checking his phone, he noted the first from Clifton, sent earlier. Before Jaymes had butted in. Unknown: Cute as ever, Nate. Next Saturday 7:30pm. Details to follow. Cliff xx The second came as a surprise, because he hadn’t even set up the message group yet. Bob Morris: Just been chatting with the lads over a pint. I’m in and so is Eric. And I’m sure others will come around, too. It’ll be a laugh. Nathan stared out of the pub window, noticing a light drizzle beginning. He grinned happily to himself. Four members agreeing to the photo shoot already. Would wonders never cease? Right then he spotted Clifton leaving the pub, strolling across the car park behind a larger man in a dark suit while tucking something into his inside jacket pocket. They moved over towards the sparkling Tesla parked up next to Mikey’s estate car, Clifton stopping and waiting for the man to open the back door for him. Every action, every movement, looked so perfect, as though the walk from the pub exit to the car had been choreographed by a film director. Had Jaymes been right? Was Clifton simply hitting on him because he thought he would be a familiar and easy fuck during a dry spell? If anything, Nathan preferred to give people in life the benefit of the doubt instead of making assumptions. As the car reversed out and headed to the main road, Nathan peered down at the final message. Unknown: Sorry about earlier. Please feel free to bring your friend. Still need some time alone with you. Lot of catching up to do, and some explaining, I guess. I’ve missed you. Sending contact address file now. Cliff. xx Nathan bit the inside of his lip. One thing was for sure. He needed some answers from Clifton, about why he and his family had disappeared without a word ten years ago. Memories of his beautiful face especially when he climaxed when Nathan sucked him off, the way his eyes lit up when they were together, even the simple things like how well they worked together on the football field. All the good things came back to Nathan, something he’d naively believed they would use to build into a life together. Until the family disappeared. Customers to the bakery speculated about Clifton’s father, a relatively successful futures trader for a global investment bank. Rumours sprang up saying maybe he had escaped the country before suspicion of fraud could be levied against him. But nothing appeared in the press about any difficulties with the bank, and no police came knocking on anyone’s doors, so the rumours soon fizzled out. Later, people found out the father had quite legitimately given notice to leave his job. And the money angle had been wildly overstated, anyway, because Clifton’s grandfather owned a fortune, money from the sale of commercial warehouses in East London in the early eighties, money which would one day pass on to his son. No, money couldn’t have been the reason. What did come to light was the fact their head teacher had known about Clifton’s removal from the school a month before it happened. That particular piece of news had devastated Nathan. If Clifton knew he would be leaving, he had said nothing, not a word, to his best friend and lover. So yes, Nathan needed answers. When Nathan returned to Polly, he gave her a smile and a nod to let her know he had calmed down. In his short time away, three young women had joined them—or joined Jaymes, by the looks of things—with Jaymes mid-speech, his handsomely rugged face attractive in the way he enthused about his job. “And what people don’t realise is that the threat to trees from pests and diseases has never been greater. Your grandparents may have told you about DED, Dutch Elm Disease. Changed the face of the English countryside back in 1975. Even in our generation we’ve had cases of Oak Processionary Moth—OPM—even though working with the EU, we’ve managed to reduced the number of cases—another reason why Brexit is such a bad idea. But others of our tree species are at risk such as ash and larch. Plant health officers inspect wood imports at ports around the country every day to minimise the risk from invasive pests and diseases. But even then, with those strict regulations in place, sometimes diseases get through. So if any outbreaks do occur, experts like me work with local authorities and landowners to contain and control any spread.” “Your cousin’s a tree-hugger?” Nathan whispered to Polly, making her chuckle. “It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but someone needs to protect our species of forest plants and animals for future generations. Despite what some world leaders may tell you, climate change is real, and we’re in danger of losing many of our native species, not only in terms of flora, but also forest animals. You only have to look at the news in places like North America or Australia to know that a beautiful forest which has been there for generations, could be gone in a matter of days to wildfire under the wrong conditions. Our own Mosswold Forest doesn’t have a dedicated environmental specialist, so the Forestry Commission sent me here for the year, to carry a kind of stock and health check.” “So you’re, like, Greenpeace for trees, yeah?” said one, which had the other two girls giggling. “Except I get paid a wage. I’m not a volunteer.” “You look like a superhero to me,” said another. Nathan held his tongue, even though a couple of comments began to form. “Hey, do you drive a range rover? And wear a flat cap and green wellies and go fox-hunting?” asked another. Okay, thought Nathan, not the most intelligent of questions. Hat’s off to Jaymes, he took the comments in his stride, kept smiling and answered good-naturedly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Arlene making a beeline for him. “Actually, I drive an old Land Rover and, yes, I do possess a pair of green wellies, as well as a matching Barbour jacket. But both are only worn when the weather’s bad.” Without even a glance at anyone else around, Arleen pulled Nathan away from the crowd to a quieter spot at the back of the bar. Nathan was getting a little irritated at being dragged around by people. “Clifton O’Keefe left,” she said, a little alarmed. “Yes, I know, I saw him go.” “Oh. He said nothing to me.” “I get the impression he’s quite the busy man right now.” “Of course, of course. I didn’t realise you two were so close once. I don’t suppose you have his contact details? I could ask my husband but he’s already done so much. All I have at the moment is an email address.” For a split second, Nathan considered sharing them with her, but then wondered if Clifton might consider that an invasion of his privacy. “I’m seeing him next Saturday night for dinner. I gave him my details and he’s going to let me know where. If you don’t mind waiting until then, I can either give him your details or ask permission to pass his onto you. How does that sound?” “Marvellous.” “And we’ve already got four agreed to do the calendar.” “Wonderful. Who?” “Mike Shanton, Eric Noble, Bob Morris, and me.” “Oh,’ said Arlene, her disappointment clear and vaguely insulting. “Is that all?” “So far,” said Nathan, a little miffed. “I’ve only just told them. It wasn’t a show of hands, so some will want to talk to their other halves. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more.” “Let’s hope so. And how many of the squad are single?” Nathan made a quick mental calculation, made sure he included those who were single, divorced or separated—and not dating—into the pot. “Nine.” “Including you?” “Of course not. I’m gay, Arlene.” “And single. So it’s ten, then. Excellent. I’m thinking we start the bidding at a hundred pounds a person. What do you think?” As if it even mattered what he thought. He knew exactly what was going through her head. One event and she would already have made almost a half of what the committee came up with last year for the whole day. “Fine.” “It’ll be fun,” she said. Her attention elsewhere now, she wiggled the fingers of one hand at friends and headed away. He waited until she was well out of earshot before murmuring to himself. “It’ll be an embarrassment.” “What’ll be an embarrassment?” came Jaymes’ voice, next to him, startling him. “What the—! Will you stop stalking me?” “I’m not stalking—” Jaymes looked away, his eyebrows scrunched together and pushed out a sigh. “Polly sent me over to see if you wanted a lift home. In case you haven’t noticed, the weather’s none too bright. She says you’re on our way. Or you could come back and share some lunch with us.” “Polly’s cooking?” said Nathan, aghast. Polly only ever opened packets or tins. He wondered if she even knew how to use her microwave. “Of course not.” “Oh, so you’re getting takeaway?” “I’m cooking. Why do people find that so hard to believe?” “Give me a few minutes to come up with a suitably sarcastic response.” “You want a lift or not?” Nathan peered out the window again, where the weather had become noticeably worse. Rain now hammered down from the sky, January rain—ice cold, unrelenting, and able to pierce even the thickest overcoat. His flat stood a forty-five minute brisk walk away, usually giving him refreshing exercise after a beer, but now he would get soaked. A lift home would be very much welcome. “Go on, then. Home please. Thanks.” After finding Polly chatting to an older woman who turned out to the photographer, hiding from Arlene, they stayed for a few more minutes before making their farewells. Trudging across the car park beneath the umbrellas Jaymes and Polly had sensibly brought, they made their way over to a racing green Land Rover, an old style with two doors and a canvass covering over the back of the vehicle. “Series three, single wheel base,” said Jaymes, pulling keys from a jacket pocket. “My pride and joy. Came off the line in 1976, long before I was born. Belonged to granddad. She’s a beauty, alright. Just needs a bit of love and attention from time to time.” “Don’t we all,” said Nathan and Polly in unison, both laughing at their shared response, and high-fiving. After opening the passenger side for Polly, Jaymes walked to the rear of the car and opened up the canvass flap, before looking expectantly at Nathan. When Nathan peered inside, he saw an untidy mess of toolkit, deflated football, plastic tub and buckets, two huge water bottles—the type you find upside down on a water cooler—range of brushes, rubbish sacks, Snickers wrappers, and old bits of flora peppering the floor. “You want me to get in there?” “Either that or the roof,” said Jaymes, that smug smile on his face again. “We’ve only just met, and you already take great pride in humiliating me, don’t you?” “You need no help from me, hotshot. Getting in or not?” Nathan clambered awkwardly into the back and made himself cosy on an old, rolled-up carpet against one side of the car. Seeing Nathan get comfortable, Jaymes still held the canvass flap open. “What now?” asked Nathan. “Are you going to pretty boy’s house next weekend?” “What do you care?” “Nate! Nathan. Are you going?” “I’ve been invited, yes.” “Just you?” “Just me.” “What time Saturday?” “Why? You’re not—” “What time Saturday?” “It’s a dinner party, Jaymes. Nothing more—” “Nathan!” Nathan breathed out a sigh. Maybe he did need some moral support that night. “Seven-thirty.” “I’ll pick you up at seven.” “Fine.” Jaymes reply came in the form of the canvass flap being slapped back into place, and the driver’s door opening and slamming closed. All the way back to the shop, Nathan braced himself against the chassis to stop from being thrown across the car, doing a better job than the poor squashed football.
  25. 61 points
    Nathan had a dreadful game that Sunday, largely because he wasn’t concentrating, knew his team would slay him once they knew what he needed to ask of them. Overnight frost had made the ground as hard as granite, so when he fell for the third time, instead of being covered in mud, he managed to scrape skin from his shin and upper thigh. Three times during the game, Mikey sidled up and asked him what was wrong. If only he’d been at the meeting, Nathan would already have someone on his side. As it was, what could he say? Sorry, mate, but I’ve promised to get you all naked and on a calendar for the summer fête. When the full time whistle blew, they’d managed a goalless score draw, no thanks to him. In the changing rooms, the usual banter ensued. Funny really, but even with them all knowing Nathan was gay, nobody seemed to have an issue. For Nathan, it had taken a long time for him to feel comfortable around the other men. Straight men had the wrong idea about gay guys in changing rooms. Gay guys would not be the ones wantonly ogling the bodies of other men, making lurid comments and getting a semi in the process. They’d be the ones with their eyes glued to the floor, a towel covering their faces, or staring into their lockers, carefully avoiding eye contact or even a casual glance at another man’s body. They’d be either the first or last to shower—in the shortest time possible, if they even bothered to shower at all. If you wanted to spot the gay guy, look for the most terrified man in the room, the one who refused to give eye contact. More importantly for Nathan, he found none of them sexually attractive. Yes, a few of them looked after themselves, had good bodies, but none had the combination of attraction and intelligence, and none of them were gay, which was non-negotiable. “What was up with you today, Fresher?” asked the full back. “Not on my best form today, sorry chaps,” said Nathan. “We all have our off days.” “Thought maybe one of the opposition had caught his eye,” said Ken, one of the younger and better looking team players, smirking and winking at Nathan. Laughter filled the room at that remark and Nathan joined them. One thing he could confidently say about his team was that none of them cared about his sexuality. “That would be a definite no.” He also enjoyed being a part of the banter, but sat nervously, already changed into his grey crew neck sweater and jeans, waiting until everyone was dressed. When he felt the time was right, he stood up on the bench to get their attention. “Before you all bugger off, I’ve got something I need to run by you. I can’t come and have a beer today, because of a previous engagement, so I need to get this out of the way now.” One thing Nathan could count on was getting the team’s attention when needed. They were a good-hearted bunch, had played a game for charity the previous year against St Joseph’s school for physically disabled kids—which the kids had won. As he went through the proposal for the summer fête, the room grew progressively quiet, and as he came to the end, a deathly silence hovered over the room. “Look, you don’t have tell me right away. Maybe have a chat with your other halves, see what they think,” he said, hands on hips. “To be honest, I’m not over the moon about the idea. It’s a lot to ask and the new chairperson, Arlene Killjoy, doesn’t know you. So if it’s a no, I’ll back you all the way. But I’ll add you all to a WhatsApp group called Summer Fête Initiative—so we keep things inconspicuous—and only if you’re in, do you need message me. But if you are—and we’ll need twelve, one for every month of next year—I’ll need your response before our next committee meeting, so before the end of January. The shoot, if it goes ahead, will be in Feb.” A quick glance around the room, and Nathan could see heads shaking, and the faces of those who did not like the idea. Most of them in the room, by the looks of things. “Would we be showing our cocks?” asked Bob Morris, the goalkeeper. “It’s not Tinder, dick brain,” said Mikey. “Don’t worry, they’ll photoshop yours, Bob. To make it look like a real one.” “Fuck off.” Laughter was always the best medicine in tense situations. Nathan laughed along with them. “No cock shots. Arlene guaranteed there would be no junk on display, just very tasteful and attractive shots of the best bits of our bodies. To make us look as sexy as possible.” "Like I said, Photoshop, Bob." More laughter, but this time Nathan took the murmur of voices to be a good sign. “Are you going to do it, then?” came a voice from the back of the room, after a lull. “If you’re in, then so am I. I’m not going to be a hypocrite here.” However immature he thought the man, he was grateful to have Jaymes’ words come back to him. “I would never ask you to do something I’m not prepared to do myself.” Silence again. He glanced at his watch. Arlene’s function was due to begin in thirty minutes, so he would need to rush. Maybe he needed one last carrot to dangle. “And I’m going to insist that the majority of the proceeds from the sale of the calendars goes to St Joseph’s. Think that’s only fair, because we know them and they know us.” As he jumped down from the bench, he noticed a few of them finally nodding. Yes, he thought, they were a good bunch of blokes, really. Outside the clubhouse in the chill midday air, Mikey called out his name, before dashing to catch up with him, and pulling him to a stop. “What the fuck?” “I know.” Nathan huffed out a sigh, staring at Mikey’s collar. “I’d have give you the head’s up, but I couldn’t find you. You missed an interesting committee meeting this week. Do you think they’ll do it?” “Some might. And if you’re in, I’m in.” Nathan looked up into his friend’s eyes. “Really?” Actually, Mikey had a good body, made up in his physique what he lacked in the looks department. Far more toned than Nathan. Somewhat unkindly, Polly described Mikey’s types as prawns; sculpted body, ugly face. “Reckon my missus will love it. Might even get me a shag or ten.” “Nice. So we only need March to December. Work on a few for me, will you?” “Sure. Benny Osmond might come around. If only we could guarantee that your teacher friend got to see him in the calendar.” “Polly? Why does Benny—?” “He’s not said anything to you, because he knows you two are friends. But the man would give his right arm for a date with her.” “Really?” Nathan had no idea, but he wondered what Polly might say. If anything, Polly tended to go for older men. “I think he might be a bit young for her.” “He’s twenty-five. How old is she?” “Same age as me, twenty-eight,” said Nathan, glancing sidelong at Mikey. “Think she likes them older. But maybe I can put in a good word for him, if he agrees to do the calendar?” “Blackmail? Love it. Are you going to this shindig Arlene’s holding now?” “Of course.” Mikey started moving quickly away. “Come on, then. I’ll give you a lift. The wife’s already there. Her mum’s got the kids.” On the way, Nathan brought Mikey up to speed with the other items on the committee agenda. “As much as I hate to say it, she’s probably right,” said Mikey, turning his car into the pub car park. “The event has got a bit stale. Even my kids say so.” Sunday, and the car park was fuller than usual. Mikey parked up his Volvo estate between a beaten up old Toyota and a sleek Tesla, which just about summed up Crumbington. Families liked to get out of the house and take advantage of the reasonably priced pub lunches. Usually on a Sunday, Nathan would have a pint with the lads after the game and then head home for a sandwich lunch. This was more Mikey’s domain. Nathan trailed Mikey into the private bar, already filled with bodies. A big cluster of people chatted excitedly at one end of the bar, one of those being Arlene. Somebody else clearly held court. After pecking Mikey’s wife on the cheek, Nathan peered around trying to find Polly. Eventually, he offered to get a round of drinks for them and headed to the bar where a flustered barman finally got to him. As he ordered a rum and coke and two pints of Skol, he stared at the lad, thought he recognised him. “Pretty busy today, I see,” said Nathan, stating the obvious. “Bat shit crazy, more like.” “Are you Bob Morris’s son?” “Kyle Morris,” said the lad, ginning wide and looking even more like his father. “Yep, that’s me.” Everybody knew everybody in Crumbington. Kyle was Bob’s eldest, probably just turned eighteen. Kyle still had a full head of unruly red hair, but had the same rosy cheeked complexion as his father. “Your dad played a blinder in goal today. Didn’t let a single one in.” Kyle shook his head but laughed, too. Nathan handed over a twenty pound note. “That game’ll be the death of him.” “But at least he’ll die happy. Hey, have you seen Polly Fischer?” “Miss Fischer? The teacher?” Polly hated being called Miss Fischer outside of school, especially along the high street when one youngster or another would address her as simply; ‘miss’. “Yes, her.” “No, not seen her,” he said, handing over the change, and giving Nathan a small tray. “But I’ll let you know if she turns up. So you’re here with Mrs Killjoy’s mob to meet the celeb, are you?” Nathan chuckled. So they’d labelled her photographer friend a celebrity already, had they? Typical of the village folk to consider anyone who worked in the big smoke a celebrity. “Looks like it,” said Nathan, taking the drinks. Nathan had barely put the drinks down and begun chatting to Mikey’s lovely wife, when Arlene stepped over and grabbed him by the forearm. Her eyes sparkled with excitement, her cheeks reddened. Nathan hadn’t realised how excited she was about the team shoot. Was there a kinky side to Arlene Killjoy? Across from him, unseen by Arlene, Mikey rolled his eyes in sympathy. “Nathan, I need you,” she said, before he could speak. No word of apology to Mikey and his wife for taking him away, no polite explanation or apologetic smile. Polly was right. One day they would come to blows. “Someone is insisting on meeting you.” Without another word, she pulled him away, leading the way through the room of bodies. Of course, he thought, her photographer friend would also be putting the thumb screws on him to get the players to agree to the shoot. They headed for the far corner, where the larger crowd still hemmed in the poor photographer. “Oh. I thought you wanted to know how it went with the team.” “Later,” she said, over her shoulder. “More important things right now.” Without consideration, Arlene shoved people out of their path like a professional bodyguard, until only the front row stood in their way. With a loud cough, she got the attention of the front two women, who parted to let her through, to meet… Oh shit. Clifton O’Keefe. Nathan had no time to check himself and stood there, doing a fantastic impression of a goldfish in a bowl suddenly being gawked at by a roomful of amused onlookers. Clifton looked even better in the flesh, better than Nathan remembered him. Not that he hadn’t always been handsome, but somewhere in the background, someone had taken him in hand, accentuated all his many good points—the sweeping black fringe, those thick, perfect eyebrows and piercing brown eyes, the full lips and immaculate teeth—and given him a particular look. Magnetic, Nathan mused, effortlessly drawing attention to himself wherever he went. Maybe that was something movie stars were taught. Why else would people pay good money to watch them pretending to be other people. Nathan had only seen one of his films—Prince in the Snow—a Christmas story Mikey’s kids had wanted to see at the cinema complex in the nearby town. Knowing nothing about the plot, Nathan had been stunned silent when he recognised the face on the screen, especially the familiar voice coming from the very familiar mouth; one that, once upon a time, he had been allowed to kiss. Clifton—clearly used to being the centre of attention—gave Nathan a sympathetic smile, before coming over and giving him a gentle, but somewhat theatrical, embrace. Nathan froze, let himself be hugged like a farmer positioning a scarecrow, unsure of how to respond. “Nate Fresher, my old friend. How are you?” he said, and then to those gathered. “Nate and I went to school together. All the way from Crumbington Junior to Applegate High. We both played for the school football team.” And occasionally sucked each other’s dicks, thought Nathan. Or jerked each other off while kissing in the groundsman’s shed. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t hear those thoughts and simply cooed at Clifton’s admission. “Still baking bread. Still feeding the masses?” “Bread. Yes.” Nathan’s mouth spouted words like a long distance phone call. “Baker. Um, baking. Yes.” “So I was just telling everyone here that I’ll be around until the end of the year, staying locally, so please treat me as one of you.” For a moment, Nathan wondered at Clifton’s formality, until he noticed the way his eyes swept across the crowd of onlookers, realised he addressed the flock, not just Nathan. “When he arrives, Raul and I will be attending a number of events for the LGBTQI community, especially relating to our personal favourite charity: Out On The Streets, aimed at homeless gay kids. Which is good practise, because we’ll be adding to our family unit later in the year. But in case you’ve not heard yet, the big news is we’re delighted to be hosting the Crumbington Summer Fête in July. Raul will adore this place, it’s so quintessentially English. And, of course, the place where I grew up. Right now, though, Arlene has reminded me that there’s still a whole tableful of food that needs to be eaten, so please go and help yourselves. If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments alone to catch up with my old friend.” Clifton knew how to work a crowd. Everyone dutifully moved away, even those who clearly wanted to speak more to him. Only Arlene remained by his side, as though she needed to protect her asset. Even then, Clifton managed to get her away, by leaning in and whispering something in her ear. For a moment, Nathan thought she might click her fingers and summon someone over to do her bidding, but eventually, after looking around her, she realised there would be nobody and finally excused herself. “Hey there,” said Clifton, once Arlene was out of earshot. His voice came out natural, honeyed, the warmth of his gaze comfortably familiar. “Sorry, Cliff,” said Nathan, before placing a hand in front of his mouth. “Shit, I mean Clifton. Arlene told us you were coming for the summer fête, but I didn’t realise you’d be here already. Took me by surprise.” “Then it’s me who should apologise. And Cliff’s fine. For you, anyway. Was then, is now. Arlene told me your dad passed away.” “Five years now.” “I’m so sorry. What happened?” “Not sure really. Weak heart, the doctor said. Broken heart, more like. Don’t think he ever really got over my mum disappearing into the night without a word.” Clifton’s professional smile slipped for a moment. Nathan realised why—Clifton had been there at the time his mother skipped town. He had also done the same thing to Nathan. “I saw one of your films. Prince in the Snow,” said Nathan, changing tack. “Oh, God. Hardly my finest work.” “Mike Shanton’s kids loved it. Thought you made a—what was it his six-year-old daughter said—a totally crush-worthy prince. I even think she has a poster of you on her bedroom wall.” When Clifton laughed, it felt like old times, and Nathan sensed himself relaxing. “I’ve done a lot more and had far better roles. I’m even up for a Teen Choice award this year for Tangerine Smile. And my manager reckons I might even be in the running for a Golden Globe nomination.” “I—I never saw that one. Only Prince in the Snow.” Clifton smiled his incredible smile again. “And what did you think?” “Honestly? I had a hard time reconciling you up on the screen. In fact, I’m having a hard time believing it’s you standing here now.” This time, when Clifton’s eyes bored into Nathan, something calculating settled there. Moments passed between them that felt like hours. Reaching into his jacket pocket, Clifton drew out and unlocked his mobile phone before handing the device to Nathan. “Give me your number.” Nathan smiled, and did as asked, using his thumbs to enter the number. Once he had finished, Clifton texted a message and Nathan heard the gentle ping of the message arriving in his jacket pocket. “Look, I’m having some like-minded couples over to my grandparent’s house next Saturday evening for a dinner party—catered, of course—starting around seven-thirty. I’m staying there taking care of the place while they escape to their villa in Barbados for the winter months. I’ve just sent you an invite, if you’d like to come. Raul won’t be over until mid-March, so we’ll have a chance to catch up properly—if you know what I mean? What do you think?” Clifton grinned broadly and winked. At first, Nathan felt bemused but flattered. Something felt a little off about the smile—something his father would have called a salesman’s smile. One thing was for sure. The shy, nervous boy he’d known ten years ago bore no resemblance to the beautiful, confident man standing before him. Nevertheless, he’d been about to accept the invitation, when a heavy arm landed around his shoulders. “We’d love to come, wouldn’t we, Nate?” came a deep, now familiar voice. Jaymes. Nathan had been about to roll his eyes and shove the arm away, when he noticed barely suppressed anger flash across Clifton’s face out of the corner of his eye. What the hell? “And you are?” asked Clifton, his usual pleasant tone slipping. “Jaymes Fischer,” said Jaymes, genially holding out his free hand, bunches of leather bands tied around and dangling from his wrist. For a few short moments, Clifton peered down at the large outstretched hand, giving Nathan a moment of clarity. Clifton probably employed bodyguards who looked like Jaymes. “Nate?” asked Clifton, glaring at Jaymes and ignoring the outstretched hand. “He’s a friend,” said Nathan, finally catching up. “Friend?” said Clifton, his gaze sweeping to Nathan’s face, a mixture of bafflement and disgust in his face. “Boyfriend,” said Jaymes. “Didn’t Nate tell you?”
  26. 60 points
    “If you want to kill your father, do it yourself!” Freska demanded. “But my friends are not your pawns. And before you even think to order those guards to do anything to us, know that I have skills you did not even know I possessed. Did you wonder what I was doing before you pretended to wake up? Do you know I don’t need to touch electronic systems once they’ve let me in? I know that this whole place is wired for vid and sound.” Rilecca gaped at her. “What?” “See, I figured you would need proof of them killing your father, which meant you’d record it. That meant there had to be a recording system even in this chamber where the council met. I asked the building AI to access the system and broadcast it. Live. So your plan might have been to pretend to mourn and take your father’s place, but now your people know the truth.” “So?” Rilecca hissed. “I still hold the power. My father’s generation is done; I have allies and we will take over.” She straightened, planting a smirk on her face. “This is even better. I have my father to plumb for even more information, but my people will respect my power. They will respect my ability to see a plan through and fall in line behind me so I don’t take them down for getting in my way. And we still control Brox and your Central Council. What if I don’t change our role in the universe like you so naively believed I would? What if we just keep taking over planets and systems?” “See, the AI gave me all that information too. And I asked it to not just broadcast to your planet, but to connect to my ship’s A.I. which your father failed to neutralize when they towed it here. My ship is equipped with custom systems I designed; this was broadcasting to the entire vid network. That means a live vid of all your information is bouncing out among the stars. Right. Now.” Freska stood tall and triumphant, holding Danie to her. “You lose, you and all you damn Elite bastards who thought they could just take what they wanted and damn the rest of the universe in the process!” For the first time Rilecca looked truly shocked. She staggered, and one of the guards rushed to her. “My lady, your orders?” She gasped. “Kill them!” “I don’t think so!” Anyas stepped in front of the group and pressed something on his belt. A shield went up, the shimmer just visible as it rose from the floor to the ceiling. “Back up,” he hissed. “Corner. Now.” Captain and Deke fanned out, more of the undetectable weapons in their hands. Had they had them the whole time? Anyas grinned over his shoulder at me. “They really need to learn to search Elites better. I am not nearly as padded as they seem to think life on that frozen wasteland made me.” Blasts ricocheted off the shield and hit the walls and ceiling. Powder and bits of the building flew through the air, and that did make it through the shield. I started coughing, doubling over. “Kohen, are you okay?” Captain glanced over his shoulder. I nodded and waved my hand, unable to talk. I just wanted this to be over. Deke stepped out from the shield and shot, winging a guard, then he darted back inside. The chaos actually helped as the screams and mess from the three guards’ shots added to the confusion, letting Deke and Captain take them out one by one. That just left Rilecca hiding behind the chairs and her father who was slumped on the floor by the table. “Kill order, Captain?” Deke asked. He hesitated. Deke closed ranks, and they started saying something that wasn’t filtering in to the mess that was spinning inside my brain. Then Rilecca’s head popped up and she made a break for the door. A flurry of activity took us all by surprise when Anyas dropped the shield, jumped forward, scooped up the weapon that had fallen from one guard’s hands and shot her, right in the back. Blood bloomed on her gown at the base of her neck and her arms flew outward. Rilecca’s initial wail cut off with a wet gurgle, and she fell to the ground. The wound on her back was small, but the pool of blood under her head and chest spread rapidly. Anyas turned, gun held ready, and pointed it at her father, the only surviving Elite in the room besides him. “No!” Danie said. “He knows things. Information. We need him.” “I thought we had her.” Anyas gestured toward Freska with his free hand, not taking his sights off the aged Elite. “She can talk to all the computers; nothing is secret or protected from her.” “Freska has been trying to unlock my memories, and there’s stuff in here I know he is responsible for. The things he did… he’s a monster, but killing him helps no one and could damage our ability to unravel his plans.” Danie was calm, rational. I wasn’t. “It would help me!” My chest was heaving. “He has to die. He knows how to take control of us. He can’t… no one should be able to do that.” My voice broke. Captain tossed his weapon to Deke and rushed to me. He pulled me into his arms, and I clung to him. I buried my face in his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” “Shh,” he murmured. Freska turned. “No, Kohen, you’re safe. I broke the conditioning, once I found the keys from the AI here. No one can do that to you again. I’m sorry, but Danie’s right. There’s much still to unravel.” Captain pulled back. “We’ll put him in restraints. Gag him. Cut out his tongue. Whatever you need.” He cupped my face. “Never again, Kohen. I’ll make you feel safe.”
  27. 60 points
    “You would begrudge me some time to judge your intentions?” She straightened, her body poised but her face calm as she folded her hands in her lap. “I know my father and his intentions. I guessed at Anyas. I guessed at yours. What I knew and hoped for was enough to prompt me to action, but a wise person doesn’t recklessly move forward without the most intelligence possible.” “Wise.” Deke snorted. “You’re practically a—” “Shh! Watch your tongue,” Anyas snapped, cutting him off with a violent wave of his hand. The girl’s melodic laugh broke the tension that was ramping up. “You have not told them?” Captain stiffened against me. “Told us what?” “I am not some innocent youngling, which is what your crew member was about to imply. Did Anyas not tell you how long-lived the Elites are?” “I said your father had ruled for millennia. It’s not my fault if they weren’t paying attention or didn’t believe me.” Anyas made a face. “It wasn’t an exaggeration. That is how long he has been in power.” “Yes. A while, for our people, and a very long time for those who live shorter lives. We do not age as your kind do, taking care to preserve our youth.” She swung eyes that suddenly seemed much harder than before on Deke. “So while I may look young, I am anything but. And when I say I have spent time considering my decision to support my father’s actions regarding his aims for our kind to rule the universe or if the Elites need to learn their value comes from supporting and not controlling other species, I mean I have spent considerable time. Far more than you have spent on this mission. “Probably even more than you have been serving in your military. Maybe even been alive.” She sniffed. “You are the child here. So perhaps you should sit down.” I stared at her; she might be willing to help us, but she had a healthy dose of the same haughty condescension that set Anyas apart from his guards. “Why would you help us?” I asked. “Now that is a smart question.” She pushed herself upright. “I believe I can answer it and even your skeptical friend there will believe.” “Of course we would take you at your word,” Anyas said smoothly. He pulled out a chair at the head of the table. “My lady.” “Rilecca is fine.” “And speak for yourself,” Captain said. He took at the edge of the table by Rilecca. “I have a crew to protect, people who trusted me to avenge. Maybe even find them and set them free for real this time.” “You speak of Brox’s experiments they are doing. To create beings like them.” She gestured toward me and Danie. “Prototypes for their army. Drones to control the masses. Secret controls. And once they figure it out, there’s no telling what species they’ll stop at. Humans are malleable; it’s why they chose their species to begin with.” Rilecca placed her hand on a screen on the table. A light came on and she licked her finger, then touched it into the light. Holographic screens lit up in front of every chair around the table. “The planets in purple, we control. The ones in red are well on their way to being fully-integrated into my father’s web. The blues are independent.” There were more than I expected, which Captain said aloud. “Taking over the universe takes more time than one man has. Even one as long-lived as my father. That is where I am supposed to take the reins, under his guidance, of course. He would remain an advisor, from the system of his choice.” “Let me guess, one he’s got lots of comforts and lots of enslaved species?” Captain said bitterly. She inclined her head. “My father was raised in another time. I have had a distressing habit of slipping my guard for some time. What he didn’t know was that I did not remain on this planet. See, my father desires power. I desire knowledge. I have learned so much from the many cultures, planets, and people I have witnessed.” Her expression darkened. “And I have no desire to stamp them out. I am not a clone of my father, no matter what he desires, and he cannot stamp out my free will either.” “Ahh.” Captain nodded his head. “Now we see the heart of this. Rebellion. Will that see you through your plans and keep my crew safe from retribution from your father?” Rilecca narrowed her eyes. “Do you imply I reject his fatherly plans for me and push back on a whim? To be difficult? Because my cage might have been bigger and my escapes might have been farther afield but based on what I learned of your Kohen’s life growing up, our pasts are not much different. We were conditioned to our roles. When we weren’t being used, we were locked away. “No one deserves to have their choices taken from them.” Rilecca’s voice was soft but steel shone through the velvet. But I knew how brittle the strongest person could feel inside. I leaned over the table past Captain and touched her hand, covering it with mine. “So you came to free me. To help us.” She took a deep breath. “I did. But I understand why your captain is so skeptical.” She turned her gaze on Captain. “Your crew has been ill-used. Let’s put a stop to it.” “Well, damn, Captain.” Freska suddenly spoke up from her place along the wall, her links disconnected. “You thought convincing the person in charge that changing their minds about their plans would be hard. Here she is offering to do it on her own.” “Rilecca is not in charge,” Deke said. “She is the heir, not the ruler,” Anyas agreed somewhat reluctantly. Freska snorted. “I found some interesting things in the system, boss. She’s not done surprising us yet.”
