I'm happy to say that, as we near the end of the story, the chapters will be coming more quickly as there is another story waiting in the wings.
I want to give a very special shout-out and a deep thank you to my proofreader, Trish. I can't thank you enough, Trish for all of your efforts to make Aaron's Journey Down The Long Road the best it can be.
To all my readers, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your support. One thing I would ask is that you all consider making a donation to Nifty. Remember, he doesn't charge anyone to read any of the stories on his site, nor does he charge any of us authors to host our stories.
Now, on to chapter 27...
While Iukekini was talking to his brother, Aaron decided this would be an excellent time to make a call he'd meant to make since their plane touched down in San Diego. "Hi, Aaron. You guys just get in?"
"Yeah, we landed about an hour ago, had dinner, unpacked and are all settled into our SUITE." Aaron held his phone away from his ear as Cameron screamed in delight.
"YOU'RE IN A SUITE?!?!?"
"Yep. First class air fare and now first class accommodations. Grace can't seem to do anything without going all out."
"That's wonderful. Does Clark know you guys are there?"
"Nope. As far as he knows, we couldn't make it, which would be true if Grace hadn't foot the bill. He'll find out tomorrow though."
"He'll have fun trying to shit his pants in those tight-ass jeans he wears." She snickered.
Aaron giggled at the mental image Cameron's words formed in his mind. When Iukekini wanted to know what was so funny, Aaron told him which caused him to bust out laughing, a very welcome sign that everything was fine between the four of them.
"Hang on a second, Aaron. Mitch wants to say hi."
"Hey Aaron. Cameron tells me that you guys are staying in a suite for a month. That's great. Knowing you, you'll work yourself to death in repayment. Just don't overdo it. We want you guys back safe and sound. You have our gift for Clark and Danny right?"
"Yeah, it's right here. Very thoughtful of you guys."
"It's nothing. They're great guys. I'm just glad everything worked out for the four of you."
"Yeah, it did, which reminds me, I'll be moving back in with Iukekini when we get back. I can't thank you guys enough for letting me stay with you and helping me through all of this."
"Well, I can't say I'm totally unhappy to see you go. I must have put on a hundred pounds from your cooking. Cameron will be totally pissed though. You've spoiled her with your cooking and cleaning."
Aaron heard her voice in the background asking Mitch what was going on. When he told her that Aaron was moving back in with Iukekini as soon as they got back, she countered with "Well, we'll just have to make sure that we're in the neighborhood every day at dinnertime."
"I heard that." Aaron laughed into the phone. "When we get back, Cameron wants to make sure that they're in the neighborhood every night at dinnertime" which got a couple of guffaws from Iukekini. "I'm pretty beat so I'm gonna run. I'll call you guys in a few days and let you know how everything is going."
"G'night Aaron. Give our love to everyone."
"Will do. `Night."
After an intense round of lovemaking and performing their nightly rituals, the boys fell into an exhausted sleep, looking forward to tomorrow.
The next day the boys were having lunch at a Wendy's across the street from the new Candle Crafts, sitting in the upstairs seating area where they could look down on the store, with little chance they could be seen from the street. Watching all the contractors coming and going, packing up and moving all of their tools and equipment to their waiting trucks, they saw the one thing they were watching for; the construction foreman handing Clark the keys and shaking hands. "That's it. Clark has the store" Aaron said, delighted. He immediately called Grace. "We're on. Clark just got the keys."
"Great. I'll call the distributor and have the delivery set up for tomorrow. Don't tell him."
"I won't. Talk to you later." Hanging up, he finished his bacon cheeseburger and told Iukekini that everything was set for the supplies to be delivered.
"Well, let's go give him a coronary, then make ourselves useful. Good thing we're all CPR certified. He's gonna need it." Iukekini said with a laugh as they gathered up their trash and headed for the door. After making sure they wouldn't be spotted, they quickly crossed the street and entered the store, not at all surprised that the layout mirrored Candle Crafts Honolulu, as the store was now named. Spotting no one, they quietly headed for the retail store. Spotting Danny, Aaron quickly put his fingers to his lips then raised his eyebrows. Danny caught on quickly and after quickly hugging Aaron and Iukekini motioned them to follow him.
