Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 4: Guarded

Chapter 4: Guarded

13 November 2018, Tuesday 6:21 AM

Troy watched the house through the window. He was up, dressed, and ready. But he didn't want to wake his customer.

He cleaned himself as well as he could. For that, he used a little of his bar soap, and some of the freezing water in the fridge instead of the typical baby wipes. For his first meeting with a customer, he had to make a good impression.

Along with the rest of him, Troy's cock and balls did not appreciate that nearly freezing bath. But it was over now, and in the bigger scheme, it was relatively minor torture.

He also put on his clean clothes. Well, they were cleaner at least. He'd only worn them three times since he had done laundry, so they didn't make him itch, and they weren't stiff with sweat and dirt.

He stepped over to the dash for a moment and checked his phone. Troy was still able to start the van if he needed to. The part where things started to go wrong was when he put the machine into gear. The van quietly idled so he could charge his phone. He didn't want to take a chance that he'd drain the vehicle’s battery by charging the phone while the van was off. After he saw that he was up another 5% on his cellphone, he switched the ignition back off again.

'30% charge will have to do.'

He rechecked the house. He saw the bedroom light go on. "Ah!" He watched the shadow of a person move behind the curtains in the room. He knew the layout of that floor perfectly. He was the one to put in the upstairs bathroom. Troy had to steal a little space here and there from both bedrooms, but he had managed to get it done. Luckily, the rooms started out as generous spaces.

Troy settled in his driver's seat, and he watched the house. He knew the man was probably taking a dump, showering, brushing his teeth - all that morning stuff regular folks did.

'I sure miss showers.' Troy's face flinched. He exhaled. 'I'll get back there. This job needs to go well, and it needs to go fast. Get it done, get paid, get the van fixed, and get out.'

He tried not to think about the little things associated with the house that only his eyes would notice. But he couldn't stop himself from seeing John's pear tree in the front yard.

The little tree was four years old now. John planted it soon after they arrived, and he had grand plans for the fruit he was sure would come from what was a twig at the time.

Troy remembered standing over him as John stubbornly dug the hole with a spade. "You can't plant a fruit tree this time of year!" He waved a hand at the tree. The thing had a few leaves, and it would go into shock from the transplanting. "We should wait until the Fall, when the leaves drop off!"

He remembered the scene, so clear in his mind. John gave him a scathing side-eye from his spot on the ground. "It'll be fine. You'll see. When I'm eating split pears, glazed with my honey blackberry sauce studded with cloves, and caramelizing on the grill? Yeah, you'll see." He pointed the spade at Troy, and little clumps of dirt flew as he shook it. "Don't you come runnin' when you smell 'em either!'

Somehow the little tree survived. Though it had yet to produce any fruit, planting a tree was a long-game. They had planned to be here a long time.

Troy stared at the small, tenacious tree. His green eyes were blank as his memory played behind them.

He blinked and shook his head. He licked his lips, and he glanced up at the window. The shadow was back in the bedroom again.

He watched the backlit figure dress. He felt a little like a peeping tom, even though he couldn't see detail through the curtains. But he didn't feel bad enough to look away.

'He's not overweight.' Troy could tell that much. 'He sounded pretty young on the phone too.' He looked at the Subaru parked in the driveway. 'Driving a sensible car, especially for this area. All-wheel drive is nice this time of year.'

After a few minutes, he watched the figure turn away and disappear. The bedroom light went off.

Troy opened his van door, and he got out.

He buckled on his tool belt. Even if he didn't do a single bit of work today, he still wanted to look the part for the initial meeting.

"Okay," he shut the door. "You got this. Get in there, don't focus on anything in the house. Just get through this."

Troy took one more steadying breath. Then he turned and marched up to the one place on Earth he never thought he'd see again.
___________________________________

13 November 2018, Tuesday 6:53 AM

A knock sounded on the door. Grant checked the time.

It was almost seven. 'Ah, he's early.' Grant headed toward the front door.

They had planned for Troy to show up before Grant went to work. He was to show Troy the fence, and they would then agree on the work involved, and on an amount.

Grant opened the door. 'Whoa. He's skinny.' It was his first thought as he looked at the tall, thin man. Where the picture on Troy's website showed him to be lanky, and lean, now, he was simply thin. Even though Troy stood over 6'0" compared to Grant's 5'8", Grant wondered if he outweighed Troy.

