“HOW was your class?” Joey strode into the kitchen, the back door banging behind him as he stomped his boots on the mudroom rug.
Eli turned from the sink where he was cleaning vegetables. “Good. The students are really great. I like the adult classes best. They’re here to learn and work hard.” He turned back around and went back to work. “Tomorrow I have the young kids. They’re always a lot of fun too. It’s the teenagers that are a pain… sometimes.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll be sure to make myself scarce.” There was no way he was going to be around the young kids while they were getting their lesson.
Eli put down his vegetables and turned from the sink to look at Joey, huffing softly. “There’s no need for that. Those kids love you and always ask about Mr. Joey.”
His hand went to his face, fingers tracing the pink lines that he wished weren’t there. “I just can’t face the looks and the questions.”
Joey saw Eli’s eyes go sad. He knew that look, one he hated in everyone but Eli or Geoff. He knew that look from them was concern and not pity. He’d had all the pity he could stand. He’d avoided going to town because he just couldn’t take the sad looks on everyone’s faces and the tsks in their voices.
“You know they just want to help and that they feel for you.”
“Pity.” Joey spat the word and then felt bad about it. Eli was one of the best people he knew—always caring, never mean, or malicious in any way.
“Maybe a little, but they also care.” Eli turned back to the sink. “You have a lot of people who care about you and don’t give a”—Eli stopped for a second, and Joey saw his jaw go rigid—“rat’s ass about the scars on your face because we don’t see them anymore.”
Joey stared at Eli’s back as he worked. He knew how both Eli and Geoff felt. He just wished he could make himself believe it. But they hadn’t been in the drugstore last month when a mother had pulled her children out of the store when she saw him walk in. “I know. It’s just hard.” The doctor had said that the scars would fade over time, and a plastic surgeon had worked on his face, so there was hope. But in the meantime, he just felt ugly.
Eli didn’t look up as he continued making dinner. “How were the south fields? Did the rain wash away the seed?”
He sank into one of the kitchen chairs, grateful that Eli had let the subject drop. “Nope,” Joey let himself smile as he slipped off his shoes. He still wasn’t used to living in the farmhouse with Eli and Geoff, and he still felt he needed to be very careful of everything he did. “The seed’s fine and in a few places it’s beginning to sprout, so it looks like we’re good.”
“Geoff will be relieved.” Joey could almost hear Eli smile as he worked. “I’m surprised he didn’t go with you to check himself.”
So was Joey, but it meant a lot to him that Geoff had trusted him to check on things, knowing he’d work to repair any damage the torrential downpour had caused. He’d been working on the farm since he was sixteen. After he returned from college, Geoff had offered him a job as crop manager after Frank Winters had retired. “I guess it was lucky that Pete and Hank needed help with the fences in the north pasture.” As soon as the words passed his lips, he knew there was no luck involved. Eli had probably sent him out there to make sure Joey could do his job. He shook his head at Eli’s back. The man knew his partner so well.
“How’s your mom doing in Florida?”
“Getting settled. She already wants me to come down for a visit.” Joey’s mother had raised him single-handedly, and after he graduated from college, she sold the house and got a new job in Florida. She had said she was tired of the winters, and Joey was happy for her. She’d done her best and deserved some time to enjoy herself.
“You should. It might do you some good.” Eli turned on the water and began rinsing the vegetables.
“I don’t think so. Florida in June doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Besides, there’s plenty to help with around here.” Joey took his job very seriously. He appreciated the responsibility that Geoff and Eli had given him, the faith they had in him, and there was no way he’d let them down. Ever. “Maybe I’ll go down for a visit after the fall harvest. By then I’ll be ready for some warmth and sun.”
“Why don’t you go get cleaned up? Dinner will be another hour, and you’ve been working since sunup.” Joey didn’t remind Eli that he’d been going since sunup as well.
Joey got up from the chair and walked to the sink. “Is there something I can do to help?”
