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The girl behind the desk looks skeptical. And worried.
“I drove overnight,” he says, to calm her. Apparently, he looks terrible. Maybe homicidal.
“I see,” she says, smiling, but her tone reverberates with 'I don't care.'
He pays the thirty days in advance, just for the pleasure of her surprised expression. She thanks him and calls him “Sir” as he leaves.
The cabin at the southern end of the lots is small, simple, and beautiful. And, the next thirty days, his.
“Rest of my life,” he says to no one, then collapses onto the bed, fully dressed.
He made it.
His stomach wakes him at a quarter past noon. Rubbing eyes caked with gritty sleep, he rolls over to the sound of a body that has not moved in nearly a day. Joints pop. His foot is asleep, and comes to with a raging storm of needle sharp torture.
Tea first. With tea comes coherent thought.
He sets the kettle to boil on the burner, and puts one small spoon of sugar into his cup. He usually takes two, but alone again, life seems half as sweet.
Drinking the tea, he smells himself.
A shower, then. That's next.
It is raining lightly, so he unpacks. Laptop. Two notepads, three pens, one pencil. Address book. Cell phone.
As the inventory of a career lost, it's not very impressive.
The groceries he left bagged in the fridge he now pulls out again and sorts. He barely remembers buying them.
The suitcase has a jumble of socks, underwear, t-shirts, shorts, jeans, and a single cable knit sweater. He straightens them, folds them, and puts them in the chest of drawers.
In his backpack, he finds his medications, and stacks them by the kitchenette window.
The other pills, he leaves packed.
He met Neil in the office, at eight. The interview was relaxed, and he had to force himself to stop noticing the tiny lines that formed whenever Neil smiled, which was a rare occasion in an interview, but worth seeking.
When asked, he explained his absence from the workforce as recuperation from the loss of a loved one.
Leaving, he was certain that Neil was going to give him the job. They'd clicked. At a bar, they'd head to one of their homes, but this was a job, something to get him out of the deafening quiet of his home.
Plastic bottles lined up by the window cast orange flashes on the counter. White labels command time of day, and quantity.
He has stared at them all morning.
Twenty six days.
Blue streaks past the window, toward the deck. The brightest, bluest bird he has ever seen watches from the deck.
He crumbles a digestive and sets pieces on the deck rail. The bird is wary, so he goes back inside, and watches.
Every time the bird takes a crumb, he takes a pill.
“You've got a deal,” he says. The bird gives a delightfully atonal squawk, and flies off.
Though he wants to watch the stars come out, every night so far, with the setting of the sun, a mist has rolled in off the open water. Nightly, he stands outside and sips his tea while the sun dissolves into the blazing mist.
He notices there is someone down by the beach below. Taller than himself, this man seems to watch the sunset also. In half-silhouette, detail is hard to see, but he notices the figure has wide shoulders, and nice legs.
Just before the sun sets, the figure looks up. He wonders if he has been spotted.
The first time he came here, he was seven. Near the red bridge, he had looked up and spotted a face in the trees. He walks back and forth, looking. Nothing.
Perhaps his imagination has grown up too much.
Still, he hunts. Eventually, he gives up, and sits, dangling his feet over the edge of the bridge. He glances up, tired, and sees the face in the tree. It wasn't his imagination, it was his height.
“It's all perspective,” he chuckles.
He turns. It is the man from the beach.
“Finding faces,” he says, and points.
The man smiles.
His first lover was ten years his elder. He remembers how nervous he was when he realized that this man, Phillip, was hitting on him. Phillip had been surprised to learn that the young man he woke up with was only twenty.
“You don't seem that young,” Phillip had said, turning onto his side in the bed. Phillip had a scar across his shoulder that he hadn't noticed the night before.
“So I look old?” he had feigned insult, but Phillip had laughed, and tumbled him over into morning sex that was slower and more delicious than the night before.
It is only when he feeds the last digestive to Blue, his name for his squawking friend, that he admits it to himself: he needs to go shopping.
He takes a pill when Blue's nabs of the last bit of cookie, and finds his wallet. The village is close enough; it won't take long.
He almost panics in his car. What if people can see? What if they try to stop him? What if...
White knuckles grip the wheel. He sees the blue bird flutter from one tree to another. Blue needs, if nothing else, digestives.
And so he goes.
When he is putting away groceries, he finds a bird book in the cupboard over the fridge. He stops sorting food to try and find Blue, and loses himself in the pages of bright feathers and tiny beaks.
Blue is a “Steller's Jay,” he learns, a common bird, with what the author calls a 'bullying persistent personality.' Their call is described as 'harsh and loud.' He grins, and crumbles up another digestive, setting the pieces out on the deck rail.
When Blue arrives for them, he is still on the deck, apparently no longer a threat. Blue squawks between bites.
On Tuesday, he admits it: He is an assembler of meals, not a chef. He “cooks” bread, cheese, and grapes; or salads haphazardly thrown together. Anything on crackers. He has not had a warm meal in over a week, discounting Pop Tarts that were stale before he bought them.
