me: I have a story mostly finished
sass-and-panache: oh? what's it about?
me: how I haven't been to the lake in three years and how much I miss it
Link was trying to work, he really was.
There was a knock on the door, followed by a burst of frantic barking and a shriek.
“Uncle Liiiink! There's someone at the dooooor!”
Link grit his teeth and rolled his chair to the doorway and shouted down the stairwell, “Well, then answer it, Sophie!” He rolled back and picked up his headphones only to be interrupted again.
Last autumn he'd agreed to become the live-in caretaker of his paternal family's lakeside mansion and cabins. In the summer he was in charge of renting out the cabins and hosting family in the mansion, and in the winter he took care of all the property. For this, he got free housing and was paid a stipend from the family trust, which along with his freelance graphic design work, allowed him to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle.
He hadn't realized how much babysitting would be involved.
“I can't! It's stuck!”
Link raised his eyes heavenward in a plea for patience and put the headphones back on the desk before descending the stairs. His niece Sophie stood in front of the door, wearing a sparkly green bathing suit and pink Crocs. Her golden retriever bounced around and barked in excitement as whoever was on the other side of the door knocked again.
“Get him out of here, Sophie. You know how he gets when the door opens,” Link grabbed the doorknob and heaved as Sophie grabbed the dog by his collar and led him off to the kitchen. The door really and truly was stuck. Usually everyone just used the back door in the kitchen, so the front door was left to swell in the humidity.
One final pull led to success. As Link opened the door, he caught a glimpse of a tall, bearded man for just a second before the golden retriever slammed into him, barking wildly. Sophie ran in, giggling.
“Fuck!” Link swore. “Hang on a second,” he said to the man on the porch before shutting the door in his face.
Sophie looked at him with wide eyes. “I'm telling mommy you said a bad word.”
“Your mama taught me that word,” Link retorted. He grabbed the dog's collar and led him through the house before escorting both the dog and Sophie out the back door.
Link took a few deep breaths before going to open the front door. “Sorry about that,” he said to the bearded man. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I'm looking for Link Neal? I'm renting a cabin and I need the key,” the bearded man said. He had a mildly shell-shocked expression and was about Link's age and really handsome, in Link's opinion. “They told me to come to the big house.”
“Come on in,” Link said as he stood aside. “I'm Link.” He held out his hand.
The other man shook it. “Rhett McLaughlin.” He looked around the room and his eyes got wide. “Whoa.”
It was the same reaction that all newcomers had to the front room. Built in 1920 by Link's rich new-money railway baron great grandfather, it had a rustic exterior that belied the luxurious interior. The front room preserved the original décor: mahogany paneling, stained glass lamps, custom curtains and upholstery, and a grand piano. A wide staircase ascended in the corner.
There was also a mess of shoes, pool noodles, life jackets, toys, and towels scattered about.
Link laughed. “Welcome to Merganser Lodge. Don't worry, it's not all like this. The rest of the house is way less, um, ostentatious.”
Rhett followed him into the kitchen, which had a full butler's pantry, an enormous island, and high end appliances. It was pretty ostentatious as well, just in a different way. Link disappeared into the pantry and rummaged around in a drawer.
“Which cabin are you staying in?” he hollered out to Rhett.
“I don't know.”
Link came out of the pantry with a puzzled look on his face. “You don't know?”
Rhett shook his head. “Someone else booked it for me.”
“Oh.” A light clicked on for Link. “You're that one. Hang on, I gotta run upstairs and print some paperwork for you. There's soda and stuff in the fridge if you want a drink.” He left and ran back up to his studio.
When Link came back into the kitchen, he found Rhett drinking a Coke while staring out the back door. “This place is amazing. I had no idea it was going to be like this,” he said. Several terraced green lawns led down to the lake, where a dock with a diving board stretched out towards a floating platform. Little natural peninsulas formed multiple small coves around the house. Adirondack chairs, a hammock, a gazebo, an outdoor brick oven, and a couple fire pits were scattered around the property. Huge mature trees shaded everything and mostly hid the three cabins from each other.
The lake itself was long and thin and nestled between two low mountain ranges covered in deep green foliage. Boats ranging from single person kayaks to a full size paddle wheel steamboat cruised through the rich blue water.
Link shot him a look and dug through the junk drawer for a pen. “Okay, I am really curious here. My grandma had me block out reservations for the best cabin for six weeks—basically the entire summer, which caused some pretty unpleasant conversations with longtime renters, by the way—as 'a favor for a friend' and then you show up. I'm pretty sure you aren't friends with my grandma, so what gives?”
Rhett shrugged and took a sip of his soda. “I dunno about your grandma. My manager made my reservations. She said I needed to go somewhere where I could concentrate.”
“Your manager?” Link found a pen and shoved it across the island at Rhett. “Fill that out, please.”
“Yeah, with the record label. I'm a musician. She wants me to have an album's worth of songs ready to record by the end of the summer.” Rhett uncapped the pen and scribbled in the corner of the paper to unclog it.
“Can you do that? Just write songs on command?” Link asked, leaning against the counter behind him as he watched Rhett fill out the paperwork. Rhett had his dark blond hair pushed back into a messy pompadour and was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and dark skinny jeans cuffed over brown boots. Link glanced down at his own outfit—a plain blue t-shirt, green cactus-printed swim trunks, and bare feet—and suddenly felt under dressed. He combed his fingers through his messy hair self consciously.
“Um, no. At least, not in LA. That's why I'm here. My manager called me yesterday and said that I missed one too many deadlines, so she was sending me to 'summer camp' and that if I wasn't ready to go to the airport at 6 this morning, there'd be hell to pay. So here I am.” Rhett slid the papers back to Link.
“Wow. That's, um, that's...you were okay with that?” Link looked through the papers. Everything was in order.
“No, actually, we had a screaming fight over the phone last night, and another one on the way to the airport this morning.” Rhett shrugged. “But none of that is your fault and I did actually miss a few deadlines, so...”
“Gotcha.” Link initialed a few places on the forms. “Let me grab your key.” He vanished back into the pantry.
The screen door banged open behind Rhett. A middle school aged boy ran in. “Hey Uncle Link, can--” he skidded to a stop at the sight of Rhett. “Do you know where my Uncle Link is?”
“Pantry.” Rhett pointed across the room.
“UNCLE LINK!” the boy hollered from his place by the door. Rhett jumped. “CAN WE GO TO RAY’S FOR LUNCH?”
“Jesus Christ, Owen,” Link scolded as he reentered the kitchen. “Don't scream like that in front of a guest. Actually, don't scream like that, period. And I'm not taking you to Ray's because one, there's leftover pizza and two, you interrupted me three times this morning after I asked you not to.” He handed a key to Rhett. The metal keychain was a silhouette of the lake with a label reading #3 on it.
“Okay, so you don't really need to lock anything up because this is private property and we're so far off the main road, but you can if you want.” Owen yanked on Link's sleeve but Link shook him off. “I cleaned the cabin but I haven't brought any sheets or towels down yet so I'll bring them in a little bit.” Owen pulled on Link's sleeve again.
“Oh my god, Owen, what?” Link spun around.
“My dad ate the rest of the pizza after you went to bed.”
“Seriously?” Link pulled open the fridge. It was nearly empty except for drinks. He sighed and looked over at Rhett. “You wanna go to Ray's with us?”
Ray's Helova Deli was part deli, part ice cream parlor, part convenience store, part liquor store, and part souvenir shop. Rhett ordered a sandwich and then grabbed a basket to stock up on a few things while it was made. He grinned to himself as he listened to Link try to tell Owen and Sophie that they absolutely were not getting chips or soda because they had chips and soda at home. He could already tell Link was going to lose.
Rhett was already in a much better mood than he had been yesterday when his manager called and informed him that he was going to be spending the next six weeks in a little lakeside vacation town in the Adirondack Mountains. It looked incredibly grim on Wikipedia—just an absolute tourist trap. Lots of motels and lots of souvenir shops. Rhett had been unclear on how spending six weeks there was going to help him write songs.
But his manager, god bless her traitorous little soul, had somehow pulled some strings to get him a private cabin (which was larger than his apartment in LA) right on the water. It was shockingly gorgeous without being too isolated.
And it didn't hurt that that his new landlord was super hot, too. Link was in his mid twenties, about the same age as Rhett, with longish dark hair and bright, bright blue eyes. He was lean and tan with a swimmer's broad shoulders and narrow waist. And his legs...Link was wearing short swim trunks that showed off his long legs in the best way.
At first Rhett had been surprised that Link, Owen, and Sophie went out in their swimsuits (Owen wasn't even wearing a shirt), but a look around at the other clientele in Ray's proved that he was the out of place one. Everyone looked like they'd escaped from a beach.
Rhett got in the checkout line in front of Link, who was holding three sandwiches and a bag of chips. Owen and Sophie each had a glass bottle of soda.
“I thought you weren't supposed to get any soda,” Rhett said to Sophie, who just grinned at him.
“At least I got them to agree on sharing a bag of chips,” Link said. “I'm going to count that as a win.” They piled into Link's beat up station wagon and he drove to the exit of the parking lot and put on the left turn signal. Traffic whizzed by at frightening speeds.
“Is it always this bad?” Rhett asked. The road was basically a narrow, twisty, two lane highway with no shoulder. It was nearly impossible to see the traffic coming.
“Nah. Sometimes it's worse.” Link stomped on the gas and accelerated into a wild left hand turn, narrowly missing being hit by an oncoming pickup.
“Jesus Christ!” Rhett grabbed the handle above the door. “Do you always drive like that?”
Link shot him an amused glance. “Only left turns on Lake Shore Drive. Gotta be quick if you don't want to be there all day. I've got things to do.” He looked into the rearview mirror.
“Owen and Sophie! Did you hear that? I have things to do, which means that when we get home you are not going to...what?”
“Get in the lake 'cuz you won't be there to watch us,” Sophie answered. She already had the chips open.
“Okay, that's a good answer,” Link admitted. “But what else?”
“Interrupt you!” said Owen.
“Correct! And that goes for you, too.” He pointed to Rhett, who gave him a shocked look. “Just kidding. I'm on a deadline to meet this project I'm working on, but you can call or text me if you need to. My number's on your paperwork.” Link made another hair-raising left hand turn onto the meandering gravel drive that led down to Merganser.
“Alright, everybody out. Nice to meet ya, Rhett.” Link didn't bother to lock the car. He grabbed his sandwich and ran up the porch stairs into the house.
Owen and Sophie stared at Rhett. “Do you know any famous people?” Owen asked.
“I saw Bruno Mars at a coffee shop one time,” Rhett said. “That's about it.”
Link's sister and her husband came home soon after that, so Sophie and Owen didn't bother him again that night. He stayed up until past 2am working on his project and didn't come close to finishing, but he could barely keep his eyes open. Before he went to bed, he glanced out the studio window.
The light in Rhett's cabin was on, too.
Rhett spent the rest of the afternoon and evening out on the deck of the cabin with his guitar, just playing little tunes and recording anything that he particularly liked. A couple in a BMW pulled up and went into the big house—Owen and Sophie's parents, he assumed. A little while later another car pulled up and a woman with three kids got out and went inside, too. Some time later they all emerged and went down to the dock where the adults drank wine while the kids took turns cannonballing off the diving board.
It looked like a nice family gathering, something that Rhett never really experienced. His family was dysfunctional at best, verging into abusive at the worst. He left at 16 and eventually found a group of roommates who loved music as much as he did. They put out a couple EPs and did well enough to get signed before collapsing into a mess of substance abuse and petty fighting.
Of his three former bandmates, one was in jail for DUI, one was still using, and one was dead. Rhett was three years sober, signed as a solo artist, and viewed his continued success as a blessing he probably didn't deserve.
The deck of his cabin faced the back door of the big house, and Rhett waited for Link to come out and join his family, but he never did. When it got dark, Rhett took his guitar inside and continued working on his music ideas until late in the night.
He didn't see Link at all the next day, or the day after. This was a problem. Not because Rhett wanted to ogle his legs again (although he did), but because Rhett was out of food and he didn't have a car. Ray's was close enough that he could have walked if Lake Shore Drive wasn't so dangerous, but he didn't feel like taking his life in his hands.
Text to: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): can you do me a favor
(Link): sorry who is this?
(Rhett): it's rhett
(Link): yeah what's up?
(Rhett): I know youre busy but im out of food
(Rhett): will you drive me to the store
(Rhett): or can I borrow your car
(Link): yeah let's go
(Link): I could use a break
(Link): be right there
“Do you always dress like that?” Rhett asked.
Link looked down at his outfit. He was wearing swim trunks again, blue with watermelons this time, and a Ray's Helova Deli shirt. “I live at the lake, Rhett. I'm gonna wear lake clothes.” He pointed at Rhett. “Do you always dress like that?”
Now it was Rhett's turn to look down at his outfit. Tight gray t-shirt, black skinny jeans, brown boots. “Yeah. And get used to it. I didn't bring that many clothes.”
“Did you bring a swimsuit?” Link asked. “Or shorts? Or like...sneakers?” Rhett shook his head.
“Dude...you're at the lake! You can't wear jeans and boots all summer. We're going to Target. Hang on, I gotta go put on some real pants for that.” He ran off before Rhett could protest.
Rhett sat in the glider on his deck while he waited for Link to return. The weather was perfect. A few puffy clouds floated in the sky. The lake was incredibly blue. A few parasailers were being towed around the lake by speedboats. It was wonderful.
He should probably thank his manager, but Rhett was still pretty pissed at her.
Link returned in cutoff jeans and his hair tucked under a snapback with a floral brim. They got in the station wagon and were on their way after another terrifying left hand turn onto Lake Shore Drive.
“How long have you lived here?” Rhett asked.
“Just since last fall,” Link answered. “I grew up in North Carolina but we came up here every summer for a week, though.”
“Thought I noticed an accent,” Rhett said.
“You thought right.” Link grinned. “Everyone else in my family lives in New England so I've always been the odd one out. I used to get teased so bad. What about you? Always lived in LA?”
“Born and raised, man,” answered Rhett. “This is the first time I ever left.”
Link gave him an astonished look. “Seriously? You're what, 25? And you've never left?”
“26. And I never had money to go anywhere. I grew up real poor and when my band got signed I prioritized...other stuff.”
“Oh! I looked up your old band and listened to some stuff on Youtube,” Link said. Rhett waited for him to continue, but he didn't say anything else.
“Well...did you like it?” Rhett smiled a little. He had a feeling he knew what the answer would be. “It's not going to hurt my feelings if you say no. I didn't write those songs or sing ‘em. I just played guitar.”
“Um. No, not really.” Link gave him an embarrassed little glance.
“Not surprised. I didn't think you looked like a hardcore punk guy.” Rhett reconsidered. “Actually, I don't know what hardcore punk guys wear to the lake.”
“Probably not watermelon shorts. I'm more of an old school country man, myself. Or indie.” Link pulled into the Target parking lot and found a parking space.
Rhett laughed. It was the first time Link heard him laugh. It was a nice laugh. “Me too, brother! Although I guess my songs tend to sound more folk.”
“Really?” Link tilted his head. “How do you get from punk to folk?”
“More like folk to punk, honestly. My grandma always played country and folk when I lived with her and I only got into punk when I lived with some punk kids. They're all gone now, so...” he shrugged.
“What happened to them?” Link asked as they entered the Target. It looked exactly like the Target in LA to Rhett.
“Oh.” Link could see Rhett didn't want to elaborate. “Better get a cart.”
Rhett leaned over the car and rolled over to the men's clothes. “I'm not getting a swimsuit,” he announced.
“Why not?” Link gave him a confused look. It was kind of adorable, Rhett thought, all big blue eyes and furrowed brow.
“Because I'm not getting in the lake.” Rhett flipped through a rack of shorts. He never wore shorts, but Link was right that he needed some. There were a lot of hideous baggy cargo shorts, but he found a couple pairs of plain, slim fitting shorts and threw them in the cart. One pair was black and the other was slate blue.
Link frowned. “Do you ever wear colors?”
“Do you know how to swim?”
Rhett scowled at him. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“So, no, then?”
“I'm not gonna drown if I fall off the dock, okay?” Rhett snapped. “Not everyone grew up visiting a fucking lakeside mansion every summer.”
Link flinched, blue eyes wide. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “That was really shitty of me.”
Rhett rested his elbows on the cart handle and dropped his head in his hands. Link meant well, he really did, but he was kind of privileged and oblivious.
He was also the closest thing to a friend Rhett had, and they'd be living next door to each other for the next six weeks, so...
“Yeah, it was, but I still shouldn't have yelled at you.” Rhett straightened up. “Let's just look at the shoes and get some food and get out of here.”
By the time they finished shopping, any awkwardness had passed and the two men were back on good terms.
“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight? My brother in law is grilling steaks,” Link offered as he helped Rhett carry his groceries into the cabin.
Rhett raised an eyebrow. His brows were much darker than his hair. “Don't you think it's a little early in our relationship for me to meet your family?” He burst out laughing at Link's scandalized expression and held up his hands
“I'm kidding! Well, kind of. Won't they think it's weird some random guy to come to dinner?”
“Oh, gosh, no,” Link responded, shaking his head. “Are you kidding? That place is a revolving door all summer. All my siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles and all their kids and partners and friends...one extra person isn't remarkable at all. Guests come to dinner all the time.”
“Are you the only person who lives there full time?” Rhett asked. He opened the fridge and started putting away his cold groceries as Link put the dry goods in the cabinet.
“Yeah. The house is owned by a family trust and I took over the caretaker position, so I get a little salary and a place to live and in return I rent out the cabins and play the gracious host of the big house. It's good fun.” Link shook his head and mouthed 'no it's not'.
“Then why'd you agree to take it, if you don't like it?”
“Because I get to live in a 100 year old mansion next to a beautiful lake, duh! You should see my room. It's insane. Fireplace, wood paneling—a lot like the front room. And the bathroom has the biggest tub I've ever seen. Anyway, the revolving door only lasts for about three months in the summer. It's way calmer the rest of the year.” Link shut the cabinet. “If you don't want to come to dinner, do you want me to save you a steak and bring it over later?”
Rhett smiled. “You really are a good host.”
Link pointed at him. “Don't push your luck, bub.”
Rhett was sitting on the glider in front of his cabin with his guitar when Link wandered over from the big house and plopped down in the Adirondack chair across from him.
“You sure spend a lot of time inside for a guy who loves the lake. I haven't seen you in days,” Rhett observed.
“Ugh, it's this never ending project. The client keeps changing his mind on what he wants. I'm about to tell him I'm going to start charging a fee for every revision he makes. I hate him and I hate his stupid project.” Link crossed his arms and scowled.
“Maybe you should just tell him to go to hell,” Rhett suggested. He played a few notes on his guitar.
“God, that would be satisfying.” Link changed the subject. “You finish any songs yet?”
In response, Rhett started playing and sang some nonsense syllables and then:
I belong bodily to the earth
I'm just wearing long bones from those that came first
Link was silent for a moment. “That's...eerie.”
“Not everyone can be a ray of sunshine like you, Link.”
“I liked it, though!” Link protested and sat up in his chair. “Where did it come from?”
Rhett shrugged. “Those big boulders all around the property? I guess they were put there by glaciers. Anyway, they've been there for millions of years so I started thinking about what if there was a life in them and it sort of went from there.”
“That's cool.” Link slid back into the chair. “You wanna do something?”
“Like what?” Rhett put the guitar down on the glider next to him.
“I dunno. Go in to the village and get ice cream and people watch, or do some touristy shit like a horseback ride--”
Rhett laughed. “A horseback ride? Really? Can you imagine me on a horse?”
“You'd fit better than some of the people I've seen there, especially the girls in bikinis and flip flops,” Link said. “Or we could go out on the boat.”
“You can drive that thing?” Rhett looked at the 18 foot Boston Whaler tied up at the dock. It bobbed on the waves.
“Yeah, I took lessons this spring. It's a lot of fun! We can take some snacks and have a picnic out in the middle of the lake.” Link grinned at him. “What do you think?”
“Sure, what the hell.” Rhett got up and put his guitar away inside. Link was bouncing happily on the balls of his feet when he came out. “Excited, aren't you?”
“C'mon, let's get some food,” Link led Rhett into the kitchen of the big house, where he pulled out a little cooler and started filling it with sodas and cut up veggies. Rhett leaned back against the counter and watched. Being in the big house made him a little uneasy.
Link glanced up at him. “You okay, man?”
“This house is too big.” Rhett looked around the kitchen. “I think my whole apartment would fit in here.”
Link nodded. “Our house in North Carolina is pretty small and it was always kind of a shock the first day here. I can imagine it's even worse for you.” He zipped up the cooler and pulled a white bottle out of a drawer. “Here.” He tossed it at Rhett, who barely caught it.
“Sunscreen?” Rhett looked up at Link.
“You have blond hair and freckles. If you don't put slather on the SPF, you're gonna hate your life later.”
“I live in LA, dude. I know about sunburns.”
“You burn faster out on the water, though.” Something else occurred to Link. “Do you have a hat?” Rhett shook his head.
“You can borrow one of mine.” Link ran up to his room and came back with two hats. “Bad news, I don't have any black or gray hats so you're going to have to wear a color.”
“Well in that case I don't want to go.” Rhett snapped the lid of the sunscreen bottle shut and smacked it down on the counter.
“Seriously?” Link gaped at him.
“No, you idiot. Of course I still want to go. Geez, you're gullible.” Rhett selected a hunter green hat with CAMP VIBES on the underside of the bridge. “How's it look?”
“Asshole.” Link grabbed the sunscreen and squirted some into his palm. “You still need to put sunblock on your face even if you're wearing a hat because the light reflects off the water.” He reached out and swiped a smear of sunscreen on Rhett's nose. Rhett flinched.
“What the hell, man?” Rhett felt his face growing red as Link gently spread sunscreen over his cheekbones. Link was standing very, very close to him, and Rhett could see just how blue his eyes were. Link just grinned at him before backing up and rubbing sunscreen onto his own face.
“Let's go.” Link put on his floral snapback and grabbed the cooler. They walked past Rhett's cabin on down to the dock where a couple of teenage girls were sunbathing.
