THE STUDIO IN THE COUNTRY, Part 18
DISCLAIMER: The story that follows is a work of fiction. Some characters may be based on real people, but this story should not be considered accurate or truthful representations of any actual person. This story is not intended to reflect the behavior, work habits, personal hygiene, sexual proclivities, or emotional instability of any real person, living or dead.
WARNING: This story deals with homosexual themes. If this offends you, read no further. If accessing this story causes you break any laws applicable in your area, read no further. If you are under 18 years of age, read no further. If you're sorry Kathy Lee left her talk show, get your head examined.
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Part 18 - Sunday Afternoon
The rest of the morning went by slowly. Mike had disappeared into his room right after his little "announcement," and everyone else was up in their room. I grabbed a can of Dr. Pepper and headed out to check the horses. Rex and Regina had seen me through the windows of the gym and were coming around the corner of the building when I stepped out of the door. I stopped long enough to give each dog a scratch between the ears, then they followed me across the driveway to the stable.
The sunshine was bright and warm, and I blinked a couple of times until my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit stable. A few horse noses appeared from the stalls on my right, and I heard a few whinnies of hello. The horses were expecting me to open the gate between the corral and the pasture to let them out, but I didn't. We wanted to keep them corralled so we could go riding after lunch. But I gave them all a bit of sweet feed to make it up to them.
Tico's stall was the last one I came to, so I just upturned the bucket and poured the remaining sweet feed into his trough. He nudged at it with his nose before he raised his head again and nuzzled it against my hand. "Don't worry 'bout it, Tico," I told him as I reached up to stroke his forelock. "You'll get plenty of exercise this afternoon. I promise."
I stood for a moment, looking out across the corral, across the pasture to the trees. I was looking but I didn't really see the trees, just as I was only vaguely aware of the horse standing beside me. My thoughts were vague and nebulous, and for once I couldn't use them to keep my emotions under control. A feeling of sadness spread over me, like a cool wind shaking the last, lonely leaf clinging to a tree. I slumped against the wall and let out a heavy sigh. This was going to hurt, I knew. I was in love with Brian, but there was no way it would work. I couldn't even tell him without complicating his life even more than it already was. And I refused to do thathe was hurting enough already. I wouldn't make it harder for him.
But there was no way I could get out of this without hurting myself either, I thought as I wiped at my eye. Even if I managed to get through the next twenty-four hours without telling him...
"No, not if," I corrected myself aloud. I breathed in hard and held my breath a second, held back the tears. "I have to do it." But even then it was going to hurt because tomorrow he'd be gone without knowing how I felt about him. And I'd go back to sleeping alone, to being alone. Except that now, I'd feel just how alone I was. I'd be painfully aware of it.
At this thought, I weakened a bit. A long sigh escaped my lips, and I felt my shoulder relax and slump. "Last time," I whispered, "it took me months to stop hurting. Now Brian comes along and ruins all that. He's here just long enough to make me feel good again, then he takes off to go back to his life."
I was still fighting the crying. My eyes were watery, but no real tears flowed. My throat was tense and sore, and the muscles in my face had gone rigid. My body was feeling things I didn't want to feel, but my brain was fighting the emotion back, holding it at bay.
I tried for a second to turn the crying into anger, to be mad at Brian, but I couldn't. It wasn't fair. And, anyway, he was just too cute, I thought with a little smile. I wasn't mad at him. And I wasn't really mad at myself. I was mad at the situation. I loved him, and I couldn't tell him. I couldn't be with him, and I didn't want to be without him.
This was really going to hurt.
It was maybe an hour later when I returned to the house. The stables were maybe forty feet from the door into the gym, but I I had walked the long way around through the pasture and up the small path through the garden, dead and awaiting winter. Rex stayed behind, having found a sunny spot in the corral to lie down, but Regina stayed with me the whole way. A couple of times I had stopped walking and thought about myself having to say "good-bye" to Brian tomorrow morning, but each time I had stopped, Regina had poked her cool, wet nose into my hand to ask what was wrong.
"You know, girl," I'd said to her once, "I could stay here and let Ethan and Robby drive them to the airport."
Regina had had nothing to say.
Once she'd seen me safely back to the gym, Regina lay down on the basketball court to enjoy the sunshine. The gym was empty, but I found Howie sitting alone at the little table in the corner of the adjoining den. He was dressed as if he'd been headed toward the gym to work out but had been distracted on the way by the Trivial Pursuit game still laid out on the table.
