Fortunately for Mama, the farm had been profitable. Getting rid of the strawberries was a blow, but she had enough saved to tide us over and plant a new crop.
Lemon trees. Rows and rows of them.
“They’re for you,” Mama said. She and I wore thick gloves to protect our hands from the thorns while we handled the infant trees. “These are for your future, and now you won’t have to deal with all that nonsense like you did with the strawberries.”
Thank goodness Everett had taught me how to dampen my Sensitivity; otherwise I would have had a hard time keeping my secret, especially when I had to lie to Mama. The trees were vibrant and alive, filled with a different sort of essence than the strawberries: sharp, tangy, and demanding.
They were a consolation prize. Mama had put me through hell whether she’d intended to or not, and now she gave me new playthings to distract me from the past. They were also a reminder to be Don Diego, the good son, and never reveal my secrets lest I put the trees in danger too.
I didn’t need Mama to tell me where I was born. There was one particular place where the strawberries had been unusually bright and succulent. The lemon tree now planted there grew fast and strong. All I had to do was bury my fingers in the earth to feel as if I belonged there. It called to me, nourished me in a way I couldn’t explain. Mama had taken the strawberries, but the magic behind them hadn’t vanished at all. That place became my equivalent of Zorro’s cave, a hiding spot where I could escape and be myself without worrying about what Mama would say.
When I was young, lying to Mama was an exciting game of deception I learned to play as deftly as Don Diego himself. But as I grew older, the duplicity became a burden--a painful one. Mama never let me forget she wanted me to be “normal.” I wanted to please her, and I did my damnedest, but the effort wore on me. The only way I kept going was knowing I could be myself whenever Uncle Andrew or Everett came to visit.
“Did you know my daddy?” I asked Uncle Andrew on my twelfth birthday.
The wrinkles around his eyes deepened, and ever so briefly I caught a thread of grief. “I did. He was bright. Passionate. Loved horses, especially Lipizzans.”
All that was left of the horses on Mama’s farm was the old tack in the barn, a pair of saddles, bits of broken bridles and halters. It wasn’t much fun to play Zorro without having a loyal steed handy. “Do you have a picture of him? Mama doesn’t. Or if she does, she won’t tell me where they are.”
“I’ll bring one,” Uncle Andrew said, but he never did.
“Do I look like him?”
He cocked his head and gazed at me for a while. “He was fair. Light-haired. Blue eyes.”
My hair and eyes were dark brown like Mama’s. I was disappointed.
“You have his spirit, his bravery.”
“And his Sensitivity.”
His face fell, and I couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t be happy about this. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Andreas. There’s so much I wish I could show you.”
“It’s all right. I have enough.” And I did. I knew every tree and plant on the property and how much water and fertilizer to give them and the best time to pick the fruit. I couldn’t imagine leaving.
“I worry about you here alone with your mama. No school...”
I laughed. Mama had tried a second time to enroll me in kindergarten. It was two days of nonstop screaming and crying followed by another visit from Everett and Uncle Andrew. First grade had been the same. Mama gave up and taught me herself.
“I bet I know more than any of those kids.”
“It isn’t just the knowledge. It’s the social interaction. Do you have any friends?”
I had the trees, the grass, and the sunshine. I had Mama. The farm had once again become profitable enough that she’d contracted with the packing plant to hire a few men to help out. If the harvest was good, she’d hire more next year.
“When was the last time you went to town?”
Town was a few miles away, but I’d stopped going with Mama as soon as she trusted me enough to stay home alone. Every time I left the farm, I got carsick. The trade-off was that I had to order my clothes from a catalog and put up with the haircuts Mama gave me. I didn’t really care, not being concerned with my appearance, and there was no one but Mama and the hired men to see me anyway.
Uncle Andrew cared, though. On my thirteenth birthday he brought me a shaving kit and taught me how to use it. He spoke bluntly about what to expect when I hit puberty and all the embarrassing things that came with it. I stayed silent through most of that, but he seemed to know the questions I had and answered them before I had to ask.
“If you ever need anything, you can call me,” he said and handed me a business card with his name and number on it. I had half a dozen already, but I’d never once called him of my own accord. Mama would know when she got the phone bill.
