They all returned from the bank, back to Rachel's house. She got out when the vehicle stopped and Wren glanced at Caleb in the driver's seat. "You mind going over to pap…" he caught himself, "err, going over to my place?"
Caleb shook his head. "I don't mind."
Wren smiled. "Mom, Caleb and I are headed over to the farm. We need to talk, and I want to do some more looking around. We need to check the house, see if it's going to work or not."
Rachel leaned and gave Wren a kiss on the side of his face. "Okay, hon." She looked at the clock on Caleb's radio. "You boys want lunch around one?"
It was just after ten thirty. Wren glanced at Caleb and the fellow nodded. "Yeah, one sounds good."
"All right. I'll just bring it out to you." She walked toward the house. "Y'all are gonna be busy, what with all the clean-up and planting that needs doing." She grimaced. "I have my doubts about the house, Wren."
Caleb nodded in agreement. "Charles and I kept patching holes for Beecher when they showed up, but yeah - it ain't good."
Wren made a face. "Okay. Well, let's go have a look. We might be tearing the place down and starting over."
"Gonna put that fancy degree to use and design your own house?" Rachel smiled broadly, and she made a shooing motion at him. "Go on. Go check your farm."
They did. Caleb drove, and Wren closed his eyes as they rode. The window was half down, and the wind blew in his hair. Caleb glanced at him. Wren's face was relaxed and he even wore a slight smile. That expression made Caleb glad - almost giddy. He struggled to refocus on the drive.
'Good to see him happy.'
They soon arrived, and Caleb shut off the engine.
Wren was staring at him. Caleb swallowed. "What?"
Wren bit his lip and shook his head. "It's just if I do this, I will probably have to get used to the idea that I'm going to be alone. That I'm never going to pair up." Wren's expression alternated between worry and resignation.
Caleb hadn't thought about that. He never considered that Wren would ever want to find a guy with whom to live his life. He shrugged. "Well, pairing up hasn't happened for me either," Caleb said, then he immediately regretted bringing it up. His dating life was non-existent, which seemed a constant source of worry for his brother and Tracy. Sure, he toyed with the idea when he was in college. But he never really found a woman interesting enough to take that leap.
Caleb's big secret was that he was a twenty-two-year-old virgin. He had gotten as far as making out, but that was all. Caleb realized he was supposed to feel fireworks, yet there was nothing. He figured it would happen, eventually, but he sure didn't need anybody pushing him.
Wren eyed him. "Well, you could fix that pretty damn easy." He opened the door. "You'd be a catch. Any girl in her right mind would see that."
That seemed to be the limit of Wren's scrutiny and Caleb breathed a sigh of relief. Walking up onto the porch, Wren pulled out Beecher's keyring. Luckily Charles had displayed the presence of mind to take it off Beecher's hip when they had found him in his garden. Even then, they had worried about the house, property, and Beecher's things getting ransacked by his sons. They both knew the right key for the door but Wren stood there, the key in hand, hesitating.
"You okay?" Caleb saw the set of Wren's shoulders. They were slightly hunched, and Wren stared at the doorknob.
Wren sighed. "It's just sad. You know?" He looked at Caleb, unshed tears in his eyes. "I wish he were here, and I wish we were helping him fix it up. I'd give it all back if it meant he'd be here."
Caleb patted Wren's back. "I know. I'm sorry you lost him. Hell, I'm sorry we all did." Caleb smiled. Wren hurt, and it made Caleb ache in a way he didn't experience when he himself did. 'I wish I could take it from you, Wren,' his thoughts mixed with feelings and created a seething, chaotic mess in Caleb.
Even through the chaos, Caleb's voice was firm. "I know he'd be proud of you."
Wren's manner changed when Caleb said those words. "Even knowing? Knowing what you do?" There was a haunted quality in him, and he hung on Caleb's response.
The farm boy thought about it. He knew Beecher well, and he straightened. "Your papaw would still love you. No matter what, Wren." He nodded. "I stand by it - I know he'd be proud of you."
Wren laughed, a small, disbelieving sound. He watched Caleb's face as if he searched for a joke or equivocation. He found neither. Wren straightened, his shoulders back, and looked Caleb in the eye. He nodded once. "Thanks, Caleb."
