CL Mustafic © 2017
All Rights Reserved
“You guys sure you got all your stuff?” Russ asked for the third time as he backed out of the driveway.
“Yes, Dad,” both his children said in that tone all adolescents use when irritated by their parents.
“All right, I’m only asking because I don’t want a repeat of what happened last weekend.” Russ drove down the quiet residential street, past houses where lights gleamed in the early dusk of late November.
“Yeah, sweetie?” Russ looked in the rearview mirror at his fourteen-year-old daughter.
“Remember those turkey cookies David used to make?”
The question hit Russ in the gut, but he schooled his features for the benefit of his children. “I do.” His gaze went from the road to the mirror to the seat next to him, where his sixteen-year-old son was staring intently at the screen of his phone, causing Russ to wonder if the question had been something the boy had known was coming.
“Do you think maybe you could give the recipe to Mom so we could make them this year?” Annabelle asked.
“We’ll see.” Russ’s words sounded hollow as they passed his lips, which suddenly felt numb. The thought of someone else making his David’s cookies didn’t sit well with him.
“I really like those cookies and I miss–”
“Enough, Belle. He said he’d see.” RJ interrupted his sister before she could say something that would upset the quiet calm of the car ride.
“It’s fine. I’m not sure where the recipe is, that’s all, but I will see if I can find it, okay?” It was a flat-out lie, but Russ knew it would buy him some time to figure out how to handle the situation.
“Okay.” Belle settled back in her seat and quiet descended on them for the rest of the five-minute drive.
Pulling into the driveway of the house he used to call home, Russ put the car in park and turned to RJ. “I’m not going to come in tonight, so tell your mom I had something important to do so she doesn’t worry.”
“Okay, Dad.” Putting his phone in his pocket, RJ turned to open the door but stopped. “Are you going to be okay?” he asked without looking back.
“I’ll be fine,” Russ said, patting his boy on the shoulder. It didn’t matter how not okay he was going to be once alone, but he had to reassure his kids that he would make it through just fine.
Arms came from the back seat area to wrap around his neck. “I love you, Daddy.” Annabelle squeezed him tight from her awkward position, and Russ wanted to say something to let her know he was fine, but she disengaged and was out the door before he could find the words. He waited until the kids were at the front door before waving at them and pulling out onto the street.
Home. For Russ, the word held little meaning, and walking into his empty three-bedroom ranch-style house after dropping his kids off was always hard. He put his keys on the peg next to the door before stripping off his coat and hanging it on the coat tree, both habits he’d established in another time, another life. He bent to untie his boots and set them on the matt off to the side of the door before walking through the dark house to the kitchen. He flipped on the light and stared at the shiny marble countertops, not a crumb remaining after his kids had cleaned up the supper mess. They were good kids, and he was thankful for the hours he spent with them—the hours when his mind was too occupied to think about the past.
The refrigerator was one of those big stainless steel monstrosities that took up twice as much space as the original had, but David had insisted they needed it. Popping open the drawer on the bottom revealed a selection of frozen pizzas, ready-made meals, and the thing he was looking for: ice cream. The half gallon of rocky road was only a quarter full but Russ felt the need to indulge, and since alcohol was out of the question, he’d have to take what he could get. Grabbing a spoon and forgoing a bowl, he sat on one of the stools at the raised center counter and spooned up a gob of chocolatey goodness while his gaze stayed trained on the box on the opposite counter.
The box, covered in cartoon cookies and cakes with top hats, had belonged to David. His David, the man he’d shared his house, his life, and his love with, the man who’d left him alone far too soon. He didn’t even register the first tear, and by the time he noticed he was crying, there was a small puddle on the table next to the empty ice cream carton. He couldn’t do it; there was no way he could open that box and face what he’d lost again. Instead of digging for the recipe Belle had asked for, he got up, threw the empty container in the trash, rinsed the spoon, and then splashed some water on his face. Shutting off the light, he left the box in the dark.
The couch in the den had become his bed, so after pushing his jeans off, he lay down and turned on the television. Watching but not watching, he spent the evening in a stupor, just passing time until he fell asleep.
