Thrift Shop Nation by Geron Kees
© 2016 by Geron Kees. All rights
This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.
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"I found you a job," Mrs. Henson
said brightly, smiling as her son came into the kitchen from the rear
But the smile went to a frown as
she looked him over, her eyes going wide with consternation. "Oh, Steve
- look at you. I just washed my floor, and you're a mess."
Steve Henson had just come back from an afternoon on the baseball field. He was hot and he was tired, and a little bit annoyed. Summer had simply come in with a vengeance this year - the heat and humidity piling on even as school was letting out for vacation - and you couldn't do much of anything physical without paying for it in sweat. His clothing was drenched, and grimy from sliding into second base. He'd made that move successfully, but he'd scraped up a good bit of the field in doing so. The fronts of his tee-shirt and jeans were brown with ground-in dirt, and his shoes and socks were covered with grass stains and gunk. He felt dirty and uncomfortable, and annoyed that, despite all that work they had put into it, they'd still lost the game by a single point. And now this.
"You did what?" Steve asked,
trying to fit this new datum in among the other things circling inside
his head. He sighed, leaning his bat against the wall and dropping his
mitt beside it.
"Take off those filthy things and
put them on top of the washer," Mrs. Henson instructed, like she hadn't
heard him at all. She shook her head in the long-suffering fashion that
moms had perfected thousands of years earlier, and crossed her arms like
she meant it.
"Come on, mom," Steve returned, after a slight delay while his brain caught up. A job! He'd wanted to find that on his own, so that it would at least be something tolerable. He knew there were a few openings in town, but he didn't want to wind up stacking material in the dress shop, or something equally lame. Mothers couldn't really pick jobs; the ones they thought were acceptable were all the ones that guys naturally avoided as being too stupid, or too boring.
Mrs. Henson dropped her hands to her hips and gave him a look, divining in only the way that mothers could which of the things she had just said that had prompted Steve's displeasure. "You said you wanted a job for the summer, didn't you?"
Steve bent down and got his shoes off, then his crusty socks, then started to strip down to his boxers, laying each of the dirty pieces of clothing on top of the old Maytag in its nook just inside the kitchen door.
"Yeah, but I would have found something. I wanted to pick what I was going to do, mom. I don't want to spend my summer doing something dumb like waiting on tables at the diner or inventorying girdles down at Crockett's."
His mother gave him a small smile. "This is not anything like that. This is actually a cool job."
Steve doubted that. Claymore was a small town, just three thousand souls. The number of businesses in town was also small, and the number of teenagers just large enough to leave some standing around when it came to hunting up summer employ. At sixteen, Steve had no illusions about small town life. You either took what you could get, or you went without, and that applied to everything.
Sure - you could drive to Columbus, or one of the other larger towns, maybe, and hunt up a job - if you had a car, and the money for gas. But that was why Steve needed a job in the first place. He didn't have either.
They were just far enough out beyond the suburbs to be called rural, and what came with that was a relaxed lifestyle, uncrowded conditions - and far less in the way of job opportunities.
And, he had other things to worry about, besides a job. There was the little fact that his personal life was driving him a little nuts right now, what with Sharon Carpenter chasing him all over the place like he was a chicken and she a hungry fox, and him not having the option of telling her why he wasn't interested in her as a sex partner.
Because you're not a guy,
Sharon. Sorry about that.
His mom sighed, and Steve realized he was standing there, one leg still in his pants, one pulled out. "You're daydreaming again, Steven."
Steve couldn't help smiling within. Unlike with other parents, who resorted to using their kid's full names in moments of anger or frustration, Steve's mom and dad only hauled his out when they were trying to focus him. He looked up into his mom's eyes, could see the concern there - and the love. He knew his parents had sensed his inner anguish these last few years, without knowing what it was about - that they could see beyond the outward smiles he wore to the secret turmoil within - and didn't understand any of it. But they loved him, and they were concerned about him, and babied him just a little, in a teen kind of way that he found acceptable - mostly - and he loved both of them back with all of his heart.
"Sorry, mom." He let her see the smile now. "Tell me about the job you found."
She watched him a moment longer, and then a fondness came into her eyes that he couldn't miss. "The pants go on the washer, too."
He nodded, pulled his other leg out of the jeans, laid them on top of the washer. "Okay. Now tell me."
His mom leaned back against the counter top. "You remember Betty Hannibal? She lived down by the pond near the Clayton farm."
Steve nodded. "Sure. Her grandson
Kip used to visit during the summer." He sighed inwardly, remembering
how cute the guy had been.
"That's the one. Well, when she died last year, that house went to her sister - the one that lives in Miami. Apparently, the sister's daughter somehow wound up with it. She's come to town now to live in that house, and she also bought the old Kennally house at the edge of town. She's opening a business of some sort there. I heard she was looking for some help, and when I saw her in town today, I mentioned that you were looking for a summer job. She said to come by tomorrow and talk to her about it."
Steve gaped. "The Kennally house? That's place is a dump, mom! And it's supposed to be haunted, too."
His mother laughed. "You're not serious?"
It had been Andy Henthorpe who had started the rumor about the old Kennally place being haunted - earlier in the spring, it had been. Andy had been coming by the house on his bike one evening just before sunset, and seen strange lights moving behind the shutters and heard weird noises coming from within the house. It wasn't hard to believe at all, the way the big old place squatted menacingly atop it's little roadside hill, the paint falling off of it and any friendliness it may have once had hiding behind those ugly brown shutters.
His mom was watching him.
"It's a dump," he repeated, leaving off the part about being haunted this time. "I'll probably fall through the floor or something first thing."
His mom laughed. "It's old, yes. Debbi Hannibal - that's the daughter - said she has been fixing it up for her new business."
Steve cringed a little. "What kind of business?" If it was a dress shop or a boutique or something equally feminine, he was bowing out right now. He didn't need any more threats to his already quailing masculinity.
"I got the impression it's some sort of second-hand store. She was a little vague about it." Steve's mom frowned. "In fact, she was a little ditzy, now that I think about it. Kept talking about niche markets and consumer demand. But I did get between all that stuff that she is going to be stocking and selling used items."
Huh? Well - that didn't
sound so bad. A second-hand store sold all kinds of stuff, and not
geared just towards women. The one over in Bentonville was actually
pretty cool - Steve had bought several of his baseball bats there.
Louisville Sluggers, too - his favorite brand.
"What time does she want me to swing by?" he asked now, suddenly realizing that he was at least going to go and see what was up. He did need a job, and if all he had to do was fill shelves with old junk all day long, that would be okay. The money still spent the same, right?
"She said you could come by at noon. She has to drive to Columbus in the morning, but she said she'd be back by then."
He nodded. "Okay." Then he added a smile. "Thanks, mom. Good lookin' out."
Mrs. Henson smiled, came forward, gave him a small, careful hug. "Why don't you go take a shower? It will still be an hour before dad gets home. Then maybe you can straighten up your room a bit, hint, hint?"
Steve laughed, gave his mom a
small hug back. "Okay, okay. I get the message." He shook his head.
"Both of them, in fact."
He smiled at her a last time, and then headed down the hall towards his room.
Second hand store, huh? The more
the idea settled in his mind, the more interesting it became. Working in
a junk shop meant you had first grab at whatever junk came in. And there
was, quite simply, all kinds of cool junk in the world.
This might not be so bad at all.
* * * * * * *
He went into the little bathroom off his bedroom and turned on the water in the shower, setting it to just warm. He shucked his boxers and briefly examined himself in the bathroom mirror.
Here we are again, he
He was kind of proud of his
looks. Light brown hair, which he kept fairly short, and which had a bit
of a wave across the top that transferred to a curl in the front.
Blue-green eyes that held a nice sparkle and looked intelligent and
aware. Nice features, a sweet and contagious smile, and a pretty nice
physique that was already summer tanned. He was handsome - well, at
least according to his mom. The girls liked him, too, and several had
made it known that they wouldn't mind getting a little closer. Sharon
Carpenter, had, in fact, told all the other girls to move over, because
she was coming to get him.
But he wasn't interested in her, or them. Any of them.
He'd known that since he was little, even before he knew about sex. He was always having his eye caught by some other boy, and getting himself enchanted by a cute smile or pretty eyes full of laughter. He'd had several crushes, which might have been problematical had they not been tempered by a caution slightly mature beyond his years. He'd known, somehow, that to openly display what he felt would be bad. Not just for his reputation, but for his way of life.
