The cottage appeared eerily cold among
the pines as the car's headlights shone on its fašade. He had wanted to
arrive much earlier in the day, while there was still light, and he
could find his way more easily. But his plane had been late, and the
drive from the airport was longer than he remembered.
This was the last step in his grief. If
he could spend the summer here, going through his parents' belongings,
then he could conquer anything... even his guilt.
~ ~ ~
Howard Smith eased into a chair at the diner counter, a cup of hot, black coffee appearing instantly before him.
"The usual?" Maggie asked.
"Yeah, that'd be great," Howard said in his raspy voice.
He came to Maggie's Magpie Diner most
mornings for breakfast, and sometimes for supper, too. He liked Maggie
Dressler more than he could say, more than he had ever let on. He
supposed by eating here so often, he hoped she would catch on, make the
first move, but he was a middle-aged bachelor with not much to offer
except for a small resort business on the shore of Deep Lake.
Renting out cottages to summer
vacationers, and the occasional ice fisherman, was his idea of a
relaxing life. Even during high season, this tiny north woods community
barely woke enough to yawn and to stretch. With summer temperatures
rarely reaching 80 degrees, and motorboats strictly forbidden on the
lake, only those seeking solitude and a communion with nature ventured
this far north.
"There you go, hon," Maggie said, setting a plate of eggs over easy, hash browns, rye toast and bacon before him.
Howard felt special when Maggie called
him "hon," but she said it to most of her customers, male and female
alike. One of these days he'd work up the nerve…
"Did you hear the Maxwell boy is back?" Mrs. Stohlman said from her seat at the other end of the counter.
Maggie walked over, coffee pot in hand. "Is that right?"
Howard cut into his eggs with a fork and
took a bite. His ears perked at the prospect of gossip. He knew the
Maxwell place. It was a sizeable private home on the other side of the
lake, but normally he paid no mind to it.
"Don't know if he's staying or just cleaning out the place," Mrs. Stohlman said.
"It'd be nice if he stayed," Maggie said, warming the older woman's coffee. "It's too lovely a house to sit empty year ‘round."
"Terrible what happened. For city folk, they were such nice people," Mrs. Stohlman said.
"You know, I bumped into her at the
antiques barn just weeks before the accident. She was buying a cedar
chest," Maggie said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
Howard's interest piqued. "What happened?"
"Didn't you hear? They were killed in a terrible car wreck. Oh, when was it?" Maggie looked to Mrs. Stohlman.
"End of last summer. Labor Day weekend, I think."
Maggie nodded. "That's right. Guess that'd explain why you don't remember it, Howie. You were in your busy season."
He thought about that a moment and
nodded. It made sense, considering how preoccupied he got with the
renters. He remembered meeting the Maxwells once or twice.
"Dorothea and…" He couldn't remember the husband's name and looked to Maggie for help.
"Solo," Maggie said. "Heard they wrote Broadway plays."
"Is that right?" he asked.
"Won awards, too," Mrs. Stohlman added. "Very wealthy."
"And the boy?" Howard asked.
"Duo," Maggie said, her eyes misting over
as she seemed to picture him in her mind. "He has a career of his own,
but it must be on hold now, considering…"
Howard turned back to his breakfast, shaking his head. It was never pleasant when reality found its way to Deep Lake.
~ ~ ~
All five of his cottages were rented out
for the summer. Most folks didn't stay the entire three months, but
only a few days passed when a cottage was vacant waiting for the next
occupant. The renters were often young families, but sometimes couples
both young and old, and then there was that fellow, Heero Yuy, who
always came alone. Heero had started coming to Deep Lake for the ice
fishing, and then suddenly switched to summers, using his entire
allotment of four weeks' vacation in one shot. He fished and read, but
most of all he seemed to like to be alone, rarely interacting with
townsfolk or the other vacationers.
Howard was the exception to this rule. As
the owner of the resort cottages, Howard had occasion to interact with
Heero. He found the young man pleasant and very intelligent, and over
the years had formed a friendship with him.
