A Ghost Story

His phone pinged with a text. It was his problem tenant. She was living in the garage apartment that he had shared with his parents when he was a baby. Until age eight or so. His dad and grandfather, both long ago memories, had built it.

“Have an odd question”, the text said. “Do you know if your dad had a sibling that died around the age of 6-9?”

What? After reading it again, he texted, “My dad was an only child.”

“Hmmm…Odd…” came the reply. “What about your mom or grandma, did they lose a sibling young? I know it’s an odd question but I’ll explain here in a second.”

Christ, he thought, don’t answer. He put on his glasses and clicked the lamp brighter. She wasn’t his tenant, really. His mother had rented to her husband with the express instruction to keep his wife under control. It worked for a little while, then all hell broke loose. In the last six months, she had sworn out a PFA against the husband-so he was gone-and she was squatting there with her ten-year-old. Then his mother had finally died, so he had inherited it all. The good with the bad. And he wished there was more of the former.

After a few minutes he texted, “Nope.”

The bubbles appeared on the screen and hung there pulsing. He waited. Then, “Right around when your mom passed, I was awakened by a child in Olga’s room. She was still sleeping right beside me. Heard a dresser drawer slam and this kid had blonde hair with a blanket wrapped around the shoulders so I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl and I watched it dissipate slowly from its head then down to the feet and it always bugged me that whoever was trying to tell me to go to your mom…to help her.”

He read it again. He hated it when she talked about his mother. She did it often-no doubt thinking it would put her in his good graces, but his mother couldn’t stand her and had spent the last two months of her life complaining that she never should have rented to them.

His phone pinged again, “No, I’m not a witch…little hexes here and there LOL but I do get visions and this one is killing me.”

He remembered a story his mother had told him from when they had lived in that apartment. She was in bed, probably in the same room as this one slept in, and she heard a cat screeching outside in the alley. The windows back there are high, so she had to stand on the bed to look out. The cat was easy enough to find; it was on a cracked fence post just outside the yellow glow of the street lamp. The cat called and howled until she saw others coming in from the darkness to join it. They all sat or lay on the alley in front of the main cat who began to meow and chirp as if speaking to them. They were attentive for a moment, no stretching, no grooming, no ass sniffing. Then, when the lecture was over, or the instructions given, the cats all scattered back into the darkness whence they’d come.

His mother told this story often. Especially when someone suggested she get a cat.

He put the phone on airplane mode and switched off the lamp.

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Shadows

(Continued from Night Lights)

Outside, half-naked, the midnight chill braced her. The clear moonless sky was dark enough that she cast a shadow in the glow from the top of the mountain. The grass was damp on her bare feet as she followed her shadow around the birdbath to the mountain laurel just short of the tree line.

The coyotes were quiet or running over the next ridge. When she was little her Pap kept chickens in a pen behind the house. Back then coyotes were worthy adversaries to be battled and beaten at every turn. Now, with no livestock to guard – not even a scruffy mutt or cat – the coyotes were no more than texture. Wonder how they would feel about that? Being relegated to deep background; being off the main stage where capable men plotted against them with guns, traps and poisons? Whatever. Times gone by. Either way, the whippoorwills’ incessant call and response were the only accompaniment to the quiet swish of her feet in the tall grass.

Choosing a spot, she turned toward the house and lifted her T-shirt. Squatting widely, she relaxed and allowed the stream to flow into the grass between her feet gently, not to splash. Her yoga practice wasn’t what it was, but she was still able to hold a squat level and clean without a shake or quiver letting the burn in her thighs build. She dipped a little deeper to feel the pleasant pull in her hip flexors. She should get back to yoga-she could sit in on classes up at the Hideaway anytime. Finished, Lori stood easily, leaving a steaming wet spot on the grass.

Pissing in the yard had started as a joke when she and Uncle Red were watching TV one night. She complained that he was lucky because all he had to do was go out on the porch when he needed to pee but she had to go to the bathroom, take down her pants, miss half the program, yadda-yadda…

“Knock yourself out girlie”, he’d said, a little drunk. “You got a whole hillside right out your door. We’re mountain people. We piss where we want.”

