Thank you to everyone who has been supporting me and following along with my first year doing NaNoWriMo. As I talked about on my last podcast, I was not connecting to the story I was telling, which is something very important to me when I am writing. It is one that I will continue in the future – one that has been in my head since my early 20s, but one I am not yet ready to tell. Also, I am about 20,000 words from finishing the current book I am writing House Arrest which I began writing in Late February of this year. I was having anxiety ignoring my current project, so I decided to switch my focus back to House Arrest. For those of you who have been following long, I have posted the first 5 chapters of House Arrest below. I hope you enjoy it, I welcome your comments, and thank you for understanding.
By Matt Burlingame
“Next up, Case Number 401256, The People vs. Blake Britton.”
The man who approached the defendant’s table looked more like he should be in front of a movie camera than in a courtroom. At six feet tall and 185 pounds of lean, smooth muscle, he often stood out, but it was his dark, almost black hair and piercing hazel eyes that left a lasting impression. His full, red pouty lips that were usually found upturned into a welcoming smile, were pinched with tension.
He had never been so scared in all his life. Not when he flew over his bike handlebars in second grade and broke his collarbone, not when he jumped off Dead Man’s Bridge on a dare in high school, and not even when he told his mother he was gay. This was, hands down, the most frightening thing he had ever faced.
Blake willed his hands to stop shaking. He looked to his lawyer, hoping to see some sign of encouragement, but instead, the tall, brown-haired woman stared straight ahead, her lips pursed together to add to the sourness of her expression.
“The defendant is accused of drunk and disorderly behavior, willful destruction of property, aggravated assault, and driving under the influence.”
He couldn’t breathe. It all sounded so Hollywood television crime show, not something that happened in a little town like Sageville.
“How do you plead?”
“The defendant pleads guilty,” said the woman standing next to him, her voice terse, and gravelly from what must have been decades of smoking. “However, we are asking for leniency due to circumstances surrounding the incident.”
A young black man in a well-pressed gray suit rose from his chair on the opposite side of the courtroom aisle. “After due consideration of the events surrounding Mr. Britton’s violations of the law,” he paused dramatically, “Prosecution has no objection to the court showing leniency toward the defendant.”
Blake couldn’t help but look over at the man. He had gone to school with Jarvis Keitt; they had even been on the football team together, but had never really been friends. Jarvis was well acquainted with Blake’s father, Bud, however. Bud was a terrible racist, and Jarvis’ family had been on the receiving end of his views more than a few times. Blake had been certain the man would have held his father’s hostility against him.
The judge took a long, hard look at Blake, who couldn’t stop himself from averting his eyes under the older man’s glare. He cleared his throat and addressed him. After several minutes of chastising and reprimanding, the judge concluded with, “Therefore, I am hereby sentencing you to six months in county jail.”
Blake felt the tears well up in his eyes and his stomach burn, threatening to expel what little breakfast he had managed to choke down. This was too much! It couldn’t be happening!
“However,” the judge added after a slight pause, wanting the gravity of his sentence to sink into the young man, “since the County is operating on overflow as it is, I am altering your sentence to six months on house arrest to begin no later than 48 hours from now.”
With that, the judge banged his gavel and Blake wiped the water from his eyes, still not able to fully believe what he had just heard. His lawyer picked up her files, grunted towards him and left. As he too began to leave, he almost bumped into Jarvis. The relief of not having to spend time in jail was welling up inside of him and it was everything he could do not to throw his arms around his former classmate and weep. Instead he extended his hand and offered him his heartfelt thanks.
As their eyes met, Jarvis could tell there was more than just gratitude on Blake’s mind. He knew he was wondering why, given their family’s past interactions, he had recommended leniency. Now would not have been an appropriate time to discuss that. Nor would it be appropriate for him to admit he had always had a small crush on Blake. But then, who didn’t? Blake was the epitome of the all-American guy, but lacking the bravado and machismo that so often accompanied that persona.
As Jarvis looked into Blake’s still questioning eyes, he leaned forward and whispered, “You are not your father.” As he pulled back, he saw the tears that were building in Blake’s eyes. “Good luck, Blake.” He gave the man a pat on the shoulder and headed down the aisle.
Those words would stick with Blake over the next few days as he prepared for his six-month isolation from the world. He was fortunate to live in a small studio apartment in the back of his parents’ house. His mother had never used it as anything but a place to store rummage sale donations and put up wayward churchgoers who needed somewhere to stay a night or two for whatever reason. But for the past three years, since his twentieth birthday, he had been its sole occupant. Now it would become his prison for half a year. Still, it was better than the alternative.
He followed the list of rules the officer he had met with gave him, to a T. It wasn’t that hard, as he had no prescription drugs to report, no drug paraphernalia, no weapons and no roommate. For a moment he thought he must seem like a very dull person to most people. But after last month, his family’s dirty laundry had been aired in an all too public way.
He fastened the final clip on the metal crate he had purchased at the pet store and placed a large, soft pillow inside. He looked around for Jovi, his large, playful Boxer mix, only to find him spread out on the bed watching him through one open eye. Blake couldn’t help but laugh. He knew Jovi wouldn’t like the crate, but whenever an officer was in the house, he would have to be put in a crate.
That night he sat outside on the raised wooden steps of his porch and threw Jovi’s favorite tennis ball for him until he finally stopped bringing it back and laid at Blake’s feet panting. The air was just warm enough to be uncomfortable, and giving into temptation, Blake slipped his shirt off over his head and tossed it back through the open door. It would be a long while before he would be able to sit on his steps again. He felt the familiar feeling of coming tears, but managed to subdue them before they surfaced.
