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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chapter Four: The Hitcher
He'd only set himself up for disappointment by wanting to see the stupid view so badly. What was he in such a hurry for anyway? Seeing the city wasn't important - it was that he'd made the effort to come here at all. That, and the funeral, and making some kind of reconciliation with his family, should be enough. It was enough. He sighed and settled back into the seat.
Kevin's place apparently wasn't half an hour away. Free food, Egyptian cotton sheets, a hot tub... Relax and try to enjoy a weekend away from the pressures of home and work. The funeral would be bad, he had no doubt of that, but this weekend could also be an opportunity to set some things right.
As he passed a woman in a Lexus obliviously chatting on her cell phone, Michael glanced at the passenger seat. There was the bag of fries. Not on the floor.
Hey, right there are the fries. Wait, so... They've been on the seat all along. Doy.
But. The fries looked funny. Some of them were an odd color - and shape. Because they weren't fries. They weren't fries? In a split second something shot through Michael's brain. A scene in that stupid C. Thomas Howell movie, what was it...? There were fries in that movie - and fingers.
There were fingers here. Fingers? On the seat beside him. What the-
"What the fuck!" he shouted.
A horn sounded from somewhere behind him. When Michael looked back up he saw he'd let the Wrangler drift off halfway into the breakdown lane. Now that he'd torn his attention away from the fingers - fingers! - on the seat he could feel the speed bumps along the right shoulder trying to twist the wheel out of his hands.
He stomped on the brake and turned to the left enough to regain the road, but the car started to fishtail on the wet surface. He swung too far left, just avoiding the Lexus in the fast lane. Boy, he had her attention now! He swerved back to the shoulder.
Horns blew from every side, rattling him more. He overcompensated. Both right wheels went off the pavement and dragged the car that direction. Wondering if the Wrangler would ever slow down on the slick cement, Michael looked out the passenger window and saw there was no guard rail along the shoulder to stop him from flipping into the ditch beside the interstate or the field beyond.
"Oh god oh god oh god oh god..." he moaned. His ankle hurt from pushing the brake to the floor and his wrists felt like they'd break from the vibrations on the steering wheel. There - was the car slowing? He shut his eyes and prayed that it was actually responding. Yes, thank you.
The shaking and noise finally stopped. Michael had to count to ten before he could open his eyes and see the worst. The Wrangler sat at the side of the road, engine idling, its nose pointed left directly into the traffic on 265. The headlights picked out each vehicle going past. If he'd gone one foot more the next car behind him would have taken off his front bumper, or worse.
Horns blared from drivers startled to see a car sitting practically at a right angle to them, but they were music to Michael's ears. He was alive.
And he had to get out of there. With shaking hands he shifted into reverse and backed as far as he dared toward the ditch, then slowly turned the wheel and eased up parallel to the road. There was an overpass a quarter mile ahead, so with his foot barely touching the gas he drove at a crawl beside the flow of cars until he was all the way beneath it.
Michael braked alongside one big concrete strut, put the Wrangler in park and let out a long, slow breath. The space was more like a tunnel than an undercut - the gloomy winter light barely reached as far inside as the car. Snow filled the air and covered the ground on either side of the broad underpass, whiting out the ditch ahead, the fields beyond, and the hills beyond that. For a minute the hiss of the traffic and the sound of the wipers going back and forth were all he heard. Once the blades began scraping at the dry windshield, Michael shut them off.
"Jesus. Jesus. Jeeeez. Usss."
This is the day that will never ever fucking end. I can't wait to just stop moving, get a drink in me, and collapse. There must be something under all this shit. There must be a pony. There has to be. What else can possibly go wrong today?
There was hardly enough light to see anything under the bridge. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, they fell to the seat beside him. Of course in the near-wreck the fries, the CDs and anything else in that wasn't tied down had flown to the floor. The fingers were gone too, but he thought he knew where. How occupied must his brain have been, not to notice before now?
Michael undid his seatbelt and twisted around toward the back. His suitcase stood flipped on its end in the floor, and in a big wad on top of it his jacket and coat, and on top of that his suit, twisted in its garment bag. The book was out of sight, probably at the bottom of the pile.
Michael cleared his throat. "Are you all right?" he asked into the dark. There was no reply.
He sighed. "Jeremy, I know it was you. Don't make me dig you out of there." After a long moment, everything in the back shifted to one side and he found himself looking down into two bright unblinking points of light. Jeremy's blue eyes, reflecting the lights from the dashboard, were all he could see of the stowaway. He was wedged half on the seat and half off it on the floor behind Michael.
"Are you all right? No broken bones or anything?"
The teenager seemed to think for a moment, then answered in a small voice, "No, I don't think so. My glasses got knocked off. And my leg hurts a little."
