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Choices by Stevie Woods


by Stevie Woods

Amber Quill Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61124-359-8

Best friends since kindergarten, Ben and James separate after college due to different choices. Ben stays in their hometown while James heads off to New York. Ben works to make his life follow the path he wants, dreaming of the day James realizes he made a mistake and comes home.

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Chapter One

June 2003
James struggled to get his case closed with everything he’d stuffed inside. He could have left some things behind—his aunt wouldn’t have minded—but he wanted a clean break. Aunt Carrie had no other use for the room and had made it clear he could use it if ever he needed to. He noted she had said if rather than when; she didn’t particularly want him to return any more than he did.
Carrie Lilley was his father’s older sister and she had taken him in after his parents had died in a plane crash when James was ten. She took good care of him, but James had always felt it was more from a sense of duty than a deep feeling of familial love. She hadn’t said so, but James felt his leaving for New York was viewed with as much of a sense of freedom by Aunt Carrie as by James himself.
The front door bell rang, and James wasn’t surprised when Aunt Carrie shouted up, “Benjamin is here!”
Benjamin was one of the few people who would be sorry to see James board the plane. He and Ben had hit it off the first day of kindergarten and had been best friends ever since. They’d stuck together through elementary, middle and high schools and then four years of college. Seventeen years.
Lord, has it been that long? James smiled as he hurried down the stairs to greet his friend.
“All packed and ready to go?” Ben asked. His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“I will be once I can get my case shut,” James said.
“James,” Aunt Carrie chided, “if Benjamin is kind enough to drive you to the airport, the least you could do is to be ready and waiting.”
“It’s okay, Miss Carrie,” Ben said, shooting a grin at James. “I got here early ’cause I knew he wouldn’t be ready on time. Come on, Jay. I’ll give you a hand.” As James led the way to his bedroom, Ben added, “You really ready for this?”
They walked into James’ room and Ben shook his head at the sight of James’ bulging suitcase. He sat on the lid and James finally managed to close the locks.
“We talked about this, Ben. It’s what I want. You’re quite happy with small town life, but I want something more. Never thought when Aunt Carrie was always mad at me for being a ‘game-mad fifteen-year-old’ that it would eventually lead to such a wonderful career opportunity. A way to really make something of myself, to get out of here and head for the bright lights of New York. I know you don’t understand ’cause success just doesn’t weigh with you.”
“What you call success? No, it doesn’t. But I don’t see why you have to rush off to New York only a week after we graduated. God, Jay, your twenty-second birthday was only last month.”
“Ben, I thought by now you’d understood. I want this. I worked my socks off all through college to gain the best grades possible so I could get out of this small town. I hardly dated at all because studying was more important to me than anything.” He grinned. “I decided I could wait until I arrived in the big city to party.
“And it all worked out, Ben. I got an entry-level position as a games programmer offered to me if I achieved the right grades and I aced it! I know it bugs you that I’m leaving and for that I’m sorry.” He grabbed hold of Ben’s biceps and stared intently into his friend’s eyes. “The offer is still open, you know. You’ve got a good degree in business studies; you could find work. Come with me.”
Ben smiled, but shook his head. “You know it’s your dream, not mine. I have no need to rush off and forge a new future for myself. My life is here and I like it that way.”
“I’m gonna miss you, too, you know. If it wasn’t for your friendship”—he grinned—“and that of your two cute sisters, I’m not sure how I’d have coped sometimes.” He leaned against the wall by his bedroom door. “Aunt Carrie did the best she could, but you know how it is.” He shrugged. “The truth is I adopted your family and I’m grateful they didn’t mind.”
“Didn’t mind at all, James…you know how much they love you. We do need to keep an eye on Suzie, though. That sister of mine is just at the age to develop a crush and I think she’s picked you.”
“Suzie? But she’s just a kid.”
“She’s almost fourteen, Jay.”
“I can remember her being born,” James said softly. “I can hardly believe it’s been fourteen years.”
“I know, or seventeen years since that fateful day when you tried to stick your square peg in my round hole.” Ben fought to keep the smile from his face. That was exactly what had happened when the five-year-old James burst into his life, but the way he felt now it carried so much double entendre it was ridiculous.
“Seems like that should’ve told us something about the different ways we view life, instead of making us band together against the world.”
And now they were going their separate ways. Ben sighed. “I can’t say I truly understand your choice, but I do see it’s what you want and I’m happy you got your wish. As far as I’m concerned, you’ll always be a part of my family and you’ll be welcome any time you want to come home for a visit.”
