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  1. Gone. Gus was gone. Cedarcrest basked under the warm July sky, but the lodge stood empty. The Takács family had disappeared, and Gus with them. But where? They probably just went out for a shopping trip. They’ll be back any minute. No need to get bent out of shape. Rick walked over to the garage. A brief period of experimentation determined the doors were shut tight and locked. If they went shopping, they wouldn’t lock the garage, would they? With a sense of dread, he circled the outside of the house, checking things out. The place displayed the buttoned-up and battened down look of summer houses closed for the foreseeable future. No open windows. No stray garden tools or toys left out. All the lawn furniture removed from the terrace. He felt sick. They’ve taken Gus away. Damn cowards, they couldn’t let him even choose what he wanted for himself? Rick peered in through the French doors on the patio. The shadows within revealed nothing. If he could get inside, maybe he’d find a clue as to whether they had gone on a day trip or whether everyone had packed and left. He walked a distance to his left and tugged on another door handle. It remained unyielding. He sat down on the weathered masonry that formed the edge of the patio and held his head in his hands. I shouldn’t have bothered with that stupid meeting last night. I shouldn’t have driven out to Irene’s. I should have paddled over here. His phone is at the bottom of Butternut Lake, but I could have tried to get Gus’ attention. I could have thrown rocks at the windows or something. I let him down. But was that last thought really the case? Had he let Gus down? Or was his lover simply bored and through with him, as Zoltan asserted? Willy discarded me when it was convenient for him. Why wouldn’t Gus? A breath of wind stirred the leaves and ruffled Rick’s hair as a rising tide of doubt washed over him. It had to end sometime. It couldn’t last. I’ve had things too good. He lifted his head and stared across the wide expanse of green lawn running down to the lake. It’s no use crying now. You got too close, waited too long, and now it’s over. If it’s done, it’s done. They probably went back to Chicago. Back to work. He sighed and stood, squaring his shoulders. I guess I should be doing the same thing. There’s plenty to be done. Drains to clear, pipes to mend, appliances to install. There’s still life to live, at least for now. But despite the blue sky and white, puffy clouds, the day seemed tired and worn already. Rick refused to linger. He walked back to the van, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the path before him. He climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, and hit the gas. He denied himself the temptation of glancing in the rearview mirror as he sped out the drive. At the corner of Harding and North Shore, Rick hesitated, thinking he might turn on his phone and check messages. The sound of a horn behind him decided him against it. The day’s work would wait until he reached the shop. As he pulled in, the sight of Irene’s burgundy Malibu parked outside the office door greeted him. At least one of us is back at work. Rick grabbed his phone off the passenger seat and hauled himself out of the van. He entered to the sound of the office phone ringing; it was an easy decision to make his way through the main floor and into the machine shop, a spot within the building as far away from the office as possible. With any luck, it’ll just be someone calling Irene to gossip. Anyway, she can deal with it. He busied himself looking for a bit of lead-free metal stock. He knew how to make a brass fitting as good as anything imported from overseas. Maybe he could lose himself in an hour’s fine work. “Rick? Is that you?” Irene Inksater’s voice carried the length and breadth of the shop. Nope. No luck at all. Rick sighed. “Yup. It’s me.” He hollered back. “Phone’s for you.” Any kind of intercom system would have been lost on Irene. “Can you take a message?” “No. Says she’ll only talk to Richard Ernst.” Puzzled, he headed for the office. “Who is it calling?” Rick asked as he crossed the threshold. She raised both eyebrows, pulled a face and shrugged. “It’s not Rita, is it?” Irene grimaced and shook her head. She held out the phone. Rick frowned. “This had better be important.” He groused, sotto voce, before bringing the handset to his ear. “Rick? Rick Ernst?” A hoarse whisper made its tortured way over the line. Something in the sound seemed off, as if the speaker were in an echo chamber. “Yes, speaking. What’s the problem?” “It’s Me.” The tone was indentifiably female. “Me? Me who?” “Marta.” Rick gripped the phone tighter. “Is Gus with you?” “Look, I don’t have much time. I’m in the bathroom.” The girl’s voice was urgent. “Tell me something. Are you in love with Gus?” “What?” He was taken aback. “Are you in love with Uncle Gus?” “How did you know?” Marta giggled despite herself. “It was pretty obvious. And it’s easy to see what’s happening at the end of the dock when the light’s out.” “You didn’t answer my question. Is Gus nearby?” “Yes. He’s with us in the car. Dad packed us all up, and we’re on the road to Chicago right now. They told Gus he was just going back to get his cast taken off.” “Why didn’t he use your phone to call me?” Rick’s gut churned. “He can’t. Mom and Dad took my phone, and they’re watching Gus and me like a hawk. I’ve got Joey’s phone.” “So he’s still trustworthy.” The girl brushed off his comment. “Listen. If you still want any kind of a chance with Gus, you’ve got to get to Chicago. Now. I overheard Mom and Dad whispering. They’re going to send him off to some kind of therapy program for his hand.” Rick stood taller, electrified. “When?” “Tomorrow, I think, if not the next day for sure. But that’s not all.” There’s more? Rick held his breath. “After the cast is taken off, they’re headed to Symphony Center to meet with Helene. The idea is to try and force them back together.” Force Gus to go back to work with the person who broke his wrist? What kind of an idea is that? “Where are you?” He asked. Irene Inksater’s eyes were wide, drinking in every syllable of what she could hear. “We’re at a gas station.” “Yes, but where?” “I don’t know.” “What was the last exit sign you remember?” His words were quick, clipped. “I don’t know!” Marta hissed. “Stevens City maybe? We’ve been on the road for a couple of hours.” Rick exhaled. “Stevens Point. Okay.” Somehow, now that he knew where Gus was, he could breathe again. “Just one thing.” “What?” “Why are you doing this?” “Because Joey and I like Uncle Gus, and you’re not so bad, either. We want him to be happy. And because I want you to do me a favor.” “Name it.” “Tell Jared I’m coming back. Don’t let him go and find someone new. I don’t want to get back to town and find him with some hockey whore.” Her voice shook. “I mean it.” “I’ll tell him. But I doubt you have anything to worry about.” “I better not.” “Okay. Tell Gus I’m on my way.” The girl wasn’t done. “Look, you have a pencil? You’re gonna need some information.” He grabbed a scrap of paper and seized a pencil from Irene’s desk, completely forgetting the spiral pad in his own pocket. The office sounded only of the clock ticking and his scribbling. “I have to go now.” Marta whispered. “Mom’s gonna get suspicious. Don’t forget your promise.” “I won’t. Good –” The girl had disconnected. “What’s going on?” Irene almost burst with curiosity. “Who was that? Was that your boyfriend, whatever his name is?” “It’s Gus, and yes, he’s in a jam.” “Is he in trouble? Should we call the police?” “There’s no time to explain.” Rick patted his pockets for keys and wallet. “I have to go.” He turned for the door. “But where?” Irene wailed. “Chicago.” He shouted on his way out. Such was the urgency of his journey that it wasn’t until he was twenty miles out of Eagle Lake that Rick realized he’d taken the Ernst and Son van instead of his own truck. He cursed himself, because the venerable Econoline was a bigger gas hog than his own pickup. Worse still, he was on a divided highway with no place to turn around, even if there was time to go back and get his personal vehicle. Now he was stuck in the big white beast for the duration. Ten miles further on, another thought dawned on Rick. He’d never driven south of Milwaukee. Chicago was as unknown to him as the far side of the moon. He was driving on instinct at the moment: he knew to head south as fast as possible, once he’d crossed the state line, he would figure out how to get further east. His phone had a GPS device, but he rarely needed it. He’d have to learn to use it now, and in a hurry, while he barreled down the highway toward the interstate that would lead him to the Windy City. He barely registered the needle on the speedometer creeping toward eighty. At least the damn muffler’s fixed. Not sure I could handle the racket for five hours. Pines and scrub flashed by as he zoomed down the near empty road. He paid no attention to a pair of deer feeding in the median, not even slowing for them. He just hoped the State Police were someplace else, other than on his route. Someplace south of Marvel, the phone went off with an angry buzz. Rick activated the hands-free device with a hasty flurry of button-pushing. “What is it, Irene?” He asked raising his voice to be heard above the road noise. “Bert Albrecht was on the phone. He wanted you to know that he’s cancelling our insurance.” Rick shook his head. “That didn’t take very long. Did he say why?” “Something about not being sure our facilities were safe or insurable. He might have had a few things to say about your character, too.” “Safe or insurable? What the heck is that supposed to mean?” “Don’t ask me. When I asked him, he just repeated himself and hung up.” “Some people can’t seem to take being wrong. I wonder what Dad said when he got the news.” “Bert said he couldn’t get hold of Heinrich, so he called here instead.” Rich glanced at his watch. “Hm. He should be up and awake by now, time difference or not.” “You want me to call him?” “What, and have Dad bite your head off on my account? No, no, I rained all over Bert’s parade, so it’s my fault. When Pops gets around to calling me, I’ll explain it to him.” “I’m just surprised he hasn’t called. You’d have thought he would have by now.” Irene sounded a note of concern. “Maybe he’s not done yelling at Rita.” Rick quipped. “You don’t think he’s worshipping the goddess of fortune and prosperity?” “I think he may have lost his religion by now.” “What do we do about Bert?” “Why don’t we call up someone else? I bet Carla d’Annunzio over at Lake Country Insurance would give us a decent quote.” “Shouldn’t we wait for Heinrich to tell us what he wants?” The question hung in the air of the van, while Rick maneuvered into the left lane to overtake a cruising Winnebago, as if it were standing still. “No. I say we go ahead and sign up with another company. If Lake Country can’t take us, find someone who will.” “Yes sir.” Irene laughed. “Thanks, Mr. Decisive. I’ll call you back when we have new insurance.” “Great. Thanks Irene. Anything else?” “I just have one question:” Again, there was a pause. “Are we … are we broke? Should I be looking for a new job?” “I don’t know exactly.” Rick sighed. “Dad apparently mortgaged the hell out of everything, and Rita spent a ton of capital on dribs and drabs. It’s not as if I audited the books, but I did go to see her this morning. My impression is that we’re pretty much wiped out. After everything’s accounted for and paid off, I suppose something will be left, but I don’t know how much. On the other hand,” he continued more brightly, “as long as I’ve got work, we’re still in business.” “Okay. I’ll call later.” She disconnected. Mile markers whizzed by while Rick pondered. Will there be any business left to insure by the end of the day? Cresting a gentle rise, he spotted tell-tale red and blue flashers in the distance. The State Patrol had pulled an unlucky driver over, or perhaps assistance was being rendered. With plenty of warning, Rick slowed to a reasonable speed, preparing to give the troopers plenty of room. He didn’t have time for a traffic stop. Once well past the flashing lights, Rick hit the accelerator again. The tires sang their song on the pavement and the miles hastened by. Slowly, slowly the forest on either side of the highway gave way to fields and open land. He thought about calling his father. What words would he use to explain things? He imagined how his side of the conversation might go. He hardly needed to fill in Heinrich Senior’s portion. Hey, Pops. I thought I’d fill you in on Rita’s little project. Yeah, I figured you might have known. You didn’t think to remind Dan Unser about all that drainage coming off College Hill? Well, don’t worry. Everybody knows now. I made sure of it. What was that? Sorry, you kind of broke up there. Oh, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole proposition is pretty much dead, if you ask me. Oh, and Pops? About that deal you made with Rita. What did you say? Well, you can’t blame me. She double-crossed you. She’s engaged to Willy Kohler, and may God have mercy on her. Well, of course I wasn’t going to chase after her. I’m gay, Pops. Gay. G-A-Y. Yup, that’s right. Like that. Now you got it. Gee, I think that word is kind of uncalled for. How long? Since I was born, I guess. Well, you never asked. It’s not like you ever really talked to me about much of anything important. Sorry, I can’t hear you. Say that again? Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. That’s your call, Pops, I can’t stop you. But I ought to point out that your friend Rita pretty much left you cleaned out, at least to hear her tell it. The business won’t be worth more than pocket change no matter who you sell it to. Irene and I will be sure to leave a key under the mat for when you decide to get back to work in Eagle Lake. Rick smiled to himself. The idea of such a phone call left him with a pleasant glow, even if it was a fantasy. If that conversation were ever to take place, it would have to wait, at least until he stopped driving. He’d prefer to savor it in a more comfortable location, maybe on the back lawn, enjoying a sunset. Such visions led Rick to other, less tranquil, avenues of thought. After I get to Chicago, then what? Supposing I can track Gus and Zoltan down, what happens then? Will I be able to see Gus? Will he be happy I came? What if Takács calls the police? That last was an unsettling prospect. And even if I can get Gus alone for a few minutes, what will he say? “Hey, Rick, you’re a nice man, and we had lots of fun together, but –” There’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there? An orange sign loomed up ahead. Road Construction Next 3 Miles. Right Lane Closed. He slowed. There were bound to be troopers monitoring the speed in the construction zone. If ever there was a bad day to get delayed by a speeding ticket, this was it. Soon, a long succession of traffic cones began their monotonous march by his passenger side window, forcing everyone on the highway to merge left. The sun beat down through the wide, front windshield. Not for the first time, Rick cursed Heinrich Senior’s thriftiness. “Who needs AC in northern Wisconsin, for Chrissake?” The old man had griped more than once. “AC cuts down on gas mileage, and it’s just one more thing to fix.” He passed dump trucks and a front-end loader parked on the grassy shoulder. Large, burly men in t-shirts and orange hard hats appeared on the closed-off pavement to his right. He’d listened to his father gripe about construction workers he’d spotted on his travels as a plumber, and about how they didn’t appear to be doing any real work. Rick knew better. The truth was these men were planning and preparing, making sure everything was ready so the actual job went quickly and smoothly, with a minimum of fuss and error. He suspected that sometime in the next twenty-four hours, an asphalt grinder would appear, attended by a bevy of trucks, and the contractor would commence resurfacing operations. If the weather stayed hot, some of those men would go shirtless. Not that Rick would be there to enjoy the sights. Rick shook his head to clear it. He glanced at the fuel gauge: the needle rode low, reminding him of the old van’s thirstiness. He eased his foot on the gas. He’d deal with it soon, but there were more miles he could eat up. In the meantime, there wasn’t anything he could do but follow the boldly emblazoned Schneider Trucking tandem trailer ahead. South of Portage, near the I-90 merge, Rick finally gave in to the inevitable, and stopped to refuel. Well out of his familiar territory, he got confused trying to follow the signs for the left-hand exit that would lead him to a fuel plaza. His stomach churned, not knowing how he’d find the interstate again. Rick pulled up to one of a dozen pumps gleaming under a broad covered arcade. He inserted and removed his credit card, idly wondering how long it would be until he reached his limit. On a miniature screen, glib advertisements and faux news reports played in an endless loop. With unfamiliar gestures, his fingers selected the fuel grade. He felt far away from Jerry’s humble service station now. It made little difference to the old van, however. It sucked down fuel just as eagerly there as it did at Guttmacher’s. Rick sighed and checked his phone. It would be a while until the beast had a full belly. That reminded him. He had promised to make a call. He knew he shouldn’t call while the pump was still working, but he needed to do this. A few more finger strokes and he could hold the phone to his ear. “Guttmacher’s Service.” Jerry’s familiar voice sounded on the other end of the line. “Hey, Jer. It’s Rick.” “Rico! The man of the hour, the talk of the town. What can I do for you?” Even at that distance, Rick flushed. “Can I talk to Jared for a second?” “Jared? Sure. He’s been antsy all morning. I bet it’s girl trouble. You know who the culprit might be?” “Um yeah. I’ve got an idea.” “Well, maybe you can straighten him out. Not that you know much about being straight, now do you?” Jerry cackled at his own joke. “Just put him on, okay? I’m kind of in a hurry.” “Jeez, okay, okay.” The sound of a landline receiver being laid down on the filthy office desk at Jerry’s place echoed in his ear. “Jared! Hey, Jared!” Jerry hailed his underling. “Phone call for ya!” “So what’s the rush, Rico?” Jerry came back on the line. “I’m on the way to Chicago.” “Chicago! What’s going on?” “You remember Gus? My, um”— Rick hesitated a second—“boyfriend. His manager is dragging him back to the city to force him into more therapy.” “Um, so? Doesn’t that make sense?” “I think it’s a move to get Gus away from me.” “You sure that’s not a little dramatic?” His friend’s question sounded sincere. Rick felt his stubborn streak rise. “I’m not letting Gus go without at least him saying ‘good riddance’ to my face. Anyway, I’m going to Chicago to find him.” “If you say so. You’d better –” Jerry was cut off as the phone seemed taken from him abruptly. “Hello?” Jared’s voice sounded eager and alive with anticipation. “Jared, it’s Rick Ernst here.” “Oh. Hi.” His voice was not the one he’d been hoping for. Obviously. “I was asked to pass you a message from Marta. She called me. She said that she’s coming back for you, and that you’d better not move on to some bimbo.” “She said that?” “Those were almost her exact words. I think the term she used was ‘hockey whore.’ Anyway, she’s on her way to Chicago, along with the rest of the family and Gus.” “How come she called you?” “Her parents took away her phone. She used Joey’s; don’t ask me what she had to give him to let her use it.” Rick explained. “I guess mom and pop Takács don’t approve of you, any more than they approve of me.” “Yeah. I heard about you and Gus.” “Jerry talking out of turn, is he?” “No. Marta and I were talking about it.” “Oh. Right. I see.” He felt himself go red. “Well, I’m just about done here.” Rick glanced at the rapidly flashing digital display. “I’m following them to Chicago myself. Gus never said goodbye.” “Whoa, Rick, that’s sick. Awesome. Good luck.” “Thanks.” “And, um, if you maybe see Marta, tell her I got the message. I’ll look for her online.” “Aaaaaand hit ‘Done.’” Rick sat in the idling van, watching his phone screen. He’d talked himself through what he hoped were Marta’s instructions. A moment later, the rectangle showed a map, on which a green circle glowed somewhere south of the Wisconsin border. He squinted. Rockford, Illinois. That’s Gus. Okay, it’s Joey’s phone. But as long as that phone is near Gus, I can track him. A gap in the traffic opened. He gunned the engine and the groaning heap of metal he called his van veered back onto the road. Rick calculated he had more than a hundred miles to make up. He joined the procession of impatient drivers in the passing lane, and kept his foot on the accelerator, even as traffic thickened in Madison. There was no Brewers’ game to distract him, though he probably wouldn’t have turned it on even if there had been. Hands gripping the wheel, eyes fixed on the next car ahead, he pelted south mile after mile, exit after exit, alone with his thoughts. Only his position relative to the glowing green orb on his phone screen mattered. In Janesville, by the hospital interchange, his stomach started to churn. What if I can’t get to Gus? What if he wants the physical therapy and concert grind? What if he really wants Helene? He set his lips in a thin line. No. That’s your fears talking. They’ve been leading you around by the nose for forty years. Don’t listen. Yet, although Rick could mute his anxiety, he couldn’t make it go away entirely, especially as he watched the Gus-locator get ever closer to Chicago on the screen. As he crossed the state line, signs announced that he was now on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. Tolls? Where are the tollbooths? Rick searched the clutter around the dash for spare change. He quickly realized there wasn’t any. How am I going to pay for tolls? Hell, how am I going to pay for anything? Even as he asked himself these unanswerable questions, the little colored circle entered the metropolis of Chicago and slowed its movement. What was going on? He didn’t dare fiddle with the screen to zoom in closer, not while drove his old crate at such a speed in the passing lane. Rick sped past the Illinois Welcome Center, only to be greeted by the inevitable toll plaza. He cursed and slowed, steering into a lane marked CASH $. As he waited his turn behind a late model Cadillac SUV, he dug into his pocket to extract his wallet. Several moments older and one dollar lighter, he stomped on the gas, rocketing out of the toll area and onto the highway again. Next time, Rick resolved that he’d roll through the electronic tolls and get billed later. It’s Dad’s van. Let him pay the tolls. He smiled grimly to himself. South of Rockford, his route veered sharply east, toward the metropolis itself. Now he shared the road with more vehicles than he saw in a month back in Eagle Lake. What the hell am I doing? I’ve hardly been south of Milwaukee. The flat, wide open farmlands of the south left Rick disoriented; the heat of the day baked him; the noise of the traffic through the open window roared against the hot breeze that blew in off the interstate, the smell of crops and earth mixing with oil and exhaust. Green and white exit signs inexorably traced his progress. Belvidere. Marengo. Huntley. Anxiety ratcheted up with each one. Gus’s green circle seemed stationary now. What’s happening to you, Gus? Illinois State Route 31. Barrington Road. Northwest Suburbs. The road filled up with cars and trucks. Eight lanes of vehicles rushed on urgent business in both directions, though not as rapidly as before. Rick marshaled his overtaxed senses to focus on driving. Somehow, he’d guess where to get off the damn highway and figure out how to catch up with that damn green dot on the screen. Over the traffic’s roar, Rick thought he detected a change in the note the engine intoned. He checked the dash—no idiot lights were on, no alarms. But a glance at the locator on his cell phone showed movement again. It appeared Gus was headed south, toward the city center. Signs announced the imminent arrival of O’Hare Airport; the river of vehicles in front of him slowed. Rick clung to the center lanes which seemed to promise the best chance of driving through and avoiding an unwanted diversion. A gleaming tanker truck ahead of him decelerated, brake lights glowing. No, no, no, don’t stop now. His pace slowed to a crawl. He craned his neck to try and see what the holdup might be, even as the van came to a halt with a whine of its brakes. The scent of diesel fumes and auto exhaust swirled in the open window. “Come on, come on.” Rick growled at the sea of taillights ahead of him. With traffic stopped, he took a moment to adjust the screen size of the map on his phone. Suddenly, Gus’ green circle seemed small against the tangled grid of city and suburban streets. He stared at it, unmoving on the screen. A giddy wave washed over him, despite his impatience at the jammed highway. I’m in Chicago. I’m in Gus’ city. His place. He peered more closely, trying to work out the best way to that glowing orb. He wondered where Gus might be. The surgeon’s office? Zoltan’s place? And what happens if Gus moves while I’m driving there? Guess I follow as best I can. I don’t suppose Zoltan found the phone and tossed it. He tried to banish that thought. Wait for me. Just wait for me. Rick rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He didn’t want to know the outside temperature. He just knew it never got this hot in Eagle Lake. He closed his eyes against the glare and heat. The next instant, he jumped at the sound of a horn behind the van. Traffic ahead of him had started to move again. There was space in front of the van, and he tromped on the gas. The venerable Econoline surged forward. It wasn’t highway speed, but forward progress was better than nothing. Vehicles filled the pavement bumper to bumper, but it was all moving. Now that he was in motion again, Rick didn’t feel quite so warm. Oddly, Rick reflected the pace of travel reminded him of nothing so much as the flow of water through old and partly clogged pipes. He was past whatever had caused the previous blockage, which was a mercy. He noticed now he was in a collector lane, not the express lane to his left. How many lanes of traffic are there? I’ve lost count. North Cumberland Avenue. Lawrence Avenue. I should think about getting off this highway. He glanced again at his Gus-tracker. Shit. He’s moved. The green glowing circle was now heading south of its earlier location. All I can do is keep going. Kimball Avenue. Just past Armitage Avenue, everyone slowed again. Rick kept as far left as he could, where traffic was at least moving at the pace of leisurely evening stroll. Gus still moved south, away from him, toward the forest of tall buildings looming in the distance. Ten minutes later, with Rick’s jaw hurting from the tension, the cause of the slowdown appeared. The aftermath of a minor fender-bender played out on the right shoulder. Everyone seemed okay, but there were plenty of flashing lights of every color to mark the occasion. Rick just celebrated the increase in speed. His elation was short lived, however. He recognized the signs of another slowdown ahead. He blew out a long breath between pressed lips. Damn. I can’t deal with this. A quick glance in the right side mirror told Rick he had maybe a second to make a decision. Almost simultaneously with his turn signal, he gunned the engine and shifted over one lane to the right. Leaving the blinker keeping time with its tic-tic-tic-tic, he inserted himself into the exit lane, ahead of a surprised driver in a red Audi. “Sorry,” he muttered in response to the horn sounding behind him. He left the signal going, as he eased into an exit lane for Ohio Street. He knew he had to head east, toward the lake. The traffic on this expressway moved at a sedate pace, but it was continuous, flowing inexorably toward buildings taller than he’d ever seen in his life. Soon he was right in amongst them, part of four lanes of cars all trying to enter the bloodstream of America’s second city. He maneuvered into one of the middle lanes. It seemed safer that way. Once again, traffic slowed, but this time it was because the expressway was coming to an end at a traffic light. Well, now you’ve done it. Idiot. Which way to go? When Rick rolled to a stop, he glanced at the phone screen again. He wondered how much battery life he had left on the device. Somewhere, a long way away to his right, in amongst the towering mountains of concrete that hemmed him in, Gus still carried Joey’s phone. A siren screamed some emergency behind him. There wasn’t a thing he could do about it. The light changed. He’d go straight through the light, and find a way to turn right later. Four blocks later, at another long light, Rick looked again. The green dot hadn’t moved since the last time. He zoomed in further. Rick waited a long while to turn right, finally heading south on Michigan Avenue. The wide divided street gave him a broad view of the soaring skyline of Chicago. Crossing a bridge, he had an instant to recognize a view he’d seen in half a dozen movies. He marveled at the number of pedestrians. And still, the breathtaking steel and glass buildings reared ever higher overhead, moving past in stately procession, as he drove south toward Gus’ now-stationary marker. Suddenly, the street opened up; a park of some kind lay to his left, allowing sunlight to beat in at the windows again. Lanes in the street appeared and disappeared. More than once, he felt at sea, glancing here and there to be sure of his surroundings, yet keeping an eye on where Gus might be. Almost there. But where is that, exactly? He almost missed it. If it hadn’t been for a stopped city bus, he’d have driven right by the stately looking building with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra banners hanging outside. Carved into stone above the ornate palladian windows facing the street were the words Bach Mozart Beethoven Schubert Wagner. A small sign indicated this was Symphony Center. Gus had to be in that building. Now to find him. The immediate problem was how to park and get into Symphony Center. There was no visible place to do so. Rick couldn’t just leave his van on the broad sidewalk. He tried to turn right at the next light to go around the block, but found he would be going the wrong way on a one-way street. Thwarted, he waited another anxious block to make his turn. Again, Rick was stymied by another one-way street. The map showed he was traveling farther and farther from Gus. He pounded the wheel. What the hell? How does anyone drive in this place? Surrounded on all sides by formidable bastions of concrete, steel and glass, Rick doggedly followed his instincts toward Gus. Another block. Another right turn, this time onto State Street. Two blocks north, and another accursed one-way street going the wrong direction. After waiting for the stream of pedestrians to abate, a right onto Monroe finally pointed him where he wanted to go. One block and Rick came to South Wabash. This would run behind Symphony Center; perhaps there would be parking there. He blinked at the elevated railway running over the street. Nobody else seemed to take the slightest notice of it, so Rick made his turn. On either side, cars filled the available parking slots. People strolled or hustled down the sidewalks. He’d been to Milwaukee, but this number of people out and about was of a different order. And it was torture, to be so close, and yet unable to get out and find Gus. Much too suddenly, on the left, behind a gaggle of t-shirted teens, a parking lot appeared between the street and a tall brick wall that had to be the rear of Symphony Center. Rick cursed as he rolled by the entrance. Horns behind him blared as he braked. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Then, just beyond, a second driveway apron caught his eye. Without thinking, Rick signaled left and pulled in, causing a few walkers to halt unexpectedly. The pavement went further back, entering the shadowed gloom between surrounding buildings. He found a space next to a yellow Chevy Budget rental panel truck, where a large angry red and white sign read AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY. Even through the alien environment and situation, Rick grinned at an apparent stroke of luck. This was his kind of territory: the service entrance. He grabbed the phone and descended from his seat in the van, slamming the door shut. He rolled his shoulders and stretched as he moved to the back of the truck. Wasting as little time as possible, he opened the rear doors and grabbed an old bucket and a worn plunger. Considering his rumpled, sweaty work clothes, complete with the tattered embroidered Rick, he looked like he would fit right in. Who would question the presence of a plumber? That thought was put to the test the moment he passed through the heavy grey steel doors to feel a blast of cooler air. Receiving areas were the same everywhere. “You the plumber?” A stout individual in a green private security uniform asked. Rick blinked in the large interior space. “Yeah. I got a call.” “Second floor bathroom again?” Rick just nodded, trying to look nonchalant. “These old buildings, something goes wrong every week.” The man griped in a good-natured way. “Seems like it.” Rick spied an elevator across the room. He walked in that direction. “Good luck.” The uniform chuckled. “Thanks,” he replied, his heart beating like a bass drum in his chest. He pressed the call button. No SWAT team leaped out to arrest him when the doors glided open, however. He stepped in, and for lack of any better alternative, he chose the second floor, noting that there were eight to choose from. One floor up, he stepped into a smaller space with two hallways leading away at right angles. The phone was no help here, not unless he called Joey’s number directly to hear it ring. However, doing that would give Gus away completely. Rick decided to walk each corridor and listen for Gus’ voice. He tried the first corridor, which appeared to lead to building offices and more populated spaces. He instinctively wanted to avoid these, so he turned back. Going the other direction, Rick passed featureless closed doors, at which he paused, or open ones revealing empty rehearsal rooms with a few chairs and music stands. Ironically, he failed to find the problematic restroom. There was no Gus. He checked the phone; the man was still in the building. To get to the third floor, Rick took a set of stairs he found at a bend in one of the hallways. Signs pointed to a lounge of some kind, which turned out to be empty. Rick chose not to go through a door marked Rotunda, deciding to check other parts of the building first. He had no more luck on the third floor than on the level below. He climbed the stairs again, full of doubts. Maybe the doors are soundproofed. Maybe Gus is in the elevator on the way down right now. Coming out the door onto the fourth floor, Rick hastened to his left. Once more, he traveled to the end of a long passage full of empty rooms or closed doors. Reversing course and hustling back past the stairs, he rounded a corner where the elevator opened. Entering the next hallway, Rick heard voices emanating from a door just ajar. He approached cautiously, listening. “…and you know I’ll take care of you.” A female voice was saying. “You see? It is all arranged.” The unmistakable East European accent of Zoltan Takács told Rick all he needed to know. “I don’t need a nursemaid.” Gus’ voice. His boyfriend sounded stubborn. Rick crept closer. “But you will need support, and Helene will be perfect, will she not?” Magda was there, too. “I can manage on my own.” “Be sensible, Gustavo.” Zoltan said. “Your rehabilitation must accelerate. And Dr. Kuznetsov cannot be put off or delayed. You will be working with him day and night, rigorously. Helene will see to your needs better than you can yourself.” “It’ll be wonderful, Gussie. You’ll see. We’ll be starting over.” The other woman’s voice made an effort to sound enticing. “How many times do I have to tell you, Helene? We were never started. I’ve performed with you, but that is the extent of our connection. And in case you forgot, you were the one to break my wrist.” Rick raised an eyebrow. Gus sounded just as irritated as he did when Heinrich badgered him. “Perhaps this is why you cannot finish your rehabilitation properly. You need a partner’s guidance.” Magda suggested. “You’re being ridiculous.” “No, Gustavo, it is you who are ridiculous. Helene has apologized. What more do you want of her?” Zoltan said firmly. “You have wasted weeks of the summer, doing nothing. You have obligations. Performances. The music awaits you.” “It can wait. I have other things to –” “Please stop. I have heard quite enough about your summer – what do you call it? Hookup? Fling?” “He’s more than a fling. He’s a wonderful man, and if you hadn’t interfered, we’d be looking at the stars tonight.” Rick felt himself flush at the words. He almost missed Zoltan’s reply. “Tonight, you will prepare for your departure in the morning. You and Helene have an early flight. I believe it will be best if you pick up things from your apartment and accompany Helene to our home where we will make sure you get to the airport on time.” “And if I prefer not to?” “You do not have a choice. You will do as I say.” The words burned in Rick’s brain. He’d been told what to do for too long, made to knuckle under and submit. He pushed open the door with his shoulder, banging the bucket on his way in. “Somebody call a plumber?” He grinned.
