All he ever wanted was to be a normal guy….
Phil Brask spends his days in the basement of his mentor's Victorian home, converting legal documents into electronic format. When the pipe feeding the water heater bursts, Lee Redding arrives in the plumber’s truck and draws Phil away from the narrow focus of his computer and camera lens. Lee gives Phil hope for a life beyond the walls he’s constructed using the nesting habits of migratory birds and dense legal files, a guided tour through a world filled with romance and music…maybe even family. But there’s a reason Phil retreated behind those walls, why he panics at a simple touch.
Lee has a good life—working with his uncle and on his mother’s farm, playing bass in a horrible metal band, and hooking up when he pleases—but he’s always suspected something was missing. When he meets the hot photographer with the icy-blue eyes, he knows exactly what that something is. Phil isn’t like other guys, but neither is Lee beneath his carefree exterior. Maybe Lee's the perfect guy to show Phil that everything doesn’t have to be done the hard way and "home" isn't a four-letter word.
HE BENT low over the desk, even though he was alone and no one could see his face. Scan; file; shred. Scan; file; shred. He derived a peaceful satisfaction as the banker’s boxes slowly emptied and the computer’s hard drive filled, little by little, with the product of a legal career.
Scan; file; shred; clunk.
He froze as he was about to pull a sheet of paper from the file folder lying open in the box. The sound of rushing water filled the basement, and a wet stain cut across the cement floor. For a moment he remained still and unbelieving, but only a moment. One by one, he moved the banker’s boxes to safety and then the equipment—computer, scanner, external hard drives.
The last of the equipment was safe on the first floor when his boss returned from lunch with a client.
“What’s all this?” asked Jerry.
He glanced up. Jerry’s confused frown made his heart race, and he returned his eyes to the floor between his bare feet. “The basement’s f-flooding.”
Jerry made a startled sound and raced toward the basement door. Jerry returned to the kitchen more slowly. Water squished from his shoes onto the floor so he leaned against the counter and took them off. “The pipe feeding the water heater burst.”
Jerry pulled a fat phone book off the top of the microwave and soon was on the phone with a plumber. When the conversation ended, he sighed. “You didn’t have to move everything, Phil. You could’ve just turned off the water.”
TWO DAYS later he was busy again—scan; file; shred—when unfamiliar footsteps entered the garage.
“Sorry to bother you, but would it be okay if I used the phone in the kitchen?”
His hand shook when he reached for the next sheet of paper, so he pulled it back empty. After a quick glance up to make sure the guy was looking, he nodded.
The guy didn’t leave.
“Say, this is the part where you tell me your name.”
He waited, but still the guy didn’t leave. He took a slow deep breath and rehearsed it silently first. “Phil.”
“Hey, Phil. I’m Lee.”
He glanced up again. Lee’s smile—patient; kind; happy—wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before. Lee had arrived in the plumber’s truck, with his worn jeans and his surfer hair. Lee. Lee had laughed at Jerry’s silly story about the case that made him want to retire. Lee still wore that same smile when Phil tilted his head to the side just enough to see that Lee’s eyes were brown. He returned his gaze to the floor beside his feet. “H-hey.”
“So I’m half brain-dead from lack of sleep and forget to charge my phone.”
Lee laughed, and the sound felt so good in his ears Phil wanted to laugh along with him. He settled for a strategic head-tilt that allowed him to watch Lee while keeping his face mostly hidden.
“What’re you doing with all these boxes?” Lee twisted to look around the small garage at the Bankers Boxes lining the workbench and sitting in stacks on the floor.
“S-scanning the d-documents.”
“Why? I mean, this is a lot of documents to scan.”
Phil sidestepped behind a stack of boxes and glanced up again. Lee’s smile dialed up a notch. He was so close, Phil could see the outline of his body beneath his T-shirt—the muscular body of a guy who ate like a guy. How was he supposed to get anything out with that in front of him? Talking was difficult enough anyway.
Lee leaned over an open box and looked inside.
“Th-those are p-priv—They’re c-confidential.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t see anything.” He took a step back and wiped his palms down the front of his shirt. “Are you a lawyer too? Jerry’s a cool guy. I bet he’s fun to work for. Or with.”