But that hadn't stopped him from dreaming, and he could look back now over the line of guys he'd been sweet on over the years and just sigh, and wonder if any of them - even one - might have returned his affection had be been bold enough to offer it.
Being gay wasn't so bad. You
might get kidded by others at school if they knew, and you might have to
swing your fists every now and then, just to show that being gay didn't
mean you couldn't kick some ass. In the city schools it was a topical
issue, with teachers and counselors and principals all aware of the
legal ramifications of allowing any kind of bullying or harassment to go
unchecked. There was still trouble, sure - but it wasn't in the open so
much as it once was, and more and more people these days were aware of
the legal risks of bumping heads with someone just because they were
Here, in the country, it was maybe a little worse, but not much. Steve was reasonably sure that Kelly Kittering and Josh Smalley were getting it on - both guys were just way too happy when they were around each other, and spent every waking minute together. There had been some talk, and some kidding by the other guys; but both Kelly and Josh had just shrugged it off, and not let it bother them. Safety in numbers, don't you know. Anyone that messed with one had to mess with the other, and Josh was already on the JV football team, and at just shy of six feet tall and weighing two hundred pounds, was not someone you'd just piss off idly.
If Steve had had someone like that - someone that cared about him and would stick by him - then maybe coming out wouldn't bother him so much. Nothing pares the edge off of worries like having them shared with someone else. But for now - he was staying undercover. He had no desire to go it alone.
He climbed into the shower, lathered up with the soap, and ran the washcloth over his sun-browned frame. At five-feet-seven and one-hundred and forty pounds, he was a lean and mean example of his age group - pretty much average, really, and certainly a ways away from the hulk that Josh Smalley had become. He grinned at that, remembering for just a moment that Kelly was the same size as Steve was, and that if the two other boys really were playing around, then Kelly probably needed a step-ladder to do it properly.
He sighed. Love conquers all obstacles!
Speaking of love, he took a moment to wonder what Jerry Custer was doing at that moment. Jerry had gotten himself pretty dirty during the ballgame today, too - was he at home, even now standing naked under the water in his bathroom?
The idea of it sent a rush to Steve's groin. Jerry Custer was about the cutest guy that Steve had known in a long time. But he was also one of the most disgustingly straight, and had even been caught finger-fucking Julie Proxmire at her birthday party last year. Jerry had just grinned it off, saying it was the best present he could think of for Julie, and had after that ascended into the ranks of those in school who had actually done what they bragged about - well, sort of.
Steve closed his eyes, feeling envy for Julie Proxmire - that she had had any kind of sexual attention from a boy that Steve would die to sleep with. He could see Jerry's grin and bright eyes in his mind, and if he had a dime for every time he had imagined away the other boy's clothing, he could afford to buy the car he wanted without need of a summer job.
The want and the need overcame him, and he stood beneath the warm flowing water, eyes closed, slightly smiling, and pulled one off.
* * * * * * *
After dinner, Steve sat with his folks in the den and watched a little TV. It was a canned baseball game, and actually had been played that afternoon. But none of them had seen it, so it was just like watching one live. The Indians were playing the Blue Jays, and baseball was one thing that the family always shared. Even Steve's mom - not really a total fan - liked to sit and read while the game was on, smiling at the banter back and forth between Steve and his dad, and looking up whenever the sudden roar of the crowd announced a major play in motion.
The game was a good one, and kept
their interest throughout. Steve and his dad went back and forth over
player stats, each offering opinions on who was going where this season.
It was always fun watching a game with his dad, and it tended to put
other things in perspective. By late in the game Steve was feeling
pretty mellow, and smiling a lot, and just having a good time.
"Mom tell you about that job?"
his dad asked, when the game had gone to commercials in the eighth
inning. He was munching on Doritos, his favorite evening
snack. "What'd you think?"
"I thought it sounded pretty interesting," Steve said, smiling when he saw his mother also smiling behind her book. "I just hope mom doesn't get mad at me if I bring a little cool junk home from the store - I mean, after she pointed me at it in the first place, and all."
He laughed when his mom's eyes peered at him in alarm over the top of her book - she obviously hadn't considered that aspect of the door she was opening in her son's life.
He smiled at her. "But I'll be sure that it's all necessary junk, okay?"
His father chuckled, and his mom rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. His mom already thought that Steve's room needed disaster relief - the idea of him adding even more stuff that she was unable to identify to the mix obviously appalled her. But she was being a good sport about it, concentrating furiously on her book now, and so Steve let it drop.
"What are you guys doing at work, dad?" His father was an aviation engineer at a firm in Columbus, and was always neck-deep in cool stuff - mostly stuff he couldn't talk about, but some that he could.
"Wing design for a new plane." He briefly mentioned something about vortex trails, downwash, and induced drag, before trailing off as the game action resumed. Steve grinned. His dad was damn smart - smarter than he was - and Steve was proud of him, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.
Too bad that the Indians weren't smarter - they lost the game 9-6, ending a 14 game winning streak.
"I had a little bet on that one, too," Steve's dad said, sighing, as he settled back to wait for the evening news. "With Dan Middleton. He came in smirking just before I left for home, and it cost me five bucks to make him go away."
Steve's mom shook her head. "I thought you were working at that place, Eric. Not gambling in the basement."
Steve and his dad both laughed. "Come on, honey. It was five bucks. The Indians have won fourteen straight games. You'd think they could have cooperated a little and given me fifteen."
"Still no reason to be throwing
dice in the workplace." But his mom was again smiling behind her book.
"Dice?" His dad said, in
mock alarm. "Are you kidding? Why, if Jack King, the unit head, saw us
Steve got up and excused himself, kissing his mom and giving his dad a fond rub on the shoulder as he passed. They would be playfully arguing over the bet for the next ten minutes, until they tired of it; and then dad would pat the couch next to himself and mom would sigh and move over from her chair, and then they'd kiss and snuggle a little while, ignoring the news they had both stayed up to see. Steve had seen it too many times not to know.
It was great, really. He knew a few kids at school whose folks were legendary battlers, and he counted himself lucky to have parents that not only loved each other, but liked each other as well.
He went into his room and closed the door, and locked it. His parents didn't mind that, figuring he was old enough now that he could regulate his own privacy. Steve felt safe with the door locked, like he could do what he liked without having to justify it to anyone. Everybody ought to have a little private space like that, really. And once his folks retired upstairs to their room at the other end of the house, it would really feel like he was on his own. He liked that feeling, even if it was only illusory.
There was a door at the
other side of the room that opened out onto the side screen porch. Steve
would often sit out there late at night and listen to the crickets and
the frogs as they discussed the nightly goings on in their neck of the
woods, and watch the moonlight in the side yard as it drew complex
patterns in yellow-white light on the uneven ground among the trees.
Sometimes he would hear the eerie echo of far off traffic, mysteriously
conveyed down the valley from the interstate; or the lonely horns of a
diesel locomotive as it churned its way east towards New York.
Yeah, it was the country. But it was also home, and not to be traded for anyplace else.
He turned up the fan that spun on the ceiling above him, and then the little table fan that sat by his bed. The central air had broken down the other day, and they were still waiting for the man to drive down from Columbus to look at it. But the evening temps weren't so bad, and the loss of the air conditioning was mitigated by the whirling fans and the gentle movement of night air through the room. Steve kicked off his shoes, tossed his tee-shirt on the floor, and sat down at his desk in front of his PC and pulled up a few files to look at.
Special files to look
They were nudes, of guys his own age. They were hidden pretty far down among some other stuff, where a casual look through the machine wouldn't find them. His mom was a little nosy, but not very computer literate. His dad, who knew more about computers than Steve ever expected to know, wasn't nosy and respected Steve's privacy. So far, Steve felt safe having the pictures there where he could look at them now and then - and dream a little.
These guys were all cute. One of his lucky finds looked so much like Jerry Custer that it almost hurt to look at it. Every time Steve saw Jerry he wondered now if the other boy looked anything like the picture Steve had on his computer - the one that looked like Jerry out of his clothing, that is. That he might simply took Steve's breath away. He stared at the picture for a time, imagining what it would be like if Jerry Custer liked him the way that Steve wanted to be liked.
After a while, he heard his parents go upstairs, and soon the house grew quiet, except for the faint whirs of the ceiling fans running in every room.
