Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 24: Family Secrets

Chapter 24: Family Secrets

 15 February 2019, Friday 3:17 PM (Pacific Time)

'Damn it. I already miss him.' The thought rolled through Troy's head as he and William left the airport. Grant was through security and on his way to his departure gate. He'd be in the air in forty minutes, for a six-hour flight home.

William drove, and he glanced over at Troy. "You doing all right? Nervous about being here alone with us?"

Troy chuckled, and he continued to look out of the window at the airline terminal as they drove away. "No. I'm not nervous." He shrugged. "Since November, Grant and I have been together. Every day." He looked over at William. "Ah, it's just a little weird - thinking about how he's not going to be right where I can see him." He laughed at himself. "I know, it's sort of pitiful of me. But I dread the next seven to ten days, only because he won't be here."

William smiled, and he nodded. They were both silent for a while, each content with the quiet. Then William took a breath. "You know, I have to admit - I wasn't sure how I felt about Grant being gay. And I know it shouldn't be a big deal." He bit his lip and shook his head. "I'm getting over it." He glanced at Troy. "And it helps that he is with you." William looked back at the road. "I don't know. I can tell you love him. And, to me, that's the most important thing."

Troy smiled at William. "I really do love him." Troy debated, then he plowed forward. "You remember when I said that Grant saved my life?" William nodded. "Well, I wasn't joking or exaggerating. I was homeless, living out of my van. And let me tell you, doing that in the Vermont winter is not something I recommend." Troy took a deep breath, and he stared out of the window at the passing landscape. "I don't know how much longer I could have held on. He invited me into his home, gave me a place to be, gave me just enough help." Troy swallowed the lump in his throat. "And when things sparked between us, it was just …" he searched for the right word, "God, it was a miracle."

William's eyes were filled with empathy when he looked at Troy. He refocused on his driving, and he slowly nodded. "First, thanks for sharing. And second," he seemed almost ashamed, "I'm sorry." He exhaled. "The vineyard, and our home - it must seem like such a waste to you." William grimaced. "I didn't come from money. I was a starving college student, living on Ramen noodles and hot dogs when I met Sandra." He navigated expertly through traffic as people slowed to look at a stalled car. "Sometimes I look at what we have, and it's painful. I feel bad for those with less." He set his jaw. "We donate to charities, but it seems empty to me. We could do more. We should do more."

Troy blinked as he listened. "It sounds like you're doing more than most."

William laughed. "That's what Sandra says."

Troy smiled at him. "You know, I don't think you should feel bad, or guilty about being successful. Look at all the people you employ. And the folks I met all seem happy with their work."

William laughed again,  loudly this time. "Wow. Okay, you and Sandra are reading from the same playbook."

Troy grinned. "Well, is it strange to find someone who agrees with her?"

William grew thoughtful and his brows knit as he considered. "Just a little. Yeah." He looked knowingly at Troy. "You might be able to guess that she's not the most endearing person at first blush."

Troy shrugged. "Sandra knows what she wants, and she knows how she wants it." He waved a hand. "Her needs, expectations, and requirements all make sense to me. Much worse, is the client that has expectations that go unsaid until the work is done."

William made a face and nodded. "I bet." He again spent time thinking, then he smiled. "Well, Sandra appreciates your manner and your particular style. She likes that she can be her demanding self and that you're not offended, or put off by it."

"It's her money. She can be demanding when it concerns the work." Troy looked seriously at William. "Where I'll have a problem is if she tries the same thing with my relationship."

William grimaced. "Yeah. She does love to steer the boat on most everything. Back when Grant dated Rebecca, Sandra was very interested in how things were going." He made a noise of realization. "Though, maybe she could sense all wasn't right with those two." William raised an eyebrow. "Grant being gay makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it."

"Yeah. A lot of guys don't figure things out for a while. And they struggle until they do."

The rest of the trip the pair spent chatting about the job and the particulars of the work. Troy was thankful the conversation turned toward work. He could focus on that, and less on how much he was going to miss Grant.

He'd save that for the quiet times.
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15 February 2019, Friday 5:02 PM (Pacific Time)

Sandra watched out of the large, plate glass living room window as Troy mobilized the crew of men and women assigned to him by William for the project. There was only a bit of daylight left, but he wanted to go over the scope of the work, what they were out to do, and all of the steps they'd need to take.

She observed him. Even though she couldn't hear anything, she could tell that Troy was a natural at leading small groups of people. The way he gestured, spoke, answered questions, and listened to those gathered around him told her many things about the man.

