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After Life

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After Life

 

            “Whoa there, little fella! Where are you running off to?” With greater speed than might be expected from his lanky frame, the tall man stooped and grabbed the puppy. He was just reaching for the door when it opened again. The man standing there was also holding a puppy who was wriggling excitedly in his arms.

            “Stan! Stan come back! OH!” He stopped when he realized the runaway was already in custody. “Thank you! I’m sorry, I just got them.”

The two men faced each other shyly, strangers in a small town. It was early evening, and the newcomer could see that the Ft. Providence General Store was about to close. The man in the doorway, as tall as he, but more broadly built, stepped onto its porch as the proprietor locked the door behind him and emphatically flipped the sign to “CLOSED.” He ran his hand over his short hair, black flecked throughout with white, and he cocked his head, looking up at the stranger through heavy lashes framing frank grey eyes.

“I seem to have forgotten about, well, puppies.”

            “Yes, they must be quite a handful. Can I help you get them somewhere? After all, there’s two of them and only one of you.” The lanky man smiled, and his blue eyes crinkled with mischief.

            “Oh, I’m sure I can manage. I’d hate to be a bother.”

            “Not at all. I actually needed directions, which is why I was heading into the general store. You look like you belong here, so I can ask you, if you don’t mind? Besides, I haven’t had a chance to play with a puppy in a long time. I’d hate to let go now.” His smile deepened. It was a merry face, a bit weathered but handsome in a long thin way. His wry mouth was framed by a red-and-silver beard, and his auburn hair was grizzled at the temples. He seemed to make a favourable impression on the puppies’ owner, who laughed and relented.

            “Thank you kindly. I’m Benton Fraser. My truck’s right up that way.” He clipped leads onto both puppies’ harnesses, then grabbed an enormous bag of kibble. “Normally I ride or even walk into town if I have the time, but I needed a lot of supplies. I certainly wasn’t expecting two puppies.”

            “You have more to bring? Please, let me help.” The red-headed man grabbed a box and a large sack. “You didn’t know you were getting them today?”

            “I didn’t know I was getting them at all.  They’re a gift.  From a… a friend.”

            “’ I don't approve of surprises. The pleasure is never enhanced and the inconvenience is considerable.’”

            Benton froze and stared. “You know Austen?”

            The stranger laughed. “More from movies than the books, but yes, I’ve read Emma.”

They struggled on, overloaded and trying not to trip over the wandering puppies, toward the ancient blue truck. Benton opened the cab door, and the stranger was surprised to see that, though old, it was as clean on the inside as it was muddy on the outside. However, it did smell of dog, and he spied enough shed fur to confirm his suspicions.

            “So, are these two new members of the pack? Do you sled? I mean, I see they’re huskies. Or huskie mixes…” His voice trailed off as he saw tears start up in the other man’s eyes.

            “I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot. They’re—you’ve—”

            “They’re gifts from an old friend who wanted to be kind. I’ve just… lost my companion of many years. I mean… he died. My wolf, I mean… I’m sorry, I—' Benton bent down and busied himself with hoisting the puppies up into the cab. By the time he got the door closed, he was again under self-control.

            “Thank you kindly for your help. Now, you needed directions. Where are you trying to get to?”

            “It’s a cabin further up the Mackenzie. Or down. I’m not sure yet which way the Mackenzie flows, but I daresay I’ll figure that out soon. Anyway, it’s about an hour from Ft. Simpson on the north bank of the river. I found the village alright but missed the track. I’d rather not have to drive all the way back to the beginning if I can find it from another direction.” He pulled a battered map out of his coat pocket and spread it on the hood of the truck. Benton puzzled over the faintly drawn in lines and the red “X-marks-the-spot” of the riverside cabin.

            “I think I could get you there from here without having to backtrack too far, but you’d never find it in the dark. I might even miss it,” he said, with purely Canadian modesty. “I’d offer to take you, but I have to get these two home. They’ve come all the way from Chicago this week and I get the feeling they’ve been cooped up too long.”

            “I understand. Do you think I could find it in the daylight? If I could find someplace to stay tonight, I’ll try in the morning. And I need to get some dinner somewhere. I’m so hungry I could eat a bear.” He smiled, then leaned toward the cab window, where puppy paws pressed and four bright eyes gleamed. “Or a PUPPY!” he growled through the glass. The black-furred, green-eyed puppy yipped back at him, while the light-red, blue-eyed pup began frantically licking the window.

            “Unfortunately, there’s really nothing around here closer than Ft. Simpson. Look, why don’t you stay with me? My cabin’s about 15 miles off, the other side of Mills Lake. I’ve got a spare room, and now I’ve got some food, though I’m afraid I’m not much of a cook.”

            “Do you have a shower? A real one, with hot water?”

            “Well, yes.”

            “I’ll cook you the best damned dinner of your life for saving me a drive back to Simpson. My truck’s just there.” He pointed to an enormous and battered Parks Canada vehicle across the road. “I’ll follow you, if that’s ok?”

            “You’re a Ranger? I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.”

            “Fred Lord, but my friends call me Pepper.”

            “Fred… Pepper?”

            “Yeah.” Pepper grinned. “Hottest dish in the Northwest Territories.” Benton’s eyes fell away in embarrassment, but he smiled all the same.

            “Please call me Ben. I’m a Mountie.”

            They drove off, the white truck following the blue. The paved road gave way to a washboard track, which deteriorated into water-filled ruts that impressed even the Ranger. Finally, they arrived at a clearing containing a sturdy log cabin and small barn.

            Pepper helped Benton unload the supplies, getting everything out of the truck bed and into the house before opening the cab door for the puppies. The red one (“That’s Stan”) leaped fearlessly from the high seat, but the black-haired puppy (“That’s Vec”) pranced and whined until Pepper lifted him down.

