A BIG storm had blown through the night before. Jason Brewster had lain in his bed listening to it as it went from a distant rumbling to loud rolling booms that shook the house and the windows in their panes. But he'd loved storms since childhood, when his father had explained that if you counted the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder, you knew how many miles away the storm was. As an adult, Jason wasn't sure if that was true, but the idea had delighted him as a kid.
He'd decided not to research it to see if it was true or not despite the fact that he was a research kind of guy. Why mess with a fun childhood belief? Did it matter if it was true or not?
But even better were his mother's stories that storms were caused by ancient gods like Thor and Indra and Lei Gong and Taranis, and of course Zeus and Jupiter (who, wow, were the same god with two different names!). She said all the booming and shaking and flashing were the gods kicking up a fuss because they were angry that people didn't worship them anymore or believe in them or even remember who they were.
"I know who they are!" cried Jason Evander Brewster, who was named after not one, but two mythological heroes. He knew it too. Because hey! He'd looked the names up in the library where his mother worked. She'd told him tales--he wanted more. Looking things up was fun!
"And that's why you'll never be struck by lightning," she promised, and he would smile and go to sleep peacefully on even the stormiest of nights. Not just because he'd taken enough interest in finding out about the ancient gods--she told him they loved him for it--but also because he'd read articles on the odds of being struck by lightning, and it was pretty darned unlikely. One in 700,000 in the US in any one year. Pretty darned good odds!
"You are such a nerd," said his twin sister, Daphne, who was also named from mythology. "Who even looks stuff like that up?"
He decided not to be upset by what she said. Maybe he was a nerd. But then he was sleeping at night, and a thunderstorm could send her running for their parents' room.
Their mother's name was Iris, and she was named after the goddess of the rainbow because her mother loved the old stories as well and had been the one to pass on that love to her daughter.
Some people in town swore Grandma had been a witch, and the idea that she could have been was just one more delightful "what-if?" in Jason's life. What if she was? He didn't know. He had almost no memories of her, as she had died when he was very little. And Mother! Why even though she went to the little United Methodist Church every single Sunday without fail, she didn't have a single picture of Jesus, not one cross or crucifix, in the house. There were, however, little statues of Jupiter and Juno and Diana on her bureau. They were the only things in the house he and Daphne weren't allowed to touch growing up, especially the coins and flowers and candy or cookies or even bread she left there before them. Once in a while, she even left a glass of her honey mead.
This only fueled their childhood imaginations all the more.
"What if Mother is really a dryad?" Jason might wonder aloud while alone with Daphne by the creek behind their house, or late, late at night under the covers with a flashlight.
"Or a naiad!" Daphne might suggest.
"Nah. A dryad," Jason would argue. "She loves the woods but doesn't like swimming so much."
"What if that's because she would turn back into a nymph if she got in the water?" Daphne would counter.
"What if Daddy is really a satyr?" Jason asked, eyes widening at even the slightest possibility that such a thing could possibly be true.
Ideas like that would cause them to dissolve into giggling fits, for it was one thing to picture their mother as some kind of earthen spirit, but it was another to imagine their father, delightful as he was, as a drunken lustful woodland god.
Although he and Mommy did like to make honey mead, and sometimes they'd drink it and get giggly themselves and look at each other the way he and his sister looked at the big jars of candy or the triple sundaes at the soda shop in town. This made Jason and Daphne cackle all the more.
"Ohhh...! I've got a good one! What if Daddy isn't our daddy! What if Zeus appeared to Mommy as a silver swan or a shower of gold and he's our real father?"
The idea that they, two skinny little kids from Buckman, Missouri, might be the children of the king of the gods--like Amphion and Zethos--was quite marvelous and enchanting. But it also made them feel guilty because they loved their father and didn't really want to belong to anyone else. Not even a god.
