He sat by the bedroom window, looking out.
The apartment into which he'd moved that weekend was as neatly arranged as a footlocker before an impending IG inspection, everything precisely in its place.
The old house had been converted into two apartments. He had the second floor. Old Mrs. Brill, who owned the place, lived downstairs.
He could see two big oak trees from his vantage point, trees in which fat red squirrels and little striped chipmunks scampered. The grass under the trees was still lush and green. Later the bluegrass would brown out unless it was irrigated, and Mrs. Brill didn't seem to Brody the type who would water her lawn. Now, however, everything he could see was intensely green and healthy looking. It was good to be back in the US, away from the oven-like deserts of Iraq, though somehow he didn't yet feel at home despite being in the town where he had grown up.
Too many things had changed. The family business had prospered while he was gone. They'd added a second shop in nearby Colby. Things were going so well that his parents had turned the business over to his older brother Bob, sold the house in which the brothers had grown up, and moved to Santa Fe. Brody had some money coming from the government because of his Marine time. His parents had offered to underwrite the rest of his college expenses if he'd work full time during summers and part time during the school year at the shop. He and Bob had always gotten along well enough, primarily because they were six years apart and didn't have much to do with each other. But he wondered what it would be like to have his brother for a boss.
The people he'd gone to high school with had moved on. There was a big new addition on the hospital. New motels out by the interstate. More fast food chains than before. And empty storefronts downtown. Somehow Brody felt alone, more alone than he'd felt since he was on his way to boot camp. It was hard to imagine being here without his parents, without the family home.
He missed his Marine buddies, too, guys he'd have died for. In the Marines your buds become your family. Guys like Smitty and Crede, who were still in Iraq. Hank, who was now in OCS. Imagine Hank an officer! Crazy-assed Joe who'd kept them all laughing, Joe who planned to make a career of the Marines because he just couldn't think of anything on the outside he liked as well. Maybe that was understandable. At least the Marines looked after their own. He'd known he was giving up that security, he'd talked with older men who'd re-enlisted because they couldn't face civilian life, willing to put up with the endless bullshit and even the dangers inherent in military life in order not to have to cope with life outside.
Beresford, Kovack, and Lt. Wheeler flashed across his mind. There were no tears. He'd never wept for them. He shook his head to clear it from that scene.
Being home hadn't helped with the dreams. Two or three times a week he woke up in a cold sweat after the recurrent dream about seeing a Hummer with his two buddies and the lieutenant, a good officer, exploding about fifty yards away. Body parts flying everywhere, flames leaping into the air. When he took his exit physical, the captain who examined him had asked about dreams. Brody described the one he kept having. The doctor had suggested that they would probably become less frequent and eventually go away. "If you're still having them in three months' time, you'd better see a professional counselor."
"Does 'professional counselor' mean a shrink?"
The captain had chuckled. "Yes, Marine, that's exactly what it means. Now, get your uniform on and get out of here. You're in great shape."
But he'd had the dream just the night before, waking him up at 4:00. He'd been unable to get back to sleep.
So now here he was, about to have to cope. With college. With a civilian job. With a world almost as homophobic as the one he'd just left. But at least on the outside he might have a chance of finding someone.
The shop opened at 9:00. He was in the parking lot behind the store by 8:50, so he sat in the black four-year-old Grand Cherokee he'd just bought, trying to find something listenable on the radio when Sheila pulled up beside him in an old maroon Dodge Caravan.
They got out of their cars and she ran the short distance between them, her arms out.
"Oh, my God, Brody! You look fantastic." She hugged him and stretched up to give him a kiss on the cheek. "It's so good to see you."
His smile crinkled the skin around his eyes as he looked down at her. She had put on a little weight. Not too much. She looked more womanly, not the slim girl he'd dated - and bedded - for a while in high school. Her light brown hair was shorter now than she used to wear it, but her eyes were as intensely brown as he remembered.
"Yeah, good to see you, too, Sheil," he said, using the name he'd called her back then. "Married life seems to agree with you. How's Jer and the baby, what's his name?"
Sheila pulled a key ring from the pocket of her khaki slacks and unlocked the back door. She punched in a number on the security pad.
"Her name, Brody. I have a little girl. Susie. And they're both doing fine, thanks."
Sheila was wearing a royal blue short-sleeve polo with the name of the shop, "Petal Pushers," embroidered over the pocket.