"Help me straighten all this out. Find your glasses, then get in the front seat."
"Come on, don't argue with me. We need to get out of here and back on the road. Look pretty funny if a cop stopped me right now. Just lay my suit out flat, get everything else off the floor, and get up here with me." Michael unhitched the passenger seat and pushed it forward to make room. Jeremy unfolded his lanky frame from the floor and did what Michael asked, then opened his door.
"There's a big book under here." Jeremy huffed as he passed the red volume out to him and shoved the suitcase back where it belonged. The glasses that made his face look so... smart, were back in place.
"Give it here." Michael took it and slipped it under his own seat. " I can't believe you hid under all that stuff and I didn't even see you."
"I'm done. I have my own bag back here too."
"Leave it. Now come on." Michael didn't mean to sound impatient, but sitting at the side of the road was making his nerves worse the longer they stayed there. He watched as Jeremy pushed the passenger door open and got out. The kid, looking over at him, pulled his bag out by its strap.
Too late Michael realized what he was going to do. The boy shouldered the bag and ran off down the verge, slamming the door behind him.
"Oh, God damn it!" Here we go again.
Without giving it any thought, Michael pulled the keys, flicked the Wrangler's flashers on and started running himself. The boy was already out in the open on the far side of the overpass, only instead of sticking to the road he jumped the ditch and was legging it across a wide, furrowed field leading to some woods. He'd made it so far that he was already beginning to disappear from sight. "Shit!"
Michael crossed the dry ground under the bridge with no trouble, but once over the ditch and into the open he had to slow down. The snow was already so thick on the ground that it was leveling the ruts that criss-crossed the field. Mud and the stubble of old cornstalks squelched under his hikers as he struggled to keep pace and not break an ankle on the uneven terrain. Where had the kid's footprints gone in all this muck? He looked up and realized Jeremy was nowhere in sight.
He stopped in the middle of the field, disoriented and unsure which direction to take. The snow was falling so hard now it was like a wall of white in all four directions. The faint sound of traffic seemed to be coming from his left, so he turned away from it and slowly began again.
Michael's breath came out in ragged clouds and a sharp pain was beginning to burn in his side. What the hell was he doing? He felt like an idiot, running around and freezing his tits off in nothing but a sweater and slacks. Going out of his way - again - for the sake of a kid he didn't even know. For the umpteenth time that day he considered taking the easy way out. Why not just walk back to the car and let him go?
Yards ahead, the white curtain parted and he spotted something moving through the fog, toward the darker space of the woods ahead. From this distance it could just as well be the frigging Yeti, but the shape seemed to be the snow-powdered blue of that letterman's jacket. If that patch of color really was him, he was creeping along the far side of the field to get to the cover of the trees.
Michael took as deep a breath as he could manage and shouted "Hey!"
It was hard to tell if his voice would carry, since the snow seemed to muffle all the sound around him. But the shape paused, so Michael took that as a sign he'd been heard. He took a couple of cautious steps in that direction.
"Do you know where you're going? You're headed into the woods! If it keeps on snowing you're bound to get lost!" He took a few more steps, until he was just about sure it was the kid he was shouting advice to, and not a cow or a fencepost. The shape hadn't moved yet, so while he had its attention Michael put on the voice he used with the interns at Pioneer Design: authoritative but accessible. Your buddy Mr. Shelton. You can call me Michael - if you make it through the whole semester.
Better not to scare the boy, flight seemed to be a primary mode with him.
"Unless things have changed in twenty years, there aren't any roads up that way for quite a distance. Miles. I'd hate to see you come all this way just to freeze to death out in the woods."
Michael walked over the treacherous ruts in the field with a confidence he didn't have, feeling like some no-experience, first-time crisis counselor on his way to a jumper on a window ledge.
If this turns out to be a tree stump...
Nope - it was Jeremy. His figure slowly emerged from in front of Michael, until they stood only a couple of yards apart. His eyes were wide and panicky as he struggled to catch a breath in the frigid thin air, and he was holding his bag by its strap, ready to use it as a weapon to keep his pursuer away. "Stay... Stay back," he gasped.
Michael saw that he'd inadvertently backed Jeremy against a long fence topped with barbed wire. A few yards to the left it met another one, forming a corner just where the treeline started. If he tried to run in any direction Michael could probably catch him, but if he did something dumb like turn and try to climb the fence, he'd tear himself to shreds on the wire. Good going.
Michael stopped short, by putting his foot in an iced-over puddle of water. "Shit." And whatever tiny bit of confidence he'd been feeling leaked out completely.
Hey kid, you think times are tough? This guy with the wet shoe and chattering teeth has come to save you. Bet you feel better now, don't you?