'You're the one my son has chosen.' Her eyes narrowed in thought. To an observer, she would look angry or upset. But she wasn't. Her mind adsorbed her observations, and she began to form a concrete opinion of Troy.

She could tell it wouldn't matter, ultimately. She knew merely by how they interacted Grant would forever be wrapped up in Troy's life - in at least some capacity.

That frustrated her to a degree. That her own son would defy her if she didn't approve of his choice.

But emotion is never clean cut. And in her deepest of hearts, where she kept her own personal truth hidden away, Sandra felt something powerful. And it centered around Grant and his willingness to stand up to her, all for the love of this man.

She lifted her chin and watched as Troy smiled and dismissed the group of workers.

Though she would likely never admit it, Sandra felt a strong and unmistakable pride in her son.
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16 February 2019, Saturday 7:42 AM (Pacific Time)

Troy was up, had a breakfast of eggs and toast, and he was already outside in the light rain and mist that continued to fall over the fields and the vines. He eyed the muddy ground as he stepped through the rows.

His crew wasn't due to start working until eight. But he wanted to get out there, find out exactly what they had to deal with, and make sure he was ready for whatever the day threw at him.

Troy had gone up along one edge of the field which bordered the house grounds. It was the largest field and the one that would require the most work. They would have to remove a few miles of water line and install the same amount for the new system. It would take weeks for him to do it on his own. But with the crew, it should be cut down to a week, or maybe two if the weather continued to act so fitfully.

The new line was delivered yesterday, and it was stored in a few large coils in one of the outbuildings. Troy felt a little trepidation as he looked over the field, and he scratched his head under the hood of the poncho. 'Did I bite off more than I can chew?' He grimaced. He had never worked on a project of this scope before. And though he expressed nothing but confidence to the team yesterday, he definitely had his own doubts, only due to the scale.

He sighed. 'Well, too late for that now. Nothing to do but push forward.' He was just about to give himself a little pep talk when out of the corner of his eye, he noticed movement about a hundred yards away, deeper in the field.

He turned and looked through the falling rain and mist. He couldn't be certain from that distance, but it looked as if there was a tan colored shape, moving around on the ground. Troy frowned, and he headed toward it.
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16 February 2019, Saturday 7:51 AM (Pacific Time)

Sandra was determined to stick to her morning routine. Rain, shine, bad days or good, she would rise early and walk her fields. Now, she needed to take a sturdy walking stick with her. But today it wasn't enough.

Sandra was deep in the first field when she felt it coming. She leaned hard on the walking stick, and her leg trembled as she tried to force the muscle to work through sheer force of will. But willpower alone would not help damaged nerves transmit signals to the tissue they serviced.

With a furious curse her leg folded and she went down. Sandra sat on her numb limb in the mud and held herself up with her arms. Her head was down, water dripped off of the hood of the poncho, and she fought a volcanic rage at her own body.

She breathed and tried to force her natural, logical mind to work. And she met with a little success. 'I need to call Gavin.' Her cell phone was in her pocket. 'Of course, it's in the pocket that's currently underneath me.' She gritted her teeth. She would have to roll onto her back to get to it. In the mud.

She sighed, and she resigned herself to her fate of a wallow in the mud. Just as she was about to lay back, she heard a voice.

"Hello?" Footsteps approached. Sandra closed her eyes and FUMED. She knew that voice. "Hey, are you okay?" Now she could hear the concern in the tone.

Troy stepped close, and he stood beside her. His eyes widened. "Sandra?" He immediately squatted down next to her. "Here, let me help you up."

She only nodded. Troy was tall and skinny, but he was a man used to work. He was plenty strong enough to lift her to her feet. Though once he did her leg still wouldn't cooperate, and she clung to his shoulders. In the process, she got him royally covered in the clay-rich soil. So now they were both filthy.

He didn't seem concerned about that. "Are you all right?" He frowned at her in worry. He could tell she had trouble standing. "Do I need to call an ambulance?"

"No!" Sandra barked. Then she flinched at her own tone. "No. I'm fine. I just need help to get to the house."

Troy didn't look convinced, but he nodded. "Okay." He supported her weak side, and together they navigated the field. It was still about ten minutes before eight, but Sandra knew there would be others out doing their work soon.

"The back. Go to the back door," Sandra said when they neared the house. Troy complied, and they entered the home. Sandra sat heavily in a chair in a small mudroom connected to the entryway.

Troy looked nervously at her. "I'll get William."

