A/N: UPDATE...three years later. Lol, damn. Please enjoy this chapter and thank you for the reviews! I look forward to more. c:
Thomas had eaten more pie than he knew his stomach could hold, but he was still gazing longingly at the pie plate on the counter. Instead of getting more, he stood to take his dishes to the sink and get another glass of water. After he had downed the glass, he washed the dishes that he and his niece had made and wondered if he should just run upstairs to his parent's room and get the encounter with his father over with.
While he was worried about the man's declining health, he was more worried about his declining couth. As he grew older, he grew surlier and Thomas was not ready to get the "Why the Hell You Wastin' Your Time in New York?" lecture again. He didn't even live in New York.
Deciding he'd wait until he at least got settled in and took a look around, he dried his hands and shot a smile to his mother who had been idly watching him with a fond smile.
"Gonna take my stuff up to my room," he said.
Though he had moved out at the age of twenty, he still felt attached to the room at the top of the stairs. His parents had never quite rid it of its faded memories, but they had at least moved things around a bit and gotten new bedding. They used it as a guest room. Bethanie's old room at the left end of the hall had been converted into a playroom for Molly.
He had just put his things on the floor of the nostalgic little room when a rap on the front door frame caught his ears.
"Come on in, George," his mother called from downstairs. The sound of the screen door opening and being closed carefully followed shortly after.
Thomas's curiosity got the better of him.
He walked to his still open door and peered down the staircase.
A fairly tall man with dark hair had his back turned to Thomas at the bottom of the stairs. The stranger leaned down to hug an excited Molly before going to hug Deana as well. Deana spoke loudly and easily, but as Thomas attempted to listen in, he could only catch a few quiet murmurs from the man he assumed must have been George.
Thankfully they hadn't noticed him standing there from the shadows watching nosily and he retreated to the safety of the bathroom beside his room.
He locked the door behind him.
After letting out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, he looked himself over in the mirror. He looked pretty okay.
His clean cut appearance gave him a sense of confidence. Meeting new people had never been difficult for him, but making good first-impressions was an entirely separate act. Apparently this guy was one of the family now and had even won the esteem of his father-judging by the well-built home Thomas had seen on his way in. He didn't want to look like a bumbling city idiot who had forgotten his way around a farm.
He unconsciously puffed himself up, chest out. He was not going to look like a fool.
When he emerged from the bathroom, confidence renewed, he briskly jogged down the stairs in the same way he had for the twenty years before moving away, only somehow he had miscalculated the steps and found himself staggering down the last three.
His face was hot with embarrassment before he even attempted to catch himself.
"Gah!" he said helplessly as he fell forward.
Somehow, though, he hadn't hit the floor as he had many times in the past. He had hit something solid and warm and breathing.
"The stairs ain't changed and neither have you, boy. George, that graceful little charmer you got there is my son, Thomas. Thomas, this is George," she said without missing a beat. The humor in her voice was evident as she watched her son fumble out of the man's grip.
"H-hey, man. Sorry about that. Thanks for the...for catching…" Thomas said in an attempt to be casual about the situation but trailed off as his eyes met the man's.
Dark green and light brown mixed in such a way that Thomas was speechless and almost forgot to look at the rest of the man. A light covering of dark brown hair washed across the lower part of the man's face and equally dark hair splayed carelessly atop his head. His eyebrows were thick and drawn into a concerned expression.
It wasn't until Thomas had reached the neckline of the man's shirt that he remembered he was talking and that he was still ridiculously close and probably staring. And ridiculously close.
He took a step back and held out a hand. Determined not to be that college kid awkwardly grasping for social normality, he smiled.
"Let me start again. Hi! Nice to meet you, George," he managed to say. He was proud of himself for at least providing comic relief to the pressure swelling up in his chest. His mother laughed openly and the man breathed out a little laugh as well. He shook Thomas's hand with a "Nice to meet you" of his own. George quickly returned his hand to the pocket of his jeans.
