Headphones was an experiment, a story written in "snapshots", a serial, a comic in word form-- call it what you will. It ran for one year plus one day-- January 1st of 2015 to January 1st of 2016. It was the story of a group of friends who took in a damaged girl and helped her find herself. But on the way, she helped them fill the holes in their own lives. I've pulled it now with the hopes of rewriting it into a book. Each day was matched with a music video and each month's mixes are still here. So if you've stumbled in, enjoy the music, and hopefully I'll be able to post updates occasionally!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Writing Style

This is how I work. Stuff pops in my head (usually while I'm stuck at work, in the shower, or just as I'm falling asleep!) and I jot it down. Then I throw the note on my desk where it visits with my other notes until I have time to work through them and decide which file to type them into. Or, on occasion, I just sort them into "first" "middle" and "end" and pull them out as I write each section. It's always good to have a system!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

CampNaNo Halfway Mark: Embers and Flame

So here's the thing:

I've pushed and pulled and got Embers and Flame through Chapter 5, and I'm still really undecided if there is any chemistry between Ben and Cherry. I set a "goal" or a challenge to each story I write, and this one is supposed to be something light-- a rainy afternoon, don't really have to think too hard, kind of read. Give it a perusal if you're at all interested, but remember, it's a very rough first draft.

Something I want to mention is Ryan. Just so you know, he really is a decent guy and he did care for Cherry. They just simply weren't all that compatible--there was a lack of chemistry (yes, I love that word, just in case you were wondering about it). Cherry has a problem with self-esteem and he tends to blame himself for the breakup-- he dwells too much on the failure of the relationship. It's all still fresh enough that he tends to compare everything to Ryan, and it becomes a problem later in his relationship with Ben. So, the question at this point becomes, as I try to lay the groundwork for that conflict, is it coming through? Or is it just the opposite, and is becoming annoying? Let me know in the comments, please. Also, is the pace too slow? Too much narrative? And, obviously, is there any chemistry between Ben and Cherry?