“I’ll be all right.”
He ruffled my hair. “I know you will, but I worry anyway.”
“Why? Because of my Sensitivity?” Then I saw his face and amended it to, “It’s because Mama wants me to be something I’m not.”
He sat with his hands clasped between his knees. “It’s more than that. I want you to have a good life with friends, to have a chance to kiss a pretty girl and take a car out for a night on the town.”
Pursing my lips, I wondered whether or not I should tell him that I didn’t have any of those physical reactions he’d talked about when I looked at the girls in the catalog. They were pretty, but it was the young men, shirtless as they modeled the latest pajamas or underwear, that kept and held my attention. “I don’t need any of that. I have the farm. I have Mama.”
“What happens if the farm goes under? What if something happens to your mama?”
.” I was Don Diego, the loyal son. The farm--and Mama--were my responsibility, and I would see that they were taken care of.
* * * *
The seasons turned. The lemon trees flourished thanks to my careful attentions, and Mama trusted me to take charge of the work crew, which had grown to a dozen men and three women constantly picking or pruning. Mama focused on marketing our produce and took truckloads into town to sell at the local markets.
I worked alongside the hired hands and became unnervingly aware of bronzed, sweaty bodies in the fields. I learned rudimentary Spanish and endured the teasing about being a skinny white mama’s boy. I desperately wanted a friend, but the men went home every night. Some never came back.
Uncle Andrew came less often, and I missed him. Everett died when I was fourteen. “Went in his sleep,” Uncle Andrew said, and for the first time I absorbed his age and was terrified I’d lose the only other person who knew my secret.
Always having to play Don Diego and pretending not to hear the trees wore at me. No matter what I did, how hard I tried to convince myself that keeping Mama happy was the best thing for everyone, my aggravation and anger grew. Everything bottled up inside, and I had no outlet.
Then I turned sixteen, and it was as if I could do nothing right. Mama snapped at me and drove me out of her kitchen when just a few months before she’d enjoyed my help making dinner. I dropped eggs. Dishes slipped from my fingers. I spilled flour all over the counter instead of inside the bowl.
“Out!” Mama snapped the dish towel at me. “And don’t you dare touch those lemons. No doubt you’ll drop them too.”
I raced into the fields, clasping a hand over my mouth to stop the rising scream. Only when I’d reached the safety of my tree did I let it out, a long, anguished wail of pent-up frustration. I knelt in the dirt, doubled over, and keened my despair into the earth.
Nothing I did was right. Nothing. I couldn’t understand how the hell Don Diego could always be so cheerful and willing, so unperturbed by constantly lying to so many people. There had to be a way to make peace with myself and Mama, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how.
Uncle Andrew came for a visit, and we went for a walk in the dusk, far away from Mama and her kitchen. “It’s normal at your age,” he said with a reassuring pat on my shoulder. “We all go through an awkward phase.”
I lent him my arm over the rough patches of earth, and he took it, seemingly unconcerned that I might trip and take him down with me. We paused at the top of the little hill upon which my lemon tree stood. He reached out to stroke one of the fruits, its skin dark in the fading light.
“These go through a bitter stage too, don’t they? You and your mama pick them and cure them for weeks before they’re ready for market.”
It was easy to see where he was going with this. “I’m not a damn lemon.”
“I know.” He dropped his hand. For a moment, he wavered on his feet. “I admire your mama. She’s a strong woman. She’s seen and been through a lot. The men she loved have died. Now that you’re becoming a man, she’s pushing you away because she’s afraid.”
“I’m not going to die. I’m not even going to leave the farm.”
“Andreas.” He grabbed my shoulders, turned me, and waited until I met his eyes. “Your life is your own. No matter what your mama says, you are not responsible for her or how she feels.”
Easy for him to say. I broke away and carefully fingered the branches of my lemon tree. Soon the fruit would be ready for picking. “I can’t leave. Not just because of her.” I purposefully pricked my finger on a thorn. A drop of blood welled. It spilled onto the ground, which absorbed it the way I soaked up the energy the land provided.
Uncle Andrew took my hand, wounded finger pointing upward. “You don’t have to give your life to this place.”
But I had. I would. All I could see when I pondered the future were rows and rows of citrus trees.
