Renewing Forever (This Time Forever, #2)
A neglected resort, a lost chance at love, and one last chance to renew forever.
Frankie and Tommy once dreamed of traveling the world together. But when seventeen-year-old Frank kissed Tom, their plans ended with a punch to the jaw and Frank leaving town without looking back. Thirty years later, Frank’s successful career as a journalist is interrupted by his uncle’s death and the question of his inheritance—the family resort where his childhood dreams were built. When he returns to the Pocono Mountains, however, he finds a dilapidated lodge and Tommy, the boy he never forgot.
Tom’s been keeping the resort together with spit and glue while caring for Frank’s uncle, Robert—a man he considered father, mentor, and friend—and his aged mother, who he refuses to leave behind. Now Robert is gone, taking Tom’s job with him. And Frank is on the doorstep, wanting to know why Tom is still there and why the old lodge is falling apart.
But before they can rebuild the resort, they’ll have to rebuild their friendship. Only then can they renew the forever they planned all those years ago.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
References to drug use
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, addiction, alcoholism, angst, child abuse / neglect, commitment, duty, financial gap / class disparity, first love, found family, friends to lovers, grief, heritage, history, homelessness, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, pining / UST, protection, reunion, self-confidence, stalking / harassment, trust issues
As a writer, Franklin Tern held a specific disdain for dark and stormy nights. They were nature’s taunt—an opening he was supposed to take advantage of, and fought against. No one, not even a prize-winning journalist, could surmount such a cliché.
Such nights were also unwelcome when he was driving.
Phone pressed between his shoulder and his ear, Frank turned the wheel just enough to guide his sleek black BMW Z3 away from the lake forming along the side of Route 447. More than an inch of standing water might swallow them whole.
Lightning flashed overhead and thunder boomed. His friend Simon shouted through the phone. “The story was great!”
“The story was depressing. The whole trip was depressing, which, as you well know, is not my thing. I am not hard-edged. I’m fluff. Pure and simple.”
“But that’s why the article was so effective. I could feel you, Frank. Your horror, and how out of place you were.”
“Gee, thanks.” Feeling the phone slip, Frank hitched his shoulder up a little higher. “I’ll have to send you the full piece when I figure out how not to sound horrified.”
“I was trying to tell you I thought it was good.”
“Are you still going down to Texas to cover the church bombing?”
“What? No. What would make you think I’d do a story like that?”
“Something you posted on Twitter.”
“You’re on Twitter?”
“Charlie signed me up.”
Frank ground his teeth—his instinctive reaction to any mention of Simon’s partner, with a little desultory weather hate slipped in on the side. “I haven’t posted to Twitter in weeks. Keeping my phone charged quickly became secondary to . . .” Not cringing at the devastation humanity could heap upon a natural disaster. Pushing those thoughts aside, “Can you believe I willingly flew coach to get out of there?”
Also, what had his idiot PA been posting on Twitter?
“I can’t believe you went to Puerto Rico,” Simon said.
“Neither can I.”
Where the hell had the road gone? He tapped the brakes, slowing from a crawl to a near standstill, and guided his precious around the river now spilling across the blacktop. The turnoff to Bossen Hill must be coming up soon.
“Listen, the storm of the century is blowing through the Poconos right now.” Mild compared to the tropical storm that had recently ravaged a still-recovering Puerto Rico, but enough to compel him to concentrate. “I have no idea where my earpiece is, and I need to focus on the road.”
“What are you doing in Pennsylvania? Is it bad up there? Wait, didn’t you land just a few hours ago?”
“Personal business. Maybe a story.” Because everything was a story, wasn’t it? “I’ll call you next week?”
“Come down on Friday. I’m learning to grill.”
The car jerked as Frank’s foot gave the brakes an involuntary tap. “You’re going to cook outside?”
“With hot coals and all.”
Frank swallowed the question about whether Charlie would be there. Of course he would. Simon lived with Charlie now, in an extremely cozy house with a ready-made family. “I’ll bring wine. And pictures of hell.”
“I promise not to say they’re great. Drive safe, hmm?”
“Will do.” Frank tossed the phone onto the front passenger seat and gripped the wheel with both hands. “C’mon, baby. Just another few miles and we’ll get you out of this storm.”
In response, rain lashed the windshield, blurring the road. Leaning forward, Frank peered through the fevered swish of the wipers. Had he missed the sign? A flash of white peeked out of the wet darkness. He didn’t need to read it to know what it said: Bossen Hill Family Resort. Turn right 1000ft.
The disquiet of his thoughts calmed a little as he remembered the day they’d planted the sign. His older brother, Matty, had made it in shop class—chiseling the letters into a plank before painting them black against white. Then he’d invited Frank to help him measure the distance back from the turn and dig a hole for the post. That had been a good afternoon and typical of summer in the Poconos.
Sudden thunder boomed, vibrating up and in from the road and the air. The car shook. Frank could just make out the turn ahead and flipped on his blinker to warn all the other idiots out on the road that he was going to attempt a right turn without hydroplaning or ending up in the gully that swallowed the forest on this side.
Except, no one else was out this late during a monsoon.