Phil shook his head. “N-not a…. Jerry’s great.” The corner of his mouth twitched into something like a smile.
“Well, I better make that call. Thanks. You really saved my bacon, Phil.”
Lee grinned and took a few steps toward the door. He looked over his shoulder just before he disappeared in the direction of the house.
After he left, Phil leaned against the table holding the computer and scanner to catch his breath.
SATURDAY. HE should be finishing cleanup on his apartment. It comprised half of the basement, and the water had invaded enough to soak the rugs and just about everything within four inches of the floor. Instead, he was stretched out on his stomach in the damp grass behind his tripod, staring through his Canon EOS 5D Mark III with the EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III telephoto zoom lens. A hummingbird zipped back and forth across the yard on a different trajectory each time, gathering materials for her nest, and Phil shot her construction work. He didn’t have to lie in the grass—the bird probably wouldn’t have cared if he walked around searching for a better angle—but he wanted to see how far away he could get and still freeze her wings. It wouldn’t be easy, but he had the time.
She zipped away and over the fence seconds before he heard someone coming up behind him. Jerry would’ve called first, but Phil’s pocket hadn’t vibrated. His chest tightened, and he knew he should start employing strategies to avoid a full-on panic attack, but then two things happened at once.
Lee’s voice said, “Hey, Phil,” and a jeans-clad bottom dropped onto the grass beside his head. “What’re you up to? Or maybe I should ask what you’re doing down here.”
He turned his head just enough to see Lee’s knee peeking through a hole in his jeans, and then he dropped his face into the crook of his elbow. After a few slow deep breaths, he lifted his head, and Lee was still there. Phil looked up farther, and there was that smile again, making him sweat.
“Geez, did I mess up your shot? Sorry about that. I don’t see what you’re shooting, though.”
Steady; breathe; rehearse. “It’s o-okay. Sh-she’ll come back. Lee.”
“Who? It’s an animal, right? Not some girl next door, right?” Lee laughed, but it wasn’t the same one he used before. He wasn’t breathing through it.
Phil rose onto his elbows and turned on the view screen. He felt Lee’s eyes on his fingers as he scrolled back to a shot worthy of sharing. Close enough, anyway.
He pointed at the screen, and before he could move out of the way, Lee stretched out beside him and zeroed in on the screen. Phil gasped when Lee leaned so their shoulders and upper arms touched. He was busy processing the sensation of having someone touch him casually—even through the fabric of his shirt, he was reduced to staving off the hyperventilation he feared was inevitable—so he missed what Lee was saying. Lee was close, so close, but his voice was far away.
“Hey, Phil? You okay?”
Lee moved away, just far enough so their bodies weren’t touching anymore.
Phil nodded but couldn’t make himself turn to look at Lee.
“Your pictures, they’re amazing.” Lee said, his voice calm and steady and filled with sincere awe. “What’s this in her beak?”
Lee carefully scrolled forward, and Phil realized Lee had thumbed through all the pictures from that morning and some from last evening as well. He’d been out of it longer than he thought.
“It’s a spiderweb. Hummingbirds use them to build their nests.”
Two sentences. Phil couldn’t remember when he’d last gotten two sentences out just the way he’d intended. He smiled and raised his eyes to Lee’s. They seemed to mirror what he was feeling. Relief; happiness; desire. The next thing he knew, Lee’s lips brushed his lightly. Phil trembled but didn’t pull away. Pride in his perfect speech along with the giddy feeling inspired by Lee’s smile allowed Phil to give in to desire, just for a moment, to take a chance it would end well. Lee leaned toward him, but not so their shoulders touched, and kissed him just a few seconds longer. He kept his mouth almost completely closed, but Phil tasted a hint of hot chocolate. Or maybe the heat came from Lee.
“Whoa,” Lee sighed as much as said.
For a moment they just breathed. Lee sounded like he’d just run up the stairs. He crossed his arms on the grass and rested his cheek on them. His arm strained the sleeve of his T-shirt. That smile was back.
“You really had me going there for a minute. I was afraid you were snapping pictures of your neighbor girls in various stages of undress. Wouldn’t that be a drag? I mean, I’d probably have a black eye right now, right?” Lee laughed.
Phil cut Lee’s melodious laughter short when he jumped up and grabbed his camera and tripod, then cradling them in his arms, he stumbled backward, toward the house. “I-I g-gotta g-go.”
