Copyright 2010 by Ernesto66. All persons, places, things and events mentioned within this file are fictional, and no inferences should be made regarding their relationship to reality by readers, regardless of how they are represented. The author is responsible for, but not liable for, errors in regard to continuity, geography, weather, the public record, contemporary events, hairstyles, language and his own bad judgment. This story includes descriptions of adult homosexual men in sexual situations. If you are not of legal age to read this, then don't. If you are of age but somehow offended by such material, what the fuck are you doing here?
This file is freely shared, and the author encourages its distribution, dependent on proper attribution to him and only him. The file remains his intellectual (!) property and its unattributed use anywhere outside its orginal forum will result in harsh words to the offending site's host, as if there's anything they'll do about it.
I gratefully thank, and dedicate this story to, authors around the world who inspired me by posting their work online, most especially the two known as Ardveche and Ricardo Cabeza. It was in trying to emulate their beautiful stories that I first sat down to start my own, and writing "Homecoming" went a long way toward helping me through the hardest period of my life.
Thanks as well to my husband David. I started "Homecoming" before I even knew him, and although he had no idea I was writing it (at work), with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Chapter One: Road Trip
"Don't hate me... I told him I'd... You're the one leaving..."
Michael jerked awake. Oh, Jesus.
What better way to start a Friday morning, especially this one, than with the alarm radio going off in your ear at seven a.m. instead of eight? And not with something decent playing, like Maroon 5 or Norah Jones, but some brainless morning jock droning on about how he had to spend the upcoming holidays with his redneck inlaws. Yuk yuk yuk.
Michael groaned, coming out of a dream that was already fading, and rolled away from the noise. With the sun still below the horizon, the house - at least what was visible from under one corner of the bedcovers - was dark. And very cool. He shivered and bundled the blankets closer around himself. It would have been really easy to close his eyes and spend the rest of the morning right there, especially after the godawful night he'd just spent, but there was just no way.
Grow a pair and get your ass up, he told himself.
Sighing, he slapped the alarm's off button and slid out of bed. As his bare feet hit the floor he realized it was even colder than he'd thought - the air in the bedroom was like jumping naked into the White River. The morning wood he had shrank away to nothing. The old house always took on a chill about the time the leaves began to fall, but this was way too cold, even for November. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees during the night. Maybe it was time to think about moving into a newer place, or insulating this one better. Something.
Not the time to let your mind wander. Focus and get a start. This isn't going to be easy.
Down in the kitchen he stood on one foot at the counter and gulped down a mug of microwaved tea with a cold biscuit peeled out of the KFC box from the night before. He chased it with two bran bars, a handful of Cheerios and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter straight from the jar. He reached over and turned the little countertop TV to the local news. His mom had been right. On the weather map the city was encircled by a long loop of cold front from the north. The tiny weatherman announced they were calling for much lower temperatures and at least two to three inches of snow and ice by nightfall. Maybe higher temperatures after that, but maybe not. Damn it. Better call work. He wasn't going to chance driving the interstate during a storm tonight or tomorrow; it had to be now or never.
As he wiped up the kitchen he made a mental list of each thing he'd have to do before leaving. Shower. Dress. Pack. Call work. With elevated levels of blood sugar and caffeine, and now the incentive of an approaching storm behind him as well, he headed back upstairs with a purpose.
The house's WWII plumbing needed all the help it could get, so in the bathroom Michael twisted both handles in the tub full on and killed time waiting for the hot water by brushing his teeth. He counted out the half-dozen pills he took every morning and arranged the shaving things around the sink. Looking in the mirror he realized that, yes, it really was possible to look worse than he felt. Even today.
The man blearily staring back at him from the glass had seen every single day of forty and a half years. He looked like one of those people on the news whose house has burned down in the middle of the night - in shock, crazed-looking and dressed haphazardly. Brown eyes rimmed in red, skin sallow, blond hair on end. He imagined that if he one day died in a violent accident he might look worse, but not by much.
