Trials and Tribulations
"Debbie, Debbie! Earth to Debbie!" Carl said as he sat across the table from his wife.
"Oh, yeah, what?"
"Where the hell were you? I was trying to tell that I'm going to shovel the walk after breakfast, but you were off in LaLaLand."
"Sorry," Debbie said shaking her head.
"So what were you thinking about?"
"Michael and Ben."
"I thought you felt better after seeing Ben last night," Carl said squeezing her hand.
"I did ... for a while."
"I got thinking about that stubborn son of mine. What if he doesn't go for counseling?"
"According to Ben he said he would."
"I know, but ... I also know my son. He can say one thing and do quite another. He hates to admit to being wrong."
"I think that's a trait he's going to have to get over if he wants Ben to stick around."
Debbie stared at her husband. "I know you're right," Debbie said with a sigh. "I don't know whether I should step in and make Michael go to see a counselor."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Carl said seriously.
"I am his mother, you know," Debbie retorted.
"I know that only too well, but he isn't likely to listen to you since he stormed out of here in a rage."
"Well, he'll come around," Debbie said uncertainly. Carl was probably right. She hadn't spoken to Michael since he left the lane.
"Remember a few minutes ago when you said Michael hates to admit he's wrong? He thinks you're wrong and he's right," Carl explained.
"It is shit, but stay out of that shit or you'll be covered in it," Carl warned.
Debbie squeezed her husband's hand wondering how things had got to this point. It was a fucking mess.
"I'm going to shovel the walk," Carl said standing up.
"Get Peter to help you. I don't want you having a heart attack."
"Thanks, I think. Peter!" Carl called as he started to put on his coat.
"So, are you going to speak to him?" Justin asked Brian as they sat at the breakfast table. The kids were back in school and things were returning to normal.
Brian made a face. "I don't want to interfere."
"I know you don't, but Michael can be so ... contrary."
"Contrary?" Brian asked in surprise. "Fucking stubborn as a mule."
Justin chuckled. "I didn't want to say that."
Brian frowned, obviously considering whether he should speak to Michael about going for therapy. Finally he said, "I could just as easily push him in the wrong direction, if I tell him to go for therapy. He doesn't like to be told what to do."
"And how's that working for him so far?" Justin asked knowingly.
Brian grunted. "I want to stay out of it."
"I understand that. And maybe you should. It's your decision."
"No more pressure to speak to him?" Brian asked with a raised eyebrow.
"I wasn't trying to pressure you," Justin said softly. "I know this has been weighing on you. I want you to have some peace with it."
"Wish I knew how to do that," Brian said with a sigh.
"You'll make the right decision," Justin said with a gentle smile.
"Wish I had your confidence."
"You have your own confidence," Justin said.
"Wish that were true about this mess."
Justin studied his husband wanting to help, but there was really nothing he could do.
Brian stood in the bedroom staring into the mirror. He still hadn't made a decision about what to do with Michael. Brian was not an indecisive person, but this was driving him crazy. He just didn't know what to do. Justin was prepping some canvases and that left Brian with nothing to distract him.
"I need to either piss or get off the pot," Brian said to himself. He was sick of this dithering. It was so unlike him. He started to run things through his head.
"Michael, I know you love Ben and deep down he loves you. But you are going to have to change a few things or you're going to lose him."
"I have to change? Why the fuck should I change? It's Ben who needs to get real. He should be here in Pittsburgh with me so we can work things out. He shouldn't be out there on your God forsaken lane."
"Well that went well," Brian said to himself as he practised what he might say to his old friend. Maybe a different tack would work.
"Michael, what would make you go to therapy?"
"I said I would go to therapy, and I will ... when I'm ready."
"And when might that be?"
"When I say so."
"Are you willing to discuss things honestly with someone else?" Brian asked trying to elicit a promise from Michael.
"What? You think I'm not honest? I'm the only one who knows what really goes on in Ben's and my relationship. You and everybody else know nothing."
"Even better result," Brian muttered to himself. There was no way he could think of to really get through to Michael and make him see how precarious his relationship with Ben really was.
Brian stared into the mirror wondering what other words he could possibly try. Then a thought occurred to him. He opened the lowest drawer of the dresser and rummaged around for a minute till he found what he was looking for. He took something out of the drawer that he hadn't touched in many years.