"I see you wore khakis. Let me get you a shirt and you can put it on." After giving him an appraising look, she went into another room. Brody knew exactly where she was going. A closet in that room always held a supply of those tees in all sizes for the staff. His first one had been a medium when he started working there evenings and Saturdays in the ninth grade.
She came back with the folded tee and handed it to him. "Extra large, right?"
"Yeah, probably. If you'll go out front, I'll change."
She grinned. "Darn! I thought I was going to get to watch."
He grinned back. "Okay then, stay put." He pulled off the white tee he'd put on that morning and slowly replaced it with the "official" one. He made a point of flexing his muscles as he pulled on the company shirt. It fit tight enough to show off his shoulders, pecs, lats, and abs.
"Jesus, jarhead, you looked good in high school, but now you've got a hella bod! You're gonna be fighting 'em off!."
"Ya like, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. Now, let's get some coffee started. We have a new coffee maker, but it works pretty much like all the others. Think you can remember how to do that?"
"Sure, but isn't that woman's work?"
"Look, stud, technically I'm your boss. You may be Bobby's brother, but you're junior to just about everybody here except maybe Justin, and don't you forget it!" She poured water into the reservoir. Then she put a filter in the top and began to count out scoops of ground coffee into it.
"He's the teenager that drives the delivery truck and generally helps out."
"I remember that job. I did it for a couple of years. Then my folks decided to let me work in the shop and taught me how to do arrangements. So Justin's the low guy on the totem pole around here these days, I suppose?"
"Well, except for you, maybe," she said, and punched him none too gently on the shoulder.
After she'd shown him the ropes, including how to use the new and much more complicated computer, they were in the back room. They could get to the counter before a customer did if any such came in. She was working on an arrangement, Brody handing her stems as she needed them.
When the arrangement was done, they put it in one of the big refrigerators. That sat on high stools next to one of the work tables.
"Slow this morning."
"Uh huh. Mondays usually are. We were busy the end of last week, though. We had the usual bouquets to fix up for the churches on our list, and there was a wedding at St. Mark's on Saturday. Missy and I set it up. Bobby and Justin went over that night and got all the stuff out of the church and left the fresh flowers for yesterday morning."
"If Justin's a typical teen, he probably bitched about having to help on a Saturday evening."
She shrugged her shoulders. "He said he didn't have anything else to do."
Sheila was bringing him up to date on what some of their classmates were doing when the bell tinkled to let them know someone had come into the shop. She looked at him. "You want to get this?"
"May as well," he said, straightening up.
"Give a yell if you need help."
"Yeah, like you won't be standing there listening to see if I do something wrong." He went out to greet the customer.
'Woof,' he thought as he saw the deeply-tanned man on the other side of the counter. About the same height as Brody, he wore his dark brown hair nearly as short on top as Brody's, but not quite so high on the sides. He was wearing a hunter green collarless tee which said "Cromer Landscaping" over the right pec. As he looked up his greenish eyes bored into Brody's. It was only then that Brody recognized him.
"Cromer!" He didn't extend his hand.
"Cox. I heard you'd left the Marines." His tone suggested Brody had been guilty of something like desertion. His eyes continued to bore into Brody's. Brody looked right back at him. It became a contest to see who would break the eye contact.
There was a rumble of distant thunder, not surprising for a hot northern Ohio summer day.
"News travels fast in this little burg. So," Brody said, "what can we do for you this morning?"
Cromer's face softened slightly. "I want you to deliver a dozen red roses to my wife. It's her birthday."
"No prob. Do you want to fill out a card to enclose with them?"
Brody pointed to a rack that had a variety of cards for all occasions.
When Cromer had written on the card, he handed it back to Brody.
Brody told him the amount of the purchase plus tax and delivery fee, which he paid with a credit card.
"When would you like us to deliver them?"
"Oh, anytime today. You'll put some fern and baby's breath in with them, won't you? I'd like her to get them before I get home, which may be about 6:30."
"Yeah, the fern and baby's breath come with. The time shouldn't be any problem either. Wanna give me the address and phone number?"
Cromer gave him the information, saying the phone number was for his cell. "Don't want you to call the house and spoil the surprise."
"We'll take care of everything."
The other man nodded and left.
Another rumble of thunder, closer this time.
Brody noticed that on the card Cromer had written "You know I love you! --Dave"
Somehow that struck him as strange, especially the underlining.
When he returned to the back room, Sheila said, "Well, that was tense. I could feel the hostility between you two. I hope you aren't going to be as stiff with all the customers as you were with him. What is it with you two?"
