There’s only one road in Blue Cove. It passes straight through the heart of town, past Tom Bramley’s Shoe Repair and the recently opened Army-Navy surplus store, meandering out to Pete’s plumbing parts plant and the heavily forested land beyond that. Route 12, the Federal Highway Administration calls it, but the townspeople have always known it as Old Jim Jarwell Road, a tribute to Blue Cove’s founding patriarch. They’re stubborn about it too, refusing to change the name on local maps. Blue Cove isn’t the kind of place that has much use for interference from the federal government.
It isn’t the kind of place, either, Clark would have imagined Pete settling after college. Everybody always just assumed he would stay in Kansas, a true native son. But when the opportunity came to invest in the plumbing parts plant, Blue Cove’s only heavy industry, Pete didn’t hesitate. He put down the money his parents had saved for him from the sale of the creamed corn factory and went into business for himself.
Seven years later, Pete is Mr. Blue Cove, the largest employer in town, president of the Chamber of Commerce, talk in the air of a possible run for mayor. Whenever Clark walks down the street with him, he’s amazed by the number of people who come up to shake his hand. It’s like being friends with a celebrity, a little strange, especially when Clark thinks back to the kid he knew in high school, dreaming up wacky schemes to meet girls, joining the football team so he wouldn’t get beaten up. Pete, on the verge of thirty, is made of confidence, a man with serious responsibilities, a natural air of authority to him that wins people’s trust.
This doesn’t keep Clark from teasing him, of course. He’s still Pete, and they’ve been friends too long for anything to change between them. Besides, Clark can’t pass up the chance to see Pete bluster in defense of his adopted home.
“You know there’s only one road for a reason,” Clark likes to kid him, “because this truly is a one-horse town.”
Pete insists it’s all a matter of geography, the way Blue Cove perches on the cliffs above the sea limiting its infrastructure options. “There’s just no room for another road,” he says. “This is the coast, man. You’re just used to being landlocked, that’s your problem.”
These exchanges usually end with a round of beers down at Shorty’s Bowl-a-rama. The truth is that Clark likes Blue Cove well enough. It has all the reassuring rhythms of a small town, people get up early, there’s only one of any kind of store, and nobody bothers to lock their doors. At the same time, it doesn’t remind him of Smallville. The dull pounding of the waves and the screeching of sea birds as they circle the marina are too exotic to his heartland sensibilities to make him think of home.
He’s been doing his best to fit in, to become a true Blue-Covian like Pete. As he rumbles along in his truck over Old Jim Jarwell Road, passing by the five and dime with its big glass window, he waves to everybody strolling along the sidewalk, the way people do here, and they all wave back, although some of them look kind of confused. It’s been six months, but Clark hasn’t gotten to know that many of his new neighbors yet.
To be honest, Clark’s life in Blue Cove is simple, even spare—he spends his time fixing up his place, doing odd jobs to make ends meet, hanging out with Pete—and it makes him all the more aware of how complicated things had gotten back in Metropolis before he left. He’d wanted to help people, felt a responsibility to use his alien powers for some purpose. He just never anticipated how that impulse might careen out of control. By the end, he was working all day at the Planet, spending every night out patrolling, never sleeping, his senses on constant overdrive, the sound of human misery his ever-present companion.
When the call came that his parents had been in a serious accident, Clark was out playing the hero. His father died instantly in the five-car pileup, thrown through the truck’s windshield, but his mother lingered a few hours at the hospital. There will always be possibilities that Clark has to consider, what-ifs he tortures himself with. If he’d been at home that night to get the call, maybe he could have seen her one last time, told her goodbye. If he hadn’t been out trying to save other people, maybe he could have saved them.
Pete tells him all the time that this is crazy thinking, a twisted form of grief, and Clark is pretty sure he did go insane for a while after it happened. He never called the Planet to tell them he wasn’t coming back, never went back to his apartment to pack up his things. He just walked away from that life, that distraction, like it never happened, and threw himself whole-heartedly into the farm.
It was the only thing that gave him any comfort, rote and physical, getting up at the same time, doing the same things, endlessly. The dull monotony of pitching hay and hammering fences and chugging over the fields on the tractor helped drown out thought. He had no desire to see anyone. Words were points of pain. He preferred silence. When the phone rang too insistently, he pulled it out of the wall, the bare wires dangling from the plaster. When his friends stopped by to check on him—Lois bringing his stuff from Metropolis and Lana dropping off food and Chloe there to listen—he fended them off with a terse “I’m fine,” and went back to his mournful farming.
Days vanished in a numb blur of work, became weeks, then months. The farm began to show the strain of his one-man efforts, weeds choking the south pasture, hay moldering in the barn, shingles decaying on the roof of the house, ugly brown rings appearing on the ceiling of his bedroom whenever it rained. It was too much work for one person, at least one person working at human speed, and he stopped using his powers after that night and that missed phone call. It doesn’t make sense, he knows, to blame them for what happened. But then, it doesn’t make sense either that his parents are gone.
The day Pete showed up at the farm, he was pitching hay in the barn. He didn’t stop for hellos, just said, “I’m fine. You didn’t have to come.”
Pete stood his ground, lifting his chin, stubborn the way he could be sometimes. “You are not fine, Clark. Cutting yourself off from the people who care about you, walking away from everything, turning yourself into the Boo Radley of Smallville…none of that is fine.”
Anger flared in his chest. “I’m taking care of the farm! The way my parents would have wanted me to.”
“This isn’t about what your parents wanted, Clark, and we both know that.” His tone grew gentler, “It’s not your fault what happened, and they wouldn’t ask you to give up your life for their dream.”
Clark stared down at the ground. “I just—I can’t go back to Metropolis. There’s nothing there for me.” He took a breath and held it. “This is all I have now.”
Pete shook his head. “That’s not true, and being here,” he gave Clark a long, appraising look, “it isn’t doing you any good. Why not sell this and go somewhere else?”
“I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t know where—”
Pete held up his hand. “Hear me out. There’s an old vineyard and winery in Blue Cove. I was thinking you could move out there and take it over.”
Clark laughed, for the first time since his parents died, and it felt almost painful. “I don’t know anything about making wine, Pete. I couldn’t just—”
“Sure you could,” Pete insisted. “You already know how to run a farm, and you could learn the rest. I’m serious here, man. It’s a good opportunity. It would be great for the town, create jobs, bring in tourists. And it would be good for you too. A fresh start somewhere completely different, where there’s no history.” He smiled. “Where you just happen to have an old friend.”
Clark clenched and unclenched his hands on the pitchfork. The beam above the barn door was starting to sag, in serious need of repair, the tractor had stopped working again just that morning. The place was falling apart around him. “I’ll have to sleep on it,” he said at last.
Pete laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m staying at my folks. I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
It probably wasn’t the most rational decision Clark ever made, but maybe saving yourself is always more a matter of instinct than intellect. Pete helped him put an ad in the Smallville Gazette, and the local farmers came to make their bids, soft words of condolence worked in among the business talk. When Clark turned over the deed to Mr. Haggerty, the man told him, “I’ll do right by your dad, don’t you worry none.”
So here Clark is, in Blue Cove, and most days he doesn’t regret it, although fixing up the winery has proven more of a challenge than he even imagined, a stack of bills piling up on the kitchen table, the money from the sale of the farm almost tapped out. Fortunately, he’s friends with the most well-connected guy in town. Pete calls two or three times a week with the name of someone who needs odd jobs done. Clark has discovered he’s remarkably handy, at everything from fixing old can openers to framing in rooms, stuff he must have picked up from his dad without even realizing it. He wishes he could have shown his father this while he was still alive, that they’re more alike than they ever suspected.
When Pete called about this latest job, though, Clark really thought he was kidding. “You’ll never guess who pulled into port. The Luthor family on their corporate yacht, and they have some kind of woodworking emergency. Called over to the Chamber of Commerce looking for somebody who could do the job fast. I said you’d be right over.”
“I don’t know anything about repairing a boat—”
“Ship, and I got the idea this is more on the decorative side.”
“A decorative emergency?”
“They’re Luthors, Clark,” Pete said, with a little laugh. Now that he’s managed to turn his plant into the largest supplier of plumbing parts in the Northwest, his bitterness about the creamed corned factory has finally receded.
“I’m still not sure—”
“They don’t know you,” Pete said reasonably, “don’t know you used to live in Metropolis, and anyway, they’re not going to chat up the hired help. I’m sure they’ll barely even acknowledge that you exist.”
“You’re really convincing me,” Clark said dryly.
Pete laughed. “Just go. It’s good money.”
So here he is. He gets out, grabs his toolbox from the back of the truck, and checks the piece of paper where he wrote down the details. Slip 37. He asks the harbormaster, and he points the way to the largest ship in port, its brass fittings shining in the late morning sun. Clark takes a deep breath and heads down the dock.
He finds Lionel Luthor himself waiting on the foredeck, feet planted, hands on his hips. When he spots Clark, he demands to know, “Are you the carpenter?”
“Yes, sir,” Clark says, falling back into his old Midwestern mannerisms.
Luthor nods. “Come aboard then.” He turns to head inside.
Clark just stares for a moment. The Luthors are Metropolis, and Metropolis…brings back so many memories.
Lionel Luthor glances impatiently over his shoulder. “Is there a problem, young man?”
Clark lets out his breath. He can see exactly how this job is going to go. “Coming.”
Clark’s boots make a dull thud as he clambers aboard, leaving behind a dusty trail of prints on the polished deck. He feels a twinge of guilt for whoever is going to have to clean that up. Inside, he finds himself in a living room or whatever they call it on a ship. His knowledge of nautical parlance hasn’t caught up to his circumstances yet.
Lionel Luthor stands at the bar, pouring himself a glass of orange juice. He takes a sip and gives Clark an appraising look over the rim of his glass. Clark is dressed in his typical uniform, a throwback to his high school days, jeans and a flannel shirt, not as clean as they were when he first put them on that morning. His dad always used to say, “Never apologize for not putting on airs, son.” But there’s still a part of Clark that wants to declare, “I used to wear a tie to work!” At the very least, he wishes he’d thought to change into a fresh T-shirt.
“You have references, I assume,” Lionel Luthor says, without prelude.
Clark fights the urge to shuffle his feet. “I, uh—well, Mrs. Henderson was so happy when I fixed her kitchen sink she made me a meatloaf to take home. We could call her if you want.”
He stops himself before he can add that she’ll likely talk his ear off, an elderly lady living alone since her husband died, with grandchildren who hardly ever visit. He’s already red-faced, even without the rambling.
Lionel Luthor regards him with a lofty look of sufferance. “I suppose your assurances that you do actually know what you’re doing will have to suffice.”
It’s on the tip of Clark’s tongue to say thank you, but he holds it back. The Luthors are the ones who should express some gratitude, or an acknowledgement at the very least, that someone was willing to drop everything and hurry right over. “So what did you need me to do?”
Lionel jerks his head toward an interior door. “It’s through there.” Clark follows him into what looks like a dressing area, with a bedroom beyond it. “This.”
Clark stares. “It’s a closet.”
“Very astute,” Lionel tells him dryly. “This closet, as you so accurately describe it, needs remodeling.
Clark has had other people call up with harebrained notions of what constitutes an urgent job, but emergency closet remodeling is definitely a new one.
“O-kay,” he says, putting on his patient voice. He’s learned from experience that people panic when confronted with the hard realities of renovation, the need to actually describe what they want, in terms more precise than “bigger” or “prettier.” It’s best to ask questions gently, he’s found. “Can you tell me more about how you’d like it remodeled? Maybe you’re looking for shelves? Or drawers? Clothing rods?”
Apparently, though, Lionel Luthor is the sort who thinks the handyman should figure it out for himself. “I suppose my son can give you direction if you must have it. He’s the one whose garment storage needs aren’t being met.”
He turns abruptly, goes out another door. Clark isn’t sure at first whether he’s supposed to follow or wait, and then he has to scramble to catch up. They pass along a side deck, up a flight of stairs, through another door, and finally out onto the aft deck. Clark has only ever seen Lex Luthor from a distance, from the back of a crowded room at a LuthorCorp press briefing, on the other side of the velvet rope, always through the prism of professional detachment. Back then, the younger Luthor struck him as a hard-nosed corporate competitor, remote and a little imperious, all business.
It’s hard to remember why he thought that now, with Lex Luthor lounging lazy-limbed on a deck chair, as if he has no intention of doing anything else anytime soon. His eyes are shaded with dark glasses, his skin glistening in the sun, and he’s wearing the skimpiest black swimsuit Clark has ever seen. In fact, it seems overly ambitious even to call it a swimsuit, such a tiny triangle of fabric, rendering imagination utterly obsolete.
“Who’s your friend, Dad?” Lex asks indolently, as if it’s almost too much effort.
Lionel Luthor gives his son an exaggerated look of forbearance. “Your carpenter.”
Lex raises an eyebrow. “Really? Well, I’m pleased to see you’re finally taking my apparel crisis seriously. That excuse for a closet you’ve saddled me with has been a disaster since we left Miami.” He has the bored tone of someone with nothing more important to worry about, a far cry from the driven, no-nonsense man Clark remembers. “I am curious, though. Why this sudden concern for my comfort?”
“Son,” his father says reprovingly, “you know your well-being always concerns me.”
“Of course. How could I forget? When you’re always so quick to remind me.” He smiles, a telling tightness at the corners of his mouth.
“Let’s not waste the carpenter’s valuable time, son. He needs to get to work. You’ll show him what you want done.” He addresses Clark, “You have exactly twelve hours. If you expect to be paid, you’ll bring the job in on schedule.” He walks away, not waiting for an answer, apparently not even expecting one.
“Hey!” Clark calls after him. “I don’t know the extent of the work! That might not be possible.” He looks helplessly at Lex.
A faint smile twists his lips. “I’m afraid my father rarely cares what’s reasonable. Well, then,” he gets up languidly, “let’s get you started.”
Lex brushes past him, and Clark almost trips over his own tangled feet as he starts to follow. The swimsuit might be brief in front, but it’s nonexistent in back, mere lines of fabric, showing off Lex’s long legs, well-muscled thighs, his… Clark can’t stop staring.
Since his parents died, it’s as if all the lights have been turned out inside him, a walking ghost town, so numb sometimes he can barely feel the tools in his hands as he works. This sudden return to awareness takes him by surprise, a shock to the system, too much, too quickly, his heart pounding in the back of his throat. He doesn’t know why it happens now, the gauze of grief giving way at last, everything sharp again, registering with uncomfortable intensity. It couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment.
Inside, Lex leads him to the closet, sweeps out his arm dramatically. “I think you can see the problem.”
Lex frowns, as if Clark is being purposefully dim. “The shoes.”
Indeed, there are more shoeboxes than Clark has ever seen in his life stacked up along the far wall.
“You have too many?” he ventures uncertainly.
Lex shoots him an exasperated look. “They’re not properly displayed. I can’t tell you how inconvenient that is.”
Clark takes a deep breath and marshals on, “So…a shoe rack? That’s what you’re looking for.”
“I’d say more of a shoe management system.”
Clark goes over the words in his head, and they still don’t make any sense. Then again, it’s hard to focus when Lex is so near and so under-dressed, and Clark feels more than half-alive for the first time in so long. “I’m not sure what you—”
Lex waves his hand. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
He walks away, and, God help him, Clark is half tempted to use his x-ray vision to keep on watching, even after the door closes. He takes a deep breath. According to Pete, this was bound to happen. Okay, maybe not exactly this way, but in principle. One day Clark would just snap out of it and start to feel more like his old self again. Trouble is, Clark never really believed him, and he certainly didn’t expect it to come so suddenly, with no real warning.
He does his best to push all that aside and focus on work, his savior of the past fourteen months, but he just stares blankly at the closet, trying not very successfully to visualize what a shoe management system might look like. There’s a clock hanging on the wall, made of something white and opalescent and pretty, but it’s soft ticking makes his hands clench into fists, reminding him how time is slipping through his fingers. At last, he pulls out a sheet of paper and a pencil from his toolbox and starts to sketch.
Once he gets going, he remembers that he really does know how to do this, the panic recedes, and the ideas start to flow. He hits on a design that might work if he’s lucky, draws a detailed plan, and calculates how much wood he’ll need.
He shows himself out. On the foredeck, he finds a servant dressed in a white uniform polishing the brass fittings.
Clark clears his throat. “Excuse me?”
The man turns and regards him with a severe expression. There’s an uncomfortable stiffness to him that reminds Clark of clothes with too much starch.
He smiles, trying to be friendly. “Hi, there. I’m doing some work for Mr. Luthor. If he’s looking for me, could you tell him I had to go pick up supplies?”
The man doesn’t actually come out and say he doubts either Mr. Luthor will care where he’s gone, but his skeptical silence is fairly expressive.
“Thanks,” Clark says in a deadpan. “I appreciate it.”
Still, he can breathe again, and there’s nothing that rich people or their people can do to dampen that. He gets back in his truck and tools along Old Jim Jarwell Road, whistling. He really thought he’d made an effort to get to know his new home, but with every passing block, there’s something he never noticed before, red petunias planted in long rows outside the elementary school, the flag above the Veteran’s Hall snapping briskly in the wind, drawings taped to the insides of the windows at the Happy Hearts Daycare Center, bright and primary, filled with the exuberance of children.
At the lumberyard, he says a hearty hello to the owner, Bart Bilson, and asks, “What do you have that will take the sea air? I’m doing some emergency closet remodeling on a yacht down at the marina.”
Bart laughs, and they swap war stories. It occurs to Clark that he comes into this store at least a couple times a week, and this is the first time he’s stopped to have an actual conversation. Grief is a living fortress, and Clark has missed out on the little things, the everyday give and take. It comes as rather a profound relief just to talk about the weather.
He picks out what he needs, pays, and Bart helps him load his truck. Back at the yacht, he makes patterns for the pieces he’ll need and starts to cut them out. The starched servant comes in every so often, ostensibly to bring him a sandwich or something to drink, but the real purpose is painfully obvious. He wonders what they’re afraid he’ll do. Maybe take off with some of the prized shoes. The thought of it makes him laugh out loud, and the servant gives him a sharp look.
Clark’s levity fades. “I, uh—I just thought of something funny,” he explains feebly.
The man stands up even straighter and turns on his heel.
Clark loses himself in his work, the glide of the saw, rhythmic striking of the hammer. The day grows hotter, and he throws off his shirt, starts to whistle again. He fits the pieces together and stops to survey the results, squinting critically, running his hand over the seams. Maybe his shoe management system will actually work, after all.
He doesn’t try to overhear what’s happening on deck—his parents raised him right—but the windows are open and the breeze is blowing in toward shore. There’s really no avoiding it.
Lionel’s voice booms into the cabin, “It’s good to see you amusing yourself, son. I suppose playing the spoiled dilettante does have a certain entertainment value.”
“I have no idea what you mean, Dad. And would you mind moving? You’re blocking the sun.”
“Lex, Lex,” he says, in a cajoling tone, “let’s stop playing these games, shall we? Just give me that tape, and we can cut this trip short. Go ashore, fly back to Metropolis. Get back to business, with you in your rightful place as my second in command.”
“It’s getting boring repeating myself, Dad.” His voice is flat, disinterested. “What’s the plan anyway? Keep me on this yacht until I mysteriously develop knowledge that I just don’t have? We’re going to be here a while then.”
Clark goes perfectly still, old instincts springing to life. He creeps over to the window and hides in the curtains to look out.
“Son, you have to watch this paranoid thinking of yours. You’re hardly a prisoner here. This is a pleasant family vacation to help you recuperate after your recent,” his smile is cold-blooded, “sabbatical from reality, shall we call it?” He leans over Lex’s chair, strokes his son’s cheek with possessive fingers, and it makes Clark cringe, as if he were the one being touched. “I only want what’s best for you, and I’d hate to see you end up back in Belle Reve after all you went through before.”
Lex’s hand clenches on the arm of his chair, his knuckles turning white. “Belle Reve would be more likely to make me forget what you want to know than remember it, don’t you think, Dad?”
Lionel straightens up, goes still, head tilted. Clark instinctively jumps back from the window, making the curtains move.
“Your handyman is eavesdropping.”
Lex laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’s no more interested in this conversation than I am.”
“Have it your way, son. I have some business to take care of on shore. Anthony and Ivan will be here.”
“To keep an eye on me.”
Lionel sighs heavily. “For your protection.”
“Good luck finding whatever it is you’re looking for.” It sounds decidedly like a dare.
There are footsteps on deck, and Clark stumbles over the thick-piled rug as he hurries back to the closet. He grabs his hammer and puts on a show of being hard at work. His thoughts won’t stay focused on what he’s doing, though. Questions take shape, lines of investigation. He can do a search on the computer when he gets home, piece together the back story. While he’s here, he should sweep the place with his x-ray vision, listen in on the servants’ conversations.
A voice in his head stops him before he gets totally carried away, “Honey, we’re worried you’re pushing yourself too hard. Call us. We miss you.” It’s the last thing his mother ever said to him, a message she left on his answering machine that he never got the chance to return.
Clark takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, remembrance like a lead weight. He doesn’t get involved in other people’s problems anymore, he reminds himself. He builds shoe management systems. He goes back to work, bringing the hammer down with extra force, the noise ringing in the confined space. If he’s lucky, maybe it will drown out those ghosts of the past.
Late in the afternoon, Lex appears again, leaning against the doorframe of the closet like he’s come to survey the progress, only he doesn’t offer an opinion or ask the predictable questions, how it’s going or when exactly are you planning to clean up this mess. He just watches, his eyes on Clark’s back like something physical. It’s unnerving, probably would be even if Clark’s body hadn’t picked today to rev back to life. He focuses all his attention on his sanding, testing the smoothness with his fingers the way a NASA engineer might check the space-worthiness of thermal tiles, like lives depend on it. Clark hopes if he ignores Lex long enough he’ll lose interest and wander away. If he avoids his own curiosity with enough determination, it will cease to exist.
But Lex doesn’t budge. If there’s to be a battle of wills in his walk-in closet, apparently he has every intention of winning it.
Finally, Clark throws down his sandpaper and looks over his shoulder. “Am I in your way?”
Lex’s mouth curves into the kind of smile that’s meant to unsettle. “Not at all.”
“Because I can move.”
“I can reach what I need from here.” He braces his hand on the wall and leans, and suddenly there’s skin everywhere, points of interest where they are actually touching.
Lex pulls hangers from the rod and then the warmth is suddenly gone. Clark lets out a shaky breath, and Lex pads over to the bed and lays the clothes out on it. The dressing area and bedroom are two separate spaces in theory, but there’s no real division, certainly no privacy. Clark is just about to offer to leave when Lex casually skims the swimsuit down his legs and moves over to the dresser.
Clark doesn’t want to stare. As a teenager, he used to think, used to hope, the day would come when he was finally sophisticated enough that bodies wouldn’t be so startling, and he could consider their potential without feeling so painfully clumsy and overeager. Maybe it will happen someday. Maybe that’s what his thirties will be for.
Of course, that’s no help to him now. Lex pulls underwear out of a drawer and turns around, and Clark nearly drops his hammer.
Lex raises an eyebrow. “Haven’t seen one before?”
Clark opens his mouth, but if there is something clever to say when you’ve been caught staring at your employer’s cock, it eludes him.
The good news is that Lex doesn’t seem to expect an answer. “I wouldn’t think there’s much you haven’t seen,” he continues on, “given your line of work.”
For one dizzying moment, Clark thinks he’s referring to his days as the Angel of Metropolis. He rounds up his excuses, all the usual suspects, that wasn’t me and haven’t you heard the term urban legend and I have no idea what you’re talking about. And then it finally dawns on him. Lex probably just found out he used to be a reporter and has drawn the obvious, if faulty, conclusion about what Clark is doing on his yacht.
Lex takes a step toward him, and then that explanation goes out the window too, “Aren’t you going to mention how hot I am? Tell me you like my cock? Get down on your knees? That is what you’re being paid for, isn’t it?” He gives Clark a hard, flat smile. “I have to hand it to you. That eavesdropping routine was inspired. Was it your idea or my father’s?”
For all Clark’s experiences out on the streets, up close and personal with the grittier side of life, there’s so much about people that he just doesn’t get. He’s probably never been more confused than he is right now.
“So what was the plan anyway?” Lex’s voice is silky, insinuating, as he comes even closer. “A shot of sodium pentathol after you got me into bed? Or was my father simply banking on some indiscriminate pillow talk? Figuring I’d be so desperate for a little human contact that I’d spill everything to the first person willing to listen?”
Lex tilts his head, studying him, and it gives Clark a funny feeling in his stomach, that isn’t anger or indignation or any of the other logical responses to being falsely accused.
“Dear old Dad must be pretty desperate himself to hire a male hooker to seduce me.” He leans in, lowers his voice, like it’s just between them. “My father isn’t exactly an icon of tolerance. Where’d he find you anyway? I can’t imagine a town like this has much of a red light district. Maybe the local pool hall? Is that where you hang out? With your shirt off,” his gaze moves deliberately over Clark’s chest, “bending over the pool table, drumming up business?”
Clark doesn’t move, can’t answer. The whole situation is just too crazy. That’s all he’ll allow himself to think about it.
“What’s your name?” Lex shows sharp white teeth when he asks, looking at last like the man Clark remembers from Metropolis. “I like to know who I’m being hustled by. Call it a quirk.”
Clark tells him, and it comes out a nervous squawk.
“Well, Clark, there’s something you should know about my father.” He takes Clark’s hand and puts it on his hip. “He’s a man who always gets his money’s worth.”
Clark is transfixed. His fingers look huge, clumsy, on Lex’s paper-thin skin, like they don’t belong there, but that doesn’t make him want to pull away, far from it. The same fuzzy thought keeps looping though his head. He’s naked. I’m touching him. And he’s naked.
“Go on, Clark. Dazzle me with your professional expertise.”
“Shelves,” he blurts out at last, for lack of anything more coherent to say.
Lex’s gaze snaps to his face, as sharp and hot as something with live current running through it. After a few seconds, he lets out a dry little laugh. “No, I don’t suppose you could look like that if you weren’t actually the local carpenter I’ve just mortally embarrassed.”
The possibility that Lex might pull away, that the furnace going off in his body might shut down without any promise of warmth in the future, makes Clark frantic and grabby, his fingers digging in, leaving white points of pressure on Lex’s skin.
Lex stares at Clark’s hand, as if this is a possibility he hadn’t anticipated. When he glances back up, his eyes are considerably warmer. “So what do you suggest we do about this situation? I could offer an apology. Or—”
Clark chooses what’s behind door number two, and he’s not the least bit suave about it, all over Lex in an instant, sticky fingers catching on bare skin, kissing blindly, all tongue and spit and no time to breathe.
Lex is used to less wild-eyed advances, surely, but he doesn’t offer any complaint. That’s enough encouragement, as far as Clark is concerned. He finds a place on Lex’s neck and sets out to colonize it. Lex lets his head fall back, his moan a harsh rattle, making Clark want to do other things to him, exotic things, things he doesn’t even have the vocabulary for.
When he feels hands pushing at his chest, it makes no sense, and he chooses just to ignore it. But Lex is insistent and manages to extricate himself from Clark’s rather zealous embrace. He takes him by the hand. “Come on.”
It seems like a bad idea, the worst, until Lex spills onto the bed and pulls Clark down on top of him.
“Oh,” he says, momentarily stunned.
Lex smiles up at him, and that’s the end of words, even the monosyllabic variety, for the time being.
Clark has never been particularly practiced at any of this, always a little too urgent and fumbling, and now he’s an utter mess. He can’t decide what to do first, and he jumps from one thing to the next, kissing Lex’s mouth and tracing the muscles of his belly and laying his tongue on a nipple, in a frenzy of hunger.
Lex breathes heavily against his shoulder, works his hand between their bodies, and opens Clark’s jeans. When he slides his hand into Clark’s underwear, Clark goes absolutely rigid, mouth open, eyes wide, his expression frozen like he’s in the throes of unbearable pain. The sensation is so raw that it does almost hurt, after feeling so much nothing for so long.
It’s the kind of reaction to expect from an untutored boy, not a grown man, and Clark feels an apology bubbling up inside him, because that’s easier to offer than an explanation. The way Lex is watching him stops him before he can say it, following Clark’s every reaction so intently, nothing harsh or mocking in his eyes, nothing like disappointment, his face soft with fascination.
He runs his fingers through Clark’s hair, presses a kiss to his jaw. “I should have known you weren’t one of my father’s.”
Clark has seen enough of the war on the home front to know this means something—something good, approving. He takes Lex’s face between his hands, and kisses and kisses him.
Lex whispers, his breath hot and unsteady against Clark’s ear, “I want you to fuck me. I want you to fuck me so hard I actually feel it.”
Clark has to stop for a moment, fist clenched in the bedspread, breathing violently. People say things like that during sex, he knows, but there’s a ringing note of desolation beneath the urgency that’s jarringly familiar.
He runs his thumb lightly along Lex’s cheek. He’d like to offer him something—something more than a good, hard fuck—but sympathy is awkward at best between strangers. He settles for a smile and a kiss. “You know, you are hot.”
Lex laughs freely, like he wasn’t expecting to, and it’s a good sound. Clark likes it. He kisses him harder, starts to move down his body, exploring with his tongue, the slope of his chest, dip of his navel, jut of his hip.
When he gets where he’s going, he pillows his head on Lex’s thigh, gazes up at him, smiling and serious. “And I do like your cock.”
Lex sinks his fingers into Clark’s hair, his expression stark, relentless. “Then why don’t you show me?”
It’s been long enough since Clark has had the weight of a cock on his tongue that there’s a renewed sense of discovery to it, the heat and bitter salt and responsiveness, Lex’s shaft jerking sharply with every touch. Clark closes his eyes, intent on enjoying it.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that he shouldn’t have let himself get so caught up in the moment. That there are good reasons why grownup children and their parents don’t normally live in such close proximity. It is a lesson he learned too well his first summer home from college. As a teenager, he’d thought nothing of taking opportunity where he found it, in bed late at night, tucked safely behind the locked bathroom door, indulging in a little self-appreciation. But after being away for the better part of a year, just the idea of his parents overhearing the creaking of his mattress springs or wondering why he was taking so long in the shower practically paralyzed him. He started stealing out to the loft to spend some quality time with himself, figuring he’d hear it if anyone came into the barn, a sad miscalculation. Only a last-minute dive behind the couch one fateful evening when his mother came to call him to dinner saved them both from being scarred for life.
That scene comes flashing back in much too vivid detail when Lionel Luthor strides into the room and surprise sends Clark tumbling over the side of the bed. For a moment, he considers just huddling there on the floor until…well, forever, but reality sets in, and he pokes his head up to see what’s happening.
He finds Lex and his father engaged in a duel of silence, Lionel glaring, rigid with displeasure, Lex reclining with perfect nonchalance, not making the least effort to conceal anything.
“Could you come back later, Dad?” he says with a taunting little smile. “I’m in the middle of something.”
Lionel’s hand flies back, and Clark shoots up from beside the bed.
“Hey!” He takes a step toward Lionel for emphasis.
Lex’s eyes fasten on him, warm with amusement, and just a hint of surprise.
Lionel fixes him with a sneer. “Playing the hero, are we? I don’t suppose you’ve told my son what you actually do for a living. Why you’re really here.”
Clark darts a glance at Lex, and he wants to say something, to deny, explain, but Lionel beats him to it.
“Meet Clark Kent, investigative journalist, most recently of the Daily Planet.”
“Not anymore!” Clark says in a rush. “I’m not—”
But Lex’s face is already shuttered. He gets up, pulls on a robe, his back pointedly turned to Clark.
“This wasn’t like that,” Clark tells him softly, even though there’s no indication that Lex is even listening.
“Oh, I think we know exactly what this was, Mr. Kent.” Lionel presses an intercom button. “Anthony, Ivan, you’re needed in my son’s stateroom.”
Clark holds up a hand in defeat. “You don’t have to do that. I’m going.”
He starts to move toward the closet, to pack up his stuff, but Lionel steps into his path, and then the hired help comes barreling through the door.
“Get rid of this,” Lionel instructs them.
They grab him under the elbows, and the infuriating thing is, he could make person-sized holes in the side of the ship with them.
“Come on, guys,” he tries reasoning instead, “at least let me get my tools.”
They push him unceremoniously out onto the deck. He stumbles and lands on his knees. Lionel emerges from the cabin, toolbox swinging in his hand, a frosty smile on his face.
“You were concerned about these, I believe.”
His plea is drowned out by the splash. Clark scrambles to his feet, just in time to see his toolbox swamped by a wave. Lionel nods to the security guards, and they pitch Clark over the rail, onto the dock.
Lionel gives the order, “Cast off!”
A horn sounds, the engine roars to life, hands come scrambling on deck to reel in the line, and then the yacht starts to pull out of the slip. In the cabin’s doorway stands Lex, the white robe on pale skin making him seem almost like a ghost. Clark looks for an accusation in his expression, but it’s impossible to decipher. Lex watches him blankly for a moment, then disappears back inside.
Clark doesn’t budge from the spot until the yacht is long gone from sight.
When Clark gets home, the house smells like dust, a good strong whiff of it as he opens the door, days of accumulation. Okay, weeks, if he’s being honest. He still has boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling in the living room, even after all these months, twine scattered here and there from the few things he has managed to unpack, a growing mountain of crumpled newspaper in one corner that desperately needs to be hauled to the recycling center. He heads for his desk, the one island of order in the midst of the chaos, to turn on a lamp, banging his shin on an old trunk he hasn’t found a place for in the basement yet.
