Authors: Leta Blake
Tags: #FICTION / Gay
for my alice springs
for loving this story first and bringing
me back to it
after I let it sleep for too long
Christopher pushed off the side of the large outdoor stage
he’d been leaning against, admiring the slowly brightening autumn colors on the
mountains. Melissa Mundy’s Smoky Mountain Dreams Park was packed even on a
Friday afternoon, full of tourists from all over the world. With a break of
several hours before the next performance of rowdy honky-tonk, down-home
bluegrass, and good old country music began, they were heading out of the Smoky
Show Village and into the thrill rides portion of the park known as Starlight
Christopher always liked watching the patrons go. Their
orderly mass exodus tended to patch up his tattered faith in the basic decency
of humanity, but now he turned away from them. “S’up, boss,” he said, smiling
as scrawny old Rupert Looney approached from backstage, pointing at his
“Hinkins showed up after all. So you’re outta here.” He
jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Thought he’d lost his voice.”
“Seems he got it back,” Rupert said, scratching a couple of
gnarled fingers over his long beard.
There was a small but tidy bonus for employees of Smoky
Mountain Dreams—or SMD as the staff called it—who grew their beards out to more
fully emulate the old-time Appalachian theme of the park. It only applied to
the offstage cast members, though—the ride operators, store clerks,
blacksmiths, and chainsaw artists. That order came directly from the top:
Melissa Mundy wanted her stage performers’ appearance to be as squeaky clean as
hers was, and you didn’t argue with a woman who’d gone platinum around the
world and topped the charts since before you were born.
Christopher didn’t mind the restriction since his baby face
wasn’t any good at growing facial hair anyway. He might not be the epitome of
squeaky clean, what with his slightly shaggy blond hair hanging a little in his
face, but he was slim and otherwise tidy-looking, and his wide, green eyes made
him look much more innocent than he’d actually been in some time.
Rupert snorted, obviously thinking about Lash Hinkin’s
“His wife sobered him up?” Christopher asked.
“Yep, she called right after his slurred excuse and said she’d
have him ready to go. I didn’t believe her myself, but seems I was wrong. He
came in ten minutes ago, and don’t look too worse for wear.” Rupert grimaced. “A
dad-blamed idiot that man is. He could’ve been a star. Heck, he
a star, and he don’t even know it. People come here
from all over just to hear him sing.”
Christopher wondered, not for the first time, what it would
be like to have that kind of talent. He always sensed the audiences’
disappointment when he stepped out onto the stage for the lead parts instead of
Lash. In the end, he usually won them over and they enjoyed his performance—he
wasn’t Lash’s second for nothing—but he wished he knew what it was like to step
out and see even one person’s eyes light up.
He turned his gaze from Rupert back to the mountains for a
moment, taking in the deepening richness as the orange, red, and yellow of the
leaves eased down from the higher elevations. The park would be beautiful next
week when the height of the color reached them.
“It’s a cryin’ shame he’s a damn drunk,” Rupert went on,
shaking his head and squinting at the backs of the still-departing crowd. “And
all those so-called ladies he carries on with don’t help him none. At least his
wife don’t seem to mind taking care of him, cleaning up his piss and puke. Sure
as hell makes my job easier. But shit, how’s she stand it? All his whoring and
drinking? My wife would leave my ass flat.”
“His wife knows what she’s dealing with,” Christopher said
to Rupert, waving to a passing girl who’d pointed at him with excitement. She
must have recognized him from the show. “I guess she loves him anyway.”
Rupert sighed. “You might not have Lash’s talent but you’re
the better man, Ryder. Never doubt that.”
Envy sometimes made it hard for Christopher to see the
bright side of the talent trade-off. He was no one’s star. Still, he was sober,
sane, and good enough to be Lash’s stand-in. He’d made peace a long time ago
with his lot in life and, for the most part, he was happy with his career. He
got to sing on stage and feel the power of the audience surge up through him.
He was damn lucky. There were plenty of failed country-music performers out there
get to stand in front of an audience
every night and earn some sweet applause.
“Sure I shouldn’t stick around?” Christopher asked Rupert,
who was still frowning darkly at his clipboard. “Make sure he’s really good to
Rupert shook his head and waved Christopher off. “Nah, get
outta here. I got it covered and I cut you off the clock already anyhow.”
Christopher headed to the dressing area to get out of his
costume of a checked shirt and overalls and into his regular clothes: jeans and
a green button-up short-sleeve shirt. After checking his reflection, he
retrieved his backpack and keys. As he passed through the Employees Only gate,
he paused to take in the lingering deep reds of the black gum, sumac, and
dogwoods, and the ever-present fog that hung around the mountains, earning them
the name Smokies. Then his attention fell on the blacksmith’s forge. The glow
of the fire and the strike of metal meant Gareth was in there with his thick,
light brown hair and beard, tattooed muscled arms, and tight ass, working the
metal and sweating in the heat.
