"Oh, man -- look at your leg."
We were in the shower Friday morning and Evan was staring at the enormous bruise on my thigh from where he'd shoved the desk into it. Yesterday evening it had been blue with a reddish center; today it had darkened to a grim purplish black with blue edges.
"Yeah, and it's a big knot," I said, easing my fingertips over the tender swelling. "You really nailed me."
"Damn, I'm sorry," he grimaced and then turned me around so he could scrub my back. "So what are you guys doin' today?"
I shrugged. "He thinks he wants to ride a horse, so I'm gonna see if Bill's around, then I thought we'd go by Sonny's, see if he maybe wants to go fishin'. I doubt Brendan's ever been. Lunch in there somewhere, then... I don't know. A bike ride maybe, or, uh..." I trailed off, completely out of ideas. "More food, a nap -- fuck, I don't know. Whatever."
"Well, if you eat in town, call me, maybe I can get away."
We climbed out, dried off, and proceeded to get ready for the day.
"What about dinner? You wanna do burgers and pool, or ribs, or what?" I asked as I hauled a pair of shorts up over my butt, then, more carefully, over my dick.
"Mmm... ribs sound good, but I don't really care. Grab me those brown socks."
I was the first one out of the bedroom and saw that the guestroom door was open and the bathroom door was closed. Then, as I stood there, I realized I could hear singing - not the words, just Brendan's voice - singing away in the shower. I stuck my head back into our room and crooked my finger at Evan.
He picked up on my expression and tiptoed over next to me, listening for a few seconds before grinning and asking, "What's he singing?"
"Beats me. Something current, probably, cause I don't know it."
We listened for another few seconds, then Evan went back to finish dressing and I headed into the kitchen to get coffee started and breakfast on the stove. I was sipping my first cup and keeping an eye on the French toast when Brendan wandered in, a tentative smile on his face. His hair was still damp, combed back off his face like I used to do when I wore it longer. Those familiar brown eyes looked me over for a moment before landing on the steaming French toast.
"You hungry?" I asked him and got a sheepish grin in reply. "Well, get the syrup out of the far cupboard there, second shelf, and grab a plate."
I shoveled two big slices of cinnamon bread French toast onto the plate he held out, added four sausages, and then fished two more pieces of bread out of the pan of egg-and-milk and settled them onto the cast iron griddle. Evan and I both loved French toast and ate it a couple times a week, sometimes for breakfast, but just as often for dinner. It was the first thing he'd cooked for me, that morning at my old house, and, as ordinary as it was, it was sort of special to us.
"This is really good," Brendan mumbled around a mouthful.
I glanced at his plate, not surprised to see that he was already halfway done.
"You want more? It's ok, we got plenty," I added, when he hesitated.
"Um, yeah, then, I could eat a couple more."
I worked quietly at the stove, watching him eat and just sort of - well, getting used to him. I was already used to the idea of him, but the reality of him sitting at my kitchen table, stuffing French toast into his face, took some getting used to. He wasn't the first person to spend the night or to have breakfast with us -- Kenny and Raf, even though they lived only a few miles down the road, stayed over now and then after too many beers, and Sharon had moved in for a couple days while her house was being painted and carpeted -- but having Brendan here was different somehow, although I couldn't quite nail down why.
Even strolled in, rolling up the sleeves on his pale blue shirt. He was wearing tan slacks with a pair of reddish-brown shoes I hadn't seen before.
"Penny loafers? I didn't know they still made those."
There must have been something in my tone because Evan raised his eyebrows at me. "Yes, they still make them. I've owned a pair of penny loafers my whole life and I'm not about to stop now. I got them on sale yesterday."
"I didn't know Patterson had a Nerds R Us," I snorted. Brendan giggled. Evan gave me a frosty look and scooped up the plate with my French toast on it. "Hey!"
I made more as Evan and Brendan chatted at the table, and finally sat down to eat just as Evan stood up, put his plate in the sink, and left the kitchen. Brendan watched until he was gone and then looked at me.
"Is he mad?" he asked in a hushed voice that made me wonder what passed for joking around in his house.
