The latest story from Bennett Bay is out! Return to Cooter Crossing.
Aidan Quinn is having a good day, possibly the best day of his life, at least since moving to Dublin. He just received word that his degree committee approved his PhD and he’s on his way home, with lamb chops, chard, and a bottle of wine. Time to celebrate in the little cottage he shares with his mentor and lover, Dr. David Stokes. But, something is wrong when he gets home. Dr. Stokes has found a new student to “mentor.”
Like any good Irish-American lad, he gets drunk and heads home to his mother. He hopes to find himself and make plans for a new future in the quiet backwater town of Cooter Crossing. But, he forgot what it’s like being part of a large family in an extremely small town. He gets off the plane in Tampa and finds his little sister is pregnant and won’t tell anyone who the father is. His next two older brothers, Danny and Dillon, are keeping secrets, and the oldest, Rory, shows up with his son, Sean, expecting Aidan to help him navigate Sean’s coming out.
Just as Aidan thinks he’s finally getting ahead of the family drama, and settling back into life in a small Florida village, someone shoots him. And people start dying. Will he find a way to put all the pieces back together? Will he find a new direction for his life? And, what really happened to Mrs. DeWitt’s prize rooster?
“Return to Cooter Crossing” is a contemporary southern family drama with strong characterization and set in Stephen del Mar’s rich world of Bennett Bay and Big Cypress County, Florida. Although not a part of the paranormal series “The Live Oak Tales,” this story takes place after the events in “Hunter Moon and the Red Wolf” and includes a few familiar characters from that series, such as Innes Callahan and his sister Fi, Allen Clark, Deputy JJ Jackson, Max Crawford and Marcus Murphy, among others.
Sample from Chapter One of
Return to Cooter Crossing
by Stephen del Mar
Aidan swayed in the aisle of the plane. His life hung from his shoulders. A laptop case and a duffel bag full of clothes. Not much to show for twenty-eight years. The line of passengers moved. He looked at the row with his seat number. A plump, older woman in a dark blue and white nun’s habit smiled at him. He told his face to smile back. He wasn’t sure it worked. He was pissed. Pissed in the Irish way of being drunk off his ass and pissed in the American way, because he came home last night and found the man he loved shagging a pretty blond boy in their bed.
David calmly explained, as he pounded the boy’s butt, that now that Aidan had his doctorate, it was time for him to move on. He needed to find his own way. He said, “There’s a ticket back to Florida on the table with your bags. I’ll have Ian here pack up the rest of your belongings and have them shipped to your parents house.” Each word was punctuated by the slapping of flesh and the grunts of joy from the boy. The kid, Ian, looked over at him and smiled.
Aidan felt his face grow hot. He knew he was glowing red as he turned and walked back into the cottage’s little kitchen. He clenched his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. He wanted to vomit. He stood next to their kitchen table. He loved that table. They’d bought it one afternoon when they went for a drive.
They’d only been in Ireland a few weeks and wanted to explore the countryside beyond Dublin and they found it in a small village shop. The green stained wood caught his attention and then he saw the inlaid tiles glazed with Celtic patterns. He unclenched his right hand and traced a never ending knot with his finger. In his excitement to tell David the decision of his degree committee, he’d missed the ticket on the table, along with his passport, and his bags on the floor. He picked up his passport. A young man full of love and promise looked back at him. That kid was off to Ireland to work with his lover and earn his PhD.
Aidan clenched his jaw. He took a deep breath. The mad urge to rip that photo up coursed through him. He wanted to destroy something. He could still hear them fucking in the bedroom. He should have closed the door.
He took a deep breath, trying to clear the smells of man-sex from his nose. It didn’t work. He looked around the kitchen. Tomorrow he would not stand at that stove making David his favorite omelet. Would the kid cook him breakfast? He looked at the wooden block bristling with knives next to the stove. Then jerked his gaze back to the table. He didn’t like the thoughts whispering to him from some dark place. He took another deep breath and picked up the ticket, one-way, Dublin to Tampa for tomorrow night. He glanced back at the knives.
“Fuck me harder, Dr. Stokes,” drifted from the bedroom. His bedroom.
Ten years ago he’d been the freshman in David’s bed. Twenty-four hours. He had twenty-four hours. He looked at the knives longer this time. His hands were sweaty—itchy. They wanted to grab something— to crush something. Would anyone miss them for a day? He shook his head. Fuck them. He put the ticket and his passport in the outer flap of his computer bag, picked up his duffel bag, and left his home.
Aidan stuffed his bags into the overhead bin and forced a smile at the nun. “I think I have the window seat,” he said.
She smiled and got up to let him slide in. He settled into his seat and looked out the window. Nothing but a nondescript modern airport. Men in reflective vests drove little trucks pulling luggage wagons that snaked across the expanse of concrete. A cold winter rain moving in from the North Sea softened the orange glow of sodium-vapor lights.
