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by M. King
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Brett Derwent thinks he has life all planned out. With the freedom of college life just months away, Brett's eagerly awaiting some fun and independence? until he meets Tommy Hawks. Over the course of one northern Montana summer, an intense romance blooms between the young men, but Tommy has a painful secret--one that even first love can't mitigate. Continually brutalized by his violent father, Tommy is pushed to the edge, torn between the desire to protect his mother and four siblings, and his fear of losing the love he never expected to find. When the unthinkable happens and Tommy's father is found dead, Brett is afraid to learn the truth. Appalled to think that his lover may be responsible, Brett must face impossible questions: how much of his life--of his youth--is he willing to sacrifice for Tommy, and will having faith in him be enough?
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [348 KB]
Reading time: 215-301 min.
If there's one thing the Northwest does well, it's cold weather.
Halfway through the second week in January, the Montana winter had set in with teeth and claws of ice, and Brett Derwent was wondering why the hell he'd decided to take this job in the first place. Sure, he'd done the training, and "apprentice ski instructor" looked great on application forms, especially where it concerned kids' classes, youth leadership, and all that other total bull that colleges loved, but....
Right now, waiting on the lower slopes of Bear Paw Ski Bowl with a pack of twelve bored and fractious five- to seven-year-olds and windchill bringing the temperature to fourteen below, college applications just didn't seem like the best reason to be here. If Lisa, the certified instructor, didn't show up within the next ten minutes, Brett wasn't going to be responsible for his actions.
"I have to pee," one of the kids whined.
He sighed inwardly.
"There's a Porta-Potti behind the concession stand, Jenny."
The little girl screwed up her face in complaint.
"Unless you're not brave enough to go on your own," he said--a low blow, but he couldn't leave the group unsupervised.
"I am so!"
"All right, then. Take your buddy and don't be long, okay?"
"'K," she said reluctantly.
Brett smiled as she stuck one gloved hand in that of her friend, Shannon, and started off toward the stand. Bear Paw had nothing like the bustle and chaos of a big resort, so he could keep tabs on all of the kids without leaving any of them really unattended, but that wasn't the point. If Lisa didn't get here soon, a riot might break out.
Cussing her under his breath, Brett broke up a rapidly escalating snowball fight at the back of the group and got the kids started on some warm-up exercises and positional practice. At least teaching them through games made it easier to keep them occupied.
It wasn't the group's first class, and even the most junior novices knew how to play "pizza and chips," so, within a couple of minutes, Brett had the kids moving in parallels and practicing how to balance their weight without even realizing it. Sneaky education, he thought, still scanning the horizon for Lisa.
Her affair with Doug, the under-tens' advanced coach, might be common knowledge, but it wasn't really spoken about in town. Havre, like a lot of the Hi-Line area, tended to be about as accepting as a place can be without genuine tolerance; that is, you could get away with a lot, so long as you kept your business to yourself.
A lot, but by no means everything
Right now, Brett didn't give a damn about the sanctity or otherwise of Doug's marriage vows (or Lisa's, come to that), but he could do without her leaving him in charge of a class he wasn't yet fully certified to teach while she got her apres-ski in the back of Doug's truck.
He spotted her coming to join them just as Jenny trekked back from the concession stand. Lisa, tall, blonde and--if you liked that kind of thing--really very attractive, looked radiant. Glowing. Well-fucked, Brett thought irritably, which was more than some people got the opportunity for around here.
"Hey," he said as she gave him an exaggerated little wave.
"Hi, Brett. You started without me!"
"Just a few warm-ups," he said, resisting the urge to smack her in her expensive Dragon goggles.
"Well, it looks like you've done a great job. Okay, guys, those are great 'chips'.... We all ready to go ski?"
A ragged chorus of cheers sounded, and the lesson moved up to the bunny hill, with Lisa reminding the kids to keep doing their stretches and warm-ups on the ascent. The stuff, Brett realized, that he had already told them, though he wasn't about to say anything. His pay might be pretty paltry, but he got free time on the trails and, if he could stick it out 'til the end of March when the season closed, his college fund would really benefit.
Brett was looking forward to college. High school graduation already seemed like a lifetime ago, and over the past few months, he'd been watching most of his friends segue straight into jobs in town. Fine, but not what he had in mind. He had the grades, he had the ability, he knew, and now he almost had the cash. With luck, this fall he'd be off to Washington State.
