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    Parker Owens
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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. 

Double Concerto - 16. Fireworks Suite

Chapter forecast: clearing skies with no chance of Rita.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this after all that strawberry shortcake at lunch.” Gus licked at his cone.

The group sat at a pair of tables under an awning in front of Sweet Dreams Ice Cream. Business was surprisingly brisk at the counter, but then, there were plenty of visitors to Eagle Lake for the holiday events. Marta and Jared sat together; Joey’s efforts to join them were thwarted by a sisterly glare that would have wilted a field of ripe corn. Instead, the boy sat next to the adults, tapping away on his phone.

“How’s your Espresso Bean ice cream?” Rick asked.

“Perfect. This is incredible. What about your Nuclear Option Chocolate?”

Rick took a spoonful from his dish. “Awesome.”

“You don’t get this in Chicago.”

“Hey, it’s just local flavor.”

“No, I’m serious,” Gus protested. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s fantastic food in Chicago. There’s a place in Greektown that’s got amazing ice cream. But there’s nothing like this.” Gus gestured, trying to take in the whole shop, the cheerful street scene, the beautiful day, everything.

“Well, you’ve been all over the country – all over the world. Where’s the best ice cream cone?”

“Milano,” Joey piped up. “The ice cream there is awesome.”

“Who asked you?” Marta snorted with scorn. She tossed her head. “Budapest. You don’t remember that place near the Citadel where Néni Kata took us. You were crying too much.”

Rick’s head spun. Gus and the Takács family were far, far out of his experience. He had trouble believing Gus was still sitting next to him. He wondered if Jared felt the same way about the raven-haired girl sharing the next table with him. A sickening feeling crept into Rick’s heart as he remembered that summer so long ago, and his stupid crush on Willy Kohler. He blinked, trying to will away a memory – and a premonition - of disaster.

“Can you hold this for me for a second?” Gus broke into Rick’s thoughts, holding out his cone.

“Sure. What’s the trouble?”

As soon as Rick took the item, Gus fussed at the edges of his cast with his good hand. “I know it’s useless to try and scratch, but sometimes it just itches under there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I just want to get underneath and scratch it, you know what I mean?”

“I can guess. I’ve never had to wear a cast.”

“You’re lucky. This happens every day.” Gus tried to smile.

“My friend Jerry – the guy with his wife you met earlier? - broke his arm in eighth grade. He had the same problem.”

“What did he do?”

“His dad tried to slide a tool under the cast – one of those things you use when you lock yourself out of your car.”

“Oh, god, do you have one?” Gus looked hopeful.

“Um, I’d better tell you that the tool worked too well. Jerry got hold of it one night and gave himself one hell of a cut under the cast. He got a skin infection that took forever to heal up.”

“Damn.”

“Here, take your cone back. I’ll show you what worked.” Rick got up and went inside to the counter. He was back in a few seconds, carrying a big metal spoon. “Give me your right hand.”

Gus raised an eyebrow but turned and lifted the hand in the cast to Rick.

Rick took the rough surface of the bright blue cast in a gentle grip. Then he started a light tapping up and down the cast with the underside of the stainless-steel spoon.

“What am I, a xylophone?” Gus laughed.

Rick ignored him. He was having way too much fun. Tap-tap-tap. “Where’s the itch?”

“Um, it was right there.” Gus gestured awkwardly.

Marta and Jared paused in their conversation to look on.

Rick tapped on the spot some more, beating out the rhythm of some song known only to himself. Then he put the spoon down. Rick moved his fingers across Gus’s forearm nearest the itch, massaging the caramel brown skin covering muscles and veins.

“Well?”

Gus stared. “That’s amazing. It doesn’t itch anymore.”

“I learned that trick from Jerry – after the doctor chewed him out.”

“Well, thank you for the lesson.”

Rick suddenly realized he hadn’t let go of Gus’s arm. “Sorry. I’ll go give them their spoon back.” He released it and rose.

When he returned from the interior of the shop, he was just in time to hear Joey inquire: “When are we going home?”

“Is that what you want to do?” asked Gus.

“I don’t know.” Preadolescent boredom oozed from every word.

“You can go home if you want to,” Marta put in. “I can stay in town.”

“And I’ll get my car and drive her home,” Jared volunteered.

“I’m not sure about that.” Gus frowned.

“Where’s the bathroom?” Joey asked.

“I bet there’s one inside, right?” Gus looked at Rick for confirmation.

Rick nodded. “I can show you.”