"No." Sandra shook her head. "He'd just be worried. And there's nothing he can do." She rested and mentally went over her options. She looked up at Troy as he hovered protectively over her. "You've got a crew to handle. Get Gavin. He'll help me. And you'll get outside and see to the work."

Troy hesitated, but then he nodded. "All right, if that's what you want."

He turned to go hunt down Gavin. Sandra sighed. "Troy." The lanky man turned and looked at her. Sandra made herself smile. "I, uh," she grimaced, then she nodded. "I want to thank you." She felt so defeated at that moment - defeated, vulnerable, and pitiable.

It showed in her expression and her voice. Troy's eyes softened. "You're welcome." He bit his lip. "Ah, I can tell you don't want anyone knowing about this." He looked questioningly at her. It was apparent he was worried and curious as to what was wrong. But he didn't ask what was on his mind.

Sandra couldn't help but laugh. "I figure that'd be too much to ask. But, yes. I'd appreciate it." Her voice nearly cracked as she spoke.

Troy set his jaw, and he nodded. "Okay. Then that's how it'll be." He smiled. "I'll send Gavin."

With that, he disappeared into the house. And Sandra leaned back in the chair, her head back, and she stared up at the ceiling.
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16 February 2019, Saturday 8:07 AM (Pacific Time)

Troy met his assigned crew a few minutes after eight o'clock. William was with them, and Troy arrived to see him checking his watch, a frown on his face. Troy inwardly sighed. He had to strip off his muddy clothes and quickly change after he found Gavin. And that made him late.

He walked up to the group. "Sorry, I'm late." He nodded at William. "Won't happen again."

The man set his jaw, then he nodded. Troy could tell that he'd need to prove himself all that much more now. But he made a promise, and he wasn't about to tell William why he was late. He looked over the assembled crew. "All right. We have the new line, but the old stuff has to come out first." He looked over at William. "We've turned off the water to the old system. William has some projects that he can use a lot of the old line in. So we're going to coil it up and put it in the processing shed. Let's try to keep it in good condition."

Troy went through his plan. The dozen men and women listened while William watched him. Troy was aware that every word and action was judged. They were paying him, and paying him well. Additionally, he was dating their son. So that meant a different kind of scrutiny as well.

Troy focused on a big, tanned dark-haired man in the group. "James, you take your folks to the northern edge and start at the water source there. My group will start on this corner, so we're not in one another's way." He finished up. "Okay. We know what to do. Let's get to it." James nodded, then he and his five helpers started on the way to the far edge of the field, while Troy and his half of the crew remained.

Troy and James both had walkie-talkies. The field was the biggest in the vineyard, so the radios were required to stay in touch as they worked. Luckily the mist and rain were forecast to clear up.

It was also the same field Troy found Sandra in. He still didn't know what to think about that. Troy knew something wasn't right, and he felt as if he should tell William, and maybe Grant too. But he had promised. And he would stick to his word. Earlier, when he went to get Gavin to help her, the man had to force himself not to say anything. Gavin had a terrible poker face, and it was obvious that he knew what was wrong.

'None of my business.' Troy tried to convince himself as they began the process of unstaking and rolling up the old drip system. After a bit, William seemed satisfied with what he saw, and he left to go into town and check on an issue with their label maker.

Troy knew that William was a little put off by his tardiness. It was a bad example for his crew, and as a result, he had some making up to do.

'All right.' He continued working through the first row of vines, in their corner of the field. 'Let's get to it.'

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16 February 2019, Saturday 10:34 AM (Pacific Time)

William returned from his trip into town, and he entered the house. The light rain still hadn't let up, and though it made everything a mess, he was thankful for the water.

He was still a little annoyed at Troy. The man didn't strike him as the type to be late for anything, much less to his first day of work on a project. 'Maybe I misread him.' He exhaled, and he hung up his poncho beside the door.

He took off his muddy footgear, and he padded in socked feet into the house. The underfloor heating system made the stone nice and warm, and despite his earlier annoyance, he smiled at the comfortable temperature.

He entered the living room. Sandra was there, in her spot at the end of the couch. William smiled at her. "Hi. How are you today?" He walked closer, and he stood near her.

She looked from the window, where she watched the workers and Troy dismantle the old drip irrigation system and gave him a tiny smile. "I'm well, dear. Thank you."

There was something in her tone, expression and overall manner that gave William pause. But it was nothing he could put his finger on. She looked back out at the field, and in her eyes, he could see a longing to be out there. Ever since her diagnosis, William knew it was dangerous for her to wander around alone. And that her regular forays to the fields had to stop.

