Even with every square foot of space in disarray, the floors littered with half-packed moving boxes and the usual bits of a life well-lived spread out in piles to be discarded or kept, it still felt like home.
Grabbing a stack of bubble wrap squares, Mason Novak eased his aching body onto the nearest dining room chair and prepared to box up the china that had graced the table for every Christmas and Thanksgiving meal he’d ever eaten in this house. The stack of plates that had served up the best turkey and mashed potatoes in the world fit easily in the special packing sleeves, but what the hell was he supposed to do about all those dainty little cups? They’d never make cross-country in one piece no matter how carefully he packed them.
Ridiculous as it was, it suddenly mattered a great deal to him that they make it to their new home unbroken.
A pang of homesickness caught him under the breastbone as he finished wrapping the twelve plates and laid them in the heavy box. He’d never eat off them again. Not in this house, anyway. Maybe that knowledge was what bothered him, rather than anything practical. At thirty-four, it wasn’t like he came home for every holiday anymore. Yet the nostalgia lingered, not entirely unwelcome, but it hurt more than he wanted to admit to himself. The dishes would one day go to his little sister, not him. She was the one who had the children. Two grade-schoolers and a newborn with a heart defect.
The move had been planned long before the birth, but now there was a sense of urgency to loading the moving van, and justifiably so. Not that he resented losing out on what he’d planned as a two-week long goodbye to both mother and childhood home. Okay, truthfully, he resented it. Albany might as well be on the far side of the moon for all he could travel there with any frequency, and his ties to his mother had already grown threadbare. She had to go, she was needed there, and he could not leave. His life was here in Portland.
He didn’t have much of a life anymore. Everything had gone to crap, and this was the second household he’d packed up in as many months. Along with the dust and old bread bag ties, he’d swept up the bits of his broken heart and moved on.
Faggots don’t know what love is anyway, his father’s voice chimed in, right on time. “Fuck off, dad,” he muttered to himself.
“What was that, Mase?”
“Nothing, mom.” Just a voice in his head, and not a presence in his life anymore. Or his mother’s. His parents were divorced. Stephen Novak hadn’t called him anything but filthy pervert since high school. Laughable considering he was the one who’d nail anything in a skirt, regardless of their age or that gold ring on his finger. Or on her finger. Last he heard, his sperm donor was happily married to some young thing and gloating over the perfection of family number two, the one without the embarrassing faggot and with a wife who still had both tits intact.
Stephen’s leaving had never been much of a loss. Most of the memories he had of his father in this house were now distant echoes faded with time.
His mother Natasha had been the one who’d made them a family, not his absentee, lawyer father who preferred billable hours to spending time with his own flesh and blood. But water under the bridge and all that. He’d hit the jackpot in the mother department and he’d best remember to be more thankful.
Seemingly summoned by his thoughts, Nat emerged from under a kitchen cabinet with a stack of mismatched Tupperware lids and a perplexed frown. “I swear all the lost socks turn into plastic lids that don’t fit anything,” she grumbled, then tossed them in the recycling box. “Why don’t we take a break and have something to eat? We’ve been at it for hours.”
His stomach growled at the thought of food. He’d always had a fast metabolism and still weighed the same as he had back in those torturous high school, you’re-nothing-but-a-filthy pervert years. According to his ex, he was still just as awkward and gangly too, and if Mason had just eaten more and worked out more and had been just…more, things might not have ended. Or would have ended differently.
But ended they had. Richard—Dick—because he was a dick, had instead run off with Mason’s boss. Which meant not only was Mason boyfriend-less, he was jobless and homeless, and soon to be motherless. “But I’m a damned good uncle,” he mumbled to his reflection in the glass of the china cabinet doors.
“Of course you are! You’re a great uncle. The kids adore you.” Nat answered. Not that he’d been speaking to her. He never could sneak anything past her super-sonic hearing and apparently still couldn’t. His private mutterings had never been private. “Come on, let’s take a break. I picked-up deli sandwiches and that black cherry soda pop you like so much.”
No wonder he was feeling so sentimental and nostalgic. The memories were ganging up on him from every direction. He hadn’t had a bottle of that pop in fifteen years, but his mouth watered in remembrance. “Is there any ice left?” Because if he recalled correctly, the stuff was disgustingly sweet and the house was roughly as hot as his and Dickhead’s last argument.