Caleb inclined his head and pointed his chin at the door. "Go on. We got a house to look at."
Wren smiled, then he slipped the key into the lock.
They went inside the old, dusty place. Wren seemed to look at things with a different, critical eye, and Caleb saw him grimace as he stepped on creaky boards which bent under his weight. "Shit. This floor would need to be replaced. Probably all of it."
Caleb nodded distractedly and followed along as Wren walked through the house. His dark-haired friend took out his phone and began typing notes of all of the trouble areas he found.
"Windows need replacing. They're single-pane, inefficient, some are cracked and painted shut. Ugh, this paint. Oh god, wallpaper. What were they thinking in the seventies?" Caleb grunted here and there to let Wren know he was listening.
In truth, he wasn't listening. Something Wren said out at the truck ran on repeat in his mind, and he finally blurted it out.
"You think I'm a catch?"
Wren was on his knees in front of the hall utility closet, looking under the hot water heater at the rust that had gathered on the bottom of the metal cylinder. He looked up at Caleb, bafflement apparent on his face. "What?"
Caleb's Adam's Apple bobbed. "You, you think I'm a catch? Really?"
Wren stood and brushed off his pants. "Well, yeah." Now Caleb saw a bit of apprehension as Wren cringed. "Uh, I mean, it's hard not to notice you." Wren flushed red. "Err, I mean, you've got a degree, you're smart, you ah..." Wren swallowed. "You're a handsome guy." Wren clenched his jaw. "Yeah, you're a catch, Caleb."
Caleb felt himself join Wren in a powerful blush. "Th… thanks." They both stood awkwardly and close, then Caleb cleared his throat. "Should we check the bedrooms? I know the spare room is pretty rough. I think Beecher gave up on it, and just kept that door closed. He wouldn't even let us fix the floor, so we'll need to step careful in there."
Wren put his hands on his hips and sighed. "I don't think we need to. The only other thing I want to see is the foundation. If it's good then it'd be worth replacing the whole floor of the house. But, if not then there's no use. It'd be cheaper to start over, put in something that's more efficient, smaller, and modern."
Caleb cracked a smile. "Well, I happen to know this architect…"
Wren laughed and threw an arm around Caleb's neck. He shook the bigger man a little and grinned at him. "Oh yeah? He any good?"
As he looked into Wren's bright eyes, Caleb experienced a tangled whirlpool of emotions. But out of the confusing soup, the overwhelming one was elation, and he smirked in response. "I don't know. I reckon we'll see."
"Shit. See that?" Wren was on his knees, pointing at a pillar of blocks under Beecher's house. Caleb hunkered down with him and followed the line of Wren's finger. The little column leaned, thanks to one half crumbling under the weight of the home. "I'm sure there are more like that one. We could crawl under to see, but I don't think we need to."
Caleb went pale. "Good."
Wren remembered Caleb's claustrophobia. "Oh. Yeah, sorry." He patted the big man's shoulder. "I'm not going to ask you to do that. Don't worry."
Caleb nodded. The two men straightened and Caleb leaned against the side of the house. "So, that's it? We tearing 'er down?"
Wren sighed. "Yeah." He looked at the weathered boards on the outside of the place. "I feel bad about it - dad, the uncles were all raised here. But, it's time."
"They'll probably just use it as an excuse to hate us even more." Caleb spat. "But it ain't like they care about the homestead. They just want to till it all up and plant tobacco."
"Yeah. I know." Wren pushed back a few errant strands of black hair. It was getting long, and harder to control without gel. "Ugh. I need a haircut."
Caleb leaned back and looked at Wren's head with a critical eye then shrugged. "Yeah. I like it short. Looks good on you that way." He smirked. "We could buzz it off."
Wren made a shocked expression. "Uh, no!" He quickly shot a hand toward Caleb and ruffled the man's very short brown hair. "You just want me to look like you!" Caleb made a surprised noise and threw up his arms to fend off Wren.
They both laughed and grappled playfully. Wren knew Caleb was beyond capable of overpowering him. But his strong friend used only just enough force to keep Wren from gaining the upper hand. Caleb's smugness told Wren he knew that the contest was lopsided.
