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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Empty Spaces Between Us - 35. Chapter 35

It had been a long week for Tyler by the time he and Sean finished work on Friday. The August weather had been hot and humid while they were kept busy repairing roofs in Westmoreland county after a powerful storm had swept through the area. For five days, Tyler led a team of ten workers, Sean included, repairing six damaged homes. Sam placed him in charge as far as selecting his team and supervising the work and managing the repair crew’s time. Because the work was so far from them, Sam gave him a company credit card for expenses to pay for hotel rooms for all the workers and food while he managed the team. Out of a sense of caution, Tyler stayed in touch with Sam and Troy, calling them up to three times a day to keep them informed on their progress. Sam would maintain a professional tone with Tyler every time he called while silently rolling his eyes at the overly cautious young man who wanted to make sure Sam’s trust hadn’t been abused. After each call Sam would then turn to Colleen and tell her that her, “little baby is doing just fine.”

While the work had been hard, it had also become a welcome distraction from thinking about Andy’s situation. Everyone at one point or another had visited Andy to check on him and keep his spirits up. From what he had heard from phone calls with Brian and Jacob, things haven’t changed much. Andy slept most of the day on Monday, getting up long enough to eat and shower. The boxes containing Brandon’s belongings he had brought back with him were being kept in his bedroom to keep the boys from poking around in them. Nate and Brian stayed in the house most of the time to keep an eye on the boys and on Andy. David, Kyle and the others visited him to talk and see how he was doing and would receive monotone responses. Of Brandon, he would only reluctantly repeat what they had already heard but didn’t seem inclined to give them any new information and no one seemed to want to press him for more out of a feeling of uncertainty about where it could lead his emotional state.

Tyler called him once in the middle of the week and didn’t get a reply. When he texted Brian, he was told that Andy had been asleep and to not worry about it. Sean was sharing a hotel room with him (to keep expenses low, he told himself) and while that was helpful, he wished he could be home with the others helping Andy. While Tyler worried about Andy, Sean kept his spirits up by going out to dinner with him and exploring the new town they were in. There wasn’t much to do after a few days in such a small town, and it reminded Tyler somewhat of the place he had gone with Andy to visit in Missouri only two weeks ago. He let Sean do most of their driving during the days. At night they each typically fell asleep in the others’ arms. Once they were done with the final repair job on Friday, the two of them packed up their stuff in Tyler’s truck and started on their long drive home.

“So, boss,” Sean said with a small grin, “what do you want to do when we get back home?”

Tyler gave him a wry smirk before rolling his eyes. “I just want to get home, take a shower and do nothing.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sean said with a nod of approval.

“But,” he said with a sigh, “I should go see Andy.”

Sean sat back in his seat, watching Tyler’s face. A soft smile came to his lips even as the feeling in his heart gave him a warm glow again that was starting to become a familiar sensation whenever he looked at Tyler. “You have really good friends.”

Tyler smiled and nodded. “Yes, I do. They’re your friends to, you know.”

“I don’t know about that,” he replied with a chuckle. “I know Troy as my boss and Andy as a friend of yours. I spent a little time with Brian while you were gone. Not sure if we’re friends just yet.”

“You overthink it,” Tyler said with a smirk, remembering that it was similar words that Drake used to say to him. “They’re good people.”

Sean smiled wistfully as he glanced over at him. “I wish I knew them as well as you do.”

Tyler chuckled softly. “Go ahead and ask me whatever you want.”

Sean laughed. “I don’t even know what to ask.”

“Hey,” he replied with a shrug, “we got an hour between here and my shower. Say whatever you want.”

Sean suddenly felt odd and chuckled nervously. “Well… How long have Brian and Andy been a thing?”

Tyler laughed slightly. “Sure, ask the hard question first. I guess it just depends on how you look at it. I guess they were like best friends in school when they were growing up. But I think there was also some more serious stuff going on between them. Technically, they’ve been together for about a year now.”

“What about the other two? I barely know them. Only had that one dinner with them and when the two of you were gone, I was mostly just a silent observer.”

Tyler was quiet for a moment before responding. “Jacob has been a good friend over the years. I used to have a serious crush on him.”

“You liked the big brawny types?”

“No,” Tyler said with a dramatic roll of his eyes. “He was a bit leaner two years ago. It was his personality that I got attracted to as far as how bad my crush got. But, after getting to know him as well as I do now, I just really appreciate his friendship. Not that I think he isn’t attractive now. I just know that I’ve kind of outgrown that whole boyish crush I was in with him.”

“And Kyle…?”

“He’s…” Tyler grumbled slightly under his breath. “He’s a nice guy.” He sighed, knowing he wasn’t being entirely truthful. “Okay, he’s a good person too. I didn’t like him much when I first met him. He came off as an asshole and he and Jacob had a bad moment in their past and I was crushing on Jacob at the time and just instantly took his side. Hell, I don’t even know what it was all about. But they obviously worked through it and I’m happy for both of them. Kyle is very sweet, really, once I got over my bias. He’s a decent lawyer to, and a good father.”

Sean nodded. “Nice.” He kept his attention on the road in front of them as the radio played quietly. A feeling of peace came over him as he felt himself relax. There were times when he wished he grew up in this simpler life than the one he had been born into. Tyler’s relationships with his friends seemed so much more natural and genuine than the friends he had growing up. “I get the feeling that you like Andy the most though.”

Tyler shrugged. “Yeah. In some ways. He’s…” He felt his cheeks redden at the silly notion he had in his head. “It’s a good friendship.”

Sean’s eyebrows came together as he turned to look at Tyler with a curious frown. The blush in his cheeks told him there was more going through Tyler’s thoughts than he said. “He’s what?”