When he could no longer see himself for the fog on the mirror, Michael went to the tub and twisted the cold handle completely off, then tugged off his t-shirt, sweatpants and boxers and stepped in. He stood under the scalding water until he was lobster red from head to toe. Once he'd shampooed and soaped up he rinsed it all off and turned the shower head to its massage setting. The hot spray beat down on his sore muscles, turning them to putty. It felt great. He considered jerking off to relieve some of the tension, and massaged his balls for a second, but decided against it.
Out of the shower and in front of the sink again he felt better than he had in a month. He could see the whites of his own eyes, his skin glowed like he'd had a chemical peel, and his hair promised to behave once he'd run a comb through it. He even stood straighter. If he was still a little woozy from only four hours of sleep, at least he looked presentable. He managed to shave without too many nicks and toweled off on the way back to the bedroom.
Avoiding the sight of that big, soft, inviting bed, he concentrated on pulling clothes out of the closet to take with him on the trip. He dropped shirts (mostly flannel), a couple of sweaters, some jeans, underwear and socks into a suitcase, then reached into the very back for his charcoal gray, all-purpose dress suit, still in its dry cleaning bag. He tucked a black tie and a pair of black dress shoes into one side of the suitcase, latched it and carried everything down to the front door.
By eight he was dressed - sweater, shirt and cords - and just about ready to leave. He pounded down the stairs and stopped to catch his breath by the phone. His boss was inclined to be an asshole at the best of times, and asking for a day off with no notice wasn't going to be the best way to start his day. Not to mention that Michael was probably still in dutch over that presentation on Monday. He'd have to try and clear all that up...
His mind was drifting again. Stay on task just for two minutes and make the call. He dialed the switchboard number and waited.
"Pioneer Design. How may I direct you?"
"Anita, it's Michael. Is Jason in yet?"
"Not yet, Michael. Do you want his voice mail?"
"You sound a little shaky, hon. Are you all right?"
No, Anita. See, my mom called last night - that's right, the mom I haven't spoken to in twenty years - and she told me... Told me...
Told me to focus! "I'm fine, thanks."
More like sleep-deprived and delirious. He shook his head. "But I probably won't be in today. Just so you know."
"I hope everything's okay. Hang on." Silence, then the sound of his slug-like supervisor's nasal phone message.
"Hello, you've reached the office of Jason Purcell. I'm away from my desk right now on important business, but-" Blah, blah, blah. Important business? If you considered Jack and Coke before lunch important. What a fucking liar. If Jason issued a press release saying the sky was blue or water was wet, you'd still have to double-check its facts. So insincere. One day away from his shit would be a well-deserved vacation, even if it was for a-
Jesus, was that the beep? Quit zoning out!
He cleared his throat. "Jason, it's Michael. I have to be out of the office today, and possibly Monday too, for personal reasons. Actually my, uh, uncle died a couple days ago, and I have to drive to Louisville for the funeral. I'm sorry I couldn't give you more notice, but my mom didn't call until after midnight last night. I'll try to-" Beeeep. He dropped the receiver.
Michael hated Pioneer's screwy answering service, which of course had been Jason's idea. You had to talk fast and even then it usually cut you off anyway. He could have redialed, but decided to let it go; best to be on the road as soon as possible. He threw on a jacket, grabbed his suitcase and cell phone and locked the front door behind him. Outside, a stiff breeze scattered the front yard with leaves and rattled the few still left in the trees. His breath billowed out in a white cloud. He turned the corner of the house at the driveway and hurried to get the Wrangler unlocked before his fingers froze.
What is it I hate about fall, he asked himself. The mess, the frost, everything dying off and falling to the ground? Halloween and its ghosts? Thanksgiving, with its big dead bird? He shivered and hoisted the suitcase into the back over the front seats. No, in the end maybe it just came down to not having anyone to celebrate with. Annually Michael drifted through the office holiday parties, then went home to take-out food and Chevy Chase carving the turkey on TV. His friends and co-workers all had families to nest with, while he spent nights one-on-one with the cable and a supersized combo from wherever. The fact that it was always so depressingly overcast and gloomy this time of year was just salt in the wound.