“No, I’ll go.” Gus stood. “Come on, Joey, let’s find the men’s room.”

As the two made their way inside, Rick noted the simple grace with which Gus moved, his eyes following even as he tried not to stare. I could watch him all day long.

When Marta and Jared went back to their conversation, Rick couldn’t help eavesdropping a little bit.

“You’re lucky you get to do what you like for the summer,” the girl was saying.

“What, you mean doing oil changes and fixing tires and whatever?” Jared asked.

“Yeah. Better than being marooned out in the middle of nowhere with my little brother.”

“It’s nothing special. I mean, every now and then Jerry gives me something cool to do, but a lot of it is just brainless stuff. It beats flipping burgers.”

Rick had to grin. ‘Brainless’ described a lot of his own work, too. He wondered why the girl would find mechanical things so fascinating. Or maybe it was just a certain red-haired mechanic.

“You’re not being held hostage, having to practice the stupid clarinet all afternoon, either.” Marta vented.

“Yeah. That sounds pretty harsh.”

“I just wish I could do what you do.”

“You could come over to the garage any time.” The boy sounded almost shy.

The girl sighed and let out a long breath. “So what happens now?”

“I dunno. Maybe hang out some more?”

Rick couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do than spend the rest of the day with Gus. But realistically, what could they do? There were fireworks to be seen that night. He squinted at the sun. Most of the afternoon was gone, but hours remained before dark.

People started gathering in the park a good while before that, but it was still pretty early to head over that way. You’re getting ahead of yourself. What if Gus and the Takács kids don’t want to see the fireworks? What if they just want to head back to Cedarcrest?

He sat for a moment, thinking. He had an idea. Rick turned to the teens at their table.

“Hey, Jared. You up for a hike?”

“A hike?” The boy sounded dubious.

“Yeah. I’m feeling like I need to walk off some of this ice cream before eating more junk food at the park tonight.”

“Um, right. So?”

“I was thinking I haven’t been up on College Hill in a while. You know the trails?”

“Some of them, sure.”

“I thought maybe we could show our visitors the trail up from the high school.”

Understanding suddenly dawned on Jared’s face.

“Oh. Yeah. A hike sounds good.”

“Where are we going?” Marta asked, her face a mix of interest and suspicion.

“College Hill,” Rick responded. “It’s a kind of park, with trails through the woods.”

Marta wrinkled her nose. “Nature trails?”

“No, it’s sweet. There’s a spot you can climb to where you look out over the lake.” Jared managed to sound enthusiastic.

“And then when you go down the mountain, you wind up at Eagle Lake Park, where the fireworks happen tonight.” Rick added.

Marta shrugged. “I guess we can do that.”

“Do what?” asked Gus, emerging from the ice cream shop.

“You up for a hike, Uncle Gus?”

 

“Thanks for spending the whole afternoon with us.”

Gus and Rick ambled along a well-trodden path on an easy incline through tall poplars and firs.

“No problem,” said Rick.

“I mean it,” insisted Gus. “I get along with Marta and Joey, but they can be a handful together. I never was good at babysitting.”

“Well, I’m glad it turned out okay today.”

“Oh, you don’t know. I thought I was going to have to referee a boxing match at breakfast. I got the idea of taking a cab to town to see the parade, and that distracted them for a while. It was just luck we ran into you.”

Rick smiled. It was a piece of good luck he would prize for a long time.

The pair of them walked side by side; Jared and Marta rapidly outpaced the adults once they entered the shade of the trees. Joey trailed his sister at a safe distance. Soon, the teens would be out of sight. Gus didn’t seem to mind.

“Where does this trail lead?” Gus asked.

“It winds around to go up the spine of College Hill. It keeps climbing until we get to a steep part, and then the trail opens up to a place with a view. It’s called Prospect Rock. The trees have grown up, so you can’t see as much as you could when I was a kid.”

“Sounds nice.”

“I’m sure it’s not impressive like some of the places you’ve been in Europe or… or wherever you perform. It’s nothing special.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Let me decide.”

They walked along, enjoying the sounds of the summer woods. Though College Hill thrust itself into the south side of the town of Eagle Lake, no traffic noises were audible. Rick breathed in the scents of forest and leaves and earth. A chickadee called, scolding them in alarm. A little further on, a faint tap-tap-tapping overhead made Gus stop and look up.

