Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Pierce and Hal Road Trip--On Our Way Home
For folks new to the blog, this is one of several ficlets that will be added to the text of Regret Me Not, my Christmas story for 2017--
* * *
You had to drive carefully in the snow. You didn't make a lot of time, and stopping to rest frequently became their watchword.
Hal spent a lot of moments with his face pressed up against the glass, his fingers white-knuckled around the steering wheel, cursing silently to himself with the background noise of 90's music that Pierce kept on the radio.
He was particularly a fan of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Go figure.
After a quick trip to Pennsylvania because neither of them had seen the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, it was, as Pierce had promised, pretty much balls-out driving.
On day two, Pierce asked if it would bother Hal if he broke out his tablet so he could do some work for the job waiting for him in March, and Hal had to ask: "You're not going to turn into a closet workaholic on me, are you?"
Pierce grunted. "I hope not." Hal heard him take a deep breath. "Not like your father, I promise."
"Well, that is sort of a low bar." Hal's parents had been hideous to Pierce--Hal hated to think Pierce was anything like them.
"I worked a lot with Cynthia in the end," Pierce confessed. "I... you know. Didn't like going home. But this is just e-mail and employee application stuff. I...I promised you a home. Stability. A pool--"
"The pool is optional!" Hal gasped, because he hated to think of it as a burden.
"Yeah, I know. But part of that promise is me, bringing in money. You know. Being productive. I mean, you'll probably pay your share of the bills whether I ask you or not, but I just want to... you know. Be dependable for you." Pierce let out a sort of humorless grunt. "It's not like I can promise excitement or glamour. If dependability is what I've got, I'm going to run with it."
"Dependability is not why I fell in love with you," Hal told him, although maybe it was and Hal just hadn't thought of it like that.
"I'm still fuzzy on what it was that actually made you do that." Pierce tapped on his tablet fitfully, staring at his e-mail like it had offended him. "Enlighten me."
"You smelled good."
Pierce smirked. "I smelled like ben-gay."
"No--you should have smelled like ben-gay, but god forbid you actually use any painkillers. No, you just smelled like... you know. Red-headed sweat and chlorine. But it was a good smell on you. I could smell it every day."
"Well, I'll be sure to wave my pit-stink at the bank when we drive by and maybe it will fill up my coffers," Pierce said dryly--although Hal knew that he was in pretty good shape, all things considering.
"Well they do call it filthy luchre," Hal guffawed, and he liked Pierce's answering laugh, but the thought still bothered him.
Apparently it still bothered Pierce as well.
"I like work," Pierce said unexpectedly after a few moments of driving. "I like feeling useful, feeling smart. I'm designing video chips for a new game company--it's fun. It's like tiny changes in my work can make people really happy in their play. Why not like that? I mean, it's not turning someone from a cramped pain ball into an actual human being like some of us can do, but it's not bad."
"So the workaholic thing?" Hal prompted, actually liking this answer better than a flat out no.
"Probably not a problem. I may have to work some project deadlines, but I got to tell you, if home is a good place to be, I really love my weekends and my afternoons. Derek and I usually play softball in the spring--"
"I love softball!" Hal exclaimed, delighted. Oh, this was unexpected. "I also play rec-league soccer--"
"We've got some indoor leagues around," Pierce told him, and he almost shuddered in happiness. "And trips to the river and car shows and--you know. Fun. I'm a fan. So I don't think there'll be a lot of late nights, you know? Where I'm not there. Just.... I guess you were wondering."
Hal half-laughed. "You know, the thing we didn't really think about before we rode into the sunset was that we'd have time to plan what the sunset would look like. I'm thinking this could be a real fuckin' gorgeous sunset, right?"
"It's looking good so far!"
The next night--coming through Oklahoma, of all places--it wasn't quite so golden. Pierce's legs cramped up about halfway through their drive, leaving Hal to find an off-ramp so he could hurriedly work out the worst of the spasms. But three days of driving had taken its toll, and Hal pulled out the emergency pain meds, the ones Pierce kept tucked in his big suitcase that he tried not to take to many of, just so Pierce's muscles could relax enough for Hal to stretch them out. Pierce was left, limp, more than a little stoned, sweating in the chill of the winter air, and wrung out in the passenger seat of Hal's CR-V.
