THE RICH vibrancy of a red wing, the cool blue-black of a bird’s eyes—these were things I noticed in great detail and then recreated over and over again. I loved birds. My favorite birthday present of all time was a pair of binoculars my stepfather gave me before he died. He noticed I was a bird-watcher and gave me one of the most important tools of my hobby.

I was never one of those guys who counted the birds or tried to be the first to identify an encroachment of a new species. I watched because I always wondered what it would be like to be one. I used to lie on my back in the grass and wonder what it would be like to be able to soar over the ground, with nothing to stop me from flying away to a happier place. One where I’d have some control over my own life and would be free to go, do, and be whatever I wanted. Free to be the person I felt I was born to be, the one who knew no limits to his imagination. That was what I saw in the birds that flew overhead as I lay on the ground, staring up at the sky.

“Shoot.” I put my brush back in the pot and closed my eyes. I had to clear my head or I was going to make a mistake and ruin a piece I’d already spent hours on. I needed to concentrate on the bird, not on the crap inside my head. Daydreaming would get me nowhere—certainly not any closer to finishing the vase I had on my worktable, or the dozen more porcelain blanks sitting on the bench along the side of my work area, waiting for me to apply the paint to bring the additional birds in my head to life.

“Everything okay, Florian?” Dante Bartholomew asked from the doorway of my area.

I almost dropped the vase I’d been working on in surprise. Dante never came down here. Hell, in the six years I’d been a designer for Bartholomew Porcelain Studio, I’d only ever seen the man on a few occasions, and he’d never spoken to me. Dante had been a known recluse for years, running the business from his huge mansion on the hill.

“Yes, Mr. Bartholomew.” I breathed deeply to calm my now-racing heart. What had I done to warrant a visit from the big boss? I’d worked here since I was sixteen years old and had had only limited contact with the man who owned the studio. “I was daydreaming a little. I’m sorry.” I reminded myself to focus on my work—that’s what I was being paid to do.

Dante entered my area and pulled up a stool. “We won another award for the studio,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know the details yet, but apparently someone is being sent to present the award in a few weeks. I wanted to be the one to tell you that the Gold Medal Par Excellence is in part due to your work. They singled out the examples we provided of your unique birds as being among the reasons for the award.” Dante smiled brightly.

“Thank you.” Over the years, the studio had won a number of awards for my work, and they hung on the wall behind me or in the hallway outside.

Dante stood to come closer, examining the vase I was working on. “That’s extraordinary. The bird actually looks like it’s thinking.”

The vase showed an unusual scene. While others’ pieces depicted cardinals or bluebirds. Mine depicted an owl with a predatory gleam in its eye, scanning the area below for its next meal. I hadn’t shown the meal portion, but I hoped that would give the piece intensity.

“They’re intelligent creatures,” I answered. I lowered my gaze, starting to get nervous with him watching me. There was no way I was going to be able to work with a shaking hand. Dante was this gorgeous hunk of man… well, Dante was probably more of a stud, at least in my fertile imagination. Of course, he was taken, and seemed happily so, judging by the light in his eyes, which had grown in intensity over the last year. I was happy for Dante and Beau. They seemed to be good together, if what the town gossips passed around was any indication. “Is there something else I can do for you?”

“No. I was just admiring the piece. I’ll let you go back to work.”

Dante turned and left. I watched him go with a slight amount of envy for Beau running through my veins. Not that I’d ever had the guts to approach Dante for anything at all. Still, it didn’t stop me from wishing I had a Dante in my life. I snorted out loud and then rolled my eyes. That was about as likely to happen as the owl I was painting coming to life and flying away.

“What did Mr. Bartholomew want?” Hattie asked as she buzzed into my work area. She was a floralist, painting amazing flowers with incredible precision.

“The studio won another award. He was really happy.” There was no need to go into anything about my own work. The entire studio, everyone, worked hard to produce amazing pieces, and I didn’t want to be singled out, since it hurt others’ feelings. I saw that plenty at home and didn’t want that sort of thing here in my oasis of calm and quiet, where the artisans got along. “For all of us.”

