The Road Homeby Michael Thomas Ford
When a car accident leaves photographer Burke Crenshaw in need of temporary full-time care, he finds himself back in the one place no forty-year-old chooses to be--his childhood bedroom. There, in the Vermont home where he grew up, Burke begins the long process of recuperation, and watches as his widowed father finds happiness in a new relationship that's a constant reminder of everything Burke wants and lacks.
Exploring local history, Burke discovers an intriguing series of letters from a Civil War soldier to his fiancé. With the help of librarian Sam Guffrey, he begins to research a 125-year-old mystery that seems to be reaching into the present day. The more Burke delves into the past, the more he's forced to confront the person he has become: the choices he made and those he avoided, his ideas of what it takes to be a successful gay man, his feelings about his mother's death, and the suppressed tension that simmers between himself and his father.
Compelling, frankly funny, and often wise, The Road Home is the story of one man's coming to terms with who he is, what he wants out of life, and where he belongs--and the complex, surprising path that finally takes him there.
"Piercingly accurate and sweetly hopeful." --Booklist
"An involving. . .narrative about the importance of being true to one's self." --Publishers Weekly
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THE ROAD HOME
By MICHAEL THOMAS FORD
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Michael Thomas Ford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnd there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy....
Burke couldn't remember the rest. It was something about peace and singing. That much he knew. But the exact words escaped him. He closed his eyes and pictured himself standing at the front of the church, just as Mrs. Throckton had told him to do. He was wearing a long brown robe and holding a staff made from a mop handle. Two other shepherds stood near him, while a couple of little kids dressed as sheep wandered around looking lost.
The problem was his beard. Made of cotton balls glued to construction paper and attached to his face with pieces of string that hooked around his ears, it made it difficult for him to speak. He felt himself growing anxious as he cleared his throat and tried again. But the words seemed to be stuck. He couldn't get them to come out of his mouth. All he could do was look out at the pews filled with people waiting for him to deliver his speech-the most important part of the whole pageant.
He opened his eyes. His heart was beating fast in his chest, and for a moment he couldn't breathe. Then he looked around, saw that he was standing on top of the hill, and he began to calm down. It's okay, he reassured himself. It's okay.
He moved his feet, his boots crunching in the snow. It had gotten colder since he'd come out an hour ago. He looked up at the sky and saw that it was darkening. Night was coming. Soon he would have dinner with his parents, and then his father would drive them to church, where Burke would play his part in the Nativity pageant. If he could say his lines.
He tried not to think about it, concentrating instead on the hill, and specifically on the path he'd made for the toboggan. It was a good path. He'd planned it carefully, first tamping the snow down with his feet and then dragging the toboggan up and down the hill several times, until the path was exactly wide enough and deep enough to keep the sled on track. It had been a lot of work, and he was tired. But the anticipation of a spectacular ride energized him. As he looked down the hill, he could already feel the shaking of the toboggan as it slid over the hard-packed snow.
The best part, of course, was the jump. Admittedly, it wasn't exactly a jump, more of a very large bump. But it would do the trick. He'd chosen the route precisely because it took him over a mound that stuck out of the hill about halfway down. If he could get up enough speed, the toboggan would hit the bump and lift up enough to create the sensation of flying. This was assuming that he'd planned correctly. Toboggans were tricky things and didn't always do what one wanted them to.
He'd waxed the bottom of his, rubbing the paraffin into the wood until the boards were shiny and slick. So far it had performed admirably, sliding over the snow with a satisfying shushing sound. True, it had once or twice attempted to go sideways or break free from the path, but that was the nature of toboggans, and Burke admired its refusal to be entirely tamed.
It had begun to snow again. Thick flakes tumbled from the sky. Although he loved snow, he wished it would stop, at least until he was finished. New snow filled in the path and slowed the toboggan's pace. A clean, almost icy surface was preferable. Still, he had time before the new snow accumulated enough to affect things too badly.
Get going, he told himself. This is what you've been waiting for.
Still he held back, scanning the track for any imperfections, moving the toboggan back and forth across the snow to make sure its underside was still slippery. He knew that he was hesitating because now that the long-awaited moment had arrived, he was afraid of failure. His mind flashed suddenly to the image of himself standing onstage, unable to remember the words of the angel of the Lord.
He pulled the toboggan to the crest of the hill and the start of the track. Positioning it so that the front extended just over the hill's peak, he sat down and took hold of the guide rope. Tucking his feet into the hollow made by the upward curve of the wood, he used his hands to push the toboggan forward until he felt the front tip. Then, giving one final push, he leaned forward and let the weight of his body propel the toboggan into the fall.
Cold air buffeted his face, making his eyes tear up. He blinked, clearing them, and looked straight ahead. The toboggan was gathering speed, and the snow whispered excitedly as Burke sailed over it. Everything was working perfectly. It's going to fly, he told himself.
The mound was coming up. Only a few more yards. He pushed against the wind, trying to use as much of his weight as he could to help the toboggan accelerate. Come on, he urged. You can do it.
The front of the toboggan began to rise. Burke held his breath, praying that it wouldn't bog down in the snow. It didn't, and a moment later he was lifted into the air. He seemed to rise above the toboggan. Below him the snow spread out like a frozen sea, and he appeared to be flying over the tops of the pine trees that lined the edge of the field. Exultant, he threw his arms out wide and shouted with joy.
This spontaneous expression of happiness was his undoing. The toboggan, its balance upset, veered from its intended trajectory and lurched to the left as it descended. The prow struck the edge of the track at an angle, and the toboggan tipped sideways. Burke, clutching the guide rope, managed to remain seated, but the toboggan itself spun so that it was now moving backward down the hill. It was also picking up speed.
Disoriented and unable to control the toboggan, Burke could only hold on and wait for the ride to end. He had no idea where the toboggan was going, but eventually it had to stop. If he could just hang on, he would be fine.
And then there came another lurch. The toboggan, catching in a bit of frozen snow, upended. Burke once again rose into the air, but this time he could not hang on. His body was thrown from the sled. He somehow turned so that he was facing the sky, and for a moment he thought everything would be fine. Then he struck something with great force, and all went black.
When he next opened his eyes, it was dark and he was cold. Snow was falling on his face, and he lifted his hand to wipe it away. The fingers of his gloves were stiff and scratched his skin. When he breathed, a sharp pain exploded in his chest. He couldn't feel his legs.