He held his palms up, as if the boy were a nervous dog. "Okay, I'm not coming any further. What's the matter with you, Jeremy? I thought we were cool back there. I'm not angry with you for hiding in the car, I promise. Why did you run away?"
The boy bent and put his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to throw up. Michael took a chance and inched a little closer but quit when Jeremy shot up like he'd run again. He was startled to see tears running from the boy's eyes and his lip quivering.
Michael backed up a step. He'd thought the kid was tougher than that. Even back when he'd just been nearly raped by those two assholes, there hadn't been any tears. How could this be worse than that?
"All right, whatever it is, calm down. Take a breath and tell me what's wrong." For a moment the silence was broken only by snow softly hitting the shoulders of his sweater and the muted roar of the traffic far away on the road. The storm had even driven the winter birds under cover. You didn't have to listen too hard to hear the sobs Jeremy was swallowing as he tried to get control of himself. Shamefaced, Michael turned and squinted into the distant traffic, blurred as it was. Right at that moment he didn't need to be an spectator.
Looking toward what little he could see of the horizon, Michael concentrated on slowing his breathing and pulling together his scattered thoughts. How to make sense of this crazy day? What the hell was the point of all this?
In a second something occurred to him.
What he'd seen just as he looked away was familiar somehow. It had reminded him of a scene from a movie. No, a picture. In a book...
He glanced back.
Jeremy stood still a few feet away, tears falling, lost in the middle of a storm. Not this one - the one Michael could now see he was carrying inside his head.
His eyelashes and long dark hair were slowly collecting falling snowflakes. In his pale skin and the hollows of his face traced by the cold, Michael had recognized... What?
An old black-and-white photo of a statue standing in a cemetery. Maybe Crown Hill, something he'd probably seen years ago. An angel, hands clasped over its heart and a sword by its side, eyes cast down to the grave beneath it. Bravery overcome by sorrow. Grief.
Funny. In trying to spare Jeremy the embarassment of crying, he'd seen something more revealing - about himself. He shook his head to erase the vision from his mind, but it lingered. He realized that the image of the boy-as-angel had stirred something deep inside him. The feeling wasn't completely unwelcome, but it made him very uneasy, because whatever it was, he couldn't name it. Yet.
This is ridiculous. I don't know the first thing about him or his situation. My own drama is just bleeding into everything else I see and do. He could be fine. A little high-strung, maybe. I want to believe he needs my help. Why else would I be chasing him all over the place?
Well? Why else indeed.
If the feeling was paternal, that Jeremy was in trouble and did honestly need something from him, he could live with that. He wouldn't mind handing over a few bucks or, when the weather improved, giving him a lift to wherever he was headed.
It seemed like his fate was always to play sugar daddy to some child. But if this one was an actual adolescent, as opposed to the boneheads he usually dated, would that mean this feeling deserved a different label?
The word that came to mind, the only one that would, was "infatuation," and he refused to explore it any further than that. There were worse ones, ridiculous and illegal in the bargain. The boy wasn't an angel, snow-covered or otherwise. He was a teenager. Red flag. Hands off.
The truth (he hoped) was someplace safe. Whereas most of his relationships demanded so much of Michael, here was a young man who asked nothing and even pushed him away. His heart ached to do something - anything - for the boy, and that was no lie. He was standing right there, how could Michael not want to? Where it would lead them both remained to be seen.
The kid haltingly cleared his throat, startling Michael out of his thoughts; he made a show of turning around to face him. Jeremy spoke in the flat tone he'd used at the mall, as he roughly wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. "You didn't go where I thought we were going. When I got out of the car I saw the sign for New Albany. We were s'posed to be going to Indianapolis. Your license plate says Marion County."
Michael all but snapped his fingers or hit his forehead. Of course. Now it all made sense. He looked at the boy. "Okay. I get it. I'm not the sharpest tool in the box, but I get it now."
At the mall the kid had only gone to the car to satisfy Michael and his do-gooding ego. He didn't want clothes, he wanted a ride. He saw the license plate and hid in the back, expecting a trip from the mall back to Indianapolis. He'd have popped up and said something, or more likely just run, as soon as they crossed I-465.
But they'd gone the opposite way instead, south, and... Since he'd recognized the New Albany sign, he must be from this area. And he'd been at the mall in the first place, and they met the way they did, and Michael's life was now more complicated than ever...
Because this kid was running. Running. As in away from home.
It felt like a piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle falling into place. One of those 5,000-piecers, called "Your Life," and that piece in the very middle was in the shape of a running teenage boy.
So was that central piece the last one - or was it the very first, the one that had started the whole thing? Which was it?
