“Hey Brian, come out to the front for a minute,” John called out from the path by the side of the cottage. Brian had just cleaned off the last picnic table and opened the umbrella. His garden was ready for the descending horde which were already descending.
“Be right there,” Brian replied as he stood, stretching out the kinks in his back and looking skyward. The day was sunny and warm with a pleasant breeze. The sky was a vivid blue but with just enough fluffy clouds to make it interesting. Brian could hear the beginnings of a soccer game in the nearby field and the clanging of grills. It was only noon but the lane was almost filled to capacity with family and guests. He shook his head and wondered if they’d have to get one of those signs you see in restaurants that informed all about the maximum capacity allowed. He’d have to ask John.
“Bri!” Brian heard John call him again. He stopped his mind from meandering and focused on John. “I have a surprise for you,” John said as soon as Brian rounded the cottage.
“I think I’ve had enough surprises for one day,” Brian grumbled. Between esthetically pleasing port-a-potties, dozens of added guests, and Gus turning up early, Brian’s day was already very, very full.
“No worries; I think you’ll like this surprise,” John assured his brother with a pat to Brian’s back. John led Brian to the lane.
“What am I looking at?” Brian asked as he walked up to a table that was placed on the other side of their long driveway. Each side of the lane had been dotted with rectangular tables and colorful umbrellas. The tables had one long bench on each side. The benches looked familiar but newly finished with smooth wood and a high gloss shine.
Brian ran his hand over the wood. “Where did these come from?”
“Liberty Avenue.” That caught Brian’s attention. “The city decided to replace the old wooden benches with modern stainless steel. I caught wind of it directly from the City Council. We salvaged the benches and had some of Hunter’s kids refinish them. We got permission to reinstall a few benches along the street of the Jason Kemp Center and theater. But the rest…”
“You brought them here.”
“Is that all right with you?” John asked.
Brian looked a little dazed. “The rainbow paint is gone,” Brian observed.
“It was peeling off. The benches hadn’t been cared for in years. I debated repainting them but when we stripped them down to the base wood, it was too beautiful to cover up with paint.”
“So you finished them off with varnish,” Brian observed.
John nodded. “Do you like them? We don’t have to keep all of them, maybe one or two on each side of the lane?” John asked expectantly.
“Yeah, maybe,” Brian said softly as he sat down on one beautifully finished bench.
“Are you all right?” John asked as he sat next to his brother.
“Fine,” Brian said as he again ran his hand over the wood.
“Talk to me,” John prodded as he bumped shoulders with his brother.
“You know, I don’t recall if I ever sat on one of these benches when they were on Liberty. I do know old Joanie rested on one when we all marched in that parade years ago. I knew they were there but it’s like background noise you tend to ignore.”
“So is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
Before Brian could answer a car pulled up and discharged two passengers. They walked up to the brothers.
“These are new,” said Tom.
“Are they permanent?” Todd asked.
“We haven’t decided,” John replied. He explained the reclamation.
“I can see you keeping a few benches, maybe one in that clearing near the stream,” Tom said wisely. That suggestion made Brian smile. “I wouldn’t mind one in our garden,” Tom added.
“John, I’ll take the rest,” Todd stated. “After the party, I’ll take the rest of them for the garden center. We can sell some or rent them out for parties,” Todd said reasonably.
“That’s a good idea,” Brian stated as he stood, shaking off any morose feelings that tried to overtake him. He grabbed at his brother’s wrist noting it was just after one. The lane would be overflowing. “It’s show time,” Brian announced with his usual snark as he walked back to the cottage. John caught up with Brian.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” John asked with concern.
“I’m good,” Brian said. Just then a few of John’s burlier men walked by carrying one of the benches. They were heading for the stream. “I’m real good,” Brian purred with admiration.
“You never change, do you?” John asked with exasperation.
“Fuck! I hope not. To quote a very special therapist who is spending the summer on the lane with his head shrinking partner, I’m married not dead.”
Brian followed the guys down to the stream. John stood there for a moment shaking his head then it dawned on him that he was also “not dead.”
Justin was greeting family and guests as a good host should when movement toward the path leading to the stream caught his eye. After giving a hug to family he hadn’t seen in a while and making sure they were settled, Justin headed for the stream. On his way, he passed four of John’s men heading back to the festivities. Justin gave them a flirty smile as they exchanged salutations.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” Justin said as he saw Brian sitting on a newly installed bench. It was in the small glade with a good view of the stream but close enough to a large shady tree. Brian slid over to make room and patted the seat.
“This is beautiful,” Justin exclaimed. “It’ll certainly be more comfortable painting out here.”
“So tell me what you really think, Sunshine?” Brian snarked.
“I think this is a perfect place for a bench. Where did it come from?” Justin sat, gently caressing the finely finished wood.
“All the way from the land of Liberty,” Brian stated then fully explained the origin of the bench and the other benches along the lane. Brian slowly draped his arm around Justin’s shoulder and drew him in closer. Justin turned and lifted his head; his intentions were clear. Brian obliged by bestowing a deep kiss.
