Sticky odour rises out of Travis’ shirt. He undoes the row of buttons to air the singlet underneath. Across the gravel road he spots Justin lingering on the top step of the veranda. Travis smiles. Justin’s neat shirt and jeans press tightly against his strong chest. The tidy house frames Justin as a beckon of order amongst the dust drifting up around the farm.
Travis’ smile quickly fades. A dark shadow casts across Justin’s face. Worry creases across Justin’s brow. Justin shifts his weight between his feet. The boards creak under the persistent movement.
“What is it?” Travis asks. He steps up Justin’s eye level. Moisture fills Justin’s sight. Travis holds Justin’s shoulders and presses a soft kiss on his lips.
“It’s—um, it’s your dad,” Justin mumbles. “He’s here. He says he’s staying for a while.”
Travis’ sweat freezes across his body. His feet twitch. The hair on his neck shivers erect.
“Damn it. What does he want?” Travis says.
“I don’t know. He didn’t say much. He’s been in the kitchen drinking tea and reading.”
“I’m sorry you had to deal with him. If I knew he was here I would have been in much early.”
“It’s fine. Just can you do something about him now?”
Travis nods and removes his boots before stepping inside. The blast of sickly frangipani spray smacks Travis when he enters the house. The usual pleasantness of the aroma evaporates around him. A familiar shadow hunches over at the end the hallway. The silhouette of Travis’ father crouches over, a thick book in one hand, a steaming cup in the other. He leans against the window sill to balance his bulky frame.
“Dad,” Travis croaks. His father snaps his head up. “Dad, what are you doing here?”
“Well hello Travis,” his father responds confidently. He steps out of his own shadow. Slick grey hair creates a helmet on his head. He tucks his dangling crucifix under his woollen vest. “That wasn’t the sort of welcome I was expecting. It’s been years.”
Travis freezes on the spot. His father limps over and stretches his arms around Travis for a matey embrace. Travis swallows down his urge to run. His blood flees into his body and away from the touch of the old man.
“It has been a while,” Travis says. “Justin has been taking care of you?”
“Dean helped himself to everything,” Justin mutters before ducking across to the oven to work on dinner.
“I assumed I would be less of a hassle if I just whipped up my own tea. I didn’t want to put you guys out.” Dean’s smile reveals the crumbling remains of his false teeth. His cheeks fold upwards toward the thick cord of his hearing aids, and emphases the span of his enormous ears.
“Justin told me you thought you were staying?”
“Yes, just for a while. I thought it would be good to see my family again,” Dean nods.
“Right, well. We’ll deal with this over dinner. I need to shower and get out of these clothes.”
“Good idea,” Dean says. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you but the stench you brought into the house is horrendous.”
Dean turns back to the window and opens his book. Justin shakes his head across the room to Travis. Travis shrugs and creeps down the hall to the bathroom.
The hot water from the shower fails to warm Travis’ skin. He rushes through the task of cleaning and returns to the kitchen in fresh clothes to find Dean sitting at the head of the table, eyes closed and lips moving. Justin glares coldly from the other end. Three plates of steak and vegetables sit cooling on the table. Travis hugs into himself. His arms compress his ribs.
“Thank you darling,” Travis kisses Justin on the cheek. The heat in Justin’s skin leaves a tingling burn on Travis’ lips. “It looks amazing. I’m starving. I spent most the day up the top. A couple sheep got out and a bit frisky in some of the crops. No real damage though. I think they mostly got into the weeds around the edges.”
Travis and Justin take their seats. They lift their cutlery ready to pierce their food.
“Just a moment,” Dean interrupts their temporary silence. “We need to finish saying grace before we eat.”
Justin visibly shivers. The vibrations of his discomfort shake across the table.
“You can say grace,” Travis says with a gulp. “But we don’t. We will begin eating straight away.”
Dean purses his lips. A sly grin eases out the corner of Justin’s mouth. Justin slices noisily through his meat. The grating of the knife against the ceramic pulsates through the air.