    61 points
  2. Life as a twenty-one-year-old parent is weird. It’s a funky stage between childhood and adulthood where you’re both too young and too old. The complexities were a plethora of rabbit holes that were both too complicated and annoying to navigate. Matt listened to a podcast once that said the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it statement was an unhealthy cop-out. Something about not taking emotional responsibility or something. Matt couldn’t remember all the details, only that he could use that logic to be a kick-ass young adult, a stellar student, a doting dad figure, and a respectable boyfriend if it killed him. Since college was out for the summer and he wasn’t working until the fall, Matt had all the time to hone his dad skills. He wanted to be the parent Aidan needed and deserved. Since he wasn’t bogged down with school and work, Matt could focus on Aidan, build their relationship, and learn how to be the best parent he could be. He was also going to be the respectable boyfriend Seamus deserved. They had something good, and Matt would not let it get sabotaged. That’s exactly what he thought was happening. Seamus hardly texted or called the entire week after Matt visited. When they did talk, it was lacking. Matt worried he had royally fucked up. It’s what he did to relationships. Younger Matt stood by and watched as his relationships burned to the ground, all while making it the other person’s fault. He would not do that this time. It was time to use the big guns. He’d tried to talk to his dad a couple times, but it was a lot harder than he thought. Brad rarely asked Matt invasive questions like ‘are you dating?’ or ‘is there any boy trouble I can help with?’. There never seemed to be a good time to bring Seamus up. But if he didn’t pull up his pants now, he’d miss his chance. Matt had just put Aidan down. It was now or never. He took a deep breath and marched down the hall with purpose. Brad was sitting on the couch, reading. Matt thought about snatching the book out of his hands, but that seemed a little dramatic. Instead, he sat down on the edge of the recliner and nervously rubbed his thighs. Brad glanced at Matt’s strange behavior with a raised brow and slowly lowered his book. “What’s up?” he asked, barley containing his smirk. Matt was not good at being subtle. “Oh, nothing. What are you doing?” Brad glanced at his book then at Matt. “Nothing.” “Cool cool,” Matt nodded nervously. “So, are you seeing anyone?” Brad eyed him suspiciously. “Not currently.” “No dating?” “No, no dating.” “Have you seen anyone since Marcy?” “A date or two, no one steady,” he answered. “Why, do you have someone you want to set me up with?” “What? No! Gross. I was just asking. Trying to know what's going on in your life.” Brad nodded, then looked at Matt like he was on to him. “What about you?” Even though he wanted his dad to ask this exact question, his heart started pounding. “Well, there might be someone...” “How is Seamus?” Matt deflated. “How’d you know?” “The same way I knew you stole the rum from the liquor cabinet and that you drove my truck to the store before you had your license. You’re not subtle.” “Oh.” Brad discarded his book on the coffee table. “So, what’s going on between you two? Matt stared at his dad. How did he know something was wrong? “You’ve been touch-and-go all week,” Brad continued. Again with the mind reading. “Touch-and-go?” Matt asked. “Moody and broody.” He didn’t think he’d been that obvious. “Something happened when you and Aidan visited him?” “Oh my god, stop with the telepathy!” “I can’t help it, you’re a neon sign,” he laughed. “Out with it, tell me what happened.” “Long rated-R story cut short, Seamus might be but most definitely is in love with me and asked how I felt about not using protection.” There was a moment when Brad realized what this meant, that his only son was doing more than blowjobs. Not that Brad cared, but it’s one thing to know penetrative sex is a possibility and a whole other to have it confirmed. Once he came to terms with the rated-R part, Brad looked sympathetic. “Judging by the mooding and brooding all week, you don’t feel the same?” “I really like Seamus but I’m not there yet.” “And you explained that to him?” “Yeah. I told him I jumped the gun in previous relationships and I didn’t want to do that with him. I also explained that with everything that’s happened this year, I hadn’t thought that far in my head.” “Those are logical reasons. How does Seamus feel?” “Pissed. Offended. Angry.” Brad cringed. “Why do you think he felt like that?” “I don’t know.” Matt slumped back on the sofa. “I’m out of my league, Dad. I’m doing the best I can while trying to do right by everyone. I know Seamus does so much for me and Aidan but I’m feeling like there are strings attached.” “How so?” “He was so pissed that I didn’t feel the same. What? Am I obligated to love him because he makes life impossible to do without him? I’m not there, yet. We’ve only been dating for a few months and I have so much happening. Aidan changed everything for me. He’s my priority. I don’t know that I have the capacity to be in a relationship that is at that level. And of course he’s at a different level than me. He was married, Dad! Mar-ried. That is intimidating! I’m not thinking about marriage, but I know he is, why wouldn’t he be? He’s already rounded that base with Kelly. But don’t ask me questions about his marriage because never talks about it. Hell, I thought it was a good marriage until his friend suggested otherwise. I’m trying to piece it together while not prying. Lord knows he doesn’t really tell me anything. And not just about Kelly. I didn’t even know he had friends until I was meeting them! Why won’t he share his life with me? How am I supposed to be in love with him when there is so much I don’t know?!” “Oh Matt.” Brad leaned forward and pulled an emotional Matt onto the sofa and into his chest. “Can I tell you something?” Matt nodded, pleading his dad for anything. “First, dating is all about asking questions. It’s about communication and learning as much as possible about each other until you’re ready to take the next step or you realize it won’t work. Seamus is ready to take the next step, but you’re still at the starting line. I think a lot of what you two do revolves around you and Aidan, so it makes sense that Seamus feels like he knows a lot about you. It’s time to turn the focus on Seamus. Get to know him. Ask him questions. If he doesn’t want to share about Kelly or his friends, ask why. If he still doesn’t want to talk, then see it for what it is, a red flag. But don’t assume he doesn’t want to share. I think he’s busy trying to make sure everything is good for you Aido. And secondly, stop putting Seamus on a pedestal.” Matt frowned. “What are you talking about? I don’t do that.” “You do do that. You think because Seamus is older and successful that you’re not good enough. You need to get that garbage out of your head.” “I—” Matt stopped and thought about it. Yeah, he totally did that. His dad was right. Matt struggled with feeling like a child compared to Seamus. He was a child compared to Seamus. “Ohhh.” “Yeah. I think you don’t ask questions because you don’t think you should. Do you like Seamus?” “Yes, absolutely.” “Do you want a future with him?” “Of course I do.” “Then you need to go to him, talk, ask questions, and get to know Seamus.” “What if he’s fed up with me?” “What if he’s not?” his dad asked. “You need to see yourself the way others do. You’ve always worked hard to get where you wanted to go. You have a detailed game plan, but you’re also able and willing to flex when things change. College was your detailed game plan and Aidan is your curveball.” “What is Seamus?” “He’s the R-B-I.” “You know I don’t know sports,” Matt groaned. Brad laughed. “Seamus is the detail and the curveball.” Well, if that wasn’t a perfect statement, Matt didn’t know what was. It described Seamus to a t. Still, Matt felt nervous. Anything could happen. Brad and Matt spent the rest of the evening on the couch. They talked about everything. By the time they went to bed, Matt felt good about going after Seamus. **** “I really appreciate you doing this for me, Dad.” Matt stood at the sink and finished washing the bottles and sippy cups. His hands were red from the scalding water. A sign he hadn’t reached total dad status yet. “Is there a time you want me back on Sunday?” Bad sat at the dining table with a happy little blue-eyed brunette on his lap. “I don’t want to see you until you and Seamus have talked.” Matt finished putting the drink ware on the dry rack and quickly dried his hands. He tossed the rag on the counter, then jogged over to Aidan and got down on his level. “I’m going to visit Moose for the weekend. I’ll be sure to bring you back lots of kisses, okay?” Aidan’s eyes widened. “Moose.” Brad groaned. “You shouldn’t have done that.” That’s when it all fell apart. Aidan was very displeased that Matt would mention Seamus, then have the audacity to leave and not take Aidan along. By the time Matt was packed and ready to go, Aidan was wailing in Brad’s arms, screaming so hard his face was a deep shade of red-ish purple. Matt felt guilty for setting off the baby bomb. He gave his dad an anxious look. Brad shrugged it off. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Baby Matt had put Brad through the wringer. “Just go,” he insisted. “The longer you linger, the worse it will get.” Matt tried to kiss Aidan goodbye but Aidan was pissed. He took his anger out by grabbing Matt’s hair and screaming at a decibel so high that dogs across town started barking. It wasn’t easy to pry angry little fingers off his hair. Once he did, he slipped out the door with a frown. He would’ve taken Aidan but the whole point of this trip was to focus on Seamus. Aidan would be a distraction. Still, Matt felt guilty knowing Aidan was at home screaming. The look on Aidan’s face as he left would haunt him for days to come. Pure heartache, rejection, and disappointment. Fuck, being a parent was hard. **** Matt didn’t tell Seamus he was coming. He debated back and forth until it was too late and he was there. He nervously stood at Seamus’s door. He covered the peephole, then knocked. A douchey habit he’d picked up as a kid. He watched as the shadow approached, then paused. When the door opened, Seamus was frowning, irritated that he couldn’t see who was there. Matt laughed. “Good to see you, too.” Seamus’s smile was tight with no teeth, but he opened the door and let Matt in. There was an awkwardness; do they kiss? Do they not kiss? Are they fighting? Should they be over it by now? Is everything good between them? Probably not. Matt would not let the awkwardness win. He leaned in and pressed his lips to Seamus. Seamus released a deep breath. “I didn’t know you were coming.” Matt set his stuff down and walked to the living room. There was a half-eaten dinner plate on the coffee table and NCIS was paused in the background. Matt sat down on the sofa. “I thought we could talk.” Seamus was still standing by the front door, a little stunned that Matt had kissed him. He looked up and nodded, then nervously walked to the living room. As he neared, Matt continued. “I’ve been thinking a lot since I was here last.” Seamus had just sat down when he stood up again. “Well, there’s no need to draw this out.” Seamus picked up his plate and started to the kitchen. “You still have a few things here. You can grab them now or I can have them ready for you later. Aidan has a bunch of stuff, too. I assume you won’t want my help anymore so I can get his things packed as well.” Matt was off the couch in seconds and darted after Seamus. He slid between him and the sink, grabbed the plate from his hands, and slid it onto the counter. It took a second for Seamus to meet his eyes. When he did, the insecurity behind those brown eyes was alarming. “What just happened?” he asked in a very calm voice. Seamus tried to shake Matt off. “I respect you and I love Aidan. A break up doesn’t have to change that.” Matt’s heart was beating like crazy. Fear was making it hard to breathe. The week had been weird, but this was a whole new ballpark. “Breakup? What in the world?” Seamus watched him with dark, calculating eyes. So different from what Matt usually saw. Matt had never seen Seamus so blocked off. “I saw it coming after your last visit. I figured it was just a matter of time.” Matt closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He refused to overreact. He needed to get to the bottom of this. They stood in the same kitchen they had shared countless meals together, laughed together, watched Aidan with gleeful eyes together. This conversation would either add to those memories or take away from them. “Are you breaking up with me because of the condom thing?” Seamus flinched. His face flooded with confusion. “Aren’t you breaking up with me?” “No!” he exclaimed a little too loudly and with wild arms. “I came here because I didn’t want to screw things up with you.” It took Seamus a hot minute to process what Matt was saying. He rubbed his face then ran a hand through his hair. “I thought you came here to break up.” “Is that what you want?” Matt asked. Seamus shook his head. “No.” “Then what the fuck?!” Poor Seamus. He looked so beaten. Matt thought back to what Jay had said about Kelly. If Jay was right about Kelly treating Seamus poorly, that would explain so much. Matt cautiously wrapped his arms around Seamus. “I’ve royally sucked at relationships in the past. I’ve been dramatic, selfish, and pretty terrible. I don’t want to be that person with you. I came here because I want to figure out why things are weird between. I want to fix it and move forward. I absolutely don’t want to break up. That’s the opposite of what I came here for.” Seamus sighed and wrapped his arms around Matt. “I’ve been tearing things apart in my head.” “I see that. Can we please sit down and talk about it?” Seamus led Matt to the living room. He laid on the couch and pulled Matt into his side. There was a minute of silence while both of them tried to figure out how to press forward. When Matt was sure Seamus wasn’t going to talk first, he grabbed Seamus’ chin and made the other man look at him. “I want to start by saying that just because I’m not at the ‘love proclamation’ point shouldn’t and doesn’t diminish the feelings I have for you. I’ve been shitting myself thinking that you might not want to be with me because I wasn’t at that level. It’s not that I can’t get there, because I see it happening, but I have so much on my plate right now. I want things between us to be unlike anything I’ve ever had before, and everything I had before was plagued by emotions that weren’t real.” Seamus nervously ran his fingers up and down Matt’s side. “I made a big move without a lot of legwork, but I know how I feel about you and I’m not going to apologize for it. With that said, I respect where you’re at and I’m not mad about it.” “Then what happened?” Matt asked. “Because things went south pretty fast. I admit I had a baby freak out, but you totally shut down.” He desperately wanted Seamus to volunteer his life with Kelly. He was prepared to demand answers if needed. He was ready. All that bravado was unnecessary. “I loved Kelly. I wouldn’t have married him otherwise. But I was young and I let a lot of things slide. When you freaked out about not using condoms, it was like reliving my past.” “I want to know everything, please?” Seamus frowned. “There were two Kellys. The Kelly I fell in love with was incredible, easy to love, and easier to stay in love with. Then there was the Kelly who grew up never wanting for anything and never hearing the word no. His family had money, and with a gift from his parents, he made himself a small fortune for himself. As far as he was concerned, his money and status meant he could do whatever he wanted. “I was a poor college student from a small town a thousand miles away. Kelly showed me a life I never thought I could have. The security he dangled like a carrot made it easy to look the other way. I told myself that he might’ve been sleeping with guys on the side, but I was the one he was sharing his life with. He might have worked late all the time, but it was me he came home to. “I thought it would change after he proposed but it didn’t. Every time I got frustrated, he would throw it in my face. He would remind me how it hadn’t been a problem before, I needed to get over it, and he gave me everything I needed. We would fight, hard. After a week of silence, he’d apologize and I’d sweep it under the rug. The straw was finding him in our bed with the guy who cleaned cars at the dealership. That’s when I asked for a divorce. “When things were good between us, Kelly would tell me how secure I was and how my name was on everything. Still, I was prepared to walk away with nothing. I probably would have, but he died unexpectedly.” “How’d he die?” “Infidelity.” “What? How?” “Not sure exactly. He had no history of heart issues, but his ticker stopped while having sex with the carwash guy.” “It definitely fucks up your psyche when you’re put through the emotional wringer for years, you finally stand up for yourself, then he dies while cheating on you. I was too embarrassed to share that part so I had to pretend like it never happened. I had to play the part of a sad, grieving husband. The guilt was enormous.” “Why the fuck did you feel guilty?” Matt asked. “He cheated on you, a lot I’m assuming.” “Because I asked for a divorce and then he died. That’s hard to reconcile. I didn’t love him anymore, but I thought, maybe I should since he died. It felt like I needed to let go of my anger and be the husband everyone thought I was. I felt like a phony. Then I had to deal with his parents and that only made it worse.” Matt remembered Seamus saying something about them. It wasn’t good. “They challenged everything, right?” “Yes. True to his word, my name really was on his accounts and the businesses. Or should I say our accounts and our businesses? I’m sure he was in the process of cutting me off before he died. I was prepared for that. But fuck his parents for thinking they could do it.” Seamus adjusted his position on the sofa. He was a lot more relaxed, but there was something bothering him. Matt waited him out. Seamus sighed. “I tried to get Kelly to stop using condoms. It was my way of trying to force him into monogamy. He always refused.” God, everything made so much more sense. “For the sake of communication, I want to make this very, very clear. The condom/commitment thing is not a reflection of my any extracurricular activity. I don’t have a perfect past, and I’ve made mistakes, but I have never cheated on you. I say that with absolute—” Seamus covered Matt’s mouth. “I know. I just wanted you to know. You are nothing like Kelly, I don’t compare the two of you, and I never thought you cheated.” “Never?” Matt questioned. Seamus sat up so fast the room spun. “I haven’t. I swear.” Matt put a calming hand on Seamus’s chest and laughed. “I only said that because it was brought to my attention that when I was at the bar being asked twenty questions about Jay from that one guy, you weren’t handling it so well.” Seamus rolled his eyes. “There might’ve been a small part of me that didn’t like it—” “A small part?” “Okay, there was a big part of me that didn’t like it. But it wasn’t you. It was Kelly.” “Why didn’t you say something then? You could’ve come to the bar and inserted yourself.” “I trusted you.” “Maybe, but in that moment you were struggling and I didn’t know it. I hate that I didn’t know. I would’ve understood.” Seamus melted. “Kelly isn’t an easy subject. You talk about how terrible all your past relationships were, but you never married a narcissist. If you line us up side by side, your history is healthier than mine and that’s sad. All these years later, I’m still struggling.” Matt grabbed Seamus’s hands. “These are things I need to know. I’ve been struggling since October and you’ve been there for me without fail. You’ve protected me. Day in and day out, you’ve been by my side. In a lot of ways, I’ve been a shitty boyfriend. I haven’t done a good job at putting you first. It was hard for me because I felt like I didn’t deserve any of it. Why would someone who has their entire life together want to be with someone like me?” “I don’t have it all together.” “I know that now,” Matt said. “We’ve been together for how long and I’m just learning the truth about Kelly? That’s stuff I should know. What else don’t I know? I didn’t even know about your friends. You had mentioned them in passing, once. Do you see a future with me?” he asked. “You know I do.” “Then tell me everything. Tell me all the reasons you don’t have your shit together. Tell me things I do that make you freak out. I can’t fall in love with you if I don’t know you.” “What do you want to know?” “Everything.” So they spent the evening talking about everything. Kelly always punished Seamus emotionally by taking things away from him or leaving him for a day or a week. Which is why Matt moving away for the summer and then to his own apartment had been so hard. Backward change was hard for Seamus. Seamus shared more about college, his friends, how they vacationed together. Matt found out Seamus and his friends always vacationed for two weeks at the end of March. Which was also Seamus’s birthday. Matt had no clue. “I missed your birthday?!” Seamus put his hands up. “The adoption was more important. I wasn’t about to leave you for two weeks during that ordeal.” Matt pressed his fingers to his temples. “You should’ve said something.” “I know.” He looked guilty. “I’m sorry.” Seamus talked more about his childhood, grade school, and transitioning after Kelly died. By one in the morning, they were both exhausted. “How’s Aidan?” Having already shared more about Kelly than he had in ages, Seamus was ready to move on to greener pastures. “Can we video chat with him tomorrow?” Matt quickly shook his head. “That’s not a good idea.” Seamus frowned. “Why not?” “I made the mistake of telling him that I was coming to visit you and he freaked out. Dad was literally holding him back as he screamed bloody murder. If you call, it will start a war.” Seamus tried to look guilty, but his smirk was undeniable. “Gloat is not a good color on you,” Matt teased. “Whatever,” Seamus smiled. “At least someone missed me.” Matt shoved Seamus. Seamus shoved him back. “It’s true. You barely called or texted.” Matt sat there, mouth agape. Then Seamus smiled slyly. The fucker was riling him up on purpose. Oh, two could play this game. Matt pounced and a second later they were rolling off the couch and on to the floor. Not even the coffee table or the spilled water stopped them. It was war. Seamus was stronger, but Matt was scrappy when he needed to be. They laughed and tried to pin each other down while blaming each other for not calling or texting enough. Matt got pinned Seamus’s leg to his chest for a second before Seamus was able to free himself. They were both happy and breathing heavily when Matt stopped fighting. Happy Seamus leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on his lips. Matt watched Seamus. He was glowing in a way he never had before. “You can say it.” “I don’t want to freak you out or make you feel pressured.” “It won’t,” Matt said. “As long as you’re okay that I’m not ready to say it back, yet.” “It’s fine.” Seamus pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose. “Well, it sucks, but I understand.” “I will get there,” Matt promised. “I’ve just said it so many times and it never really meant anything. When I tell you I love you, I want it to mean something. Just like how I’m not Kelly, you’re not every short-lived, immature relationship I had in the past.” Seamus got up and helped Matt to his feet. Together they cleaned up the water mess and Seamus’s dirty dishes from dinner before relaxing back on the couch. Seamus asked how things were going back home, they talked more about Aidan, Seamus asked about Brad. Finally, Seamus broached plans for the fall. “So, you really have an apartment lined up?” They were sitting on opposite sides of the couch, rubbing each other's feet. Matt smiled at the way Seamus focused on his feet while asking a question that had clearly been eating at him. His boyfriend was both incredibly stoic and adorably innocent at the same time. “I made sure it’s just a few blocks down the road. The apartment is a little more than I wanted to pay, but it’s close to everything I need, including you.” Red crept up Seamus’s neck. “And when are you moving in?” “Mid-August. It opens August first. I plan to be fully moved by the fifteenth. So, not that long.” “And work?” “I talked to Denise and I’ll start back at the coffee shop once I’m settled in.” “And your hours are good?” Matt smiled. The change was driving Seamus crazy, but he cared. “I don’t have my class schedule, yet, so it’s hard to say. She said she’ll be flexible and to call her when I have my classes and daycare lined out.” Seamus pursed his lips. “What?” Matt asked. Seamus shook his head. “No,” Matt chastised. “Say it.” “I kind of want to strangle you right now.” “Oh, is that all?” Matt chuckled. Seamus threaded his hands behind his neck. “You’re putting Aidan in daycare?” “Yes?” “Okay.” Matt let go of Seamus’s feet and carefully crawled up the couch without falling off or digging his knee into his boyfriend’s leg. Seamus watched in confusion as Matt sat on his thighs and cupped his face. “I would not have survived this last year without your help, but I do not want to burden you or risk taking advantage of you. The plan was always to get Aidan into daycare, and I finally did.” Seamus looked Matt right in the eye. “At the risk of sounding like a fucking idiot, it makes me nervous that you’re moving out and not letting me watch Aidan anymore.” “I’m doing this so we can have a healthy relationship. I want you to enjoy spending time with Aidan. I don’t want it to be an obligation. I also want to get rid of the stress I feel because of you taking on so much. ” Seamus crossed his arms. “I enjoy watching Aidan.” Again, Matt smiled. How could he not? Seamus was so fucking hot when he pouted. Matt threw his hands up. He couldn’t argue. “Fine. I’ll do three days in daycare and you can do the rest.” “Two days in daycare.” “Aidan isn’t a little baby anymore. He doesn’t sleep the day away. He’s mobile and kind of an asshole.” “Two days,” Seamus demanded. “Okay,” Matt conceded. “But I’m paying for the third day and keeping it as an option.” **** Brad was waiting when Matt got home. He wanted to know everything. Matt smiled as he shared the weekend with his dad. It was good. Real good. With the waterways cleared, the rest of the summer passed quickly. Seamus visited Matt and Aidan just as much as they visited him. They even did things with Brad, like 4th of July, the zoo, a weekend at the lake, and a fun wax museum. It was an adventurous summer. In the blink of an eye, it was over, and moving