Trade baby blues for wide-eyed browns
I sleep with your old shirts and walk through this house
In your shoes
I know it's strange, it's a strange way of saying
That I know I'm supposed to love you
He awoke every morning in an empty bed.
Every morning, without fail, his fingers stretched across the mattress and pressed not into warm flesh, but into smooth, cold fabric pulled taut over the place where another person once slept. And every morning, without fail, he withdrew his hands, pulled the covers up to his chin, and grinned from ear to ear. He was alone.
These were the moments he cherished the most, the few seconds a day when he was all alone, before anybody expected anything of him. He only had a few moments before diaper changes and grocery lists and long commutes, and his happy solitude never lasted long. Usually a dull crash sounded from the kitchen, or his BlackBerry twitched in its station on his nightstand, and he hauled himself up. He always left his side of the bed unmade.
The day everything changed began like any other.
A long, slow buzzing woke him up that morning, echoing from outside, from some neighbour's yard. He groaned, yawned, rubbed his eyes, and let his feet brush the cold hardwood. "Helen!"
He squinted in the harsh light that reflected at all angles from their white walls, their white sheets. "Helen!" he called again. "Did the Andersons say they were getting yard work done?"
He didn't get an answer – he wasn't expecting one. Sighing, he pulled his robe out of the closet, tied it around his waist, and grudgingly opened the bedroom door.
Over the course of sixteen years of marriage, Kevin had grown used to his wife's neuroses. She was up at five o'clock every morning, outlining new scenes for her latest novel in the neat files on her state-of-the-art Macbook. Most mornings, she answered fan-mail, returned telephone calls, took the dog for a walk, came back, and started breakfast before Kevin was even sentient. Helen Ashby Price was fiercely ambitious; whenever Kevin strode by her office, saw her blonde bun bobbing up and down in front of the keyboard as her fingers clattered noisily at the keys, he was reminded of that. It was why he had married her, after all.
Kevin's main contribution to their marriage and their household lay in his unique ability to swipe his travel mug and his packed lunch from the counter without missing a beat, to check his watch and his e-mails with a single downward glance, to tap out businesslike responses to clients while pecking his wife on the cheek. He was adept at ignoring Jack, squealing for sticky kisses in his high chair, adept at stepping over Luke's abandoned crayons instead of slipping on them. His mission in the morning was to shower, shave, dress, and get to work as quickly as humanly possible.
This morning, though, as he passed through the kitchen, scrolling through e-mails and reminders – Matt's Eagle Scout meeting at 3, ribbon-cutting at noon, Marriott alumni luncheon next Tuesday – he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He glanced up, glanced back; Helen, her soft blonde hair up in the familiar bun. She had Jack balanced on her hip – their youngest, clad in plaid overalls.
"Kevin," she smiled, insistent.
He grinned, leaned down, and kissed her on the mouth. "Morning, bunny."
"Where are you off to today?" She pulled back abruptly, squeezed their son closer, and leaned over the stove to poke at the scrambled eggs.
"Funderland in Salt Lake," he answered, swigging down a glass of orange juice. "We're opening the new summer show today, and I-" he glanced sideways at Mark, busy downing cereal, "Hey, Mark, I get to cut the ribbon onstage with Cosmo the Cougar, isn't that exciting?"
"No way!" Mark shrieked, hopping up and down in his seat. "Can I come? Mom, can I go?"
Helen shook her head, grinning at their son. "No, sweetie. You have soccer camp with Luke."
Kevin shoved his BlackBerry into its leather holster and made for the door, taking a moment to nod at his wife. "Have a great day."
"Kevin," she arched her neck. "Do me a favour and pick Matthew up from Scouts at 5?"
"Will do," he shrugged. Closing the door behind him, he stepped out into a bright day and made for the family Escalade parked at the curb, glittering in the Sandy sunlight.
"Elder Price!" Kevin's head darted up, and he leaned back into the thin wall.
"Elder McKinley," he answered. "Good to see you. I'm just about done sweeping up this corridor – do you need me to start in the bedrooms?"
"No, no, you're doing a great job," the older man nodded. He looked nervous. "Listen, Elder Price, I need to talk to you."
Kevin glanced around nervously. "Not now, Elder McKinley. Elder Thomas and Elder Davis are in the next room."
"Nairobi," McKinley blurted out. "I talked to the mission president, I did, just now. He wants to see us, Elder Price. Next week. In Nairobi. I told him about all the work we've been doing, about the wells we dug – Elder Price, they might give us funding again."
"What?" Kevin let his broom fall to the floor with a noisy clatter. "Elder McKinley, that's fantastic!"
"Isn't it?" He grinned from ear to ear. "I want you to come with me, Elder. I don't have an official mission companion since Elder Church left last month. I could really use the help."
Kevin drew in a deep breath. "Just us, Elder?"
"Just you and I," McKinley said. He stepped back, nervously threading his fingers together. "I could... I could see about getting us, I don't know, a nice hotel for the couple of nights we'll be in Nairobi – it's probably safer than staying at the mission headquarters."
"Yeah, yeah, definitely."
"Oh." Elder Price gasped under his breath. "Oh my goodness. You mean...?"
"Two days, Elder Price. Just us. We wouldn't..."
"We wouldn't have to hide."
Elder Price swallowed hard, trying to suppress a broad grin."Well, Elder McKinley, I would be delighted to accompany you to Nairobi."
McKinley laid a hand on Kevin's shoulder, let it linger; it was a rare thing, touch, and dangerous. "It's an honour, Elder Price. Have a restful prep day, now. I'll go book the bus tickets."
McKinley turned and walked down the hallway, whistling a familiar tune to himself. A moment later, once the other elder had turned the corner, Kevin picked up his broom and continued sweeping as though nothing had happened.
