The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 10
“How’s it feel being twelve,” I asked as Gabe and I walked from the Durango LaPlata County airfield to the parking lot where the RV was parked.
“About the same as yesterday when I was eleven,” Gabe said, carrying our travel bag over his shoulder.
I twirled the RV key fob on my finger, “There are plenty of restaurants in Durango. Let’s celebrate.”
We reached the RV, and the door swung open with the press of a button on the fob. Gabe stopped on the first step, “I guess we can go out to eat. But, Syd, I don’t feel like celebrating. Not yet.”
I watched him climb the other steps and followed. I had the Cummins diesel running a moment later, cooling the RV’s cockpit. “There’s an old timey train that runs from here to Silverton. Maybe when you’re ready, we can come back and celebrate by riding the train. It’s supposed to be a lot of fun.”
Gabe gave me a wan smile, “That’d be fun. Maybe soon.”
Because it was his birthday, we picked up to-go from McDonalds and drove to a nearby RV park for the night. Despite his melancholy, Gabe helped connect the water and sewer lines while I put the slide-outs out. Thank God for microwaves, otherwise we’d have eaten cold Micky Ds.
I settled into the bench across from Gabe, who was drowning a french fry in ketchup. “How’s it taste?”
He held the mangled strip of fried potato up, “Dunno. I’ll tell you in a sec.”
With that, he plopped it in his mouth. I unwrapped my burger and took a bite. Somewhere in between bites, I said, “I can’t really put myself in your shoes, Gabe, to know how you’re feeling. But I’m here for you when you want to talk.”
He shrugged, “You know the score. I’ll get over it.”
Gabe fell silent for a bit; Even though I was still learning some of his mannerisms, I could see he was working through a lot of things. “Syd, are there any other relatives of you and mom?”
I never knew my dad. He was splitsville before I was born. When I was growing up, Abby didn’t talk about him much, and Mom, not at all. Mom was an only child. I shook my head, “Not that I know of. It’s just you and me.”
He crumped up his fry box and shoved it in the bag, “I knew a kid in school. His parents died. They put him in foster care. How do you know that won’t happen to me?”
I hadn’t given that much thought. I had power-of-attorney over him, and Abby named me guardian in her will. I took the bag of trash and slid from the bench seat and threw our trash into a trash bag under the sink. “They had a chance when we were in Bakersfield. I’d think that someone would have to report you to social services.”
“What about school?”
I sat on the sofa, and patted the spot next to me, “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve done a bit of research about online schools. There are some private schools into which we could enroll you in the fall; everything is done online. Your school will get the request for records and they’ll figure out your where you’re supposed to be, send the records to the new school, and you will start the seventh grade in a couple of months from the comfort of the RV.”
He collapsed on the seat next to me, “You promise you won’t abandon me?”
The vehemence in his voice caught me by surprise, “Fuck yeah. You’re more than just my nephew, Gabe. You’re my best friend in the whole fucking world. I’ll fight like hell to keep you with me.”
Then I smirked and gave him a snide smile, “Plus, they’d have to find us and we can go anywhere we want. Our house is on wheels.”
It felt good to hear him laugh. He offered a grin, “So, you weren’t just being silly last week, about being friends?”
I snaked an arm around his shoulders, “No way. If you haven’t figured out, as aunts go, I’m fucked up. If you need a lot of parenting, we’re both going to be in deep shit. But I can be the best friend in the world. Probably be a huge fucking bad influence on you. Let you read all my smutty stories, be the woman you need me to be for you, let you fool around with me, that kind of friend and so much more.”
He rested his head against my shoulder, “No matter what, you’ll let me stay until I finish high school?”
I squeezed his shoulders into a hug, “Absolutely. But even then, this will always be home for you. Got it?”
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, “Yeah. So, you’re really gonna make me go to school in the fall?”
“Yep. You need to learn more about writing, math, history, all that stuff.”
He gave me a skeptical eye, “Really? Like I’m going to have to know algebra to be a writer?”
I laughed, “You’d be surprised by the things I’ve learned that I’ve worked into my stories, Gabe.”
He gave a mock huff, “Fine. That means we’ve got two months for you to teach me more writing and for me to finish my book. What about you? You decide what you’re going to write next?”
