(there are some pictures of Shire horses on my blog http://qwb224.wordpress.com/ if you care to see what they look like)
Hi uncle jeff. thanks for the email. I went and looked at your picture. boy you do look like me. its weird. you asked what I'm into. I like science fiction shows but I read some books too. I have a gray and white cat named gracie but shes getting old. its dinner time. later Brendan
I read it again, shaking my head at the lack of uppercase letters and punctuation, but glad to get a reply from him all the same. Gracie the cat. Like Bill's horse.
It was the last Saturday in March; Evan was working this morning, but I had made him promise to come home in time for dinner so that we could spend the evening together. I hadn't planned on being a tax widow and seeing him for a half hour in the morning and an hour at night when he was exhausted. It just wasn't cutting it.
But it was just past 8am now and I had plans for the day. Chewy trotted by my side as I went out to the barn and pulled the big doors wide open. The old Jeep had been sitting there all this time, just waiting for me to get to it, and today was the day. When the tarp came off, I grinned. Sitting there was a beautiful example of a 1960 Jeep, the chrome and pale green paint dulled by time and dust, but, near as I could tell, completely intact down to the original valve stem caps. I walked all the way around her, noting the dings and dents that a life of farm use had left behind, my smile growing larger with each step.
The key was in the ignition but she'd been sitting for quite a while, so I went through the engine, cleaning or replacing all the important stuff. Then I wiped my hands on a rag, climbed into the driver's seat as Chew leaped into the passenger side, and turned the key. The little motor roared to life, idling happily as I grinned at Chewy. I eased her into gear and drove the green Jeep out into the light of day for the first time in I don't know how many years.
I headed off down the lane, listening for rattles or engine knocks, but she ran great. I turned around out in the road and was zipping back down the driveway when Chewy barked. I looked left to see Bill waving at me from halfway across the field, so I braked hard and pulled over. He was standing in the back of a wagon being pulled by two unattended horses, shoveling manure off with a rhythmic swing. By the time he had reached the fence line, I was out of the Jeep and waiting for him.
"That looks like fun," I said with a roll of my eyes as I scratched a horse under the chin. "You don't have to steer the horses?"
"I holler at 'em which way to turn, but they pretty much know the drill after all these years."
"Who's this?" I asked, determined to get a handle on Bill's horses.
"Rose. She's got the wide blaze." He pointed to the broad stripe of white down the middle of her face, then over at the small patch on the other horse's forehead. "Gracie just has a little star." He tipped his chin at the Jeep. "Still runs, huh? Ed loved that Jeep."
"Runs great. Yeah, it's pretty neat."
We admired it for a moment and then a thought came to me. "Evan was cool with putting horses in our back field. Or cows. I'll fix the gate today, so whenever..."
He nodded. "I think I'll put the mares and babies over there. Each year I breed two mares; usually keep one baby and sell the other. You'll get a kick outta watching the youngsters. Keep your eye out though, they'll bite or kick if they're feelin' frisky."
We chatted another minute or two, and then I motored back to the barn and left Bill to his manure. After I re-hung the gate to the pasture, I took another look at the run down chicken coop. It really needed to go, but the thought of tackling it by myself didn't do much for me, so I went in to do the final tweaks on Sonny's computer. He hadn't been back with more eggs, but we waved at each other a couple times a week when we'd pass on the road or something. I planned on taking it to him this afternoon.
I played a couple hours of Call of Duty online, slaughtering bad guys left, right, and center before breaking for lunch. Chew and I ate on the back steps while I gazed around the property and thought about getting Callie down here for a day of getting the garden into some kind of shape. It was surrounded on three sides by a dilapidated picket fence and was overrun with weeds. The fourth side was the barn, covered in trellises that currently supported last year's vines, brown and dead now. I really only wanted tomatoes, but I knew Callie would go nuts with all this room to work and we'd end up with enough produce to open a farm stand.