time had commenced. Seamus helped get everything out of storage and into Matt’s new apartment. Seamus’s loft was bigger, something he regularly reminded him about, but Matt just smiled and gave Seamus a kiss on the cheek, making him growl. Seamus hadn’t told Matt he loved him, though it was written on his face whenever Matt did cute shit, like the time he picked his dirty towel up off the floor and tossed it in the hamper without Seamus asking him to. The last thing he wanted was for Seamus to feel like he had to hold back. He also understood the hesitation. It would be hard to proclaim something so big knowing the other person wasn’t there. Especially after everything he had been through with Kelly. It would happen when both were ready. **** It took a couple of weeks for Aidan to un-attach from Seamus’s side. The back and forth over the summer was hard on him. In fact, the first weeks of daycare were a complete disaster. The separation from anxiety was worse than either prepared for. Matt worried he might have legitimately messed up by moving away for the summer. Seamus was a champ about it. Probably because he secretly loved it. The first week, he stayed at the daycare with Aidan to help acclimate him. When Seamus left, Aidan was perched victoriously on his hip, clinging to his neck. The second week, Seamus left Aidan there, but only for a couple of hours. The third week he stayed away a little longer. By the end of September, Aidan was at daycare two full days a week. That third day was not happening anytime soon. Matt had a good rhythm going. Aidan was in daycare or with Seamus. When Matt wasn’t in class, he was working with Hilary and Kase, or studying. As much as he didn’t want to rely on Seamus, he also didn’t care as much anymore. Things had kind of reverted to the way they’d been before they moved in together. If Seamus wasn’t at Matt’s apartment, then Matt was at Seamus’s. Matt didn’t mind it so much. Things were definitely smoother this time around. They went to all the home football games together. The three of them even wore matching collegiate hoodies. Something Hillary swooned over even though she didn’t know they were officially together. As good as life was, and it was really fucking good, Seamus was stressed about something. Matt fished a few times, but Seamus waved him off. “Just work stuff.” Matt was giving Seamus space, but he would not let it go for long. They were in a relationship. Matt deserved to know what was bothering him. They were at the loft one night. Aidan was asleep and Matt was studying Advanced Forensic Accounting. Seamus paused the TV. “Theoretically, forensic accounting could find missing money, right?” Matt kept working. “Yeah. It’s basically auditing on steroids.” Seamus thought about it for a moment and then unpaused TV. The question wasn’t strange, but the timing and tone were off. Matt kept talking. “If someone is embezzling money, laundering money, or otherwise moving money where it shouldn’t be moved, there would technically be some kind of trail. The inconsistencies might not be obvious to most, but someone who knows what they're looking for, like a forensic accountant, should be able to find it in the numbers.” “If someone was to do an audit, could you do it with no one knowing that you’re doing it?” “I mean, yeah. The auditor would need access to the program and/or the numbers, so someone would have to know, but you could do an audit under the radar.” Seamus watched Matt for a moment then nodded, seemingly satisfied his answer. That was that. Except it wasn’t. Matt wanted to know. “Does this have to do with work?” “I don’t know. Maybe?” Seamus ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “I have nothing to go on but a bad feeling.” “Okay,” Matt pressed. “What do you think is happening and why do you have a bad feeling?” “Mike does all the accounting. He was Kelly’s childhood friend and his most trusted confidant. After Kelly died, Mike stayed on. It seemed like the easy choice since he was already doing it. The last few years Mike has gotten more controlling where his job is concerned. I don’t know much about numbers, but when I ask about specifics, he finds a way to brush me off. I don’t feel like I’m getting the whole picture.” “Does he work alone?” “Yes.” “And there’s no one to keep him accountable? No checks and balances?” “I guess not.” “If he does all the finances and no one is checking his work, it would be easy for him skim. If I was you, I’d be inclined to investigate.” “I don’t know where to start.” “I can ask my professor if she could recommend someone.” “I was thinking you could put your schooling to the test and look around for me.” Matt was shocked. “I’m not a real accountant. I’m a baby accountant. Like, I’m not even eating solid foods yet.” Seamus held his hands up. “I was just thinking you could look. If you don’t see anything suspicious, I’ll drop it. If you see something concerning, I can hire a professional and go from there.” Matt’s heart raced. He strummed his fingers anxiously on the sofa cushion. “You really want me to go all forensic crazy on your business financials?” Seamus smiled at Matt’s ridiculousness. “Of course. I trust you more than anyone.” Matt grinned. He was excited that he might put his baby skills to actual practice. He could hardly contain himself. “When are we going to do this?” “Mike goes on vacation in two weeks. I was thinking we could do it then.” Two weeks wasn’t a lot of time to prepare, but he’d manage. No matter what, he’d be ready to help Seamus figure out the accounting debacle. It was the least he could do for everything Seamus had done for him. Matt knew one thing for sure, he was going to give this his best shot. “Ok. I’ll do it,” he promised. Now he had to make sure he didn't just make a huge mistake.
    30 points
  3. After Tony left, I went to the store where I bought the jackets; I had one printed with Anna's name. Next was the clothing store where I bought two blue shirts and two black tuxedo pants. I wasn't done; I went to a print shop and had calling cards made. I brought a picture of Tony playing his guitar. The guy at the print shop photoshopped the picture by coloring Tony's shirt blue and replacing his jeans with black slacks. We added the name, the Blue Minstrel, and put my name as the agent with my phone number. I then went to the sewing center and bought 2 yards of blue cloth. Now that I had my shopping done, I was ready to call Mrs. Wilson. When Mrs. Wilson answered the phone I explained I was Tony's agent and I wanted to formalize the gig for Sunday. She said the event was to celebrate her husband's birthday and would like Tony to be there from 7 to 9. I explain that Tony would play a 20-minute set every half hour for two hours. The fee will be 200 dollars for two hours. She agreed and said she'd have a check ready when we arrived. I told her to make the check out to me. With all the arrangements made, I packed everything into the trunk of the car. When I arrived at the store, Jane was ready to go home. I took over her cash register and mentally prepared to work. I took the calling card and taped it to the side of my register so customers can see it. Tony came behind me at the register, tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around, kissed me. "You know that this means war." He just laughed and walked back to the aisle where he was working. It wasn't till quitting time when he saw the calling card. "Does this mean you finalized Sunday?" "Yes it's all set; 200 dollars for 2 hours of 4 sets, 20 minutes on, and 10 minutes break after each set. It's Mr. Wilson's birthday so I hope you know the tune to Happy Birthday." As we passed the farmhouse, I remember I had some clothes in the trunk. "I have to drop off some clothes that needed a wash, so why don't you drive to the shack and I'll catch up to you." I took the shirts and blue cloth, waved goodbye, and watch Tony drive away. "Grandmother, Tony's going to play at a party on Sunday; I need a minstrel's shirt for him. This is our calling card, the Blue Minstrel." "Leave the new shirts, I'll see that they are washed and ironed by Sunday. As for the minstrel shirt, I'll check and see if I can find a picture, I'll show you before I start cutting the material." "Thanks, Grandmother, you're the best." With that, I start jogging to the shack. When I got there all the lights were out. I knew Tony was about somewhere. I slowly open the door fully expecting something to fall on my head; nothing happened. I quietly tiptoed to our bedroom. When I switch on the light, there was Tony, nude, with his ass sticking up in the air. He had a devil smile on his face. But he was hot, and I was hard as nails in less than 5 seconds. I quickly disrobed, and when I jumped on the bed, the little shit turned over onto his back. That wasn't the problem; he had placed tape over his crotch so I couldn't see his dick. In black ink he wrote, surrender. Looking at him I knew I lost the war, for now. But I was a good captive and gladly surrendered to my punishment if that's what you want to call it. Making love with Tony is the ultimate in love. He's so much a part of me and when we physically connect I truly believe our souls merged. There's no way I can exist without him. And the great thing, he feels the same way. Although I surrendered, the war isn't over. This POW is planning revenge. "I think we need to talk to Mr. Thomas. You are getting busy with bookings and you don't need the money. You need to make a record of your favorite songs; we could send it to various radio stations and see what happens. Tony you're good and people like you, what do you say?" "I don't know. I like to sing and play the guitar but I'm not sure I want to make a career in it. I still want to get my degree." "You do realize that since the Wilson party, you have played every Sunday for the last three months. You have earned more than 6 months' wages as a stock boy. Why don't you give it some serious thought? Maybe you can ask Anna what she thinks about the idea." "If I make it career what are you going to do? I may have to travel and be on tour or doing a gig somewhere else. I don't want to be away from you." "As long as you have me in your heart, I'll be with you. Who knows, if the apple orchard is a success, I can travel with you doing off-season." Tony just shook his head as if to say, 'I don't know and went back to work. A lot of the customers always complement Tony, as he started singing while he worked. Not loudly, but more softly to himself, but if you were within 30 feet of him, you could hear him sing. Then I had a brilliant idea. Maybe Tony believed he couldn't make it as a singer. The first chance I had I would speak to Anna without Tony, I'd ask her to record several of Tony's songs on Monday night. Then I'd send them to several radio stations that primarily were music stations. If they thought his music was good, maybe Tony will rethink my idea.
    29 points
  4. “Wake up, baby. We have a surprise for you.” Pete gently shook his daughter’s shoulder. Liebe slowly came alert. She brushed blonde bangs off her face, stretched, and stared at her father. “Morning, Papi. What kind of surprise?” “Do you remember our friend, Jo? The lady who runs the Sea Turtle Center? She texted us this morning. A lot of turtles are coming on the beach to lay eggs. Wanna go see ’em?” “Yesss!” Liebe was instantly alert. The mention of nesting sea turtles sufficiently appealing to have her get out of bed early on a Saturday morning. The girl lived in the Florida Keys with her two fathers. She liked being surrounded by water, and loved the sea creatures they often encountered while boating. One of her fathers, Taggart—Tag to everybody—was a charter captain. He took tourists out on his boat to deep sea fish or scuba dive around the reefs. The other one, Pedro—everyone called him Pete except for Liebe’s grandmother—was a firefighter. “Okay, then. Let’s get ready. Put on a bathing suit under your shorts and t-shirt in case we end up going in the water. Tag’s getting the boat ready, and we’ll leave after you eat breakfast.” “Okay, Papi. I’ll rush. I don’t want to miss the turtles.” Illustration A blonde girl with messy hair lays in bed, staring at a bearded man. Her bright blue eyes wide open and her face showing excitement. Months before, on another Saturday, Liebe had gone fishing with Daddy while Papi worked at the fire station. “What’s that?” Liebe had asked while pointing at what looked like a piece of wood floating in the water near the boat. Although she remembered the encounter, Liebe could not quite recall exactly when it had happened. She had been a little girl then, but she was a big kid now. After the summer break, she would be in first grade at school. “That’s a sea turtle, baby.” Because Daddy spent so much time fishing and diving, he knew everything about the animals living in the ocean. “There are different types. Do you see the design on the shell? That one’s a loggerhead.” Liebe looked harder and realized what she first thought was a piece of wood, had a head sticking out of one end, and four flippers it was using to swim. “Yes. Is the shell hard like the ones we see on the beach all the time?” Unlike the white ones she often found on the sand, the turtle’s shell was dark brown. It also had lines in a lighter color forming shapes on it. “They’re similar. Both are hard to help protect the soft animals living inside.” Daddy pulled the straps of Liebe’s safety vest to make sure it was tight enough on her at the same time he took off his t-shirt. “Let’s get in the water. Maybe it’ll swim close enough and let you touch it.” Illustration A blonde girl, wearing a safety vest, leans over the side of a white boat and points at a sea turtle in the water. Floating in the water, with Daddy right behind her, Liebe opened her eyes wide when the turtle turned its head slightly and stared at her. “Daddy, Daddy! It’s looking at me. Can they breathe with their head outside the water?” Liebe knew some fish stuck theirs out, but they could not do it for very long. “They can. Turtles need air like we do. But they can hold their breath when they dive. Sometimes, they spend as much as five or six hours below the surface, before they need to come up.” “Wow! Do they have to come up to eat too?” Liebe tentatively extended a hand when the turtle came closer. Daddy helped her by holding her up and moving her closer. “No, they don’t. They can eat while swimming below the surface.” Her small hand touched the carapace for a moment, before Liebe drew it back. “It’s really hard!” She caressed the shell again until the turtle swam away. “There are bones underneath the top, but the part of the shell we get to see and touch’s made up of the same stuff our nails are. It’s called keratin.” Daddy let go of Liebe, and she floated on the water, looking to see if she could find another turtle. Alas, they did not get to see any others that day. Illustration A blonde girl bobbing in the ocean with her father behind her. One of her hands is extended, touching the top of a sea turtle’s shell. That night, when Papi came into her room to read her a bedtime story, Liebe asked him to tell her more about sea turtles. She was always interested in learning new stuff. “Okay.” Instead of grabbing one of her books from the bedroom shelf, Daddy took out his phone. “Let’s see what we find.” He tapped the screen a couple of times and smiled. “It says here sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. That’s over 100 million years.” “Wow! How old do they get?” “They can live up to 100 years. The females start laying eggs once they’re about thirty-years-old. For that, she returns to the same beach where she was born, even if she’s not been there since birth! Some females nest every year until the age of eighty.” “What do they eat?” “Almost anything depending on the type of turtle. The one you saw today, the loggerhead, eats other animals. Their jaws are really strong so they can crack conch and whelk shells.” “I like eating conch too. I love Mama Bea’s conch chowder and conch fritters!” Mama Bea’s was a restaurant close to their house owned by a big Bahamian woman who always gave Liebe extra bread. Liebe really liked the Bahamian sweet bread made with coconut in it. “We’ll go eat there this weekend. Let’s see what else we can learn about sea turtles.” The next morning, Liebe could not recall what else Papi had told her. She had fallen asleep while he was still reading. Illustration Blonde girl lying in bed with her hair spread over the pillow. Next to her, a dark-haired man smiles while looking at his phone. But now, even though a lot of time had passed, she remembered that conversation and looked forward to seeing the turtles, their nests, and the eggs. She wondered if they were like chicken ones. Since the first time she saw the turtle swimming, Liebe had always paid close attention while on the boat, hoping to see another loggerhead. But it had not happened again. Because they were in a hurry, Liebe’s breakfast was a strawberry toaster pastry slathered with peanut butter and a glass of milk. “I’m ready. Let’s go see the turtles.” She wiped the white mustache with her shirt’s hem, making both her fathers roll their eyes. “Sunscreen, life vest, sunglasses, and hat.” The simple instructions from Daddy were the same as always. Her skin was tan from spending so much time outside, but the sun in the Florida Keys was strong, and anyone could burn. The life vest she didn’t really need, she had been in the water for as long as she could remember, and could swim very well. But she wore it anyway because her fathers asked her to. “Where are we going, Daddy?” “Sombrero Beach. You’ve been there before. It’s where the Turtle Rescue Center is. It’s also a favorite spot for sea turtles to nest.” The Florida Keys were a string of small islands stretching south from the mainland to Key West. They were connected by the Overseas Highway with so many bridges Liebe had never been able to count them all. The Gulf of Mexico was on the west side of the island chain and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Sombrero Beach was on the ocean side of Marathon. Illustration Map of the Florida Keys with Key Largo, Key West, Marathon, and Sombrero Beach labeled. “Tag, Pete.” The woman waved at Liebe’s fathers while they tied the boat. Once she was on the dock, Jo squatted in front of her. “Your dads told me you like sea turtles.” “I do! One time when I was with Daddy on the boat, we saw a logging head, and I got to touch the shell.” “They’re called loggerheads, Liebe. They’re one of six types of sea turtles that nest in Florida, but it usually lays eggs at night. The ones you’ll see today are different. They’re the smallest of them all. The Kemp’s Ridley is the only sea turtle that nests predominantly during daylight hours. They often gather in a large group to come ashore and nest. That’s called an arribada. It’s Spanish for arrival.” “How did they get their name?” “Great question! The species is named after Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman from Key West, Florida, who first identified them over a hundred-twenty years ago. “Can we go see them?” Jo stood and offered Liebe her hand to hold. “Sure thing! Come on. Let’s go check them out.” Illustration A smiling, young African-American woman holds a blonde girl’s hand while on a dock. Two men, one blonde and the other one with dark hair follow them. “There are so many!” Liebe was surprised. Turtles crawled on the beach in both directions. Some left the water and some returned to it. “Try to keep the noise down, Liebe.” Jo put a finger to her lips in the universal sign for quiet. “Turtles can get scared and run back to the water before they lay their eggs.” “Sooorryyy,” Liebe said. “It’s okay. Come on, we can get a little closer.” Jo guided her with a hand on her back. Liebe guessed the other people on the beach, wearing the same t-shirt as Jo, were other rescue center workers. Some held wooden stakes and rope. “Why are those people standing around with those sticks?” She kept her voice just above a whisper, trying not to upset the turtles. Jo was quick with an explanation. “Once a nest is full of eggs, the mother turtle will cover everything with sand. Because they’re often hard to see, we string rope around them so nobody steps on them by accident.” “Is it bad to touch the eggs? I touch eggs at home sometimes when Daddy or Papi ask me to get them from the refrigerator.” “And those are okay to touch, Liebe. But these have a little animal living inside. Sea turtles are endangered. That means there’s not that many left in the world. If anyone disturbs a nest, it could mean fewer being born. And anyway, it’s illegal to bother the grownups while they lay eggs, muck around the nest, or touch the baby turtles when they’re born.” Illustration Blond girls and African-American young woman hold hands, standing on a beach. Sea turtles crawl across the sand away from the water Looking towards the water, Liebe saw something strange, and pointed. “What’s wrong with her nose?” Jo lifted her sunglasses and stared in the same direction. She gave a small gasp and waved her arms until the other rescue center people saw her. She used a finger to direct their attention at the turtle, and quickly reached into her pocket, and withdrew a pair of plastic gloves. They were the same type Liebe remembered the nurse wearing when she was vaccinated. “Stay here, Liebe. I’ll be right back.” Jo tiptoed around the other turtles until she reached the one the little girl had noticed. Picking it up, she headed back towards the fathers and their daughter. When she came close, Liebe realized there was a plastic drinking straw stuck in the animal’s nose. “I’m taking her inside the hospital. Why don’t the three of you follow me?” Jo said. One of the guys holding a stick had already run ahead and held the door open for them. “Is it hurting her?” Liebe was bothered. The straw sticking out the turtle’s nose looked like a big splinter. She had one stuck in her foot once and she remembered it being really, really painful. “I’m not sure, Liebe. She was moving okay, so it may not bother her too much. But we’re going to help her anyway.” Illustration A young African-American woman hold a sea turtle in her hands. A plastic drinking straw with red, white, and yellow stripes stuck in one of its nostrils. “Is she going to be okay?” Liebe was worried about the turtle. “I hope so, Liebe.” Jo put the animal on top of a shiny, metal table and turned to the fathers. “Tag, want to put on gloves and hold her down for me?” She pointed at a box on the counter behind her. “Pete, open the drawer underneath. There should be some small pliers in it. Hand them to me.” While Liebe watched, her fathers did what they were asked to. Once Daddy put a hand on the turtle so it wouldn’t crawl away, Jo took the pliers Papi held out. “She’s lucky. This didn’t happen a long time ago. I know sometimes others have been found with the same problem, but the straws have been inside them for so long, the colors have faded. This should be easy.” Holding the turtle’s head, Jo pinched the straw with the pliers. They reminded Liebe of the ones her fathers used when fixing the boat or their Jeep. She hoped Jo could fix the turtle the same way. Slowly, Jo tugged on the straw. The turtle did not seem to like it, it tried moving away, but Daddy kept holding it, and Jo kept pulling. After a moment, Jo gave one last tug, the straw came out, and Liebe cheered. “YAY! We can put her back in the water now.” “Actually, we’ll keep her in here overnight to make sure she’s okay.” Jo dropped the straw in the garbage and reached for a small tube. “This is antibiotic ointment. We’ll put some around the nose to make sure there’s no infection.” “Is that like what my dads use on me when I get a cut or a scrape?” “Exactly the same, Liebe.” Jo had finished, removed her gloves, and washed her hands. “Those plastic straws are nasty. People throw them out all the time, and animals eat them and get sick.” “I don’t! I have a straw I can use over and over.” Liebe was proud she would not make animals suffer by leaving plastic straws behind. “I helped clean a beach once, and I didn’t like all the trash some people throw in the water or on the sand.” “That’s awesome, Liebe! If more people did the same, maybe we would not have so many animals get hurt.” Illustration Young African-American woman, wearing medical gloves, holds a turtle’s head with one hand, while with a set of needle nose pliers in the other one she removes a plastic straw from the animal’s nostril. A couple of months later, Liebe was allowed to stay up past her bedtime. Jo had called her fathers, mentioned a few hatchlings had been born the previous night, and invited them to Sombrero Beach that evening. She expected more eggs to hatch. Instead of taking the boat to, they drove to the rescue center in Daddy’s truck. Liebe noticed there was only one light on in the parking lot. “Why is it so dark?” she asked. “Let’s go find Jo so she can explain it.” Daddy had turned off the engine, and Papi helped Liebe get out of the truck. Holding her fathers’ hands, Liebe walked closer to the sand. On the edge of the parking lot, Jo stood waving at them. “Hey, guys. Hi, Liebe. Y’all are in for a treat.” She turned and pointed at the beach. “Oh, wow!” Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Liebe realized there were lots and lots of little turtles running towards the water. “It’s so dark. How do they know which way to go?” Jo squatted next to her. “See how the water reflects light? After they’re born, hatchlings run in the direction of the brightest light.” “Is that why you keep it dark back here?” “Liebe, you’re a very smart kid.” Jo smiled at her. “Turtles nest and hatch during the summer. That’s why everyone living near the beach is asked to dim their lights. We don’t want the hatchlings getting confused. If they went in the other direction, they could end up on the road, getting run over.” “Nooo!” Liebe did not like the idea of cars hurting the little turtles. “They’re so cute. How can I help them?” “Share what you’ve learned with friends. You saw what happened with the plastic straw. Convince everyone to use fewer of them, and dispose of them properly. Make sure lights aren’t too bright during this time of year. Never bother nesting turtles or their nests. And don’t let balloons fly free. Turtles and other animals can get hurt if they eat them.” “Once school starts, I’ll tell everyone. And I’ll help clean beaches again to get rid of plastic junk.” “Good for you, Liebe. If you do all that, and other people do too, one day when you’re a lot older, maybe you’ll see one of these hatchlings return and lay eggs themselves. Liebe promised herself to do whatever she could to help sea turtles. Illustration Countless turtle hatchlings scurry over sand towards the moon’s reflection on the surf. In the background you can see the dark silhouettes of two men, a woman, and a girl. The End Tag, Pete, and Liebe will return in Coral Castles.