He knelt beside her. "Hey. I'm sorry." It was so rare to see her vulnerable, and sad. And his protective instinct kicked in. He took her hand in his own. "I know you miss being out there."

She only nodded, and she continued to look outside. But her hand squeezed his. Then she straightened regained a little of her hardness. "It is what it is." She gazed at him. "How's it going with the work? Things look as if they're proceeding well from here."

William made a face. "Well, fine, once Troy got out to the field." He made an exasperated noise. "I guess I didn't expect the man to show up late on his very first day." He shook his head. "I'm just going to keep an eye on him."

Sandra's face went utterly neutral. "He was late?"

"Yeah, just a few minutes, but it was still a bad example." William was a believer in hard work, showing up, and being the example for others to follow. He was old-fashioned in this respect, and everyone who knew him realized this.

"Anyway, it's nothing for you to worry about. I've got it handled." William patted her hand, and he stood up. "I'm headed to check on the other team. I just wanted to come in and see how you're doing."

Sandra had grown very quiet. Her eyes had lost focus, and she blinked. "William." She grimaced, then she sighed and hung her head. "I'm the reason he was late."

William frowned at her. "What?"

She swallowed, and her countenance was oddly nervous. "I was out in the field this morning. I fell. He saw it happen, and he helped me to the house." She shook her head, frustration, and guilt both on her face. "I thought I could do it."

William's jaw dropped. "Sandra!" He knelt beside the couch. "Why? We talked about this!" His eyes began to roam over her body. "Are you hurt? Did you hurt yourself?"

"William, no. I'm fine. I just wounded the hell out of my pride." She looked at him, her fire returning. "And I know we agreed that I wouldn't go out there alone. But, I just need my time." She bit her lip. "I'm having trouble letting go of that. That's all." She laughed. "Damn it. I almost got away with it. But I couldn't let Troy take the fall for, well, for me taking a fall."

William felt many emotions. He felt angry his wife would risk herself, sad for her loss of something precious to her, and regret at his anger at Troy. He tried to make sure the next thing he said was something spoken from a place of thoughtfulness and not emotion. "Okay. Well, thank you for telling me." He sighed, and he sat on the couch beside her. "So, what are we going to do about this?" He smiled, the expression was a bit sad. "You know, if you tell me you need these little field trips to make you happy, then I'll go with you."

She turned and stared out at the field again. "I don't want to be a burden, William." She set her jaw, and she shook her head. "I will just stop going. And that's how it'll be."

He looked at Sandra, her face in profile as she observed the men in the field. She was stubborn and strong. But he could see that the loss of her ritual affected her deeply. William put his arm around her shoulders. "You know. I think I'm going to start walking the fields early before any of the workers really get going." He squeezed her affectionately. "And if you'd like, then you can come along."

Her face twitched. She slowly blinked, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Silently, she nodded just slightly. Then she closed her eyes, and she leaned over against him.

William kissed the top of her head as she rested against him. "Let me be what you need. Okay? I want that."

She breathed, and she struggled to reign in her emotions. She nodded again. It was a very rare moment of vulnerability and rawness. William loved her, always. But right then, at that moment, there wasn't anything that he wouldn't do for her.

And he was willing to spend the rest of their lives proving it.

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16 February 2019, Saturday 6:16 PM (Pacific Time)

Troy grinned at the text from Grant. He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, and he took it out.

'Check what I sent you when you're alone.' And then the text was followed by a little devil face emoticon.

Troy shook his head, and he texted back. 'I will.' He thought warm things about his lover, and he started another text. 'I love you, Grant. I hope you sleep well tonight.'

'I love you too. And there's not much chance of that without you with me. I'll call you tomorrow. I want to hear your voice.'

'Okay. Goodnight.' Troy sighed, and he put his phone away. He had just finished for the day and released his crews. They completely removed the drip line system from the first field. Long coils of line lay on the ground on the edges, and the new stuff awaited installation. That would be the task for tomorrow.

Troy was tired, wet and muddy. He walked from the path to the house, and he removed his boots on the covered porch. Though the work was tough in the rain, it still went well. The men and women on his crews were great. They were motivated, careful, and they worked hard. Troy was thankful for that.

As the day passed, he felt the attitude of the workers shift. He could tell, initially, that they were put off by his late showing. He heard from a concerned fellow on his crew that William had fired people who couldn't show up on time. So the culture of the place was rigorous in ways. And now that the team knew him better, they apparently wanted him to stick around to finish the job.