Every time Pete comes over, he just shakes his head. “This room is a serious window into your subconscious, man. You know that, right?”
Clark always catches a hint of something in Pete’s voice when he says it, something that’s not all joking, and he’d like to reassure him that his unsettled state is no reflection on Blue Cove, not some sign that he secretly doesn’t want to be here. But that would mean admitting out loud that he can’t feel at home anywhere right now, and it’s bad enough just knowing that, without hearing himself say it.
He retreats to the comparative oasis of the kitchen, the one room that’s in something like good shape. At least the dishes are out of boxes and in the cabinets—when they’re not piled up in the sink, that is. He roots around in the fridge, pushing scary looking containers of who-knows-what out of the way, holding his nose, until he finds the last beer hidden behind some half-rotted bell peppers on the bottom shelf.
Beer is a habit he’s picked up from Pete, something that has come to stand for relaxation, even if it has no physical effect on him. Clark drinks it standing at the sink, looking out the window. From here, he has a perfect view of the fields and the grapes vines in their neat rows, leaves glossy in the last, orchestral splash of daylight, stray tendrils floating on a gust of wind. There’s something peaceful, almost innocent about them, and it makes Clark want to laugh at the deceptiveness of the picture.
Grape vines, in his limited experience, are an ongoing conspiracy of disaster. If it’s not some kind of fungus it’s an insect, if it’s not mold spores it’s an early frost. Clark worries about them the way he imagines normal people must worry about their children, constantly, with a sick feeling in his stomach. He’s spent more evenings than he cares to remember pouring over pest management journals. Last week, he sat up five straight nights out in the fields, keeping the smudge pots going, nursing the vines through a dangerous cold spell.
Clark squeezes his eyes so tightly shut that all he sees is an after-image of the vines moving in the wind, carefree and strangely beautiful. He can go back to worrying about root rot tomorrow. He’s already had a bad day.
The phone rings, and he pads over to pick it up, “Hey, Pete.”
“Hey, man. I just ran into Bill Reid,” Pete and the harbormaster are good friends, “and he said the Luthor yacht pulled out of port a whole day ahead of schedule.”
Clark pinches the bridge of his nose, even though his headache is only metaphorical. There is nothing that goes on in this town that Pete doesn’t hear about, and mostly Clark finds that amusing, except for times like this, when he’s on the wrong end of the scuttlebutt.
“So what happened?” Pete wants to know. “Did their decorative emergency turn out not to be such a big deal?”
“Um, well—” He doesn’t know how to tell the story and skirt the subject of the interrupted blowjob, which is surely more than Pete needs or wants to hear. “Let’s just say there were some issues.”
He sighs. “They’re Luthors, Pete.”
“They weren’t too happy with the way things turned out. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Did they at least pay you for the time you spent?”
Clark lets out a wry little laugh. “No, and Lionel Luthor threw my tools overboard.”
“Man. Luthors are crazy. Haven’t I always said that?”
“You always have.”
“Well, don’t worry about the tools. I’ve got some down at the plant you can borrow. Sorry I got you hooked up with those people. I really should have known better.”
A picture flashes through his head, the look on Lex’s face as the yacht pulled out toward sea. He closes his eyes. “I’m the one who should have known better, Pete. Believe me.”
After they hang up, he’s at loose ends, not hungry, not nearly time for bed, too restless to actually pay attention to anything. He wanders into the mess of his living room and half-heartedly digs through a box, old football trophies and a tangle of computer cables and keys to things he probably doesn’t even own anymore. He has no idea what to do with any of it and manages to waste a lot of time getting absolutely nothing done. It’s the same old problem, and eventually he just gives up, the way he always does.
Thoughts of Lex won’t go away, and he checks the clock. It’s getting late in Metropolis, but then, Chloe is practically nocturnal.
“Hey. It’s me,” he says when she picks up.
“Clark?” Her disbelief would probably be funny, if it didn’t make him feel like such a jerk. “It’s good to hear your voice. How are you?”
Memories of the time right after the accident flood back to him, people asking that question endlessly, and it gives him a sudden, unexpected shot of pain.
“I’m doing okay,” he says, brushing past the subject. “How about you? Keeping out of trouble?”
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I were.”
He smiles. “Some things never change.”
“Clark Kent beating around the bush, for instance.” Her tone is teasing, like old times, and that’s strangely comforting.
He feels himself relax a little. “There is something I wanted to ask, now that you mention it.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“What do you know about Lex Luthor’s stint in Belle Reve? You covered it, didn’t you?”
There’s silence on the other end of the line, and Clark remembers just a beat too late that some of their more apocalyptic fights as teenagers came precisely because of moments like this, Clark treating Chloe like his “research monkey,” her term for it.
“Um—” He tightens his grip on the phone. “I mean, if you wouldn’t mind—”
“Wait,” she says, unaccountably excited. “I’m booting up my computer to get a look at my notes. Try not to lose interest before the operating system loads.”
He laughs. “I’m not that bad.”
Chloe takes the diplomatic approach, not reminding him that he hasn’t returned her calls or been interested in much of anything for the better part of a year. “Okay, here’s what I’ve got on the younger Luthor’s mysterious breakdown—”
Clark sits up a little straighter. “Wait. Mysterious?”
“I thought so, at least. People just don’t develop paranoid delusions overnight. It’s a gradual process. But in Lex Luthor’s case, he went from high-powered businessman to drooling psychiatric patient in little more than a week.”
“Do you think he could have been drugged?”
“I don’t know,” Chloe says hesitantly. “I can’t say I never considered it, but his admitting psychiatrist is very well known in the field, widely respected. She’s even published several books on medical ethics.”
“People choose money over their own conscience all the time,” Clark reminds her. “Did you try interviewing her?”
“Of course, I did,” she says, slightly offended. “Didn’t get anywhere with her, though. Doctor-patient confidentiality. But I guess I could check into her background, see if there’s anything that would make her more susceptible to the Luthor family money.”
Clark shakes his head in disgust. “Why would Lionel Luthor do that to his own son?”
Chloe lets out a little laugh. “Why does he ever do anything?”
“Money, of course. Power.” The conversation he overheard on the yacht plays back in his head. “Self-protection.”
“So the question is: what did Lex have on him?”
“Wouldn’t I love to know?”
“Assuming, of course, that Lex was actually drugged and not simply the victim of a psychotic break. It’d be impossible to prove anything at this point. All the evidence is long gone.” She sighs. “You know the last thing I want to do is discourage your renewed enthusiasm for reporting, Clark, but there’s no story here. Not one you could ever publish at any rate.”
“I don’t care about that,” he tells her. “I just want to get to the truth.”
“You realize I am obligated to ask why you’re so interested in this.”
“Can’t I just be curious?”
“In my experience? No.”
He laughs. “Then how about you humor me just this once?”
“This once?” She sounds playfully put-upon. “Well, I suppose so. But don’t get used to it.”
He smiles. “I promise not to take your indulgence for granted.”
There’s a moment of silence, the kind that naturally falls in any conversation, but it comes at a particularly awkward moment, reminding Clark of things he really should have said already, things he owes her.
He clears his throat. “I just—I want you to know. I never meant—”
“Clark,” Chloe says firmly, “grief isn’t an apology situation. I’m just glad you called me.”
“Thanks, Chloe,” he says softly.
“I’ll let you know what I find out.”
After they hang up, Clark sets out to do some research of his own, goes online, and tracks mentions of Lex Luthor in the press for the past year. Before the breakdown, or whatever happened to him, Lex’s profile was definitely on the rise. He’d taken on considerable responsibility at LuthorCorp, in charge of their day-to-day operations, widely quoted in business publications, even gracing the cover of Fortune magazine. Reading between the lines, Clark finds hints of a possible takeover bid, or failing that, splitting off to start his own company.
Lex Luthor wanted out of his father’s shadow. That much is clear.
His collapse, when it came, was a spectacle, painfully public, in a conference room full of board members, with threats and a brandished weapon. The pictures taken of Lex being led away make Clark’s chest hurt; he looks so hollow-eyed and lost. Clark is probably the last person in the country to see them. The story was splashed over the front page of every major paper, including the Planet, for close to a week. News of Lex’s release from Belle Reve after a three-month court-ordered stay was, predictably, buried at the bottom of a column on page twelve. Just the facts and a quote from his father, “I’m committed to doing everything possible to see that my son is whole and well again.”
It makes good copy, but it doesn’t gibe in the least with what Clark witnessed on the yacht, the menace in Lionel’s voice when he threatened Lex with a return trip to Belle Reve. There’s something not right about any of this. Clark is convinced of it.
His conviction grows when he gets an email from Chloe with her notes attached:
Here’s everything I have. Looking back through it, something stands out that I never really noticed before. Several people close to Lex Luthor remembered him complaining of neck pain in the days leading up to the break. I’m not sure if it means anything, but I’ve got a contact, a chemist at a pharmaceutical company. Maybe he can tell me something.
Talk to you soon,
P.S. I’ve missed being your research monkey!
It makes him laugh, and for the first time in a long time, that doesn’t feel wrong.
He saves Chloe’s notes to read in the morning and shuts down the computer. He kicks off his shoes, turns on the television, and stretches out on the couch. Night is the only time when he doesn’t prefer the quiet, when he actually dreads it.
It’s late by Blue Cove standards, and the only channel Clark gets is the family-owned station in town. They’re showing a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show, and he closes his eyes and listens as Barney tries to explain how he lost his gun yet again. Afterwards, the Star Spangled Banner starts to play. Out here, TV still goes off the air in the wee hours. The last note dies out, and then there’s the familiar buzz of the test pattern, the only lullaby that ever seems to work for Clark.
He lets out a tired sigh and falls sleep at last.
Clark wakes up to the preternaturally chipper voice of Ken Kinney—anchorman, reporter-at-large, general manager and co-owner of WBLC—doing the six a.m. news with even more gusto than usual, not the most pleasant way to greet the day, in Clark’s opinion. He props himself up on one elbow and squints at the set to see what has the newsman all worked up. He has to close his eyes and open them again, extra wide, just to make sure it’s really what he thinks it is, Lex Luthor looking much the worse for wear, dressed in oilskins, being pulled off a fishing boat.
“This was the scene just an hour ago,” Ken Kinney says, unable to contain his excitement at the first real story Blue Cove has had since some teenagers discovered a nine-foot starfish while diving for oysters. “Fisherman aboard the Annabelle Claire got a little more than they bargained for when they reeled in the morning’s catch. For more, let’s go to Ben Kinney down on the docks.”
Ken’s twin brother, identical down to the comb-over and questionable taste in sport coats, is standing next to a sign that proudly proclaims “you catch ‘em, we gut ‘em,” staring blankly ahead, microphone gripped in his hand like somebody might try to take it from him. When he finally realizes he’s on air, he snaps to attention, his expression becoming almost comically serious.
“Well, Ken, it’s been a morning of excitement down here at the Blue Cove Marina, after the crew of a Portuguese fishing trawler rescued a man, still unidentified, about three miles off shore.”
“Is it true the man has no memory how he wound up at sea, Ben?”
Ben nods gravely. “That’s right, Ken. According to Doc Hadley, the poor fella doesn’t even know his own name.”
Clark scrambles down to the end of the couch, closer to the television, so wide awake now every nerve feels jangled.
Ken nods to his producer. “Let’s cue up that footage again, Christy. Give folks another look at our mystery man. Hopefully somebody out there will recognize him and come forward.”
The scene plays once more, Lex being handed down from the boat, looking none too happy with the ham-fisted treatment of the fishermen, his face battered, some angry-looking scratches and a rather prominent bruise blooming on one cheek.
When he happens to glance down and notices his makeshift attire, a look of absolute horror crosses his face. “God help me.”
They cut back to Ken in the studio. “Well, it appears he’s a religious fella, if that helps jog anybody’s memory out there. We’ve got a dedicated line all set up. If you recognize our John Doe, be sure and give us a call at the number on your screen.”
Clark doesn’t bother with the phone. He pulls on his boots and runs out the door. Doc Hadley’s clinic is all the way on the other side of Old Jim Jarwell Road, and the 35 mph speed limit through town has never been more excruciating.
When he finally gets there, he finds what must be all of Blue Cove’s police cruisers parked out front and clusters of curious onlookers milling around on the sidewalk. He leaves the truck on a side street and goes in the back way. He figures it’s best to avoid the spotlight. He can just imagine the guilty picture he’d make in front of the camera, Ben Kinney asking him how he knows this John Doe, blushing memories of a thwarted blowjob zinging through Clark’s head.
The clinic is a modest-sized building. Blue Cove is a one-doctor town, and probably lucky to have that. Emergency cases are taken by ambulance to Corvallis or by helicopter to Portland when it’s really serious. Clark finds comfort in that. If Lex is still in Blue Cove, then he can’t be in too bad shape.
Clark heads down the corridor toward the front desk and catches voices coming toward him, one of which he recognizes. There’s just enough time to duck into a convenient supply closet before Sheriff Nelson, Doc Hadley and Lionel Luthor breeze past.
“The poor fella’s pretty lucky, all things considered,” he hears the sheriff say. “Who knows how long he was out in that water.”
“But you say he has no memory?” Lionel asks.
Doc Hadley confirms it, “Shock of the water and trauma of the experience probably did it. Should clear up on its own. It’ll just take some time. “
The doctor opens a door, and they all trail inside. Clark follows as quietly as he can, catching the door with his foot before it closes. He peers inside through a little sliver of an opening. There’s an anteroom, and beyond that, an exam room with a large window, for patients who need observation. Clark sees Lex, sitting up in a hospital bed, wearing a blue gown, sheets pooled around his waist, picking at his breakfast tray, a sullen look on his face that is belied by his white-knuckled grip on the fork.
“What will happen if no one shows up to claim him?” Lionel asks in a tone so calculatingly disinterested it makes Clark want to throttle him.
“I don’t rightly know,” the sheriff glances over at Doc Hadley. “We can’t just let him go off on his own, no idea who is and no way to take care of himself. The town’s got a responsibility.”
Doc Hadley gets a thoughtful look. “I suppose if worse comes to worse we can find a bed for him over at Sumter’s nursing home. Not that it’s really the place for him, but at least their staff could look after him until his memory comes back. Does this mean he’s not your son, Mr. Luthor?”
Both the doctor and the sheriff have an expectant air that makes it’s clear they have absolutely no idea who they’re talking to. This is something Clark has noticed before about Blue Cove, that the people here have little to no interest in what happens back East, as if it’s not even part of the same planet, much less the same country. They define “back East” pretty liberally, too. Kansas is as far off their radar as New York City.
Lionel shakes his head, and the sham heartsickness of the gesture is so convincing it’s chilling. “Whoever that young man’s family is, wherever they are, I hope they’re reunited with him soon.” His greeting card sentimentality hangs in the air the way a cloying scent might, and Clark feels more than a little nauseated by it.
“Well, I am sorry,” Doc Hadley tells him. “I hope you find your son safe and sound.”
Lionel nods gravely and shakes hands with both men.
The sheriff tells him, “We’ve got lots of curious folks outside. I’ll walk you out, make sure you can get to your car.”
Clark jumps away from the door and runs flat out back to the closet. He makes it inside not a second too soon, keeping the door open just a crack, watching as Lionel Luthor walks back down the long hall, feeling a rage that’s piercing and personal. There is an absence in him, like a missing rib, left when his parents handed him over to the sterile embrace of a ship and the dark promise of space. Lex’s face swims before his eyes, as lost and alone as that infant Clark once was on the other side of the universe. And Lionel has no excuse, no gift of life to justify abandoning his son. In fact, the whole situation begs the question: how did Lex end up in the water to begin with?
Once in the tenth grade, during some conversation, whatever fifteen year olds talk about, Clark can’t remember anymore, Chloe said completely out of the blue, “Well, you know you’re not much of a planner.” Clark had gone hot with denial, reeling off examples where he’d been rife with forethought, until Chloe finally shrugged and threw him a mollifying “whatever.” Now, he’s a half-cocked testament to just how well she’s always known him. Before he’s even considered his options or spent a few seconds worrying over consequences, he throws open the door, hurries back down the hall and out the same way he came in, a runaway train on a mission.
By the time he jumps into his truck, a fuzzy to-do-list is taking shape in his head, piece by little piece, and he can only hope it will ultimately add up to a way to help Lex. He makes a stop at the Neptune’s Daughters Thrift Shop and whirls through the place, making a mad grab for whatever men’s clothes he can get his hands on, no time to stop and hold the stuff up and consider such niceties as size or style. In the back of his head is the fear that Lionel might change his mind, spirit Lex away for God-knows-what purpose, shadowy possibilities that are even more appalling than outright abandonment. He tosses a few stray knickknacks into his cart for some household window-dressing and heads to the checkout, startling the salesgirl with how eager he is to hand over his money.
At home, his momentum stalls a little as he looks around at the domestic wreckage he lives in and does the math and comes to the conclusion that there’s no way to remedy six months’ worth of paralysis in the fifteen or so minutes that he has. He tries to spruce up what he can and puts the clothes away, folding and hanging them with special care. As a finishing touch, he sets out his newly acquired thrift store bric-a-brac, the carnival glass candy dish and white porcelain elephant and matching tea towels with the sunflowers on them. His mental picture of married life, it occurs to him as he’s arranging the items, is kind of like somebody’s grandmother’s.
That only leaves one thing, the hard thing that he’s been putting off since he walked through the door, but he makes himself do it, go into the bedroom and open the bureau drawer. It’s the one that used to stand in his parents’ bedroom, tall and reassuring in its heft, handmade by his grandfather, with carved leaves that utterly fascinated him when he was a little boy. In the top left drawer, he keeps family artifacts he would never want to lose, that he can’t bear to look at right now, smiling photographs and his parents’ marriage license, diaries from when his mother was a teenager, his father’s pocket watch handed down from his father and his father before him. And, what he’s come to get, his parents’ wedding rings in a black velvet pouch.
He gives himself a moment and then takes out his father’s simple gold band and turns it over in his hand, the cool metal quickly warming in his palm. His dad used to say that when you lie you cheat everyone, including yourself. But then again, he also used to say that a man has a responsibility to defend those who can’t defend themselves. Clark takes a shaky breath and slides the ring onto his finger. He likes—needs—to believe his father would approve of his intentions, if not his dubious methods.
He leaves in the same impatient whirlwind that he arrived. By the time he’s driving past the Sip-and-Go, he’s sketched out at least a rough outline of what he’s going to say. He realizes that the biggest obstacle to actually getting away with this is…himself. It was always a point of contention between Lois and him, his skill, or lack thereof, at going undercover. “Smallville,” she used to say, “you lie like I cook.” Having once braved a plateful of Lois’ French toast, he felt the full force of the insult.
The thing is, and he really hates to admit it, that Lois was right about him. No matter how much he ever psyches himself up, or how good the cause is, in the pressure of the moment his mouth just has the perverse habit of twisting itself into the truth. He thinks back on the multitude of unsolicited advice Lois was always giving him—”bastardize the facts, that’s the most convincing way to lie” was one of her favorites—and he tries to channel her half-deranged chutzpah.
This time around at the clinic, he parks right out front and goes in through the main doors, putting a spark of desperation into his step, the scalded way a man might move if his better half had been plucked from the sea in a fishing net.
“Please,” he says to the nurse behind the front desk. “Can you help me? I’m looking for my husband.”
Her eyes go wide, instantly more alert. “Your husband, did you say? You mean the fella they brought in this morning?”
“Yes,” Clark tells her, twisting his hands, showing off his ring, in what he hopes is a fairly convincing facsimile of worry. “That’s him. Please, I need to see him.”
The nurse nods in a reassuring way. “I’ll let the doctor know you’re here.”
A scant moment later, both Doc Hadley and Sheriff Nelson come striding out to meet him.
“Is Al okay?” Clark says, the words jumbling together in a frantic rush. “How bad off is he? Can I see him?”
Doc Hadley holds up a hand. “Whoa there. Everything’s going to be just fine. Let’s calm down and get the facts straight, if we can.”
The sheriff studies him over the tops of his glasses. “You’re Pete Ross’ friend, aren’t you? The one from back East.”
He extends his hand. “Clark Kent. I want to thank you, Sheriff, and you too, Doc Hadley, for looking out for my Al. I can’t tell you how worried I was when I woke up and realized he was gone.”
Sheriff Nelson looks confused. “I didn’t realize you were married. Or—” He stops himself. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”
Oregon voters might have passed the referendum allowing gay marriage, Clark understands from his reaction, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to come face-to-face with the living proof of it. Don’t judge people’s biases, Smallville. Use them, he hears Lois saying in his head.
Clark smiles. “Al stayed behind to take care of things there. He just came out to join me a few days ago. And I’ve been promising him we’d go for a moonlight swim. You know,” he leans in, his voice taking on a confidential tone, “to rekindle the romance a little.”
The sheriff clears his throat and suddenly finds the steel toes of his boots utterly fascinating.
Clark breezes on, “Last night, though, I must have fallen asleep, and I guess Al went off on his own. I warned him about the currents, but would he listen?” He shakes his head. “I didn’t even realize anything was wrong until I flipped on the TV this morning and saw him.”
“Well.” Doc Hadley claps his hands together. “Looks like we’ve got the answer to our mystery. Come on back, and you can see your husband. He’s been a little restless, not too happy with the accommodations.” He smiles wryly. “Our sheets have a thread count so low it’s practically criminal, he’s been telling us.”
“He was right fussy about his water, too. Wouldn’t drink it if it wasn’t filtered. Your mister’s kind of high maintenance, isn’t he?” the sheriff says.
Clark smiles proudly. “That’s my Al. He has his standards.”
The doctor leads him down the hall to Lex’s room, and Clark rushes inside and over to the bedside. The sheriff and doctor linger in the doorway, not wanting to intrude on a private moment. Or at least would be a private moment, if Clark had any actual connection to the man in the hospital bed.
Clark throws his arms around Lex. “Al! Thank God you’re all right! I was so worried.”
Lex fends him off with one hand and a look of alarm. “Who are you?”
Clark puts on his most stricken expression. “You really don’t remember me?”
Lex frowns. “Am I supposed to?”
Clark turns to Doc Hadley and asks with a melodramatic stutter, “Is there brain damage?”
Lex makes a face. “Clearly. I’m just not the one who has it.”
Doc Hadley chuckles, the way people do when married people bicker. “He has a slight concussion. A little rest, and he’ll be good as new.”
Lex presses his lips into a thin line. “That’s confidential medical information you’ve just shared with a perfect stranger. I could sue, you realize.”
The sheriff pipes up, “This is Clark Kent. He says he’s your husband.”
Lex pulls the sheet up to his shoulders. “I don’t recognize him. How could he possibly be my husband? I don’t even know that I would have a husband.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure—” The sheriff cuts short the observation in favor of a diplomatic cough.
Lex shoots him a dark look all the same.
Doc Hadley steps up to the bed. “In cases like this, it’s not unusual that a patient can’t recognize even close family members. Being in your own environment will be just the thing to help your memory kick back in.”
Lex stares at him incredulously. “What are you saying? I’m just supposed to leave with this,” he gives Clark the once-over, clearly unimpressed with his rumpled plaid and the morning cowlick he didn’t have time to wrestle into submission, “person. What do you really know about him? What do any of us know? He could be some depraved serial killer. I could end up on television again and not just the local hick channel this time.”
Sheriff Nelson tilts his head and studies Clark, “I don’t know. He looks like a pretty decent fella to me.”
Clark takes Lex’s hand. “Now, Al. You may not remember me, but in your heart, you have to know I would never hurt you.”
Lex snatches his hand away. “I don’t know anything of the sort. I don’t know you.” He glares at Clark. “And stop calling me Al. That’s not my name. It can’t be. I don’t feeling anything like an Al.” He turns desperately to Doc Hadley. “What if he’s some kind of pervert who has a thing for amnesia patients?”
Doc Hadley smiles gently. “I don’t think there’s much worry of that.” His expression grows more serious, and he says to the sheriff, “He is right, though, Earl. We can’t send him off with just anyone who claims him.”
The sheriff nods. “We’re going to need some kind of proof.”
All eyes fasten on Clark. “Well—” An idea hits him, and he turns a little red as he blurts it out, “Al doesn’t have any hair on his body, not even his—”
The sheriff raises an eyebrow, rather startled by the information. Lex scowls like he’d dearly love to kill someone and he can’t decide which of them should be the first to go.
The doctor smiles with satisfaction. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a reunion.”
“I don’t even know my name,” Lex says plaintively.
“Remember? It’s Al,” Clark tells him patiently, speaking extra slowly.
Lex gives him a disgusted look. “My full name.”
“Al—” He waves his hand in the air, trying to think of something, and unfortunately what comes out is, “Kent, of course. Al Kent.”
Lex sneers. “So I changed my name when we got married? Am I the woman in our relationship?”
The sheriff makes a half-strangled noise of distress.
“Al Pacino-Kent,” Clark amends himself. “We hyphenated.
Lex stares. “My family name is Pacino, and my parents named me Al?”
“They’re fans,” Clark offers lamely.
Lex folds his arms across his chest. “But apparently not very fond of children.”
Clark looks to Doc Hadley, “Can he go home now?” He figures the fewer witnesses there are to his feeble powers of invention the better.
“I don’t see any reason why not, but I’m going to give you a checklist of things to watch out for. If he starts having any symptoms, you be sure and bring him right back.”
Lex says hotly, “I will not put on those garments—and I use that term loosely—that I had on when I came in. I refuse to smell like mackerel for rest of my life.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” the doctor assures him. He presses the call button on the bed. “Myrna, can you find something for Mr. Pacino-Kent to wear home?”
Sheriff Nelson puts a hand on Clark’s shoulder. “Let’s go on out, and I’ll sign over your husband’s personal effects to you, not that there was much of it. But it’s procedure.”
Lex complains to Doc Hadley, “And could you please shut that blind while I’m getting dressed? I’d prefer not to be cheap entertainment for whoever just happens to stumble in here.”
The sheriff shakes his head and laughs. “Your mister sure is a firecracker.”
He leads Clark to Doc Hadley’s office, makes him sign some forms and then hands him a see-through plastic bag with an expensive-looking pair of underwear in it, inconveniently monogrammed.
“Not to be nosy or nothin’,” the sheriff squints at it, “but what’s the ‘LL’ stand for?”
“Um—” Clark can feel a sheen of sweat break out on the back of his neck. “Well—” And then he smiles, remembering Lois’ advice. “It’s a little nickname I have for Al. You know, when we’re—” He waves his hand in the air, a vague sort of innuendo.
It’s enough to make the sheriff turn scarlet. “Oh, yes. I see.”
Doc Hadley pokes his head in, and the sheriff seems pretty glad for the interruption. “Your husband is ready to go, Mr. Pacino-Kent, whenever you’re finished up in here.”
“Thanks,” Clark tells him and asks the sheriff, “Is there anything else?”
The sheriff gives him an appraising look that lasts so long Clark is convinced his next words are going to be, “Did you really think you could get away with this?”
Instead, the sheriff surprises him, “You know, I don’t take you for a man who would hit a loved one, but that bruise on your mister’s cheek looks suspiciously like somebody’s fist put it there. Now there’s some lawmen that look the other way at things that, because what goes on between married people is their business. What you need to know about me is that I’m not one of those lawmen.”
The look he gives Clark is so stern it’s easy to imagine him using it on suspects, the confessions just tumbling out of them.
Clark holds the man’s eye and assures him, “I didn’t hit Al, and I wouldn’t. Ever.”
The sheriff studies him, taking his measure, and finally nods. “I believe that’s true. Now, whether somebody else hit him or not is still a question. I’m going to keep my ears open, see if there’s any talk going around about it. I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Kent. I’m as old-fashioned as they come, and I don’t necessarily understand some of these modern ideas like gay marriage. But I’m a strict law-and-order man, and there’s not going to be any kind of bashing or such nonsense in my town. If I find out that’s what happened to your husband, I’ll get the people who did it, and I’ll send them to jail. You have my word on that.”
There’s a forceful dignity behind the words that reminds Clark a little of his father, and it leaves a dull ache in his chest.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
The sheriff nods, solemn for a moment, then he breaks into a good-humored grin and claps Clark on the back. “Now you’d better go on out there and take you mister home before he has them redecorating the waiting room.”
On the way home, Clark drives the way drunks and kids with brand new learner’s permits do, hands locked on the wheel at ten and two, watching the road like it might suddenly get up and walk away, the sort of caution that does nothing to inspire confidence. Beside him, Lex—no, Al, he’s got to start thinking of him that way—grips the door handle, as if braced for impact. Or perhaps it’s simply a symptom of his continuing reservations about Clark, ready to leap from the truck at the first opportunity and make a wild break for freedom.
It doesn’t help matters, Clark feels sure, that he keeps his truck much the same way he keeps house. Every time they go around a curve, Al dodges junk sliding across the seat with an air of offended dignity, and Clark really wishes he’d done something about those crumpled Whopper containers in the floorboard besides just think about throwing them away.
They’re both quiet, too quiet, and it starts to feel unsettling. Al looks huddled and forlorn in the thin green scrubs they gave him to wear home. Clark switches on the heater, not that this is a cure for what’s really wrong, but it’s the best he can do. His brain plays leapfrog with various conversation-openers, the weather seems to be clearing up or they finally built that new mini mall they’ve been advertising or are you feeling any warmer yet. No matter how hard he tries, though, he can’t latch onto any subject. His thoughts skitter away before he can get the words out, too distracted by the emotional funnel cloud swirling in his chest, alternately giddy and dumbfounded by terror.
Lex—Al—watches out the window, taking in the passing landmarks with flint-spark eyes, concentrating with such fierce attention Clark half expects the stores and houses to go up in flames. Al doesn’t seem to mind the quiet; maybe he’s even grateful for it.
The lack of anything to say gives Clark time to make lists in his head, pitfalls to avoid, props he forgot to buy, various contingency plans for an assortment of disasters. His biggest fear is that Lionel will try keeping tabs on his malicious handiwork, calling the clinic, or having someone on his payroll do it, in the guise of a concerned citizen, pumping the gossip-prone receptionist for information.
Clark has done what he can to thwart such surveillance attempts, asking the doctor to be non-committal to anyone who seems too curious.
“There are so many crazies out there,” he’d said, with heartfelt conviction. What was crazier than abandoning your own child? “We don’t want any trouble.”
Doc Hadley had nodded and promised he’d instruct his staff simply to say, “We’re doing everything we can for him.” Clark can only hope Lionel will be satisfied with that.
He looks over at Al, who is slumped in his seat now, shoulders hunched, forehead pressed to the glass of the passenger-side window. Clark glances back at the road, then over at him again, frowning.
“Are you feeling okay?”
There’s no answer, and panic spirals up Clark’s spine, prickling at the back of his neck. He digs around in the pocket of his jeans and pulls out the doctor’s list of symptoms, unfolds it with one hand and balances it on the steering wheel, reading while he drives.
“Do you have blurred vision? Ringing in your ears? Do you feel queasy?”
Al keeps on staring out the window. “I don’t know this.” They whiz past the brightly colored Taj Mahal Burger. “Or that.” He shifts in his seat to glare at Clark, his eyes dark and accusatory. “I don’t know this place. I’ve never seen it before in my life.”
Clark gives him a mild, reassuring smile. “Well, Doc Hadley did say it would take some time for your memory to come back. And you have only lived here a few days. How familiar is it going to be?”
Al starts to say something, not a very pleasant something if the lightning flash going off in his eyes is any indication, but then he just presses his lips closed, like he doesn’t want to waste the effort. Clark checks his mirrors, rear- and sideview, not once, or even twice, but three times, as if safety on the road will somehow carry over into more precarious parts of his life.
At home, he pulls into the yard, practically up to the door.
“I’m not an invalid, you know,” Al informs him testily.
But Clark isn’t taking any chances. “Just wait. I’ll come around and get you.”
Al suffers his mother-henning, but not without a look of reproach. They walk around the front of the truck, and Al stops, stares, staggers back a step. Clark feels sure it has more to do with the ramshackle surprise of the house, the dingy, flecking siding and precariously dangling roof tiles, than any actual failure of strength. All it needs is a good coat of paint, Clark’s been saying that for six months now. Too bad he never actually did anything about it.
They go up on the porch, and Clark becomes uncomfortably conscious of the police envelope stuck into the waistband of his jeans, covered by his jacket, jabbing him in the side. It’s pure superstition, he knows, but it just doesn’t feel right bringing it into the house, a reminder of the truth, a jinx, for sure.
He tells Al, “Just one second.”
He leaves him propped against the doorjamb, arms crossed impatiently, and goes back to the truck, crams the underwear behind the bench seat, to keep company with the caulk gun and the abandoned Pepsi cans.
“Okay,” he says in a breezy voice, taking the porch steps two at a time, whipping out his key. “Welcome home.”
Al steps inside and looks around, even graver and quieter than he was on the ride over. He wanders around the living room—as much as the stacks of boxes will allow—and trips over a rain gauge Clark has been meaning to carry out to the fields for weeks now. Clark just manages to catch him before he goes flying.
“I didn’t have a chance to clean up before I left for the hospital,” he says with some embarrassment.
Al’s expression says “no shit” as clearly as any words.