“We have guests,” Justin murmured when they came up for air. Brian nodded with a sigh. They leaned on each other, touching foreheads. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Really,” Brian added when Justin remained unconvinced. “Overwhelmed?” Brian said. Justin nodded. “We have so much…”
“Yes, we do and we also do our part to give back as much as possible. This is not a day for you to worry about things that don’t exist or that you can’t change. We have hundreds of people out there all waiting for Brian fucking Kinney. Don’t disappoint them,” Justin commanded.
“Yes, dear,” Brian teased. Justin knew Brian was almost back from whatever cave his thoughts had wandered into.
It was beautiful in the glade with its fragrant flowers, the dappled shade and the sound of the water flowing over the rocks in the stream. And the occasional frog. It was a perfect place to make love. With one sweep of his arms, Brian had Justin sitting on his lap.
“What are your intentions, sir?” Justin coyly asked as he waggled his eyebrows.
“What would you like my intentions to be, Sunshine?” Brian replied with a question. He arched a brow as he smirked.
“Right now, just a kiss with a promise of more when our guests have gone and the lane is quiet again,” Justin stated wisely.
“Your wish is my command,” Brian murmured against Justin’s lush lips. Brian kissed Justin, pouring his heart and soul into the kiss and the promise of many, many more.
“I love you, Justin,” Brian whispered as he kissed the tiny scar hidden under golden locks. “I’ve always loved you and always will.”
“I love you,” Justin said, his eyes misty with tears of joy. “Always have and always will,” he repeated.
The lovers kissed and made promises to visit the bench often but for now they had a lane filled with hungry people. Brian lovingly patted Justin’s bottom before gently pushing him off. The boys got themselves together before strolling back to their garden.
As they passed the Wendy house, Justin made an observation.
“Did you know Ben was bringing a guest?”
“No, I didn’t. Tell me he didn’t bring that French fry of his,” Brian growled.
“Okay, I won’t but don’t be surprised when you see one more Frenchman in our yard.”
“I guess today there might be more fireworks than we had originally planned,” Brian commented as he scanned the yard. Justin could only nod.
"Daddy! Dada!" Bree called as she saw the duo emerge from the path to the stream.
"What is it, Squirt?" Brian asked.
"Everybody was looking for you."
"Were we lost?" Brian asked with a raised eyebrow.
Bree giggled. "We thought you were. Nobody knew where you had gone."
"Didn't Uncle John tell you?" Brian asked.
"I haven't seen him. I think he's at the B&B making sure his men have everything they need."
"We were down at the stream," Justin said with a sunny smile for his husband.
"How come?" Bree asked.
"Uncle John brought a bunch of benches and your Dada decided to place one down by the stream," Justin explained.
"Where did all those benches come from?" Bree wanted to know.
"Do you remember the rainbow benches on Liberty Avenue?" Brian asked.
"Sure, Gamma Joan and I sat on them when she got tired during the parade."
"You have a great memory," Brian said with a lump in his throat.
"I remember everything about Gamma Joan. I miss her so much."
"You and me both, Squirt," Brian said with tears forming in his eyes. He pulled his daughter into a warm hug.
"She would have loved to sit on that bench by the stream," Bree whispered.
Brian nodded and swallowed hard before he released her from the hug. "I guess we better go see what damage the riffraff have done while we were gone," Brian said after clearing his throat.
Each man took one of Bree's hands and the small family made their way into the noisy yard behind the conjoined cottages.
Debbie had her head stuck in the refrigerator in the kitchen of the conjoined cottages, rearranging bowls of food so that she could add one more that had just been brought by someone.
"Maw," a voice said.
"What?" Debbie asked in surprise. She reflexively jerked her head up whacking it on the shelf of the fridge just above where she had been placing the bowls. "Shit!" she moaned as she turned around rubbing the spot that was now throbbing on the top of her head. "Michael, are you trying to fucking kill me?" she demanded as soon as she realized it was her long lost son standing on the other side of the kitchen counter.
"Of course not," Michael retorted. "I came in to say hello to you."
"Well, you might have waited till I took my fucking head out of the fridge before you shouted at me." She continued rubbing the sore spot on her scalp.
"I didn't shout at you," Michael retorted. "I merely called you 'Maw'."
"It's only taken you six months to call me, so thanks a fucking heap!"
"It has not been six months!" Michael objected. "Stop exaggerating and making everything sound worse."
"It might as well be six years when your son doesn't even call in forever!" Debbie said, her voice increasing with each word.
"Now it's gone from six months to forever?" Michael practically shrieked. "Give me a fucking break!"
"Like you've given me? Never returning my calls, never a thought for your poor, old mother who bore you and raised you all by herself!"
"You ... You're unbelievable," Michael yelled turning on his heel and marching out the front door of the cottage.
"Michael!" Debbie called, instantly regretting many of the words she had just uttered. She stopped rubbing her head, finding that the sting of her bumped head was much less than the sting of her son walking away from her.
"What's all the shouting about?" Emmett asked as he came into the kitchen carrying another bowl of salad.
