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The Birches

By Xavier Axelson

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.

Copyright 2017 Xavier Axelson

ISBN 9781634864343

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.

WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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To “E,” the one I cook for, share meals with and enjoy many decadent pleasures.

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The Birches

By Xavier Axelson

Chapter 1

“You wanna grab some lunch after class?”

Leo wasn’t listening, so when his friend Ollie hit him on the shoulder, nearly sending the huge bowl of meringues he had been carefully—if not obsessively—whipping into stiff peaks off the counter, he spun on his friend with such a look of rage that Ollie stepped back.

“You need to chill the fuck out,” Ollie said as he continued packing up his utensils.

Leo didn’t respond. He continued whipping the meringues, feeling his pulse pound and his wrist ache; his fingers were wrapped so tightly around the whisk that when he released it, he felt sharp pins corrupt his already broken concentration.

“That’s enough for tonight, gentleman,” their instructor, Chef Hueller, said. “Leo, maybe tomorrow you’ll make the perfect meringues,” Hueller said as he took the bowl from Leo and looked into it. “Then again, I have already told you that your meringues were fine. You are obsessive, if not psychotic.” Hueller walked over to the large sink behind them, dropped the bowl in it and said, “Go home, drink and get laid.”

Leo saw Ollie stifle a laugh.

“Fuck off,” Leo said as he grabbed his knives and left.

Ollie called out to him, but Leo didn’t stop walking to his 1969 Triumph motorcycle. Why he still rode the vintage bike, he had no idea. He needed a car, something more respectable that he could carry a cake home in.

“Leo!” Ollie called out, “Come on, dude, wait!”

Leo flipped Ollie off and sped out of the parking lot of Le Deux Divine Cooking Academy. It wasn’t until he was downtown that he felt his anger begin to subside. By the time he turned down his street, he felt noticeably better, despite the throbbing headache directly above his eyes. He slowed down to pull into his driveway, where his father greeted him.

“How was your day?” Leo’s father called from inside the garage.

Leo still lived with his father, a retired electrician who did his best to support his son’s artistic endeavors. “You want a beer? You look like you could use one.”

Leo got off his bike and then went to the huge storage refrigerator they had positioned in the back of the two-car garage, grabbed a beer, then slammed the door.

“Fucking meringues,” he said, taking the bottle opener his father offered and opened the beer so hard the cap went flying in the air.

“What are meringues?” Leo’s father asked before letting out a loud belch and then waving at the widow who lived across the street. The woman always seemed to be watering her lawn at the exact time his father found his way to the garage for his evening beer and paper.

“Don’t worry about it,” Leo said sharply before going over to the 1976 cherry red Stingray Corvette his father had been working on for him and leaned on it. His eyes followed his father’s across the street.

“Jesus, Dad, why don’t you invite her over?”

“Huh?” his father asked, tearing his eyes away from the woman long enough to look at his son. “Got a lot done on the car today, another month and you’ll be pulling outta the driveway in it.”

“Yeah?” Leo said as his left hand fall against the car, the cold metal reminding him again of his deflated meringues.

“Did you say something about pussy?” his father asked as if suddenly remembering something funny, his eyes twinkling. “Ever since your mom passed you just talk like you’re the king of the truck stops. I don’t think you ever swore when Mom was here.”

“Yeah, well, shit’s changed.” Leo made as if he was going to walk away, but felt his father’s eyes on him.

“You are so angry. You never used to be angry. You really that pissed about those meringues?”

“Dad, don’t.” Leo ignored his father’s glare, and grabbed two more beers and another folding chair, which he placed next to his dad.

“You mad at Widow Winslow over there?” his dad teased, nudging Leo jokingly, “or you mad that you’re still at home with your old man?”

“All of it,” Leo said before taking a drink. “And none of it.”