Sure, the Montana State University-Northern campus lay right here in Havre, but that felt a little too close to home. Washington would be just far enough to be off the radar, and Brett couldn't help thinking of it as an application to life. He'd be leaving home, leaving Havre, leaving everything that made it hard to, well, come out. Not that he planned on throwing a pride parade the first minute he got onto campus. No way. It would just give him some time to meet new people, do new things, maybe even figure out exactly what he wanted out of life... which was totally different from knowing what he planned.
Brett planned to get into a good pre-med program, study hard, and be a doctor. He'd enjoy the challenge, he knew that. Helping people, making a difference. But wanting.... Whole different ball game, and a challenge he wasn't enjoying; it taunted and poked at him until he felt six inches high and stupid with it.
He knew, in a way, what he did want. Same as anyone: love, respect, friendship. Passion, in an ideal world. Sex wasn't a--okay, sex did present a problem. He preferred girls, mostly, to going solo, but they didn't excite him. He'd dated Lynsey Schaeder for two years straight, no pun intended, because the thought of not doing so, of having to run the dating gauntlet over and over, scared the crap out of him. She'd been convenient--no, honestly, they had both been convenient for each other--but Brett'd had to try hard to be hurt when, barely a week after the senior prom, she dumped him for some guy on the wrestling team.
He still missed the release Lynsey could give him, her warmth and humor, but she'd never really moved him despite the times he'd told her he loved her. Brett knew just what kind of bastard that made him, and he'd hated doing it though he'd been too scared not to. However, the way she looked at him, now that she had a guy who really made her light up, felt much worse. Every time Brett saw her--and they still moved in the same social circles, still turned up at the same parties--she looked so happy, but when her eyes turned to him, Lynsey got awkward. Not with embarrassment, it wasn't that. Even embarrassment would have been better than pity.
Brett figured she might as well chop off his dick and give it back to him in a box; it couldn't make him any less of a man. He'd faced up to the fact that girls didn't do it for him, but it stung to know he couldn't do it for them. Brett knew what he needed, what he wanted, but that didn't make it something he could translate to everyday life. The Treasure State might be big country, but the towns still acted pretty small.
Now, he supervised the kids off the lift, and Lisa lined them up, checking positions and talking to them in her broad, clear voice. He didn't want to be the gay kid. He didn't want to have to play all those games of acceptance and politics when, well, when he'd never even been with a guy in the first place. It felt... fraudulent.
Brett hunkered down, showing Jenny how to bend her knee without tightening up.
"Like you're sitting in a chair, not hanging on a trapeze," he said, and she laughed.
When she isn't being irritating, she's a good kid
Her left binding, joining her boot to the ski, squeaked a little.
"Did Lisa check this for you when you put your skis on?" he asked.
"And did your mommy rent the skis, or are these yours, Jenny?"
"They're mine. They used to be Sarah's, but they're mine now."
Brett nodded. Sarah, Jenny's older sister, had been consistently highly placed in downhill races for her age group, leaving Jenny justly proud of her. Sarah had nearly eight years on her sister, though, so that meant the bindings were at least--
"Brett? Is there a problem? We don't want to hold the class up when we're already running late."
And whose fault is that, Lisa
Brett straightened up and waved to her.
"Uh, Lisa? Has the DIN on Jenny's bindings been checked? I'm not sure that--"
"They're fine," she called, waving the next group of kids on. "Old, but fine. All right, that's very good, Kurt. Remember, big as a house, then small as a mouse on the end of the turn. And keep your elbows in! Okay!"
Jenny looked indignant. "They're not old!"
Brett patted her on the shoulder. "They're great," he said wearily. "But you be careful, all right?"
"Brett?" Lisa clapped her mitts together and pushed the next set of kids into action when she called to him. "Brett, could you just scoot down there and make sure we don't have any loose cannons at the bottom of the run, please? That's it, remember, everybody keeps together!"
"Sure. Uh. You might want to look at--"
"Okay, guys!" Lisa turned back to the class. "Keep it comin'!"
Brett pushed off and went to haul in the group of three boys who were already ranging over the slope. They might have energy to burn, but it would be nice if they managed to do it without wiping out any passersby.
He squinted up at the mountain through his goggles. There might even be time for a few runs to himself after the class. He liked the freedom and the tranquility of the slopes, especially on fresh powder. A nice way to relax after having to deal with Lisa, though the chance wasn't looking likely if World War Three broke out, the way it was threatening to do among the boys.