Entering the studio alone, Danny found Clark finishing wiping down the tables. "You know, it's hard to believe this is all really happening. I'm so very happy for you, baby."
"I am too. After breaking my back, I had no idea what I was going to do. During rehab when I was learning how to walk again..." Aaron sucked in a deep breath. Clark hadn't told him about that. "...all I could think about was how I would be a financial burden on you. The Air Force would have covered all of my medical expenses, but that was it. Now, thanks to Grace..."
"And Aaron" Danny interrupted.
Taking the hint, Clark continued "...and Aaron, I don't have to worry about it. All I have to worry about is making a go of this store. I just wish Aaron and Iukekini could be here to see this, but they have their own financial crisis to worry about."
"Well," Danny began with a shit-eating grin on his face, "your fairy godmother has granted your wish. GUYS!"
"Wait, what?" He replied, confused. Tears sprung from his eyes as he watched Aaron and Iukekini walk through the door. He stood frozen for a few moments until finally he rushed forward, practically knocking them both to the floor in his exuberant hug. "How? When?" He asked them; unable to form complete sentences.
Aaron's answered his questions with a single word. "Grace."
Clark broke the embrace and stepped away from them in total confusion. "But when I talked to you last night, I thought you weren't coming."
Aaron decided to play this to the hilt. A look of faux confusion crossed his face. "Hmm, I honestly don't remember saying that. I do remember calling you and wishing you luck with the store. As a matter of fact, I remember calling you from our suite at the San Diego Holiday Inn. We got in yesterday afternoon and wanted to surprise you."
"BITCH" Clark punched Aaron in the arm before engulfing him in a huge hug, then giving Iukekini another hug. "I can't tell you how much it means to me –us- to have you guys here to see this. I just wish everything was already set up. I'd hate to have you guys have to return home before the grand opening."
"We're here for a month to help you get everything ready. Grace thought that by sending us here to get the studio and retail store set up, you and Danny could concentrate on interviewing, hiring and training your employees. I figured that since I used to work in pharmacy, I could take care of setting up the retail store. Grace gave me an extra copy of the planograms. Iukekini could get the studio set up."
"Oh my God, I don't know how I can thank the two of you."
Iukekini spoke up for the first time since they arrived at the store. "You can thank us by making Candle Crafts San Diego as successful as Candle Crafts Honolulu."
"Candle Crafts Honolulu" Danny asked.
"Yeah, Grace renamed it since she hopes this will be the first of many franchise Candle Craft stores."
"Wow. No pressure there." Clark exclaimed with a worried look on his face.
"You're right, Clark, but not the way you are thinking. Last night I Googled candle shops in San Diego, and the only thing that came up was a couple of Yankee Candle shops. When I googled candle making, nothing came up for here. You have a niche here. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you'll be successful, especially with Danny to help you."
"And you know I'll be right by your side all the way, honey." Danny wrapped his arms around Clark and kissed him on the neck.
Clark took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I hope you're right."
"I know I am." Aaron reassured him, conviction and faith in Clark very strong in his tone of voice.
"Okay. We can do this. The thing is, I don't know where to start first."
"What's been done so far?" Iukekini asked.
"I've got all the paperwork filed and approved establishing the business, so all of the legal stuff is out of the way, licenses, insurances, payroll services, accounting, everything. The fire extinguishers for the studio are being delivered tomorrow, along with the computers. The IT guys will be getting them set up and running tomorrow. The security company is supposed to be coming by today to get the alarm system up and running. I have to meet with the locksmith to get keys made, and I have to go shopping for furniture for the office, studio, classroom and instructor's office. I have to get the sign hung outside and figure out how to program the inside electronic signs. God there's so much to get done. I haven't even ordered supplied and store stock. Shit! I don't even know how to use the software." Clark sat on one of the tables and ran his fingers through his hair, totally stressed out with the enormity of the task ahead.
"Hey, hey, hey. That's why you have the three of us. Don't stress yourself. Everything will work out fine and you'll be ready to open soon. Tell you what." Aaron was interrupted by his phone ringing. "Excuse me a moment. Hi Cameron. What's up?"
"I take it that you're with Clark and Danny?" Grace asked, catching onto Aaron's ruse quickly.