He was lying beside a tree, but he couldn't recall how he had gotten there. His mind filled with jumbled images-snow, flying, a toboggan. It all began to come together. Then, all of a sudden, a blinding light filled the sky above him. He shielded his eyes with his hand. The light burned like fire and turned the world gold. Then a voice came from within it.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
The voice ceased, and Burke heard himself speak. "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The air was filled with an unearthly sound-high-pitched cries that hurt his ears and shattered the tranquility. The light around him changed, becoming colder. He was racked with pain and heard himself cry out for help.
"Mr. Crenshaw," a voice said. "Mr. Crenshaw, can you hear me?"
He tried to answer, but his throat was filled with something. Snow, he thought vaguely. He was choking on snow. He coughed, trying to clear it.
"Just lie still, Mr. Crenshaw," the voice ordered. "You're going to be fine."
The light lessened, and he looked up into the face of a stranger. From somewhere to the side of him came flashes of red, like fireworks. The strange wailing sounds continued to fill his ears.
"I have to get to church," he told the man who was looking down at him. "I have to be in the pageant. I remember my lines now." He tried to sit up and found that he couldn't.
"Lie still," the man said again. "We're going to get you out of here."
"The toboggan," Burke said. "The snow. There's no snow now. Where did it go?"
A second face-a woman's-came into view above him. "How's he doing?" she said.
"He's pretty banged up," the man answered. "But he's alive."
"He's lucky," said the woman. "The way that car looks, he shouldn't be here."
Burke wondered who they were talking about. He started to ask, but then the light came again. This time it refused to be blotted out by the closing of his eyes. It filled his head, exploding as a chorus of voices rang out.
And once more the world went black.
Chapter Two"I thought you said you were okay with turning forty."
Burke opened his eyes. He had been sleeping off and on for most of the morning. His head was still fuzzy from the pain medication the nurse had injected into his IV when, at dawn, he had woken up screaming. He was no longer convinced that he was dying, but his whole body ached, despite the numbing effects of the Demerol. He looked at the face hovering over him and blinked several times, trying to place it.
"Gregg?" he asked, fishing a name from the depths of his foggy memory. He coughed, clearing his throat, and a glass of water found its way into his hand.
"Here," said Gregg. "Drink up."
Burke drained most of the glass, then handed it back to his friend. "How did you know?" he asked Gregg.
"Apparently, I'm still listed as your emergency contact with your insurance company," Gregg replied.
Burke tried to laugh, but it hurt his chest, and he ended up coughing instead. He and Gregg had been broken up for almost three years, yet it had never occurred to him to change his insurance information. Now he was glad he hadn't.
"I always thought the three-in-the-morning phone call would be about my mother dropping dead," said Gregg as he pulled a chair up beside the bed and sat down. "Frankly, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't."
"Did they say what happened?" Burke asked. "All I remember is driving home after the party."
"Raccoon," said Gregg. "Or maybe a dog. You swerved to avoid hitting it and ran off the road. Lucky for you, the guy behind you saw the whole thing and stopped. You should send him a thank-you card."
"My leg's busted," said Burke.
"I noticed," Gregg replied. He nodded at the pulley system that elevated Burke's right leg-which was wrapped in a cast-above the bed. "Your arm doesn't look too good, either."
Burke glanced down and saw the cast that covered his left forearm.
"Not the left one," he said. "Fuck me."
"What else did you manage to break?" Gregg asked.
Burke shook his head. "I'm not sure," he said. "I kind of just got here."
Gregg laughed. "Well, we'll find out," he said. He reached behind Burke. "Sit up if you can," he ordered.
Burke tried, wincing at the pain. Gregg adjusted the pillows behind Burke, and Burke lay back against them. "Thanks," he said.
"Yeah, well, I know what a baby you are when you're sick," said Gregg.
Burke nodded. It was true, he hated not feeling well. It made him feel out of control and, worse, dependent on someone else. He'd never been good at being taken care of.
Gregg went to the window and opened the curtains, letting in the bright morning light. Watching him, Burke was reminded of how much of a nester Gregg was. He loved taking care of things-houses, animals, people. Ironically, it had been the thing that had ended their relationship. Gregg had wanted them to move in together; Burke had been afraid the closeness would be smothering. After a year of waiting for Burke to change his mind, Gregg had moved on.
"That's better," Gregg said, looking around the room. "I hear hospital chic is in this year. Martha Stewart just did a segment on decorating with catheters and speculums."
"I understand they make great Christmas ornaments," said a voice from the doorway. A woman in a long white jacket walked in and extended her hand to Gregg. "I'm Dr. Liu," she said. "I assume you're the husband?"
"No," Gregg said. "The ex-husband."
"Oh, I'm sorry," the doctor said.
"Don't be," Gregg assured her. "He was a lousy husband."
Dr. Liu smiled and turned to Burke. "And how are you feeling today?"
"Not as good as I did yesterday," said Burke.
"I wouldn't think so," the doctor replied. "You knocked yourself around pretty thoroughly."
"My leg and my arm," Burke said vaguely.
"Among other things," Dr. Liu told him. "You also broke a couple of ribs and came this close to shattering your pelvis." She held her fingers an inch apart to emphasize how fortunate Burke was not to have done that. "But the leg is the big thing," she continued. "It took a lot to put it back together. Lucky for you, I'm good at puzzles."
"I like her," said Gregg, grinning at Burke.
Burke ignored him. "When can I get out of here?" he asked.
"Let's talk about that," said Dr. Liu. "I want you here for at least a week."
"A week!" Burke exclaimed. "But I've got work lined up. I'm supposed to shoot Angelina Jolie for Boston magazine on Tuesday."
"Not going to happen," said Dr. Liu. "You're not walking on that leg for a while."
"What's a while?" Burke demanded.
"Six weeks minimum," the doctor answered. "Maybe longer."
"No," said Burke, shaking his head. "I can't be laid up for six weeks. No way."
"What did I say?" Gregg said, wagging a finger at him. "You. Sick. Big baby."
Burke groaned. "I have to get out of here," he said.
"You're going to need help," said Dr. Liu. "Do you have someone who can stay with you?"