E&F Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

The roar of the motorcycle pulling into the campsite next to mine shattered the peace of the evening, and I imagined that sunset’s reflection in the small lake rippling with the vibrations. I glared as the intruder flipped the kickstand down and swung his leg over the seat, but my scowl softened slightly as the man pulled off his jacket to reveal tight black jeans that displayed trim hips and a nice ass. My resentment at the interruption evaporated completely as he removed his helmet and shook out his jaw-length black hair. He noticed me watching and stepped my way. I fumbled to rise from my low lawn-chair as he crossed the space between us, extending his hand.
“Ben Torres,” he offered as he wrapped his hand around mine. A bright smile set off by tawny skin and dark eyes, almost as black as his hair, dazzled me, making my mouth suddenly unable to form words.
I wasn’t exactly suave at the best of times, and gorgeous men made me more awkward than usual. With a deep breath, I pulled myself together and stated, “Cherry.” Ben didn’t release my hand as he tipped his head while his mouth tipped up on one side, as did a thick eyebrow. I felt sweat break out at the back of my neck and I rattled out my clarification, “Uh, Charles Andrews. The third. Grandpa was Charles, Dad is Charlie.” Like a total doof, I pointed towards my auburn hair with the hand not still in his possession. “It was really red when I was a kid, so they called me Cherry. Guess it stuck.” I was babbling, and I could feel the heat of a blush spread across my cheeks. Somehow, I knew that my normally pale face was redder than my hair ever had been. “Thank goodness it mellowed as I got older,” I rattled the last as my voice faded.
Ben pretended to not notice. “Nice to meet you, Cherry.” He rewarded me with another of those bright smiles, this time displaying deep dimples. He finally loosened his grip with a quick squeeze and I looked at my empty hand as if something was missing, but I couldn’t remember what exactly. “Mind if I set up next to you? Only spot with no trees.” I guess it was obvious that I didn’t understand the comment, because he laughed. “I’d prefer to not wake up to bird shit on my bike.”
I shook my head side to side but didn’t make a sound. Ben crossed the grass and started fiddling with the hitch of the small trailer and unhooking the latches. I expected him to pull out a tent much like my own as he pushed the lid back, but instead, he spent a few moments bracing the stabilizer jacks before sliding out a flat platform and sticking some silver poles in unseen holes. With a flip of canvas, he had a temporary home. The camper looked barely big enough to hold an adult, but at least Ben wouldn’t wake up on a half-deflated air mattress with a crick in his back.
As he finished, I found my voice. “Ah, hey Ben, want a beer?” I called to him.
He smiled at me again. God, that was a great smile. “Sounds good. But I need to get a shower and something to eat first. Give me a half hour?”
I wasn’t going to say no to that. While he dug around in his saddlebags, I did some digging of my own. I’d brought two lawn chairs with me, but the extra one was still in the back of my <vehicle>. I unfolded the canvas chair and then dumped the rest of the case of Budweiser into the cooler, pushing the cans down into what was left of the ice. Gum-ball sized chunks bobbed in the melted remains and as I tidied up my area, I debated whether I should head up to the little convenience store to buy another bag. It was embarrassing that I was this excited over the prospect of company.
The truth was, I was glad for the companionship, even if it was only for an hour or two. I’d arrived the evening before, fully expecting to enjoy the solitude. I’d made the two-hour drive straight from the hospital, not even changing out of my scrubs and arrived well before sundown with plenty of time to set up and relax with a small fire and a cold beer. I’d spent the day swimming and fishing and hiking, all the things I normally enjoy. Nevertheless, instead of finding inner peace, I was simply bored to tears.
The week was pre-paid and non-refundable, and still, I contemplated shucking it in and heading home as I sat eating a cold bologna sandwich. Maybe my ex and I had never been passionately in love, but we’d been good friends. If Ryan didn’t have a new man in his life, I would’ve asked him to come. It was nice to see love that he and David shared, and it gave me hope that maybe someday I would find someone, and at the same time, it reminded me how lonely my own life was. Maybe our relationship had never been some blazing romance, but we’d had fun together.
My ruminations faded and that breathless sensation closed around the back of my throat as I spied Ben’s dark figure sauntering down the middle of the road, his shadow growing and shrinking as he passed under the pole lights. I hadn’t even noticed how dark it had become. His movements were fluid as he hung his towel over one of the support poles and tossed his shaving kit and dirty clothes through the small door. He’d traded his black jeans for sweats and his heavy boots for a pair of well-worn Nike’s. Even with his wet hair combed back, he was still one of the hottest men I’d ever seen. I hadn’t had a reaction like this in probably ten years. Honestly, I thought only kids got this hepped-up. Yup, my evening had improved drastically.
“Budweiser okay?” I asked as I pulled the cooler lid open, amazed at how unaffected my voice sounded, considering the way my stomach had tangled in upon itself.
“Anything, as long as it’s cold. I can’t believe how warm this spring has been,” he said as he dropped into the offered seat.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “We’re going to talk about the weather. How lame is that?”
Ben tipped his head back and stared up at the stars. “You on your own?”
Okay, talking about me was marginally better than talking about the weather, I thought, but barely. “Yeah, me and the ex broke up a couple of months ago, but we had the reservation and I’d written off the time at work, so…” I didn’t add that this had been mine and Ryan’s favorite get-away. For seven summers, we’d spent weekends here fishing, hiking, and swimming. When Ryan had moved out two months ago, he’d taking half the furniture and general stuff, but he’d left the camping gear. On a whim, I decided to prove to myself that I was fine on my own, and kept the reservation. The fresh air would do me good, I thought. Get away from the city traffic and the antiseptic smell of the hospital. I’d done little but work and tool around the apartment since the first of the year. I hadn’t even gone shopping to replace anything that Ryan had taken, except the coffee maker. That had been a must.
“Married long?” he asked with sympathy in his voice when I paused.
I’m glad it was too dark for him to see my discomfort. I’m out in the city, but away from home and on my own, I tend to be a bit more circumspect. “Not married. And it was amicable. It’s just feels a bit strange, being on my own again.”
“Yeah, I remember that feeling,” he agreed.
The sun was already hot through the canvas and I blinked the sleep from my eyes. The bright green of the light hinted it must be mid-morning, instead of the soft glow that usually flooded the tent with the sunrise. The twitter of bird-song had woken me the morning before, but we’d sat up until almost 3, drinking and laughing. I tend to sleep through thunderstorms—a little birdy-racket wasn’t enough to wake me when I’m past tired. It’s been years since I’ve sat up just talking with someone, but Ben had been incredibly open as he told me about his job as a mechanic in his step-dad’s garage, his divorce after being married for 11 years, his 16-year-old son, Eric, and his plans to see some of the country before making his way to southern Arizona to visit some family. He hadn’t so much as blinked when I inadvertently dropping in Ryan’s name after about my fourth beer.
Rolling off the air mattress, I grabbed some clean clothes and a towel. I’d take a shower and then decide if I was staying or heading home. Ben’s deep voice startled me as I backed through the tent flap. “There you are! I thought maybe you were going to sleep the day away.”
“Uh, no.” Witty reply, I thought, drawing a blank on anything clever or funny to say. But the surprise of finding Ben still here threw me. “Figured you’d be on the road by now.”
Ben had a chamois in his hand, polishing a bit of chrome on his bike, but he straightened to face me. “Well, it’s a good thing I’m not in a hurry. Naw, a baffle’s gone bad. That’s why it was so loud last night. Guy in the office said I can probably get one at the bike shop in Benton.” He said that with a hopeful tilt to his voice.
“Need a ride in?” I asked nonchalantly, eternally glad that I’d not mentioned packing up and leaving.
“You’d do that? Thanks!” Another of his wide smiles rewarded my generosity. “Well, since I’m not going anywhere today, maybe we can get in some fishing. Do you know if they rent out poles?”
I was so busy admiring his legs in the baggy cargo shorts that I almost didn’t catch the words, but they finally sank in. “Oh, yeah! Sure! And, uh, no need to rent one--I’ve got an extra, if you want to use it.” Okay, I needed to tone it down. I was sounding entirely too excited.  
“That’d be great! Tell ya what, go shower and I’ll see about buying some bait.”
I showered as quickly as I could, barely taking the time to brush my teeth or my hair and totally skipped shaving, and made it back in time to find Ben bent over my cooler, refilling it. His grin turned conspiratorial when he spied me, as if we were planning a day of mischief instead of fishing.
“Do I have dirt on my face or something?” Ben asked as he ran his hand across his nose and rubbed his cheeks.
“Huh? No,” I answered with a frown. “Why do you ask?”
“You keep looking at me.”
The heat rose in my face. God, I had been staring. I needed to stop that. Now. “Um, sorry. Just..” What was I even supposed to say? Sorry, I just think you’re gorgeous. Sorry, but I’d like to run my hands through your thick hair. Sorry, but I have a thing for guys that could grace the cover of Cheekbone magazine.
He just chuckled and winked. “It’s cool, bro.” For a moment I wondered if he was flirting with me, but then he tossed his baseball cap at me. “Here, put that on. You’re starting to sunburn.” I pulled it down over my eyes and followed him, tilting my head as I admired his butt. If luck was my friend, I’d be able to pass my blushes off as sunburn, because I had a feeling that was going to be a problem. Damn my freckled complexion.
Ben chatted as we fished and then offered to clean and cook our small haul as payment for my upcoming taxi service. I did my best to remain circumspect throughout the day, but I know Ben caught my continued stares on more than one occasion. I expected him to become uncomfortable, but I swear he was trying to hide a smile. The amusement in his eyes at my obvious interest was embarrassingly clear and it confused me. I expected our conversation to become stilted or for him to withdraw altogether. Instead, he suggested we hit the swimming pool during the hottest part of the afternoon, and then he built up the campfire as the sun started to set and we talked as the flames died down to embers.
Monday morning dawned brightly, but the night temperature had dipped and I shivered when I stepped out of my tent. Ben and I hadn’t sat up quite so late the night before and the birds’ singing had worked as well as any alarm clock I’d ever owned. I was just pulling a jacket on over the tee and lounge pants I had slept in when I heard cheerful whistling and looked up to watch Ben as he walked down the narrow road towards me, a styrofoam cup in each hand. I definitely wasn’t noticing the way his tee clung to his chest, nor the way his dick was swinging in the loose pouch of his sweats. I definitely wasn’t deducing that he wore boxers. No, not at all.      
I volunteered to fry up some eggs and bacon and toast some bread on my camp stove as a way to distract myself. It should have worked, but he stood only feet away and admired my equipment. I repeated to myself that he meant the propane contraption that I had set up on the picnic table, but my <irrational> side wanted to dismiss my logical side and pretend he meant something else entirely. My light-blue Bermuda shorts weren’t quite as loose as Ben’s, and I did my best to hide the half-chub that insisted on making an appearance. I reminded myself that he had been married for more than ten years and was just an overly friendly person.
“You camp a lot?” he asked. “I mean, you’re well supplied here. And everything looks well used. Not like someone who buys everything shiny and new and then goes camping one weekend a year.” He ran his finger over a patch on my tent where a stick had ripped through the screen during a storm a few years earlier. I had been half-afraid that a tornado was going to pick us up and carry us away, but Ryan had just wrapped his arms around me and assured me that it was nothing more than a passing thunder storm. With lots of wind.
“It was our summer thing.” The thought was a little bitter sweet and it was reflected in my tone. For the first time, a flash of discomfort flashed across Ben’s face.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s hard to explain our relationship. We lived together, we slept together, we got long okay. We just weren’t in love.” I shrugged. “We’re still friends.”
“I can’t imagine. Angie and I fought like cats and dogs towards the end. We’re friends now, but it took us awhile to get there.”
“You said Eric’s 16 years old? What were you, like 15 when he was born?” Immediately, I wished I could take the words back. I turned away from him and scrunched my eyes shut as I silently mouthed ‘fuck’ to myself.
Ben just laughed. “18, actually.”
I turned to face him again, my eyebrows shooting up in my surprise. “Wow! Really? I can’t even imagine it.”
Ben sat down on the picnic table bench and stared in the murky nearly cold coffee cradled in his hands. “I don’t recommend it. Teen lust doesn’t survive and mature into a <strong> relationship when you have to live with your mother while you try to work and go to school. And then add in the pressure of taking care of a screaming baby at the same time.”
I said “Wow” again and grew silent as I buttered the toast plated the eggs. I sat across from him, sliding his across the uneven wooden surface of the table.
With a deep breath, Ben pulled himself back to the present and smiled. “Smells good. So, what are the plans for today?” he asked as he smiled at me and dug into his breakfast. I couldn’t help but smile as I loaded my own fork and took a bite.

