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The Conquered - Chapter 25: Journeys (part 2)
***** Andrew *****
As Sean and I walked around on our tour of Elvis Presley's home, I came to one conclusion. This was what happened when someone had too much money and no control over any other thing in his life. Garish and gaudy; it was hard to look at. Then again, it was decorated in the height of the 1970s. But still... it was pretty outlandish.
We got up early after our whirlwind drive across Okalahoma and Arkansas and made it to Memphis the night before. Once done with the tour, we stopped and ate after leaving Graceland. The very blousy, very brassy waitress talked us into trying Elvis's favorite peanut butter and banana fried sandwiches. I glanced at Sean and his shrug let me know that "when in Memphis..."
I watched Sean as he stared around the little diner. His eyes were wide, as if he couldn't wait to take in everything at once. I grinned as I sipped my coffee. I was going to miss him more than anything. My sad thoughts were interrupted as three plates were plunked down on our table.
"Here y'all go, shugah." It was a stereotype from hell, but she fit my mental image of a diner waitress to a T.
Her smile lit up her face and she patted my shoulder before she walked off. I groaned at the pile of food surrounding us. Damn. When would I ever learn that on the road, the portions were more than I was used to? I looked up from my biscuits and gravy with a side of cheese grits and looked at Sean. "Dig in, Kiddo."
Sean chuckled and rolled his eyes. "Andrew... I'm never going to be able to eat all this."
I looked at the third plate, which held the innocuous sandwich. I nodded towards it. "Who first?"
Sean grinned and took his half and bit into it. He didn't retch or spit it out. I grabbed mine and bit into it. Hot, buttery bread gave way to slightly melted and gooey peanut butter. As I continued to chew, the ripe, sweet banana took hold in my mouth. I shook my head and started to laugh. "I have a new cheat."
Sean started to laugh. "Better than Ben & Jerry's with a Chips Ahoy spoon?"
After I swallowed my latest bite I grinned. "If Ben & Jerry's had this flavor, I'd be a blimp."
"In that case," he said sliding the rest of his sandwich onto the plate, "you can have mine."
Monica, our waitress came back to our table. "So what do you boys think?"
Sean grinned but said nothing.
I shrugged my shoulders and took his partially eaten half. "How about another?"
Monica tossed her head back and chuckled. "I kinda figured. It'll be up in a few."
Sean shook his head and returned to his more traditional late breakfast.
"You don't like it?" I couldn't believe anyone could resist this creation. It was no wonder Elvis loved it.
Sean shrugged. "Isn't bad, but I'm just not a peanuts and bananas guy."
His loss. I enjoyed both sandwiches. I would definitely need a forklift to get in the truck.
Sean and I ate as much as we could and left a huge tip. We needed to leave Memphis by three if we wanted to get to Atlanta at a decent hour. We walked along the streets of the town which had given birth to so much music. After a couple of hours of window shopping, we got in the truck and continued our trek east.
Our route took us to Chattanooga before we headed south into Georgia. If we'd had one more day, I'd have taken us to the Smokey Mountains. Perhaps next time. We listened to some CDs we'd purchased in Memphis and chatted a little about what we saw and a lot of nothing, but we avoided the topic of it being our last night on the road.
Thankfully it was dark when we left Chattanooga and started through the mountains. I didn't want Sean to white knuckle the last few hours to Atlanta. "What should we do in Atlanta tomorrow?"
Sean turned from the window and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not sure. How much time do we have?"
"Not a whole lot."
Sean contemplated the dash clock for a couple of minutes. "Why don't we just head out for Orlando first thing?"
He went quiet and I glanced at him. His form was mostly shadow in the dark. "We can. Any particular reason?"
His voice was scratchy even though he straightened in his seat. "I'm sure you're getting tired of me."
I looked back to the road and drummed my thumbs on the steering wheel. Was the kid intentionally trying to piss me off? I counted to fifty before I trusted myself to speak. "Why would you think that?"
I saw out of my peripheral vision that Sean lifted one shoulder, as if it didn't matter. "You miss Taylor. The sooner you get rid of me, the sooner you can get home to him."
For a split second, I almost swerved over to the side of the freeway, just so I could shake some sense into Sean. When I didn't respond, Sean curled on his side against the door. "Wake me when we get to Atlanta, okay?" His voice sounded so much like a little boy's when he turned a statement into a question with that one word. His `okay' sounded lost.
I strummed my hands against the steering wheel angrier than I had been in a long, long time. I was just about to say something when I heard the sniff. I calmed down, realizing that the sniff wasn't the only sound. In the passing light of an oncoming truck, I saw Sean's shoulders shaking. My heart just about broke into pieces hearing Sean sob and fight it so I wouldn't hear.
I wasn't sure what to do. Thankfully, with all my introspection the drive to Atlanta few by. About a half hour out, Sean finally fell asleep. I parked and went to sign in while he slept. As I signed in for a room, I made a last minute decision that I hoped would fix the situation.
