Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 2: Echoes of the Past

Chapter 2 - Echoes of the Past

10 November 2018, Saturday 8:42 AM

Grant stretched under the warm blanket and his quilt. His handsome, narrow face took on a grin as he did. He yawned, almost all of his straight, white teeth showing.

He didn't want to get up.  He felt lazy, and the house was cold. He banked the fireplace well last night, but he knew he would have to go down and revive it to have any sort of warmth in the house.

"Why just have a fireplace in a house like this in Vermont?" Grant sighed. He remembered that there were chimneys on almost every house on this block. He also knew that all of the houses were built around the same time. Though, he was sure most of the other homes had some supplemental heat source as well.

He'd have to look into a furnace and central heating. He noticed that the previous owners must have started on that project. There were vents throughout the house and ductwork. There was also a suspicious, empty spot downstairs in the small utility closet. The closet was partitioned into two spaces. One half contained his gas water heater, and the other only had what looked to be a capped gas line that poked up through the floor.

He would have to look into the cost of something like a furnace. In the meantime, there was a fire that needed tending. He got up. Grant shivered a little, and he breathed, his mouth wide, as he tried to see his breath.

No luck. He laughed at himself. "Okay, it's cold but not freezing. Fine. I'm just a wimp." He put on a pair of sweatpants, a pullover shirt, and a pair of thick socks.

Grant went to the bathroom, and then he wandered downstairs. He walked straight to the fireplace. He already had a couple of pieces of wood sitting on the hearth. He poked at the fire, and he smiled at the welcome bed of cherry-red coals he revealed under the ash. Both of the pieces of wood went on, and before he even stood up, flames licked along the sides of the logs.

Next, he went into the kitchen. He flipped on his coffee pot. Grant liked to prepare ahead as much as possible. That included little things - like loading the coffee pot the night before and getting wood for his fire ready.

He walked to the table. On the back of one of the chairs was the spot he had chosen to hang his backpack. And in that was the laptop his work had issued to him. He did onboarding with the clinic Monday and Tuesday. Along with a crash course on the Electronic Medical System Barre medical clinic used, he got a badge that would open all the doors in the clinic and a cellphone.

Grant already had patients scheduled for Monday. And though he would have a mentor onsite for some time, he felt a little nervous about doing a good job. He booted up the laptop. As it started, he poured himself a cup of coffee. He sat in front of the keyboard, and he took out his work cell phone. Grant turned on the Hotspot on the phone. Then he selected that connection from his computer. Soon he was online, and he navigated through his appointments that were scheduled.

Grant read through all of the patient's chief complaints, learned their histories, and checked their medication lists. The clinic manager was nice to him. She only scheduled a dozen patients for the entire day. His patient load would slowly ramp up until he saw eighteen to twenty four patients a day. He made a few notes on each patient, and he sipped his coffee as he worked.

After an hour Grant already had basic plans for each of the patients on his schedule. Though no plan survives unscathed once other people are involved, he felt better about getting ahead of the game.

By this point, the house had warmed. And since Grant got his work done he felt that he deserved a little reward.

"Okay, T!" He grinned as he stood up. He had left the journal out on the counter overnight. He was afraid if he carried it upstairs to his bedroom he would devour it all in a series of long reads. He knew the book was almost full of entries. And he wanted them to last as long as possible.

With a satisfied expression, he picked it up. Then he sat back in his spot. Coffee in one hand, he opened the journal and started on entry three.

16 August 2013, Friday 6:55 PM

Hahahaha! Oh my god! I've never laughed so hard in my life! John is still mad, and he keeps saying that his ass cheek is bruised.

He only has himself to blame! I walked in from my work in the garage after he got home from work at the pharmacy. I had on my toolbelt, smelled of sweat and sawdust, and he LOVES that. So, he got my jeans down to my knees, made me sit in the chair at the table, and he straddled me to sit on my cock.

Well, those chairs can't handle that much weight, and …

Grant blinked. "Wait. What?" He read the first part of the entry again. Then Grant slowly put the journal down on the table. "Oh. Two guys. 'T' is a guy." He felt a little weirded out, and even a bit betrayed. He didn't have a problem with gay people. But reading about the sex life of a pair of guys wasn't something he had planned to do today.