"Nah, I always give him shit about his clothes. He just went to brush his teeth."
Sure enough, a few minutes later, a minty fresh Evan leaned over and kissed me enthusiastically on the mouth, then licked his lips. "Mmm, Aunt Jemima's. See you later - have a good day. Gonna leave for work now..." he ruffled my hair and casually did the same to Brendan on his way by, which brought a foolish grin to the kid's face, "...in my new car."
Shit. I'd forgotten all about the Lexus.
I hopped up and followed him out the front door, feeling bad for forgetting. We stood on the porch, admiring the sleek lines, while Brendan trotted down the steps and began to walk around it. On the far side, he stopped and made a face. "You got a fly-by."
Evan frowned. "A what?"
"You know, a bird flew by and sh-, uh, pooped on your car. A fly-by."
By this time, they were standing side by side, identical eeeuw expressions on their faces, as they stared at the bird shit. I went back to the kitchen, got a wet paper towel, cleaned it off, and then Evan climbed in and rolled down the drive. It was a beautiful car, but not the one I'd have come home with if someone had set me loose on the Lexus lot with a blank check. I'd have got their biggest SUV with all the bells and whistles, gas mileage be damned.
"You wanna kill bad guys for a while? It's kinda early to do much else."
He hitched a shoulder at me. "Sure."
I led the way to my office, flipped on both computers, and then sat down in front of mine. "I stuck a new card in that one," I said, "so it should look pretty good."
We logged in, chose a busy site, and spent the next two hours dodging bullets and ducking around corners and getting blown up. Brendan was good, with the lightning fast reactions of a really born gamer, and got killed way fewer times than me. I finally pushed back from the desk. "I gotta take a leak, and then let's get outta here for a while."
While Brendan was getting his shoes, I called Bill and told him about Brendan's visit and how he'd asked if you could ride the horses.
"Uh... yeah, sure -- he can ride one of `em. How about I come over tomorrow, maybe ten or so?"
I didn't mention the call to Brendan, figuring it'd be a fun surprise. When we went outside, Brendan wanted to take a look in the barn, so we poked around in there for a while, looking at the machinery and admiring the old green Jeep. I pulled the cover off and started it up. "Since we're here, we should drive it a little. You wanna give it a try?"
He said, "Nah," but his expression said otherwise, so I pushed it a little.
"You took driver's ed, right? Plus we're on private property, so it's cool."
"It's not that," he said, with a wave at the gear shift. "I've only ever driven a automatic."
"Ha - no problem. This is the perfect vehicle to learn on. You practically can't stall it. Get in."
He climbed in and I drove across the yard until we were pointed down the lane. "Ok, watch. Clutch. Brake. Gas. Clutch -- left foot. Gas and brake -- right foot." I shoved the clutch in and grabbed the shifter. "First, second, third... reverse." I put it in first and, without touching the gas pedal, slowly let the clutch out until we were rolling, then depressed the clutch and the brake, and slid it into neutral. "Your turn."
I hopped out and walked around the front of the Jeep as he moved into the driver's seat. He slid the seat forward a notch or two, grabbed the steering wheel with his left hand and licked his lips as he took a deep breath.
"Relax," I told him. "You're just gonna roll an old Jeep down a dirt driveway, ok?"
"Ok," he said with a nod, but he didn't look real convinced. He stuck the clutch all the way in, gingerly shifted into first, and began to let the clutch out so slowly that when we finally began to move, he didn't even notice for a second. "Hey, we're goin'!"
"Yup. No gas, no gas - just let `er roll and think about not hittin' that tree."
The Jeep rolled along at about four miles an hour with Brendan keeping an eagle eye on both sides of the drive. He made the curve smoothly enough and was starting to smile when I said, "The road's coming up, so when we get to that gate, you're gonna need to put the clutch back in and use the brake a little."
Just then a big truck whooshed by and startled him into poking the brake without using the clutch, and we jerked to a stop as the engine died.
"Shit," he said, and the word was so filled with disgust that I laughed out loud. Chewy, who had been bored with the slow speed, gave up entirely when the Jeep bucked to a halt and leaped down to the ground.