Chapter 2

I poked a stick into the fire and the flames soared high with sparks flying in all directions, barely missing my hand as I pulled it back. Cherry sat across from me and the shadows flickered across his face, casting it in wavering relief. He’d been chatty through-out the day but he’d grown quiet after the sun had gone down and he sat deep in thought as he watched the flames. Since I’d only known him for all of two days I didn’t know if this sudden reticence was unusual or just meant that he was tired. After all, we’d kept busy all day. He’d driven me into town to find the parts I needed for the Harley only to find that they didn’t have what I needed, but Tim, the owner of the bike shop, had been great and offered to order them, promising a Thursday delivery. We’d stopped at a place called Joe’s for pizza and a couple of beers and then walked through a couple of antique stores. Antiques aren’t really my thing, but Cherry bought a couple of trinkets for his older sister’s birthday. And he had happily chatted the entire time.
I hate to shop, but it was surprisingly fun--not the shopping so much, but Cherry’s stories about his family as we walked. As an only child, I can’t start to imagine what it’s like to grow up in a family with siblings, especially being caught in the middle of a half-dozen squabbling sisters and brothers. He entertained me with stories of past escapades and current family scandals, as if I knew every member of his family, included aunts, uncles and cousins. I have my step-dad, Bob, and his sister’s family, who have always included me, but it’s not the same.
Back at the camp-ground, we floated around in the pool before tossing the steaks we’d bought on Cherry’s little grill and I sat back and wondered if I’d done or said something that offended him.
My misgivings dissolved when he broke the silence that hung between us. “Do you think the lady at the shop was right?” Cherry asked.
I was caught off-guard for a moment, and then remembered the old woman who had sold him the wooden jewelry box. “About wood absorbing emotions?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s an interesting idea.”
“I suppose. I mean, wood was once a living thing.” Stretching my legs out in front of me, I stared at my feet as I leaned back into the camping chair and contemplated the idea as I listened to the crackle of the glowing coals. “So I imagine it’s possible.”
Cherry’s eyes were squinted in thought when I finally lifted my chin to gaze at him over the fire. “After all, emotions are energy. So maybe souls are energy.”
“Souls as energy. I like that,” I said. I thought about my mother and her belief in Heaven and an afterlife, and wondered if it was maybe the same thing. I strangely found comfort in the thought of her energy still existing in the world, even though she didn’t.  
Cherry’s face relaxed and he slumped further into his seat. His eyes locked on mine and neither of us said anything more. I felt something pass through me, this current that had nothing to do with our discussion and everything to do with how the small flames reflected in the grey of his eyes.
I hadn’t reacted to anyone like this in years. Maybe never, and it was disturbing. I was here simply because a baffle had worn out and I hadn’t done a full check before I left Huddlestown, which I should have done. As I’d ridden down the highway Friday night I’d prayed to any god who would listen; I even tried to send some positive vibes into the bike, but it only continued to get louder. A sign on the highway had pointed me to this campground and the sun was still shining on the horizon as I pulled into the parking lot. It was a week before Memorial Day and the grounds were fairly empty. I should have taken the time to check the bike out better before I left, but my plans to get as far as Missouri before dark were quashed when I got roped into changing out a battery for a customer before I left the garage. If I’d finished my packing before I’d gone to work, I wouldn’t have had to run home. But nothing had gone as planned for the whole week, so the fact that something was wrong with the bike wasn’t a huge surprise.
I broke his gaze by tipping my beer. It wasn’t that I found his attention uncomfortable, but I’d be gone in a few days. Cherry seemed so sweet and I didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. I had this idea that his big puppy dog eyes were mirrors into his emotions: emotions that rode the surface of his thoughts. It shouldn’t have surprised me when he said he was a nurse, but I envisioned some middle-aged woman in a starched dress with white hose and sensible shoes, stoically going about her job. I’d never spent time in a hospital, even missing Eric’s birth. I don’t think Angie ever quite forgave me for that. And yet, watching Cherry as he moved around his campsite--organizing his equipment, cooking, cleaning afterward--I could see it. He carried himself with this quiet economy, graceful in every movement.
“So, what’s on tomorrow’s agenda?” I asked, just to break the silence that had <> between us again.
“Do you like to hike? There’s some good trails around here. Me and Ryan always try to hit one or two when we’re here. Were, I mean. When we were here. Before…” His voice trailed off and I didn’t know if he was embarrassed or if his thoughts were turning inward again.
“Well, if that’s what you and Ryan used to do, we should.” The words came out a bit churlish and I shook my head. Why did I care if he talked about his ex? As a distraction, I sat forward and poked at the fire again. It was just about burnt down, and I yawned. “Think I’ll head to bed,” I said and stood up.
I could see the movement of Cherry’s head as he looked up at me, but I couldn’t see his features in the dark. His voice came to me softly as he tilted his head to the side and I wondered if my face was clear to him, if he tone had anything to do with my expression. “Yeah, me too.” He scooped melted water out of the cooler with his cup and poured it on the fire, dousing the last bits of glowing red. His voice floated to me as I walked away, barely heard over a single bullfrog croaking through the stillness. “Night.”
“Night,” I said back, although I’m not sure he heard me.
I heard raindrops on the canvas over my head and felt around for my phone. While the weather app loaded, I wondered what we’d do if it rained all day. Sit in Cherry’s tent and drink beer and play cards? Hang out at the little arcade at the back of the store? I supposed we could go back into town and hit the antique stores again. Honestly, hiking sounded preferable than any of those options. I heaved a sigh of relief when the radar showed just a little dot of green that was already almost passed and noticed I didn’t hear the plink-plink over my head anymore.
“You awake in there, yet?” Cherry’s asked, his voice muffled by the canvas. I sat up and unzipped the flap that <functioned> as a door and he stuck his head in. “Wow, it really is basically just a bed, isn’t it. I think I’d get claustrophobic in here!”
I ran my head through my hair, pushing it out of my face. The sheet that I’d slept with slipped down my torso with my movements and Cherry’s eyes grew big. His reaction <surprised> me. We’d spent the last two afternoons in the pool, after all. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen my chest before now. Of course, I hadn’t been sporting my own tent pole at the time and I clutched the sheet a bit closer around my waist at the realization. Cherry cleared his throat and backed out. “You hungry now or do you want to wait a little for breakfast?” he said and I could tell he had his head down, even if I couldn’t see him.
I chuckled. It was natural to wake that way after a good night’s sleep, but as often as I’d caught Cherry’s blush over the last few days, I still thought it was cute. Still, I didn’t want to embarrass the guy, so I sat up for a few minutes, waiting for everything to settle down as I pulled my sweatpants on over my boxers. I climbed off the bed and curled my bare toes into the wet grass as I stretched. “Got coffee?” I blinked at the brightness. Dark clouds could still be seen moving away from us, but the sun had broken through and I had to blink my eyes a few times as they adjusted. The air had a clean smell to it, and the millions of raindrops that still covered every surface reflected the green of the grass and young leaves, giving the world a verdant cast.
“Sure. Want me to pour you a cup?”
“Going to hit the can first, but it’ll just take me a couple of minutes. If you wait, I’ll help fix breakfast.” I should have known better. As I walked down the asphalt drive, I could see he was already busy over his camp stove. He glanced up just as I stepped into some gravel. I hadn’t grabbed my shoes and the sharp edges cut into the tender arch of my feet. “Oh, fuck, that hurts!” I pranced the last few steps and looked up to see Cherry frozen with an egg balanced on the spatula in the middle of flipping it, his eyes grown large in that surprised look that was beginning to become his default expression every time he looked at me.
It took a moment for me to realize what he was looking at, but just as I zeroed into where his gaze was resting, he caught my smirk. With a quick twist, he turned away and the egg went flying. “Oh, crap!” he yelled as it landed against his tent and slid to the ground, leaving a yolky yellow trail.
I couldn’t help but laugh and he looked at me, horrified. “It’s okay,” I said.
He still looked panicked as I grabbed some paper towels and began to clean the mess. “It’s not. It’s really not,” he muttered. “I’m not like this. This isn’t me.”
“Not like what?” I asked as I turned back to find him standing with his hands over his face. I gently took hold of his wrists and pulled his hands away, but he still wouldn’t look up at me.
“This lascivious. I don’t just stare at a guy’s…” Cherry’s voice was little more than a croak that faded away while he stumbled for the words. He continued after a deep breath, “…while his walking.”
“Lascivious?” I wanted to laugh at the word, but I managed to keep my amusement to myself. “I don’t think you have to worry. I’m just hot and hung and you noticed.” I said it as evenly as I could, but my amusement bled through.
“Being a bit cocky there, aren’t you?” he said in a dry voice as he tried to keep a straight face, but it was too much and his eyes crinkled at the corners as his mouth twitched in an attempt to hold back his laughter.
My mouth fell open and then I sputtered out, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that!”
“Then wear tighter clothes so your assets don’t swing in the wind.” He handed me my coffee and then turned back to his stove. The eggs had overcooked as we’d sparred and he dumped them into the trash before I could stop him, and started cracking fresh ones.
“I’ve never known anyone like you,” I commented as he fussed with the food.
“What do you mean?” he asked, his brows furrowed in puzzlement. “Gay?”
“No. Well, yes. Openly gay but normal, I guess. Maybe I mean unapologetic?” I couldn’t organize my thoughts. He frowned at my choice of words and I backtracked the thought. “I mean, you’re just comfortable in your skin. Back home, the handful of guys I know, they’re like these total work-out jocks that act like they’re trying to prove a point or they’re so feminine they can’t hide it. Ya know?” And oh, the look on Cherry’s face. That wasn’t any better. “Never mind,” I mumbled. All I was accomplishing was digging a deeper hole. “Excuse me, I’m just going to go stick my head in the lake, now.”
Cherry laughed. That was the last thing I expected. “It’s okay. I’m assuming in that jumble you were trying to compliment me. Sit down and eat. And just for that, I’m taking you on the steepest trail today.”

