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CHAPTER 6: Chapter Six
--CHAPTER SIX --
For Steven Carter the next three weeks dragged by in what had become, over the last year, typical fashion. He did, however, feel that he had made some progress on the flat and, after a few cheerful visits from Linda, seemed to sense his spirits rising. Mark and Wendy had also dropped by and insisted upon taking him out for dinner and a movie, probably coaxed by Linda, Steven thought.
Still, he had gotten his article written, met his deadline, and was seriously considering taking Linda's suggestion to use the money he would be paid for his article to redecorate the flat. He had a cautious feeling that perhaps there was a light at the end of the tunnel, after all.
For John Dixon, those same three weeks flew by in a whirlwind of activity. He had moved out of his posh London home and into a small but fashionable rented house in Basingstoke, having put most of his belongings in storage. He had leased office space in town, and had set about furnishing the offices and hiring an assistant.
Perhaps most significantly thus far, he had faced up to the thing he dreaded most-- visiting his mother. As he'd expected, she went on and on about how they all missed Barbara and, as usual, was critical of Susan's independence and apparent lack of commitment to the family.
At seventy-odd years of age, Veronica Dixon was a force of nature. She had lost none of her drive or forcefulness over the years, in spite of the death of her husband six years ago. With the aid of a bit of cosmetic surgery here and there, she looked to be no more than sixty, and still managed to dress fashionably and always look up-to-date. Appearance was everything to Veronica, who frequently regaled John with outdated maxims like "one never gets a second chance to make a good first impression, dear" or, "the clothes make the man, you know."
John had determined to visit her about once per week, now that he was living in Basingstoke, but he also knew that to become too close to her was to invite her meddling in his affairs, so he proceeded cautiously.
On his first visit John had asked her if she knew anything of his old school chums, and which of them might still be living in Basingstoke. She replied to his queries in a dismissive manner, saying that she really hadn't heard anything, and that, "you know, dear, I really don't move in those circles anymore anyway."
John knew better than to mention Steven's name to her. He had tried this, very tentatively, several times in the past, only to be lectured on how "that Carter boy" ruined John's last prize day or how "that Carter boy" had such low morals. The name "Carter" was always spat from her lips with great disgust.
And so, John limited his motherly visits in number, and his conversation as to topic, and determined to try to get along well with his elderly Mum, albeit at arm's length.
Tonight, as John said goodbye to the last of the furniture movers who were installing new furnishings in the empty office, he thought that he really should stop by and visit his Mum. But he also had a thousand other things to do, not the least of which was to buy some food. He had been living off of burgers and fries for the past three weeks, with only a couple of full meals at his Mum's house or at a restaurant. He'd been too busy to bother with food, but if he was now living as a bachelor, he thought, he was going to have to be more responsible about doing his own shopping and eating properly.
He locked the office and drove to a small store he'd noticed on his way between home and office. The sign proclaimed WATKINS' ORGANIC FOOD AND MARKET. At the sight and sound of ladies chattering and pushing carts down row after row of neatly shelved products, John remembered why he hated grocery shopping so much. Still, the red-headed store manager had spoken a friendly "good evening!" to him as he entered, so he decided to at least pick up a few items.
First on his list was coffee. As he started down the coffee aisle past several other shoppers he happened to glance up at a man on the next aisle whose back was toward him. Somewhere in his mind an alarm went off. There was something --what was it?-- something about his hair, or the back of his head, or the way he stood. Suddenly in a fiery flash of recognition it registered. It was Steven!
John concealed a slight gasp and quickly turned the other way, instinctively picking up a package from the shelf in front of him. "I'm not prepared for this now," John thought. "Thank God he didn't see me!" He looked down and pretended to be reading the label on the package of coffee. At the same time he tried desperately to judge out of the corner of his eye if Steven had indeed seen him, and to calculate how he could get out of the store without being noticed. This wasn't the way he had planned it. It just wasn't supposed to happen this way, and certainly not in a grocery store of all places!
Suddenly, John sensed a presence approaching behind him on the same aisle, and heard a voice say, "You don't like coffee, remember?"
