The crack of thunder outside makes Lip glance up from his notes. It’s still afternoon but the sky is dark with overstuffed clouds. That wouldn’t matter, but the rain that pours down keeps visibility to a dangerous low. Poor weather generally means a full house for them as people stop and seek safety out of the elements but, one week after Thanksgiving, travelers are pretty much safely back in their homes. Thus far, they’ve only had one elderly man check in, unwilling to brave the storm. That makes three guests total that they’re currently housing, and Mr. Tyler will likely be moving on in the morning. Lip worries the end of his pen, frowning over the numbers. They aren’t doing so great. There have been less lodgers lately, and less lodgers means less money. He may need to find additional work soon if this keeps up, though he’s not entirely sure when he’ll have the time to spare — looking after the boarding house takes up his days and even some nights.
He sighs, wishing the rain would clear. He’d planned to start on patching up the roof but the weather that’s assailed them since early morning is predicted to last through the week. It means he’s stuck inside feeling restless and useless instead. The rooms have already been cleaned, fresh linens on the beds and hot coffee set out in the living area for the guests that haven’t come.
The opening of the door makes him glance up. There’s a man shaking off his olive drab coat standing on the welcome mat. He’s tall and lean and when he removes his hat to reveal dark hair that curls in gentle waves, Lip realizes he’s handsome as well.
That dark head lifts and eyes of indeterminate color light on him. “Do you have a room available?” he asks, voice a bit gruff, like maybe he doesn’t talk much.
“We do,” Lip confirms. “Is it for just yourself or will your wife be joining you?”
Something about what he says makes the man’s lips twitch, though Lip doesn’t think he’s amused. “No,” he responds, evenly enough, “it’s just for me. I don’t know yet how long I’ll be staying, but it won’t be long. Will that be a problem?”
“Not at all,” Lip returns, though his heart sinks just a bit. Long-term boarders are the best source of steady income. “I have a room with a single bed that should suit you.” He pulls the log book as the man approaches. “The rate is fifteen dollars per week and that includes two meals a day.” His school books are still spread out on the desk so he closes them and pushes them to one side, seeing the man’s eyes flick over the titles. It’s then he notices what he’d missed before: the man is walking with a cane, leaning on it heavily. Lip doesn’t ask. There are many men returning from the war wounded in some way or another. It makes him think of his brother and pray, yet again, that he comes back in one piece. “May I have your name, sir?”
Those eyes — Lip can make out that they are hazel now that the man stands directly before him — focus on him with somewhat unnerving directness. “Ronald Speirs,” he says. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out fifteen dollars in cash. “And you are …?”
Lip writes down the name and pulls the key for a first floor room. “Carwood Lipton. I’ll show you to your room.” He steps around the narrow desk, noticing the lack of personal effects. “Will you need help with your bags, Mr. Speirs?”
The man — Speirs — already seems to have dismissed his presence. “No. I’ll retrieve them later myself.”
Lipton nods and shows the man to his room. It’s small, no more than a bed, a small dresser, a desk and a night table with a reading lamp, but it’s clean and warm and Lip looks around seeing it through a stranger’s eyes, pride welling within him. Speirs chooses that moment to look over his shoulder and he nods as though hearing what Lip doesn’t say.
“It’s a fine room,” he murmurs.
Lip only then notices the way he’s holding himself too stiffly, too rigid, hand clenched around the handle of his cane, knuckles white with the strain. His face loses color, a tremor beginning at his leg and Lip lunges forward in time to brace Speirs up just as his leg gives out from under him, cane clattering to the floor. Sweat peppers the man’s forehead, his breathing becoming more labored, teeth gritted.
“Damnation,” he mutters angrily.
They’re close, so close that Lip sees the lines of worry at the corners of the man’s eyes making him look older than Lip knows he must be. “Let’s get you on the bed,” he murmurs, shifting his arm to better support the other man.
Speirs gives a sharp nod and together they get him seated on the mattress. The move makes Lip’s back twinge warningly and he has to brace himself with one hand on the bed, steeling himself against the inevitable pain. After a moment, he straightens to find Speirs watching him.