    28 points
  5. It was several weeks later that Anna stopped at the store on the pretense she ran out of coffee. When checking out, she gave me the tape. "Does he know?" She shook her head no. That evening in bed after playing our version of POW, "You know if people knew how we played POW, they might want to be captured. We should change the initials to POL." "POL? What does that stand for?" "Prisoners of Love, POL. At least that's what I am, a POL." "I like that but if you are a POL, what am I?" "You're the one who has captured my heart." It never fails, when I start talking like that, Tony tears up. But the good thing is what happens next. The emotions I feel when we make love has never changed. And I know Tony feels the same way. I drove Tony to work and then I went to have copies of the tape made. While I was in the store, "Do you mind if I try something?" "As long as you don't destroy the tape, ok." "I'll make a copy as insurance. I want to see if I can eliminate some of the background noise." I watched as he placed the tape in a scanner that showed sound waves on the screen. The technician showed me a wave pattern that was stronger than the others. "This is what we want to copy; hopefully we'll have a clear sound." When he was finished scanning, he recorded a tape from the scanner. When he played the tape, I was amazed at the clarity of the sound. "What do you think?" "It's great; I didn't know you could do that. I think he'll be surprised to hear it." "Do you know the singer?" "Yes, he's my boyfriend." "I think rather than a tape, why you don't consider putting it on a disc. If you are going to do what I think you are, discs are better." "Ok let's make 24 discs, and I guess I'll need a disc player if I want to play it. I left the store 2 hours later, with the discs and a disc player. We agreed that he would keep one disc in case I needed more. I couldn't wait to play the disc. Over the following two weeks, I mailed a disc to all the radio stations within a 50-mile radius. One morning as we were driving to work, I had the radio tuned to a music station. "Jim, listen to that song. That singer sounds like me." I didn't say anything, when the song ended, the announcer commented on the song. "Folks, this was recorded by a young man who I predict will make it big. Just remember you heard it here on KCKA." Tony looked at me, "That was me, right? How did they get a recording of me singing?" "I guess someone must have recorded you singing either at Anna's or one of your gigs. Did you hear what the DJ said; he predicted you'd make it big." "That's only one DJ. For all you know, it could be just BS radio talk." "If I could prove to you that you could make it singing, would you do it?" "Maybe, I might consider it." I now knew what I was going to do to prove to Tony that he could make a career out of singing. I took 10 of the remaining 14 discs with me to Anna's café. "Anna, here are discs I made of Tony singing. I want you to sell them for 9.98; you keep 2 dollars as a commission. I'm going to prove that people are willing to pay to hear him sing." Leaving the café I went to the store to begin my shift. We weren't that busy so I had time to help Tony on the floor. I guess I was overplaying my hand, "Jim, why are you looking at me and smiling like that? Are you hiding something from me?" "No, I just like looking at you. I love you so much, you always bring a smile to my face and you are, as they say, easy on the eyes." I was hoping he bought that. He just smiled back so I think he did. When I dropped Tony off at the store Monday morning, I went to the café to check on the sales of the discs. Walking into the café, Anna had a big smile, grabbed my arm, and led me to the cash register. "I sold all of the discs and I think I could have sold 20 more. A lot of people said they heard Tony on the radio. I mentioned that I had a disc of him singing, they wanted to know where I got it so they could buy it as well. When I told them I had a few, they had their money in their hand. I sold all 10 in two days. I told the rest they were on backorder. Jim, I need 30 more to cover the back order and at least 20 for inventory. I'll pay you as soon as you deliver them." "Anna that's terrific. Let me see if I can take care of your order." I left the café and headed to the electronic store to see how soon I could get 50 copies of Tony's disc. When I arrived at the store, the technician who helped me smiled, "I knew you'd be back. I played the disc for a customer who was buying a disc player. He wanted to know who was singing and if we sold the disc. While we were talking, about 5 other people stopped and listened to the disc." "That's great news, now I need 50 more copies." "I figured you would be back so I made another 20. If you come back tonight before closing, I can have another 30 for you." Tony is going to be so surprised, I did a quick calculation, with the 20 sold and the 50, Tony would earn close to 400 dollars. Heading for the store, I dropped off the 20 at the café. When I entered the store it was obvious Tony was waiting for me. "What are you up to? Two people came into the store and asked me to sign their discs. Where did those discs come from?" "Tony, you know I always have your best interest at heart. I love you and you're worth more than being a stock boy. I had 20 discs made from one of your tapes. I sent 6 to the radio stations and I gave Anna 10 to sell. Tomorrow I'm giving Anna 50 more, 30 to cover backorders, and 20 for inventory. Tony people love your singing, you have to sing." Tony looked at with tears in his eyes, "OK you have proven your point, 10 sold and 50 more." "That's just the beginning. I think you better talk with Mr. Thomas." "But shouldn't I wait till we're more definite?" "OK, let's give it a month, then if everything continues on track, you can give Mr. Thomas noticed so he can hire your replacement and you can train him." It seemed Tony was agreeable to that but I felt that Tony still had some doubts, but I didn't. That night I proved to Tony that I loved him as he proved it to me. Our private life provided the confirmation and knowledge that the expression of our love was true and would last. Each time we made love, our emotions soared, recommitting our vows to each other.
    20 points
  6. "What the fuck is that fag doing here?" Brian's voice hit me like a ton of bricks as I walked into homeroom with Sean at my side. Last night had been a long night, and this morning had begun even earlier, leaving me with only a few hours of sleep. I hadn't even wanted to go to school today, but it was Sean's first day back, and he'd expected me to go with him. Besides, once things ramped up into high gear with the new program to roll back communist gains in Central and South America, I wouldn't be spending much time at school. Early this morning the President had broached the idea of me commanding the joint military/intelligence/diplomatic program, but he'd been talked out of that by his other advisors on the phone call with some help from me. There was no way I wanted to spearhead that operation. As good as I was in certain areas, I didn't have the patience to deal with all the different agency squabbles that would be taking place. Instead, someone I'd known through television in my first life, and had worked with in the second a few times would head the operation. That didn't leave me totally off the hook, though. By the end of the week, I had to have a budget projection for the first phase of the program. That dealt mostly with establishing a central office, a basic budget, hiring administrative staff (both from the local labor pool and from military sources), and setting up a briefing package for the new commander. The choice of commander was going to be a little problematic as well. He'd recently taken command of an Army division in Germany and a replacement would have to be found before he shipped back stateside. Last night I'd gotten home just after two in the morning, and had immediately fallen into bed. Kevin had woken me up two hours later to inform me that Communications was holding a call from the White House. Sean had shown up shortly before seven with some Pop Tarts for my breakfast and I'd been able to have a short discussion with him about starting a new Do Over project. His freckled face had screwed up in a grimace at the mere mention of the idea, but after a few minutes of thought he'd agreed. Things in this time line were so much worse already that he agreed it would be a good idea to have a machine ready just in case. His reaction was not quite what I expected. I had been confident I'd have to talk him into helping out but by the time we left for school he was actually sounding fairly eager. An even bigger surprise was his worrying about how to fit going to school while still working on developing another version of a time machine. "I told you so." Sean's stage whisper resounded in the quiet that followed Brian's outburst in homeroom. Unlike two years ago, the room was nearly full, although still separated into several distinct groups. The reactions ranged from shock to surprise, to a few giggles from the East Valley students. Derek, David, and Sam all flashed me worried expressions while I stared at the teenager who'd been my lover in the last timeline. "What did you say?" I managed to get out in a hoarse voice that was still loud enough to fill the entire room. My face was a mask as I stared at him and I knew my emotions were flickering through my eyes for any who watched closely enough. They were a mixture of rage, pain, loss, and of course, total surprise. Brandon and Trevor were sitting on either side of Brian and I could see them flash me sympathetic looks. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Sean catch their glances and his entire body relaxed slightly from the tenseness it had assumed as soon as Brian had spoken. "I asked what that fag is doing here." Brian said through clenched teeth. His face was full of anger as he stood up and I took a long look at him. He was wearing a tight green t-shirt and 501 jeans that showed off his legs very well. It didn't make dealing with this any easier. "Who said I was gay?" Sean spat back before any words could come to my mind. My mind was spinning at this confirmation of what Sean had told me before, and the hints from Trevor and Brandon. So many things went through my mind about what could possibly have made Brian this way, what with Uncle Rich and all, and the anathema that was so much stronger towards gays because of the Quarantines, but it was hard to digest it all at once. Brian was as gay as any of us, and yet here he was 'outing' Sean in front of our entire class. "Shut up, faggot." Brian sneered with an expression I'd never seen on his face before. The disgust, hatred, and contempt there caused something to snap inside of me. At that moment, for the first time since the latest trip back in time had begun, I realized the 'Brian' I had loved for two decades, had been married to, was dead. In the long moments that stretched out following Brian's last comments, images flashed across my mind's eye. Brian's handsome face that day we first met was the first image, followed closely by that first time wrestling in his back yard when it was filled with desire and longing. The images flashed forward to that wonderful day in Diego Garcia when my ship pulled in for refitting and he came across the quarterdeck for a wartime reunion. That had been one of the most stressful times in our life together, the long separation, the constant fear of a very real death that had actually happened in a time-line aborted by Sean's first desperate Do Over, and yet we'd come through it all better, closer than ever. The next flash was when we were starting our business together and excitement filled his face along with a passion that I'd only ever witnessed in bed with him. That excitement had been brightest the night of the Berlin grand-opening, but had also been there at the opening of every single theater we'd opened, all forty-six of them. None of those compared to the look of unsuppressed joy, and nervousness, on the day we'd gotten married. Somehow we'd been coerced into a big church wedding in our adult hometown of San Francisco. The California Legislature had just finished passing a law allowing gay couples full marriage rights, and since we'd both been part of the drive to get it passed we weren't able to have the small service we really wanted. The guest list had included the Reagans, even though Ron himself was starting to drift into the haze of Alzheimer's. For the sake of good politics, the Clintons had sat on Brian's side of the aisle although both the former and current President had been in the front row with the family. Neither Ford nor Bush had showed up, but Jimmy Carter had joined the Clintons in sitting with Brian's parents and extended family. Our best efforts hadn't managed to keep the cameras out, nor to keep them from doing close-ups of the nervous looks on both our faces as we exchanged vows. Then there was the look of muted joy and soft, quiet support as the U.S.S. Diego Garcia had pulled into Taiwan following the war with China. There had been tears on both our faces as we went into our hotel room there. Thanks to the presence of a news crew on the ship, the world had known about the several close calls that ship had experienced so there was no hiding the fact that we'd almost been sunk several times during the short war. Chinese submarines had proven far deadlier than expected, mostly because we'd underestimated their crews more than their Russian-built submarines. That had been a tearful reunion, full of gentle caresses and long, loving kisses. The next morning I was on a plane for a hastily-assembled High-Altitude/Low Observation jump into China in the effort to stop their Do Over project. Because of that, I hadn't seen the final looks on Brian's face, nor even known he'd been kidnapped and died there after I'd already gone back in time. It had been Sean coming back once again to save, or at least warn, me for me to find out my lover had really died. All those flashes told me one thing: This Brian with his look of anger, disgust, and contempt was not my Brian. "You shut up!" There was no more hoarseness in my voice as I spoke moments after Brian's telling Sean to shut up. Anger filled my voice more than anything. It was an anger focused on this person who wore my love's face but was not him in any way, shape, or form. My words caught his attention and now I was the sole focus of his sneer. "What, are you a faggot too?" Brian sneered at me and it was only Sean's hand on my arm that kept me from stepping forward and swinging. Brian noticed my fists clenched though and sneered again. "Maybe you're just protecting your little bitch, is that it? Was he your little bitch before?" "Brian!" Trevor broke in sharply. "You're not supposed to." "Shut up." Brian told Trevor with a shake of his head as he moved to stand within inches of me. His breath was hot on my face as he exhaled and I took a deep breath to try to calm down. "You jealous?" I asked contemptuously. "You're jealous because Sean's my friend and you're worried you'll never get a chance to touch my ass?" "Shut the fuck up!" Brian roared as his arms came up, palms outward, and he pushed me hard. I was ready for that though, and didn't move backwards. My lips edged upwards in a half-smile, half-sneer. "My, my, I think I touched a button there." I snapped at him as my mouth widened into an evil smile. Brian's face contorted in rage as it turned almost purple with every word I spoke, but I wasn't dead yet. As much as I didn't know him the way I had known the real Brian, I knew enough about him to take the knife I'd just buried in his gut and twist a little. "Imagine how proud Uncle Rich would be of his little Bri-Bri now." "You son of a bitch!" Brian roared as his face turned dark purple and his arm cocked back in preparation to strike out at me. "What's going on in here?" Mr. Luce's sharp question cut through the air and Brian froze before he could try to deliver the blow. The homeroom and math teacher strode quickly into the room. He was shorter than both Brian and I, had a decent-sized paunch in front as well as a bushy black mustache that matched his bush-black hair, but he still managed to carry an air of authority that kept Brian from taking the swing. The teacher put himself between us and gave us both a stern glare that caused Brian to back down and slump a bit. I changed my posture to, making it closer to a military 'at-ease' than anything else. "Breckenridge here decided to throw some insults at Sean." I said slowly and carefully, doing my best to keep my voice neutral. Brian glared daggers at me after I spoke, but didn't bother to protest. "So you thought you'd come in like a knight in shining armor?" Mr. Luce demanded of me and I was taken back for a moment. "Jones, you're supposed to be a smart kid and yet you don't do the right thing. Instead of getting me you try to step in and we end up with an almost-fight. Now, what exactly were you doing, Breckenridge?" "I.I was wanting to know why Jones was bringing that faggot in here." Brian stuttered after a moment. "I know him from my old school in Modesto. I heard his parents caught him jacking off to fag porn and they sent him off to be cured at some hospital for crazy people." "What business is any of this to you?" Mr. Luce demanded, a tinge of anger in his voice and his face going slightly red. "Who are you to go putting your nose into other people's business?" "I.I.people like that aren't safe." Brian said in a much weaker voice. "I.they die horribly and no one wants to be around them and they all deserve to be locked up." "I see we'll be having some interesting discussions in the near future for homeroom." Mr. Luce said with a stern look. "Breckinridge, go to the office and wait there. Jones, come with me, you'll be first for the Principal to have a chat with." "Yes, sir." I said quickly while Brian mumbled something and gave me a very dirty look. He followed behind us while Sean moved to sit down next to Derek and Sam. Before leaving the room I could see both of them talking to him softly while the room quickly filled with the buzz of students talking quickly about everything that had happened. Mom was back on duty in the office and just nodded as Mr. Luce talked softly to her before leading me into the Principal's office. She spared me a superior look before motioning Brian into a chair. The office area was a small room at the end of the hallway that headed towards the back entrance. It had two large windows, one looking towards the hallway and other on the cafeteria seating area. A door towards the back led to the Principal's office where I was ushered into a seat in front of the large oak desk that all but filled the room. Mr. Snow couldn't have been more different than the principal who'd sat behind that desk when I'd first arrived in town. The old principal had been dismissed over the summer because of a series of indiscretions. In a state where prostitution was legal, his visiting a brothel may have been unwise, but it was by no means something he'd be fired over, especially since the brothel hadn't even been in the same county. Doing a few lines of coke, going crazy and beating the prostitute were, however, cause for his dismissal after his arrest. The new principal, Mr. Snow, had hair that matched his name. He was in his late-fifties, a former Air Force officer who had become a school administrator after his military retirement, and he had short, snow-white hair. A pair of large glasses were on his face and when he stood, he revealed a tall and lanky frame. Another habit of his, most likely borne from a long military career, was that he always wore a full three-piece suit. Today it was a dark blue suit with a bright blue tie. Mr. Snow listened to Mr. Luce's explanation of what he'd seen when he'd walked into the classroom, and his conversation with me. As Mr. Luce finished, the principal took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose before looking at me with a pained expression. Without even looking at Mr. Luce, he dismissed the teacher and let out a long sigh when it was just the two of us in the room. "In every school I've ever been in, there's always been a student who is constantly in the middle of whatever trouble is happening." Mr. Snow said slowly and with great care. I noticed for the first time that he even had gray eyes. "That doesn't mean he's necessarily a bad person, just that he's constantly finding himself in the middle of conflict, and sometimes he doesn't always react the way he should." As the Principal began to drone on and on about a smart kid who despite his intelligence always did the wrong thing, who thought he was too good for the rules, or maybe just didn't realize the rules applied to him as well, my mind drifted back to my last life and a conversation with the real Brian. It had taken place in the mid-1990's, after I'd returned to our San Francisco home from an emergency trip to Washington. Despite the changes in the time-line with the Third World War, some things in that time hadn't changed from the first time-line and I'd been called in to give advice about the reports of genocide in fractured Yugoslavia. "Why does it always have to be you?" Brian had asked me with a heavy sigh. We were lying in bed, curled up next to each other, with my back to him and his arms wrapped around me. His mouth was next to my ear and he whispered softly, his voice filled with pain. "It's not like everything's happening the way you remember anymore. The government has dozens of analysts that could give them the same advice you do, so why do they always have to call you up?" "You don't want me to do this anymore?" I'd asked with real fear in my voice. I loved what I did, just as much as he loved our business, but I would give it up in a heartbeat if he asked me to do that. "I just wish you didn't spend so much time away from me." Brian had replied with a heavy sigh. "It's only twelve weeks." My answer didn't do much for him, as his next sigh told me. I had returned, but only for a few days until the next training cycle began for Navy SEALS. Part of the recent events had highlighted my inexperience in Special Operations, and I was being sent for some training in that field. It also provided a neat answer for some problems that had been cropping up about my 'career' as a Naval Reserve Officer with too many medals and too much rank at a relatively young age. "I know." Brian's reply was almost inaudible despite our closeness. "I'm sorry, it's just that I see little enough of you as it is and we have that opening in Phoenix. They just aren't the same without you there. I've known you for a long time, love, and it just seems that if there's anything going on you have to be in the middle of it and I always worry that some day whatever it is going on will take you away from me." Brian's words rang through the vaults of my mind and I could feel the tears forming in my eyes. In the end, he had been right, my being in the middle of everything had taken me away from him, or him away from me. None of my life-times had ever been boring, but the last two had grown progressively worse, with this last one taking away the single bit of real happiness that I'd ever managed to achieve in any of the three time-lines. I could feel a single, solitary dribble down my right cheek and that brought my attention back to the present where a confused Principal was giving me a very odd look. "I don't think my lecture was quite that terrifying, and I was under the distinct impression you weren't even listening to me." Principal Snow said quietly and his expression turned from confusion to sympathy very quickly. "It's no secret that you've been having.problems with your parents. Your mother's refusal to talk about you at all over the last week, and your new.living arrangements tell me something major is up with your family. Is there anything I can do to help?" "Thank you, but no." I said simply, refusing to wipe the tear from my face, but meeting his gaze firmly, even proudly. "I was just.remembering something." "I know I haven't been cleared for the full story about you, Mr. Jones, but I know there's a lot more than what's been told already." Snow said delicately. "If one of my students is going through some tough times, and I can do anything to help, I will. With what I know now, though, there's little I can do to help." "Thank you, sir." I started to say but was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. The principal stared at it for a second with a look of anger before picking it up. "Yes?" He demanded through gritted teeth, and I could faintly hear my mother's voice through the receiver although I couldn't make out what she was saying. The principal frowned again, but this time with something more like consternation than anger. "Very well, put him through." "Good morning, General." Principal Snow said cautiously a moment later and it was my turn to frown slightly. I had an idea why the General might be calling now and considering every thing that could possibly go wrong, I was quite certain a car would be here momentarily to pick me up and take me back to the base. "Yes, well Mr. Jones is here in my office right now so it won't be a problem. I was most likely going to suspend him for today anyway. What? Oh, for fighting with another student. Yes, I'm sure you will hear about it from him. Thank you, General." The idea of missing school for a while was an immediately appealing one. Unlike the last time-line where school was something positive over-all, despite the anti-gay stuff that had happened, this time around things weren't as comforting at school, nor was I forming the types of bonds I'd had before. Sure I had some good friends, but there was a barrier between us that hadn't quite existed the last time. "As I'm sure you guessed, that was General Barstow informing me they were sending a car to pick you up." The Principal said while I mulled over my feelings on the concept of missing school. "Apparently, you will be missing school for some reason over the next two weeks. Consider yourself suspended for the day, and that will be put in your permanent file. You can have Mr.Rule bring you your homework you will be missing. I will expect you to turn it back in at the end of the week." "Thanks." I said quietly and stood up to leave as he waved me out of his office. When I entered the outer office area, my mother stopped whispering something to Brian, who was leaning over her desk. Her guilty look only lasted a second before a smooth mask of disdain replaced it, but Brian gave me a glance that could only be described as full of anger. Ignoring them both I left the office and headed towards my locker to grab the rest of my books. Then it was back down the hallway, past the office and out the back door to wait for the Air Force car. For some reason it wasn't here yet, which meant it was coming from the base itself instead of the local trailer used as a forward command post. Most likely that was because Sean would still be here in the school. I just hoped that our other friends would look out for him. The gravel of the back driveway crunched under my feet as I turned in a small circle before staring over at the FFA area. I could see a couple of sophomores doing the everyday work of tending the small garden and livestock area. The sounds of footsteps crunching in the gravel behind me caused me to turn around before I could start reminiscing about anything. I was surprised to see Brian coming out of the back door, a backpack across his right shoulder and a grim expression on his face. He stopped when he saw me, and anger flashed in his eyes. I should have known what was going to happen from the expression on Brian's face, but I didn't. As the words 'fucking faggot' left Brian's mouth, his fist shot out and connected with my jaw. I never felt my feet leave the ground as the force of the blow lifted me up and I flew about a foot to land on my ass. The gravel bit into my rear and my hands as they braced me from falling all the way back. My jaw throbbed with what I knew was going to be intense pain later in the evening and my vision swam a bit as I looked up at Brian who had moved until he loomed over me, his arms rigidly angled towards the ground, away from his side, and his fists were clenched tightly. "You thought you could keep me close to you so you could seduce me, didn't you, faggot?" Brian said in a voice tight with anger, but so low no one else could have heard what he said unless they were right next to us. "You thought you could make me a faggot just like you did in that other time, didn't you? You're nothing but a fucking pervert!" "What?" I managed to mumble out in confusion with my head still swimming. His words were clear, but they weren't making much sense to my befuddled brain. "Your mother told me all about you and your little plan for me." Brian's voice edged upwards slightly, and he clenched his fists even tighter. "She told how you wanted me, how you made me your plaything in that other world and that you were trying to do the same thing again." "How?" I asked, dazed and confused by what he was saying. There was no way I'd ever told my mom anything about Brian. "She couldn't know." "So you were trying to fucking get into my pants?" Brian's voice was louder now, and he aimed a kick at me. This time I was a little more ready, and grabbed his foot before it could strike me. All it took was a twist; Brian flipped over and fell so that he hit the gravel face-first. I didn't give him a chance to react though and surged forward so my right knee was digging into the small of his back and my left was pinning down his left arm. "If I was trying to get into you fucking pants I would have already been there, you stupid piece of shit." I snarled, leaning down so my mouth was close enough to his ear that he could probably feel the air coming out of my mouth as I spoke. He tried to shift slightly but I held him fast, knowing the least bit of weakness would allow him to break free. "I don't know exactly what my mother told you, but I guarantee you it was only part of the truth. Do you want to hear the whole thing, the real truth?" "Yes." Brian mumbled with a defeated tone after he tried to break free again but failed. "Fine, then, here's the real story." I said angrily just as two cars began climbing the hill to the school. The probably couldn't see us up here, or they'd have sped up, but I recognized the Air Force sedan being followed by the Breckenridge family car. I had to make this as short and succinct as possible. "You and I met in the seventh grade and became friends, best friends. A few months later we were wrestling and you wanted to start fooling around. I stopped you, and we talked about it and then began dating secretly." "I'd never start something." Brian started to say but I made him gasp in pain instead by putting pressure on his back with my knee. "Brian, tell it to someone who hasn't seen the same look flare up in your eyes every time we fucking wrestle." I snorted derisively. "I ain't no fucking fag!" Brian retorted, but his voice had a different quality, a quality I knew meant he was hurting emotionally. There was even a hitch in his voice as he paused, and I knew if I could see his eyes there would be tears in them. I almost let up on the pressure against his back, but something kept me from doing that just yet. When Brian spoke next, it told me all I needed to know about what had made him into the person I knew now instead of the person I'd known before. "I'm not going to be a fag and die the way Uncle Rich did." "You never did get sick like him, Brian." I said softly, and I couldn't help the little catch in my throat. "We loved each other, there in that time. From the time we first met until the time I was sent back again, we were in love. The two of us were faithful to each other. When California made it legal, we got married with a sitting President and two former Presidents, as well as both of our families watching. We did more together, as a couple than you could imagine right now. You know what though? I know you're not that same Brian. The Brian who was my best friend, my love for over twenty years is gone and dead, killed by some Chinese soldiers when they found out he could no longer be used as a hostage against me. You are not him." "You.you let me get killed?" Brian asked and I shook my head even though he couldn't see the gesture. "Brian, you're not him and no I didn't 'let' him get killed. I didn't even know he was a hostage before I came back in time." "Then how could you know he was killed?" This Brian's voice was almost a whine, and I hesitated before deciding to go ahead and answer. "I'm not the only time traveler you know, anymore." I whispered just as the cars pulled to a stop in front of us. "Sean came back in time, too. My Brian, the one I loved, helped make sure he was able to come back and warn me that a Chinese agent had come back in time. He gave his life to make sure I was warned, to make sure our country was warned that another enemy had come back in time. That was the type of man he was, the man I loved. Would you be able to do that, Brian? Could you give you life for a friend, for a lover, for your country?" "What's going on here?" Mr. Breckenridge said as he got out of his car at the same time as the two Marines driving the Air Force Sedan. Wisely, they stayed back as Brian's father stomped towards us, his expression both worried and slightly angry. With a grunt, I got up off of Brian and turned to face him. "Brian and I were finishing our discussion, Mr. Breckenridge." I said calmly, much more calmly than I felt inside. I could feel tears in my eyes as I faced the older man and he noticed them as well. His anger faded as he looked at Brian. "Who started this?" He asked me, but it was Brian who answered. "I did, and I'm sorry." Brian said in answer to his father, and from the way he looked at me as he said the last part, I figured that was for me. His next words confirmed that as he spoke softly. "I'm not him, you know." "I know you're not, Brian." I said just as softly as a confused Mr. Breckenridge looked on. "The best part about the last timeline was that I had a best friend, not the other stuff. First and foremost, always before anything else we were friends." "That's what you say now." Brian said softly, but with a hint of steel in his tone. He didn't quite believe what I'd said, but his tone told me that he hoped it was true. Mr. Breckenridge was still the only one close enough to hear what we were saying, and I could see the look of concern as he looked at Brian's face. The reason for that was clear. The gravel had bitten into Brian's right cheeks and left marks that would, hopefully, fade in a few minutes or hours. "Brian, every timeline is different." I started explaining carefully, seeing the added interest in Mr. Breckinridge's face as he listened to our conversation. "By the time my first life ended, back in the original timeline, I wasn't a happy man. I'd lost my mother in 1999, my father in 2000, my sister soon after that. I'd failed to hold a stable job for years. I was at the end of my ropes when the opportunity came to participate in something I knew was an illegal experiment, but it at least offered a chance for some good money. When they strapped me to that table, I was so out of it I didn't even recognize Sean, who I'd been friends with in school. I was worse than just an average guy, I was a nobody. "That all changed in the second timeline." I continued in an even softer voice. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother coming out of the school's back door and I saw the frown on her face when she saw me talking calmly to Brian and Mr. Breckenridge. "By the time the government found out about me, I was already friends with you and Trevor, and Brandon, and even Sean. I was living at the farm with Trevor and Dyadya and Tyatya. By the time I'd lain back in a time machine again, I had fought in a World War that had never happened the first time around, I'd lived with someone I loved for over twenty years, I had good friends, we were rich, well-known, even well-liked. If that timeline had continued, my name would have been mentioned in every history book, not just for the Third World War, but for my command of the war against China. "That all ended, though, Brian, when I came back into this timeline." I stated in a voice that dropped slightly. I knew they could feel the hurt, the pain as I spoke, and in his eyes, and in the eyes of his father, I could see that they understood something of what I was feeling. "I gave up everything I'd achieved, every good thing I did that made my second life a victory instead of the defeat of that first life. "I know that to you, it caused your life to be uprooted and you had to start a new life here in this little po-dunk town, but for me it was so much more. I had to give up the love of my life, my friends, everything, only to start all over again and when I started over, because I went to the government from the beginning, from the very first day, I had to give up all the things that had made all the government work, the war, worth doing. "When you and the others showed up, I thought I'd have a chance to reclaim those things. Not necessarily what I had before, but at least to regain friends that had meant the world to me. Yeah, there was the possibility of more, but to tell you the truth, I was happy just with the friendship. That had always been the center of everything, being friends." "I'm sorry." Brian said softly as my words came to a clumsy ending. His eyes showed that he at least understood what I was saying. "I.you.do you know what it was like watching Uncle Rich die? What it meant." "Yes." I said softly, my chest heaving with the remembered pain from the last lifetime, and from the brief glimpses I'd gotten of his visit to his uncle in this timeline. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you this time." "I don't want to end up like him." Brian said and a quick glance at his father showed that he was beginning to understand some of what we were talking about. "I won't end up like him, no matter what. I'm sorry if that means you can't be happy, but I'm not going to take the risk." "I understand." I said softly and he nodded, meeting my eyes firmly before turning to head towards his father's car. Mr. Breckinridge looked like he wanted to say something and wasn't sure what, or if he should. Wordlessly I nodded to him, motioning listlessly with one hand that he should follow his son and leave me to my own devices. After a moment's pause, he too nodded and walked back to his car, getting in slowly before talking to his son briefly. The sense of loss, the swelling emotions of anger, of hurt, of love twisted inside of me as I looked over at my mother, who had watched, although not heard, the last part of the conversation. The two Marines who had been waiting for me started forward, but stopped when I raised my hand to them. For a moment, I saw a softer look of concern in my mother's face before it was replaced with the cold rage I'd come to expect as of late. That change in expression killed something inside of me and I was struck with memories of the women she'd been at times during my first lifetime, and I wondered how I'd forgotten them. With a determination that surprised even myself, I strode over to her, ignoring the aches and pains from my scuffle with Brian. When I reached her, I was surprised once again how short she was, but the steely determination in her eyes reminded me she had a stature far above her diminutive body. "Don't think you're going to get off." She started to spit out at me, but stopped when I placed my hands on my hips and glared at her. "That's enough, mother." I said softly, but so firmly there would be no chance that she'd mistake my determination. "That's enough out of your fucking mouth now and forever." "Watch your language!" She spat out angrily, interrupting me, but I continued as if she hadn't spoken. "I've had enough of your hatefulness, your spitefulness." I continued in a low, firm, and most of all, determined, voice. "You may blame me for Nanny and Papa's death, but we both know I wasn't to blame. There's nothing you or I could have done to save them. I was willing to wait until you saw that and we could talk to each other again, but I forgot your tendency to be hateful and to carry a grudge for years. "I forgot how during my first life, you hated Dad for what he did to Jenny, for the fact that our lives went to hell after Jenny told you he'd been molesting her. I forgot how you blamed him for everything else you, Jenny, and I had done wrong, for our own shortcomings in dealing with things. I'd forgotten the hateful way you treated me when I called you crying about what it felt like to shoot someone during the Panama invasion. For some reason I didn't remember the way you'd bitched at me about drinking instead of trying to listen to me and understand why I was so upset. "I'd forgotten how much you'd still hated Dad when I'd gone to see him when he nearly died in open-heart surgery. That last night when I returned, before you went in a coma and died, nearly fifteen years after the night that Jenny had told you, that was the first time you'd started to let go of that anger, that hatred, and four days later you were dead. "I'm sorry mom, but I'm not going to wait fifteen years for you to overcome your anger towards me. Stay out of my life, don't include me in these petty little schemes of yours for revenge, and I'll leave you to your life. Try something like this again, and you'll live to regret it." "You can't speak to me like this!" She shouted as I turned on my last word and marched towards the waiting car. She was still yelling at the top of her lungs as the car drove off, carrying me back to the base. It was official, I reflected as I headed out of town. My personal life was a total mess, and the only thing really left to me was my work, keeping the other time travelers on the other side at bay, thwarting their goals. Boy, were they going to be sorry they'd ever crossed me and made me come back in time yet again.
    17 points
  7. Caleb: “So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked. She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl. “Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone. James stood between them, a little awkward. “Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-” He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand. “Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.” Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her. He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff. Christ. He shook her hand. “Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.” At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door. James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese. He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place. It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded. He tried not to be jealous. He really did. “Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “... Suit yourselves.” He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training. After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled. It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her. There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs. It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first. The statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl. “Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.” Caleb snorted. “Fuck you too, Tasha.” From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in. “So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face. Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great. Outwardly, however, he only sighed. “Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.” At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt. “Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.” Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him. “I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to." “Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?” Again, Caleb only shrugged. “No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.” “Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-” “Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.” For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath. “Yes, dear.” “Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.” Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here. He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all. “It’s fine." “Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?” “Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. We're normally the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s first one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.” It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face. Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James? There was a surprising bitterness to that. For her part, Tsuru was nodding. “Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?” “Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.” If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features. “Show me.” Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red. They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair. He dropped covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task. A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care. “Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.” “Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.” “And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?” “No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.” At his back, Tsuru simply swore. “Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?” “Just that they wanted a breeding pair.” Tsuru chuckled. “Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.” Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately. “Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.” Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off. “Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.” The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean. Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him. James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got. Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes. The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him. It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head. “So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?” “Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.” “Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?” “To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”
    16 points
  8. Hot damn! Go get your man, Rick! Can’t wait for next week when Rick mops the floor with the Takács. He’s got the bucket; s’time to clean up their bullshit.
    16 points
  9. I don't think readers really understand how important it is for writers to hear from them. Most writers, like myself, never receive a penny for what we do. We spend long hours writing, proofreading and editing so that we can present the best possible story for our readers. Other writers spend hours interacting with proofreaders or beta readers. We take great pride in what we do. There is nothing more discouraging than posting a work we've labored over for weeks, and then sit back and wait for responses that never come. One of the greatest rewards, and most often the only one, is corresponding and interacting with our readers. I love it. I've been a successful writer. My stories have been read by thousands of people from all over the world, so I know they are well-received. But I can't count the number of times I've lost motivation knowing that thousands are reading, but then I'm receiving only a few or sometimes no responses. I completely stopped writing a few years ago because I lost all motivation. Yet, almost weekly I would get emails from people who had never written asking why did I stop, and others wanting to know when is the next story coming. They seem to imply that I am being selfish. I want to scream at the screen, "Where you when I needed the motivation?" I don't think readers are being rude or inconsiderate. I know they have busy lives, like myself. However, if I can sacrifice weeks writing and editing a chapter, they can at least spend two or three minutes writing and telling me they enjoyed it. I can only imagine how many great writers began writing and stopped for lack of encouragement and positive feedback from readers. And another irritation while I'm on a rant- a reader should never tell a writer that readers aren't important. Don't tell us we write only for ourselves because we have a desire to fulfill some need. We write hoping that just for a little while we can take the reader from the real world to our imaginary world where they can find enjoyment and escape. Feedback is important!
    15 points
  10. Feedback is fun. It helps me know if the reader’s are understanding what is is happening.
    14 points
  11. Wow! I was on edge during the whole drive to Chicago. Who needs high speed car chases when the tension can ratchet up just as effectively at a crawl? Marta is a quick thinking girl. I really hope she manages to see Jared again. Her parents are hideous human beings, obviously worried they will lose control of Gus and his earning ability. Loved the way Rick's growing confidence is helping him to take control. And it must have boosted him immensely to hear Gus saying he was 'a wonderful man'. The stage is set for the big showdown. Can't wait to see what happens next.
    13 points
  12. Wow what a suspenseful chapter I kept saying to myself 'Hurry up Rick" Good ole Marta I had to laugh at her "Hockey whore" comment. Too soon to think this but the fact Heinrich hasn't called yet makes me wonder did he collapse at hearing the news that he may be broke. That conversation Rick overheard the when Zoltan said "You do not have a choice.You will do as I say." It's like he still thinks of himself as Gus guardian.There must be some kind of one-sided contract or perhaps illegal contract for Zoltan to be so arrogant.I'm looking forward to see what words are exchanged like Gus finding out about Zoltan's visit to Rick. You sort of gave us a clue when you mentioned "Willy advisories" I guess that means there is going to be some kind of confrontation.Rick better keep some kind of heavy plumbers tool close by to use.
    13 points
  13. I didn't answer above since I am not an author and no one really wants my opinion. I can tell you, however how much of a turn off it is to post multiple prompt responses and I think the one with the highest number of reactions was five. Makes posting not worth the time if no one reads.
    12 points
  14. I loved that ending. It was so unexpected I laughed so hard. I am looking forward to the next chapter.
    12 points
  15. Any kind of reaction is better than none whatsoever I personally enjoy seeing likes and other reactions left on my story, but naturally, the comments left by the readers - especially those that are detailed - really make the effort of writing (which exists, even if I enjoy it) feel more worth it.
    11 points
  16. If people just give you a thumbs up—okay, be my guest. But that doesn't tell you if they did that because they like you like that you post at all like the storyline like your craft That's why I prefer comments to reactions. They tell you if your readers understood the chapter and that they thought about it as well. Comments like "Good! More!" could have been sent by a bot just as well. So if I see, this really came from a human being who cares about my work, I'm very happy.
    11 points
  17. My heart is still pounding! Between the snarled Chicago traffic, worn out work van and potential for Rick’s phone battery to die I was tense the whole way to finding Gus. I am so dang proud of Rick right now! I admit it, I woke up early just to read this chapter and now I have an adrenaline rush and silly grin that I’ll no doubt be explaining the rest of the day. Well worth it! Rick has his footing and is ready to face Magda and Zoltan. Loved his entry line as he walked in on the scheming pair. Wish it was next Thursday already. Guess I’ll be setting my alarm early again!
    11 points
  18. Jim had set the alarm for 5 am. When the alarm went off Jim had second thoughts about running in the morning. "Tony, are you sure you want to run in the morning?" "The first day is always the hardest. If we don't start today we'll probably never start. We'll just take it easy for now." Jim and Tony got up and realized they didn't have any running shoes or shorts. "Ok, let's wear our canvas shoes and boxer shorts. We can run through the orchard until we get running shoes and shorts." By the time they returned to the shack, they were ready to go back to bed. "How far do you think we ran?" "Not very far, let's take a shower." Jim set the water temperature on the cool side. It felt good as the soap and water washed away the sweat. Tony was washing Jim's back again, "Come around and wash my feet and legs, I'm not sure I can bend over." Trading places, Tony got down washing Jim's lower legs and feet. He saw something that needed attention. Taking it into his mouth, Jim let out a small cry of surprise and then began a rocking motion feeding little Jim into Tony's mouth. "I'm going to shoot." Tony just held on to the back of Jim's leg till he had swallowed everything Jim had to offer. Jim just draped himself over Tony till he was able to stand up. Not to be outdone, Jim returned the favor. Two sated lovers exited the bathroom holding hands and a big smile. It seemed to Jim life couldn't get any better. Tony was thinking the same thing. The boys got dressed, touching each other as much as possible; they were finally ready to leave for work. When they arrived at work, Mr. Thomas introduced them to Jane Miller. "Jim, I'm going to let Jane start this morning when we aren't so busy." "That's great. I have some errands I can run and then I'll see you after lunch." Before leaving Jim gave Tony a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Jim headed to the sports store. When he entered, he saw someone who shopped regularly at the store. Approaching him, "good morning; I wonder if you could help me. My partner and I want to start running. I know I need shoes, shorts, and socks." "For shorts, we recommend these. They are loose in the legs which allows a full run without binding on the leg. It allows the leg to move freely. For the shoes, you need a shoe that can absorb the weight of your body when your foot hits the ground. Most people don't know it, but your instep and ankles can take a beating if you don't have the proper shoe. The other thing if your run is over 2 miles, you should replace your shoes every 6 weeks. The constant pressure will adversely affect the shoe's ability to absorb the shock. You can bring them in and we can measure the deterioration and let you know when they should be replaced. As for socks, you want pure cotton. They are the best for absorbing moisture. You'll need several pairs and you should never wear the same pair twice without washing. You wouldn't want your feet to become infected by dirty socks." "Wow, that sounds like there's a lot to this running. Ok, let me have 4 pairs of running shorts waist size 31, two pairs of shoes, size 9." "Is that the size you wear now? "Yes, why?" "With socks, I would recommend ½ sizes larger. The socks will take up the extra room." "Ok, then 9 ½ plus 28 pairs of socks. We do laundry once a week at my grandparents." The clerk put everything in a bag and added a magazine called, 'The ABC's of Running'. Jim was a little shocked at the cost but he knew it'd pay off. He charged it to his dad's credit card. Thanked the clerk and left. Then he went to the clothing store and picked up the light blue jackets. With all of his shopping done, he went to the café to wait for Tony. Sitting in their usual booth, Anna brought him a milkshake and sat down to chat. "How's Tony doing?" "He's doing great. Monday nights are just as good as Friday nights. I'm afraid he's going to ask for me to pay him." "He's not going to ask you. We consider you a friend Anna, and if we can help you, we will. We haven't forgotten that extra burger, the first day he was here; you have a good heart. Speaking of the devil, here he is. The usual?" "Yes please." "Hi, lover boy." Tony looked around the café to see if anyone heard him. I leaned over the table as if I was going to whisper in his ear and then kissed him on the cheek. I saw the devil in his eyes and knew he was going to do something to get even. When Anna brought our lunch, he came and sat next to me. Anna asked if Tony needed anything else, he said yes. Then grabbed me and kissed me right on the lips. Anna clapped; Tony went back to his seat facing me, smiling. Then he noticed the jacket. "That's a very nice jacket. When did you get it?" "I picked it up this morning. It has my name on it so I had to buy it. When I was in the store I saw one with your name so I bought you one also." I handed Tony the package that was next to me. He took out the jacket, stood up to put it on. "You look sharp in that jacket. It matches your eyes." Anna saw Tony modeling the jacket, "That's a nice jacket, Tony." "Yes, it matches Jims." 'Oh Jim, I'm sorry I didn't even recognize that you had a new jacket on. Oh, it's the same as Tony's." "The name is different." Anna nodded then left to wait on a customer that just entered. "Tony, what do you say we buy Anna one with her name on it? You can be the blue minstrel." "Yes, I liked that. Blue minstrel, I'll tell Anna and she can make a sign and put it in the window." "No, I think we'll make the sign. Tomorrow, I'll take care of that as your agent. And speaking as your agent, give me the phone number of that woman who wanted you to play Sunday." Tony reached into his wallet and gave me the note she gave him. "Two questions, how long can you play without taking a break and how many songs do you have in your repertoire?" "Well, here I play for 30 minutes then take a break. As for the number of songs I know, I can't begin to tell you." "While you go back to work, I'll take care of this. You do want to do this right?" "If you want me to do it I will." When Tony got up to leave, I stood and kissed him. He looked at me as to say,' the war is on'.
    11 points
  19. I am checking to see what keeps us going as writers. People that are writing and posting, please take a minute to answer these.
    10 points
  20. Exactly, and to get 5 react emojis on something I spent time and effort on... Even if you hated it - you got the little bomb face and the check mark to let me know you were there. I would put money on the idea that most of the people I interact with have no idea I ever posted anything, and that the lack of response at all is why I stopped bothering to post what I write. Quite obviously I was not worth their time. I I would settle for 2 or 3 seconds to click a reaction. I started out saying I knew no one wanted my opinion and here I am spouting off. I'll shut up now.
    10 points
  21. I love feedback from readers in any form, likes and/or comments. It is lovely to know that the reader took the time to like a chapter, especially on a binge read. You can sometimes read a story moving through and forget to like as you read, but then you go back and like all the chapters. I really love it 😁 and take that as an awesome thing.
    10 points
  22. James: “Well, my grandpa says you weren’t lying about the ritual,” James mumbled, resting the phone tiredly against his ear, his head lolling gently against his hands. It was seven PM, and he’d had the longest day. “But it sounds like we’d better wait a couple days to get it done. He said something about setting up a hideout for you with a friend of his.” “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Caleb replied on the other end of the line. “I don’t think so, at least. Our bosses might make us pull another hunt by then, but I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and give em what they want, right?” “Yeah,” he muttered. “Guess so. Oh yeah, and Tasha says she wants to put you in a headlock while you’re doing it. Just in case. You know?” At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled. “Hey. She can try it if she wants. See how that goes down.” James snickered. “She’d kick your butt.” “She’d try.” James allowed himself a small smile, and shook his head. Right. That was one job done. Now he just had to apologize to Cas- “There might be one small problem,” Caleb admitted. “I’m, uh. I’m pretty sure Twenty Three’s figured something’s up. I don’t think she’ll come quietly when we try to free her.” James put the phone in his lap, rested his head in his hands, and groaned. First the training session, then therapy, and now this. When would today just end? “... I’ll talk to Tasha about maybe backing you up,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t need that much help though, right? I thought you said that stuff was gonna supercharge you.” “Yeah,” Caleb’s voice replied. “That’s the hope, at least.” From outside of the room, James heard the front door click, and the muted sounds of speech in the hallway below. Casper, finally back from wherever the heck he’d gone. Twelve seconds ago, that realization would have filled James with another wave of dread at the last of the evening’s obstacles. Now, though, it gave him an excuse to end this talk with Caleb before any more problems were added to the pile. “Hey,” he said. “I gotta go, alright? Got some stuff to do before bed. I’ll get Tasha to message you in the morning. They wanna meet up with you anyways.” He hung up before Caleb had quite finished his reply. It was rude, but he figured the older boy owed him one on that. Then, he put the phone aside, leant his palms against his knees, and tried to psych himself up for the task. Okay, James, he said inside his mind, listening to the faint thumps as Casper climbed the stairs towards his room. You’ve hung out with Jiji. You’ve gone to therapy. You’ve planned a rescue. Now you just gotta tell Casper you’re sorry you yelled. Easy peasy, right? James hated the voice in his head, sometimes. Nevertheless, he pushed himself up off his bed with a groan. The aches and pains had come and gone sporadically in the hours since his mishap with the skeet, seeming to fade away for a while on their drive back to manhattan, before returning with a vengeance in the hours since his session with Doctor Sharpe. It was fine as long as he was moving, but he really didn’t feel like moving now. He’d have rather flown, but he couldn’t. Bex was around, and as far as his parents knew, Casper still had zero clue what magic was. He stood, spent a few seconds creakily straightening up, then stepped forwards towards the door, and out onto the landing. It took James longer than he’d have liked to traverse the distance between his and Casper’s rooms; only partially because of the stiffness in his joints. He didn’t want to do this. Apologizing sucked. He took a deep breath, then a second one, and raised a hand to the door, knuckles poised to knock. Half a minute later, he lowered it back down again. Come on, James. Stop being a wuss. Just put on your big boy pants and- “Dude,” Casper’s voice called through the door, sounding almost as tired as James felt. “Just make up your mind already. You coming in or not?” Friggen’ radar brain. Regretfully, James pushed the door open, and stepped inside. Casper was sitting on the bed, a video game controller in his lap, his gaze set determinedly on the TV screen. James shut the door behind him, and leaned himself against the wall, his arms folded in tight over his chest. Neither spoke. After a few moments, Casper’s television chimed, a game loading up on the screen. Just say you’re sorry. James opened his mouth to speak, and Casper turned to look at him. Nothing came out. Casper returned his gaze to the TV. Why was this so hard? James shook himself, and tried again. What eventually came out wasn’t exactly what he’d planned. “... His name’s Caleb,” he muttered. “The guy I was sneaking out to meet.” For a moment, James regretted it; spilling the secret like that. But this was Casper. This was important. This time, when Casper turned to face him, he wasn’t frowning. Now, he looked concerned. “Who is he?” the other boy asked. “What’s he want?” “He, uh,” James swallowed. “Stuff. He wanted to do some really stupid stuff to rescue a girl he likes. So, that’s what I’ve been dealing with.” For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him. “You okay?” “Yeah,” James took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh, before moving to sit beside his friend. “And, uh. Sorry I got mad at you.” At that, Casper shook his head. “Sorry I pushed like I did,” he muttered back. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” “Yeah.” The two were silent then for a time, James simply sitting beside his friend while Casper moved his character aimlessly through a level. It was surprising, really. That had been far less painful than James had been expecting. It was nice, being comfortable like this again. Maybe he was just tired. Eventually, Casper spoke again. “So, that thing about the phone.” That got his attention. “Yeah?” “So…” Casper seemed to hesitate for half a second, before apparently coming to a decision. “The thing is, when I ran away from home… I kinda got myself a magic teacher.” “Really?” James asked, honestly surprised. “I thought you kinda just wanted to forget about it.” Casper chuckled. “It’s hard to forget about when you can’t turn it off, dude. You know that, Mr. ‘I weigh thirty pounds.’” James conceded the point with a sigh. The changes to his body weight hadn’t gotten any easier to deal with in the last few weeks. There’d been one embarrassing incident when he’d tried to take a bath, only to find himself floating upwards in the water, bobbing along the surface like an oversized rubber duck. “So, I got myself a teacher,” Casper continued. “Didn’t wanna tell you because getting training when you’re not registered’s kind of a legal no-no, but yeah. The phone’s how he’s been staying in contact with me.” “... And asking you about your school day?” “Yeah,” Casper groaned. “He’s also kind of a creep.” “... You okay?” “Yeah,” James felt Casper’s fist bonk him gently on the shoulder. “I’m okay.” “Good,” James muttered. “You’re still a doof, though.” Casper chuckled. “Yeah. You too.”