“That’s really nice of him. Did he say anything else?” Hattie plopped herself onto the same stool Dante had used.

“Not really. It was nice of him to stop by and say something, though.” I picked up the vase I’d been working on and turned my attention to it, hoping Hattie would go back to her own work. But before I was able to clear my mind, my phone dinged and then rang. I groaned and carefully set the vase on the worktable before answering it. I hated these calls because they only wasted my time.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” my mother began as soon as I said hello. “Your sister did it again. She doesn’t listen and never does what I tell her. All I asked was that she clean up the kitchen, and she ignored me again.” My mother was way too dramatic for words. My father used to say she was crazy, before he left her and us. My stepfather had more patience with her, and she was better with him… until he passed away. Now she was pretty much out of control, and I tried to stay under the radar—the only way to survive.

“I’m working. Just clean the kitchen yourself.” After all, she was the one who probably made the mess. Her sense of entitlement sometimes drove me crazy, but I was still living at home, so it was the price I had to pay. Sometimes life sucked.

I got a deafening screech in return. “You don’t care what I have to do in order to keep this family together. Isabella… I don’t know what to do with her…. That girl….” She sputtered for a while, and I tuned her out, because it was the only way to get through all this. Let Mom run down until she become reasonable again. Mom and my stepsister were always at odds.

After a full minute of her talking nonstop, I managed to break in. “Just calm down and do what you have to do. I have to go back to work now.” I tried to be calm and hoped it would rub off on her. “I have to talk to my supervisor, and he’s on his way over.” I ended the call with a sigh.

“You lied to her,” Hattie said. “Not that I blame you. That woman is a real piece of work.” Hattie never hesitated to say what was on her mind. It was part of what I both liked and found trying at times. No one liked to have their shit placed in front of them.

“That’s my mother,” I cautioned.

Hattie rolled her eyes. She was in her late forties and was a fixture at Bartholomew Porcelain Works, of which the studio was a subsidiary. She’d been a decorator for over twenty years and knew everyone and everything about the entire town. “Even you have to admit your mother is a little unhinged. Now James, your stepfather, he was a dreamboat. I had my eye on him when I was in school, but he only seemed interested in Isabella’s mother. Carrie was beautiful and gentle—everyone loved her. I never heard Carrie say a bad word about anyone. Unlike your mother. That woman has the most devious mind and the sharpest tongue of anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Hattie…,” I growled.

She stood, glaring at me. “How many times has she turned that tongue and temper of hers on you?” Hattie leaned closer. “You’re a good boy, Florian, and you have a good heart. But you’re blind as a bat if you don’t see it. You know I’m right.”

I huffed, not wanting to hear nasty things about my family, even if they might be true. She was my mother, the only one I had….

“You should move out and find a place of your own. You’re twenty-two. It’s time you built a life for yourself.” Hattie slid off the stool. “A little distance and you’d see I’m right.” She turned and left.

I sighed, pushing all that drama out of my head, and looked back at the owl, whose huge eyes stared at me out of the porcelain. I picked up my brush, letting my consciousness sink into the job and away from the mess I knew would be waiting for me when I got home.

When I worked, I tended to lose track of time. At the studio I never watched the clock. Lunchtime happened when my stomach growled loudly enough to capture my attention, and I stopped working when the light from the huge windows that lined the walls faded and only the incandescent lighting remained.

I put the finishing touches on the owl, signed the bottom of the piece, and set the vase on the finished shelf to dry. It would then be glazed and sent for final finishing and packaged for shipment to a customer.

I stretched, hands raised high over my head, joints cracking in my neck and back. The pressure relief was glorious. I turned out the lights, grabbed my jacket, and headed out into the summer evening.