The night crept in, then, and Steve closed the files and stood up. The front of his shorts were tented and taut from the pictures and his imaginings, and he felt a need to deal with that. He turned the lights down in the room, stripped out of his shorts and boxers, and grabbed a few tissues from the box by his bed.
He went to the screen door leading out onto the side porch and stood there a moment, feeling the slightly cooler night air moving slowly over his body. The sounds of the night intensified as he opened the door and went out onto the porch, found the old wicker rocker, and sat down. He sighed, closed his eyes and rocked slowly, imagining what it would be like to have Jerry Custer in his bed. As he imagined he stroked himself: slowly, pleasantly, no rush, make it last.
It was the same jerk-off dream he
used most every time now, with little variation. Usually it was Jerry
Custer; but every now and then he'd make it Mike Henshaw he dreamed
about, just to give Jerry a rest. Mike was another boy that Steve liked,
not quite as cute as Jerry, but with a healthy dose of almost.
But no matter which one
it was, the dream was the same. They'd be out somewhere, together,
alone, and Jerry or Mike would start clowning around, and then they'd be
grabbing at each other, and then wrestling - and then kissing, and then
making love. It was a simple fantasy, pleasing and without pretense. It
always made Steve smile, and it always - for a time - knocked the edge
off of his loneliness.
He stroked himself purposefully as he dreamed of kissing and holding Jerry, until his body finally tensed and he came with a sigh. He used the tissue to collect his cum, then balled it up and dabbed at the head of his dick to clean up. For a moment he closed his eyes, and was able to smile at himself. There was a little bit of a thrill to sitting out on the porch naked, and of course there was a major thrill to imagining being with Jerry. The combination was usually good for a nice climax.
He briefly wondered what Jerry was doing right now. Probably sleeping. Maybe he was laying there in his bed, just wearing boxers. Or maybe nothing at all. Or maybe he was laying there doing what Steve had just done. The idea was pleasant, and Steve felt a small rush in his nutsack as his dick attempted to comply with this new bit of stimulation.
But - it was getting late. The job interview the next day came to the front of his mind now, and he stood up and went back into his room, tossing the balled up tissue into the trashcan by his desk. He went to his bathroom and took a piss, and then went back into his room and climbed into bed.
A job would be a nice addition to
his summer life. Something positive to do to take his mind off of the
things that bugged him. Something to do to distract him from knowing he
was alone. And, something to do that would keep him from the ball field
and Jerry Custer, who was on the edge of driving him a little nuts just
now. One more look at Jerry's pretty smile, one more look at that
gorgeous face, and Steve might find himself saying or doing something
that he would sorely regret.
He sighed, turned his face to the wall, and closed his eyes. For a moment he let his hand slowly rub circles into the sheet beside him, as he imagined that someone could be there with him. And wished there was someone to share the summer with more intimately.
He'd had that wish for a while now, but there had been no takers. If there were other gay boys in this town beyond Kelly and Josh, they were like Steve: so far undercover that not even God himself could find them.
And certainly, not Steve.
* * * * * * *
Around eleven-thirty the next morning, Steve said goodbye to his mom and got on his bike to go over to the other side of town. That sounded like more of a trip than it really was - about ten minutes, pedaling at a leisurely rate and enjoying the ride. Claymore was nothing if not compact in nature, its seeming spread mostly due to the emptiness between its constituent parts. In other words, the town was mostly countryside.
There was a main street, with the little cluster of schools at one end, and the couple of churches the town hosted at the other. In between them was a long section of fairly straight road with businesses strewn up and down each side, and a few side streets that held the town's administrative buildings, the library, the city maintenance warehouse, and a few dozen elderly homes that belonged to the town's oldest families. You could pedal from one end of town to the other in a couple of minutes. Traffic was always light, ever since the state had put in a bypass for the interstate, that now carried the bulk of traffic around the town.
The majority of the town's official population was spread out in the rolling country that surrounded main street - lots of old farms, these days mostly inactive - although a minority still hosted a few cows and pigs and chickens. Almost no one plowed the land anymore, though there were a few small plots of corn and tomatoes about, that were sold at roadside stands during the productive months.
There were also a couple of developments
- hardly deserving of the word, really, as those additions to the town's
habitations consisted of one very small row of garden apartments,
another street of townhouses, and a few single-family homes dropped here
and there on land once worked and productive, but since sold by the
children of farmers.
Steve pedaled slowly, enjoying the day. As he passed through the school end of town and turned into the winding country road that led around towards the other side, a group of girls walking along one of the town's few sidewalks turned to look at him. One girl in particular, with long, dark hair and pretty features, jumped into the air briefly and waved at him with all of her might. "Steve!"
Steve smiled, waved, and added just a tiny extra bit of energy to the pedals, without making it obvious. Sharon Carpenter, out with friends, heading who-knows-where. He wasn't about to stop and talk and put up with her trying to sidetrack him into doing something with her. Shame about that, but what else could he do? Jerry Custer had said he envied Steve, that Sharon was after him like that. "You gonna tag some of that?" he'd asked. "She wants it."
Steve had grinned like he was supposed to, and acknowledged that Sharon was cute and might be fun. But he had then added that her pushiness was a turn-off for him, and that he didn't want a girlfriend who thought she owned him. That was a little harsh, maybe, but also something that Jerry - who imagined himself a bit of a free agent himself when it came to girls, could readily understand.
He was quickly out of sight of the girls, and breathed a little easier. Once, Sharon had actually run after him as he went by on his bike, probably figuring he would stop if she made the effort. He hadn't then, either, being even more annoyed at her insistence. It was just a good thing that girls couldn't fly, or guys would never have a moment's peace, he thought, shaking his head.
The road ahead wound into trees
and rolling pasture, and Steve relaxed again, just enjoying the ride.
The Kennally house was one of those oddities hereabouts - a house plunked down along the road and unconnected to a farm or other large plot of land. Someone had come along one day - the original Kennally, one could presume - purchased an acre of land by the roadside, and built himself a sprawling house in the late-Victorian mold. The place had a wide front porch, a gabled roof, turrets at the front corners, and cedar shingles on the sides. It was probably nice once, and still could probably be nice if fixed up - if it hadn't been so creepy to start with, and rumored to be haunted.
But, Steve had decided to
withhold judgment until he actually inspected the place, and could see
more clearly what he was getting himself into. He hadn't been by the
Kennally house this year yet - it was on the side of town with the newer
residences, and he seldom had reason to come this way.
And so he was a little surprised
to see the place when it came into view.
The house sat on a small rise at
a spot where the road curved, and was kind of hard to miss no matter
which direction you approached it from. The first thing he noticed was
that the shutters were open, locked back against the wall outside each
window, and painted now in a crisp, deep red. And the place looked clean:
the shingled flanks of the house had been washed, and had lightened
considerably when peeled of years worth of grime, really brightening the
look of the whole house. The roof also looked darker and neater - it had
also been tended to. The saggy look of age the place seemed to have had
was gone somehow, and the house looked straight and strong for the first
time in Steve's memory.
The tall grass and the wilderness
of shrubbery that had overtaken the place had been cut back, and the
front lawn, at least, looked nice and neat. Someone had repainted the
trim in the same deep red as the shutters, and the wide front porch -
once cluttered with the junk of ages, was spic and span now. A portion
of the yard by the road had been covered with crushed bluestone - enough
space to park a dozen cars - and even a small bicycle rack had been
placed at one edge. A lone car was parked on the stones - a Nissan of
But the most noticeable change was the sign that now stretched across the top of the porch roof - professionally done in letters a foot tall, and in the same deep red paint as the house's trim:
"THRIFT SHOP NATION".
And in somewhat smaller letters beneath: "Everything's better the second time around".
Steve grinned, just amazed at the transformation. Talk about polishing a turd until it shined!
He locked his bike in the front rack and climbed the short spread of slate steps set into the little rise; and then he was standing before the front porch. There were three more wide, slightly sagging but still sturdy-looking front steps, - also now painted red - and then he was striding across the large front porch, which produced little groaning sounds at each step, but which also felt impeccably sturdy beneath his feet.
There was a new wooden screen door in the front entry - red, like everything else - and the large, ornate oak door beyond was standing open. Steve pressed his nose gently to the screen and looked within.