Heero arrived mid-morning on a Saturday,
having left the city before dawn. His Volkswagen hatchback was packed
with fishing equipment, clothes, linens, books, bathroom supplies and
ten boxes of his favorite cereal which the local grocer did not stock.
He would buy food and other necessities as needed in town.
As usual, Howard was perched on the front porch of his house which doubled as the resort's office.
"Right on time," Howard called out.
Heero grinned as he closed the car's door. "Seems I need to leave earlier every year to beat the Saturday morning traffic."
"Yeah, that city living must be tough."
Heero shrugged. "Gotta live where there's
work." He stepped onto the porch and leaned back against the railing,
not wanting to sit again so soon after the long drive. "Looks like
nothing has changed."
"No. I look forward to the sameness."
Howard nodded. He had noticed that Heero
liked routine, and imagined his life in the city probably followed a
routine as well. Maybe that's why he never brought anyone with him. He
was a bit set in his ways despite his youthful age. It would upset the
apple cart to have to deal with another person's wants and needs.
~ ~ ~
At the grocer's later that week, Howard
filled his cart with coffee, eggs, tomato soup, toilet paper, and soap.
He made his way to the butcher's counter and ordered up a pound of
ground chuck and some skinless, all beef hotdogs.
"Business looks good," Howard said to Jim, his long-time friend and butcher.
Jim weighed and packaged the meats in
white butcher paper. "Normally, I'm glad of it, but my stock boy was
arrested for drunk driving and had his license taken away. I count on
him to make my deliveries. Don't know how I'll manage."
"That's a real shame. No one else you can hire?"
"All the local kids are working over at
the new beach pavilion at White Lake, or they're not old enough to own
a car, let alone drive one."
"I could make a delivery for you on occasion."
"Thanks, Howard, but you've got your own business to run."
"Yeah, that's true, but you're in a pickle. How long does it take to make those deliveries?"
"It depends on where they're going. Like
now I've got an order that needs to go out to the Maxwell place ‘round
the other side of the lake. That's a good twenty minute drive out
Howard tugged at his goatee. "Can I keep the tip?"
"You bet. And I'll even pay you for the mileage."
~ ~ ~
Two cardboard boxes filled with groceries
were placed in the back seat of Howard's car. He stopped home long
enough to put away his own purchases, and then headed out to the
Maxwell place. He couldn't believe his luck having a chance to drive
out there and meet the Maxwell boy. Maggie would be all ears next time
he stopped in at the diner. She'd lean over the counter in front of
him, anxious to soak up every detail to add to the town's gossip mill.
And in the process, she'd be giving Howard a spectacular view of her
cleavage. Yep, this favor for a friend would pay off nicely.
Compared to the resort community where
Howard and others had cottages, the far side of the lake was sparsely
populated. There were about a dozen private homes sprinkled along the
The entrance to the driveway was marked
with red reflectors and an iron post with the words, "Dorothea's
Pines." He was in the right place, and followed the curving, gravel
driveway back the quarter mile to the house. The woodframe structure
looked every bit meant for the north woods, except it was too damn
large. Howard was certain he could fit all five of his rental cottages
inside it. Why city folk needed such large accommodations was beyond
He pulled up in front, and got the boxes
out, setting them on the front porch. He rang the doorbell and waited.
There was no response, and so he rang again, and after another minute,
"It's Howard Smith. I've got your grocery order from Jim's."
He was about to give up and leave the
boxes where they were when he heard the deadbolt unlock, and then the
door slowly opened. He stared dumbfounded as a handsome young man with
large blue eyes stared out at him.
"You the Maxwell boy?"
The young man's brow tightened. "Yeah, I'm Duo Maxwell."
"I've got your groceries. Can I bring them in for you?"
Duo looked down at the boxes as he seemed to consider the offer. "No," he said softly. "I can do it."
"You sure? They're kind of heavy. I don't mind carrying them for you."
The young man looked at him, and Howard
could see the wheels turning again. It was as if these questions held
the weight of the world.