"You've got to be Troy." Grant stuck out his hand and forced a smile. "I'm Grant. Good to meet you."

Troy took his hand, and he shook it. Despite his appearance, Troy had a firm grip. "Hi, Grant." His green eyes never left Grant's face. "I know you've probably gotta get to work. Let's take a look at the fence."

"Ah, okay. Yeah." Grant led him through the house, into the kitchen. They exited the side door into the yard. Grant bit his lip as Troy walked over to the fence. The man had his back to Grant, and he cocked his head as he stared. The plumber's tape formed a wild web of badly nailed metal straps that held the fence in place.

Troy turned and looked at Grant with a little frown. The man couldn't hide his disdain for the mess he saw. "You didn't pay anybody for that, did you?" He jerked his thumb toward the fence.

"Ah, no." Grant smiled sheepishly. "I did that."

Troy pressed his lips together, and he nodded. "Okay, good."

Troy turned back to the fence. Grant walked behind him and followed him over. 'Maybe he'll tell me he used to live here.' "Hey," Grant had a little spark of a plan in his head, "do you think you can build the fence like this?" He reached over and patted the sturdy section. Thanks to the journal, he already knew Troy had built that part of the fence a little over five years ago.

He didn't know why it was so vital to him, but Grant wanted Troy to open up. It was as if he were compelled to try and get it out of the man what had happened. Grant could feel the tenseness under Troy's veneer of cool detachment. 'It'll be good for him to talk about it.' Grant felt as if he already knew the green-eyed man. And it was difficult for Grant to treat him as a stranger.

Troy seemed to examine the section. Then he looked thoughtful. "Sure. I don't see why not. If that's what you want."

Grant tried to avoid showing that he was disappointed Troy didn’t say more and that his scheme failed. "Ah. Good. Yeah, that'd be great."

Troy looked at the fenceline, and Grant could tell he was doing the math in his head. "Okay, so the materials will probably cost around $2,500 for a nice, six-foot tall wood fence. My fee is 33%. So it'll be a total of about $3,300." His eyes met Grant's. "How's that sound?"

Grant grinned. He had expected something over $4,000 based on estimates he had already gotten online. "That sounds amazing to me."

Troy nodded. "All right. Good." He exhaled as he examined the fence. "Okay, so I'll need to tear all of this out and haul it off. He pointed at the back fence. "Is there access back there? Can I get a vehicle close?"

"Oh yeah," Grant said. "You can get your van back there, easy."

Troy nodded. "Okay, I'll pull it aroun …" a grimace flashed on his face.

Grant noticed. "Something wrong?"

Troy licked his lips, and he looked nervous to Grant's eyes. Then he gave what looked like a forced smile. "Nah. Nothing's wrong." He nodded. "I'll have the fence torn out and carried off before you get back from work today." Grant could see Troy's jaw rhythmically clenching and relaxing.

'Something's definitely wrong. Troy's worried.' Grant watched him. "Well, okay." He checked the time on his phone. Grant felt a little irritated by his schedule, but he had to leave, and that couldn't be helped. "Okay. I've gotta run." He smiled at Troy. "Let me know if you need anything. If you need to get into the house, the spare key is under the welcome mat on the side porch." That was where Grant found the second key when he moved in.

There was only the barest flicker of a reaction on Troy's face. He pursed his lips and nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

He couldn't help but notice the gauntness in Troy's face.  Grant turned to go. He got up on the porch, and he had a thought. "Hey." Troy turned his head to look at him. Grant smiled. "Uh, so there's some chicken in the fridge." He shrugged. "I made too much, and it needs to be eaten. If you wanted a piece, you'd be doing me a favor if you took one."

Troy stared at him. Then after a long moment, he shook his head once. "Nah. I'm pretty sick of chicken. Thanks, though." He inclined his head at Grant. "Have a good day. See ya, when? This evening?"

'He just lied to me.' Grant was a little mystified. 'Why did he lie to me?' Grant nodded. "Yeah. Around 5:30 or so."

Troy grunted. "Okay. See you then."

Grant hesitated a moment, and he saw Troy walk over to the fence. He seemed to examine the sturdy section. Grant went inside, and he shut the door.