  28. 60 points
    The alarm went off at 5:30am. Don groped for it. “Louis, why is this blasted thing ringing now?” I rolled over, groaning. “Forgot?” Don lay back after shutting the beeping clock off. I could feel the bed move under him as he stretched. He turned over and pulled me into his warmth. I wanted to just lay there. “Let’s sleep a bit more, Donny.” His lips were soft on the nape of my neck. “Mmmm, good idea.” I awoke with a start. Confused about the time, I sat up. I’d pushed hard against Don’s chest, causing him to groan. “Lous. You’ve just remembered the horses, right?” “Yes. Damn it.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Don pulled himself up, using the trapeze. “I’ll go.” I twisted around to meet his eyes. He smiled and said, “They will be fine. We’ll only be about fifteen minutes late.” “You don’t have to come, Don.” “Yeah, I do. It’s not fair that you do everything.” He pulled on a long-sleeved shirt. “Plus, it’s Monday. I need to get some work done.” So, we got up early. We fed the horses and let them out into the pasture. Then we mucked out the boxes and tidied up the barn. Returning to the house, I put on a pot of coffee; we showered together and dressed for the day. We sat at the kitchen table at about 8:30am to have cereal and coffee. I had a yellow notepad and a pen. I was writing a to-do list. I had to make an appointment to speak with the partners about reducing hours, possibly leaving and contract work. I wrote down that I wanted to fix up Max’s room, adding a note to put one or two of Pa’s books in there. At the bottom of the list was: What needs to happen so Don can drive again? While he ate, Don had been reading his correspondence, and then his phone rang. He picked it up and frowned at the screen before answering it. “Hi, Robert … Tomorrow? … That’s rather short notice … Let me have a word with Lous ….” I’d been listening, so I had an idea of what was coming. “Lous, it seems we have a home inspection and interview tomorrow at 3:00pm.” “Okay.” I sounded calmer than I felt. I was running through the scenarios and what needed to be cleaned and tidied. Don was staring. “Okay? You have no issues with that?” “No, the house is pretty good. It just needs a quick clean. And well … I want to do this so we can get Max here as soon as possible.” “Okay.” He put the phone back to his ear. “We’ll be ready … No, we’ll get it all sorted … They will have to take us as we are … Okay, thanks, Robert … Bye.” Don smiled up at me. “Do you want me to do the laundry out in the barn? I’m gonna go and write, Lous, so I will look after that.” “That would be great, baby.” We got the laundry out to the barn and I started it. I left Don at his desk while I went back to tidy rooms and generally clean up. About an hour later, I’d just finished cleaning our room after doing what would be Max’s, when our doorbell rang. I ran downstairs and pulled open the door to find Robert standing there with a man and a woman. “Hi, Robert.” “May we come in, Louis?” “Um … yes, of course.” The couple smiled at me, as they walked in. They weren’t a couple though. They were in business attire and carried clipboards. The woman had a cross-body portfolio and a handbag as well. They all wiped their feet as I pushed the door closed. The man put out his hand, which I shook. “I’m Elliott Mayhew, and this is Janet Grimes. We are from Children’s Aid.” “Hi, I’m Louis Taylor. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.” “I know and we are sorry for the change. This isn’t a usual situation. May we sit and talk?” “Yes, of course. Please go through. I should call Don.” I motioned my guests toward the living room. Robert put a hand on my arm. “I’ll go get him.” I nodded; I felt out of my depth. “Yeah, thanks.” I offered coffee and was putting on a pot when Don and Robert came in. Don seemed as unhappy as I felt. We all returned to the living room together. After introducing Don, I sat in the easy chair, while he remained in his wheelchair beside me. Elliot started speaking. “First let me say, we appreciate you seeing us today.” Don replied, “You know, when I agree to an appointment, I don’t expect people just to drop by a day early.” “I understand—” “No, I don’t think you do.” Robert stared at Don. “Don … I don’t think ….” “No, I’m sorry Robert. If me speaking my mind means Max doesn’t come here, then I’ll apologize to Max. I don’t like the tactics; I don’t like the presumption … I don’t like the idea that we need to be spied on or tricked. Frankly, I’m rather pissed off!” Don looked at me and I nodded. I felt the same way. “Yeah, I understand those feelings, Don.” Donny was not done. “You know, you have done background and police checks on us both. Both Louis and I have excellent reputations in our chosen fields, yet you feel the need to try and catch us out … tell me, what did you think you’d find?” “Mr. McPhee, we—” “I am working. You’ve interrupted me and I think you get my drift. You’re here, you’ve interrupted my day, our work. So, let’s get on with it, or, if you have already decided we are not what you want, just go.” Both of the Children’s Aid workers sat back. After a moment of silence, Janet Grimes moved herself forward on the sofa. “Mr. Taylor; Mr. McPhee; first of all, you’re right. We should have discussed the change in the schedule. We do make surprise visits from time to time, but this was poorly timed. I for one appreciate your candor, Mr. McPhee. If you stand up for Max like you have here, well, we couldn’t want for more.” Don looked at the woman. “That boy is going through a terrible thing. We seem to get along, and we’d love it if he chooses to come and live with us.” I brought coffee, and the flavour of the meeting changed slightly. Don was less prickly, and we got down to talking about Max, school and other concerns, including my job. “I’m actually thinking of leaving and doing contract work from home. Don earns enough. It will let me have more time to do things around the house and make sure Max is looked after and supported properly.” “Speaking of support, he mentioned to us the other day that he’s uncomfortable going to these meetings with lawyers alone.” Don rested his coffee mug on his knee. Elliott replied, “He’s not alone, his appointed lawyer is there—” I interrupted. “Mr. Mayhew, a lawyer is not family, or a friend. In any case Max has asked me to be with him.” Grimes and Mayhew swapped glances. “You’d have to run that through the lawyer I guess.” I wondered if these two had beating hearts. “You misunderstand. I am going as his friend, not to represent him. He doesn’t want to go alone. In any case, I’ll deal with it.” The coffee was nearly done, and so was the talk, as far as I was concerned. I wanted these people on their way. “Would you like to see the house now?” Janet Grimes smiled. “Yes, we’d like to.” “You don’t need me, do you, Lous? I’m on a deadline.” I bent to kiss him, heedless of our guests. “No, you go and work. I’ll bring you some lunch later.” Don said his farewells and went out through the kitchen door. Once alone with them, I explained the Janka rating of our wood floors and the tile in the kitchen as both being important for wheelchair users. I pointed out our wider than usual doorways. Then I took them upstairs in the elevator. They checked the electrical faceplates, the cords on blind, and other things they thought might be choking hazards or dangers to a small child. I reminded them Max was fifteen and in a wheelchair. After touring the three bedrooms, explaining the decorating, and the things to be added to Max’s room, the Children’s Aid officers seem satisfied. I gave them a quick tour of the grounds, showing them the finished pathways, and the barn. I pointed out Don’s office, but we didn’t go in. Finally, we stood beside their car with Robert. Janet Grimes scribbled a few more notes. “Mr. Taylor, the small house, is that your property?” “Yes, it is. It’s currently occupied by Don’s mother.” “I see, thank you. Does she approve? Will she support Max?” “Yes, very much so. I’m sorry she’s out, otherwise you could have met.” Robert coughed. “Don’s mother, Rena, is my fiancée. I can tell you for certain that she’s happy about Max possibly moving in.” “Oh, I see. Congratulations, Robert. That’s wonderful.” Elliott unlocked the car. “Thank you, Mr. Taylor, for being so accommodating on such short notice. I know it was an imposition. You’ll hear from us soon.” Ms. Grimes smiled. “Needless to say, we have what we need and won’t be returning tomorrow. That said, if Max is coming, we will have to return to ensure that changes we discussed were complete before Max can move in.” “Of course. As soon as everything is approved, I can add the equipment Max needs.” I shook hands with them both and watched as they climbed into their car and drove away. Robert remained. “I’m so sorry, Louis. I had no idea ….” I sighed. “Wow, that was totally uncalled for. Don was not happy; I’m not either really. But it’s done.” “It is. I should get going, too.” “Okay. Robert … Don’s being angry, that won’t … I mean will it affect anything?” “No, I shouldn’t think so. He was articulate, and not raging. I don’t think it will affect anything, except maybe how those two do things in the future.” I laughed. “Well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.” Robert opened his car door. “No, it wouldn’t. See you later, Louis. Have a good afternoon.” “Yeah, you too. See you later.” I returned to the house and finished the cleaning I’d begun. “At least it will be over with.” It was nearly noon, and I wanted to fix lunch, but before heading downstairs I peered into the third bedroom; my new office. As I stood there thinking about the colours and the desk, in the back of my mind, I knew it was a job I did not want to do. However, I had to. I fixed an add-water chicken noodle soup, grated in a carrot, threw in some leftover chicken breast and a chopped green onion, leaving it to simmer. Then I settled at the table, pulled out my phone and called work. Going through the staff list, I found Jackie McRae, who was the partners’ P. A. The phone rang twice. “Jackson and Montague, how may I help you?” “Hi, Jackie, it’s Louis Taylor.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “Louis! I was just about to call you! How funny. How are you? I was sorry to hear about your father.” “Thanks, Jackie. I’m doing fine, thanks.” I doodled at the bottom of my to-do list. “You were going to call me? Is everything okay?” “Yes, everything is great. I heard—" Jackie lowered her voice. “—the meeting you prepped that huge document for went like a dream!” I smiled. “Terrific. That’s good news.” “Anyway, just wanted to say. I’m sure they will tell you themselves. They’d like to see you in the morning first thing Wednesday, at ten.” This was a surprise. “Um … yes of course. I’ll be there. I sort of wanted to talk to them as well.” “Great then, Louis. See you Wednesday.” “Yes … thanks, Jackie. See you then.” I finished making lunch and texted Don who said he’d come over so we could eat together. I served the soup and put a selection of sandwiches out as well. A small plate of cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber rounded out the meal. Don pushed open the back door and rolled in. He moved toward me, and I bent to kiss him. He smiled and went to the table. “Oh, wow. Nice! You are gonna spoil me, Lous.” I laughed. “You’re already spoiled.” I sat down next to him. He picked up his spoon and stirred the contents of his bowl. Don glanced up from it and met my eyes. “Thank you.” I sipped the soup. “For what?” “Just for being you. For being my partner. For not leaving me, when lots of people would have thrown in the towel.” “Babe—” Don lay his spoon down. “No. No, Louis, sometimes things just need saying.” “’Kay.” He reached over and lay his hand on my forearm. “I just want you to know that I am aware of each sacrifice you make for me. I see all that you do in support of me. I love you, and I’m grateful.” I smiled and was frowning too. “Isn’t that marriage? Loving your partner? Supporting them?” “Yeah, but it always falls to one of them more.” He took a bite from a salami and cheese sandwich. “Mmmm, great salami.” “Not touching that comment.” I chose a tomato and cheese from the plate. “At least…not right now.” Don laughed. We finished lunch quietly. I cleared the table and made a pot of tea. I put a Tupperware box of goodies on the table. Don loved dessert. I was Mother, and poured our beverages. Don munched on a Nanaimo bar. “Back to work on Wednesday, Lous?” “Yes. I have an appointment to see them at ten.” “Have you decided what you want to tell them?” “Not really. Well, I’d like to just say, I resign.” After replacing his mug on the table, Don said, “Then do it.” He reached for a blondie. “I think I’ll talk with them first. It would be great if I could keep them as clients when I set up shop here.” The blondie disappeared, and he started on a date square. These were small pieces so we could enjoy a few flavours without all the calories. “Then Louis, I suggest you get out and buy your yellow curtains, desk, and whatever else you need in there.” Little doubts had been clawing at me. This would be my own business; I’d need a business bank account, maybe even an accountant. I’d taken courses while getting my degree; I should be able to do this. I looked at Don. “Do you think I can do it? This home-based business thing?” He licked the final crumbs from his lips and put the lid back on the Tupperware box. “Louis, don’t start all this self-doubt stuff. You handle deadlines at work, you organize us, keep our home running and clean, and our banking and investments are all handled by you. Do you think, because you will no longer drive there, that suddenly you won’t be able to work?” “No, but there is more responsibility, isn’t there? I need to pay taxes, have a business account, and all of that.” “I’m not making light of this, but it’s a small, albeit important, business. You need to keep receipts, which you do for us, you need to find some business software that will help sort out your deductions and taxes, or talk to an accountant. You can handle this, Louis.” He reached for and squeezed my hand. “And the small business banker at our branch can help you too.” I listened and considered Don’s words. He smiled at me and continued, “Are you having trouble deciding what to do … to take the step to resign?” “Yeah, it’s scary; I’m used to the security of having a pay cheque and benefits.” Don frowned slightly. “Okay, I can help. Right now I want you to write a letter of resignation. Give them three weeks’ notice. Then I want you to phone the bank and make an appointment with a Small Business Banker, at the branch closest to work. Then you can go in and talk with them. Open the account maybe. Start to do research into a benefits package that mirrors or is better than what is offered by the partners.” I’d reached for my yellow pad and scribbled stuff on my to-do list. “Thanks, Don.” He smiled at me once more. “Baby, you worry too much, or maybe I don’t worry enough.” “Why are you so … so decisive?” “Because, Lous, if you dither and fret, nothing gets done. Make a choice, and then follow through. It’s not always gonna work, but often it will.” He leaned toward me for a kiss. “It will be okay. You will think back in a year and wonder why you worried.” I smiled at him. “You’re right. I’ll clear up here and get on with things.” With lunch consumed and cleared away, Don went back to work. I did some online shopping for things for my office. I ordered a desk and computer. Don had a very high-end printer in his office, which I’d rather use than purchasing another. I made a list of the benefits we were looking for. I typed up a resignation letter on my laptop and put it on a USB. Around 3:00 I took a break and texted Max. Just to say hello and let him know we’re thinking of him. I then called the bank to make a lunchtime appointment for Friday. I decided to go out for some fresh air. It had been over a week since we’d been running; I was craving the exertion. I went over to see how Don was doing, and to print my letter. He was typing on his laptop when I went in. He turned and smiled at me. “Hey baby, how are you? “ “I’m good Donny. Nearly everything is done. I just wondered if you felt like getting some exercise. I feel like a run.” I held up the USB. “And can you print this for me, please?” “Great idea. Give me ten minutes to finish up here.” He smiled. “You change and get my stuff out for me, please? I’ll be right up to change. And of course, I’ll print the letter for you. I’ll even fold it and put it in an envelope!” “Thanks!” I bent to kiss him. “See you in a few minutes.” The run had been what we both needed. Afterward, we had dinner, coaxed in the horses and then spent our evening together. Giggling like teenagers, we decided to go to bed early. We slept well … eventually. ~~~ After a normal early start on Wednesday, I arrived at the office just before nine. I was a bag of nerves, and glad the meeting was early. I settled at my desk for an hour, plowed through a number of e-mail and tried to get myself organized. Ten minutes before the meeting I checked again that I had my resignation letter. I put it in a sleeve in my portfolio. I locked my computer and made my way to the partners’ offices. Jackie was smiling as I approached. “Hey, good morning, Louis. How are you?” “I’m doing okay, thanks, Jackie. Bit nervous today.” “They both seemed in good moods this morning. Not that they are often not in a good mood.” “That’s a good thing.” At that moment, Jackie’s phone buzzed, and she answered. “Yes, sir.” Then to me she said, “Go on in, Louis. They are ready for you.” My heart was pounding as I nodded at her. “Thanks.” I chastised myself for being so nervous as I entered the meeting room. Pulling myself together, I closed the door and said, “Good morning.” Pierre Montague was in his early fifties, but his blond hair didn’t show it. “Louis, good to see you.” “Yes, good morning, Louis. Glad you’re back. How is your family? We were sorry to hear about your father’s passing.” Frank Jackson rose and shook my hand. Unlike his business partner, Jackson’s dark hair was shot with silver. “We’re all coping well, thank you. To be honest, he’d been ill for a long time.” I pulled out a chair across from them. They rarely sat at the ends of the boardroom table, preferring to sit side-by-side in the middle. “Louis, we’ll get right to it. We know you likely have a lot of e-mail to get through.” Mr. Jackson opened a leather notebook. “We’d like to talk about a case we’ll need a lot of due diligence for—” I interrupted him. “I’m sorry … I think I’d better explain something before letting you continue.” Both partners were surprised, it seemed, at my breaking in. Mr. Montague said, “This is unusual, Louis. What is it?” I drew in a deep breath. “First, I just want to say thank you. You’ve both been very supportive. There’s a lot going on in my life, including the fact that we are going to foster a boy who has recently lost his parents.” Mr. Montague spoke first and said, “And how does this affect us, Louis? Are you asking for more time, because …?” “No, sir. I’m saying that after a lot of thought, I’m giving you my resignation and three-week notice.” Both of them sat back in their chairs. There was silence. They both looked at each other, and Frank Jackson leaned forward. “Louis … Louis, you’re a talented researcher and a good employee.” He glanced to his partner. “We don’t want to lose you. Is resigning the only option here?” I gazed at both men, taking a moment to collect my thoughts. “These past few years, with Don’s accident, and now this boy coming into our lives has made me reconsider a lot of things. I like what I do very much but I need to be home more than I am …. No, I want to be there especially once Max moves in.” Pierre Montague was nodding. “I think we understand that. Louis can you give us some time to think of options?” I smiled at him. “Mr. Montague, my plan is to continue my work as a paralegal, but from home. My own business.” I paused for a deep breath. “I had hoped you’d consider letting me work for you on a contract basis.” Frank Jackson nodded. “That’s interesting, Louis, and I understand it. It’s about work and life balance. Something that is more important now, but it always should have been.” Pierre rose, so I did also. He put out his hand which I grasped. “Louis, as senior partner, we will accept your resignation from the firm. However, we would love to continue having you work with us.” “Yes, we’ll draw up a contract and work with you.” Frank Jackson was saying, “We wish you all the best, Louis.” “Thank you. Thanks, very much.” I wanted to plunk my backside into the chair and weep from relief. “The issue is your notice. Policy says once an employee has resigned, they are required to leave, give up their security passes and access will be removed,” Mr. Montague was saying. I guess I appeared shocked because he continued. “Louis, we’ll pay you for the three weeks. Go home. Get your life, your office, your accounts, etcetera in order. We have a big job coming up and we need you as soon as possible.” He turned to Mr. Jackson. “Let’s get Terry on this for now and we’ll prepare something for Louis.” Jackson was scribbling notes. Pierre Montague flipped his gaze to me. “Can we meet again in two weeks?” He picked up the phone. “Jackie, schedule a two-hour meeting with us and Louis two weeks from now please … no, better make it three hours just in case. It’s regarding the Timberton file … Yes, thank you.” “Will you be ready, Louis?” Montague was asking me. “Yes, sir, I’ll be ready. I’ll see Jackie about the meeting and see you both then.” “Excellent. Do you have a letter for us?” I took the letter from my portfolio and handed it over. Mr. Montague accepted it and shook my hand. “Exciting times, Louis. We’ll speak soon. Please ensure that Jackie always has your current contact information.” “Yes, sir.” “Stay here for a moment. Jackie will come in with some paperwork and then you can go home.” I nodded and sat down. The enormity of this change was slamming me. I sat, and when Jackie came in, I smiled at her. She sat down and began giving me documents to fill in and sign. I’d done it! I’d taken the first step to a new chapter in my life and I was ready. ~~~
  29. 60 points
    *** JORDAN *** It’s the small moments that stick with you. Those unscripted, raw experiences, Which create memories that last a lifetime. Whether it’s a soft touch, A stolen glance, An infectious laugh, Or a devilish smile These are the moments we cherish. The ones we replay over and over in our heads. You never know what will create a lasting impression. Life is unexpected that way. It throws us curve balls, Keeps us on our toes, Plays with our emotions. That may sound daunting, It may even seem cruel. But that’s what makes life interesting. It’s what makes life worth living. ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— There’s nothing better than waking up next to someone you absolutely adore. Just lying in bed together, wasting away the minutes. I turn my head to the side. Of course, sprawled out beside me is my new love, Toby. He really is the best. I’m not surprised to see him here this morning. I’ve been waking up next to him for the last few days now. Who is Toby? Our dog, of course. Who else would I be talking about? “Okay, buddy, get up,” I say to the dog as I rub my hands into his fur. “Or our mean owner will start yelling at us.” “I heard that,” Noah says sticking his head into the room. “You were meant to,” I respond. “It’s about time you got up. We have a lot to do today. We still have to get snacks and drinks for tonight’s party. Plus, remember when you go out you have to get Baxter some more food.” “His name isn’t Baxter! It’s Toby!” So, here’s a small problem. We’ve had the dog for almost a week now. He’s a yellow Labrador retriever and absolutely adorable. I just love him! But we can’t decide what to name him. We’ve gone through so many ideas. I like Toby. It just seems like the perfect dog name. Noah wanted to name him Gatsby after the novel, because he’s a nerd. I said no to that one. So, Noah said Baxter. I like Baxter, but I don’t know, he just doesn’t seem like a Baxter to me. I suggested Snoopy, but then Noah said he doesn’t look like Snoopy, so that was a no too. Come on, who can say no to Snoopy!? Hand down it’s the best name ever. Noah even said no to Dino! So yeah, we still can’t decide. We should soon or this dog is going to be super confused. “What about Sherlock, after the greatest detective of all time?” Noah suggests. “No.” “Okay, Sammy after Samuel Beckett for his play ‘Waiting for Godot’. One of the best plays ever.” “Waiting for who? And no. Sammy is so typical.” “You really need to read a book!” he says throwing his hands in the air. “And you need to stop being such a nerd,” I say light heartedly. He knows I’m joking. “If you want to go with great literature then we should call him Gandalf.” Who doesn’t like ‘The Lord of the Rings’? “One, he’s not a wizard, and two, he’s not grey!” True. “Honestly, if we’re having so much trouble naming a dog, what’s going to happen when we try to name our first child!?” “Oh, that’s easy. Boy it’s Logan. Girl it’s Arya. No debate there.” “Wow, you had those ready to go. You’ve clearly given this some thought already,” I say. “I like those names.” “And I’m assuming that’s Arya from Game of Thrones?” “Yep.” “But no to Gandalf? Hypocrite.” “That’s me!” I actually like Logan and Arya. They’re nice names. But I’m not going to tell Noah that! As for the dog, we’ll figure it out eventually. We’ll find something that feels right to both of us. To be honest, we haven’t really given it too much thought. Both of us are a bit preoccupied at the moment. The last few days have been hectic. We just moved into our new digs a few days ago. There are still boxes and bags all over the place. Then we have to prepare for school. Classes start in just a few days. Sometimes it feels like a lot. Tip for anyone thinking of getting a dog: don’t do it while you’re in the middle of a move. What the heck was I thinking!? Here’s the thing though, it doesn’t matter. What this dog symbolizes is way more important than any inconvenience. *** NOAH *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— I really need to retrain this dog! I was woken up suddenly this morning by Baxter licking my feet (I’m sticking with Baxter, I don’t care what Jordan says). He was hungry. Of course he comes straight to me and not Jordan. How did he know to do that? Why didn’t he lick Jordan’s feet? I’m going to have to teach him to bug Jordan first. After I give him some food, I decide to take him for a walk. It will be nice to get some air and give Jordan some time to rest. It’s been really hectic the last few days with the move, and I know Jordan is really tired. I’m just glad that it’s almost all over. Just a few more things to do and we will be all set. I want my life to go back to normal! Though, I’m not sure if I even know what ‘normal’ is anymore. This summer changed everything. “Let’s go, buddy,” I say as I walk out the door with Baxter. It’s still early; the sun is just starting to come out. It actually reminds me of something that happened a few weeks ago. I was still living with Jordan at his home in Montreal … ——— August 1st: Montreal ——— “Keep your eyes closed!” Jordan says firmly. “They’re closed, don’t worry.” “Here, watch your step,” he says as he guides me along a rather bumpy path. “Where in the world are you taking me?” I ask for the hundredth time. “You’ll see.” Jordan woke me up super early today. He threw clothes at me and told me to get ready quickly. He didn’t even let me grab any breakfast! I kept asking him where we were going, but he wouldn’t tell me. I have a feeling I know what this is all about. It was still dark outside by the time we left. I couldn’t really tell, but it felt like we were driving towards downtown. A few minutes into the drive he tells me to close my eyes. Of course, I challenge him, but then I reluctantly agree. Then, he tells me to put on a blindfold! I looked at him suspiciously. I was both intrigued and scared at the same time. Good thing I trust this guy with my life! “Are we there yet?” I ask him again a few minutes later. “Almost, dude, almost. Just another minute. Okay, just a few more steps,” he says leading me by the arm. “Almost there, almost. Okay. Here is good. Stop.” “Can I take these off now?” I ask as I raise my hand towards my eyes. “NO!” He grabs my hand rather suddenly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so rough. Not just yet. Just wait another minute.” “What are we waiting for exactly?” “The perfect moment,” Jordan says. “And when is that?” I ask. “It is … now. Okay, close your eyes, I’m going to take off the blindfold. Are they closed?” “Yes, Jordan.” “Okay.” Just as he takes off the blindfold he puts a hand over my eyes. He stands behind me and turns my body slightly to the right. “Okay, you can open your eyes … now!” There are moments in life when the beauty of this world leaves you utterly speechless. When nature displays its majestic elements in a spellbinding show of force. When you simply are just left in awe. This is one of those moments. It’s when you realize how magnificent this world really is. We’re standing on a hill facing east. In the distance, just above the horizon the sun is starting to rise. Its rays illuminate the dark sky, turning it into a vibrant sea of orange, yellow, and blue. The light is seeping into the city, snaking through the buildings, waking up the cold concrete from its slumber. The dark shadows slowly fade away as life returns once again. “Jordan, this is amazing.” “I thought you’d like it.” “I love it. This is beyond beautiful.” “It makes you feel so alive,” he says as he throws his arm around my shoulder. “It really does.” “And gives you hope and optimism that the future will be just as bright and magnificent.” “Absolutely. Thanks for bringing me here.” “My pleasure. Happy Birthday, Noah.” “Thanks, Jordan.” ——— Present Day: Outside NoJo’s Apartment ——— Seeing the sunrise today reminds me of that day in Montreal. Jordan went out of his way for my birthday. Afterwards, he surprised me with a picnic. I didn’t even know he packed anything. Not only did he pack, but he made breakfast, and it was delicious! He brought bagels, fruits, cereal, yogurt and milk in a cooler. He also made scrambled eggs and kept them in a hotpot. He came prepared. It was amazing. After our early morning picnic, we rented bikes and rode them along a trail, which was tiring beyond belief, but incredible at the same time. I really am out of shape. We then went to a show, followed by a romantic dinner. He kept my mind occupied. He knew I was a bit upset, given I was away from my family, and all that had happened with my mom. So, he went out of his way to make sure I knew just how loved I am in this world. That night we had dessert at home with his mom. They always get this chocolate cake from this one bakery. And just a side note here, OMG it was AMAZING! Hands down, one of the best cakes ever. Oh man, now I want some. Damn. Where was I? Oh right, my birthday. Right, cake. Yeah, so we went home and had cake with his mom. It was really nice. Both of them went out of their way to make me feel like family, to make me feel loved and wanted. I really felt like I belonged. And then to top it off, Jordan’s mom gave me an amazing gift. She reserved a hotel for us at this beautiful ski resort in Mont-Tremblant, just north of the city. That turned into an amazing trip, one that I’ll never forget. It was literally life changing. The other unforgettable thing that happened on my birthday – I spoke to my mom. Yeah, she called me. It was the first time I had spoken with her since the night I came out. It was interesting ... to say the least. *** JORDAN *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “Jordan, can you pass me that box over there? Oh, and then can you help me put some of this stuff in the kitchen? And then, I totally forgot we have to —” I cut Noah off. “Actually, I should probably go and get the stuff we need for the party, and Gandalf his food. I’ll be back in an hour!” “Slacker. And his name’s not Gandalf!” “Of course it is. I love you. Bye. See you in a bit!” I love Noah, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he drives me a bit crazy when it comes to cleaning. He turns into this machine. Again, I love him, I really do. But I also want to smack him with a pillow sometimes. Usually when he gets really bad the answer is sex, but something tells me if I try to get into his pants right now, all he’ll tell me to do is take them and iron them. So yeah, this is my plan B. I put Gandalf or Toby or whatever his name is on a leash and take him outside. Our new place is not that close to school; we had to move a bit out of the city, but we’re still in a good neighbourhood. You can still walk to the subway, grocery stores, the mall, shops, restaurants, bars, in five to ten minutes. As for the apartment, it is uber tiny! But it’s not too bad. Noah and I don’t really need that much space. What matters is that it is cheap, which is good because we are on a budget! Noah's father actually offered to pay for our place, and his tuition, as well as mine, because he felt bad for how he initially treated Noah. But Noah said no. He said we would do it on our own. Don’t get me wrong, the money would have been great, it would have helped a lot, but he was right to turn it down. He didn’t want to feel like we owe his parents. Besides, we're actually in better shape than expected. The last few weeks, Noah spent hours on the computer searching and applying for every possible scholarship, bursary or award he could find for both of us. A few of them actually came through! I actually have more money this year, than I did last year! We even could have afforded to live closer to school. But Noah was right. We need to think long term (I like that’s he thinking about us long term!), be economical and save money wherever we can. Another reason why I love our new place – it's not our old apartment. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great place, but it also had some bad memories attached to it too. It was his place. And I know this may sound immature, but sometimes I felt like a guest there. This time it’s different; the apartment is ours. It’s our home. And from now on, we will only make positive memories in it. Or, I hope. Unless Noah keeps telling me to unpack stuff … the first memories won’t be so positive or nice. We did make some great memories over the summer though. I still vividly remember taking Noah to Mont-Royal on his birthday to see the sunrise. I felt it was absolutely fitting, given our situation. To me the sunrise symbolizes a new beginning. It’s a chance to start over, to start fresh. It’s a new day, and anything is possible. Even though Noah and I dated before for a few months, this time everything feels different. We’ve grown so much more comfortable in our own skin. The reason is simply because we are open about who we are. Everyone knows we are a couple and madly in love. Most people have accepted us, while some have been reserved, and a few have rejected us. We know not everyone will celebrate our love and we are okay with that. Rejection only makes us stronger. Another reason why this time things feel different is because Noah is different. I thought I knew exactly who he was, down to every little habit of his. But I was wrong. He changed so much while we were apart. To this day he surprises me. His compassion, his ability to forgive and empathize with people amazes me. He’s not that shy, nervous guy I met all those months back in English class. He’s become so much more confident. He’s matured. And perhaps more importantly, he’s learned to love without fear. Take the following examples. He actually went back home to see his dad. Noah stayed with me until the second last week of August, then he flew home for a few days, before returning to school. His father was a bit offended that we rejected his help to pay for school, so he was adamant that he pay for Noah’s plane ticket. Noah was reluctant, but I told him it’s okay to take help from your family once in a while. And in his father’s defence, he has been very supportive of Noah, I’ll give him that. Plus, he was going back for his dad! I was shocked Noah even agreed to go back home. I would never have stepped foot in that house again. But he said yes because, regardless of what happened, he still respects his father. And while he didn’t say it back then, I knew he was hoping that maybe his mom would come around. No matter how bad she’s been to him, I know a part of him still loves her and always will. That’s what I mean when I say his ability to forgive amazes me. Talk about having a big heart. Then there was the night Noah met my high school friends in person. Before, he would have been extremely shy and quiet; that is just who he is. He doesn’t do well in large crowds. He gets really quiet, and basically melts into the background. This time, he was still shy, but he was different. I could see the cracks starting to appear in his shell. He wasn’t as inhibited. He tried to talk more, tried to involve himself. He openly spoke about our relationship. He held my hand, leaned up against my shoulder, kissed me in front of everyone! Those are all things Noah would never have done before. But now he actually seemed to enjoy the attention. He got a lot of it from Sophia, who wanted to meet the guy who ‘converted’ me. I kept telling everyone he didn’t convert me! That’s not how it works. Whatever. The whole point is that Noah didn’t flinch, he spoke openly and honestly. I was really proud of him, and later that night in bed I made sure I showed my appreciation. While meeting my friends was a positive experience … it was the opposite when Noah met my dad’s family. It was a night to remember, and not in a good way. I was so angry I thought I would rip my own head off. But, again, Noah surprised me. His calm, cool demeanour, and his ability to love in the face of so much hatred, was amazing. Here’s what happened: My eldest uncle (the one that also lives in Montreal), invited us over to his house. In my family we usually get together a few weeks after someone dies. In this case, it was for my dad. It’s meant to be a way to remember the person and just reconnect with family. Part of me didn’t want to go because I felt like I already said my peace. But then, on the other hand, I felt like I should go because he was my dad. I still do feel sad about his death. Sometimes it feels as if he is at his home just doing his own thing. Because I didn’t see him for long stretches of time it doesn’t feel weird that he is not here with me. In my mind he’s somewhere alive and well. But I know that isn’t the case. And so, as my dad’s only son, I felt it made sense for me to go. Noah thought so too. ——— August 10th: Jordan’s Uncle’s House in Montreal ——— “Mom, we’ll join you in a second, okay?” I say to her as we get out of the car outside my uncle’s house. I want a moment alone with Noah before we go in. “If anyone says anything hurtful to you, or makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, don’t hesitate to say something. You don’t have to be polite just for me. Or tell me, and I will talk to them. And if at any point you want to leave, we can. Just say the word.” Now I figured just showing up with Noah wouldn’t be the best idea. My mom actually called my Aunt Beth and told her beforehand that I was bringing my boyfriend. I knew she wouldn’t say anything, and she didn’t. She was surprised, but supportive. But she did say she was concerned about how some family members, namely my annoying uncle (he’s the one I yelled at when I was at the hospital), would react. She said not to worry and that she would handle it. The next day she called back and said everything would be okay. “Don’t worry, Jordan, everything will be fine tonight,” Noah says placing his hand on my shoulder. “You don’t know some of them.” “This won’t be my first time butting heads with bigoted people, and likely not the last. It’s okay. I can handle myself.” “I love you.” He smiles at me. “I love you, too.” You know that feeling you get when you think everyone is looking at you? Well, that’s how I feel when Noah and I walk into the house. It feels like everyone has stopped what they’re doing and are just staring at us and judging us. The only person to approach us as we walk in is Aunt Beth. She greets us both warmly. “How did everyone react to the news?” I ask her. She bites her lips. That can’t be a good sign. “Everyone has their own opinions, and sometimes you just have to live with that. But don’t worry, no one will say anything to either of you.” “Thank you,” I say to her. She’s right, no one asks about our relationship. Some actually avoid us altogether! The really annoying uncle leaves the room when Noah and I enter to say hello (for the sake of identification, I’m just going to refer to him as Uncle Jackass from now on). His wife doesn’t say anything to us either. Overall though everyone is civil, but it does feel like there is this giant elephant in the room that no one is addressing. After eight minutes (yes, I counted), Noah and I go into the family room to meet the kids. They are way more fun. Most of my cousins are quite young; I am the oldest one actually. A few of them are teenagers, but they are nowhere to be seen. They are all hanging out upstairs. The majority are much younger, in the single digits. They are running around and yelling. I don’t think they’ve ever seen a gay couple before, let alone know what one is. My plan is not to bring it up in front of them. I figure it’s a conversation their parents should have with them when they feel the time is right. But I guess kids these days are way more progressive than I realized. “Hey everyone, this is my friend Noah,” I say to the screaming children. “Hey, kids,” he says to them. “Jordan!” Before I can react, my aunt’s daughter lunges at me and gives me a big hug. Or well, hugs my legs. She is still quite short. She is really sweet. All of my aunt’s kids are well mannered. She grabs my hand and pulls me to the floor. “Come play with me!” “Sure. What are you playing?” “I’m making a necklace,” she says pointing to a table filled with crafts. “Cool. You’re doing a great job!” She quickly stands back up and grabs Noah’s hand. “You can join us too.” “Thanks,” he says with a smile. One by one the other girls introduce themselves. The young boys show us their cars and action figures. Not even five minutes in, one of my cousins is sitting in Noah’s lap asking him to read her a book. I sit there watching him interact with her. He is really good at this; much better than I am! He is sweet and calm. He reads the book, changing his voice for each character. He is playful and full of life. My cousin is laughing and having a great time. The minute he finishes the book she asks him to read it again. Of course, he’s also attracted the attention of the other children, and before you know it, he has a bit of a following. Watching him, I know he’ll make a great father one day. After he’s done reading books, the girls ask Noah to join them for a tea party. He gets an invite but not me! Nice. It’s okay. I get asked to build Lego blocks with another cousin. “This is for you,” she says passing Noah a pink plastic cup. “Thank you,” he says. He sips some of the imaginary tea. “This is delicious. Did you make it?” “Yes,” she says. “Can I have some more?” he asks her. “Yep.” Noah turns my way and smiles. I smile back at him. From the corner of my eye I notice Uncle Jackass is there. I’m not sure how long he’s been staring at us. He mumbles something as he walks past me. “Friggin’ fairies …” Noah hears him too. He can see my face twitch. I’m about to say something when Noah places his hand on my arm. He shakes his head. “It’s not worth it. The kids will hear. Just let it go.” Noah’s right. It isn’t worth it. “Sorry,” I say to him. “It’s fine, Jordan. I’m just glad your cousins didn’t hear.” “He’s such a —” “I know,” he says cutting me off before I can swear. I wasn’t going to! There are children here. I just need to avoid my uncle for the rest of the night! But I know that won’t happen. ——— Present Day: Outside NoJo’s Apartment ——— A random woman standing beside me on the sidewalk snaps me back to reality. “Awe, he’s so cute!” She kneels down beside the dog and starts to pet him. “What’s his name?” “His name? Um … Jacka … o’lantern.” “Oh … that’s an interesting name …” The dog isn’t orange. Far from it. I was actually going to say Jackass! Phew, that was close. *** NOAH *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— He’s finally gone! Now I can actually get some work done. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jordan, but he is the biggest distraction in the world. I find I am way more productive when he is focused on something else. When I give him chores to do his answer is always sex. I know he thinks he is being clever, but I am totally on to him. While he did help with the move, I did most of the packing (as in all) and pretty much all the unpacking. He did unpack his own clothes. Though, now that he’s been dressing less like a slob, I’ve been stealing his clothes more and more. I never thought about this before, but being gay is awesome because you get two sets of clothes. Take that straight guys, you can’t wear your girlfriends’ clothes. Or, well, you could but … yeah, no one would want to see that. Also, from what I’ve seen, girlfriends usually steal their boyfriends’ clothes. So not only do you lose, you don’t get anything in return. Score one for my team! Now that Jordan is gone I can also set up the surprise I have for him. The moment he leaves I run out of the house. I have to pick up something quickly and install it before he comes back. I blew up two pictures. The one he gave me on Valentine’s Day (the one my mom tore up), and the one we took the day we got back together on his deck. I figured we could hang both of them up, side by side, in our family room. I’m putting up both as a reminder that we can overcome any hardship. The first picture doesn’t bring me pain. It brings me joy. Joy that I was strong enough to follow my heart. The second picture also holds a special place in my heart because it’s how I told the world I’m gay. I thought it was only fitting, seeing how a picture is how my parents found out. I uploaded the second picture to Facebook and Instagram. In an instant, everyone I know, all of my family members and friends, people I grew up with, and people in my community, found out I’m gay. A lot of people liked the picture. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so many likes before. Many people also wrote supportive comments. But, as expected, there were people in my family, a few of my cousins, who sent me messages displaying their disgust and outrage. One commented directly on the picture. But before I could respond, Jenn got to him first. She ripped him apart. Trust me, never cross Jenn. I just blocked and deleted that cousin. His loss, not mine. Jordan also posted the same picture. He got more likes than I did, not that it’s a competition or anything. Much to his relief, he got many messages of support from his volleyball teammates. Though, a few were oddly silent. Liam, Jordan’s closest friend on the team, asked around. Turns out, not everyone is thrilled to learn there is a gay guy on the team. I know Jordan is a bit concerned how they’ll react when he sees everyone again next week, but he isn’t overly worried. He knows he has friends who will support and defend him. And if there is an issue, he isn’t going to back down without a fight. I hope it doesn’t come to that though. And speaking of people having an issue, I later found out my mom threw a fit when she realized I posted that picture online. Before that no one else in my family knew about my sexuality; she didn’t tell them because, well, who wants their dirty little secret out in the community? Well, I opened Pandora’s box. I put it out there for my family and the community to see. My sister told me my mom was seething the day my aunt called asking about the picture. My mom couldn’t deny it anymore; her son is gay and proud. That’s why she ended up calling me on my birthday, because of the picture. I hadn’t spoken to my mom since the night I came out. She has this thing where when she is angry, she stops talking to you. It usually works. When I was a kid it would drive me crazy! I would try talking to her, but she would just ignore me. She did it to my siblings as well. We would always crack. We would apologize. This time though, I didn’t crack and I think she realized it wasn’t going to happen. So, she called me. I still remember it vividly. Jordan and I were in his room making out because, well, do I need to explain? Anyway, that’s when my dad called. I thought that was strange because I spoke to him earlier in the day. But when I answered the phone, he said my mom wanted to speak with me. I froze. I was shocked. Jordan asked if I wanted him to leave. But instead I grabbed onto his hand. I knew I would need his support … ——— August 1st: Jordan’s House in Montreal ——— “She wants to talk to me?” I ask my dad surprised. “Yes.” “Why?” “Just talk to her. See what she has to say.” “Okay. For you, I will.” I honestly don’t know what to expect. My gut tells me she hasn’t changed her mind. “Hello, Noah,” she says. Her voice is steadfast. There is no weakness in it. “Hi, Mom.” “How are you?” she asks. “I’m well. How are you?” I try to keep my voice flat and not show any emotion. “I’m okay. Happy Birthday.” “Thank you.” I’m not going to say anything. I think she needs to make the first move. An apology would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath. “Your father tells me you’re coming home in a few weeks.” “I am.” “That’s good.” “Are you okay with that?” I ask. She’s the one who kicked me out! “Of course. I want you to come home,” she says. Now that takes me by surprise. “Why? I thought I was dead to you?” “You’re my son.” “What about all the stuff you said before?” I ask. “That unless I change, I’m not welcome in that home?” “I was surprised that night. I didn’t expect you to say what you did. But we can talk about that when you’re here.” “We can talk about that now,” I say. “Are you willing to accept who I am?” “As I said, we can talk more when you’re home.” “There isn’t much to really talk about. You either accept who I am, or you don’t. It’s as simple as that,” I say. “You’re my son, Noah. It’s not simple. As I said, let’s talk when you come home.” I’m not going to get anywhere with her. “Fine,” I say. “Thank you for calling.” “Take care, Noah.” “Bye, Mom.” ——— Present Day: Photo Store ——— My sister later told me that my aunt convinced my mom that she needed to get me back home. She said that was the only way my mom could ‘cure’ me, my aunt’s words, not mine. When my aunt found out I was living with my boyfriend (oh the horror!) she said my mom had to act fast to get me away from, again her words, the ‘clutches of evil’. It’s fine. None of this fazes me anymore. I’m honestly not surprised my aunt thinks that way. She’s as bigoted as my mom! What’s helped me get through all of this, besides Jordan’s love and support, is the backing of my siblings. Unfortunately, they’ve had to deal with some of the nasty comments from my cousins. And every time they’ve defended me. My sister was adamant she won’t let anyone talk smack (her word) about her little brother. It makes me love her even more. What also helps is that both of them approve of Jordan. Literally, the moment I told my sister we were back together, she wanted to speak to him. She was curious. So was my brother. So, we managed to have a group FaceTime chat a few days later. Naturally, Jordan was amazing. He was surprised at how I interacted with my siblings. We make fun of each other a lot. My two siblings always gang up on me. Jordan joined them as well, but also defended me too. Afterwards, my sister and brother messaged to tell me they both think Jordan is a great guy, they like him more than they like me, (my sister joked that she’s surprised he was with someone as ugly as me (don’t you just love siblings?)) and not to screw it up a second time! A few days later, Jordan got the chance to speak to my father. Their conversation was just over the phone. I could tell Jordan was super nervous! Seeing him sweat buckets, actually made me happy. I could tell he was trying his best to come across as the perfect gentleman. He kept saying, yes sir, of course sir, thank you sir. In Jordan’s defence, the conversation was super awkward (he had it on speakerphone). I don’t think my dad really knew what to say. He was still trying to come to terms with all of this, and there he was talking to the guy who was doing all sorts of naughty things to his son in bed. But as they talked, Jordan’s charm started to come through. After, my father told me he was really impressed by Jordan. Did I tell Jordan that? Of course not! At least not right away. I told him the exact opposite first. That seemed like more fun. All right, enough thinking. Time to go some work! I grab my parcels from the photo shop. When I turn to leave I see this absolutely striking photo. It gives me an idea. I know the perfect name for our dog. *** JORDAN **** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment Elevator ——— “Here, boy, sit,” I say to Gizmo in the elevator. Nah, he’s not a Gizmo either. Why is this so difficult!? The dog was getting close to this crusty old man. He just looked at Max (hmm … Max … maybe) and gave the dirtiest look and backed into a corner. Whatever, he can make all the looks he wants. My dog is awesome … whatever his name is. Seeing that crusty old man reminds me of my stupid annoying uncle again. As I was saying before, he wasn’t done with us just yet that day … ——— August 10th: Jordan’s Uncle’s House in Montreal ——— After my uncle’s little remark, we decide to go upstairs to see what my teenage cousins are doing. Two are brothers and live here. One girl and one boy are my Aunt Beth’s kids. Another boy and girl are a different uncle’s children. They are all in between the ages of 14 to 17. I introduce them all to Noah. I tell them he is my friend. The minute I say ‘friend’ I can see all of them look at each other. Two of them start whispering. I can hear one say ‘ask him’ and the other replying ‘no, you ask him’. “What’s going on, guys?” I ask. I know these cousins, but not well; I didn’t see them much growing up. “Um … I thought he was your boyfriend …” Aunt Beth’s daughter says. “Ah, so you already know. Your mom told you?” “I overheard her on the phone,” she says. “Oh. Well, yes, he’s my boyfriend.” “That is super cool!” she says. Wow someone is excited. “I’ve never met a real live gay person before.” “Well, now you’ve met two,” Noah laughs. “Don’t be weird,” her brother says to her. “So, not to pry or anything … but I thought you were dating a girl before?” she asks nervously. I was still dating Kate when I visited my dad last summer. That was the last time I saw any of them before my father’s death. “Mind your own business,” her brother says. He turns to us. “Just ignore her.” I smile. “It’s okay. I was, yes.” “Oh.” She looks confused. “But then I met this guy, and we’ve been together ever since.” “So you met him and realized you like guys more?” the other girl asks. “Something like that,” I reply. “Wow, that’s so cool!” That would be the eager one again. “So, what exactly was your mom saying over the phone when you overheard her?” I ask. The excitement washes off her face. “Oh … some people in the family didn’t want you to come. There was this big argument. But I’m really glad you did!” I ask her who, even though I know the answer. She says Uncle Jackass. He fought with my aunt for a while, but she told him she was not backing down. So, in the end, he came but decided to leave his kids at home. He didn’t want me to ‘corrupt’ them. “He’s a douche,” one of the boys says. “He’s still your uncle,” Noah chimes in. “Unfortunately,” another says. A few minutes later we are all called downstairs to eat. I just want to leave. I think I’ve put in enough time here. I’d rather not be somewhere I’m not wanted. Noah and I put some food on our plates and sit with the teenagers. They are cool kids. It’s a shame I didn’t really get to hang out with them more while we were growing up. Thanks for that Dad! After we’re done eating, we prepare to leave. My mom is saying goodbye to someone in the kitchen. Noah and I are in the living room with the other adults when one of my young cousins, the one who was having a tea party with Noah, walks up to me. “Jordan … what does gay faggot mean?” Everyone stops and turns towards us. Did she just say what I think she said? “Where did you hear those words?” I ask her. She points to Uncle Jackass. Of course. “Uncle said you’re a gay faggot. What’s a gay faggot?” That stupid, stupid man. Control your anger, Jordan, this is not the time. My cousin is four years old. What am I supposed to say to her? Aunt Beth is about to say something when her other daughter, who is only eight, starts speaking. “Gay is when a boy loves another boy, instead of a girl. My teacher says gay people are just like everyone else and that we’re not supposed to call them mean names. The other word is a bad word. My teacher says we are not supposed to use it, but instead love and respect everyone no matter our differences. Right, Mommy?” Hearing her speak melts my heart. She is absolutely adorable. She’s so young, yet so smart. Clearly there is hope for the younger generation. “Right, sweetie.” “You’re going to let your children learn that crap,” Uncle Jackass says. “That’s why I didn’t bring my children tonight, to keep them away from such filth.” “Jackass!” my aunt says sternly. She uses his real name, of course, but I’m sticking with Jackass. “Est-ce que vous …” My aunt switches to French to yell at him so the young kids don’t understand. She pretty much asks if he has gone crazy. “Come, kids, let’s go play in the other room,” one of the teenagers says as she quickly takes them away. “I’m just saying what’s on everyone’s mind. This is wrong, and I can’t believe you’re all okay with it. I’m glad your dad’s not alive to see this day. He would be ashamed of you!” That stings. Who the fuck does he think he is? I’m about to say something, but my aunt beats me to it. “You’re out of line,” she says to her brother. “You need to apologize to them right now.” “I’d rather die,” Uncle Jackass says. The yelling attracts everyone’s attention. My mom enters the room looking confused. I feel like a vein in my neck is about to burst. I’m just about to yell, when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look to the side to see Noah. There is not even a hint of anger in his eyes. Rather, he’s smiling! “We don’t need your apology,” Noah says to him in a calm voice. “Neither do we need your approval. We are who we are, and we’re never going change that for anyone. And —” “It’s people like you that have brought the wrath of God onto this world,” he says cutting off Noah. “Being queer is a sin!” I want to bash his head in. My mom is about to say something, but much to our surprise Noah laughs. “What do you know about what’s right and wrong?” he asks. “I know your type. You cherry pick parts of the religion that suit your needs, while conveniently avoiding what doesn’t. But, if you want to talk about it, then let’s do that. But let’s start with you,” Noah says launching into this long theological rant. He makes numerous excellent points about religion. “Furthermore, did you forget the importance God places in family, in being kind to others, and loving others?” he continues. “In acceptance and in tolerance? You seem to not care about any of those. Earlier you said Jordan’s dad would be ashamed of him. I doubt that. Jordan is the most amazing man I’ve ever met. His compassion, his generosity, his empathy knows no bounds. He loves without limits, and he never asks for anything in return. He owed his father nothing, not his time, nor his love, but he gave it to him anyway. He embraced his father’s family, a family that barely had two seconds for him before all of this. And if you really want to talk about being ashamed, you should be ashamed. You should be ashamed for being such a lousy uncle. From what I hear, you were never around for Jordan when he was younger. Did you forget about your responsibility? It’s so easy to judge everyone else, yet you fail to look in the mirror and see the person you’ve become.” “I’m not going to be lectured by a goddam fucking fag,” Uncle Jackass spits out. Again I am about to boil over, and my mom is about to say something, but Noah just squeezes my hand. “If it makes you feel any better call us whatever name comes to your mind. It doesn’t hurt. All it proves is that your heart is full of hatred. And unless you forgot, that too is a sin. You know, I actually feel rather sorry for you. All that hatred is blinding your heart from seeing what true love actually looks like.” “Your love is disgusting. It sends the wrong message to kids that this is okay,” he says with disdain in his voice. “The message we send is that of tolerance and love,” Noah says. “It’s a message of accepting who you are, embracing differences, and being at peace with yourself. There is nothing wrong with that. And for the record, we didn’t say anything to the children, that was your smart mouth —” “Well —” My uncle tries to cut Noah off, but Noah doesn’t let him. He waves him off. “I know you don’t want to offer us an apology, and like I said, we don’t need one. But I do want to offer something to you. A prayer. I pray that God removes all the hate from your heart and opens your eyes to the wonderful world he created. Because I’ll tell you one thing, no one is ever removing me from Jordan.” Uncle Jackass is about to respond, but my eldest uncle, the one who owns this house, cuts him off. He pretty much tells him to shut up. Uncle Jackass stomps off into the kitchen. We just all stand there in silence for a few moments. “I’m really sorry,” my eldest uncle says. He apologizes to each of us individually, assures me my father would have been proud of me (this uncle is the nicest out of all of them), and that I am always welcome in his house. He tells Noah and my mom the same thing. “I’m also sorry,” Aunt Beth adds. She is clearly embarrassed. “He promised he wouldn’t say anything.” “It’s okay,” I say to them. “It’s not your fault he’s like that. Thank you for the lovely evening. Shall we go, Mom?” “Let’s,” my mom responds. “So you love boys?” The voice startles me. It’s the four year old. She popped out of nowhere. “Uh, I do. In fact, I love this guy right here,” I say taking Noah’s hand. “Are you two going to get married?” she asks. You can see the excitement in her eyes. “That’s enough questions,” my aunt says pulling her back. That makes me smile. Kids are so funny. There have no filter. They ask whatever they want. “One day.” “Can I be the flower girl? Please? I’m really good at it!” she says, her eyes going wide. “Of course,” Noah says. “But, you’re going to have to wait a bit, okay?” “Okay,” she says with a smile. What a night! I can’t believe my family. When we are back at home, I ask Noah what got into him. He says it just came out. It was what he wanted to say to his mom and his family, but he felt he never got the chance. Tonight he did. And tonight I’m going to reward him for it. This may sound weird, but I am super horny. Seeing Noah stand up for us was a major turn on. It’s going to be a long, sweaty night. ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “Hey, I’m home,” I call out as I walk into our apartment. “Stop right where you are!” Noah yells as he comes out of the bedroom. “Close your eyes. I have a surprise for you.” “Oooh, I like surprises. Is it hot, dirty sex?” I ask. “How did you know? Look I even trust you enough not to put a blindfold on you.” “Yeah, yeah, that day was awesome.” “Okay, follow me over here …” The space isn’t big. Basically when you walk in, you’re in the kitchen. It’s all along one wall. If you walk straight ahead there is a bit of room for a sofa and TV. That leads out to the balcony. The bedroom is off to one side, and the washroom the other. It’s small, but cozy. “Oh, I’m so excited. Is it a new car? I’m guessing new car!” I say. “Yeah. And a unicorn to go along with it. Okay, stop here. Open your eyes.” I open my eyes to see a set of piercing dark eyes staring back at me. On the wall is a picture of a grey wolf playing in the snow. It’s hanging in our bedroom, just over our bed. It’s absolutely beautiful. “Wow. That’s really cool. I like it.” “And look in the family room,” he says. I step outside to see two framed pictures on the wall. One is the picture I gave Noah on Valentine’s Day. The other is the one I took on my deck, the day we got back together. “You put both up?” “Yep, one to remind us of our past, and the other our future.” “I like it. Good job, man! But I have to say, I really like that wolf picture.” “I thought it would be fitting.” “A tribute to my carnal, animalistic, sexual prowess in the bedroom?” I ask. “Absolutely,” he says rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “How is it fitting?” “It’s how we met,” he says. “What? We didn’t meet through a wolf.” What is he talking about? I’m confused. *** NOAH *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— Oh, Jordan. He doesn’t remember anything! Clearly I’m going to have to spell this out for him. “English class. Presentation. ‘Mrs. Dalloway’.” Still nothing. Okay, I’ll make it super obvious. “Virginia …” “Woolf! Of course. Ah, that’s clever of you.” “There it is! Also, I think I have an idea for a dog’s name too,” I say excited! “Is it Woolfy?” Jordan asks. “You know what, I thought of that, but no. He doesn’t look like a wolf.” “No, he doesn’t. So, what did you come up with? “It’s not the most traditional name … so hear me out … but what do you think about Evan.” “Evan? Why Evan?” he asks confused. “Honestly, Jordan, do you ever remember anything!?” “I do usually … sometimes … maybe … never …” “In the book, Septimus was in love with his friend named …” And there’s the light bulb. “Evans! Right. Gotcha.” “Woolf describes their relationship like ‘two dogs playing on a hearth-rug’. And given how the book brought us together, and we have a dog, I thought the name makes sense. It sort of reflects us in a way. But we would drop the letter ’s’ and just say Evan. What do you think?” “Not traditional … but, I guess we aren’t really traditional either. I like it. Evan it is.” “See, I knew we would get there!” “Side question, how in the world do you remember quotes from a book you read several months ago?” “Because I’m awesome,” I say. “Nerd.” Evan. It feels right. It’s interesting how much we struggle to find the right word to call someone. You want a name to be perfect. It’s how you identify yourself; how the world sees you. Yet, in the end, often we don’t even use a person’s name. We call them by a nickname, or use words of endearment or a title. What we call someone isn’t insignificant. It can signal what our relationship is to them. I’m still getting used to the new title I have for Jordan. I must say I do like it. But, figuring out what to call someone can be a minefield at times. Trust me, I know. It led to a rather interesting conversation with Jordan’s mom the morning I left Montreal to go back home … ——— August 20th: Jordan’s House in Montreal ——— I can’t sleep. I keep tossing and turning in bed and waking up Jordan. He doesn’t say anything, but I’m sure he is getting annoyed. I’m just nervous. I’m so comfortable here, in Jordan’s bed, in his house, in his city … I’ve built this mini-life that is perfect. Now I’m going to leave it and enter an abyss. I don’t know what to expect when I visit my parents’ place. I figure my mom won’t be hostile like she was before, but I also know she won’t have an epiphany either and see the light. I’m okay if she doesn’t change her mind. But it would make life so much easier if she does. At about five in the morning I give up and get out of bed. I go downstairs to make myself some tea. His mom is already there. She is back on her early shifts. “Morning,” I say to her. “Good morning. Couldn’t sleep?” “No.” “Would you like some tea?” “That’s okay, I can grab it.” She smiles. “It’s your last day here; it’s the least I can do.” “Thank you.” She really is sweet. Since Jordan’s mom works, and Jordan went back to work too, I usually was the only one at home. I tried to find a job, but no one wanted to hire someone for just a month. So, I had a lot of free time. I would clean and cook dinner almost every day. His mom was mortified at first. She felt I was a guest and should relax. But I argued that if she really sees me as a member of the family, then she would let me help. She didn’t say anything again after that. “Are you all ready to go?” “Yeah, I packed last night,” I reply. “You know you don’t have to leave. You’re more than welcome to stay.” “I know … I just … I need to go.” “You’re a strong man, Noah. You’ll be okay.” “Thank you.” “And it doesn’t matter what your mom or anyone else says, you always have us.” “I know,” I say with a smile. “Can I ask you something?” she says as she puts her mug down on the table. “Of course.” “I’ve noticed something these past few weeks. I wasn’t going to bring it up … but given everything that happened a few days ago … I thought I would. You don’t ever say my name. You usually say ma’am, or Jordan’s mom, or you refer to me indirectly.” It’s true, I don’t use her name. She told me I could call her by her first name, but I felt that was too impolite. My parents always taught us not to call our elders by their first name. They said call them Aunt or Uncle. But those options seem weird to me as well. I honestly don’t know what to call her. Even Jordan picked up on it. We argued about it too. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. I don’t mean any disrespect … I just am not sure what to call you.” She smiles. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it. If I could be so bold … you could call me mom. I’m not trying to replace your mom of course,” she says quickly, “she will always have her own place, but you’ve become like a son to me … or well, you are a son to me … and ma’am just doesn’t feel right.” I never thought about calling another woman ‘mom’. I’ve only ever used the term for one person. The idea feels weird to me. But maybe it’s time for a change. We often take titles for granted. Just because you have them, doesn’t mean you’ve earned them. Take the word mother, for instance. A woman gets that title the moment she gives birth to a child. It makes sense, she does become a mother. But being a mom is more than just giving birth. It comes with certain responsibilities. And if you don’t carry them out, do you still have the right to be called mom? Biology isn’t enough; you have to act like a mom too. Jordan’s mom isn’t my biological mom. She never will be. But she treated me like a mom is supposed to treat her son. She went out of her way to make me feel like I am part of her family. So, doesn’t she have the right to be called mom? “I’d be honoured to call you mom.” She gives me a big hug. “You’re a good man, Noah. Your mom will see it. Don’t worry.” I hope so. ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “JORDAN! You ate all the cheese again!” I yell as I close the fridge door. “What? No I didn’t.” He looks as if I just caught him stealing a cookie from the cookie jar. “Yes, you did! I bought some to add to the lasagna, but there isn’t any here. I didn’t eat it, I’m sure the dog didn’t eat it … so by process of elimination …” “It was Jenn.” “Right, she used her invisibility cloak to sneak into the house, eat all the cheese, and leave.” “Exactly,” he says nodding his head. “She borrowed Harry’s.” I just stare at him shaking my head. He tries to smile and act all innocent. “What am I going to do with you, Jordan?” “Love and feed me?” he asks smiling. “Yeah, sure. I’m just going to go grab some more from the store. Try not to eat the lasagna sheets while I’m gone.” He makes a face at me. “You’re funny.” Ah, Jordan. He’s lucky I love him, otherwise I’d so throw something at him. Actually, I’m still going to throw something at him later tonight. The good thing is the grocery store is not even five minutes away. I can easily run out and grab what I need. As I step outside, I notice the sun is just starting to set. The clear blue sky is starting to show streaks of pink and purple. As much as I love the sunrise, sunset is my favourite time of the day. There is just something about twilight that is so enchanting. It will always remind me of one of the best days of my life. *** JORDAN *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “Jenn!” I say opening the door. “Glad you could make it.” “Would I ever miss a chance to have free food?” she asks. “No.” “Hey, there’s my favourite nameless dog,” she says petting Evan. “He has a name!” “What? You two finally agreed on something! I thought you were just going to have to settle on ‘Dog’.” “That was a strong possibility,” I say laughing. “So, what ingenious name did you two come up with?” “Evan.” “Evan … not your typical dog name, but it’s nice,” she says. “We’re not typical people.” “Touché. Why Evan?” “Evan was one of the characters in the book Noah and I read in English class, the one we presented on. It sort of reflects our past.” “Oh, that’s cool. Let me guess, Noah came up with it?” “Yup.” “And where is your better half anyway?” “Gone to grab some more cheese for the lasagna. The dog ate all of it …” “Ha! Sure he did. So how many people are coming tonight?” “Not many, just a few. We really can’t fit many people in here! A few volleyball friends, some other people I know from school, Caleb might come, and Noah invited a few other people as well.” “Oh, cool. Is John coming?” she asks. “No … I figured Noah told you.” “He didn’t say anything. What’s wrong?” “Oh, well, yeah, you actually won’t be seeing him around anymore. Turns out, he is a giant homophobe. So, we’re no longer friends.” “What? Really? That’s too bad. I’m sorry, Jordan. He seemed like a cool guy. But his loss.” “Exactly. I texted him a week ago to see how he was. He pretty much said he couldn’t believe I’m a ‘fucking fag’ and to keep away.” That is the stripped down version of what happened. He said a lot more. I can’t believe I was ever his friend. “He’s the fucking idiot,” Jenn says. “Do you want me to beat him up?” I smile. “No, I’m okay. If someone doesn’t want to hang out with me then that’s fine. Besides, I have enough crazy friends to keep me company. And speaking of crazy, looks like Noah’s home.” ——— Slowly over the next hour the rest of the group arrives. It’s a small, intimate gathering. We didn’t want to invite too many people because it’s a bit hard to manage, and our place isn’t that big! I actually haven’t seen most of these people since last semester. Most of them didn’t know I was dating Noah; they only found out through the picture I posted on social media. So, as one can imagine, I get quite a few questions. Everyone though is super chill and easygoing. “Man, I can’t believe you won’t be the captain this year,” one of my teammates, Liam, says to me at one point in time. He wanted me to run and was disappointed when I dropped out. “Chris will be fine,” I say. Chris is of course Sebastian’s friend. Sebastian. I haven’t thought about him in a long time. He just stares at me. “Sure. And pigs can fly.” “So, do you want to know the real reason I pulled out?” I ask my teammates. “It wasn’t because of schoolwork.” “I knew it! I didn’t believe that for a second,” Liam says. “What happened?” “Sebastian threatened to out us if I didn’t back down. At that time Noah’s parents didn’t know about us or that he’s gay … so I dropped out.” They all just stare at me, shocked. “What the fuck!” one of them says. “I knew Sebastian was a douche.” “That he was,” I say. “That is totally messed up! How did he know about you two?” Liam asks. “He saw us together one night at a gay club, and he made a video.” “That’s like out of a soap opera or something,” another says. “Yeah, it is,” I reply. “You need to tell the coach that,” Liam says. “We should re-vote, it’s not too late.” “Yeah, Chris should be kicked off the team!” another says. “It wasn’t Chris’s fault,” I say. I don’t know why I’m defending him. “I don’t even know if he knew. I think it was just Sebastian’s idea. As you all know, he didn’t really like me. And besides, it’s done now. Sebastian’s gone and I’m over it, and I think it’s time we just move on. I’m sure this year will be great.” “I’m still going to throw the ball at Chris when he’s not looking,” Liam says. “If that makes you feel better, go right ahead,” I say laughing. “So … were you ever checking us out in the locker room?” Liam asks jokingly. I knew this was going to come up at some point in time. “I am pretty irresistible.” “I only had eyes for you, Liam. Don’t you know I have a huge man-crush on you?” I try to keep a straight face, but I can’t. I guess nothing about me is straight anymore. “Well, obviously you do, come on, look at me!” he says laughing. “But you’re a committed man now - you keep your eyes on Noah.” “Don’t worry, I will.” “He’s a good guy, I like him,” Liam says referring to Noah. “He is.” “And a fucking good cook! That lasagna was amazing,” another chimes in. “You got lucky, dude.” “I really did!” “Hey,” Noah says walking over to us, “we’re just going to have dessert if you guys want to grab some.” “What do you have?” one of them asks. “Ice cream cake.” “Awesome!” Liam says getting up. “What are we celebrating?” “Our new place, a new school year, and us,” I say putting my arm around Noah’s waist. I can’t wait to tell them. This is going to be fun. *** NOAH *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “So, have you heard from her again?” Jenn asks as I’m cutting slices of cake. “No, I haven’t.” She’s talking about my mom. I saw her last week when I was back at home in Vancouver. I flew to my brother’s place from Montreal. I spent a few days with them, then we all drove down together to my parents’ house. We got there on Saturday evening. My sister and her family were there too. We stayed all of Sunday. I flew out the next day. I haven’t spoken to her since. “Do you think she’ll call?” she asks. Will she? I don’t know. I can’t tell. I keep telling myself to stop thinking about it. The ball is in her court, and there is nothing I can do. But that is easier said than done. ——— August 24th: Noah’s Parents’ House in Vancouver ——— The entire way here I felt strong. I kept telling myself I could do this. And I believed it. I thought I could. But when my parents’ house comes into view my stomach starts to churn. Seeing this place reminds me of the night I came out and the hatred I got from my own mother. I’m not sure I will ever forget that night, no matter what happens. This house will never be the same again. I hope I’m wrong. I hope one day it can become my home again, a place where I feel loved and respected. I’m doubtful, but maybe. I say a little prayer before I walk in. I’m not super religious like my parents are, but I figure there is no harm trying. Maybe a higher power out there will listen to me. When I walk in, I notice my dad. He gives me a hug and welcomes me back. My mom is standing beside him. “Hi, Mom,” I say. “Hi, Noah,” she says. She doesn’t give me a hug. In the past she would have. Clearly we still have a lot of work to do. That night I barely talk to her. We say a few lines here and there but not much. She is busy cooking, and the kids are running around. I haven’t seen my sister in a while, so I spend time with her and her children. At dinner my mom and I sit at opposite ends of the table. Everyone can feel there is tension in the air, but we don’t bring it up. I want to, but I also don’t want to. Who knows, this very well could be the last time we all sit down together and eat as one family. The thought depresses me. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But I’m prepared to walk away if I have to. I know my siblings will understand. My dad though won’t. After dinner my siblings take their kids upstairs to put them to bed. I stay downstairs in the kitchen. I want to get this over with. I don’t want to drag this out over the next two days. My mom doesn’t say anything at first. She just tidies up the kitchen. My dad sits silently at the table. I guess I’ll have to get the ball rolling. “So …” I say. My mom continues to do her work. My dad looks at me. He’s not sure what to say. “I’m here now … we should talk.” Silence. “I’m willing to give this another shot, but it can’t just come from me … I need to know you’re also willing to give this a shot too.” My mom turns to look at me. “I want you to move back home.” “Why?” I already know why. “So that you’re close to your family. There are good schools here, you can study whatever you want, we won’t stop you. We will pay for everything. Just come back home, Noah.” “That’s not going to change anything,” I say. “It might.” “The only way I’m ever coming back here is if Jordan is with me,” I say. She closes her eyes. Clearly that’s not the answer she wanted to hear. “I only want what’s best for you.” “Jordan is what’s best for me.” She starts to cry. It’s not hysterical crying, but slow and quiet. I can tell she is deeply hurt. “Think about your future, the afterlife.” “I am thinking about my future. I know you’re scared, Mom, but this is the right choice. I can’t change who I am. I love Jordan. And Jordan loves me.” “Don’t turn your back on your family,” is how she responds. “I’m not turning my back on anyone, you are. I want to be a part of this family, but I can only do that if I am true to myself. Don’t you want me to be happy?” “I’m your mother, of course I do.” “Well, Jordan makes me happy. When we’re together it’s … I don’t even know how to describe it … but when I see his face, I feel this warmth inside my soul. When he smiles, it melts my heart. When I’m with him my life is full of joy. I’ve never felt this way about anyone, and I never will.” “But you can try. We can work together.” “It won’t change anything.” “You don’t know that,” she says in between tears. “You don’t know how difficult these past few weeks have been. I can’t eat properly, my blood pressure is high …” The guilt trip. And this has been easy on me? “I know this is hard on you, Mom. But have you thought about how hard this is on me? My mom rejected me. My own mom. I thought you loved me more than that. In the past, whenever you asked me for anything, I did it. I always listened to you. I’ve been a good son. I’ve lived up to all my responsibilities. Yet when I needed you the most, you threw me out. You said I was dead to you. How do you think that made me feel?” “I did it so you would see the right path.” “The right path? I'm on the right path! You’re on the wrong one. Do you know what Jordan’s mom said when she saw the picture of us together? She said we look perfect together. She threw her arms open and accepted her son. She accepted me. THAT is what a mom does. You … you didn’t do that.” “You say you always listen to me, listen to me now.” “I would do anything for you, Mom, and you know that. But not this time. I’m not giving up Jordan for you. Not now, not ever.” “So you pick him over me.” “It’s not like that. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be both.” “Ever since you put that picture up online people in the family have been calling me. It’s all my friends ask me about. You don’t know the things people are saying. I go to church and people tell me you’ll burn in hell. It’s …” she trails off. “Look, I understand this isn’t easy for you. I know people will be judgmental. And I am sorry for that. I never wanted to hurt you or cause you pain. Honestly, you have to believe me. I tried to change, Mom, I really did. But this is who I am.” I pause for a moment. “Even if I moved back, and tried to date girls, I would be miserable. I would ruin my life and someone else’s life. Do you really want that? Is that fair to another girl, that I only marry her to appease you, even though I don’t love her? It’s not. And I’m not going to do that to anyone. It’s not right.” My mom doesn’t say anything. She knows I am right. She just sighs. “I have to throw in the laundry.” The laundry. Clearly that’s more important. She doesn’t know what to say. She’s backed into a corner and is looking to find a way to get out. “Fine. Do your laundry … whatever.” I walk out of the kitchen before she can say anything else. ——— I spend the next day mostly with my siblings out of the house. I have a bunch of errands I need to run. There is a good chance I may never come back to this city again. Plus, I’m avoiding my mom. I don’t want to have part two of that conversation. But it’s one house and people talk. My brother and sister both asked her how our conversation went. All she would say is that they need to persuade me to come back home. So, it seems like she hasn’t changed her mind. After dinner my brother-in-law and sister-in-law take all the children upstairs. My brother and sister asked them to give us some time to talk as a family. I told my siblings not to bother, but they won’t listen. They say they aren’t going to let the family split up. I have nothing to lose, I guess. “Did you think about what Noah said last night?” my brother asks my mom. “I did,” she says. “And?” he asks her. “My friend Linda has a really nice daughter, you’d —” Surprisingly, my dad is the one to cut her off. “Enough! We’ve talked about that. He’s not going to marry a girl.” “But if he tried —” “I told you this is pointless,” I say. My brother and sister both start arguing with our mom. It’s pretty much the same conversation we had last night. She basically just repeats herself. “Look, Mom,” I say interrupting everyone. “I don’t want to argue with you. This is simple. I’m never going to leave Jordan, so there is no point in you trying to convince me otherwise. It’s already too late for that as it is. What I need to know from you is if I can count on you. Can you accept me for who I am? Can you open this house and welcome Jordan into it? I understand it will take time. I’m not asking you to change today, or tomorrow, or even next week. But eventually you will have to learn to accept me for who I am. You will need to accept you have a gay son. If you promise me that you will try, I will keep the doors of communication open, and I will try my best to make this easier for you. But if you tell me that you can’t accept me, not today, not tomorrow, not ever … then there is no point in any of this. Then I will walk out of this house tomorrow morning and I will never return, and the only person you have to blame for that is you.” She doesn’t say anything. No one says anything. “If Noah leaves, I’m leaving too and never coming back,” my brother says. “Same with me,” my sister adds in. Both my parents look shocked. Dread overtakes them. It’s sweet of my siblings to say that, but it’s not right. “No you won’t,” I say. “You’ll stay.” “If there isn’t room for you in this house, there isn’t room for me or my family either,” my brother says. “Look, I appreciate you saying that, but that’s not the answer. The kids deserve to know their grandparents. I don’t want to be the reason they grow up not knowing or spending time with them. Plus, Dad has done nothing wrong. He shouldn’t be punished. And I don’t want to force anyone into loving me. I don’t want Mom to say she will just because of you. I want her to do it because she wants to. You guys will stay.” “The ball is in your court, Mom,” my sister says. She doesn’t say anything. “Look, I understand this is a lot to take in. But this is the reality. Either you accept me, or lose me forever. Think about it. You have until tomorrow morning to give me an answer. I leave the house at nine for the airport.” I’m about to leave the room when my dad says something. “Wait. What did you mean when you said earlier it’s too late for you to leave Jordan? What have you done?” I didn’t want to bring that up. The line just slipped out of my mouth. But I guess I have no choice now. This is going to be interesting. ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— I would love to say my mom came around the next day, but she didn’t. All she would say to my siblings was to give her time. Give her time for what, I don’t know. “Can you pass those cups from over there?” I ask Jordan. “Sure, here,” he says handing them over. Cleaning up after you spent all day cleaning is so annoying. I wish people would throw their stupid napkins away at least! So gross. “It was a good party,” I say to him. “Yeah. It was a lot of fun.” “Did you notice the flirtation going on?” “Between whom?” he asks. I can see he is curious. “You didn’t notice? It was so obvious!” “Well, clearly I didn’t. Whom were you flirting with?” he jokes. “Liam was flirting with Jenn. I think he likes her.” “Oh, hmm.” He’s clearly thinking about something. “What?” “Nothing. My gaydar is really bad … but I kind of thought Liam was on our team.” “Really? I don’t know. He could be. I never really paid close attention. But from what I could tell tonight, he was into Jenn.” “You’re probably right. The two would actually make a good pair.” “They would. He’s a really quirky guy, and that is saying a lot coming from me!” *** JORDAN *** ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— “Are you coming to bed?” I yell at Noah. “In a minute,” he yells from the other room. “We can finish cleaning tomorrow,” I say. It’s close to midnight, and I am exhausted. I was hoping for some loving tonight, but I have a feeling that isn’t going to happen. Poor, poor, pitiful me. “I’m done, I’m done,” he says coming into the room. He plops down onto the bed beside me. “I’m beat.” “It’s been a long day. Tonight was fun. I’m glad we had everyone over.” “Yeah, it was nice. I’m just glad that we’re finally settled in.” “We should celebrate,” I say as I extend my hand out to find his dick. I start to rub his crotch through his pyjamas. A guy has to try! Much to my surprise he doesn’t say anything. Instead he puts his hand on my dick too! I’m gonna score tonight! Yes! My dream though is cut short when Evan decides to jump onto the bed and lie down right between us! AH! Silly dog! “I guess you’re out of luck tonight,” Noah says to me. “It’s okay, I have a lifetime to bug you.” ——— August 17th: Mont-Tremblant, Quebec ——— Tranquil, serene, peaceful. There is no one word that encapsulates how to describe the beauty radiating before us. The sunlight shimmers on the lake as the sun slowly sinks in between two lush mountains. The dying light unleashes streaks of pink and purple into the sky. They melt into the soft hues of blue. Below us, night is falling over the European-styled village in Mont-Tremblant. I couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop. “You really know how to impress a guy,” Noah says to me. “This is just amazing.” “I know. I brought you here because I have something I want to ask you,” I say to him. I didn’t think I would be this nervous. “I think I know what you want to ask.” He does? How could he know? I’ll humour him. “You do? Please share.” “You were going to ask: voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” “I don’t need to ask you that, je sais que votre réponse est oui.” Noah doesn’t really speak much French, but he is trying to pick it up. He asked me if I wanted to sleep with him tonight. I responded I know his answer is yes. The only reason he knows that line is because of the famous song. I think it’s the only full sentence he knows! He has a long way to go. Having no idea what I just said, Noah changes track. “So, what did you want to ask?” “Let me show you something first.” I take out a picture and hand it to him. “He’s cute. Who is he?” “It’s a dog.” “I know that. Whose dog is it?” “He can be ours.” “Ours? Is that what you’re so nervous about asking me, about getting a dog together?” He smiles. “No, that’s not what I want to ask you at all.” “Okay?” he says looking confused. “Do you remember what I said to you on your birthday, when we were watching the sunrise on Mont-Royal in Montreal?” “Uh, vaguely. I think you mentioned how it made you feel alive, or something like that.” “I did. I also said that it gives you hope and optimism that the future will be just as bright and magnificent.” “Right. I remember you saying that.” “The sunset is the opposite in many ways, the light is fading away. Darkness will soon surround us.” “There are lights for that, Mr. Philosophical,” he says trying to make a joke. He is really confused. Good. “There are, yes. But I don’t need a light. All I need is you to brighten up my life. I want our future to be bright and magnificent. I want it to be full of optimism, hope, and above all, happiness and love. And there’s only one way I see that happening … with you by my side.” He smiles. I can see the wheels are starting to turn in his head. I know he thinks he knows where I’m going with this. He’s wrong. “I’m not planning on going anywhere. If this is about me seeing my mom next week and leaving you again, don’t worry, that’s not going to happen.” I smile. “I know, and that’s not what this is about. I trust you, and I know you’re not going anywhere.” I pause. “I love you, Noah. I want you by my side when we’re at school, when we graduate, when we travel the world, when we grow old together. I want you there for everything. The good and the bad. I want the world to know we’re one, and I can’t think of a better way. I know this is a big step for us, and that we’re still really young, but I’ve never been this sure of anything in my life. I’m not trying to pressure you; you can say no and that’s fine, I won’t get angry or be upset. I’ll love you regardless of whatever you say.” Though I hope he says yes! Okay. This is it. I take his hand in mine. “That leads me to my real question. Noah Quinn Watson, will you marry me?” His eyes go wide. His mouth opens, but no words come out. It takes a few seconds, but his lips start to curl. “Are you sure?” “Absolutely. I’ve never been this sure about anything in my entire life,” I respond. “I want to marry you!” He still hasn’t said yes! Come on man, what are you waiting for? You’re killing me here! “Yes!” he finally screams. “Yes, what?” I say to bug him. “Yes, Jordan Young, yes, I will marry you.” ——— Present Day: NoJo’s Apartment ——— I smile at Noah as he gently pets Evan. I’m glad we got him. I didn’t want to get engagement rings because I didn’t want to be traditional. Noah and I are far from traditional. We may get rings one day, maybe when we marry. But we can worry about that later. We talked about it, and we both feel that we should wait. We’re not in any rush. Don’t get me wrong, I would marry Noah tomorrow, I have no doubts about him, but I think we both feel we should build up our lives together. We should finish school, save up, buy a place, travel, and then when we have the money, go off to an exotic location and get hitched. Noah rolls off the bed and grabs something from the table. “Here, boy, look what I have. I got you a present,” he says showing Evan a new bone. “Who’s a good boy? Come, come here.” He takes him out of the room and puts the bone somewhere. “That’s a good boy. I’ll come back for you in a bit.” “The dog gets a gift, but not me, I see how it is,” I say as Noah closes the door behind him. “Don’t be jealous. I didn’t forget about you. Your gift is right here,” he says as he loses his shirt, pyjamas, and underwear. Clothes are so overrated. I like my present way better. Noah climbs back into bed, bringing his face to mine. As he leans in to kiss me, I wrap my arms around him, pressing his body against mine. With one swift motion, I flip him onto his back and roll on top of him. I’m still much stronger than he is. My lips are back on his almost instantly. I spend the next few minutes worshipping his body and feeling every inch of his soft skin with my tongue and hands. Even after all these months, tasting his skin excites me. Eventually I make my way down to my prize - his beautiful dick. I start at the bottom, moving my tongue up until I reach the top. I’m greeted by a pool of precum. Salty, like usual. I envelop his dick with my mouth, taking it all in. I’ve become good at this. No more gagging or using teeth like the first time. Noah moans my name softly. There is no better sound. When I break it off Noah thinks it is his turn to have his fun with me. But not yet. Instead I reach into the nightstand and grab a bottle of lube. I spread some over his dick and my hole. Noah just looks at me a bit surprised. I’m not on the receiving end that much, but the way he is looking at me it’s like this is the first time. It’s not because I don’t like to, I do. I love having Noah inside me. But it’s usually because Noah loves it when I fuck him even more. The compromises we make for love, right? I place one hand behind me on the bed, while with the other I position his dick again my hole. I slowly lower my body onto his erect penis. It pushes in, returning to a familiar place. I throw my head back and bite my lower lip as I start to pick up pace. I bring my body up, and eagerly back down, letting his manhood fill me. I’m going to ride this dick all night long! Soon Noah starts to thrust upwards as well, hitting me deep inside. “Oh fuck!” I say as his dick sends waves of pleasure through my body. When my legs get tired I flip onto my back and bring my legs up to my chest. Noah is there guiding his cock back into me. Now that he is in control he is going faster, and harder. He knows just how I like it. Our eyes lock as he makes love to me. Each thrust makes me moan. Each thrust makes my toes curl. Each thrust makes me want him even more. Have your fun Noah. My turn is next. ——— I know it’s a bit creepy but I can’t help it. I watch Noah as he sleeps beside me, his head resting on his arm. A few strands of hair have fallen across his forehead. He’s been growing his hair these past few weeks. I like it. It’s different for him. His bare chest slowly moves up and down. He looks so peaceful. This is the man I am going to wake up beside every single day. The only man I will ever share a bed with. The only man I will ever sleep with. I know the old Jordan would have freaked out by that thought. Commitment is a scary word. But, the present Jordan, the man I have become, he’s not afraid to commit. Not even remotely. I’m excited. I’m excited to wake up next to him every day, excited to have him in my bed. Excited to have someone to love. I’m just sometimes afraid I won’t live up to his expectation, or be the man he deserves. It’s crazy how much your life can change in just one year. If someone had told me at this time last year that in a few months I would be lying in bed next to my fiancé, I would have thought they were on crack. Yet, here I am. I remember this time last year, school was just about to begin. I had come back to university after spending part of the summer with my dad. I was settling into my small dorm room and was still dating Kate. Fast forward one year: my dad is gone, Kate, and all the other girls, are no longer in the picture, and neither is that dorm room. It feels like I’ve done a 180-degree turn. While there have been many bumps along the way, I couldn’t be happier. I often think back to that night in the gym; the night I saw Noah sitting on the bleachers. The night my world changed. I remember how scared I was. Scared that I had lost him, that I would never see him again. I also remember kissing him for the first time. How it felt when our lips finally met. It felt right. It felt like that is where I was supposed to be. That was the biggest risk I ever took in my life. It changed everything. Not all risks are worth taking. Some can lead you down dark and dangerous paths. But not that one. That one was the best decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes taking the uncharted road can lead to the best outcome. Kissing Noah led me down a path of self-awareness. I’ve learned more about myself in these past few months than I have in the past few years. I’ve matured. I’ve grown. I’ve learned that love knows no limits, no gender or form. It can present itself in any shape, or manifest itself in any person, male or female. We just have to be brave enough to embrace it when we see it. It’s been a long journey for the two of us. We’ve had our ups and down, our good and bad moments. But it’s been worth it. I wouldn’t change anything. The obstacles we faced made us who we are today. They made us stronger. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. This was the right choice. This is the right path. It led us to where we belong. Noah and I are finally home.
  30. 59 points
    Nathan hesitated in the doorway to his bedroom, sensing the heat from Jaymes’ body at his back. An involuntary shiver trembled through him. In his mind, he still thought of the room as his father’s—well, his parent’s—even though he had redecorated and bought new furniture after his father passed away. He had also invested in a queen-sized bed, even though he’d shared the space with nobody since the purchase. And right now a man—a very attractive man—wanted to climb into bed with him, and hopefully have sex with him. His stomach tightened and, as if hearing his thoughts, a warm hand landed on his shoulder. “Nate?” came the concerned voice. “Are you absolutely sure about this?” said Nathan, without turning. “Because if we go the rest of the way, there’ll be no going back. Everything will change.” “I am. But I think your question is, are you?” “Oh God.” The hand slipped from his shoulder and Nathan immediately missed the warmth, the connection. “What is it?” “It’s just—” Nathan breathed out a sigh and turned to face Jaymes, who stood there patiently, an endearing look of concern in his eyes. “I can handle juvenile Jaymes. But this grown up version is making me nervous.” Jaymes’ face bloomed into a broad smile, which helped reduce Nathan’s nerves. Eventually, Nathan felt a smile tug the corner of his mouth. “Relax. You’re in good hands.” Jaymes put a hand on each of Nathan’s shoulders and pulled him forward into an innocent hug. The closeness, the warmth and musky smell of Jaymes, the side of his face resting against Nathan’s, smoothed the tension out of his body. “I am?” “You are. And in case you’re worrying if this is a first for me, it’s not. Just—let me take control, Nate. Can you do that?” “What does that mean, exactly?” “Do you trust me?” Nathan paused for a second or two, pulling back and staring deep into Jaymes’ eyes, before nodding his head. “Yes. But just so you know, it’s been a while for me.” Since his father’s death, he’d had little time to play. Before that, he’d often driven to Brighton at the weekend, the gay capital of England, and spent the night with friends. One guy had been his on-and-off since his early twenties, but never more than a roll in the hay, though there was a time that might not have been the case. But when his father passed away, any dream of being with someone went out the window. Who wanted to be with a man who rose before the crack of dawn and was asleep by eight o’clock each evening? “Then all the more reason to trust me. Now, don’t move, okay?” “Okay.” Like a parent undressing a kid, Jaymes lifted Nathan’s arms in the air and slowly pulled the sweater over his head. When Nathan’s head reappeared, his hair falling back into place, Jaymes smiled and kissed him chastely on the lips. Nathan began to reach out for Jaymes’ own sweater, but Jaymes stopped his hand, and then held a finger up in front of Nathan’s face. “I said don’t move.” Jaymes bit his bottom lip and concentrated on undoing the buttons of Nathan’s shirt, while Nathan took his fill of the imposing man. Jaymes’ single-minded attentiveness felt damned sexy. When he had completed the top half, removing both shirt and undershirt, he hands went to Nathan’s belt, slowing undoing the buckle, before unbuttoning his jeans and forcing them down to his knees, but carefully avoiding moving or touching Nathan’s seriously tenting boxers. Jaymes appeared to get off on this power play because his breathing had deepened considerably. On his way back up, he smoothed a cheek against the cotton cloth over Nathan’s erection and the damp spot there. Straightening, he forcefully kissed Nathan, and ended by pushing him by the shoulders to a sitting position on the bed. Crouching again, he slid off Nathan’s jeans, before crawling up his body pushing him back until he lay on top, their mouths locked in another powerful kiss. Even fully clothed, Nathan could feel Jaymes’ arousal through his jeans. Jaymes released the embrace, leant back and yanked both of Nathan’s arms above his head. In turn, he pushed his nose and mouth into each armpit, before nuzzling on each of Nathan’s nipples, his tongue wetly circling the gooseflesh skin, before nipping gently on the nub, bringing each fully erect. Nathan squirmed and moaned with pleasure. “You’ve got too many clothes on, Jaymes.” “Shh.” Jaymes sat up then, straddling Nathan’s thighs. While rhythmically pushing his groin into Nathan’s, he slowly began to unbutton his own shirt, and, with no undershirt beneath, revealed his hairy, defined chest for the second time that evening. Broad shouldered, and sporting a flat stomach, Nathan spotted a small tattoo on one side of the crease leading down to his groin, what looked like a dog or a wolf. Hell, thought Nathan, the man could put on a show. Nathan wanted to touch and feel, suck and taste him, run his hands over his amazing body. But he’d had strict instructions: no touching—yet. Eventually, Jaymes pushed off the mattress, backing onto the carpet, where he began unbuckling his trousers, removing them and his underwear until he stood buck naked except for the leather bands around both wrists. While his gaze appraised Nathan’s body, one hand smoothed down to his own groin. Nathan couldn’t help the intake of pleasure at the sight, of Jaymes’ impressive body and generously proportioned cock, standing to attention, gripped in a fist and aimed liked a warhead at Nathan’s head. “I’ve wanted to fuck you since the first day I met you,” said Jaymes, stepping out of the jeans around his ankles and coming forward, the pupils of his blue eyes darkened with need. “Yeah?” “Oh yeah,” he said, reaching now and pulling Nathan’s boxers down, watching as his erection sprang free, all the while admiring the view. “You’re absolutely beautiful, Nate.” Jaymes climbed onto the mattress again, like a predator crawling over his prey, planting soft kissed on each of Nathan’s thighs, breathing hot breath onto Nathan’s straining erection—but not touching—drawing his tongue up from the stomach to between his pectorals, then licking and nipping at his nipples. By the time he had lined up their bodies, his scorching cock smoothing up the length of Nathan’s own, his face hovering over him, Nathan was about ready to let go completely. But a question needed answering. “Then why the hesitation earlier?” Jaymes huffed out a sigh and looked away briefly. “Polly warned me you were off limits. You’ve been through enough, she said, and she thinks I’m a bad influence. So I promised. Sadly, not only do I find you totally addictive, but my usually trusty willpower’s defective in your presence.” Once again, Jaymes brought their bodies and mouths together, and probed his eager tongue into Nathan’s mouth, exploring, smoothing, teasing. Jaymes’ mouth tasted of beer and sour Thai sauce and pure need. After a few molten seconds, Jaymes pulled away. “But I get that it’s been a long time. So if you want, we don’t have to go all the way.” Nathan felt Jaymes’ substantial erection nudge between his legs, and a tingle filled his stomach, his arse cheeks clenching involuntarily with need. All of his previous encounters—and he could count them on one hand—had been fast and furious. He and Clifton had never gotten past blow jobs and mutual masturbation. If only for one night, he wanted everything with Jaymes. “I want to go all the way with you.” “You do?” “Hell yeah, but you’re going to have to take it slow.” “Slow is my speciality. I’ll have you singing like an opera diva by the time I’m finally inside you.” “Fuck, Jaymes. Hurry up, then. I’m about ready to burst here. Condoms and lube are in the bedside drawer. This side.” When Jaymes jumped up and went to the drawer, Nathan pulled himself further up the bed. Jaymes lost no time and after throwing the items onto a pillow, launched himself back at Nathan. Holding his head in both hands, he planted his weight on top of Nathan and kissed deeply. Apparently Jaymes liked to kiss, which was as well because Nathan loved being kissed by him. “Am I allowed to move yet?” asked Nathan, as they came up for air. Jaymes laughed playfully at that. Hot breath bathed his left ear when he spoke. “Knock yourself out.” Nathan rolled them over and straddled a chuckling Jaymes. This time, Nathan took his time to drink in the incredibly hot guy beneath him. When he reached down and grabbed a handful of Jaymes’ erection, the bigger man’s eyes widened, his grin dissolving. Pupils darkening with need, he sucked in a breath, closed his eyes, and bucked his hips repeatedly into Nathan’s grip. His heart thumping, Nathan made his way down Jaymes’ body, eventually stopping and hovering over the cock. Maybe he wasn’t so good at other things, but he knew a thing or two about giving blow jobs, or so he’d been told. Keeping his grip on Jaymes’ shaft, he drew his tongue slowly from root to tip, tracing bulging veins before licking repeatedly around the ridge. “Bastard,” hissed Jaymes, his hands reaching into Nathan’s hair. Before Jaymes could speak again, Nathan had cupped his balls in one hand and squeezed gently, before taking the whole head in his mouth. Obscene words drifted down from Jaymes’ mouth, as Nathan bobbed his head up and down, letting out an occasional popping sound as he released the head. After a few of these, Nathan decided to shut Jaymes up by taking his whole length—not an easy task because of the girth—into his throat while snaking his tongue repeatedly around. Before he had finished, Jaymes used his hands to pull off Nathan’s head, a soft whimpering sound coming from him. “Okay Nate,” he said, his voice shaking and serious. “I get it. You give fucking amazing head. But if you carry on like that, it’ll all be over before it’s begun. Let me take over now, give me a chance to recover.” Flipping places once again, he crushed his mouth onto Nathan’s. Without breaking the kiss, he eased Nathan’s legs apart, before pulling his knees up and sliding the head of his hot cock along Nathan’s crack. Jaymes knew how to tease, the heat amazing, the tip already slick with pre-cum. Nathan’s legs squeezed tight around Jaymes’ lower back, letting him know he wanted more. Releasing Nathan’s mouth, Jaymes went down on Nathan, sucking his balls and torturing him by taking him into his mouth, while still managing to press the length of his cock along Nathan’s crack. Before long, the length was replaced by a spit slick middle finger, thick and calloused, squeezing slowly inside while Jaymes worked Nathan’s cock with his mouth. After moments of twisting and probing, the finger withdrew and this time Nathan heard the snap of the lube bottle opening. He had been expecting to feel cool liquid touch him, but instead Jaymes released his cock, and swiped his tongue around the sensitive skin of Nathan’s hole before pushing inside. Nathan moaned aloud and almost came there and then. Emboldened, Jaymes brought his head away and pushed two fingers inside this time, his mouth returning to swallow Nathan’s length. Nathan loved the feeling, realising how much he had missed the intimate sensation, until Jaymes withdrew and pushed a third finger into him, finally finding his prostate, his pleasure centre. Nathan literally yelped, bucked his hips, and then moaned, which set Jaymes chuckling. “There you are, my little friend.” After twisting his fingers, Jaymes stroked the spot once more. Nathan felt pressure building at the root of his cock, knew he wasn’t far from coming. He’d almost forgotten how much pleasure two men could give each other. “Jaymes, you need to fuck me now. I beg you.” But Jaymes was way ahead. As soon as he withdrew his hand, the head of his already sheathed cock replaced the loss of heat, pushing in slowly and stopping. Nathan’s breath stuttered for a second, the pain sharp, but the burn of being stretched gradually subsiding. As promised, Jaymes took his time, pushing forward gradually and allowing Nathan time to adjust. Without doubt, Jaymes was bigger than any man he’d ever had, and despite the coolness of the room, Nathan felt perspiration dotting his forehead. Finally, Jaymes’ own sweat-slick face appeared over his, eyes wide with wonder. “I’m all the way in.” “You are?” “Yes.” “Then what are you waiting for?” Jaymes grinned again, but when he started moving, a tortured mask of ecstasy replaced his smile. After a few tentative strokes, he began to pull out almost all the way before sliding back in again. Soon all pain had subsided, Nathan’s nerve endings brought to life, and he began to move forward into each stroke. When Jaymes changed angles at one point, and thrust back in hard, he hit right on target and Nathan whimpered eager encouragement and affirmation into his ear. Each subsequent thrust hit home, fast and hard, followed by long, slow strokes. Along with the lovemaking, the bed frame creaked like an industrial machine while the headboard slammed rhythmically against the wall, each bang marking out the increasing pleasure and tension building inside Nathan. When Jaymes’ mouth crushed into Nathan’s and once again he rammed in hard and fast, Nathan finally came apart, cum erupting from him, hitting their joined chests and filling his navel. Jaymes came seconds afterwards, growling loudly, and pushing his cock as far into Nathan as he would reach, filling the condom. Collapsing on top of Nathan, their chests bounced against each other, fighting for air, their bodies slick with sweat and semen. Eventually, Jaymes pulled out, slowly and gently, which made Nathan smile shyly. Jaymes was a generous and careful lover. Both lay on their backs, staring at the ceiling, unspeaking, breathing in sync. Eventually Nathan broke the silence. “Is there anything you’re not good at?” Jaymes’ laughter rumbled and he turned on his side to face Nathan. With one hand cradling his head, he reached out and stroked a thumb around Nathan’s groin, fondling his balls and bringing his cock back to life. “If I could turn you into a pizza right now, this would be a perfect night.” “There’s one in the freezer I could defrost and bake, if you want?” “Nah. We haven’t finished here yet. You ready for round two?” “If you keep that up, I will be.” “Let me quickly get rid of this first of all,” said Jaymes, plucking off the filled condom, rising from the bed, and disappearing towards the bathroom. “For the record, I hate condoms,” said Jaymes, returning and stretching out next to Nathan. “Why?” “Reduced sensation. Like kissing through shrink-wrap. But having lived with a cheating bastard for five weeks, I understand the need.” Jaymes shuffled closer and lined their bodies up. Almost chastely, he smoothed the back of one hand down Nathan’s chest, before leaning in and kissing him. Both of their bodies responded to the close contact, Jaymes’ erection straining against Nathan’s stomach. As their breathing deepened again, Nathan had been expecting Jaymes to roll on top of him, but instead, Jaymes rolled the other way, and pulled Nathan on top. Immediately, one hand went to Nathan’s crack and stroked there, a finger probing into his warm depths. Nathan moaned with pleasure into Jaymes’ mouth, before pulling away. “You’ve no idea how much I needed this,” he whispered. “Yeah, I think I do. Grab me a condom.” “Let me.” Nathan reached over and plucked a condom from the box. With the foil wrapper between his teeth, he squirted lube into his palm, then reached behind and massaged Jaymes’ hot, straining erection. Jaymes groaned and pushed his hips into the caress. “You’re good at this, Nate.” “Yeah, well. Got to be good at something.” Finishing off, Nathan ripped open the foil and rolled the latex down Jaymes’ length. Pushing the remaining lube from his fingers into his backside, he positioned himself over Jaymes and lowered gently, his eyes rolling back into his head and closing. “Oh fuck, that feels so good,” moaned Jaymes, as Nathan lowered all the way onto his length, waited for a few moments, before rising slowly, his hands braced against Jaymes’ chest. “Mm-hmm.” After a dozen or so more times, moving slowly and savouring every tiny pleasurable sensation, Jaymes’ deep voice broke the silence. “Look at me, Nate.” Nathan opened his eyes and saw such intensity in Jaymes’ beautiful eyes, such trust and tenderness, he almost forgot to breathe. Craning forward, he wrapped his arms lightly around Jaymes’ neck and brought their mouths together. After taking his fill, he stopped moving, pulled back and smiled at Jaymes. “Your turn, big boy. Give me everything you’ve got,” he said, allowing Jaymes to move into him at his own pace. Jaymes needed no encouraging. With a guttural rumble in his chest, he brought his knees up and pounded hard, his strong arms around Nathan’s waist, holding him in place. So fast and furious came the response, Nathan almost fell off the horse, so to speak, before locking his arms around behind Jaymes’ neck. Jaymes had possibly sensed the same thing because he pulled him closer, until Nathan’s cock rubbed up and down Jaymes’ stomach. “God, Jay. I—I think I’m going to—” Both panting with pleasurable exertion, Jaymes’ came first, thrusting into Nathan and holding there, releasing a long, raspy growl of ecstasy. Nathan followed right behind, rubbing still against Jaymes’ body, and spurting shot after shot of warm cum onto Jaymes’ chest and neck. Both collapsed again, Nathan slowly rolling off Jaymes until they lay side by side, staring at the ceiling. “We should get some sleep,” said Nathan. “I’ll get a wet cloth so we can clean up.” Nathan moved to the door and stopped. A sudden nervousness filled him when he turned to witness Jaymes studying him, a grin on his face. “Will you sleep in here tonight?” asked Nathan. After everything they’d just done, he felt nervous about having Jaymes actually sleep next to him. “I’d like to. Unless you want me to sleep next door?” “No, I—” said Nathan, a smile finding its way to his lips. “No, definitely not. I want you here.” Five minutes later, as they settled beneath the sheets, Jaymes lined his body up against Nathan’s spine, his knees tucked into Nathan’s, an arm around his waist. Nathan had never felt so comforted. “I could get used to this.” In response, Jaymes simply kissed the back of his neck. While his bedside clock ticked out seconds and minutes, Jaymes’ gentle breath in his hair slowed and a soft snuffling sound issued from him. Nathan didn’t want to sleep, wanted to savour every last minute with naked Jaymes in his bed, because he felt sure this wouldn’t last. Nothing ever did. But soon tiredness overtook him, and he descended into dreams of laughter and freedom and possibility.
