Flash Fiction (4)

The Gift

by Heloise West

1.

The job was a glam-photo shoot for an uptight classical string trio—some peoples’ definition of sexy, but not mine. That is until he walked in and made the group a quartet.

“Sorrysorrysorry,” he panted. “It’s raining, and the train was late.”

“Hal, we have rehearsal in two hours,” the silver-haired leader griped. “You don’t plan very well, do you?”

“No, Dad, sorry, give me five, and I’ll be ready.” Hal glanced around with big espresso-dark eyes and set the double bass case down. His blond hair was damp, and the curls touched the edges of his open collar. My curiosity narrowed on the big hickey on his neck, bright red and fresh.

“Changing room is back there.” I pointed at the curtained area, and he nodded thanks with a brief smile. Well, it was hardly a smile, just an upward jump of one side of his luscious mouth. He glanced back at me once. When he disappeared, I felt as if the rain was pouring down on me.

“Earth to Saul,” Judy, my boss said. “Move your—” She glanced at our clients. “—self. The lighting needs to be adjusted.”

Is Hal naked yet? Wow, is it weird to think that with his father in the room?

I put down my coffee cup. “I’m on it.”

A movement at the curtain; Hal caught my eye and jerked his head at me.

“Be right there,” I told him.

“Oh, God, Hal, hurry, please.” His dad rolled his eyes to the ceiling as I pushed through the curtains.

Hal stood in the small room wearing only tuxedo pants and socks. His snowy white silk shirt hung on a hanger. He hurriedly combed his hair and stepped into black leather shoes. A scarlet cummerbund lay around his neck.

He whipped off the cummerbund and pointed to the hickey. “Is this going to show?” he whisper-hissed.

“You need a little cover-up. Hang on a minute.”

Relief made him smile, and his smile made me giddy. I managed to find the right skin tone for him. When he held out his hand for the tube, I shook my head.

“I’m the pro, let me do it. Then you won’t end up with the stuff all over your collar.”

I wanted to get close and touch him. I would have liked to have my camera on a timer with the two of us standing close together, a study in contrasts. Tall, blond, and tuxedoed against my Mediterranean, gauged, tattooed, and tie-dyed self.

I dabbed the stuff on the angry-looking welt while he vibrated with the need to get out there and please his father.

“All the good ones are taken,” I murmured.

“Sorry?”

“I said: all the good ones are taken.” I stepped back. “Or gay. Or both.”

“I’m not—” His eyes grew thoughtful. He smiled again. “Taken.”

2.

“I thought you were kidding,” Hal said.

“Oh, no, you did not,” I chided him. “They’re not exactly etchings, but they got you up here, at least.”

We stood in front of the photo wall of my studio apartment in Southie. I rented studio space and lived there, though we weren’t supposed to, but one or the other was all I could afford. Cameras and equipment were my biggest expense, and my job as Judy’s assistant never covered all my needs.

Hal gave me the hot intense look that always turned me into a stuttering, stammering idiot. It hit me as hard as one of Cupid’s arrows, though the little shit must have been using automatic weapons on me by now.

“W-wine?”

“Saul,” Hal took a deep breath. “Saulie, I came up here to be with you. What the hell’s the matter?”

I loved it when he cursed; it was rare, so it came from the heart.

Hal said, “We’ve had coffee, lunch, brunch, and dinner out, and long cold walks in the park. I like you, you know that, right?”

“Hal, I—” I had to clear my throat. Like wasn’t the word I would have used. “I don’t want to be another hickey on your neck. You get that, right?”

His expression changed, softened, and his brown eyes seemed to glow from within. Soul light. I saw it when he played and lost himself in the music. Or rather, found himself in the music. “Yeah, baby, I get that.”

3.

A Yankee Clipper howled outside the window. Hal radiated heat. I burrowed against him, and he made a welcoming sound.

“The storm keeping you awake?” I asked.

“No, well, yes, but I need to tell you. I left the group. I have to get a job.”

“What!” I sat up into frigid air, grabbed the afghan, and threw it around me.

