Ben was standing in the backyard, a travel mug filled with his favorite tea in his hand. It was early in the morning, Armand was still asleep but Ben could hear the muted sounds of the lane coming to life. The cabin was surrounded by large shrubs and trees that extended toward the border wall. The result was near silence when you were in the backyard except for the noise from the local wildlife. It was idyllic, so why was Ben's heart in so much turmoil.
“Good morning,” Armand gently greeted his host as he walked out the door and onto the deck.
“Good morning. The kettle should still be hot if you’d like a cup of tea,” Ben offered.
“Yes, thank you. My cup is steeping,” Armand replied. Ben smiled. “Is there somewhere you’d like to go today, visit, perhaps?” Armand asked.
“Feeling restless? It’s all right, I do understand. After the excitement of Paris, our little lane must seem boring.”
“Au contraire, the peacefulness is most welcome.” Armand sat in one of the deck chairs. “I too am on sabbatical, so to speak. Simone is a wonderful brother; I love him dearly but living up to his expectations is not always easy. He expects much, his knowledge of art is unsurpassed. I have learned much from him.”
“But it’s not easy living in someone’s shadow,” Ben ventured.
“Yes, you are correct. You have experience?”
“Yes, I have.”
“I don’t wish to pry…”
“Not at all, I brought it up. You’ve met Brian.”
“Yes, of course, he is a generous host. And stunning.”
“Right on both accounts. He is very generous, although he hates it when someone points it out. And as for his looks, he was drop dead gorgeous in his youth and it’s obvious how well he is aging.”
“You suspect a portrait hiding in the attic?”Armand asked with a chuckle. Ben laughed.
“Ah, yes, young Justin. He looks barely twenty. But his eyes hold much wisdom,” Armand observed. “It’s not his shadow that you compete with?”
“No, it’s Brian. I had an encounter with Brian many years before I met Michael. When Michael found out he became very jealous.”
“Michael and Brian never…”
“No, never. They’ve known each other since they were teenagers. Brian loves him as a brother. He would never have a sexual relationship with Michael.”
“So, the problem is twofold, jealousy and living up to what might have been.”
“Yes,” Ben stated.
“Brian is certainly beautiful, inside and out, but you are not pâté,” Armand said with a smirk. Ben stared at his guest for a moment then broke out into laughter. He laughed so hard that he nearly stumbled. Armand was there to catch him.
“You’re not chopped liver either,” Ben whispered in Armand’s arms.
The House at the Top of the Lane.
“Do you think they’re doing it?” Rachel blurted out as she was scrambling eggs.
“Rachel! Sometimes I have no idea where your mind is at,” George scolded.
“Well, someone has to state the obvious. It might as well be me.”
“You need a hobby.”
“I do not need a hobby. I already have a hobby. You’re my hobby, George Sanders.” George snorted. Rachel giggled.
“Are you going to cook those eggs or continue to beat them into submission?”
“I haven’t decided,” Rachel primly stated.
“Sometimes I wonder why I ever married such an exasperating woman.”
“Just lucky I guess,” Rachel commented as her egg mixture hit the frying pan. George immediately took out the plates and silverware.
“You have me well trained,” George grumbled. “I’m serious, Rach. The girls are out of the house, and I have no intention of retiring any time soon. I worry that you’re bored or worse, lonely during the day. At least when we were in town, we had close neighbors.”
“Until the town decided to condemn our house,” Rachel growled as she plated the eggs.
“I mean how many pies can one woman bake?”
“You love my pies.”
“Of course, I do, so does my waistline. But isn’t there something else you want to do?”
“George, we’ve had this conversation before. I’ve never regretted being a stay at home mom.”
“I know. And the girls reflect just how great of a mom you are. And young Patrick. He looks up to his “Auntie” Rachel.”
“More like I’m looking up to him. He has John’s height.”
“Don’t change the subject. I’m serious. Is there something you’d like to be doing with your time? A part time job maybe? And I don’t mean one that involves you asking, 'Do you want fries with that?' You’re so much better than that.”
The toaster popped, pausing the conversation for a while.
“I have been contemplating going back to school,” Rachel finally admitted.
“Med school? Law school? Nursing?” George rambled.
“No, more like plumbing. You know I enjoy working with my hands. And I loved watching the homes go up here. I always wanted to be involved.”
“You mean more involved. Do you think I never noticed how you joined the interns when John started a new project on the lane?”
Rachel blushed. She thought her little fantasy was well hidden.
“Honey, I know that whatever you choose to do, you will do it well. I’ll support you. I’ll even buy you your first toolbelt,” George said with a smile.
“Thank you,” Rachel said as they dug into their breakfast. “So, do you think they’re doing it?” Rachel repeated.
“You have a one track mind. And honestly, I don’t know. I’m hoping that Michael and Ben can get through this but it’s been so long.”
“Many couples separate then get back together.”
“A lot don’t,” George sadly stated. “And it doesn’t help that Ben has a very attractive house guest.”
“I agree. So, what do we do?”
