Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 1: From the Ashes

 Chapter 1 - From the Ashes

08 November 2018, Thursday 3:12 PM

Grant fumbled with the key, his arms full. He had picked up the key only a couple of hours ago from the realtor, and he grinned excitedly despite the cold and his difficulty with the door.

Finally, the key slipped into place and Grant unlocked the door. It opened with a creak of old hinges.

'Nothing a little oil won't fix.'

He stepped into the cold, dusty space. It was still well lit by the sun which came in through the windows, even without flipping on a light. He turned and shut the door with a gentle kick, and then he looked over the room.

He stood at the end of a short hall. There were three doors, one that led off to a small room which Grant envisioned to become a den, one door to the garage, and then one more to the bathroom. Ahead of him, at the end of the hall, he could see into the living/dining/kitchen area.

He walked down the hall into the kitchen. He put his armful of groceries down on the counter and sighed, happy to be unburdened from the load. Then he looked around the room and smiled.

"What a fantastic deal this was. Wow." His brown eyes sparkled with his excitement.

There was a relatively new gas range with oven, a nice fridge, even a microwave and a dining table with three chairs. He found the odd count of chairs strange but decided that he shouldn't be choosy.

'As is purchase. They come with the house.'

The home was a repossession, and the bank was ready to cut its losses on the loan. Grant purchased the place for a steal, and he only owed a small mortgage each month, which he planned to pay off as soon as possible.

He was new to Barre, Vermont. He was also new to his job, profession and the East Coast. Grant finished his residency for his Physician Assistant training only a few months ago, and he found employment quickly at the Barre Health Center. New graduates of his program were inundated with job offers from various employers, and Barre Health Center had the right mix of pay and size. He could earn more working for a hospital. But Grant was willing to give up a bit of money if it meant he could ensure he was home on weekends and holidays.

Plus, he wanted away from California. Which also included his overprotective, controlling family, and his ex-fiance, Rebecca.

"Grant! Vermont? It's so far!"

He could still hear his mother's voice and see the frown of disapproval on his father's face behind her.

He was happy to be away. Finally done with school, training, and testing, Grant was ready to try life on the East Coast.

Even the cold didn't bother him. It was different, and that was what he needed. Though, it was chilly in the house. He walked over a few steps to the fireplace.

It was the one thing Grant genuinely didn't like about the house. The only heat in the place was an old stone fireplace. He sighed, knelt, and started the chore of building a fire. The realtor could tell Grant wasn't thrilled about it, so he had made every effort to make sure there were fire starting supplies laying neatly nearby, and a few sticks of wood. Grant knew there was plenty of wood in the garage - one wall was lined with a very dry stack of the stuff.

He frowned at the fireplace. There was a burned log in it - blackened cinders on the outside, and spiderwebs too. It looked like that log had been in there for months, at least.

He could spend time looking around, but he realized that he had no idea where his work gloves might be. He let loose another sigh, and then he reached in.

Grant lifted the log with a grimace. It was sooty, covered in ash, and grime. He put it aside on the hearth then rubbed his hands together to brush them free of the worst of it. He grabbed the newspaper left by the realtor and wadded it up into a loose ball. Then he looked back at the fireplace.

"Huh." There was what looked to be something wrapped in burned leather inside the fireplace. It must have been under the log he had removed. Grant cocked his head and made a face. "What the hell?" He reached and his fingers closed on the spine of a small, thick book - one with a severely burned leather jacket.

Grant sat back on his haunches, and he flipped through the book.

'A journal?' There were dated entries in the book, handwritten in a neat, precise script. Though the jacket was grimy and burned, the pages were largely intact. 'There couldn't have been many live cinders in the fire when it was tossed in, and the fire must have gone out shortly after.'

He tried turning a page and realized how dirty his fingers were. Grant put the little, dense book down, and he continued his fire-building chore.

After he finished and had a small but sturdy blaze started, Grant took the book over to the sink with him. He washed his hands, then picked it up again with a paper towel. He then went to the garage.

The garage was one of Grant's favorite things about the house. Someone went through a lot of trouble to set it up to be a real workshop. It made him want to learn woodworking as he looked around the room. There was a table saw, all sorts of power tools, and many specialized tools used by professional builders. He had no real concept of the worth, but Grant knew tools were expensive. 'Why leave everything here?' he wondered, not for the first time.

There was a box of various brushes, and in it was one with stiff bristles. He used the brush on the outside of the journal, and soon the worst of the grime and soot was off of it. Though it would always smell of fire, he could read it without making too much of a mess.

Grant re-entered the kitchen, and he sat at the table. He opened the journal to the first page.

12 August 2013, Monday 10:10 PM

Finally, we made it! John and I are here, in Barre, Vermont, in our very own house! It's so exciting. But more than the home, I'm just excited to be here with him.