He glanced at me, then asked, "What's your best category?"
I smiled. "Surprise me."
"Okay, Entertainment: Who produced and starred in Shampoo?" he asked.
He turned the card over and saw that I was right. He gave me a smile before he picked up another card. "Arts and Literature: Who created Doonesbury?"
"Gary Trudeau," I said, grinning big. "You'll have to do better than this. I know lots of useless crap."
He picked up another card. "What actor was stung in The Sting?"
"Uh, Jackie Gleason," I said, unsure.
Howie turned the card over. "No, Robert Shaw. What's a row of crows called?"
"A murder." He was going faster now. I took a couple of steps toward him.
"What did Peter Minuit buy for the equivalent of $24?"
"What's the name of Dr. Seuss's egg-hatching elephant?"
"What overalls are named for Dungri, a suburb of Bombay?"
"Have you been crying?"
My mouth was already open to answer when I finally heard what he said. "What?" I asked him a question for a change.
"Have you been crying?" Howie tossed the card down and stood up. "Your eyes are red and watery. I didn't notice 'til you got close enough for me to see. Are you okay?"
I nearly told him, but old habits came to save me from embarrassing myself. "Yeah, I'm all right." My mouth said the words before my brain had decided what to do.
Howie reached up and put his hand onto my shoulder. "Are you sure?" His warm, brown eyes were staring into mine.
I decided to trust him. A little. "I'm not all right now," I said, "but I'm sure I will be. It's nothing I want to talk about though."
"Well, if you need to talk, you can talk to me, y'know," he said. "I don't like you to be unhappy."
I smiled at him. "Thanks," I said, "but I'm gonna be okay."
"Okay," he said removing his hand, "but the offer stands." He stepped toward me. For just a second, I thought he might hug mesomething about his movement made a hug seem imminentbut instead he went past me toward the gym.
A few minutes later I was looking at my freshly washed face in my bathroom mirror. It passed inspection. Any hint of crying or almost crying was gone now. I pulled my shirt back on and headed downstairs.
I was coming off the last step when I heard the front door fly open. Someone was coming in and laughing a lot in the process. I recognized Robby and Brian's voices, but there was some girl's voice too. Then Melissa and Robby stepped out into the hall where I could seem them, Brian and Kevin coming right behind them.
Robby's girlfriend was pretty, with long, curly blonde hair and nice green eyes. She was smart and funny and really good for Robby. In fact, the only thing about her that I didn't like was her tendency to wear a bit too much eye makeup. I'd thought about saying something to her about that, but I was a little afraid it would sound too faggy. It's not good to reinforce the clichés too often.
"Hi, Ben," I heard her say enthusiastically. Her voice was a nice alto, and she'd escaped having her mother's East Texas accent. Ms. Davis would have managed to squeeze at least five syllables into "Hi, Ben."
"Hey, Melissa," I said as my arms went around to hug her. "I see you guys survived the church."
"Yeah," Kevin said. "No problems."
"They got lucky," Melissa said. "The youth group had a lock-in last night, so most of the teenagers were at home asleep."
I just looked at her. "A lock-in? What's that?"
"That's when the youth group and the youth minister and some of the parents stay at the church all night. They stay up all nighttalking, praying, singing, playing games, lots of stuff."
"Haven't you ever been to a lock-in?" Brian asked me.
"No," I told him, "I guess Catholics don't have them."
"I didn't know you were Catholic," he said. "But you don't go to church?"
"No," I said really slowly, not wanting to explain this now. Maybe I could keep it vague, I thought. "I had some problems with Father Marca."
"We all had some problems with Father Marca," Robby said in support. I looked over and gave him a quick smile.
"So, what's for lunch?" Melissa asked. "And please tell me Mike isn't cooking."
I laughed. "It's just club sandwiches today," I said, "and it's my turn. But I wasn't planning on lunch for another hour or so: we had a late breakfast. Do you want something now?"
"Do you mind?"
"Since it's you, no," I smiled at her. "Now if it was Robby asking..."
"Robby can make his own sandwich," Robby said as he wrapped his arms around Melissa from the back.
"Well, so can I," Melissa said to him over her shoulder. Turning to me again, she asked, "Do you want me to?"
