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 Three: Lost Highway
Of the CDs he'd sampled so far, he liked the Erasure and Annie Lennox best.
He hated to say it, as big a fan of the diva as he was, but Erasure's "Cowboy" had the edge by just a little. Lennox's "Medusa" was all covers, and he only liked a couple of the cuts. The Erasure was a few years old, although he loved the group, and he hadn't ever heard any of the songs on it. He liked the way it alternated its danceable tracks with slower, more thoughtful ones, and he was really impressed with their cover of Blondie's "Rapture." He was bopping along with it when the first signs of weather-related trouble showed themselves.
It had been snowing steadily since his stopover at the mall, and the white stuff was beginning to pile up in drifts along the edge of the highway. At times the snow was heavy enough to grey out the woods and fields on either side, leaving only the head- and taillights of other cars around him in view. The sky was as dark as late afternoon, despite the fact that it was only a little past 11. If he hadn't already crossed the halfway mark to Louisville, Michael would have been sorely tempted (again) to turn tail and try to get back home.
Past one of the little towns I-65 cut through, the highway took a long curve to the left between two low hills. At the far end of the curve it eased to the right again, and just as he rounded that corner he saw nothing but tail lights-
Both lanes of traffic were stopped dead no more than fifty feet ahead.
He stood on the brake. Luckily the road was dry and the tires bit. Treads whining, all his purchases sliding onto the floor, the Wrangler slid up behind the last car in line.
Michael silently gave thanks to fate or whatever ruled the universe, and waited for his heart rate to slow. Despite the upbeat music playing, he'd been drifting away for long stretches, trying not to think about the weekend ahead. It was only because he'd glanced up at the stereo readout that he even noticed the stalled cars in time. If the four-wheel drive didn't work it would truly be be a bitch to try and get AAA to come in the middle of a snow storm, in the middle of nowhere, to haul him out of a ditch. He promised himself to stay more alert.
How long they would all be sitting there? On both sides of this stretch of 65, the road was only two lanes wide, with few alternate routes for drivers to take, so any small thing could bring traffic to a standstill. He'd seen accidents and even just fallen trees tie things up for hours. He put the car in park, unbuckled and gathered his stuff from the floor.
He opened the Tchaikovsky compilation, stuffing the plastic wrapping into the store bag. The first cuts were ones he recognized from The Nutcracker. He remembered lying on the floor of the living room as a child, being wrapped up in his big colorful LP album of "Fantasia" on rainy afternoons, especially the Nutcracker suite. Each of the dances sounded so unique and brought such amazing pictures to his mind, which he drew and colored as he listened. When the movie was re-released in theaters and he was finally able to see the images Disney had matched to the beautiful music, he was a little disappointed that they weren't even close to the ones he'd seen in his imagination. Even so, he did love the frost-spreading fairies and the hippos in their tutus.
How could his mother have let him listen to ballet music for hours on end and not at least suspected he was gay? Parents and their blind spots. He snorted and wondered if something like being gay was really any more foreseeable than chain-smoking or having an artistic eye or being good at math. As he chewed a couple of cold french fries he looked out on the gray landscape. The music played on, competing with the subdued noise of the car idling.
Parents juggle so many issues of their own, at the same time herding their children around and watching for... what? Stupidity? Overeating? Dishonesty? It would be exhausting to list all the things that could possibly go wrong, and so easy to lose sight of the places where you got it right. All you could do was deal with stuff as it arose, and hope things wouldn't get worse. Which they would anyway, eventually. Kids became teenagers.
His last thought was that ignorance could be, not only bliss, but a big part of success. Most people, given a picture of the deviant eighteen-year-old their child was on the way to becoming one day, would go on the pill or get a vasectomy that minute. He was thankful that his parents always encouraged him to draw, paint and express himself however he wanted, including listening to ballet music. All they ever saw was their weird little boy, not the queer he'd grow up to be as an adult.
That had been years later. And it all started with... Well, didn't it always come back to meeting Billy? Michael sat back and let his eyes close as the music soothed his thoughts.
The fall of 1977. There was so much about that year, and the next seven - school, his family, Billy - that he'd long since forgotten. Or tried to forget.
There were details he wished he could remember, but there were just as many better left untouched. He was sorry his relationship with Billy had become a minefield of those kinds of moments, waiting to hurt him again and again, the more he dug up.
So he'd successfully avoided thinking about all that, even today. But in the end it was like trying not to think about his mother's phone call, useless. The elephant in the room. Things were there for a reason; you might as well look at them.
The music went on and Michael, his mind relaxed, began to nod. In a moment he was asleep, and the dream he had was as vivid as any he'd ever had in his life. As vivid as if it had been yesterday.
