Title: Master's Voice
Author: KatBear (email@example.com)
Category: AR, first time, romantic adventure
Rating: Mostly PG13, but some NC17 elements so overall rating NC17
Pairing: Qui-Gon Jinn/Obi-Wan Kenobi as alternate incarnations
Thanks: To the beta readers who made this a better story (Bonny Magret, Merry Amelie and Obi-Ki). All mistakes are my own since I can't resist tweaking. And thanks to Sue_Chose_This for the lovely manips for chapter nineteen and the end piece.
Summary: A voice on the radio captures a lonely newcomer in town.
Spoilers: None, alternate reality set in 21st century Earth in fictional part of the western U.S.
1. The primary setting is not based on any actual specific real location or persons but is a composite of possible geography, town features, etc. The state university has been transplanted and adapted.
2. The federal agencies mentioned are real but liberties have been taken with some policies, practices and job duties.
3. All references and Tai Chi notes and links at end of story
Copyright 2009 for the author and artists. The story herein is of an adult nature involving men having relationships with other men, and no copy of this story will be given to anyone under the age of eighteen. All recognizable characters are the property of others and are being used with no intent to cause harm to George Lucas or the actors who portrayed the characters on the screen, or any other owners not mentioned. No profit is involved.
§ Chapter One §
"Hey, Kennan! You done with that Harley Super Glide?" A thin tow-headed man leaned over the bottom half of the dutch door, his strident voice echoing off the industrial walls and flooring of the repair bay.
A young man in dirty grey coveralls with cutoff sleeves straightened from where he had been bending over a black motorcycle. "Just finishing now, Mr. Jones," he called out, his soft Knob Hill twang audible even in those few respectful words. He wiped his hands on a rag as he spoke.
The door opened and the store owner came into the brightly lit maintenance bay, followed closely by a tall, heavily built man in faded jeans, his grizzled crew cut covered by a Harley-Davidson baseball cap.
As the two stopped by the big motorcycle, the mechanic offered an electronic tablet and a small box. "All set, sir. She runs nicely and I think you'll be pleased with the improvements. I covered everything you asked for and these are the parts I replaced," he nodded toward the box. "This is the list, so let's see if we can't get you out of here quickly."
The bike's owner looked sourly at the young man. He placed a possessive hand on the bike's seat as he glared at Jones. "You let this city kid work on my bike?" he demanded.
Ben bit the inside of his cheek to remind himself to keep his temper. He couldn't help his age or that damned Boston accent that didn't seem to sit well with a lot of the people in this western town, but he liked working here and needed the job too badly to say anything.
"Now, Mike, you know I don't let just anybody work on the Harleys, but he did a nice job on those foreign bikes the first month he was here so I've been letting him move up the last couple of weeks while Bobby's been out sick so much. And, he's got a Harley of his own," the store owner said soothingly. "So why don't you at least check it out?"
Mike looked the mechanic over, from the engineer boots on his feet, up the compact body, across the smear of grease above the blue-grey eyes, to the unruly russet hair. "What ya got?" he finally grunted.
Patiently, Ben went down the list on the service order, explaining each of the repairs he had made. Mike scrutinized every old part, ran his hands over the bike, then fired up the engine, listening closely as it idled and revved several times. Finally he turned it off and sat silently astride.
"Okay, maybe I was wrong," Mike said with a shake of his head. "She does sound sweet."
The shop owner nodded, pleased with the assessment. He glanced over at his mechanic, noting the way the young man had his head cocked slightly, the corner of his lower lip tucked in, looking down at the concrete. "Alright, Kennan, I know that look. You got something to say, then say it."
"Well..." Ben hesitated. "I know you didn't ask, but there are a few things I think you should get looked at on your next maintenance visit."
"So spit it out, already," Mike said, skepticism returning to his voice.
"Two things, really. One is the brakes; they didn't feel right so I checked them out. They are not wearing evenly and it looks like they have been badly knocked out of alignment. It's not an immediate risk, but I'd recommend changing out the pads within the next three to four hundred miles. The other thing I noticed is that you have some deep road chips along the underside of the frame that should be cleaned up, especially if you'll be heading into the mountains where they still have a lot of road salt laid down."
"Didn't 'feel' right? What the hell does that mean? I had those brakes fixed less'n a year ago before I went on my last long road trip," Mike snorted in disbelief.
Ben pursed his lips and looked at the store owner for guidance.
"You know, it's the darndest thing," Jones said slowly. "I've noticed the kid has a real gift with the bikes; he's been right every time so far when he says he feels somethin's not right. You know I don't churn repairs like some of those assholes out there, so you might want to listen to him."
"Alright, show me," Mike challenged.
Once again Ben put his feelings aside as he pointed out the problems he had found.
"Damn," Mike muttered as he fingered the clearly uneven edges of a brake pad. "I must have screwed up the alignment when I took that spill last October. We're supposed to be heading out on the road Monday, but this isn't good." He looked up. "Any chance of getting this stuff fixed before then?"
"Well, it's only the end of April and still the slow season so we're closed tomorrow, but if Kennan is willing to stay tonight I'll keep the shop open for you. It's five-thirty now, though, and after six I've got to charge time and half because he'll have gone past his hours for the week," said Jones.
"How about it?" Mike asked as both men turned to look at the young mechanic.
"I don't mind," Ben shrugged, keeping his delight at the chance for extra pay behind a nonchalant face. "Brakes and cleaning up the worst chips will probably take a couple of hours."
"Alright, let's do it," Mike said. "I'll be back around seven to see how it's going."
Ben nodded as the two men walked back through the service bay to the sales shop in the front half of the building. He hummed a cheerful tune as he opened a tool box and set to work.
The crisp chill of the early spring evening made Ben glad for the liner in his heavy leather jacket as he slowed down to turn off the paved road onto the long gravel drive. This far from the southern edge of town there was only the light from the full moon and the bike's single headlamp to show the path through the trees as he carefully wended his way up to the big old house. He absently noted that the carport off to the side of the house was empty; the two young women who rented the upstairs rooms with the shared bath were probably out with their current boyfriends.
Ben swung the heavy bike around in front of the garage. Pulling off his helmet, he sucked in a lungful of the clean air. He sat quietly as the distinctive rumble from the hot metal between his thighs soothed him. The town spread out before him. On its northern edge, the distant light of the tower on the sprawling university campus was a steady beacon. To the east and south, the lights gradually petered out as buildings and tracts of houses eventually gave way to large lots like the forty acres where he sat and then to ranches and farms. Dense blackness to the west marked the immense national forest that stretched up into the snow-covered mountains. Ben took another deep breath, savoring the moment a bit longer before turning away to put the motorcycle inside the garage.
A deep 'whuff' greeted Ben as he swung the garage door closed. The pair of female Rottweilers, Dexy and Delilah, sniffed his outstretched hand, then headed back into the laundry room to the warmth of their beds next to the entrance to the big kitchen. Ben carefully folded his gauntlets, leather chaps and jacket over the seat of his bike. He looked around the garage, still pleased at the cleanup job and new shelves which had earned him garage privileges in addition to the kitchen and laundry privileges all the boarders enjoyed. From his left pannier he unloaded groceries, putting the milk, juice, fruit, cold cuts and bread onto his designated shelf in the old refrigerator. Four library books and a two liter bottle of soda came out of the other pannier, then a six pack of beer.
"I'm home, Mrs. Brandon," Ben called out. The smell of baking bread filled the air. "I brought a bottle of that local root beer you like; I'll set it in the reefer so it'll get cold. I've also got some extra rent money this week from working overtime."
The trim gray-haired woman turned from the sink and wiped her hands. "Good evening, Ben. That was right thoughtful of you. Hang on just a moment and I'll get the account book down." She hung the small towel on a hook under a cupboard. "There's some leftover stew if you want it; save me the trouble of having to put it up." She reached into a cupboard and took down a black lockbox.
Ben smiled at the transparent ploy as he put the soda into the white side-by-side, keeping a wary eye on the ragged-eared ginger tom who glared down at him from atop the appliance.
"Don't pay any mind to Tiger. He's just being territorial tonight." The woman put the box on the heavy wooden table next to her ever-present bag of knitting, then sat down. She pulled out a worn ledger book and pen.
Ben counted out a small stack of bills and watched as his landlady entered the amount on his account, then put the cash away in a small bag.
"You're starting to make a right fair dent in the bill, Ben Kennan," she remarked as she closed the ledger. She tapped a finger on the cover, then took a deep breath. "You know, I've been thinking a bit." She paused.
"I hope you've had good thoughts." Ben smiled to ease her apparent embarrassment.
The woman looked down at the ledger. "You've been a big help around the place," she continued. "And I've been thinking maybe we don't really need a security deposit, or maybe we could lower the rent a bit..."
"We'll have none of that, Jane Brandon," Ben said firmly. He gathered the book and bag and placed it in the lockbox, closing the lid with a decisive click. "I pay my debts." He waited until Jane looked up at him before quietly continuing. "I know a scruffy, unemployed young man on a motorcycle wasn't really what you wanted for a boarder for your best room, but you took me in when I was in a hole and have been taking care of me ever since."
"You put up the title to that motorcycle as security," she protested.
Ben leaned in with a disarming smile. "Yes, ma'am, but we both know I can get that piece of paper replaced any time." He gently touched her hand, then straightened. "You're stuck with me until I pay back every penny for the security deposit plus the back rent." He sat down at the table. "Besides, I like it here, and I like helping out."
"We'll see how much you like helping out when the ground softens up enough to get the garden ready for planting," she said gruffly, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. She put the lockbox away and ladled stew into a bowl. "Now you stay right there and eat. Mind you clean up when you're done."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben replied. He grinned as he took an appreciative spoonful of the hearty offering.
The upper oven timer beeped. Jane pulled out four loaves of bread and set them to cool.
"Smells good. What kind did you make tonight?"
"Cinnamon raisin for after church tomorrow. Joe Silver is bringing seeds in return for the bread. Tom Lorton is bringing eggs and fresh chickens for those booties and sweaters I knitted for his new grandson."
Ben shook his head. He was still amazed at the remarkable underground economy his landlady had introduced him to after she decided to take him under her wing. She had also shown him where to find the best bargains and hidden values at the various thrift stores, enabling him to make some much-needed additions to his sparse and well-worn wardrobe, including more of the black t-shirts and jeans he favored. He had started picking up odd jobs for some of her friends, leading to the recommendation that had gotten him the job at the motorcycle shop in mid-March.
Jane sat down at the table and began sorting through skeins of yarn. "If you're interested, the church is throwing a social for singles tomorrow afternoon. Nothing fancy, but there will be some nice girls there."
"Thanks, but I promised Mr. Felton I'd come over and see if I can fix his tractor."
"Ed or Tim?"
"Well, that's okay then. Ed Felton will pay you fair and square, but his brother Tim is sharp with a dollar. Keep an eye out for Susie, Ed's wife. She's good with a needle but can't cook at all, so don't let her try to feed you." She set aside two skeins of brown and gold wool. "They have a right pretty daughter, Janice. She'll probably be home tomorrow."
"Thanks for the warning about the food." Ben scraped up the last spoonful of stew. "I appreciate the other thought, too, but I don't think I'm ready to settle down right now."
"I suppose the girls will just have to do without you then." Jane paused, giving her boarder a shrewd look. "Sometimes I think perhaps you are already married to that motorcycle anyway." She smiled to herself as she rose.
"Myrna and I have certainly been through a lot together." Ben looked down to hide his sudden uneasiness. He stood abruptly and took his dishes to the sink to wash up. "I got some new books from the library this morning on my way to work, so I think I'll go down to my room and read tonight."
"Alright. I'll take a last look out to the barn and then lock up. The girls can let themselves in whenever they get back."
"You still have the three dogs?" Ben asked as he put away the clean dishes.
"Those three for another week and Geena Smith's two cats. She's going down to Texas for a bit to visit her sister's family." Jane put on a heavy coat. "Good night."
"Good night, ma'am." Ben watched her head out the back door with the Rottweilers toward the cavernous barn, a large part of which had been converted several years ago to board pet animals. It was another extra bit of cash to supplement his landlady's pension.
Ben fetched a bottle of beer from the garage, then gathered his books and went down the long hallway. He paused to look into the family room where Jane did most of her evening knitting while she listened to the radio or watched television. Two black-ribboned pictures on the fireplace mantel kept guard over her domain. The proud young Marine sergeant on the left shared the blue eyes and firm chin of his mother and the same wickedly joyful smile as the tall broad-shouldered, brown-haired man in the other picture. Jane had never volunteered any information about what had happened to her two men, and Ben didn't pry. He shook his head and went down the stairs.
Switching on the light revealed a large comfortable room. The desk, chair, bureau, nightstand and outsized wooden bed frame were old but of solid wood and well-maintained. Ben tossed one book onto the large bed and placed the other three on the desk. He put the beer down on the nightstand before sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling off his boots and setting them aside. He stacked up three pillows against the headboard and settled back into the pillows, sitting with knees bent as he took a long pull at the beer.
Ben grimaced as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His forearms rested on his knees, the beer dangling from one hand.
"Well, Ben my lad, that was not a happy moment," he said aloud to the empty room. "I wish I could figure out how she really feels. I know she's a regular at church, but she does seem to have an awfully broad assortment of friends. Sometimes it seems as if she knows what I'm really about, but she never comes out and says anything one way or the other." He sighed gloomily. "I'm starting to feel at home here, but I don't want to screw this chance up and get thrown out on my ass. It's no fun trying to start a new life again."
This place did feel more like home than the house he had lived in for so many years. Youngest of three, he had often felt like a mistake by his Catholic parents (once he grew old enough to understand such matters). He had never lacked for material things; his father was a very well-to-do corporate lawyer with a social place to keep up, so there had always been nice clothes, expensive toys and private schools. The oldest, Lars Kennan the Fourth, was the apple of their father's eye and was being groomed to follow in the paternal footsteps. His sister was doted on by their mother, but Maureen had long since decided she would play their parents' game to her own advantage and could wheedle almost anything she wanted out of them. She despised Lars for his selfish, materialistic focus, but Ben and Maureen had always got on very well. Ben had learned early to keep a low profile and look out for himself.
The first truly major blowup had come on his eighteenth birthday. He had proudly come home from the motorcycle store with the new two-wheeler he had worked and saved for over three years to buy. His father was not at all happy. They had argued at length about the appropriateness and safety of such a lower-class vehicle, with his father also making pointed remarks about the type of lower-class people who rode them. Ben had used only money he had personally earned at summer and odd jobs, so legally there hadn't been a damned thing his father could do about it. Ben had also busted his tail keeping his grades up. He had already been accepted at three of the colleges his parents had insisted he apply to; in the end the old man had grudgingly given in and decided to ignore the issue. Their relationship was distinctly more strained after that, however.
The final straw came a few years later. Ben had just gotten home after finishing the last of his exams for the sophomore year of his engineering program. He had been invited to a friend's house and alcohol had flowed freely, seriously dampening his normal discretion. They had been caught with Ben's cock up another boy's ass, indulging in a proclivity to which Ben had been introduced at the private boarding school his parents had required him to attend. His father was outraged and disgusted (or so he said); a tremendous flaming row followed. They had yelled at each other until his father had backhanded him across the mouth and told him to get out and never come back. His mother was crying, while his older brother, home from law school, smirked and tossed out snide comments.
Ben had stormed up to his room and started throwing things into a duffel bag. His sister was the only one who came to him. She managed to calm him down enough to think about what he needed to do next. She had insisted he take the deluxe backpack, sleeping bag and camping gear left over from one of her passing hobbies. Maureen also pressed almost three hundred dollars in cash onto him. Ben didn't ask where she had gotten it, but gratefully accepted her gifts and counsel. With a cooler head, he'd ensured that he had the title to his bike, his passport, a good assortment of sturdy clothes, and a few of his favorite books and pictures. Left behind were the cell phone, credit cards, computer and any other luxuries that his parents had paid for. By the time he and Maureen finished a last long talk, the sun was coming up. He hugged her and said goodbye.
After a stop at the bank to close his accounts, Ben mounted Myrna, as he had affectionately named his bike, and hit the road. He wandered aimlessly for many months, stopping whenever the fancy took him. Occasionally he took on an odd job or two to stretch his money so he could feed himself and Myrna. Every few weeks he would stop at a public library and send an email to Maureen to let her know he was alright. He still didn't understand what impulse had driven him in this direction; on the face of it, going north into the tail-end of winter didn't seem to make sense. Eventually his money and anger ran out on a cold snowy day in this Wyoming town. A bed at the local YMCA made a big hole in what little cash he had left; a notice on the bulletin board had led him to Jane Brandon. Exerting every ounce of charm he had and what Maureen had often assured him was a devastating grin, he had managed to convince the skeptical woman to take a chance on him.
Ben opened his eyes and took another swallow of beer, then set the bottle on the nightstand.
"I think that I had better be careful until I get a better idea of how the land lies," he mused. "Wouldn't be the first time." Ben shrugged and glanced at the radio beside his beer. Some music would be pisser, he thought.
The high-end boombox was another item Jane had helped him find at one of the thrift shops. The handle was missing and the exterior was scratched and dented, but it played perfectly after a minor bit of tinkering. He had run an antenna wire up to the roof and was able to pull in good reception on the multi-band radio. Ben fiddled with the dial a moment, finally settling for a station sponsored by the public radio town-university collaboration.
For the next hour Ben read his book, taking an occasional sip of beer, the radio a pleasant noise in the background. Eventually he set the book aside and stretched, a long, slow, joint-popping release. Hands behind his head, Ben settled back into his pillows, eyes half-closed. For several minutes, he drowsed lazily.
A familiar tune caught Ben's attention. He smiled at the old melody that brought fond memories of his fifteenth summer when Maureen had been dating a would-be folk singer who often serenaded the family out in the back yard. His smile turned to a pensive melancholy as he thought about his past and what he had lost, and he drifted off into a self-pitying haze. He knew his mother had tried to love him in her own vague way, and he had had many acquaintances at school. Most of all, though, he regretted being cut off from Maureen. Far more a close friend than a big sister to him, he missed the late-night talks, the shoulder to cry on, the long walks around town and the rambling drives on back roads. With a pang he realized that she would be graduating from college in less than two months, and it was highly unlikely that he would be able to find enough money to allow him to attend the ceremony. He counted in his head; twenty-three emails and the four times he had managed to catch her on her cell phone was all the contact that he had had since he left. And, of course, she had been there for him that miserable night at the end of October when he had turned 21. He had celebrated his solitary birthday by buying a case of beer and taking it back to the cheap motel near the beach in Florida where he had splurged for a tiny room; Maureen had called him back after he phoned her, and she had spent almost two hours on the phone consoling him as he slowly got drunker and sadder. His throat tightened and he squeezed his eyes closed to keep the pain inside.
"That was the Dublin Boys to start the show. For the next two hours we'll be playing a collection of folk songs from Ireland and Scotland, featuring songs that our fans have requested the last few months. We'd like to thank you for listening tonight and for supporting the United Public Access program, bringing town and university together for better communication..."
Ben blinked as the mellow brogue penetrated his funk. He turned sideways, propping himself up on an elbow. He looked at the radio, his head cocked, mouth slightly open. He waited through two songs, unheeding, as he tried to figure out what had piqued his curiosity. When the DJ's voice came back on, suddenly Ben's consciousness lurched and he was flung back five years; he was sitting at a desk, casting furtive glances toward the front of the classroom as another Irishman's voice filled his head.
Neal Delaney. Dr. Neal Delaney, exchange lecturer in literature while his counterpart took his place for the semester at their sister school in Ireland.
Neal Delaney. Broad shoulders and tapered waist. Black hair and blue eyes. Sideburns and closely trimmed Van Dyke. Corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe peeking from the pocket.
Neal Delaney. Passionate lecturer. Very Irish. Very male. Proper gentleman when the headmaster was around. A bit of a charming rogue when he wasn't.
Neal Delaney. A hint of ambiguity that fired the imagination of a sixteen-year-old boy caught between the throes of teenage angst and the agony of trying to come to terms with his less-than-mainstream sexuality.
Ben shuddered and shook his head as his body reacted to the heat of that past emotion. For a magical three months he had harbored romantic fantasies, written incredibly bad poetry and had frequent wet dreams centered around the object of his clandestine affections. He had held his secret close within his breast. It was almost a year later before he could bring himself to drop more than a bare hint to Maureen about his obsession.
It had been a heady time indeed. The focus of the visitor's courses had been influences on Irish literature over the last two centuries. In addition to the spirited discussions of the Irish nationalist movement, Ben was particularly fascinated by the cultural and social threads. Both in class and at the weekly gatherings when Neal Delaney opened his home to students, one of the themes that seemed to recur with regularity was the long repression of homosexuality and its slow emergence into legal acceptance. Great patriots such as Roger Casement and Padriac Pearse, while they had not spoken publicly of such things, had kept diaries or produced writings which showed their leanings. Ben still had a special fondness for Pearse's poetry after that night Delaney read to them verses like "Little Lad of the Tricks," his dulcet tones caressing words such as "There is a fragrance in your kiss that I have not yet found in the kisses of women."
It was not just an exciting and romantic time, however. Ben's thoughts on his own sexual leanings crystallized during that semester as he came to understand the vague yearnings he had been having. He finally had a name for his feelings and an image of how he wanted to fulfill his longings: a fantasy fuelled by the Irishman's ready smile and freely bestowed touches. On the other hand, he was sobered by the oft-repeated tales of executions, imprisonment and harassment. Ben's natural reticence about displaying such intimate feelings was further reinforced by the sometimes crude and blatantly hateful comments of many of his classmates, making him very cautious about pursuing his inclinations.
The culmination of the silent, one-sided love affair came in the last few weeks of the semester. Ben had chosen to write the required course paper on the relationship of Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde's concurrent literary output, widely acknowledged to be the best of his career. He hoped that the topic might allow him to ask some provocative questions during Dr. Delaney's office hours, but he was thwarted during his early appointments by the presence of the other teacher who shared the room. Ben's opportunity had eventually come when he brought in the nearly complete paper for a final discussion and found Delaney alone. After a half hour of Ben's carefully prepared questions, the professor had gone to his bookcase to pull down a book for a reference. Ben stood up and moved next to him to read the page. He had carefully nudged closer, his heart racing, until their arms touched. His breath stopped when their eyes met, but his courage failed and he couldn't get a single word out. Delaney looked at him oddly for a moment, shook his head slightly, then retreated behind his desk. Somehow Ben managed to get through the rest of the meeting, but afterwards escaped to a wooded park near the school and berated himself for hours.
When Neal Delaney left at the end of the semester, Ben had felt crushed with despair, convinced he had forever lost the opportunity for true love. Eventually, of course, he realized what an idiot he had been and burned the excruciatingly embarrassing poetry. Despite his best efforts, however, an ember of regret had always lingered in his heart for what he wished might have been if he had only acted on his desires.
During the rest of the program, Ben found himself growing more and more entranced by the voice emanating from the radio. He became so lost in the spell that the rich eloquence spun around him that, for the life of him, he couldn't recall later a single song after that first one. He couldn't quite pin down any particular thing that drew him in; the distinctive Irish accent was charming but not overwhelming. It was not surprising that Ben found himself comparing it to a certain doctor of literature. There was no slickly polished patina of a typical commercial announcer, but rather an understated, roughly powerful confidence that Ben found very attractive. The mellifluous tone spoke to him, drew him in, pulling him ever closer to the seductive warmth as it gradually began to blow a tiny breath of life into long-buried ashes.
By the end of the first hour he felt an odd familiarity with this stranger, almost a feeling of deja vu for a scene that might have happened in some alternate life, seeing himself as if he was back in one of the neighborhood bars his father had banned him from frequenting, sharing an evening with a close friend as they listened to a local band. Ben shut his eyes and hugged a pillow, relaxing completely as the voice washed over him like ocean waves on a sunny beach.
"This concludes my portion of the broadcast this evening. If you enjoyed the music, or have any suggestions for other shows you would like to hear, please drop us a line, send an email or call. We appreciate your support for the United Public Access program. If you are interested in participating in the program or would like more information, please visit the web site, the UPA office at the Communications Arts building at the university, or ask your local librarian. Stay tuned to this station; in just a moment Trina Jordan will be bringing you jazz oldies from around the world, with a special visitor on tonight's show from the university's music department. Thank you again for your support. This is Quilan Finn signing off."
Ben lay motionless for several minutes as the radio droned on unheard. The magic voice still echoed in his head, and a once-familiar yearning tickled his heart.
Eventually he stirred, sat up and drew a heavy breath, letting it out slowly.
"Qui... lan... Finn..." his tongue trickled over the syllables, trying them out. "God, but that voice reminds me so much of Neal Delaney, or at least the way I felt about Delaney! Who is this man?"
Ben sat for a while longer before finally getting up to visit the bathroom next door, then distractedly undressing and slipping into bed. Sleep was elusive; his broken dreams were haunted by snatches of songs, a sonorous voice and visions of what might have been and what might yet be.
§ Chapter Two §
Sunday morning found the young man lying in a tangle of sheets. Ben sorted himself out, disposed of his morning erection, then finally got up. After a quick stop in the bathroom, he threw on a t-shirt and a set of old sweats. He stepped into the basement, which had once evidently been a rec room but was now mostly storage for old furniture and boxes. Even with the large bedroom and full bathroom carved out of it, it was still quite a big space. After Jane had suggested he should see if there was anything he might want to use in the basement, Ben had cleared one end and fixed up the weight machine he had found buried under a stack of old clothes. He did some stretches and a set of pushups and sit-ups, then went upstairs and out the front door.
Ben jogged slowly down the long driveway. When he reached the road, he turned left and began running at a steady pace. The Wyoming elevation meant the weather was still cool even near the end of April, the sun bright but not yet powerful enough to bring warmth to the wooded land, and his breath steamed a little as he warmed up.
While he ran along the winding road, Ben's thoughts churned as he tried to understand his strange fascination with the unseen voice that had come through his radio. After his unspoken romantic tragedy, he'd had passing infatuations, but this had grabbed him like an anaconda dropping from above. He didn't believe it was just the Irish accent. Ben had met other people from Ireland, even had a young Irish immigrant in one of his college math courses for a whole semester, and he had never flashed back to Neal Delaney with anything like the intensity he'd felt the previous night.
After a mile and a half, Ben turned around and started back as his internal struggle continued. Perhaps it was the power; Neal had been a powerful man, self-confident physically and emotionally, and it showed in the way he spoke and the way he carried himself. Or maybe it was the passion; Ben still got chills up his spine when he remembered the poems about rebels and revolutions that Neal had read to them. Throughout the radio program there had been an undercurrent of feeling, a warmth that hinted of deeper emotions. Whatever it was, that voice had touched something inside him that he had thought was long out of his reach, something good, and he found himself wanting more. By the time he got back to the house, he had worked up a healthy sweat and a determination to find out more about a man named Quilan Finn.
Ben went in the front door and passed through the kitchen to the garage. He returned with milk, cereal and a jug of orange juice, which he set on the table.
"Good morning, Tammy," Ben said.
Bloodshot eyes blinked as a short young woman in a bathrobe, her light brown hair loosely tied back, looked up. "Morning. Coffee's on." She took a sip from the large steaming mug she held in two hands. Tammy Martin had one of the upstairs rooms, sharing a bathroom with Jane's other boarder, Cynthia Vernon, a tall brunette.
"Thanks." Ben poured himself a cup of coffee, then sat at the table to have his cereal and juice.
A few minutes later Jane came in, announcing, "I'm heading off to church now." She was dressed in a simple skirt and blouse, an overcoat on one arm. "Cindy still out?"
"She went off with Ricky Hernandez again after we left the dance club." Tammy shook her head. "I think it's getting really serious with those two. She hasn't gone out with anyone else in months."
"Well, we'll see how it goes," Jane said as she shrugged into the coat and went toward the garage.
Ben followed. "Let me get that door for you."
Jane started her pickup truck as Ben swung open the garage door. She carefully backed out, called out, "Thank you, Ben, that was right kind of you," then waved as she drove slowly off.
Ben smiled and waved back, then closed the door and went back to finish his breakfast.
The promised tractor repair job ended up taking Ben's entire Sunday afternoon. Another restless night had only made the yearning more acute and fortified his resolution. Fortunately, Ben didn't usually work on Mondays, so the next morning he began his hunt for Quilan Finn at the main library. A few minutes after opening time, Ben found himself in a side room with an enthusiastic librarian who was more than happy to introduce him to their catalog of UPA offerings and press three brochures on him. She showed him the cassette tapes and CDs of story and poetry readings and the smaller set of tapes of the most popular televised offerings. With great regret, she had to admit that the UPA web site had only recently received a large grant for new servers that would allow them to properly index their archives and convert them to downloadable formats. She gushed happily, however, about the wonderful work the town committee and university had done to start the program and all the work the volunteers had put in just to collate some manual filing information for the recordings. She was starting in about the television programming when she was called away to handle a minor crisis with some misfiled documents.
"Wow." Ben blew out a big breath of relief as he recovered from the inundation. "I guess she must really like the program." He smiled as he sat down in front of a monitor. There were two computer monitors on a table and six carrels: two with small televisions with tape players and four with audio players; all six stations had large headphones. He checked the short menu on the screen and called up the entry for radio shows, but was disappointed to find a notation that this section was still under construction. He went on to the entries for various types of readings; again his search was fruitless as these items were categorized by basic items such as genre, age suitability, title and author, with no indication of who the reader was.
After a frustrating hour, Ben pushed his chair back with a sigh. He sat thinking for a few moments, then reached for the brochures he had tossed onto the table. One was a short overview of the entire UPA program: how it was started, the two main elements of visual and audio projects and some points of contact. The second dealt mainly with the visual side, which included the public television station, the types of shows they had and various types of volunteer work available in technical, production and on-air areas. He set that one aside and picked up the last trifold.
"This looks a little more promising," Ben muttered. He leaned forward to study the leaflet. "Let's see, they have three recording studios... computer stuff for the web site and archiving... local radio station... ah, there's the reading program and public service announcements..." Ben pulled the paper closer to get a better look at the final panel. A small map showed the location of the UPA offices. "I think a visit to the university is in order."
Helmet tucked under one arm, Ben wandered down the long hallway on the third floor, checking out the numbers beside the doors. He didn't find the one he wanted, but there was a door with a sign claiming to be the UPA Audio Program. He went in and put his helmet on the long counter. Within a large open area, there were seven desks and two long tables with several telephones, but the only occupant was a young woman sitting at one of the desks. She was on the phone, listening intently and taking notes. She looked up and waved her pencil in Ben's direction in a vague greeting.
Ben waited patiently. Eventually the conversation ended and the woman walked briskly over to the counter. Ben noted the brown hair, brown eyes and generous sprinkling of freckles.
"Thanks for waiting; I'm afraid we're a little short-handed today. I'm Sandy Miller, director of the UPA audio programs. What can I do for you?" Her voice was pleasant, the smile genuine.
"Ben Kennan." He reached over the counter to shake her hand. "I've heard of this UPA program, and I was hoping to find out more about how it works. I'm not really interested in the TV programs, but I thought the radio side sounded interesting."
They chatted for several minutes about the history of the program. The town council and university both provided some funding, but much of the money came from grants and contributions. A lot of the university student volunteers were from the communications arts and journalism programs, interns came in from the high school, and quite a few of the townspeople participated in both the on-air and off-air activities. There was a joint town/university committee that approved all of the requested on-air shows for both TV and radio. In addition to the recorded readings, they did a lot of pre-recorded radio shows to fit people's schedules, but also a fair amount of live radio. Training was available from volunteer instructors, and occasionally they got people from the commercial stations and the state public broadcasting station who would teach or help with on-the-job training.
"We only have a few paid positions, so we really do depend heavily on our volunteers, even if somebody just wants to help in the office or with the fund-raising drives. With our regulars, it's almost like a big extended family. If there's a particular area you are interested in, I can provide more details or arrange a tour of the facilities. There will be a live community news show on at noon if you'd like to see how that works."
"That would be wicked pisser, if you don't mind." Ben hesitated a moment. He had been trying to think of the right words to use without sounding like a stalker, but had not been having much success. He plunged ahead anyway. "Actually, it was one of the radio shows that really caught my attention."
At that moment a teenager with a backpack rushed in, his thick glasses askew, panting heavily.
"I'm terribly sorry to be so late, Miss Miller. I had a flat tire on my bike and then my mom asked me to drop off some stuff at Uncle Fred's house and..."
"It's alright, Joey, not a problem at all. And I do wish you would call me Sandy," she shuddered delicately, "Miss Miller makes me feel like a maiden aunt."
"Yes, Miss Miller, I mean Sandy." The boy was still flustered. "Should I get started on the filing first?"
"That will be fine. Don't forget the Roundup starts in twenty minutes. Armand said you can help him in the control room today, so most of the paperwork can wait until after the show."
"Gosh, thanks, that's great, I'll take care of that whole stack for you." He dumped his backpack on one of the empty desks and started attacking an overflowing file box.
"High school intern," Sandy whispered to Ben with a smile.
"I don't think you look like any of my maiden aunts," Ben said, smiling back.
"You probably say that to all the program directors you meet," Sandy deflected the comment. "But we were talking about you. You said you heard one of our radio programs?"
"Yes. Saturday night there was a great show with Irish and Scottish folk songs, some very nice selections." Ben hoped she didn't ask him which songs he had liked, as he didn't actually have the foggiest idea what had been played. "I was particularly impressed with the DJ. He sounded like he was really enjoying himself and was sincerely interested in the music." Ben leaned a little further over the counter. "I think his name was Finn, and he had this fantastic voice. I was curious about his Irish accent, though, since it seemed unusual for this area. Is he actually from Ireland?"
Sandy straightened from where she had propped both elbows on the counter. "Mr. Finn IS one of our more popular presenters, although we don't get to see as much of him as we would like." Her voice had dropped into a decidedly chilly 'official business' tone. "I'm afraid program policy does not allow us to give out personal information about our volunteers or staff, however."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean that to come out like I was trying to pry or be improper," Ben said, thinking desperately about how he could recover the situation. "I haven't been in town very long, and I really am interested in the program so I could do something useful and meet some new people. I'm a pretty quick study with the technical stuff, and I'm willing to work hard if you'll give me a chance." Ben realized as he spoke that he actually did want to get involved, and didn't want to let this opportunity slip away.
"But you still want to know about Mr. Finn, don't you?"
Ben looked down, tilted his head, and rubbed at an invisible speck of dirt on the counter. "Well, to be honest..." He leaned far across the counter, then looked up and whispered, "His voice certainly did get to me...."
Sandy looked skeptical, but leaned in herself to hear what he had to say. "And?"
Ben's thoughts raced as he tried to figure out yet again how he could proceed. A memory of a past missed opportunity made him bold, or perhaps desperate. He felt that Sandy seemed to be a very modern-minded sort of young woman, so he decided on a truth so outrageous that he didn't think she would believe it. He pitched his voice low enough that only the two of them could hear it and murmured in a conspiratorial tone, "I was really, really hoping there was a way to get a tape of him just reading all those public service announcements so I could masturbate while listening to it."
She straightened again, blinked. "Public service announcements..." It took a moment for the full thought to sink in, but when it did Sandy started laughing. She laughed hard for several moments, slapped the counter, and laughed some more. "God, you actually sounded serious..."
Ben just grinned and cocked one eyebrow.
"Goodness..." Sandy fished a tissue from under the counter and wiped her eyes. "I must admit I've never heard that one before... ah, that's better." Her breathing was almost back to normal. "I do have to give you full marks for originality."
"I was serious about wanting to find out more about the program. "
"But you also actually do want a tape of Quilan Finn reading PSAs?"
"I won't lie to you. Yes, although I realize now it was a stupid thing to ask you to do, and I apologize again," Ben admitted. "It's just that when I heard him on the radio, Finn reminded me of a teacher I had in high school. He was from Ireland, visiting for a semester, and really helped me learn a lot about growing up." Ben smiled with a self-deprecating, bashful duck of his head. "I checked the library already to see if I could find story readings or anything like that, but their catalog doesn't say anything about who the readers are."
Sandy glanced at the intern who was trying hard to look like he wasn't listening. "Come into my office a minute."
Ben grabbed his helmet, went around the counter and followed her into a small office just big enough for a desk with a computer, two chairs and a filing cabinet.
"Alright, Mr. Kennan." Sandy closed the door, then stood with her arms folded and a bemused expression. "I think I like you, so I'm going to offer you a deal. And if you ever say anything about this to anybody, I will lie like a rug and deny it all."
"I'm listening. And I won't say anything, Scout's honor." Ben held up three fingers.
"First thing - when are you free?"
"Right now I'm working part time at Midway Motorcycles Tuesday through Friday, and sometimes I fill in on different days or more hours if one of the other mechanics is out. They usually close at six."
"How about this weekend?"
"Sunday is good because they're closed. I expect I'll probably be off this Saturday too."
"Alright, here's the deal. We're having one of our smaller fundraisers this weekend for both the television and radio sides, and I need another body to do some grunt work: running paperwork; coffee for the folks on the phones or in the studio; answering phones if necessary; hauling boxes; cleaning up; that sort of thing. Eight hours on Saturday, starting at four and eight on Sunday, starting at two."
"And in return?"
"I am going to take you back to meet our computer whiz who is working on our archiving project. I can't promise you exactly what he might be able to put together at this point, but we'll see what he has on file for our Mr. Finn and get you a tape of something IF you promise to listen to it closely at least once with something other than lascivious intent." She snickered before continuing. "Think you could manage that?"
"I'll try real hard," Ben said with a straight face.
"We'll just leave that one alone." Sandy grimaced and shook her head. "While he's doing that, you will take a look at the two static studios and sit in on at least fifteen minutes in the live studio so you can see what goes on."
"It's a deal," said Ben, trying not to sound too eager.
"I'm not finished. If you do a good job this weekend, and if you are still truly interested in the program, I will give you a call the next time Mr. Finn is scheduled to come in to do some readings for us so you can see how a real pro does it." She pointed a finger at Ben and looked at him sternly. "I'm not going to ask you why you want to meet him because I'm not sure I really want to know, but I will give you this warning. He's a pretty easygoing person, but if you bother him in any way that I think is inappropriate, I will personally kick your butt down all three flights of the stairs of this building. And you'll probably have the rest of the crew waiting downstairs to kick your butt all the way to the far parking lot."
"I will be a perfect gentleman, promise." Ben's heart leaped wildly, but he swallowed nervously, wondering a bit about this man who inspired such fierce protectiveness. "I understand that you need to be careful about personal information, and I appreciate this more than you can know."
Her expression softened. "It's alright." She reached for a pencil. "You have a number where I can reach you or leave a message if this works out?"
"I can't afford my own phone yet, but my landlady lets me use hers and she has an answering machine. They don't like long personal calls at work, but for a short call, it will be fine." Ben gave her both phone numbers.
"You can leave your helmet in here if you like." Sandy tossed the pencil onto the desk and headed out the door. "Well, on with the show, then."
A long hallway stretched behind the front office.
"The video and audio rooms are all along this back hall even though the entry offices are separate. The financial people are down there close to the TV front office. The computer and media rooms are halfway down." Sandy stopped at a door with a poster of a duck smashing an old computer. "In here."
They went past alcoves with banks of various recording machines and consoles. A wide door opened to reveal a brightly lit room with racks of computers and a long table lined with several monitors and keyboards. The temperature was noticeably cooler in deference to the quantity of heat-producing equipment.
"Ewww! What is that smell?" Sandy wrinkled her nose.
A fruity chemical odor wafted toward them. The source proved to be a young man in a wheelchair. His slicked-back black hair was cut short on the sides and long through the middle, with strange blond highlights. He spun the wheelchair around.
"Hey, muchacha! What ya think about the hair?" He grinned, white teeth shining in the brown skin. "Little sister is still going to that hairdresser school and wanted to practice."
"I think it stinks. Literally. I hope you got something worthwhile out of it."
"Hey, I'm a good brother. Only two weeks of kitchen chores was the price." He shrugged. "Besides, I figure the gunk will wash out and the hair will grow back. Who's the new guy?"
Sandy just shook her head. "Ben Kennan. Ben, meet Tommy Diaz, our resident computer geek."
"Pleased to meetcha."
"So, what are we up to? Have keyboard, can work miracles." Tommy waved a hand with a flourish.
"Modesty is not Tommy's strong suit." Sandy rolled her eyes. "Ben is interested in the audio program but isn't really sure what it's all about. I'm going to show him around the studios and we'll sit in on some of the Roundup, but I thought it might be useful if you could dump a tape of some things for him to take home and listen to. I know the programmers are just getting started on the coding for the new web site pieces, but are you far enough along in the archiving part to pull out some specific files?"
"Depends on what you want. I started on the short bits so I've got indexing for all the PSAs and poetry, about half of the short stories, but not much yet on the novels or any of the video."
"PSAs would be perfect," Sandy said, glancing at Ben. "Can you pull up a set just by one reader? I was thinking of Quilan Finn. He does such a nice job those would be a good example."
"Finn, eh? Yeah, he's damned good." Tommy thought a moment. "Let me take a look." He spun the wheelchair back around and typed rapidly. After two minutes he gave a triumphant crow. "Got it. All of his PSAs for the last couple of years." He turned his head. "I can dump it to a cassette tape or a CD or both. What kind of playback gear you got?"
"I've got a good boombox; it does both tapes and CDs. I'll take whatever is easiest for you to do, if you don't mind?"
Tommy glanced up at Sandy, who nodded. "No problem at all. Easiest and quickest would be to send the file to the CD bank to burn the set. Take me about five minutes to throw the file together; the physical copying will probably take about twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes."
"That will be great. I'll take Ben through the studios and we'll sit in on a bit of the Roundup, then we'll be back. Thanks a lot."
Tommy nodded absently as the other two left.
For the next half hour Sandy and Ben toured the various parts of the facility, explored the control and support systems and watched from the control room as one of the journalism students hosted a live radio program about community events and fielded calls. Armand, a retired sound engineer, explained the basics of the broadcast equipment. After they picked up the copies of the Finn PSAs, Sandy walked Ben back to the front office so he could retrieve his helmet.
"Remember, Saturday at four. And expect to run your butt off." Sandy leaned on the counter as Ben was heading out the door.