If he'd thought that just helping out this morning was the important thing, or that his responsibility was over, obviously he'd been dead wrong. He felt like he'd been handed a flyer reading "Consolidate your karmic debt today!"
Michael had three questions.
One. "Okay. Answers, please. Where are you from?"
Give the kid credit, Jeremy dared to look him in the eye when he replied, and he didn't hem and haw about it. Apparently the fight had gone out of him, at least for a while. "Louisville. In the south end."
"Really." Two. "Where were you headed for?"
"Chicago. I have an aunt who lives up there." He didn't offer any more explanation, and from the worried expression he took on, Michael thought he must know what the next question logically was: "Why?" It was on the tip of his tongue. The kid's piercing blue eyes were on him, waiting for it. The answer was obviously something so awful, so terrible, he knew Michael would walk away and leave him standing alone out in this field. Had someone else already done the same thing to him?
Three. There was always time to ask that one later. Instead he just said "How long have you been on the road?"
Jeremy visibly had to stop and rethink whatever he'd been about to say, before going on. He sniffed and said "Since Wednesday afternoon. I hitchhiked that night, and slept next to a heating unit behind some church. I couldn't get a ride to save my life yesterday so I walked to Edinburgh and spent the night in one of the clothing stores. You know those big round clothes racks?" Michael nodded. "I crawled inside one of those and hid out until they closed. Then when they opened I left my bag there and started scoping the parking lot for license plates. That's when I met up with those two guys."
Wednesday. So his parents would surely have put out an APB by now. If they'd figured he was headed out of town, troopers were watching for him on 64, 65 or 71 right now.
"I know I'm a lot of trouble. If I'd met you in the parking lot I would have asked for a lift, but that whole scene in the bathroom and then you getting mad kind of freaked me. Then I almost made you wreck. But I was hungry and you were asleep, I mean you were snoring and all, so I thought I could grab a couple of fries and you wouldn't miss them, but you woke up and I still had the bag. So I tried to put them back, and you must've seen me do it, huh?"
Snoring? Michael smirked in spite of himself.
The boy said "I'm really sorry." He sounded miserable.
Michael wiped the smirk away. "Forget about it. The important thing is that we'll both live to tell about it." He took a breath. Just listening to him talk was tiring. "Jeremy, I can't leave you out here. Even if the weather was good, I'd have a hard time with that. If this keeps up there'll be two feet of snow on the ground by tonight."
"I'm going to a friend's house. It's only twenty minutes from here, on the Indiana side. I can't take you back to Louisville-"
He held up a hand. "And I don't want to. I can't force you, but I'd like you to come with me. Kevin's a great guy- well, I guess you heard me talking to him. He's my best friend. He won't mind. We'll get some food in you and rest up, and then... I'd like to talk about why you're running away." He started to protest again, so Michael added "When you're ready to. But you have to come back to the car with me. Please."
He could see the boy was actually weighing the offer; the play of emotions on his face said it all. In his scowl was a debate whether to trust this stranger, a man who, for whatever reason, now that they'd met wouldn't leave. Michael had a reason, of sorts, but he couldn't explain what he'd just now seen for himself. It was too new to put into words in his own damn mind.
"There are two things you need to know about me, kid." Jeremy looked up expectantly, the frown on hold. "First, I'm ready to stand out here until one of us keels over from hypothermia. And two...
"I definitely do not snore."
Jeremy looked at him as if he'd started speaking Latin. Then he lit up and gave that single laugh like he had before. And like before, the effect was the same: Michael felt that just for an instant, his day got better. The sun broke through, and all it took was showing this young man that someone cared what happened to him.
He went on, wanting to make it last. "You see my dilemma. I can't let you go on thinking that I snore like some redneck from, from Shively. I'm way too refined for that."
"Hey, I'm from Beechmont!" The next best thing to Shively.
"Imagine that." He sobered for a second. "You're not the only one standing here with a history in Louisville, Jeremy. I'm going back, because I don't have a choice. Come to Kevin's with me and I'll tell you all about it. It's a great story. Come on."
Jeremy hesitated only a second more before rolling his eyes, agreeing "All right," and retrieving his bag from where he'd dropped it to the ground. He trudged over the furrows until they were together, and once again he surprised Michael by grabbing him in a tight hug. He breathed "Thanks, man. I don't know what I was doing," into Michael's sweater, warming a spot above his collarbone.
They stood that way for a while, Michael accepting the gesture until he sensed that the appropriate time for them to be doing that had passed. What if the kid started crying into his shoulder? Or something. When he pulled Jeremy back, the boy's eyes were wet again but he was smiling.
"You need to work on your hugs, Mr.- um, Michael. Someone'd think you're at a funeral."
