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Copyright © 2018 by Trina Solet
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locales or actual events is entirely coincidental.
All sexual activity takes place between persons eighteen years of age or older.
This novel contains material intended for mature readers.
Cover image is only for illustrative purposes. Any person depicted is a model.
Wyatt wanted to get away, to live far away from the influence of his disapproving family. But in the end, maybe he had put too much distance between him and his brother. The reconciliation he always dreamed of would never happen now.
Weeks late, he was hearing the terrible news over the phone and every remaining shred of hope was crushed. His aunt had finally tracked him down and gotten in touch with him. Now her voice was breaking as she said his name.
Before she even told him anything, the sound of her voice was so rough and pained. Knowing without a doubt that she was about to tell him something terrible, Wyatt felt like a cold hand closed around his heart. He listened to what she had to tell him with utter dread.
"I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, honey," his Aunt Debbie told him. Then her voice broke again, and she barely got the words out. "Our Lloyd, he... He's gone."
Lloyd and his wife had died in a car crash. Wyatt could hardly absorb this news. It hit him like a freight train and he couldn't draw a breath as his chest constricted painfully.
It was too late to say goodbye, too late to go to the funeral. Too late for everything.
That wasn't all of it. She had more to tell him. "Lloyd and his wife left behind two boys, and someone needs to take care of them," Aunt Debbie said.
Wyatt figured that his aunt would do that. She had been good with him and Lloyd when they were kids. But she regretfully told him, "I can't do it myself. I have my Tom to take care of. His MS is much worse. For now, he's staying with his sister, but he needs to get back home and so do I. I'm staying with the boys right now, but I need to know if you can come and take over."
"Me? Aunt Deb..." Wyatt started to say. How could he take care of two children? Plus there was another issue. "Aunt Deb, I don't think Lloyd would want me to be the one to take care of his kids." His throat tightened as soon as those words came out. It was a harsh truth.
"Is that so?" she said in a stern tone. Aunt Deb wasn't one to let anyone shirk their family responsibilities. "Then you better listen to this," she commanded him.
He heard some fumbling as she explained. "Lloyd recorded it in the hospital when his wife was already gone, and he knew he didn't have much time left."
After a little bit, Aunt Deb played him a recording. First there were some indistinct noises, beeping and announcements being made in the background. Then Wyatt heard labored breathing then Lloyd. His voice was painfully familiar but weak and he struggled to speak clearly. He said, "Take care of my boys. Please, Wyatt."
Wyatt waited but there was nothing after that. The short silence seemed to last forever until he heard Aunt Debbie's voice again.
"He didn't have much strength left, but I think he made himself plenty clear. So what will it be, Wyatt. You coming to Peach Tree?"
It turned out that Peach Tree was the name of the small town where Lloyd had lived with his family. He moved there after their father died, after Wyatt lost touch with him for the second time. When Aunt Deb asked him to go there, Wyatt could think of only one answer, "I'm on my way."
It took him a little while to make the arrangements to come back from Austria. He couldn't leave Barney behind, so the poor little doggy had to endure the long flight. By the time they got to the States, Wyatt felt drained and sort of numb. He clutched Barney's pet carrier like it was his life raft.
Thank God for his friend, Raquel, who met him at the airport and immediately wrapped him in a tight hug.
"My poor sweetie," she called him then took him and Barney straight to her apartment. Wyatt collapsed on her couch while Barney went to sniff the million small rugs she had everywhere.
Wyatt hadn't seen her for years, but Raquel was still his best friend. After he woke up with Barney staring at him, Raquel fed both of them and let Wyatt cry on her shoulder about Lloyd and the regrets he would probably carry with him as long as he lived.
She also single handedly put him and Barney on the road to Peach Tree, a place Wyatt had never heard of until his aunt told him about it. Behind the wheel of a brand new SUV that Raquel helped him buy, Wyatt was still in a fog of grief and disbelief as he drove through the peaceful looking countryside.
With hardly any houses around, it seemed to Wyatt like he might be in for some lonely times ahead. After all this wasn't just a visit. He was going to be living here, for a while anyway. Good thing he had brought along his little buddy.
Wyatt turned to look at Barney who peered out of his pet carrier. "You ready to stretch you legs maybe?"
The last time Sam went on a drive and walked around this area, he came across some bushes with orange berries. Thinking they were pretty, he took a branch back to the café, where several people told him the berries came from a firethorn bush and were poisonous.
Sam was going to get rid of the branch, but Mrs. Del Rio, the owner of the café, took charge of the branch with the berries. She agreed that they were pretty, and she wasn't scared by the fact that they were poisonous. "If I had more of these, I would make a wreath for my verandah," she said.
That was just like her. She had been that way the first time Sam walked into the café. Some of his bruises still fresh, he had asked her for a job, and she hired him with no hesitation.
She looked at the berries appreciatively, not the least bit daunted by what people said about them. "I like them. Next time you see them, get me a whole bunch of these."
That's why Sam was now in the midst of these firethorn bushes that grew in a clump on the side of the highway. He found plenty of good branches and picked several while getting scratched up by the thorns.