Nat peered inside the empty freezer, releasing a cloud of vapor. “Just enough in the tray for a tall glass.”
Tall glass? To her, that meant six ounces and not a drop more. No wonder he’d always been skinny.
By the time he stretched his sore muscles, washed off the grime and made it to the table and chairs out on the back porch, she had their dinner set out. The ice in his glass cracked loudly as she filled it with liquid that looked suspiciously like cough syrup, and then slumped exhausted into her own chair. She looked as tired as he felt.
“God, I hate moving,” they both said at the same time.
She laughed—his mother had a great laugh—and began the hunt for any rogue tomatoes that might be contaminating her sandwich. Finding none, she took a huge bite. “You sure you won’t come?” she asked after swallowing.
She meant with her—as in a permanent relocation. He shook his head and swallowed his own lump of half-chewed, tasteless bread. Nothing had any flavor anymore. “Nah.”
She was silent for a moment, which was suspicious in itself. She obviously wanted to say something and normally wasn’t one for holding back. Was it that she couldn’t find the words, or was it more bad news?
“What?” he prodded. “Just say it.”
“You should come with me.”
“There’s nothing here for you, Mason. Nothing! Ginny and the kids are happy in Albany, the move was great for them, and you and Richard…” she trailed off.
Yeah. Him and Richard.
“Well, you’re not together anymore, not that he was good for you to begin with…and your job is…”
“My job is currently sleeping with my ex-boyfriend?”
“Mason,” she sighed.
What she said was true though. There was nothing for him here anymore. He just couldn’t seem to leave.
“It’s too soon. I know it’s too soon. But maybe in a few months…?”
“Time won’t make any difference.” Some people grew wings and took off to new places without a backward glance, and others put down roots and stayed. He was a rooter, plain and simple. The land had got a hold of him and he couldn’t leave. “But I plan to visit as much as I can. You know that.”
She sighed heavily but said nothing, made no fresh arguments. Rooters were also stubborn, apparently, and he’d won this round.
They finished eating in silence—what was left to say on that subject? They’d been over it before. Nat tidied their few dishes and came back out on the porch with one of her endless plastic packing tubs. This one was smaller though, and clear, but the contents were still a mystery. “These are for you.”
The last thing he needed was more stuff. Homeless, and all that. “What is it?”
Lots and lots of photos by the look of it.
Great. The storage locker was already packed to the ceiling.
“I had copies made of some of the nicer family photos and the others are just old snapshots of you and your friends and some of the neighbors and such.” She gave him a wistful look. “I can’t take everything. And it’s time I…” she smiled sadly, “well. It’s just time.”
What she meant was she knew she wouldn’t be coming back and it was time to shed some of the past onto her offspring. It had been years since the lump was removed—caught early, thank god—yet the spectre of death still hung over her, unshakable. Hence the decision sell the house and move across the country. He understood that shedding a little better since he’d shed the dickhead. Well, since the dickhead had shed him.
Mason ran his hand over the lid of the box. They still had an impossible amount of packing to do, but the prospect of sifting through images of the past seemed a lot more enjoyable compared to wrapping a thousand fragile tea cups and their teeny-tiny handles, so he popped open one corner of the lid. The scent of old photos and times gone by drifted out.
Inside the big box, were several smaller boxes. Never let it be said his mother didn’t have a box for everything. Sorted and labelled, too. He peeked at the label on the largest one—marked ‘early family’, scowled, and left that particular trip down the family lane unopened. He’d had enough ghostly echoes of filthy faggot for the day thank you very much. But the smaller, unlabelled and rapidly disintegrating cardboard box held some promise. He carefully lifted it from the plastic tomb. Valentine cartoon characters from some vaguely remembered TV show smiled back at him. “What’s in here?”
“Oh, just some pictures of your old friends. They don’t really mean anything to me, but I thought you’d like to have them.”
“Thanks.” Not so much, but it was very thoughtful of her.
“I can’t believe how many pictures there were of that unruly Porterhouse brat. I thought you hated that kid.”
“I did.” Do.
“Then how come he always seemed to be over here getting his picture taken?”