He didn’t look at her but had that cock-eyed smile he got when he was drinking beer. She had taken the dare and scampered off the porch and behind the fat sycamore. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him seeing anything-they were beyond that. It was just what she did. She was wearing tight jeans then and had to wriggle them down and lean in such a way that she wouldn’t wet herself. She remembered giggling as she spattered.

She put the time at between three and four. Closer to four. She tried to add the hours of uninterrupted solid sleep she had gotten all week. No more than three tonight. She couldn’t go on like this, grinding her teeth and digging her fingernails into her palms, forever. Just one cigarette, she thought. Just one, to give her that kick of nicotine that she remembered. If she’d had any, she might have broken, but she didn’t. Back at the porch Lori leaned against the rail digging the feel of the rough wood pressing into her bare thighs.

The resort which butted up against her property on the high side, glistened. Thank you Uncle Red, she said under her breath for about the billionth time. It was the house that her Mom and Red had grown up in.  After her Mom died, she stayed in the house with Red, thinking it would be temporary. It was. It only lasted ten years until he died. Well after she was old enough to move out, had she wanted to. She had stayed with him as her mother had wished and now she owned the house and seven acres.

When what would become the Hideaway Resort began buying properties years ago, her Pap – Mom and Red’s mother – wouldn’t sell. Even when the money was ridiculous for the time. Now it was hers with a standing offer of a million on the table whenever she wanted to sell. She didn’t.

Cautious

“Are the doors locked?” she asked suddenly from her corner of the passenger seat.

Jolted by the question, he caught himself feeling along the top of the door for the plunger to press to lock it. That was years ago-when he was a kid. Cars don’t have those kinds of locks anymore. Just sleek buttons and mechanisms that lock automatically at a certain speed. He knew that. Why couldn’t he tell her?

Instead he said, “What are you afraid of?”

“You don’t have to be afraid to be cautious,” she said.

Cautious. The word struck him as strange just then. He’d have said, ‘careful’ as would most people. Why ‘cautious’?

The drizzle had turned into full-on rain pinging off the roof and sheeting down the windshield. The pressing sky atop the black night made it impossible to see the woods and fields that were out there. “There’s nobody out here to be…cautious of”, he said.

“All the more reason”, she answered looking out her window as if there were something to see.

She’s too young for me, he thought. The scent of roses he thought she wore was really bubble gum-or smelled like it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t her youth. Maybe she was too smart for him. Or too dumb. Or too tall-maybe too short. Too whiny, too cold, too butch, too soft, too dark, too light. Too something, he knew that. But why worry about it now? He didn’t have to win her. Didn’t have to impress her. She was here.

His wife was right. He thought too much about everything-drove himself crazy. Last week he’d had a nosebleed right at the kitchen table. She’d said it was high blood pressure from him worrying so much over every little thing. Like she was a freaking nurse.

Back home she sat at the same table listening to hockey on the radio. She liked it better that way; watching it made her too nervous. She poured a thick toss of Sambuca into her cup – the only way she could abide decaf. Her ma had called, worried the rain was going to turn to snow. “It’s forty degrees, Ma!” she had to yell into the phone. “It won’t snow.”

He sighed and reclined the seat slightly. Fumbling, he loosened his belt and unsnapped his pants. Rising on her knees, she bent over the console and gently pulled him out of his pants; a soft crippled bird. “Ok”, she said low. “Let’s see what we can do with you.”

He closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.

Night Lights

Liking the feel of muted life in the middle of the night, Lori kept the house dimly lit with strategically placed nightlights and tiny touch lamps. She wandered into-then through-the kitchen after pausing to gaze at but not see the immaculate countertops in the shadows. Then through the small dining room dragging a finger along the dark wood table, feeling the bumps and ridges of the hand-hewn oak. She was headed to the living room in the back of the house where a camelback clock that had been her grandfather’s pulsed, whirred and dinged the hours so long as she wound it ever other day. And she didn’t miss. It was her home’s pulse.

Naked but for a T-shirt that was just long enough to reach her thighs, she peered closely at the clock seeing naught but her eyes shining back in the glare of one of her hidden luminaries. She gently opened the glass face to better see the minute hand twitch with every tiny sweep of the internal workings. She paced it and tried to steady her breathing-still not recovered from the almost forgotten nightmare.