Ben paused in the doorway and turned back. He saluted crisply and barked out, "Yes, ma'am. Have butt, will work, ma'am," and swiftly made his exit. He grinned at the shouted "Smartass" that followed him down the hall.
His precious copies carefully stashed inside his jacket, Ben hurried home. Under his helmet, a huge grin was plastered on his face as he contemplated enjoying the rest of the afternoon. He put Myrna away in the garage and bounded down the stairs to his room. Ben locked the door and took off his jacket and boots. After loading the first disc into his boombox, he began to remove his t-shirt but remembered with a guilty start that he had promised to listen to the recording before indulging in any personal fantasies. He sighed and pulled his shirt back down.
Ben decided this would be easier if he wasn't quite so comfortable. He pulled the desk chair around, hit the start button, then settled back in the chair with his feet on the bed.
The first message was an announcement for a fundraiser for the Wildlife Conservation Center. Ben tried to listen objectively and avoid being sucked under the spell of that amazing voice. He forced himself to analyze the presentation and keep track of the topics. The more he listened, the more he was impressed by the quality of the readings. The Irish brogue was considerably reduced, the diction and pacing were spot-on and there was a sincerity underlying even the most mundane of topics. He couldn't help the warm glow growing inside him, but managed to keep it in check through the end of the set. When the last announcement was finished, he leaned back to think about what he had just heard.
"Why, Miss Miller, I do believe you are a devious little soul," Ben said with an amused snort. "I think I'm supposed to learn something about our Mr. Finn from his PSAs." He tipped the chair back and began counting on his fingers as he thought about what he had heard. We've got bits about the Wildlife Conservation Center, the local SPCA, avoiding forest fires, not feeding the wild animals in the forest, fishing licenses, hiking safety in the forest, camping in the forest, and I think those last few were referring to some kind of presentations by forest rangers at local schools and parks. He closed his eyes and tried to decide what it all meant. Hmmm, he mused, does that mean he is an animal lover, or a conservationist, or maybe he's one of the national forest people?
Ben opened his eyes and sat up, the chair legs hitting the floor with a thump. "Definitely something official with the national forest people, I think. There's that extra touch of authority and zeal when he's talking about the forest." He smiled. "Well, whatever else he is, he has a wonderful voice and I have got to meet him." Unless I want to stake out the UPA offices every day, he thought, I guess I'll have to make sure I stay on Sandy's good side this weekend.
Despite his best efforts, the warm glow the voice created in his gut had continued to spread, fanning the building need Ben felt, bringing him another notch closer to the fantasy images rapidly resurfacing from his high school passion. He stood up to stretch and had to adjust himself, having already grown half hard. Ben slid the chair back to the desk and went to lie on the bed. He reached out and let his fingers rest on the start button for a long moment, allowing the anticipation to increase. Ben swallowed, then ever so gently pressed down. He settled back, squirming a little to get into a comfortable position, and set his feelings free.
By 9 o'clock on Sunday night, Ben was sore and very tired, and there was still another hour to go. He hadn't had any idea how much work could be involved in what he thought was going to be a simple affair of helping some people answer phones. He strongly suspected that Sandy had gone well out of her way to take advantage of the extra labor at her command, but he wasn't about to say anything that might jeopardize his possible opportunity to meet Quilan Finn.
From the moment he had shown up on Saturday, it seemed to Ben that he had constantly been on the move. It turned out that the weekend affair was a joint fundraiser for the entire UPA program. Ben had been made responsible for a host of support duties: keeping the phone workers, on-air teams and technical teams supplied with coffee and sodas (of which they seemed to consume prodigious quantities); distributing food to the various teams; collecting the call sheets from the phone workers in Sandy's offices every fifteen to twenty minutes and delivering them to the UPA accountant, whose office was at the far end of the hall past the TV studio; schlepping donated food, sodas and ice up the stairs; taking trash down to the dumpsters across the parking lot. It was made far worse by the fact that two of the three elevators were not working and the third was tremendously slow, so he ended up taking the three flights of stairs most of the time. It seemed that whenever he had a spare moment to catch his breath, Sandy would inevitably find him and give him more work to do, such as cleaning out storerooms and hauling the junk down.
Ben paused outside the office door, leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor, empty trash cans beside him. He let his head flop back and closed his eyes, hoping for a brief respite.
"Hey, rise and shine, Kennan. Still lots to do."
Ben groaned at the cheerful voice and forced himself back to his feet. "There surely can't be a single piece of paper left anywhere to take downstairs."
"One last pot of coffee to make, more forms to run and it's time to start taking the empty coolers down," Sandy said. She had a happy smile as she continued, "In between that, we found some old broken equipment and outdated files stashed away in the former computer room you can haul out. By the time you finish that, we should be about ready to wrap up and take the last of the trash down." Her smile got even wider as she poked Ben in the ribs. "Time to move it, Mr. PSA man."
"Oh, God," Ben groaned again. "I'm never going hear the end of that, am I?"
"Nope. So get your butt in gear and get back to work." She seemed inordinately pleased with herself as she headed back inside to encourage her phone workers in their efforts.
It was past eleven by the time the live radio and television shows were closed down, the offices were cleaned up and the last of the volunteers had departed. Ben put the clean coffee urn into a cupboard. He took a look around to see if there was anything else to be done, then flopped across the top of an empty desk. He felt more wiped than he ever had from any of his sports workouts as he stared blankly up at the ceiling.
"Well, another one over." Sandy slowly came in and dropped into an empty chair.
The room was silent for a long moment until the accountant popped his head in. "Got the preliminary results, Ms. Miller. Looks like we did at least 5 percent better than last time."
"Thanks, Jerry. Appreciate the hard work."
"No problem. See you tomorrow."
Ben had noticed the fatigue in Sandy's voice. He sat up, his legs dangling over the side of the desk, then leaned back to let his arms take his weight. He watched her for a moment, noting the slumped shoulders, the lines on her face, down-tilted head and half-closed eyes.
"Is it always like this?" Ben asked.
"Pretty much. These short ones are actually more intense than the longer ones," Sandy replied. She paused, a smile twitching the corners of her lips. "As for the question you didn't ask, yes, it is always worth it. I believe our work here is important, as do a lot of other people."
There was another silence.
Sandy sighed. "Ben."
"I owe you an apology." She finally looked up. "I took advantage of our deal and abused you shamelessly to see if you would stick. You were doing at least three people's work. I hope I didn't scare you away from the program."
"It will take more than a little hard work to run me off." Ben laughed, almost a snort. "Actually, that's a relief in a way. I was beginning to feel pretty inadequate watching how hard you were working. I don't think I ever saw you sit down more than a minute unless you were filling in on the phones."
"I suppose I do tend to get wrapped up in trying to keep everything running smoothly." She cocked her head to one side. "I sent some new readings to Quilan Finn on Friday."
Ben sat up straight, his exhaustion temporarily forgotten. "The significance of that information is...?" he asked softly.
"He likes to practice before he comes in. So, depending on when he can get off work and how much time he has available to practice, he will be coming here to record sometime in the next two to three weeks."
"And?" Ben felt his heart racing. He swallowed nervously.
"Well..." Sandy let the suspense build for a few moments as she rubbed her chin. Finally she smiled. "Don't go out of town for a while. You'll be getting a phone call."
"You're wonderful." Ben grinned as he let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding in. "If I had the strength left, I'd hug you."
"I'll settle for walking me to the car." Sandy hauled herself out of the chair. "Grab your helmet and let's get out of here."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben said jauntily as he hurried to comply.
Ben's smile lasted all the way home, and was still on his lips when he finally fell asleep.
§ Chapter Three §
For the next several days Ben found himself thinking ever more often about the upcoming visit to the UPA office. He played the set of PSAs every night, and began playing some of it in the mornings as well. Frequently he pleasured himself while listening, remembering Neal Delaney and imagining the various possibilities of what Quilan Finn might look like in comparison to his once-upon-a-time fixation, what their first meeting might be like, or what the mysterious stranger's hands would feel like as they caressed his body and brought him to completion. Other times he simply listened, letting himself drift away into the velvet warmth. Rather than risk another request of Sandy, he invested some time at the library plowing through their archives until he had unearthed several stories and poems, which he carefully copied onto tapes and added to his hoard.
Even at work, the voice (as Ben had come to think of it), spoke to him in the back of his mind. More and more his fantasies began turning into daydreams; it started with his lunch break and soon spread to his other breaks. One morning he went outside on his rest period to get some air and let himself indulge in his new obsession. Myrna was parked out back of the shop in an invitingly sunny spot, so Ben stretched out in one of his favorite poses. Myrna was just the right size to let him recline atop her, his head and shoulders cradled by her protective handlebars with his feet crossed at the back edge of the long seat. The sun was warm as he drifted off and the voice called to him, pulling him into reverie.
The sharp voice ripped into Ben's cocoon of bliss, spilling him out into cold reality. He almost fell off his motorcycle, only just managing to catch himself as he stumbled to his feet.
A tall figure in crisp blue coveralls stared at him, arms crossed. "You were supposed to be on a fifteen minute break. You've been out here almost fifty minutes." Frank Mendoza, head mechanic and an original ten percent stakeholder in Midway Motorcycles, was clearly not happy.
With a sinking feeling in his gut, Ben knew he had made a huge mistake. Normally Frank was a reserved and taciturn man, and it was rare indeed to hear anything beyond a soft drawl from him. "Yes, sir. I... I guess I lost track of the time."
Frank glanced up at the second floor administrative office windows, then gestured with his head. "My office, now," he barked.
Ben trailed glumly along behind his supervisor until they entered Frank's small office off the maintenance bay. The battered metal desk was bare except for a few parts and a ledger book; the bookcases along one wall were lined with manuals, catalogs and models of motorcycles, while the other wall had a computer desk which had a large flat-screen monitor and keyboard on top of it. Frank sat down behind the desk as Ben came to a stop in front of it, standing silently with his eyes down.
For a long moment Frank scrutinized the young man. "Listen, Kennan, I don't know what's gotten into you lately, but you better straighten up right now if you want to stay. You were doing good work until this last week or so, but lately you've been sloppy, absent-minded and drifting around."
He began ticking off points on his fingers. "You've been dragging in every morning. You've been taking longer and longer on jobs. Last time you had shop cleanup, you left trash in the cans and rags out. And today, dammit, there's only the two of us here and there were three jobs waiting in the shop while you stayed out there screwing off." His voice was low and tight, his eyes dark with anger.
"Yes, sir. I'm very sorry, sir." Ben shifted uncomfortably, a flush steadily creeping up the back of his neck. He had a great deal of respect for Frank Mendoza; while he wasn't a gregarious man, he was an excellent mechanic and had freely passed on his expertise whenever asked. "I'll make up the time however you want. I promise it won't happen again."
Frank sighed. He pushed his chair away from his desk and leaned back. "Why should I believe your word?"
"I don't give it lightly, Mr. Mendoza, but when I do you can count on it." Ben raised his head and looked directly into the older man's eyes.
"Mmm," Frank grunted as he looked up at Ben. He cocked his head to one side as if coming to a decision. "Listen up. You got personal issues, you work them out on your own time and don't bring them in here. You need help or some time off, you tell me about it before it becomes a major crisis. Like I said, you were doing some damned good work until now, and this is the first time you've been a problem. I hate to see anyone get on Margaret's bad side because she can be a holy terror, so I'm going to cover for you." He looked pointedly at Ben. "This time. And ONLY this time."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Ben swallowed a sigh of relief; he had heard the horror stories about Midway's co-owner and her reputed on-the-spot firings. "I'll get my act together, you have my word on that. I really appreciate this."
A knock on the open door was immediately followed by the entrance of a middle-aged woman in a dark business suit. Handsome rather than beautiful, average height, dark blonde hair cut short, her most striking feature was steel gray eyes that seemed to see everything.
"Morning, Frank." She nodded pleasantly. "Everything alright?"
"Yes, Margaret. I was just going over the work schedule with Kennan." Only Dennis Jones and Frank Mendoza dared address her as Margaret; even Tony Carmine, the head salesman for almost ten years, still called her Mrs. Jones. The thought of a nickname such as Marge was simply inconceivable.
"I see." She looked at Ben as if she knew exactly what had really happened. "Just wanted to remind you the quarterly inventory needs to be finished this week. Can you have it by Friday?"
"It's only Wednesday and I've already started it, so unless there's a rush of business, I don't think it will be a problem." Frank looked at Ben. "Probably be a good job for Kennan to finish up."
"As long as it's accurate and on time I don't care how you it's accomplished," she replied. "Also, Dennis wants to get together before the end of the month to talk about updating the summer schedule. I'll have the revised business projection by the end of next week."
"Okay. I'll start laying out a projection for parts and labor costs based on what we've already discussed so far, then make the final adjustments after I get your input. There's a couple of new models coming out we'll probably want to take a look at as well, but I'll check with Tony on those first."
"Alright." Margaret took one last piercing look at Ben, who had moved to the side of the office and was working hard at trying to be inconspicuous, then nodded at Frank and left.
Frank tilted back a little further in his chair, his arms crossed. "She knows something is wrong," he said to no one in particular as he looked up at the ceiling. "When it comes to the business side, I swear she can smell a problem. Whether it's taxes, licenses, pay, inventories, employees, financing, you name it and she'll find it." He leaned forward suddenly, the chair thumping hard on the concrete floor as he put his hands on his desk. He looked directly at Ben. "Dennis and Margaret built this place up from nothing over the last twenty years, and Margaret has no tolerance for anything that might impact the integrity or profitability of the business. Dennis might be the soul of Midway, but Margaret is the backbone. You would do well to remember that if you want to keep working here."
"Yes, sir." Ben hesitated a moment before continuing. "I guess I owe you some time back."
"You certainly do." Frank stared hard at Ben. "I've got two jobs for you. Tonight the shop floor needs to be degreased and scrubbed down. Tomorrow I'll show you how to finish the inventory; it has to be in to Margaret by three o'clock Friday. You'll get paid for your regular hours, but it's up to you how long it takes you to finish the other work. You got a problem with that?"
"No, sir, no problem at all. Just show me what you want done and I'll take care of it."
Frank stood up, then came around the desk, pausing next to Ben. "You've got talent. Work hard and you could have a great future here, Ben, but do you understand the damage you've done to your credibility with the way you've been acting?"
"Yes, sir, I do." Ben stood quietly, not wanting to make the situation any worse than it was.
"I meant what I said. If you've got a problem, I want to know about it. Bad news doesn't get better hiding under a rock."
"Yes, Mr. Mendoza." Ben sighed, knowing he was going to have to work hard to regain this man's respect. He looked up. "Thank you."
"Just get yourself back together. Right now it's time to work." Frank headed out the door without waiting for an answer.
It was a very subdued young man who returned to the shop floor. He worked hard, ensuring that no detail was left unchecked for each motorcycle, pausing only to wolf down the sandwich he had brought for lunch. As he labored, what little attention he could spare from his tasks went toward berating himself for failing to live up to his own standards.
Ben had long prided himself on his work ethic. When he was young, he had found that keeping up good grades had spared him from his father's often caustic comments. Doing well in the activities and skills considered necessary for their social position had given him a feeling of satisfaction and helped him earn approval from others, and if he did exceptionally well, even occasionally got the attention of his parents. It was an integral part of his self-image, and he enjoyed working hard.
By five in the afternoon, he had completed all of his assigned jobs. He stopped to call Jane to let her know he would be at work late, then went to find Frank Mendoza to get instructions for his first extra chore. They moved the few remaining repaired or serviced machines to the outer warehouse where the inventory of new and used bikes and equipment was stored, then carefully packed up Frank's current bike refurbishing project and moved it out as well.
Ben surveyed the large shop area from just inside the dutch door that led to the showroom: beside the door was the large electronic screen that displayed the list of jobs in progress; workbenches along one wall, several with heavy metal-working or other large specialized tools bolted in place; the doors to the janitorial closet and the supply and parts room at the far end; the door to the employee lounge and restrooms midway along the wall that separated the mechanic bay from the showroom; and large automated doors along the outer wall. He glanced up toward the second floor where a comfortable customer lounge had glass windows on several sides to allow views of both the mechanic bay and the showroom and various staff and support offices were located.
He went into the employee lounge to use the restroom, then changed into the oldest grey coveralls he could find on the hooks along one wall, not daring to look at the blue coveralls with the Midway logo that the permanent mechanics Frank Mendoza and Bobby Torvald used and which now seemed much more unattainable. He went back out on the floor, then with a sigh, grabbed a broom and began sweeping.
The concrete floor wasn't actually all that dirty. Normally, there were several heavy mats where most of the work was done. Although the floor was usually swept every night, there were occasional stains from fuel, oil or various other substances that had been spilled on both the mats and the floor. For the next two hours Ben swept, then mopped with a detergent solution, then meticulously scrubbed every spot on floor and mats with a special cleanser. He finished up with another mopping to remove any traces of the strong cleaner.
The work was tedious but required minimal attention, so Ben had plenty of time to think during those two hours. Once he had finished castigating himself for the way he had let his work habits slip, he had to face a more difficult truth.
Ben danced around the question for quite a while before he finally admitted to himself that it was the intense fascination with Quilan Finn that had distracted him. Thoughts of his past loss had continued to fuel his hopes for a new beginning, and he realized that he had clearly let things get out of hand. He well remembered the keen derision among his school friends for those they had called 'love-sick puppies' for their glassy-eyed mooning about, and how much trouble he had taken at the time to ensure that no hints of his feelings for the popular Dr. Delaney were visible. It was therefore more than a little embarrassing to his ego to realize that he now seemed to have fallen into that same dismal category, not just emotionally but also physically with his frequent self-pleasuring to the mystery voice. And all this over a man he had not even met yet made it that much worse. He shook his head in self-disgust and scrubbed even harder at recalcitrant oil spots as he vowed to maintain better control over his emotions.
It was after seven-thirty by the time Ben had finished with the entire floor and re-inspected every corner and crevice. He took a few moments to survey his handiwork, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the outer doors that he had left open to help disperse the odor of the pungent chemical cleaners. He took his buckets, mop and brushes outside for a thorough rinsing with the hose, then returned the lot to the janitorial closet.
He was checking to ensure everything was tidy when his attention was drawn to the back corner of the large space. Two shelves were labeled as 'pending projects'; there were five gallon drums, boxes, paint rollers, paint pans and several other miscellaneous containers.
He picked up a large box and stared at the brightly lettered cover exclaiming "Amazing Floor Covering," "Showroom Quality for Your Old Concrete Floor" and "Protects From Oil and Solvents." He opened the box and removed the instructions, then went back to the doorway and stared out at the shop floor.
Ben read over the instructions again, checking how to apply the base coat of medium gray, the blue flakes that had to be sprinkled about while the paint was wet, and when to apply the final clear protectant coat. He noted the short drying times for each layer and the idea that had taken root in his mind quickly blossomed into a full-fledged plan. He was convinced he could get the whole thing done that night if he tackled a small piece at a time and was careful.
Three hours later Ben was sweating, filthy and swearing at the persnickety gunk that was the final coating. Half the floor was covered with what was actually a very nice-looking finish, but he had found that it dried even faster than he had counted on, and the top layer was not only a clear protectant but had very fine sand for traction underfoot. He had to slowly apply a small section of gray with one roller, quickly sprinkle a very carefully calculated amount of the blue flakes, stir the top coat, then apply the sticky top coat with another roller.
"Hey! You!" A stick banged against the metal railing of one of the open outer doors.
Ben looked up, then straightened, his back protesting from the hours of being almost continuously bent.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" A burly policeman in the black pants and light blue shirt of the local force was standing in the doorway, nightstick in hand.
"My name is Ben Kennan. I work for Midway." Ben gestured with his hand. "I couldn't really do the floor when customers are around, so I'm doing it now." He dug in his pockets until he found what he was looking for. "See, I have the keys."
"Kennan, huh? I've never seen you around before." The officer looked distinctly unconvinced.
"I'm pretty new here, sir. I work directly for Frank Mendoza if you want to call him."
"Yeah, I know Frank." The policeman looked around the shop. "You got any proof of identity?"
"Yes, sir." Ben put the roller down and walked over to the door, bringing out his wallet as he went. "Here's my driver's license and vehicle registration. That's my motorcycle right there."
The officer scrutinized the offerings for at least a full minute while Ben fidgeted over the delay, then went over to Myrna and compared the registration to the plate. He called someone on his radio and chatted for another couple of minutes. Finally he came back and returned the documents. "I guess you're okay. If you're going to be staying in the area more than a few months, though, you'll need to replace that Massachusetts registration and license with local ones."
After one last look around, the policeman nodded and went on his way.
Ben went back to his task, swearing when he realized the gray underbase had already gotten too tacky to properly accept the blue flakes. With a resigned sigh he started reapplying a fresh coat.
Dogged persistence kept Ben at it until he finished, the work almost as much a sop to his own self-respect as it was an attempt to get back in Frank Mendoza's good graces. It was past four in the morning by the time he had cleaned up, put away the leftover supplies and locked up the shop. He cleaned off the worst of the sweat and gunk in the restroom, then decided he was too tired to go home, so he flopped on the couch in the employee lounge and dropped immediately into sleep.
"Wake up, sleeping beauty."
Something prodded Ben in the ribs. He cracked one eye open, staring blearily up into the grinning olive face of Tony Carmine.
"Unghgh." Ben closed his eye and tried to roll over on the narrow couch.
Tony poked him harder. "C'mon, guy. Time to get up."
Ben groaned and sat up, his body letting him know it was not happy. He stood up quickly when he saw Frank standing in the doorway, arms crossed, an inscrutable expression on his face.
"You got my keys?" asked Frank in a flat tone.
"Yes, sir." Ben pawed through his pockets as he realized he had forgotten to return the shop keys to their peg. He handed them to Frank.
"You do that to my floor?" Frank jerked his head in the direction of the shop behind him.
"Uh, yes, sir?" Ben wavered uncertainly in the face of his boss's lack of expression.
Frank looked at him for a moment. Finally he reached into a pocket and tossed a portable electric razor at Ben. "Get cleaned up. Your shift starts in an hour."
"Yes, sir," Ben called to the back of the mechanic as he turned on his heel and left. He looked at Tony, who was still standing in the lounge with a big grin. Ben was irritated by now. "What?" he scowled.
"Frank was right. You do look like crap," Tony chuckled as he headed for the door. He paused just before leaving, "But your floor is real pretty."
If Ben had had something unbreakable to throw he would have, but as it was he could only shrug and head for the restroom to try to put himself to rights. After several liberal doses of heavy-duty cleaner and a fresh set of coveralls, he was finally presentable.
The rest of the morning was relatively routine except for the fact that it seemed that everyone who worked in the building made it a point to stop by the bay to look at the new floor. Some only stared from the dutch door, but Dennis and Margaret both wandered around the entire bay. Neither made any comments, so Ben wasn't sure if he had done something good or just dug himself deeper into a hole with his unauthorized little venture.
At one-thirty, Frank took Ben back to the supply and parts room. The steel door that opened to the shop bay had a twin in the wall to the right that opened to the back of the service and direct sales office. The team in that office interacted directly with customers to receive and track maintenance tickets and sell parts and accessories. A desk with two terminals was between the two doors. To the left inside the large space were two steel cages. One held the expendable supplies, low-value parts and accessories, most of which were also offered for sale to customers. The other cage was more heavily reinforced and held the high-value parts, tools and equipment, including the rack where portable electronic devices were plugged in to recharge overnight.
Frank sat down with Ben at the desk. He called up the first screen.
"This terminal has access to our entire network, but you have to have a password for the individual applications. Only a few people have master passwords that let them in to everything, such as sales, finance, maintenance, inventory, personnel, etc. I've already done the warehouse, so today you'll be using the inventory update system for everything in the two cages. Karen and her team take care of the accessories and supplies out front, the janitor closets, all restocking orders, and she'll reconcile maintenance tickets also." Frank paused. "You remember how every bin or slot has a bar code, and you have to use the scanners mounted by the doors whenever you take anything in or out of here?"
"Well, the usage and restocking tracking gives us the running inventory." Frank picked up an electronic tablet with a scanner attachment on a coiled cable. "This reader is similar to the tablet you use to track and sign off the maintenance tickets; they both use either the stylus or the small keyboard, and they both have a wireless connection back to the network. I've already signed you into the system, so all you have to do is visit every bin, slot, drawer, shelf or individual large item, scan the barcode, check how many the inventory says you're supposed to have, verify that number and enter either a validation or correction. I'll show you on the first couple of items. Any questions?"
"No, sir. It sounds simple enough."
"It is pretty simple." Frank smiled slightly. "It is also very important, and very mind-numbingly boring. Make sure you take breaks; I don't want you falling asleep on me or missing anything."
"Yes, sir, I understand."
"Good. Let's get you started."
Nine hours, a quart of water, six sodas, four cups of coffee, five restroom breaks, three candy bars and another phone call to Jane later, Ben swung the steel door closed and locked it. His eyes felt like they were about to fall out of their sockets as he leaned his head against the door and blew out a big sigh. "Jeeezus Christ, when Frank said it was boring, that had to be the understatement of the year," he muttered to himself. He turned around and was surprised to realize that Frank's office was still open, the light spilling out into the semi-dark bay.
Ben tentatively stuck his head into the doorway and waited until Frank looked up from the computer screen. He glanced at the monitor, wondering vaguely why part of the split screen looked so familiar.
"I finished the inventory and locked up the cages, sir."
Frank leaned back and stretched before he answered. "How many discrepancies did you find?"
"Two hundred and thirty seven, sir. Almost all in the supplies, expendables or small-parts cage. All of the high-dollar items and the tools were correct, except for a few screwdrivers, flashlights and sockets."
"Damned good for a couple of thousand items. Guess it pays to do all those spot checks and to keep nagging everybody to use the scanners." Frank glanced at his watch. "Tomorrow I want to look at the individual tool boxes, but I think we've done enough for now." He nodded at Ben. "Since the inventory is finished, I'm moving you to the noon to six shift tomorrow." He paused a moment. "You okay to get home?"
"Yes, sir. A drink of cold water from the bubbler and I'll be fine."
"Alright, go home and get some sleep. I'll finish closing up."
"Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow." Even though Frank hadn't offered any praise, Ben had a glow of satisfaction that he hadn't been questioned when he reported on the results of his painstaking work.
Frank waved vaguely as Ben headed for the back door.
Ben eventually made it home, reassured his anxious landlady that he was really fine, and no, he wasn't in any trouble, it was just some extra projects at work, then had a sandwich followed by a hot shower.
It wasn't until he was back in his room and pulling up the covers on his bed that Ben finally realized that half the screen on Frank's computer was that same screen he himself had been using during the marathon inventory, and the other half was a camera shot of the cages from earlier in the day. No wonder Frank didn't need to ask any questions, he thought. You weren't really on your own at all, you idiot, and he never said anything about all that work you did on the floor, either. Ben gave a faint, disheartened curse at the thought of how far it seemed he still had to go to regain Frank's confidence in him.
§ Chapter Four §
Life moved to a new tempo over the next week. Ben still indulged in listening to his precious recordings every night, but he resolutely limited his sessions to only one hour per evening and nothing at all in the mornings. It occurred to him that he had been hiding away in his room, so he forced himself to spend more time with Jane and his fellow boarders for meals. He was particularly disgusted with himself when he realized he had even neglected his weekly email to Maureen. Ben spent that first free weekend in an orgy of work to help clear his mind, cleaning out the second floor and repairing loose boards of the capacious barn and chopping firewood for Jane, as well as putting in several hours on an odd job repairing fences for another of Jane's many friends. When his Midway shifts resumed, he made a point of arriving at least ten minutes early, cutting his breaks short and volunteering for extra tasks. Ben took particular care to ensure that his work was fast but meticulous. He knew Frank was keeping an unobtrusive eye on him, but felt he was making progress in repairing his reputation. He was grateful that Frank had apparently not said anything to anyone else about his problems and he was determined to repay that debt.
By Friday, Ben was feeling more comfortable at work again. He was in the employee lounge on his lunch break and had just finished his sandwich when his name came over the loudspeaker.
"Ben Kennan, phone call up front."
"Hey, you got a hot girlfriend?" gently ribbed Frank's full-time mechanic, Bobby Torvald. Bobby was a big rawboned blond, a retired Army mechanic with a tattoo of a well-endowed redhead on his right bicep and a flaming Harley-Davidson on his left. Below the redhead, there were four scrolls; each contained the name of one of his children.
"It's probably just my landlady chewing me out for leaving my laundry in the machine again." Ben smiled to deflect any further comments as he quickly left.
Ben thought it was a bit odd that he would be getting a call at the front receptionist's desk; if he had to give anyone a work number, he normally used the service desk number. Conscious that he was going out to the front of the store area, he buttoned the front of his coveralls and finger-combed his hair. One of the part-time university students was at the receptionist's desk today. He was talking to a customer and pointed Ben toward a phone on a desk behind him.
As Ben started to pick up the phone, he was acutely aware that Margaret was less than six feet away talking to Karen as they looked at some sort of paperwork. He stood a little straighter and spoke crisply into the handset.
"Ben Kennan speaking. How may I help you?
"Sandy Miller, UPA. How ya doing?"
Ben's heart stopped for a moment, then took off in overdrive. He had deliberately pushed all thoughts of the potential meeting with Quilan Finn into a very tightly locked container in his head to keep them from distracting him at work again and now it had sprung open like a wayward jack-in-the-box. He had to stop and swallow hard before he could continue.
"Ben? Hey, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, just fine. What's up?"
"You free tonight?"
"I get off at five, and I don't have any other plans after that."
"Great. Be at the office by six, Mr. PSA man, if you want to meet your secret idol."
"At your UPA office, right? Six o'clock?" He tried not to sound too eager.
"You got it. See you tonight."
"Thanks. I'll be there."
Ben gently replaced the handset in its cradle. He was completely lost, and had to draw a deep breath to bring himself back to reality.
The unexpected question from behind him almost made Ben jump. He cleared his throat as he turned around to face Margaret Jones.
"Yes, ma'am. That was one of the people with the United Public Access program. I had asked them to let me know when I could actually see one of their recording sessions."
"I've heard of them. You thinking of doing some volunteering?"
"Yes, ma'am. Maybe more on the technical side."
"I see." She glanced up at the clock.
Ben took the hint. "I'd better get back now. Lunch break's about over."
Margaret nodded as Ben almost scurried away from her watchful gaze.
The emotional control Ben thought he had been achieving tottered precariously; he had to ruthlessly jam his emotions back into that small inner box just to make it through the afternoon. Twice he had to retreat to the restroom to splash cold water on his face. His work kept him distracted, but the hour he had to endure between five and six was torture. He vacillated between peaks of anticipation and valleys of anxiety.
Just before six o'clock, Ben was standing in the hallway outside the UPA office where he had spent the weekend working for the fundraiser. His helmet was clutched tightly under one arm and his palms were sweaty.
Jeeezus, man, get hold of yourself, he chided. He hadn't been this nervous since his first formal dance when he was twelve. He leaned against the wall and tried to get his breath. He was vaguely aware of a small trickle of conversation inside the office.
"'Tis a worthwhile cause, and it's my pleasure to help out."
"We could see a lot more of you if you didn't insist on practicing forever," Sandy teased.
"If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right," came the mellow baritone.
"Oh, sweet Mary, it is him," Ben whispered. By now he felt that he could recognize that voice in a howling storm. He sucked in his lower lip and bit down for a moment to keep his knees from buckling. "Come on, get in there, dammit." He straightened up and stepped into the doorway.
There was a disconcerting moment when time seemed to lurch and stagger. An image of a gorgeous black-haired man of average height shimmered in Ben's vision for a second until he shook his head and saw a brown corduroy blazer morph into a brown leather bomber jacket. He blinked and refocused his line of sight.
A tall rangy man in jeans leaned on the counter, shaggy chocolate hair overdue for a cut pushed carelessly back and creeping down his neck. A broken nose rendered the long face less than classically handsome, but the weather-worn features were strong and the smile was genuine.
Ben froze when his gaze fixed on the large hands. Finn's elbows rested on the countertop, his hands lightly clasped together in front of his face. Large hands, powerful but elegant, long fingers caught in a still-life caress. It was even better than his visions; Ben longed for those hands to caress him. He had a sudden urge to touch them, to kiss them, to worship them.
"Here he is, our young friend from the motorcycle shop." Sandy's voice cut through Ben's absorption. "Quilan Finn, meet Ben Kennan." She waved toward Ben. "Ben Kennan, meet Quilan Finn, reader extraordinaire and occasional music jockey." She smiled.
"Hey," said Ben weakly. He could feel a tingle running through him and was afraid to think about the goofy grin he was sure his face was sporting.
"Hey, yourself," Quilan said, an abashed bit of a smile on his face as he reached out a hand. "Don't be paying attention to the young lass; she exaggerates too much."
The tingle turned to electric shock as Ben's hand was engulfed by the warm flesh of Finn's paw. He felt as if a current had been completed between them and had to swallow hard as he felt his jeans getting tight. Ben was entranced by the blue eyes, but wasn't sure what to make of the flicker of puzzled surprise he saw there as the pressure on his hand increased slightly and lingered.
Ben tried to make his brain form words and finally managed to speak. "I've heard some of your readings, Mr. Finn, and I think I would have to agree with Sandy. They are quite good." He felt a sharp pang of loss as the hand holding his was finally pulled away. He had to make a conscious effort to stop himself from grabbing it back.
"Well, I try," Finn replied. His eyes were still on Ben, a thoughtful expression in them that was at odds with the self-deprecating smile on his lips. "Sandy tells me you were thinking of joining her squad of volunteers."
"I've already put him to work at a fundraiser," Sandy broke in. Her smile widened. "You really should hear this, though." She turned to Ben. "If you were back home and had a four-wheeled vehicle, what would you do with it after you returned from a festive gathering?"
"A festive gathering?" Ben stared at her for a moment with a bewildered expression, trying to figure out what she was talking about.
She stared back at him with a raised eyebrow.
Finally Ben shrugged as he took a guess at what she wanted. "Well, I suppose that if I was coming back from a party, I'd put the car in the garage. Unless it was a really wicked pisser hoobanger; then I might just leave the car in the car park."
"Didn't I tell you?" Sandy was almost giggling as she looked back at Finn. "Isn't that just the most adorable accent?"
"What?" Ben wasn't sure whether to laugh with her or be offended.
"It's certainly interesting," Finn said carefully, although the corners of his mouth were twitching. "Ben, you have a good voice, even if I didn't understand some of that, but I'm afraid that if you were thinking of becoming one of the readers or announcers, we'll have to reintroduce you to the letter R, or half the people around these parts won't understand words like 'cah pahk' ."
"Oh, that." Ben felt a familiar flush creeping up the back of his neck and tried to will it away. "Actually, I was more interested in the technical side. I've always enjoyed working with machines and equipment."
"Then I'm sure you will be a welcome addition. It always seems that most people fancy themselves as being DJs or TV actors rather than being happy working in back."
Before Ben could answer, several more people hurried into the room. Ben watched as Finn was almost mobbed; he easily responded to eager greetings and deftly fended off the advances of a particularly ardent young blonde, while mildly flirting with all of the women, young and old. Even Tommy was here tonight and came charging in to get in a high five; Ben noticed how Finn casually slipped down into a chair to stay at eye level with the young computer genius.
Sandy let the chattering go on for a few minutes before raising her voice. "Alright, everyone. We've got work to do tonight." She made shooing motions. "You TV people get back down to your end of the hall. Everyone else to Studio C."
The group reluctantly dispersed, many trying to get in a last touch to Finn's arm or shoulder. He took it all in stride and finally he, Ben and Tommy followed Sandy down the long hall. Tommy was waxing voluble about how well the web and archiving projects were going and how far ahead of schedule they were.
As they entered the studio, Ben saw that Armand and another of the interns were already working on fine-tuning the large bank of controls. He nodded to Ben as Tommy wheeled up to discuss some technical issue. Finn headed through the control room and into the recording area behind a large, heavy pane of glass. Sandy steered Ben over to a couple of extra chairs near Armand.
"We visited this place when you were first here, but it was dark that day so we just peeked in," Sandy said softly. "This studio is just for recording audio, whether it's PSAs, talk-overs, stories, or radio shows. With those six mikes, we can put several people on at the same time to pre-record community interest shows and panels; we can also record and digitize music for the pre-recorded radio shows. The television people have a large recording studio also, so on a really busy day we could have live television and radio and be recording both television and audio."
Ben nodded as he watched Quilan Finn finish his preparations. The reader laid his jacket over a chair, pulled a pair of round wire-rimmed glasses from the pocket of a faded tan t-shirt and put them on. The stack of announcements was set neatly in front of him on the table, the chair was pulled forward, the microphone was adjusted, and large headphones went on. He heard Finn's voice over the speaker as he worked with Armand to fine-tune the sound level and balance. Finn smiled as Armand cracked a few jokes, then leaned forward.
"Alright, everyone," Armand announced, "Quiet, please. Preparing to record." He held up four fingers, then counted them down. "In four, three, two and one." He pointed the last finger into the booth as the red "Recording" light came on.
Sandy nudged Ben and mouthed "Watch." Ben looked into the booth, then had to look back again to believe what he was seeing. The genial, smiling expression was replaced with a totally focused, tightly harnessed energy. Finn's shoulders were hunched forward; those big hands were holding down the stack of paper. The blue eyes had darkened and seemed to be boring into the microphone.
Ben looked at Sandy as the perfectly modulated, almost totally accent-free voice poured over the loudspeaker. He raised both eyebrows and silently mouthed "WOW." She nodded with a big smile, then leaned forward to rest her forearms on the edge of the console as she watched the show.
Six announcements in a row went off letter-perfect. Finn paused after the sixth to roll his shoulders and neck before leaning forward again.
"Armand, on this next one for the July fair - I'd like to try it a couple different ways, perhaps one a little slower to catch some of the older people, followed by a higher energy version."
"Sure, no problem. Let me adjust the balance a bit, then we'll roll."
Finn nodded, took a few deep breaths, and quickly focused in again at Armand's signal.
Ben could only shake his head in wonder as he listened to several versions of the next three announcements. Finn's control was astounding, his timing impeccable, his mastery of the spoken language incredible. Ben drank it in, the intense but melodic flow feeding his infatuation and keeping him half hard.
In the midst of what seemed yet another perfect blurb, Finn abruptly stopped. He straightened, ran a hand through his unruly hair. He pulled the top sheet of paper closer to his face and muttered to himself.
Ben looked at Sandy questioningly. She shook her head and shrugged.
"Is there a problem?" asked Armand.
"Agh, I've got this one all wrong." Finn whacked the side of his head with the base of one hand. "Come on, you idiot, stop arsing around," he chastised himself. He closed his eyes as he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then took another. When he opened his eyes the focus was back, and he nodded to Armand to continue.
An hour later the red light went out. "Okay, that's a wrap on all of them. Great job," Armand announced.
Ben released a sigh, then swung his chair around at the unexpected sound of clapping from behind him. Several people had silently drifted into the room and were now noisily expressing their admiration. Finn looked up, smiled a bit and gave a small wave before he went back to gathering his papers together and putting his glasses away. Sandy gently urged the visitors toward the exit as Armand and Tommy went to work checking the files, tabbing them and doing their session backup. Ben stood off to the side, surreptitiously adjusting himself. Once Finn joined them, they headed back to the office, leaving the technical people in a deep discussion.
Still feeling gloriously warm inside from the effects of the recording session, Ben trailed along a little behind, letting himself admire the lithe grace as Finn walked down the hall. His imagination was running riot as he envisioned himself walking beside Finn instead of Sandy.
Back inside the office Finn was ambushed by the blonde again. Ben felt a totally irrational stab of jealousy as he watched the young woman try to rub up against Finn.
"Surely you wouldn't be trying to tempt a good Catholic boy with sins of the flesh, now would you?" Finn joked as he stepped back from the would-be assault, his brogue back in full evidence.
Ben didn't hear the answer as a cold jolt of reality rattled his head. That phrase had been a joke at his Catholic boarding school, a code for both boys and girls seeking sex. A leaden lump of dismay settled in his gut as Ben realized he had been so caught up in his own fantasies that he had forgotten to take into account Finn's more likely preferences.
"Jessica, you know the rules both for the university and the program," Sandy had stepped up with a steely glare. "He already told you 'no' earlier."
"It's alright," Finn said softly. "I'm sorry, Jessica, but I'm afraid Sandy's right. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing something that goes against the school policies."
The blonde pouted, but between Finn's gentle rejection and Sandy's protective stance, she appeared to have figured out that discretion was her better choice. She smiled and tossed her hair back. "Sure, no problem. But if you change your mind, you've got my number." She swiftly left the room.
"Sorry about that," Sandy said as she turned to Finn.
"Don't worry about it, lass. I've been around a while and I can deal with her type."
"It's just, well... I don't like to see people bother you, especially here, when you came in to help." There was a wistful tone to her voice as she continued. "You've been a good friend..."
Finn gently hugged her as he read her unspoken desire. "It's alright, lass. I've seen you growing up these last ten years, and you've become a fine young woman. I'm glad to be your friend, too." He left an affectionate kiss on her cheek.
As he watched the byplay and thought about the flirting and touching he had seen earlier, Ben realized that Quilan Finn seemed to be as straight as the straightest arrow could possibly be. He hid the sick dismay in his gut as he realized that he had completely fallen for a man he might never be able to have, and the agony of his long-lost first secret love wrenched his heart. He had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep the pain from showing.
"You know, what you really need is a fine young man closer to your own age like Ben here," Finn said as he released Sandy from his hug. "Though I think you'd have a bit of a tussle getting him away from some of those other girls I saw watching him." Finn gave a slap to Ben's shoulder.
Ben blushed a bit, but not for the reasons Finn was probably thinking as the tall man leaned in a bit closer.
"I have to give you fair warning, though, Ben. She's one of these modern women who don't want to stay in the kitchen and is awfully energetic and bossy," Finn said with a wink and a smile.
"Don't worry, I've seen her in action. I got tired at that last fundraiser just watching her," Ben said with a weak grin, still trying to hide his own reactions.
"Go on, you two idiots," Sandy scolded with a mock frown, but there was laughter in her voice. "It's high time we were getting out of here."
"A good idea. We'll walk you to your car," said Finn.
The atmosphere was friendly as they ambled to the parking lot. Sandy and Finn discussed potential new story readings that had been requested while Ben mostly listened, his helmet under one arm. They saw Sandy all the way to her little coupe, waving as she drove off.