“I want to explore music. I’m done with classical.” He sighed. “There’s an avant-garde group in New York City looking for a bassist. I would love that.”

I swallowed hard, glad it was pitch dark in the studio.

“Or the swing fusion band in Connecticut…”

“No work for an errant bassist in Boston?” I tried to laugh it off.

Hal sat up and put his arms around me. “I’ll keep looking. I need a job first, to get the money to travel to auditions. Dad’s pretty pissed at me right now, so I can’t ask him for anything.”

I had nothing but holes in my pockets, and he knew it.

4.

For the first time in two years, I had a Valentine to celebrate the day with. I found the most brilliant gift. Friends went out-of-town for their own celebration and lent us their place for the weekend. I had a real kitchen to cook in and made Hal’s favorite, eggplant parmesan, while we drank cheap Chianti. When dinner was done and the dishes washed, we looked each other in the eye and stars exploded inside me from sheer happiness.

“Presents?” He arched a golden eyebrow at me, and I kissed him, couldn’t help it.

We both grinned like loons as we retrieved our gifts and laid them on the kitchen table. It was a cozy spot, so we sat there with the candles lit.

“You first,” I said, anxious.

He unwrapped the box and lifted out the gift.

“Oh, my god, Saul.” His eyes filled with tears, a hand now over his mouth.

“Open plane ticket to New York City, round trip,” I burbled happily. “A gift certificate for a hotel you can use anytime, anyplace. I contacted some friends, who not only know one of the guys in that avant-garde group, but they talked to them, and they said they’d hold an audition space for you.”

“Saulie.” His voice was husky with emotion. “Open yours.”

I ripped at the gift paper, at a loss. He radiated both happiness and unhappiness as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I opened my gift. “Oh.” My heart sank. “The giant-ass HD lens I wanted.” Desperately, I had told him. “But, Hal, I—I—”

“Pawned your camera?” Hal nodded, tears spilling over, smiling like crazy again. “I pawned the bass.”

The End

 

Full Moon and Fireflies

by Heloise West

“Who’s that, Kev?” Brandie asked. We stood knee-deep in lake water. Rowboats and small sailboats, tied up at the little dock nearby, rocked in the gentle wake of swimmers cavorting in the sun-dappled water.

I glanced over my shoulder. A young man, about our age and wearing low-slung cut-offs, walked up the beach toward us. He’d wrapped a wet white T-shirt around his head. Water dripping onto his shoulders ran down his bare belly.

The cloudless midsummer day was hot. He was hotter.

I admired his long-limbed grace. “I don’t know him. Well, wait a minute, maybe I do?”

“Dibs,” Brandie breathed out in a soft yearning voice. “Oh, dibs, dibs, dibs.”

I knew exactly how she felt. “Only by default, kiddo.”

“No way. That man is a breeder’s joy,” Brandie said softly. “Come plumb my depths with your seed, darlin’.”

I snorted. “‘Come plumb?'”

“Plow? Plunder?” she whispered. “Throw me down in the sand and—”

The handsome stranger stopped and glanced back and forth between us. I wanted to put my tongue to the rivulets of water running down his skin. His sparkling blue-eyed gaze caught mine, and he grinned.

“Hey, Kevin, right?”

My heart cannonballed into my stomach. “Cricket?”

“Oh, my God, you’re Cricket?” Brandie nearly screamed.

“You’re all grown up,” I choked out, gripping the hand he held out to me.

Cricket smiled and squeezed my hand. “So are you.”

Cricket turned his attention to Brandie and held out his hand to her. “Brandie, right?” Kevin’s best friend?” His glance took in her black bikini and expensive gold jewelry gracing her from ears to toes. She’d grown from a goofy, leggy girl into a lovely woman with mocha skin and jet black hair from her East Indian father and a comfortable in her skin attitude from her mother. Brandie preened a little, playing with the solid gold bangles on her wrist.

Cricket unwrapped the shirt from his head and shook out damp dark chestnut curls, then combed his fingers through them. He rinsed out the shirt, wrung it out, and draped it across shoulders tanned to a rosy brown hue. He was a little taller than me, a little broader.

