"Dearly beloved... we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life..." ~ Prince Let's Go Crazy
For the first time all day there was almost silence. It wasn’t that Tori minded crowds of people or the chatter of conversation, to the contrary he considered himself a social creature. There was just something to be said about driving with the sun still holding warmth but with a hint of fall in the air, the windows down and Prince singing Let's Go Crazy on the radio.
“If you don't like, the world you're livin' in, take a look around, least you got friends …” He sung softly along as he guided his efficient little sedan around another back road curve, dancing in and out of shadows and light from the trees that had grown over head.
Neither of his passengers minded the singing. He glanced in his rear view mirror to spy on the young man sprawled in the back seat. Dillon had worn the short dark blue cut off jean shorts Tori loved so much, the ones that cupped his ass just right and made straight people tsk. He’d worn them to be a tease and he promised himself only a little more than an hour until they were back in their bed and breakfast room. He’d remind his boyfriend why he loved those shorts then and the thought made him smile.
The younger man felt eyes on him and glanced up from his PSP, the cords of the headphones snaking over his chest and shoulders. He knew even with only that small glimpse of Tori’s eyes in the mirror what the older man was thinking. He grinned happily and went back to his game.
They rounded another corner and Tori caught the town sign. Phoneixville, founded 1822 population 800 and the quant line of Lions club and church group signs nailed to the post below the town sign made him sigh in a happy way. Getting away from the city had been a good idea, even if he’d had to drag the two men kicking and screaming into it. All Dillon needed as a bribe was the promise of a weekend where neither of them had to work but his friend had been far more difficult to convince.
In fact, getting Epi to do anything lately had been a chore. It had been a rough year year and he couldn’t blame the man for needing to retreat from the world for a while, but it was time to get out more. If nothing else, it made Tori feel better to glance over and see his friend dozing in the passenger seat. He may have been exhausted, and medicated, to fall asleep like that but the fact that he’d relaxed enough to let himself sleep in a car was a huge step. Two months ago any car trip longer than ten minutes, even with Tori driving, had been enough to push Epi into panic.
The sun broke through the trees as they rolled into the small town and lit up Epi’s black hair. It was over grown now, curling around his ears and shoulders in a brooding, moody way and made Tori itch to trim it. It wasn’t so much the length as the fact that it was untidy and tended to fall into Epi’s face and that just was a shame. More so, it hide his eyes. Dark, rich brown with just the smallest flecks of green and blue, not that Tori had stared longingly into those depths since they’d been teenagers and if he had he wasn’t going to admit it.
A sign staked into the roadside caught his eyes. Caution Public Auction Ahead. He slowed up and to his right, up a small gravel lane lined with parked cars and trucks, was a gathering of people in the yard of an old brick Victorian.
“Are we gonna let de-elevator bring us down oh no let’s go…” He sang softly as he watched the crowd around the house. “Huh…looks like a truck parade.”
The street was lined with mid sized trees and sidewalks and nice, decent sized homes with a decent set back from the road and an orderly feel. Tori drove them past a large white painted brick church that was set between two houses and was surprised to come to a traffic circle. It was lined with posts that had chains running through them, had a few monuments and an old cannon displayed on it and oozed small town quaintness. It was a town he wouldn’t have even missed if he blinked, one of a string of small towns they’d driven through taking the scenic route but this one had a gas station. Tori pulled the car into the small lot because he was driving and he wanted a drink.
As soon as the car stopped, Epi sat up, startled and wide eyed. “What?”
“Just stopping for drinks and a piss break.” Tori reassured and watched as his friend slumped back down into his seat to rub at his eyes.
“Where are we?” Epi asked as he glanced around the town. “I fell asleep.”
“Yes you did, and it’s a town called Redneckville.”
“Phoenixville.” Dillon corrected as he poked his head up between the front seats.
Tori turned and claimed a quick kiss of the younger man’s full lips.
“How long until we’re back at the B&B?”
“We’re a little bit more than an hour from Gettysburg.”
“Not soon enough…” Dillon purred.
Epi coughed and opened his car door. “I need to piss.” He gripped the car’s frame and with a grimace pulled himself to his feet.
“Stubborn.” Tori shook his head. He popped the trunk and hopped out of the car. He rushed around to the back of the car and retrieved the forearm crutches they’d stashed in there with the purchases. The bags were smooshed on top of the wheelchair that Epi hated but even he admitted they might need on their weekend mini-vacation. “Here.” He brought the crutches around for his friend and glanced to the small gas station. There were no curbs. “Looks to be a straight shot.”