  31. 59 points
    The four of us flew home together on Saturday. Leaving my mother had been hard, but she said she wanted some time on her own; to reflect, and sort my father’s things. We’d talked a bit that morning before we took the taxi back to St. John’s to catch our flight. “Ma, you need to do what feels the best for you, of course.” I stood as I gazed out of the window. “You are pretty isolated here. And you’re not keen on driving.” “Yes, I do ‘ave Laura and Maureen in St. John’s, and other friends too.” Ma leaned on the table; with a cup of tea between her hands. “There is much more ta do there, to be involved wit. I’d get rid of the Range Rover; a nice little car would be more my style I think.” Rena and Robert had joined us then. They slid into the remaining seats at the table. Robert said, “We haven’t talked to Louis or Don about this yet, but after we get married, well, we’ll likely move out of the granny house.” Well, this was news to me! “Really?” I turned toward them. They both looked up at me. I sat down at the head of the table. “I guess I can understand why.” “We’re only saying so now, because, well, we thought Doreen may want to come and visit, or stay.” “I’d be happy ta come visit but I could never leave ‘ere again. It’s my home and everything I know, except you son, is ‘ere.” Ma sipped her tea. I felt so torn at that moment. I didn’t want to leave her, but my life was not here. It’s a beautiful place and it gets under your skin, but I never had the attachment to the Rock, like my parents had. “Louis, don’t you even think about it, b’y. Your life is wit Don, on the mainland. But I hope we can visit more often.” Ma reached out for my hand. I had smiled at her then. “I’ll make sure we do.” The taxi arrived on time. It was an SUV, and we got Don into the front passenger seat and the rest of us into the back with no effort. I hugged my mom. “Are you sure you’ll be all right? I can stay longer, Ma.” “Aye, yes, I’ll be all right, b’y. I’ve been alone ‘ere before now.” She held me tight. “I love ya, Louis. I’m at peace. I need to get on wit things b’y.” I nodded and stepped back. “I’ll call you soon.” “Aye, see that ya do.” I climbed into the back seat behind Don, and pulled the door closed. She waved as the vehicle pulled away, turned and went back into the house. My feelings about leaving her were mixed. Now, on our final approach to Toronto, I thought about what this week would hold. I’d need to get back to work. They’d given me until Wednesday off, which was more than generous. I had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to get caught up at home, get the horses back, and see Max. In addition, I’d have time to think about what Donny had said about a home office and working more in my own time. That idea held much appeal. We ordered a limousine to take us home. On the way, Don called the stable he’d found to board the horses. They were willing to let us pick them up that afternoon. Robert agreed to come with me. After getting Don inside, Robert and I left to get the horses. The hitch for the trailer was on our van. Rena said she’d get Don into her small SUV and they’d go shopping. Don who listened to all of this said, “I am here you know, and I can stand up. I’m not a bloody rag doll ….” His mother patted his head. “Of course you’re not dear.” Several hours later the horses were installed in their field, groceries were in the fridge, Robert and Rena were back home, and Don and I were in the kitchen wondering what we should eat. “Pizza.” I leaned on the counter and smiled at my husband. “Did you buy one?” He pulled himself up out of his chair enough to kiss me, the sat down with a thump. “Nope, but I know how to use the phone. I am gonna order us an extra large with everything. We will open a bottle of wine, stuff ourselves and chill.” That sounded like a fine idea to me. “Have I told you that I love you and think you’re brilliant?” “No, I don’t think you ever have before.” He grinned at me, while pulling his phone from the pocket which hung on the arm of his chair. “Let me buy you dinner tonight, me duck.” I chuckled at that. He called the number in his phone. “Hi, yes, delivery please ….” While he ordered, I rooted in the fridge to see if there was any wine. There was a full bottle of chardonnay, so I pulled it out. “Lous, I have solved the dinner problem. It is on the way. How are the beverages coming?” I put the bottle on the counter. “Done and done, baby.” “Excellent. Let me uncork that. You take the stuff out to the living room. Dinner should be here soon.” We settled in the living room, and Donny poured us a glass of wine. He’d moved to the sofa and put his arm around me. “It’s good to be home.” “It is.” I sipped the cool liquid, savouring the flavour. “Do you think your mom will be okay?” “Yes, babe. I think so. She does things her own way. She seemed to be holding it together okay.” “She did.” Don put his glass on the coffee table. “Well, keep in touch more than usual. Just to be sure.” “I will.” “The service and all was nice. You did a good job with your eulogy.” I smiled at him. “Thanks.” Donny turned and kissed me. “Did you have any inkling about Laura?” “No, but things kinda make sense as I look back at them.” “Maureen seems very nice. They make a nice couple. Maybe now they’ll just be open and move in together.” He took my hand. “Maybe they’ll get married. That’s one wedding I’d like to go to.” Donny grinned. I slipped my arms around him and held him close. The doorbell rang. I went to retrieve our dinner. Oh, it smelled divine! We watched TV, ate too much delicious pizza and drank all the wine over the evening. It was 11pm when Don announced it was bedtime. “I don’t know about you, but I am full and happy. I say, let’s go to bed.” I’d cleared up and been out to check the horses earlier. “Okay.” I settled next to Don and ran my hand over his chest. I loved the feel of his muscles and his heat. He kissed me and pulled me close. “Mmm, someone is feeling his wine.” “I am not!” “I can feel that you know, down there against my thigh.” He laughed. “I want to say I’m not blind, but that’s not quite right.” “It is considering all the wine you drank.” I joined him in his laughter. “Anyway, it’s good you still turn me on, isn’t it?” I tucked my head against his neck as he lay on his back. He held me close. “Let me get the light, Lous.” He reached for the switch on the lamp and turned it off. The darkness was complete, and I was glad I was here with Don. “Lous, let’s get some sleep. I just want to hold you.” “Night, Donny.” “G’night, Lous.” He sounded tired. “And yes, baby, it is good we still turn each other on.” Don kissed me. I felt him relax and his breathing changed; and that’s all I remember. Sunday morning was bright. We were up early. The weather was crisp, and perfect for a ride. We had a quick bite to eat, swallowed some coffee, and saddled the horses. It was good to get out with them for a couple of hours. We walked the horses back along a quiet unpaved road. Don knotted his reins and let Badger plod along. He leaned back; his hands on the horse’s rump. “God, it is glorious out here isn’t it, Lous?” “Yes, it is. It feels good to be home and out here with you.” He turned to me and smiled. “I’m a lucky man.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. Clyde stopped for a moment to snatch some fine grass from the roadside. “Hey, you. Come on.” I gave him a little kick to remind him I was there, and he moved smartly to catch up to Badger. Don was sitting up once again as we drew alongside. He laughed. “Welcome back.” “Small grass stop.” I grinned at my husband. I decided to give voice to something I’d been thinking about. “Don ….” “Mmmm? What, baby?” “I really like the idea of the home office … working from home.” I gazed over at him. “Would we really be okay if I left? I mean what about the health benefits? That worries me. We have pretty good ones, don’t we?” Don was silent for a minute. When he spoke, it was slowly, like he was choosing each word with great care. “Lous, I’ve always done what I wanted. You worked, and I ran. I travelled for work, I wrote, and you worked. I got up in the morning and had coffee, put my feet up and watched the news, then I’d go write. You fought traffic, put in long hours, drove home.” He paused and pulled Badger to a halt. “Whoa, Clyde.” I watched Don in silence, just waiting. “Louis, why shouldn’t you do this every morning? Before you work?” “You mean ride?” “Yes, ride, go for a run. Bake muffins, whatever.” He asked Badger to move on. I urged Clyde to join his stable-mate. “Why shouldn’t you enjoy your life and work? To answer your question, yes, we’d be all right. Money isn’t everything, Louis, but we, as in humans, have given it an exalted position. But it isn’t a God; it’s a tool, and we should look at it that way. What can it do for us to make our lives better?” I considered his words, but he wasn’t yet done. “It can buy us benefits, something that will make you feel better, right?” “Yes ….” “And that will give you more freedom. More time to bake me muffins.” His Cheshire Cat grin made me laugh. “You’re a selfish prick!” Don laughed out loud then. “Maybe, but I’m not selfish with my prick!” He clucked at Badger and urged him into a canter. “If you beat me back, I’ll be happy to show you how unselfish I am!” Clyde, seeing Badger gallop away, was ready to give chase. Once the horses were looked after, Donny insisted he show me how unselfish he was, which meant a couple of hours of fun. Once we’d showered, Don called Robert and we decided to head over to the hospital to see Max. I’d texted him to see if he felt up for a visit later in the afternoon. He’d written back: Yes please! Don went out to his office to catch up on correspondence, and write for a couple of hours. I got on with some housework. Later, as we drove to see Max, I thought about work. I loved it, and I felt loyalty to the partners who had done so much for me, yet I was liking the idea of working from home. I’d have that little bit of extra freedom; more time to work and play. And should we end up taking Max in, time to take care of him as well. “Penny for your thoughts, Louis.” Don broke my reverie. I smiled at him. “I’m just thinking about my new home office, and how I’d like it decorated. Plus, all the nice new tech I can get—” “Whoa. Whoa there! New tech? Decorating?” “Yeah, I read about this Aeron chair. And blue, the office needs to be blue, brightish to help with productivity. Maybe some soft yellow curtains for calm—” “Are you serious?” Ha! He was looking worried, like I’d just spent all our savings! “Well, I’d like to paint it, and a desk is necessary. I can use your printer, but I will need a new computer.” I slowed to stop at a red light. Don said, “Okay, well do what you need to. I think it’s great you will be home more. I think I’d like to see about driving.” It was my turn to be surprised. Before the accident, Don had loved to drive. I knew he missed it, but this was a surprise. “Really? Are you ready to?” “Yeah, I am. I’d like to get out of this van, frankly.” “Well, babe, then I think we should.” I turned into the hospital’s driveway. “Let’s look into it.” We parked and made our way inside to meet up with Max. We went to his room and found him there at the table near the picture window, reading. Don rolled in and said, “Hey, Maxy! How are you?” Max put his book down and grinned at us. “Hey. Hi! I’m good, Don. Hello Louis.” “Hi. What are you reading Max?” He pushed the book across the table. I picked it up; it was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. “Hmmm. Is it good?” “Not too bad.” Max screwed up his face. “Ummm ….” “Umm, what?” Don asked. “Well … my mom would have said I was being rude ….” Don glanced at me and shrugged. I sat down across from Max. “I doubt you’re rude. I bet she’d have said cheeky. Just ask what you’d like to ask.” “Okay, but please don’t be mad. If you say no, it’s fine, honestly.” “Max, just spit it out.” Don was laughing. “Okay, well … I was wondering if we could maybe go out for pizza again?” “When? I mean, sure we can, but when did you mean?” Don was leaning forward in his chair. “Mmmm tonight?” “Lous, did we have plans?” “No, not really.” I turned to Max. “Pizza is fine, but do you like Greek food?” “Greek? Yes, I do. Could we go for that? I have money….” “Sure, let’s have Greek. It’s been a while since we had that, Lous.” Don nodded. “I’ll go and make sure we can kidnap, I mean, sign Max out. Be right back.” Don rolled out of the room. “I know I shouldn’t ask, Louis.” The boy looked sheepish. “Hey, we’re getting to know each other. I’m glad you feel like you can ask. If we couldn’t we’d say so. But we’re free, and we love Greek … so why not?” I reached out to pat his forearm. Max smiled at me. It was a small one, but it was there. “Louis … I … I am really sorry about your dad.” “Thank you. I’ll miss him, but he’d been ill for many years.” I sat back. “Maybe you’d like to see his books.” “Your dad was a writer?” The boy sat up a little straighter. “Yes, he was, but more; he was a great photographer. He wrote a bunch of books about Canada, but most especially about Newfoundland.” “I love reading. I would really like to read them.” “I’ll be happy to bring you a couple.” Max gazed at me, I knew he was considering his words. “Louis? Are you and Don … well … do you and Don still want me to live with you? I know I wasn’t the best when I was at your home.” “We’d like you to come and visit as soon as you’re allowed. We think that’s the best way for you, and us, Max.” Don chose this moment to roll back into the room. “The heart of the matter is we want you to be comfortable and happy.” “Thanks, Don.” Max turned to each of us. “Okay, then please can I wait and read your dad’s books when I get to your place?” I smiled at him. “I’ll leave them on the desk in your room.” Don clapped his hands together. “Right! I have found a way of smuggling Max out of here, so we better move before the nurses get wind of our plans. They have been known—and I know from personal experience—to ask us to bring them food! So, let’s go!” Billy-the-Greek’s was moderately busy, but they had no difficulty seating us. Billy himself came to say hello. “Boys! My favourite customers are here. Where have you been?” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Since you’ve been away, I had to cancel two vacations!” Don laughed. “I’ll bet.” “Eh! You’re a cruel man, Don; you always were. Seriously, it is good to see you. Is this your son?” Max spoke up. “Not yet. But maybe if I pass the test.” Billy grinned, his grey, wild-jungle eyebrows flew up; as he replied. “Test, eh? Well, these two should be passing your test!” After another moment or two, Billy summoned a passing waiter. “Joe, here, two cheese saganaki. On the house!” “Yes, sir. Right away.” “Thanks Billy. You don’t need to do that,” I said. “My pleasure. Just a little welcome back treat. You three enjoy your meal. And please, don’t stay away so long. My wallet can’t take it!” “I’m sure we’ll be around more. Thanks, Billy.” He bowed and walked away, chatting with his customers as he did. “He’s very nice.” Don smiled at Max. “Yeah, he is. We’ve not been here for a while, but the food is good. And hey, who can turn down free hot cheese?” I laughed at my bad husband. Joe arrived and made a great production of pouring warm ouzo over the cheese and setting it alight with a loud “Opa!” Don, of course, had to join the waiter! Joe served us, took our mains and drinks order, and left us to eat. While we did I watched Max. He smiled in all the right places, but he seemed far away. “Are you okay, Max?” He looked up from his food. “Yes … well—” Don picked his head up and glanced at us both, leaving his gaze on Max. “Max, please don’t think you can’t tell us how you feel. Are you okay, physically?” “Yes, I’m okay. I just really miss my folks.” Don put his fork down carefully, slowly, and then spoke. The tone was gentle. “You know … I don’t think you will ever feel different about that, Max. I think the edges of that grief will soften over time. The pain will lessen … but those memories, your relationship with them ….” His amber eyes were warm. I could see the caring in them. “That will always be, Max. They will always be with you, just like the air. Something will always remind you, a place, or a book, a movie … something will.” Max’s attention was glued to Donny. He pulled at the linen napkin in his hand, like he was plucking his pain from it. His voice was a whisper. “I’m afraid of forgetting them.” Don reached for the boy’s hand and held it. “You won’t. Never.” After several silent moments, Max said, “Mr. Walker said the courts are setting up a trust for me, cuz of our house and Mom and Dad’s will. I guess it’s good they left one. I don’t know anything about all this stuff.” I spoke up. “No, and that’s why the courts step in … to make sure your rights are protected. If your parents left a will, well, that’s a good thing.” I rubbed Max’s back. “It shows they thought about the future, especially yours. They must have been great parents.” The poor kid nodded. “Yes, they were. I’d like to go into the house and get some things. Then I think it should be sold.” Don turned to me. “Can you talk to Robert about all of this, Louis? I mean, just so that we understand how we can help Max, if he should need it?” “Sure. Is that okay with you, Max?” “Yes, sometimes when I’m on my own, and they are telling me things … well it would be nice if someone was there with me.” “Okay … well, I will be, if that’s okay.” Max smiled then; his tortured napkin had been released and was back in his lap. “Thanks very much, Louis.” I smiled at him as our main courses arrived. This time when we left Max at the hospital, I felt guilty for doing it. He put on a brave face and hugged us both hard. Don must have felt things had changed too. “Let’s see if we can pick you up for this weekend. Would you like that, Max?” “Yes, please, Don.” “Okay, we’ll do our best to make it happen. We’ll talk soon … and you call or text.” “’K. Thanks for tonight. I had a good time.” Don grinned. “We did too. See you soon, okay?” “Yeah. Bye.” I pushed him through the sliding doors. He twisted a bit to wave at Don, who smiled and returned the gesture. As we continued back to his floor, he talked. “Louis, I’d really like to get out of here. I like being with you and Don. Please, can I come for the weekend?” Swallowing down my emotions, I put my hand on his shoulder. “Tomorrow is Monday. I’m home, I will be in touch with Robert … Mr. Walker … and we’ll get this moving. The only thing would be if the doctors say no for some reason.” The poor kid squeaked then, and I knew he was crying. I pushed him over to a small group of chairs and sat down, pulling him closer to me. “Max, I cannot even begin to understand how you feel.” He reached for me, like a young child does its mother. I hugged him and let him cry. I rubbed his back and waited while he quieted. “I’m … sorry, Louis. You don’t want some big baby.” I held his shoulders and moved him away just enough so I could see into his eyes. “No, we want you. I want you to come and stay with us and be as happy as you can be. It takes time for pain to lessen. And my timetable isn’t yours. We want you to know we understand that at the very least.” “Thanks. For everything, ya know?” I nodded and hugged him again. “It’s so lonely here.” “I’ll make calls tomorrow. I will get things moving.” I stood up, knowing that one call would be to work. I needed to schedule some facetime with the partners. We stopped at the nurse’s station to let them know that Max was back. One named Jo came around the counter. She smiled at us. “Ah, the wanderer returns. And where have you been, young man?” “Billy-the-Greek’s.” I said goodbye to them both, promising that I’d call the next day. Max gave me a hug. “Thanks for everything, Louis. I really liked dinner.” “Good! We’ll go back again. It’s a favourite place, next to Gino’s.” I was smiling as Max and Jo teased each other. “What? And you brought me nothing?” She smiled as she came around to the back of the wheelchair. “I thought I was your favourite.” “Jo, you are my favourite … until Susan comes on shift.” “Oh, that’s how it is, eh?” “Yeah, ‘fraid so. But, there’s enough of me to go around.” I walked away with a smile. I took a deep breath as I prepared to get this huge ball of bureaucracy rolling the next morning. ~~~
  32. 58 points
    Subject: Second Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Tuesday 11 February Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton Guest(s): Jenny Gillespie Arms folded in his usual plastic seat in the village hall, and returning the hall clock’s smile, Nathan took the opportunity to close his eyes. Inhaling his usual indelible baked bread body odour, he tried to tune out Arlene’s enthused recounting of her dinner at a posh Brighton restaurant the past Saturday night with Clifton O’Keefe and his husband. Yes, he already knew Raul had returned earlier than expected from a competition in Colorado. Not a day Nathan could forget, being the same Saturday night Clifton had suggested he and Nathan catch up. During the week, and against his better judgement, Nathan had blown off weekend invites from Jaymes and Polly, and two members of the football team, so he could make sure he’d be available for Clifton. When Clifton sent him an apologetic text message on Friday night, he had felt an odd sense karma; a mix of disappointment and relief. His bad judgement had meant that on the one night of the week he could actually let his hair down and play, without worrying about getting up in the early hours for work, he had to stay home, alone. And he had fallen asleep in front of the television before the ten o’clock news even aired. Who would choose to be a baker in this day? Only other bakers understood the heavy time commitment of his profession. Since his father’s death, he had stopped trying to compete with the big bakery—Upper Crust—in nearby Brockwynn, and decided to narrow Fresher’s freshly baked range down to local favourites: bread rolls—soft and crusty, plain croissants, baguettes, ciabattas, cottage loaves in white and wholemeal, and sourdough loaves. Everything else he bought wholesale from the distributors. Arthur—in his early sixties now—had always supervised mixing dough and baking the fresh daily goods in the early hours of the morning. Four professional ovens stood almost as tall as Nathan in a lean-to building at the back of the shop, although only two ever got used. Starting at one o’clock, Arthur continued to have everything ready for opening. A master of his trade, he had worked for Nathan’s father and grandfather, back then with three assistants. Now, due to the reduced demand, he had only one—his own son. Nathan knew Arthur had been approached to work elsewhere on a couple of occasions, probably nearer to his home in the neighbouring village, and probably offered more money, too. But Arthur, like his father before him, was loyal to a fault. Even though he could do little to help, Nathan often rose each morning out of habit just as Arthur arrived, switching on the ovens and making hot mugs of tea. Once they’d settled into their routine, he’d return to the flat, change into his jogging gear, and take to the streets. Which is why by seven each evening, with the doors to the shop closed, cashed up, and after a quick shower and dinner in the flat, he often felt ready to drop. “Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Welcome to the second meeting of the summer fête committee. A full house this month—welcome back, Michael. And less than six months until the big day. Now, in case you didn’t bother to print a copy of the agenda, I have some here. Can we please stick strictly to the allocated timings for each item. Let’s respect each other’s time, shall we?” Polly turned to Nathan and rolled her eyes, making him smile. Arlene’s impromptu anecdote already had them running late. When he’d talked through the telephone call from the Australian firm with her and Jaymes, they’d had a hundred and one questions—none he could answer—and even more fanciful assumptions about what had happened, including his phantom uncle being a spy for the UK government, or a hired assassin. Nathan put the craziness down to Polly having binge-watched too much Netflix that evening. But two days later, Nathan had received an email from Gerrard Flynn of Flynn & Fox requesting him to attend a meeting at a solicitor’s office in Eastbourne. Because of his hours in the shop, they made a special appointment for him the coming Sunday. Jaymes had offered to drive him. Without Nathan’s prior knowledge, Jaymes had texted his sister—a paralegal for another Melbourne firm—to ask if Flynn & Fox actually existed. Apparently, he had heard of scams in the past with people getting emails or calls from bogus solicitors to extract fees from people and then disappear. But the firm was large and legit, and the managing partner, Gerrard Flynn, was well known and highly respected in legal circles. And the gesture had not gone unnoticed, that Jaymes had stepped in once again to take care of Nathan. In very subtle ways, Jaymes had begun to insinuate himself into Nathan’s life, something that both confused and excited him. Was this simply Jaymes’ way to taking care of friends, or rather, friends of relatives? Or was there more to it? “I’d also like to welcome our guest, Jenny Gillespie, who will be the photographer for the sports calendar. In a moment, Jenny’s going to begin by talking through some of the ideas she has and also provide dates for individuals.” Nathan could tell Jenny would be good. A chilled person with a gentle nature, even the way she spoke made him relax a fraction. “Fourteen out of eighteen players have agreed to be photographed, which is marvellous. That includes both Michael and Nathan.” Aileen had insisted Nathan, as captain, throw his hat into the ring. “I’ve been in touch with all of them now and a couple mentioned being photographed together, thought doing so would be more fun, or maybe there would be safety in numbers. Jenny thinks a combination of groups and singles would be fantastic. However, some players—like our captain here—would have their own month. Anything to add, Jenny?” “Yes, thank you, Arlene. I want people to see the team as they really are, a village team, and incorporate each player’s local profession into the shoot; for example, a butcher’s theme for Michael, baked good for Nathan, a garage theme for Benny—” “Norris Hillwood’s a gynaecologist,” interrupted Mikey. “Yes, that might be problematic, but I’m sure we can work something out.” “Get him flat on his back in a pair of stirrups,” said Polly, which had everyone except Arlene laughing, with Doris coughing uncontrollably and Father Mulligan wheezing. “Give the bastard a taste of his own medicine.” “Can we please let Jenny finish,” said Arlene. “Actually, I think that’s a marvellous idea, Polly,” said Jenny, still laughing at Polly’s suggestion. “Maybe you could help me with some ideas for the others in the team. Anyway, I have three full days set aside for the shoot this month and will let everyone know the time slots available. We’ll be using my studio in Mayfield for some of the pictures, but also the changing room and showers at the football clubhouse. I’ll let each of the players know where they’ll be needed.” Nathan’s stomach curdled every time he thought about the shoot. Once again, Jaymes had stepped in and offered to accompany him to his private session. He’d declined, didn’t want someone he now considered a friend to see him in the buff. Not that the reasoning made any sense. A straight guy like Jaymes was simply offering moral support. As always, Jaymes had simply shrugged off the refusal. But the idea of Jaymes seeing him naked made him even more nervous, even though he regularly got his kit off in front of his teammates. And he knew exactly why. Since the dinner party, Nathan had found himself thinking more and more about his friend. Apart from being a free spirit, Jaymes had a certain magnetic charisma in the flesh that put a smile on Nathan’s face, gave him a warm feeling whenever he showed up. When he thought about Jaymes, everything else melted away. Right now, next to him, Polly’s voice sounded from time to time, something about teacher numbers, while Doris piped up about hits on the festival site, and Mikey talked more about the calendar. Behind closed eyes, however, all Nathan could see was Jaymes’ laughing face floating before his own. “—fairground, music stage, fun stalls like the dunking tub, and a single covered stand housing the cake competition, will fill up the green. So I’ve talked to the police about closing off Church Lane again and, this year, having all produce and food stalls running either side down towards the church—” “Hang on a minute. We’re not having our stalls on the village green?” interrupted Mikey. “We’ve always had local booths on the village green. I rely on that spot to shift a shedload of meat produce; specialist sausages, meat pies, and the like.” At Mikey’s words, Nathan’s attention returned to the room. One of his father’s stipulations about joining the committee was on the understanding the Fresher stall would greet guests at the entrance on the village green. “I have to say, I’m in agreement with Mikey there. Local stalls have always been given pride of place on the green. Vendors from out of town, including those from Europe last year, get to set up along Church Lane. Are we now being relegated to the road along with everyone else?” “It’s simply a matter of prioritising space for more crowd-drawing attractions,” said Arlene, pouting but adamant. Nathan had already noticed that when she got defensive, she crossed her legs at the ankles and forced them beneath her seat. “Complete rubbish,” said Polly, sitting up in her seat. “You could set the cake competition up here, in the village hall. Even some of the fun stalls could line the road. You should be supporting and promoting local, Arlene. It’s not called the Crumbington Fête for nothing.” “Hear, hear,” said Father Arbuthnot, much to everyone’s surprise. “Maybe we should take a vote,” said Mikey. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Michael. You clearly all feel the same way. So I’ll take your comments under consideration when I’m finalising the layout. One piece of good news, though. Although Lady Gaga was already booked—as was Boris Johnson—my husband managed to snag Gordon Ramsay to judge the baking competition.” Finally, the whole room woke to life. Even Doris opened her eyes. Polly’s gaze swung to Nathan, her eyes wide. “Gordon Ramsay? How the hell did you manage that?” asked Mikey, clearly impressed. Everyone in the room had seen at least one of the British celebrity chef’s programmes on the television. “Not the real Gordon, naturally. One of those look-a-likes. Very good, too, and well within budget. I saw him in Birmingham last weekend, opening a cooking competition at a local school. Marvellous fun.” “Without the foul language, one would hope.” Doris Watts was clearly not a fan. “Anyway, that’s about it for tonight,” said Arlene, before nodding at Jenny. “By the next meeting, we should have the final stall layout plan, and hopefully a mocked-up sample of the calendar. At which point I’ll present my marketing campaign. So if there’s nothing else, I’ll see you in March.” Arlene had hung around at the end of the last meeting and chatted to everyone individually. That night, she packed her bag promptly, and after a quick nod to everyone, headed for the door with Jenny in tow. Had she been irritated by their disapproval? Nathan watched her go, and hadn’t noticed Doris sidle up and stand beside him. “Are you okay, Nathan, dear?” she asked, lightly touching his forearm with her frail hand. Doris rarely spoke for any length of time to anyone except Father Mulligan, so Nathan felt part surprised, part honoured. When he peered around the room, Polly and Mikey busied themselves folding chairs and clearing them into the storeroom. Father Mulligan stood at the door of the hall, arms folded, apparently waiting for Doris to say what she needed to say to Nathan. The two always left together. Polly often giggled about religious Father Mulligan being best friends—maybe more—with superstitious, tea-leaf reading, computer whiz, Doris. “I’m fine, Doris. Why do you ask?” “Ever since you sat down tonight, I’ve noticed your aura’s in transition. Dashes of orangey-red. Not your usual grey.” “Oh, I see,” said Nathan, even though he didn’t. “And is that a bad thing?” “No, not bad, as it were. Just different. How’s your love life at the moment?” Nathan coughed into his fist and glanced around nervously to see if anyone, especially Polly, had heard. “Absolutely nothing happening on that front, Doris.” “Well, in the song lyrics from West Side Story by Stephen Sondheim, I should warn you that flickering auras usually mean Something’s Coming.” “Something good?” Nathan grinned. He knew the song well, from the CD his mother had left behind, the original cast soundtrack. “Who knows?” sang Doris, joining in, before her smile slipped into one of compassion. “But let’s hope so, dear, if anyone deserves it, you do. You know, I read somewhere recently that happiness is a choice. We can choose whether to be happy. There's always going to be stress in our lives, but it's our choice whether we let it affect us or not. And there are a lot of us on your side, wishing you the best.” In the past five years he had known her, those had probably been the most words she had ever spoken to him. And on that cryptic note, she squeezed his upper arm once, then patted him there before turning and joining Father Mulligan. After waving them off, a bemused Nathan, together with Polly and Mikey, stayed back to tidy away any remaining chairs, cups, glasses and other leftovers. “What did Doris want?” asked Polly, leaving Mikey to take the last items away. “Nothing. Something about my aura.” “Your what?” “Apparently I’m in transition. Whatever that means.” “She’s a funny one. Whatever you do, don’t let her recruit you into the coven,” said Polly, laughing. “Come on. Pub therapy. Jaymes is waiting on us” “Is he? I wasn’t going to come tonight. Feeling a little tired—and it’s a weekday.” “You have to come, Nathan. I need a sanity check,” she said, punching his upper arm. “Besides, Jaymes has been looking forward to catching up with you.” “Has he?” Once again, a knot of nervousness appeared in Nathan’s stomach. Right then, Mikey ambled over, having stacked the last of the chairs into the small storage room. “You two coming to the Arms? I’m meeting Bob and Benny from the team.” At the last name, Nathan peered at Mikey. Polly had turned away to pick up her shoulder bag, and Nathan didn’t miss the smirk and wink from Mikey. He’d been thinking of an excuse to head home, but decided he ought to be there. Benny—a good-looking lad, but not the most subtle player on the team—fancied Polly, and Nathan wanted to make sure his friend had an ear to bend, in case she needed one. “Okay, I’ll come.” “Besides,” said Polly, oblivious to the exchange. “Am I the only one who thought Arlene deflected the comment about local stores on the green? Seriously, guys, I don’t trust her, she’s up to something. And I, for one, intend to find out what.” “Oh heavens,” said Nathan. “Miss Marple rises from the grave.” “There you go, then,” said Mikey, cheerily. “Talk to Benny Osmond. As I said, he’ll be down the pub tonight. His mum runs the Gazette. If anyone’s going to know anything, she will.” Retired from her Fleet Street journalist role, Katherine Osmond, Benny’s mother, had been chief editor for the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette for the past five years. If you wanted to know anything about comings and goings in Crumbington, forget the police service or CID or even the Women’s Guild. Katherine would be everyone’s first port of call. Maybe Mikey had a point. After getting togged up for the sub-zero temperature, and a short but refreshing stroll from the village hall across the white, frost-crusted village green, they were welcomed by a hug of toasty air inside the Crumbington Arms. Cheeks tingling, Nathan immediately scoped out Jaymes at their regular high table with three other people, and a tableful of drinks. Jaymes’ wide grin on seeing Nathan stoked the warmth in him and had him smiling back. Until something caught his eye. Two of the people standing with him, Nathan knew—Bob and Benny from the team—but the attractive woman on his right, with short brunette hair, and one hand resting on Jaymes’ forearm, laughing at something he had said, he did not. Unusual, too, because he thought he knew pretty much everyone in Crumbington. On noticing Jaymes’ attention turn elsewhere, the woman stopped laughing and peered curiously in Nathan’s direction. A baffling annoyance unsettled him, which must have risen to his face, because Jaymes tilted his head to one side and frowned quizzically. Caught off guard, Nathan forced a smile and raised a hand in greeting. When Polly excused herself to use the restroom, his gaze trailed her departure across the bar, and once he had regained his composure, he joined them. “Nate. This is Kelly,” said Jaymes, nodding at the woman. “Kell-Bell, this is Nate, the town baker.” “Don’t call me Kell-Bell, Jaymes. Unless you want me to call you Jim,” she replied. They shared an old familiarity, the way they smiled at each other and interacted. Maybe Kelly was an old girlfriend. Her attention turned to him now. “A worthy profession, Nate. Nice to meet you.” Although Nathan waited for more of an explanation from Jaymes about who Kelly was, none came. Instead of simply nodding back to the girl, Nathan purposely reached out a hand in greeting. “Nice to meet you, too,” said Nathan, trying hard to neutralise his feelings. Without removing the hand from Jaymes’ forearm, she carefully repositioned her glass of wine on the table, and reached out to Nathan. Chilled fingers clasped his own. When he released them, he wanted to wipe his hand on his coat but thought that might appear rude. “How’d it go tonight?” asked Jaymes, probably out of politeness. “You know, usual stuff—” “Sorry, Jaymes, we need Nathan. Something needs ironing out,” interrupted Mikey, a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, happily pulling his attention away to the three men who stood to one side. Once they were out of earshot, he continued on. “The guys are asking. Are they going to be expected to do any poses together that might be considered suggestive, or, you know, gay? During the shoot?” When he glanced back, Jaymes and his friend had their heads together again, deep in conversation, oblivious to everyone else around them. “Not this again,” said Nathan, turning back irritated. “Come on, guys. Of course not. Why are you even asking?” “Arlene said the photographer wants to shoot Benny and Ken together.” That made sense. Ken and Benny had to be the youngest, best looking, and fittest lads on the team. The two of them alone would ensure a good number of calendars were sold. “And?” “We didn’t ask to be photographed together,” said Benny. “Just wondering.” “If it’s an issue, making you uncomfortable, I’ll talk to the photographer. Get her to change things around.” “Look, I don’t want to be a pain—” “Benny, you’re doing this for charity, doing the committee a favour. So if you’re not comfortable with anything, then Arlene can go to fucking hell and I’ll change things around myself.” “It’s not that, Nathan,” said Bob, nudging Benny. “Tell him, Benny. Before Polly comes back.” “Look, no offence Nathan, but Ken bats for your team. And I don’t want people—” “Wait, what?” “Ken’s gay,” said Mikey, smirking. “Don’t say you didn’t know?” Rightly or wrongly, Nathan had always assumed he was the only gay man on the football team. Good looking Ken always had a couple of girls hanging off him whenever he joined them for drinks after a match. “Apparently my Gaydar’s broken,” said Nathan, making both Mikey and Benny laugh. “Hang on, though. How do you know?” “Down here on Christmas Eve. You weren’t around. But he introduced a few of us to his boyfriend,” said Benny, shaking his head. “Nice guy. Older, you know, but smart and funny. Looks a bit like you, actually. I’ve got no issue with Ken, Nathan. But I just wonder why they’d want to put us together on the shoot.” “Does Ken know?” “No idea. I suppose so.” “Leave it with me,” said Nathan. “Let me talk to him and the photographer. I met her tonight. She’s really great and, honestly, if you’re not one hundred percent comfortable during the shoot, it’ll show. She knows that.” “Thanks mate—” said Benny, before looking up, his serious face transforming into a big smile. “Hey there, Miss Fischer.” “Don’t call me that, unless you want a telling off and a detention,” came Polly’s voice, as she approached. “Actually, Benjamin, can you and I have a chat? Away from this lot?” Once they had gone to a corner, Mikey and Bob started on about their favourite topic, the new hypermarket on the outskirts of town trying to put them all out of business. And as usual, Nathan tuned them out. Whenever he peered over, whenever Jaymes’ eyes rose to meet his, they held the confident gaze a straight man gives a male friend when he secretly knows he’s on a promise, and wants to share the news with his male friends via secret smiles and wide eyes. At least, that’s what it felt like. What Nathan wouldn’t have given to have someone feel that way about him. Bloody good luck to Jaymes. At one point, he turned his head to find Jaymes’ friend alone checking messages on her phone—Jaymes either at the bar or in the restroom—so he decided to make his escape. Quickly downing the last of his drink, and without disturbing Polly, he said a brief farewell to the boys and slipped out. Barely ten minutes later, out in the freezing night air, his phone beeped with a message. Fully expecting to get a cursory text from Jaymes, he pulled out his phone and read the words on the screen. Cliff: How’s my favourite football chum? Still sexy as ever? Cliff: Fancy meeting for dinner one night next week? Cliff: Me and the hubby, you and the boyfriend? Each message popped through so quickly, Nathan could almost see Clifton’s thumbs flashing across the onscreen keyboard. He stopped beneath a lamppost and breathed out a steamy sigh. Sounded like Raul would be here for the long haul. Maybe that was a good thing. In the space of one evening, he’d found himself alone again. Naturally. Right now his fake boyfriend had better things to do, and his ex-boyfriend was curling up next to his husband. How should he respond to Clifton? If in doubt, delay, had been one of his father’s mottos. Nathan: Let me check with him. He’s really busy. I’ll get back to you. And right then, a flurry of messages pinged onto his phone like a manic pinball machine. Jaymes: Where the hell did you go? Polly: Where are you? Clifton: Benedetti’s in the West End. If he can’t make it, then just you, sexy Jaymes: Bob said you’d left. Didn’t even stay to catch up? Polly: Wanted to ask if you’re up for beers and a curry with J and me on Sat. What do you think? Jaymes: Did I say something to piss you off? Polly: Don’t let me get stuck with him alone? You owe me, Nathan! Clifton: Sleep tight IMIYD Nathan snorted. IMIYD. Include Me In Your Dreams. Clifton had used the same secret sign off in emails when they’d been kids in love. Taking a deep breath, he scanned down the list of messages again. Overwhelmed and unsure how to reply to any of the messages, Nathan did what he always did in these kinds of situations. He switched off his phone.