The dream was familiar-not in the details but the feel of it and what it had left behind. It had been dark in her dream-darker than it could ever be in her house. She was on her belly and sliding down something. A hill, a tilted floor; something impossibly slippery. She heard a voice and felt a hand on her. The voice was Uncle Red’s she knew. Not him later, sick and ravaged, but him fifteen or twenty years ago-soft and clear. She didn’t know who’s hand it was, or why it was on her calf. But it had to have been his. It was trying to pull her back-keeping her from sliding into a still darker place. Maybe. Maybe it was pushing her. She had jolted awake. She breathed in time with the minute hand’s twitch; each breath deeper, less a gulp.

Her belly bothered her. Not inside, she didn’t feel sick at all. It was more the look of it. She thought it too round and puffy-she could hold it in her hands. Could rub it all over. Her reflection in the sliding door showed her no longer slender, but not fat. Tall and pale with smudges of darkness reflecting the jumble of black hair sticking out of her head and the thatch below her belly which she still rubbed and rubbed; an angst-ridden Buddha. She hadn’t always had it-the belly. When she was younger it was as flat as the girls on TV.  She wanted that belly back.

She sat on the end of the couch like she and her uncle had, facing the dark TV. Her reflection was there too. She studied it and the empty spot at the other end of the couch which was Red’s end. She glanced that way quickly as if to catch him sitting there, casting no reflection but watching her none the less. He wasn’t there. But he was everywhere.

She thought for a moment that she would lie on the couch. Just lie there on her belly for a moment and pull her shirt up. She’d done it before-lain there exposed until the jitters passed or the weight pressing down, lifted. She’d awoken that way some mornings, cold and bare-assed for anyone who could look through the door. She had decided to do it and, leaning over, felt a chill in her belly. Then she didn’t.

She watched the goosebumps rise on her thighs and pulled her T-shirt back to reveal her lap. Was it spreading? She poked at herself making tiny pink dimples which colored then filled. “Closure” was what everyone who wanted the house talked about to her. As if there was such a thing for the haunted-for those who carried the memories of past lives with them. Like moving was going to change anything. Like she wanted to change anything. The woman in the dark TV stared-giving her nothing. Not a fucking thing.

The Premonition

To say it was a premonition might not be accurate. I don’t know that anything was being foretold, but it was something. As if a conversation had been interrupted suddenly. It was still dark, so the sky didn’t reveal itself but my sinuses, and the lack of stars, told me it was either raining or about to. Probably more of a drizzle-a bone chilling late November drizzle. I pulled the spare pillow over my head and flopped onto my side squeezing my eyelids shut as if sleep, once fled, could be coaxed back. It usually didn’t work.

What was it? I wondered. My eyes scanned the room for an intruder-real or imagined. The darkness must not have been truly dark-or pitch, as they call it-because I could make out the chair by the window. It was empty as it should have been but for a moment-just a moment-I was sure someone was sitting there. Someone had to have been sitting there. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But no. And there was no movement in the house. My perturbed heart fluttered lightly and I held my breath to better hear. Nope. Nada. Had there been a forgotten dream that left me feeling this way?

Sleep had been deep and syrupy-aided no doubt by a glass of bourbon around ten. But just one. More than that and I’d have stirred all night. But no, no dreams that I could remember. There was something though-like a rush of water…maybe wind through the leaves. I’d been back in the woods yesterday and had heard the winds whispering. Maybe it had stuck with me. Maybe I’d dragged something back again like a burr in the cuff of my jeans.

After thrashing about for a while-probably no more than minutes-I tossed the covers and sat up, bare feet on the chill wood floor. I’d have to lay a fire in tonight, no doubt. It was time. Always tried to go as long as possible without one.  The woodpile seemed large enough but nothing worse than reaching the end of it in a chilly, wet March. Without turning on any lights I made my way down the back stairs into the kitchen avoiding the urge to look back over my shoulder.

I poured a glass of cold water in the light from the open refrigerator and gulped it; less drinking than hydrating. I poured another and reached back behind the eggs for the old pill bottle. A day that started with an edge before sunup was a day best avoided. I shook a few tablets into my hand and regarded them carefully before deciding on an orange football. I swallowed it and replaced the bottle, closing the door and sliding back into the dark. Still nothing brightening outside.