His mother brought him a plate of barbecue ribs and her homemade salad with a huge piece of peach cobbler for dessert. They sat talking while he ate. Talking about everything and anything … anything but what the morning would bring. When she took his plate he handed her a shopping bag. It made an odd clanging noise as she took the handles, causing her to give him a questioning look.
“I can’t have alcohol in the house,” he explained.
She nodded and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead and tell him good night. Blake knew his mother would not be unhappy about his not being allowed to have any alcohol during his house arrest. She had always been closed-lipped when it came to her hatred of the mind-altering substance, but she had a way of making her opinions known without voicing them.
At midnight, he took one last look at the starry night sky, heaved a sigh and headed into the house. Collapsing on his bed, he set his alarm for seven a.m. With Jovi pressed tightly against his back, he fell into a deep but restless sleep.
The next morning Blake woke with a start as Jovi let out a bark of alarm, bounding over him to get to the door. Blake had just enough time to glance at his clock, which read eight a.m., before an authoritative knock sent the dog into a second barking fit. The alarm hadn’t gone off! Unbelieveable!
He hurried to the door and opened it just a crack. Squinting against the bright morning sunlight he could only see the chest of a man several feet from the door and the unmistakable shape of a police badge.
“Yes,” he answered quickly, then added, “I have to put my dog in his crate; one second.”
Without waiting for an answer he grabbed Jovi by the collar and began dragging him to the crate on the other side of the room. Still barking, and pulling to get back to the door, Blake had to scoop up the large Boxer and push him into the cage. Securing the lock, he hurried back to the door and opened it quickly.
Without waiting for an invitation or even a good morning, the officer entered the small studio and surveyed the area.
“You were supposed to have your dog crated before I arrived,” the officer said in a dull tone.
“I know. I’m sorry. I overslept.”
Blake had been looking to see Jovi’s reaction to being locked in the metal cage. Though he wasn’t barking, he was now emitting a high-pitched whine that was going right through Blake’s heart. ‘Sorry, boy,’ he thought, sympathizing as he knew he would soon be unable to leave his own cage.
“I’m Deputy James Farrell,” the officer stated as he began a walk around the periphery of the room. “I will be overseeing your home detention for the length of your sentence. I will be making unannounced random checks at any time of day or night. I will be doing a weekly wellness check every Wednesday afternoon, come rain or shine. Have you read the rules of house arrest that were provided for you?”
“Do you have any alcohol, weapons or drugs to declare at this time? You will only get this opportunity once.”
“I wasn’t sure if steak knives were considered weapons,” Blake said, his voice cracking slightly on the word “knives.”
“Only to a good rib eye,” the officer said nonchalantly from inside the bathroom.
Blake almost let out a chuckle, but managed to hold it back.
When Deputy Farrell exited the bathroom, he came to a stop several feet in front of the young man. Blake watched as the taller man removed his sunglasses and felt his eyes as they looked him over. He was uncertain what to think when he saw the officer staring downward with an unreadable look on his face. Finally, curiosity getting the better of him, he lowered his head and looked down at himself. Heat burned in his cheeks as he realized he had been standing there the whole time in only his boxers.
“May I — put some pants on?” he managed to ask in a low voice.
“I think that would be best, don’t you?”
As Blake crossed to the bed and slipped into his clothes, the deputy continued spouting information. Finally he asked, “Do you have a computer, tablet or laptop?”
“No, no, and it’s broken.”
“If there is an emergency, you will call me at this number,” he instructed, handing Blake a business card. “Enter that into your cell phone immediately.”
The younger man nodded, then noticing the deputy again watching him, he realized he meant now. He picked up a small flip phone from the table beside his bed and opened it.
“A flip phone?” the man asked with a smirk.
Blake’s brow furrowed, though he felt a fresh flush of warmth in his face. “It was a gift.”
The deputy chuckled. While Blake concentrated on remembering how to enter a fresh contact number, the officer took the time to examine his new charge. He was several inches shorter and at least ten years younger than himself. His short dark hair was slightly messy, and a thick five o’clock shadow outlined his lower jaw, almost the exact opposite of his own sandy blond hair and reddish goatee. Their body types were not dissimilar, though the younger man’s abs were tighter than his had ever been. His well muscled arms and legs were that of a man familiar with manual labor .It was a natural look, not one obtained by working out in some sterile gym. From what he had seen of him in his underwear, he was a man given many gifts.
Blake was not unaware of the officer’s gaze and he had entered the number wrong twice due to the nervous wreck it was making him. Still, he tried to at least seem like he wasn’t nervous. After all, if he looked nervous the officer might think he had something to hide, and he didn’t.
As he closed his phone, he placed it along with the card on the bedside table and turned back to the deputy. As he met the man’s gaze, he noticed he had removed his sunglasses. It was as if the officer’s eyes had cast a spell on him — he literally could not look away from the deep green of his eyes.
The two of them stared at one another, both of them mesmerized. It was a sharp bark from Jovi that broke the connection. Clearing his throat, Officer Farrell pulled what looked like a Swatch watch out of his vest pocket and entered a code into it. After several beeps he reached for Blake’s arm, secured the device snugly on his wrist and pressed another button in the back. Blake felt the band click and lock on the underside of his wrist.