Figuring he had enough for a wreath, Sam was about to get back to his car when he spotted an SUV on the road. It was coming his way. Hanging back, he waited for it to pass.
Sam's car was parked behind the bushes, and he was still hidden from sight. It might have been a little too cautious of him, but he didn't want to reveal himself needlessly.
The car didn't pass him by though. It slowed and Sam got worried. His heart started to race. He couldn't see the driver, so he had a good look at the car instead. The car was a tan Nissan Rogue. It looked new even if it did have some road dirt on it.
Brian wouldn't have a nice, new car like that, but as long as the driver remained a mystery, Sam couldn't convince himself that it somehow couldn't still be him.
When he finally saw a blond, well built man step out of the car, Sam only breathed a little easier. He was still a stranger, and God knows what he might be up to.
He watched the good-looking man stand by his car and stretch for a second like someone who had been driving for a long time. The man then went to the back of his SUV and leaned into the back seat. Soon a little fuzzy, white dog jumped out of the car and Sam grinned.
The man crouched and petted the dog. "Look, a whole field for you to pee on. How great is that?" he said as he put a leash on the little dog.
"So I guess I should watch my step," Sam said. He wanted to announce his presence and not startle the guy and his dog, but he did anyway.
The man jumped a little then spotted him coming out from among the bushes. He gave Sam an intense, blue eyed stare then he smiled apologetically. "Oh hi. Sorry. We've been on the road a while," the man said. "We didn't mean to intrude or trespass." Maybe he thought Sam owned the field.
"Me either. It's not my field. If you're trespassing, then I am too. I was just picking these," Sam told him.
Seeing the armful of branches he carried, the man said, "They look interesting."
"They're firethorn berries, and they're poisonous, so keep your dog away from them." Sam was glad he knew to tell him that. He'd hate for such a nice dog to get himself into trouble.
"Did you hear that?" the guy asked his dog then he turned to Sam. "Thanks for the warning. For a minute there, I was thinking of letting him off the leash so he could run around on his own. Now I know better."
"He seems like a good dog," Sam said.
"He is and he wants to say hello to you," the guy let his dog get closer and rest his front paws on Sam's shins so he could look up at him.
"Hello, there," Sam said to him and he wished he could pet him, but he had all those thorny branches to keep away from him.
"His name is Barney, and he has never seen such open places. He's a city dog. Aren't you?" the man said and then got down to rub the dog's side and kiss the top of his head. When he stood up again, he frowned at Sam's arms. "You got scratched up."
"That's nothing. It's for a good cause. My employer asked me to get her these. She's been good to me, so I don't mind," Sam said. He caught himself smiling at the man because he looked so concerned.
The guy had startled him when he pulled off the road so close to where he was, but he seemed nice and his dog was sweet. Glancing all around, the guy now looked a little uneasy, especially when his sad, blue eyes stared off into the distance.
There was nothing there that would make Sam uneasy. In that direction, the fields stretched out to the horizon. There were plenty of hills dotting the landscape in other directions, but Sam liked the flat, open spaces to the west. They gave him peace of mind.
"We've been traveling for a while. This seems like a nice area," the man said, but he seemed kind of doubtful of that.
"It is. It's very peaceful," Sam told him. He wanted to keep talking to this guy, but he couldn't think of any excuse to keep hanging out there. Plus his shift would be starting soon. He had nearly forgotten about that.
When he set out for this spot, he had planned to be back in plenty of time. Now he might be late. It had been a while since a good-looking guy could distract him so easily. To Sam, guys like this one were like firethorn bushes -- enticing but dangerous.
Sam noticed that the dog was now straining at his leash. "Looks like your dog is ready for that walk," he pointed out.
"He's reminding me why we came out here," the man said.
"Bye, Barney," Sam told him as he went off with his firethorn branches. Setting them on the passenger side, he got behind the wheel of his old Honda and realized that he had learned the dog's name but not his handsome owner's.
Oh well, it wasn't like Sam would ever see him again. He was probably just passing through. Most likely the man would continue on this road, blow right past the little town of Peach Tree and never look back.
Wyatt didn't have high hopes for life in a small town, but that bathroom break for Barney might have raised his hopes just a little. If that guy lived anywhere around there, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Or Wyatt might never run into him again, and if he did, he might find out that the guy was straight.
Wyatt sighed. This wouldn't be like the places where he used to live, where the next good-looking gay guy was just around the corner. Living in a small town, he might have to get through a lot of lonely nights.
They were pretty close to Peach Tree, when Wyatt turned to his little passenger. "We're almost there. I bet you can't wait," he said to Barney.
No peep from him, but he decided to take his silence as a sign of eager anticipation. Between the two of them, he was sure that Barney would receive the better welcome.
Not sure if he was ready to take on what awaited him there, Wyatt thought about the boys. Aunt Deb sent him pictures of them, and as soon as he saw those two little smiling faces, Wyatt broke down crying.