"Okay. Well, I guess I'm done with this." Grant picked up the journal, walked a few steps, and he put it on the mantle of the fireplace. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with it, but he felt strange about reading the book now.

Grant pursed his lips as he stood next to the warm and crackling hearth. He looked at the spine of the journal, and then he laughed a little. "Well, now I know why there are only three chairs." He smirked. Then he stepped back over next to the table.

Grant sat back in front of his laptop, and he opened a webpage to the news.

And he tried to think about something other than the mysterious little book that lay on the mantle, and two guys screwing in his kitchen.

_____________________________________

10 November 2018, Saturday 9:18 PM

Troy sat behind the wheel of his van, and he watched a small, bundled up group of people walk by. They entered the Cornerstone Pub, a bar and eatery in Barre that Troy loved. Though, the last time he ate there seemed a lifetime ago.

He had done work for the owner. And at one time the man gave Troy the password to his WiFi network. Troy's phone was very limited in terms of data, and he needed the connection. So he found a quiet spot near the restaurant.

He had trouble here once a few months back. A drunken pair of guys pushed and banged on his van late one night while he slept. Troy grabbed the walnut wood ax handle he kept in the van, and he stepped out to meet them.

What had started out as funny to the men ended up in a mad dash away from an extremely upset and angry Troy. But that also attracted the attention of the owner. Troy was strongly warned about parking overnight, and there was a threat to call the police if he did again. Until tonight, he hadn't parked there since. He'd rather not risk it, but it couldn't be helped.

Once the group entered the pub, Troy turned his attention to his phone, and he connected to the WiFi.

He checked his bank accounts first. He had $121 in his checking account and $400 in savings. He needed fuel, and the van was a gas hog. It had a twenty-gallon tank, and Troy would prefer to fill it up when he hit the gas station. It'd cost between $70-$80 to fill the belly of his metal beast.

Troy thought about shifting funds from savings to his checking account. He frowned. 'No. Not this time. You've got to build it back up again. You have got to get a deposit and rent together for a place.'

While he agonized over his lack of money, a group of three patrons left the pub. They were in high spirits, and they laughed in the cold air. Their breaths plumed from them as they talked and carried on. There was about an inch of snow on the ground, and it had hardened into a crunchy, icy layer thanks to the temperature. And one of them went down with a surprised yelp when he stepped off of the steps.

Troy watched as the other two young guys helped him up. Once they saw he was okay, they laughed and were all still smiling. They made their way to a car in the parking lot.

A pang of loneliness speared through Troy's chest. He'd not had a night out with a friend in so long. It's true - he wasn't an overly social guy. But he only had himself for company for over a year now. In the quiet times, after the work was done, it was just him.

But Troy didn't want any of his old friends to see him right now.

'When I get a place. When I get cleaned up. Then I can reach out.' He sighed. 'If anybody is even around anymore.'

He watched the car with the three friends drive away, and then he looked back down at his phone. 'The Burgess job will be done tomorrow. That money will help. It'll put me that much closer.'

The cost of the job was $3,000 for the materials. And Troy only charged a 33% fee on top of the material costs, vs. the typical 50% most contractors charged. That meant he would clear almost $1,000 on the job.

He desperately needed that money. The first month of rent and a deposit would cost around $1,400 for the little one bedroom place on Main St that he wanted to rent. Though, that would leave him with next to no money. And he needed more food too. He'd have to land another contracting gig immediately.

Next, Troy checked his email. There were no hits from his Craigslist ad. Troy pursed his lips, and he blew out a breath that was intended to calm him. Though, it met with little success.

"I can't get the apartment this month if I don't have another job lined up. I won't be able to feed myself." Troy let his hand with the phone flop down on his leg.

At that moment his stomach growled. He put a hand over it. He didn't eat anything for dinner last night or tonight. And his self-imposed rule was that he wouldn't go two nights in a row without an evening meal. Troy looked again at the bank information. He needed every cent.

"I'll be fine." He nodded. "I can wait until I have my oatmeal tomorrow. I'll be fine." There was a quiet, desperate tone in his voice. Troy tried to ignore it.

Troy logged off of the WiFi, and he put his phone away. Then he put up his windshield screen, and he took off his boots.

He got ready for bed. It was another long day, and he couldn't remember a time that he felt more worn down and tired. He knew it was because he wasn't eating enough. But he tried hard not to think about his empty belly.