Before going back out to the truck, I gave Taylor a call. I needed to hear his voice, and I wasn't sure what I was going to be dealing with when I woke Sean.
"Hello, Jackson residence."
I sighed. Taylor had been in the house for half a year. I wished he realized it was his home too. "Damn, and I was calling for the Madison residence."
I could feel Taylor's smile over the phone.
"You're already in Atlanta?" He paused. "It's only seven-thirty."
I leaned against the wall near the front desk. "On the west coast, babe. It's ten-thirty here. Yeah, we got here safe, as promised."
"How was Graceland?"
"Gaudy, garish, overblown. Sort of like Elvis."
Taylor laughed. "Was there anything that redeemed the place?"
I smiled. "Fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches."
"Ewwww." I could imagine Taylor's face when he made that sound. He was so cute.
"Ben and Jerry's needs to come out with this flavor."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. I think I have a new addiction for cheat days."
Taylor cooed into the phone. "Sounds like I'll finally have a little soft padding to snuggle against when you get home."
He didn't have to remind me that my jeans were feeling snug for the first time in years. "Not for long. I'm going to make up for a week sitting on my ass."
"But I like your big ass."
"You just wait 'til I get home, Bacon. I can think of a few ways to burn off fat."
There was a pause, and I wondered if I lost the connection before Taylor came back on.
"You'll be home Sunday, right?"
Oh Jesus. I'd been so caught up with Sean and the dread of saying goodbye, I'd missed the fucking obvious. Taylor was alone, missing me, and missing Sean too.
"I promise. I have a week's worth of missed cuddling to make up for."
Another pause and Taylor sighed. "Becca and Larry just got here. I'd better let you go."
"Say hi for me."
"I will. I love you."
"I love you, too."
I hung up, made sure I had our room keycards, and made my way back to the truck. I lifted our bags from the back before I opened Sean's door and gently shook him awake. The tear tracks along his cheek nearly tore my heart out. "Come on, kiddo. Let's get some shut eye."
Sean trudged slowly up the stairs, not really awake. I handed him the keycard when we got to our room and I watched as Sean fumbled with it. Once he opened the door, he walked in and stopped dead in his tracks. I looked over his shoulder and saw the king sized bed. Perfect.
I nudged Sean into the room before I set down my bags. "Come on kiddo, let's get some sleep."
Sean stood dumbfounded as I toed off my shoes and pulled my shirt over my head. "Andrew? There's only one bed."
I looked around the room, and then peeked in the bathroom and closet. "You're right."
Sean looked totally flustered. "But... There's only one bed."
I dropped my jeans and sat on the bed to pull off my socks. I decided to let Sean have some pride. "I only got us one bed." I looked straight in his eyes. "I'm going to miss my baby brother. And I could really use a cuddle."
Sean looked at me for a couple of moments before he looked away and his shoulders slump. I stood and walked to him. It had worked once before, so I figured it would again. I started peeling Sean's clothes off him. Once down to his socks and underwear, I pulled him with me to the bed. I lifted the covers and pushed him down. I crawled in after him and flipped off the light. I pulled Sean to me. "Come here, baby bro."
He resisted snuggling in for a few moments, but then his arms came around me and his nose burrowed into my chest. I felt his first sob. I stroked his back and kissed his forehead. In the truck, he'd tried to push me away, so it wouldn't hurt so badly once we did have to part. I felt my own tears against my cheek. "It's okay Sean. I understand."
He shook his head against my chest. "I'm sorry, Andrew. I'm sorry."
I kissed his forehead and rocked him. "Don't." I pulled his face back so I could see him a bit in the shadows. "You pissed me off pushing me away, Sean. Believe it or not, I understand why you did it."
Sean sniffed. "Sunday is going to hurt so bad."
I pulled him back against my shoulder as I rolled onto my back. "Yeah, it will. We're still brothers. We can talk on the phone, email, and even visit from time to time." I squeezed his shoulder. "You're not alone anymore, Sean."
Sean's arms tightened around me. "I love you, Andrew."
"I love you too."
After a few minutes Sean stopped crying, and I stifled a yawn. I was wiped out. Before I knew it, I fell asleep with Sean's weight pressed against my side.
***** Taylor *****
Fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches? I couldn't get my mind around the concept. I knew that they fried everything in the South, but that was just too weird.
"Knock, knock," Becca called as they pushed open the mudroom door and two little beasts came charging in.
"Woah!" I grabbed up James as he tried to run through the kitchen. "Where's the fire?"
"Hi Uncah Taylor!" James gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek before he squirmed his way back to the floor to continue after his older brother.
"Bradley, no running in the house," Becca called, shaking her head in disgust. "They run everywhere."
I laughed. "They take after their mom."
"Love you too, sweet heart," Becca chided as she kissed my cheek. "How you doing?"