"I'll take care of it," I told her. I looked at Kevin and Brian and asked, "Anybody else want anything?"
"Not me," Brian said.
"Me neither," Kevin added. "I'm still too full from breakfast."
"Where is everybody?" Robby asked. "This place is too quiet."
"Howie's in the gym working out," I said, "and everybody else went upstairs after breakfast."
"Howie's got the right idea," Kevin said. "The way we've been eating this week, I need to work out. I'm gonna change and join him." He headed toward his room, with Brian following behind. I left Robby and Melissa walking slowly down the hallway, him still wrapped around her, and went into the kitchen.
I put the steaks for dinner into a pan to marinate before I started on Melissa's sandwich. It was hard to find the cold cuts buried behind all the containers of pizza toppings that Mike had had left last night, but I eventually dug them out. Part of me was going to miss the food we'd had when the Boys were here. As soon as they were gone tomorrow, we'd go back to Mom's number one rule: no cooking until the leftovers are gone.
I took Melissa's plate and headed into the dining room. But the room was empty. I went back into the kitchen and was about to grab the phone and ring Robby's room when Mike appeared in the doorway from the hall. "We're in the den," he said before he grabbed the armful of soft drinks that he'd evidently come for.
When I got to the den, I saw Melissa sitting with Nick and Brian at the corner table. Robby was hovering over Melissa, and Mike stood near Nick and passed out the cans. The radio was on, and we could here metallic clinking and the occasional grunt that said Kevin and Howie were still working out in the next room. Trivial Pursuit had been packed away, and Melissa was instead leafing through on of Mom's large brown photo albums as Nick and Brian peered over it.
I stood between Mike and Robby, opposite Brian. Robby grinned and leaned over to whisper to me. "Isn't this cute? Three happy little couples..."
"Oh, this one's my favourite," Melissa interrupted, laughing.
Brian chuckled a bit, and Nick said an exaggerated "Aw!" which earned him a good-natured slap on top of the head from Mike. I glanced at the photograph. It showed my brothers and I sitting in a row along the top of my grandfather's tractor.
"That was one of the summer's we spent with my grandparents when we were little," Mike said.
"Is that you in the front?" Brian asked. "How old were you?"
"I was three." In the photo, Mike sat between Robby's outstretched legs as Robby helped hold him up. Ethan was behind Robby with his legs on either side of him, and I was in the back with my legs on either side of Ethan.
"I'm surprised they put him so far off the ground like that with just Robby to hold him," Melissa said.
"Well," I laughed, "what you can see in the picture is my grandfather about four feet away, ready to jump in if Mike so much as breathed too hard. He was afraid Robby was going to drop him."
"I should have," Robby laughed. "My life would have been much easier."
"I would have lived through it just to make you miserable," Mike said.
"Sure, you would," I told Mike as I grinned at Robby. "Ethan and I used to drop Robby on his head all the time, and he survived."
"Was that taken here?" Nick asked.
"Yeah, my grandparents lived here when we were little," I told him. "We moved here after my grandfather died."
"After Dad decided he had to get us out of Chicago." Robby added.
Brian got his confused look again. "I like Chicago," he said.
"So do I, but have you ever been there in the winter?" Robby asked him smugly.
"I liked it there in the winter," Mike defended the city. "The snow was really deep, and we used to make these huge snowforts and dig trenches so deep that I could walk to school without the wind getting me."
"Yeah," Robby countered, "it was fun until Ben got sick." He was looking at Mike, then glanced at me. I don't know what he saw on my face, but he stopped talking.
"You were sick," Brian asked me. I looked over him, and his eyes caught me. They were still the bright blue points I remember them being, but the haunted look I'd seen yesterday was gone. He still looked worried, but this time he seemed worried about me.
"It was a long time ago," I said dismissively. "I caught pneumonia one winter."
"He caught double pneumonia," Mike corrected, "and he was in the hospital on a respirator for nearly three weeks."
"While Ben was in the hospital, our grandfather died and Dad got this place," Robby explained. "He decided that he was going to move us down here as soon as Ben got home. We've lived in Texas ever since."
When they finished that photo album, Melissa hauled out another and started in on it. I tried to distract them from old pictures by challenging them to play Trivial Pursuit. My brothers weren't interested, but I almost had Nick and Brian talked into it. Then Howie and Kevin came in from their workout, and Howie ruined it by warning them not to play.