  33. 58 points
    Nathan noticed Jaymes glance at him from time to time on the drive back home. In the hallway, Nathan had witnessed a seriously pissed off Jaymes relax with relief at being handed an excuse to leave. And on their stroll to the Rover, he found out why. Jaymes’ told Nathan how two of Clifton’s actor guests—Jaymes didn’t remember their names—had poked their heads out of a small room across from the toilet and invited him into Clifton’s ‘recreation room’. One had tell-tale traces of white powder on his cheek. Whether Jaymes was looking for some kind of justification for his earlier scathing criticism of Clifton, Nathan had no idea. Right then, he had other things to worry about. When Nathan apologised to Clifton and explained why they had to leave early, his old friend had been nothing short of magnanimous—probably used to getting urgent calls all times of the day and night—and told Nathan not to worry, to scoot off home but remember to text him about the following weekend. After a quick goodbye to the other guests, and especially Martin and Gallagher who insisted they stay in touch, they made their escape. “Melbourne? That’s where my sister lives. Who do you know in Australia?” asked Jaymes, breaking the silence, a good five minutes into the drive. “Nobody,” said Nathan, staring at the silhouette of hedgerows out the side window. Which was the truth. But if he had to hazard a guess at who would be calling from the other side of the world, from the furthest point a person could possibly get from Crumbington, then he could probably do so easily. “But?” Jaymes took his eyes from the road a moment, to stare at Nathan. Incredible how they had only known each other a short while, and already Jaymes could read him. “Just a feeling. But I think it might have something to do with my mother.” “Your mother lives in Melbourne?” “Actually, I have no idea where she lives. Could be living in Mayfield, for all I know. She walked out on my father and me eighteen years ago. I’m surprised Polly didn’t tell you.” “No,” came Jaymes’ subdued voice. “Shit, Nate. I’m sorry.” “Was a long time ago. We survived.” “Yeah, but what kind of a mother deserts her young kid. How old were you?” “Ten.” “Shit. How well do you remember her?” Funny, but since his father’s death Nathan had often thought about his mother. She would have been around forty when she left. He remembered her great figure, her fun, carefree nature, and the hippy array of long flowing dresses that swirled and twirled when she danced around vacuuming the carpeted flat. As a small child, they laughed and played together all the time. Once, he overheard his grandfather grumbling to his father about her turning him into a ‘mummy’s boy’, as if that were a bad thing. She always dressed beautifully, colourfully, but with her own personal style, a penchant for deep purple and lavender combinations in winter, or cream and floral prints on spring or summer’s days, usually with a bright pink or gold wrap around her shoulders. And lots of bracelets, bangles, big earrings and necklaces—not expensive things, just colourful and complementary. Even in the shop, wearing the standard white uniform overcoat, she stood out with her array of accessories and brightly patterned headscarves. She once told him she dressed to celebrate the seasons, so autumn would be shades of browns, greens, and oranges; earth colours. He also remembered the heady scent she wore called Patchouli, something even now, whenever he smelled the scent on someone in the shop, reminded him of her. But even as a ten-year-old, he sensed a distance in her, something internalised, a wildness and gypsy spirit caged by the mundanity of shop life. In his mind, he blamed her leaving on the dull routine created by the shared responsibilities of running the bakery and bringing up a son, even though he never once heard her complain. If anything, she brought her sunshine into an otherwise boring day when serving behind the counter. One thing he remembered vividly was the aftermath of her absence, when life became monochromatic, his father turning morose, and their routine shuttered of any sunlight. “Pretty well. I was ten when she left, not a baby. We really enjoyed each other’s company. Or so I thought. My mum and Clifton’s mum were inseparable, so we hung out a lot. And then I got back from school one day and dad sat me down, told me she’d left. Mum was special and needed different things in life, he said. Had nothing to do with how much she loved me. Clifton’s mum came to the shop a number of times and talked to dad, and once told me how much my mother adored me, and that sometimes people need to follow a different path. But in my head, I argued that if you love someone, you take them with you. You don’t just up and leave them, or at least not without a word of explanation. Until, of course, Clifton did exactly the same thing.” Beside him, Jaymes breathed out a sigh. “She didn’t even leave you a note?” “No.” “And there was no connection in her past life, between her and Australia? Family? Friends?” “None that I know of,” said Nathan, before letting out a sigh of his own. “You know, it may not even be about her. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.” When Jaymes pulled his nearest hand from the steering wheel, gripped the back of Nathan’s neck and massaged, the strength and heat felt incredible, and he almost lost his composure. For all his joking around and flippant remarks, Nathan had begun to warm to Jaymes. “And for the record, Jaymes, a five-week relationship is more than I’ve ever managed.” When Jaymes pulled his hand away, concentrating once again on driving. Nathan wondered if he’d said something wrong. Cautious of pushing, he fell silent. Both trailed the Rover’s headlights through the windscreen, picking out the country lane ahead. Eventually, Jaymes spoke. “Clifton’s a judgemental prick. What happened to me, happened a long time ago. To do with my housemate, my first serious relationship.” Jaymes peered sideways at Nathan, waiting for him to respond. “Go on, you can say it. Jaymes and the word serious shouldn’t be used in the same sentence. Kind of brings things to a head, though, when you come back from a field trip abroad a week early, arriving home in the early hours of the morning, gift in hand, hoping to surprise your other half. Only to find them in the bedroom, off their face on drugs and getting fucked by your neighbour.” “Oh.” “Yes, ‘oh’. Although my vocabulary may have been a little more colourful at the time.” “How old were you?” “Twenty-two. And I don’t appreciate having a tableful of vacuous queens judging me, when they don’t have all the facts and, more importantly, don’t even know me.” Nathan wanted to probe further, but based on Jaymes’ unusually frosty tone, thought maybe he should leave the topic along. Perhaps he would tell more at some later date, now he’d already opened the can. “I’m sorry, Jaymes. Truly. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you along tonight—” “You didn’t, I invited myself.” “Fair enough. But I didn’t realise there’d be silly games. So my apologies on their behalf. If it’s any consolation, of all people, I know exactly how it feels to have people you love let you down.” Once again they fell into an uncomfortable silence. Nathan decided to try again. “So…since then you’ve never—?” “What? Shagged? Of course. Plenty of times.” “Okay.” Nathan hadn’t been alluding to sex, but acknowledging Jaymes’ tone, he let the topic go. Clearly Jaymes’ love life was off limits. In the silence between them, Jaymes’ head swivelled once his way before returning to the road ahead. When he finally spoke again, his tone had softened. “Since then, I’ve never been in anything you could call a relationship. If that’s what you’re asking.” “I’m not— It’s none of my business, nobody’s business but your own.” “You’ve got that right.” For the last five minutes’ drive, they agreed to silence, until Nathan directed Jaymes to pull the Rover off the high street into the space between Polly’s car and his shop van. With the engine still rumbling, Nathan got out leaving Jaymes to lock up. Polly met them at the front door, rosy cheeked from drink. “Hey, boys. Did you have a good time?” “Define good,” came Jaymes’ voice, behind Nathan’s shoulder. “Dinner was excellent. A celebrity chef—,” said Nathan, nudging Jaymes forward. “Bullshit. I barely ate a thing. Dinner was all flair and no flavour. What was it grandma use to say? All fur coat and no knickers,“ countered Jaymes, as he pushed past Polly and headed up the stairs to the flat. Nathan admired the muscles of his firm backside as he ascended. “He does have a lovely turn of phrase, my dear cousin.” “Inherited,” came Jaymes’ voice from above. “You’d better have alcohol, Fresher, and plenty of it. You owe me big time. And before you say anything, Polly, we’re getting a cab home.” Nathan stopped in front of a smiling Polly, watching Jaymes finally reach the top step. Folding his arms, he smiled back and shook his head. Once Jaymes had disappeared inside the flat, he leant in and pecked a kiss on her ruddy cheek. “Did he behave himself?” she asked. “Don’t ever tell him I said this, but he was a total stalwart tonight. I’m so pleased he invited himself along. Not his kind of thing at all—room full of gay actors mostly—and I thought he was going to be grumpy all night. Until we were introduced to Stanley Kimbleton—” Polly’s eyes went wide, as he closed the door to punctuate her remark. “Shut the fridge door!” “Scout’s honour,” said Nathan, as he started to follow her up the stairs. “I think he was rather taken by our Jaymes, although nobody could compete with the Japanese guy on Stanley’s arm. Off the scale gorgeous. And during dinner, we were lucky enough to be seated next to a couple of normal people—” “Grown-ups,” came Jaymes’ voice from above stairs. Nathan heard Polly chuckling in front of him. “Bionic hearing, too. So they sat my juvenile cousin next to grown-ups? How did that go down?” Nathan laughed along with Polly. “I heard that,” came Jaymes’ voice again. “Result! You’ve got Guinness.” “Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s raiding your fridge.” Before they reached the top of the stairs, Polly stopped Nathan with a hand gently placed on his chest, before handing him a beautifully written note with a name and telephone number. “Look, I know you’ve got to make a call. If you’d rather we left you to it—” “No way,” said Nathan, frowning. “I’d rather have you here. Let me get the call out of the way, and then at least we can kick back and relax together. Enjoy the remains of the evening. Besides, I owe Jaymes.” Maybe Nathan should have been more irritated that Jaymes had already found his way around the kitchen—a can of stout in one hand, an empty pint glass in the other, and a bag of potato chips hanging from his mouth—but secretly he was pleased Jaymes had finally chilled. Polly had clearly made herself at home that evening, a half-eaten pizza still sitting in its open box, a fresh bottle of white wine on his coffee table, and a blanket on the sofa where she had set up camp. On the flatscreen television, she had been watching what looked like a crime thriller where a car had been frozen mid-explosion. Although he liked his own space, he also enjoyed having company from time to time. Polly sat between Jaymes and Nathan on the sofa, the movie still paused on the screen. Jaymes, his socked feet crossed at the ankles on the coffee table, gave his version of the night. Polly snorted loudly at the recount and leant forward to unscrew the wine bottle and pour Nathan and herself a glass, so they could all make a toast to the acting profession. In those few moments, he felt a hand tap his shoulder. Jaymes’ arm stretched along the back of the sofa behind Polly. Nathan turned to find Jaymes staring at him, his gaze unfathomable. In that brief moment, when Nathan grinned, Jaymes seemed to come to his senses, and winked back playfully, but not before a strange, fuzzy feeling had settled in Nathan’s stomach. Eventually they all sunk back into the sofa, and, after catching them up with the plot, Polly continued the movie. Five minutes into the action, Nathan became restless. He had something he needed to do. “Don’t stop the movie.” Nathan whispered, standing and placing his glass down. “I’m going make this call from the bedroom. Be back in a few minutes.” Without another word, he headed to his room and used the phone beside his bed. A heavily accented male voice answered after the third ring. “So I’m speaking to Mr Nathan Uriel Faolan Fresher. Is that correct?” Deeply accented, the man made a point of enunciating each of Nathan’s names. Nathan cringed, his eyes squeezed tight. Nobody ever used his name in full. Ever. Not surprisingly, his mother had chosen the middle names. The first meant ‘shining light’ in Hebrew, and the second something like ‘little wolf’ in Gaelic. “That’s right. Is this about my mother?” No response. Apparently, the man wasn’t taking questions yet. Nathan’s father might have been able to place the accent more accurately, to one of the Australian states or territories. A party trick, in the shop he could accurately guess the accents of those visiting from other English speaking nations, right the way down to their region, sometimes astounding customers, and something that became a source of amusement especially during the tourist season. Nathan could only discern an Australian twang. “And am I right in saying you’re the last surviving member of the Fresher family? On your father’s side.” “Yes, my father, John Fresher, passed away five years ago. He was only fifty four. Heart failure.” “And your grandfather?” “Goodness. My grandfather passed away around eleven years ago.” At one point, growing up, the shop had been run by his father, mother, and grandfather. Granddad, a widower, had retired at sixty-five, but when Nathan’s mother walked out, he came back to work. Nathan officially started working at the age of eighteen, although he’d helped most weekends as well as doing odd jobs after school. Sadly, his grandfather died just before Nathan’s seventeenth birthday. “George Conlon Fresher?” “Correct.” “And are you aware that your grandfather had a brother, Nathaniel Collier—uh—Fresher?” Nathan had never heard his grandfather talk of anyone in the family but himself and his parents. And his father had most certainly never talked about having an uncle. “No, I wasn’t aware. Are you sure?” At the end of the line, the man chuckled. “It’s my job to be sure, Mr Fresher, that’s why I’m phoning. Look, I’ll need you to go to a local solicitors there, one we’ll appoint, just so they can verify your identify, but the long and the short of it is your great uncle passed away last month, and you are one of the beneficiaries in his will.” “Me? Are you sure?” “Crystal.” “But…how come I didn’t know anything about him?” “Probably more information than I should be giving you, but over here his official family name, the one on his Australian birth certificate and passport, was Brooks: Nathaniel Collier Brooks. Look, there’s a letter with the will, addressed to you. Maybe that will help explain things.” Back in the living room, Polly paused the movie the instant she spotted Nathan. Both heads peered at him from across the back of the sofa. Finally, the family resemblance became plain. “And?” she asked. “Your mother?” asked Jaymes, which had Polly turning to him quizzically. “Nope. Pour me a large glass of wine, and I’ll tell you everything.”
  34. 58 points
    Chapter 12 Out of Nothing at All Once the alarm beeped, after the second snooze cycle, I forced myself to sit up. I had three horses to feed I suddenly remembered. Also, it was two more days until Max came home. Don’s arm snaked over my legs. “Just where do you think you’re going, boy?” “Boy? Well, Daddy, I’m off to do my chores. I better make sure Clyde has been good during the night.” My husband grabbed me with both arms and pulled me down. He smothered me with kisses which left me breathless and laughing. Donny stopped and just held me close. I ran my left hand over his arm. It was heavy with muscle and felt sexy to me. I turned my head so I could kiss him. His mouth met mine with enthusiasm. He broke away and snuggled me against his shoulder. “You think Clyde will be okay with Taro?” I’d wondered, but Clyde was a different personality than was Badger. “Yeah, I think so. He’ll just take a little longer.” “Let’s get up, baby. We can see to the horses together. It will be good for Taro to get used to the wheelchair.” “Yeah, that’s true.” I kissed Don’s cheek. “What have you got on for today?” “I’m just catching up on work I missed yesterday. I have a few calls to make. I’m trying to get an interview with Horst Winters.” I sat up, found my jeans, and started dressing. “He’s a biathlete, isn’t he?” “Yeah, he is ….” “Is he in town?” I tugged on a sweatshirt. “Soon, I’ve heard, that’s why I want to make contact. I’m hoping I can arrange to meet with him.” Don was pulling on his socks. “His story is interesting. He was a sighted Alpine skier, but lost his sight and switched to biathlon.” I was ready to go. “Meaning he took on more of a challenge after he was blind. That’s something. How does he shoot?” Don, who was now in his chair, rolled toward me, and we left the bedroom for the elevator. “The rifle is laser sighted and linked to a computer. The athlete hears tones as he aims. When he hears the right one he pulls the trigger.” I pushed the down button. “Wow, that’s amazing.” “Yeah, it is.” Everything in the barn was quiet. Don decided to look after Taro, who seemed not to care about the wheelchair at all. I gave Clyde a special grooming, paying attention to those spots I knew felt extra good when massaged. I’d brought him an apple as well. I don’t know if spoiling him did any good, but it made me feel better. Once Badger was groomed, we moved them outdoors, leaving Taro again in the smaller pasture, while they settled in together. It was interesting to see Clyde moved closer to the fence that separated them. Badger, of course, was right there next to both of his friends. We watched them for a few minutes. I made a mental note that I had to find boarding for the three of them for while we were away at Christmas. “Louis? Lous?” “Huh?” I grinned at Don. “I was miles away.” “I noticed. Come on, let’s get breakfast so we can get started.” He turned toward the house. “What are you doing today?” “Going to get up into the barn attic, to clean up and organize, before I can move stuff in there. Robert can’t help me until Friday morning because he’s got court dates. I have some e-mail to answer about the Christmas rental today, and Thursday I’m going back to finish opening my business account. I need to arrange for a phone for the attic too.” “Let’s not forget to text Max. Maybe we can drive over to visit.” “Yeah, sure we can.” We continued chatting as we started our day. We went about our business on Thursday; going for a run in the morning and an evening visit with Max. We were both anticipating the next day. On Friday we woke up excited. Everything we could think of was ready for Max’s arrival. We’d decided to let Max choose his homecoming dinner. I had to pause while pouring our morning coffee because my hands were shaking. Don was buttering toast. “What time can we go get him?” “They said about three.” We sat at the table to eat. Several minutes passed and then Don said, “What about school?” “It’s all taken care of.” “I don’t even know where there is a school around here.” “It’s not far. It’s over on Sideroad Fifteen, just north of 3rd Line.” “Did you arrange for a bus for him?” “Yes, Donny. The first week though I’ll drop him and pick him up. The bus will start the next week.” Don sipped his coffee. “That’s a smart idea while he settles in.” “Yeah. I hope he’ll be happy here.” “I hope the same thing, baby.” After glancing at the kitchen clock, Don said, “Okay, I’m gonna go work. I have a 9am call with Harry, and hopefully he was able to pin down Horst Winters for me.” “Good luck.” Robert came by to help me move my desk to the barn. “This is a good idea, Louis.” We got the desk on its end and into the elevator along with the chair. “Yeah, I’ll only be out there normally, while Max is at school.” “Well, he’s a big boy and you all have mobile phones. I’m sure he can be on his own for a little while.” The door opened and we moved the furniture. “Yeah, I know.” I grinned. “New parent syndrome, I think.” Robert laughed. We wheeled the desk out of the mud room door and carried it across to the barn. Don was on the phone, and we did our best to be quiet going up the stairs. “I don’t think I’ve been up here, Louis. It’s a nice size and the window is great!” “Thanks. Yeah, when we remodeled the barn, we thought maybe this could be a bedroom or something, so decided to have the window put in while the other work was being done.” “Good idea.” Robert looked around. “It will be nice you both working out here.” “I think so.” We went downstairs and back to the house to pick up the few boxes I had. “It’s nice of you to give Max this room for a studio. I’ve seen a few of his drawings. He’s got a good eye and ability,” Robert said. “He wants to study art and design.” I put down the final box on top of others in the elevator. “We want to encourage him.” “Well, I think it’s great. I knew you and Don were the right people for Max.” Robert and I continued talking as we moved my things. It was a relief to get the last into the barn. “How are the wedding plans coming?” “I have left all that in Rena and Miriam’s hands. I get asked the odd question but mostly … I have no idea.” Robert laughed. “There is a date and place however. That much I know as I had to book time off work.” I pulled out my phone. “What is the date? I seem to need to plan a lot these days.” “It’s Saturday November 3rd. Then we are gone for a week to Hawaii for our honeymoon.” I entered the details into my diary app. “Great!” “Also, no gifts, please. Between us, we can fill two houses. We need to sort out the storage and get rid of things.” “Fair enough, no gifts of a solid nature.” Robert’s reply was interrupted by Don calling us from below. “Hey, you two, it’s safe to come down,” Don called from the foot of the stairs. “Okay, Donny.” Robert and I walked down to join him. “Did you get your interview arranged?” I asked. “Yeah, he’ll meet me at the office at 1:00pm, today.” I glanced at my phone. It was 11:30am. “Go and shower Don. There’s not a lot of time.” “Yeah, I’m on my way. Sorry Lous, it was now or never.” Don rolled out of the door and toward the house. “Go. It’s fine.” I turned to Robert. “Sorry, I’d planned to make lunch at least.” “You two get on with it. I’m sure we’ll eat together soon. Rena can’t wait to get her hands on Max.” I laughed. “But, Louis, we’ll leave you alone with him for a few days. I usually find it’s best to let the new family settle down together first, once it’s finally happening.” “Okay. Thanks Robert. I appreciate the help this morning.” “Happy to. Now you better get this place locked up and get Don to his appointment. I’ll see you later on.” Robert gave me a quick hug and walked toward the granny-house. I locked up the barn. A quick peek at the horses told me they seemed happy enough. Then I ran home to join Don in the shower. We dressed, got into the van and drove into the city to the magazine’s offices. While Don did his interview, I sat in the waiting room. I texted Max, and told him we were in town and what we were doing. He said he was ready to go. “Your choice for dinner. So, start thinking.” I texted back. “Mine? Wow, okay. I’ll tell you when you get here.” “Okay. See you real soon Max! xo” “Cya” I was still smiling as I put my phone in my pocket. “I heard you were here.” I looked up to see Harry standing in the doorway. I stood to give him a hug. “I am. Just waiting for Don.” “Let’s sit.” Harry settled beside me on one of the black leatherette chairs. “Big day today, Don tells me.” “Yeah, all of us are excited.” “A kid. Never considered one myself. But, you two will be great parents.” I rubbed my hands together. “Frankly, I never have really wanted kids, but meeting Max changed all that. I really want to help him.” “I look forward to meeting him.” Harry smiled. “We’ll likely have a big party once he’s settled in. Let him meet some family and friends. Then there’s Rena and Robert’s wedding in early November.” “Your birthday as well.” Harry squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t forget that.” “Yeah, my birthday. I’m sure we’ll do something. Dinner, or whatever.” This was becoming uncomfortable and the reason Harry and I didn’t spend much time alone together. There had always been an attraction, and though he was married now, it hadn’t really faded away. I think he felt it as well, because he got to his feet abruptly. “I should get back to work, Louis.” I stood to shake his hand. “We’ll see you both soon. Maybe you and Gareth can join us for a birthday dinner or something.” He pulled me into a hug and whispered. “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay, Harry. I understand. I feel it too.” He held my shoulders, keeping me at arm’s length. “I know. Best we get on with things, right?” “Yeah.” “See you soon, Louis.” With that he walked away. I sat down to wait for Don, and though I was excited that Max was coming, there was the heaviness of regret in my heart. “Louis … Lous.” Someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes. “Louis, wake up.” “Oh, shit, Donny … what …?” He was smiling broadly. “You fell asleep.” “Sorry … wow … okay, I’m awake.” “It’s okay. Not exactly exciting sitting here waiting for me.” I rubbed my face and pulled myself together. Things were stiff here and there. “How did it go?” “Great. Super guy. Got lots for the article. It should make a good story. He gave me his contact information in case I need more.” “That’s great.” I pushed my fingers through my hair. “What’s the time?” “It’s about 2:30.” Don was smiling. “Did you text Max?” “Yeah, I did. He is ready to go. I gave him fair warning about dinner as well. I think he’s as excited as we are.” Don reached for my hand. “I am excited. I never thought I’d have a chance to be a parent. I know I’m not really, but I’ll take it.” I gazed at my beautiful husband for a moment. After all this time you think you know someone. But you don’t. I don’t think you ever really do, not fully. There are places within each of us that are never shared. That said, I had known Don liked kids, and they him. Kids always made me nervous and uncomfortable. Millie and James changed that. They kind of force it out of you—love and protectiveness. Children see people’s worth, even when the object of their affection cannot. Miriam’s and Doug’s kids made me see that children are truly just small spongy humans. They suck up knowledge, and love to share it. I’ve seen them both experiencing ‘firsts’ and it’s an amazing thing. A beautiful thing. I am glad they are in my life. “Louis!” I gazed up into Don’s amber eyes. “Sorry, baby. Just thinking.” “Good things I hope.” “Yeah.” I leaned forward to kiss him. “Very good things.” “Louis. Let’s get out of here okay?” He tugged me to my feet. “Let’s get out of here and go get our boy.” I sat down again. “Don.” He frowned at me. “What’s wrong, Louis?” “Nothing. I just want to say … well … this thing with kids, I just wish you’d have told me sooner how you felt … that you wanted some … or ….” He smiled a little and sighed. “Lous, don’t do this. I wanted you. I wanted each and every day we’ve had together. I was not pining for children all that time.” He took my hands in his. “Sure, the odd time, when I’d see a family, I may have for that few minutes. But I have no regrets, Louis.” I squeezed back and nodded. “Okay ….” “I don’t. Max is coming into our lives at the right time. You and I are solid. We have a lot to offer.” I kissed him then. “You’re right.” I got back on my feet. “Let’s go. I love you, Donny.” He smiled broadly. “Me too, baby, me too.” After a stop at the saddlery to pick up the saddle we’d ordered for Taro and Max, we arrived at the hospital. We were greeted by Robert and Janet Grimes. Together, Don and I signed documents and filled in a few forms. Max was officially signed out of the hospital, and in our care. We made follow up appointments, and we then left the Administration offices. Max sat with his bags on his knees in the waiting room. Robert had gone to fetch him. Max waved at us. He was smiling. “Hi. I’m ready.” “Great, so are we,” Don replied. “So, Max, what have you decided about dinner?” “Honestly?” “I think Don and I would prefer honest, yes.” I stood behind Don with my hands on his shoulders. “I’d just like to be home and barbeque some burgers.” Don twisted around to look at me. “Can we do that, Lous? Do we need to hit the grocery store?” “Yeah, we do. We can stop and I can run in to get the stuff we’d need.” “Dessert too, babe.” I laughed. “Yes, dessert too. Just think about what you’d like.” Max pursed his lips, while Don continued, “I know. Two-bite brownies we’ll freeze. Then some good ice cream, and Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Am I right, Max?” “Oh, yeah, you’re right, Don!” I gave each of them a glance. “You two are a match made in heaven. Okay, I’ll grab all that. Let’s get out of here.” As we walked to the exit, I noticed a gathering ahead. There were doctors, nurses and aides. Garrett Humphrey, Max’s surgeon, came forward to greet him, and us. “Max!” Dr. Humphrey turned to smile at us and then at all the staff. “So, a little speech is due from me. Sorry, Max, but each patient has to suffer this.” Max grinned. “It’s okay, Doc.” “Good.” The doctor put a hand on Max’s shoulder. He smiled at his patient. “Well, while we are supposed to remain dispassionate about our patients, often we are not. I think this occurs more with our younger ones. While I’ve been a surgeon here, I’m met many brave, strong people who are fighting for their lives, dignity and their place in this world. They move me and they lift me up with the fight and drive they have to overcome some very challenging injuries. “Max is one of them. He’s fought bravely to get where he is, overcame grief and sadness. I know his parents would be very proud of their boy. Max chose early on to live and to fight. “So today we say so long to Max as he heads off to live his life with Don and Louis, two guys who understand only too well the challenges that can pop up every day. Best of luck, Max!” There was applause and the doctor shook Max’s hand. Several nurses and Carl, Max’s porter, moved up. One of nurses, named Nancy, spoke. “We aren’t supposed to get close, but honestly I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t myself. Max, you were a pleasure to have on the floor. Myself and all of us wish you all the best in the future.” She handed Max a little box and a card. “It’s signed by all of us. We also had a little collection. We knew you liked to draw, so we got you a gift card from Franklyn’s Art Supplies. We hope you’ll enjoy it.” Nancy gave Max a little hug, as did the rest. Carl shook his hand. Max smiled at all of them. “I guess I just need to say thanks. You’ve all been so good to me. It was hard but you all did so much to make it better. So, I need to get on with my life. I know Don and Louis will be great foster parents. I’m very lucky.” There was another smattering of applause. Max wasn’t yet done. He held up his hands for quiet. “So, finally, because I’ll need checkups, I leave you with the immortal words of the Terminator: I’ll be baaack! Bye, everyone. Thanks again!” I moved behind Max’s chair and pushed him slowly through the sea of smiling faces, to the exit. We piled into the van. I stowed Max’s suitcase and bag for him and got him settled into place. I did the same for Don. Nearer home we stopped at the grocery store. I ran in and bought the stuff we’d need for dinner and of course, dessert. Once we arrived home, I went inside to put the ice cream and brownies in the freezer, and the meat into the fridge. I returned to help everyone out of the van. Max started toward the house, and Don called, “Hold on a sec, Max.” “Okay.” He turned his chair around. Don had the saddle on his lap. “Max, this is a gift for you, from both of us. We hope you enjoy it.” Max rolled himself closer. “Go ahead, unwrap it I’ll hold it while you pull off the paper.” “Wow. Thanks, it’s great.” He ran his hand over the leather. I knelt beside him and I pointed up the hill. “See on the right, the next field over ….” “Yes ….” “That is Taro.” Max sat up straighter, staring at the black horse. “You guys got another horse because of me?” Don moved up next to Max. “Yeah, now we can all ride together if we want to.” Max seemed very moved. “You … wow. This is amazing.” “We’ll take them for a ride in the morning. Sound okay?” “Yes, Louis, sounds great.” “If you want, you can come out later when I bring them in.” “Yes, please. I’d like to.” Don turned around and started toward the house. “I’ll light the barbeque while you two get things ready in the kitchen.” “Okay, Don.” I grabbed the saddle and took it into the barn’s small tack room. I caught up with Max as he neared the house. I opened the door and he rolled in. “I can help make dinner, Louis.” “Well, I was thinking about that,” I said. “Why don’t you go up and unpack?” “Can I later, Louis? I’d really like to help.” I smiled at him. “Yeah, sure. On the lower counter I leave basic stuff, so Don doesn’t need to dig for them in cupboards. Best to check there first, or in the dishwasher, if you’re gonna cook.” “Okay, that makes sense.” “So, the burgers, I think you should mix them.” I put garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper on the lower counter. “Here’s what we like to put in ours.” Max looked over the ingredients. “Um, okay. Do you have any oat bran or bread crumbs?” “Um … Let me check up here ….” I dug around in the cupboard above me. “Yes, oat bran. Do you put this in?” “Yeah, my m … my mum always did. Is it okay?” “Yes, sure it is. Did she say why?” “Mmm, because it helps to hold the burgers together. Let’s see, I need an egg, please. And the oat bran helps keep them juicy.” I withdrew an egg and the meat from the fridge and put them both down for him. “That is interesting. I can’t wait to try these!” He smiled at me. “You’re just saying that, right?” “Nope, I’m not. I want to see what they are like.” I watched him wash his hands and then dump the beef into the bowl. “I like to learn new things and tricks.” He grinned and added some oat bran, the egg, some of the sauce and then finely chopped the garlic, before mixing it altogether. While he did, I sliced onions and tomatoes and plated them. I put them and the other usual burger condiments on the table. Joining them were store-made coleslaw and a bowl of Don’s favourite kettle potato chips. We shaped the patties and took them out to cook. There was a chill in the air. Autumn was here. Dinner was served with chocolate milk, much to everyone’s delight. There was happy chatter as we enjoyed our meal. “So, Max, you’re enrolled in the local high school,” Don was saying. “Louis will take you and pick you up the first week. After that there will be a bus.” “Okay, sounds good. I hope I’m not too far behind.” Max reached for a second burger. “I’m sorry. Is it okay if I have another?” I smiled at him. “Sure, go ahead.” I handed him the plate of onions and tomatoes. “Did you do any school work in the hospital?” “Yes, they gave me some things to work on.” “That’s good. We’ll go in on Monday, and I think they will have all your records and can tell if you need anything extra before joining your classes.” Max bit into his burger. Don had been quiet, finished his drink and put the glass down. “Max, Louis and I want you to know this is your home. We just want to help you the best we can.” “I know, Don. It’ll be okay, you know? I really believe that.” After dinner was finished, Don cleaned up., while Max and I went to fetch in the horses. I took care of Badger and Clyde, while Taro and Max spent some quality time together. Once I was finished with my pair, I went to help Max. He’d groomed the places he could, I finished off the spots he hadn’t managed to reach. Then I showed him how to pick up and clean Taro’s hooves. “I’m somewhat paranoid about their feet.” I slid my hand down Taro’s front left leg. “Come on Taro.” The horse shifted his weight and lifted his hoof. I talked to Max about what to do, look for, and the reasons why. Max did the hooves on the right side. “Wow, I had no idea you had to do all of this to care for horses.” “Yeah, but if you keep on top of it, it’s quick.” Once the lesson was over, we settled the horses in their boxes. We closed up the barn and returned to the house. Max went upstairs to do some unpacking. I popped up to see how he was doing. He actually had very little in the way of clothes. I sent Robert a text about going into the Resnick’s home to collect some things. In the meantime, I’d have to take him shopping after riding in the morning. “Max, you need stuff to wear for school. We’ll go shopping tomorrow. I guess you’ll need school supplies too.” Max seemed a little crestfallen. “Sorry, Louis. I don’t mean to be—” “Hey, no! None of that. You need clothes and stuff, so we’ll go tomorrow and shop.” I mentioned about getting into his house. “You may have things in there you’d like here.” “Yes, there’s some shoes and boots and stuff. I’d like some pictures and things.