The thought of corn and tomatoes was enough to get me off my ass and out in the garden with a trash can and some tools. I pulled weeds until my back ached, stripped the trellises of the dead vines before tacking them more firmly to the side of the barn, and pounded a few new stakes into the ground to support the sagging fence. That used up some of the afternoon, but it looked like a garden by the time I was finished. Satisfied with my efforts, I hopped in and out the shower, got dressed, and loaded Sonny's computer and Chewy into the Jeep.
He was in the front yard, puttering around in the flower bed that sprawled across the front of the house. As I pulled in the drive, dogs appeared from every corner of the property, crawling out from under his truck, sprinting around the side of the house, swarming around the Jeep like a furry ocean. Chewy growled a greeting out the open window, the ruff on his neck standing straight up. Sonny waved a hand and waded through the dogs to toss a bag onto my seat.
"More salad fixin's," he explained.
He peered into the box I handed him, which contained a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and speakers, plus all the cables.
"I got all this stuff," he protested. "All I need's a computer."
"If all your stuff's ten years old, it won't even work with this new computer. Everything's USB now. Or wireless."
"The type of plug. Your old stuff has the wrong kind of plugs. I'm not charging you for this stuff anyway, so don't worry about it." I opened Chewy's door to let him hop out, watching for a moment to be sure he was welcome. I picked up his new CPU and another box of tools and `just-in-case stuff' I thought I might need.
"I got money," he muttered, leading the way to the house. I hadn't paid much attention to his house as I'd driven past, so I looked around now, taking in the fresh white paint, the green shutters and trim. It was a one-story ranch, larger than I'd thought at first since it was deeper than it was wide, extending back past a two-car garage that sat at the end of the drive.
The inside was a surprise. Instead of the musty decades-old plaid couches and dime store wall art that I had sort of expected, the living room contained a matching couch, loveseat and chair in a dusky brown floral print. The various tables held a comfortable clutter of magazines, potted plants, and what appeared to be a partially knitted sweater.
But the walls were the real surprise. No family pictures here, no landscapes or bowls of fruit; the rusted metal and worn wood of old tools and farm implements hung on the white walls, forming a rustic yet very appealing display that suited the room perfectly. Within the curve of an old sickle blade he had mounted a graduated set of old metal scissors, from a small set not three inches long to a great big pair of what looked to me like sheep shearing scissors. Three hammers made a vertical line separating several old saws from a row of wooden hand planes on a shelf.
"Most all a them's from right here on this farm. Old stuff my daddy used. Some's from Bill's place."
"It's great. I never woulda thought to do somethin' like this."
"Becky give me the idea one day. She had old kitchen stuff... ya know, hand crank egg beaters, wooden scoops, that kinda stuff on her kitchen walls and I always admired it. She said `just use what you got,' so I did."
He bobbed his head once in acknowledgement before turning right into a large sunny room full of books. Books on shelves, stacks of books on the floor, more books on the huge desk that crouched in the center of the room. Among the piles of paperbacks stood a computer, its ancient 15" monitor taking up way more room than the flat screen would that I'd brought along.
"Anything in this computer you want to keep.... pictures, stories... other stuff?"
"Yeah, maybe there is..."
It didn't take long to download the few things he had onto my spare hard drive, and then we shut down his old machine for the last time.
When I walked around to start unplugging everything, the sight of the almost completely clogged fan grill made me snort.
"What?" Sonny asked, walking to me.
"You ever dust back here?"
"Nope. Instructions didn't say nothin' about dustin'."
"Well, once a month or so, run the vacuum hose over the back of the computer. Keeps all that shit from clogging things up inside."
When I put the new 19" flat screen on the desk, Sonny's eyebrows shot up and a grin spread across his face.
"Wow," he said, leaning over to look into the blank screen. "Big."
"You'll love it after that little thing. And the picture's way better." I plugged the final power cord in. "Turn 'er on."
As Windows powered up and the opening notes played, Sonny's smile got bigger. I transferred his old data, a few contacts, walked him through the new version of Outlook, and got him hooked up to the net before turning it over to him.
"Call me if you get stuck," I said as I left him surfing YouTube for Frank Sinatra songs.