They liked the idea far more that there were miracles, because that is what their mother called them. "My little miracles." Because they had come late in her life. In fact her doctor told her that she most likely would never have children. "So we never used protection," she would tell them, although it wasn't until they got a little older that they figured out what that meant. "And I prayed. Prayed for a miracle. And Diana gave me two!"
It was with pleasant memories like these that Jason had slipped off to sleep the night before as the storm began to distance itself. He'd slept like a baby. The morning broke on a gloriously sunny spring day. Daphne called him as he came downstairs to start the coffee (the one thing everyone would want) to let him know that one of the big trees in the park, one of the really big ones that had been around when their grandparents were kids, had fallen in the storm.
"Oh... that's too bad," he said and tried to imagine the sight, because he couldn't jump in his car and check himself. He had The Briar Patch to open. Which is why she'd called him with the news.
"But at least it was the one on the southwest corner," she replied.
The one the kids couldn't climb because it had a sheer trunk, and its lowest branches were a good ten feet off the ground.
"I'm so glad it wasn't the Giving Tree," Jason said, referring to the tree the two of them had named because it had given generations of children so much fun, with its wide-reaching low branches that any kid could climb. And after the book by Shel Silverstein, which their mother had read to them countless times and which they both loved so much. He still did, and in fact he had an autographed copy sitting on a shelf he'd found on eBay and built into the headboard of his bed.
Oh, his mother loved books. She'd been a head librarian her entire life, until she finally stepped down from the position only last year at Father's urging. He wanted to travel. Of course, that didn't mean she wasn't at the library all the time anyway. She couldn't stay away. And she passed her love of books on to her children. Dad loved books as well. And thus, The Briar Patch, Jason's part used bookstore and part diner--serving breakfast and lunch six days a week.
Reading and cooking were two of Jason's greatest pleasures.
Cooking! Every kind of omelet imaginable, along with breakfast burritos and fruit-filled pancakes and biscuits and gravy (his Grandma Higgs had taught him how to make them) and chicken salad sandwiches (totally from scratch) as well as tuna salad (he used canned for that) and patty melts and Reubens to die for. And that was only his standard fare. At least once a week he'd fry up a couple of chickens (Daddy's mother taught Jason her version, which was better than Grandma Higgs's, although he would never tell his mother that) or a big pot of stew or make a big roast with all the trimmings. Sometimes he'd experiment and try something new by searching for recipes on the internet. A cute guy named Todd he knew in high school had shown him that cyberspace held a rich collection of recipes. Funny that he knew you could use the internet to find out how to blow the dust from his laptop's cooling fans and that Febris was the goddess with the power to cause or prevent fevers, but he hadn't thought to use it for recipes before then. But he hadn't realized he liked cooking before then either.
He envied Todd sometimes. When his buddy had gone to seek fame and fortune in Kansas City, Jason stayed behind with the internet. Todd was helping manage a big-deal restaurant called Izar's Jatetxea, while Jason's fame in Buckman was his quiche. He found he was really good at it, although baking sweets, for some reason, eluded him. Especially pies and cakes. He could never figure out why his ham 'n' cheese quiche and his Tex-Mex quiche and even his pear and Roquefort cheese quiche always turned out perfect, but his pumpkin pies ended up soupy or solid or rubbery. Not to mention his lemon meringue.
Which is why the fresh pies he served were made by Wilda Chandler, a family friend.
But of course even greater than his fondness for cooking was his love of books. He loved to read. Anything and everything.
Fantasy because of those god stories with which his mother had filled his childhood ears. And of course J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. And only slightly less loved were The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The Deryni series of novels by Katherine Kurtz, The Belgariad by David Eddings, and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
Then there was science fiction. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series, nearly anything by Ray Bradbury or Connie Willis.
So many authors! Guy de Maupassant, Barbara Kingsolver, W. Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier, and O. Henry. Mark Twain.
So many books! The Stand. Charlotte's Web and The Color Purple. The Handmaid's Tale and The Joy Luck Club. Eagle of the Ninth and Maurice.
