Life on Pause
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Niles Longfellow is a nerd, and not the trendy type of nerd, either. He wears a historically accurate homesteader costume to work every day, has a total of one friend, and doesn’t know how to talk to guys. So when he gets a flat tire and the hottest hipster ever stops to help him, all Niles can think is that he’s wearing his stupid cowboy getup. Normally, Niles feels invisible to other men, but he’d take that invisibility any day over Rusty Adams seeing him in suede and fringe.
Rusty moved to Bison Hills to help his sister raise her daughter, and nothing is more important to him than that. He’s also fresh off a breakup, and isn’t prepared for anything complicated. But then he meets Niles. Rusty sees Niles as more than a clumsy, insecure guy in a costume. He sees a man who is funny, quirky, and unexpected.
Nothing about their connection is simple, though, especially the lies and insecurities between them. Niles doesn’t know if he can trust Rusty with his heart, and when Rusty’s sister decides to move away, Rusty doesn’t know if he can stay behind.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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For the first time in five years, Niles had forgotten a change of clothes for after work, so he was still dressed like a poor man’s Buffalo Bill Cody.
He cranked up NPR, tried to ignore the chafing of his wool trousers and chaps, and tossed his wide-billed lawman hat into the backseat. It landed on the dirty workout clothes from his morning spin class.
He could have put those clothes back, but they smelled like balls. Really, the whole car smelled like balls.
Niles rolled the window down, hoping to blow away the stench—he liked balls but not that much—and the aftertaste of his hellacious day.
Work had sucked. He should know better than to let Denny get to him. That big, dumb redneck always spouted shit and tried to undermine Niles in front of the kids he supervised—Niles had gotten used to the giggles of the teenage docents following him out of a room, but Denny had never done it in front of museum guests before, until today.
Heat throbbed behind Niles’s eyes, and he swiped at them angrily, which meant the fringe on his sleeves lashed his cheek and neck. He normally managed to keep his emotions in check in front of people, but he enjoyed a good cry every now and then. Like when he was reading the scene where Dobby dies or watching any dog movie ever. Or when he was embarrassed by a bully from high school, despite graduating from that godforsaken nightmare almost ten years ago.
That was normal, right?
Niles’s mom would have said that Denny was nothing but an insecure jerk who never grew up, and if his dad could still talk, he would have said that Denny was a racist. Denny might be both of those things, but Niles was pretty sure Denny picked on him because he was a homophobe.
What exactly had Denny said to that old couple with their grandkids in tow?
“Tomorrow’s storyteller is better. More believable, you know?”
And that didn’t really sound too bad, but it had been the tone of Denny’s voice, as if Niles wasn’t believable because he wasn’t rugged or big or manly. And Richard, a volunteer and retired cattle roper who handled Living History of the Plains on Wednesdays, was A Man. With capital letters.
Niles had thought about going to the Director of Bushyhead Homestead about Denny’s comment. Janice had hired Niles straight out of college, and she was the closest thing to a mentor he had. But Janice wouldn’t do jack-shit besides tell Denny, again, to stop being an asshole, and that would have only made it worse.
It didn’t help that Niles wasn’t exactly a convincing prairie homesteader, even in the historical getup. He was too tall, too thin, and too weird. But he was a decent actor, and a good teacher, and he knew his shit. He knew how to tan a hide, and clean a deer, and churn butter, and milk a cow, and make a million different things from buffalo chips. This land was his heritage, for fuck’s sake. And Janice always said that he was the best Director of Education Bushyhead Homestead had managed to keep in twenty years, but none of that mattered in the face of Denny’s put-downs. That one sentence earlier had reduced Niles to the insecure teenager he so desperately wanted to leave behind.
The sun had started to sink below the tree line, and that perfect sunset glow spread over the hay fields on either side of the road. The tips of the grass blazed golden from the last dredges of sunlight, and the dusky sky tinged the trees pink. In an hour, lightning bugs would descend like fairy lights from heaven, and Niles would sit on the front porch of his parents’ house and eat dinner all alone. And he was okay with that.
As long as he could get out of this stupid outfit and take a shower to wash off this awful day before he had to interact with another human being, he would be okay with just about anything.
He was almost to the four-way stop before his driveway when his car suddenly pitched a little to the right. He braked hard, and at that exact moment, one of his back tires blew and shredded apart.
Of fucking course.
* * * * * * *
Rusty glanced at his rearview mirror to see his niece, Margo, in the backseat. Every day after school, Margo was bussed over from the Early Childhood Education Center to the high school where she hung out in his classroom until he was ready to leave, because his sister, Jacqueline, didn’t get off work in time to pick her up. Most days, Rusty and Margo returned to his apartment above the antique store on Main Street, and he tried to be a good pseudo-parent by feeding her healthy food. But on Tuesdays, they ate at Lupe’s because he couldn’t be good all the time and little girls deserved chocolate empanadas every once in a while.