“It may sound clichéd, but be supportive?” Rachel nodded. “So, tell me more about your plumbing plans.”
About an hour later Rachel was driving down the lane when she saw Peter heading up towards the conjoined cottages. She stopped the car as she neared Peter and rolled down the window.
"Good morning, Peter," she said cheerily. "Are you working on the living shed this morning?" she asked. When Patrick and Peter had helped her unload her groceries, they had told her about the latest project John was constructing for Carl and Debbie.
"We're going to be collecting the logs to make it today," Peter informed her with a little grimace.
Rachel smiled to herself. This young generation didn't seem to like physical labor, especially if it could be avoided. "Sounds like heavy work. It'll put some muscle on your bones."
"Yeah, I guess."
"You know," Rachel said wanting to impart some advice, "any job is only as well done as you make it."
"But what if you don't like the job?" Peter asked.
"If you think you're going to like everything in your life, you will always be disappointed. If you go into things with an open mind and a positive attitude, you never know what might come of it."
"That sounds a lot like what someone else told me," Peter admitted.
"Would that someone be John Anderson?" Rachel asked with a chuckle. Peter nodded. "You could do a lot worse than listen to John."
"Well, maybe sometimes I do have a little wisdom." Rachel shook her head. "How did we get into such a philosophical conversation so early in the morning?"
Peter laughed. "Darned if I know."
"Well, I've taken up enough of your time," Rachel said.
"I like talking to you, Mrs. Sanders," Peter replied.
"Thank you for telling me that. I enjoy talking to you too, and please call me Aunt Rachel if you'd like to."
Peter smiled broadly. "I'd like that very much, ... Aunt Rachel."
"So would I."
"Where are you off to?" Peter asked turning to a topic that he felt safer with.
"I'm going back to school."
Peter's eyes got very large and his mouth dropped open. "Why ... why would you want to do that?"
"You think I'm too old for school?" Rachel asked with a frown.
"No, not too old. It's just that I wouldn't go to school if I didn't have to."
"And if you didn't go to school, you might be hauling those logs all day long every day. How would you like that?"
"I wouldn't," Peter said taking her point.
"Then study hard and get the most out your education."
"Everybody is always advising me what to do."
"And I hope you heed what's being said. We all have your best interests at heart."
Peter thought about that. "I guess you must know stuff that I don't."
"We've been around quite a bit longer than you have, and we do learn from experience."
"Okaaay," Peter agreed. "So, what sort of course are you taking?" he asked. "Literature or philosophy or something?"
Rachel laughed. "I'm off to sign up for a course in plumbing."
"Yes, I want to do something with my hands. I like fixing things."
"Wow, that sounds ... interesting."
"Try saying that with a little more sincerity," she chuckled.
"I just told you that I like fixing things, and I enjoy watching John build things. After I've mastered plumbing, I might take up carpentry and electrical and..."
"Okay, okay, I get the point."
"There's always more to learn," Rachel said. She started to roll up her window. "Oh, come for a piece of pie when you finish wrassling with them big logs."
"I will, ... Aunt Rachel," Peter said with a grin.
Rachel finished rolling up her window. She waved at Peter before driving away.
Peter stood watching her go down the lane. He knew he had some things to sort out in his head. Maybe lifting logs would help put his thoughts in focus.
Peter wiped the sweat from his brow, as he added the branches to the pile that he had been making since John had cut down the tree. The trunk of the old tree was now almost clear of all the branches.
"Just a couple more branches left," John said as he was about to start his chainsaw one more time. Suddenly he hesitated. "Do I remember correctly that you both wanted to learn to use a chainsaw?"
"Yeah, yes!" both Peter and Patrick blurted out.
John chuckled. "Who wants to go first?"
"Me!" both boys said at the same time.
"Well, that makes it an easy choice," John laughed.
"It does?" Patrick asked.
"Peter, would you like to go first?"
"Um, sure," Peter said, suddenly looking rather uncertain. "You'll show me what to do, won't you?"
"Of course. Here, put on my goggles and these gloves."
"But it's so hot," Peter protested.
"Safety first ... always!"
"Okay," Peter agreed as he donned the required gear.
"Pick up the chainsaw," John ordered.
"It's heavy," Peter said as he lifted the saw off the ground.
"Can you handle it?" John asked. "You need to be able to control the saw."
"I can," Peter said hoping that was true.
"I'll show you how to start it, and then you can try to get it started," John explained.
It took Peter a few tries to get the saw going. It was harder to pull the start chain than he thought. Maybe Aunt Rachel was right - he did need some more muscle. John showed him how to cut the branch from top to bottom. It was hard to hold the saw once it cut through the branch, but he managed to do it.
"Was it hard?" Patrick asked as Peter took off the goggles and gloves and handed them to Patrick.
"Kind of," Peter admitted.
Patrick went through the same process until he had his branch cut off.
"That was good, boys," John told them. "We can practice more precision cutting once we get the logs back to Debbie's. The logs for the walls need to be cut to the same size."
"Is that harder than what we just did?" Patrick asked.
