Chapter 1 – Still a Kid
Martin / 34
“No…you know how he is whenever he’s in the truck…he’s been asleep since we hit the interstate,” Martin said and smiled into the phone. “I’m about to hit the dead zone. I’ll call you as soon as we’re back down the mountain. I love you, Allie…”
Martin didn’t hear his wife’s reply before their cell connection dropped. He tossed the phone into the center console of the truck, adjusted his ever present, backwards baseball cap, and bid good-bye not only to his lovely wife but also to civilization for two weeks.
He and his son, Martin Junior, or Marty as the family called him, had been making the annual boys’ trip up to the cabin ever since Martin felt comfortable caring for Marty on his own. Well, to be more precise, ever since Allie felt comfortable with Martin’s parenting skills and allowed him to take Marty off alone. The boy was fourteen now, and it was only their third year making the trip.
He glanced over at his son, sprawled out in the passenger seat, a small scrape from baseball practice temporarily marring the otherwise serene face, and his heart swelled. It wasn’t that he was a bad parent, or that anything had ever happened to cause doubt in Allie’s mind about his ability, but Marty was the only child they’d ever have. That, combined with the boy’s choking scare when he was a preschooler, made them both understandably overprotective at times.
Martin failed to resist another sweep of his sleeping son and couldn’t help but remember that fright-filled drive to the hospital.
“Is he breathing?” Allie asked.
“He’ll be fine, just get us to the hospital.”
Martin wiped a hand over his son’s sweaty forehead. He could tell Marty was attempting to be brave, but the tears finally fell from his frightened eyes and rolled off his face into his hairline. Those didn’t concern Martin nearly as much as the blood seeping from the corner of Marty’s lips.
“I just took my eyes off him for a minute.”
Martin didn’t reply to Allie. Instead, he just kept rubbing Marty’s hair out of his face and tried to offer a reassuring smile.
“We’re almost there, son, almost. Just keep your eyes on me and breathe slowly, okay?”
“Yep, right here, Buddy.”
When Marty had first begun talking, he hadn’t been able to say dad, so he’d shortened it and called Martin D. What started out as a toddler’s speech limitation had grown into a term of endearment, and years later he still used it.
The boy ended up requiring surgery to remove the lodged peppermint candy cane. The surgeon had done a phenomenal job at extracting the hook-shaped sweet and repairing the damage it left. Marty’s only permanent physical impairment was a slightly narrower-than-normal esophagus.
That was the physical damage, but the majority of the incident’s repercussions were psychological; Marty had a terrible fear of choking, and what had started out as a nickname for Martin—D—had turned into a sort of distress call in the hospital. As his son laid recuperating, he repeatedly called out “D” for Martin. All it took was Martin’s response of “Yep, I’m here, Buddy” to calm his son. But that request for reassurance had carried over long after his discharge. From then onward, anytime Marty became overly agitated or uncertain, he’d call out for Martin. He’d call out D. That, paired with the boy’s stutter, had Martin’s heart aching for the boy, especially whenever he was stressed.
Even though the action threatened to wake Marty, Martin couldn’t help but reach across and gently graze a thumb over the sleeping boy’s scraped cheek. Although the dark blond lashes fluttered slightly, Marty remained comfortably ensconced in a peaceful, worry-free slumber. And any worry-free time was a cherished thing for a teenager with a speech impediment. Life, and all its complications, all of its ugliness, would likely come rushing back the moment Marty woke. Not being able to offer his son 24/7 protection had always weighed heavily on him. From nearly the time Marty had spoken his first words, Martin’s trips to the school had begun; more often than not, due to schoolyard bullying, and Marty’s unwillingness to back down from larger, stronger classmates. He admired his son’s fierce tenacity and brave spirit, but he understood it came at a price. Indeed, Marty, beginning at an age when he should have had no worries, was exposed to some of the most ugly aspects of human nature, mostly in the name of one Eddie Michaels and his ruthless band of pack animals. Therefore, since their first trip up to the cabin, and every year after, Martin strived to ensure Marty’s time in the mountains was filled with relaxation, and fun, and loads of affection; far away from the ridicule Martin knew his son stoically endured.
His phone dinged one last time, valiantly attempting to maintain a signal, with a text from Robert, his construction foreman, second in command, and best friend. He glanced down and saw one of the man’s characteristically brief texts.