The large front entry foyer was
stacked about with boxes, some of which were open and had clothing
draped over the sides. Stacks of books stood on the floor by other
boxes, and a collection of old lamps missing the shades huddled by one
wall. And, there was just all sorts of stuff standing and
laying about, obviously waiting to find a home on some shelf somewhere.
Overhead, a ceiling fan made soft air noises as it turned at a sedate
But no people about, that he could see.
"Hello?" he called, and then turned his ear to the screen.
For a moment he heard nothing, and called again.
This time, when he placed his ear to the screen, he heard a faint call : "Help!"
Steve reared back in surprise; and then he was grabbing the screen door open and plunging inside. "Where are you?"
A voice came from a back room. "Here!"
Steve wound his way among the boxes and past a new counter with a small cash register atop it. Beyond was an arched passage to the next room, which was filled with shelving in various stages of being stocked. "Say something again," he called.
"Here I am!" The voice was hard
to pick out from the soft whir of the ceiling fan - there seemed to be
one in each room.
He crossed the large room and
passed into the next, which was smaller, and had a rounded front and
tall, narrow windows. He was inside one of the turrets.
This room held racks full of
women's clothing, some large trunks, and a multitude of boxes. The back
wall held a fireplace with an ornate mantel above it.
The lid of one of the great trunks banged up and down. "Help me!"
Steve approached the trunk, and couldn't help smiling. It was obvious what had happened. A large coat stand lay across the lid, pulled down by a necktie that had caught on one edge of the trunk lid. Other neckties, draped over hooks on the coat stand, lay out across the surface of the trunk's lid like a drunken octopus splayed out on a coral reef. Whoever had gotten inside the trunk had lowered the lid, the trapped tie had yanked taut, which had unbalanced the coat stand and pulled it over on top of the trunk. The ornate legs of the stand were firmly trapped against another large trunk, and the upper end had slid on impact, placing several of its arms beneath the lip of the mantel, allowing the trunk lid to rise only a couple of inches.
"Ms. Hannibal?" Steve asked, coming up to the chest. "I'm Steve Henson. My mom said you were looking for some help here?"
"Get me out and you can have the place!" the voice inside the chest yelled, sounding a little irritated now.
Steve nodded, slid the coat stand back and set it upright again. Then he lifted the lid of the trunk.
Bright blue eyes stared up at him from a pretty - if older - face. Not as old as Steve's mom, but not young, either. The face was framed with brown hair, pulled back and tied to keep it out of the way. The blue eyes rolled, and the woman - dressed in a short-sleeved blouse and blue jeans - attempted to rise.
"Oh! My friggin' back! God - help me up, will you?"
Steve grabbed one of the woman's arms as she attempted to rise, helped her up to sit on one edge of the trunk.
"How long were you in there?" Steve asked, trying to keep the smile off his face now.
"What time is it?"
"Since about ten-thirty, I guess."
Steve blinked. Wow. He could see then why the woman was stiff. "Can I ask how you came to be in there?"
The woman turned her eyes on him - and they were very pretty, he could now see - and looked sheepish. "Uh, well...it was kind of dumb, really. I was remembering playing in trunks like this as a kid, and I just wanted to see if I could still fit inside one."
"That would be a yes," Steve said, now allowing a grin to come out.
The woman grinned back, and stuck out a hand. "Debbi Hannibal. Who did you say you were?"
"Steve Henson. My mom saw you in town yesterday and talked to you about a summer job for me."
"I remember. You're hired. It's minimum wage, but that's all I can afford yet. And it's kind of part-time - at least, at first. How old are you?"
Debbi nodded. "Oh. You look a little younger. Well, you can work as much as we can manage, then."
She slid off the edge of the trunk and slowly straightened. "I'm so glad I stopped to talk to your mom now, Stevie. I might have been in that trunk until I starved, otherwise."
Steve bristled slightly at being called 'Stevie'. Grandma Wilson - his mom's mother - called him that, and it had always bugged him. But Debbi was paying for the privilege, so what the hell.
He looked around the room now, taking in the sights. "This place is pretty cool. I can only imagine what it's going to be like once you get it straightened up."
"We get it straightened up, you mean." Debbi smiled. "That's the first order of business. Get everything squared away, shipshape, and in apple-pie order."
When he raised an eyebrow at her, she grinned. "My dad was navy. He likes things orderly."
Steve decided he liked Debbi. She was a little odd - but who wasn't? "Okay. Where do I start?"
Debbi considered that, the forefinger of one hand tapping on the tip of her chin while she decided. "I think I'll start you in the home section. Come on."
She turned, and - a little stiffly yet - led him through another archway in the back of the room into what had obviously once been a large kitchen. A great old porcelain-faced gas stove still sat underneath a wide tin hood, with white tiled countertops on either side. The front of the stove was ornate - classy, actually, and the name RobertShaw was written across the center panel of it in blue script.
The top of the stove held a variety of obviously old pots, pans, and kitchenware - all of it in great shape. Little white stickers on each one held a sale price - most of it was just a few bucks.
The counter tops held all manner of bowls, glasses, stacks of dinnerware, cups, coffee servers, tea sets, blenders, mixers, and kitchen doodads that Steve wasn't sure what to call. The cabinets above - doorless now - held even more plates, mostly sets, all priced and ready for sale. A couple of wooden dining room tables along the back wall held just a mammoth variety of glassware of every shape, color, and size, all with little tags declaring their sale price.
"Wow," Steve said, admiringly. "Must have taken some time to price all this stuff."
"It did, and it does. I have to be careful, because some of the stuff I pick up is collectible, and I have to watch out or risk giving away a king's ransom as a dog's bone."
Steve grinned. "I like the way
you talk. You're from Miami?"
"Who, me? No. I'm from New York, as in City."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "You don't sound like you're from New York."
Debbi smiled. "Heaven's no. Only cab drivers and other paupers sound like they're from New York."
Steve laughed. "I'm not sure what that means."
Debbi leaned forward
conspiratorially. "I was a class-girl. A jet-setter. World-wise. An
elitist." She sighed. "A snob.
My family has money. I had money. I didn't know what to do with it, so I
did nothing. Well, except party and travel and cause trouble. I've been
all over the world, honey. London and Moscow, Sydney and Hong Kong. You
name it, I've been there. I finally got tired of roaming, and decided to
stick to Europe. I landed in Paris, and lost myself in the party scene
there for a while."
"Yeah? What happened to that?" Steve couldn't help but to find Debbi interesting. No one in Claymore talked like this.
Debbi rolled her eyes theatrically. "I met a man. Well, he wasn't a real man - he was French. But he looked like one, and he sounded like one, even if he didn't live like one. He showed me the error of my ways, that money was the root of all evil, and that simplicity was the true way."
Steve was impressed. "He was like a...a philosopher?"
"No. He was a bum, and a good one. He spent about thirty thousand of daddy's money before I got wise and threw him out. But he did teach me something - that money ain't everything, baby. Even while he was busy spending mine, he did nothing but complain and be miserable. Whoever said you can't buy happiness really knew what he was talking about."
Steve grinned. "So what happened then?"
Debbi shrugged. "I came home. I told daddy not to give me any more money. I said I was going to take what my own investments brought in and make something with my life."
"Wow. He was impressed?"
"No. He laughed at me. He said I'd be home in a week with my tail between my legs."
"Really? That would kind of piss me off to be told that."
Debbi nodded. "Me, too. I haven't been back since."
"How long has it been?"
"Seven years, give or take a day. After the first two months, daddy sent me a message: all is forgiven - come home. I sent him back a message: not until I'm good and ready." She grinned. "I'm still not ready."
Steve liked his new employer - realized then that he was bound to like the job, too. His mom got one right - who knew? But --
"I thought I heard your mom lived in Miami," he said then. "I just assumed you were from there, too."
"My mother does live in Miami," Debbi returned. "And my father lives in New York. My brothers live in Los Angeles, and Toronto. And I live in Claymore. We're not a tight family, exactly."
"Oh." Shit. Best not to go there. "So...what do you want me to do first?"
Debbi waved a hand at the kitchen. "This stuff is about where I want it for now." She pointed at two long, low, deep bookcases that ran beneath the double windows in the back wall. Another two bookcases, wide and high and just as deep, stood on either side of the windows. "See them?"
She smiled, and started forward, indicating that he was to follow. They went from the kitchen into another large room, which looked to have been meant to be a dining room. Steve gaped at what he saw there.