"Kurt! Quit that right now, or I swear I will tell your mother, and I know what she's like when she's angry."
The scuffling ceased, and pretty quickly. Kurt Anders, a small boy with strawberry-blond hair and very pale blue eyes, looked briefly terrified. No one, least of all Kurt, wanted to risk the wrath of his mother. Gina Anders--PTA queen and part-time desk officer at the Sheriff's department--knew the whole town's business and was popularly thought to have eyes in more than just the back of her head.
The lessons weren't long, only an hour and a half at most in consideration of the age of the kids and their beginners' ability level, and perhaps because of that Lisa let her attention slip. They'd neared the finish time, but she still had Jenny under her supervision at the top of the trail.
Brett heard her fall before he saw it.
The girl screamed and slid, out of control. Her left binding had pre-released, shooting the ski out from under her, and from where he stood, Brett could hear the crack as the board flew up behind and hit her helmet.
Gasps and tearful screams burst from some of the younger kids, and he was moving before he realized it. Jenny skidded on her stomach, her arms pulled up in front of her face, and though she wasn't sliding as fast as if she'd been traveling at real speed, she was still heading for a brush thicket. Brett got in between Jenny and the trees, stopping her from getting caught in the glade but landing heavily himself in a big, tangled wipeout.
There was a horrible, sickening crunch. Brett sat up in the snow, trying not to panic. Jenny started to cry loudly; more encouraging than the pale silence of a child who's really hurt herself. With a scrape on her cheek and a cut on her lip, she was clutching her left arm to her chest, but seemed to be all right. He'd broken her fall, at least.
Brett ran through the first-aid drill as Lisa came running with the medi-kit. After ten minutes or so, swabbed and patched, Jenny acted pretty brave about the whole ordeal.
"You saved my life," she told Brett very gravely.
He tried not to laugh at her pinched, white little face.
"Now you see why we ask everybody to wear helmets, right?" he said instead, smiling at her.
Though glad he'd been wearing one, he hadn't come out of the tumble completely unscathed. A mild throbbing pain plagued his ankle and one wrist, together with more bumps and bruises than he really needed. A deep scratch on his jaw stung in the cold. Brett took off his goggles to assess the damage and almost cussed at a huge crack that ran the length of the lens. That had been the crunch, then. Really sickening, given how much they cost.
"...and coulda smashed my head right open," Jenny was saying, with the ghoulish delight of small children. She was obviously feeling better.
"Ah-huh," Brett said absently, getting slowly to his feet. "You know, if you spill brains on the snow, they make you come back and clean it up."
Jenny gave him a disbelieving look, then grinned.
Brett glanced at Lisa. She was shepherding the kids through the collection of bags and rucksacks and looking rather nauseous. He felt kind of sorry for her--she hadn't listened, but accidents did happen--and so he went to talk to Jenny's parents when they turned up at the collection point.
"Brett saved my life!" she said again, and he groaned.
It wasn't at all true; her helmet and pads would have saved her from serious harm, but she could have been badly scared, and for a six-year-old, that would last longer than any cut or scrape. He said the same thing to her father, Mr. Jaeger, while Jenny's mother hugged her daughter. Mr. Jaeger shook his hand, and Brett caught a glimpse of Lisa giving him an evil stare as she put her gear in the back of her truck.
"Really, it's nothing to, uh... really. Uh. Bindings can release unexpectedly, and that's all that happened. It might be worth getting the settings tuned up. The sports store in town can do that for you. Actually," he added, tucking the busted goggles in his back pocket, "I'm heading down there now, so if you'd like me to drop the skis in, it's no problem. I'll give Mr. Klass your number."
The parents jumped at the offer, and Brett hoped they didn't think he'd suggested, however obliquely, that Jenny's accident had somehow been their fault. Equipment aged, kids got bigger, and DIN settings depended on the height and weight of the skier. Even a tiny little one like Jenny.
Lisa had already driven off by the time Brett loaded Jenny's skis and his own gear into his elderly, decrepit, and pug-ugly '88 Ford Bronco, but he figured that might be for the best.
* * * *
Brett parked as close to the sports store as he could. Havre's wide and desolate streets gave plenty of room for biting winds to swipe at unguarded flesh. He grabbed Jenny's skis and made a dash for the store through a vicious gust that chilled him with the burn of liquid nitrogen.