“Everyone else hated him more.” Worse, he still lived in the same goddamn neighborhood, and out of all the people he’d rather run into—would like to run into—it always seemed to be Randy fucking Porterhouse he crossed paths with. Karma was such a bitch. Randy still called him Queer-bait too. Although the way he said it, it sounded more like Queerbit.
“I always seem to run into him when I’m shopping at Target,” Nat said.
Which was why he avoided Target. “That’s because he works there.”
“Oh.” She raised her brows, a long-wondered question obviously answered. “His shop must have gone under.” She shook her head. “That’s too bad. He was always so good with cars. But I can’t say I’m going to miss him terribly when I go. He always looks so angry. Not as much as when he was younger, but, well, he’s so big. Makes me nervous.”
Mason flipped through the stack as the golden, late afternoon sun crawled across the lawn. Randy was indeed in a lot of the photos. Christ. Did the kid not have a home of his own?
“I believe his father drank a lot,” he mother volunteered, reading his mind.
“I’d drink too if Randy was my kid.”
“Mason! He was just a kid, and his dad was a mean drunk. Don’t be unkind.”
“Unkind? Me? He calls me Queer-bait mom. Seriously. Or fairy-boy. Or ass-boy. In public.”
Nat frowned. “Well that’s rude. And he’s not very imaginative, is he?”
“Nope. And dumb as a sack of hammers. Target was his true calling.”
Sifting through the stack of photos sent him further down memory lane, since god knew, he hadn’t spent enough time there already today. His mother had clearly been extra camera happy on birthdays. The last of the Kodak shareholders must have loved her.
Cakes. The bakeries must have loved her too. She always took a picture of him and his sister with their cakes so they’d know what year it was when the photo was taken. Twelve, eleven, ten. There were bikes and old-fashioned video games and sports equipment he never used because he was, you know, a filthy faggot and couldn’t catch a ball to save his life. Daddy dearest dreamed of raising the all-star running back at State and got the nerdy science champ instead.
Funny though—how good ol’ dad wasn’t in many of the pictures.
Must have been busy.
Fucking the neighbor’s wife.
The lower he went in the stack, the younger he got. Back in time, he looked less…awkward. In fact, he looked almost normal in baggy shorts and flashing a huge smile that showed off his missing two front teeth, his expression clearly indicating how proud he was of the big cake declaring a sports-themed, Happy 7th Birthday Champ!
Christ. Trying to brainwash him into the sports hall of fame already. At seven.
His gap toothed smile was nothing however, compared to the massive grin on the blond kid sitting next to him. The boy’s grin, literally, stretched from ear to ear. But then he had a lot to smile about. His shiny new, big, incisors had already grown all the way in.
Inspecting the rest of the face and not just the giant white teeth, Mason felt a physical lurch as time crashed to a sudden, violent halt. His breath hitched in his throat as he stared down at the photo and the sun kissed face of the kid smiling back up at him from the shiny photo paper.
Who was that kid? And why did looking at him make his heart suddenly start hammering painfully in his chest?
“Mason? You okay?”
What the hell was this? Thirty-four was too young for a heart attack, right? He pulled the photo from the hoard and let the others fall. “M-mom?” He felt like he should know who that was—like, really, really know, yet the kid’s identity eluded him. “Who’s this?”
She pried the photo from his clenched fingers and examined it with furrowed brows. “I don’t know.” She held it up as if more light would somehow help her figure it out. “I mean, he’s familiar, like maybe he used to live around here, but I can’t put a name to his face. There were always so many kids hanging around.” She handed it back and he took it with an unsteady hand. “Cute kid, though. Photogenic.”
The name still escaped him. But…
He knew that kid.
Knew him in his heart in that tight, chest clenching way you remembered that childhood dog you loved and lost to a fast car or that first girl—boy—you ever had a desperate crush on when they didn’t even know you existed. A painful sense of loss radiated up from beneath his breastbone.
He knew that kid!
Then he’d…forgotten him. Somehow, in between the day when that number seven written out in tooth-staining blue icing slid into the number eight frosted in bright red in the photo stacked above it, he’d forgotten him. Forgotten that smile. That freckled nose. That flaxen hair bleached white by the summer sun. He’d forgotten his name, where he lived, who he was.
But his heart remembered.
Because he’d loved that kid.God, he’d loved him so much.