Honey and Heat
Rian Durant © 2017
All Rights Reserved
“Hey, Lin, are you coming with us to grab some pizza and look at the notes for tomorrow?”
Linden raised his gaze from the phone after checking the three new messages received in the past few hours and spoke with an absent-minded smile.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
The green-eyed boy walking next to him nudged him in the ribs and started chanting, “Linden has a boyfriend, Linden has a boyfriend!”
“Jeez, Rob, grow up. I don’t have anything like this. It’s for the stuff I made yesterday.”
He pushed his phone under Rob’s nose before shoving it in the pocket of his switcher. He put on his new knit cap he loved to pieces not only because it was an early Christmas present from Auntie Jane, but also because it was unique. He liked the way the colors contrasted with his black hair and doubted if he’d take it off earlier than March.
The snow that had fallen during the night was in patches, mostly white where people and cars hadn’t trampled it yet and mostly nonexistent on the street although it was still cold. The chill wind was another reason he loved his cap, as it made him so warm.
“Sweet heavens, you’re merciless! Have you any idea how sweet you look with that thing on you? You’re just asking for it, you know.”
Linden turned to Jerry who had joined them out of nowhere and narrowed his eyes.
“Don’t say that. It isn’t remotely funny, Jer. Nobody asks for it.”
“Please don’t start him on the topic,” said Rob as he rolled his eyes. “I’m too exhausted and terribly hungry to listen about non-con, global warming, or discrimination. Which reminds me, Lin… you didn’t answer my question.”
“I told you it’s not a boyfriend.”
Rob laughed aloud and reached out to pinch Linden’s cheek, but he pulled back all too quickly.
“I know you don’t have one, gorgeous, despite my desperate attempts to become such, but this was not what I asked you in the first place.”
Linden knitted his eyebrows. It was true he wasn’t the most focused person in existence. With his mind full of fresh ideas for quilling cards and plans for the social activities plus the sword of the upcoming exam swaying over their heads, there was little place left for anything. After giving it a brief thought, though, Rob’s growling stomach helped him recall the question.
“Oh, the pizza, yes! No, actually, I’m not coming today—I promised Auntie Jane I’d buy some stuff from the supermarket and get back on time so she can cook for the ladies coming to play bridge tonight.”
Jerry nodded and there was a hint of reproach in his hungry hazel eyes. Hungry for food, sex, and adrenaline rushes of all kinds. He was two years older than them but still in his first year because… well, life. Because he had many things to do before adjusting to the tracks, he said. Linden doubted he ever would.
“You really think you can fix the world, little one? When do you get to live if you help the grannies now?”
“Jer, please, you’re turning him on.”
“I’ll be damned if this is not the thing I long to do, Robbie.” He rubbed his hands and licked his lips, both as unambiguously as possible.
“No, I wasn’t referring to that on-turning. Look at him! He’s going to start quoting the constitution in a minute.”
“Ha ha ha! You’re so funny!”
Linden looked at them and pouted. They weren’t doing it with bad intention and despite the occasional joke, they’d agreed what he did was important. They were just not so keen on wasting the time they had to relax or go on a date for charity or anything like that. He had to face it—people his age had very different stuff to worry about most of the time. Robbie had come with him once or twice to the social kitchen, but Linden still had his doubts the boy’s motives were clear all the way. He looked at his watch. “Have to go now. See you tomorrow.”
“Oh, come on, sweet thing, come with us! They have a wonderful vegan pizza in there. I’m sure you’ll lick the last of it off your fingers.”
Jerry’s hazel stare tried to pull him in, but Linden was not the boy to fall easily for a pair of shining eyes or a body right out of a magazine cover. It was obvious rock climbing and swimming were doing miracles. However, there was something else he was sure about, so he crossed his arms on his chest and looked at him with an air of seriousness.
“First of all, Jer, I’m vegetarian, not vegan. Second, if you think your pizza can match the scones of Auntie Jane, you’re mistaken. And third, you two can go ahead and have all the pizza you like, then spread some cheese on each other and lick it off to cool down a bit so you don’t act like billy goats in heat when I come to school tomorrow.”
Both laughed so loud that the few people, who were deeply interested in the performance of a singing Santa Claus in front of a music shop, turned to look at them.
“’K then,” said Jerry, “we’re letting you go but can’t promise anything about tomorrow.”
“Mmhmm,” said Linden, distracted by another message. “Have fun guys!”
He stopped the jitney coming their way and hopped on it, greeting the driver. He sat by the window since the journey would take him about twenty minutes, granted that the gods of traffic were benevolent today. He wondered whether to reply to some of the messages in his 10fingers account or listen to music but decided on the latter. It was easier to write on his computer and most of the pictures he had were there. He scrolled up and down the playlists and finally chose one of the songs, abandoning himself to the melody and the words he didn’t know the meaning of. The familiar buildings and parks on the route back to the quarter he lived in chased each other outside. It was far from the university, but not as far as the first hellhole he could afford when he’d first come to Varna. That one was a run-down place an hour away from the university, and his neighbors—(apart from looking suspicious)—were so noisy that he was forced to spend half of his nights in the city library. It was open at night, so after sleeping through the afternoon hours, he would grab a sandwich and stay until four or five, then get back for some sleep.