"Now let's just hope my poor old truck will get me home," Finn said with a sigh.
"Been giving you some problems?" Ben asked.
"I'm not exactly the best when it comes to machines," said Finn with a self-deprecating smile. "And it is awfully old, but money for a new one just seems hard to put aside."
"Let's make sure you at least get her started then," said Ben, a vague idea niggling at the back of his mind.
They walked four rows over to a battered pickup truck. The bed was rusty and badly dented, with a couple of animal cages tied down in a corner.
"Looks like she's had a hard life," Ben said, as Finn climbed in the cab.
"I use it a lot to transport animals and supplies for the Wildlife Center and the humane shelters, as well as bouncing around out in the forest," Finn said absently as he fiddled with the key. After a few tries, the truck's engine coughed to life but was idling roughly.
"I'll bet she hesitates and shakes a lot, probably can't accelerate well, especially uphill," said Ben as he casually leaned in the driver's window. "She dies a lot, too, doesn't she?"
Finn looked up, his head at an angle. "Well, yes. How'd you know?"
"Hey, I'm a mechanic, remember?" Ben smiled. The vague idea solidified and he decided to push, hoping for any possibility to see more of this amazing man. "If you want, I could come over and take a closer look at her."
"I don't have much money at the moment to pay you, and I wouldn't want to be a burden. I'll just let it go a bit longer."
"How about a trade?" Ben asked, calling on his memories of Jane's negotiations.
"A trade? What sort of trade?"
"Well, I'm offering time and some of my expertise," Ben said, trying to keep his tone casual. "How about some of your time while I'm looking at the truck? I was quite intrigued by your voice... maybe you could read something to me, or maybe just talk." Ben wanted to shout that Quilan Finn could read the damned phone book and Ben would be in heaven, but wisely refrained from expressing that sentiment.
"You want me to read to you?" The skepticism was clear in Finn's voice, and there was a very subtle body shift away from the open window.
"Or just talking would be great, if you wouldn't mind. I've always liked working on cars and motorcycles, so that's fun for me, but I've only been in town a short while, and I'd really appreciate it if you could tell me more about the place, what there is to do around here, some good places to visit, what it's like the rest of the year... you know, help me learn more about the area." Ben tried to keep breathing, hoping his desperation wasn't showing.
The truck chose that moment to die with a loud rattle and shudder. Finn gave an exasperated snort and shook his head. He looked at Ben with a rueful grin. "Well, talking is something I think I can handle, I guess. Are you sure it's not an imposition? I don't want to be putting you out after just meeting you."
"I didn't have any plans at all this weekend. I like helping people, so it's a fair deal if we can help each other." Ben held his breath, not daring to push any harder.
Finn hesitated a moment more, then smiled. "A fair deal, then. Can you come out on Sunday, say around noon? I live off Route 137, one mile before you get to the Wildlife Conservation Center."
"Sunday noon is fine." Ben thought a second. "I know about where that's at. It's only fifteen minutes or so from the place I'm staying, so that's easy enough." He stuck a hand through the window. "See you on Sunday, then?"
"Appreciate it, Ben." Finn returned the handshake firmly. "See you on Sunday."
Ben stayed put until the truck coughed back to life. He waved as Finn drove off, then headed to Myrna, a happy grin on his face.
§ Chapter Five §
Saturday morning Ben woke early, a hard erection demanding his attention. He satisfied his need by playing one of Quilan Finn's readings in the machine he kept close to his bed and slowly masturbating as he let his imagination loose. Afterwards he lay in bed a while longer, until the aromas of bacon frying and coffee brewing drew him out.
Ben cleaned up, then wandered upstairs in a pair of shorts and t-shirt. In the kitchen, Tammy was tending a large iron skillet of bacon while a pot of coffee perked happily.
"You in for breakfast?" Tammy asked.
"Sure, I'll throw in the eggs," Ben replied.
"Okay." She added some more bacon to the pan.
Jane was on the phone, and Dexy and Delilah waited politely in the doorway to the laundry room. Ben stepped past the dogs to get to the garage, returning with a carton of eggs and tub of butter from the old refrigerator. He added his contributions to the breakfast meal and set the table as Tammy began moving the cooked bacon to a plate. Jane put more bread in the toaster, still listening to the wireless handset as she worked.
"Morning," was the cheery announcement as Cynthia Vernon came bouncing in. "Can't stay long, gotta get to work a bit early today. We're expecting a new shipment this morning." Cynthia worked at one of the feed and tack shops as a clerk.
Ben replaced Tammy at the stove, poured off some of the bacon grease, then cracked several eggs into the hot skillet. He tended the eggs as Tammy put the bacon and a stack of toast on the table and Cynthia added milk, juice, honey and strawberry jam.
Jane finally hung up the phone and fetched the pot of coffee as everyone began sitting down at the table. Ben brought the plate of eggs over to complete the breakfast offerings. They helped themselves and started eating.
"Anything wrong?" Ben asked. He had noticed that Jane seemed to have been disturbed by whatever she had heard in her phone conversation and was quieter than usual.
"That was Luis Gonzalez's daughter on the phone. He's taken a turn for the worse after his stroke last week, and the doctors say he won't be able to live on his own any more. His daughter is going to take him in, but she's got the new baby and things are pretty chaotic right now." She took another piece of toast, setting it on her plate as the phone rang again. She got up to answer, spoke for only a few moments, then came back to the table.
"Reverend Jenkins from the church is putting together a couple of groups to help Luis. One set is going to his daughter's house to clear out a room for him; the rest of us are going to meet Luis's son and help pack up the old place so he doesn't have to pay any more rent than necessary." She sighed. "He was awfully young for such a bad stroke, only 57 a few months ago."
"He seems like such a nice man, too," Cynthia murmured as she got up. "He does good leather work. We've carried some of his halters and bridles on commission for him at the store for several years." She washed out her coffee cup and put it away. She paused in the doorway before leaving and said, "Just wanted to let you know I won't be around this weekend. Ricky is picking me up after work and we're going down to stay with his parents. I should be back Monday."
"Thanks, appreciate you letting us know," Jane replied.
Tammy raised an eyebrow, which Cynthia studiously ignored as she turned to head out.
There was very little conversation during the rest of breakfast. After they had finished, Tammy offered to wash dishes if Ben would dry. The task went quickly as Jane left to feed the dogs outside and take care of the animals currently boarding in the barn.
Jane came back in and sat down at the table. After Tammy left to get ready to go out, Ben went to stand next to Jane, who was still remarkably subdued.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to borrow one of the tool boxes tomorrow," Ben said. When he had cleaned out the garage, he had found a large assortment of tools scattered about in boxes and on shelves, and had organized them into three tidy sets. "I promised to take a look at Quilan Finn's truck."
"Of course, any time you want," Jane replied automatically. She thought a second. "I met Quilan Finn eight years ago. That was the year we had the drought, and there were a lot of bad fires. The forest service people were looking for places to hold some of the injured animals, so I offered the barn. Very nice man. Is he still out by the Wildlife place?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ben wanted to ask more about Finn, but Jane had lapsed into a distracted silence. Ben hesitated, finally put a hand on her shoulder. "Is there something wrong?"
Jane smiled a little, then shook her head. "Don't pay any mind to me. It's just one of my moods."
"If there's anything I can do, I want to help," Ben persisted. He had grown very fond of his landlady and it bothered him to see her unhappy.
"It's just Luis's stroke," Jane said very softly as she stood up. "That's how my Roger went..."
Ben gathered her in and held her tightly. "I'm sorry."
Jane returned the hug, clinging fiercely for a long moment before pulling back. Her voice was suspiciously rough as she mumbled her thanks and turned away. She poured a small glass of water and drank it slowly as Ben hovered a bit.
"Don't worry about me," Jane said quietly. "Roger went quite a while ago. I stay busy and try to do for others so I don't have to think about things like that." She squared her shoulders as she washed out the empty glass and put it away. "And it's high time I got ready to go over to Luis Gonzalez's place."
"I'll go with you," Ben offered. "I'd like to help."
Jane nodded. "That would be nice of you. Fifteen minutes?"
"Fifteen minutes," Ben affirmed, then went to change clothes.
It took most of the day, but in the end, Ben was glad he had made the effort to help. It was sobering work, trying to sort through and pack up another man's life. They cleared out the one-bedroom house, taking some things to the daughter's place, putting others in storage. There was an awkward series of conversations when they had to decide what to do with the old man's leather-working tools, the son finally offering to take them and hold them in case they would be needed again. Ben stayed behind with the group that cleaned the house top to bottom so the family could get the security deposit back.
The day's events helped take Ben's mind off the questions swirling in his head about Quilan Finn, perhaps even giving him a bit of perspective on life's priorities as he lay in his own bed later that night. There was still a driving ache inside, an emptiness in which Finn's name rang amidst the echoes of his past. He knew he wanted desperately to have any part of this man that he could get; he had to fight the urge to drive out to see him that very night. He was also all too aware that Finn was probably straight, but he could not come to grips with that issue and kept pushing it away. He didn't know if it would ever be possible to have the kind of family ties and feelings he had seen earlier that day, but if he could only make a beginning somehow, maybe there was a chance, however tiny, that something good could grow.
Ben only knew that he had to try, no matter how much it hurt, because it hurt even more to think about living without Quilan Finn.
The late May sun was bright, warming the land as Ben rode slowly along the state road, watching carefully for mailbox names. He was fighting the butterflies that had been building all morning, and had ended up leaving so early that he had to ride up and down the road several times to kill time. He was still early when he found the large wooden box marked Finn, so he slowed to a crawl as he went up the long gravel drive. When he arrived at the small building, he was grateful to note that the battered old truck was sitting on a concrete slab in front of a carport that had had sides added at some point. He had known he would probably have to go underneath the vehicle and hadn't been looking forward to having to lie on rocks or dirt.
Ben parked his motorcycle, then pulled off his helmet, gauntlets and jacket, leaving them on the bike. He looked around, studying the tidy one-story dwelling. The wooden sides were faded and worn, but seemed weathertight, and a newer-looking covered porch ran across the length of the face. It sat in the midst of a large grassy clearing that extended to the side and seemed to stretch behind the house to the trees that surrounded the clearing. Ben strolled along the front, then around the corner to where he could see a large picnic table and brick grill. He went back and walked up two concrete steps, across the porch, and pulled back the screen door. He paused and took a deep breath, then finally knocked on the front door.
A few moments later the door swung open. Finn stood there in a pair of old sweat pants and a sleeveless t-shirt. His hair was tousled and his eyes looked sleepy.
"Hi, I'm afraid I'm early," Ben said, "I hope that's not a problem."
"No, no problem at all. I was just up late with some sick animals at the Center." Finn ran a hand through his hair as he yawned. "I'll get the keys. Would you like you something to drink?"
"I'm fine. I'll fetch my tool box and meet you at the truck."
A few minutes later the two men had the hood of the truck up.
"I appreciate you coming out on your weekend," Finn said. He looked down at the assemblage of metal and wires, a bemused expression on his face. "I've just never been very good with engines and such."
"Everybody has different talents," Ben replied. "Machines happen to be mine, or at least I like to think so. I'm going to do a once-over on all the systems first so I can check out what kind of general shape she's in, then I'll see if we can't figure out what's causing the worst problems."
"Alright. You said you'd like to know more about the area. Was there anything in particular you wanted to start with?"
"How about some basics? I've been thinking of staying on here, so how about your take on the weather the rest of the year? And what's the area outside of town like?" Ben picked out a couple of screwdrivers and wrenches to put in his pockets, stuffed a rag under his belt, then began poking around in the engine compartment.
For several minutes Finn rambled on about the Wyoming climate, the differences caused by the changes in altitude and the people, geography and recurring activities. Ben already knew much of it, but enjoyed listening to the flow of words. Occasionally he would point out problem areas in the truck's systems, taking advantage of the situation to brush against Finn's arm or hand. He had to stop and bite his tongue when Finn leaned in for a closer look at the corrosion on the battery terminals, the entire side of his body pressing against Ben for a long heavenly moment.
Ben swallowed hard after that contact and scrambled in his head for another question, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. "What's this Ruger place I keep hearing about?"
"Ah, old man Ruger," Finn said with a smile. "A hundred years ago, he was one of the local robber barons, made his money in mining and timber. He was also a fishing addict, but the story goes that he wanted to find a way to make his hobby profitable. He started the Ruger fishing lodge on his ranch up northwest of town. Things just kept growing from there, expanding the lodge, adding a guest ranch, then horseback and pack trips." Finn turned sideways, leaning a hip against the fender. "About forty years ago the family made more improvements to the lodge and added campgrounds, a hiking and biking business and about ten years ago some RV campgrounds. During the winter they have cross-country skiing. The lodge and shops support everything, and all that other stuff is what they call Ruger Base Camp. The family just kept building up the business and the infrastructure support, paying a big part of the expansion of the regional airport ten miles up the road, upgrading the roads and trails, working with the Forest Service for improvements and access rights. I think that at last count, the Rugers own something like fifty thousand acres along the official border of the forest, including several miles of the shoreline around Lake Sherall."
"Aren't they still adding on?" Ben stood up for a moment, stretching his back. "The guys at the shop mentioned something about ATVs."
"That's Ruger's Wilderness Wheels." Finn tilted his head a bit, "Let's see, that would be about two years ago when they opened that on the opposite end of the lodge complex from Base Camp. They bought up a new section away from the hiking and horseback areas, then built a bunch of trails for ATVs and dirt bikes. They have rentals and a support shop, switching over to snowmobiles after it starts snowing. I understand it's quite popular because of some of the off-roading restrictions in the forest proper."
"I could see the attraction," Ben said. He smiled before he continued. "You know, whenever you talk about 'the forest', I can almost hear capital letters in your voice. May I assume that you work there and enjoy it?"
"Well, yes." Finn looked away, a self-deprecating half-grin on his lips. "I'm in the Enforcement and Safety group. Started that almost seventeen years ago; been renting this place for fifteen years." He leaned back against the truck, one hand out to each side as he stared to the northwest. He was silent for a moment, a dreamy look in his eyes. "The Keo has been a wonderful place for me."
"Aye, Keogami National Forest. Locals call it the Keo." Finn shrugged. "The job is fine enough; the government pays fairly well and the benefits are good. But it's really the forest that's keeping me here." His smile grew as he began waxing lyrical about the beauty of the forest, the diversity of its trees and wildlife, and its peaceful serenity.
Ben smiled tolerantly. On the few occasions that Maureen had enticed him into camping excursions, he had found that the bugs bit too much, the dirt got into everything and it was quite boring. He enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic flow, though; it reminded him of Neal Delaney's passion for Irish history and literature. As for the current topic, he still didn't understand how someone could wax so rhapsodic over a bunch of trees.
Finn must have caught either the expression or the thought. He cut short his monologue with a rather sheepish expression and shrugged. "Anyway, the Keo is a nice place and it's been good to me. Except for the highest altitudes, much of the forest is open year round if you want to visit."
"Sounds interesting," Ben said, working to keep his tone neutral. "I've got to check the systems with the engine on and then look under the truck to check some more things out. Could you start her up and turn her off when I give the word?"
"Of course." Finn climbed into the cabin of the truck and waited.
For the next twenty minutes Ben worked in, around and under the truck, periodically calling out to Finn to turn the engine on or off. He methodically checked various systems. Occasionally, he would make an adjustment or simply compose a mental note to himself. Finally he gave a last shout to shut it down and silence reigned. Ben worked for a few more moments, removing selected components.
Ben pulled his rag out and wiped his hands as Finn dismounted from the cab.
"I heard her running the other night, so I don't think we need to do a road test right now," Ben said. "There are a number of significant problems you'll need to get taken care of pretty soon, but the worst immediate problem is that you need at least a basic tune-up, especially this frayed wiring, and we need to do some cleanup in your fuel system." He held up one of the parts. "You can see how fouled this fuel filter is. We should replace this along with the spark plugs and wires, and there are some adjustments I can do to help. I normally don't use additives, but in this case there are one or two I would recommend to help clear the fuel system and clean out some of the gunk in the engine."
"Right, I guess it is looking pretty nasty." Finn cast a dubious glance at the foreign device. "So how much is this going to cost?"
"Well, we really do need to replace this fuel filter, spark plugs and wiring, but I know where I can get some good prices for generic parts for the things that absolutely need to be replaced right now. I can clean or repair some other things. The truck's old enough that she doesn't have some of the fancy electronics the new models have, so I'm sure I can do the work without having to take her into a shop," Ben said thoughtfully. "There are some other problems you'll need to get worked on during the next six to twelve months, but I think I can keep today's tab around a hundred dollars or so. That'll keep you running a bit longer until you decide what to do about the rest."
"Ah, good, I can cover that without a problem." Finn gave a sigh of relief. "I was afraid we were looking at hundreds or thousands of dollars."
"This is just a makeshift repair," Ben warned. "Down the road, you'll need to make a decision about whether it's even worth fixing this truck or buying another vehicle." Ben fingered the old filter. "I've already got the tools I'll need, so if you want, I can go into town now and pick up the parts."
"You'd do that?"
"It's no problem. I like to finish what I start, and it won't take me long."
"If you're sure you don't mind..."
"Hey, it's a nice day and I didn't have any other plans. I can fetch what I need and be back before you know it." Ben grinned a bit, hoping to win his point.
"At least let me cover your gas, then."
"You've got a deal."
Finn smiled. "I'll get my wallet. Be right back."
A few minutes later Ben was on his way, Myrna purring happily as they headed down the road, reflecting her rider's delight with his success so far in his plan to further his potential friendship with Quilan Finn.
Ben was quite pleased with himself as he rode slowly up the long driveway. He had checked out a couple of the local stores where he had found the best deals on parts while doing odd jobs for some of Jane's friends, and had managed to not only locate everything he needed, but also to get an oil change kit that was on sale and still have over eight dollars left. He parked Myrna, dropped the bag of supplies in the back of the truck and swiftly headed for the house. He was eager to share the news of his acquisitions.
Softly whistling a little tune, Ben paused by the foot of the steps. Instead of going up to knock on the door, he felt drawn to walk around the house. Just past the corner he stopped short.
"Jeeezuus Christ," Ben whispered.
A dream figure danced in the clearing, moving along the border of shade and sun. Quilan Finn's brown sweatpants and loose green shirt made him appear as one with his beloved trees, his bare feet whispering in the grass. Smooth, supple movements seemed effortless, boughs moving in the soft breeze as his arms passed through the air.
Ben crept silently to the sturdy wooden picnic table and slid onto the bench seat. He leaned forward, forearms on the table, and watched raptly as Finn continued his routine. After a few moments, he vaguely recognized the movements as some form of martial arts, but that was only a passing thought as he found he could not take his eyes off the vision before him.
The slow, elegant ballet continued to tease the edge of shadow and light, arms circling and thrusting, torso twisting, legs pulling strength from the earth as they shifted and turned. Finn's eyes were closed, a sublime serenity on his face. The total inner focus surpassed even that he had displayed during the recording session at UPA.
There was a subtle air of controlled power surrounding Finn that enthralled Ben. The longer he watched, the more he realized there was also an almost palpable feeling of peace, of oneness with his environment. As this understanding struck home, Ben suddenly felt empty and envious. It had often seemed to him there was something lacking in his life, but he had usually attributed the feeling to poor relationships with most of his family. The sun was hot on his back, but inside he was cold and hollow. He was still unable to name the exact nature of his longings, but knew that he craved what Quilan Finn seemed to have somehow achieved.
The enchanting performance continued, perfect balance and grace in every movement. Eventually the long body pulled up from a final crouching push, the legs slowly coming together and extending. The arms made their final open circle, the open hands gliding upward to cross briefly below Finn's face before moving downwards. A sigh seemed to whisper across the clearing as Finn melted into a loose-limbed standing posture, legs together, hands at his sides. He took two final, very slow breaths before opening his eyes.
"Wow," Ben breathed. He shook his head in wonder as he stood up, but felt keenly his need to own that wonder.
Finn walked toward the table, stopping a few feet away from Ben. "Welcome back. Were you able to find what you were looking for?"
"Sure, generics, but they'll work fine." Ben waved a dismissive hand before continuing eagerly. "I want to know about that stuff you were doing; that was pisser. What was it?"
"Is this 'pissah' a good thing?" asked Finn, raising an eyebrow. "You keep using that word."
"Usually it's good, but it can mean not so good depending on what's happening," said Ben impatiently. "But tell me what you were doing."
"That was a Tai Chi routine, the Yang style short form." Finn shrugged. "Just one of many exercises I've picked up over the years."
"But that was just wicked pisser. I mean, it was like poetry in motion," Ben enthused. "Can you teach me that?"
"There's a lot of places you can learn the basics of Tai Chi," Finn said. "They have classes through community adult education, the university and several private instructors. If you want to get more involved in that or get into some of the other martial arts, there's a good dojo up the road in Naylor, and a few more down south."
"No, I did a couple of years of martial arts a while back, and I'm not interested in the mechanics," Ben said impatiently. "You had something else out there... I don't know what to call it..."
"I'm not sure I know what you're asking about," Finn replied. He leaned his head to the side a bit and put his hands on his hips.
"It was like... like there was nothing else in the world, that you were just so totally focused and peaceful..." Ben's earlier enthusiasm was rapidly turning to frustration. "Dammit, I don't know exactly what was happening. That's what I need to find out. That's what I want you to show me."
"Ah, I believe I'm understanding what you think you're asking for, but it's not an easy thing to study," Finn said. "It's about learning to find yourself, something I've been trying to do all my life. A large part of Tai Chi is about methods for focusing on what is inside you, and it can help you with that search." He shook his head. "My approach to it is very personal and would not be a simple thing to pass on to another. 'Tis a collaborative effort, working together on finding the path of life. A teacher can only assist his student in finding the way. It is a commitment on both parts, and there is a cost to both in terms of effort and dedication."
"If it's the cost, well, I don't have much money, but I can find a way to pay you."
Quilan Finn straightened to his full height, and his eyes turned cool. "Now you've insulted me, boy," he said in a flat tone, his arms crossed. "That is not at all the sort of thing you can pay for, and I would never take money for such a thing."
"I'm sorry, that wasn't my intention at all," Ben said. Now confusion was added to his growing vexation. The people he grew up with certainly didn't have that sort of reaction to money, and he didn't know how to proceed. "I just wanted to learn..."
"Ben," Finn said firmly. "Listen, you seem like a fine young man, and I like you. I don't usually do this sort of thing, but I'm going to give you some hard words. They're meant to help you, and I hope you don't take them the wrong way."
"Alright," Ben mumbled. From the sympathetic expression he thought he saw on the older man's face, he suspected his perplexed irritation was all too obvious.
"I haven't seen much of you, but my impression is that you're a decent, hard-working person and you want to be a good person. I also appreciate your willingness to help with my truck." Finn put a hand on Ben's shoulder and continued softly. "But I have to tell you, you're still awfully young, and you've still got a terrible lot of growing up to do before you can even understand what it is you think you want me to teach you."
"Now wait a minute," Ben said indignantly as he took a step back. "I'm twenty-one, and I've worked hard all my life to get things I wanted. It wasn't all that easy, you know." His head was up, hands on his hips. "I've been out totally on my own for a year, and I've kept things together pretty damned well."
"That's a good thing, Ben," Finn said quietly, keeping his tone soft and even. He let his arm fall back to his side. "But when you were growing up, did you work because you needed to put food on your family's table?"
"Well, no, of course not."
That drew a raised eyebrow from Finn. "Then tell me, boy, this last year, how many meals did you miss? How many times were you flat busted?" He pointed a finger at Myrna. "And how many times were you so far down that you even thought of selling that motorcycle of yours?"
"I would never sell her," Ben said, but his tone was now far less certain. "And... well, I guess I always managed to eat and have gas money."
"Tell me something else, then. How often have you looked to put other people before yourself, even if meant depriving yourself of something you really wanted? And how many people did you truly take under your wing and care for?"
"We always did stuff for the charities," Ben said, floundering for an answer. He brightened a bit as a thought hit him. "And there was my older sister, I cared a lot for her." There was a bit of triumph in his tone at that one.
"Well, that's good, too," Finn said dryly. "But I have to wonder who was taking care of whom?"
"I..." Ben had to look away as the realization hit him that Maureen had bailed him out and taken care of him far more often than he had been able to do the same for her. He mumbled an answer, "I don't know, I guess."
"Ben, it's not your fault, but I can tell from the way you talk, the things you talk about, that you were raised posh. I'll bet you always had plenty of food, nice clothes, nice house, good schools, all that sort of thing, right?"
A flush was rapidly rising up the back of Ben's neck as he had to acknowledge the truth. "Yes," he said. He looked down at the ground, his hands stuffed into his back pockets.
"And I'd be willing to wager a year's pay that when you left home, you had a fair amount of money in your jeans as well as that nice motorcycle, didn't you? And that sister of yours would have sent you more if you had unbent your pride enough to ask, wouldn't she?"
The flush had reached Ben's face and he could feel it burning, even though he wasn't really certain of what he felt so ashamed of. "I suppose so," he muttered.
"I'm not saying you necessarily had an easy life, Ben, I know there's more to it than physical comforts." Finn's voice was kind but firm. "Tell me if I'm wrong, son, but it just doesn't seem very likely you ever faced the kinds of hardships that made you turn your soul inside out to find out who you really are and what you are all about on this earth. Or even without hardships, that you've seen the need to ask yourself about what kind of path you want to walk in this life. And until you can make a start on that, you won't understand what it is you are trying to ask me to do."
Words caught in Ben's throat and he could only stand in silence, head bowed. He had thought of himself as a pretty tough person, self-confident and resilient, although he'd never been particularly proud of the way he had handled that last scene with his father. Now, this man that he wanted, that he desperately needed, was asking him questions he'd never had to face, and his seeming pity burned Ben's ego.
There was a very awkward silence for a long moment.
Finally Finn spoke. "Ben, I do appreciate the work you offered to do on the truck, but I don't mind if you'd rather leave now. I'll sort things out on my own."
That blow was too much for Ben's pride and cut to the core of his self-image. His head snapped up. "No, sir. I started the job, and I won't it leave half finished." His face still burned, but this much he could do. "Whatever else you may think about me, I don't do half-assed work." He stumbled momentarily as he thought of the recent lapse that might yet end up costing him his job at Midway. "I said I would fix your truck and I will," he finished quietly.
"Alright," Finn said. "I thank you for that. You can leave the keys in it if you want." He paused before continuing delicately, "I'll, uh, just take myself off to the house, then, shall I?"
Ben nodded in acknowledgement, afterward watching silently as Finn walked away. When he was out of sight, Ben waited a moment longer until he heard the door close. He drew a deep breath before beginning his own walk back to the truck.
Fortunately the main repair tasks for the tune-up and oil change were quite straight-forward. For the next two hours Ben replaced, adjusted, cleaned and tweaked as much as he could on the various parts of the old truck. His hands worked mechanically while his thoughts twisted and turned back on themselves in a confused whirl.
Ben's initial response was to block the pain with anger and hurt pride. Finn had treated him like a schoolboy still wet behind the ears, he fumed. Who the hell was this man to tell him that just because he happened to have grown up in a nice house, that he didn't know anything? How dare he claim he likes me and then turn around and tell me I'm a jerk? He mumbled and cursed to himself for quite a while, seething with resentment.
Unfortunately, Ben found he couldn't sustain his anger. Hard, sharp questions kept poking at him as he replayed the entire conversation in his head over and over. He finally admitted that Finn hadn't called him a jerk at all, just asked him some pointed questions that had taken him far out of his comfort zone. He had to concede that an awfully large piece of his life had indeed been very comfortable, physically at least. Maybe his family relationships hadn't been the warmest, but he'd seen plenty of others that weren't any better in his father's world, and he had to admit nobody had ever raised a hand to him until that final break. He might have worked hard on a lot of things, but it hadn't been because he needed to in order to just survive. And thinking beyond himself? Had he ever really done that or had he simply taken both his good fortune and other people for granted, accepting the life his parents had laid out for him without question?
The more he thought about how he had approached Finn after his Tai Chi exercise, the more Ben went from indignant anger to bewildered fretfulness. He wasn't sure what exactly he had done wrong, although the more he considered Finn's reaction the more he felt a bit like a greedy child who'd had his hand slapped for reaching for a prize he had not earned. He still didn't understand what the prize was, only that Finn had it and he wanted both of them so badly he could taste it.
Ben made one last check of his work, put away his tools, and collected the used parts and oil, setting them in the back of the truck. He climbed into the cab and sat behind the wheel, listening to the engine run as he meticulously recorded all the work he had done in a small pad. When he had finished that list, he thought for a moment, then began a new list with his notes on other major problems he had found which would need significant repairs fairly soon. When he had completed this last task, he tore out the pages and set them aside.
It was very quiet when Ben switched off the engine. He sat morosely, not even able to take his usual pleasure in a completed job. The late afternoon sun was slanting in, highlighting the front porch of the small dwelling. Ben leaned forward, placing his hands on the steering wheel where years of use had worn shiny indentations in the hard plastic. He stared at the house, his heart crying out for the man who had unknowingly captured it. He was still confused about what Finn had tried to tell him, this business of finding himself just not connecting in his mind, and he was uncertain if Finn would even be willing to have anything more to do with him after the way he seemed to dismiss him as too young and callow. In the end all he knew was that he couldn't walk away without trying to bring the situation between them to some sort of closure, clinging to a forlorn hope that this was not the end of his dream.
Slowly but steadily, Ben walked across the grass and climbed the steps of the porch. He held the screen open and for a very long moment stared at the door, one hand poised to knock. His heart was hammering and it was hard to breathe as he tried to force himself to tap the wooden panel, not knowing if Finn would even answer or if he would be summarily rejected. Finally he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and rapped twice, quickly moving back.
Almost immediately the door opened and Finn stepped out onto the porch. His expression was wary and he held his hands a little away from his sides.
Ben cleared his throat, but couldn't quite bring his eyes up. "You're all set on the truck, Mr. Finn." He offered his pieces of paper, then marched his words out in a monotone. "This is a list of the things I did, in case you need to talk to a mechanic about the work. And the rest is a list of other problems she has that you should get looked at fairly soon. I left the parts and old oil in the back of the truck. The oil will need to be recycled; if you want to bring it to Midway where I work I can take care of that for you, or any repair shop should be able to dispose of it properly."
"Thank you very much, Ben. I really appreciate it." Finn relaxed. He took the pages and skimmed the lists, then held them in his left hand. "Looks like a lot of work."
"It wasn't all that much. Here's the change from the money you gave me." Ben dug the bills and loose change from his pocket and held it out.
"Keep it. You did say you'd let me cover your gas."
"Uh, right, I guess I did. Thanks." Ben stuck the money back in his pocket.
There was another awkward silence.
"Mr. Finn..." Ben had to stop and swallow hard.
Ben sneaked a peek upward. Finn's expression was neutral, but he needed to take this chance.
"Mr. Finn," Ben began again, "I've been trying to think about the things you said earlier... First, if I did or said anything wrong, I want to apologize..."
"Ah, don't worry about it, Ben. You couldn't have known how I might be reacting. There are some topics I'm too sensitive about and I probably overreacted myself." An apologetic bit of a smile flashed across Finn's lips. "I hope you weren't too offended by the things I said to you."
"No, well, at first I was, but then I realized you were trying to tell me some things I probably needed to hear." Ben scuffed at the wood planking with the toe of one boot. "Like I said, I've been trying to think about what you said, but I don't understand what I'm supposed to do about the sort of things you asked."
"There isn't truly a right or wrong thing to 'do'. Sometimes finding the right questions to ask is half the battle when you're trying to find yourself."
"But, you see, that's my problem right now. I don't have the foggiest idea what sort of questions to ask." Ben hesitated, bit his lower lip, then let it go and plunged forward. "What I really want to ask is if I could come back and if you would be willing to help me find some of those questions."
"I'm not sure that would be a good idea." Finn's eyes were hooded, his tone hesitant. "I may not be the right person for you to be talking to."
"At least just once? No obligations, no commitments?"
"I don't know..."
Ben looked up and threw away his last remnant of pride. "Please?"
There was a long silence as Finn studied Ben's face. "Well, I do owe you for the work you did." He tilted his head slightly, raised an eyebrow. "And I do have to admit it took something for you to come back and knock on that door."
Ben waited anxiously. He swallowed hard again as time seemed to hang suspended.
"You have to understand that if we do this thing, you probably aren't going to like the questions and you may like some of the answers even less," Finn said carefully. "Are you sure you really want to be doing this?"
"Yes, sir. I need to try to understand more about what you were saying."
"Alright, then." Finn nodded, thought for a moment. "Can you be here Saturday at nine in the morning?"
"Yes, sir, I'll be here."
"That will square us for the work you did on the truck. No other obligations, no other commitments."
"Yes, sir. I understand." Ben's heart sank at those words, but he took comfort in knowing that there would be at least this one chance to try to stay in Finn's good graces and take things a little further.
"I'll see you on Saturday then." Finn held out his hand.
Ben shook his hand gratefully. "Thank you, sir."
Finn nodded and stepped back.
Ben was all too aware of Finn's gaze as he put his gear on, then mounted Myrna. He rode away, still trying to bring some semblance of order to the chaos of his feelings.
§ Chapter Six §
A long aimless ride did not go very far toward helping Ben to settle himself. It was well after dark by the time he got home, so he fixed a sandwich and slipped away down to his room to eat it, telling Jane he wanted to finish reading a book that was due back to the library. He had the distinct impression she wasn't buying his story, but he simply wasn't in the mood to be with other people.
Ben spent most of the evening alternating between pacing around his room and lying on the bed trying to think. For almost an hour he sat at his desk, turning a tape of Finn's recordings over and over in his hands, unable to bring himself to listen to it. Finally he gave up trying to sort it all out, but then spent a restless night trying to decide if he was really as green and self-centered as Finn claimed or if that was even what Finn had meant. He woke early and groaned as he remembered that Frank had moved him to a Monday shift instead of his usual Wednesday this week.
The shop was relatively quiet that morning. Ben and Bobby were able to finish up the jobs on hand by eleven as Frank mostly stayed in his office doing paperwork. Ben was glad for the slow day; he was starting to feel the effects of his fitful sleep.
He checked his last service ticket and entered his code on the electronic tablet to signify completion, idly noting that Bobby seemed to have wandered away somewhere. Ben set the device on the seat of the motorcycle, then yawned and stretched, smiling a little as he watched the last job blink off from the big screen by the door.
"Yes, sir?" Ben turned around to face Frank Mendoza.
"Sign off the system and ditch your coveralls. Mr. Jones wants to see you right now."
Ben's blood pressure shot up as he hurriedly logged out of the computer, then skinned out of the coveralls. Shit, he thought to himself as he tossed the garment over the motorcycle, what I have done wrong now? He hurried to follow Frank; he couldn't tell anything from the man's flat tone. Ben's mind raced with all sorts of possibilities, most of them unpleasant.
They climbed the stairs to the second floor and headed down a hallway, where Frank opened the door to a small conference room. Ben's heart almost stopped as he stepped inside to confront an inquisition panel, or at least that was what it looked like to his fevered imagination. Dennis and Margaret Jones were seated behind a short table; Frank took his place at Dennis's other side. Along the wall to Ben's right sat Tony Carmine, who was studiously looking at the ceiling, and Bobby Torvald, whose gaze floated around the room.
As an icy knot grabbed Ben's gut, he felt his buttocks clenching and his breathing was far too loud in his ears. After the gentle but disturbing rebuke the day before by Finn, this was a heavy trial to his already precarious self-esteem. A frantic prayer to every saint he could remember kept running through his head, 'Please don't let them fire me', as he tried to keep his expression neutral.
Dennis Jones opened a folder on the table in front of him and studied it.
Ben recognized the application form he had filled out when he had applied for the job. The silence in the room grew heavy with anticipation as the owner continued to look at the papers. Ben bit the inside of his cheek to stay calm.
"Mr. Kennan," Dennis said. "You've been working here about two months, and it's high time we took a hard look at your performance and prospects."
"Yes, sir." Ben's spirits sank even lower at the cool tone.
"You know, we see a lot of young guys float through in this business. They stay a month or three, then get restless feet or grow tired of the work and they wander off. Especially these days, we see a lot of self-centered young people just out to make a few dollars and move on." Dennis tapped the application. "I certainly had some reservations about you at first. You seemed nice enough, but leaving school, all those odd jobs, moving around, and being a city boy out here in the woods... well, it didn't look too good. We needed the help at the time, so I went ahead and hired you despite my doubts. Now that you've been here a little while, I want to know about your intentions, young man."
Ben blinked. Intentions? What the hell did that mean? "Uh, sir?"
"What are your plans? Are you staying or going?"
"Oh." Ben's mind blanked for one panic-stricken moment, then his feelings took over. "Well, to be honest, I'm not sure how far ahead I was planning. I do like it here, and I've met a lot of nice people," he said slowly. "I appreciate the opportunity you've given me, especially everything I've been learning from Mr. Mendoza. I think..." Ben paused as a vision of Quilan Finn flashed through his head. "I want to stay... get involved in activities like the UPA..." He pursed his lips, then continued more surely, "I'd like to try to save some money until I can get in-state tuition rates and then go back to school and finish my engineering degree. I know I won't be able to afford full-time, so I'll need to keep working and take night classes."
"So you do have thoughts about your future?" said Margaret.
"Yes, ma'am. I know I want to work on motorcycles, maybe do some designing eventually or get into rebuilding the old bikes like Mr. Mendoza does. I guess I just hadn't really thought about the long term much until now, but this seems like a great place to settle. People have been good to me here, and I like the community, even if it's not the sort of place I was used to."
"How would you evaluate the work you've done while you've been here?" Dennis asked.
"I believe I've given you value for your money, sir. I know I don't have nearly as much experience as somebody like Mr. Mendoza or Bobby, but I think I've been getting better." Ben glanced at Frank. "I, uh..." Ben looked down at the floor, then back, before continuing. "Well, I did have a screw-up a couple of weeks ago, but that won't happen again."
Dennis and Margaret both looked over at Frank, who nodded slightly.
"Mr. Kennan, please step outside and wait," Dennis said.
Out in the hallway Ben sagged against the wall. He closed his eyes as he took a couple of deep breaths. "Oh Jesus, they sure didn't look very happy," he muttered. "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything about that last bit. Damn, I don't know what I'm going to do if they fire me. I haven't been able to save much yet and I still owe Jane a lot of money." He chewed on his lower lip as he waited, his anxiety growing the longer he had to wait. He knew he had been working hard and thought he had been doing well since that day he had gotten chewed out, but perhaps it was all for nothing. His stomach felt sour and he wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans several times. It seemed like an eternity before the door opened and Frank called him back in.
There was an air of tension in the small room that grated on Ben's nerves. He stood up straight and waited for the pronouncement of his fate.
Dennis tapped a finger on the folder in front of him, then tipped his head to the side. "Mr. Kennan, as you are probably aware, we have a VERY limited number of full-time positions available here in the maintenance department. Are you interested in taking one of those full-time positions as part of the Midway family?" He glanced to the side where Tony and Bobby were sitting.
"Yes, sir, I'm definitely interested," Ben said as a wave of relief washed through him, until he caught the careful emphasis that Dennis had put on the words 'limited number of positions' and 'taking'. Something odd was going on here, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He looked to his right and noticed that Bobby was sitting rigidly, a white-knuckled grip on the arms of his chair, staring hard at the floor.
Finn's question about looking beyond himself to take care of others came back and jabbed his conscience far harder than any of the dusty sermons he had slept through during all those years of being dragged to church by his parents. He realized Frank was wearing his blue coveralls but Bobby wasn't; an awful thought came to him and he had to speak.
"Mr. Jones, you said you only had a few permanent positions. I'd really like to work here full time, but if it means you need to let somebody else go I'm not sure I could do that." Ben swallowed. "I... I just wouldn't feel right taking somebody's job, especially if he's got a family to support." His shoulders dropped as he felt he had probably just talked himself out of the job.
"You're really telling me that it's any of your business who we hire and fire, Mr. Kennan? I know you need the money, so why should you care?" Margaret asked, a cynical tone cutting into Ben's funk.
"No, ma'am, I didn't mean to sound like I have any say about your business, not at all," Ben said. He chose his words carefully before continuing. "It is my business who I choose to work for, though. You're right, I was down to nothing when I got in town, and I do need the money." He looked at Margaret, then at Dennis. "But I also need my self-respect. I'm sorry, but I'd feel bad about pushing out somebody else who needs the job even more than I do."
There was a heavy silence for a long moment. It was finally broken by a triumphant crow from Bobby Torvald.
"Yeehaw! Pay up, Tony." Bobby held his hand out.
"Hey, best ten bucks I ever lost," Tony said with a smile as he reached for his wallet.
Ben stared at them, his confusion clear on his face. "What's going on here?"
"Sorry about that, but we needed to know what sort of person you really are," Dennis said.
"You're not zooing me? You're not going to let Bobby go if I take the job?"
"Of course not. Bobby asked to cut back his hours here so he could go work at that Ruger's place. He was just putting on that little act so we could see what you were going to do."
"Yeah, the wife's been bugging the hell out of me to work someplace closer to home ever since we moved to that new house way up north of town." Bobby had a big grin on his face.
"We are offering you a full-time job, but let me explain a couple of things before you decide so you know what you're getting into, Ben," Dennis said. He too had a smile on his face. "The way it works, our full-time people are core members of the Midway family. That means we look out for Midway and for each other and we look to you to help the rest of the part-time and non-permanent staff. First off, there is a one year probation period. You do well during that year and we send you off to training. You're guaranteed at least forty hours a week, and there will be occasional overtime depending on what is going on.
"Next week on the first of June we'll be going to seven-days-a-week operations for the summer, so you might end up working any days of the week. You'll still be working directly for Frank; he'll set your schedule and assignments. There will be some days you'll be asked to help Tony on the show floor, and you'll be part of the crew to support exhibits at things like the county fair and the 4th of July roundup. You'll get your own set of coveralls and Midway shirts. When you're wearing Midway gear, I expect you to stay out of trouble and not do anything stupid that will reflect badly on Midway. You got any questions?"
Ben was still trying to take it all in, a rush of happy adrenaline leaving him a bit breathless, but one comment did catch his attention. "I'm not sure I understand what I'm supposed to do for Mr. Carmine, sir. I don't really know much about sales."
