Author: Jeff Mann
Brice Brown sings about loyalty and broken hearts, the earnestness of being a proud Southerner, yet his popular country music lyrics are misdirection because Brice has kept hidden his attraction to men for all his life. But when a former lover—and band member—goes to the press with the truth, Brice finds himself sick of all the lies and returning to the sanctuary of his West Virginian hometown. The neighbors who used to be proud of the "local boy made good" turn on him. His record label cancels contracts, his wife files for divorce, and he finds himself disgraced and despondent. But then Brice learns from a fan that there is a compound in central West Virginia run by a man who has helped troubled gay youth overcome their self-loathing. Brice takes a chance at redemption and finds the retreat in the woods. The owner, only a few years older than Brice is a kind hearted soul and does not turn him away and offers a friendly ear and comforting words. Conway Twitty once said, "Listen to advice, but follow your heart." And the man's nephew, Lucas, who serves as the handyman at the compound is a tempting young man, simmering with resentment at his past, angry at how he sees his future will be. And Brice thinks that Lucas is attracted to him but both men are hurting. Can they rise above the condemnations the world has given them and find something meaningful...together?
Brice rose. He was about to pull on his coat when footsteps sounded upstairs. Lucas? He hung his coat back up, poured himself another cup of coffee, and hastily took a seat.
The stairs thumped, and then Lucas appeared in the doorway. He paused, staring at Brice as if he were an unwelcome intruder.
“Oh. Hey. You’re here.” Lucas entered, averting his eyes, and poured himself coffee. To Brice’s disappointment, the boy’s shapely arms and torso were swathed in a baggy sweatshirt, though tight camo pants displayed his delectable rump.
“Hey, Lucas. Good morning to you.” Brice mustered the sort of smile he’d so often flashed at fans from onstage. “Doris Ann said to come fetch your breakfast in the kitchen. Sausage gravy and biscuits. They’re great. She said you favored them.”
“Yeah, I do.” Lucas hesitated, scanning the tables in the room and frowning. The only place already set was right across the table from Brice. “Guess I’ll sit here then,” he said, putting down his cup. In another minute, he’d fetched a piled-up plate and was digging into his breakfast as if he hadn’t had a decent meal in days. “Good, huh?” Brice grinned. “You seem pretty hungry.”
Lucas looked up and scowled. “I am. I have a big appetite. You making fun of me?”
“No, I’m not.” God, he’s prickly. “I have a big appetite too. So what are you up to today?”
“Chopping wood.” Lucas wiped his mouth. “Then I’m gonna make dinner.”
“That’s what I hear. Chicken and dumplings, Doris Ann said.”
“Yeah. So? Nothing girly about cooking. All the guys in my family are good cooks.”
“You’re a real thorn bush, ain’t you? I’m just trying to make conversation.” Brice sat back with a sigh. “I think it’s great that you can cook. I’m a decent cook myself, when I put my hand to it. A man should be self-sufficient, right?”
Lucas glared at Brice for a split-second, then dropped his eyes. “Thorn bush, huh? Maybe so. I ain’t the best for social skills. Seems like a waste of time.”
“How about I save you some time by helping with the wood?
“Help?” Lucas cocked his head, as if the concept confused him.
“Help.” Jesus, what pretty blue-gray eyes. “I’m not bad with an axe. I used to gather wood with my Daddy all the time.”
“Why d’you wanna help?”
“Simple enough. If I don’t pitch in here and there, I’m going to feel like a great big parasite. I don’t want to wear out my welcome, right?”
Lucas stuffed another bite into his mouth. “I get by all right by myself. I’m used to doing things on my own.”
“You sure? I’d appreciate the company. I’ve been alone a lot lately.”
“I like being alone.” Lucas sopped up the last of the gravy with the last of a biscuit. “Especially out here in the country.”
“Me too. But only so much. Don’t you get tired of it?”
Lucas shrugged. “Not really.” He gulped the last of his coffee, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stood. “Look, Mr. Brown, I don’t need no help with the wood, though it’s kind of you to offer.”
“You sure? I—”
“I’m sure. See you around.” Lucas turned and stomped back up the stairs.
Brice sat back, dull disappointment heavy inside him, sipped his coffee, and heard a door slam. After a few minutes, he rose, carried the dirty plates into the kitchen, and headed back to his cabin, with no idea whatsoever of how to spend the day.
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Jeff Mann grew up in Covington, VA, and Hinton, WV, receiving degrees in English and forestry from West Virginia University. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many publications, including Arts and Letters, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Appalachian Heritage. He has published award-winning poetry chapbooks, collections of personal essays, and novels (for which he won both a Lambda Literary Award and the Pauline Réage Novel Award). In 2013, he was inducted into the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival Hall of Fame. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
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