They didn't look just like Wyatt and Lloyd. For one thing, they were closer in age. The older one was five and he must have looked like his mom, with sandy hair, but he had the blue eyes like Lloyd and Wyatt did. The younger one was blond like his dad's side of the family, but his eyes were brown. He was four and had on the bigger smile of the two little boys.
They were so clearly brothers though, and they were Lloyd's kids, and that was enough to break Wyatt's heart. Looking at the photos of them, Wyatt knew that he should have fought harder to stay in his brother's life. Whatever it took, he should have made Lloyd accept him.
It was too late for that now. All he could do was take good care of those precious nephews of his. Before seeing them, he needed to prepare himself and not scare then and upset them by bursting into tears as soon as he laid eyes on them.
But whether he was ready or not, here he was making a turn and then driving down Peach Tree Road. As he scanned the roadside, the house came into view. A handmade sign in the shape of an arrow had the number 721 and the name Hayes painted on it. It pointed the way up a crooked driveway that led to a green front door of a ranch style house with a wooden fence also painted green.
Wyatt hardly paid attention to the house though. He had been trying to prepare himself for his first meeting with his nephews, but he didn't expect to see them already waiting for him at the end of the driveway. As he slowed down and turned off the road, the two little boys stared at his car intently.
Wyatt pulled into the driveway then shut off the engine. He hardly dared to take a breath. Meeting them was that momentous to him. As for the boys, they didn't look too thrilled.
Their mouths turned down at the corners, their eyes serious, two little nephews stood there to greet their wayward uncle. That meant he better get moving. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Wyatt opened the car door and stepped out.
Waiting there he saw a serious, sandy haired boy with blue eyes and his little blond, brown-eyed brother. As two sets of unsmiling eyes looked up at him, Wyatt approached and greeted them with a smile, "Hello, boys."
In return, he was greeted with a complaint. "He doesn't know our names!" DJ, the older boy, shouted to someone back toward the house.
"Yes, he does," a feminine voice shouted back then Wyatt saw his Aunt Deb rising up from the garden with a basket hanging from her arm. She looked older than when he had last seen her but still strong. "Hi there, Wyatt. I was just picking some tomatoes for lunch."
"Hi," Wyatt barely managed to say as he looked at her through tears in his eyes. She was so casual, like it hadn't been years since they saw each other. She came forward to give him a hug, and Wyatt buried his face in her shoulder for a minute until he calmed himself a little. He had to stay strong for the boys. They were watching his every move.
"As you can see, these two were eagerly waiting for you," Aunt Deb said and looked over at the boys fondly, but they bristled.
"We're not!" Riley, the younger one, claimed like he and his brother had been accused of something terrible.
"Hi. I'm your Uncle Wyatt, and you are DJ and Riley," he said to prove he knew their names even if he was only now meeting his nephews for the first time.
Though Wyatt was the one chosen to take care of these two boys, he was a stranger to them. It was no surprise that's how they looked at him, but he did have an ace in the hole.
"I have someone else for you to meet," Wyatt said to the boys then went back to the car.
Opening the back door, he got out the pet carrier. Craning their necks, the boys were eager to see what he had in there. He brought the pet carrier over and set it down. As the boys crouched in front of the carrier, Wyatt opened the door.
The little, white dog poked his head out and sniffed around. While the boys called out to him to come out, Wyatt introduced him. "His name is Barney, and he came over here with me on a plane."
Wyatt stepped back so the boys could have a good look and play with the dog. As the kids chattered at the dog and he sniffed and licked their faces, Wyatt went to stand next to Aunt Deb and watch them. She still had the basket with tomatoes, but she seemed to have forgotten about them.
"You came loaded for bear," Aunt Deb told him. and it seemed to Wyatt that she couldn't take her eyes off the boys. "They do need some good to come into their lives."
"He's been cooped up in that carrier for most of this trip, poor guy. I couldn't let him loose in the car. That little guy doesn't love traveling. I didn't want him peeing all over my new ride." Wyatt had pretty much landed, gotten off the plane, gotten a few hours sleep on Raquel's couch then gone straight to a dealership with her to pick up the SUV.
"If he isn't housebroken all the way, he can be a yard dog for now," Aunt Deb suggested.
"He's housebroken. He was just a little stressed. And if we leave the dog out in the yard, we'll never get these two inside the house," Wyatt predicted while pointing at the boys, who were preoccupied with Barney. "I know that from personal experience. Dad once brought home a dog that belonged to his friend. The dog was only staying with us for about a week. It turned out that the dog had flees, so Dad tied him up in the back yard. Then he had to bolt the doors so I wouldn't go outside to sleep out there all night and get flees too."
Aunt Deb laughed. "What a stubborn kid you were. Lloyd and your father had their hands full with you, but I think you're going to get some of your own back with these boys."
"Ouch," Wyatt said to her as he went and got some of his bags from the back of his car.
Now that they are a little further away from the boys, Aunt Deb told him, "I'm grateful that you agreed to do this. Jill's sister is struggling with three kids of her own. She just couldn't take in two more. And I have my Tom to take care of. We have to stay near his doctors and his hospital. I really didn't want to see these boys uprooted if they came to live with us."