“Are you going out on the boat, Link? Can we come?” one of them asked. She looked a little like Link, with dark hair and blue eyes.
“Uh, no,” Link said to her. He turned to Rhett. “Just hold on to the railing and step in.”
“Why not?” the girl demanded. Rhett held onto the railing with a deathgrip as he carefully climbed into the pitching boat.
“Because your dad is taking you out tomorrow, and because I just want to hang out with Rhett, okay?” Link untied the rope holding the boat to the dock and jumped in. He turned on the engine as the girl sat up and started arguing with him. “Can't hear you! Bye!”
“Who was that?” Rhett asked as they sped away from the dock. The girls flipped them off.
“My cousin Maddie. The other one is Rosie. I have a lot of cousins.” Link pulled a couple life jackets out from under a bench and tossed one to Rhett. “So where do you want to go? Drive past some rich peoples' houses and look at their fancy boats?”
“Aren't you a rich person?” Rhett asked as he buckled his life jacket. Link snorted.
“No, I'm just descended from a rich person. The money's all gone. It's just the big house that's left. I lived in a crappy duplex in Raleigh before I moved up here.”
“Is there something more natural we can go look at?” Rhett asked. “I mean, there's rich people in LA, too.”
Link thought for a moment. “There's an island that had a bald eagle nest last summer. They reuse nests so we can go see if there's anything happening now.”
Rhett perked up. “Oh, that sounds awesome! Let's go do that.”
Lyrics from Way Out There by Lord Huron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAbqaW_xLlQ
“Why'd you slow down?” Rhett asked. They were next to the eagle island.
“It's shallow, so there's a speed limit.” Link pointed to a sign on a buoy. “Also, you should look over the edge of the boat.”
Rhett peeked over the side of the boat and gasped. The water was crystal clear and he could see every leaf, rock, and log on the bottom. The shadow of the boat slipped effortlessly over the obstacles. It almost looked like they were flying.
“How deep is it?” he asked.
“Ten feet, maybe?” Link guessed.
“It's so clear,” Rhett marveled.
“At home, off the end of the dock, it's sixteen feet deep and you can see right to the bottom if the sun is shining. And it's clean enough that it's safe to drink. That's where our water comes from. I mean, we have a filter, but it gets pumped right from the lake.” Link brought the boat to a halt and pointed to tree at the end of the island. There was an untidy pile of branches high up in it. “There it is.”
They sat under the boat's canopy and waited for the eagles for half an hour. Link told Rhett about growing up as an only child despite having five older siblings.
“They're all way older than me. My dad has three daughters from his first marriage and my mom has two sons from her first marriage, and by the time I was born my youngest older sister was already 15, and my sisters spent most of their time with their mom in Massachusetts so I never spent more than a couple months with them. My brothers had already moved out by the time I got old enough to remember anything.” He shrugged. “It was kind of a shitshow when I took this job because I'm the youngest and I’m from the South, but it was either me or hire someone outside the family. So here I am.”
Rhett asked, “How do you keep track of them all?”
“I don't, honestly. I'm not entirely sure how many cousins I actually have. Some of these people I've never met before.” Link turned to Rhett. “What about you? Any siblings?”
Rhett shook his head. “Not that I know of, anyway. My dad was never really around. I mean, he'd show up once in a while but he'd never stay. Haven't seen him since I was 14, maybe. I lived with my grandma, my mom's mom, mostly, unless my mom took me because she felt guilty that she was out drinking and doing drugs instead of taking care of me. Then she'd go do that anyway and leave me to fend for myself. My grandma died when I was 16 so I left and couchsurfed for a while before I found some people to stay with.”
“Jesus.” Link gave him a sympathetic look. “I'm sorry you had to go through that.”
Rhett shrugged. “It wasn't all bad. My grandma taught me to play piano and my mom was pretty great when she was sober. We have a mostly okay relationship now.”
“Oh! Rhett, look!” Link's hand shot out and grabbed Rhett's elbow. “There it is!” A bald eagle flew towards the tree and landed on the nest.
“I think it had a fish in its claws!” Rhett's eyes were wide in astonishment. “Do you think it has chicks?”
“Probably. We won't be able to see them, though. Angle's wrong.” Link looked up at the nest anyway. “Anywhere else you want to go?”
“Out right in the middle, maybe?”
Link turned to boat back on. “You got it.”
“It seems bigger from out here. Wider.” Rhett peered over the side. “How deep do you think it is?”
“I have no idea,” Link admitted. “A hundred feet?”
“Are there shipwrecks?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” Link said, and grinned when Rhett flipped him off. “Yeah, there's a bunch. One of them is from before the Revolutionary War. My brother did a scuba dive there a few years ago.”
“That's really cool.” Rhett pulled a La Croix out of the cooler. “I hope you know how lucky you are.”
“That the lake has always been a part of my life?” Rhett nodded. “Yeah. Although it didn't really hit me until I was 12 and my friend Jake came up with us for the week and his eyes about bugged out of his head when he saw the big house. I guess 12 bedrooms was bigger than he expected.”
“That was pretty much my reaction,” Rhett admitted. “I thought it was just going to be big in comparison to a cabin. The Uber guy dropped me off and I almost fell over.”
“You took an Uber from the airport in Albany?” Link's eyebrows raised over the pink frames of his sunglasses. “How much did that cost?”
“Beats me. My manager paid for it. She's paying my rent too while I'm out here, and the rent for the cabin. Said it was well worth it if I would just write some damn songs.”
“She's not--” Link began before snapping his mouth shut.
“She's not what?” Rhett asked in suspicion.
Link grimaced. “She's not paying for the cabin. My grandma just had me block it off the whole summer and told me not to worry about it when I argued. Your manager is either lying to you, or someone is lying to her. Please don't say anything. I probably wasn't supposed to tell you.”
“She's probably lying to me. Wouldn't be the first time.” Rhett's face darkened. “That must be a huge amount of money you're missing out on. Isn't that your best cabin?”
Link nodded miserably. “Please don't say anything, though. I don't want to get fired.”
It was Rhett's turn to grimace. “I won't say anything. Only because you're my friend, though.”
Link looked surprised and pleased. “We're friends?”
Rhett rolled his eyes and threw his empty can at Link. He missed and it clattered onto the bottom of the boat. “Why wouldn't I be your friend? Except for your obvious lack of intelligence.”
Rhett snickered. “Don't worry. It's kind of cute.”
Link looked at him in bewilderment. “I—I don't know what to do with that information.”
Rhett didn't say anything. He just looked pleased with himself.
Text From: Rhett
(Rhett): I didn't put sunscreen on my knees
(Rhett): theyre so red
Text To: Rhett
(Link): sorry i've been so busy the past few days
(Link): but I fired that shitty client
(Link): so I should have more time now
(Rhett): good for you
(Rhett): but wouldn't you rather spend time with your family
(Link): not really
(Link): that sounded meaner than I meant it to lol
(Link): I spend plenty of time with them
(Link): and its not like theyre here to see me
(Link): I wanna spend time with you too
(Rhett): can't say I mind
(Link): anyway want to watch the fireworks tonight?
(Rhett): what fireworks
(Link): every thursday there's a fireworks show in the village and we have a really great view here
(Link): we can climb out my window and sit on the porch roof
(Rhett): sounds cool im in
Sunburned knees: based on a true story.
The lake is clean enough to drink because it is located in the V between two mountain ranges and therefore has a very small watershed with no agricultural runoff.
Pre-Revolutionary War shipwreck (it is called the Land Tortoise): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Tortoise_(shipwreck)
“God damn, it never gets this dark in LA.” Rhett stuck his leg out the window and gingerly felt around for the roof. “Fuck.”
“Welcome to a world without light pollution, Rhett.” Link grabbed his arm. “I got you.”
“I really don't think you'll be able to stop me if I fell,” Rhett protested, but he didn't mind Link touching him. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“You good? Okay, here I come.” Link slipped out the window easily and joined Rhett on the roof. They sat with their backs against the wall. Link noticed that Rhett specifically sat close enough for their shoulders to touch.
Link had been thinking about Rhett a lot over the past few days. He was thrilled when he found out his summerlong tenant was a guy his age, rather than one of his grandma's old lady friends like he expected. And Rhett was cool. He was handsome and talented and from LA. It was entirely possible that Link was developing a crush on him.
But Link wasn't cool. He was awkward and ordinary and from Nowhere, NC. At first he thought Rhett was just hanging out with him because he had no other options, but that didn't seem to be the case. It didn't seem possible that someone like Rhett would be his friend, let alone be into him.
But Rhett said they were friends, and called him cute, and now they were sitting alone on a dark roof with their shoulders touching. It was a good thing it was so dark, because that meant Rhett couldn't see Link's furious blush.
In the distance, across the water, a red spark shot into the air. Rhett sucked in his breath a little as it burst. A few long moments passed before the sound of the explosion reached them. It echoed off the surrounding mountains. Another spark ascended. Every glittering blossom was reflected in the still lake. Dozens of boats floated in the water with their night running lights on, adding to the festive air.
The show continued for ten minutes. At the end of the display, shouts and applause echoed from around the lake, and the boats honked their horns and flashed their lights.
“Wow,” Rhett whispered. “That was the best fireworks show I ever saw.”
“Same time next week?” Link asked.
“Wouldn't miss it for the world.”
It was raining so they spent the afternoon in Rhett's cabin. It had knotty pine paneling, hardwood floors, a flagstone fireplace, and a selection of outdated furniture. There was a little kitchenette and a view of the lake from the bedroom. Rhett loved it.
“That's pretty,” Link said from his sprawled position on the couch. “Does it have lyrics yet?”
“A few.” Rhett adjusted one of his guitar pegs and began.
Yes, I know that love is like ghosts
Oh, few have seen it but everybody talks
Spirits follow everywhere I go
Oh, they sing all day and they haunt me in the night
“Wow.” Link was silent for a moment. “Are all the songs going to be like that? Creepy, I mean.”
“I dunno. Maybe. I can't predict it.” Rhett played a few scales, his fingers moving fluidly over the strings. “The lake and the trees are still so strange to me. They make me feel things that the city never did.”
“What's LA like?” Link asked.
“Loud. Dirty. Busy. There's always something going on, especially for a musician. I spent more time going to see other people play music than writing my own, which is kind of why I'm here. No distractions. Except you.” Rhett laughed.
Link felt his face turning red. Desperately he said, “But it seems like you're writing songs anyway?”
“Oh, I am. I sent a couple little snippets to my manager and she seemed pretty happy. Hard to tell. She's kind of an asshole.”
“So I gathered,” Link muttered. “I'm hungry. Let's go to Ray's. My treat.”
“Don't have to ask me twice.” Rhett leaned over and put his guitar in the case. “You know I'm always in the mood to eat.”
Link gave him a look of faux incredulity. “Really? I hadn't noticed.”
“Gotta say I'm glad you're here to drive me around,” Rhett said. “I'd hate to have to get an Uber every time I needed to go somewhere.”
“Gee, thanks. I'm honestly shocked you got an Uber to drop you off here in the first place. Merganser isn't easy to find.” Link stood up and stretched. Rhett watched with interest as his shirt rode up and revealed a strip of toned midriff.
“We did get kinda lost but he was a good sport about it. I gave him a really, really big tip. Courtesy of my manager, of course.” Rhett snickered.
“I'm beginning to understand why she shipped you across the country,” Link said.
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): your cousin is hitting on me
(Rhett): the one who wanted to go on the boat with us the other day
(Link): what did she do?
(Rhett): she tries to flirt with me every time she walks to the dock
(Rhett): won't take the hint when I won't engage
(Rhett): she asked me to play a song for her so I played wonderwall really badly
(Rhett): she thought I wrote it
(Rhett): I was so insulted
(Link): ok so that is actually hilarious
(Link): i'll talk to her
(Link): question tho
(Link): what if I asked you to play a song for me
(Rhett): uh you dont have to ask
Text To: Maddie Neal
(Link): leave the guests alone
(Maddie): what are u talking about
(Maddie): I didnt do anything
(Link): cool then you wont mind if I talk to your mom about it
(Link): since I know she grounded rosie for the same thing last year
(Maddie): wait link no
(Maddie): please dont shell be pissed
(Maddie): ill stop
(Link): thank you for your understanding
Lyrics from Love Like Ghosts by Lord Huron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvYJz_oUGow
Rhett woke up to the sounds of splashing and shrieking children.
These were not unusual sounds for the lake, of course, but they didn't usually start this early. It was barely 8:30am. He sat up and pushed his blanket off before going to the window to look down at the dock.
Link was down there with a couple of little kids in life jackets. Rhett didn't recognize them but he'd given up trying to trying to keep track of the extended Neal family after about three days. They were probably Link's second cousins once removed or something. Whatever. They all pretty much left Rhett alone for the most part, which suited him fine.
Link picked up one of the little boys and threw him into the lake, followed by the other one. Quick as a flash both kids swam to the ladder and climbed back onto the dock for another round. Rhett noticed that Link's throws were becoming weaker and weaker with each toss. Finally he dove in himself to get away from the kids. Rhett grinned and went to brush his teeth and make a cup of tea.
By the time Rhett was taking his tea out to the deck, the kids were back up at the big house and Link was trudging up the path past the cabin. He collapsed into the Adirondack chair. “Morning, Rhett.”
“Hey,” Rhett said weakly. Somehow he'd been at the lake for over two weeks now without being in close proximity to Link Neal in a wet swimsuit, which was statistically unlikely because Link went swimming almost every day, sometimes more than once. He'd dive gracefully in and swim out to the floating platform and back with long, easy strokes, over and over, or just float around draped on a pool noodle with his family.
“You okay, Rhett?” Link asked. He hadn't even toweled off yet, for goodness sake. His dark hair was slicked down with water—including the hair on his chest and abdomen. It was very distracting. The way the wet fabric of his swimsuit (vivid green palm fronds on white this time) clung to his body was even more distracting.
Rhett swallowed a gulp of tea and tried to focus. “Yeah. Just woke up.”
“Mmm.” Link sounded a little skeptical. He looked closer at Rhett. “Is that a color?”
Rhett looked down at his t-shirt. It was a very, very dark burgundy red. “Kind of? I've worn this before and you never said anything.”
“Must not have seen it in the sunlight, I guess.” Link squeegeed water from his hair and pushed it back off his forehead. It stuck up wildly in all directions. “How many other colors are you hiding from me, McLaughlin?”
“Maybe a couple. I wasn't aware you were keeping track.” Rhett took another sip of tea. “I mean, I haven't been keeping track of how many different swimsuits I've seen you wear.” He did notice each time a new one appeared, though.
“I have eight or nine, I think. I keep finding new ones that I like. I might have a problem.” Link smoothed the damp nylon out over his thighs.
“So what are you up to today?” Rhett asked as he took the last swallow of tea and set his mug down on the deck.
“We're about to go to the Adirondack Museum, which is one of my favorites. It has this fantastic lumberjack exhibit with all these great vintage tools,” Link said. “And you're welcome to come, but it's a couple hours away and I don't think you want to spend that much time in a car with my family.”
“Yeah...that does sound cool, though. I kind of wanted to be a lumberjack when I was little,” Rhett said a little wistfully. “You're going to be gone all day? All of you?”
Link nodded. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier but we only just decided this morning. You know how vacation is.”
“Not really,” said Rhett, who had never been on vacation.
“We'll be back after dinner, I guess. You gonna be okay by yourself all day?”
Rhett snorted. “Link, I live by myself. I'll be fine. I do have a couple favors to ask, though.”
“Can I use your piano? It'd be great to be able to record without being interrupted. I have some ideas I want to get down.”
“Sure! I don't know how in tune it is, but you're welcome to use it. What's the second favor?”
Rhett flushed a little. “It's kind of weird.”
“I love weird.”
“Can I take a bath in your tub?” Rhett looked down in embarrassment. “I haven't taken a bath since I was really little because I got tall so fast and we never really lived in places with tubs, and your tub is actually big enough--”
“Rhett.” Link gently cut him off. “It's fine. You don't have to justify it.”
“Oh.” Rhett looked up at him. “Okay.”
“Seriously. The door'll be unlocked and you can use any of my bath stuff that you want. Y'know, treat yourself. You're on vacation, too.” Link smiled at him. It made Rhett's heart ache a little. Link was open and friendly with the guests in the other cabins, but he was caring and generous to Rhett in a way that went above and beyond host and probably above and beyond a two week old friendship, too.
“I better go get dressed, although knowing these people we won't leave for at least another hour.” Link walked off to the big house. Rhett watched him go and thought that it should be illegal for someone to be so good looking.
I HIGHLY recommend the Adirondack Museum. It's probably probably in my top 5 museums (and I go to a lot of museums). https://www.theadkx.org/
out-of-nowhere wanted longer chapters, so longer chapters you shall have!
Pictures for Link's bedroom: https://pinecontents.tumblr.com/post/188008891276/links-bedroombathroom-is-the-only-setting-at-the
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sure enough, it took almost 90 minutes for the various Neal family members to load themselves into three vehicles and drive off. Somehow Link ended up in the backseat of an SUV with the two little kids from the dock. He waved to Rhett out the window as they drove off.
Rhett lingered on his deck for another half hour before grabbing his recording gear and heading over to the big house. Link had given him permission, of course, but he still didn't want someone returning because they forgot their cell phone to walk in on him.
Back in his teenage years, Rhett had done some trespassing and a little breaking and entering with friends. He was never interested in stealing anything, but there was something about being unobserved in someone else's space that he found absolutely fascinating. Being alone in Merganser Lodge gave him the same feeling that entering an abandoned building had.
He entered through the back door and didn't linger in the kitchen—he'd been in there plenty. There was a dining room with a huge long table and a lounge with a few couches, but those didn't interest him. Rhett moved on to the front room.
The piano there was quite possibly the most beautiful instrument he'd ever touched. The lacquered wood was a deep, shiny black, and the keys were made of real ebony and ivory. Rhett had learned to play on his grandma's battered, utilitarian upright piano, and this seemed almost like a different instrument altogether.
Rhett sat on the bench and placed his fingers gently over the keys. He took a deep breath before playing a few scales. The piano was a little out of tune, but nothing too bad. Rhett continued to warm up for a few moments before beginning to play.
The piano was his first instrument, but Rhett never felt like it belonged to him the way the guitar did. The piano belonged to his grandmother, so he played her songs. First was “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” followed by “How Great Thou Art”. As he finished, he was surprised to realize that tears were running down his face. He wiped them with his sleeve.
“Wish you could see me now, grandma,” he whispered, looking around at the Gilded Age finery surrounding him. “Hope you'd be proud of me. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there.” Rhett played a few more of his grandmother's favorite traditionals before moving on to a couple of his own favorite songs, ending with Radiohead's “Karma Police”.
Rhett then set up his recording gear and started working on his own music. Four hours later, he had one passable demo and several more songs well on their way to completion. He hadn't been this productive since...ever. Feeling pleased with himself, Rhett packed up his gear and went up to Link's room.
As caretaker, Link got the master bedroom, and it was just as luxurious as the front room, although the décor was less “Gilded Age railway baron” and more “Gilded Age railway baron's idea of a rustic cabin”. There was a stone fireplace with a little seating area, a couple faded oriental rugs, and an amazing bedframe made of bent branches covered in bark. The walls had a handpainted mural of the lake and mountains at dawn above wooden wainscotting and a border of more bark-covered twigs. The curtains, upholstery, and bedspread were all made of matching soft green velvet. Link's laptop looked very out of place lying on the bed amidst all the wood.
The bathroom was equally astonishing. It featured a large amount of black-veined white marble and a recently remodeled shower with multiple showerheads, but Rhett only had eyes for the enormous cast iron tub on four clawed feet. It was big enough that he'd be able to stretch his legs out once he was sitting in it. He was so excited.
Rhett put the plug in the drain and turned on the hot water. While the tub filled, he perused Link's extensive collection of bath products. Oils, salts, bubbles—it was honestly a little excessive. Rhett selected a peppermint bath bomb and chucked it into the tub. It began fizzing and the water turned pink.
“Nice,” Rhett said. He pulled his t-shirt off over his head and pushed down his shorts and boxers before climbing into the still filling tub. He hissed as the hot water touched his peeling knees—they were still tender from sunburn. Rhett breathed in the warm minty steam and relaxed down into the tub.
It was heavenly. But there was something missing.
Rhett leaned over and retrieved his phone from the pocket of his shorts. He took a picture of his knees poking out of the pink water and texted it to Link. The response was immediate.
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Link): ...is that a nude?
Rhett snorted a laugh.
(Rhett): technically yes
(Link): usually I block unsolicited nudes but for you i'll make an exception
Rhett frowned at his phone. Who was sending Link unsolicited nudes?
(Rhett): where are you getting unsolicited nudes
(Link): dating apps
(Link): where else?
(Link): lots of guys are very...forward
(Link): I gave up after a while
(Link): what a waste of time
(Link): of course now I live outside a tiny tourist town that's like population 1000 in the winter
(Link): so im not sure ill be able to meet anyone irl now
(Rhett): maybe you should try hitting on your renters
He chewed his lip nervously until Link responded.
(Link): thought about it
(Link): not professional, though
(Link): there's money involved and all that
(Rhett): but what if the person wasn't paying
There was a long pause before Link replied.
(Link): so how was the piano?
God damn it. Rhett leaned his head back and groaned. What was he supposed to do with that? There was no way via text to know how Link had reacted to Rhett's statement of interest. Was he annoyed? Pleased? Upset?
(Rhett): piano was great
He decided to follow Link's lead and move on for now.
(Rhett): really beautiful instrument
(Rhett): finished a song and got started on a few more
(Link): a finished song!
(Rhett): well it doesnt have a lot of lyrics yet
(Link): but still! It's a big deal
(Link): fulfilling your purpose and all that
(Rhett): oh gosh
(Rhett): so what are you up to
(Link): chilling at this park by a canal while the kids play
(Link): then we are going to hit this diner called the buttery biscuit on the way home
(Rhett): the buttery biscuit? really?
(Link): best diner ive been to in ny
(Link): they have REAL sweet tea
(Link): not just tea that is sweet
Rhett blinked at his phone.