"Pretty good," I lied. "Just got off the phone with Andrew. They made it to Atlanta."
"They're taking their own sweet time getting down there." Larry set down the box of carry out Chinese. "They could have gotten to Orlando by Wednesday night."
"Says Mr. Leadfoot," Becca laughed, and kissed Larry's cheek too. She cringed as she heard a squeal from the living room. "I'd better find out what they just got into." Following after her two hellions, Becca called out, "Okay you two calm down!"
Larry chuckled. "The dynamic duo is at it again."
"I'm glad they are 'duofied.' James had us all worried."
Larry nodded. "Yeah. I thought his fever would never break. It's no fun spending Christmas in the ER."
I sighed, feeling more than a little guilty. "Sorry we weren't here, Larry."
"Hey, you've got family too." He draped his arm over my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. "You had your own shit to deal with last week."
"I still should have been there for you guys."
Larry laughed. "You're not Superman, Taylor. We didn't call for help." He looked at the boarded up window. "For that matter, neither did you."
I shrugged. "Nothing you could have done. Between Andrew's folks and the guys, we were patched up in no time."
"Same here, so we're even. Miranda was here for the holiday, so we had grandmother help for the little crisis."
I started helping Larry open all the containers. "You guys didn't need to come over."
"Oh shut up, Taylor." Larry snorted at me. "When Becca was gone for a week with the kids after James' birth, who came over three times with junk food and action flicks?"
"You were moping about pretty bad, Larry."
"And you aren't?"
"I am not moping around!" I pulled down the paper plates. There was no reason to endanger the stoneware when disposable would do.
Larry just looked at me, completely unconvinced, and waited me out.
Finally, I shrugged. "Okay, I miss my husband. I miss Sean too."
"This is your first time apart, Taylor. You think your friends don't know how you're feeling?"
"I just feel stupid, okay? We haven't even been together a year. If you'd told me this time last year that I'd be pining for some big, macho, muscle pumped, egomaniac, I'd have told you to fuck off."
"You really love the big ape don't you?"
I smiled. "Yeah. I honestly can't imagine life without him." I sighed. "If I'm this bad after less than a year, what am I going to be like after our anniversary, or a few years from now?"
Becca grinned as she came back in. "You'll either be more desperately in love, or you'll want to kill him, or both." She smiled at Larry, "Probably both."
He blew her a kiss. "How are the kids?"
"Fine. I used the ultimate tool for controlling the male mind." She grinned at my raised eyebrow. "They're watching videos."
I snorted. "I swear that the TV was some woman scientist's desperate scheme to keep her husband at home at nights. Like all social animals, she had to make it something all men did, or her husband wouldn't have fallen for the trap."
Becca grinned. "We do rule the world."
Larry rolled his eyes. "If women rule the world, how is it guys like Taylor and Andrew prefer men?"
"Rebels. Every ruling body has to deal with the few, rebellious, dissatisfied members of the populace who can't accept the truth."
I shrugged, spooning some Egg Foo Yung onto my plate. "I have no problem with the matriarchy. No woman was willing to keep me. They wanted a pet, not a husband."
Becca shook her head, taking up a couple plates and spooning fried rice and some vegetables on for the kids. "Stupid women. They let your genetic contribution slip out of our grasp." She looked up. "Oh! I forgot. Guess who I bumped into this week?"
Larry and I both shrugged.
I blinked. "You're kidding. When did she move back?"
"October. She said she tried to call you, but your phone had been disconnected."
"I guess she only had the number for the condo." I picked up my plate, walked over to the counter, and leaned against it while I ate. "I wonder why she was calling?"
Larry snorted. "Oh please. She probably wanted to know if the Madison Amusement Park was open for business."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, right."
Becca shrugged, finishing her allotment of food for the boys. "Actually, she asked me how you were doing. I told her you were blissfully settled. I don't think that made her very happy."
"If she'd wanted more, she should have indicated it before taking that job out east and going: thanks, it was fun." I wasn't bitter. I was over it.
Becca rubbed her thumb under my lower lip before picking up her plates.
"What was that for?"
She eyed me. "Just wiping off a little of that venom, Taylor."
I scowled as she walked out of the room to feed the boys. I looked over at Larry. "I wasn't spitting venom."
Larry shrugged, taking a bite of his Mongolian beef. "Maybe not, but the fangs were showing."
Okay, so she'd thrown me for a loop. I could admit it. I was ready to push for more and she just up and left without even giving me a chance to change her mind. At least we hadn't been living together. That'd have hurt worse.
"Well, that's ancient history. I'm happy. I have a home, a family, and someone who loves me. That's more than she ever offered."
Larry just looked at me with his "you're so full of shit" expression.
"What?" I really didn't like the thoughts and feelings that had crept in out of nowhere. "Am I supposed to regret that I didn't wait? I don't regret my choices, Larry. Andrew is a lot better for me than Trish would have been."