Todd, Rusty’s accompanist at school and recent ex-boyfriend, used to be part of their routine. Margo didn’t quite understand why Uncle Todd now only gave her a hug when she arrived at his classroom and left without going to dinner with them. She didn’t get that Rusty wasn’t part of Todd’s routine anymore. Now a beautiful twink from Tulsa was the center of Todd’s world, and Rusty was the ex Todd had to work with.
Every. Single. Day.
Margo was playing with a plastic panda bear figurine but her eyes were droopy, and an unearthly pang tugged at Rusty’s chest. It was the same pang he’d first experienced when Jackie had handed him a baby Margo and asked him to sing her to sleep. He still sang to her when he was around at bedtime. It was their thing. And Margo was a girl after his own heart. She loved Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald and show tunes, and he loved her like his heart would split to pieces because of her smile.
The road to Jackie’s duplex, which was outside of Bison Hills proper, was normally empty, but today there was a tiny, old Mazda kicking up dust in front of him. He began to brake at a four-way stop and watched as one of its tires stripped completely off and the rubber went flying. The little car wobbled like a top losing momentum, but the driver managed to wrangle it into control and pull the car to a stop.
Then the driver of the Mazda dropped his head to the steering wheel.
There was nothing for miles except homes and farms, and cell service was notoriously bad in this area. Rusty hoped the man had a donut or a spare.
“Margo,” he said, turning in his seat to look directly at her. She glanced up at him. “I’m going to help this person in front of us, okay? He has a flat tire. I’ll roll the window down, so if you need me, all you’ll need to do is yell. Is that all right with you?”
She nodded, so he opened several of the windows and then got out to help the man.
He approached the car, stepping over pieces of shredded tire, but when he reached the driver’s side, the guy didn’t roll down the window. Instead, he simply stared at Rusty through the glass with wide eyes before putting his head back on the steering wheel. It was a little alarming.
“Hey, you okay?” Rusty asked through the glass. All he’d seen before the man had put his head down was wavy black hair and big dark-as-pitch eyes. The driver reached for his door handle, so Rusty stepped back to give him room to get out.
But he was in no way prepared for the man who unfolded himself from the car. The driver’s height alone was impressive, but all in all, the least noteworthy thing about him.
“Yee haw,” Rusty choked, and the driver—completely decked out in suede and fringe and boots and a Western shirt—glared at him, so Rusty schooled his expression. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” the driver gritted out before he kicked the rim of his shredded tire.
“Where’s your hat?” Rusty couldn’t help but ask.
“Backseat,” the man said dully.
This cowboy was tall and gangly, especially in his costume. God, Rusty hoped it was a costume and not, like, his normal clothing. The guy almost had a broody thing going, with tan skin and hair that fell into his eyes, but dark freckles on his nose and cheeks completely countered any mileage he might get out of his pensive-poet appearance. They made him seem young and innocent.
“I’m Rusty,” he said, his hand extended for a shake. The other driver placed a thin, long-boned hand into his, and the rough calluses against Rusty’s palm surprised him. Maybe this guy was a real cowboy. “Do you need help?”
The man wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he fidgeted with the fringe on his sleeves. “I’m okay. I just need to get the donut on. I live close by.”
Rusty was surprised. His gaydar was pinging pretty hard, and he thought he’d met most every queer guy in a forty-mile radius. It wasn’t like there were a ton of options here. Besides Todd. Grindr was a veritable wasteland in Bison Hills.
“What’s your name, man?” Rusty prompted.
“Oh!” the guy said, as if he’d only now realized that he hadn’t given it. “Niles Longfellow. I’m sorry. I’m a little . . . flabbergasted.”
“‘Flabbergasted’?” Rusty repeated with a teasing laugh. What a vocabulary!
Color rose up on the man’s—on Niles’s—cheeks. His chin hitched higher, though, and he flipped that adorable forelock out of his eyes.
“Uncle Russell!” Margo called from the back of Rusty’s car.
“Hold on a second,” Rusty said before he jogged over to get Margo. He turned the car off and helped her down, and they walked back to the Mazda.
Niles was putting the emergency brake and hazards on, and when he stepped back out of the car, Margo squeaked, “A pioneer!”
He smiled at her, seemingly comfortable for the first time since Rusty had started speaking to him, and then he crouched down to be at her eye level.
“That’s right. At my job, I pretend to be one of Oklahoma’s early homesteaders, so I wear this silly outfit. It looks pretty strange now though, huh?”
Everything clicked into place. Rusty knew there was some kind of homestead museum in the area. In fact, when he’d moved from Oklahoma City out here to the boonies with Jackie, he’d told his friends, “It’s not the total sticks. They have a museum.” Of course, he hadn’t mentioned that the museum was just an old farm.
Margo had evidently used up all of her sociability for the day because she shrank back into Rusty’s side. Niles stood up, and Rusty was very aware of how he had to tip his head back to see Niles’s face.