E&F Chapters 3-5

Chapter 3

I was horrified when Ben caught me staring at his swinging bulge, but as he stumbled through his words, I relaxed and smiled. Honestly, I’d never met anyone like him. He was sexy and ultra-masculine, with his dark good looks, his trim body and his natural swagger. Yet, his words and actions were so boyish. Yesterday he had done cannon-balls in the pool, made fart jokes, got me to toss a Frisbee, which I hadn’t done in years, and spent an hour talking about Call of Duty and Dragon Age. I had no clue what he was talking about, but apparently he and his son were into computer games. I had no idea what lyrium was nor what it had to do with some guy—or had he said elf?—named Fenris, but he was extremely enthusiastic about it. The way his speech was full of “dope” and “bro” and “lit” I would have thought I was talking with his 16 year old son instead of a 34 year old man. I should have been bored, but I wasn’t.
With a sheepish grin, Ben sat down at the picnic table and sipped at his coffee as I finished cooking the second set of fried eggs. I plated the food and walked behind him, unthinkingly resting my hand on his shoulder as I sat his breakfast in front of him. Casual touching was such a natural thing for me to do and I didn’t think anything about it until he pushed back against my hand and I withdrew, not sure if he welcomed the touch or was trying to push me away. I caught a flicker of his eyes as he kept his head down but he watched me as I walked around to take my own seat. We ate in silence but as I swallowed the last of my toast, he got up to grab the coffee pot. He topped off both of our mugs and asked, “So, how exactly are you planning to torture me today?”
“Torture? Don’t look at it that way,” I quipped. “How about we call it negative reinforcement? You know, like snapping your wrist with a rubber band when you want a cigarette. Except, every time you decide to compliment me, I make you walk up a hill.”
One corner of Ben’s mouth tipped up as he contemplated the idea. “Okay. But what about positive reinforcement? What do I have to do, and what’ll be my reward?” His left eyebrow raised and his mouth curled in a rakish twist. My breath caught at the back of my throat. Damn, I wish he’d quit doing that half-flirty thing. When we’d stopped at the grocery store to buy last night’s steaks and this morning’s eggs, he’d given the cashier that same look. I’d bet money that look that got him laid on a regular basis. Because if I thought for a moment that he was actually interested…
Oh, shit, I had to stop that thought from going any further. I came back to the here and now to find Ben giving me a strange look. “What?” I asked as innocently as I could, afraid my wandering thoughts had made their wayward ways to my face.
“Nothing. Come on, let’s clean up and head out. I want to see these steep hills you keep talking about.”
He said it with such a dead-pan tone that I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or serious, but I stood up and started gathering our dirty dishes.
It’d been years since I’d had this much fun with anyone—even Ryan. For the first time, I admitted that I spent too much of my life being serious. Cutting loose had never been my style, but I found another side of myself that I never even suspected existed as I spent time with this relative stranger. The morning stayed cool and we hit the empty trails. Despite my earlier threats of nearly vertical escarpments, we walked one of the meandering paths that looped around and traced the beach. We never seemed to run out of things to talk about. I pointed out different plants and he had a surprising <knowledge> of the insects and area wildlife. I asked if he hunted.
“Naw,” Ben said. “I went deer hunting with Bob, my step-dad, once, but I kept having visions of an orphaned Bambi as I watched this huge 8-point buck in the cross-hairs of my scope and let him walk away. That was the end of my hunting days. Fishing is about all I can manage. If I ever have to live off the land, I’ll have to go vegetarian.”
I laughed and shook my head in agreement. “Hopefully, Armageddon never happens in my life time.”
As the sun rose towards noon, we headed back to camp. I still had bologna in my cooler, so we finished it off with a bag of chips and a couple of Budweisers. We hit the pool for the afternoon. With this much sun, my freckles were growing more predominate, a rusty rash against pale skin. I cursed the Irish ancestor that had gifted me their connect-the-dots complexion. And not just my face, but over most of my body. Ryan told me that it wasn’t unattractive, but we’d rarely had sex in full light and I was half convinced that was the reason and that it had nothing to do with any body issues he might have <borne>. After spending the last few afternoons at the pool, even the winter-faded freckles that covered my upper body and thighs were starting to darken, despite the heavy-duty sunblock I used. After 32 years, it shouldn’t bother me anymore. But it did.
Still, it was worth it to spend time with Ben and I hoped to God that he didn’t notice my growing attraction. I’d hate to ruin everything by making him uncomfortable. Tomorrow we would go back to town and get his bike part and then he’d be gone. I wasn’t about to spoil these last few hours by being self-conscious and weird. He hadn’t made any jokes at my expense like other guys had in the past, so I was going to push my issues aside and make the best of the time I had with him.
“Hey, Cherry, you in there?” His voice broke my ruminations, along with his hand waving in front of my face.
“Hmm?” I focused back on him. He’d gone to change in the shower room and I hadn’t even noticed as he sidled up next to me.
“You were far, far away. What were you thinking about?”
With an inner shake of my head, I zeroed in on the bag in his hand. “What are you eating?”
Ben cellophane crinkled as he held it up and stuck his other hand in to pull out some lumpy yellow globs. I raised my eyes from the bag to look him in the face. His grin was pure orneriness. “Puffed popcorn! Want some?” he asked as he stuffed the handful between his lips and started to chew open-mouthed.
I’m sure my grimace was answer enough, but just in case it wasn’t, I added, “Uugh, no. That’s not even real food. It’s like eating Styrofoam!”
He almost choked as he tried to swallow and laugh at the same time. “Yeah, but buttery Styrofoam with all the goodness!”
I shook my head and turned away, but there was a smile on my face as I did so. “You’re going to spoil your dinner, young man,” I teased.
“Naw, it’s just an appetizer. What’s for supper, anyway?”
“Hot dogs okay? I’ve got some in my cooler that’re going to go bad if we don’t eat them? I know it’s a bit childish, but I love dogs over an open fire.”
“Naw, cool. Old fashioned bonfire. But, we gotta have S’mores! Right? I mean, otherwise it’s like eating mashed potatoes without gravy. Some things just go together.”
“Oh, I don’t have…”
Ben was as excited as a kid as he walked back to his camper and grabbed his wallet. “I’ll go up to the camp store and buy the stuff. Do we need anything else?”
I shook my head and he took off at a run. “Wait. Ketchup, if you want it,” I yelled. He waved a hand over his head to <> that he’d heard, but didn’t turn back towards me. I watched him until the road curved and he was hidden behind some trees. I stacked the wood and said a thank you to the God of motorcycles for putting a hole in Ben’s exhaust pipe. Or buffer. Or whatever. Maybe I should learn something about bikes.
I woke early the next morning and sat sipping my coffee as the sun broke over the horizon, casting a pink and orange reflection over the lake. I hadn’t heard Ben as he slipped out of his camper, but his voice came from behind me, soft and full of awe. “That’s beautiful.” I nodded my head yes but didn’t say anything. Instead, I handed my half empty mug of coffee to him, and he took it. He leaned against my chair, his hip butting up against my shoulder as he took a couple of sips and then handed it back to me as he studied the scenery. He rested his hand on my shoulder, just as I had done to him the day before, and I took a moment to appreciate the beauty that I normally ignored in the bustle of the work-a-day world. I could feel his heat through the thin material of the tee I wore, but I tried to ignore it.
He tightened his grip for a moment, and I tilted my head back in question. He glanced down to meet my querying eyes. “I’m going down to the shower room. Back in a moment,” he said. It took everything I had to not turn and watch the roll of his posterior as he walked away. I was being ridiculous. He was leaving today. Hell, I’d probably leave today. I didn’t see any point in staying if he wasn’t here. “Oh, fuck,” I said aloud. “Quit being such a teenager with a crush. You’re a grown man. It was just a fun week. Accept it, appreciate it, and then move on.”
The only problem was, five minutes later he rounded the curve in the road and headed back towards our dual camp-spot wearing those same sweatpants and he had the same frontal swing happening and I felt my mouth go dry. I really need to get laid, I thought, if a straight guy had me this bothered. But I really was enjoying Ben’s early morning walks to the shower room. Or to be more specific, his walks back from the shower room. If the idea wasn’t past crazy, I’d almost say he was doing it on purpose, just because he had caught on to how worked up I got over it. But, oh Lord, I was getting all tingly just watching him and I could feel my own half-chub tighten in my Fruit of the Looms. I told myself it was just that easy loping swagger of his; the way he walked bare foot on the asphalt, his back straight and his head tilted up as he watching the birds and the way the leaves swayed in the breeze. I wondered if he really was unaware of my attention.   