The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren had changed his life. His mother had fought tooth and nail to get the book in the library. He started reading it for that reason and had been stunned to see it was the love story of gay men. It was the book that gave him the courage to come out, first to his sister and then his parents--none of whom had been surprised.
"Oh come on," Daphne had said, rolling her eyes. "I'm your twin. You think you could keep that from me? You think I hadn't figured that out? I knew that before I knew you were a nerd."
"Then why didn't you say anything?"
"Silly! Because I thought you had figured out that I had figured it out!"
So many wonderful, wondrous books. Between his mother's stories and his lifelong collection of books, oh, how his imagination soared!
Well, there were actually three things he loved. Because he also loved getting people to read.
Which was why he loved The Briar Patch.
"Don't you think opening a bookstore in Buckman is a little iffy?" Daphne had asked when he'd told her what he'd decided to do with the house their great-aunt had left them. "It isn't like our fellow citizens are very literary."
He'd shrugged. "If I'm going to live here, then I better do something I enjoy."
"No buts," he cried, holding up a hand. "My mind is made up!"
"You are such a nerd," she said, laughing.
"Like you haven't already established that!" he said, joining in.
He was lucky his nerdhood hadn't made him any enemies in school. No friends, but no one who hated him. No bully to pick on him or throw the books he always carried into a mud puddle. No dreaded wedgies.
But no friends. Daphne was in fact his best friend. Of course, in a graduating class as small as theirs, there wasn't a whole lot of choice. But his love of books hadn't made him the guy everyone wanted to hang out with.
And then there was writing. He'd found a driving need to tell his own tales of passion and adventure. He'd even had a couple of his gay romances published through a company called New Visions Press. How shocked and stunned he'd been when he sold that first novel only a few weeks after submitting it. The second novel had even done well on Amazon. Gail Southgate, the owner and executive director of the publishing company, had even written him recently and asked when he might be writing them something else.
It was a happy-sigh moment.
So that was four.
Cooking, Reading. Getting other people to read. And writing.
No, wait! He also loved encouraging other people to write. To set pen to paper and tell their stories. Several evenings a week, The Briar Patch was open to groups who needed a place to meet. One of them was his twice-monthly writers' group, with members ranging in age from sixteen to seventy-six. He'd been happy that the group he'd started was getting people to express themselves. In the tiny boring town of Buckman, population 2,749, where almost nothing ever happened.
Despite its size, however, he loved his town. As small and out of the way as it was.
That didn't mean he didn't want more, though. Dream of it. Wish for it.
Adventure. Something more exciting than the town's three-lane bowling alley or one of two bars or the new(ish) movie theater. Heck. They were lucky to have a movie theater!
But wouldn't it be nice to see some of the places his books and imagination took him to? Iceland or the Taj Mahal or Khajuraho temples in India or the Forbidden City in China or the Eternal City of Rome?
Italy! Home of the gods.
Or to see the Parthenon in Greece....
But in the meantime, there was The Briar Patch.
He and Daphne didn't talk long that morning. He had to prep for the breakfast customers, but she did let him know she'd be in to help when he opened. After he cleverly reminded her that Monday was the day Tom Rucker came into the Patch before going out on his weekly run. Tom was an over-the-road truck driver and recently had been flirting with her, and she, well, she had been flirting back. Which made Jason happy. She hadn't shown any interest in a man in he didn't know how long.
An hour after that, he was serving a surprisingly large crowd.
Apparently quite a few people had gotten up to go see the fallen tree--there wasn't a lot to do in Buckman--and look around to see what other damage had been done. Except for a four-by-four block area that was out of power because another tree had fallen, luck had shone down on the citizens of the town. He actually had some people waiting to be seated. He'd taken care of that by having Daphne set up a couple of card tables on the porch. In the end, Jason had actually run out of eggs and bacon. A first in a long time. Despite that, everyone had been in a cheerful mood, and not one customer had complained about eggs cooked wrong (while they'd lasted), biscuits too hard, grits not buttery enough (considering there was a stick at every table, and they therefore could have as little or as much as they wanted), or coffee too weak or strong.