“All right?” he asks gruffly.
Lip nods. “You?”
Speirs’s head dips, eyes not missing the tense way the other man is standing. Lip waits for the question; it always comes: Where did you serve? He should be inoculated against it by now but shame scalds his insides every time he has to repeat his answer. But Speirs simply sets his hat down, uninterested in prying. It makes for a refreshing change.
He retrieves the cane and sets it against the bed. “Dinner will be served at five,” he tells Speirs, and closes the door quietly behind him.
Speirs doesn’t join them for dinner and it makes Carwood restless and unhappy however much he tries to put it out of his mind. The man must have served in the war. He’s the right age, the right sex, and he’s fit. There’s also the look in his eyes, something detached and hopeless, ruthless and angry like maybe he hasn’t stopped fighting the war yet. The cane could be the result of a battle wound, though Lip knows first-hand that’s not always the case.
“ … --arwood?”
His head jerks up and he realizes he hasn’t heard a word around him. “Sorry, Mama. You were saying?”
She smiles at him, puzzled. “You were gathering wool, Carwood. It’s unlike you.”
“I was saying that I’ll be heading to the post office tomorrow. Do you need me to bring you anything?”
Carwood frowns thoughtfully, glancing out the window at the sheets of rain still coming down. “Mama, I don’t like the thought of you out in this weather.” And to make matters worse, their sole vehicle seems to have reached the end of its life. It will need a new alternator to ever function again and those require the kind of money that they do not possess at the moment.
“Now don’t you fuss, Carwood, I will be perfectly fine.”
His Mama’s expression is set and he’s well aware of how determined she can be. She’s getting on in years but she makes the trips into town so that he doesn’t have to. The long walks tend to leave him stiff and aching for days afterward.
If only …
But there’s no point in thinking of what-ifs and could-have-beens. He’s learned to do the best he can in his situation. “There are some things I need, but I’ll have to go myself. You stay home, Mama.”
She must see something in his expression because she doesn’t object. She stands and pats his shoulder as she moves to refill the coffee pot. “All right, Carwood. More coffee?”
The men nod and thank her as they finish up their meals. Carwood glances again toward the hallway that leads to the rooms but there is no sound and no movement.
Therefore, one face is parallel to the observer and only set …
Carwood huffs out an impatient breath, realizing that it’s the fourth time he’s read the same sentence. His head is somewhere else entirely. He glances up but there’s no light coming from Mr. Speirs’s room. Had he fallen asleep immediately after getting in? It’s nearly eight-thirty at night and he hasn’t seen the man exit his room at all. Not that he’s keeping track, but … well … Speirs is clearly still recuperating from whatever happened to him and Carwood is willing to bet that the something has to do with the war. It’s not right to let a man who served his country go hungry. Lip simply can’t allow that. Decidedly, he closes his book and heads to the kitchen.
The extra plate he’d fixed earlier sits at the back of the ice box. He heats up the food on the stove and goes to knock on Speirs’s door, calling himself ten kinds of fool the whole way. He raps his knuckles against the solid wood, not so loud that it’ll wake Speirs if he’s sleeping, but loud enough to get his attention if he’s not. Almost immediately a light blazes to life, its streaks casting a glow around the door. He’s sure, suddenly, that this is a mistake but it’s too late. The door swings open and Speirs fills the doorway.
Well, not quite. He’s actually rather slim, on the side of too thin like maybe he hasn’t been eating properly, but his presence is larger than the sum of him. Lipton doesn’t quite know why that is, or if it’s simply in his head, but he can’t deny that he finds the man imposing.
Speirs leans on the doorframe and Lipton remembers too late that he might still be having difficulty standing.
“I’m sorry—” he begins, tray held awkwardly between them, but Speirs shakes his head sharply, waving away his apology.
“No, not all all.” He proffers the tray, letting go when Speirs takes it automatically. “You missed dinner.”
Speirs stares down at the food like he doesn’t know what to make of it. He tilts his head, consideringly. “I didn’t realize you also offered room service.”