“Go on. I’ve got this. Besides, you cook tomorrow night.” Part of the arrangement when Eli and Geoff had offered him their guest room after his mother sold the house was that he would help with the cooking and cleaning. He’d readily agreed, and with Eli’s help was starting to become a decent cook.
Joey left the kitchen and walked through the house. Sitting in one of the living room chairs and turning on the television, he began to relax—until the phone rang. Eli’s voice drifted in from the kitchen, “Could you please get that?”
“Sure.” Joey got up and reached for the phone.
He recognized the voice. “It’s Joey, Mari.” It was Geoff’s sister, in Joey’s opinion a wonderful lady. If he were straight, he’d have made a play for her, at least before….
“Hey, Joey, how’s my brother treating you? Not working you too hard, is he?” Joey laughed in response. “Listen, is he around?”
“No, he’s still out with the guys riding fence. Eli’s in the kitchen making dinner.” A crash sounded from the kitchen followed by a few expletives. Well, expletives in the sense that they were about as harsh as a man raised Amish would ever utter. “He seems to be having trouble with dinner.”
“I need their help, and I’m a little desperate.” He could hear the slight panic in her voice.
“What is it? I’ll give them the message.”
“The National Youth Symphony is arriving today, and one of my host families backed out. I need someone to take in one of the musicians, and I was hoping that Geoff and Eli would be willing to take him in.” Mari had been talking about bringing this group to town the last time she was at the house. It seemed that Mari had called in a number of favors and pulled every string she could think of to get them to include the Ludington area in their tour. Joey knew she couldn’t have something like this ruin it. “I’ve already got two girls staying with me, or I’d take him in.”
“Hold on a minute. I’ll ask Eli and be right back.” Joey put down the phone and relayed the message to Eli who was wiping up the floor.
Eli barely looked up from his cleaning. “Tell Mari of course he can stay here. I’ll make up a bedroom for him. Ask her when we need to pick him up.” Joey hurried back to the phone.
Mari was thrilled and relieved. “Their bus arrives at the high school in fifteen minutes. I’ll call the symphony coordinator and make sure that someone will be able to wait until you get there. Tell Eli thank you.” She disconnected, and Joey relayed the message.
“Would you please pick him up for us? I need to finish this, and Geoff isn’t back yet.” Eli got up from the floor. “I know how you feel, and I wouldn’t ask, but….”
Joey felt his insides start to churn, but he pushed it away as best he could. He owed Eli and Geoff a lot. He wasn’t going to let his own insecurities get in the way. “No problem.” Joey put his boots back on and headed outside. Getting into his car, he pulled out of the drive and headed to town. He hated doing this, but he hated the way he felt about it even more. Grow a pair. He tried to psych himself up, but all Joey could see was the reaction of some kid when he saw his face: some snooty teenager from some rich, well-to-do family who was given everything in life was going to take one look at him and then look away in disgust. “You may as well get used to it because it isn’t going to change any time soon,” he told himself as he drove down country roads lined with their freshly planted fields.
Approaching the outskirts of town, he slowed down and made his way to the high school, pulling into the long circular drive. He’d expected there to be a hoarde of people, but all he could see was a single bus and a woman standing next to a young man, holding what appeared to be a violin case. Pulling up behind the bus, he stopped the car and got out. The woman stepped forward, and to Joey’s surprise, he saw none of the usual pity on her face. He almost wondered why. “Are you here for Robert Edward?” The woman looked relieved as she glanced across the parking lot to the only other car there. Two young women were talking together by the car. She’d obviously been waiting for him before taking them home.
“Yeah, I guess so. Mari didn’t tell me his name. She just said that I needed to be here to pick up a young man.” Joey wiped his hands on his pants as he turned to the man standing next to her. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m Joey Sutherland.”
“Robert Edward Jameson, but everyone calls me Robbie.” He held out his hand, and Joey shook it, looking into Robbie’s huge, blue eyes. He also noticed that Robbie smiled at him without a hint of pity or even curiosity. Joey actually felt some of his nervousness slip away.