"I don't know," said Burke. He was irritated now and couldn't think. The pain was coming back, and he wanted more Demerol. "Maybe."
"Well, think about it," said the doctor. "As I said, I want you here for the next week. You can make arrangements for when you're released. But I won't let you out of here until you do."
Dr. Liu excused herself to see other patients and left Burke and Gregg alone again. Burke, thinking about what she'd said, stared at the ceiling. After a few minutes he realized that Gregg had grown oddly quiet. He looked over at his former lover, who was sitting in the chair, looking at his hands.
"Hey," said Burke, "could I ..."
"No," Gregg said quickly.
"How do you know what I'm going to ask?" said Burke.
"You can't stay with me," said Gregg. "I'm sorry, but it's just a bad idea. Besides, Rick wouldn't go for it."
"How do you know?" Burke argued.
"He doesn't like you," said Gregg.
Burke, surprised, looked at him.
"I'm sorry, sweetie, but he doesn't. He thinks you're overbearing."
"I am not," Burke objected.
Gregg gave him a small smile. "You kind of are," he said. "Besides, I have to work. What about your insurance? Maybe they'll pay for an in-home nurse. You might even get a hot one," he added.
"My insurance doesn't pay for anything," said Burke. "I'll be lucky if they cough up anything for this little vacation."
"I can call them for you," Gregg said. "We'll find out."
"I don't want a nurse," Burke complained. "The last thing I need is a stranger helping me to the toilet and trying to talk to me about his life while he's giving me a sponge bath."
Gregg didn't come back with a smart response, which surprised Burke. It also worried him. Gregg's sharp sense of humor waned only when he was trying to avoid confrontation. The fact that he wasn't saying anything meant that he didn't want to discuss the situation.
"Fine," Burke said after a minute or two had gone by. "Call the insurance company. See what they'll do. I'll figure something out." He waited for Gregg to nod in agreement, then added, "I'm tired. I think I should sleep now."
Gregg got up. "I'll let you know what they say. And you're welcome."
Burke didn't look at him as he mumbled, "Thanks."
"I'll be back tonight," said Gregg.
When Gregg was gone, Burke tried to form a plan. He hoped his insurance would come through, although he really doubted it. Having never been really sick, he'd always managed to get by with the bare minimum, figuring he would up his coverage when he got older.
Yeah, well, you are old now, he told himself.
He ran through a list of his friends, thinking about who might be able either to take him in or, better, to come live with him for a month or two, if he needed help for that long. He didn't like the idea of having to move in with someone else. He liked being in his own place, even if he couldn't get around it very well.
Gregg apparently was out as a potential nursemaid. But he had other friends. Oscar, maybe, or Dane. But Oscar worked long hours, and Dane was too much of a cock hound. Burke didn't relish the idea of being in Dane's guest room and listening to his host getting it on with one of his numerous tricks.
What about Tony? he wondered. Tony lived alone, and as a writer, he worked out of his house. But he has cats, Burke reminded himself. Just the thought of Tony's three Himalayans-LaVerne, Maxine, and Patty-made his throat close up. No, his allergies would never survive an extended stay with the Andrews Sisters.
He continued mentally working his way through his address book. But for one reason or another, nobody fit the bill. Abe's apartment was too small. Jesse was a slob. Ellen was a vegan. One by one he crossed the names off his list until he had run out of options. Then he rang for the nurse, asked for another shot of Demerol, and drifted into sleep.
When he awoke again, it was dark outside and his room smelled like his elementary school cafeteria. Gregg was once again seated in the chair by Burke's bed. He indicated a tray on the table beside him.
"Salisbury steak," he said. "And Tater Tots. Who's a lucky boy?"
He picked the tray up and placed it on the movable tabletop that swung out from the wall beside Burke's bed. Positioning the tabletop in front of Burke, he laid out the napkin and silverware as if he were setting a table.
"And what will you be drinking this evening, sir?" he asked.
"Gin and tonic," said Burke. "Make it a double."
"Water it is," Gregg replied, pouring some from the plastic pitcher that sat on the table beside the bed.
Burke picked up the fork and poked at the meat on his plate. "When I was a kid, I always loved Wednesdays, because it was Salisbury steak day at school," he told Gregg. "I was in college before I realized that it was just a fancy name for hamburger."
"That explains your sophisticated palate," Gregg joked. It was another difference between them-Gregg loved fine dining (Burke called it snob food), and Burke's idea of cooking was opening a can of soup.
Burke was suddenly ravenous. He attacked his dinner with his good hand, managing despite the fact that he was a lefty and the utensils felt alien in his right hand. He wolfed down the Salisbury steak and Tater Tots. He even ate the green beans, which normally he would ignore. Only when he turned his attention to the small dish of chocolate pudding did he resume talking to Gregg.
"Did you talk to the insurance people?"
"I did," Gregg answered. He cleared away Burke's tray before continuing. "And you were right. They aren't going to be particularly helpful."
"Define 'particularly,'" said Burke.
Gregg sat down. "They'll pay only fifty dollars a day for in-home care," he said.
"And that's after the five-thousand-dollar deductible," Gregg informed him.
Burke's response brought one of the nurses to his door. "Are you all right?" she asked, looking more than a little concerned.
"He's fine," Gregg assured her. "He's having sticker shock."
The nurse waited for Burke to confirm that he didn't need anything, then left the men alone.
Gregg sighed. "So where does that leave us?" he asked. "I mean you. Where does that leave you?"
"I don't know," Burke told him. "You don't want me, and I can't think of anyone else."
"It's not that I don't want you," said Gregg. "It's-"
"I know," Burke interrupted. "I'm overbearing."
"Just a tad," said Gregg. "And I work. Don't forget that. What about your other friends?"
"Sluts," said Burke, waving a hand around. "Cats. Smokers. Don't eat meat."
"I see," Gregg said. "Which brings us back to square one."
"I have to pee," said Burke.
"What?" Gregg asked.
"Pee," Burke repeated. "I have to pee. Help me up."
"Um, you're not getting up," Gregg said. "Remember?"
Burke glanced at his leg. "What am I supposed to do?" he said.
"This," Gregg said. He held up a plastic container that he'd taken from a shelf beneath the bedside table. It resembled a water bottle on its side, with one end slightly angled up and ending in a wide mouth.