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “I … I’m sorry.” I knelt beside him. “Don’t be sorry. Please don’t be.” “It’s like someone just chopped off a hunk of my life, Louis.” I nodded and hugged him. “I can’t even imagine it.” I felt his arms slide around me. Finally, he put his head on my shoulder and sighed. “It’s gonna be hard.” “Yes.” He lifted his head. We looked at each other for a few moments. He whispered, “Thanks.” I sat back and squeezed his shoulders. “Yeah.” Don’s voice carried up the stairs. “Come on, you two. These brownies aren’t going to be around forever, you know!” Max laughed and said, “Is that a threat?” I clambered to my feet. “No. When it comes to Don and dessert, that is a promise.” Leaving the bedroom, I pressed the button for the elevator. Max called down the stairs, “Don’t you eat all those, Don!” All we heard as the elevator door closed was maniacal laughter from the kitchen. ~~~ Chapter 13 It’s Getting Better All the Time Saturday morning was sunny when we awoke, so we quickly looked after the horses. We had our own breakfast and then the three of us went for a ride. Taro went well for Max. It was like the horse and boy had grown up together. It was wonderful to see. “Louis, Taro doesn’t seem to know lots of words like Badger does,” Max said. “No. I’m sure he knows, whoa, and come on. You can teach him though, Max.” “You think I can?” I smiled across at him. “Yes. When you want him to move forward, say walk. Then give him a treat or lots of pats. Make what he’s doing a positive experience. Don’t try too much at once. But always talk to him using the words you’ll teach. Make sense?” “Okay, so I should say whoa, Taro?” “No, just whoa as you are stopping him. Whoa, is only to stop. Not change from gallop to trot. It means stop. Don’t add his name.” We were three abreast with Max in the centre. We walked the horses along the quiet road. “I’ll try, Louis.” Max grinned and pulled back on the reins. “Whoa.” He brought Taro to a halt. He patted Taro’s neck and spoke softly to him. “Walk.” Max clicked his tongue at Taro, who moved forward. “Oh, cool. We can work on this.” I smiled over at Don, who watched in silence. He smiled back. We cantered the horses on the dirt road. I enjoyed the rushing air and the sound of their hooves on the hardened ground. On the way back, we gave the horses their head, and we walked home enjoying our chat and the buzzing of insects. We weren’t too far from the house when Don said, “So, you two are going shopping for clothes and stuff today, right?” “Yes, we are.” I turned to face him. “You need anything?” “No thanks, baby. I thought I’d work on my book while you’re gone. That is unless you had anything else in mind for me?” I grinned because I could tell from the glint in his eyes that was a loaded question. Max, who had been quiet, said. “Are you guys still on your honeymoon? You’ve been like married forever. Geez.” Don threw back his head and laughed. Then he looked at the boy. “Maxy, I hope when you meet the right person that you feel the same way. Like every day is as good as the first.” “I hope so too, Don. But right now, I just want to ride, draw, go to school and have some fun.” Don grinned. “In that order?” “Mmmm, maybe not. Ride, draw, have fun and then school.” We all laughed. It had been good getting out. All of us riding together; it made for a nice start to the day. After quick showers, Max and I drove to the closest mall. There we had lunch in the food court and then went on a buying spree. Max pooh-poohed my choice of clothes store as way too old fashioned! I was happy he knew what he wanted. We got him shirts, jeans, underthings, socks, sweats and a hoodie. We then went to buy school supplies. The remainder of our weekend was quiet and spent at home. Don and I went for a run, Max stayed home and watched Netflix or chilled online with his friends. Sunday we all took the horses out for a nice long ride north, through various country roads. We chatted and laughed a lot. Max seemed to be looking forward to school. He seemed excited to get started. Monday morning was bright and I was up early to see to after the horses. Once that was done I was back inside to shower and set up for breakfast. I was having to get my head around the fact I now had to be an adult! I had to be on time, organized and ready to get Max into school. Don was up and preparing for his day, and I knocked on Max’s door at 7:00am. “Come in.” I opened the door, surprised he was up, let alone washed and dressed. “Morning, Max. You okay? Need help with anything?” He smiled broadly. “No, I’m okay, Louis, thank you.” “Great, well, breakfast is ready when you are.” “Thanks. I’ll be down in a minute.” “Okay.” I closed the door, thinking, “He’s gotten ready on his own.” For some reason I felt a bit let down. “That’s ridiculous, he’s not a baby, and will want to do things on his own.” Of course he would, like any normal kid. In the kitchen I sat at the table next to my husband, who was eating a bowl of cereal. “I put in a couple of pieces of toast, Lous.” “Thanks.” I poured myself coffee. “Max was up and ready with no help from me. Don gazed at me and smiled. “That’s brilliant. Good for him.” “Yeah, it is.” I added cream and stirred. The toast popped, and I got up to butter it. “How much of this do you want, babe?” “Mmm, two please.” I put a couple more pieces of toast in as I heard the elevator, and placed the buttered toast out. Max rolled up to the table. “Good morning!” Don smiled. “Morning, Maxy. Ready for the day?” “Yes, I am. I miss school. I’m looking forward to going.” I added the hot toast to the plate on the table. “You can invite some of your old friends out here if you want to, you know.” Max appeared thoughtful. “Thanks. But you know, since the accident, it seems to have changed people.” “It can do that.” Don sipped his coffee. “People don’t know how to deal with you and lots of them just drift away. I was lucky Louis isn’t that kind of person.” Don smiled at me. “I think I’m just going to try and make friends here at this new school.” Max spread strawberry jam on his toast. “I’m going to see what they offer and maybe do some after school stuff. If that’s okay.” “Yeah, sure that’s okay. Let me know and we can arrange rides, okay?” I was glad Max felt so positive about things. “I will Louis. Thanks.” I spent the morning at school with Max. We met with various teachers and the principal as well as a group of kids they’d put together to meet Max. Through programs at the hospital Max had kept up with the basics so he hadn’t lost much ground in math, English and science. Finally, Max left to visit his classes, led by a couple of the ambassador kids. He’d have lunch with them and then take his regular classes in the afternoon. He seemed happy and excited. Mr. Barrymore, the Principal, walked me to the front doors. “Max will be fine. He’s got a great attitude and wants to succeed. I spoke to his old school and they said he was the same there. His grades are good. I think he’ll be successful here, Mr. Taylor.” “Thanks. I hope he’ll be happy. I appreciate all of your help.” “No problem. It’s a lot of change for all of you. We’re happy to do whatever we can. Let me know if you have any concerns please. I tell parents don’t wait to contact me if something doesn’t seem right.” We shook hands. “I will. Thanks again.” I drove home feeling confident this would be good place for Max. Turns out I was right. Max loved school. He dove in, made friends, joined an after-school art program. Friends would come over and I’d drop him at their homes, or the mall, or wherever. In the meantime, I had my meeting with the Partners and took on a month’s work for them. I enjoyed working from home. Life was busy, but good. At the end of the week that Max started school, had been my birthday. Don planned a little dinner out for all of us. It was a nice time. We laughed a lot, and ate too much. Having Max there was great. Later in bed Don was the perfect, attentive lover. Afterwards he held me in his arms. “I love you, Louis. I think maybe more than I did when we married.” “Mmm, I love you too.” I leaned into him. “I’m happy, Donny.” “Good. That’s all I want to hear.” He kissed my neck. “Night baby.” “Night.” So, life went on that way, we were all busy but we made time to be together as well. The rest of October slipped by us. We helped Max with his Halloween costume for a school dance. He went as the Borg Cube. In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves in November dressing to attend Rena and Robert’s wedding. It was in the afternoon so there was not a big rush and fuss on Saturday morning. We’d even planned well enough that we all went for our usual morning horseback ride. “Hey!” Max appeared in our bedroom door. He was dressed in a smart light-blue suit, but his tie hung around his neck like lonely spaghetti. “I cannot tie this thing. Would one of you help me?” Don replied. “Yes, come on in. I’ll help ya, Maxy. Lous is still putting on his makeup.” “I heard that!” Max laughed. I walked out of our bathroom in my boxers and proceeded to get dressed in a light gray suit. It wasn’t a formal wedding, but we were all going to dress nicely. “There you go Max. One tied tie.” Don gently straightened the knot. “Man needs to know how to put on a real tie, in my opinion.” Max gazed at him for moment. “Do you think men … I mean on social media there is a lot of bad stuff said about men. It kinda makes me feel bad.” Don glanced at me, and then back at Max. “There is a lot of bad stuff said about men. Personally, it’s one of the reasons I rarely look at social media sites or feeds too much. It’s a pit of evil, where the badness only spurs on more negativity.” Max was listening. “I think you’re right. It gets pretty nasty on there sometimes.” I was hearing this and getting concerned. “I’m not going to tell you not to visit or join places online Max. But I think you need to be careful and I think you need to talk to us if you’re concerned about anything on there,” Don said. “I will Don. Mostly, I chat to a good group, and if things get out of hand I usually just say goodnight. I just keep hearing about dumb men are, how rude and uncaring, and it bugs me cuz it’s not true, is it?” “No, it’s not true. Not even close.” Don paused for a moment. “Women were held back and put down for a long time. But they changed things, and right now, for some it feels like payback time. The thing is modern guys don’t want women back in the kitchen, they like women who are themselves, they want a partner, not a punching bag-slash-slave. Thankfully it isn’t a majority of women who feel this way.” “No, I guess not.” Max sighed. “Is it rough at school?” I asked. “No, Louis. The girls I’ve met are all cool. One, Leigh, wow, she draws wonderfully. We started to hang out at lunch time and she is in Art at Four.” “That’s great,” Don said. “What is Art at Four?” Max frowned at Don. “Didn’t I tell you? It’s the after-school program I go to twice a week. It’s really cool and there are lots of great artists in there. We are thinking about doing something for a charity. Like selling pictures we paint or draw.” “That is a great idea.” Don smiled. “Let me know if I can help. I know a few people in the newspaper trade.” “Oh, great okay. Thanks Don.” We piled into the van and drove to the hall where the wedding and reception would be held. As we did we noticed it was snowing lightly. Don glanced over at me. “It’s such a nuisance, this stuff.” I signaled and moved into the left turn lane. “Yeah. I’m only hoping it’s not too bad when we fly to the Rock.” “Yeah. But they look after St. John’s, don’t they? I mean they plow it and stuff.” “Yes, they do. And well thankfully.” I turned left into the Georgian Gate Hall’s parking lot. “We are close to Ma’s and to Laura’s places so not a lot of travelling. If you want we can rent a four-by-four and drive out to check out the ocean. I’m sure Max would like to see it while we’re there.” “Sounds like a plan, Lous.” I parked the van and jumped out to lower the ramp. The venue was pretty but casual. There were huge baskets of mixed flowers, all blue, white and yellow. The chairs were covered in a blue brocade fabric. The lighting was soft and warm. It felt friendly and people talked and laughed together. Rena was a very untraditional bride. She had asked Donny to give her away. So, Max and I joined Doug, and sat on her ‘side’. Robert, the Best Man, and Miriam and Doug’s son, James, walked up to their places. Robert had said hello to everyone as they did. The Minister asked for quiet and the hall filled with a lovely version of What a Wonderful World on guitar, as Miriam and Millie came down the aisle first. They stood at the end waiting, as Rena, dressed in a soft pink silk dress, followed walking beside Don, her hand on Donny’s shoulder. When they reached the end, Rena bent down and kissed her son. Robert then came over to take her hand and lead her up to the altar. Don rolled over to join me and Max. Little Millie was wiggly and full of giggles. Miriam’s hushing did little to help. The little girl turned to wave at us. “Hi, Unc Louis!” I waved back and held my finger to my lips. Smiling, she nodded, doing the same. Everyone laughed. Rena and Robert’s vows were simple and sweet. It wasn’t long before the couple were pronounced man and wife, and we moved over to the reception area for a drink before dinner. After pictures, the bride and groom walked around talking to their guests. It was a pleasant, casual wedding and people were enjoying themselves. Max and I were sitting at the head table. It faced out over tables for the wedding guests. “You okay Max?” “Yes, Louis, I am. I just feel a little weird.” “I understand. You feel they aren’t your family, right? Like Don and I aren’t your family.” He nodded. “I’m sorry ….” “There’s no need to be sorry. But listen to me. You may not be blood related, but you are part of this family. Just like I am. The only ones who hold ourselves apart from that, is us.” I let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “You’ve been through a lot, lost a lot, Max. But please listen to this if nothing else. Your parents would want you to grab onto this family now. They would not want you to be alone and you don’t have to be. However, you need to choose. Not forget, never that, but choose to be part of this now.” I reached out and squeezed his forearm, and smiled at him. “I’ll be right back. I feel the need for a root beer.” He peered up at me with tears in his eyes. “Make it two, Louis?” “You got it, kid.” I returned to the table with two cans of Dad’s Root Beer. I placed one in front of Max and retook my seat. “Thanks, Louis. For the root beer and what you said before.” Max pried the metal ring tab up and opened his drink. “I thought about what you said.” “Max….” He sipped and shook his head. “No, Louis, please. I know you’re right. My folks would not want me alone. They loved each other and me, and I know that … so choosing to belong to this family isn’t forgetting my parents; it’s celebrating them and what they wanted for us.” I nodded and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back. “Thanks, Louis.” I was about to open my mouth when Don, who had been chatting to Doug, leaned over and said, “You think they’ll feed us soon?” The rest of the evening was fun. We danced and laughed a lot. Donny even got out of his chair to dance one slow dance with me. “I’m not holding on too much, am I, babe?” He did have his arms around me but he wasn’t leaning a lot. “No. This is nice, Donny.” “Mmm, yeah it is.” He kissed my cheek. “I love you.” “I love you back.” At the end of the song, he sat back in his chair. I walked with him to our table. Max had gone off to chat with several of the other kids there who were about his age. “I’m glad Max is joining in.” Don sipped his coffee. “I was worried he may not.” “Yeah, he’s a strong person and he’s smart.” “He is. I’m so glad we could help him. Thanks Louis, again you have made all the changes, taken the brunt of this.” “Donny, stop, okay. We do what needs doing.” I smiled at him and leaned in to kiss his sweet lips. “So, next on my list is you.” He sat back, startled. “Me? What about me?” “You said you want to drive. So, I did some research and I’m thinking maybe a Nissan Sentra.” “Nice car. I rather have a Corvette or Jaguar, but hey.” He shrugged his shoulders while I laughed. “I think maybe you’d have a hard time getting your wheelchair into the back seat on your own with those two.” He grinned and sighed. “You’re right, but I’d look damn hot in them.” I kissed him again, this time with a bit of passion. “You look like that to me all the time.” He held my eyes, and whispered, “How soon till we get home?” We left a couple of hours after dinner. The happy couple hugged us and waved us off. They were leaving for the airport straight afterwards to catch a flight to Hawaii. “Mom, Robert … today was great, thanks. I hope you have a wonderful honeymoon!” Don shook Robert’s hand and kissed his mom. She smiled at him. “Thanks for everything. We’ll see you soon.” We all said goodbye, and Max joined in. “Thanks for asking me to come. It was a great afternoon.” After my own goodbyes, we climbed into the van and drove home. The snow had stopped. ~~~ Now I began planning Christmas. I booked our flights and the AirBnB. I also made arrangements to board the horses. We would leave the afternoon that Max finished school. I ordered gifts, made lists of things we would need to take. In addition, I continued my work on research for the Partner’s contract. It was going very well. This day I had been working in my office until the school bus dropped off Max. I then moved into the kitchen to continue to work and to start dinner. I’d promised both my boys macaroni and cheese with Italian sausage and broccoli. Max had gone up to his room to do his homework. It was about an hour later he came down and moved beside me at the table. “Louis?” “Yeah, Max?” I pulled my attention from my work. “What’s up?” “Remember I said that each of us from Art at Four was going to make something to sell to raise money?” “Yeah, I remember. That’s such a good idea.” “So, can you look at these and see which one I should submit?” Max laid out four small canvases. “Which do you think? I can’t decide.” They were all wonderful. One was a picture of all three horses grazing together on the hill. The second was the north star sitting low in the sky so it appeared as if it was touching the top of a lone pine tree. His next painting was of three men riding on horseback up a quiet country road. The last was gray jagged rocks over violent crashing waves, on the rocks and in the air were brightly coloured puffins. Each was wonderful. I looked at Max. “These are all terrific. Frankly, I’d put them all in, but I have a soft spot for the puffins.” “I hope you don’t mind, Louis. I used one of your dad’s photos for the idea.” “No, I don’t mind at all. He would have loved to see this ….” I stopped for a moment. I’d had an idea. “Max, if I gave you a picture … a photograph, could you recreate it? Like you did here?” “Sure, Louis. Like these in water colour, or oil?” “Oil, I think. It would be for my mom, it would be a copy of her favourite picture of my father’s.” “Yeah, sure, Louis. That’s no problem.” “I’ll pay you for it.” Max was horrified. “Louis, no, I mean … just no.” “Hey, it’s a business transaction. I’m asking for your services … so payment is fair.” “Um … well ….” “That settles that. I’ll get you the photo. Is there enough time? It’s November. I’d like to give to her for Christmas.” “Yes, if I paint it soon. It will dry and then I’ll use a nice amber copal varnish on it, it will be ready.” “Okay. Thanks. I’ll get the photo for you.” Since he was well enough, it was during November that Max’s parents’ will was probated by the executor. He was left everything, the sole heir to whatever they had. However, Max still required a lawyer. The Partners offered to assist Max. They told us they’d do what was needed pro bono, but Max insisted on paying for their service. “Mr. Montague, I get paid for paintings I do, so you deserve to be paid for your services too.” Pierre smiled at me and at Max. “You are correct, of course. We will then charge $1.00 per hour.” “What? No, that’s not enough!” Frank Jackson, leaned back in his chair. “Max, you’re fifteen years old. You are the foster son of someone we are fond of. It’s $1.00 an hour or nothing.” I was smiling inside, but straight-faced outside. This was all on Max. He sighed and gazed at each of them in turn. “Okay, $1.00 per hour. That’s really nice of you. Thanks.” Jackson and Montague got to their feet and shook hands with their new client. “Glad we could come to an understanding, Max.” It was a week after this I got a call from Pierre asking me to bring Max in. “Sure, but he’s in school.” “Okay. Then we need you both in here tomorrow morning.” “Something’s wrong?” “Yes, something is wrong and we need to see you both to determine how to proceed.” Pierre told me only the barest of details. I told Pierre we’d be in the office at ten. After hanging up, my brain ran through the next steps. I telephoned the school to find out if Max would be missing anything important. They’d called back later saying it was fine and his absence would be noted for the next day. Now I needed to tell Max. First, I went out to the barn to talk to Don. I tapped on his door and stuck my head around when he didn’t answer. He sat there, earbuds in, typing on his laptop. There was a pencil behind his ear. I pulled out my phone and called him. His ringer was on loud! “Hey, babe.” “Can I come in? I’m over here.” Don turned. He laughed and waved me in. “Of course.” We both hung up. “Why didn’t you just come in, Lous?” “You looked like you were concentrating.” “Well, yeah, but just come in, babe. So, what’s up?” “Can we talk for a bit?” Don raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, let’s sit over there.” After I’d explained it all, Don sat back and rubbed his face. “There is always something, isn’t there?” “Yeah, unfortunately.” “I’m gonna clear my calendar for tomorrow and come with you. We’re doing this together, all of us.” “I can handle it, Don.” “I’ve no doubt, but we are going to present a united front.” I could have handled what was coming, but frankly, I was glad I didn’t have to. “Thanks, Donny. You’re right, it’s the best way.” Don leaned over, and we kissed. “We’ll tell Maxy when he gets home, see the Partners tomorrow and take it from there.” “Yeah, okay. Dammit, Don. I didn’t expect this.” “No.” Don rubbed his thighs. “Let’s order in tonight. It will be one less thing we need to do. Less hassle for us all, okay?” “Right, good idea.” I got up. There were a couple of hours before Max got home from school. I went upstairs to my office to work. I had a document I wanted to give to my employers the next day. After the school bus dropped Max off, we let him go to his room to change. “Max, once you’ve changed, can you come down? We need to talk for a bit before dinner.” “Um, yeah, sure, Louis. I won’t be long.” “Great.” I sent Don a text. I then went into the kitchen and poured us each a glass of Coke and put them on the kitchen table. I sat down with mine, to wait. Once the three of us had sat down together and had a drink, Don said, “Max, today Louis got a call from Jackson and Montague. Seems there is an … issue with your parents will.” “An issue? What type of issue?” Max turned his gaze to me. “Pierre called me this morning.” I sighed. “It’s being contested.” Max was silent for a moment. “Aunt Marilyn, right?” “Yeah, I’m afraid so.” Don had been quiet, but he spoke now. “So, Max, no school tomorrow. Louis has already planned for that. We all go to see the lawyers together. It will be sorted out.” “Okay, Don.” Max smiled. “Thanks, Louis. D’ya mind if I go to my room?” “No, of course not. Are you okay though, Max?” Max was pensive. “Yeah. I’m just sad and I’d just like a bit of time on my own.” I moved to give him a hug. He reached around me and hugged me tight. “I’ll be okay, Louis.” “I know you will be. We’re here though; you’re not alone.” “Yep, I know.” Max released me. “Let me know when dinner arrives, okay?” The next morning, we all got up early and went out for a ride. I’m sure the horses felt something was amiss, as even Clyde was quiet. We walked them up the road, three abreast, Max and Taro in the middle. It was cool but the sun shone in the early morning. Max finally broke the silence. “This is a bump in the road, right?” “Right,” Don answered. “She can’t take me away from you? I don’t want to go with her.” Badger tossed his head as Max spoke. Don spoke to the horse quietly, and then to Max. “We will do everything we can, Max. I promise you that. But let’s first see if that’s what she wants. She is contesting the will. From what you’ve said about her, I think she wants money.” “Okay.” We rode another twenty minutes before we had to return home. ~~~ The three of us were shown into a conference room at Jackson and Montague. Refreshments of our choice were provided. The Partners didn’t make us wait long. “Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for coming in today. Don! It’s good to see you again. Let’s begin.” Pierre Montague started the meeting. “Max, I’m sure Louis told you what is happening. Let me give you some additional details ….” “Okay, Mr. Montague.” “Your aunt has established standing. She believes her brother, your father, was under undue influence by your mother to leave her out of the will.” Max gripped his chair’s arms. “Oh, come on! That’s crazy.” Frank Jackson, who sat next to Max, reached out and put a hand on Max’s forearm. “Don’t let it upset you, Max. People who are left out of wills, most always blame others.” Max took a deep breath. “What does she want? I do not want to live with her.” Frank glanced at Pierre and then said softly, “She doesn’t want you, Max. I’m sorry, she made that very clear in her paperwork. She wants the money you were left. She must feel strongly she has a case, because here, if the court determines the contest is without merit, she must pay court costs and also your legal fees.” “Before we have to worry about trials, this will go to mediation. You must be there for this, Max, with us, and if you choose, Louis and Don,” Frank explained. Max listened to everything and also made notes. “Okay. If we decide on how to fix this at the mediation thing, does it end there?” “Yes, it can. What happens in mediation is legally binding. There will be documents to file, but it can end there.” Pierre took a breath before going on. “Before you make any decisions or choices, we ask that you speak to us. Don’t give up what is yours to simply stop the process. I know it’s tempting to do so.” “Okay, Mr. Montague. I promise I’ll do that.” The first mediation date was set for the end of November. Don and I sat in at Max’s request. He sat at the table with his lawyers. They were joined there by Max’s aunt, Marilyn Galbraith, her husband Joe and their lawyer. The mediator, Joan Timms, explained the process and her role. Then it began; Marilyn wanted all the funds from the sale of the house. Pierre told them up front that wouldn’t happen and they were prepared to go to court. There were some raised voices, and calm was brought by Ms. Timms. After several suggestions by the mediator a recess was taken about an hour and half into the process. Don and I couldn’t be included, we were moral support only. Max and his lawyers left the room to talk in private. They reconvened and Pierre spoke first. “The house’s current market value is just over $800,000.00.” He looked at the Galbraith’s lawyer. “Your client wants all proceeds from the sale. This young man has lost his parents, he’s had a life changing accident. We don’t know yet, if he’ll be able to work. Your client wants to take possibly all of his future from him, leaving him destitute. Max, however has an offer. Please understand if this offer is rejected we will go to court and ask that Mr. and Mrs. Galbraith not receive anything from the estate.” Pierre handed a copy of the offer to the lawyer and Ms. Timms. Ms. Timms read it and said. “This seems more than fair, given the circumstances. Mr. Chance, would you like to move to the side room to discuss this offer?” “Thank you, Ms. Timms. We will do so.” Mr. Chance and his client moved into the small conference room. Don turned to me, and I could only shrug. We were observers and not privy to the choices made. I trusted the Partners however. About twenty-five minutes later, Aunt Marilyn and Mr. Chance returned. The lawyer remained on his feet and said, “The offer is acceptable.” Ms. Timms nodded. “Thank you. Mrs. Galbraith understands and is aware this is legally binding and no further action on this case will be considered. Is that correct?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Very well.” Ms. Timms turned to Max. “Are you comfortable with this result, Mr. Resnick?” “Yes, I am, thank you.” Max smiled and nodded. She smiled at him. “Very well. Let’s conclude and we’ll complete the formalities.” After documents were filled in and signed, we moved into a side office. Max looked at Frank and Pierre. “Can I tell Don and Louis the result?” Frank smiled. “Yes, entirely up to you.” “Okay. And thanks for your help Mr. Jackson; Mr. Montague. It went better than I thought and I’m glad it’s over.” “You’re welcome, Max. We’ll help you through the rest of it as well, but it will be more straightforward, nothing like this.” Pierre stood up. “Frank and I will take our leave. We’ll be in touch. We will work on the other things we’ve discussed Max. Louis, we’ll talk soon. Don, good to see you. Call if you have any questions or concerns.” “We will, thank you,” Don replied. “Thanks, again,” Max said. He shook hands with his lawyers. Once they’d gone and the door closed, Max sighed. “I’m so glad this got done today.” I gave him a hug. “Yeah, I’m sure you are. So, do we need to talk, or what do you feel?” “I can understand why my dad wanted nothing to do with her. She’s awful.” Max rubbed his hands together. “So, my offer to her was, accept this and no more contact, or have a trial. Mr. Montague and Mr. Jackson were ninety-nine percent sure the judge would say her case had no merit. So she’d get nothing and would have to pay costs then.” Don raised an eyebrow. “What did you give her?” “Once the house is sold, a flat $100,000 Canadian dollars. No more; no matter what the selling price is.” “That’s more than fair, Max,” Don said. I agreed. That chapter closed for Max in a fairly positive way. Rena helped Max with removing what he wanted from his family home. I was super busy with getting my stuff done for the Partners. They put the house up for sale. It was a big place in a great location in the city. After a bidding war, it ended up selling for just over $900,000.00. The lawyers would set up a trust fund for Max. There was also life insurance and other funds that would be added. If he was careful, he’d want for little during his life. The second week of December, we sat at the kitchen table pouring over the trust fund information the Partners had sent. Max gazed at me as he folded the paperwork up. “It’s a lot of money, Louis.” “Yes, it is. If you’re smart, like I know you are, you can make it work for you and have a brilliant life.” He looked up at me again. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “You know, I’d give it all back if I could have them … all of it, Louis.” I put my arms around him and he held me tight. “I know. I know, Max.” ~~~
  35. 58 points
    I woke still in Don’s arms on Sunday morning. It was comfy there, but I wanted to move, so I rolled onto my back. Don stirred. “Where do you think you’re going?” “Horses, foster son, not necessarily in that order. Also … I’ve been thinking about Christmas … since I spoke to my mom.” Don flipped to his side, facing me. “It’s just October. There’s your birthday in a couple of weeks.” “Yeah. But … well, it doesn’t matter. We’ll go out or something; the three of us.” “I am sorry about the trip, Lous.” He kissed me. “It’s okay, honestly. I’m happy, Don. I’m home, we have Max, things are good.” “Okay, as long as you’re okay.” He reached up and ran his hand over my cheek. He smiled the gentle smile I loved so well, and then said, “So, what’s this about Christmas?” “Mom, invited us.” Don gazed at me for a moment. “Christmas in St. John’s? You know that might be a real good time. Maxy too?” “Yes, she said to bring Max. I said we needed to wait and see. I guess we’d need the okay for him to travel, but he should be all right. I’d like to talk to him about it though. If he really doesn’t want to go then Ma could come here.” Don kissed me again and ran his hands down my chest and belly. He mumbled into my neck, “Mmmm, yep she can anytime.” Oh, this was feeling good. Too good. Suddenly Don’s kisses were everywhere. I was about to surrender when my text message alert pinged. Don who normally would not have been stopped, did. This was Max’s influence, I felt sure. “Is that Max?” I read the text. “Yes, he needs the facilities, could I please come and he’s so sorry.” Don sighed. “Poor kid. It shouldn’t be much longer. You know babe, I don’t want to take him back tonight.” “No.” I kissed him, before sitting up. I sent a quick, on my way, to Max. “I don’t want to either. But we need to, and hopefully he will be here with us permanently, soon. I guess we’ll need to chat with them about that.” I pulled on some track pants and a t-shirt. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to shower with you if you want.” He leered at me and licked his lips. “Oh yeah, I want.” I laughed out loud. I blew him a kiss as I left. I knocked on Max’s door and waited for his reply. Once he did, I entered the room. “Hey, morning.” He grinned at me. “Morning, Louis. Let’s do this.” We were improving and I said so when I went back in to help him up again. “We’ll be perfect soon, and then you won’t need me to be around anymore.” “Yeah, I’ll be glad when I do this on my own.” “I know. It won’t be long.” We left his bathroom. “I’m gonna shower and then see to the horses.” “Louis?” I turned around. “Yes, Max?” “Do you know when I can just stay? I mean, I don’t want to go back.” I sighed a little, and sat on the bed. “We don’t want you to either. Robert … Mr. Walker … is going to find out when you can leave the hospital.” “Thanks, Louis. I’m not gonna make a big fuss later. I’m just going to do what we need to do.” Getting to my feet, I said, “Positive thinking, that’s the best way. You’ll be here very soon, I’m sure.” He grinned at me. “Listen it’s early still. I’ll ask Don if he’d like to ride, and you two can go out while I fix some breakfast and stuff.” “Oh, I’d love that, Louis.” “Let me run it by Don.” I walked toward the doorway. “Can I go downstairs?” I turned and leaned on the doorframe. “You officially live here. That means you can go downstairs, raid the fridge, watch TV, sit outside. This is your home now.” “Okay, thanks a lot, Louis.” “Yep.” I left Max and went back to shower with Donny. As I dried Don’s back, I bent and kissed him. “Why don’t you take Max for a ride this morning. It looks nice out. I’ll make waffles, bacon and eggs, and stuff for a nice breakfast.” He twisted around. “You sure that’s okay?