    10 points
  23. This has been a struggle since the get go. I'm a writer myself, even if I struggle to find the time between working full time and keeping GA up and running. I know feedback is important. But each other has a different level of desire and need for it. I've been wracking my brain on how to: Lower the barrier on providing feedback. Overcoming the majority of readers high threshold for free writing a comment. For security sake, I can't allow guests to post. The staff would be chasing spam 24/7. Reactions only work when people log into their account. Reactions aren't quite enough of a threshold of feedback except the grudging "a reaction is better than nothing at all". Readers, especially on chapters when there is more to read, just don't stop to write something. Theoretically, I could force a pop-up box when a reader hits 'next chapter' that says something like "The Author would really like to know what you thought of this chapter" with perhaps a poll like checkbox. If we forced people to type something to continue, you'd just get spam and nonsense. or anger. I think we could do something like the recommendations system, but at the end of each chapter. It would be more relevant than a reaction, but not as hard to do as free write text that many people just struggle with. Keep the comments and votes coming please.
    9 points
  24. You spoke with words I would have used. Thank you.
    9 points
  25. I want to smack Rick every time one of those doubtful thoughts creeps into his head... but at least he's finally realizing they're irrational thoughts and standing up to them. You handled the drive to Chicago perfectly. Lots of tension and the frustration of city traffic. Now Gus needs to stand up to Zoltan so he can go back with Gus. Great chapter!
    9 points
  26. Superb writing! You have allowed the reader to experience the tension, the heat, the drive, etc. And...the story's plot has ratcheted up one more step! Are you sure you have to wait until next Thursday to post?
    9 points
  27. “Will you be joining us too Lord Edwin?” I asked politely, “Sadly no, I have to catch a flight back to Switzerland, then onto Edinburgh for business, but I want my friends to have a very good time while onboard your yacht, do you have any extra crew?” Edwin replied. “Yes my brothers are here also,” I replied. Once Edwin had left, with a bulky envelope in my hand, which no doubt contained a lot of money, I had Nathan give the guests a tour of the yachts guest areas, which is most of the starboard side below decks, all of the main deck and also the fly deck. When they arrived back in the main saloon, I had cocktail drinks prepared, on a silver tray ready to be handed out to the guests. “Well, I for one am very happy with this yacht, it is a lot more comfortable than I expected,” Sir Charles said to me. “Will a seven day cruise be alright with you all, which will include a stop at a beach or town for lunch each day, and we will be anchored in a bay or moored at a jetty each evening, so most nights will be fairly calm,” I asked. “Yes, that sounds delightful,” Ms Drummond responded. “Good, we just need to go and do some extra shopping, so we should be on our way no later than 1.30 pm,” I announced. While the guests went to grab their luggage from the nearby hotel, I asked Nathan and one of the boys to go and do a lot more shopping. I asked them to buy enough food and alcohol to last at least for five days, while I prepared lunch for everyone, as I handed Nathan the large envelope and his eyes went wide when he looked inside to see all the $100 notes. “Don’t loose it, or you will have to pay for the shopping your self,” I whispered to Nathan, who nodded his head in understanding. Luckily I had already set out a rough itinerary route for the trip, and I needed to get to work on more detail in the evenings, once we are at anchor. When the guests arrived back, after settling into their cabins, they chose to head for the fly deck to relax, and I asked Neale to keep an eye on them, and get them anything they need, while I was in the galley preparing the meal. “Skipper, there is someone who wishes to speak to you, we met him in the supermarkets, he’s looking for a job,” Nathan called out, as he approached and came down the stairs to the galley, with his arms full of bags, and a lad about the same age as him followed, also with his hands full. When Jedd arrived with the last of the shopping, I stopped what I was doing, “Ok, you and Jed get everything stowed away, while I have a chat to this young man,” I said, as I headed upstairs, and into the small lounge, where the young man followed and I closed the door. “Right, by the looks of it, you are homeless, is that correct?” “Yes sir, I have been staying at shelters as much as I can, so I can regularly have showers and wash my clothes, which as you see is not much, just what I have in this backpack,” the lad replied. “Do you have any sailing experience at all? And what is your name and age?” I asked, “yes sir, I have three years of part time deckhand experience with my uncle, who was a fisherman, he employed me during the mid year and end of year holidays, so on average; I did eight weeks of work a year since the age of fourteen, and full time since the age of 17, for just a year. My name is Jake Tunbridge, I’m now 18, and my uncle died of cancer last year, so I had no more work with him and I left school at sixteen, after my mother abandoned me, and I have no idea who my father is. I work hard sir, and I am very reliable,” the lad said to me. “Ok Jake, I will give you a trial, for just one week, and we will review it after that. We are heading for Nelson Bay, just north of Sydney, and we will be leaving at 1330 hours, I will get Nathan to go with you, to do some basic clothes and shoes shopping for you, to get you by for that time. Just wait here a moment,” I said as I exited the room and closed the door behind me. Nathan was hovering around the main saloon, when I stepped out, and came straight up to me. “Do you still have that cash?” I asked, “Yes, there is still heaps more, about $1,600 is my guess,” Nathan replied. “Good, take Jake and take him shopping for clothes and shoes, and don’t take too long, as I want to be leaving here no later than 1.15 pm. When you get back, make sure he has a good wash, including his hair, and issue him some uniforms, he can have the forward starboard crew cabin,” I said to Nathan. “Ok skipper, I will get right on it, and we will have lunch when we get on our way,” Nathan said before entering the room, and I headed back to the galley. With Neale and Jedd assisting, we delivered lunch to the guests up on the Fly bridge, where there is comfortable seating and table area under the cover of the solid awning, and I came back up with a pitcher of soft bunch to complement the meal. Once service was completed, we headed down to the crew mess to have our own lunch, and to relax a little before we set sail once Nathan and Jake have returned. When they did arrive back, Nathan had Jake take a shower in his cabin, since it is a lot bigger than the forward crew cabin, and so he can change into jeans and uniform shirt once he is done. With the guests now fed, and the full crew now onboard, we set sail out of Melbourne, leaving at 1.35 pm, a little late, but I hoped to make up that lost time during the afternoon, with the good winds that we were expecting. Once out in the open of Port Philip Bay, I had Nathan raise the spinnaker, so we could catch a bit of extra speed, while we are still in semi protected waters. For the next three hours we were really zooming along, going at a good 16 knots for most of that time, and as we approached the navigation marker for us to do a course change, I gave the order for the spinnaker to be pulled down, as we needed to take it easy as we pass through the tricky Victory Bight, and into the Bass Strait. We had managed to get ahead of schedule with that extra push from the Spinnaker, so we would get to our overnight stop just before dark instead of just after. Once out in the Bass Strait, I had Nathan take over at the helm, while I headed down to the small lounge, which I also use as my office, so I could do some more work on the itinerary for the next week. When I stepped out of the office lounge about two hours later, I could smell some very nice cooking coming from the galley, so I went down to investigate who was cooking, and I was a little surprised to see Jake there. “You can cook too?” I asked a little surprised. “Yes skipper, ever since I was a young boy, my granny always enjoyed showing me what special tricks there are to cooking delicious meals. When will we be stopping overnight?” Jake replied, “In a bit over an hour,” I replied, “Good, dinner for the guests will be ready about half an hour after that,” Jake informed me. “Very good, I look forward to tasting your cooking, which smells divine,” I said smiling before heading back up to the pantry service area, and I began making some drinks for the guests. “There you are, can we have some drinks for the guests please??” Jedd asked me when he entered the main saloon area. “Working on it right now mate, how are the guests going, are they enjoying the trip so far?” I replied. “Yep, they are having a ball by the looks of it, they are soaking in the hot tub at the moment,” Jedd responded, “Good, and I will be up with these drinks shortly. Take some towels up to them please, and we are just over an hour away from our overnight stop, which is a sheltered bay on the bottom side of Philip Island,” I informed my brother. After collecting the required towels Jedd headed back outside and up the stairs to the fly bridge, and I followed him a few minutes later with the drinks for the guests. “You have a very talented young crew here Skipper,” Sir Charles commented as I handed out the drinks. “Thankyou sir, the two youngest are my brothers, this is Jedd, and the older one is Neale, and we have a new crew member Jake who has just joined us, and my bosun Nathan at the helm there, who is a first cousin of my best friend. The four of us have been sailing for many years together, so we know how to function smoothly,” I replied. “It definitely shows, and it looks like your new crew member has been sailing before too,” Ms Drummond said, “Yes, he informs me he worked part time for three years on a fishing vessel with his uncle, and full time for a year, before his uncle passed away last year, and by the smells coming from the galley, he is an excellent cook too,” I replied before heading back downstairs. Going to the wine store, I wrote down all of the wines and beers that Nathan had purchased, which was quite a large selection, with six brands of beers, six each of red and white wines, plus four whiskey’s, two Gin’s and two Vodkas, one port, one Brandy and one whiskey liqueur, all made in Tasmania, and I was amazed at the selection Nathan had made. When we arrived at our destination, I was with Nathan to guide him to where I thought was the best place to anchor, just off the beach, in a sheltered area, between Philip Island and the mainland. “By the way, I checked the selection you purchased earlier, you have made some amazing choices, and all Tasmanian too, well done on that,” I said softly to Nathan. “Thanks skipper, but it was Jake who gave me the recommendations on what to buy, he seems to know what is best to buy, even if it was a huge alcohol bill,” Nathan replied, and I smiled and nodded my head. “We better let him make the recommendations with what is best to be served with the meals then,” I added, as we watched my brothers set the anchors for our overnight stay. “Dinner will be served in approximately half an hour, where would you like to have your meal? Up here or inside the formal dining area on the main deck?” I asked the guests, as Jedd handed each one a towel, as they climbed out of the hot tub. “I think inside would he nice thankyou,” Ms Drummond replied, and I headed downstairs to start setting the table for dinner, and Neale helped me with the setting, before we changed into our formal dinner uniform, ready for dinner service. I asked Jake for his recommendations for wines for the first and main courses, and I set out the glasses for those drinks. Once dinner was served to our guests, all the crew headed below to have our own dinner in the crew mess, and I congratulated Jake on a delicious dinner, and I asked him to be the chef for the remainder of the charter, which he said he was pleased to do. The following day, our lunchtime stop was at Oberon Bay, just south of the Township of Tidal River, where we spent a relaxing two hours, with a long wide beach to walk on after the meal, before we boarded the yacht once more and set sail again, where we would go around Wilson’s Promontory, mainland Australia’s most southern point, and head for our overnight stop of Mcloughlin Beach, at the mouth of a tidal water way that creates a number of low islands. Our second lunch stop on this charter, was a little later than usual, and at Lakes Entrance, where we moored at a jetty, on the edge of the town, to allow the guests to have a bit of a look around, after another superb lunch. Our second overnight destination would be at the town of Marlo, famous for being at the mouth of the mighty Snowy River. Nathan and I were now getting into a good routine with running the yacht, with Nathan doing a two hour stint at the helm mid morning, and again straight after lunch, allowing me to do be a good host to our guests, and also to assist the crew with anything. The following day, straight after breakfast, Nathan and I took the two dinghies out, to give the guests a cruise up the Snowy River and back, with a packed morning tea basket, which we served on the banks of the river, at Woods Point in the Snowy River National Park, 20 kilometres upstream from the town of Orbost. On the arrival back to the yacht, the guests were served lunch, while the crew prepared for departure, to get to our overnight stop at the town of Mallacoota, at the mouth of the Wallagaugh River. The following day, just 45 minutes after departure, we arrived at Cape Howe, which marks the border between Victoria and New South Wales, with the area being a nature reserve and marine reserve. We arrived at Boulder bay shortly before 12.30 for our lunch break, setting anchor just off shore from the town of Tathra Beach. We set aside some time for the guests to have a good walk along the beach, before we set off again with our next overnight stop to be Montague Island, which is four nautical miles east of the mainland, with a small sheltered bay for the yacht to anchor. Arriving at Jetty Bay shortly after 4 pm, we transported the guests onto the island so they can go exploring and visit the lighthouse that was built in 1881 and the keepers houses, plus watch the resident wildlife of sea birds and seals, that are seen all over the island. Jake was excelling himself in the galley, with daily praises from the guests, and I too enjoyed his cooking, which was varied and he always selected the best wines to go with each three course meal. The following day with a very early start at 6 am, we stopped at Gannet Beach at the town of Bawley Point for morning tea, and a beach walk, before setting off again, for Culburra, where we would anchor in the Crookhaven River while eating lunch. From there we headed on northward for our next overnight stop at Jibbon Beach, just south of Cronulla, which is a southern suburb of Sydney. I selected this beach, because it was well away from all the hustle and bustle of the city, but still in protected waters. Leaving early again the next morning, we stopped off at Station Beach for morning tea, and a beach walk, before setting off again, and arriving at our destination of Nelson Bay, shortly after 1.30 pm, where we served our guests a light lunch, before their departure.
    8 points
  28. Thank goodness for Marta and the chuckle I let loose when Rick said “Somebody call a plumber?” almost cracked my ribs. I only see things going up from now on.
    8 points
  29. The drive is mostly silent, neither Zeke or Tyler felt like talking, for fear that they might screw the whole thing up and say more than they knew they should. There was once again, the sense that they couldn’t trust each other, because they couldn't. If this were a real mission, that would be the first mistake because on the field like this you had to be able to trust the person who was by your side. Of course, it was a fine line to find, because you also had to be willing to accept and do the right thing by the service if it turned out your trust was misplaced. There had to be no hesitation or second chances, so trust was important, but so was being disengaged from any personal feelings. Yet another thing they were failing in being on this 'mission' together. Zeke knew part of his own test tonight was to find out what Tyler had been told, but he also suspected Tyler had been given similar instructions, which was making it extremely difficult to start a conversation casual and subtle enough that any information shared would be voluntary and seem incidental. Zeke couldn't exactly turn to Tyler and just ask him straight up, what G had told him. He himself had already proven to Tyler that he was excellent at not answering even the most normal and unimportant questions, which gave Tyler very little reason to assume he'd have any luck asking anything now. He seemed very distracted, not that Zeke blamed him. He remembered his first time out like this. He'd been partnered with G, receiving training from the very best. He'd also been extremely naiive, cocky and confident. He could relate to Tyler who was acting as though he'd been trained for this his whole life, like he'd just run in guns blazing and walk out of there like a boss, accomplished and unscathed. Reality was going to hurt that ego, just as it'd hurt Zeke's that first time. The difference was, Zeke's first mission had involved real bullets, real danger and real risk. He'd gotten back in the car and been driven home with G coating him with compliments. They had come a long way from G thinking the best of him and telling him so. G couldn't actually deny that Zeke was still the best man he had on the team, he just had a personal issue with him that seemed to come out of nowhere and get persistently more and more difficult to ignore, particularly since Tyler had come into the picture. There was a time where Zeke could do no wrong in G's eyes, and now he could do no right. They'd been driving for only 5 minutes and Zeke was already becoming unable to stand the silence because it allowed his brain to keep throwing out unhelpful thoughts about how he should throw the mission. Realistically it wasn't possible. He wanted to run away with Tyler, but G would follow him through the tracking implant so they had to stay on course. It just felt less reasonable the closer they got to their destination, that this was the best G could come up with. If he really wanted Tyler out, then he could wipe his memory in his sleep and Tyler would just wake up confused and safe, no need to trick him into accepting it. Corey would say something about Tyler's right to consent to having his memory wiped, but it wouldn't be the first time it was forcibly done to an agent without any warning, it was the harsher method, but it wasn't like he would remember whether he said no or not anyway. Sometimes it was better to be cruel to be kind. “Are you sure you’re good?” Zeke asks gently, finally breaking the silence. He hoped that anxiety would force Tyler to admit he didn’t want to do this. Zeke was so deeply conflicted about this ‘mission’, all he wanted was for Tyler to admit he was out of his depth so he could turn the car around and get him out of this situation before it got worse. “Tyler?” Zeke asks, glancing at Tyler who'd simply been staring out the window the whole time. “I have already said I am fine. Stop asking.” Tyler sighs, rubbing his forehead and continuing to take in actually seeing the outside world after what had been a confusing amount of time inside. He was excited to be free of the confines of his allocated room, and couldn't wait to get out of the car and feel the night breeze on his face, have moonlight shine down on him and smell grass, dirt, pollen and whatever else the world smelt like. He had decided to enjoy the freedom regardless of what happened with the night. It beat sitting in a room smelling the same musky smell of air conditioned rooms with no natural ventilation, waiting for death to find him there. If he was killed out here, at least he'd die breathing in actual air. “Sorry I just, have never known you to be this quiet.” Zeke states, interrupting Tyler's relaxing and almost meditative thoughts. “And I have never known you to want to talk so much.” Tyler replies coldly. “Ah, we didn’t get to have that chat did we?” Zeke comments, pleased that he had a topic to distract from what was going on but forgetting that it was a topic that Tyler wouldn't be so thrilled to be addressing right now. It was too late to talk about it as far as Tyler was concerned. He had given up his short lived fantasy of them hooking up at any point, the moment G had offered him a job. Not that the interest was gone, just the incentive and all opportunity. Tyler hadn't gone through the last week worth of training just to throw it away for dick. It'd have to be pretty good to warrant going through the physical, mental and emotional pain he'd spent the last 7 days enduring, just to not end up actually being an agent all just because Zeke was going to pick 'too late' to finally bring up the questions. "Well I didn’t get to, but you gave the answers you wanted to give.” Tyler states with a scoff as he rolls his eyes and crosses his arms. “I didn’t get answers to my questions either.” Zeke replies with a shrug. Tyler cracks a smile as he remembers the subtle jealousy he'd chosen to interpret from Zeke's question about who his home screen was of. It’s silent again as Zeke tries to think of how to keep Tyler talking, but he doesn’t need to because Tyler was interested in this conversation now, only with the hopes of seeing if there was genuine jealousy. “In case you were wondering, what I wanted for dinner was for you to show up.” Tyler states with a shrug, perfectly passive aggressive. “And, his name is Blake. The hot guy on my iPad. He’s from a band.” Tyler smirks at Zeke to see any hint of jealousy but Zeke just smiles at the lighter topic change. “Right. So that’s your type then?” Zeke asks, hoping to keep the conversation light. “What rich? Whose type isn’t that?” Tyler jokes. “Or do you mean the badass type that’s unattainable but would happily lead me on just to mess with my head?” Another uncomfortable silence as Zeke reads between the lines and realizes that Tyler wasn’t just talking about the guy on his iPad anymore. As Zeke is thinking about how Tyler was feeling towards him, Tyler starts backpedalling to save the awkwardness. “He’s a bit like my ex, I guess that’s why I am drawn to him, and not the two members of his band that are actually into guys. I just have to go for the type of guy that isn’t an option. The straight hot guy in a band that flirts with guys because it amuses him that they want him. The 'straight’ popular guy at school that is fine with me doing gay things with him but was never going to reciprocate because that would make him gay too.” Tyler pauses, not saying the part where Zeke fit into it, but Zeke could almost feel each comment about himself through the silence. The guy that cared about him but wouldn’t let anything happen because it would be completely inappropriate. “I’m sorry.” Zeke can’t believe he says it out loud but Tyler seemed lost in thought enough that he mightn’t have even heard it. “Do you ever look back on your thing with Wyatt and think of times where you knew it was getting out of hand?" Tyler asks but continues talking. "Sometimes I think about my ex and remember moments where I should have just put a stop to our relationship and known better, but just like a bull, I’m attracted to red flags. He was never going to come out. He was going to have a whole thing with me in secret and then break up with me and do the 'right thing', marry a girl. I knew that, and I thought I could save him from that by just saying what he was too afraid to say.” Another comment that fills Zeke again with guilt. He felt like he was putting Tyler through that all over again, by not telling him what was really going through his head. That night when their place was broken into and he tried to make Tyler run away then had to watch him run into almost certain death he had first felt his heart being squeezed at the idea of losing him. The intense sense of urgency he had when he was driving Tyler, unconscious and possibly bleeding out, to Corey. His feelings towards Wyatt had slipped passed professional, but it'd never really been more than just feeling guilty for what he'd put him through, and feeling stupid that he'd let his guard down. He'd never really lost the control over his feelings. He's accepted that part of him enjoyed Wyatt's company, but he had never been falling for him. With Tyler though, somehow he had accidentally become much less in control of how he felt. He’d not focused at all on trying to hold back his feelings because he hadn’t expected to feel anything but empathy. Tyler had wedged himself in Zeke’s mind and heart with a convenient excuse of protection when really the feelings had become much more than that and all Zeke wanted to do was put him out of his mind, but no matter how hard he tried, all he could think about was whether or not Tyler was ok. It wasn't his feelings for Wyatt that Zeke had let get out of hand. No wonder Tyler wanted clarification on how Zeke felt, his last relationship was with someone so deep in denial he couldn’t even reciprocate. Zeke’s mind wanders further down the meaning of that comment, if Tyler meant that the way Zeke interpreted it, then he had been completely used by this guy. That was just completely selfish. But even thinking that, Zeke felt he was a hypocrite. He'd kissed Tyler then avoiding him just to not let himself fall any further into the feelings he shouldn’t have been having, much less acting on, that just wasn’t meant to happen. But it had happened, and he had left Tyler to feel unwanted and unimportant afterwards. It made sense why Tyler was taking any affection he could get from Zeke, even when it was clearly brushed over later. That’s what he was use to, being the person that someone else would be hot and cold with, that they would kiss and push away. Tyler deserved to know how Zeke felt, and why he couldn’t act on those feelings, regardless of whether it'd mean anything for them. They couldn't complicate things with a relationship, but he deserved to know he was worth so much that Zeke didn’t want to cause him any problems by starting something that could jeopardize his safety. That beyond what Zeke actually wanted, was the priority to keep Tyler out of all potential dangers. It’s this thought that coincidentally fills his mind as he pulls up to park where this whole insane plan is about to play out. A plan to keep Tyler from doing something stupid like actually working for G. For the 100th time since hearing about it, Zeke is questioning whether he can go through with it knowing what it was going to do to Tyler. “Wow. Is everywhere you scope out, this creepy and ominous?” Tyler asks. Zeke hadn't really been acting yet, but he’d have to play it up now. This was deliberately chosen as it was known as being nightmare fuel. There were no street lights and Zeke had shut off the car’s lights, reduced to a slow roll as they approached the shed that looked like it was straight out of a horror movie. Zeke's first mission was here actually, so being back here was reminding him of how terrified he'd been, chased down behind the shed, taken in and witnessing a torture that was nauseating to see, before he'd opened fire, completed the rescue and gotten back to G who had sat in the car waiting for him. Trusting him with the huge responsibility. Even though it'd been a success, Zeke felt some amount of PTSD being here again. “Just part of the job.” Zeke comments, pulling up and parking among a few trees a short distance from the shed that was silent and dark. “Why do you think G hired me?” Tyler asks, unable to pretend now that he was here, that he wasn’t absolutely in over his head. “I don’t know. He always has plans and they don’t always make sense until he plays his last move. I generally don’t doubt him, he usually pulls of unexpected successes even in the wildest ways.” Zeke states, looking Tyler up and down curiously. "Why do you think he hired you?" “I think he needs you for something, and knows he’s going to have to sacrifice someone as a diversion, doesn’t want to sacrifice any of the good staff.” Tyler shrugs very casual as he confesses what he assumed this was all about. “You think that’s why, and yet you still took the job?” Zeke asks mortified. “I don’t have anything to lose, and I meant what I said about wanting to help. I know I can’t help really, but if I am enough of a diversion that you can...” “No fucking way. You are not sacrificing yourself. I am pulling the plug on this mission.” Zeke goes to start the car but Tyler puts his hand on Zeke’s to stop him. “Too late.” He whispers, nodding in the direction of the shed, where there was now a set of lights on. “Tyler...” Zeke starts but freezes as Tyler clicks the safety off his gun. “What the hell are you going to do?” Zeke asks. “My job.” Tyler opens the door but Zeke pulls him back again. “You are not doing this. I am not letting you do this suicide mission.” Zeke tells him quickly, holding his wrist tight. “Let me do my job. I have to do this to prove that I can stay. Don’t you get it? I haven’t got a choice.” Tyler snaps. “You always have a choice, you can call it off now and we can just go back...” “Don’t be an idiot. This is exactly what G meant about you putting your feelings ahead of the job.” And there it was, the bait Zeke had suspected had been laid out for him. But he didn't care that he had fallen for it, that he was now not feeling like he could let this happen. “I don’t care, your life is more important...” “More important than who’s? Everyone else that has been hurt by these assholes? Than everyone that will be hurt if we fail this? Bigger picture Zeke! This is not about me, or you, or us. It’s about getting these guys for good so they can stop causing damage. ” Tyler states, pulling away from Zeke and getting out of the car. "Tyler wait." Zeke urges and Tyler stops, waiting with an almost hopeful look, to know whether Zeke was going to be able to change his mind, because now standing outside the safety of the car, ready to leave the safety of Zeke's side, he was starting to doubt himself too. Only, now that Tyler was staring at him so intensely, he realizes he actually didn't have anything ready to say. It'd take nothing for him to blow the whole mission, but the words that leave his mouth are just more pointless suggestions. "Just, do what you need to. Whatever feels right. Even if that means running away. No matter what G told you to do, if you need to run, then run. Got it? I'll come and find you, you don't have to do anything just because you're here." Tyler gives a smirk as Zeke pleads with him to be smart about this. "Wow." Tyler holds up his gun. "Clearly you're more worried about me than I am. I'm not a coward, so don't worry. Don’t wait up.” He says with a wink then rushes off, crouching as he approaches the house. Zeke presses his fingers to his neck. “Ok Tyler has run in, claiming he thinks he’s here on a suicide mission as a diversion. Can I know what he was told now? I’m very concerned about what he thinks is going to happen.” Zeke states, as he watches Tyler sneak around the building to the back. He gets no response, is just left to wait in agonizing silence. He takes a deep breath then hears the pop of a blank bullet. Zeke could tell the difference, but poor Tyler would have no idea. Another, another, another. Tyler must be panicking, unloading a whole round. He’d only been given one gun, one round of bullets. Zeke counts them down, his heart racing and he’s swallowing down the feeling like he was right there with Tyler, terrified, powerless and left for dead. Even as someone that felt he had ‘nothing to lose’ Tyler would surely be second guessing his actions right now as he’s facing what he would undoubtedly assume is his death. Now he is out of ‘bullets’. Zeke holds himself together, he had to give Tyler a moment to get caught before he interfered in this mission but to his horror he hears the bang of a bullet. A real bullet. A bulled he’d not been told was part of this plan and with that, he decides it’s already been compromised and it's time to interfere. No one was meant to be shooting real bullets, even Zeke’s gun was full of blanks. If he had to shoot during the rescue it was meant to be fake too, but Zeke reaches under his seat, pulling out a pre-loaded gun, there was always an emergency spare in the car. He wasn’t taking any chances, not if Tyler was in genuine danger. He checks how many bullets are in the gun, only 3. At least Zeke knew if he needed to use them, he wouldn’t miss.