“I’ll manage.” Epi muttered, flicked his hair back out of his eyes and with a frown took the first unbalanced steps toward the door. He’d said he was fine early in the day, missteped and had fallen badly. There was still a scuff on his khaki pants and he’d skinned his arm pretty badly.
Dillon climbed out and watched Tori watching Epi make his way to the door. He watched as his lover frowned as Epi struggled to get the door open and how he sighed when the other man finally managed it. “Next time we go away for the weekend, we’re going alone.”
“Be nice.” He scolded and locked the car doors before shutting Epi’s door. “He needed to get out.”
“Yeah but come on, we could have been there in like less than two hours on the highway. This back roads bullshit took the whole day. We could have slept in otherwise…”
“He needs to be on side roads to get better. He fell asleep, Dill, that’s huge.”
Dillon rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I’m getting a Red Bull, want anything.”
“I’ll be right in.” Tori used the excuse of checking his cell phone to let the younger man walk ahead of him. The obvious reason was to be able to check out his ass in the cut offs but really Tori wanted a moment to settle his nerves. It still broke his heart each time he saw Epi struggling.
Inside he grinned to the overweight, t-shirt and ponytail wearing clerk as she gawked at them. Tori was guessing they didn’t get to many obviously gay men through their small little town, let alone ones as obvious as Dillon. He found Dillon bent over with half his arm in the soda case fishing out the last Red Bull and he snickered.
Dillon raised his eye brows. “I’m good at grabbing what I want.”
They both glanced over as the bathroom’s door opened, shut and opened again as Epi balanced himself carefully and got through the doorway without even a muttered curse. That worried Tori, the man wasn’t even getting frustrated anymore, he was just accepting and giving up.
“Next time we have to go to Hershey Park.” Dillon announced.
Epi frowned. “You two can go next time you’re here.” He muttered as he snagged a water from the case and made his way to the register to pay.
“Way to go.” Tori whispered.
Tori reminded himself of the really hot ass in the really tight shorts, of the sculpted abs and didn’t let himself get angry at his lover. He patted one broad shoulder and shook his head.
As he paid he took perverse pleasure in the clerk’s barely hidden horror. “Tell me, what was that on the edge of town? That auction?”
“Huh?” She blinked and pulled her eyes away from where Dillon was reading the flyers posted by the door. “Minnie Miller’s house? She passed away last spring, bless her. They’re selling off her house and things today.”
“Guess we missed that.”
“Doubt it, I heard they didn’t expect to even get through the box lots and garage tools and the like until at least four today. Minnie never threw anything out. They said they were going to start furniture and the house about now. Is a shame, she was a real sweet old lady. That everything for you…fellows?”
Tori grinned broadly and caught Epi’s frown. “Yeah we’re good, thanks.”
Dillon slipped out the door but Tori hurried ahead to open it to make at least that part easier for Epi. He walked at his friend’s slower pace back to the car but he was staring off down the street they’d come into town on. He unlocked the passenger side door and after Epi dropped himself back into his seat instead of taking the crutches back he paused.
“Let’s go to that sale.”
“What?” Epi asked.
“That auction. Let’s go see.” He glanced to Dillon but the young man just shrugged. “What do you say Epi?”
“I don’t care, I can always wait in the car.”
“Cool!” He wasn’t going to suggest it, but they could always get the chair out. Epi would have shot the whole idea down if he’d brought the option up. With no extreme protests Tori hopped back in and turned the car back down the road, past the white church and neat orderly houses to the gravel lane.
Any other time he would have parked where ever he could find a place, the first open spot he could find but not with Epi in the car. He drove along the lane slowly, rolling closer and closer to the house, holding his breath hoping there would be a spot open where his friend wouldn’t have to walk so far. When he saw one he felt one worry check off his list and he pulled the car into place.
“How neat is this?” He chirped happily and hoped out of the car.
Dillon wasn't as thrilled. “They have a port-a-shitter.”
“Like you've ever been frightened of a public men's room.”
“I'm not going to get blown in this one.” The younger man pouted.
Epi's crutches caught on the car frame and he struggled to get them out in the open before hauling himself out of the car. It kept him from making a snide comment to the boy or being snappish at Tori. He got to his feet with a small groan, wavered and found his balance.
It wasn't until he was balanced that he looked around. The yard was large, sprawling even, and green. A white split rail fence lined most of it, criss crossing and dividing the yard into sections. The section of the yard that was obviously the houses yard had large trees, oak and walnut and a few others Epi wasn't sure about. They spread out their limbs wide and cast deep cool shade across the house and yard. Someone had been a gardener because along most of the man yard's fence plants grew and all along the wide wrap around porch. The porch itself had an honest to God porch swing and Epi glanced to his companions and wondered if he was the only one that really was surprised at the quaint small town perfection of the square brick house.
