Design Imperfect
By:
Jess Mercer
( 2009 by the author)
 

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

 

Adrian St. John slipped on the heavy short jacket and stepped through the door of his house expectantly, for the fog enveloped him in the waning light. As he strode along the dirt lane, he permitted himself a slight smile, letting the tension of concentration flow away, savoring the damp wisps against his face.

 

He had covered about half a mile when a dog barked a challenge and ran out into the lane. Adrian stopped. Suddenly discerning the figure, the dog howled, tucked his tail between his legs and slunk away. Adrian resumed his leisurely pace.

 

In the country store, several farmers sat around the potbellied stove exchanging exaggerations over pop and crackers. They turned expectantly as the bell over the door tinkled. Joviality died; one of them shivered lightly as though the entering man had been preceded by a blast of arctic air. The storekeeper raised his eyes from his account book, reached behind him for a carton of cigarettes and placed them in front of Adrian, taking the bill and making change. Not until Adrian had pulled the door closed behind him was a word spoken. One farmer mumbled something, only the ending 'damn' audible; another merely shook his head.

 

Adrian hung his coat and crossed to the hearth, knelt to put a match to the resinous kindling, and watched the flames spring up. From the radio the quiet strains of Bach's 'Aire for the G-string' filled the room. He poured a cup of coffee from the carafe and sat back in his recliner with a technical manual.

 

The next morning Adrian grimaced as he slipped his drawings into a heavy portfolio. The drawings exuded perfection, the necessity of the trip to his office occasioned the look of distaste.

 

In the basement-parking garage, his temper flared, for a sports car occupied his reserved space. He pressed the horn button and looked for the attendant.

 

The boy raced over. "Sorry, sir. I'll move it immediately."

 

Adrian said nothing, waiting as the boy backed the car out with squalling tyres, then parked and strode towards the lift. His ire increased when a trio of secretaries entered the car before he could close the door. Ignoring them, Adrian put a key in the express switch and turned it. During the rise to the tenth floor penthouse, one of them, new to the building, looked up at Adrian's six-foot-six muscular figure with a smile. "Good morning." Her companions' mouths opened in shock as though profanity had been uttered in church.

 

Adrian's eyes remained fixed on the floor indicator; one of the secretaries poked the girl who had spoken with a finger and shook her head. When Adrian stepped out of the car, the unfortunate girl turned on her companions as the car started its descent to their floor. "What's wrong with you? I just spoke to him. He's awfully good looking."

 

"I forgot you haven't seen him before, Joan. He's really weird. I don't know why Blair keeps him. He makes my blood run cold."

 

"Why?"

 

"You just don't ..." she broke off as the lift stopped at her floor.

 

Adrian swept past the receptionist and several secretaries, none of whom acknowledged his presence, into his office and dropped the portfolio on his desk. He picked up the phone and spoke briefly, then carried the drawings across the hall.

 

"Adrian, come in."

 

He crossed to a drafting table and opened the folio, spreading the drawings, then stood back while Blair examined the work casually. "Beautiful as always, Adrian. Are you certain that you don't want to present these yourself when Johnson comes in?"

 

"You know our agreement, Hank."

 

Blair shrugged. "Whatever. I wish you would see our clients once in a while. They're all curious, especially as your work is so uniformly excellent. Don't you ever do a design that doesn't please you?"

 

Adrian responded with a tight smile. "Frequently. That's why I like to work at home; you can't riffle the trash and see them."

 

Blair grinned at the unexpected humor. "Come on, Adrian, you've never done a poor design in your life. I'll bet I could sell the stuff you turned out as a student. Any time you want an office big enough to work in, it's yours, you know."

 

"No, thanks. What's pressing now?"

 

"Series of panel designs for some audio equipment." Blair rang for his secretary and took the folders she brought in. "Here are the specs. I'd better warn you that three companies have already tried and had their work turned down. This one won't be easy."

 

"How long?"

 

"A couple of weeks. They're screaming."

 

Adrian reached for the folder. "Two weeks it is. You have my number?"

 

"It's in the directory."

 

"No longer. I've a new unlisted. You can put it in your book, but don't give it to anyone else. I don't want to be disturbed."

 

"You won't be back in?"

 

"Not until these are ready." Adrian dropped the folder into the folio and walked toward the lift. The receptionist's gaze followed him. His height accented by his erect carriage, the expensively tailored slacks and blazer, the sharp regularity of his features gave him a look of arrogance, his aloofness a foreboding, almost an evilness, that made her shiver each time he walked through the door. Hank Blair had made it clear on her first day that she was never to speak to Adrian, even to relay a message. These were to be written down and placed on his desk for evaluation. He would pass on any requiring Adrian's attention.

 

"But why, Mr. Blair?" She'd persisted.

 

"Because he's the best damned industrial designer in the country and he's left five big firms already. If it wasn't for him, you wouldn't have a job and I wouldn't have anything but a one-man shop. I don't give a damn what anybody thinks; as long as I run this company, Adrian gets anything he wants, any way and any time he wants it, no matter how peculiar it seems. Do you understand?"