Rick followed his gaze, searching. “There,” he whispered, pointing. Not ten feet above them, a small black and white woodpecker worked away on the bark of an ash tree. Gus gaped wide-eyed as the bird probed crevasses in the tree trunk, then hopped up and around to a new spot. A moment later, spooked at all the attention it suddenly seemed to have drawn, it flew off deeper into the woods.

“That’s beautiful.” Gus breathed.

“It’s just a woodpecker.”

“But it was so small. I expected, I don’t know, something bigger.”

“You’ve never seen one before?”

“No, never had much of a chance. That’s amazing – such a small bird like that could make holes in a tree.”

“There are bigger ones: other kinds of woodpeckers.” Rick tried to explain.

“Oh. Of course.” Gus wore a sheepish grin.

The trail forked; Rick took them to the left. The younger members of the party were well out of visual range now, but Rick felt certain Jared chose this path.

Their way narrowed, so they had to walk in file. Rick led.

“Do come here very often?” Gus asked from behind.

“Not much anymore. I used to when I was a kid.”

“A place to meet up with your friends?”

“More like a place to escape on my own, whenever I could.”

Memories assaulted Rick: after-school hours spent on the Hill, just wandering, the year after his mother died. He remembered disappearing to these woods on rare free summer Saturdays to avoid having to go to the lake with kids his own age; sitting in a mossy clearing, alone with the humiliation of Willy Kohler, with the shame of being himself.

But this afternoon was as bright with cheer as those other memories were suffused with grey.

A thrush called off to their left, its haunting musical notes spinning downward; another responded down the hill on the right.

Gus stopped to listen to the duet; Rick went on a few paces, and then he, too, stood still. Gus moved up to stand beside him, while the thrushes sang on and on.

Eventually, the birds moved, and their song grew fainter.

“This place is magical,” Gus said. “I could have listened to those birds in concert all night.”

Rick made a wry face. “It’s just a forest trail. Come on, we’d better find Jared and Marta and Joey.”

They walked further up. The path wound onward through the forest. They passed a junction with another trail, but Rick knew which way to take. Not too much farther past, the track took an abrupt turn to the left, and started climbing steeply uphill. The beaten earth gave way to bare rock as the trees thinned. An enormous outcrop of exposed granite reared up, a legacy of ice age glaciation that formed the Northwoods eons ago. Getting to the top meant a bit of a scramble.

He thought he could hear voices up there – probably Jared and the Takács children.

Rick headed up the side, his feet remembering the narrow path. His left hand instinctively grasped nearby tree trunks for balance. He stopped partway up, suddenly realizing how difficult the ascent might be for Gus.

He turned. Gus toiled behind him, holding his right arm close, and using his left as Rick had done.

“Sorry. I should have thought of this. Um, do you want to turn around?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Gus replied. “We came this far. I want to see the view.”

Rick took the last portion of the climb more slowly, aware of his friend behind him. Soon, the two ascended to the top of Prospect Rock, where Joey and the teens sat, looking out to the northwest.

“Hi. We thought you got lost.” Jared didn’t sound very worried.

“We stopped to listen to a concert.” Gus told him.

Marta turned, and cocked an eyebrow.

“A couple of songbirds, singing back and forth. We didn’t want to disturb them.” Rick explained.

“Where’s the lodge?” Joey asked. “Can you see it from here?”

“It’s over that way,” Rick pointed through the tops of the firs behind the group to the right. “Can’t really see it from here.”

“The mountains in Italy are bigger,” the little boy commented.

“Shut up,” his sister told him.

“I think I can see the lake over there.” Gus pointed through a gap in the trees off to their right, hoping to quell an incipient sibling spat.

“That’s Eagle Lake.” Rick nodded.

“Where’s your house, Rick?” Joey, diverted from bickering with his sister, had more questions.

“Way back there, farther back than the lodge.” Rick thumbed over his right shoulder.

“Well, what can you see? Just looks like a bunch of forest and fields and stuff.”

“Like Gus said, the lake is over there.” Rick pointed. “Then you can see the road leading west out of town – there. You see it?” His finger indicated a long slash through the trees some distance away. “It’ll take you all the way to Minnesota.” He shifted a bit. “The Eagle River flows out of the lake right down there. You can sort of see it, if you stand up and look between the trees.” Rick gestured right in front of them. “All that water flows south, down to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.”

“And the service station where I work is down there, too,” added Jared.

“In Mississippi?” Joey laughed.

“No, stupid, down there, where Rick showed us.” Marta growled.

“The park where the fireworks are happening tonight is down through the trees, there. No, down there.” Jared pointed, and Marta craned her neck closer to see.