Brian donned his Rage mask. He didn't want to be Brian. He wasn't going to be Brian - best friend and loyal supporter. He needed to be Rage - enforcer, declarer, ruthless truth teller. He stared at his face now partially covered with the Rage mask.
"Mikey, I'm here to tell you to smarten the fuck up! If you don't wake up and start listening to Ben and everyone else, you are going to lose your husband."
"You don't know that," Michael retorted defiantly.
"I do know it, you little asshole. Everybody knows it, except you."
"I...I don't believe you," Michael stammered.
"Believe it! It's Armageddon for you and Ben. Do what he wants you to do, or you are screwed."
Michael would cross his arms on his chest and tell Brian to get the fuck out. There was no happy outcome that Brian could see to his interfering in their relationship. Brian pulled the mask off his face and placed it back in the drawer. He had always been proud to be the model for Rage, but at this moment he felt as helpless as JT in that first edition of the comic.
Maybe the answer was that he would simply have to stay out of it, and if that meant the end of Ben and Michael's marriage, then so be it.
Michael sat in his office at the comic book store all alone. JR had asked for the morning off. He surmised that she was enjoying her time with Jacqueline who had returned from Philadelphia. Why was everybody else happy, and not him?
Jacqueline went away for a few days and came back to her girlfriend. Ben went to Paris for weeks and didn't even have the decency to come and see his husband. Michael wiped a stray tear from his eye then pounded his fist on his desk.
"Why the hell are you not here, Ben?" Michael asked the gods. He couldn't fathom what was happening. Really he couldn't. He knew that he and Ben had been happy. They should still be happy. So what had happened?
For the first time Michael began to really examine what had happened between him and Ben. It had all begun with that fucking book that Ben wanted to write. It was a rehash of Brian and Justin's great love from the beginning to the end. That was not, however, how Ben described it. He always said that it was a story about their extended family, the one that had formed around Brian and Justin. Family? Michael didn't feel like he had a family anymore. He was so alone.
"Concentrate," Michael told himself.
He went back to the "great love story between Brian and Justin". That had always bugged the shit out of him. Why couldn't Ben write about the great love between Ben and Michael? Could it be possible that they didn't have such a great love? Michael had always believed that they did. And he had thought that Ben believed the same. But Brian and Justin were together, and he and Ben weren't. What did that mean? Could he have been wrong? He didn't like to be wrong.
Michael frowned. Everybody was on Ben's side, wanting Michael to do what Ben asked for. Why couldn't they be on Michael's side? Or maybe they were, Michael suddenly realized. They all said that they wanted Ben and him back together. Would it be as simple as going to therapy like Ben requested? Could it be that people were telling him the truth that he hadn't been able to see?
But that truth meant that he and Ben were far apart. Ben wanted to write and live on the lane. Michael wanted his store, his friends in Pittsburgh and his life in the city. But what would his life in the city be without Ben?
Michael looked back at the past weeks, critically for the first time. He had been so lonely, so isolated. Would his life continue like that if he lost Ben for good? He couldn't imagine never seeing and talking and making love with Ben? They hadn't made love in a long time. That should have told Michael that things were bad, but it hadn't. He had blamed it all on Ben and that damn book. Maybe he did have some responsibility in what happened.
How many times had Ben told him not to make social engagements without consulting him? And he had done it anyway. How many times had Ben asked him to spend time on the lane? The few times Michael had agreed to it, he hadn't really enjoyed it. He couldn't wait to get back to Pittsburgh and his real friends. But were they real friends? None of them had called or tried to help him. The people on the lane had at least tried. Maybe he wasn't looking at friends in the right way. How important were people who didn't have the time to even call? He wondered what the next dinner party would be like if Ben did leave him. They would all be sorry, he was sure. But what good was sorry? Would they even invite him when he was no longer part of a couple?
Michael rested his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes. Life was so unfair. What was he going to do?
It was late-February, Ben opened an encouraging email from his editor; his revisions were well received. He breathed a sigh of relief, finally feeling his life turning around, for the good.
He was a regular weekly guest at the conjoined cottages for dinner, and warmly welcomed for Sunday dinner at Debbie’s. He and Michael were speaking weekly. Michael shared that his counseling sessions were going well. Michael wasn’t seeing Alex but someone Alex had referred him to. Ben was ecstatic. He also checked in with Alex on a regular basis. Both Ben and Alex were pleased at his newly found contentment. Maybe he and Michael would be all right after all.