 

This standard explanation was made to each new employee and only once. Those who failed to comprehend the implications received their final cheques.

 

Adrian backed the Bentley from his parking space. As he neared the attendant's booth, he saw the boy's eyes flick towards the empty space. He pressed the button until the window slid fully down and motioned to the boy. "My space stays open. Do you understand me?"

 

An older man pushed the boy aside. "I'm sorry, Mr. St. John. Bobby's new. It won't happen again."

 

"I hope not," Adrian snapped, letting the window slid up before he drove off.

 

"What's wrong with using his space? He ain't never here." The boy whined.

 

"Because Blair and Company own the building, and mainly because if you want to keep your job, you'll leave his space open."

 

"Hell, he ain't that big a deal."

 

"No? What do you think happened to the kid worked here before you? The second time St. John found a car in his space, the kid was gone inside of ten minutes. And another thing, you don't never touch that car. That paint job shows finger prints like they was grease on a white wall."

 

Bobby shrugged.

 

Calm returned with each mile covered toward the house. By the time he turned from the highway and slowed to negotiate the dirt lane, Adrian was again content. Outwardly, the log house with its large fieldstone fireplace nestled among the trees in a manner that belied its sophisticated interior. The decorator, quelled by Adrian's explicit demands, created the soft neutral interior Adrian desired. He switched on the stereo and dropped into a leather chair to study the specifications taken from his briefcase. He closed his eyes and let the music wash over him. For better than an hour he sat motionless, then sprang to the drafting table and began a rapid sketch. Only when the sketch was completed did he turn his back on the work and go into the small kitchen to fix a meal.

 

Disappointed by the lack of fog, he pulled on his coat and set out in the waning light for his habitual walk. He trod the fallen leaves to the side of the lake and sat on an old stump looking out over the placid waters where ducks and geese settled in the marsh for the evening. As the darkness became complete, he strolled slowly back to the house.

 

He switched on the halogen light over the drafting table and consciously looked at the drawing for the first time. After a few moments he picked up an electric eraser, then taking up a pencil, he redrew the obliterated lines and backed off to study the work again. Twice more he erased and changed the design until it achieved the asymmetrical balance required by the specifications. An involuntary yawn spread his jaws; he glanced at the clock and fell into his bed to instant sleep.

 

The next morning, he avoided looking toward the drafting table as he prepared breakfast and ate. Once the minor details of housekeeping were satisfied, he pushed up the thermostat and stood studying the design. Intense pleasure filled him; it was good, better than anything he'd done recently. The pleasure increased as he clipped the sketch above the table and began to translate the lines into a precise measured drawing. Only when the faint pencil lines were completed did he get up to eat. Almost immediately he was back, tracing the lines in India ink. He paused once to adjust the light and bent back to the work.

 

He lifted the pen at completion of the last line, only the lettering remained. A glance at the glowing digits of the clock shocked him. It shouldn't have, recurring each time inspiration struck. Sleep came slowly, for with the major design finished, he visualized the decreasing number of controls and meters required in the lesser units. Working down scale maintained the balance unique in his work.

 

For the rest of the week he repeated the schedule until the stack of seven designs lay complete. He pressed a button on the clock, the display altered to show the day - Friday. He released the button and glanced at the time. If he left soon, he should be in the office well before closing. The versatile clock pleased him, for it was one of his designs. He would do it differently now, but the manufacturer had been ecstatic over the rendering. This clock was the first from the plant, hand constructed as a trial unit. Adrian had seen production units in stores, displeased by the comparative lack of quality though he knew mass production brought the necessary profits. Still, he felt a warmth for the manufacturer. It was unusual to be given a product he had designed, especially a useful gift that pleased as few gifts did.

 

He felt a momentary pique when the parking attendant failed to recognize him and started to wave him down. The lift rose to the tenth floor without stopping and deposited him in the reception area. To her intense surprise, Adrian actually smiled slightly at the receptionist as he passed the switch-board. When his office door had closed, she rang her employer. "Mr. St. John is here."

 

Blair met Adrian at his office door with an anxious look. "Is something wrong, Adrian?"

 

"Should there be?"

 

"No, but you've come in."

 

He held out the portfolio. "Here are the designs for Natuki."

 

Blair stared in disbelief. "Already? You've just been a week."

 

"So?"

 

"I just... oh, hell, I should know by now." He took the work to the table and spread the drawings. "Beautiful, Adrian. If these don't go, I don't know what it will take to satisfy him. He's still in town, so I'll call him now."

 

"Fine."

 

Blair jerked around. "You're staying to see him?"

 

"I think I will. He knows what he wants and I have a question."

 

Blair picked up the phone with misgivings. If Natuki made any suggestion, however slight, Adrian might fly into a rage but, the decision made, Adrian would remain.

 

"You mean you want me to call Mr. Natuki before Mr. St. John leaves?" the receptionist screamed her surprise in his ear.

 

"Yes, now!" Blair dropped the phone.

 

Once she had placed the call, she spread the word to the others to await the explosion she was certain would result from Adrian's volatile temper.

