THE FIRST time Jake saw the man, he had to stop in the middle of the road and stare. It wasn’t because of the really nice ass sticking up, though he certainly appreciated the view. Jake’s cock twitched, telling him just how long it had been since he had the opportunity to admire such a fine ass. Too long.
No, that wasn’t it. The staring was also not caused by the large golden retriever dancing around the man, making a ton of noise. Pets were a rare sight these days. It was hard enough to keep yourself alive, much less a pet. And purebred dogs were even rarer. Nonetheless, it wasn’t the reason to stare either.
No, it was the fact that Jake could not figure out what the man was doing. He was kneeling in the snow in front of a short pine tree. Jake nudged Shadow to move a little closer, and the sound of the muffled hooves in the snow seemed to be enough to make the man turn around.
He stayed there, squatted, for a long moment before standing slowly. “Hello,” he said cautiously.
Jake worked to ignore the man’s looks and remember there was reason to be careful. And he knew he had the upper hand, considering he was sitting on the back of a thousand-pound animal with deadly hooves and, sometimes, a bad attitude. Still, he needed to tread carefully. He hadn’t missed the lump in the back of the man’s jeans, and he had no wish to find himself or Shadow with lead in the belly. “Hello, do… you need some help?” Jake asked, pointing toward the tree behind the man.
He didn’t answer at first, simply blinked as if he couldn’t quite understand the question.
Jake took the moment to study the man and take in the narrowed dark eyes, shaggy hair just this side of too long, and five o’clock shadow—even though it was only ten in the morning. He found himself wondering how that scruff would feel against his skin, and Jake nearly growled out loud at himself. Stop thinking about your dick, asshole, and focus on not getting shot.
Jake gathered his wits and was about to ask if the man spoke English—it was always a possibility. He’d certainly seen stranger things over the last few years. But before he could speak, the other man did.
“Uh. Yeah, actually.”
Jake swung down out of the saddle and dropped Shadow’s reins, confident his equine friend wouldn’t go anywhere. “What can I do?”
“Well, uh, I’d had in mind to move the tree and replant it later, you know, rather than just cut it down.”
Jake nodded in understanding, eyebrows going up. “I take it that didn’t work so well?”
The other man shook his head. “No, I got about a quarter of it dug up, but the ground is just too hard. Stupid to try. I know better. Uh, by the way, name’s Daniel,” he said, holding his hand out.
Jake extended his own and stared, wide-eyed, when a shock of something went through him, almost like recognition of a connection. That was ridiculous, of course. He’d never met Daniel before in his life.
“Do… we know each other?” Daniel asked, freaking Jake out more than a little.
“Uh, I don’t think so,” Jake said, eyeing the other man.
Daniel shook his head. “I didn’t think so either.”
He let go of Jake’s hand, and Jake felt a brief flash of disappointment over it. He pushed it away. He wasn’t likely to know Daniel for long, and he needed to forget about connections and touches, anyway. “So, you couldn’t dig it up. Were you trying to cut it down, then?”
“Yeah, but it seemed like no matter which way I went, it’s too loose in all the right places to keep me from managing that too.”
“Perhaps if I held it still?” Jake offered.
Daniel nodded. “That might work, yeah.”
“Uh, why are you trying to get it, anyway?” Jake asked as he moved over to the tree.
“It’s my Christmas tree,” Daniel replied, kneeling again in the snow and bending down.
“Your Christmas tree?” Jake asked in surprise. “Uh….”
Daniel looked up. “Yeah, I figure it’s about time I start celebrating again. It’s been a few years.”
Jake frowned. “I don’t know that there’s anything to celebrate.”
Daniel shrugged. “I think so.” He didn’t elaborate, and Jake didn’t push. Instead, they worked together, Jake holding the trunk from above and Daniel hacking and sawing at the base. Finally, the tree was free and fell over. “Good. Thank you very much. Now, I just need to get it home.”
“You’re welcome. Um, home?” Jake asked, stepping back and watching as Daniel tied a rope around the base above the bottom layer of branches.
“Yeah, I’ve got a place about half a mile that way,” he said, waving vaguely east toward a tree line. “It’s not much, but it’s home. Where are you from?”
“Pretty much everywhere, anywhere. At least, since, well, you know,” Jake replied. “But, uh, originally Pittsburgh.”
“Steelers, huh?” Daniel asked.
Jake grinned. “Oh, yeah. And the Pens.”