“Then what is your problem?” his father asked. “You got into that fancy cooking school, you’re on your way. I know you’re talented at this cooking shit, hell you practice morning, noon and night. Your mom was sure proud of you. She used to talk all the time about you becoming a famous chef. I wish she could see you now.” His father’s voice fell away and Leo could see a sadness begin to creep over his hardened face.

“I’m fine, Dad; just frustrated, fucking frustrated as hell. I want to be the best, you know. Like top notch, no-one-can-touch-me perfect.” Leo heard the last word cut the air and looked away, surprised at his own fervor.

“There is no perfect, son, let me clear that one thing up for you right here and now; no perfect, but there is your best and from what I see and from what I taste, you are definitely giving it your all, which makes you the best as far as I can tell.”

Leo laughed. “Yeah, well, I don’t know who else thinks that way about it.”

“Your mom would’ve, Leo. She made me promise that you’d go to that school before she died; made me promise you’d get your shot, so why not take it and be the best?”

From the open garage, Leo looked across the street to where the Widow was struggling with the massive hose she had unwound. “Why don’t you go be the best neighbor you can be and help a poor widow out?”

His father nudged his son again. “You’ve read my thoughts. See, I know what I’m good at.” He stood up and handed Leo his empty beer bottle then started walking down their driveway, but stopped and looked back at Leo and said, “Remember, Leo, there is no perfect.”

Leo waved dismissively, but managed to smile at his father before getting up and going inside. He heard his father’s deep voice call out and the tinkle of the Widow’s response. His father was right, he was definitely good at rescuing a damsel in distress.

* * * *

Leo had just started to jerk-off when his father knocked on the bathroom door and called out to him. “Hey, Kiddo, when you’re done with the shower, you wanna share a pizza?”

“Shit.” He looked down at his cock and the warm water cascading off his tired body. “Umm yeah, that’s fine, Dad,” he said a little too loud, water getting in his mouth.

“How about some wings, too?” his father called out.

Leo’s erection had completely disappeared. He sighed, laid his head against the wet tile and said, “Yeah, Dad, whatever.” The tension he had so hoped to release seemed to fall back behind some inner reserve.

By the time he finished washing and got out of the bathroom, his father had gone to get the pizza. Leo threw on some shorts and a T-shirt and padded around barefoot to the couch, where he collapsed without putting the television on. The house was quiet, the fans were going, and it felt pleasantly cool. It had been a long day, his frustrations had boiled over and now, somewhat relaxed, he realized he owed Ollie a phone call and an apology.

Leo was so tired that the thought of having to get up to get the phone felt exhausting; luckily his father rarely returned the cordless to its receiver, which was resting on the cushion beside him. Leo dialed Ollie’s number, laid his head back against the couch and closed his eyes. He knew Ollie would be pissed. This was one of many apologetic phone calls Leo had made to his friend since starting at the academy.

Ollie answered. “Yeah?”

Leo could already hear the anger in his friend’s voice.

“It’s Leo. Man, I’m sorry about earlier. I was a total fucking dick to you.” Leo paused, waiting for Ollie to say something. When Ollie didn’t respond, Leo added, “I’m just batshit over these classes. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Still nothing from Ollie.

Leo opened his eyes and stared at the shadows on the ceiling. He wasn’t sure how much more he could say. “Oliver, come on man, you can’t stay mad at me. I can’t get through this without someone to freak out on.” He tried laughing, but realized it wasn’t funny.

“You really need to chill the fuck out,” Ollie finally said. Leo could still here the edge in his friend’s voice.

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” Leo felt his hand reach down and caress his cock and was surprised to find he was getting hard; he needed to cum.

“You always are, Leo,” Ollie replied crisply. “Why can’t it ever be enough with you? I know Hueller said you’re a star, so why can’t that be enough. You’re meringues were perfect—”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Ollie,” Leo cut in. Just the mention of his cooking abilities threatened to bring his earlier frustrations back to life and deflate his cock. Twice in one day, he lost his hard-on. He really was losing it. He wondered if he’d ever get off.

