by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
If it weren’t for work, Duncan would have been parked somewhere quiet on a night like this, tucked into his sleeping bag with a book and a mug of tea. The rain mottled the windshield between swipes of the wipers, and the glare of the van’s headlights made the downpour into a pewter sheet that obscured the road. Even as he slowed to fifteen going downhill he could feel the wheels want to slip. He slowed even more as he came to the curve, acutely aware that there was nothing but a corrugated steel guardrail and a few wooden posts between him and an emphatic encounter with the Canadian Shield, sixty feet below.
Through the deluge, his headlights glinted on something light-coloured and moving–not a birch tree, not a reflective highway sign. He braked instinctively, fishtailed, and managed to skid to a gravelly stop halfway onto the narrow shoulder.
The man on the edge of the road paused in his backwards walk and lowered his extended thumb. Duncan flashed his headlights on and off, and leaned over to crack open the door.
“Nasty night,” he said, as the hitchhiker settled into the passenger seat.
“Better now,” the young man said, giving him a quick grin and slicking a dirty-blond cowlick back from his forehead. His cheeks were ruddy from the chill; his tan bomber jacket and cuffed jeans were soaked dark with water.
Duncan reached past him to pull the door closed. The scent of rain rose off the man like a cologne. Biting down on a reflexive urge to tell him to buckle up, Duncan checked his mirrors and pulled away from the shoulder cautiously. “Where are you headed?”
“Not so far down the road. The turnoff’s about five miles north of Dorset.” He wiped his wet hand on his barely-less-wet thigh. “Thanks for the lift. I’m Jack.”
“Duncan.” Jack didn’t give any sign of being cold, but Duncan turned the dial on the temperamental heating a few notches up. “How’d you end up walking in this?”
Jack waved a hand airily. “Oh, me and my friend Lonnie went up to Dwight. We were going to get hamburgers and go to the movies, but we ran into Walter Cusack, who said he was having a little barn dance, seeing as it was Saturday and some of the army boys were on leave. Lonnie didn’t want to stay for it, so I said, fine, I’ll go by myself and make my own way home. One of the fellas gave me a lift, but I had him drop me off.”
“He didn’t offer to drive you all the way?” In Duncan’s experience, country people were usually generous with strangers needing a drive. There was a lot of empty space to cross out here.
“He did, but let’s say the cab fare was a little more than I wanted to pay.” Jack laughed.
The rain washed over the windshield like a bucket of thrown water. Jack leaned forward to look up through the dark. “It’s really coming down, isn’t it? Good thing you came along.”
“It’s not a nice night to be out. Dangerous, too, walking along the road like that.”
“I was hoping my luck would hold.”
During the day, the trees opened up here and there to scenic vistas over Lake of Bays. Now, the van might as well have been in a tunnel for all Duncan could see past the road. Any lone lighted windows were drowned in the storm, and most people hadn’t opened their cottages up for the season this early anyway.
“I hope your friend’s not too worried about you,” Duncan said.
“Maybe not. I’m later than I thought I’d be, but he wasn’t best pleased with me.” Jack folded his arms. “Do you think it’s shallow for a fella to want to go out and have a good time?”
“Shallow? No, I don’t think so. Most people need to be around other people.” Duncan, being the way he was, needed more solitude than most; other people’s thoughts intruded on him, other people’s emotions seeped into his own like tea staining fresh water. And his work, which was the most meaningful thing in his life by far, kept him uprooted and moving. “But I don’t think you have to be exactly the same to be friends.”
“We sure ain’t the same, that’s God’s own truth. Give him his rocks and trees to paint and he’s happy as a clam. Me, if I didn’t have work to go out to every day, I’d go plumb loco.” He laughed again.
An SUV emerged from a driveway up ahead and sped towards them, high-beams like a searchlight. Duncan’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. The van’s dash and seats washed white, and then the vehicle passed them with a wet, derisive hiss.
“Goddamn fool,” Jack said, voice a little high.
“It’s a little too slippery out to be in that much of a hurry,” Duncan agreed.
“He needs to watch himself. Someone could get killed.”
They were both quiet for a time. The rain lessened a little, turning from a curtain to silver pinpoints in the van’s headlights.
“So,” Jack said, “do you have anyone special? A girl or…anyone?”
“Not me.” Acquaintances, co-workers, men he’d spent half an hour or a night with, sure, but anything long-term was never going to be in the cards.