He stood over 6' tall, and he only weighed 160 lbs. Back before his world turned upside down, he clocked in at a healthy 185. Now he was thankful for the cold. He could layer up and keep his slowly thinning frame hidden.

Troy layered up for bed, put on his knit cap, and then he lay down. He pulled his blanket and sleeping bag to his chin. Then he rolled onto his side.

Tonight he was so exhausted that his body shut down before his mind could start the regular, terrible journey it always took.

It was a small mercy in the life of a man who saw few of those.

_____________________________________

11 November 2018, Sunday 8:47 AM

Grant sat at the kitchen counter, and he stared down at the leather jacket of the journal. He sipped his coffee and eyed the book. Earlier, he had taken it from the mantle after he made his decision.

'Just read it. It's fine. They're just two people messing around. No big deal.'

In truth, his curiosity was killing him. He wanted to know how the house ended up empty. He wanted to know why the journal was in the fireplace. He wanted to know everything!

He licked his lips, and he opened the book back to the page where he had left off.

Well, those chairs can't handle that much weight, and after he settled on me the chair's cross support failed, and it folded. Down we went! Somehow John landed hard on his right ass cheek. I'm not hurt at all, but he's limping around like a big baby. He just wants me to rub his butt!

Oh, he's threatening to withhold that blackberry jam he's making if I laugh one more time. Okay, this is serious. I'm gonna go give mister cranky a very gentle ride on my barber pole, and then I might have to rub his ass for a while. *sigh* The things I'll do for blackberry jam. I suppose that includes doing John. Hah!

See ya, journal!

~ T

Grant looked up and stared off into space. "Blackberry jam." His eyes widened, and he got up.

He walked quickly through the house to the garage. He flipped on the overhead fluorescent lights, and he went to the workbench built against the wall.

Under the bench was a box, and he slid it across the floor toward him until it was under the light. He reached and grabbed one of the small, tightly-packed jars inside.

There was a dozen of them, and every one was filled with blackberry jam. He noticed the box a couple of days ago, but it wasn't a priority for him to figure out what was inside.

Grant brushed the dust from the top of the jar. A white sticker with a few lines was there on the lid. And in a different, elegant writing a date was listed.

"August 12, 2017? But, the journal is dated 2013." Grant frowned, then the bulb went on. "Ah. John made new batches every year." He smiled broadly at the jar. "Cool! Now I've gotta try it."

Grant took the jar with him into the kitchen, and he washed it well. Then he bit his lip as he struggled to open the sealed container.

The jam finally came open. He unscrewed it, and then Grant pried the center lid off of the jar with his fingernails. He looked down at the dark purple, amorphous stuff and he smiled. Grant put some bread into his toaster.

Soon he had toast. He buttered it, then a healthy dollop of the jam went on as well. Curious, Grant gingerly took a bite of the food.

He had never tasted homemade jam. And he slowly chewed the bite. It was delicious - sweet, a little chunky, and there was something else there as well. Grant licked his lips as he tried to figure out the unknown flavor.

"Ah. Lime?" He took another nibble and cocked his head as he assessed his initial guess. He swallowed then nodded. "Yeah! Blackberry jam with lime." He picked up the lid, and he examined it while he finished off the piece of toast. He washed down the bite with another swig of coffee.

"This must be John's handwriting." His thumb gently rubbed the label.

Grant had a sudden moment of guilt. He put the lid back on. "Man, I feel like I'm eating someone else's food, and living in someone else's house." He stood there a moment, the jar in hand.

'You bought the place. It's all yours. John and T left all this here. There must be a reason.' He nodded to himself, and he put the jam in the fridge.

"Well, maybe the journal will tell me." Grant smiled at the book. He already knew that he was going to read the entire thing. It was almost as if it had the answers to all the little riddles he found in the house. And the way T described the sex between himself and John wasn't overly graphic. Grant didn't see it as offputting, and he actually felt a little jealous.

'They mess around a lot.' He noted as he opened the journal again. When he first dated his high school sweetheart, Rebecca, they had sex a few times a month on average. And it declined from there. That didn't seem to be enough for her. It got to be a significant strain on their relationship.

Ultimately, Grant realized that he would never be able to give her what she wanted. He didn't need sex as much as she did. They ended things. Though it was amicable, it still hurt. He missed her. More than anything, she was his friend. And when they broke up, he lost that. Though he was okay staying in contact, and remaining friends Rebecca told him she couldn't handle that.