The floor was absolutely covered with ornate glassware, dinnerware, cups, glasses, china, silver, brass ware, and countless other things that would need to be scrutinized to be identified. Hundreds and hundreds of items. And each one had a little price tag stuck on it.
"I've priced these items. I just need you to take them and carefully place them on those shelves in the kitchen. You'll see that they are grouped - keep the groups together. Try to be neat, and place things so that the price tags can be seen. The less people have to pick stuff up to see whether or not they want to spend the money, the less breakage we'll have in the end through dropping."
Steve nodded. "So I'm starting today?"
Debbi grinned. "Honey, you started the second you let me out of that trunk."
Steve couldn't help smiling back. "I think I'm gonna like this job."
A look of pleasure crossed the woman's face. "Great. Because I already like having you here. Let's get started, shall we?"
* * * * * * *
They worked until five. Debbi hunted him up as he was placing the last items on the shelves. What should have taken just an hour or two had taken four. Steve was very careful moving the glassware, and arranging it, and ensuring that none got dropped. It was a successful venture, but time-consuming to get right.
Debbi seemed pleased. She smiled at him, nodding in approval. "Looks great, Stevie. You have a knack for display. Who knew?"
"Not me," Steve admitted. "And my mom would be shocked to know. She thinks my room looks like New Orleans after the flood. She told me once that if she could find a big enough vacuum cleaner she'd just suck up my whole room and toss the bag in the backyard."
Debbi laughed. "Your mom sounds like fun. She seemed a little stern when I talked to her in town."
"Yeah. She can be like that. Businesslike. But she's a real sweetie underneath."
The woman grinned. "Sounds like you get along with her. That's really great. How's your dad?"
"I like him, too," Steve confessed. "He's really cool."
"Wow." Debbi's eyes showed approval. "A kid that likes his parents. You're a keeper, for sure."
Steve was deciding that he really liked this woman, and was going to really like this job. He had to remember to give his mom a hug when he got home.
"Now if the truck guy would just get here," Debbi finished, her frown returning.
Steve waited for her to continue, but she didn't. "Who's that?" he ventured.
"Huh? Oh. I hired a guy with a truck. A small van or something, he said. I need someone to go around and collect the stuff that I have purchased for the shop, and any stuff that is donated. I hired a guy who lives over in Bentonville. He said he'd be here today, but then called this morning and said he was getting something on the truck fixed, and that he would be here tomorrow." She frowned. "I hope he's going to be dependable. He sounded pretty young." She realized immediately what she had said, and smiled and squeezed his arm. "No offense."
Steve laughed. "None taken. I'd like to think I can be a realist when pushed. I know guys my age aren't always where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be."
Debbi shrugged. "Oh, I don't think he's as young as you. I think he's seventeen." She smiled, looking thoughtful. "On second thought --"
They both laughed. Steve followed Debbi about, closing windows and turning off fans, and eventually they were standing on the front porch and locking up.
"What time to do want me tomorrow?" Steve asked.
"You can come about ten, if that's not too early."
"Nope. I'll be here."
She extended her hand, and they shook. "I think I'll like working with you, Stevie. Especially if you don't go around telling people about the trunk incident."
Steve shrugged. "What trunk incident?"
Debbi nodded. "You'll go far in this world, m' boy."
They walked down to the road, and Debbi got into her Nissan, and Steve unlocked his bike and climbed aboard. Debbi pulled out onto the road, tooted her horn, and then was gone.
Yup. This job was going to be cool.
* * * * * * *
At dinner, Steve told his folks about his day - omitting the thing with Debbi and the trunk, as promised. His parents listened with evident interest - and his mom with a certain amount of pleasure at her son's obvious excitement over the new job. But she didn't say anything about it then.
After they ate, while Steve
helped clear the table, he told his mom how much he liked the new job,
and thanked her. And hugged her.
She smiled. "I'm just glad it worked out. I was talking to Lannie Custer today while you were out, and she said how much trouble her son, Jerry, was having finding something."
Steve smiled. "I know Jerry. We play baseball together. I didn't think he was looking that hard to work."
"Well, he is. His mom said she told him they needed someone at Crockett's to stock shelves in the back room, and that he was going today to see about it."
Steve nodded, smiling inwardly at the mental picture of Jerry wandering among shelves full of women's lacy underthings. It wasn't a job he'd wanted, but it was one he might have been jealous of even yesterday - until he had landed something that looked like it might turn out to be really fun.
"I hope he gets it," Steve said, meaning it. There were worse jobs, after all.
The rest of the evening went kind
of slowly. Steve watched some TV with his folks, then begged off early,
saying he was tired. "Have to work tomorrow," he said grinning.
He went to his room and closed
the door and locked it, and undressed and got into bed. He really was
kind of tired. He turned off the light and lay there, thinking about his
day - and then about Jerry Custer. But he hadn't even undressed the boy
in his mind before his eyelids felt droopy, and before he knew it, sleep
* * * * * * *
The next day dawned warm and
sunny, with a small breeze that knocked the edge off the humidity. Steve
enjoyed the bike trip over to the thrift shop, just easing over the
blacktopped road at a leisurely pace that moved him along without
producing a vigorous sweat. Traffic was light - but it was always light
here. Claymore was not exactly Times Square.
He was dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt, and had just stuck his bare feet into his running shoes and laced them up loosely. Debbi had said he could dress relaxed, because he was going to be really working, lifting and carrying and moving stuff around, and he had taken her at her word.
He pulled up onto the crushed bluestone lot and locked his bike in the rack. Debbi's Nissan was already there, tucked over in a corner where it would leave plenty of room for other visitors - when they finally arrived, that is. First, they would need to get the place open for business.
He bounded up the slate steps, and then took the porch steps in a single leap, and pulled open the screen door and went inside. "Hi! Debbi?"
"Back here, Stevie." Her voice came through the archway to the left.
Steve walked around, and found Debbi down on her knees, sorting through boxes of books. She smiled up at him. "Hi. You want to bring those other boxes of books from the front hall for me?"
He looked around the room. It was
surrounded by tall bookcases, most of them still empty. The center of
the floor held two long, chest-high bookcases, back-to-back, so that the
stock on them could be viewed from both sides. It was a nice, big room,
and Steve was seeing now that this old house was going to be a great
And not a ghost in sight, either.
"Sure," he returned, heading back to the front hall. He grabbed up the first box - paperbacks - and brought them back to the book room. "By the way - did you know that this house is supposed to be haunted?"
Debbi smiled, thinking he was kidding. But then she saw that he wasn't, and frowned. "Really? I hadn't heard that."
"Well," Steve amended, "it's not like the whole town knows, or anything. My mom didn't know, when I told her. But the kids at school have all heard it, anyway."
Debbi's face remained screwed up a moment; but then she just shrugged. "Oh, well. Nothing to do about it, in any case. I was just thinking that that's the kind of little thing that can make people think twice before coming into a place like this."
"It's not really haunted, though," Steve said, watching her. "Is it?"
She laughed then, her eyes sparkling. "Not you, too, Steverino?" She shook her head. "The only ghost around here is me."
"Oh." Steve frowned. "Well, someone swore they saw weird lights upstairs one evening when they were going by here."
Debbi brought up a hand and laid her chin on the backs of her fingers. "That's entirely possible. There was an old mattress on the floor in the upstairs front bedroom, and a number of empty beer cans on the floor. Looked to me like someone's make-out spot. And, someone broke the lock on one of the back doors." She grinned. "You got any players at your school?"
Steve laughed in surprise."Oh, yeah? Now there's something I never considered." He cocked his head, thinking. "Yeah, that could have been...well, we have a few guys who think they're lovers; and a few girls who are a little too ready to please. Could have been any of them."
Debbi nodded. "Well, I've been here alone a bunch of evenings, and I've never heard or seen a thing. And that back door lock is fixed. Any ghosts that get in now are going to be guilty of breaking and entering, so they had better watch themselves."
They set about unloading books. Steve took them out of the boxes and stacked them on the floor next to Debbi. She looked at each one, and penciled a price in the upper right-hand corner of each fly leaf. She was fast, and built a new stack of priced books every couple of minutes. Steve would remove these stacks, sort the books by category, and place them on the shelves. In this fashion they completed emptying the boxes and filling the bookcases by just after noon.
"Lunch time," Debbi said, getting up from the floor and stretching. "Ugh. I'm not quite as nimble as I once was." She smiled at Steve. "Did you bring anything to eat?"