Tom was Aunt Deb's husband. On top of her job, she devoted herself to helping him. That was more than enough for her to deal with.
"I think this place will be good for Barney," Wyatt told her.
"And maybe for you too?" she said.
She sounded questioning but still more positive than Wyatt felt about moving here. This place was where his brother chose to live and raise a family. If it was his idea of the right kind of place, Wyatt had a strong suspicion that he could never fit in or be happy here.
His nephews were here so this was where he had to be. The best he could do was make peace with it.
"Let's get you settled in," his aunt told him.
As she led the way inside with her basket of tomatoes, Wyatt hefted his bags and followed her. The boys looked after them but quickly turned back to Barney. The dog had found something interesting and had his nose stuck in the grass. He was such a city dog, everything out here was new to him.
The décor inside wasn't as country as Wyatt expected. The furniture was solid and sturdy, but the dominant colors in the living room were gray and yellow. The kitchen cabinets had paneled white doors, the countertop was tiled slate. That's where Aunt Deb set down her basket with tomatoes.
Right away Wyatt noticed that there was a kitchen door that went out onto a second porch. "A front and a back porch. OK."
"It's nice to sit out there," Aunt Deb told him. There was a field and some brush further on then a thicket of tall bushes and trees. "And it should be all right to let your dog run around back here."
Right away Wyatt looked for those bright orange berries the young guy had warned him about, but he didn't see any. After taking in the view, they moved on, and Aunt Deb showed him the rest of the house. Family pictures were everywhere along with some nature prints that decorated the walls.
Aunt Deb took him down a hallway where he saw three bedroom doors standing open. "That's the boy's room," she said.
In there Wyatt could see paper airplanes suspended from the ceiling which was painted sky blue. A desk with two chairs was under the window. On either side of it, two beds were roughly made up and covered with colorful comforters. A shelf was stuffed with books and toys all crammed in every which way.
"They've been taught to keep it pretty neat, and they make their own beds, as you can see," Aunt Deb told him with a smile.
Wyatt did notice that there were no toys strewn around their room or any of the other rooms they passed through. Was that even possible? Lloyd and his wife raised them that way, but Wyatt wasn't sure he could keep up with that kind of disciplined childrearing.
They moved on to the other two bedrooms. Aunt Deb was in the only spare room, and Wyatt figured he would be staying on the couch until she left.
"I got the big bedroom ready for you already. You can make the spare room your office. You'll need it if you want to get any work done," she said. "I bet those boys don't give you a minute's peace."
"I don't see them anywhere right now. It's Barney who won't get a minute's peace," Wyatt predicted.
"Your secret weapon," Aunt Deb said with a smile then she showed him the way to his bedroom.
The room was at the end of the hall. Wyatt went to the door and looked in. It was the master bedroom. "Is this really a good idea? Won't the boys mind that I'm taking their parents' bedroom?" Wyatt asked.
"I think they need to know that you aren't just a guest here. That you're here to stay. I think that's the most important thing for their peace of mind," Aunt Deb said decisively.
"I guess I feel weird taking over this room," Wyatt said as he walked further in. He eyed the open closet and saw that there was hardly anything in there.
"Jill's sister, Eva, already took away most of her things. And I had the thrift store in Ashbury pick up a lot of Lloyd's stuff. Nothing of sentimental value just clothes," she said.
That seemed too fast to Wyatt, but Aunt Deb was always a decisive, no nonsense person. As for Wyatt, he was standing in the middle of that room, staring at the big bed covered with light blue sheets and a quilt folded at the foot of it. He was still trying to take it all in. So this was going to be his room for the foreseeable future, his life. For now, it still seemed too unreal, like something he might wake up from then go right back to his old life.
That's when the boys ran inside and stopped abruptly in the hallway when they spotted Wyatt.
"Barney is thirsty. He tried to drink from a puddle," DJ said.
"Let's get him some water. And I have some of his food in the car. He has two dog dishes, where should we set them up?" Wyatt asked.
"In our room," Riley answered right away.
"Outside or in the kitchen," Aunt Deb told the boys like she didn't trust Wyatt not to agree to something crazy.
"We'll set them up on the porch for now," Wyatt decided. "I don't think Barney wants to be cooped up inside right now. We'll put some ice in the water so it's nice and cool."
"I'm gonna get ice," Riley volunteered.
"We're both getting it," DJ said.
"We can all help," Wyatt told them. "We'll get what we need from the kitchen and then we'll get stuff from the car."
The boys were eager to help him and soon they had Barney eating and drinking. They all grabbed some drinks too. Aunt Deb got busy in the kitchen and promised that lunch would be ready soon.
Now Wyatt found himself sitting on the front steps with a nephew on either side of him. Barney was at his feet trying to climb up on his knee. Wyatt was surrounded.
"So which one of you boys is going to be in first grade next year?" Wyatt turned to Riley. "Is it you, Riley?"
"No. It's DJ," Riley told him and pointed across Wyatt to his big brother. "I'm gonna be in kindergarten."
"So you're a big kid too," Wyatt said.