“It’s not about the meringues, it’s something inside,” Leo said as he sat up and was about to say more, but heard his father at the door making a racquet. “I gotta go. You wanna grab breakfast tomorrow before class?” When Ollie didn’t reply, Leo quickly added, “On me.”

“Meet me tomorrow at The Birches,” Ollie said, the cruel edge in his voice finally toned down.

“That place out on Old Century? Looks like an old house? That place any good?”

“Just be there, Leo. Shit, every meal has to be an event with you.” Ollie hung up and Leo was left staring at his father, who was staring back him.

“You really need to lighten up, Leo,” he said before putting the pizza box down on the kitchen counter and then turning to grab a couple of plates from the dish rack behind him.

“Yeah, I got it, Dad. I got it.” Leo opened the box and was about to take a slice then thought better of it and went to the cabinet, where he got some herbed olive oil and red pepper. “You want some parmesan?” he asked, opening the refrigerator and grabbing a hunk of the strong smelling cheese.

“No, I don’t put all that crap on it, just grab me a beer while you’re in there,” his father answered.

Leo watched his father sit, then take a huge bite of the greasy pizza, some sauce spilling on his shirt.

Leo grabbed the beers and the cheese and joined his father at the kitchen table. They ate in relative silence.

“Pizza good?” his father asked over a second slice. Leo knew his father had been watching him eat and nodded under his father’s knowing gaze.

“It’s okay to admit you like greasy pizza, Leo, you’re not that far above it. You can add your flavored oil and fancy cheese, but underneath it all you like the taste, you always have, even when you were a kid, you liked this pizza.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Leo mumbled as he grabbed another slice. He reached for the oil but stopped and took a big unadulterated bite, much to his father’s approval. The pleasure he got from the pizza was the closest he had come to release all day. He closed his eyes and let the simple, yet aromatic smell of the pizza fill his nose; the taste of the oily cheese, the tart sauce that there never seemed enough of. He exhaled after he swallowed and felt a big smile begin to form.

“There ya go.” his father said through a laugh. “That’s the look I remember. Your mom loved to feed you, hell, she loved to feed everyone. She rarely left the kitchen; you’d have thought I chained her in there. But, you know me,” he continued, “I was okay with meat and potatoes, but your mom and then you both had this gourmet thing. I was just along for the ride. You remember that shrimp and pork soup she made that one time?” he asked as he swiped absently at the sauce on his shirt.

“She made it once and then couldn’t find the recipe,” Leo added to the story. He liked talking about his mom, especially when it came to her cooking. “It was so good, I remember the way it tasted, I think she made that for some party she was throwing.”

“Probably,” his father said wistfully. “Your mom was something special, wasn’t she?”

Leo nodded. “That she was.”

They both fell silent, memories threatening to overwhelm them. His father finally stood and began cleaning up. “Go to bed, kid, you got another long day tomorrow.”

“Let me do it, Dad, go sit down.” Leo finished his last bite, stood up and began putting stuff away, but his father stopped him.

“Hey, I said I got it. You’re beat, go to bed.”

“Alright, big guy, you win. Tomorrow night I’ll cook.” Leo patted his dad on the shoulder then headed to his room, his belly full and his heart aching.

He turned the light on by his bed, stripped down and stood in front of the full-length mirror leaning against the wall. He cocked his head to the side so his mess of blondish brown curls toppled over his ear. His hair had always been wild, no matter how short he cut it; it was always unruly so somewhere along the line he let it grow. It was definitely too long now and he would cut it before he would ever put it in a ponytail. His habits in the kitchen being what they are, people were often surprised by Leo’s laid back physical appearance; his messy hair, his often times scruffy face—he hated shaving—and while he dressed impeccably, his clothes were usually comfortable and hid his lean, muscular body as if he was ashamed of his frame. Now, staring at himself, he realized he was a good-looking guy. He had gained a few pounds since starting the academy, but the extra weight only made him look more filled out. He had his father’s deep, brown eyes and his mother’s generous mouth and sturdy European bone structure. He patted his still flat, although full, belly and flexed a little before feeling the same insecurities he felt in the kitchen begin to creep in.