Somehow, the thought of lunch had slipped his mind. He shrugged, feeling kind of stupid. "I didn't think of it."
Debbi smiled. "Well, I did. I've got a couple of small subs in the fridge in the office. Come on and join me."
The office was in the rear - a small room off the parlor, which was now men's clothing. Steve followed Debbi to the back of the house. As they passed through the parlor and went by the racks of clothing, Steve spied a pair of shorts on a hangar at the end of one row. They were brown, with three lines of white piping up the sides, and a small white Addidas tag on the left leg. And, they were short. He couldn't help stopping to look at them. Whoa. They weren't just short, they were sexy!
These were the kind of shorts he imagined Jerry Custer wearing in his daydreams about the boy - nut length, he thought of them. Woof! Just imagining Jerry in a pair of these made him thirsty! These shorts had once been common athletic apparel, but were a little too revealing for most guys these days. Most guys.
Steve took them off the hangar and held them up to himself. Geez. They were his size, too!
He became aware that Debbi had stopped and turned around, and was grinning at him. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you, Steve-o? Got a little lightning in there somewhere, don't you?"
Steve felt his face redden. "I was just thinking they were pretty, uh..."
"Sexy," Debbi finished. "You can say it." Her eyes twinkled. "Bet you'd look hot in them, too. Got a girl you wanna impress? They would be the things to do it."
Steve licked his lips. If Debbi
thought they were cool, they probably were. Not around here - not in
this town, maybe. Somewhere in the world, though.
He sighed, looking at the shorts. Yeah, but he wasn't anywhere else in the world. He was in Claymore. But...the shorts might be fun to wear in his room - or out on the porch. And to think about Jerry Custer in...
"How much are they?"
"A dollar or two. Just take them. When I pulled them out of the box they were in and held them up, my first thought was that no one in this town would ever buy them." She winked. "Seems I was wrong."
Steve grinned. "Thanks. You can
take it out of my first paycheck." He tucked the shorts into the
waistband of his own shorts, so that they hung down his side.
"Nope. On me. I'm just happy I won't have to look at them for the next five years. They've found a home, and that makes me happy." She grinned again. "Everything's better the second time around, right?"
Steve felt his face redden again. "We'll see."
They went into the back room off the parlor, which had a sign on the door that said, Office - No admittance. There was a desk and some chairs, two filing cabinets, a small refrigerator, and a microwave oven. Hard to tell what the room had been originally, but that was one of the cool things about these big old houses - lots of rooms of every size.
Debbi went to the little fridge, pulled out two half-subs wrapped in clear plastic, and two bottles of apple juice. "Good?" she asked, holding the bottles up for him to see.
"Sure. I love apples."
Debbi scraped some papers aside
on the desk and put the food there, and they drew up chairs and sat to
eat. Steve's sub was turkey and cheese, which he was fine with - it was
"We're moving along pretty good," Debbi said, taking a bite of her sandwich. "I thought it would take all day to do the books, but we're ahead. We can get to the electronics next."
Steve perked up. "Really? What kind of stuff have you got?"
Debbi smiled. "The purpose of you being here is to work, not to buy everything in sight."
Steve laughed. "I like cool stuff just like everybody else. What have you got?"
She shrugged. "Um - half-dozen old computer monitors..."
"Flat screen, or CRT?" Steve interrupted.
"They're flat. Does it make a difference?"
"Yep. No one is going to buy a CRT anymore. Too big and heavy, and the resolution is too low."
Debbi nodded. "I thought the same thing. I also have some inkjet printers, a whole box of different kinds of cartridges, a couple of cameras, a bunch of keyboards and mice, a huge box of cables of all kinds, all kinds of connectors, some blank DVDs and CDs, some speakers - there's more computer stuff, but I can't remember it all."
"It's all computer stuff?"
"Oh, no. I have some DVD players,
some stereo equipment, a couple of small flat-screen TV's - all sorts of
Steve nodded, impressed. "Where do you get all this stuff?"
"Around. Estate sales, yard sales, flea markets, unclaimed storage sales, and just people selling stuff. And donating stuff. You'd be surprised how many people just call and say come and get it."
"Yeah. I take all kinds. I had
ads in newspapers all over the place for six months offering to take
people's junk." She laughed. "You'd be amazed at what some people think
Steve nodded. "So you've been planning this place for some time."
Debbi paused, looked around the
room. "Not this exact place - no. But something like it, yes." She
grinned. "There's this little thrift store in Paris, run by two old
women who obviously love what they are doing. They sell mostly women's
apparel, but occasionally a few other things, too. I happened across it
by chance one day, and went inside to see what it was." She shrugged. "I
had never even heard of a second-hand store before. That people might
want to buy things that other people had already owned and used was just
this incredibly novel idea to me. I was kind of enchanted by the notion
of things getting a second chance." She sighed. "When I came back home
and decided I wanted to do something with myself, that's the first
notion that came to mind." Her eyes were bright. "My second chance, you
Steve smiled. "You have enough stuff to fill this place?"
Debbi laughed. "Are you kidding? I had a guy in a big box truck bring what you see here. It took him two trips. We emptied one of the four storage buildings I have full of stuff. And there is more coming in all the time."
Steve felt his eyebrows go up. "Wow. Sounds cool."
Debbi nodded. "Yup. Now if I can just get my new truck guy I hired to show up, I can send the two of you to the Grove City storage unit to get some more stuff."
That sounded like fun.
On the road, doing things, going places - and more cool stuff to look
at. Man. Was he ever lucky to fall into this!
They finished eating and cleaned up after themselves, and then went to work in the other turret, where all the electronics were to be stored. Debbi wasn't kidding before when she said she had 'a few other things'. The room was packed with boxes, most still sealed.
This garret had bookcases all along the back wall, and long tables along the outer walls underneath the windows. In front, beneath the narrow double windows, was a glass display case with a black countertop. It was into this that smaller, more expensive - and too easily portable - items like cameras, laptops, and computer accessories would go.
Steve marveled over a box that contained nothing but laptop computers. Each had a power supply and each one had been tested and was guaranteed to operate.
Debbi nodded. "People buy a new one and don't have kids or someone to give the old ones to, they're happy to get rid of them. Computers are hard to dispose of because they have dangerous substances inside them. They're supposed to be recycled, not thrown away."
Steve looked them over; they were all older models - not up to the speed of the laptop he had in his room. But each one was clean, came with an operating system installed, and whatever software the previous owner had left in place. The most expensive unit was a Dell with an older dual core processor, at thirty dollars. He was tempted to buy that one himself, just to have a second machine. Yeah - it would be a little slower than his current machine, but nice to have in case of emergency.
Debbi saw him lusting after it and sighed. "Here - give me that one. I'll put it in the office and we'll take five dollars out of each of your checks until it's paid for, okay?"
Steve grinned. "Thanks. You're really cool, Debbi."
She shook her head. "At the rate you're going, we won't need any customers. I can just sit back and wait until you buy everything."
They laughed together, and Steve sighed. He could almost see how guys could fall in love with girls now. In fact, he was surprised to think that Debbi wasn't married.
"Um --" He was about to ask her about it when some little warning bell sounded in the back of his mind, warning him not to pry.
Too late - she had seen the
question being born. "What?" She watched him
interestedly now, waiting to see what was coming next.
Steve scratched his head. "I'm sorry. I was just wondering why a really cool chick...I mean, a really nice person like you wasn't married."
Debbi laughed. "Who, me? I was always too wild to think of letting anyone marry me. The kind of guys I knew weren't the kind you'd want to raise kids with, anyway." Her smile settled down to a wistful pout. "Maybe someday, Stevie. Just gotta meet the right one, you know?"
Yeah. He did know. He
was kind of hoping for that himself - meeting the right one.
Steve walked the laptop back to the office and put it on top of a filing cabinet, and laid the brown shorts on top of it to pick up later. Then he went back to the garret and got to work.They continued to unbox the electronics, and Debbi would price the stuff, and Steve would place the items on a shelf, table, or wherever Debbi instructed.
They had been moving along smoothly when they heard someone walking across the front porch, and then a sturdy rap upon the frame of the screen door "Anybody home?"
Debbi looked at Steve and grinned. "Maybe that's our truck."
They got up and went together to the door.
Someone stood on the other side, looking in at them. Steve felt his eyes narrow as he tried not to stare.