An unsolicited lick of heat wound through Rusty as he imagined what that lanky man would look like spread out below him or behind him or, really, anywhere with him. He probably shouldn’t imagine strangers naked—it wasn’t exactly polite—but not every queer man he met had such long legs.
“You don’t need to stick around. I know how to change a tire.” Accusation colored Niles’s voice, as if Rusty had insinuated he didn’t. “And I’m literally a hundred yards from home.” Niles pointed to a house up the road.
Rusty smiled at him, and Niles’s blush deepened, making his freckles harder to see in the decreasing daylight.
“Let me help you. We’re losing sun here, and I don’t want you to have to do it in the dark. It’s easier with two people.”
Niles stared down at his cowboy boots and nodded.
“Great!” Rusty exclaimed, and then bit the inside of his cheek. He could hear his sister’s teasing voice in his head. Sounding thirsty there, Russell. “Let me get Margo set back up in the car, and then we’ll get you taken care of.”
He turned to Margo, and she glared at him suspiciously, like he was about to cut her out of something fun.
“Sugar pea, I’ll let you watch whatever you want on my iPad until I get done helping Mr. Longfellow, if you don’t mind staying in the car. Sound like a sweet deal to you?”
“The Simpsons?” she asked.
He groaned. “Deal, but don’t tell your mom.”
Rusty could have sworn he heard Niles laugh softly behind him as he led Margo back to his car, and wished he had been watching Niles’s face to see it.
When he lifted Margo into her seat, she whispered, “I liked his bandana.”
He winked at her. “Me too, bean sprout. I’ll be back.”
Once Margo was buckled into the booster seat with her window down and the air conditioner on, Rusty returned to the poor Mazda.
Niles already had the car jacked up and the remnants of the tire pulled off. Rusty simply provided an extra pair of hands because Niles definitely knew what he was doing. He changed a tire like a pit boss.
Lightning bugs started to flicker around them, and a black cricket landed on Rusty’s boat shoe. Before he could even flinch, Niles flicked the cricket away and continued to change the tire as if it were nothing.
And something about that was unexpectedly sexy.
“Do you live in town?” Niles asked suddenly.
“Yeah. I have for four years now. I moved out here with my sister after she had Margo.”
“Ah,” Niles said. “I wondered why I didn’t recognize you. I mean, it’s not that weird that I haven’t seen you before. I’m not exactly a social butterfly or anything. I kind of suck at social, actually. But I know all the townies. Townies know each other, you know? And I’m sure I’ve never seen you before.” He bit his lip and ducked his head shyly before lowering the jack.
“I haven’t really met a ton of people since moving here,” Rusty said. “Just coworkers and my sister’s friends, most of whom have four-year-olds.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m the choir director for the middle school and high school at Bison Hills.”
Niles hand-tightened the lug nuts, and Rusty tracked his long, nimble fingers. He had a thing for hands, and he liked the way Niles fluttered his when flustered, which had been pretty much the whole time they’d been on the side of the road.
Once Niles was done, Rusty stood up and reached down to give him a boost. When he pulled him up, Niles lost his balance and their shoulders bumped.
“Gah! I’m sorry,” Niles squeaked.
Rusty glanced down at their hands to see their skin touching. The delicate bones of Niles’s hand against Rusty’s baseball-mitt palm. The difference in their skin tones. But then Niles jerked his hand away with an embarrassed squawk.
“I’m sorry,” Niles said again. He took a step back, tripped over the shredded tire, and fell against the side of his car.
Rusty decided it was about time for him to disappear before he made Niles any more uncomfortable, but then Niles laughed—a sad, barbed little laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
“Dude, you would not believe the day I’ve had.” Niles slumped against his car. “I thought the worst part of my day was a douche-hat coworker talking bad about me to museum patrons. I wasn’t prepared for this disaster.”
“Hey, I think this was a pretty successful tire change, Niles. I mean, you did most of the work, and I stood around like eye candy. I call that ‘being productive.’ Now I don’t feel guilty about spending the rest of the night watching Netflix.” He smiled at Niles, and Niles returned it, all hesitant and shy. The guy’s historical getup was dusty from the road, like he’d come from a cattle drive—if it were a cattle drive of over-tall twinks—and Rusty was tempted to help him brush it all off.
Niles gathered up his tools and the flat tire and put everything in his trunk. It was time to go, but Rusty didn’t want to waste an opportunity here. At the very least, Niles was a man who was his age, and it would be nice to actually have a friend who wasn’t one of the women Jackie worked with at the salon or a parent of Margo’s classmates. Or Todd.
“Maybe I’ll see you around, Niles? You ever go to O’Donnell Ducks?” It was the only bar in Bison Hills and within walking distance of Rusty’s apartment.
“Uh, no. Ducks isn’t exactly my thing. Remember? No social butterfly here.” Niles toed at the dirt around his tire for a couple of pregnant seconds. The rejection hit Rusty like a kick to his shins. He took a few steps back and opened his mouth to say goodbye, but then Niles glanced up at him, rubbing the back of his neck.