“Don’t worry, dear, flying is very safe.” The woman reached across the empty seat between them and patted him on his arm.
“I’m sorry. What?”
She smiled again. That was becoming annoying. “You seem a little distraught. Fear of flying?”
He really didn’t want to be rude, especially to a nun, but he wanted to be left alone. “Not particularly.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, I just wondered because you look and smell like you slept on a pub floor.”
Aha, the directness of nuns, no he’d slept on a couch in a flat above the pub.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood on the street in front of their cottage. The home they’d made together. A cold and misty rain drifted around him. A “soft night” the locals would’ve called it. He started walking and found himself in front of the Shamrock, the corner pub. He went in to get out of the cold. Patrick, the owner, took one look at him and pushed him to a table in front of the fire. There had been a bowl of stew and a bottle of whiskey. About three hours ago, Patrick had shaken him awake. He was tangled up in a blanket on a couch.
“Aidan, do you want to make that flight?”
A little squeak came from deep inside him. “I want to see my momma.”
He expected ridicule for sounding like a child. Patrick just nodded and kissed him on his forehead. “I will miss you, Aidan Quinn, but you need to be with your people. There’s a cab waiting for you. Go now.”
Aidan looked at the nun. How long had she been waiting for an answer. “Just a bad day, Sister.”
Her dark eyes held his. “Do you want to talk about it?”
A flight attendant walked down the aisle closing the hatches on the overhead bins. The click, click, click reminded Aidan of the slap, slap, slap of David screwing the kid.
“No,” he said.
He looked up at the stewardess and asked for a bottle of water. He touched his shirt pocket. Patrick had handed him a pill before he pushed him out the pub’s front door.
“Take this,” he said, “and you’ll wake up approaching the States. I’d don’t think sitting alone and brooding on a plane is what you need right now. There’s something to be said for oblivion.”
He watched Dublin slide by the cab. He wasn’t ready to say good-bye to this city. He wasn’t ready to say good-bye to Ireland. He was still working out what it meant to be an Irish-American in Ireland. Generations ago his family had left because there was nothing to eat. How would he explain his departure? He pulled out his phone. He texted his sister. “I’m coming home for Thanksgiving. Need ride from Tampa.” He included his flight information. Then shut off his phone. He needed his family, but he wasn’t ready to talk to them. Not yet.
The stewardess came back and handed him a bottle of water.
The nun said, “So you sound like you’re from the States. Are you from Tampa?”
Aidan put the pill in his mouth. He hadn’t been to church since he was twelve and really didn’t believe in God anymore, but there was the thinnest strand of guilt in popping a pill in front of a nun. He took a mouth full of water and swallowed.
“Cooter Crossing,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes and frowned. “I’ve never heard of it and what’s a cooter? Is that someone’s name?”
Aidan tried a smile again. It felt more natural this time. “Well, it’s a very small village up the Big Cypress River from Bennett Bay. A cooter’s a type of water turtle that spends most of its day basking on logs along the banks of rivers. The town’s built where the Cooter Creek runs into the Big Cypress. There was a ferry boat crossing there ages ago. The settlement grew up around that.”
She smiled. He found it somewhat less annoying. “Oh, I know Bennett Bay. My nephew teaches at Sterling University. I hope to see him this trip. I’m going to visit my brother. He lives down in Sarasota.”
“That’s nice,” Aidan said. He wondered how long till the pill brought on the promised oblivion.
She pulled a large handbag from between her feet, then started rummaging around in it. Aidan looked back out the window. How do you politely tell a nun to fuck off?
“Here, this is my nephew, Marcus.” She held a photo out to Aidan.
He took it. He didn’t expect to see two men on a beach holding each other in their arms. It was a photo of love. Men in love. He didn’t want to see it. “Which one is he?”
She beamed. “The older one.” Then she frowned. “The other one is Paul.”
He handed the photo back to her. Did he really need this now? “So you don’t like him being with a man?”
She bristled and looked him in the eye. “I may be a nun, but I’m not medieval. He’s gay. He’s supposed to be with a man. I just wish he’d chosen better. That little tramp ran off with another man and devastated him. Still not over it from what my brother says.”
“I’m sorry.” And he was. Was there a brotherhood of men who’d been jilted by other men?
Her eyes narrowed. “So do you have a boyfriend?”
He wondered if it was the alcohol he’d consumed in the terminal pub, or the pill kicking in, but he got the feeling the nun was trying to set him up with her nephew. And did he have an I’m Gay sign on him somewhere? Could nuns even have gaydar?
The stewardess started making the pre-flight announcements. He pulled the emergency procedures card from the pocket on the seat in front of him and feigned interest. He wasn’t ready to say the words, No I don’t have a boyfriend, because he still wanted to think he had a lover, a home and a career. Things started to get fuzzy. Maybe I’ll wake up and everything will be okay.
“Son, we’re going to land soon.”