Life on the lane was beginning to thaw out. Mother Nature appeared to be currently taking pity on the North East, they hadn’t had a snowstorm for a couple weeks. Brian was itching to get outside to begin an early Spring clean up. However, John warned Brian how fickle Mother Nature could be and not to get his hopes up. Brian poured his creative energies into a new Kinnetik Rose campaign as well as a Perspectives campaign. Brian was happy, pacing in his attic office, pouring out pearls of wisdom via video conferencing.
Justin got his mojo back, not that he ever really lost it, but after all the prep work for Paris, Justin was seriously burnt out. Taking January off, more or less, paid off; Justin felt refreshed. He decided to concentrate on miniature portraits with simple subjects. This allowed the perfectionist in Justin to pay more attention to the little details rather than large and abstract. Instead of large canvases hanging from the rafters, there were dozens of tiny canvases littering the long table in the sun porch.
For the lane residents, John’s plow attachment to his Navigator was a blessing. He kept their lane and driveways clear. However, checking on the meadow cottage proved to be a puzzle for “the little grey cells.” The kids came up with an ingenious solution, a camera mounted on a drone. The big kids all had fun taking turns piloting the drone up over the snow covered fields toward the small cottage, circling then hovering over the cottage so that John could study the pictures looking for damage.
While the weather appeared to be cooperating, Drew and Emmett headed back to the reality of Pittsburgh. Brian and Justin were able to make a few visits as well. Brian made the rounds of all his local business concerns including the Tremont building. Justin went to stock up on art supplies and to visit the gallery. He was very happy to see the new exhibit of Sam’s work. And even happier to note that most of Sam’s work had been sold. Justin and Lindsay were both in agreement that perhaps the infamous artist would settle down enough to truly show off his artistic genius.
For a few weeks, JR was convinced that her Dad was getting better. He attended his weekly therapy appointments. His attitude changed, and he was fully engaged in the store. JR thought that maybe Zephyr would be the one to save Gayopolis. She began to breathe again.
“You’re kidding, right?” Brian asked his brother.
“Unfortunately, I’m not, it’s all on the news.”
“I’ve been in meetings all day. I haven’t been listening to the news,” Brian said from his desk at Kinnetik. “Do we have time to prepare?”
“It looks like we have a few days. I’m going to have my guys shutter up the empty cottages,” John replied. “The cabin has shutters and although they were meant to be decorative, they are functional.”
“And the thatched cottage?”
“It’ll be fine.”
“John, we have a lot of glass…”
“All rated to withstand a category five hurricane.”
“What do you want me and Justin to do?”
“I’ll email you a list of supplies. It would help if you can pick them up. You may have to go to a couple of stores.”
“Not a problem. Justin and I took both Jeeps, we’ll divide and conquer.”
“There’s a lot of stuff on the list,” John warned.
“No worries. Justin and I had planned to stay at the loft. We’ll get it all done and be home way before the storm hits,” Brian assured his brother.
“Okay, little bro, you promise me that you’ll be back here in two days.”
“I promise, big bro!” Brian said as he cut the connection. The words, “and I don’t lie” hung in the air, unsaid. He texted Justin then had Cynthia and Ted bring his Kinnetik family together for a meeting.
“Uncle Bri,” JR called out as she sprinted into Kinnetik which appeared to be in frantic mode.
“JR, what are you doing here? You should have closed up the store by now and secured the windows,” Brian said with concern.
“The store is fine. Uncle John’s men came and took care of it. I think he had teams working all over the city.”
“That’s my brother, an angel of mercy. Why aren’t you buying bread and milk and whatever other shit that people buy when they think Armageddon is about to happen.”
“Jacqueline took care of most of it. I have some more stuff in my car but I had to see you first.”
“What’s wrong?” Brian approached JR and she ran right into his arms. “JR, tell me what happened,” Brian said gently.
“He lied, he lied to everyone.”
“I don’t understand, what is he lying about?” As Brian asked the question, he had a sinking feeling forming in his stomach. Brian sat down on his office sofa. JR sat next to him. She took a deep breath, calming herself enough to speak.
“Something made me follow him. He would leave every Thursday afternoon at four to go to therapy. But…”
“Go on,” Brian encouraged.
“He was running a little late. I offered to drive him so he wouldn’t have to waste time looking for parking. But he ran out saying it was all good. I closed up then followed him. Uncle Bri, he went to Woody’s.”
“Maybe he needs a little “Dutch” courage to get through the sessions.”