(Rhett): is this a southern thing
(Link): they dont know how to do it up here
(Link): I will take you there sometime so you will know what real sweet tea is like
(Rhett): id like that
(Link): where would you take me if I came to visit you in LA?
This was interesting. Rhett considered his answer as he added more hot water to the tub.
(Rhett): this would be easier if you werent so picky
(Link): hey now
(Rhett): there's a thai place by my apartment I like a lot
(Rhett): but that might just be bc its cheap and within walking distance
(Link): sounds good. I like thai
(Link): hey I gotta go
(Link): biscuit time
“Rhett?” Link knocked on the door of the cabin. No answer. He peeked through the window. Rhett was sitting crosslegged on the couch working on his laptop. A pair of high-end headphones covered his ears. Link knocked again, just in case, and then let himself in.
Rhett looked up and pulled his headphones down around his neck. “Hey.”
“Hi. I brought you something,” Link held up a large styrofoam drink cup.
“Is it sweet tea?” Rhett guessed. Link nodded and handed him the cup. Rhett took a sip and raised his eyebrows. “Wow. It's really strong. And sweet.”
“Do you like it?” Link sat down next to him.
“Um.” Rhett took another sip. “Probably not as much as you want me to. Still gonna drink it, though.”
“That's fair. I kinda think you have to grow up with it to really love it.” Link glanced at Rhett's screen. “What is that?”
“The song I recorded on the piano earlier,” Rhett pulled off his headphones and handed them to Link. “Here.”
Link eagerly put on the headphones and closed his eyes as Rhett hit play. He took the opportunity to look at Link close up. There were a couple premature silver strands in Link's dark hair and a few light freckles dusted across his nose. The contrast was adorable.
I can't trust anyone or anything these days
If you are who you say you are then show your face
You are not the one you say you are
I know what you want and why
“Wow.” Link opened his eyes and took off the headphones. “What does it mean? Anything?”
Rhett shook his head. “Nah. Up to the listener. I like to leave a lot open to interpretation.”
Link handed back the headphones. “Does it have a name?”
“Where do you even come up with this stuff, man?”
Rhett shrugged and took another swallow of tea. It was growing on him.
“Do you think your manager will like it?”
Rhett scoffed. “I don't care if she likes it or not. She just has to appreciate that I actually have a demo. In fact...” He opened his email, attached the file, and fired it off with the subject BEHOLD A SONG. Link giggled. “That should keep her off my back for about a day.”
“So did you have a nice time by yourself today?” Link asked, tucking his legs underneath himself on the couch.
Rhett briefly thought back to the elaborate fantasy he'd constructed after ending his text conversation with Link. It involved Link, the bathtub, and a lot of bubbles. “Yeah, it was pretty nice. How was the museum?”
“Oh, it was so cool!” Link perked up and started describing various exhibits to Rhett. He had to admit that it did sound like a pretty interesting place but he was also just interested in watching Link talk. He didn't just talk with his hands, he talked with his whole body, all long fingers and wide eyes and expansive gestures.
“Um, Earth to Rhett!” Link said in exasperation.
“Sorry, what was that?” Rhett had stopped paying attention to what Link was saying in favor of watching the way his lips moved.
“I said, we could go sometime if you wanted! No relatives, just us.” Link gave him a serious look. “I mean, I know you're supposed to be here to work but it wouldn't hurt you to do some touristy vacation shit, you know? It's the first time you've been away from LA!”
“Do you...want...me to do touristy shit with you?” Rhett said slowly. “Haven't you already done all that stuff?”
“Yeah, but you haven't. And some of it's pretty great,” Link said. “The village, for example. So trashy but so wonderful.”
“Oh?” Rhett closed his laptop and set it on the coffee table before turning to face Link. “How so?”
“The whole thing is one big tourist trap, and it's got the weirdest little stores. There's all these different souvenir shops and arcades and ice cream places and everybody has their favorite. For instance,” Link held up a finger. ”I am a Pink Roof aficionado and I will fight anyone who says their ice cream isn't the best.”
“The building has a pink roof. Pretty straightforward,” Link said. “And the people watching is fantastic. There's tourists from all over the world. Sitting by the water with an ice cream cone watching them is great. I love it.”
“I'm down. When do you want to go?” Rhett asked.
“Isn't tomorrow fireworks night?”
“Yeah. We can watch them from the village.”
Rhett shook his head. “No, I want to watch them from the roof.” While he did want to watch the fireworks from the roof, what he really wanted to do was press himself up against Link in the dark.
“So first the village, then come home for fireworks?” Link asked. Rhett nodded. “Sounds good to me.” Link yawned hugely and stood up.
“Man, I'm exhausted. I'm gonna go lie down and watch cooking videos on Youtube or something.” He took a hesitant step towards Rhett and stopped.
“Come here,” Rhett got up and pulled Link into a hug. Link stiffened and gave a surprised little squeak before relaxing and putting his arms around Rhett. “That's for the tea.”
“You're welcome. Thanks for letting me listen to your song.” Link let go regretfully. “See you tomorrow.”
“Night, Link.” Rhett watched the other man disappear into the big house before putting his headphones back on and trying to return to his music, but he was seriously distracted by the way Link felt in his arms. Thin but strong, broad shoulders strengthened by swimming. With a sigh, Rhett set his guitar down on the spot Link had vacated and unbuttoned his jeans.
Up in his room in the big house, Link sat on his bed and thought about Rhett. He'd wanted to hug Rhett and had even stepped in his direction before thinking better of it. Rhett hugging him had shocked him. He smelled like peppermint from the bath bomb and something else, pomade maybe.
And he was so tall, even taller than the actor on four inch platform boots who portrayed Frankenstein's Monster in front of the wax museum/haunted house in the village. None of Link's former partners had been taller than him, and he'd never felt so small before. He was surprised at how much he liked it, and how much it turned him on.
Link sighed and unzipped his shorts.
Lyrics from The Stranger by Lord Huron (very excellent video, you should watch it) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oVsdiPTsv8
The next day Link spent doing what he described to Rhett as “the shit they actually pay me for”: mowing the expansive lawn, weed wacking the edges, cleaning one of the other cabins after the guests left, and doing some accounting, followed by a few laps from the dock to the floating platform and back.
He knocked on Rhett's door a little after six. “Holy shit,” Rhett said when he opened the door. “Wow. You look great.” Link was freshly showered and shaved with his hair combed out of his face with some kind of product. He was wearing kelly green shorts, slip on sneakers, and royal blue button up shirt sprinkled with little white speckles like a sky full of stars.
Link grinned bashfully. “Thanks. You look good, too.”
Rhett glanced down at himself. Sleeveless black t-shirt, black jeans with the knees ripped out. “I always look like this.”
“You always look good,” Link said. He licked his lips nervously. “Anyway. You ready to go?”
After a terrifying left turn onto Lake Shore Drive, the village was only about five minutes away. Link drove around looking for a parking spot while Rhett stared out the window in astonishment.
“There's so many people here!”
“Well, yeah. They're tourists. It's a tourist attraction. Aha!” Link spotted a parking spot and pulled into it. “Let's go get ice cream.”
The Pink Roof was a small midcentury building with, as promised, a pink roof. It was also sided with pink marble tiles and had a large pink neon sign across the front. Link ordered a cone of birthday cake ice cream with sprinkles and Rhett got chocolate cherry chip. They sat on a wall looking out at the lake.
“Was it hard, moving up here?” Rhett asked. Being away from LA for the first time in his life had him thinking about what it would be like to move.
“Yes and no,” Link said. He licked his ice cream before continuing. “It was hard to leave my friends. I was so lonely when I got here. I didn't know anyone and all the summer people were gone so I was by myself at Merganser. And winter...I mean, I'd been on ski vacations before so I thought I was okay with snow but I seriously underestimated how long winter lasts and how sick I'd get of it.”
“I've never seen snow.” Rhett crunched into his cone.
“You should come up in the winter. There's plenty to go around,” Link responded. “I wasn't really happy in Raleigh, though. I broke up with my boyfriend after three years and lived in this shitty bachelor duplex and I hated my job.”
“No, I was an engineer. I designed conveyor belt systems for factories.” Link laughed at Rhett's shocked expression. “It's true! I didn't think art was a practical major so I did engineering instead. Turns out I didn't really like it so much.”
“Wow.” Rhett knew that Link was smart, but he hadn't known how smart. “I wish I'd been able to go to college.”
“You still could. You're only 26,” Link pointed out. “What would you study?”
“I don't know. Music, music production? I know I still have a lot to learn,” Rhett said. “I'm honestly surprised I got my GED.”
“Why?” Link chewed up the last of his cone and licked melted ice cream off his fingers.
Rhett glanced around. No one was paying any attention to them. “I was an alcoholic. Still am, I guess. Haven't had a drink in three years, though.”
“An alcoholic in high school?” Link said in dismay.
“It runs on both sides of my family. I got drunk for the first time when I was 14 and never really stopped.” He shrugged. “At least I never got into heroin like my old bandmates did. Seen enough of that from my mom.”
“Jesus.” Link couldn't think of anything else to say.
Rhett changed the subject. “What happened with your boyfriend?”
“He wanted an open relationship, by which he meant he wanted to see his other boyfriend openly, and he wanted me to be okay with it. I wasn't, of course,” Link answered. “What about you? Girlfriend, boyfriend?”
“Nah, not since I got sober and he didn't. Had a few hookups, but nothing serious. Lots of messed up people in the music scene.”
“Not surprised to hear that,” Link said. “Wanna go to the arcade now? I bet I can beat you in air hockey.”
“Oh, you're on.”
“Who is going to buy this?” Rhett stared in bewilderment at a mug on the shelf in the souvenir shop. It was shaped like a woman's bare chest, complete with bikini tan lines.
“Not us, obviously. We're not exactly the target audience. But have you seen these people?” Link gestured at the village around them in general. “Like half of them would probably think it's hilarious. This is not a classy place. I mean, there's a whole store called 'Do I Look Like I Give A Fuck?'”
“Ah yes, the toxic masculinity store.” They hadn't bothered to go in. “Is there anywhere that actually sells cool stuff?”
“Yeah, there's this old hippie place a couple blocks away. They have a lot of cool tie dye.”
“I'm not sure you know what 'cool' is,” Rhett said. They went anyway.
“'The Hemporium. Peace and Love since 1972',” Rhett read the sign out loud.
“See? Genuine hippie,” Link said.
Inside, the store was dim and full of drifting incense. A long glass counter held rows of band patches, lighters, hemp necklaces, crystals, and 'tobacco smoking accessories'. Racks of tie dye shirts, dresses, and pants lined one wall while the opposite wall featured psychedelic posters. A huge pile of multicolored melted wax topped with a burning candle had a place of honor next to the cash register. “Burning since 1989!” read an index card taped on the counter next to it. The Eagles played overhead.
It was exactly what Rhett expected.
Link chatted with the proprietor, an old family friend, while Rhett browsed. He smiled when he spotted a few old favorites among the band patches—a few of them had been featured on his denim jacket in high school. The tie dye was also interesting. The last time Rhett had worn tie dye was when he was 10 and made his own at summer school. His shirt hadn't turned out that well, but he was proud of it anyway and wore it all the time.
These shirts were beautifully made, Rhett had to admit, even though they weren't his style. Classic rainbow swirls, crisp stripes, and more complex designs like peace signs, stars and hearts. There were even detailed American flag shirts.
One shirt in particular caught his eye. He pulled it off the rack. It was a mottled pale blue and cream in no particular pattern. It reminded him a little of a cloudy sky at dusk. Rhett held it up to himself and looked into a nearby mirror.
“You should get that.” Link popped up out of nowhere. Rhett jumped and almost dropped the shirt. “It's barely a color.”
“Jesus. Make some noise next time,” Rhett grumbled. “I don't really wear anything this light.”
“You're on vacation. Live a little,” Link said. “Besides, it brings out your eyes.”
“Yeah?” Rhett held up the shirt again.
“Yeah!” Link actually bounced on his feet a little. “Do it, do it!”
“Maybe we should get on the roof before it gets dark next time,” Rhett suggested.
“Coward. You want me to hold your hand?”
“Uh huh,” Link said skeptically. They got settled against the wall, pressed together from thigh to shoulder by mutual agreement. “I solved a mystery today.”
“Oh yeah? What was that?” Rhett asked.
“How you got to stay in that cabin!” Link answered in excitement. “I called my grandma earlier with a question about the business account and we got to talking and it turns out your manager is her second-best friend's daughter in law and there was some long chain of favors called in that I couldn't really follow.”
Rhett tried to follow this. “Your grandma's best friend's-”
“Second best,” Link corrected.
“Daughter in law.”
“That is so stupid,” Rhett said.
“I'm not mad about it, though,” Link replied. “Except the part where my budget is short because no one is paying for anything, but that's not your problem.”
Rhett silently resolved to figure out a way to get Link paid without messing up his position. “I'm not mad either. I'm glad I decided to come. I almost missed my flight. Accidentally, of course.”
“But then I decided that I should go anyway because when was the next time I'd have a chance to go across the country? It was the right choice. I really like it here. And...” Rhett put an arm around Link's shoulders. “I really like you.”
Link sucked in his breath in surprise and turned to Rhett, who couldn't see him but who could easily imagine Link's wide blue eyes and raised brows. “I like you, too.”
Across the lake, a single red spark ascended.
They watched the fireworks show in silence. Once the applause and horns died away, Link said, “Let's go down to the dock once my family comes in.” The night boats began streaming across the lake.
“How long do you think they'll be?”
“Not long. Those kids should have been in bed ages ago but my brother promised them they could stay up for the fireworks.” There was wailing from the dock. “He probably regrets that now.”
A few minutes later, the wailing had moved inside the house and up to the third floor. The two men clambered in the window and snuck quietly down the stairs. Link turned on his phone flashlight to light their way down the steep path to the dock, where they settled into two white plastic Adirondack chairs. Rhett whistled a little tune through his teeth.
“New song?” Link asked. Rhett nodded. “Any lyrics?”
“Kinda.” Rhett sang softly.
Die if I must let my bones turn to dust
I'm the lord of the lake and I don't want to leave it
Link giggled. “What?” Rhett asked in confusion. “What's so funny?”
“You, the lord of the lake?” Link was incredulous. “You've never been in the lake. I don't think you've even dangled your feet off the dock.”
“I'll put them in right now.” Rhett kicked off his Target knock-off Vans.
“Nah, you should jump in.”
“I don't have a swimsuit, Link.”
“In your underwear, then.” There was just enough light from the moon and the lights across the shore for Rhett to see Link's shrug.
“I hate being wet in my clothes.”
“Take 'em off.”
“Link!” Rhett protested.
“What?' Link said innocently. “I know you go to the beach. Haven't you ever been skinny dipping there?”
“No! For one thing, it's a public beach.”
“Yeah, well, this is private property. My property, in fact, and you have my permission.” Link started unbuttoning his shirt.
Realization dawned for Rhett. “Oh, no, you're not...”
“Oh yes I am.” Over Rhett's protests, Link pulled off his shirt, pushed down his shorts, and dove in. Rhett sat paralyzed by the faint glance he'd gotten at Link's naked body.
Link surfaced. “C'mon, Rhett. Water's nice.” He patted the surface of the water like he was inviting Rhett to sit with him on the couch.
“Fuck. Fine.” Rhett pulled his shirt over his head and struggled out of his skinny jeans. He couldn't dive so he just launched himself inelegantly off the dock. Freezing water immediately closed over his head and he felt like his entire skin contracted just as much as his balls did. He surfaced with a strangled yell.
You liar!” Rhett spluttered. “It's fucking cold! God damn it.” He splashed over to the ladder.
“Rhett, wait!” Link swam over to him.
Rhett yelped. “Something touched my leg!”
“That was my foot, idiot,” Link said.
They faced each other for a moment, treading water. Rhett had one hand on the ladder. Link came closer. “Hey,” he said softly.
“Hey,” Rhett replied. Link put one hand on the ladder and the other on the back of Rhett's neck. He pulled Rhett against his chest and kissed him. It was soft and sweet and gentle.
Rhett swore he saw stars. It was better than the fireworks show. Unfortunately, he also went limp, stopped treading water, and slipped under the surface. Link hauled him back up.
“Link,” Rhett said hoarsely after he stopped coughing. “I'm gonna drown if we keep that up. And there's no way I can get hard in this freezing water. And I really, really need to get hard.”
“Fair point. Me too.” They scrambled up the ladder. Link ended up underneath Rhett with his back on the still-warm concrete. He grabbed Rhett's waist as Rhett threaded his fingers through Link's soaking hair.
“Fuck, Link,” Rhett groaned as he ground against Link. He kissed the other man again, rough and hungry this time. Link moaned. They were both painfully hard now. Rhett propped himself up on an elbow, slid up a little and reached between them. His hand was big enough to grasp both of them at the same time.
“On my god, Rhett. Fuck.” Link pressed his face into Rhett's shoulder and dissolved into a stream of mumbles that consisted almost entirely of oh my god, various curse words, and Rhett's name. It was by far the hottest thing Rhett had ever heard, and he came with a growl in no time at all. Link wasn't far behind.
“Rhett, that was amazing. You're amazing,” Link whispered. In response, Rhett kissed him, rolled over, and grabbed his elbow.
“So amazing I didn't realize I fucked up my elbow.” Rhett hissed in pain as he straightened his arm. “Gonna be all black and blue tomorrow.”
“Not your fault.”
They lay on their backs and looked up at the stars. Rhett had never seen so many stars in LA. He'd always suspected photos of the night sky to be unrealistic, but now he was a believer.
Link reached out and touched his hip. Rhett's skin was still cool and damp from the lake. “Come up to my room.”
“My bed's nicer. And bigger.”
“Cabin's more private.”
“I have condoms and lube.” Rhett could hear Link's smirk.
“Okay, you win.”
Pink Roof: https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/the-pink-roof-lake-george
Do I Look Like I Give A Fuck? (don't click this, it's stupid and I hate it): https://dilligafusa.com/
Lyrics from Ghost on the Shore by Lord Huron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3cZt-1iTbU
They got half dressed and went up to Merganser Lodge. Link made a detour to the kitchen to grab a bag of frozen corn for Rhett's elbow. Despite their best efforts, the stairs creaked wildly as the two men climbed to the second floor, but everything remained dark and quiet.
Link pushed the button of his original 1920s light switch. Rhett had thoroughly explored the room during his solo stay and was delighted by the switch. It had a brass plate with black buttons inlaid with mother-of-pearl that made a satisfying little clunk when pushed.
“I wanna see you in the light,” Link said simply. Rhett nodded and reached behind his head to grab the neck of his shirt. “Wait. Let me help.” Link came over and slid his hands under Rhett's shirt, pushing it up. His palms ghosted along Rhett's sides, giving Rhett goosebumps all over.
“Wow.” Link stood on his tiptoes and put his arms around Rhett's neck. Rhett was just so big, with broad shoulders and a thick chest. “You are so hot,” he whispered into Rhett's ear before kissing him. Rhett slipped his hands behind Link and grabbed his ass. Link whimpered.
“Why don't you take that underwear off?” Rhett suggested. “Since I've seen every other part of you by now, in those little swimsuits you wear...” Link laughed and let go off Rhett's neck before pushing his tight, silky briefs to the floor. Rhett took his shoulders and held him at arm's length while looking him up and down. Link waited patiently, a little smile on his face.
“Wow,” Rhett echoed. Link was lean and muscled and his public hair was neatly trimmed. Even half hard, he was impressively large.
“Your turn.” Link reached out and hooked his thumbs into the waistband of Rhett's black cotton boxer briefs. They joined Link's underwear on the floor and Link's hand found its way between Rhett's legs. “Why, Rhett...” he smirked. “I think you should go lie down on the bed.”
Link snagged the bag of frozen corn off his dresser and threw back the covers. He pushed Rhett down and handed him the corn before pulling a little bottle of lube and a condom out of the bedside table. Rhett nestled his elbow into the frozen kernels as Link knelt between his legs and gently drew his fingers up and down the inside of Rhett's thighs. “What do you want, Rhett?” he asked quietly, looking up through a fall of damp dark hair.
“I...” Rhett swallowed. Link looked incredibly beautiful right then. He also was smart, funny, kind, successful...in short, not like anyone else Rhett had ever been with, and Rhett was willing to bet that Link would be gentle and patient, too. “I want you to fuck me.”
Link's hands froze and he looked up in disbelief. “Really?”
“If that's okay with you,” Rhett hastily amended. “If it's not-” Link cut him off.
“No, it's good! I love topping, but everyone usually assumes I don't because of how I look.” He gestured to himself.
Rhett laughed. “I have a similar problem.” His grin vanished into a gasp as Link leaned forward and licked his length from base to tip. “Link...” Link's blue eyes flicked up.
“Shh. Just relax and let me take care of you.” Link used his mouth and one hand while the other hand went roaming across Rhett's body—first one nipple, then down to his thighs and back up to the other nipple and around again. Rhett bit his lip and made hungry little noises. He pushed Link's dark hair out of the way for a better look.
Link gently pushed Rhett's legs up and apart before removing Rhett's hand from his hair and licking his way further down. Rhett pulled his knees to his chest. “Oh my god, Link.” Rhett grabbed himself and stroked himself slowly, trying to to cum too quickly. Not only was Link's tongue driving him wild, his posture was, too--his back was arched and his ass was in the air. “Link, please...”
Link lifted his head and smacked Rhett's hand away. “Stop that.” He held his palm out like a surgeon in the OR. “Lube.” Rhett blindly over to the bedside table and somehow managed to grab the bottle without knocking to to the floor. He drizzled some onto Link's fingers. Link gently rubbed against Rhett's most sensitive spot, making him moan.
“So what's your favorite position?” Link asked in a conversational tone as he sank a finger into Rhett. Rhett whimpered and squeezed his eyes closed. “Use your words. And look at me.”
Rhett opened his eyes. They were more gray than green in this light. He made eye contact with Link. “From...from behind. And slow.”
“I can do that.” Link added a finger and leaned forward to kiss Rhett. “But can we finish like this, so I can see you?”
“Yeah.” Rhett would have agreed to anything Link suggested right then. “How are you so calm?”
Link gave him a look of mild surprise. “Because I'm in control. This time, of course. You can have a turn next time.” He added a third finger. “Lemme know when you're ready.”