"Yeah, we got in okay. Sorry I forgot to call, but we were totally wiped out by the trip."
"Okay, I'll keep this short. Everything is set to be delivered around eleven tomorrow. I've set it up to that any of the four of you can accept delivery. Can you get him out of the store when the delivery comes?"
"Yeah, that won't be a problem. We'll see you when we get back home. Bye Cameron." He hung up. "Cameron and Mitch send their best wishes. Anyway, as I was saying, why don't you go meet with the locksmith and the sign company about getting the keys and the sign put up outside, and we'll hang back and wait for the alarm company. I'll have them set a temporary code and show me how to change it. That way I can show you how to change it to the code you want. Then we call it a day and go out and celebrate. Tomorrow Iukekini and I can come in in the morning and finish cleaning the place while you and Danny go furniture shopping. The IT guys know what's being installed and what goes where, right?"
"Yeah. We mapped everything out last week."
"Cool, and as far as the software goes, I know how to use all of it so I can teach you everything you need to know. There's also a training mode and training videos. It'll be fine. I promise you."
"Are you sure? I feel like I'm running out and leaving you guys holding the bag."
"We're sure; now get your asses gone. Aaron and I have work to do." Iukekini order them.
"Okay. Be back soon." Clark and Danny left, but not before giving the boys hugs of gratitude. Maybe things will work out fine, with their help. Clark thought.
As soon as they were gone, Aaron turned to Iukekini. "That wasn't Cameron on the phone. It was Grace. She called to let me know that all of the supplies and merchandise are being delivered tomorrow around eleven and that any of us can sign for it. She wants me to try and get rid of them before the stuff gets here."
"I kind of figured, since you called her last night. Good cover. So, how do you want to do this?"
"I was thinking of having you install the fire extinguishers under each of the tables and by the doors, while I put up the hooks on the pegboard. Once the stuff arrives, we'll find the stuff for the studio and have you put up that stuff while I tackle the retail store. I doubt I'll have enough time to get both the store and the stockroom set up in time, so I'm going to concentrate on the sales floor."
"It would probably be easier to have everything unloaded here, then unpack and put away as we go. There's more room in here. What's supposed to go in here?"
"Bulk wicks, some of the mold cleaner and mold release, molds, the hot plates, double boilers and thermometers. All that kind of stuff."
"Yeah, right, everything needed to make candles except the actual wax, dies, scents and stuff. Sorry."
"Why are you apologizing?"
"I know this is important to you and Grace, and yes to Clark and Danny. I don't want to screw things up and cause you guys more work because I don't know what I'm doing." Iukekini hung his head.
"Have you ever done anything like this before?" Aaron asked softly.
"No, I haven't."
"Nor have any of the rest of us. Don't worry about it." Aaron moved in and pulled Iukekini into a hug. "We'll get this done."
Just then Clark and Danny returned. "Is something wrong?" Danny asked.
"Iukekini is just feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment."
"Well then he's in good company because I think we all are, with the exception of you." Danny replied. "I don't understand how you're so calm."
"When I was in high school I had a job as a photo lab tech. The store I was working in got a remodel and I not only had to set everything back up in the photo lab and its stock room, but I also had to help with the planograms. This is nothing new to me."
"What's a planogram?" Danny asked.
"It's basically a series of diagrams showing where all the merchandise goes. Here, I'll show you." He pulled out his copy of the store planogram and explained to everyone how it all worked.
Clark whistled. "No wonder she wanted you here. Whatever she's paying you guys, it's not enough."
Danny's stomach chose that moment to complain about being empty, which cracked everybody up.
"On that note, let's lock up go get some food. Oh, by the way, here." Clark pulled out a ring of keys, took one off and handed it to Aaron. "Hang on to this while you're here. That way you can come and go as you please." On their way out, Aaron gave Clark the temporary alarm code and showed him how to reset it. Clark decided to keep it as it was. He could always change it later. Off they went to eat, go clubbing and return to their separate places to relax and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The next morning found Aaron and Iukekini up early and eating breakfast, Iukekini being a little worse for wear, having drunk a little too much last night, more than slightly hung over. "I warned you about having too many of those Hula Hurricanes. They can sneak up on you when you aren't looking and WHAM!"