Oblivion dissolved around him. Aidan opened his eyes. His face was stuck to the small airline pillow by dried drool. The nun gently shook his arm. He pealed the pillow from his face and pulled his glasses out of his shirt pocket. Everything was still blurry even with his glasses on. His head throbbed and his stomach churned. He eyed the vomit-bag in the seat pouch. The nun pushed something at him. She was holding a little plastic bottle of orange juice in one hand and a few tablets in the other.
She said, “Take these.”
Aidan was trying to wrap his mind around taking pills from a nun but his brain wouldn’t wrap around anything at the moment. Why was he on a plane with a nun? “Where am I?” he asked. The plan banked to the left. He looked out the window. Florida? Tampa Bay stretched out before him. The Gulf beaches raced below them and Saint Pete zoomed by. They were over the Bay. He saw the causeways connecting the peninsula of Pinellas county with Tampa. The plane descended. The water coming up to meet them.
“Take them, boy. It’s ibuprofen and vitamins. And you need the juice. Your blood sugar will be low. It will help with the hangover.”
He held out his hand and the nun dropped the tablets into his palm. She opened the juice bottle and held it out to him. He popped the pills in his mouth and took the bottle and drank the juice. He wasn’t sure it’d stay down. The plane jolted as it landed. He looked out the window. Bright blue sky with white puffy clouds. Palm trees. I’m not in Dublin? He looked back at the nun. He touched the empty seat between them. He asked, “Is David sitting here? Where is he?”
She reached up and touched his face. “Oh laddie. You talked in your sleep for a while. I didn’t mean to listen.”
“What… what did I say?
Her eyes moistened. She looked away from him.
Aidan swallowed. “Tell me, please.”
She looked back at him. “You found your David…” She shook her head. “I’m so sorry.”
His stomach tightened. It wasn’t nausea this time. “Tell me,” he whispered.
She sighed. “You found him… ”
“In bed with someone else.” He finished. He closed his eyes. He could smell the sex. He heard the moaning and slapping of flesh. The kid in his bed. He reached for the bag and held it to his mouth. Juice, bile and little tablets filled the plastic lined bag. Tears streamed down his face. He heard a dinging sound. He looked up. The stewardess made her way toward them.
“May I help you?” She smiled at them, then frowned when she saw Aidan with the bag. “Do you need assistance sir?”
The nun said, “Could we get two wet towels, dear?”
Aidan noticed the other passengers looking at him. He tried to ignore them by focusing on sealing the bag with the little wire tabs. He was alone now. What was he going to do?
“Here you go, Sister.” He looked up. The stewardess handed two towels to the nun. She reached out for the bag. Aidan handed it to her. She said, “Do you need anything else?”
He tried to smile. “Just my dignity back.” He knew his face was nearly as red as his hair.
She winked at him. “A lot of people get airsick. That’s why we have the bags.”
He nodded. She didn’t need to know what ailed him. The stewardess walked back to the front of the plane. They were pulling into the terminal and the passengers were getting jumpy. The nun handed him a towel.
“Now wipe your mouth.”
He did. She took it from him and handed him the other one. “Now your face and your eyes with this one.”
The warm moistness felt good on his eyes. He stuffed the towel in the seat pocket.
“Thank you, Sister. You’ve been very kind.”
She patted his hand. Then reached in her bag and pulled out a card and a pen. She lowered the tray table and started writing on the back of the card. She finished and handed it to him. “That’s my nephew’s number. I’ll tell him about you. I think sharing a pint might do you both some good, but not too many mind you.”
He looked down at the card. Marcus Murphy and a phone number. He turned it over. It was the Sister’s business card, Sister Mary Brigid Murphy.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You have someone waiting for you?”
He thought for a moment. “I think I called my sister.”
He pulled out his phone and turned it on. It started pinging. He had four voice mails and fifteen text messages. The voice messages were from his mother. His brothers and sister had texted him. One was from Patrick. Nothing from David. Pathetic, he thought. He opened the last text message from his sister. I’m on the parking garage roof. WTF?
He put the phone back in his pocket. Sister Mary Brigid reached out and took his hand again. Son, will you be okay?”
He didn’t know what to say. What did a nun know of heartbreak and regret? “I guess so. I mean break-ups happen all the time, right? Just a third of my life thrown away and my future screwed. Yeah… no job, no home. I’ll be okay. They say time heals right?” He bit down on the anger welling up. She’d been nothing but kind to him. He didn’t need to dump on her.
She nodded. “It’s going to be raw for a while. You need to find healthy ways to let it out. Rage can be good for the soul, just be careful how you express it.”
The plane came to a halt and the passengers jumped into the aisle and started emptying the overhead bins. He nodded at her. “Thank you, Sister. You’ve been very kind.”
She gave his had a little squeeze. “I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.”
He wanted to say, Don’t bother. Instead he said, “Thank you.”