I gave Howie my most sinister laugh. "You've ruined my evil plans this time, but I'll be back!" The guys laughed a little, and I went to make lunch.
Lunch was a simple thing that day, just club sandwiches and things that go well with club sandwiches. It was like some kind of indoor picnic. Not luxury hotel food by any means, but I knew we'd make up for that at dinner time. The most interesting thing about the entire meal was that AJ and Stacey came out of AJ's room long enough to eat.
"Y'know, Kevin," Nick said, "it doesn't do any good to work out for an hour then eat for two."
"At least he worked out," AJ said. "When's the last time you got some real exercise, Nick?" Nick and Mike worked very hard at not looking at each other. I worked hard to not laugh.
"Well, let me get this cleaned away," I said, standing up, "and we'll go horseback riding."
"Ben, you can go now," Melissa said. "Robby and I will clean this up."
"Uh, we will?" Robby asked her.
"Yeah, we will," Melissa smiled at him. "Get your butt out of that chair."
Most of the guys laughed. "God, I love Southern women," AJ said. "They're like a piece of silk wrapped around a viscous bear trap."
I laughed. "So, who's going riding?"
The next half hour was spent changing clothes and saddling horses. Eventually five of us set out, into the back pasture this time. Kevin and I were in the front, with Howie between and slightly behind us. About twenty feet behind him rode Stacey and AJ. Stacey had quietly asked for AJ to ride Matilda, who was the proverbial old grey mare. AJ was an okay riderhis sense of rhythm served him wellbut he didn't seem comfortable. Stacey was a good rider and could have moved faster, but she hung back with him, and we moved slowly so as not to leave them behind.
"This place must be beautiful when the leaves change in the fall," Howie commented.
I chuckled. "Yeah, for about an hour. We pretty much go straight from summer to winter. Fall comes and goes fast here. Last year the leaves changed colour one day and were all on the ground the next."
"That's too bad," Howie said. "I like the fall."
"So does Kristin," Kevin told him. "She's gonna meet up with the tour in Denver so we can see the Rockies in the fall."
"When will you be in Denver?" I asked him.
"Around Halloween," he replied.
"Man, it must suck to work on Halloween," I said. "I love Halloween."
"Some, but we get the day before and the day after off, so it's not that bad."
"Besides," Howie added, "we have a lot of fun on stage on Halloween. Last year we did a couple of numbers wearing scary costumes."
"Howie," Stacey yelled up from behind us, "do you mind a personal question?"
I looked back at Howie and found him glancing at me. "No," he sounded uncertain, "I guess not."
"How did a guy with such dark hair and eyes get a name like Howard Drought?"
Howie laughed. "My mother's Spanish, and my dad's Irish."
"Then you must be Catholic coming and going," she said.
He laughed again. "Pretty much, but I don't go to church much."
"Ben's Catholic," Kevin said.
"Really?" Howie hurried his horse for a few steps and came up on my left side. "You're Catholic?"
"I was raised Catholic," I said, "but we don't go to church anymore."
"Can I ask why not?" His voice was a little hesitant, like he wanted to know but didn't want to be nosy.
"Well," I started, keeping my voice where just we three could hear it, "the local priest had some problem with me when I came out of the closet. At first, he asked me to come with him for 'counseling,' which consisted mostly of him quoting the Bible and asking me to pray with him. Then he started pressuring me to be abstinent for the rest of my life. I couldn't control what I wanted, but I should never act on it. That kind of crap.
"Eventually, I stopped going to church at all. That's when he started calling here to talk to me. And he started harassing my family to get me back into church. They got sick of that, and now none of us go to church there. Mom and Dad drove to Kaufman a few times, but they never went back to St. Terese's."
"He shouldn't have acted like that with you," Howie said.
I shrugged. "He thought he was doing his job."
"I'm sorry you don't have a church to go to," Kevin said. "I can't imagine not going to church."
"I don't miss it very much," I told him. "But I feel kinda guilty that my family can't go because of me."
"Don't think of it like that," Howie said. "They don't go because of that asshole, not because of you."
This ride was longer than the one Kevin and I had taken. After we went around the north pasture, we crossed the creek and took the same path he and I had ridden on Tuesday. For a second, I couldn't get my brain around the fact that that had been just six days ago. It seemed like a lot longer.