"Don't remind me." Iukekini groaned; holding his head.
"Here, take these and drink the whole glass." Aaron handed him a glass of water and 2 aspirin. "If you want to stay in today, I can take care of everything. Remember, they don't have a clue that everything is coming in today, so this will actually put them ahead of schedule. If you want to take time today to rest and come in later, or take the whole day to rest, go ahead. I can handle it."
"But that's not fair to you, baby. Grace sent us here as a team to help out, not for you to do all the work while I sit around on my ass."
"Ah, but you have to remember, you are not an employee of Candle Crafts. You are here voluntarily, so it's up to you how much time you put in. She's going to compensate you with gift cards. Me, I'm on the payroll so I have to be there. Why don't you go back to bed and join us later. Call me when you get up and I'll come and get you. I' m going to find a Target and get them a vacuum cleaner for the office and store. By the time I get the floors vacuumed and the hooks up for the molds, the stock should arrive. I can take my time getting everything set up. There's no rush on anything today." Aaron tried to sooth Iukekini's distress.
"But I thought the whole idea was to surprise them with everything already set up." He protested.
"Baby, whether or not everything is set up is not the issue. They'll be surprised to see that they have any inventory and supplies at all. Remember, they have no idea that any of this stuff is coming."
"True." Iukekini agreed reluctantly.
Aaron gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead, then on the lips. "Go get some more sleep and call me when you wake up. If you want to come out to the store I'll come get you." Stealing one more kiss, Aaron headed out, humming happily to himself.
About an hour later, Clark and Danny pulled into the parking lot. "Hmm. Aaron and Iukekini are already here." Danny observed as they got out of the car and opened the door to the sound of a vacuum cleaner running. They exchanged puzzled looks as they entered. "Did you bring a vacuum cleaner?"
"No I didn't." Clark replied. Suddenly he burst out. "Sonovabitch! Ten to one Aaron or Iukekini went out and bought one."
"Would they do that?" Danny raised one eyebrow as he replied.
"I don't know about Iukekini, but Aaron definitely would."
The vacuum cleaner suddenly shut off and Aaron pushed it through the doors to the retail store. As he was putting away in the cleaning closet he turned and spotted Clark standing in the doorway of the fully-stocked and equipped closet, his mouth agape. Grinning his best shit-eating grin, Aaron called out "hey Danny, there's a huge hole in Clark's face that needs to be filled, and I think you have something that might just work."
"Yeah, what's that?" Danny yelled back.
Clark blushed a deep red. "Bitch!" He looked around in the room. "Where did all of this stuff come from?"
"Sam's Club; compliments of the Texas State Lottery. I still have a little bit of the money left over. There's an application for membership on the front counter."
"Wow. Thank you." Just then Danny called Clark to let him know that the computers just arrived. As they reached to the main lobby Clark asked about Iukekini.
"He's back at the hotel, a little bit under the weather." Aaron included air quotes around the `under the weather' part of his statement which had the three men snickering.
As Clark and Danny directed the computer techs as to what went where, Aaron heard a quiet, feminine voice he hadn't heard in a long time behind him. "Aaron is that you?" He turned around and suddenly found his arms full of Clark's sister, Susan. Her parents received a very pleasant surprise coming in the door and seeing their daughter firmly embraced in the arms of their `other son'. "Surprise" Aaron exclaimed.
"What are you doing here? God, it's been so long!" She cried.
"I'm here helping Clark and Danny get the place up and running. I work for Candle Crafts Honolulu. Hi, Mom, Pop." He exchanged hugs with Clark's parents.
"So you're behind this miracle." His mom said, wiping the tears from her eyes. "It's so wonderful to see you. We've all missed you. You're still apart from our family, you know, even if you and Clark aren't together anymore."
"All I did was introduce Clark and Danny to the lady that owns Candle Crafts Honolulu. The rest was all him."
"Why do I have the feeling that you had more to do with it than you're letting on?" Clark's Dad asked. Aaron just shrugged his shoulders.
Susan went and slapped her brother. "That's for NOT telling us that Aaron was here. We came here to take Clark and Danny furniture shopping, but now I think we need to go celebrate somewhere."