“Have a look around,” Clark encourages him in a bright, false voice. “See if it brings anything back.”
It’s the expected thing, what he’d say if this really were his husband, and he can only hope his well-intentioned fraud doesn’t screw up Al’s head more than the cold sea and a run in with a fishing trawler already have.
Al trails through the rooms, and Clark follows behind, trying to hang back and give him some space, although it’s hard to rein in the impulse to hover. Al picks up one of the sunflower tea towels and puts it down again, his face an impassive blank.
“Are you hungry?” Clark moves to the refrigerator, mentally inventorying its contents, hoping there’s something edible. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Are we poor?” Lex wants to know.
“Well, we’re not rich. But we do okay.”
Al doesn’t look particularly reassured. He meanders back into the living room, eyes moving from a stack of spare parts for the irrigation system to a leaning tower of old magazines. “Do we run a junkyard?”
Clark clears his throat. “Um, no. We’re just a little behind on our unpacking. You must be tired. Why don’t you sit down?” He pats the sofa cushion.
Lex looks down at the scrubs he’s wearing. “I’d like to change.” He narrows his eyes at Clark. “I do own clothes, don’t I? We can afford that much, I hope.”
“Sure, you do.” Clark takes a step toward the bedroom. “I’ll go get something for you.”
“I can dress myself, thank you.”
Clark’s face goes hot, a memory from the day before, a tiny black swimsuit casually stripped off and tossed aside. Whatever heat he feels at the recollection is quickly chased away, though, as Al starts toward the bedroom and lurches unsteadily on his feet. Clark instinctively grabs for his elbow. He’s rewarded with a withering look and hastily removes the offending hand. “Sorry.”
If the living room is a cluttered wreck, the bedroom smacks of utter abandonment. The few pieces of furniture stand in dusty isolation, the mattress bare and unwelcoming, the same depressing feeling that empty dorm rooms and jail cells have, no pictures or rugs, just the bare bones of existence.
Clark goes straight to the dresser, avoiding Al’s reaction, the dismay, the raised eyebrow. Such a forlorn-looking bedroom must make him question the state of their marriage.
“This is your side,” he explains about the dresser, opening drawers, taking out an overwashed, graying pair of briefs, jeans, a sweatshirt that proudly proclaims “Graduate of Beer Drinker’s University,” not really the thing for Al Pacino-Kent, Clark realizes, but he’s already committed himself to it.
He hands the clothes over, and Al stares coldly, until Clark finally gets it. “Oh, right. I should give you some privacy. I’ll be,” he waves his hand in the vague direction of the living room, “if you need me.”
Clark paces the two feet of clear floor space while he waits and keeps an ear out for any hints of trouble, the alarming crash of a head-injured person passing out, the telltale slide of a bedroom window that signals he has a runaway husband on his hands.
Despite his vigilance, it still startles him when an imperious voice rings out, “Can you come here?”
He finds Al standing in front of the mirror, looking like a kid trying on his father’s clothes. He demonstrates for Clark just how huge the thrift store pants are, pulling the waistband a good three inches away from his body. “Can you explain this?”
“Well—” He swallows hard. “You see—” And then those same feeble powers of invention that stuck him with Pacino-Kent for a surname come back to haunt him. “You used to have a gland condition.”
“A gland condition?” Al repeats skeptically.
Clark nods. “But it cleared up, and now your clothes are kind of big on you.”
Al widens his eyes incredulously. “Kind of?”
Clark catches sight of a stray piece of twine. “Here’s a little trick you use.” He runs the twine through the belt loops and ties it in a neat square knot. “There. That’s better.”
Al looks down at himself and back up at Clark. “Did I also have a brain tumor?”
Clark mumbles, “We’ve been meaning to get you some new things.”
Al flounces off to the living room, clearly not pleased with the state of his so-called life, and Clark has to scramble ahead of him, scooting Chloe’s notes under the couch with his foot to keep him from discovering them.
It’s the couch from the loft, and Pete always wants to know why he didn’t bring the one from the house. You know, the one people might actually want to sit on. It was a sentimental decision, Clark supposes, to have this reminder of his childhood in his living room. Of course, even back when Clark was in high school the thing had seen better days, and Al perches gingerly on the edge of it, like he’s afraid he might catch something.
Clark brings him a pillow and blanket. “You really should try to get some rest.”
Al gives him the kind of lock-jawed stare men must have used back in the days when they still challenged each other to duels, and then the phone rings, prematurely ending the standoff.
Pete’s voice blares at him when he answers, “What’s going on, man?”
Al is watching curiously, and Clark smiles, trying to convince him there’s nothing wrong, despite the unmistakable shouting on the other end of the line.
“Do you realize that half a dozen people have come up to me in the last hour to say how glad they are that my friend found his husband? How lucky it is nothing worse happened than a bump on the head and some temporary amnesia. What a nice couple you and your imaginary better half make. And you know what I’ve had to do, Clark?”
“I’ve had to smile and nod and lie. Oh, yes. It is lucky. They are a great couple. I’m so glad everything’s okay. Do you have any idea how much I hate that?”
Clark lets out a heavy, guilty sigh. “Sorry, Pete.”
“What the hell are you doing, Clark? What are you thinking?”
He gives Al another determined smile and ducks into the kitchen, cupping his hand around the receiver, whispering, “I didn’t plan it,” then amends, “not at first.”
“Man, he’s a Luthor. Do you know how much trouble you’re in right now?”
“I didn’t have a choice!” Clark insists. “When I went down there to identify him, for real, you know who I saw? Lionel Luthor. And you know what he did? Denied knowing his own son. He was just going to leave him there. They were going to put him in an institution. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Pete is a silent a moment. “I thought you were finally finished with this hero business, man.”
It’s laced with bitterness, and it stings, but Clark says only, “I know it’s a lot to ask, but, please—”
“I’m not going to out you,” Pete tells him, with an exasperated huff. “But I really hope you know what you’re doing. I mean, when he realizes—”
Clark glances into the next room. In the absence of any reason to resist, Al has settled onto the couch, his eyes closed, dark smudges beneath his eyes, looking exhausted now that he’s finally at rest. “I know.”
“Well, at least he can’t actually kill you,” Pete says with a forced little laugh.
Clark shakes his head, but he appreciates the effort. “Funny, Pete. Very, very funny.”
Al sleeps for the better part of two hours, and when he wakes, Clark insists he needs food, whether he wants it or not. He roots around in the cabinets and the rather scary refrigerator and manages to come up with a makeshift lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles.
“We haven’t really had a chance to go to the store lately,” he says by way of an apology.
The sit and eat, and Al doesn’t complain. Compared to hospital cuisine, apparently, Clark can hold his own as a cook.
When Al is done, he pushes his plate away and fixes Clark with a penetrating stare. “So how did we meet?”
Clark nearly chokes on his sweet gerkin. “Well, I was doing some work for you, closet remodeling, and you kind of—”
Al leans forward. “What?”
“You came on to me.”
He sits up very straight, his shoulders going stiff. “I did not.”
Clark nods. “You did. And we kind of—”
There’s a tinge of pink starting to burn in Al’s cheeks, although Clark suspects it’s more likely anger than embarrassment. “What? What did we do?”
“We had sex. Then I finished sanding. Things just kind of,” he waves his hand in the air, “developed from there.”
Al stares down at the table. “I had sex with the handy man who was building my closet.”
“Remodeling. But yes. I got the feeling you kind of—” He makes a vaguely suggestive gesture with his hand. “You know.”
“What?” Al demands.
“I got around.” Al glares at him. “You mean I was a slut.”
Clark pats his hand reassuringly. “I never thought that. No matter what anybody else ever said.”
Al looks like he’d enjoy nothing more than slapping Clark, very hard, but instead he takes a deep breath and launches into a new line of inquiry, “So if we don’t actually run a junk yard, what do we do for a living?”
Clark jerks his head in the direction of the window and the grapes vines beyond it. “That’s ours.”
Al squints. “We own a vineyard? And we live like this?”
“Well, that’s really my fault. I’ve just been kind of,” he lets out his breath and tells the truth, “lost these past six months.”
The implied “without you” is pure invention, of course, but it’s handy, nonetheless.
Al studies him closely and relents a little. “You could have at least unpacked the boxes.”
He hangs his head. “I know. It’s just—trying to figure out where to put stuff—well, let’s just say decorating has always been more your department.”
Al nods, with a degree of certainty. “That I believe. Maybe we could start going through things. That might help me remember.”
‘Oh, sure. We could do that. After you’ve had a chance to—” Al gets briskly to his feet. “You mean right now?”
But he’s already disappeared into the canyon of boxes.
They spend the rest of the afternoon bent over cardboard cartons, pulling out battered lamps and throw pillows. On the one hand, it gives them something to do that doesn’t require a steady flow of conversation, which is a good thing, since talking just gets Clark into trouble. On the other hand, it does raise questions, as box after box is emptied, and there are no personal items that belong to Al.
“This can’t be mine,” he says, holding up a Gameboy with one of the buttons snapped off. “Mine wouldn’t be broken.” He frowns and adds, “I don’t know how I know that. I just do.”
Clark nods. “You’re right. That’s mine.”
“And the ‘Go Crows’ pennant?”
“From high school. Also mine.”
“The collection of half-chewed pencils?”
Clark makes a face. They are disgusting. “I’ve really got to break that habit.”
Al asks, exasperated, “Is there anything that belongs to me?”
“Well, ” Clark stutters, “you see, you kept a lot of your stuff back East. Six months is a long time to live in an empty apartment. You had it all shipped out right before you came. It should be here soon.”
Just in time for a big fire at the shipping company’s warehouse, Clark thinks, already plotting his future lies.
“There must be something here,” Al says plaintively.
“Let’s see…” Clark desperately glances around for something, anything, that will be remotely believable. “Wait. Here’s something.” He snatches up The Big Book of Baseball, with desperate relief. “This is yours.”
Al stares at it disbelievingly. “I like baseball?”
“You love it.” He nods emphatically, as if the sheer kinetic force of his head bob will convince him of it.
Al starts to flip through the pages. “The Rockets have built their pennant-winning dynasty on sound starting pitching and sharp defense,” he reads. Then snorts. “Not to mention their 220 million dollar payroll.” He goes perfectly still. “Wait. How do I know that?”
The answer, of course, is that his family owns the team, and there’s probably nothing he doesn’t know about it. Clark begins to panic that he may have strayed too close to the truth. Perhaps in another moment, Al—Lex—will throw down the book and get on the phone to his people and whisk himself out of this plebian world where he doesn’t belong. If Clark were ever to experience anything like vertigo, now would be the time.
The phone rings, and he shoots to his feet, the loud, insistent chirping making every rib in his chest clench around his lungs, cutting off his breath. He leaves Al pondering his great love for the national pastime and goes to answer it. He hopes, for the first time in his life, that it’s a telemarketer trying to sell him a year’s supply of car wax.
“There’s a waterfall! Lord help me! Come quick!” is shrieked in his ear the moment he picks up.
He squints, calculating which of his many over-excitable elderly customers it could be. “Mrs. Henderson?”
“Yes, yes!” she says, as if she can’t imagine why he’s bothering with formalities when she’s in the middle of a plumbing catastrophe. “Please come, Clark. There’s something terribly wrong with the downstairs bathroom. You haven’t seen so much water since the Great Flood.”
“Have you tried Bert Davis?”
“Oh, he’s no use after ten o’clock in the morning.” She lowers her voice. “A drinker, you know. You’re such a good, reliable boy, Clark. I know you’ll help me.”
“It’s just that it’s kind of a bad time right now—”
“Oh, I know, dear. I saw it on the television. And then I heard who that poor boy is from Susie Manard down at the Food Mart. Bless your husband’s heart! To be out in the water like that for so long. Thank heavens he’s all right. I’m sure you’ve both had a terrible scare. He looks like such a nice young man, too. I said so to all the girls over at Dulcie’s beauty parlor.”
“Well, then I’m sure you can understand—”
“Of course, dear. Of course. You want to stay home and look after your husband. I guess it’s not such a bad thing there’s water standing on the laundry room floor. I’ll make do somehow. At least my rattan chairs can float. I am a little worried about the cat, though,” she trails off pitifully.
Clark sighs. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Lex—Al—is still leafing through “his” book when Clark returns. He glances up questioningly, and Clark explains.
Al waves his hand in the air. “Go. I’ll be fine. You can’t leave a flooded old lady in the lurch.”
Al’s seeming eagerness to be rid of him makes Clark even more hesitant to leave. But he knows if he doesn’t get right over there, he’ll be treated to a flurry of panic-stricken, guilt-inducing phone calls. He sets the cordless phone on the coffee table and writes down Mrs. Henderson’s number. He lays out the piece of paper with the list of symptoms and says, “If you have any of these, call me. Unless it’s number eight. Then just call an ambulance. Okay?”
Al nods, but it’s clear he isn’t really listening. He holds up an insulated coffee mug with a Rockets logo on it. “Is this mine, too? “
Clark smiles. “Sure is.”
The intensity in Al’s face as he turns the mug over in his hands, studying it from every angle, this remnant of his past, or so he thinks, makes Clark’s throat close up. He has to go quickly to keep himself from blurting out the truth, putting an end to the whole charade.
At Mrs. Henderson’s, the problem turns out to be trickier than Clark was hoping, and it doesn’t help his concentration that Mrs. Henderson talks pretty much nonstop as he’s trying to work.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear you’re married, Clark. It’s just not right for people to be alone in this world. Mr. Henderson, God rest his soul, and I were together fifty-three years. How long have you and your husband been married? Where’d you meet? At church, I hope. I always say the best marriages are the ones helped along by the Lord. Are planning on having children?”
Clark does his best to give her vague answers and desperately tries to keep track of what he’s said. Lying is hard work. By the time he’s finally finished with the repairs and the clean up, he’s so antsy to get home he can barely stand still. But Mrs. Henderson won’t hear of his leaving.
“Oh, no, dear, you can’t go just yet. I’ve got a pot roast in the oven. I made it special for you boys, and it just has fifteen more minutes to go. Your husband can use some good food after everything he’s been through. A man needs his sustenance. I always used to say that to Mr. Henderson.”
Clark sighs in defeat and pulls out his phone. He lets it ring twenty-three times—he counts—without any answer.
“He’s not picking up. I’m sorry, Mrs. Henderson. I really have to go.”
“Pshaw. He’s probably just in the bathroom. You young people in love are sweet, but you get all worked up about nothing.”
It’s an irony, really. Clark can bench press an Oldsmobile, but he’s helpless at the hands of a ninety-pound old woman who looks like a strong breeze would knock her down.
He stands anxiously near the stove, feet in constant motion, like a racehorse desperate to break out of the starting gate. He hits redial every few seconds, with no luck, and each time his worry level ratchets up another notch. At last, the pot roast is ready to come out of the oven, but Mrs. Henderson has to find the lid and the oven mitts. The whole production takes an excruciatingly long time. He’d almost think she was dragging it out on purpose, except for that the fact that she’s closing in on eighty, and “interminably slow” is the only gear she has left.
When she finally hands over the pot, he slurs out a rushed “thank you” and practically runs out the door, while Mrs. Henderson waves cheerily.
At home, he hurries inside, calling “Al,” throwing down the roasting pan on the kitchen counter, going from room to room. There’s no sign of him anywhere, and the house has the empty ring of nobody home. Finally, he thinks to check outside, throws open the back door, making it groan on its hinges, and bolts into the backyard.
Al is standing stock still by the back fence, staring out at the fields.
The silence in Al’s posture is forceful, and it takes Clark a moment to work up to words. When he does speak, it’s very quietly, “What are you doing? Are you all right?”
Al doesn’t move. “I don’t know this.”
“You just have to give yourself time—”
He turns sharply. “I don’t know this. Don’t you think I’d feel something?”
It’s snappish, impatient, but there’s a mournful quality to it as well, and Clark understands at last. This is what sheer choking terror sounds like coming from Al Pacino-Kent.
He puts an arm around his shoulders and says very gently, “Come inside.”
They eat dinner. The pot roast seems to cheer Al up a little, the way pot roast will. Afterwards, Clark does the dishes and excavates the foul-smelling ruins from the refrigerator before putting the leftovers away.
Al starts to yawn, and Clark tells him, “I’ll go make up the bed for you.”
He heads off to the bedroom and is embarrassed when he can’t locate the sheets right away. After some digging in the closet, he finally finds them. “It’s been less lonely sleeping on the couch,” he tells Al. It seems like a reasonable explanation for the sorry state of the bedroom.
At once, he can see it was the wrong thing to say, because Al’s expression closes up and he folds his arms defensively across his chest. Clark briefly considers ways to back out of the implication he didn’t mean to give in the first place. Finally he just goes to work putting the clean sheets on the bed, figuring anything he’d say would only make it worse.
As he bends over to smooth out the wrinkles, he notices the truly alarming dust creatures—more ominous than mere bunnies—that have started growing under the furniture.
“I’ll clean up in here tomorrow,” he promises.
“Do I have pajamas?” Al asks, opening and closing drawers.
“Let me get them for you.”
He pulls out a t-shirt and a pair of drawstring bottoms with cowboy hats and lassos on them. Al pads off to the bathroom to change, modest in his forgetfulness, and when he comes back, Clark is just turning down the covers for him.
The t-shirt hangs almost to his knees, and the pajama bottoms barely graze the tops of his ankles.
“They shrunk in the wash,” Clark tells him.
Al yawns widely, eyes clenched tightly shut. For now, he doesn’t seem to care.
“Go on,” Clark urges him, nodding his head toward the bed.
Al slides between the sheets, back pressed warily against the headboard, and the moment turns awkward.
Clark pulls a blanket out of the closet. “I’ll just—” He jerks his thumb toward the living room. “I don’t want to keep you up with my insomnia.”
A hint of gratitude flashes across Al’s face for the first time in their brief marriage, and Clark tells him, “Goodnight.”
It’s far too early for Clark to fall asleep, but he doesn’t want to keep Al up. So he flops onto the couch, stares up at the ceiling and listens. He can tell when Al finally drifts off, the restless stir of sheets going quiet. He glances longingly over at the television, and whatever slim hope he had for sleep peters out.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out and thoughts start to zing through his head. Do you know how much trouble you’re in right now, Pete’s voice rings in his ears.
It’s a question he’d really prefer not to contemplate.
It takes less than a day of marriage for Clark to develop a bone-deep sympathy for the husbands he sees at the mall, the ones he’s always kind of smiled about before, with their well-schooled “I’m listening” expressions, and their careful “whatever you think, honey” answers. Truly, capitulation can be the better part of valor.
His initiation into the fraternity of perpetually nodding husbands begins early the next morning. He wakes up at the usual ungodly hour and tiptoes around, trying to let Al sleep in, figuring he needs his rest. When he tries the bathroom door, though, it’s locked, and a moment later, out comes Al, already showered, dressed in plaid pants and a shirt with piping around the pocket that he’s apparently trying to be brave about.
“I couldn’t find my toothbrush,” Al informs him. “Do you have any idea where it is?”
“Um—” Of course he does, at the store, where he forgot to buy it. “Well—”
“I’m taking that as a no,” Al cuts him off with a brisk air, as if he has things to do and no time to waste on Clark’s stammering. “We’ll need to pick one up when we go out today. Brushing your teeth with your finger is pretty much like not brushing at all.”
“And some soap, too. I used the last of it.”
“We should also do something about that medicine cabinet. Of course, what it really needs is a sledgehammer taken to it, but I suppose I can settle for lining the shelves. That’ll be something of an improvement, at least.”
Clark nods. Al in a mood to accomplish things is an irresistible force. “Whatever you think.”
He takes his turn in the bathroom and finds that showering without soap is pretty much like not showering at all. He gets dressed and cobbles together breakfast, eggs that he hopes aren’t too far past their expiration date and toast he manages to singe around the crust even though he’s trying really hard to keep an eye on it. He’s fixed everybody’s toaster in Blue Cove, it seems, except his own.
Al sniffs cautiously at his sunny-side-ups before digging in. “Don’t forget we need to go to the grocery store.” He bites into a piece of toast, grimacing as he gets a mouthful of char, and adds, “Maybe frozen food would be a good option for us.”
“Faulty heating element,” Clark mutters.
Al smiles faintly, as if to say, “a likely excuse.”
They polish off their eggs, and Al leans back in his chair, giving Clark the speculative once-over. Clark braces for the next barrage of questions with a mix of curiosity and dread, but Al surprises him.
“I was thinking we could start working on the house. I assume that’s what we were planning once I moved out here. And if this is my life,” he casts a somewhat despairing glance around the room, “I need to make the best of it.”
Clark unclenches, takes a deep, relieved breath. “Oh, sure. I mean, we can do that once you’re up to it. For now, you should probably—”
‘Nonsense.” Al stands up from the table. “I feel perfectly fine.”
“Don’t you think we should at least call Doc Hadley, just to make sure—”
Al shoots him a flinty look, his mouth a hard line of determination, and that is pretty much the end of that discussion.
Clark reports for duty in the living room and is quickly cast in the role of hired hand, holding up pictures while Al stands at a distance, tapping his fingers on his chin and contemplating the effect, heaving furniture from point A to B to C, while Al directs him like an iron-fisted maestro with a “vision.”
Of course, Clark could heave furniture all day and not even begin to feel it. The tedious part is remembering to strain and puff and struggle. Still, even a hired hand has his limits. When Al has him move the old trunk into every room in the house, even upstairs where the space is so empty it rings with nothingness, then finally settles on the exact spot where it was to begin with, in front of the couch, as a makeshift coffee table, Clark puts his hands on his hips and flashes him a look that’s pure exasperation.
Al shrugs. “You have to try different things until you find what works,” he informs Clark loftily.
One thing does become perfectly clear as they continue: the problem with the house hasn’t been the house at all, but the homeowner. Clark has treated the place pretty much like a shack since he got there. Al, on the other hand, finds one fascinating architectural detail after another.
“This molding is really rather beautiful now that I look at it,” he says, stopped beneath the arched entrance of the living room, perusing the plasterwork. “Light. Delicate. Late Victorian maybe. Do you know when the house dates to?”
“You mean, besides a long time ago?” Clark offers unhelpfully.
Al sighs, but doesn’t let Clark’s lack of appreciation deter him. “I’ll do some research at the library. Or maybe there’s a local historical society that might have some information.”
He soon finds more treasures from the house’s past: mahogany paneling beneath “this atrocious 1970′s Ramada Inn wallpaper,” built-in bookshelves that “just need the cheap white paint stripped off them,” the possibility of a fireplace in the kitchen that “some philistine had the temerity to wall in.”
Even the windows delight him. “Did you notice the original glass?” he points out, as they’re washing them.
Clark tilts his head. “Is that why it’s wavy? And has all those little bubbles in it?”
“It was blown by hand,” Al says with far more excitement than wavy glass really deserves, at least in Clark’s opinion. “It’ll add a lot of value to the house.”
“Really?” Clark scratches his head. “You don’t think we should replace it? I mean, it is old and all—”
“It’s not old,” Al informs him. “It’s antique.”
This becomes a familiar refrain as the morning wears on.
Clark does have to admit, though, that the place is starting to look better. He leaves Al studying the living room, drawing a floor plan on a scrap of paper, and starts to carry things they don’t need everyday up to the attic, just to get them out of the way. When he comes back down, he finds Al crouched in a corner, pulling at the carpet, on the trail of yet another discovery.
He motions to Clark. “Take a look at this.”
Clark leans down to see. “Pretty bad, huh?”
Al gives him a look like he’s crazy. “We’ve got the original floors under this chartreuse shag nightmare. See the wide planks, the distinctive grain, these marks.” He points. “They’re hand-planed.” He pulls the carpet back even farther. “I don’t see any damage, either. We’ll have to take all the carpet up to be sure, of course. But if we get lucky, they’ll just need some sanding and refinishing.”
“Well…that’s good,” Clark says, a little uncertainly.
Al nods. “It is.” His forehead wrinkles. “How do I know all this, anyway?” He looks to Clark, an eyebrow lifted in inquiry.
“Well,” Clark says, “you just know a little bit about a lot of things.”
Clark nods. “Sure. You’re a very curious person.” He figures that’s a safe assumption about someone whose primary interest in business is research and development. And then he embellishes a little, “That’s one of the first things I noticed about you, when I came to your place to do the work on the closet. You had all these books and magazines stacked everywhere, and I thought, here’s somebody who really thinks about things. I should get to know him better.”
Al takes in this little detail, mulling it over, a look of interest on his face. As they start to pull up the rest of the carpet, he peppers Clark with more questions.
“Is Al short for Allen?”
“Where was I born?”
“In Metropolis. That’s why you’re such a big Rockets fan.”
“Did I go to college there?”
Clark nods. “Met U. Same as me. Although we weren’t there at the same time. You’re a few years older.”
“And how long have we been married?”
“Before I came out here, what did I do for a living?”
“Well—” Clark pretends to struggle with a stubborn staple while he frantically runs through options, coming up with nothing. “You’ve done a lot of things. You’re really, you know, versatile.”
“Can you be a little more specific?” Al persists.
“Well, you worked for your father for a while. Not that it, um, really worked out too well.” He gets to his feet. “Hey, why don’t we carry this old carpet out to the porch, and I’ll take it to the dump later?”
This distraction gives him all of a two-minute reprieve. On the way back inside, Al picks right up where he left off, “What was my major in college? Did I get good grades? Why didn’t working for my father work out?”
“And another thing. We’ve emptied pretty much all the boxes, and I haven’t seen any pictures or personal papers. No marriage license. Or wedding pictures. Snapshots from vacations. We do have such things, don’t we?”
Clark claps his hands together. “You know what? We’d better get going if we’re going to do that shopping. I’ll look for our papers later. I promise.”
“But—” Al starts to protest as Clark hustles him out the door.
“Just remind me.”
There’s a Target in the next town over, and on the way, Clark stops at the Taj Mahal Burger to get them lunch
Al regards the Rajah’s Surprise that Clark orders for him rather dubiously, “You realize, of course, that Hindus don’t eat beef.” He glances around at the décor, at the fresco of elephants and palanquins, the willowy Indian princesses with the rubies in the middle of their foreheads. “Do you think this is supposed to be an ironic comment of some sort?”
“Could be,” Clark tells him, just so he’ll have some peace of mind.
It seems to work, because he eats his lunch, despite whatever hesitations he may have about its cultural appropriateness. Back in the truck, he writes out a shopping list on one of the pink napkins. He’s just finishing up as they pull into the parking lot.
They head inside, and Al stops in his tracks, wrinkling his nose. “What is that?”
Clark takes a whiff. “Plastic. And lots of it.”
He grabs a cart and pilots it, but Al is clearly the captain of their shopping expedition. He leads the way down various aisles, picking out toiletries, and then makes a beeline for the men’s department.
He stops in front of a display of underwear. “Boxers or briefs?” he asks, half to himself, half to Clark.
“Well, you’re kind of—”
“You’re going to say versatile, aren’t you?” Clark nods sheepishly, and Al just shakes his head. “Do you have any idea how unhelpful that is?”
He scans the labels of the various brands, although exactly what he’s looking for Clark has no idea. Underwear is underwear, as far as he’s concerned.
“How bad off are we anyway?” Al asks casually, as he checks the prices. “Is it this or food for the week?” Clark puts on his denial face, but Al waves him off. “I’ve seen the unopened bills. Don’t try to tell me we don’t have money problems.”
“It’s not dire,” Clark insists. Under Al’s pointed scrutiny, he adds, “Yet. Just get what you need. It’ll be fine.”
Al gives him a measuring look, as if deciding whether that’s just pride talking, and then lays in a meager supply of underwear and socks. He wanders over to the racks of clothes, stops in front of a table of button-up shirts, lingers by the khakis, before dragging himself over to the Levi’s.
“I should get something practical,” he says half-heartedly. “Something farmy.”
He glances over at Clark’s battered, field-ready attire, and sighs as he pulls out a pair of jeans, the kind nobody wears without washing them at least a hundred times first, deep, inky indigo, so stiff they could stand up by themselves. He holds them up to himself and looks so pained that Clark has to go to the rescue.
“That’s not really your style,” he tells him. Truly an understatement when he thinks back to the sleek, impeccable man starring in the Planet’s society pages. “I’m the jeans and t-shirt guy in the family. You go for a tidier look.”
Relief flashes across Al’s face as he throws down the jeans and returns to his rightful place amongst the oxfords. Clark has to turn away, to hide the grin he can’t quite contain.
Al picks out a modest assortment of shirts and pants, and Clark asks him, “Do you want to try those on?”
He shakes his head. “This is my size.” He lets out a frustrated sigh. “Why do I remember things like that and not my own name? Not my life?”
Clark touches his arm, the only reassurance he can give with a clear conscience. Every man has a limit on the amount of hypocrisy he can stomach, and telling Al he hopes he gets his memory back soon would far exceed his.
Al finishes up his clothes shopping with a belt and some shoes, and they follow the signs to the housewares department. Al checks out the bedding while Clark waits with the cart.
Finally, he points to a bed-in-a-bag ensemble. “What do you think?”
It’s plain, a very pale, delicate blue, soft-looking fabric. “Soothing” is the word that comes to mind, and he says so.
Al’s smile is quick and pleased. “I think so, too.” He starts to pick it up, but then looks hesitant about it.
Clark takes it from him and puts it in the cart. “It’s fifty percent off. We can’t afford not to get it.”
The happy glow in Al’s face makes it doubly worth it.
Al ticks off the rest of the items on his list. Clark goes to get the soap himself, just to make sure they don’t forget it. They breeze through the checkout and wheel their over-brimming cart out to the truck.
Back home, they heft everything inside, and Clark flops onto the couch. Five hours of shopping is enough to test even superhuman endurance. Al, on the other hand, seems to have more energy than ever. He stands in front of the coffee table, hands on his hips.
“What?” Clark asks.
“Weren’t you going to clean up the bedroom?” Al taps his foot.
“Well, yeah, but—”
Al’s expression remains relentless.
Clark sighs. “Okay. I’m going.” He pulls himself to his feet and trudges off after the mop.
While he’s making good on his promise, Al busies himself in the living room. When Clark returns, his mouth falls open at all the progress he’s made. Al has transformed their sorry couch into a respectable looking piece of furniture with a cream-colored slipcover and patterned throw pillows. He’s put down the small area rug they bought, deep red with a design like a Persian carpet, at least the Target version of it. He’s even managed to hang the curtains. As a finishing touch, he’s set out the simple red pottery style dish on the coffee table that he said would make the perfect accent piece and arranged a stack of Clark’s less pest-control oriented magazines beside it, like actual civilized people have in their living rooms.
“It’s hard to believe it’s even the same place,” Clark tells him.
Al surveys the room with a gleam in his eye that’s part satisfaction, part ambition. “It’s good for a start, at least.”
They move on to the bedroom and tackle the curtains first. The ceilings are taller in here, and Clark breaks out the stepladder. He hangs a set of curtains, while Al works on putting hooks into the remaining panels. They’re kind of fussy, and after fiddling with it for a while with no progress, he declares with disgust, “These have to be broken.”
“I’ll give it a try,” Clark says, “after I finish with this.”
“Fine,” Al throws down the curtains, “if you think I’m incompetent. I’ll just go do something else, something that doesn’t require any actual skill.” He stomps over to the shopping bags, takes out the new sheets and starts to rip open the packages.
Clark stares, completely puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“Why would anything be wrong?” Al snaps at him. “Just because you’re treating me like an idiot.”
He strips the bed almost viciously, as if he’s half expecting it to fight back, and unfurls the new linens with a jerk of his wrist. He briefly rubs at his temple before starting to pull the corner of the fitted sheet over the mattress, but Clark doesn’t miss the gesture.
He scrambles down from the ladder. “Why didn’t you tell me your head was bothering you?”
“It’s fine. Can you get this while I do these pillows—”
“Hey,” Clark takes his arm, making him listen, “It’s not fine. I need to know when you’re in pain.”
Al lets out his breath and grudgingly admits, “I have a slight headache. It’s nothing.”
“Maybe,” Clark takes the pillow sham out of his hands, “but from where I’m standing? It looks more like something.”
“Doc Hadley said to expect it,” Al argues, sounding peevish and overtired, and Clark doesn’t know why he didn’t recognize the signs sooner.
“Yeah,” he tells Al, “and Doc Hadley also said you should rest and take it easy. So let’s just have some dinner, and relax, and you can turn in early.”
Al lifts his chin, a definite challenge. “After we finish this.”
“No.” It’s the first time he’s said that all day, and he makes it clear that he means it. “You’ve already pushed yourself too hard.”
Al grows plaintive. “I just want to finish in here. A few more minutes.” He drops his eyes to the floor and says, like it costs him something to admit it, “I need to feel at home.”
Clark feels the proverbial light go on. So that’s what this has been about.
He tries to sound as reassuring as he can, “I promise we’ll work on it tomorrow. We’ll work on it as long as it takes, until you’re satisfied. Just not any more tonight, okay?”
It takes a moment, but Al does nod, even if he’s not exactly happy about it. Clark steers him out to the kitchen and makes him sit at the table while he warms up the pot roast. By the time dinner is over, Al can barely keep his eyes open, and he yawns a straight path to the sofa. Clark cleans up the dishes, and in just those few moments, Al has already fallen asleep. Clark covers him with the new throw, smiling softly, thinking it was a good thing Al decided they should get it.