By the time we stopped outside the gate from the driveway into the corral, we were all sweaty and dirty.
"Ewwww," Stacey said as I dismounted to open the gate. "My shirt's sticking to my back."
"Mine too," AJ added.
"Wimps," Howie teased them.
"If you guys want," Kevin added, "you can go in and get cleaned up. I'll help Ben put the horses away."
"I'll help too," Howie said. "This is a lot of stuff."
AJ and Stacey took us up on our offer and headed into the hotel to get cleaned up. Howie and Kevin helped me put the tack away, wipe down the horses, and give them food and water. Then we headed in through the gym door. My plan was to head upstairs right away and get a shower right away. But we got distracted in the hall by the sound of piano music.
It was coming from the stereo in the game room, and the volume was up way too high to get the best sound. It was quick and jazzy, and it took me a couple of seconds to recognize it.
"What is that?" Howie asked. "It doesn't sound like something Brian or Nick would be listening to."
"'sounds like "Rhapsody in Blue," Kevin said.
"No, but it is Gershwin," I told them, as I headed toward the game room. They were behind me when I got to the game room door. Nick and Mike were on the couch. Stacey, still in her sweaty clothes, was in the doorway to the dining room, and AJ was behind her with his arms around her waist. Melissa was in one of the big chairs, with Robby sitting on the armrest, and Brian was in the other chair, staring at the big screen TV. I didn't look at the screen: I hated seeing myself on TV.
"Hiya, Benji," Mike said. "Guess what we found!"
"I know what you found," I told him. "I could here it down the hall."
"We could hear it in the hotel," AJ said, "so we came to see what it was."
"I still want to know what it is," Howie said. He was beside me by now and staring at the television screen.
"It's my senior recital from college," I told him. "Mom taped it so she could torture relatives with it at Christmas time."
"That's you!" Howie said.
Kevin chuckled. "I like the goatee."
"That was Ben trying to look intellectual," Robby explained. "It didn't work."
"This isn't torture, Ben," Nick said. "It's good."
"Shhh," Brian interrupted. "This is the best part."
Everyone was quiet for a bit, and I finally looked at the picture. I'd never seen it on the bigscreen TV before. I guess it looked okay to someone else, but I was still embarrassed because it was me. My hair was longer then, and I had this wispy little blond goateeit never did get very thick, I remembered. I was wearing the requisite tuxedo and playing that wonderful concert grand in Recital Hall #2. God, I missed that piano. It had a great sound, and the action was so smooth. It made everything played on it sound better.
This Gershwin piece was one of three I played that afternoon, but it was the best. The whole thing was only about seven minutes long; one slow piece sandwiched between two faster ones. Right now, the taped version of myself had just finished the slow piece and was beginning the last part, allegro ben something. I never could remember the Italian names of things, but I remember that the first and last part had "Ben" in their name. I'd taken that as an omen.
"Brian, how many times have you watched this?" Kevin asked.
"Huh," Brian asked, hearing his name but not paying attention. "What, Kev?"
"If you know this is the best part, how many times have you watched this already?" Kevin repeated.
"This is the third time," Nick ratted Brian out. "He's rewound this twice and watched it over and over."
"Well, don't make them watch the whole recital, Mike," I said. "We like these guys. I'm gonna get a shower." I turned and headed up the stairs near the kitchen. I'd really wanted to get out of that room, to get away from Brian. It was hard enough to be around him without getting my hopes up just because he'd watched my tape over and over.
"But then," I said quietly in the empty upstairs hall as a big smile took my face, "he must have liked it to watch it three times."
I was done with my shower and drying my hair with a towel when someone knocked on our apartment door. I pulled on a T-shirt as I headed the door. As I opened it, I hoped it wasn't Brian.
It was Mike, with Robby standing just behind him. "What do you guys want?" I asked.
"Benji, did I make you made playing that tape for Nick and Brian?" Mike asked, sounding genuinely worried.
"What? No, of course not," I told him.
"Then what's bothering you?" he asked. "You didn't say anything when you found us watching that tape. You just came up here."
"You were really quiet during lunch too, bro," Robby added, "And Howie said you were quiet during the ride too. What's up?" He was asking questions, but his voice didn't show as much worry as Mike's did. Robby probably thought he knew already what was bothering me. And he was right.