The door swung shut behind him, the electric bell above it announcing his presence with a brief, flat buzz.
"Cold one, huh?"
Brett looked over at the cash register. The guy behind it definitely wasn't Mr. Klass. Younger, for a start. A lot younger, probably no more than twenty. He wore his black shoulder-length hair loose, and his skin was coppery though not that dark. Brett guessed at him maybe being half-Indian, though more than that, he found it hard to tell. Havre lay close to the Chippewa-Cree Rocky Boy reservation, but the Gros Ventre/Assiniboine Fort Belknap rez wasn't far away either.
Whatever the guy's heritage, he'd gotten damn good genes. Dark, expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and a very, very sexy mouth.... Brett quickly pushed those thoughts right out of his head. He'd grown used to doing that years ago.
Look, but don't touch. And look away pretty damn quick too
Whatever you do, don't get caught
"Sure is," he said, and damn it because, but for the two of them, the store appeared to be completely empty.
Shit, this is going to be worse than trying to get through football season.
Brett knew by the law of averages that he wasn't the only one. He couldn't be. There had been nearly seven hundred students at his high school, and although not everybody who got called a queer or a dyke could possibly be one, there had never seemed to be any proof. Certainly not among his own friends, or in any kind of visible community. He guessed there must be people who came out... but he didn't know any. Nobody ever seemed to make a dramatic gesture out of it, anyway. Not if they were smart. Havre might have been the biggest town on the Hi-Line, but there wasn't a lot to do except bowl, go to the movies, or pick through other people's lives. So far, no one had moved Brett to take what he saw as that kind of risk. He preferred the comfortable cowardice of secrecy, he supposed.
He cleared his throat awkwardly.
"I, uh, I'm looking for Mr. Klass. Need a DIN check on a kid's bindings and some replacement lenses for a pair of Oakley Crowbars. HI yellow, if you have 'em."
The vision in hotness at the register smiled. An easy, broad smile. He reached up and tucked his hair behind his ear, leaving Brett's stomach in a confused knot.
"He's out for an hour or so, but I can take a look," the guy said. "Shouldn't take long."
"Sure. Uh, thanks."
Brett passed him the skis and the portion of Jenny's registration form with her height and weight on it. The ski classes required all the kids to hand over those details in case their settings needed checking. The guy took the skis and went through to slap them on the torque test machine, leaving Brett to occupy himself looking at the bindings and boots on the display shelf. Some sweet pieces of gear, but in the winter the stores always stocked up with new issues, trying to tempt him or--even better--the tourists into parting with some hard-earned cash.
"So, what? These your little sister's?"
Brett blinked. He hadn't been expecting the guy to carry on a conversation with him from in back, but he'd left the door open and he was looking out from around the machine, one of Jenny's skis located on the plate. The board creaked as the machine's gauge started to move.
"Uh, no. Student's," Brett said. "I'm shadowing the instructor on a beginners' class for kids. One of the girls took a tumble when the left one pre-released, so I thought... y'know."
The guy smiled that smile again.
"Man, this is a Marker binding. Don't need a machine to tell you it's gonna pre-release. Old one, too."
"Yeah." Brett chuckled. "Turns out they belonged to her older sister. I figured it's worth checking the setting, but I wasn't sure if the spring needs replacing. What d'you think?"
The guy made a few notes from the DIN chart taped to the torque tester.
"We-ell," he said as he came back to the counter, "they could do with a tweak, but you're right. The spring's worn. Could do with a new one, especially for a kid. Accident waiting to happen." He peered at the scratch on Brett's jaw and arched one thick eyebrow. "Or maybe already happened."
Brett half-raised his hand and smiled.
"Oh. Yeah.... She's fine, though. I thought I could help, just completely wiped out. Go figure, huh?"
That smile appeared again.
"No good deed goes unpunished," the guy agreed. "I'd do these for you now, only I'm supposed to wait for Mr. Klass so there's someone on the counter. Should have 'em done inside twenty-four hours, though, so maybe you could come back and pick 'em up? We're open for a couple hours tomorrow, or you could come by on Monday."
He tucked his hair behind his ear again, and Brett followed the action with his eyes. He had incredible hands, graced with long, slim fingers, yet they weren't at all feminine. His nails were short and blunt, one or two torn, and calluses marked his palms.