It was exciting at times until it became tiring, and then Rob had stepped in after seeing the dark circles under his eyes. He didn’t leave him alone until he confessed his midnight escapades. Rob gave him a good talking to and ordered him to move into his place immediately. He was hesitant at first but then accepted the deal, and that’s when he could finally sleep properly, study in the comfort of his couch, and find a job to save some money. He had a good time with Rob, who was easy to live with. He was also reasonable enough, and when he showed signs of being up for something more than friendship, Linden managed to knock some sense into him. Only the occasional flirty remark remained between them. A few months later, Robbie fell for one of the basketball players from another university and all his reasonability evaporated. Linden couldn’t persuade him the guy was not the best match he could hope for. When the presence of the other became constant, much like his jealousy, it was time to find a place of his own.
The train of thought accompanied him all the way until the jitney arrived in his quarter. He took off his headphones and shoved the phone back in his pocket before getting off at the stop. It was the end of December and it was still chilly despite the sun being up, and he, and he was happy he was not going to freeze or fall on his ass. He never failed to do it every winter. One icy day sufficed for him to be involved in a hilarious pirouette and a hard fall. He just hoped it wasn’t going to be in some public place like last year at the Weihnachtsmarkt. Everybody thought he was dead drunk on mulled wine. He chuckled at the memory, and then turned the corner to get to the shops. He began reciting in his mind what he had to buy. Naturally, he’d forgotten some of the stuff, so he gave up and took out the piece of paper he’d written everything on and entered the big supermarket.
About half an hour later, he arrived at his apartment block and stopped a moment to catch his breath. The bags he carried were heavy, and after a ten-minute walk they felt like they weighed a ton. He didn’t want Auntie Jane to see him with his tongue hanging out as that would’ve made her feel guilty, so he stood in front of the elevator before heading up to the seventh floor. He opened the door somehow and managed to reach the bell push, almost knocking one of the big packets down.
“There you are, sonny, I got a little worried about you.” Auntie Jane gave him a big smile. “Get in, those packages must be heavy.”
“Not much,” he replied, “But I’d love to put them down.”
He followed her and left them on the kitchen table, then brushed his hands and smiled at the little lady in front of him. Auntie Jane was not his aunt, not by blood, but she was closer to him than his immediate family. When he’d moved into the apartment he currently lived in, she was the only one who came to greet him. He still remembered her with the little basket of sweet smelling ginger cookies and a smile brighter than the sun. He was in a terrible mood that day, which happened to him so rarely it was remarkable. The previous night he’d gotten into a fight with Robbie in his final attempt to make him understand what he’d signed up for with the basketball guy. Then the people from the moving company broke a box he was particularly fond of, and on top of that he’d found out about the lack of curtains so he had to go and buy some, otherwise the people across the block were in for quite a show in the evening. And then she came like a fairy godmother with her cookies, a big smile, and a bigger heart. After ten minutes’ conversation she offered him “some old curtains I’ve sewn when I was a young lady” and he’d come into possession of the most beautiful embroidered curtains he’d ever seen. The guys from IKEA would just lie down and die of sheer envy if they ever caught a glimpse of them.
“You seem happy today,” said Jane, glancing at him while taking out the flour and sugar. “Maybe something new on the love front?”
She chuckled and he rolled his eyes, smiling back at her. One more thing that made her even more closely resemble the role of godmother was the sweet way she always found to ask him about this sensitive topic.
“Nope. You know me, Auntie Jane, I’m fine on my own.”
She gave him a wise look and shook her head. “You young people today like so much to be independent that you forget real freedom comes with real love.”
Linden was ready to agree with her if the topic of real love wasn’t somewhat problematic for him. He’d fancied some guys back home, and he been kissed a few times while playing spin the bottle at school—something he liked maybe too much. There was one guy in particular who gave him butterflies in his stomach, but he was as straight as they came, and the town Linden grew up in was not one in which to freely wave your flag. Nevertheless, even then he knew that it wasn’t real love. Sometimes he doubted if it existed, but something inside him obstinately insisted that it did.
“You’re probably right, and I just haven’t found the one for me.” He waved and went on, “Do you want me to help you with the cooking for the nice ladies?”
“I’d be delighted, but I’m sure that you have other things to do rather than staying with an old lady.” She looked at the calendar and noted solemnly, “You have an exam in three days.”
Linden turned around and his eyes widened when he saw the calendar on the wall. He hadn’t noticed it by now as he hadn’t come in the kitchen the last few days, but there were circles around some days and only one look was enough to recognize them as the dates of his own exams. Auntie Jane wiped off her hands and before he could speak, she started.
“I called the university to ask for the exam dates. You are a responsible kid but I have to keep my eye on you”—she gave him a plastic box and continued— “and make sure you don’t stay hungry in the meantime. Here’s something for you for dinner as the rest will be meat pie.”