Lip opens his mouth to correct him but he catches the twinkle of amusement in the man’s eyes just in time. “We do. I’ll add the after-hours fee, gas fee, reheating fee, convenience fee and delivery fee to your bill,” he replies in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone. “Not to mention that a man as debonair as you will tip generously, I’m sure.”
Speirs begins looking dazed about half-way through his little speil and it’s all Lip can do to keep a serious expression. His poker face cracks after only a few seconds and he begins to laugh. Speirs looks surprised before his lips twitch in a grin. It may be overly generous to call it a grin, but he definitely looks unwillingly amused. “Debonair? Really?”
Lip wills himself not to flush and clears his throat. “Just teasing,” he says lightly. “I thought you might be hungry.” He nods to the tray that Speirs holds as his right hand grips the cane. It seems the short rest has been good for him. He looks much better.
There’s a struggle happening behind those hazel eyes, but finally Speirds nods, “I am,” he admits, allowing himself that much vulnerability.
Lip stands awkwardly a moment longer, but there’s no more to say. He’s certainly not going to invite himself into Speirs’s room. The thought makes something flutter within him and he steps back abruptly. “Well, good night. Enjoy your dinner.”
He glances back.
Speirs polishes off his manners long enough to add, “Thank you.”
Lip grins. “Next time, I expect a tip.”
He wakes, back aching. It happens sometimes when he overdoes it or when it’s about to rain. He could probably make some side dough in forecasting. He stretches but freezes as his muscles threaten to seize. After a few seconds he releases the breath he’s holding and tentatively shifts again, sighing in relief as the pain recedes.
The rain is still beating a loud, uneven drum outside as he finishes dressing. He’ll start breakfast a bit early so that he can get a headstart on the walk into town. If he’s fast, he should be able to make it back in time to start fixing the upstairs bathroom before helping Mama with dinner.
He steps outside to head around the house to collect some chicken eggs but stops short at the sight that greets him. Sitting on the porch railing is Speirs, cane propped against his leg, smoking a cigarette in the cool, early morning, watching the sheets of rain.
Lip doesn’t move, feeling unaccountably hesitant. “Mr. Speirs, good morning.”
Speirs’s gaze flicks to him in acknowledgement before shifting away. He doesn’t respond. The stiff way he holds himself along with the tight, pained expression speak to more than mere exhaustion.
Lip glances at the skies. “You feel it in your bones, right?”
He sees Speirs’s head turn back toward him.
“But it’s not the pain that bothers you.”
He expects the question now. He shouldn’t have said anything, should have kept his mouth shut, but he doesn’t regret it, not even if Speirs looks at him with the same pitying, condescending disappointment others do at his answer.
But again, Speirs doesn’t ask. Maybe it’s not kindness or understanding, maybe he simply doesn’t care enough. His gaze is steady as he breathes out the cigarette smoke. Lip doesn’t expect him to respond, but after a few minutes he says quietly, “No, it’s not the pain.”
The softly-spoken words feel monumental. They feel like trust. He knows, without needing to ask, that Speirs is not the type given to confidences.
There’s nothing more after that and Lip knows Speirs will not reveal more. He’s not sure why he feels the need to know. Speirs is a stranger that will be gone all too soon. He opens up the umbrella and steps out, ignoring the other man as he goes about his business, collecting eggs and picking a few apples from the tree in the yard. It’s still too early to start breakfast —no one will be awake for another hour at least — so he sets to cleaning the common area and puts a large vat of water to boil to soak towels for washing when he returns. He sorts the mail, separates the bills, and takes note of what he needs to buy for the week. There’s great speculation that the war will be over by the end of the month — though Carwood doesn’t put much stock in that. People have been predicting the end of the war for two years. In the meantime, rationing is still in effect so there will be no butter until next week and they are running low on milk and cheese. That’s okay, Mrs. Davis has an excellent dairy cow and she trades with them for flour and sugar.
By the time he hears movement coming from the rooms, it’s nearly seven. It’s the perfect time to start breakfast. Just as the thought forms, he hears the front door open and the click of a cane on the hard-wood floor.