Not a monsoon, Frankie. You’ve seen what a real storm can do.
He managed the turn with a minimum of fuss and powered his way up the narrow and winding road. That the drive would have been any easier tomorrow morning was debatable. Returning home to claim a legacy left by his dearly departed uncle didn’t fit into such categories as easy or moderately difficult. It was what it was.
The forest lining each side of the road flashed into stark relief as lightning and thunder crashed together. The storm had moved right on top of him. Frank pressed his foot down, knowing it was probably the wrong thing to do. But he really wanted to be out of the rain. The pitch of the engine rose, and the rear wheels spun against the road before grabbing hold and propelling him over the crest of the hill. Lightning flared again, blinding in its intensity.
When the world faded back to reality, something large and bristly lay across the road in front of him. Frank blinked a few times, unsure if the sparking obstruction was an afterimage or something actually blocking the road. No, that was a downed power pole, and if he didn’t stop or turn or both, he was going to—
If not for the river flowing down the road, he might have safely avoided floating across the center line while white-knuckling the wheel, lips clamped together over the yell pushing against his vocal cords. For a moment, he thought he was going to make it. The world stilled and the thunder of the storm seemed to rumble more quietly. Time slowed, catching the flash of sparking electricity in single bright frames. His urge to shout was under control, not going to happen, so not going to happen . . .
Then the wheel jerked from his aching fingers and the car slid sideways. The shout cut loose. Watching himself flail and panic was like having an out-of-body experience. A terrible grinding scrape shuddered through the floor. Metal shrieked and the car came to an abrupt halt, sound cut in half by the dying of the engine.
Adam Levine endeavored to fill the pause, detailing what lovers did. Frank stared dumbly at the radio. His heart was beating too rapidly for the song, and the sound of his yelling and cursing echoed in his ears. But he was alive. That was good, right? And the storm continued outside the car, which could mean any number of things. It took a while to pin the most obvious: he hadn’t wrecked his baby too badly. The fact he was looking at the top of the trees rather than the middle of the trunks probably meant he was wedged halfway down a ditch, but he was breathing and thinking and still listening to Maroon 5.
Much as he did not want to venture out into the storm, he had to assess the situation. The door groaned horribly as he pushed it open. Doors only groaned on old cars, and his precious wasn’t even a classic yet. They had five years to go.
Rain pushed into his eyes the second Frank poked his head out. A minute later, standing in the gully, assessing bodily harm both to himself and his car, the rain finished drenching him and moved on to the worthwhile task of spilling through the open door. Frank eased it shut, wincing at the corresponding moan.
Long story short, he wasn’t going to be driving anywhere tonight.
Short story long, the rear end of his baby was buried in a rapidly filling creek, while the front end barely crested the verge. He’d slid backward off the side of the road into a gully the depth of his car. Fantastic.
At least the thunder and lightning had moved on, still clashing against each other, but not right over his head.
Frank patted his front pocket, fingers absently seeking the outline of his phone before he remembered tossing it into the front passenger seat. He opened the groaning door and leaned across the center console to feel across the seat. The phone wasn’t there. He’d cry over what he was doing to the leather upholstery, but his face was so damn wet, he wouldn’t feel the tears, and tears should never be wasted.
Head tucked under the front passenger seat, ass soaking in the wind, he finally found his phone, and of course he had no signal. Not even a measly 1x. How was one supposed to call a tow truck at . . . 8:37 p.m. on a Friday night in the Poconos? Hmm?
Frank whacked the phone against the dash a couple of times before tucking it into his pocket. He could feel his throat moving, meaning he was muttering. Stuff and nonsense. Curses. Something between a whine and a moan. A plea to the God he didn’t believe in to show himself and offer to put Frank on an ark with two of everything.
He couldn’t be more than a mile from the resort, and without a working cell phone his only option was to walk. Frank wrestled his carry-on out of the cramped back seat. Later, he’d thank the missing God that he hadn’t put it in the trunk. Now, he’d thank his own foresight for the fact the small suitcase was of the hard-shell variety.
He’d only repacked it a few hours ago; dumping ripe laundry from Puerto Rico into the laundry bag for his service to deal with, replacing it with lightweight “summer in the Poconos” linen and wool. All hopefully dry within the bright-blue shell. He shouldered the well-worn leather satchel he used to carry the essentials and splashed through the gully until he found a place to climb back up onto the road—avoiding the downed power pole which had, thankfully, stopped sparking.
Head down, though it made little difference—he was soaked in an utterly proverbial way—Frank pushed into the rain. After the tenth collision between case and knee, he dropped it to the ground, pulled out the handle, and wheeled it through the storm. Yes, he probably looked like an upmarket hobo.
He’d have to throw these shoes away. Leather did not suffer repeated soakings. His pants would survive, though they’d undoubtedly lose the tailored look he liked so much. The shirt—linen and rain did not mix, and he suspected his jacket, which also suffered under the effects of the storm, was leaving marks around the collar and cuffs that would not wash out.
He had greater concerns than the state of his outfit, but preferred the head-down method of coping. His reason for drowning along the road to his long-lost childhood could remain unexamined until he’d found a fireplace, a towel, and some quaint flavor of tea only served in dusty old family resorts.
