Peter poked at the battery terminals under the hood of his mom’s Road Runner with a wire brush, idly scouring away what seemed like a lot of corrosion. He had plans to remove the battery and take his aunt’s truck into the nearest thing that passes for town, Hadleyburg, such as it was, where he would purchase a new one so at least the car would be drivable. He hoped.
“Here you are.” A voice called from the door of the large barn Lyndee now used for storing automobiles and excess furniture and equipment. Even inside the mostly empty structure the car had been covered carefully, protected against the elements. It was clean, and sported a good coat of wax, the victim of only a small amount of corrosion from the salt of winter. His father had always babied and protected the car and its use had been firmly regulated with an eye toward longevity, even though neither he nor his son really ever understood why his mother had become so attached to it.
The end result was that the car was–in actual fact–the proverbial vehicle driven by the little old lady from Minnesota to and from church on Sundays and not much more. Things had worn out and been replaced. Gasoline had changed; but the Road Runner, with a lot of care and some very clever reupholstery and mechanical work, looked very nearly as good as new.
Now, looking at the guts of the thing, it wasn’t hard for even Peter, who knew he was thick as a brick emotionally, to see that his dedication to the car sprang from the well of inadequacy he felt when it came to his mother.
Peter heard footsteps, unmeasured and purposeless, coming toward him from the direction of the house. He looked up to see Robin lean in an indolent way against the rear fender on the driver’s side, a cigarette in his hand. He took a drag.
“I thought I would find you with the car.” Robin told him. “Although your mother said you’d be long gone by now.”
Peter crossed his arms and put the brush down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Robin blew a thin stream of smoke from between lips that were thick and soft looking and hid a faint smile, but he only shrugged.
“I probably would have, if I’d had wheels,” Peter admitted.
Robin had an arm crossed in front of him and rested his elbow on it while the hand that held the cigarette hovered close to his mouth. He looked at Peter–peered at him really–but that hand, with the smoke rising in curls from it, obscured his thoughts as neatly as if he’d put on a mask.
Peter hated to admit it, but the hands attracted him. They’d been gentle and caring with his mother but looked strong and capable. Long fingered and elegant with well-manicured nails. He’d always liked hands. Always liked competent and efficient professionals. Robin struck him as both easygoing and sensitive. The way he stood there, silent and still made Peter feel… not good precisely, but not bad either.
“Does it shock you that I want to leave?” he asked finally.
Robin rubbed his littlest finger across his full lower lip, and on another man Peter might have thought it was a deliberate way to call attention to a feature that was dead sexy, but Peter thought in Robin’s case it might just be something he did unconsciously. There were lots of things about Robin that Peter found hot and not the least of them was that he was man enough to handle the gentle ministrations required to care for a deteriorating human.
“You think wanting to run away is weak,” Robin said finally.
“It is weak.”
Robin shook his head. “Wanting to run is normal.”
He took another drag on his cigarette, and when Peter walked over and took the half burned smoke from his hand, asking for a drag with his eyes, Robin’s brown ones sparked with interest. “Running is weak.”
“Easy for you to say,” Peter puffed and held the smoke in his lungs. It had been a while since he’d quit, a couple of years. Watching Robin, watching his hands and—mostly—his mouth as the filter touched his lips, Peter had the overwhelming desire to put it to his own.
Robin closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not easy,” he still grinned, but in a more self-deprecating way. “I wasn’t able to do it for my own mother. I think that’s why I can do it with yours.”
“What’s it really like? Her days here.” Peter asked, still holding Robin’s cigarette. Robin got a fresh one from the pack when Peter didn’t relinquish it and he lit it, then savored another drag.
“I feed her when she’s awake.” That accent wrapped around the words and caressed them. The soft cadence of it; its musicality wrapped around Peter a little too. “Then I give her pain medication and she drifts back off. When she wakes again she eats a little more. Her appetite is dwindling. She’s sleeping more and when she can’t she’s restless and uncomfortable. I spend a lot of time adjusting fabric and pillows. Soothing. Like the princess and the pea.”
Peter grinned, although he felt like he should want to cry. “I don’t doubt that.”
“She is going downhill fast, Peter.”
Peter tried to imagine a world without his mother in it. Maybe not nearby but somewhere. A vague presence he could refer to when he was about to do something stupid or dangerous or even heroic; mother would hate this, mother would like that. A boy’s magnetic north. A point on the compass long after boyhood is a memory.
“I can’t tell you that.” Robin put one of his elegant hands on Peter’s arm and Peter stared at it for a minute. When Robin misinterpreted his interest in it and would have removed it, Peter caught it in his own hand and held it there, gripping the fingers tightly.
Brown eyes looked at him curiously, but the fingers stayed where they were. They stood and smoked together for a little while longer.
Peter finally spoke. “My mother has no idea who I am.”
Robin met his eyes. “It’s time you told her.”
“I can’t.” Peter crushed his butt under his foot and picked it up again, years of conditioning that made him hold it till he could throw it in the trash. He walked toward the bin.
“Then you have no idea who she is either.”
Peter stopped in his tracks. “Maybe not.”
“Don’t wait too long to find out,” Robin said. On his way out of the barn he reached a hand out and squeezed Peter’s shoulder, and as Peter watched him walk back toward the house he couldn’t help but admire the man’s build and the fine way he moved underneath the fairly shapeless scrubs he wore. The fantasy was right there, his imagination worked overtime, yet that was part of the reason he’d come home. Part of why he couldn’t bear to talk to his mother. Sooner or later, he’d have to tell her that it might not be possible for him to go back to the job he knew made her so proud. Her hero, just like Dad.