We swapped places again so I could get us turned around, then he drove back up the drive to the house, making a perfect stop at the bottom of the front steps. We went up and down the lane until he could shift into second without running off the road, and then we ventured out into the pasture. Dory and the mares were in the back corner, and ignored us as we zoomed around. I called out different gears and directions, and after about twenty minutes of that, we got my Jeep, and drove an obstacle course around the piles of manure until he was pretty comfortable at it.
"Do you think maybe I can, like, drive out in public, like into town or something?"
"With me in the car?" I tried to keep a straight face.
"Well, yeah. I gotta have an adult-" By the time he got that far, I was laughing, and when he whacked me on the arm without thinking, he suddenly went all still like he was in big trouble, so I whacked him back.
"How about you start out with just drivin' down the road a ways. Let's see how that goes before we start planning cross-country trips."
"Yeah, yeah, ok," he grinned, and it was then, sitting in the Jeep in the back pasture with the horses watching curiously, that I really began to feel something for him, some sense of connection. I slid a hand onto his bony shoulder, squeezed gently for a second, gave him a couple pats, and let go.
"Good job. I'll get the gate and we'll head out."
I started to slide out of the Jeep when I realized Brendan was still looking at me, so I turned back to him. Our eyes met, and although his expression was intent, he didn't say anything.
"What?" I asked him, and got that one-shoulder shrug in reply but his face softened a little. After a few moments, I gave him a slow smile and another squeeze on the arm before getting out and opening the gate so he could drive through. By the time I got back into the Jeep, he was all business again, concentrating on getting us down the lane and out to the road. We made it to Sonny's all in one piece and pulled in the drive just as he was coming around the back of the house. Dogs converged from all directions, greeting their buddy Chewy with barks and whines until he hopped off my lap and joined them.
"So, got a chauffeur today, huh?" Sonny cackled as he got near. He pronounced it `shawfer'. Brendan was still behind the wheel, an uncomfortable smile on his face.
"Sonny, this is my nephew Brendan. Brendan, our neighbor Sonny."
"Hi, boy. Can't mistake you for anything but kin of Jeff, here. You the spittin' image." He looked me up and down. "Was you that skinny when you was fourteen?"
"I'm fifteen," Brendan corrected him. "Almost fifteen and a half."
Sonny looked from him to me. "When we was fishin', you said he was fourteen."
Brendan gave me an injured look and I suddenly recalled how important age was when you're a teenager. Not just fifteen -- fifteen and a half. "Sorry," I told him. "He's almost fifteen and a half," I said to Sonny, who nodded seriously and looked back to Brendan.
"That's a good age to be, fifteen and a half. I 'member it well. Had me a good dog, a motorcycle, and a girl I liked. Got you a girlfriend yet?"
I was interested in that reply, too, since I hadn't picked up much one way or the other about his sexuality. I don't know if I was hoping that he was gay or that he wasn't, but his reply didn't help me either way.
"Nah, not really," he said, sliding his hands around the steering wheel and looking off across the field next to Sonny's house.
"Well, you young yet. Plenty a time to have women problems," he chuckled. "I was 'bout to go gather eggs. Come along and I'll send you home with some."
"Like from chickens?" Brendan asked me as we followed Sonny across the long back yard to a ramshackle shed with chickens pecking around in the dirt.
"Hell, yes -- like from chickens," Sonny replied. "Best egg in the world is one still warm from a chicken's behind."
Brendan gave a snorty laugh and widened his eyes at me, but I nodded my head in agreement. "He's right. Sonny's eggs are great. That's why I'm building a chicken coop."
Sonny stopped in his tracks and turned to face me. "Y'are?"
"Yup. Me and Raf. And Brendan, here, if he wants to help. Might work on it some today or tomorrow."
"Huh," Sonny said, and gazed at me for a few moments. "Make a country boy outta you yet." He yanked open the door to the hen house and ducked inside, then Brendan and I did likewise. Several hens clucked nervously from their places in the rows of nest boxes. "Now, what you wanna do is slide your hand real gentle-like up under the chicken and ease that egg out. You do it slick enough, you won't get pecked."
