With a mug of coffee in hand, Ben stepped outside to breathe in the cool morning air. Ben knew the coolness was deceiving; the air was already warming up and the humidity was on the rise. He took advantage of the temporary reprieve from the early August heat to walk toward the lane. Ben was beginning to feel the effects of his self-imposed exile from his friends, and life in general. It was still early but the lane was awake and buzzing with life.
“Hi Uncle Ben!” Bree waved as she rolled down the window of her daddy’s SUV. Justin slowed to a stop.
“Good morning, Miss Bree. Where are you off to?” Ben asked.
“Daddy’s taking me to soccer camp,” Bree said happily. “I’ll be away for two weeks!”
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Bree said with a smile.
“Have fun and I’ll see you when you get back,” said Ben.
Bree smiled as her window went back up. She and Justin waved goodbye then headed toward the gate. Ben was about to go back to the cabin when he spotted Drew’s old Hummer. Drew loved his Hummer and kept it pristine. Drew pulled up in front of their cottage, discharged his passengers then drove around the cottage to a hidden driveway to park.
“We just need Molly and her family then the lane will be full,” Ben murmured to himself as he turned to go back into the cabin. He hesitated as he gazed at the large wooden structure. He almost didn’t want to go back inside.
“What is wrong with me?” Ben snarled. The truth of the matter was that Ben knew exactly what was wrong.
“What is it, my friend? You look troubled,” Armand commented as Ben walked into the kitchen to refresh his coffee.
“I am. I feel I must apologize.”
“Apologize? For what?”
“My behavior,” Ben said. Before Armand could protest, Ben went on. “You’ve been a complete gentleman and I’ve been a cock tease.” Armand was about to speak but Ben cut him off. “Yes, I have. I’ve been shamelessly flirting with you and as much as I’d like to, to…”
“Yes, I can’t seem to go through with it. I find you very attractive and I would very much like to make love with you, but…”
“You believe it would be disloyal of you to act upon your feelings,” Armand filled in the blanks.
“Exactly. You sound like you’ve gone through something similar.”
“My last partner and I were together for just over ten years until he decided to completely change his life. He moved to a new country, new job, and the last I heard he was happily married to a woman with three children of his own. It took me years to start dating again.”
“Wow, that is a big change.”
“Telle est la vie, mon cher. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Of course, I would have loved to have spent these days with you making love. But I don’t think that would have made the decisions you are now contemplating any easier. In fact, it might have complicated the situation, yes?”
“Yes, very complicated,” Ben said with sad confirmation. “I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right.” Armand waved a hand in understanding. “I’ve spent half the summer thinking about how to get you into my bed, when I should be deciding whether or not to save my marriage. I never cheated on Michael and I guess I won’t until my marriage is officially over.”
“Bon. Now that you’ve made this decision, you can move on to the next.”
“And you, does this mean you’ll be moving on?” Ben asked with some trepidation. He really did enjoy Armand’s company.
“Are you bored of me already?” Armand asked with a coy smile. Ben smiled back.
“No, not at all unless you want to leave,” Ben replied.
“Believe it or not I am enjoying my quiet time here. Simone has me traveling nine to ten months out of the year. The rest of the time, I’m trying to convince my neighbors that I belong in the apartment building and throwing out dead house plants. When must you go back to the city?”
“Two more weeks,” Ben replied.
“Then for the next two weeks, let's do something more daring than sitting on our asses,” Armand suggested.
“I think I can fix that,” Ben said with a big grin.
The Cottage with the White Picket Fence
“Was that Uncle Ben?” Richie asked as they walked into the cottage.
Shortly after the July fourth barbeque, Drew had driven the kids back to Pittsburgh. Drew and Emmett had planned to spend the summer at their cottage. The kids made time to spend time on the lane later in the summer.
“Was it?” Emmett asked. “He must have gone back into the cabin. You’re lucky, I haven’t seen him since the barbeque.”
“You’re kidding,” said Candy with astonishment.
“Nope. We’ve been here over a month and haven’t seen him or Armand,” Drew drawled as he walked in through the back door.
“Do you think they’re doing it?” Richie asked hesitantly.
“Oh god, I hope not,” Emmett exclaimed. Emmett plopped down in the nearest chair. “Ben and Michael have been together for a very long time. I’d hate it if they got divorced.”
"Do you think they will?" Richie asked with a worried look. "As different as they are, they always seemed so good together. Ben brought out the best in Michael."
"They were good together," Drew declared.
"Oh my," Emmett gasped. "Why did you have to say were? I'm going to hyperventilate. I don't want to think about them breaking up."
"Calm down, Emm," Drew whispered kissing the top of Emmett's head as he came up behind his husband.
"You would never leave me, would you?" Emmett asked giving Drew an imploring look.
"Absolutely not," Drew replied. "You know I love you."
"I know," Emmett sighed, "but Ben and Michael loved, love each other. If they could break up, so could we."
"Not gonna happen," Drew stated. He leaned down and kissed Emmett passionately.
"Hey, you two, get a room," Candy interjected.
"Shush," Emmett replied, "I needed that."
"And you'll always get it," Drew professed.