Outside, Chewy and the pack were no where in sight, so I started up the Jeep and honked the horn a few times. After a minute or so, I began to hear barking and a few moments later, about twenty dogs careened around the corner of the house and sprinted down the driveway toward me. Chewy was in the lead, tongue flapping out one side of his mouth, with Sonny's motley bunch hot on his heels. I opened the door when they got near, and then had to spend another few minutes ejecting the extra dogs who had leaped in behind Chew. By the time I was down to only the one I arrived with, I was laughing out loud, shaking my head at Sonny and his mutts.
It was almost five by the time I got home, so I flopped on the couch with a book, but the house was quiet and I didn't make it two pages before I dozed off. As I was dreaming of fresh sweet corn and BLTs made from our own tomatoes, I heard Evan's car crunch up the drive and went out to meet him. He was stretching, arms reaching for the sky as his shirt tail pulled out of his trousers, and I grinned when he dropped both hands to pound his chest, Tarzan-style, yodeling out a crazy yell.
"I'm home!" he hollered, as Chewy ran circles around him, barking madly, excited by his voice. When I got near, he grabbed me up in a big hug, lifting me off my feet for a second. "Only two more weeks," he said, as he pulled his shirt the rest of the way out of his pants to scratch his chest. I got his briefcase from the car and we went inside.
I turned Sonny's lettuce into big salads while Evan made garlic bread and poured two glasses of wine. That was pretty much it for the evening. We lounged through dinner as I related my visit to Sonny's house.
"I counted at least twelve dogs this time. And I think he knits."
"Well, that football player, Rosey Grier, did cross-stitch," Evan countered.
We took more wine to the front porch while Chewy scampered around chasing bugs, and then ended the evening with a couple hours of Ken Burns' Civil War documentary.
Sunday morning I was awake before Evan, and wandered into the kitchen to get coffee started and maybe make the coffee cake recipe in Maggie's cookbook. It had a star next to it, but whether it was Evan's doing or Maggie's, I didn't know. As I grabbed the pot and walked to the sink, a glance out the window stopped me short. Two of Bill's horses were slowing grazing their way along the fence between the field and our back yard, and cavorting about on long, clunky legs, were two miniature versions. They were kicking up their heels and dashing around the mares, playful as puppies. I was totally absorbed in their antics when I felt a hand on my shoulder and about jumped out of my socks.
"Fuck! You scared the shit outta me. Look." I pointed out the window where the babies were now trying to eat grass, their front legs spraddled wide apart to get their noses low enough. As I leaned against the counter, Evan leaned against my back and propped his chin on my shoulder as we watched them for a few minutes. When one of them got bored with the grass and hopped straight up into the air like a cat, Evan laughed.
"Let's go say hi."
As we approached the fence, the mares lifted their heads, and then began a slow amble to meet us. As we got close, I saw that Bill had hung their halters on a post, along with a handwritten note on the back of a feed store receipt for 200 bales of alfalfa.
Here's Thelma (white star) with Max and big gray Tess with Linda. Tess was State Grand Champion two year old 12 years ago. Last time I had her to the fair, she weighed 2157lbs. The mares are real friendly and like carrots, but don't feed the foals anything.
Thelma did indeed have a white star and looked pretty much like Gracie to me, but dark gray Tess was huge. Now that they were at the fence and the babies had paired up with their mothers, I could see that Max was much darker than Linda. Evan jogged back into the house for some carrots while I talked to the horses. Having all four of them peering at me from a few feet away was a bit intimidating, but Bill said they were friendly. The mares eyed the carrot bag like they knew exactly what was in it, tossing their heads impatiently while Evan handed me a couple.
I broke off a chunk of carrot and held it out to Tess, who snatched it out of my hand while leaving behind a gooey smear of green slime flecked with bits of chewed grass. "Gross," Evan said and wrinkled his nose at me right before Thelma did the same thing to him.
"Just wipe it on the grass," I told him as I gave Tess another piece. The satisfying crunch of their huge teeth grinding up the carrot brought a smile to my face. After a third piece, I stepped close enough to pet Max, moving slowly until I had a hand on his neck. I had just started scratching him when he whipped his head around and clamped his front teeth onto my arm. I yelled and swung my free hand at him, scattering horses left and right, but he had let go immediately.