John suddenly felt his insides melt deep into his ankles. God! That voice! It hadn't changed at all! Oh, Lord. Help! That warm golden chocolate voice, always brimming with feeling. John couldn't bring himself to turn around. There was an odd trembling in his knees and his feet wouldn't move. Suddenly his breath seemed to leave him, and he wanted to gasp for air. What was wrong with him? he wondered. Everything was happening in slow motion, as if someone had pulled the plug on a film projector and it was very slowly growling down to a stop. Oh, God! he thought. IT'S HIM!
John felt a nudge on his elbow and the chocolate voice behind him said cheerfully, "How 'bout some bacon instead?"
John turned around slowly, to see Steven next to him, tall and grown and beautiful. And, sure enough, he was holding out a package of bacon. Only slowly did John's eyes dare to rise to meet Steven's.
John was paralyzed yet again at the sight of those eyes. The eyes from the photograph! They hadn't changed at all. John felt himself go limp. He had so wanted to be in control at this moment. He had planned it a thousand times in his mind, rehearsing over and over exactly what he would say and do. But this was just too overwhelming. Steven was smiling that smile of his, and was standing there with one beautifully arched eyebrow raised in that fun-teasing way that John hadn't seen in twenty-two years.
As John met his gaze, Steven's teasing look melted away and turned to one of wonder, just like John's. Steven was clearly as moved by the moment as was John.
To John it seemed as if Steven looked exactly the same. Well, perhaps with the subtle addition of just a very few years. Steven actually had beard stubble now; no more shaving once per month, John thought in a flash, his mind racing. Steven's beautiful dark hair had just the slightest tinge of gray at the temples, but only at the temples, almost unnoticeable, but just enough to frame his face in an elegant though imperceptible way. He was taller, still slim of build, and was dressed casually. He looked quite fit, and had there been time to think about it, John would have assumed that Steven's bicycle was surely parked outside the door. If anything, the years seemed to have improved Steven's looks, matured them, refined them in some oddly inexplicable way.
Steven the man looked even more handsome to John than Steven the youth.
John's emotions whirled. He wanted to sweep Steven up in his arms and dance with him around the store as if they were in an old Debbie Reynolds movie. He wanted to pour out his heart in apology. He wanted to make Steven understand. He wanted to put his arms around him, hug him, hold him, and smother him with twenty years worth of love held in reserve only for him. He wanted to scream, to shout, to utter some inscrutable exclamation of joy well beyond what mere words could convey.
But, in some odd way, the moment was too reverent for that. They stood fixed, their eyes meeting and freely saying a thousand things that lips withhold. It was as if the grocery store, indeed the whole world, had suddenly become dim, bleeding away slowly into the background, like a chalk pavement picture on a rainy day. The sounds of busy shoppers seemed to echo away into the distance, and, for a brief moment --an instant in time-- they seemed like two lone survivors of an earthly holocaust.
"Hi," Steven finally half-whispered in awe.
"H-Hi" John finally managed to stammer in reply, his eyes never leaving Steven's.
It all sounded sweetly familiar somehow, and yet this was totally new. This was the moment John had waited for, hoped for, prayed for, and yet dreaded-- lest something go wrong. It suddenly occurred to him that, while he had never fainted in his life, this could easily prove to be the first time.
John took a deep breath. As he exhaled, he glanced down at the coffee in his hands. Steven glanced at it too.
"Don't buy coffee to impress me," Steven said teasingly with a growing smile. "You be yourself."
John, still reeling, and therefore a little slow on the uptake, replied, "But I do drink it now, you know."
Then, eyes meeting again, they both nodded and said almost simultaneously, "Peer pressure." They smiled, and then laughed together out loud at their unisoned deadpan response, and at the relief of sharing a little joke together.
The companionable laughter, reminiscent of their school days, dispelled some of the tension, and the grocery store faded back in around them.
"I heard you were back," Steven said.
"Yeah. Been back for a couple of weeks. Starting a new li-- well, uh, a new office. In town."
Steven nodded. "And just when were you going to ring me?"
"Well, I, I thought...I didn't know how you'd...if you would want..." John stammered, looking down and trying to form a reply.
"Look," Steven said, glancing at the grocery shoppers nearing them. "Fancy a coffee or something? There's a new shop round the corner."
"Yeah," John replied with a growing smile. "Yeah. I'd like that."
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