Burying the Hatchet
A.C. Thomas © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The smell of the farm hit Clayton before the trees came into view. The cloying pine sap, thick and rich; the mossy, damp darkness of soil and stone. A bright nip of hay. The faintest, ever-present hint of cinnamon.
It smelled like the holidays. It smelled like his childhood.
He blinked away the threat of tears, thanked his driver for helping unload his luggage, and stood gazing up at the white clapboard farmhouse with the handle of his rolling suitcase clenched in his fist.
It clunk-clunk-clunked up the steps to the porch like a knock on the door.
The key stuck in the lock until Clayton remembered he had to push against the heavy wooden door to get it to catch, the creaking from his memories gone now, hinges apparently oiled.
Since when had his Ma bothered with the hinges? She used to let little things like that go on forever until they were just a part of the farm.
Atmosphere, she’d say with a wink.
The house was dark, of course.
Mail lay scattered on the long trestle dining table, as if Ma had just come in the door and tossed it down to deal with in a minute.
Clayton would handle that later.
He went into the kitchen, flicking on the light and revealing the sink clear of dishes. He opened the refrigerator to find someone had cleaned it out.
A postcard Clayton had sent home two years ago was pinned to the refrigerator door with a magnet shaped like a Christmas tree right next to the college graduation portrait of him smiling brightly beneath his cap.
Someone had been here to clean up before Clayton arrived, sometime in the three days since Ma had been taken to the hospital.
Clayton had gone straight there from the airport, luggage in hand and heart in his throat, and looked in on Ma in the last visiting hour. The nurse on duty had confided he was the first family to visit, which came as no surprise. They had no other family.
He wondered who would have cleaned the house, then.
It was surreal to be home without her there.
Nothing moved in the house. Nobody was singing or muttering or cursing at a stubborn latch on the door.
And the most startling thing of all was the lack of decoration. Before Clayton had gone away for college and never come back, Ma had started decorating the very second she cleared Thanksgiving dinner from the table.
Here they were a week into December, and nothing was up. Not a pine bough or fairy light to be seen. Not a single snowman or Santa lining the shelves.
It made a strange, shivering cold clench in his chest to see it.
Something outside fell with a muffled thud from the direction of the barn, and Clayton left his suitcase in the kitchen to go out onto the porch and investigate.
It was dark outside, but at this distance from the city, the sky was clear and bright, starlight sprinkling highlights over the tops of the even rows of trees stretching as far as the eye could see.
Sparkling across the thin layer of fluffy white snow. This far up the mountain, they always got snow by Christmas.
Clayton tightened his scarf and walked off the porch, headed toward the square, or what Ma called the large open area in front of the barn. They held the tree farm’s annual Christmas Jubilee there, drawing in their biggest profits of the year.
Crates were already stacked in preparation for the massive undertaking of decorating the square. Thousands of lights and wooden figures would transform it into a winter wonderland for families to visit and spend their money while they picked out their trees.
He leaned over one to inspect the label, neatly written in Ma’s sloping hand. This one read Village Shops and Post Office, with Snowmen crossed out below that.
He was about to read the next one when a voice rang out across the square.
Clayton spun in place to find the figure of his teenage fears and fantasies standing in the snow, casting a shadow nearly as big as the barn.
Jake freaking Carver.
He was bigger now, impossibly. Clayton hadn’t thought a man could get any bigger, but. Well. Just look at him.
Apparently Carhartt had a “biggest and tallest” department, judging from the battered denim work jacket hanging open over the plaid of Jake’s signature flannel.
And when had he grown a beard? The dense black hair trimmed close to his face had a rougher texture than the dark curls escaping his green knit cap.
Clayton had a brief moment of insanity, undoubtedly brought on by stress, wondering what that beard would feel like against his skin.
Jet lag, probably. He’d feel clearer in the morning. Less prone to stupid, self-destructive thoughts.
Jake was watching him like Clayton was the surprise, like he couldn’t believe his eyes. Like Clayton might disappear if he blinked or moved.
Clayton threw his arms out with exasperation, his building grief instantly channeled into irritation with an outlet right in front of him.
“You still work here? Of course, you do. This is a living nightmare. Besides, who better to sell trees than a man the size of an actual tree?”