He putters around, letting Al nap until it’s time for bed, and then he approaches quietly, kneels down, watching with a fascination he wishes he didn’t feel. It doesn’t seem right, like he’s taking advantage. Al looks so strangely peaceful, all his sharpness and complexity eased in sleep, and Clark hesitates to disturb that, so rare and so beautiful. He’s considering whether he should just leave him there for the night when Al’s eyes flutter open, sensing his presence. He frowns, his expression unfocused and confused, like he just lost himself all over again.
After a moment, he closes his eyes and mumbles “sorry,” in a contrite, sleep-rough voice.
Clark pats him kindly on the shoulder. “You ready for bed?”
He nods and yawns, and Clark helps him to his feet. In the doorway to the bedroom, Al stops.
“You didn’t have to,” he says quietly, his gaze moving from the curtains to the bed neatly made with the new linens and bedspread to the bunch of wildflowers on the nightstand that Clark arranged the best he could.
“I’m not too good at this kind of thing. Anything you want to change, you go right ahead. It won’t hurt my feelings.”
“I think it’s perfect.” Al’s voice is soft with sleep and surprise.
Clark smiles at him, and he’d like to do more, maybe squeeze Al’s hand or touch his cheek, brush a kiss over his forehead, but those things belong to a husband, not to him.
“Goodnight,” he says, like a consolation prize.
He turns, and Al’s “thank you” whispers over him, making him smile again, soothing away the momentary ache.
There was a psych class Clark took his third year in college, mostly because he needed to fill a requirement and it fit his Fridays-free schedule, but there was the title too, “Mass Hysteria, Collective Wish-Fulfillment and Other Oddities of Small Town Life.” With a background like his, a class like that was hard to resist. One week they’d learned about a rural town in Sweden in the 1940s where even the most prominent citizens claimed to have seen a veritable fleet of comic-book-style rockets streaking across the sky. Another week, they’d heard about a community in Massachusetts where the entire township was convinced a statue in the town square, of local hero Horace Chilton, could help cure impotence if a man went at midnight and rubbed Horace’s head with his left hand, three times, in a counter-clockwise motion. Most of the other kids sat through the lectures with a quizzical smile, a skeptical set to their shoulders as they scribbled the obligatory notes. Clark listened open-mouthed, with a strong sense of déjà vu. The course could just as easily have been titled “The History of Smallville.”
It gives Clark something of a context, at least—this is what he tells himself anyway—for understanding his own personal group delusion, the moments when Al’s memory problems seem almost contagious. Like when Al picks up the thrift store elephant and asks where they got it, and Clark tells him it was a wedding gift from his great aunt Elizabeth, something they’ve laughed about ever since. Or when Al asks about the first time they ever went to a Rockets game together, and Clark explains it was a big match-up against archrival St. Louis. They had to wait in line all day for tickets, and then the weather turned bad, and they sat in the stands under an umbrella for three hours, waiting for the officials to call the game. These stories—these lies—have an unlikely weight, a texture in Clark’s mind, like actual memories. It would be so easy to do his own forgetting, and he’s not sure what this says about him, although he knows it can’t be anything good.
There are moments, though, when the charade falters, good conscience or good sense making a stand, and he has to wrestle away forbidding pictures of the future with its inevitable consequences. Al never seems to notice these occasional bouts of preoccupation. He’s too contentedly absorbed in the details of domesticity, paint chips and refinished chairs and welcome mats, as if their ordinariness will protect him against the creeping dark of the unknown. Whenever they finish a project—new tile in the kitchen, recaning the dining room chairs, installing the new fireplace mantel—he makes a point to catch Clark’s eye, always with the same expression, telling and asking at the same time, See? This is the way it should be. This is good. Right. And Clark smiles, nods. Believes. This is good, and it is right. It’s the way he’s always wanted it to be, without ever realizing it.
There’s no failing to understand what this means, that a stranger can fill in the blurry outline of home when he could never do it himself. Maybe it shouldn’t come as the surprise it does. But for all his sorrow, he never actually thought of himself as lonely.
They spend their days working inside, all the while Clark keeps a nervous eye on the vines, as anxious about them as he is eager to make Al happy.
At last, he can’t neglect them any longer. “I’ve got to get back outside,” he tells Al on their fourth evening together. “Just make a list of things you need done around the house. I’ll take care of what I can in the evenings.”
“I think we’re finished for now,” Al says, casting a critical eye around the place. “There are a few more things I’d like to get. Some furniture for upstairs, but we can do that later. So what time should I set my clock for?” Clark’s look of confusion makes him frown. “That is what I do, isn’t it? Work out in the vineyard?”
“Well,” Clark says slowly, “we never really figured that out. I grew up on a farm, but you’re…more a city person.”
For a second, there’s a faraway look in Al’s eye, as if the mere mention of the word brings back a vague and wistful longing for the forgotten pleasures of his former life, his real life, clubs and gallery openings, the view from a high-rise apartment, luxury in all its shiny variety.
He lets out a little sigh. “If this is how we make our living, then I need to do my share. I’ll have to learn sometime.”
“I guess,” Clark agrees hesitantly. The list of things he’ll eventually have to answer for just keeps getting dangerously longer.
The next morning, Al is still yawning as they trudge out to the barn, a good hour before sunrise.
“Here.” Clark hands him a cap with a Blue Cove Farm Co-op logo emblazoned on it, somewhat battered from the many times he himself has worn it.
Al takes it reluctantly, holding it by the tips of his fingers. “What’s this for? It’s all of fifty degrees out.”
“It’ll get hotter later on. You’ll need some protection.”
Al inspects the cap, makes a face at the sweat stain along the bill, sniffs cautiously at the inside, wrinkling his nose. “I’ll pass, thanks. So what do you want me to do?”
Clark goes through a mental to-do list, assessing the priorities, “I need to do some discing today. If you want, you can take care of the spraying. Has to be done every couple of days as we get new growth to keep away the mold.”
“Whatever,” Al says, with a shrug.
He’s more dubious when Clark outfits him with the sprayer, a metal tank that fits over the shoulder with a strap like a sling, the nozzle long and thin and sinister-looking, the way things that mete out destruction usually are.
“If this…whatever this chemical is…does chromosomal damage, I will be holding you responsible,” Al informs him.
Clark shows him how to use the pump, angle the wand, and then points out what to look for, the delicate spring-green of new shoots. Al handles the spray gun rather awkwardly at first, as if it’s an artifact from another planet, which in a sense it is. Farm life is an alien world, for sure, for someone who was only recently the crowned prince of Metropolis. Al learns quickly, though, moving deliberately down the rows, showing the determined spark Clark has come to expect from him.
Clark gets out the tractor and starts his discing, keeping one eye on Al as he works. They make it through the morning without anyone losing an eye or a finger, success as far as Clark is concerned. At noon, they go in to lunch. Clark puts together sandwiches, and Al pulls the pickles out of the refrigerator, finds the chips in the cabinet. In Clark’s mental day planner, he’s penciled in Al for a few hours out in the fields in the morning, and then the rest of the afternoon inside, enough exertion for one day. When he shares this suggestion, however, Al has other ideas.
“But you’re going back outside,” he argues.
“I need to finish the discing.”
“Then I’m coming too,” Al declares, his chin raised at a stubborn angle.
Clark tries to talk sense into him the whole way out to the fields, but he just picks up the sprayer and walks off, leaving Clark talking to himself. At least Al relents and puts on the cap, the sun now at an aggressive angle in the sky, glowering down on them. He plods up and down the rows, inspecting each vine with a relentless eye, wielding the fungicide with such vicious determination it’s a little alarming.
When he finishes, he flags Clark down on the tractor and wants to know, “What should I do now?”
Clark hesitates. “Well…there’s compost that needs to be shoveled into the spreader. But it’s hard work.”
Al glares at him hotly. “I’m not feeble.”
Clark sighs and gets down, leads Al around the side of the shed, outfits him with gloves, shows him what to do and leaves him to it. Every time he wheels around on the tractor for the return trip up the rows, he expects to find Al gone, disappeared into the house, given up on the menial tedium. Every time, though, Al is still hard at work, his back a bowed line, cords standing out in his arms as he chucks shovel-load after shovel-load of compost into the wagon. Clark just shakes his head.
He knocks off early, a good two hours of daylight still left. He figures he can finish up the last few rows in the morning, and he knows Al needs a break, whether he’s willing to admit it or not. He puts away the tractor and goes to get Al. He doesn’t look up at Clark’s approach or break his rhythm—scoop, toss, scoop toss—not even when Clark clears his throat, trying to get his attention.
“You don’t have anything to prove here,” Clark tells him.
Al glances up, and the charged light in his eyes begs to differ.
“Come on inside,” Clark says in the same even tone police negotiators must use, hoping to avert a standoff, “and I’ll start supper. I’m getting hungry.”
It takes a few more moments for Al to relinquish the shovel. “But I’m going to finish this in the morning,” he insists.
They go in and part ways, Clark heading off to the kitchen to survey their options for dinner and Al to the bedroom to get cleaned up. Clark washes up at the sink and sifts through the contents of the refrigerator. They went food shopping the day before, and he feels fairly stymied by the unfamiliar sense of bounty. He’s used to having a few takeout containers of questionable leftovers and, if he’s lucky, a bottle of ketchup. An actual array of foodstuffs just confuses him. He goes to ask Al: burgers or tacos?
The bedroom door is half open, so he doesn’t knock, just barges on in. He finds Al lying face down on the bed, arms and legs in floppy disarray like a rag doll that’s been carelessly tossed, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin, strained line.
Clark ventures up to the bed. A weak slant of light is coming in through the window, playing off the curve of Al’s head, which Clark can now see has turned an angry shade of pink. “Why didn’t you tell me you were sunburned?”
Al doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t answer.
Clark sighs heavily. He wonders briefly if this what was his mother’s life was like, a never-ending attempt to reason with a mulish husband. “I’ll go get something to put on it.”
He’s at the door when a sheepish voice calls out, “Can you get something for this, too?”
Al holds up his hands, covered in blisters, already starting to bleed.
A tug of war breaks out in Clark, concern battling utter exasperation. “Why didn’t you just stop?”
“You’d think I was useless,” Al says indignantly.
Clark shakes his head all the way to the bathroom and back. He pulls the chair over to the bed. “Let’s take care of that sunburn first.”
Al takes the bottle of aloe gel out of his hand, but when he reaches up to dab some on his scalp, he grimaces and lets his arm drop.
“Sore?” Clark asks.
Al’s too proud to admit it, of course, but the off-kilter way he’s holding his shoulders says everything.
“Here.” Clark takes the bottle back. “Let me do this.” He starts to smooth the cool salve over the seared skin, and then it hits him how strangely intimate this is. He hesitates, fingers hovering in the air. “Um, is this okay?”
Al nods, his eyes closed once more. “Feels good.”
Clark finishes and moves on to the blisters.
“Fuck!” Al hisses at the spritz of anti-bacterial spray.
Clark blows on it, the way his mother used to do when he was a little boy and still felt the sting of things.
Al stares down at his battered palms. “How can this be my life? I’m not good at any of these things.”
“It was just your first day,” Clark reminds him.
“Please don’t patronize me,” Al says tiredly.
Clark takes a breath and lets it out. “Okay. Here’s the truth. You’re not good at any of these things because this isn’t your life.”
Al’s gaze snaps up to meet Clark’s, and Clark almost tells him then, all of it, who he really is, the situation with his father, that Clark only wants to protect him. Maybe he can convince him to stay. Maybe, together, they can figure out what to do. Maybe…
“What I mean is that having a farm was really my dream,” he says quickly, unable to break the inertia of lies. “And you got swept up in it.”
Al frowns. “So what does that mean exactly? I’m just dead weight around here?” His eyes fasten on Clark like the answer really matters.
“Of course not,” he assures him, “You’re just more…indoorsy. Better at the business end of things.” He smiles. “The brains of the operation.”
“I’m good with money?” Al asks curiously.
“Definitely.” Clark wraps Al’s hands with gauze and fastens the bandages with white first-aid tape.
“So I…what? Keep the books and manage our finances?”
“Sure do.” Clark doubts this will be much of a challenge for someone who used to run his own multinational corporation. “How bad does your back hurt?”
“On a scale of one to ten?” Al scrunches up his forehead, considering. “I’d say about forty-five.”
“I told you not to kill yourself,” he says with a sigh, even as he’s getting up to go find the liniment.
He comes back with it, and Al takes exception to the cow prominently displayed on the label. “If I don’t get better, are you going to take me to the vet?”
Clark rolls his eyes. “Very funny. I’ll have you know my father swore by this stuff for sore muscles. Now take off your shirt and lie down on your stomach and be quiet so I can work.”
He kneels on the bed beside Al, applying himself to the knotted shoulders, but the angle is awkward, so he swings his leg over to straddle Al’s body. He learned how to give back rubs, strangely enough, from Lois, who insisted it was his responsibility as her writing partner to keep her neck from getting stiff. It was just easier sometimes to give into her dictatorial edicts than spend valuable time and energy trying to fight them.
Clark pushes the heel of his hand into the coiled muscles of Al’s back. He lets out a little moan, and Clark freezes, afraid he hasn’t kept his strength carefully enough in check.
But then Al makes an insistent “don’t stop” noise, and Clark smiles. He presses his thumbs into tight shoulder blades, and Al lets out a happy sigh. The smell of the liniment is minty and familiar, and a comforting wave of home washes over Clark. Al’s skin is warm beneath his hands, the curve of his spine elegant and strangely vulnerable, and it fills Clark with a protective tenderness for him. He presses more lightly, skimming his fingers along the knobs of his spine, over the lines of his muscles, his touch becoming less therapeutic, more of a caress.
The realization of what he’s doing jars him, and he abruptly pulls away. Al’s eyes snap open, seek out his face, linger there.
“You’re done,” Clark tells him, trying to smile, the skin around his mouth pulling too tightly.
“Thank you,” Al is still watching him, “that feels a lot better.”
Clark gives an awkward nod, starts to untangle their bodies, but Al flips over onto his back before he can manage it, and then that’s so far beyond awkward he doesn’t even know what the right word is for it.
“I’d offer to return the favor, but…” Al holds up his bandaged hands, smiling ruefully.
Clark just shakes his head. His mind isn’t much on words, hands hovering at the khaki waist of Al’s pants, eyes fastened on the pale skin of Al’s chest, his dark-penny nipples, the lean planes of his stomach.
Al stares up at him, considering. “You’re a very kind man,” he says at last.
Clark falls into his gaze, half panicking, an unaccountable feeling of helpless, as if he is the vulnerable one here. His hands, seemingly of their own accord, drift from the safety of fabric to the risky territory of skin, thumbs moving in slow circles, without plan or pretense. Al smiles softly, and for a long moment, Clark is suspended in that in-between place, where there is no clear decision, desire pulling in one direction, conscience in another.
Maybe if Al looked away, it would break the spell, but he doesn’t, his gaze unwavering, weighted with curiosity. Clark closes his eyes, bends his head and presses a kiss, very softly, to Al’s belly. Just the lightest brush of his lips, really, but there’s a quiet in the room that feels significant, reverent, the only sound he can make out the violent rush of his own breathing. He feels Al’s muscles quiver beneath his lips, and then he wants more, kisses again, open-mouthed, tasting him, and begins to move slowly up his body.
Al is breathing heavily now as well, his chest rising and falling beneath Clark’s mouth. Clark stretches over him, balancing on his hands and knees, as if keeping their bodies from touching is some kind of compromise with the disapproving voice inside him. He silently damns that part of himself and presses his face to Al’s neck, kisses him there, and along his jaw. He lifts his head, looks into Al’s face for permission, and finds inky dark eyes riveted on him, the curiosity so intense it’s like something physical.
The first kiss is light, exploratory. Eyes closed, but he can still feel Al’s gaze, watching him as they kiss. He kisses him again and then again, a little more intensely each time. Al makes a soft noise of contentment. His hands come up, fingers sink into Clark’s hair, the gauzy touch of bandages against his scalp. He frames Al’s face in his hands, and Al eagerly returns the kiss, the brush of lashes against Clark’s cheek as he closes his eyes.
It’s easy to get lost, and Clark forgets to be careful, cupping Al’s head, remembering a second too late, when he feels sticky gel on his fingers, that he shouldn’t do that. Al sucks in his breath and flinches away from his touch. Clark pulls away so abruptly the momentum carries him off the bed, and he stands there, hovering awkwardly. “Sorry.”
Al shakes his head. He looks up at Clark with that same, surprising expression, his eyes asking questions, making promises, his body relaxed, inviting. Clark doesn’t know where all this has suddenly come from. Maybe Al believes having sex with his husband will help him remember his life. Clark really doesn’t know what he’s thinking. Can’t even begin to guess. Because all his knowledge of this man is a fraud.
“I, uh,” he runs a hand through his hair, still breathing too hard, “I came to ask what you’d like for dinner. Hamburgers, okay?”
Al nods, the intensity still there in his eyes, making Clark feel as if he can see right through him.
He can’t stay still beneath that penetrating gaze, restlessly swinging his arms, nervously taping his foot. “I’m going to go—” He points in the vague direction of somewhere else and hightails it out of there before he changes his mind, loses touch with his better nature altogether.
He moves mechanically around the kitchen, trying to imagine what Al must be thinking. It has to seem strange, that Clark would start like that, only to stop so abruptly.
A few minutes later, Al joins him, dressed in a clean change of clothes. Clark pulls out the cutting board, bends his head, as if cutting a tomato takes all his attention, fighting back a wave of self-consciousness, of regret, if he’s being completely honest with himself. Al doesn’t say anything, just goes to the cabinet, and takes out the plates, sets the table. The scent of burgers sizzles in the air, and Clark digs a spatula out of the drawer, turns them over. He warms up a can of baked beans, and they sit down to dinner. It’s so quiet as they begin to eat that the ticking of the clock from the living room seems to rattle off the kitchen walls.
When Al does finally speak, it makes Clark jump. “Do they ever visit?” Clark must look confused, because Al adds, “Your parents, I mean.”
Clark shakes his head. He’s not expecting the hurt look in Al’s eyes, but there’s no mistaking it, and then he realizes how that must have sounded.
“They died,” he tells Al, eyes on his plate, his throat suddenly tight. It never gets any easier saying that. “Car accident. About a year and a half ago.” He takes a deep breath. “That’s why I needed to move here. Why it happened so quickly. I just couldn’t—” He shakes his head.
“And that’s why it’s been so hard for you to unpack,” Al says, as if it all makes sense now.
Clark doesn’t look at him, can’t bear to see what’s in his eyes. “I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” Al says softly.
Clark swallows hard. “Thanks.”
“Why did I let you come out here without me?” Al sounds confused. “It doesn’t seem like a good time for you to be alone.”
Clark braves a glance at him. “Couldn’t be helped.”
“Can I ask—” He stops himself, despite the obvious urgency in his voice.
“It’s okay,” Clark tells him. “What do you want to know?”
“My parents?” There’s a mixture of hope and dread in his face that’s almost painful to see.
Clark tells him the truth, as gently as he can, “Your mother died when you were young.”
“And my father? I gather that we’re estranged.”
Clark nods. “He’s—not a very good man.”
“Do I have any brothers or sisters?”
Clark shakes his head.
“So I’m alone,” Al says grimly.
“No,” Clark says with quiet emphasis. “You’re not.”
Al gets that look on his face again, the one that turns Clark inside out. Before he can decide if it’s guilt or anticipation he’s feeling, the live current running between them is interrupted by a knock at the door.
Clark goes to answer it and finds the sheriff standing on the porch.
“Evenin’ there, Mr. Pacino-Kent.”
“Um, hey, Sheriff.” Clark’s heart beats like it’s trying to thud right out of his chest. A grainy home movie unspools in his head, the sheriff unmasking his lies, taking Al away from him.
There’s an empty moment, when Clark should be inviting the sheriff inside, but he’s too paralyzed by dread to use the good manners his mother taught him.
At last the sheriff asks, “Mind if I come in?”
That snaps him back to reality, and he practically jumps away from the door. “Of course. Please.”
The sheriff steps inside, takes off his hat, glances around. “The place is really starting to shape up, isn’t it?”
“I hope so,” he joins the sheriff in surveying the room, “we’ve been working hard on it.” He clears his throat. “So, what can I do for you?”
Sheriff Nelson shakes his head. “Just paying a courtesy visit. Wanted to see how your mister is getting along.”
“He’s seems to be doing pretty well—”
Almost on cue, Al comes out of the kitchen. “Clark, who is it—” He stops when he sees the sheriff. “Oh. Hello.”
The sheriff nods in greeting. “Mr. Pacino-Kent.” His eyes narrow as he takes in Al’s worse-for-wear condition, the stiff way he’s walking, the bandages on his hands.
Clark can only imagine what he must be thinking.
He gets all flustered as he tries to explain, “We were doing some work outside, and Al had kind of a hard day of it.”
Al frowns, confused by the tension in the room. He steps in and plays the host, “We were just about to have some dessert, Sheriff. Why don’t you join us?”
The sheriff holds up a hand. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner. Just wanted to stop by and see if you’re doing all right.”
“Thank you,” Al tells him, “Except for not being able to remember a thing, I’m doing fine.”
The sheriff nods, watching him very closely for a moment, and then he appears to relax. “Well, I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Pacino-Kent. I really am.”
“Sure you won’t change your mind about dessert?” Al asks.
Clark is finally recovered enough to chime in, “Yes, Sheriff. Join us.”
Sheriff Nelson shakes his head, with a little smile. “I appreciate it. I really do. But I’m supposed to be watching my cholesterol. Doc Hadley was right stern about it. And my Flora can tell if I’ve been within three feet of sweets just by looking at me.” He puts his hat back on and nods. “You all have a nice evening now.”
When he’s gone, Al asks Clark, “What was that all about?”
He starts to brush it off with a shrug, but Al gives him a pointed look, and he sighs. “I think he wanted to make sure I’m not beating you.” He touches the faded bruise on Al’s cheek. “I didn’t. Do this. Just so you know.” He moves his thumb in a light circle, although the prudent voice in his head is fairly shrieking at him to keep his hands to himself.
Al meets his gaze. “I know.” Clark’s brows knit together and Al shrugs. “I don’t know how. I just do.”
They have their ice cream in the living room—Chunky Monkey for Clark, Cherry Garcia for Al—sitting side-by-side on the sofa. They seem to have run low on things to say, the clinking of their spoons on the bowls the only break in the quiet, and it unnerves Clark enough that he finally suggests, “Want to catch the game?”
Al nods, and Clark flips on the set. It’s Mariners—As, bottom of the fourth, and Al curls into the corner of the sofa to watch, his feet resting against Clark’s thigh, something Clark tries not to pay too much attention to.
Fortunately, the game does its job distracting them, a good pitching match-up that pulls them into the action.
“Why do they keep swinging at the slider?” Clark asks at one point, to no one in particular. “They know they’re not going to hit it.”
Al snorts in disgust at an unsuccessful sacrifice bunt in the seventh. “That’s just giving away outs, even when they don’t screw it up.” It seems to startle him at first that he has such a strong opinion on the subject, but then he redoubles his scowl at the screen, standing by it.
For a while, it seems as if the game may go into extra innings, but then the Mariners break out against the A’s bullpen, and it’s quickly over after that. Clark switches off the TV, and Al gets to his feet, yawning.
Clark doesn’t budge from the sofa, awkwardness creeping over him again as two thoughts get tangled up in his head, Al and bed.
Al puts his hands on his hips, regarding Clark almost impatiently, a pretty clear indication he expects Clark to join him.
Clark smiles nervously. “Insomnia, remember?”
Al doesn’t react for a moment, eyes fastened on Clark, and then he moves closer, leaning over him, bracing his hand on the cushion behind Clark’s head. Clark is expecting an argument of some sort, quite possibly a loud one, so he jumps at the press of Al’s lips against his. By the time he adjusts to the surprise, his hand coming up to touch Al’s jaw, Al is already pulling away.
“Goodnight,” he says.
Clark doesn’t take his eyes off him as he walks the short distance to the bedroom. Insomnia might have been an excuse, but it was no lie. He’s not going to be able to sleep at all tonight.
Sometimes, Clark wonders if people on his planet used money at all, or if perhaps they had some other economic arrangement, more abstract, or possibly more direct, a barter system maybe. There has to be a reason—something in his genes rather than his experience, because his adopted parents certainly knew how to juggle their finances—why he’s so hapless when it comes to cash.
Back in his days at the Planet, Lois used to roll her eyes at the steadily growing mountain of crumpled up cash register tapes and coffee-stained rental car agreements on his desk until she finally couldn’t take it anymore. “Good God, Smallville, when was the last time you did your expenses? The Ice Age? Hand it over,” she would say testily. Half an hour later he’d have a stack of completed forms, pages of neatly taped receipts. “Yes, I am amazing,” she would say in answer to his boggling disbelief, “and don’t think you don’t owe me for it.”
Al gives Clark a similar look of exasperation when he takes over the bill-paying, although at least he has the courtesy not to call Clark a financial moron to his face. It seems the accounts are in worse shape than Clark even anticipated, because Al spends an entire day at the desk in the living room, stacks of envelopes carefully sorted, papers laid out in front of him, scribbling notes, his face set in a ferocious expression of concentration. It’s far more intricate than any check-writing Clark has ever done, and every time he passes by, he takes a long look, trying to figure out exactly what Al is doing.
When he finally comes out and asks, Al doesn’t look up, his fingers flying over the adding machine keys. “Financial acrobatics.”
At lunch, he goes into more detail, “The good news is we’ve managed to settle all our bills. The bad news is that’s not going to last very long.”
Clark nods. “I’ll see if I can drum up some steady work. It’s construction season. Maybe some dry-walling or framing.”
“Clark, how are you going to do that and take care of the farm? We’ve already established I’m pretty useless in that department.”
“Not useless, indoorsy. And I’ll,” he waves a hand in the air, “figure something out.”
Al assumes a let’s-get-practical expression, “Whatever money you make is only going to be a temporary fix. We need to develop a long-term business plan for the vineyard. Investigate farm subsidies. Small business loans. Government grant programs…” He reels off a long list of other possibilities to explore.
By the end of it, Clark is frowning in consternation. “My father never did any of that.”
“Because his farm was already well established, I’m guessing, passed down in the family.”
Clark nods. “Four generations.”
“We’re not in that position. Let me do some research. I’ll see what I can come up with, and then we can discuss our options.”
Clark reluctantly agrees—there’s too much obvious sense in the suggestion to do otherwise—but just the thought of Al spending hours googling who-knows-what drives him half crazy with dread. He’s done what he could to truth-proof the computer, purged anything remotely revealing from the hard drive, cleared the browser’s cache, deleted Chloe’s email. There’s a strong box out in the barn where’s taken to hiding things, including the printout of the information she sent him. Whatever happens happens, he tries to tell himself philosophically, but that doesn’t stop him from finding one feeble excuse after another to come back inside that afternoon, to make sure Al isn’t packing up to leave for good.
Each time, he finds him immersed in his work, making careful notes on a yellow legal pad, staring into the computer screen as if he can read the future there. Clark sneaks a peak over Al’s shoulder every chance he gets, but the fact that Al is never doing anything more alarming than browsing the U.S. Department of Agriculture site or writing down phone numbers for the Small Business Administration doesn’t reassure him. It’s hard not to feel that he’s only one click away from being on the next plane back to Metropolis.
“Do you need something, Clark?” Al finally asks, not even bothering to look up, knowing full well that Clark is there, watching. He’s never been able to lurk unobtrusively.
“Um, well—” He flails around for a likely excuse and comes up with, “I was wondering what you’d like for dinner?”
Al glances over his shoulder, gives Clark a polite smile that’s clearly his cue to get lost. “Why don’t you let me take care of that?”
“Okay. If you want.” He takes a deep breath, tries to think of something else to say. The more time Al spends talking to him the less time spent on the Internet with all its infernal information. Clark has never hated free speech so much in his life.
But there really is nothing else to say, and the impatient way Al’s eyes are boring into him makes it too uncomfortable to linger. “Okay, then. I guess I’ll be going back outside now. See you at supper.”
Al gives him a distracted nod, returning to his research. Clark trudges out to the fields, gets on his tractor, goes back to spreading the compost. He’s so jittery that the plodding pace up and down each row feels like a slow, chugging sort of torture. Finally, he cuts off the engine with a sigh and hops down, deciding it’s just no good sticking around the place, waiting with his stomach in a knot for Al to uncover his lies. Maybe if he takes matters into his own hands, makes some sort of hopeful gesture he can ward off disaster. He’s already given in to group delusion; it’s a slippery slope from there to all-out superstition.
He goes into the barn, pulls out the strong box from the back of his tool bench, punches in the numeric code, and the lid springs open. Inside are his old press credentials, his mother’s wedding ring, along with the photographs he’s come to get, snapshots of vacations and family holidays, exiled to the barn because Al’s conspicuous absence from them would raise too many questions.
The Kinko’s is over in Charleysburg, the same town where the Target is. Clark explains what he needs to the clerk, tells her it’s a gag gift for a buddy’s birthday. She’s maybe seventeen and gives him a disappointed look, as if she thinks a person his age really should have outgrown such things by now. She sets him up at a computer where he’ll have everything he needs to counterfeit a life history. He scans in the photos of himself, uses the same Internet he was cursing only an hour earlier to find pictures of Lex Luthor, and after some artistic false starts manages to cobble together a handful of fairly convincing Pacino-Kent family photos. While he’s there, he goes ahead and makes up a forged marriage license, for good measure.
When he gets home, he parks the truck out by the barn, so Al won’t hear the engine. As he goes inside, there’s a part of him that genuinely expects to find the house empty.
Instead, he’s greeted by the smell of…he doesn’t know what exactly, only that it smells incredibly good. He tracks it to the kitchen, finds Al at the stove, every burner going, stirring something in a saucepan with one hand, taking a skillet off the heat with the other. There are implements Clark had no idea he owned laid out on the counter, things he’d be hard pressed to even identify, that must have belonged to his mother, that he’d packed up without really thinking about it.
Clark peers over Al’s shoulder. There’s what looks to be chicken and some kind of very fragrant sauce, asparagus, a white circle of batter in a pan, crepes in the making, and Clark tries to imagine where Al learned to cook like this, pictures a boy consigned to a brigade of nannies, trailing behind housekeepers in the kitchen, little eyes taking in the secrets of the fancy food that would later be served to his parents on a starched white cloth in the dining room, maybe even being allowed to lick the bowl when he was very, very good.
Clark fends off the sadness the image gives him with a heartfelt, “Wow.”
Al turns, face brightening. “You think?”
“The minute I came through the door everything smelled so good. Just like it used to when—” The reminiscence gets choked off by an unanticipated flash of pain.
Al’s face takes on a compassionate look of understanding. “Your mother was a good cook?”
Clark nods, not trusting himself to do more than that, the sudden emotion still raw-feeling in the back of his throat. It passes eventually, replaced by a sense of warmth at the memory. “My mother loved being in the kitchen. It was her way of taking care of us, but it was also…a creative thing, I guess you’d say.”
Al nods. “I feel that, too. Have I always liked to cook?”
“Since I’ve known you.”
“How did I learn?”
“Well—” Clark stumbles for a moment, the picture of those phantom housekeepers making it hard for him to think of anything else. “You were a short-order cook there for a while.”
“I worked at a greasy spoon?” Al’s lip curls up in distaste.
“It was more like a truck stop.”
Al lets out a heavy sigh. “Okay, you can stop telling me about my life now.”
Clark pats him on the shoulder. “After you stopped working for your father, you needed a job, and that’s what you could find. You were good at it, too. The owner always said you brought a touch of class to the place.”
“He did?” Al asks, somewhat mollified.
Clark nods. “Truthfully, you helped save his business. Word got out that this was the best meal on the road, and the place was packed all the time.”
“”Well, of course it was,” Al says with a sniff, but there’s a pleased touch of pink in his cheeks.
Al turns his attention back to his sauce, adding a pinch of salt, and Clark should just leave well enough alone.
But he doesn’t. “That’s one of the things that made me fall in love with you,” he finds himself saying.
Al turns his head sharply, their eyes meeting, and Clark feels it right in the pit of his stomach. For a moment, neither of them looks away, and there’s a tight, coiled energy in the room, like something has to give.
It’s Al who finally does, unlocking his gaze, turning his attention back to the stove. “I saved you from your own cooking, huh?”
Clark laughs. “Well, there was that. But I was thinking in particular about one of our first dates. You wanted to make chicken and dumplings. It’s my favorite. But something went wrong, and it didn’t come out right.”
Al snorts. “I find that hard to believe.”
Clark smiles at him. “Yeah, you felt the same way back then. You were really set on getting it right, though. So you threw the whole thing out and started over. I think we finally had dinner around midnight.”
“And this is why you love me?” Al asks skeptically.
“I appreciate determination,” Clark tells him.
“Well, I hope I made up for my culinary failings in some way.” He says it lightly, like a joke, but the way his eyes search Clark’s face is intimately serious.
“Um, yeah. It was,” Clark clears his throat, “a good night.”
The phone ringing is a splash of cold water in the face, not particularly pleasant, but certainly useful. This is always the problem with lying, Clark remembers somewhat belatedly. Once you get started, the whole thing snowballs, until you’re standing in your kitchen, halfway convinced that your non-existent first date with your so-called husband ended with inedible dumplings and the best sex you’ve ever had.
“I’ll just,” he takes a sensible step back from Al, “go get that.”