The road dipped, prompting another memory: clutching his middle as he bounced off the back seat of his uncle’s car—Robert Tern laughing as everyone complained about leaving their stomachs somewhere below them. One more bend and the road widened slightly as the familiar driveway came into view.
The storm must have loosened the sign, but the fence was still there, still ridiculously rustic—a curve of stacked slate to either side of the drive, rising toward an arch. The sign welcoming visitors to Bossen Hill Family Resort hung from one end of the arch, blowing in the wind, the letters obscured by rain and age. Frank ducked around it and started the long trek down the rutted drive. He couldn’t see the sprawling lodge or make out any of the surrounding buildings. The power must be out.
As he drew closer, the ghost of the lodge separated from the night, an indistinct bulk of stone and slate. He could make out a single light flickering in a window to the left of middle. That would be the office. Was someone up? Or had the generator kicked in, powering the only light left burning in an otherwise dark building? The rest of the place looked empty and . . . empty. Vacant. Hollowed out and lifeless. Frowning, Frank crunched across the unkempt circle of gravel in front of the lodge. The wind picked up, blowing him up the wide steps to the porch. He stood shivering, cold and wet, air sucking at and ruffling his hair and clothes in an entirely unsensual manner. In the fractional pauses, he could hear the distant rumble of a generator.
Frank tried the door and found it locked. He rapped his knuckles against the damp wood. After shivering on the porch for another few minutes, he kicked the door with his ruined shoe. Another interminable minute passed. Frank stalked to the wan light of the office window and tapped on the glass. A shadow moved behind the curtain, jerking up, turning, and finally waving in the direction of the front door.
Frank splashed back across the porch to await salvation. The door swung open, revealing a dimly lit lobby and a slight figure beckoning him out of the rain. Frank hurried inside and reached to push the door closed behind him. Then he glanced at his rescuer.
It was as though time itself twisted, the storm plucking him out of the Poconos like a storied tornado. The light was bad, but he’d know that mop of hair and those dark eyes anywhere. It was Tommy. Thomas Benjamin. His best and only childhood friend. His first love. The first person he’d kissed.
The guy who’d repaid him with a broken nose.
Frank dropped his suitcase. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Tom tried to catch air with his mouth open, but nope, it wasn’t working. Frank had always had that effect, somehow robbing the space between them of oxygen.
Messages fired along Tom’s synapses, most of them still coded by the time they hit the cortex. His brain wanted to skip back, forward, and a little sideways. It was a freaking merry-go-round in there . . . and his mouth was still open. He could taste the musty atmosphere of the lodge on his tongue.
He’d known Frank and his sister were coming up this weekend. But now that the reality of it stood in front of him, Tom found himself unable to cope.
Oh my God, it’s Frank.
“Verbose as ever, I see,” Frank said.
Words. He needed words.
“Ah . . .” Good start. Now, say something sensible. “You’re here.”
“Obviously. On foot no less. I don’t suppose you have any dry towels? And what is that smell?”
Frank’s brow creased with displeasure. “Yes, I am rather.”
“I meant the smell.”
For someone who resembled an overdressed otter, Frank smelled pretty good. Like cedar and birch. He looked pretty good too. Age had sharpened his features, banishing the smiling boy with pink, freckled cheeks and riotous orange curls. This Frank—this older, wetter, not-smiling Frank—was taller, slimmer, serious and . . . really, really wet.
“Towel.” Tom sounded like an idiot. Not talking at all would be better. “Getting you a towel.”
He abandoned the dimly lit lobby, navigating the hallway by memory and the square of light from the open office door. The power had failed about an hour before, and with no guests in residence, Tom had started only one generator. There was no need to have the place lit up like the Fourth of July when there wasn’t anyone here to appreciate it.
He groped through the darkness, past several closed doors until he reached the laundry, where he stepped from gloom to no light at all, and felt his way along the shelves until he located a stack of towels. Leaning forward, he gave a quick sniff, hoping the dank atmosphere of the lobby hadn’t penetrated this far. God, was the roof leaking? He’d have to check all the guest rooms in the morning.
Light pierced the darkness. Flinching, Tom turned and made out Frank’s shape behind an illuminated cell phone. He watched as Frank reached for the light switch and flipped it up and down.
“Why is there no power in here?” he asked. “I can hear a generator.”
“It was meant to be just me tonight, so I only started one of them. I can connect a few more circuits if you want.”
“What I want is a goddamn towel. And to know what you’re doing here.”
Tom snatched a towel and tossed it across the room. Frank caught it and immediately mopped his face. The light from the cell phone bounced around the walls, then cut off as Frank tucked the phone away.
“I’m the manager,” Tom said. “Didn’t you know?”
“No. I didn’t. Can we talk somewhere where I can see you? I don’t suppose you have coffee or tea or something?”
“In the office.”
The parade back toward the light was short and not particularly sweet. Frank muttered into his towel, and Tom could feel each indistinct word as a pinprick against his skin. He’d messed up. Again. And, as always, he wasn’t quite sure what he’d done wrong.