 

Blair, suddenly uncomfortable at Adrian's presence, pretended to study the drawings until the small Japanese was ushered into his office. Adrian returned the polite greeting with a slight incline of his head as Blair introduced them. The little man gazed at the drawing of the largest unit for some time in contemplative silence. When he turned, it was to Adrian. His face softened. "It has Shibui," he whispered, and bowed deeply.

 

Adrian smiled and returned the bow. "You honor me."

 

"It is you who honor us by understanding that even the utilitarian must be pleasing to the eye."

 

"Isn't the logo perhaps a little small considering the size of the unit?" Blair asked.

 

Adrian's face contorted in wrath.

 

"No, no," Natuki said quickly, "all is correct, proportions most exact. No change or we shall not accept work. You," he said to Blair, "must never presume to touch perfection." He turned back to Adrian. "You will please accept further designs for us, yes?"

 

Adrian bowed again. "I shall be honored."

 

"As shall we." Natuki bowed. "Good day, gentlemen."

 

Blair wiped perspiration from his brow and escorted Natuki to the lift. By the time he returned to his office, Adrian had calmed enough to say only, "You may criticize my work to me, Hank, but never before a client."

 

"I'm so sorry, Adrian. It won't happen again. How did you come up with something you were sure of?"

 

"I have studied oriental art. Understatement is mandatory as is perfection in every detail of its simplicity."

 

"I wondered why you put so much detail in these drawings."

 

"Is there anything else for me?"

 

"Nothing the others can't handle. Why don't you take a few days off, I'll give you a call if something comes in."

 

"Good."

 

Fog was closing in as Adrian drove out of the garage. The pleasure of the encounter with Natuki, amplified by the fog and the thought of a walk in it, brought his foot down on the accelerator once he gained the highway. The Bentley surged forth with an inaudible purr, the miles sped under the amber fog lights.

 

Adrian was near the lane when he heard a heavy thud followed by a sharp cry. The tyres screamed under the weight of the car as he stomped on the power brakes. He flung open the door and raced back a few feet. On the side of the road, a teen-aged boy writhed in agony. Adrian's face became wrathful. "What the hell were you doing on the pavement in this fog, you idiot?"

 

"Help me!" The youth clutched his blood-covered leg.

 

"I should leave you right here for being so stupid."

 

"For God's sake, man!" the boy screamed.

 

Adrian shrugged. "I'll call an ambulance."

 

He returned to his car and picked up the cell phone. When he returned, the boy lay quietly, looking up to say, "I'm cold."

 

He tried to move the boy, but the screams of pain made him withdraw. He reached into the car for a lap robe to cover him. Within a few minutes the ambulance, followed by a police car, pulled up beside them. Adrian grudgingly gave the requisite information and, at the suggestion of the officer, followed the ambulance to the hospital. As the boy was being treated, Adrian called the company attorney.

 

His cold aloofness shook the lawyer. As much as he disliked Adrian, he gave sound advice, demanding more than Adrian was prepared to give. He finally shouted, "Then go ahead and ruin yourself, St. John. You don't seem to realize that you can't isolate yourself from this. Frankly, If you don't do as I suggest, then you can find yourself another attorney."

 

When Adrian looked up, his reserve had cracked enough for the pleading to show in his eyes. "All right."

 

"Good. I'll handle the police, you take care of things for the boy."

 

The admitting clerk stood in the hall. As Adrian came out of the room he and the attorney had used, she approached. "Are you the one who brought the boy in?"

 

He nodded.

 

"Then you're responsible for his care?"

 

He nodded again.

 

"He's in surgery. If we can get these forms filled out, it will save a lot of time."

 

Adrian coldly answered her questions in monosyllables. At last assured of the financial aspects, an involuntary shiver ran through the woman as she returned to her desk.

 

Though he seldom drank, once he was home Adrian belted down several stiff drinks. As the alcohol dulled his senses, he turned wearily to bed. He spent the next day in his chair staring at the cold fireplace, his mind incapable of thought. Only when the phone rang incessantly did he bother to move.

 

He met the doctor at the door to the boy's room. "How's he taking it?"

 

"He doesn't realize it as yet. I'm going to tell him now."

 

"Why did you call me, then?"

 

"He needs someone, and you're not leaving him to carry this alone."

 

Adrian covered his face with his hands. "I can't!"

 

"You damn well will. Now get in here."

 

The doctor studied the chart for a few moments, then shook the boy. "Wake up, Steve. How do you feel?"

 

"My leg hurts," he replied, voice dull from the drugs.

 

"Steve, I'm going to let you have it straight. We did our best but your leg is an inch shorter than before. There was no way to prevent it. I'm sorry."

 

As Steve looked down at his bandaged leg, a murderous expression flashed across his face. "You quack!" He screamed at the doctor, and began to pummel Adrian, who was closer to the bed, with his fists.

 

Adrian made no effort to fend off the blows. He was past any feeling but the cries of the boy. Only when the doctor grabbed Steve's arms and the fury dissolved into tears did Adrian reach out.