I wasn’t in the mood to go home and deal with my mother, so I drove out of town, heading south before taking a dirt-road turnoff that led to the Chesapeake Bay. I pulled to a stop next to a Mercedes, which was really strange, firstly because the car was so expensive and secondly because there was someone else here at all. I rarely met anyone out here. Still, I parked, got out, and went around to change into the boots I kept in the trunk. I grabbed my camera and binoculars, closed the trunk as quietly as I could, then headed to the waterfront.

This area was marshy during part of the year and I had to be careful where I walked so I didn’t sink into the muck, but it was perfect for birds of all kinds.

I wasn’t disappointed. I emerged from the tall reeds to spot a great blue heron about twenty feet away. It was beautiful, and I didn’t want to scare it, but I also wanted a picture. I had ideas for a series of works featuring the impressive bird—tall, statuesque, shining in the sunlight.

I slowly moved back into the reeds, lifted my camera to position it between the long grass stems, and began snapping pictures. It was stunning, and I’d gotten enough to be able to represent the detail I wanted when a splash startled the bird and it flew away, darting over the water.

Scheisse,” a deep voice swore. I knew the word from my high school class as a version of “shit,” but wondered why I was hearing German. Another splash came, louder than the first, so I slowly worked my way forward to see what the trouble was.

“You scared the bird,” I scolded and then saw a man, taller than me. He had to be well over six feet and was dressed like someone out of a forties period movie, with a wool hat, a jacket complete with elbow patches, and puffy pants. His boots and legs stuck in the mud almost to his knees. An old pair of binoculars hung around his neck. I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing.

“Will you help me?” he asked, and I slowly made my way closer.

“Got yourself in a mess, didn’t you?” I was careful not to get caught in the same bog. “You have to feel before you step.” I managed to get close enough to take his hand. “Pull up one foot and try not to lose your boot.”

“I am.” He lifted his foot, the sucking sound loud in the stillness. He got the foot loose and stepped toward me.

“Hold on.” I bent down a bunch of the reeds. “Step on those.”

He did and got his other foot loose, though this time the mud nearly got his boot. It hung on his foot as he swung around, and he tugged it back on and stepped onto the grass.

“Come this way.” I led him through the reeds, back toward dry ground and the cars.

“I think you come here often,” he said, swatting cakes of mud off the knees of his pants.

I wondered if that was some German version of the old pickup line for a second, but tossed the thought away.

“Yes. I’m familiar with the area. I watch the birds so I can paint them.” I took a step onto solid ground, mud all the way up my boots but sparing my pants. Good. There would be hell to pay if my pants were caked with mud. “I’m Florian.”

“Dieter,” he said as he shook my extended hand.

I stomped my feet to get some of the mud off my boots. They would dry soon enough and the mud would flake off pretty easily. “On vacation I take it? Judging by the accent and all.”

“In a way.” Dieter pulled off his hat, exposing light blond hair down to his shoulders that would make a model green with envy. “I’m here on business and decided to take some time to see the sights.” He held up his binoculars. “I study birds back in Bavaria and wanted to get a look at some of yours here. I didn’t realize there would be hazards.” He smiled a little, and I relaxed. At least Dieter had a decent sense of humor to go along with an amazing smile and eyes the color of the sky. My cheeks heated as thoughts of what I’d like to do with his full pink lips went through my head.

“M-me neither,” I stammered, my brain suddenly switching off, my tongue too big for my mouth.

He walked toward his car, and I did my best not to stare at his backside, but failed miserably. And what a view I got for my troubles, especially when he opened the trunk and leaned over, his jacket rising up and the pants drawing tight around his butt. He pulled off the binoculars and stowed them in a case, then set his hat inside. He turned around, and I tried my best to look busy rather than watch him. Dieter leaned on the bumper to pull off his boots, then thumped them together to knock off some of the mud. He scraped off his pants and put on fresh shoes.

“Thank you for your help,” Dieter said as he headed for the driver’s door.

“You’re welcome.” I waved my hand, taking in the area. “This is the best spot for birds for miles. No one usually comes here. You just have to watch the mud, but otherwise it’s perfect. I can show you some spots just up that way where there are egrets and a family of snowy herons… sometime… if you like.” I blushed. I suddenly felt so stupid, unable to say what I wanted. I raced to my car, yanked open the door, and jumped inside. After backing out of the spot, I drove away as fast as I dared.