“It was nice to meet you, Russell,” he whispered.
And the way Niles said his full name, all soft and sweet, made Rusty wish he’d get to hear it again.
* * * * * * *
Niles plopped down on his front porch and pulled out his cell phone. He had the worst gaydar in the history of gaydar. He wanted to call his best friend, Victor, to walk him through using Grindr again to see if he could find Rusty on there, but Victor was on a cruise right now. Well, he was constantly on a cruise because he worked on a cruise ship. Niles always thought of it as if Victor were on vacation, but he wasn’t. He was at work. Niles would try to catch him on Skype over the weekend, but that would not help with his current predicament—the mystery of Rusty’s sexuality.
And fuck! He had been in his stupid historical clothing like a total nerd! It was worse than those nightmares where he was naked in a crowd of people.
Rusty had been a total boner machine, too. Big and broad with chest hair peeking out from the V of his button-down. Surely his hair had been too styled for him to be straight: parted on the side and swept off his face with an undercut on the sides and back, like he was a playboy from the 1940s. But edgier.
Plus, Rusty had been wearing really nice shoes. Which, okay, Niles shouldn’t judge someone from appearance alone, but Rusty had also been super nice. Straight guys were never that kind to him. Not that straight men weren’t capable of being nice, but they didn’t go out of their way to make him feel comfortable. Normally, he could practically see them shouting No Homo! with their eyes, and Rusty hadn’t been like that.
Maybe Rusty had a horrible gaydar!
Oh hell, that would be worse.
Then there was the weird hand-holding thing, which had totally been Niles’s fault. He’d held on like a complete creeper. If Rusty were straight, he’d probably thought Niles was hitting on him! Nausea swept over him so quickly he had to put his head between his knees.
It was almost full dark now, and the August air smelled like grass and leaves and dirt and petrol. Like Oklahoma. He could barely make out the junk littering his parents’ front yard: rusted car parts, a broken tire swing, empty flowerpots, and memories. He should clean the yard or entice a pack of pickers to come and haul all the scrap away, but it was his parents’ stuff, and he wasn’t prepared to part with it yet. Months ago, he’d started to sort through their belongings inside the house. He’d cleaned and imagined loading up and carrying big, bursting garbage bags to the Goodwill. But he hadn’t been able to go through with it. Hell, he could hardly enter his parents’ bedroom. It still smelled like chewing tobacco and antiseptic Bag Balm.
But the least he could do was make the yard seem hospitable. String twinkle lights from the trees and weed his mom’s flowerbeds. Make it the type of place where a nice man might want to spend time with him. The type of place he wouldn’t be embarrassed to point out to a stranger on the side of the road.
Oh, geez. Pathetic much? One kind, burly bear and Niles was planning their freaking wedding. He needed to get a grip.
Or get laid.
But holy Betsy, that sounded like too much work. Driving to Tulsa, hanging out at a bar where he felt like the country bumpkin, and pretending to know what the hell everyone was talking about, and for what? The privilege of blowing some young professional who wouldn’t even kiss him? No, thanks. Palmy Lee Jones and fancy lube—that would have to do.
Niles pulled himself up off the porch and went inside to change out of his work outfit. The pants bore patches of road filth, and he was going to have to handwash them, which served him right for buying authentic historical clothing.
Everything would be easier if he weren’t such a fucking nerd.
While he was changing in his childhood bedroom—which he should admit was just his adult bedroom—he thought back to Denny the Douche-canoe. His hurt feelings seemed almost silly now. The sick drop of shame. The sting of tears in his eyes at being made the butt of yet another joke. Inconsequential—the lot of ’em.
Because nothing, absolutely nothing, could compare to the mortification of a man as hot as Rusty seeing him in fringe.
Niles threw his dirty clothes on the floor and fell back onto his bed in his briefs. His gaze settled on the framed picture of his parents on his bedside table.
His mom, with her pale skin and light eyes and curly hair—Irish, through and through—and his dad, all commanding in full Cheyenne and Arapaho regalia before a Fancy Dance competition. They had been such beautiful people. Strong and sturdy and so young in the picture. Younger than him.
Niles had been a surprise. “The best surprise,” his mom used to say. She’d been almost forty when he was born, and his dad only a couple of years younger. His parents had been told a baby wasn’t in the cards.
He’d always worried he wasn’t the son they’d hoped for. Dreamed of. But Mom had been perfectly willing to smack that notion out of his head. When they found out he was gay—not like he’d hidden it well—neither had batted an eyelash, and his dad had given him a long lecture on the history of the Two-Spirit. So yeah, he was pretty lucky. His parents—his mom, now gone, and his dad, alive but gone in a totally different way—had been great.
But Niles, as much as he loved them, didn’t want to see them right now. He tipped the picture over, opened his toy drawer, and grabbed the lube.