* * * *
That night we didn’t go in for dinner. I couldn’t bear any more of Mama’s scolding. So I waited in the guesthouse while Uncle Andrew fetched some butter, bread, and cheese, along with a couple pie slices, and fixed us a simple meal of grilled cheese sandwiches.
We ate in silence. It was a relief to simply be with him and not feel obliged to pretend I was Don Diego, but once the facade slipped, a bone-deep weariness sank in. He must have recognized how mentally exhausted I was, because he invited me to lie down on the bed. “Put your head at the end so I can reach. I know something that will help.”
I did as he said. He pulled up a chair and cradled my head in his hands, which were surprisingly warm.
“Just relax. Breathe. Let the tension drain from your body.”
Mama hadn’t held me for years. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched me for any reason other than to smack me for doing something wrong. Everett had done exercises with me in which he’d set his hands on either side of my head and touched his mind to mine to show me how to shore up my mental barriers, but Uncle Andrew’s simple touch was gentle and comforting and asked nothing of me other than to trust him.
“Talk to me, if you want. Tell me anything that comes into your mind.”
“This is nice.”
“How are your trees? From the inside out, I mean.”
“Healthy and happy for the most part, though Mama wants me to use a pesticide that isn’t good for them.”
I rambled on about the trees and my frustrations with Mama, the words let loose like a dam now that I was free to talk. Eventually Uncle Andrew started massaging my head. My headaches were so frequent that I attributed them to the stress of controlling my Sensitivity, but Uncle Andrew found a number of sore points to rub. With gentle precision he coaxed the tight muscles to loosen, easing the headache that had grown to be a constant companion.
I talked myself out right about the time he was back to simply holding my head. “Things will get better. I promise you that,” he said.
He left me where I was, relaxed and half-asleep, utterly unwilling to move without destroying his careful spell of comfort. A pillow took the place of his hands, and a blanket was draped over me. A while later I heard the light click off. The mattress dipped as he climbed in at the other end.
Reassured by his nearness, I slept more soundly than I had in years.
* * * *
The next summer, in 1990, Mama hired Enrique.
Few people tried just wandering onto a farm and asking for work, especially after Mama’s reputation got around. She flat-out told folks to go talk to the packing plants and was minimally civil to the folks we contracted--but Enrique was different.
The moment I laid eyes on him, my cock stirred in a way it never had when I simply looked at pictures of naked men or women. Enrique was real
, alive and vital in a way I couldn’t quite comprehend. He wore a black cowboy hat and a fitted black shirt. He was tall, lean, and muscled with a chiseled jaw and the same tiny, trimmed mustache sported by my hero. All he needed was a cape and a mask to complete the picture.
Most of the contracted workers were Hispanic like Enrique. Many sent money back to Mexico for their families and had the earnest grins of honest men. Somehow, I had the feeling Enrique didn’t have the same reasons for needing a job. Beneath his smile, Enrique had the air of a hurt, haunted man--something Mama took to like a hummingbird to nectar. But then, my daddy had been broken and hurt when she’d found him, so I figured she had a thing for men who needed tending.
“You ain’t working for the plant,” she said.
Enrique touched the brim of his cowboy hat with good old-fashioned charm. “No, ma’am. I’m just passing through and wondered if you might have some work. I’m fluent in English and Spanish. Figured it could be useful around here.”
“Where you from?”
“Texas. El Paso.” He had the drawl to back up his story.
“Who you running from? The cops?”
“No, ma’am. I got myself into a bit of trouble a while back. Took up with the wrong sort of people. I’m trying to start fresh.”
I couldn’t sense people nearly as well as I could plants and trees, but once in a while I found someone I could easily read. Enrique was one of those. He told the truth, though there was something dark and troubled within him. He wasn’t the violent sort, though he could--and would--defend himself if need be.
Mama eyed him. “That the truth? You ain’t wanted for no crimes?”
“No, ma’am. I swear to you I don’t have any warrants out for my arrest. The police have never had cause to pick me up.”
That didn’t mean he hadn’t gotten into trouble of one sort or another. Mama raised an eyebrow. “I don’t need no more pickers, but I could use a hand for general maintenance. Fences, irrigation pipes, farm equipment, that sort of thing. You any good as a handyman?”