With the refilled glass I padded into the living room and sat in the recliner. By feel I found the cigar box on the table and opened it. Like a soldier who learned to break down his weapon blindfolded, I took the glass one-hitter out of the box and broke off a piece of bud that was rolled in the corner of a plastic bag. The lighter flared and I sucked an enormous cloud into my lungs. I held it only so long as the bud was burning away and took a second hit-bigger than the first. The ember in the pipe went out. That was that. I sat back and embraced the smoke for what seemed like hours before letting it out with a slow whistle.

Once, when drinking, I had told my brother about my drug habits and how I dealt with life’s stresses. He called me a coward.  Of course he did-the prick. I had wanted to slap him, but he was my older brother. And bigger. And in better shape. Had I slapped him he would have been surprised and maybe laughed at me. But there was the possibility he might have kicked my ass, so I didn’t slap him. Wonder what he was up to these days? He was a major pain in the dick, but I still wondered sometime where he was.

I rubbed my hand over my face hard. Once. Then again. It was starting. The roof of my mouth was dry. My lips stuck gently together. The water-sipped like expensive wine-was perfectly chilled. My heart fluttered a bit more-the dope would do that-but only for a little bit. By the time I got back into bed and stretched out, the layer of warm, wet cotton would cover me from the top down and I’d drift back off into the black. Of course, there was always the chance that I wouldn’t fall back to sleep and would just lay there stoned for a few hours. Which, on balance, beat the shit out of laying there straight.

Back in bed I glanced at the chair once more. Still seemed to be empty, which was good, but I resisted any temptation to go near it. I remembered slapping my lips once. Then drifting away.

Five Bucks a Pill

“You think living this long, I’d know all there was to know about myself”, I said not expecting an answer.

“What are these?” she asked, fingering the thin white caplets only half-listening.

“Tramadol”, I told her. “Five bucks a pill.”

“They any good?”

I shrugged but she didn’t see it.

“No oxy?”

“No oxy, no hydro…that’s dry. Maybe some perc’s end of the week.”

“Huh”, she said knocking the pills around with a blood red fingernail that matched her lipstick.

“So whatta you think”, I asked after a moment. “Am I frightening?” She looked up with a crinkle around her green eyes that could have presaged either a smile or a wince. “Do you think I’m frightening? Am I scary?”

She wriggled her ass deeper into the chair and crossed her legs; a bit of stage-business while she fashioned an answer. “You do tend to lean in a bit”, she said finally. “But you always did that.”

“Huh”, was all I could come up with. “But I never saw myself as scary.”

“We’re all used to you, sweetie. You get to be a particular way, we leave you be.”

Fuck, I thought, taking a turn at spinning the pills across the dark Formica tabletop.

“Poor Tommy”, she said reaching across the table and patting my cheek.

“Don’t say that”, I said more sharply than intended. “My mother always says that.”

“How is she?”

“Same. She’ll never die. Too busy killing me.”

“Christ, boyo…” she pulled back a little and reached for her purse. “You wanna get high?”

“Naw. I might get all scary and shit.”

She smiled and took it as a joke, which is probably not how I meant it. “This is bugging you bad, isn’t it? Who said you were scary?”

“I was at a party last weekend up in Mifflin and a girl said…”

She sniffed. “Mifflin? Shit. You have to stop trying to mix with new folks. They don’t know you like we know you. Play in your own sandbox.”

She pulled a crumpled pack of Pall Mall greens out of her purse and squeezed it open to peek. She’d need a new pack soon. “Five bucks a pill seems steep for something I never tried.”

“You should get out more”, I grinned. “Three for you.” She was thinking-counting how many were on the table. I’d go down to two.

“Do you…?”, she asked haltingly, then stopped.

I let the silence ride a little. She was waiting for me. It was my turn to say something. But I wasn’t. I saw how this whole fucker was going to play out. I had the high hand. I didn’t have to do anything to win. All I had to do was sit there and shut up, collect a few bucks and she’d be out of the picture until she was dry again. But I didn’t. Instead I said, “…What?”