Christopher considered watching for a few minutes. He’d
always enjoyed the view. But after the night he and Gareth spent at the end of
summer twisted up in each other’s arms, sucking and screwing and coming, things
between them had been weird. Even though it’d been good. Damn good, at least
for Christopher. And, if the cursing, desperate grunts, and all-night erection
were anything to go by, he’d thought it’d been good for Gareth too.
Unfortunately, life got in the way of it becoming anything
more than a one-night stand. They worked together, and it was against SMD’s
policy for cast members to start relationships. Even if they’d gotten around
it, since Gareth wasn’t technically a stage performer and Melissa Mundy’s photo
was under the words “hopeless romantic” in the dictionary, that wasn’t the real
deal-killer. No, everything went deader-than-dead between them when Gareth’s ex
had called from Afghanistan to say he was coming home. And, more to the point,
he wanted Gareth back.
“I gotta give ‘im another chance,” Gareth had told
Christopher while they drank beer and squirmed uncomfortably on bar stools in
Puckers. “You’re a good guy, but…” His eyes seemed to beg Christopher to
understand, or maybe to just not make a scene. “Rick and me got history and I
still care about ‘im. He got injured over there, and hell, he needs me.”
“I understand.” Christopher had carefully kept a game smile
on his face. “We had a few too many and ended up in bed. It happens.”
Never mind that Christopher had been nearly entirely sober
really happen. Well, not that often
and not to him anyway. He wasn’t
one-night stands; he had them when he really needed some physical touch and his
hand wasn’t cutting it. But they weren’t his usual M.O. Call him old fashioned,
but he preferred some emotional intimacy with his sex if he could get it. That
was part of why Gareth’s decision hurt. They’d been friends first, and while he
couldn’t say he’d fallen for the guy, being rejected by someone he actually
cared about sucked.
In Puckers, Gareth had gone on, the relief plain on his
face, “I’m not sorry it happened. You were great. Who knew you’d be such a damn
wildcat in bed?”
“Feistier than I look.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Gareth had swallowed another
mouthful of beer, tossed bills down, and left Christopher to cope however he
Just then, Gareth appeared at the forge entrance, visibly
tensing as he spotted Christopher. Cheeks hot, Christopher hurried away. These
days Gareth seemed to interpret every interaction or casual glance as
Christopher trying to initiate a second encounter. He’d been pretty uncool
about it a few times, going so far as to corner Christopher in the cast members’
dressing room to tell him to stop thinking it was going to happen again.
Nothing Christopher said about how Gareth was misinterpreting things made any
Once he turned the corner, he strolled with his hands in his
jacket pockets toward the small haunted house recently erected in Smoky Village
Square. It was the middle of September and the entire park was decked out for
Halloween—orange and black lights strung everywhere, ghosts, ghouls, and
goblins decorating the windows, and scarecrows lining the walkways.
On November first at the stroke of midnight, the work crews
would pull an all-nighter to prepare the park for Christmas. Multi-colored
lights would replace the orange and black, a Christmas tree would stand where
the haunted house was, and poinsettias would be carted in by the truckload to
fill in around the flower beds.
Christopher could just hear his Gran tsking over “rushing
Christmas isn’t about business. It’s
about Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Somehow it never sounded offensive to him when
said it, unlike when his parents said the same thing.
After the walk out to the employee parking lots, Christopher
climbed into his red Toyota Yaris, purchased with a down payment consisting of
the prior year’s Christmas bonus. He still felt proud to have finally reached a
financial position to buy a new car, which was probably sad since he was
twenty-eight, but making a living as a performer was no easy feat.
As he pulled onto the parkway, cutting through the heart of
Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, the autumn dusk fell hard into the soft, gray,
and fuzzy curves of the mountains around him. The temperature gauge on the dash
read seventy-one, and he wondered how much longer the good weather would hold.
A cold snap could come on any day now.
The climb up the mountain toward Gatlinburg was slow going
due to the tourists clogging the parkway as they headed away from Smoky
Mountain Dreams Park and into the welcoming arms of hotels, restaurants, and
stores. By the time Christopher turned off the main road to take the shortcut,
he was tired and his feet ached from standing on the outdoor stage off and on
all day. He was more than ready to get home, put on some honky-tonk music, and
dig the chili out of the slow cooker for dinner.
As he mounted the hill toward his small house, he noticed
the bright white twinkle lights outlining the windows of Jesse Birch’s Jewelry
Studio. Christopher braked gently, craning his head to read the sign on the
Custom Design By Appointment Only
. He repeated
the digits listed after over and over as he continued on. Once he made it home
and shuffled his feet against his welcome mat, he dashed in to jot down the
number on the Post-It pad on the kitchen counter.
He’d wanted to make the call for a while, but the money
simply hadn’t been there. His next Christmas bonus from SMD would be a tidy sum
now that he’d been there three years. He’d be able to pay another chunk on the
Yaris to get his monthly payment down and still have some left for the gift he’d
planned for Gran. Even though he wouldn’t actually get the bonus until the
first paycheck in January, in the meantime he could put it on his credit card.
Now was as good a time as any to get the ball rolling.
Christopher pressed play on the ancient answering machine
and sighed as his mother’s voice filled the room.