As Niles filled up a small horse trough with ice and free bottled water, he couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to work at a museum where he didn’t have to spend lots of time outside in the heat. It was a Saturday and there was less staff, so he was on heat-exhaustion duty when a thirteen-year-old emo kid in all black had fainted right in front of her parents. It might have been the end of August, but it was still a hundred degrees in the shade. He’d gotten the teenager and her family into a cool air-conditioned room, and had provided ice water and cold towels until the girl felt better. And now he was trying to prevent a repeat by putting out cold water for the rest of the guests.
Niles usually liked working on Saturdays because he didn’t have to go full Oregon Trail. He wasn’t the storyteller on Saturdays, and seldom did scheduled reenactments or demos on the weekends, so he only needed to wear cowboy boots, trousers, a Western-style shirt, and a hat. He liked to pretend he looked almost ordinary in this understated historical garb, like he was going two-stepping at the bingo hall.
Ain’t no thing. Just my everyday redneck attire.
Except nothing was normal about Niles’s clothing on him. He looked like someone had plucked a weedy millennial and put him with the Donner Party.
Saturdays also drew a different kind of guest. Fewer school field trips and more history enthusiasts. And Niles loved Bushyhead Homestead and Bison Hills, so anytime he could wax poetic about their history, both good and bad, he felt alive, and heard, and not like a total waste of space.
But Saturdays could blow too. Every teenage docent was present on Saturdays, and they always seemed to be mired in young love and drama—they’d all traded boyfriends and girlfriends so often it was hard to keep track. Plus, they were practically impossible to motivate. How hard was it to pass out maps in the main house? There was even air conditioning in there!
That was probably his biggest issue with working on Saturdays—his grumpy grandpa routine constantly reared its ugly head. He was too young—only twenty-seven—to be that much of a party pooper.
And it wasn’t only at work. All of his friends from college—really they were Victor’s friends, not his—posted pictures on Facebook of their Friday nights at the Copa in Oklahoma City or their wild trips to Dallas. Victor had informed Niles that he actually missed half of their friends’ social media updates since Niles wasn’t on Instagram or Snapchat, which led Niles to believe everyone was simply infinitely more interesting than him. They had enough excitement to fill multiple social media platforms. It was mind-boggling. And sometimes those photos of bright, beautiful men who were all put-together and fun made Niles feel like life was passing him by.
By early afternoon, the free water was running low and most of the ice had melted, so Niles busied himself with refilling the horse trough again. Someone touched his elbow as he dumped a fourth bag of ice over the bottled water. He spun around and almost staggered back into the trough. Rusty, with his niece in his arms and a pretty young woman at his side, smiled at him.
“Hey, Niles. How are you?”
How was he!
It was a hundred degrees, he had pit stains, and Rusty was there. He was a wreck and still wearing goddamn historical clothing.
“Hey. Hi. How are you?” Niles said. Then he realized he hadn’t answered Rusty’s question, so he rushed out, “I’m doing okay!”
God, he was a weirdo.
“That’s great, and I’m good. Thought we’d check this place out after you talked about it. We’ve been watching a Living History of the Plains demonstration. Margo got to touch all kinds of animal hides, didn’t you, sweet pea?” Margo nodded, her head not leaving Rusty’s shoulder, and smiled shyly at Niles. “This is my sister, Jackie,” Rusty said, with a gesture to the woman beside him. She was gorgeous, all retro with tattoos and red lips. She seemed way too cool to be living in Bison Hills. So did Rusty for that matter. His beard had filled out in the days since Niles had seen him, and he was rocking the hipster thing pretty hard.
Jackie shook his hand, which was cold and wet from the ice. He should have wiped it on his pants first. Now she probably thought he had clammy hands, and, Jesus, he kind of did, but only because Rusty was hot and watching him and smiling.
“Here, Margo,” Jackie started. “Why don’t we go check out the barns and let Uncle Rusty and Niles chat?”
Rusty put Margo down, and the little girl and Jackie wandered off toward the other end of the property.
“So did you get the tire taken care of?” Rusty asked once they were alone.
Niles nodded, slightly addled by having Rusty here at his place of work, looking so fine and smooth. “I took it to the Tire Shop in town the next day. They hooked me up.” Niles didn’t explain that his father technically owned the simply named Tire Shop, that it had been his life’s work until the stroke.
The conversation stalled out, and Niles swiped his hat off of his head to wipe away the sweat trickling down his temples.
“So, um, how are you—”
“I was wondering—”
They both spoke at the same time and then snapped their mouths shut to let the other finish. It was awkward as all fuck. Niles fluttered his hands at Rusty as if to say, No, you continue. Please, don’t make me be the one to continue.
It didn’t work.
Finally, Niles said, “Are you enjoying the Homestead? We have festivals and stuff out here too. In the spring, we have an Earth Day festival and powwow, and at the beginning of fall, there’s Cricket Plague Days. In several weeks, we’re having the Bluestem Bluegrass Festival. I could show you all of our educational pamphlets. They’re very informative.”