Relax. Have fun. Don't Worry.
Martin trusted Robert to run Quillon Designs, his architectural landscaping business, even if it was only for two weeks. A talented team of designers led the sixteen projects currently underway, and the one project he personally took on a month, to keep his hands dirty, had just completed. No, things were in capable hands and he’d be able to relax without the stress of keeping a successful business operational. But there wasn’t a time when his friend’s use of the phrase Don’t worry didn’t bring back the memory of walking into the construction trailer to find Robert, work jeans around his ankles, banging a secretary intern across the desk, and later telling Martin, “Don’t worry, she’s not gonna make trouble, boss…it’s all good…she liked it.”
He shook his head and grinned at both his foreman’s laid-back view of life and the crazy memory of the delightful sounds that had emanated from the intern. He cut a glance at Marty before shifting the growing bulge in his shorts. Admittedly, the most difficult part—hell, the only thing he missed—while on these trips was being away from Allie, and their very satisfying sex life. But that was a tiny price to pay for spending uninterrupted quality time with his son. The one person he’d always choose to be with above anyone else.
After stealing another glance from the road, his eyes landed on Marty again. The bridge of his nose and smaller stature left no doubt the boy was Allie’s, but the rest of his features reminded Martin so much of his own father. The still forming jaw would be distinct and strong like his dad’s; the always curious but simultaneously kind, blue-gray eyes were definitely his father’s; and the small nodule sitting atop the shell of his left ear, which every male in his family carried, was trademark Quillon lineage.
Turning off the highway, and then heading east toward the mountain, Martin checked the volume on the CD player before flipping on the classic Maroon 5 album, Songs About Jane. Marty stirred briefly as “Harder to Breathe” began playing, and Martin wondered if he’d get to enjoy his son’s company before they arrived at the cabin. He wasn’t the least bit surprised when the boy’s dark sandy curls once again pressed into the seat’s headrest.
Music had always been a part of the drive, even as far back as he and his father’s trips up here. They’d listen to an AM radio station, one of the few they could get tuned in, and the truck’s beat-up cab would be filled with the twang of Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, or Waylon Jennings. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought that Marty came by his love of country music quite naturally.
While Matchbox Twenty’s “Hang” closed out the album Yourself or Someone Like You, Martin turned the truck onto the winding lane that began their property, and marveled at how in little more than the span of three CDs, they’d left the city behind and entered the tranquil solitude of their land. He pulled up to the closed gate, with the oak sign his grandfather had carved still hanging above it, announcing Quillon’s Covert, and had no more than put the truck in park when Marty stirred to life.
“Hey there, Sport. Nice nap?”
Marty turned his eyes toward his dad. “M-m-musta,” he started but then fell silent as Martin reached over and laid his index finger on his son’s lips.
Although Marty’s stutter had vastly improved, there were still times, like when he first woke up, that it returned in full force. Years ago, they’d discovered it was immediately stifled by Martin simply placing his finger to his son’s lips for a few seconds. The unassuming gesture had an instant calming effect and, once he removed the finger, Marty’s stutter was quelled. The action was so natural between them that they’d long ago stopped acknowledging it. It just was. If Martin allowed himself to dwell on it, every instance would kill him a little. Not because he was ashamed or embarrassed by it, but because of the near terror that still filled his son’s eyes every time it happened. Martin understood that distress all too well; he’d also stuttered all the way through his late teens. He understood the fear, intimately knew the taunting and teasing, and had experienced the dread of being called upon to speak in class. That’s why he instead chose to focus on the positive; his finger could remove that fear and return the ease to his son’s eyes, and he was eternally grateful for that gift. Martin’s only wish—barring the total disappearance of the stutter—was that he could be by his son’s side and offer Marty that comfort anytime, anywhere. But, much to his dismay, that wasn’t the way the world worked.
“Musta fallen asleep, huh?” Marty said with a yawn.
Martin’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “Ya reckon?” Nodding toward the gate. “If you can manage to pry your skinny butt off the seat—”
“Hey! I’ve been workin’ out, Old Man,” Marty interrupted and threw open the door. “A few more years and—” The rest of his son’s witty retort was lost when the cab’s door closed a little too firmly.
Martin laughed and pulled the truck past the open gate and a sleepy, grinning Marty.