Mike stepped up to the door at Showcase Cinemas to find the sky pouring rain and the parking lot flooded. Parents and kids were yelling at each other, looking for their rides or excitedly talking about the movie they'd just seen at the top of their lungs. Some were trying to end-run the ushers and sneak back into the theater. Although he was tall (and thin) for eleven, he could barely see where he was going for all the others crowding around, much less see if his mother was waiting for him. It was chaos getting out, complicated by the fact that there was another thousand people in line to get in just the other side of the blue velvet rope.
A fat woman wearing a t-shirt that said "A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle" bumped into him with her huge behind, pushing him out the door and down the steps into the downpour and the three inches of water standing on the blacktop. He tried to climb back up, but she'd stopped in the doorway like a cork in a bottle, hollering for her kid. Mike was stuck outside. In no time his denim jacket was soaked, and cars passing by on their way to the exit splashed his jeans with muddy water. And of course, it being Saturday, there was no sign of Mom.
He'd known this was probably coming, so he'd already decided on a plan to get home with the least amount of trouble.
If his father found out that his mother had forgotten him again, stranding him for another afternoon drinking with her girlfriends, there'd be hell to pay that night. But if he made it home in time, he could say she'd dropped him off after the movie and gone on to Mrs. Dickenson's afterwards. He had no idea if his father was home or not. He'd been going to play golf somewhere out in the east end, but with this rain he might just as easily have stayed home or be playing cards in the clubhouse with his own friends right now. He had to at least try, for Mom's sake.
He took off across the parking lot, running as fast as he could and dodging the circling cars. He could barely see for the constant rain, and it felt like he was carrying fifty pounds of wet clothes on his back. He paused when he finally came to Bardstown Road, watching for a gap in the endless traffic there. For just a second he thought he heard someone call his name from far off, and paused. He couldn't stop to look around, there was the hole between the speeding cars he was looking for. He shot across the wide stretch to the bus shelter on the other side.
There was hardly anyone out on foot, so he had the shelter to himself. He sat, hugged his arms to his sides, and waited for the bus to come. He breathed out, testing the cool air. He couldn't see anything.
The sky slowly darkened. It seemed early. He hoped it was, for everyone's sake. As they were learning in Science, days this time of year were actually getting shorter, which he still didn't completely get. All it meant to him right now was that there was more chance he and Mom would get caught.
Across the street the big sign in front of the theater flickered and lit up.
In Theater One, the biggest of them all. It had been running since May.
Man, that name said it all. Cool and to the point, like there wasn't anything else it could possibly be about. Stars, and wars. He'd sat in the theater for two hours with his jaw unhinged, hardly able to believe someone had made a movie so... so damn cool. It looked like nothing he'd seen before, except maybe "2001: A Space Odyssey," and that wasn't really fair because "2001" had been as boring as visiting his great-grandparents or watching paint dry. Until seeing it he hadn't even thought that was possible with a sci-fi movie.
"Star Wars," on the other hand, was the best parts of James Bond, his dad's favorite WWII movies, and "Smokey and the Bandit" all rolled into one. For a kid raised on the neat but cheesy "Star Trek" and the occasional Buck Rogers serial at the Vogue, this movie had been like a brand new Firebird - sleek, fast and very, very loud. His ears were still ringing from its incredible sound effects, and his fingers itched to draw all the amazing spaceships and characters. When it ended he wanted to know as much as he could about the making of the film and what would happen next in the story. If Darth Vader got away, there had to be another one, and it would have to be something great! His friend Tony had the novelization and a stack of "Fantastic Films" magazines in his locker, so he hoped he could borrow some of them on Monday and read up on it.
Meantime, it was getting late and there was no sign of the bus. Or his mother. He'd halfway hoped she might still drive by and see him, but as it got darker he slumped against the glass and passed the time planning how to build TIE and X-wing fighters from his Lego blocks.
"Hey, Mike! I didn't know you lived out here!" He sat up and looked to see who was calling his name. A blond kid wearing an Army fatigue jacket stood on the island in the middle of Bardstown Road. He'd crossed against the light too, and was stuck there while cars whizzed by him on both sides. He waved just as an AMC Pacer drove past and drenched his leg.
Jeez, it was Billy Shepherd. The guy who'd transferred to duPont Manual in October, then sat at the back of the room ever since, behind the rest of the class unwilling (or unable, maybe) to get the help he needed to catch up. He got Cs in everything except science, and even there he was a pain in the ass because he constantly wanted to talk about computers. He was crazy for computers and let everyone know he intended to make them his life. The Advanced Program kids politely ignored his crap or gave him one-word answers the rare times he asked a question, and even teachers sometimes seemed to find it exasperating to talk to him.