The guy was about the same size as Steve, lean and hungry-looking in a tight pair of off-white coveralls, into the pockets of which he had thrust his hands. The top two buttons of the coveralls were not fastened, showing a dark blue tee-shirt underneath. Straight black hair spilled down the sides of the newcomer's head, almost to his shoulders - thick and glossy in the afternoon light. The guy was smiling, showing even, white teeth, with little dimples on either side of his mouth. His eyes were brown and bright, and had enough gold in them to make the guards at Fort Knox sit up and suspect a thief had been in the vault.
"You Ms. Hannibal? I'm Chris Horne. I talked to you on the phone."
Debbi pushed open the door, and
the newcomer stepped back out of the way. His feet were encased in brown
boots, which thunk-thunked against the boards of the porch as he moved.
Steve slowly let out his breath. Great googly moogly! Was this guy ever gorgeous!
Chris seemed to notice Steve for the first time as he stepped inside the door. For a moment his eyes fastened on Steve's. Then he blinked, narrowed those eyes, and then gave Steve the once over. And then he frowned. "What are you looking at?"
Steve realized then that he had been staring, despite his best efforts not to do so. He felt his face redden, but swallowed and smiled. "Oh - sorry. With the light behind you like that I had trouble seeing who you were."
"Oh." Chris looked back at Debbi. "Sorry I couldn't make it yesterday. I had to put a fuel pump on the truck." He nodded. "She's ready to go now."
"Great!" Debbi looked at her watch. "Would you mind a run into Grove City? I have a storage building there, and I'd like some of the stuff inside brought here."
Chris shrugged, smiling. "You're the boss. Where is this place? I know that town pretty well."
"It's a place called Storage Solutions."
Chris grinned. "Sure. Corner of Rittenhouse and Palder Road."
Debbi looked delighted. "That's the one. I have stuff in unit number nineteen. It's all in boxes. There's a roll-up door on the front of the unit. Just open it up, and get as much of the stuff that's inside the door into your truck and bring it back here. Take Steve here with you to help."
For a second Chris's eyes moved back to Steve, and something unnameable tugged at the corners of the boy's mouth. But he quickly brought a hand up and rubbed his nose, giving a little sniff. "Sure, sure. You have a key?"
Debbi produced a keyring attached to a small orange flag with the number 19 embossed on it in black, and a single key. She handed it to Steve. "Don't hurt yourselves. Some of the boxes are heavy."
Chris nodded. "Okay. Come on, uh --"
"Steve," Steve offered, stepping forward.
"Yeah, yeah. Come on." Chris
nodded at Debbi. "See you shortly." He turned back to the front porch
and went out.
Steve looked briefly at Debbi, who rolled her eyes and gave him a little smile. "Have fun."
Steve looked after the other boy, then back at Debbi. "Yeah. Thanks." And then he followed Chris.
Chris was already down the slate
steps and to the crushed stone parking area. Steve made it down the
slate steps himself before his eyes really settled on the white truck
Jesus. "What the fuck is this?" he blurted, before he could stop himself.
Chris turned around and looked at him, his face going to a frown. "It's my truck. You've never seen a truck before?"
Not like this one. That it was some foreign make was obvious. And, somehow, Steve had been picturing something bigger, like a Ryder box truck or something of that sort. He shook his head. "I give up. What is it?"
Chris looked like he was used to the reaction, but still didn't like it. "It's a Renault. It's French."
"It's weird looking," Steve blurted again, without thinking.
Chris leaned forward, finally
looking a little pissed. "It's a good truck. Just get the fuck inside
and let's go."
Steve immediately realized he'd offended the other boy. He'd just been so surprised by the truck, which was unlike any vehicle he had ever seen before. It looked old, and a little tired. And whoever had designed it hadn't been too well-endowed with aesthetic talent. It looked like a truck as designed by a maker of porcelain bathroom fixtures.
But it was really the vehicle's driver that had him so flustered. Steve was all over the place with reaction to Chris himself. That Chris was attractive to him made it hard for him to concentrate. This felt just like being with Jerry Custer when that boy was at his sexiest. At those times, Steve sometimes said the wrong thing, or acted stupid, too. He'd known Jerry his whole life, and Jerry always thought that Steve was just playing around when he had those odd moments. But Chris didn't know him at all, and the other boy probably thought that Steve was just an asshole.
Steve winced, realizing he'd already screwed this whole thing up. What the hell was wrong with him?
He saw then that Chris was getting in what should have been the passenger side of the truck. That meant it had right-hand drive - the truck was European, no doubt about that.
Steve sighed, mentally kicking himself, and went around to the other door of the truck and got inside. Chris ignored him, started the engine, and rammed the shifter into reverse. There was a light grinding sound, and then the truck backed slowly around in a half circle to face the road.
"Man, I'm sorry," Steve said, not knowing what else to say. "I've just never seen a truck like this one."
Chris looked over at him, his face still tight; but then he sighed a little, and nodded. "Okay, man. Just - I like this truck. Don't be downin' it around me again, okay?"
Steve nodded, but just looked out of the side window as they pulled out onto the road and headed north.
The silence grew long. Finally, Chris glanced over Steve's way. "So - that your mom?"
It took a second for Steve to come up to speed on what the other meant. "Oh - you mean Debbi?" Steve smiled at the notion. "No. Just my boss."
"Oh. She seems cool."
"She is," Steve affirmed. "I really like working with her."
"Done that long?"
"Just since yesterday."
"No shit? That makes me feel better."
Steve looked at the other boy. "Why?"
Chris finally laughed - a pleasant sound that made Steve smile. "Well, it relaxes me, I guess. Don't feel like the third shoe now, you know?"
"Yeah. I guess I can see that. There's nothing to worry about, though. Working for Debbi is great. I'm sure you'll like it."
Chris made a face, and moved his head in a little maybe kind of nod. "It's a thrift store? Used stuff?"
"Yep. She didn't tell you?"
"Yeah - she did. Just checking. The house kind of threw me a little."
Steve grinned. "Local legend says it's haunted."
Chris looked at him, grinning,
and Steve's heart did a little ka-thunk inside his chest. Oh, man, was this gonna to be hard to
"Naw," Chris said, disbelievingly. "For real?"
Steve nodded. "Heard it straight from the guy who saw the funny lights." He laughed then. "Well, Debbi said she found a mattress and some beer cans upstairs where the ghost guy saw the lights, and now we think it was somebody's secret noogie hole."
Chris squeezed his eyes shut a moment and laughed. "Somebody tossin' the salad, huh? Awesome." He looked at Steve. "You believe in ghosts?"
"Nope. Believe in sex, though."
It was a little out there, and Steve knew it. But Chris just grinned at him. "Can't argue with that."
Somehow, they eased into a conversation, and the trip began to be fun. They talked about music, and decided they liked a lot of the same stuff. They were both Indians fans, too, though Chris said he had missed the game that broke the winning streak and was upset to find out about it.
"I was working on the truck most of the day yesterday, and the radio doesn't work, so I'm out of touch on the road."
Steve knew he had to be careful now talking about the truck. It did seem to move along the road without a hitch, though it had a tendency to bounce in uneven spots, and the engine sounded a little like it would rather be doing something else besides running.
"Where'd you find a truck like this?" He decided that would be a safe enough question.
Chris looked over at him. "My dad gave it to me. Two of them, actually. That's how I keep this one running. Someone wiped out the side of the other one pretty good. But all the other parts still work, and I use them to keep this one going." He patted the dashboard. "It's a good truck, really. We've been a lot of places together."
Steve nodded. "Where'd your dad get them? I mean, I've never see one before. I'll bet they're not common."
"Hell no, they're not. I've never seen another one, either. But I don't know where my dad got them."
Steve frowned. "You should ask him some time."
Chris looked over at him, but this time he wasn't smiling. "Don't know where my dad is, either. Haven't seen him in about a year. Just my mom and me right now."
"Oh." Steve winced. Great. He'd said the wrong thing again.
"He'll be back," Chris said, looking back at the road. "Someday. He went away before, when I was nine. He was gone two years then. But he came back."
Chris didn't seem to be upset about it, so Steve hazarded another question. "Where'd he go for two years?"
"I dunno. He never said." Chris tossed a shoulder. "My mom said he was off looking for himself, whatever that means."
"Your mom was okay with him coming back?"