“We should probably get your luggage loaded in the car.” Joey popped the trunk and picked up a large suitcase, placing it in the trunk. He noticed that Robbie hadn’t moved and hadn’t offered to help. Shaking his head, he picked up the second case and loaded it, muttering under his breath, “What does he think I am, some sort of servant?” He slammed shut the trunk lid and walked back to where Robbie appeared to be waiting for him.
“If you two are all set, I’ll be leaving. We’ll see you at orchestra rehearsal tomorrow, nine sharp.” The lady touched Robbie’s shoulder as she began walking toward her car.
Robbie called after her, “Thank you, Mrs. Peters, for all your help.” Joey noticed Robbie’s Southern accent, and he smiled. The man was cute, and he sounded adorable. Too bad he was too full of himself to load his own luggage. He’d probably expect Joey to carry the bags upstairs and unpack them for him when he they got back.
“It’s no problem, dear, you have a good time.” Her voice trailed off as she got closer to her car.
“We should get going. Eli will have dinner ready soon.” Joey walked around to the driver’s side of the car and opened the door, expecting Robbie to do the same. When he didn’t move, Joey walked back around to the passenger side and opened the door, “I’m not a chauffeur either.”
“I didn’t think you were a servant or a chauffeur, but I could use just a little help, if you don’t mind.” Robbie handed him his violin. “Would you please put that on the back seat?” Joey did as Robbie asked, wondering why he couldn’t do it himself. Joey then waited and watched as Robbie reached into the pocket of the jacket hanging on his arm and pulled out something that looked like white folded sticks. With a slight flick of his wrist, the sticks rearranged themselves into a long, white cane. Joey blinked twice. Shit and fuck. Robbie was blind.
Joey felt completely insensitive and stupid, but he’d had no way of knowing. Those eyes seemed so big and bright. “Here, let me guide you to the car door.” Joey gently touched Robbie’s arm. “Step down from the curb and the car is straight ahead of you.” Robbie tapped his cane on the ground as his other hand touched the car door, following it to the body of the car and then to the seat. “That’s it. The seat is directly in front of you.” Once he knew where he was, he easily sat down and pulled the car door closed, refolding the cane and setting it on his lap.
Joey got in as well and started the car, pulling around the drive and back out onto the road. He didn’t know what to say—he felt like such a fool. How was he to know that Robbie was blind? But what he’d said had been rude, regardless of whether Robbie was blind or not. At least now he knew why Robbie didn’t react to the scars on his face. “I’m sorry.”
Robbie turned his head toward the sound of Joey’s voice. “Why are you sorry?” Robbie smiled, and his face lit up. God, he was adorable, and it wasn’t just his accent. The man was definitely cute. “You didn’t know, and I’d be mad, too, if someone made me load the bags in the trunk without helping.” That smiled widened. “Actually, I’m kind of grateful.”
Joey didn’t understand any of this. “For what?”
“You treating me like anyone else.” Joey took a corner a little sharply, and Robbie leaned toward him. It took a few moments for him to correct his balance. Joey realized what had happened and slowed down. “Most people treat me different because I’m blind, but you treated me like anyone else.”
“Well, you won’t get special treatment around the farm, that’s for sure.” Even though Robbie couldn’t see it, Joey smiled at him. “Everyone works pretty hard, and there won’t be anyone who’ll be able to stay with you all day long. You’ll be on your own for some of the time.”
“A farm?” Damn, Robbie’s smile widened farther, if that was possible. “We’re going to a farm, like a real farm with horses and cows and stuff?”
“Well, yeah. Laughton Farms is the biggest operation in the county. We have almost three thousand acres now, with fifteen hundred head of cattle, as well as horses.” Joey went on about the farm, telling Robbie about the barns and the dogs. “Geoff and his partner Eli own and manage the farm together.”
Robbie’s face registered confusion for a second. “Partner as in business partners?”
“No,” Joey corrected, “partners as in partners in life.”