Daniel laughed. “I lived in the ’Burgh for a while, probably… ten years ago? Went to Pitt.”
Jake nodded. “Yeah, I was Carnegie Mellon.” He smiled again. “Sleep is for Pitt students,” he said, bringing up the old rivalry.
Daniel laughed again. “At least our football team could, well, play.”
“Damn, it’s been a long time,” Jake said, smile wide. “Anyway, do you need help getting it home? I could tie it to Shadow, might be easier than trying to pull it yourself. I don’t think your pup there’s going to be much help.”
“Bull?” Daniel asked, looking down at the dog who’d taken a seat in the snow. “Yeah, he’s pretty useless unless you want something broken.”
It was Jake’s turn to laugh. “Bull in a china shop?”
Daniel nodded. “Exactly.”
“You know Mythbusters busted that,” Jake said with a smirk.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “I know, I know. I was an English teacher, not a science teacher. I prefer the literary reference.”
Jake shook his head. “The dangers of being a science-oriented nerd. I was a computer programmer. Yeah, that’s a useful thing now, isn’t it?” he asked, chuckling. “Right, so, uh….”
“Um, yes, actually, I can’t say I’d be opposed to not having to drag this back. Do you think we can get it hitched up somehow? I didn’t bring anything to drag it on. That wasn’t so smart.”
Jake shrugged. “At worst, you’ll lose some needles. I think I can work something out. Hang on.” Jake dug a bundle of rope out of his saddlebags and took the end of the one Daniel held. With a little work, he’d managed a basic halter to put over Shadow’s head. “Want to ride with me?” he asked once everything was hooked up.
“Uh….” Daniel looked up at him a moment, eyes flicking to Shadow and back, then nodded slowly. “Okay.”
Jake frowned at the hesitance. “Is something wrong?”
“I was thrown once a long time ago. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to let it stop you, right? But it freaked me out, and I haven’t been on one since.”
“Shadow’s plenty docile. He won’t throw you.” Jake climbed up and held out a hand. “Put your foot on mine,” he instructed.
Jake could see the fight Daniel went through, and he waited patiently. Shadow even kept still. Finally, Daniel took his hand and lifted his foot. A few seconds later, he was on Shadow’s back, arms around Jake.
And Jake had to take a few seconds to collect himself. The feel of the arms around him caused his heart to skip a beat. The body against his made his breath hitch. It’d been way too long.
Unbidden, a face flashed into his mind. It had once been full of happiness and life but instead was thin and pale with a gray tinge to it. Clammy skin hanging off of a body that had tubes running in and out of more places than Jake wanted to think about. The sound of the rattle of a set of lungs that wouldn’t be working for much longer echoed in his ear. Live. Be happy. Don’t be alone.
He managed to pull himself together, push Marcus’s face back into the locked memories where it belonged, and nudged Shadow’s side with his heels. The horse started forward slowly, unaccustomed to the drag behind it. “Which way?” he asked.
The arms around him tightened as they started to move, and even through the layers of jackets and clothing, there was something there, some kind of feeling, something more than there should be with a man Jake had met less than an hour before. It annoyed him and frustrated him because he didn’t want it.
One arm moved, pointing ahead and slightly off to the right toward a path Jake could see in the woods. “Through there,” Daniel said. “It should be wide enough for your horse and the tree.”
“Alright, then,” Jake said, nudging Shadow again. They moved a little faster, the tree’s pull aided by the snow.
They rode in silence, Jake fighting with the feel of the body against him. Shadow picked his way along the path in the woods, and the silence of the winter morning would have been unnerving were it not for the company. Jake was used to silence—except for Shadow, he’d traveled alone for the last few years—but there was something about the woods that made it more obvious, somehow. Or maybe that was Daniel.
When they came through to the other side, Jake saw a small two-story farmhouse surrounded by a single line of trees in the wide clearing in front of him. The classic style boasted white wooden clapboard siding, real green wooden shutters on the windows, and a porch that wrapped around at least two sides, possibly three. A smaller outbuilding sat behind the house—painted red, though it was too small to be a traditional barn—a fence attached to it enclosing a small portion of the field. “That it?” he asked over his shoulder. He felt a nod and decided it was time to end Daniel’s misery. “Hold tight.” It wasn’t really necessary—he didn’t think Daniel’s arms could get any tighter around his middle—but it was the best thing he could come up with as a warning.