Larry stabbed some more meat. "I didn't say that or think that. You're the one acting like you just got a hot poker up your butt."
I took a deep breath and let it out. "Sorry."
Larry shrugged. "Not a problem. Trish dicked you over in my book, so I don't have a problem with your decision to move on. I just never expected you to move on to a guy." After a moment, Larry chuckled as he chewed his dinner. "I'd love to see her face when she finds out that you have a husband."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't care what her reaction would be. She had her chance. She decided we weren't worth the effort. If it hurts her self image that my partner is a man, too-damn-bad. It wasn't like I dumped her for Andrew. She'd been gone over a year before I met him."
"Who are you trying to convince, bud?"
Damn it. Why did the bitch have to come back? I shoveled in another fork full of egg. "No one."
Larry wasn't convinced. Frankly, neither was I.
***** Sean *****
Kingswood looked only vaguely familiar as Andrew turned off of Lee Road into the development. It was familiar enough to make me nervous. I hadn't seen my grandmother since I was eleven. I got to spend part of the summer with her and Great Aunt Theresa. They never took me to Disney World. We spent the summer hitting the beaches, riding tubes down the springs, and seeing the "real Florida attractions" like Wiki Watchi, Cypress Gardens, and Gator Land. It'd been fun, but I still wanted to go to Disney World. Grandma had promised we'd go next time. Next time never came.
"This it," Andrew asked as he turned the corner and slowed down in front of a small, flat roofed house that had been built in the early sixties.
I looked at the mail box. "Thirteen-ninety Kingsway." I checked my mapquest printout. "That's it."
"Not bad," Andrew commented as he looked at his watch. "Seven hours."
I shrugged. "Should we call?"
Andrew laughed. "We're on the street out front, Sean. Let's just go knock."
I looked across the sidewalk and up the yard at the little green door. It looked so far away. "What if she's like Dad? What if she hates gay people?"
Andrew reached over and squeezed my shoulder. "Better to find out before I head back. I'm sure she isn't, Sean. She's your mom's mom, right?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I haven't seen her since the funeral."
Andrew opened the door. "Come on, Sean. Waiting won't make it any easier."
I knew that, but that didn't make me move any faster. I unbuckled the seatbelt, pushed open the door, and took a deep breath after I got out. It'd be okay. It had to be okay. Andrew sat back against the truck as I started up the drive.
"You aren't coming?"
Andrew shook his head. "I'll be right here, Sean. Once you two have said hello, you can introduce me."
I swallowed and walked the rest of the way up the drive, around the walk, and up onto the little porch. I rang the bell.
"Just a minute," came from somewhere beyond the door.
I waited, tapping my fingers on my thighs to have something to do. I'd just started counting the boards in the ceiling of the porch when the door opened. The woman looking up at me from the screen wasn't the vibrant, larger than life one I remembered. She wasn't more than five foot five, thin, wrinkled, but her eyes lit up when she saw me. Her eyes looked just like Mom's.
She pushed open the screen door as I stepped back.
I didn't get to say anything else. She just reached up and pulled me down so she could hug me. When she let me go, she had tears in her eyes.
"You've grown so much." She kept tracing my cheek with her fingers as she looked at me. "You look so much like Janice."
We just stared at each other, not knowing what to say. Finally, she broke out of the trance and looked passed me at Andrew.
"Ask your friend to come in, Sean. I have cookies baking."
She left the front door open, and I went back over to the truck.
"That looks like it went well," Andrew said with a smile.
I shrugged. "I haven't dropped the bomb yet. Grandma wants you to come in. She has cookies baking."
Andrew draped his arm over my shoulders and guided me back to the house. "Come on kiddo. Let's wow her and get it over with."
Grandma was turning off the oven timer as we came in. She pulled out the cookie sheets and the aroma of cinnamon and ginger washed over me. She pulled off her oven mitts, turned around, and extended her hand with a smile.
"Hello, I'm Jennifer Bowen, Sean's grandmother."
Andrew took her hand. "Andrew Jackson."
Grandma smirked before releasing Andrew's hand.
He grinned. "Yes, my parents were sadistic patriots. My father was sadistic, and my mother's patriotic."
Grandma smiled. "Do you like ginger snaps?"
"I'm an Oreo guy myself," Andrew laughed.
Grandma looked at me. "Well, I know you loved Theresa's ginger snaps when you were a kid."
"I still love ginger snaps." I looked around. "We're Aunt Theresa?"
Grandma's smile faltered. "Your father never told you?"
I shook my head.
Grandma sighed, "Hateful man." She took a breath and managed a small smile. "Theresa died two years ago."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say. I had no idea why Dad wouldn't tell me my great aunt had died. It didn't make any sense.
"You two sit down at the table. I'll pour us some milk and the cookies will be cool enough to eat." She smiled at Andrew. "I don't have any Oreos. Do you like oatmeal raisin?"