Just as he got back to the campground, the words came unbidden out of my mouth, an explosion of uncontrolled sexual vexation. “I’ve changed my mind. You should always wear those sweats.” And my eyes grew big and my cheeks flushed so deeply that I could feel the heat creep down my neck. Had I really said that?
And he smirked.
I was dying and he was smirking at me. I turned away to hide my embarrassment and as he walked past me, he slapped my ass. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked, as if I hadn’t just blurted out one of the biggest blunders of my life. “I’m starving. I’m thinking pancakes. What’cha think?” He grabbed the mug he’d used the last few mornings and filled it, then held the coffee pot up to silently ask if I wanted more. With a deep breath, I gathered myself together and found the stuff to make pancakes.
By mid morning we were back in town and the promised bike part was tucked away in the back seat. “I hate to spend money on tools I have at home,” Ben groused. Which was how we found ourselves in Walmart. “The cheaper, the better,” he muttered as he looked at the display spread out before us. My mechanical skills stopped at changing the oil, so I remained silent as he bent over to study a wrench. With an appreciative tilt to my mouth, I studied the way his jeans fit. I was jerked from my ogling when he straightened. “These’ll do,” he said as he tossed his selection into the cart.
“What’s the problem?” Ben asked the man leering at us.
I’d been so fixated on Ben that I hadn’t even noticed him step into our aisle. A flash of fear jolted into my stomach. I hated confrontations, and here was this rough-looking man, sneering as he looked between the two of us. My perusal hadn’t gone unnoticed. “This isn’t the place, fags.” To my great relief, he turned and walked away before either of us could respond.
“What the fuck?” Ben said as he stepped back from the cart. I grabbed his arm, afraid he was about to follow the guy.
“Nothing. It was nothing. I just forget sometimes. When I’m away from the city,” I said softly as I looked down at the floor.
“Forget what?” I didn’t answer. I hated that our last day together was sullied because I couldn’t keep my eyes to myself. Ben tilted my head up with a finger under my chin and looked into my damp eyes. Shit, and now I was going to cry? I wasn’t sure the day could get worse. “Let’s go get something for lunch, okay?” he said and when I nodded my head ‘yes’ he smiled and took off towards the other side of the store. As I followed behind I could hear him humming to the overly cheerful 80’s pop tune that floated through hidden speakers, and my mood lightened slightly.
Still, I remained disheartened and didn’t pay much attention to what food Ben threw in our cart, but the watermelon and twelve-pack caught me by surprise. We made the trip back to the campground in near silence. Ben went straight to his bike while I iced the beer and melon and looked over the other stuff he’d bought: foil, polish sausage, raw shrimp, and an assortment of summer vegetables. I watched him work and wondered why he had bought so much.
It only took him a few minutes to fix what needed fixed. “Do you want me to light up the grill?” I asked, assuming he wanted to eat and hit the road.
“No, let’s go for a swim. Unless you’re hungry now?”
I shrugged my no and we changed into our swim trunks and headed to the pool, but the afternoon had seen a surge in Memorial Day campers and the pool was full when we got there. We sat at the edge with our feet in the water and watched a group of early 20-something’s play a modified game of water volleyball, laughing and splashing as they bopped a beach ball back and forth. One particularly buxom co-ed was making a particular show of jumping with her arms in the air, even when the ball was at the other end of the pool. I was amazed that the strings of her bikini top didn’t burst and allow her ample breasts to spill out. Although with the way she kept looking at Ben, she wouldn’t be too bothered if it happened. It appeared that Ben noticed, too. “Ahmmm, there are kids around,” I said as I tossed my towel into Ben’s lap.
“What?” he asked as he looked back and forth between the towel and me.
“Better cover that tent,” I hissed. I didn’t know whether to chuckle or be abashed that I’d noticed.
Ben only smirked as he pulled the cotton across his <obvious> bulge. “Am I embarrassing you?”
I didn’t respond to his question, instead throwing my own comment at him. “So, that’s your type. Big boobs and fake tan,” I scoffed.
Ben locked his gaze on me and I kept my eyes resolutely ahead, refusing to look at him. “Not really. She just reminded me of a porno I watched once.”
“She reminds you of an actress you saw in a porno and that’s giving you a happy?” I couldn’t hide the amusement, and maybe the jealousy, in my voice.
“No,” he answered simply as he turned his head and continued to watch the exuberantly splashing young woman and her friends. He didn’t embellish on his monosyllabic answer, leaving me confused.
“Then what?” I asked.
His answer was a bit flip. “I told you. She looks like the woman from the film. But the woman isn’t really what I remember.” I refused to turn my head and look at him. He could be referring to the action of the film, not the male co-star, and yet that’s where my mind immediately went. No, I was just letting my own fantasy color my imagination. I prayed that he attributed my rising flush to the blazing sun and a lack of sunscreen. He dug his elbow into my ribs and I finally turned to look at him with a question on my face. “Does she make you horny?” he chuckled.
“My response to bouncing boobs is probably the same as a Lesbian’s reaction to a bouncing dick,” I said dryly. “You know I’m gay. Why would you ask that?”
“Because now someone’s giving you a happy!” He threw the towel at my lap with a laugh. “Is it one of her friends? Oh, I know—that guy with the platinum hair!”
Oh. My. God. Maybe it was a good thing he was leaving. “I think I’m going to go take a shower.” I needed to cool down, and I shot up so quickly I almost lost my balance.
Ben’s hand shot out to wrap around my calf as he steadied me and I wanted to jerk against his burning touch, but I quit moving and looked down at him. His smirk faded and his eyebrows shot up. “Wait! Hey, I didn’t mean anything by that.” When I didn’t say anything, he let go. I turned and walked away. His shadow rode next to mine and then disappeared as it merged with my own when he fell a couple of steps behind me.
I wished he hadn’t followed. I didn’t go back to my tent and grab soap. I just headed into the first shower stall, stripped off my trunks and stood under the cold water. It seemed to work but after I few minutes I began to shiver and turned the water back up to a more comfortable temperature. After a few minutes, I heard a single word over the sound of running water. “Sorry.” Ben was in the stall next to me and I hadn’t even noticed.
I turned off the water and started to dry myself with my beach towel. “Nothing to be sorry about. You didn’t do anything wrong.” I heard him moving around, and I stepped out to find him leaning against the counter, wrapped in his towel. “God, he really is gorgeous,” I thought. We’d been to the pool every afternoon and yet that towel emphasized his trim, slightly muscled body well beyond what his swimming trunks ever had. With a jolt, I realized maybe it had nothing to do with his clothes and everything to do with my libido and the fact that I hadn’t been with anyone for months. It was a complete mystery to me why, of all times, I’d reacted so strongly to his proximity.
He took a breath as if he was going to say something, but I didn’t give him a chance. “Should we go back to camp and start the grill?” I asked. He still looked like he wanted to say something, but instead he just nodded his acknowledgement and pulled his trunks up under his towel.
While I loaded my little grill with charcoal, Ben opened us each a beer. I helped him chop his vegetables and wrap them in the foil with the meat he’d bought. “I bet you’ll be glad to get on the road,” I said, just to fill the void.
“Yeah,” he huffed. “I guess. The plan is to see all those places Mom always wanted to visit but never got around to. Mount Rushmore. Yellow Stone. Salt Lake City. Then head down to southern Arizona to meet some of her family.”
“You said she died a couple of months ago?” I couldn’t help but think he lost his mom about the same time Ryan left. In some ways, we were both trying to prove to ourselves that we could move on.
He stared out across the lake. I’d hoped we’d finally see some stars, but I could see clouds moving again, just as they had each evening. “In March. I was hoping to bring Eric with me, but he’s staying with Angela for the summer.”
I turned the foil packets over and then handed Ben a slice of the watermelon before I sat down. Ben’s face was drawn as if his inner thoughts were disquieting and it felt like asking questions would be intrusive so I changed the subject. “Remember when watermelon’s used to have seeds?” He lifted his head to look at me in confusion. “Watermelons. Haven’t you noticed? They’re all seedless now. When I was a kid, we used to always have seed spitting contests. And the older kids always warned the younger ones that they’d grow in their stomachs if they swallowed them.”
Ben’s melancholy broke and he smiled at me. “Did you believe them?” he asked as he took another bite.
“I went a whole summer refusing to eat any kind of melon, or anything that had seeds for that matter, they had me so convinced. And I loved fruit.”
“Poor baby,” he said in fake sympathy.
“Damn right!”