Mike looked forward to the day President Carter announced computers were being banned to conserve energy. Billy would roll into a crying ball at the back of AP English, his family would cart him off to Our Lady of Peace, and that would be that.
Except that wasn't that. Here and now he was yelling Mike's name at the top of his lungs for everyone to hear, apparently not in any real hurry to get out of the rain. "Hey! Did you see the movie too? What's happening?"
Mike groaned to himself and stood to make way for the little dipstick as he finally made it across and divebombed into the shelter. Actually, up close Billy wasn't little at all, he was almost Mike's size, but the clothes he wore were always weirdly adult and completely out of style. Today was no different; under the khaki jacket, which was actually kind of cool, he wore a pinstriped button-down shirt, black slacks, and what had to be brown Hush Puppies or Thom McAnns, one of them untied.
But what did you expect, Billy was from the Highlands. Only he wouldn't be able to see what a wad it made him look like wearing that stuff together. His dishwater blond hair was half matted to his head and half sticking up in spikes.
"Not much, man," Mike finally answered. "I'm waiting for my bus. And I don't live out here, I live in the south end. I have to transfer twice to get here." He hunched his shoulders and hoped Billy would keep to himself until the bus arrived, but no such luck.
"Well, I do. We live half a mile up, off Gardiner Lane. You want to come over? Maybe your parents would let you stay for a while, and then come get you tonight?"
God, that was the last thing he wanted to do. His dad was either at home and ready to blow his top, or was out getting buzzed and would be home soon. Where was the damn bus? "Billy, that's nice of you, but, uh..." But what? I don't want to know any more about you, you're gross. You're crazy. Go away.
"I'm okay right here."
"But uh, it's raining, so you could dry out until they came, and uh..."
Michael slowly eased back on the bench. "I'm fine here, man. Just fine."
Billy's face hardened. It was the same offended look he got when one of the smarter kids trumped an answer of his in class.
"Okay, I get it. You'd rather be out here than..." Michael slumped against the side of the shelter, shrugged his shoulders further up around his ears and faced the traffic on Bardstown. Like Billy wasn't there.
"You know, forget about it. I don't care." Good, there'd at least be some quiet-
"Hey!" Startled, Michael looked up to see Billy regarding him, and he sat up straight on the bench. When he did the kid flinched, like he hadn't expected that to work. What balls. "God, would you tell me what did I did to any of you?" Jeez, what now. His hands were in fists and he looked like he was about to cry, and who could blame him.
"All I ever wanted was to get in that school and maybe make a couple friends, and it's like you all-" He shook his head angrily, shaking drops of water loose from the spikes of his hair. "Screw it. You know, you could call your parents, it's not like we don't have a phone. And I won't bother you."
He kicked the bench with one wet leather shoe. "The teachers told my mom that I talk about comp- That I talk too much. I wasn't going to talk to you about anything, except the movie, or things you want to talk about. I thought you were different from all of them, like you and I-" His bottom lip trembling, he cut himself off.
"Nevermind. I don't care. See you around." He slipped around the corner of the shelter and started trudging up the sidewalk.
Mike was stuck in place, embarrassed he might cry himself now. Feeling about as big as... well, one of those ginky things on the chess table in "Star Wars." He hoped no one would notice him sitting there like that. Of all the shitty things to do.
He didn't particularly want to go home with the little queer, but it hadn't been his intention to hurt his feelings, either. He just had to get back to the house before anything happened. He wanted to run after Billy and explain, and wouldn't you know it, here came the bus. Mike inched up the walk, torn, and looked back to see Billy get to the light at the intersection and...
Walk back across Bardstown Road again.
Damn. God damn. He'd crossed against five or six lanes of traffic, in the pouring rain, just to come all that way over and talk to Mike.
And screw. If I wait another minute he'll be gone. If I wait until Monday to tell him what happened he'll think I'm an ass. Which of course I am. If I catch the bus I can get home by four. If I go catch Billy I can call Mrs. Dickerson's and Mom can work out some excuse like she dropped me off-
The bus roared to a stop at the shelter, its engine revving, just as Mike took off up the street, yelling for Billy to stop.
Michael woke with a start at the sound of engines revving. Through the crust of snow on the windows he saw rear lights slowly pulling away down the road. "Shit," he cursed. As he shook his head to clear it, the dream softened and slipped away from him. Maybe now at least he'd caught up on his sleep. He hurriedly flipped on the windshield wipers and put the Wrangler in gear to catch up with the cars ahead of him.
