Kaden sucked on his right thumb and tasted blood. The angry scratch came courtesy of a rusty nail sticking out from the eaves of the barn where he was working. He had been trying to remove some of the rotting timber for some long overdue repair. Unfortunately, it looked like the old boards were not leaving without a fight.
Kaden had been trying to remove one particularly difficult two-by-four with the claw of a hammer when his thumb brushed across the nail in question. He barely felt it at the time, but a few seconds later, the twinges of pain made themselves known. That would teach him to do repairs and renovations without a pair of gloves.READ MORE
As he sat down on a bale of hay, Kaden looked around the old barn. It belonged to his old college friend, Simon, who had bought the place about three months ago through a public auction. The farmer who had owned the ten acres of land had apparently passed away five years earlier, and there were no children or other relatives willing to keep up the place. As a result, the county had seized the land through the in-rem process and put out a notice in the local newspaper that the land was available for the cost of the back taxes. Sixteen thousand dollars later, Simon had the little country home of his dreams.
That was the easy part. Now came the work to fix up the place. Simon had decent carpentry skills, but it wasn’t a task that could be accomplished alone. Interestingly, Simon’s pleas for help came at a time when Kaden needed to get away from it all—literally.
Kaden was an English teacher at a high school in Wausau, Wisconsin. He worked more than sixty hours a week for a salary that barely kept a roof over his head in an institution where many of the other teachers had seemed to have given up on many of its students. He had kept up a feverish pace for eight years, but the work had taken its toll, and it seemed like he was losing more students than he was saving. On top of that, his work had consumed him to the point where he rarely kept in contact with others in the outside world. “Break” was not in Kaden’s vocabulary, but he figured he’d have plenty of time to learn when Simon suggested he come out and visit for the summer. Normally, Kaden spent his summers working in a used book store to keep a paycheck coming in, but the planets seemed to align, and he agreed to join Simon for almost three months of semi-solitude.
At first, Kaden had planned to get himself a part-time job to earn his keep, but Simon would hear nothing of it. A break was exactly what this was supposed to be, and that meant Kaden needed to relax, enjoy himself, and pursue the hobbies that had eluded him for so long. All Kaden was required to do was help with the renovation work. Although the finer points of construction had never been part of his coursework in college, Kaden agreed.
Kaden stepped outside the barn and felt the golden rays of sunshine warm his skin. It was getting close to sunset, and the gigantic daystar turned some gray clouds into morphing shapes of yellow and orange. Contrasting with the green grass in the field, it made for a beautiful scene. It was serene, peaceful. There were no expectations, no deadlines, no demands for success, no retribution for failure. Eight years in a major Wisconsin city had dulled Kaden’s appreciation for the country, but the memories on why he liked the simple life all came rushing back as soon as he set foot on Simon’s farm.
The farm was quiet. A few birds flew around, chirping their siren songs, and the wind gently brushed the leaves of the trees, but otherwise, there was silence. Kaden wiped the sweat from his brow as he sat in the field and stared toward the west. It looked like a summer storm was on the way, judging from the dark clouds forming on the horizon, but it would likely arrive after night fell. Kaden knew he’d made the right choice to come to this gentle piece of down home country. He only wished that it didn’t have to come to an end in August. An English teacher becoming a simple farmer—stranger things had happened.
After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, Kaden walked back into the barn. He glanced over at one of the walls in an empty horse stall. On it was a carving of a heart, and inside was the inscription “A.B. +” without a second set of initials. It was as if the love-struck person had suddenly lost interest.
“Why are you bleeding on my barn floor?”
Kaden jumped at the voice. He turned to see Simon standing in his bright blue security guard uniform with dark pants that had a red stripe down the side.
“What makes you think I’m bleeding?” Kaden asked with as innocent of an expression as he could muster.
Simon pointed down to the floor. Several crimson droplets were bubbling on the hardwood but quickly drying up. Kaden had completely forgotten he was bleeding.
Simon raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to need a tetanus shot, are you?”
“Got a booster for tetanus last year. A Band-Aid would be nice, though.”
“Come in the house, and we’ll get you taken care of. Try not to stain my brand new kitchen tile, though. That was a bitch to install, and I don’t want anything ruining it.”
Kaden stuck out his tongue in reaction to his friend’s dry sense of humor. The two of them had always used sarcasm, insults and humor in their interactions, always trying to one up each other. It wasn’t the easiest of friendships, but Simon was one of the few people that Kaden still conversed with on a regular basis. Most of his other friends were not on the schedule.