Deana went on to chat George up about all the "success" her son was having out in the city and how it was wonderful to have him home. Thomas filled in the appropriate blanks with small talk, however, his body was betraying him. He had expected "Uncle George" to be a slightly younger version of his father. Something like a fifty-year-old war veteran hardened by time and bitterness and disappointment and was rough around the edges. While that last bit seemed a bit true by the man's tired eyes, he was certainly much younger-and much more attractive-than Thomas had imagined.
His eyes kept flitting to George and back to his mother briefly as if he wasn't secretly ogling the man and ignoring his mother. She must must have just read his mind because then she said, "Oh and would you believe that you boys are just two years apart? It's like having another son around!"
Thomas gave a friendly smile, pleased that he didn't have to openly express interest in George by asking his age and coming off as too interested. Not that anyone but Bethanie knew about his preferences, but one could never be too careful.
George seemed used to Deana's rambling because he only smiled politely and laughed softly at appropriate times.
He had good teeth. Nice laugh. Cute ass.
"I'm gonna go look around for a bit…" Thomas suddenly said. His eyes were wide at his thoughts. When had he even looked at this stranger's ass?
"Okay, honey," Deana said. Thomas began to walk to the back door on the other side of the kitchen before his mother spoke again. "Why don't you go with him, George? It's been a while since he was here. Show him what you've done with the place! I'm gonna to go visit the ladies' room," she said. The sixty-year-old woman made to stand and instantly both George and Thomas went to assist her, but she only waved them off and skedaddled down the hall.
The men looked at each other hesitantly.
"That's my momma," Thomas finally said with a nervous laugh and a hand combing through his hair.
George smiled and made that breathy little noise of his that was almost a laugh. Not much of a talker.
Thomas followed a bit behind George into the farm behind the house. Two acres of almost flat dirt, sparse grass and few mesquite trees here and there made up the Hopkins's back yard. Bales of hay were scattered throughout the immediate yard in a sort of organized chaos. A new fence had been erected and the barn had been painted a nice new coat of red. Against the blue sky, Thomas thought it reminded him of his red couch and blue walls back at home. Maybe it was always the other way around.
"It looks good. Didn't think I'd have a stranger showing me around my own backyard, though," Thomas said with a smirk. His face fell. "Shit, that was rude of me. I meant-"
"It's alright. Thank you," the quiet man said with a comforting smile, saving Thomas from even more embarrassment.
From what he could catch of George's words, his accent was a little subdued like maybe he had also lived somewhere slightly less southern for a while. It was still noticeably southern, though. Despite Thomas having moved away, the south always found him at the end of every sentence. Fortunately he didn't sound as country as his family. He cringed to imagine what he sounded like during his Freshman year in college.
His thoughts were running on "E" as he trailed mindlessly behind George into the familiar yet improved landscape. He cleared his throat and attempted to avoid looking at George.
"How long are you out here for?"
Thomas snapped his neck up and looked around wide-eyed as if George could have been talking to anyone else.
"Oh, ah...I was thinking just around three weeks. Even that's pushing it, but my boss practically forced me to leave. I haven't had a vacation since...three years ago? God my life is drab," Thomas said more to himself. He had almost forgotten the strange man was there until George's tired laugh drew his attention.
George was looking at the ground with that polite smile on his face and his eyes crinkled. He looked weary, Thomas thought. As if gravity weighed a little heavier on him than average people. He wondered what his story was. If he had a little family tucked away in that house across the street. He couldn't have; he'd only moved there three years ago and, from the way his sister made it sound, he was alone. Poor guy.
Thomas quickly turned his head so he was looking at a few grazing horses. He had been caught staring and he was again taken back to his clumsy college days in a new town with new people.
Making business contacts was easy. Making friends was hard.
"Ugh…" Thomas groaned as a bead of sweat slid down his face and he was reminded of the heat that settled in on a late August evening. When another bead of sweat fell upon him it seemed out of place. He looked up to see the blue sky had turned slightly greyer in the last few minutes and warm droplets of water fell from seemingly nowhere. A sweltering southern summer complete with random summer storms. Welcome home, Thomas Hopkins.
"Let's head inside. I think the sun is even sweating out here."
George noticed, too and laughed a little more audibly than before. Somehow Thomas felt a sense of accomplishment.