“Fuck, Link. I'm ready. I'm so fuckin ready.”
“Then hand me that condom and roll over.” Rhett got into position as Link rolled the condom onto himself. He slicked them both with lube and got lined up. “Here we go,” he whispered as he slid in. The two men moaned in unison. “You can touch yourself now.
“Not gonna lie,” Link said as he rolled his hips into Rhett. “I'm not sure how long I can keep going slow.”
“Not sure how long I can last,” Rhett mumbled.
“Just give me a little warning, darlin'. I wanna see you cum.”
“Darlin',” Link confirmed. He dug his fingers into Rhett's hips and increased his speed. “Ohmygodrhettsyou'reofuckingoodgoddamn...”
“Link...” Rhett warned. “I'm so close.” Quick as a flash, Link pulled out and flipped Rhett over. Rhett was shocked at how strong Link was. All that swimming... Link slung Rhett's legs over his shoulders as he re-entered.
“This is my favorite,” he said as he pushed his hips up and forward. Rhett cried out softly. “It's such a good angle.”
Rhett came without warning, a surprising amount for someone who came less than an hour before. He was wrecked—limp, face flushed, curls everywhere, eyes rolled back. Link thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. “Oh, Rhett...” he sighed as he came.
They stayed in position for a moment, breathing heavily, before Link pulled out and slid off the bed. He disappeared into the bathroom and returned a minute later with a damp washcloth, a couple ibuprofen, an ace bandage, and a glass of water.
Rhett was sprawled on his back, staring up at the wood paneled ceiling. He didn't say anything or look at Link as he returned. “You okay?” Link asked as he sat on the edge of the bed. He set all his supplies on the table except the washcloth, which he used to clean Rhett off.
Rhett blinked at the sensation and turned his head towards Link. “I really like you,” he said.
“Yeah?” Link smiled a little and balled up the washcloth. He flung it through the open bathroom door, where it landed with a splat on the tile.
“Yeah. You're smart and funny and gorgeous, and you can really fuck.” Link snorted.
“I really like you, too.” He leaned over and kissed Rhett gently. “You're talented and handsome and sweet, and a lot of fun in bed. Now, take these.” He handed Rhett the ibuprofen and then the glass of water.
Rhett looked at the pills. “Why?”
“Elbow. To help with swelling,” Link explained. Rhett swallowed the pills and Link used the ace bandage to secure the bag of corn to Rhett's elbow. Once he secured it, he leaned over and kissed the inside of Rhett's elbow. “That should make it better.”
“Yeah, it does.” Rhett smiled. “Can I have my underwear?”
“Sure,” Link got up and tossed Rhett his boxer briefs before pulling clean underwear and a t-shirt out of his dresser. He turned off the light and climbed into bed and pulled the covers up. Rhett lay on his back with his injured arm out to the side and Link tucked under the other arm. Link draped an arm over Rhett's middle and a leg over Rhett's leg.
The window was still open and the cool night air chilled the room. The night sounds of the lake came in—a little sloshing water, crickets, an owl in the distance. No cars, no sirens, no people yelling. So different from LA.
“Hey, Link?” Rhett whispered. “Thanks.”
“For what?” Link asked sleepily.
“Taking care of me. No one's done anything like that for me in a long, long time.”
“I'm sorry.” Link kissed Rhett's ribcage. It tickled. “You deserve good things.”
“Huh.” That was kind of a new idea for Rhett. He'd have to think on it when he wasn't so damn tired. “Night, Link.”
Rhett opened his eyes. It took him a moment to figure out where he was—not in his studio apartment, not in the cabin. Link's room in the big house.
He was freezing. Link had rolled away at some point in the night and taken the blankets with him. Rhett reached over to grab them. Something squishy crinkled underneath him. It was the bag of corn, now thawed.
“Ugh.” Rhett unwound the ace bandage and dropped the whole thing over the side of the bed. He'd probably step on it later.
Rhett grabbed the blankets and reconsidered. Instead of yanking them away, he slipped under them and tucked himself behind Link. Big spoon.
“Mmph,” Link mumbled. Rhett kissed the back of his head. Link's hair was thick and soft. He smelled like herbal shampoo of some kind, a little sweat, and...lake water? The air around the lake smelled like pine and moist earth and humidity (so different than the exhaust and food trucks and asphalt of LA!), but did the lake itself have a scent?
Last night, Link said he deserved good things. If anyone had asked Rhett if he deserved good things (sobriety, a record deal, an apartment he didn't have to share with randoms from Craigslist), he would have just shrugged. In his experience, you sort of just took what you were given. It was probably easy for Link to think that good things were deserved—after all, he grew up in a stable (if blended) family, went to a good college, and had free access to a fucking lakeside mansion, all as a matter of course. But Rhett had had to work for everything good in his life. It wasn't given.
Maybe he did deserve it.
Link stirred next to him. “What time is it?” Rhett turned around and craned his neck to see the bedside clock.
“That's not too bad.” Link stretched out, long and lean and taut in Rhett's arms. “You want some coffee? I'll bring it up.”
“Yeah, that sounds great. With sugar, please.” Rhett looked at his elbow as Link pulled on yesterday's shorts and went downstairs. It was tender and purple, but not acutely painful when he moved it. Maybe the corn had done the trick.
“Morning, Link.” His older brother, Michael, sat at the kitchen island with the New York Times and a muffin. He had the same straight nose and sharp jawline as Link. “I got you some donuts and iced coffee from Ray's. Coffee's in the fridge. Didn't know when you'd be up.”
“Thanks, man.” Link opened the fridge. “Um, why are there two?”
“I thought your guest might want one.”
“Oh my god.” Link closed the fridge and looked at Michael in mortification with a coffee in each hand. Michael snorted in amusement at his expression.
“You should probably be quieter next time, little brother.” He sipped his coffee and smiled. “Imagine if it was Mom instead of me.”
“Oh god.” Link's ears were bright red. “I am so sorry.”
Michael shrugged. “Why? It's your house. Have fun. Be safe.”
“I am going to die,” Link declared. “Thanks, though.” He dumped a spoonful of sugar in one cup and a splash of milk in the other before grabbing the bag of donuts and absconding from the kitchen. Michael's laugh followed him.
“Where'd you get those? And why are you so red?” Rhett asked. Link gave him a haunted look.
“My brother bought us coffee and donuts because he heard us having sex last night.”
Rhett clapped in delight and threw back his head in laughter. “Your brother is awesome.” Link scowled and handed him the sweetened coffee. “Seriously, he hears his little brother dicking some guy down, or maybe getting dicked down, and his reaction is to buy us both breakfast? That's pretty cool.”
“I guess.” Link sat on the green loveseat by the fireplace and rolled his plastic cup between his palms. Condensation dripped off onto the Oriental rug. “I don't really want those two parts of my life to overlap, you know?”
Rhett sat next to him. “He's going home tomorrow, though, right?”
“So at least you'll have some time to recover by the next time you see him. Whenever that is.”
“Thanksgiving, probably. Or maybe Christmas,” Link answered. “I don't remember.”
“So what are you going to do today?” Rhett pulled a glazed donut out of the bag and ate it in just a few bites. Link watched with raised eyebrows.
“Um...” he tapped his fingers on the velvet upholstery. “As much as I'd like to just hang out, I have to do a bunch of laundry because there's a bunch of people coming for the weekend and I have a menu I'm supposed to be working on if they've sent me the photos yet. You?”
Rhett shrugged. “I have a couple songs I was gonna work on. Hopefully finish another demo or two. Or maybe go on a hike.”
“A hike?” Link gave him an incredulous look. “You, city boy, on a hike?”
“Okay, first, fuck you, and second, do you know any good hikes?
Link pulled a pink iced donut with sprinkles out of the wax paper bag. “First, yes please, and second, I have a guide book downstairs.”
Armed with his book, Rhett exited through the kitchen. Michael was still at the island, reading the paper. Rhett saluted him with his coffee.
“Thanks for the breakfast, man!”
Michael looked up. “You're welcome. And be nice to him, he's sensitive.”
Rhett crossed his heart. “I will. I promise.”
Please practice safe sex when hooking up with vacation randos, no matter how much you like them.
Link was busy the entire weekend with his family. So many of them came that it was almost like a reunion, including a cousin that Link was especially close to and spent a lot of time with. Rhett only saw him in passing, and they barely texted at all.
Monday afternoon, when most of the family had gone on their way, Rhett sent Link a message.
Text to: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): missed you this weekend
(Link): missed you too
(Rhett): dont apologize
(Rhett): and dont put your life on hold for me
(Link): I don't know what im doing with my life
(Rhett): well what are you doing right now
(Link): making a menu
(Link): come on up to the studio if you want
(Link): doors open
Rhett had never been in Link's studio. It was behind the only door at Merganser that was regularly locked, not, Link said, because he was afraid anything would get stolen, but because he didn't want anyone touching his work stuff.
The studio was a little room off Link's bedroom. It had the same wooden ceiling and wainscoting and the same twig border, the same green velvet curtains, but the walls were a plain cream. Link said it used to be a dressing room.
Now there was a computer desk on one side of the room, with two huge monitors and a drawing tablet, along with a bunch of other equipment Rhett didn't recognize. One wall was covered in a series of calendars—one for each cabin, Rhett realized, showing all the reservations and contact info of guests in Link's neat cursive (Rhett didn't know anyone else their age who wrote in cursive, but Link's handwriting was beautiful. A lot of his graphic design was based on custom hand-drawn lettering), and a larger, more complicated one for Merganser itself. Rhett could see a large section blocked out for Cabin 3—that was him.
The other wall held Link's college diploma and three framed posters. Each featured a person from behind, standing in front of peril—a woman on a rocky precipice over a raging sea, a lighthouse in the distance; a little boy in front of a dark cave, a single light glimmering in the depths; and an old man on the prow of a ship, looking up a wall of ice to a tiny figure at the top.
“Wow,” Rhett breathed. He turned to Link, who was sitting at the computer, watching him. “Did you make these?”
Link nodded. “Yeah, my final project for my digital art class. They're all photomanipulations.” He pointed at the middle picture, the boy and the cave. “That's my nephew Owen. It's a picture my sister posted on Facebook from when they went to the zoo. He was really looking at a goat.”
Rhett snorted. “What did your sister think?”
“She thought it was cool. I know she has a copy hung up in her house somewhere.”
Rhett looked at the posters for a little longer. There was something about them that that felt like the songs he was writing, the same darkness that lurked in the natural world. His solo hike in the woods had only strengthened that feeling—the dark, moist air under the trees, the muffled quiet, only the little sounds of insects and birds.
He turned around and met Link's gaze. “Link,” he said, “Do you want to make my album art?”
Link's dark eyebrows shot up. “What?”
“These pictures.” Rhett gestured behind him. “Could you make one, with me, and a path through dark woods and Merganser in the distance?”
“I could...” Link allowed. He hesitated. “I don't really make stuff like that anymore, though.”
“I'd pay you. Full rate,” Rhett promised. “And it wouldn't be for a while. The album’s nowhere near done.”
Link smiled. “Well, when you're ready, let me know and we can work something out.” He turned back to his computer.
Rhett then turned his attention to the diploma. It had a big gold seal, a lot of fancy calligraphy, and bestowed a bachelors of science to one Charles Lincoln Neal III. “Charles?”
“Surely you didn't think my given name was Link.”
“I quit making assumptions about peoples' given names when I found out the guy in the next apartment is named Cactus Duncan,” Rhett replied.
Link turned around in disbelief. “No way.”
“Yes way. I kept getting his mail and I thought it was a fake name he used to sign up for stuff. Nope. He showed me his ID and everything. A severe case of hippie parents.” Rhett peered over Link's shoulder. “Whatcha making?”
Link zoomed out. “Menu for an Italian place. They actually got me really good pictures.” An image of a platter of spaghetti and meatballs filled the screen.
“Oh, wow, that looks amazing. Can we go there?”
“Well, it's in Des Moines, so...”
“Oh.” Rhett paused. “So when are you gonna be done?”
Link shrugged. “A few hours, maybe. Why, you wanna do something?
“Yeah. You.” Rhett looked pleased with himself.
“I guess I walked right into that one,” Link sighed. “I'll come to the cabin at seven, okay?”
“Deal.” Rhett leaned over and kissed him.
As soon as the cabin door closed behind Link, Rhett grabbed him and kissed him roughly. “How are you so gorgeous?” he growled.
“Just lucky, I guess,” Link gasped. He'd noticed how much Rhett liked his outfit the night they went to the village, so he did his hair and put on a plaid button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It had the desired effect, because Rhett started to pick him up and carry him to the bedroom. “Rhett, slow down! We're not hooking up in a club bathroom.”
Rhett paused. “Have you ever done that?”
“Um.” Link flashed to a memory of being on his knees in a handicapped stall, sucking off a guy he couldn't even picture now. Shit.
“Really?” Rhett said in fascination. “Sweet, preppy, Link Neal, hooking up in a public restroom?”
Link flushed with humiliation and pushed Rhett away. “I'm not proud of it, okay? It was only one time. I was 19 and drunk and I sucked a stranger's dick. Now you know. Happy?”
“Link, I...that's not what I meant,” Rhett said. His shoulders drooped. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean...I would never...”
Link crossed his arms, turned in on himself, looked away. “It's okay.”
“No, baby, it's not. Look at me, please.” Link sighed and met Rhett's green eyes. “That was really unfair of me. We don't really know each other that well yet, even though it feels like we do, you know? Of course you're a more complex person than I've seen yet, of course you have a past. God knows I do. And I never, ever want to make you feel bad or ashamed or hurt. So can you forgive me?”
Link nodded. “You make it sound like this is going to be a long term thing.” Rhett just looked at him. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh.” Rhett said, a little hurt, a little bitter.
Link swallowed. “I'm not ready to have this conversation right now, but all those things you just said to me? They're mutual. And I'm a little scared. So you're going to have to be patient with. So... can you forgive me?”
Rhett nodded. Link slipped an arm around his waist and stood on his tiptoes to kiss him.
“I haven't made out this long since I was in high school,” Link said. He was straddling Rhett. They hadn't made it to the bedroom. They weren't even naked yet, although they were down to their underwear—Rhett's utilitarian, Link's bright and skimpy. Instead, they were on the ugly tan living room couch.
“Well, do you want to go to the bedroom? Or do you just want me to bend you over the couch?” Rhett kneaded his hands into Link's ass.
“I'd have to buy a new couch if we did that.”
“There is no way we'd be the first people to fuck on this couch. I mean, haven't you rented it out to people on their honeymoons?”
Link paused. “Yes. Ugh.”
“So bedroom? You know, probably even more people have fucked in that bed.”
“I hate you.”
“And that bed in your room—you didn't buy a new mattress when you moved in, right? Whoever lived there before you--”
Link shuddered and cut him off. “It was my great uncle Dennis! You cannot keep talking like this if you want to have sex. I will shrivel up and die.”
“Oh, we don't want that.” Rhett reached down between them and grasped Link, who gasped. “Seems okay for now. Put your arms around my neck.”
Link did so. “Okay. Why?”
“You'll see.” Rhett grabbed Link's thighs and stood up. Link let out a happy little shriek and wrapped his legs around Rhett's middle. “You like that?”
“You make me feel so small,” Link said. “It's amazing.”
“You are small.” Rhett frowned as he carried Link to the bed. “Wait. That didn't sound right. Not small. Lean. Lithe.”
Link spluttered a laugh. “Lithe?”
Rhett leaned over and kissed Link as he straddled him. Conversation was forgotten as they ground against each other, making desperate little noises into each other's mouth. Link wondered if he could cum, just from this.
Rhett was the first one to break the kiss. “What do you want?” he asked hoarsely.
Link rolled his eyes. “I want you to fuck me. That's why I'm here.”
“But how? Slow? Gentle? Fast? Rough? From behind? On your back? Or maybe you want to ride me?” Rhett punctuated each question with a thrust of his hips. His erection rubbed against Link's in a most delightful way.
Link whimpered. He could barely think, let alone form words. “Behind...rough...”
Rhett stopped. “How rough?”
“Link, you gotta focus for a minute. This is important. Like, safe word rough?”
Link blinked a couple times and his glazed eyes cleared. “No, like hair pulling, or hands held down. Lite rough. Diet rough.”
“Diet rough?” Rhett snickered. “You say the weirdest shit, Link.” He grabbed a fistful of Link's dark hair, close to the scalp so it wouldn't really hurt him, and pulled. “Like that?”
Link nodded, or tried to. Rhett had his hair in a pretty good grip and it pinned Link's head to the bed. “Rhett, please...”
“Please fuck me.”
“Sure thing, baby. Why don't you let me get you ready?” He let go of Link's hair and pushed him towards the head of the bed before sliding Link's briefs off. Rhett pulled off his own underwear, too, for good measure.
Rhett kissed and licked his way up and down the insides of Link's thighs before finally licking Link from base to tip. The sensation spurred Link into starting up his never ending stream of curses and exclamations.
“You like dirty talk? You want me to call you a slut or anything?” Rhett asked as he gave Link a few long, slow strokes. Link shook his head vehemently.
“No! Jesus, Rhett. We just talked about that. Only-” he gasped as Rhett's hand slid between his legs. “Only good stuff.”
“Well, baby, be good for me and I'll be good to you.” Rhett pushed Link's legs up and dove down, licking and teasing. Link had his hands buried in his own hair, whimpering. Rhett surfaced. “Lube?”
Link pointed to the living room. “Pocket,” he gasped. Rhett growled in frustration and ran out, returning with the lube and a condom. He drizzled it over his fingers and rubbed Link as he took him into his mouth. At the same time, he reached between his own legs and grasped himself.
“Let me know when you're there, baby, because I sure am.” Rhett slid a finger in, followed by a second, and then a third, before Link nodded. “Then get ready.”
Link rolled over and got on his knees and Rhett rolled on the condom. He slid his hand between Link's cheeks, rubbing a little more as he got lined up before slowly pushing in.
“God, you're tight,” Rhett murmured as he carefully pulled back and pushed a little deeper. “You feel amazing. You look amazing. You're doing such a good job, baby.” He bottomed out and leaned over to grab a handful of hair and gently pulled Link's head back.
“Oh my god,” Link whimpered. “You're so big. Fuck. It's almost too much.”
“Want me to stop?”
“No! But can I touch myself?”
“Never said you couldn't.” Rhett yanked back on Link's hair and thrust into him harder as Link began to stroke himself. The only sounds in the room were moans and gasps, the slap of skin-to-skin contact, and Link's mumbles. They got louder and more insistent until he was nearly sobbing. He came with a cry and Rhett let go of his hair. Link dropped his head into his arms.
“Keep going, if you're close,” he mumbled. “You're okay.” Rhett grunted in understanding, but only thrust a few more times before pulling out. He slipped off the condom and stroked himself until he came on Link's back with a groan.
Link collapsed onto his stomach and Rhett flopped beside him. They lay on the blue blanket, eyes closed, close but not touching, to cool down and catch their breath. A light breeze blew fresh air off the lake through the open window and brought the gentle sound of waves.
Link recovered first. He opened his eyes and turned to look at Rhett. He was still breathing heavily, still flushed, still out of it. Link thought about Rhett had said, that they didn't know each other, but it felt like they did. It was true. There was something there, something more than physical attraction, something more than a crush. Link wanted to find out what it was.
But Rhett was only in the Adirondacks for the next three weeks, and then he'd return to LA and work on his music, do whatever cool stuff he did there, and leave Link alone to deal with a whirlwind of relatives for the rest of the summer and then rattle around an empty mansion all winter.
It was going to hurt, whatever Link did. He was in too deep already, so he might as well go all in.
“What's wrong? Why are you sighing like that?” Rhett asked. He'd turned his head to look at Link. His eyes were very green in the twilight room.
“Oh.” Link folded his hands under his cheek. “Just thinking.”
“That can be dangerous.” Rhett was very solemn but Link was sure he was being teased.
“Yeah.” Link propped himself up on his elbows. “We gotta talk.”
Rhett sat up and looked around the room. “Like, right now?”
“Uh, no. I'm covered in sweat and lube and cum. I need to take a shower. I'm gonna go get cleaned up and then we can talk when I get back.” He rolled over and wiped his back on the blanket. “And I'm gonna bring you a new blanket.”
Rhett shook his head in admiration. “This place is great. Full service, if you know what I mean. I'm gonna give you five stars on Yelp.”
For real I do know a guy named Cactus.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Let's take a walk,” Link suggested. He felt much more human in gray sweats and a sunny yellow tie dye hoodie, straight from the Hemporium. Rhett somehow refrained from making any comments about the outfit. He was cleaned up too, in his usual dark jeans and black shirt, topped with a gray sweater.
“The Point. There's a bench we can sit on.”
“Really?” The Point was one of the peninsulas that jutted out into the lake around Merganser. The end of it was bare rock, but the base was covered in brush. Rhett had ignored it during his ambles around the property because he thought it was impassable.
“Yep. There's a sort of secret tunnel through the bushes. I'll show you.”
Pushing his way through the bushes with Link triggered a memory for Rhett. There was a park his grandma would take him to sometimes that wasn't just a play structure surrounded by a lake of mulch. It was his favorite park when he was little. It had open grass and trees and shrubs. Hiding underneath them made him feel like an adventurer. It was the same feeling he got at Merganser, surrounded by trees and rocks and plants and water. It felt right, it felt good.
Maybe he didn't want to live in the city anymore.
“See?” Link straightened up. There was a little open space past the bushes, and then the huge glacial rock of the Point thrust up from the earth. A little concrete staircase with a railing of iron pipe lead up to the top. Everything was covered in lichen and moss.
“Wow,” breathed Rhett. “How long do you think those stairs have been here?”
Link shrugged. “Since the 40s, at least. There's a picture somewhere in the house of some past Neals having a picnic on top and it's there.” He took Rhett's hand. “C'mon.”
There was a concrete bench at the top of the stairs. The bulk of the point thrust forward into the water in front of it. The whole thing was surrounded by bushes and invisible from everywhere but the water in front of it. A private little bower, just for them
Rhett looked around in amazement. “This is amazing. Are you the only person who knows about this?”