"You've got to be kidding," Burke said.
"Come on," said Gregg. "It's not that hard." He pulled back the blanket on Burke's bed and started to lift Burke's gown.
"Hey!" Burke said.
"Relax," said Gregg. "It's not like I haven't seen it before."
Burke relented, and Gregg hiked up the hospital gown, exposing Burke's crotch. He placed the urine bottle between Burke's legs.
"Ow," Burke said. "Slow down."
He tried to spread his legs, but when pain shot through the right one, he gave up and balanced the bottle on his thighs. Taking his penis in his right hand, he positioned the head at the mouth of the bottle and tried to pee. At first nothing happened. Then, as if a valve had been opened, urine spurted from his dick. Startled, he let go, and the bottle toppled sideways as he continued to pee. He attempted to grab at the bottle and hold on to his penis at the same time, but his left arm was useless, and he could accomplish only one of his goals. He clamped down, forcing the flow of urine to stop, but not before the hair on his legs was covered in drops of piss.
Gregg, who had prevented the bottle from falling to the floor, repositioned it. "Hold it," he ordered Burke, who placed his right hand on the bottle. Gregg took Burke's cock in his hand and inserted it into the bottle's mouth.
"Don't watch," Burke said.
Rolling his eyes, Gregg looked away. After a moment Burke was able to pee freely. He tried to ignore the fact that Gregg's hand was holding his dick as he drained his bladder. He watched as the bottle filled up. For a moment he was afraid it might overflow, but then the stream slowed to a trickle. To his horror, Gregg milked the last few drops out before removing the bottle.
"Thanks," Burke said.
Gregg took the bottle into the bathroom and poured it into the toilet. When he returned, he had a washcloth in his hand, which he used to wipe the spilled piss from Burke's legs.
"I can do that," Burke protested.
"Shut up," said Gregg. "You don't always have to be the big top, you know."
Burke grunted. He wasn't going to get into that particular argument with Gregg.
"There," Gregg said as he put Burke's gown back into place and pulled the sheet and blanket up. "Feel better?"
"No," said Burke. He was already worrying about what he would do when he had to pee and Gregg wasn't there. He certainly wasn't going to ask any of the nurses for help.
"I had a thought," Gregg said.
"About what?" asked Burke.
"About where you could stay."
"Oh yeah?" Burke said hopefully. "Where?"
Gregg paused for a long moment. "With your father," he said.
Burke laughed. "Right," he said.
"I'm serious," Gregg told him. "He has the room. He's home all the time. It's perfect."
"Except that it's my father," said Burke.
Gregg looked him in the eyes. "You don't have a lot of choices, Burke," he said. "This is a good solution."
"I'm not staying with my father for six weeks," Burke said. "I'm not staying in Vermont."
"There's nothing wrong with Vermont," Gregg argued. "It's beautiful this time of year."
"No," Burke repeated. "End of discussion. I'd rather stay in this place than go there. I'll think of something."
"Okay," Gregg said. "Just keep your options open."
"Don't try that on me," said Burke.
"That thing you do," Burke said. "Whenever you wanted me to do something and I said no, you would tell me to keep my options open. That always meant you thought I would come around and do what you had wanted to do in the first place."
"That's not true," Gregg said.
"No?" said Burke. "Have you forgotten about the vacation in Provincetown? The tile in my bathroom? The Volvo station wagon?"
"That Volvo saved your life," Gregg said. "And I didn't make you do any of those things. I just suggested."
"Well, stop suggesting," said Burke. "I'm not asking my father if I can stay with him."
Gregg nodded. "All right," he said. He looked at his watch. "I should go." He leaned down and kissed Burke on the forehead. "Just think about it."
"Get out," Burke said, only half feigning irritation.
"Good night," Gregg said as he left. "Don't stay up too late. It's a school night."
Chapter Three"Why didn't you tell me there was only one road in Vermont?" Gregg asked as his Saab crested the top of a hill and descended into yet another green-grassed dell. On either side of the road black-and-white cows grazed lazily, only occasionally raising their heads to look at the passing car. "It really does look like a Ben & Jerry's ice cream carton here, doesn't it?" Gregg continued. "I keep expecting to see a Chubby Hubby tree."
"Very funny," Burke muttered. "Now you know why I never came back."
"Stop it," said Gregg. "It's beautiful. And it's just for the summer. Your mother and I will be back to pick you up in August."
"You're loving this, aren't you?" Burke said.
Gregg grinned. "Maybe a little," he admitted.
Burke shifted in his seat. His leg hurt like hell, and every time
Gregg hit a rise or bump in the road, it sent another jolt of pain through the broken bone. "It would have been easier if the crash had just killed me," he complained, attempting to shift into a more comfortable position and failing.
"Think of it as going to a sanatorium," Gregg suggested. "Like one of those tragic tubercular women. Maybe you'll meet some handsome man who was poisoned by mustard gas at Ypres and has been sent here for a rest cure."
Burke stared at his friend. "You're really not helping," he said.
Gregg sighed deeply. "You're determined to make this as miserable an experience as possible, aren't you? I can tell. This is exactly how you were that time we took the house in Provincetown with Randy and Clifford."
Burke groaned. "Heckle and Jeckle?" he said. "Those two talked nonstop from the time we picked them up until we dropped them off in Back Bay seven days later. It was all 'When we saw Madonna at the White Party ...' and 'Last season at the ballet ...' and 'This cilantro is so good.' Also, I have a broken leg and a broken arm."
"Whatever," Gregg said. "Are we almost there?"
"What was the last town we went through?"
"I believe it was Grover's Corners," Gregg said teasingly. "Or maybe Fraser," he said truthfully when Burke gave him a vicious look.
"Then we're about twenty miles away from Wellston," Burke informed Gregg.
They rode the rest of the way mostly in silence. Burke looked out the window, dreading the moment when they would pull into the driveway of his father's house. This was exactly how he'd felt returning to Vermont after his freshman and sophomore years at college-like he was being sent back to prison after a too-brief time on the outside. By the summer of his junior year, he'd found a job that allowed him to stay in Boston, and he hadn't looked back. Apart from some Christmases during those first years following graduation and before he'd acquired his own circle of friends, he'd been back only a handful of times in twenty years.