A cool breeze struck Kaden right between the eyes as he stepped through the back door of the farmhouse. It was worlds of difference from the warm air he had been exposed to outside, but it was soothing in its own right.
Simon disappeared to search for the Band-Aid, and Kaden sat on a stool next to the kitchen island. In spite of the nasty accident with the nail, Kaden had accomplished quite a bit. There were only a few broken and rotten boards that still needed to be removed, and then Kaden and Simon would be able to replace them with new timber, followed by a few good coats of paint.
There was a knock at the back door, and in stepped a dark-eyed waif with streaks of blue in her hair, holding two pizza boxes and a plate of wings. Rings were in three holes in her ears and one in her nose. She had faux diamond studs in both ears and her belly button. A tribal tattoo adorned her left shoulder, and her lips were colored jet black.
“Dinner time! We have one three-meat special and one supreme with three dozen of the hottest habanera wings ever crafted by Wittenberg’s gay-friendly booze establishment.”
“Is that Piper?” Simon called from the other end of the house.
“Either that, or her particular style is contagious and has afflicted some poor girl who used to wear only prairie dresses,” Kaden said with a sly glance in Piper’s direction.
Piper flipped Kaden the bird with her free hand. “You’re a comedian. You know that?”
“Better than having Morticia Addams as my idol.”
Piper scowled. “Elton John’s bottom boy.”
“Bride of Beetlejuice.”
“All right, fag and hag. Retract your claws,” Simon said as he returned with the Band-Aid and slapped it on the counter next to Kaden. “This is supposed to be a relaxing Friday night, and the last thing I want to do is choke on my laughter when one of you executes a real zinger.”
Piper made a face as she glanced at Kaden. “Dad’s home.”
Piper and Simon had met a few years ago during a gay pride festival in Wausau. Kaden usually had a bunch of work the same weekend as the festival, so he and Piper had never actually met until a few days ago when he’d relocated to Wittenberg. Kaden and Piper had hit it off instantly, both of them having a passing interest in all things mystical and paranormal.
“So after this, do you guys want to cruise to the Indigo Outpost for a drink?” Piper asked with a mouthful of pizza. “After a couple of good shots, we won’t even notice the karaoke singers sound like a pack of howler monkeys.”
Kaden shook his head. “Girl, you just spent eight hours serving up wings and Cosmopolitans there, and now you want to go back during your down time? People say I’m obsessed.”
“You are obsessed,” Simon said as he used his slice of pizza to point at Kaden. “How many times did you go out to a bar in Wausau in the last couple of years? Every time I called, you were at the school. Grading papers, directing the school play, after school tutoring. If there had been extracurricular activities at that place at midnight, you would have been there as a faculty advisor. You didn’t even have time for any one-night stands. That’s just plain pitiful.”
“Yes, I admit. I was pitiful. I was obsessed. That is why I can detect it in others. It’s like gay-dar for obsession.”
Piper glanced at Simon. “He’s going to be one of those fun drunks, isn’t he?”
Simon gave a sly smile. “Well, I don’t want to be talking out of school, but I remember one Friday night in college when you got up on top of the bar and started singing that song by The Waitresses, ‘I Know What Boys Like.’ It was like witnessing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on acid.”
Kaden could feel himself turning several shades of red. “It wasn’t too bad until people wanted to stick dollar bills down my pants. I felt like I should have been touring with the Chippendales.”
Despite the embarrassment, he had to admit Simon had a point. He was so busy saving others that he was losing himself. This getaway was perfect for him to reevaluate his priorities. Kaden still planned to go back to teaching in the fall, but he probably would not be putting in sixteen-hour days like before.
“I have to admit,” Simon said as he pulled a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, “it’s really nice seeing you smile again, Kaden. You seem less stressed than you did the night you crashed onto my doorstep.”
“It helps not having a never-ending to-do list that grows to five times its normal size between sunrise and sunset. I even debated doing nothing tomorrow but lying in your hammock.”
“Go for it. This is supposed to be a vacation for you, so the last thing you should be doing is anything even remotely strenuous. Who knows? Tonight you might go out, find a well-built townie, bring him back and wreck him like the S.S. Minnow.”