THAT little revelation surprised Robbie, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. Instead he filed it away to ponder later as the car bounced and swayed, and Robbie did his best to go with the movement instead of against it. Since he couldn’t see anything, he didn’t know what to prepare for, which was normal for him. Curves sent him swaying unexpectedly in either one direction or the other. As they turned, he felt the warmth of the sun on his face and fished around in his jacket pocket for a pair of sunglasses and put them on to protect his eyes.
“We should be getting to the farm in a few minutes.”
“Good.” Robbie turned and smiled at his companion. He’d never considered the possibility of staying on a farm. The thought was definitely exciting but a little daunting as well. He knew there’d be a lot of things that were new to him and that he’d have to be careful, but he also hoped there might be the chance to experience something new. “When we get there, will you be able to show me around?”
“Show you… shit.” Robbie could hear the embarrassment in Joey’s voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Would you stop apologizing?”
“Yeah, okay.” The car lurched slightly, and Robbie bounced on the seat, glad he was wearing a seatbelt. “Sorry.” Robbie felt the car slow, and the bumpiness evened out.
“I’ll need someone to show me around the house so I can learn where everything is.”
“You’ll learn where things are that fast?”
“Usually. It doesn’t really take long. As long as you don’t rearrange the furniture or move the bathroom to another part of the house, I should be fine.” Robbie heard Joey chuckle, and he chuckled in return, glad Joey had gotten his humor. He’d stayed with a number of families on the tour, and some of them had been so uptight the entire time that he couldn’t get comfortable. Yes, he was blind, but he wasn’t helpless.
“How do you do it? Learn where things are so fast?”
He liked the sound of Joey’s voice—mellow and smooth, and his accent was cute too. Robbie shrugged. “You do what you have to.” Further explanation was cut off by the familiar Mozart ringtone. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his phone. “Hi, Mama.”
“Did you make it okay?” Her voice conveyed her usual exaggerated concern.
“Yes. I’m just fine. We’re on our way to the house now. We should be there soon.”
“Make sure they show you around so you can pace off the rooms, and don’t let them put you too far from the bathroom.” Robbie shook his head and rolled his sightless eyes, wishing she could see. His mother really hated when he did that. It creeped her out for some reason, which of course was why he did it in the first place.
“I’ll be fine, Mama. You don’t need to worry.” He was twenty-two, for God’s sake, and she still treated him like a baby. “We’re pulling into the drive now.” He felt the car slow and heard the turn signal. Even if they were just making a turn, it was an excuse to get her off the phone.
“Okay, honey. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up the phone and slipped it back in his pocket.
“Your mom?” Robbie heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels and figured they were turning into the drive.
“Yeah.” The woman called at least three times a day just to check on him. After six weeks, it was getting to be a little much. He felt the car pull to a stop and heard the engine quit. “Is this it?”
“Yup. I’ll get you out and into the house and come back for your things, if that’s okay.”
“I appreciate it.” Robbie waited as he heard Joey’s seatbelt click.
“No problem.” He unfastened his own seatbelt, fumbling slightly with the buckle.
The driver’s door creaked a little as it opened, and he felt the car rock slightly as Joey got out. The door closed again, the car vibrating from the impact. Footsteps on the gravel signaled Joey’s approach, and then the door opened, and he felt Joey’s hand on his arm. “Step out. The drive’s gravel, so you’ll want to make sure you’re steady.” Letting Joey guide him, Robbie stood and extended his cane.
“Would you bring my jacket?”
“Sure, hang on a second.” He felt Joey’s hand leave his arm, but a few seconds later it was back, warm and soft on his skin with a grip that wasn’t tight, but firm and reassuring. “Take a few small steps so I can close the door.” Robbie complied, and he heard the car door thunk closed. Joey guided him patiently around the car and up to the house, his voice keeping up a steady, reassuring narrative. “Let me open the door, and then there’s three steps into the house.