"We need a bed," Hal said, no bullshit in his voice. "And a pool. And it's got to be a good one--no Motel 6, okay?"
"I've got some websites on my phone," Pierce yawned because pain could sap a man's energy like toughing else, and Hal pulled the phone out of his fingers before he could start tapping.
"Let me, okay? The closest good hotel, I promise."
"I won't always be helpless," Pierce mumbled. "I swear."
"Oh baby." Hal put a warm hand on the part of his back that had been spasming the hardest. "I'm not ever worried about you being helpless. I'm worried about you trying to do this alone, you get that, right?"
"I'd miss you," Pierce mumbled. "Being alone sucked."
"You are telling me. Okay..."
"Hey, queers, get a room!" Hal looked up from his fumbling with the phone and realized they were at a truck stop, in Oklahoma, and he was actively fondling his boyfriend. He glared at the guy who had just spoken--his age, but with the sagging skin of poor nutrition and too much tobacco.
"I'm looking for a good one," Hal told him shortly. "Somewhere that wouldn't take you, for instance."
Next to him, Pierce chuckled. "You are going to get us killed, but at least I'm too high to care."
"Close your door, baby," Hal muttered, shifting the phone in his hand so he could do the same. The big country boy who liked to cat call got there before he could though.
"What'samatter? He sick?"
Hal glared at him sourly. Hair so blond it was white completed the picture of redneck. "He's recovering from a car accident. We just need a place for him to lie down and stretch out."
"Well, hell-- you can do that at my place--it's not that far down the road." The guy repositioned the John Deere hat on his head, and Hal blessed and cursed southern hospitality.
"That's kind," he said frankly, "but since we really are queer, I'm not sure how much you really mean that. We've got a hotel about twenty miles away--I think we'll try to get there."
"Why're you queer?" the kid said, and Hal heard Pierce's dry snort next to him.
"That's just who we are," Hal told him. "Thank you for asking--"
"No, seriously. You can come to my house--if he's sore, it's right there--you can see it. Here, I'll drive, you follow."
And before Hal could protest again, the kid got into his truck and started it up, checking his mirrors and nodding to make sure Hal would follow him.
"Now would be a great time to drive the hell away," Pierce mumbled.
Hal hesitated before putting the SUV into gear. "No, seriously. I think he's being kind. And if I could work on you for an hour some place you could stretch out, we might be able to make it to Oklahoma City, which could have hotel with a jacuzzi."
"You sure he doesn't think you have a purty mouth?" Pierce asked.
"No, Pierce, that's you." Hal took a deep breath and decided to follow the kid with the white hair. "I'm going to take a gamble, okay? If we both die horribly, don't hate."
"I promise," Pierce mumbled. "Not hating."
Well, if they were going to be unicorns, they might as well throw themselves into danger, right?
The kid wasn't kidding-- his house was about a quarter of a mile from the truck stop, back from the road a little with a long driveway, but not deep into the swamp, either.
"I could be just getting desperate here, but that place doesn't look half bad."
Pierce hit the lever on his side of the car and levitated slowly up. The house was two stories, and in decent repair. The kudzu that dominated the topography had been pruned back to leave about an acres worth of bluegrass lawn, complete with a modest flower garden in front of the porch. It wasn't Hal's parents' house by any means, but it wasn't a shack in the middle of nowhere, either.
"The flower beds don't even look big enough for a human body," Pierce said in wonder, and Hal smirked.
At that moment, the white-haired kid hopped out of the pickup truck and went thundering into the house. "Aunt Lucy! Aunt Lucy! We got queers here who need fixing! Aunt Lucy!"
"They're going to try to pray the gay away aren't they?" Hal asked in numb horror.
"Yup. Got your gay held tight in both hands?"
Hal glared at him. "How about you--got your bi in one hand and your sex in the other?"
Pierce managed a rusty chuckle before closing his eyes and consciously relaxing. God, Hal hoped this wasn't a bad idea, because pretty much every muscle in Pierce's body had decided that travel was the suck.
The woman who came running down the porch was something of a surprise.
She was not, all told, much older than Pierce himself with a few streaks of gray in her shoulder-length brown bob. She was wearing faded mom-jeans over a waifish figure and an oversized sweatshirt with Don't Hate on the front in rainbow letters.