"Yes, I love them."
"Good." She pulled down a few glasses and poured us some one percent milk.
I looked at Andrew. We always had skim at the house. Andrew just shrugged and smiled. Grandma set a plate half full of ginger snaps and half full of oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven on the table. After handing us our glasses, she took a seat.
"How was your drive?"
I shrugged, taking a ginger snap, biting in and nearly melted as it did. "It was okay."
Andrew smiled. "We stopped off at the Grand Canyon, and Santa Fe, and Memphis."
Grandma nodded, dunking her ginger snap in her milk. "Theresa and I took Janice out West when she was a girl." She smiled at the memory. "Janice was terrified when we rode down into the canyon on donkeys. She was afraid of heights."
Andrew smiled at me, and I grinned. I blushed too.
"So am I."
Grandma smiled at me. "You are so much like your mother, Sean. The way you move, how you duck your head when you're embarrassed, and your smile." She ate her cookie and continued. "Did you know your mother could have been in professional ballet?"
I shook my head. "No."
"But she wanted to be a nurse. I suppose in a way it didn't matter if she brought joy through dance or through caring." Grandma smiled at me. "Now you're going to go into Oriental Medicine?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I like the idea that you treat a whole person, not just an illness or injury."
Grandma nodded, and looked at Andrew. "And what do you do?"
"I'm a personal trainer. My business partner and I own a training studio."
"And how did you meet Sean?"
Andrew looked at me briefly, and then looked at Grandma. "Well, my partner was Sean's guidance counselor in school. We're also friends with a couple of guys from the martial arts school Sean went to."
"Your business partner is also a counselor at school?"
Andrew shook his head. "No, no. Lee is a personal trainer like I am. Taylor is my partner-partner." He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open to the picture of the two of them from August. I had a bigger copy of that picture for my room. "This is Taylor."
Grandma looked at the picture, blinked for a few moments, and then smiled. "You're a very lucky man. He has caring eyes."
Andrew smiled. "I think so."
I bit the bullet. "Grandma? You didn't tell Dad I was coming did you?"
Grandma shook her head after handing Andrew back his wallet. "No. You said you'd moved out and that you didn't want him to know." She folded her hands on the table as she looked at me. "You promised to tell me why once you got here."
She blinked, and cocked her head. "And?"
A non-reaction had not been what I'd expected. I looked at Andrew, but all he did was grin. "Uhm." I looked back at her. "Dad wasn't too happy about that. He wanted to take me to a church that 'cured' homosexuality."
"Oh for heaven's sake. As if something like that could be cured." Grandma reached over the table and squeezed my hand. "If you're gay, Sean; you're gay. I assume you're sure? Not just worried about it?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure." If I'd had any doubt, I wouldn't have run away from the idea of being cured.
"Well thank goodness for that. There is nothing worse than watching someone suffer with doubt about who he is." She squeezed my hand again. "If it is any comfort, Sean. Your Great-Aunt Theresa wasn't my sister. She was my partner, like Taylor is for Andrew."
I blinked. "She was?"
Grandma nodded. "I come from a different generation. We couldn't be as open about it as people can these days." She smiled. "I loved your grandfather, Sean. Paul was a loving, wonderful man. If he hadn't died so young, I am sure we'd have had a long happy life together."
"Mom said he died in a boating accident?"
Grandma nodded. "Your mother wasn't even a year old. He'd taken Steven, your uncle, sail boating. A thunderstorm blew in before they could get back to shore." She pulled her hand back and sighed. "The sheriff told me that it appeared the boat had been struck by lightning before it capsized in the storm. Both Paul and Steven drowned."
"Wow." There wasn't much to say to that.
"Theresa moved in to help me make ends meet and raise Janice." Grandma shrugged. "I had no idea, in the early sixties, what a lesbian was. Even in the years of flower children and free love, we didn't feel safe being open about our relationship. No one questioned two sisters, one a widow, living together."
I tried to do the math. "You two were together forty years?"
"Theresa died just short of our forty-first anniversary."
Andrew smiled. "I hope Taylor and I live to see forty years."
Grandma nodded. "Though I know your mother always referred to Theresa as her aunt, I think your father knew differently. He was never comfortable when we talked or visited." She took a sip of her milk. "He probably worried that my 'bad blood' would some how come down to you. Obviously it did." She grinned. "Not that I see it as bad blood. More like a family tendency. Like our eyes."
"I love you, Grandma."
She smiled, her chin wrinkling a little as her eyes watered. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, Sean. If I'd known, I'd have come out and gotten you myself."
I smiled, trying not to tear up myself. I looked at Andrew. "It's okay. I had plenty of help when I needed it."
Andrew smiled, reached over and mussed my hair. "Mushy talk later. Let's get your stuff in kiddo, once your grandmother tells us which room is yours."