"That goddamn son of mine!"
"He was. Caught me by surprise. We had ... words," Debbie admitted.
"I'm surprised he came at all. None of us has had much contact over the last weeks." Emmett managed to find space in the refrigerator for the latest contribution to the mighty meal that was being assembled for later in the afternoon. "When did Michael get here?"
"Who the fuck knows! And he's gone again anyway."
"Probably down to that rambling monstrosity of his at the end of the lane."
Emmett chuckled. "You better not let Michael hear you call his log cabin a monstrosity."
"Why the fuck not?! It is."
"That's beside the point," Emmett said. "Should I go down and talk to him?"
"Do whatever you fucking want," Debbie said crossing her arms on her chest in a manner very much like the one Michael used.
Emmett heaved a big sigh before going out the front door of the conjoined cottages and heading down the lane to Michael's log cabin.
"Grandma Debbie?" a little voice said.
"What?" Debbie snapped.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm ... I'm fine, Bree," Debbie said exasperated. "That son of mine is going to drive me to an early grave."
"Yeah, Uncle Michael," Debbie repeated with great disdain.
"He ... he just doesn't get it."
"That I miss him and wish he could man up and call me instead of hiding away and refusing to talk to anybody."
"Did you tell him that?"
"I never had a chance," Debbie said. She leaned heavily on the counter. All of her strength seemed to have left her.
"Come and sit down," Bree said as she observed that Debbie didn't seem to be herself at all. She took Debbie's hand and led her to the kitchen table where she pulled out a chair for her grandmother to sit.
Debbie flopped into the chair and closed her eyes. "Could you bring me a glass of water, sweetheart?" Debbie asked in a small voice. Bree quickly got her one and then sat down at the table with her. Debbie sipped the water and some color seemed to return to her face.
"What happened?" Bree asked again.
"Michael came in and called "Maw" while I had my head in the fridge. When I heard him I jumped and hit my head on one of the fridge shelves. It hurt like a mother fu... mother."
"And then you two got into a fight?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Uncle Michael wanted to try to make things up to you today," Bree stated.
"He did? How...How do you know?"
"I've talked to him. He told me he's trying to make changes in his life."
"Why is he telling you that and not me?" Debbie demanded.
"Because I talked to him. He's really starting to make some changes. Coming here today was a big step for him."
"And I had to whack my head and yell at him," Debbie sighed.
"You could give him a second chance," Bree suggested.
"Yeah, but will he give me a second chance?"
"There's one way to find out," Bree said with a smile.
"You think I should go talk to him?"
Bree nodded her head. "Talking is good."
Debbie chuckled. "You could be right, but Michael hasn't wanted to talk for months."
"But he's turning over a new leaf."
Debbie raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" Bree nodded again. "I wonder if Emmett is getting anywhere with Michael."
"He went after Michael when he stormed out of here," Debbie explained.
"Maybe you should go after him too," Bree said without looking at her grandmother.
Bree nodded. "I don't think Uncle Michael will come back on his own, so it's kind of up to you."
"I thought you said he was trying to change."
"He is, but it sounds like you cut him off before he got started."
Debbie's mouth dropped open, and she bit back the retort she had been about to make. She remained silent for a minute. Bree began to wonder if she had said too much. Debbie opened her mouth like she was about to speak, but immediately she snapped it shut again. Bree waited, reminding herself to breathe.
Abruptly Debbie stood up. "I'm going down there," she said emphatically as she headed for the door.
"Be ... gentle," Bree said hopefully.
"We'll see," Debbie replied before closing the door behind her.
As Debbie approached the log cabin, she could hear raised voices from inside.
"Be reasonable, Michael. You know what your mother's like," Emmett said.
"Unfortunately I do," Michael replied. "She didn't give me a chance to say anything, so what's the point of going back to listen to more criticism."
Debbie stopped in her tracks. She was just feet from the front door, but she had heard clearly what was said, and if she was honest with herself, what Michael said was true. She had not given him a chance. It made her regret even more what had happened.
"Don't leave, Michael," Emmett pleaded. "Give us all a second chance.
"What the fuck for?! The outcome's always the same."
"It doesn't have to be."
"Have you been talking to Bree?"
"Bree?" Emmett asked. "What does she have to do with anything?"
"Never mind. Just get out of my way. I'm going back to Pittsburgh."
"Not until we talk," Debbie commanded as she marched into the house.
"Maw, I have nothing more to say to you," Michael retorted crossing his arms on his chest.
"I have things to say to you, and I promise to listen when you speak," Debbie pledged.
Michael stared at her. "You do?" he asked warily.
"What do you want to say?"
"The first thing is that I'm sorry I was such a bitch when you came to Brian and Justin's. I hit my head and it hurt like a bugger."
"Is it okay?" Michael asked.
"Yeah, I rubbed the hurt out."
"Like you used to do when I'd fall down and hurt myself."
"Yeah, just like that."
"Want a Pepsi?" Michael asked.
"That sounds good."
Emmett smiled as he went out the front door. They had forgotten about him, but that was okay. At least they were talking to each other.
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