He obliviously walked around Michael, bag slung around his neck again, back in the direction their fading footprints led. In a moment the older man followed.
They were just turning the corner beneath the overpass when Michael noticed Jeremy stiffen beside him. The boy slowed his pace, so he was a step behind when Michael finally noticed the New Albany police car, lights flashing, parked behind his car.
"Oh, fuck me." He looked over in time to see Jeremy shuck his bag behind a concrete pillar, then catch up and squeeze underneath Michael's arm. It was a tight fit with the bulky letterman's jacket. "What are you doing?"
The boy shouldered him along the verge till they were under the bridge. Traffic on the interstate had slowed to a crawl as snow was beginning to pile up despite the cinders. The two of them must have made quite a sight because several commuters stared curiously from passing cars. Under his breath he muttered "Earning my keep for once. Do I look like I'm sick?"
"Well, your eyes are red and puffy, and you're about the color of cream cheese, so yeah, you look sick. So what?"
"Tell him I lost my lunch and had to get out of the car."
Michael halfway joked, "You pick now to start facing trouble?" They were almost there.
Jeremy cut his eyes to the side and said sourly "Didn't you tell me `Take care of yourself'? I really, really don't want to go back home. I'm trying to help, so back me up. I mean, I could tell him I've been sitting in your trunk for two days. That would clear things up fast."
"Wranglers don't have-" Michael started to argue, but there wasn't time. The door of the police car opened and a cop right out of the movies stepped up to meet them by the Wrangler's front bumper. Broad shoulders, leather jacket, and shades, even on this overcast day. As badly as Michael wanted to turn around and run, or wet himself, or something, Jeremy wouldn't let him go. In fact, the kid leaned harder against him, making him stumble. Then he stopped and hocked a big gob of spit on the cement by their feet. That would look good.
The cop watched expressionlessly until they were standing right in front of him. "Sir," he finally said.
"Off- Officer," Michael nervously stuttered. Oh, hell. Well, it could be the cold.
Beside him, Jeremy moaned and stumbled off to one side. He opened the passenger door of the Jeep and sat, heavily, with his feet on the ground and his head hanging above his knees. "I feel like I might throw up again, Uncle Mike."
"Uh..." The cop was watching, but all Michael could make of any expression was a tiny, sweating reflection of himself in the sunglasses. Think! "We've, uh, still got the McDonald's bag there in the front. Hold on to it. We'll be at your mother's in a little while."
"Sir, you shouldn't leave a vehicle unattended by the side of the road like this. It's a definite hazard. I could ticket you." He said it without visibly moving a muscle in his face, which was unnerving. He stood between the two of them like he never intended to move. Michael had no way of catching any cues Jeremy might be giving him, so he stammered on.
"I was, uh, very careful to take the keys with me and put on the flashers before I left, officer." Liar. "Not that I'm making excuses. My... my nephew gets car sick sometimes, and I thought it was better to let him out than try to drive and deal with it at the same time." You are sooo going to jail.
"This is your nephew, Mr...?"
"Shelton, Michael Shelton. This is Jeremy." He started to get out his wallet, but the cop put up a hand.
"That's not necessary, Mr. Shelton. I've already run your tags." He spun on his heel to look down at Jeremy. "He favors you. My daughter has the same problem, when she sits in the back. You might try dramamine, son. Especially on a long trip."
"Th-thanks, sir. I will." Michael could practically hear Jeremy's teeth clicking. He was either a very convincing actor or the cold was catching up with him.
The cop turned once more and said "Glad to see everything's okay here, sir. Been some terrible accidents this morning. Wouldn't want to see a pullover turn into something worse. Be more careful next time." He walked around the far side of the car to his own. "Happy holidays to you." He got behind the wheel and pulled out, lights still flashing. The long stretch of traffic parted for him and he drove on down 265.
"Oh my god," Michael breathed, not daring to move. "Is he gone?"
Jeremy peeked around the door and nodded yes.
"Good. Go get your bag and let's get the hell out of here." Jeremy took off while Michael started the Wrangler and turned everything inside on at once. It warmed up and defrosted in no time, and with the kid's bag stowed in back, they joined the slow-moving line of cars and headed for Kevin's.
Michael and Jeremy's trip - or trips, depending on how you looked at it - came to an end forty-five minutes later. Traffic on the expressway never did pick up, and in fact it slowed the closer they got to Kevin's exit. Once onto the secondary road Michael stopped at a Thornton's to refuel, noting that gas here was a quarter a gallon more than in Indianapolis. Before they left, he sent Jeremy inside with a twenty to get any of his favorite snack food. Between Martha Stewart and the Pampered Chef, Kevin would surely have everything a kitchen queen ever needed, but as for the food teenagers ate, who knew?