Tyler sighed. “I’m not interested in fucking him, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I’m not worried about that.” He sat up a little more as his confusion gave way to amusement. “What was it you were going to say?”

“Nothing,” he replied with a shake of his head. “It’s stupid.”

“Nothing you say is ever stupid,” Sean gently admonished. “Tell me.”

A slight frown creased his lips. “It’s just… I never told anyone this.” He sighed and finally said, “I never really liked being an only child growing up. Most kids I grew up with had an older or younger sibling. In a way, I kind of feel like I missed out on something because of it. Sometimes… I look at Andy and think how great it would’ve been if I’d had a big brother like him.”

Sean broke into a bright grin. “Aww. That’s cute.”

Tyler chuckled silently. “Don’t repeat that. I don’t wanna feel like someone desperate for affection.”

“If you say so,” he replied with a shrug. “But if I were to guess, I’d say the feeling is mutual.”

“I just… don’t want to be…” He sighed, knowing where his thoughts were leading. “I don’t know why I do that.”

“Do what?”

“I don’t know. It’s like… most of the time I just feel like I’m just barely there. Or I’m just lucky that I have what I got because someone took pity on me. Rationally, I know none of that is true but, I just always feel inadequate and having to work harder than others.”

Sean frowned in disappointment. “I wish you didn’t feel like that. They respect you and like you. Hell, Troy and his dad put you in charge of this trip. Repairing six homes with you, me and eight other guys. Not me or anyone else. You.”

Tyler felt a small smile force its way to the surface. “I know,” he said in a quiet voice. “Just wish I could convince the kid inside me who always felt left behind.”

Sean reached across the seats and put his hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “Not everyone is your dad, Tyler. And, from what you told me about how he died, I honestly don’t think he was the monster you made him out to be.”

Tyler’s jaw clenched as he forced himself to not think about his late father. “Okay. Let’s just drop it for now. I promise, I’ll work on it.” A silence descended upon them for a few minutes. “Even though it’s hard to admit sometimes,” he quietly added later, “I know they love me.”

Sean smirked, taking a small victory where he can. While Tyler always seems confident, Sean has seen his brief moments of self-doubt. Wanting to get his mind off the subject, he decided to change the topic to something more personal. “You know, after spend an entire week with you, I’m gonna miss having to spend nights sleeping by myself.”

“Oh yeah,” he said with a small chuckle. “You’re not the only one. But there’s always any night you wanna come spend the night.”

“Well, what if I would want to spend the night every night?”

Tyler blinked and became uncomfortable. “Why, ah… why don’t we talk about that when we get back? We can get some pizza or something and see where things go.”

Sean wasn’t disappointed. Having only been a couple for barely a month, it was probably too soon, considering what Tyler went through with his last boyfriend. But he was determined to show Tyler patience about it while letting him know that he was serious about this relationship. “Okay. Sounds good.”

Tyler nodded and kept his eyes on the road, thinking about what was going to happen between them when they got back and wondering how Andy was doing.




Brian frowned deeply as he stared across the living room at Nate. “That’s taking things a little too far, don’t you think?”

Nate sighed in frustration as he ran his hand through his close cropped red hair. “And I think we need to seriously consider it.”

Brian closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. While Andy had been talkative and opened up to everyone the day he came home, over the course of the next week he slowly slid into a depressive state. He woke up later each day and did very little. By Thursday, Andy couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed. Brian laid there with him for part of the morning, but he had to care for Blake and Tanner. Kyle visited for a few hours, joining Andy in his room and talking. Brian had hoped that might help bring him out of his depression. But when Kyle came back downstairs, he seemed disappointed in himself and informed Brian that Andy had only said a few things but couldn’t bring himself to talk more about his grief. A day later and it seemed nothing had improved. While Andy wouldn’t say it out loud to him, Brian could tell there was still a part of Andy would have preferred to join Brandon instead of living.

Nate had called for his mother to come and now the three of them were sitting in the living room, discussing what would be best for Andy going forward. “Good luck trying to get him to go,” Brian said with a little annoyance in his voice. “He’s pretty much said he’s through with his support group. If he’s not doing that anymore, what makes you think we can get him into psychiatric care?”

“I think we can talk him into it,” Lisa said gently. “He needs help. There’s only so much we can do.” She watched the frustration on Brian’s face and was understanding of his plight. “I know it’s not easy, dear. But we have to face the fact that he’s just not getting any better.”

“He’s grieving,” Brian responded. “It’s just going to take a little time.”

“What about the boys,” Nate pointed out. “Shouldn’t they not have to walk on eggshells all the time? They’ve been through so much already, especially Tanner. I think he’s starting to wonder if his mom is coming back.”

“Oh, I’ll be damned before I let that happen,” Brian said emphatically. “Why don’t we give it another week and see how it goes.”

Lisa’s face showed her uncertainty about the proposal. Her natural instinct was to protect her child at all cost, but she knew that wasn’t going to help. “I can stay for a week.”

“I’m on a leave of absence right now,” Nate added with a shrug. “My only concern is Andy and my nephews. I’m here for as long as I need to be.”

Unobserved and overlooked, Blake peeked into the room, listening to the adults talking. He didn’t understand what they were talking about, but he did know that his dad wasn’t alright like they had told him. He’d spent the day watching cartoons and playing with his Legos in the basement, but he was bored, and his toys were usually not entertaining unless he had someone to play with. Tanner didn’t want to play and was reading one of his books while sitting on the couch nearby. Normally, Blake could get his big brother to read out loud from the book he was reading. Having Tanner read to him had become a new kind of play that they got to share. Tanner would point out words to him as he read so Blake could actually see the word he was saying. He found it completely enthralling and was always a little disappointed when Tanner told him he was done reading for the day. But today Tanner was absorbed in his book and didn’t even look up when Blake quietly stepped out of the room to go see what grandma and the adults were doing.