“You interested in doing a deal like we used to do?” she asked. “It’s been awhile.” Fuck! It had always been my idea. My suggestion. My task to pull her in. Of course I wanted to, but… “Cause, I’m fine with it, if you are. I’m ready. “

I closed my eyes and leaned back in the creaking chair. For whatever reason, it was Joe Pesci’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t do it! You better not do it!” When I opened them the first thing I saw was the smattering of faded freckles across the bridge of her nose. And the lines around her eyes were gone, the skin unetched by time. I knew I was seeing memories; not what was in front of me. But I was seeing it that way.

If she only hadn’t smiled just then, I’d a’ been fine. But of course, she did.

“Sure”, I said. “Why not?” Playing it like it had been my plan all along.

The Colonel Comes Home

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He sat cracking his neck on the veranda overlooking the river. His bed always took some getting used to after months peacefully rocking in a hammock. He might be done with it; the bed, the house, all of it. Pitch his hammock out here and sleep under nets like everyone else. They seemed happy with it.  Why should those with nothing be content with their lot and he feel so fucked all the time?

The river wasn’t a torrent by any means but neither the low green stream he was hoping for on his return. It ran full and brown-café con leche-filling the banks the way it never did in the summer and covering the marsh grass that deer would eat wading in the cool shade in the heat of the afternoons.

A swollen cow floated by, hooves reaching for the sky, then a couple of chickens. The lowland peasants always take the brunt of the weather. Floods this late in the season would mean hunger in the winter-not famine-there would still be food here in the most fecund valley he knew, but less of it. Without their chickens and corn they would be hunting his hills for game all winter. Which was fine, so long as they steered clear of the poppy fields, which they knew to do.

He had gambled before leaving and had the crop planted high on the mountain. Making the new clearings so far from where he usually farmed had been arduous but the rains which would have washed him out on the lowland fields, drained quickly up there. He had ridden through the fields on his way in and the crop was beautiful and lush. Thus did the rich get richer.

The sun peeking over the ridge downstream colored the trees and awoke the woodpeckers and the crows. Everyplace the filtered light touched him burned slightly, like a warm stick pressed against his skin. It would be hot today.

He heard the soft scraping tread behind him and steeled himself.

“More coffee Excellency?”

When he was sure Buenila couldn’t see, he had spilled what was left in his cup into the brown river. The pestilential rains had ruined the coffee crop and they were reduced to drinking chicory which was better than tea he supposed but worse than everything else.

“Yes, Buenila. Thank you.”

“It’s good then?”

“Wonderful”, he said turning his head slightly toward her but not looking back.

“Good…” she shuffled away.

Below him a pig floated by, tits up and mottled by the sun. His stomach gurgled an ominous reminder of his miseries.

“Wait”, he called back over his shoulder “A glass of Port instead. And a piece of the bread you made last evening.” She would know to bring the cheese without being told. Might as well start the day.

The sun was directly overhead when he pushed the last of the ledgers away and rubbed his eyes. He still had the eyes of an eagle, but they, like the rest of him, were only good for short spurts. Most of the morning had been spent with Diego, who was effectively the estate foreman, responsible for everything when the Colonel was gone on conquest or otherwise indisposed. Small and dark, Diego was young enough to be-and whispered that he was in fact-the Colonel’s own son. Neither man remembered Diego’s mother-she was gone when he was a swaddling babe, left to the capable hands of Buenila. To the Colonel-then a striving Captain-she had been one in a long continuing series of couplings.

While his wiry physic and green eyes could have been a give-away, neither of the men seemed to care about the certainty of his lineage. As a boy, and now a man, Diego wanted nothing more than to sit astride whichever mule or horse the day’s labor called for and do his work. “Nothing between my God and me but my hat!” he would smile doffing his well-worn woven skipper.

They had opened the canopy before noon and he now toyed with the idea of stringing his hammock and taking his siesta right here. Just toyed. While there was a breeze, the thick masonry walls that had survived two earthquakes to his knowledge kept his house cool even at midday. He would go inside.

Before he could push away from the table Buenila appeared at his shoulder.

“A girl from the village is calling, Excellency.”

“The village?”

The crone shrugged. To her, everyone not of the estate was from ‘the village’.

He settled back in his chair. “Send her out.”

Good Lord, he thought as he did when confronted by young girls. Is this my daughter? He didn’t think so-she was too young with striking raven eyes and thick straight hair the color of jungle dirt. Her cheekbones were high disguising the baby fat that still rounded her. She hesitated at the edge of the veranda.