“I’ll have you know,” Martin started when Marty reseated himself and closed the door, “thirty-four is not old.”
“Yeah, says the thirty-four-year-old,” Marty snickered.
“Whatever. If you think you can stay awake, keep an eye on the supplies as we make it up the hill.”
“So that’s how it’s gonna be this year, huh? Well, I warn ya, I’m not the same thirteen-year-old I was last year. You spar with me, Old Man, and—”
Martin reached over and ran his fingers along his son’s rib cage, immediately filling the cab with both laughter and loud protests.
“Tickling is for slow-witted cheaters, I’ll have you know!”
“Psh!” Martin waved his hand. “Eyes on the truck bed…if my Oreos fall out, you’re gonna be sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re already here.”
And they were. Martin pulled up to the back of the single room cabin, surrounded by mature trees and a shimmering lake just beyond, then killed the engine.
“One job,” he chided while they both pushed open their doors to the fresh mountain air and stepped out, “I give you just one job: watch the Oreos and—”
Marty pulled his T-shirt over his head and quirked a jesting eyebrow at the bed full of supplies. “Well, I’m glad I only had the one job. I’ll grab the fishing poles and wait on the dock while you unload, then.”
Martin, now bare-chested as well, undid his shorts and stepped out of them. “Ha! You should be so lucky, Squirt. No, I believe the Quillon Handbook clearly states the younger, inferior member of the tribe—”
Marty had also dropped his shorts. He bent down, picked them up, and chucked them at his father’s head.
Martin watched Marty begin to sprint around the truck bed. His son’s mirth was infectious, and Martin couldn’t help smiling at the boy’s playfulness. Martin quickly eyed the packed truck, decided the unloading could wait, then turned and jogged toward the lake.
“Oh! You can run, but you can’t hide, Old Man!”
Martin laughed at Marty’s words and at his son’s crunching footfalls as the boy tried to catch up.
Marty / 14
What a life.
Marty tried but couldn’t think of anything better than the feeling of the lake’s warm water hitting his feet, then his thighs, and finally licking his belly button before he paused to watch Martin. Even though he’d come to look forward to their two-week retreat every year, his dad really depended on getaways. Marty didn’t even feel bad anymore that mom didn’t come along. She often cheerfully reminded them that their “boy’s trip” was an escape for her, too, before shooing ’em off.
His dad’s head dipped under the water and then broke the surface with a splash. The sun caught the drops in his hair and on his forehead just right, magnifying his grin. That moment, right there, Marty would never forget no matter how old he got. The joy in Dad’s eyes, the ease of his smile. Who knew the simple act of swimming could provide such incredible memories?
Before Marty could react to what was happening, his dad had closed the distance between them and pounced on him. Martin tackled him to the soft sand of the shoreline and they fell awkwardly into the shallower water. But Marty gave just as good as he got, and immediately initiated the dunk the other’s head under the water game. Although his father was unquestionably stronger, Marty was quick and able to hold his own, so long as he kept moving. Allowing Martin to gain a firm hold would swiftly lead to him being overpowered. After exhausting themselves, they settled into the relaxing water and enjoyed the quiet enveloping them.
Later, as the sun started its descent, Marty’s anticipation of the pending barbecue grew. The barbecue was the inauguration of their two-week retreat.
“Hey,” Dad called out as the Wiffle ball he'd thrown back to Marty landed short. “Hot dogs?”
Marty shrugged while sneakily swimming closer to the shore. “What, you getting tired, Old Man? Cuz that was a lame throw.” As soon as his feet hit the sand, he started for the cabin. “Last one there lights the grill!” he yelled over his shoulder, and then laughed as his dad suddenly splashed to catch up.
Time seemed to fly by. When he was a kid he never noticed. But now, at fourteen, it was something Marty was beginning to see more clearly. It felt like only yesterday that they’d arrived at the cabin, and already a week of their time had vanished. It sucked.
Marty smiled as he watched his dad from over his shoulder. Martin’s sweat-streaked hair stuck out from beneath his backward baseball cap, his head bobbing in frustration as his large fingers tried to flip through the tablet’s screen searching its library for a movie.
“How’s the popcorn coming?” he asked distractedly.
“It’s burning.” Marty said from the small kitchenette.
“Good. Not too much though, right? And more butter!”