Link laughed. “No! Everyone finds it when they're a kid, but adults don't usually bother coming here. There's the porch and the dock, y'know? Easier.”
The bench was small enough that they had to sit close to each other, but they would have done that even if it were larger. Link took one of Rhett's hands in his own and held their palms together. Rhett's hand was so much bigger and his fingertips were calloused from guitar strings. Link interlaced their fingers.
“So...” he began. He flicked his eyes at Rhett. “I gotta talk this out, okay? It's how I process stuff.” Rhett nodded in understanding.
Link took a deep shuddery breath. “So, I like you a lot. I mean, a whole lot. It's crazy. I've never fallen for someone so fast, even when I was a dumb teenager. And this connection... you feel it too, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Rhett said. “I definitely feel it.”
“Right.” Link looked down. Soft moss carpeted the rock beneath the bench. He toed off his shoes and rested his bare soles on it. It was cool and moist. Soothing.
“And I want it, Rhett. I want it so bad.” He looked up at Rhett. “But you're leaving in three weeks.”
“Don't I know it,” Rhett sighed.
“Yeah. And I don't think either of us is stupid or naive enough to think that a six week summer fling would be able to last a transcontinental long distance relationship with no end in sight.” Somehow Link managed to spit the words out without stumbling over them. He held up his free hand in askance. “So what do I do? It's going to end now or it's going to end in three weeks or it's going to end sometime later, and it's going to hurt either way.”
Rhett sat silently and rubbed his thumb on the back of Link's hand. “I'm sorry. This isn't how I wanted this to go.”
“Me neither. I think I've made my decision, though.” Rhett looked up in apprehension. “I'm all in, Rhett. At least for the next three weeks. I want you. I want it all. And after that... we can reassess.”
Rhett shook his head with a rueful little smile. “Link Neal. I have never met anyone like you in my life. And I want you in my life. So I accept. I'll be your boyfriend for the next three weeks, and then we'll see.” He sealed the deal with a kiss.
They both knew it wouldn't end in three weeks.
Alone in his cabin, Rhett started a new song.
He lit a fire
But now he's in my every thought
For the next week, everything went well. They spent as much time together as they could. While Link was busy with his work and family, Rhett worked on his music, and he was incredibly productive. His manager was thrilled by his output, if not a little baffled by the content.
To: Rhett McLaughlin
From: Sandi Lorenzo
Subject: Re: Re: Re: no subject
Is this turning out to be a concept album? A lot of dark powers/lost loves/nature magic in the lyrics. You never wrote anything like that before.
To: Sandi Lorenzo
From: Rhett McLaughlin
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: no subject
if it is, it's your fault. You're the one who sent me here
Text to: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): if I wanted to buy something online, where do I send it?
(Link): anything bigger than the mailbox at the top of the drive has to go to my PO box in the village
(Link): what are you getting?
Rhett watched out his bedroom window as Link walked past on his way down to the dock and waiting until he dove in before emerging. There was no reason for Rhett to be nervous, but he was anyway. He hurried down to the dock and sat on the edge with his feet in the water. It was as cold as it had been before, but somehow that wasn't as bothersome when it was only his feet and the sun was out. The concrete was hot on the back of his thighs. That was bothersome.
Link returned from his lap out to the floating platform. “Hey, Rhett,” he said as he hauled himself up the ladder, liberally sprinkling Rhett with droplets before sitting next to him. Link glanced over at Rhett's lap. “Are you wearing swim trunks?” he asked in disbelief. “Is that what you bought online?”
“Yeah.” Rhett glanced down at his legs. The swimsuit wasn't much shorter than the shorts he usually wore, but he felt exposed anyway. It was also covered in a wild pattern of tropical flowers and foliage which, Rhett being Rhett, were all in shades of black and gray.
“Looks nice,” Link said. “Are you actually going to get in?”
Rhett shook his head. “Probably not. I do want to try the kayak, though, and it seems to get people pretty wet, so... here we are.” The two person kayak was made of neon orange plastic and Rhett had watched what seemed like an endless stream of Neals flail around in it over the past few weeks. It looked like a lot of fun.
Link kicked his feet in the water, sending shimmering drops into the air. “Not if you know what you're doing,” he said. Rhett glared at him. “Don't worry, I'll give you a lesson. It's not that hard, especially if you're not a literal child or three beers in.”
“What do you want to do?” Rhett asked. “Anything in particular?”
Link chewed his lip. “I mean, besides keep having sex in increasingly weird places?” They'd already checked off both beds, Link's bathtub (much to Rhett's delight), one of the other empty cabins while Link was supposed to be cleaning it, and underneath the piano in the front room while everyone else was gone.
“Oh, that reminds me,” said Rhett. “I think we should drive the boat out to the middle of the lake and do it there, too.” In unison, they turned their heads to look at the Boston Whaler tied up behind them. Link raised an eyebrow.
“Interesting.” He turned back to Rhett. “I mean, it's really up to you. We could do nearby tourist stuff, like take the steamboat tour around the lake, or further away tourist stuff like drive up to Lake Placid and ride the bobsled—that's a long drive, though, and it's kind of expensive—or go on a hike or something.”
“How expensive? And how do they run a bobsled in the summer?” Rhett wanted to know.
“It's on wheels. These guys who are training for the Olympics load it up with tourists and pilot it down the track and then they use a forklift to put it in the back of a truck to drive it back to the top. You have to wear a crash helmet and sign a waiver. It's scarier than any roller coaster I've ever ridden, and it's like $75.”
“For one ride?” Rhett was aghast.
Link shrugged. “Athletes gotta raise money somehow, and where else can you ride a bobsled? You can do other Olympics stuff too, like shoot rifles at the biathlon targets. It's pretty cool.”
Rhett shook his head. “I think we should just go on a hike after the kayak.”
“Same one you did the other day?”
Rhett grimaced. “So, you know how that one started with the bridge over the highway?”
“Yeah, I thought that was kind of weird.” Link had driven under the little pedestrian bridge a thousand times and never knew where it went until he dropped Rhett off for his hike.
“Well, the floor is made of mesh, so you can see straight through to the traffic underneath. And I hate heights. I never want to do that again.” He shuddered.
“Why didn't you call me? I would have turned around to get you.”
“'Cause Mama didn't raise no bitch!” Rhett declared. Link choked with laughter. “Well, grandma, mostly.”
“Okay, so a different hike, then. Let's go get life jackets and try the kayak.”
Lyrics from She Lit a Fire by Lord Huron (fuck a pronoun): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUxh-jw-C-w
Lake Placid Bobsled Experience: https://www.lakeplacid.com/do/activities/bobsled-rides-olympic-sports-complex
“So the book said the oldest tree in the area is at the end of this hike?” Link asked.
“Does it say how they know it's the oldest?”
“Figures. Probably just something made up to make people get out of the house.”
“Well, it worked, didn't it?” Rhett gestured around them. They were under tree cover so thick that almost no sunlight reached the ground. Everything was moist and violently green. No one else was around, and the only sounds came from birds and insects. Even their footsteps didn't make any noise—the path was carpeted in soft mulch, which was damp from a storm the previous night.
“I've never seen so many mushrooms,” Link said. They were everywhere, on fallen logs, under brush, growing from tree trunks, in every shape, in shades of red, white, yellow, and brown. “We must be here at just the right time.”
“Hm?” Link turned to find Rhett with his phone up. He started laughing. They'd been taking a lot of photos, together and of each other, because they knew time was short. Rhett showed him the picture—Link with his hands on the straps of his backpack, floral snapback on, grinning at Rhett over his shoulder.
“This is a good one,” Rhett said. “You look really cute here.”
“You say that about every single one!”
“Well, it's true.” Rhett slipped the phone back in his pocket. “And I believe you may have said something similar about all the pictures you've taken.”
“Well, I certainly didn't say 'cute'. 'Stunningly handsome', maybe.”
“Whoa! Link, look at this.” Rhett crouched down and pushed aside a low branch. “Is that a... lizard?”
Link leaned over. A tiny orange critter with little brown spots looked up at him from the leaf litter. “A salamander, maybe? Or a newt.”
“It's so bright.” Rhett took a picture of it. “I'll look it up later. This is so cool.”
“You know, they have nature in California, too,” Link said carefully, as he did whenever the topic of LA came up. “Lots of parks and mountains and beaches.”
Rhett looked at him in surprise. “Yeah, but it's not like here.”
“No, the Adirondacks are special,” Link agreed.
“And I didn't know I liked nature until, like, a month ago. I never really got to spend any time there.”
“Not even on a school trip or anything?”
Rhett snorted. “I grew up poor, like really poor, and I lived in a bad neighborhood and I went to bad public schools. Trips weren't really a thing that happened. I mean, shit, I'm still poor and I still live in a bad neighborhood. The closest park is where all the junkies hang out. I don't have a car. It's not like I could drive to a state park on a whim, you know?”
Link walked beside him in silence for a while. “So what are you going to for money? You haven't worked in a month.”
Rhett shrugged. “I have some saved up, and not having to pay rent for six weeks helps. I quit my job to come out here but there's so much turnover there I can probably go right back. And there's always coffee shops to play at. Or street corners.”
“This is going to sound incredibly stupid, but I never thought about you having a job. I just... imagined you playing guitar all the time?” Link giggled nervously. “So dumb.”
“Ha! I wish. No, I was an assistant manager at an independent record store. Miller Records, buy and sell, new and vintage. Plus stuff like posters and shirts and merch in general. Pretty cool, but a lot of the coworkers are flakes. Boss was pretty upset that I left.”
“Can I come visit you sometime?” Link asked suddenly.
Rhett grimaced, picturing his tiny, run-down studio apartment and crime-ridden neighborhood. He absolutely could not picture Link in that environment. He'd stick out like a sore thumb.
Link saw the grimace and his shoulders drooped. “Never mind,” he whispered.
“No, Link, it's not like that,” Rhett sighed. “It's just that... there's really nothing good in LA. At least not my part of LA.”
“You'd be there,” Link pointed out. That was enough for him. Rhett leaned over and kissed him.
They found the oldest tree and decided that while it was very large, there were plenty of equally large trees around so the whole thing seemed rather arbitrary. But it was a nice hike, nonetheless.
The subject of LA was like a slowly descending blade. It was always there, getting closer and closer, whether they acknowledged it or not. Rhett made a decision.
“For the next week, I want to pretend like I'm not leaving. I don't want to talk about LA. I don't want to think about LA. I can't enjoy this if we're always dancing around the subject.”
“Okay,” Link said. “Let's go get something to eat. I'm starving.”
“Really? 'Okay' like it's that easy? I thought you'd be more--”
Link cut him off. “Nope! Subject forbidden. Do you want to go to Ray's or do you want to skip right to dessert and go to the Pink Roof?”
The one time Rhett 100% expected Link to argue, he agreed without a word. Rhett decided to roll with it. “Can we do both?”
“Sure, why not?” They got into Link's battered station wagon. “I have a little bad news,” Link said as he made the less perilous right hand turn onto Lake Shore Drive.
“Yeah, my cousin Maddie is coming back tomorrow. I guess my uncle got an extra day off work for some reason, so they're coming up for the weekend. They only live like two hours away.”
“You told her to leave me alone, right? And she was pissed.” Rhett said. Link nodded. “So how mad is she going to be now that you're fucking me on the regular?”
“Oh, so mad. So incredibly mad. It's going to be fun. Lots of passive aggression.” Link sighed as he pulled into the Ray's parking lot. “I don't know what happened with her. She used to be a nice kid. I mean, her sister Rosie is perfectly fine. I keep hoping she'll grow out of it, but so far... nope.”
“She's what, like eighteen? Nineteen? There's still a lot of growing up to do at that age.” Rhett thought about himself at nineteen, living in what may or may not have been an illegal apartment, going to bars with a fake ID, getting trashed at house parties every weekend, playing in his first real band.
“Nineteen. Anyway, I think she'll avoid you, but I just wanted to let you know.” Link got a chicken salad sandwich and Rhett got an Italian club. They sat on a bench in the sunshine outside the deli and watched cars drive past. People came in and out of the deli, there to buy sandwiches, of course, but also pool toys, fishing bait, souvenirs, and beer.
“You ever wonder what all these people do when they aren't at the lake?” Rhett asked. He was watching a very, very sunburned man climb gingerly into his car. “Like, is that dude a lawyer? Is he a plumber? Where is he from?”
Link swallowed a bite of sandwich. “Not unless they're particularly interesting. Summer people are just summer people, you know? I can say that because I spent 25 years as a summer person.”
“Am I interesting?” Rhett asked. Somehow he'd already finished his sandwich, despite getting the 12 inch while Link got the 6 inch.
“You are, by far, the most interesting person I've ever met, summer person or not.” Link took another bite.
“I think you may be biased.”
Link held up his hands as if to say, well, you got me there. A blob of chicken salad fell onto his swimsuit (watermelons again) and he flicked it off onto the ground. A nearby sparrow snatched it up.
“Birds eating birds. That's fucked up,” Rhett observed. He considered it for a moment. “Is it cannibalism if they're different species?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Rhett McLaughlin. A true philosopher for our times.” Link balled up his sandwich wrapper and tried to shoot it into the trash can. He missed.
“Allow me to show you how it's done.” Rhett lined up his shot. His ball of foil landed perfectly in the middle of the can. “All that basketball practice was worth it just for this moment.”
“Do you actually play basketball? I thought about asking you, but it seemed like a dumb tall people stereotype so I didn't.”
“Yeah, all through middle and high school. I was pretty good. My grandma thought it would keep me out of trouble. It didn't, but I still play pickup games with some guys in the neighborhood a couple times a week.”
“That's kind of how I am with swimming. Used to do it competitively, did okay, burned out in college. I gave up on it for a few years, but when I moved up here I started again. There's a gym out by the Target that I go to in the winter. It helps with the depression a lot.” Link stood up abruptly. “Let's get ice cream.”
Once they were safely through the terrifying left hand turn out of the Ray's parking lot and on the way to the Pink Roof, Rhett said, “So, depression, huh?”
Link kept his eyes on the road. “Yeah. Depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. Lots of ups and downs, lots of medication and therapy. I'm doing pretty well these days, though. Leaving Raleigh helped a lot. I didn't realize how unhappy I was there until I left.”
Rhett was beginning to know how he felt.
“You don't have to answer if it's too personal, but are you taking anything now?” he asked. There had been times when he suspected medication might help him, but a combination of coming from a culture where people just didn't do that and not having health insurance had always stopped him.
“No, it's okay. We're pretty personal.” Link snuck a glance at Rhett. His expression was open and sincere. “Just a little Prozac now, and then some anti-anxiety meds for when I have a particularly bad day.”
Rhett shook his head. “I never would have guessed. You're always such a ray of sunshine.”
“Well, of course you would think that. You always see me happy, because I'm always happy to see you.” Link smiled a little as he easily found a parking spot. The village wasn't too busy at this time in the afternoon. “But I've always been outgoing and personable, which is the same as happy to a lot of people.”
Rhett was silent as they walked to the Pink Roof. “I don't like thinking about you being unhappy,” he said finally.
“That's sweet of you. I'm better now, though, I promise.” Link ordered birthday cake ice cream with sprinkles again while Rhett got raspberry ripple.
“Why do you get extra sprinkles?” Rhett asked. “It's already got sprinkles in it.”
Link licked his cone. “I just like sprinkles, is all. Maybe you should try it.”
“Well, you've got a sprinkle on your chin.” Rhett pointed. Link wiped his face. “You missed it. Hold still.” Rhett reached over and swiped the sprinkle away. Link rolled his eyes and held out his cone.
“Did you want to try it?”
Rhett made a face. “I dunno, seems kind of weird to eat after you.”
“Well, I don't know why, last night you ate my—Hey!” Link cut off with a yell as Rhett leaned forward and took a bite of the ice cream. “You messed it up! And doesn't that hurt your teeth?”
Rhett shook his head. “Nope. That's pretty good, actually, but I don't think it needs the extra sprinkles.” Link looked sadly at the crater in his scoop of ice cream. Rhett gave him a sympathetic look.
“Aw, baby, I know you can lick that into shape. I mean, last night, you licked m-” he broke into laughter at Link's death glare.
Link's phone buzzed in his pocket. “Sorry, this is probably those people from Cabin 1.” He pulled it out, read the text, and burst into laughter.
Text From: Maddie Neal
The picture, taken only moments ago, showed Rhett gesturing with his hands as he talked while Link looked up at him with a fond gaze. Rhett was in his usual black jeans and dark gray shirt, and Link was wearing a swimsuit patterned like sunlight on a swimming pool with a mint green tank top.
(Maddie): u look like a parakeet in love with a crow
Link held it out to Rhett, who started laughing, too.
(Link): thank you, that was delightful
"u look like a parakeet in love with a crow" is by far my favorite thing in this fic
“I love your tan lines,” Rhett said, running a palm over Link's pale hipbone.
“Really? Why?” Link looked down at himself. His tan lines only ever made him feel guilty about not wearing sunscreen as much as he should.
“Because this-” here Rhett ran his hands over Link's tan sides, making him squirm, “everybody can see this. But this-” his fingers danced across the dark hair and pale skin on Link's lower abdomen, “this is just for me.”
“Huh. I guess you're right. Never thought of it like that.” Link looked over at Rhett, who didn't tan. He just burned, even on an overcast day like today. Link touched his hip. “I know this is just for me, too. Even though there's no lines.”
“That's right, baby. All yours.” Rhett rolled onto his back and pillowed his head on his hands. They were lying naked on the bottom of the boat, covered in sweat and sunscreen. It was too choppy to really have sex or even swap blowjobs (“Don't you dare get those teeth near my dick while it's moving like this.”), so they returned to the teenage classic of making out with handjobs.
It was the last day of their week of pretending Rhett wasn't going to return to LA. Each had decided, secretly and independently, that he wanted things to continue after they parted ways. There had never really been another choice.
Link opened his eyes and immediately closed them. Maybe, if he didn't wake up, he could continue pretending that Rhett wasn't leaving.
They were in his room for a change. It was no longer a secret that they were an item. Most members of the extended Neal family weren't stupid, and it was obvious the two men were infatuated with each other. Usually, though, Link spent the night at the cabin, both for privacy's sake and to spare Rhett from having to run the gauntlet of endless curious Neals.
But you'd have to be an idiot to not want to spent time in a 1920's railway baron's bedroom if you had the chance.
He managed to avoid the inevitable for a little while longer, but Link was eventually betrayed by his bladder. He tried to slip out of bed without waking Rhett up, but failed. Rhett rolled over and opened his eyes.
“Mornin', sunshine,” he mumbled. His eyes crinkled as he smiled at Link.
“Hold that thought.” Link hurried to the bathroom. “Sunshine?” he asked when he returned. He climbed back into bed, but instead of laying back down, he sat with his legs drawn up to his chest and his arms around his knees.
“Mmhmm.” Rhett stretched out luxuriously. “That's you. Lighting up my life and all that.”
“That's pretty fucking sappy, man.”
“It's true, though.” Rhett rolled onto his side to look at Link. He was curled in on himself and hair hung in his face, covering his eyes. “You okay?”
Rhett rubbed his back. “I'm sorry, Link.”
Link rested his forehead on his knees. “It's not your fault.”
“That's not why I'm sorry. It's the sympathy kind of sorry, not the guilty kind.” Rhett got up. “Can I borrow your keys?”
Link looked up. “Why?”
“I'm gonna go to Ray's and get you some breakfast. You want a donut or one of those sausage biscuit things?” Rhett was going to have both, personally.
Link sighed. “Sausage biscuit, I guess. And an orange juice.”
“Sure thing.” Rhett kissed the top of his head and swiped the keys from the top of the dresser. Link's keychain was a brass medallion with his initials on it in curly letters. CLN III
“Hey!” Link called. Rhett looked back at him. “Be careful making that turn.”
“You got it.” Rhett blew him a kiss and was gone.
“So we are stupid and naive enough to embark on a transcontinental long distance relationship after knowing each other for six weeks, is that what we've decided here?” Link dropped his head onto his computer desk with a clunk. “Christ.”
“That does seem to be the case,” Rhett said. He was leaving the next morning, in less than 12 hours. They'd spent the last week discussing it and kept coming to the same conclusion: neither one of them wanted to give up. “Seems pretty inevitable in retrospect.”
“Ughhhh,” Link groaned, still faceplanted onto the desk. “This is gonna suck.”
“It's gonna be okay, Link.” Rhett gently hauled him up out of the office chair and wrapped his arms around the shorter man. Link hid his face against Rhett's shoulder and sniffled.
“Oh, baby, don't cry. We'll figure it out.”
Link shook his head and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. The tears he was willing not to fall soaked into Rhett's shirt. “How do you know? How can you be so sure?”
Rhett kissed the top of his head. “I just am.”
“Is that why you aren't more upset?”
Rhett remembered Link's brother Michael saying that Link was sensitive. “I am upset. I just never learned to show it like you, is all. I didn't grow up in a place that was kind to people who showed vulnerability.” He sighed. “You're probably stronger than I am, honestly.”
“Don't feel very strong right now,” Link mumbled. Rhett pulled him up into a kiss and wiped away his tears.
“You are. You're strong, and brave, and good, and smart.” He kissed Link's jaw and moved down his neck as he slid his hands under Link's shirt. “And you're really hot and I think we should move into the bedroom.”
Link sighed in pleasure. “Okay.”
Wherever the line between having sex and making love was, they crossed it that night. Every kiss, every touch, every movement was slow and sweet and full of unspoken promises. There were spoken promises, too, plenty of them, whispered and gasped and moaned, and they meant every word.
They fell asleep tangled up in each other.
Rhett pulled the cabin door closed and locked it behind him, which was pointless, but he felt he should because he wasn't coming back. He stood on the deck and looked across the lake, which was still in shadow, to the mountains on the other side. The sun was rising behind him and the light slowly poured down the mountainside. The air was cool and still.
Link slammed the hatch of the station wagon. “Ready?” he asked.
“No.” Rhett picked up his backpack and walked to the car anyway. “You know, even if I hadn't met you, this place would have changed me.”