Cold. Hm. He jogged back inside and retrieved his black woolen winter coat from the rack. Hard to tell what might be coming. He hesitated at the door as his eye fell on the bookcase beside it. He knelt and took a bound red book from the bottom shelf, then stepped outside again and relocked the door. At the car he dropped the book in the back, laid the coat out on top of everything else and climbed behind the wheel of his Jeep.
Once out of the driveway he wasted no time cranking the heat to full blast. In twenty minutes he was on 65 and headed south, the cold and his holiday bitterness - for now - forgotten.
Anyone familiar with Interstate 65 knows that it is more or less one long line - a vertical strip of nearly 900 miles - that stretches all the way from the Gulf of Mexico up to Lake Michigan. It points north like a compass needle over the midwest all the way from Mobile, Alabama to Gary, Indiana. Its upper half bisects the capital city of Indiana, Indianapolis. Michael had lived there since he was eighteen, and he'd driven up and down 65 hundreds of times. North and to the west was Chicago, which he'd been to on business trips and jaunts with friends; just south were the outlet malls and a pretty cool small-town arts scene. A hundred miles below Indy was Louisville, the city where Michael was born and raised.
That morning, finally warmed up and watching the scenery south of Indianapolis fly by, Michael thought that for all its majesty, 65 cuts through some of the dullest land on earth outside of Death Valley. This was especially true in late fall. Flat stretches of brown farmland lined either side of the road, broken up by billboards and microwave towers. Rows of frame houses, fields of scrub, rusty farm machinery, cows.
The sameness of the landscape wasn't helping to keep him alert. As everything went past the windshield in a blur, he blanked it out and punched the radio on to keep himself from falling asleep at the wheel. He dialed until he came to an all-Eighties station playing something familiar: "What's Love Got to Do With It." A favorite from 1984. If it hadn't been tossed by now, that record was still boxed up in a moldy corner of his parents' basement, along with his Star Wars toys and model cars. He got a shiver up his spine at the thought, despite the warmth.
Michael reflected how far life had taken him since then. Deep in his stomach a feeling was growing, one he couldn't quite put his finger on yet. It was mostly dread at what he'd find when he reached his destination, but it was mixed in with some excitement, not to mention deja-vu. This same interstate was the route he'd taken to escape Louisville that year. He'd packed what little he owned, slipped into the northbound traffic, and swore out loud that never under any circumstances would he return. He was still young and naive enough to have no idea that fate, karma - whatever your word for it - would inevitably kick him in the ass hard for saying such a thing.
And here he was. Living proof.
In '84 Indianapolis seemed like the best (read: most affordable) prospect for a freshman-to-be with only a used car, a meager life savings and a few clothes to his name. He could just as easily have hit Cincinnati, St. Louis or Nashville, but for once his instincts had been right. Indianapolis and Louisville were so similar in size and feel that he had almost no trouble settling in.
By the end of that first week he'd found a cheap apartment on the far outskirts of town. He got a job at a bookstore and started the long process of finding a scholarship he qualified for. In four years of hard work he'd polished off a BFA in graphic design and become an intern with the Indianapolis city government.
After leaving there, he worked at a printing company for a couple of years, and eventually joined Pioneer, where he was now a senior designer. He enjoyed the job and it paid well. If nothing else, he'd finally disproved his father's remark at graduation that an art degree was "useless as tits on a hog."
Sure, it didn't tax his brain finding new ways to convince people they didn't smell as good as they should or lacked the fastest Internet access. But every once in a while something more challenging crossed his desk. The only thing that worried Michael about his situation at Pioneer was that he had maybe become too comfortable there. One day he would grow tired of Jason's bullshit, or the endless office politics, and quit. He'd made a ton of friends and contacts there, though, and he didn't want to leave.