Ben didn’t say what he really wanted to. He didn’t believe it would be appreciated just then. Ben hoped that one day, hopefully not too far distant, James would realize he’d made the wrong choice and move back home.
“That could be a while, Ben. I want to put down strong roots and running back home for every holiday isn’t the way to do that. Anyhow, you’ll be too busy sorting out your own life, won’t you? You thought any more on taking up that architecture course your Dad recommended?”
“No. I looked at the syllabus mostly to please Dad, but the truth is I’ve had enough with schools and teachers. I want to learn by doing. There’s something about creating with one’s own hands, you know? I want to build stuff, not just draw diagrams on paper for other folks to work with.”
James shook his head. “For someone who gives the appearance of being so laid back, you always seem to choose the hardest path.”
“It’s only the hardest path if it’s not the one you want to take.”
He didn’t think James would ever understand the way he felt, but then he couldn’t follow James’ thinking either. Why would he want to put his future under someone else’s control? It made more sense to Ben to be his own boss one day. Offer up bits of himself on his own terms—that way he could maintain control of his life.
James thought going to the big city and starting out being a small cog in someone else’s wheel would eventually bring him what he wanted: money and success. However, to Ben’s way of thinking, it would also tie that success to another person’s wheel, without having any control over its ultimate direction. It was an old argument between the two of them and Ben knew James would never understand his point of view because James couldn’t see that, to Ben, power and money were the least valuable things. Ben saw value in the small things in life—small to some folks’ thinking that was—family, home, trust, peace, and perhaps most important of all, knowing his place in the scheme of things. Contentment perhaps summed it up. There was only one thing missing and Ben hoped it would come with time: the love of that one person who was the other half of his soul.
“It’s not as hard as chasing a rainbow, James.”
James scowled. “Not chasing a rainbow, Ben; setting out to live my dream. I have a skill I can use to get what I want from life and I intend to make the best of it.” James took the last item from the closet and slipped his coat on. “Time to go if I’m going to catch that plane.”
Ben picked up the suitcase, grunting a little because it was so damned heavy, as James slung a backpack over his shoulder. James took a last look around, and Ben noted only relief in his expression. James was standing in profile to Ben and Ben couldn’t help but admire how handsome James was. He was almost six feet tall with a slim, athletic build. His nose wasn’t quite straight, as it had been broken playing football, yet somehow it added to his good looks rather than detracted. His eyes were hazel and his hair, which James wore long enough that it curled on his collar, was a warm brown. Ben longed to run his fingers through it as he kissed James, a fantasy he often fell asleep to.
“You will write to me, Jay?”
“Why you can’t join the twenty-first century and use email or mobile phones is beyond me.”
“I like the freedom of putting my thoughts on paper,” Ben said with a shrug. “I dislike the feeling of being constantly available, even when I don’t want to be. As far as I’m concerned, mobile phones are for emergencies only. And writing a letter by email is just plain nasty.”
James laughed. “You’ll never change and I suppose that’s one of the things I love about you.”
Ben suppressed a sigh because James didn’t mean the sentiment the way Ben wished he did.
“Anyhow, of course I’ll write.” James slapped him on the shoulder. “After all, I’ll want to brag about how well things are going, though I still doubt my letters will be as long as yours to me.”
“Jay, tell me your troubles, too. That’s something we’ve always shared and I’ll be here for you.”
“Same goes for you, Ben. Come on; I need to get moving.”
At first, James kept to his word; he wrote to Ben once a week. While he wasn’t exactly bragging about how well things were going for him, he wasn’t hiding his light under a bushel either. He’d managed to find a nice, reasonably priced apartment within walking distance of his new job. It was small, but James considered it good as a starting point. Of course, he had his eye on moving to something better in about twelve months. That was how long he estimated it would take until his employers recognized his worth and he began to move up the ladder.
Ben smiled at James’ confidence as he read the letters, pleased James did, indeed, seem to be living his dream. Ben replied to each letter, though he didn’t have as much to report as James. He still lived at home, being unable to afford a place of his own, and his letters were full of comments about his family. Yet, in his own way, he, too, was living his dream. Nothing as ambitious as James, of course, but things were going according to his rather rough plan. He’d secured a position as an apprentice with a small construction company and was learning the basics. It didn’t take his boss long to realize Ben had a particular talent when it came to working with wood. Ben liked the feel of it, and it became clear he had a knack for shaping it. He presently did framing as part of the job, but on his own time, he practiced with smaller pieces, creating interesting shapes and carving designs.
