“Hey, girl. Can’t sleep either, huh?”
The deep bass of a moo responds to Lance kindly, and all he can do is smile.
He scans somewhere for a rock that is somewhat comfortable for him to rest on only to find one right next to Kaltenecker. Her large eyes gleam out into a different space from Lance’s as she decides to rest her bones.
“You know, these late nights are gonna get you one day, abuelita. You’re no spring calf anymore.”
He takes note of the glint of offense that dots her eye and winces a little.
“Not to say that you haven’t aged like a fine wine…”
His eyes lock onto the gentle sequence of blue, red, and purple glimmering in the fog of the autumn sky. At this point Lance knows those stars are for him and Keith; an astral morse code that gets his heart thumping with affection and the sweet mist of longing for the man he has dated for a year. Late nights exist solely for the two lovers to catch up, but tonight Keith breaks his end of the deal by not answering his phone. In the beginning, Lance would indulge in a verbal fit or a fretful worry. These days, he simply takes a deep breath and forces himself to understand that there is a really good reason for it. Before heading back to the house, he petitions to the galaxy for Keith’s safe travels and texts him an “I love you”.
Brushes of clouds cake an otherwise blue sky, and all Lance wants to do is drift back into the faint of slumber, pretending he did not see five o-clock on the phone or wishing he wasn’t dressed in jeans and a thick button-down. Much more work has to be done, unfortunately: The juniper flower shipments are only three quarters ready, then the pumpkin patch in the field ten miles away needs volunteers for the Halloween season…
Of all the things that could irritate him right now is Rachel sauntering to him with a rake and a nonchalant pout to go with it. Silvio and Nadia are not too far behind as they scamper.
“Lance, you think you could be a dear and handle this huge problem in the barn house?”
He puffs his cheeks and twists his arms together, “Unless there’s a dangerous hobo wielding a knife, you’re a big girl!”
“Not bigger than the spider that’s in there!” Silvio insists with a fearful taunt.
“WHAT?” Lance swallows the chill that strikes his throat.
Rats, okay. But earth arachnids larger than his hand could go straight to hell! And Rachel only agrees to follow through with her responsibilities as long as the kids are no longer afraid. It was for the kids, right?
Rachel utters to them that “Uncle Lance” will kick its butt.
They cross the path cleared in the middle of dried dandelions and tall blades of grass until they reach the lair where the cursed thing is. With false bravado he gets ready to show that spider a lesson for interrupting his already cluttered mind. His hand grips the handle of the rake, foot kicks the rickety door open with an obnoxious squeak.
“Alright, prepare to say goodbye-Keith!”
With the clang of the rake hitting the floor behind him, Lance sprints off to the uncommon sight of the man he loves dressed down in his black and red leather jacket, and he embraces him tightly until they topple into a large pile of straw.
The sporadic streams of sunlight hit Keith’s face and highlights the contours of masculine beauty despite the dark, dankness of the barn’s surroundings. Everything about him is open, partially due to his black hair being pulled back in a medium-length ponytail, indigo eyes glowing brightly thanks to a light beam that has trickled through the ceiling.
Keith huffs a laugh and smirks crookedly, “Ready to send me off already? But I just got he-”
Lance seals that sentence with a kiss and caresses his cheek as their fingers are laced together, and Keith is pulling them down a little more deeply into the pile…
“Okay, boys, got a PG audience standing right here…” Rachel’s voice shakes them out of their trance as she stands closed in with her palms protectively shading young eyes on each side of her. “And I still have to clean this place up.”
“My bad.” Lance’s face stains with a flush until he shakes his head with fearful eyes and a drawl, “Wait a minute…where’s the spider, Rae?”
“In your arms…” She shoots back with Silvio and Nadia snickering.
Keith smiles while raising a cheeky brow until breaking out into a series of sneezes. Lance immediately gets up and pulls Keith to his feet until they are walking hand in hand.
“Okay…have at that hay first.” Lance says as he turns to his twin.
“If you’re drowning, I’ll help you.” Keith offered to help with anything, no questions asked. No obstacle too daunting or dirty.
“Not drowning so much as hopping from rock to rock in the midst of the tides.” Lance says as he pulls his Jeep out of the garage and sets out to the open road leading to other farms.
“Where are the others?”
“Veronica’s sick, Luis and Mariela are in town, Marco’s doing whatever the heck Marco does, and Mom and Rachel have been the true MVP’s back here on the farm. Naturally the kids will be kids; they get tired, they wanna goof off. But that McClain work ethic shines through… Have you gotten any kind of rest today?”