"Come in," I said, turning back into the room. They followed me into the little living room of our suite of rooms. I sat on the loveseat and said, "Sit down, Mike, and I'll tell you all about it."
Mike looked confused as he took the chair opposite me. Once seated, he cast a glance toward where Robby stood, leaning back against the bookcase and asked, "You're not gonna tell Robby?"
"Robby knows," I said.
Robby was grinning again. "You would too, if you hadn't slept so late." He put a lot of playful emphasis on the word "slept" to say that he didn't think that's what Mike and Nick had been doing.
"Mikey," I started, "I'm in love with Brian."
He looked at me as a smile spread slowly over his face. Finally, he said, "Cool! Does Brian know?"
"No," Robby spat out, "and Ben won't tell him. And he won't let me tell him either."
"And you can't tell him either, Mikey!" I added.
Mike was still looking at me. "Why the Hell not?!"
I sighed. "Mike, Brian's is going through some really serious crap right nowdon't ask me for details, 'cause I can't tell you. But the last thing he needs right now is for something to make his life more complicated. That's why I don't want him to know. I just want to get through today and put them on that plane tomorrow."
"Do you really believe this," Mike started, "or are using this as a reason not to take a chance again?"
This surprised me. "Where the Hell did that come from?" I asked him, talking a little too loudly now myself.
"You do this all the time. You get chances to do something, but you don't 'cause it would be *rude*. You get invited places, but you don't go 'cause you think they just invited you to be polite. You get asked out, but you say 'no' 'cause you think they wouldn't like you if they got to know you better. You get offered a job by someone you know, and you spout some bullshit about not wanting to use people."
Mike was not as loud now, but he was talking very fast. Shit, I thought, he's been thinking about this for a while. He was still talking, and behind him Robby was watching him, occasionally nodding his head.
"You meet record company execs, and you don't show them what you can do because you're minding your own business. Over and over, you pass up opportunities and lie to yourself about why you did it. If you're wanna live here for the rest of your life, fine! But at least be honest about the real reason."
Now I was mad. "And what is the *real* reason?" I asked, my tone rich with sarcasm.
"Because you're afraid."
I stared at Mike. He just stared back calmly. Behind him I could see Robby doing the same thing. "What would I have to be afraid of?" I asked him.
"You're afraid of being hurt. You're afraid of being rejected. You're afraid everything won't work out, so you don't even take the chance." Mike talked like he was reading a well-rehearsed speech.
"I don't either," I argued.
"Yes, you do," Robby said. "You picked a university because it was a great music school, but then you didn't study music because you said it was not practical. You love music. You play better than anyone I've ever known, but you won't pursue it as a career because the chances of failing are good. Really good."
"And when you graduated," Mike took over, "you came home to live in your own room and work for Dad. At least Ethan took a chance and went to Austin."
"Yeah," I interrupted, "and now he's back. Things didn't work out for him in Austin, did they?" I was really being sarcastic now.
"That's not the point!" Mike raised his voice to match mine.
"Yeah, the point is he tried," Robby said, "he took a chance. It didn't work out, but at least he tried."
"You never take chances," Mike added. "You didn't take a chance on making music. You didn't go look for a job."
"And things didn't work with you and Jacob 'cause you wouldn't take the chance of trusting him," Robby said.
I just stared at him. Robby never mentioned Jacob. In the year, since we'd split, no one had ever mentioned him. It had been like Jacob had never existed, like we'd never been together. We'd just graduated and gone our separate ways after Jacob had found a job in Seattle. He'd said that what we had just wasn't strong enough to work over a long distance, and that was that. He went to Washington, and I'd come home to work for my father, to become this coward my brothers were describing.
Robby got up and came to sit facing me on the couch. "Benji," he said softly, "I'm sorry. That was too..."
"No," I butted in. "You're right. You're both right." I couldn't argue with them anymore. "I am afraid of taking chances. I always have been. I'm a coward."
"No, you're not," Robby said as he leaned in and put his arms went around my shoulders. "You're not a coward."
"You're afraid like everyone gets afraid," Mike said. He was squatting down beside the couch, between Robby and I, without my having notice him move. "Sometimes it's good. It keeps you from doing stupid thing..."
"Like I do," Robby interrupted with a grin.
"But you let the fear stop you too much," Mike finished. His head was leaned in toward mine too, and his right arm was around my shoulders. "You can't live your life being afraid all the time."