"No, thanks." There was a slight
hesitation, and then Duo reached into his pocket and handed over a five
dollar bill. "I appreciate it though."
Howard took the tip and nodded. "Okay
then." He went back to his car and drove home, his brain itching from
the strange encounter.
~ ~ ~
When the man drove off, Duo opened the
door fully and brought the boxes inside. They were heavy, but he
managed just fine. He closed and locked the door behind him and then
slumped to the floor. He was grateful that the grocery store made
deliveries, so he didn't have to go into town, but even that brief
interaction with the delivery man had been difficult.
His hands began to shake again, and he
eased himself up to go into the bathroom for his pills. Maybe coming
here on his own had been a mistake.
~ ~ ~
Howard held the cup of coffee between his
hands, staring into the opaque liquid. He was in a funk. It had been
nineteen hours since his encounter with the Maxwell boy and he had yet
to tell anyone. It was as if what he had seen had been too painful, and
too personal to share. Any plans to jump into the fray of the diner's
gossip circle had vaporized the moment that door had opened and he had
stared into those sad, large eyes.
He had never seen anything like it. No,
that wasn't true. The look on Duo Maxwell's face bothered him because
he had seen it before, during the war, on the faces of the orphans. But
they had been children, and Duo had to be at least eighteen or nineteen
years old. Still…
"Cat got your tongue?" Maggie asked as she nudged his arm.
His coffee sloshed in his cup, and he
looked up to see her pretty brown eyes looking worriedly at him. He
smiled weakly. Maybe he would feel better if he talked about it. Gossip
"I went out to the Maxwell place yesterday."
"Were you snooping around you old dog?"
"I was delivering groceries for Jim."
"Oh, that's right. Katie's boy got in a bit of trouble with the police. So, Jim talked you into making his deliveries?"
"Just the one." Howard went quiet again, and he could feel Maggie's eyes on him.
"So... Did you see him?"
"Rather not say."
Maggie leaned back against the counter
behind her, and waited for Howard to meet her eyes. "We've known each
other too long, Howard Smith, for you to keep secrets."
He grinned, knowing that he was already
keeping the secret of his feelings for her. What was one more? But with
her eyes focused on him, he was a goner. She could tell him to stand on
his head in the middle of town and he'd do it.
He glanced both ways down the counter,
checking for anyone within ear shot. The only customers were seated in
a booth across the room.
"I don't want you repeating this to Mrs. Stohlman," he said.
Maggie nodded. "All right."
"The boy is haunted."
"What?" Maggie asked with a giggle. "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard."
"I'm not talking about ghosts. I'm talking about a haunted look like he's shell-shocked."
"Oh," Maggie said softly, her glossy pink lips forming the word sympathetically. "Did he say anything?"
"Only what was necessary to get me out of
there. He wouldn't let me in the place. It was obvious he wants to be
left alone." Howard watched as Maggie's eyes turned a little distant as
though she was picturing something sad. "Mind telling me about the
She blinked, and tilted her head to one
side, looking exhausted even though it was only ten o'clock in the
morning. "I guess I can understand why he'd look that way. Duo was
driving the car when the accident happened. It must be terrible living
with that guilt."
Howard's eyes grew wide. "Was it his fault?"
"Not according to the papers," she said, shaking her head. "But I'm sure he doesn't see it that way."
The cook's bell chimed, signaling an order was ready. Maggie turned from him and grabbed the plates of pancakes.
Howard took one last sip of his coffee
and got up from his spot at the counter, putting several bills under
his cup to cover his breakfast and the tip.
As he headed for the door, Maggie crossed
paths with him once again. "Hey, is that nice young man, Heero, renting
from you this summer?"
Howard nodded. "You know him?"
"Of course, he's a customer."
Howard was surprised, seeing how his impression of Heero was of a very quiet, solitary young man.
"He arrived on Saturday."
"Oh, that's wonderful. Next time I see him, I'll have to ask if he's gotten a boyfriend yet."
"A boyfriend?" Howard asked with a laugh.