"He graduated a couple of years before us. But I knew him because he was on the baseball team. Let's just say we never liked each other. He was always on my case about something. I could never bat or field well enough to suit him. He thought I could have made better grades. I didn't even fuckin' stand up straight enough to suit him. And at the time he was a lot bigger than I was."
"Did he bully you?"
"Physically, no. Verbally, all the time. Like I said, he just always hassled me, saying I wasn't trying hard enough and shit."
Another customer came in, and while Brody was taking care of her, Sheila took a local phone order. Then they got a Teleflora order, and so it went. Sheila insisted that he fill the Teleflora order. She gave him a picture and told him to duplicate it. "Let's see if you've lost your touch."
When he was finished, she giggled.
"What?" he asked, bristling. "Did I screw up?"
"Relax, Brody, it looks fine."
"Don't be mad, but it just seems funny to see such a big, macho guy with rippling muscles, still sporting his Marine haircut, making such a delicate floral arrangement."
"Yeah, yeah. I took a lot of flak about that in high school, too."
"I seem to remember."
When noon came, Brody volunteered to go get them some lunch. Sheila asked him to bring her a chicken Caesar salad and iced tea. He got himself two Big Macs with cheese and large fries.
As they sat at one of the tables in the back eating, she said, "Bobby tells me you're going over to Colby State in the fall."
"Uh huh," he grunted, chewing his cheeseburger.
"What are you going to major in?"
He took a swallow of his drink. "Fuck if I know. Business, most likely."
"You don't sound very excited."
"Excited? I didn't want to go to college when we graduated from high school. That's one of the reasons I went into the Marines. I'm still not sure what I want to do."
"When you grow up?"
He grinned. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. What about you? Has your life turned out to be what you expected?"
"Pretty much. I totally love Jeremy, and my baby is the best thing that ever happened to me. I wish I could stay home with her all day, but we just can't afford that. With car payments and a mortgage, I've got to work."
"Who looks after Susie when you're working?"
"Oh, how's she doing? I always thought she was one cool lady."
"She's fine. And you're right. Mom's special."
"I'll bet she's crazy about Susie."
"Right again. Like she says, she can spoil her all day and then send her home to Jer and me."
After a lull during which they both continued to eat, Sheila asked, "Is there anyone special in your life at the moment?"
"Nope. I'm just back from Iraq, you know."
It had been gradually getting darker, and now the skies opened up, releasing what the locals called a "toad strangler" on the little city.
"Yeah, but I thought maybe before you went over you would have met someone. Or even while you were there."
"Sheil," he said, "I was in Iraq. No chance to meet many women there except some female Marines, and I sure haven't seen one of those that interested me."
"No, I suppose not." He couldn't understand the look she gave him.
As they were finishing their lunch, the back door opened and a teen came in. He was about 5'9" with medium brown hair, which he wore in a pony tail, and blue eyes. He had on the uniform blue tee shirt which he was wearing with tan cargo shorts and sandals. He had broad shoulders and a good chest. His biceps stretched the sleeves of his shirt. He wore a small silver stud in his right ear. And he was soaked.
"Justin, you're wet, babe!
The boy grinned. "Hi, Sheila. Whatcha got for me this afternoon?"
"You've got three deliveries so far. They're in the case. And when you get back there are some boxes to take to the dumpster. But before you do anything, I want you to meet Brody. Brody, this is Justin Quinn."
Brody put out his hand and said, "Hi, Justin. Glad to know you."
"Hey," the boy said. He rubbed his hand on his shorts in attempt to dry it. Then he shook hands with Brody. "So you're the boss's little brother." He looked up at Brody and grinned. "But you're not so little, are ya?"
'Big enough to swat you like a mosquito,' Brody thought, but he said only "Yeah, I'm Brody Cox."
He went to one of the large refrigerators at the side of the room and took out the largest of the arrangements. "I'll be back for the others," he said and, taking the keys to the delivery van, dashed outside. He came back and got the second arrangement and the long box in which Brody had put Dave Cromer's roses.
Brody went over to shut the door for him since he had his hands full.
"Thanks, big dude."
"No prob, kid."
There was no one in the shop, so they sat again a few minutes, listening to the rain. "Justin seems pretty full of himself."
"He's a nice kid."
"Yeah, well, I don't like the pony tail. And he should be in long pants like the rest of us."