Riley nodded in agreement, but DJ denied it with a shake of his head. "He's still little," DJ told him and craned his neck to stare down his brother, who only stuck out his tongue at him.
"You're both bigger than Barney. That has to count for something," Wyatt told both of them.
"Is he gonna stay with us?" DJ asked and he sounded really worried that Wyatt would say no and send him away somewhere.
"Me and Barney are both staying here. We're moving in to live here," Wyatt told him since Aunt Deb said it was important for them to know that.
"That's good because Aunt Debbie is going away," DJ said and he looked very sad.
"She has to go back to hang out with Uncle Tom. He's lonely without her. And you guys have me," Wyatt said and he put his arms around both boys. DJ and Riley were so tiny. It broke his heart to think how scared they must be. "You guys have to show me all the best places around here. And we have to climb on the hill with all the trees. I bet we can take some nice pictures up there."
DJ nodded, but then he said, "But Aunt Debbie said you're gonna be working and not to bother you."
"You won't bother me. A working guy has to take a break sometimes. That's when we'll have fun," Wyatt assured him.
"And Barney," Riley said. The dog had gone over to him and put his fuzzy head in his lap.
"Lunchtime, boys," Aunt Deb called out from inside and the boys jumped up.
"You meant me too, right?" Wyatt joked as he went into the kitchen.
"Yes. You too. I bet you're starving," she said. "Here. Take these rolls."
She handed him a basket of homemade rolls that smelled buttery, looked fluffy and felt as light as air. "I can't promise that these will make it to the table," Wyatt warned her. "You better take them, DJ. You look like you can be trusted to get them all to the table in one piece."
DJ took the basket and proudly delivered the rolls to the kitchen table unharmed. Riley got to carry the napkins and mustard.
They had a great lunch of roasted green beans and strips of fried Canadian bacon that fit nicely inside the rolls, plus the tomato salad. Wyatt was in heaven. He felt like he hadn't eaten for years.
He had no proper meal since he heard about Lloyd. Now eating Aunt Debbie's food at his brother's kitchen table with his two little nephews made him want to cry.
Aunt Deb must have noticed that he was a little overwrought because she told him. "You go and lie down for a while, rest up."
"You gonna take a nap?" Riley asked him. Then his big, brown eyes turned very serious. "I don't like naps. I don't like them."
"I guess I better hang out with you guys so I don't have to go take a nap," Wyatt said. It would do him more good than any nap. Plus he wasn't looking forward to taking over the boys' parents' bedroom. Maybe once he was tired enough, it wouldn't bother him so much.
After lunch, Aunt Deb wanted to visit a few of the neighbors to say goodbye to them in person before leaving. Wyatt, the boys and Barney went with her. The houses around there were far apart, but everyone that Wyatt got introduced to was friendly.
Already the neighbors seemed fond of Aunt Deb and sad to see her go. She had been exchanging fresh tomatoes from their garden for other vegetables and even eggs that the neighbors had.
"You can keep doing that too," Aunt Deb told him.
"And then do what with them? I can't cook," Wyatt informed her.
"All that time in Europe with all that amazing food they have over there, if my TV is to be believed, and you didn't learn a thing?" she said and shook her head at him. "Well, you can at least fry up an egg."
"If they like them burned, then I can," Wyatt said and grinned at the boys.
They both shook their heads to let him know how they felt about burned eggs.
In no time, they had walked all over the outskirts of Peach Tree, and it was evening. When they got back to the house, Aunt Deb insisted that Wyatt help her in the kitchen and learn something.
Wyatt didn't tell her that he was impervious to all culinary instruction. Not that he had ever tried very hard. A few half hearted attempts told him it wasn't worth the trouble.
In his early days traipsing all over Europe, he was lucky if he had a hotplate to heat up a can of something. Later on, he could afford to eat much better food than he could ever hope to make.
It was only now with two growing boys to feed that he saw his lack of cooking skills as a potential problem. He hoped there were some good places to eat around there so the kids wouldn't forget what food was supposed to taste like.
He knew for sure that the boys would miss Aunt Debbie and her cooking. Wyatt would miss her too. He couldn't believe she was leaving the next morning. After that the boys would be his sole responsibility.
To get him started, at the boys' bedtime, Aunt Deb had an assignment for him. "You put them to bed. It will be good practice."
"So make sure they brush their teeth and tuck them in, that kind of thing?" Wyatt said.
"That's it," Aunt Deb confirmed, and Wyatt went off to supervise the boys' bedtime routine.
He was doing it for the first time ever. The only kid he ever put to bed was himself, and that was with Lloyd right there by his side, making sure he didn't eat toothpaste or sneak off to see what Dad was watching on TV, or not watching.
Their dad always came home late, dead tired from laying wood floors, and collapsed in front of the TV, ate his dinner there and sometimes slept there all night. Lloyd made sure Wyatt didn't bother him so he wouldn't yell.
But looking back, Wyatt couldn't remember their dad ever being the one who put him to bed, not even after their mom left. It was always Lloyd, acting too grown-up for his age, dragging Wyatt kicking and screaming to go to bed already.