"Son of a bitch! That sneaky little fucker," I growled as Evan peeled back my sleeve.
"Ouch," Evan said as he inspected the matched set of upper and lower teeth marks on my forearm. "That's gonna leave a nice bruise."
We went back in the house, where I iced my arm while Evan made coffee. I didn't know it then, but Max had just scored the first point in what would become a year-long war between the two of us. As the coffee brewed, we walked out the lane to get the paper. Good thing I hadn't gotten around to the coffee cake, because Ellen, the mailman's wife, had left us a couple more muffins, banana pecan this time according to her note. We ate one walking back to the house, but managed to save the other to have with our coffee.
Since neither of us went to church regularly, we used Sunday mornings to get caught up with each other, a chance to talk when we weren't tired or distracted. This Sunday we climbed back in bed, leaning back against the headboard with lots of pillows and the Sunday paper spread over our laps. In a definitive comment about our personalities and priorities, I grabbed the funnies while Evan opened the financial section, but he let it drop to his legs after a few minutes.
"You're happy with me, aren't you?" It almost sounded like a statement, but there was a hint of question at the end. I turned slowly to look at him, astounded that he would ask such a thing, but he was gazing down at the lumps his made feet under the quilt. "Actually, I don't mean happy," he continued. "I mean... content, I guess. Comfortable."
I stared at him without replying until he looked at me. His expression was neutral, like he had just asked me if I wanted Swiss or cheddar on my sandwich rather than a leading question like `are you happy,' a question that made my stomach tighten with apprehension.
"Yes, I'm happy with you. I'm also content and comfortable." I paused, but he just looked at me. "Why?"
"Jesus, Evan - you don't `just ask' a question like that." I tried to keep my voice level. "You're not?"
He looked away to put his coffee cup on the night stand, and then turned to face me sitting with his legs crossed Indian style. As he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, all I could think was `oh fuck.' When he finally got settled, he picked up one of my hands, holding it between both of his, and brought it to his mouth for a kiss.
"Yes, of course I am. Don't get all rattled. I'm very happy. And comfortable and content." He paused, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out where he was going with this. "My mom and dad's anniversary reminder popped up in Outlook yesterday, and it just got me thinking, that's all. Thirty years." He laced the fingers of one hand into mine and ran the other up my arm to the crook of my elbow, then back down as he talked. "Thirty fuckin' years. That's a long time. Longer than... I am old." Another thoughtful pause. "You and I are just coming up on our first year, and that got me imagining our thirty year anniversary. You'll be 62, as old as Sonny and Becky."
"And Callie, she's around there somewhere."
"And I'll be 57. God, that seems so far from now."
I pulled him to me as I slid down the bed, shoving the covers out of the way, needing the comfort of his body to ease the knot of tension his question had lodged in my gut. Evan stretched out on his side next to me, one leg across mine, his soft cock mushed against my hip as he rested his head on my arm. As I held the back of his neck, he skimmed his fingertips across my six-pack, down my belly, and wrapped them around my balls.
"God, I love your body," he mumbled into my armpit. "Like something out of a magazine."
I smiled as he released my nuts to tap a finger firmly on my abs, clicking his tongue like he was knocking on wood. Tick, tick, tick.
"Cocks R Us?" I asked, getting a chuckle from Evan. "I gotta get my ass back to the gym before I get fat. I found one that day we had lunch with Kathryn, next door to the deli."
But Evan wasn't listening. He was tickling my chest with the tip of his tongue, swirling it in circles and then licking across my hardening nipple with long, wet laps that made me suck my breath in. I lifted my head a little, watching the quivering string of spit that hung from his open mouth as he raised his head to look at me. His eyes were dark and hungry, meeting mine with an intensity that tightened my gut in an altogether different way than his original question had.
"Fuck..." I breathed at the sight of him, seeing the bounce of my stiffening cock from the corner of my eye.
"Ok," he agreed with a smile as he lowered his mouth back to my nipple.
