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With Eyes Open: Gay Romance
By Trina Solet
Copyright © 2015 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.
Ian watched his father sleeping restlessly in the armchair by the window. He had that ugly, checkered blanket over him, and his eyes and his hands twitched every few seconds. The sunlight coming through the window was weak. Ian worried that his dad might be cold even with the blanket. He got so little sleep these days. Ian didn't want to disturb his rest just to cover him better.
Knowing that his father wouldn't like it if he woke up and found Ian watching over him, he went for a walk.
Soon after coming home from college for the summer, Ian got the bad news about his dad. His dad didn't want to tell him right away. In a small town like Blystone, he had no chance of keeping it a secret. Word got around and eventually Mrs. Lincer stopped Ian on the street. She asked him how his dad was doing and offered to make a "spice tea" for him. She said it was her own special home remedy to help with the nausea from chemo his dad would be starting soon. Ian was stunned, but he managed to thank her anyway. He walked a few steps, then he ran straight home. He got there so out of breath he couldn't even speak to ask his dad why he didn't tell him.
That was at the start of his summer break. Now it was fall, time for Ian to go back to school, but he was still here. With his dad fighting for his life, Ian wasn't going anywhere.
With his dad resting, Ian decided to go into town. These days he found himself exploring Blystone like he did when he was a kid and this small town was his world. It had seemed immense to him then. Now he could walk from one end of town to the other in ten minutes. The longest part of his walk was getting to the town itself. Ian's house was outside of town, where a handful of big old farmhouses were scattered between fields.
Ian walked along the side of the curving road, glancing at familiar sights as if to make sure they were still there. The ground under his feet was grassy and soft. Shrubs grew further on, marking off the fields. This area was prone to flooding so a ditch ran alongside the road to collect the runoff.
After he passed the bus stop at the crossroads with Stoneway Road, he saw the scarecrowish sight of the makeshift memorial to Lorna Hayes. From there, it wasn't long until he reached the sign that said Welcome to Blystone. That sign hadn't changed for as long as Ian could remember. Once the sign was behind him, he came across the first houses right on the edge of town. These houses were some of the nicer ones in town, with big gardens behind high fences.
One house in particular drew his attention, number 211. Ian had been drawn to that house since he was a kid. The house was old and had stood abandoned for a couple of decades. Some said it was haunted. Of course a kid would be drawn to it. But for Ian, it was more than that. The place called to him and repelled him at the same time.
Recently, the house and the garden had been spruced up for the new owners. The place had a new coat of paint, but the vibe was the same. It pushed and pulled at him. He went closer to where some tall evergreen bushes grew right against the fence.
As he stood out of sight, Ian got his first look at the people who had moved in. Behind a spiked iron fence, a little boy was crawling on the ground while his father sat at the nearby table using a tablet. Ian didn't mean to spy, but seeing a father and son together like that, he couldn't take his eyes off them.
His own childhood came back to him in flashes. He was running through the field behind their house while his father sat on the back porch. He was either reading or writing, and whenever he raised his head, he waved at Ian. This was a very similar scene.
The little boy was blond and about four or five. His father had light brown hair but the same light blue eyes. The man was in his late twenties, dressed conservatively in a white shirt and gray slacks. Not Ian's type, but he was very good looking – slim, broad shouldered, with a sharp jaw and a kissable mouth. He would be OK if he didn't look like a total stiff.
Ian might claim the guy was miles from what he looked for in a guy, but he couldn't quite take his eyes off him until the little boy drew his attention. The boy was bending his head low and peering closely at something. After a little while, Ian realized that the little boy was watching a green bug, one of a few he was likely to find this time of year. Dry leaves from two big trees covered the garden. The little boy lifted them up whenever the bug crawled away to hide under them. Finally losing sight of it, he scrambled around for a while.
"I lost it!" he said and turned to his father like he wanted him to organize a search party.
His father smiled. "You hunt him down. I'm going to go get lunch ready," he said and went inside.
Ian was ready to move on when he saw the little boy turn and gasp. He jumped up and ran to the other side of the garden. There was a stone bench at the end of the garden. It sat under a whitewashed wall that separated the garden from the property next door.
The boy stopped next to the bench and looked up. Ian wondered if there was something on the wall or on the other side that got his attention. There was nothing there, plus the boy seemed to be looking at a spot in midair about five feet off the ground. Then he nodded and said something. He was too far away for Ian to hear the words, but he kept talking. Sometimes he seemed to be listening. Maybe he had an imaginary friend.
Suddenly the boy's father called out from inside the house.
"Toby! Lunch is ready!"
"I have to go," the little boy told his invisible friend loud enough for Ian to hear. As the boy moved to go, he stopped with his arm outstretched backwards. It was almost like someone was trying to hold him back. The boy turned toward the bench again.