“Come, come”, he said gently.

The girl shuffled closer. He could not ignore her full pouty lips. “What’s your name, daughter?”

“Laurencia”, she answered. “Laurencia Palacios.”

“Come, come…” he repeated reaching out a hand. The girl held back-walking in sand. Palacios, he thought. I know that name. “Do I know your father?” he asked.

“He’s gone.”

“I see, I see… What brings you here to see me today, Laurencia?”

“My mother, your majesty. She…”

He snorted loudly. “There is no crown on my head, sweetheart. I’m a simple Colonel.”

“Yes sir.” Her eyes wouldn’t meet his. “My mother says I should come by. I should make myself…an introduction. I mean…I should make myself available to you….”

An icy hand gripped the Colonel’s chest. There were women, God knows, who approached him-who always approached him-wanting to be close to him and share what he’d won. And God also knows he had a weakness for them which is why there were so many of a certain age across the territory and in his service that had his green eyes, his sharp nose, his wavy hair.

He was used to these clingers and grabbers and had done, in his mind, a reasonable job recently of keeping his distance from such hardscrabble paramours. These days, his victories and powers brought a different class of women to his bed; ones who had their own gold and houses-even husbands-and only wanted to share of his essence if for a night or a week or a month. That was one thing. There was a special place in hell for those who would whore their daughters out for the same reason.

“How old are you, Darling?” he asked covering his rage.

He watched the girl freeze-the truth of fourteen colliding with the lie of seventeen her mother had given her. He had sat on too many tribunals to be fooled by a naïve virgin and her conniving mother.

“If you are contemplating a lie to me, just say nothing. It will be better.”

The girl stayed quiet, then, peeking up at him, “Fourteen, your majes…colonel.”

“Ah, fourteen. Very good. Very good.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You weren’t supposed to tell me that were you?”

The girl blushed and looked away.

“No matter, no matter. I’ll make sure I tell everyone you’re eighteen, is it? Seventeen?”

“Seventeen, Colonel.”

“Very good.”

Regardless of her looks and the beginnings of regal bearing, the girl’s accent was of the mud. It was tough to hear such guttural tones coming out of a mouth as wonderful as this.

“Do you read Laurencia?”

“No, Colonel”.

“Numbers?”

She shook her head.

What is this mother thinking? He didn’t know, but he would find out. The girl brightened when he offered her chocolate and a cup of watered wine. She had come up the mountain alone on a handsome burro that she loved and had all her life. The colonel smiled; there is hope for one who loves a burro as the girl loved hers. The words poured about her burro, then her cats, then the dog, then the chickens-the girl who had slinked up the mountain in fear babbled on happily about the animals in her life. Probably preferable to the people she knew. The Colonel had daughters, both known and unknown, native and mestizo, and knew how to speak to girls. What he thought would be a five-minute interview extended to a half an hour of laughter and simple stories.

“Well Laurencia, it was wonderful to meet you”, he said finally. “But I have work…” he gestured apologetically toward the table.

“Yessir. I’m sorry to have taken your time.”, she said primly and stood. “I will go now. Thank you.”

She bowed formally and turned away her pert bottom pressing against the woven dress. They always mature first back there, he thought before looking away.

“Laurencia!” She stopped and turned. “I want you to…” how to say this? He didn’t want to appear to be offering what her mother had sent her for but wanted to ensure that the girl knew she had a place to come to if she ever needed one. “Stop back and see me. I don’t have the time now, but would love to meet your burro. Would you bring him back to visit?”

“Oh yes sir. And I will bring you eggs-from my chickens.”

“You will never be able to bring eggs up the mountain on your burro”, he teased. “They will all be scrambled when you get here!”

“You’ll see. I know how to pack eggs”, she smiled widely and for a moment he saw the woman she would become.

Dios Mio, he thought. Then with a charming smile that betrayed nothing, “Have your mother stop by to see me, would you? Not you, just her. Same time as this tomorrow. High noon. You’ll remember that won’t you?”

“Oh yes Colonel. I will tell her. And remember, I am seventeen!” She laughed like pearls flowing over pebbles.

“Dios Mio”, he whispered as she strode across the patio and was gone. He didn’t feel guilty for his arousal but rather proud that he hadn’t acted upon it.

 

(Continued)