Once he heard them talking, he knew it was best to stay silent. As he listened, he came to the conclusion that they would be talking for awhile so there wasn’t much chance of getting Brian and uncle Nate to play a game with him. With no other alternative, Blake made the choice to go find his father and see if he was feeling better. As he tiptoed his way upstairs, he reminded himself that his dad was sick. At least, that was what he had come to understand from what he had been told. He tried not to expect much of a response and maybe, if nothing else, if he promises to be quiet, maybe Daddy will let him nap with him.

As he reached the door to the big bedroom, Blake carefully turned the knob so it wouldn’t make a lot of noise (in case his dad was asleep, he didn’t want to wake him.) Opening the door, Blake looked around the room. The lights were off and the blinds closed, casting the room in solemn shadow. He saw the two boxes Brian had brought into the house the day Daddy came home and was immediately curious as to their contents. When he’d asked what they were, Brian told him they were his Dad’s things from a friend. His bright green eyes went to the bed and saw a large lump on the bed underneath the covers that could only be his Daddy. He smiled and silently closed the door before stepping over to the bed.

“Daddy?” he whispered softly. Getting no response, the little red haired boy slipped his head under the covers and cautiously crawled in. Careful not to make too much noise, what little light that filtered through the sheets revealing Andy laying on his side, wearing just a pair of old cotton shorts and a ragged tee shirt. His eyes were closed, and his breathing seemed soft. Blake was mildly disappointed but decided that if his dad was going to take a nap this early in the day, he should too.

He wiggled himself around to get as close to Andy without waking him and laid his head down on the pillow. Sighing with a small smile on his lips, Blake was happy at least to get to spend a moment alone with his dad even if he would’ve preferred to play a game with him. It always gave him a warm feeling deep inside when he looked at his daddy’s face. There was always at least a trace of a smile whenever Andy was looking at him. Looking into his dad’s eyes always made him grin. Seeing his own eyes looking back at him left him feeling like a special secret was being passed between them that was always just going to be for him and no one else.

As he got settled in place, Blake looked at his father’s face curiously. Even asleep he seemed unlike himself. The lines on his face he liked to trace with his fingers seemed darker. There was a feeling almost as if a cloud hung over him and it made the boy feel sorry for him. Less than a minute laying there, Blake brightened as Andy’s eyes slowly fluttered open. It took Andy a moment to focus and get his bearings before discovering he wasn’t alone. When he saw the bright, hopeful green eyes looking into his, a weary smile lifted his lips. “Hey.”

“Hi Daddy,” Blake said cheerfully. “Did you sleep good?”

“Guess so since I woke up,” he mumbled. “What are you doing here?”

“I was bored, and I wanted to come see you,” the boy explained. His face suddenly became a curious frown as he asked, “are you sick, Daddy?”

“No,” he replied, not knowing what else to say.

Blake looked in his eyes and said in a quieter voice, “are you sad?”

Andy’s eyes looked down a little, not wanting to subject his son to his problems. “Yeah.”

Blake’s lips tugged down mournfully as he moved closer and hugged his father. His innocent love knowing only a need to make the bad feelings go away. “Don’t be sad, daddy.”

Andy closed his eyes and pressed his little boy to his chest as he breathed in the scent of his hair. “I wish I wasn’t, baby.”

“Why’re you sad?”

He grasped for words that Blake would understand. “I’m sad because I had to go visit a friend of mine who died a long time ago.”

Blake found that hard to understand. “How did you see him if he died?”

A begrudging smirk lifted Andy’s lips at the question. “I went to visit his family.”


“Because I needed too.”

Blake was trying to process that. Ultimately, only one thing really mattered to him. “Okay. But I don’t want you to be sad, Daddy.”

“I’ll be okay soon. Don’t worry about me.”

“You sure,” Blake asked him as he snuggled in closer.

Andy held his little boy and sighed, grateful for the best things that ever came out of his marriage. “I promise.” Things went quiet in the room, but his son seemed to have decided to stay where he was. Unable to find a good enough reason for him to leave, Andy closed his eyes and relaxed. He wasn’t sure how much time passed but the room seemed only slightly darker and there was a sound on the floor near him. The sound plus not feeling Blake next to him anymore caused his eyes to open even as he almost dreaded what he was about to see.

The short movement of his head turning on the pillow was enough to catch Blake’s attention as he looked up and smiled. “Are you awake now, Daddy?”

“Yeah.” Andy surveyed the scene. The boxes with Brandon’s things were both open and Blake was slowly going through them. “What are you doing?”

Blake looked back at him as if the answer was obvious. “Looking for toys.”

Andy awarded him with a bemused look. Deep inside, he should have been cross with him for getting into things that didn’t belong to him, but Andy didn’t have it in him to reprimand Blake. “Did you find any?”

“No,” the little boy replied, oblivious of his father’s dissatisfaction. He turned his attention to one of the boxes and pulled something out. “Who’s this?” A look of innocent curiosity shown on his face as he turned to his father and held up a picture in his hand.

Andy looked at the picture for a long moment before gingerly taking it. A slightly pained smile showed on his face as he took a long look at the picture while Blake waited patiently for an answer to his question. “This… this is a picture of me and a bunch of my buddies when I was a long way from here.”

Blake’s curiosity urged him to his feet and climbed up onto the bed. He could tell there was a story his dad was going to tell him if he could be patient. Andy sat up and made room for him to sit in between his legs. Resting against Andy’s chest, he looked closely at the picture in his father’s hand and frowned in confusion. “Which one is you?”