When it came to putting the boys to bed, Wyatt didn't have to do it alone. Barney was right there. When they were in their pajamas and ready to climb into bed, Barney followed them to their room and settled himself right in front of the desk that separated their beds.
"I guess he thinks it's his bedtime too," Wyatt said seeing how Barney curled himself up on their colorful, striped rug.
"Can he sleep with us?" DJ asked even though Barney was already doing as he liked.
"Sure he can," Wyatt said.
The boys were happier to get into bed now that Barney was joining them.
"He can sleep with me," Riley said and tried to coax Barney to climb on his bed.
"No, me. I'm older," DJ said, pulling rank like every big brother. He didn't have a few years on Riley like Lloyd had on Wyatt, but he still wanted to be the boss.
To settle the argument, Wyatt told them. "Actually, Barney has his own bed. I'll go and get it." He was back with it right away. "I'll put the dog bed between your beds. That's fair. Right on this spot that Barney already picked out for himself. See, he's happy there," Wyatt said as they all watched Barney turn around before lying back down.
Worried that Barney might follow him if he left, Wyatt stayed in the boys' room and waited for them to fall asleep. The two chairs in there didn't look comfortable so he just sat cross-legged on the rug and listened to their chatter. Instead of a bedtime story for the boys, the boys were telling Barney about all the cool places they were going to show him.
"I might want to see some of those places too. Are they just for kids and dogs, or can uncles join in too?" Wyatt asked.
"Uncles are allowed," DJ told him.
Then Riley seconded that. "You're allowed, Uncle Wyatt."
"Thanks, guys. Sounds like fun," Wyatt told them. "Now that Barney has so much to look forward to, he'll have sweet, doggy dreams, and you two have sweet dreams too."
Once the boys were asleep, Wyatt got up on stiff legs. Leaving Barney to watch over them, he crept quietly out of the boys' room. He stretched in the hallway and found himself staring at a family photo that hung in the hall. Lloyd and his wife were sitting in the grass. DJ was sitting between them awkwardly holding on to Riley, who apparently had just learned to walk and could not be contained.
Wyatt found that he couldn't let himself gaze at that photo too long. Being with the boys made him miss Lloyd so much, and the boys must miss him and their mother even more.
But what had stood between him and Lloyd was still there. His older brother sided with their father and said his sexuality was a selfish choice. After that, Wyatt had no reason to keep in touch with either of them.
He didn't even know about his brother's marriage or his family until Lloyd was gone. Now that both his brother and his father were gone, his aunt was all that was left to remind Wyatt of the family they once were.
Wyatt went into the living room and found her curled up in the armchair in there. Aunt Deb had her phone out and was smiling at the screen. He had already noticed that she texted with Uncle Tom all the time.
Noticing him lingering there, she pointed to the couch and put away her phone. "Take a load off and tell me what's on your mind."
Taking a seat, Wyatt told her, "I guess I still find it hard to believe that Lloyd and his wife would want me taking care of their kids."
"You heard Lloyd say it himself. You're family. In the end, that's what matters," she said like that solved everything. Then she got her phone out again. "I'm sending you copies of the recordings that Lloyd made in the hospital. There is the one for you and one for each of the boys." She then grew thoughtful. "Jill was already gone when he made the recordings. He knew he didn't have much longer. His voice was weak. He looked pretty bad, so he didn't want video."
Aunt Deb looked so sad as she spoke, heartbroken really. Hearing her, Wyatt was amazed at how strong she was. Wyatt didn't know how he would hang on once she was gone.
All day the boys had occupied him, so maybe that pulled him through. To help him hold it together now, he kept the boys foremost on his mind. Soon he was going to be all they had, and he couldn't fail them. He still wished Aunt Deb could have stayed just a little bit longer.
"I can't believe you're leaving so soon," Wyatt said.
"I have to. They were good about it at my job, letting me take the time off, but I have to go back as soon as I can. And Tom needs me."
"I understand. It's just that the boys don't even know me," Wyatt said worriedly. "I think they need more time to get used to me."
"This way they'll get to know you and also know that you're the one they can depend on, instead of looking to me." Aunt Deb was a tough-minded lady, of course she would favor the sink or swim approach and throw Wyatt right into the deep end.
"I guess you're right." Wyatt sighed and rolled his shoulders trying to let go of some of the tension that gripped him when he thought about taking care of the boys by himself. He didn't feel so overwhelmed when he was with them, only now when they weren't here to distract him. "They're good kids," Wyatt said with a smile.
"And you have the potential to be a good uncle," Aunt Deb told him and gave him a wry look that told him he still needed to prove himself.
"I'll do my best," Wyatt assured her. "That's what those boys deserve. I'll even try to like this place."
"The house or the town and everything?" she asked with a frown.
"All of it. But I guess Lloyd really liked living here," Wyatt said and looked out the window where all he saw was darkness. All the bright green that he had seen out there before had turned nearly black. The lights of the town were somewhere to the east, invisible to him. Even as he sat there with his aunt, the view made him feel lonely.
"Loved it. Lloyd thought this was the perfect place to raise the boys, and you will get to appreciate it too," she assured him.