"Sometimes customers like to get real technical about the bikes, and I don't always have enough knowledgeable guys to cover everything," Tony said. "And I want you as my mechanic out there 'cause you got a nice personality and a nice ass."
"What?" Ben spluttered a bit as he felt a flush start to creep up the back of his neck.
"Come on, kid, don't tell me you've never noticed how the girls look at you, and the older women, too, the way you sashay around in those black jeans." Tony had a big smirk on his face. "People like you, you got that cute grin, you look cool on a motorcycle, and you can talk the tech side. If I could pry you away from Frank, I'd have you out there full time." He shrugged. "You gotta think about that kind of thing, even though nowadays you're not allowed to talk publicly about it; it's just one of the realities of dealing with people when you sell stuff."
Ben's face was now burning from embarrassment as he looked around and realized that everyone was grinning. Even Margaret was struggling to keep a straight face. He wasn't about to admit he'd never paid much attention to what women saw in him because he was too busy looking at other men and how they filled out their jeans.
"Don't worry, Ben, I'm not about to let that sleazeball get his hands on you," Frank said. He threw a good-natured obscene gesture at the head salesman. "If he had his way, he'd probably put you in a set of leathers and plant you on a motorcycle in the display window, and I'm not about to lose a good mechanic to that sort of nonsense."
"Thank you, sir," Ben said fervently.
"So, back to the big question, you want the job or not?" Dennis was still smiling.
"Yes, sir. I'd like that very much. I'll work hard, you'll see."
"I'm sure Frank will take care of that part." Dennis stood up and came around the table. He held out his hand. "Welcome to the Midway family, Ben." He shook Ben's hand.
After Dennis, everyone else in the room came up to shake Ben's hand as well. Tony winked at him, and Bobby slapped him on the back.
Frank reached under the table and placed a box on top. "These are for you, Ben."
Everybody stopped to watch as Ben went to the table and opened the top flap. He pulled out a set of four black t-shirts with the Midway logo on front and back, a set of two polo shirts with the logo on the back and on the pocket and two Midway baseball caps. He reached down into the bottom of the box and pulled out a brown paper parcel. He put it on the table and unwrapped it, revealing two sets of royal blue coveralls. He held one up; above the left top pocket the words "Midway Motorcycles" were embroidered, above the right pocket the italic block letters spelled out "Kennan." Ben stared at his name, unable to speak.
A hand on his shoulder caused Ben to look up.
"Most people would have just jumped at the job and screw the next guy, but I felt like you'd do the right thing, so I went ahead and got these made," said Frank quietly as he squeezed Ben's shoulder, then let his hand fall.
"Thank you, sir. God, this is just so wicked pisser I'm not sure what to say."
"Just keep doing good work, Ben, and let me know if you ever need any help."
"Yes, sir, I will."
"Ahem," Margaret cleared her throat noisily. "If we are quite finished with the lovefest, there is work to be done. And don't forget we have a team meeting at one-thirty."
Everyone else started heading for the door, even Dennis, who grinned and muttered, "Yes, dear."
"Come down to my office and we'll get your paperwork done. You can bring those along."
"Yes, ma'am." Ben quickly stuffed everything back in the box and followed Margaret to her office.
Ben was still a little overwhelmed as he sat down in the hard-backed visitor's chair in Margaret Jones' immaculate office. This was the first time he had been in here; one of the admin assistants had taken care of him when he had been hired. He took the employee handbook she gave him, then watched as she pulled out a folder with a large stack of forms. She also turned her computer monitor so Ben could see the screen.
"We'll start from the top and work our way down. Unfortunately, we still need hard copy signatures for a lot of these, but I'll be using electronic forms for as much as I can and we'll keep scanned images of all the hard copies. If you have any questions about the information or the changes due to becoming full-time, please ask." She picked up the top paper and handed it to Ben. "This is your terms and conditions of employment; take a few minutes to read it and let me know when you're ready to sign. I'll be checking each item off on the master checklist as we go through everything."
Ben read the document while Margaret worked on some other files, noting terms like permanent employee, probationary period, flat rate vs. hourly pay, overtime, reasons for dismissal. It was a more detailed form than the one he had been given as a part-timer and he raised an eyebrow at one of the items.
"Uh, ma'am, is this right that I could actually be fired for just about anything?"
Margaret put her pen aside and looked up. "Not quite, but the law in this state gives us a fair amount of leeway, especially for probationary employees."
"What exactly is included in 'moral turpitude'?"
"Aside from purely criminal activities like robbing a bank, the MT includes things like rape, bigamy, perjury, drug peddling and molesting the cattle."
Ben blinked and tried to hide the quirking at the corners of his lips. Was it possible that the Iron Lady (as she was often called behind her back) had a sense of humor?
"Don't laugh, Mr. Kennan. There have been several cases of cattle molesting, and other livestock, prosecuted in court in this state," Margaret said matter-of-factly. She looked at Ben speculatively for a moment. "If you're worried about private sexual relationships, as long as it's fully consensual, your partner is of legal age, and you don't get caught engaging in something idiotic like doing it in the town square at high noon, then it doesn't matter what color, race, religion or sex the other person is. And we don't tolerate any hate activities or discrimination towards other employees or especially toward customers about those things either. If nothing else, it's bad for employee relations and bad for business." She raised an eyebrow. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"No, ma'am. Absolutely not." Ben breathed a huge figurative sigh of relief inside his head. If Margaret said there would be tolerance and diversity, then it was a given that that was the way it would be at Midway Motorcycles. "I believe very strongly in those principles, ma'am." He quickly scribbled a signature on the page and handed it back.
"I do realize that there are still some realities of life when it comes to how people react to each other," Margaret said dryly. "For example, that is why we recruited a woman for the sales staff and also why we ask all the people who interact directly with customers to learn at least some basic Spanish if they do not already speak it. Tony did put it rather crudely in his remarks, unfortunately; if that bothered you, I shall require him to apologize."
"No, it's fine, ma'am. I just wasn't expecting it, and I know he didn't mean anything derogatory."
"Very well, this form is about your pay. Full-time employees are paid hourly, same as part-timers. You'll get paid even if there are no jobs in the shop, but we also expect you to help out wherever else you're needed for those forty hours. You have less than a year of experience on the books and no certifications or degrees, but you are permanent, so you'll start at ten dollars an hour. Overtime is fifteen. You'll get a performance review every six months, when you'll be eligible for potential pay raises. Instead of the very limited benefits you had before, you will now get the full set of benefits. Here is the list of the holiday, sick leave, personal leave and community service hours policies. It's not very many days initially, but you'll be eligible for leave increases at three years, seven years and so on, and you can either carry over or request pay for 25% of your accrued leaves for the year if you don't use them."
Ben smiled as he reviewed the form, then signed. He was quite pleased with the pay increase; even if he got no overtime it was still almost two dollars an hour better and for a full forty hours. And the paid leave was a definite improvement. Maybe now he could finally afford something other than bologna or peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
They went over tax forms, OSHA forms, the increased entitlements for employee discounts for parts, supplies and accessories and rules for personal use of the shop facilities. Margaret explained about the benefits package Midway had through the regional small business consortium and pointed out the sections in his handbook which covered the details of those.
"I don't need your decisions on the benefits right away," said Margaret. "Any questions so far?"
"No, ma'am. I'll have everything back to you next week."
"That will be fine. The final form I want to go over with you is this financial worksheet so you don't have any big surprises in your first paycheck. The figures are based on a full two-week pay cycle with a standard forty-hour week, since you're starting at the beginning of a new pay period."
Margaret went through line by line: salary, taxes, social security, potential insurance, etc. Compared to Ben's previous pay, it was still a nice number on the bottom line even after all the deductions.
"Now, the last thing I need is where you want your pay sent."
"I don't get a check anymore?"
"We strongly encourage our permanent employees to use electronic payment. Do you have a bank account?"
Ben shook his head. He had grown used to living off cash this last year and hadn't gotten away from that yet, even if it was sometimes inconvenient trying to find a place to cash his paychecks.
"If you're going to be staying, you need to establish a proper financial situation," Margaret said firmly. She opened a desk drawer and pulled out a card. "Stop by the Alborn bank and see Muriel Tejada. Tell her I sent you." She initialed the card and handed it to Ben. "She will set you up with a checking account, savings account, major credit card and online checking and bill paying."
"I'm not sure I..."
"Nonsense," Margaret interrupted. "You need to establish a financial record, a credit card is a basic necessity in today's world, and with the online access you can get to your accounts from anywhere in the world. Besides, your money is a lot safer in a bank than it is sitting in your pocket. We can cut you a check this first time, but I want to be able to start the paperwork for the electronic funds transfer by next week."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben said meekly, bowing to the elemental force-of-nature that was Margaret Jones.
"That should be everything. I'll have copies made and you can pick them up this afternoon. Any questions?"
"You had mentioned a team meeting at one-thirty. Am I supposed to go that?"
"Normally you don't have to attend, but we'll be going over a new project and the summer schedule, so we'll want both you and Bobby there. It will be in the big conference room."
"Yes ma'am, I'll be there."
Margaret sat back in her chair and looked at Ben for a moment. "Frank Mendoza thinks quite highly of you, Mr. Kennan. He's the one who wanted you brought on permanently." She paused. "But you understand that EVERYTHING that goes on in Midway is important to me."
"Yes, ma'am. I understand." Ben didn't have to have it spelled out that the 'everything' included him.
"Good." Margaret stood up and held out her hand. "Welcome to Midway."
Just before one-thirty, Ben followed Bobby into the larger of their two meeting rooms. He had reluctantly shed his blue coveralls at Frank's direction due to the expectation of an outside visitor at the meeting, but had donned his black Midway t-shirt instead. Dennis, Margaret, Frank and Tony were at the long table; they had been joined by Karen and by Greg, Margaret's primary assistant for finance and legal affairs, and Jocinda, Margaret's other key assistant for facilities and technology.
"Ok, let's get started," announced Dennis. "The first thing I would like to do is welcome Ben Kennan as our newest permanent employee." There was a brief round of applause. "Now I want to go over our plans for upcoming events."
For almost half an hour they discussed the move to the seven-day-a-week operation, staffing changes with seasonal interns in various departments and some regulars who came back each year to work part time as mechanics or salesmen, and business projections. There was a short review of the financial status, advertising efforts and major summer events. Ben was impressed with the efficient flow of information and spirited exchange of ideas; it was clear that these people worked together well and there was little wasted time.
At a quarter after two there was a knock on the door, followed almost immediately by the entrance of a short, bull-chested man with black hair in a crewcut.
"Hello, Tank. Have a seat. We were just wrapping up," said Dennis. He finished handing out the list of events Midway would be attending or sponsoring, then pulled a large folder from his briefcase.
"Okay. Tank, you know Margaret and Frank." Dennis introduced the rest of the people in the room. "I'd like everyone to meet Tank Sanchez, director of Ruger's Wilderness Wheels. We've been working on a potential joint venture to help both of us. I'll let Tank give you his overview."
"Good afternoon, and thanks for having me here. Can I assume that you are all familiar with Ruger Ranch and Ruger Base Camp?"
There was a general nodding of heads.
"Great. Well, a few years ago the Ruger board of directors decided to expand into a new area. For years the Forest Service has been pretty adamant about off-road vehicle restrictions in the Keo. I can't really blame them, what with the politics and the eco people always on their case, but it's meant that there's been a lot of demand building up for a while. Ruger used land on the other side of the Ranch from Base Camp, setting up a support building and a network of trails for a new business unit called Ruger's Wilderness Wheels, renting ATVs and dirt bikes and charging admission to use the trail system. During the winter they offer snowmobiling. It started off fairly well, but the first director had a heart attack three months after it opened. The second director tried to take some shortcuts with maintenance and safety and there were some incidents with customers. He was fired and I came in four months ago to try to clean things up. I think Wheels has a good profit potential, but there is still a lot of fixing needed. I kept hearing about Midway and what a clean bike operation you guys have, so I came to see Dennis and Margaret to see if there was a way we could help each other." Tank turned to Dennis.
"We've been checking out a number of things we think might be feasible," Dennis said. "First, Tony and Margaret have been looking at the market for off-road vehicles, and we think that could be useful for both sides. They've identified several models of dirt bikes and ATVs that should do well with the consumer base in this area. We anticipate that permanent residents would be interested in these for use on the ranches and farms in the area. Town and university people would want them for recreational use, which would give Ruger's a steadier base for repeat business from usage fees for their trail system."
"Mrs. Jones and I checked out several markets where the demographics and geography are similar, and we believe there is a high probability for success if we go about this properly," Tony said. "As new product lines, I've also gotten initial offers from a couple of manufacturers who will give us some good incentives to bring their machines in. We can move first with the dirt bikes as it's taking a while to get the details on possible ATVs worked out. Unfortunately, Harley doesn't really have what we want, but we already carry quite a few different used bikes, so it's not going to be that big of a change to add a new type. We wanted to avoid competition with the Kawasaki dealer up in Danville, so we've got an excellent deal almost ready to go for a range of Honda models with street-legal kits, off-road accessories and parts."
"I've verified the legal and licensing requirements for the state, and we can easily handle adding that to our customer services," Margaret added. "I've also set up a draft for Ruger's and Midway to do mutual advertising and for our staff to provide assistance with the licensing and procurement processes."
"From the maintenance side, that is something we've looked at for both us," Frank said. "Ruger's still has quite a backlog to clear up and I've strongly recommended they revamp their whole repair and logistics support processes, including safety checks before and after every vehicle is used and the periodic checks they should have been doing on the machines they own. Bobby has worked on just about everything that has wheels and he ran the maintenance program for a couple of big motor pools when he was in the Army, so he would be a great match for them. He's agreed to go to work four days a week full time at Ruger's as their senior staff mechanic, and he will still be working for us two days a week for a while to help train the interns and part-timers." He turned to Ben. "Have you ever worked on dirt bikes or ATVs?"
"Only a little," Ben acknowledged, "but I'm a pretty quick study and I don't mind staying after on my own time to get up to speed."
"Good," Frank said. "One of the applicants for the summer intern program has a lot of experience with dirt bikes already and both Ben and I should be squared away in pretty short order, so I don't anticipate any start-up problems being able to support maintenance for anything we'll be selling."
"The maintenance and support infrastructure is going to be more difficult," Dennis said. "Tank, I believe we've established that what you've got now just isn't working?"
"Yeah, that's been kind of a fiasco," Tank said, shaking his head. "They had brought in a consulting firm from Denver to build the network, and they've never gotten the damned thing to work properly. You can't get to the right data to fill in forms, half the forms don't work like we want them to, and the system crashes too often. We finally fired them a few months back, but now I've got this mess to try to deal with."
"We've got an excellent system here," said Margaret. "It ties together maintenance, inventory, admin, sales, facilities, and customer records applications from a central database. Took us two years to get everything fully worked out, but we've been very happy with the results from the standpoint of both cost savings and improved efficiencies."
There were several nods of agreement. "I worked at a couple of the really big dealerships in Chicago several years ago, and it's as good or better than anything I ever saw in their maintenance or parts departments," Karen affirmed.
"So the thought was that perhaps it might be possible to use our system as a basis for a new Ruger system with the addition of modules you'll need for the rental and trail usage portion of the business," said Margaret.
"Well, that could be a problem," Jocinda said carefully, looking up from where she had been doodling on a scratch pad. "And we could have a big problem of our own as well when it comes to updates for our system. I had a call this morning from Tyler Technologies, the people that built our network and applications."
"I know they finished moving out to San Francisco a few months ago, but didn't they agree to renew the maintenance and updates?" Margaret asked.
"We thought they were, but Dev Tyler himself called me. He was very apologetic, but it seems they've gotten some big new contracts at the same time they lost two of their key programmers and they just don't have enough staff to support everything. He offered to try to find us someone else to help out before the current contract expires in August." Jocinda looked very dejected. "I'm only a sys admin and network tech, Mrs. Jones. I can keep what we do have running and handle the routine stuff like security patches and such, and I could upgrade the network. I'm not a programmer, though, and I just don't have the skills it would take for any significant upgrades of our own applications, let alone modify the whole thing for what Ruger needs."
"That's alright, Jocinda. You're good at what you do, including the rest of your job with the buildings and physical security, and we appreciate that. But I guess it looks like we do have a problem coming up pretty shortly," Dennis said. "I'm afraid that puts a crimp in what we were planning for you, Tank."
There was a gloomy silence as everybody looked at each other.
"Umm, could I make a suggestion?" Ben asked diffidently. He had stayed quiet until now, not wanting to stick his nose into a place he had no experience with.
"I don't suppose you program computers in your spare time?" Frank said with a vague attempt to lighten the mood.
"I'm afraid not, sir," Ben said with a fleeting smile. "I was just thinking, though, that you could check with the university and see what they might be able to do."
"And just what is it you think they might be able to do?" asked Margaret. Her tone was skeptical.
"I know they have undergraduate and graduate programs in computer science, and they do co-op projects with a lot of groups. I found out about them because of the work they're doing for the UPA program; it sounded like a pretty big job and from everything I've heard it is supposed to be going well and is ahead of schedule." Ben ducked his head. "It was just a thought."
"Hey, you know, that might not be a bad idea," Tony said thoughtfully. He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. "We've always gotten some pretty good people from the university's engineering and business programs for interns and co-ops, even part-timers in reception. We've got to do something, so it might be worth at least looking into. We can always check out whoever else Dev wants to recommend."
There was a vigorous discussion for several minutes, which Ben was more than content to simply observe.
"Alright, everybody, here's what we're going to do," Dennis said. "Tank, we're going to move ahead with the rest of the plan for maintenance support, advertising and all that. Margaret and her staff will work with you on the details. Tony, firm up the initial order for the dirt bike package so we can get the contract signed. For the business and maintenance computer system, Jocinda will get a list of companies from Tyler and start checking them out. Margaret, can you contact the computer science people at the university and set up a meeting with them?"
"Certainly," Margaret nodded. "Ben, do you have any points of contact out there?
"Not directly, ma'am, but I'll give you Sandy Miller's personal office number at UPA. I'm sure she will be happy to get you in touch with the right people."
"Good. I think that about wraps up what we can do here for the moment."
Dennis nodded. "Okay, folks, thanks for your help. Let's get to work."
Ben rode home that evening in a euphoric haze, his dilemma about Quilan Finn and his damned questions temporarily set aside. Bobby had caught him in the employee restroom just before closing, admiring himself in the mirror in his blue coveralls, and had joked that he must be planning on taking them home to sleep in them. Ben had blushed a bit because that thought had actually been in the back of his mind, at least the wearing them home part. He had laughed and quickly removed his new uniform to put it on a hook in the lounge near his new bigger locker with his name stenciled on it, instead of being written on a piece of tape. Nothing, however, was going to get him out of his new Midway t-shirt.
As he turned into the long driveway, Ben found himself following Cynthia Vernon's station wagon. He parked in the garage as she was backing into the carport, then headed into the kitchen. Jane and Tammy were sitting at the kitchen table chatting.
"Good evening," said Ben, a big grin on his face. "I've got great news!"
"So do I," called Cynthia as she came in from the front. "Let's hear yours first." She set a small suitcase down and leaned against the counter with a smile.
All three looked up expectantly as Ben stood up straight, sticking his chest out a bit to emphasize the logo on his shirt.
"Ladies, you are now looking at the newest full-time employee of Midway Motorcycles. I started the new schedule today, minimum forty hours a week guaranteed, a pay raise AND full benefits."
There was a loud chorus of congratulations, a round of hugs, admiration for his shirt and how nice he looked in it. Ben's grin grew even wider as he basked in their genuine happiness for him.
"You had something good to tell us, too, Cynthia?" Ben asked as he belatedly remembered her comment.
"Oh, just a little something that came up this morning," Cynthia said modestly, but there was a light shining in her eyes that betrayed her elation. "You all remember Ricky?"
There were several nods and affirmations.
"We were staying at his parents' place these last two days, and I thought it went pretty well." She paused to reach in her pocket and pull out a small box. "In fact, it must have gone really well. This morning Mr. Enrique Hernandez proposed to me, and we're going to get married this fall." She opened the box to reveal a silver ring with a small diamond surrounded by rubies.
There was an even bigger round of squeals and hugs, Ben happily joining in. Everyone had to admire the ring several times and hug her again, exclaiming over the wonderful news. Finally the excitement began to run down.
"All this good news calls for a celebration," Jane announced. "I'm taking everyone out to eat. Where shall we go?"
Ben deferred to Cynthia, claiming he would be happy to go anywhere, and she finally decided on barbecue. Tammy offered to drive, so they piled into her car and drove off.
Later that evening Ben was sitting at his desk, comfortably stuffed with generous servings of brisket, ribs and chocolate cake. It had been a lovely evening, although Cynthia had apologized repeatedly for the fact that she planned to leave in a few weeks to go back to stay with her parents. They lived less than an hour away from where her fiancé was moving because of his recent promotion, and she and Ricky wanted to get a head start on house hunting and wedding preparations. Jane wished her well and told her not to worry about it.
All the talk of family had turned Ben's thoughts toward Maureen and her rapidly approaching graduation from Harvard. He pulled out a notepad and began working through some numbers. A half hour later he sat back dejectedly.
"Well, shit, this just isn't going to work, is it?" he muttered.
He looked at his list again: current monthly rent, the rest of the security deposit and back rent he still owed, motorcycle insurance that would be expiring soon, an unknown amount for vehicle registration and driver's license for Wyoming, his one good pair of boots that were wearing through, food, gas and the service for Myrna that he had already put off far too long. His first new paycheck would kick in two weeks from now, but it still wouldn't be enough to come anywhere close to covering everything on his list, let alone a plane ticket home. He knew Jane probably wouldn't mind waiting for her money, but some of the things couldn't wait much longer, and he hated the thought of asking Jane to let him slide even more than she already had.
Ben stared gloomily at the list for quite a while, then sighed and leaned forward, head in hands. For once, he was keenly feeling the impact of not having the kind of money that he had taken for granted growing up. Eventually, he sighed again.
"Screw it, I'm going to bed."
The new shirt was carefully hung on the back of the chair. Ben ran his fingers over the logo a few times, but his joy at the promotion was tempered by his frustration, knowing that the job was only a start on getting him wherever he was going.
At work the next day, Ben kept thinking about Maureen. He decided he at least wanted more than just a dry email to let her know how he was doing.
At lunch Ben took off his coveralls and went out to the showroom. It was quiet except for two of the sales team. He went over to Tony's desk. He knew the sales manager was a bit of a gadget freak and might be willing to help him.
"Mr. Carmine?" Ben asked hesitantly.
"Hey, you're one of the family, call me Tony now," he said with an expansive smile and a wave of his arms. "So what can I do for you?"
"Well, I was just sort of wondering what the policy is on maybe getting a picture with one of those cameras you use for the advertising and promo shots? I don't want to do anything I'm not supposed to, but I was hoping I could get something to send to my sister."
"No problem, Ben. It's all digital, so it doesn't cost anything for film. What kind of shot you want?"
"Are you sure? I don't want to screw up right after I got promoted," Ben said. He glanced around, concerned that the omniscient Margaret might be charging in.
Tony looked at him, shook his head. "If you're worried about that, we'll use my personal camera. I just got another new one and I want to try it out anyway." He unlocked a desk drawer and pulled out a small silver camera not much bigger than a deck of cards. "Ten megapixels, still and movie shots, even audio," he said proudly.
"That would be great, if you don't mind," Ben said. "How about something in front of the store, and maybe one in the maintenance bay?"
"Why not the whole place?" Tony thought for a second. "Tell you what I'm going to do. We've got a half hour, so first I want to get a couple of still shots out front with you, and we can follow that with a movie. We'll start from the front, move in through the showroom, past Karen's place, then into the maintenance bay. You can put on your coveralls, tell her about what you do. After that, a big finish with more stills back out front with you on your motorcycle by the big logo. I'll pull all the files off the camera onto my laptop computer so you can email them. How's that sound?"
"That would be wonderful," Ben said. "I really appreciate it."
"No problem. It'll give me a chance to see how well the camera really works. Let's go."
For the next twenty minutes Tony was in production mode, gleefully playing movie director and photographer. After they were finished shooting, he put all of the digital files on his personal laptop, then fired up his wireless connection and insisted that Ben email everything right then and there. Ben thanked him profusely and went back to work.
Later that evening, after supper, Ben put his name and time on the kitchen phone log and dialed the number to Maureen's cell phone.
"Hey, Maureen, it's Ben. Can you talk for a few minutes?"
"Brenda! It's good to hear from you."
"No, it's Ben."
"Right, definitely we must talk. Are you still at that last number you gave me?"
"I'll call you back in a few, dear."
Ben heard a muffled comment about 'girl talk' and 'other room' before the connection went dead. He hung up the phone and waited, wondering just what was going on.
Jane turned around from the counter where she was mixing up bread dough. "Why don't you go ahead and take that in the other room? I'll be busy here for a while."
"Thanks." Ben hurried into the family room and sat down by the side table holding an extension phone.
It was closer to ten minutes before the phone finally rang.
"Hey, it's me. It's good to hear you. I wanted to call and ask if you got the emails I sent earlier today."
"It's great to hear from you, too. And yes, I did. Those were some pretty nice pictures and I loved that little movie. So that's the place you've been working?"
"Yes, Midway Motorcycles. One of the guys there took all the pictures for me. I wanted to let you know I've been promoted to full-time now with a pay raise and benefits and everything."
"That's wonderful, Ben. I am so happy for you. I know it hasn't been easy, but I hope things are finally looking up."
"It's been getting better. There have been some very nice people here, and I'd like to stay on. In fact, I've been thinking about going back to school next year after I can qualify for in-state rates. I know it will have to be part-time courses, but I intend to finish my degree and then see what I want to do after that."
"Ben, that is great. I am so proud of you, little brother. That is truly fantastic."
"Speaking of college, uh... well, I'm afraid I won't be able to make it back for your graduation. I really wanted to be there, and I'm sorry I just can't swing it right now."
There was a brief silence, and Ben was almost afraid they'd been cut off.
"Is something wrong?"
"Look, I appreciate that you want to be there, but I have to tell you that it's better if you don't try to come."
"It's Father, isn't it?" Ben asked bitterly.
"I'm afraid so. He's definitely going to be there, you know how he is about making points with his cronies about this kind of stuff, and there would be quite a nasty scene if you showed up. He took down all the pictures, got rid of everything in your room, and it's gotten to the point that now he doesn't even allow your name to be mentioned, even for Lars to make his stupid snarky comments. That's why I had to come up to my room and lock the door to call you back. He's gone totally overboard with this crap."
"Well, I guess there isn't really anything I can do about it." Ben gave a weary sigh as he slumped back in the chair.
"Ben, he's the one being an asshole about this, not you. I still love you, and you know if you ever need any help, you just have to unstick that stubborn pride of yours long enough to ask."
Ben laughed. "Thanks, I guess I needed to hear that. I love you, too." He paused. "So, how's everything else been going? How'd you come out on final exams?"
§ Chapter Seven §
The last week of May was turning out to be a memorable and busy one. Ben was still buzzed about his promotion to full time and was settling into his new schedule. He had enjoyed talking to Maureen on Tuesday evening, although it had dampened his spirits to be reminded of his father's attitude toward him. Tony had surprised him Wednesday morning with some very nice prints from their photo shoot, and Sandy Miller had called to invite him to a session at UPA for Thursday evening.
The first couple of summer hires came in on Wednesday; the mechanic intern with dirt bike experience turned out to be a pleasant young woman who had done extensive off-roading with her brothers. Ben had gotten a glimpse of her contact information card and at lunch, she quietly informed him that if he ever again attempted to call her Matilda instead of Mattie, she would rearrange certain of his body parts into a new configuration. Ben had grinned and replied, "Yes, ma'am," which had earned him a dirty look. When he realized she was in the mechanical engineering program and not just general engineering, he decided to make an effort to cultivate her to find out more about the program.
The pace of business was picking up as regulars started bringing in bikes for servicing before the summer riding season kicked in and the first waves of summer visitors started hitting town. Frank had also managed to obtain copies of the manuals for the new vehicles they were ordering, so between jobs Ben began studying the books.
On Thursday Ben made it to the Alborn Bank on his lunch break. Muriel Tejada turned out to be another version of Margaret Jones, only with silver-blonde hair tied back in a bun and dark red lipstick. Margaret's card got him into Ms. Tejada's office immediately and also apparently satisfied any questions that she might have had about Ben's financial solvency, despite the fact that he had only brought the magnificent sum of eighteen dollars to deposit. Once he had filled out the forms, she had him out of her office in less than ten minutes with temporary checks and network password in hand, and a promise that he should be receiving his credit card within two weeks.
Thursday evening found Ben at the UPA offices; Armand was giving an introductory class on the control room equipment. Ben enjoyed himself a great deal and committed to coming back to learn more. He had a nice chat with Sandy, who gave him a big hug when he mentioned his new work status. He found that he was definitely starting to enjoy this hugging business, despite the scarcity of such things in his former life.
By four o'clock on Friday afternoon, Ben was ready to call it a week. Frank had made a point of stopping to chat with him when he had handed out the schedules for the following week, letting him know he was off until Monday but would probably be working quite a few weekends in July and August, and discreetly inquiring as to whether Ben had any religious objections to that sort of schedule. They also talked a little about the support requirements for the Fourth of July roundup, which was a four-day holiday fair where Midway always had a big exhibit. Ben tossed a copy of one of the new manuals into one of his panniers as he left, intending to do a little reading over the weekend.
It was still early, a nice warm evening, by the time Ben and Jane finished a simple supper of salad and baked chicken. Cynthia and Tammy had left earlier for a party that some of their girlfriends were throwing for Cynthia.
"That was very good. Was that a garlic marinade?" Ben sat slowly sipping the last of his iced tea.
"Garlic, cumin and olive oil. It's a recipe I got from one of the ladies at church."
"It was nice."
There was a companionable silence for a moment.
"It's a beautiful evening," said Ben. "After I do the dishes I'm going to take a walk up the back way, maybe sit for a bit."
"A good time for some thinking. Seems there's been a lot happening for you lately."
Ben looked at Jane, reflecting that this woman seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing when something was going on in his head. He nodded.
"You can take the girls if you like. They'd probably like the exercise."
"I didn't think they were particularly fond of me."
Jane laughed. "They're dogs, Ben. Tiger is one thing, he's a fiercely independent little beast and just doesn't like men in general. The girls are really pretty simple creatures, though. They think of you as part of my pack, dear, and they're quite ready to like you if you feed them or play with them."
"Alright, I'll take them along." Ben smiled as he cleared the table at the thought of the seemingly mild-mannered Jane Brandon as a fierce pack leader, although on second thought, he decided that perhaps that was not such a far-fetched thought for this resourceful and resilient woman. He found he rather fancied the idea of being in her pack, actually.
"Sitting outside sounds like a nice idea. There are no boarders in the barn to care for tonight, so I think I'll take some knitting out on the back porch for a while."
Ben nodded, then made quick work of the cleanup. He took a last look around the kitchen before going outside to the yard.
"Dexy! Delilah! Come on, girls, let's go for a walk."
Jane smiled at them as the dogs bounded around Ben. There was a solid wooden fence enclosing a very generous back yard with shade trees, picnic tables and a brick barbecue pit; it started at the back corners of the house and each end wrapped around to an edge of the converted barn. Ben let himself and the dogs out the side gate, then headed up the dirt road that ran along beside the house and fence and wended its way through the back part of the long rectangular lot, which included the bulk of the forty acres. He glanced at the snug little shed which housed the backup generators for the house and barn; this side of the barn was blank, the external dog runs all on the other side. As they passed the end of the barn, he could see part of the heavy woven-wire fence surrounding the extensive garden plot. Ben wandered through the woods for half an hour, the dogs racing about back and forth. They crossed a small stream into a large sunny clearing where Ben decided to settle down near the edge of the grass.
Ben had been so busy and distracted all week that he had not really had time to think seriously about Quilan Finn and what might happen on Saturday morning, but he could not put it off any longer. He relaxed against the trunk of a large tree, letting himself enjoy the warm late-spring evening as he tried to decide where to start. He quickly realized that it was not a quiet evening: birds and insects sounded off, there were rustlings in the woods and the dogs lapped noisily in the stream. Within a few minutes, he also decided that he still didn't understand Finn's love affair with the stupid forest; it might be pretty, but the ground was hard under his rear and the rough bark dug into his back. He was wiggling around trying to get more comfortable when the dogs came trotting over and flung themselves down, both of them trying to crawl into his lap.
"Hey, hang on, dammit. There's not room for both of you."
The two Rottweilers stared at him mournfully with their deep brown eyes, tongues hanging out.
"Oh Jesus, alright, alright." A thought struck him. "Hell, if we're all in Jane's pack, let's get comfortable together." He pushed Dexy over to lie on her side, then lay down, using her for a pillow. Delilah stretched out beside him, resting her head on his chest.
"That's better." He shifted a bit, then wrapped an arm around Delilah and relaxed.
That minor distraction didn't leave him any closer to figuring out what was going on in his head.
"Tell me, Delilah, is Quilan Finn the love of my life? Is he the soul mate I thought Neal Delaney was supposed to be?"
The dog gave a soft whoof.
"Yeah, I got it that bad..."
Ben's voice trailed off as his thoughts wandered. From the time he had first heard that wonderful voice on the radio, he had been lost. And he had just kept getting sucked in deeper with every contact until his need was bone-deep. He had learned the hard way that he had to separate that ache from the rest of his life, but it never left him now.
He wasn't entirely sure just what it was that drew him to this man with such fierce intensity. Clearly there was the huge initial tie to the amazing opportunity for a second chance at love, after what his younger self had melodramatically persuaded him was a soul-shattering loss. And there were the initial similarities between Neal Delaney and Quilan Finn, of course; both men were strong, sexy and passionate about their dreams. Where Neal had been flamboyant, though, Quilan Finn didn't seem to have that urge. He exuded a self-confident but low-key power and a disarming charm that seemed to attract people to him like bees to honey, but he didn't go out of his way to advertise or try to draw attention. And his touch! Ben's cock stirred at the memory of those few times he had been able to have physical contact. It had been an electric feeling that shot through him and sent joyful hormones careening, a feeling he had only been able to fantasize about with his former instructor.
Ben shivered a little, licking his lips at the thought of the bliss that getting into those pants would be. Delilah whined, nudging the hand that had momentarily stopped scratching behind her ears.
Ben looked down. "You're right. I've probably got an icicle's chance in hell of ever getting him anywhere near my bed." He sighed. "So where does that leave me?"
It leaves me with a jagged hole in my heart, Ben thought. I don't understand it, but I've never wanted, no, needed anyone quite the way I need this man, not even the good Dr. Delaney. I can't have him, but I can't imagine being without him. I've read about platonic love, but can I really live with that if it's the only way I can be near him?
A cool breeze whispered across the clearing. Ben shivered again, this time from a cold dose of reality as he admitted that it was not looking very likely that he was going to have much choice in the matter.
Ben's thoughts reluctantly turned to his last encounter with Finn. That visit had started out so well and turned out so dismally. After going over and over the words that Finn had said to him, Ben still had mixed feelings about the incident. He was happy that Finn had said that he liked Ben, but he didn't understand a lot of the things Finn had pushed him on. He strongly suspected that he must have been dragging around a lot more emotional baggage than he had ever realized, but he hadn't found the key to the luggage yet and he wasn't entirely certain he really wanted to force some of it out into the open.
Then, of course, there was the other jolt this week; that point-blank question about his future plans in front of what he still thought of as the inquisition panel. He couldn't think of a moment when he had felt so completely lost and helpless, and he knew that first horrible instant would be forever etched in his memory. The words that had come out after that, though - those words felt right. Whatever destiny had drawn him to this place was another thing he still didn't understand, but he did like it here. It wasn't just about Quilan Finn. Even before he had heard that magic voice, Ben had started to feel a connection to his new home and to some of the people, as well as a soothing of pains he hadn't fully acknowledged he owned. And he did want to put some direction in his life; he'd never truly been forced to deal with the question of his future until now. For most of his life he had followed the path that others had laid out for him. Since leaving home, he realized that he'd simply been drifting, trying to bury thoughts of his past and not worrying about what was in front of him. Ben sighed heavily.
"Is that part of what he was trying to get me to see? That it was high time I got my head out of my ass and started making sense of what's going on in my life?"
Delilah looked up at him, slanted her head and raised one eyebrow. A rustling in the trees caught the attention of both dogs, and Ben suddenly found himself lying on his back alone. He stood up and brushed himself off.
"C'mon, girls, time to go home."
As Ben thought about the very real possibility that the next day might be the last time he was invited back to Quilan Finn's home, the plangent twang of an electric guitar resounded in his head. The refrain of an old Nazareth song kept cycling through him as he slowly walked down the dirt track back to the house.
After another restless night, Ben woke with the dawn but found it difficult to stir. He lay in bed for quite a while, his thoughts flitting aimlessly. It was almost eight o'clock before he dressed and went upstairs.
"Mmmm, that smells good," Ben said as he was assaulted by the aroma of a fresh bake.
"Just finishing some breads and muffins for the swap meet this morning," Jane said. She handed him a lopsided muffin. "Here's an extra for you."
"Thanks." Ben set it on the table, then went to fetch milk and cereal from his store in the garage. Sitting at the table, he ate his breakfast while watching Jane pack the baked goods into plastic boxes.
"Any plans for this weekend?" Jane asked.
"Just for this morning," Ben answered. He scrambled a moment for a safe way to discuss his intentions. "I'm going back out to Quilan Finn's place to see how the repairs on his truck are doing... maybe try to talk him into teaching me Tai Chi. He's very good at it."
"I imagine he would be," Jane said a bit absently. She paused, looked over her assortment of goodies, then swiftly pulled out a few muffins and set them in a brown paper bag along with napkins. She set the bag on the table next to Ben. "Take these along. It will help your cause. There's blueberry, banana nut and lemon."
"I can't take those," Ben protested. "You need them for your swap meet."
"They are all irregulars in size or shape so they'll be slow to sell. You may as well get some good from them."
"But... you did all the work." Ben shook his head. "You already do so much for me... I can't just take them."
"Then make yourself useful," Jane retorted. "Tomorrow morning is my turn with the Garden Club. They're bringing the rototiller and several loads of manure to finish the other two-thirds of the plot. Since you missed the earlier trip a couple of weeks ago, you can help shovel manure this time if it will make you feel better."
"Oh... well... alright, I can do that," Ben said. He didn't mind working, but that certainly wouldn't have been his first choice of task.
"Truck will be here at six in the morning." Jane added some chocolate nut muffins to the bag with a mischievous grin. "It's a big truck," she added in response to Ben's raised eyebrow.
"Yes, ma'am," Ben replied with tepid enthusiasm. "Aren't you going to church tomorrow?"
"The good Lord understands that you have to get the rototiller when you can." Jane gathered her boxes. "I'll be having breakfast at five-thirty if you want any." She headed out the door to the garage.
"Yes, ma'am," Ben muttered after her. He decided that Jane must share certain devious characteristics with Sandy Miller when it came to getting people to do work. On the other hand, he did owe her a lot, and the lovely aroma lingering in the kitchen suggested that it might be a helpful enticement in his impending discussion with his sexy forest ranger. In the end he just shrugged and finished his cereal.
Promptly at nine, Ben pulled up behind the battered truck and parked. Butterflies were swirling madly in his stomach as he took off his gear and deposited it on Myrna's seat. He retrieved his bag of muffins and stood looking uncertainly at the house for a disquieting moment as it occurred to him to wonder if the etiquette out here really allowed for guys to bring muffins to another guy instead of something macho like beer, but Jane had obviously thought it was fine, and he finally decided that Finn didn't seem the type to go in for 'manly man' conventions anyway. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and marched up to the front door.
Ben knocked twice and waited.
"Around the side," called the voice he had heard so many times on his CDs and tapes.
Ben quickly walked toward the sound. Finn was sitting at the picnic table, an open laptop computer in front of him, tapping on some sort of document with a pen. A large thermal carafe with two mugs and a shaker of sugar was at the end of the table.
"Hey, good morning," Ben said as he advanced, bag in hand.
"Good morning to you," Finn replied. He took off his glasses and set them down, then slid the computer to the side as he stood up and came around the end of the table. He put a hand out. "I wanted to thank you for that work you did on the truck. It's been running a lot better since then."
"Just some basic fixes, really. She's still got a bit of life left in her if you take care of her." Ben let himself enjoy the firm handshake, a warm glow suffusing his soul as Finn smiled at him and let the grasp linger a bit. A pang of loss swept through him as he regretfully released the hand.
"Would you be wanting some tea?" Finn asked as he sat back down at the table. "I'm afraid I don't usually have coffee around."
"Tea would be great," Ben said. "My landlady sent these along, too." He pulled a couple of napkins from his bag and emptied the contents onto them. "I live down cellar at Jane Brandon's place," he added.
"She'd be a widow with a big barn?"
"I remember when she helped out providing a place for some of the injured animals after the last big round of fires. Nice woman," Finn said. He poured two mugs of tea, then took a bite of muffin. "And an excellent cook too, I see. This is marvelous."
"She is a good cook, and a very nice person. She took me in when I first got to town and had hardly any money left, then helped me find a job."
"So how have things been getting on for you since then?"
"Mostly pretty tight, but I had the part-time job and I did a lot of odd jobs for some of Jane's friends, so I've been surviving." Ben added a generous helping of sugar to his mug and took a sip of tea. "Actually, I wanted to thank you for making the effort last week to try to get me thinking about things. I was pretty pissed off for a while, and I still haven't sorted things out very well, but at least one of the things you said has already helped. Monday at work they were grilling me about what I wanted to do and had it set up to look like I would be taking this other man's job if I accepted a full-time position." Ben paused, took another sip of tea, looked down, rubbed at a spot on the table. "I knew he had four kids... oldest is in college, the other three are still at home, and his wife's had a couple of bouts with cancer. What you said about looking outside yourself to help others kind of hit me like a ton of bricks, and I realized I would feel bad about taking his job away. I told them I just couldn't do it, and it turned out that was the kind of reaction they were looking for. So I got the job, full-time with benefits and all."
"That's very good news, Ben. I'm happy for you." Finn finished his muffin and reached for another.
"Anyway, I just wanted to thank you." Ben finally looked up, a brief smile sliding across his lips.