Andy smirked and pointed. “That’s me right there.” His finger started to move from face to face as he continued. “That’s Tim, Scott, Rich, Mason, Brandon, me, Nick, Eli, Archie and Brad. And just off to the side there is Captain Colt Hickman. He was our commanding officer. That was a long time ago. Before you were even born.”

Blake took the picture from Andy’s hand, tilting his head slightly as he inspected it closely. “You looked real different. No hair on your face.” He stretched his head to look up at his dad with a bright smile.

Andy chuckled. “Yeah. I didn’t let that grow out until around the time you were born.”

“No hair on your head either,” he commented further.

That got a small laugh out of his father. “None of us had hair. Marines keep it high and tight.” He sighed, but the smile on his face softened as he looked at the men in the picture. “We were all young back then. A lot of the guys in that picture didn’t get to come home like I did.”

“Why not?”

“They died,” he answered in a melancholy tone. “They gave their lives for their country.”

“You were in a war,” Blake stated more than asked.

Andy nodded. “Yup.”

“And you came home,” Blake said as child logic put the story together. “So, you won.”

Andy barely contained his laughter. “I guess so.”

“You won because you were strong,” Blake went on. “Because you’re the strongest person in the world.”

Andy shook his head ruefully. “I don’t feel that strong.”

“You are,” Blake stated with complete confidence.

Andy let his hands rest on Blake’s stomach. “And what makes you say that?”

“Because grandpa told me so.” Blake’s certainty was of a child convinced in this one constant in his world that could never be questioned.

Andy chuckled. “Just like that, huh?”

Blake nodded. “Grandpa told me you were the strongest person he knew. And grandpa knows everyone.”

Andy wasn’t sure if Blake misheard or David was just building him up in his son’s eyes. Either way, he knew Blake wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true. And maybe David wasn’t wrong. Looking at the picture brought back memories. Some of them hurt. But the smiles on the faces as they posed for the group picture reminded him of the camaraderie they had shared in those months of deployment. So many faces. Memories of times spent in battle seemed less prominent than the times spent laughing and being something akin to a family. Many of them were gone, yet some of them came home to their families like he did.

Blake slowly freed himself from his dad’s hold and made his way back to the boxes. “What about the rest of this stuff?”

Andy looked at the boxes, unsure if he was ready yet to really go back to that past. But the look of innocence on Blake’s face as he waited for his dad to show him all the secret treasures inside helped him to banish the fear of tears, remorse or grief that may be hidden inside. “Go turn the light on so I can see better.” He got up and slowly moved to the floor. Blake’s look of delight that his dad was going to show him all the curious things he found inside prompted him to run over to do as he was told before hurrying back and plopping on the floor next to him.

With careful precision, Andy opened the other box and slowly lifted up the jacket inside. A small half-smile lifted one side of his lips. “This was one of Brandon’s combat jackets. See here?” He pointed to the right breast pocket. “It says ‘Tucker.’ That was his last name. We called him ‘Tuck.’ Everyone had a nickname in our troop.”

“What was yours?”

Andy’s cheeks reddened but a bright smile made his face come alive which brought a big smile out of his son. “Nevermind that. As far as you’re concerned, my nickname is ‘Dad.’”

Blake’s laughter banished some of the darkness left inside Andy’s heart and brought a genuine smile to his lips. Slowly, Andy went over pictures, cards and little scraps of memories within the box. He told Blake stories of being in the marines and meeting all the men and women he would end up serving with either in Afghanistan or in North Carolina where he had been stationed. The memories still had a tinge of sadness to them, but the good moments shone through more as he shared with Blake memories of a lifetime ago, spent doing his duty.

The door to the bedroom opened as Brian poked his head in. “What are you…? Blake?! I thought I told you to let your daddy sleep.”

Blake didn’t seem phased by Brian’s displeasure. “Daddy was showing me his pictures from the war.”

Brian blinked and stepped inside the room. He deftly stepped around the bed and found the two of them sitting there with looking like two kids who had been caught sneaking into somewhere they had been told not to go. His eyes met Andy’s and was surprised to see him fully awake with bright green eyes and a ghost of a smirk on his face. “What’s going on?”

“Daddy’s showing me his stuff from the war,” Blake repeated, as if to make sure Brian was paying attention.

Brian cocked an eyebrow in amusement, keeping his eyes on Andy. “Really?”

Andy didn’t break eye contact with him. His voice was slightly more subdued but more like himself than he had been in the last two weeks. “He was looking at the pictures.”

Brian stared at him for a moment before stepping closer. “Show me.”

Andy looked at what he and Blake had gone over already. “Blake… why don’t we pack this up and take it downstairs. We can show Tanner and your uncle and grandma.”

“Okay.” The small boy started carefully returning everything to the boxes, excited to get to show off what he discovered.

Andy slowly rose to his feet. Looking at what they had gone over, he focused on the jacket before lifting it up and slowly putting it on. It was only a little bigger than his used to be, but it would be fine. Having it on felt a little odd. Like stepping into someone else’s life. Yet at the same time, it felt right. Brandon was gone. Andy would have to accept that. But while he let go of the ghost, he would hold on to the memory.

“Blake, sweetheart,” Brian said softly, “go downstairs. We’ll be there in a minute.” The boy trotted out of the room leaving the two of them alone. He turned to Andy and asked, “is it time?”

Andy nodded slowly. “Yeah. I think, after Tanner starts school and I manage to get myself out of the house to go be with everyone else, I should go back to the VA hospital. Maybe try one more time with the medication route.”

Brian nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Until then, let’s just take things one day at a time.”

Andy stepped up to him and kissed him softly. “I want you to know… I will always love you until the day I die.”

Brian smiled, feeling a sense of renewed hope. “You think you can put up with me for that long?”