            “So you weren’t expecting them, but you’ve already got names for them?”

            “They came with names. My…friend wanted me to have some company. I think he was worried about me being alone. So he named them after my two best friends.”

            “A visit might have been a more helpful choice.”

            “He couldn’t get away right now. He’s just been promoted at work and his wife is pregnant with their second child.”

            “His—oh. Well, at least he knew you liked dogs.”

            “He knows me better than anyone ever has. And these aren’t just dogs.” The puppies, having taken care of business after another long car ride, bounded up onto the porch and sniffed at the door, sensing warmth and comfort inside. Benton unhooked their leads and harnesses, then opened the door and let them scamper where they liked. Pepper followed them into the cabin.

            The furnishings were sparse and mismatched, worn or even a little shabby, but the cabin was scrupulously clean and tidy. The air smelled of woodsmoke, with the faintest hint of wet wool and dog. There was a warm and bright Hudson Bay blanket across the back of the couch, and a large Inuit wall hanging between the windows that provided almost the only colour in the main room. It was chilly, but warmer than outside, and Benton began feeding wood into the cast iron stove, while Pepper busied himself learning the small kitchen.

            He was grateful to find a “modern” cooking range and electric (if even more ancient) refrigerator, and called to Benton “This should be fine, but I think I hear the 1970s calling for your avocado stove.” Failing to get his expected laugh, he peered around the corner.

            Benton was squatting on his heels by the fire, watching the puppies. They’d found the large sheepskin-covered dog bed there and were happily wrestling and chewing on the fleece. In the firelight, Pepper caught the glint of a tear sliding down Benton’s face. Suddenly aware of the silence, Benton cleared his throat.

            “I just need to run out and see to my horse. I’ll be right back.”

Pepper continued to put supplies away in likely spots—it was remarkably well organized for a bachelor’s larder—until he heard the door open and close again, signaling Benton’s return from the barn. He called out from the kitchen.

            “I hope you’re hungry. I’m used to cooking for a camp-full.”

            He launched into a wryly funny story about the first time he’d ever tried cooking outdoors, while he gracefully navigated the compact space, finding everything he needed as if he knew it well. When he reached the punchline, “Oh so THAT’S why you need the poker!” he heard a low chuckle behind him and found Benton, sleeves rolled up, coming in to wash his hands.

            “How can I help?”

            They chatted and chopped, and Benton was surprised to find how easily he could talk to this stranger, how smoothly they moved around each other in the close quarters. From stove, to fridge, from counter to table, the meal preparation became a kind of dance.

            “Here, while I grate the cheese, can you stir?”

            “It’s one of my areas of abiding interest.”

            At last, after setting out a bowl of kibble and one of water for the puppies, they sat down to their own meal. Pepper openly watched Benton’s face as he took his first bite. They grey eyes widened in delighted appreciation, and the chef grinned.

            “That’s amazing! How did you do that?”

            “Years of practice, skill, and a little fairy dust.  OK, it was garlic, but you get the idea.”

            “I’m sorry I don’t have wine for you.”

            “That’s quite all right. It would probably just make me sleepy. I like this tea, by the way.”

            “A gift from another friend. It has cedar tips and elderberry, I’m not sure what else, but it’s supposed to be good for you.”

            “I’ll try not to hold that against it. So, when we got here, you said these puppies ‘aren’t just dogs.’ You also said your…last dog… was a wolf? You mean literally?”

            “It’s a long story.”

            “That’s a big plate of pasta. You’ve got time.”

            So Benton told him the story of Diefenbaker, how the half-wolf puppy had found him, stayed with him, and saved him, time after time; how he had sometimes been his only friend, and always been his co-conspirator, his audience, and his home.

            “About a year ago, he began to slow down. I thought it was just old age, but I took him in for a checkup. His blood pressure was dangerously high—it’s something huskies are prone to, and I’m pretty sure that he was half-huskie. I got him on medication, and he seemed to be doing better, but about three months ago, he…umm…he had a stroke.” Benton paused, looked down, moved a piece of parsley on his plate.

            “He went quite quickly. I don’t… I don’t think there was much pain or fear. He was gone before I could even lift him.”

            Pepper reached across the table to place his hand over Benton’s. After a moment, he let go and gave his arm a squeeze.

            “I’m so sorry. He sounds like an amazing companion. Do you have any pictures of him?”

            “Oh yes. Yes, I do.”

            “Go get them while I clear the table.”

            Pepper grabbed plates and utensils and glided back to the kitchen, while Benton blinked away tears. When he set the kettle on the stove for another pot of tea, Pepper heard him rooting around shelves and in drawers in the other rooms.

            They sat at the cleared table and Benton showed him every picture he had of his friend Diefenbaker. Many of the most recent ones featured another man with spiky light hair and intense blue eyes. The word “we” was used with increasing frequency. When they reached the last picture, a snap of the three of them standing in front of this very cabin, Benton held it, unspeaking, for several moments, more in the past than the present.

            “So this is…the friend? The one who sent you the puppies?”

            “Yes. Ray.”

            Silence.

            “And he shipped two puppies all the way from Chicago?”

            “Yes.”

            “Why?”

            Benton sighed. “It was the only way he could think of to help me. He knew Dief was more than just a dog to me, and he understood how difficult it was to lose him. So he managed to find them. You see, about seven years ago, when Diefenbaker and I were living in Chicago, he fathered a litter of puppies with a Huskie bitch named Maggie. She was stolen from her owner, and he was almost killed trying to save her. I didn’t know she was pregnant. I thought he’d, well, I thought he’d changed, become dangerous. Fortunately, I figured it out in time, but it was a close call. Anyway, she had the litter—I’m afraid all my pictures of them were lost when someone burned my apartment down—”

            “Someone burned your apartment down??”