“It’s now being tracked from the station,” the officer stated. “We will be alerted if you move even one foot out of this door. Do you understand?”
“Good,” Farrell nodded. Then after an awkward moment of silence he added, “And it’s waterproof.”
Blake’s brow furrowed at the random statement, but nodded his understanding.
“All right, Stay out of trouble,” Officer Farrell offered, as he headed to the front door and opened it. Giving the younger man a quick nod, he disappeared into the morning sun.
Blake stayed where he was, looking around at his apartment turned jail cell, and let out a sigh that caught in his throat, threatening to become a sob. Jovi whined at him, shifting in his cage and looking at him expectantly. He knew right then, this was going to be a long six months.
The first week of his sequestering seemed more like a mini-vacation than a jail sentence. He slept a lot, watched a lot of television and even wrote thank-you letters to several people who had sent him their support since … he took a deep breath, not wanting to think about it.
Toward the end of the week he began missing the camaraderie of his pals from work, but he had to admit he wasn’t missing coming home with aches and pains from lifting and loading heavy shipments of furniture down at the factory.
He was allowed two visitors at a time during the day, but no one had been by except his mother, who came over from the front house to bring him hot meals and spend a few moments filling him in on the latest church gossip. He remembered the preacher once giving a sermon about how gossip was just as big of a sin as the rest of them — bearing false witness and all — yet it seemed to him that the biggest gossips in town were always church ladies.
He was playing ball with Jovi, throwing the muddy old tennis ball through the open door for him to chase, when the sunlight from the doorway disappeared. Blake looked up from the ground to see Deputy Farrell standing in the doorway. Jovi let out a surprised bark from outside, obviously not having seen the man enter the backyard.
Blake stood quickly, ready to grab his dog and place him in his crate. But as Jovi pushed past the officer, he didn’t turn to growl or bark, but merely dropped the ball at Blake’s feet and looked at him expectantly. Blake kicked the ball out of the small house with his foot and invited the deputy in, quickly closing the door behind him so Jovi was on the other side of it.
Officer Farrell removed his sunglasses and tucked them into the top pocket of his shirt. He was not wearing his badge, nor did he have his gun and radio. He was dressed in a maroon polo shirt that hugged his chest, emphasising his large, solid pecs. The taller man noticed Blake’s quizzical look.
“I’m off today,” he said, his voice not as terse as it had been during their first visit. “But it’s Wednesday, so I wanted to check in on you. Make sure you weren’t up to any mischief.” The left corner of his mouth upturned in just a hint of a smile.
“Thank you, sir,” Blake replied, not knowing how to answer.
“You can relax, son,” Farrell said. “I’m not here to bust your balls.” He did, however, have a quick look around the place to make certain there was nothing there that shouldn’t be. “Ya know, I was reading through your file,” he said as he walked the length of the room. “Those were some pretty hefty charges they pinned on you. How’d you get out of going to jail?”
Blake felt the heat of embarrassment sting his face, but a feeling just as intense gripped him as well — one he hadn’t been expecting — anger.
“I’d prefer not to talk about it, sir.”
The deputy was now standing behind Blake, and though pretending to be looking around for anything illegal, he really was taking a long, hard look at the back of the other man. His shoulders were broad and square, his back strong and tight. Just as the tail of his shirt touched the top of his jeans, his lower back arched out into a backside that almost made Farrell forget he was there on official business. He turned back to his search and ended it once again facing the dark-haired man.
“Everything looks good,” he said, certain his double entendre would go unnoticed, and it did. He looked at Blake, who was still standing as rigid as an old oak tree. His arms were stiff at his sides, and his gaze focused forward, eyes trying not to look directly at the man in front of him.
The deputy shook his head, chuckling. “All right, Britton, at ease.”
Blake was so nervous he wasn’t sure he could “at ease,” but he did his best. The two of them stood only feet apart, the silence growing more awkward with each passing moment. Though Blake did everything he could to avoid looking directly at the officer, he was acutely aware of the older man staring at him. Staring at his face, to be exact. He started to wonder if he had something on his face, or worse, something in his nose. He fought the urge to touch his face and instead gathered the courage to ask, “Is that all, sir?”
The question snapped Farrell back to reality. He hadn’t realized he was staring at the young man, but he had found himself so completely mesmerized by the dark-haired man’s face that he had momentarily lost himself in it. Clearing his throat, he turned toward the door.
“Have a good evening, son.”
As the door opened, Jovi rushed in, muddy ball still in his mouth. He immediately began sniffing around the room, his tail wagging at full speed.
Once Deputy Farrell was out of view, Blake took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. That had been almost more awkward than the first time he had been there. And the way he had looked at him — it was like the way the girls in school had looked at him. It was how Mike Phillips had looked at him the night of their graduation, the night they had kissed for the first time. But Officer Farrell couldn’t be … could he? Did the deputy like men, too? How could that be?
Since the lumber industry had come to town a decade before, Sageville had become an industrial town and grown more than four times its original size. But it had maintained a good portion of its small-town mentality, and a gay police officer was hard to believe. The country was changing, gay marriage was legal in most places, and soldiers didn’t have to hide anymore. But here in Sageville, the only gay guys he knew about were still in the closet or had left town the day they turned eighteen.
Blake had been different, though. His mama always said he was as stubborn as an old billy goat, always charging in head first and ramming his head against whatever was in his way. He supposed she was right. When he had told her he was attracted to men, she had tried every which way to make him change. Then after she finally accepted he wasn’t going to, she begged him to leave Sageville behind. She couldn’t bear the idea of her beautiful boy being the subject of church gossip, or worse. She watched the news; she knew what could happen.