“Certainly, ma’am. My father was a mechanic and taught me all he knew.”
It was a lie. I couldn’t say how I knew, only that the words rubbed me wrong. He could
fix cars and machines--but he hadn’t learned from his father.
Mama was still considering. “You know much about how a citrus grove works?”
“My cousins had oranges. I know the basics. As for the rest, I learn fast.”
Another lie. I had the feeling all he knew about oranges was how to sneak into a grove and steal the fruit off the tree. And yet...there was an underlying desperation in his voice, a weariness that made me want to pity rather than disregard him.
Mama nodded at the old pickup truck rusting near the tool shed. “You see that? You get it running, you got yourself a job. Boy’ll show you where the tools are.”
I took that as my cue. “This way,” I said. “My name’s Andy.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Andy,” he said as he followed me over to the tool shed.
I dialed the combination on the lock and opened the doors. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here.”
Enrique looked past me at the piles of tools and equipment, none of it particularly organized. “Plenty of stuff, all right. You got keys to that beast?”
“Under the floor mat. Mama keeps hoping someone will steal it just to get it off our property.”
The driver’s side door creaked as Enrique wrenched it open. He found the key, slid in, and tried to turn the engine over. The truck gave a sputtering cough and died.
“Hm.” Enrique popped the hood, then got out of the truck and bent over, giving me an excellent view of his backside neatly packaged within his jeans. In one of his “birds and bees” lectures, Uncle Andrew had mentioned all sorts of sexual desires; men for women, women for women, and men for men along with a few more complicated mixtures, so I wasn’t worried about having those sorts of feelings for another man. Uncle Andrew had also snuck me copies of both Playboy
, and it wasn’t the Playboy
I took to bed.
Watching Enrique work was fascinating both from a physical aspect--that lovely, lovely ass--and from a learning perspective. I could fix the irrigation lines, but anything more complicated was beyond me. If I couldn’t sense something, I didn’t know what to do for it. Enrique didn’t seem to mind explaining what he was doing, although he might as well have been speaking Greek. I handed him tools, eager to earn his good will--even if I did occasionally give him the wrong one.
But he didn’t snap at me, not once, like Mama would have. He merely smiled and pointed to the correct wrench or pair of pliers.
“All right. Let’s try her again.”
I got in and turned the key. This time the truck coughed--and started.
Enrique let out a whoop and let the hood slam shut. “Let’s take her for a spin.”
I slid over, and Enrique took the wheel. We toured the farm, with him asking questions about growing citrus and me explaining. I liked being with him. He was different. Comfortable. By the time we were done, it was dusk. Enrique parked in the driveway just in front of the house.
Arms crossed, Mama came out to greet us. Despite Enrique’s accomplishment, she didn’t even smile or say thank you. “You got a place to stay?”
“No, ma’am. I figured on getting a place in town.”
“You better figure on staying in the guesthouse. Rent’ll come out of your wages. You want food, that’s extra too.”
“You’re mighty kind, ma’am. I do appreciate this opportunity.”
“You got a week. You don’t work good, you keep walking. Now go on. Andy’ll get you settled. Tomorrow he’ll show you what else needs fixing. There’s plenty to keep you busy.”
plenty, and it wasn’t because I hadn’t done my level best to keep up. The house was old. So were the barn and greenhouse. Then there were the miles of irrigation piping and all the farm equipment, and I was no mechanic. My knack was for growing things, not repairing inanimate objects.
“Boy?” Mama said.
I started, realizing both Mama and Enrique were staring at me. I flushed, not wanting Enrique to think I was an idiot. “This way,” I said.
The guesthouse was new. Well, newer than the rest of the buildings. Mama had had it built when I was little. Uncle Andrew stayed there sometimes when he came to visit, but he hadn’t come in a month. It had one bedroom with the bed already made up, a living room, and a tiny kitchen with a table to eat at. I pointed everything out to Enrique. “It’s got a full bathroom. You can wash up.”
He dropped his bag and bedroll on the bedroom floor. “Thanks. I will.”
“I’ll bring you some dinner. Mama doesn’t like the hired help in the house.” It was a rude thing to say, but I thought it better to give him warning.