"I have a better idea. Why don't you all go do the furniture shopping like you had planned and we can go out tonight when my boyfriend is feeling better. He got into a fight last night with several Hula Hurricanes and lost." He snickered and Susan giggled.
"So you're not here alone?" Under her breath she added "Clark and Danny are okay with this?"
"It was Clark's idea. Listen, Clark and Danny don't know this but sometime around eleven they're getting a little surprise from the lady that owns the original Candle Crafts. She bought all of his start-up supplies and store inventory and want them occupied elsewhere when it arrives so I can get everything set up by the time they get back." He whispered, winking conspiratorially.
"Okay, everyone, let's go furniture shopping. Aaron has agreed to celebrate with us later when his boyfriend is feeling better. Apparently it got very drunk out last night." She giggled and herded everyone out the door.
They were gone about five minutes when Aaron heard a beeping noise outside and the sudden sound of air brakes engaging. A man walked in the door stating "I have a large delivery here for a Clark Bronson from Candle Crafts Honolulu. Are you Bronson?"
"No, I'm Aaron Suarez. I'm authorized to sign for the delivery." He took out his driver's license and showed it to the delivery driver who looked at it, then checked his paperwork, finally asking where to unload the packages, handing Aaron two copies of the invoice. Aaron's eyes popped out of their socket as he noticed the total cost, all five-digits of it. He showed them to the studio then proceeded to open boxes and checking things off the invoice as the boxes were unloaded. Satisfied that everything was all present and accounted for, he signed both copies of the invoice, tipped the delivery men and women, the proceeded to get to work stocking the store.
Four hours later, the store shelves were full and he was busy entering everything into the inventory management system on the newly-installed retail store computer when he heard Clark and Danny return. Thank God I closed the doors to the studio so they won't see the mess in there. He thought to himself as the called out letting them know he was in the retail store.
Clark walked into the retail store, stopping dead in his tracks, causing Danny to run into him from behind. "What...the..."
"Fuck?" Danny finished for him as the two looked first at Aaron who stood behind the counter with the biggest shit-eating grin anyone had ever seen, then stared at the fully-stocked retail store in complete shock.
"Compliments of Grace" He offered in explanation. Coming out from behind the counter he walked up to them and said, "When you guys are finished shitting your pants, you might want to lock the stockroom. It's full too. I'll be in the studio setting it up if you want to join me. Grace also provided everything needed to set up the studio and classroom." He left them to absorb the additional shock that little gem of information generated. A few minutes later they joined him in the studio where he was sorting and arranging the molds on the wall. Danny proceeded to gather up trash and collapse the cardboard boxes while Clark worked on setting up each of the twenty work tables.
"You realize that we'll be ready to open much sooner than I anticipated because of you, Grace and Iukekini." As there were no stools yet, he plopped down on the floor. "This is just all so much to take in. I can't believe this is happening." Clark said in a quiet voice, tears starting to flow.
Aaron caught Danny's attention and nodded his head in Clark's direction. Danny immediately went to Clark and engulfed him in his arms as Aaron decided now would be a good time to go get himself a bite to eat.
By the end of the week, all of the furniture had been delivered and set up; all of the office supplies put away and all of the employees hired. Clark called Danny, Aaron and Iukekini into the office. "We're almost ready. The only things left to do are to get the outdoor sign mounted and finish getting the employees trained. The electronic sign woman just finished helping me program all the electronic signs. It was pretty fun. I'm amazed at everything they can do. Anyway, the outdoor sign was just delivered and will be hung on Monday. It's really cool and turned out better than I had hoped. Come check it out."
They went outside to see a large sign covered in plastic leaning up against the side of the building. Everyone sucked in a deep breath as Clark uncovered it. It was stunning. The elegant, colorful sign was made up of hundreds of quarter-sized, colored metal disks suspended from closed hooks. The effect of that would be that whenever a breeze blew across the sign, the disks would move, creating an animation effect. "And the best thing about this sign" Clark began, interrupted by a series of wows and cools as a breeze blew across the sign, "is that it only cost a little over eight-hundred dollars, which includes the mounting. Who'd have thought that such a simple idea would be such an attention-getter."
"Somebody obviously did." Iukekini spoke up. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Me neither." Aaron took a picture of the sign and emailed it to Grace. She responded that she couldn't wait to see it in person. Aaron understood from that that she intended to attend the grand opening and it was also to be a surprise, which totally surprised him...not.