The call seems a little less like a godsend when he answers and it’s Chloe.
“Oh, hi, um,” Al is watching curiously, and he plasters a bland smile on his face, the kind he imagines he must wear when he’s talking to his customers, “Ms. Sullivan. What can I do for you?”
Chloe laughs. “Well, hi there yourself, Mr. Kent. And, actually, it’s what I can do for you.”
“Oh, really? Um,” he keeps watch on Al, although he’s performing some kind of complicated maneuver with the chicken and the crepes and doesn’t appear to be paying particular attention to the conversation, “is this about what we talked about the other day?”
“Why, yes, Mr. Kent,” Chloe says, her voice throaty with amusement, “it is. You know, Clark, I’d almost think you have someone there with you. Don’t tell me you got lucky.”
“Um, well—” He tries to twist his mouth into the shape of denial, but there’s lying, and then there’s lying to Chloe.
She sighs, and he knows without a doubt that she’s rolling her eyes. “Just give it up already, Clark. I talked to Pete. I know.”
He goes hot in the face and ducks into the living room, so Al won’t notice. “I don’t know what Pete told you, but it’s not—”
“Just tell me you weren’t planning this when you called me,” there’s an edge to her voice, and Clark knows that sound. She only gets it when she thinks she’s being used.
“No! It just happened. I swear!”
He explains then, about that day and the yacht and Lex Luthor, even the naked part, because she’ll know if he leaves anything out.
“Ah,” she says, understanding why he didn’t confide this little detail to Pete. “So when you saw him again at the hospital—”
“I had to help him, Chloe. That’s—”
“Just what Clark Kent does,” she says with an exasperated sort of fondness.
“So you’re…not mad?” he asks carefully.
“I’d describe it more as concerned.”
“There’s nothing going on,” Clark says defensively. “We’re not—I wouldn’t—”
“Clark, I appreciate that you want to help him, but you’re setting yourself up for some serious heartbreak here. Can’t you see that?
“It isn’t like that. I’m not—” He squeezes his eyes shut. “I just—I need to do this.”
She sighs in resignation. “If I can’t change your mind, let me at least tell you what I found out.” Clark hears the shuffling of papers as she takes out her notes. “My contact came up with several drugs that could account for Lex’s psychotic symptoms. One in particular, though, causes neck pain. It’s brand new on the market, would have still been in the final phases of FDA approval six months ago. Developed by a company called Landor PharmaCo. I did some digging, and guess who owns it?”
“LuthorCorp,” Clark says without a beat, the pieces falling sickeningly into place.
He tightens his grip on the phone. “I know this is a big story, and I know it’s asking a huge favor, but—”
“I’m not going to write this, Clark. There’s no solid evidence, and I’m not crazy enough to go up against Lionel Luthor without it. Besides, I have a learned a thing or two about putting friendship before work.”
“Thanks, Chloe,” he tells her gratefully.
“Just think about what I said, okay?”
He sighs. “Okay.”
After he hangs up, Al wants to know, “Who was that?”
Clark shakes his head. “Oh, no one.” He offers Chloe a mental apology.
Al’s eyes linger on him curiously, but he doesn’t pursue the matter any further. “Can you get the plates for me?”
Al serves up the food. They sit down to eat, and everything is just as good as it looks.
“Delicious,” Clark say at least five times, and Al looks pleased on each occasion.
“I had a very productive afternoon with the research,” Al tells him.
Al nods. “Have you thought about bottling our first vintage this fall? The grapes are mature enough, aren’t they?”
“Well, yes,” Clark says hesitantly.
“We don’t—” He sighs, feeling like someone who should never have gone into business for himself. “You know our money issues.”
Clark’s feelings of failure must show, because Al fixes him with a chastising look, “We both got us into this mess, Clark. So stop looking so guilty. Besides, I think I figured a way out of it.”
He fills Clark in on a federal grant program he found online that assists startup businesses in areas with high levels of unemployment to help encourage the development of new industry.
“Blue Cove, luckily for us, unluckily for the town, qualifies,” Al explains. “I downloaded the application. The deadline is only three weeks away. That’s a lot of work in not much time, but I think we can make it.”
Al’s excitement has a contagious quality, but there remains a streak of the realist farmer in Clark. “The grant sounds great, if we can get it. It does just leave the same problem I’ve had since I bought this place. I don’t know a thing about winemaking.”
“I’m taking it that I don’t either?” Al asks, and Clark shakes his head. “That’s pretty much what I thought. So I did some research into Oregon State’s agricultural school. They have several winemaking courses we can take. I also found an organization, the American Association of Winemakers.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of that.”
Al nods. “They keep a directory of master vintners. Wineries can hire them as consultants. We can figure the cost for that into our grant proposal. It’s a justifiable expense, since we’re still learning the business.”
“You’ve really thought this through,” Clark tells him, genuinely impressed.
Al smiles and gives a little shrug. “I seem to have a knack for it. I guess I am indoorsy, after all.”
Clark grins, and the urge to embellish takes over once more, “You once saw this ad on the inside of a matchbook. Um,” he stutters, “back when you used to smoke, before I got you to quit. Anyway, you sent away for this correspondence course on business management and got your certificate in just two months. That was the fastest anybody had ever done it. The teacher even wrote you a nice letter telling you what a natural you were. We’ve got it around here somewhere.” He makes a show of frowning, as if trying to remember where they put it. “Anyway, I was very proud.
Al’s eyes meet his, and the look on his face is so unshuttered, soft with yearning that Clark feels a flash of panic. He stares nervously down at his plate, and they fall silent as they finish their dinner.
“I’ll do the dishes,” Clark volunteers. “It’s only fair, since you cooked.”
Clark beats a hasty retreat to the sink, and Al follows a moment later, bringing his dishes, sliding them into the soapy water, his expression perfectly opaque once more. He knows something about hiding too, Clark thinks, as he starts to scrub a plate.
Al settles in the living room, leaving Clark to the washing up, and Clark joins him when he’s done. Al is bent over a book, and Clark picks up the paper, but there’s an awkwardness between them now, when everything was so congenial before.
“Oh, um, hey,” Clark says when the quiet gets too much for him, “you know those mementoes you were asking about? I searched though some boxes and managed to dig up a few things.”
Al looks up from his book, keen with interest. Clark goes to get their faked personal history from his jacket and sits down next to Al to show him.
“Okay,” he says, “here’s one of us on our honeymoon in Cancun. You weren’t too crazy about me wearing that Hawaiian shirt, but you were trying to be brave about it. And here’s one of us in our apartment in Metropolis, right after we got married. We hadn’t redecorated yet. Oh, and here’s one from the wedding. That was a crazy day. The minister was an hour late and smelled like vodka, and your father kept pinching the waitresses at the reception. But we still managed to have a good time.”
Al takes the pictures out of Clark’s hands and scrutinizes each one. “Why do I always look so sarcastic?”
Clark can hardly tell him the truth, that being hounded by paparazzi will do that to anyone. “Um, well,” he stalls, “you’re, uh, not really that crazy about having your picture taken. You know, after the gland problem and everything.” He moves on breezily, “Hey, you want to watch the game? It’s almost time for the first pitch.” He gets up to turn on the TV.
Al unfolds the fraudulent marriage license and peruses it. “Why didn’t I just take your name when we got married?” he wants to know. “Or better yet, why didn’t I change my name the minute I turned eighteen and had some legal recourse? I had to be tired of all the mockery I’m sure I must have endured.”
“Um, well, I guess you kind of thought of it as a challenge?” He claps his hands together. “How about a beer?”
Al nods distractedly, still sorting through the pictures. Clark comes back with two bottles and settles next to Al on the sofa to watch the game. They’re interrupted in the third inning by someone at the door, and Clark can only hope it’s not another surprise visit from the sheriff.
It turns out to be Pete, about the last person Clark was expecting. Since that tense call the evening he brought Al home, Pete has kept his distance. The few times Clark has heard from him have been all business, Pete letting him know about a job, in the clipped, just-the-facts way that Clark always thinks of as his Mr. Factory Owner voice.
“Hey, man,” Pete says a little tentatively, as if he’s unsure of his welcome.
Clark opens the door wide and takes a step back. “Good to see you.”
Pete comes inside, and Al gets to his feet, his expression quickly flickering through a range of reactions, surprise, wariness and finally settling on curiosity.
Clark does the introductions, “Al, this is Pete Ross. He’s an old friend of mine from back East. In fact, it was thanks to him that we bought the vineyard and moved out here.”
Pete shifts his weight uncomfortably, but does his best to play along like a good sport, “Um, hey…Al. Uh, it’s…good to see you.”
“Thanks.” Al glances from Pete back to Clark, frowning a little, no doubt picking up the tension. “Can I get you a beer?”
Pete plasters on a smile. “Sure, man. That would be great.”
Al goes off to get it, and Pete says under his breath, “If you ever would have told me I’d be drinking beer with Lex Luthor—”
Clark gives him a shushing look, and Al returns a moment later. “Here you go.” He gestures toward a chair. “Have a seat.”
“Yeah, Pete,” Clark says, “hang out with us a while.”
They spend the next five minutes taking sips of their beers, eyeing each other expectantly, waiting for someone to think of something to say.
It’s Pete who finally takes the plunge, “So the house is really looking good.”
Al glances around with a critical eye. “We’ve been trying to get it into shape. There are still some things we’d like to do, but we’re pretty happy with it for now.”
“Looks like a whole new place,” Pete says, valiantly keeping the conversation going. “I mean, is that the same old sofa?”
“Yeah,” Clark says, rather proud of Al’s resourcefulness, “you’d never know it, would you?”
Pete shakes his head. “I’m impressed. I guess it just takes two to make a home, huh, Clark?” Beneath the friendly tone is a note of rebuke.
Clark looks down at the tops of his boots. “Something like that, Pete.”
Al looks confused again by the undercurrents between them and tries changing the subject, “So, Pete, maybe you can help fill in some gaps for me. Tell me something about the old days in Metropolis. I assume we must have spent time together there? Since you’re such a close friend of Clark’s.”
Pete gets a helpless look on his face. “Well, actually, I didn’t see much of you guys when you were living back East.”
“Oh,” Al says, trying to hide his surprise.
“Pete was already in Blue Cove by the time we met, busy working on his empire,” Clark jumps in. “He owns the plumbing parts factory. Largest, most successful business in town.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment,” Al tells him. “You’ll have to share some of your secrets with us. Clark and I just started working on our own business plan. We hope to get the winery up and running in time to bottle our first vintage this fall.”
Pete looks from Al to Clark, startled, “Oh, well, that’s great. I’m glad to hear it.” He narrows his eyes at Clark. “Sounds like you two have been very busy making plans together.”
Clark gives him a flat smile and suggests, “Al and I were going to watch the game. You want to stay and catch it with us?”
Pete tips back the rest of his beer. “Nah, man. Thanks. I’d better be going. I just wanted to stop by and, you know, check up on you.” He smiles at little stiffly at Al. “Glad to see you’re doing better.”
Al nods, still looking rather mystified by the entire visit.
Clark gets to his feet. “I’ll walk you out to your truck. I’ve got a question about that job over at the Nances.”
Pete waits until they are well clear of the door before saying, “Man, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know what you—”
“Don’t play that with me, man. I may not be in the club. I may not know the gay man’s secret handshake. But I am not blind, either. Or stupid. I see the way you look at him. Hell, I see the way he looks at you. And I repeat: What are you doing?”
That Pete has a point only makes Clark want to deny it more vehemently. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but—”
Pete pokes him in the chest. “You know, I never thought I’d say this to you, Clark, of all people, but you’re taking advantage of this situation, of someone who can’t judge things for himself.”
Clark can feel the heat rushing to his cheeks, the beginning of very real anger. “I am not taking advantage of him.”
“Oh, yeah?” Pete challenges him. “Well, what do you call it then? The way you’re playing house with him. Making plans for the future. For God’s sake, he thinks he’s your husband. Of course, he’s going to think he’s supposed to have feelings for you. Supposed to want to—”
“He did want to, before he lost his memory,” Clark blurts out rashly in his determination to prove Pete wrong.
The second it’s out of his mouth he wishes he could take it back.
Pete’s eyes get big. “He—you—” He frowns fiercely and his voice rises, “Is that why Lionel Luthor threw you off his boat?”
Clark stares stonily at the ground, his jaw clenched.
Pete lets out his breath. “Geez, man. That just—it makes this whole thing so much more fucked up, you know?”
Clark sighs heavily. “Yeah, Pete. I know.”
Pete shakes his head. “You got to watch yourself, Clark. Seriously.”
Clark nods. “You’re right.” He meets Pete’s eye, earnestly. “I really do know you’re right. And I’m trying—I don’t want to take advantage of him. I swear.”
“I know, man. I know. I am glad you’re making a go of things around here. I can’t say I understand why it took this to make you want to try, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a good thing.”
Clark smiles. “Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it.”
Pete nods, his expression not exactly easy, but at least reconciled as he climbs into his truck. “I’ll talk to you, Clark.”
When Clark gets back inside, Al is waiting. “He doesn’t like me, does he?”
Clark puts a hand on his shoulder. “That’s not it.” Al gives him a skeptical look, and Clark struggles with an explanation, “It’s just—you see, Pete and I have been best friends for a really, really long time. Since kindergarten. And you were the first serious relationship I ever had, and it all happened so fast.”
Al frowns. “We didn’t know each other long before we got married?”
Clark shakes his head. “Not unless you count two weeks as long. Like they always say you just know when it’s right. We eloped to Las Vegas. Stayed in the honeymoon suite.” He describes it for Al, in intimate detail, the first time his little red-rock adventure with Alicia has ever come in useful in any way.
“So…your point is?”
“That Pete hasn’t really gotten a chance to know you yet.”
“And he’s not used to sharing you,” Al says.
“You know how possessive best friends can be.”
“Is that all there is to it, Clark?”
The coiled note of jealousy in Al’s voice takes Clark off guard. “No! I mean, yeah. That’s all. Pete and I, we’re not—let’s just say that Pete’s major hobby back in high school was dreaming up hair-brained schemes to meet girls.”
“Oh,” Al says, a little embarrassed, at the same time also visibly relieved.
“Pete’ll come around,” Clark tells him, as much to reassure himself as Al. “You’ll see.”
Al doesn’t look particularly convinced, but he does let the matter drop, settling back onto the sofa to finish watching the game. When it’s time for bed, they have what has become their typical evening ritual. Al puts his hands on his hips, a determined expression on his face, practically daring Clark to play the insomnia card again.
Clark ends the standoff with a quick, non-negotiable kiss goodnight. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Al scowls at him before disappearing into the bedroom with an expressive slam of the door. Clark flops onto his back on the sofa, stares up at the ceiling, wondering how much longer he can keep up this delicate balancing act before he has to tell Al the truth. Or let go of all claim to being a responsible person with some sense of right and wrong.
Tonight the accumulated weariness of all his sleepless nights finally catches up to him. His lungs feel sluggish, breathing more of a chore than it should be. He’s heavy-limbed but still restlessness, an uncomfortable contradiction, and he gets up again, prowls around the kitchen, opens cabinets, the refrigerator. He’s not hungry, doesn’t even know what he’s looking for. He hasn’t bothered to turn on the lights, and he can see the fields clearly through the window. In the dim light of a half moon, the vines look like an ocean, restless and dark, the wind moving through their tendrils like the play of waves.
It calls to Clark, and he goes out through the back door, not bothering with shoes or a jacket. He doesn’t feel the cold. He walks into the fields, keeps going until he comes to a spot that feels right, and then he squats down, into the cool clods, the fertile smell rising up from the soil.
Clark’s father used to tell him, “They call farming husbandry for a reason, son. It’s not just a business or even a way of life. It’s a sacred responsibility.” Clark wonders if this is why Al and the vines are tangled up in his thoughts right now, why they both keep him awake night after night trying to figure out how he can give them what they need, make good on his responsibility to care for them. It’s not the same sense of accountability he used to carry back in Metropolis, less a burden, more poignant, because if he fails at this, it will be crushing in a way that is very, very personal.
He has no idea how long he lingers there, hands clenching and unclenching in the dirt, feeling the pulse of it, the sharp buzz of life on the pads of his fingers. He’s lost in his thoughts and doesn’t hear the quiet approach. When he glances up and sees Al standing there in his cowboy hat and lasso pajamas, he assumes at first he must be dreaming.
It’s Al’s voice that makes him real. “Come to bed.”
He’s not wearing any shoes either, his bare feet pale and vulnerable on the rough, dark earth, arms crossed over the thin fabric of his T-shirt.
“It’s cold out here,” Clark tells him mechanically. “You should go inside.”
Al pays him no mind. “Come to bed. You need some sleep.” Clark opens him mouth, but whatever unlikely excuse he might have offered is lost to Al’s impatience. “Just come on.”
They go back inside, and Al takes Clark’s hand in a firm grip, leading him to the bedroom. Al slips back into bed. Clark pulls off his shirt and jeans and follows, and Al switches off the lamp. He turns onto his side, facing the wall, and Clark lies flat on his back, feeling more self-conscious now than he did a few days ago when the back rub escalated out of control, more aware that he’s hijacked some privilege that doesn’t belong to him. He stays perfectly still, taking no chances that he might accidentally brush against Al, barely daring to breathe.
Finally, Al lets out his breath, a heavy exhalation, and flips over to confront Clark, “I assume we have slept together at some point in the course of our marriage. So what exactly is the problem?”
In the half-dark, he can make out only the broad features of Al’s face, and that makes him seem like even more of a stranger. “You don’t know me.”
Al doesn’t answer for several long moments, and Clark has to wait in the enormousness of the quiet, knowing Al is watching him, having no earthly idea what it is that he’s seeing.
“I know enough.” Al punctuates the declaration by pressing close, commandeering Clark’s chest as a pillow, throwing one leg over Clark’s in a territorial display. “So just get used to this.”
Clark’s heart thuds in a panicky staccato even as his arms instinctively close around Al’s shoulder, as he drops a kiss to the top of his head. Al lets out a soft, contented sigh, and Clark really wishes he could tell him the truth. That getting used to this isn’t the problem.
Clark opens his eyes the next morning utterly disoriented. Part of it is simply that he slept deeply, profoundly, for the first time in years, and he’s left with the same sense of displacement he imagines a time traveler would experience, waking up a veritable stranger in his own bed. The other part of it, of course, is Al, whose colonial aspirations are no less grandiose in sleep than they are in life. Clark finds himself thoroughly conquered, Al’s dozing weight draped over him, one arm thrown across his chest in a blatant act of ownership. It takes a few seconds for Clark’s sluggish brain to sift through all the sensory input, send the message that not only is Al lying on top of him, smelling wonderfully sleepy and familiar, but he’s also hard, his erection pressed hotly against Clark’s thigh. The realization cuts through Clark’s mental fog with the efficiency of a blade, and the effect is physical and immediate.
There is a difference, though, between what passes for a good idea in the middle of the night and what seems okay in the brutal clarity of day, and Clark frantically calculates how he can get out from under Al and out of bed without waking him. He carefully pushes the covers back and starts to inch toward the edge of the mattress, but it’s all in vain when Al’s eyes snap open, gaze trained sharply on him, freezing him in place. Al props himself up on one elbow and studies him leisurely, and Clark wishes for what has to be the gazillioneth time in his life that he was a person who could talk himself out of situations. But just like all the previous occasions when he’s had this fragile hope, no words come, and it’s unlikely Al would listen anyway, not with such a single-minded expression on his face, like something chiseled in stone. He leans down in predatory fashion, cups Clark’s jaw in his hand, and kisses him as if he has all the time in the world and doesn’t plan to stop what he’s doing anytime soon.
Nothing has ever been a foregone conclusion in Clark’s life; even the laws of physics have proven negotiable. But from the very beginning, there has been a sense of inevitability to this, to Al—Lex—what Clark imagines gravity must feel like to everyone else, the pull so strong that you can’t fight it, don’t even bother to question it. There’s something reassuringly normal about that, and maybe that’s why he stops trying to deny it, brings his hands up to frame Al’s face, kisses him back like he has no plans for any future beyond this moment.
Al makes a small, satisfied sound and stretches out on top of him, aggressive in his triumph. Clark runs a hand over his rumpled T-shirt, feeling the muscles beneath it, the heat of his skin. He tastes the sourness of sleep in Al’s mouth, something he’s surprised to realize is a new experience, no room for sleepovers in the alien crime-fighter’s life. He finds it unaccountably intimate, and that sparks the need for more, for discovery. He moves his hand very slowly down Al’s back, exploring, letting his hand come to rest on the firm curve of Al’s ass, stroking him through the threadbare fabric of his pajamas.
Clark has a streak of the conqueror in him too, he’s always known it, and he flips Al over onto his back, lies on him, letting Al feel him, his need. The scent of Al’s arousal deepens, and his chest rises sharply, falls heavily, as if he is not averse to being an occupied territory. Clark smiles at that and lowers his head, lavishes kisses on Al’s neck. Al tilts his head back, squeezes his eyes shut, and Clark likes that he likes it, almost too much. He lingers there, making Al moan, make him tremble. Al spreads his legs, shifts his body, rocks his hips, and Clark draws in a loud, urgent breath as their cocks rub together through damp fabric. He responds instinctively, hips moving in answer to Al’s, face buried in the curve of his neck, breathing in warmth and sweat.
It’s the tugging at the hem of his shirt that makes him pull away, just long enough for Al to get the T-shirt over his head.
The pink tip of Al’s tongue peeks out from between his lips as he stares, hands moving in slow circles over Clark’s chest. “You really have no idea how beautiful you are, do you?”
Their eyes meet, and Clark feels the heat rising in his cheeks. He’s never much considered the matter, and no one else has ever said so, at least not like this, with such intense conviction, making the word mean so much. Clark kisses him again, slips his hands under his shirt, stroking his sides. There’s a great sense of luxury in inevitability, and he takes his time, relishing every touch, every kiss, knowing that very soon he’s going to have Al naked and under him, nothing to stop him.
Maybe it’s this thought that jinxes him, that makes the phone ring, loudly, insistently, only a split second later.
Al tightens his arms around Clark’s neck. “Don’t answer it.” He lays a flurry of kisses over Clark’s chest as if to convince him.
Clark wants—tries—to ignore it, but it just won’t stop ringing.
“It might be an emergency,” he says between kisses.
Al’s answer is to slip his hand into Clark’s underwear. Clark goes rigidly still, biting his lip so hard that if he were anyone else he’d taste his own blood. Al moves his hand, and Clark starts to shake. The phone goes quiet, and all he can hear then is the dull roar of his own heart pounding in his ears. To his voodoo way of thinking, the message is clear enough, that this is right, no reason to deny himself.
Al strokes him more deliberately, and Clark digs his fingers into the sheets. Only the fact that Al picked them out keeps him from shredding them. He wants to come, and he wants this to go on a very long time, and he feels too good to care about the contradiction. He braces his arms and thrusts into Al’s hand, and Al pushes his underwear down past his knees, staring and licking his lips, and that’s so just unbearably hot that Clark has to clench his hands, squeeze his eyes closed. Because he’s going to…
The phone blares, and Clark’s eyes snap open, all the air forced out of his lungs. “Fuck!” he curses when he can draw a breath again and flops onto his back. Al makes a wildly frustrated noise that Clark empathizes with completely. He’s going to kill whoever keeps calling. He turns on his side, kisses Al and promises, “I’ll get rid of them.”
He gets out of bed, strides out to the living room, yanks up the phone. “What?”
“Oh, Clark, there you are,” Mrs. Henderson’s voice flutters over the line. “I was beginning to think you weren’t at home, dear.”
Clark slowly lets out his breath, steeling himself to be patient. She’s old, she’s old, be nice, she’s old. “Yeah, I was, uh, kind of in the middle of something.”
“I won’t keep you then, dear. I just wanted to make sure you and your husband were still planning on coming over for dinner tonight. I’ve been so looking forward to it.”
Clark frowns. “Um, well—” It’s difficult to think when all he wants is to get back to Al, and rather disconcerting to be talking to Mrs. Henderson when his body is in such a whipped-up frenzy. “You know, I really don’t remember—”
“It was the last time you were over to the house, to fix the exhaust hose on the dryer.” A problem that seemed suspiciously as if it had been caused by someone intentionally pulling it loose, Clark recalls. “I was asking how your husband was getting along, if he was ready for some company yet, and you said you’d both been rather busy around the farm, and I said overwork would be the worst thing for him, and the two of you had better come over for dinner, because some relaxation would do him a world of good, help him get his memory back lickety-split.”
“But we never talked about a day—”
“Well, of course we did, Clark. We said your next free weekend, and here it is Friday already.” Her voice takes on a plaintive quality, “I’ve been planning the menu for days. I do hope you can still make it.”
He does his best to hold back an exasperated sigh. Since Mrs. Henderson first learned of Al’s existence, she’s been hell bent on getting a closer look at him, wheedling Clark at every opportunity to introduce them. Clark knows too well that his own pitiful will is no match for an old lady hot on the trail of a story she can share with the girls down at Dulcie’s Beauty Parlor.
“I’ll talk it over with Al,” he says at last, just to get her off the phone.
“Wonderful! Let’s say six o’clock, shall we?”
“Tell your husband I look forward to meeting him.” She hangs up cheerfully, before Clark can lodge a word of protest.
“Just great,” he mutters to himself as he puts down the phone. He treads back to the bedroom and calls out to Al, “Um, we kind of got corralled into dinner—” He stops in his tracks.
Al has kicked the covers back, and he’s stretched out languidly on his side, nude and aroused and waiting for Clark.
Clark tries to remember what he was saying, “Mrs. Henderson—she does this guilt thing, and she’s been dying to meet you and—” He stares.
Al doesn’t take his eyes off Clark either, doesn’t even seem to blink, everything about him an invitation.
Clark stutters, “I hope you don’t mind. I said we’d come.”
Al shrugs and smiles. “Whatever you want.” He rubs his hand in a lazy circle next to him, the spot that belongs to Clark. “Come back to bed.”
Clark takes a step toward him. He can almost convince himself that the sense of inevitability he felt before wasn’t merely wishful thinking. Almost. The hitch is the way Al looks, so open and vulnerable, and Clark is a trick mirror, what you see isn’t what you get. Suddenly he has Pete’s voice in his head, Of course he’s going to think he’s supposed to have feelings for you, supposed to want to…
He goes to the bed and hastily pulls the blankets up to cover Al. “I’ve got that job over at the McCoy’s today. I better get a move on.”
Al’s face freezes in surprise, and Clark doesn’t wait for the anger to ignite in his eyes. He grabs his clothes off the back of the chair and flees. In the bathroom, he avoids the mirror, turning his face away as he closes the door. What the hell am I doing? The question pounds through his head, but he has no answer for it.
He mechanically strips off his clothes, turns the water up as hot as it will go and steps into the shower. Despite everything, he’s still hard and takes care of it in a perfunctory way, not letting himself think about Al. He finishes cleaning up and gets dressed, takes a tentative step out of the bathroom. He hears thumping coming from the kitchen and finds Al making breakfast. He hovers by the center island, and when Al catches sight of him, his expression turns even more sour, as if he can tell with a mere glance what Clark was just doing in the shower.
“I, uh—” But there’s nothing to say, no way to explain, not without resorting to the truth.
Al sets down a plate with an unhappy clatter, and it takes Clark a moment to realize that it’s meant for him.
“Thanks,” he says quietly as he sits down at the table.
Al doesn’t say anything or even turn around. He stands at the sink drinking his coffee, staring out the window. Clark eats quickly and gets up to go.
“I’ll, uh, see you later,” he says awkwardly, hesitating at the door.
He doesn’t really expect an answer, so it comes as a surprise when Al says, “Here.” And hands him a brown paper bag. “I made you lunch.” Clark looks down at the bag and up at Al, unable to hold back a lopsided smile, which makes Al scowl darkly. “Only because we need to stay on our budget.”
Al crosses his arms over his chest as if daring Clark to believe otherwise. Clark nods very solemnly, but it just doesn’t do any good. Pretending never does. He lays a hand lightly against Al’s cheek and tells him, “I’m sorry.” And kisses him. After a stubborn moment or two, Al relents, and Clark feels his fingers curl into his biceps, the soft touch of his tongue.
“Don’t think this means you’re off the hook,” Al tells him after they’ve kissed a thorough goodbye, “because I still expect you to make it up to me.”
Clark smiles and brushes his lips over Al’s forehead. “I’ll see you what I can do. Mrs. Henderson wants us there at six. I’ll be home before then.”
Al nods a little distractedly. “What do you think makes the proper hostess gift for a manipulative old busybody, anyway?”
It’s clear that he’s serious, and Clark laughs. He kisses him again and heads off to work feeling far more light-hearted than he possibly deserves.
The dry-walling job at the McCoy’s turns out to be pretty straightforward, no tricky angles to maneuver around, just putting up the panels and hammering them into place in endless succession. It requires no actual concentration, not a good thing for Clark after the morning he’s had. He always seems to fare best when he doesn’t think too much about how he must appear to Al, but today it’s next to impossible to avoid it. Don’t make half gestures, Clark’s father used to say. People won’t know where they stand with you. Only a few weeks together, and Clark has already sent Al enough mixed messages to seem downright schizophrenic.
Of course, he knows the right thing to do. He does. It’s just that no matter how much he resolves to keep his distance there’s still a screening room in the stubborn part of his head where memories play, moments from that day on the yacht and after Al’s first stint in the fields and from earlier that very morning, Al naked and wanting in Clark’s bed. The more he thinks about it the more vivid the pictures become, and the more danger he’s in of developing a reputation as someone who gets way too excited about drywall.
He exerts what feeble self-discipline he has to wipe his mind clear, just think about nothing. The work goes faster that way, and he finishes up in good time to make their dinner with Mrs. Henderson.
At home, he’s surprised to see Pete’s truck parked in the driveway. He’s even more startled to find Pete and Al sitting at the kitchen table, bent over a stack of papers, matching expressions of concentration on their faces. For a split second, there’s a clench in Clark’s chest, not jealousy exactly, more a sense that there’s been some development and he’s missed out on it.
He clears his throat, and they both glance up, Al with a smile, Pete slightly sheepish.
“Hey,” he says, sliding his hands into his pockets, rocking forward on the balls of his feet, feeling rather awkward himself.
“Clark,” Al’s voice does a smooth glissando into a more intimate octave.
Clark is not such a clueless husband that he fails to understand the meaning of this. Pete gets it too apparently, narrowing his eyes, the weight of his scrutiny like an extra presence in the room. Clark looks from Pete back to Al. He doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of either of them, but in the end, it’s Al he has to live with. He walks over, bends down for a quick kiss. Al looks pleasantly surprised, as if Clark might not be such a hopeless case after all. Pete takes the opportunity to examine the tablecloth in greater detail.
“So…” Clark says, adopting a breezy tone he hopes will convince someone. “What have you two been up to?”
“Pete’s been helping me with our grant application,” Al says, holding up a form for Clark to see.
Clark can’t help sounding surprised, “Hey, Pete, that was really nice of you.”
Pete shrugs, trying not to look embarrassed. “I went through the same thing when I was getting the factory up and running. I just thought I could save you guys some of the screw-ups I made.”
“We really appreciate it,” Clark tells him.
Pete gets to his feet. “No problem, man.” He glances from Clark to Al and back again, shifting his weight indecisively. “Um, well, I guess I’d better get going. I’ll see you guys later.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Clark offers.
They’re silent all the way to the truck, and then Clark struggles to explain, “Look, Pete, I know you must think—”
“We already went through this, Clark. I can’t say I think you’re doing the right thing here, but it’s your call, not mine.” He shakes his head, a wry smile. “I will say this, though. If you had to hijack a husband, at least you got one who knows his way around a business plan.”
Clark smiles at that. “I really do appreciate your coming over to help.”
Pete holds his eye. “I would have done it a long time ago. All you ever had to do was ask.”
Clark nods. “I know, Pete. I know.”
He heads back inside and finds Al on the screened-in back porch, at the worktable, amidst a profusion of wild poppies and purple coneflowers and feathery white asters that he’s gathered from the fields, arranging them into a bouquet.
“So you and Pete seemed to be…getting along,” Clark ventures.
Al shrugs. “I still don’t think he particularly likes me. But I suppose if you must have a best friend who merely tolerates me, at least he knows his way around a business plan.”
Clark breaks into a grin. “You know, you guys might actually have more in common than you think.”
Al does not appear particularly convinced, but he doesn’t argue. He finishes up the bouquet, tying it up with a brightly colored strip of cloth that Clark recognizes as having come from one of the ill-fated thrift store shirts.
“I figured we don’t actually own ribbon,” Al explains.
“And you figured right.” On impulse, he leans in and gives Al an appreciative kiss. “You’re really good at this kind of thing, you know.”
“It’s hard to go wrong with flowers, Clark, even when you are taking them to a manipulative old busybody.”
Clark shakes his head. “I may have given you a somewhat misleading picture of Mrs. Henderson. She is, at heart, a nice lady.”
“We’ll see,” Al says coolly, not ready to forgive her for the morning’s interruption.
That thought brings back pictures, which in turn brings the blood rushing to Clark’s cheeks. Al shoots him a quizzical look, and Clark tells him hastily, “I’d better go get cleaned up if we’re going to make it over there by six.”
Clark darts back inside, although not quickly enough to miss Al’s exasperated sigh.