It was one of the reasons Grant took the job in Vermont.

"Well, these guys don't have that problem. It looks like they're on the same schedule." He smirked. "Lucky."

With a smile, he opened the book to the next entry.

18 August 2013, Sunday 11:20 AM

That damn fence. I knew it looked rickety.

I heard a commotion out back, and I looked out the window to see John picking himself up off the ground, and a section of our fence laying in the neighbor's yard. I ran out there, and John said he leaned against it, and it fell over!

Luckily, my John is okay. That's the important thing. But, now, we've got a problem with the fence.

Contractor-man to the rescue! Well, kinda. I don't have enough lumber to replace the whole thing. So I dragged the old, failed portion off to the dump, threw a really quick section together, tacked it up, and called it good. For now.

The neighbors were super friendly. They came running outside when John flopped like a big gay fish into their yard. They're a young couple who bought the place next door only a few months ago. Aaron and Georgette. They're a cute pair. They're probably in their early 20s. We're all new to the neighborhood, though they're both natives of Vermont.

Uh oh. I'm sitting on the couch, and I can see John in the kitchen. He's giving me the eye. I guess his "brush with death," as he described it, has made him randy.

I'm always going to oblige John's unhealthy need for my cock. So I'm going to go for now.

~ T

Grant chuckled. "T is funny!" He closed the journal. "Hrm." He stood up, and he walked to the side door. He opened the door and took a look at the fence that separated his yard from that of the neighbor's. "Ahhh. There it is." From where he was on the side porch, he could see an eight-foot section of fence that was newer than the rest.

Curious, Grant pulled on a pair of shoes. He walked out into the chilly morning, and he looked at the fence.

He was decidedly not an expert, but the new section looked good. "Damn. If that is T 'throwing a section together' then I wonder what the man could do when he expended effort and time on a project."

Grant reached out and grabbed the top of the fence. The section done by T, he shook a little. It barely moved. "Wow. Yeah. That's solid." He tried the same thing with the section just before, so he could compare.

He only BARELY avoided falling with the fence as the rotted support post snapped, and the section toppled over with a crack of wood into the neighbor's yard.

Grant stood there, one hand still extended, and a guilty grimace on his face. He looked at the house, but nobody came rushing outside. Grant exhaled a little, relieved breath. Then he looked back at the fence that lay on the frosty grass and the bit of snow that remained.

"Damn it." Grant bit his lip. "Okay. Garage. See what you can do about this mess."

Grant walked inside, and then he went quickly to his garage. "Okay. Okay. I need something to hold up a fence."

His eyes flicked over various tools, supplies, and materials. Grant could barely hammer a nail, so he didn't even look at the few pieces of lumber.

What he did find was a length of somewhat flexible metal. The stuff was in a coil, had holes all along the middle of the width, and it was very strong. "Plumber's Tape?" Grant frowned at the packaging. He shrugged. "Well, right now you're gonna be 'Fence Holder.'"

He took the roll out with him, along with a hammer and some nails.

After a laughable and exhausting hour, Grant finally had the fence back up. A wild array of plumber's tape straps held the piece up, tacked to the sturdy section, and to a maple tree that grew along his fence line.

He stood and looked askance at his efforts. "Ah, I need to call someone." He snorted at the bent nails, and the crooked strapping. "Someone who won't judge me."

He went inside and stood over his fireplace. Grant warmed his cold hands and thought about his fence issue. He realized he would need to replace the whole thing. Apart from that single new section built by T, all of it looked pretty flimsy and rotted.

He was lucky medical providers were in such demand. He had a $6,000 signing bonus sitting in the bank, along with what he had already managed to save. So he wasn't too worried about the cost of the repairs. Plus, his starting pay was a very nice salary. His first paycheck would come two weeks from Friday. And then he'd be well and truly fine, in terms of finances.

He turned his head and looked out of the living room window. And as he watched, flurries began to fall from the sky. He frowned at the sight.

'Man, this weather. Whoever I hire will probably charge me extra to deal with it.' He shrugged. 'I've got money. Not a big deal.'

Regardless of the snow, tomorrow after he got home from work he'd have to make some calls to the local fence-building outfits.

