The truck pulled off the side of the road, skidding to a stop. “I don’t need no freeloaders. If you won’t pay, you can walk!” the man growled as Stone began reaching for the handle. “You should have just sucked it!”
Stone opened the passenger door and made a grab for his bag, figuring the driver would try to steal his stuff. He was right, because the truck began to move as soon as his foot hit the ground. Stone swiped his arm at the driver and hit him on the side of the face, the truck jerking to a stop again. Grabbing his bag and yanking, he tugged it with him and fell away from the truck as it took off again. “Old fucker,” he yelled at the taillights, “I wouldn’t suck that button mushroom dick of yours for nothing!” He did have some standards, after all. Watching the taillights disappear, he pulled himself out of the snow bank and stomped the snow off his clothes. “Damn, it’s cold out here.” He stomped a few times to get warm before picking up his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. He’d only been in the truck a few minutes, so he hadn’t had much of a chance to warm up in the first place. He tried to figure his chances of getting lucky with a ride twice on a night like this.
Snow swirled around him as he began walking. Stone had no idea where he was going and only hoped he could find a warm place out of the wind, which began to pick up almost as soon as it began getting dark. He heard the sound of a car approaching behind him and put out his thumb, but the driver continued down the road, his wheels throwing up a wave of ice and slush, making Stone even colder. “Fuck.” He rummaged around in his pack, but couldn’t find his gloves. “God damn,” he half cried to the silent trees, his adrenaline-fueled bravado popping like a soap bubble. He’d left his gloves in the old fuck’s truck. He shoved his hands back in his pockets for warmth. “Maybe I should have just sucked him off.” The thought made him shudder as tears threatened. He might have been desperate, but he wasn’t that desperate, not yet. Wiping his eyes, he looked around at the darkening landscape of trees and white. “Maybe I will be soon.” Huddling to keep his skin out of the wind, he continued walking and found himself approaching a corner.
Stone saw a sign that read, “West Shore Community College,” and he began walking down the drive, figuring he could at least huddle in a doorway. The place looked shut tight and no one appeared to be around. As he walked, the trees formed a windbreak, giving him some relief, anyway.
Dark brick buildings came into view nearby, and he headed over to one of them, trying the door, but it was locked. Stone walked all around the building, but it was shut tight. He let out a sigh. He should have known; they were probably still on Christmas break and wouldn’t be back for a while. He thought about breaking a window, but with his luck, the place would be alarmed. Maybe at least jail would be warm.
He actually picked up a stone and was about to hurl it toward a sheet of glass when he saw lights flickering between the trees. Lights meant people and maybe warmth. Putting down the rock, he headed toward the lights, hoping he’d get lucky.
Stone broke out of the trees and the wind cut right through his coat. He looked ahead and saw what appeared to be the outline of a barn and farmhouse. Walking across the street, he trudged through the snow and up to the front porch, now shivering with every step, praying they’d maybe let him sleep in their barn. Pulling his hand out of his pocket, he rapped on the screen door, his hand tingling as it woke a little before going numb again, and he shoved it back in his pocket.
Heavy footsteps approached and the door opened, and Stone opened his mouth to speak, but his teeth only chattered and he began to shake.
“Eli!” the man yelled into the house, “I need help!” The first man was joined by another, and the door opened further. Stone thanked his lucky stars as he was ushered into the warm room, the door closing behind him.
He stood on the mat and shivered, eyes closed as he let the warmth embrace him. Hands began to remove his coat and he jerked away forcefully. “Hey, kid. No one’s going to hurt you. We just need to get this off so you can get warm.” Stone opened his eyes and looked at the man trying to help him with his coat. “What’s your name?”
“S… S… Stone,” he stammered through chattering teeth. “Stone Hillyard.”
“I’m Geoff and this is Eli. We just need to get your coat off.”
Stone let his arms fall to his side and felt his coat slip from his body, the warmth of the house reaching through his shirt to his skin, and he couldn’t suppress a sigh.
“Take your shoes off and come sit on the sofa,” Eli said softly.
“T… t… thanks.” Somehow Stone got his shoes off and walked barefoot to the sofa. He heard a gasp and then someone hurried up a set of stairs. Stone didn’t really care what happened; he just knew he needed to get warm somehow. He heard feet descend the stairs at a run, and then he was enveloped in a big, puffy, warm quilt and he began to shake in earnest.