"But that doesn't help Ben and Michael," Richie said.
"No it doesn't," Emmett said with a frown. He stood up abruptly and waving his hand in the direction of the log cabin, he said, "I'm going over there right now to give Ben a piece of my mind. He shouldn't have that Armand person staying with him for months on end while he's still married to Michael." Emmett started for the front door. An arm reached out grabbing Emmett's wrist and stopping him in his tracks.
"No you're not," Drew stated in a tone that meant he was very serious.
"No interference. They need to work this out for themselves."
"But what if Ben ends up with Armand and not Michael?"
"Then that's the way it's meant to be."
"But that's not right."
"We don't get to make that decision for them, Emm."
Emmett sighed deeply, then looked at his spouse with such love. "I love you so much," he said. "I guess you're right."
"There's no guessing about it," Drew said. "I am right."
"Okay, I'll stay out of it. Soooo, Candy and Richie, how about you show me some of your latest designs?"
"Come have a look, Brian," John said as he led his brother around behind the thatched cottage. "It's almost finished."
"This got a wow from you?" John asked in disbelief.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's so ... different."
"I told you it was different," John said with a grin.
"Really unique, big brother."
"Thanks, but I brought you here to pick your brain."
"Ever since you told me what you were building, I've been intrigued," Brian said. "I did some research about what kind of plants grow best in the shallow earth on top of a building."
"And what did you discover?"
"Three things." Brian crossed his arms and waited.
"Do you plan to tell me what the three things are?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
John snorted. "Get to it. I haven't got all day."
"Yes you do, if you want to take all day."
"Okay, okay," John said with a grimace. "Can we just get to the point?"
"Certainly." Brian again waited.
John drew in a long breath. "Sometimes you are the most exasperating person on the face of the earth."
"Good to know that I haven't lost my touch," Brian said with a smirk. Brian saw the look on John's face. It was murderous. He decided that maybe he had pushed his little game far enough. "Slope, drainage, struts."
"The three things."
"Oh ... yeah. Explain a little more," John said.
"Well, you've got a good slope to the roof. You don't want it to be too steep. And you have some struts across to help hold the earth in place, so that it doesn't all slide down if it rains."
"So, I've met two of the things I need to have?" John asked.
"Pretty much, but I might suggest another strut in between each of the struts you have already added," Brian explained.
"Why so many?"
"To secure the earth."
"Okay, that can be done easily enough," John agreed. "What about drainage?"
"Haven’t you built that in already?" Brian asked, knowing how thorough his brother was.
"As a matter of fact..." John led Brian over closer to the shed. He pointed out how he had constructed the shed with a drainage system included. "It should allow enough runoff, but also help to retain some of the water."
"Looks good to me," Brian said with a small smile. He knew his brother had probably done as much research as he had.
"So what do I plant on it?"
John snorted again. "Not this again! Are you playing with me, little brother? If you are, I may have to bust your balls."
Brian chuckled. "Justin would not look kindly on you if you did that."
"Wouldn't want to get Justin mad at me," John conceded.
"Tell me what to plant."
"Three types of plants seem to fare best on these roofs - sedum, succulents and sedge."
"The three esses," John laughed.
"That's about it."
"Do we plant all of them or just pick one kind?"
"Hm, I'd suggest a mixture," Brian stated.
"Would you be willing to get the plants and install them?"
"Of course, just let me know when you're ready."
"Thanks, little bro," John said.
"We make a good team."
"Yes, we do. Did Bree get away to camp?"
"She and Justin left this morning."
"You didn't go with her?" John asked as they began walking back to the conjoined cottages.
"I'm not her favorite person at the moment," Brian said rather sadly.
"Because of the cleaning?"
"Well, she did bring it on herself," John reminded him.
"Yeah, but I was pretty hard on her. I haven't had something that difficult to do in a long, long time," Brian admitted. "It was so hard seeing her beautiful face tired and angry at me every day."
"I know, Brian," John said putting his hand on Brian's shoulder. "Being a parent is not an easy job."
"Hardest one on the planet."
"But you did it for her own good. She needed to learn a lesson."
"I know that, in my head, but it doesn't make my heart feel any better."
"She'll get over it. By the time she comes back from soccer camp, she'll be back to normal," John averred.
"I sure as fuck hope you're right. I don't like it when we're on the outs."
"She's a great kid. She'll work it all out."
Brian shook his head. As much as he hoped John was right, there was a piece of him that wondered if things could ever be right between him and his daughter again.
Peter pushed the heavy wheelbarrow up the lane. Even though the slope of the lane wasn't great, it was enough to make the uphill push much more difficult than coming down. The barrow was loaded with scraps of wood from the living shed. He and Patrick were taking the remnants of the logs to the cottages that had fireplaces. The wood could be used on cold days in the winter, or when the electricity went out or when a couple simply wanted a romantic evening in front of a crackling fire.
"Why is it that the wheelbarrow is full going uphill and empty when we come back down the lane?" Peter asked as he drew in a deep breath and tried not to gasp for air.
"Just lucky I guess," Patrick said with a grin.
"It's your turn next," Peter informed him.
"I've already had a turn."