There is a restaurant at the cabin. With Philip's sweater he might pass as a respectable customer.
He pulls it over his head. The scent of Philip – long gone and certainly psychosomatic – causes tears, and dries them both in that one, simple movement.
It's decided. He will toast Philip at dinner.
On Fridays, the office tradition was to gather for a drink at the pub at the bottom of the building. He enjoyed this, and he found himself making friends of the staff. Often the last person to leave, he still might only have one drink. Neil rarely stayed past one drink, and often told amusing stories of his wife, Miriam, who apparently had the personality of glacier melt.
When he and Neil were the last ones there one Friday, he was surprised. He still felt the attraction.
“We've split up,” his boss said, without tone.
One drink later, they kissed.
He is skipping stones when he realizes he is not alone. The man he spoke with on the red bridge is behind him, perched on a log, watching him.
“Hi,” he says.
The man smiles.
He tries to do a triple skip. The rock vanishes with a splash.
“Traitor,” he mutters.
The man joins him. “I never mastered that.”
He tries another rock. It sinks.
“Me neither.” He shrugs.
The man closes his eyes when he laughs, as though humor was blinding. His laugh is rich, and deep, like his voice.
“I'm Tristan,” the man says, holding out his hand.
He has walked every pathway with Tristan except this last fork.
“Where does that go?” he asks.
Tristan squints. “Leads up to where the staff sleep. Not very private.” He turns away. It's obviously not on his tour.
“You worked here long?” he asks Tristan.
“All my life. It's my folks' place,” he says, “Though they're getting older.”
They must have had Tristan late; he doesn't seem much over thirty.
“You always get Thursdays and Fridays off, then?”
Tristan nods. “I'm let out, twice a week.”
“Well, thanks for the tour,” he says, “I'll, uh, see you Thursday.”
They had a few slips at work, in the beginning. He would touch Neil's shoulder, or their eyes would linger. An occasional double entendre. Neil didn't want everyone to know – and he understood that; divorce was difficult enough without tossing in a gay lover.
“I could quit,” he offered. Neil didn't understand that after Phillip's death, money hadn't been a problem, living had.
“No,” Neil said. “We just need to be careful.” And pinched his ass.
“That's harrassment,” he pointed out.
Neil laughed. “You can punish me later.”
Punishment involved a bottle of wine, some ice cubes, and Neil's tie.
One night, when Phillip was still well, he traced his finger along the scar on Phillip's shoulder.
“What happened?” he asked finally.
Phillip stirred. “I had to have a pin put. When I was bashed, they wrecked it. Took 'em to court.”
He kissed Phillip. “They're in jail?”
Phillip nodded. “All four of them. One of them was rich enough for Daddy to offer to pay me to drop it.” He sighed. “It was a lot of money.”
“But you didn't.”
Phillip shook his head. “Every time I moved, it was like they were kicking me again. And I won.”
He is walking on the beach, enjoying the cool air, when he finds the names. Someone has written “Stan and Kathy” inside a big heart in the sand on the beach. Probably more likely Kathy, he supposes.
It annoys him. So ephemeral, so impermanent. What a horrible declaration of love.
He picks up a stick and begins writing in the sand. Neil. His own name. Phillip. Evan. Kenneth. Mitch. Luc. He reaches the water, out of names.
He waits for the tide. Luc is erased. Then Mitch. Kenneth. Evan. When Phillip is washed away, he cries quietly. Then heads back.
Neil was an remarkably adept lover for a closeted man, willing (no, insistent) on trying everything. His evenings with Neil reminded him of early times Phillip, though now he was the one with experience, teasing new sensations out of Neil's body, and enjoying the respites between.
The tattoo on the small of his back surprised Neil. Neil kissed it.
Neil seemed so different. As a boss, Neil was stern, smiled rarely, and was somewhat distant. As a lover, Neil was playful, teasing, and his smiles lit up his eyes.
It was hard to see him at work, and not touch.
Through the window, he has been watching Blue try to take two bits of cookie at the same time. The bird puts one piece down, then picks up the other.
“Just come back for it, buddy,” he says.
Blue tilts his head, drops the second piece, and goes back to the first. Then seems to notice the second piece again.
“You can't have everything.”
Blue picks up a piece, puts it down. Picks up the other. Puts it down.
“Futile, Blue,” he says, feeling bad. “C'mon...”
Blue scoops up both pieces in one bob.
“Oh,” he says.
Blue flies away.
On Thursday, they go into the water. It is cold, and he can only stand it so long, so he ends up watching Tristan swim a while, sitting on the beach wrapped in a towel.
“You're insane,” he calls, when Tristan finally walks out of the water, goosefleshed. He tries not to stare too much at Tristan's lean form, or how the water darkens Tristan's chest hair.
Tristan shivers, so he surrenders his towel as well.
They lean shoulder to shoulder, warming in the sun.
“No one knows about me here,” Tristan says.
Tristan kisses him quickly when they part.