“All right.” He took off his hat and flicked it so it sailed toward the bed. Sweat plastered his black hair against his head. “Something you need...Andy?”
. For some damn reason I couldn’t stop staring, and I felt all funny inside. I longed to touch him, to feel his skin beneath my hand and breathe in his scent. “No. I’m good. I...I’ll get that dinner now.”
“Give me a half hour, all right? I’d like to get the dirt and grease off.” Again I caught an edge of grief in his voice. He was running. From what, I didn’t know.
And, thinking of my view as he bent over the truck’s engine, I didn’t care.
* * * *
As soon as Andy left, I stripped, taking care not to look in the mirror, and headed into the shower. The tile was cool and hard. I leaned my head against it, soaking up the hot water. It felt so good
to be clean. It wasn’t just the dirt and sweat I longed to slough away. It was...everything.
The hot water drilled into my back. Violent tremors grabbed me and shook me all the way down to my bones. I’d been on the run from Los Cazadores--a trio of sadistic hunters--for the past month, and only now did I feel like I’d run far enough that I could stop. Even so, the memories were too close, too fresh. I scrubbed my skin, desperate to wash away the memory of Herne’s touch. The scars, though...they would never leave. Neither would the memory of my brother Marco’s whimpers as Herne held me down and prepared to fuck me.
I stepped out of the shower and toweled myself dry, lingering over the touch of the soft cotton. I hadn’t felt anything so good since...hell. I didn’t know. With Los Cazadores, I had rarely had the same bed two nights in a row--and that was if I had a bed at all. Finding this place seemed too good to be true, and I was heady with my newfound freedom. No more being forced to hunt my fellow cambions--the half incubi Los Cazadores captured and used for their own sexual pleasures--and no more watching my brother lose his mind from seeing me tortured.
I hoped Marco was dead. If there was any mercy in the world, he’d died of shock or a heart attack and was out of his misery. Herne and his fellow hunters wouldn’t find me here on a farm in the middle of California. I hoped.
I’d just buttoned my shirt when there was a knock at the door. Andy stood there holding a bag of potato chips, two stacked plates laden with sandwich fixings, and a pitcher. “Mama’s lemonade. It was either this or iced tea, but I figured since you were going to be working here, you’d better try the lemonade.”
Of course. Lemon grove. Lemonade.
There was no chance the kid would set the food down and leave. There was something in his eyes, a look of lustful adoration I wasn’t sure how to handle. His energetic scent told me more. There was both tartness and a hint of spring that always indicated innocence. Underneath it was the simmering sexuality he couldn’t quite keep a lid on.
. I didn’t need that, not from a kid who wasn’t even eighteen. Even so, my demon--my incubus half--did a little backflip of excitement at the thought of taking the kid to bed and--
. I couldn’t sleep with an underage kid, especially not the boss’s son.
Andy was oblivious to my dilemma as he set the table and pulled out a couple of chairs. I sat across from him and tried a glass of that lemonade he was so proud of. Rightfully so. The stuff was minty, bitter, and sweet all at the same time.
“Why California?” he asked.
“Why not?” The kid wasn’t going to get any more answers. We both reached for the cheese. He snatched his hand away and went for the ham.
“What’s Texas like?”
“Not so different from here. Hot, muggy.”
Both of us went for potato chips. Our hands touched. He jumped.
He rubbed his hand with a bewildered look on his face. “I... Nothing. I’m not used to company; that’s all.”
I wondered if it was. Some people had odd reactions to touching a cambion, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask him outright what he’d felt. “You’re not in school?”
“Never been. Got my GED last year.”
He took a chip and broke it in half. “Mama doesn’t like visitors, and I don’t get out much. I get carsick. I can’t even help her out on market days.”
I didn’t bother to point out that we’d driven all around the farm and he’d been fine. He spoke sincerely, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that was true and how much of it was lies his mother fed him. It wasn’t my business. None of it was. But I felt sorry for him anyway.
He asked more questions. I told him half-truths or white lies. He should have been annoying, but I found myself liking him, especially when he insisted on doing the dishes so I could rest. Not that I needed to. His company kept my dark musings at bay, and I was actually disappointed when he headed back to the house for the night.