Jake still hadn’t moved, frozen in place like he was one of the trees in question, his massive hand closed around the axe dangling at his side.
Clayton would price him in the highest bracket, with that height and breadth. He was a supreme deluxe pine, extra thick.
Jake’s eyes glinted in the porch light, the hazel bright against his rich umber skin. Clayton used to fantasize about seeing his own pale, skinny fingers spread against that skin in startling contrast, though it would have been more realistic to imagine the contrast of Jake’s fist against his face.
That would also have been startling, for all it used to seem inevitable. Clayton was still surprised they had never come to blows.
Jake had preferred to peck away at him in little, infuriating ways until Clayton felt as small as a mouse.
He stepped onto the square, still studying Clayton as though he was expecting him to evaporate into a flurry of snow and blow away down the mountain.
“When did you get home?”
The lump in Clayton’s throat turned to searing, awful laughter, spilling out onto the square with an ugly, echoing sound.
“Home? Oh, no no no. This patch of evergreen purgatory is no longer my home, thank you. Home is a loft apartment in Chicago with floor-to-ceiling windows and absolutely. No. Trees.”
A smile tipped the edges of Jake’s mouth upward, axe-head absently tapping against his leg. “Good to see the big city couldn’t make you forget your roots.”
Clayton’s groan originated in the soles of his feet, dragging every ounce of irritation up with it as it exited his mouth.
“Was that a tree pun? You know what? Screw this. Why don’t you take that axe in your hand and go ahead and Marie Antoinette my head from my body because I cannot do this with you.”
Jake shifted the axe in his grip as if he was considering taking Clayton at his word. It sent a familiar thrill of fear down Clayton’s spine, dropping him straight to the memory of cold metal lockers at his back as Jake Carver and the rest of the football team knocked his books to the floor beneath a flood of jeering laughter.
Anger bubbled up Clayton’s spine and trickled down to his fingers, rolling them into fists at his side.
He surveyed Jake up and down like he was examining wood rot, lip lifted in a sneer.
“Actually, Carver? You don’t work here, because you’re fired.”
Jake didn’t move except to brush his thumb over the handle of his axe. A small, very dumb part of Clayton was suddenly jealous of the axe.
God, he was still stupidly gorgeous. Like a statue of Hercules carved from mahogany, only twice as beautiful.
And twice as mean.
Jake tilted his head to the side, voice soft and deep as blackstrap molasses.
Clayton nodded, crossing his arms over his narrow chest and staring him down. Jake nodded back, rubbing his hand over his lips before turning and throwing the axe with a fluid movement, burying the blade deep into a stump.
Clayton jumped, muffling a squeak at the burst of violent motion.
Jake jerked his head at the axe, hands buried in his jacket pockets, shoulders lifted against the cold.
“Alright. Go get it.”
Like he was the one giving orders. Like Clayton had come home to Jake’s family farm instead of his own. Like Clayton would ever listen to anything coming out of his idiotic, perfect mouth.
Jake used one of his pocketed hands to point at the axe, jacket swinging open with the movement to reveal more of a seemingly endless sea of plaid underneath.
“That’s an expensive axe. Can’t leave it out here; it’ll rust. So, go get it.”
Clayton rolled his eyes and stomped over to the stump, wrapped his hand around the axe, and pulled.
It didn’t budge.
He tried it with both hands, bracing his foot against the wood, grunting and straining like he was trying to pull a sword from a stone and had been found unworthy.
Broad fingers wrapped around the handle just above his, callouses rasping over Clayton’s skin.
Jake pulled the blade out with one hard yank, Clayton stumbling along with it to fall against his chest.
It was like hitting a brick wall covered in flannel, if the bricks were warm and fragrant of pine.
Jake rested the axe over his shoulder, looking for all the world like a pornographic depiction of Paul Bunyan.
Okay, maybe he just looked that way to Clayton, but, still. Come on. Was that really necessary? No, it wasn’t.
Jake looked down at Clayton’s hands, still braced against his chest. Clayton yanked them away, stepping back several paces for good measure.
Jake used the blunt side of the axe to gesture first out at the rows of trees waiting to be cut and then down at Clayton.
“You need me.”