I lay back and closed my eyes, floating along on the tide of sensations created by Evan's mouth and hands, my fingers buried in his hair. He worked his way all around my chest and stomach, tugging at the hairs with his lips, nuzzling his nose into my bellybutton. Occasionally, he made a foray up my neck to suck on my earlobe, sliding his tongue along my mouth as he moved to the other one.
He never touched my cock until the end, rolling me toward him and grasping me with a slick hand, stroking me off as he kissed me deeply and rolled a nipple in his fingers. I had to break the kiss when my face contorted with the first shot, panting hard against his chest as the orgasm rolled through me.
"Nnh... nnh... nnh," I grunted through clenched teeth. "Uhhh, Jesus."
A few minutes later, after Evan wiped me up with a handful of tissues, I nibbled my way down his lean, pale body to where his cock lay on his belly. He'd softened by then, so I had the pleasure of feeling him respond to my mouth. Honestly, I could suck cock all afternoon. Evan's, anyway. Everything about it was a turn-on – the velvety texture against my lips, the firm yet resilient consistency of him in my hand, the slurpy sounds of suction as my mouth moved up and down on him, his little moans of pleasure, his hand wandering through my hair.
And the smell of him. More than anything else about him – and there were plenty of things I liked - a good whiff of Evan's balls hardened my cock like nothing else. I'd never had much of an underwear fetish, preferring the actual man to his dirty clothes, but I have to admit to occasionally sniffing Evan's shorts before dropping them into the washer. Cheap thrills...
I kept him on the edge for a while, enjoying the hitch in his breathing when he thought I was going to let him go and then realized I wasn't. When I finally did keep going, I could tell he kept expecting me to stop, holding back, tightening his belly in an effort to stave off his orgasm. At some point he figured it out and began to thrust in concert with my mouth and hand, his hand now clamped painfully into my hair. I pulled off as he began to shoot, watching him spew cum all over the place as I worked him by hand. His was a classic O face – eyes scrunched closed, mouth open, head straining back into the pillow.
I spread his cum smoothly over his stomach, chuckling as I wrote `I L Y' upside down in it.
"What're you doin'?" he asked weakly, lifting his head to see. "Oh. I love you, too, but you're gonna kill me someday, making me wait like that."
"You know when I bitch about somethin', you always say, `it's good for you, it teaches you control'." I mimicked him, speaking in the serious lawyerly tone he used when he was telling me something he felt was for my own good.
He laughed. "Do I really sound like that?"
"Yes. Makes me feel like a kid getting a lecture from his dad." But I said it with a grin so he'd know I was kidding. "Come on, let's get going."
The rest of the day we just bummed around the Farm, planning what kind of vegetables we wanted to plant when Callie visited, walking back to the dog cemetery with bread for the birds and peanuts for the squirrels. It was a good day, the kind of day we hadn't had in a while, and it did what it was meant to do – get us back in synch with one another. By the time Evan fired up the grill for dinner, we were smiling each time our eyes met - which was a lot - and touching whenever we got near each other.
"Should we celebrate it somehow?" Evan asked as he topped off our wine glasses. "Our anniversary?"
"Sure. What do you wanna do?"
"I don't know. Go somewhere. Throw a party."
"No party," I said, shaking my head. I didn't want to share our first anniversary with anyone but Evan. "We could ride up into the mountains. To the waterfall."
Evan considered that for a minute. "Yeah..." he said with a nod. "That sounds good. Back to where it all began."
"Well, it all began in the garage, but the waterfall's a lot more romantic."
"This time we'll take a blanket so I don't get dead leaves up my ass."
"You did not," I laughed.
"I did too. You didn't notice me scrubbing away at my butt when we washed off in the river?"
"I was too busy looking at your dick, thinking about all the things I wanted to do with it."
Evan smiled at me then, one of those radiant smiles that had as much to do with his eyes as his mouth. "I knew it was you when I heard the Pan pull into the parking lot. I could barely stand still waiting for you to find me. Almost ran down the trail shrieking `I'm here, I'm here!!!'"
"You heard the bike? You never told me that. I couldn't fuckin' believe it was you. When you turned around and looked at me over your shoulder... I remember my heart going ka-thunk and then pounding so hard I thought my head would explode." Evan was still watching me with that beautiful smile on his face. "I love you, Evan."