When Ben had written to tell James of his success and pleasure in his new work, James had responded positively, but still wondered why Ben “didn’t really give it a go and study architecture” before going on to tell Ben about the lovely new end table he’d bought for his apartment.
“He still after you to take that architecture course?”
Ben jerked in surprise. He hadn’t heard Suzie come in, but shouldn’t have been surprised at her reading over his shoulder. Suzie was still very much a handful as always. It was no wonder he loved her so much.
“Don’t you know how rude that is?” He ought to try to teach her some manners.
“You should take it to your room if it’s private,” she said, grabbing some orange juice from the fridge. “Anyhow, did he?”
Ben sighed. “Yeah. He’s doing so well, he thinks I’m missing out.”
“Each to his own. You know how much I think of James, but he sure is blinkered about you.”
Ben glanced at his sister, wondering if he was just being too sensitive or if she really had guessed how he felt about James. He’d been thinking of telling his parents the truth about his leanings, but hadn’t managed it yet. It was with a sense of relief he heard Suzie add, “Thinks everyone wants to be just like him.”
“Go on; get busy with your homework.”
She stuck her tongue out at him, but left the kitchen, and after he heard her thump her way upstairs, Ben re-read the letter.
It went on that way for some time, and Ben allowed James to dominate their correspondence with news of his work and home life, the new friends he’d made and his varied social life. Gradually, however, James’ letters became less frequent, sliding to one every fortnight and then monthly, until finally they were sporadic and Ben received the last one from him about twenty months after James had left.
For about six months after that Ben continued to write about once a month with news of his family and information about Ben’s own version of success, but he finally accepted defeat when James never responded to any of them. Not even the last one where Ben had given James a kind of ultimatum: respond to tell me you want me to keep in touch or I’ll assume you wish me to stop writing to you.
Disappointment wasn’t a strong enough a word to describe how Ben felt about James’ abandonment of his past connections. He refused to consider that James had discarded him; that was just too hard to bear. He couldn’t help but think James’ new life must be everything he ever wanted, everything he dreamed of, and his hometown friends were a memory he preferred to leave behind. Sadly, Ben acknowledged the odds were that a person as wonderful as James had found that someone special and old friends—even best friends like him—were superfluous.
As much as he disliked it, Ben considered trying to email James, though if James had wanted to keep in touch he could easily have gone that route himself, but James hadn’t bothered. It seemed James wanted to let the contact fade.
For a moment, Ben considered going to New York and visiting James to see for himself just how his friend was faring in his new life, but he soon dismissed the idea. It was doubtful Ben’s unexpected arrival would be welcome. Ben would probably talk too much anyway, tell James more than he wanted to hear and more than Ben could afford to reveal. Though part of Ben thought that surely James knew how he really felt about him. Ben wasn’t too good at keeping his feelings under wraps. He’d believed, too, that James shared his attachment, but that James just wasn’t ready at the time. Perhaps one day…
The day James had left for New York, Ben had told him that he had his own dream to follow. Maybe it was time to stop living his life as an extension of James Lilley and concentrate on making more of himself. Then, when the day came that James finally did come home, he would find a new, improved Benjamin Short waiting for him.
October 2005
Ben glanced up into the darkening sky; it appeared as gloomy as he felt. Perhaps a funeral and rain were meant to go hand in glove. Maybe he needed to accept that not only had his father died, but so had his friendship with James. Ben had tried to hang onto the hope it still had some life left it in, even after James never replied to the letter, the last letter.
The door opened behind him and his sister Suzie joined him on the porch. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just needed to get away from all the sympathy.”
“I know what you mean. Good intentions, but a bit cloying. Still, it’s good to know how well liked Dad was.” She was quiet for a minute and then added, “You want me to leave you alone?”
He smiled. “No. You I can cope with.”
“Mum’s managing well,” Suzie said. “Better than I expected.”
“She’s strong. I suggested moving back home—”
“But you only got your own apartment about six weeks ago.”
“She told me I didn’t need to.”
“Oh, right. Good. Me and Becky can look after Mum, and you don’t live far if we really need help. You’ve got your hands full with this new business of yours.”
Ben nodded. Yes, his new business was slow to get off the ground and he had his work cut out to make it successful. His gaze drifted to the sky again as raindrops began to fall. Life seemed full of raindrops at the moment.

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