Andy smirked slightly and shrugged. “Twenty or thirty years? Maybe more. I think I can manage.”

“Good.” Brian leaned in and kissed him. “Because I love you too.”

A smile lifted his lips and his spirit as they joined hands and made their way out of the room and downstairs to join the others.




It was a warm day as Kyle wiped his hand over his damp forehead. Replacing the wide brimmed hat he had been wearing on his head, he looked around the area at all the people moving within the trees with their baskets in hand. While the weather was still warm, it had cooled enough that there were dozens of people out in the orchard, taking their pick of the ripened fruit. Some trees were still waiting to fully ripen, and it would be weeks before they would be ready for harvest. For those, they had set up yellow ropes around them to indicate to the visitors that they were not ready for picking yet. After this weekend he, Jacob and the others would be tasked with supervising the removal of the rest of the apples from the trees. Most of them would be sold to grocery stores while the remainder would be turned into apple butter and other products they also sold.

Kyle was looking around, searching for where Jacob had wandered off too. He and Matt had been running around playing with Blake and Carter and Kyle had lost track of them when he got distracted by a couple of friends from high school who saw him and got caught up in conversation. When he was growing up, his dad had mainly focused on selling the apples they harvested to retailers who would turn around and ship them all over the country. Occasionally, he and David would go to farmer’s markets in neighboring counties, but it hadn’t been as profitable as he had hoped and by the time Kyle was in high school, those trips had stopped. It was Jacob who had given his dad the idea of refurbishing the old barn on the side of the orchard into a business front where they could open the orchard to the public, charging a modest fee to pick their own apples. Now, after ten years of being open to the public, the “Howard & Howard Orchard” had become something of a mainstay for people who lived in the area. Some people he noted came from a hundred miles away to spend the day in town picking apples, purchasing things in the gift shop or just spending the day as a family, wandering the orchard.

It was a great day and Kyle was thankful for the good weather and that Andy had joined them for the day in the orchard. His recovery had gone well after a few weeks being home. Brian told him all he’d shared more about Brandon and he took it as a positive sign that Andy was finally starting to mend. In a week or two, Andy was scheduled to go visit the VA hospital in Pittsburgh for an exam and possibly a new medication to help him with his PTSD. They all had high hopes that his long nightmare might possibly be ending.

Kyle was just coming around one of the trees, looking around for any sign of his husband when he heard an all too familiar voice call out, “don’t tell me you’ve given up being a lawyer for good.”

He stopped and looked towards the direction the voice came from and was shocked at what he saw. “Jason? What are you doing here?!”

Jason smiled pleasantly as he stepped up to him. “I’m visiting for the weekend. Don’t worry, it’s just a one-time thing. How have you been?” Without prompting, Jason moved in to hug him warmly.

“Uh, well, I’m good.” Out of all the people he expected to see today, this was never one of them. He seemed so different since they saw each other at his wedding. He reflexively hugged him back, wondering what made him seem to happy. “I think Stephanie has maybe another month left on her pregnancy. She actually wanted to be out here but her back and feet were bothering her this morning, so she’s inside with the baby.”

Jason looked at him in confusion. “The baby? I thought you said she was still pregnant.”

“Oh, not her baby,” Kyle corrected. “Troy and Liz’s baby. Emily.”

“Oh.” Jason still didn’t fully understand but reasoned there was no need to get into the details. He turned his attention to the orchard surrounding them. “This is a beautiful place, Kyle. And you got to grow up here?”

Kyle smiled slightly, feeling a little more pride in his home as Jason looked around in muted awe. “Yeah. This is home.”

“So, no more being a lawyer for you?”

Kyle grimaced a little at the notion. “I’m just taking a break from it for now. I decided after I got married to take a couple years off so I can focus on my family.”

“Ah,” Jason replied with a nod and a smile. “Well, sounds like you have a good future ahead of you.”

“Well, thanks, but I still didn’t get an answer to my question.”

Jason smirked and Kyle noticed a familiar light in his eyes that used to be there whenever they were alone during their college years. “You’re definitely still a lawyer. I am here because my boyfriend wanted to bring me out here.”

Kyle smiled but still felt confused. “Your boyfriend? Wanted to come here and meet me?”

Jason laughed. “No. He wanted me to see the orchard. It’s one of his favorite places here in town. I had no idea it was yours but when I saw the sign, I put two and two together.”

“Where is he?”

Jason looked around. “Well, we kind of got separated. I was looking for him when I ran into you.”

Kyle looked around with him. “I know the feeling. I lost Jacob and Matt too.”

Jason shrugged. “Well, how about we walk together for a bit and see if we run into one of them?” With nothing else to do at that moment, Kyle shrugged and fell into step with him. Jason slowed his pace after a few moments to look at the apple laden trees. He came to a stop, pointing at one of the signs that identified the type of trees were in that area. The sign was made of lacquered pine with stained lettering. “That’s beautiful. Where did you get those?”

“My husband,” Kyle said with a smirk. “He worked on those over the spring.”

Jason got a humorous smirk as he commented, “so, you’re the analytical one and he’s the artist.”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Kyle replied with a chuckle. “He says he’s just a carpenter.”

“That’s a work of art. Not a piece of wood.”

“I know,” Kyle said with a proud smile. “He’s just modest.” Not far away, Kyle heard a familiar laugh and smiled. “Speaking of…”

They both turned as Matt ran up to his dad and jumped up into his arms with Jacob close behind him. Jason watched Kyle held his laughing son, noticing the joy in his eyes and how relaxed and at peace he seemed. “Hey, where’ve you been,” Jacob said as he came up and kissed Kyle on the cheek.

“Where’ve I been?” Kyle fixed him with a playful glare. “I’ve been busy watching the people and keeping everything orderly like I’m supposed too. You’re the one who ran off with the boys.”