 

"No!" Steve screamed, jerking away from the doctor's hold.

 

Blair was shaken by the haggard figure who entered his office. "Adrian! What are you doing to yourself?"

 

"Nothing." He replied without expression.

 

"You look like hell. I heard about the accident. Do you think some work might help take your mind off it?"

 

"I don't know. I can't seem to pull myself together."

 

"Natuki has sent the specifications for their whole prestige line. He wants you to redesign everything to go with the receiver. He's in a sweat, and he won't have anybody touch it but you. You've got to do it."

 

"I don't promise anything."

 

"If there's anything any of us can do ..."

 

"Just leave me alone."

 

When he left the office, Adrian turned the Bentley toward the hospital. Though it was not visiting hours, his cold demand gained him access. The boy lay small in the bed. He scowled at Adrian. "Come to see the damage? Well take a good look, you son of a bitch." He threw the sheet back.

 

Adrian flinched. "I wouldn't have had that happen for anything. You don't know how sorry I am. But under the circumstances I find I have to assume temporary responsibility for you. I'm Adrian St. John. What's your family name, Steve?"

 

"Steve will do."

 

"Have you family that I should notify?"

 

"No."

 

Adrian permitted himself to register surprise. "No? I find that highly unlikely."

 

"I care how you find it, it's the truth."

 

"So. How did you happen to be on the road?"

 

"It's none of your business." He relented under the icy gaze. "I ... I'm a road kid."

 

"And just what is a road kid?"

 

"A kid like me who comes from nowhere and going nowhere."

 

"I suggest that you could hardly be from 'nowhere' as you put it, and you certainly must have had some destination in mind or you would not have been so desperate for a ride that you were stupid enough to walk on the pavement."

 

"I don't give a damn what you suggest. Get out of here and leave me alone!" Steve turned his face toward the wall.

 

Rather than take offense, Adrian admired Steve's independence, found himself saying, "If you should need anything, the hospital knows how to reach me."

 

"I don't need nothin' from you!"

 

Pleased, Adrian returned home and plunged into the designs. He broke his work only to attend court. He assumed full financial responsibility for the boy's care, with his liability insurance prepared to make a reasonable award to insure the boy's future. When his attorney pointed out the contributing factor the boy had made toward his injury by walking on the pavement, the judge reduced the charges to a simple 'driving faster than conditions warranted'. Adrian paid the stiff fine without comment. On leaving the court, the attorney snapped, "You're damned lucky, St. John."

 

"Yes. I meant what I said about helping that boy as long as he'll let me."

 

The attorney looked shocked. "You're kidding!"

 

"I never kid. I believe there's something to that boy."

 

The attorney nodded. "Yeah. Probably a rap sheet a mile long. Outside of you, he's the coldest bastard I've ever had the misfortune to run across."

 

"I'm not asking your opinion." Adrian snapped back.

 

Before he left the city, Adrian made two purchases to be delivered, then returned to his drawing board.

 

Even feeling content and able to concentrate fully, a week and a half passed before he completed the last design. When he compared the assembled drawings with the sketch he had retained of the first unit, he could see the superb feeling of unity.

 

Early the next morning he delivered the drawings to the office, then hurried to the hospital. Steve was propped up in bed, the portable radio blaring sounds that brought agony to Adrian's ears.

 

He reached over and switched it off.

 

"Why'd you do that?" Steve asked peevishly, reaching to switch it back on.

 

Adrian grasped his wrist firmly. "After I leave."

 

"Okay. Turn me loose, will ya?"

 

He dropped the boy's arm.

 

Steve rubbed his wrist and scowled at Adrian. "You didn't have to send those," he nodded toward the radio and the half-empty basket of choice fruits. "I didn't ask for nothing."

 

"No, I didn't."

 

"Yeah. You can have the radio when I get out."

 

"You don't want it?"

 

"Hell, I can't be bothered toting it around. I gotta move light," he glanced down at his bandaged leg, "specially now."

 

"Quite right." Adrian turned toward the door. "If you want anything ..."

 

"Not likely."

 

Adrian stopped at the desk to ask for the doctor. The man answered the page and talked briefly. He shook his head behind Adrian's back, pondering his decision because of the instantaneous dislike he retained of the man from the night of the accident. During his examination of Steve the next morning, he told the boy of his decision.

 

"You're crazy as hell! I ain't going nowhere, 'specially with him."

 

"Oh, yes, you are. We need this room, and there's nothing more I can do for you until your leg is healed. You can rest at St. John's just as well as you can here."

 

"I won't go!"

 

"It's either there or police custody. Make up your mind."

 

"I didn't break no damn law. He's the one hurt me."

 

"Because you stupidly walked on the pavement in a heavy fog. Further, you qualify as a vagrant. The city has an ordinance against that. What's it going to be?"

 

"What the hell do you think."

 

An orderly wheeled Steve to the Bentley and helped him in. With Steve seated beside him, Adrian started the engine and pulled away from the hospital, aware of the boy's frozen expression of hatred. Not until he turned into the lane did the boy speak. "Hey, where are you going? You ain't dumping me in no woods and getting' away with it."