He'd missed a lot of The Nutcracker. He glanced down and saw that he'd been asleep for twenty minutes, about average for one of the afternoon catnaps he took at his desk on long days at work. Now that he was awake and refreshed, he'd have a clear head when he got to town and had to deal with his parents.
Of course, it wasn't written in stone that he had to make them his first stop in town, or even visit the house at all.
Michael shifted into fifth, the fastest he dared in this weather. He thought carefully about his mother's words the night before and realized that she hadn't come right out and asked him to stay with them. He could understand why. Unless things really had drastically changed, it would be uncomfortable (to say the least) for the three of them, all in the same house again. Why was this just now coming to him? In any case, he could stay at a hotel or something instead, and just show up at the funeral Sunday. Surprise!
Which is when he got the idea to call Kevin.
Kevin Moore. Michael had met Kevin one June years before, at some forgotten Pride event in downtown Indy. He'd been half-heartedly cruising, handing out cards and trying to drum up a little freelance business. Kevin was every inch the bear, from the thick goatee, broad shoulders and 45-inch waist to the sleeveless shirt and work boots. But the moment he opened his mouth you knew that Martha Stewart, not Blue Blake, was his idol. In fact, he was pretty sure that Kevin's first words to him had been a compliment on his shoes.
As they introduced themselves and Kevin politely took a card Michael saw that underneath the shirt was a colorful 1999 Kentucky Derby tee. Michael asked the friendly giant if he'd been to Derby that May, which he had. Kevin asked Michael if he was from Louisville, then spent an hour regaling him with the story of his latest breakup, a boy who worked at the Derby Museum. Kevin lived just across the river from Louisville in Indiana, and had skipped town for the day to ease his heartache. By the time they'd walked to Cafe Metro and downed an evening's worth of beer they were fast friends.
In the years since then he and Kevin frequently called and emailed, keeping each other up to date on gossip, boyfriends and news. They'd never slept together, never would - neither was the other's type - and Michael often reflected that what they lacked in attraction, they more than made up for in mutual loyalty and support.
Kevin laid it out in so many words, once. "If you and I aren't destined to be boyfriends, then we can damn well be girlfriends." All things considered, Michael considered him his best friend in the world.
They each had a standing invitation to visit the other when in town, and although he had yet to see Kevin's house, Kevin had spent more than a few weekends in Indianapolis on Michael's guest bed. He hoped that with the snow Kevin might have sprung cabin fever and be in the mood for company.
They could kill a few bottles of whatever there was in the refrigerator and spend the weekend swapping stories of long-lost loves. Michael had never told anyone the complete saga of his middle and high school years with Billy, and he thought it would be a relief to finally get it all off his chest. If anyone would understand it would be Kevin.
He retrieved his cell phone from under the passenger seat and disconnected it from the charger. He speed-dialed the number and waited for an answer. Now that traffic was finally going at a pretty good clip, he was within thirty miles of Louisville and closing fast. The snow had kept its pace, but cinders had begun to pepper the road so everything was moving safely along. If he could find Kevin's place he'd be there in-
"Michael! Whore! How long has it been since you called me?"
He smiled. "Too long. You know how business is."
"Well, I certainly know how you are." He heard cups and saucers rattling in the background.
"Okay, I'm sorry, sue me. Are you at work?"
"Yes, The Bitch can't do without me for one day, even with twelve feet of snow predicted by nightfall." Kevin managed two coffeehouses for (according to him) the Biggest Bitch in Kentucky. On Friday he'd normally be at home balancing bills, receipts and time cards, since he also did the accounts.
"I'm sorry, I won't keep you."
"Stop apologizing. I'm on break as of now. I'm out the door and lighting up as I speak. They've been talking about this storm since yesterday, and does she schedule backup? No. I live in Indiana, for goodness sake. But here I am filling in for - get this - Angelique, who lives three blocks away from the Eastern Parkway store." Michael heard him take a long drag off a cigarette. "God! That tastes good. Look at it come down. And what kind of manager isn't allowed to make out his own staff's schedule? She treats me like a child. I swear she hates me, and it's either because I'm gay or because I told her one day I heard there was a big sale at Target. Is it wrong to suggest that someone who can't color coordinate, shop at a place where they actually put the outfits together for you on the hangers?"
And that was Kevin for you. Ask the hour, get a lecture on the history of daylight savings time. "I hate to call you out of the blue, but-"
"Forget it, I can't hold a grudge against you. Who else will massage my feet the morning after dancing, the way you do? Actually, I have found someone to do that now, but I bet you don't want to hear about him..."