“Adelle,” he heard Geoff call into another room as he pulled the quilt up around his ears, which were starting to burn as the feeling returned.
“Mr. Geoff.” He saw an older black woman walk into the room. “What happened?”
“I found him on the doorstep. Would you make him something hot? We need to get him warm. I think he may have frostbite, I know he’s close to hypothermia.” She hurried away, and Stone breathed a sigh of relief as his body shook and his feet throbbed with pain as the feeling returned. His hands tingled as well, but at least he could still feel those.
The woman returned, and he tried to take the mug she offered, but his hands couldn’t grip it well and it almost slipped from his hands. “It’s okay, darling, I got it.” She took the mug again and held it to his lips. “Just a few sips to start with.”
The liquid burned a little as it went down, and then he began to feel some warmth on the inside. He tried to drink more, but she pulled the mug back. “Take it easy. Too much will shock yer system.” He nodded, and she waited a few minutes before bringing the mug to his lips again. This time, he was able to drink a gulp, and it went down smooth and warm.
“Mmmm.” Hot chocolate had never tasted so good in his life, and he took another drink and then reached for the mug, the warmth seeping into his hands. The tingling subsided and he felt the burning in his feet start to dissipate. “Thank you.” He took a few more drinks and emptied the mug, closing his eyes as the thick liquid slid down his throat and hit his empty stomach, which growled loudly at being teased.
“When was the last time you ate?” The woman fussed over him as other people came in the room, and he heard questions being asked and answered in hushed tones. Stone shrugged and looked into the four male faces that stood around the sofa. “You boys scoot and let me take care of him,” the woman scolded.
“Let’s get everything closed up for the night; it’s going to be very cold,” Geoff said, and the men walked away, one of them making his way carefully upstairs.
“It’s okay, sweetie, you’re safe for now. Just relax and get warm, I’ll be right back.” She walked away and he heard her working in the kitchen, humming softly to herself. She returned with a sandwich on a plate, and Stone found himself lifting one half and biting into it. After he swallowed, he finished the rest in a single bite and took the other half. “Lord, slow down. No one’s going to take it from ya.” Stone looked up at her smiling face and tried to take smaller bites, but his stomach screamed for more. When the sandwich was gone, another appeared, and Stone pushed down the tears that threatened to come to the surface. “There, there, just eat your fill.”
After three sandwiches and another big mug of hot chocolate, he was finally full and couldn’t keep his eyes open any more. “Thank you, ma’am.”
She took the plate and mug. “You’re welcome. Now just rest and I’ll be right here.”
Stone closed his eyes and found himself floating. Music invaded his mind and memories he’d thought long gone came back to him. Images of his mother dancing around the living room with him, the two of them dancing happily, flashed through his dreams.
Stone’s eyes cracked open. He must have dozed off, but the music was still there. He recognized the tune as he listened, his breathing evening out again. He was truly warm and full—feelings he hadn’t felt in a long time. Closing his eyes again, he felt himself fall into a deep, restful sleep.
It wasdark when he woke again. He felt, rather than heard or saw, someone else in the room with him, but he didn’t want to move. Shifting on the sofa, he found a comfortable spot and drifted back to sleep, figuring he had to be dreaming. And if he was, he didn’t want to wake up, ever. Maybe he was dead and this was Heaven.
When he woke again, there were other people in the room, but it was still dark. Huffing softly, he shifted, and the cocoon of warmth around him began to shift. The room quieted again, but now he was wide awake. Looking around, he saw a man sitting in a chair, running his fingers over the pages of a book.
“I’m Robbie. Are you hungry?” He put the book carefully on the table next to the chair and got to his feet, walking to the sofa, reaching it, and Stone felt a hand glance along his leg. “There you are.”
“You’re blind.” The realization was surprising to Stone.
“Last time I looked, yeah.” Robbie laughed and Stone joined him. It felt good to laugh; he hadn’t done it in a while. “Are you hungry?” Stone nodded and pushed back the blanket, his bare feet hitting the cool floor. “I can’t hear your head moving. Nothing rattles.” Stone saw Robbie’s smile and knew he was playing with him.