He ignores the sudden uptick of his heartbeat and sets a pan to heat. The kitchen is silent except for his movements as he works but he knows Speirs is watching him, can feel that steady regard.
Other guests — mostly men, but a few women as well — have posed the same question, but there’s no disbelieving condemnation in Speirs’s tone, unlike those others. Lip has no patience for those who try to belittle his efforts to help his mother as much as possible. “I do,” he responds, somewhat curtly, still waiting for what will follow.
“That’s a useful skill.”
Lip is so surprised he nearly drops the mold with the dough that he’d been about to slide into the oven. He turns to Speirs, unable to hide his astonishment. He isn’t ashamed of being able to cook, he knows damn well it’s a useful skill, but being in the kitchen is considered women’s work and plenty of people let him know it. “Not too many people see it that way,” he returns mildly.
Speirs meets his gaze squarely. “They’re fools.”
Lip doesn’t bother to bite back a grin and he motions toward the table. “Take a seat, the coffee will be ready in five.”
Breakfast is the most pleasant it’s been in years and Lip tries not to analyze the reason too closely. He stays just a bit longer than he should, enjoying the conversation going on around him. He smiles, hiding his laugh behind a cough, as his Mama presses Speirs to eat more, telling him that he’s too skinny. Speirs throws a droll look his way but dutifully holds his plate out for his mama to pile on more food. Unfortunately, Lip really does need to get going, so he stands, picking up the guests’ empty plates.
“Carwood,” his mama says, admonishing, “you leave those now, I’ll take care of the clean-up here. Go on your business.”
“It’s no trouble, Mama,” he says, but she clucks her tongue and shakes her head.
“Put those down, I said.”
Lip glances at Speirs but the man offers no support, only grins into his coffee. He takes a drink then throws in his unhelpful two cents, “You should know better than to argue with your mother.”
“And you should know better than to challenge the man who makes the coffee,” he tosses back.
Fink, a man on the wrong side of forty chortles and says to Speirs, “That would be a more effective threat if his coffee weren’t terrible.” He takes a sip and shudders as Mr. Tyler chuckles.
“Don’t you fret, Carwood, your coffee always puts a pep in my step,” Mrs. Thomason defends, refilling her cup.
“Certainly woke me up,” Speirs agrees.
Lip huffs, hiding a grin. “As fun as this is, I have errands to run. I will see you all this afternoon.” As the words leave his mouth, his stomach drops. He actually doesn’t know if he’ll see Speirs later. The man might take off before he makes it back. After all, he’d said that he didn’t know how long he’d stay. Lip’s gaze seeks him, and, to his relief, Speirs nods back in agreement. It’s ridiculous, but he’s not ready to never see this man again.
He kisses his mama on the cheek and grabs his wallet and an umbrella from the foyer. The rain hasn’t let up at all, but getting a little wet won’t harm him. It seems no one else is willing to brave the elements on foot. The sidewalks are deserted and only a few lone cars pass him by.
He makes it one hundred or so yards down the road before a horn sounds and a car nearly careens onto the sidewalk as it pulls over just ahead of him. Lip opens his mouth to berate the careless idiot as he reaches the vehicle when the passenger door is thrown open and Speirs frowns at him, yelling, “Get in!”
Speechless, he does, shutting the door and muffling the sound of the pouring rain.
Quiet settles between them.
“You’re a terrible driver,” Lip says, finally.
Speirs snorts, hands loose on the steering wheel as he watches Carwood. “Why didn’t you mention that your car isn’t running?” he demands.
Carwood raises an eyebrow. “Why would I?” He sees Speirs still at that. The man opens and closes his mouth on several responses, looking disgruntled at being challenged. Lip shakes his head slightly, taking pity on him. “Did you come this way just to offer me a ride?”
Speirs puts the car in gear, pulling away. “Of course not,” he answers readily. “I was planning on going into town. Since you’re headed that way, I thought you could be my guide. It’ll avoid wasting time.”
Lip settles back into the seat, hiding a grin.