He kneed Shadow into motion, and the horse started moving a bit faster. They crossed the field shortly, and before Shadow had stopped completely, Daniel was sliding off of the back. Jake swung down and started unhitching the tree, but his attention was drawn to Daniel when the other man pulled a gun out. Daniel held up a hand, then put a finger over his lips. Jake reached for his own weapon—a shotgun he kept holstered on Shadow’s saddle—before following Daniel up onto the porch. Daniel looked up at him, and Jake met the dark eyes with his own blue.
As Daniel approached the door slowly, gun held firmly in front of him, Jake pulled out two shells and loaded the shotgun. He glanced around for the dog, but Bull was lying next to Shadow, seemingly uninterested in what was going on.
After peering through the window, Daniel stepped back and pushed on the door. Jake frowned, not liking the look of things when it swung open easily. He cocked his shotgun. Daniel threw another glance his direction before stepping through the door. A few seconds later, Jake heard a crash and what he would have sworn was a cat’s hiss, and then he hurried over the threshold, gun raised.
Daniel waved at him from the other end of the open first floor that was made up of a large combination kitchen and living room, then motioned for silence again. Jake waited, watching as the other man checked a door under a set of stairs, then started around for the steps themselves. Jake followed, unwilling to let him go alone, though why he should worry so much about this stranger, he had no idea.Something pulled him along.
They walked through the living room, and Jake paused when Daniel motioned for him to wait. “Be right back,” he whispered and started up the stairs. Jake didn’t like letting him go alone—though, logically, he was sure Daniel had done this before, probably many times. Even so, he checked his gun again and waited at the base of the stairs.
As he did, he looked around the room, taking in the thick, plush sofa, armchair, large LCD television, and nearly countless shelves filled with books, movies, and video games. A huge fireplace took up a chunk of one wall, and another held two tall windows with interior working wooden shutters overlooking the porch and facing the road well in the distance.
Jake looked up the stairs and saw at the top what had apparently been a child’s room at some point. He guessed they were dead, like so many others, and wondered if it was Daniel’s child. That thought didn’t rest well with him for some reason, so he tried to ignore it. Instead he listened for Daniel’s movements, but he only heard the occasional creak that had to be Daniel, based on where it was.
He was about to go upstairs to check anyway, but he nearly jumped out of his skin when a ginger cat streaked down the steps and across the room, then disappeared under the couch.
A moment later, Jake heard Daniel’s footsteps on the stairs. “Well, no one’s here. It looks like they never made it upstairs, whoever they were.”
“How do you know?”
“Traps. I learned how to set them early on when I decided to settle here.”
“Oh.” Jake hadn’t considered settling in one place for long, so that idea had never entered his mind. “So, this wasn’t your house?” Jake asked, feeling absurdly relieved.
Daniel shook his head. “No. I think this belonged to a young family, though. There were still pictures on the surfaces—the mantel, dressers, you know. I’m guessing they went to the hospital and just never came home.”
“Oh,” Jake said, nodding. “Yeah. Lots of those stories,” he murmured, trying not to let Marcus’s face resurface in his mind. He was well familiar with the hospital. He’d be happy to never see another one in his life. Considering the state of the world, he doubted he’d have to.
Daniel crossed the room, and Jake simply watched, still fighting Marcus’s memory. He’d gotten good at putting it away, good at letting it go, and he didn’t understand why it insisted on surfacing now. It wasn’t until Daniel spoke that he managed to drag his mind out of the past.
“Would you like coffee?”
Jake blinked at him, seeing Daniel’s coat off and realizing just how absorbed he’d been. So he wasn’t sure he’d heard the man right. “Coffee?”
“Yeah, you know: dark, brewed hot beverage?” Daniel asked, tilting his head.
Marcus’s face faded back into the past, and Jake chuckled, nodding. “Yes, I would, thank you. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any. It’s not like there’s a 7-Eleven to stop at along the way anymore.”
Daniel laughed. “No, no, there isn’t.” He turned to the cabinets, and Jake focused on uncocking his shotgun and setting it down by the door.
“I need to take care of Shadow and the tree,” he said, and Daniel nodded, mumbling something about starting the coffee as Jake opened the door.
A large, golden, furry bundle bounded in just as he did and shook hard, sending bits of snow everywhere. “BULL!” Daniel yelled, and Jake laughed, stepping out and heading toward Shadow, Bull following him again.