Grandma smiled and stood up. "I'll show you the room, and then stay out of your way." She tilted her head, kind of the way I did, and looked at Andrew. "I hope you like steak. I thought after you two moved Sean's stuff in, you might need some red meat."
Andrew laughed. "I love steak."
Grandma showed us the room and then, as promised, got out of the way. I didn't have a ton of stuff to move in, but it was cool to know Grandma wasn't the mother-hen type.
***** Andrew *****
It didn't take much to move Sean in. A few boxes, a few suitcases, and some personal mementos and he were in his new room. It had a nice view of the backyard and I knew he'd get morning sun, which was great. It would help wake the zombie in the mornings. I sensed that Sean was a trifle uncomfortable, so I let him be. When I left his room, I walked down the little hall and found Jennifer in the kitchen, tossing a salad.
"You don't have to go to all this trouble."
She jumped and I felt bad for startling her. But she recovered quickly and turned around with a smile. "Are you kidding? It's been ages since I had two growing boys over for dinner."
I chuckled and rolled my eyes. "Sean may still be growing. But..." I rubbed my belly and then remembered how snug my jeans felt. "Okay, so I'm still growing around."
She laughed and patted my arm. "I'd hardly think of you as fat."
I shrugged and ducked my head. "Food on the road, plus many hours behind the wheel makes me feel like a blimp."
Her smile was warm, as she looked me over. "Hardly. But if you'd like, it'll be an hour or so before dinner." She pointed to the backyard. "Teresa liked to walk on the treadmill and I never got rid of it."
I looked out the sliding glass door and saw an old, dusty treadmill. Not really good enough for what I needed. "I think I'll go for a jog. Any parks around?"
Jennifer smiled. "There's one about three blocks down the road. But if you want, anywhere in this development is safe to jog." She laughed as she set the salad in the refrigerator. "Enough of the younger people who live here run." She looked at me as she took the butter out and started prepping some corn on the cob and potatoes. "Traffic isn't really a problem."
"Thanks. I'll take advantage of it then."
I left her alone as I took my bag to the den where I would sleep on the pull out sofa. I took my shorts out and stepped into the bathroom. I stripped down and pulled on my shorts and debated over the need for a shirt or not. It was warmer in central Florida than I'd expected. Not wanting to be immodest, I put the shirt on, figuring I could take it off later.
I headed out and set a pace I could keep with very little mental effort. After I'd passed the second block, I let my mind blank. I'd set my watch to beep after forty minutes. Before I knew it, the forty minutes were up. I headed back the way I'd gone and slowed my pace. When I was within a few blocks of Sean's grandmother's house, I slowed ever further to a walk. I stopped at the truck and grabbed my cell phone out of the glove compartment before I headed back inside.
I found Sean and Jennifer talking at the kitchen table. My shirt was drenched as I came in. Jennifer looked up and grinned. "Water or shower?"
I chuckled. "Water. Please." I looked around but didn't find what I was looking for. "Glasses?"
Jennifer made to get up but I stopped her. "Just tell me where."
"Third cabinet on the left of the stove."
I drank three full glasses before I felt hydrated. I turned back and saw Sean looking at me. I winked at him as I nodded my head at Jennifer. "Thanks. Do I have time to shower before dinner?"
"Heavens yes. Towels are under the sink."
As I left them alone in the kitchen, I got the distinct impression that Sean was feeling uncomfortable again. Like last night on the road to Atlanta, he was trying to push me away before he got hurt. Tonight I really didn't think we could snuggle. As the cool water poured over me, I realized it was probably for the best. I couldn't be there for him for everything, no matter how much I wanted to be.
I braced my hands against the tile and let the cool water pound at my shoulders and tried to forget how much it would hurt once I left. The chuckle that escaped my lips was more annoyed than amused. A year before, I wouldn't have given two shits about Sean or his problems. Deep down, I might have registered pity, but I certainly wouldn't have asked him into my home, cuddled with him at night without fucking him, or driven across the whole nation to see him safely to college.
I put on my clothes, choosing shorts instead of jeans, and then ran a comb through my hair. When I got out of the bathroom, I found Sean outside at the grill with Jennifer coming in to grab some things out of the refrigerator. The platter she held almost slipped out of her arms before I caught it. "Let me help."
She chuckled. "Come on outside. The coals are ready."
We sat down about an hour later to a great dinner. Jennifer and I talked about little things, but as the meal progressed, I could feel Sean pulling further and further away. I understood that feeling. I'd lived it for fifteen years. This time, I let him go. I wouldn't be there on Monday to keep him out of it. Once dinner was done, Sean stood and grabbed our plates. "I'm pretty tired, Grandma. I'm going to head to bed."
She stood and wrapped her arms around him. "Okay, sweetheart. Sleep well."
Sean nodded at me before he left. After a couple of moments, Jennifer turned to me. "Are you still on West Coast time?"