Grant threw a big log in the fireplace. Then he shoveled some ash on top of the log. It'd slow down the burning, and he'd still have coals when he returned home from work.

He went to the kitchen and grabbed his computer bag. Grant left the house. He got into his car, and he backed out. He pulled up parallel to the van, nose to tail, and he glanced over at it.

Grant pulled onto the road.

'Something's off.' He frowned to himself. He thought about the elusive thing that bothered him. 'Something about the van.' His jaw shifted as he drove.

A few minutes later he pulled into the parking lot of the clinic.

Grant got out. He put his computer bag strap on his shoulder, and he looked down.

His gaze landed on the track made by the tires of the car.

It had snowed a little last night. And now there were two inches of the stuff on the ground.

His eyes widened. "Ahhh." Grant exhaled as he realized what needled the back of his mind about the van. "The tire marks weren't deep enough." His eyes shifted around. "The van was there all night." His delight at his deduction melted quickly, and a pang of sadness hit him. "He slept there overnight. He's homeless."

Grant stood there a moment and processed the information. Finally, he sighed.

He walked to the door, and he began to second-guess himself. 'Well, maybe he's not as bad off as all that. Maybe he's just saving money by living in the van.' Grant nodded to himself. He leaned forward a little, so the badge around his neck passed in front of the scanner. The door buzzed and he pushed it open.

He entered and kicked his shoes against the entry to get the ice off of them. 'Yeah. I'm sure he's good.'

___________________________________

13 November 2018, Tuesday 7:26 AM

"Fuck. This isn't good." Troy rubbed his face, and he glared at the van. The vehicle was his workhorse. Typically, he removed the bed and the bench seat, and then he used the van to haul lumber and to take things off to the dump. But now, the old girl was dead in the water.

He kicked a clump of snow. He frowned at his feet, and he forced his mind to work. "Okay. Okay. Think."

Troy winced as he struggled for inspiration. Then he stopped and snapped his fingers. His eyes were wide, and his lips twitched into a little smile. "Oh god, that'll work."

He pulled out his phone. Troy looked up a number, then he dialed.

"Barre U-Haul. How can I help you?" a cheerful male voice said.

For the first time in weeks, Troy grinned.

___________________________________

13 November 2018, Tuesday 5:32 PM

Troy relaxed in his van. He lay on the bed, his arms behind his head, and he stared up at the ceiling of the vehicle.

The day went well - far better than he thought it would. U-Haul had an excellent box truck that he rented for $40. He quickly walked to the U-Haul place, got the truck, then he drove back. He tore out the fence, loaded the U-Haul with the scrap wood, and he took it all to the dump.

Next, he took the truck to the lumber yard. He got the lumber, signed the $2,500 bill, and then he returned. He was able to back the U-Haul right up to the garage, and he unloaded it in one run.

When he finished with that, Troy cleaned up the box truck, and he returned it to U-Haul.

Then he walked back. Lucky for Troy, it was was only a mile and a half. And he made the trip pretty fast.

By the time he walked back the time had approached 5 PM. Now he lay and listened for Grant's car. He needed a way to convince Grant to let him keep the van there on the street.

'He seems like a decent guy,' Troy admitted. That was both a relief and an annoyance. He wanted to dislike Grant. He lived in what Troy still, at least emotionally, considered his house.

But so far, Grant was very nice.

'I wonder if he's gay.' Troy made a face. 'Doesn't matter if he is.'

He heard the sound of wheels as they crunched through frozen, hardened snow.

Troy sat up. He opened the van door as Grant pulled into the driveway.

He wrapped himself in his best attempt at detachment. Troy couldn't focus on the house. He couldn't allow himself to think about where he was, and what used to be. Though, this guy seemed to be able to tell when he struggled. Troy caught Grant's expressions this morning when they talked. 'He's insightful. I need to watch myself with him. He never has to know you lived here. Just do the job, get paid, and get out.'

Before that happened, he needed to make sure his van wasn't going to get towed.

Troy walked up as Grant got out of his car. The dark-haired man looked at Troy as he approached, and a big smile appeared on Grant's face. 'Is he always happy?' Troy felt a little twinge of something. It was almost as if Grant knew Troy, the way the man treated him.

"Hi, Troy," Grant put the strap of his bag over his shoulder. He still had that easy, open smile on his face. "How did it go today?"