Krav Maga was an art that hinged on surprise, brutality, and using every advantage. In this case, Wren had a few cards Caleb didn't know he held. As he strained to push Caleb back, the farmboy matched his effort to stay right where he was.
"Caleb?" Wren grunted as he pushed, their arms locked, and hands on one another's shoulders. "Do you like that shirt you're wearing?"
Caleb frowned and continued to hold the position. "Huh? It's just a work shirt."
"Good." Wren quickly stepped to the side, and his body went through the motions of a hip throw. An astonished expression rewarded him as Caleb flew past through the air.
Somehow, Caleb had managed to grab Wren's wrist as he turned mid-air in the throw, and both guys ended up in a tangled mess of arms, legs, and guffawing laughter in the dirt beside the house.
On the ground, Wren was far outclassed, and it didn't take long before Caleb sat on his pelvis and pinned his arms above his head. Wren panted and grinned up at him.
Caleb had an overtly joyful smirk on his face. "You tricky bastard." He laughed as Wren tried to buck him off. He wasn't going anywhere. Caleb leaned down until his face was a few inches away. "What are ya gonna do now?"
Wren wet his lips. That close, Caleb's blue eyes showed striations of light green that emanated from his pupils. Both of their breathing calmed and Caleb didn't move away.
He watched as Caleb's expression changed to one of nervous wonderment. Wren's body responded to that perfect, denim covered ass sitting on him.
"I'm liable to do something you don't want if you don't get off me," Wren said the words and stared into those mesmerizing eyes.
Caleb's tongue appeared and wet his lips. "Like, like what?" He whispered.
He hesitated only a moment, then Wren lifted his head off the ground. Caleb's eyes closed, but Wren's remained open - he needed to see him.
They kissed. At first, Caleb's lips didn't respond, then he began to move them, and Wren felt the vibration of a groan through Caleb's jaw.
Caleb slipped his tongue past Wren's lips, and Wren uttered a groan too. Caleb let go of Wren's wrists, and his hands were warm - one on the side of Wren's head, and the other on the back of his neck. Wren gripped Caleb's waist, and he allowed his eyes to close.
It drew on. Caleb turned his head this way and that, slowly testing every angle, while his tongue explored Wren's mouth.
Wren gradually lost any semblance of control. His hips began to move, and he ground his erection up into Caleb as they made out.
The sound of an engine reverberated down the holler, and Caleb jerked up. He scrambled, and stepped a few paces away, while Wren hurried to his feet. Rachel's truck appeared around the bend and she turned around in the roundabout near the house.
Caleb panted and wiped his face. He looked at Wren, confounded and flustered. The bulge at his crotch was impossible for Wren to miss, which meant it'd be apparent to Rachel as well. "Caleb! Go around the side of the house."
Caleb nodded, still shocked, and he did as Wren said. Soon he was out of sight of the road. Wren pulled his dust and grass-covered shirt so it hung free to cover his own groin, and he forced himself to amble slowly over to the truck as it stopped.
He walked to the driver's side window. "Hi, Mom." Wren smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way.
"Howdy, son." She frowned at his dirty shirt and pants, then she snorted. "What have you boys been up to? Roughhousing?"
"Ah." Wren rubbed a hand on his head and laughed nervously. "Yeah. Just playing around."
She eyed him. Wren knew that she sensed something was off. "Everything okay?" She frowned and looked past him. "Where's Caleb?"
"Yeah, everything's fine." Wren waved a hand toward the house. "Caleb's just around back. We're trying to figure out if, ah, if the windows are gonna work or not." He cocked his head at her suspicion. "Mom, everything's fine."
Finally, she smiled. "All right." She handed over a couple of heavy wax paper packages. "Here are your boys' sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of pop to split."
Wren took all of the items. "Thanks, Mom." He leaned and gave her a quick kiss. "I'm gonna get back to it."
She left, and Wren hurried around the house.
Caleb was on the porch. He had his hands on the railing, his head was down, and he stared at the ground. Wren walked over and sat on the porch beside the steps and railing. He put their food on the top step.
Caleb didn't move.
"Hey," Wren's voice was gentle. "You okay?"