“When me and Lonnie met, I knew straightaway he was it for me.” Duncan could feel him in Jack’s thoughts, an absentminded gentleness. “I stayed for the night and never left.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Six years. Good years, but…” Jack shrugged with one shoulder. “It ain’t always easy.”
“I’ve heard that.” And felt the truth of it in others’ minds and hearts, and felt their yearning for companionship anyway.
Jack stared out the black mirror of the window. “He doesn’t say it, but he thinks I’m going to leave him.”
“He knows I go with other fellas sometimes, that’s not what bothers him. He thinks that wanting to go to parties means I’m getting bored of him, or of living way out here with him–like I should go back to the city, look for someone more like me. But he’s the one I want. He’s the one I’ll come back to, every time.” Jack picked at a thread fraying from his jacket cuff. “I think if I lived forever I still wouldn’t be able to make him understand that. Here, this is the road.”
A clump of signs adorned a mangy cedar tree, families or the names of couples burned or painted onto planks of wood. The dogleg turn led into a road that was wide enough for two cars to pass, but just barely. Naked, reaching twigs scraped against the doors; the van lurched into a rut and out again.
“It’s not far,” Jack said, as they passed a driveway, red reflectors on posts kindling under the touch of the van’s headlights. On the other side of the road, a gate with peeling white paint lay across a gap in the trees like fallen bones. “We’re all alone out here, but Lonnie likes it that way.”
“How about you?”
“I told you. As long as he’s here, I’m here.”
Duncan glanced over. Jack was a moonlight-pale figure in the glow of the dashboard. “Maybe he understands more than you think.”
Jack’s smile was wistful. “Maybe. I hope so. Here we are.”
Duncan turned into the broad, paved driveway. Under the canopy of mature pines, the force of the rain ebbed and quieted. His headlights flashed on a shoebox of modernist glass, black now.
“Just a little cabin, and maybe it’s seen better days, but it’s ours,” Jack said. He stretched. “It’s good to finally be home.” He peered into the night, and let out a sigh. “He didn’t leave a light on.”
“Perhaps he’s not here.”
“Where would he have gone without me?”
Duncan switched the engine off. The headlights faded, and he stared into the dark for a few moments, until his eyes accustomed to the gleam of the wet asphalt and the faintly glowing solar lights along the path to the house’s front door.
“Thanks for the ride. It was real good of you to stop.”
“It’s fine if you want to sit and wait until there’s a let-up in the rain,” Duncan said.
“Maybe I will.” Jack drew one knee up and swiveled in his seat. Speculation lit his eyes. “Like I said, Lonnie doesn’t mind if I go with other fellas.”
“Is that so?”
Jack rested his hand on Duncan’s thigh, a spot of chill through his jeans. Duncan regarded Jack with eyes and thought both. He wouldn’t ordinarily have stood in the uneasy gap between two men who loved each other and were making each other unhappy, but Jack clearly had something he needed to work through. “What do you have in mind?”
Jack trailed his fingers towards Duncan’s belt, leaning forward. He touched his tongue to his own bottom lip and looked up at Duncan thorough long eyelashes. “I could make you feel good.”
But Jack’s touch was as cold as rainwater, and physical arousal was generally elusive for Duncan, flooded out by everything his partner was feeling. “Why don’t you come closer, first?”
“I can do that.” Jack moved like a shadow, straddling Duncan’s lap. Duncan groped for the release lever and slid his seat back, putting more room between himself and the steering wheel.
“Hi, handsome,” Jack said, looking down at Duncan. His body was the barest suggestion of weight.
Duncan smiled. “You don’t have to butter me up.”
“I’m not! Not everybody has to look like a movie star.” He bent his head and breathed a kiss against Duncan’s mouth. “Anyway, you kind of remind me of Lonnie.”
“Yeah, sort of…rough-looking on the outside, but kind inside.” His nearness raised the small hairs on the back of Duncan’s neck, in a not entirely unpleasant way. “You going to make me feel good, instead?”
Duncan traced the line of Jack’s hip, fingertips meeting only cold air. “How about you do the honours, and I’ll watch.”
“Mmm. I like that game.” Jack sat back, hooking his thumbs through his belt loops. Duncan would have liked to have been able to cup the front of his jeans and feel him respond, but this was satisfying too, waiting for Jack to give rein to his own desire.