The Wrangler hugged the slick curves on the country road, and Michael was thankful that some time around Labor Day he'd been smart enough to invest in four good tires. The further they got from 265, the rougher the ride got as the pavement slowly disappeared under a dirty gray layer of slush. By the time they were well and truly out in the boonies where no other cars had ventured yet, the road was just a clean white path in the middle of the hilly landscape.
The directions to the house had been simple enough for Michael to remember, but he'd scratched "stone mailbox 8781" above "Billy Ruegers Sun 2" on the scrap of paper in his hand. Seeing his midnight note to himself did nothing to lighten his mood. He thought, but didn't say, that today it would be just his luck to meet a twelve-foot-wide combine, blades flying, coming the other way at forty miles an hour. It would be there, didn't matter it was winter.
A phone call, a fight, two almost-wrecks, a chase, a cop... Just because they were within spitting distance of Kevin's didn't mean something worse couldn't still-
He cut himself off. No sense tempting fate.
Silence had fallen in the car, but neither of them made any effort to break it. Michael glanced over occasionally, trying to sense Jeremy's mood, but he was unreadably fixed on the scenery outside. Giant rolls of hay like huge Ace bandages sat in fields beside the road, too big to be buried by the snow. Every so often a lone cow would appear on a hillside, a brown speck against all the white. He wondered if Jeremy had ever spent time outside the city, or if this was a new experience for him. He wondered what, if anything, the kid was thinking about at all.
They made one more turn onto a private drive that disappeared into a deep woods, and from the corner of his eye Michael saw Jeremy sit up and start to pay attention. "We're looking for 8781."
There were several mailboxes along the way to choose from. Kevin had told him any number of times how popular the area had recently become with retirees and commuters escaping the big city. "Okay. Looks like it'll be on your side." After one false stop they pulled up to a gate set into two six-foot creekstone pillars.The nameplate on the nearest pillar was rimed with frost, so Jeremy got out and brushed it off with his hand.
"Yeah, that's it. Can you unlatch the gate?"
"Sure." He wrestled with the catch until it popped open, then swung it wide so the Wrangler could pass. He returned it to its closed position and got back in, knocking his shoes against the side first. "Did you see the trees out there? They're huge!"
"Kevin's family has owned the land for like a hundred years, so it's never been farmed or cut like everywhere else around here. He's sold off a few parcels, but only to buyers who promise to build houses and not clear any more room than they need for that."
"Kevin's very cool." They were traveling along a smooth gravel drive that wound between tall thin pines and stout oaks and maples. There still was no sign of the house, though; the property must be even bigger than he'd imagined. "If you're nervous about meeting him right now, don't be. He's at work. I know you'll like him, though. And he'll like you."
They drove on, each of them absorbing the landscape. Both sides of the drive had been planted with shrubs and smaller ornamental trees which blended into the forest as if they belonged there. The greenery overhead was thick enough that only a few flakes had made it to the ground. Here and there, you could see stone-edged paths wandering away from the road into the woods. Michael hoped that he had time this trip to explore the property, and for a second he felt a pang of guilt about having let his ancient family feud get in the way of visiting and seeing all this in bloom one spring or summer. Kevin must be very proud of the job he'd done. He promised himself that no matter what, he'd come back some time next year.
Just as Michael was beginning to wonder if they hadn't accidentally gotten onto an access road or something, there was a final dogleg and they emerged from the canopy of trees onto a curving, paved drive.
"Holy sh- Wow." Jeremy scooted forward on his seat to get a good look at the house that had appeared in front of them.
"You can say it, I don't mind. `Holy shit' is right." Michael leaned up and whistled.
The parking area encircled a central island planted thick with chrysanthemums whose faded golds and reds poked through the snow. The drive wound past a stone portico, which Michael slowly pulled toward as the rest of the house came into view. The portico rested under a two-story triangle of black window, under a roof that sloped from its pointed tip all the way down to the ground. There were similar slopes to the left and right, peaks of roof over tall walls of glass, and presumably one on the opposite side too. They were at one end of a double A-frame house; from above, Michael imagined the house must look like a big plus sign.
It was covered in weathered wood shingles which blended the shape of the house into the forest surrounding it. More decorative trees and plants crowded either side of the entrance porch, around what looked like a tiny pond to one side and some kind of small shed on the other. A sidewalk wandered across, connecting all the entrances. Whatever lay on the far side of the house was screened from view by the rise of the land and more trees.
Michael caught his breath and said, "Pretty spectacular, huh?" He remembered the long hot summer days he spent working on renovating on his own house, only to hear from Kevin on his next visit that he'd taken delivery the week before on a flatbed truck full of ornamentals or half a ton of topsoil. The effort he'd put into it certainly showed.
