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Note: Thanks to Tim and Rock for feedback on the draft chapters. I owe a special thanks to Robb for doing the final proofreading and catching all those silly little errors I missed.
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by Jeff Allen
Brian was gone.
We'd been partners for nine years. Now he was gone. And I had to learn how to live without him.
I'm Trey Arnold...actually, Anderson Parker Arnold III...but I've been called Trey all my life. I first met Brian Barnes on a ski slope when I was in high school. I thought he was a hunk, but I really didn't begin to get to know him until my freshman year at Adams State University. We were both on the soccer team. He was a junior, and I was in love with him almost from that very first day in the locker room.
Brian was so sexy with dark brown curly hair and chocolate brown eyes. Then there was his body. Wow! Muscular but still lean like many soccer players. He also had hairy legs and a moderate amount of hair on his chest. Several times I almost sprung a boner in the showers watching him soap up his beautiful uncut cock and balls after practice.
It was common knowledge on the team that Brian was gay. The athletic teams at Adams State were very accepting of gay athletes. Heck, the head football coach was openly gay. Our coach, Rick Springer, told every potential recruit that some members of the team were gay, and if the recruit had a problem with that, he wasn't invited to join the team.
Of course I didn't have a problem with it. I was gay myself and had been out since tenth grade.
I carried a torch for Brian for two years before we finally got together. He had a reputation as a gay Romeo. He dated lots of guys...staying with the same guy for only a few weeks or months at the most before moving on to the next one.
We finally got together the summer after he graduated. He was staying at Adams State for an MBA program, and I was staying in town to work with one of my professors. My apartment was downstairs and Brian's was upstairs in the same old house.
We started jogging together in the mornings. Then we started eating dinners together. When he finally made his move, I told him that I wasn't interested in being one more notch on his bedpost. If we were going to get together, it was going to be a serious and monogamous relationship. Surprisingly, he agreed. By the end of the summer, we knew we were madly in love.
Brian finished his MBA, and I got my teaching degree at the same time. Brian got a great job in Atlanta. I landed a job teaching biology and coaching soccer at a private girls' school in one of the higher end suburbs of Atlanta. Life was good.
Three years later Brian was transferred to Houston. It was a major promotion for him. Again, I found a job teaching and coaching. This time in a public school. Houston was even hotter and more humid than Atlanta, but we had a great time and met some great friends there.
After two years in Houston, Brian was promoted and transferred again. This time we went to Minneapolis. Talk about opposites. Houston was wonderful in the winter but really sucked in the summer. Minneapolis was the opposite. The summers were beautiful, but the winters were gawd-awful dang cold! It seemed to be okay for the natives, but I'd spent the first fifteen years of my life in southern California. Then after the death of my parents, I'd been raised by my Uncle Parker in the small town of Carterville in the western mountains of North Carolina. We had winters there, but nothing like what they had in Minneapolis. I taught at a couple of schools while we were in Minneapolis, but didn't do any coaching.
Two years after landing in Minneapolis, Brian got promoted and transferred a third time. This time he went to the company's corporate headquarters in Boston. I found another combination coaching and teaching job. This time it was a private boys' school in Boston.
Brian and I were doing well. We were finally in a state that recognized gay marriage, so we began to make plans for our wedding. Then things completely fell apart.
Brian went to the doctor because of some persistent pain in his side when we jogged. He'd had the pain for a couple of months. We thought it would go away. It didn't. I finally convinced him to see the doc. It wasn't a pulled muscle. It was an aggressive liver cancer that had already metastasized to lymph nodes, bone, and lungs. The doctor was amazed that Brian hadn't had more severe symptoms earlier. He said it was probably because Brian was in such good condition for running. Brian's excellent physical conditioning aside, in the doctor's words the cancer was "untreatable and terminal."
It was the longest three months of my life. I don't think there was a day in those three months and for several months afterward that I didn't have an emotional meltdown at some point and end up crying my eyes out.
When it was finally over, I sat in our Boston apartment and realized that I didn't want to be there. I wanted to go home...to Carterville in the Western Mountains of North Carolina. That's where I lived after my parents died. That was where my "family" was. The family being my Uncle Parker, who raised me after the landslide that killed my parents, and his partner Karl Henson. Parker and Karl had huge hearts. They took in strays...guys who had no other place to go...and gave them a loving home. I was only the first of "Coach's Cubs" who passed through the big farmhouse outside of Carterville. All the guys had become "brothers," but like any large family, I was closer to some of the "brothers" than to others.
So I called the moving company, packed up the apartment, climbed into the BMW X5 that Brian had insisted on buying just before we moved to Boston, and headed south to Carterville.