He demonstrated, the hen rising slightly as he gripped the egg, then unfolding his hand to show us. He grabbed Brendan's wrist and plunked the egg into his palm. Brenda's eyebrows went up and he looked at me.
"Now you try it. Do Martha here, she's less likely to poke a hole in you."
Brendan licked his lips in a nervous gesture I was becoming familiar with, flexed his fingers a couple times like he was about to let fly the game winning pitch, and then slid his hand under Martha's feathery belly. His face took on an expression of concentration as he groped around for the egg, breaking into a grin as he found it. He pulled his hand out and his face lit up as he showed me a shit-speckled egg. He grabbed my wrist as Sonny had his and plunked the egg into my hand.
"Still warm from the chicken's butt!" he announced, and I cracked up. He worked his way around the room, his confidence growing with each egg, until he came to a ratty looking chicken on the upper row.
"I better git her," Sonny said. "She's a grumpy one."
"I can do it," Brendan said, stepping forward.
"You gonna get pecked," Sonny warned, looking to me, but I just shrugged.
Brendan was a little full of his egg nabbing ability, so I figured he could suffer the consequences. How bad could a chicken peck, anyway? He eased his hand in, rooted around for a second, then tightened his grip and began to slide his hand out. Up to now, the hen had sat perfectly still, just keeping a beady black eye on Brendan, but suddenly she let out an angry squawk and jabbed her beak into the back of his wrist. He hollered in pain and surprise, and jumped back, squishing the egg in his hand. I caught him before we both landed on the floor, and looked at the hand he held up. Egg yolk was oozing from his fist and blood was already dripping from a mean pinch that had broken the skin in two places.
"OWWW," he yelled. "She bit me!"
"Well..." Sonny began, but I cut in.
"Sonny told you she was mean."
"I know, I know," Brendan mumbled. "Sorry about the egg," he added to Sonny.
"Never mind, boy. Her days are numbered. Let's git you cleaned up."
Brendan shook off most of the egg goo into the grass, where the dogs gathered to slurp it up, and we headed for the house. While Brendan was washing his hands, he studied Sonny's face until he looked up. "What?"
"What'd you mean when you said her days ware numbered?"
"I mean the old bitch is headed for the crockpot. She'll be a sight more useful to me as dinner than she is peckin' holes in my company."
"You're gonna eat her?"
When Sonny nodded, Brendan pulled a `whoa' face at me, but I just gave another shrug; dinner's gotta come from somewhere. Sonny and I talked for a bit on the front porch while Brendan chased the dogs around. Sonny said he had someplace to go that afternoon, so we couldn't go fishing, but maybe next time Brendan was in town. It was almost noon by then, so I rounded up the kid and Chewy, and headed down the road. While Brendan concentrated on shifting and staying out of the ditch at the same time, I called Kenny.
"Hey. I'm gonna drop Chew off cause we're meeting Evan for lunch, so we'll see you in a few."
I directed Brendan into Kenny's driveway where we all climbed out again. The front door swung open as we went up the steps and Elvis came roaring out.
"Wow, that's a weird looking dog," Brendan commented. "What is it?"
"No one knows for sure. Hi, I'm Kenny, that's Elvis." Kenny rolled out onto the front porch and shook Brendan's hand. "You must be Brendan. They call you Bren?"
A shrug with a slight smile. "Yeah, sometimes."
I looked at him. Brendan had seemed a bit formal to me, especially now that I was saying it out loud fairly often, but Bren made me think Brenda for some reason, so I hadn't bothered asking. He was studying Kenny's chair from the corner of his eye as Kenny watched the dogs play, and I could see the same guilty `glad it's not me' thought go through his mind that I'd had when I first met Kenny. As used to him as I was, working side by side every day, I still occasionally felt it, and it made me feel like shit every time.
"We're going to the deli, want me to bring you back something?" I asked him.
"Nah, I got leftover spaghetti, but thanks. We doin' dinner?"
"Yeah. Ribs or burgers?"