Troy nodded. "Hi." He waited while Grant closed up his car. "Good. Got all of the old fence out, and the supplies for the new one are in the garage."

Troy followed Grant as he walked up the sidewalk to the front door. He tried to avoid thinking about where he was.

"That's awesome! Wow. You really work fast." Grant's voice carried an overt joy and wonder, and Troy felt Grant's emotion as a stark counterpoint to his own stress and worry.

It annoyed him. He attempted to push it aside, but it definitely annoyed him. "Yeah. Well, I'm not done yet." Troy's tone had a little more bite to it than he intended. And Grant turned to look at him. Grant's face was a little surprised. Troy inwardly groaned. 'He just gave you a compliment, you fucking idiot,' Troy tried to smile. "Ah, sorry." He saw a chance to lead into his next issue. "I'm under a little pressure."

Grant opened the front door. "Oh? Is there some issue with the job?" He motioned at the doorway. "Did you wanna come in and talk?"

"No," Troy said, quickly. "No, thanks. But, ah, I wanted to let you know that I'm having some trouble with my van." Troy felt a flush of shame at the admission, and the tall man slumped a little. "I think I've got a busted transmission, and I'm gonna need to get it fixed before I can move it."

Grant looked past Troy at the van that sat across the road from the house. "Oh." His brown eyes came back to Troy's. "Well, is there anything you can use in the garage, or in the house to fix it?" The shorter man smiled. "Use whatever you need to get it fixed."

'Fuck. He IS nice.' Troy bit his lip. "Ah, thanks. But it'll take money I don't quite have right now. I've got to have someone replace it. And that's gonna cost." He unconsciously wrung his hands, and he looked down at them. "Mainly, I just want to be sure you're okay with the van there. Just until I can get it fixed."

"Yeah. Of course. It's fine," Grant said quickly. The man looked at Troy. "Ah, did you need me to take you home? I can. It's not an issue."

Troy grimaced. "Uh, I stay in the van." He tried to smile. "It's a temporary thing. Until I can get enough for a deposit and rent." Grant's face never changed. 'Not a surprise. He knew.' Troy broke a little inside. 'He knew. I guess it's obvious.' Then Troy felt the warmth of anger. 'He wanted to hear me say it.'

While Troy struggled with his emotions, Grant spoke, "Well, it's not a problem for the van to hang out." He stepped inside the house. Grant took on a thoughtful expression. "So, are you going to need transportation?" He motioned at the van. "If your ride is busted, are you going to be able to do the job?"

It didn't sound like Grant was challenging him, but Troy felt defensive. "I'll finish the job." His voice was hard, icy. "You're paying me to do it, and I'll get it done."

Troy saw Grant flinch. "Well, okay then." Grant set his jaw. "Can we take a look at your work so far?"

Troy kicked himself. 'Basic customer service, man. Fuck. Come on. You need to be professional here.' "Yeah. Definitely. Sorry, I should have offered." He stepped back onto the sidewalk. "I'll meet you around back."

Troy didn't want to walk through the house again. So he went around the front of the house to the spot where the side gate used to be. Instead, he had torn it out, along with the rest of the fence. So he walked straight into the side yard.

Troy was thankful that the neighbors didn't seem to be home. He didn't see them at all, and he also didn't notice their cars coming or going out of their garage. 'Maybe they're gone on vacation.' He'd prefer Aaron and Georgette never even knew he was here. 'I don't want anybody I know to see me right now.'

The side door opened, and Grant stepped out. He looked over where the old fence used to be. "Wow." He walked through the couple of inches of snow over to the fenceline. Troy stepped up next to him.

Troy pointed at where the old posts were installed. "Luckily, I've got holes to use for the new posts." He shook his head. "Digging new ones in this weather would be a nightmare. The ground is frozen for a few inches." He wrinkled his nose. "I'd have to charge more for that, for sure." His voice changed as if he spoke mainly for his own benefit. "Though, I'll have to make certain the posts are snug, so the fence is sturdy."

Grant looked at the holes, and he nodded. "Well, I trust that you know what you're doing. I know it'll be good work." He looked at Troy. "Okay, I'm gonna go in and start on dinner." He seemed to hesitate a moment. "I guess I need to toss that chicken I made a few nights back."