“I thought so too so I waited. He was in there for over an hour. It was after five when he left to go home.”
“Maybe he got a call to cancel?” Brian asked with hope.
JR shook her head. “I went in. I know everyone in there so I asked. Uncle Bri, he’s never gone to therapy. He’s been going to Woody’s every Thursday afternoon.”
“Fucking hell,” Brian muttered. JR started to cry. As he snaked his arms around the young woman to give her his support, Brian Kinney came to a decision. “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” he growled.
“What?” JR asked through her sniffles.
“It’s time for the real Rage to get off his ass and get involved.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Make a hell of a lot of phone calls and suck up to a lot of people. Now go home, and batten down the hatches. Rage will fix this.”
“You know, you’re a real hero.”
“So I’ve been told. Now go home, keep warm and safe with that Amazon woman of yours.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” JR gave her uncle a salute and a loud kiss to his cheek before gathering up her things to go home.
“You are way too much like your grandmother for your own good,” he grumbled as he wiped lip gloss off his cheek then sat at his desk. He opened a drawer and took something out.
“Thank you!” JR called out with way too much glee. “Hey Uncle Justin, bye Uncle Justin,” Brian heard JR call out. Seconds later Justin entered Brian’s office.
“I have the last of the supplies in my Cherokee. If you’re ready, we should get on the road. The storm may be hitting earlier than expected. John’s been calling me every hour. Everyone is on the lane except us.”
“We have a bigger problem,” Brian began.
“What can be a bigger problem than the blizzard from hell?” Justin asked, eyes glaring and hands on hips. Brian filled him in. “Shit,” Justin exclaimed as he flopped onto the sofa.
“My sentiments exactly.”
“What do you have in mind?” Justin asked after a moment of contemplation. He could almost hear the wheels turning and grinding in Brian’s head. Brian gave Justin an evil grin as he donned a Rage mask. Justin returned the grin as he sauntered over and plopped himself onto Rage’s lap.
“Well, Rage, how are we going to save Gayopolis this time?”
“Are you up for it, JT?”
“I’m up. Are you up?”
“I’m always up.”
“What’s the plan?”
Brian gave Justin a searing kiss. When they came up for air, Brian hashed out his plan. The boys got on their phones and got to work.
“What do you want?” Michael snarled when he saw Brian at his doorstep.
“It’s cold out here, are you going to invite me in?”
“Come in.” Michael reluctantly allowed Brian inside.
“If you’ve come to lecture me about going to counseling, I don’t need it. I’m going to therapy.”
“So I’ve heard, but that’s not why I’m here.”
“Yeah, so why are you here?”
Brian walked further into the house which was usually clean and orderly. At the moment, it looked like a troop of raccoons ransacked the living room. He shuddered at the thought of the possible state of the bedroom.
“Michael, have you spoken to Debbie lately?” Brian asked solemnly.
“No and why are you asking me? You see her every day.”
“I don’t see her every day, Mikey, I do have to work and we’ve been busy keeping the lane clear of all this fucking snow. I just wanted to know if she told you how she was feeling.”
“I haven’t spoken to her since she threw me out.”
“But that was…” Brian was trying to get his head around the fact that Michael hadn’t spoken to his mother for almost two months. That had never happened before. “Michael, Deb hasn’t been feeling well. She may have pneumonia. I think a visit from her only son would do her a lot of good.” Brian was hoping his tone was caring but not overly so.
“Yes, she’s been in bed for the last week,” Brian fibbed. It wasn’t a total lie. Debbie has been taking a lot of naps, in bed, lately.
“In bed for a week?” Brian nodded. “And she asked for me?” Brian nodded again. Well, asking wasn’t quite right, more like demanding. The words she used were, “Bring that fucking little asshole to the lane kicking and screaming if you have to!” Brian’s ears were still ringing.
“But the weather.” Michael was panicking.
“Mikey, just pack a bag with really warm clothes and boots. I have my Jeep. We may be snowed in for a while but John’s been in charge of making sure we’re all packed to the gills with provisions.
“My mom asked for me?” Michael wasn’t thinking beyond his mother which was a good thing for Brian.
“Come on, Mikey, go pack while I straighten up around here. And make sure all the windows are closed!” Michael did what he was told as Brian gathered up the trash and dirty dishes, all along wishing he was wearing a haz-mat suit.
“Wake up Mikey, we’re here,” Brian said as he carefully wound his way down the driveway to the cabin.