He takes a quick shower, wraps a towel around his waist and pads into the bedroom, over to the closet. He’s dithering, trying to decide whether his blue sport coat is too much or his favorite jeans too little, when Al comes breezing into the room.
He nudges Clark aside. “This will go faster if you let me.” Two seconds later, he’s pulled out an outfit for Clark and laid it on the bed, along with a clean shirt and jacket for himself.
Getting dressed proves awkward. Clark tries to find ways to stall, waiting for Al to finish up, but even after he’s ready, he stays put. His eyes rest on Clark, as if this is a test of some sort, and finally Clark just gives in, lets the towel drop. He’d think nothing of letting his husband look at him, and he’s tired of making up stupid excuses why he needs to go get dressed in the bathroom. He pulls on his clothes, and as he’s tucking in his shirt, he meets Al’s eyes, silvery with appreciation.
“You look nice,” Al tells him, reaching out to straighten his collar.
Clark shouldn’t let himself wrap an arm around Al’s waist and pull him close. The near miss of the morning should have taught him not to start things he can’t finish. But then, Clark is a walking testament that a person really can learn nothing from his mistakes. He thinks, Just one kiss. Even though he should know that’s never going to be enough.
It’s Al who finally pulls away, breathing too hard. “If we don’t leave now, we’re never going to go.”
They gather up the bouquet for Mrs. Henderson and a bottle of wine that Al put into the refrigerator earlier to chill. Al is unusually quiet on the short ride there, watching out the window distractedly, fingers drumming on the seat beside him. It’s not until Clark is turning into Mrs. Henderson’s driveway that it occurs to him: Al might actually be nervous.
He takes his hand as they head up the front walk. “She’s going to love you.”
They step onto the porch, and Mrs. Henderson throws open the door, too impatient to wait for them to knock. “There you boys are. Right on time. Clark, so good to see you.” She rises up on her tiptoes to give him a peck on the cheek. “And this must be Al.” She smiles at him with unrestrained delight.
“Mrs. Henderson, it’s nice to meet you at last. Clark has told me so much about you.” Al extends his hand.
But Mrs. Henderson isn’t having any of that. “Oh, let’s no stand on ceremony. I feel like we’re already old friends.”
She wraps her thin arms around his neck, and Al is so startled that he barely manages to save the flowers from her enthusiasm.
Mrs. Henderson pulls back and holds him at arm’s length. “I just want to get a good look at you now.” She studies him admiringly. “Oh, such a handsome young man. You and Clark sure do make a fine couple. Now you boys come on inside and make yourselves comfortable. It’ll be just a little while before we’re ready to eat.”
She bustles them into her formal front parlor, keeping a proprietary hand on Al’s arm as she leads the way. Clark has to hide a smile, pretending to cough. He’s beginning to think he’ll have a war on his hands at the end of the evening when it’s time to reclaim his husband.
Mrs. Henderson’s parlor is even tidier and more sparklingly clean than usual, and every inch of the coffee table is crowded with plates of hors d’oeuvres, stuffed mushrooms and cheese pinwheels, and yes!, crab puffs, Clark’s personal favorite.
“You boys go on and sit down and make yourselves comfortable. We’ll have a little snack while we’re waiting for dinner to finish up.”
“Before I forget, Mrs. Henderson,” Al holds out the bouquet, “these are for you.”
“And this too,” Clark hands her the bottle of wine.
“Oh, my.” Mrs. Henderson is practically beside herself. “So thoughtful.” She lifts the flowers to her nose and takes a deep breath. “Mercy, I don’t know when I’ve seen anything so beautiful.”
Clark slips his arm around his husband’s shoulders and smiles proudly. “It was all Al. He’s the artistic one in the family.”
“Well, I should say so. Very talented, indeed.” She gives him a bright, appreciative smile, before her face clouds over. “And to think what you’ve been through, you poor boy. I haven’t even asked how you’re feeling.”
“Much better, thank you,” Al tells her. “Although I haven’t really made any progress getting my memory back.”
Mrs. Henderson nods sympathetically. “I know that must be a burden to you, but you’ll remember everything in your own good time, I’m sure. And in the meantime, you have Clark here to look after you.” She shakes her head, smiling. “Such a fine couple.”
Al seems rather overwhelmed by the attention, doubtlessly never so fussed over in his life.
Fortunately, Mrs. Henderson takes a deep breath and says, “Well, now, I’d better go look in on dinner.” She nods toward the sofa. “You two go on and sit down, and I’m going to put these lovely flowers in some water and the wine in the refrigerator to keep cool. And when I come back, we’ll have a nice chat.”
After she’s gone, Al says under his breath, “The two of you have a pact to embarrass me to death, don’t you?”
Clark shrugs, smiling.
Al narrows his eyes. “I knew it.”
Clark pulls him close, kisses him lightly. “I can’t help it if I’m proud of you, can I?” he asks, still smiling, stroking his thumb affectionately along Al’s cheek.
Al’s gaze catches on Clark’s, his eyes turning a dark, interested shade of blue. He leans in, and the next kiss is far more urgent than the last.
They reluctantly break apart at the sound of Mrs. Henderson’s footsteps in the hall. She sweeps into the room, carrying a tray of wineglasses, and Clark hurries to take it for her.
“Oh, thank you, dear,” she says. “You can just put it down over there on the sideboard, and help yourselves.”
They all settle in with a glass of wine, and Mrs. Henderson says with a happy sigh, “Well, now, here we are.”
There’s a moment of silence, the kind that naturally settles in a conversation when people are still getting acquainted, and they look from one to the other, smiling politely, waiting for someone to break the ice.
It’s Clark who finally does, “Everything smells really good, Mrs. Henderson.”
“Yes,” Al quickly agrees. “Absolutely delicious.”
“Oh, please,” Mrs. Henderson urges them, “you boys go on and have some of this,” she waves her hand over the platters of snacks, “before it gets cold.”
Clark doesn’t have to be invited twice where crab puffs are concerned, and he cheerfully digs in.
Al glances around, taking in the details of the parlor with his usual sharp-eyed observation. “You have a lovely home, Mrs. Henderson.”
She turns decidedly pink. “Oh, thank you, dear. Mr. Henderson and I and our two boys, Sammy and Richard, we all had many good years here together.” She casts an appraising eye around the room. “I always think that’s what gives a house its character, the life you’ve lived there.” Her expression grows wistful for a moment, maybe even a little sad, reminded of happy days since past, but then she quickly regains her chipper composure. “Clark’s been telling me about all the improvements you’re making over at your place. That must be very exciting.”
Al nods. “It is, really,” and he goes into some detail about wainscoting and the advantages of travertine over limestone.
Mrs. Henderson nods along with every word. “That just sounds lovely, dear.”
“We still need a focal point for our living room,” Al tells her. “I love that when you come into this room the first thing you see is that Javanese dowry chest. Have you been to Indonesia, Mrs. Henderson?”
“Why, yes, dear, I have,” she says, looking rather amazed, and even more smitten with Al then she was before, if that’s actually possible. “It was a very special place for me and Mr. Henderson. We spent our honeymoon there and went back on our anniversaries whenever we could.”
Clark blinks in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were such a world traveler, Mrs. H.”
She smiles at him. “Oh, yes, dear.
“When you were visiting Indonesia, you must have been to Lake Toba.”
“My, yes, dear. Such a spectacular sight. The views and all the plants and that clear blue water. I assume you must have visited there?”
Al nods. “Yes, several times. It was—” He frowns and turns to Clark. “Why was I in Indonesia?”
Clark freezes, mouth full of shrimp. “Um, well…” He thinks frantically in the brief space while he finishes chewing. “It was when you worked for your father.” He nods vigorously. “That’s it. You were there on business. He owned,” Clark waves his hand in the air and goes the vague route, “some sort of importing and exporting company.”
Al’s eyes spark with interest at this previously unmentioned detail of his personal history.
Mrs. Henderson says, “Well, now, that must have been very interesting. Where else have you had the opportunity to visit, I wonder?”
Al frowns as he ponders the question, and then details just start tumbling out of him like the narrative of a travelogue. He and Mrs. Henderson fall into an animated discussion about the cuisine of Hong Kong and the beauty of the Norwegian fjords. Clark takes a deep breath of relief, another question safely dodged, and goes back to his appreciation of the potato fritters.
At last, Mrs. Henderson bustles off to the kitchen to check on dinner and comes back a few minutes later declaring it time to eat.
Al offers her his arm. “May I escort you?”
“So gallant,” Mrs. Henderson says, sounding girlishly breathless as she accepts.
They pass along the hall en route to the dining room, and Al stops to point out a black and white photograph of a ballerina on stage. “That’s Coppellia, if I’m not mistaken. And is that you as Swanilda, Mrs. Henderson?”
“Why, yes, dear. It certainly is.”
Clark goes up to the picture and stares at it rather slack-jawed. He must have walked through this hall…well, who knows how many times? And he never noticed the likeness before, never even realized there was a photograph hanging there. “I didn’t know you were a ballerina.”
“Rather a successful one, dear, if I do say so myself. That was before I met Mr. Henderson, of course. Four glorious years with the New York City Ballet. I’ll never forget a moment of it.”
Mrs. Henderson’s good china and crystal gleam in the soft light from the dining room’s chandelier. Proudly displayed in the center of the table is a porcelain vase with the flowers they brought arranged in it. Over dinner, an extravagant six courses that leaves even Clark declaring himself stuffed, Mrs. Henderson regales them with stories from her days on the stage.
“Is that how you met Mr. Henderson?” Al asks. “When you were dancing in New York?”
She nods. “It was at one of Howard’s parties. Whenever he was in town, he would always throw a big soiree, invite all the well-known actresses and dancers. To impress his business associates, you know. Howard had quite a way with the ladies. Such a charmer! That was before he got all mixed up and started fretting about germs and all that nonsense.”
Clark stares at her. “Are you talking about Howard Hughes?”
“Oh, yes, dear,” she says, as if that should be perfectly obvious. “I met my dear Walter on the balcony of Howard’s hotel suite. I’d gone out for a breath of fresh air, and poor Walter was hiding out there, trying to blend in with the potted palms. He was always a shy man, and he’d only come to the party because he was in the middle of some business negotiations with Howard’s company and didn’t want to offend him. So I struck up a conversation, more as a good deed than anything else. But my dear Walter soon won me over.”
“I wish we could have met him,” Al tells her.
She puts her hand on his. “I do too, dear. Such a good, fine man. He would have liked you and Clark very much.” She gets a faraway look for a moment, as if lost in some private memory of her husband, then she smiles at them and continues on with her story, “Anyway, my Walter wouldn’t let me leave that evening without agreeing to see him again the next day. We went for a boat ride in the park. The following evening, he took me for dinner at the Magnolia Club, that was the place to go back then, and when the cherries jubilee arrived for dessert, Walter pulled out a little velvet box and asked me to be his wife.” She gets a sparkle in her eye at the recollection. “I said yes just as quick as I could before he had the chance to change his mind.”
“What a wonderful story,” Al says.
Mrs. Henderson smiles. “Love always is, dear.”
At the end of the evening, Mrs. Henderson won’t hear of letting them go without taking leftovers home with them. “Oh, mercy. I’ll never eat all this food. You boys need to help me with it.”
She packs up two large shopping bags for them, with enough crabs puffs to keep even Clark happy. “I know how you like them, so I made some extra,” she tells him with a wink.
“You should come for dinner at our house next week,” Al tells her. “Although I should tell you that we haven’t done much entertaining lately, so we may be a little out of practice. Just to give you fair warning.”
Clark shakes his head. “Don’t listen to him, Mrs. H. He’s a great cook.”
“Oh, I had a feeling,” she says. “You can always tell a person who has culinary flair. And I’d be delighted to join you. My peonies should be in bloom by then. I’ll bring you some for your table.”
They say their goodbyes, and on the way home, Al wants to know, “Why didn’t you ever tell me what a remarkable woman she is?” He frowns at Clark, as if he’s purposefully kept this information to himself. “You always make her sound so…tedious.”
“You’ve never seen her when she has corroded pipes and water damage,” Clark says, a touch defensively. “Besides, she never told me any of those stories before. She must like you better.”
Al regards him skeptically. “As if that’s possible. You are the soul of likeability, you realize, Clark.”
Clark gives him a soft, sidewise smile. “I think you underestimate your own charm.”
Al’s eyes meet his, and the intensity in them gives Clark a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. He lets his gaze slide back to the road, but he can still feel Al watching him the whole way home.
They carry the food into the kitchen. Clark starts to keep the crab puffs out, but Al gives him such a pointed look that he finally lets out a sigh and consigns them to the refrigerator along with the rest of the leftovers. Even after everything’s put away, Al still lingers at the counter, a distracted air as he stares out the window.
Clark drifts over to his side. “It was a nice evening, huh?”
Al nods, but it’s clear his mind is on something else.
“It seemed like you and Mrs. Henderson had a lot in common. You sure do know a lot about ballet.”
“That was a strange experience,” Al says, “having all those details come pouring out of me, not even knowing where I picked up any of that information.”
“Ah,” Clark says, beginning to understand why Al looks so contemplative. “It must have been kind of unnerving.”
Al nods. “It was.” He frowns, and his voice grows quiet, “Help me, Clark. Please. I need to understand what kind of person I am.”
“Well,” Clark says, letting his hand rest on Al’s back, trying to be comforting, searching his memory for everything he knows about Lex Luthor. “You’re an incredibly determined person. If there’s something you want to know, want to do, there’s no standing in your way. You’re very smart, very curious. You have an elegant way about you. You know about the arts and history and what makes the perfect chocolate soufflé.” He smiles fondly. “The truth is I’m just lucky you didn’t mind marrying beneath you.”
Al frowns, “Don’t, Clark. Don’t joke.”
He presses close, and Clark’s natural impulse is to slide his arm around him, like he’s been doing that all his life.
“Maybe it’s just because of the amnesia, but since I woke up in the hospital,” Al says, “I’ve had this solitary sense of myself, like I’ve always been alone, and that’s my life, not this. But tonight.” He looks Clark squarely in the eye. “Tonight, I really felt like your husband, for the first time.” He pauses. “And I liked it.”
Clark freezes, in over his head again, and he starts to stutter, “Al—”
“Make me feel it some more, Clark,” Al begs him. “Please.”
He lifts his chin, and Clark practically falls into the kiss, fingers catching clumsily in the folds of Al’s shirt. The touch of their mouths is raw, uncompromising, and Al is suddenly all over him like a man convinced he can find answers in Clark’s skin.
Clark doesn’t pull away immediately, probably a mistake, because the longer it goes on the more inevitable it feels. When he does finally to try to say something, it comes out feeble, “Al, I can’t—”
“Yes, you can. You can,” Al says breathlessly between kisses. “Unless,” he goes still. “Only if you want to.”
It’s more than Clark can stand, the aching doubt in Al’s voice, when that’s so very, very far from the truth. “I do. You have no idea how much.”
“Then please, Clark.”
He isn’t the same man Clark met on the yacht that day, but there is the same frayed desperation in his need. Clark kisses him resolutely, pulls the shirt from his waistband, sinks to his knees. He did have Lex Luthor’s consent for this once upon a time, and he tells himself they’re just picking up where they left off.
Clark backs Al against the counter and unzips his pants. Al must be expecting the usual last-minute freak out because he seizes up like he’s been hit at the first touch of Clark’s tongue.
Clark hasn’t done this a lot, and he’s never had another moment when it meant so much, too many dead-ends in his life, always so much to hide. But Al is still going to be here in the morning, and the next day, and if Clark is very lucky for a long time to come. They’ll have breakfasts together, and they’ll have fights, and maybe even a future. If Clark couldn’t convince himself of that, he couldn’t do this.
He moves his mouth along the shaft of Al’s cock, wanting to make him gasp, make him tremble, his hands splayed over Al’s hips, thumbs perfectly fitted to the hollows of his bones. This is the way Clark always thought sex would be, back in the innocent days when his only experience was what he’d imagined. Al doesn’t clutch at him, as if Clark is just too convenient and he can’t let him get away, the way other men have. His hands glide lovingly over Clark’s shoulders, through his hair, brushing the side of his face, as if Al can’t get enough of him, not just his mouth.
Al says Clark’s name, a tortured half-groan, half-scream when he comes, and Clark realizes he would do anything to hear him sound like that again.
After it’s over, Al’s hands stay curled around the edge of the counter, knuckles white, his eyes wide and kind of spacey. Clark gently tucks him back into his pants, zips them, and stands up to give him a kiss.
But Al slides out of his arms. “I just—I have to—” He hurries off to the bathroom.
Clark paces outside the door, torn between frantic confusion—hadn’t that been what Al wanted? what he’d been wanting?—and berating himself for being careless and selfish and an idiot. He waits for Al to come out with a rising sense of panic, and when he finally does, his face is damp, as if he’s been throwing water on it. Clark hovers at his side, wanting to reach out, reassure him, but he’s not sure if it’s okay to touch him.
Al shakes his head. “It’s not that. I just—”
“I shouldn’t have just done it like that, right there in the kitchen. You probably weren’t ready for—”
“I remembered, Clark.”
Suddenly there’s no air in the room, and Clark’s whole body clenches like it’s the end of the world. “I can explain.”
But Al doesn’t hear him, too absorbed in his own sense of revelation, “Not very much. Just you touching me. Kissing me. Going down on me. I don’t even know where we were. But it was real, I’m sure of that.” He meets Clark’s eye, his expression shatteringly hopeful. “I remembered.”
Clark swallows, and his throat is so tight it hurts. He opens his arms to Al and holds on, clutching at him, the way people always hold on to things that aren’t really theirs. “I’m happy for you,” he says, in a hoarse voice.
Al kisses him, both hands on Clark’s shoulders, like maybe there’s some subconscious part of him that realizes this doesn’t belong to him, either.
If there is, though, he isn’t listening to it. He pulls back and takes Clark’s hand and says, “Come on.”
In the bedroom, Al starts stripping off his clothes at once, with the kind of determination it’s useless to argue with, not that Clark has any inclination to do that. He pulls off his own jacket, lets the shirt Al picked out for him fall carelessly to the floor. Al works more quickly than he does and is soon naked, while Clark is still half dressed. It’s too much torment to wait even the few seconds it would take to get the rest of his clothes off. He pulls Al against him, and there’s something so desperate, so illicit having bare skin pressed to khaki and leather he can’t get his hands all over Al fast enough.
They kiss in a fever, the room silent except for the rasp of their breathing, their softly murmured exclamations. The only light is a pale splash of moonlight on the floor, neither of them bothering to turn on the lamp.
Al draws in a harsh breath and says, “I want you to fuck me. Do I like that?”
“Yeah,” Clark tells him in a thick, slurred voice, utterly shameless. “You like that.”
Even in the dim light, Clark can tell Al is smiling. “I thought so.”
He goes to lie down on their bed, and Clark pulls off the rest of his clothes. It feels like a dream, like he’s underwater, his body lumbering and weightless. He kneels on the bed and stretches out over Al. His skin is already so hot, and when it meets Al’s, an inferno.
Every kiss is like diving into very deep water, the long plunge into darkness, the sense that nothing else exists, the only sound in Clark’s ears the pounding of his own heart.
Time is watery too, meaningless, and when Al finally braces his hand on Clark’s shoulders to push him back, it could be a minute later. Or an eternity. Clark can feel Al’s eyes on him, even if he can’t really make out his features in the dimness, and he would panic, terrified that more telling memories had come trickling back, but Al’s gaze feels too inquisitive for that.
He twines his arm around Clark’s neck, fingers playing in his hair. “I thought maybe—we had problems. You wouldn’t touch me.”
“I just—I didn’t want to do the wrong thing with you.” It’s probably the most honest and most useless thing he’s ever said to Al. Or anyone.
Al tightens his hold on him. “Don’t, Clark. I don’t want you to be careful. I don’t want you to treat me like I’m going to break—”
Clark cuts him off with the force of his kiss, no chance of being careful after all this. He slides his body against Al’s, cock pressed to cock, and says against Al’s ear, “I’m touching you now.”
There’s a bottle of lubricant in the bedside drawer—Al put it there pointedly one day when Clark was there to see him do it—and it proves both prescient and handy now. Clark has never been any good at this aspect of sex either, all clumsy fingers and spilling sticky stuff on the sheets and worrying that he’s going to hurt the person beneath him. But Al kisses his neck and says “that’s so good, Clark” the whole time, to everything he does, and when Clark finally eases his way inside him, God, it is. So good.
Afterwards, after the honest sweat and the urgent promises and the feeling Clark has like this is going to burn him up from the inside out, they lay weak-limbed and tangled together.
Al says Clark’s name with a contented little sigh, as if that’s all he really needs to know. Clark strokes his back, a profound quiet settled inside him, and after a while he realizes that Al has fallen asleep.
When he’s certain he won’t be heard, he tells Al, “Maybe I’ve done the wrong thing with you.” He closes his eyes, corrects himself, “Okay, I have done the wrong thing. But you’re mine now.” He whispers a fierce promise, “And I’m keeping you.”
Clark’s most vivid memories of his father come while he’s out in the fields, long, rambling conversations they had years ago as they worked side by side, a flash now and then of his dad’s smile, the satisfied one he got whenever he gazed out over his land.
His father used to joke, “Son, the only folks more superstitious than ball players are us farmers.” Knowing that didn’t change the way he did things of course, the little rituals to bring luck, always starting in the north field when it was time to disc, keeping a faded red bandana that had belonged to his grandfather tied to the tractor’s steering wheel, walking the entire perimeter of the land every Thursday like an offering to the gods of agriculture. The day Clark knew he’d truly found his vocation was when he caught himself doing the same sort of oddball things, even digging that old bandanna out of a box, returning it to its rightful place.
Lately, though, his voodoo thinking has taken an anxious turn. Every day that Al doesn’t remember and Clark wakes to find him still at his side, he grows a little more watchful, restlessly pacing the rows when he goes out to work, inspecting the vines with a sharp eye and a nervous flip-flop in the pit of his stomach. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s not merely root rot he’s concerned about.
For all his fretting, though, he can’t find a single thing amiss, not even a stray cutworm, no evidence anywhere of that old cosmic payback. May takes firm hold, and the wind gusts with a hint of summer in it. The vines grow bolder, their roots nursing the soil, leaves turned cheerfully up toward the sun, the meaty tendrils shifting lazily in the breeze.
The vines are not the only things flourishing. There is a new vigor in Al’s stride, Clark has noticed, as he walks the floor of the winery, making sketches, planning improvements, a sure-handed sense of ownership as he works around the house, confidence that comes out in bed every night, as he shows Clark what he wants, demonstrates all the ways he has of giving pleasure in return.
The deadline for the grant application is fast approaching, and there are few days when Clark doesn’t come in from work to find Pete and Al leaning in together at the computer, staring at the screen, a charged air in the room, the crackle of sheer determination. Clark hesitates in the hall, listening, the low throb of Al’s voice, Pete chuckling in response, and the easiness of it gets him, emotion a taut violin string in his chest, their every word, their friendly laughter striking a resonant note. It’s silly he knows to get so choked up about it, but the two of them, husband and friend…it’s the strongest sense of family he’s had since his parents died.
They glance up when he comes into the room. Al smiles, and Clark goes to give him a kiss.
Pete is frowning at the screen. “I still think we can shore up this section on the town’s economic situation a little more. There’s some new data just came in over at the Chamber of Commerce. I’ll bring it by tomorrow.” He nods at Clark. “Hey, man.”
“Pete. So how’s it coming?”
“We finished the draft,” Al explains. “Now we’re going back through it, looking for weak spots.”
“It’s a good proposal,” Pete says, with the self-assured smile he always wears at town meetings. “You guys aren’t going to have any trouble getting the money.”
“Hey, can you stay for dinner?” Al asks him. “We’re grilling out tonight.”
Pete nods. “Sounds good.” He grins at Clark. “And I wouldn’t say no to a beer, either.”
Al gets to his feet, gives Clark another kiss. “I’ll go put on the steaks. Can you get Pete something to drink?”
He heads off to the kitchen, and Clark and Pete trail after him. Al takes a platter of meat, already marinated, and a big bowl of vegetables from the refrigerator, and starts for the back door.
“You need help?” Clark asks.
He shakes his head. “Just hand me my tongs.”
Clark digs them out of the drawer and holds the screened door open for him.
“Thanks.” He gives Clark a kiss on his way out.
Pete settles at the table, and Clark breaks out the beer, flips the caps off the bottles, and joins him.
They sip at their beer. Clark can’t help smiling.
Pete rolls his eyes. “You can cut that out any time now, man.”
“What?” Clark asks innocently.
“You know,” Pete says, “looking all satisfied with yourself over there.”
Clark shrugs, grinning. “Hey, I can’t help it if I have a good memory. The day I start drinking beer and hanging out with Luthors…“
Pete scowls at him. “Shut up, man. And it’s your own fault anyway. I swear you’re rubbing off on me. I don’t even think of him as,” he waves his hand in the air, “you know who anymore. Just Al. And Al…well, he’s a pretty okay kind of guy.”
Clark smiles softly, and Pete meets his eye. There’s so much in that gaze, happiness for Clark’s happiness and an edge of worry for the future and a slightly befuddled look at how strange the whole thing really is.
Clark understands that well. Pretty much none of this has gone the way he thought it would. Even Pete and Al warming up to each other. Even the way he reacted to that little development at first. It wasn’t jealousy, not exactly. Just every day, he would come home, and it seemed all Al could talk about was Pete, that they’d had lunch together again, or Pete had come up with some brilliant insight on the proposal, or Al wanted to invite him over to watch baseball.
Whenever Clark talked to Pete, it was the same routine, Al this and Al that and Al the other thing. In hindsight, he sees now that he’d just never had a relationship important enough to share with his friends before, and it took him a while to learn the dynamics. At the time, though, all he knew was that Al and Pete had a connection apart from him, and even though there was nothing he’d hoped for more, it still made him feel left out.
Al was the one who’d finally put a stop to his weirdness. One night over dinner, he was going on about Pete’s new quality control system. He’d spent the morning at the factory getting the personal tour, something Pete had been inviting Clark to do for weeks.
“It was such a smart solution,” he said, eyes bright with appreciation. “Who knows how much it’ll end up saving a year.”
Clark picked at his fried chicken in a sulk way and did the obligatory nodding in agreement.
Finally, Al put down his fork and declared, “Clark, you are not going to act strange with me because I’m finally getting along with your best friend. You’re just not.”
Clark shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not?”
Al shook his head with certainty. “No.”
When Al sounded that sure about things, it was hard for Clark to disappoint him. “Um…okay?”
“Good,” Al said with satisfaction and leaned across the table to kiss him.
When he started to pull back, Clark reached out for him. “What if I don’t get all guilty either, because you went to see the quality whatever thingy and I totally blew Pete off about it?” He smiled hopefully.
Al gave him a fond, if somewhat exasperated look, and kissed him again. “I’d say we’re definitely making progress.”
Clark and Pete finish their beers, and Clark goes to the refrigerator for a second round. The screened door slams shut, and Al returns with the platter full of steaks cooked to a perfect medium rare and a colorful splash of grilled vegetables. Al is regular a barbequing wizard, in Clark’s opinion at least, and the delicious smoky aroma quickly fills the room.
“Man,” Pete says, his mouth dropping open in anticipation, eyes tracking the food as Al carries it over to the counter.
“Clark,” Al says, “can you go outside and bring in the utensils for me? I couldn’t carry it all.”
“Sure,” Clark tells him.
Al moves to the cabinet to get plates, but Pete says, “Hey, man, let me. Setting the table is pretty much the one thing I can do in the kitchen.”
Pete slips past Al, over to the cupboard, and Clark lingers at the door, watching. Pete carefully lays out plates, silver and napkins.
Al smiles at his meticulousness. “You’re clearly ready to turn pro with this.”
Pete cheerfully flips him off. “Hey, man, don’t think I don’t know jealousy when I hear it.”
They laugh, and Clark heads on out to the grill, smiling. Progress. Definitely.
After dinner, Pete lingers, pitching in to help clean up the kitchen, smiling at Clark’s excitement over how well the vines are doing, trading a few last thoughts on the proposal with Al.
“Man, I didn’t realize how late it was,” he says when he finally gets up to go.
Clark sees him out, and then wanders through the house, his nightly routine, locking doors, turning off lights. By the time he finishes, Al has already changed into his pajamas and is waiting for him. Clark lightly touches his face and smiles as he kisses him. He drifts over to the dresser, starts to pull off his clothes, and then Al is there again, hand on Clark’s side, coaxing him around for another kiss.
Clark sighs against his mouth and winds an arm around his waist. To keep some secrets, he’s come to realize, you have to give up knowing others. All those years, trying to hide what he was and what he could do, he’d remained a stranger to this, the exquisitely private knowledge of being close to another person. Now, with Al, Clark is finally learning the delight of small secrets, knowing Al’s body and his ways, knowing that when Al lifts his chin at that particular angle and his eyes go the same dark shade as a starless night that they won’t be going to sleep any time soon.
Al pulls Clark down onto the bed with him. Clark closes his eyes, presses his face into the curve of Al’s neck, his scent and his sweat, the warmth of his skin, the most comfort Clark has had in a very long time. Al moves over him, kissing, fingers trailing over his chest, and Clark starts to think that maybe there won’t be any grand operatic retribution, after all. Maybe he hasn’t been so wrong to make this life with Al. Maybe he even deserves it—after all those years trying to do the right thing, out saving humanity, losing himself. It’s just possible, he thinks as he reaches for Al, that he’s actually earned this happiness.
Another few days, and Al and Pete declare the grant proposal finished at last. They make a ritual out of sending it off, the three of them taking it to the post office, a solemn procession up to the window. Walt Whittaker, Blue Cove’s postmaster for the last thirty years, wears an appropriately grave expression as he meters the postage onto it, like he understands the importance of this particular eight-by-ten envelope. Or perhaps it’s simply the sharp-eyed way Al follows his every move making him kind of nervous.
Once the proposal has been carefully placed on top of the outgoing mail bin, Pete claps them both on the back and suggests, “Lunch? My treat.”
They go off to celebrate, and in the following few days enjoy a giddy sense of I-can’t-believe-that’s-finished, before settling into the hard business of waiting. Al puts himself to work overhauling their accounting system, and Clark concentrates on the vines. They both do their best to keep from watching the mailbox like it might get up and walk away at any minute.
Weeks pass, and whenever the anxiety gets too much they call Pete and make him tell them for the hundredth time that he went through the same thing. “Oh, man, it took forever for me to hear back,” he assures them. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
Mrs. Henderson does her part to keep up their spirits, plying them with home-baked apple pies and enough crab puffs to feed half the population of Blue Cove and a healthy dose of positive thinking, “I just know you boys are going to get some good news real soon.”
They don’t, however, hear anything, good news or otherwise, even after the official notification date has come and gone. Al grows steadily more peevish, snapping at Clark when he doesn’t cut the carrots for their salad on the diagonal, growing fitful about the paint color in the bedroom, insisting that it’s so unflattering whenever he looks into the mirror over the dresser he sees a bald Marcel Marceau staring back at him.
“It’s going to be okay,” Clark reassures him many times in an average day. “You know the old cliche, working on government time. I’m sure we’ll hear soon enough.” He always says it with a smile, always to little result.
Eventually, even Pete doesn’t have much reassurance to offer. “Three weeks late?” he says after a disconcertingly long pause. “Um…well, you know,” he stammers. “I’m not quite sure what to tell you, man.”
Clark keeps this little tidbit of information to himself, not that it really matters. Al goes from testy to withdrawn as the days continue to tick by. Clark’s words of reassurance sound increasingly feeble, even to him, and at night when Clark tries to touch Al, offer comfort that is more believable than words, Al just tenses, turns on his side toward the wall and pretends to sleep.
Tonight, his mood is especially taciturn, a strained silence all evening, and Clark finally suggests that they just turn in, get an early start in the morning. They go to their room and stand on opposite sides of the bed as they undress. Al won’t even look at him.
Clark lets out a sigh. “We need to talk about this.”
Apparently Al disagrees, because he strides out of the room without a word, and Clark sighs more heavily. Al seems to take forever brushing his teeth, and when he does finally return, he makes a beeline for bed, clearly no intention of discussing anything.
“Hey,” Clark reaches for him as he tries to slip past, “are you mad at me?”
“No,” he says in a clipped voice, muscles tense beneath Clark’s hand.
Clark rubs his back, presses a kiss to his temple. “Then why won’t you talk to me? Let me make it better?”
“Because there’s nothing you can do,” Al says, not meeting Clark’s eye.
Clark curves an arm around his shoulders. “Look, Al, I know how much time and thought you’ve put into this whole thing, and if those people in Washington have any sense at all, you’ll get the money. Because you really deserve it.”
“We deserve it,” Al insists, and Clark feels him relent a little, some of his tension easing.
Clark takes the opportunity to pull him in for a hug. “And I hope we get it. But if we don’t, we’ll apply for something else. And if we don’t get that either, we’ll still manage, like we always have before. Okay?”
“I just want to do my part, Clark,” Al mumbles against his shoulder, “keep up my end of our partnership.”
Clark goes perfectly still—sometimes being struck by realization feels a lot like lightning—and he can’t believe he didn’t understand this sooner. He pulls back, tilts Al’s chin with his fingers so he’ll look at him. “Before you, Al, I didn’t have anything.”
Al starts to say something, profess some doubt, and Clark kisses it away. “Believe me.”