“Mmm.” Link looked Rhett up and down. He was still wearing his dark jeans, but they were accompanied by slip-on sneakers, the pale blue shirt from the Hemporium, and Link's green CAMP VIBES hat. “You certainly look like a changed man. Two whole colors.”
“You look changed, too,” Rhett observed. “No colors at all.” Link looked down at himself. He had on a pair of battered jeans and Rhett's gray sweater.
“The jeans are blue,” Link pointed out.
Rhett shook his head. “Nope, denim is a neutral. Doesn't count.”
“If you say so.” Link stood on his tiptoes to kiss Rhett, who slipped the cabin key into his pocket. “Let's go get a donut.”
Rhett looked over at Link as he drove to Ray's. “You're oddly chipper this morning, sunshine,” he said. “I expected you'd be more upset.”
Link glanced over. “Oh, I'm gonna lose it once you're gone. No doubt about it. Probably when I go clean out your cabin. The next guests are gonna be here at two so I have to do it as soon as I get back.”
Rhett was glad he'd already cleaned as much of the cabin as he could. “That sucks, Link. I left some La Croix in the fridge, though, so at least you'll have a cold drink.”
Link snickered. “God, I'm gonna miss you.”
“Gonna miss you too, baby.”
Link parked in the drop off zone outside Albany International Airport and looked over at Rhett. “So...” he began but then trailed off. Rhett leaned over and laid a hand on his cheek.
“It's gonna be okay, Link,” he promised. “I'll come back, I swear. Even if I have to wait until next summer and rent a cabin, I'll be back.”
Link put a hand on his thigh and kissed him. “You can come anytime, you know.”
“I know.” Rhett unbuckled his seat belt and retrieved his luggage. Guitar case, duffle bag, backpack. Link came over and slid his hands in the space between Rhett's back and his backpack.
“I have to tell you something.” He looked apprehensive. “Something important.”
Rhett put down his guitar and pulled Link close. “You can tell me anything, you know that.”
“Yeah, but if you don't...” Link stopped himself and took a deep breath. “Rhett, I...I think I'm in love with you, but if--”
Rhett cut him off with a hard, hungry kiss. He pulled back and gasped. “Link. God, Link, I love you, too. Of course I do. You know that.” He squeezed his eyes shut and put his forehead on Link's. “This is so unfair.”
“You don't have to go,” Link whispered. He hugged Rhett tighter. “You can stay...”
“Link, stop,” Rhett said wearily. “We've already gone over this. I can't. I have to go back to LA.”
Link's shoulders slumped. “I know. And you really do need to go if you want to catch your plane.”
“'Want' is a strong word, but yeah, you're right.” Rhett kissed him again. “I love you, Link Neal.”
“I love you, too, Rhett. Fuck.” Link let go of him and wiped his eyes. “Promise you won't forget me.”
Rhett made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Couldn't if I tried, baby.” He kissed Link again and picked up his guitar. “I gotta go.”
“Bye, Rhett. Love you.” Link's voice broke. “Let me know when you get home safe, okay?”
“Okay. Love you, too.” Rhett kissed him one final time, walked through the automatic doors, and was gone.
Link stood on the gum-spotted pavement as the hot air blew cigarette butts around his feet. He felt like the bottom had fallen out of his world and that the airport ought to crumble into dust around him after watching Rhett leave. The airport, of course, had seen thousands and thousands of heartbreaking partings, as well as thousands and thousands of joyful reunions, and didn't care about any of them.
Someone honked their horn, startling Link. A woman in a silver SUV gestured at him in exasperation. He realized he'd been standing motionless and taking up a valuable parking spot for far too long. “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered as he buckled up and started the long drive home.
Link went down into the laundry room in the basement of the big house. He liked doing laundry, which was good because running a twelve bedroom mansion and three cabins produced a lot of it. One of the first things he'd done when he took over as caretaker as to remodel the laundry room, and now it was a bright, clean-smelling, well-organized space with two washers and two dryers.
He'd blown Rhett down here, of course, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Now it just made him sad.
There were a few empty laundry baskets by the dryers and he loaded one up—fitted sheet, top sheet, blanket, two pillow cases, two bath towels, two hand towels, and two washcloths. Link balanced the basket on his hip and went out to the cabin, snagging his cleaning kit from the butler's pantry on the way.
Rhett was quite possibly the most courteous guest he'd ever had, at least when it came to the state of the cabin at check-out. He'd left it in better shape after six weeks than most guests left it after one week (and on one memorable occasion for one of the other cabins, one night). Link was realistic enough to realize that a large part of that was probably Rhett trying to impress him, and that his apartment in LA wasn't as clean, but he wasn't complaining. He’d much rather have a clean cabin than hair dye in the sink or some unidentifiable sticky substance all over the kitchen.
Link sank into his usual cleaning autopilot and did a really good job keeping his emotions in check until something stuck to the bottom of his bare foot. He reached down and peeled it off. It was a guitar pick.
“Oh, Rhett.” Link swallowed hard and tucked it into his pocket. He managed not to cry, but only just.
That particular barrier broke down as he was stripping the bed and happened to smell Rhett's pomade on the pillowcase. Link hugged the pillow to his chest, sank down onto the bed where he'd spent so many hours with Rhett, and cried.
But he was on a schedule, so he pulled off the pillowcase and folded it up. It wouldn't be joining the other linens in the wash. Link finished cleaning. The final step in returning the cabin to its original, pre-Rhett state was to grab the lime La Croix he'd left in the fridge.
And that was that.
Rhett had the misfortune of having the world's chattiest Uber driver and made the mistake of telling her that he'd been staying in a cabin on his vacation, which resulted in a very long one-sided conversation about Henry David Thoreau's Walden. He still gave her a good rating because her driving was fine and he knew things were hard out there.
He unlocked the main door of his apartment building. It was probably about as old as Merganser Lodge, but time had not been kind to it. The little hexagonal tiles in the entryway were cracked and some were missing, the walls were water damaged and peeling, and half the lightbulbs in the hallway and stairwell were burned out or missing.
Rhett lived on the second floor. He opened the door to his studio and looked around with fresh eyes. There was a little kitchenette and tiny bathroom off to one side. A lot of the space in the main part of the apartment was taken up by a queen size bed, but he'd managed to make a little sitting area with a bunch of furniture from the curb: a couch, a coffee table, and a couple bookshelves for storage. His only window looked out onto the back lot, and the whole thing smelled like dust and neglect.
It was awful.
Rhett dumped his luggage and sank down onto the couch. He buried his face in his hands and tried to remember the last time he'd cried. Probably the night he decided he had to stop drinking. There hadn't been anything different or unusual about it, but it was like a switch flipped in his brain. He left his unfinished drink on the bar, went outside, sat on the curb, and cried until he threw up. Two days later he ended up in the ER with withdrawal symptoms and got referred to a low income rehab program.
The time before that was when his grandmother died when he was sixteen. It was completely unexpected—she had a previously undiagnosed heart condition and collapsed at her job. She passed away before the ambulance arrived, and Rhett was left in the care of his absentee, drug addicted mother.
That was twice in ten years, and today was the third time. He sat alone in his tiny, hot, apartment with the sounds of traffic outside, and thought of Link standing on the dock, smiling at him, with a fresh, cool breeze blowing off the lake, and cried.
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Link): glad to be home?
(Rhett): im exhausted
(Rhett): planes arent made for people my size
(Link): god I know and you're way taller than I am
(Rhett): gonna take a nap
(Rhett): love you
(Link): love you too
(Link): sleep well
To: Rhett McLaughlin
From: Link Neal
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: No Subject
My parents finally showed up this week. I guess they feel like because their son is the host they can just drop in whenever instead of making a reservation like everyone else? Whatever. Just par for the course for them.
I didn't really tell you about them when you were here I guess. It seemed sort of tone deaf to do that when your parents are the way they are, but if I don't vent I'm going to explode.
My mom: has never once taken me seriously in my life, starts fights with everyone, currently will not shut up about my “summer fling” and saying that I'm being “overdramatic”, also won't stop singing “Summer Lovin'” from Grease
My dad: has never once stood up for me when my mom starts in, even when I've asked him to, passive af, wanted a football son and got me and never really hid his disappointment
I've never been able to get anyone to confirm this, but I'm pretty sure they didn't mean to have a kid together. I mean, my siblings are all 15-20 years older than I am.
I had to move in with them for a little while after I broke up with my boyfriend and getting away from them was a large part of the reason I moved up here. It was like my mom thought I was a kid again. She wouldn't leave me alone, even after I got my own place.
I love them, I guess, but it's better at a distance. Can't wait for them to leave. I'm just so tired.
Love you, miss you, wish you were here. It doesn't feel like a month has passed.
PS I also love the finished demo for The Stranger.
To: Link Neal
From: Rhett McLaughlin
just because my parents suck doesn't mean your parents don't also suck
love you, miss you, wish I were there.
Ps finished another demo
As summer turned to autumn and the flow of family slowed to a trickle, Link began to shut down parts of Merganser Lodge. First to go were the unheated, uninsulated third and fourth floors. He turned off the water, sealed the windows, and covered the furniture with sheets. It made him feel like he was haunting his own house. As it got colder, he'd shut down most of the second floor as well, leaving only his bedroom, studio, and first floor heated.
The cabins were insulated and equipped with fireplaces, so they stayed open for tourists who wanted a rustic place from which to watch the leaves turn. Once everything was dead and brown, Link would shut the cabins down, too.
He'd done the same thing last autumn, of course, learning from his great uncle before he left for Florida. That time, there was the excitement of a new experience to help him get through some of the strangeness of being alone in a huge house.
Now, though, Link was overwhelmed with loneliness. As much as the revolving door of family members and guests might have annoyed him, at least they provided him with distraction. He started going to a coffee shop in the village to work when he only needed his laptop.
Rhett, for his part, was as supportive as he could be. His assistant manager position at Miller Records wasn't available, so he had to settle for a regular staff position making less and working fewer hours. This resulted in him needing a second job, so he got one washing dishes and busing tables at a cafe. Two jobs combined with working on his album left him with very little free time.
“Rhett, I have to say I'm impressed,” said his manager, Sandi. She had eight completed demos and three partially finished songs from him, and knew he had a few more that he hadn't shown her. “I don't know what's gotten into you. I guess my investment really paid off.”
Rhett was sprawled in the visitor's chair in her office. He made a noncommittal noise. If he said anything, it would be some kind of smart remark about not paying for the cabin, so it was just better not to say anything.
“But that's not why I asked you to come in here,” she continued. “I have some good news for you, darling.”
Rhett winced. “Please don't call me that.”
Sandi gave him a quizzical look. “Why not?”
Because that's what my boyfriend calls me when he fucks me, Rhett thought. It was the only time Link ever used a pet name. He shrugged.
“Whatever.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “Netflix has a show coming out in a month that had a last minute music change, and they picked one of your songs as a replacement.”
Rhett sat up a little. “What song?”
“Brown Eyes, Black Heart.”
He frowned. “I don't...oh! I sold that one, to what's her name, that country girl.”
“Korey LeAnne,” Sandi supplied.
“Yeah, her. That was years ago. And I didn't really like what she did with it.” During the time between the spectacular implosion of his punk band and his signing as a solo artist, Rhett wrote and sold some fairly generic songs. None of them were very successful, but he did get a tiny bit of income from royalties.
Sandi rolled her eyes. “Whatever you think of her musical style, you'll like that she licensed it to Netflix for their new high school drama of the month. Should get some sales from that.”
“Huh. Thanks, Sandi.” He got up and started to leave.
She stopped him. “Wait a second. Are you ready to start recording final versions?”
“Sure.” Rhett wanted nothing more than to finish his album. He loved the songs he was writing and was excited to see their final form, but he was especially looking forward to severing a tie with LA. His contract only specified one album.
“You missed several very generous deadlines and told me that 'you can't rush creativity', and now you're written most of an album in less than five months?” She shook her head in amazement. “Maybe I should go to the lake.”
Rhett looked at her: hair perfect, makeup perfect, designer clothes. He snorted. “It's pretty rustic. I don't think you'd like it.”
“I'm sure they have nice resorts there,” she replied. “Five star.”
“Probably.” He had no idea. Rhett had very carefully not told her about Link—he didn't like the idea of her knowing that her scheme had resulted in a relationship. He suspected she'd hold it over him somehow. “Anyway, let me know when you have sessions set up. I gotta go to work now.”
Postcards and packages crossed the country.
Link sent a pine scented candle, a gray Ray's Heluva Deli shirt, and the silver lake-shaped keychain from the cabin. His postcards all featured tourist attractions at the lake, and they were all signed “wish you were here”.
Rhett sent a coffee mug decorated with ice cream cones and birthday cakes, a swimsuit featuring the LA skyline at sunset, and a shirt from his old punk band. His postcards featured LA landmarks, and they were all signed “wish I were there”.
The Netflix show featuring Korey LeAnne’s song was a hit, and people began streaming and buying the song. Royalties trickled down to Rhett, so much that he was able to quit his second job. He was also able to send Link a check that covered all the lost rent for the cabin. It took a lot of arguing but eventually Link agreed to cash it.
Unfortunately, he picked up an old habit while working in the kitchen: smoking. Link begged him to quit, and Rhett tried, but it was hard.
But Link secretly loved watching Rhett smoke when they did video calls. Something about the way he held a cigarette, the inhales and exhales, the wreath of smoke...it was incredibly visually appealing.
Of course he would never tell Rhett that, and he had no desire to actually be around cigarettes, but he’d enjoy it while it lasted.
Text from: Rhett (Subtract 3hrs)
(Rhett): so ive been cleaning my apartment
(Link): oh is that where that shirt came from?
(Link): I wondered
(Rhett): but I thought you should see this
It was a picture of a Polaroid featuring a younger Rhett at a house party, beer and cigarette in hand. He was wearing a studded leather jacket covered in patches and pins with ripped jeans and had his hair and beard buzzed down to almost nothing. There was a similarly dressed girl next to him. They were laughing together.
(Link): baby punk rhett
(Link): I love it
(Link): whos the girl?
(Rhett): played bass in our band
(Rhett): she overdosed a few years ago
Rhett blinked as he sent the text. Marissa had died a few weeks before he quit drinking. He’d never connected the two things before.
(Rhett): I miss her
(Link): im sorry
(Link): you look so happy with her
(Rhett): she was a really good friend to me when I needed it most
(Link): how old were you there?
(Rhett): 19 or 20
(Rhett): what did you look like then
(Link): oh gosh give me a minute
(Link): okay check your email
To: Rhett McLaughlin
From: Link Neal
Subject: No Subject
(Rhett): holy shit
(Rhett): you look pretentious af
Link's photo was also at a party, beer in hand, but he was wearing dark khakis, a Nantucket red dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and deck shoes. His dark hair was cut short and slicked back.
(Link): it wasnt usually that bad
(Link): jeans and a tshirt, like now
(Link): that was a frat party that was supposed to be classy
(Link): spoiler: it wasnt
(Rhett): you were in a frat???
(Link): no I just went to their parties
(Rhett): wonder what we would have thought of each other back then
(Link): still would have found you hot
(Link): I thought punks hated preps
(Link): not that I was actually preppy
(Rhett): youre a little preppy
(Rhett): anyway you can hate someone and still want to fuck them
(Rhett): khakis don't make you less hot
(Rhett): esp if theyre down around your ankles and youre bent over
(Rhett): nah I could never hate you
(Rhett): probably wouldnt want to be seen in public with you dressed like that though
(Link): thats fair I guess
(Link): so I have some khakis here
(Link): wanna pull up skype
(Link): and I can put them on and take them off
(Rhett): god yes
(Rhett): I would do so many dirty things to preppy college link
(Link): well let me dress the part and you can tell me all about it
It was snowing again.
The lake was frozen over. A few ice fishing huts popped up far from the shore. People drove snowmobiles and four wheelers across the ice. In the village, an informal skating rink formed. Further out from the village, there were plenty of opportunities for skiing, snowboarding, and sledding.
Link hadn't seen the ground in probably six weeks. Not since a couple weeks before Christmas (which he spent with his brother Michael's family in Boston), anyway. This time of year was very, very hard for him. He hired a service to clear snow from Merganser's winding gravel driveway, but occasionally they couldn't get to it and Link would be snowbound for days at a time.
Turns out it was entirely possible to get cabin fever in a mansion.
Luckily, his station wagon had four wheel drive, so when the drive was clear, he was able to get out and did his best to stay busy. Link had become friends with a few of the other coffee shop regulars, and they occasionally went to a movie or played board games together. He went to the gym to swim, and he sometimes took other exercise classes.
But he was lonely, and he missed Rhett horribly.
Link stopped his car at the top of Merganser's driveway, next to the mailbox. He hopped out, grabbed the mail, and drove back to the house. Inside the backdoor, he shed his parka, gloves, scarf, and snow boots, and stood at the island in his stocking feet and leafed through the envelopes.
Junk, junk, pizza coupon (save that), student loan statement, junk, plain envelope.
He held up the plain envelope and examined it. There was no return address, but the postmark was from LA and he recognized Rhett's blocky all-caps handwriting. The man wrote like his capslock was stuck on.
Link ripped open the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper. As he unfolded it, a smaller piece of paper, about the size of a credit card, fluttered to the floor.
The full size sheet of paper was blank, so Link bent over to pick up the smaller picture. It was a photograph, showing a picture he'd seen many times before: A naked man in a bathroom mirror, taking a picture with a phone in one hand and his erection in the other.
This time, though, the man in the picture was Rhett, with a smug grin on his face, and the camera was a bulbous pink square that Link recognized as an Instax.
Alone in the kitchen, Link laughed so hard he had to sit down on the floor. When he got a hold of himself, he pulled out his phone and called Rhett.
“Hey,” Rhett answered. Link could hear the grin in his voice. He knew exactly why Link was calling.
“You mailed me an unsolicited nude,” Link said in a tone of mock outrage, as if he were scandalized, and giggled.
Rhett cackled in delight. “God, Link, I've been waiting for this call for days. I'm so glad you finally got it. I thought maybe it was lost.”
Link glanced out the window. There was about 18 inches of snow on the ground and the wind was blowing briskly. “Probably got delayed in the snow.”
“So are you gonna block me now?” Rhett asked.
“No. You send me nudes all the time.” It was true. They swapped pictures a couple times a week, and it never got old.
“Not unsolicited, though!” Rhett protested. “I never start a conversation with a dick pic.”
“True. You're very courteous that way. In fact-” Link stopped himself in the middle of his sentence. There was a strange groaning sound he hadn't heard before. He went to the window and looked out.
“Link?” Rhett said.
“Shh. There's somethin—oh shit!” Link sprang back. One of the pine trees outside snapped under the weight of the snow with a crack like a gunshot. The top descended slowly, crashing through the branches of other trees, and came to rest on the cabin with a thud. At the same instant, the power in the big house cut out.
“Link? What was that? Are you okay?” Rhett was almost frantic.
“I'm fine. But...” Link leaned towards the window and squinted. “Your cabin isn't. A tree just fell on it. And the power's knocked out here.”
“Fuck,” was all Rhett could come up with.
“Yeah.” Link stuck the picture in his pocket. “It's gonna be a while before the power company can get here. Days, maybe.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Call them, of course.” Link sighed. “And then shut down the house and go stay at one of the hotels in the village that's still open.”
In LA, Rhett winced. “I'm sorry, Link. That sucks.”
“Yeah. Hey, I gotta go. It's gonna get cold in here pretty quickly, and there's a lot I have to do first.”
“Okay. Stay warm. I love you.”
“I will. Love you, too.”
Nantucket red is the most East Coast preppy color ever, don't @ me.
Rhett's Netflix song isn't real, but imagine one of those broken heart country pop ballads that sounds way better as covered by someone on Youtube with an acoustic guitar.
Text To: Rhett (Subtract 3hrs)
(Rhett): oh no
(Rhett): my poor cabin
(Link): actually the cabin is pretty unscathed
(Link): the deck and glider are toast though
(Link): unfortunately so is my power line
(Rhett): for how long?
(Link): at least 10 days
(Link): tons of people lost power
(Link): had to cancel two design jobs bc my computer is at home and im trapped in the village
(Link): at the lovely surfside hotel
(Link): check out my room
(Rhett): what are you going to do
(Link): might visit a sibling or two
(Rhett): well keep me updated
(Rhett): I gotta go to work now
(Rhett): love you
(Link): love you too
Rhett was at home in his apartment. He'd spent quite a lot of time fixing it up since he'd returned from the lake. The clean, sparsely furnished cabin and Link's gorgeous, tidy bedroom had made it seem even worse in comparison. It was still tiny and crappy, but he'd gotten rid of most of the clutter, cleaned everything within an inch of its life, replaced some of the worst furniture with slightly less terrible furniture, added some art, and reorganized everything to make it seem larger. He was very pleased with the result.
It was midevening. Rhett had settled down on his second hand couch with a lime La Croix, his guitar, and a notebook. He was trying to work out some lyrics that were giving him trouble when there was a knock on the door.
He looked up and frowned. When he had guests, they buzzed in at the building entrance. The only neighbor that ever knocked on his door was the delightfully named Cactus Duncan when he'd received Rhett's mail, but the postal carrier hadn't been screwing up lately. Maybe something bad was happening.
Rhett put down the guitar and opened the door a crack, leaving the security chain in place. He peeked out cautiously.
“Hi,” Link said.
Rhett's eyes opened wide and he slammed the door. He took a few deep breaths and tried to compose himself before undoing the chain and opening the door and leaning against the frame casually.
“Hi,” he said.
Link smiled at him a little nervously. He was wearing his floral snapback, a denim jacket, and dark khakis with high top sneakers. There was backpack slung over one shoulder. “Can I come in?” he asked. “Vampire rules.”
“Uh.” Once again, something weird thing Link said derailed Rhett's train of thought. “What?”
“Vampire rules!” Link said. “You know. Can't come in unless invited?”
“Oh.” Rhett pulled him into a hug and hauled him into the apartment. “Yeah. Come in.”
“Is...is it okay that I came? Because if it's not I can--”
Rhett shut him up with a kiss. Link melted into his arms and sighed. “I missed you so much, Rhett.”