I turned my head to look from one to the other for a second. They were telling me the truth, I knew, both about my being afraid and about why I shouldn't let that dictate my life. Deep down, my brain and my heart were agreeing that they were right.
I breathed in deep, held it a second, then blew it out strongly. "I know you're right," I said. "There are things I need to do differently, a lot of things. And I will. Or, at least, I will try" I paused to look at them again. Four blue eyes were staring back at me, and both of them had really sweet smiles. "But that still doesn't change the original problem."
"Which is?" Robby asked, his smile fading a little.
"Brian," I said simply. "I can't tell him how I feel."
"Aw, Jesus!" Mike sat up straight. The arm that had been around my shoulder joined its mate as he threw them up in disgust. "What were we talking about here?"
"Mike, this isn't about my being afraid," I told him. "Brian's life is complicated now, and I can't make it any more complicated. Maybe later, but not now."
Mike looked at me with an expression like a confused dog. "What's wrong with Brian?" he asked.
I put my hand onto his shoulder. "I can't tell you, little brother. It's personal, but trust me: I don't need to be adding to his problems."
"You might not be adding to them," he countered. "Maybe knowing you love him would make him feel better."
"That's what I said," Robby said.
"Guys, trust me," I told them. "Now is not the time."
There was a pause, broken when Robby said, "Well, shit! Everything's the same! I feel like we've just wasted half an hour talking to you."
I smiled at him. "It wasn't a waste. I agree with you about taking some more chances," I said, "and I'm gonna do it."
"Like what?" Mike asked. His tone said he didn't believe me.
"Like talking to Ed about becoming a band," I told him. "Are you guys serious about wanting to do this?"
"Yeah!" Mike said, as Robby said "Hell, yes! You mean it?"
"I mean it. Let's talk to Ed after dinner."
Robby and I were all on the patio warming up the grill when we heard someone drive up to the other side of the house. The sound told us it was the van and the boat trailer. "I guess we'd better go help them unload the van," Robby said. He hated schlepping things around more than any of us, especially when a lot of it was probably going to be wet, smelly and covered with sand.
"You go," I grinned. "I can't leave the grill."
"Grrrrrr," he said as he headed into the game room.
A few minutes later, I heard the door open behind me. Ethan came out and flopped heavily into the chair Robby had been sitting in. "So, the mighty hunters have returned have returned, huh?" I asked him.
"Ffishermen," he said dryly. "Nnot hunters. And, yeah, we're bback."
"We ccaught llots of ffish, bbut they were all ttoo small," he said. "In six hours, we only ccaught one worth kkeeping. Ddad's ccleaning it nnow."
"Well, at least Dad caught one good fish. That'll make him happy." I reached for my beer, but the bottle was gone. Then I noticed Ethan had finished it and was wiping his mouth..
"Nnot exactly," Ethan grinned up at me. "Phyllis Shaw ccaught it."
THANKS to those readers who emailed me to ask if I were all right. No, I have not a) died, b) suffered irreversible brain damage, nor c) joined the Republican Party. (Some readers may see little difference between B and C.) I've just been incredibly busy with other things while at the same time been lazy about this story. I'm sorry I made you all wait so long.
As soon as I send this to Nifty, I'm gonna visit their chatroom briefly (I'm there a lot, by the way.) then I'm actually gonna respond to some email.
LOOK FOR a preview of Part 19 on Jon Moore's Web site this weekend.
I HOPE THAT this installment was a good one. The story feels different to me now. Ben isn't the little robot that Robby accused him of being. I've been getting very politely nagged to have more emotion in the story, and I'm trying to do that as I become more confident of handling emotions without them becoming melodrama. I hope this works.
BUT I do apologize for one thing. There were lots of little episodes that I planned to include in my story but kept either forgetting or putting off. Now, with just three installments left, I had to start squeezing them in. I'm afraid the result is rather clumsy and contrived. I hope that didn't detract from your enjoying it.
HELD HOSTAGE: Part 20 will see the BSB leave the Corbyn Studio, but the storylike that damned Energizer bunnywill go on. But I'm gonna hold that part hostage. A friend of mine, Braan (I think I may call him that) began a wonderful story called "Some Kind of Bliss" but hasn't updated it in a long time. I'm not going to post Part 20 until he updates his story, so please email him and put on some pressure for me.