"Mmm... ribs. Want me to call Sharon?"
"No, we'll stop by her place while we're in town."
"'K. See you at sixish?"
Brendan's eyes were going back and forth between us like he was at a tennis match. Without looking, I reached out, put my spread hand over his face and gave him a playful push, then laughed as he pretended to fall backwards off the porch. The dogs dashed over and piled on him and they rolled around in the grass for a few minutes. When I glanced at Kenny, he was watching me with a soft smile on his face.
"What?" I growled, but he just smiled wider. "Fine -- see you later. Let's go," I called to Brendan as I jogged down the steps. "Chewy, stay."
I got in the driver's seat before Brendan had a chance to argue, and dialed Evan.
"We're leaving Kenny's, headed for the deli. Can you make it?"
"Um, yeah, in about fifteen."
Brendan paid attention to my shifting technique until I hit fourth, then turned his attention to the scenery as we zipped into town and dumped the Jeep in a spot behind Evan's building. My favorite table by the window was free and Evan strolled in just as we sat down, squeezing my shoulder and giving Brendan a grin as he asked, "So whatcha been doin'?"
"Um, well... I learned to drive a stick shift, and I got bit by a chicken."
Evan's eyebrows went up at the unexpected combination of activities. "All in one morning? You've been busy. Sonny's chickens, I assume?"
"Yeah, a mean one nailed me. He's gonna put her in the crockpot."
Evan lost it then, bursting into laughter as he leaned back in his chair. After a few moments, he scrubbed a hand down his face and tried again. "And you learned to drive a stick? That's good. That's something every guy should know."
We ate deli sandwiches and coleslaw while Evan told us what Patterson was like when he was a kid. He'd never discussed it much with me, so I found it interesting that he chose to chat about it over lunch with someone he barely knew. Maybe it was Brendan being fifteen, making him think back to those days. Whatever, it was a little odd to hear the warmth in his voice as he told Brendan about those days. When Evan first mentioned Luke, Brendan asked who that was. Evan's smile was fond when he replied, "A friend. Luke was a good friend of mine when I was a kid."
Well, that was one way to put it, I thought. When we were finished, we walked Evan back to his office. As we came around the corner of the second floor landing, we met up with Don.
"There you are," he said. "I was just coming to find you. Hi, Jeff. And you are?" he asked, smiling at Brendan and holding out his hand.
Brendan shook his hand as he replied, "Bren.... Brendan."
"My nephew," I added, in case he missed the fact that we practically looked like brothers.
"Ah," Don nodded, smiling back and forth at Brendan and me. "I can see the family resemblance. Having a good visit, Bren?" The way he said his name sounded warm and friendly. I liked it.
"Yes, sir." He looked a little awe-struck by Don in his suit and tie.
Don gave Bren a clap on the shoulder and turned to Evan. "I'm leaving now. Your mother and I are going up to the mountains for the weekend -- it's my birthday," he said to me, "but I wanted to see if you'd like to have brunch on Sunday -- all of you," he added, waving a hand to include Bren and me. "Will you be here on Sunday?" he asked Bren. "If you're anything like your uncle, you'll love brunch at the club."
"I'm never gonna hear the end of that, am I?" I groaned. I'd gone back for three refills the first time we'd gone to brunch at the club. In my defense, the food was great, it was all you could eat for what I considered a ridiculous amount of money, and I was hungry. By that point in our relationship, Evan knew how much I could eat, but Don and Maggie had been amazed. `Brunch at the club' had become a thing. Whenever he invited us over for chicken on the grill or when Maggie had us for her outrageously good lasagna, Don would say, "Now, this isn't brunch at the club, you know, so maybe have a snack before you come over." Ha-ha, very funny, Don.
"Um, yeah, for a while," Bren said, glancing at me. "I'm supposed to be home before dark, (big eye roll) so I have to be on, like, a four o-clock bus or something."
"Plenty of time, then. My treat."
"Sure, dad, thanks. Come on down to my office for a minute."