            “Chicago was like that. It was a remarkably violent city. Maggie’s owner felt the same. She moved away to Wisconsin—Door County, I believe—and started raising and training sled dogs.”

            “So these puppies are…”

            “Diefenbaker’s great-grandchildren, yes.”

            “Wow. And Ray?”

            “That’s an even longer story.”

            “I am remarkably NOT tired. Must be the tea.”

            “I do appreciate it, but I’ve already talked your ear off.”

            Pepper tugged his left ear, the one with the small gold stud. “Nope, still attached. Look, how many times do you get the chance to completely unpack your heart to a passing stranger? I’m here, I’m interested, and I suspect there aren’t too many people you feel comfortable talking to about this… friend.”

            Benton stood and picked up his mug. Pepper was afraid he would just put it in the sink and say goodnight, but instead Benton walked to the couch and sat, his face in shadow.

            “As I said, it’s a long story. You should probably get comfortable.”

 

##

 

            The storm was still raging outside. Benton and Ray and Diefenbaker had left the RCMP and civilization behind three weeks ago, in search of the Hand of Franklin, reaching out to the Beaufort Sea. However, an unexpected series of setbacks had slowed them down. Diefenbaker had strained his shoulder while trying to free the sled, and Benton, weighing his wellbeing against the weather, had decided to stay another day, rather than pushing on. The blizzard caught them in their tent and hadn’t let up for days. Ray was becoming increasingly claustrophobic and even Benton was showing signs of wear.

            When the temperature dropped dangerously, they’d zipped their sleeping bags together, counting on the warmth of two (plus the occasional wolf) to help them survive. They thawed snow in their canteens as they slept, carefully rationed their food stores, and tried to find ways to pass the time.

            “Hey, Fraser.”

            “Yes, Ray?”

            “You never talk about women. Did you ever have a girlfriend?”

            “Well, Ray, I don’t think it’s appropriate for gentlemen to talk about their lady friends with other men. It’s not gallant.”

            “Gallant? What the hell does that mean? No, I don’t wanna know. Just talk to me ok? I’m going stir crazy and I need something to take my mind off this storm.”

            “Well, did you know that in 1778—”

            “Jeezus, Frazer, I don’t wanna hear about 1778. I wanna talk about something I know. Like cars. Or food. Or women. Can’t you talk about something normal?”

            “Well, I know very little about cars, and honestly I don’t think it’s a good idea for either of us to talk about food right now. I had a dream last night that Diefenbaker had turned into a roast suckling pig.”

            Diefenbaker whined loudly and moved to the door of the tent.

            “OK, so what about women? I mean, I know neither of us was getting much sex before we left for Chicago. The last woman I slept with was Maggie—”

            “We are NOT going to discuss your relations with my sister.”

            “Well then, talk to me about your last girlfriend!”

            “Ray, I told you: A gentleman—”

            “Fuck that, Fraser! I’m gonna lose it if you say that one more time! Just talk to me. Please! Get my mind off this or I’m gonna go nuts.”

            Fraser was, himself, exceedingly worried about and distracted by their situation. Even if the storm stopped soon, he wasn’t confident their stores would hold out until they could resupply. And he was worried about Ray—he could feel his friend’s tension mounting into something that could easily become rage, or panic.

            “Very well. There was a woman. It was before I knew you. She was involved in a robbery and I had to bring her in. I tracked her up above the 62nd parallel and we got caught in a storm—very much like this one. Except that I’d lost my pack and all my provisions—”

            “You did?”

            “Yes, Ray. When I caught up with her in Fortitude Pass, she was huddled in the lee side of a mountain crag—”

            “Which is the lee side?”

            Benton sighed silently. “The lee side is the direction downwind or downward from the point of reference.”

            “Oh. Go on.”

            “She was very near death, so I used my coat and a stick to stake a lean-to—”

            “Stake a what?”

            “Lean to.”

            “Lean to what?”

            “Well, it leans to—you know, that’s not important. What is important is that we were trapped there for 36 hours, holding each other to keep warm—”

            “Did ya fuck her?”

            “What?? No, Ray, she was barely alive!”

            “Eeeuw!”

            “Do you want to hear about this or not?”

            “I asked, di’n’t I?”

            “Then please let me finish.”

            “Who’s stopping ya?”

            “Just…” Benton sighed. “I was worried she was slipping away, so I begged her—I forced her to talk to me, just to keep going. She began reciting a poem—”

            “A poem?”

            “Yes, a poem.”

            “A sexy one?”

            “No Ray. At least, I don’t know that I actually heard the words. I just heard her voice, going on and on—”

            “Yeah, I’ve had dates like that—”

            “—And it was beautiful. And haunting. I was afraid of frostbite—she’d torn her gloves on the rocks—so I put her fingers in my mouth to keep them warm—”

            “Now that’s a smooth move.”

            “Ray, please.”

            “Sorry. Jeez.”

            “As I was saying, we held each other for a day, and a night and another day—”

            Ray raised his head as if to interject, but Fraser glared him down. “And the storm blew out. We got out of there, found my pack, and ate everything.”

            “Then you had sex?!”

            “NO! I took her to the nearest outpost. It took us four days to get there. We camped just outside of the town—”

            “Then—”

             “Ray! I held her, that last night together, and she asked me to let her go. But I couldn’t.”

            “Wait, what? You turned her in? After the storm and the poem and the finger sucking?”

            “It was my duty, Ray.”

            “Yeah, well I guess you learned there is no booty call when duty calls.”

            “What? I don’t even know what that—Alright, fine, you know what? I did fuck her. Ten years later, she got out of prison, came to find me and we fucked. Does that make you happy?”

            “Did you just say fuck? Twice??”

            “Yes I did. I’m sorry.”

