The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 6

It was a blessing and a curse; I decided as I tore my eyes away from the window over the dining table. I could lose myself, looking at the distant mountains. And the problem was, I had a deadline, even if it was self-imposed.

Focus, I told myself, as I returned to the red and yellow highlights from my editor. Time passes as I reviewed the suggested changes and I lost myself, accepting or rejecting each recommendation with practiced speed. My focus was laser-like, I barely felt Gabe’s feet against my hip as he sat at one end of the sofa, with his legs stretched toward me, his laptop on his upper legs.

Over the past week, we had settled into a routine of writing during the morning. For me, writing and editing are part and parcel of the same creative process. Even though I ferociously edited my work, I still needed a skilled set of eyes to review and correct my work, which was why I sat on the sofa, going through the edits one last time. Gabe was blossoming as a writer. Already he was incorporating some tricks I’d passed on to him into his story. And just like me, he thought nothing of losing himself into his creative process for hours at a time.

We were more comfortable around each other too, after more than a week at the RV camp outside of Mesa Verde. I finished the final edit and hit the save button. I glanced over at him. He was wearing a pair of white shorts. Unlike the board shorts he seemed to favor, these were shorter, ending a few inches above his knees. When hanging around the RV, that was his preferred outfit. He was still in that state of childhood before puberty when boys often lack self-awareness of their bodies.

But that didn’t extend to me. This morning, I awoke to him traipsing through my bedroom in nothing but his underwear, on his way to take a shower. I could hear the shower running as I finally talked myself into getting up, too. As was my habit, I needed a cup of coffee to start my day, so I got moving and brewed a cup in my Keurig before returning to my bed to enjoy the rich, nutty flavor of my favorite blend. For as long as I’ve had the RV, this was a favorite tradition, drinking coffee in bed in whatever I’d slept in. This morning that meant a pair of mauve panties and a purple cami with spaghetti straps. It was my favorite cami, loose fitting, and cropped to end a few inches above my belly button.

Two sips into my coffee, the pocket door slid open. I glanced toward Gabe. Like the couple of other times he took a shower, he wore nothing. Freed from the strict confines Abby placed on him, Gabe found something liberating in going from the shower to the drawers naked. This time, though, he seemed to freeze in place as we stared at each other.

A few heartbeats passed before his instincts kicked in and his hands flew over his genitals. He went around the end of the bed to his drawers and covered his nakedness.

Even then, his eyes kept darting toward me. Finally, I said, “Yes, Gabe?”

He looked away, blushing, “I-, um, I thought you’d be asleep.”

I slept under a bedspread. I felt a bit of heat in my cheeks then. “You thought I’d still be asleep?”

He nodded.

I took another sip of coffee, “Sorry to disappoint you, Gabe.”

The way the crimson flushed through his face, along his ears and down his neck was something that drew me in. He cut another look at me, “That’s not it, Aunt Sydney. It’s… you’re…”

He faltered, but he didn’t look away. I wasn’t certain what was going through his mind, but knowing my sister, I offered, “You’ve never seen a woman in her underwear until this week?”

He bobbed his head.

The warmth in my face traveled through my body as I thought about what it meant to him to see a woman in just her underwear. Gabe was going on twelve. And even though puberty hadn’t laid its cruel mark on him yet, what boy wasn’t curious about women at his age?

I doubt I was going to win best sister award with Abby. I said, “Well, by the end of the summer, you’ll probably have seen me in my underwear so much, you’ll be telling me to cover myself up.”

His flush deepened, and he deadpanned, “Yeah, right.”

I felt some heat in my body as I blinked away the memory. I looked at the story on the screen. It was as complete as it would ever get, so I closed the file. Even though I have done it more than fifty times before, there was something heady about uploading a new story to the Kindle store.

“Hey, Gabe, my latest novel is ready for me to publish to Kindle. You want to see how it’s done?”

The boy looked up from his screen, “Really? Cool”

He closed his laptop and slid over, leaning against me. My arm tingled where we touched. Ignoring it, I said, “I’m on the Kindle Direct Publishing screen. All these files are my existing books.”

He pointed to the top of the screen, “Is that where you’ll add the new one?”

My cursor slid over the space and I clicked on it, taking me to another screen, “Yep. Each book has a bunch of metadata that I use so that people who are searching for romance books will see my books.”

Gabe glanced at me, “What’s metadata?”

I kept filling in the blanks, “It’s just a fancy way to say data about data. For instance, because the billionaire is a bit of a pirate, I’ll actually assign the word pirate to the metadata.”

“Why? Isn’t he like a Wall Street guy?”

I cocked an eyebrow at him, “And those guys aren’t a bunch of pirates.”

He chuckled, “Okay. I guess so.”

After more typing, I said, “Okay, so I’ve told the web portal that this is the fifth book in this series, that way people can see it’s not a stand-alone book. I’ve also assigned the appropriate genres for the book as well as the metadata terms. Next, we’re going to upload the file.”

I searched my laptop’s directory and clicked to start the upload. While the hourglass spun in the middle of the screen, I said, “Depending on the size of the book, it can take either a couple of minutes or a lot longer. My books tend to be fifty, sixty, maybe seventy thousand words. My readers love short books with lots of steamy action.”

