The space beside me was empty when I awoke the next morning. I hurriedly got dressed and ran downstairs.
I found him in the studio, surveying the damage.
I could still smell the acrid stink of burning gasoline and scorched wood where the fire had been put out. It turned out to be a badly designed Molotov cocktail. I held up the empty whiskey bottle and met Charlie's troubled gaze.
"If they'd had a single clue about what they were doing this place would have been an inferno."
He took the bottle from me and tossed it in the trash. "Yeah, well, but they didn't have a clue, did they?"
"And maybe they're capable of learning."
He nodded tiredly and briefly met my eyes before letting them skate away again. "You're right. Which is why I think you should leave, Ty. They'll crawl back into the woodwork if they think you're gone."
"Leave?" I growled. "Leave you alone here? I don't think so."
"Yes, leave. Today."
"And what if that doesn't stop them?" I cried. "What if they decide you make a better target -- all alone out here. What then?"
"I'll call the cops if you go," he said.
"You won't call them if I'm here, but if I promise to leave you will?" I couldn't believe what he was saying. "That's blackmail."
"Actually I think it's extortion," he said wearily. "Please, Ty."
In the end I was forced to agree. I would catch the afternoon flight back to Toronto. I didn't have to like it, but at least I knew he would be bringing the police in to deal with the attempted arson.
He was on the phone to them when I left to go pack. As I drove back towards the highway that would take me to the airport I passed a sheriff's cruiser heading toward his place. I couldn't be sure but I swear the cop inside watched me with cold eyes as I drove away from the scene of the crime.
I got back to my place to find a message from Charlie.
"The police will be watching the place. I gave them the description of the kid in the drug store and they'll look into it. Everything is fine, Ty."
"Liar," I muttered as I deleted the message.
I climbed to the third floor and checked in on my aquarium. All was well with my fishy roommates. I thawed some bloodworms for them then tried to decide if I was hungry myself.
I cracked a beer open, thinking maybe the alcohol would help relax me but it only seemed to make me antsier. I turned on the TV and tried to watch that for a while but couldn't concentrate.
When the phone rang I snatched it up and barked, "Yes?"
Michael's startled voice on the other end deflated me. "Ty? What the devil is going on? Where have you been?"
I rubbed the bridge of my nose tiredly while I told him everything.
"I'll be right over."
When I tried to protest he told me to shut up. I did. Michael in this mood was not something I was used to.
He showed up thirty minutes later with Donny in tow. Michael hugged me and made me sit at the kitchen table where he poured me another beer and made me go over again what had happened in Gatlinburg.
"And you're sure he called the police like he said?"
"I saw them arriving. But whether they'll do anything is another story."
"It always is, isn't it?" Michael said grimly. Donny nodded. "If it was anybody but Charlie I'd call the damned media, see if I could get them interested in a hate crime piece - local red necks harass artist. After Matthew Sheperd there's a growing sensitivity to hate crimes against gays. No one wants to be accused of looking the other way."
"You can't do that," I said, aghast. "How would Charlie react if reporters started coming around asking him about his gayness? He'd freak."
"That's what I mean about anybody but Charlie." Michael sighed. "So we just wait to see if anything happens."
"You're fucking cheery, aren't you," I snapped. Then I bit my lip. "Sorry. I didn't mean that."
"We're here for you, Ty. Aren't we, Donny?"
"Yes, all the way, man."
"Thanks, guys. That means a lot." I slumped in my chair, my beer bottle cradled in both hands. I raised it to my mouth and drank half.
"Do you want us to stay?" Donny asked, trading looks with Michael. "Ty?"
"No, that's okay. Charlie's probably right, the assholes that did this will crawl back into their holes -- Charlie's a local boy. And famous. It won't look good for them to hassle a local guy who made it good."
"Yeah, it'd bring too much heat down on them." Michael stood up. "Well, if you're sure..."
"I am. Thanks, Michael. Donny."
"Just be sure to call us if anything else happens. I mean it, Ty."
I saw them out and made my way back to the third floor. I crawled into bed, knowing it was going to be a long time before I got to sleep.
I forced myself to go back to the project site the next day. They acted like they'd been expecting me and we fell right back into our routine.
Excellent progress had been made and when I charted it out we were still bang on schedule. The shack had been razed and was now home to a planted patch of dogwood. The area by the willow had been carefully cleaned up by hand and several wild grasses looked to be taking root nicely.
I oversaw the planting of several trilliums, the provincial flower and a protected species. I also saw to it that nearly a dozen yellow lady-slippers, a rare native plant were placed where they would do well.
In one of the furthest corners of the fifty acre lot a bulldozer cleared a site for a the mature trees we were bringing in at the beginning of next week.
All in all a very productive day. So why did I feel like shit when I climbed out of my truck and trudged into the house?
Simple. Because Charlie wasn't there.
And I didn't know if he ever would be again.
I knew Charlie was going through some heavy shit right now. It couldn't be easy, gay in a small town that probably had an uneasy alliance with anyone different. His fame no doubt helped him. People tolerated a lot more from famous people. Look at Michael Jackson.
I'll be the first to admit I have no idea what it's like being from a small town. I grew up in Mississauga and later moved to Toronto, with a single stint out east in Halifax and a few extended trips to Vancouver. All big cities, with thriving gay communities that gave a lot of support and had a certain degree of political clout.