He heard Lee behind him—calling out but not getting any closer—and then he was inside, his feet pounding down the concrete steps. He barely made it to the safety behind his door before the panic gripped him so hard he could barely breathe through the terror. He curled into a tight ball on his bed and let it wash over him. “Let” wasn’t quite right, but the harder he fought it, the longer it would last. Eight years should have been enough, but obviously it wasn’t. The panic was still stronger than he would ever be.
THE WAVES battering him from within began to subside. Before he was able to let go and sleep, he remembered a therapist who’d said to picture his anxiety as harmless as smoke passing through a screen door. Because smoke never hurt anyone. No, smoke is perfectly harmless; it’s the cigarettes generating it that’ll do you in.
At least all of the advice he’d gotten hadn’t turned out to be as worthless. He’d learned to breathe through it and hadn’t become physically ill for—for a few years at least. He was finally able to get through a panic attack without actually feeling the fists and boots, the two-by-four, or the dog. He held on to the hope that one day he wouldn’t even think about them during a panic attack. And that one day he would hear about or see a triggery act and not feel the invisible fingers of panic squeezing his throat and lungs.
PHIL WASN’T able to leave his tiny basement apartment until late that evening, and he only did then because his fridge was empty. Once he raided Jerry’s kitchen, the crushing weight of his disappointment in himself forced him back down the stairs. Jerry had left a note—he was on a date.
The thought of going on a date, of getting dressed up and being with someone in a public place—someone with expectations aimed right at you—weakened his legs and for a moment he was afraid of passing out. But just for a moment. He ate a sandwich and drank a Mountain Dew, even though he wasn’t officially supposed to ingest caffeine. Even if he didn’t quite behave like an adult, he was twenty-four and would drink a pop when he wanted to—which was at least once every hour or so of wakefulness, but he kept from burning through it at that rate on most days.
He pulled his laptop from its place on the bookshelf beside his bed and plugged in the camera. One of the pictures showed the neighbor’s cat crouched in the corner under the blue spruce, waiting for her chance to pounce. He had nothing against cats per se, but that one would have to hunt elsewhere.
He grabbed his shoes and headed for the backyard. The cat had always run away as soon as he made it halfway across the yard. She’d never stayed for a photo session before, though, so he wasn’t sure what to expect. The cat wasn’t there, but a piece of paper sat on the porch rail, flapping in the breeze. A purple heart-shaped rock sat on top of it. That was from the garden. He eased up beside the page and tilted his head to read it. It flapped too much to see more than that it was addressed to him. The note read “Phil,” with a heart over the “i” instead of a dot. That heart was bigger than it had to be and looked more like a doodle than something planned—the outline left a dent in the page.
Thanks for letting me see your pictures. You’re an amazing photographer.
My band’s playing Sunday night. It’s not as amazing as pictures of a hummingbird using spiderwebs to build a nest, but I hope you’ll come to Backspace around 8 anyway. I’ll leave your name at the door so you won’t have a cover.
Phil tried to remember if Lee said what kind of band he played in, but he’d been too distracted by the way his T-shirt stretched across his shoulders and the skin peeking through holes in the knees of his jeans. Great. It was bad enough when he couldn’t talk right, but now he couldn’t even listen right.
HE DIDN’T think much about the practical reality of it, even though he spent many hours between Saturday evening and Sunday evening contemplating what kind of band Lee would play in and what he wore onstage. He’d never been to Backspace but found the address easily enough. It was only a few blocks away, and the neighborhood was usually mellow at that time of day, so he walked. Halfway there, a light mist started to fall, so he slipped off his jacket and used it to protect his camera. Phil broke stride when he realized he worried about looking dumb if the shoulders of his denim shirt got too wet before he got there.
His heart rate sped up when he made it to the door and the name on the list was Phil Callahan. He had to force himself to pick up his foot, and then the other, and walk through the door. His life would’ve been very different if Jerry was his dad. Even though he liked women too, Jerry had never been married and had no kids.
It was a relief to get inside, to find the music filling the large space, up to the ceiling, with no room to spare—definitely too loud for conversation. People usually didn’t notice him, but it still took some of the pressure off. Lee’s band was already on stage—he didn’t want to be too early, so it was nearly eight forty by the time he looked for an out-of-the-way place to stand and listen.