Jeremy nodded. "I could get used to living here." They'd stopped under the portico, in front of a sturdy wrought iron security door.
"Who couldn't. Seen enough of the outside?"
"Then grab your stuff. I don't know about you, but my ass is numb and I can barely lift my arms. I've had enough driving for a while." He put the car into park and they both got out. Michael was struck again by the silence that had fallen with the snow. There wasn't a single bird's call to be heard. Except for the crunching sounds the two of them made as they walked, all he could hear was a tree creaking somewhere out in the woods. At least he'd be well-rested this weekend.
While Jeremy rooted in the back of the car, Michael walked around and retrieved the house key from under a heavy terra cotta planter beside the door. He tapped the code into a little alarm box set into the stone wall and unlocked the door. Jeremy joined him, carrying his bag and Michael's suitcase.
Michael took it from him. "Thanks. If you saw the security code, never tell it to anyone. It's Kevin's birthday, and only he and I know the last two numbers for sure."
Jeremy chuckled. "How about his family?"
"His mother will never tell. I think she still tells people she was born that year." The front door swung open into a warm but dark house. Michael found a switch and flipped the overhead light on. They were in a tiled foyer leading to a central hall. Doorways to the left and right and another at the end of the hall led to separate wings of the house. The left side of the hall was a wall made of knobby creekstones, with a staircase to the second floor clinging to it. Jeremy and Michael kicked off their shoes and left them beside the door.
A whole wall of stones could only be... They turned the corner left together and stood at the top of a step down into the living room. The two-story triangle of glass opposite them showed nothing but snow outside, crowding the window like static on an enormous TV screen. The room was sunken, with comfortable-looking Mission-style furniture all set facing a imposing entertainment center. Yup, the wall of creekstone was the back of a fireplace - one that reached twenty-five feet into the peak of the house. Halfway up it a balcony wrapped around and looked over everything down here.
"I always pictured Kevin up there lip-snyching 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' on dull Friday nights. I had no idea this was so nice."
"Yeah, wow again. By the way, I thought I saw someone in the window when we were coming in."
"That was probably... Ah, there she is." From behind the rail of the balcony appeared a beautiful caramel-colored Himalayan cat, chubby but immaculately groomed, wearing a collar and gold tag. She trotted downstairs to meet her guests with more grace than seemed possible for one her size. "Hi there, you." Michael squatted and tried to scratch behind her ears, but she was too wary to come any closer to him than the edge of the step. "This is Miss Catherine. We've never actually met," he explained, "but I've heard about her for years. She's shy around strangers."
As Jeremy came toward her, however, the cat perked up and edged toward his feet. Once close enough to thoroughly inspect his pants cuffs, she decided she approved of him and began to energetically butt her head against his shins and paw his shoelaces.
Michael tried not to feel jealous as Jeremy shrugged. "Don't look at me, I'm a dog person." He bent over to smooth her long fur, which she let him do with a great show of arching her back and wagging her tail. Michael went back out to the car to bring in his jacket, his suit and the book from under his seat. By the time he returned Jeremy was sitting Indian style on the living room floor with the cat upside-down in his lap and loudly purring.
"Let's see what the rest of the house looks like."
"Okay. I didn't want to start without you." He stood, easing Miss Cat back down to the carpet. "This place is great."
"We haven't even seen the best parts yet. Kevin's dad died when he was pretty young, and left him the land and a bundle of money in trust. His mom remarried and moved away, and her second husband was pretty well-off too, so she just handed Kevin the rest of the money when he turned twenty-one. He designed a lot of the house himself. Since everything's already paid for, Kevin works just to stay social and keep up with taxes and insurance. I've always thought it was ninety-nine percent to meet people. Well," he hedged, "...guys."
"That's what I figured," Jeremy replied, obviously trying his best to sound worldly.
Michael smirked. "Anyway, let's get a look at the place and settle in. Which reminds me." He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. He speed-dialed Kevin and waited for an answer. Jeremy was in the hall, looking back like he wanted permission to wander. Michael waved him to go on just as a click came from the other end.
"Kevin Moore. You bitch. Oh, sorry, forget I said that."
Jeremy disappeared around a corner into one of the wings, lugging his bag and the sack of food from the gas station. "Kevin?"
"Michael! Sorry, `You bitch' was meant for Angelique. I hope she didn't hear me, the little... dear. Not you. I love you. Have you made it to the house in one piece?"
"Yes, I'm here - well... We're here." He thought he knew what Kevin's reaction to this ridiculous situation would be, so he wanted to put the best face on it while he still had time. "It's like this. On my way here I ran into someone in trouble. As in, he was getting the crap beaten out of him."