"No, I have to go eat lunch now," he said in a plaintive voice. "You don't want me to get in trouble, do you? I'll come back later. I promise."
He still held his hand out then tugged at it like he was wrenching himself free of someone's grip. He pulled his hand back then waved. As the boy ran inside, Ian looked from him to the end of the garden. There was nothing there, of course. He still kept staring even after the boy was long gone. He couldn't quite believe his eyes.
How could a little boy act out a fake struggle so convincingly? Ian would swear that something held on to the little boy's hand, and he had to pull free of it. As he walked away, Ian shook his head. He didn't know what he had just seen, but he decided to go into town and ask a few questions.
Toby ran in through the back door like someone was chasing him. Then he tried to take a seat at the kitchen table right away.
"Did you wash your hands?" Jacob asked him though the answer was obvious.
Standing next to his chair, Toby turned his hands over a few times to examine them. "They look pretty clean," he decided.
"They wouldn't under a microscope. You were playing with bugs. Go wash your hands."
Toby huffed like Jacob was being completely unreasonable. When he came back he climbed into his chair. He was about to pick up his sandwich when he looked up from his plate. He eyed his dad suspiciously. He then lifted the top piece of bread and found nothing suspicious. He lifted the lettuce and found it. A tiny slice of tomato was hiding in the middle of his sandwich.
"You're sneaky," Toby said to the tomato and to his dad.
"Give tomatoes a chance. You'll learn to like them," Jacob told him.
"They're wet," Toby complained.
"So is grape juice and you like grape juice," Jacob pointed out.
Toby didn't have an argument to beat that, but he still shook his head. After looking at his juice glass like it had betrayed him, he bit into his sandwich and made a face. In the end, he ate it without too much fuss, tiny tomato slice and all.
Jacob grinned at him, proud of his boy. It wasn't just tomatoes that couldn't keep him down. Toby had adjusted really well to moving to Blystone. It was a big change. Both of them had left behind their friends as well as family. Jacob did have his sister in Lambton, and Toby was making friends fast.
Jacob never expected to be making a move to a small town, but now that he was here, he felt at home. Finding anyone to date was going to be a major challenge. He groaned as he thought of meeting someone online then driving for miles only to meet him in person and feel no connection. But what other choice did he have? In a small town like this, he wasn't likely to turn a corner and run into a man who could capture his heart after so many failed.
As he went in search of information, Ian remembered hearing of one person who had seen something strange at 211. A few months ago, the local handyman, Mr. Vinik, claimed he saw something. He had been hired by the real-estate agent to fix up the place a little, clear the overgrown garden and do some handiwork around the place. Then she fired him when he started talking about the place being haunted.
After asking around for Mr. Vinik, Ian spotted his truck in front of a house on the other side of town. The man himself was up on a ladder. He was a familiar sight – portly, balding, with that puffy, red vest he always wore. It looked like he was cleaning out old Mrs. McKay's gutters.
Ian waited for him to finish then invited him down to Carlton's Bar for a beer. Once they were sitting down with a beer for Mr. Vinik and a coffee for Ian, who was a year shy of drinking age, they talked about his dad's health for a while. Then Ian asked him about what he had seen.
"And why do you want to know about that?" Mr. Vinik asked.
While he was waiting outside Mrs. McKay's, Ian had come up with a reason he hoped was plausible. "It's for school. I wanted to write something for my short story class. I decided on a ghost story, so I wanted to find out about ghosts from someone who has seen them. You did see something, right?"
Mr. Vinik shook his head, and Ian thought he was about to deny it. But he took a swallow of his beer and said, "I saw it, heard it, and felt it down to my bones. It was like cold fingers reached right through me, grabbed onto my bones and shook me up." Mr. Vinik shook his fist in midair to demonstrate.
"And what did you see and hear?" Ian asked.
"The girl, Lorna. That poor thing." Mr. Vinik made a pained face. "She's cold as the grave now, and if you go near her, you'll sure as hell feel it. I didn't see much of her, just enough to know what I was looking at. And I didn't hear her voice exactly. It was more like I stepped into a wind tunnel or something. It was loud. I couldn't breathe. I thought that might be the end of me. But once I got myself inside the house, I was all right again."
"So this didn't happen inside the house?" Ian asked.
"Oh, no. She got to me when I was clearing out the garden in the back. Didn't even get to finish. Ms. Hughes at the real estate office said I must have been drinking on the job and fired me. I was not. I saw what I saw. And if you don't feel like taking my word for it, it's not only me," Mr. Vinik said, getting mad now.
"Who else saw her?" Ian asked.