And yes, Tom had come in, and he was hunky and had moved to Buckman last year from a neighboring town. He owned (or was buying) his own truck cab and would pick up trailers from all over and take them wherever they needed to go. It was risky going into business as an independent trucker these days, but Tom was trying, and Jason could only respect that. And he sure made Daphne smile.
Gorgeous. Not really Jason's type--Tom didn't read and loved country and western music--but he was gorgeous. And like Jason, Daphne needed some loving. It was good to see one of them getting it. Or maybe soon, anyway.
Then during the cleanup--two hours where no meals were served, although you could come in for a slice of fresh pie (today's were apple, coconut cream, and raspberry)--Jason got his favorite kind of customer. In this case, two high school boys actually looking for a book. Well, one of them was. He'd read the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely for one of his classes and been surprised that he loved it. He looked nervous to even admit it, and his friend had carefully busied himself looking at some joke books while they talked.
"Do you have anything else like that?" the kid asked. "It seemed so real."
Luckily, even with his limited shelf space, Jason thought he had a thing or two to offer and suggested them. The award-winning, provocative coming-of-age novel Monster by Walter Dean Myers--about a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial--and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, even though it had a girl protagonist. He thought maybe the boy could handle it. Jason had a sense of such things.
Then to his surprise the other boy admitted he liked To Kill a Mockingbird and wanted to know if the chick who wrote that wrote anything else. Sadly, Jason had to admit that the only other book Harper Lee ever wrote was Go Set a Watchman, which was more an early draft of Mockingbird than anything else. The boy still showed interest, so Jason made a snap decision and ran upstairs and got his own copy. He could always get another.
And he'd gotten someone to read.... He'd called Daphne with the news.
"That's my brother," she said. "Spreading nerditude to the masses."
"Sis, I'm just happy people are still reading books at all."
That was so important to him. The Briar Patch had started off as a used bookstore. But Daphne had been right. Not enough people in Buckman read. Not even with the neighboring communities. But it was also Daphne who'd suggested he make the Patch a part-time restaurant as well. So he'd given it a chance--after all, there was a kitchen right there, set off to the side. And he'd already been pretty much been selling more coffee and muffins baked by Wilda than books. To his happy surprise, people came. Between the books and the food he prepared, he could pay the utilities and keep the doors open.
Lunch that day was brisk, and he had no real problems. Why, he'd even gotten his sister to run out for more eggs.
And it was at lunch that Mrs. Halliburton, easily eighty years old, asked him if he knew anything about whoever it was who had bought the house behind the Patch.
He had to fight to keep his mouth from falling open. "What?" Someone had moved into the house behind his? Why, it had been empty for... what? Two years at least. No one had lived there since Kathy and Melissa, a lesbian couple he'd befriended and who'd invited him over at least once a week so they could play cards and watch movies and sometimes get high. Well.... They would get high, but not him. Drugs always spooked him. He'd seen them mess up too many people. He would have a beer with them, though. More than one.
But then they got into a huge fight, actually tried to kill each other, and the cops came, and one of them went to prison (although for something completely different). The other went and worked at a hospital and became a licensed medical assistant and met a man--a surgeon, in fact--and the last Jason heard, they'd gotten married.
It had made him sad that they didn't have a happily ever after. The couple of years they'd been together had given him a different dream than ancient gods or being a famous writer. Their love had given him the hope that he might find love with a man. Their horrid fight and explosive breakup--something that neighbors in all directions for one or two blocks had witnessed and judged--had all but crushed that hope.
As if cursed, the house had been empty ever since.
Mrs. Halliburton and her two friends looked at him over plates of biscuits and gravy and big mugs of coffee laden with real cream and raw sugar.
"I--I didn't know anything about it."