Still he refused to leave, and though they never spoke about it, she knew why. She knew it was because of her, and if anything ever happened to him, it would be her fault. It was a thought almost too much for her live with at times. But those were the cards the Lord had dealt her, and she would keep those cards pressed to her chest until her dying day.
After his second week of being cooped up inside the one-room attachment, Blake was going stir crazy. Never had he been inside for so long in his entire life. The thought of another five and a half months of living like this had twice made him almost hyperventilate. What made it worse was none of his friends had come by to visit. He had tried calling them, but all of his calls had gone to voicemail. He had to admit to himself that he wasn’t surprised. Mama had finally brought him the local papers so he could read what they were saying about him. She had made excuse after excuse about forgetting them until he had finally called her to task and all but ordered her to let him read them.
The local paper had painted him as an alcohol-crazed militant homosexual who had gone on a drunken spree of joyriding and violence. The end of one article quoted his mother’s church pastor as saying, “Jesus says to forgive all sinners, but even I am going to have a hard time forgiving Blake Britton for what he’s done to our quiet little town.”
The larger newspapers were more neutral, but still didn’t have the facts right. And he made the front page of a big city gay newspaper that hypothesized his actions were that of a gay man who had finally cracked under the repression of being trapped in a Bible-thumping town of hillbillies. None of it was true. But then he had purposely hidden the truth from all but his lawyer, Jarvis and the judge. He had made a deal that he would plead guilty if they didn’t release what actually happened to the press.
When Wednesday came, Blake was surprised to find himself actually looking forward to his check-in. As he readied himself, he remembered the awkwardness of the first two visits. Perhaps he was reading too much into them. After all, he had never known police officers to be very friendly when it came to dealing with criminals. Like it or not, that’s what he was.
Still, the way he had looked at him, that hadn’t been a look of contempt. He put the hairbrush back on the counter near the bathroom sink and took a look in the mirror. He had changed into a clean white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans he often wore down at Olsen’s Bar, a pair that hugged his lower half in all the right places.
As he checked his hair a second time, he froze, his arm still in the air. What was he doing? Why was he acting like he was getting ready for a date? He turned the bathroom light off and went back in the front room to crate Jovi. Instead, he found him lying on his back in the middle of the room with one leg pointed toward the ceiling. Deputy Farrell was squatting over him, scratching his chest.
“That’s a good dog ya got here,” Farrell said, smiling up at Blake, whose expression was still one of surprise.
“Usually he’s bouncing around barking his head off,” he told the officer.
“How old is he?”
“Ahh, he’s still a baby.”
When the deputy stood, Blake picked up a tennis ball from the table and squeaked it at Jovi. Once he had his attention, he tossed it out into the yard and closed the door behind the Boxer, who had given chase immediately.
He turned back to the deputy in time to see him lift his gaze to meet his own. Had he been looking at his backside? As their eyes met, he could have sworn he saw the faintest hint of pink in the taller man’s face.
“How’s your week been?”
“Okay,” Blake answered with a shrug.
“Lots of visitors?”
The dark-haired man made a noise that was halfway between a sigh and a guffaw. “No.”
The deputy gave a quick nod of understanding and turned to look around the place. His attention rested on the newspapers and he shook his head in an almost sympathetic manner.
“You shouldn’t pay any mind to those,” he said, picking them up and tossing them into the nearby waste bin. “Can’t believe a word any of ‘em write, anyway.”
Farrell turned just in time to see the younger man’s face light up with a smile and felt a shiver run through him — the kind that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. Blake was one strikingly beautiful young man.
“So, you ah — ” Farrell tried to think of something police-like to say. “You … you have your time out planned?”
“Yeah, you’re allowed four hours a week out of the house to get groceries, a haircut, doctor’s appointment.”
“I — didn’t know that,” Blake answered. His smile faded and his eyes seemed to glaze over as if his mind was suddenly far away.
“That’s some good news, then. Isn’t it?” The deputy was puzzled by the change in mood.
“Uh,” Blake began with a shrug. “Ain’t got no way to get anywhere. They took my license, and Mama doesn’t drive.”
“Well, how about one of your friends?” Farrell asked, trying to keep the conversation going.
“No one’s returning my calls,” he said, his voice almost a low whisper. “Townsfolk doesn’t like gays that don’t keep in the closet.”
How well Deputy Farrell knew that. There was a long silence as the two of them pretended to look at various things around the room, but continued to steal glances at one another. Farrell kept looking down at the younger man’s incredibly tight pants, that left little to the imagination. Meanwhile, Blake kept glancing at the older man’s arms, that looked as if they had increased in size over the last two weeks. Or maybe it was just the short sleeve of his uniform making it seem that way.
“Well, we can’t have ya starve and start to look like a crazy hermit,” the deputy said at last. “I’ll grab you about noon. Remember you only have four hours, so plan it out.”
“I couldn’t impose — ” came Blake’s surprised reply, but he was quickly cut off by a wave of the blond man’s large hand.
“Hey, at least this way, I know you’ll stay out of trouble.”
Blake’s heart started to beat faster at the thought of getting out of his jail cell. Or maybe it was … no … no, it was only the idea of getting out for a short time.
“Okay,” Blake said. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Right! It’s a date,” he said, giving the young man a pat on the shoulder as he made his way to the door.