“I missed you too, baby, but what the fuck?” Rhett asked in bewilderment. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you! Obviously. But I was really sick of snow and I wasn't looking forward to ten days in that hotel so...” Link held up his hands in a shrug. “Here I am.”
Rhett took Link's bag and set it on the floor, followed by his hat. Link's dark hair tumbled down. It was long enough to brush his shoulders now. Rhett buried his hands in it and pulled Link's head back before kissing his neck, right under his jaw. “We're going to talk about your impulsive behavior later, sunshine,” he growled into Link's ear. Link whimpered. “But right now I really, really want you.”
Link slid his hands under Rhett's shirt. “I brought supplies, in my bag. I didn't know what you'd have.” Rhett let go of his hair and laughed.
“Good thing you did. I wasn't exactly expecting company.” He looked down at his holey t-shirt and flannel pajama pants and shrugged. They were coming off anyway.
Link squatted down and rummaged around in his bag, coming up with a little bottle and a silver packet. He stood and turned toward Rhett. “Where should--?” he began before Rhett plucked them from his fingers and pushed Link down onto the unmade bed, which was just a mattress and box spring on the floor.
“I don't go in for all that fanciness here, Link,” Rhett said as he put the lube and condom on the floor next to the bed. He straddled Link and started undoing the buttons of his jacket. He raised a dark eyebrow as Link's shirt was revealed. “This looks more like I something I would wear.”
Link craned his neck to look down at his chest and then grinned up at Rhett. “That's why I chose it.” He was wearing a splotchy tie-dyed shirt, a twin to Rhett's blue and cream one, but this was in shades of black and gray. If Rhett's shirt was clouds at dusk, Link's was clouds after dark on the night of a full moon.
“Looks good on you.” Rhett pulled Link into a sitting position and peeled off his jacket, followed by the shirt. “But this is really what I want to see.” He ran his hands from Link's chest down to his belly, then brought them back up to rub a thumb across each of Link's nipples. Link squirmed underneath him and pulled on the hem of Rhett's ragged shirt.
“Then take this off, because I want to see you, too,” Link said. Rhett pulled his shirt and dumped it off the side of the mattress. He leaned over to kiss Link, who echoed Rhett's gesture by running his hands up Rhett's torso before sliding a hand behind his neck. “You're so beautiful, Rhett,” he whispered.
“So are you,” Rhett whispered back. “I love you so much.” He buried his hands in Link's hair again and kissed him deeply. Link's hands wandered over Rhett's body, lingering over his hips and thighs.
“Um, Rhett, are you wearing anything under these?” he asked.
“Nope,” came the answer. “Think of 'em as floor length boxers.”
Link snickered. “Suddenly I feel overdressed.” Rhett made a noise of agreement and rolled off Link before quickly shedding his pants and helping Link out of his. He shoved Link up to the head of the bed before swirling his tongue around the head of Link's cock. Link arched his back and moaned in response.
Rhett lavished every attention on him, with hands and fingers, tongue and words, gently pushing Link's hands away whenever they reached for him (“Shh, baby, you came all this way. Let me take care of you.”), until Link, nearly sobbing, begged Rhett to fuck him. Rhett obligingly helped him onto his hands and knees, grabbed a double handful of Link's silky hair, and thrust into him.
They got so loud that the person in the apartment on the other side of the wall pounded on it and yelled at them to “Shut the FUCK up!”
“Was that Cactus banging on the wall?” Link asked, sometime after the post coital glow faded a bit. The two men were curled up naked in Rhett's bed together, Link with an arm and a leg thrown over Rhett.
Rhett looked down at him in bemusement. “Yeah. But how do you know about him?”
Link laughed and pulled the blanket higher up over his shoulder. “You mentioned him over the summer. It's not really a name you forget. And it turns out there's only one Cactus Duncan on social media, so...” He walked his fingers up Rhett's side under the covers, making the taller man shiver.
“Wait, you talked to him?”
Link looked up at him with wide, innocent eyes. “Who do you think let me in the building? Or told me when you got home? I should probably buy him a fruit basket or something.”
“After all that screaming you just did? Probably.” Rhett rubbed his thumb across Link's cheek and shook his head fondly. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Well, I was hoping you'd let me stay here for the next four days.”
“Yeah, sure, but honestly, Link, what the fuck?” Rhett was reminded of his irritation and didn't hide his annoyance. “Not that I'm not thrilled to see you, but I have to go to work and go record at the studio. A little warning would have been nice.”
“I know. I'm sorry,” Link said in a small voice. He wouldn't meet Rhett's gaze. “It's just that I wanted to see you so bad and every time we've tried to set something up it's fallen through. It's been seven months, Rhett.”
“I know, baby.” Rhett pulled him closer and kissed the top of his head. “I think it's easier for me, though, because I have more to keep me busy. And the weather is better.”
“That's for fuckin' sure,” Link agreed. “There was about two feet of snow on the ground when I left. It made California sound real nice. Maybe I should move out here.”
“Here?” Rhett looked around his improved but still shitty apartment in mild panic. “Link, you can't live here.”
Link looked up at him and rolled his eyes. “Not here here, dumbass. LA. We could get a different apartment.” He looked around and amended his statement. “A nicer apartment.”
“Um, I don't know if you know what the cost of living is around here, but a freelance graphic designer is not going to be able to afford a nicer apartment.”
“No, but an engineer would.”
Rhett blinked, speechless. “You hated being an engineer,” he said when he found his voice.
“I'd go back if it meant I could be with you,” Link said. Rhett thought he might actually be serious.
“Link...” Rhett stared up at his cracked plaster ceiling. He remembered a book his grandma read to him when he was little, where there was a ceiling crack that had a habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit. There weren't any rabbits on his ceiling, though.
“I know. It's just a fantasy.” Link slid out from under the blanket and retrieved his shirt and underwear. “I don't know, Rhett, maybe this was a mistake.”
Rhett sat up, the blanket falling down and exposing his chest. “Coming here, you mean?”
“Not just that. Coming here, getting involved with you, moving to the lake.” He grabbed his pants and pulled them on. “Just a whole lot of mistakes, one after the other.”
Only one thing on that list registered with Rhett. “You think getting involved with me was a mistake?” he said, hurt.
Link sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. “Not because I don't love you, because I do. So much. It's just...what are we even doing here, Rhett?” He got up and started pacing in the little open space in front of the door. “I'm not really going to move here, we both know that. And you're kind of stuck here, so...” He threw up his hands.
Rhett licked his lips. “So what are you saying here?”
“I'm saying,” Link leaned over and snagged one of his shoes, “that maybe,” and then the other, “this is pointless.” He sat on the loveseat.
“Link, what are you...” Rhett climbed out of bed and realized he was still naked. He scrambled for his pajama pants and pulled them on. “What are you saying here?”
“I'm saying, I knew this was going to happen. It was fucking stupid of me to expect anything else.” He leaned over to tie his shoes. “I'm saying, I thought coming here would make it hurt less, but it hasn't. It's worse, because it just reminds me of what I can't have. I'm saying...I think I need to leave.”
Rhett couldn't believe his ears. “Are you...are you breaking up with me?” he asked in shock. “You flew across the country just to break up with me?”
“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do, Rhett?” Link leapt up from the couch and spun around, eyes blazing. Rhett knew he had a temper, both from stories Link told him about interactions with his parents and ex, and he'd seen it first hand when one of Link's underage relatives took the boat on a drunken afternoon joyride (“It doesn't matter that there aren't any roads, you asshole! A little girl got killed last summer because some drunken dipshit like you crashed into her family's boat!” Link had screamed at her in the middle of the lawn, in front of a pair of shocked guests.), but it had never been directed at him. “Just wait around being lonely forever in my fucking lakeside mansion?”
“You don't have to break up with me to do that!” Rhett snapped. It wasn't his most intelligent response, but it was true.
“Ughhh.” Link groaned and ran his hands through his hair. “You don't get it, do you?”
“No, I don't. I don't know why you think breaking up with me will make anything better!” Rhett reached out to grab his arm. “Link, please! Can't we talk about this?”
Link dodged his hand. “Don't you see? Every call, every email, every text, every package...it's death by a thousand cuts. And then the songs...fuck! Those are the hardest.” He pulled out his phone and began tapping away on the screen.
“You never mentioned any of this before!”
“Because it's not something you can solve, Rhett!”
They glared at each other. Link broke eye contact first. He glanced down at his phone and picked up his backpack.
“Wait, Link, what are you doing?” Rhett tried to grab his arm again but Link slapped his hand away.
“Leaving. My ride's here.” He undid the security chain and opened the door.
“Link, please, no, wait...” Rhett babbled. He followed Link to the apartment entrance.
Link turned around and took a shaky breath. “Rhett, stop. Just stop. I love you, but I can't do this waiting game anymore.”
“But I need you,” Rhett said dumbly.
Link snorted, incredulous. “You need me? You have friends and a job and a recording studio. You have a whole life here. You got along just fine before you met me and you'll get along just fine without me.” He peered out the door to the car waiting at the curb. “I really do have to go.”
“But--” Rhett began. Link cut him off with a quick kiss on the cheek.
“I love you, Rhett. Look me up next time you're at the lake.” He ran out to the car.
“I love you, too!” Rhett called helplessly at Link's retreating back. He watched as the car pulled away. Link was in the backseat, face buried in his hands. Rhett could tell he was sobbing.
“What the fuck,” Rhett whispered to himself. “What the actual fuck.”
way to go, dumbass
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): link please
(Rhett): talk to me
(Rhett): I dont know what the fuck just happened
(Rhett): I was so happy to see you and then this
(Rhett): what am I supposed to do now
(Rhett): I dont even know where you went
(Rhett): please tell me
(Rhett): or at least let me know if youre safe
(Rhett): what can I do to fix this
Text From: Link @ Merganser
(Link): im fine
(Link): I went to a hotel
(Link): please just give me some time
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): im sorry
(Rhett): this came out of nowhere for me
(Rhett): obv youve been thinking about this for a while
(Rhett): but I had no idea
(Rhett): just struggling to process
(Rhett): I love you
(Rhett): always will
“I'm just saying, if neither one of you is gonna move, he has a point.” Anika shrugged and flipped her long hair over her shoulder. She'd recently dyed it in shades of blue and green and was leaning heavily into some sort of alt-mermaid aesthetic, all glittery makeup and strands of pearls and shimmery leggings. It was a bit much, in Rhett's opinion.
“You're supposed to be on my side,” Rhett grumbled. He leaned against the wall of Miller Records and crossed his arms.
“You got dumped. It sucks. We've all been there.” Their conversation was interrupted by a customer with a stack of records. Anika checked them out while Rhett stared off into space dejectedly.
Anika was the only one of his coworkers that Rhett would really call a friend. Earlier she called him out on “being a sad sack all week” so he told her the whole story. She already knew about Link, as Rhett talked about him at every opportunity, but he hadn't mentioned their breakup until she forced it out of him.
“I'm worried about him. He spends all his time by himself in that house and it's pretty isolated. He's been pretty depressed this winter, too, but he won't talk to me...” Rhett shrugged helplessly.
“You haven't been hassling him, have you? I know how you can be.”
“No. Well, not much. I texted him a couple times. No answer.” Rhett also had a bunch of emails saved as drafts, which he didn't count because he'd never send them.
“So, when you say 'worried', do you mean like worried that he's going to hurt himself? Or just be miserable?”
“I...don't know.” Link had never mentioned any history of self injury or suicidal ideation, but that didn't really mean anything. “He can be kind of impulsive. Like, 'fly across the country for a surprise visit' impulsive.”
“Mm.” Anika thought for a moment. “Can you get in touch with any of his family members?”
“He's not close with most of them. His brother Michael, maybe, but he's not on social media because he's a college professor and I guess kids get weird with it, and I don't know how to look him up because he and Link don't have the same last name. They're half brothers,” he explained to Anika's curious look.
“Nobody else? Really? You were there for a month and a half and you didn't make a connection with any of them?”
Rhett shook his head. “No, I...oh. Oh no.”
u look like a parakeet in love with a crow
Anika rolled her eyes. “What now?”
“Link's dumb cousin that he kept arguing with.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and found Maddie Neal on Instagram almost instantly.
rmclaughla: hey maddie this is rhett
rmclaughla: from the lake
maddieonthingz: links bf right
maddieonthingz: what do u want
rmclaugh: wellll im not links bf anymore
rmclaugh: he broke up with me
maddieonthingz: so u decided to hit me up instead
rmclaughla: no, sorry
rmclaughla: im worried about him
rmclaughla: and he wont talk to me
maddieonthingz: do u want me to relay a message or something
maddieonthingz: bc that sounds like drama
rmclaughla: I agree with you actually
rmclaughla: I was hoping you could give me his brother michaels number
rmclaughla: so I can ask him to check in on link for me
maddieonthingz: I dont have it but I bet my mom does
maddieonthingz: ill send it to u later
rmclaughla: thank you so much
“That was...pretty painless, actually.” Rhett had filled Anika in on Link's relationship with Maddie while he was messaging her. “Maybe she's growing up.”
“Maybe it's one of those things where they get along better when they aren't in the same house,” Anika suggested.
“It's a twelve bedroom mansion. Does that even count as the same house at that point?”
“So what are you going to do once you have someone looking out for him?” Anika pushed her hair back again. Rhett noticed her fingernails matched her glittery eyeshadow.
“I dunno. Keep working on my album, I guess.” He was less than excited about the prospect now.
“Oh. I kinda thought you'd say you were gonna move up there.” Anika had her phone out and was scrolling through Maddie's Instagram. “This chick posts a picture of every dog she meets. I'm gonna follow her.”
“I'm sorry, what?”
“I just like dogs, okay?”
Rhett stuck his tongue out at her. “You know what I meant.”
Anika stuck her phone in the waistband on her leggings. “Look, you love this guy, right? And you want to be with him?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Completely.”
“And he's just totally done with the long distance thing.”
“Yeah.” Rhett sighed. “With no warning.”
“And he's not gonna move here.”
“No. He'd probably have to go back to being an engineer. And I don't think he'd be happy in a city like this. He really does love the lake.” Rhett considered that statement. “Well, maybe not in the dead of winter.”
“So it looks like you're gonna have to move up there. Or convince him to move to some other place with you.” She folded her arms and looked smug. “QED.”
Rhett raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No! I'd miss you a lot if you left. But that's, like, your only chance with this guy. And you haven't talked about anything but him and your album since you got back. So I think maybe you should at least consider it.” Another customer came up and Anika rang up their purchases.
“You know, Anika, if I go live in a twelve bedroom mansion, there'd probably be room for you to visit,” Rhett said thoughtfully when she was done.
Anika just laughed.
Link was not made of money.
He crunched the numbers and figured out it would actually be cheaper to finish his stay in LA than to change his tickets last minute, which was absurd. He'd already budgeted for food, transportation, and entertainment, and after swapping his hotel for a cheap (and sketchy) Air BnB, he was financially in the clear.
But everything he did alone, he wished he was doing with Rhett. Link visited the La Brea Tar Pits and looked at the wall of dire wolf skulls, he walked all over the place and did lots of people watching, he shot down some girl who tried to sign him up for a modeling scam, he went to the beach and saw the ocean for the first time. Normally he would have been thrilled by these things, but without Rhett beside him it just seemed empty.
The beach was the worst. It was overcast, chilly, and drizzly. The water was a steely gray and the beach was nearly deserted. Link sat on a bench and stared out at the waves.
In his haste to leave Rhett's apartment, he'd left his hat and jacket behind. Instead, he bought an ugly Christmas sweater style sweatshirt from the La Brea Tar Pits, which featured saber toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, and dire wolves frolicking among little snowflakes and pine trees. Link had hoped that the festive sweater would cheer him up, but it was a lost cause.
Had he made another mistake? Probably. He felt like the last good decision he'd made was leaving his two-timing ex. Everything after that...not so much. Leaving Raleigh had been pretty impulsive. When the caretaker position came up, he jumped at the chance, and once all the family arguing was over, he'd broken his lease, sold most of his stuff, packed his car, and drive up the East Coast within three weeks.
Getting involved with Rhett wasn't impulsive. It was just inevitable. Looking back, Link figured he was doomed about fifteen minutes after Rhett came through the front door. It was agreeing to go to Ray's Heluva Deli with Link and his niece and nephew that got him, and going to Target to buy lake clothes just sealed the deal. Rhett, cool LA musician Rhett, was willing to go along with Link's dumb excursions.
Staying involved with Rhett, on the other hand, wasn't impulsive. It was just stupid. Link knew it was stupid at the time. He knew it was going to end badly, and he did it anyway.
The gray sky and gray waves suited his mood. The ocean was so big, Link could barely believe it. He'd thought the lake was big, but it was long and narrow—at Merganser, the far shore was maybe a mile away.
The movement of the waves was hypnotizing. There weren't really any waves at the lake. Sometimes the wake of a large boat would make some temporarily, and sometimes a storm would kick up a few but compared to the ocean, they were nothing.
Link leaned on the armrest of the bench and propped his chin on his hand. Leaving Rhett, though, was that a mistake? He hadn't been lying when he called it death by a thousand cuts. At first, every time he heard from Rhett felt like a little gift, but as time went on it hurt more and more. There was nothing he could do about it. And there was nothing Rhett could do about it, either.
He got up and walked along the waterline. There were pebbles scattered along the sand, and he picked them up and flung them into the water as he walked.
“Stupid,” he muttered.
A pause. A thrown stone. He put his back into it.
“I'm such an asshole. He didn't deserve that.”
Another pebble, a particularly large one this time. Link watched it plunk into the waves.
“I gotta look out for myself, though.”
He drew a heart in the sand with the toe of his sneaker, then scuffed it out before heaving a huge sigh.
“What am I even doing?”
Two more days before he went home. Well, kind of. The power was still out at Merganser so he'd have to return to the lovely Surfside Hotel. It was kind of a mystery to Link as to why a hotel in a lake town would have an ocean theme, and now that he'd seen the real ocean he thought it was even dumber.
Merganser didn't really feel like home to him, either. He'd moved three times in the past two years (from the house he shared with his ex, to his parents' house, to his crappy duplex, to Merganser) and he still didn't feel settled. The master bedroom was beautiful, but it wasn't his. There was nothing of Link there. If he didn't have his studio, he'd really feel like he was living in a hotel. Or maybe a museum.
And the guests! So many guests. The never ending revolving door of family members. He didn't even know how he was related to some of them. Add in the friends of the family members, and then the guests in the cabins...it was exhausting. No privacy, either. Sure, no one came in his room without an invitation, but Link wished he could go grab a soda from the kitchen without having to converse with whoever happened to be there.
And the winter months were at the other extreme: Link was completely alone. The cabins were shut down, the house was shut down, and there were no neighbors. If he wanted to see another living soul, he had to go into the village. The isolation left him with far too much time to get wound up in his anxieties.
For example, his anxiety that his relationship with Rhett had no future, and look how that turned out. It was a real problem.
Link had considered getting a job in the village, even something like a grocery store cashier, just to get human interaction. Unfortunately, winter jobs at the lake were few and far between.
So where did that leave him? He certainly wasn't moving to LA, he wasn't moving back to Raleigh, and he was desperately unhappy at Merganser. Maybe he needed to find somewhere new entirely.
But Link really did love Merganser, and he loved the lake. He thought about the lyrics Rhett sang before they jumped in the lake and Link succumbed to the inevitable and kissed him.
Die if I must, let my bones turn to dust
I'm the lord of the lake and I don't want to leave it
That was Link. He didn't want to leave it.
So he was at a crossroads. There were going to be big changes in his immediate future, no matter what he did.
He picked up a final rock and threw it into the ocean with a frustrated yell.
True to her word, Maddie sent Rhett Michael's number a few hours later. Rhett texted back and forth with him for a while before Michael called, and they ended up talking for about an hour.
“Please don't tell him I asked you to check on him,” Rhett said. “He...well, you know how he can be.”
Michael (whose last name turned out to be Henderson) chuckled. “Do I ever. Don't worry, I don't want to be on the receiving end of it, either.”
Link was lying in bed at the Surfside when his phone rang. For a brief moment he thought it might be Rhett and his heart leapt. When he saw it was Michael, he almost rejected the call before thinking better of it.
“Hey,” he answered.
“Hey, little brother,” Michael said. Slowly, carefully, gently, he pulled the whole story out of Link, who burst into tears halfway through.
“...and I'm so lonely and I don't know what to do!” Link wailed. He blew his nose noisily. “Sorry.”
“It's okay.” Michael said. “Okay, so you remember how my dad is all about making three plans? Short, medium, and long term?”
“Yeah.” Link had only met Michael's father a couple times, but Michael talked about him a lot. He was a very organized man. Link understood why his marriage with Link and Michael's mom had ended.
“Short term—do you want to come down to Boston for a little while?” Michael offered. “At least until your power comes back on.”
“I don't...yeah, actually, that would probably be good.” Link sighed. “Ugh.”
“Okay, how about medium term? Any ideas?”
“Can I make a suggestion?” Michael asked.
“You should probably call your doctor and get your medication adjusted.”
“Huh.” Link blinked up at the popcorn ceiling. “You know, now that you've said that, it seems perfectly obvious.”
“Well, when you were here at Christmas, you did say that you were having a much harder time over the winter.”
“Yeah, about that. I can't live by myself in that house in the winter, and it's driving me crazy in the summer, so I guess that's gonna have to be my long term thing. Not looking forward to moving or having to find a job somewhere, though.” Link made a face.
“So just get a little place in the village.” Link could see Michael's shrug in his mind's eye. “A little studio or something, where you can have your own space.”
“Michael. That's perfect. There's gotta be a ton of empty places right now, with all the summer people gone.” Link actually smiled a little. He felt like it had been forever since he'd done that. “What about Rhett, though?”
There was a pause, and then Michael said, “Well, you dumped him, so...”
“Yeah, okay. I got it. We're done.” Link squeezed his eyes shut.
There were voices in the background. Link recognized them as his little nephews. “Hey, I gotta go. Text me about coming down here, okay? We can talk more then.”
“Okay. Thanks, Michael. This helped a lot.”
“Anytime, little brother.” Michael ended the call.
Link opened his laptop and pulled up Craigslist.
Anika poked her head into the break room. “Hey, Rhett, let me bum a smoke.”