"Wellston," Gregg said as they passed the sign marking the edge of town. "Population three hundred forty-nine. Why, that's practically a metropolis." He leaned toward Burke. "I bet there's even a Wal-Mart."
Burke ignored him. He was watching the familiar landmarks of his youth appear outside the car window like the ghosts of school-yard bullies, each one greeting him with its own particular taunt. The Ebenezer Baptist Church (GOD CAN'T SAY THANKS FOR COMING IF YOU DON'T STOP BY!). The Eezy-Freezy (GET A HOT DOG AND A COLD CONE!). The Farmers Co-op (BARRED ROCK CHICKS $13.99 A DOZEN!). They all looked exactly as they had for decades, as if the entire town had been trapped in amber like a Cenozoic Era mosquito.
"Once we're through town, turn left onto Crenshaw Road," Burke told Gregg.
"He's got his own road?" Gregg exclaimed.
Burke nodded. "When I was a kid, it was just RFD seventeen," he said. "About ten years ago the county decided it needed a real name. Since my father's place is the only one out here, they thought it would be funny to name it after him. It's that dry Yankee humor you've no doubt heard so much about."
They passed the Wellston General School (OUR GRADS ARE GREAT!), which marked the other side of town, and a quarter mile later turned onto Crenshaw Road. Narrow enough that the branches of the trees on either side created a kind of canopy overhead, and rutted enough that every few feet brought fresh curses from Burke's mouth as his body was jarred by yet another bump, it wound lazily through a patch of woods before emerging into a long meadow. A post-andwire fence separated the meadow from the road, and two chestnut horses peered over it hopefully, as if someone might at any moment toss them an apple.
The road curved to the right and became a driveway that led to a large white farmhouse. Daylilies, their orange and yellow heads bouncing lightly in the breeze, were planted in front of the screened-in porch that ran along the front of the house. A beat-up red pickup truck was parked outside, and beside that stood a tall, somewhat heavy man with white hair, dressed in chinos and a red plaid flannel shirt. As the Saab approached, he lifted one hand to about chest level before returning it to his pocket.
"That means 'hello' in Vermontese," Burke said. "It also means 'You're probably right about that snowstorm,' 'Them politicians is a bunch of fools,' and 'Sure I'll have a piece of blueberry pie.'"
"He's a good-looking man," Gregg remarked as he pulled the car to a stop. "You don't look anything like him."
Burke rolled his window down. "Hi, Dad," he said.
His father leaned in. "How was the drive?" he asked. "You hit traffic around St. Albans?"
"It was fine," said Burke. "Could you help me out of here?"
His father opened the car door as Gregg got out and came around from the other side.
"Dad, this is Gregg," Burke said as he turned sideways in his seat and swung his leg out.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Crenshaw," said Gregg.
"Ed," the man replied. When Gregg looked confused, he said, "Call me Ed. Everybody does." He then squatted down, put Burke's arm around his shoulder, and lifted his son up and out of the car.
"Do you want me to help you with that?" Gregg asked.
Ed shook his head. "He's no heavier than a foal," he said. "And he's only got the two legs to contend with."
As Ed helped Burke toward the house, Gregg opened the Saab's trunk and removed the two bags he had packed under Burke's exacting command. He followed the two men into the house, setting the bags down on the smooth, wide planks of the living room floor.
"Thought we'd put you in your old room," Ed told his son.
"Upstairs?" Burke objected. "I can't manage the stairs every time I need to come down here."
"What do you have to come down for?" asked his father. "It's not like you're going to be feeding the horses or working in the garden."
"What about meals?" said Burke.
"We got ourselves a Chinese restaurant in town now," his father said. "Where the Tar-N-Feather was before Sandy accidentally set it on fire during his divorce from that California woman. It's called Golden Pagoda, although as far as I can see, it's not gold and there's no pagoda. Run by a nice Japanese family. The father says he thought about sushi, but he didn't think it would go over well in this part of the state. I suspect he's right about that. Anyway, they deliver, so that takes care of that."
He paused a few moments as Burke and Gregg stared at him. "I see you've lost your sense of humor, living in Boston," he said. "Lucy and I can bring you anything you need." Apparently having settled the matter, he steered Burke to a flight of stairs. "Gregg, if you'd be so good as to get his other side," he said.
Gregg obliged, and together they got Burke up the stairs, but not before Burke had banged his cast against the wall half a dozen times and uttered a different curse each time.
When they reached the top, Ed looked at his son and remarked, "Excellent vocabulary you've developed over the years. But we're not so smart here, so maybe you can keep it simple. Nothing wrong with a plain old 'damn' every now and then if you really feel the need. So long as you put enough weight behind it, people will get your meaning."
"Sorry," said Burke.
"No need," his father replied as they moved down a long hallway with doors on either side. "How do you like the color of these walls? Lucy picked it out."
Burke looked around. "Weren't they always blue?" he said.
"You'd think so," said his father. "But apparently what we had before was plain old blue. This is Nantucket Cottage."
"Sort of like blue with a pedigree," Gregg suggested as they stopped before one of the doors and Mr. Crenshaw opened it.
"Name brand," Ed agreed.
They walked Burke to a large bed with an antique wrought-iron frame painted white. The mattress was covered by a colorful hand-pieced quilt that looked almost as old as the bed itself. Burke sank onto it with a groan. "Looks like you painted in here, too," he commented.
"Same color it always was, though," said his father. "I thought we might try something else, but Lucy said no to that. She said you'd be back someday, and she wanted it just the way you had it." He walked back into the hallway. "I've got a few things to attend to in the barn," he told them. "I'll leave you to get settled in."
When Ed was gone, Gregg took a long look around the room. "So this is where Burke Crenshaw became a man," he said.
"No, that happened in room 717 of Crone Hall after Shane McCovey and I downed a six-pack and he dared me to suck his cock," Burke said, lying back against the pillows.
"Yes," Gregg agreed. "But this is where you began to explore the strange yearnings of your budding homosexual self," he elaborated dramatically. He looked seriously at Burke. "By which, of course, I mean you beat yourself off while thinking about being Harrison Ford's sex slave," he said, nodding at the Raiders of the Lost Ark one-sheet that hung on the wall across from the bed.