"I just had to go and shake the thing." Grant shook his head. Then he grinned. "I guess I'm in good company." He looked at the journal where it lay on the kitchen counter. "You and me, John!"

With a little snicker at himself, Grant turned to warm his back. While outside, the snow began to whiten the sky as it fell thickly over the world.

_____________________________________

11 November 2018, Sunday 6:57 PM

"Great work, Troy." They both stood outside at the back corner of the house. Mister Burgess smiled at him, and he patted the side of the remodeled laundry room. "Fast too!" He shook his head. "You really are the best contractor in the county."

Troy nodded. He couldn't quite muster up the expected smile at the compliment. He was tired and hungrier than he had been in a long time. 'I've got a little bit of oatmeal left.' His mind fixed on the food, and he found it hard to think about anything else.

Mister Burgess seemed to notice Troy's distracted state. "Okay, well, let's get you paid." He disappeared into the house. A few minutes later he returned.

"Here you go. $4,000." He handed Troy a check for the fee. Troy had a $3,000 bill to pay at the lumber-yard - where he got most of the materials for the build. That meant only $1,000 of the amount was his.

Troy took the slip of paper. "Thank you." He turned to go.

"Troy, can I ask you something?"

The exhausted, hungry man turned. "Sure."

Donald Burgess shrugged and shook his head, genuinely confused. "Why are you doing this?" He waved his hand at the van. "You could go somewhere warmer, somewhere you won't' be miserable during the winter. I mean, I love your work. But I've got to wonder - why are you here, Troy? It's easy to see that you're struggling."

Troy almost laughed. "It's that simple, huh?" He nodded. "Yeah, thanks so much. You got it figured out for me." His tone changed and became bitter. Thanks to his stress and hunger, his filter broke, and he couldn't stop himself from continuing. "Well, it's not simple. First, everything takes money. Everything. Yeah, I could drive away. Get real far on $1,000 too. But then what? What would I do when the money is gone, I'm even hungrier, and my gas tank is empty?"

Troy expected the man to get upset with him. But instead, Donald's eyes grew sorrowful and soft. Troy saw pity in them, and he despised it.

He turned away, angry.

"Troy, wait." Troy didn't wait. He kept walking. "Let me get you something." Donald followed behind, through the side yard and out the front gate. "I can see in your face that you've lost weight. I know we have some roast leftover in the fridge. I can get …"

Troy opened the van door, got in, and shut it. Then he started the vehicle. Without hesitation, he pulled away.

He drove. The light from overhead street lamps flashed illumination into the van as he sped along - light and dark, light and dark, and revealed the features of his face. Troy's strong, wide jaw clenched, and his cheekbones stood out, a little sharper now - thanks to his weight loss. His temper was hot, and for a moment it overcame his hunger and fatigue.

"I'm not a charity." He frowned, and he felt his eyes sting. He grimaced and forced back the tears that threatened. He turned onto North St near Currier Park. Troy found a quiet spot under an ancient, leafless black walnut tree and he parked.

"I'm not a fucking charity."

Troy breathed. He sat, and he slowly took breaths until he calmed.

He shook his head at himself. "Fuck. I'm sorry, Mr. Burgess. Fuck," he whispered in the chilly, quiet air of the van. He sighed. The Burgesses were good, repeat customers. He would have to call and apologize.

But not tonight. He pulled the check and squinted at the numbers in the low light.

"At least this went right. I got paid. And …" Troy frowned at the paper. "Wait."

The check was for $4,050. And the memo on it said, "For building supplies. And a steak."

He rubbed his face. Mr. Burgess knew Troy had it rough. He knew how hard Troy worked, and how terribly close Troy rode to the line.

'My fees are the best in town. The Burgesses would have paid a lot more if they went with someone else.' He struggled to accept the extra money. 'It's not a handout. It's a, ah, it's a tip. Yeah. A tip.' Hunger forced him to justify the additional funds.

He could eat tonight. That extra $50 meant he could spend something from his account and replace it with the money once he cashed the check.

Troy sat back against his seat. He knew he should use that $50 on something sensible. He could buy a lot of oatmeal, rice, or peanut butter with it.

But months of always doing the sensible thing wore a man down. He needed something. He needed a little gift to himself.

He gave a short little laugh, and he put the van into gear.

"Cornerstone Pub, here I come."


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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