            “No no, that’s good. How did it feel?”

            “The fucking?”

            “No. Well, yeah, I wanna know that too, but I meant saying it.”

            “Oh. Good. It felt good. Are you happy now?”

            “As a matter of fact, yeah. And how was doing it? Was she worth the wait?”

            Fraser gave up. “She was amazing. Best fuck I’ve ever had. I even sucked her fingers again.”

            “Way to go, Frazer! So what happened to her?”

            “Well, she killed her bank-robbery partner, tried to frame me and Ray Vecchio for her crimes, fled the country, and got me shot while trying to convince me to run away with her.”

            “Oh jeez, this was that woman? I heard about her. She was bad news. Welsh said she’s a weapons dealer now for the Greeks.”

            “That’s what the FBI said. Apparently they’re working with Interpol to catch her. I think they were hoping she’d come back to Chicago to try to finish me off.”

            “Good thing you’re here with me then, huh? So, what was she like in bed?”

            “Ray…”

            “C’mon, Fraser, you promised.” Ray whined like a tired toddler. “We can’t talk about cars or food or anything else normal, so we need to get through this the only way I know how—sex.” Benton looked up in alarm.

            “Talking about it! You know what I mean.” Ray slapped his arm. “You said she was great. Tell me about her. Jeezus, most of the time I can’t get you to shut up. Now I need you. Just talk. Like she did for you.”

            And Benton talked. He told Ray every detail he could remember about Victoria: her beautiful voice, her creamy skin, the cloud of black hair, and her great, dark eyes. He lost himself in his memories of the first time they made love: the way she tried to push him away, and the way he pulled her in; the way the two of them crashed onto his tiny bed. She kissed him fiercely, devouring his tongue, his lips, moving her ravenous mouth down his neck, his chest, and onto his cock. The feeling had been so intense he thought he might explode that second, but then she let go, staring at him instead. He remembered reaching out to delicately trace the areole of each small, perfect breast with his fingertips. Then he drew her up beside him to remove what was left of her clothing, so that he could go down on her.

            Benton tried to describe the way she tasted. “It was almost like wine—there’s that hint of metal, and a musk that’s more fruit than flower, and more animal than fruit. It was like drinking in the essence of who she was—mysterious and yet entirely her. Am I making any sense?”

            “Oh yeah. I know that taste, that smell. I hated to shower after I had sex with Stella, just so I could still smell her on me. She thought that was kinda gross.”

            “Well, cleanliness is important Ray.”

            “Get back to the point, Fraser.”

            “We spent the next few days alternating between sex and food—”

“Oh god, don’t talk about food! Get back to her. What did she like? What did she do to you?”

##

            He’d awakened one morning as she raised his arms over his head. She’d managed to wrap his Sam Brown belt around the bed legs and was using it to anchor an arrangement of leather loops for his wrists. Before he was fully awake, she had him tied.

            “You’re stronger than I am, but this makes us even. Now you do what I want.”

            “I thought I was doing what you wanted.”

            “You have no idea what I want, Ben.”

            She moved her mouth down to his nipple, licking and sucking and teasing it to a tender point. Then she bit, hard, not quite drawing blood. As Benton yelled in surprise, Diefenbaker jumped up and growled.

            “Huh.” Victoria paused. “Well that won’t do at all. Can’t have you protecting your boss on my time. C’mon boy, come on.” Naked, she padded to the apartment’s front door and held it open. “Come on Diefenbaker, let’s go. Out!” Slowly, with a backward look at Benton on the bed, Diefenbaker walked out. Victoria closed the door in his face.

            “Now, where was I?”

            She scratched, bit, licked, stroked, and teased. At times Benton twisted against the straps, and at times he lay still, holding his breath, silently—then audibly—begging her not to stop. Finally she threw a leg over his waist, plunging his cock into her dripping cunt, and began to ride him. As he tried to move faster, she slapped him.

            “No. My turn now.” Benton nodded, panting.

            She slid slowly off his cock, squeezing with remarkable strength, then began rubbing her clit along its length. She rocked faster and faster, arching her back and neck. Benton could feel her long hair tickling his thighs and balls as he tried to hold on. At last her growl became a cry and she climaxed. As Benton’s cock twitched beneath her, she finally looked at him.

            “Please.” Desperate grey eyes beseeched her for release. She smiled.

            “Good boy.” As she leaned down to kiss him, she slipped his swollen cock back inside her and with two mighty strokes he came.

            “Thank you kindly,” he whispered.

##

            “Wait, you did not say that to her.” Ray was staring at his friend.

            “I did. It’s the polite thing to do.”

            “You’re in bed with an evil fuck monster and you said, ‘Thank you kindly?’”

            “I did. And I didn’t know she was evil. Then.”

            “Yeah, ‘cause tying you up and biting you wasn’t enough of a clue.”

            “She was just… like that. Always hungry. There was a darkness inside of her.”

            “Is that Canadian for ‘She was a scary bitch?’”

            “…I suppose so. You did ask me to tell you all about it.”

            “Yeah, well, I think that’s enough for now.” He sighed. “I’m gonna try to get some sleep.” There was a pause as Ray crawled into their sleeping bag and tried to get comfortable. Once he was on his side, facing the tent wall, he spoke quietly, barely audible over the storm.

            “Thanks. That helped get my mind in a better place. Off this shit.” He shrugged his shoulder toward the howling wind and outer darkness. “Get some rest.”

            At the height of the storm, there had been little difference between daylight and night, but the pitch blackness indicated the latter when Benton woke later. He tried to pinpoint what had alerted him—was the wind lessening? Yes, it seemed like it. And Ray, beside him, was moving.

            His breathing had changed from deep and even to a tense, controlled panting, and he seemed to be rocking or vibrating in a way that Benton couldn’t immediately place.