Life in Indianapolis these days was good. He owned a roomy home in a part of town that had slumped into disrepair during Reagan but under Bush II was finally becoming fashionable again. He'd enjoyed the hard work of remodeling and landscaping it until it was a standout in a neighborhood of beautifully restored houses. He leased a new car every five years, sticking to Jeeps instead of the flashy sports cars and SUVs his co-workers preferred. Whatever extra money there was, he invested.
Basically, he had all of the things he needed and most of the things he wanted. Most of them. One of the few things he wanted and didn't have yet was a husband.
Michael seldom dated, and when he did the relationships never lasted long. Exes on their way out the door usually described him as either a) distant, or b) overbearing. Other choices: insecure, narcissistic, too independent, clingy and once just "too fucking much to deal with."
He had only one word to describe every last one of them: immature.
Since college he'd attracted nothing but boyfriends. Not lovers, not partners, not equals. Boyfriends. Emotional adolescents who demanded so much more than he could give them. Time, money, patience, you name it. The pattern was easy enough to spot, but seemed unbreakable. Time and again he hit it off with someone who at first seemed level-headed, only to find out that reality was very different from appearance (as if a forty-year-old needed to keep on learning that lesson).
He'd come to dread the phrase "There's something I should have told you..." Would the next one turn out to be $20,000 in credit card debt and in need of a co-signer? Did he spend every free cent on dance CDs and pot? Maybe he'd require a level of commitment that would kill an opera diva's assistant.
It looked inevitable. But was it him, or was it them?
Late one Friday night after too many beers he dragged his favorite bartender into a discussion, the gist of which was whether you attract men like a magnet, or are attracted to them like iron filings.
"So you draw them to you, or you let yourself be drawn," he'd summarized. "Which?" The distinction wasn't lost on Michael, who was dying to hear that it was them, pulled in by some weird field he threw off, and not the other way around.
They argued good-naturedly for a while, but Calvin the Bartender had the final word on the subject. He put one last bottle in front of Michael and wiped his hands on his apron before leaning in and pronouncing sentence. "Take it from someone who sees a lot of relationship drama. And I mean a lot, both good and bad. People aren't magnets, they're people. People with pasts. Everybody's different, and they all have their own reasons for the trouble they get into, the paths they follow."
"Santa Maria" began to blast out of the speakers over the bar. Calvin leaned closer to be heard over it. "One thing I believe, though, Michael. If you do connect, magnetically or not, it isn't ever one to the other. It's side by side. You connect, you belong together. Might be forever, might not. But you belong."
This did nothing to put Michael's mind at ease. In fact it could be said that that one statement had haunted him to this day. Every new heartache brought the question: Could it be he deserved the lovers he found? Would he be forever stuck in the pond of little boys Indianapolis was teeming with, and never luck out with someone who actually knew what a mortgage was, or paid their bills on time?
He was one step away from saying "I do" to the very next guy who showed the slightest bit of interest in his well-being, what he wanted. Apologized for hurting his feelings. Made him a meal instead of ordering out. Brought him flowers. Asked him "Are you all right?"
Of course, he imagined his entire dating history as the result of events long dead- Ugh, bad choice of words. But those events, and their karmic power...
The power he believed ruled the universe, short-circuiting his ability to ever have a healthy relationship at all. If it was karma - at least as he understood the concept - when would the goddamn debt finally pay out?
His head hurt as he tried to sort his thoughts, figure out what any of it had to do with the price of tea in China. Bad luck was what it was, nothing more. He should stop going to the bars and start attending classical music concerts or something. Yawn.
Regardless, raking over the past like this was no way to kill the two hours it was going to take to get home. Well, not home... Louisville. Whatever. He belatedly noticed the radio had segued to "Happy to Be Stuck With You" by Huey Lewis.
Jesus, enough with the Eighties already.
He groped for the CD wallet under the driver's seat and flipped through it until he came to Madonna's GHV2. Great, nothing earlier than 1990. He slid it in and began to play "Deeper and Deeper."