In comparison to the lobby and hallway, the office was well lit. Frank paused in the doorway, one foot half raised as though he was unsure whether the floor would hold him. Distaste lined his forehead and pinched his mouth.
“God, what happened in here?”
“What do you mean?” Tom followed Frank’s gaze, wondering if one of the property’s cats had managed to drag a dead chipmunk inside, but he saw only the cozy confines of a room he considered his safe space. The office was his favorite part of the old lodge. Generous windows peeked out onto the long front porch, providing a perfect view of the circle and driveway. Tom liked waking up to that view from the couch against the wall opposite. Liked the idea of facing forward while wondering what the day would bring . . . which hadn’t been much for a while, but ever since Robert’s death, that had suited him.
“It looks like someone’s great old aunt started nesting.” Frank plucked the blanket from the couch and tossed it aside. “When did he paint the walls red? No, the better question might be why? And why aren’t any of the pictures straight? You know what? Never mind. You said something about coffee. I could also use another towel. Is there any light in the bathroom across the hall? I need to get out of these wet clothes before I wrinkle permanently and have to live forever with folds of wet fabric adhered to every crevice.”
Frank finished his inspection of the room and faced Tom. For an instant, the ill-tempered lines across his forehead dipped toward something akin to the emotion sitting heavily in the center of Tom’s being. Then Frank blinked, and any trace of the grief he might be feeling over his uncle’s passing disappeared. He turned away, muttering again, and left the office. Tom stood there—the odd disconnect between thought and action still hampering his every move—and listened as Frank collected his suitcase from the lobby and wheeled it into the bathroom.
Was the light in the hall bath connected to the generator? Tom leaned a little to the left and peered out into the hallway. Light drew a line along the underside of the bathroom door.
Right. So. Coffee.
It was in inspecting the Keurig that Robert Tern had loved so much that Tom’s thoughts finally broke free of gridlock. The weight in the middle of his chest pulsed and the familiar burn crawled through his sinuses until his vision blurred.
Jeez, get ahold of yourself.
It’d been a week since the service. Two weeks since Robert had passed. Frank barely looked aggrieved, and here Tom was nearly sobbing over a coffee maker. Frank hadn’t been to visit his uncle in close to a decade, though, while Tom had never left. He’d feel guilty about stepping in and being around when Robert needed someone, but he’d needed Robert too—as a mentor and a friend.
God, Frank was here. Really here. Would he want decaf this late at night?
Rather than make a decision, Tom went to get another towel. The bathroom door opened just as he returned and he handed it over. “Decaf or regular?”
Frank grunted as he took the fresh towel. “Decaf sounds good. Though anything hot would be good right now.” He flipped off the light, wrestled his suitcase and an armload of wet clothes out of the bathroom, and followed Tom across the hall. In the door of the office, he paused again. “And thank you.”
Nodding, Tom selected the appropriate K-Cup and snapped it into place. He added water from the stack of bottles on the floor, tucked a mug under the spout, and pressed Go. When he turned back around, Frank had folded the blanket, set it on the arm of the old sofa, and sat somewhere close to the middle in a weary sprawl.
Tom pulled a chair out from the desk and perched cautiously on the edge of the seat. “I wasn’t expecting you or Annabelle until tomorrow.”
“I figured I’d beat the Saturday-morning traffic. Not the most intelligent plan, but the rain wasn’t that bad until I’d passed through the Gap.” Frank crossed his legs and picked at a wrinkle in his pants, drawing attention to the fact that he had not changed into sweats like any normal person might when finding themselves wetter than wet after hours. No, he’d opted for dark-gray dress slacks, a pale-violet oxford shirt with the top two buttons open, and a pair of leather shoes. Loafers or something.
In comparison, Tom was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt with more holes than fabric. Not because he’d been caught out in the rain, but because he’d been close to sleep when Frank tapped on the window.
“Sometimes the storms seem to hit the Gap,” he said, “roll back toward the Poconos and get stuck somewhere in between.” Between being Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg, the foothills of the gloriously named Pocono Mountains. They were hills. Big hills.
“How long have you been managing Bossen Hill?” Frank asked.
The Keurig gurgled and Tom rose to extract Frank’s cup. He handed it across the small space and settled back into his chair before answering. “About seven years, I guess. On and off.”
“On and off?”
“When Robert”—his throat tried to close over the name—“needed the help. He had a full-time manager up until 2010. Ah, then, um, things weren’t going so well with the bookings. Weather, the economy.”
Frank should know all of this. What he wouldn’t know was how much Tom had needed the job. How much he still needed it. Now wasn’t the time to ask after Frank’s plans for the resort, though, and not because it was late. Not even because Tom’s thoughts were threatening to mount the merry-go-round again.
Mostly because a future Tom couldn’t see was usually better for all concerned.
Frank sipped his coffee and made a face. “Was the pod machine your idea or my uncle’s?”
“I bought it for him last year. Birthday gift.”
“Huh.” Frank looked around the office. “Was the red paint your idea too?” When Tom didn’t answer, Frank continued, “I didn’t see any cars in the circle. Are there no guests for the weekend?”
“Where did you park?”