            “Ray? Ray. Ray!”

            “WHAT?” The syllable escaped with a frustrated exhalation.

            “Are you alright? You were shaking. I’m sorry, are you crying?”

            Ray rolled onto his back with an explosive sigh. “Damnit, Fraser! You have the world’s worst timing.”

            “I’m sorry Ray, but I was concerned. Do you want to talk about it?”

            “No, you doofus! That’s what got me going. I was jacking off! I’ve spent three weeks living in a tent with you without a moment alone. Then you go telling me about your sexcapades—”

            “You did ask me to—”

            “And I woke up with a hard-on and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was just trying to take care of it, and you have to interrupt and throw me off track.”

            “I’m sorry Ray. I… by all means, carry on.”

            “What? With you right there, awake and listening.”

            “I can’t exactly go elsewhere, but I give you my word not to listen.”

            “Riiiight.”

            “I could put my fingers in my ear and hum.”

            “You think I could jack off while you’re humming?”

            “I don’t know Ray. I understand that privacy is rather difficult right now…”

            “You are mental, you know that, Fraser? Jeezus. If I die of blueball, just throw me in a crevasse, ok? I don’t want my body eaten by a polar bear.”

            “I am fairly certain that epididymal hypertension, or ‘blueball.’ as you so colourfully call it, is not terminal.”

            “Yeah, well it gets bad enough I’m prob’ly gonna wish I was dead. Don’t you ever get so horny you could just bust?”

            “Well of course. I’m not a monk. And a regular discharge is healthy for the prostate.”

            “Yeah, well right now my prostate is tied up like one of them boy scout knots you showed me. With the squirrel running around the tree—”

            “Rabbit.”

            “What?”

            “The learning tool uses the image of a rabbit running around the tree before—”

            “Fraser! I don’t care. Just… just let it go. I’m going to try to get back to sleep.”

            “Right you are.”

            Then there was only the sound of the ever-present wind, and the rustle of the sleeping bag as Ray shifted to his side. Then onto his back. Then his other side.

            “You still can’t sleep?” Benton spoke quietly.

            “Yeah.”

            “Still thinking about sex?”

            “Yep.”

            “You know, Ray, masturbation is perfectly natural. It’s a healthy expression of the human sex drive and you should just do it.”

            “I can’t, ok?? I tried. Even with you asleep, I just couldn’t—” He broke off with another frustrated sigh.

            “Well then, perhaps I can help.”

            And without further ado, Benton Fraser reached over and lightly grabbed Ray’s cock.

            It was a little larger than he expected, warm and slightly sticky from Ray’s recent attempts. He felt Ray’s breathing stop, and understood that his friend was confused, maybe even alarmed.

            “Look, I just want you to be able to sleep. Sometimes it takes another touch. Just relax.”

            “Do you know how…?” Ray could barely speak.

            “Well, I’ve never exactly done this to another man before, no, but I do understand the basic principles. Don’t think about…me. What would you normally think about while you were doing this?”

            “Stella. Dancing with her. Kissing her. Feeling her press up on my thigh…”

            As Ray whispered on, Benton began to stroke his cock; lightly at first, trying to gauge rhythm and pressure. As it grew hotter and stiffer, there was less drag on the sensitive skin and Benton could gently cup his hand around the entire shaft and give a smoother stroke. He crooked his thumb to brush the spot at the base of the glans, then encircled the head with two fingers, lightly and quickly stimulating it. Ray breathed in sharply.

            “Yeah. But more…”

            Benton wrapped his entire hand again around the shaft, and Ray began to pump into his grip. One hand curled up, reflexively, to touch his own nipple, and his head tilted back, mouth open. The darkness allowed him to be where he needed to be, and his trust in his friend allowed him to release into the moment.

            With a throaty moan, Ray came. Benton felt the pulse beating wildly in his cock, could actually feel the rush under his fingers as Ray grabbed his hand to hold it in place until he was done.

            “Ahhh… fuck. Oh, shit, I needed that.” Ray panted, then relaxed his hold. A moment later, so did Benton. “Sorry, man. I wasn’t thinking about the mess. Just wipe it on my sweatpants. OK?” He chuckled, then laughed out loud. “By the way, Thank You Kindly.”

            They cleaned up in silence. Ray was relaxed and sleepy now, and Benton was occupied with his thoughts. His feelings were in turmoil. He’d simply meant to help his friend, to distract him, even entertain him through a stressful night. But he realized that, as soon as he began, as soon as he touched Ray with something more than friendship, it was speaking to a desire so deep in him that he hadn’t even known it was there.

            He’d always cared about the man. From that first chaotic day, reeling from the loss of his few remaining personal possessions in the fire, frustrated by the pretender and the stubborn insistence of his friends, and the eventual crushing realization that Ray Vecchio had left, perhaps for good, Benton had seized the rare opportunity to make a new friend. Liking grew from yearning, and respect deepened liking. As different as they were, Benton understood Ray Kowalski better than he had Ray Vecchio, and he understood himself well enough to know he needed a new partner. He would try to make one of this quixotic, volatile man.

            Partner. That word suddenly presented a whole new world of meaning for him, but he stuffed it down, afraid of what his hopes might cost. He would not risk the friendship he had for the slim chance of it changing into something deeper. He told himself that he knew Ray better than that.

            By the next morning, the storm had passed. They broke camp and moved out, not another word said about the previous night. Ray seemed to be more relaxed on the move, laughing at ravens playing in the snow, remarking on the beautiful day. Benton was glad to see him in a brighter mood and assumed that Ray had already forgotten about their encounter.

            They’d traveled into the night—days of forced idleness urging them to make up for lost time, and a late sunset and bright moon providing the means to keep going. When they finally set up their small tent, Benton started a fire while Ray rummaged for something to cook. A hot dinner seemed like a glorious idea, and the humans fell on it as ravenously as the wolf.