A stray breeze from the direction of the park brought scents of charcoal fire and grilling meat to their noses.

“Smells like people are starting to gather for the pre-fireworks party.” Rick remarked.

“Fireworks?” Joey asked.

“Duh, people have been talking about fireworks all day.”

“Are we staying for the fireworks, Uncle Gus?” Joey ignored the barb from his sister.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Your mother and father said – “

“Please? We didn’t get to see them in New York last year.”

“We had to make a flight back to Chicago. I remember. Please, Uncle Gus? It might be fun. I’d like to stay and see them.” Marta added in rare solidarity with her brother.

Gus turned to Rick and spread his hands.

Rick hesitated. He didn’t want to seem too obvious or come on too strong. Yet more than anything, he wanted to stay near the pianist. “You know you’re welcome to join me and my friend Jerry’s family down in the park.” Rick tried to put on his best poker face. “I’m going, and they’d be glad if you came, too.”

“But… but what about Magda and Zoltan when they get here?” The pianist’s voice sounded very uncertain.

“Easy. When they call, I can give them text directions on how to find us. They can join us in the park.”

Gus looked worried. “I’m not sure. Magda and Zoltan aren’t exactly blanket-in-the-park people.”

“So what?” The girl smirked. “They’re not here, and we are. Who knows when they’ll get back?”

“And I’d like to share Fourth of July fireworks with new friends,” Rick said, smiling in hope.

Four pairs of eyes fixed on the slim dark-skinned man. A puff of wind ruffled Rick’s hair.

“Oh, what the heck.” Gus relented. “Why not? I don’t feel like going back to the lodge.”

Rick’s face relaxed. Jared beamed.

“Is there food in the park?” Joey asked.

“Can’t you smell it?” His sister asked. “Of course, there is.”

“Can we go down now?” The boy asked.

Jared stirred. “It’s nice up here, though.” He shifted a little closer to the girl.

Rick sidled up to Gus. “Thanks for deciding to stay,” he whispered.

“It’s okay. You sure you don’t mind?”

“Mind? Why would I mind?”

“It’s just that we’ve imposed on your good nature all day. You’ve been a charming host for us out-of-towners, altering your plans and giving up your afternoon.”

“I didn’t have any.”

“Well, I didn’t plan on playing U.N. Peacekeeper between warring siblings this morning, either.”

Rick raised his eyebrows.

“Ever since lunch, it’s been blessed peace. You have no idea.” Gus chuckled.

Marta and Jared sat shoulder to shoulder, looking into the distance. Joey couldn’t sit so still. He rose, then crept to brow of the rock, peering down to the base of the outcrop. He picked up a pebble and threw it into the woods below.

“Careful, Joey,” Gus called out. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m okay,” the boy said.

“Yo, Joe,” Jared addressed the younger boy. “You wanna see something cool?”

Marta cocked her head at the redhead.

Jared stood. “There’s a bear cave on the way down.”

“A bear cave?” Gus and Joey asked together.

“Don’t encourage him,” said Marta, rising.

“No, really. It’s on the other trail down. I’ll show you.”

“There are bears around here?” Gus asked.

Rick shrugged. “Sure. They’re pretty shy, and you don’t see them very often; but they’re out there. A black bear mama appeared wandering around my neighborhood last summer. She set every dog on the street barking, climbed a tree, then took off around sunset.”

“Are there bears in the cave?” Joey asked, eyes wider.

“Not this time of year,” Jared said sagely. “Come on, it’s this way.” The teen moved to go.

“Wait a second.” Rick cautioned. “That way down is really steep. I’m not sure Gus should try it with his hand in a cast.”

“We’ll go down the quick way, and you come down the way you came up. Then loop around to meet us at the cave,” said Jared. The redhead seemed to know the trails as well as Rick did.

Rick nodded. “All right.”

Jared led the younger party off to the south side of the outcrop, where they began their descent. Soon out of sight, Joey’s indistinct voice could be heard calling out: “Let me go first!”

Rick and Gus stood a moment in the late day sun. “Shouldn’t we be going?” Gus asked.

“Yeah. I guess so. It’s just – I’d forgotten how nice it was up here.” Rick sighed and smiled. He turned to his new friend, and for just a moment, their eyes met.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” said Gus, breaking the spell.

“No, thank you. But you’re right, we’d better start heading down.”

Gus followed Rick toward the steep path they ascended earlier. Rick turned. “Okay, hold your cast across your body, like this.” Rick indicated with a gesture. “I’m going to back down the trail, spotting you all the way. Lean on the rock with your good hand for balance.”