Perfect, you are perfect baby, you’re special. He heard his mother’s voice in his head and as hard as he tried, he wanted to believe that he was special, that he could be perfect, but something wouldn’t let him believe it. There was something wrong with him, something inside that seemed to want to sabotage his dreams. He tried not to look in the mirror anymore, but couldn’t help getting a glimpse of the disappointment on his face before he shut the light off and lay quietly in his dark room.

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Chapter 2

Leo parked his motorcycle in the gravel parking lot in front of The Birches. He was about to send Ollie a text when his phone chimed in with a text from Ollie. I’m inside. Leo stared for a moment at the restaurant called The Birches. It was a small, blue-gray house that had been converted into a diner of sorts, a place Leo had heard of in passing but never thought to eat in. The Birches was only open for breakfast and lunch. It wasn’t uncommon to find lines stretching to the parking lot on the weekends, and getting a table for lunch during the week was just as challenging. Today, there were several people milling about on the porch, waiting for a table. Leo noted that each person had some sort of beverage, mainly coffee, in their hands and seemed happy to wait.

Leo took in the abundant fragrant herbs that grew wild in front of the porch and the fat, lazy bumblebees that rose and fell among the plants. There was peace here, even in the chaos of the busy restaurant there was serenity. About half a mile in from the main road, the place was shielded from the noise of the street by a grove of pale birch trees that surrounded it, as if noise were caught in the web of their white branches. His skin prickled at such thought.

He made his way inside and saw Ollie sitting at a table by a window.

The place was noisy and smelled amazing. As he approached Ollie, Leo looked around, noticing pictures of birch trees everywhere and signs for birch beer and any number of quaint decorations made from birch wood.

“Morning,” Ollie said, breaking in on Leo’s observations. “What do you think?”

A waitress bumped into Leo, but not before asking if he wanted coffee.

“Um, yeah, sorry,” he said as he sat down quickly and took the menu Ollie offered to him. It was one sided and looked handwritten.

Ollie grinned as he said, “You’ll get your snobby ass handed to you in here if you’re not careful.”

“Shit, I guess so,” Leo said as he looked around. ”Before Leo could say anything else, the young waitress who had bumped into him put a massive coffee mug down in front of him. He looked up and found her staring at him suspiciously. Feeling a heat rise in his cheeks, he looked away.

“You boys know what you want?”

“How about an order of Johnny cakes, a ham and cheese omelet, a side of bacon and a grilled blueberry muffin to start,” Ollie said, ordering as if he were a regular.

“Anything else,” the waitress added, staring hard at Leo.

“No, that should do it,” Ollie added quickly. He took Leo’s menu from him and handed both of them to the waitress.

After she left, Ollie started laughing. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’ve just heard things about this place,” he said before taking a sip of coffee, which had a pleasant earthy quality. He found himself swirling it around in his mouth before swallowing.

“Like what?” Ollie asked, sipping from his piping hot mug.

“Just things,” Leo said dumbly, now unsure of what exactly it was he had heard.

Leo could see amusement on his friends face. Ollie liked to confound him and, to be honest, that was exactly how Leo felt.

“You OK with what I ordered?” Ollie asked, changing the subject.

“I didn’t even have the chance to get a good look at the menu. I wanted to check it out, but I didn’t want to push my luck with you or the waitress.”

“Smart, but don’t worry, we’re covered. I ordered the best stuff on the menu. They’re known for their massive Johnnycakes and six egg omelets. Best bacon in the state, he buys from some farmer in Vermont and then cooks it in brown sugar. You won’t believe how good the grub is here.”

Leo looked around. Everyone eating looked pleased to be doing so and he watched as another server put what appeared to be a massive plate of blueberry pancakes down in front of an oohing and ahhing table of four.