The weight of such a small question is enough to turn Keith into the abyss of Lance’s eyes until he can’t play it off anymore.
“I arrived straight over here after working for three quintants straight…” He quits floundering and decides to give his boyfriend a firm, straight answer: “No, Lance.”
Keith nearly swallows his tonsils as Lance makes a sudden jerky U-turn back to the direction of his house.
“Lance, I…” he argues until Lance interrupts him with a rapid mime of his hand and an obnoxious stream of tut-tuts trilling from his tongue.
“Rest first, samurai, then worry about trying to be my second pair of hands. Copy that?”
“Alright, copy.” He moans despite a grin sneaking to the corner of his mouth.
Before following orders from his right-hand man, Keith at least insists on Lance letting Kosmo accompany him and the kids on whatever physical tasks they were behind on.
It floods back to him: the small, painful thumping in the back of his head. As does the thick mist of fatigue in his eyes, the scramble of his brain, the dull weight in his body. All of that had been forgotten the moment he held Lance in his arms and now he is forced to deal with it head on. Strange…
The moment he comes into the door, he is greeted with the smell of pancake batter and frying meat. Lance’s mother is already bumping into him with a very tight embrace that nearly knocks him to his knees.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were here! I would’ve made enough for you, too!”
Rachel passes through, telling her that Veronica was not going to eat after not feeling good this morning, and she looks at Keith with an eye raise and a happy shrug.
“You look tired, m’ijo. Go ahead and get some sleep, okay? I’ll make you a plate and save it in the microwave.”
“Thank you, Mrs. McClain.”
Once he gets upstairs, he takes off his boots and jacket, falling asleep in bed effortlessly despite the gleam of sun misting through the curtains.
Lance sets a large pile of gigantic pumpkins aside. They reach up to his knee cap, so using a dolly and a box for one or two is necessary at times. Other times carefully rolling them into a blanket for Kosmo to mist to each customer deems useful. He then sets the last of twenty-four pumpkins into the trunk of some family’s pick-up and that was not the last of the giant squashes, either. Did he mention that these suckers were large and in charge this year? What kind of mulch did old man Stan used to grow this year’s crop?
Sylvio and Nadia collect payments and give the right amount of change necessary with supervision from Mr. Stan’s teenaged son. He normally aides with the pumpkin shipments, but, like Veronica, his mother and sister are both inside with major stomachaches. Does nature synchronize that or something? Lance swears this is the second month in a row…
After a firm handshake from his final customer, he waves to his wife and their four children as they wave back.
Descending sunlight continues to shine brilliantly beneath the grayscale of clouds and the sky itself, producing a burnt orange effect.
For a moment, Lance allowed himself to take a break and indulge in the wave of dreams that course between his brain and heart. He and Keith, together forever, or at least until several type II supernovas occured. They would travel together with a cargo of pumpkins in the back of their Jeep or something else that would fit their family of three or four. It would definitely have to be two kids. One for him and one for Keith.
Speaking of which, he still has to call him since that last attempt did not go so well.
“Uncle Lance, what are we gonna do with these?” Silvio motions to the piles of medium pumpkins that everyone else had ignored mostly for the gigantic and baby miniatures. Lance got an idea…
“Hey, Mr. Stan? Whadda we do with these?”
“Take them home. I’m sure your mom will find them very useful in her kitchen.”
“Thanks!” with renewed enthusiasm, Lance begins using his already sore muscles to gather the rest for storage. Now phase one of his last-minute plans could commence, thanks to a wonderful idea his mamá gave him earlier.
From the last vestige of dusk until mid-evening, Lance and the kids sit cross legged in the barn surrounded by the medium pumpkins. As he spends the next thirty minutes cutting open and scooping out the guts from each one, Sylvio and Nadia gather handfuls of the pulp and put them into large grocery bags. Then they gallop eagerly back to the house where their abuelita can use it to bake tasty desserts.
Lance is finally left alone to brainstorm with the subtle background ASMR of chirps and the gentle rustle of wind accompanying him. Now that the hay bales are covered up and the space is free of webs and dust, he can work his magic.
“You may enter.” He says playfully, recognizing when his twin was standing around without even looking up.
“Thought this would make a cute centerpiece. Nadia picked it out.” Rachel sets a baby pumpkin on the table where Lance had tea candles floating in small bowls of water.
He tilts his head with his chin happily cupped in his hand, “Very rustic. I like it!”