“You can’t do that. It’s too steep.”

“Sure I can. I can brace myself and catch you if you slip.”

To prove it, Rick took a few steps backward down the incline, face pointing upward, smiling.

Gus looked wary. He inched down the slope.

Rick retreated; Gus advanced. The darker skinned man instinctively put out his left hand to lean on the rough granite.

The slope increased; Rick backed steadily downhill and Gus moved with him, placing his feet with care.

“See? We’re doing great. No problem.” Rick grinned.

“I suppose I shouldn’t have worried,” Gus managed to smile through his concentration. “I wonder how Joey is making out at the bear –”

Gus’s sneaker slipped on a bare birch root growing over the path. Overbalancing, he pitched forward in a flailing blur of blue shirt, about to fall headlong down the steep angle.

“Ooof!” Rick’s strong arms caught and held him; legs braced against the slope. “You okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine. Okay.” Gus sounded breathless. “You?”

“I’m good.” It felt more than good, holding Gus like that, feeling his form under the lightweight shirt. He wanted the moment to last more than a dozen heartbeats. But he knew it was wrong: wrong to take advantage of the situation, and wrong to want a man who seemed taken by another.

Gingerly, he set Gus upright again, and they continued their descent.

When they were able to walk on the trails more normally, Gus offered his apologies and thanks. “You saved me from an embarrassing tumble there.”

“I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have warned you about those roots. And I’m already embarrassed that I almost caused you another injury.”

“Well, it’s done now, and we’re both forgiven,” Gus said.

They turned again, and the trail rounded a clump of hemlocks. Huge chunks of glacial granite reared up in front of them. A wide fissure between two huge boulders led deep into side of the hill. Neither Joey nor Marta nor Jared were anywhere to be seen.

“The bear cave?” Gus asked, coming to a stop beside Rick.

Rick nodded. “It’s not really a cave at all, just a crevasse between some rocks.”

“But bears live there?”

“Maybe. I remember finding scat in there when I was a kid.”

“Where are the others? How far could they go in the cave?” Gus peered in.

“The cave doesn’t go very far back, but there’s a curve to it so you can’t see. Jared and Marta must have gone on down the hill. We’d be able to hear them otherwise.”

Gus’s pocket pinged. He took out his phone and inspected a message. “It’s Marta. They’re down at the park already.”

“We won’t be long, either. The rest of the way is easy.” But secretly, Rick wished for another very steep stretch and a few slick roots along the way.

 

“Can you believe this guy was going to stay home and clean his house today?” Jerry leaned back in his camp chair, grinning at Rick.

“Really?” Gus sat cross-legged on the edge of the family blanket, next to the guy in question. They had gathered with Jerry and Cheryl; Joey and the Guttmacher children were running at large in the park, dodging in and out of the burgeoning crowd. The sun was definitely low in the sky now.

“That’s what he told me. Housecleaning, lawnmowing, chores – that’s his Fourth of July program. At least you had the good sense to come and join us.”

“Rick’s here.”

“And I bet you had to drag him kicking and screaming, too. Is that how you got that cast on your arm?” Jerry took a pull on his beer.

“No, no. That was an accident.”

Rick turned to Gus and raised an eyebrow.

“I broke my arm once,” Jerry started.

“I know. Rick told me.”

“Oh, is that so? Telling all my dirty secrets, Rico?”

“Just one or two.” Rick grinned.

“Well, you listen to old Jerry, Gus. I got a whole file drawer of Rick Ernst secrets.”

“He showed me how to make my arm stop itching under the cast.”

“The tapping trick? That was a good one.” Jerry laughed. “You need another beer, Gus?”

“No thanks. I’m still working on this one.”

“Where’d Marta and Jared go?” Rick asked. “They’ve been gone a while.”

“I sent them off to the Chamber of Commerce tent,” Cheryl replied. “I gave them some money and told them to bring back supper.”

Gus started to rise and reach for his wallet in his shorts pocket. “Let me contribute, please.”

“Sit down, Gus. Your money’s no good,” Jerry waved him off in an expansive gesture. “You’re a guest in my house, and helping us celebrate.”

Rick blinked. “House? Looks like just a blanket to me.”

“It’s my house, anyway. A man’s blanket is his castle.”

“Maybe we should go looking for Marta and Jared.” Gus looked off in the direction of the food tent.

“Don’t bother. Here they come.” Rick pointed in a different direction. The girl and the redhead bore armloads of brats and fries and popcorn. “Looks like they have company.”