"You're welcome." Finn drank some tea. "These muffins are fair wonderful. You should have some." He smiled. "If nothing else you'll be saving me from the temptation of eating them all myself."
Ben nibbled on a blueberry muffin. He nodded toward the laptop. "Working on a project?"
"A little something for UPA." Finn pointed at the stack of paper. "They don't have a very big music archive except for standard stuff, so our darling Sandy collects the requests that come in for music and passes the lists out to volunteers who have private music collections. There's quite a bit of Irish, Scottish and folk music I own, so I check the list to see what I've got. 'Tis easier to use the computer so I can just search against my directory files that one of the people at work helped me set up. If I have enough matches, I'll add in some of my own choices to make a full one or two-hour show, give the whole list to Sandy and she'll set up a time when I can bring everything in and record."
"You like working with UPA?"
"Aye, I've enjoyed it a great deal. They have a lot of good people doing some good things. I'm thinking you'll like it if you're serious about joining the crew."
"I plan on it. Armand had an interesting class on the control system this week, and I'm looking forward to learning more."
Finn nodded and poured himself another mug of tea. It was quiet as both men finished eating.
Ben cleared his throat. "So, I guess I should also be thanking you for letting me come back out." He fiddled with his mug, not quite able to meet Finn's eyes. The butterflies that had quieted in his stomach erupted back into full flight.
"Ah, yes, I did promise to have a chat with you, didn't I?" Finn cradled his mug in both hands on the table. "If I'm understanding things properly, this started when you saw my Tai Chi routine and wanted to learn more about something the popular philosophizers probably call 'inner peace'?"
"It seemed like there was more to it than that, I think," Ben said tentatively.
"Well, depends on what you are really looking for, I suppose." Finn took a slow, deliberate sip, then put both hands around the mug again, this time with his elbows bent. "For me, Tai Chi is one of the disciplines I have explored as part of a life-long search to try to find out who and what I am. It has helped me to learn to focus, to reach inside myself. It's not been an easy task, especially as I've changed and grown during my life." He looked steadily at Ben for a long moment before continuing. "A lot of people are perfectly happy with their lives, either just letting things happen or settling for a few goals. Are you sure you really want to be stirring things up with more questions?"
"You've already stuck a spoon in the pot and started it going," Ben said, looking directly at Finn. "If you didn't mean for me to do anything about that, then why did you bother? You could've just said no and ended it right there."
"A fair question, and one I'm not sure I really have a sufficient answer for yet." Finn took another sip of tea, then set the mug down off to the side. "You were looking rather lost and bewildered in a cute-puppy-dog sort of way." He smiled as an indignant expression crossed Ben's face. "But there was something else there as well... you seemed like someone who could become much more than you are now. I thought you might be a person who wouldn't be content to just let life happen to you, and maybe a little poke might get you to thinking about that."
"It was more like a kick in the ass than a poke," Ben said, a bit miffed about the 'puppy dog' remark.
"Got your attention now, did it?" Finn raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, sir." Ben paused a second. "Except I've been trying to sort it out and now I'm more confused than ever."
"Right, then I suppose I can sharpen the stick and get a bit more focused." Finn leaned forward, forearms flat on the table, all levity suddenly gone. "You need to be remembering that all I can do is offer you some questions to think about; the answers you'll need to be finding for yourself. I'm not some kind of therapist or your priest. I'll ask you again: Are you sure you're really wanting to do this?"
"Yes, sir, absolutely." Despite the seriousness of the topic, Ben just had to smile at the picture of Quilan Finn in a cassock. He would certainly look a lot better in it than most.
"And just what it is you're finding so amusing about this undertaking, Mr. Kennan?" Finn glared.
"Sorry." Ben ducked his head. "I couldn't help thinking that you are a hell of a lot younger and better looking than the majority of the priests and nuns I grew up around."
"I'm guessing you spent a fair bit of time in Catholic school, then?" Finn had a ghost of a smile now.
"Yes, sir. The local place through the ninth grade and then I was packed off to boarding school. Is it that obvious?"
"You are habitually about two orders of magnitude more polite than a lot of these self-centered louts I seem to encounter on my job these days."
"That would be Sister Ursula's doing. She was six feet tall, ramrod straight and at least a zillion years old. You did not graduate from her first grade class until every other word out of your mouth was 'Yes, sir', 'No, ma'am' or 'Please, sister, may I be excused', and the habit just stuck. I have always suspected at least half the children in that class had nightmares about her for years. Even though they had already gotten rid of corporal punishment, she always had several rulers prominently displayed on her desk."
That finally drew a snort of laughter from Finn. "Blessed saints, I know the type." He drained the last of the tea in his mug, then poured another cup. "Just remember, you were the one asking for this. You don't have to answer any of the questions if you don't want to, and if you want, or need, to stop at any point, it's up to you to tell me. Is that clear?"
"Shall we get started?"
"Give me your driver's license."
Mystified, Ben quickly complied, leaving his wallet on the table. He waited while Finn studied the card.
"Do you consider yourself to be a good person?" Finn's eyes were still on the license.
"I suppose so." Ben thought for a moment. "I don't break the law, do drugs, smoke, or cheat people, and I don't drink much."
"You think of yourself in terms of the things you don't do?"
"Umm... I like to stay busy, and work... is that what you meant?"
Finn ignored the question. "Who are you?"
"Ben Kennan, of course."
"Benjamin Kennan of Boston is who this card here says you are." Finn held the license up.
"No." The flat, vehement answer surprised Ben.
Ben sucked his lower lip in between his teeth, then let it slowly slide out. "Benjamin is the person my father tried to create... that is not who I am or who I want to be."
"How many children are in your family?"
"Three. Lars, Maureen and me." Ben felt an inadvertent twitch when he mentioned Lars' name. "As the first son, Lars was always the favored one. He was a right bastard." He couldn't prevent the disdain that flavored his tone. "Maureen and I always got along pretty well."
"Do you get yourself to church?"
"I used to, but not in a long time." Ben shook his head. "You had to do the school stuff, of course. My parents usually went at least once or twice a month and dragged us along. I stopped going as soon as I could get away with it. Except for Christmas and Easter, of course, you would have had to have been on your deathbed to get out of those."
"So you don't think of yourself as religious, or as having any particular faith?"
Ben wasn't sure where these questions were supposed to be heading, but Finn had maintained an air of disinterested neutrality the entire time. He decided to keep going. "I probably tend toward agnosticism, if anything. Churches, or at the least people in them, just started to seem too hypocritical; it eventually got to where I didn't feel anything there I was comfortable with."
"Did you have a lot of friends?"
"I suppose so." Ben shrugged. "I was able to get along well with most people."
"Did you have fun growing up? Run around, play games, enjoy yourself?"
There was a short silence.
"You don't understand what it was like," Ben said slowly. "My father was a big corporate lawyer and very particular about his 'place in society'." He gave a humorless snort. "You learned to do the 'proper' things. Until I was twelve, everything I did was programmed. Golf, tennis, sailing and swimming were mandatory, as were bridge, piano lessons, table manners, how to dress, how to do small talk, all that sort of thing. I didn't know any different, so for a long time I thought that was how life was supposed to be."
"What changed for you when you were twelve?" Finn took a sip of tea.
Ben sat back with his arms crossed and shoulders hunched. He dropped his head forward and looked sideways as he took three slow breaths. "When I was twelve, I guess I was finally considered civilized enough to make myself useful," he said distantly. He glanced up under lowered brows. "I became the fill-in. Benjamin, we need a fourth for bridge. Benjamin, Aunt Sadie needs a doubles partner for her tennis party. Benjamin, take my friend's younger daughter to the dance at the club." He finally straightened up and dropped his arms with a sigh. "Boarding school was less than an hour away, so even there I used to get calls or emails during the week. Benjamin, take the train in, we need somebody to fill in for golf, for the party, or whatever."
"Do you have a sense of humor?"
"Uhmm..." Ben was caught off guard by the change of subject. "Definitely. And I like being with other people who have a good sense of humor." He gave a small smile. "I suppose I do tend toward the irreverent. I've been called a smartass on a number of occasions."
"Have you ever sat yourself down and given serious thought to how your humorous comments might have affected other people?"
Ben's smile died as he remembered some of his more juvenile pranks and jokes. "No, sir, I guess not," he said quietly. He dropped his gaze to the table.
"Were there things you did enjoy when you were growing up?"
"Yes," Ben nodded. "I liked learning things in school, hanging out with my sister... when I got into engines and motorcycles, that was really good." He hesitated.
"I'm thinking there was something else, wasn't there?"
"You'll just think it's 'posh'," Ben muttered. He shifted a bit on the bench.
"I got tired of tennis, so I tried some other activities. I didn't really like the team sports and although I picked it up quickly, the martial arts stuff was really more of a fad, but I got very excited about fencing."
"That's not posh. I've studied sword and staff, so I know how much work it is to do it well." Finn smiled a bit, the first sign of emotion he'd shown since he started the questions. "Did you do it well?"
"Eventually, I did become quite good," Ben said, no false modesty coloring his words. "My senior year, three of us went to the state tournament."
"Seems like your parents must have been proud of you, then?"
"They were usually too busy to come to most of the things *I* was doing." Ben sighed. "Maureen talked them into coming to the tournament, though... in a way I wish she hadn't." He fell silent.
Ben swirled the tea in his mug, took a small sip before slowly setting the mug down. "I was pretty pumped when they showed up. I was really on, just ripping through." He paused. "I made it to the final. Every time I looked up into the stands Maureen was cheering, but my mother just looked bored and my father was always talking to someone or on his phone. After I won, he showed me off to his friends, making points with them, like I was another entry in his resume. I felt... used." Ben toyed with the handle of his mug. "I chucked the trophy in a closet and haven't touched any kind of sword since."
"Why do you call my truck 'she'?
"Because that's what she is," Ben said, much happier with this question than the last few. "She's got a personality of her own and you have to understand that to work with her."
"Are you more comfortable with machines than people?"
"I don't think it's a question of more comfortable... it's just different." Ben pondered for a moment. "I like people well enough, I suppose, but there's a different connection with a machine." He smiled. "I'm not sure how to describe it... it's like I can reach in and see how to make it work properly, and we both feel better if I can fix things. There's an energy there, a synergy and harmony of a kind I rarely seem to get with people." He looked up and noticed that there was a hint of a grin peeking out from behind the hand Finn had put in front of his face. "Hey, are you laughing at me?"
"Sorry. No, I wasn't," Finn said. He shook his head. "I was just thinking how much that sounds like the way I feel about the Keo; I'm always feeling so much more alive when I'm in the middle of the forest."
"Anyway, that would be a totally different discussion." Finn took a sip of tea as his mask of neutrality resettled itself. "Is there anything you've been missing since you left home?"
Ben sighed, they were back to the hard questions. "I miss my sister... and Boston was a nice place, great seafood, a Dunkies on every corner, riding the T, stopping for grinders and a frappe during the summer... lots of things to do..." His voice trailed off aimlessly as he thought about his answer.
Silence for a moment.
"Alright, I miss the damned money... " Ben shifted his gaze around, looking anywhere but across the table, "the things you could do with money... and the things you don't have to do if you have money."
"Did you love your family?"
"Love?" Prepared for a defensive response about his last answer, Ben was caught off guard yet again by the sudden change in topic. He stared blankly for several seconds, then swallowed. "Except between Maureen and me, that wasn't a word you heard much in our house." He ran his tongue along the inner edge of his bottom teeth a few times as he thought. "Duty... and responsibility. Follow the rules and be a good boy or else." He shrugged. "You just had to learn to suck it up and deal."
"What is your worst personal trait?"
Right hand splayed on the table, fingertips tapped as Ben shifted his weight on the hard bench. He stared down at the table as he tried to decide on an answer. "I guess... " He remembered his last phone call with Maureen. "It's probably pride... I'm stubborn, too, but sometimes that can be a good thing."
"Who were your role models when you were growing up?"
"I'm not sure I really had any." Fingertips had gone from tapping to rubbing abstract patterns on the wood. He had immediately flashed back to an image of Neal Delaney, but the professor as a role model? He hesitated as one finger traced out the faded grain of a plank in the tabletop. Ben suppressed a sigh; no, definitely not someone he thought of as a role model and definitely not someone he was going to mention in this conversation. He turned to safer ground and finally replied, "Maybe my fencing coach for a while... or I guess it might have been the guy who taught me how to work on motorcycles one summer. They were both good at challenging you to do better while being patient about teaching you things."
"Since you left home, is this the longest you have stayed in any one place?"
"By quite a bit. Most of the time I was just sort of floating around from place to place, a few days here, a week or two there. I don't really have any idea how I ended up here."
"Why do you stay?"
Fingers stilled as Ben thought. "The obvious answer is the job, I suppose. I had finally run out of money and needed to work." He looked at Finn, tilted his head a bit. "More and more, though, I think I like the people. I've met a lot of nice people who are different from the types I grew up with." He smiled a bit. "It's kind of strange... I'm only renting a room at Jane's house, but it's starting to feel more like home than the house I grew up in. I guess that's a little hard to explain. I like doing work around the place, but she quietly does more for me and doesn't demand things in return. There's not a bunch of rules and 'thou shalts'."
Ben's eyes were unfocused as he searched for words. "I can give you an example about the way I've been feeling. When I was young, my father gave me a cell phone with the stipulation that I had to call home if I was running late or had a change of plans. So I called because I knew I would be punished if I didn't. Jane Brandon is just my landlady, but when I had to work late unexpectedly, I went out of my way to find a phone to call her because I knew she would worry about me." His smile got bigger. "And when I came home and told everybody about getting promoted to full time, they all hugged me. And Sandy hugged me when I told her." His gaze fell to the table and his smile turned pensive as he finished softly, "That felt really good."
The questions continued with barely a pause, leaving Ben little time to linger on any one thought. "Do you believe 'tis better to give or to receive?"
Ben straightened and confidently answered. "To give, of course." There was a tiny touch of triumph upon having gotten the obvious answer correct.
"Because it's the right thing to do?" Ben was confused again. "Isn't that why people tithe to the church, and give to charities, and help with the poor? It's a win-win situation ... you get to help others and feel good about doing it."
"Do YOU prefer to give or to receive?"
"Ummm..." Fingers started tapping again. "To give," Ben said weakly.
The knot that had been threatening suddenly tightened in his gut as Ben leaned forward. Both hands were on the table, the heel of his right palm rubbing against the edge of the wood. "I like to be independent. Having to accept charity..." he muttered, his head dropped. "It's like you weren't good enough to make it yourself." It was an uncomfortable truth.
"Is that what you really believe?"
"That's just how I feel." Ben squirmed, wishing they could move on to a different topic. He suddenly felt small and guilty, something else he'd have to figure out eventually.
"Have you done anything in your life you are particularly proud of?"
Ben breathed a sigh of relief as he straightened. "Earning the money myself to buy my motorcycle. I didn't use a single penny from my parents." He looked at Finn. "I know I had everything else provided for me, but I thought I was doing something good, trying to prove a point, I suppose. I worked out everything... what kind of bike I wanted, how much money I needed for the extra stuff like insurance, waiting until my eighteenth birthday to get the motorcycle endorsement added to my license so I wouldn't need my parents' signatures on anything." He sighed. "That started out as such a wonderful day. I had the bike on hold; first thing in the morning I got my license, then I went to the dealer and did the rest of the paperwork. God, I felt good riding her home and thinking about how I was going to surprise everybody."
Memories of that beatific trip were all too quickly displaced by those of the horrific aftermath. Ben's face fell as he leaned forward again, resting his forearms on the table. He stared down at the table.
"What happened when you got home?"
"I guess you could say I was the one who got surprised." Ben kept staring down, feeling the knot in his gut twisting itself around. "My father was manifestly not impressed. It seems that motorcycles are a tool of the devil, ridden only by sordid young hooligans of low breeding and no class. And going behind his back to display my craven indifference to proper standards was a gross sin."
Ben rubbed one hand against the back of his neck as he took a deep breath, then slowly let it out as his hand dropped back onto the table. "I didn't get very many words into that discussion. He even threatened not to pay for college; I think if I hadn't already gotten early acceptance into some of the schools he had insisted I apply to, he might actually have done it. The upshot of that conversation was that he realized he couldn't legally do anything about the bike, but he refused to let me park her anywhere near his property. The relationship pretty much just kept going downhill after that. Whenever I was home, he got worse about finding fault and he didn't even pretend to stop Lars from being snide and hateful."
Ben felt himself tightening all over. He grabbed the mug and held it rigidly in his right hand. "It took until the end of my second year of college, but it finally got to the point where things completely fell apart. I couldn't toe his line any more. There was a last hellacious row and I was out of there."
Ben hunched down, his knuckles white around the mug, as he waited miserably for what he knew would be the next inevitable question. He hated to be a quitter, but he didn't think he could talk about what had really caused the final rift.
Silence stretched as Finn drained the last of his tea, his expression almost bored. He set his mug down deliberately before speaking.
"What sort of work did you do to earn money?"
"Work." It took Ben a moment for the unexpected query to sink in. He lifted his head, off balance and searching for an answer. "I, umm... well, I was pretty good at a lot of subjects, so during the school year people used to pay me to help with tutoring; the ones who didn't want their parents to know how badly they were doing paid particularly well, always in cash." Ben gave a small moue of distaste.
"My parents encouraged me when I wanted to work summers, something about idle hands and the devil... that's where I got a lot of the money. Some of it was office stuff, clerking, computer records and such, but when I was fifteen, I had a good job at the summer estate of one of my father's friends. I was supposed to be helping keep up the pool and grounds, and filling in when they wanted somebody to play tennis or bridge, but I also got to spend a lot of time with their maintenance man learning how to fix small engines on stuff like their mowers and boats."
He thought for a moment. "The best job was when I was sixteen and seventeen. Maureen was going with a guy who was an assistant manager at a car dealership and she talked him into giving me a job. Ostensibly it was in the office, but the parent company had a motorcycle shop on the same block. I'd leave home wearing a nice shirt and tie, but once I got to the car dealer's, I changed clothes and went over to work in the motorcycle maintenance department. I learned a lot there and had a chance to try out several different bikes. They liked my work enough the first summer that they asked me to come back again the next year with a raise, which felt really great. All the checks came from the parent company so nobody was any the wiser."
"What did your father think of that?"
"I suppose he probably wouldn't have approved if he had known." Ben had finally relaxed a bit, but had not relinquished his grip on the mug.
"So you were just a shifty little dodger sneaking around behind your parents' back."
"Huh?" Where did that come from, Ben thought. The knot of tension in his gut tightened hard.
"By your own admission, for years you were lying, sneaking around, not going to church."
"No, it wasn't like that." Anger surged through Ben at the sudden attack. "How can you lie to somebody who never bothers to ask how you're doing, who never once came to any of the places where I was working, who never cared how I felt about anything."
"Bollocks. It was your place to be a dutiful son, but it doesn't sound like you were being a very good son a'tall."
"I put up with his fault-finding and nit-picking for years." Ben's voice was rapidly rising as he stood up. "I worked my butt off trying to please him."
"It's sounding to me more like you must have been quite a disappointment."
"Me a disappointment? What about him? He was more concerned about himself and his image than anything else." Ben was shouting now as long-pent-up feelings exploded. "He used people and was always spouting his pious hypocritical bullshit to make himself look good. He used me like he did everybody else." Ben raised the mug and smashed it down. "He used me until I wasn't useful any more, and the son of a bitch threw me out of his house like a fucking piece of trash." He was trembling with anger. "He screamed at me that I was no son of his. He said... he said I should never have been born..."
Ben collapsed with a sob, his head buried in his hands.
Finn was instantly around the table, stepping close behind Ben, putting his hands on Ben's shoulders and rubbing them. "It's alright, Ben, it's alright," he soothed.
For several minutes Finn stayed with Ben, continuing his ministrations as the young man gradually recovered his composure. Eventually, he sat down on the bench near Ben, leaning back, his elbows propped on the table.
Ben sat miserably, head in hands. It was bad enough that he'd had his nose rubbed in several faults, but he felt stupid because he still didn't understand the point of many of the questions, and he had just made a total fool of himself in front of the one person he'd wanted desperately to impress.
"Ben? Are you alright?" Finn asked softly.
"Not really," Ben mumbled. He paused. "I'm sorry."
"What is it you're feeling you need to apologize for?"
"I lost my temper, I broke your property... I just totally lost control." He raised his head, dragged the back of his hand across his nose. "I guess you must think I'm pretty pathetic."
"No, what I'm thinking is that you've been bottling up a lot of pain inside. Sometimes you need to haul it out into the light of day instead of letting it fester like an infected wound. I do know that's not an easy thing to do and can take a very long time to clean out the wound, but you've at least made a start on it today." Finn put a hand on Ben's arm. "I'd guess that you also have some foolish notion that men aren't supposed to be having emotions."
"Looks like I wasn't really dealing with things as well as I thought," Ben admitted. "And yes, self-control was pretty much the mantra where I grew up." He took a ragged breath. He was still crying inside, but he forced himself to speak, although the words came out haltingly. "Mr. Finn... I realize you've done more for me than you needed to... I appreciate that, even if I haven't reacted to it very well. If you want me to leave... I'll go away." He stared straight ahead as his breath hitched, then bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep tears from erupting again as Finn pulled his hand back.
"Tell me, Ben, do you believe in yourself?"
"I guess I need to do some rethinking about that. I think I've tried to be a good person, but I've not really had any point to my life." Ben glanced sideways for a moment, then looked back down. In a low voice, he said, "I want to be a good person. And I want to find myself."
"So what are we going to be doing about that?"
"We?" Ben shook his head. "What do you mean?"
"How hard are you willing to work to try to get yourself figured out?"
"I would do whatever it takes." A faint glimmer of hope fought for survival as Ben shifted to face toward Finn.
It was very quiet as Finn looked across the clearing, slowly drawing a deep breath, then letting it out even more slowly.
"Mr. Ben Kennan, I do not claim to even remotely understand what it is that I'm finding so compelling about a person I have barely met, but you are inspiring me to ask a few questions of my own to myself. I would normally never consider embarking upon this sort of craziness, but if you're still wanting me to help you work on finding what's inside you, I am willing to give it a try."
"You're serious?" Hope flared from a glimmer to a blazing torch as Ben almost stopped breathing.
"I am quite serious." Finn swung one leg over to straddle the bench and leaned close, blue eyes boring into Ben. "This is not an endeavor to be walking into lightly. In many ways I am not terribly conventional and I'll freely admit I've not got a blessed notion yet exactly how we might be wanting to go about this. I can tell you that I am not going to stop asking questions and that you are probably going to be finding much of this trip boring, frustrating and/or painful. And I'm warning you right now I have very little patience for whiners, dossers or quitters. If I make this commitment, I expect an equal commitment from you."
"Yes, sir. I will work hard; you have my word on that. I'm not sure I'll be able to answer all the questions, but I'm willing to keep trying." Ben paused, swallowed hard as he sought the right words. "I would consider it a great privilege to be allowed to accept whatever help you are willing to give me."
Finn straightened, a small smile on his face. "Well, perhaps there is some hope for you if we can at least teach you to accept help with grace." He leaned sideways, one arm on the table. There was a thoughtful expression on his face. "Right, I think that now we're both going to be needing some time to reflect for a bit, but we should get back together soon so I can figure out where to start with this job. What is your work schedule like this week?"
"Monday to Wednesday I'm on from seven to four, and Thursday to Friday I'm on from ten to seven."
"Alright..." Finn pondered for a moment. "The first thing we should do is a little evaluative work, and some sorting of ground rules. Are you in good shape?"
"Yes, sir. I do some running and weight-lifting a couple of times a week."
Finn raised an eyebrow. "We'll be seeing about that. I have to leave Thursday afternoon for a week of back-country patrol, so we need to start at four o'clock Thursday morning. Bring your running gear. We'll be doing some more runs later also, but most of our work will be in this area." He waved a hand around the clearing.
"Four?" Ben's voice went up at least half an octave, but Finn was looking steadily at him and he quickly regrouped. "Yes, sir, no problem. I'll be here at four on Thursday morning." He bowed his head briefly. "Thank you."
Ben looked around the open grassy space into the looming forest, then smiled and snorted.
"Would you care to enlighten me about what you're finding so amusing about this adventure, Mr. Kennan?"
"I was just wondering how many trees I was going to have to hug, sir." Ben managed to scare up a faint grin.
Finn stared at him for a moment, then grimaced. "Jaysus, you are a smartass if you can come up with a joke like that after what I just did to you." He shook his head and sighed. "May the saints have mercy on us both, for I think we're going to need it before this is through."
§ Chapter Eight §
The sun was still rising toward noon when Ben finally left. He set Myrna running and rode aimlessly down long country roads for several hours while his emotions went for a roller coaster trip. Exhilaration peaked periodically every time he remembered he would be getting to see more of Quilan Finn, but his emotions quickly spiraled downward again as he recalled the questions and answers that had preceded that welcome news. He knew he couldn't blame Finn for his own breakdown; he had begged the man to let him come back and be grilled, and Finn had done his best to oblige.
"And a very damned good job he did, too," Ben said to himself. He hit a long open stretch and gunned the engine, letting the wind buffet his body until he encountered some light traffic heading into a small town. He motored sedately through the settlement, resuming a more moderate pace as he left.
Looks like I've got some heavy thinking to tackle, Ben thought. I always told myself I was handling everything so well, that I had things under control no matter what was being thrown at me, but it looks like I was just burying things inside without really dealing with them. And some of the other things Finn was dredging up, I don't understand all of that yet, but I think I must have learned more bad habits when I was young than I thought, even though I used to look down on the self-centered society types.
Myrna's steady rumbling roar gradually brought Ben down to a more even keel. He thought back to Finn's parting words. He had just shrugged into his jacket when Finn had put an arm around his shoulders.
"Ben, I know you have a lot on your mind right now." Blue eyes were dark with concern.
"That's an understatement." Ben sighed, his feelings in turmoil despite the welcome warmth so close to him.
"We can work through your issues, but it's going to take some time." The pressure tightened. "Promise me you won't do anything foolish in the meantime."
"I don't think I understand." Ben looked up into Finn's face.
"A lot of people have trouble handling the kinds of problems you've uncovered with your feelings about your father. They get caught up thinking there was something wrong with them, but I hope you are more level-headed than that. I just don't want you doing something stupid like getting drunk and running that motorbike of yours off a mountain road."
"No, sir, I won't do anything like that. I'll admit I don't feel so good about myself right now, but I do want to work through it." Ben thrust his chin out, a determined smile on his lips. "I'm not going to let my father ruin any more of my life than he already has."
"Good boy." One last squeeze by that big hand. "You take care of yourself, and I'll see you on Thursday."
"Thanks. I'm looking forward to it."
Ben remembered looking back as he headed slowly down the driveway and seeing Finn standing watching him. They had each raised a hand in farewell as Ben was moving out of sight.
Hugging the warmth of that last encounter inside him, Ben suddenly pulled off to the side of the road. He sat for a few minutes, Myrna purring quietly. He reached down and gently patted her, then turned around and headed home.
Ben shivered as he carefully eased Myrna out of the garage and down the darkness of the driveway. Even in this first part of June, it was still chilly at three-forty in the morning, and he was grateful for the warmth of his leather jacket and chaps over his sweats. He wasn't big on the alleged splendors of sunrises at the best of times, and he sincerely hoped this pre-dawn start time wasn't going to be a regular occurrence.
A light shining on the front porch revealed a lanky form seated on the front steps. Finn rose as Ben parked, waiting as Ben pulled off his riding gear.
"Good morning to you," Finn said quietly. He looked closely at Ben's face. "How have you been doing?"
"Sunday I worked all day on Jane's garden, shoveling cowshit, digging and planting," a fleeting smile, "and I've been pretty busy at work, so I haven't really had time to think too much." Ben paused, staring down. "I have had a little trouble getting to sleep at night." He sighed, looking at Finn. "I remembered what you said, about not thinking the problems were all my fault, but it's just not that easy."
"No, it's not going to be easy, and this is going to take some time for you to come to terms with your feelings. If you want, we can talk some more when we finish."
Ben nodded. "I'd appreciate that."
"Let's be getting started, then." Finn lightly touched Ben's shoulder. "Did you eat before you left?"
"Yes, sir, I grabbed a sandwich." Ben shivered a bit.
"Good." Finn smiled. "Don't think about the cold; we'll have you warmed up soon enough."
Ben made a noncommittal grunt as they began doing some basic stretches.
"Alright, we're going to see what kind of legs and wind you've got." Finn retrieved two flashlights from the porch and handed one to Ben. "We'll be heading out on a back road through the woods first, then circling back around to the blacktop."
"Don't worry about that, I'll have you back in time for you to get to work." Finn grinned and raised one eyebrow. "All you have to do is try to keep up, boyo."
Ben raised an eyebrow of his own as he adjusted his jock strap. "I'll see if I can keep it down to your speed, old man."
Finn just grinned a little wider and set off at a gentle jog.
The first fifteen minutes were at an easy pace as the two men caught a dirt access road and followed it through the trees, flashlights bobbing in the dark. Ben felt good inside and out; he was warming up nicely from the exercise and it was tremendously satisfying to be side by side with the man he desired.
Forty-five minutes later, Ben was not feeling nearly so happy as he stared at Finn's back a good ten feet ahead of him. As the visibility had gradually increased, so had the pace. It seemed that whenever Ben got comfortable, Finn would change the speed; a few times he had actually slowed down, but mostly he would speed up, sometimes just a little, sometimes quite a bit. His legs were starting to feel the strain and Ben was breathing hard when they emerged from the woods onto the blacktop road. He recognized the spot in the gray predawn light and groaned a little when he realized they were almost two miles from the house and that most of that was uphill.
Finn turned around to run backwards, long legs pacing strong and breathing easily.
"I thought you said you were in good shape, boyo," Finn called, a smile clearly visible in the dwindling dimness.
Ben gritted his teeth and pushed a little harder, almost closing the gap.
"You'll have to be doing a lot better than that if you want to beat me back." Finn shook his head, turned back around and sped off down the road.
"You miserable son-of-a-bitch," Ben muttered to himself. He pulled in a deep breath and grimly pressed on, determined to finish.
Staggering and wheezing, Ben finally made it back.
Finn was sitting on the steps of the front porch, leaning back and sipping from a large sports bottle. He rose as Ben almost crashed to a stop at the edge of the grass.
"You," Ben sucked in a breath, "bastard." He bent over and began heaving the contents of his stomach.
"Now, let's not be having any of that." Finn hauled Ben upright and forced him to move. "Keep walking, boy, nice and easy." He squirted water on Ben's face and in his mouth. "Rinse your mouth out... there you go. Easy does it now."
Several minutes later, Ben had finally recovered. He sat at the picnic table opposite Finn, leaning forward, slowly sipping from a second bottle Finn had produced, this one containing a lemony-tasting mixture Finn had called his 'home-made running juice'. By now, the sun was becoming visible through the tops of the trees.
"How did you do that? You've got to be at least twice my age." Ben shook his head.
"You have to stay in good shape to run the forest. There are still a lot of places that the trucks and even horses can't get to very well, especially if you need to be doing things like tracking a wounded bear for two days. You can do it as well if you work at it, but your problem right now is spending too much time on that hunk of tin." Finn smiled as he shook his head.
"Myrna is not a hunk of tin." Ben straightened, an indignant expression on his face. "Myrna is a high-spirited, high-performance vehicle. And she has been my best friend."
"If she's such a wonderful beastie, when are you going to introduce us?"
"Are you making fun of me?" Ben asked suspiciously, lowering his brows.
"No, I'm trying to understand you."
Ben looked doubtful.
"How about a trade, then? You introduce me to Myrna today, and next time you're out I'll introduce you to Manus."
"That would be spoiling the surprise if I told you." Finn smiled.
"Well... alright." Ben got up and walked back to his motorcycle. He climbed aboard and turned the key, bringing Myrna to life. He felt a little silly as he looked at Finn, who was standing expectantly a few feet away. He stepped off, but rested one hand on the seat.
"Quilan Finn, this is Myrna." He turned his head. "Myrna, this is Quilan Finn."
Finn bowed politely, then raised an eyebrow. "May I touch her?"
Hand outstretched, Finn stepped closer. He ran his fingertips along the near handlebar, then down the fork. He bent over and pressed his palm to the side of the tank as if absorbing the vibrations.
"Pleased to be meeting you, Myrna."
Ben swore he felt the rumbling purr increase. "She seems to like you."
"You know, I think I may have actually felt something there," Finn said. He straightened and stepped back. "Very odd sort of sensation." He looked at Myrna for a moment, then shook his head. He looked at Ben. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Ben reached over to shut off the engine and quiet fell again.
"Are you ready for the next test?"
"And what is that?" Ben asked warily.
"We're going to check your upper body strength and see if it's as good as your running." Finn walked over onto the grass, not stopping until he got to a particularly long patch.
Ben followed along. He looked down. "This grass is pretty wet, you know."
"Your point being?"
"Uh, nothing. What are we going to do?"
"Push-ups. We'll be doing these quickly, no stops, so see if you can keep up this time."
"Yes, sir." Ben got down into position, dismally suspecting that he probably wasn't going to do any better on this test than he had on the run. He could already feel dampness seeping into the bottom edges of his sweat pants.
Two hundred and twenty-four push-ups later, Ben was proved correct. His arms quivered out of control and he collapsed face down in the thick grass, while Finn was still steadily pumping like an oil well arm. He rolled over on his back and groaned.
Finn kept going for almost a full minute. He finally stopped in the up position, then sprang gracefully to his feet. He stepped over, looked down, then nudged Ben with the toe of one foot.
"Looks like you need to be doing some strength training, too." There was a ghost of a grin on his face.
Ben looked up. "I was wrong. You're not a bastard. You are a fucking brass-balled wanker, sir."
"And I like you, too." Finn's grin widened as he reached a hand down.
Ben groaned as he took the proffered hand and was dragged to his feet. "I hurt already."
"Don't worry, it gets better. Let's go sit; we need to talk."
As Ben walked around the side of the house, he was distinctly aware of how soggy his sweats were from lying in the wet grass. He tried to hold his shirt away from his body and flap the fabric into some semblance of dryness but was quite unsuccessful. He was debating whether it was warm enough yet to take it off altogether.
"Didn't your priest ever tell you that physical discomfort helps build character, boyo? That's why the pews in church are always so hard." Finn had trailed a little behind to pick up a notebook from the porch. He sat at the table and took a long drink of water from the sports bottle he had left there.
"I always thought that was just to make it harder to sleep." Ben dropped onto the bench, his sodden sweatpants clinging to his legs.
"Well, that, too." Finn's smile quickly disappeared as he leaned forward. The closed notebook lay off to one side. "It's time to set up ground rules for what we are going to be doing. First, I want you to tell me why you are here and what it is you want to accomplish."
"I am here to learn," Ben said slowly. He took a sip of water as he mulled over his choice of words. "It is now clear to me that I don't know nearly as much as I thought I did, either about myself as a person or what I want to be." He used the tip of his tongue to toy with a back tooth as he thought some more. "I want to find out what is inside me, and how to make it better." Ben looked into Finn's steady gaze. "I want to heal, and I want to find peace with myself."
"Those are good goals," Finn said softly. "But I have the feeling there is something else as well. Tell me what you want."
Ben took a slow, deep breath as he put both hands flat on the table. He felt like his heart had stopped, but he forced himself to keep looking at Finn. "I'd... I'd like to be your friend." Ben swallowed hard and waited for his world to crash at his audacity.
Finn straightened, but kept looking at Ben as the silence lengthened. Finally he raised an eyebrow and nodded slightly. "I suppose those are all good goals. They are ALL going to take time and effort to achieve, though."
"Yes, sir." Ben breathed a sigh of relief and felt the tension in his shoulders release. He had felt that he had to give a truthful response, but was glad that Finn seemed to have taken the words at simple face value. Ben ventured a small smile. "Everything truly worthwhile has to be earned. That much at least I think I have learned so far."
That did draw an answering smile. "It's a good start." The smile faded again as Finn drew the notebook to him. He rested one hand on it. "Back to the subject of ground rules, the first thing to understand is that I don't normally teach, at least not this sort of thing. I am pretty much making this up as I go and drawing on a number of different disciplines which I have learned over the years. I want to stress that this is a joint effort; I will be learning from you as much as you will be learning from me, so if at any point you don't understand what I'm doing or how to do what I am asking, it is your responsibility to ask questions."
"Yes, sir. There may be a lot of them, though."
"I'd rather have that than your unquestioning acceptance of everything I say." Finn let a smile slip across his face before he continued. "The next thing is that the learning process is a very serious undertaking. I want to formalize our sessions to emphasize that point. When we start a teaching lesson, we will stand facing each other, pause, then bow. We will do the same thing to mark the end of the formal session. During a session you will address me as 'Sifu', which means teacher. Any questions?"
"Should I have a title, or am I the nameless apprentice?" asked Ben with a grin.
"You shall be 'Sidai', which means junior brother, or 'Mr. Kennan'. Someday, if you work very hard, you may eventually become 'Siheng', or senior brother." Finn lowered his brows and said sternly, "You start arsing around during a session and I'll be having plenty of other names for you, boy."
"Yes, sir." Ben swallowed his grin.
"We are going to be using primarily Tai Chi, or variations thereof, as the basis for your training. That is where those terms come from, by the way." Finn leaned forward again, elbows on the table, steepling his fingers. "You said you have done some martial arts?"
Ben nodded. "The local fad was karate, but I think I only did it because several of my friends were. It was fun for a while, but I drifted off into other things."
"So you are at least familiar with the concept of katas?"
"We did sparring and the empty hand forms, but I only went to a couple of competitions where we got to use those."
"Did your sensei talk about the philosophy of karate?"
"He did, but I'm afraid I didn't pay much attention to that part of it."
"Right, we'll start on the ground floor, then." Finn took a sip of water as he considered his words. "Perhaps the most basic thing you need to be understanding is that Tai Chi is not the same as many of the other martial arts. You will have goals to meet along the path, but it's not intended to be a quick undertaking with instant gratification. 'Tis a life-long pursuit that requires patience, practice and discipline. If you are consistent and persistent, Tai Chi will become a way of life that connects and transforms your body, mind and soul. It will help you to define who you are and how you relate to the world."
"A fundamental principle is that you want the body and the senses to be working together in unity. Tai Chi requires constant movement, but the source of movement is quietness." Finn moved one hand. "Life is movement. Sit somewhere for a while, in town, in the forest, at home, and watch and listen. You'll find that there is always some form of motion in and around you." He raised his hand to rest two fingertips against his temple. "The key to quietness is a calm mind. You can do this by working on being at peace with yourself, by improving your character, by being natural, maintaining a quiet mind, practicing clear thinking and learning to simplify your life. Tai Chi is the practice of seeking serenity within movement; remaining calm even when conditions are difficult."
"That doesn't sound very easy," Ben said somberly.
"Learning the basic physical movements is not that difficult, but truly living the philosophy, well, that's another matter altogether. Tai Chi is really four different exercises: physical, intellectual, spiritual, and combat. Just like any other form of physical movement, Tai Chi can be performed either slowly or quickly. At any speed it can help you to develop flexibility and coordination, and improve circulation and metabolism. Moving more quickly can turn a routine into quite an aerobic workout. The intellectual exercise promotes relaxation, awareness, and focus. When you achieve more advanced levels, you must have intense concentration in order to split and focus awareness on two different areas, the body and breathing. Tai Chi places great emphasis on precise movements and coordination. At the same time, you must ensure that your breathing is deep, regular, and rhythmic."
Finn stopped and took another sip of water. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, eyes half-closed. Finally, he looked directly at Ben and said softly, "If you keep working at it for many years, eventually your body learns to perform the movements automatically. That frees up your mind to be focusing instead on the Zen practice called "Here and Now." It truly is a beautiful feeling to be able to let go of your individual separate self and commune directly with nature. It's like a dance of the spirit, to be in harmony with all around you. That's why I love doing Tai Chi outdoors." He shook his head. "There are times when I think I could lose myself in that moment and stay there forever."
Silence stretched until Ben stirred. "That must have been what I saw. You looked like you were completely at peace with yourself and everything around you," he said wistfully.
"Aye, I was." Finn let one hand rest on the table, palm up. "One of the things you must learn on your path to that goal is to understand and believe in yourself."
"Yes, sir." Ben sighed. "You said it was also a combat exercise?"
"So it is." Finn took a deep breath to refocus himself. "Tai Chi is also used for self-defense, both unarmed and with weapons." He looked pointedly at Ben. "I have studied staff and sword, but you will need to develop a high degree of proficiency in the basic forms before I will even consider introducing those topics."
"Of course, sir. So where do we start?"
"The initial training involves learning solo routines, known as 'forms' or 'hand forms'. Once you have mastered those, we will move on to two-person routines called 'pushing hands'. You will be starting with basic exercises and stances, learning individual movements. From there we will start putting the pieces together. And always, of course, you will work on breathing."
"I already learned about that in karate. It wasn't all that hard, so what's the big deal about sucking in oxygen?" Ben cocked his head skeptically.
"There are ways to do it better, Mr. Kennan," Finn said with a half-smile.
"Okay." Ben nodded his head.
"I've laid out some things for you to work on between sessions." Finn opened the notebook and put a finger on the first page. "You should continue to improve your conditioning. I want you to run three to four times a week, at least once hard and fast and at least twice slower but for longer distances, same thing with weight work or resistive exercises. I put some examples at the first tab." He moved his finger down the paper. "Every day you should do some stretching exercises to increase your flexibility, those are in the second tab. The third area we are going to work on will be some basic stances. I'll show you those today and there are diagrams in the fourth tab. You should also practice the breathing exercises daily." He slid the book over to Ben.
Ben studied the outline for a few moments. "So when do we actually start doing Tai Chi?"
"This is all part of 'doing Tai Chi'. When you can hold a stance and breathe properly, I will start on some of the basic movements. There are two versions of the hand form; we will be doing the square form first, which is a fixed count exercise for learning. From there we'll go to the round form, which is much smoother and has no fixed count."
"Sounds like it's a good thing I was planning on staying in town for quite a while," Ben said with a wry smile.
"Patience and perseverance, Mr. Kennan, will become your new mantra." Finn stood up. "Shall we start your first lesson?"
Forty-five minutes later, the two men faced each other.