            Afterwards, they sat in thoughtful silence, until the silvery moonlight proved too much, and Diefenbaker began to howl. Laughing, Benton and Ray joined in until they were breathless. Benton dumped the last of the coffee dregs onto the fire and stood up to head for the tent.

            “Hey, Fraser, buddy. About last night.”

            Benton turned his face out of the firelight. “Yes?”

            “Look, I know that’s not your… thing. Not mine either. But I know you were trying to be a good friend and help me through a bad spot, and I just wanted to say, I appreciate it. I can’t really hide anything from you, out here like this, and I’m glad you don’t make me feel like I have to.”

            “Well, no, Ray. We’re partners. You don’t have to hide anything from me.”

            “Yeah, same for you. And look, just to be fair, if you ever need a helping hand—” here he chuckled, “I can try. I mean, you do jack off, right?”

            “Yes, Ray, though I’m not usually in the habit of discussing it.”

            “Well, we got no secrets now. Whack away, Fraser. Fine with me.”

            That seemed to lift any restraint Ray felt about discussing sex, masturbation, past lovers, or his active fantasy life. Over the next several days, he encouraged Benton to reciprocate, and, storyteller that he was, Benton found himself joining in. After several more rounds of listening to, watching, or even helping Ray masturbate, Benton found himself recounting his last night with Meg Thatcher. As he shifted to accommodate his growing erection, Ray chimed in.

            “Gotcha horny, thinking about her?”

            “Yes, Ray. It has.”

            “Well? C’mon, whip it out. Not like you haven’t seen plenty of mine.”

Benton shrugged and, looking defiantly into those laughing blue eyes, he pulled out his cock and began to stroke it.

            His heart was pounding fit to burst, but there was something remarkably freeing in sitting there with his friend, the warmth of the fire on their feet, and the edge of the sun swimming on the horizon. They both began to laugh, and Ray undid his own fly. Benton looked away but his breathing quickened, and his stroke. Both men focused on their own fantasies, but each was aware of the sounds of the other, his pace and his pose. Benton was the first to come, curling forward and strangling his cry of pleasure. He looked up to catch the half-eager, half-amused glance of his friend. Ray’s hand moved faster.

            “Yeah…yeah…good… oh yeah! Yooowwoooooh!!” Ray howled to the sky.

            Afterwards he sat, gently massaging his softening shaft until he caught his breath. With a shaky chuckle he quipped “I held it longer, but I think you shot farther.” Benton shook his head as they laughed together.

            They journeyed on, growing closer as friends and becoming lovers. Benton would never forget the first time Ray placed his hand on his cock, or the evening when, his usual “helping hand” proving ineffective, he leaned over and took Ray’s cock in his mouth. That was a learning curve, but he enjoyed doing anything well, and quickly mastered the tricks and pleasures of giving head. With a sportsman’s sense of fair play, Ray tried to return the favour, but Benton’s larger cock and his own gag reflex made it more difficult for him to enjoy.

            “Hey, Frazer. You ever tried, umm, butt stuff?”

            “Anal sex? No Ray. My experiences with women were rather limited, and with men non-existent. Until now. Have you?”

            “Giving, yeah, couple ‘a times. I just can’t imagine anything up my… well Stella tried a little vibrator once. It was way too weird. I couldn’t focus.”  

“I can understand that. I hear it can be quite pleasurable with practice, but unless you’ve managed to hide a stock of condoms, I think we’re going to be denied that experience for a while yet.”

            “Good point.”

            It was high summer now, with its endless days and teeming insect life. Ray had lost track of the date weeks ago, and only Benton’s wildcraft gave them any sense of place and time. They were well above the arctic circle, a treeless, rocky landscape that still seemed alien to Ray. He’d gone along with the plan to trade a week’s work for two kayaks; paddling certainly beat trudging. However, he was beginning to feel like the earth was dropping away from them, leaving only stones, ice, water, and sky. Benton reveled in the vast horizons, but they made Ray feel small and untethered.

            It was a wildly gusty day when Ray’s kayak flipped. The shock of the icy water cost him precious seconds to remember how Benton had taught him to right himself; then he found he was tangled in a tarp he hadn’t tied down properly. He was not a strong swimmer even now, and the feeling of being unable to reach the air was sending him into panic.

            Suddenly, his friend was there, freeing him from the tarp and helping to right his kayak. Ray was able to get back in and paddle for the nearest shore. Benton directed him to strip off his wet clothes and huddle under a dry blanket until the fire got going. Ray sat, shaking with cold and adrenaline.

            Benton moved with his usual efficiency, first the fire then the tent, then set some snow to melting for a pot of hot tea. His thoughts were less well-ordered. Ray had been growing quieter, moodier over the last several days, and Benton felt a change coming. He was almost as afraid of it as he had been seeing Ray trapped under the tarp, but he knew he’d have to face it.

            “How are you feeling now?” he asked, as he pressed a steaming cup into Ray’s cold hands.

            “I’m here.”

            Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it was rarely a good sign from Ray Kowalski.

            “I’m so sorry about the tarp, Ray. I should have checked it before we set off this morning.”

            “The tarp wasn’t your fault, Fraser.”

            “I knew it was going to be a blustery day, and you’re still learning the kayak. I mean, these aren’t even the types of kayaks you would have learned on if you had been in training—”

            “Fraser! The tarp wasn’t your fault. The kayak wasn’t your fault. The wind wasn’t your fault. Jeezus!”

            “I’m sorry, Ray. I do feel responsible. I was so frightened when you didn’t come up. I waited too long. I thought ‘He’ll want to do this himself,’ and then I saw you struggling in the water, and all I could think was how stupid I was for risking you—” He broke off, unable to finish.