Currently, Troy's thoughts centered around food. He was starving. Lunch was six hours ago, and he had been hard at work all day. He entered the home, and he walked down the hallway and into the kitchen.

Troy was surprised to find William in the kitchen. "Oh, hello, William." Troy gave him a tired smile. "Ah, I'm just scrounging for something to eat."

William nodded at him. "No need to scrounge." He pointed his chin at the kitchen table. "Have a seat. Dinner will be done soon." He had an oven mitt on, and he opened the oven door. When he did, the smell of spices, cheese, tomato, and chicken wafted into the room.

Troy swallowed as he salivated. He did as he was told, and he sat at the table. Then he looked down at himself. "Uh, I should probably go change. I'm pretty filthy."

"You're fine." William removed a glass baking dish. It bubbled and gave off that intoxicating aroma. He put the dish on the stovetop. He also lifted the lid on a pot on the back burner. Steam rose, and he squinted down into the pot. He seemed satisfied, and he turned to the cutting board.

Troy felt a little guilty as he watched William chop cilantro. "Do you need help?"

"Nope. You worked plenty hard today. Meals are part of the payment. Relax." William sounded all business, but he smiled as he worked.

Troy did. William seemed more at ease than he was earlier in the day. His manner was back to friendly, and open versus this morning when Troy could sense the man's judgment. William grabbed a couple of plates. And he served a couple of enchiladas and a scoop of Mexican rice on both dishes. "You like sour cream?" He opened the fridge and dug out a container of the stuff.

"Definitely." Troy put his elbows on the table, and he leaned on his hands. "Load me up."

William did. After that, a sprinkle of cilantro went over both the rice and the enchiladas. Then he walked over and put a plate in front of Troy, and William found a seat across from him. He sat, and he nodded at the lanky man. "Eat up. I know you've got to be hungry."

Troy couldn't argue with that. Troy dug into his meal. There was a complexity to the sauce that surprised Troy, and he glanced up at William. William was watching him. When Troy looked up, he grinned. "You like that?"

Troy had a mouthful, so he only nodded. William grinned. "Good. That chipotle sauce I make to go along with these is one of the best things I can cook. It's just spicy enough and full of flavor."

Again, he agreed. The men grew quiet, and only the sound of silverware on plates could occasionally be heard in the quiet room.

Finally, Troy pushed his plate back, and he sighed. The meal was excellent, and he was satisfied. William surprised him. The man could cook. He seemed to have a knack for most things that involved hands-on work. "Thanks for the food." Troy grinned. "I was getting to the point of being hangry."

William wiped his mouth, and he nodded. He stood and collected the dinnerware. "You're welcome." William put the dishes in the sink, and he returned to the table. He sat, and he eyed Troy. It was obvious something was on his mind. "I want to talk about this morning."

Troy clenched his jaw, then forced himself to relax. He nodded. "Okay. But, before you say anything, I just want you to know it won't happen again. I don't make it a habit to be late."

Troy watched as William looked thoughtfully at him, then he smiled. "Yeah. I know. I wanted to talk to you about Sandra. She told me what happened."

Troy felt relief for a couple of reasons. For one, now William knew why he was late. But, by far the most significant relief for Troy was now he didn't carry around what he considered to be a bad secret - that something was wrong, and Sandra wasn't sharing it with her husband.

"I'm happy she talked to you," Troy said. He leaned across the table. "Look, I don't know what's going on, but something is going on. She couldn't support herself."

William nodded. "She has good days, and she has bad days." That's when Troy realized that William already knew. The man sighed. "She has MS - Multiple Sclerosis. She is okay with me telling you."

Troy sat back in his chair. "Wow." He didn't know much about the disease, but he knew it was serious. "Is this a new thing?" He shook his head. "I've never heard Grant mention it."

William grimaced. "Ah, Grant doesn't know. And it is relatively new." Troy started to say something more, but William held up a hand. "She's planning to tell him. She won't be able to keep it hidden much longer." He looked seriously at Troy. "But, it's her call. She is the one who gets to tell him."

Troy closed his mouth, his lips in a tight line. Then he nodded. "Okay. You got it."

William smiled, and he sighed. "You're a good man, Troy." His eyes carried his appreciation. "Thanks. For helping her this morning."

"Well, of course." Troy smiled back at him. "You know, she only wanted me to keep it from you so that you wouldn't worry."

William chuckled. "Yeah, I know. She loves me a lot. And no matter how hard she tries to keep it a secret," he grinned, "I know."


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

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