    8 points
  30. This chapter was excellent: the tense drive, Rick fighting against his own inner doubts (and winning!!), Marta’s timely interference, and the plumbing van sneaking itself in to play the role of a humble hero. And I thought the last chapter’s cliffhanger was going to make me keel over. My impatience is killing me!!! I’m on the same page as @84Mags. Next Thursday couldn’t come soon enough!
    8 points
  31. Love the last line! That was some drive for a country boy. 🙂
    8 points
  32. The swallows return those aerial acrobats ~ heralds of summer.
    7 points
  33. Between Senior and the closet, Rick's been suffocating. He took care of himself physically but the mental turmoil must have been murder. Funny how caring for someone else led him out from under both. Ca t wait until he has a new van, though. His current one's not fit to be driven by a famous concert pianists partner. Or is Plummer Rick going to give up glamorous Eagle Lake and become a traveling groupie? 😁
    7 points
  34. I loved your cheer for Rick. He did more than drive hundreds of miles to Chicago in pursuit of Gus; he traveled a distance from his old self, from his once-upon-a-time existence, to a something wholly better, wholly new. For a complete amateur, Rick has made quite an entrance. Thanks a million for reading and for your comments!
    7 points
  35. D’gar woke with a pounding head. They’d sat out by the lake for a long time, drinking steadily. At some point, M’rell had gone to fetch more alcohol. He’d stayed, staring at the water, illuminated by the light of Timor, which was just sinking below the rim of the Bowl. The light had steadily faded until there was nothing left but blackness. He’d thought it seemed very symbolic. Dark and empty, like his life. Then M’rell had returned with a skin of wine. ‘Shouldn’t mix wine and ale,’ he’d protested. ‘Why not?’ M’rell had said, then laughed. ‘Wine not.’ He’d found it funny, too, by then. They’d drunk it regardless, until the music ended and people gradually drifted away. He had a vague memory of flying back up to the weyr on Toth, hanging on to M’rell and of throwing up several times into the necessary before finally falling into bed. M’rell was snoring softly beside him. At least he was on his own side of the bed now. Earlier, D’gar had woken to discover he was the type who liked to cuddle while he slept. It was probably a good thing he’d have been too drunk to remember that. You are awake. Herebeth radiated grumpiness. This weyr is too small for two fully grown brown dragons. I’m sorry about that. He could have taken himself up to the heights if it was that bad. Toth has been generous, Herebeth admitted. He has tried to share his space with me. It is not his fault. Fully alert now, the memories of the previous day - the previous evening specifically - surged back. Couldn’t he have tried harder to pacify S’brin? He shouldn’t have started to argue… Zemianth’s rider should not have pushed you. D’gar sensed Herebeth was not just referring to the physical act. S’brin had pushed him a bit too far. He just couldn’t see, right now, how they were going to recover from it. M’rell turned over, reached out and tried to pull him closer. ‘Come here, Rina,’ he murmured sleepily. ‘I’m not Rina,’ he said hurriedly. ‘It’s D’gar.’ ‘Eh, what?’ M’rell opened his eyes, screwing them up against the morning light spilling under the curtain. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘You invited me, remember?’ M’rell sat up slowly. ‘I feel ill.’ ‘Thanks.’ ‘It’s not because of you. My mouth is as dry as Igen in a drought. How much did I drink?’ ‘Too much. I don’t feel great either.’ Klah. He needed klah. Lots of it, hot and sweet. ‘Did you say you had a fight with S’brin?’ M’rell was obviously remembering something of what had happened. ‘We had a row, yes.’ The less said about it, the better. D’gar wondered how late it was. In his own weyr he could easily estimate the time from the angle of sunlight hitting the floor, but in M’rell’s he hadn’t a clue. ‘I’m going to get breakfast while there’s still some left.’ He found his clothes in a heap on the floor and sniffed at the shirt. It would have to do. M’rell groaned and pulled the sleeping furs back over his head. ‘Think I’ll stay here. If I go down to the dining hall everyone will be asking questions about Rina.’ ‘I expect I’m going to get all of that too. You can’t hide forever.’ ‘Bring me back some klah. Please.’ ‘All right.’ It was the least he could do really, after spending the night. ‘I shouldn’t be too long.’ Toth raised a head as he passed. Herebeth was sprawled over the ledge, his tail hanging down outside. Judging by the shadows, it wasn’t as late as he’d feared. Normally, he woke early, because S’brin liked to get his morning run and exercises done before breakfast. D’gar usually went along with him, unless the weather was exceptionally foul. He stretched and yawned, then climbed onto Herebeth’s neck. It seemed more of an effort than usual. Dining hall please, he requested. Gladly. Herebeth dropped off the ledge and glided down. Can we go back to our own weyr yet? I don’t know. Can’t you ask Zemianth? She is not responding to me. Probably not, then. D’gar had a sudden thought. She’s not about to rise, is she? Herebeth didn’t reply for a little while. I do not think so. Not yet, anyway. When she does, I will not be chasing her. That was very definite. D’gar slid off carefully. Sudden movements hurt his head. I think I may chase Zurinth, though. Great. That was all he needed. He walked into the dining hall, scanning the ‘C’ Wing table. S’brin wasn’t there; still running probably. R’feem and N’rir were at the head of the table, a gaggle of green riders at the far end. H’fra nudged A’kindry as they spotted him. The looks he got made him decide he definitely wouldn’t be sitting with them this morning. He picked up some toast, a boiled egg and klah, then made his way back to the table. ‘Morning,’ R’feem said, watching him over the steam from his own mug. ‘It seems you had an eventful evening.’ Oh, great. ‘Er, yes, you could say so.’ He wondered how many of the other riders had heard them shouting. It wouldn’t matter, really. Those who hadn’t would have been told the story by those who had. Doubtless, everything had been exaggerated beyond measure by now. ’S’brin and I had a difference of opinion.’ ‘And how are things between you now?’ ‘I don’t know. I didn’t stay in our weyr last night and I’ve not seen him this morning.’ D’gar took a deep drink of klah. ‘Hmm,’ R’feem mused. ‘I expect you to be on speaking terms at least before tomorrow’s Fall. I won’t have riders in my Wing at loggerheads with each other.’ That was going to be difficult. ‘He may not talk to me again until after Zemianth rises.’ ‘Ah. Proddy, is he?’ N’rir asked. ‘A bit.’ He poked at the egg. Suddenly, the food seemed less appetising. ‘Well, if she rises today, that should solve the issue and if she’s close enough to affect his moods that badly they’ll probably be missing Fall anyway.’ R’feem buttered a piece of bread. ’N’rir, would you draw up an alternative shift pattern in case Zemianth isn’t fit to fly?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘And D’gar…’ He felt the Wingleader’s steely gaze on him again and looked up from his breakfast. ‘You did the right thing by leaving before it got any more heated.’ So he had heard, then. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, wishing even more that the ground would open up and swallow him. ‘Let’s hope S’brin feels the same way once he’s in a more sensible frame of mind.’ After that he ate quickly, forcing down the toast and egg. He refilled his klah and got one for M’rell, along with a sweet roll in case he felt like eating something, then headed back up to the weyr. I will be on the heights, Herebeth said. There is more room up there. M’rell was still buried under the furs. ‘Go away,’ he mumbled. ‘I brought klah.’ ‘Ah, that’s different, then.’ He reached out a hand for the mug. ‘Did I dream it, or did Rina and Janelle fight over me?’ ‘You told me about it before you got really drunk, so I’m guessing it’s true.’ He groaned. ‘Do you think I’m being an idiot?’ ‘Well, it’s obvious Rina cares for you, otherwise she’d not be bothered about you seeing someone else.’ Why did other people’s relationship problems always seem so much more straightforward? ‘And if she wants your baby that just proves the same thing.’ M’rell gulped down some klah. ‘I know. I just don’t think I’m ready for all that. The responsibility. To have some kid looking up to me and wanting to “be a dragonrider like my dad”. It’s all a bit much. I can hardly remember my own father. He was killed in Fall when I was six.’ That might be one of the reasons he was reluctant to commit. ‘That’s fair enough, but she won’t wait forever for you to make up your mind. I take it you still want to be with her?’ ‘Well, yes. She understands me. And, well, I love her.’ ‘Then tell her that. Don’t throw it away.’ He sighed, thinking about S’brin. ‘I really hope S’brin and I can sort things out.’ ‘You will,’ M’rell said with a confidence D’gar didn’t feel. ‘You always have before.’ He didn’t see S’brin until dinner time. Bearing in mind what R’feem had said, he thought he should try to smooth things over. He’d spent most of the afternoon sitting in one of the empty weyr mouths at the opposite side of the lake, thinking what to say. The trouble was, it all depended on the mood S’brin might be in and as Zemianth hadn’t yet risen to mate, he didn’t reckon it would be much use. Still, he had to try. S’brin was sitting with his usual friends; R’xel and B’thun to either side of him with H’fra and Is’ish opposite. D’gar noticed J’rud at the table, too, although he had chosen a spot further up, with some of the older greens. He walked deliberately over towards S’brin. ‘I think we need to talk,’ he said carefully. That was a fairly inoffensive opening. S’brin regarded him coldly. ‘You’re at the wrong end of the table. Greens only.’ D’gar was very aware of people watching, including R’feem and his two Wingseconds. Maybe if he apologised first, it might help? ‘Look, I’m sorry things got out of hand last night…’ ‘You shouldn’t have set Herebeth on us.’ ‘I didn’t. Not deliberately. He thought I was in danger.’ This wasn’t going well. S’brin shook his head. ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ ‘All right, then.’ D’gar knew it was pointless to try and discuss it, especially with half of the Wing looking on. Still, at least R’feem would have seen that he’d tried. ‘Can I fetch some of my stuff from the weyr?’ ‘Sure. Just not when Zemianth or me are there.’ ‘I’ll go right after dinner.’ S’brin nodded curtly. D’gar made his way back to the other end of the table. On the way, he noticed J’rud give him a sympathetic look. He picked up a bowl of stew and some bread, then sat down next to M’rell. ‘Didn’t go too well?’ M’rell asked. D’gar shook his head. ‘He’s not ready to talk and certainly not in front of his friends.’ ‘So we’ll be sharing a weyr again tonight?’ ‘Looks like it.’ R’feem had obviously been listening. ‘If you need any help finding a weyr of your own, I can have a word with Naraina.’ ‘Not yet. I hope we can sort things out. But thanks.’ R’feem addressed his Wingseconds. ‘Zemianth’s definitely not going to be leaving the Weyr tomorrow. I shall tell S’brin he can help out at the firestone dump.’ S’brin wouldn’t enjoy that, especially with the new Weyrlingmaster, M’nan supervising. ‘She might rise before Fall,’ I’grast pointed out. ‘It’s not until mid-afternoon.’ ‘She might,’ R’feem agreed. ‘But in that case, she’d probably be too tired to fly for long anyway. We’ll manage without them both.’ D’gar ate his stew quickly. S’brin would see R’feem’s actions as just another example of how Weyr policy was prejudiced against green dragons and their riders. It would make his resentment simmer further. Still, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. ‘Never mind, lad,’ N’rir said kindly. ‘It’ll blow over, once he’s cooled off and she’s had her fun.’ D’gar hoped so. It had been different when they’d argued in the barracks; their clutchmates had been mostly supportive in trying to help them patch things up. Now, with S’brin listening to some of the - frankly poisonous - advice from some of the other green riders, he couldn’t help worrying about how things would turn out. When he went to pick up a change of clothes and his riding leathers, he found further evidence of S’brin’s state of mind. The weyr was a mess. He must have been throwing things around for a while after Herebeth flew off and hadn’t bothered to tidy up. The Moreta tapestry was askew, one of the hooks having been pulled out of the wall. ‘Bet you never had to deal with stuff like this,’ he said to her. ‘Plagues would be an improvement in my life right now.’ He packed his things quickly, not wanting to take any more time than was necessary. When he brushed past the curtain, he found Herebeth staring longingly at his comfortable couch. I’m sorry, he apologised. We won’t be coming back here right away. I will manage. If it is too uncomfortable, I will find a place outside. The nights are warm. If nothing’s changed in a sevenday, we’ll find a new weyr for ourselves. He hoped it didn’t come to that. The longest he and S’brin hadn’t spoken to each other, up until now, had been three days. Even thinking about the possibility made him feel sad. On his way back to M’rell’s weyr Herebeth relayed a message. Gemalth’s rider would like to see you. She is in her weyr. He’d not been to the Hatching Ground today, what with everything else. She must have wondered why. Tell her I’ll be there shortly. He had a quick wash and shave, then put on a clean shirt. Echoes of his mother’s advice rang around his head. ‘You should never visit a weyrwoman looking scruffy,’ she’d told him. Not that he’d ever expected to, back then, before Impressing Herebeth. It was just one of those things mothers told you, along with making sure to wash your hands before you ate. Zalna was reclining on her long couch, looking cool as she sipped chilled fruit juice. He knew of the store rooms, deep inside the Weyr, where ice was piled up during the winter so that the privileged few could enjoy such treats in the summer months. ‘You look as if you could use a cold drink,’ she said, pouring him one. He was intrigued by the piece of ice floating in it, enjoying the clinking sound it made as it hit the sides of the glass. Zalna laughed. ‘Anyone would think you’ve not seen ice before.’ ‘Not in a drink, no. Us common riders don’t get treats like this.’ The redfruit juice tasted far more refreshing icy cold. ‘So, what’s this I hear about you and S’brin breaking up?’ The news had travelled, then. ‘I’m hoping we haven’t broken up, although we did have a row.’ ‘Yes, I’m told half the Weyr heard you shouting and throwing things at each other. Is it true he pushed you off the ledge and Herebeth had to catch you?’ Weyr gossip had done its usual work, elaborating and exaggerating events. ‘Not exactly.’ He filled in what had actually happened. ‘So now he’s not speaking to me.’ ‘Oh dear. Is there anything I can do to help?’ ‘Probably not. I’m hoping it will all blow over. S’brin will see reason once she’s mated.’ Zalna nodded in sympathy. ‘I remember being very irritable for a day or two before Gemalth rose. It was far worse than I normally feel before my monthlies. Her emotions seemed to set off my own in a kind of vicious circle. Plus, of course, I was nervous about the whole thing.’ ‘Turned out well, though. Twenty-five eggs is a good number for a first clutch.’ ‘So I’m told. I wish it had been a few less, though. If Loranth doesn’t lay as many, Mardra will hate it.’ ‘It’s not a competition, surely.’ ‘It is to her.’ Even weyrwomen had problems, he reflected. Although there were compensations, like being able to get icy cold drinks when you wanted. ‘Still considering a transfer to Benden, then?’ ‘I think so. It’s not just about K’torl, either. Of course, I miss him and every time I look up at his empty weyr I’m reminded, but I really believe I’ll have a better chance of a good life there. The Weyrwoman is actually friendly and willing to train me. In two conversations with her, she’s made me feel more at ease than Mardra has in two Turns.’ They chatted for an hour or two. It was the most relaxed he’d felt since it all happened. Even the prospect of Fall the next day didn’t dampen his good humour and he flew back up to M’rell’s weyr feeling in relatively good spirits. As M’rell wasn’t there, he tidied the place up a bit. M’rell hadn’t bothered to put away his laundered clothes, just left them on top of any available surface. There were several unwashed cups that had contained klah, the floor hadn’t been swept in a while and he found some stale bits of food in the corners. It was definitely not a good idea to leave those lying around as food debris encouraged tunnel snakes. He’d just dumped the rubbish down the chute next to the necessary when M’rell arrived. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Tidying up. You don’t mind?’ ‘It wasn’t that bad, was it?’ ‘Well…’ ‘Rina usually does it when she comes up to stay.’ He sat down on the edge of the bed and started pulling off his boots. ‘You probably don’t want to know this, but S’brin was drinking quite heavily down there.’ D’gar shrugged. ‘He doesn’t have to ride Fall, so it hardly matters.’ ‘He was saying some nasty things about you. Some of the other riders walked away.’ That was good to know. At least not all of them sided with S’brin. ‘He’ll be fine in a few days.’ Say it enough times and it might come true. ‘Were you and J’rud really all over each other at the lake?’ ‘No!’ It didn’t surprise him that S’brin should be saying that. ‘We both fell asleep leaning against the dragons. Nothing else happened.’ ‘H’fra, A’kindry and that lot were being bitchy to him.’ Poor J’rud. He didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. ’R’feem sent N’rir over to have a word.’ ‘Good.’ ‘He didn’t look happy with any of them.’ D’gar shook his head. ‘I really, really hope Zemianth rises soon. Then this will be over.’ ‘For another three months or so.’ ‘He doesn’t always get it so bad.’ It had been a combination of circumstances, all coming together at once. ‘Maybe you’re a bit too ready to excuse his behaviour, too.’ D’gar wondered about that. ‘What else can I do?’ M’rell shrugged. ’Oh well. Time for bed. I like to get an early night before Fall.’ ‘Yeah. We do usually, as well.’ Although not necessarily to sleep straight away. There wouldn’t be any of that tonight. ‘Cover the glow baskets while you’re up, will you?’ ‘Lazy sod. I hope you don’t get Rina to do that as well.’ ‘She doesn’t mind. So, who does it in your weyr?’ ‘Whoever’s last into bed.’ He slid the cover over the first basket. As the light dimmed, M’rell started getting undressed. Funny, he was never so shy in the baths and certainly hadn’t been last night. Mind you, he’d been drunk. They both had. He covered the second one, then waited for his eyes to adjust before making his way back to the bed; not so easy in an unfamiliar weyr. It was a good job he still had his boots on, or he’d have stubbed a toe. He sat down heavily, misjudging the height of the bed as well, then quickly got undressed and slipped under the covers. ‘Goodnight, then.’ He made sure to keep a good way apart from M’rell. No point in making him feel uncomfortable when he might need to stay a while longer. ‘Goodnight,’ came the reply. By morning, M’rell was cuddling up to him again. Evidently, once he was asleep any inhibitions were lost. D’gar carefully untangled him and made his way to the necessary. His guts knew it was a Threadfall day and were churning already. ‘You all right?’ M’rell asked, when he climbed back into the bed. ‘You didn’t eat something bad, did you?’ ‘I always get like this before Fall.’ ‘It’s not happening until later on.’ ‘Tell my stomach that.’ ‘Yeah. Didn’t you throw up all over Herebeth once?’ ‘Thanks for the reminder.’ D’gar stared at the striated ceiling above him. The patterns were quite different than in his familiar weyr. His mind felt in as much turmoil as his guts. What if Thread got him and they’d never made it up? If he died, then S’brin would feel horribly guilty. Then there was J’rud. How could he have been oblivious to someone he knew so well feeling that way about him? ‘Why is life so complicated?’ he said out loud. ‘Dunno. I thought it was supposed to get easier once you were older.’ Humans make life very complicated. Herebeth was awake and decided to contribute. Dragons do not think about the past all the time like you do. That’s because you don’t remember it very well. Maybe that was a blessing. We remember. Herebeth said. But the past is like an eggshell on the Sands. It is of no further use and we must leave it behind. ‘Do you reckon Rina will get back with me again?’ M’rell interrupted his conversation. ‘Probably, if you explain it all to her.’ M’rell sighed. ‘I’ve never been very good at explaining things.’ ‘You managed all right to me.’ ‘I don’t love you.’ He’d got it right there. Why was it people often found it easier to talk to friends than to the ones they loved? ‘You have to try. If she understands your reasons, she might have a bit more sympathy. Right now, she probably thinks you don’t want to be with her any more. Or that you fancy Janelle more than you do her.’ ‘I suppose so.’ M’rell stretched and yawned. ‘So, what are you going to do about S’brin?’ ‘Wait until he’s in a better frame of mind. Get him on his own. Talk. Then, hopefully, have several hours of passionate make-up sex. That’s the only good thing about rowing in the first place. Never know, you and Rina might even start off that baby when you get back together.’ The day dragged, as it always did when waiting for Threadfall. D’gar spent the morning checking over Herebeth’s fighting straps and drinking klah, which was about all his stomach could cope with. He saw S’brin and Zemianth fly off to join the weyrlings at the firestone dump. Zemianth’s colour certainly seemed brighter than usual and he suspected she would rise to mate at some point during the day. Although both green and gold dragons were naturally inhibited from doing so during Threadfall, the Weyr was a long way from Hold Gar, where they would be fighting later, so it probably wouldn’t affect her. Or him, for that matter, as Herebeth had stated he wasn’t going to chase Zemianth anyway. After lunch, they assembled as usual. It was swelteringly hot down on the landing ground, so everyone waited until they were almost ready to take off before putting on the heavy wherhide gear. Even so, by the time they took to the air, D’gar was sweating. He’d attached two flasks of water to the straps; that way he might have enough to get to the end without becoming dehydrated. The weather was the same over the coast, where they waited for leading edge to come in across the sea. Three of the Wings had been assigned to protect the fishing fleet far below. They’d net a bumper haul when the shoals of fish ascended to eat drowned Thread. D’gar watched the dragons flaming against the blue sky. The scene reminded him of the smaller tapestry hanging in their weyr. Was it still ‘their weyr’, he wondered? Then leading edge was upon them and he didn’t have time to think any more. It felt like hard work today; even on the middle level, the air was much warmer than usual and the sun beat down relentlessly. Each blast of flame sent waves of heat back over him. Thread was coming down thick and fast. Riders became tired and made mistakes, resulting in more injuries than would usually occur in good visibility. Around two hours in - just as they were over the Hold itself - the emotional wrench that told of a fatality tore through his mind. He ignored it, as you always did and carried on. By the time they came back to the Weyr, he felt totally drained of energy. It was as much as he could do to take off Herebeth’s straps and trudge wearily to the baths. Like everyone else, when he stripped off the wherhide, his clothes beneath were soaked in sweat. It felt good to get into the water, even though it was still warmer than he’d have liked. Right now, diving into that ice lake would be perfect. Afterwards, they made their way to the dining hall. Pitchers of cold water and juice had been left out, together with refreshing slices of fruit. Gradually, the table filled up. D’gar kept checking for S’brin to come in. Mind you, anyone shovelling firestone was always late, as there was the clearing up to do afterwards. None of the weyrlings had arrived yet, either. ‘Tough one, today,’ T’garrin commented. ‘Makes you wish for winter,’ M’ta put in. ‘At least you weren’t up for the whole Fall.’ M’rell sprawled along the bench, while next to him, A’ren sat up as properly as he always did. ‘Anyone know who died?’ N’dru asked. ‘A pair in “G” Wing, I heard,’ M’ta said. ‘Probably young ‘uns.’ R’feem arrived, chatting with I’grast, shortly followed by N’rir. He called them to order. ‘Short meeting tonight, folks. I know you’ll all want to get some dinner as we had a late finish, so I won’t keep you long.’ As he continued speaking, D’gar noticed some of Suderoth’s clutch coming in, chatting loudly. A few of the other Wingleaders had also begun their meetings. As they passed ’A’ Wing’s table, T’ron glared at the noisy weyrlings, which kept the levels down. R’feem soon finished speaking and ended, as always, asking if there were any questions or comments. When there weren’t, he dismissed everyone. ‘Enjoy what’s left of your evening. Rest day tomorrow, naturally.’ ‘Well, that was nice and quick,’ M’rell said as they went up to refresh their drinks and see what was being put out to eat. D’gar was starving, having only been able to stomach some porridge and a meat roll earlier. Thankfully, the kitchen staff had taken into account the hot weather and had provided cold pies, pickles and vegetables, along with plenty of freshly baked bread with cheese. As he was cutting off a chunk of cheese, a couple of the weyrlings joined them. He couldn’t help but overhear what they were talking about. ‘Now you know what happens when a green dragon rises to mate,’ a freckle-faced lad said to his friend. ‘Well, I hope it doesn’t happen to me in the middle of the firestone dump like that. Bit embarrassing, wasn’t it?’ ‘You were staring along with everyone else. And those two didn’t seem embarrassed at all.’ M’rell nudged D’gar. ‘Wonder if that’s S’brin they’re talking about?’ D’gar feared it probably was. He hesitated. ‘Go on, ask them.’ ‘Er, lads. Whose dragon rose today?’ The lad with the freckles answered. ‘Just some wingrider who’d been sent to help us.’ ‘Yeah,’ his friend said. ‘They did it right in front of everyone…’ He looked as if he was about to go into more detail when M’rell stopped him. ‘Best not say any more. This is his weyrmate.’ ‘Oh.’ The freckled one blushed. ‘Sorry.’ ‘You weren’t to know,’ D’gar said. His imagination provided the images. It was a good thing S’brin - and whoever’s dragon had caught Zemianth - wouldn’t have known or cared about the audience. They went back to the table to eat. ‘At least it’s over,’ M’rell said. ‘Maybe he’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ ‘I hope so.’ S’brin would probably laugh it all off. D’gar could imagine him joking about it with the other greens. If the flight had happened sometime during Fall, then S’brin and his partner would still be wrapped up in the aftermath. He tried not to think about it too much. M’rell always had a few drinks after Fall. ‘To relax,’ he said. D’gar stayed on juice. ‘How can you drink again so soon after having a hangover as bad as yesterday?’ ‘Easy. Like this.’ He sank a cup of ale, then refilled it. ‘Lovely.’ They stayed down in the dining hall for far longer than D’gar would usually have done. The day’s work had taken it out of him and the thought of sleep appealed. Herebeth was tired too; that was part of the problem. After four hours in the air, he should have somewhere comfortable to sleep. I shall be all right, he said. I am by the lake now. The ground is warm from the heat of the day and the sound of water is soothing. If you’re sure? By the time they left - along with several others of the Wing - he was almost nodding off. As folk called out goodnight and waited for their dragons to pick them up, he couldn’t help but glance up at his own weyr. Zemianth was out on the ledge, as she often liked to be on warm nights, but she wasn’t alone. Another dragon nuzzled her neck and folded a wing across her body protectively. A young, reddish-brown dragon. He must have been the one that had flown her earlier, and if he was up there on the ledge, then that must mean his rider was inside the weyr, with S’brin. ‘Are you calling Herebeth, or do you want a lift up on Toth?’ M’rell’s voice dragged him back. ‘Toth will be fine. Herebeth’s resting right now.’ Were they having a drink together, chatting? Or having another round, still stoked up with dragonlust? A flight was one thing, but to take him back to the weyr; their weyr… ‘What’s up?’ ‘Nothing.’ He looked up again. He wanted to go up there and confront S’brin. Throw the other rider out. It was totally unreasonable, he knew. M’rell followed his gaze. ‘Oh. That’s not right. Taking him back to your weyr.’ ‘I know.’ He didn’t want to look any more. ‘Let’s go. Before I do something stupid.’ They climbed up on Toth and flew up to M’rell’s weyr. D’gar didn’t feel sleepy any more, just sad and angry at the same time. He took off his boots and hurled them at the wall, then sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. Herebeth picked up on his state of mind. What has angered you? This. He sent Herebeth an image of what he’d seen. Zemianth has found a mate. It is what green dragons do. ‘Are you all right?’ M’rell asked cautiously. ‘I will be. That sharding bastard!’ ‘It’s just dragonlust. He doesn’t love whoever it is.’ ‘I don’t think he loves me, either.’ With no means of venting his anger, D’gar felt tears gathering. ‘He does. You two have been together for Turns. That won’t just fall apart over one mating flight.’ ‘Mating flight’s one thing. But this…’ It felt like a betrayal. ‘S’brin thinks something’s going on between me and J’rud. That’s why he’s doing all this.’ ‘Everyone knows that’s not true. You and J’rud are just clutchmates. He might as well say we’re carrying on.’ Everything M’rell was saying made sense. But S’brin wasn’t seeing reason. ‘It’s those other greens. I’ve suspected they were jealous of our relationship. They’re poisoning him.’ ‘Why should they want you to fall out?’ ‘Maybe one of them fancies him. Maybe they just don’t like me. I don’t know.’ All of the frustration of the past couple of days welled up. ‘I should probably find myself a new weyr.’ ‘Don’t be too hasty,’ M’rell cautioned. ‘You said yourself you should wait until after Zemianth rose to mate. She’s done that now. S’brin will probably wake up tomorrow feeling bad about everything. Give him a chance.’ Despite all of it, D’gar couldn’t help smiling. ‘You sound like me, now.’ ‘I know. Not too often I end up giving you advice, but you’ve helped me out, so I should do the same. See how you feel in the morning.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’m going to try and speak to Rina tomorrow, as well.’ He sounded determined. ‘Let’s see if we can both salvage our relationships.’