Rhett didn't look up from his phone. “Don't have any. I quit.”
“What, in the past two days?”
“Yep.” Link told him that he should quit, and he hadn't, but now that Link was gone, Rhett had the urge to make a change. It didn't make sense, but that's how it was.
“Whatcha looking at?” Anika abandoned her search for a cigarette and plopped down across the rickety card table from Rhett. Miller Records did not have the budget for real furniture in the break room.
“Apartments on Craigslist. My lease is up April 30th.”
“That's like three months away.”
“I know.” He pushed the phone across the table to her. “What do you think of this?”
She picked up the phone and read. “Looks nice. One bedroom, one bath, top floor of Victorian house...eight hundred dollars? What the fuck? How is this so cheap?”
“Look at the location.”
She did, and looked up sharply. “You're really going to move, aren't you?”
“Ugh, I don't know. I'm seriously thinking about it.” He put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. “I have to talk to Link first, though. I wouldn't just show up with no warning.”
“Why not? It would serve him right if you did. I mean, he did it to you,” Anika pointed out.
Rhett laughed. “True. But he won't talk to me.”
“Even if you send him an email that says, 'hey I want to move up there, I'm serious, but I need to talk to you first'?”
“Maybe. I don't know.” Rhett collapsed onto the table and cradled his head in his arms. “I don't know how he'll react to anything anymore.”
“Ask his brother for help.” She slid the phone back across to Rhett, who sat up and made a face.
“I'd prefer to avoid that, if at all possible. It's not Michael's fault his brother is an impulsive jackass who makes bad decisions.” He drummed his fingers on the table and looked off into space off into space. “Hmm.”
“It might not have been a bad decision for Lin—actually,” Anika said, holding up a hand as Rhett opened his mouth to argue, “you know what, forget I said that.” Rhett flipped her off halfheartedly before continue to drum his fingers on the scuffed surface of the table.
“I could write him a song, I guess,” he said thoughtfully.
Anika rolled her eyes. “Really, Rhett? What is this, a romantic comedy?”
“No one would watch it if it were,” he replied. “It's not very funny.”
“I don't know, it's pretty funny that you think you can win your ex back with a song.”
Rhett flipped her off for real this time.
tfw you don't realized you're depressed because you're depressed.
La Brea Tar Pits Christmas sweatshirt: https://shop.nhm.org/adult-la-brea-tar-pits-ugly-sweatshirt.html
Michael is in this story because this fic needed someone who wasn't a complete idiot.
The time Link spent in Boston soothed him in a way that the winter lake couldn't. It was just as cold and snowy in Massachusetts as it was in upstate New York, but staying with loved ones in a bustling city (one where he could be certain he wouldn't run into the man he just dumped) made him feel so much better. He rode the subway all over and took his little nephews to the Harvard Natural History Museum to see the rocks and glass flowers and animal skeletons. They all agreed that the Giant Kronosaurus was the best.
He didn't return to the lake until he got a call from the electric company that his power was back on. There was still half a tree on the cabin, but that couldn't be dealt with until the snow melted, so he ignored it for the time being. Instead, Link's first chore was to throw away everything in the fridge and buy all new groceries. Some of the leftovers he found in the very back were alarming, to say the least. He also took the opportunity to deep clean the fridge while it was empty.
He was fine as long as he kept busy. Link wasn't stupid, though (at least when he wasn't impulsively dumping his boyfriend), and he knew that Michael was right: he needed to get his medication adjusted. Soon he was on a higher dose of Prozac.
A few weeks later, Link found himself humming as he scraped ice off his windshield. He stopped and blinked. It felt like it had been forever since he'd done something so upbeat. The Prozac must have kicked in.
Then he realized what song he'd been humming. It was The Stranger, one of Rhett's. All good feelings drained out of him.
He resumed scraping ice in silence.
Meanwhile, Rhett sat on his loveseat with a notebook and his guitar. He had the melody and he had a few lyrics, he just had to finish them. That was always his problem—starting was easy, finishing was harder.
“That day when I went away?” he mumbled. He scribbled in his notebook and played a few more notes. “The day I left to go west? Something like that.”
Anika thought his idea was dumb, but she didn't know Link. Rhett was pretty sure that a song paired with a concrete plan to close the distance would work.
“I remember the day I left, da da da da west,” he sang. “Better. Better.”
He wasn't going to move forward with renting a place at the lake until he'd talked to Link, but he didn't think there would be a problem. There were plenty of places that he could easily afford.
After he'd shown Anika the Craigslist page, she asked why he just wouldn't move in with Link. It was a twelve bedroom mansion, after all.
“Honestly? I don't think I could live there full time, at least not in the summer. All those people...ugh.” Rhett shuddered. “No privacy. And I think it would be a good idea to take things a little slower this time. We kind of jumped right in before.” He snickered a little to himself as he remembered leaping off the dock into the freezing water.
“That's fair, I guess,” Anika said.
Rhett tilted his head. “Also, I don't know if I'd be allowed to move in. There's probably a bunch of rules he has to follow. He probably can't move someone in without approval.”
“Approval from who?”
“The trustees? I dunno.” Rhett shrugged. “We'll figure it out. There'll be plenty of time.”
Link didn't know if he should be disappointed or relieved that Rhett hadn't tried to contact him in the two months since they'd broken up, apart from a few texts right at the beginning. He appreciated that Rhett respected his request for privacy, but he just missed him so damn much. Everything still reminded him of Rhett.
Link was back at Merganser, in his studio, working on a wedding announcement. It was one of those awful Pinterest inspired things, with every word in a different font all piled on top of the other. He got a lot of those due to his hand lettering skills. Link kind of hated the finished product (so busy!), but enjoyed shaping the words and fitting them together. It was like solving a puzzle.
Usually he silenced his phone while he was working so he could zone out, but today he was expecting a call from the tree guy about removing the tree from the cabin now that the snow had melted.
He was not expecting an email from Rhett.
When he picked up the phone and saw who the email was from, he nearly dropped the damn thing in shock.
From: Rhett McLaughlin
To: Link Neal
Subject: this is for you
you said I should look you up if I ever came back to the lake, so take a listen, and let me know, because if you're all in, I'm all in.
Link grabbed his headphones and headed back into the bedroom. This wasn't something he wanted to do in his studio. He settled on the bed, plugged in his headphones, took a deep breath, and hit play.
I want to live in a land of lakes
Where the great waves break
And the night runs right into the day
Link's throat grew tight.
You made me swear I'd never forget
I made a vow I'd see you again
His eyes filled with tears.
I remember the day I left
Headin' way out west
They spilled over and rolled down his cheeks. Link didn't notice.
I will be back one day, and I'll find you
There by the great big lake
He pulled off his headphones, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed and sobbed. Eventually Link went into the bathroom and blew his nose. He looked at himself in the mirror. Red, swollen eyes and blotchy cheeks. He rinsed his face with cold water and steeled himself before getting his phone.
From: Link Neal
To: Rhett McLaughlin
Subject: Re: this is for you
“One day” isn't good enough, Rhett.
The response was immediate.
From: Rhett McLaughlin
To: Link Neal
Subject: Re: Re: this is for you
My lease is up April 30. I've been looking at apartments in the village, but I'm not going to pull the trigger unless you're okay with it.
I am 100% serious here, Link. I will move to the lake to be with you.
So let me know if you're in.
Link put the phone down and flopped back onto his pillows.
“Wow,” he said softly as he stared at the wood paneled ceiling. “That's...wow.”
So Rhett was willing to move across the country for him, huh? That would have been nice to know a couple months ago. Before he could stop himself, he called Rhett, who picked up immediately.
“Link. Hey.” Rhett's voice wavered. “I--”
“What the fuck, Rhett?”
This was not the reaction Rhett had been expecting. Maybe Anika was right. “Sorry?”
“Yeah, sorry is right.” Link was pissed. “You couldn't have figured that out before we broke up? I spent the past two months being miserable!”
“Oh, you've been miserable?” Rhett was pissed now, too. “I've spent the past two months wondering what I did wrong, wishing you'd talked to me first, hoping you'd change your mind...do you know how many emails I've written to you but haven't sent? Forty seven. Forty seven letters where I poured my heart out, Link.”
Rhett cut him off. “And 'broke up'? Link, you fucking dumped me! You came to my place, had sex with me, dumped me, ran away, and told me not to contact you! And I still wanted you, okay? I want you enough that I'd leave everything in LA behind.” He bit off whatever he was going to say next, because there was still a chance this could be salvaged. He hoped.
Link took a deep, shaky breath. “Rhett, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You didn't deserve that. I just...look, I've been spending too much time alone. I get so wound up in my anxieties that I end up doing a bunch of stupid, impulsive shit.”
“I've noticed,” Rhett said. Link could hear the eye roll in his voice. “You should really work on that.”
“Yeah. It's not an excuse, though, you know? I'm still responsible for my actions. And I made a decision that I knew would hurt you. I was trying to protect myself but...I don't know, Rhett. I didn't know what else to do.”
“You could have talked to me about it! We could have figured something out!”
“Well, I realize that now, Rhett!” Link snapped. His voice softened. “But I hope you can forgive me. I know I probably don't deserve it, and you probably hate me, but--”
Rhett interrupted him. “Link, I already did.”
“Do you really think I would have written you a song and started looking at apartments if I hated you? C'mon, man. I know you. You've been working yourself into this frenzy of anxiety all winter. I figured you were going to do something stupid, but I didn't think you'd fucking dump me like that.”
Link was silent for a long while. “I'm still sorry,” he said finally.
“I know. You can make it up to me, though.”
“Let me come see you.” Rhett's voice was hopeful.
Link licked his lips. “That makes it sound like it would just be a visit.”
“Do you want me to just visit?” Link was pretty sure Rhett was teasing him. He looked to the sky for patience.
“No, Rhett. You know I don't want you to just visit.”
“What if I lived in the village?”
“That would be nice.” Link paused. “I'm a little surprised you didn't ask to live with me.”
Rhett laughed. “I want to do it right this time, baby. I want to go on dates and bring you back to my place and put the moves on you there. And I don't want all your relatives to hear what happens after that.”
“Ugh. Very true. No privacy at Merganser.” Another pause. Link grinned up at the wood paneled ceiling. “You know, I've been looking for a place in the village myself.”
“You're leaving Merganser?” Rhett was shocked.
“No! But you know how Merganser is. Too many people in the summer, too few people in the winter. If I had a place I could escape to when I get too overwhelmed, I think I wouldn't be so...um...you know.”
“Oh trust me, I know,” Rhett said. “So do you want to go in halfsies on a place?”
“Wow. That's an entirely different conversation, Rhett. Signing a lease is a big deal, and then we'd have to figure out the finances. I think--”
“Okay, okay,” Rhett laughed. “We can discuss that later. But do I have your permission to move to the lake?”
Link frowned. “You don't need my permission, Rhett. You're an adult. You can do what you want.”
“Your blessing, then. I'm not moving unless you're fine with it.”
“Yes, you have my blessing.”
“So a couple months, huh?”
“Yeah. I'm so excited!”
When they finished the conversation, Link noticed he had two missed calls from the tree guy. He hadn't even noticed the call waiting beep.
Giant Kronosaurus: https://hmnh.harvard.edu/romer-hall
Lyrics from I Will Be Back One Day by Lord Huron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fye68T9Xj5o
Rhett told his manager Sandi he was moving away in six weeks. Predictably, she hit the ceiling.
Rhett didn’t mind. He knew he was in the clear. Link advised him to read his contract carefully, and it didn’t have any geographic restrictions. He was only held to one album, and all the principal recording was finished. He didn’t have to be physically present for producing and polishing. That could all be done online.
And as for touring...well, he could tour from anywhere.
Sandi stalked around her office while Rhett slouched in his chair and stretched his legs out. “What, Rhett, what could possibly be so appealing in that tiny vacation town? It’s nothing but a tourist trap--” She’d been going on in this vein for some time.
Rhett interrupted her. “My boyfriend lives there.”
“Boyfriend,” Sandi said in a flat voice. She stared at him blankly for a moment before winding herself back up into a frenzy. “I didn’t send you there to hook up! I sent you there to write songs--”
He cut her off again. His voice was cold. “I did write songs. Good songs. You said so yourself.” Then he grinned. “Besides, you set us up.”
“What?” She was incredulous.
“Yeah, he’s the caretaker at Merganser Lodge. So thanks for that.”
The lecture went on and on, but the look on Sandi’s face more than made up for it.
Link brought Merganser back to life. Family members were already beginning to trickle in. The cabins officially opened on May 1st, so he still had time to work on them.
There was something very satisfying about opening Merganser back up. Uncovering the furniture, opening windows to let in frigid but fresh air, making sure everything was in working order...it felt very springlike to Link. A new beginning. A preview to another new beginning that would come soon.
The fallen pine had been removed and the deck on Cabin 3 was being rebuilt. There were a ton of flea markets and antique shops outside the village, and Link managed to find a vintage glider to replace the smashed one. Rhett wouldn’t be staying there, of course, but Link still felt it should have a glider. A coat of paint and it looked brand new. He chose a deep hunter green--a color, sure, but dark enough that Rhett would like it.
And as for Rhett...his plan was to buy a van and take a cross country road trip. Link was invited, of course (“You can fly out and we can drive back!”), but Rhett’s lease ended the day before the cabins opened, so Link was stuck at the lake. It was a shame, because a road trip sounded like a lot of fun.
Everything was coming together.
Rhett couldn’t get in touch with his mom. Hadn’t been able to since he came to LA, actually. He called, texted, and emailed. He even went to her apartment, only to find that she didn’t live there anymore.
She didn’t know he had a boyfriend. She didn’t know he was leaving. He couldn’t tell her goodbye.
The only thing he could think of to do was talk to her cousin. The last he’d heard from Rhett’s mom was that she was back with a shitty old boyfriend and using again, and he didn’t know where she was. She wouldn’t answer his calls, either. They just went to voicemail.
In the end, Rhett just wrote a letter to his mom and left it with her cousin.
Rhett was ready to roll.
He purchased a white panel van from a retiring electrician. It still said “Chen Electric” on the side with a lightbulb surrounded by stylized lightning bolts. The phone number was spray painted out with navy blue paint. It was hideous, but the price was right, and Rhett figured he could fix it up for touring.
Everything he cared about was in his van. None of his crappy furniture was coming with him. Most of it was dumped in the alley behind the apartment building, but Cactus Duncan snagged the loveseat before Rhett even had it out the door.
He locked the door to the empty apartment, dropped off the key with the landlord, and drove away without looking back.
Link was at their apartment. It was the first one Rhett liked--the entire top floor of a Victorian house (which was probably originally owned by one of Link’s rich grandfather’s subordinates). No laundry, street parking only, third floor walkup, but that was fine. It was a few blocks inland from the Pink Roof, about a 10 minute drive from Merganser.
It came furnished with a few basic items--queen sized bed, a dresser, a couch, a few little tables. Link brought some linens and cooking utensils, but he didn’t want to do any decorating until Rhett arrived in a couple weeks. It should be their space, together. In the meantime, it felt kind of like a cheap Air BnB.
It seemed almost perfect, except for one thing--it was a converted attic, with all the strange roof angles that went along with that. Link thought it would become pretty annoying, pretty quickly. They were both tall men.
Text To: Link @ Merganser
(Rhett): guess where i am
(Link): uh you should be about halfway now
(Link): omaha? kansas city?
(Link): a menu?
(Link): oh! I made that menu
(Link): des moines, right?
(Rhett): ding ding ding
(Rhett): been thinking about those meatballs for months
(Link): were they good?
(Rhett): oh yeah
(Rhett): the best
Rhett was not in Des Moines.
He was just outside the village.
It was payback time. He left his apartment ten days early. Link was expecting him sometime after May 8th, depending on how long the road trip took, but Rhett would be arriving today, April 30th.
His entire trip, he’d been taking pictures and holding onto them for several days before sending them to Link. Link had no idea what was in store for him. It was gonna be great. Rhett grinned to himself.
(Rhett): so what are you up to
(Link): makin a fancy monogram
(Rhett): at your studio?
(Rhett): fam hasslin you?
(Rhett): i know how they are
(Link): nobodys here right now
Oh, this was too perfect.
(Rhett): hey i gotta go
(Link): have a nice drive
(Rhett): see you soon
Thirty minutes later, Rhett was on Merganser’s gravel drive. He parked as far away from the big house as he could, hiding his van behind some trees.
The back door was unlocked, of course. No one locked doors at Merganser.
The stairs creaked, as usual. Rhett could only hope that Link had his headphones on. He usually did while he worked.
The bedroom door was open. Rhett poked his head in. He could see straight into the studio. Link was there at his desk, back to Rhett, headphones on, oblivious. He had his tablet out and was drawing a beautifully calligraphic letter. Was it a J, or maybe a T? Didn’t matter. His hands were so graceful as they moved across the image.
Even from behind, he was beautiful. He had his hair pulled up into a ponytail, but it wasn’t quite long enough, and loose wisps fell down his neck and to the sides of his face. Purple cardigan, dark khakis, mismatched socks. Link was humming along to some song Rhett didn’t recognize. It wasn’t one of his.
Just seeing him made Rhett’s heart ache, and his chest tightened up. They hadn’t said ‘I love you’ since getting back in touch, but Rhett was ready to say it now. God, he loved Link so much.
Rhett crept up behind him, and touched Link on the shoulder. His reaction was immediate and dramatic.
Link shrieked and jumped. His pen dropped to the floor. He tried to spin around, got caught on his headphones, and fell out of his chair. When he saw Rhett, his mouth dropped open and his eyes opened wide.
Rhett knelt on the floor next to him. Link’s headphones were stuck around his neck, and Rhett gently removed them before pulling Link into his arms. “It’s me, baby. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Link wrapped his arms around Rhett’s neck and kissed him. They toppled over onto the floor, but neither minded. Hands roamed, legs tangled together. Rhett felt something damp on his face.
“Hey, hey, stop for a minute.” He pulled back and gently touched Link’s face. “Why are you crying?”
“Because you’re here! You’re really, really here.” Link buried his face against Rhett’s neck. “Why are you so early, though?”
“Payback for you showing up at my place, unannounced.” Rhett realized they were still sprawled on the oriental rug. “How about we get off the floor?”
“I don’t mind.” Link didn’t move.
Rhett pressed his lips together. “Fine.” He flipped Link over onto his back and collapsed on top of him.
“Get off,” Link wheezed. He shoved ineffectually at Rhett’s shoulder. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m dead,” Rhett explained. “Dead people can’t move.”
“Rhett, seriously. I can’t breathe.”
“Fine.” Rhett pushed himself up. Link gasped and took a few deep breaths.
“Asshole.” He was still flat on his back.
Rhett extended a hand and pulled him up. “Oh, you know you love me.” Inside, he froze up a little. That wasn’t quite what he meant to say. In retrospect, it seemed a little stupid to have moved across the country without straightening out the whole ‘love’ business. What was he going to do if Link withdrew?
But Link just said, “Yeah, I do,” and kissed him.
The two men lay on the bed and talked for hours, a long meandering conversation about nothing, drinking each other in. Unlike the last time they met, there was nothing sexual about it. They just wanted to touch each other, see each other, smell each other.
“No cigarette smoke this time,” Link noted.
“Nah, I quit right after you left.” Rhett thought for a moment. “You know, if you’d given me some warning, I probably would have tried to quit before you got there.”
Link snorted. “Hey, you wanna go to Ray's and then see the apartment? I haven’t stayed there that much yet. Been waiting to share it with you.”
“That sounds real nice.” Rhett kissed him. “I love you.” There it was, out in the open.
“Love you too.”
Summer was in full swing, and the revolving door of guests at Merganser was whirling away. Rhett and Link had fallen into a routine: Rhett generally avoided the big house on the weekends when it was crazy, while Link stayed to play the gracious host, occasionally escaping to the apartment for a little break. Midweek, they drifted between house and apartment, or traveled around doing touristy things, including the bobsled at Lake Placid.
The sparks that were ignited the previous summer hadn’t lasted. Instead, they’d burned down into glowing coals--deeper, hotter, longer lasting.
It was a Wednesday and no one was currently staying in Cabin 3, so he sat on the new glider with his guitar and a notebook. “Blinded by the neon light, something something, da da da the night,” he sang under his breath. A strange side effect of moving to the lake was that Rhett began writing songs about LA.
“Rhett! Rhett! Hey, Rhett!”
He looked up. Link’s nephew Owen, followed by Sophie and some other little kid whose name Rhett couldn’t remember, ran across the lawn to him.
“Will you take us to Ray's?”
“I’m busy, man. Ask Link.”
“I did!” Sophie and the other little kid giggled at Owen’s indignant tone. “He yelled at me for interrupting him and said to ask you.”
“Wow. Who would have guessed he’d react like that?” Rhett smirked. Link hated being interrupted while he was working. Owen and Sophie knew that perfectly well, but did it anyway. As they trudged back across the lawn in defeat, Rhett figured they be back to hassle him sooner rather than later.
Sure enough, ten minutes later, the three kids returned. Owen thrust his hand out a Rhett without saying anything. Rhett rolled his eyes and took the offered objects. They were Link’s car keys with his monogram keychain, two twenty dollar bills, and a note on a piece of scrap paper.
“What’s it say?” Owen demanded. The two little kids threw gravel from the driveway into a bush for some reason.
“You didn’t read it on the way over?” Rhett unfolded the note.
“I can’t read the curly letters.” The note was in Link’s beautiful cursive.
Rhett looked at him incredulously. “You’re thirteen and you can’t read cursive? What, they don’t teach it anymore?” Owen just shrugged.
“Weird.” Rhett held up the note and read it aloud.
“God damn it Rhett, I am trying to work here. This is YOUR project so it would be nice if you helped out. Please take them to Ray's and bring me back a chicken salad sandwich.”
He lowered the note. “Well. Guess we’re going to Ray's. Go put on some shoes.”
Up in his studio, Link was working on the cover art for Rhett’s album. It was exactly as Rhett requested a year ago--the same style as Link’s series of people in ambiguous danger. It depicted Rhett from behind, facing into a dark forest, with the big house far in the distance.
The album was called ‘Merganser’.
Thank you for reading!