"Lorna's own grandmother. She didn't outlive her by much, but she saw the girl too. And just like me, nobody believed her either. Everyone figured it was grief talking or that she was losing it."
"So she's been haunting the house since she died?" Ian said, not sure if he could believe something like that. "Tell me more about Lorna, how she ended up dead."
"You've lived here practically all your life. You heard the stories," Mr. Vinik told him.
Ian had, but he wanted his memory refreshed. "I've heard bits and pieces since I was a kid. Put it all together for me."
"Alrighty. Lorna came to live here when she was a little kid, four or five, after her parents died. Her grandmother took her in and raised her. Then Lorna went off to college and came back from college pregnant. Just about the time she was close to deliver, maybe some weeks away, she got killed right outside of town. That was at this time of year twenty years ago now. She did manage to give birth to her baby before she died. You know the spot, where someone put up that memorial." Mr. Vinik pointed through the bar windows toward the west side of town.
"Someone?" Ian said.
"No one knows who. The night before it wasn't there. There were only some flowers that people left right on the ground and a spindly, little, white cross. Next morning, that contraption was up with Lorna's name on it. That's just another unsolved mystery for you. The case of who killed her was never solved either. No wonder she haunts her grandmother's place. Spirits that don't get justice can't rest easy."
"Who do you think killed her?" Ian asked, just out of curiosity.
"Oh, it's not up to me to say."
"What's the most popular opinion on the subject?" Ian asked, trying to push past his reluctance to accuse someone of murder.
Mr. Vinik sighed. "The only one who had any reason to harm her and her baby was the father of that child. He was her boyfriend from college, a rich kid hoping to get richer by marrying a girl with serious money. Didn't want to be saddled with Lorna and her kid so..." he trailed off. The rest was obvious.
"What happened to Lorna's baby?"
"Lorna's grandmother took care of him, but the poor old thing didn't last long. When Lorna's grandmother wasn't well enough to take care of him, the baby was sent to live with relatives somewhere in the Midwest."
Finishing the last of his beer, Mr. Vinik went on his way. Ian was left to mull over what he told him and to wonder why he had been so determined to hear it. Most of what Mr. Vinik said was stuff he sort of knew already but never paid much attention to. It wasn't anything he ever needed to know. Maybe Lorna was haunting her grandmother's house. Maybe that little boy was just playing around. Why did it matter?
After that conversation with the handyman, Ian thought that might be the end of it. He satisfied his curiosity. Now he could drop the whole thing. The weird goings on had nothing to do with him. But every time he passed the back garden of 211, he stopped and stared at the spot by the bench. What he had seen just wouldn't leave him alone.
Jacob had been busy with dinner while Toby did his kindergarten homework. Once Toby was done, he went out to play in the garden. Of course he complained when Jacob made him put on his jacket. The evenings were cold now. Leaves were dropping. Jacob felt like he was raking that garden every single day.
Toby had been out there for almost an hour now while the chicken, potatoes, and squash were baking. Seeing that Toby's school things were still on the kitchen table, Jacob decided to call him inside to clear them off and set the table. It would be much easier to do it himself, but parenting wasn't about what was easier.
As he looked for Toby through the kitchen window, Jacob saw him standing by the stone bench. It seemed like he was talking to someone. Toby shook his head then said something Jacob couldn't hear. From the kitchen window, Jacob had a good view of the garden, and there was no one there.
Stepping outside, Jacob shivered. It was much colder than he expected. The cold made him short of breath and the sound of the wind was too loud in his ears. Actually it wasn't windy at all. He couldn't tell where the sound was coming from, only that it was unnerving. It made his jaw clench.
Jacob called Toby to come inside. He was relieved when they went into the house. It was so much quieter and warmer.
"Weren't you cold out there?" Jacob asked as he watched Toby take off his jacket.
"It's not cold," Toby told him as he hung his jacket on the back of a chair.
"Pick up your stuff and help me set the table," Jacob told him then he asked him about what he had seen. "Who were you talking to out there?"
"The lady," Toby said as he stuffed his things into his book bag.
"A lady? What does she look like?" Jacob asked.
With his chin raised, Toby thought about it. Jacob was half expecting him to say that she was invisible, but Toby simply said, "She has a blue dress."
"Like what?" Toby asked.
Jacob picked a piece of information at random. "How old is she?"
"She's a grown-up, but she isn't too old."
"OK. Is she your friend?" Jacob wanted to say imaginary friend, but he didn't think that was the right way to talk to him about it.
"Yeah. I think she's lonely so I tell her what happened at kindergarten and at Ruth's. But she never laughs at anything, not even when it's really funny," Toby said peevishly.
"I see. And what's the lady's name?"
"I asked her, but she never tells me."
"Can't you give her a name?"