Lee looked like he had in the backyard: happy and gorgeous. His hair was wild from all the head banging, and when they reached the end of a song, he jumped high into the air at just the right time to land on stage when the last note sounded. Phil wished his camera included audio. For that one note, anyway.
The band congratulated one another to a smattering of applause and then went into another song. Phil hoped it would be the last. He’d heard some Metallica before but wasn’t quite sure what to make of this type of metal—the singer growled and screamed and pounded his bare chest, and Phil had to look away or he wouldn’t have been able to stay. He hadn’t come to see that guy, though.
Lee saw him and smiled a little too broadly, and when he walked to the end of the stage nearest where Phil stood, some of the crowd—he’d used the word “crowd” as loosely as he had the word “song”—turned and looked at him. Unfortunately, he stuck out like a neon sign in his light blue button shirt. The denim was worn almost white, and he stood with his back against a dark wall. He knew he looked as scared as he felt, but guys who stand five seven and have elfish features probably had to work at looking tough even when they actually were. Phil shivered at the memory of being called “hobbit” at the group home, or maybe it was to the way one guy in the crowd didn’t turn to face front again at the same time everyone else did.
Thankfully, the next time they stopped, the singer growled something that sounded like thanks and good night, and then they started putting their instruments away. The singer grabbed Lee’s shoulder and said something into his ear, but Lee’s smile never faltered, so maybe that’s just the way that guy was.
Lee put his bass in a long flat case, wound a cord around his arm, and then bounded off the stage. He came toward Phil with a bounce in his step and a huge grin on his face. The case looked heavy, but he carried it like a lunchbox. Lee started to speak but stopped to pull plugs from his ears and stuff them in the front pocket of his jeans.
“Let’s get out of here. I need a coffee.”
Lee’s feet barely stopped, and Phil was pretty sure something had just sailed right past him. He didn’t have time to process the whole scene before they were outside, and then he didn’t care anymore.
“How’d you get here?”
“Cool. Come on. I’m parked around back.”
They walked side by side. Phil wanted to watch every muscle and memorize the way they moved but already felt out of his depth, so he kept his eyes forward. Mostly. They rounded the building, and Lee gently bumped his arm against Phil’s shoulder.
“So, what’d you think of the music?”
Phil shivered with the effort to keep from laughing out loud. “It was horrible.”
Lee made a loud questioning sound and turned to walk sideways beside Phil. “You’d better be smiling when you say that.”
“Oh, I w-was.”
“It was pretty horrible, wasn’t it?” Lee sounded so proud.
“You’re a rock star. But yeah, h-horrible.”
Lee stopped at the back of a faded green hatchback station wagon and slid his guitar inside under a blanket. He practically had to stand on the car to get it closed. He laughed as they fell into step, side by side again. They kept going in the same direction to a little coffee shop less than a block beyond the parking lot. Lee said to grab a table and he’d bring the goodies.
He wasn’t kidding. Lee came to the table with a tray holding two mochas piled high with whipped cream and sprinkles beside a dinner plate loaded with a muffin, two square treats, and two cookies. Phil had sat in the corner with his back to the wall in an old and slightly musty club chair. Lee pulled the matching chair so it sat at a right angle to Phil’s, the arms of the two chairs touching, and placed his booty on the little table in front of them.
The girl who’d fixed the coffees leaned across the counter. “You’re putting that back before you leave, Lee!”
He blew her a kiss and plopped into the chair.
“Let me see the pictures you took?” Lee broke a very large chocolate-chip cookie in half and gestured to Phil that he should help himself.
Phil hesitated, not sure about letting Lee see how he looked from the other side of the camera, even though Lee had to already know how drop-dead hot he was. Even if his nose and chin were maybe a little on the pointy side, Phil couldn’t think of anyone who was more photogenic. Even Alex Pettyfer couldn’t compare. But Phil couldn’t resist Lee’s smile, so he turned on the view screen and handed over the camera.