 

"Don't be an ass. I live back here."

 

"Yeah, sure you do," Steve's suspicion rasped. "Everybody with a car like this lives in the backwoods."

 

After Adrian carried Steve up the steps to the entry and helped him balance on his crutches, he mumbled, "I hope you get used to your crutches soon. You may be small but you're too heavy to lug around."

 

"Don't do me any favors."

 

"I'm not! I'm thinking of my back."

 

Steve covertly took in the large room as Adrian moved a chair and a small table to allow clear passage to the room the boy was to use.

 

"You got anything to eat in this dump?"

 

Adrian scowled. "I suppose you're one of those who likes regular meals. Well don't count too heavily on it. When I'm busy, I eat when I can, not by the clock." But he turned into the kitchen and busied himself.

 

Any attempts to communicate with Steve for the next few days were futile. Adrian found it impossible to work, the most carefully thought out designs became a mass of confused lines on paper. He was furious with himself for his failure to concentrate, the fury turning into recrimination when he glanced through the window to see Steve take a few lurching steps with the crutches, occasionally falling and crawling back to the crutches to pull himself up to try again. Adrian realized that he was holding the back of his chair to keep from running out to pick the boy up each time he fell.

 

Try as he might to fix meals he knew Steve enjoyed, Adrian sat helplessly silent as the boy picked desultorily at the food, never once looking at him. Exasperated by the surliness of the boy, Adrian finally said, "You might as well make the best of your situation and be reasonable. After you've healed you can do what you like."

 

"I didn't ask to come here."

 

"No. But you didn't have much in the way of alternatives, did you? I shall expect you to be quiet and amuse yourself while I'm working. I shall attend to your needs, but I will not tolerate any unreasonableness. Do you understand?"

 

"Yeah."

 

With continued sharp exchanges, Steve fitted himself into routine of Adrian's life, learning to care for himself while using crutches, careful not to make demands unnecessarily. Warm days he spent out of doors extending his walks as he grew accustomed to using crutches, reading when he tired.

 

Adrian accommodated the boy as well as he could, growing restless from a lack of concentrated work. He was delighted when the phone rang, Blair in a panic.

 

"I've got to go to the office for a couple of hours."

 

"So go."

 

"Think you can manage?"

 

"I've been taking care of myself for a long time. No reason why I can't now."

 

"All right, then."

 

Steve watched the big car ease down the lane with a feeling he could not pull into recognizable form. For the first week after the accident, he had actively hated the cold, acid-tongued man, but for one or two fleeting moments, he perceived something beneath the rigid exterior. Nor could he specify what he knew, yet he felt the effect, disturbing, strange. He shrugged and picked up his book.

 

An exhilarated Adrian returned home with the filled briefcase. Natuki had requested Blair and Company to submit designs for all his major lines, providing Adrian would do the actual work. Here at a minimum was three month's work with no time limitations. Perhaps I should leave Hank and work solely for Natuki, Adrian thought, knowing even as the thought was in progress that he would not. He dropped the briefcase on the drafting table and looked across at Steve.

 

"Party's over, kid."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Yeah. I'm going to busy for quite a while, so you'd better get used to it."

 

"Good. It'll keep you off my back."

 

For the next few weeks, Adrian worked while Steve amused himself as best he could, often playing games on Adrian's seldom used computer. Even with the intensity of his concentration, Adrian allowed time to attend the boy. Small things like the supply of fruits, which Steve devoured, were constantly present.

 

The morning that Adrian went into the city for a conference with Natuki, Steve looked for something to do. He had read most of the books that interested him and the sudden cold snap did not allow him out of doors. At Adrian's desk, he pulled a discarded sketch from the trash basket and studied it. He laid it on the desk and, taking up one of the pens, began to ink the lines. When he finished, he compared it with the one Adrian had not completed. Not bad, he thought. A little practice and I'd be damned near good as him. He dropped the sketch back into the trash and found a magazine he had not read. He was still absorbed when Adrian returned.

 

Adrian bent to pick up a pencil that had fallen to the floor. He lifted the drawing from the trash and studied it. "Steve," his voice sharpened, "have you been screwing around with my pens?"

 

"What about it?"

 

"I thought it was perfectly clear that nothing on my drafting table or desk was to be touched."

 

"I didn't touch your precious pens, least ways not the ones you always use. The sketch was in the trash."

 

"Why'd you do it?"

 

"I'm bored, that's why. How'd you like to be stuck on crutches?"

 

"Get over here."

 

Steve crutched to the drafting table.

 

"Which pen did you use?"

 

Steve pointed to a battered pen in the holder. Adrian's frown deepened. "Are you telling me that you did the plate with this pen? It won't hold enough ink for two lines. I should have thrown it away long ago."

 

"Well that's the one I used."

 

Adrian smiled, the first the boy had seen. It came as a revelation. "If you're that hard up for something to do, want to try inking with a decent instrument?"

 

Steve eyed him with suspicion. "You saying you're going to let me try on some of your precious drawings?"