Parker and Karl had forty acres outside of town. TJ Ladd and Donnie Micheaux, my two closest friends and "brothers", lived with Donnie's two sons on another forty acres next to Parker and Karl. While Brian and I were in Houston, we bought ten acres beside TJ and Donnie's place and built a vacation/retirement home there. That place...the place that Brian and I loved...the place we visited whenever we could...was where I was running to...and running away from all the painful memories of Boston.
Brian had always made good money. I did okay from my coaching and teaching jobs, but our paychecks weren't the reason we had our dream home in Carterville. When my parents died, I inherited all their considerable assets. Acting as my guardian, Parker invested those funds. By the time I graduated from college and Brian finished his MBA, we had enough money that neither one of us needed to work. I guess frugality runs in my family. Parker and Karl have a lot of money, but they live in a renovated century-old farm house. Heck, I still have the twenty-four-year-old Volvo station wagon that my grandfather had bought used. The old Volvo had passed from my grandfather to Parker and then to me. The thing had nearly 400,000 miles on the odometer. It was on its second engine, third transmission, and third complete redo of the upholstery. It was a reliable tank, and I loved it. Brian had insisted that we keep it in Carterville because "having it parked outside our condo in Minneapolis lowers the property values in the neighborhood."
Sixteen hours after leaving Boston, I pulled into the driveway of our...sorry...my house outside Carterville. Donnie's boys, fourteen year-old Grant and thirteen-year-old Micah, were there to greet me. They made a couple of phone calls and within minutes the house was filled with my "family" who quickly unloaded the BMW and helped me put everything away.
Since it was late in the evening and the young guys had soccer practice and school the next morning, most of the "family" left right after everything was unpacked.
TJ stayed. We got a little drunk. I talked about Brian. I cried. TJ held me and cried with me.
It was good to be home.
When I arrived, the public schools had just started back up after summer vacation. Parker had been the head soccer coach for Carter County High School for over fifteen years, and that fall he was adding new duties as the Athletic Director for the high school. He felt swamped, and he asked me to help him as one of the assistant coaches.
My uncle may have truly needed some additional help with the soccer team, but I was also aware that he was also concerned about finding me something to do. He was right. I could either sit at home feeling sorry for myself, or I could get out and do something.
Getting out and doing something was really the only option...so later that week I was officially introduced to the soccer team as a new assistant coach.
My Uncle Parker is only eight years older than me, so we look more like brothers than uncle and nephew. Both of us stand six feet tall and weigh in at 180 pounds with blue eyes and prematurely gray hair. The hair is a genetic gift from Grandpa Arnold. At twenty-nine, my hair was still more pepper than salt. Parker's was now almost all salt.
I had always enjoyed coaching and teaching. I immediately enjoyed working with Parker's team. Over the years, his soccer program had grown from the small group of dedicated guys (I was one of those) on his first few teams to one of the largest high school soccer programs in the western part of the state. Along the way, Parker had collected a string of league championships and three state-wide titles. He asked me to work specifically with the ninth and tenth grade guys to help them develop their skills.
I also began doing substitute teaching at the high school on a fairly regular basis.
My days were busy, but I still thought about Brian every day. Especially in my big empty bed at night. A couple of times when I was feeling especially down, I called TJ. Within minutes either he or Donnie would be over at the house. They'd cry with me. And sometimes they'd just hold me until both of us fell asleep.
I started making weekly trips down to Charlotte to see Dr. Goddard, the psychiatrist who had helped me after the death of my parents. It seemed slow, but I was making progress in getting on with my life.
October is often a magical time in the mountains of North Carolina. The leaves are full of color. The days are still pleasantly warm. The nights are crisp with a hint of frost. It was one of those spectacular weekends when Brian's parents and his siblings, plus their families or partners, came up.
Our place in the mountains and his family's ocean-front vacation home on Sunset Beach were Brian's two favorite places in the world. He had wanted his ashes scattered in both places.
So that's what we did. Brian's family and mine. The first weekend in the mountains. The next standing knee deep in a gentle surf on the beach carrying out one of Brian's last wishes.
I loved Brian's family as much as I loved my own. I always knew that their pain in losing Brian was as great as mine, yet they were always kind and supportive. Brian's parents looked like they'd aged ten years in the four months since his death. His mother moved slower. His father often seemed to be in his own private and very sad world. All weekend I watched Brian's brothers and sisters and their husbands, wives, partners, and children as they looked at their visibly aging parents with sadness and resignation.