Clayton wanted to bristle like a cat, dirty-blond hair standing up on end as he hissed and spat and scratched.
Instead, he tightened his mouth like a schoolmarm, voice dripping with disdain.
“I most certainly do not.”
Jake didn’t seem that put out for somebody who’d just gotten fired, lips twitching like he’d remembered something funny.
“This is a tree farm; you can’t run it without muscle. And you won’t find another to work for my wages.”
Clayton leaned back in an exaggerated, entirely accurate depiction of his annoyance, yelling at the twinkling night sky before turning back to Jake to find him irritatingly amused by his dramatics.
“Ugh, fine. You’re rehired. Congratulations. Go cut down some trees and get out of my sight.” He stalked across the square to head back to the house, heavy footsteps echoing against the front of the closed barn.
Jake followed. “It’s not cutting time. Workday’s finished.”
Clay waved his hand behind himself, determined to get back in the house to search for Ma’s hidden bottle of wine. It was definitely that kind of night. “Okay, well, go do whatever thing it’s time for, then. I don’t care as long as you’re gone.”
Jake’s footsteps stopped, the axe clinking against the ground as he grunted loudly, and okay, Clayton was going to turn around to watch whatever caused him to make that sound.
He was stacking crates, carefully checking the labels before organizing them into three distinct groups.
Clayton watched him for a totally normal, absolutely casual amount of time. Jake grunted every time he moved a crate, so. It was a decently long time.
Jet lag. Definitely jet lag.
Clayton shook himself out of his trance and checked his watch, reading 8 p.m. He called out to Jake, who didn’t pause in carrying a crate over to the farthest pile.
“Didn’t you just say your workday was through?”
Jake dropped the crate and raised his arms over his head to stretch, his body making a long, taut line. It was maybe thirty degrees out, and Clayton started sweating under the collar.
“Yep. But there won’t be anybody to help me do it tomorrow, so I might as well get as much done as I can tonight. We’re already running behind schedule.”
That didn’t sound right. This wasn’t how things were run back when Clayton was living at home.
“What about Mr. Bernard? Isn’t he still working here?”
Jake turned to look at Clayton like he was shy of a few barrels.
“Bernard turned sixty-five last year, Clay. I won’t have him fetching and carrying. He just runs the gate now and helps with the planting off-season.”
That was news to him. For the first time, Clayton started to seriously ponder the longevity of NorthStar tree farm.
“So you’re basically telling me you run the farm singlehandedly?”
Jake had gone back to moving crates, all three groups now neatly, evenly stacked.
“Me and your ma, yeah. We usually hire a few hands for the season, but things are a little lean this year.”
The sound of his mother’s name on Jake’s lips raised Clayton’s hackles, voice snapping out like a whip.
“Well, it’s going to be just you and me now. Ma isn’t running much from a hospital bed.”
Jake flinched as though Clayton had slapped him, mouth pinched with sadness at the corners. He turned and gripped onto the edge of a crate, level with his shoulders, head hanging down.
“No, guess she’s not.”
That lump was back in Clayton’s throat even heavier than it had been before. He dropped the edge from his voice, speaking softly at Jake’s curved back.
“Don’t worry; I’m just here for the Jubilee. You’ve been running things just fine without me the rest of the year.”
Jake pushed off from the crate, picked up the axe, and rested it back on his shoulder. He didn’t turn around.
“Seems that way.”
Clayton held on to his scarf, starting to think about that wine again. He was going to have to do something just to get some sleep. Hopefully without resurrecting any of his old, embarrassing dreams starring Jake Carver.
“Why don’t you head home for the day? I’ll come out to help you with this in the morning.”
Jake crossed half the distance between them, studying Clayton’s face as if he was going to be tested on it.
“Good night, Clay. It’s, uh. It’s real nice to have you home.”
And then he turned and headed in the opposite direction of his truck, the same ancient red Ford now parked beside the barn like it was a rustic holiday decoration, snowflakes sticking artistically to the chrome bumper.
No, Jake Carver headed to the old smokehouse Ma had converted to a guest cottage, Clayton watching in horror as he opened the door to enter and didn’t come back out again.
Jake lived on the property, apparently.
It was official.
Clayton’s life was now a living, waking nightmare.