"My, I see. Who and what is this someone?" he asked.
In a rush, like a little kid explaining to his parents where the new puppy came from, he said "Well, his name is Jeremy, and once I helped him get away from these guys who attacked him, basically gay-bashed him I guess, I offered him a ride home." Cut to the chase, no need to drag it out... "Only by the time we got here, the weather was already so bad I couldn't just let him out beside the road, so I brought him with me. He's here in the house." He finished lamely, "He lives in Louisville."
"I see," Kevin said again. "You brought a strange man into my house and he's there appraising the silver right now? Killing time until the heat dies down and he can get away cross country, perhaps. Are the two of you handcuffed together?"
Michael suddenly didn't feel right talking about this with the kid so close by. He covered the mouthpiece with the palm of his hand and lowered his voice. "Come on, Kevin, give me a little credit! I think I'm a pretty good judge of character, even on short notice - present company included. Don't make me remind you of the time you brought that hustler into my house-"
"Unicorn Club hustler, into my house, and he stole my antique paperweight."
"Very talented exotic dancer, and that paperweight was ugly." Kevin sighed. "I've always wondered where he could have put that- All right, well, you'll have one more story to tell me when I get there. I do trust you, but please watch him anyway. Is he cute?"
Michael squirmed as he answered "Ye-es and no. He'll be a looker. One day. When he reaches legal age."
"Michael! Oh honey, please tell me you're not transporting underage boys over state lines, and went and kept the best one for yourself- Go away, I'm on break. Yes I am! As supervisor I get four breaks every hour. Go brew something." The last of this was directed away from the phone and presumably toward Angelique.
Michael whispered, "God, no. He's eighteeen or nineteen - I think - and he's in some kind of trouble at home. I think they threw him out, but we haven't really talked about it. He may even be gay for all I know, it was very mysterious. He's kind of nerdy, not the criminal type at all. He's definitely not my type, and I'm sure he's nowhere near your silver."
"Mmm. I could say... something, here." There was a long, meaningful pause. "But I won't."
Michael knew what his friend was thinking, as clearly as if he'd said it aloud anyhow: He's young, he's in some kind of trouble, and he needs help, probably more help than you can ever give.
So he's exactly your type, Michael Shelton. Keep an eye on your own silver.
It wasn't like Kevin to bite his tongue, no matter how tasty the words. Regardless, he went on, "It was good of you to look out for him, whatever's going on. You do have a good heart, Michael." He blushed to hear something so personal from his friend, whose compliments usually ran to hairstyles or shoes. "Take care of him, but take care of yourself first."
"I will, and I do. Thanks."
"Okay. Let's see. You can have the two guest bedrooms upstairs. There's plenty of food in the kitchen, and if the house gets cool light the fire. Oh, and don't forget the hot tub, either."
"That sounds like heaven right now. Which wing of Tara is it in?"
"Straight out- Sorry, gaily forward, out the deck doors and to the right. Lift the cover, the controls are right there. I know it sounds funny, but it's fabulous being in it outside when the weather is cold. It's easy enough to operate, but if you get into any trouble - and I do mean any kind of trouble, Michael Shelton - call me."
Thanks, mom. "Thanks, Kevin. You're a lifesaver. Did I say that already?"
"Yes, yes. I have to go pour coffee for ungrateful customers now. I'll try to be home by twelve. Talk to you then."
"Bye." Michael rang off. He stood in the hall for a moment, looking down at his reflection in the polished hardwood floor. He sat on the third-to-last stair and admired the colorful arts and crafts runner under his feet, the framed prints on the wall, the bentwood coat rack by the front door. What a life.
He could hear Jeremy moving around somewhere beyond one of the doorways, he couldn't tell which.
That wasn't like Kevin at all. His compliment was sincere, I'm sure, but still. If I needed any more proof of how far off track I've gotten today, that was it. My best friend is holding back instead of telling me how he really feels, then giving me warm fuzzies over how big my heart is. Bullshit. He probably thinks I want into the kid's pants, and if I were him I bet I'd think the same thing. As it is, I'm me and I'm not sure what my own motives are.
It depressed him, as it always did, that he could be so transparent to the people who knew him. Anita at work could tell in two seconds whether he'd had a good night's sleep, and once was able to guess he'd gotten laid over the weekend - "Bullseye!" - without him saying a word. Kevin hadn't even met the boy and knew something was up. Why was so much of his own life out of his hands?
He stood again and replayed the conversation in his head. It took him a moment to realize how truly irked Kevin must have been at his news. The ultimate proof was that for once in his life he hadn't tried to one-up Michael's story.