That was something else weighing on me. The only thing I had ready to go was Give the Devil His Due. But if Bess was right, releasing it under my pen name could blow up. Given what Gabe and I had already shared, there wasn’t any point in not telling him about it, “I have a book that makes most of my books feel like sweet romance for high schoolers. It’s called Give the Devil His Due.”
Gabe perked up at the name, “Cool name. What’s it about?”
I smirked, “Sex, power, and more sex.”
He returned the smirk, “I thought you said it was different.”
Jokingly, I smacked his arm, “Smart ass. It’s about a billionaire-“
Gabe poked me with his elbow, “You said it was going to be different? I’m waiting.”
I gave a theatrical sigh, “Fine, I’ll let you read it. But don’t let me find you in the bathroom rubbing one out to it.”
His eyes grew wide. Three weeks ago, he didn’t even know how to masturbate. Now, at least, he understood. “I wouldn’t do…”
His voice faded as his cheeks turned red. He had retreated since the morning we learned of Abby’s death. I longed to pick things up where we left off. But so far, he’d shown no interest, and I was beginning to wonder if he regretted our brief time together. I pushed that aside and leaned over and kissed his cheek before getting to my feet, “I’ll fetch it. You can read it if you want. I need to catch up on some work.”
Amazon pays me commissions every month. About half the money comes from e-book sales. The other half comes from page-reads from Kindle Unlimited. Thrown in the mix are some paperback sales. But those never amounted to more than a couple of hundred copies a month. The money hits my business account around the end of the month. I pay an accountant to do my books, pay my estimated taxes, and the like. But that doesn’t mean I get to ignore it. While Gabe sat quietly on the couch, flipping the pages of the manuscript every few minutes, I reviewed this month’s sales report. Even though we were at the tail-end of June, the data was from April sales.
At first glance, the numbers were impressive. Between e-books and Kindle Unlimited, my fifty-four books, at that time, sold just under eleven thousand copies. And that translated to around twenty-six thousand dollars. Not bad for a twenty-four-year-old, you’d think.
I found March’s report and opened the spreadsheet. Fifty-three books on the sold report that month. And a bit more than twelve thousand books. That was my problem. Over the past year, even though I’ve released ten books over the past twelve months, my sales were going south.
Too much competition diluted the market. There were content mills churning out a book a week, paying ghost writers to churn out fifty-, sixty-thousand-word romance novels. They were formulaic, write-by-the-numbers fluff pieces. And my target audience voraciously read them. But more titles were chasing the same number of readers and with Gabe living with me, I wasn’t sure I could maintain my publishing schedule of ten books a year.
Thinking of the boy, I glanced over at him. He lay on the couch with the manuscript propped on his chest, his head inclined, reading. Absentmindedly, he reached down and adjusted himself. The board shorts were ugly things, and despite the way they bunched up at his crotch, I could see by the tent in his shorts, he enjoyed the story. The sight of the distended material was a pleasurable distraction. I didn’t know if he’d ever want to pick up where things left off the previous week. But at least I could enjoy a furtive glance now and then at his budding sexuality.
Hoping he hadn’t seen me, I cut my eyes away. I closed down the sales reports and opened up the most recent account statement from my accountant. The first page was a standard balance sheet. On one side, it showed the debits. On the other, the credits. Despite the fall-off in sales, the credits outweighed the debits by a wide margin. The biggest expenses were marketing campaigns. Just below that line item was another sizable expense. My virtual assistant ran my marketing campaigns. And she didn’t come cheap, at twenty-five dollars an hour. The RV was even on there as an expense. I owned the motorcoach outright, paying cash for it over a year ago, when I traded up from a used Winnebago. Even so, there are plenty of expenses. The diesel engine was a gas guzzler, netting me six or seven miles to the gallon. It had to be serviced regularly to keep it in tip-top shape and those service calls weren’t cheap.
Before long, the shadows were getting longer. The clock in the laptop’s task bar showed most of the day was gone. I closed the laptop. Gabe turned another page as I said, “You haven’t said much.”
His cheeks flushed, “It’s really great, Syd. I don’t know why your agent said it wasn’t.”
I felt my own face grow warm as I thought about the many sexually explicit scenes in the book, “She didn’t say it wasn’t good, just that it was too controversial.”