Chapter 4

Raindrops quivered and ran down the sides of my camper, reflecting the rising sun and throwing prisms against my white shirt; it had rained again through the night. Cherry was usually the first up, cheerfully puttering around with the coffee already made, but he was nowhere to be seen, so I dug out his electric coffee pot and started the French Roast percolating. I busied myself by sopping up the water pooled in the center of the camp chairs and wiping thousands of whirligigs off the picnic table. It was another beautiful morning. The air was just cool enough to be crisp and the smell of green overlaid the remnants of last night’s campfires.
By the time I was done, the coffee was ready and I poured myself a cup and perched on the edge of the table to take a good look around, <taking> a moment to memorize everything as I admitted to myself that I hated the idea of leaving. For a month, I’d looked forward to my trip, planning the two-week journey mile by mile, finding places to stop for the night, researching the places I wanted to explore. Mom’s unexpected heart-attack and death had hit me hard. I thought the time on my own would help center me again. Yet now, after this unexpected delay, I almost dreaded it. Maybe it wasn’t time alone that I needed, but a companion to remind me that life went on.
While I waited for Sleeping Beauty to emerge from his temporary canvas house, I pulled out my phone and brought up the weather app. The little screen was overlaid with green, covering Missouri and Kansas. There were bits of red and yellow sprinkled in for the sheer fun of it, but luckily, it looked like it was going to stay north of us. A grin spread over my face as I realized I wasn’t going anywhere today. I startled, almost violently, when Cherry’s voice came to me from the road and not his tent. “What’s got you smiling like The Joker this morning?” he asked.
“I thought you were still sleeping,” I said as I looked at him over my shoulder. Instead of the cut-off jeans and tee shirt that he usually wore, Cherry was wearing form-fitting running shorts and one of those racer-back tank tops. I asked him where he’d been as he grabbed a paper towel and wiped sweat off his face.
“Jogging.” He gave me one of those ‘duh’ looks, furrowing his eyebrows as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Like I have every morning. Well, except Sunday. You got up first that morning and I was a bit hungover.”
Really? He’d gone jogging every morning and I hadn’t even known? Well, that explained his solid thighs, anyway.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat in his chair. “But you didn’t answer me. Why the big smile? That anxious to be on your way?” For a moment, I imagined a twinge of something wistful as he looked at me.
I tried to keep my voice casual as I said, “No, actually, I’m not leaving until tomorrow.” Cherry tipped his head down to sip from his mug, but I still caught the tip of his mouth as he smiled at my announcement. But I had a disquieting thought. “You aren’t leaving yet, are you?” I was sure he’d said his reservation was for the whole week, but maybe I’d misunderstood.
Cherry shook his head side to side and his voice remained calmly neutral, but his grey eyes twinkled when he asked, “So, Mr. Torres, what would you like to do on our last day here?”
I’m not sure why I suggested we hit the trails again, but Cherry enthusiastically threw together some sandwiches and tucked them into a small 6-pack cooler before filling his backpack with a variety of chips and protein bars and some extra bottles of water. We meandered around the lake, rarely crossing paths with other hikers. At noon we found a clear spot and made short work of his picnic. We’d spent the entire week talking, and still, the varied discussions never seemed to end.
As we rested, we picked up the previous night’s conversation and I found myself telling Cherry things I didn’t usually share with other people. “Since I’ve never met Mom’s brother, it’s probably a good thing that Eric is with his mom. Maybe doing it on my own is better.” I told him how her family had ostracized her when she admitted she was pregnant and single at 19 years of age; how in her stubbornness she’d left and made a life for herself and her baby boy in southern Indiana.
“Are you nervous about meeting them?” Cherry asked. We were sitting almost shoulder to shoulder on a smooth stone hillock that looked out over the water. He leaned against me when I shrugged instead of answering. At first his tendency to brush against me, or even clasp my arm in his hand, had seemed odd. Yet, it came so naturally to him that I wondered if it was because of his job or because of his large family. I assumed that there was something psychologically healing to sick people in human touch. I simply knew, at that moment, that I’d come to expect it from him and even welcome it. It felt like a connection as we sat in silence, one that I hadn’t felt in a long time. There was a light breeze that ruffled the leaves over our heads and I reclined against him.
My voice was quiet as I told him about growing up in a small town where my Mom and I stood out from the mostly white middle-class population. Actually, I’d been lucky. Mom met Bob only months after I was born, and even though they didn’t get married until I was 8 years old, he’d always been there. I’ve always believed our acceptance in Huddlestown was 100% because of Bob and his family connections. According to local historians, his family had settled that part of the country generations back. There was also the fact that his brother was the principal at our grade school. No one was going to mess with the little Mexican kid if it meant detention. It just wasn’t worth it. Well, not often, anyway.
Even I could hear the pensive tone of my voice and I straightened, determined to not get overly sentimental. Cherry’s body followed, his upper arm aligned with mine from shoulder to elbow. I froze, reluctant to move away from him. We sat there in silence again and I felt a subtle tingle that started in the tips of my fingers and rose through my biceps to settle in my stomach, little moths that fluttered and tickled, causing my breath to grow thready.
There was no conscious decision, no agreement, no unspoken accord. I simply turned my head towards him as he turned towards me. Maybe we both meant to say something, some blithe remark about bullies or the luck of being connected to the right people, or maybe even just some old cliché about life that never found its way out. So many maybes and possibilities. What I found was my lips against his, a brush of breath as we both inhaled at the contact. We both pulled back, but only inches, and my gaze dropped to his slightly parted mouth as the tip of his tongue flicked against the fullness of his top lip, a flash, there and gone, and I wanted to taste him. I was breathless; I couldn’t think as my gaze went back to his widened eyes and I saw the intensity there as he tried to read me, as if he had a question in his head that he couldn’t voice.
I’m not sure what that question was, but he was apparently satisfied with my whispered answer. “Because it’s cool the way you look at me and I like being with you.” Neither of us made a first move—we were just pressed together again, our mouths joining first, a slide of lips against lips and then the tip of his tongue flicking between my teeth. The kiss deepened as we twisted towards each other. My hand came up to cup the back of his head as his arm snaked around my waist. My whole world narrowed down to the hot points where skin touched skin, hotter than the afternoon sun. Our soft moans blended with the sounds of nature as it rattled and sang and swayed around us. I could have stayed there forever, forgetting my grief and worries.
Voices, varied and loud, hit like a splash of cold water and we pulled apart as a group of teenagers rounded the bend in the trail behind us. I drew the back of my hand across my wet mouth and wanted to reach out with my other to wipe the moisture off Cherry’s lips with my thumb, but stopped with a twitch. I was afraid he was about to get weird, but a dimple formed on his right cheek as he smiled at me. It was a small closed mouth smile, but I knew everything was okay. I could only nod yes when he said, “I think we should go back to camp.”