“There’s plenty of butter already.” Marty dumped the perfectly char-grilled popcorn into a large bowl. Studying it a moment, he shrugged and splashed more melted butter over the top. After a generous sprinkling of salt, he tossed a few dark, buttery pieces into his mouth and crunched. Perfect, exactly how they loved it, he thought. “Leave the popcorn to the master and try to find us somethin’ to watch, Old Man,” he joked, crossing the few steps into the living room. “And please, somethin’ that was made after I was born.”
Martin tapped the tablet slightly, as if he could get it to scroll by vibration alone. “You have no appreciation for the classics. And why is this thing so difficult to use?” A quick hand darted up from the tablet to steal the bowl of popcorn. “Yum. It looks good.”
“It’s not difficult,” Marty said with a laugh. “You always try and treat it like an old softball glove instead of like a piece of electronics. Be gentle with it and it’ll work just fine.”
Then, just as quickly, Marty lifted the bowl out of his dad’s lap, before he could stick his fingers into it, and held it out of reach. “You’ll thank me in a few minutes. Find the movie first, then you can butter up your fingers with the popcorn. Otherwise we’ll never get the tablet clean, and we’ll have to watch the entire movie through greasy fingerprints.”
Martin offered an exaggerated sigh and began flipping through the tablet again while rubbing his toes along the leg of the oak coffee table. The summer dad was fifteen, he’d made the table with Granddad, from wood that grew on their property. Their initials were carved into one leg, and his dad’s toes always seemed to find that spot.
Marty looked around the one-room cabin while his dad tried to tap a movie out of a tablet that required a sliding finger. It was a small but cozy space. The front door bisected the room; along one wall ran the kitchenette, with a countertop-two-burner stove, a utilitarian sink under a small window, and a refrigerator; the other half held the living room, with its sofa, coffee table, and single end table; and along the back wall was the double bed and nightstand. It wasn’t fancy, by any means, but it was comfortable in its sparseness. As his eyes roamed around, they landed on several other oak items Martin and Granddad had made; the small, smooth kitchenette countertop, the funky little chair in the corner that never got used, and finally what slept next to the bed and currently stole his attention. The paddle. Its surface, worn to a smooth luster over the course of its thirty years of life, gave it a deceivingly soft appearance. Marty knew first hand it was anything but. That perpetual shine, currently covered with a year’s worth of dust, had captivated him since his first visit to the cabin—the first time he’d laid eyes on it—three years ago. That was also the first time he’d felt its bite against his bare ass, and that wasn’t something he’d ever forget. He gave a brief shiver; thankful he hadn’t done anything to warrant his butt seeing that particular piece of oak this year.
Martin, finally choosing a movie and wedging the tablet into a makeshift stand on top of the table, attempted to follow Marty’s gaze toward the sleeping area.
“Um, we can drag the twin beds back out of the shed if you want? We’d have to make a trip into town and get a few mattresses, but we could do that tomorrow.”
“Huh?” Marty asked in confusion.
Martin lifted a large shoulder. “I mean, I know we got the double bed up here when you were still occasionally sleeping with Mom and me at home. But, if you’re too old now, or just don’t—”
“Oh,” Marty said in understanding. “No, not unless you just want to.” With a tilt of his head toward the paddle, he said, “I was looking at Granddad’s paddle, not the bed.”
After the whole candy cane thing, Marty had suffered from horrible choking nightmares and no matter what his parents did, they couldn’t convince him to sleep alone in his own room. For years they’d all pile into his mom and dad’s bed at night. And even though he’d stopped sleeping with them, he and Martin routinely snuggled up on the sofa together at home to watch TV in the evenings. He still found great comfort in their closeness, and they’d always slept together at the cabin.
“I mean, unless you want to?” Marty asked hesitantly.
His dad snorted up at him from the couch. “Do I wanna work in a hot shed tomorrow, drive into town, shop for mattresses, lug them back up here? Or do I wanna lay in the sun, fish, and drink beer? Are those my options? Cuz, that’s a no-brainer.” He paused, looked back toward the paddle, and raised a half jesting eyebrow at Marty. “And why are you so focused on the paddle? Something I need to know about?”
“Heck no! I was just lookin’—”
Martin smiled and slapped the sofa cushion next to him.
“Okay then. So now, popcorn?”
“Depends,” Marty said, regaining his composure and holding the bowl just out of his dad’s reach. “What movie did you choose?”