With bleary eyes, Keith's breath hitches as he processes the dimness of the room that nightfall has brought. His brain registers 21:20 on his phone and once again, he is dressed in his boots and jacket. The sudden aroma of warm nutmeg and pumpkin is enough to entice him further downstairs, but before he goes, he dials his boyfriend to apologize for being of absolutely no help today.
“Lance, I’m so sorry! What are you up to right now?”
“Baby, I-I can’t hear you! Let me call back, okay?” the clear-as-day signal ended with a pitiful beep.
Galaxy Garrison-caliber phones that can’t even carry a signal from a house to a barn…
Lance really refined his acting chops throughout the years, but he still sucks at it.
Keith marches downstairs and goes straight to Mrs. McClain.
“You were out for a long time, Rachel checked on you earlier and you were snoring…” her voice trails off. “It’s getting dark out there, are you ready to do what you both discussed?”
“Absolutely. Tonight’s the night.” He says with determination burning in his eyes.
Keith follows the lighted path until it leads to a warm glow of the barn. The sight inside leaves him breathless with a splash of mild surprise on his brow.
His eyes dart from one glowing Jack-o’-lantern to another, most with simple shapes cut out and some with all-too familiar goofy grins. A few make him feel like he’s peering into a childlike caricature of his own reflection…
“I got carried away…”
Keith gasps as chills ruffle his body, earning a laugh from Lance.
“Sorry, man. Can’t help being in stealth mode, even when I’m trying to be suave.”
The man has been busy, and Keith still cannot turn away from the light display of the Jack-o’-lanterns. Yet Lance’s hand around his waist brings him further into their moment. The flickers from the lanterns bring enough warmth to his body while Lance’s hands and the undercurrent of freshly showered pumpkin spice musk lights a furnace of comfort into his abdomen.
“Kosmo really saved the day, and everyone in the community wants to adopt him as their Halloween helper mascot.”
“One sweet old lady, Mrs. Gertrude, also said, and I quote: devilishly handsome.”
“Well what did you expect? He is an extension of me.”
“Ha! Sooo not like you to get all conceited…”
Keith’s multifaceted smile melts his heart and he’s lucky that he’s able to experience the essence of that smile each time he captures them with his lips. They continue kissing for a little while longer until it escalates, and they absolutely must stop and take a break from the electricity piercing and flowing between them. Like they say, the night is still young…
“Isn’t Halloween over a week away?” He returns his attention to the lanterns with a mild squint.
“Had to do something for birthday’s eve.”
Keith blinks in bewilderment.
Lance looked at his boyfriend’s heavy confusion with anxiety brimming in his gut that threatens to give way to chuckles.
“October 23rd is literally in three vargas, Keith.”
“You’re right…” All that traveling… barely enough time to sit and measure. If it wasn’t for this man that Keith calls his “right-hand” before and after the war, he would have no semblance of stability. Of stability that keeps a man from unraveling when life demands for stillness.
That small pumpkin on the table is now resting in Keith’s palms. Lance spots a strange square carved out at the bottom and covers his mouth from suppressed hysterics once a small metal box pops out from underneath.
Keith slowly opens it as Lance begins to shake.
A ring. Upon a closer look it’s an engagement band brazed in ice blue with a silver inlay. Still, nothing compares to the luster of Keith’s beautiful gaze. His tranquil yet serious demeanor is what keeps Lance from completely passing out right now.
“You’ve always been my stability and you always will. And as I told you earlier, if you’re drowning, I’ll help you.” He utters with petal softness.
Something in Lance visibly stiffens the moment Keith descends to one knee and speaks more deliberately.
“Let me be clear: I vow to be there for you in moments when you for one fraction of a second think you’re gonna drown. Always.”
Lance sees him becoming misty-eyed despite his super-human composure.
“Will you marry me?”
Every synapse is begging Lance to just speak up already! But the rest of him refuses to cooperate until Keith has to respond to him like he’s a robot with his battery juice run out. The crickets and wind sounding so prominently can’t even save him.
The other man jumps like a startled hen while scrambling to grasp the midair juggling ring. Luckily, he catches it in a fist before the ground can swallow it up. Lance caresses his face as tears are spilling from his own eyes. “Of course, I’ll marry you!” He whispers and cements his answer with a passionate kiss.
Before he gets another opportunity to lose the ring, Keith immediately slips it on Lance's finger as the other man admires the brand-new status symbol.
"Do you believe this, Jackie? I'm his fiancé now!" Lance gushes to the smiling Jack-o’-lantern perched on a covered bale of hay while kissing his new betrothed on the cheek. The pumpkin head appears to be thrilled for them both.