Behind the two teenagers came Magda and Zoltan Takács; she in a flowing summer dress, he stalking along in khakis and an oxford button-down. They each carried a brightly colored cloth tote bag emblazoned with the words Westward Ho! Music Fest.

Gus stood as the party neared; the others on the blanket soon followed.

“We brought dinner,” Marta called out.

“Thanks. You did great,” Cheryl replied, all good cheer.

“You made it,” Gus said to Magda and Zoltan.

“Yes. We have arrived.” The older man spoke with grave East European dignity. He turned to Jerry, and held out his hand, the gesture quite formal. “I am Zoltan Takács. My wife, Magda.”

“Jerry Guttmacher. Pleased to meet you, Zoltan. This is Cheryl, my wife, and my friend, Rick Ernst.”

If Magda remembered Rick, her face didn’t show it.

“You are most kind to host us this evening, Herr Guttmacher.”

“No problem. My blanket is your blanket.” Jerry grinned wide.

“You must have had an exhausting drive. Please, sit down, get comfortable. Would you like to take my seat?” Cheryl offered Magda the bright red folding chair.

“Thank you, that is most kind.” Magda’s accent was as thick as Rick remembered it.

“Hey, does anybody want to eat?” Marta interrupted, raising her bag. Jared stood mute behind her.

“That’s right, we sent the kids to get something for supper,” said Jerry. “Sit down, everyone, let’s eat.”

“Ah. So. And who is your friend, Marta? Your son, Herr Guttmacher?” Zoltan raised a bushy white eyebrow at the teen standing behind her.

“This is Jared West. He works for me.”

“Hi.” The boy suddenly turned quite shy.

“Jared’s a friend I met this afternoon, Daddy. He helped me getting the food from the Chamber Tent.”

Magda looked confused. “Chamber Tent? There is a concert?”

“No, she means the, um, Chamber of Commerce is selling food in the tent over there.” Gus gestured with his cast, as he found a spot on the edge of the blanket.

“And how did you make young Mr. West’s acquaintance?” Zoltan asked his daughter.

“At the church thing,” she replied.

“Gustavo, you took them to church today?”

“It was after the parade, Daddy.”

Magda frowned. “I am confused.”

Cheryl reached into one of the bags Jared and Marta had brought. “Bratwurst?” She offered.

His attention diverted, Zoltan eyed the sausage. A moment later, he took it with a tentative hand. “Thank you,” the impresario murmured. He hesitated, as if unsure of the etiquette for such a delicacy.

“Let me get you a beer for that,” added Jerry, looking around for his cooler.

Zoltan smiled for the first time since arriving. “Ah. Well, there is no need for that. We made a detour on our way.”

He found his souvenir tote bag and extracted a black padded object; he unzipped the end and pulled out a bottle with a foil wrapped top.

“Something for Independence Day, yes?”

Soon, the pop of a cork joined the occasional sharp crack of firecrackers going off. With bratwurst distributed and champagne in plastic cups handed around to the adults, a degree of conviviality developed on the Guttmacher family blanket; a space augmented by a tasteful plaid throw carried in Magda’s bag.

Rick watched from his farthest corner of the party. He did not need to contribute; Jerry and Zoltan were swapping yarns, story for story. As dusk fell and the younger Guttmachers returned with Joey, Rick felt content to listen and covertly watch Gus, who sat to his right. The man seemed anxious, but Rick couldn’t figure out why. It was hard not to notice Marta and Jared retreat to the opposite extremity of the group. He might have envied the teens their innocent flirting, but he felt too good just then.

Rick glanced up at the sky. A light twinkled in the darkening blue dome overhead. He smiled.

“Hey, look,” he said, tapping Gus on the shoulder. “First star.”

Gus turned his head to see. “I love being able to see the stars. We don’t have them in Chicago.”

“The fireworks will start soon.”

“Oh. Um. I need to tell you something, Rick.” Gus twisted abruptly to face him.

Rick raised his eyebrows.

“I hate fireworks.”

“What? Why did you –”

“I don’t mind the colors and the patterns and the displays – that’s beautiful. It’s the noise, the flash and bang that I hate. I’m ashamed to say so, but it frightens me.”

“We can go, if you want.” Rick scanned the scene for an easy escape route, but there was none in the crowd.

“No, no. I don’t want to be a bother. It’s just that, if I’m not saying ooooh and aaaaaaah with everyone else, it’s nothing to do –”

Whatever else Gus was going to say was cut off by a loud whumf as the first aerial offering rose and popped open in a bright blue flower against the darkening heavens.