They were sitting next to each other in a booth at the Downtown Café when David’s smile stretched his lips up enough to show his teeth. He quickly covered his mouth to hide the one crooked tooth he was so self-conscious about.
“Don’t do that,” Russ said, and just like always, he reached over to pull David’s hand away from his face. He leaned in and planted a kiss on the other man’s cheek. “I love your snaggle tooth. It’s cute.”
“You lie, Love, but I’ll pretend I believe you.” David’s very proper British accent made every word he spoke sound like music to Russ.
“It’s true, but if it really bothers you why don’t you have it fixed?”
David sighed and shook his head sadly. “I’m terribly frightened of dentists and only go when I’m in pain,” he said, looking down at the checkered tablecloth before slowly raising his blue eyes in a shy gesture to meet Russ’s adoring gaze. “Do you really not mind how ugly I am?”
Russ snorted. Ugly was not even on the list of words he’d use for David, who in his eyes, was one of the most handsome men he’d ever met. What a beautiful, cultured man like him was doing with a blue-collared nobody like Russ was a question for the ages, but Russ wasn’t going to let the man go if he had a say in it.
Leaning in close so as not to be overheard, Russ whispered, “I think you’re gorgeous, and if you’ll come home with me tonight, I’ll show just how much I like the way you look.”
David’s smile was radiant and Russ’s chest tightened at the sight of it. Russ bent his head, thinking he’d give the other man a little taste of what was to come, when the background music was suddenly blasting out a familiar tune. Russ looked around and when he turned back, David was gone.
The tightness in his chest changed to a painful, crushing squeeze that didn’t dissipate when Russ woke up to answer his phone. “Yeah?”
“Hey, Russ, sorry if I woke you up, but RJ left his geometry notebook at your place last night, and I was wondering if you could find it and maybe drop it off at the school for him,” Aubrey said in a burst of words that rattled Russ’s sleep-addled brain.
“Slow down and give me a second.” Aubrey’s familiar laugh came through the phone as Russ rubbed his face and sat up. “Okay, now what did he forget again?”
“His notebook. It’s neon green and he says it should be on the desk in his room, and if it’s not there, check under his bed because that’s where everything always ends up.”
“Does he need it right away?” Russ stood and walked down the hall to his son’s room, and sure enough, the notebook was sitting right there in the middle of the desk. He picked it up and took it with him when he went back to the living room.
“No, he doesn’t need it until third period, so you’ll do it then?”
“Of course. I don’t have my first appointment until nine so I’ll just leave a few minutes early and swing by,” Russ said before looking at the clock to find he was already running short on time.
“Thanks, hon. I wouldn’t ask but I have Lamaze class this morning.”
“Ah, well, I wouldn’t want you to miss a class on how to breathe.”
“So funny. Okay, I have to run, thanks again,” Aubrey said before hanging up.
Russ had to hurry to get dressed and out the door. Climbing into his big white van with the words VISOK PLUMBING AND HEATING in big green letters on the side, he plopped his coffee cup in the holder and backed out. The high school was on the way to his first job so he stopped and dropped RJ’s notebook off in the office before driving across town to the townhouse complex where he was kept on retainer for all their plumbing and heating needs.
Parking in front of the unit on the end, Russ got out of the van. He opened the side door and grabbed his toolbox. In his experience, most jobs could be handled with just a few select tools. He walked up the concrete path but before he could even take the two steps up to the front door, it opened.
“Oh my God, you’re finally here!”
Russ stepped back when the woman—he thought the long-haired, robed figure was a woman—reached out for him. The person let their hand drop and the eyes above the scarf wrapped around their face twinkled with mirth. “Sorry, I’m just so happy you’re here. Please come in,” the—Russ wasn’t so sure, but the voice sounded more masculine this time—person said.
The smell hit Russ as he stepped over the threshold and suddenly the scarf around the resident’s face made perfect sense. “Man, that really stinks.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s what I told the building manager,” the person—okay, Russ was almost certain it was a guy—said.