Neither one seemed to notice but at least they noticed that he hadn't moved. Tori stopped and raised his eyebrows with a look that was half worry and half pleased excitement. “Coming?”
He didn't really want to hobble out into the yard and stand around among the locals hoping he wouldn't fall on his face. “Yeah.” He sighed.
Luckily there was a fairly level, even walkway that seemed well tended. Twigs laying across his path still scared him, the roots nobbing up from the grass in the yard would surely trip him. There was no way he could manage the yard well enough to follow Tori and Dillon to the line of furniture and box lots.
There were plenty of people around and plenty of lawn chairs set up but they all belonged to someone and he wasn't just going to claim someone's seat. Instead he took his bottle of water to one of the areas where the porch was almost at the perfect height for him to easily sit and settled himself down onto the edge. He wasn't much in the mood for people watching but it was hard to miss the tall, heavy set man in work pants and a button down casual dress shirt with a microphone in one hand and a stick in the other.
The auctioneer had a speaker slung over his shoulder and was calling in a fast clip prices too slurred for Epi to really make out. He pointed back and forth between bidders and carefully watched the crowd for any other hands. The crowd seemed to have gathered around the sale and that suited Epi just fine. He was happier sitting between the fern and the day lilies. The auctioneer rattled through two or three items that Epi couldn't see because of the crowd before Tori wandered back over.
“Dill's getting a number. Want to wander in and see the house?”
“To bid, can't bid without a number.”
“You're buying something?”
Tori shrugged. “Maybe, want to go in with me?”
“Yeah, they're selling the house too. What do you say?”
Epi glanced to the four steps up onto the porch, they were wide and deep but he wasn't sure he was up for it.
“I'll help. Come on I don't want to snoop about alone.”
He didn't want to but if he didn't try Tori would nag at him, or worse, tell his shrink. “I'll give it a shot.” It was easy to stand up since he was seated so much higher than a normal chair but finding his balance wasn't easy. At the foot of the steps he paused and held his breath.
“You're using the crutches not your legs.” Tori scolded.
“Bite me.” He had made it up two steps with Tori hovering in case he fell. If he needed to use the crutches and his arms he'd use them. After the third step he wasn't sure he was going to make it and on the fourth he would have fallen if Tori hadn't steadied him.
The inside door was open but the screen door was shut. It opened with the expected squeak and Tori held it long enough for Epi to get himself inside. The floors were wood and had at one point been polished smooth, they had some wear and rough patches now. The molding was all matching wood and the staircase that climbed upward was the same style and age. Epi glanced up counted twelve steps a landing and the staircase zig zaged back a on itself for the last four or five steps. The railing was sturdy but the steps were wide and he wasn’t sure he wanted to try to make it up them.
“Wow.” Tori whispered. “Is such a shame they haven’t kept this up.”
Epi nodded. The house had been grand at one point but it was in need of repairs now. As they made their way around the first floor, across a living room with ugly shag carpet and a formal parlor, the two big square rooms at the front of the house, it was hard to miss the damage. Here a bit of molding had fallen away, there a pane of glass in a window was cracked. The exposed pipes and single chain light fixtures hanging from the center of the ceilings spoke of a house built before either comfort was standard. Some of the frames around the doorways were slanted, level once they’d lost that as the house settled over the years.
“I bet there were French doors here at one point.” Tori said, still little above a whisper as they moved into the formal dining room. Like the parlor and living room there was an old mantel but the fireplace had long since been sealed up. There were scuffs on the floor where chairs had sat for years and lighter squares of paint on the wall where pictures and photos had hung for just as long.
“I don’t like being in here.” Epi whispered back. “It feels like we’re snooping.”
“They’re selling the house, you have to look around.” Tori grinned. “I’m going upstairs for a look, wait for me?”
He only nodded. It felt less like he was walking over someone’s grave without Tori hovering nearby. He moved from the dining room to the back of the house and the tiny kitchen. The stove was easily thirty years old, the fridge was newer but still old. There was almost no counter space, six old metal cabinets painted white with chrome handles and a white enameled wide single sink was plunked in the middle. The walls were wainscoting clapboard and the back wall was lined with shelves like a bookcase but not nearly so deep, a pantry Epi assumed.