I decided to start a journal of our new life together. Our life away from the judgment, and the fear, and the shame. It has been so long coming for us both. John has gone farther than any of his family with his education, but they can't see that. They only see what they consider to be his biggest failing. And they judge him for it. They judge us both. Honestly, I think they believe I "corrupted" him.

Well, fuck them! We're out of Georgia, and we're not going back. His sister was the only one even to ask where we were going. Out of all of them, she's the only one who ever treated me well. And I could tell it put a strain between her and the rest of the family for her to do that. I appreciate you, Beth! She's the only one of the bunch allowed to visit us.

We're away from all that now, so it doesn't matter anymore. We just put our bed together, and John is laying beside me, already asleep. He's still wearing all of his clothes, including his shoes. Poor guy's exhausted. Same here actually. We spent most of our day unloading the U-Haul and putting stuff away in what turned out to be a hot and humid day. For Vermont at least.

I'm going to go. I need to help my man out of his clothes so he can be comfortable. Then I'm going to sleep myself.

G'night, new journal.

~ T

Grant ran a hand through his black hair. His expressive and dark brown eyes had a curious cast. 'Huh. Previous owners? Sounds like a contentious relationship with the guy's family. Husband and wife, maybe?' Through the required disclosures, he knew this place had changed hands twice. Once in 2013, and then just last month when he had made his offer to the bank.

"John, and," his finger slid down the page, "T? So, Tina, or Tracy? Trisha maybe?" He bit his lip and started to go to the next entry when his belly growled at him. He hadn't eaten since breakfast, and he still had groceries out on the counter.

He stood and went to the sink. He washed up again, as the journal was still a bit sooty, then he set about preparing a simple meal.

Dinty Moore beef stew out of a can was the choice for tonight. He microwaved a bowl of the stuff, and while it warmed, he went to the table and sat back down.

"Okay, 'T,' what happened next?" He was happy to have an interesting distraction. "I don't know how this thing ended up almost burned, but I'm glad it didn't." And with a small smile, he began to read again.

14 August 2013, Wednesday 7:00 PM

John is a bit of a novelty here, and we knew that would be the case. We were shopping for our first big grocery run, and a little girl sitting in a shopping cart grabbed her mother's arm as we passed them. She pointed, her eyes wide, and her mouth open in surprise and wonder.

The woman glanced at us, then grimaced, embarrassed. "I'm so sorry." She went back to her daughter. "Becka, stop pointing at people! It's not nice!"

John only laughed. "It's okay. There are probably not many here that look like me." He smiled and said hello to the little girl in the cart. He took it a lot better than I would. He always does. I hate the race stuff, and how it keeps coming up. Yeah, this time it was better than most. And I know the little girl wasn't doing anything malicious, or wrong. She was just curious.

Still. It's probably good he's the black man and not me. He handles these situations with class, patience, and forgiveness.

He's a good man, my John.

I think I'm gonna go have my way with him now. :-)

Till next time, journal.

~ T

Grant closed the journal. 'Interracial couple.' He nodded to himself. 'Yeah, this area is pretty damn white. Sounded like she was always looking out for him. That's really cool.' He grinned. "And sounded like he got her motor running too!"

Grant left the journal on the table, and he got up to grab his bowl of food. He stood by the sink and ate quickly, without even really tasting the stuff. Grant ate to live. He didn't understand "favorite" foods that people had. Yes, some meals were more pleasant to eat. But it wasn't important enough for him to seek them out. To him, eating was just something he had to do in order to survive. So all of his meals were simple, easy, and fast. After he washed his bowl and the spoon he continued putting his things away.

The house was built in the 1960s, and it was a cute two-story affair. Two bedrooms and an added bathroom were upstairs while everything else was down. Though neither bedroom had its own bathroom, Grant didn't mind so much. There was one close at hand no matter the floor he was on, and that was enough.

He carried his boxes of clothes up the stairs. He put them down and debated which bedroom to make his own. They were both almost the same size, and both had a decent sized closet.

Grant settled on the bedroom with windows that faced the quiet street in front of his house. He put his boxes in the closet and went back down for more.

He carried his new queen-sized bed up, piece by piece. Frame, headboard, wooden slats, all were pretty easy. Then he got to the mattress. He pushed it up on edge and had a look of determination on his face. "Okay. Let's do this."

He spent the next five minutes wrestling the heavy, not quite rigid mattress up the stairs. Finally, at the top he let it lean against the wall. Grant stood there and caught his breath. He laughed. "I need to get back to my yoga program. I'm already losing it!"

The last item was the box spring. Grant found that one a little easier. It wasn't as heavy, and it was stiff - both of which made it simpler to handle. He pulled it up one stair at a time until he parked it at the top along with the mattress.

The realtor told him when he bought the place that some of the furniture was sold by the previous owner, including the old bed. Sort of a last ditch effort to get anything out of the house that they could.