"Quite a bit harder," John said. "You have to cut straight through and at a certain standard depth."
"Are you going to let us try that?" Patrick asked.
"We'll see, but you both did well with this tree. Let's get the trunk back to Debbie's and then you two can come back for the branches."
"You take that end," Patrick told Peter.
The two boys hoisted the log onto their shoulders and started towards the lane.
"Can we cut through by the log cabin again?" Peter asked. "This thing's heavy."
"Sure," Patrick said.
As they approached the large log building there was no one on the deck this time.
"I guess we won't be disturbing them this time," Patrick commented.
"I wonder what they're doing," Peter said.
"It's none of our business."
"Yeah, but it would be a great day to sit on the deck with a beer or something."
"I guess it would, but I don't know about the beer part," Patrick stated.
"Haven't you tried beer?" Peter asked in amazement.
"No, I haven't and I don't want to. Have you?"
"Yeah, when I lived with my dad."
"Um, how was it?"
"Tasted like shit."
Both boys laughed.
"Hope you don't try Carl's beer while you're at Grandma Deb's."
"I won't," Peter said with conviction. He didn't want to make any waves in his living arrangements. He liked living with Debbie and Carl.
They trudged along with the heavy log on their shoulders.
"I feel like a pack animal," Peter said as he blew at the drip of sweat hanging off his nose.
"You look like a pack animal," Patrick said with a laugh.
The boys came out to the lane and made their way to the back of Carl and Debbie's where they were only too happy to drop the log.
"Only a dozen more trips and we'll be done," Patrick griped.
"Just a dozen? Then we better go get those branches so we have time to complete our tasks before sundown," Peter said tongue in cheek.
"Are you nuts?" Patrick asked looking at Peter like he had suddenly lost his marbles.
"Just trying to have a positive attitude," Peter said with a smirk.
Patrick gave him an elbow to the ribs. The boys laughed as Peter gave Patrick a shove in return. It was all good natured fun.
By lunch time the boys had collected all the logs and branches that John directed them to carry to Debbie's. They had quite a substantial pile to work with. John had made sure that they had plenty of extra logs so he could use some to train the boys in what he called precision cutting. He knew there would be lots of waste wood from the training process. He thought they could cut up any pieces that didn't meet his standards and stack it near the conjoined cottages to be used in the fireplaces in the winter.
Debbie called to the boys. "I made you some lunch. Come on in and park yourselves. You've been working hard."
"Thanks, Grandma Debbie," Patrick said. "I should call my dad and let him know where we are. He went up to the house."
Once the call had been made, the boys enjoyed Debbie's lunch and plenty of water and lemonade to drink. Carl had gone into Bridgeton to the community center where he was meeting some cronies. After they played some pool, they were doing lunch.
"They call themselves ROMEOS," Debbie said.
"ROMEOS?" Patrick asked.
"Retired Old Men Eating Out," Debbie said with a laugh.
"Hope I never get to the point of being called that," Peter said.
"Consider the alternative," Debbie warned him. "Make sure you don't get dehydrated while you're working or you may not live long enough to be a ROMEO," she added. "It's really hot out there today."
"Don't we know it," Peter replied taking another long drink of lemonade.
"Did you see Ben and his ... friend when you came by the log cabin?" Debbie asked out of the blue.
"Um, no," Patrick replied. "Nobody was out on the deck and I didn't see anybody inside."
"I wonder what they were doing," Debbie said with a faraway look in her eye.
"Me too," Peter chuckled.
"Get your mind out of the gutter, young man," Debbie ordered.
"Yes, ma'am," Peter mumbled.
"I guess we should get back to work," Patrick said as he saw his father come into the backyard of the thatched cottage.
"I might be late for dinner," Peter said as he stood up from the table.
"Um ... Aunt Rachel invited me for pie when we finished work," Peter said liking the sound of the words. He thought he should try saying 'Aunt Rachel' as often as possible until he got used to it.
"Aunt Rachel?" Debbie asked with a raised brow.
"She told me to call her that if I wanted to."
"And you wanted to."
"Yeah, I like it."
Debbie smiled. "That was nice of Rachel. You're really fitting in on the lane."
"Thanks," Peter said happily.
Patrick just grinned. He liked that Peter was feeling more at home. "We better get going for our chainsaw lesson," he said as the boys bolted out the door and Debbie's mouth dropped open.
Ben and Armand were laughing as they entered the front door of the cabin, laughing and talking a mile a minute. They had a boatload of packages and shopping bags which they dumped unceremoniously in the living room. The bags holding the groceries they purchased were weeded out and taken to the kitchen.
“I never knew shopping could be so much fun,” Ben declared with an ear to ear grin.
“You’ve never been shopping with me,” Armand countered.
“You certainly made Brussels sprouts interesting.”
“I have a way with small green vegetables.”
“Well, I have a way with chicken. Shall we join forces to cook dinner?” Ben proposed.
“I would very much like to join forces with you,” Armand stated with a purr that sent a shiver up Ben’s spine.
Ben coyly smiled as they began to prepare their dinner.
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