An invasion, plain and simple, and not pod people this time. Over the last few days, Joey had watched the reporters come and go, not for him this time -- for Jackie. Apparently, the wages of her stomach condition were fifteen minutes of fame. Rumors swirled the gossip rags that an embarrassed Riker had met with an attorney, who'd only laughed at his proposed lawsuit. No charges could be filed that wouldn't cause Riker to look even more like an ass. Furthermore, after Joey's visit with Troy's attorney, a check arrived from Riker's managers, in the exact amount stolen from Joey's accounts.
Joey watched yet another eighteen-wheeler pass in front of the shop, vibrating the huge glass picture window as it brought in more equipment. My, how the little town was changing. A sleek silver Corvette pulled up a moment later, just in time to ease Joey's worries. Dashing out the door, he ran to the car and opened the driver's door. "What kept you?" he asked, huge grin threatening to split his face.
"My navigator," Roxanne rolled her eyes at her passenger, "can't operate a GPS. Now it only speaks Japanese."
"Hey! It's not my fault George bought you substandard equipment," Marquez cried from within the confines of the car.
Roxanne held up her hand, cutting him off. "Please, don't utter that name in my presence."
Those words brought back Joey's worry. "You were kinda vague on the phone. What did he do?" Lowering his voice, he whispered, "He didn't hurt you, did he?" He'd feel awful beating up an old man, but would if he had to.
"Worse." Roxanne snorted. "He dumped his wife and then expected me to marry him. As if!"
Joey turned questioning eyes to Kez, whose pain-filled gaze darted away. "I'm not ready to talk about it, right now. Maybe soon, just not now."
"That's okay," Joey replied, fully understanding what getting your heart shredded felt like. "You don't have to if you don't want to."
He rounded the car and opened the passenger door. "Thanks, man." Kez held up a fist, bumping it with Joey's before stepping from the car and wrapping his friend in a hug.
"Hey! Don't leave me out!" Roxanne yelled, rounding the shiny sports car to join in. "If two hot dudes are getting all physical, I want in on the action!"
After a group hug that probably scandalized the town, as it involved a black man, an openly gay one, and a skinny white woman wearing a dress that didn't quite cover her to local modest standards, Joey helped unpack the car and haul luggage up the stairs behind the garage. "It ain't much," he warned, "and I'd advise candles. Lots of candles. And incense."
"That's okay," Kez murmured, "I'm just grateful for a place to stay… and a job! Tell your mom thanks, okay?"
"It was Mom and my friend Erica's idea. They rented the vacant shop next to Mom's and had it fixed up a bit. With all the spoiled California types hangin' 'round, a massager…"
"Massage therapist," Kez corrected.
"…a massage therapist just seemed like a good idea. They were right. You're booked solid for the next month." Turning his attention to Roxanne as they struggled together to get the last suitcase out of the tiny car, Joey asked, "What 'bout you? Any plans?"
A late model Mercedes cruised by, something unheard of in this town a few months ago. Now there were daily sightings, and Cousin Sonny had branched out into car detailing behind Big Joe's Garage. The car slowed to a crawl and Roxanne lowered her sunglasses, taking a good long look at the driver, who was enjoying the pink-clad scenery himself. "Oh, I'm sure something will come up," she replied.
That night after Joey packed his tools away and the shop closed for the night, he hopped into his classic truck, affectionately name Old Bertha, for the ride home. He smiled when a rather ordinary S-10 pulled up in front of the garage, a beaming Jackie climbing in while Big Joe scowled, pantomiming loading a gun after pointing to his watch, his signal for "Don't keep her out too late -- or else." For an actor, Keith seemed to be an okay guy, especially for a city boy from California. And if he wasn't, well, this was a rural area, and the Nichols an extensive family. The body might never be found.
Caught up in the euphoria of friends, a favorite song, and favorite ride, Joey'd driven halfway to his parents' house before realizing he'd missed a turn.
Shaking his head at his own absent-mindedness, he turned the truck around and headed down the literal road less traveled. Memories flooded through him of the numerous times he'd ridden this expanse of road on a bicycle, and later, a motorcycle, in his younger years. The houses there were old and stately, lasting reminders of when the town had been prosperous. Most stood deserted now, owners moving elsewhere to seek a living now that the mills no longer provided a local income. An off-the-road two-story dwelling showed signs of life, a bright blue, "Sold" sign sitting out front. The workers involved in renovating the structure were packing up for the day.
Joey pulled Old Bertha into the garage, parking between a Jaguar and a Toyota, and couldn't hold back cheerful whistling. Erica met him at the door, purse in hand. Her familiar perfume hung in the air.
"I was just on my way out," she said. "He's in his office. Don't let him forget to eat."
"I won't. Thanks, Erica."
"Don't mention it." She pulled him into a hug. "I may be a bit late, so don't wait up." While happy for Erica, he didn't envy the stunt double she was seeing. That woman took the phrase "quite a handful" to new heights. But if your day job included wrecking cars and falling from buildings, she might appear tame in comparison.
After Erica left, Joey picked his way through sawhorses and paint buckets to Troy's office. He leaned into the doorway, watching. Troy's fingers struck the keyboard of the familiar silver laptop lightning fast, brow scrunched in concentration. Joey took a step forward, then another. He was standing behind Troy before his lover noticed him. Without looking up, or slowing down, Troy asked, "How was your day?"
"I finished another chapter." Abruptly the chair spun around and Joey was pulled down onto Troy's lap. His normally subdued lover delivered a bruising kiss. "Erica left you a present," he said when they finally parted. "Seems she's decided to graduate from articles about the best dish detergents to fight grease, and move into something a little more… controversial."
Although the unexpected display of affection was present enough, he eagerly unwrapped the small flattish package Troy handed him. "The Score," he read aloud, "By Eric David."
Troy seemed to be fighting a smile. "Read the inscription," he urged.
Opening to the first page, Joey recited, "To Troy and Joey, or should I say, Allen and James."
Still puzzled, and with only a, "Read the marked passages," from Troy, he opened to the first bookmark.
After each passage had been read, he looked at his lover, who wore a bit more smile with each bookmark. Finally, Troy instructed, "Read the last page."
The last page held only one sentence. "And they all lived happily ever after."
Setting the book aside, he took Troy by the hand, quietly leading him through the maze the workmen had left, up the stairs to the room at the top.
In their re-creation of Troy's bedroom from the farmhouse in South Carolina, they settled a few scores of their own.