Burke glanced at the poster. He hadn't noticed it and hadn't even thought about it in fifteen or more years. "I can't believe she put it back up after they repainted," he said.
"She who?" Gregg asked.
"Lucy," said Burke. "My father's girlfriend."
Gregg raised an eyebrow. "Is she a Maleficent?" he asked. "A Mommie Dearest?"
"Hardly," Burke replied. "She's really nice."
"She must be to have kept this museum to your teenage years," said Gregg. He picked up a trophy that was on the white painted dresser beneath one of the room's two large windows. It was a gold cup topped by the figure of a horse. "What's this?"
"Four-H," Burke explained. "I raised a colt."
Gregg set the trophy down. "How agricultural," he said. He then began to examine the books in the small bookcase beside the desk. "I see you delved deeply into the oeuvre of Stephen King," he said. "Also Frank Herbert and Terry Brooks. Very eclectic."
"Put a pillow under my leg, Marian Librarian," Burke commanded.
Gregg did so, elevating Burke's foot. "Is that better?" he asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"It's as better as it's going to get," Burke replied.
Gregg looked out the window. "At least you have a nice view from here," he said. "Very pastoral."
"Are the horses out?" asked Burke.
"Not unless they've invented horses that are short, woolly, and have no tails," Gregg answered. "I'm making an uneducated guess here, but I think these might be sheep."
"Dad must be renting out pastureland," said Burke. "Are they Blackface?"
"Isn't that racist?" Gregg said. "And no, they have plain old white faces." He stood up. "Well, if there's nothing else I can do for you, Mr. Crenshaw, I have other patients who need attending to."
"What?" said Burke. "You're not leaving?"
Gregg nodded. "I'm afraid so, sweetie. I'm allergic to the country. If I go more than a hundred miles from a Starbucks, I go into anaphylactic shock. Besides, I have a client meeting tomorrow morning."
"But you can't," said Burke, his voice tightening. "I'll be all alone with"-he gestured around-"this."
"This seems perfectly lovely," Gregg told him. "I'd love to recuperate in a place like this."
"What about Starbucks?" said Burke, mimicking Gregg's voice. "And anaphylactic shock?"
"All right, I'm just trying to make you feel better," Gregg admitted. "The truth is, I'd probably down a bottle of cold medicine and throw myself down those stairs after twenty-four hours here. But we're not talking about me. For you, it's fine. Now bye." He leaned down and gave Burke a kiss on the forehead. "I'll call you."
Burke began to protest again as Gregg left the room, but he knew there was no point. Gregg was right about one thing-he wasn't the sort who could fit comfortably into country life. Burke put his head back and looked around the all too familiar room.
The question is, can you? he wondered.
Chapter FourHe awoke to the smell of roast chicken. When he opened his eyes, he saw a thin, red-haired woman standing beside the bed, looking down at him. Her bright blue eyes sparkled, and her head was cocked to the side, giving her the appearance of a curious banty hen regarding a beetle.
"Have a nice nap?" she asked.
Burke rubbed his eyes. "Lucy," he said. "Hi."
"Nice to have you home, sweetie," Lucy said, kissing him on the forehead as if he were a little boy. "We've missed you."
Burke tried to sit up, forgot about his leg, and yelped in pain. Immediately Lucy was there, helping him lean forward as she slipped a pillow behind his back. "There you go," she said as Burke sighed with relief.
Lucy turned to the dresser, on top of which sat a tray holding a plate of chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. She picked the tray up and brought it to the bed, where she set it across Burke's lap. He inhaled the delicious scents and felt his stomach rumble.
"Eat up," Lucy said. "You need it. I bet you've been living on takeout down there in the city."
Burke took up a fork and tried to cut a piece of chicken. Unused to using his right hand for such things, he succeeded mostly in hacking at the meat.
"Here," Lucy said, taking the fork from him and using a knife to cut the chicken into manageable pieces.
"Thanks," said Burke, embarrassed that he required her assistance for something so basic as eating. Stabbing one of the pieces with his fork, he put it in his mouth and chewed slowly. "This is fantastic," he said.
"Your father made it," Lucy answered. "But don't tell him you know. He's a little sensitive about it."
Burke shook his head. "You're joking," he said. "Mom could barely get him to open a can." He speared a green bean and popped it in his mouth. "And these are fresh," he said, amazed.
"From his own garden," said Lucy.
"How'd you do it?" Burke asked.
Lucy laughed. "I told him either he could learn to cook or he could take me out to dinner every night. I cooked for Jerry for forty years, with only my birthday off. I'm through cooking. Unless there's a good reason," she said, patting Burke's leg.
Burke plowed into the mashed potatoes, rich with butter. After a week of hospital food, it was if he were eating for the first time. Lucy watched him, waiting until he slowed down before continuing the conversation.
"You put quite a scare into your father," she said when Burke paused for a moment in between bites of chicken.
"He seems fine," said Burke.
"Now he is," Lucy replied. "But when he got that phone call from your friend Gregg, it really shook him up."
"But I'm okay," Burke said. "Apart from this." He gestured at his leg with his fork. "And this," he added, lifting his arm.
Lucy nodded. "It's different when you've already lost someone," she said quietly.
"I lost Mom, too," Burke reminded her.
"I know," Lucy told him. "But it's different when it's your wife or husband or ... whatever," she concluded. She seemed to drift away for a moment. Then she shook her head. "Anyway, as you say, he's fine now. I just thought you should know that he was worried."
Burke stabbed a green bean. He knew what Lucy was doing, and although part of him appreciated her kindness, another part resented her trying to play the role of his mother. He'd lived with his father longer than Lucy had. He didn't need to be reminded of their sometimes awkward relationship.
"Do you think your mother would have liked me?" Lucy asked suddenly.
Burke looked at her. She looked back, not blinking. It was Burke who turned away first. "I don't know," he said. "I guess so. Why?"
Lucy shrugged. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "It's just something I was thinking about the other day. I was at the cemetery-it was Jerry's birthday-and I was talking to him like I do, and it occurred to me that I think he and your father would have been good friends."
"I'm surprised they weren't," said Burke. "You live only one town over. I don't know how you all lived this close to one another and never met."
"Don't forget, Jerry and I had only been here five years when he died," said Lucy. "In Vermont terms we were just vacationing."
Burke grinned. "Does it still bother Dad that some of the old-timers call him a flatlander?"