“About a mile down Snow Hill Road.”
“Why would you park on Snow Hill Road?”
Frank drained his mug and waved it through the air. “Power pole hit the road in front of me, and I slid off the side into what passes for a gutter up here.”
Tom jerked forward in his seat, feet falling flat on the floor. “Jeez. Are you all right?”
“Fine. Only wet. My car, however, is another matter.”
“I’m sure we can get it towed tomorrow. Ken’s is open Saturday mornings.”
Frank’s smile had the fleeting nature of a rare bird. “Ken’s still in business, huh?”
“So, the guest situation.”
Tom licked his lips. Telling Frank they were closed would put him out of a job—not that he was doing much more than managing a crumbling pile of stone. “There was a bit of activity back in March. The late snow? Slopes all stayed open until the end of the month and we got a few overflow bookings. But no one comes up here just to stay here anymore. Not to Bossen Hill, anyway.”
Tell me about it.
“I had no idea things . . .” Frank glanced around the office, brow furrowed. A truncated sigh left him, pulling his shoulders down. “Then again, I’ve been out of touch.” He cut a sideways look at Tom before seeming to find interest in the empty mug in his hands.
“We can talk about it tomorrow when your sister gets here.”
“Yes, let’s do that. What time were you expecting her?”
“Probably not before the afternoon.”
“All right. Are any of the rooms made up?”
“206 and 207.”
Frank glanced at the wall separating the office from Robert’s bedroom, the only bedroom on the ground floor, then at Tom. His eyebrows twitched together and his mug became a precious article, cradled and stroked. For a moment, he looked more like Frankie—the boy who’d stolen Tom’s heart, a good portion of his soul, and maybe the livable portion of his life. His hair was shorter now, clipped close, and a sedate strawberry blond. Paler at the temples. The lines around his mouth and eyes were friendly, his mouth the same: small and intense. His eyes that lighter shade of brown some folks called hazel.
Frank had aged well, though Tom had always liked the way he looked.
The emotional puddle in the center of Tom’s chest rippled, and he broke the connection between their gazes to study his bare toes. There was little point in apologizing now. He was three decades too late. But in this moment, he almost wanted to. No . . . he didn’t want to apologize; he wanted to explain. Or both. Say something that might throw a line across the chasm yawning between them.
Instead, he pushed off the edge of the chair. “Help yourself to a key. I’ll go make sure the lights are connected to the generator.”
“You needn’t bother. I’m probably going to sleep pretty soon. Do you live close by?”
Forcing himself not to glance at the couch, Tom answered, “Um, yeah. But I’ve been sleeping here since . . .” He motioned toward Robert’s empty bedroom. “To keep an eye on the place.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, I’m not at all sure what a manager does.”
“Well, if you want to stay . . .”
Tom let his gaze wander toward the couch. If he wanted to stay, Frank had given him the perfect excuse. But even he couldn’t deny that after tomorrow, the future would need to be contemplated, welcome or not. It wouldn’t take Frank long to figure out the lodge was all but closed. Might as well get used to staying elsewhere. “It’s fine. Now that you’re here, I guess I can get going.”
“You know what? That’s ridiculous. You should stay. You were going to stay. I’m sure my uncle . . . I’m sure Robert would have appreciated your diligence.” A wry smile flickered across Frank’s small mouth. “You were always better than me when it came to things like this.”
“Stay.” Frank rose from the couch. “We can talk more tomorrow.”
“I’ve got another job from eleven to three. So I’ll probably see you after that.”
“Oh. Well, okay.” Frank corralled his suitcase and bundle of wet clothing. His brow furrowed again in what was becoming a familiar pattern. “It’s good to see you, Tom.”
Tom answered with a short nod.
After Frank left the room, Tom slipped out and back down the hallway toward the laundry. The generators were in the shed behind. The wet night misted his head and shoulders as he crossed the small pad of concrete and hauled open the door. He grabbed the flashlight from the wall mount and played it over the circuits until he found the upstairs hallway and lights for the front side of the lodge. After flipping a couple of switches, he checked the propane level in the main tank. Enough to last another thirty hours or so with the current load.
Satisfied, he returned to the lodge, grabbed another towel for his wet feet, and retrieved his blanket from the arm of the sofa. For a while, he listened to Frank moving around in the room overhead. Then the bed groaned and settled. Silence followed. Still, Tom didn’t sleep. He lay there trying not to look at the ceiling, trying not to remember, and failing at both.
Tom ducked down behind the prickly bush, taking care not to snag his new shirt. The camouflage pattern was the wrong green for the forest, but if he stayed still, he should blend with his environment. Heavy cotton clung to his back, damp with sweat. His neck and wrists itched within the confines of the collar and cuffs. Tom bore the discomfort as a soldier should.
Voices floated gently through the densely packed trees, born on a breeze that could be stronger. A lick of air on the back of his neck would be welcome about now. Tom hunched in a little closer to the bush and poked one finger inside. Carefully avoiding thorns and leaves, he bent a slender branch downward and peered through the gap.