"You'll never persuade him to cut his hair. It seems to be a part of who he is. And none of the delivery boys have worn long pants in the summer since you left, or so I'm told."
"Well, Bob's the boss. But I don't like the way the little bastard looks."
Actually, Justin looked great. The pulled-back hair emphasized his handsome features, and Brody had noticed his tight little butt as he went out to the delivery van.
It was almost as if Sheila could read his thoughts. "It's got to be the hair. Even you would have to admit that the rest of him is pretty cute."
"Cute?" he asked, frowning at her.
"Yeah. And it will be good for Justin to have you around. You'll be a great role model."
"Well, he's gay, too, and he doesn't have many friends. For sure no one as studly as you."
His jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. "Hold on a minute. 'He's gay, too?' What are you saying?"
"Oh, come on, Brody. I figured out you were gay before we split up back in high school."
"But . . . ."
"You won't honestly deny it, will you?"
"What did I ever do to give you the idea I was gay?"
"Two things. When we were screwing, although you're one of the sexiest men I've ever known, there was always something missing. Your heart just wasn't in it. There was no passion. In fact, sometimes when you had your eyes shut it looked like you were thinking about somebody else."
"And I'm pretty sure I know who that someone else was. I saw the way you and Pete Clifford looked at each other. You had a thing for him. You never looked at me that way."
"Jesus, Sheil! Have you told anybody?"
She put her hand on his. "No, sweetie, of course not. It was just what I thought, not what I knew. And I'm not a gossip. If you want to keep it a secret, I promise not to tell anyone. But you're not in the Marines anymore, Brody, and you owe it to yourself to find your special guy."
He took a deep breath. "Okay, you're right. I've been wondering how to tell Bobby and Sam and my folks. I'm not gonna become the town's gay poster boy, but I'm sick of pretending to be something I'm not."
She squeezed his hand. "Good for you. You'll never be happy if you have to keep living a lie." She was quiet for a moment. "You know, I think you should tell Bobby the first chance you get. Maybe then he could help you figure out when and how to tell your parents."
"Or whether to tell them. After all, they're in New Mexico, and, face it, I won't see them very often."
"Brody, shame on you! They're only in their fifties. They'll probably live another twenty years or so, and you'll see them a couple of times a year at least."
"Look, Sheil, I haven't seen much of them in the last four years, or Bob either. I honestly don't have a clue how any of them will take the news."
"They're good people, sweetie, and they love you. It'll be all right."
He was staring at a calendar on the far wall and holding a pencil. He snapped the pencil in two as he said, "I hope to hell you're right."
"When the time seems right, tell Bob. He deserves to know."
"What's he going to think when he finds out that not only is his brother gay, but that he's stuck with him working in the shop?"
"People will think you're gay anyway," she said, grinning at him.
"But . . . I never thought I acted gay. Nobody in the Corps gave me any problems."
"Oh, no, it's not that. You're the picture of the macho straight Marine. But some people just automatically think any guy working in a florist shop is gay. Bob and you look a lot alike, but if he wasn't married, there'd probably be some people in town who'd think he was gay. Folks just tend to classify other people that way."
He took the two pieces of the broken pencil and carried them to a tall waste drum. "So what you're saying is that people are going to think I'm gay anyway, so I may as well admit it?"
She grinned at him. "Well, you said yourself you were tired of hiding it."
"Yeah, maybe you're right."
"Where's Pete these days? Have you two kept in touch?"
"Look, I'm not saying anything about Pete except that he and I were best buds all the way through high school. Don't pull the old guilt by association thing. Just because he and I were friends doesn't necessarily mean we fooled around."
"If you weren't," she said chuckling, "then you must have had a permanent case of blue balls."
"Sheila Brown, er, Henderson, such language coming from a proper married lady! I'm shocked." Brody tried to look stern, but he couldn't help laughing.
"Oh, stuff it, Cox. You and I never worried about how we talked to each other. I'm not about to change that now."
He nodded and returned to the topic. "Well, I managed to drain my balls with you, didn't I?"
"Yeah, and I knew I wasn't the only girl, either. I wonder if you managed to fool the others."
Despite his embarrassment that she was talking about the other girls he'd screwed, he was glad the conversation had turned away from his relationship with Pete. But then Sheila focused back in on that topic.
"So do you know where Pete is?"
"Like I said to Cromer, there aren't any secrets in this town. I'm surprised you don't know he just graduated and is gonna do grad work in veterinary medicine at OSU."