Hal felt a knot in the middle of his back start to loosen up. If he was not mistaken, they had managed to find themselves a blue liberal in the middle of a red state. They might not get buried in the flower beds after all.
He hopped out and went to shake her hand.
"See, Aunt Lucy-- I told you, we got queers who need fixing!"
Aunt Lucy cast a pained look at her nephew. "Kyle?" she said gently, "Does it matter if they're queer?"
"Well, yeah, because they were in the middle of the truck stop, and they were gonna get clobbered. I told them to get a room, but this one said his boyfriend was hurt."
"Hurt?" Lucy had big brown compassionate eyes. "Does he need a doctor?"
Hal shook his head. "He just needs to not be in the car for an hour, someplace he can stretch out. He's recovering from some injuries and he's getting better, but we were trying to get to California in another three days."
"Mm," she said, shaking her head and going over to Pierce's side of the car. "Overdid it. I hear you. What's in California?"
Hal opened the door for Pierce and offered his arm so Pierce could grab hold. "Home," he said quietly. "We were vacationing in Florida, and we met, and... well, I'm going home with him."
The woman's quiet smile sort of lit up the gray winter day. "That's lovely," she said. "That's damned near the most romantic thing I've ever heard. Here, uh--"
"Pierce," Pierce supplied. "Ma'am, I don't want to squash you."
Aunt Lucy was about 5'3".
"You're right. Kyle, get in there, you and--"
"Hal, pleased to meet you. "You two make a little sedan chair, and take Pierce to the downstairs guest bedroom. It's all made up and everything. You can stretch out there. Do you need any painkillers?"
"I'm on some," Pierce said dryly. "Not as much fun as they could be."
Lucy chuckled. "Well, we'll try to change that. I've got some really awesome menthol ointment in my medicine chest--do you think that would work?"
"Lady, you're a godsend," Hal breathed, taking Pierce's weight without trouble as Kyle did the same thing on his other side. "I'm a massage therapist--if I can just work out his muscles for an hour or so, we can get out of your hair."
"No worries--and no hurries either. The roads get icy at night, and I just made a big helping of venison stew."
"Hunting's been good this year," Kyle said proudly, and Hal couldn't even make fun of that. His parents served a full sized duck, head and everything, at their dinner table, just to prove they could. Apparently these people ate deer because they could shoot their own, and that was actually better.
"It's nice of you to offer," Hal said humbly. "Let's see how he's doing first. We really did want to get home."
Lucy's pat on his arm was reassuring. "A little detour here and there won't hurt too bed. Your lives together will start soon enough. Now let me go first and strip the bed and put down an old sheet--you can get ointment all over it and not worry."
They got Pierce to the bed and Hal stripped him down to his T-shirt and boxer shorts, out of deference to Lucy and Kyle. She brought in a big brown jar of something Hal tried not grimace at. Lucy was pretty sharp though, because she laughed.
"I know--you're thinking hillbilly witchcraft, right?"
He smiled and tried for diplomacy. "It's not, uh, from the catalog I usually use."
Her laugh turned to a cackle. "You are sweet. Trust me. It's eucalyptus and lavender and camomile and willow bark. All stuff that will seep into his muscles and take away the pain. Except the lavender--that's just for the smell. And it's water based--it'll wash off just fine. Now go ahead, rub it on him. Is it okay if I watch? I got training myself, and I might pick up a few things."
Hal nodded. "Okay, Pierce? She wants to watch."
"I'd say that was kinky but I don't even know her."
Lucy laughed again. "Oh he's salty. You two must be a laugh riot. Now here's some gloves for you." she produced two non-latex gloves, the type used by most doctors, and Hal nodded thanks again before putting them on, getting a dab of the salve and trying it on his own shoulder.
He gave a little sigh as the salve went hot and cold on his skin, and he figured it would be just like Icy Hot or Apercreme, but it smelled a hell of a lot better.
"If this is a bad move, start screaming," he muttered to Pierce.
Pierce, stretched out on the bed and completely immobile, only grunted. "Sure. Screaming. I'll get right on that."
Hal rubbed at the base of Pierce's spine, and the whimper he let out sounded nothing like screaming at all.