As Farrell walked the garden path back to the front gate, his words echoed through his head. He sighed, feeling a pang of regret for his phrasing. Yet, he had to admit, the thought of spending more time with Blake Britton was not unappealing.
The officer’s choice of words hadn’t escaped Blake’s attention. As he slowly crossed to the window to look out and watch the tall lawman walking away, he again felt an odd tickle deep inside of him. It stayed with him through the night and grew each time he thought about the next day.
Blake hadn’t been able to get to sleep well the night before his first outing. He had found himself running scenarios through his mind about what the next day would bring. He thought through conversations and even confessions. When he had finally fallen asleep, he dreamt about the same, only in his dreams it took an unexpected and often intimate path.
Since he didn’t need to be ready until noon, he continued to hit the snooze button on his clock for what seemed like hours. When he couldn’t ignore the alarm any longer, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and went about getting ready. Whenever he looked at the time, he felt more nervous. One would think he had never been down to the supermarket before. Well, he hadn’t been … with Deputy Farrell.
Officer James Farrell had spent far too much time getting himself ready that morning. He had even washed his Range Rover on the way to work, which made him begin to seriously doubt that he was only thinking of this as helping out one of his detainees. Would he have done this for someone he didn’t find so attractive? The thought of Blake’s smile made the left corner of his mouth rise in a grin that once conscious of, quickly dispersed. He’d like to think he would, but he knew better.
The exact second Blake’s clock flashed noon, Farrell’s knuckles rapped on the screen door. Though Blake didn’t physically jump, his heart very clearly skipped a beat. He took a step toward the door, then stopped and took a moment to remind himself he was going with a police officer on an escorted outing from his home jail cell. The reality of it made his stomach twist suddenly.
He opened the door to find Deputy Farrell dressed in a pair of tight blue jeans, an off-white long-sleeve dress shirt that had a light blue criss-cross pattern on it and a pair of polished work shoes. His shirt was open at the neck, exposing a patch of the man’s soft reddish chest hair. Blake looked him over longer than he had intended to, and suddenly felt underdressed in a maroon pullover and faded black jeans. At least they were clean. He looked down at his well-worn tennis shoes and let out a small sigh.
“Everything all right?” the deputy asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Blake forced a grin. “Just a bit nervous, I guess.”
“Nervous? About what?”
Blake had been asking himself that same question.
“Been a few weeks since I’ve been out,” he said with a shrug.
The deputy nodded and pushed the door open. “Ready?”
Blake stepped out the door and went down the porch steps into the bright spring sunlight. He stopped for a brief second to feel the sun on his face and thought that he now understood, at least in a small way, those movies about people who go outside for the first time in years. As a cool breeze blew against him, carrying the scent of his mama’s junipers, he felt a sudden giddiness. As he walked the path to the high chain-link gate, he looked to make sure Jovi wasn’t able to run out past him. The gate firmly shut, he followed the deputy to his Range Rover and climbed inside.
As he shut the gate, he took a long look at the front of his house and found his mama standing in the front window watching them. He waved to her and she waved back with her usual motherly smile.
As Farrell backed out of the driveway, he followed the younger man’s gaze and saw the woman in the window. He had met her on the first day he had come out to check on Blake. She was a kind, soft-spoken woman, though she seemed to be too intimidated by him, or the uniform, to engage in conversation, no matter how personable he had tried to be.
The ride into town was awkwardly quiet between them. Halfway there, Ferrall turned on the radio to break the silence, only to have a Barbra Streisand song come belting out of the speakers. He flushed slightly, wondering if he could have been any more cliche. He quickly changed the setting to the local country station.
Blake couldn’t help but grin at how fast the deputy had turned off his recording of Streisand and replaced it with the radio. He turned his head toward the door and, propping his elbow on the open window rest, pressed several fingers over his mouth to help hide his reaction.
“Where first?” Farrell asked as they drove across a small covered bridge that led into the west entrance of town.
Sageville’s township was constructed by the same influx of industry that divided its residents. Old Sageville, as locals now called it, looked as if it were little more than a quiet country town. The newest building was the supermarket, which was built in the 1970s and looked it. The river curved around the edge of the old section to the south, and across the river was a still growing excess of modern buildings, offices, fast food restaurants, hotels and the like. Residents with roots in the area tended to stay out of the newer part of town and the newcomers did their best to keep from going to “Hicksville,” as they referred to it.
As they pulled into the feed store parking lot, Ferrall got out of the vehicle, but Blake hesitated. It was the first time since everything had happened that he’d been there. When he was a teenager he had worked there. Not that he had wanted to, but his father had forced him, telling him it would make him more of a man. His father and the owner, Jeffry Long, had been friends since high school, and Mr. Long had always held it over Blake’s head that he was only keeping him on as a favor to his father. But many of the customers asked for him to help them when they came in, and often tipped him something extra, of which Mr. Long often took half.
Farrell opened the door for Blake, who slid out and walked slowly up the loading ramp and into the store. Off to the side, he saw old Mr. Long sitting on his barstool behind the counter watching him. His eyes were narrowed and his lips were parted in their usual sneer, the top one covered by a thick dark moustache. A half-smoked cigar hung from one side of his mouth.
Blake gave the man a nod, which was not returned, and made his way to the back of the store. He quickly grabbed a large bag of dog food, rawhide bones and some fresh tennis balls for Jovi. Then crossing to the other side of the store, he lifted up a large sack of chicken feed.