            “Ya know, it’s kinda crazy. I’m the reason we’re here. I wanted the real adventure. Like my life wasn’t complicated enough.” Ray shook his head. “What I’m trying to say is, I think I’ve had my adventure. Maybe we didn’t find the Hand of Franklin, but maybe…maybe we found something better.”

            Benton held his breath.

            “Anyway, I think it’s time to go home.”

            “To Chicago?”

            Ray shook his head again. “I don’t think Chicago’s home anymore.”

            “Where then?”

            Ray reached forward to cup Benton’s face with his hand. “I think home is where you are now.” He leaned in to kiss him, lightly, wonderingly, then pulled back.

            “Just not here. OK?”

            “OK.”

            Home turned out to be a modest log cabin on the bank of Mills Lake, about 20 miles from Ft. Providence, NT. Benton liked to joke that it was Providence indeed that he was able to find a Canadian RCMP post that would have him, considering his history of whistleblowing in the force. However, his skills were also legendary, and the local office was glad of his help. The Sergeant had worked with his father, the even more legendary Bob Fraser, and rather liked the earnestness of his son.

            As for two men living together… Ft. Providence was hardly the Rainbow Capital of the Northwestern Territories, but the population was both sparse and independent enough to maintain a “Live and Let Live” attitude. Both instinctively refrained from public displays of affection or other overt signs of their partnership, which helped the locals accept what they could not ignore. For Benton, who was not naturally a demonstrative man, this wasn’t an issue, but circumstances began to wear on Ray.

            He was not yet a Canadian citizen, and it would be some time before they could save up the attorney fees needed. Until then, he did what work he could find that paid “under the table,” but jobs were sporadic and rarely well-suited to his skills. Instead, he did what he could to improve the cabin, trying to learn to cook and garden. Fortunately, Benton was not a picky eater.

            At first, after their long sojourn in the wilderness, they had both reveled in the luxuries that even a small town could afford—the occasional diner meal, store-bought groceries, and video rentals. They ate popcorn and watched movies on the couch, knowing that next week they’d probably be able to find some new ones they hadn’t seen. At night, they could make love in the sturdy bed they’d built together, or they could sleep quietly, side by side, until it was time for Benton to get ready for work.

            And Benton loved his work. Somehow, the years in Chicago had finally made it easier for him to make friends. His fellow officers respected his skills, and, though they teased him about his many eccentricities, began to like him for who he was. For the first time in his life, he was building a community.

            Unfortunately, Ray was not. He began to get restless. It wasn’t just the lack of a job; it was the feeling that something was missing, that there was something he should be doing that was just outside of his reach. As the winter shut down the garden and the walls of the cabin closed in, he felt more and more trapped.

            “Do you ever miss ‘em, Fraser?”

            “Miss who, Ray?”

            “Women. Kids. The city.”

            “I work with several wonderful women, and I see children regularly, but I see your point. You’re not getting out enough. Perhaps I should take some time off. We could go to Yellowknife, see a movie. I think there’s a festival coming up—there’s bound to be a good crowd.”

            “That’s not what I’m talking about. I just… I used to have a life. It was kind of messed up, but I was figuring it out. I was good at my job, mostly, and I…” He trailed off, unable to put his feelings into words.

            “Are you unhappy here…with me?”

            “I love you. I don’t say it much, I’m sorry, but no matter how confused I am, I know that.”

            “I love you too, Ray, and I very much want you to be happy.”

            “I know that. Every day I can feel you watching me, to see if I’m happy. I’m starting to feel like a landmine—you’re always tiptoeing around me.”

            The fact that Benton had also begun to feel this way left him with no way to answer his partner. He was happy. Why couldn’t Ray be also?

            They went to the Snowking’s Winter Festival in Yellowknife, and both had a wonderful time. However, several times Benton caught Ray watching, with wistful eyes, families, groups of friends, even lovely young women.

            “We could adopt.” The sentence was out of Benton’s mouth before he even realized it. “You’d make a great dad, and I’d love to have someone I could teach all the things my dad taught me. I mean, I might not teach them the same way, but…”

            Ray was staring at him in confusion. They’d been doing dishes in the cabin’s small kitchen, and a sudsy plate was dripping in Ray’s hands.

            “Are you nuts? Even if we could get married, even if they’d let us adopt, that’s not…that’s not what this is about. How I feel—it’s not just kids.”

            “Then what is it? What can I do? You have to know I’d do anything.”

            “I do know that. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, best partner I could hope for, but this… this isn’t my life.” He rinsed the dish and handed it to Fraser to dry.

            “What do you mean? You want to do something else?”

            “I mean this is your life. We’re living your life. I love you too and I want you to be happy and live your life but it’s just—I’m starting to think this isn’t for me.”

            “What isn’t for you, Ray? This cabin? This partnership? Canada?” He just barely refrained from adding, “Me?”

            “Maybe. I don’t know.”

            “Well maybe you could let me know when you do know. Until then, I have work to do.”

            Benton threw down the towel and strode to the front door. Ray heard him putting on his boots and going outside; shortly after he heard the thwack of the axe, telling him that his partner was taking out his frustration on the woodpile.

            A week later, sitting at his desk, Benton got a call from the owner of the General Store.

            “Hi, uh, Constable Fraser, this is Merv, down t’the General? I, uh, well, uh, it’s about your friend. Ray? I think he might need a ride home.”

            Benton was in the truck before the office door slammed behind him.

            When he got to the store, Mervin led him to a back room, where Ray sat, holding an ice pack to his swollen nose. He had the makings of a glorious shiner and a busted lip as well, and wore a belligerent scowl which lightened into embarrassment as Fraser walked in.

            “Thank you, Mr. Brandt. I’ll get him home. Were there any damages?”