 

"These precious drawings are our bread and butter. You can practice on some I've discarded. If you can learn to do an acceptable job, you can work on finished plates. It will save me a lot of time and give you something worthwhile to do. Interested?"

 

"Ain't got nothin' else to do."

 

Adrian cleared space on the desk, placing a board, square, and pens within reach. He taped a plate to the board. "Try this."

 

When he stopped to fix dinner, he looked over the boy's shoulder. A few spots warranted his terse criticism. Having delivered himself of this, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me you'd had training?"

 

Steve shrugged. "You're tougher than the teacher I had. I figured I couldn't anything to suit you."

 

Adrian ripped the sketch from the board and replaced it with another. "Do this one and try to remember what I told you. Don't bother trying to letter it, you're not worth a damn."

 

"I never could letter."

 

"Then stick to what you're good at. Let's eat."

 

Steve practiced for a couple of days, picking up forgotten skills. Adrian apparently paid no attention until he slapped a plate down in front of the boy. "Ink it and be damned careful. I don't intend to redraw it because you've been careless."

 

"For real?"

 

"Yes. And don't screw it up."

 

The boy spent the better part of the day working carefully. When he finally handed it to Adrian, he snapped, "Took you long enough."

 

"I ain't had your training either."

 

Adrian studied the plate, pleased at the perfection of the work. "It's almost decent. Want to try another?"

 

"If it'll stop your bitching."

 

They worked together day after day with only music breaking the silence. Adrian most appreciated not having to break the flow of ideas by taking time to ink the plates, enjoying being able to concentrate on detail alone. After a careful scrutiny of the first couple of plates that Steve inked, Adrian just stacked the finished pencil work where the boy could reach it and began another.

 

A heavy thud from the porch startled both of them. "Shit!" Steve yelled. Adrian looked to see an ink splotch on the half-finished plate.

 

"How could you be so clumsy?" He snapped.

 

"That damn noise." Steve yelled back as another thud sounded.

 

Adrian startled him by breaking into laughter and tilting the drafting table so Steve could see the pencil line that slashed crookedly down the page.The boy laughed. "You're not so damned hot either."

 

A knock at the door brought them to silence. Adrian crossed the room and opened it. A burley man filled the space. "You St. John?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Sign here." He held out a clipboard and a pencil.

 

"For what?"

 

"All I know is these crates got your name on 'em. You sign and I'm gone."

 

Adrian signed the sheet.

 

"Oh, yeah. Here." He held out an envelope then went to his truck as Adrian slit the seal and read the one word - Enjoy.

 

"What is it?" Steve yelled.

 

Natuki sent something."

 

Steve wheeled himself to the door. "Like what?"

 

"How should I know, I can't see through the crate."

 

"You might open 'em." Steve dripped sarcasm.

 

"I don't suppose you could be bothered to help."

 

"They ain't mine."

 

Adrian located a hammer and screwdriver and prized the smallest crate open. Steve gasped at the huge stereo receiver.

 

Adrian was touched by the boy's excitement. "I'll be damned, the big one!"

 

"What?"

 

"I designed this for Natuki's firm," Adrian said proudly.

 

Each of the crates held another piece of the prestige stereo equipment designed by Adrian. A complete system, making the system he owned shabby by comparison. "Steve, you're going to hear sound like you've never heard before."

 

Work put aside and caustic comments forgotten, the equipment was brought in and put in place. Music poured over them as they relaxed and spent the evening in leisure.

 

A phone call a few days later reminded Adrian of Steve's appointment at the hospital. The questions he expected during the drive did not come. A few glances in the mirror revealed an obviously worried young man. Adrian sought to share his concern, but the terse, "Shut up!" caused him to keep his own concern to himself.

 

Adrian paced the floor of the waiting room trying to coalesce his random thoughts into a workable pattern. Only when the nurse touched him on the arm did outside stimulus register. "The doctor would like to see you. This way." She led him into an office.

 

"Steve's leg has healed nicely. I'll give you a prescription for a built-up shoe. He'll need crutches for a while longer, then he should be walking with ease."

 

Adrian sighed in relief. "Then I'll see he has the shoe as soon as possible."

 

The door opened and Steve stood there. "I'm glad I ain't got to come here no more. He said I could get my shoe fixed, so let's go."

 

The orthotist examined Steve's leg, then shook his head. "Sorry. I know you want your shoe now, but it'll take a couple of days, I suggest you get new shoes anyway. No need wasting time and money on old ones. I'll see you in a couple of days."

 

"Shit! Let's get outta here."

 

Adrian looked at the despondent boy. "I'm sorry you have to wait. I'll take you tyo the store where I buy my shoes. I know they will fit you perfectly and they will send them to the orthotist to be adjusted to your needs. "

 

Two days later, Steve took his first steps on the built-up shoe. "Don't hurt an' it's a hell of a lot better'n crutches."

 

Adrian soon accustomed himself to the sound of Steve's shoe thumping on the hardwood floor, so it no longer distracted him from his work. The pile of completed drawings grew until Adrian knew that a trip to the office was inevitable. He placed them in the folio and called, "I've got to go to the office. I'll try not to be too long. Would you like to go, or is there anything I can get for you?"