Gabe giggled, “Sexy stuff, you mean.”

I shrugged, “Middle-aged women love this stuff. It sells.”

Gabe giggled some more. The spinning hourglass went away. I pointed to the screen, “Sometimes, when there are formatting issues, there will be alerts here. Luckily, I’ve done this a few times, so we’re ready for the next page, where it’s time to upload the book’s cover.”

The website took a while longer to upload the image file and when it did, it was displayed in all its sensuous glory. The billionaire’s placement covered up the heroine’s naked body. There was a game we writers played with Amazon’s censors, to see just how much skin we could get away with. This was probably as close to the edge as I could get away with. I didn’t want to pay my artist to redesign the cover; that was expensive.

Still leaning against me, Gabe said, “That’s sexy. You can’t tell if they’re doing stuff, but they’re definitely about to.”

I reached over and pinched his side, “Stuff?”

More giggles, “You can’t tell if they’re having sex.”

It was my turn to laugh. While I wanted Abby to make a full recovery, she wouldn’t get back the same shy, clueless boy she gave me. “Right. Now that we’ve uploaded the book and the cover art, we’re ready to download a proof of the book.”

Every step seemed to take forever. It probably wasn’t helped by the less than perfect speed of the camp’s Wi-Fi network. While I waited, I became more aware of Gabe’s body leaning against mine. His auburn hair smells of strawberries. Just like mine. With a couple of minutes left to wait, I reached around with my right arm and drew him against my side. “You smell like strawberries, Gabe. Next time we hit a grocery store, you want me to buy you a different shampoo?”

Even though I wore a halter top, the material was thin and I could feel the heat from the skin over his ribs. He leaned his head against my shoulder, “If you want. But I kinda like it. It smells like you.”

My heart raced at the thought he enjoyed my smell. In that moment, while we waited for the download, it was easy to forget Gabe was my still-eleven-year-old nephew. It wasn’t like having a little kid leaning against you. No, when he leaned against me, his size matched my own. Without thinking too much, I pulled his shoulder, bringing him into a half-hug, “That’s sweet of you, Gabe.”

It was only when he absentmindedly adjusted his shorts that I realized I wasn’t the only one who might be enjoying this closeness more than I should. Thankfully, before I could figure out what to do about this closeness, the screen refreshed and the proof was ready.

We spent the next thirty minutes going through the proof. I pointed out to him the format for the copyright material at the front of the book. I also showed him how the first page of each chapter differed from the rest of the pages because readers expected a break in the formatting. After finishing the review, I felt pleased with the book’s formatting, “I think it’s ready, Gabe. Now the fun part. It’s time to hit the publish button”

I navigated back to the first page, where all the previous books were listed. Now the new book looked like all the others, save for the publish button on the right-hand side. I moved the laptop between us, “Go ahead, and klick on the publish button, sweetie, and book number fifty-six will go live.”

A grin split his face, “Really?”

I nodded. He reached over and put his hand on the tracker pad and pressed it. A moment later, the screen refreshed and the publish button disappeared and the book was finished. The elation I felt was better than sex. A thrill shot through me, like a dopamine rush, and I reached both arms around Gabe and hugged him tight. “I live for moments like this.”

Then, buoyed by the emotional high, I kissed him on the cheek again. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a warning bell went off. The thunder in my heart, the furious fluttering in my stomach, the warmth washing over me. At some primordial level, I needed this.

A thrill shot through me when Gabe reached around my back with his left arm and around my front with his right, and hugged me back. I lost myself for a moment in the embrace. He was Blackbeard, holding me close. Were it not for the laptop between us, I would have melted into his hug.

I followed suit when he released me from the hug. The familiar crimson in his cheeks let me hear the warning bell going off in my mind’s furthest recesses. I took the laptop and sat up, “Sorry, sweetie, I get emotional when I release a new book.”

A smile that reached his golden-brown eyes crossed Gabe’s scarlet features, “It’s okay. I like your hugs. Maybe when I finish a real book, you can hit the publish button and I can give you lots of hugs too.”

I powered down the computer. Those warnings in the back of my mind questioned my motives for hugging Gabe the way I had. Was I a bad influence on him? In the ten days since picking him up from Abby, I’d introduced him to smutty bodice rippers and conditioned him to coming out of the shower nude. None of those were behaviors Abby would have wanted.

I felt bad as we prepared sandwiches for lunch. Abby was fighting for her life and I was corrupting her little angel. Gabe joined me in the kitchen, fetching a tomato from the fridge. When he stood beside me, slicing the tomato, he stood even with me. And it was easy to forget we were related, and I was supposed to be the adult.

We ate lunch on the lounge chairs and after he finished, Gabe said, “It’s been a couple of days since Mom called. Do you think she’d mind if we called her?”

I took the paper plate from him and handed him my cellphone, “No, I’m sure she’d love to hear your voice.”

He had the phone on speaker as it dialed. After a few rings, I heard a click followed by my sister’s sleepy voice, “Hello?”

Gabe practically squealed, “Mom!”