Jacob grinned. “Yeah. Talking to Ashley Benson and her husband for twenty minutes sure did look like hard work.”

Kyle rolled his eyes before setting Matt back on his feet. “Jason, this is Matt. And, well, you should know who this is.”

Jason chuckled and stepped up and extended a hand to Jacob. “Hi. I’m Jason. Nice to finally meet you.”

Jacob’s smile took on a more curious look as he shook Jason’s hand. “Pleasure to meet you. What brings you here?”

“Just visiting.” He glanced around them. “Still haven’t found my guy yet.”

Jacob exchanged a curious look with Kyle. “Your guy?”

Jason’s eyes focused on something behind Kyle and Jacob. “There he is.” He lifted his arms and waved them as he called out, “over here!” Jason trotted around the Howard’s, chuckling as he embraced a dark haired man, carrying a basket hall full of apples who looked vaguely familiar to Kyle. He watched as Jason and his boyfriend kissed sweetly. Jason took one of his hands and guided him over to Kyle. “Kyle, this is my boyfriend –”

“—Drake,” Jacob said with a little surprise in his voice.

“Hey, Jacob,” Drake said with a bright smile. “How’ve you been?”

Kyle glanced at Jacob. “Well. Nice to know we all know each other.” He returned his attention to Jason and Drake and smiled politely. “So, are you guys staying in town for awhile?”

“Oh, I live here,” Drake corrected him as he continued to smile. “For now, at least. I’ve known Jacob for years. But, I’m gonna be moving to Denver to be with Jason at the end of next month.”

“When did this happen,” Jacob asked.

“At your reception,” Jason replied with a grin. “And to think I almost didn’t come.”

“So, this is serious then,” Kyle asked as his smile brightened.

“Seems that way,” Drake replied. “Might be rushing things, but…”

“You’re not,” Kyle and Jacob replied in unison only to both snicker at each other.

Jacob moved behind Kyle, sliding his arms around his husband’s waist and resting his chin on Kyle’s shoulder. “If you two are happy, then you should go for it. And if you need any advice, just call us.”

Drake chuckled. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” He turned his attention to Jason and said, “we should get going. I think I have enough here for dinner tonight.”

“It was good seeing you again, Kyle,” Jason said. “Maybe we can all have dinner tomorrow night before I fly back to Denver.”

“Oh, definitely,” Kyle replied. “Go ahead and stop by the house tomorrow around six. You me and Steph can all catch up.”

Jason looked at Drake for confirmation. Seeing no hesitation, he nodded. “Sounds like a plan. We’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Perfect. See you tomorrow.” Kyle waved as they departed. Jacob’s arms around him seem to tighten. That combined with Matt holding his hand gave him a good feeling about running into his ex-boyfriend again. Seeing him so obviously happy was something of a relief as well. “You know, I was ready to kill Steph for that, but I think now I should thank her instead.”

“For what,” Jacob asked curiously with his head still resting on his husband’s shoulder.

“For inviting Jason to our wedding without asking me.”

Jacob shook slightly in suppressed laughter. “She didn’t invite him.”

Kyle turned his head, giving Jacob a dubious look. “How do you know.”

Jacob shrugged as a playful little smile graced his lips. “Because I did.”

“You?!” Kyle broke out of Jacob’s arms as he turned to look at him in astonishment. “How? Why?! When I told you about him, you acted like it was all news to you.”

Jacob’s smirk turned into a grin as he explained. “One day while you were at work and I was bored, Stephanie came over to the townhouse and we talked about a couple things. I was going over the guest list and she mentioned Jason and that he was an old friend of yours. She also hinted that there was some left over issues between the two of you. Considering our past, I didn’t want you walking around with another regret around your neck, so I decided to invite him to our wedding and see if maybe you could put whatever kind of guilt you might have about him to rest.”

Kyle’s mouth dropped open in amazement. “So, you just decided to invite him and hope for the best?”

Jacob chuckled and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Sweetheart, all I wanted is for you to not be walking around with any guilt or regrets. You handled it and, look, something good came out of it.”

Kyle laughed silently as he shook his head. “You’re just full of surprises.”

“I will take that as a compliment and leave it at that.” He gave Kyle one more lingering kiss before letting him go. “Time to get back to work.”

Kyle grinned and took Matt’s hand before their small little family headed back up the path towards the entrance to welcome their neighbors and new visitors to their orchard.




The sun was slowly drifting towards the horizon as Andy watched the last of the people leaving the orchard. It had been a good day spent in a place that was as comfortable and familiar as his childhood bed. Getting to walk around in the sun with the kids and his friends gave him such a peaceful feeling throughout the day it almost felt as if he’d never left in all his years. He could forgive Troy and David frequently coming to check up on him when he knew they should have been doing other tasks. Brian didn’t go out of his way to ask him how he was doing but he was never more than a couple yards away at all times. He would try and pretend he didn’t see Brian checking up on him out of the corner of his eye whenever he was checking the area, picking apples for people whenever they needed help or just talking to the local people and catching up on news in the area. But it was hard to not smile once in awhile when he’d see a flash of blonde hair and those blue eyes he loved so much.

He decided to do one last check to make sure there were no stranglers around when he heard someone approaching behind him. He turned around and smirked slightly as he watched his brother approach. “I thought you’d gone back home.”

Nate grinned as he closed the distance between them. “Just wanted to stop in and check up on my favorite brother.” He hugged Andy warmly as he chuckled.

Andy returned the embrace, feeling better than he had a minute ago. “Bullshit. You were coming to check on your new girlfriend.”

“That’s not official yet,” Nate replied as they parted. “She’s wanting to get the whole baby thing dealt with first before she decides if I’m worth the trouble.” They both chuckled at the pronouncement.