"Thank you, Sifu."
"You are welcome, Sidai."
They bowed, held the position for a count of three, then straightened.
"Alright, I was wrong," Ben admitted as they walked back to the table. "It isn't as easy as I thought to breathe."
"Just keep practicing. Same thing with the stances; you want to work up to being able to hold each one for three minutes."
"That was harder than it looked, too." Ben sat down carefully. It seemed that Finn believed in both demonstration and hands-on techniques for teaching, and the occasional touch of those big hands had left Ben feeling more than a bit tingly and a little hard. A tinge of uncertainty nagged at him, as he wondered if he would be able to maintain his composure if all of their future sessions included Finn's efficient but ever-so-tempting contacts.
"Remember that you want to stay centered, especially with your breathing exercises. All Tai Chi movements begin in the belly and propagate outward. Staying centered will help you feel the connections between movements when we start putting them together later." Finn reached for his water bottle and took a long drink.
Ben nodded, then sipped from the other bottle. He tossed his doubts into a back corner of his mind and concentrated on the conversation of the moment.
"Do you know what your work schedule is for the next month or so?" asked Finn as he set his bottle down.
"Not yet. I expect we'll have something by this afternoon. I do know I'll be working during the 4th of July holiday, and probably a fair number of weekends the rest of the summer."
"I probably will also since summer is a very busy season for us. I'll be out of touch for the next seven days, so give me a call a week from tomorrow and we'll set up a schedule. My number is in the notebook."
Ben scanned the first page. "I see it. Any particular time of day I should call?"
"No. I usually have the day off after a patrol. If I'm not home, just leave a number where I can reach you."
"Alright." Ben hesitated, ran a forefinger in circles on the table. "I, uh... well, I wanted to thank you again for helping me."
"You're welcome." Finn nodded graciously. "We still have some time if there is anything else you'd like to talk about."
Ben let silence linger for a moment before answering. "Right now I have so much going on in my head that I just can't figure out where to start thinking about things."
"Hmmm... a good point. Sometimes finding the right beginning can be the hardest part of a journey." Finn leaned back a little, rested his hands on his thighs. "May I offer a few suggestions?"
"First exercise is to find a mirror. Stand in front of the mirror and try to relax as completely as possible. Focus on the image in the mirror. Think about what you're seeing, then think about what is inside that image."
Ben looked at Finn dubiously. "And the point of this is?"
"The exercise is only as valuable as the effort you put into it. The 'point' is to start building a baseline understanding of who you currently are. Who is this person who is 'not Benjamin'?" Finn cocked his head and smiled. "It's hard to know where you might want to go if you don't know where you are and where you have been."
Ben furrowed his brow and sucked on his lower lip for a moment as he thought about this concept. Eventually his face cleared and the corner of his mouth quirked in a partial smile. "Alright, I'll probably feel pretty silly but I'll give it a try."
"The other thing you might want to be doing is to just choose one question to start mulling over, even if you have to write down a lot of questions and then pick one out of a hat. Or you could go back as far as you can remember, and start working on what you thought you wanted from your family, especially your father, and the differences between what you wanted and what you got."
"That's an angle I hadn't considered." Ben nodded to himself. "Maybe I'll give that a shot as well." He looked at his watch, then stood up. "Thanks. I'd better get cleaned up so I can get to work."
Finn accompanied Ben as they walked back to Myrna. He waited for Ben to put on his gear.
"See you soon. Keep up with your exercises."
"Yes, sir." Ben waved as he started down the driveway. His last sight was of Finn standing silently, arm upraised.
§ Chapter Nine §
"That should do it," Frank pronounced. He stepped back from the two Honda dirt bikes they had just spent the last three afternoons and evenings completely disassembling, reassembling and adding street-legal kits to. "Good work, everybody."
Ben put his wrench back into his toolbox as he dragged a sleeve across his forehead to clear the sweat. He had gained a new respect for how quickly and thoroughly Midway Motorcycles went about doing business. Monday afternoon, three trucks had pulled up behind the shop. For two days, everybody who wasn't directly helping a customer or working on a repair had been pressed into service to inventory motorcycles, boxes of parts and accessories and then rearranging the showroom and accessories sales area to accommodate the new items. Frank had then gathered all of his mechanics together for what he called an 'intensive familiarization' on two of the new machines. Even Bobby had joined them for two of the evening sessions, coming over from his other job at Ruger.
"Well, it'll never replace a Hog in my heart, but I guess the little sucker could grow on ya." Jake Fogler had been a summer regular for ten years. A retired Navy veteran and widower, Jake spent his year rotating among his three children's homes.
"Different bikes for different purposes," said Mattie. "This one's great for general off-roading or around town, but I wouldn't take it racing or on a long road trip."
"She's got a point," said Frank. "Mattie, why don't you and Ben take these for a turn around the lot so we can make sure that nothing falls off."
Ben smiled at the mild joke as he climbed aboard one of the bikes and started it. Frank, Jake and Steve, the other university intern, trailed along as he and Mattie slowly rode out along the alley behind the building. When they reached the block-long parking lot that was shared by several businesses, they went around and between the rows several times, trying different speeds and some hard stops. Frank finally waved them in and everybody went back to the maintenance bay.
"So what's the verdict, Frank?" Tony was leaning against one of the tool benches. "Think your crew can handle those complicated contraptions?"
"No problem. Think your bunch is going to be able to sell any of them?"
"First ads went out in today's paper and I've already had three calls," Tony said with a grin.
"A call isn't at all the same thing as a sale."
"You just have some people ready to do the preps." Tony pushed off and sauntered back toward the showroom.
Frank shook his head. "Alright, folks. Jake, you and Steve have the late shift today so please put these bikes away in the warehouse." He glanced at his watch. "Ben and Mattie, your shift will be over soon, so you can go ahead and clean up. Greg should have your paychecks ready by four." He looked around. "Did everyone get the update for the new schedules?" He waited until they all nodded. "If anybody needs to see me, I'll be in my office. Thanks for all the hard work this week."
Ben hung up his coveralls, did a quick cleanup and waited until the employee lounge was empty. He winced as he reached to pick up the local phone to dial Finn's number. The extra workouts he had started this last week had left him sore in several places. He rolled his shoulders as the phone rang at the far end.
"Hey, it's Ben Kennan. You said to call on Friday to set up the next session."
"Good to hear from you, Ben. I've got to work Sunday, so can you come out tomorrow morning, say around eight?"
"That works for me. I've got my schedule for the next six weeks, also."
"Great. We can take a look at setting up the next several sessions. Have you been doing your exercises?"
"Yes, sir, although I'm not sure I'm doing the breathing thing right."
"We'll work on that together. See you tomorrow."
"See you at eight, then. Good-bye."
Ben carefully hung up the phone. He smiled, a little flush of happiness spreading through him as he thought about the brief conversation. Finn said we'll work on that together, he thought. Damn but that sounded so good. I like that word 'together'.
There was a lighter spring to his step as Ben went back out into the bay. He stopped short, however, as he caught sight of a burly policeman chatting with Frank by one of the open back doors - a burly policeman with a very memorable square jaw. Ben turned and headed for the door to the front.
"Hey, you. Kennan!"
Ben reluctantly turned and went to join the two men.
"I see you're still here, kid," the cop said.
"Something wrong, Chuck?" Frank asked. "Is Ben in any sort of trouble?"
"Well, I don't know yet. So he really does work for you?"
"Certainly. In fact, we just moved him to a permanent full-time position."
"Had any problems with him?"
"Chuck, you know damned good and well that Midway is very particular about who we bring on." Frank put his hands on his hips and glared. "Maybe he's still got a few growing pains to go through, but he's one of the best with the bikes I've seen in a long time. If there's a problem, I want to know about it so we can get it taken care of."
"Okay, okay. I'm just trying to look out for your best interests, Frank. I found him in here alone one night way after normal hours and it just looked pretty strange. Meant to call you, but I got caught up on another problem and didn't have a chance to do it."
"Oh, yeah. That must have been the night Ben was putting that new covering down on the shop floor." Frank relaxed. "I'm telling you he is alright."
Ben had been standing uncomfortably silent, not wanting to bring any attention to himself. He wasn't sure why the policeman had called him out again, but his experiences over the last year had led him to believe that young men on motorcycles must not be very popular with anybody's local police.
The cop turned his full attention on Ben and looked him up and down, finally nodded. "If Frank says you're okay, then that's okay by me. I'm going to give you an unofficial word of advice, though. We don't advertise this, but we do keep an eye on all the vehicles that hang around town more than a few days and the plates get put in the computer. When I called your tags in that night, you got moved to what we call a 'watch list'. I don't suppose you're enrolled at the university, are you?"
"No, sir. What does it mean if I'm on this watch list?" Ben had an unpleasant feeling growing in his stomach.
"If you're on the list we keep a closer eye on you. Wait a second." He quickly went to his squad car and came back with a hand-held wireless computer, then punched in some numbers. "Here you are. Somebody else reported your tags on general surveillance back in March, and you got elevated to the watch list sooner than normal when I called you in again. The only real problem you've got is that if you keep your vehicle in Wyoming more than 120 days you have to register it unless you are in the military or college, so we already have an approximate record of how long you've had that motorcycle here. Once our records show that you've been here at least 120 days, you will start getting ticketed every time one of our people happens to see your bike and recognizes the tags. Get enough tickets and we'll impound it."
"I understand, sir. I'll get that taken care of." Ben's tone was confident, but inside he was cursing.
The radio on the policeman's belt crackled with a series of numbers and a street name. "Gotta go. Frank, remember to give me a call if you get any strangers in looking to sell used parts."
"Sure will, Chuck. Thanks for the heads-up." Frank waved as the squad car rolled down the alley. He motioned to Ben to follow him to his office.
"Chuck's right about the 120 day rule. They don't cut any slack around here for things like that." Frank sat down behind his desk. "I know you started working here the middle of March, but how long have you actually been in town?"
"Since the beginning of March, sir."
"That only gives you a couple more weeks to get the bike registered. Got insurance?"
"Yes, sir, but it's expiring very soon."
"They're not going to like that, got to have a current policy. What with only being twenty-one and having a damned nice bike, the insurance and the initial registration fee are probably going to set you back a bit."
"Is there a way I can find out how much it's going to cost?" Ben was feeling increasingly sick as he thought about his tiny savings. He hadn't counted on having to do the registration this soon.
"Let me see who's still in upstairs." Frank called an interoffice number on his phone. "Yeva, you got a few minutes? Great. I want to bring someone up to see you. Be right there." He hung up the phone. "Yeva can help you work it out. She's a whiz with that stuff. Been doing this for ages and is mostly retired, but you're lucky this is one of her days here."
Ben followed Frank up the stairs, down a couple of hallways and around several corners. Frank knocked at a non-descript wooden door and waited a few seconds before entering.
"Yeva, this is Ben Kennan, my new mechanic. He needs to figure out how much it's going to cost him for insurance and to register his motorcycle here." He motioned Ben in. "Ben, this is Yeva."
"Hello, ma'am." Ben reached out carefully to take the hand held out by the tiny wizened woman in coke-bottle glasses. "I appreciate whatever you can help me with."
"Is no problem, my boy, no problem," beamed the old woman as she hopped back up in her chair. "Have a seat and see what we can do, we will."
"I'll leave you to it. See you Sunday, Ben." Frank waved as he left.
"Yes, sir. Thanks." Ben sat down in a chair next to the desk.
"Need your driving license and card of registration I do," Yeva said. "Information the system needs to find what we want."
"Yes, ma'am." Ben pulled out his wallet and handed over both items. He watched as her fingers flew over the keyboard.
Yeva peered at her enormous computer screen and clucked to herself as various screens scrolled past. "Hmm, not so good is the age, but better than being less than twenty-one.... Good, good, no tickets..." She raised an eyebrow. "Expensive motorcycle for such a young man, not so good for registration fee." Yeva leaned back in her chair and looked at Ben. "Rich you don't look."
"I'm very poor, believe me," Ben said sincerely. "The motorcycle took all my savings at the time. Now all I have is what I'm making here at Midway."
"Very well. Driving license you don't need to change for a year, but register you must within 120 days or many big tickets you will get."
"Yes, ma'am. How much does it cost for the registration?"
"Two parts to registration there are. First is basic fee; for motorcycle is twelve dollars. Second is county fee; cost times depreciation times three percent." Yeva typed in some numbers. "This year will cost you one hundred eighty-two dollars plus twelve dollars for total of one hundred ninety-four dollars."
Ben slumped a little lower in his seat as he heard the numbers. He was almost afraid to ask his next question. "And what about insurance?"
"Hmmm, many choices for cars, but not so many for motorcycles." Yeva scrolled back and forth between several screens. "Too much money these people want... this one is cheap, but not good to work with... ah, this one, I think." She looked at Ben. "A minute while I call."
Ben nodded, put his license and registration away, and settled back in his chair.
Yeva did a bit more typing, then made a phone call. "Nikios, how are you today? Another new grandbaby I hear you have, yes?"
For five minutes Yeva chatted about family, weather, arthritis, the deplorable state of television programming and holiday plans.
"Business we must talk, Nikios. Form you have for Mister Ben Kennan? Good. Now what can we do for him?" She listened for a moment. "Nikky, Nikky, this is Yeva, not that goyim over at the Ford place." Yeva shook her head. "But such a nice young man is Mr. Ben. Full time here he works. No tickets he has." She made a clucking noise into the handset. "Frank Mendoza personally has hired Mr. Ben to work for him." She smiled as the handset chattered and sighed. "Ah, my Nikky, such a beautiful man you are. Many more grandchildren I am sure you will have."
As Yeva continued to chat, she attacked the keyboard again. Within a few seconds paper began emerging from the printer next to her monitor.
"Yes, have it I do. Answer for you the nice young man will have by Tuesday." She listened for a moment, then laughed. "Too much money your company already has, better for business it is to be nice to people. Good it is to talk with you, Nikky. My love you must give to Eleni." She still had a smile on her face as she hung up the phone. She reached to collect the four pages that the printer had spewed forth, then handed them to Ben.
"Very good company this is; take care of you they will. Cost is probably more than you want, but better you will not do with any reputable company." She shook her head. "Good driver I am sure you are, but few companies will give motorcycle insurance and high-risk category you are in, especially with only having a permanent job such a short time."
"Yes, ma'am, I understand."
"Read the offer carefully. If questions you have, call me at this number." Yeva took a card from a drawer and gave it to Ben. "Call Nikios Kalogeria by Tuesday to let him know yes or no. I have promised him this so you must call even if you do not want to buy the insurance from him."
"Yes, ma'am, I will." Ben stood up. "Thanks for your help. I really appreciate it."
Yeva slid down from her chair and walked Ben to the door. "Like helping I do." She patted Ben's arm. "A nice young man you are, Ben. Things will work out for you."
"Yes, ma'am." Ben tried to smile. "Thanks again."
Ben folded the papers and stuck them in his back pocket without looking at them. He stopped down the hall to pick up his paycheck, then went downstairs and headed home.
An hour later Ben was sitting at his desk, a half-eaten sandwich sitting ignored as he smoothed out the insurance offer. His heart sank as he looked at the numbers; it really was very good coverage but so damned expensive. He stared at the figures for a long moment, then sighed as he reached for a tablet to do some figuring.
"Shit!" Ben felt even worse as he stared at the old scribbles left over from his attempt to find money to fly home. He had been so busy with the extra hours at work and his new exercises, he had forgotten that the day before was Maureen's graduation. "I didn't even send an email this week. I guess I can leave a voice mail, but I feel like such a jerk not even remembering." He ripped off the sheet of paper and tossed it into the trash can. He sat dejectedly for a moment before shaking his head and picking up a pencil.
"Okay, it takes $194 for the registration and $357 for insurance, that's $551."
Ben looked at his paycheck. Even with the overtime for working on the dirt bikes, the net total was only $635.
"Jeezus, I've only got $84 left over. The next check will cover the current rent at the end of the month, but I can't count on any more overtime, so I guess that has to stretch for a whole month. I'll have to put off the service for Myrna again and new boots, and it's still going to be bologna sandwiches for a while." Ben stared at the numbers on the page and bit his lip. "Just goddammit, why does everything have to be so fucking expensive," he said softly. "Dammit, dammit, dammit. I still can't come anywhere close to paying off the security deposit and back rent I promised to give Jane." He slammed a fist onto the desk in frustration. The thought of having to ask for yet another extension was galling, but even if he was able to get some odd jobs on his days off, it wasn't going to be that much extra. "Maybe I could get a second job or something," he muttered. "But I've got to leave time for the sessions with Quilan Finn." His jaw tightened. "That and Myrna are the only two things that I really can't live without." Ben sighed. "What a mess..."
The sun was already bright when Ben pulled in behind the old truck. He absently took his riding gear off; he was still thinking about the voice mail he had left for Maureen to congratulate her and berating himself for his forgetfulness. He pulled his notebook from a pannier and headed around the side of the house.
"Good morning," Ben called.
Quilan Finn was sitting backwards on the bench closest to Ben, elbows on the table, head leaning back with his eyes closed. He blinked once before slowly standing and stretching.
"Morning," said Finn. He smiled. "I see you remembered to bring your book."
"Yes, sir. I added a log section to keep track of workouts and sessions."
"Good idea. I've got a few things to add as well after we finish." Finn gestured toward the open grassy area. "Ready to start?"
"Sure, let's do it." Ben tossed the book onto the table.
The two men took up positions facing each other, bowed, then straightened.
"Sifu." Ben nodded.
"Sidai." Finn acknowledged. "What have you practiced?"
"Breathing, stances, running and weight work, Sifu."
"What are your questions?"
"I don't think I'm doing the breathing exercises properly, Sifu."
"Very well. We shall work on those first."
For ten minutes Finn patiently reviewed the minutia of how to breathe.
"Tilt the pelvis but don't lean." Hands brushed hips. "Head up."
"Feel how your shoulders are hitting my hands? You need to let your upper body relax down, not rise."
"Here. Center on your belly," one hand pressed firmly into Ben's gut, "and here, the middle of your spine," other hand pushing hard. "Shoulders down, suck your balls up as you inhale, bring everything toward the center."
A thump on the chest. "Concentrate on inhaling with your stomach, not your chest. Use the lower muscles."
"Better." Finn finally stepped away. "Two more, slowly." Finn watched critically. "Feel the difference?"
"Yes, Sifu." Ben rolled his shoulders. The warmth of Finn's hands had been pleasant, but today even that was not enough to lift his funk about his finances. "I guess I still need to work on that a lot."
"Remember that you're just getting started. I'll let you know if you're not making adequate progress. Let's do some stretches."
Ben followed his teacher's lead as they moved slowly through several exercises. He tried not to wince as his back and legs twinged; he was even sorer than he had realized. He was lying on his side, lower leg extended, upper leg bent over as his upper body twisted the opposite direction. Ben glanced back as Finn knelt behind him.
"You need to fully extend. Right down here is where you should be feeling this, not in your upper body." Finn slid his hand down Ben's spine, then pushed in right above the top of his sweat pants. He stopped as Ben grunted in pain, then rose abruptly.
"Sidai, stand up." Finn's tone was flat and cold.
"Is something wrong?" Ben looked up, but didn't move.
"I said stand up."
Ben yelped as he was unceremoniously hauled to his feet by the scruff of his shirt and the seat of his pants. "Hey, what was that for?"
Finn stepped back, arms crossed. "Sidai."
Under Finn's withering stare, Ben swallowed his indignation and stood straight. "Yes, Sifu?"
"Two things. First, I thought we had an agreement to communicate. You are as tight as a duck's arse and clearly have some sort of issue with being touched today; if you have a problem with personal space, I need to know that so I can adjust my teaching style. If the problem is physical, I need to know that so I don't put you in a position to injure yourself."
"No, sir... I mean, no, Sifu," Ben stumbled over his words in his haste to respond. "I don't have a problem at all with the way you teach. It really helps me understand better when you show me how to do things."
Finn said nothing, but his raised eyebrow spoke for him.
"I, uh... I am more sore than I thought I would be. I guess I'm not really in as good a shape as I believed."
"Where is the problem?"
"My legs and arms, but mostly my back. I might have overdone the weight work," Ben admitted.
"You are to tell me about such things before we start. Is that clear, Sidai?"
"Yes, Sifu. I'm sorry."
"Now, my second point. You are clearly not fully focused. Whatever else you have going on, you will leave it outside the session." Finn dropped his arms and stepped close, almost in Ben's face. "If you are not going to concentrate, there is no point to any of this. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Sifu." Ben swallowed hard, rattled by the heat and steady stare looming over him. He looked down, unable to meet that gaze.
Ben waited for what seemed an eternity. He tried to keep from fidgeting as the silence lengthened.
Eventually Finn stepped back, apparently satisfied that his point had been made. "Are you ready to resume?"
"Very well. We will do some stretches for your back before we move to stances. Watch as I demonstrate."
An hour later Ben was amazed again at how much work was involved in such seemingly simple things as breathing and learning how to move arms and legs. He had a good sweat going while Finn had never even breathed hard.
"Thank you, Sifu."
"You are welcome, Sidai."
They bowed, held the position for a count of three, then straightened.
"Definitely a long way to go," Ben sighed.
"Patience and perseverance, boyo," said Finn as a small grin sneaked onto his lips. "I ought to make you write that a thousand times twice a day."
Ben grimaced behind Finn's back as they moved to sit at the picnic table. Finn pulled a small cooler from underneath one bench.
"Here, you need to stay hydrated, especially as the weather gets hotter. It's another of my favorite concoctions." Finn tossed a sports bottle across the table.
Ben gratefully took a long drink of the cold liquid. He hadn't noticed it before, but the sun was definitely hot this morning.
"Thanks," Ben said as he put the bottle down and blew out a breath.
"How's your back?" Finn was putting more notes into a couple of the tabs in Ben's notebook.
"Much better. Those stretches helped a lot."
"Good. I've added some sets of exercises for your daily routine and I want you to be careful on the weight work. Keep working on the breathing exercises and stances." Finn pushed the notebook across the table.
"Yes, sir." Ben looked through the new instructions, nodding slowly.
"If you've no other questions, what is your real problem today?"
"You had your cranium firmly planted in the darkness of your posterior this morning," Finn said dryly. "What are you going to do to extract it?"
"Look, I'm sorry I wasn't all there; I apologize for that and I will work harder at staying focused." Ben looked away, reluctant to further expose his weaknesses. "Things were so busy at work I forgot to call my sister Thursday when she was graduating from college and I was feeling bad about that."
"I'm sure that had a bit to do with your mood, but really, Ben, sometimes you are very transparent." Finn had the start of a grin on his face. "I'd wager a month's pay you've got some kind of money problem."
Ben scowled as he chewed on the inside of his left cheek for a long moment. "Alright, dammit, yes, it's about the stupid money."
"You would greatly disappoint me if you've done something so mundane as blowing your first new paycheck on a triviality," Finn poked, one eyebrow raised.
Ben wasn't sure whether he should be happy that Finn seemed to be taking quite an interest in him or pissed at the grin on the man's face as he prodded. "I haven't spent any of it yet." He stared down at the table. "I thought I was going to be doing well financially; I had already promised Jane I'd have a big chunk of the back rent and security deposit I still owe her. Yesterday, though, I found out I've only got a few more weeks to register Myrna here in Wyoming or I'll start getting tickets." He looked up. "With the registration and the new insurance, it's going to take almost the entire check I just got and my next check is going to have to cover the current rent payment."
"Sounds pretty challenging." Finn took a drink of water. "What options have you been considering?"
Ben rocked a little on the bench as he thought. "There is no option about registering Myrna, and I have to have current insurance in order to get the registration."
"There are always options. You just need to expand your thinking a bit."
"What are you talking about?"
"At the two extremes, you can either just gather your stuff and leave, or you can stay and do nothing."
"I can't do either of those." Ben was aghast that Finn would even suggest such things.
"I just..." Ben floundered a moment. "I won't leave. I'm getting started on a new life here, and I don't want to throw that away. And I can't simply do nothing; that is not an acceptable risk for Myrna. They'll impound her if I get too many tickets."
"Sounds like we've started to establish some parameters for your solution set." Finn leaned forward, forearms resting on the table. "What other choices do you have?"
Ben took a long slow breath as he tried to marshal his ideas.
"I was thinking that I'd probably have to ask Jane to give me another extension," Ben said slowly. He sighed as his shoulders slumped. He shook his head, gaze fixed downward. "I don't know of any work I could get to raise enough money so quickly, so I'm not sure what else I can do to get through these next few weeks."
"And you're not happy about having to do that." A flat statement rather than a question.
Ben continued to stare down, his lips pursed.
Finn waited patiently.
Eventually, Ben sighed heavily. He laid one hand flat on the table and pressed down until his elbow locked. In a low gruff voice he said, "I'm not a skidder and I've always hated having to ask for help, for looking weak. I told you that when I was growing up, I was taught that it was a duty, an obligation to help others. But I didn't really talk about how there was always a self-righteous condescension underlying the fancy words. You did charitable deeds because that was the 'right thing to do', and you said all the politically correct words about the people that you were supposed to be helping, but there was an unspoken contempt for those people for needing help in the first place. And the things everybody said about losers ripping off welfare were even worse." His voice tightened. "I don't want people thinking that way about me." Ben's hands clenched into fists. "I'm not a fucking charity case. I should be able to make it on my own and I should be able to make good on my promises."
"I'm beginning to think we might need major surgery to excise that idea from your remarkably dense brain." Finn shook his head. "You sound just as stupid as those jerks who help people only because it makes them feel good."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ben reared back, head up and eyes flashing angrily.
"There is a huge difference between misguided charity or welfare and letting people help you because they really care about other people." Finn tapped the table for emphasis. "You should hear yourself, all wrapped up in your own pride and misconceptions." He shook his head again.
"Real life has winners and losers. What is so wrong about not wanting to be on the bottom looking up?"
"I'm not some Pollyanna, thinking that everything is goodness and light, but I do believe there are a lot of good people in this world. And I also believe that there is no bottom or top, there are only differences in situations and abilities, Mr. Kennan. True friendship, family or good-heartedness is about everybody winning. It's about helping when you can because you can, whether it's people or animals or whatever, and accepting help from others with grace and gratefulness. It's knowing that sometimes you're the one who can do the helping, and knowing that sometimes life sucks bollocks and you're going to be the one who needs help." Finn leaned forward far enough for one long arm to reach out; he grabbed the front of Ben's shirt and pulled him forward. "It's not about winning or losing or who is better. How hard am I going to have to kick your miserable arse to dislodge some of those notions you grew up with?"
Ben was frozen by the intense blue eyes boring into him from mere inches away. He swallowed, his jaw worked but no words came out. He was vaguely aware of the feel of a large fist just below his chin, a hard wooden edge digging into his gut and empty air under his butt.
Suddenly Finn released his hold and Ben dropped back onto the bench with a thud. "Sorry. I tend to get a little carried away sometimes."
"If I'm such a stupid prick, I wonder why you're wasting your time on me." Ben scowled to hide his hurt.
"You are neither stupid nor a prick," Finn said with an exasperated sigh. "You are a bright, articulate, hard-working, polite young man. But you've got so much potential to be even better that I hate seeing you beating yourself up so needlessly."
"Oh," said Ben in a small voice. He could feel a blush creeping up the back of his neck.
"You don't take compliments very well either, do you?" observed Finn wryly.
"I guess that's something else I need to get over." Ben felt the heat rising as his blush threatened to spread across his face.
"I didn't mean to be so harsh. How about we get back to solving your immediate problem?" Finn held out his hand.
"Sure." Ben shook the proffered hand, then smiled a little. "I can be pretty hard-headed," he admitted sheepishly. "I suppose sometimes it takes a good swift kick to get my attention."
Finn smiled back. "I'll remember that." He took a slow, deliberate sip from his bottle. "So, you've got a temporary cash flow problem?"
"That's a good way to put it." Ben relaxed, propping an elbow on the table. "I wouldn't feel so bad about asking Jane for another extension if I hadn't made such a big deal about being able to pay down so much of the arrears. It feels like I'm going back on a promise."
"Do you honestly feel that Jane is going to think less of you if you ask for an extension?"
Ben thought for a while. "I know her well enough now that I don't think she would. When I first talked her into letting me have the room I know I did believe that; it was partly why I insisted in signing the paperwork for the rent and security deposit as a loan with Myrna's title as the security. I didn't want it to look like charity." Ben picked at a splinter in the edge of a board. "Part of this is my own fault, I suppose. I've insisted on paying the full advertised rent, even though Jane has offered to reduce it in return for work around the place." He glanced up at Finn. "That's my stupid pride again."
"Well, at least you've been consistent," said Finn dryly. "Are there any other ways to help with the cash flow?"
"I was thinking about trying to get a second job or find some more odd jobs. That's getting hard to do, though, with the rotating schedule I'm working for Midway. I'll keep checking around, but that's not going to be much of a short-term fix. And I don't want to borrow money - I'm already in debt to Jane and I'd hate to add to my bills."
"How about the insurance payment? I know the registration fee has to be paid up front, but will the insurance company accept a partial payment?"
"No. I'm in such a high-risk category, they want the whole thing up front."
"Have you asked?"
"The form clearly says one payment in advance."
"But have you asked?"
"I said the form clearly -"
"You're not listening," Finn interrupted. "Haven't you ever negotiated for a better price on anything or done any trading or even dickered about getting paid for work?"
"Well... for Myrna, yeah, that's expected when you buy a vehicle. But they post prices for most stuff and that's what you pay. At school we had an unofficial rate scale for tutoring among ourselves, my other jobs had official pay rates or I took what was offered if it seemed fair. I asked Jane to help me figure out what to charge for odd jobs around here." He had the grace to look embarrassed. "I guess I've never really needed to know that sort of thing."
"Jaysus, how did you survive a year on your own, boy?" Finn shook his head and sighed. "Ben, we're not talking about a grocery store here. Any big ticket item is always open to negotiation, even a lot of little things." He waved a warning finger. "And don't you even be thinking any of that 'charity' bullshit."
"No, sir." Ben sucked on his lower lip a moment. "But this is insurance. I'm just supposed to ask this stranger to disregard his company's rules?" he asked skeptically.
Finn folded his arms and looked sternly at Ben. "Mr. Kennan, I have two assignments for you. You can't come back until you have completed both. First, you are to go to the insurance agent's office and make a serious attempt to negotiate a payment schedule. Second, you are to discuss the cash flow problem with your landlady after you have talked to the insurance agent. You will report back with the results of both tasks."
"But..." Dismay clutched Ben's gut but he wasn't sure which was worse: the nature of the tasks or the threat of not being allowed to come back.
Finn stared steadily at his student.
"Yes, sir," Ben said resignedly.
"Good. Now that that's settled, let's talk about schedules."
For several minutes they compared potential openings for future sessions, eventually deciding on several tentative dates. Finn reminded Ben that the next visit was contingent upon completion of his assigned tasks.
Ben made a muttered comment under his breath, but wisely decided to refrain from any audible thoughts. As he drained the bottle, he remembered something Finn had said at their last meeting.
"Who is Manus?"
"Right, I did promise to introduce you, didn't I?" Finn paused, took a deliberate drink of water. "Want to take a walk?"
"I suppose so."
Finn rose and stretched. "This way," he called as he headed into the woods.
The walk through the trees quickly turned into a light jog. After five minutes they climbed over a fence, then crossed a dirt access road.
"This road marks the boundary to the Wildlife Conservation Center property," Finn remarked. "I have permanent visitor privileges so it's alright for us to go in."
Another ten minutes uphill brought them to a clearing. A large tree stood at the highest point, the tall structure spreading wide and high.
Finn came to a stop and laid a hand on the rough bark of the massive trunk.
"This is Manus. He is a Bur Oak, really more native to the Black Hills, so I'm not sure how he got here. He was already old when I first met him sixteen years ago." He smiled gently as he caressed the furrowed wood. "Manus is the shepherd for this little piece of the forest. I've added a few of the hardier varieties of fruit trees to his flock over the years, apples mostly, and with the bumper crop of acorns he and his other friends produce, they create a lot of food for the animals." Finn grinned at Ben. "And me, too. I'll have to bring some of the fruit back when it's ripe."
"That certainly is a big tree." Ben craned his neck, staring up into the canopy of leaves.
"Big in size, big in heart." Finn leaped gracefully upward, swung for a moment, then hoisted himself onto a broad, sturdy branch. He settled back, leaning against the trunk. "You can come up if you like. Manus doesn't mind."
"He told you so?"
"Yes." A mischievous glint lit his eyes. "Doesn't Myrna talk to you?"
Ben looked up for a long moment. Finally he had to nod in acknowledgement. After all, Finn had made the first move to meet Myrna, so he supposed the least he could do was meet the tree, even though he felt rather ridiculous.
"Come on." Finn pointed to a branch a few feet away.
"Alright." Ben scrambled up rather less elegantly than the ranger. He was happy that the branch was quite stout, but not quite so pleased with the rough texture of the bark as he gingerly tried to get comfortable. "You come out to visit often?"
"When I can. Manus gives me energy when I'm down, and helps me think when I need to sort things out." There was a gentle smile on Finn's face as he closed his eyes. "It's remarkably peaceful out here and I love spending time with him."
There was an easy silence between them for a while, wind whispering through the trees and sun warming them. Ben thought that perhaps he might actually have felt a touch of something tickling his mind, but the sensation was fleeting.
Finn seemed content to laze on his branch, a great boneless cat sprawled against the trunk. Ben allowed himself to surreptitiously enjoy the view for a while, wishing he was the one Finn was leaning against. His hand twitched and he had to remind himself not to reach.
The branch Ben was perching on was not quite wide enough for real comfort and he found himself shifting around more and more as he grew bored. His gaze drifted to the right, back to Finn. Ben caught his breath as his cock jumped.
"Oh... my... god...," Ben whispered to himself.
Worn sweat pants had tightened as Finn's outstretched left leg had slipped off the edge of his branch. The thin tan material did little to conceal the bulge of flesh that softly reached down his thigh, a generous and very alluring prominence.
Heat flashed through Ben's body as all of his carefully repressed desires burst free. He had to remind himself to breathe as his body seemed oblivious to such mundane considerations. Ben slowly bent his right leg to conceal his groin; his left hand crept toward his crotch until it rested directly over his own organ. He could feel the warmth through the fabric as his cock swelled. Ben flicked a glance at Finn's face to make sure his eyes were still closed, then allowed himself the luxury of staring. His tongue lapped at the corner of his mouth as his hand slowly squeezed, released and squeezed again.
When an errant gust of wind shook his branch Ben was startled out of his fantasy. He lost his balance and flailed wildly for a moment before being tossed to the ground, landing on his side with a dull thud. He lay dazed for a moment.
"Ben?" A hand gently touched Ben's shoulder. "Ben, are you alright?"
A small groan escaped Ben's lips, more from the realization of his incredible stupidity than any real pain. He took a shaky breath as he rolled to his back. Blue eyes stared down at him.
"I'm fine," Ben said. He reached down to rub his hip.
"Are you sure? You came down pretty hard."
"Yeah, a few bruises maybe, but nothing serious." Ben reached for the hand extended to him and was easily hauled to his feet.
Finn peered at the branch, a puzzled expression on his face. He looked back at Ben, but didn't speak.
"I guess I wasn't paying attention and just fell off," Ben said half-heartedly. He didn't want to even think about what might have happened if Finn had seen him while he was starting to jack off.
"You were bored, weren't you?"
"Uh... yeah, I suppose so." Ben rubbed at his hip again, his eyes down to avoid Finn's gaze.
"I'm sorry. I was enjoying myself too much and wasn't paying attention." Finn sighed. "It's high time we were getting back anyway."
It was a quiet and awkward walk back. Finn tried to apologize again for neglecting him and Ben was still embarrassed about his sexual lapse. For once, Ben was actually relieved to be out of Finn's presence as he escaped on Myrna to head home.
§ Chapter Ten §
Ben puttered in the garage far longer than was necessary after he got home on Tuesday evening. He had refolded his jacket three times, straightened tools on shelves that were already tidy and swept the clean floor. He had put off complying with Finn's requirements as long as he could, but had had little choice about going in to see the insurance agent that afternoon if he was to also fulfill his promise to Yeva. Frank Mendoza had insisted on driving him over since he knew Nicky Kalogeria from when the man had coached Little League teams two of his children had played on. The conversation had been polite as they jockeyed back and forth but Ben had not been able to make any headway until Frank gave his personal word that the bill would be paid. After that, they quickly came to an agreement to pay one half now with two more payments for the rest. Ben immediately put his money down, got his insurance certificate and they had stopped on the way back to the shop to get Myrna's registration. He was happy that hurdle was overcome, but realized he still definitely had a small core of resentment for having needed Frank's help. It was clear that he had a ways to go yet with the part about learning to accept help with grace and gratefulness.
"Well, dammit, I guess I'd better get this over with too." Ben counted out the cash he still had left, putting one hundred dollars into his left pocket and the rest into his right pocket. "At least I've got more than I thought I was going to have." He squared his shoulders and left the garage.
Heady aromas of fresh bread and a savory casserole set Ben's mouth watering as he stepped into the kitchen.
"Evening, Ben," said Jane as she looked up from the recipe cards spread across the table. "There's plenty extra tonight if you want in for supper."
Ben hesitated; the offer was tempting but he hadn't shopped for groceries lately, so with nothing to contribute in kind, thoughts of practicalities such as the high price of gas nagged at him as he fingered the tiny roll of bills in his left pocket that had to last for the next month.
"Thanks, but I'm not really very hungry." His next visit to Finn was not until Thursday, so he decided he could afford to wait one more day for the conversation with Jane. Unfortunately for Ben's timing, his stomach chose that moment to grumble loudly.
"Ben Kennan, sit down," said Jane as she swept up the cards and put them aside.
"I was just going to grab a sandwich and go downstairs -"
"I said sit your butt down, young man," Jane firmly interrupted. "We need to have a talk."
"Yes, ma'am." Ben parked himself in automatic reaction to the uncharacteristically sharp tone. He briefly wondered if this was the 'everybody pick on Ben' week and he hadn't gotten the announcement.
"Now then, I've been watching you for going on four months now, Ben Kennan." Jane folded her hands neatly on the table in front of her. "You seem like a nice young man, clean, hard-working, honest; all the folks you have worked for say they got more than fair value. And I'm not so ancient that I don't remember what it was like being young and trying to get started in life, so I haven't minded working with you on the rent and such."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben mumbled. He didn't quite know where this conversation was going, but he was pretty sure he wasn't going to like it when it got there. He shifted in his chair until a twinge in his hip reminded him of his earlier folly with Finn.
"I have also noticed that you've got enough pride to out-stubborn two mules, especially when it comes to money and to letting people help you. And I can tell when you've got a money problem you don't want to talk about, because you get this expression like you want to crawl under a rock." Jane looked sternly at her boarder. "The same expression you had when you came in tonight. Bad news doesn't get better hiding under that rock with you, so start talking."
Ben looked away, cleared his throat, looked down at the table. He felt like a teenager again, caught out in some prank, only ten times worse.
"Umm... about the money I said I would have for you..." Ben dug around in his right pocket and pulled out the crumpled bills. "I didn't know I had to get my motorcycle registered this soon, and I had to get new insurance..." He smoothed the money out flat, stared down at it. "I need to hold some for gas and food, and, well, I just don't have what I promised. I'm sorry." He shoved the small pile across the table. "I'll make up what I can out of my next couple of checks."
"Ben, why didn't you want to talk to me about it? We can work this out, you know." Jane left the bills untouched.
"I guess I didn't want you to be disappointed in me. I'll try to find a second job to make some extra money." Ben chewed on his lower lip miserably.
"Don't be silly. The only thing I'm disappointed in is that you didn't think you could talk to me about it." Jane shook her head. "You showed me your schedule, though, and it won't be easy to find much except odd jobs with those rotating days and hours. Especially now, after most of the summer and night jobs are already spoken for."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry." Ben hung his head, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Don't sit there like a pathetic lump," Jane said briskly. "Do you really want to work off some of your debt?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ben looked up. "I do."
"I have a proposition for you. I'm starting to get a little too creaky for some of the heavy work, so I need somebody to do the manual labor in the garden for the rest of the summer. For every full hour of proper work you put in, I'll take $7 off your bill or off your current rent after you get caught up."
"The garden?" Ben stared for moment. The term 'garden' seemed quite an understatement; in his eyes it was a huge plot of land that extended well past the barn and into the edge of the trees. That was not his main concern, though. "I don't know anything about gardening." A horrible thought came to him. "I've never even had a house plant. What if I kill things?"
"I'll show you what to look for, so don't be worrying about that." Jane smiled. "You just concern yourself with the weeding, thinning, watering, keeping the fence fixed and those sorts of things. It's still early, so there's not that much to do now, but come this summer through October you'll have plenty of opportunities to get some hours in."
Ben looked down at the money on the table and swallowed. "I'm not sure I know what a real weed looks like," he said weakly.
"By this fall I think we will have taken care of that problem quite thoroughly," Jane said with a droll grin. "I'll teach you the best times to water, how much and where, how to thin the plants, how to clear the rows and how to harvest. You won't get anything much more flexible, so are you in or out, Ben Kennan?"
"We both may end up regretting this deal," Ben said as he shook his head, "but, yes, ma'am, I guess I'm in." He managed to summon a small grin. "Just call me Farmer Ben."
Ben parked Myrna and turned off the engine. He stepped off, removed his helmet, yawned and stretched. It was early but he decided that six-thirty was still a lot better than four in the morning. Ben had spent the last few evenings reproaching himself for his stupidity and what might have happened after their last session if Finn had seen him in the tree; he took a moment to sternly remind himself to stick to business and keep his eyes above waist level. He then doffed his gear and grabbed his notebook before heading around the side of the small house.
"Hey, what's doing?" Ben said. He had to push aside a sleeping bag in order to sit down at the table.
"Morning," Finn mumbled around a mouthful of cereal. He swallowed. "Sorry, I went on a longer run than I had planned this morning so I'm a bit behind. Would you like some juice or tea?" He waved vaguely at a thermal pot, bottle of juice and an extra mug.
"Sure, thanks." Ben poured orange juice into the mug.
Finn shoveled down the last couple of spoons of cereal. He set the bowl aside and took a sip of tea.
"Do you live out here or something?" Ben grinned as he poked the sleeping bag.