An hour later, Hal's back and shoulders were aching from exertion but Pierce was finally asleep.
"Gah!" he breathed, lifting his arms up in stretches. "That was bad. He didn't say anything this morning when we got up to leave--"
"He wants to be home as bad as you do," Lucy supplied. "Now here. I'm not getting fresh or anything, but take off your sweatshirt, and let me rub your back and arms through your shirt. You've earned some care of your own."
Hal couldn't object and he sat down in the chair she'd used when he'd been working. "That's really kind," he said, relaxing his head on his neck. "Pierce is usually a pretty good caretaker. Make sure I get some food, makes sure I'm okay inside. This... this isn't gong to last."
Her hands felt wonderful-- sexless, but wonderful-- on his neck, his shoulders, this back.
"The pain won't," Lucy told him, "but I think the love will. Anyone that salty when he's in that much pain isn't going to let a few bumps in the road get him down."
Hal half-laughed. "He was afraid at first--he'd be too... well, salty, I guess you'd say. But that's not really the case, you know?"
"I can see. You want some of that salve on your neck here? You've got a nasty knot. You've been doing all the driving, right?"
Hal moaned softly. "You're not going to kill us while we sleep and bury us in the flower beds, are you?"
"No, son--we were going to cook you up as barbecue but the salve gives the meat a funny taste so we may just have to feed you and let you go."
Hal laughed and pulled of his shirt. "Talk about salty!"
"Yeah, yeah--let's just say I'm waiting for a smartass of my own, but they don't come to this part of the world often." She rubbed some of the ointment into his back with effort, and the relief in his muscles was so acute, the long-term headache he'd been ignoring for two days disappeared. "And when they do," she added, working at the base of his skull with her fingers, "they're not my type."
Hal felt drugged. "Sorry about the queer," he mumbled, close to just passing out next to Pierce.
"Don't be. The queer is fine--it's the male I've got a problem with. If you could send, maybe, a pretty little homebody back from California who wants an Oklahoma gal, I'd be much obliged."
That did it. Hal started to chuckle, eyes half-lidded, as hie fought falling asleep in the chair.
"Done," Lucy said gently. "Go lay next to your young man. I'll have dinner for you both in an hour, then you can do some walking around the yard before bedtime. You'll both be better for it in the morning, and Kyle can learn to talk to you without thinking 'queer queer queer' the whole time. It's really the one lesson I haven't been able to pound into his head."
"He's kind though," Hal murmured, standing up and laying down on empty side of the bed. "He get that from you?"
"Well, certainly not from my brother, who was an asshole, or from his mother, who was just not that bright. But they're off, making more babies somewhere else, and I got a chance to fix this one."
"He offered us shelter when we needed it," Hal told her, because this was important. Lucy got what was apparently an old blanket from a closet in the room and shook it out over the two of them. "I mean, kindness of strangers--this has been almost like... a gift. A wedding present from the gods." He pulled a corner of the blanket around his shoulder and snuggled down. Lucy patted his arm.
"Well, maybe the gods give you nice things because you're so sweet about accepting them," she said. "I'll wake you for dinner, okay?"
She left, turning off the light and closing the door, and Pierce made a sound next to him, rolling over to his side.
"You okay?" Hal asked, anxiety pulling him awake a little.
"I can move. It's a miracle. come here closer--we both smell and it feels like we should smell together."
Hal chuckled and curled into his chest. "They're not even going to chop us up for barbecue," he said, still stunned at their good fortune.
"Now see, if it had been me alone, I'd be in the oven already, slow cooking," Pierce said soberly. "It's all you, baby. I'm sure of it."
"Mm..." Hal snuggled harder. "It's us. We're unicorns. We can find magic people. It's a superpower."
"Anybody else, I'd think that was bullshit," Pierce said, and on that note they fell asleep.
They'd wake up later in the evening and break bread with Lucy and Kyle, and take a walk with their dogs and come back and sleep. In the morning, Hal cooked omelets for everybody, to say thank you, and then they were on their way, with homemade cornbread wrapped in a towel to eat for lunch.
And Pierce would always assert that it was Hal's magic that found the nice people in Oklahoma, but Hal knew the truth.
It was both of them. They were unicorns.
He couldn't wait to get home to Sacramento, where they could fill Pierce's house with magic!