Stewart nearly died when he heard a knock on the kata door an hour or so later. He had crawled back into bed, the blankets piled around him and the duvet soft as a cloud covering him. He wasn’t asleep, although he was tired enough to be. He was lying watching Havana play with her dolls on the woven rug in front of the stove. Playing silently, as she did most other things. The knock came again, and Stewart put a finger over his lips, telling her not to speak.
He needn’t have bothered. Havana was a quiet child who rarely raised her voice or spoke without being spoken to. She hadn’t always been that way, and it was another thing Stewart worried might be a result of Archie’s death.
The knocking stopped, but eventually Stewart had to leave the shelter of the kata to take Havana to the showers. They were no sooner on the decking than a boy who Stewart pegged for seven or eight and who introduced himself as Lucas set upon them. It was only an hour after Lucas’s dad’s naked yoga routine on the decking. Stewart, aware his door banging had made that situation even more awkward than it would otherwise have been, initially hoped a somewhat cold response to his visitor might dissuade Lucas from lingering, but Lucas was not the easily dissuaded type. And bizarrely, Havana, who rarely had a word for anyone and never interacted with other children unless under threat of no treats, took an instant liking to Lucas.
After Stewart fed Havana breakfast, the two set about playing in the forest. Stewart wrapped in layers and watched them, wondering what Lucas’s dad was up to that was so boring a seven-year-old would rather hang about with an almost nonverbal two-years-and-nine-month-old girl, but he didn’t bother to ask. The less said about Lucas’s father, the better, as far as Stewart was concerned.
As Stewart watched, Lucas and Havana continued their game of explorers. Havana trotted after Lucas, occasionally trying to speak with him, more often getting distracted by tree roots or birds or insects on the ground. Lucas was endlessly patient with her. Stewart stayed on the decking, cold, but happily watching from a distance. Lucas’s dad made no appearance, and Stewart managed to convince himself he was happy with that. He didn’t need to see the man up close, both because of the embarrassment and that frightening bolt of attraction he felt at the sight of the man. But of course there was a base side of him that did wish the man would make an appearance. Because he was lonely. It was as simple as that.
A short while later, Lucas decided he wanted to explore the cleared areas of the campsite where tents and caravans needing electrical hook-ups would normally be pitched. There was talk of heading over to the river, too, and no way was Stewart taking sole responsibility for that trip, especially when to all intents and purposes, Lucas’s dad might not even know Stewart was with his son.
“If we’re going,” Stewart said after Lucas finished explaining his plan, “you need to go tell your dad.”
“My dad?” Lucas looked confused.
“Yep. He doesn’t even know I’m here with you. You’ll need to tell him.”
“Can I tell my uncle instead?”
That threw Stewart off his stride. He fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Who are you camping with?”
“Then yes, it would be easier to tell your uncle. I thought he was your dad.”
“No. My dad’s in Iraq.”
Right. So not much point calling him, then, Stewart thought. He never had been good at understanding the way children’s minds worked.
Instead of admitting that, Stewart gestured for Lucas to go. He took Havana inside to get ready, and when he emerged from the kata, Lucas’s uncle was taking up far too much room on the decking outside, armed with two camping chairs and a cooler.
“Snacks,” he said in an American accent Stewart didn’t even try to place. He flashed Stewart a blinding smile, his height forcing Stewart to look up at him.
He transferred the cooler and folded camping chairs into one hand before extending the free one for Stewart to shake. Stewart did and earned another of those jolts of attraction. It was worse the second time around, with the skin contact and that dark, intense gaze on him. The man’s hands were big, his grip strong, but his skin was soft. Warm. Stewart cleared his throat.
“Gary,” the man said.
Stewart knew he was staring, not letting go of Gary’s hand. The man’s height and build and presence made Stewart feel like he was caught in a tractor beam, frozen in place and rendered incapable of movement or speech. But inside, Stewart’s mind was racing a million miles an hour. He was chastising himself in no uncertain terms for behaving as he was. For feeling the way he was. For even noticing how much stronger Gary was compared to him, and for remembering Gary naked earlier that morning and wishing he had stayed longer.
Already it felt like an imperfect memory. Hairy chest, muscular body, impressive cock. He was mad at himself for focusing on the latter. For immediately fixating on how much he wanted to fuck. Get fucked. Even just be held in strong arms, feel that smile directed at him from someone who clearly thought there was still stuff worth smiling about. Because it didn’t seem to matter how much time Stewart spent with Havana, how tightly he hugged her, and how much he worried about her, he was lonely. So lonely, sometimes he wondered if he was going to die from it. And that was a drama-queen thought by anyone’s standard, but sometimes it was true. It was like the pain. A seemingly endless state from which there was no escape.
“Now, back in the States, this is the point where the other person gives their name.”
Stewart crashed back to reality in time to jerk his hand out of Gary’s. He took a deep breath. This is the part where you decide I’m batshit crazy and should in no way be allowed near either you or your son. Nephew. Whatever.
“Stewart,” he managed. “Sorry, my brain’s away with the fairies.” Wasn’t that the truth?
Gary flashed him another smile, and Stewart had to take a step back. He shook his head, forced a laugh, then said, “I haven’t been sleeping. Hence coming here to get away from it all, but that hasn’t worked either. My head’s not in the game. This is Havana. Your nephew’s been doing a great job keeping her entertained all morning.”
“So I’ve been told.” Gary turned his attention to Havana, allowing Stewart the opportunity to give the man another once-over.
Baggy waterproof trousers, expensive walking boots, and a quality branded outdoor jacket. Gary looked every inch like he belonged in the great outdoors, with the exception of the black T-shirt with luminous green alien face and the writing The Truth is Out There
picked out in silver underneath. People tended to wear their oldest, least-favorite clothes when there was a chance of them getting muddy, Stewart reasoned. He turned his thoughts back to Gary, who was calling Havana a little lady and offering her a bow.
“I hear we’re off to do some exploring by the river, maybe see if we can rent some bikes?” Gary said when he straightened.
The bikes were a new addition to the plan. It seemed Lucas made things up as he went along. Or waited until he had initial approval before adding additional details.
“Seems that way,” Stewart said.
Gary looked at Lucas. He grinned. “Lead on, dude.”