“Fast and the Furious.”
“Which one?” Marty asked suspiciously, lowering the bowl to within an inch of his father’s outstretched hand.
“The last damn one, now put your skinny butt down here already and hand over the popcorn.”
As Marty grinned and sank down on the sofa, Martin reached over, grabbed the bowl, and nodded to the tablet. “Start that thing, would ya? I think it’s broken.”
“It’s not broken…” Marty started, but then trailed off. He’d just about given up on teaching Martin how to use the iPad and text from his cell phone. Although he suspected his dad knew how to text, but just refused to do it.
After starting the movie, he dug into the butter-soaked, flamed popcorn, and settled in next to Martin to enjoy the good-looking Vin Diesel and Paul Walker—for the umpteenth time.
No matter how many times they watched it together, neither of them grew bored. Marty even knew at which precise intervals his dad would react.
He watched Martin out of the corner of his eye, picking the crunchy, half-popped kernels from the bottom of the bowl, and allowed his gaze to fall on his dad’s broad, hairy, defined chest. It was exactly the kind of chest he wanted, and what he was going to work his lanky ass off to make happen this year. He didn’t allow himself more than a brief look at Martin’s chest, though; lately he noticed a strange fluttering in his stomach if he stared too long.
Despite the window air conditioner, the cabin was still warm and a bit muggy. He knew it would eventually cool off. But as they both sat naked, sweat trickled its way down Marty’s arms while Martin’s chest only shone with a sheen of dampness that just seemed to make him even manlier. His dad managed to look like a stud where Marty just felt like a sweaty kid.
“What are you frowning about?”
“Huh?” Was he staring? Had his dad noticed?
Martin dragged his gaze from the movie and focused it on Marty. “You forget how well I know you, Slugger.”
“Nuh-nuh-nothi…” Marty faltered at the hated stutter. Familiar warmth quickly spread over him when his dad’s finger pressed to his lips. He breathed deeply and relaxed. “I was just thinking,” he said eventually.
Marty felt the hot blush creep up his neck, grateful for the dim cabin. “How much I wanna be like you one day.”
Martin blinked, then smiled at him.
“Random, I know,” Marty admitted.
“No, it’s not that. I just…” Martin suddenly hooked an arm around Marty’s flushed neck and pulled him in close. “You know how much I love you, right? I mean, do I say it enough?”
Marty knew how Martin felt. He also understood that the long ago choking thing, and the surgery, had frightened his dad. And although that fear had subsided, his mom told him that it had forever changed Martin; he never hesitated to stop whatever he was doing and hug, or kiss, or just tell Marty how much he loved him. “He never takes you for granted, Marty,” his mom had said.
He snuggled in a bit more and rested his cheek against the soft fur of Martin’s damp chest. “You tell me all the time, Dad.”
The movie all but forgotten, Martin continued, “You might not think so right now, but one day you’ll look back on these trips and remember them as some of the best times of your life. That’s how I see them.” Marty felt his dad’s lips press against his hair and kiss the top of his head.
He pulled his feet up onto the couch and settled in even closer to his father. “I already do.”
It was their final morning at the cabin, and it felt like they had only just gotten there. Marty spent the morning lugging bags and boxes to the truck. Now, stepping out of the cool shower, he toweled his chest dry.
“Dad!” Marty sprinted into the cabin.
His father dropped the spatula and turned from the stove. “What? What’s happened?”
“Nothing’s happened. Well, I mean, something’s happened…look.” Marty pointed at the middle of his chest.
“Come closer, I can’t see. What is—” Martin scrunched his eyes together. “Is that a hair?”
“Yes!” Marty jutted his pimpled chin out proudly. “I’m on my way now, aren’t I?”
The amusement in his dad’s eyes grew, and Marty watched his dad take a quick glance down the length of his damp body.
“Yep, soon you’ll be Quillon hairy everywhere…and all grown up.” He pulled Marty into a one-armed hug. “Just don’t go growin’ up too quickly on me, okay, Monkey Nuts?”
Marty laughed at the newest nickname and tried to pull away, but it was pointless to struggle against his father’s tight hold.
“You, Old Man, are really weird sometimes,” he managed to breathe out. “And your chest hair is suffocating me!”
With the smell of burning bacon filling the air, he finally gave up and hugged Martin back.