Wyatt wasn't sold on that idea. The best he could hope for was not to hate the place. For the sake of the boys, he would try to give Peach Tree a chance.
Now that the boys were asleep, he and Aunt Deb finally had some quiet time and got to catch up. She told him how Uncle Tom was doing, and Wyatt told her a little about the life he was leaving behind. It reminded him of how different his life had become practically in an instant.
"I'm still in shock about everything. That Lloyd is really gone, that I'm going to be living here, that I have two boys to take care of. I'm not sure I'll be any good at it," Wyatt told his aunt.
"You brought along that dog. He'll get you out of any sticky situations," Aunt Deb said with a smile. "Now I'm going to go do some packing. You can look over that list I made you. It's phone numbers of the neighbors, what to call on them about. Where the nearest doctors and clinics are and of course the kids' own pediatrician. Numbers for their school and teachers."
"So I get homework," Wyatt said as he picked up the small stack of papers. "I'll put these in my phone to have them with me."
"All right. Sleep tight, hon," she said and patted him on the shoulder.
Left alone in the living room, Wyatt did his homework then checked some work emails. After that, with nothing left to do, he stared out the window again and tried not to let the loneliness out there swallow him.
Since his night was restless with bad dreams waking him, Wyatt was up early. He was tired but that wasn't enough to keep him in bed. Without Barney with him, he didn't even have the distraction of that little fuzz ball, but the boys needed his company more than Wyatt did.
Dressed and out of his room, he could hear Aunt Deb bustling around and getting ready, but it looked like the boys weren't up yet.
Barney came over to nose around his feet and to get his head scratched. "Good morning. Who's a good boy. I missed you," Wyatt whispered to him and they both went off to the kitchen.
He let Barney out the kitchen door to run around in the field in the back and do his doggy business. Already Wyatt knew he would be spending all his time getting burrs out of his fur. Keeping an eye out the window in case he had to pick up after him, Wyatt looked for coffee so he could make some and finally get his eyes to open fully.
By the time Barney came bounding up the porch steps, coffee was already brewing. Wyatt set down some fresh water for him and watched him drink greedily.
"Thirsty boy, you like it here, don't you?" Wyatt said to him and Barney wagged his tail in answer. "You be careful out there and don't get eaten by bears."
Wyatt was looking through the cupboards when he heard noises out in the hall. There was the thumping of two sets of little feet and then two high, anxious voices conferring.
As the voices and the footsteps got closer, Wyatt eyed the kitchen door. Two little heads poked around the corner then ducked back. Wyatt heard them whispering to each other.
"See? He isn't gone. He's still here," Riley whispered to DJ.
Wyatt wondered if they saw that his room and his bed were empty and got worried. "Yes, I'm still here," he confirmed to them loudly. "And I'm hungry. You guys hungry?"
The boys came around the corner saying yes, and Wyatt saw that they were already dressed.
"What's for breakfast, guys?" Wyatt asked as he poured himself some coffee and got glasses for the boys.
"We don't know yet. Aunt Debbie knows," Riley told him.
"She's getting ready right now. I think the three of us are in charge of breakfast," Wyatt informed them. "What do we put in these glasses? Milk or juice?"
"Good morning, boys," Aunt Deb said as she came into the kitchen and came over to kiss the boys on the head.
"You're all dressed up," Riley noticed as he looked up at her. She was wearing makeup and a nice outfit, not the usual jeans and a polo shirt in a pastel color, what Wyatt called the Aunt Deb uniform.
"I wanted to dress up for my flight and for seeing my Tom again. Wendy is driving me to the airport pretty soon," she told them and looked out the window toward the front. Wendy was one of the ladies that Wyatt had met on his whirlwind tour of the neighborhood the day before.
"You have time for a cup of coffee, right?" Wyatt asked getting ready to pour her a cup.
"Not even that. Wendy is going to be here any second now. I just have time to hug these two boys." She got on one knee and hugged both boys at once. "I'm going to miss you a lot, but I know Uncle Wyatt is going to take good care of you."
"We miss you," Riley said effusively before she was even out the door.
"Me too," DJ added more shyly while hiding his face in her shoulder.
They heard honking outside and the boys ran ahead while Wyatt went to get Aunt Deb's small suitcase.
"Give Tom our best and we'll FaceTime with you whenever you have time," Wyatt said as they went out the front door.
There was more kissing and hugging before Aunt Deb drove off with Wendy.
"She has chickens and she gave us Easter eggs," Riley told Wyatt as they went back inside.
"If she gave you Easter eggs, I think that means she has Easter bunnies," Wyatt told him.
Riley gasped but DJ shook his head. "Uncle Wyatt is just being silly, Ry."
"I know," Riley protested, but he wasn't sure who to believe.
"What do we do about breakfast?" Wyatt asked when they all went inside with Barney scampering ahead of them.
"We only know how to make cereal. What do you know how to make, Uncle Wyatt?" Riley asked him.
"Cereal," Wyatt told him. "Let's see what kind we have."