 

When there was no answer, he assumed the boy had gone for a walk in the woods and left. Assured by Blair that there was no rush about the remaining work, Adrian turned immediately homeward. There was still no solidified plan from his tortured thoughts of the boy's growing restlessness. The turmoil increased as he turned into the lane.

 

"Steve?"

 

In the silence Adrian perceived emptiness. He called Steve's name frantically. A look in his room revealed the missing backpack, the lack of the boy's few possessions, the crutches propped against the wall.

 

Adrian raced for his car. Careless of the ruts, he drove wildly, pausing at the highway to look each way. In the distance, headed away from the direction of the city, he could make out a slight figure by the side of the road. Tyres squalled, an oncoming car swerved to miss the mass of the Bentley. As he came within recognition distance, Adrian saw the figure turn and try to run. A few steps and he fell at the edge of a deep ditch. Adrian braked and jumped from the car, grabbing at Steve to keep him from rolling into the water. As the last bastion of his reserve broke, he pulled the boy against him. "Don't leave, Steve. Please."

 

Steve pushed away, looking at him coldly. "What you want me around for? I'm well as I'm gonna get now and I ain't nothing to you. You ain't never needed nobody in your life."

 

"You're wrong, Steve. Please come home."

 

"Home? Where's home? You got one, I don't."

 

"You do. It's not my home, it's ours. I'm begging you, Steve. Please."

 

"Why? So you can salve your conscience? No way. I don't owe you nothing. You let me stay because you didn't have any choice. Now I'm free. Oh, I'll remember you. Yeah! I'll remember you every time I take a step on my fucked-up leg. Go back to your house and forget me." Steve pushed away, brushing the dirt from his jeans and pulling his jacket tighter against the chill wind.

 

"How will you live?" Adrian asked plaintively.

 

"I took that hundred bucks you keep in your desk. Figure you owe me that. Don't sweat it, we'll both survive." He lurched a few steps further and stuck out his thumb.

 

A car stopped; Steve climbed in. The driver jerked his head toward Adrian, still sitting on the shoulder of the road. "Anything wrong with him?"

 

"Nah. He gave me a lift, but he was drunk. He got sick and stopped. I didn't want to ride with him any more."

 

"Smart. You never can tell what a drunk might do. Where you headed?"

 

"Anywhere. Don't make no difference. I'm just bumming around."

 

Dazed, empty, Adrian continued to sit in the muddy grass completely unaware until a hand shook his shoulder. "Anything wrong?" A highway patrolman looked down at him suspiciously.

 

Adrian struggled to his feet. "Nothing. I just felt a little ill, so I stopped."

 

"You left your car in a bad position. Do you think you can drive?"

 

Adrian nodded. "I'll be all right. I live just down the lane back there."

 

"Okay. Make a U-turn and go on home. You look like you could use some rest."

 

"Thank you."

 

Adrian made the turn and drove into the lane, the officer watching. Never before had the house seemed empty, now nothing held meaning for him. His dinner of leftovers went untasted, as the level in the bottle of Canadian Club dropped steadily lower. "Oh, Steve, why? Why?" He asked himself over and over, even as he fell fully dressed onto his bed and drunken sleep.

 

Some three hours later, the driver pulled to a stop at the town's only stop-light, and looked at his passenger. "This is as far as I'm going."

 

"Okay. Thanks for the ride." The boy opened the car door and picked up his backpack.

 

The chill damp wind cut through his jacket. He shivered as he looked at the one business with lighted windows, then walked across the street to the dingy diner.

 

"What'll it be?" The burley man in a grease-stained apron asked.

 

"Bowl of chili and coffee."

 

A bowl and a chipped mug were slapped down before him. "Eat up, kid, I'm ready to close."

 

He crumbled a handful of stale crackers in the chili and tasted the greasy beans interlaced with bits of stringy beef. Ugh! Never had food bad as this, Steve thought. He grabbed the mug of coffee which tasted of boiled dregs from the bottom of the pot. As he lifted the last spoonful of chili to his mouth, the bowl was unceremoniously snatched away and dropped into a sink of grease-scummed water. "Three-fifty, kid."

 

He paid, and stumped back into the empty street. Where? He asked himself, walking on. The light sprinkle turned heavier as he walked to the edge of town. Seeing an old barn, he moved quickly to its shelter. Finding a pile of musty hay, he bedded down, visions of the warmth, good food, and cleanliness he had left flooding into his mind. "I ain't goin' back. I hate him. His fault I ain't got but one good leg no more," he muttered before falling asleep.

 

Brushing the hay from his hair and clothes, Steve returned to the diner for a cup of coffee and greasy eggs and bacon. Hunger appeased, he stood on the corner, thumb outstretched.

 

The light was beginning to fade as the trucker let Steve out on a corner in the industrial section of the city, and drove on to make his delivery. Walking toward the center of town, Steve passed a small restaurant, then retraced his steps and entered, ordering the blue-plate special. As he ate, he noticed a sign taped to the back of the cash register - DISHWASHER WANTED.