He strokes his hand in circles over Al’s back, and Al locks his arms around Clark’s waist in a fervent hug. “Thank,” he says softly.
Clark smiles and places a kiss on his forehead. “Come on. Let’s get some sleep. You never know. Tomorrow could be the day.”
It’s actually five days later when their daily vigil at the mailbox ends at last. Clark pulls out a bundle of seed catalogs and bills, and stuck there between the pages of his Irrigation Management Journal is a slender little envelope from the U.S. Commerce Department. Clark stares at it, his palm sweating, making the paper damp. Like everyone who’s ever applied to college, he knows that good news almost always comes in bulky packages.
His gaze flickers nervously over to Al, who has gone as pale as a statue, his expression frozen over, bleak like a winter landscape. Clark feels as if he’s plummeting from a great height; guilt is always dizzying that way. Finally something that seems like the comeuppance he’s been expecting, and it’s Al on the wrong end of the karmic whammy, not the one who deserves it at all.
Al takes the envelope from him, and Clark quickly volunteers, “I can do that, if you want.”
Al shakes his head, slides his finger under the flap, pulls out the sheet of paper and silently peruses it, his expression utterly grave.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Clark tells him. “We can start looking around for other programs. I’ll help do the research. And I’m sure Pete will have some ideas—”
Al shakes his head.
Clark puts a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, come on. It’s just a little setback. We can still—”
“We got it,” Al says at last, his stunned expression gradually transforming into a smile. “Clark, we got it!”
Al jumps into his arms, startling him, and Clark can only stutter, “But…?”
Al draws back, his face alive with happiness. “Come on. We’ve got to go call Pete. And start planning our victory party!”
Suddenly Clark doesn’t even care about the details, why it took so long or what they have to do next or when they can expect their first check. All that matters is the look on Al’s face.
This is something he has to keep reminding himself as Al gets caught up in his celebration planning, a complex staging of hors d’oeuvres, flower arrangements and rented folding chairs unrivaled by any actual battle plan. What limited experience Clark has with parties comes from his college days, and the sum total of that wisdom is making sure to buy enough kegs and hoping no one calls the cops. Needless to say, he proves no use at all in helping Al orchestrate his soiree, not that Al really seems to mind this. Clark suspects if he had the temerity to question Al’s decision to serve wine instead of cocktails or go with an all-white color scheme it would be the first rough patch they’d had in their marriage.
They set the date for the third weekend in the month. Clark personally delivers the invitations, to their small circle of friends, his customers and a few dozen prominent citizens Pete insists they shouldn’t slight. When that’s done, he takes charge of the unskilled labor portion of the preparations, planting flowers out back according to Al’s hand-drawn plan, setting up the canopy Al picked out at the Home Depot, cleaning the patio chairs, stringing lanterns from the trees. Al spends three days straight holed up in the kitchen, making various kinds of salad, pans of lasagna, two cakes and three pies, more appetizers than Clark has ever seen in one place, including the all-important crab puffs from Mrs. Henderson’s recipe.
On the big day, they spend a hectic morning and afternoon taking care of last-minute details. By the time, they have everything set up, white cloths on the tables outside, candles lit, music lilting softly from an upstairs window, Clark can hardly believe this is his same backyard. It looks more like the grounds of a Tuscan villa.
He tells Al, “You’re amazing.” And gives him an appreciative hug.
They get dressed and do a final review of Al’s checklist.
“Shit!” Al frowns.
“I forgot the cilantro. I wanted to garnish the avocado salad with it.”
“Can we get by without it?”
Al’s mouth pulls into an unhappy line. “Yes.”
“Hey,” Clark lays a hand on his shoulder, “I’ll run down to the Shop-and-Go for it.”
Al’s expression brightens. “Thanks, Clark.”
Clark grabs his keys off the counter. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Make sure you get a bunch that’s really fresh,” Al calls after him. “And don’t get it confused with flat leaf parsley. They’re always near each other on the shelf, and they look somewhat alike. And—” He lets out his breath and holds out his hand for the keys. “I’d better go. Can you start setting out the food?” He heads for the door and calls over his shoulder on his way out, “Just make sure you leave the plastic on.”
Clark carries the trays of elegantly presented goodies outside and does his best to guess how Al would like them laid out on the table, although he suspects his husband will probably end up rearranging it all when he gets home. He checks his watch, surprised that Al has been gone so long. He’s starting to get a little concerned when he hears the truck pull up at last.
He goes out onto the porch to meet Al, who slams the truck door, glowering.
“No cilantro?” Clark calls to him.
Al holds up the bag, thuds up the steps, and brushes past him into the house. Clark stalls there a moment, wondering what in the world just happened.
Inside, the atmosphere is downright chilly. Al stands at the counter, chopping the cilantro as if it’s done something to personally offend him. He doesn’t glance up when Clark tries to get his attention.
“What’s the matter?” Clark asks him.
Al says nothing.
Clark moves to his side, puts a hand on his arm. “Hey, what’s going on?”
Al throws down the knife, fixes him with a furious glare. “What’s going on?” he says, jaw so tense it looks like it might snap. “I’ll tell you what’s going on—”
They’re interrupted by a loud knock, the first guests arriving, and Clark has never found it more annoying that no one in Blue Cove seems to know the term “fashionably late.”
“I’d better—” He waves his hand in the direction of the front door.
“Fine,” Al says, his tone about as forgiving as a glacier.
It’s Pete at the door, soon followed by Mrs. Henderson, and then the rest of the guests begin piling in. Clark falls into front door patrol, greeting everyone as they come in, showing them out to the backyard where the party is underway. Al pours wine and passes cheese plates and smiles every time someone congratulates him on their grant. Only Clark can see the lines at the corners of his mouth, the effort all those smiles cost him. When their gazes happen to connect, the expression in Al’s eyes gets harder, more frozen.
By the time everyone has shown up and Al has invited them to help themselves to the food, Clark is sticky with nervous sweat, seriously starting to panic. There’s only one thing he can imagine that could have happened between the house and the store to make Al so thoroughly furious with him, and he keeps trying to find a moment to pull Al aside, swear on everything that’s precious to him that he never meant to hurt him with his lies.
Every time he starts to make a move, though, someone waylays him.
Doc Hadley pulls him aside to check up on Al’s progress, “Hasn’t remembered anything yet, you say?”
“Um,” Clark follows Al’s progress across the patio, watching him intently, as if that will magically give him the answer, “no, I don’t think so, not yet.”
Doc Hadley nods. “Well, these things take time. Just keep filling in the details for him, and I’m sure one day when you least expect it everything will just click into place like that.” He snaps his fingers.
Clark winces. “Yeah. I’m, uh…sure you’re right.”
When Doc Hadley drifts off to go talk to with Mrs. Henderson, Clark looks around, spots Al and manages to take exactly one step in his direction before Mrs. Klinghoffer, owner of the Blue Cove Garden Center, grabs him by the arm and gushes, “I’m just in love with what you’ve done out here. The canopy, the sculptural way you’ve laid out your flowerbeds. Who’d you use?”
“Which designer? I simply must have their number.”
Clark shakes his head. “Oh, no. Al came up with all this.” He points him out to Mrs. Klinghoffer. “My husband over there.”
Mrs. Klinghoffer leans in and says confidentially, “Between us, do you think he might be interested in doing some design work for us at the Garden Center? The person I have now,” she pulls a face, “and I’d be willing to negotiate a very generous arrangement with him. Really make it worth his while.”
Clark blinks at her. “Um…I don’t really know. We’re kind of busy with the winery right now—”
She interrupts, flashing him a bright, plastic smile, “Do mention my offer to him when you get the chance.” She winks. “And put in a good word for me?” She pats his arm. “There’s a dear.” She walks off calling, “Oh, Gertrude, there you are. I simply must tell you about the new garden gnomes we just got in. I ordered them with you in mind, dear.”
On Clark’s third attempt to get to Al, he’s intercepted by Sheriff Nelson, along with a sturdy, round-faced lady with a kind expression.
“Clark, it was such a big rush before with everybody just getting here that I didn’t get the chance to introduce you to my wife,” the sheriff tells him. “This is Flora. And, Flora, this is Clark Pacino-Kent. Married to that nice young man you just met over by the stuffed mushrooms.” The sheriff confides in Clark, “My Flora took something of a shine to your Al.”
Flora shoots him a shushing look. “Now, Earl.”
Clark smiles and assures her, “Al has that effect on people, Mrs. Nelson.”
“I just couldn’t believe it when he said he’d made all this food himself.” Her eyes go wide. “I can’t tell you what I’d give for a husband who was handy around the kitchen.”
The sheriff clears his throat. “Now, Flora.”
Clark can’t help smiling. He thinks this is what he and Al will probably be like in forty years. And then remembers with a stab of terror, that there might not be even forty minutes left in their lives together. His smile abruptly vanishes.
“Well,” Flora says, “if you men will excuse me, I’m going to go have some more of those little cheese strudels. Just delicious. I hope I can get your husband to share his recipe with me, Clark.”
“”I’m sure he’ll be happy to,” Clark tells her.
She points her finger at her husband. “Remember what Doc Hadley said. No dessert for you.” And heads back to the food table.
“Well, Clark,” Sheriff Nelson picks up their conversation, “it sure does seem like you and your mister are doing well for yourselves. I’m awful glad to see it. After everything you went through with the accident, you deserve some happiness.”
Clark experiences a sudden inability to breathe, the way other people must feel when they’ve just been punched in the stomach. “Yeah, it’s—” Al passes by on this way into the house, and Clark reaches out for him. “Hey.”
Al pulls his arm away, won’t look at Clark, concentrates all his attention on the Sheriff instead. “Can I get you anything? Maybe another glass of wine?”
Sheriff Nelson’s brow knits together, clearly picking up the scent of trouble, but he answers with a genial smile, “Oh, no, Al. I think this will do me. I’m driving, and I’d hate to have pull myself over for being under the influence.” He chuckles at his own joke, trying to lighten the mood.
Al and Clark laugh along, tensely.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get some more ice,” Al says, starting to move away.
Clark catches his arm again. “Can I talk to you?”
“I’m busy right now.” Al glares at him.
“It’ll just take a minute.” He tells the sheriff, “We’ll be right back.”
Al takes off in a huff, and Sheriff Nelson shoots Clark a sympathetic glance as he follows after him. They go around the side of the house to the deserted front porch.
“All right,” Al says. “So talk.”
Clark takes a deep breath. “What is the matter?”
Al crosses his arms over his chest, an aggressive sarcasm in the gesture. “Why would you think anything is wrong, Clark? Do you have a guilty conscience perhaps? Is there something you want to confess?”
This is it, what Clark has lived in fear of, and he swallows hard. “It’s not the way you think.”
“Apparently nothing is.”
“I was just trying to protect you. I never meant—”
“Protect me?” Al practically spits out the words. “That’s what you call fucking someone else?”
“No! I—” Clark is brought up short. “What?”
“You heard me!” Al shouts at him.
His face has gone a livid shade of red, but when Clark looks more closely, he sees hurt beneath the fury.
“Al, I’m not cheating on you. I haven’t slept with anyone else since we’ve been together.”
“Then how the hell do you explain this?” He stomps inside, letting the door slam behind him, and returns a second later waving the long-forgotten monogrammed silk underpants. “Look familiar?”
Clark stares, mouth open wide. “Where did you—”
“On the way to the store, I had Pepsi cans rolling around under my feet, as usual. So I thought I’d do something nice for you, since you’ve been so patient about all this party stuff. So when I get there, I start cleaning out the truck, and this is what I find! Standing there like a fool in the parking lot of the Shop-and-Go.”
“Al, please,” he says desperately, “I can explain.”
Al shakes his head, eyes angry bright. “How long has it been going on, Clark? Since the accident? Or did it start before that?”
Clark puts a hand on Al’s arm and won’t let go, even when Al tries to pull away. “There is no one else, I swear to God. But there is something I need to tell you.”
“If you’re not having an affair, then who the hell is ‘LL’?” Al demands. “And what is his underwear doing shoved behind the seat of your truck?”
“That’s what I need to tell you.” Clark swallows hard, braces himself. “You see—”
“Clark?” Pete peers out at them from the other side of the door.
Clark turns sharply. “We’re trying to talk here, Pete. Privately. Okay?”
But Pete doesn’t take the hint, doesn’t get lost. He comes out onto the porch, looking anxiously from Clark to Al and back again. “What are you guys fighting about?”
“It’s none of your—”
Al angrily holds up the underwear. “Clark’s mystery boyfriend.” He glares at Clark. “What does ‘LL’ stand for anyway?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you—” Clark begins.
Pete interrupts. “Man, you don’t have to cover for me anymore. It’s not worth having a fight with your husband over it.”
Clark and Al both turn to stare at him.
Pete nods. “Yeah, Al. That underwear? It’s mine.” He hangs his head. “Well, not mine, exactly.” He takes a dramatic breath. ” You see, I was over in Portland at this bar. This gay bar, as it turns out.”
Clark shakes his head. “Don’t do this, Pete. I’m trying to tell him—”
Pete nods gravely. “I know, man. And I appreciate it, that you’re trying to keep my secret, like I asked. But I owe Al an explanation.”
Al’s expression grows concerned. “So what happened?”
Pete takes another big breath. “Well, at first I didn’t realize the kind of place it was. I don’t know Portland all that well. I’d just stopped on my way out of town for a quick drink. So I start talking with this guy, and it’s a nice conversation, and then it finally hits me where I am. By this point, the guy already has ideas, wants to go out to my truck and,” he shakes his head, with a helpless look, “I don’t know why, but I…did it.”
“But,” Al glances over at Clark, “how did—”
“Yeah, how did Clark get the underwear,” Pete finishes the question for him. “Well, after it was over, the…you know, sex, I kind of,” he throws up his hands, “freaked out, I guess you’d say. I made the guy get out of the truck and I took off, flying up the Interstate the whole way home. It wasn’t until I got out at my house that I realized he’d left his underwear. And then I just freaked out even more. So I called Clark, and he came over and helped calm me down. And I made him take the underwear, so I wouldn’t have to think about it.” Pete shrugs. “I guess he must have forgotten to throw it out.”
Al shoots an impatient look at Clark. “Why couldn’t you have just told me that?”
Clark tries to explain, “Because it’s not—”
Pete chimes in again, “Because it’s not something I wanted you to know.” Al frowns, and Pete elaborates, “It just…it was something that happened, but it wasn’t for me. The man-on-man thing. I didn’t want you to think…you know. That I’m some kind of homophobe or something.”
Al’s face lights up, understanding mixed with relief. “I wouldn’t think that, Pete. Not at all. Not everyone’s gay, and sex can confuse the best of us. I’ve done things I’ve regretted.” He frowns. “Well, if I remembered any of the things I’ve done, I’m sure there would be some regret in there somewhere. You know what I’m trying to say?”
“I do, man,” Pete tells him. “And thanks. You’re a good friend.”
Clark just shakes his head. “You can’t believe—”
Al throws his arms around him and hugs him hard. “I can’t believe I accused you of cheating. I’m sorry, Clark. So sorry.”
“Al,” Clark tries to blurt out the truth right there and then, but the way Al is holding on to him makes it too damned hard to say.
“I really should have known better,” Al continues. “You would never do something like that. Something to hurt me.” He pulls back, searches Clark’s face, his expression painfully contrite. “Can you forgive me?”
“Al.” Clark touches his face.
“I need to hear it, Clark. Please.”
He swallows hard, shakes his head. “Nothing to forgive. Just a misunderstanding.”
Al smiles and gives him another big hug. “Thank you.” When he pulls away, he looks as if gravity can’t touch him. “I’d better go see how our guests are doing.” He kisses Clark one last time and lets go of his hand with the greatest reluctance.
On his way back inside, he tells Pete, “I’ll toss these in the trash.” And balls the underwear up in his hand.
They listen to his steps recede down the hall, wait until they hear the back door bang closed.
“I was trying to tell him the truth,” Clark says tiredly.
Pete nods. “I could see that.”
“So what the hell were you doing?” He points his finger at Pete. “You’re the one who told me I was crazy for doing this in the first place.”
“That’s right,” Pete tells him, eyes sparking. “I did. I never thought you should have started this with him. But you went ahead and did it anyway. And the thing is, Clark, I’ve never seen you happier. And I would bet anything he’s never been so happy either. So what do you want to go messing up a good thing for?”
Clark lets out his breath. “I don’t want to. But he’s going to remember sooner or later, Pete. I truly got that for the first time tonight. And I need to tell him before that happens. So maybe there’s some chance he’ll forgive me.”
“Okay, man. But pick the right moment. Don’t just lay it on him in the middle of a fight when he’s already pissed at you. And definitely not in the middle of his big celebration, when you’ve got, like, fifty people in your backyard.”
Clark nods. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I should find a way to prepare him for it, break it gently.”
“Yeah, man,” Pete says. “Build up to it. Slowly, if you have to.”
Clark studies him, suspicion dawning. “I’d almost think you were encouraging me to put this off as long as possible.”
Pete looks him squarely in the eye. “You know what, Clark? You’re not the only one who likes having Al around.”
Clark falters, lets his gaze drop. “I know, Pete.”
They rejoin the festivities, and the difference in Al’s demeanor has noticeably perked up the party. He’s gallantly pouring glasses of wine for a group of ladies collected around him, smoothly handing out compliments, making them all giggle like school girls. When he sees Clark, he excuses himself, brings over a glass and a plateful of crab puffs, and gives them to Clark, along with a lingering kiss.
“That’s the ’98 Chardonnay,” he tells Clark, kissing him again. “Your favorite.”
One last embrace, and Al drifts off to mingle with their guests. Clark watches him with an expression that must be as horsewhipped by love as he feels, because the sheriff comes over and claps him on the back.
“Ah, son, I know just how that is. My Flora, she’s a firecracker, too.”
Geez, Smallville, your timing sucks. Clark isn’t sure how many times Lois said this to him over the years, although it could conceivably number in the millions. Clark’s reaction was always the same, silent, fuming indignation, certain that if Lois spent half her life out turning back tidal waves and capturing criminal masterminds she, too, might be late every now and then for a big story.
Later, though, he would go home and start thinking about it again—Lois’ digs always had a strange sticking power—and his entire ill-fated romantic history with Lana would inevitably come flashing back to him. He certainly chose all the wrong moments there, only ever managing to ask Lana out when she was freshly in love with Whitney, going through an independent phase or actually Tina Greer.
“Do you think my timing sucks?” he once asked Chloe in a fit of dejection.
“Maybe you just have really bad luck,” she said with a pat on the hand.
The first time Clark tries to tell Al the truth, he spends the entire morning out in the fields practicing. See, I did this thing, and it wasn’t right, but I don’t regret it. Do you know what I’m trying to say here? As trial runs go, it’s not exactly a staggering success, but Clark still heads inside at lunchtime fully determined to come clean about everything.
He figures it’s best just to get it out there, not give himself an opportunity to wimp out. So he sweeps through the door, blurting as he goes, “I’m not your husband. I only said I was so I could get you out of the hospital and keep your father from sending you back to the asylum. Not that you’re crazy or anything. Neither am I, I swear. And maybe we didn’t start out right, but I really do love you, and I want to marry you. And I hope you don’t want to kill me.”
He takes a deep breath, ready to plead for understanding, and then realizes that the house is suspiciously quiet.
There’s no answer, but Clark tramps through all the rooms anyway, just to make sure. He ends up back where he started, aimlessly glancing around, no idea what to do now that his effort at honesty has been thwarted, all the air gone out of his resolve like a flat tire.
When the door swings open only a few seconds later, it makes him jump like a skittish cat, his heart all but doing cartwheels in his chest.
“I have something I need to tell you,” he says with messy urgency before Al can even get inside.
“Funny,” Al says, with a bemused look, “I was just about to say the same thing to you.”
Clark can’t keep his feet still. “Me first. I called it.”
Al cocks his head to the side. “Oh, but my news involves money, so I’d say that puts me at the head of the line.” He holds up a check. “Look what came in the mail.”
It’s not every day they get a windfall—or, really, any day—and Clark’s determination not to let the conversation get derailed goes careening off the tracks. He reaches for the check, stares at it like he’s never seen a number with zeroes before. “That’s…more than I was expecting.”
Al takes it back. “Yes, and we have the irrigation system that needs to be expanded and new equipment for the winery to buy and a stack of bills to pay.” He folds the check in half with an air of thrifty caution. “Now, what did you want to tell me?”
Clark takes a deep breath, opens his mouth, but before he can get a word out, Al’s reserve melts away and he grabs Clark’s arm in his excitement. “We can finally afford a decent coffee maker!” Then he collects himself and shakes his head. “Sorry, sorry. You were saying?”
“I, uh—” But Al has broken out in one of his rare, brilliant smiles, and Clark can no more destroy that happiness than he could go on a rampage in a museum with a can of spray paint. “I fixed the toilet. You won’t have to jiggle the handle anymore.” He smiles weakly.
Al hesitates, waiting to see if Clark has something else to tell him, something that might actually qualify as news. “Well, that’s…nice. I’m a big supporter of properly functioning plumbing.”
Clark feels like he’s just been patted on the head.
Al tucks the check into his pocket. “I’m going to whip up some lunch, and I’ll stop by the bank this afternoon.”
Clark rubs at his temple. Should honesty really be this hard? He has to wonder.
He waits for another opportunity, but first the vines need tending. A big rainstorm has Clark on mold patrol nearly round the clock for several days on end. Then all sorts of other things happen. Al declares he can’t go another day without the toaster being fixed and the Ingrams down the road call needing some help with their yard work, right away, ’cause Sarah Jean’s finally gettin’ married, thank God, and the wedding’s gonna be out back and it’s gotta happen before she pops, if you know what we mean. There are far too many excuses during the average day to avoid the conversation, Clark realizes, and finally he decides to act like a grownup and choose a time when he knows they won’t be interrupted.
In bed a few nights later, he takes a deep breath, “Al?”
The lights are off, and maybe Clark’s a coward, but it just seems so much easier to tell the truth if he doesn’t have to see the look on Al’s face when he hears it. Clark curls up behind him, kisses his shoulder. “There’s something I’ve been putting off, something I really need to tell you—” It registers then that Al is already tense, even before Clark has launched into his tale of hijacked husbands.
“Hey,” he pulls Al closer, “what’s wrong?”
Al shakes his head. “You can’t do anything about it.”
Clark rubs his hand in circles over his hip. “Tell me anyway.”
Al lets out his breath. “I lost my wedding ring. When I was in the ocean.”
“Hey,” Clark smiles in the darkness, “that’s easy to fix.”
“No, it isn’t, Clark. We need to concentrate all our resources on the vineyard right now. We can’t afford any luxuries.”
“Let me worry about that, okay?”
Clark makes his voice soft, “Trust me.”
It takes a moment, but Al finally nods, the tension draining out of him. He turns on his side to face Clark. “Now what did you want to tell me?”
Clark’s throat tightens. “Al, I’ve done something—” He can feel Al watching him in the dim light, waiting, and he crumples like cheap aluminum siding in a hail storm. “I forgot our anniversary, and I’m really sorry.”
Al frowns. “It’s not for another two months.”
A tad too late Clark remembers the forged marriage license. “Our wedding anniversary, yes. But I mean the anniversary of,” he thinks frantically, “the day you asked me to marry you.”
A pause, and then Al asks, with equal parts surprise and interest, “I did the proposing?”
Clark nods. “Sure did. You planned quite an evening, too. And surprised me with it. Since then, we’ve always celebrated the day, and this year it was my turn to surprise you. But with everything that’s happened, I forgot. And I’m sorry.”
Al rubs his arm. “That’s okay, Clark. Maybe this year, we should just—”
Clark cuts him off with a kiss. “Be packed and ready to leave first thing Saturday morning.”
Clark kisses him again, more persuasively. “Be ready.”
Al snuggles closer, and Clark holds on to him a little desperately. Now he has two problems, what to plan and how to break the news. He really isn’t too good at this whole honesty business.
At least, he does have an idea how to pay for it all. The warmer the weather gets the more the phone rings with job offers, roofing and landscaping and house painting, stuff that pays well. Clark says yes to everyone who calls, lines up enough work to foot the entire bill for their weekend away, along with Al’s ring. Of course, Clark knows from the get-go that the only way to get it all done in time is to use his speed, just a little. He reminds himself that he’s doing it for Al, and for the first time since his parents died, relying on his abilities doesn’t feel wrong.
He goes over his battle plan as he works, and after a while, he starts to convince himself it’s actually a good thing he was such a loser about confessing before. In certain frames of mind, Clark could probably sell himself the Brooklyn Bridge. He works on his agenda for the weekend as he hammers stray roof tiles. He figures he can spoil Al a little, show him how much he cares about him, and when the moment’s right, he’ll tell the truth, about Al’s identity and the trouble with his father, how they actually met, and why Clark did what he did. Then he’ll give Al the ring and tell him he’d like them to be married for real.
The more he goes over it the more foolproof it seems. By the time Friday rolls around, Clark has a pocket full of money and his head filled with happy endings.
Saturday morning, they set out before dawn, Al still yawning as they climb into the truck.
“Where are we going?” he asks and keeps on asking it, every five minutes or so.
Clark just shakes his head. “You’ll see when we get there.”
“Corvallis,” Al conjectures when they get on the Interstate.
“Portland, right?” he says when they pass the exit that would have taken them to Corvallis.
Clark knows Al isn’t going to stop guessing until he either figures it out or they pull up at their destination, and that makes him smile.
Al narrows his eyes. “Are you laughing at me?”
Clark shakes his head
“Then what’s that smirk on your face?” Al asks, offended.
Clark’s smile just gets bigger.
A few hours later, they cross into Washington, and Al proclaims, “Seattle!”
“You really are infuriating, you know,” Al tells him. “If I guess correctly, you’re supposed to tell me.”
“When did that become the rule?”
“It’s always been the rule!” Al says testily. “Everyone knows that.”
“Must be one of those things we never learned on the farm.” Clark grins at him. “You’ll just have to wait and see when we get there.”
Al crosses his arms over his chest as if he’s been challenged, and the closer they get to Seattle the more smug his expression becomes. When they pass the city limits, his body language practically screams, “I told you so!”
They drive past a sign with directions to Safeco Field, and Al asks, “Baseball?” When the ballpark comes into view, he says, “I knew it!”
Clark takes the exit for it and follows the traffic. He’s never actually been to Safeco before, but it’s not hard to find. A parking spot is trickier, and they drive around for a good twenty minutes at least before they find a lot with empty spaces.
Al bounds out of the truck, his face bright with anticipation. Clark reaches for his hand, and it feels so natural, so right, the two of them, that Clark is more convinced than ever it can’t just end, even if he has been the world’s biggest idiot.
When they get close enough to the ballpark to read the marquee, Al squeezes Clark’s hand in appreciation. It’s the Mariners against the Rockets, an inter-league match-up, and luckily for Clark, Pete’s company supplied the pipes for the field’s new drainage system. He made a few calls and was able to get them seats.
“They’re not that good,” Pete had apologized. “Both teams are leading their divisions, and it’s the first time they’ve ever played each other. The whole series is sold out.”
Clark had assured him that seats in the upper deck would be perfect. It was a risk just going to the game, and if they sat too close to the field, someone might very well notice the Rockets’ owner. There had been no story in the national press about Lex Luthor being missing, Clark had kept a careful eye out for it. So who knew what excuse Lionel had concocted to explain away his son’s absence? Clark wants those lies exposed eventually, but not before he’s had the chance to prepare Al for it.
Clark hands Al his ticket, and they pass through the gate, climb the stairs up to their seats.
“I didn’t think there were any tickets left for this,” Al says, looking both pleased and kind of worried. “Did you get them from a scalper? I hope it wasn’t too expen—”
Clark kisses away the rest of the sentence. “Enjoy.” He pulls out Al’s Rockets cap hidden beneath his jacket. “Just try not to get into any fights.”
Al breaks into a somewhat malicious smile as he pulls on his cap, “I’m sure these Mariners fans will be too depressed by the bottom of the first to make any trouble.”
Clark slips his arm around Al’s shoulders and settles in to watch the game. Occasionally, he glances around, just to make sure no one is giving Al—Lex—any funny looks, but everyone’s focus is either on the field or their beer and nachos. It’s not the butt-kicking Al was predicting. Neither team gets particularly sparkling pitching out of its starters, and both lineups go to town on the somewhat depleted bullpens.
“Whoever said Safeco is a pitcher’s park must never actually have been here,” Al remarks dryly after the Mariners’ third home run.
Clark enjoys watching Al almost as much as he does the game. He can only imagine what kind of owner Lex Luthor must be. He certainly is a vicious fan.
Happily, the Rockets rally in the top of the eighth and bring in their closer to hold the lead for two innings. Baseball is an everyday game, and win some lose some is its weary philosophy. Clark’s just glad it’s a win-some kind of night for their team on their special occasion.
The game ends, and they take their time leaving the park, trailing behind the crowd of people in a rush to make it home. When they get back to the truck, Al hugs Clark, and they linger over a kiss.
“Thank you,” Al says softly. “I don’t know for a fact, but I’m pretty certain this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
Clark touches his face, looks into his eyes, and he’s sad to suspect that this might actually be the case, that this man has never been appreciated the way he should be.
Clark kisses him again, slowly, thoughtfully. When he pulls back, he says with a smile, “I’m glad you enjoyed the game, but this celebration isn’t over yet.”
“What—” Al starts to ask.
Clark smiles mysteriously. “You’ll see when we get there.”
It’s only a short drive from the ballpark to the hotel downtown, a small inn that Pete recommended. “It’s got that old world charm,” he’d said. “Al will love it.”
They carry their bags inside and check in. The lobby has soft buttery yellow walls, the color not flat or harsh, but layered, complex. Clark squints at it and thinks, Venetian plaster. From the appreciative way Al is glancing around it seems as if this was the right choice, indeed. Clark makes a note to buy Pete a case of his favorite beer when they get back home.
The clerk at the front desk hands Clark their key, and they head upstairs. The first thing Al does when he get into the room is to head for the window to inspect the view. “I can see all the way across the Sound.”
Clark goes to check out the bathroom. Not that he would actually admit it to anyone, but he kind of enjoys the little bottles of flowery-smelling stuff hotels always give out. When he lays eyes on the tub, he calls to Al, “You’ve got to come see this.”
The Jacuzzi is built for two, surrounded by softly colored decorative tiles, a pile of plush towels stacked up beside it like an invitation.
There’s a knock at their room, and Clark smiles. “Be right back.”
He goes to answer the door, and a waiter is standing there, an ice bucket of champagne and crystal flutes in hand, a little surprise for Al that Clark arranged beforehand. The waiter looks around, asks in a whisper, “Do you want me to set it up for you?”
Clark shakes his head. “I’ll take care of it.”
He slips the waiter a tip and takes the champagne, tries to open the bottle as quietly as possible, and pours two glasses. He heads back to the bathroom, and Al has already started the water and pulled his shirt loose from his pants. He doesn’t look exactly surprised when Clark hands him the glass of champagne, but he does look happy.
“To us,” Clark says.
“And our future,” Al adds.
They chink glasses and take a sip. Clark feels the cold-sparkle of the champagne on his tongue, the heat of it against the back of his throat. The only other time he’s had champagne was at his parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, just a sip that his mom slipped him even though he wasn’t of age yet, a stolen taste of someone else’s celebration. It feels different now, like this happiness is truly his to enjoy, even if it really shouldn’t seem that way.
Al sets down his glass and wraps his arms around Clark and starts kissing like he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. Clark holds on to him at the waist and enjoys the way the solid warmth of Al’s body just seems to sink into his bones.
Clark nods his head toward the Jacuzzi, raising an eyebrow in suggestion. “Our dinner reservation isn’t until eight.”
“That’s good.” Al starts to undo the buttons of Clark’s shirt. “Because we really should get cleaned up first.”
Clark strings sharp kisses over Al’s neck, fumbles with his belt, pushes down his pants. Al pulls blindly at Clark’s shirt, trying to get it off him. They’re so tangled up in each other it’s a wonder they even make it into the tub. Water goes sloshing over the side, puddling on the tile, as they reach for one another, move together. By the time they finally get out, there’s a veritable lake on the floor. Clark throws some towels on it, and they dress to go downstairs.
The hotel’s dining room is a little fancy for Clark’s taste, huge crystal chandeliers, walls covered in cream colored silk, dark mahogany wainscoting, a maitre d’ in a tuxedo standing at the entrance like a sentinel. Still, this is Al’s night, and the restaurant is rated four stars. Clark figures it’s just the right amount of fancy for him.
In fact, Al seems to thoroughly enjoy himself, ecstatic over the presentation of the house specialty, an architectonic arrangement of seared tuna and…other stuff that Clark doesn’t quite recognize.
“The chef here trained under Alfred Portale in New York,” Al tells him, as if Clark is metropolitan enough to draw some meaning from this.
Their waiter departs with their order, and the sommelier approaches with the wine list and a recommendation. Al’s forehead wrinkles when he sees the price, but Clark just smiles brightly and says, “That sounds wonderful.” He reaches for Al’s hand. “Special occasion, remember?”
When the wine comes, it’s just as wonderful as promised. Clark and Al savor it thoughtfully, and when their eyes meet, it’s clear they’re both thinking the same thing.
Al smiles. “This will be our wine someday, at someone else’s celebration.”