The enemy didn’t even try to hide themselves. Dressed impractically in suits of scorching orange, purple, and blue, they were alien to the landscape. Hikers from somewhere other than the Pocono Mountains, exploring one of Penn’s many woods. To Tom, they were scouts from the enemy camp. Unwelcome guests to his corner of Pennsylvania.
Not that he owned these woods. Whoever had posted the signs every twenty feet or so on this side of the creek did. He hadn’t been prosecuted for trespassing yet, though, and if the enemy did capture him, they’d never break him. There hadn’t been a torture invented that could put down Corporal Thomas Benjamin of the 25th Infantry.
He waited until the enemy patrol rounded the next bend in the trail before moving to follow them. The prickly bush didn’t want to let him go, but Tom insisted. He shouldered his pack and ducked across the narrow trail, taking cover in the cool shade on the other side. Then, threading his way through the trees, he tracked the patrol to their camp.
Or where they’d decided to break for lunch.
His stomach rumbled as he watched them unpack several plastic containers from one of their packs. That the containers were color coordinated with their outfits did not escape his notice. The enemy had interesting customs. And whatever they were eating smelled really, really good. Was that fried chicken? Potato salad? And two kinds of pie?
Tom pulled out his peanut butter sandwich. The enemy was making so much noise that he didn’t even have to move slowly or worry about the rustle of plastic as he unwrapped the limp white square, crusts cut off. He eyed his drink. The scratched-up label advertised the liquid inside as Mello Yello, and the lid wasn’t a good fit. But he’d been carrying the same bottle for three weeks now, washing it out and refilling it with anything from tap water to lemonade he made from lemons acquired on his last mission.
It wasn’t stealing if he found a bag of lemons lying around.
A twig snapped somewhere off to the right, followed by loud chatter from farther down the trail. More enemy soldiers? He needed to report back, but could he cross the trail unseen? Make it over the creek without alerting the sentries? He tried not to panic as the second patrol drew closer, talking and laughing among themselves. Tom pressed his back to a massive tree, breathing hard.
A hiss came from above. He peered into the canopy—was his mission about to be complicated by a timber rattlesnake?—and saw a face peeking back down at him. He couldn’t make out any of the features, just a shock of hair the color of a Duracell battery and a beckoning hand.
Quickly, Tom decided whoever it was was on his side. A forward scout from another regiment. He grabbed a knot on the side of the tree and started climbing. Between lumps of sap, broken branches and, finally, some lower limbs, he found his way up in quick order, and by the time the second patrol had turned into the trail below, Tom was pulling himself over a wide branch and into the dense cover of leaves.
Now that he was high enough, Tom could see the planks wedged between two divergent branches, forming a wide platform above him. He reached for the edge of the closest plank and tugged, checking the stability, then climbed up over it, dropping his pack onto the platform before daring to look down at the ground.
The hikers passing below the hideout were dressed less loudly than the first group, which would make them more dangerous if they knew how to be quiet. Some patrol they made.
Leaning back from the edge, Tom turned to confront the fellow soldier. His first thought was how someone so big had managed to climb this high without breaking every branch along the way. His second thought ran along similar lines, allowing for the fact the boy wasn’t actually huge, just kind of chunky. The halo of curls, round and freckly cheeks, and equally round and freckly knees poking out of a pair of dark green shorts gave more of an impression of bulk than was true.
Of course, everyone was bigger than Tom. At nine, he still had the build of a seven-year-old, which could be an advantage, but wasn’t. He was a runt and he knew it.
The boy seemed to be giving him equal appraisal, and Tom wondered which of them would speak first. If it was up to him, it’d be the other boy, because one of the best ways to stay unnoticed, aside from his size and camouflage shirt, was to stay silent. He continued studying his rescuer’s face, looking beyond the freckles to discover a pleasing symmetry of straight nose, even eyes of a light brown, and a surprisingly small mouth with lips that seemed a little too pink.
Finally, after what felt like a hot and close hour, the other boy broke the silence. “How are you wearing long sleeves and jeans when it’s melting out here?”
Tom inspected his new shirt and was dismayed to discover a loose thread on the lower hem. He tucked it into his old jeans and wiped his sleeve across his forehead, mopping up some of the sweat.
“A soldier’s will is stronger than the elements.” He told himself he was whispering to avoid being heard by the enemy.
“Huh. I’m Frankie and you’re trespassing.”
“Tom. And my orders are to patrol these woods.” No, jungle. He was supposed to call it a jungle.
“Well, your hair is orange.”
Frankie tugged at his curls with a mournful expression. “I know.” Scowling, he gestured downward. “I was watching you. Why were you following the hikers?”
“It’s an enemy patrol.”
Frankie frowned. “Are you on something?”
“Yeah, you know, drugs. Weed. My brother smokes weed.”
“No. I was . . .” Heat crawled over Tom’s cheeks, making him even hotter than he already was. He shrugged. “It was just a game.”
“My mom says war is dumb and soldiers are brainwashed dupes.”
A hot flare completely unrelated to the weather swept through Tom’s middle. “Soldiers fight so the rest of us don’t have to.”
“Put a lid on it. The war is over.”
Biting his lip, Tom looked away.
A slice of watermelon wobbled into the periphery of his vision.