“You could do worse,” Andy commented dryly as they both started to walk towards the house.

“I have done worse,” Nate countered. “I like her style. She’s smart, funny and sarcastic in just the right doses.”

Andy shrugged. “Sounds like a winning combo. I should know.”

They continued walking for a few moments in companionable silence before Nate said in a hesitant tone, “so, how are you feeling about your next move?”

Andy didn’t seem bothered by the question. “It’ll be for two weeks. Exam. Daily counseling sessions and prescriptions to see if they can find what works. I should be back home before Tanner’s first report card.”

Nate nodded. “It seems a little extreme to me. Brian’s watching the kids on his own then?”

Andy’s lips tugged down slightly. “Yeah. David’ll be by to check in and so will Kyle and Troy. They aren’t wild about the idea of their dad going to a two week-long ‘training course’ but they know I’ll be back, and I’ll call every night that I can.”

“Okay.” Nate sighed softly. “You’re sure this is the only way?”

“The doctors at the VA hospital said that this treatment center has had a good success rate with soldiers with PTSD,” he replied. “It’s not a cure. It’s a way for me to learn to live with it instead of what I’ve been doing.”

“Alright. As long as you come back in one piece, I guess.”

“I will,” Andy assured him. “I have a lot of motivation to do this. I want to get married and I want to be able to be as close to normal as I can get.”

Nate put a hand on Andy’s shoulder as they got in sight of the house. “I’m proud of you. I want you to know that. Not many guys can admit the things you’ve told me and Bri.”

“I don’t want to end up being a statistic,” Andy responded in a serious tone.

“Don’t say that,” Nate quickly countered. “I used to worry about you every day whenever you would go on a deployment. I was always afraid whenever my phone would ring, thinking it was news about you.”

“Nice to know I was missed,” Andy said with a smirk.

“Shut up. You know you were. I just wish you would have told me about Brandon earlier.”

“I probably should have,” he admitted with a sigh. “But I was so used to not talking about him, that just became the norm. It’s not easy digging up those memories you wanted to throw away. I’m glad that I got part of him back, though. And that I can share it with Brian.”

Nate nodded. “Good. It shows you both love each other and that you’re committed to making things work.”

Andy smirked. As much as he loved Brian before all of this, confessing everything about Brandon only seemed to make their bond even stronger than it had ever been. “I’m hungry. David said he was making dinner tonight.”

“Let’s go then.” The two brothers stepped out of the orchard and headed inside to join the others. The best part of a day in the orchard during this time of year was how the connectedness between all of them seemed to always grow stronger than it had before. And each year seemed to bring new people and new connections that only made their growing family all the more meaningful and blessed.




Later that night, after the children had been tucked in bed, kisses were given and stories had been read, Andy was resting comfortably on the sofa with his head on Brian’s chest as they enjoyed a moment of quiet joy between them. The simple act of physical touch sent familiar waves of emotions through them both while they lounged around, speaking softly to each other as Brian looked through some of Andy’s pictures from his times in the marine corps.

“It sucks that I only got to see you maybe four times while you were a marine,” Brian commented as he stared as a particularly interesting picture of Andy with no shirt on in just his camo pants and helmet lounging around at their base camp in Kandahar.

“Why’s that,” he asked. Andy’s eyes were closed, and a small smile played on his lips as he focused on the feel of Brian’s body, the soft beat of his heart, and the sound of his voice. He wanted to commit it to memory to playback in his mind while he would be away from him.

“You just looked so damn cute,” Brian replied. “Not that you don’t look cute now, but the short hair brought out your eyes more. Plus, you looked hot as fuck in your uniform. Not gonna lie about that.”

Andy grinned. “I was also twenty. Everyone looks cute at that age.”

“No, not everyone.” Brian smiled to himself as he ran a hand over Andy’s arm. “I remember that one time you came home on leave. Remember? For Christmas?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I only told my dad I was coming home. I got all cleaned up and dressed before we went over to the house and surprised you all.”

“And you were looking totally fuckable in your uniform,” Brian added. “I nearly cried when I saw you.”

“I know. I saw it in your eyes.” Andy’s smile softened a little as he remembered. “I remember when you cried right before I left.”

Brian smirked slightly. “Me too. Making me cry in front of everyone like that.”

“Tore me up inside when I heard it.” He shook his head slightly as he spoke. “I felt like the worst person in the world for doing that to you.”

“You did what you thought you had to do,” Brian said. “Besides, we were both young and stupid. We both made our fair share of mistakes.”

“And here all this time, I thought you were perfect,” Andy quipped, looking over his shoulder at him.

“As far as you’re concerned, I am,” he replied with a playful slap to the back of Andy’s head. After Andy’s chuckling died down, he added, “you weren’t the only one who almost found someone else.”

“Oh?” Andy turned around, pull Brian until they were laying side by side, looking at each other.

“His name was Derrick Lowalski,” Brian said with a smirk. “Devilishly handsome. Fourth string football player, but he had the body and the looks for sure. It was my junior year in Miami when we met.”

“What happened to him?”

Brian frowned slightly. “We got serious. Like, really serious. He told me he loved me, and we started discussing what we wanted to go after college.”

Andy frowned slightly. This is the first he had heart about any of this. “So, what happened?”

“Well, it started with the pot,” Brian said with a meaningful raised eyebrow. “By our senior year he’d graduated up to meth and I think heroin, but he’d never admit it.”

Andy rolled his eyes, realizing what he’d been doing and understanding why Brian had given him dirty looks from time to time. “Bri… why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged, unconcerned. “It’s not important. Anyway, he ended up dropping out that year and I never saw him again. I’m not entirely sure what happened to him. I hear rumors once in awhile but nothing definite.”