It was a tiny space, half the size of the kitchen in Tori’s condo and Epi maneuvered out of it and back through the dinning room. A door under the stairs opened and a younger couple came out of what looked like rickety stairs.
“The basement is dirt.” She whispered to the man.
“Can’t pour concrete with the fieldstone foundation.” He shook his head. “We’ll keep looking, the roof needs done to.”
Epi let them go past him, knowing no one liked to get stuck behind him in a hallway. He moved too slowly and the crutches made passing him difficult. Back he went through the dining room and the parlor and across the hall to the living room. There was a door at the back of the living room and it had been shut when they’d walked over before, now it stood slightly open. Curious, Epi crossed the faded green shag carpet and opened the door.
The ugly carpet ended and Epi felt himself drawn in. The room on this side was smaller than the dining room but some of that was because every wall was lined with built in bookcases. The wood was dark and polished so it shined and the room had a dusty smell to it like old books and faint pipe tobacco. The windows along the wall were huge and had deep windowsills. Wider than even the unusually deep sills the rest of the windows had but it was the glass at the top of the windows that stopped him.
Instead of being clear, it was stained glass. Instead of being simple colored glass in geometric patterns the glass formed a firebird with swirling grays and blues around it as it soared from the fire of his rebirth. It made sense given the name of the town but as the sun came out from behind a cloud and shown through the window, casting Epi in reds and orange hues, his breath froze.
“There you are. Upstairs is just as huge, three bedrooms all this size, a sleeping porch outside of one and what was a bedroom is now a huge bathroom. It has a claw foot tub and no shower, can you believe that?” Tori rattled on as he came in. “The attic is walk in too, no insulation and not at all finished but man that could be a third floor.” Tori frowned because Epi still hadn’t moved. “Hey, you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.” He turned and left the small library office with it’s surprisingly beautiful stained glass upper window and followed his friend back out onto the wide wrap around porch.
Going down the porch steps took more effort. He had to place both feet on a step at a time and had to use his legs to do it. The steps would have been bad enough at the start of the day, at the end of the day he almost was willing to fall just to get down the four steps faster. It was how people looked at him that he hated. He doubted he’d ever get used to that, wasn’t sure he wanted to get used to it.
“There we are. Want to find Dill with me?”
Epi shook his head. “Go on, I’m going to take back my spot on the porch here.”
He nodded and slipped his butt over the edge of the porch and leaned against one of the square support posts. “I’m good.”
“Okay… we’ll be back over soon.”
It wasn’t so bad being left behind. He didn’t want to try to make his way over the uneven yard and he sure as hell didn’t want to fall with so many people watching. The porch was nice, shaded, cool, a breeze blew through and rustled the tree leaves. He could sit there, out of the way and watch everyone. People did glance his way but no one said anything to him and no one looked at him like they remembered him from before he hobbled about. He liked it so much on the porch that he didn’t mind it all. He sat contentedly waiting as the auctioneer finished the line of furniture and walked back toward the house with the crowd of people in tow.
“It’s so quiet here.” Epi confessed as Tori and Dillon rejoined him.
“You on crack?” Dillon teased. “There’s like a hundred people here and it’s crazy noisy.”
“Sweetie? See that RV over there? They’re selling food go get us some chips or candy bars or something?” Tori nudged Dillon and slipped him some cash.
“God.” Epi sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You and your boys.”
“What? I like them young.”
“I’m not dating him for his conversation skills.” Tori laughed.
“That’s obvious. So much for your statement of not mixing work and pleasure.”
“I don’t. If he screws up at work I’ll fire him, he knows that but he’s a good stylist and well, amuses me. You should find a boyfriend.”
That made Epi snort.
“I’m serious. Not some smart stuck up sort but like Dill, someone pretty and dumb you can have a fling with.” The look Epi gave him could have blistered paint. “I’m just saying it would do you some good to get laid.”
“There’s more to life than sex, Tori.”
“Yeah like chocolate and full body massages.” The friend he’d known a year ago would have agreed and laughed that the three things were best together. The Epi sitting across from him barely snorted in amusement. “How about when we get home we do a spa day? Tea and chocolate and steams and massages and facials and the whole works, we’ll go down the list, nails and hair and just spend 8 hours being selfish? I own the damned spa and I never get to enjoy it. What do you say?” It used to be something they did every year for Tori’s birthday but this year he’d spent it in the hospital encouraging Epi to get out of bed and try to walk and since he’d been released his friend had barely wanted to leave the house let alone spend a day being pampered.
“I’m sure Dillon would find it amusing.”