The ride home didn’t take too long. I went inside, and Mother started in on me as soon as I got in the door.

“Look at that mess,” Mother scolded. “You need to stop all that stupid bird shit and do something productive with your time.” She sat at the kitchen table in a pair of jeans and a red blouse, reading a book. She lifted her gaze to Isabella, who was at the sink doing dishes, before returning to her book. “Put the jeans in the washtub once you’ve changed so they can be rinsed out. Don’t put them in the washer. I don’t want mud in there again.” She never looked up at me. It was her usual behavior.

I went up to my room, changed, and brought the jeans back down. Once they were taken care of, I took a sandwich to my room and locked the door so Jeremy, Mother’s favorite and my perfect older brother, didn’t come in to cause trouble. We each had a talent, and that was definitely his. The jerk.

I put the plate and glass of water on my desk, then pulled out my paint kit and a blank canvas from the closet. I set up my small easel and got to work, brush in hand, mixing colors, letting my inner eye take over.

There were many things about my job that I loved. Painting birds in great detail as they flew, sat still, or stood in a pool of water—I enjoyed it. The work made me happy and I was good at it. I could actually make a living with my art. And I was proud of that. But it was what I did in this room, after work, alone—just me, the paint, and the canvas—that got my heart racing. At night, I painted men—nude, beautiful men, the ones who came to me in my head. And I had a vivid, wild, and sometimes naughty imagination. What always made me smile was that I sold my art on the internet. People paid me for the visual representations of my fantasies.

My mother and brother would have two fits and a hemorrhage, each, if they knew about my little side business, so I hid the canvases under my bed. After all these years, if I stacked them all up, my mattress would be six feet off the ground. Lots of pictures came to me. Not that it mattered, as I shipped most of them away, all over the world, and did it very quietly.

Anyway, I put the fresh canvas on the easel and got to work. The shoulder-length blond hair and strong jaw were easy enough to recreate, as were Dieter’s eyes and nose. Those I had seen, and because I posed him slightly to the side, I was easily able to imagine what his butt looked like. After the way his pants had tightened when he’d bent over, I just let my mind’s eye remove them. It was the rest of him that left me at a loss, but not for long. One thing I had learned was to let my mind fill in the blanks. It was so much easier and a lot more fun. I painted his broad shoulders, which were pretty easy to see through his clothes, and the rest, I just let my little old mind take over.

I took a break after an hour, eating my sandwich and drinking the water. I stayed in my room, ignoring my mother through the closed door as she griped at Isabella for whatever imagined slight the poor girl had caused. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I did. My mother could be a witch of the highest order. She could also be a kind person. The problem was, I never knew which one I was going to get on any given day. So I did my best to stay out of the line of fire, and that meant spending a lot of time in my room, ignoring the rest of my family.

“Florian!” Jeremy screamed from hall.

I put the in-progress canvas out of sight and pulled out an unfinished landscape that I had been working on for months and set it on the easel. I added a few brushstrokes to make it look wet, then unlocked and opened the door.

“What?” I snapped, mimicking his tone. In this screwed-up family, aggression needed to be met with aggression. Not doing so was a recipe for getting eaten alive. Maybe Hattie was right and getting out was the only way to preserve my sanity.

“I need to borrow your suit coat. I have a date, and it isn’t as though you use it. So….” He held out his hand, but I shook my head. “There’s no need to be a dick about it.”

“I’m not being a dick. Last time, you spilled shit on it, and I had to have it cleaned to get the stain out. Plus it came back smelling like weed. Mess up your own clothes.” He was such a pig and he spent his money on God knew what and then expected me to loan him what I had saved to buy.

“Mom said you needed to do it.” Jeremy crossed his arms over his chest.