"Yeah. She didn't even seem that
surprised when he walked into the house one day." Chris frowned. "He
said, 'Hi, honey,'; and she said, 'Oh, it's you.' Then they kissed, and
it was like he was never gone."
Steve stared at the other boy. He'd never heard anything like that before.
Chris looked over at him a moment, then smiled. "I'm fucking with you, man."
Steve drew back a bit, narrowing his eyes. "Are you?"
The other boy laughed. "Yeah. My dad owns two used car lots outside Columbus. He buys big lots of cars and trucks. He got the two Renaults as part of some package deal, and he gave them to me. Hell, nobody would buy a truck like this these days."
Steve cocked his head to one side. "So all that stuff about walking into the house after two years was bullshit?"
Chris nodded, smiling. "Just playing, man. Don't get bent about it."
Steve looked ahead through the windshield, unable to believe that the other guy had lied to him so easily.. "That's kind of cruddy, man."
Chris rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. I was just playing. Wanted to see how gullible you were."
"I guess I passed the stupid test, huh?" Steve said back, crossing his arms.
Chris sighed. "Oh, great. I got to drive all the way to Grove City with a guy who can't take a little joke?"
Steve didn't know why he was feeling so upset. Really, it had been only a few lines of conversation, and with a guy he hardly knew. Shit.
"No, I can take a joke. I just didn't know you were making one. I'll be more careful in the future."
They were silent again for
several minutes. Finally, Chris looked over at Steve. "I'm sorry, man. I
just...I didn't realize you'd get upset. I just thought we'd laugh it
off." He looked back at the road. "I was just playing," he said, more
Something about that last part
got into Steve and got his attention. He suspected then that Chris
didn't spend a lot of time with people - any people, let alone people
his own age. Why that might be, and why he suspected that it was true,
he had no idea.
But he decided to give the other
guy a second chance, and just be careful about believing anything he
said without considering it first.
"So, how'd you get into the
trucking business, Mr. Horne?"
Chris looked over at him again,
blinked, and then smiled at the smile Steve wore.
"Well, I'll tell ya," the other
boy said, taking on a Texas accent that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn,
the old cartoon rooster. "I was just out walking 'mong the cactuses one
night, and this here strange looking vehicle come straight down outta
the sky and landed right next to me. Scared the whoppin' bejesus outta
me! It touched down, and then it started rollin' right at me. I thought
ta myself, the Martians have landed! The Martians have landed!"
Steve grinned at the look on the
other boy's face. "And then what happened?"
"Well, I whipped out ol' Bess -
my trusty six-shooter - and I commenced to wailin' away at the
sonofabee. But it just kept right on a'comin. Put all six bullets I had
square inta her, with nary a hiccup in her giddyup."
Steve laughed, finding a sudden
pleasure at the light shining in Chris's eyes.
"Yup. I thought ta myself then,
why there's no stoppin' 'em. So I 'membered what my grandaddy, Aloyisius
Jeremiah Mumfferty, the Third, once tol' me: if ya can't beat the
varmints, join 'em! So that's what I did."
Steve was grinning ear to ear.
"You joined in with the Martians?"
Chris made a big show of smacking
his lips and looking not-too-sure of himself. "Well - I was wrong 'bout
that, turns out. Wuddn't no Martians at all. Some French renagade flyin'
over looked down and saw me there, and somehow thought I was the Mayor
of Detroit, Misshygin. Thought he would give me what-fer, and dropped
down a Renault truck on a parachute, jus' to show me that Detroit didn't
know everthin' 'bout buildin' trucks."
Steve patted the dashboard. "It
was this truck, wasn't it?"
Chris grinned at him. "Yer damn
smart fer a backeaster, son. Yuppins, was this here truck, itself. Me
and her, we got together, and we started haulin' stuff around."
"I see. And what did that
entail?" Steve asked, playing now into his role as an interviewer.
Chris harrumphed mightily.
"Wellsir, what you do is, ya open up the back of this here truck, and
you put somethin' innit, and then you drive way over there someplace,
and then you open up the back of this here truck, and you take that
somethin' back out of it."
Steve started laughing now. "And
you make a living at that?"
"Hell, no! What give ya that
Idea? But I sure do get me a lotta stuff from this'n spot here to that'n
Steve couldn't stop smiling now,
at the beautiful animation in the other boy's face. Chris had just come
alive during the interview, his bright gold eyes flashing, and his white
teeth shining in a smile. He just looked like this was the most fun he'd
had in some time, and that Steve had been there for it somehow tickled
him. And, damn it, was Chris just as cute as could be when he smiled
Steve gave the other boy a stern
look. "Somehow I don't think you're telling me the truth, Mr. Horne."
Chris sighed theatrically. "Well,
ya got me. It's a joke, son...ah say, it's a joke, son."
They both laughed.
"You got some twisted brain cells
in there someplace, Chris," Steve said then, shaking his head, but still
The other boy laughed. "Ah, I
love kidding around like that. Breaks up the monotony."
Steve nodded. "You like telling
stories like that, huh?"
Chris looked over at him, as if
to assure himself that Steve was not making fun of him. "Yeah. I do.
Sometimes I write them down, too. It gives me something to do."
Something about that statement
only confirmed the idea that Chris didn't have a lot of company in his
"What about your friends?" Steve
asked, fishing a little. "You let them read your stories?"
The other boy was quiet a second
before answering. "Uh - sure. Any of my friends can read my stories,
whenever they want to."
There was something so
noncommittal about that statement that it set off little alarm bells in
the back of Steve's mind, but he wasn't sure why.
"I'd like to read some of your
stories sometime," Steve said quietly. "I'll bet they're a lot of fun."
Chris looked over at him, his
eyes searching Steve's face. "Would you, now?" But when Steve just
nodded, Chris finally smiled. "Maybe. I'll think about it."
After that, they simply settled
into small talk, and Steve got the impression that Chris was digesting
things, just as Steve was,
He liked Chris. Liked him a lot.
The other boy was cute, and funny, and - it seemed - talented. And,
somehow, lonely. That this last was an echo of something deep inside
Steve himself was not lost on him. Somehow, without understanding who
Chris was just yet, he understood what he was. Alone.
That hurt a little, because Chris
obviously had things to offer. Chris had imagination, and humor, and -
what? Something else. A depth to him that Steve had never experienced
before with his friends. There was a lot more to Chris than met the eye.
But what exactly that was, Steve didn't know.
They arrived at the storage
facility, and piled out of the truck in front of the roll-up door for
unit nineteen. Steve fished the key out of his pocket and removed the
padlock, and hung it on the handle of the truck's back door. They pushed
up the roll-up door and stepped back as it bounced momentarily back and
forth against the tensioner. And then Steve was just gaping at what he
Debbi hadn't been lying when
she'd said the place was crammed full. Just inside the door were neat
stacks of plain brown boxes, each about two feet long and maybe a foot
and a half high, which reached up to the same height as the boy's heads,
and which stretched across the entire width of the doorway.
Chris kind of gaped a moment,
too, and then laughed. "This is gonna take more than one trip."
Steve smiled at him. "I don't
think she expected us to bring it all at once. She said to get as much
as we could, remember?"
"Yeah. That's right. Look - you
can squeeze by this end. Let's see what's behind."
They slid through the narrow gap
at the end of the boxes and found themselves in a small aisle between
the boxes and the cinder block wall, that quickly opened up into the
storage unit itself.
The stacks were only about five
boxes deep. Behind them was an open space, with two long tables with an
aisle between them. Against the back wall were more stacks of boxes -
but they were all sorts: boxes that had once held reams of paper, or
bathroom tissue, or bottles of gin. These must be the ones containing
the donated or acquired stuff --
They turned as one and looked at the stacked boxes behind them. Beside the table there was a pile of new boxes, flat, most still bundled together with little yellow plastic bands around them.
Steve shook his head in
amazement, it just dawning on him how much work Debbi had put into this
operation before she had even gotten to the Kennally house in Claymore.
She must have been sorting and boxing stuff for weeks, or even months!
The sheer volume of things here was astonishing - and to consider that
Debbi had several other storage facilities just like this one only
increased his amazement.
"Busy little bee, isn't she?"
Chris said, summing it up nicely.
"I'll say." Steve looked around,
then just shrugged. "I think she has stuff piled just like she wants it,
so we might as well go back around and load it in the truck in the order
she has it stacked."
"Sounds like a plan to me. Let's
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