Slowly, Brett became aware that he'd been asked a question, but more than that, he felt the guy's dark brown eyes on him, trailing over him as if he liked what he saw. It couldn't just be his imagination, could it?
"Uh, sure. Monday's fine," he said and, blinking, he looked away.
What the hell are you doing? screamed a voice in his head. You idiot... he's checking you out. He is! Freakin' smile or something, moron
Brett stared at the faded linoleum floor and gave himself a good, hard mental kick.
"Okay. I can do the lenses for you now, though. Be right back."
Brett exhaled slowly and took another look at the rows of ski gear on the wall. He didn't mean for his eyes to slide sideways, but it wasn't really like he'd be checking out the guy's butt if he did happen to look. And he definitely wasn't disappointed that his fleece hung down so far. He focused on the kick-ass bindings on the second shelf instead.
"Anything you like?"
Brett nearly jumped out of his skin. The guy had reappeared at his elbow, mysterious as smoke. Brett's pulse thumped in his throat. He turned, taking a step away from him and almost bumping into the display. He put out a hand to catch himself, turning it into a dismissive gesture.
"Ah, you know... a lot. But I think I have a few extra hours to work first."
"I hear that."
"Yeah, it's the car, the college fund, and then the fun stuff. Kind of sucks, but...."
The guy leaned against the counter, legs out in front of him and hands resting on the wood behind him. A white crewneck peeked out from beneath his dark-blue fleece and a flash of brown skin beneath that. Ouch. The guy had shoulders, too. Serious ones. Not built, but clearly fit; broad where he ought to be, tapering down to slim hips and those long, long legs.
Brett tried not to let his gaze trail down his body, focusing instead on his face. Definitely not his neck. Hell, that's a nice neck
"If you really wanna torture yourself, we've got Atomic FFG 14s," he said, all golden skin over fluid muscles and a voice like dark chocolate. "14-DIN, high elasticity. Adjustable toe wings, movable AFD; you'll never wrench another knee again."
"Oh, God... how much?"
"Three eighty-nine," the guy said with a grin. "Or we got Rossignol Axial 2 140 Ti Pros, as per the World Cup circuit. You like freestyle, you'll love 'em. Forty percent stiffer heelpiece than the old design, so you lose less power and get a more responsive ski. Titanium springs, superwide brakes... and they're, like, indestructible. Of course, for $350, you'd hope so."
Brett shook his head. "I'd love to say you'd convinced me, but there's no way... looks like I have to learn to love my old Salomons."
That smile danced over the guy's face again.
"Forget it, I'm just practicing the hard sell. This is only my first week."
"You working the ski season?"
"Uh-huh." He nodded. "Weekends and two days a week 'til March. When I'm not here I work fittin' stone counters and worktops with a kitchen company in Burnham. It's a living," he added with a shrug. "So, college boy, huh?"
Brett grimaced. "Maybe. Hoping to get into Washington on a pre-med. Kinda starting to wonder if it's going to be worth the effort."
"Aw, it will. I'm Tommy, by the way."
He held out his hand. Brett shook it, and a strange, sad kind of smile crossed Tommy's face. Brett's gut flip-flopped, pulling him between panic and excitement for the briefest of seconds.
"Brett," he said, praying his voice wouldn't shake.
"Well," Tommy said, brandishing the cloth lens case he'd brought out from overstock, "Brett. One pair HI yellow Oakley Crossbar lenses. Guaranteed to slay all low-light conditions and a steal at $70."
Brett winced. "Ouch. Okay, and the torque check...?"
"Nah, that's on the house."
Tommy nodded, and Brett told himself sternly that he definitely wasn't staring at that little arrow of flesh at the base of his neck, which absolutely wasn't becoming more delicious by the second.
"No problem. Y'know, for a hero an' all, saving little kids from tragic mountain doom."
Brett groaned and handed over his card. "Oh, come on...!"
He would have said something more as Tommy ran the purchase through, but the electric bell buzzed, the door opened, and a family of weekend skiers entered, looking to rent equipment.
"There you go. I'll see you around, Brett," Tommy said, nodding at him as the weekenders clustered up to the counter.
"Yeah," Brett said lamely. "See you."
Brett would have liked to say his name in the same easy, familiar way that his own had tripped off Tommy's tongue, but somehow it just wouldn't come out of his mouth. He didn't know why. All the same, a stupid smile washed over his face as he stepped out into the street.