Russ followed his nose to the bathroom and knew instantly what the problem was. “You got a blocked vent.”
“Is that bad?”
“Well, we usually don’t see this sort of thing unless the temperature is in the minuses when the vent is on the roof, but it could be that an animal got in there or a bird built a nest that got dislodged and fell in to block it,” Russ said, turning and walking past the man—yes, it was a man, or a very hairy lady who didn’t shave her legs. “I’ll have to go up on the roof.”
Russ retrieved his ladder and set it up against the side of the townhouse. The shingles were slippery with the overnight frost, which was nothing new for him, but he still carefully made his way to the vent. Finding it strange that anything could have gotten in when the vent was capped with only quarter inch slots, he unscrewed it to find something odd. He reached in and pulled out a balled up piece of cloth that he shoved halfway in his pocket before recapping the vent and climbing down.
The man was standing at the door and opened it when Russ climbed the stairs. “Was it blocked? I hope no helpless animals got trapped in there,” the man said from behind the scarf.
“Nope, no animals but it was plugged.” Russ pulled out the red fabric and watched as the man’s eyes widened in surprised recognition.
“That fucker!” He snatched the shirt out of Russ’s hand and turned to go into the hall, leaving Russ to stand there not knowing what he should do.
“Hey, I’ve got to get going,” he called into the empty hall. “I have another appointment. Your problem should be solved, but if the smell doesn’t clear up by the end of the day, give me a call.” He pulled a card out of his pocket and was just about to set it on the little table next to the door when the man came back out. He had a wallet in one hand and a cell phone in the other that was on speakerphone and ringing.
“I’m sorry, how much do I owe you?”
“Ah, nothing, the manager of the building pays me.” Russ rubbed the back of his neck before turning to the door.
“Thank you, so much for coming—” A tinny voice on the phone interrupted him when it answered the call and Russ hesitated before stepping out the door. “Randy, you son of a bitch! How could you do this to me after all we’ve been through? I swear I’m going to—” the slamming of the door cut off the rest of the man’s rant to the person on the other end of the call.
Russ shook his head as he walked to his van. Some people.
Russ took a deep breath as he stood in front of the recipe box. Annabelle had called and asked him if he had found the recipe she’d asked for, and he’d had to make up an excuse for not having done so, but now he was going to remedy that. He ran a finger along the top of the box. He could do this. He could and he would. He closed his eyes and flipped the lid, took a couple more deep breaths, and looked into the box.
David’s cards were all there, and seeing them brought back memories Russ had been trying to shut out, because when they hit, they hit hard. He quickly flicked through and it was easy to find what he was looking for because David was always organized and his recipe box was no different. Once he had the card that was labeled “Kid’s Favorite Turkey Cookies” he sunk to his knees on the floor. Staring at the familiar handwriting, he felt the emotions build in his chest until a loud sob just couldn’t be contained.
“Do you want to help me make the cookies, Love?”
“Which cookies?” Russ had just walked into the kitchen to find his new lover wrapped in an apron.
“I’m making my Thanksgiving Turkey cookies. I thought the kids would like them,” David said with a smile as he accepted a kiss.
“Do you want them to be edible?”
“Of course, that’s the whole point now, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want them to taste like shite, would we?”
Russ chuckled at the way David’s accent always made everything sound so proper—even swear words. “Then you don’t want my help.”
“You can cook, so why do you think you can’t bake?” David was already measuring out ingredients into a mixing bowl.
“It’s a whole different ball game, baking and cooking, not the same at all.” Russ grabbed a beer out of the fridge and propped a hip against the counter. “I’ll just watch if it’s all the same to you.”
“Fine, but I think you’d be able to make cookies if you put your mind to it,” David said, stopping to give Russ a kiss on his way to the fridge to grab the eggs.
“Why should I learn to bake?” Russ asked, pulling David into his arms before he could make it past to set down the eggs. “When I have you to do it for me?”
David’s eyes shined when he looked up at Russ. “That’s right, you have me and I’ll always bake whatever you want for you.”
Russ opened his eyes and stared down at the card in his hands. “Not always, David, not always.”