“We thank our Lord for this bounty we are about to share,” Dean pontificates. Justin chews through the steak. Drips of salty juice squeeze out through his teeth. Travis’ eyes widen and glare down at Justin. Justin shrugs and continues eating with his mouth open for the others to see the sauce laden food churn inside. “We thank you for letting us be together today after all this time. We pray that you bless this food we are about to eat. I ask that you bless my son Travis who has abandoned me for so long to pursue his sinful ways—“
“Right,” Justin snaps. “I can barely tolerate you being in this house but if you’re going to bring that hateful shit into my home I’ll have to kick you out.”
“Justin,” Travis hisses.
“What?” Justin fires back. He points the tip of his knife at Dean. “I don’t care if he’s your dad. That crap is not on.”
“Forgive them,” Dean continues. “They have lost their path. They no longer respect the father. Bless us with your all your glory. Amen.”
Dean unclasps his hands and picks up his cutlery. His rickety fingers grip intently on his knife and fork. His bottom lips spasms with each delicate slice across the steak’s fat. Justin stares down at Dean. The struggling speed in Dean’s movements draws Justin to almost a complete stop. He watches Dean’s shakes rip the last remaining fibres holding the steak to its whole. The fork and pitiful cut meat aim for Dean’s white-crusted lips. Justin bites into top lip. Pain dulls the irritation brewing inside him.
“So, Travis,” Dean says, his jaw clicking with each chomp. “How have you been? How’s the farm going? A few stray sheep about I recall you saying earlier.”
“Things are fine. It was nothing. Easy to take care of,” Travis answers drily.
“No big news? I haven’t seen you since your mother’s funeral. I’m sure something has happened.”
“Yes dad. A lot has happened.” Travis sighs. A sudden exhaustion drags the remaining energy out of Travis. “Why are you here dad?”
“What do you mean? I came here to see my son. Can’t a father do that?”
“You never talk to me unless you want something. What is it?”
“I want to stay for a little while,” Dean confesses. “I don’t have anywhere else to go, not since…”
“Not since what dad? Since your diagnosis?” Travis shakes his head.
“You’ve been talking to your sister,” Dean lowers his eyes. Tears well and haze over his vision.
“Of course I have dad. We all still talk to each other. Just because you hate the fact that I’m gay and married Justin and avoid me doesn’t mean that anyone else does.” Justin’s heart sinks. The gloat he had been fuelling disappears. “I know it’s terminal. I know you don’t want to stay in a nursing home but that’s what you will have to do. You can’t stay here.”
“You’re kicking me out already,” Dean spits. He shovels a loose fork of peas into his mouth. The tears dry against his eye lashes. “I’ve only just arrived and you’re shoving me off to that nursing home to rot, just like everyone else.”
Travis shakes his head. The crumbling mess of a man in front of him shrinks into unrecognisability.
“Dad, you can’t stay here. We live too far out of town and we’re too busy to care for you. The farm, the livestock, it’s a lot to deal with already. We aren’t nurses. What happens if you fall again, but here? We aren’t around the house for sometimes twelve to sixteen hours. What will happen to you?”
“I knew I wouldn’t be welcome here,” Dean drops his fork onto his plate. His hand plays against the fabric of his vest. A stray finger outlines the cross hiding behind the material.
“Look, dad, despite everything, you are still my father. I’m your son. We can’t change who we are. Just like you can’t change the fact that you’re sick. Not even God can fix that. Wouldn’t you be better in a place with all your friends and where professional staff can take care of you.”
“I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”
“Yes you do,” Justin cuts in. Travis leans back in his seat resigned. “We don’t have anything here you need. We don’t keep the medicine that will keep you comfortable.”
“Listen you little faggot, this is a conversation between a father and son, you stay out if it,” Dean curses.
Justin and Travis shoot to their feet. The chairs scrape across the floorboards.
“Justin, leave it,” Travis holds his hands up. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You better,” Justin mumbles. “I’m going to bed. When I get up tomorrow he can’t be here.” Travis nods.
“Dad,” Travis breathes deeply. “You can’t say those sorts of things anymore. I’m used to them from you but they hurt other people.”
“What does the little poof care? He’s corrupted you.” Dean hunches over his plate, continuing to push food into his mouth.