“Rumors like what?”

“That he O.D’d in some alley somewhere in Dallas,” he replied dispassionately. “Or it was New Orleans or wherever.”

Andy slid his hand up Brian’s arm. “I’m sorry. How come you don’t know for sure?”

“Because I really didn’t care to find out,” Brian explained with a shrug. “I had feelings for him, but the drugs killed him long before he disappeared as far as I was concerned. I tried to get him to get help but he wouldn’t listen. It hurt, but I had to give up on him for my own sake. I knew that if I hung onto him, things would have gotten even worse.”

“I wish you would’ve said something to me.” He immediately realized how stupid that sounded coming from him. The sardonic look on Brian’s face only confirmed his feelings and he blushed slightly. “Sorry. I’m the last person to say that, I guess.”

Brian leaned closer and kissed his cheek gently. “It’s okay. And, it’s not that I had a problem with you smoking pot. I just was worried you’d end up down the same road as he did. Once I saw that that was all you were doing, then I was fine with it. It’s just that I love you and you’re my best friend and I don’t want to lose you like that.”

“You’re okay with everything I shared with you about Brandon?” The name hadn’t been said often between them since he opened the boxes and simultaneously laid bare his past love with Brian. It still felt odd saying it out loud but it was getting easier.

“Of course,” Brian gently admonished. “He’s a part of you. Always will be. Just like your dad, your mom, your brother and all of us who have been a part of your life.”

Andy sighed but kept his focus on letting his fingers gently move up and down Brian’s body. In a week he wouldn’t get to do this, and he desperately wanted to remember moments like this while he would be away. “He was honestly, the only person other than you that I felt like this with.”

Brian smiled slightly. “I can see why from everything I saw and heard. Did you find out what’s on the thumb drive yet?”

Andy shrugged. “Knowing him, it would be anything. Probably a bunch of pictures. Dirty pictures if he was keeping them on there without his mom knowing about it.”

Brian smirked. “Let’s save those for when you get back.”

Andy nodded. “By the way… since we’re delving into our past right now, I feel like I should apologize to you.”

“For what?”

Andy chuckled silently. “For making you stand there next to me when I married Stacy.”

Brian shook his head. “You don’t need to apologize to me for that. I realize now you were doing it because she was pregnant with Tanner. It hurt at the time because I felt like I’d done something to damage our friendship by having sex with you years before.” He rolled his eyes and added, “I know how stupid that sounds. It’s not like one of us forced it on the other. But I felt like being in the closet at the time had made you scared and you turned to her to convince yourself you were straight or something.”

“What if it had been Brandon instead of her?”

Brian was silent as he thought about it. “Honestly? It still would have hurt some. But only a little. If you told me that you were in love with him and how much he meant to you, I would have been happy for you. I love you, Andrew. Brandon or no Brandon, you will always be my best friend first. I’m lucky to have you now. But, even so, I love you enough that if Brandon was the one for you, then that’s just how it goes, and I’d accept that and do my best to be your friend. Because, in the end, all I want is for you to be happy.”

“I think I would have regretted it as much as I did with Stacy,” Andy said quietly. “The best gift Brandon gave me was showing me that it was okay to love him. And you. That I wasn’t going to go to hell or disappoint anyone or anything like that. I just kind of went nuts a little bit after he died and that’s how I ended up with Stacy. I regret her, but I don’t regret Tanner or Blake.”

“And you shouldn’t,” Brian assured him. He leaned in again and they kissed softly. “It’s possible that my dad is right, and that God just works in mysterious ways.”

Andy rolled his eyes. “Not sure if I’m ready to believe in divine intervention in my sex life.”

Brian giggled. “I can’t help it if you make me call for God once in awhile.”

“Screamed it a few times too,” he added with a chortle. “Speaking of… I’m leaving this time next week. Do you want to go upstairs, and we can take a shower?”

Brian smirked dubiously. “Together?” Andy nodded as his eyes sparkled mischievously. “We usually don’t actually fall asleep until real late when we shower together…”

Andy shrugged. “Well, I’m just sayin’… It’ll be awhile before we get another chance.”

They laid there quietly, staring into each other’s eyes. The sense of complete love and devotion that words could never fully describe passed between them the same way they always had. Many years ago, it may have frightened them into running away or hiding their feelings. Now, with time and wisdom gained, and their hearts still full for each other, they can be the person they always wished they could be for the other.

Without words, they rose from the sofa and silently headed upstairs, turning the lights off as they went.

Copyright © 2019 Jdonley75; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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I like how it took Blake exploring for Andy to start his return to the living.

The adults did everything they could think of to get Andy to recover from his deep depression. But it took the love of an innocent child who didn’t know better. He wanted his dad to get better.

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It was also nice for Kyle and Jason to get closure. Jacob was sneaky too, when he invited Jason to the wedding. And I’m certain Drake was happy too (even if he didn’t meet the real love of his life: David*). Drake and Jason won’t last because their names don’t have an alphabetical proximity.

And even though it may stretch credibility to have Nate and Stephanie pairing up (even when their names don’t have any alphabetical proximity either).

But we when I lived in San Diego, my parents had friends who were a pair of sisters that had married brothers. I used to work with a widow who married her widower brother-in-law. So there are some very close connections that don’t violate even the strictest incest prohibitions.

* David/Drake, but not Drake/Jason or Nate/Steph or Nathan/Stephanie.  ;–)

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2 hours ago, akuhata said:

Thanks Jdonley, this chapter leaves me in a nice happy place 😊

No, no, no!

We need to have a couple weddings first! Andy & Brian, of course. But also Stephanie & Nate. And Matt & Blake. Maybe Aaron & Emily? Then the book can end…

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