Authors: Patric Michael
Tags: #m/m romance
For Taylor Lochland,
who caught me a clue
just in the nick of time.
The Santa Mug
stared at the contents of his refrigerator for a long moment and then shut the door with a sigh. He glanced across the kitchen at the calendar, though he knew perfectly well what day it was. With another sigh, more felt than heard, Darren opened the refrigerator again and took out a beer. He pulled the tab, not particularly caring that it foamed over his hand and splashed the floor. He let the door swing closed of its own accord, also not caring whether it did so or not, and took his beer, dinner for tonight at least, into the living room to watch TV.
* * *
phone rang, jolting Darren out of his doze. On the TV screen, Jimmy Stewart was crowing his yearly nonsense about rose petals.
“Fuck you, Jimmy,” Darren muttered.
The phone rang again, and Darren struggled to remember where he put the damn thing. He found it beneath an old newspaper and flipped it open.
“Hey, Darren, it’s Max. You got a minute?”
Shit. Max. The last person in the world he wanted to talk to right now. Why hadn’t he bothered to check caller ID?
“Um, sure Max. What’s up?”
“You okay, man? You sound sort of funny.”
“Yeah, I’m good. I fell asleep on the couch. What’s going on?” Darren lifted his beer can, felt the emptiness of it and groaned silently.
“Hey, listen. I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”
Darren went back to the kitchen for another beer and crooked the phone against his shoulder while he opened it. “What kind of favor?” Deep suspicion tinged his voice. A not particularly unwarranted suspicion, given the circumstances.
“Well….” Max hesitated, cleared his throat, and began again. “I was wondering if you… Maybe if you would—”
“Just spill it, Max.”
“Would you come with me to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving?”
Of all the possible things Max might have said, might have asked for, that had to be the very last thing Darren would ever have expected.
Max. Maxwell Alton Torreigne.
A friend of the most casual sort for years, Max was a fixture as common as water and as comfortable as an old slipper. Max was who you called when you felt like seeing a movie or a game and didn’t want to go alone, knowing there were no strings attached. Max was the one you called for a ride when you got too drunk. You could rely on Max. He was dependable.
He was not, however, someone you spent a holiday with, and most especially not a holiday at the ’rents house. Was he?
For a moment, Darren had an irrational urge to stick his head out the kitchen window and howl with laughter.
“Darren? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Did you say Thanksgiving, at your parents’ house?”
“Oh. Yeah. I’m sorry. You probably already have plans. I should have realized.” Max paused for the briefest instant. “My bad.”
“No, no, Max. I don’t have
plans as a matter of fact. You just surprised me, is all. What’s this all about?”
“I don’t know. Well, I do, actually. I haven’t been home in almost six years, and Ma’s been getting more and more insistent, constantly e-mailing me about what the family’s been up to, and this is the first year they’ve all gotten time off together, and so on.” Max sighed audibly. “I kind of wish they never got that damned computer. Ma’s like some kind of e-mail fiend.” His tone brightened, and he continued, “Anyway, I’m thinking that with the thundering horde, also known as my brothers and sisters, all paired off, according to Ma, I’d be the odd man out. I guess I was hoping you’d come with, so I didn’t have to deal with all of them giving me ‘the look’. You know the kind I mean.”
“Wait a minute,” Darren said. “You want me to come as your
“Oh, hell, no!” Max sounded truly amused. “I was thinking more as my bodyguard.”
Darren laughed, vaguely surprised by his own reaction. He could feel sadness lurking beneath the surface, but for that brief moment, the laughter won.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have again?”
“Just five, actually, but no matter how old I get, I’ll always be the baby, you know?”
“Not really,” Darren said. “I was an only child.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I forgot.” Max sounded chagrined.
Darren laughed again. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, Max. Lots of people don’t have siblings, and we do manage, after all.”
“Yeah, I know. But….”
“Don’t worry about it. What do you want me to bring?”
“You’ll do it? Really?” Now Max sounded surprised, as though he hadn’t really expected Darren to agree.
“Yes, really. Are we driving or flying?”
“Driving, and I’ll do it. I know how you are behind the wheel.”
“Smartass. I’ll buy the gas then.” Darren looked at the beer in his hand and took a drink. Somehow, it didn’t seem all that appealing anymore.
“No way. It’s all on me. I was looking at spending a few days there, though. I’ve got two weeks off, so I thought I would play it against whatever time you could get.”
“I can do a week, probably,” Darren said. “How far away are they, again?”
“Just a day if the roads stay clear. Four hundred miles and change.” Max laughed ruefully. “Sometimes even that doesn’t seem far enough away.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine,” Darren said. His voice held a note Max caught easily.
“Oh, shit, Darren. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Don’t worry about it, man. They made their choice. Up to me to live with it.”
“Yeah, I know. You said that before, but can I ask you something?” Max paused for a moment. “You really did sound sort of funny.”
“Sure,” Darren said. “Ask me anything.”
“Are you? Are you living with it? I know what time of year this is for you.”
Anything but that
, Darren thought. “I get by, Max. I always do.”
“Yeah, sure, but if you ever want company while you get by, call me, okay?”
“I’ve got you on speed dial, baby.” Darren said.
“And you’ve got a broken finger, apparently.” Max replied without missing a beat. “Seriously, if you need to talk….” He let the words trail off.
“Then I’ll dial with my toes. Now enough of this maudlin shit. When are you coming to get me?”
“If you can get a week, how about Tuesday morning, say about five-thirty?”
“Five-thirty! Isn’t that a bit early? You know I’m not coherent until at least eleven.”