I leaned back in my chair. "Not really. I've always been a night owl."
She smiled. "How about a cup of coffee?"
"That would be great."
As she made it, I cleared off the rest of the dishes. She handed me a mug and went to a cabinet near the stove. "Care for a shot of brandy?"
"I don't drink." She raised her eyebrows at me. "I don't mind if you have some though."
"Good." She poured a dollop into her coffee then joined me at the table. "Because I think we need to talk a bit."
I wrapped my hand around my mug and sat forward with my elbows on the table. "Okay. What about?"
She mirrored my stance. "He's going to miss you terribly."
I sighed and let the pain out with it. "I'm going to miss him too." I took a gulp of coffee. "Very much."
"He told me about Taylor." When I looked at her, she smiled gently at me. "I needed to know if you were more than friends."
I smiled at her. "No. Just a couple of guys who took Sean in when his world fell apart."
Her grimace almost made me shudder. "I had no clue his father could be that cruel." Then she sipped her coffee. "Actually, it was always there, but..."
I set my cup down. "You didn't want to see it, because your daughter loved him."
She nodded. "Exactly." She turned her eyes at me, eyes so much like Sean's. "I should have checked on Sean more often. But every time I called and didn't get Sean on the phone, the boy was never home."
I smiled in understanding. "I know. You never can tell, can you?"
"No. I guess not." She patted my hand gently. "But at least he had you."
"He had all of us." At her raised eyebrows I shrugged. "Taylor was his counselor at school. Don, Sebastian, and Jackson were his teachers for martial arts. I just ended up being the older brother he never had."
"Not many people would drop everything and drive across country, especially when they have to drive home right after they get there."
I grinned. "I'm not driving home. If you two wouldn't mind... I could use a ride to the airport Sunday morning."
She cocked her head to the side, just like Sean did. "What are you talking about?"
I grinned at her furrowed eyebrows. "Taylor and I discussed it. Sean felt bad about taking your car from you." I shrugged my shoulders. "I brought the title with me. If you could help him on Monday, he can have it transferred into his name."
She sat back, her eyes round. "Why would you do this?"
I got up and refilled my coffee cup. "It's in good working order. It looks beat up a bit, but it'll run for years." I sat back down and grinned at Jennifer. "It was time I got something else anyway. This way, Sean'll have something to drive around in and I know he'll be safe in it."
Jennifer sat back and shook her head, a small smile played across her features. "That's incredibly generous."
"We'd have done more if we could."
Her smile was wide as she cupped my cheek. "I'm glad he found people who could love him as he is, rather than what he was wanted to be."
I didn't feel uncomfortable with her affection, just unaccustomed to it. "He's a great kid. We all love him like brothers."
Her smile faded as she sat up. "He has to have proof of insurance before he can get the title transferred."
I sat back and frowned. "How difficult will it be for him to get insurance?"
She rocked her head as if she were calculating. "It'll be at least three hundred dollars to get him started." She frowned as she took another sip from her cup. "I can help him with the initial payment, and I may be able to get him a reduced rate if my insurance company will let me put him on my insurance, but I can't afford too much more than that."
I sat forward and put my hand on her arm. "Is his being here more than you can handle?"
She immediately shook her head. "No. No it isn't." She shrugged. "An extra mouth to feed isn't a hardship. It gives me an excuse to shop at Costco; I couldn't justify buying the bulk, no matter the savings, for one person. His living here shouldn't dramatically increase the power or water bills." She shrugged. "The only reason I can afford to live here at all is because of Theresa. She was a vanguard woman for the time. I married right after high school, to my high school sweetheart. Theresa went to college. After Paul's death, she stepped in and put all her independent, college educated skills into supporting Janice and me."
"She sound's like my mom." I grinned. "Or like Taylor's Aunt Cee, depending on how you look at it."
"She was an accountant for Martin Marietta, and when they opened their plant down here in the early sixties, she transferred down and we moved. Her investments provide me enough to live on without being hand-to-mouth, but when she died her pension and social security went with her."
That made me wonder about Taylor and me. What would happen if one of us died? "What about insurance or wills?"
Jennifer nodded, sipping her coffee. "We had both. As I said, she provided for me while she was alive and made sure I'd be alright, financially, after she was gone. No one can prevent the loneliness or emptiness." She smiled. "But I'm not alone. I have a grandson to see into adulthood."
I grinned. "He's well on his way, I think."
"I think so too."
Money concerns wouldn't leave me alone. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"
She smiled at me, but I could tell she was bothered by it. "If he didn't have his financial aid and work study, it would be tough, but we'll manage. Things aren't tight, but insurance for a teenaged boy is expensive."
I sat back and contemplated for a few moments. "We can help there."
She raised her eyebrows and set her mug down. "Andrew. You'd done so much."