I stepped back a little, intending to close the door. “Go away, Jeremy. I’m not loaning you anything. And I don’t care if you run to Mommy when you don’t get your own way.”

“Little shit,” he spat.

“Wussy man-baby. I wonder what Mom would say if she knew you spent your pay on a joint.” I smiled, knowing Mom would have a fit. Jeremy knew it too. He seethed and his face turned beet red, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. “I have pictures of you completely stoned, drooling like an idiot all over yourself, so don’t cause any trouble.” I was playing the one major card I had, but it was time he understood I was tired of dealing with him.

“You piece of….” He puffed himself up, another tactic I was used to.

“Just go away and wear your own clothes on your ‘date.’” I knew what it really was. “Maureen is way too smart to let you in her pants anyway.” That was all Jeremy ever wanted from anyone he “dated.” To call Jeremy a hound dog was an insult to the breed.

“How do you know who I’m seeing?” Jeremy stepped back as I started to close the door.

“Remember where we live. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. So all the girls here know about you and what you want. As well as your shortcomings.” I wagged my pinkie at him.

“Well, everyone knows you’ve never dated any girl anywhere.” Of course, Jeremy thought my orientation was some kind of weapon he could use. I had never hidden who I was. Mr. Bartholomew coming out of the closet in a big way with Beau had certainly been helpful.

“So what?” I actually chuckled. “No big deal.”

“My friends and I know how to handle guys like you.”

Now that was a new threat.

“They might.” I suddenly realized I had another bit of ammunition. “But do you think Mr. Bartholomew is going to allow a group of homophobes to work at his plant? He’ll fire the lot of you if you do anything, and you know it. There are plenty of people here who would love any of your jobs.”

I swore smoke was going to come out of Jeremy’s ears. I’d been playing this game with him for a long time, and while Jeremy used to get the better of me, with enough practice, I’d become the master at it. The hard part was having the internal fortitude to actually follow through if I needed to. But Jeremy didn’t have to know that. “Good night, Jeremy.” I closed and locked the door. That was more than enough of that crap for one night.

I put the landscape away, getting out my visual imaginings of Dieter, and started to work once again.

I loved to paint. It made me happy. I didn’t usually paint pictures of people I met—that would be really intrusive. So I usually put pieces of people together. Okay, that sounded really weird in my head. I mean, my work was often what my head put together, so this one was different for me because not only was I painting Dieter, but I also had no intention of selling it. See, I loved putting my fantasies on canvas, but once I was done, I moved on. However, as Dieter took shape in front of me, I knew this was too personal to let go of. I wondered if I was being stupid, but I shifted my hips as excitement washed through me.

“Florian!” my mother snapped outside the door.

I sighed and put the work away for the night. I wasn’t likely to get anything else done. I opened the door once the painting was out of sight, then moved the easel to the corner as I continued straightening up. “What is it?” I didn’t have the patience to deal with this right now. “I was trying to get some things done.”

“What’s going on with you and Jeremy?” she asked, butting in the way she usually did.

I scoffed slightly. “Just stay out of it. He and I need to work things out ourselves, and you don’t need to be involved. If we fight, then….” I shrugged. “You only come off as unfair and show that he’s your favorite.” Mom always said she didn’t pick favorites, but that was lip service. “What else do you need? I’m going to get ready to go to bed. I have to go into the studio early tomorrow morning.” I had plenty to do, and the studio was always quiet first thing in the morning, so I could think.

“Fine. But it would be nice if you and your brother would get along.”

By that she meant that I should give Jeremy whatever he wanted.

“Maybe we could if he wasn’t such a huge jerk.” I shook my head. “Good night.” This conversation was over. Mom always thought Jeremy and I should be friends, but I didn’t like him. He wasn’t the kind of person I wanted in my life.

She left, and I closed the door, got out my clothes for the morning, and then went to the bathroom to clean up.

I got undressed and climbed into bed. Slowly my mind calmed and the conflicts with my family gave way to other, more pleasant things. It didn’t take long before I wondered if I was going to be seeing Dieter again.