They closed the door behind themselves and Deana still hadn't returned to the kitchen.
Fighting for some sort of relief from the tension built around the sheer awkwardness, Thomas excused himself and decided to head onto the battlefield.
"I'm gonna go check on my Dad," he said stupidly and turned to head up the stairs to his parents' room at the other end of the hall. He used the railing this time, but after only two steps a hand was at his shoulder. He stopped to turn toward George with a raised eyebrow.
"Sewing room. Put a recliner in there for him so we didn't have to deal with stairs," he said.
"Oh. Okay...Thanks," Thomas said flatly. Again he felt a little out of place. This random man knew his home probably better than he did at this point.
His feet led him to the room at the end of the hallway beside the stairs. He passed by the downstairs bathroom and noticed that his mother was no longer occupying it. He hoped she'd be in there with his father so that his words weren't so harsh when he finally saw his estranged son.
He knocked on the door out of habit.
After a brief pause, the sound of light footsteps came before the door was pulled open. Beth stood there with slight hesitation. After seeing her brother's face she gave him a look that said 'he's all yours' and held the door open for him.
Thomas gave a wary smirk as he crept into the room. He felt like a child again. A child finally being confronted with something bad he had done and about to face judgement. He saw his father lying on the recliner. His legs were up and he was leaned back with a blanket over his lap and a twenty year old television playing some black and white movie. He ignored Thomas.
"Daddy. Thomas is here. He wants to say hello to you," Bethanie said with a hand on her father's shoulder. She shared a look with Thomas.
"Hm? Oh. Hey Tommy boy. Di'n't know ya was here," he said with his gruff voice.
Thomas rolled his eyes.
"Well, I am here. I came to see what you've gone and done to yourself," he said.
His father's gaze stayed straight ahead as he stared at the television. Thomas still hesitated by the doorway.
"Di'n't realize it'd made the papers. Well you done seen me now; lame as a newborn calf. You can go on back to your skyscrapers and concrete," his father said.
"Oh, Dad. Quit with the dramatics. I'm here to help, whether you like it or not. I came to see you. I came to see all of you," Thomas said. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall near the closet. He absently fumbled with the old sliding door and attempted to close the remaining three inches, but knew it was broken and would never quite close.
"No one asked you to come," said the old man. He lifted the remote and turned to the news.
"Bethanie called me!" Thomas said in exasperation.
At her name, Bethanie went wide-eyed and shook her head at Thomas mouthing 'no', but stopped abruptly when her father looked at her and finally to Thomas and said, "Well, who the hell told her to do that? I already got my able wife and my obedient daughter here at home. I even got George, nowadays. He got a real knack for hard work. Bet he made his daddy proud."
Thomas felt expletives bubbling up his throat like bile, but urged them down and met his father's eyes.
"Well that's damn fine, Daddy. I suppose I'll just pick up the slack between the three of them then. Awful hard for one man to tend a farm and a household all on his lonesome. I've seen what it did to you. Wouldn't want poor George to end up ornery and bitter," Thomas said as he fiddled with the closet door some more, no longer looking his father in the eye by the end of his outburst.
"Tommy!" Bethanie said with a disappointed scowl at her younger brother.
"No, no, Beth Anne. Let yer brother show us what that city livin' taught him. How to bad mouth your father and disrespect all the hard work he did to keep his family fed and healthy. And why the hell d-ACK! God damn it!" said the old man as his face screwed up in pain. He had gotten himself worked up and accidentally put too much weight on his hip.
Despite how angry his father made him, Thomas still rushed forward to help his him. Bathanie beat him to it.
"Get the hell away from me!" Lou Hopkins said. He swung blindly at Thomas, but allowed Bethanie to comfort him.
For a moment only the thrumming of the news reporter's voice and the labored breathing of Lou could be heard. A distant rumble of thunder clapped.
"Since…" Lou began as he caught his breath. "Since ya wanna be such a smart ass, I tell ya what. You help George take care of my farm and my animals while yer here. Do as he says. You will show him the respect you never showed me. I'll give ya a chance to prove yerself, but I don't want you in my house. You can stay at George's or go ten miles out to the nearest motel. I don't give a shit. Work your ass off and show me I didn't waste my time tryin' to rear you up right, that's how you can help me," he said.