"Actually, when the weather is nice, I do spend a lot of time outdoors. It's very peaceful sleeping with the trees."
"Ooookaay." Ben shrugged. "I've slept out when I had to, but I can't say I saw the attraction. To each his own, I guess." He raised the mug and started to take a drink. Suddenly he froze, his eyes wide.
"Something wrong?" Finn raised an eyebrow.
"Ssssnake!" Ben lifted one finger from his death grip on the mug. "Next to you!" he hissed.
Finn looked to his right and casually picked up the long smooth body poking its wedge-shaped head above the edge of the table. He dropped the snake onto the center of the table, where it curled itself into a few loose swirls.
"Jesus Christ!" Ben scrambled backwards, almost falling on his butt, mug dropped in the grass. He stopped several feet away. "What the hell is that thing?"
"That is Harry." Finn poured the remains of the milk from his bowl into a shallow saucer. The snake slithered over and began lapping up the milk.
"And what is a Harry?" Ben demanded, keeping his distance.
"Harry is a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake." Finn stroked the long brown body along the yellow stripe down its back. "He lives under the house and does a great job keeping down mice and other sorts of pests." Finn looked at Ben, smiled a little. "Do sit down. Harry is quite harmless."
Ben cautiously sidled back and perched on the edge of the bench. "He's awfully big."
"Harry has lived here for several years." Finn looked a bit wistful. "I can't keep pets because my hours can get pretty irregular, so I suppose Harry is about the closest thing I have."
"Does he stay outside?"
"Mostly." Finn grinned. "He did wander inside one time when I had left the doors open. Scared the bejesus out of the woman who was visiting. I thought I had lost an eardrum when she started screaming." He shook his head. "She would never come back after that."
Harry finished his milk and stretched his upper body out.
"Would you like to pet him? He likes to have that spot just behind his head scratched."
"That's quite alright," said Ben firmly.
Finn tenderly scritched his friend's itchy spot for a few moments. Finally he picked him and carried him over to the edge of the woodline and put him down. Returning to the table, he cleared everything but his mug of tea into a crate at the end of the table.
"I'll take things in later." He stood next to Ben and took a sip. "So, let's get down to business. Did you do your homework, Mr. Kennan?"
"Yes, sir." Ben relaxed finally, although he couldn't help taking a last quick glance toward the trees.
"Good. We'll talk after the session." Finn drained his mug, then led the way to the open grass.
An hour later the two men returned to the table. Finn pulled two bottles of water from his cooler and they sat down to drink.
"You're coming along nicely. I think we'll have you up to doing some actual movements soon." Finn scribbled a few notes in the book. "Hip still sore?"
"A little stiff, but the worst of the bruises are almost gone."
"So, tell me how it went with the insurance agent." Finn kept writing.
"Okay, I guess."
Finn looked up, raised an eyebrow.
"My boss, Frank Mendoza, insisted on taking me when he found out why I was asking for a long lunch break. Seems he knew the insurance person from Little League." Ben paused, looked out at the trees for a moment. "I wasn't making any headway trying to talk down the initial payment. Finally Frank offered to guarantee extended payments, so the man let me pay half up front with the rest in two more monthly payments. I paid, he gave me the insurance certificate, and we stopped to put in the registration on the way back to the shop. That part is all taken care of."
"How do you feel about your boss helping you?"
"I was grateful, of course."
Ben sucked on a tooth for a while before answering. "I was a little resentful also. He's already done a lot for me; Frank was the one who pushed to get me the full-time position. It just seems like I have a debt to him that keeps getting bigger."
"What are you going to do about that feeling?"
"I think... maybe the right thing to do is work even harder for him... try to pay him back the only way I really can."
"That sounds like a good thing." Finn closed the notebook and folded his hands on the table. "And did you talk to your landlady?"
Ben took a breath to reply, held it for a moment, then let it out slowly as he stared down at the table. He waited another long moment before quietly speaking. "It was more like she talked to me."
Finn cocked his head and waited patiently.
"I must have some sort of neon sign that lights up when I'm worried about money," said Ben to the table. He put his hands under his thighs. "She knew something was up almost as soon as I walked into the kitchen."
"What did she have to say?"
"I tried to apologize for not having the money I had promised. We ended up talking about how I might be able to get another job of some sort but it didn't seem very promising." Ben pulled his hands out and rested his forearms on the table. "I was feeling pretty bad and willing to try almost anything... she offered a credit of seven dollars an hour against the bill to do the heavy work in her garden for the rest of the summer."
"Did you say garden?"
"Yes, sir, I said garden." Ben looked up under his eyebrows to see Finn struggling to hide a grin. He pursed his lips.
"I am having a great deal of difficulty picturing you nurturing tender young plants."
"I tried to warn her, but she wouldn't listen." Ben raised his head and scowled. "Alright, dammit, go ahead and laugh. Get it out before you bust a gut trying to stifle it."
Ben crossed his arms across his chest and waited as Finn dissolved into quiet mirth.
"Jaysus." Finn took a long drink of water. "That was just too hard to resist." A muffled snerk escaped from behind the hand over his mouth.
"If you are QUITE finished, Mr. Finn?" Ben's glare could have melted rocks.
"Yes, sorry." Finn took a couple of deep breaths to compose himself. "So you're going to do weeding and watering and such to work off your debt?"
"Yes." Ben took a deep breath of his own. "It has the advantage of being flexible so I can do the work no matter what hours I'm working at Midway."
"How do you feel about the arrangement?"
"I don't mind the physical work, but I can't say I'm very comfortable with being responsible for taking care of the plants. I keep having this vision of rows of dead black husks." Ben shook his head and gave a small shudder. "But I need to try to make it work; I owe it to Jane." He looked straight at Finn. "I feel better about what's going on with Jane than with Frank. I've been trying to apply some of the things you've been telling me," Ben said earnestly. "With Frank, well, he's my boss and it's hard to think of how I can pay him back, but I can do some tangible things for Jane, see some real results of my work. I'm finding I like that and I don't really mind so much accepting help from her. Is that going in the right direction?"
Finn looked at Ben, his expression carefully controlled as he rocked back a tiny bit. He shifted his gaze out to the trees.
"Yes, sir?" Ben felt a twinge of uncertainty tickling his spine as silence lengthened. "Is something wrong?"
"I've been doing some thinking," Finn said slowly, "and I need to ask you a question, if you don't mind." He swung his eyes back to look directly at his companion.
"Of course." The twinge along his backbone turned to a knot growing in Ben's gut.
"After our last session, it occurred to me that I had jumped pretty deeply into your personal life without even thinking about it. It was very presumptuous to be ordering you to do things like go talk to the insurance agent."
"I didn't object."
"Perhaps not, but I've been trying to consider just how this relationship is developing." Finn leaned forward, tension hunching his shoulders. "Teaching and asking questions is one thing, but I don't want to be pushing too far into places where you're not wanting me to go or that are not really any of my business. We didn't talk much about this when we started, but I need to understand what sort of boundaries are comfortable for both of us." Finn's eyes turned a shade darker. "Where is the line you don't want me crossing?"
Ben felt frozen for what seemed an interminable moment. The only limits he truly cared about were the ones he didn't dare to bring up. He bought some time by draining the last of the water in his bottle and carefully setting it aside.
"I suppose I would have to say there are not very many things that might be off limits," said Ben slowly. "After all, I'm the one who came to you to try to figure out why I felt so screwed up." Ben rubbed his fingertips against the grain of the wood in the table. "I know we've only been doing this for a few weeks, but I respect and appreciate the help you're trying to give me, even if I don't always understand what you say. I've needed some pushing and poking to help deal with some of my issues or I might have just kept drifting along without any thoughts of a purpose to my life."
"I do feel responsible for you, and I like working with you, but I don't want to continually ride roughshod over you, or for you to be doing things only to please me without understanding why you're doing them. I think you've seen that I can get carried away sometimes, so I have to know that you really will tell me if you need me to give you some space on a particular issue."
"I will," Ben raised his head to look squarely at Finn, "but I also need you to keep giving me those kicks in the ass if you think I'm being stupid about something or just trying to avoid a problem because I don't want to deal with it."
"Don't worry, that's not something I have a problem with." Finn smiled. "And I know it's probably not the kind of thing men are supposed to say to one another, but I like you and I think we could become good friends."
Ben turned his head away and shrugged his shoulders. "I'd like that," he said quietly. He glanced up, an awkward smile on his lips. "Thanks."
"We'll see how much you like me after I've turned you into a pincushion with all the poking." Finn stood and stretched. "I've got some appointments I should be leaving for shortly."
"I need to get ready to go to work myself." Ben stood, grabbed his notebook. "We still on for Sunday morning?"
"Right. After the session we'll take a run and stop by the Conservation Center. Also, if you're interested I'll be doing a music recording session at UPA for Sandy Friday evening, a week from tomorrow."
"That would be great," Ben said as they began walking around the house. "I'll be there. Armand has been promising me a chance to help run the equipment, so I'll ask him if I can do that while you're recording."
A warm glow vanquished Ben's earlier apprehension as he rode home.
"He likes me. He likes me." Ben hugged that phrase to himself the entire trip, a smile beaming under his helmet.
§ Chapter Eleven §
Myrna was wheeled out and carefully propped on her kick stand. Ben pulled the garage door closed, then paused to glance at the empty spot in the carport. The day before everyone had pitched in to finish packing up Cynthia Vernon's belongings and loading them into her car and her fiancé's pickup. Ben smiled wistfully as he remembered how much in love Cynthia and Ricky had seemed to be; they were constantly touching, calling each other pet names, or kissing. His smile slid away as he thought how unlikely it seemed that he would ever be able to attain such happiness with his own object of desire. Ben sighed, took one last look as he straddled Myrna, and headed out for his Sunday morning session.
"You are doing a good job on the stances. When you can hold each one for a full three minutes, we'll start on the first movement. Remember, you want to stay loose but focused, and work from the center of your body." Finn made a few more notes in Ben's book.
"I think I'm starting to get the hang of some of this, even the breathing exercises." Ben took a long drink of water.
"It will come," said Finn. "You just have to keep working on it, a little bit at a time." He closed the book. "Ready for a little run?"
The two men headed out into the forest, quickly encountering a dirt access road. Finn started at an easy tempo, but soon increased to a demanding pace. Ben managed to keep up, but he was beginning to feel the strain by the time they had covered four miles along winding back trails. He was more than happy to stop when they came to the entrance of the Wildlife Conservation Center. He used the front of his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face as he recovered his breath; he got a tiny bit of satisfaction in noting that Finn had at least broken a good sweat in the heat of the summer morning.
Finn pushed open the gate in the wire fence and they walked up the entrance road toward four one-story wooden buildings. Ben could see several large pens; beyond those were two large barns and more enclosures spreading into the surrounding trees. An asphalt parking lot held a half dozen cars and trucks.
They entered the main building, where a reception area had a counter and a few desks. Hallways to the left and right led to offices and, judging by the smell, a veterinary area.
"Mr. Finn, good to see you." A teenager in a wolf t-shirt and denim shorts stood up to greet them.
"Good to see you too, Mitchell."
A crash sounded from the left, followed by a rapid clattering noise.
"Somebody stop that fawn!"
A small brown and white body shot from the hallway and skidded on the tile floor. Ben had barely started to move when Finn swooped in and gathered the fleeing animal into his arms. Long spindly legs thrashed wildly for a moment before the youngling collapsed into a trembling heap against Finn's chest. A long gash on its shoulder dripped blood and there were several smaller cuts on its face and chest. Floppy ears twitched as Finn murmured soothingly.
"Where's the... oh, there you are," said a thin, compact woman with short gray hair. "Thanks, Qui. Bring it on back to the treatment room."
Ben trailed along and stood silently in the doorway as Finn carefully placed the young animal on a long steel table, where it tried to struggle to its feet.
"Can you hold her still, please? I want to get a local anesthetic on before I stitch up those cuts."
"Of course, Joanie." The beast quieted under Finn's gentle touch and lay still, panting heavily. "Looks like a new one."
"Yes, one of the volunteers brought her in this morning. He couldn't find the mother." The woman swiftly cleansed the wound and sewed up the torn skin.
"Okay, let her rest a bit before we take her out to a pen." She pulled off her latex gloves and tossed them in a container. "It was a good thing you were there, Qui. She's a lively little thing and could have hurt herself even more running around." She nodded at Ben. "You talk another victim into volunteering?"
"Joanie, I don't have victims. They are all fine upstanding citizens eager to do the right thing," said Finn with mock indignation as he slowly stroked the neck of the fawn. "But no, this is Ben Kennan. I've been teaching him Tai Chi. We were out for a run this fine morning to work on our conditioning and I thought it would be nice to stop by and let him see your place." He turned toward Ben. "Ben, this is Dr. Joan Spangler, the director of the center. Her husband, Barry, is also a vet and helps out in his spare time."
"Pleased to meet you," Joan said, firmly shaking Ben's hand.
"Same here." Ben gestured around. "So what exactly does your group do?"
"We are a non-profit organization devoted to conserving wildlife and habitat. We educate, provide rescue assistance for injured animals, and work with a number of federal, government, and private organizations to further our goals." Joan pointed at Finn. "We rely on volunteers like Qui to help with animal care, to put together our programs, all sorts of things. We get our funding mostly through grants and donations."
"They do some good work here," Finn said quietly. "Joanie and her crew have really made a difference." He smiled. "She's even gotten good at meetings and speechifying."
Joan grimaced in disgust. "I wish we didn't have to spend so much time on that sort of thing, but it can't be helped." She did a quick check of the fawn. "Qui, would you bring the fawn out to the holding pens in building two? We can take a quick tour of the rest of the buildings after that."
Finn cradled the frightened creature close to his chest, scratching behind its ears and crooning a low-voiced lullaby. When they reached a set of wooden pens, he tenderly placed the fawn into the straw, his large hands deftly laying it down without disturbing the new stitches.
Ben watched the gentle expression on Finn's face, the pleased smile and light in his eyes as the large brown orbs looked up at him trustingly. He noted the skill with which Finn softly stroked the animal's head, lulling it into sleep. Ben sighed, wishing those hands could caress him with that same pleasure.
"She'll be fine," Finn said softly as he stepped back out of the pen and closed the gate.
"Damn, I wish I could handle the animals like you do, Qui." Joan shook her head as they began walking down the row of pens.
"Ahhgh, you just have to understand and respect their natures," Finn said with a self-deprecating shrug. "Why don't you tell Ben about the F 'n F and some of the other programs?"
As they walked through the different buildings and past the small and large outdoor enclosures, Joan enthusiastically described their work with threatened and endangered species, the conservation programs for elk, moose, wolves and birds, and working toward a balance of man and nature. It was evident that her favorite was Fur and Feathers, a traveling program where they took several animals who were either in rehabilitation or too damaged to live on their own around to schools and other events as part of their education outreach. She was still talking when they got back to the entrance to the Center.
"You know, after all these years I still can't decide which makes me feel better; being able to return an animal to the wild or seeing the light come on in a child's eyes at the F 'n F."
"It's all good work," said Finn. "But we'll be needing to get back. I appreciate you taking the time to show Ben around, Joanie."
"No problem, Qui. Will you be at the 4th of July fair this year?"
"Of course, probably at least three, maybe all four days." Finn hugged Joan. "Take care. Good-bye."
Joan waved as the two men walked down the drive.
"Hope that didn't bore you too much," Finn said as they stopped by the gate to do some stretches. "I love Joanie and the work she does, but sometimes her zeal can be a little exhausting."
"No, that was actually interesting. My sister was into some of the conservation causes, but I had never really thought about it much." Ben leaned into a stretch. "You certainly seem to think the work's worthwhile."
"It is, and I enjoy it, too." Finn straightened, slapped Ben on the shoulder. He started walking down the road. "Come on, let's see if you can keep up on the way back, boyo."
"You're on." Ben grinned as they broke into a steady run.
After work on Wednesday, Ben took advantage of the warm afternoon sun to put Myrna out on the front grass and give her a thorough cleaning. He washed every part of her, even inside the panniers, picked out little bits of grit and removed road tar, put preservative on the seat, and slowly applied polish. He enjoyed the feel of the soft cloth on the metal as he buffed the paint and brightwork, relishing every newly gleaming inch as he felt Myrna preening under his gentle touch. Ben was so preoccupied that he didn't notice the dusty Subaru SUV as it crept up the driveway until it stopped almost next to him. He straightened and went to the driver's door.
"Can I help you?" Ben asked.
A thin young woman with black hair peered uncertainly out the open window; dark circles under her brown eyes made her look older than she probably was. She consulted a small piece of paper before answering.
"Hi. Is this where a Mrs. Jane Brandon lives? I was told she might have a room to rent."
"Yes and yes." Ben smiled. "I'm Ben Kennan; I live down cellar with Mrs. Brandon, but one of her upstairs boarders left just a few days ago. Come on, I'll take you in."
"Thanks. I'm Rafa Romero, by the way." She put a hand out the window and they shook.
The newcomer parked and Ben led the way through the open garage door toward the kitchen. Dexy and Delilah woofed at the newcomer as they went through the laundry room but didn't follow them as they passed through.
"Mrs. Brandon? It's Ben. You've got a visitor."
Jane came in with her bag of knitting and put it on a counter. "Hello, I'm Jane Brandon. What can I do for you?" she asked as she extended a hand.
"My name is Rafaela Romero, but people call me Rafa." She shook Jane's hand. "I heard that you might have a room to rent?"
"Yes, I do. Please sit down. Would you like some coffee or something?"
"Water would be fine, if it's no trouble," Rafa said as she sat at the table.
"Ben, would you get everybody some water, please? You can join us if you like."
Ben had been edging toward the doorway, uncertain if he should stay or go, but curious about the newcomer. He quickly pulled out a pitcher of cold water from the refrigerator, got three glasses and joined the two women at the table.
"Thank you, Ben." Jane took the proffered glass. "Now then, Rafa, what exactly are you looking for?"
"I will be starting at the university here this fall, and I wanted to find a place to stay. I'm pretty quiet, I don't party or drink, and I like being away from town, so I didn't want to stay in the dorms or an apartment. I've got a car, so it doesn't really matter how far it is to school. I would like to have a room to myself rather than having a roommate."
"I do have a single room upstairs; you'd be sharing a bathroom with Tammy Martin, the young woman who has the other single room. I can show you the room if you like the rate." She smiled at her other boarder. "Ben is downstairs and has his own bathroom down there. Does that sound like it would work for you?"
"Actually, there is one other thing I haven't been able to find anywhere else," Rafa said. She licked her lips nervously. "It's really why I was so interested in your place."
"And what is that?"
"I was hoping to also find a home for Celesta, my horse, so we could be together instead of having to board her out somewhere."
"Yes, she is young but has good manners and is not very big." Rafa continued quickly, the words almost tumbling out. "I would take care of her myself so she wouldn't be any trouble. I raised her from a baby and she is really a very nice horse and -"
"It's alright," Jane said with a smile, holding up one hand. "I think we can work something out if she doesn't mind occasionally sharing space with dogs and cats. The far end of my barn was left as stalls and storage when we converted part of the barn to cages for boarding animals; we could put Celesta in the end stall."
"That would be wonderful. Thank you so much. I promise you won't regret it."
"We've got plenty of room for both of you, and I'm sure everything will be fine." Jane paused to let Rafa take a sip of water. "Do you know when you would want to move in?"
"Actually, as soon as possible. My priest at home referred me to Reverend Jenkins; I've already talked to him, and he said you keep a good, clean house, so if we could just agree on the rent, I'd like to get started."
"That was nice of the Reverend, but I'm just a bit curious, if you don't mind. Classes don't generally start until the end of August or first week of September; if you want to wait at home, I can hold the room for you if you have the security deposit."
"No, I appreciate the offer, but I need to move in now." Rafa hesitated, took a deep breath. "I don't have a home to go back to... we had a small ranch down past Gerard, but there was a fire... " Her hand tightened around the water glass. "The rest of my family died..." She swallowed before continuing. "I can pay if you are worried about that. I already had an academic scholarship and now I've got the insurance money. I told the agent to sell the ranch. It's not a place where I ever want to live again."
"I understand, dear." Jane leaned over to pat Rafa's hand. "I know you must be going through a pretty tough time, so you just let us know what we can do to help you get settled."
They chatted about rent and the house rules for a few moments, but Rafa's heart clearly wasn't in the discussion so they quickly came to terms.
Ben watched as they worked out schedules and a price for the boarding, throwing in an offer to help clean out the space in the barn. Rafa was staying with friends and decided to go back to finish paperwork; she would come up the following week to get everything ready for Celesta and she already had an offer from one of her father's fellow ranchers to lend a trailer to bring the horse to join her in a few weeks once she had a home for both of them. Rafa wrote out a check for the security deposit and the first month's rent. She continued to thank Jane as they went back out the front door.
"Poor thing, it's a rough go when you lose family so sudden like that. She's going to be a mite fragile for a while," Jane said softly as they watched Rafa's car disappear among the trees. "We'll just have to take care of her, won't we, Ben?"
It took Ben a second to react. "We?"
"Well, Tammy's never liked the winters here, and she's been talking about moving to California for ages." Jane still stared down the driveway. "I think she's serious this time; I doubt she'll be around much past September. So that leaves you and me." She smiled as she turned toward Ben. "Assuming you survive the garden, young man, I was hoping you might be a keeper, at least for a goodly spell."
There was a strange tightness in Ben's throat at this unexpected announcement. He swallowed as he tried to find some words to express himself, resorting to humor to hide his feelings.
"Well, I was kind of thinking about inflicting myself on you for quite a while, if you can put up with me."
"I reckon I can still manage a young rapscallion like you," said Jane briskly. "So are you in or out for supper tonight?"
"I'm in, ma'am," said Ben with a crooked smile, "I'm in."
Ben felt a warm glow at being included; he hummed a happy little tune as he went downstairs to change into his workout clothes.
A battered pickup bypassed several empty parking spots to pull in next to a young man sitting on a motorcycle.
"Good evening," Finn called as he came around the back of his vehicle.
"Hey, good to see you." Ben pulled off his helmet to reveal a huge grin.
"You look remarkably happy tonight." Finn leaned against the front fender.
Ben dismounted, unzipped his jacket, and went to stand next to Finn.
"I feel good, really good. It's a beautiful evening and I'm about to have fun doing something useful with people I like." Ben dared to lean in closer. "And guess what?"
"Surprise me," Finn said with an answering smile.
"My landlady thinks I'm a keeper." Ben laughed, a cheery note floating over the lot.
Finn rubbed his chin and cast a jaundiced eye up and down Ben's form. "I dunno, you look awful small... I might have to advise her to throw you back." He shook his head and held his mournful stare long enough to draw an indignant squawk from his victim. Finn broke into a grin and threw a mock punch at Ben's chin.
"Alright, what mischief are you boys getting into tonight?" Sandy came up behind them.
"There's no mischief, marm," Finn drawled as he drew himself up to his full height. "We is good boys, we is."
"Ach, don't be wasting your blarney on me," Sandy gibed back in a fake Irish accent. "There's work to be done, so be getting on with you, now."
"Begorra, why so there is," Finn responded in an even deeper parody of his own accent.
All three of them laughed at the byplay. Finn gave Sandy a casual hug before opening the passenger door of his truck and retrieving a large pack. He slung it over his shoulder as they headed for the building.
Ben loved seeing this side of Finn and was feeling so mellow that even his constant background ache of hidden love was forgotten. He perched on a desk and watched with a smile as the usual crowd of people seemed to magically gather when Finn appeared, enjoying the show.
Tommy Diaz burst into the room, his bright smile on prominent display. "Hey, dude!"
It took Ben a moment to realize that Tommy was heading for him, not Finn. "Hey yourself, what's up, guy?"
"Dude, you are AWESOME!" exploded across the rapidly decreasing intervening distance.
"What did I do?" Ben returned the high five as Tommy swung around next to him.
"DO? Dude, you got us one of the biggest co-op deals the comp sci department has ever had!"
"I'm a little confused here," said Ben, "I still don't understand what I'm supposed to have done."
"That Ruger place, man." Tommy waved a hand. "Doc Salazar took a team of us out there to look at that piece of shit they got for a system. I'm telling you, the idiots that built it sure didn't do those people any favors." He paused. "Hey, you really work for that woman Margaret Jones?"
"Not directly, but yes, she's a co-owner of Midway Motorcycles."
"Wow, you got more balls than me, man, even being in the same freaking building with her. That woman is mega-scary." Tommy shuddered.
"Come on, Tommy, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Look, here's the deal. We went out to Ruger's to look at that crap they got, and the Jones lady, she says that this guy of theirs named Kennan claims we can fix the problem. So the Doc gives 'em our pitch, and they signed us up to take the Midway system and adapt it for Ruger. If they like it, we got options for the add-ons for both Midway and Ruger." Tommy waved both arms enthusiastically. "There's enough work for both my senior thesis and a master's project. AND they're gonna pay us. This is one sweet deal, and you got us in the door to get it."
Ben looked up. Across the room he met Finn's eyes, and saw Finn smile and give a small nod of approval. His heart leaped for a moment.
"Congratulations, Tommy. But, hey, you earned it; I only threw out the suggestion because I knew a little about the work you're doing for UPA."
"Thanks, dude. This is gonna be so sweet! We are gonna build them a system that kicks ass." Tommy wheeled around the room, chattering to anyone who would listen.
Three hours later, Ben was still high. He had gotten another chance to see Finn in action while he and Fred, the intern, had been allowed to operate the equipment themselves for almost the entire recording session. Armand had even asked him if he wanted to start working live shows.
"That's everything." Finn gathered his pack containing the records, tapes and CDs he had brought in. He looked up at the wall clock. "It's getting late. If you're finished here, Sandy, Ben and I can walk you down to the parking lot if you like."
"Sure, just let me grab my bag. The guys finishing the last of the live shows will lock up."
They chatted amiably during the elevator ride down.
"Great session, gentlemen," said Sandy. "It was nice of you to bring all that music in, Qui."
"It was no trouble, and I enjoyed myself."
"And you, Ben - Armand told me you've really picked up the system fast."
The elevator door opened and they went out into the hall.
"Once you understand how it's supposed to work, it's mostly just a matter of practice. It was fun, and I'll try to see if I can come in a bit more often."
A raucous, jeering laugh from near the front of the building interrupted them.
Finn frowned. "I don't like the sound of that." He swung his pack off and thrust it into Ben's arms. "Stay with Sandy while I check it out. Don't go outside." He headed down the hallway, moving into a run when they heard the sound of thudding boots followed by a crash.
Ben and Sandy looked at each other as silence fell after Finn disappeared. They cautiously walked down the hall, pausing to peer around the corner before stepping forward.
"God!" gasped Sandy as her face turned white and she grabbed Ben's arm.
The entrance to the building was a mess. One of the glass doors had been smashed; swastikas and profanities had been spray-painted across the walls. A stack of campus newspapers had been torn and strewn about.
There was a large bulletin board along one wall. Some of the flyers had been torn down, many of the rest defaced.
Ben moved down to the end of the board, glass crunching under his feet. Across a large poster for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance announcing an upcoming picnic, a heavy black marker had been used to scrawl the words "Kill the Fucking Faggots" and "Burn the Lesbo Bitches."
"Those sorry bastards," muttered Ben. He dropped the pack as his stomach clenched with nausea; all of his earlier happiness slid away into a greasy pit of disgust at this jarring reminder of how much mindless hate still existed. With a surge of anger, he reached up to rip the paper from the wall.
"Leave it." A large hand held Ben's wrist motionless.
"How can you even look at that shit, let alone let it stay there?" Ben tried to pull free but to no avail.
"I said leave it." Finn held the younger man in place, increasing the pressure on his wrist until it was painfully tight. "This has to be reported and they need to be able to take pictures just as it is."
Ben stared at him for a moment, his jaw set and eyes burning, struggling to take a deep breath. He swallowed, then took another breath before he was able to mutter, "Yes, sir."
Finn watched him for another few seconds before releasing him. "Sorry about that, but I couldn't have you destroying evidence."
"I understand." Ben rubbed his wrist. "I wasn't thinking."
"Let's go outside and we can wait while I call this in," Finn said as he shepherded the other two outdoors.
Sandy and Ben sat on a bench while Finn used his cell phone to notify the campus police. He spent some time looking at the scene through the smashed door before joining his friends.
"I don't understand how people can do things like this," Sandy said. She still looked pale.
"They're ignorant sons-of-bitches." There was a hard edge to Finn's voice. "In this case, equal opportunity arseholes. They got the GLA, the Jewish Students Union, the Islamic Brotherhood and the Students for Academic Freedom, to name a few." He got up to pace slowly back and forth.
Ben had picked up Finn's pack before they left the building; he hugged it tightly to his chest as he stared down at the sidewalk. His gut roiled and he wanted to lash out, to hit something, anything. His fists clenched tight around the straps of the pack, but he was only vaguely aware of the pain of his nails digging into his palms.
A hand dropped onto Ben's shoulder.
"Are you alright?" Finn asked softly.
"That kind of shit..." Ben shook his head without looking up. "It's just so fucking wrong."
Anything further Finn might have said was cut short by the arrival of the police. Ben and Sandy waited as the scene was secured and photographed. They were both asked for statements but could add very little to the detailed account Finn provided of the activities, descriptions and license plate number of the vandals.
Ben fingered the heavy leather of the old pack as he watched Finn. This episode had savagely reminded him that he was different, a difference that would probably keep him from ever having the kind of relationship he yearned for with Quilan Finn. He rested his chin on the top of the pack and buried his misery inside.
§ Chapter Twelve §
The ugliness at the UPA building had soured Ben's fragile happiness with the new life he was trying to build. It was the first time he had encountered such an overt display of bigotry here, and it jolted him more than he liked to admit. He had little time to brood, however, as he was caught up in a busy round of activities both at work and at home. The entire town seemed to be talking about nothing but the rapidly approaching Fourth of July Roundup. Midway was no exception as they began a final surge of preparations for the big display they always had. At home Ben got his first lessons in gardening, learning about the watering schedule, the tools and techniques for keeping weeds and pests away and the wondrous joys of compost heaps and their carbon/nitrogen ratios. He drove himself harder in his exercises to fill in any spare time he might otherwise have had and lulled himself to sleep at night with recordings of Finn's voice.
Sunday morning at breakfast, Tammy had mentioned the story in the newspaper about the vandalism; Ben had been surprised by the vehemence with which Jane had excoriated the thugs, as she had called them. Ben managed to get in a short session with Finn early on Tuesday morning, during which they concentrated on the Tai Chi drills. Finn took some time to reassure Ben that violence at the college was unusual and the sentiments he had seen in the scrawled profanities were held by a relatively small minority in this particular area. Sandy had also called to let Ben know that the building was already being cleaned up and that there was a great deal of anger among the UPA staffers about the assault occurring in their own home, so to speak. Although his friends were clearly concerned with the general ugliness of the incident that marred their community, Ben was reminded that the people he cared about were tolerant of diversity and condemned prejudice. It helped to ease the pain of the reminder of his past problems and bring it into perspective. He still was not in any hurry to come out of his own closet, but he renewed his determination not to let his emotions destroy the rest of his life and was able to start putting his feelings, especially those about Finn, back into an internal box where he could control them.
The sun was bright and warm on Thursday morning when the Roundup opened at ten o'clock. Ben had already been there for an hour helping with the last-minute preparations for the Midway exhibit. He paused to look around; the large covered area had motorcycles, dirt bikes, accessories for sale, tables with brochures, video displays, tables and chairs for customers and staff, several large coolers of water and soft drinks, and the two huge helmets used to hold the tickets for the hourly drawings for merchandise and for the daily drawing of big-ticket items. A large trailer behind the exhibit had more bikes, merchandise, ice chests and cases of drinks. Tony Carmine was in his element bustling around overseeing the crew in their Midway polo shirts and caps, adjusting the volume of the music, straightening a display, re-positioning a bike and beaming like a Cheshire cat. Harley-Davidson flags flapped gently in the small breeze.
"Here, Tony said everybody should make sure they drink enough water." Mattie handed Ben a bottle of cold water.
"Thanks. You've been to these things before. What's it like?" Ben took a sip of water.
"This is about the biggest thing that happens during the summer, even bigger than the county fair in the fall. There will be thousands of people from all over, regulars and tourists. There's tons of exhibits and rides, a rodeo, four stages of music going all day. When I was in high school I used to work some of the fund-raising food booths a day or two every year and we stayed busy all the time, especially in the afternoon and evenings. Tony promised everybody at least a couple of breaks every day, so you should check it out."
"I thought that today I'll mostly just see what's out there, since I'll be back here on Saturday and Sunday."
"You better take advantage of being back in the shop on Friday to rest up. Even though we've got shade, it gets hot and the hours are really long."
"I don't mind and it sounds like fun."
"You mean you don't mind the overtime pay," Mattie said as she gave him a friendly poke in the side.
"Well, I'm certainly not going to turn it down," Ben answered with a big grin.
Mattie wrinkled her nose, but Tony called everyone over for final instructions before she could reply, so she contented herself with sticking her tongue out.
By one-thirty Ben was ready for a break. Even on a weekday, the promised crowds had begun to materialize by eleven and Ben had stayed constantly busy answering questions about the various models, helping with merchandise and keeping things tidied up. Tony swung by between glad-handing visitors and told him to take an hour.
Ben grabbed a bottle of water and headed out into the exhibit area. Finn had mentioned that the Forest Service group would be set up next to the Wildlife Conservation Center and that is where he would be spending at least some of his time. Ben found the exhibits, but there was no sign of the ranger, so he decided to wait a while. He stood reading one of the large poster boards in the Forest Service portion of the exhibit:
The Keogami National Forest supports six species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, 74 species of mammals, 355 species of birds, and 25 species of fish. Wild animals survive because they have learned where and how to find food, where to rest and sleep in safety, and where to raise their families. Getting too close to wildlife can be dangerous. Observe animals from a distance without disturbing them.
"You'd be surprised how many people disregard that part about not trying to get close," a pleasant voice said.
Ben looked to his left. "Don't worry, I'm happy to keep my distance." He smiled at the young woman in the green and grey uniform.
"Is there something I can help you with? The Keogami has a lot of different things to do and see. We also have a lot of job and volunteer opportunities."
"Actually, I was just looking for Ranger Finn," said Ben. "He said he'd be here today and I thought this might be a good place to find him."
"I know he's already reported in today, but I'm not sure where he is at the moment since he's helping with security for the entire Roundup. I imagine he'll try to swing by for the next Fur n' Feathers show at two."
"Thanks." Ben nodded. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost ten minutes to two. He moved over to the edge of the Wildlife Conservation Center exhibit to wait. There were several cages of smaller birds and mammals, two big tanks of fish, and large colorful posters; several volunteers stood guard answering questions. From behind a covered area there came an occasional squeal, grunt or other odd sound. There was a large open space roped off; the several benches facing the open area were already filling in anticipation, and the chattering of excited children filled the air.
Ben looked away and his breath caught at the sight of a tall rangy figure gliding effortlessly through the crowds. A white Stetson hat covered the freshly trimmed hair now just barely visible below the brim, dark aviator-style sunglasses hid the eyes, a short-sleeved gray-green shirt had a name tag on the right and badge on the left, dark green sharply creased trousers led down the long legs to polished boots. The wide belt of tooled black leather around Finn's waist held several pouches; Ben's attention was caught, however, by the holster on the right hip. Although it was covered by a leather flap, there was clearly a large pistol contained within.
The man carries a gun, Ben thought. He had known Finn had something to do with law enforcement in the forest, but somehow he had never really made the connection, having had a vague notion that maybe it had something to do with finding litterers or people who caught too many fish. Jesus Christ, the man carries a real gun, he thought again.
"Good afternoon, Ben. Enjoying the Roundup?"
Ben looked up with a half grin, still a bit rattled by the implications of the gun. "I haven't had a chance to see much yet. I'm down at the Midway exhibit and this is my first break. It does seem to be quite large."
"We draw some pretty big crowds. They have very nice fireworks shows every night, but it's particularly spectacular on Saturday and Sunday."
"I'll look forward to that." Ben's eyes strayed back up, a puzzled look on his face. "I thought rangers wore those Smokey the Bear hats?"
"We get that question a lot. I work for the Forest Service." Finn laughed as he turned his shoulder and tapped the patch on his left sleeve. "The Park Service people wear the flat brim hats. Take a trip to Yellowstone National Park and you'll see the Park Rangers wearing those."
"Oh. So that's the uniform you wear when you're on duty?"
"Sometimes. I've got a more rugged version I wear most of the time, but occasionally I wear military-style uniforms if we're out in the back country or on a special job. I wear this at public functions like the Roundup, since part of my job here today is to be visible and to explain some of the career opportunities there are in the Forest Service when I'm not helping with security."
Ben felt, rather than saw, the shift in Finn's focus. He couldn't read the eyes behind the sunglasses, but was not surprised when Finn reached down to his belt and drew out a small two-way radio.
"Excuse me," Finn said quietly to Ben before keying the device. "Miller... Finn here." He waited for the acknowledgement before continuing crisply. "I'm by the Wildlife exhibit; their next presentation is about to start. Have a suspect, male, five ten, 190 pounds, about 50, thinning black hair, white shirt over grey jeans. I've been watching him for thirty minutes and he's been tagging the same kid. If he's that child molester in the bulletin, then he's still on probation and there's a restraining order on him."
Ben eagerly looked out over the large group assembling near them, trying to find the 'suspect'.
"Roger. I'll keep an eye on him until you get here. Out." Finn tapped Ben on the shoulder. "I've got to get to work."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I can't afford to be worrying about you if something goes wrong." Finn held up a hand as Ben started to protest. "No. Do not follow me. Understood?"
Ben bit his tongue, but dutifully answered, "Yes, sir."
Finn disappeared into the crowd; if Ben hadn't been watching he would have lost him. Ben faded over behind a display to stay out of the way and tried to keep an eye on his ranger.
Nothing seemed to happen for the next twenty minutes. Ben glanced at his watch to ensure he wasn't overstaying his break, then looked back up at the excited 'oohs' and 'aahs' coming from the Wildlife show. The audience was intently focused as a large bald eagle was brought out from the back, but Ben tensed as he saw what must surely be the person Finn had been following.
The older man, pale face turning red in the sunlight, was sidling slowly toward a young boy on the far edge of the crowd. Ben couldn't see any parents in the vicinity of the child, who looked about eleven or twelve, thin with light brown hair, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Ben started to move, but remembered his instructions and stayed put.
The child was pointing and gesturing as the man edged closer until he was standing directly behind the boy. A hand stealthily reached forward, resting on a small shoulder.
Suddenly a tall ranger materialized at the man's side; there was a brief struggle, a flash of metal, then Finn was steering the man away with his hands cuffed behind his back. A state trooper gathered in the boy and brought him along.
Ben blinked. The scuffle had been over in seconds and the crowd remained seemingly oblivious. He shook his head.
"I saw you talking to Finn. He is rather remarkable, isn't he?" The voice seemed familiar; Ben turned to find the woman who had addressed him earlier.
"Yes, it would certainly seem so," Ben said. "Do you know Ranger Finn?"
"Not personally," she said wistfully. "We all know him in a general sort of way and he's always nice to everybody, a perfect gentleman, but he's pretty particular about having any close friends."
"He certainly seems to be good at his job," Ben ventured.
"Oh yes, he's a real professional, one of the best. He usually ends up with some of the most difficult assignments." She looked at Ben speculatively. "How do you know him?"
"I met him at UPA out at the university," said Ben vaguely. He wanted to pump the woman for more information, but a glance at his watch told him he needed to leave. "Is the exhibit open all day?"
"We usually have somebody here until around ten; that late most people are either still at the rodeo, the music stages or the rides."
"Thanks. I've got to get back to work, but maybe I'll stop by later." Ben tossed his water bottle in a recycling bin and began walking back toward the Midway booth.
A little before eight Frank Mendoza arrived to spell Ben.
"Look around if you like, but don't stay too late," Frank said. "I'm counting on you to open the shop in the morning. I'll be here most of the day tomorrow. It should be pretty quiet, and you'll have Jake with you, but if you run into anything you can't handle, call me on my cell phone."
"Yes, sir. I'll take care of things." Ben felt a little thrill of pride as he snagged another bottle of water and retrieved two apples he had brought with him from home; it was heartening to get such visible evidence of Frank's trust. As he wandered through the grounds in the direction of the Forest Service exhibit, he thought about how much more overtime he was getting this week than he had expected.
He stepped out of the main path and pulled out his wallet. The tone of Mattie's earlier tease floated back into his head and he wondered if he was starting to get a little too obviously obsessive about money. Then he remembered with a guilty start how long it had been since he had done something so simple as buying Jane a bottle of her favorite root beer like he used to do when he had even less coming in. He pulled a face as he speculated on what Finn would probably have to say about that and decided he could afford a hot dog. He stopped at one of the youth group booths and got a grilled footlong, munching slowly as he continued his walk.
Ben's hopes were rewarded; as he approached the exhibit, he saw Finn and Dr. Spangler standing in the Wildlife exhibit looking into one of the cages. He went in and stood off to the side, finishing his treat.
Joan looked up first. "Ben, it's good to see you again. How do you like the Roundup?"
"I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to explore most of it yet, ma'am. I work for Midway Motorcycles and have been manning their exhibit. I just got off for tonight, but I'll be back out here Saturday and Sunday. I did stop by earlier on a break but I didn't have much time, so I'm sorry I missed a lot of your Fur and Feathers show."
"Well, maybe you'll get a chance later on. If you'll excuse me, I need to make sure all the animals are getting bedded down for the night. See you around."
Finn and Ben nodded and bade her good night. They moved over to sit down on one of the benches.
Ben pulled the apples from his pockets and offered one to Finn.
"Thanks, I've not had much of a chance to eat since breakfast." Finn smiled before taking a bite.
Rolling his apple in his hands, Ben hesitantly asked a question. "Is it alright to ask about what happened when I was here earlier today?"
"Of course, what do you want to know?"
"Well, when I saw you in uniform today I realized that I didn't really understand what you do. I know you said you were in security or law enforcement, but I thought you were a forest ranger enforcing game laws or something like that. Then I saw the gun and I was wondering if you're really some sort of policeman?" Ben nibbled at the fruit.