“Then come in the kitchen, I’m sure Adelle will have something hot for you.” Stone watched as Robbie led the way, and he marveled at how easily he moved through the house. Robbie turned toward him and scowled. “Are you barefoot?”
Stone felt his cheeks color with shame. “Yeah.”
“Go on in the kitchen and I’ll get you some socks.” Stone watched as Robbie turned and made his way up the stairs.
When he disappeared from view, Stone went into the kitchen and found Adelle working at the counter, humming to herself. “Was that you who stayed with me?”
She stopped working and turned around. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.” She motioned toward the table. “Sit down and I’ll bring you some pancakes.” She turned away, and Stone felt his mouth start to water, and he wondered what the hell was happening to him. These people barely knew his name, yet they were treating him so nice. He didn’t know what to make of it, but he figured they’d want something from him eventually.
A plate stacked high with hotcakes was placed in front of him, along with maple syrup and butter. The smell was almost too much, and he looked over at Adelle to make sure these were all for him, but she’d already gone back to work, so he poured syrup on the stack and ate until he thought he was going to burst, finally pushing back the empty plate. “Thank you, ma’am. That was delicious.”
“You want some more?” She looked down at the plate that looked like it had been vacuumed clean.
“No, thank you.” She took the plate and Stone pushed back from the table. Getting up, he went back into the living room and found his shoes, slipping them on his feet. Stone found his bag sitting on a chair along with his coat and even a pair of gloves. Stone slipped on his coat and swung his pack over his shoulder. He needed to get out of these nice peoples’ way.
“Are you going to leave without saying good-bye?”
Stone turned and saw the blind man looking at him, which was really strange.
“I think it’s best I get out of everyone’s way. They don’t need me mooching off them. Tell them thank you for me.” Stone looked around the room. He wanted to remember this place. It wasn’t often that people were as nice to him as these people had been, but he knew they definitely wouldn’t want him around, not after everything.
“Why don’t you let them make that decision?”
Stone stopped in his tracks and almost slipped the pack off his shoulder, almost. “They don’t need me around. I’m no good for anybody.” Stone heard a door bang shut, and then voices drifted in from the kitchen and got louder.
“You’re up.” Stone looked over and saw Geoff—he thought it was Geoff, anyway—standing in the kitchen doorway.
“Thanks for everything. I’ll get out of your hair now.” Stone moved toward the front door and opened it, stepping outside and pulling the door closed behind him. The cold bit into him almost as badly as it had the night before, and he hurried toward the street.
“Do you think this is a smart idea?” Stone stopped and turned around, seeing Geoff standing on the front porch. “It isn’t any warmer this morning than it was last night.”
Stone looked around, already starting to shiver. What in the hell was wrong with him? Slowly, he turned around and walked back toward the house and warmth. Geoff stepped aside and followed him back inside. Stone dropped his pack by the door, but left his coat on and followed Geoff into another room with a desk and a lot of strange machines that seemed to be turning out paper with bumps on them.
“Would you like to tell me why you were out in the cold alone last night?”
Stone shrugged. How he came to be outside alone was the last thing he wanted to talk about. Hell, his whole life was something he’d like to forget. “You’ve been very nice, but you don’t want me around.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of who I want around my farm and family?” Geoff’s face was firm, and Stone found himself fidgeting under Geoff’s gaze.
“What the hell.” Stone sank into a chair, pulling the zipper open on his coat, but ready to make a quick getaway if he had to. “I grew up on a small farm outside Petoskey. It was just my dad and me.” Stone felt tears threaten, but he blinked them back and let his anger take over, pushing back the sadness, and to his surprise his voice firmed as well and he was able to go on. “I thought the old bastard loved me. It was only the two of us after my mother died.”
“What happened?” Geoff’s voice sounded so concerned, but Stone knew that would change.
“My old man kicked me out.” The emotions threatened again, but he pushed them back, letting the love that had turned to hate keep him strong. “So I guess he didn’t love me after all.” Stone looked at Geoff’s eyes and saw them soften as he waited.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Stone heard a note of compassion in the farmer’s voice and decided to go for broke.