Thomas had a look of incredulity on his face. One because that was the most his father had said to him in years, and, two, because he came home to help the ailing man and he was kicked out the moment he talked to him.
His eye twitched, but after years of dealing with his stubborn father, he only held his hands up and left the room.
"Tommy!" Bethanie said. He kept walking.
Bethanie gave her father a stern and disapproving look. He turned the volume on the television up.
"It's for his own damn good," Lou said.
When Thomas reached the kitchen, he noticed Deana and George sitting tensely at the table. Apparently they had heard most or all of the confrontation.
The sound of the rain and thunder in the distance made the situation all the drearier.
"Well, it's a good thing I didn't unpack yet," Thomas said with a wry smile directed at his mother.
"Honey, you don't have to go. He can't even get out of bed, much less stop you from stayin' here," she said. She was up now and had a hand on his shoulder.
"No, no. His house, his rules. I'll do what he wants. Apparently getting an education and a job and being self-sustaining isn't good enough for him. I have to work my hands to the bone like he has, so I'll do it if that's what he wants," Thomas said with his hands up in exasperation.
He turned abruptly to the staircase to get his things together.
"You can...stay with me. Not very roomy, but it beats a motel. I think," George said.
Thomas stopped and turned to him. He looked like he wasn't so sure he wanted to offer up his place, but it was the polite thing to do. He was just a polite guy. Thomas couldn't put him out.
"I appreciate it, but I wouldn't want to intrude," he said. He threw a cautious glance at his mother who was scowling at him and nodding toward George.
"We've gotta get up at dawn. The nearest motel is a few miles away. Do you have a car?" he said.
Thomas's face fell pathetically. There went his plans of walking seven or eight miles both ways every day to get to the farm. He'd have to find some other way to show his diligence and dedication to his father. Walking across the street sounded much better, anyway.
"If it isn't too much trouble, then?" he said feeling even more defeated.
"Not at all," George said. He looked slightly more confident in his offer, but still not enthusiastic about it. Thomas wasn't going to complain.
"Alright, then. Thanks, man. Let me get my things," Thomas said.
He went into his old room and picked up his bags. He sighed and shook his head at the perfectly made bed that his mother had no doubt put a bit of effort in to prepare for him.
When he got back downstairs, George was standing and waiting for him.
"I'll just give you a quick tour and we will probably have to head into town for some food shopping. I don't have much to cook," George said.
Deana piped up. "Oh you boys don't have to worry 'bout that right away! I'll have dinner ready for everyone tonight! Why don't you just go wind down and come on back around...seven? Oh goodness is it already five thirty? Where is my little helper? Molly Sue! Come on down here and help Gramma fix dinner," she yelled up the stairs.
She smiled at the pair and walked them to the door.
"Thanks, Mom," Thomas said solemnly but with honesty. She kissed him on the cheek and then surprisingly, did the same to George.
For the second time that day, Thomas found himself following behind George awkwardly. The humidity was ridiculous and he was starting to crave a shower, but he knew he'd just sweat again the second he stepped out. The stormclouds had rolled off into the distance and thunder clanged far away, but over the farm, the blue sky was coming into focus once again.
"I'll never understand southern summers," Thomas said aloud to himself.
He earned another one of those polite, breathy laughs from the man in front of him.
Suddenly, the reality of spending three whole weeks bunking and working with this attractive stranger scared the shit out of him. Somehow, it also exhilarated him.
He was very much looking forward to hearing a real laugh from George. Harboring a secret crush and ogling some eye candy for nearly a month didn't sound half-bad to Thomas.
George opened his front door and allowed Thomas to go in before him.
With one last look to the mailbox at the end of the walkway, Thomas smirked. Maybe getting kicked out wouldn't be so terrible after all. Unless, of course, Mr. Northrop turned out to be a murderer. Rapist. Insane in any way, shape or form.
Thomas's eyes widened as thought of all the places a body could be dumped. 'Shit.'