Tom took the wedge. It was warm and sticky, but all the sweeter for its suffering. Frankie offered him a can of cola next, as warm and sticky as the watermelon, and a crumbling cookie after that. He had a cache of food up here. Also, he was talking.
“. . . so my sister said she’d tell if Matty lit up outside her room again, and he paid her two dollars to stay quiet. Two measly dollars. I’d have asked for ten. He earns at least that much on Friday nights at the gas station.”
Frankie glanced up from his handful of cookies. “The weed. Weren’t you listening?”
“Anyway, I snuck up to his room to see if he had any more, but if he has, he hid it pretty well. Ever had it?”
“Weed. Are you special or something?”
“Man, you’re weird. I’m not sure if this friendship is going to work out.”
“Don’t you want to be?”
Tom had to think about that. He hadn’t expected to make a friend today. He hadn’t expected to make a friend at all. Could he expand his game of war to include a friend? Maybe Frankie could be another scout.
“You can’t be a sergeant.”
Frankie’s eyebrows were lighter than his hair. They twitched together in a brief motion, then straightened. “Okay, what can I be?”
“A private, first class, or a corporal.”
“What’s the difference?”
By the time Tom had finished explaining the ranks of the US Army, they’d eaten all the cookies. Having such a full stomach was an odd sensation. Made him sleepy. Not a good situation when caught behind enemy lines.
“Was your dad in the army?” Frankie asked.
“What does he do now that the war’s over?”
The cookies and watermelon and cola swirled around in his gut, fighting for room. Tom wiped sweat from his forehead and scrubbed the back of his neck with the same grimy sleeve. He was ruining his new shirt. Maybe he could wash it in the shower before his mom saw it.
“He’s dead. He was killed in Vietnam.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Tom shrugged. He rarely knew what to say when people told him they were sorry. Words didn’t fix the reality of growing up without a father. He only had his mother’s words. “I’m sorry, baby. You can’t meet your daddy. He never came back from Vietnam.”
“I never met him,” he said now.
Frankie offered him another can of soda and Tom shook his head. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Want to go swimming?”
“I don’t have anything to swim in.”
“You’ve got something on under your jeans?”
“Then you’ve got something to swim in.”
Tom helped clean up the platform by sweeping crumbs over the edge while Frankie sealed the lids on a set of orange Tupperware. Then he took point, slinging his pack across his shoulders before picking a path down the tree trunk. He waited at the bottom for Frankie and watched in surprise as the larger boy descended with ease and agility.
When they were both on the ground, Tom’s eyes were level with Frankie’s chin. Just.
“You sure are short, Tommy.”
“How old are you?”
“Hey, me too. What school do you go to?”
“You live in Pocono Court?”
More heat stung Tom’s face. “How did you know that?”
Frankie, with his round cheeks and endless supply of cookies obviously lived somewhere nicer than a muddy circle of trailers.
“I’ve seen you crossing the creek.”
“You’ve seen me?”
“That’s not the only fort I’ve got in these woods.”
Voices sounded to the west and Tom snapped back to his mission. “Another patrol is coming!”
Frankie gave him an odd look before smiling. “We better make a break for the creek.”
“Good plan. This way.”
“I know where the creek is.”
“Fine. I suppose as the newest recruit, you should lead. I’ll take the rear guard position.”
Still smiling, Frankie took off at a jog, dancing delicately around tree trunks and over lower bushes, proving again that he could move lightly and quickly. Following, Tom decided that this was fun. Having a friend could work out. Frankie glanced over his shoulder, and then he seemed to drop from view, letting out a sharp cry as he disappeared.
Banishing panicked fantasies of pits infested with sharpened stakes, Tom skirted a tree and nearly tripped over the same root that must have caught Frankie. The ground sloped away from the base of the tree, exposing several woody vines, and Frankie had rolled to the bottom of the small hill and lay curled on his side, both hands wrapped around his ankle.
“Ah! Dang it.” He hissed before uttering an entirely unmilitary whimper.
After scrambling down the slope, Tom knelt at his side. “What is it?”
“My ankle. I tripped over the tree and came down wrong. Is it broken? Can you see any bones sticking out?”
Tom’s stomach rebelled, sending a hot surge of cookies and cola up to visit his esophagus. He swallowed, wincing at the burning retreat, and leaned forward to look at Frankie’s ankle. There didn’t seem to be any blood. “Here, move your hands. I can’t see anything.”
“It’s broken, I know it’s broken!”
“It might be a sprain.”
Should he go get someone? Abandoning a soldier behind enemy lines was the opposite of heroic, but he couldn’t exactly call for a medivac out here. Tom pulled Frankie’s sock down to expose the ankle. Still no blood and no bones, and he couldn’t tell if the puffy appearance below the red indent left by his sock was normal or not.
“Let me see your other ankle.”
The injured one was puffier. And turning sort of red. Tom looked Frankie up and down. He’d stopped whimpering and hissing, but was obviously in pain. What should he do? A head taller and lots of pounds heavier, Frankie wasn’t going to fit over his shoulder.
“Can you stand?” Tom asked.