“Hi baby. You sound good. Is your Aunt Sydney taking care of you?”

“Yeah. She’s helping me to be a better writer, like her.”

I came back and sat next to Gabe on his lounge chair. Abby chuckled, “God help us all. Another romance writer in the family.”

Gabe giggled, “No way. I’m still writing about the guy who’s gonna slay the dragon.”

“That’s good sweetie. You minding your aunt and staying out of her way?”

Gabe gave me a furtive grin, “It’s an RV, Mom. There’s not a lot of space to stay out of Aunt Sydney’s way. But she hasn’t threatened to kill me more than once a day.”

I smacked his bare arm, “Lies, Sis. Gabe’s a pleasure to have around. You’ve raised a very nice young man.”

Gabe’s grin grew wider at the mention of him being a young man. Abby said, “That’s nice of you to say, Syd. It’s hard to remember he’s not a little kid anymore.”

Gabe gave a mock glare at the phone, “It’s not my fault I grew so fast over the past year.” Then, seeking to change the subject, he said, “Aunt Sydney just published another book, Mom. I even helped her by pushing the publish button on the website. It was cool!”

All the steps that went into publishing didn’t strike me as “cool.” It was hard work, but also rewarding.

Despite the exhaustion I heard in Abby’s voice, there was also humor, “Oh, heavens. Syd, did you cover my impressionable son’s eyes? I’ve seen the covers you put on your books. You show him stuff like that and he’ll go blind.”

I grinned at my sister’s ribald banter. I think the comment flew over Gabe’s head; I wasn’t eager to explain old wives’ tales about why a boy might go blind after reading women’s soft-core porn. She seemed mellower than I remember. Maybe when facing one’s mortality, priorities change. “I don’t think he’s at any risk of that, sis. How goes the treatments?”

There was a sigh, “Well enough. I’m tired all the time. The chemo has me throwing up a lot and I’m definitely going to take you up on that offer to get a wig when I’m done with this.”

I let Gabe and Abby talk for a bit. Eventually, she said, “Gabe, can you hand the phone to your aunt? I’d like to visit with her before I fall asleep.”

I took the phone off speaker and went around the front of the RV, “What’s on your mind, sis?”

She said, “The cancer is farther along than I expected, Syd.”

For the past ten days, I’d been expecting this. Maybe that’s why it didn’t hit me harder. “You know you can’t keep this from Gabe. He’s not a little boy anymore, Abby.”

Another painful sigh, “You’re right, Syd. It’s just not easy to see how he’s growing up. You’ve got a better handle on it than I ever did. And you’re just his aunt.”

Guilt washed over me. She had no idea how I was losing the battle to treat him like a little boy instead of the man he would eventually become. I could never admit to the confounding feelings he stirred inside me, but I still tried to speak truthfully, “He’s almost a teenager, sis. I try to treat him a like a friend and you know what? Most of the time, he acts like one.”

Her laughter was like tearing brittle paper, “The corrupting influence of my bad-girl sister, the soft-core porn writer.” She broke into a coughing fit. Her breath was ragged when she continued, “Seriously, I know I sheltered Gabe; treated him like a little kid, even when I should have trusted him with more. One thing’s for sure, you won’t repeat my mistakes.”

“Hey now, Abby,” I said more sharply than I intended, “you’re going to beat cancer and by the time school starts up in the fall, Gabe will be back home with you.”

I never put more passion into words I believed less. More raspy laughter greeted me, “That’s sweet, Sis. And God knows, I wish it were true. Maybe you’ll have better luck treating him like a friend than a parent. But I still feel so guilty abandoning him.”

My eyes stung as I blinked away a tear, “Don’t, Abby. If anyone can beat this, you can.” I choked back a sob, before continuing, “If not, Gabe will always have a place with me, I promise.”

She told me she would call me in a few days and then she hung up. As I brushed away a tear, a familiar voice said, “She’s dying.”

Gabe stood by the door of the RV, staring at me. It wasn’t in me to hide the truth from Gabe. He deserved better than that. I shrugged, “I really hope not, sweetie. But it doesn’t look good for your mom.”

He came over next to me and leaned against the chrome on the front of the motorcoach, “I knew she was ill, even before she called you. After watching Grandma get sick last year, I worried the same thing was happening to Mom.”

I wanted to comfort Gabe; to tell him it was going to be okay. The problem was, his mom, my sister, was dying. Finally, I slid my arm around his shoulders and pulled him against my side. He leaned his head on my shoulder. I finally managed to say, “I hope she tells you herself, Gabe. But this is incredibly hard for your mom. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”

He heaved the saddest sigh I’ve ever heard from him, “I know. Did you really mean what you said about treating me like a friend instead of a little kid? That wasn’t something you were just telling Mom because the two of you are so different?”

I hugged him to my side, “Hell no. I’m an absolutely shitty aunt, if you haven’t already figured that out. Going around, flashing you in my panties and letting you go about naked. No self-respecting aunt would do that. But a friend who loves you more than anything else in the world… she might.”

Gabe shocked me in that moment, he turned his head and kissed me on the cheek, “I love you too, Aunt Sydney. I’m glad you’re my friend too.”

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