Lucy suppressed a laugh. "It's his own fault for suggesting they change things and keep the library open one hour later on Saturdays."
"That was forty-five years ago!" Burke said in a perfect imitation of his father.
They both chuckled. Lucy wiped her eyes. "Jerry could be just as stubborn," she said. "Particularly after he got sick."
Burke didn't know much about Lucy's late husband other than that he was dead. His father had mentioned Jerry only once, and Burke had not asked for anything more. The whole topic of his father and Lucy's relationship was one he avoided, not because it upset him, but because discussing their personal lives was not something the Crenshaw men did. Particularly when one of them was having relationships with other men.
"I know when Mom was going through chemo, she got pretty testy," Burke told Lucy. "Sometimes it was like talking to a completely different person."
"It happens," said Lucy. "When Jerry was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I thought it would be a gradual process, a kind of long, slow descent into forgetfulness. I thought I would have time to get used to the person he was becoming before that person got there." She paused. "But it wasn't like that," she continued, her voice softer, more fragile. "One day he was forgetting the names of the flowers in the garden. A week later he wandered down the road and had to be brought back by the postman. After that it seemed like every day an other piece of him vanished into thin air. Pretty soon he looked at me as if he'd never seen me before." She looked at Burke. "The funny thing is, I was thinking exactly the same thing."
Burke looked down at his plate. A few green beans lay among the chicken bones. A smear of mashed potatoes curved along one side of the plate. He cleared his throat, which suddenly felt blocked. "I didn't know," he said.
"That's because we've never talked about it," said Lucy. "There are lots of things we've never talked about. Lucky for you, we have all summer to get caught up. Now, do you want to pee?"
Burke looked up. "What?" he said.
"Pee," Lucy repeated. "You probably need to pee." She went to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and pulled out one of the hated plastic containers Burke remembered all too well from his time in the hospital. Lucy waved it at him. "I got this from my friend Alice. She works at the old folks' home over in Paullis Springs. All you have to do is put your-"
"I know how it works," Burke interrupted. He wished Lucy would stop talking about his need to pee, mostly because her talking about it was making him have to do it.
"Then you just dump it out in the toilet-or I suppose you could put it in the sink-and rinse it out. It's really pretty clever, when you think about it." She set the urine bottle down and picked up Burke's tray, setting it on the dresser top. "Let's just get those pants down," she said, coming back to the bed.
"No!" Burke said firmly. "I mean, it's okay. I can handle things. As it were."
Lucy rolled her eyes. "I have seen one before," she said. "It's not like they're all that different. And it's not like you had anything to do with how it looks, anyway. Honestly, it's like you men think your dicks are floral centerpieces you have arranged and are being judged on. You all want the blue ribbon."
Burke felt himself blushing at Lucy's use of such a crude term for his penis. Mom would never have said that, he found himself thinking.
"All right," Lucy said. She handed him the bottle. "Do it yourself. But if you need any help, just holler. And leave that on the bedside table. I'll pick it up later. Do you need anything else?"
"Um, my pills," Burke said. "I think Gregg put them all in a big plastic bag in the small suitcase."
"Already downstairs," said Lucy. "I unpacked while you were sleeping. Those are some fancy underpants you got there. I'll get the pills and some water. You take care of business while I'm gone."
She took up the tray and left the room, shutting the door behind her. Burke looked at the bottle on the table, then reluctantly picked it up and began the laborious process of using it. He hadn't finished when, a few minutes later, Lucy opened the door without knocking and came in.
"Here you go," she said brightly, shaking a bottle of pills and then placing it on the bedside table.
Burke quickly finished and pulled the covers up just in time for Lucy to take the still warm bottle of urine from him.
She placed a glass of water on the bedside table. "Now, take only two of those," she said, nodding at the pills. "I'm going to be counting."
Burke picked the bottle of pills up, then held it out to Lucy. "Childproof cap," he explained.
Lucy set down the urine bottle, opened the pills, and shook two of them into her hand. She gave them to Burke, who downed them with a swallow of water.
"We should get you into your pj's," Lucy said. "Can't have you sleeping in your clothes."
"Oh, I sleep in my boxers," Burke told her.
"Then let's get those shorts off," said Lucy.
Burke began to object but realized that he didn't really have a choice. He'd already experimented with trying to dress himself, an undertaking that had nearly earned him another few days in the hospital when he had gotten his arm cast stuck while trying to put on a sweatshirt and had nearly fallen off the bed, attempting to extricate himself.
Because of the cast on Burke's leg, he couldn't wear regular pants and had resorted to shorts. Lucy undid Burke's belt and began tugging his shorts down. He tried to help but couldn't do much more than lift his butt up a little. Lucy, struggling to get him undressed, managed to grab Burke's underwear along with the shorts. When she pulled the shorts down, the boxers came with them, leaving Burke bare assed.
"Sorry about that," said Lucy, helping him pull his boxers back up. "But don't worry. I had my eyes closed."
Burke, blushing, pulled the covers up. Lucy picked up the urine bottle and walked to the door. Holding the bottle up as if it were a gravy boat, she said, "There's a bell on the table. If you need anything, just ring. And don't go trying to walk around by yourself. I'll see you in the morning."
When the door was shut, Burke lay back and looked around the room. He had slept for quite some time and, as a result, was no longer tired. Outside the sky was the purple black of twilight, and although night was not far behind, it was still far too early to try and get back to sleep. He would just wake up in the middle of the night.
He'd forgotten what it was like in the country. The so-called quiet was actually far from silent. The noises of traffic and people were gone, but they were replaced by the sounds of birds and crickets. And who knows what else, Burke thought as he listened to the assorted chirping sounds coming through the open window. Probably owls. Or bats. He shuddered at the thought.
Also, it was too dark. When night fell here, it really fell. Apart from the moon and the stars, there was nothing to illuminate the world. No streetlamps or porch lights. No well-lit windows in buildings across the way. Not even a television in the room. How was he going to live without television? He'd brought his laptop, of course, but it occurred to him with rapidly growing horror that the likelihood of finding a wireless signal in this part of the world was about as great as finding a Kenneth Cole outlet.