"Well, yes," Maggie said, taking Howard
by the arm and gently propelling him toward the door. "I hope you're
okay with that..." She lowered her voice, conspiratorially. "I mean,
didn't you notice that he's gay?"
Howard coughed and sputtered in surprise. "N-no, I didn't notice."
"Well, now you know."
He was out the door and stepping onto the
sidewalk with the diner's door closing behind him before he could
respond. It seemed that he didn't know much about anything when it came
to the seasonal tenants of Deep Lake.
~ ~ ~
Howard leaned back in his chair and
looked out over the lake. It was quiet tonight, except for the sound of
him opening another can of Bud. He stared across the lake, admiring how
the last hints of daylight reflected on the water. He saw a light come
on, and squinted, calculating the source. It was at the Maxwell place.
He shivered at the image of Duo Maxwell
staring at him with those troubled eyes. It was a terrible shame for a
young person to choose such isolation and to live with the burden of
his parents' deaths. Howard wondered if he could befriend the young man
somehow. If he could get the boy to talk maybe it would make things all
right. As if helping the Maxwells' son would ease his own guilt of
walking away from all those orphaned faces in the war.
Twenty years on, and he still hadn't
forgiven himself for that. How difficult would it have been to have
found temporary shelter and food for those kids? God, he wished he had
thought it through back then, but he had been so young and so
overwhelmed by trying to keep himself alive.
He tightened his grip on the beer can and
gritted his teeth. Maybe that was why he had never made a move on
Maggie. He had too much damn baggage.
"Howard... You out there?"
The voice startled him. He looked over his shoulder in the direction it had come from. "Heero?"
"Yeah." The young man came out of the
near darkness from around the side of Howard's house. "Sorry to bother
you, but I forgot to ask if your boat would be available in the
"You going fishing early?"
"I'd like to."
Howard smiled, liking the sound of that.
"Sure, no one else has asked. I've got two boats now. Take your pick."
He nodded toward the short pier where two white rowboats were tethered
and still visible in the evening light.
"Thanks. Thought I'd head out at dawn."
The lake was quite large, but no more
than twenty feet at its' deepest. Still, the fishing was good, and if
Heero took the boat out to the middle he'd have the isolation he
enjoyed. Howard swallowed at the thought. Here was another young man
that for all intents and purposes was alone.
"Would you like a beer?"
"No, thanks. I need to get to bed if I'm going fishing in the morning."
"Well, good night then."
"Good night," Heero said, and disappeared again into the darkness.
~ ~ ~
The next morning Howard took a hot cup of
coffee with him onto his deck. He started and ended each day here. He
leaned on the railing, taking a sip and staring out at the water.
Usually its peacefulness and beauty made him feel light and happy, but
this morning he was out of sorts. It was that damn Maxwell boy. He
couldn't get him off his mind.
Trying to dislodge the thought, his eyes
settled on a tiny boat in the middle of the lake. He recognized the
fisherman in the green cap. So, Heero had gotten up and gone fishing
like he said he would. Now there was a reliable soul. If Heero said
he'd be fishing by dawn, by god, he was. And if he said he'd be
arriving on Saturday the 12th by 9 a.m., by god, he did.
Howard smiled and let his eyes drift
further across the lake, not surprisingly finding their way to the
Maxwell place. He could see the glint of the house's windows in the
morning sun. From this line of vision, it looked as though Heero was
directly in front of the house. The rowboat could drift and easily end
up on the Maxwells' shore.
"Hmm," Howard said, peering over his coffee cup.
The simple visualization of Heero
reaching that shoreline sparked an idea. Here were two young men
needing companionship more than either one cared to admit. They seemed
close in age... Heero in his early to mid-twenties, and the Maxwell boy
easily eighteen. But how could he get them to meet? And what were the
odds that Duo was also gay?
He chuckled with the thrill of the
challenge. He did his best work under pressure, and making it his
mission to bring these two together would definitely be work.