It didn't last long, because the wind blew in like a razor, and Brett dived back into the safety of the Bronco, cursing and reaching for the heater. It clicked and crackled like it normally did, eventually giving out a weak warmth only just better than nothing. Brett gripped the wheel and exhaled slowly.
What in the hell had that been about? He wasn't sure, other than the fact that Tommy had totally knocked him out. God. Talk about gorgeous. Had he really...? Brett buckled up and drove home slower than he needed to, thinking over the thousand-and-one things in his head. Most of them involved that sneaking little glimpse of Tommy's chest.
* * * *
Tommy Hawks sat in his 1980 Chevrolet pick-up, staring at the house. He'd parked a little way down, as usual, so the engine noise didn't disturb anyone, but he wanted to put off the moment when he'd have to get out and walk up to the door. He glanced at his watch. Nearly six o'clock and already getting colder. The heavy sky threatened more snow, and murky clouds coiled overhead.
Tommy sighed, got out of the truck, and hunched his shoulders against the wind. As he got closer to the front door, he heard the TV blaring. To his left, his father's gray Pontiac, parked crooked on the driveway, took up the space that usually held his mother's red Taurus. Tommy frowned.
He pulled the key from his pocket, let himself in, and stood for a moment in the dark hallway. The flickering blue reflections from the TV screen played on the faded wallpaper, a panel of light from the living room doorway cast across the brown carpet. Tommy wrinkled his nose at the smell of stale tobacco and beer.
He passed the stairs and went straight through into the kitchen. Everything seemed strangely quiet apart from the noise of the TV. It sounded like a wildlife documentary. Bears, maybe.
A large pile of dishes sat in the sink, though not as many as there'd been that morning. A chunky plastic magnet held a yellow notelet to the refrigerator.
All out to dinner, it read in his mother's writing.
Tommy rinsed out the dishes in the sink, set the tap to run to hot while he opened the fridge, and snagged himself a beer and the makings of a cold bacon-and-tomato sandwich.
While he was slicing the tomatoes, a noise in the doorway startled him. He quickly wiped the knife on his sleeve and slipped it back into the drawer.
Martin Hawks's voice rasped thick and low in his throat.
"Hey, Dad." Tommy turned around with the sandwich in his hand. "You hungry?"
Martin shook his head. A stain marred the collar of his wrinkled shirt, and his chin sported a couple of days' beard growth. His loose face, settled into sagging, uneven folds, spoke of an afternoon spent sleeping on the couch. His hair clung greasily to his cheekbones, and his bloodshot eyes followed Tommy uneasily, as if he was having a hard time making the world stop spinning.
"Ain't you workin'?"
Tommy bit into his sandwich. "I've been at work, Dad. It's after six."
"Where is she?"
Martin blinked and leaned a hand on the doorframe. He looked around the kitchen, then behind him into the hall. The last dirty, crumpled third of a home-rolled cigarette smoldered in his fingers. He took a pull on it, wincing at the smoke's acrid tang.
"Mom took the kids out to eat. You, uh, probably weren't feeling too good. You know how she likes to make sure their noise doesn't upset you, right? She left a note."
Tommy swallowed. Right now, he wished he had the sense to be somewhere else too. Just about anywhere would do. He wasn't hungry anymore, but he took another bite of his sandwich anyway.
Martin licked his lips. The stale beer-sweat-tobacco smell rolled off him as he shambled toward the counter. He picked up Tommy's beer and folded into one of the breakfast chairs.
"Upset," he muttered indistinctly. "Wouldn't be no upset if she didn't spoil 'em. Bring 'em up wi' no respect. You don't have respect, you don't have anything. Right, Tommy?"
"Right, Dad," Tommy said, chewing. "Respect."
His gaze flicked to the door, the hallway, and beyond that, what had once been known as the family room.
Martin belched. "Yeah. Hey, where you goin'? Sit down. Sit down and have a damn beer with me, kid. Come on. I'm your fuckin' father."
Tommy grabbed another beer from the fridge and sat down. Doing what Martin told him usually worked out easier, sooner or later. He ate the rest of his sandwich in silence, one hand picking at the label on his beer.
"S'like you," Martin said genially, pointing a little to Tommy's left. "That's why you couldn't hack workin' at the auto shop. No respect. Discipline. Not willing to... to, uh, sacrifice for anything. Y'only learn that through hard work. No wonder you crapped out."