“Niles, I’m not here to see pamphlets,” Rusty said gently.
“Hey! I made those pamphlets,” Niles grumbled, and Rusty’s smile grew. It made Niles hotter and sweatier.
“What type of clothes do you wear when you’re not at work?” Rusty mused. “Are you a hipster? I’ve pictured a hipster. But maybe you’re a T-shirt and cargo shorts kind of guy. I can’t decide.”
Niles froze, his brain exploding. Rusty had thought about him? About his clothes? Which, to be honest, probably left a lot to be desired. He wore what was clean, and he didn’t leave his house much when he wasn’t at work. Sweatpants and cutoffs featured heavily.
“I’d like to see you in clothes other than the historical getup, I think,” Rusty added, eyes dark and expectant and pinning Niles in place like a butterfly on display.
Rusty pushed all of Niles’s buttons. The good buttons. He was big, for one thing. Not taller than Niles, but broad and stocky. His light brown hair was swept back from his face, and it gave him a devil-may-care sweetness. Everything about him was bright and hot, even his intriguingly red stubble. But it was his warm brown eyes that really did Niles in. They were the color of chocolate-covered cherries. The shade of caramel heating on the stove. The hue of good stout. They made Niles want to gobble him whole.
Maybe he shouldn’t have skipped lunch.
But those eyes were trying to communicate something to Niles that he was not prepared to interpret. He absolutely did not see interest there. There was no way Rusty was flirting with him, right? That would be insane. Men like Rusty—men who were cool and hot and sober—did not show interest in Niles.
So rather than responding, or choking out a purge of unrelated consonants—though, that was a close thing—Niles stared back in passive terror. The ability to speak coherently about himself was evidently not something he possessed in the face of Rusty’s hotness, so he slipped into education mode, repeating a speech he could have made in his sleep.
“This homestead was built by the Bushyhead family in 1907. Thomas Bushyhead, the patriarch, was Cherokee. There’s a lot of information in the main house about the Native Americans who settled this land originally, as well as the ones who were forced here by the U.S. government during the Trail of Tears. Likewise, we have educational material on the allocation of Native land by the U.S. government at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a brutal, horrific time in history, and one that changed the lives of innumerable Native Americans and continues to echo through Oklahoma communities. I could show—”
“I’d like to get to know you,” Rusty interrupted. “I want to see all of the educational material. I do. But I came here today because I’d like to get to know you. I could be seriously crossing a line, man, but I don’t know many people around here. I especially don’t know many queer people, and it would be nice to make a friend.”
Niles gaped at him. Rusty wanted to be friends? Geez, that made so much more sense than the interest Niles had imagined in Rusty’s eyes. He was almost relieved.
“I’m sorry,” Rusty said into the uncomfortable silence. “It was wrong of me to assume you might be queer . . . I mean, I shouldn’t have presumed.”
Niles stifled a laugh. “Of course I’m gay. Christ on a cracker, Rusty, you’ve talked to me! It’s not exactly a blinding secret.”
Most people assumed. In fact, Niles couldn’t remember a time when anyone had actually asked him, or presumed he could be anything but. He didn’t know what made him stand out, but he always had. When he’d met his RA during his first day at college, for example, the man had introduced himself and then told Niles he would get him information about all the LGBTQIA campus groups. Niles literally hadn’t said anything to the man besides, “Hi, I’m Niles. No Frasier jokes, please.”
“Are you gay?” Niles asked Rusty.
“No, bi,” Rusty replied as if Niles hadn’t asked a completely inappropriate question.
Though, it wasn’t like Rusty hadn’t asked the exact same thing, albeit in a roundabout way. But Rusty was self-assured and radiated calm, like he was happy with his place in the world, whereas Niles lived a life of landmines.
“Oh, neat,” Niles said at last. Neat? Oh, God. He almost slapped himself on the forehead. He was such a tool.
“Thanks. I’m glad you think so,” Rusty said, his voice smooth and teasing. “So, how about dinner tonight when you get off work?”
Niles tried to think of a reason not to accept the invite, but . . . well . . . he wanted to go. It had been a long time since he’d had a friend that he saw more often than once a year or through video chat.
Plus, Rusty was so cool. He was like the men Niles stared at longingly in the bars in Tulsa. The ones who were way too hip to glance his way. And suddenly, one wasn’t only glancing his way but was extending the gift of friendship.
“I get off around five thirty, but I’d like to shower first. It’s hot today, and I’ve been outside a lot,” Niles finally said.
Rusty’s eyes tracked over Niles’s chest where perspiration had soaked through his shirt. “I don’t mind the sweat. But I understand if you want clean up. How about you meet me at the Rose Rock Bakery at six thirty?”
“Sure,” Niles said faintly and hoped his boner wasn’t visible in his cowboy pants.