Clark returns the smile and leans in for a kiss. The wine tastes even sweeter on Al’s lips. Their future together has never felt more certain.
The food comes, and it is just as amazing as Al said it would be. They share things off each other’s plates, and talk about what they’ll do when they get home, and Clark has a realization that’s so operatically clear it rings in his head. This…this is all he’ll ever need, in his whole life.
By the time dessert arrives, the expression on Al’s face is piercingly soft, a warm mingling of satisfaction and happiness. Clark takes a deep breath and pulls out the ring box, his palms so sweaty he has to wipe them surreptitiously on his pants.
He takes Al’s hand in his. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Clark even wants to tell him, but the sad fact is that he’s just going to be himself and no one else for the rest of his life, and words aren’t his friends. They refuse to do anything to help him now.
Al comes to the rescue, smiling fondly. “I love you too, Clark.”
Clark just stares, slack-jawed, and Al smiles with amusement, leans across the table to kiss him. “What? You were expecting something different?” He eyes the ring box. “So…is that for me?”
“Oh,” Clark starts, “yes. I—” He takes out the ring, slips it onto Al’s finger. The entire evening has gotten away from him, a master of bad timing, just like Lois always said, but there is still one thing he can manage, “Will you marry me?” And then he has a flash of panic, like he’s given something away. “Again, I mean. Marry me again.”
Al gets this look on his face, and if Clark lives for a thousand years, he knows he’ll never forget it, the melting, yearning, love in Al’s eyes. Al opens his mouth, but now it’s his turn to lose his grip on language. He looks at Clark almost helplessly.
“Will you?” Clark asks again, gently, kissing Al’s hand.
Al nods at last. “You know I will.” His voice is hoarse. “I’d like it to be at our house, in our garden, with all our friends there.”
Clark smiles. “I’d like that, too.”
Al stands up then, holds out his hand. “I think we should finish celebrating upstairs, don’t you?”
Clark rises, slips his arm around his waist. In the elevator, after everyone else has gotten off and they’re alone at last, he whispers in Al’s ear, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”
The elevator stops, and they walk down the hall. At their room, Clark takes out the key. Al presses to his side, warm and delicious-smelling, and Clark’s hand shakes as he unlocks the door. Inside, Al is on him before he can even think about what he needs to say, body to body, mouth against mouth, the momentum of Al’s need pushing Clark backwards, tumbling him onto the bed.
They kiss, Al’s restless hands insinuating themselves beneath Clark’s clothes, and Clark promises himself, promises whatever God may exist, that he’ll tell Al the truth. He really will. Al slides out of his jacket, undoes the first button of his shirt, and just that little triangle of bare skin sends a violent jolt of want all through Clark. He closes his eyes. I will tell him, he thinks as he reaches for Al.
Just as soon as we get home.
The next day, they order breakfast from room service and eat in bed, leisurely, lounging against each other, reading the paper, kissing between sticky bites of strawberry jam on croissant. They get dressed and check out. They’re both quiet, reflective on the way out of the city, a feeling of connection between them that makes it seem as if they’re touching even when they aren’t. The drive is uneventful, not much traffic out on a lazy Sunday. Near the Oregon border, they stop for gas. Clark mans the pump, and Al heads inside to the bathroom. He comes back with a bottle of water in the crook of his arm and a Pepsi for Clark.
Clark kisses him as thank you. He’s not sure a soft drink should make him feel so cared for it almost hurts, but then, that’s just the thing about love. It takes the ordinary and turns it into a gift.
The trip home seems shorter, or maybe it’s just that Clark feels so certain that they have time. They turn off the highway when they reach Blue Cove, onto Old Jim Jarwell Road, and when they go around the curve in the road and their land comes into view, it feels like they’re back where they belong. Clark pulls the truck into the driveway, and he whistles as he carries in their bags. He sets them down in their room, while Al goes to the computer to check their email. Clark gives him a kiss as he passes by the desk on his way to the kitchen.
“You want a beer?”
Al nods. “We got a couple of replies to our ad looking for a master vintner. They sent resumes and references.”
“Great,” Clark says. “Let’s have a look at it.”
He whistles some more as he pulls two Coronas out of the fridge. It feels good to be home.
When he hears the knock at the door, he calls to Al, “That’s probably Pete. He knew we were getting back tonight.”
There’s rustling, Al getting up from the desk, going to the door. Clark expects to hear Pete’s voice, but there’s only quiet.
He calls out again, “Al?”
No answer, so he goes to see for himself, and then stops like he’s been hit by lightening. Lionel Luthor is leaning against the mantel of their very own living room, and Al—Lex—is staring at him, dumbstruck.
“Clark, my father’s come to visit us. He’s—” Astonishment dawns in his face. “I remember!” There’s hopefulness mixed with confusion, and then the memories just start spilling out of him, “You’re Lionel Luthor, and you are my father. I’m—I’m Lex Luthor. I remember it all now. I live in Metropolis, and I work for LuthorCorp, and…” His face lights up. “I have money. Oh, thank God. All the money we’ll ever need.” He turns to Clark, and his voice gets more excited. “We can do all the things we wanted. Get the winery up and running. Release our first vintage. Oh, Clark! We don’t have to worry anymore.”
For a moment, his face shines with relief, with perfect happiness, but it doesn’t last long.
He frowns. “And I remember you.” He looks Clark dead in the eye, his forehead wrinkling. “You came to build the closet, and we—” His frown deepens. “But my father—” He looks at Lionel, then back at Clark, the pieces starting to come together. “He threw you off the yacht and your tools—” He stares at Clark. “Why did you take me in after that? Why did you give me a home? Make me your husband. Why would you do that?”
His eyes bore into Clark, and then realization starts to form on his face, and he looks like he wants to be sick.
Desperation rallies Clark at last. He takes a step toward Al—Lex—tries to reach for his hand, tries to explain, “It’s not what you think. I never meant to—”
But Lex’s voice has frozen over, “It’s hardly a novel idea, of course.” He stares at the ring on his finger. “I’ve already had several wives who married me for my money with widowhood in mind. But the way you executed the plan…that was quite original. Very creative.”
Horror dawns slowly in Clark’s mind as he makes sense of that, and then he frantically shakes his head. “No! I swear to God. I never wanted to hurt you.”
Lex takes a step back, and Clark tries to follow, tries to brush Lex’s arm with his fingers, something, anything, to make him understand. Lionel, who had been content to watch all this time, speaks up at last, “We know perfectly well what you were planning, Mr. Kent.” He steps between them. “You’ll be hearing from the authorities, as well as our attorneys.” He puts his hand on Lex’s shoulder. “Come on, son. Let’s get you out of this,” he wrinkles his nose, “place.”
Clark can’t stop shaking his head, can’t believe this is really happening. “No, please. Don’t go. Don’t leave me, Al.”
Fury sparks in his eyes, and he yells, “That’s not my name!”
“Lex,” Clark begs feebly, against all hope.
Lionel drapes his arm more firmly around Lex’s shoulders. “It’s time to go, son. Time to get you home.”
“I just need to—” Lex looks around, his expression both searching and lost, but finally he shakes his head. “No, there’s nothing here that’s mine.”
Lionel guides him to the door, out of the house. Clark follows on their heels, trying to make Lex listen, “Please! You can’t go with him. Even if you don’t want to stay with me. Lex! You’ve got to believe me. Your father doesn’t care about you. He just wants something you have. Don’t you remember? It’s why you were on the yacht. He was keeping you there—”
“That’s quite enough, young man,” Lionel snaps at him, a hard look in his eyes. “No one is interested in more of your lies.”
But there’s a flash of hesitation in Lex’s expression, and Clark surges forward, trying to get to him. Lionel sees the faltering in Lex’s face too, and he nods to the bodyguards, Anthony and Ivan, the same ones who threw Clark off the yacht. They crowd in on Clark, force him back, long enough for Lionel to hustle Lex into the car.
“No!” Clark shouts helplessly. “Don’t go with them!”
But Lex is already locked inside. The bodyguards jump into the front seat, and the limo tears away.
Clark runs down the driveway, yelling after it, “No! Stop!”
The limo speeds off. Clark stands there at the bottom of the driveway watching Lex disappear from his life, straining his super human eyes, still trying to catch a glimpse of him long after he’s gone.
Life without Al is a different kind of grief than losing his parents, but it is still grief, and Clark is still himself. He falls back into his old ways, the same manic industry as those first months after his parents’ accident, heading out to the fields well before dawn, losing himself in the plodding, never-ending care of the vines, working long past sundown, until there are only cold pinpoints of starlight to see by. He wears solitude like a reassuring blanket around the shoulders, and ignores the phone as if he doesn’t even hear it ringing. He avoids town at all costs and lives off whatever’s left in the pantry, canned beans eaten cold out of the tin, a jar of olives, fancy ones that Al bought. It’s not as if Clark is hungry or can taste what he’s eating.
He doesn’t bother listening to the messages left on his machine, because he knows with a sad certainty that none of them will be from Al. So it’s hard to tell, really, how many times Pete has tried calling before he just shows up one day, stomping out to the field, planting himself in the path of the tractor. “Get your ass down here, Clark. Get down here now.”
Clark sighs and turns off the engine and trudges back to the house with Pete. There’s a six-pack sitting on the porch, and Pete doesn’t bother asking. He just hands Clark a bottle. They settle onto the steps and drink their beer, and Clark wishes it would stay like this, no words, no questions he doesn’t want to answer.
But, of course, that’s too much to hope for, and Pete breaks the peace and quiet all too soon, “So, you want to clue me in about what happened?”
Clark pushes at the bottle’s label with his thumb. “Not much to tell that you can’t figure out for yourself. I had a chance to come clean with Al…with Lex in Seattle, and I didn’t. I thought I’d have time later, but it didn’t turn out that way. His father showed up, and Lex remembered everything, and now he hates my guts, and he’s back in Metropolis.”
“And you didn’t try to stop him?” Pete’s voice rises incredulously.
“What part of ‘he hates my guts’ do you not understand?” Clark’s temper flares, just for a second, before he sinks back into glumness, “His father brought along the hired goons. They hustled Lex out of here before I could explain anything.”
“You could have stopped them. Used your,” Peter waves his hand, “you know.”
“In front of Lionel Luthor?”
“Oh. Right.” Pete’s shoulders fall. “Have you tried calling him?”
Clark shakes his head. “He isn’t going to want to talk to me.”
“How do you know?” Pete asks, exasperated.
Clark meets Pete’s eye impatiently.
“You could at least make sure he’s all right,” Pete insists.
Clark sighs tiredly. “I’ll think about it.”
Pete’s visit doesn’t really change anything—Al is still gone, and Clark still doesn’t have any clue how he’s supposed to just go on without him—but at least, it shakes him out of his reclusiveness. He ventures into Blue Cove for groceries and a list of supplies he needs for the vineyard. He’s no stranger to the ways of small towns, and yet, it still comes as a surprise that the news of Al’s departure has apparently spread to every last resident. People nod and wave, the same way they always do, but some can’t quite bring themselves to look him in the eye. Others are all too eager to meet his gaze, the pity in their expressions a shock to his system. He hurries through his errands and is relieved when he can finally get back home.
There’s a knock at door as he’s putting away the groceries, and for a second, Clark’s heart lurches, Al!, before reason catches up with him. He finds Mrs. Henderson standing out on the porch, a casserole dish in her hands. He lets out his breath and opens the screen door, trying to marshal up some energy for the usual reassurances, no, no, I’m fine, honest, no reason to worry.
Mrs. Henderson cuts him off before he can even start, “Now, Clark, I have no intention of intruding. I doubt you’re much in the mood for company right now. I just brought you over some supper, and I wanted to say that if you need anything at all, a shoulder to lean on, someone to listen, you know where I am.”
She hands over the casserole, with a firm air of no further conversation necessary, and the kindly understanding in that makes Clark’s throat tighten up. “Thanks, Mrs. H.”
She pats his arm. “I can only imagine hard this must be for you, dear, but I’m very optimistic that things will work out in the end. I don’t know when I’ve seen a couple better suited than you and your Al.”
Clark eats his shepherd’s pie right out of the dish, standing at the kitchen counter. Occasionally he glances at the phone and wonders what Al, what Lex, is doing, but that’s as close as he gets to making the call. He spends another interminable night on the sofa, not even trying to sleep, just staring up at the ceiling. What if I’d told him the truth in Seattle? What if I’d been honest from the very beginning?
It’s past dusk when the sheriff stops by the next evening. Clark is just finishing up his work for the day.
“I was on my way home, and thought I’d stop off,” Sheriff Nelson greets him. “Hoped you wouldn’t mind a spot of company.”
Clark shakes his head politely, even if he’s not much in the mood for a social call. He’s still his mother’s son and says, “I’ll go pour us some lemonade.”
The sheriff follows him up onto the porch and settles on the swing. “I’d be much obliged. Summer seems to get hotter every year.”
Clark brings back two glasses, and they sip at their lemonade, the swing creaking softly.
“Ain’t seen your mister around lately,” the sheriff observes.
“No. He’s gone back home. He, um—” The words stick in his throat. “He left me.”
The sheriff nods. “Heard as much, but you know how rumors are. Can’t take them seriously half the time.” There’s a long beat of silence, and then he says slowly, “I’m going to tell you something my pa once told me, Clark. It was way back a long while ago. Flora and I hadn’t been married no time, and we got into it over…well, truth be told, I don’t even remember what. But Flora got real upset, and she packed up and went home to her mamma. I was a young know-it-all, had my dignity to think about, and I figured she’d come to her senses eventually. So I kept waiting and waiting and getting lonelier and lonelier, and finally my pa came over to talk sense into me. He said, ‘Earl, you can be a proud man or you can be a happy man. The choice is up to you.’” The sheriff meets Clark’s eye. “I can tell you this, son. I haven’t ever regretted choosing happiness.”
Clark shakes his head. “It’s not the same. Al and me—we weren’t exactly—see, I did something that you should probably—”
The sheriff holds up a hand. “Clark, I may be just a country peace officer, and folks can pull the wool over my eyes about a lot of things, but I sure do know people who love each other when I see it.” He smiles and gets to his feet. “Think about what I said. I’m sure he misses you as much as you miss him.”
It takes two seconds of googling to find the phone number for the LuthorCorp executive offices, but several days of fretting before Clark finally works up the nerve to call. He sits at the kitchen table, fingers wrapped tightly around the phone, fully expecting to get the brush off when he tells the receptionist, “Hi, um, my name is Clark Kent. I was hoping I could talk to Lex Luthor?”
Much to his surprise, she says, “Please hold while I connect you.” He lets out his breath. At least, his name isn’t on any black list, apparently.
The real shock, though, is when Lex actually answers, “What is it, Clark?”
If Clark was ever in any danger of forgetting that his Al and Lex Luthor are not entirely the same man, just Lex’s tone is enough to remind him, cool and clipped, all business, the man known in corporate circles as the shark of Metropolis.
Clark stumbles over his words, “I just wanted to—I didn’t have a chance before to explain. I never meant to hurt you. I swear, Al—Lex. I only wanted to—”
Lex cuts him off, “If you think a feeble apology is enough to fend off legal action, that’s sadly naïve of you.”
Clark shakes his head, as if Lex can see him. “That’s not why I called. I just—are you okay? Has your father done anything—“
“Don’t call here again,” Lex tells him in no uncertain terms, and the line goes dead in his ear.
Clark has never much considered the matter of inertia—or any of the laws of physics, really—but the force of it seems to take hold of him once he’s talked Lex, the urge to keep calling pretty much irresistible. He varies his times, first thing in the morning and late in the day and during the lunch hour. At first, the receptionist’s tone is all professional courtesy, “I’ll see if he’s available.” He never is, of course, but Clark persists anyway. The more he calls, the more wariness starts to creep into the receptionist’s voice, and her answer becomes a stock, “I’m sorry. Mr. Luthor is in a meeting. Can I take a message?”
Clark is pretty sure he has made the black list now, but he can’t bear to give up. The receptionist doggedly keeps up the charade of taking messages until one afternoon she lowers her voice to a whisper, “Look, I get that you’re desperate. I really do. But he’s not going to talk to you, and they have me documenting your calls. I get the idea they’re trying to build some kind of stalking case or something. So do us both a favor and cut it out, okay?”
Clark hangs up slowly and just sits there for who knows how long, staring off into nothing.
In the morning, sunlight trickles into the living room and slowly inches along the floor. By midday, it’s a full-out slant across the rug. Clark watches it idly from the couch, not bothering to get up, no point really. By suppertime, he’s finally hungry enough that he stirs, trudging into the kitchen for a bowl of cornflakes, the ticking of the old clock like an insult, underscoring the emptiness of the silent house. When he does manage a thought about the vines and looks out the window, they just seem to taunt him, as if he can still hear all the promises he and Al made about their future singing through the leaves.
This is the aimless shape Clark’s life takes, a good week of doing nothing before Pete pays another hectoring visit. He finds Clark in his usual spot, sprawled on the sofa, beer bottle in hand. Pete puts his hands on his hips, staring indignantly.
“You want one?” Clark gestures with his beer.
“No,” Pete snaps at him. “You want to tell me why your vines look half wilted and that new part you needed for the irrigation system is still sitting where I left it a week ago when you were going to, and I quote, ‘get right on that’?”
Clark shrugs. “Been busy, I guess.”
“Doing what?” Pete asks sarcastically. “Sitting on your ass, pretending that you can actually get drunk?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” Clark asks with a sigh.
“Hey. No. That’s my line. Are you just going to let everything that you and Al, and all right, hey, me too,” Pete jabs his thumb into his own chest, “that we all worked hard for just fall to pieces? Because that’s a hell of a thing to do, Clark. A hell of a thing.”
By now, anger is starting to edge Clark’s lethargy, and he raises his voice, “Just go away, Pete. Get the hell off my property.”
Pete sets his jaw and grabs Clark by the arm, hauling him to his feet. “I’ll go, but not before you take a good a look at what all this sulking is accomplishing.”
Clark could break free of his grip, of course, could hurl Pete halfway to Idaho if he really put his back into it. Thankfully, he isn’t that far gone yet, and he lets Pete hustle him out to the fields, Pete muttering the whole way, “stubborn as a mule, never learn a thing.” And then Clark stops in his tracks, the lackluster leaves and drooping tendrils sending a hot wave of guilt sizzling through him, because he is his father’s son too, maybe not in blood, but in all the important ways.
He bows his head and says quietly, “You’re right, Pete. I’ll take care of it. I mean that this time.”
Pete nods, and his expression takes a sympathetic turn. “Look, Clark, I know you love him. And I’m pretty damned sure he loves you too, even if he does kind of hate your guts right now. So why don’t you quit moping around and go do something about it?”
“I’ve tried! He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“So, what? You’re just going to give up? Go back to being miserable and alone? Leave Lex to fend for himself, let his father do whatever he wants to him?”
Clark can’t deny a prickle of worry, but he insists to Pete, “He doesn’t want me bothering him. He made that very clear.”
“Yeah, well, did you ever think that maybe he only said that because he doesn’t want you getting in the middle of this and getting hurt? It’s not like he knows you’re,” Pete waves his hand, “you.”
It’s a possibility that Clark has failed to consider, and he breaks into a cold sweat that lasts maybe five seconds before the phrase grasping at straws forms in his head.
“I just have to,” he swallows hard, “accept that he’s not coming back.”
“Fine.” Pete throws up his hands, as if he’s had just about enough of Clark. “But if you ever decide to get off your ass and actually do something to get him back, you know where I am.” He turns and takes maybe two steps before swinging back around. “You’re not the only one who misses him, you know.”
Pete stomps off, and Clark hears his truck door slam and the engine gun. He sighs and heads to the shed for the tractor, time to start repairing some of the damage. He works for hours, and when he quits at last and goes inside, the phone is ringing.
He picks it up wearily. “Look, Pete, I know you think you’re helping—”
“Clark, stop talking and just listen. I don’t have much time.”
She doesn’t pause for a breath. “I found out what Lex has on Lionel. It’s a video. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have reliable source, and he described what’s on it. This is huge, Clark. A confession made by a Dr. Dinsmore, research scientist who worked for LuthorCorp, about all these creepy experiments being conducted under the direct supervision of Lionel Luthor. We’re talking real Dr. Mengele stuff here. Dinsmore gives details, dates of experiments, enough corroborating evidence to send Lionel Luthor to prison for a long, long time. I’m working on getting my hands on the tape, so I can take it to the police. But you know Lionel will do whatever he can to keep that from happening. You’ve got to protect Lex.”
“He’s not here!” Clark paces frantically, a small circuit from the sink to the table. “Lionel showed up, and Lex remembered, and he went back to Metropolis with his father.”
“When was that?”
“Three weeks ago.”
There’s a beat of silence. “Clark, Lex hasn’t been at LuthorCorp. I have a contact there. There’s been no sign of him.”
“But I talked to him—” He replays the conversation in his head and realizes that what he interpreted as coldness could just as easily have been duress.
“Listen, Clark. Lex could be in really big trouble. This is the kind of thing,” Chloe hesitates, “I don’t think it will matter to Lionel that Lex is his son.”
“What about you?” Clark says sharply. “You can’t go after Lionel Luthor by yourself. Wait for me, and we can—”
“I’m covered. I’ve got Wally helping me. You need to get to Lex. Sorry! I’ve got to run.”
Clark hurriedly dials Pete. “I’m going after Lex,” he says in a rush. “I don’t know how long it’ll take. Can you keep an eye on the farm for me?”
“Now you’re talking! Go get him, Clark.”
Clark hangs up and races out the back door. He takes a nervous look around, focusing his vision, but there’s no one, not for miles. He clenches and unclenches his hands and takes a big breath and…nothing. I can’t have forgotten how to fly, right? His palms start to sweat, and his stomach is doing nervous flip-flops, and the thing he realizes, even as he’s desperate to get to Lex, is how much he’s enjoyed not using his powers, not having the weight of salvation on his shoulders. He likes being just a man, like everyone else, with a spouse and a mortgage and a business plan, even if that ordinariness is largely an illusion.
He wipes his sweaty hands on his jeans and thinks, I can do this. I can remember how. I have to. He concentrates, and coils his body, and this time his feet actually leave the ground. He takes a breath and makes an effort of will, and then he’s rocketing upward, a messy zigzag until muscle memory takes over, and then he streams smoothly through the air.
He makes it to Metropolis in less than ten minutes, goes into a holding pattern over the city, under the cover of clouds, trying to figure out what to do. Planning will never be his strong suit. Then he spies the Luthor Towers, and he knows from his reporter days that Lionel Luthor has the penthouse apartment in that building. It seems as good a place as any to start looking for Lex. If he doesn’t find him there, maybe at least he’ll stumble across some clue.
Clark lands on the balcony, trying to look casual about it, even if that is a ridiculous notion. He breaks the lock on the sliding glass doors and says “sorry” out loud, to no one in particular. Using his powers for good has always led down a slippery slope to doing things his parents would never have approved of, destruction of private property and breaking and entering not the least among them.
But Lex needs him, and that’s all that matters right now. He forces away nagging thoughts about how he’s never been particularly good at this cloak and dagger stuff, and sneaks inside. As he tiptoes down the hall, he catches the sound of a heartbeat, a sluggish lub-dub coming from nearby. He realizes with a start that the sound is familiar, slower than usual, but still. Lex. Clark doesn’t know how he knows that. He just does.
He breaks into a run, forgetting all about being careful, but then, the apartment is strangely still, as if he and Lex are the only ones there. He tracks the sound to a room at the end of a long corridor, tests the knob, and it’s not locked. Clark is beginning to wonder if perhaps Lionel has already gotten the information he wanted, and he feels an urgent stab of worry for Chloe. You’d better keep her safe, Wally.
Inside, Clark finds an unused bedroom, empty except for Lex, who is slumped in a corner. He’s painfully thin, wearing just a T-shirt and sweatpants. His eyes are unfocused, dark circles beneath them. Clearly he’s been drugged. Clark makes a mental note, kill Lionel Luthor for this, in the same matter-of-fact way he might add take out the trash or stop by the grocery store to his to-do list.
He hurries over and kneels down, and Lex flinches away before Clark even makes a move to touch him, eyes wide and frightened.
“Oh, hey, hey, no,” Clark says gently. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”
Some of the tension eases from Lex’s shoulders, and he stares at Clark, eyebrows knitted together, as if just focusing his vision takes a profound effort of will.
“Do you know who I am?” Clark asks.
Lex doesn’t answer, and Clark ventures a hand to his shoulder, patting reassuringly.
“It’s okay,” he tells Lex. “I know things are confusing right now, but you’re going to be fine.”
Lex is still staring at him, and finally he manages in a rusty voice, “They said I just imagined you. But I didn’t believe them.” He blinks, and then smiles a dazed little smile. “Clark.”
Clark puts his arms around him. “Yeah, it’s me, Lex. It’s me. I came to get you.”
Lex’s head sags against Clark’s chest, and Clark rubs his back, presses kisses to his temple. “I’m so glad to see you.”
Lex nods and mumbles into Clark’s shirt, “Can we go now? I don’t like it here.”
Clark hugs him, a hot prickle in his eyes that has nothing to do with heat vision. “We sure can. I don’t like it here, either.”
He helps Lex up, and they head slowly down the hall, back toward the balcony. With each step, Lex seems to get heavier on his feet, and murmurs “sorry” when his knees buckle altogether.
“It’s okay.” Clark swings Lex up into his arms. “I’ve got you.” He carries Lex out onto the balcony and tells him, “Just hold on. I’m going to get you out of here.”
He lifts off, and they surge forward, and he swears he hears Lex whisper, “wow,” but then again, maybe it’s just the wind. There’s an empty loading dock around the back of Metropolis General. Clark lands there and rushes Lex inside to the emergency room.
He flags down the first doctor he sees and lays Lex on a nearby gurney. “This is Lex Luthor. He’s been drugged by his father or someone who works for him. I don’t know what they used.”
This catches the attention of a police officer hanging around in the corridor, probably waiting to talk to a victim or a suspect in some other case. Clark is about to launch into excuses why he can’t stay and give a statement—not that he wants to leave Lex, but he’s in a panic about Chloe—when the television playing in the waiting room grabs everyone’s attention. We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for this special news bulletin, and then there’s footage of Lionel Luthor being led away in handcuffs.
“Details are still sketchy,” the anchorwoman reports, “but we’re receiving information that LuthorCorp founder and CEO Lionel Luthor has been taken into custody on a long list of charges, ranging from unlawful experiments conducted in at least one LuthorCorp facility, violations of federal regulations banning human cloning, mishandling of corporate funds, and the false imprisonment and drugging of his son Lex Luthor at the Belle Reve psychiatric institution more than a year ago. The story appears to have been broken by Daily Planet reporter Chloe Sullivan—”
Video of Chloe from the scene of Lionel Luthor’s arrest flashes up on screen, and Clark breathes out in relief.
“I’ve got to tell my sergeant Lex Luthor is here.” The cop rushes off to use the phone at the nurse’s station.
The doctor calls over an orderly, “Help me get this patient into exam room three.”
They wheel Lex away, and Clark starts to follow, but then a picture flashes through his head, the look in Lex’s eyes when the drug daze clears and Clark is once again just the man who tried to trick him. He slips out a side exit and tells himself it’s better this way.
What really went on at LuthorCorp? takes hold of the media for a good two weeks. Clark follows the sideshow just long enough to make sure that Lex is all right, released from the hospital, no cloud of his father’s wrongdoing hanging over him, and then he turns off the television, stops buying the paper, time to get back to work.
The vines have bounced back from their neglect—a nice few days of rain helping the cause—and fruit is beginning to appear in small, green clusters, making Clark practically giddy with anticipation. Fixing up the winery is the next order of business, and his boots crunch on the gravel path as he heads out to work there. Much of the equipment needs to be repaired, if not outright replaced. He has the motor to the basket press lying on the floor in pieces, and he hunkers down to start tinkering with it.
You didn’t want to stay with Lex? Clark doesn’t know how many times Pete has asked him this since he got back from Metropolis. Maybe he keeps at it because Clark never has much of an answer. It’s hard to explain how he felt walking away from the hospital, like some kind of cosmic scales had shifted. He wanted to rescue Lex from his father—that’s how this all started in the first place—and now Lex was safe. The things Clark took for himself along the way—well, he’s not proud of that, and he’s not going to take anything else. Whatever happens next, if anything happens at all, is completely up to Lex.
Clark whistles to himself as he cleans away many decades of grease from the engine parts and figures this alone could be the reason the basket press isn’t working all that well.
“I trust it’s not as hopeless as it looks,” comes a voice from the doorway.
Clark starts at the sound, and then his heart begins to pound, and he scrambles to his feet. Lex leans casually against the doorjamb, looking like he just stepped out of a magazine in his sleek black suit and dark plum shirt. Clark knows he must be staring, but he can’t help himself.
Lex drifts around the place, his sharp gaze taking in a new piece of equipment that just arrived the day before and repairs Clark has made to the building itself. “It’s really shaping up.” He stops and asks, “I’m not interrupting, am I?”
“No, no, of course not. Please.” Clark waves his hand feebly, inviting Lex to continue looking around.
Lex rubs his hand idly along the side of an oak wine barrel. “Do you still think it’s possible to bottle the first vintage next year?”
“As long as the vines keep coming along, and we know what we’re doing—um, I mean as long as I know, uh—with the right expertise.”
Lex nods, and Clark expects his next observation to be something about winemaking, but instead it’s, “You didn’t come to the hospital.” His tone is perfectly inflectionless, but his eyes are bright with questions.
Clark swallows hard. “I just didn’t want to presume.”
Lex scrutinizes him and then moves closer. “I asked for you when I woke up, but no one knew where you’d gone.”
Clark reaches out and then stops himself, remembering he doesn’t have any right to touch. “I’m sorry, Lex. I didn’t mean to—are you okay?” He almost adds, “because you look really good,” but again, no right.
Lex smiles faintly. “I’m fine, although I can’t say the same for LuthorCorp. You’ve probably heard that the company has gone into receivership, and there’s a pending RICO investigation. My father, naturally, is vowing to fight to the end from his jail cell.”
“You don’t think he’ll beat the charges?” Clark feels a frisson of alarm.
Lex looks speculatively into the air. “I don’t think even my father has that many strings to pull.”
He’s standing close enough now that Clark can feel the heat of him, can smell the clean citrus of his cologne. “Lex,” his voice is half strangled and desperate, “I don’t deserve it, but if you would—I’d really—because I’m so sorry, and I just wish we could—”
He doesn’t even see Lex move. Just suddenly Lex is pressed against him, and Clark’s babbling gets lost in Lex’s kiss, fierce and maybe a little angry. “Don’t ever lie to me again, Clark, even if you think it’s for my own good.”
“I won’t, I won’t,” Clark promises earnestly. “I swear.”
Lex studies him appraisingly. “As long as we understand each other.”
And then somehow they’re hugging.
“Wait.” Clark can’t quite keep up. “Does this mean—”
“Yes. It does.”
Clark goes a little crazy then, raining kisses everywhere, to Lex’s cheek and his shoulder and his lips. “Thank you, thank you, oh God, I missed you so much.”
Lex reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the wedding ring that Clark gave him and slides it resolutely onto his finger. “I trust you do intend on making an honest man of me at some point?” He raises an eyebrow inquiringly.
Clark breaks into what he suspects is the goofiest smile of his life, which is saying something. “I love you.”
Lex kisses him. “Why don’t we go up to the house, and you can help me get reacquainted with the place?” His voice is deep and bedroomy.
“Yeah. That’s—yeah.” Clark reaches out for his hand.
“I never thanked you for saving my life,” Lex says as they walk to the house. “It’s funny. I could have sworn—you’ll laugh. That we flew away from my father’s penthouse.”
Lex casts a sidelong glance at him, and denial bubbles up in Clark, a hard habit to break.
He takes a breath and then does what he promised, his voice catching in his throat, “You didn’t imagine it. Do you remember the Angel of Metropolis?”
Lex’s eyes widen, and Clark smiles softly, because Lex looks so beautifully kid-like when he’s filled with wonder.
But then, Lex’s expression turns, and he abruptly stops. “Wait. You’re from Smallville. Oh God, Clark. The LuthorCorp plant. My father’s experiments. Was that how you—”
“No, no,” Clark is quick to assure him. “It’s—I always knew I was different, not just because I was adopted, and when I turned fifteen, my father told me the whole story, about how they’d found me, that I wasn’t from around here.”
He glances meaningfully up at the sky, and Lex’s eyes go even wider. “Wow.”
Clark grins, and they walk on.
“Who knows about this?” is Lex’s next question, and Clark interprets this to mean, how many people need to be bribed, threatened, or meet with a freak accident for you to be safe?
Clark shakes his head. “Only people I trust.” He squeezes Lex’s hand affectionately.
The house comes into sight, and Clark hesitates. “Are you sure this is going to be enough for you? I mean, I can’t imagine there’ll be much of your father’s fortune left after—and we’re not going to get rich running a farm.”
Lex kisses him. “This is exactly what I want, Clark, and while it’s true my father will most likely exhaust in legal fees whatever assets the government doesn’t seize, I do have a small inheritance from my mother. Only a few hundred million or so, but we should be able to manage on that.”
“A few hundred—” Clark stares, open-mouthed. “I’m never going to be able to give you anything, am I?”
Lex smiles and pulls Clark impatiently up the front steps. “I’m home. What more could I ever ask for?”