On the other hand Michael had come from some hick town in the prairies and according to Michael they hadn't had a clue how to deal with him. In the end they hadn't had to, since he'd packed up and left when he was all of fourteen. I'd never gotten a clear report from him of what he had done for the next few years, but I had the feeling it wasn't pretty. He wouldn't talk about it and I'd never had the balls to press him. I don't know if I'm the coward for not pressing him or he is, for not sharing.
Charlie hadn't had to hustle on the streets to survive but he had been taken advantage of by a trusted figure and in my book that's abuse, even if the victim isn't underage. He was still vulnerable.
No family support because he hadn't been able to come out to them. Nobody was there for Charlie Reid. Until now.
I loved him. And his happiness meant more to me than my own, but what he was doing to us, to himself wasn't going to make him or anyone else happy. If he asked me I would keep his secret. But I also knew I couldn't live that kind of lie. I wasn't able to sneak around, skulking at back doors so no one would see me or suspect what I was doing. If I loved someone I wanted them with me. By my side. My partner. And not ashamed of the fact.
Charlie didn't seem to be able to offer me that.
We were at a stalemate.
I hoped he kept seeing his counselor. She'd helped him a lot so far, as far as I could see. Maybe she could help him with this. If he let her. But if he opted to crawl back into his hole because it was safer, would he ever make it back out again?
The next few weeks passed in an uneasy blur. I got a lot of work done, throwing myself into it with a cold zeal that fooled most people. I got more than one report from Thurlow about how impressed he was at the progress we were making and at my dedicated professionalism. That and a toonie buys you a Starbucks.
Maybe I ought to take a vacation after this was over. If the project came in on schedule and on budget, which was looking good, I was due a large bonus which Thurlow had negotiated as the incentive part of my contract. With that I could take that trip to Great Britain I'd been thinking about for years. I wanted to have a first hand look at those famous English gardens and maybe look up some Irish ancestors on a side trip to the Emerald Isle.
Anything would be better than sitting around here alone, moping over lost chances.
Back in my callow youth I probably would have gone out and found some young twink to bunny fuck just to prove the problem wasn't mine. The thought didn't appeal to me at all. (I won't lie and say I didn't think about it) Instead I drove down to the clinic and got an HIV tested. Horray for the age of enlightenment.
When the test came back negative I filed the knowledge away in my box of things to show Charlie whenever he came back. I refused to think if ever. I guess the fact that I even compiled a list shows I'm the eternal optimist. I simply couldn't see a life that never included Charlie again, so I kept telling myself, 'well wait until I show him this, or 'wait until he sees that'. From callow youth to middle-age fool. My how we grow.
Summer ended and fall kicked in. I started seeing blurs of red and gold in the masses of green I passed everyday on the drive north. The evenings got chilly now and just as I did every year around this time I thought of having the fireplace cleaned out and readied for use. It would be fun to sit in front of a blazing fire and drink brandy. Jesus, what a picture. Next thing you know I'll be buying a smoking jacket and a hunting dog to sit with me.
I wonder what Tennessee is like this time of year?
I called. Several times I confess. Sometimes he answered, sometimes he didn't. Even when he did he wasn't really there. He'd tell me he was fine. The paintings were nearly done. Thurlow would be pleased.
"Fuck Thurlow," I told him once. "I want to know about you, Charlie. How are you? Talk to me."
Fine, was all he ever said. He was doing just fine.
In September all the rain we hadn't had all summer came down on us like a pile-driver. Roads flooded and storm drains refused to handle the overload. Up in Lynx Woods the first test of my design was earlier than I had hoped. Would the newly applied soil hold? Would the plants that were in place to help prevent floods and washouts do their job, or would they be washed away in a ruinous cloud of silt?
I drove the Landrover through the battering winds and rain to see first hand if my career was going to single handedly go down the toilet along with all that expensive landscaping. I plowed through a road instantly transformed into viscous mud, bouncing and sending sheets of slime hurtling up over the truck's once white exterior. I couldn't see more than a few meters in front of me, so when I rounded the last bend that took me into Lynx Woods I couldn't tell if anything still stood.
Maybe the whole enchilada had washed away.
Then I caught a break in the driving rain and the first thing I saw was the willow, its golden fronds whipping in the gale force winds, its top bent down in supplication. Lightning flared overheard and shortly afterward I heard the rumble of thunder. Then I caught a glimpse of the river, its normally placid surface whipped into wild turbulence by wind and rain. It sucked at the river bank and tried to drag the land into its watery embrace.
But the land held. Everywhere I looked the land and the trees and other plantings that had so painstakingly been selected and put in the ground were still there. Withstanding the worst the weather gods could throw at them. Vindicated, I threw the Landrover into reverse and bumped my way back out onto the road. I knew my design had been sound, but it's always nice to be proven right. I roared back down the bumpy gravel road, between swaying trees humming something tuneless to the musical thunder of rain on the roof. The windshield wipers clacked away, sweeping torrents of water out of the way only to be inundated again. I was glad this road saw almost zero traffic. I'd hate to be competing with other vehicles with the visibility as bad as it was.
Lightning flared flashbulb bright, followed closely by a thunderous roar so loud I was instantly deafened. I barely heard the crack of wood but never saw the tree that came down in my path. The Landrover slammed into it head on, slewed sideways and slammed into it again. My head connected with the wheel then again with the side window. Light and pain slammed simultaneously through me, followed instantly by a welcoming numbness. Darkness offered relief and I embraced it, sliding down into unconsciousness.
My last conscious thought was: Charlie.
[More to come]
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