* * * * * * *
Nerves danced in Rusty’s stomach while he waited for Niles on the bench outside the entrance of Rose Rock Bakery. He normally wasn’t a nervous person. He could stand on stage and sing in front of hundreds of people and not break a sweat. He didn’t have any phobias. And when it came to men or women, he wasn’t afraid to go for what he wanted.
But this anxiety over Niles was a whole other animal, and it surprised him. Rusty had dated his fair share of men, all of them like his ex, Todd—silver-tongued, stylish, fit, and fickle. But Niles was shy and kind of awkward, and for all Rusty knew, he might not own regular clothes—he’d never answered Rusty’s question about his after-work attire—and Rusty couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so drawn to someone else, so interested to get to know another person. He was as nervous as he was excited.
A large SUV parked directly in front of the entrance, and a bunch of children poured out of the vehicle. At first, Rusty didn’t recognize any of the kids, but then he caught sight of a teenage boy, Martin Jacobs, who had been in choir the year before but hadn’t been able to fit it into his schedule this year because of his vo-tech classes.
“Hi, Mr. Adams,” Martin mumbled, and Rusty smiled and stood up. He’d always liked the kid. He was sulky, somber, and had the most beautiful tenor.
“Hi, Martin. How are your carpentry classes going?”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Rusty turned toward Martin’s mom, Mrs. Jacobs.
She was grinning at him. “Mr. Adams, I was so sad when Martin wasn’t able to keep taking choir, but Vanessa will be in the seventh grade next year and she’s planning to pick it as her elective course.” She gestured to a tall girl standing between three younger kids.
“I look forward to having you in my class next year, Vanessa,” he said to her. She blushed and her mom laughed.
“You kiddos go on in and get us a table,” Mrs. Jacobs said, shooing her kids inside. Once they were alone, she turned back to Rusty. “I really am sorry Martin couldn’t be in choir. I know you’re always short on boys, and Martin loved your class.”
“It’s okay. It’s hard for the vo-tech kids to take any electives, so I understand. We do miss his tenor though.”
She paused and studied him for a beat. “None of my kids—God love ’em—are athletes, so having a teacher like you, who pushes the arts and accepts kids who are different, is a blessing to my family. I expect you’ll have a long line of my kids in choir in the coming years. And I’m sure you don’t hear thanks nearly as often as you deserve—none of you teachers do—but thank you.”
Tears almost sprouted in his eyes, but he managed to push them down. “I appreciate hearing that.”
“Sure thing. I better get inside before my passel of kids burns the place down.” She smiled at him, and then slipped into the restaurant.
Rusty sat back down on the bench to wait for Niles, his earlier nervousness completely gone. He was touched that Mrs. Jacobs had stopped to chat with him, and that she had said such nice things. He’d never had that when he’d taught at a large, understaffed school in Oklahoma City, but that happened to him often in Bison Hills. He could hardly buy a gallon of gasoline without seeing and chatting with a parent of one of his students.
And he liked that. He liked the hospitable, small-town charm. He liked that it felt like a community. But something Mrs. Jacobs had said hit him especially hard—that she appreciated that he was accepting of kids who were different.
He imagined that growing up in a small town could sometimes feel like being under a microscope, especially if one didn’t conform to societal expectations. If he could provide one small-town kid relief from that pressure, if he could provide one class period where a child could just be herself, then moving to Bison Hills was worth it.
When he’d moved here, it had been exactly what he’d needed. He hadn’t been prepared for his first teaching job, and he’d needed a break from the drugs and drama and competition of his friends in Oklahoma City. Simply put, he hadn’t been happy. When Jackie got pregnant and Daddy Douchebag forfeited his rights, Rusty had left with Jackie without looking back.
And after a day like today—where he had gone to a local museum with Jackie and Margo, had a touching conversation with a student’s parent, and was about to have a date with a gorgeous man—he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
At exactly six thirty, Niles pulled into the parking lot in his Mazda, now with four new tires, and when he stepped out of the car, Rusty’s relief almost made him laugh out loud. Niles was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with Cookie Monster on it. His curly hair was slightly damp from his shower, and he looked clean and young and, yes, very nervous when he saw Rusty waiting for him.
“Hi, Rusty,” Niles said shyly when he reached him.
A shiver worked its way up Rusty’s spine. Maybe that was where the attraction originated—Niles’s voice, so soft and sweet and earnest, saying Rusty’s name like he liked it.
Rusty ushered Niles inside, they seated themselves, and within seconds, a frazzled teenager Rusty vaguely recognized from school came to get their drink orders. Rose Rock Bakery—a restaurant that didn’t actually sell baked goods—was one of Rusty’s favorite places in town. Todd had worked there through high school and knowing the intricacies of the kitchen had made it inedible to him. That probably should have scared Rusty off, but Rose Rock Bakery bore the welcome distinction of having zero Todd memories attached to it. Rusty saw the man every day, for God’s sake. He would like to go on a date without the echo of Todd haunting him.