How could he have not known?
"I hear whoever it is has already moved in," said Mr. Ainsley, the widower of Mrs. Halliburton's best friend, Ella Ainsley. A rumor said that Mrs. Halliburton and Mr. Ainsley were courting, although it wasn't obvious to Jason.
Jason looked eastward, as if he could see through the windowless dining room wall to the tiny house behind The Briar Patch. How in the world had he not seen anyone move in? After all, what did he, or anyone, have around here to see? Wasn't that why he was being asked about the place? Anyone moving to Buckman was news, but someone moving quietly into a long-empty house? That was big news around these parts.
He turned back to his three guests. "I... I...." He blushed, thinking how stupid he must look. "I haven't seen anything. My bedroom window points that way, and I haven't see any lights."
Mrs. Halliburton rolled her eyes with much exaggeration. As if she did think he was stupid. At least Mr. Ainsley and their companion, Ethaline Merton, who was easily old enough to be the mother of the other two, only looked at him sadly and without judgment. Correction. Mrs. Merton was looking off into a corner near the ceiling. She had a sort of smile on her face as if she was seeing something no one else could. Who knew? Maybe she was.
"Hey, Jason" came a call from behind him. It was Sheriff Ryan--complete with his cowboy hat. "Can I get some more coffee?"
"Sure, Sheriff. Be happy to." He turned back to the elderly trio. "I'll keep my eyes open and let you know if I find out anything. Can I get you some more coffee?"
Both Mrs. Halliburton and Mr. Ainsley shook their heads. Mrs. Merton muttered something about "seeing" or "scene," maybe, and smiled beatifically. Jason didn't know what to say about that and simply went to the kitchen to fetch the coffee.
He was too busy to give much thought to someone moving into the little house.
Not very much.
Luckily, lunch cleanup was easy. Near everyone had wanted the special, the homemade cheesy meatloaf with real mashed potatoes, or one of his quiches, of course. He'd already washed what he could as he'd cooked, so there was no big deal with the pots and pans. And he had a dishwasher, something that would have been ridiculous for only him in this two-story house. But with the restaurant, it was a godsend. And his dad had gotten it for him for a steal at one of the endless auctions around town. Who knew such a small town could generate so much stuff?
After he locked up, he went upstairs and took a long bath in his beloved old-fashioned, and quite huge, claw-foot tub and read the newest romance by Jude Parks. He'd wondered why his great-aunt, who was a tiny woman, had put in such a large tub, but he loved it even though he was a pretty small guy himself.
Timothy Jeske, the high school quarterback, had told him--when no one was around--that he was as slim as Sally, Tim's... girlfriend? Jason had never been able to figure out what Sally had been to Tim in those days, the two of them were so on-again, off-again. He suspected that the "on" part had to do with the fact that Sally was so pretty and Tim was so hot, and naturally everyone expected them to date. But if Tim was serious about her, why had he told Jason that he was as pretty as Sally was? Something that had both excited and embarrassed Jason at the same time.
"As pretty as a girl," Tim kept saying and looked at him in ways that made Jason's spine near melt. Tim had also been the one who had taken his virginity. Hadn't done a very good job of it, either. He had the angles all wrong and hadn't understood that you had to be a little more careful back there than with the anatomy he was accustomed to. But in the end, what Tim was doing to him had gotten just good enough that Jason had been willing to do it again when Tim had come knocking at the door--the front door--of his parents' house.
The second time had been much better.
As well as the fiftieth time. And the times after that.