He takes Tristan's hand around the rock. His skin is warm. Distracting.
Tristan throws the rock. It skips, once. Both men smile.
“Do you meet many... people?” he asks.
“I've had all of three lovers in my time,” Tristan says, and throws again. It sinks.
“So you've given up on forever, then?”
Tristan smiles, “Forever is all I've got.”
“I wish...” Tristan starts. Throws.
A double skip. They share a grin.
“I wish my parents could have met him. Before,” Tristan says. His dark eyes are shining.
He nods, understanding. “Mine never met Phillip.”
They had breakfast out and he touched Neil's hand, and Neil recoiled. They didn't argue, exactly, but it was there, tense, between them.
The next weekend, Neil took him to a bed and breakfast. There, Neil was so demonstrative, so casual in his touches, that it invoked the same sensations as life with Phillip.
He was happy, again.
It was only after Neil dropped him off at his apartment that he realized Neil had taken him somewhere it was impossible to be seen by anyone they knew. It was an illusion. Walk in or not, it was still a closet.
The thought comes unbidden, when he is making the bed, and his eyes catch the small calendar above the chest of drawers.
He walks to the deck, and lets his eyes sail out on the water. The wind strokes his temples, and he finds himself calm.
Last night, he thought about writing a letter, or letters, but when he opened his address book, he realized no one was left inside except business contacts and family distant in either geography or belief.
Blue arrives, and shrieks for a digestive. He steps inside for one.
A lifetime, really.
He no longer fears or hates death.
Before Phillip's turn, his friend Evan was one day away from death. Evan had raised blind eyes and weak hands both, and started murmuring, “Kenneth, Kenneth.”
Kenneth, the lover who had gone six months earlier.
The nurse said, “He's hallucinating.”
He remembers thinking she was wrong. Evan was blessed.
Why fear Death when He came with the face of your lover, to welcome to you a forever without pain?
Why hate Death when He released you from the blindness, the scaled lips, the sores?
Hate? Fear? No. If anything, he envies Death's power.
Once damaged, it collapsed quickly.
“I'm going back to Miriam,” Neil said, “We're trying again.”
“I didn't want to hurt you,” Neil said.
His mind filled with memories of Phillip. Phillip, who fought for rights when there were none. Phillip, beaten. Phillip, who kept dignity when his own body betrayed him. Phillip, who was brave.
He stared at Neil.
, he thought. Then said.
“If you're going to be like that,” Neil said gravely, “I can't have you in the company.”
“Neil,” he said, more angry than he thought he could be, “You can't have me at all.”
He threw everything into his car, and went back inside for the last bits. From the medicine cabinet, he took his daily meds – what Phillip always called his Doll Collection – and added toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, razor and some shaving cream.
Looking at his reflection in the half closed cabinet, he saw one last bottle. Phillip's name was still printed on the label, now yellowed.
“In case I can't take it,” Phillip had said. But had never touched them.
He reached out and took it.
He left before he had time to think. It was an overnight drive to the cabins.
After the sun goes down, they are still sitting on the deck.
“If you could do anything with the rest of your life, what would it be?” Tristan asks him.
He's glad the darkness hides his face. “What would
“You're not answering,” Tristan is amused.
“Neither are you,” he points out.
“Okay,” Tristan says, and then, “I'd introduce you to my parents.”
He can't breathe. He turns, and Tristan is looking at him in the darkness, barely an outline visible by the moon's light.
“You're crying,” Tristan says.
“It's okay,” he replies.
And Tristan believes him.
“I came here to kill myself,” he says, eyes closed.
There is silence.
“I'm not going to,” he says quickly, surprised at the decision even as he makes it. “It's a long and stupid story, but I lost my job because I slept with my boss. And it felt like everything I had. Does that make sense?”
He rolls over to look at Tristan, and opens his eyes.
Tristan is gone. There is a black-eyed Susan on the pillow.
He starts to laugh.
“Probably would have ruined the mood,” he admits to himself.
It feels so good to laugh.
With the best of intentions, and armed with the black-eyed Susan, he goes to the girl behind the desk and asks, “I'd like to pay my respects to Tristan – where abouts is he?” He hopes this is neutral enough.
She smiles at him for the first time, which surprises him. “He's up the north path.”
, he thinks.
Tristan told me that's where the staff sleep.
He walks by it twice, confused. No cabins, no tents...
He's about to check the path signs when he finally sees.
It's a simple grave. Tristan's name. And a date.
Four years ago.
The desk girl is surprised when he asks about the “Help Wanted” sign.
“It's basic stuff,” she says. “Cleaning, delivering the firewood to the cabins, some of the heavy lifting, now that the owners are getting a bit on. They wanted to sell, but then Tristan died.” She confides this, obviously mistaking him for someone who knew Tristan when he was alive.
He nods, a neutral response, not sure if the distinction matters. He's fairly sure he will not see Tristan again.
“So they stay,” she finishes.
“Could you introduce me to them?” he asks.
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