Immediately, Gus put his hands over his ears and lay down on the blanket, eyes shut tight.

With all other eyes on the sky, Rick lay back too, watching Gus with concern. As each successive skyrocket and shell exploded into shining fragments, his muscles seemed to spasm reflexively.

He couldn’t help himself. At one point, Rick reached out and rubbed Gus’ shoulder for comfort. By the light of yet another incendiary blossom, he saw Gus turn his head and open his eyes.

“Sorry,” Rick mouthed.

A white-hot shell exploded overhead, making Gus wince and turn away.

He’d pressured Gus into coming to the park, hurting the one man whose friendship he wanted above all others. What had been the most wonderful day was ruined. He thumped his head back on the blanket.

What a moron you are.

A volley of new rockets ascended above them. As they went off, and painted the sky with light, Rick felt something quite unexpected: with his good left hand, Gus reached out and took Rick’s right. He squeezed. Another bloom of light blossomed against the stars, and something surged and answered in Rick’s heart. As the sparks showered down, Rick squeezed back.

But he didn’t let go.


I repeat and augment my previous and thanks to @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for their help improving this story. If you have any thoughts or comments to leave, please know I appreciate whatever you may have to say.
Copyright © 2020 Parker Owens; 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.
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Chapter Comments



Awww.  Are we going to get some romance in time for Christmas?  I’m recalling another story a couple of years ago :)

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Lovely chapter. Not a sign of Rita, Rick getting to show parts of the countryside he knows so well and a chance to spend more time with Gus. The ending holds out some hope for a relationship developing between them.

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3 hours ago, xleroc said:

Awww.  Are we going to get some romance in time for Christmas?  I’m recalling another story a couple of years ago :)

Rick and Gus enjoyed their day together, and while Gus’ reaction to the fireworks wasn’t exactly what he’d been expecting, getting a hand squeeze must have been as thrilling as any skyrocket. But Heinrich Senior could spell trouble... thanks very much for your thoughts and for reading!

Edited by Parker Owens
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2 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

Lovely chapter. Not a sign of Rita, Rick getting to show parts of the countryside he knows so well and a chance to spend more time with Gus. The ending holds out some hope for a relationship developing between them.

Now if Rick can get over his terminal shyness or Gus can find a way out of the Lodge, the two of them might spend more time together. But Rick will never forget this day. Thanks for checking out this chapter! 

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2 hours ago, Tonyr said:

Awesome chapter. It would be nice in the next chapter both Rick and Gus could look into each others eyes and at least  understand that both bat for the same team. 

Merry Xmas everyone.

Gus’ eyes were shut tight against the fireworks, alas. Rick will have to find a way to elude the coming of papa Heinrich and Gus will need to figure how to discreetly leave the Lodge before more can happen. I’m glad you enjoyed this chapter!

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1 hour ago, weinerdog said:

While Rick is having a good time Willy Kohler still creeps into his thoughts I was afraid of that.I have a feeling that is going to come up when Senior gets into town.I see Rick and Gus getting closer until Senior arrives to complicate things.What will your forecast say then? Mostly Senior with a 30 percent chance of Rita?

Heinrich Senior is definitely going to make spending time with Gus more difficult. In fact, the old man will probably make everything harder. As for the watches and warnings, well, keep an eye on the forecast. Thanks for reading this chapter and for your comments. 

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1 hour ago, 84Mags said:

Rick’s premonition and his thoughts of Willy made me wonder about this mystery man heading to Eagle Lake. But then the terrified reaction Gus had to the fireworks lead me to believe perhaps the premonition was related to that. Gus was born in Guatemala and must have lived there during at least part of the 1960-1996 Guatemalan Civil War. While I’m not certain that caused his fear, it certainly wouldn’t help to have a childhood surrounded in gunfire, fear and violence.

It speaks volumes to me that Gus would hike with a broken arm and later wish to stay through the noise and lights of fireworks to spend time with Rick. 

I appreciate your comments on this chapter. If only Rick could see what you do, that Gus is sticking with Rick despite good reasons to do otherwise. It does indeed speak volumes. Alas, Rick is still wrapped up in thinking about it all. Heinrich Senior’s impending visit could complicate things, and prove a big distraction too. Many thanks for your comments and thoughts. 