Brandie and Cricket would have had pretty babies.

But he was here for me.

The first boy I’d fallen for and who fell for me. My first kiss. We’d been so easy. So—natural.

The three of us splashed toward a small cove that harbored the bonfire crew, the beer kegs, and the food prep. Someone’s seafood restaurant dad had supplied us this year with lobster, clams to steam, and corn on the cob. We all pitched into shuck, man the boiling and steaming pots, and gather wood.

Above us loomed a large wooden cabin, now abandoned, part of our old summer camp. Years after the camp closed, some of us who lived nearby began to come out to the lake island for a week or two around the Fourth of July. A few years later word got around and those grown-up campers who lived farther away began to show for summer camp reunions.

I lived nearby, and I’d attended every one. This was the first time I’d seen Cricket here. We had a lively Facebook group, Camp Arrowhead Alumni, but I couldn’t recall seeing Cricket there, either.

There would be no more reunions in the future, at least not here—someone bought the island—rather, was in the process of buying it. I couldn’t imagine anyplace else—a backyard, a stretch of beach on the mainland, having the magical pull this beautiful place did.

Brandie left Cricket and me alone to have our private reunion sitting cross-legged in the sand, a pile of corn in bags before us. The sun was setting but left its heat on my face, arms, chest, and shoulders. I picked up an ear of corn and stripped the cool green husk from it, then dropped it into one of many of the big boiling pots.

“You live nearby?” Cricket had to speak first, as I was still stupefied he sat next to me, agile fingers stripping corncobs of their layers.

Me, next, my skin begged him.

“In town. It’s my first year teaching junior high. You?”

“I counsel at-risk youth in the city.”

“I wrote to you,” I blurted out. “Faithfully, God damn it. Then you didn’t come back to camp, and I never heard from you again.”

“My parents read our emails and wouldn’t let me have your letters after that. They didn’t want a gay son, so they blamed you.” He bent his head over the corn. “I was too young to leave home, so I let them.”

“I’m so sorry! But you could have told me later when you grew up?” I’d wanted to ask him why for years and the hurt returned as the layers of time stripped away between us.

His eyes sparkled. “And here we are, all grown up.” Cricket reached for another ear of corn. “My parents divorced, and my mother and I moved across the country, where she later remarried. By then you and I seemed like a midsummer dream.”

A full moon and fireflies had surrounded us when we kissed that first time. “I remember how we were. We hardly knew what we were doing, but I remember.” I ran the soft corn silk tuft through my fingers a moment. My heart had thundered like fireworks and my blood sparked beneath my skin. I’d yearned for him for three summers before finally getting up the guts to lean against him and put my lips to his, and he’d been waiting for me.

“We made each other crowns and garlands of wildflowers,” Crickets said softly. “I remember their scent when we rolled naked in the grass.”

I brushed against him now, shoulders and knees. “It was real to me then, and it’s real to me now.” Behind his head, a trio of fireflies arose, and I smiled as he leaned in to kiss me.

“Corn doesn’t shuck itself, lovebirds!” A dinner roll landed in my lap, and Brandie’s distinct giggle followed.

He said in my ear, “What do you do with your summers now?”

“I wait tables in a diner in town,” I answered. “Until my school loans are paid off, that is.”

“When my stepdad died, he left me—a lot of money. I want to start a camp, for kids, like Camp Arrowhead.”

“Wow, that’s— Jesus, that’d be amazing, Cricket.” Our time at camp wasn’t all sweet stolen kisses in the grass. There’d been something undeniably good and character-forming about our summers here. “It’s too bad someone’s already buying the island because—oh, shit, this—this is you?”

“Do you still remember how to start a fire without matches and find the best sticks for marshmallow roasts?” He kissed me.

The End

 

Dial L for Love

by Heloise West

“I wasn’t drunk,” Gray insisted. His editor’s office had a ground-level view of the February day as another storm battered the small town. “I’m being framed.”