You can always read, he reminded himself. He glanced over at the bookcase. He couldn't reach it without getting out of bed, and he wasn't about to ring for help. But when he looked back at the bedside table, he saw that there were three battered paperbacks already stacked there. He wondered if he'd left them there years ago or if Lucy had set them out for him.
He picked up the first one. It was Watership Down. He couldn't remember ever having read it, but maybe he had, although he couldn't imagine why he would want to read a novel about rabbits. The second was Dune, which he had read half a dozen times and was in no hurry to read again. This left the third book, which he hoped would be more appealing than the first two.
When he saw the cover, he just about dropped the book. The picture showed a handsome, dark-haired man in a bathing suit, sitting on a yacht. Behind him stood another man in a swimsuit, his hand on the first man's shoulder. A bottle of champagne sat in a bucket of ice in front of them. The title was Now Let's Talk About Music.
Burke hadn't seen the Gordon Merrick novel since he'd hidden it beneath the sweatshirts in his dresser drawer almost twenty-five years before. In fact, he could have sworn he'd thrown it away. But here it was, and it appeared to be the same well-used copy. He didn't want to know how it had ended up on the bedside table.
He opened the novel. Before long he was caught up in the erotic adventures of Gerry Kennicutt as he traveled to Bangkok in search of love. Merrick's sex scenes were frequent and detailed, and Burke found himself with an erection, which pressed painfully against his underwear. Just like when you were fifteen and reading this, he thought.
He still remembered finding the book at a Waldenbooks during a shopping trip to Burlington with his mother. Burke was about to start his sophomore year, and they were in search of school clothes. At some point he had escaped his mother and made his way to the bookstore, where he'd looked to see if there were any Douglas Adams books he hadn't read yet. The covers of the Merrick novels had caught his eye, and he'd picked one up. As soon as he'd figured out what it was about, he'd put it down and walked quickly to another section, sure that his burning cheeks were giving him away. But after fifteen minutes of pretending to look at Tom Clancy novels, he'd gone back to the Merrick novel and, before he could talk himself out of it, taken it to the checkout counter. There a male clerk had rung up the purchase and, with a knowing smile, tucked the paperback into a bag. "Enjoy it," he'd said to Burke.
And he had enjoyed it. Many times. It was the first time he'd ever read descriptions of two men having sex. The first time he'd read through the novel, it had taken a week, at the end of which his cock was rubbed raw, the floor beneath his bed was littered with crumpled-up tissues, and his head was filled with images that kept him awake at night.
Now he again found himself playing with his erect dick, stroking it as he imagined Gerry Kennicutt and the equally handsome Ernst von Hallers fucking on the floor of the yacht. He hadn't jacked off since being in the hospital, afraid that it might somehow exacerbate his injuries, but now he didn't care. He hiked his T-shirt up, exposing his belly and chest, and felt himself getting close.
Then, from downstairs, he heard the sound of squeaking. This was followed by a soft thud, and soon he distinguished a distinct rhythm. Squeak-squeak-thud. Squeak-squeak-thud. It took him a moment to realize what it was.
They're fucking, he thought. Dad and Lucy are fucking in Mom and Dad's bed.
Once he'd identified the sound, it was impossible to ignore. His parents' room was beneath his, and the sounds were coming up through the floor. Squeak-squeak. That's the bedsprings. Thud. That's the headboard hitting the wall. He had a sudden, and unwelcome, mental image.
Immediately he let go of his cock, which was rapidly deflating. His balls, confused by his having stopped so close to achieving their objective, urged him to continue for just a little longer. But the moment had been ruined, possibly forever. Burke closed the book and slapped it on the bedside table. Turning off the light, he picked up one of the pillows, placed it over his head to drown out the hideous squeaking and thudding, and prayed that it would all be over soon.
Excerpted from THE ROAD HOME by MICHAEL THOMAS FORD Copyright © 2010 by Michael Thomas Ford. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This talented gay writer has done it again. He has created another story about interesting and realistic gay and straight characters that are entertaining and emotionally on target. Forty-year-old Burke is forced by an injury to return to his childhood home. Much to his surprise, he makes special new friends and encounters an unusual mystery from the past. Small town life turns out to have some advantages. I found this to be a quick and easy read, mostly free of the bitterness and sarcasm that sometimes fill books about contemporary gay life. Some insight is provided regarding personal relationships of all kinds, and the always hoped for happy ending is in place. Michael Travis Jasper, Author of the Novel, "To Be Chosen"
I am not sure if M.T. Ford aspires to be a gay Nicholas Sparks, but his novels tend to have the same heft in turns of substance. Capitalizing on the human need for love, whether gay or straight, Ford comes up with rather simple tales to make his point. Here the most predictable set-up leaves no doubt where the story is going, and, for most gay readers, the digression into Vermont's contributions to the civil war will wilt any interest in the book long before the ending. But I finished it, none the wiser for having started it.
The term "coming-of-age novel" is usually used to describe a story in which a youthful character develops morally, emotionally and/or intellectually, in making the transition to maturity. Some of us "late bloomers" may not actually take that step until later in life, as is the case with Michael Thomas Ford's 40 years old protagonist in "The Road Home." Professional photographer Burke Crenshaw is living the gay single life in Boston, until a broken leg and arm in an auto accident force him to convalesce at his boyhood home, a sheep farm in rural Vermont. Having been estranged from his father for many years, and having that silence magnified by the subsequent death of his mother, Burke feels like a stranger with his uncommunicative father, although his new girlfriend, Lucy, does her best to make him feel welcome. A bittersweet memory from his teen years surfaces, when Burke sees his first crush, Mars Janks. Mars's 20 year old son Will, who works with his dad in his veterinary practice, is also the spitting image of his dad at that age, and life gets suddenly more complicated for Burke when Will makes a pass at him. Burke also gets involved in researching what may have been a local gay couple who fought in the Civil War, and meets an interesting local librarian whose varied interests include attending gay pagan festivals. Ultimately, Burke must face the reality of his relationship with his father, and how it has affected his ability to maintain other relationships and choices made in his life. Ford is a master at creating relatable, full-nuanced and emotionally- realistic characters and this is no exception to his track record. The story guides the reader to examine his own relationships and choices in life, and reassess priorities in life. Enthusiastically recommended read, which I give five bright stars in a clear Vermont night sky! - Bob Lind, Echo Magazine