“I told him I was gay.” Stone watched Geoff’s reaction, waiting to see what would happen. At best, he figured he’d be told to leave. At worst, he’d make a hasty retreat before he got hit like his old man had done to him so many times. The bruises were gone, but he could still feel the ache in his shoulder where the man had practically ripped his arm out of the socket as he threw him out of the house.
Geoff didn’t say anything, and Stone watched as the farmer got to his feet and walked toward him. Okay, here it comes. He expected to get hit, or to have him demand what the guy from the truck had. What he didn’t expect was to get pulled to his feet and hugged, tight and hard. The strong man didn’t make any sort of move. He wasn’t felt up, he was just comforted—the way Stone had hoped his own father would have comforted him. “No one will hurt you here.” The words reached Stone’s ears, and he raised his arms and put them around the man, returning the hug. This was the first comfort of any kind he’d received since he’d been thrown out.
The grip lessened and Geoff stepped back, and Stone’s legs practically gave out as he slumped back into the soft chair. “How long have you been on your own?”
“About three months. For a while I was able to work cutting Christmas trees for a friend. But the job ran out, so I started heading south, figuring I’d try to get somewhere warm. The money ran out and I tried hitching.”
“You said you grew up on a farm?”
“Yeah.” Stone was starting to get suspicious. “We raised pigs.” Stone shuddered. The last thing he ever wanted to do again was have anything to do with pigs.
“You willing to work?”
“Are you offering me a job? This time of year?” Winter was when most farms tended to go to sleep and needed less help, not more. “I don’t want charity.”
“I’m not offering charity, but hard work. I need someone to keep the barn clean. The guy who was doing it went back to school and we’ve been making do. I’ve got twenty stalls that need to be kept clean and a tack room that must be kept neat. You ever worked with horses?”
Stone nodded, hardly able to believe his luck. Instead of getting beaten up, he was being offered a job. “I learned how to ride when I was a kid.” He’d had to leave his horse behind when his dad kicked him out, and his heart ached that he hadn’t been able to take Buster with him. “Had a horse of my own.” Damn it, he was starting to act like a girl, sniffling and everything.
“Good. My partner, Eli, gives riding lessons, and if it works out, he may have you help him.”
Stone could hardly believe his ears. “Your partner?” He saw Geoff nod. Stone thought for a while. “Is he the man I saw last night when you answered the door?” He got another nod and a smile. “Then who’s the blind guy?” He saw Geoff scowl and realized he was being rude. “I mean Robbie, is he your brother?”
Geoff held up his hand. “After we’re done here, I’ll introduce you to everybody, but I need to know some things.” Now it was Stone’s turn to nod slowly. “How old are you?”
Stone’s first inclination was to lie, but he didn’t. “Nineteen.” He heard Geoff growl deep in his throat and wondered what that was for and what he’d done wrong. Immediately he began to bite his lips with worry. Just when things were looking up….
“You have ID and things?”
“Yes, sir.” He fumbled in his coat pocked for his worn wallet.
Geoff stood up again and extended his hand. “Then you have a job if you want it.”
Stone could hardly believe it. Last night he’d almost frozen to death, and today he’d been offered a job on a farm owned by a gay couple. Hesitantly, he extended his hand and they shook. “You won’t regret it.”
Geoff released his hand and opened the office door. “Eli,” Geoff said, and a man got up from the sofa. “This is Stone, and he’s going to be working in the barn. He’s got experience with horses.” Stone alternated his gaze between the two men and relaxed when he saw the pleased look on Eli’s face. “I believe you already know Robbie. He’s my able assistant and our resident musician.”
“That was you last night? I thought I was dreaming, it was so beautiful.”
Robbie beamed at him. “Thank you.” Stone watched as Robbie appeared to listen before turning toward Geoff. “Can I get started?”
“Certainly. I printed out what you’ll need and it’s on the embosser.” Robbie smiled and made his way carefully into the office, closing the door.
“Is he”—Stone’s voice lowered to a whisper—“gay too?”
He saw Geoff smile. “Yes. His partner Joey is out working, which is where we should be as well.” Geoff looked down at his feet. “You’ll need warmer boots and some thicker clothes.”
“I’ll find him some,” Eli said before heading upstairs.
“I need to help Ro