Ellen rolled her eyes with a huff, taking up a stack of paper to straighten again. “It’s automatic termination. Gray, you know that.”

“I can take the damn bus to work,” he grumbled, sitting back.

“Having a car and a valid license is mandatory to the job.” She wouldn’t look at him.

“I was supposed to meet my informant in that dive. I had one beer.” That he could remember.

“You were driving over the speed limit when they stopped you,” she replied. “When the tox screen comes back, we can revisit the situation.”

His brain tried to penetrate the fog enveloping him two nights ago. “Someone put something in my beer.”

“And the cop who stopped you?”

“Sure, that’s what they said. I’m investigating a bunch of dirty cops in a dirty town, why wouldn’t they try to get me off the story by causing me to lose my job?” Do not say conspiracy, Gray.

“And your informant?”

“I don’t recall meeting him, but he told the investigating cops I was slurring at the bar. So did the bartender.”

“Then why did he serve you?”

“It’s not that kind of place, El.” Gray ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “You know me.”

“Oh, Jesus,” she said. “You think I don’t want to believe you? It will be my job to terminate you. At least I can move you to office staff until you get it straightened out.”

Answering phones and re-writing obituaries, great.

 Gray grimaced and stood, went to the door, and glanced out at the small news office. “Seven years down the tubes because of a bunch of dirty cops.” He looked back at her. “You put me onto that rumor.”

She dropped her head into her hands. “Aw, Gray.”

“Because you knew I’d find the story and not let go. I can still find the story, and if I do, I can prove to you I’ve been framed.”

Ellen popped her fists on the desk. “What the hell are you thinking? If you really believe you’ve been framed to get you off the story, what do you think they’ll do next to keep you off it permanently?”

“You want me to give my notes to someone else?” He was a possessive bastard, and it hurt like hell to ask her the question.

“It’s not worth losing your life, and I’m not pushing for the story anymore.” She stood with an air of decisiveness, a small, plain-looking woman with fire in her eye.

“Does this mean we only do the safe stories from now on? I’m really starting to hate this town.”

She gave a reluctant nod. “What does Mark say about all this?”

His partner of three years, the love of his life, was a cop. “He said there’s an internal investigation but it’s slow going.”

She grimaced. “I meant about losing your driver’s license.”

And my damn job.

Gray laughed without humor. “He’ll be happy. He’s been asking me to back off.”

“You haven’t told him yet?”

“Mark took a quick trip home, an emergency with his dad. But he promised to be back tonight for our anniversary.”

“Aw, that’s so cute. Valentine’s Day—I mean,” she smirked at his glare. “For a couple of hardasses like you and Mark.”

“I moved in on Valentine’s Day.” Hallmark gimmick or not, at least it gave them the chance to make room in their schedules to be ridiculously romantic with each other.

*

When Gray let himself into their apartment, arms full of roses and dark chocolate, his heart was lighter simply because Mark’s car sat in the lot below. He felt safer, too. He laid the roses and packages on the counter dividing the kitchen and dining area, laughing at another dozen roses already sitting in a vase. The shower was running down the hall, small suitcase on the bed, so Gray unpacked for him, which only meant shoving everything into the hamper. He worked through the pockets of Mark’s jeans and removed an empty pill bottle.

He glanced at the label before he put the bottle in his shirt pocket to remind Mark to get the prescription refilled. Prescription sleeping pills? The job was getting tougher, apparently.

Wishing the shower was big enough for both of them, he knocked softly on the bathroom door and called out his name.

“Open the wine!” Mark called back.

Gray went back to the kitchen to the fridge. Shelled shrimp and fat white scallops marinated in garlic in a bowl. He removed the brie to soften and located the corkscrew for the French Chardonnay. He poured a glass for both of them and sipped until Mark finished in the bathroom. He emerged from a fragrant cloud of citrus mint and steam dressed in jeans and a navy T-shirt. Gray almost spilled his wine when Mark rushed him for a tight hug.

“God, I’m glad to see you.” Mark pulled back.

Gray searched his face. He looked so worried. “Did you already hear?”