    7 points
  36. another great chapter, looking forward to more
    7 points
  37. The following day Jared and Thomas went to work at Crystalline. Thomas worked in his office, on ideas for the campaign, while Jared busied himself in the gym, cleaning equipment and working out. Jonathan Price called his secretary and asked “Prism, please get Thomas Steadman on the phone.” “Yes Sir, right away.” When Thomas came on the line, “I want you to come into the office now and bring Jared with you we have business to discuss. It’s time we got this election campaign started.” “No problem Jonathan, we should be there in about an hour.” “Good, I’ll have lunch served in my office and we can start work over lunch.” <> Thomas went over to the gym. “Hi” said Jared, “Going to join me in a workout?” “No time.” “You always use that excuse.” “No, really. Get that cute butt of yours into some office clobber, we’ve been summoned to a meeting with Jonathan, in the city.” “Is there a problem?” “No, he wants to start working on strategy for his election campaign.” “Had to happen sooner or later. We’ve had it all too easy the last month.” “While you shower, I‘ll get some paperwork and my laptop and meet you in the garage.” Thomas went down to the garage and asked Desmond “Have we got a spare vehicle I can use to drive into town for a meeting with Mr P?” “Sure, you can take the 4x4 or I can check with Virginia if she needs the BMW today.” “No, the big butch set of wheels will do thanks.” While waiting for Jared, Thomas asked Desmond “How was the trip south, I heard Mrs P enjoyed the shopping?” “Yes, one of her talents, she really knows how to shop at all those high end boutiques in Melbourne.” “I was referring to something a little more domestic.” “Oh that, it did come as a surprise to her that you have to pick and carry your own groceries at a supermarket. I think she enjoyed it in the end.” “And at the other end of the scale, I hear there was a very big purchase.” “Thomas, if you know all this already, what are you after, gossip?” “You know I don’t gossip.” “Maybe you don’t spread it but you certainly like to collect it.” “Just looking after Mrs P’s interests.” “But you don’t work for her any longer, isn’t that so?” “Yes, but I still look out for her.” “Good on you, here’s Jared now. The keys are in the car, safe trip.” <> Thomas had reminded Desmond of the purchase of the holiday house in Mallacoota, so he went to see Virginia and ask about the progress. “I had a call from Smidmore yesterday in fact. He said it will all be settled soon and he will let me know when the keys are available.” “That means Mr Price was happy to let you have the house.” “I wouldn’t say happy about the purchase, but he was satisfied with our deal.” “Deal?” “Yes, that’s how we operate now. I get something, he gets something.” “And what did he get?” “I will appear to be the loyal wife when he attends official functions that require a woman on his arm. But I got the better part of the deal.” “The house is a big item.” “Oh there’s more than the house, I get you as well.” “I’m not sure I like being part of a deal, like a commodity to be traded.” “Stop it! You know I don’t mean that. The house is all about us, a place that can be for just us, to use as and when we please.” “Well, if you put it that way, I suppose I see what you mean.” “Desmond, tell me the truth. Do you think I treat you as a commodity?” “Before I answer that, let me remind you that over the past twenty years or so, you have hired your lovers as you would hire other casual staff. Now after all these years you come back to me. Why?” “I am shocked that you asked me that, but I will answer. Firstly, remember it was you that ended our relationship all those years ago because I wouldn’t leave Jonathan for you. That left me with the other option, as you say, to hire my lovers. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy their attentions, but it was not my first choice. And the fact that you never left here tells me that you felt the same. Now after all this time and the passing parade of bed partners I have found a way that we can be together again. I feel slighted Desmond that you would ask that question, however I will answer you and that is NO you are not a commodity to me. You are the only man that I have ever truly loved. Is that clear enough for you?” “Thank you Virginia, that means the world to me, but I had to be sure about it and for the record. You are the only woman I have ever loved and have continued to love you, even while watching you take those young rent boys, I think that’s the current term they use, to your bed. But the one thing that never faltered was my love for you Virginia.” “I should take offence at that rent boy remark, but I won’t as I do not want anything to spoil this moment of your declaration of love.” “Thank you. In that case we should have a little celebration. You place or mine Virginia?” “You are a naughty boy Desmond.... yours, I feel adventurous.” *** Prism ushered Thomas and Jared into Price’s office then brought in the lunch. “Thank you for coming so promptly Gentlemen. I thought it was time we got this show on the road. While we discuss how we kick off my campaign, please help yourself to lunch. There will be no alcohol today or at future such meetings. Prism will bring juice and coffee shortly.” “Understood Jonathan.” “Good, now what ideas have you put together Thomas?” “I thought we would run the campaign in three stages. Firstly we need to get you known around the electorate, then you go public with your policies and finally the actual election campaign itself, once an election date is announce by the government.” “How do we start, I’m not going to walk the streets getting to know people.” “Of course not. I have planned that also in stages. Firstly I have identified the demographics of the area and a different approach to reaching out to each of them.” “Go on.” “As I see it, we have the young and forward thinking, some of whom may be voting for the first time. I think social media is the best way to make contact with them. Then we have the older retirees, most of whom are interested in what the government can do for them right now. The third group is the largest and most varied, the huge group in between the two other groups. It’s difficult finding a common thread so we may have to be flexible in how we reach out to them. Finally we have a special group that covers all ages and all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.” “And who is this special group?” “Generally referred to as the gay community. Although they are a varied group also, but have common concerns of marginalisation and discrimination. This electorate has the highest percentage of GLBTI etc voters. So our task is to find the most effective way to reach each member of each voter group.” The meeting went on for an hour discussing Thomas’ plans, but none of it included Jared. Finally he stood up and started to clear the remains of their lunch. “There’s no need for you to do that Jared, Prism will take care of it.” “I don’t have anything else to do Jonathan.” “Ah, I’m glad you reminded me of that. Thomas if you don’t mind we’ll pause discussion of your plans, while I explain my plans for Jared.” “Sure, I’m interested also.” “Jared, I know I asked you to be my body guard, and that is still my longer term plan, but in the meantime I have other duties you can perform for me.” Thomas interrupted “Would you like me to step out Jonathan?” “No, why would I want that?” “I thought the discussion might be a bit personal.” “I don’t follow you, but it doesn’t matter. Jared, I will assign you as my personal driver for now.” “You are a good driver aren’t you?” “I’ve had advanced driver training up to a Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle.” “I’m not sure what that is, but sounds impressive.” “I’ve even driven an M1 Abrams tank, though not officially.” “Good, that will mean you can be with me wherever I go so you learn about my habits and needs and be familiar with my style so you will be able to sense if anything is out of the ordinary. Do you get my meaning, from a protection point of view?” “Yes Jonathan, and if anything seems different then I can act accordingly to protect you.” “Exactly, good man. Now that’s settled, what else have you got for me Thomas?” “I have some ideas for fund raising if you’d like to hear about them now.” “Fund raising for what?” “To finance your campaign, all political parties do it.” “But I’m not all political parties, I am a one-man band who is fortunate enough to be able to finance his own campaign.” “That’s very generous of you Jonathan.” “Not at all, it’s my ambition to do this, why should I expect others to finance it.” “In that case, we may be able to turn my fundraising ideas into something even better. We could still have the functions, make some money and donate it to local charities, no strings attached, except the publicity it will generate. Something like, local candidate supports local charity by handing over cheque for an additional phone counsellor on the children’s helpline.” “I knew I’d picked the right man for this job. What do we do first?” “I had planned a fund raiser, and even though we have changed that purpose, I still think we do that first. It will be an opportunity for people to get to know you and hopefully raise enough for you to make a public appearance presenting the proceeds.” “I’m fine with that, but I’ll leave the details to you. I couldn’t think of anyone more experienced at staging functions. Just let me know when and where you need my presence. Also, you should have a role for my wife at some of these events. You know what I mean, supportive wife and all that sort of thing the public expects.” “I’m glad you mentioned that as there is an elephant in the room.” “Yes, go on.” “Not to put too fine a point on it, but how do you want me to handle the matter of your marital arrangements?” “You’re the ideas man and my wife’s former relationship manager. You tell me.” “I believe it should not be mentioned or even hinted at in any way.” “What if I get a direct question?” “Deny it emphatically. That’s the political way. Furthermore, if anyone from your or Mrs P’s past comes forward, we find a way to deal with them.” “As far as my wife’s partners are concerned, we have Jared on board and the one before him has left the country. As for mine, there’s that Asian kid, who found his own way in and the rest were professionals who have their own reputations to guard. Then of course there’s Andy, but he’s still on our team. So as I see it the weak link may be the Asian kid.” “I can manage that. I know him and he works for friends of mine. In fact he now works for the caterers that have done some of Mrs P’s parties in the past and will be doing our functions.” “Is that the company with the naked waiter?” “Yes.” “Good, that’ll be fun.” “As may be, but a slip of the tongue like that, outside of this office could be disastrous for your campaign.” “Right, I understand, thanks for reminding me.” “Also, may I approach Mrs P for appropriate contacts to be invited to our fundraiser. Some of her friends can be very generous for the right cause.” “Am I the right cause?” “Not necessarily, but your charities may be.” “Good thinking, yes of course approach her. I know you two love working together so that could work well for us.” “Thank you Jonathan, I’ll get right on to that.” “Anything else, Thomas?” “Yes, I’d like to set up a gay liaison group to work on courting the gay community through the various groups and gay media.” “Do you have anybody in mind for this group?” “Yes, I do. There are two elderly gentlemen I met last year who both volunteer at the radio station. Max and Charles are a delightful couple and I’m sure we could get them on side. Also I’d like to include Andy from your design department.” “That’s excellent, so if Andy needs time off work here then that will be fine.” “Thank you Jonathan. The core working group of those three plus me as chair should be a good start and we can recruit others as specific expertise needs arise.” “Very good, thanks gentlemen, if that’s all for now, I still have a diamond dynasty to run.” “And what should I do now Jonathan, when do I start as your driver?” “Yes, that.” Price thought for a while then called his secretary. “Prism, would you have my driver come up please. Ask him to wait in the meeting room, Mr Haynes will need to speak to him and ask Watson from human resources to come and see me.” “Very good Sir.” Jared just stared at Price in a questioningly way. “I suppose you’re wondering what that was all about. Simple really, your first job as my bodyguard will be to advise Johnson that he will be transferred to other duties for the company. Watson will find something for him to do.” “But...you mean I have to fire my predecessor?” “No, he won’t be fired just transferred within the company. He’s not a very ambitious man and certainly doesn’t have the qualifications you have. Just be direct and honest with him.” “Should I tell him I’m replacing him?” “There’s not much point in hiding it, he’ll find out by tomorrow.” “Oh well, straight into the deep end.” “That’s the spirit.” <> As Thomas and Jared left Price’s office, Watson from human resources arrived and was ushered in to see Price. Thomas introduced Jared to Prism and left Jared to meet with Johnson, the driver he was replacing. “Pleased to meet you Jared, I’ve heard so much about you.” said Prism “I believe you have a meeting with Bernard Johnson.” “Yes, where should we have this meeting?” “He’s already waiting for you in the meeting room, next door.” “Thank you.” Jared approached the door of the meeting room, stopped, took a few deep breaths, then confidently opened the door and strode in. “Good afternoon Bernard, I’m Jared Haynes.” “Yes, I’ve heard of you, I believe you work for Mrs Price so not sure why we are meeting.” “I used to work for Mrs Price, but now I work for Mr. Price.” “Versatile, aren’t you?” “I’m sorry?” “Never mind, now what’s this meeting about?” “Mr Price has asked me to inform you.........” *** Thomas drove the Prices’ car back to Crystalline and worked in his office until Jared drove Price home in the early evening. “How was it driving Jonathan around?” “A bit nerve wracking.” “But you’re used to driving around the city as well elsewhere?” “Yeah, but not in a Rolls Royce. It’s the worst drive I’ve ever experienced.” “Worse than driving a Bushmaster?” “Dings, spinouts and rollovers are all part of the experience of driving a Bushmaster, they’re built for that type of punishment. I don’t think Jonathan would appreciate even the slightest scratch on his beloved Roller.” “Fair enough, but you’ll get used to it. You’ve raised an interesting point there. I don’t think it would go down well with the voters he’s trying to attract if he turns up to functions in a Royal runabout. We’ll have to get him a somewhat more modest set of wheels.” “What about the 4x4 you drove today. Everybody’s driving them now.” “That will be perfect. We’re going to be a good team, I’m sure of it.” “What have you been doing since you got back?” “Mostly talking to Craig. I’ve set up a meeting for next week to organise some functions.” “Can we go home now, I’m starved. That working lunch hardly touched the sides. He didn’t even offer dessert.” “Poor diddums, I forgot you need copious quantities of protein and calories to maintain that body of yours.” <> On the drive home, Thomas remembered he hadn’t asked Jared about his meeting with Bernard. “How did he take it?” “I’m really not sure, he didn’t say much, just, thank you for letting me know.” “He is generally a quiet sort of person and doesn’t reveal much. That’s a requirement for a good chauffeur, to be seen and not heard.” “Maybe, but there was still something about his demeanour that made me think there was more happening in his head than he was prepared to reveal. I mean why thank me for telling him he’s lost his job” “It would have come as a shock to him and the thank you was just a polite reaction. He’s not used to speaking out, so he’ll deal with it in his own time.” “I hope he doesn’t have any bad feelings towards me. I was just doing as instructed.” *** “How about you get dinner ready and I’ll give all these old clothes a wash before I take them to the charity store?” suggested Thomas. “No problem, and while they’re washing you can open the beers.” The ever meticulous Thomas went through all the pockets before placing each item in the washer. He was aware from the past that Jared sometimes left tissues in his pockets, the results of which meant the clothes required a re-wash once most of the paper fluff was removed. This time he collected four dollars and fifty five cents in change, two screws from he knew not where, a ball point pen, one business card and an unused condom, but no tissues. When Thomas returned from the laundry he opened two bottles of beer; one Carlton draught and a James Squire one fifty lashes for Jared. He then placed the loot he collected from the pockets, on the kitchen bench, save one item which he wanted to think about. “What are you cooking?” “Steak, thick and juicy.” “Just the way you like your men.” “Is that how you describe yourself?” “I wasn’t thinking of me.” “Who then?” “Nathan maybe.” “Who’s Nathan?” “This is Nathan.” replied Thomas as he put a business card on the bench. It just read, Nathan - Fulfilling Your Desires. “Oh him, we met him in the pub that night we got drunk after the funeral.” “And?” “And nothing.” “So how come you have his business card?” “He left it on the table and I must have automatically picked it up.” “Are you sure that’s all you picked up?” “What are you saying?” “I’m asking, did you engage the services of this guy?” “Do you really think I would pay for sex? That’s a very demeaning suggestion.” “Because you wouldn’t stray.” “Well, that too, but to suggest I would have to pay for sex is quite insulting. Remember I was the one who used to get paid for sex.” “So this is an ego thing.” “I would call it pride.” “Then tell me about Nathan and why you have his card.” “It was very funny really, he thought Justin and I were rent boys doing a double act.” Jared explained about Nathan, mostly true, minus a few facts. “That still doesn’t explain why you had his card in your pocket.” “I told you I must have put it in there unconsciously and you must see it wasn’t of any importance to me if I left it in the pants I gave away.” “I suppose so.” “Good, now I’m going to get these steaks on, so don’t go far, they’ll only take four minutes.” “Four minutes, will they have stopped mooing by then?”
    7 points
  38. I enjoy the interaction with my readers. I've met some wonderful people on GA as a result of their comments, both positive and negative. It helps me grow as a writer to hear what works and where I'm screwing up. That said, I know a lot of people don't actually log in to read. I'm guilty of that a lot of times. I have to remind myself to log in and go back to those chapters to comment or at least leave a reaction. It can cause a writer to grind their teeth when people try to guide the story where they feel it should go, but that's part of doing this. Writing is my hobby, something I won't ever get paid for, and I offer it free to anyone who wants to read it, so in the end I guess all I should care about is seeing the view count increase. Anything else is a bonus.
    6 points
  39. Perhaps you could include a statement at the end of each chapter submission that reads something like: The mission of Gay Authors is to provide you quality stories. To insure this is successful, we strongly encourage interaction between reader and author. Feedback is important for the success of our mission. Comments are a motivating factor, and they are greatly appreciated by this author. I've been doing this for a long time, and if readers don't want to interact, they won't for many reasons. However, if they are reminded each time they read something they enjoy, perhaps it will motivate them to comment and participate more often.
    6 points
  40. Three cheers for Marta and her quick thinking! I'm certain she was as unhappy as Gus, or more, being dragged away from a fun summer and a new boyfriend. I loved Rick's phone call with Irene! He is showing another growth spurt mentally. Making quick decisions and talking down his insecurities! His other great conversation was the one with his dad in his head! All this shows the terrific writing you've been doing on this story, but the award winner was your description of the drive to and in Chicago and the hunt for Gus in the symphony hall! You absolutely nailed the tension and frustration! And the icing on the cake was Rick's closing line! Bravo!! An outstanding chapter among many in this wonderful story! Thank you.
    6 points
  41. An extremely well written chapter Parker!! I believe I was holding my breathe the for entire drive to Chicago! Rick's frustrations were well conveyed and powerful! I am sooo glad someone called for a plumber! ( A great line.) Now the real disentanglement between Gus and Zoltan begins. I only hope Gus, having Rick at his side, will empower him to standup to Zoltan's demands! Superb writing my friend - thank you!!
    6 points
  42. What an apt metaphor: the impromptu race from Eagle Lake to Chicago in an old van without air conditioning was a wonderful parallel to Rick's growth in moving past his insecurities towards his future -- an unknown future perhaps, but nonetheless his, not Heinrich's nor Rita's nor anyone else's, except possibly one to be shared ultimately with Gus. Then to close with, "“Somebody call a plumber?” He grinned." Sheer genius, in all its many layers! It was the perfect comic relief after the tension that had been ratcheting up since the end of the last chapter -- and will certainly help getting through the intervening week until the next chapter. As for the mind-f&@! of driving for the first time in a major city, you captured the frustration with amazing accuracy. I still remember driving the first time into NYC 40 years ago, after having driven mostly in towns and small cities in West Virginia and Georgia all my previous life. Between the impatience of other drivers and the one-way streets, it was a nightmare, but what a satisfied feeling once I had done it! Fabulous story, @Parker Owens!
    6 points
  43. I'm hoping that someday I'll see these stories in book form in the kids section of bookstores. Nicely done.
    6 points
  44. Lawful, just in name, or merely in thought, guardians are supposed to protect both the person and assets of that person. Not only did Gus suffer a broken wrist by Helene, Zoltan and Magda are now encouraging her increased involvement in Gus’ career and personal life. It’s incomprehensible to me that they would continue to put Gus in potential danger while deluding themselves it is for his benefit. Whether it was an accident or not, no one should suffer an injury during an argument. Zoltan and Magda are so focused on being The Couple that put Gus at the top of his musical field, they have completely forgotten that Gus is a human being and not just a world renowned pianist. They are riding his success and his fortunes. Their desperation is showing. Good thing Rick has a good lawyer!
    6 points
  45. Happy birthday, Liebe! And deeply moved (again), Mr. Hazday: such a cute, sensitive, emotional UBERCUTE story! I’ve told it more than once, but I keep admiring your masterful know how at story telling and at creating worlds. Thank you, Carlos! con mucho afecto, Jose
    6 points
  46. I’m struck by your comment “... Zoltan said "You do not have a choice.You will do as I say." It's like he still thinks of himself as Gus guardian....” is exactly right. Zoltan must think of himself as a kind of guardian; he and Magda have done a lot of guiding, parenting and providing over the years, along with the quite obvious exploitation. He has real trouble seeing Gus as an independent adult. The contract between them must reflect this, and it’s possible Gus has never had his own lawyer. Marta is definitely more than smitten with Jared; she must have given herself away to her parents somehow. They can’t possibly approve of Jared. As for Willy, he has plenty of his own problems now. How long he can stay out of bankruptcy is a matter of what assets he may still possess, and how fast he can sell them. Thanks again for reading and for your thoughts!
    6 points
  47. I read this and what immediately came to mind was an image of Liebe entering the restaurant and running up and plastering herself to Mama Bea to give the warm and loving - because that’s what she is - woman a big hug as only a small child can do. Speaking from personal experience, OMG, this is so true that little kids think like this. Cool. Learned a new word today. I really liked the “illustrations” added to the story. While I was seeing everything in my mind’s eye, the illustrations really made these images come alive. Overall, I really enjoyed this story - I’d love to see the turtles do their thing. The storyline was smooth and easy to follow, and the characters were engaging. Too bad they’re not real, because they’re the kind of people one would be lucky to call friend. Well done, Mr. Hazday.
    6 points
  48. 6 points
  49. Happy Birthday Liebe
    6 points
  50. Your comments are very generous. Indeed, that poor, much-maligned van performed admirably. If ever there were a mechanical hero, that old hunk of metal would qualify. The other thing that makes me smile is how you noted Rick overcoming doubts which would have sent him into full retreat even a month previously. Gus has had an enormous effect on Rick; he's more than a mere infatuation. I sincerely hope you remain in good health to enjoy next week's chapter. Thanks a million for reading, and for your observations.
    5 points
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