 

Near the center of a park three older teen-aged boys in skintight jeans lounged against a low rail fence, smoking, eyeing Steve when he paused to ask, "You know where a guy can bed down cheap?"

 

"Look, guy, we don't need the competition, if you know what I mean," one of them replied. "Not that you'd be any, Crip."

 

"Competition for what?"

 

The three burst in raucous laughter, stopping when a red Cadillac convertible pulled up to the curb. A stocky man got out and walked over. "You bastards get to work," he growled, then looked at Steve. "Who's this?"

 

The oldest of the teens shrugged. "Just wanted to know where he could find a cheap bed."

 

Steve felt uncomfortable as the man's eyes raked over him. "Not bad looking. You need money, kid?"

 

"Can always use some. What's the job?"

 

The man's mouth dropped open. "Jesus, kid, you just fall off a turnip truck? My boys here got a steady string of clients, but I got a guy been asking me for a crippled boy. Get you cleaned up and I figure he'll pay extra."

 

"For what?"

 

The man's hand slapped his forehead. "Sex, dummy. You think I'm a social worker? My boys keep half. I get half and give 'em a decent place to live. You interested, or not?"

 

"No, thanks." Steve stumped away quickly.

 

"You'll come back when you get hungry enough." The man's harsh voice called after him.

 

I'll starve first, Steve said to himself. He used a little of the money he had taken from Adrian's desk to rent a room in a flophouse, and bedded down. The next morning he returned to the restaurant to be quickly hired as dish-washer. He toiled twelve-hour days for food and low pay, enduring the verbal, sometimes physical, abuse of the cook, then falling into bed each night to dream of his room at Adrian's home, subconsciously realizing how much he missed Adrian's few awkward attempts at affection.

 

After a week of futile attempts at work, Adrian gave up, gathered the papers from his desk, and drove to the office. The receptionist called out to the gaunt, hollow-eyed, unshaven man who slunk past her desk. When he glowered at her, she gasped and rang Blair without waiting. He ran down the hall and grasped Adrian by the arm. "My god, Adrian! What's wrong? Come sit down before you fall. Should I call a doctor?"

 

Adrian shook his head as if to clear it. "I need a vacation, Hank. Can I take a month?"

 

"Don't you want a doctor, Adrian? Shouldn't you go to a hospital or something?"

 

"No! I just want some time off to pull myself together. I brought the specifications and my notes. I haven't finished the plates, but any of the draftsmen here can finish them. I've just got to get away for a while."

 

"Take all the time you need. Are you sure there's nothing I can do?"

 

Adrian arose shakily. "Thanks, Hank. When I feel like going back to work, I'll give you a call. Don't worry about me, I'll be okay."

 

Curious eyes watched him leave the suite of offices, speculation flew. Unaware of the turmoil he had precipitated, Adrian drove slowly home, oblivious of the impatient horns of those trapped behind the Bentley.

 

Steve worked absentmindedly, most times cursing himself in a final realization that he'd rejected offered affection and left the best home he'd known. The evening his built-up shoe slipped on the greasy kitchen floor and the rack of dishes crashed to the floor, he was kicked out the door, his pay withheld to replace the broken dishes, his head aching from the blow the cook had given him. Tearfully, he walked back to the flophouse, thinking only of Adrian. Would he? God, I can't go on like this.

 

For Adrian, the five weeks slipped unacknowledged into history. Only a total lack of food in the house forced him to venture out. Bright decoration in the shopping center raised the question. "Is it Christmas?" He asked the bagboy in the supermarket.

 

"Where've you been, mister? This is the twenty-second."

 

"Jesus," he remarked to the clerk as Adrian left, "he must have been on a real drunk not to know it's Christmas."

 

Adrian shaved and dressed well the next morning, then set out for his customary shopping center. Hours later he returned home, putting his purchases away, and turned to scrubbing and cleaning away the dust of weeks. It was late when he finished, but the house was as perfectly ordered as it had always been in the past. A Christmas tree stood before the window overlooking the lane.

 

Christmas Eve morning, Adrian slipped a small turkey in the oven and cooked generously. Once, he started to whistle a carol, then stopped to switch on the receiver. He paused with his finger on the switch remembering how happy Steve had been with the system.

 

A fire blazed on the hearth, bayberry candles added fragrance to that of the apple-wood fire, the lights of the tree beckoned, carols rang out from the stereo system. Adrian sat expectantly in his chair, sipping eggnog.

 

The fire became embers, one by one the candles guttered out, the speakers gave a soft hiss of an FM station gone off the air. Adrian roused, set the empty cup on the table, and let his eyes wander to the clock: 02:38 glowed the display. Christmas. Adrian arose with the fumbling hesitancy of an old man, to go to bed.

 

A soft uneven sound from the outside. Adrian stood transfixed for a moment. Another soft thud of wood against wood, and Adrian sprang toward the door, flinging it open. As his hand fumbled for the light switch, a voice broke the quiet. "Can I come back home?"

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Posted: 01/30/09