Tommy's fingers tightened on the neck of the bottle, but he said nothing and raised the beer to his lips instead. He finished the sandwich and wiped his hand on his jeans.
"Not your fault," Martin said. "Y'mother never taught ya that. I know. Your mother--and I love her, God knows--but she ain't no kind of woman to teach a kid anythin' about self-control. Behavior. All her nerves and her headaches.... S'no wonder you grow up like you do. Like your brother. I mean, you're a spineless little cocksucker, but he...!"
Martin laughed wheezily, a tar-stained chuckle from the base of his chest.
"Remember how he used to be? Damn near piss'n in his pants 'fore he'd stand up for hisself."
Tommy stared at the table. Scott wasn't just his brother but his nonidentical twin. That meant something, and at any other time, Tommy would have said something in his defense, maybe risked the backhander that would go with it. But not now. He knew this rambling, shambling, amiable mood of his father's. It turned sour quicker than some of the others. And meaner. He took another swig of his beer. Martin was still smiling hazily, as if pleased with some clever joke he'd made, some piece of remembered pride.
"Always like that," he said. "All them whiny apologies. 'Sorry, Daddy....' I used to tell him--I told you, didn't I?--yeah. Sorry ain't gonna cut it. Sorry is... is a sign o' weakness. Day you can stand up and say 'Yeah, I was wrong', that's the day you're a man. Not when you just crawl about on your ass sayin' sorry."
Tommy finished his beer. He'd drunk it too fast, he knew that; he still felt the bubbles burning. He saw Scott bleeding. Sorry and bleeding. He hoped that this memory of his father's had been long-buried, not freshly burned. Maybe Scott had gone with their mother. A Big Mac with extra ketchup wasn't fry-bread tacos like Gramma used to make, but it had to be better than this.
Martin reached out and grabbed his arm. Tommy flinched. Their gazes met, and it seemed to Tommy that his father looked hurt. Hurt? What in the hell right did he have to that? Tommy stared back at him. They looked alike, he knew that, though he hoped he wouldn't end up drinking his way to the ravages that Martin had.
"Whassa matter with you? Jumpy little faggot." Martin lifted the bottle to his lips, gave another wheezy half-laugh, and patted Tommy's sleeve. "Nah. Nah... you're my boy, Tommy. You're a good kid."
Tommy looked away, brushing the ash off his sleeve, torn between the slimy hatred of this moment and the truth and the hope of it; that he loved his father and that, maybe, there might be good times again. It hurt. He stood up from the chair and stumbled a little.
"I'll... I'll get you another beer, Dad."
"Good boy," Martin muttered vaguely, slipping back into whatever moment had been occupying his mind.
Tommy stood the bottle on the table and left the kitchen, unable to be in there anymore. He took three or four steps into the hall, and his father's voice whipped him around the back of the head.
"Where ya fuckin' going now? I'm talking to you, Tommy! What--what's so goddamn important you always gotta be runnin' out on me, huh?" His chair rasped on the floor. "I say you could fuckin' go? No! So, what? You can't stand to spend five minutes with your own fuckin' father? Ungrateful little bastard!"
Tommy tensed. Martin's hand landed on his shoulder, spinning him around. Amazing just how fast he can move when he's drinking. The half-curled weight of Martin's hand cuffed the side of Tommy's head. Sure, he might look like he's fogged up so bad he ought to be holding onto the carpet to keep from falling off, but he can still swing. Another blow landed on his cheek, and his neck jerked as his head snapped round with the force of it.
They'd been of almost equal heights since Tommy's sixteenth summer, but Martin still had an inch or so and a good forty pounds on him. He wasn't a huge guy, but big enough to throw his weight around.
"C'mon. Where else you got to be, huh?" he demanded and pushed Tommy in the chest until he backed, hard, into the wall. "What's so fuckin' important?"
The burn of the cigarette, crushed out unheeded, zipped straight through Tommy's shirt and bit into the skin just below his collarbone. He winced.
"Sor-- no. Nothing. I--I don't have anywhere else to be, Dad."
"Damn right you don't!"
Tommy rubbed the sore spot on his head and waited for the air in front of his eyes to stop vibrating.
"I'm hungry. Where's your goddamn mother? I don't know what a man has to do to get somethin' to eat in this fuckin' house...."