"Another one coming up," Peter said with a smirk.
"I think we should deliver some wood to the log cabin next," Patrick mused out loud.
"Not fair!" Peter protested. "That's downhill with the load and uphill with an empty wheelbarrow."
"I know," Patrick grinned.
"So I've been told."
"I could learn to really hate you."
"Not going to happen," Patrick laughed. "I'm very sweet and kind."
“You sound like your Uncle Brian."
"You could say worse things to me," Patrick said. He waited for a snarky reply. When none came, he decided to change the topic. "You know, you've come a long way," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Remember how much trouble you had lifting and carrying the logs when we started the shed?" Peter nodded. "You've gotten a lot stronger. I bet you couldn't have pushed this loaded wheelbarrow up the lane when we started."
"I can still barely do it," Peter griped.
"But you are doing it. It may be hard, but you can do it. See what I mean?"
"I guess so."
"Now that the shed is almost done, if you want to come and work out with me, that would be great."
"It would?" Peter asked in surprise.
"I told you that before, and I meant it. You're getting stronger, and you don't want to backslide now that you've made some progress."
"I suppose." Peter looked like he didn't know what he wanted to do. It would be easier to go back to being a couch potato, but he knew he felt better and had made progress. He should really keep at it.
"Why are you always so uncertain?" Patrick asked with a frown.
"Years of practice," Peter replied. They had reached the conjoined cottages. Peter dropped the handles of the wheelbarrow, taking a deep breath and stretching his arms. It was a relief to stop pushing the heavy load.
"Maybe it's time to start some new practices," Patrick advised as they started to unload the wheelbarrow.
Peter picked up an armload of wood and wondered if maybe Patrick was right.
The boys were quietly contemplating life as they picked up the last load of logs for the day then headed for the log cabin. John let the kids know that he would drive some logs to the meadow cottage. Peter was grateful that he wouldn’t have to push a heavy wheelbarrow through the meadow.
“Hello,” Patrick called out as they neared the side door of the cabin. Peter knocked on the thick wooden door.
“Hi, guys!” Ben greeted the boys with a pleasant smile. “What have you got there?”
“Leftover logs from the shed. Dad’s sharing them with everyone on the lane,” Patrick explained.
“That’s very nice of him.”
“Yeah, nice,” Peter grumbled. Ben gave him a look. “Sorry. Ignore me, I’m tired of pushing this wheelbarrow up and down the lane all day.” Ben laughed but gave the boys a sympathetic look.
“Are you done for the day?” Ben asked as he and Armand helped the boys unload the logs and stack them in the niche next to the fireplace.
“Yes,” the boys replied enthusiastically. Ben and Armand laughed.
“You guys deserve a reward,” Ben said as he gave Armand a poignant look. Armand nodded as he smiled brightly. “Clear it with your folks and we’ll cook you dinner. And we have ice cream from the general store for dessert,” Ben announced.
“All right!” Peter exclaimed, pumping the air with his fist. Patrick made a face. “What’s with the face?” Peter asked with sort of a half whisper and out of the corner of his mouth. Ben found it amusing since he was standing right there.
Patrick looked at Ben. “Um, Uncle Ben, are you going to cook real meat or that tofu stuff?” Patrick asked with his tongue buried in his cheek looking like his other more infamous uncle. Ben burst out laughing then clapped the boy on his back.
“I swear on my skillet pan,” Ben began as he raised one hand, “whatever we cook tonight would have been clucking, mooing, or blubbing at some point in its life!”
They all doubled over with laughter. When they sufficiently recovered, the boys ran toward their respective cottages for permission while Ben and Armand began preparing the skillet.
“Thank you so much for dinner,” Patrick politely stated at the end of the evening.
“Yeah, it was really good even if it was something that blubbed when it was alive,” Peter conceded. When he lived with his father, the closest Peter got to fish were frozen fish sticks. Debbie was slowly introducing new foods to Peter including seafood.
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Ben said as they walked the boys to the door. Before he closed the door, Ben proposed an idea. “Peter, I’ve noticed you’ve started putting on a little muscle. I have a decent home gym; you and Patrick are welcome at anytime to use it. I’d be happy to show you both the basics. Patrick, I’m sure your poppa remembers his exercise routines from college. Drew works out here as well. When he’s on the lane, he’d be a great resource.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ben!” Peter shouted out as Patrick yelled out the same.
The boys ran back to their cottages to asked permission.
“Wine?” Ben asked Armand as he held out a bottle.
“Please. I’ve never met such polite boys. In fact, all of the children I’ve met here on the lane are extremely well behaved. How do you all manage it?”
“Luck. Lots of love and a hell of a lot of patience,” Ben replied as he poured out a generous glass of wine for each of them.
“Dancing,” Armand said after a while.
“Dancing. Let’s go dancing.”
“All right but not tonight, I’m enjoying this wine a bit too much. Tomorrow night, I promise. I’ll take you to a nice little place called the Honey Bear. We’ll have a nice meal then dance the night away.”
“That sounds perfect,” Armand announced.
“Then a perfect evening we shall have,” Ben said as they clinked their glasses in a toast.
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