By Christmas time, the dreams/memories of Brian lying helpless and in pain in his hospital bed as the cancer quickly sapped his strength had faded from nightly horrors to about once a week. My visits to Dr. Goddard in Charlotte were down to once every two weeks, and I'd been offered a full time teaching/coaching position at Carter County High School.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
I figured my life was pretty much over. I was fifteen and I was as good as dead. I should just go out and jump in front of a truck or something. Shit, Joey and I should have been more careful, but who'd have thought that my mom and stepdad would go nuclear on me just because they caught me sucking him off.
Well, they had. Joey and I hadn't been paying attention to the time. We'd been blowing each other all summer at either his house or mine and hadn't been caught. Our luck ran out. Mom came home early and caught us up in my room. Both of us were stark naked and I was on my knees with Joey's dick shoved down my throat when she opened the door. Damn, I didn't know she could yell that loud!
Joey scrambled to pull on a pair of pants. Mom kept yelling at him to get out. He didn't even have his shoes and shirt on when she pushed him out the front door and slammed the door after him. I hope he had moved quickly, otherwise the door slamming on his ass probably knocked him off the front porch.
Then she turned on me.
We had an hour or so of shouting back and forth before my stepdad came home. Then it got really serious.
Gavin...that's my stepdad...said he wasn't going to have "a goddamn faggot" in the same house and that he didn't want me "spreading my filth to the kids." The kids being my younger stepsister and half brother.
I thought Gavin was going to have a stroke or something. He had sort of a ruddy complexion normally which redden even more when he got angry. He was so angry, that he was almost beet red. It would have been funny, if it hadn't been me that he was so angry at. I thought he was going to hit me, but he took my arm and almost threw me into my bedroom. The way Mom and Gavin had been yelling, I was surprised that the neighbors hadn't called the cops.
Two hours later Mom and I were at O'Hare Airport. She bought me a one way ticket to Charlotte, signed all the necessary forms to put me on the airplane by myself, and walked away without even a backward glance. Fuck her! I don't need her shit!
So there I was. Almost ten o'clock at night. Stuck in the Charlotte airport waiting for my real dad, who I hadn't seen in almost five years, to come pick me up. I was supposed to live with him, and...as Gavin had said..."Let the loser deal with the little queer." My father was supposed to meet me. But here I was sitting with some totally bored airline employee who was itching to turn me over to someone else. My deadbeat father was late...by nearly an hour.
So I was going to live with my real dad. The dad who'd walked out on my mother and me when I was just a baby. The dad who never sent me anything for Christmas or my birthday. The last time I'd seen him, he'd shown up on our doorstep. Mom was pissed, but she let us talk in the living room. I didn't want to see him and told him to go away. He left and never came back.
This was the man I was going to be living with. My life was over. I'd be in some Podunk town in hillbilly heaven in the mountains. Bet they didn't even have a mall.
If I could get away from my airline "body guard" I'd go buy a pack of razor blades and slit my wrists. Shit, I probably couldn't even get real razor blades in the damn airport. Damn all this security crap.
Oh, fuck! I think that's my real dad coming down the concourse. Shit, he looks angry!
I might as well be dead.
Somewhere it must be written that a car battery will pick the most inconvenient time to die.
My name is Patrick Santorini O'Connor. Yup, I'm almost pure Irish except for my maternal grandfather. That's where my middle name comes from. I'm a Game Warden for the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Commission stationed at the Carter Wildlife Refuge. Marlene and I had been out in the woods all day. Marlene's my dog. She's a German shorthaired pointer. She pitches a fit if I leave her in the house when I leave in the morning, so most days I take her with me on my rounds.
Anyway, Marlene and I had been gone all day, and I was looking forward to a relaxing evening sitting on the porch of the small and very substandard house that was the Warden's House at the main entrance to the refuge. I saw the blinking light on the answering machine on my personal line as soon as I came in the door. I figured it was my crazy mother calling about some new crisis in her life. I get lots of calls on the business phone, but my mother's the only one who ever calls me on the personal line.
I decided to take a shower and have some dinner before listening to whatever complaint my mother had that day.
The hot water tank at the Warden's station was old and small. That made for quick showers. I made a sandwich and sat down to listen to the message while I ate.
It wasn't my mother on the machine. It was my witch of an ex-wife telling me that she was putting our son on a plane to Charlotte. She gave me the flight number and the arrival time. I checked my watch. Even if I left that instant I wouldn't make it to the Charlotte airport before his plane. I grabbed my wallet and car keys and headed out the door.
Whitney, my ex-wife, and I met our freshman year in college and really hit it off. By Christmas time, she was pregnant and we were married. After our son was born, I quit college and joined the Marines. It seemed like the only way I'd be able to provide a decent living for her and our son. I was in the last week of Basic Training when I got the letter from her lawyer telling me that she'd filed for divorce and that my child support payments were going to take just about everything I made while serving Uncle Sam.