Lee took it with his empty hand and rested it on his thighs, the lens parting them just so. Phil felt the heat of being stuck in a long-sleeved shirt even though March didn’t seem to be going out like a lamb. Lee paged through the shots and made the half cookie disappear at the same time. When he licked cookie crumbs from his fingers, Phil had to work not to sigh out loud. Lee grinned and looked up, and Phil knew he wasn’t hiding that he wanted to be on the receiving end of that tongue. Those fingers weren’t turning him off either.
“These. Are. Awesome. Heidi!” Lee jumped to his feet and waved at the girl, even though she hadn’t stopped staring in their direction for 1/800th of a second. “Heidi come and see what a rock star I am!”
She came out from behind the counter, and the look she gave Phil doused his mood like a bucket of cold water. Or maybe her outfit did it: black tights, a red plaid mini-kilt, and a filmy black tank. Her face softened as soon as she saw the first picture. Heidi watched intently as Lee scrolled through, and even asked him to go back a couple of times so she could see a particular shot again. When she looked up, she hadn’t been transformed into the president of Phil’s fan club, but she wasn’t trying to fry him with her stare anymore.
“Amazing. I never would’ve guessed that crappy club could look so good.” She actually smiled.
And there went her smile. Thankfully another customer came in and she had to go back behind the counter. Phil did a decent job of putting her out of his mind too. They sipped coffee and ate junk food for a few minutes, during which Lee scrolled through the pictures again.
“Say, if I give you my e-mail address, would you send some of these to me? My mom and sister would love to see them.”
“Sure.” Oh, sure, of course, now that Heidi the Judgmental can’t hear, a syllable comes out fine.
“Cool. I’ll just send you a message to your phone and then you’ll have it.”
Phil got that that was his cue to give up his address, so he dug his phone out of his pocket and showed it to Lee. It was just easier that way: Phil.Brask@callahan.net
“Oh man. Jerry’s not your dad?”
“I just figured. Sorry about that.” Lee ducked over his phone, thumbs flying, and his ear slowly returned from red to pink.
“So what kind of music do you listen to when you have a choice?” Lee grabbed the muffin and his coffee from the tray and leaned back into the chair. He crossed an ankle over his knee and rested the cup on his shin.
“You listen to music, though.”
“Whoa.” Lee looked shocked and a little sad.
They found the tipping point—much sooner than I thought. Why would a musician be interested in someone who was glad whenever he was left to live in silence?
They debated the merits of more than one musical genre while the goodies slowly disappeared, but it wasn’t long before Lee offered to drive him home. Phil almost lied and said he needed to stop in somewhere on the way so he could walk back, alone, but that would be wrong. He’d never be able to look Jerry in the eye again if he lied to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Sure, he was disappointed he hadn’t measured up to what Lee wanted, what Lee could surely get by snapping his fingers in any room anywhere, but this wasn’t a matter of survival. You couldn’t just throw best practices out the window because they were inconvenient.
On the drive, Lee surfed the radio. At each new station, he asked Phil what he thought of the music. Phil surprised himself and liked some of it. Jerry played the jazz station whenever he couldn’t get a baseball game, and that felt more like work than something you’d listen to for fun.
Lee pulled into the driveway behind Jerry’s car as far as he could—blocking the sidewalk but not sticking out into the street too much. The wipers sounded like a heartbeat as they worked to clear the light but steady rain from the windshield. Lee turned to Phil and was in the middle of a sentence when Phil leaned over the console and kissed him. Just a short kiss, warm and chocolatey. It wasn’t more than a few seconds before Phil pulled back, but when he did, Lee moaned and leaned forward to keep their lips together a second or two longer.
Maybe it’s not a good-bye kiss after all.
Phil trembled as he fumbled behind him for the door latch. He felt shaken under Lee’s stare, which he was pretty sure was worthy of the label lusty, but Lee leaned back against his seat right away, so maybe that wasn’t right.
“G-good night, L-lee.” Phil took a slow deep breath and tried to smile. He didn’t do half bad considering every nerve ending popped and fizzed like the fuse on a cartoon bomb. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Lee nodded and Phil heard the door latch spring open behind him. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to invite Lee inside and kiss him some more, but his feet whisked him down the driveway. He didn’t trust himself to look back; all he needed was to do a face-plant in the spotlight of Lee’s dim headlights.
His phone buzzed before he made it to the side door, but he waited until he sat on his bed to look. The message from Lee was only one word.
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