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Do you mean am I okay with that, or is Max okay enough to ride?” “Both.” “Yes, to both.” “Sure, then. I’d like that a lot.” Everyone got dressed, and I went out to give the horses a light feed. I gave them a quick brush while they ate their small rations. I did Badger first as he didn’t mind my interfering during his snack. Clyde was more highly strung and preferred to eat and then be groomed. I’d made coffee, and we had a cup before Don and Max went for their ride. Max asked for a glass of milk instead. We sat around the table chatting for a few minutes. Don sipped his beverage and placed the mug on the table. “Max, um, Louis had a call from his mom the other day.” The boy smiled at me. “That’s nice.” “Yeah, she asked if we’d go out to Newfoundland for Christmas. You’re invited, just something to think about … you know … you don’t have to decide—” Max’s head spun toward Don. “Really! Newfoundland?” I was surprised at his enthusiasm. “Yeah, we weren’t sure … well, we don’t know who or what you’d ….” “Oh, that would be so great.” Max was excited. “I’d love that. Can we please go?” Don was grinning. “Wow, so I guess we’re going, Lous.” That was easier than I’d expected. Some more to add to my list of things to do: get a place to stay that was wheelchair accessible; a place to board the horses; and then there was work to deal with. I added them to my mental list. “Great. I’ll let Ma know, and make arrangements.” I smiled at my little family. “Let’s get you two on your way. There will be food when you get back.” We got the horses saddled. Don was on Clyde as he could handle riding slowly without his usual saddle. Max was on the ever-patient Badger. They waved to me as they walked off for a nice trail ride. I felt a bit left out. “I think I see a third horse in our future.” I laughed and went into the kitchen to prepare our breakfast feast. Once everything was ready, bacon and sausages cooked, and the waffle batter resting in the fridge, I went up to my office and did a bit more work. I turned on my new computer and looked at flights from Toronto to Newfoundland, and more importantly I was looking for accommodations that were wheelchair friendly. We couldn’t stay at Laura’s or Ma’s places. “Hotels have wheelchair access, but wow, that’s too pricey I think.” I decided to look at short-term house rentals and AirBnB. There was a nice big street-level apartment for rent. It was accessible, and well, we may have to make do a little bit, but there was lots of space, a fireplace and lots of other amenities. The price was right for what we’d be getting as well. I looked at the price and compared it to a hotel. “Less altogether, and we could have food and meals there if we wanted to.” I decided to send an ‘I’m interested’ e-mail. This caused me to wonder if we could rent a van, or if maybe we should just drive. The driving thing didn’t appeal because it was winter and The Rock is known for its snow. My phone pinged. I opened the text message from Donny. “On our way back! Hungry. We had a brilliant time!” I smiled and jotted some final notes and ideas before shutting down my computer. Trotting down the stairs I turned the oven on low and flicked on the waffle maker to heat. Then I went outside to watch the riders return. I grabbed the lead ropes and a small grooming kit. I’d give the horses a quick brush and hoof clean, then put them in the pasture. Once the riders were back in their wheelchairs, I unsaddled the horses. Each was quickly groomed. I led them to the pasture gate, opened it and walked them through, removing the lead ropes from their halters. I rubbed each of their heads, and told them to go on. They didn’t move. Instead, each of them gave me a little push. “What?” Shoving their noses into my coat, they hunted for treats. I did have some with me. “You two are awful.” I pulled out several slices of carrot and shared them. Once they’d finished munching, I patted each once more and then left them. Together they wandered up the hill toward the trees and fresh grass. Returning home, I washed in the mud room and hung up my jacket. I went into the kitchen to see the coffee started and the first batch of waffles in the maker. “Hey, thanks!” Don looked up, from fruit he was rinsing for a fruit salad. “Seems our newly minted foster child can cook waffles.” I popped a blueberry in my mouth and then bent to kiss my husband. “Excellent!” Max sat next to the waffle maker. “My mom showed me how. She said: At least you can cook yourself something." “That’s true!” I grinned at him. “I’m sure there are lots of things you can cook or prepare. Cooking is just practice, and the biggest things to get right are, not everything needs to be cooked on high, and timing. That could be the hardest thing.” The waffle maker pinged, Max removed the finished one and poured batter for another. He placed the waffle on the rack which was inside the warming oven. I finished setting the table while we waited for the rest of the waffles to cook. It wasn’t long before we sat down to a nice Sunday breakfast. “Listen, you two, just because I’m working from home now, doesn’t mean I’ll be doing this on a daily basis.” I put a spoonful of Don’s fruit salad on my plate. “Just on Sunday, Louis?” Max lifted a syrupy piece of waffle to his lips. I eyed him carefully. “Maybe.” Don sliced a breakfast sausage and stabbed it with his fork. “That’s good, Louis, nice and non-committal.” We chatted and laughed. Eventually we quieted down and ate. Max seemed to become a little distracted. I’d noticed this was usually a precursor to a difficult question. “Ummm, can I ask you guys something?” Don glanced at me, but he answered. “Anytime, Max.” “So … well, the guys in the hospital …. Well, I told them that maybe I’d be getting a foster home soon.” He was suddenly silent and then said, “And … oh, it doesn’t matter. Sorry.” Don frowned. “Look, I think you should just say or ask what you want to. Don’t hold stuff in, Max.” The boy sighed. I reached out and gripped his forearm. “Don’s right. If you have something on your mind that’s concerning you, say so, or ask.” “Okay, well, I told them and they said lots of awful things, like foster kids get beaten up, and that, well … you were only probably doing it for the money.” I sat back and looked at Don. I didn’t want to handle this one. This parenting thing was going to be a challenge for me. Don, however, seemed nonplussed. “He’s right … your … your friend. We do get money for taking in foster kids. But that money isn’t for us. It’s not salary; it’s to make sure we can properly look after your needs. It’s not going into our personal bank account. In fact, we will need to open an account for you and deposit funds into it.” Max stared at Don. “So, like what’s the money for?” “Like for the modifications we need to make to your room, so you can get in and out of bed more easily. For school, medicine, transportation, or whatever it is, Max. It just helps us pay for things that you’ll need.” “So, you’re not doing this for the money?” “No. This money makes it so Louis can stay home and look after you and the house and things. Otherwise to afford everything, he’d need to stay at his full-time job. That’s not what we wanted for you.” “’K. I see. I didn’t mean to … like say ….” “We’re not offended or upset by you asking. We have nothing to hide. We’d already met you and decided we’d help long before money was mentioned to us, Max. We were willing just to take you in, no matter what.” “Thanks.” “Max, you being here is important to us. You mean a lot to us already. We just wanted to help. Simple as that.” “Thanks, Don. It means a lot to me too. I just needed to get what those guys were saying out of my head.” Don grinned then. “Better out than in, they always say.” That one was worthy of a groan! After breakfast, Max excused himself, wanting to go to his room. “Unless I should stay and help with the dishes ….” “Nope, you’re under reprieve from kitchen duty since you cooked.” I smiled at him. “And, it’s all going in the dish washer. So, scram, Sam.” Max headed to the elevator. “Thanks, you guys!” Don and I stayed at the table finishing our coffee together. He reached out his hand. I met him halfway and gripped it. He said, “Lous, I want the hospital out of my life. I do not want to take him back.” “I know, baby. I hope this is the last time. Remember, before you came home, I had to go in and discuss things? I wonder if they will have us do that before Max is discharged.” “Oh, yeah. That’s right.” I moved closer to kiss him. “So, how was the ride?” “It was great. He chatted away about moving here, school and stuff.” “He seems comfortable with you.” Don gazed at me, his forehead wrinkled somewhat. “He’s not with you? He seems to be.” “I think likely it’s more me, than him.” Don said nothing. “It’s silly, I know—childish. I was envious as you two went riding this morning.” My husband drew in a deep breath. “This is what I do not want. I don’t want you left home while he and I go and have a good time without you. I want us all to do things together.” “Well, Don, there are only two horses ….” “Call the place we got Badger and Clyde from and tell them what we need. No, better yet, I’ll do it. This will not be, me and Max go enjoy ourselves, while you stay home to do the chores. Enough falls on your shoulders.” “I don’t mind that it does. I mean that’s why we’ve made the changes right? So I’d be home, more can be done during the weekdays, so we have weekends together.” “Yeah, that’s it, but with only two horses, you’re home while we go have fun doing something you love too. Or one of us would be. No. I’ll sort it out, Louis.” I just agreed with him. Don would look after it, if he said he would. After a few more minutes, he left to make the call, and I put things in the dishwasher and tidied up the kitchen. Afterward, I went upstairs. I said hi to Max who was chatting to friends online, and then went into my office. I wanted to do some more research for our Christmas trip, and also start work on my business setup. All day I watched the clock tick toward 3pm. We had to take Max back, but it was going to be hard. I shut down my computer and went to check on him. He needed to pack a few things to take back with him. I knocked on his door. “Come in.” I stuck my head in. “Hey.” Max looked up from his sketch pad. “Hi, Louis.” I walked over to him. “Is it okay if I look?” “Sure.” He handed the sketchpad to me. I sat on the end of the bed. “Wow, Max, this is a wonderful picture.” On the page was a beautiful rendering of the back pasture. Both Badger and Clyde grazed near the small copse of trees. I tore my eyes away and looked at him. “We haven’t talked about it, but what do you want to do?” “I’d like to go to a good art school. I’d like to be an artist, but I know it’s hard to make a living at it. Maybe something in design, but I’ll never give up drawing or painting.” “You paint?” He nodded. “Yes, well, I haven’t been because of all this. But yes, I do. I love to paint.” “I see. Then we’ll have to get you what you need for that, Max.” “Really?” “Hell yes, you’re talented. You need to develop that. Don and I won’t hold you back.” I was thinking about where we could set up a small studio. I had an idea but I needed to run it by Don. “Wow, thanks so much. You guys are the best.” I grinned. “We don’t usually brag about it, but yes we are.” After a laugh, and another couple of minutes of looking through his sketch book I said, “Um … sorry, but I came in to see if you were ready ….” “It’s okay, Louis. We need to do this right? Only for a few more days. I’m ready. I’ve packed the few things I need to take back with me.” I could tell he wasn’t happy but if Max was putting on a brave face, well then, so could I. I texted Don. I wasn’t sure he’d want to make the trip, but he replied he was ready to go. So, we did. We both went into the hospital with Max. We each hugged him tightly. I said we’d text him later to say goodnight. “Okay, Louis. Thanks for everything.” “You’ll be back home soon,” Don said. The boy nodded to us and then said to the nurse who was waiting, “Okay, let’s go.” He twisted around as she pushed him toward the ward doors, “See you guys soon!” “You will, Maxy. We’ll be back soon.” I managed to not cry as I said, “Very soon!” We sat together in the empty waiting room. Don reached for my hand. “Let’s go get a cup of coffee. We need to talk.” That was a surprise. “Do we?” “Yep.” “Okay.” I pushed him to the elevators, and we made our way downstairs to the in-hospital Tim Horton’s. I got us a small coffee each and a sour cream doughnut to share. I brought everything to the table and sat down. “Okay. Coffee and half a doughnut. So, what’s up?” Don broke off a piece of the sweet treat and chewed. “Are we on a diet?” Laughing, I said no. “Lous, I talked Joe Maitland from Pitburn Canadians. Do you remember him?” “Yes, sure I do.” “Well, he says he may have a horse for us. He’s about 4 years old, being surrendered back to the farm because his owners are moving and changing lifestyles that won’t allow them to keep him. So, he needs a home. He’s like our two; a gelding because he is not pure enough within the bloodlines to breed. Sad, but okay for us. His name is Taro.” “Sounds interesting. I’m sure they don’t want to keep him. You want to drive out there to see him?” “Yes, I said we’d be out there on Tuesday. I knew we had stuff happening tomorrow. Does that sound okay, Lous?” “Yeah, baby. It sounds fine.” It was already too quiet in our house without Max. We kept in touch by text and drove over to have dinner with him on Monday. I bothered Robert, asking when Max would be discharged … he was looking into it. The installers came and put the trapeze in Max’s room. On Tuesday we got up, looked after Badger and Clyde and drove the four hours to Pitburn Canadians to check out the prospective Taro. We pulled our trailer with us. The trailer was a used four-horse model. We bought it because the price was right, but we’d ended up using it more often than we’d thought. As we drove, I told Don about Max needing some studio space for his art. “Is he that good?” Don asked. “Yeah, he is.” “Okay, so you’ve been thinking about this. What’s on your mind?” “I was thinking about the attic in the barn.” Don turned his head toward me. “It would be great, but huge costs to renovate it, baby.” “No, sorry, not for Max. For me. I thought maybe I’d put my office up there and give Max the other bedroom. It’s got two great windows, lots of nice natural light. What do you think about that?” “That would work. Yeah, I like it.” “Okay, great then. That’s what we’ll do.” We finally arrived at the farm about 11am. We pulled in, parked and Joe Maitland came out to meet us. We shook hands. “Good to see you both again.” Joe nodded at the trailer. “Came prepared, I see.” “Well, we thought we should, just in case,” Don replied. “He’s a fine healthy horse. He’s about four years old. Jane, my daughter, has ridden him a few times and says he goes nicely.” The farmer pointed to the left. There was a well-trodden path that could handle Don’s chair. “Jane put him in up there because we knew you’d be coming.” “Thanks.” Maitland walked beside us. “How are the other two doing? Healthy?” “They’re great. We enjoy them very much.” “So much you want another?” We laughed and Don said, “Well like I said we have another person joining the family. A foster child, and he’s in a wheelchair also. He’s been on Badger, but we’d like a third so we can all ride together.” “You know, Taro is used to the cart. Driving can be a lot of fun as well. There is Taro.” We stopped at the pasture fence and looked where the farmer was pointing. He wasn’t as tall as ours, but he looked sturdy and strong. Joe whistled and the horse raised his head and then started to head in our direction. I watched as Taro moved; his gait looked good. “Would you like to ride him?” I nodded. “Yeah, I’d like to.” “No problem. Jane left his saddle and things here.” Taro arrived looking for a treat, which he got. I saddled him and rode him for twenty minutes or so. He moved well, responded quickly. I thought he’d be a nice fit with the other two. I dismounted, unsaddled the horse and then had a good look at him. I’m no expert but I had learned a few things. Lastly, I asked Taro to pick up his feet and he did with no problem. Once I was done, Jane came to get Taro and led him back to the barn. Maitland left us saying we should talk and meet him in the office when we were ready. Don spoke first. “So, what do you think?” “He’s a nice animal. I think he’d fit with our pair okay. He moves nicely. I don’t think he knows too many words but I’m sure he can learn them.” Don smiled at me. “So, are we going home with a new horse?” “Yeah, baby, I think we are.” “Brilliant. Let’s go and talk to Mr. Maitland then.” We were both grinning like idiots as we went toward the office. Once the sale was completed, we loaded Taro into the trailer. After a moment’s hesitation, and some bribery with a carrot, he settled into the stall with no problem. I stayed for a minute and rubbed his broad head. “You just chill back here and we’ll be home soon. You’ll have some new friends and a new boy who will love you.” The drive back was smooth. We stopped after two hours to let Taro stretch his legs. The last part of the drive home was uneventful. We unloaded Taro and put him into the smaller pasture next to the other two so they could get a feel for each other. I stood leaning on the fence; Donny sat beside me. We watched Badger go and greet his neighbor. Clyde hung back, watching. Don’s phone rang. He said nothing, just listened. Then he simply said, “Great, thank you very much.” Badger was nose-to-nose with Taro. “Who was that, Donny?” “It was Robert.” What! “Robert? What did he say?” Don turned toward me, his smile was blinding. “He said Friday! Maxy comes home on Friday!” ~~~
  36. 58 points
    Danie was close to Freska, his hands cradled to his chest. “Sit down, Danie. You need to keep resting.” I’d been too focused on my own situation to notice his, but I winced. I’d been shocked enough times, feeling the pain of the punishments, so I could push it aside. The scientists had worked to force me to avoid sensory input with pain as a punishment, but they’d trained me to ignore it to a large extent as well. He was like a newborn baby; all brand new nerves and experiences. My breath hitched; I remembered those first few times. The pain had been intense, my confusion and fear just as strong. “Kohen, are you okay?” Captain holstered his weapon. “Put her down over there. You need to rest.” He guided me over to a bank of chairs. I arranged the girl on them. Knocking her out had been necessary, but I was starting to worry. I tried to position her like I would like, curled protectively up with my back to one side of a chair and not sprawled out. “You okay?” Captain rubbed my back while I bent over her, folding her hands on her stomach. “Yeah.” I straightened, groaning. My body ached. “I am worried she isn’t waking up. I wish Aparoe was here. I didn’t mean to hurt her.” “I know. We’ll make her understand when she wakes up. You would never hurt anyone if you could avoid it.” He always thought the best of me. I leaned into Captain, relishing the warmth of his body and the scent of his skin surrounding me. A pulse of contentment rushed through our bond, and I felt our synthgar shiver against my skin. “I missed you so much,” I said softly. “We risk a lot.” “I’d risk everything to make sure you were safe. The Elites are behind your torture, and they made Danie for god knows what plans. I’ve been sent on mission after mission rescuing people who are being sent back into the same hell I thought I was saving them from. They backed us into a corner.” “Any being who has no way out is at their most dangerous. It was why I was taught to use ruses. No one could know I was coming until it was too late.” Shame colored my words, but for once my skills were being put to good use. The Elites thought they’d beat us so quickly, but we used their own hubris against them. “Of course, now we’re trapped in this room.” Deke paced in front of the doors, eyeing them. “He wasn’t talking about us.” Captain scowled. “Or to you.” “It’s fine. Deke knows anyway.” He’d read Kohen’s file when they were first rescuing him. “And he’s handicapped by an inability to function when he’s not trying to blow something or someone up.” Danie had wheeled his chair by Freska. She was sitting at the console extending from one wall, her wires connected to the system. Her other hand rested on his neck, connecting him to her. “Danie and Freska are on their part of the plan. Anyas got us here. The ship will be waiting when we’re done.” “I almost feel superfluous,” Captain said. “You have to use all those fancy words and talk our way out of this later,” Deke said. He caressed the weapon I had brought with me and handed over to him. “And I’ll make sure anyone who needs some extra convincing is extra convinced.” “You do not hurt anyone without cause,” Captain warned him. “We are not the bad guys here. These machinations need to stop. People are not things to be experimented on, and no one race should hold reign over all others. The Central Council needs to be purged and purified so that the races are really the ones in charge and not being manipulated by some shadowy figures.” “I agree,” said a melodic voice. Gasping, I jumped. Captain tightened his grip. We stared at the young woman who was looking up at us. She hadn’t moved other than opening her eyes. “Hello,” she said. “Hello. Glad to see you’re awake.” Captain narrowed his eyes. “For a while, perhaps.” “Not too long but long enough.” She gingerly touched her face. “I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” “It’s fine, Kohen. You didn’t know I was coming to help you. Since I don’t see them, I take it you eluded my father’s guards?” She really hadn’t been awake that long. “Yes, we have.” Captain drew himself up. “You were helping Kohen?” “I was going to try. For all that I should be taking over, when he can get away with it, my father keeps close tabs on me.” She sat up, crossing her ankles. “Lady.” Anyas rushed over. He bowed formally, flourishing his hands. “I pray that you are well.” “I’m fine.” Her voice was flatter. “Why am I not surprised you are part of this plot?” She was as light as he was dark. She raised one silvery brow. “Speaking out against the plans to harness the powers of all the ruling councils and suppressing the free will of the lesser species is what got me exiled to begin with.” Anyas shrugged one elegant shoulder. “Their plan had little chance of succeeding, but what more can they do that is worse than moldering on that dreadful planet?” “Well, with me by their side—as their captive, of course—they should have a much better chance of success.” We all gaped at her. “You would do that?” I asked. “After I….” I gestured toward her face. “As I said, you are not to blame. Besides, it gave me a chance to determine your real intentions. People don’t censor themselves around strangers when they don’t believe they can be heard.” “So you were eavesdropping on purpose!” She cocked her head, staring at me. “You are very naïve. Of course I was.” The look on her face… I had to wonder if her appearance was cultivated to make others underestimate her. I clearly had.
  37. 57 points
    The next morning Nathan woke alone. Testament to Jaymes having been there, the pillow next to him still held the indent of his head, but the side of the bed had been tidied neatly. Momentary sadness caught him, but he brushed the feeling away. As quality of sleep went, last night’s had been nothing short of wonderful. And this morning, despite a thick head from too much alcohol the night before, he felt incredible. Waking more fully, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Certain parts of his anatomy still bore a delicious soreness. If he was going to be brutally honest, he still felt an echo of disappointment at waking alone. But Jaymes being Jaymes, he would have got up and left. Of course he would. They’d had a roll in the hay, nothing more. Absently, he curled onto his side and rubbed his eyes, but then stopped. Something faint but unmistakable caught his attention. Was that the smell of fresh coffee brewing? And bacon frying? And the sound of music playing? Sitting up now, he moved to the side of the bed and went to reach for his dressing gown kept on the back of the door, only to find the garment missing. Instead, he fished out track suit bottoms and a baggy tee from the wardrobe, and hurried to the bathroom. First things first. Once finished, and after splashing cold water onto his face and drying quickly, he headed to the front room. Laid with a simple white tablecloth, placemats, cutlery, condiments, butter, and preserves; marmalade, blackberry jam, and Marmite—where the hell had he found that?—a small bowl of apples, as well as cartons of orange and grapefruit juice, Nathan’s small and barely functional dining table had been given an Impressionist’s makeover. Jaymes had even collected the Sundays from the front mat and arranged them on his place setting. “You didn’t have to do that,” said Nathan, brightening at the sight. On the wall above the table, the kitchen clock read nine-fifteen. “Morning, sexy,” said Jaymes, turning from the stove and grinning. Sexy himself, he wore Nathan’s navy blue dressing gown. “Told you I love cooking, especially when I’ve got something to cook with and someone to cook for. And I found all I needed in your fridge and freezer. Sit yourself down. How do you take your coffee?” “Milk with one, please.” “Sacrilege. Some things should remain pure and untainted.” Jaymes side-stepped to the coffee machine where a mug already sat, and confidently pressed buttons. “I take it you like your coffee without. I’m impressed you managed to work the damn thing. I had to read the manual three times before I figured out what buttons to press.” “I’ll resist the temptation to answer that comment with a sexual innuendo, and simply say that where there’s a will, there’s a way. But as we’re on the subject of pushing buttons, how are you feeling? Sore?” Okay, thought Nathan, so we are going there. Jaymes moved back to the stove and continued cooking breakfast, his back to Nathan. “A little. But absolutely no regrets. Feels nice, actually. And I slept like the dead.” “You were out cold when I woke. Looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to wake you. I’m guessing you don’t get to sleep in very often.” Toast popped up from the toaster right then. Jaymes reached over and plucked the slices out, dropping them on a plate he’d already prepared. Nathan marvelled at how well he found his way around the kitchen. “Can I do anything?” “Yes,” said Jaymes, taking the frying pan off the flame and turning to Nathan. “If you’re not going to sit down as I asked, you can come over here.” Nathan approached Jaymes, ready to be handed things to take to the table, only to be pulled into a fierce hug. “I’m sorry,” Jaymes whispered into Nathan’s ear. “What for?” “For not following through.” Nathan didn’t know what he meant. Had he missed something the night before? “Following through with what?” “My evil plan to snap on a condom and have my wicked way with you this morning.” Nathan laughed out loud until Jaymes shut him off by bringing their mouths together. Grateful to have no weirdness between them Nathan wallowed in the embrace. When he realised Jaymes’ tongue tasted of spearmint, he pulled away. “Ugh, not fair. You’ve brushed. I still have morning breath.” “Who cares?” “I do.” “Well, I don’t. And after we’ve both had toast and coffee, it won’t matter either way. Let me enjoy this now, before I serve you the best breakfast of your life.” Nathan gave in without a fight, not too much of a hardship either, and soon his heart began to speed up. Before they went too far, he lifted his mouth away, nipping Jaymes’ bottom lip. “Looks who’s woken up,” said Jaymes, smirking and pointing the tip of his forefinger to the floor. Nathan spotted Jaymes’ erection poking out from between the folds of Nathan’s dressing gown. “My new best friend,” said Nathan, grabbing a handful, which had Jaymes laughing and pulling his hips away but going in for another deep kiss. Once again, they parted, this time with Jaymes sighing deeply before leaning in and sucking on Nathan’s earlobe. “Last night was amazing. I could get used to this, Nate,” he whispered, his breath tickling Nathan’s ear. “Me too.” Jaymes pulled back then, a mix of sadness and cautiousness in his eyes. “Except I’m only here until June. Got the call this weekend to confirm. They need me in Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia. Probably until the end of the year.” Nathan understood what he was saying. Originally, he told them he’d be in Mosswold until the end of the year. Despite a moment of hesitation, Nathan made up his mind to look on the positive side. But his hesitation must have registered because Jaymes started speaking again. “I didn’t plan this. It’s just—we have a reciprocal arrangement with other forestries around the world and it seems as though I’m in demand. There’s also talk about me going to Waipoua Forest in New Zealand early next year. They’re in the southern hemisphere so it’ll be summer there, when they need me—” Nathan realised Jaymes had begun to ramble nervously, and cut him off with a kiss. “And?” said Nathan, after pulling away. “And?” echoed Jaymes, hesitating again, an eyebrow raised. “And are you going to be okay with that?” “Four months with you, as opposed to what? Nothing? Not a difficult question to answer, Jaymes.” “But—” “No buts. Well, maybe in the bedroom. This way we both know the score going in. We’ll keep things physical, on-the-level. And, even though you’re clearly adorable, I promise not to fall in love. Because I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want this to be a one-off.” Even as the words left his mouth, Nathan knew he would have a hard time trying to keep his heart out of the equation. But the response seemed to mollify Jaymes, who smiled affectionately, before taking a deep breath and shaking his head. “Nathan Fresher, you are full of surprises. Go and sit down. Let me serve you breakfast.” Over plates of poached eggs on Fresher homemade toasted ciabatta, with Mikey’s Lincolnshire sausages and back bacon, with mushroom and onion compote and grilled tomatoes, Nathan and Jaymes sat enjoying the morning. Jaymes believed in starting the day right. Nathan had rarely enjoyed his living space so much, usually spent Sunday mornings sitting in bed poring over a Sunday newspaper, with coffee and a plate of buttered toast. Jaymes provided effortless company, laughing easily and filling the pauses with talk about his work or reading something aloud from a newspaper. At first, Nathan wondered where the music came from but then noticed Jaymes had placed his phone upright against the fruit bowl, letting soft jazz music accompany the morning fare. “Aren’t you playing footy today?” asked Jaymes. “No. The other team cancelled Friday. Too late to organise another team for a friendly.” Each Sunday, when a football match was due, Nathan usually forwent his daily run. If none had been planned, he would still hit the streets. This morning, he happily sacrificed his daily dose of exercise for time with Jaymes. “Just as well, really, we’re heading down to Eastbourne today.” “Oh shit. My Rover.” “We’ll take the van. If you still want to come.” “Of course I want to come. Dying to find out what the big mystery is. What time do we need to be there?” “Appointment’s at eleven-thirty. I’ve dug out my birth certificate and some other papers they’ve asked to see. It’s only around forty minutes but we should leave an hour clear, in case of weekend traffic, and so I can find parking. And after cooking breakfast—along with everything else—I think it’s only fair I buy you lunch while we’re down there. I know a great little spot.” “Lunch date, huh?” said Jaymes, grinning playfully. Nathan smiled back, but then at the word date, something surfaced in his memory, the text message from Clifton on Tuesday night. “Actually.” Nathan smoothed a hand over his napkin. “Cliff—ton sent me a text last week.” “Oh yes?” Nathan felt Jaymes’ eyes narrow in on him. “Wanted to know if me and my—uh—friend wanted to have dinner with him and his husband.” “I see. Where?” “Some place called Benedetti’s in London.” “Back of Soho. Figures. Place will be full of posers; thespians, as well as models, managers, casting agents and rent boys. Inside has huge mirrors on every wall so the narcissists can admire themselves while they eat. Make sure not a hair’s out of place. What did you tell him?” “I didn’t. Not yet.” “Then tell him yes.” “Really?” “Fuck yes. As long as he’s paying. Tell him next Saturday, so you can let your hair down. You okay with that?” Nathan’s grin almost hurt his face as he nodded, but he also had a niggle of worry about how Jaymes might behave. Later on he would text Clifton and accept his invitation. “Excellent. What with that and the photoshoot on Wednesday afternoon, and my social calendar is filling up nicely.” Nathan had forgotten he’d invited Jaymes to come along for moral support. “You know you called me Jay last night?” Possibly Jaymes had picked up on Nathan’s concern and changed the subject. “Did I? I can’t remember. I was somewhat distracted with you pounding my prostate. Is that a problem?” “Not at all. To be honest, I liked it.” Nathan felt his cheeks flush, and went into deflection mode himself. “Hey, I’ve a notion Polly went out with Benny last night.” In the process of popping a corner of buttered toast into his mouth, Jaymes froze. “Footballer? From the pub?” “The same.” Crunching loudly on the bread, Jaymes vehemently shook his head. “Not in a million years.” “Really? Why do you say that?” “He’s not her type.” “Oh, so she does have a type. And what exactly is that?” “Almost the same as mine,” said Jaymes, peering across the table at Nathan. After a second, a bare foot landed softly on top of his under the table. “Dark hair, green eyes, handsome, nice smile, lean, and takes care of himself. Looks almost exactly like the owner of the local village bakery. Oh, and for her, definitely older. By at least a handful of years. She has enough teaching young kids at school. She doesn’t want to have to provide instruction in the bedroom.” Nathan stared at Jaymes then, wondering if getting together might cause problems. “Are we going to have to tread carefully around Polly?” “How do you mean?” “Well, if she warned you off me, do we have to keep our distance? You know, be discreet?” “Nate, forgive me if I’ve read this wrong, but we’ve just agreed to become fuck buddies. Other than that, nothing has changed. I’m not going to be holding your hand or touching you intimately in public, or kissing you on the street. So if we both stick to that, Polly should be none the wiser.” “I know, I know. I just don’t want to be the cause of any friction between the two of you.” Jaymes picked up his coffee and grinned at Nathan over the rim. “No wonder she likes you so much. Always looking out for her.” Soft strains of a female jazz singer oozed from the phone, and another comfortable silence fell over the table. When Nathan observed Jaymes from across the table, cup in one hand, newspaper in the other, he felt a wave of affection hit him. “Are you still searching for somewhere to live?” Jaymes frowned and shook his head, staring out through the front window. “You’d have thought it would be easy. I’ve tried as far as Collingwood, but nothing. I thought someone somewhere would have a spare room, at the very least. Even though she hasn’t said anything, I know I’m starting to get under Polly’s feet.” “Perfect solution, then.” “What is?” “I have a spare room. You need a spare room.” Jaymes’ eyes grew wide as his gaze flicked to the bedroom corridor, then came back to Nathan’s. A touch of hesitation, of guardedness, tempered otherwise enthusiasm “Are you absolutely sure?” “I’ve got a spare room, Jaymes. Nobody ever uses it.” “So I’d have my own room and my own bed?” “Yes, but you’re not using that. I want you in mine.” “How much?” “I’ve never wanted anything more,” answered Nathan, in all honesty. Jaymes snorted and grinned at Nathan. “How much for the room, dingbat.” “Oh, well— Home cooked meals every now and again, and...” “And?” “Plenty of sex on demand.” “I need to pay you something, Nathan.” “Why? The place is bought and paid for. And as you said, you’re only here until June.” Jaymes went quiet and thoughtful for a moment, before a full smile blossomed in his face. “This is turning out to be one incredible weekend. All these sweet deals.” “My thoughts entirely.” “Okay,” said Jaymes, starting to collect up plates. “Even though I’d love to head back to bed, it’s ten already, so I’m going to clear up here. I would have suggested we shower together—to save time and water—but your shower cubicle is smaller than a Hobbit’s phone booth, and knowing I would not be able to restrain myself, I fear two men our size in that thing doing what I have in my mind, are likely to end up in casualty. So I suggest you go shower and change, out of temptation’s way, while I tidy up.” “Spoilsport.” “Do you want to phone and delay the appointment?” “No.” “Then move your arse. We have all afternoon and evening, now that I’m living here.” Nathan’s heart filled with pleasure on hearing those words. “So you’re moving in? You never said yes.” “Hell, yes,” said Jaymes. “Apart from finally sleeping on a mattress instead of a sofa, I’ll have you next to me. I can think of nothing better. Can we swing by Polly’s place later, pick up my suitcase and boxes? Maybe even find out what she got up to last night.” For the next thirty minutes, the apartment became a hive of activity, Jaymes and Nathan never missing an opportunity as they passed each other to touch or kiss, albeit briefly. By exactly ten thirty, they were on the road in the baker’s van, on the way to Eastbourne. They found parking on the same road as the solicitors, in Moon Lane, two roads back from the seafront. One of a row of Edwardian houses, each with three storeys and a basement, the one announcing Miller, Price and Cawthorn had been elegantly decorated in shades of cream and white, the sky blue plaque announcing the name of the partnership an eye catching addition. Unlike others with their more gaudy pastel shades of greens, blues, yellow and pinks, the solicitor’s appeared almost regal. “Who are we seeing?” asked Jaymes. Nathan already warmed at hearing Jaymes use the ‘we’ word, which oddly made him feel less alone in the world, like have am arm slung around his shoulders. He had loaned Jaymes one of his baggier white button-down shirts, baggier for Nathan anyway. Jaymes’ shoulders and chest had filled out the material to the full, the buttons down the front straining to keep everything in. Nathan’s mouth watered when he thought about undoing those buttons later in the afternoon. “Ms Philippa Cawthorn. She’s been appointed by Flynn & Fox to handle things this end.” Inside the offices, decorated elegantly and continuing the Edwardian theme with antique furnishings and brown leather Chesterfield settees, Nathan found the air oppressively hot and humid. Ms Cawthorn herself met them at the otherwise empty reception, clearly working with minimal staffing on Sunday. An unsmiling woman in her forties, she did not seem amused to have to work on the Sabbath. Dressed immaculately in a plain but stylish black pant suit, white silk blouse and black heels, she epitomised middle-class insouciance. “And you are ?” she asked Jaymes, after shaking Nathan’s hand. “A friend. Here to lend moral support.” “Is that correct? Mr Fresher, are you sure you’re happy for your—friend—to hear these private matters?” “I am, yes. Jaymes is my best friend.” “As you wish. Please come this way.” As she led them away, Jaymes turned to Nathan and pulled a face, which had Nathan smirking. After his father’s death, he’d had a number of visits to solicitor’s offices, so they no longer daunted him. In a small but plush conference room along the corridor, papers had already been laid out carefully along the oak table, with Day-Glo tabs indicating places for signatures. Nathan knew the drill well. “If possible, I would like to get this matter over and done with as soon as possible.” Nathan had the impression she was not asking permission, merely warning him not to make waves. “My husband’s taken the children to his parent's for lunch and I have a car waiting to take me to there straight after this meeting. Now, before we begin, do you have the documents I asked you to bring?” Nathan handed over the papers; birth certificate, utility bills, passport, and his father’s will. After a cursory once-over, Ms Cawthorn left the room and returned around fifteen minutes later. Placing copies into a file, she handed the originals back and got straight down to business. “Mr Nathaniel Collier Brooks died on the fifteenth of December in Melbourne. He is survived by an only son, Mr Grant Collier Brooks, but in a strange