Grant felt a bit of sadness and guilt at his earlier joy of the repossession. 'That's T and John. They had to sell their stuff.' He frowned. 'Well, I hope they're doing okay now, wherever they are.'

He pulled everything he would need for the assembly of his bed into the south-facing, street-side bedroom. Grant sat on the carpet and began putting the frame together. 'I wonder what happened?' His mind kept going back to the journal. 'I should just read the end. Maybe it'll tell me why the journal was in the fireplace, and why John and T left.'

Grant shook his head slightly at himself. 'No. Just keep going from the start. You don't know what life will bring. Live T's life with her in the order she lived it.' After a couple of mistakes, he finally got the frame together. Then the slats went down which would hold the box spring and the mattress. Grant put those in place, and he stepped back to grin at his work.

"All right. The bed is done!"

Grant was inordinately pleased with himself. He was not a handy guy, and he struggled with things others would find simple - like putting a bed frame together. He always had trouble with spatial problems and puzzles, and he had an awful sense of direction. He called his lack of navigation skill his "curse." This lack of spatial skills meant his dreams of learning woodworking were just that - dreams.

But in other ways, he approached what some would consider brilliant. He knew people. He could put most at ease, and socialize with just about anybody. His bedside manner was terrific, which made him a great healthcare provider. He made friends quickly, and he liked to be around people. Grant had a pure, natural charisma, and almost anyone who met him liked him.

He hummed some tuneless song, and he threw flannel sheets over the mattress cover. Soon the bed was made. In addition to the flannel sheets, which Grant loved, there was a new blanket and very old family quilt on top of that. It was made with faded reds, golds, and brown - the colors of Autumn. Though faded, the quilt was still in great shape and was a precious heirloom passed down from his grandmother. He ran his hand over it with a smile.

"Thanks, mamaw Martin."

His grandmother taught him the basics of sewing so that he could repair the quilt if it were ever damaged. Luckily Grant never had to try his hand at fixing what amounted to a piece of art. He even debated folding it up and putting it away someplace where it would always be safe. But his grandmother would not have approved of that. It was to be used. Cherished, but used.

He would build his whole bedroom around its color scheme. And as Grant gazed at the bed, he grinned. It made the room look amazing.

Grant was happy with his progress for the day. He breathed a contented sigh as he looked over his new bedroom.

"Yep. I'm feeling pretty good about how this is going."


08 November 2018, Thursday 8:48 PM

"Look, I'm sorry, Troy. But you can't park here tonight." Donald Burgess stood beside Troy's van and wore an apologetic look on his face. "My wife said she'd call the cops if you don't move the van."

Troy tried to keep the fatigue, irritation, and disappointment off of his face. His green eyes betrayed some of it though. Troy knew Mr. Burgess would let him park in front of his home if he could. Troy nodded. "Well, you've already let me be here a couple of nights." He looked the middle-aged man in the eye. "Tell Mrs. Burgess thanks, for the other two nights. I appreciate it."

Mr. Burgess seemed both relieved and sad. "I will." He patted the side of the van. "Thanks for your work. We definitely appreciate the quality of the job you've done for us so far."

Troy smiled, the expression was a little forced. "Sure. I'm always going to do the best job I can do." He sighed. "Okay, I'm off to find another place to overnight. I'll see you tomorrow. Have a good evening."

Troy pulled away, and he saw Mr. Burgess wave in his rear-view mirror.

He drove down the streets of Barre and thought about all of his regular spots. This late, he could probably get away with parking at the high school. Troy turned onto Crimson Tide Way, and he chose a place under one of the lights in the parking lot. There was a high amount of mischief that happened near the school, but the visibility should help.

The light would also make it harder to sleep. But he didn't have a lot of choices. He parked. Troy put on his heavy jacket over the thick flannel shirt he already wore. He also pulled on a pair of sweatpants over his jeans, and he doubled up on his socks too. It would get freezing in the van.

Troy also put up a windshield screen. It helped block out the harsh light that glared down from above on his vehicle. He put his camper van's bed down, and he wearily climbed on. He put in a thirteen hour day, working on a remodeling project for the Burgesses.

Troy was a contractor, and he was paid by the project. So he tried to finish the work he was hired to do as fast as he could, and still do a good job. He had another couple of days to go on the Burgess remodel. The cold weather was not helpful, but Troy was one of the only contractors in the area willing to work outdoors through the season. He didn't have much of a choice. He needed the money.

Troy grabbed a knit cap that lay where he had left it on his pillow. He pulled it over top of his brown hair and his ears, and he lay down.

Though he was tired, Troy's mind began to spin. As the van cooled, and as his breath became visible, he watched it plume from his lips in the muted light inside the vehicle. He blinked slowly, and he tried to avoid the place his mind always went when his world calmed, and he had nothing left to do but think.