His smile widened. "And I love you." He was quiet for a moment, studying my face as his smile faded. "Do you think we'll make it thirty years?"
Instead of over-reacting and wondering why he thought we wouldn't, I put my hand over his where it lay on the table and gave him back the wonderful smile he'd given me. "Of course we will. Only twenty-nine more to go - piece a cake."
He grinned back at me for a second, then got up and came around the table, pulling me to my feet as he wrapped his arms around me. He didn't say anything more, just held me close for a long time, one hand moving slowly up and down my back as the other lightly gripped the back of my neck. Our chests pressed together, then apart, as we breathed, and Evan's thigh was firm between mine, nudging my groin gently when he shifted his weight.
Hugs are really under-rated, in my opinion. If you do it right, there's so much going on. One of Evan's full-body hugs made me feel like we could make it a hundred and thirty years.
We cleaned up dinner before wandering onto the back porch. Tess and Thelma and their long-legged offspring were about halfway back the field, still grazing. I guess when you weigh a ton, and all you eat is grass, you need to eat a lot of it. Max and Linda were nursing, their broomy little tails swishing furiously as they butted hard with their noses. The weather was warming up, and we lounged out there until it was dark. Chewy chased fireflies for a while before flopping down on the step with his chin on my shoe.
"So, only another couple weeks of taxes, huh?" I knew Evan was practically foaming at the mouth to be done with the corporate side of the law firm.
"Yeah." He stretched his legs out and rotated his ankles. "Then it's the Center's turn." He stared off across the meadow for a minute, and then spoke softly. "You suppose anybody'll come?"
I glanced at him, but his face was in shadow. It was unlike Evan to doubt his business decisions, so this was out of character for him, and to actually say something about it meant it was really bothering him. "You know they will. Patterson needs something like this."
"Yeah, I know," he said again, heaving a sigh. "It'll be fine. Kathryn's got everything ready to go." He turned to me. "Your thing with Kenny's going good, huh? You happy with it, working with someone else?"
I nodded. "We have a good time. It's not like selling washing machines or something, you know? It's creative, and each job's a little different. Keeps me from gettin' bored."
Evan was quiet for a bit. Then, "There's a Thoreau mis-quote - most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." He paused. "And go to the grave with the song still in them," he repeated slowly, giving each word equal weight. "I don't wanna do that. I wanna sing." He looked at me, holding my eyes with his intent gaze. "That's why I had to open the Center. I need to sing."
I reached out to touch his arm. "You will, Evan," I assured him. "You'll be great at it."
He turned back to the darkness as the last glow of the setting sun winked out. "I'll damn sure try," he said quietly.
He fell silent then, lost in thought. I scratched Chewy's head and studied Evan's profile until he sighed and turned to me with a tired smile. "Ready for some mindless TV?"
But Evan didn't watch much of the movie he chose. He made it through the first twenty minutes or so before sliding down and turning to face me so that he was lying against me with one arm around my back and the other resting on my chest. When I tipped my head down to rub my cheek across his hair, he gave a quiet `mmm' and snuggled closer. The movie ended at eleven, and we were in bed by 11:10.
We headed out at the same time the next morning, Evan to another day of taxes and me to Kenny's for another day of putering. But I had a surprise up my sleeve, and when lunch time rolled around, I got up from the keyboard.
"Come on, we're goin' out to lunch."
"We are? Are we meeting someone? Should I change?" He was wearing his usual sweat pants and t-shirt.
"Nope, you're good."
I was an old hand at getting him transferred to the Jeep now. The first couple times I'd been afraid of hurting him somehow, and I almost dumped him on his ass in the driveway one day, but by the third or fourth time, I had the hang of it. I tossed his chair in the back, Chewy jumped on his lap, and we zipped off down the road to my place. Kenny glanced at me a couple times, but I just smiled at him. Ed's old green Jeep was sitting just this side of the gate to the field. I pulled around next to it facing the other direction so that Kenny could just slide across in to the other vehicle. Then I loaded up his chair, opened the gate, drove the Jeep through, and closed it behind me.