“What’s in your pocket?” Playfully Mark grabbed out the prescription bottle. “Oh, my God, Gray!” He appeared horrified, stepping back from him as he reached for a wine glass. Mark gulped at it until the glass was empty, still gripping the bottle and not looking at Gray.

“Mark?”

A few moments passed and Mark appeared calmer, though his handsome face was still flushed an ugly red. “Did I already hear what?”

Gray looked from the pill bottle clutched in his hand to the guilty expression on his face. He drained the rest of his wine, too, as fear began to shift in his belly.

Not Mark. It can’t be Mark. He wouldn’t…he’s not one of those dirty cops…please God, not Mark.

“I got an OUI,” Gray said. “I lost my job.”

“You did?” Mark sounded hopeful but confused. “When did this happen?”

“The night I was supposed to meet my informant for the story on the cops. I remember going to the bar and having one beer, but even that’s vague. I remember you left to go to your dad’s.” It was hard, but he thought back. “You made my favorite protein drink and left it for me. I drank the whole damn thing. I texted you for help, apparently, but I don’t remember.”

“I know, I…” Mark was half Italian and half Irish; it was hard for him to hide—anything unless he was wearing his stone-cold cop face. Gray’s paranoia about conspiracies fell away at the miserable expression on his lover’s face.

“I love you,” he said. “I’m sorry about the OUI. I only wanted to keep you away from the informant and safe at home because I was worried, and the thing with my dad really was an emergency. I couldn’t be here for you. I thought you’d just go to sleep.” Now he was pale and shaking. “I don’t want to lose you. But I’d rather lose you because of this, than because they hurt you.”

Gray almost laughed. Almost. “Mark, I’m allergic to those damn pills. I have sleep behaviors if I take them. No wonder I can’t remember drinking and driving. I really was asleep!”

The End

 

Fife and Drum

by Heloise West

Jonathon Locke jogged down the middle of the lane between the tents. Row upon row of gently billowing white canvas met his eye. He pulled the sweat-soaked linen cravat away from the skin of his throat. The breezes made the leaves in the trees dance, dappling him with bright spots of sun. The wool of his uniform, despite the layer of linen beneath, pressed against his skin in an uncomfortably close embrace.

From afar he’d heard the drum roll calling the units together before the battle—he hated to be late, but there’d been a long and lingering goodbye to see him off. He grinned. The cravat hid more than the tender portions of his neck. Anxiety struck him as he ran onto the green where the Fife and Drum corps practiced the music to accompany the march to the battlefield and stir them on to engage the enemy. At the moment, they sounded like strangling birds. It was all in play, for he knew them to be tuneful and joyful when the moment came

Here it was midsummer, and they’d finally gathered again to join the fighting. Whatever the outcome, he had to do well. Eyes were upon him. Loving eyes, but Jonathon Locke must come through today.

The thought almost made him break into a run. He came to a stop and adjusted his spectacles when they began to slide down his nose.

Running his finger along the inside of the linen material to pull it away from his throat again, he resisted the urge to rip it off. Every stitch made with love. Jonathon re-shouldered the musket as he stood with the others in the shade of ancient oaks and maple, the sun blazing beyond the green canopy as they waited for the call to action. Some talked softly, anxiously, and others swaggered and postured and passed comment on what punishment they’d mete out to the lobsterbacks if they caught them. Tar-and-feathering was popular. The smell of wood smoke, rum, and tobacco surrounded him, comforted him, and drove him nearer to the heart of why he was here in the bug-infested woods at noon dressed in wool, a French Charleville over his shoulder. He double-double checked the twists of powder in his shot bag, brushed invisible dirt from his white linen breeches, and adjusted the brown with a red trim regimental coat at the sleeves and shoulder, though the fit was perfect and authentic.