Scowling, he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music. It was no good dwelling on those days. The past had nothing to do with the present, and as for karma... Moving away and putting Louisville behind him was the best thing - no, the only thing - he could have done, and there'd been no way to set things right before he left. Life was good now, and even without a lover he was happy. He was.
Without thinking he began to sing along with the Material Girl. "I can't help falling in love, I fall deeper and deeper-"
He abruptly shut up and tapped the skip button until it came to the much less ironic "The Power of Goodbye." Note to self: keep more classical music in the car.
In a few hours everything he'd left behind and tried to forget would be playing out in front of him again, like watching some horrible home video on acid. He had to enjoy what little peace there was while he still could.
Try as he might, Michael wasn't able to enjoy much peace as he drove. He struggled to keep his mind on the road, but inevitably thoughts about the call that had brought him here returned. The more he tried to block them out, by calculating arrival time in his head or humming along with the stereo, the louder they clamored for attention. Lack of sleep, the dull landscape outside, and the hypnotic soundtrack for "The Hours" he'd pulled out wore down his resistance.
So he found himself mentally, unwillingly, replaying the night before.
It had been well after dark when he got home Thursday night, and he'd spent the evening in front of the TV trying to erase the week he'd put in at work so far. This process combined cable TV, takeout fried chicken and several shot glasses topped with bourbon.
First on the list of things to forget was that goddamn Monday morning presentation. During the pitch, Pioneer's client - a local ambulance chaser, but a rich, well-known ambulance chaser - began grilling the team on every last detail of their proposal for his new ad campaign. As senior member, Michael defended the work the best he could, but knew the man had walked in determined to get his money's worth and pick apart everything they'd done. Before he could say anything to piss the guy off further, he'd excused himself, only to run smack into Jason in the hall. They'd had words and, chastened, he sucked it up, went back inside and smoothed the ruffled feathers.
It had only been the tip of the iceberg. Tuesday an intern misplaced two important files (including checks) and then the computers went down - putting everything in the office a day behind schedule. Wednesday he missed a big meeting downtown, and then Thursday morning the Coke machine in the lounge stopped working. It was the last straw.
By five o'clock Thursday, caffeine-deprived and unfocused, he was a wreck and more than ready for the weekend, if not the sweet release of death. A choice of words he came to regret.
It was with some relief that he'd finally gone home, eaten and drunk dinner, and fallen into bed. It had been a good deep alcohol-fueled sleep too, face down and drooling on the pillow when the phone rang just after midnight.
Out of it as he was the next day, he could still recall everything clearly from that moment on. He'd stumbled to the phone in the dark and picked it up, to hear a clear but hesitant "Hello?"
The air froze. The world stopped turning. His heart clenched painfully in his chest. He knew in a second who it was; her voice hadn't changed at all. He'd listened to it in his dreams for years. And he sure as fuck wasn't dreaming now. It was his mother on the other end of the line.
With just one word she'd filled in the silence of the past twenty years. At first he couldn't speak. As badly as he wanted to say something, anything, he was breathless and literally couldn't speak to her.
"Michael? If that's you, I'm not surprised you don't recognize my voice. It's your mom. Please don't hang up."
"No, I knew... I won't..." Words would just not come. His head was spinning. Why was she calling him in the middle of the night? What time was it? Oh, Jesus. The single thing he could think clearly was that something must be very badly wrong in Louisville. His dad. One of his uncles. Someone was gone.
He finally unseized and took a deep breath. Released it. Took an old familiar tack. "Huh. Well how about that. What's up?" He added "Mom."
She clucked at him. "Please don't take that tone with me right now, son. Later if you absolutely have to, not now. I don't have but a second to talk." He groaned and sat back on the bed, resisting the urge to pull the covers over his head. Amazing. He was an adult man, practically middle-aged, but she still had the authority to smack him down like that. Her no-nonsense tone took him right back to five years old, caught sneaking Oreos into his room.