'Come on. Not tonight,' Troy's mental voice begged. 'Not tonight. Just let me sleep.'

He pulled up his threadbare blanket and an old sleeping bag with a busted zipper that he used as a blanket.

Troy lay on his back, and despite his earlier plea, his mind conjured the most painful moment of his life for him to relive it.

Just as it did every night.


09 November 2018, Friday 6:00 AM

Troy woke to the alarm on his phone. He was stiff, and he felt far older than his thirty-two-year-old body should. This was thanks to the months of sleeping in the van, and because of the lack of rest that he allowed for himself.

He lay there a moment, unwilling to give up the warmth trapped under the blanket and sleeping bag. The inside of the van was below freezing, and his nose burned from the low temperature.

Troy's bladder would not allow him to put off getting up much longer. He sighed, and he sat up. He stood and shivered in the cold. Troy set his jaw, and he freed his urine jug out of its spot, where it was strapped in place beside the sliding door so that it wouldn't fall over.

Troy was thankful the liquid in the jug was frozen - no smell that way. He opened it, and he relieved himself as quickly as he could. His penis didn't appreciate the low temperature inside the van, and Troy stuffed it back into his layers of clothing as soon as he finished with a relieved grunt. He screwed on the lid and put the jug back in its spot.

Troy sat on the edge of his narrow little bed, and he put on his boots. He dreaded it, but he had to check. Troy opened the slider, and he stepped out of the van into the frosty morning. He walked completely around his vehicle, and he breathed a relieved sigh. Nobody tagged him over the night. That was one thing about the winter - fewer people were willing to be out in the very low temperatures to cause trouble.

The van was almost all that he had. Troy sank all of his money into it and the few tools he absolutely needed for his work. He used the hell out of the machine too. So it required almost constant maintenance. He cared for the van as if his life depended on it - because it did. It was his home, his workshop, and his transportation.

He struggled to save money. Troy had a small bank account. It seemed every time he got a little ahead, something he couldn't fix himself would break on the van, or he would lose a tool which needed replacing. Though, his last financial trial was related to his teeth. Last month he had a cracked molar which required an expensive visit to the dentist. Troy had no sort of health or dental insurance. And so his account was nearly emptied by that particular event.

Troy stoically accepted this, merely as his lot in life. This is how things were now, and this is how they would be.

He re-entered the van, and he turned on the ignition. He was tired of being cold, and though it would burn fuel, he had to allow himself to have a moment of relative comfort before he started work.

Troy stepped into the back of the van, and he opened the tiny fridge that was built in under the little sink. He pulled out a jar of overnight oats. The inside of the fridge kept the oats from freezing since it was warmer in there than it currently was in the van. He opened the jar and set it on the counter next to the sink. He dug in a cabinet, and he found his small bag of granola. Troy dumped what remained of it into his oats, and he looked forlornly into the empty container. He would have to replace the stuff in a couple of days after he got paid for the Burgess job.

'Guess I'll have plain oatmeal until then.'

He sat back on the bed and stared into space as he ate his food. He tried to avoid tasting the stuff. He didn't like oatmeal, but it was filling, had a lot of calories, and it was cheap. All were things he required of any food he bought.

He was soon finished. Troy stood, and he washed the jar and his spoon quickly with a jug of water he stored in his fridge, so it remained unfrozen. He did this chore in his tiny sink. The water he used went into a holding tank, which he would have to empty later. His hands ached from the nearly frozen water, and after he dried his hands, he shook them to get feeling back in his fingers.

Troy then brushed his teeth. The van had finally warmed a bit, and after he finished with his teeth, he peeled away his layers of clothes. He quickly washed his pits, crotch and his ass with a baby wipe. Then he used one more for his face and his hands.

Troy dressed again. He used a different flannel shirt, and he hung the one he wore yesterday to air out. He tried to appear as if he had fresh clothes each day, but he was reasonably sure he wasn't fooling anybody who got close to him. Though he could no longer smell himself, he knew his clothes probably stank of sweat. Laundry was yet another expense, and he only went to the laundromat when he could no longer stand to wear clothes stiff with dirt.

The only things he had going for him were his skills and his prices. He undercut all other local contractors. And if he was able to perform a job with his limited tools, then there was no doubt that he would do a great job for little expense.

Troy got into the driver's seat, and he took down the window covering. He looked through the windshield, up at the gray sky.

'Okay. No snow today. No snow. That's all I ask.'

He put the van into gear, and he began the drive to the Burgesses. A few minutes later he pulled up in front of the lovely craftsman-style home. Troy got out of his van and buckled on his tool belt.

Then he felt the first snowflake hit the back of his neck.

He dropped his head. Troy sighed wearily, and he closed the van. He shouldered his bag, and he walked across the quiet street to the house as the snow began to fall in earnest.

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

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