"Don't be that way. Of course I want to hear about any new man in your life, that only happens, what, once or twice a month. But I also wanted to ask you a favor."
"Sure, what is it? Dear God, it's cold out here. I hope I get pneumonia. Then Angelique can wade in here and fill in for me tomorrow. `Would you like biscotti with that? Hack, cough.'"
Michael reached out for a french fry while he waited for Kevin's tirade to end, but the box must have fallen to the floor. He had to cut him short; the exit he wanted was coming up in a while and he had no clue which way to go. "So I'm on my way to your neck of the woods-"
"Shut up! Are you here in town? You have to stay with us! We'd love a houseguest, especially in this weather. You and I can sit by the fire and knit scarves for the homeless. It must have taken an act of God to get you down here. Is that why it's so cold?"
"No, Hell hasn't frozen over. Wait, `we'? He's moved in already? It hasn't been that long since we talked. Don't you call me a whore."
"No, I meant me and Miss Catherine." His cat.
"Aw, I finally get to meet her. Okay, anyway, that's the favor. I need someplace to stay while I'm here. I have a funeral to go to Sunday, and I'm not sleeping over with the King and Queen of denial."
"You really are going to have to give up all that anger you have at your parents one of these days..."
"And you're going to have to give up the buffet at KFC, too... one of these days."
"Hateful. Who's the funeral for?
"Well... Billy Shepherd, actually."
"Oh, god. That's terrible! Michael, why didn't you tell me? Here I am making jokes. Of course you can stay. How do you feel?"
"Numb and tired, mostly. Mom just told me last night, I don't think it's really sunk in yet. And remind me to tell you about my morning so far. But thanks for the invitation, I'll take you up on it. Can you give me directions? I'm on 65 now." He pulled a pen and note paper from the glove compartment.
"Well, exit at 265 west and in a few miles you'll merge onto 64 west. You'll go right at..." Kevin sketched in the rest of the details and told Michael to call him back if he got lost. "I'm sure I'll be here `til midnight. Nothing brings out teenagers in bad weather like cheap coffee."
"I appreciate it, Kevin. You're a lifesaver. And you know you'll finally get to hear the whole history of Billy and me, right?"
"Oh! I hope the satellite cable goes out. I'll be all ears, sugar. You drive carefully and call me when you get there."
"Okay. Talk to you in a little while. Bye." Michael hit a key and dropped the phone in the inside pocket of his jacket. In a few minutes he'd be within sight of Louisville, closer than he'd been in twenty years. It was scary and almost... what? Exhilarating, maybe, to think that he'd be in the middle of his family again, back in the city he'd grown up in - where he'd lost his innocence, too. Finally started to see where he fit into the Big Picture.
Aloud he said "Ha. God, could you be any cornier?"
It would be great to catch up with Kevin again, too. They hadn't had a real heart-to-heart since summer, before the current glut of projects at work. He knew he could count on his friend to take his mind off his woes with the skewed experiences from his own life; no matter how strange or dramatic, Kevin could always one-up him. He was dying to see if he had a story that could possibly top the fight this morning in the mall restroom.
Michael frowned and looked down at the floor for a second. The fries would leave a grease stain on the carpet, but he'd never be able to pick them up and steer at the same time. Cars were entering the flow pretty regularly as drivers headed south out of Indiana to cross the river to Kentucky. Just a few minutes more.
The CD went into its last cut, something long and sad that Michael didn't recognize, probably another ballet. He pushed the music to the back of his mind and concentrated on navigating the stream of cars and watching for the 265 exit.
Posts along the shoulder counted off the miles until the New Albany exit. Each minute seemed to crawl by more slowly than the one before. Michael finally spotted the overpass ahead, the sign beside the highway confirming that it was the correct exit. This was it! Michael's heart was almost in his throat. From the top of the ramp, he should be able to spot downtown Louisville, however briefly and however obscured by the storm. Unless his memory was wrong, the buildings were tall enough to be seen even from this distance. The last time he'd looked at the city it was a third of the size it was now, and that had been through tears and in the rearview mirror.
He signaled and slowed the car, determined to make the moment last as long as he could. The Wrangler climbed the overpass ramp, hit the top, and Michael twisted left in his seat to get a good look.
His heart fell.
Nothing. Everything beyond about a hundred feet, including the tail-lights of all the cars going down the freeway, faded and vanished into a blue-gray wall of snow.
There was no sight of the city across the river; he could barely even see the woods on the opposite side of the road. Traffic steadily went by on its way west; he joined it and continued on.
Crap. All that buildup for nothing. Oh, well. Let it go - I'll see it soon enough.