"Your father will be back from the basement, and he doesn't know I'm calling you." Her voice softened a bit; of course he remembered how Dad needed to stay on top of everything going on in the house. "It's like this, Michael. I wrestled with myself over whether I should call, but I thought you'd want to know. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you like this. The day before yesterday, Billy Shepherd died."
He couldn't describe, even to himself, what it had felt like to hear those words from her.
He'd heard her, right? Billy Shepherd? God. He doubled over and put his head in his hands, light-headed, like he might pass out. Billy dead... For just a split second he blindly hated his mother. For calling, for picking this reason, this one, to call after all this time and now, when he felt so low and defenseless. He felt like she'd hit him across the face.
He squeezed his eyes shut and counted ten to burn the the anger off. This is what it finally took, he thought. Not looking through the family album and thinking of him, teary-eyed; not seeing his name in the Indy paper that had profiled Pioneer last year. This.
God, poor Billy.
For the hundred thousandth time he thought of the last he'd seen of Billy, standing by the window in his bedroom, sunshine gleaming on the tears in his eyes. Throwing his arm over his face and pushing Michael away. The same day Michael left town for good. He didn't want to remember the rest of it - the shouting, the crying, but the one last quiet moment from that hellish afternoon was what he saw again.
"He had cancer, and it was quick. I was hoping you might come to the funeral. You two were... friends once, and your father and I have stayed somewhat close to Don and Mary Jo. I think they'd appreciate it if you were there. Things have changed here, Michael. We'd all appreciate-" She stopped herself.
"No, I won't take the easy way out. The truth is it would mean a lot to me. If you came."
He couldn't yell at her. He didn't pass out. The world, in fact, still kept turning. What did it matter now? Nothing he could do would change the way things had happened. Nothing. He slowly shook his head, surprised to realize he already knew the answer to her unspoken question. It really came down to hearing her admit that his being there would mean something to her.
"Yeah, Mom. I'll be there. When?"
She'd been holding her breath waiting. She made a sound like a sigh and replied, "Visitation is Saturday and the funeral's Sunday at two, at Rueger's. Do you remember where that is?" He said he did. "There's one more thing, son. On the weather tonight they were predicting a storm of some kind from up north, by the weekend. They didn't know if it would be rain or snow or what. So please drive carefully."
"I will, Mom."
She hurriedly rang off; Michael imagined that Dad had come upstairs and found her side of the bed empty, the latest Mary Higgins Clark face-down on the nightstand, and was calling for her. The dial tone buzzed in his ear until he finally hung up.
So as quickly as it started the conversation was over, almost as if it hadn't happened at all. He might have gotten up in the morning and imagined the whole thing was a dream, except that he'd found "Billy Ruegers Sun 2" scratched onto the notepad by the phone.
In bed he'd laid back on the pillows and fought back tears, praying he'd be able to sleep again. He tried his best not to think about Billy and all the years they'd known each other, but it was no use. The more he saw of them together in his mind the further his heart sank, the images going by so he couldn't shut them off.
Him and Billy hiking through the woods in Iroquois Park. The two of them cutting class at lunch and shoplifting Mad magazines and Mello Yellos from the drugstore near school. Billy huddled under the Shelton's deck, knees and elbows bleeding, crying. Michael holding him close, blood on his hands and crying, while it rained all around them.
What good was a home and job? How could you enjoy anything in the world, anything at all, knowing you'd abandoned the one person you ever really loved. Left him behind and made a life of your own that never ever included him. And now never could again.
He'd begun to cry and couldn't stop, ashamed to be the age he was and bawling like a baby. He ground his fists into his eyes but the images kept coming. The two best friends camping out in the Shepherds' back yard. Buying Michael's first car, a junky five-speed diesel Rabbit. Applying to schools side by side at Michael's desk, secure in their future together. He cried for him... For lost time... For that last summer, 1984. For everything that should have been but wasn't. By three o'clock, emptied out and head aching, he had resigned himself to spending the rest of the night staring at the ceiling; fifteen minutes later he fell into a fitful sleep.