“You got chickens?” the deputy asked, not recalling seeing any in the large backyard.
“Nah,” Blake answered. “I always grab some for the old widow next door. I get food for her chickens and she gives Mama fresh eggs.”
Farrell shook his head as he watched the dark-haired man carry the heavy bags to the front of the store. A felon, with charges that could have landed him ten years in state prison, watching out for old ladies and buying dog toys. Something about Blake Britton just didn’t add up.
Blake put the sacks on the counter and reached for his wallet. Though there were no other customers, Mister Long made no attempt to move from his bar stool. His narrowed eyes were hard fixed on the young man. After a almost a full minute had passed Blake finally turned his head and returned Mister Long’s stare. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at the heavy set man, his nostrils flaring with impatience.
“Harold!” the big man bellowed, his gaze unflinching.
A scrawny young man a few years younger than Blake came out of the back and up to the counter. He rang up the items and was about to ask if there were any coupons when he realized who he was looking at. His eyes widened and he took a half step back.
“B – Blake,” he squeaked out. “I thought you were in jail.”
“House arrest,” Blake corrected, his demeanor guarded. “I don’t have any coupons,”
“Oh … well … you still get the preferred discount,” he said, stepping back to the counter and beginning to ring up a new sum in the till.”
“He don’t get no discount,” Mister Long growled. “You’re lucky I let you in the store, boy.”
Blake ignored him and handed his ATM card to Harold.
“Your daddy and I went to school together. Best friend I ever had. Loyal.”
Blake took his receipt from the smaller man and shoving it and the card into his pocket he waited for him to bag the other items.
“You’re a disgrace to your daddy’s name.”
Blake had heard similar sentiments from other townsfolk as he had waited for his trial. He had learned to let it roll off his back, but hearing it from a man who was little more than a thief and bully, who skimmed off his own employees tips and was dragging down a business he had practically stole from his own brother thirty years back, he felt something inside of him snap.
“My daddy was a disgrace to his family, and you damn well know it, Jeffry Long!” Blake said as he stared back at the older man.
The silence that followed was deafening as the two men seemed locked in some battle of wills. Harold was the first to make a move, shoving the handles of a plastic bag in Blake’s hand and making his way into the back at a quickened pace.
Farrell who had been standing a few feet back stepped up and lifted the sacks off the counter and over his left shoulder.
“C’mon, Britton,” he said in a low tone. “You don’t need any trouble.”
Blake’s anger began to fade hearing the deputies voice and he began to back away from the counter. Halfway to the door he heard the large man’s voice once more.
“At least my boy ain’t no queer.”
Blake stopped dead in his tracks, a flush of anger rushed through him, one that longed to lash out at the foul bastard. Ahead of him, Farrell, who had also heard the store owner’s words turned back and looked at the dark-haired man. His expression was one of sympathy, and warning to let it go.
But he couldn’t let it go. But as he turned back to see the man still perched on his barstool, nervously chewing his cigar butt, he realized nothing he could do would hurt the man. Nothing … except …
“You think so, huh?” Blake chuckled. He watched as his words slowly sunk in and Mister Long’s jaw slacked just enough that his cigar fell from his mouth and down the front of his button up flannel shirt. The last thing he heard as he left the shop was a howl of surprise and the barstool falling over.
With the feed in the back of the Range Rover, the two climbed into their seats. Once the doors were shut Farrell let out loud laugh.
“Can’t stand that jackass,” Blake said angrily shaking his head. “Just couldn’t hold my tongue.”
“That’s one way to put him in his place,” Farrell praised, clapping Blake on the shoulder.
As the deputy gave Blake’s shoulder a squeeze, the anger drained from the younger man, replaced by an almost breathless feeling. The incident at the feed store completely left his thoughts as he sat contemplating this new feeling that radiated from his shoulder to the pit of his stomach.
The next stop was Sullivan’s Supermarket. The small parking lot was only half full, unlike when Blake was a child and would go there with his mother. Back then his father would often drop them off and circle the block looking for an open space. Life seemed to have been a lot simpler then. Now with the larger supermarket and bulk supply store in the new part of town, there was always ample parking.
As he closed the passenger door he saw several people exit the store. A thin, blonde woman not much older than Blake was pushing a cart with a toddler still sitting in the child seat. She saw him and, a smile crossing her face, she waved. A step or so behind her was a stocky man with almost the same hair color as the woman. He was not smiling. As they came closer to him, the man pulled himself up to full height, his shoulders moved slightly back and his chest puffed out. By the time they were a few feet from one another the man’s hands closed as if ready to become fists.
The woman stopped her cart and hugged Blake.
“It’s so good to see you. How are you?”
“I’m okay, Cynthia,” Blake answered her in a low voice. “How’re you? How’s your mom doing?”
“I’m fine, but Mama’s not. We expect her to go any day now.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s been a long time comin’. I’ll be all right, but Tom here’s takin’ it hard.” She put her hand on her companion’s forearm. The child began fussing, drawing the woman’s attention. “I gotta get him in the car. Tell your mama I asked after her.” She gave him another quick hug and began pushing the cart across the lot.
Blake looked at Tom, who watched his sister until she was out of earshot. He then moved his gaze to Blake, who watched as a redness overtook the man’s face.
“They shoulda locked you up, Britton,” Tom said in a tight low voice.
“You think so?” Blake repeated.
“I was there,” he reminded him. “You’re a monster! If Cynthia wasn’t here I’d beat you down like you deserve!”