“Just a second.” Joey continued holding Robbie’s arm as he inhaled deeply. The scent of horses, hay, straw, and manure all assaulted his senses at the same time. He’d never smelled anything like it. “What is that?”
“What?” He heard Joey sniffing the air and couldn’t help smiling.
It was wonderfully overwhelming, and he was having trouble distinguishing between everything. “Are there horses nearby?” He could hear what he thought might be whickering, and he could feel the pounding of what might be hooves.
“There’s a corral about fifty feet away.”
Robbie was starting to get excited. “Was there a horse running?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?” He heard what he thought was amazement in Joey’s voice.
“I could feel the ground vibrate from its hooves.” Robbie turned and began sniffing all around him. “This is more amazing than I ever dreamed.” He didn’t want to move from this spot. The scents, the sounds, the vibrations he could feel through his feet, all combined in a sensory delight.
“We should go inside. Eli will have dinner ready. But I promise, after I show you around the house, I’ll take you to the barn so you can meet some of the horses.” There was that touch again, firm and reassuring.
Tapping the ground with his cane, Robbie felt where the step was and lifted his foot, slowly climbing the stairs into the house. Once inside he jumped slightly as the screen door banged closed, and then a whole new array of aromas and sounds assailed him. From the smells surrounding him, he assumed he was in the kitchen. He was going to enjoy his time on the farm.
“Is this Robert Edward?” A new voice asked, and he felt footsteps approach.
“This is Eli,” Joey said, and Robbie extended his hand to feel a calloused one grip it.
“Please, call me Robbie.”
“It’s good to meet you.” He sensed a slight hesitation in Eli’s voice and assumed he hadn’t known that their guest was going to be blind. The back door opened and banged closed. Then he heard heavy, booted footsteps on the floor. “Geoff, take off your boots.” Robbie tried not to smile at the mild scolding as he heard the man sit down and the boots clunk on the floor.
“Geoff, this is Robbie.”
“Pleased to meet you.” The man’s grip was firm. He could almost hear the smile in his voice, and Robbie knew without a doubt that the welcome was genuine. “I hope you’ll like it here.”
“I’m sure I will.” Damn—he was so excited. He was grinning like a fool.
“Dinner will be ready in ten minutes.” He immediately placed Eli’s voice and felt Joey’s hand on his arm again. New people were always blank to him. So many cues were visual, and he missed out on those, so it took him time to get an impression of people. That was one of the strange things about Joey: he’d gotten an impression of him right away, and it wasn’t the one he’d have expected from his earlier grumbling. It was from his touch, which was strong, yet gentle. He knew just how Robbie liked to be touched. Robbie suppressed a shudder and stopped himself from going down that path. He was just being silly, and he shouldn’t be thinking about Joey that way.
There was one thing he was sure of—he was going to have a good time at the farm. These people, this place, it seemed special somehow. He wasn’t sure why he felt that, but he did. Robbie firmly believed in positive and negative energy. Not being able to see, he was particularly attuned to it. And this place, these people, radiated positive energy. Well, everyone except Joey. His energy wasn’t negative, more like painful. He could hear it in his voice, too, just below the surface, and he wondered what could have caused it.
“I’ll guide you to the bathroom so you can wash up, and after dinner I’ll show you around and get your things up to your room.” Joey brought him to the bathroom, and after washing up, Robbie was able to retrace his steps back to the table using his cane. Even though Joey said nothing, he could feel him close by, watching, but not hovering. Sitting at the table, a plate was placed in front of him, and he heard Joey’s smooth voice softly explain where everything was located, and he felt his hand on his, guiding it to his glass. Every time Joey touched him, he felt something. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he definitely liked it.
“I’m not a particularly graceful eater,” Robbie said softly, hoping only Joey could hear. “I tend to spill food off the plate and don’t realize it.”
He felt Joey’s hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about anything; just enjoy. Eli’s a great cook.” Robbie took him at his word and ate, enjoying every bite.