When my enlistment was up, I went back to college. It was rough. I had the veterans' benefits that helped with tuition and some expenses, and I worked two part-time jobs. Still the child support demands never stopped. When my ex got married again, I thought the demands would ease up, but they never did. She still wanted my child support money, but didn't want me to have any contact with my son because she thought my presence would "...only cause confusion in the boy's mind." Bull hockey!
I moved the state-owned pickup out of the way and climbed into my wreck of a car. It's an eighteen year-old Saturn coupe with over 250,000 miles on the odometer. It looked like crap and needed new piston rings, but the gas mileage was pretty good. I turned the key. That was the moment the battery died. Nothing!
I got out of the car. I'd have to jump start the car off my work truck. The problem was that the car was nosed up to the house to make room for the truck. I used the state-owned truck most of the time. The car was used maybe once or twice a week to go into town and get groceries or go to the laundromat.
I got out and pushed the car back away from the house far enough to maneuver the truck close enough to stretch battery cables between the two.
The engine caught on the second try. I disconnected the battery cables, closed the hoods on the car and truck, tossed the cables into the back seat of the car and would have been on my way, but I had to get Marlene out of the front seat of the car first which wasn't easy. The whole dead battery business and dealing with the dog had cost me another fifteen minutes. I just hoped the plane would be late.
As I pulled out of the driveway, I caught sight of Marlene sitting dejectedly by the house.
At the airport, I waited in line for help at the ticketing counter. I explained the situation, and the grumpy ticket agent gave me a security pass and gave me some vague directions.
I saw Martin sitting with an airline employee. I hurried up to them. The woman with the airline stood up.
"Are you Patrick O'Connor?"
"We expected you almost an hour ago."
"I'm sorry, I had car trouble. I got here as quickly as I could."
"I need to see a picture I.D. and have you sign this form."
She shoved a clipboard toward me as I fumbled for my wallet.
I.D. checked and form signed, Ms. Congenial Airline Hostess turned on her heel and walked away.
Martin hadn't moved out of his seat. I sat down next to him. He was a little over ten the last time I'd seen him. He was now fifteen. He was a young man with dark brown hair, dressed in jeans, a tee shirt, and some sort of special athletic shoes that made his feet look huge.
"Your mother said that you were coming to live with me."
"I guess so."
"What brought this on?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay, we don't need to talk about it now, but we will. Are those your bags?"
Martin looked over at the backpack and overstuffed suitcase next to his seat. "That's all I've got."
"Are you hungry?"
I saw a slight smile for the first time. "A little."
I picked up his suitcase. Martin shouldered his backpack. Then I led the way out to the car.
When I stopped in back of the Saturn and reached in my pocket for the keys, Martin stammered, "This...this is your car?"
"Is it safe?"
"It got me here to pick you up."
"Gavin has a Lexus and Mom has a BMW."
I lifted the suitcase into the back of the car and held out my hand for the backpack. "Well, I don't make as much money as your stepfather does. Fish and Wildlife Officers in the State of North Carolina aren't exactly flush with cash. Get in. There's a Wendy's on the way to the expressway."
We were quiet on the way to the burger joint. Truth be told, I was a little peeved. One of the reasons I had to drive the beat up old Saturn was because Whitney, my ex-wife, and her lawyer demanded about half of my take home pay for child support. Since my salary as a state employee was a matter of public record, the blasted lawyer checked every year and went back to court to get an increase in my child support payments every time I got a raise.
Martin wolfed down two bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and a large Frosty. I hoped he was just extra hungry because he'd missed dinner. If that's the way he ate all the time, I was going to have trouble keeping food in the house.
We didn't talk much in the restaurant. I knew better than to try to have a conversation with a teenage boy while he was eating. We didn't talk much in the car on the way back to Carterville either because Martin fell asleep.
I had no idea what he'd done that had gotten him kicked out of his home. I didn't care. I hadn't seen him in almost five years. I'd never been allowed to spend much time with him before that. Now, my son was with me, and I had a chance to build a real relationship with him.
I was happy.
I was also darned scared.
(To be continued)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Some of the characters who play parts in this story were previously introduced in "When Love Comes" (last posted in the College section on Sept. 6, 2001), "Love of a Lifetime" (last posted in the College section on May 19, 2003), "Finding Family" (last posted in the College section on June 5, 2008), "Construction Job" (last posted in the College section on July 24, 2008), or "Swamp Rat" (last posted March 15, 2010 in the High School section). While not necessary, readers may find it useful to read the earlier stories posted on this site. All of the Adams State/Carterville stories listed above as well as my other stories are also posted at www.crvboy.com.
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