But then Timmy (that was what Jason called him when they were alone) had gone off to the University of Alabama on a scholarship, something that had made him a Buckman hero--small-town boy making it big--but had come back two years later after a terrible injury that had made it impossible for him to ever play professionally. He'd come home in defeat--sullen, angry, and not all that different from Mrs. Halliburton, who was bitter (it was said) that her family company had folded. And once, at one of the town's only bars, Tim had called Jason a faggot in front of his friends when Jason had stopped by with a rare desire for a beer. He didn't drink that much, and a six-pack would have sat in his refrigerator taking up room he needed for the Patch. Thus his visit to the out-of-the-way bar with the hilarious name (to Jason anyway) of Duck Inn Bottoms. "Duck Inn" because... well, he had no idea. And "Bottom" because it was located at the far end of town, which was also the lowest point and because of that had flooded a time or three through the years. But oh, the funny things you could think up with a bar with that name.
Everyone had laughed.
It had hurt, of course. Pissed him off, in fact. How could the boy who had been his first--who had kissed him hundreds of times, who'd told him he kissed so much better than Sally, who had made love to him by the river under the stars--call him a faggot?
So later that night he called Tim (who was staying with his parents while he "looked for a house") and told him that he better never do it again.
"And if I do?" came the slurred reply.
"Why, I just might tell Sally"--who it seemed was Tim's fiancee, now that he was back in town--"about that peculiar noise you make right before you cum. You know...." He screwed up his face even though Tim couldn't see it. "Ah! Ah-aw aw ah aw aw! Ah-aw aw aw aw--eeee! eeee!--aaaaaawwww!"
There was a slight gasp from the other end of the line.
"I bet she knows that sound, Timmy. If she's good enough to make you make that sound, that is...." It was a mean thing to say, meaner than he was wont, but he was pretty fuming mad.
"You... you wouldn't."
"Try me, Timmy...."
Jason was pretty sure he'd been in love with Tim. And he'd been silly to think that he wouldn't have to be a secret any longer once Tim went away to college. That Tim would see being gay didn't have to be a big deal, and they could be a couple.
It didn't happen.
And now Jason was just lonely.
He knew there were other gay people in town. And "bachelors" who lived together but never ever showed any affection in public. Everyone knew, but no one said anything above occasional whispers. Buckman wasn't going to burn crosses in anyone's yard for any reason, and that was one of the reasons Jason did love his hometown. For such a tiny place, its people were rather open-minded, and most of them had even voted for Obama, although they were on the fence about Clinton--a woman--running for president.
Jason's loneliness was the worst of it. He could be satisfied with only seeing the Parthenon on the poster in his bedroom. He could keep Rome as a secret wish. He could spend the rest of his life in Buckman.
But oh, how he wanted to be loved.
After his bath he tried to read some more, and then Gail Southgate's words came back to him, as they had more and more lately. "When might you be writing us something again? Your stories are just what we look for. You are a true romantic."
A true romantic. For whatever good that had done to help him find romance.
But maybe that was what his books were for. Maybe he was living vicariously through them? He thought about Sam Eldridge, the strapping hero of his latest book. He was a museum curator who had been opening some recent Roman acquisitions when quite suddenly a statue of Mars had come to life. It was humorous, he hoped, and sexy, again he hoped. Mars did not understand that he couldn't just smite anyone he wanted, and modern technology was putting him into mourning seeing a world that didn't need gods anymore. Why not...?
Jason was booting up his computer when he looked over at the one statue in his home, a young man leaning back in the wings of an exceptionally large eagle. It was Ganymede, of course. And the eagle was Zeus, who had fallen in love with a male mortal and swept down from Olympus and carried Ganymede back to the home of the gods to be his cupbearer and forever lover. It was a tale Jason never stopped sighing over.
But then something else caught Jason's eyes.
He got up and approached the dresser and statue and looked out the back window, then let out a little gasp. A sigh, really. The little house behind his. There was a light in the kitchen window.
There was someone in the house.
Jason trembled. He didn't know why.
He smiled, only vaguely unaware that he was doing it.
But then there wasn't much to get excited about in the tiny boring town of Buckman, population 2,749.
Where almost nothing ever happened.
After that there was no writing about Sam Eldridge or a sexy Roman god.
His imagination was on whoever was in that house.
He had a pretty good imagination.