“You could try, Tommy,” Blake countered, feeling his body tense in readiness. “But ya never could before.”
Tom started to take a step towards the dark-haired man, when Farrell moved up next to Blake.
“That’s enough,” he said calmly. “Just walk away.”
“This your new boyfriend?” he scoffed, not about to back down. He looked at Farrell with as much contempt as Blake. “You a queer, too?”
Tom’s answer came as he found himself pushed back against the side of the Range Rover hood with a police badge pressed against his face.
“This is who I am, son, and you are one step from being arrested for threatening a police officer. That sound like fun to you?”
Tom let out his breath, which carried a grunt of frustration with it. He answered hesitantly,“No, sir.”
Farrell pulled the badge from his face. “Now, walk away,” he repeated. “Got it?”
It was everything Tom could do to reply, and in the end a nod and a grunt was all he could muster. His hands were shaking with rage as he strode away from them.
Blake turned to watch Tom leave, but Farrell took him by the shoulder, steering him toward the store.
“Friend of yours?” the deputy asked.
“Used to be,” Blake said, his heart still pounding in his ears.
Once inside, the two men both noticed the glances and outright stares they received by some of the shoppers. Blake tried his best to ignore them, instead focusing on the shopping list his mother had given him. Not only did he not know what some of the items were, he had no idea where to find them. The only things he knew where to find here were the beer and the pre-made lunches he grabbed on the way to work when his mother wasn’t able to pack a lunch for him for … whatever reason.
Frustrated, he started putting items into the cart, hoping they were at least close to the right thing. After all, how could mayonnaise taste different just because it was a different brand? Farrell glanced over at his list, planning to hunt out a few items to speed along their process. When he saw the list and what was in the basket, he chuckled.
“Britton, have you ever done grocery shopping before?” he asked, trying not to come across as if he were ridiculing the handsome younger man.
The deputy took the list from him and gave it a scan, then took the other man by the arm leading him away from the cart. At the front of the store, he retrieved a fresh cart and they began again. As they shopped, Deputy Farrell tried to make conversation.
“So, the guy from outside … Tom? How do you know him?”
Blake shook his head slowly at the reminder of Tom. “He was my best friend. We grew up together.”
“Didn’t seem like much of a friend.”
“He, uh … Tom idolized my dad. His died early on. So he blames me for … ” He fell silent.
Farrell waited, hoping he would continue, but when it was obvious he would not, he asked, “Did he know you were — ”
“Oh, yeah,” Blake answered before the question was even completed.
“He, uh … ”
Blake made a noise halfway between a laugh and surprised gasp. He thought about it a moment, then with a half-grin answered, “Only after a six pack.”
Farrell let out a loud laugh and clapped his hand on the younger man’s upper back. Again his touch made Blake feel a lightheaded tingle. As they continued their trek around the store, the taller man started dispensing bits of shopping wisdom. Blake tried to listen, but found himself distracted as he began to notice things about the officer. As Farrell showed him how to test the ripeness of a melon, Blake found himself staring at the large, well-manicured hands holding it. The palms of his hands didn’t look like his — rough and calloused from manual labor. Instead they seemed soft, but strong.
As Farrell squatted down in front of him to look at the cooking oils along a bottom shelf, the dark-haired young man found himself staring at the back of his neck. He noticed how his hairline was trimmed evenly and neatly, as if he had gotten a recent haircut. And how the color of his skin lightened just a shade as it disappeared under his shirt collar. When Farrell stood, Blake’s eyes trailed down the side of the neck to the front where a large, firm Adam’s apple looked as if it were tempting him to take a bite out of it.
Farrell had noticed the younger man staring at him, and was trying to make a conscious effort not to let on that he noticed. Each time he saw him in his peripheral vision, saw him staring at him, it made him want to reach out, pull him close, and — he stopped himself. The kid was on house arrest. He was a prisoner — a criminal. He swallowed and looked back at the list.
“All done,” he said in a more businesslike tone. “Anything else?”
On the way to check out, Blake grabbed some soda and absentmindedly started to reach for a 12-pack of beer. He stopped himself just before picking it up, and instead thought about the next five and a half months without it. The thought of his father sitting in his recliner with a box full of empty beer cans around his feet flashed through his mind and suddenly his craving for a cold brew faded.
At the only open checkout, Sadie Lothstrom was staring at Blake as they approached. As they got closer, the expression on her already pinched face tightened. She reached behind the register and took out an “aisle closed” sign, dropping it on the small rubber conveyor belt, and began to turn away. She flinched, letting out a scared squeak as from behind her the sign was slammed down on the side of the belt with a loud crack. She turned to see Officer Farrell beginning to unload the cart, all the while staring her down.
Blake flushed a deep red as he watched the two of them, feeling the sting of embarrassment for being the reason behind it. Sadie looked around at several customers who had turned their attention toward her after hearing the loud noise. Her eyes narrowed and her large breasts heaved as she took a deep, angry breath. She stepped up to the counter and began ringing up the groceries. Each time she picked up an item she felt the increasing desire to wash her hands. She couldn’t believe she once had a crush on Blake Britton. She had even kept a picture of him she had secretly taken from the yearbook office, on her dresser mirror. And now here he was, a convicted criminal allowed to roam free with his bitchy, queer boyfriend slamming around the aisle sign she had hand-painted at the craft fair last summer. They should have locked him up forever after what he did.