An embarrassed smile creased Gabe’s face, “Oh. Um, yeah. Th-, they were good. Why not publish it yourself?”
I bit my lower lip, thinking of all the bad things that could happen if I were to ignore Bess. “You can tell a difference between this one and the others?”
The same flush–Gabe nodded, “Yeah, the, um, sex is hotter. And the girls are younger. The main girl the billionaire likes, he kidnaps her and, um, talks her into doing stuff and she’s only a few years older than me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “My agent thinks it’s too much like a story that just broke a few weeks ago about a guy named Jeffrey Epstein. And, yeah, I was kind of thinking about him when I created this billionaire, just figured he was above the law with too many powerful friends to protect him.”
Gabe shrugged, “Whatever. I think it’s fun. You’re always going on about books need to be in a series to be successful. I’m not finished yet, but it seems like the billionaire is going to win by the end of the book.”
My mind went through dozen different scenarios for a series. “No spoilers, young man.”
Gabe stuck his tongue at me. I grinned and flipped him off, making him laugh. “You’re a mean girlfr–” his voice caught in his throat before he looked down at the pages, and continued, “friend. I’ll read to the end.”
My stomach grumbled. I didn’t feel like fixing anything and the RV park was close enough to town, I figured we could get pizza delivered. When he heard me on the phone, Gabe’s voice reverberated through the RV, “No veggies! We’re not herbivores.”
When the pizza guy, who happened to be a pizza gal, showed up, Gabe finally closed the manuscript and grabbed some paper plates from the kitchen cabinets. As we ate, he said, “I really like Holly.”
Holly is the focal point of Give the Devil His Due. She’s the kind of high school girl I wished I’d been when I was fifteen or sixteen. Gabe added, “She reminds me of you.”
I shook my head as I wiped a stray string of cheese from my mouth, “How’s that?”
The crimson returned, and he focused on devouring the rest of his first slice. When he reached for a second, I swatted his hand, “Come on, Gabe. How does she remind you of me?”
He glanced down at the pizza box, “Well, um, she’s really pretty and outgoing, like you.”
I wasn’t sure I saw the connection, but it wasn’t lost on me how Gabe saw me. I wondered if that was all, “Thanks, Gabe. I think. Anything else about her?”
Gabe’s ears and neck grew red when he became really embarrassed; like now. “Um, her boobs, they reminded me of yours.”
My eyebrows were arched, my eyes round, “Really?”
His voice was almost too low. “Y-, yeah. You described her boobs as perky and, um, petite.”
Damned if he wasn’t right. Without realizing I’d done it, Holly was me physically. “You think I’m pretty?”
More of that gorgeous flush. He wouldn’t look at me as he nodded, “Duh.”
“Boys,” I muttered.
The day had been long. And even though it wasn’t my normal bedtime, I said, “I’m going to bed. You going to be okay?”
He nodded, returning his gaze to me, “Yeah, Syd. I’m going to read your book for a bit longer.”
I gave him a big grin, “Enjoy. But no beating off in the bathroom to my smut. Got it?”
He giggled; the crimson reached his collarbone, “Got it.”
The past few nights had been rough on us. Gabe’s mood about his mom had been worse when it had been just the two of us in the hotel room. I said, “Don’t feel like you have to sleep up here, sweetie. There’s plenty of room in my bed.”
He grabbed the manuscript from next to where he sat on the couch, and fiddled with the pages for a moment, “If I do, um, you won’t want me to pretend to be one of the billionaires in your stories, will you?”
Funny how he conceptualized our sex play. I desired him. Even while we’d been eating pizza, at least on a subconscious level, some part of me still wanted him to dominate me, to take me and make me his. But his desires mattered as much as mine, maybe even more; after all, he was the minor and I, the adult, who should know better. “No, sweetie. If you’re feeling anything like me, you might not like sleeping alone right now. About the billionaire stuff, we don’t have to do that again if you don’t want.”
He cracked open the manuscript as his lips curled at the corners, “It’s not like that. It’s just Mom’s death still has me out of sorts. I gotta lot to work out, ‘kay?”
Never have I wanted to hug and hold him more than that moment. But I used what little self-control I possessed and turned and retired to the bedroom.
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