"We refer to a lot of our field people as rangers, but my official job title is actually Law Enforcement Officer. I started as a Forestry Technician, then went back to school at nights to get a degree in Justice and shifted over. I have full arrest and investigative powers within the Keo or if I'm deputized by state or local authorities within their jurisdictions, if that is the part you are asking about. For a big event like this they bring in all the people they can for security, although we also need to maintain coverage in the Keo during the holiday; that's why I have to work the whole four days either here or in the forest."
"So you were bagging that guy?"
"If you mean arresting him, yes, in conjunction with the state trooper. Turned out he was a convicted child molester and was violating his parole. We took him down to the holding area to do the paperwork; the local police will have transferred him to jail by now." Finn took another bite of his apple.
"Have you ever had to... use your gun?" Ben had found that idea troubling; it didn't seem to square with what he thought he knew about Finn's personality.
Finn looked at Ben thoughtfully as he finished chewing, then swallowed. "Weapons are tools of the job, but I don't particularly like using them. That's one of the main reasons I learned martial arts, so I wouldn't need to." He paused, then continued softly. "I have been very fortunate in that I have never had to kill anyone. I've drawn a pistol or rifle several times, fired at people a few times and wounded them, but usually I've been able to resolve most problems without firearms." Finn looked over at the rows of cages. "The most difficult thing I have ever had to do was to put down animals that were too badly injured to survive. It would have been cruel to let them linger in pain, but it wasn't something I enjoyed."
"I'm sorry. I know that must have been hard."
There was silence for a few minutes as both men finished their apples. People strolled by, but nobody stopped. Competing music from the stage shows and the carnival rides drifted in the warm air, punctuated by the occasional scream from the direction of the midway.
"You look like you have something on your mind, Ben." Finn slowly licked apple juice from his fingers.
Ben cursed as his hormones kicked in again unexpectedly. He had to look away for a moment and concentrate hard on cold showers; the thoughts of what it might be like to be the one licking those long fingers were clearly not suitable for public exposure. He took a sip of water, then cleared his throat.
"Sort of. I've been thinking how little I know about the forest, what you do, what sort of things happen there, and I was wondering... well, I know I don't have a lot of extra time, but I was wondering if there was something useful that I could do."
"Are you sure?" Finn tilted his head. "You haven't seemed terribly interested in the Keo up to now."
"Yes, sir, that's true." Ben looked down, digging around the gravel with the toe of one boot. "You once said you wanted to meet Myrna because you wanted to understand me better." He looked up, meeting Finn's gaze squarely. "I'd like to understand more about you, and it seems to me that learning more about the Keo would help."
Finn looked at Ben for a long moment before nodding. "Alright. A time-intensive position is obviously out, but there are quite a few part-time work or emergency response volunteer spots, such as search or flood teams." Finn rose to his feet. "Come over here."
They stepped next door to the Forest Service booth where one person in gray-green was still manning the tables. "Juan, have you got more of those brochures about the different volunteer jobs?" Finn took the proffered booklets and gave them to Ben. "Here, take a look through these. For the emergency response positions you should probably be checking with your employer since that sometimes involves short notice call-ups. If you find something you think you like, let me know and I can take you in to meet the Volunteer Coordinator next week."
"Thanks. I'll have something figured out by our session Wednesday morning."
"Sounds good. If I don't see you again here at the Roundup, we can talk then. Right now I need to be making another round, so I'll say good night."
"Yes, sir. I'll see you later."
§ Chapter Thirteen §
Ben sauntered into the kitchen. A tantalizing smell from the oven drew an appreciative "Mmmm."
"Cinnamon bread will be ready in a few minutes," said Jane as she set the table. "Tammy's already left for work."
"I'll get some milk and orange juice," offered Ben.
Rafa smiled shyly as she stirred oatmeal at the stove. She had arrived the day before; her personal possessions had been few, a small suitcase of clothes, a new laptop computer, a few dog-eared books. It had taken longer to unpack the gear for her horse than for herself. The Subaru had disgorged a saddle, blankets, halters, bridles, brushes and buckets, all of which had gone to the second-from-the-end stall now set aside for Celesta's straw, feed and tack.
Once the food was set out, they had a pleasant breakfast. Both Jane and Ben tried to make Rafa feel comfortable without being pushy. After the meal was finished, Ben cleared his throat.
"I have something for you, ma'am." Trying to be nonchalant, Ben pulled out his brand new checkbook and wrote out his first check. "A full month's rent and a little on the backlog, too."
"Well, would you look at that, check number 101. I was beginning to wonder if either you hadn't heard of that modern institution called a bank or you were just doing something shady off the books." Her tone was dry, but there was a twinkle in her eye.
A look of alarm crossed Rafa's face.
"That was a joke, dear," said Jane as she reached over to pat Rafa's hand reassuringly. "Ben was rather strapped for cash when he charmed his way into our little household back in March."
"That's an understatement." Ben rolled his eyes.
"But he has a real job now, and I get my money's worth of work around here." Jane stood up and patted Ben's shoulder. "Speaking of which, I've got to run over to the church and help organize the doings for Sunday, so why don't you make yourself useful and wash some dishes."
"Yes, ma'am, my pleasure." Ben drained the last of his juice and began clearing the table.
Jane put the check away in her accounts book, then paused in the doorway. "You going to be here Sunday?"
"Definitely, I'm not about to miss a free meal." Ben grinned. "I'm going over to Mr. Finn's place for a Tai Chi session this morning, so I'll ask him if I can change the time of the lesson for Sunday."
"Why don't you invite him along? Living all alone out there like that he might like some company for a change or a chance for some home cooking. He's big on helping animals, so make sure you tell him it's for the horse."
Ben raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. "Maybe I'll just do that."
An hour later Ben sat on Myrna for a long moment, helmet in hand, as he thought about Jane's parting words. He rubbed his free hand against his jeans, looked at Finn's house, then looked back down at Myrna.
"Well, dammit, what the hell are you so nervous about?" he muttered to himself. "It's not like you're asking the man out for a date." He snorted to help ease his tension. "And it's hardly likely you're going to be luring him off behind the compost heaps to ravish him. He'd probably bend you into a pretzel and stick you head first into the muck, then that would surely be the last you'd see of him." He looked back up, then reached down to pat Myrna. "Maybe I should just stick to talking about the forest work." He sighed. "Better be getting on with things."
He finally dismounted and headed for the usual rendezvous around the side of the small house, reminding himself to focus.
The two men began the now-familiar routine, starting with stretches and breathing, then working through various stances: Horse, Bow and Arrow, Empty, Drop, and Single Leg.
"Very good, Sidai. Now, run through each of them again. I will tell you when to change to the next."
"Good. Again. Concentrate on form and feeling it from the center of your body."
By the seventh non-stop repetition, Ben was feeling the strain. The work hadn't been particularly arduous physically, but holding each position precisely for an extended time was more difficult than the individual exercises he had been practicing.
"Stop. Hold the position."
Ben had just moved into the Bow stance, his front knee bent with most of his weight on it and his back foot at a 45 degree angle. He stayed still, looking forward, while Finn slowly circled around him. His shoulder twitched as he lost sight of his teacher and he was sure he was starting to develop a cramp in his front calf muscle. He fought the temptation to turn his head as Finn seemed to be taking his own sweet time behind him.
A hand suddenly descended on each of Ben's shoulders. Only the pressure pushing down kept Ben from jumping.
"You're tight as a drum, Sidai," came a low-voiced growl in Ben's right ear. "On every move you must be relaxed, centered in stillness."
"Yes, Sifu," Ben blew out a breath to keep from thinking of the warm body that practically pressed against his back, one leg touching his back knee.
"Stand up straight. We will work on the opening stance."
Straightening gratefully, Ben moved his feet shoulder-width apart and let his arms hang loosely at his sides. A thump on the back of his head reminded him to belatedly pull his chin in a bit.
"Remember, knees unlocked and keep your lower back relaxed and tucked under." Finn dug his thumbs into the small of his student's back, his fingers resting lightly on his sides. "Head up as if you are suspended from above. Breathe with your lower belly."
There was something a little lower than his belly button demanding Ben's attention as two large hands wrapped themselves around his waist, then pushed down and held a light pressure longer than usual. The breath from Finn's words in his ear made him glad he had worn his loosest jeans. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and forced himself to focus, a task made much easier when he felt Finn step away.
"Better. Close your eyes, stay relaxed and just work on breathing."
For several minutes Ben ignored everything about him, trying to stay centered, feeling his breath flowing into his nose and down to his belly, then letting it slowly release.
"Good. That's enough for today."
Ben took one last breath, opened his eyes, saw Finn standing in front of him. Ben bowed.
"Thank you, Sifu."
Finn bowed in turn.
"You are welcome, Sidai."
They moved to the table and sat down; Finn passed out his ubiquitous bottles, today with just plain water, as they relaxed for a few moments.
"Your stances are definitely improving, but you need to remember to stay relaxed. The purpose of repetition is to develop muscle memory, which will be very important as you begin actually working through the form."
"Could I ask when we will actually move on to something different?"
"Getting impatient, are we?" Finn smiled. "Or just bored?"
"Well..." Ben cocked his head as he looked down. "Maybe a little of both, I suppose."
"It's a slow process, but you can vary the routine. You're making good progress, so I think we might be able to start you on the initial sequence of the square form in the next week or two."
"That would be nice," said Ben. "I'll keep working on the conditioning, too. I'm starting to see some results from that, which is good." He grinned. "One of these days you won't find it quite so easy to run off and leave me in the dust."
"We'll be seeing about that, boyo," Finn said with a small grin of his own. "Meanwhile, I believe we've a few things to discuss today?"
"I looked at those brochures, and I did a little more research on the Keo web site," Ben replied. "I would like to sign up for the emergency response volunteers."
"You understand that can be some pretty hard work on very short notice?"
"Yes, sir. I've already talked to my boss, and he's agreed to the idea if there is a call during business hours. The brochure said you didn't have to come out every single time if you just can't make it, but I want to give it a try."
"We can always use more help, that's for certain. Alright, if that's what you really want to do, you can follow me to headquarters when we're finished and I'll take you in to meet the coordinator."
"Thanks. What else did you want to talk about?"
Finn leaned back and looked thoughtfully across the table. "I've been remiss in my poking," he said softly. "It's been a while since we discussed the issues that brought you here in the first place."
"Oh. I suppose so." Ben carefully studied a whorl in a plank of the wooden table, tracing the pattern with one fingertip. He hadn't been expecting this topic and detested the blush he could feel starting to creep up the back of his neck.
"Well? Did you try any of the exercises? Did you decide where to start with coming to terms with your past?"
"Umm.... " Ben licked his lower lip as he stared down. "I did try the bit about looking at myself in the mirror."
Finn lifted his head a bit and waited expectantly as the silence grew.
"It's just... I felt so stupid," Ben blurted out. "There was only me staring back. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be seeing."
"It is a very subjective thing to do," said Finn. "For some people, they can see into themselves, and they can start to envision themselves as the kind of person they want to try to be. For others, it just doesn't connect." He shrugged. "Did you try anything else?"
Slowly Ben rubbed his left forearm with the palm of his right hand. He took a long breath through slightly parted lips. "Not really." He sighed. "Especially after that vandalism at the university... it reminded me how hateful people can be." He finally glanced up. "I think I must have an awful lot buried inside. It hurts a lot when I try to think about it."
"Aye, it's not easy." Finn stood up and walked around the table. He put his left hand on Ben's right shoulder and gently squeezed. "You're the only one who can decide what will work for you, Ben, and you're the only one who can decide where you want to go with your life. If the pain is holding you back from who or what you're wanting to be, then you'll need to deal with it eventually. You may even want to be thinking about getting professional help."
"I know it's a problem." Ben sighed. "I'll keep working on it myself for a while, but I'll think about what you said if I get to a point where I can't handle it."
"Good boy." Finn slapped Ben on the shoulder. "I'll throw on a uniform and we can leave. When we get together on Sunday, we'll go for a nice long run to loosen up." He started walking toward the house.
"Sunday?" Ben muttered to himself. "Shit, I forgot about Sunday!" He stood up. "Wait a minute. I need to talk to you about that."
"About what?" Finn turned around and looked back.
"The schedule for Sunday." Ben launched into the tale of Jane's new boarder, the fire that had destroyed her home and family, and the church group's determination to build a corral for Rafa's horse. "The upshot is that Celesta is all the poor girl really has left. I've been promised they won't be doing any religious proselytizing, and they're going to have a pot luck barbecue. Jane thought you might like to come along; it's a good cause, and you don't have to bring anything if you want to help with the building part." He paused for breath, smiled tentatively. "So do you want to come?" He smiled a little more winningly. "They're good people, and it's a free home-cooked meal."
"Jane Brandon invited me?" Finn raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, sir, she did." Ben hesitated. "I sort of already promised I'd help, so I need to ask you if we can reschedule anyway."
"Do you want me to come?"
Ben couldn't read the neutral expression on Finn's face but decided to take a chance. "Yes, sir."
Finn cocked his head and looked steadily at Ben for a long moment. "Alright, I guess I could do that. What time?"
"They were planning on starting around ten."
"Ten it is, then." Finn turned and began to walk away. He turned his head, "I'll just be a minute. See you out front."
Ben moved Myrna to the side of the drive, then put on his jacket and helmet. It was only a few minutes before Finn came out dressed in a light green-gray uniform shirt, green pants over hiking boots and baseball style cap with a Forest Service patch. He carried his equipment belt in one hand, tossing it into the cab of the truck before climbing in and starting it.
The truck roared to life as Ben listened critically for a moment, nodding to himself before turning the key for Myrna. He followed Finn for twenty minutes until they pulled into a large asphalt parking lot in front of a dark green two-story building. A large sign welcomed them to the Keogami Forest district headquarters. Ben pulled into a slot next to the truck and parked.
Finn was buckling the wide belt as Ben joined him, settling the heavy weight on his hips. He shoved the cap backwards on his head with a grin, then clapped Ben on the shoulder.
"Come on. I'll take you in to meet Kim. Just don't let her talk you into more work than you'll have time for."
"Yes, sir." Ben smiled back, a little warm buzz tingling along his spine.
They went inside through a set of double doors. To the left was a broad staircase; next to that was a set of offices with restrooms in the far corner. To the right was a hallway and another set of offices and several cubicles lined the center back wall. Immediately in front of them was a long counter with two people manning visitor information stations. Smiles lit their faces when they saw Finn and he stopped to exchange a few pleasantries.
Finn led his companion to an office on the right side. A metal plaque above the open door read Kimberly Vanden, Volunteer Coordinator.
"Good morning, Kim. If you've got a minute, I brought someone to see you." Finn motioned Ben into the office.
"Always for you, Qui." A pleasant middle-aged woman in a red and white checked shirt and jeans stood up. A gleam lit her eyes as she looked at Ben.
"Hey, down woman," Finn laughed as he leaned against the door frame. "You look like a shark that just scented fresh meat."
Ben stood uncertainly for a moment as the woman advanced toward him and grabbed his hand in a firm handshake.
"Don't pay any attention to him," Kim said, throwing a mock scowl at Finn before turning a dazzling smile back on Ben. "You're here to sign up, I hope?"
Ben smiled back. "Yes, ma'am. I want to work with the emergency response group, please."
"Oh, Lordy." She perched on the edge of her desk in a fake swoon, hand on heart. "Qui, I don't where you found this one, but you simply must bring me another dozen just like him. Good heavens above, an actual gentleman." She sneaked in a quick ogle and sighed.
Ben flushed and shifted his feet.
"Now, now, this one's a friend of mine, so don't you be scaring him off." Finn waggled a finger in a mock warning which was spoiled by the smile tugging on the corners of his lips.
"Well, that's different, you should have said so in the first place." She patted Ben on the shoulder. "So what is your name, since your friend has all the manners of a bear in the woods?"
"Ben Kennan, ma'am."
"Kim, please." She sat back down at her desk and leaned back. "You're interested in the Emergency Response Team?"
"Yes, please. I read the brochures and your web site, and it sounds like something I could do. I work full-time, so that limits my time quite a bit as far as some of the other volunteer positions, but I've already talked to my boss and he is willing to let me try this."
"Good, at least you've done some homework. A lot of the work can be pretty demanding physically, especially things like filling sandbags if there is a flood, and it can mean being out in nasty weather for extended periods."
"I understand, and I don't have a problem with any of that."
"There is also a training requirement," Kim said. "A minimum of eight hours. We do a full session once a month, or you can do it in two shorter sessions. We give those every other week at various times. In a few months there will also be a session on winter weather survival you will need to attend."
Ben was about to answer when another ranger stepped in the door.
"What are you doing here, Finn?" he demanded.
"The last time I checked, I do still work here," Finn said mildly as he leaned against the doorframe again. "I was thinking it might be a good idea to turn in a timesheet so I can get paid."
"You need to make yourself scarce, man. Mack is looking for you and he is definitely not a happy camper."
"Well, that does seem to be a somewhat chronic state with him, doesn't it." Finn smiled, apparently unconcerned with the dire warning.
At that moment a low roar interrupted them.
"Yes, sir?" Finn straightened and turned toward the source of the disturbance.
"Get your sorry worthless ass in my office NOW!"
Ben took a step closer to the doorway to watch as Finn followed a black man across the central open area. The man was almost as tall as Finn but with broader shoulders that filled the sharply creased uniform shirt; his bald head reflected the overhead lights.
The two men disappeared into an office. The door slammed shut, revealing a wooden sign indicating the occupant was Mack Windham, District Ranger.
Ben retreated back into Kim's office. "Was that the ranger supervisor here?" asked Ben.
"Mack is THE District Ranger, head of the district, so yes, that sort of makes him in charge of everybody," Kim replied. "Although the law enforcement people actually have their own separate group and chain of command, Mack is the most visible person in our district so he tends to get the heat or the praise for things."
An unfortunate soul chose that moment to open the door to Mack's office, a stack of papers in his hand. An angry growl could be clearly heard.
"I cannot believe you gave a ticket to a SENATOR. What in the hell could you possibly have been thinking?"
"They were breaking the law, sir," was the calm response.
"That was not just a SEN A TOR, that was a SEN A TOR on the fucking appropriations committee!"
"I did give them a warning first, sir."
"Do you have any idea how long my ass got reamed out this morning by D.C. over a miserable two hundred dollar ticket? Not just my boss, or his boss, but fucking department headquarters in Washington, D.C.!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but the Senator chose to ignore the warning and made it quite clear they had no intention of complying with the inconvenience of the safety requirements."
"Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, you and your damned principles are going to get me fired one of these days -" The deluge changed direction. "What the hell do YOU want!"
The luckless clerk came flying back out of the office with papers clutched to his chest, the door slamming again behind him. He scuttled up the stairs, visibly shaking.
"Is Ranger Finn in a lot of trouble?" asked Ben as he sat down in the wooden chair next to Kim's desk.
"Don't worry about it. Normally Mack is fine, but Qui just rubs him the wrong way. They have one of those love-hate relationships. Mack loves it when Qui does something good like busting a drug runner or rescuing lost kids 'cause it makes the district look good. He hates it when Qui does things that Qui believes are in the best interest of the forest, regardless of who he pisses off," Kim said. She grinned as she dropped her voice into a fake growl, "Like giving a ticket to a SEN A TOR!"
Ben smiled but couldn't help looking uneasily back out the door.
"Hey, Qui's a big boy and that stuff just rolls off him like water off a duck," Kim said. "Let's get you finished." She dug a box out of her desk. "Here, have some cookies."
For the next fifteen minutes Ben nibbled on chocolate chip cookies as Kim took down information, filled out papers, presented consent and liability release statements for signature, and registered him for training sessions. When Finn came back in, they were standing next to the wall going over a large map of the forest as Kim pointed out some of the places they typically used as assembly areas for different types of contingencies.
"Turn around, Ranger Finn," Kim demanded.
Finn looked at her quizzically, but complied.
"Okay, just wanted to see if you had any ass left."
"There's still plenty to go around," Finn replied with a laugh. He snagged a couple of cookies. "How are we doing here?"
"Just about done." She returned to her desk to retrieve several papers, a booklet and a folded map. "These are your copies, Ben. Don't forget the training; we can't use you on any calls until the entire set is finished. If you need another map or you want to ask about anything, call me. Do you have any questions at the moment?"
"No, I think you covered things pretty thoroughly. I'm looking forward to this. Thanks for your help."
Kim came around the desk to shake Ben's hand. "Thank you for signing up. I hope you enjoy it."
"Appreciate you taking care of this, Kim. I'll see you around," said Finn. "Come on, Ben, I'll walk you out."
Kim waved as they headed back out to the parking lot.
Ben hesitated, but his curiosity got the better of him. "Are you really in trouble for giving a ticket to a senator?"
"You heard that part, huh?" Finn shook his head. "No, it was a legitimate ticket. It was a senator from back east trying to play big shot with some constituents and being an arsehole. I actually gave them two warnings, but he wanted to push it." He grinned. "I guess I don't respond well to being pushed in the wrong direction."
"That Windham was yelling at you a lot, though," persisted Ben. "Can he give you a bad performance rating or get you fired or anything like that?"
"You obviously don't know how the federal government works, Ben," said Finn with a laugh. "It takes a lot to fire a civil servant, and anyway my actual supervisor is the patrol commander, who works for the regional special-agent-in-charge. My boss is usually incredibly busy and understands that Mack is the one who generally gets the calls from the press or D.C., and neither of us mind if Mack wants to vent on me," his grin got wider, "especially if it saves my boss the trouble of having to yell at me."
"Oh." Ben rolled his lower lip between his teeth before continuing. "Does this sort of thing happen a lot?"
"Look, Ben, don't worry about it. We don't always see eye to eye on things, but Mack is alright. He's a bit of a bureaucrat and blows pretty hard sometimes, but he does some good work and truly cares about the forest." He shook his head. "His idea of revenge is to keep nagging me to apply for promotions so I'll have to spend more time behind a desk, but that will never happen."
"You don't want a promotion?" Ben blinked at this odd notion.
"Of course not. The money's not nearly worth having to give up being out in the Keo." He shrugged. "I'm more than happy to let people like Mack and my boss handle the paperwork and meetings and such." He poked Ben in the side. "There really are more important things in life than money, boyo."
"I'll take your word for it."
They reached the edge of the lot; Finn lounged against his truck as Ben put his papers away and shrugged into his jacket.
"You know, obviously I think this is a good thing you want to do, Ben, but if it doesn't work out, I don't want you to keep doing this just for my sake," Finn said.
"Hey, I haven't even been to my first class yet," Ben replied. "Why don't we wait and see how it goes?"
"Of course. I just want to make sure you know that I understand that most people don't feel the way I do about the Keo."
"I do." Ben gave a cheeky grin. "Of course, I haven't told you about my secret plans to get you aboard Myrna one of these days, Mr. Tree Hugger, and to teach you the difference between a carburetor and an alternator."
"Talk about hopeless causes," Finn laughed, shaking his head. "I'm lucky to be able to figure out where to put the gas in."
"Sounds like I've got a long-term project to work on." Ben pulled his helmet on. "See you Sunday." He started Myrna, then waved as he drove out.
It wasn't until he was halfway home that Ben realized that Finn had introduced him to Kim as his friend. He wondered if that was just being polite or if the man had actually meant it. That question stuck with him the rest of the day, but he never was able to answer it.
§ Chapter Fourteen §
Ben sipped his orange juice slowly, the Sunday comics spread on the table before him. He had been out for a short run and completed his garden chores earlier, had showered and changed, and was enjoying a leisurely light breakfast. The familiar aroma of recent fresh baking filled the air, mingling with the whisps of odors from the back yard generated by the solemn old man who had shown up at dawn to start several large chunks of meat to slow cooking in a 55 gallon drum smoker. He looked across the table at Rafa, who was toying with a small bowl of cereal, and smiled reassuringly. Tammy was out of town for the weekend, but had contributed packages of burgers and buns for the gathering.
A knock at the front door signaled the start of a stream of visitors. Some brought folding tables and chairs, three minivans discharged crews of workers, various pickups yielded bags of charcoal, coolers of food and drinks, portable grillers, and more workers and family members. Two stake trucks pulled up beyond the barn, loaded with lumber, tools and supplies.
In Ben's bemused eyes there seemed to be quite a large horde of people of all sorts, young and old, wandering about aimlessly. He stood in the door of the barn trying to figure out what he should be doing until Jane came up with a young brown-skinned man.
"Ben, this is Boris Mercado, our assistant pastor. Reverend Jenkins had another commitment so Boris is filling in to help keep things organized. Boris, this is Ben Kennan, one of my boarders."
The two men shook hands.
"Ben, you could help with the team working on the corral, if you don't mind. Boris, if you could keep track of the children, I'll work with the people doing the food prep and setup. Inside the barn there is a restroom and there's the guest powder room just past the kitchen."
"I remember the powder room from my last visit. I'll make sure none of the youngsters run amok in the house." He grinned. "I've got plenty of games in mind to help them burn off some energy."
"Thanks. I'm sure everyone will appreciate that. Ben, Tugger Gordon is heading up the work project. He's a foreman with one of the local construction companies: short man, brown shirt and blue jeans, red suspenders."
"I'll find him. Nice to have met you, Boris. Good luck with the children," Ben said as he turned to leave. He walked through the barn, past the restroom and office, three levels of small and medium cages on the left and larger cages and pens on the right, two stalls on each side at the end of the barn and overhead lofts along both walls. He slid apart the far double doors and went out.
The sun was bright and it took Ben's eyes a moment to adjust after the cool darkness of the barn. It was easy to find the man in charge; he was rapidly sorting people into smaller work crews several feet away. Ben went over to offer his services and was put on one of the teams digging the holes for posts.
A familiar voice caught Ben's attention and he turned to see Quilan Finn introducing himself. He was wearing jeans, a denim work shirt and his hiking boots. A large leather satchel hung from one hand, two handsaws with wooden blade guards strapped to the outside.
"Finn, huh?" Gordon looked the ranger up and down, nodded. "Good, I can always use somebody with his own tools. See Jordy over there; he's got the plan and measurements."
Ben was both disappointed and relieved that Finn would be on a different crew. It was always nice to have a chance to be close to the man he loved, but he had also been a little apprehensive about the fact that this was the first time Finn would be coming onto his home turf, so to speak. He didn't have time to think about it, however, as the foreman called everybody together for instructions.
"Listen up, people. First off, thanks for coming out. Our job today is to build a corral using wood posts and boards. We will build out incorporating this end of the barn, starting from the left corner," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "with the left side parallel to the dirt road, across the end, then back down parallel to the garden fence, leaving a ten foot clearance to the garden. The right side will dogleg down to within six feet of the dog runs and we'll close it off there. We'll be putting a roof over the dogleg bit, covering the area where the horse will come out, installing a couple of gates, and rehanging the internal and external doors to the end stall. The crew leaders know what needs to be done, so if you have any questions, just ask. Okay, let's hit it and get it."
The work went quickly over the next few hours. Tugger was everywhere, making sure lines stayed straight, post holes were the proper depth, and everybody got a chance to contribute without feeling overworked. Ben plugged away with his teammates, digging holes, pouring quickset concrete, helping place posts, and moving on to do it all again. Occasionally Ben would sneak a peek at the group of skilled workers where Finn seemed to have fit right in, turning the motley loads of donated lumber into correctly sized and smoothed planks.
"Time for a longer break, folks. It's getting hot out here, so everybody make sure you're drinking plenty of water."
Ben picked up two bottles of water from the coolers that had been set out on the tailgate of a pickup, then headed for the shade of the trees where he had seen Finn sitting with his satchel.
"Hey, glad you could make it," said Ben as he handed over one of the bottles.
"Thanks," Finn replied. "I'm glad I came. It's good to be getting out and doing some physical work." He finished cleaning a saw blade and applied a light coat of oil before putting the guard on. "You were right about the people. It's a good turnout and they seem to be genuinely happy about helping."
Before Ben could reply, Tugger Gordon came over.
"Quilan Finn, wasn't it?"
"Been watching you. You're damned good with the hand tools, nice clean work."
"Thanks. Power tools are nice, and I use them when I need to, but it's just not the same feel as doing it yourself." Finn nodded toward a group sprawled under another tree. "You've got some good people on your crew; it's been a pleasure working with them."
"Yeah, my boys and girls have been with me quite a while." Tugger glanced down. "That's kind of an unusual design. Mind if I take a look?"
Tugger checked out a hand plane and manual drill, then picked up a hammer and swung it several times, nodding appreciatively. "Beautiful balance. You could swing this all day without any trouble. Don't recognize this handle style, though."
"Had to make a new one a few years back when the old one finally gave out," Finn said. He took a sip of water. "My da was in the trades. We didn't have much, but he always insisted that good tools were worth the money and would stand you better in the long run." He nodded toward the satchel. "That's part of the set that was one of the few things I took when I left Ireland."
"He was right. Good solid tools are your friends for life." Tugger swung the hammer again before carefully placing it back. "You ever need a job, you come see me."
"Appreciate the offer." Finn smiled. "I think I'm good where I'm at for quite a while, though."
Tugger nodded, then turned away. "Ten more minutes, everybody, then back to work," he called out.
Ben wanted to ask questions about this interesting new tidbit of information, but Finn stood and stretched before he could start his queries.
"I think I'd better use the restroom before we start again," said Finn. He finished his water. "See you for lunch?"
The work crews reassembled, the enticing smells drifting from the back yard making them eager to get on with the job. All of the posts had been set and the gates hung during the morning, so much of the work consisted of lining up the planks and nailing them in. Finn had disappeared around the corner of the barn with the group putting up the roof over the side section, so Ben was surprised when a voice growled in his ear less than a half hour later.
"You waste too much energy, boy. Relax, center yourself, and work with the wood."
"I need to make sure I hit it straight." Ben stopped, hammer dangling from one hand.
"Focus on the point where the head meets the nail; let the energy flow and do the work." Finn grabbed his arm. "Here, face this way, shift your weight, and swing like this." Finn moved him slowly through the motions. "There, feel that?"
"I think so." Ben grinned. "Am I supposed to breathe from my stomach too, o learned one?"
"Of course." Finn stepped back. "Now stop being a smartass and let me see your swing."
With a grin still on his face, Ben took a moment to focus and get his breathing going, then hammered in three nails under Finn's critical eye.
"Relax your shoulder. You want a nice, efficient, easy swing."
Ben tried it again.
"Alright, I suppose that will have to do for today," was Finn's grudging approval. "Remember, focus and relax."
The rest of the work went smoothly and in a little over another hour everyone assembled in the middle of the finished structure. Jane and Boris had shepherded most of the rest of the group in, except for a few people manning the grills. Ben looked around; there must have been well over eighty people, men, women and children of all shapes and sizes. Rafa was standing between Boris and Jane; she was looking rather overwhelmed and Jane had put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"If I could have your attention!" Tugger cleared his throat. "The corral is finished, and I'd like to thank everyone who helped. It's a first-rate solid piece of work for a good cause that you can all be proud of."
There was a general round of applause and cheers.
"If I could say a few words also," said Boris. "On behalf of Miss Rafa, I too would like to thank everyone who came out to work and all those who have contributed materials, time and food. I know many of you are not formally members of our church, but it is a very good thing you have done today to help a new member of our community feel welcome after her recent loss of family and home."
More applause as Rafa snuggled closer into Jane's embrace and tried to smile.
"A brief moment of silence, please." Boris waited a few seconds as the group quieted. He bowed his head. "May the good Lord bless this home and bestow his blessings upon all who have gathered this day to enjoy your bounty. We thank you. Amen."
A round of solemn amens was murmured.
"Now that the work is done, let's eat!" Tugger roared.
That brought an even bigger cheer as people began streaming through the barn to the back yard. A veritable feast awaited the crowd: burgers, sausage and chicken fresh off the grill, corn on the cob, baked beans, Spanish rice, salads, enchiladas, fiesta casserole, veggie plates, melt-in-your-mouth brisket and pork, five kinds of chips, and a table chock-a-block with desserts.
A half hour later, Ben groaned as he leaned back on his elbows.
"God, I don't think I've eaten so much food in ages. And that home-made ice cream with jimmies was pisser."
"It was all so good I hardly knew where to start," Finn replied from his seat on the grass next to Ben. "Thanks for inviting me, Jane."
"Thank you for coming. The more hands to spread the work, the easier it goes for everybody." Jane was perched at the end of a picnic table with several older women who had adopted Rafa, clucking over her and trying to tempt her with tidbits.
"I'll think I'll have some more iced tea," said Finn as he rose gracefully to his feet. "Can I get those empty plates for you ladies?" Finn gathered used plates and other trash and carried everything to one of the big bags that had been set up. On his way back from refilling his plastic cup he was stopped by a little girl.
"Mister, my uncle says you're from Ireland. Is that for real?"
Finn looked down into the bright blue eyes. "It's been a long time, but yes, miss, I'm from Ireland."
The girl tugged on Finn's sleeve. "You got to come tell my friends 'cause they don't believe me." She tugged again. "Please?"
Finn looked over at Jane and Ben; Jane smiled and made a shooing gesture. "Sure." He took the child's hand and they headed toward a large group sitting in the shade under a large tree.
Ben rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. The sun was warm, he was full of good food and good feelings. He looked sleepily around; Jane was chatting with her friends and had gotten Rafa to smile, there were assorted groups sitting under trees or at tables talking and nibbling, at one of the folding tables a lively card game was going, and outside the fence a group of teenagers were tossing Frisbees. He smiled as he saw Dexy and Delilah sprawled in a corner of the yard; they had had a busy day keeping order and now lay sleeping with three of the youngest children entangled with them in slumber. Just inside the shade of the barn, there was a small group of older teenagers with electronic game devices.
For quite a while Ben simply enjoyed himself by people-watching, but his attention inevitably shifted to watching one person in particular. The group around Finn had grown larger and the children had coaxed him into telling stories of Irish history. They were close enough that Ben could hear most of the tales of failed revolutions and fallen heroes; the soft brogue enchanted him as always and gradually filled him with a sweet sadness.
Eyes half-closed, the lilt and flow of the deceptively enticing words drew Ben's thoughts back to a different time, to a different man who used the power of language to fire the fevered imaginations of boys striving to be men. He realized that it had been quite some time since he had thought of Neal Delaney, but somehow it didn't seem to matter.
"A penny for your thoughts." Jane sat down on the grass beside Ben. "Your friend seems to be quite a weaver of words."
"He does indeed." Ben smiled briefly in remembrance, but his mien quickly turned a bit melancholy. "He reminds me of another man I once knew. He was an exchange instructor from Ireland when I was in high school; he had that touch of exotic mystery that had us all dreaming of brave adventures. Most of us even memorized bits of poetry that reminded us of him." He narrowed his eyes as he searched his memory, then gave a half-smile of triumph. "Here's one that could apply to Finn just as well. It's from a piece a called St. John's Eve by a minor Irish poet of the nineteenth century named Charles Kickham." Ben looked at Finn as he softly recited:
The wayside shepherd on the height
Waits our approach, nor seems to heed
His vagrant flock ihrong out of sight-
Adown the winding road they speed.
Deep learn'd was he in Gaelic lore,
And loved to talk of days gone by;
(A saddening theme, those days of yore!)
And still he turned with sparkling eye
From Druid rites and Christian fane,
From champion bold and monarch grand,
To tell of fray and foray when
His sires were princes in the land.
"How romantic," sighed Jane. "I could picture him on a moonlit hillside, standing there in rough woolens, shepherd's crook in hand."
"Ah, it was just silly teenage stuff," Ben snorted as he looked sideways at Jane. "Pretty embarrassing, really, when I think back."
"Romance is never silly, but it can take different flavors when you get older." Jane smiled wistfully as if recalling memories of her own.
"Looks like the party is breaking up," said Ben. He watched as Finn shook his head gently, then stood up and came their way.
The sound of a horn beeping turned everyone's heads. A dusty pickup truck pulling a horse trailer stopped next to the barn and beeped once more. People began walking toward the newcomers as a man in black jeans and a short-sleeved black shirt got down from the passenger side, the sun glinting off silver hair.
As Ben got closer, he saw the clerical collar as a slender figure brushed past him and climbed over the fence.
"Father Joe!" called Rafa, a big smile on her face. "What are you doing here?"
"Just looking after a couple of my lost lambs, my child."
"But I have joined the church here, Father. I don't understand."
"I have one last obligation to your parents to fulfill."
Jane stepped up. "You must be Father Joseph." She held out her hand. "I'm Jane Brandon." She pointed to Boris. "And this is Boris Mercado, our assistant pastor."
"A pleasure to meet both of you, and to know that our Rafa is in such good hands."
"Goodness, where are my manners?" Rafa turned around. "Please, everybody, I would you like to meet Father Joseph, from my home town. He has been a good friend to my family for many years."
There were murmurs of welcome.
"Thank you," the priest said loudly, "Reverend Jenkins has told me how wonderfully you have been taking care of our Rafa, and I thank you very much for your kindness."
A loud thump from the horse trailer interrupted whatever the father's next words might have been. A young man in jeans and a white t-shirt stuck his head around the end of the trailer.
"Your lamb is very tired of being cooped up and wants out," he said dryly. "So can we dispense with the words and get on with it?"
"Jessie! You brought her!" Rafa ran to the side of the trailer and hoisted herself up. "Celesta, it's really you!"
The young man unlocked the back of the trailer and dropped the door down to form a ramp. Rafa went inside and within seconds a clatter of hooves marked the emergence of the back end of a horse.
There was a chorus of 'oohs' and 'how pretty' as a young Appaloosa mare came prancing out. She was jet black with a blaze of white down her face; a large ivory blanket across her hindquarters was flecked with spatters of black.
The light of love shone from Rafa's face as she led her friend over by the crowd, one hand on the rope attached to her halter. "This is Celesta." She lightly tapped the horse's front shoulder. "Say hello to everybody." Celesta gracefully extended one leg and bowed down, held the pose for a moment, then straightened and tossed her head.
There was delighted laughter from the children and smiles from the adults.
"She is probably tired from the trip," said Father Joseph. "Perhaps she might like to see her new home?"
"I suppose so." Celesta nudged Rafa as if in agreement. "Alright, we're going." She laughed as she led the way to the corral.
An hour later the last visitors were packing away the leftover food, tables, chairs and supplies. Rafa had made the rounds to thank everyone and then returned to the barn to fuss over Celesta.
"That was a great job, Tugger," said Jane. She shook his hand as they stood just outside the fence.
"We had a good bunch of folks that made it possible. Some damned good food, too." Tugger leaned in a bit. "You'll make sure to tell Zinny, right?"
"Of course I will. You tell her I said hello and hope she gets to feeling better."
"You bet. Take care." Tugger swung up into the last truck and drove off.
Jane, Ben and Finn walked back into the back yard and sat at the picnic table.
"What was all that about?" asked Ben.
"Well, Tugger is a good man but he won't normally come within a mile of a church. His wife is in our community support club, though, and when I told Zinny about Rafa she wanted to help, but she's laid up with a broken leg." Jane smiled. "Rumor has it that she threatened to withhold certain, shall we say, marital affections if Tugger wouldn't help."
Finn laughed. "Saints preserve us poor helpless menfolk from devious women."
Jane and Finn chatted easily for several minutes. Ben sat and watched, mostly silent as he nibbled on some leftover carrot sticks. Some of his earlier good mood was deflated by a prick of jealousy at how well the other two seemed to be getting on. Although intellectually he knew that the feeling was quite irrational and totally unjustified, he'd had a vague thought that he might have Finn to himself after the work was finished, and his emotions were proving quite immune to rationality.
"I have to say that is quite a remarkably large garden you have, Jane," said Finn. "It seems to be coming up very nicely."
"It did end up a sight bigger than we had planned when we first laid it out years ago, but it gives plenty of room to rotate different types of plants every year," Jane replied. "We put down a goodly load of fertilizer in the spring before planting, and I keep a couple of different compost heaps going so I have piles ready for spring, midsummer and fall." She turned to Ben. "Which reminds me, the old one is about ready and we'll need to be turning the new one later this week."
"Yes, ma'am." Ben's tone was polite but not terribly enthusiastic.
"Ben told me he was helping out with the garden." Finn leaned in with a grin. "Has he managed to find his way around the weeds yet?"
"That is not funny," Ben interjected. He scowled. "It's not my fault all those damned green things look alike to me."
Jane patted Ben's arm. "That's alright, son, I'll keep showing you until you get it figured out." She stood up and stretched. "Thank you again for coming out to help, Qui. I need to be clearing up my kitchen, so I'll leave you two to it."
The two men both stood up.
"My pleasure," said Finn. He watched until Jane was in the house, then turned to Ben.
"So, you have enough energy left to show me how you're doing on your stances, boyo?"
Ben's face brightened. "Yes, sir."
"Shall we begin, Sidai?"
They bowed, then went through several stretches.
"I will call out a stance, then you will hold it until I tell you to either stop or move to another stance. Any questions?"
"Assume the starting position."
While Ben relaxed into the initial standing pose, Finn pulled off his denim shirt to reveal a gray tank top. He perched on a picnic table, left hand on one thigh, right elbow on the other. For the next half hour Finn watched critically, occasionally calling out instructions or criticisms, as Ben worked through the exercises.
"Stand and relax."
Finn hopped off the table and walked around Ben twice, finally stopping in front of him.
"Good. That's all for now."
"Thank you, Sifu."
"You are welcome, Sidai."
They bowed to complete their ritual.
"You've come along quite well. I think you're ready to move on to the square form when we get together Wednesday afternoon."
"I'll be looking forward to it." Ben grinned. "It will give me something to think about when I'm pulling weeds."
"I'm sure Jane will give you something else to think about if you don't concentrate on pulling the right things." Finn smiled as he shrugged back into his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned in the still warmth of the evening. "It's been a long day, so I think I'd better be getting back home."
"Thanks for coming out. I'll walk you around to the dooryard," Ben said as they headed through the gate and toward Finn's vehicle.
"It was a good day, nice people, great food and a worthwhile project. I'm glad I came." Finn climbed into his truck and started it. "Until Wednesday then."
"Right. See you."
Ben stood watching for quite a while after the old truck was out of sight. He was pleased that Finn had spent so much time here and heartened by the encouraging news of his progress in Tai Chi, but couldn't help feeling ashamed of his earlier feelings of jealousy when Finn seemed so happy being in Jane's company.
"I guess that's something else to add to the list of things I've got to work on," he muttered to himself before he finally sighed and turned away.