We walked past the community room where several of the regulars lifted a hand to me. Another woman was sitting alone in the back of the room, and when she looked up, I realized she was just a girl. You couldn't see anything cause she had a blanket draped over her shoulder, but it was obvious to me that she was nursing a baby. Brendan looked at her until he realized what she was doing, and then he flushed a deep pink and looked quickly down at the carpet until we were past. I glanced at him, amused, but he wouldn't meet my eyes. In Evan's office, Don was unwrapping the birthday present we'd gotten him -- three of his favorite cigars and a bottle of Hennessy X.O. Cognac.
"Mmm, perfect. I was going to stop by the liquor store on the way out of town. Thank you."
He pulled Evan into a long hug, patting his back as he let go, then gave me a shorter version of the same thing. He'd only done it a handful of times, and each time it gave me this funny feeling -- a little uncomfortable to be that close to him physically, but not wanting him to let go, either. Afterward I was always sort of... depressed, I guess, is the best way to describe it. Some left-over remnant of my fucked up childhood, no doubt. But I loved it that Don was accepting enough of Evan's sexuality to give his gay son's boyfriend a big old hug. I'm sure Conrad would have a field day with all those emotions, and I didn't bother trying to figure out what they meant, but I know that I liked those hugs. A lot.
"We're doing ribs tonight," I told Evan. "Around six."
"Ok. I'll zoom home and change. See you then."
As we walked back down the hall, Bren slowed down at the door to the community room, tipping his head just enough to see the girl. When he saw that she had her back to us, swaying slowly back and forth as she patted the baby on the back, he stood there for a long moment watching her before turning away to follow me to the parking lot. He got into the passenger side without even a glance my way, slumping into the seat to stare out the window. Just as we cleared the city limits, I pulled over to the shoulder, and climbed out of the Jeep to walk around to the other side.
"Your turn," I told him.
His shifting was much smoother as we picked up Chewy and while Bren drove back to the farm I called Sharon because I'd completely forgotten to go by her place while we were in town. She was happy with the idea of ribs and said she'd be there with Norm. Back home, the day had warmed up considerably and we were full from lunch so when I suggested we hang out on the shady back porch for a while, Bren quickly agreed. I poured us some iced tea, and we spent a couple hours reading and dozing in the rocking chairs. We didn't talk much, although I sort of kept expecting him to ask something about the girl with the baby, because it seemed like she'd kind of gotten to him a little. By three, it had cooled off slightly and I was getting bored.
"You know one end of a hammer from the other?" I asked.
"Um, yeah," he said with a snort, like what a stupid fuckin' question.
"Come on, then. I got a chicken coop needs to get built."
We consulted the plans in the book as we sorted out the framing lumber from the pile in the barn, and then hauled it out to the patch of dirt where the old coop had been. Bren did indeed know which end of a hammer was the business end, and by the time we had to go in and clean up for dinner, we had the thing framed and half the wall boards up.
"Damn!" I said, looking at it and then him. "Thanks. Those boards have been sitting there for months."
We grinned at each other for a few seconds before he lost his smile and looked away. I walked over to stand in front of him. It took a few moments, but when he looked up at me, I put a hand on his shoulder and asked, "What is it? What's bugging you?"
"I don't know," he began, then sighed and talked to the ground as he said, "Being around you is like... like... I imagine being with my dad would be. Like, you know, just doin' stuff together."
I just stared at him. His words struck so close to my own mixed up feelings about my dad and Don that I almost walked away from him, unwilling to even go there, but I took a few deep breaths and tightened my hand on his shoulder as I gritted my teeth to answer him.
"Yeah, my old man split, too, so, I, um... know what you mean."
He looked up at me then, and nodded. "My mom told me. She hates him."
"I ain't real crazy about him myself."
He studied my face for a moment and then asked a question I'd never asked myself; never wanted to think about what the answer might mean.
"But do you miss him?"
I let myself think about it for a minute. Did I miss the son of a bitch who'd run out on us? Whose leaving meant that I never went to a single father/son event of any sort? Whose absence I felt to this day?
I stared into those way-too-familiar brown eyes of his and decided to tell him the truth, a truth I'd barely admitted to myself all these years.
"Yeah... I miss him."