At first the conversation centered on him, with everyone asking a ton of questions, but then the conversation shifted to the business of the farm, and Robbie ate slowly and listened, taking in everything: how the cattle were doing, their plans for getting in enough hay, the condition of the fields and seed. It felt so normal, and Robbie found he was smiling to himself, thinking they’re treating me like anyone else. In his experience, there weren’t many people who did that, and he really appreciated it.
His phone ringing interrupted dinner, and he put down his fork and fished it out of his pocket. “Hi, Mama.”
“Are you doing okay, honey?”
“I’m fine. Mama, we’re having dinner.” These calls were really getting on his nerves.
“You know you have a delicate digestion. I hope they’re feeding you things you can eat.”
“I’m just fine, Mama. I need to finish eating so they can show me around, and I have rehearsal all morning tomorrow, so I won’t be able to answer the phone.”
“Okay, good night, honey. Call me after rehearsal.” She hung up, and Robbie went back to his dinner, the conversation picking up where it left off, to Robbie’s relief and gratitude.
After dinner Joey guided him all around the house, highlighting the placement of all the furniture, the locations of the bathrooms, and everything he could need. “I’m going to get your bags, and then I’ll take you up to your room.” Robbie settled into one of the chairs and let the sounds of the house roll around him. Eli was in the kitchen doing dishes, and then Robbie heard a soft giggle and a splash. He figured Geoff had joined him and that the dishes would wait. A soft moan drifted to his ears, and he smiled as another splash was followed by definite sounds of kisses. The back door opened and banged shut, heavy footsteps walking through the kitchen. “I’ve got your suitcases, and I’ll take them upstairs, but I thought you might want this.” Robbie felt his violin case rest on his lap, and his hands wrapped around it instinctively. “I’ll be right back.” Robbie heard heavy clomps on the stairs followed by doors opening and closing and clomps again.
Robbie felt Joey approach, and then a hand touched on his arm. “I’ll help you up the stairs.” Just like before, he guided him up through the rooms and up the stairs. “Your room is at the top of the stairs to the right. My room is across the hall. There’s a bathroom right next door.” He felt Joey lead him there, explaining where all the important things were before leading him back to the bedroom. “Your suitcases are on the bed, and I put your jacket on the footboard.” Slowly, he led Robbie around. “There’s a nightstand on either side and a dresser to your right.” Robbie ran his hand over the smooth wood, before feeling down the front and pulling out a drawer.
“Do you need help putting your things away?”
“No, if I do it myself it’s easier for me to find things later.” He began opening one of the suitcases, “I could use your help with my tux though.” Robbie lifted the garments out of the case and handed them to Joey.”
“No sweat, I’ll hang it up for you.” He heard Joey move around the room and the closet door opened and closed. “Do you want to come back downstairs?”
Robbie shook his head. “No, I’ll finish unpacking and then go to bed.”
“Okay, I’ll get you up for breakfast. Good night.” Robbie heard Joey leave the room, closing the door behind him as he continued with his unpacking. Yes, indeed, he really was going to like it here. These were good people.
It took him a while to unpack and make sure he was familiar with everything in the room. He also made a couple trips to the bathroom to make sure the path was engrained before getting undressed and climbing into bed.
Robbie was tired, but his mind just wouldn’t shut off, so he lay there listening and wondering about Joey. The man fascinated him, and he had no logical reason why. Footsteps on the stairs told him the others were going to bed as well, and after some movement in and out of the bathroom, the house quieted down, and still he just lay there, thinking.
Then he heard it. Whispers and soft moans drifted to his ears through the wall. He knew what it was and tried to block it out but couldn’t. He felt like an intruder as he strained to hear. The sound of lovemaking suddenly made him feel very lonely. He’d never touched anyone that way, and he wondered very much what it felt like. There were a lot of things he’d never done, but sometimes he wondered if he’d ever have someone that was his, just his. Someone who’d touch him and love him the way Geoff and Eli loved each other. Finally, his own fatigue took over, and he drifted off to sleep.