Blake ran his ATM card through the machine and as soon as he heard the receipt start to print, he began putting the bags in the cart. He saw Sadie toss the receipt and several coupons down on the counter and then felt her hostile stare boring into him as she waited for him to clear out. She had always been so kind to him when he came in to grab his lunch or some beer on the way home. She was always double bagging without being asked, and using her employee food discount on his sandwiches. If there weren’t customers in line, she would come around the end of the counter and give him a hug.
As he started to push the cart away, he saw her squirting hand sanitizer into her hand. He felt a lump in his throat began to grow. This was what he knew would happen. This was the reason he had stayed in the closet as much as he had. This would be his life from now on as long as he stayed in Sageville. But he would never leave his mother alone, and he knew she would never want to leave the town she loved so much.
With the bags in the back of the truck, Blake climbed in and fastened his seat belt. He stared straight ahead, trying not to think about what had just happened. He knew he would have to grow a thick skin not to let situations like this get to him, but hadn’t realized just how outwardly townsfolk would show their disdain for him.
Farrell could see the younger man’s hurt. Unable to offer him much comfort, he merely said, “Try to not let it get to you, Britton.”
For some reason the words were the catalyst for the breaking of Blake’s emotional dam. He let out a loud sob and covered his face with his hands as he started to weep. He kept trying to stop, to will the tears back and stop the jerking noises that kept coming out of his throat.
Farrell started the engine and pulled out of the lot, wanting to get them as far away from the scene of the incident as possible. He pulled into a parking lot overlooking the river and turned off the vehicle. The younger man’s sobbing had begun to fade, and he was now wiping his wet face on the inside collar of his shirt. Farrell pulled a roll of paper towels out from under the seat and handed it to him.
After a solid minute of quiet had passed, he asked, “Better?”
Blake nodded. “I can’t let this shit get to me,” he said, his voice thick and low.
“So you weren’t out at all?”
Blake shook his head. “Just to my mom and Tom. A few guys who are also in the closet. No one else.”
“What about your dad?”
Blake’s eyes overflowed once more as he shook his head. He choked back a sob and slammed his balled fist into his leg as hard as he could. He was crying in front of a fucking cop!
Farrell found his heart aching for the man sitting next to him. He desperately tried to think of something to say to make it better, but nothing was coming to him. All he could think of were all those internet videos from years ago saying “it gets better.” But telling him that at the moment would seem like some sort of therapy bullshit.
“Britton — Blake … I know how hard it is for you. And I — ”
Blake scoffed at the officer’s words. “You have no idea what the fuck I’m going through.” His tone was absent of malice, but his words made Farrell pull back, straightening in his seat.
“Yeah, I do,” he said sternly.
Blake wiped his face again with the soggy paper towel as the older man’s words began to slowly sink in. Was he confirming that he was gay, too? All those looks, all the odd feelings, they hadn’t just been his imagination?
“So,” he cleared his throat, “are you … queer?”
Farrell hesitated, knowing he was breaking protocol by disclosing personal information to an inmate. But finally he gave a nod and answered, “Yeah. That’s what I’m sayin’.”
Blake sat quietly as questions started to come to him. The biggest being, “But you’re a police officer?”
The deputy’s expression was somewhere between amusement and confusion. “What’s that have to do with it?”
“They don’t let queers be cops.”
Farrell chuckled. “Yeah, they do.” As their eyes met, Blake’s face brightened with the first glimmer of hope the deputy had seen since their first meeting. Looking into Blake’s deep blue eyes, Farrell felt himself begin to become aroused. He quickly adjusted himself in his seat and started the engine.
“Wasn’t anywhere else you needed to go, was there?”
“No, sir,” Blake answered, sounding lost in thought.
“Good. Then, let’s get you back before you turn into a pumpkin.”
The ride back to the house was silent, but more relaxed than the trip to town. The two carried groceries up the large, wide steps of the main house and through the screen door. The front room was decorated in early Americana and looked exactly like he would have pictured it. They made their way back to the kitchen where Christy Britton sat at her kitchen table breaking the ends off green beans for a casserole she was making for a church luncheon to be held after that week’s Sunday service.
She smiled when she saw her son, but almost dropped the bowl of bean ends that was resting in her lap when she saw Deputy Farrell. She set the bowl on the table and stood up, her body rigid as if she was standing at attention, waiting to be frisked. Blake turned and sensing her apprehension, gave her a reassuring smile.
“It’s okay, Mama,” Blake said in a calming tone. He walked over to give her a hug, and as he did, whispered in her ear, “He’s a good guy.”
Blake helped his mother put away the groceries, as the deputy stood off to the side watching the two of them. Seeing them interact with one another, he could immediately see the strength of the bond between them. A very protective bond that again left him questioning the charges that led to Britton’s house arrest. Not that most criminals didn’t love their mothers, too. But after twelve years of wearing a badge, he had learned to trust his instincts about people, and rarely had it let him down.
Farrell stood in the doorway of the studio attachment as Blake put away the few personal items he had purchased, then teased Jovi with a squeaking tennis ball before throwing it out into the yard for him.
As they faced each other, both started to speak at once.
Farrell then asked if the younger man was okay.
“Yeah,” he answered, “I’ll get there. I really appreciate everything you did for me today.”
“Glad I could.” He found himself hesitating to leave, but made his way to the door. “I’ll be by in a couple days for a check-in.”
Blake nodded. As he stood at the window watching the officer stop and throw the ball for Jovi before walking out of the yard, he suddenly felt as if the bracelet around his ankle began weighing more with each passing moment.