His heart pounded with excitement as the sergeant ordered them to line up for inspection. Jonathon glanced past the military hustle—the cannon and fusiliers, the Fife and Drum Corps, the other units drilling and drilling on the green. Beyond them, tourists gathered to watch the battle. Jonathon strained to catch a glimpse of the dear and familiar face. He began to worry something had happened to the man he was growing to love, and the boy, his son, he had yet to meet. The holiday traffic would be dense around the battle site— he’d run into the beginnings of it trying to get here. Had Brian changed his mind, decided Jonathan’s abiding passion was too violent for his young son? For Brian himself? Not many understood his love of history went so deep, he acted the part of a man who’d once lived and breathed the battle they were about to re-enact. A tailor named Jonathon Locke who had survived this battle and many others. This connection to history, to Locke, and his story had become so deeply ingrained in him, he was Locke, and Locke was him. At least at this moment and during the long hours he’d spent bent over the table stitching his period clothing by hand, so immersed in ruminations about daily life in colonial America, a fire flickered on the hearth at the corner of his eye, waiting for the return of a loved one.

Some of his students were here, drawn by his stories and curiosity, and he’d endured their teasing about “going native.” It wasn’t the first time he’d heard this.

After his wife, Robin Locke, died in childbirth leaving Jonathon a son to bring him constant regret at her passing, his journals mentioned a friendship with a Scots-Indian man, a scout for the Continental army. An abiding friendship, Locke had written, ardent, one lasting through the long New England winters, short and poignant summers, the years of the war, and the aftermath. Leaving and coming home again. The diary was in poor shape—water stained, worn, and whole pages missing. He hoped for other volumes, and if this one survived the centuries, might others as well?

“….woolgathering, Jones?”

“Ye-no, sergeant. My apologies.”

“Yer gaiter’s unbuckled.”

“I’m sure it is, sir.” He didn’t look down. He’d only fallen for the joke once, and it wasn’t in the script, just a little cornball to ease the tension.

“Here they come!”

The drums roared to life as the British troops marched in perfect formation onto the green. The commanders shouted the documented lines at one another, as they did every year. The battle commenced, and he was Locke again, rushing into the noise and crush of battle.

*

John limped back to his tent—he’d slipped on the grass after the battle and landed hard on his left knee. For the rest of the day, workshops every hour, covering all aspects of colonial military life, went on. Once he sat in his camp chair, he’d be sewing and talking about his life as Jonathon Locke.  Brian and his son were supposed to meet him here, but when he arrived, only his drama students sat chatting, excited about the battle. They’d set up his tent and handled his equipment with familiar hands. A rack of handmade clothing was on display. He could’ve taken a place on Sutler Lane, selling clothing and taking orders, but this wasn’t Jonathon Locke. He was both soldier and tailor, and his journal mentioned helping to stitch men back together, too.

Where were Brian and Jeff?

Two small families arrived for the workshop, and he began talking, answering their questions as Jonathon would, never breaking character. He often dreamed of Jonathon and Rory Mac Gillivray, especially during the war season.

Brian must think I’m crazy. Obsessed with two men who might or might not have been lovers during the Revolutionary War. That’s why he wasn’t here. Brian gave him a sweet sendoff this morning, but it was obvious his thoughts were elsewhere. Maybe it was his son, yet maybe it was how to say goodbye. Brian the former marine must think all this a stupid and expensive game. It might be, but for a gay drama teacher with a primary document like the diary, it was all the more poignant that marriage equality was the law of the land now. At the last minute, he’d embroidered a rainbow heart into the tail of his regimental coat, as loving colonial wives had to remind their soldier husbands of their affection.

“Professor, wake up! He’s here!” Jane whispered as she gave him a poke in the back. She sometimes played Robin Locke. “You are so lucky.”

“Ror—Brian! Where have you—oh my God, you did it!”

Brian had outfitted both himself and his son in tricorn hats and somewhat ratty brown fringed suede jackets. Boy and man had a swath of plaid around their hips, just as Rory Mac Gillivray had worn. The fake Indian beads added to the somewhat appalling and touching ensembles. His little boy was beaming at him, Brian in miniature. John jumped up to hug Brian, who whispered in his ear, “I want to be your Rory, Jonathon.”

He couldn’t wait to begin stitching their lives together.

The End