We walked for a while in silence, but when we came to a particularly shady spot, Cherry stopped and wrapped his arms around my ribs, laying his hands flat in the center of my back as he kissed me again. It was such a forward move that I hadn’t expected it. It’s not that I thought Cherry as meek or timid, but I hadn’t seen this spontaneous side all week. Everything was considered and planned. Even the things that were halfway spur-of-the-moment were part of the day’s schedule, just occasionally out of their preset order. He broke the connection and whispered in my ear, “I’m not the first man you’ve kissed.”
“No,” I admitted.
“And all week you’ve not thought to mention this to me?” He tried to sound insulted, but I could hear the amusement in his voice.
I wanted to answer but my voice stuttered when he caught my ear between his teeth and gave a little pull. I cleared my throat to answer him even as I fought the moan that was rising at the back of my throat. “Well, it’s not like that’s the kind of thing that’s come up in our conversations. It’s not like you’ve asked, ‘Oh, by the way who do you like to sleep with?’ Ya know?” My voice had risen, louder in the clearing than I had meant it to and I stopped to take a breath before I continued, this time a little smugly. “Why, were you thinking maybe I’ve gone gay for you? Maybe that happens in romance novels, but I’m not sure it happens in real life.”
Cherry pulled back but didn’t let go. “You read romance novels?” His eyebrow quirked up. “You’re full of surprises, Mr. Torres. And, if you didn’t just go gay for me, does that mean I have competition? Should I be jealous or worried?” He said that with a laugh, but I could tell he was sincerely concerned.
“No, there’s no one waiting for me at home. You have no competition to worry about,” I said. I cupped his jaw with my hands and continued the kiss as I lost myself in the feel of his body against mine. Somehow, even though Cherry was broader across the back and more barrel-chested than me, I’d never noticed that we were the same height; that the present half-inch difference was because of my thicker heeled boots, and it was a novel experience, kissing someone that wasn’t shorter. Angie and the women that came after were all petite, and as I thought back, I realized that the few men I’d hooked up with had all been at least two inches shorter than me.
Even Chad. Just that morning, as I lay listening to the rain hitting the top of my camper, recollections of my first fumbled make-out experiments had floated to the forefront of my memories. We’d been surrounded by the scent of fresh cut grass and worms and dirt as rain had hit the roof of the equipment shed where he and I had taken refuge. It was baseball camp and we were both fourteen years old that summer. We lived in different towns, but were bunked together for the two-week event and had become inseparable buddies. The memory of that first afternoon spent in the equipment shed waiting out a sudden downpour came to me so fresh I could smell Chad’s deodorant and feel the roughness of his calloused fingers against my hip where they’d slipped under the hem of my shirt and burned against my skin. It was the first time a touch hadn’t been one of maternal affection.
That afternoon, a week into the two-week camp, found us in that cramped space, only inches from each other, and he asked if I’d ever kissed a girl. When I giggled no, he admitted he hadn’t either and suggested we could practice. “Practice how?” I’d asked. He pressed his lips against mine, his own giggle vibrating against my mouth.
We “practiced” every time we could slip away unnoticed. And again the next summer and the one after that. During the first night of our fourth and last summer at camp, when we seventeen, he admitted he was gay, but only after I’d pulled him into our favorite hiding spot. I shrugged and told him I liked girls, and kissed him anyway. During that week, he gave me my first blowjob, and without any hesitation, because he was my best friend, after all, I did my best to reciprocate. I never saw Chad again. Camp was over and our schools didn’t compete. We phoned a few times and promised to stay in touch, but he moved to California after he graduated, and I… well, I got married and had a family.
Cherry grunted his frustrated and pulled away when we heard voices yet again. All morning we’d walked without seeing anyone, and now that we wanted to be alone, there were people everywhere. Without another word, we stepped back on the trail. We finished the last five minutes in silence, but every few steps we brushed against each other, little touches that sent electricity zinging through me. I always enjoyed the flirting with some woman at the bar, the cat and mouse we played, feeling out how the night would end. But this was something entirely different. This wasn’t just a game with an orgasm as a prize. I felt unsettled by the breathlessness that was filling my chest, the anticipation that was more than a physical need.
The afternoon had grown warm, but as we slipped into the tent, I zipped the door while Cherry zipped the back screen closed, trapping the heat inside the canvas with us, but neither of us felt it as we came together in middle, where the roof peaked only inches above our heads. Our hands moved frantically, searching for skin as shirts were rucked up while our mouths clashed together, grinding our lips against our teeth as our tongues slid and dueled. The tension had built as we walked and <it> became a desperate attempt to mold our bodies together. I think we both felt this fierce, uncontrollable need. This was it, this was our one chance. Tomorrow we would separate, go back to our lives.
“Clothes. Too many clothes.” Cherry’s voice came out low and guttural, as if he didn’t have the breath to push them out of his throat. He kicked off his shoes as he ran his fingers up my ribs, pushing my shirt up in jerky movements as he tried to keep his balance. My hands were stuffed into the waistband of his shorts and gripping his hips, otherwise he would have fallen. I stepped back enough to pull the shirt over my head and kick off my shoes and I stopped to watch as he pulled his shirt over his head. I had seen the freckles that covered his upper body every afternoon at the pool, but in the muted sunlight, his skin took on a different glow that was all texture and confetti.
My frantic actions seized as I reached out to spread my hand across the center of his chest. I studied the contrast of my olive skin against his paleness. The week spent in the sun had darkened my skin into a swarthy tan. He looked down and studied my hand where it rested on his sweat-slick skin. I could feel the rapid staccato of his heart beat under my palm but what I wanted was to see his face and I ran my hand up over the hard bump of his sternum and between the twin ridges of his collarbones. My thumb and fingers separated as they traveled around the hill of his Adam’s apple until I was cupping his chin, gently forcing him to face me.
I wanted to say something, felt like I should. If it were a woman I had my hand on, I would have told her she was beautiful, that I desired her, maybe even lied and used the L word. Yet, that wasn’t what this was. With a flash of insight, I knew that my few experiences with men had been nothing but groping wrestling matches; quick hand jobs in dark corners without any interest in the other person beyond the need to get off with someone instead of our own hands.
That wasn’t what I wanted with Cherry and I made sure he was looking at me as I finally spoke. “You’re not the screw ‘em once and move on kinda guy.”
“No, I’m not,” he whispered, the words coming out in quick pants.
It took everything I had to pull my hand away from his face and step back. “So, maybe we shouldn’t do this.”
“Yes, we should,” he said as he closed the distance I had made.
“I’ll be gone tomorrow.” The logic I was trying to hold onto had settled like a hard weight in the middle of my chest. I didn’t want this to be something that Cherry would regret, but even I could hear the <piteous> quiver of my voice.
“Maybe I’m not spontaneous, maybe I don’t pick guys up in bars, but this isn’t the same thing as some Grindr hookup. It isn’t like we clicked on an anonymous profile and traded dic-pics.” Cherry pushed his chest against mine and nuzzled into the sensitive skin under my jaw. “I don’t know what happens tomorrow,” he whispered, “but right now, I want this.” I gave in and tilted my head back as he pressed his lips and nose further into my skin, letting my reservations melt away as his hands came up to tangle in my hair. His final words vibrated against my skin, causing me to tremble. “And maybe it doesn’t have to be a one time thing.”