"Why'd you do that?" Caleb said, his deep voice in a monotone. "You kissed me. Why'd you do that?"
The first fingers of fear and regret began to crawl down Wren's spine. "Caleb, I thought it's what you wanted." He stood and walked up the steps.
Caleb straightened and took a step away from him. There was fear in his eyes.
Wren stopped in his tracks. "Caleb, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, okay?" He held his hands out, trying to placate his friend. "I was wrong. I thought you wanted me to."
Caleb stared, his teeth clenched, and the muscle in his jaw relaxed and tightened. His hands opened and closed, and he was pale. He blinked. "I gotta go."
Despair shot through Wren. "Wait, Caleb..." Caleb jumped down off of the porch and he started walking - big strides toward his truck parked in the roundabout. "Caleb!" Wren walked quickly after him. "Wait, please!"
Wren got close, and Caleb turned, his hands balled into fists. He clenched his jaw. "Just leave me alone, Wren."
Wren cringed in anguish. "Please, Caleb. I'm sorry. I fucked up." He shook his head. "I shouldn't have done it. I'm sorry."
Caleb swallowed, and he shook his head once. He continued on his way, leaving Wren to slump in misery.
Wren watched as Caleb climbed into the cab of his truck. Caleb started the machine, and he drove quickly down the gravel road, kicking up dust and little rocks as he went.
Wren stared dejectedly into the cloud of dust. "But, you kissed me back," he whispered. He frowned and tears began to track down his face. "You kissed me back."
Caleb drove his truck fast, flying down the blacktop on the way back from the market. He sped past the turnoff to Wren's farm and he forced himself to avoid looking down at the place.
He parked the vehicle at his brother's house. Caleb spied Charles out in the nearest of his fields, and his brother threw up a hand in a wave as Caleb stopped. Caleb got out, grabbed the bag from the market, and he returned the greeting.
Caleb marched to the barn, the bag gripped hard in his hand. He tossed the bag and contents up in a gentle arc, knowing it'd hit the pile of hay in the loft. Then he climbed up the ladder.
He found the bag, then sat down, his legs dangling over the edge of the loft. The floor of the barn was nine feet below, and he pulled the bottle of rum from the brown sack. Caleb wadded the paper in his fist then opened the bottle with a twist and a snap of metal as the seal on the lid failed.
He needed to be numb. Caleb opened the rum, and the smell of the distilled cane sugar hit his nose. Spices in the amber liquid made him swallow as he salivated. Caleb raised the bottle and took a long drink, his Adam's Apple moving twice as he gulped.
Caleb lowered the bottle and coughed. His eyes watered, and he licked the rum off of his lips. He turned his head slightly as a figure walked into the barn.
"Caleb?" Charles stood on the floor and looked up at him. "What are you doin'?"
In response, Caleb took another slug of rum. Charles scratched his head under the ball cap he wore, then sighed.
Caleb wiped his mouth while Charles climbed into the loft. Charles walked over and sat with a grunt beside his brother.
The bigger Shaw boy handed the bottle over. Charles took it, looked at Caleb and he turned it up. He gulped once, then Charles lowered the rum and made a face. “Whew.” He tried a smile on Caleb. “What are we drinkin’ to?”
Caleb closed his eyes. The rum felt warm and volatile in his belly. “To nothin’. Drinkin’ to nothin’.” He took a shaky breath and reached for the bottle.
Charles hesitated. There was quite a bit of the bottle missing already. “No, that's enough.” He screwed the cap on the alcohol and set it aside. Charles put an arm around Caleb’s wide shoulders. “Talk to me, Caleb. What’s wrong?”
Caleb blinked. The rum began to loosen his grip on the emotions running rampant in his mind. “I’m wrong. That’s what. Me.”
Charles frowned, concerned. “Bub, what’s goin’ on?” He squeezed Caleb. “Tell me.”
Caleb shook his head once. He tried hard, but couldn't avoid the two tears that fell from his eyes. Charles stared in shock. "Caleb. You tell me what's wrong. Right now." The last time his brother had seen Caleb cry was ten years ago when he'd badly broken his arm. "What happened?"
"I, I don't know what to do." Caleb leaned into Charles, and he broke. First, it was tears, then there were heaving wracking sobs, and gasps of air as he raggedly drew in breaths.