She gave him a saucy grin. "Actually I did know that. I just wondered if you knew. So you two have kept in touch."
He nodded. "We've emailed each other whenever I was someplace with computer access."
"Does he have a special guy?"
Brody knew Pete had had two or three fuck buddies while he was in college, but he and his most recent decided their relationship couldn't stand the separation of being in different grad schools, so his old friend was single again. But he wasn't about to tell Sheila.
"None of your business, is it?"
"Well, maybe you can tell me this. Is there a chance of anything happening with you and Pete?"
"There'd only be a chance for me if I was in Columbus."
"Tough for you."
"I haven't carried a torch for him for four years. We're still good friends, but that's all." He had a sinking feeling when he realized that, despite his best intentions, he'd confirmed that Pete was gay, as she'd guessed. He hoped that, as she said, she wasn't a gossip.
The storm passed over, the sun came out, and steam began to rise from the streets and sidewalks.
Their talk was interrupted by a phone call, and then there was a slow but steady stream of customers in the shop the rest of the afternoon. They had just sat down again when Justin came in, put the van keys on their hook, and flopped onto a stool next to Brody. He looked much less wet than when he'd been there before.
After elbowing him in the ribs, he said, "So, what's it like to be gay in the Marines?"
Stunned, Brody looked daggers at Sheila, who held up her hands in a placating gesture.
"I've never told anybody, Brody, honest."
"Relax, dude. Nobody told me. But my gaydar is infallible. Must have been tough in the Marines. Wanna tell me about it?"
"No, I don't want to tell you about it. And if you value your boyballs, you won't tell anyone what you've guessed about me." He stood up to his full height and stared down at the seated boy. "Do you understand me?"
Justin grinned, turned to Sheila, and said, "Ooh, he's so butch!" Then he gave Brody a sloppy salute, and said, "Sir, yes Sir!"
It was nearing 5:00. There was one more delivery to make.
"Brody, Justin's not allowed to have his own key to the shop. If he makes this run, one of us will have to wait here to close after he gets back. Why don't you deliver the order now and then go on home? Justin can help me close up. That way we'll all get home sooner."
Brody didn't have any reason to rush back to his spartan apartment, but he was willing to make the delivery. Sheila gave him his own set of keys for the shop and the code to the security system, and handed him the arrangement to deliver. "See you in the morning, jarhead. It's good to have you back."
"Uh, Brody, sorry if I pissed you off," Justin said. "Thanks for making the run for me."
First he said, "Thanks, Sheil. I'm not quite sure how I feel about being back, to be honest. Say hi to Jeremy for me. I'm looking forward to seeing Susie sometime."
Turning to Justin he said, "As for you, squirt, remember what I said about your balls. You keep your mouth shut and you and I will get along just fine." Then he winked at him, and the boy gave him a cocky grin.
Sheila's map helped him find the house where the large spray of flowers was to go. It looked as if someone was having an anniversary, though why they were having their party on a Monday night puzzled Brody.
As he was driving through the neighborhood looking at the new houses, he spotted a Cromer Landscaping van parked ahead. He slowed. Sure enough there was Dave Cromer. He and a couple of other men were obviously planting rhodies and yews along the border of the front yard. Like his workers, Dave had on only denim cutoffs and work boots with white socks. All three were sweating freely, all three undeniably sexy.
On a whim, Brody pulled his SUV up behind Dave's van, switched off the motor, and got out. Dave, recognizing him, said something to the others and walked toward him.
"Cox, what the fuck brings you here?"
For a moment Brody reverted to being the big but insecure boy he'd been in tenth grade confronted by one of the school's alpha senior jocks.
"Uh, look, Cromer, I just, that is, uh, I wanted . . ."
Cromer grinned. "Being in the Marines doesn't seem to have helped all that much. You're still a pussy, aren't you? Come on, man, spit it out!"
Brody chose to listen to the words rather than look at the facial expression.
"Fuck you, asshole! I just stopped by to apologize in case you thought I was rude to you in the shop this morning. But I see you haven't changed. You're still the arrogant son of a bitch you always were. I'm sorry I wasted my time. You can get back to destroying this lawn now."
He turned abruptly and stalked back toward the Jeep. Just as he opened the door, he heard Cromer call out, "Hey, Cox!" He turned to see the man still grinning, his hand gripping his package, hefting it up and down in a universal gesture. Flipping him an equally universal gesture with his finger, Brody got into his car and roared off.