“Lazy fellow, I’m sure he would but I like spending those days with you.” He nudged Epi’s shoulder with an elbow. “What do you say?”
Which was Epi’s catch phrase for no when he didn’t want to outright say it and Tori sighed. He glanced to make sure Dillon was still waiting in line before he leaned closer. “I hate to break it to you, Epi, but you lived, you need to start living.”
“Not saying you need to do it today, I promised you that you could take as much time as you needed but you’re going to have to sooner or later and a spa day would do you some good. You’re down right shaggy.” He brushed at the too long hair and forgot that he was sitting on Epi’s right. As the hair fluttered back the still angry looking pink scar that curled around his temple peeked out.
Epi pulled his head away and shook his hair back into place. It fell over the scar and unless someone knew to look for it, made it disappear. He was saved from answering by the auctioneer turning over the microphone to a man in dress pants and shirt and a tie. The lawyer read off the terms, the houses address and deed.
“As you’ve all seen the house will need some repairs and is being sold as is. The water heater is new in the last five years but the furnace and roof are both in need of repair. The property is 14.4 acres and includes several outbuildings. One of which is the old carriage house with a one bedroom studio apartment above it which is currently rented. Please note, the property sits part in the township and part in the borough so any development of the land will need to gain clearance from both. Terms are $10,000 down today and the rest at the end of 30 days. The main house has been hooked to the public sewer and water but the original well is still in place and active. If there aren’t any questions?” He glanced around the crowd and when no one shouted out anything handed the microphone back to the auctioneer.
Instead of the fast patter the man had used on the furniture and box lots he spoke simply and plainly. “Okay, how about 75,000 to start? Who’ll start us out at 75,000?” A white numbered bidders card flashed and the auctioneer pointed to a young man standing near the side of the crowd. “75,000 thank you Nick.” The older auctioneer nodded.
Epi leaned forward a little to see who it was that had been called by name. A local and he guessed family member to the dead woman who’d owned the house. The man was his own age, thirty or there about, with darker brown hair and eyes blue enough to be noticed across the yard. He was dressed in grey work pants and t-shirt. The older man that stood behind him was a little heavier around the middle and his hair had gone gray but it was obvious they were family. Epi guessed it was the bidder’s father.
“Who’ll say 80,000….” A card flashed from a man standing near where Epi was perched. “80,000 thank you!”
The fellow was standing in dress pants and a button down shirt. His shoes cost too much for a country auction and his sunglasses were designer. He was standing with another man, both older than the first bidder, and both had a slick, self confident feel of dealers or developers.
“85,000?” The auctioneer asked the younger man and a card flashed a bid again. “85,000 do I have 90,000?” All eyes turned back to the man with money to the side and without a pause he bid again. Back and forth it went at a steady careful pace as the cost of the sale rose by five thousand dollars for each bid. “175,000…thank you, 180,000…180,000, 185… 190…195,000 dollars?” The younger man paused. “195?” The auctioneer questioned again and the younger man turned to speak softly to his father. The father shrugged a little and shook his head and when the younger man turned back around he shook his head no. “Anyone else? I have a bid of 190,000 dollars…195?” no one shooed a fly or scratched their nose. “How about 191?” The auctioneer turned back to the younger man. There was another quick conversation and the younger man nodded yes. “192…? I have 192… 193?....194….looking for 195,000 dollars come on folks it’s prime land, has a creek in it you can move horses in right away…195,000…” The younger man had again backed out of the bidding.
The older bidder in front of them grinned and smiled to his friend. “I’ll get the approval, if not for the townhouses I’ll shove five or six houses back in here.”
“They’ll go for that?” The other dealer asked.
“195,000…looking for one hundred and ninety five thousand… you all done?”
“I’ll make them go for it at this price.” The older man laughed.
“Last call… I have 194,000 dollars looking for 195,000…”
Epi didn’t know why the older man’s conversation bothered him so much. It didn’t matter to him if someone shoved a half dozen houses on the land, or it shouldn’t matter. The idea of the old oak and walnut trees being cut down, the white split rail fence and it’s neatly planted flowers being uprooted, felt like he’d been hit in the chest. Before he really knew what he was doing he reached over to where Tori had tucked his bidding number under a leg and snatched it up.
“195,000! Thank you!” The auctioneer pointed Epi’s way.
The developer glanced to his friend. “No, I was on at 194.”
“Yes but I have a bid behind you.” The auctioneer answered and the crowd’s eyes turned to Epi.
None of the attention felt as heavy as the look Tori gave him. “Are you out of your mind?” He hissed.
“Maybe.” Epi answered honestly.