The following week was extremely full as first Clark, then the rest of the employees were trained on how to use the computer systems and everything else they needed. Aaron and Iukekini both insisted that everyone be trained in the use of the fire extinguishers and CPR. The American Red Cross was more than happy to provide the CPR training and while Clark was busy training the shift supervisors and retail store manager on the supervisory functions of the computer system, Aaron was busy with the instructor setting up lesson plans, Iukekini undertook the task of teaching the rest of the employees how to use the fire extinguishers. Clark did the same for his supervisors and retail store manager.
Once the CPR classes were completed, which also included how to use an automatic emergency defibrillator, the Red Cross instructor approached Clark. "This place is really an awesome idea. I've never seen anything like it. We are proud to have been a small part of getting this business off the ground. To that end, it is my pleasure, on behalf of the American Red Cross, to present you with this automatic defibrillator with the hope that it will never have to be used."
Clark thanked the woman profusely then paged everyone into the studio, including the Red Cross people. Once everyone was gathered together he called everyone's attention. "I am at a complete loss for words to express what I'm feeling right now. When I broke my back and could no longer be a Firefighter, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Firefighting WAS my life. I guess there's truth to the saying that when one door closes, another one opens. That other door is what you see around you. There are a few people I owe a huge debt of gratitude to. First, the American Red Cross for providing the CPR training and also for their generous donation of an automatic defibrillator!" He held it up as everyone cheered. He hugged the instructors.
"Next I owe a debt that I will never be able to repay to my dear friend Aaron who started to ball rolling when he introduced me to the owner of the original Candle Crafts, now called Candle Crafts Honolulu, Grace Turner, and whose untiring efforts along with his wonderful boyfriend Iukekini, got us ready to open TWO WEEKS AHEAD OF SCHEDULE!" Rivers were flowing from his eyes as cheers and applause at that statement could be heard down the block. He nearly jumped out of his skin as he was embraced from behind. He turned and looked straight into the eyes of Grace. "GRACE!" he yelled as he hugged her hard. After crying on her shoulder for a few minutes he turned back to everyone. "And this incredibly generous and wonderful lady is the reason why everything you see around you exists. I am deeply honored to introduce you to the one and only GRACE TURNER!" This time the noise could drown out San Diego International Airport. Once it died down, Clark related the story of how everything began, starting with him and Danny meeting up with Aaron and Iukekini at Nighttown Waikiki during their honeymoon.
Grace went onto explain her involvement and how it came to be. She summed it all up in one word – Aaron. She explained how much faith she had in Clark and Danny, and this was just the first of many Candle Craft franchises she hoped to see open.
After Grace spoke, everyone was released and told to be back for practice on the computers. A schedule was already posted in the break room. The grand opening was set for the following Friday at noon. Grace was invited to join Clark, his family, Danny, Aaron, Iukekini and Crystal, the instructor, to the celebratory dinner, which, not surprisingly, Grace paid for. As a reward for getting everything accomplished ahead of schedule, Grace took full page color ads out in each of the local newspapers about the grand opening.
Friday finally came and the fearsome foursome, as Grace came to call the four men, stood nervously by the side of the main entrance looking out over the throng of people as the Mayor of San Diego and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce made short but heartfelt speeches about how unique the place was and how they wished nothing but success for the fledgling business. After the speeches it was time to cut the ribbon. Clark and Danny both looked to Aaron and Grace to join them. Grace shook her head. Aaron responded with "no, this is your day. You deserve this, so go cut the damned ribbon and start making money." With that, Clark and Danny stepped up and, after a short speech from Clark thanking everyone involved, cut the ribbon. Candle Crafts San Diego, which was destined to be a huge success, was officially open for business.
A few days later Aaron and Iukekini were headed back home, exhausted and very happy for their friends. Even better news was that Iukekini was being called back to work. Since Aaron was still laid off, he decided to spend some time making candles for some local fundraisers. Quite a few customers complimented him on his candles. He happily answered questions on how he created a specific color or what technique he used to get a specific effect. Little did he know that his happiness would be short-lived as life was about to throw him yet another curve.