By the time he was upright, grim determination had hardened the soft lines of Frankie’s face. Tears beaded his pale lashes, but he hadn’t broken down.
Tom inserted himself under Frankie’s arm like a crutch. “Okay, let’s see how this goes.”
The journey back up to the hiking trail was torturous, leaving them both a sweaty mess by the time they reached level ground. Tom could almost feel Frankie’s pain. They’d been limping along the path for several minutes when Tom heard someone ahead of them. His first instinct was to duck away and hide. But even though Frankie’s injury could be tied into the game, Tom didn’t want to play anymore. He was tired and worried. He’d twisted an ankle before and it had never hurt for this long.
A man and a boy came around the bend, maybe a father and son.
“Frankie?” The man strode forward, all of his face wrinkled up with concern.
The boy—a taller, slightly skinnier, less orange version of Frankie—ran past the man, skidding to a stop at Frankie’s side. “You okay?”
Frankie only grunted, so Tom spoke up. “I think his ankle might be broken.” He pointed in the direction of the creek. “We were running down to the creek and he fell.”
“Near the big tree?” the man asked. “I really need to pack some more dirt around those roots. Add it to the list, would you, Matty? Okay, Frankie, let’s get you sitting down a minute so we can take a peek at that ankle of yours.”
Frankie made a needy whine as Tom tried to ease out from under his arm. Matty—the weed-smoking brother?—immediately picked up the slack on Frankie’s other side, and together, all three of them helped Frankie sit on a boulder beside the path. The man crouched down to inspect the now very swollen ankle.
“Sure looks broken. Can you move your toes?”
“Hurts,” Frankie hissed.
“I don’t wonder. Let’s get you back to the house and Matty can call up your dad.”
Tom took a step back, assuming his part was done. But the man turned to him. “Son, think you can keep on being Frankie’s other crutch while Matty runs on ahead?”
Ducking his head, Matty did just that, disappearing back around the bend in the trail.
Frankie gave Tom a pleading look, and Tom sidled closer to Frankie again and offered his shoulder. That was what friends did, right?
The man supported Frankie from the other side and together they lifted him off the rock. With Tom being so much shorter than the rest of the party, they made a lopsided group, and he wasn’t bearing all that much weight. The man seemed to be doing most of the work. But when Tom tried to edge away, Frankie gripped his shoulder.
Ducking his head, Tom renewed his efforts by slotting himself more firmly under Frankie’s arm, jostling him. Frankie moaned in pain.
“You’re doing just fine.” The man peered over Frankie’s head. “I’m Robert, by the way. Matty and Frankie’s uncle. Who might you be?”
“Well, Tom, I’m glad to make your acquaintance. Frankie’s lucky to have such a steadfast friend.”
But we only met today, and he was on my patrol—
“You live around here?” Robert asked.
Tom swallowed. “Over the creek, s-sir.”
Instead of accusing him of being where he shouldn’t be, Robert nodded his head. “Right close, then. You like wandering these woods?”
“I . . . er, um.” Tom dipped his chin and muttered, “I didn’t see the signs.” Which was only sort of a lie. He hadn’t seen the No Trespassing sign until the first time he’d crossed back over the creek. So he couldn’t say he hadn’t known he wasn’t supposed to be here now. Would Robert blame him for Frankie’s fall?
“We were playing war,” Frankie put in, squeezing Tom’s shoulder again.
“Were you now? I remember playing war with your dad.” Robert’s face took on a wistful expression.
Ahead, the path took another turn, bringing them closer to the edge of the forest than Tom had dared venture on his own. The trees were starting to thin. Beyond lay a sweep of deep-green lawn, with a barn and stables off to one side and a riding circle hemmed in by a split-rail fence.
“How’re you doing there, Frankie?” Robert asked.
“Okay.” Frankie sounded like he was in pain, but was being brave about it.
“What about you, Tom?”
Tom turned away from the sight of lush grass, sleek and polished horses, and a barn that promised a thousand mysteries. “I can head home now, if you like.” They wouldn’t want him, the trespasser from the trailer park, muddying up their lawn.
“Nonsense. I need your help to get Frankie up to the house. Then I’m sure Madge will have some cookies for our brave soldiers. Maybe a pitcher of lemonade.” Robert smiled warmly.
After all he’d eaten that day, the last thing Tom wanted was more food. But maybe he could pocket some of the cookies for his mom. She was working late tonight and wouldn’t be up to cooking dinner when she got home.
“And might be I could talk to you about a job,” Robert continued.
“I need someone to tell me where all the holes are on these trails. Where folks might fall and break themselves. Think you could do that for me, seeing as you’re familiar with the woods and all?”
Tom glanced up at Frankie, who was nodding vigorously, even with his face all twisted up in pain. “And you have to come visit me in the hospital, until I can walk again.”
“I’m pretty sure your dad can set your ankle for you, Frankie.” Robert’s eyes were twinkling. “But you’re going to need help getting around. So what do you say, Tom? Want to make yourself useful?”
Despite the bewilderment unfurling in his chest, Tom found himself matching Frankie’s nod. Up and down, fast enough that all that green grass blurred. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’d like that very much.”