"I got it. I'll make you something, Dad. Why don't you go and relax, huh?"
Martin looked at him, unfocused for a moment, then shambled off back to the couch and the TV, mumbling as he went. Tommy leaned against the wall, exhaled, then got out a skillet and started to make scrambled eggs.
He took the plate in to his father and left him eating while staring at some crappy cable game show, unsure if he was really watching it or not. From out front, the sound of a familiar engine hummed, and he slipped out of the side door in the kitchen just in time to see his mother's Taurus pull up.
He knelt and caught Lila as she barreled out of the car and into his arms. Since Katie's advent, Lila had moved up to being his biggest little sister, and in her winter woollies with her pink down jacket, stripy pink hat, and bright pink scarf, she looked like a shiny chokecherry. Tommy hugged her tight.
"Hey, Bear Bait."
"We had Big Macs!"
"Really? Cool. How many'd you eat? Four? Six? Did they have to close the kitchen? Get security to throw you out?"
She stuck out her tongue, and he bussed the top of her head.
"Go on inside. You be quiet, though. Daddy's not feeling too good."
He looked up and nodded wordlessly in reply to their mother. Mei got out of the Taurus with an armful of brown grocery bags. She handed them off to Tommy so she could undo the straps on Katie's booster seat.
"Robbie, don't just sit there; help your brother with the groceries."
Tommy's youngest brother sloped out of the back of the car.
"Hey, Robbie," Tommy tried, but the kid ignored him, traipsing past with his hands in his pockets and scowling at the ground.
Tommy looked at his mother as she straightened up, baby Katie on her hip. She glanced at him and shook her head.
"I don't know. Something at school, maybe. He's been difficult all day. The... the both of them."
Mei shrugged. "I don't know. Out. Probably with that girl he won't bring home."
"Did he and Dad--"
"Not so's you'd notice. Tommy, it's cold. Can we go inside? Please?"
He kicked the car door shut after her and followed on indoors with the groceries, lingering a little to look up at the moon. Pale light washed the snow, mud-streaked on the ground but bright on the trees and the roof. Further down the icy track, the scattered neighbors' houses lay under thick blankets of powder, glass-like crystals frosting their wire fences.
The sound of crockery smashing tore the air and, from inside the house, Katie's tiny lungs gave vent to an improbably loud wail.
"You see what you've done now?" Mei shouted as Tommy walked through the door and placed the groceries on the counter. "You happy?"
"Oh, an' what's this? More fucking money," Martin retorted, lunging at the bags Tommy had set down. "What the hell you buy all this for?"
"Well, that's the funny thing about food, Martin. You buy it, then you eat it, and then you have to buy more. Crazy, no?"
Martin rooted through the groceries, muttering about budgets and overspending. Tommy took in the shards of broken plate on the floor, the red flush in his mother's face, and decided it would be best if he took Katie upstairs. She squalled in Mei's arms, her cheeks balled up like little apples and her eyes screwed shut.
"Let me--" he started, reaching out.
The egg hit Tommy in the back of the neck, hard, but not as unpleasant as the wet, sticky, cold sensation of it dripping through his hair as it broke. He tensed for a moment, then took Katie, her pudgy fingers stretching to dandle in the mess as he carried her out of the room. Martin's laughter and Mei's litany of reproach continued as he climbed the stairs. The house wasn't large, and all the talk of moving or extending the property had stopped when Martin lost his last job with the construction firm in town.
Tommy paused to check in on Lila and Robbie, playing a video game in the back bedroom they shared. It wouldn't be long before something had to be figured out there; at nine, Robbie was already itching for his own space, while Lila, at seven, would soon reach the point where a curtain hung on an old broom handle between her and her brother's half of the room couldn't provide enough privacy.
He took Katie into the bathroom and set her down on the floor while he wiped the worst of the egg out of his hair. She gurgled inquisitively at him and tugged at his jeans, so Tommy made a goo-goo face and a silly noise for her, and she laughed.
It wasn't as if either he or Scott could move out. The room they shared would be useful, but not as much as the wages. Tommy flushed away the paper he'd used and picked Katie up.
"Yucky egg," he said seriously.
Katie wrinkled her small nose and poked him in the eye with one pink finger.
"Ow." Tommy seized the little starfish hand and blew against her palm. "C'mon. Let's get you changed."