Chapter 5

I wasn’t sure where to put my hands. I’d forgotten how awkward first times could be. Especially first times that didn’t involve alcohol. I let my hands slide down Ben’s slick shoulders as I felt sweat drip down the center of my back. The mid-day heat swirled around us, captured inside the tent where it became a sheath against our skin. Later in the summer, after the spring showers, it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the air was thick with humidity and sweat coated both of our bodies.
All of that went noticed for only a moment as my hands dropped further to explore the dark hair that dusted his chest and he moaned as my palms feathered across his nipples. I wanted to pinch and twist them and see what other noises I could wring from him, but I feared it would be too much, and I didn’t want to do anything to end this. I let my hands explore further, following the line down the center of his torso. Ben wasn’t overly muscled, but he was wiry; his lightly defined abdominal muscles tapered into his flat belly. I circled my hands around his back and pulled him closer as my roving hands finally came to rest at his jutting shoulder blades. We were belly to belly and I could feel his erection between us, trapped in his shorts, the same as mine.    
Ben had done nothing but respond as I’d explored. His hands rested lightly on my shoulders as he let me take the lead. That surprised me; I’d assuming he was the kind of man who had this masculine need to be in control.  
“Is this okay?” I asked. His eyes were open wide and his lips were parted, but I wasn’t sure if it was desire or anxiety. I amended the comment. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, fuck, yes.” His words came out in a breathy stream. “Don’t stop.” He tilted his head to mold his mouth to mine once again and I lost any sense of time as the kiss turned hungry while the sweat dripped between our bodies in heavier runnels. My short hair stuck to my face, framing it, and I loosened my hold on Ben’s back so I could run my fingers through his longer hair, pushing it away from his face.
Ben became more frenzied and his fingers began to fumble with the waistband of my shorts, but he seemed incapable of getting his fingers to work the snap while he continued to kiss me. My thirst to feel his naked body fully against mine became a keen need and I backed away to force the stubborn metal apart. He copied my movements, unzipping his own shorts and letting them fall to the floor. He kicked them aside and watched me as I did the same. But instead of coming back together in the center of the tent, he pushed at me, making me step backwards until my heel hit up against the air mattress. It wasn’t huge, but it took up half the floor space. He hesitated yet again, letting me lead, and I wondered if he’d been this far with a man, or if this was all new for him. He had a son, and there had been ambiguous comments about women he’d been involved with since his divorce so I didn’t understand his hesitation, unless he was uncertain. Surely there was little difference between being with a man than with a woman, although I had to admit, I had nothing to compare it to. I’d always known I liked men. It made it simple.
I sat down on the mattress and took his hand to pull him closer. “God, you’re beautiful,” I said as my eyes wondered up his form. His calves were covered in the same dark hairs as his chest, but it grew thinner at the top of his thighs. Dark curls parted around his cock and came back together to form a line to his navel. My finger followed the trail and he twitched at the tickle of my touch. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I heard the first staccato beats of raindrops on the tent, but it was background noise to our heavy breathing.
Looking wasn’t enough; I wanted to feel him against me. I scooted back and pulled at him as I did so. He bent his knees and climbed over me as I lay back, dipping the air mattress dangerously as he did so. He almost tipped over sideways and I grabbed at him. Still, the waves were too much and he fell hard onto my chest, knocking the breath from me with a ‘humph’.
The seriousness of only a few moments ago was broken as his eyes widened in dismay but I laughed and his face relaxed. “Shit. Sorry.” he said.
“No harm done,” I reassured him. “I’ve got to have 30 pounds on you. I can take more of a pounding then that.” Maybe it my choice in words, but in the closeness of the tent, the sound he made sounded like “erg” and he attacked my mouth, biting at my lip before he forced his tongue between my teeth. The next few minutes were spent in a frantic exploration of hands over skin. Even with his weight spread evenly across me, I couldn’t get him close enough. I ran my hands down his back until they were cupping the slight curve of his ass. I pulled and pushed at him and he followed my lead.
The heat of his cock against mine was maddening, and I needed more than the slight shift of his slow undulations. I stopped and pushed him onto his back. He grumbled his displeasure until I rolled and braced myself over him. I pressed my groin against his and he shut his eyes as he tipped his head back and smiled. “Ah, yeah. Like that.”
“You like this?” I teased as I circled my hips against him.
“Yeah, don’t stop,” he hummed.
“I won’t.” I wished I’d thought to bring lube with me, but it never entered my mind that I would need it. I coated my hand with our precum and the sweat that coated our skin and wrapped my hand around both of our cocks. My palm was still too dry and rough, but if I were to judge by the noises that Ben was making, it only added to the stimulation. Ryan had never responded to my touch so quickly or so loudly and I kept my grip firm and steady.
Ben arched his back, bracing his feet as flat on the mattress as it allowed and within minutes he was chanting, “oh shit, of fuck, yeah, yeah,” over and over until, with a sobby shout, he came, spilling across my hand and between our bellies. My hand moved easier with the added lubricant, and my own groans echoes in the confined space after only a few more pulls. I was never so thankful for the rain. With any luck, everyone was tucked away somewhere dry and didn’t hear us over the rumbling thunder and steady beat of the rain.
My arm, the one that held all of my weight, began to tremble with the strain and I tumbled to the side, landing on my back. We gasped for air in the closeness of the tent, our lungs heaving in unison until I heard Ben’s hiccupping chuckle. “Well, that’s embarrassing.”
I was puzzled by the comment, and a little alarmed. Did he regret it already? “What?” I simply asked as I turned my head to look at him.
Ben lay with his hands folded over his still quickly moving chest. “That’s the quickest I think I’ve ever shot.” He turned his head to look at me and the corners of his mouth curled up into a self-effacing smile. “I didn’t go off that quick even when I was a teenager.”
“Oh.” I really didn’t know what to say—I wasn’t sure if he meant it as a good thing or a bad--but I smiled at him. I wasn’t comfortable at asking certain kinds of questions, and maybe the lack of communication had been the biggest problem between Ryan and me, so I forced the words out, attempting a nonchalance that I didn’t feel. “Is that a good thing?”
“A very good thing,” he assured me. “In fact, that was fun. Why haven’t we done that sooner?”
I laughed aloud and rolled back over to kiss Ben. What I’d meant as nothing more than an innocent kiss to express my delight turned into an extended snog, but the heat within the confines of the canvas became too much when the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. We reluctantly sat up and unzipped the flaps enough to let some air circulate as we wiped the sweat and jizz off our bodies. My watch said it wasn’t even 3 o’clock. It was less than 3 hours since we’d sat down on a rock by the lake, and yet, everything had changed. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel, how I was supposed to act.
“Pool or shower?” I asked, trying for a casualness I didn’t feel.
“Pool. Oh, bro, God yes! Definitely the pool,” Ben answered.
We had gone to the pool every afternoon and still, on this last day, there was this added element, this awareness of each other that hadn’t been there before. Our legs tangled under the water, a brush of our feet across the other’s calves, and our hands lingered as we energetically and playfully dunked and splashed.
As we headed back to the campsite, Ben kissed my cheek and took my hand when my breath hitched and my steps faltered. Ryan would never have done that, not if there were people around to see. There was little in the ways of public affection between us, even in the beginning when there’d been the possibility that we might be in love. To have this man, whom I’d believed was completely straight until only a few short hours ago, to be so affectionate completely stole my breath.
It seemed so normal. We cleaned up and rattled around the campsite,spreading the damp firewood in the sunlight to dry and sorted through the last of the food to see if we had enough for a meal or needed to make a trip to the campstore. Ben chatted away happily, talking about this and that, never really settling on one specific topic. I’m not sure I was actually listening. I was more aware of his small touches. He let his fingers trail across my back every time he walked past me and he stood behind me with his hand flat on my hip as we looked through the cooler. Sometimes he would pull me close and kiss me. They were small kisses, lips brushing lips with the occasional little flick of his tongue. There were too many kids running around for it to be anymore than that, and yet my heart quickened each time. And that smile. Oh, that smile.
Ben had squatted down to stack the dried wood for the evening’s fire and the sight of his lithe body and strong jaw line was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t look away and he caught me staring. “I got something on my face?” he asked.
I blushed. “Sorry. I’m just…confused. That’s all.”
He stood up and walked over to me. “Confused about what?”
I couldn’t not touch him and I traced one finger down that strong jaw line, but when I realized what I was doing, I dropped my hand. “Everything.”
He laughed, but not unkindly. “There’s nothing to be confused about. It is what it is. Yolo and all that.”
He looked so serious that I strained to not laugh, but I couldn’t stop it and it came out as a snort. “I can’t believe you said that.”
“What?” He looked clueless and then I remembered he had a teenager at home and for some reason that made it even funnier.
“Nothing. Just, never change, okay?” I said and relaxed enough to pull him close and kiss him without caring if there was anyone around to see. It was so freeing, I thought, to simply enjoy the moment.
“Why would I ever change?” His tone was jokingly light, but he still looked perplexed as he wrapped his arms around to hug me back. He pulled back enough to meet my gaze. I smiled and pulled away, hoping he would let the subject drop.
Of course, he didn’t. “But, really. What’s confusing?”
I’ve never been good at opening up and I took a deep breath. “This,” I said as I glanced down at where our bodies were still lightly touching. “Don’t get me wrong—this has been probably the best week of my life. But I’m not sure what you’ve gotten from it. Why have you wasted so much of your time with me? I’m nothing special.”
Ben’s mouth tilted up on one side as his eyes squinted into a frown. “You’re cute. And fun to be with. Why wouldn’t I, or anyone for that matter, want to spend time with you?”
“I’m just not the kind of guy who gets noticed, I guess.” I stepped away but Ben caught my wrist before I could put any distance between us.
“Hey, you get noticed.”
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed. “Lots of guys asking for my number and hanging around my door.”
Ben’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. “You’ve got a rockin’ bod with your broad shoulders and jogger legs. And that thick hair…”
I didn’t let him finish, I was barely even listening. “I’m barrel-chested and I’ve got the complexion of a speckled trout. I’m not much of a catch.”
“You’re nothing like a fish belly. You’re ivory and rust and I want to lick all of your freckles,” Ben said, his voice dipping into a husky growl that vibrated directly into my groin.
“Fuck,” was all I managed.
“Hopefully.” He smirked playfully at me and then gave me a little shove. “So, are we going to eat tonight?”
I couldn’t answer. At that point I could barely walk. But I grabbed the almost empty bag of charcoal and turned to my grill. This man was absolutely killing me.