~ ~ ~
He'd maneuvered around the question all
through lunch. He hoped that Maggie would just come out and tell him if
the Maxwell boy was gay, like she had about Heero Yuy. But now he was
finishing his raspberry pie and he still didn't know. It was time to be
"So," he said, his voice low to keep it from carrying. "You think that Maxwell boy is gay?"
Maggie stopped mid-motion as she cleared his lunch plate away and blinked at him. "Why do you ask?"
"No particular reason."
She set the plate down. "Oh, there's always a reason to ask something like that, now spit it out."
"Do you know or don't you know?" he asked, a bit more insistently.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Never pegged you for a bigot."
"Hey, don't call me that!" He looked
around the diner, wondering if anyone had overheard. "I don't have a
problem with people being gay."
"Then what is it? You attracted to Duo?"
Howard's eyes grew wide. "Whoa, you're reading too much into this. I'm just asking is all."
She looked him over in that special way of hers. It was like getting an MRI without the claustrophobic feeling.
"I don't know," she said, picking up the plate again and walking it over to the dirty dish bin.
"You don't know what?"
"If he's gay." She came back and stood
before him, putting her hands on her hips. "Last time I saw him he was
sixteen." The sharp appraisal was back in her eyes. "You're up to
something. I can smell it."
He swallowed. Should he tell her? Should he enlist Maggie's help in his plan or was it too early for that?
"You make the best pie in three counties," he said, getting up from the counter, pretending the question didn't matter anymore.
Her fingers drummed on her hips. "All I
know," she said, stopping him in his tracks, "There were rumors that
the night of the accident, Duo and Solo were arguing about it."
"About him being gay?" Howard asked, tentatively.
Maggie nodded. "Solo Maxwell was not the easiest guy to know."
Howard thought about that a moment. He
had read articles about the playwright and how some actors found him
difficult to work with, but did anyway, because his plays were
"Thanks, Maggie," he said, leaving his money next to his empty pie plate.
~ ~ ~
Since he was already in town, Howard
continued down the block to Jim's Grocery. The insight that Maggie had
given fueled his mission to bring the Maxwell boy some happiness. And
who better to pair him with than the down-to-earth Heero Yuy?
"Got any deliveries going out to the Maxwell place today?" Howard asked while sampling the beef sticks at the butcher counter.
"I was going to give you a call," Jim said. "The kid must eat a lot of cereal, ‘cause he needs a gallon of milk."
Jim shrugged. "The delivery charge is the same no matter how much he orders."
Howard grabbed the milk and headed back
to the resort. He parked the car at his house and walked over to
Heero's cottage, knocking on the door. When there was no answer he went
around back and found Heero reading a book lakeside.
"Hey, Heero," he said, announcing his presence.
The young man turned in his lawn chair,
holding up his hand to cover his eyes against the noon day sun. "Hi,"
he said and then chuckled. "You turning a new leaf?"
Howard held out the plastic bottle in
front of him, realizing how strange it must look for him to be carrying
it. "It's not for me. It needs to be delivered to the Maxwell place."
"Oh," Heero said, continuing to stare at him in the bright sun. "Did you want to sit down? I can grab another chair."
"No, I need to get this delivered."
Suddenly he realized the next part of his plan was a little fuzzy.
"Normally, I don't make deliveries for Jim, but I'm doing it as a
Heero nodded. "You'd better get going then or it'll get warm."
"Right." Where was his brain today?
Usually he could spin a tale with no effort. "Yeah, I should go," he
said, but his feet wouldn't move. He just stared at Heero who was
having a hard time looking at him twisted around as he was in his chair
and with the sun in his eyes.
"Is there something else you wanted?"
"Oh, uh… I was just thinking that I
really don't have time to be driving over to the Maxwell place. It's on
the other side of the lake." Howard nodded toward the lake, and Heero
turned to look. "It's that big house almost directly across."
Heero closed his book and got up. "Are you trying to ask me to deliver this milk for you?"
"I always knew you were a smart boy." Howard chuckled.
Heero shook his head. "Why didn't you just say so? I don't mind. I was just thinking I need a break from reading."
Howard smiled inwardly. He hoped it would be one hell of a break.