“I know,” Max said. “But I don’t want to get there in the middle of the night.”
Darren sighed. “All right, but you bring the coffee if you want me to be even remotely functional.”
“I’ll bring the coffee,” Max said. “You bring a pillow.”
“I’ll do that. Want me to bring anything else?”
“Nope. Just your handsome self. And Darren? Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem. I haven’t been on a road trip in ages.”
Max laughed. “We’ll have fun. I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
“All right, Max. If you say so.” Darren sounded dubious.
“Really, it’ll be fun. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“’K’, bye.” Darren closed the phone and stared at the beer can still in his hand.
The question is: do I really
to have fun?
pulled the car into a rest stop, one of the last before they reached their destination. Darren opened one eye and peered into the growing gloom. “What, again? You must have the storage capacity of a thimble.”
“Oh, ain’t you the funny one today,” Max said. “I just want to clean up a bit. We’re almost there.”
“Are we? Jeez, I’m sorry. I slept most of the way.”
“Must have needed it,” Max said. “Want to come with?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.” Darren sat up and tossed his pillow into the back seat. “I’ll just keep watch out here and honk if any likely trolls show up.”
Max froze, caught in the act of opening the car door. The dome light overhead illuminated his surprise. “That’s just nasty, you know? Sometimes I wonder about you.” Despite the severity of his words, his tone held nothing but laughter.
“You have no idea, baby. No idea at all.”
“Maybe not, but I’m beginning to suspect.” Max got out of the car. “I’ll be right back.”
“One honk for yes, and two for no,” Darren said, just as the door closed. Max turned and grinned, shaking his head, and disappeared behind the stone-fronted modesty screen.
After a moment, Darren also got out, stretching his long legs and groaning at the tingly pleasure-pain he felt. He stared up at the deepening sky and wondered, not for the first time since their trip began, if he was doing the right thing. The sane thing. Low on the horizon, barely above the busy interstate and the trees beyond, the first of the evening stars glittered in the chill air.
Once, when the world was a nicer place, Darren watched those same stars come out, wrapped in an embrace….
“No.” Darren whispered, his breath a mere wisp of fog upon the cold evening air.
Darren whirled to find a man standing just to his left, waiting with a patient smile on his face. He was perhaps thirty, give-or-take, and wore a plain wool coat. His hands were buried deep in its pockets.
“What did you say?” Darren said, startled.
“This is my car.” The man nodded to the white Chevrolet next to Darren. “I rather wanted to get back into it, but you looked so lost in thought I didn’t want to disturb you, except that it’s getting colder—”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.” Darren stepped up onto the sidewalk, giving the man room. “Sorry.”
“Not a problem,” the man said as he chirped his key fob alarm and opened the door. “You know, if you don’t mind my saying so, whoever he is, I bet he misses you too.” He got into his car and shut the door. Darren lost his face behind the glare of the overhead street lamps reflected in the Chevy’s windshield. The engine started, and in moments the car, and the man, were gone.
“Everything cool?” Max’s voice startled Darren again, and he jumped.
“Jeez, Max. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I wasn’t sneaking anywhere,” Max said easily. “Who was that guy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if we get a move on, we can just make dinner. You hungry?”
Darren nodded absently, staring at the exit where the white car had disappeared.
“Well, hop in then.”
Darren shook himself and smiled. “Sorry. I guess I zoned for a bit.” He opened the car door and got in. “How much longer?”
“About an hour,” Max said as he pulled his door shut. “Maybe a bit longer. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Never better,” Darren said. “Are we there yet, Daddy?”
Max grinned and drove back out onto the freeway. They rode for perhaps forty-five minutes in silence when Darren sighed. “I was thinking about Marlon.”
Max gripped the steering wheel a little harder, but his voice remained calm. Even after four years, Marlon was still a taboo subject. “Oh, really?”
“That guy. In the white car. I was thinking about Marlon, and that guy says, ‘He misses you too.’ What in the hell is that supposed to mean, Max?”
Max remained silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke, regret cushioned his words to a gentle whisper. “I don’t know, buddy. Maybe it was just coincidence.”
“Maybe. It was weird though.”
Max laid a hand on Darren’s leg. “Do you want to talk about him?”
Darren looked at the hand on his leg, more felt than seen in the darkness. Max’s hand. Comfortable, dependable Max. He covered it with his own for a moment and then gently removed it. “Maybe someday, but not right now, okay? It’s too easy to get lost in the dark.”
“Not if I’m driving.” Max said, his voice perfectly serious.
Darren laughed. The sound was weak, but it was a laugh nonetheless. “Asshole.”
“Hungry asshole. Would you grab my phone? It’s in the pocket of my jacket in the back seat.”
Darren felt around amongst the jumble of luggage until he found Max’s phone and handed it over.
Max slid it open and jabbed at the numbers, trying to keep one eye on the road.
“Give,” Darren said, plucking the device from Max’s hand. “I want to get there alive, thank you.” He cleared the screen and dialed the numbers Max gave him. When the line began to ring, he handed the phone back.
“Hey Ma,” Max said after a moment. “Yeah. We’re about twenty minutes out. Did we miss dinner?”
Darren let Max’s voice wash over him as he laid his head against the cool glass and wondered, for the hundredth time, what his own mother was doing.
“You must be Darren. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The short, plump woman took Darren’s hand and shook it with a grip nearly as strong as his own.
“Hi, Mrs. Torreigne. Thank you for having me.” Darren drew his hand back, somewhat gingerly.
Max’s mother snorted delicately. “Please, call me Emily.” She peered up at Darren. “Otherwise I might start to feel old.”