Charles held him, a lost, worried expression on his face. "It's okay." Caleb might have been bigger, but Charles was still his older brother and he played his part. "You're okay. You're here with me."
Caleb continued to sob. Charles sighed, and he put his hand on his brother's neck - warm, secure, comforting. "Bub, you know," he bit his lip, "well, you know that I'm gonna love you. No matter what, right?"
Something in his tone cut through even the alcohol. Caleb sat up, and he stared at Charles, his cheekbones shiny with tracks of tears. "What?"
Charles smiled. "I said, I'm gonna love you, no matter what." He nodded. "Tracy too." He looked uncomfortable, but he plowed forward. "We might not understand, but we love you."
A shocking realization hit Caleb. "You… you know."
Charles shrugged. "We thought, maybe. Tracy is real good at picking out folks who are, ah, different. A few years back during one of his visits, she said Wren was, and then your second summer break you spent here with us, she thought that you might be." Charles put his arm back around Caleb's shoulders. "I didn't believe her at first. But after a few years, and no interest in girls… well, I came 'round to the idea."
"But, why all the questions about girls, and…" Caleb stopped, and he just put his face in his hands. "I don't believe this." He swayed as the rum really began to slam into his system.
"Whoa!" Charles gripped him across the shoulders. He pushed back away from the edge of the loft with his legs, dragging his drunken brother with him.
Caleb lay on his back among the loose hay in the loft. He made a noise of effort and got up on all fours. Charles stood and looked down at him. "Caleb, stay right there. Okay? Don't try to go down the ladder. I'll be back." He waited until Caleb gave him an exaggerated nod, then Charles went down the ladder.
Caleb sat on his rear, his legs folded under himself. It was still light out, but he was really tired. He just wanted to lie down.
Somehow, Charles was there again. This time he had a sleeping bag and a pillow. "Hey, bub." His voice was soft, kind. "Here, let's get you settled."
Charles took off Caleb's boots and his denim overshirt. Then he helped the big man get into the sleeping bag. Soon, Caleb lay among the fragrant hay, comfortable, warm, and cocooned in the layers of the sleeping bag.
Charles put Caleb on his side, and then the big Shaw brother crashed headlong into sleep.
It was six p.m. on Wednesday. Caleb had driven off a few hours earlier, and Wren sat on the porch of his falling down farmhouse. He had eaten a little of one sandwich and the rest of the food he put in the shade of the house so it'd stay cool.
He now had no plans. Everything depended on Caleb working with him on the farm, and he had just fucked that up. He sighed, deeply disappointed in both himself and how things had gone with Caleb.
'I knew better. Even if he's gay, I knew better.' Wren stared down the barrel of not only potentially losing his grandfather's farm, but one of his best friends.
He heard an engine and stood. Wren quickly walked around the edge of the house, and his eyes widened as he saw Caleb's dual cab Chevy stop and park. Hope bloomed in his chest and he walked quickly toward the vehicle, then it died just as fast when Charles got out.
Charles moved fast and looked like a man on a mission. He headed straight for Wren, his arms pumping as he walked and eyes locked onto his worried friend.
Charles stopped a few paces away. "You an' me, we need to talk."
Wren swallowed. "Oh?" He cleared his throat. "What, ah, what about?"
"You damn well know." Charles motioned at him. "Come on."
Wren followed Charles, and his mind whirled. 'He knows? Did Caleb tell him? Fuck, does he hate me too? Have I lost everybody?'
Charles stomped up onto the porch. He faced Wren, as the black-haired man looked at him with more than a little fear in his eyes. Wren could tell, Charles knew. Charles was mad.
Wren sighed. "Look, I'm sorry." He slumped. "I fucked up." He shook his head. "I just… I thought…"
Charles held up a hand and cut him off. "Wren. Right now, my baby brother is curled up, drunk as a damn skunk in a sleeping bag in our hayloft." He crossed his arms over his chest, and his green eyes flashed dangerously. "I don't care what happened. All I want to know is what yer gonna do to fix it."
Uh oh ... there's trouble for our boys. Funny, that so much of it is internal in this chapter.