As if he’d heard the thought, Jack slid his hand down his fly. He popped the top button, then the next four. His erection made a bulge behind the white cotton rib in the V of his open jeans. He rubbed it, then pushed down the elastic waistband of his briefs to let his cock bob out.
“Like what you see?” he asked, curling his hand around himself.
“I’m not complaining.”
Jack huffed a laugh and stroked himself. His thumb skimmed the upper side of his cock as if he preferred a light touch, or as if he were putting on a show.
“Is that how you like it?” Duncan asked.
“Yeah, it’s good.” Jack’s eyes drifted closed as his thumb circled the head of his cock.
“What would you say to Lonnie, if he was here?”
Jack smiled lazily. “I’d say, stay right there, mister, and watch how much I want you.”
Jack began to rock his hips to meet the movement of his hand. “I’ll never leave you unless you tell me to. Can’t you understand that? I like parties and dances and having a good time, sure, and then I like coming back to you. I feel the exact same way about you that you do about me, dummy.”
“I love you.” He gasped; Duncan felt an echo of the pleasure that thrilled through Jack with the words. “I love you.”
“Yeah, Lonnie, I know I like to screw around sometimes, but you’re the one I want to keep. They’re fun, but you’re more than that. With you it’s like I’m home.” He bit his lip. “Lonnie, honey, I will always come back to you. I will always–I’ll come–I–“
He arched his neck and turned his head away, shivered, froze for a heightened moment. Duncan closed his eyes and let Jack’s gratification break over him, bliss like a perfect chord soaking down to his bones.
Jack wilted and slumped, head next to Duncan’s shoulder. After a moment, he straightened and brushed Duncan’s lips with his own. “You sure I can’t do anything for you?”
“What you did was just fine.”
Jack buttoned himself back into his jeans. He looked out of the window with mixed resignation and longing. “I guess I got to go now.”
“Do you ever get tired of waiting in the rain?”
“Where else would I go?”
“Let me show you,” Duncan said.
He got out of the van. The scent of the rain mixed with the resin of the pines, a fragrance as bracing as a frost. Duncan breathed it in, and reached for the door in the air.
It was there, as it always was, ready to his touch. A light, a possibility, the sense of things green and growing. The passage between this world and the place living things went when they left it.
“We must’ve woken Lonnie up,” said Jack, at his side, “he’s lit the lantern.”
“Why don’t you go on in to him, then,” Duncan said.
The light gilded Jack’s face. “I guess I’m not too late.”
“There’s no such thing as too late.”
When the door closed, Duncan’s night vision went with it. He stood with dazzled eyes, listening to the rain rustling the leaves outside the oasis of pines. After a while, cold water began to trickle down the back of his neck, under his collar. He blinked, wondering if he’d fallen asleep where he stood; sometimes calling the door hit him hard afterwards. Moving like he was on the bottom of the lake, he crawled into the van again and reached for the thermos of strong, sweet tea he’d brought with him. What he really craved after work like this was human touch, but sugar and caffeine were what he had.
The tea steadied him, but his jacket and jeans were damp, and now that he was no longer driving, the early spring chill was setting in. Duncan considered the odds of the owners visiting their cottage on a stormy Tuesday night at the end of April. Then he climbed into the back of the van, wound up his lantern, and pulled the blackout curtains into place. He changed into dry sweats, then shook out his sleeping bag and slid into it. A check of his phone showed no service, either because of the location or the weather. Tomorrow, he’d drive back up to Huntsville and let the man who’d called him know that he was never again going to see that hitchhiker on a dangerous curve of Highway 35 on rainy nights.
The thump of a pine cone on the roof followed a gust of wind. It was a little early for outdoor living, but he was running short on cash and he’d needed to be out of the crappy Renfrew motel he’d spent the winter in. Maybe he’d head down to Toronto until it got warmer. There was some work he’d promised to take a look at the next time he swung by that way.
He could smell wood smoke from someone’s stove, or maybe it was the ghost of Jack and Lonnie’s fire lingering in his memory. He thought of the cabin as it had appeared to Jack, shabby but warm, a glowing coal at the heart of his life. He hoped there was a fireplace in a cabin, or something like it, where they were now.
Duncan’s ears and nose were cold. He pulled on the soft toque he slept in, switched off the lantern, and pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up to his chin. He curled up and put his hands between his knees, warming himself, and fell asleep to the gradually fading patter of the rain.