Grant turned to head inside.

Troy felt a moment of angst. "Ah, you're throwing it out?"

Grant didn't turn, and he nodded. "Yeah. It needs to be eaten, and I already have other plans." He continued to walk toward the door.

Troy didn't usually get meat. It was expensive. And if something happened and he lost power in the van, it would ruin.

Though he rejected the offer earlier in the day, the way Grant said it made him realize the man was really going to toss the food. "Uh, well, if you're just gonna throw it out," Troy started, and he grimaced at his own words. But he pressed on. "I could give it a try. If, if that's all right." He couldn't stand the thought of good food getting thrown away.

Grant looked over his shoulder at him. "Yeah, that's fine. I'll heat it up for you."

Troy started to say it wasn't necessary, but Grant disappeared into the house, and the door closed.

He let his head go back, face pointed at the sky, and he closed his eyes. Troy opened them again and blew out a breath. It pushed up into the air above his head, and it disappeared as the vapor cooled.

"God. Here I am, about to eat the leftovers of a guy I don't know." He clenched his jaw. "What the fuck has happened to me?"

___________________________________

13 November 2018, Tuesday 5:47 PM

Grant put the chicken with it's fatty and cheesy sauce into the microwave. He set the timer, hit the button, and he pulled his leftover rice out of the fridge.

'Are you happy with yourself?' Grant set his jaw. 'You didn't even consider how it'd make him feel to come back here. How much it'd hurt him. That was cruel. Idiot.'

Grant could see it on Troy's face. He could tell by how he avoided the house, and he could hear it in the tone of Troy's voice. It was plain to Grant that Troy roiled with barely controlled emotion. He could FEEL it, rolling like waves, when he looked at the tall, thin man.

'At least he's going to eat tonight.' It was now apparent to him that Troy struggled to feed himself. The microwave beeped, and Grant took the hot bowl out of the appliance.

Grant then heated a big serving of rice.

He got a Tupperware container. The rice went in, then both of the pieces of chicken. Grant then poured the rich sauce on top of it. 'Probably 1,500 calories in there.' He nodded, satisfied. 'Good.'

Grant put the top on the container, got a fork, knife, and a spoon, wrapped them in a couple of napkins, and he opened the door. Troy sat on the porch. He stared out across the snow-covered yard and seemed lost in his thoughts. When the door opened, he rocked forward and stood up.

"Here you go." Grant handed the food over to the skinny fellow.

Troy took the food. Grant noticed that his hands shook as he did. "Thanks." Troy's voice was small, quiet, meek. Grant knew it was killing Troy that he needed the food.

"Eh, you're doing me a favor." Grant smiled. "I hate throwing good food away." He tried to reframe what was happening.

Troy's eyes met Grant's. And for a split second, there was a moment - a tiny moment, where he saw gratitude. Troy straightened a little, and he nodded. "Yeah, my pleasure." He stared at Grant. "I'm gonna go eat." He stepped back.

Grant held his gaze. "Sure. See you tomorrow."

Troy began to walk away, toward the front of the house and his van.

Grant bit his lip. "Hey, Troy?"

The man turned to look at him. Grant swallowed. "If you want, you can have dinner with me tonight. I'm making spaghetti and meat sauce. You don't have to have leftovers if you don't want."

Grant knew how to make two things well - the chicken Troy had in his hands, and spaghetti. Those were the two meals his grandmother taught him before he decided most food just wasn't worth the time it took to prepare.

Troy blinked. He looked down at the chicken. Then he took a deep breath, and he looked back up at Grant. "This chicken is fine." He smiled slightly. "Thanks, though."

"Okay. Enjoy your dinner, Troy."

He watched as Troy walked away. He waited until he saw Troy enter his van, and the sliding door shut.

Grant went back inside. He got the frozen hamburger out of the freezer. He hadn't intended to use it tonight, and so it was still frozen solid. He put it in the microwave and selected the "thaw" option.

He started the microwave, and then he walked into the living room. Grant moved the curtain, and he looked out the window at the van.

There was a glow of light inside the van, as it shined through the driver-side window. Grant pursed his lips together. Then he exhaled. "Have a good night, Troy."

He let the curtain fall back into place.  And he walked back to the kitchen, to start on his own dinner.


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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