“Dad. That’s enough. You can stay the night but in the morning I’ll drive you back into town.”
“Fine,” Dean grumbles. He dabs his lips with the back of his hands. “If we’re done here I’m going to wash my face, say my prayers and go to bed. Goodnight.”
Dean lurches from the room. A single floorboard whispers under the weight of Dean’s steps. His socked feet shuffle quietly into the darkness of the guest room.
Travis exhales heavily. The muscles in his neck pull at the back of his skull. A dull ache creeps across his forehead.
Justin is sitting in bed with his arms crossed when Travis enters the room. His bedside light flickers brightly behind a makeshift shade.
“Well, is he going?” Justin asks.
Travis slides out of his pants and shirt. The stale air in the room latches onto his exposed skin. The tension in his back releases as he drops himself onto the bed.
“Yeah, I’ll drive him into town tomorrow before breakfast,” Travis shuts his eyes.
“Thank you,” Justin sneaks a heavy kiss onto Travis. Their stubble scratches heavily against each other’s lips. “I don’t know how you dealt with all that growing up.”
“It wasn’t too bad,” Travis says. “I was closeted for most of it so safe from his real torment. I just had to keep going to church when he wanted.”
“It wasn’t too bad?” Justin laughs. “I’m surprised you came out alive. It’s some thick skin you’ve got.”
“Can we talk about it another time? I’m wrecked. I really need some sleep.”
Justin smiles, presses another kiss against Travis’ cheek and switches the light off.
A heavy bump in the bed belts Travis out of his deep sleep. His eyes strain against to see through the gloom. His muscles jerk and relax as he tries to rouse further. A second thud and a sickening crunch next to him jolts his nerves. Travis grabs through the dark for a cord. He finds the knob and switches his light on. The blast of the globe blinds the room and tears stream out of Travis’ eyes in rejection of the sudden brightness.
“Justin, what’s going on?” Travis struggles through the blaring light.
Travis blinks his vision clear. Justin lies next to him, his arm twitching. A red indentation is punched into Justin’s skull. Small trickles of blood weep out of the broken skin.
“Justin!” Travis cries.
Travis extends a shaking hand. Heat rises off Justin’s body. Travis’ skin turns cold. The bed trembles with his last spasms. Travis snaps his head around the room. Dean stands pressed against the curtains on Justin’s side of the bed. Dean’s neck stands directly upwards, his hunch no more than a memory. A hefty stone hangs from his right hand, anchoring him to the spot. Dean’s left hand clutches onto the his rosary beads. A small wooden cross hangs from his hand.
“What did you do?” Travis yells.
“I have freed him from his sins. I’ve done God’s work,” Dean mutters, his eyes staring over Travis’ head.
“You’ve killed him! You monster!” Travis clenches onto Justin’s arm pleading fruitlessly.
“God is great, God is pure. Anything done in his glory cannot be sin. God is great.”
Dean steps around the bed. His eyes glaze over. His movements ease through the room in steady precision.
“My son has failed me. He has fallen to the darkness,” Dean prays. “Please accept my son as offering for the sins committed by others—“
“What the fuck are you talking about?! You killed Justin,” Travis bellows.
“Jesus died for our sins. God sacrificed his son to save us all.”
Dean hoists the stone above his head. Travis gapes up at the rock swaying an arm’s length away. He kicks the sheets off his legs. He jumps out of bed and shoves Dean with the strength his rage can muster. Dean crashes across the room and onto the floor. The stone tumbles from his hand to the floor.
Travis’ fingers register the smooth chill of the rock. His arm lashes out, crushing the stone against his father. The trickling heat of moisture splatters across his seething façade. Burbles of prayers seep out of Dean’s lips. The rock pounds harder against Dean’s skull. The crackling of bone gives way to the bashing echo of the floorboards.
Travis’ arm aches. His breaths choke in his throat. The rosary falls out of Dean’s hand. Travis stands, the room silent of human noise, the slow drips of flesh and blood release from the new point of the stone, echoing each smack on the wooden floor out to the lifelessness in the hallway.