“I’ll believe it when I eat it,” Leo said as their waitress put the biggest blueberry muffin Leo had ever seen down in front of them and refilled their coffee in one fluid movement.

“Tell me you’ve seen a better looking muffin than that anywhere,” Ollie said appreciatively.

“How does one grill a blueberry muffin?” Leo asked, watching Ollie tear a piece off the golden brown muffin slathered in thick, golden butter.

“There’s something that happens between the time the muffin hits the grill and makes it to the plate.” Ollie popped the piece in his mouth and rolled his eyes up into his head. “Shut up and taste it,” he said, mouth full.

Leo helped himself to the muffin and was surprised at how light it was despite its size and the amount of butter that coated it. The top was crisp and dark brown and the blueberries peaked from underneath the melting butter. He inhaled the sweet fragrance just once before popping the muffin in his mouth. Almost immediately, his taste buds were drowned in blueberries and butter, tart and sweet together, but that wasn’t what made the muffin remarkable. In fact, he wasn’t sure what it was about it that made him curl his toes, but there was complexity to the flavor that made him want more. He looked at Ollie, who had been staring at him with a knowing grin as he waited for a reply.

“It’s alright,” Leo said, then choked down some hot coffee in a feeble attempt to mask his obvious pleasure. The coffee only added to the flavor of the muffin. He had never tasted anything so good and so simple. It was slightly mind boggling that a place like this would put out such a remarkable item. Both he and Ollie made quick work of the rest of the muffin.

“Tell me you’re not impressed,” Ollie said, trying to swipe what crumbs were left after the muffin disappeared.

“It was good,” Leo said. “I think I need to sample a few other items before I hand in a verdict.”

Ollie tossed Leo a look of mock disgust. “You’re a food snob.”

Before Leo could respond, the waitress returned with a massive omelet and the plate of Johnnycakes and a side of bacon. Their table was covered with food. There was syrup on the table and before either of them could ask, they were given more butter and coffee.

“Enjoy,” the waitress said as she gave Ollie a conspiring smile.

“Wow!” was all Leo could manage before they both dove into the huge plates of steaming food. Each bite was a revelation. Again, there was the surprising depth of flavor coming from each taste that made Leo more confounded and frustrated. Nothing he had ever made tasted as complex. Sure, his food looked perfect and it tasted good, sometimes even great, but there was something else here. As Leo savored the sweet and salty Johnnycake and bacon, the word “alchemy” sprung to mind and he knew then and there that he had to meet the chef.

They were silent for most of the meal, each enjoying their food. Every once in a while they would look at each other as if to say something, but then decide better of it. The coffee kept coming and extra napkins appeared without asking. When it was finally over and the food was gone, they both sat back in gluttonous delight.

“That was possibly the best breakfast I have ever eaten,” Leo admitted. “I’m actually kind of speechless.”

“For once,” Ollie said, adjusting his pants. “We shouldn’t have eaten so much before class, but I felt you needed to know about this place.”

“I’m glad you suggested it. The food was amazing, nothing was off. What’s the name of the guy who runs this place again?”

“His name is Dock,” Ollie said as he took the check from the waitress and handed it over to Leo. “He’s also the man behind the food. I forget his last name, though. I think he’s foreign. I read a review about this place some time ago and I somehow remembered his first name. Dock isn’t common, ya know?

“I wonder where he gets the ingredients,” Leo said, more to himself than aloud. He must order from all over the place, Leo thought as he fished money from his pocket for the bill. He was always a generous tipper and this time made no exception. They both stood and moved out of the way as their waitress raced by, scooping up the check as she passed.

“Who knows, man? Let it be a mystery,” Ollie said as he headed towards the door.

Leo looked around, trying to identify someone who might be Dock as he headed toward the exit, but was unsuccessful and finally had to follow Ollie out into the warm summer morning.

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