He opened the cupboard where he had seen boxes of cereal. There were two kinds and both were healthy, not the kind he and Lloyd had stuffed their faces with when they were kids.
He took the boxes down and had the kids choose, not that he saw much of a difference. There were some bananas and he sliced them into their cereals. He had some vague idea that parents were supposed to do that.
"We can go shopping today. You'll show me the town, and we'll get some frozen waffles and things like that. OK?" Wyatt said as he poured milk into all their bowls.
"Yay," Riley said while DJ just smiled.
They were all doing the breakfast dishes together when DJ looked up at Wyatt several times without saying anything.
"What's on your mind, young man?" Wyatt asked him.
"Can Barney come too?" DJ asked hesitantly like he was asking some big favor.
"Sure he can. He needs to learn his way around too. You boys can show both me and Barney all the good places in town."
"We will. We'll show you everything," Riley said with manic enthusiasm as he jumped up and down.
"Maybe not everything. Save something for next time," Wyatt said, but he still had a feeling these two were going to exhaust him. "OK, go get ready and brush your teeth. I'm going to send some emails," he told the boys as he wiped his hands on a dish towel.
Wyatt had taken a few days off from his job, but he still had to keep up. He mostly checked over final translations of technical manuals from German and Italian, but he was usually available to consult on the preliminary work too.
When he was done, the kids and Barney were waiting for him on the front porch. He might be needed at work, but these guys needed him more. Walking seemed like the better way to get to know the area, so they set off on foot.
They walked next to the same road Wyatt had taken to come there, but their progress was very slow. Barney had to sniff everything, and DJ and Riley insisted on showing the dog every rock and tree along the way.
"I thought you boys were going to show me the town," Wyatt said to see if he could hurry them along.
"It's over there," DJ told him and pointed down the road. That was his idea of showing him the town.
"Barney, you look too," Riley said though Barney was more interested in sniffing things than looking at them. But Riley wasn't giving up. He tried to make the dog look at even more stuff. "Over there is a good place to run downhill really fast. See Barney? That's where I saw the biggest grasshopper. The biggest." He said this to Barney too, and Wyatt started to feel like he was just tagging along.
"Is Barney your uncle?" he asked the boys to let them know he was feeling a little left out.
"No, he's a dog," Riley informed Wyatt then looked at him like he was crazy.
"OK, then, show me some stuff too," Wyatt said.
"We can show you where we like to fish," DJ decided.
"Sounds good," he told them and wondered if he would have to go fishing with the boys. He also wondered if they would ever get to town. They did so much meandering plus Barney wanted to sniff everything and mark every other tree.
They did reach the town of Peach Tree eventually, and Wyatt had to admit it was a pretty place. Window boxes with flowers, quaint little storefronts, vintage lampposts and signs all added to the touristy vibe of the place.
In the center of town, there were peach trees in bloom with benches underneath them. They looked inviting but there was no getting near them. The little park was full of tourists taking pictures.
Wyatt decided to see what the town had to offer to someone who actually lived there. He noted where the post office was, two grocery stores, small clothing and shoe stores that had kids clothes. A unisex salon was a relief to see. It's not like Wyatt could cut the boys' hair himself.
The town wasn't very big so it didn't take too long to see it all. Just about the time when the boys were ready to have some food, their tour of the town was done.
"We should think about lunch now. We can buy something and make sandwiches," Wyatt said.
"They have sandwiches," DJ said and pointed inside the Peach Tree Café as they were about to pass in front of it.
"And pie," Riley said.
Wyatt was going to tell the boys that they couldn't go in there with Barney when he saw a familiar face through the big cafe windows. It was the guy he and Barney met by the firethorn bushes. Seeing him, Wyatt grinned from ear to ear while his heart thumped happily.
From what he could see, the guy wasn't just stopping in. He worked there. He was serving food to customers. Wyatt wasn't sure he'd ever see him, much less right here in town. What a stroke of luck. Of course they still couldn't go in with Barney, but maybe some other time.
While Wyatt was anticipating his next visit to town, the boys were arguing about pies.
"You have to like peach pie," DJ was lecturing Riley. "Because it's where we live."
"We don't live in a peach pie," Riley told him. "I like the chocolate pie."
Wyatt was more tempted by the hot, young guy in there than pie. Unfortunately for all of them, there was an obstacle to going in.
"Barney can't go in, guys, so we can't go in either," Wyatt told them.
That put an end to the boys' arguing, and all three of them looked at Barney. Completely unaware that he was causing a problem, Barney was busy sniffing one of two benches that were set up on either side of the café doors. There was an old man sitting there. He was leaning forward and resting his chin on his cane while smiling down at Barney.
"If you like, I'll watch that little dog for you," the old man offered and looked up at Wyatt.
"Don't let him run away," Riley admonished the old guy before Wyatt had actually agreed to let him dog sit.
"I won't," the old guy told him. Then he turned to Wyatt. "I'm Ben Jasper. I live over in one of the river cottages."
"I'm Wyatt Hayes, nice to meet you," Wyatt said and offered his hand. "Are you sure you don't mind looking after Barney?"