I shook my head. "No. Not really. Sean worked for me for nearly four months and wouldn't take any money for it." I shrugged. "He's very prideful about it. We took the money we would have paid to him and put it in an account. Sean doesn't know about it." I stood and paced. "We figured it wouldn't be much, but it would be there if he needed it. We put in what we'd have paid him, as did Jackson. Sean was the school's kid's karate instructor, but wouldn't take money from Jackson either. The savings account book and register are with the truck title." I turned back to her. "Knowing Sean, he'll get a job right away and refuse to touch the money."
"He must get that from his father. The man was as stubborn as a goat and just as ill tempered in my book." She looked back at me; her eyes wet with unshed tears. "I don't know how to thank you for your generosity to my grandson."
"It was our pleasure."
After a few more minutes of silent contemplation, Jennifer stood and kissed my cheek. "Good night, Andrew."
"Good night, Jennifer."
As she left, I grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket and slipped outside. I dialed home and waited the three rings before Taylor picked up. "Hello?"
"Andrew." The warm way he said my name made the fine hairs on my body stand at attention. "I take it you made it safe?"
I had to swallow down the lump in my throat. How his concern could knock me for a loop still amazed me at times. "Yeah. We got here safe and sound."
"How'd Grandma take it?"
I chuckled. "Turns out Grandma and Aunt Teresa weren't related. They were a couple until she died a couple of years ago."
"Well at least he didn't get shipped off to the nearest church."
"No. Never that."
Taylor's voice came through the phone and soothed my raw nerves. "How are you holding up?"
I sighed, and stepped into the sun room and leaned against one of the supports. "I'm going to be a mess Sunday."
Taylor's chuckle made other parts of me stand at attention. "I'll put you back together."
"You always do." I sighed again as I wished the pole I leaned against and absently stroked with my finger was Taylor's cheek. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me."
Taylor was silent for a few moments. I heard him swallow, and when he spoke again, his voice was husky and slightly tense. "I could say the same about you."
I smiled, looking out the jalousie windows into the night. "I need you to do me a favor."
"Can you check with the guys and see if we can put a little more into Sean's account?" I walked out onto the patio and ran my fingers through the grass. "We forgot about insurance for Sean."
Taylor cursed into the phone. "I can't believe we forgot about that."
I sighed again. "How much is in the account?"
I could see Taylor shrug. "I haven't gotten the last statement, but about twenty-four hundred."
I shook my head. If Sean was lucky, that'd cover a year of insurance. "Shit. I'd hoped that money would see him through a couple years of college, so he wouldn't have to work." I sat back and thought about it for a few moments. "Why don't we do six hundred? It'll hopefully give him at least three months. If they shop around, maybe six."
"Sean's a great, conscientious driver. But he's so young..."
I nodded. "I know. He shouldn't be penalized because on average, nineteen year olds are morons behind the wheel."
"I'll make sure it gets done."
I sniffed. God, I missed Taylor. "Thanks." I paused, but had to ask. "Can we afford it?"
Taylor chuckled. "You big softie. Of course. I'll discuss it with Don, Sebastian and Jackson. We'll see what we can come up with." He laughed. "And don't worry, I'll make sure it's covered."
"Thanks." I wanted to discuss anything else but how I would leave Sean alone on Sunday. With a grin, I turned the tables on Taylor. "So. What are you wearing?"
Taylor chuckled. "I crawled into bed to read." He clicked on his tongue. "Hmmm. Let me check under the covers. Yep. Nothing at all."
I groaned into the phone. It was only seven o'clock back home. It was early for Taylor to be in bed. "You wouldn't be fibbing would you?"
"Would I do that?"
He chuckled. "How about you?"
"No. I wouldn't fib."
Taylor snorted. "Not about the lie. I meant what are you wearing?"
I laughed. "I knew what you meant. Hmmm. Let's see. Jogging shorts and nothing else." Of course I said it as I pulled my shirt off over my head.
Taylor's voice got husky. "Which ones?"
"The blue ones you got for me last summer." Anything new that Taylor had purchased for me was in the same shade of vibrant blue. "Why is it that everything you buy for me is bright blue?"
"They match your eyes."
"And this is important why?"
Taylor chuckled. "It's sexy as sin."
"I'll have to try it sometime." The smile on my face wasn't forced anymore. I felt happy again, because I was talking to Taylor. "Nope. That won't work."
"I'd have to dress you in honey. Think of the bee problem."
Taylor started laughing. "You're crazy."
"Crazy for you." The words were spoken softly, but from the depths of my heart.
I heard Taylor sniff. "I love you."
"I love you too, Taylor."
We stayed silent for a few moments. I didn't want to go, but I needed to get some sleep. "Remember, flight 438 from Chicago."
"Got it right here."
"I'll see you Sunday then."
"Yeah. You will. A lot of me."
I grinned. "Missed me, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Big time."
"Good night, Taylor."
"Good night, Andrew."