Nobody saw him dancing with the broom, tracing curlicues through the settling dust.
"Can't help feeling bad for the kid in the cougar costume on a day like today," Kevin panted, fanning himself as they rounded the ferris wheel.
"You can say that again," said Severn. "I heard on the radio that this is the hottest July on Salt Lake record. And you know what, I think we're setting a couple records of our own. I mean, look around."
He gestured broadly at the teeming crowds, the hundreds of kids tugging on their parents' hands, the gaggles of teenagers texting each other in line. He and Severn had built something incredible; a ghost of a smile flitted on his face as he remembered the words of the guy who had sold them Funderland all those years ago.
"Remember when they said we'd never make any money off of Funderland, huh, Severn?" Kevin nudged his friend. "Guess Salt Lake City wanted another theme park after all."
"Got that right," Severn nodded. He glanced down at the BlackBerry in his palm. "Looks like they got Cosmo the Cougar all suited up. Let's run over to the stage real quick."
They'd gone all out this summer, throwing in new rides and renovating the bandshell. The ads for Funderland's Salt Lake Summer Spectacular had been running in the papers for months, along with a series of memorable TV spots that prominently featured Kevin and Severn in full cowboy garb. Helen, of course, had gleefully taped every ad, and the kids never tired of watching their dad make a fool of himself on cable TV. The embarrassment was well worth it, though, worth it for a day like today when it seemed as though all of Salt Lake City had gathered at the gates of his park.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new bandshell went off essentially without a hitch. Cosmo the Cougar hammed it up for the crowd, and the kids went crazy at every roar and growl. Kevin and Severn, both anxiously checking their phones for the day's next big appointment, stepped off the stage after slicing the ribbon and posing for a couple pictures with Cosmo. The dancers took to the stage, and a noisy, electronic beat echoed over the heads of the crowd.
"Listen, buddy, I gotta run," Kevin yelled, looking down at his phone. "Matt's got Eagle Scouts at three and I promised Helen I'd be back in time to give him a ride."
"All right, Kevin, see you 'round. Remember we need to get those budget-"
"Yeah, I got it" Kevin interrupted. "You take care, now."
He clapped his friend on the back, slipped on his sunglasses, and took a final look back at the crowd, the stage.
The second he turned his head, everything screeched to a halt. The screaming crowds fell silent, the flashing lights went out; Kevin didn't feel the wind, swirling in dusty currents around his feet. He felt only a dull, pulsating heat building in the pit of his stomach.
He was rendered blind, seeing only movements and shadows, traces of the men and women dancing on stage. And even though he was blinking back darkness, he saw the unmistakable figure downstage left, and he knew. A pair of blue eyes. A head of hair, shocking red. Movement, fluid; something familiar stirred inside of him.
He would recognize Lionel McKinley anywhere.
If only he'd known then how moments would turn to days, months, years, how time would pass and he with it.
He fell every night, exhausted, into an empty bed, fully aware of the woman downstairs and the glow of the screen that kept her company as she worked until dark turned to light. They put on a damn good show, he realized. She was a constant presence, reliable and dependable, smiling on his arm in the papers. And he made a good footnote on her back flaps, beneath her airbrushed headshot and Helen Ashby Price stamped in gold filigree. Every one of the millions of teenage girls who wept over Helen's sugary prose would reach the end of the novel to find the proclamation that Helen Ashby Price lived in Sandy, Utah with her devoted husband and their four children.
And here he was, alone. Here he was, reeling, half an hour out of town on the dusty desert highway. Here he was, unable to focus on the road, unable to concentrate on anything but the burning of Lionel McKinley's blue eyes into his for the first time in twenty years.
He pulled over to the side of the highway. He stopped. He watched the clouds of dust settle around his Escalade, twisted the key into the ignition. He... he...
He was nineteen again, perched awkwardly at the foot of a mattress that was not his own in a city unfamiliar to him. The air in the room was cold – expensive – but he was warm, sticky and sweaty from a long day navigating Nairobi's busy streets.
There were those eyes again, searing, intense beneath pale eyelashes. He was so close, so incredibly close; Kevin found himself trembling as the older man took his hand, pressed it gently to the mattress in the thin gap between their thighs. Kevin hesitated – he wanted this – he wanted to sit – he wanted him, all of him – he wanted to sleep. Still, that steady gaze, that firm grip on his hand. McKinley was stability; he was frenzy.
"Are you..." came his shaky whisper, "Are you sure?"
"Never surer," Lionel said. With all the measured anticipation of a man who had been contained far too long, he leaned even closer, let his forehead rest on Kevin's.
Kevin tilted his head upwards, answering Lionel's question with a tentative kiss. He pulled back, shyly searching Lionel's eyes for approval. The other man only grinned back; Kevin let a nervous chuckle past his lips.
"Sorry, that was the first time I've ever..."
"Shh," Lionel whispered, and gripped Kevin's head in his hands, running his fingers through Kevin's hair. "It was perfect. You... you're perfect."
A screeching horn brought him back to reality, and he sighed, leaning his head against the glass and watching countless cars roll by on the highway. Time to turn the key in the ignition, drive the few minutes to Sandy, pick up his perfect, Eagle Scout, son, cut his perfect, emerald-green lawn, kiss his perfect wife.
"Perfect," he coughed. "You screwed me up, Leo."
Kevin sighed, quietly thumbing the keys in his hand. "Couldn't just leave me alone, could you? You had to come back and..."
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slid the keys into the ignition. These were worries for another day. He had to get home. Over his dead body was his kid going to be late for another Eagle Scouts meeting on account of him.
Thanks for reading. I hope to have the next chapter up within the next week; I'm planning, at this point, to publish about ten chapters. Please leave a review - I'd love to hear what you think!