Toby seemed puzzled by this suggestion. "Little kids can't give grown-ups names. Can they?"
"But she isn't a regular grown-up," Jacob said though he wasn't sure if Toby realized that.
"I guess not. I'm gonna ask her her name again, but she isn't good at talking," Toby said.
"OK," Jacob said and helped him set the table.
He wanted to know more about this, but he wasn't sure how to ask the right questions. Having imaginary friends wasn't unusual. It was a little strange that Toby hadn't mentioned her before though. Also, he couldn't help but wonder why Toby would have a nameless lady as an imaginary friend.
Though he couldn't seem to pass up number 211 without staring, Ian didn't have time to obsess about the house that might or might not be haunted. He had more important things to worry about, like his dad's health. To think that at the beginning of his summer break, he didn't even know about his dad's cancer. His father dragged his feet and only told Ian that he wasn't feeling well.
"The doctors are doing tests. But I probably just caught a bug," he said.
The truth was his dad had just been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, but he didn't want Ian to worry.
Ian was in shock for weeks after he found out. His dad always had trouble giving him any kind of bad news. When his parents were splitting up, it was his mom who told him what was happening. This time, Ian had to call her to let her know what was going on with his dad. He barely managed to get the words out. They stuck in his throat and choked him.
The thought that he might lose his dad scared him more than anything ever had before. But as long as there was still even a slim chance, Ian had to get his shit together and help him fight. He drove his dad to his chemo sessions and then took care of him when he got home.
The whole time, his dad never stopped trying to convince him he was OK, always saying he could manage on his own. He was pushing Ian to go back to school. Looking so pale and weak, he was telling him he was doing fine.
He did it again today. "I'm OK. You really don't need to worry about me. It's not too late for you to go back to school." The man was like a broken record, but he meant well.
"You're a funny guy, Dad. I'm going to make you some ginger lemon tea. But while you're trying to get rid of me, you remember what's waiting for you in that jar." Opening the refrigerator, Ian pointed to the grape jelly jar in the back of the top shelf. It was Mrs. Lincer's homemade spice tea concentrate. Every spice known to man was in there, and the result was vile.
His dad made a face, remembering the taste. He was sitting in the window seat off the kitchen. When it was warmer, he would sit on the back porch. Now the window seat was the closest thing to his favorite spot. He liked the view of the meadow in the back of their house.
While he made the tea, Ian thought that's what his father was looking at. Then he realized his dad was checking out his own reflection in the glass. As long as Ian could remember, his dad's hair had always been thin. Chemo had left him with so little, he just shaved it all off.
"I think I look better with no hair. Sort of like Vin Diesel, right?" his dad said.
"Right this minute, I can't even tell you apart. I was just asking myself, 'Should I make an extra cup of tea for Vin Diesel or what?' Dad, you're blowing my mind. It's like you're twins."
His dad grinned at him. He was trying so hard to keep up his own spirits and Ian's too. The least he could do was return the favor.
As his dad dozed off, Ian straightened up a little around the house. His dad was never good at picking up after himself, and now he didn't have the energy. Looking around for what needed to be done, Ian took in the familiar, old place.
The house was Dad's family home going back several generations. He was really attached to it and its history. That was no wonder. Dad was a professional history buff. The Civil War was his specialty. Until he got sick, he had made a living writing books about it and giving lectures. He often took Ian with him on his research trips and lecture tours. Then it was back home to write his heart out.
Ian didn't share his passion for writing, history, or even the house where he grew up. During his childhood, the house was an obstacle course of old furniture with a banister he wasn't allowed to slide down, but he did anyway. But being so old, it was no surprise that the house was a little gloomy. That's how it seemed to Ian anyway, especially after his mom moved away. He was in high school then and splitting his time between his dad's place and his mom's. The contrast between their houses didn't do his dad's house any favors.
For the last two years, Ian had spent most of his time away at school. It was weird to be back here. Not just at the house though. Inside the house and for miles around, all the way into Blystone, Ian had scattered bits and pieces of his childhood.
The pieces of his childhood that obsessed him right now had to do with that house, number 211. As he was growing up, he remembered it sitting abandoned, surrounded by an overgrown yard. With its gates chained shut, it called to any adventurous boy or girl to jump the fence if they dared.
Ian had done it only once. What happened after he went over the fence was unclear to him. The garden was cool and dark. The trees and bushes had grown big. Rising high above an eight-year-old boy's head, they smothered the sunlight.
But it couldn't have been as dark and cold as he remembered. Wasn't it summer? And why couldn't he breathe? Ian tried to remember, but it was murky. He hit a blank wall when he tried to focus on the memory. He did remember running away from there, scared, breathless, not stopping until he got home.