The horses were grazing at the back of the field, and threw their heads up to see what was going on when they heard the Jeep. I drove slowly along, keeping one eye out for gopher holes, and the other on the horses that had begun walking this way.
"Where'd you get horses?"
"Farmer next door's using our field."
"Are they as big as they look from here?" Kenny asked as he watched them pick up the pace to a trot.
"Bigger," I assured him. "They're huge."
Tess realized we were going to reach the gate to the creek before she reached us, so she broke into a lumbering lope. The other three followed suit, galloping across the meadow as the long hair around their ankles waved in the breeze, looking like something out of a beer commercial. Just when I thought they were gonna run us over, they jolted to a stop and walked up to see if we had any carrots.
"Jesus," Kenny breathed, staring at the mares whose backs were higher than our heads while Chewy scrambled down to the safety of the floorboards at my feet.
"The little black one bites, but the big ones are friendly," I told Kenny as Tess loomed over him, her huge head a foot from his face. I reached into the cooler I'd stashed in the Jeep that morning and pulled out a bag of carrot chunks. "Here. Hold it flat in your palm."
He did as I said, grinning when Thelma's soft warm lips plucked it from his hand. We fed the mares until the carrots were gone. Thelma was only interested in eating, but Tess kept her head in Kenny's lap while she chewed, eyes closed, allowing him to pat her face as she dribbled slobbery carrot bits on his sweats. I kept an eye on Max and Linda, but they were investigating the tires of the Jeep, giving them a bite now and then, and left us alone.
After Kenny fed Tess the last carrot chunk, I hopped out and shooed the horses away so that I could open the gate without them escaping. As we drove through, Max came trotting back to see what was going on, but I leaped out of the Jeep and got the gate closed just before he reached it.
Kenny gazed around as I navigated between the trees, heading roughly for the clearing by the creek. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, and the forest was green with leafing trees, and noisy with birdsong. I'd been looking forward to getting Kenny back here since Raf had commented on it during our walk over the holidays. I eased to a stop at the edge of the clearing and got Kenny's chair unfolded at the side of the Jeep.
"You should be able to get around on this stuff, huh?" I asked him, waving a hand at the fairly firm mat of fallen leaves and pine needles that covered the packed earth of the clearing.
"Yeah, no problem," he replied as he moved a few feet toward the fire circle of rocks before stopping to look around. "It's as pretty as Raf said it was. I wondered where you were taking me..."
We investigated the creek, moving downstream until we came to a log Kenny couldn't get around. Back at the clearing, I unpacked lunch from the cooler and we dined al fresco with a couple curious squirrels for company. As we were finishing off the brownies, he sighed and smiled at me.
"Before the accident, the four of us spent as much time outdoors as we did in, rambling around the woods by Evan's house. We'd ride our bikes back as far as we could until the trees got too thick, then hike back to the river." He was quiet for a few moments, remembering. "There was this clearing at the bottom of a steep little hill. We called it Sleepy Hollow." He chuckled. "Real original, huh? Sometimes we'd camp out. Haul all our shit – sleeping bags, coolers, fishing poles – back there and stay for a couple days."
As I watched him, he stared past me off into the woods, his mind a dozen years back, in a different clearing with Rafael and Evan and Luke. Despite the fact that we worked together five days a week, we rarely talked about personal stuff. He was much easier to be casual friends with than Rafael, and I was more relaxed around him, but I didn't feel that I knew him as well.
Intense and touchy though he was, once Raf decided to commit to a friendship, you knew it. Since our shower and subsequent talk in my kitchen, I'd run into him a couple times when Raf got home before I left their place. He always greeted me with a physical gesture of some kind – an arm around my neck that brought our faces together, a quick kiss on the cheek as he leaned down between Kenny and me in the office – and his attitude toward me now was warm and friendly.
Kenny, on the other hand, was smiling and agreeable pretty much all the time. If he was ever in a shitty mood, I never saw it. He was quiet occasionally and sometimes hours passed where we exchanged only a handful of words, but until this afternoon, he had never seemed depressed or regretful. Evan had said that Kenny was the most well-adjusted of the three of them. Watching him now, his forehead wrinkled in a frown, his jaw tight, I wondered what it had cost him.