Kaden smiled as he swallowed a bite of the three-meat pizza. “He’ll just think he’s here for a three-hour tour.”
Piper shook her head. “Kaden, don’t go letting Simon be a bad influence on you. Just remember, you don’t have to do every single thing Simon says.”
Simon folded his arms. “Simon says shut the hell up!”
Piper put Simon in a headlock, and they staggered across the kitchen. Kaden watched the scene unfold with a grin on his face. The interaction with friends was one of the things he missed while being the obsessed teacher. There were a number of people Kaden had been close to in high school and college that he hadn’t contacted in recent years. He used to be a freewheeling individual that gave noogies, tackled friends and sat up until three in the morning talking about everything from the political to the nonsensical, with just a dab of gossip for added flavor. Now he was a hermit of sorts.
The last significant relationship Kaden had with a guy was four years ago, and that only lasted three months before the guy got tired of being put off, stood up and kicked aside for Kaden’s career. Kaden eventually took his profile off the Internet dating sites because he didn’t even have the time to reply to the guys who expressed an interest. Things had to change.
“Ow! Uncle! Uncle!” Simon winced in pain.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Piper said in a singsong voice. “You didn’t say ‘Simon says.’”
“Really? I didn’t?” Piper tightened her hold, making Simon yell, “Okay! Okay! Simon says! Simon says!”
Simon took in a deep breath as Piper released, and he stumbled back against the sink. Piper did a victory lap around the kitchen, imitating a cheering crowd as she circled the perimeter.
Kaden grinned. He loved it. “Wow, Simon. You got your ass kicked by a girl,” he said as he hopped on a stool and spun around a couple of times.
Simon made a face but did not say anything. As the three of them sat down again to eat, the kitchen glowed a deep crimson as the sun was settling down beyond the horizon. A cuckoo clock in the kitchen announced it was nine o’clock. That was one thing you could count on with Wisconsin summers—no shortage of daylight.
“Do you guys know if there are any bookstores around here?” Kaden asked, breaking the ominous silence that had drifted over their meal like a fog in London.
Piper shook her head. “Closest bookstore, besides back in your neck of the woods in Wausau, would be Shawano. Sorry. We have plenty of art studios, bakeries and floral shops, if that makes you feel any better.”
Simon pointed decisively at Kaden. “You’re not trying to get yourself a job, are you?”
“No, but I’d like to peruse the books, see if there is anything to help me wile away the hot afternoons here in the country.”
“First a hammock and now a good book. There may be hope for you after all.”
Kaden nodded and finished off the last slice of pizza. “Being a gentleman of leisure might actually agree with me. I don’t know why I didn’t slow my ass down years ago.”
“Because you obsess, my friend. You get into something, and you want to keep improving and refining until you wake up one morning and find that the finely sculpted life you were trying to create had turned into an oozing cesspool that looks nothing like your ideal fantasy.”
Kaden and Piper stopped eating—Piper with a bite of pizza in mid-chew—and looked at each other like aliens had come and replaced their friend with some shape-shifting impostor.
“Dude,” Kaden said, “where did you come up with something so articulate?”
“You’re not the only one with a brain, bitch.”
Kaden held up a finger for emphasis. “Mmm. Now he’s back.”
“My point is you have this addictive personality. You see something you like, and you want more of it. You liked helping people, and you wanted to do it more and more. You’re not flippin’ Superman, dude. Even God had a day of rest.”
“Okay, I get it. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. You don’t have to worry, though. This is going to be one of the most relaxing summers I’ve ever had. I will go back to Wausau looking like a new man and not like a…”
Kaden rolled his eyes. “Why are we friends again?”
“Because we couldn’t find anyone else to go out with us to the gay bars.”
“That’s a load of crap and you know it.”
“Simon says shut the hell up to you, too!”
Piper stood up. “Tell you what. Why don’t you two go change clothes so we can go out and have a night of fun? I, for one, am eager to see whether we all go home with somebody.”
Kaden held up a beer bottle. “Now there’s a goal I can drink to!” He took a swig and excused himself to change clothes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone out on the town, much less when he’d done it with friends.
Kaden scanned his closet to see what jumped out at him. It was a wave of frumpy teacher clothes—cardigan sweaters and dress shirts and dark slacks. Sweet strawberry wine, when did my fashion sense go from Kmart to the 700 Club? He needed a new wardrobe. That was definitely a goal for the summer.COLLAPSE