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I think Gus wants to be around Rick just as much as Rick wants to be around Gus.  I feel Gus's pain about the fireworks.  I'm the exact same way.  I like watching them, but have to wear earplugs otherwise the noise is too much for me.  It's nice to see their relationship progressing.  We still have the specter of sexyhunk and Rick's father's visit.  Hopefully the ghost of Willy Kohler will be vanquished soon.  Great chapter :)

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3 minutes ago, Valkyrie said:

I think Gus wants to be around Rick just as much as Rick wants to be around Gus.  I feel Gus's pain about the fireworks.  I'm the exact same way.  I like watching them, but have to wear earplugs otherwise the noise is too much for me.  It's nice to see their relationship progressing.  We still have the specter of sexyhunk and Rick's father's visit.  Hopefully the ghost of Willy Kohler will be vanquished soon.  Great chapter :)

The whole of Independence Day took three chapters to write, but by the end of the day, Gus and Rick have established a firm friendship. Now if only Rick can believe in it. Yes, there are specters still lurking, even in bright, sunny,  Eagle Lake. I’m glad you liked this chapter. Thank you very much for reading!

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2 minutes ago, Ivor Slipper said:

Perhaps Rick & Gus are heading towards their own private sparkler display?

Rick might find that altogether too good to be true. But it seems as if they’re firmly friends, at least. Thanks for your thoughts and for reading this chapter!

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A chickadee, a woodpecker, and a duet of thrushes? Lovely. Such a wonderful day to spend with such diverse people. I hope someday Gus and Rick can look back on this day, and remember when their romance truly blossomed. Don't you dare spoil my warm feeling, Parker. :P  I loved this chapter, and I loved all the details. Especially Gus reaching out oat the end. :)  Cheers!

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1 hour ago, Headstall said:

A chickadee, a woodpecker, and a duet of thrushes? Lovely. Such a wonderful day to spend with such diverse people. I hope someday Gus and Rick can look back on this day, and remember when their romance truly blossomed. Don't you dare spoil my warm feeling, Parker. :P  I loved this chapter, and I loved all the details. Especially Gus reaching out oat the end. :)  Cheers!

Sometimes the woods can hold a symphony, for those who can hear it. Gus was enchanted. Rick won’t forget this day, not a chance. I’m glad you weren’t out off by all the detail. Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s getting to be too much. Many thanks for your thoughts and for reading!

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10 hours ago, weinerdog said:

While Rick is having a good time Willy Kohler still creeps into his thoughts I was afraid of that.I have a feeling that is going to come up when Senior gets into town.I see Rick and Gus getting closer until Senior arrives to complicate things.What will your forecast say then? Mostly Senior with a 30 percent chance of Rita?

I think the warnings for Senior should be more like numbers on the Richter Scale!!!!😆

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1 hour ago, drsawzall said:

I think the warnings for Senior should be more like numbers on the Richter Scale!!!!😆

Sort of like hurricane categories? Warnings for Category-3 Heinrich Senior landfall are now in effect for Eagle Lake...

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34 minutes ago, Parker Owens said:

Sort of like hurricane categories? Warnings for Category-3 Heinrich Senior landfall are now in effect for Eagle Lake...

I'm thinking that Senior is a (un) natural force of nature unique to himself!!!

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A wonderful chapter that was Rita free -- that's the best part!  I swear that woman makes me want to slap the lipstick off her face!!  Now we get to experience Senior!!  I believe Jerry and Cheryl will play a significant role in helping develop the relationship between Rick and Gus.  I believe Cheryl already sees it beginning! Great stuff Parker - thank you, David

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3 hours ago, KayDeeMac said:

A wonderful chapter that was Rita free -- that's the best part!  I swear that woman makes me want to slap the lipstick off her face!!  Now we get to experience Senior!!  I believe Jerry and Cheryl will play a significant role in helping develop the relationship between Rick and Gus.  I believe Cheryl already sees it beginning! Great stuff Parker - thank you, David

I’m very glad you liked this Rita-free chapter. Rick certainly did, and I’m sure he’ll remember the experience for a very long time. Thanks very much for your encouraging words and thoughts. 

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Very nice. I like your story. You don’t have to respond. Just know that your work is appreciated. I never make comments about how an author should change their work. That is not mine to decide. Thanks.... keep it going

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7 hours ago, CalibanDeSuenos said:

Very nice. I like your story. You don’t have to respond. Just know that your work is appreciated. I never make comments about how an author should change their work. That is not mine to decide. Thanks.... keep it going

You are most kind. Authors here live for just such encouraging words as yours. Many thanks!

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