“You didn’t have to…”
“Oh, come on. You have to put some meat on these bones.”
A jolly male voice came from the open door, “Hon, you sound like that witch from that tale. He’s gonna think you want to cook him up for Christmas. Leave the boy alone, he’s fine.”
The man walked into the room, his cheeks rosy from the cold outside, and left another bag on the table. He was quite tall and really good looking for a man in his sixties. Just like his wife, he had a witty remark or wise advice ready at all times. He used to be a sea captain and had a passion for ships in a bottle. Linden had ordered a set to create one and hoped that it’d come in time for him to get the hang of building it.
“Good afternoon, Captain!”
He saluted him and the old man winked, then went to Jane and placed a kiss on her cheek. She giggled like a young girl, reminding Linden again why both of them could talk about real love so easily.
“You’re going to join me for a glass of rum, first mate?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stevens, but you know I don’t really drink.”
The old man rubbed his chin and sighed deeply. “I don’t get it.”
Linden felt awkward, although he didn’t have to explain this for a first time. The common perception was that being his age equaled lots of drinking, flirting, and generally irresponsible behavior. Especially for a pretty boy his age, he was told, although he didn’t find himself pretty—just pretty ordinary. He opened his mouth, but Mr. Stevens stopped him with a smile in his warm eyes.
“Why is she Auntie Jane and I’m still Mr. Stevens?”
At first his eyes grew wide and then he laughed, feeling the blush on his cheeks.
“I can’t explain it. I guess it’s because of the profound respect I have for you. You are so wise and full of energy and you never shout at anyone. Besides, I know about the charity work you are doing and…”
Mr. Stevens moved closer and ruffled Linden’s hair.
“Stop it, or I’ll start crying like the senile old man I am. Thank you, sonny—you are quite special yourself.”
Linden was just about to reply that it was his pleasure when Auntie Jane walked in again, and even though she put the smile on her face quickly enough, he noticed something was off. She exchanged a look with her husband and then ordered, “Out now—there’s no place for men in my kitchen when I do my magic.”
Mr. Stevens held back a sigh. “Very well then. If we don’t drink, Linden and I could play a game of chess.”
Linden nodded and followed the old captain into the living room. It was always clean and orderly. Everything was in its place, and there wasn’t too much stuff like he usually associated with the homes of old people he remembered from when he was little. He waited for Mr. Stevens to arrange the board and knowing he was due for another defeat, he didn’t mind.
“Thank you for making my wife happy, Linden.”
The old man rarely called him by his name, and together with the serious tone, it was a sign of trouble. It wasn’t out of pure curiosity but rather out of concern for the people who showed him so much kindness and taught him a lot of stuff without even realizing, he asked, “Is there something wrong?”
Mr. Stevens let go the sigh he’d hidden a while back and sunk in the armchair. He took out his pipe and a pouch filled with tobacco, the smoke of which was deep and mild, nothing like the stinky cigarettes Linden’s fellow students smoked. Mr. Stevens stuffed the pipe and lit it up. His eyes drifted away for a moment and after taking a whiff of the pipe, he replied, “It’s our child. She went to call him and he’s probably told her he’s not coming back for Christmas again.”
He didn’t know what to say. Auntie Jane had mentioned her son a few times but didn’t talk about him much. He was a stockbroker who worked for a big international company and was too busy to come and see his old folks for the holidays. With her usual humor, she’d said that she’d never forgive him if he got married without calling them first, but as far as she knew no such plans existed for now. At first Linden thought the reason they didn’t talk much was because they’d grown distant with time, but on one occasion she didn’t manage to cover the sadness in her voice, and then he realized it was painful for her.
“The problem is he promised to do it this year, but apparently something popped up as always.”
“Why don’t you go see him then?”
Mr. Stevens nodded and pushed the board, encouraging him to start with the game. Linden moved a pawn, not really concentrating on the move because it was useless anyway.
“We went two years ago. He reserved us a room at this big fancy hotel and spared about two hours of his time for the whole week. I’m telling ya, my son should have gotten spanked more when he was little.”
Linden had never approved of spanking and any physical methods of upbringing, but this time he was ready to agree with Mr. Stevens. He could even get a stick and spank that man, although he wasn’t little anymore. He couldn’t imagine how it was possible to have such parents and not give them enough attention. While he was lost in his thoughts, the old man had made his move as well.
“Your turn,” he reminded him and puffed some smoke. “Choose wisely.”
Linden sighed deeply and in a theatrical gesture rubbed his nonexistent beard, making Mr. Stevens smile. He was glad about it and later, after the game was over and two of the ladies arrived, he bid his farewell to him and Auntie Jane.
There were quite a lot of things he preferred to do rather than study, but since the exam was only three days away, he didn’t have much of a choice. He picked one of the heavy books from the shelf and some sticky notes and hurled them on his bed.
“But first, coffee,” he mumbled and headed for the kitchen.
He had a long night ahead of him, even if he didn’t distract himself with fun stuff. If he dared to do it, it was going to be much longer.