After several moments, his face cleared and he looked at me. "People get so used to me being in a chair that they forget that I used to walk around and do things that I can't do now. It doesn't occur to them that maybe I still miss it. I mean, you get resigned to it... but you never forget how it felt to go in for a lay-up," he waved a hand around the clearing, "or take a walk in the woods."
"Raf mentioned it to me back at Christmas. That he wished you could see the creek."
He smiled. "Did he?"
After a while, we packed up lunch and went back to work, but our conversation stuck with me and during a late dinner a couple nights later, I told Evan about our lunch by the creek. When I mentioned the part about people taking Kenny's disability for granted, he stopped eating and stared at me. Then he looked away as he finished his mouthful of meatloaf.
"He's right," he said, his voice so low I could hardly hear him. "I do forget... Not forget. I mean, he's right there in the chair, but I forget what it must be like for him." He paused, gazing unfocused into his green beans for a moment before looking up at me. "That was a really good thing you did. Thanks."
I shrugged a shoulder. "No big deal. I remembered Rafael saying he wished Kenny could see it."
"I heard him, too," he said in a tight voice, "but I didn't do anything about it."
I held his eyes as I thought about what Raf had said – that Evan felt guilty at being the only one who wasn't still suffering the consequences of the crash. Very carefully, mindful of my tone of voice, I told him, "They don't hold it against you, you know. Not at all."
He flushed then, his face and neck going a dull red as he shoved back from the table hard enough to tip his chair over.
"What the hell do you know about it?" he asked me.
I sat there, my mouth hanging open in shock, as he banged out the back door.
This was an area Evan and I had never discussed – the first few months after the accident – and it was obviously a lot more sensitive than I had ever suspected. Rafael had said just enough to let me know that Evan's physical injuries during that time were less an issue than his mental and emotional problems. I righted Evan's chair and slowly cleaned up dinner, scraping the remains of his meatloaf into the trash with a heavy heart, trying to decide how to approach him, what I could possibly say.
When I joined him, he was sitting on the top step, staring into the night. I sat down a couple feet away, giving him room, fully intending to apologize, but he reached for my hand, squeezing tight as he beat me to it.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting that."
"No, it's not. You're the one person who should be able to talk to me about anything without gettin' your head ripped off." He was quiet for a few moments, rubbing his thumb across the back of my hand. "After the shock of Luke being dead eased up a little, I started wishing I'd been hurt worse. Something horrible enough that I'd feel even with what Raf and Kenny were dealing with. That's pretty common, according to the shrink, and when I got the cast off, I limped a lot more than I really needed to whenever I was around them cause it didn't feel right to be pretty much ok when they were so fucked up." He turned to look at me. "But you're right. I know they don't hold it against me. It's all up here." He tapped the side of his head.
"Ah, Evan." I sighed in frustration. "I hate it when you hurt.... when it's something I can't do anything about."
He tugged on my hand until I closed up the space between us, tucking my arm under his so that he could slide a hand around my thigh. "You have no idea how much difference you've made in my life, do you? When you do something like take Kenny back to the creek... this is gonna make me sound like a total girl... it puts a lump in my throat."
He paused for a second to swallow hard. Then he turned to look at me. "I know you like to come off as this bad-ass biker or something, all `fuck this' and `fuck that,' but you're probably the most thoughtful person I know when it comes to doin' stuff for your friends. I'm a lucky man to have met you."
I stared back at him, fighting the lump in my own throat, when Chewy whined at the back door. It broke the tension, and when Evan stood up, I followed his lead.
"Let's go to bed," he said. "I got another long day of outwitting Uncle Sam ahead of me."
My mind was still on the back porch as we got ready for bed, tumbling through the things Evan had said to me. Long after he was sound asleep and his grip on my arm had loosened, I finally realized that falling in love with Evan had changed me for the better, allowing the softer side of me to flourish in the safe environment of our healthy relationship.
I knew the truth then – I was the lucky one.
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