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Titus pulled the paintbrush back and forth across the surface of his front door with long, broad strokes. He shifted his weight to alleviate the pain in his right knee, which was pressed against the porch. He knelt to better paint the bottom of the door, but he couldn’t help but feel penitent in this posture. He had a lot to be sorry for.
He was sorry for staying in this godforsaken town full of small-minded bigots. He was sorry for moving back when his brother-in-law died. He was sorry for taking on his sister and her four sons as his own personal cross to bear when he had two other siblings and parents who should have helped. He was sorry for letting year after year pass, letting his life waste away in Little River, when he could have built a life of his own somewhere else. He was sorry he had given up on his own happiness.
He didn’t look up when he heard his brother’s voice, but continued to spread the paint back and forth. The white paint didn’t quite cover the jarring red of the hateful slur.
“Are you okay?” Jonathan sat on the top step of his brother’s porch.
“Any ideas who did this?”
At this, Titus laid the paintbrush across the top of the paint can, and turned to look at his brother. “If I had to guess, I would say it was probably a member of your congregation, Brother.”
Jonathan looked stricken. “Why would you say that?”
“Because in the last twenty years of living in Little River, the only people who have seemed to give a damn about who I’m attracted to have gone to your church.” Titus spat out the bitter-tasting words and turned back to his painting.
“When has this ever happened before?” Jonathan sounded defensive. Unbelieving. Or, at least, unwilling to believe.
“This?” Titus turned and gestured around him. Caleb was reaching from his perch on a ladder into the Bradford Pear tree in the front yard, pulling toilet paper from its branches. The broken beer bottles had been swept into a pile at the bottom of the porch steps. “You’re right, Brother. This particular combination hasn’t happened before. It’s only been anonymous notes left in my mailbox, quoting Deuteronomy, with a Gospel tract included. Messages on my answering machine telling me to repent. Dirty looks in the grocery store. People muttering “faggot” under their breath.”
“I don’t believe that,” Jonathan protested.
Titus just laughed. “Of course you don’t.”
“What does that mean?” Jonathan was standing now, looking as if he was trying to decide whether or not to bolt down the sidewalk and avoid the rest of the conversation.
“Nothing.” Titus shook his head. “Doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not fair to assume whoever did this is one of my congregants.”
Again, Titus just laughed. Not even replying.
“Even if it was,” Jonathan continued, “it’s not fair to lump the whole church together.”
“Well, I certainly want to be fair to your church.” Titus flung the paintbrush into the can, causing white paint to spatter on the porch. His eyes flashed as he looked at his brother, “Because your church has certainly been fair to me.”
“What do you want me to do?” Jonathan asked.
“Nothing.” Titus shook his head and turned his back on his brother. “Just keep doing nothing as usual.”
That night, Titus sat across from Caleb and Travis at the dining room table. They had just finished eating together, and Titus was trying to gather his thoughts before talking to his nephews about his plans. Caleb was watching him, waiting for him to say something, but Travis was just staring at his empty plate.
“Boys,” Titus began, “we need to talk.”
“Okay.” Caleb nodded. Travis kept his head down.
Titus cleared his throat before continuing, “I have been doing a lot of thinking. And talking with your grandparents…and your mom.”
“You talked to Mama?” Travis asked, finally looking up.
“How is she?” Travis looked hopeful.
“The same,” Titus said softly.
Travis shook his head, and looked back down to his plate.
Titus began again, “I think you boys realize your mom isn’t going to be able to take care of you for a while. Maybe not ever.”
“We don’t need taken care of,” Travis muttered.
Titus ignored his comment, and said, “We’ve decided to go to court and ask that I be made your legal guardian.”
When he didn’t say anything else, Caleb asked, “That’s what you wanted to tell us? It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. You’re already being our guardian.”
“Well,” Titus rested his hands on the table, steepling his fingers, “it doesn’t make much difference practically speaking, but, legally, it’s a big deal.”
“Okay.” Caleb looked expectant.
“I also want to know what you two would think about the three of us moving to Knoxville.”
“Leave Little River?” Travis jerked his head up. “No way!”
Caleb was silent.
“I know it would be a big adjustment, but I think things could actually be a lot better for all three of us with a change of scenery. You know? A different environment.” Titus looked anxious. He had been planning this conversation for over a week, and it was already going off track.
“Is this about Jamie?” Travis demanded. “You’re making us leave the only home we’ve ever known so you can be with your faggoty boyfriend?”
“Travis!” Caleb shot his brother an angry look. “Shut up!”
Titus couldn’t conceal the hurt from his face, but he kept his voice calm, “No. It has nothing to do with Jamie. That door is already closed.”
For a brief moment, Travis looked ashamed of his outburst, but then he squared his shoulders and said, “Well, I’m not going. Haley is here, and so are all my friends. And I have a job.”
“Knoxville’s not that far away,” Titus said in a measured tone. “You can still drive down to see your friends. You can have your girlfriend over. There’s lots more things to do with her in Knoxville, anyway.”
“I have a job.”
“You can get a job in Knoxville,” Titus countered.
Travis looked up at his uncle with wet eyes. “But I like it here.”
Titus sighed. He wasn’t going to force the boys to move if they really didn’t want to go.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Caleb said in a soft voice.
Titus looked at him in surprise. “You do?”
“Yeah.” Caleb nodded. “It’s not that far away, and it really does have a lot more to offer.” He paused, and then said in an even softer voice, “And it would be nice to be somewhere that no one knows me and all my business. I won’t be the kid with the dead dad and the crazy mom.”
Travis glared at his brother, and Caleb looked away.
Titus was thankful for Caleb’s understanding. He smiled at the boy, and said, “I’m asking you guys–not telling you. I want to move and I think it would be good for all of us. A new start in a new place.” Looking to Travis, Titus added, “Just think about it, Trav. Okay?”
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.