“Where’s here? Hey, this isn’t Ma’s house!”
“No it isn’t. Didn’t I mention that Debbie got faint when she was visiting Ben so we thought it best to leave her here. It’s very cold.” Brian gave himself an exaggerated shake for emphasis.
“Oh, okay, I guess that makes sense,” Michael said as he opened the Jeep door. The frigid wind fought him for the door as if in agreement.
Gingerly Michael made his way to the door of the cabin. He felt he was on shaky ground in more ways than one. The sky darkened as the first flakes began to fall. Suddenly the door opened, and standing there with a frown on her face was his mother.
“Ma? I thought you were sick.”
“I am sick. I’m sick and tired of you two assholes acting like stubborn children. You’ve been separated for too long,” Deb declared. “Nothing can be solved when you’re not living in the same house. So we, the family, have decided you both needed an intervention.”
Michael scrubbed at his eyes. When he focused, there were a lot more people in the room. In the cabin living room, the permanent lane residents gathered.
“What’s going on?” Michael asked. Alex came forward. “How did you get here?” Michael asked.
“How we got here is irrelevant. It’s why we’re here, that’s important,” Alex stated.
“We?” Michael asked. Glen wheeled himself closer. “What the hell is going on here?” Michael shrieked.
As Alex calmly explained, the storm outside began to intensify. George and Rachel were the first to leave, bundling up against the cold wind to walk the short distance to their house at the top of the lane. Rachel gave Michael and Ben each a hug and kiss. Next to leave were Bobby and John; they both murmured encouraging words to Ben. John gave Michael’s shoulder a squeeze while Bobby gave him a gentle pat to his back.
“Brian,” John began. “We have to get the Jeep off the lane.” Brian handed John his keys.
“We’ll be home in a minute,” Brian promised. The only ones left were Brian, Justin, Carl, and Debbie.
“So what are you going to do, lock me up with Ben?” Michael half joked.
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do. After we leave, our doors will be locked and our windows have been shuttered closed against the wind,” Debbie explained further. “I love you, sweetheart, but it’s time to stop the bullshit. Glen and Alex are trapped here with you and will only interfere if you two are unable to speak civilly. They are to be treated and respected as friends and family,” Debbie further ordered.
“Babe, it’s time to go. I can barely see across the lane,” Carl said as he picked up Debbie’s coat.
“I love both of you so much and it’s breaking my heart to see you both hurting. But if you’re not willing to meet halfway then you leave us no choice,” Deb said as Carl helped her on with her coat. They both donned hats, gloves, and scarves. When they opened the door, the covered porch offered brief protection from the wind, very brief.
“Bri, we have to go with them. They won’t make it up the drive without help,” Justin observed as he grabbed their coats. Brian nodded. Then he turned to Ben.
“I’m sorry I gave you little warning, but after JR came to see me, I had no choice,” Brian said.
“I know and no matter how this turns out, I thank you for trying.” Ben and Brian hugged.
“Mikey, I love you. I always have and always will but you have to do this,” Brian said as he gently kissed his old friend.
“Call us if you need us,” Justin said to Alex and Glen. “We’ll come back and take you to our cottage.
“We’ll be fine,” Glen assured their friends.
Brian and Justin bundled up then scurried out the door to help Debbie and Carl. Once they were home safe, the boys began the fight against the wind. A blur of dark grey fur came from around the cottage. Beau Sr. barked out a few commands. With Beau leading the way, the boys were home safe and sound in no time.
“Do you think this is going to work?” Justin asked the cottage at large.
“I certainly hope it does. If not we’re in deep shit and I don’t mean the snow,” Bobby said.
“What do you mean, Poppa?” Patrick asked. Several pairs of eyes turned to Bobby.
“If this doesn’t work and Michael wants to get even, he could have us all arrested for kidnapping and false imprisonment,” Bobby explained.
The boys groaned and swore.
After a couple of days, the snow appeared to have no intention of letting up. The frigid wind continued to blow. Inside the cabin, despite the blazing fire in the fireplace, there was still a cold wind. So far, the only thing Ben and Michael could agree upon was dinner time. Alex felt this was progress; Glen, not so much. As they bedded down for the night, reviewing their lack of progress, they cuddled and listened to the raging storm outside. “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” Glen growled as Alex buried his head into Glen’s neck, then kissed his apologies up and down Glen’s body.
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