Rusty and Niles both ordered Dr Pepper and then stared at each other. Niles rearranged the salt and pepper shakers. Then did it again. And again.
“So do you like working at Bushyhead Homestead?” Rusty asked.
Niles nodded and smiled, his lips curling and flashing an enticing sliver of pink gums above his front teeth.
“I’ve always loved that place. We used to go when I was a kid. My parents were really into heritage and history, so we went to all the events and festivals.”
“That reminds me,” Rusty said. “What is Cricket Plague Days? You mentioned it earlier. Every year I see it in the newspaper and the kids talk about it at school, but I’ve never paid that much attention.”
Niles’s eyes lit up. “Oh, that’s probably my favorite festival at Bushyhead Homestead. I love the powwow in the spring too, but Cricket Plague Days is special.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Okay, so sometime after statehood—around 1909—Bison Hills started having a local trade market. It was a chance for farmers to come into town and sell their livestock or produce, and they called it Bison Hills Trade Days. Things got weird in 1915. One of those charismatic, end-of-days churches sprung up in the area and developed a loyal following. I’m not saying they were snake handlers or anything, but pretty close. Their preacher, a man named Teller Chafin, did not at all like the direction society was heading. He didn’t like that there were so many illegal stills, moonshiners, and bootleggers in the area. He had major problems with white people marrying Native Americans. And he absolutely abhorred Bison Hills’s dance hall.” Niles paused dramatically and hit Rusty with a sly smile. “So . . . Preacher Chafin claimed God had spoken to him in a dream and said that a great plague of crickets would come down from heaven, scourge all of the farmers’ harvests, and ruin Bison Hills Trade Days if the townsfolk didn’t change their evil ways.”
Rusty laughed. “Shut up. This is not true.”
“No! I promise. It’s totally true. So it created this huge division in town. A lot of people were very anti-liquor, anti-Native, and anti-dancing. The newspapers called them Plaguers. But a lot of other people liked their booze, their neighbors, and their honky-tonks. The newspapers called them Sinners—not kidding. So it got closer and closer to harvest, and there were still no crickets. Preacher Chafin was not deterred. He was adamant that crickets would ruin Bison Hills Trade Days. But . . . no crickets ever arrived, and Bison Hills Trade Days went off without a hitch. The Sinners in town felt vindicated in their ways, and the Plaguers were made a laughingstock. Preacher Chafin skipped town and was never heard from again. After that year, people started jokingly referring to Bison Hills Trade Days as Cricket Plague Days, and eventually the name stuck. Now, it’s more or less a kitschy fall market with a silly name.”
“That’s nuts. So basically this preacher was like the precursor to televangelists who trick old ladies into sending them money,” Rusty said.
“Yes. There were some Oral Roberts undertones there. Welcome to Oklahoma. We got a history.” Niles grinned at him, and heat rushed through Rusty’s skin. He’d take that genuine, open smile any day.
His earlier conversation with Mrs. Jacobs flitted through his mind. “You know, growing up, I never would have expected I’d end up living in Small Town, Oklahoma. I’d dreamed of moving out of state, going to a big city somewhere,” Rusty said. “Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Bison Hills is great, and cost of living is so cheap here.”
Niles giggle-snorted and then blushed. He was such strange mix. One minute, he was telling an in-depth story about his bizarre hometown without missing a beat, and the next he was self-conscious of his own laugh.
“I never planned to move back to Bison Hills,” Niles said. “It feels a bit like fate that I ended up here.”
“What did you plan?”
Niles bit his lip and waved his hand a little impotently. “Oh, I don’t know, really. Dreams of grandeur—the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress. Hell, I would have been excited for the American Pigeon Museum in Oklahoma City. I didn’t think I’d be a Bison Hills townie.”
Rusty hadn’t planned on Bison Hills either, but he liked Bison Hills with its population of seven thousand and historic downtown and off-the-wall festivals. And he liked that both he and Niles had ended up here, despite having different plans as younger men.
When their teenage waiter came back, Niles ordered a burger, and Rusty stuck to a grilled chicken salad. An awkward silence settled over them once the waiter was gone, and Niles started popping his knuckles, one by one.
“If you didn’t want to end up in Bison Hills, why did you? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking,” Rusty said.
Niles fingered the wrapper from his straw and glanced away. “Life stuff, I guess. Shit luck. Plus, I never got my master’s. I would need it if I wanted to work at some of those bigger museums in a role similar to mine at the Homestead. What do you like to do for fun?” Niles asked abruptly.
Rusty wanted to delve deeper, but couldn’t ignore Niles’s obvious redirection. “I sing and play the piano some. Luckily, I have an accompanist at school because I’m not good enough to play and conduct at the same time. Other than that, I babysit Margo a lot, and I’m a rabid college football fan. None of that seems very interesting. What about you? Besides, you know, wearing kinky costumes to work. Do you have assless chaps?”
McLellan (Controlled Burn) proves that love is all you need