            “Not really. It was mostly outdoors. To be fair, the other fella started it.”

            “I see. And where is he?”

            “Drove off with his friends. They’re not from around here, and I hope we don’t see them again.”

            Ray was standing now and handed Mervin the ice pack. “Thanks. Sorry about the fight. And thanks for calling Fraser.”

            “O’ course. You two go home, take care of those hurts.”

            They both climbed into the truck in silence and rode for several miles until Ray suddenly punched the dashboard with a cut fist.

            “Damnit, Fraser!”

            Fraser pulled the truck over and killed the engine.

            “What happened?”

            “Little shit called me a faggot.”

            “Oh.” Fraser’s heart fell.

            “And you know the worst of it? The worst of it isn’t the word. Hell, I’ve used it. Back before…before us, I called other guys that. And they said it to me. It was just a thing. And alright, yeah, so it means something different now, and I’m something different now, but that’s not all I am. He didn’t see me. I was standing there, punching him, yelling ‘You don’t know me! You don’t know who I am!’ And I started wondering, do I even know who I am?”

            “What I know is that you are one of the best men I’ve ever known in my life. Don’t lose sight of that, Ray.”

            “But I have lost sight of it. Everything in my life used to be labels: Son; Husband; Cop. When we went up north, they all just started…dropping away. Like exer…exo...”

            “Exoskeletons?”

            “Yeah, them. I didn’t need ‘em no more. Then we come here, and I see you starting to put ‘em back on, like you’re comfortable with them, like they fit you. And maybe they do. But I’m feeling like the only thing here that fits me…is you.”

            “And that’s not enough anymore, is it?”

            “It should be. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me and I’m never gonna find anybody like you, Fraser. That’s not what I’m looking for. I guess I’m looking for me.”

##

            “So he ran off and found a wife and kids as well?” Pepper drained his cup. The tea was long cold now, and even the fire was burned down to embers. Benton had been too lost in thought to refuel it.

            “It wasn’t that simple atall. Ray did go back to Chicago. He even managed to get back on the force and became a detective again. He was living as an out gay man—he was never ashamed of his sexuality, even if it wasn’t easy being a homosexual cop. But he always felt there was more to him, and that there should be more to his life than that. Among other things, he was still strongly attracted to women. Unfortunately, as soon as he explained that he’d had a long-term relationship with a man…”

            “Ah yes. They assumed he was just trying to get back in the closet. A gay leopard can’t change his spots.”

            “Something like that. Until Kat. She works for an inner-city non-profit, trying to get community-owned stores into food deserts. She also volunteered to teach self-defense classes to women. That’s how they met. She, umm…” Benton chuckled. “She kicked Ray’s ass at a precinct-sponsored demonstration, and I believe he fell immediately in love.”

            “And she could handle his…history?”

            “That’s the thing—she’s bisexual. She told him that, however much she cared for him, she couldn’t see a future where she only fulfilled half of herself, and she certainly wouldn’t expect that of anybody else. She wanted him to be fully who he was—not just with sex, but with his desire to be a dad and to be a cop. A lot of people couldn’t handle one of those challenges from their partner. She was ready for—no, she required all three from him. Because that’s who he is, and she wanted all of him.”

            “That’s pretty remarkable.”

            “She’s a remarkable person, just like Ray. I got to meet her when I travelled down for the wedding. I don’t know which of the three of us was most terrified, but it was great. She’s one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. I’ve visited them in Chicago twice now—”

            “So the picture of the little blonde girl on the fridge…?”

            “Is their daughter Gwen, yes.”

            “It’s nice that Kat doesn’t mind that you and Ray are still friends.”

            “Oh, it’s more than that. About six months after their marriage, before she was pregnant with Gwen, she sent Ray here to me.”

            “What?”

            “Yep, she told him ‘I think you need a boy’s week. Go fish, and hunt, and for gods’ sake, get some cock if you can!’”

            “You are fucking kidding me.”

            “I am not. Just in case Ray didn’t believe her, she called me, with him right there, and said it to me. Well, first she asked if I was seeing anybody, then she asked would I take her sorry city-boy off her hands for a week and remind him how good it felt to get fucked. I nearly choked, but she meant it.”

            “And did she—I mean, does she…?”

            “It’s my understanding that they both occasionally, umm, ‘play away,’ with proper precautions and pre-approval. It seems to help them thrive as a couple. Anyway, Ray’s been here twice more in the last few years, and he’s happier than I’ve ever known him to be.”

            “Well, I gotta say, that’s not what I expected to hear.”

            “You thought I’d tell you that he’d abandoned me and homosexuality—”

            “—In that order—”

            “To live out his sad hetero fantasy?”

            “Whoa, mister, that’s some pretty advanced lingo there.”

            “Kat has been helping me—helping us both to evolve. I barely even knew there was a community—well, there’s not much of one out here. But through my friends I’ve been learning about all the letters—L, G, B, T, and even Q. And Ray’s in the thick of it now, going to Pride, a member of the Lesbian and Gay Police Association. Honestly, in some ways he’s living a braver life than I. There’s a lot of pressure to ‘pick a side,’ especially for men. And for bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships, there’s real erasure. Personally, I think they’re setting a good example.”

            “And what about you? I mean, I hope you’re not just pining away, hoping for the occasional visit?”

            Benton looked away, smiling despite himself.

            “I’ve had other…friends. I believe the current term is ‘fuck buddies.’ But no other real partners. It can be difficult to find each other in such a large area with such a small population.”

            “I’ll tell you a secret.” Pepper smiled his mischievous grin. “One thing Rangers are good at is finding people. Even if they occasionally have to ask for directions from the local Mounties.”

            “Well, you know what they say about Mounties?”

            “What’s that?”

            “We always get our man.”

 

FINIS