There were barely any people out in the street that night. Neon signs were shining, lighting up the street, but most of the stores were closed at that hour. The wind started to pick up, so Alex put on his hoodie and zipped up his jacket. He almost started shivering, so he picked up the pace on his way to the bus stop.
It didn’t take him long to get there - a minute later, he was at the nearest bus stop from Brandon’s apartment, which he just left. He sat on the bench as he waited for the late night bus to show up, glancing at a couple that stood a little further away. The guy, much taller than the girl, wrapped his arms around her in an attempt to keep her warm. Alex looked away with a frown.
Everything irritated him at that moment, especially happy couples and their displays of affection. Can they not keep their fucking hands to themselves until they get home? It was as if they were taunting him, making him feel even more of a failure.
Even though he was never one to dwell on past mistakes, this time he couldn’t help himself. He just couldn’t escape the feeling that everything that happened these past few days was somehow his fault.
As he stepped on the bus and found a window seat, his mind was filled with images of Jeremy, hurt and dejected after the falling out with Natalie and his mom. As much as he loved Jeremy, all Alex seemed to do was bring misery to the boy’s life. Would Jeremy be better off alone? The more Alex thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea. If it wasn’t for him, Jeremy would still have his best friend and his mom by his side.
Brandon’s words stuck with him, too. Did he really misjudge the guy so badly? Did his own prejudice toward the guy prevent him from seeing his qualities, or was Brandon really as selfish and manipulative as he had thought? It was obvious to Alex that Brandon had some feelings for him, but Alex knew he wouldn’t be able to reciprocate them. At first, Brandon seemed to be ok with it, but now, Alex wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He just wanted to go home, crawl into his bed and fall asleep - maybe his dreams would at least bring him some peace.
At the third stop, Alex got off the bus and walked a short distance to his home. The lights were no longer on in his sister’s room. No surprise, Alex thought, she’s probably already out. This was her final year before college, so he knew she’d be taking any opportunity to spend more time with her crew.
Even better, he thought. After everything that happened that day, he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, let alone Liz. She’d want to know all the details. Even though she was helpful sometimes, this wasn’t one of the days when Alex wanted to share his problems.
Once he got to his room and changed into something more comfortable, he went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and then headed straight to bed. Taking one last glance at his phone and seeing no new messages or missed calls, Alex buried his face in the pillow, hoping sleep would come quickly.
When he woke up, sun was already peeking through the curtains. He lifted his head and reached out with one arm, picking up his phone from the nightstand. It was already half past ten. Luckily, he had no work that day.
As he got dressed and sat in his comfy gaming chair, tapping on his phone, he heard a soft knock on the door.
“Alex, you awake?” Liz called out from the other side, her voice a half-whisper.
“Yeah, it’s open,” he replied and the door opened, Liz walking in.
Alex put his phone away, turning to his sister.
“You look horrible, did you sleep at all last night?” Liz asked, casually flopping on the bed.
“I actually did, but thanks,” Alex rolled his eyes. “But you look nice, all dressed up. It’s great that you can still pull off that shirt, even after the weight gain.”
“Hey! That’s a low blow,” she playfully hit him on the arm. “And you know I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant… You look rough.”
“Yeah, I had a crappy day,” Alex said, running fingers through his sharp, black hair, thinking about yesterday.
“Why, what happened?”
“I don’t really want to get into it right now,” he replied. Even though he was feeling a tiny bit better, he wasn’t ready to pour his heart out just yet.
“Ok, if you want to talk later, you know where to find me,” Liz shrugged. “I actually came by to say thanks.”
“Thanks? For what?”
“For talking to mom and dad. They talked to me about college the other day and said you talked to them about me.”
“Ahh, it’s no big deal,” Alex waved her off, feeling a little embarrassed. “I just remembered what we talked about before, and you were right - it’s stupid that you suffer the consequences because of something I did. So I wanted to let them know that. I didn’t want them to punish you.”
“Thanks, Alex, that was so nice of you,” Liz said, a tentative smile on her thin lips. “They said that if my grades are good the first year, and if I want to study a semester abroad, they’d let me.”
“That’s awesome! Do you have any idea where you wanna go?” Alex asked, happy for his sister. She didn’t always have the best grades in high school, but he wasn’t going to mention that, not wanting to ruin her moment. He wasn’t a perfect student either, but he still managed to do pretty well in college, so maybe she could do it too.
“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Spain. You know my friend Tanya moved to Barcelona last year. She keeps posting pics and it looks AMAZING over there! Yeah, I’d definitely go to Spain!”
Before leaving Alex’s room, Liz stopped at the door and turned around.
“You coming down for breakfast?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute,” Alex nodded.
“Ok…” she hesitated. “You know, if you wanna talk... about stuff, you can talk to me?”
“I know,” he replied. His thoughts were a jumbled mess and he really wanted to sort them out on his own first before sharing them with anyone else.
“Even if it’s about whatever you’re doing on your phone,” Liz added, pointing to his smartphone on the desk. Alex looked at her questioningly. “Yeah, I noticed you hiding it whenever I come into the room.”
He stared at her, completely silent. Before he could say a word, she smirked and walked out the door.
“You’re not really that hard to read, big bro! Now come and let’s eat! We’re having eggs and bacon!”
That afternoon, Alex found himself alone on the streets of Port Alvin again. The weather was fresh, but not too cold. It was that pesky transitional period that he wasn’t a fan of. He preferred summer - the hotter the better! Then he could wear his tank tops and show off his body. If you got it, you might as well flaunt it - that was his motto.
He was walking with a purpose, heading to the Promenade to visit Jeremy, but his usual brisk pace was now slowed almost to a crawl. Even though he wanted to talk to Jeremy, he wasn’t sure what to say to him. He had several scenarios in mind, but couldn’t pick any of them. He was hoping that by the time he got to the bakery, things would somehow become clearer, but that was definitely not happening.
His sister’s words from that morning were nagging at him too. She noticed he was doing something on his phone. He had it locked all the time, with a password and a fingerprint detection system, so there was no way she could’ve unlocked it, but did she know the truth? Alex couldn’t help but wonder. And what did she mean by that “You’re not really that hard to read”? If she knew what he was really doing, would she tell mom and dad? She didn’t sound like it, but Alex couldn’t be sure.
As he finally reached the Promenade, he realized he was no closer to figuring out what to say to Jeremy. His head was telling him to break it off or at least give him some space. Jeremy had suffered enough because of him. However, his heart didn’t agree. He couldn’t bring himself to stay away from the guy. After having Jeremy back in his life after ten years, Alex didn’t want to lose him again. They were so good together and they had only just started seeing each other. He wanted to see where things would go.
Lost in his thoughts, Alex crossed the street and walked toward the bakery. Only when he was nearly in front of the building did he notice thick smoke coming out of a small window in the back. His eyes went wide as he realized - it was the kitchen!
“Shit, shit, shit,” Alex muttered, running as fast as he could and jerking the bakery door wide open. “Jeremy!” he shouted, looking around in panic.
Suddenly, all eyes were on him - about a dozen people were sitting at tables and having their lunch, while Trisha was cleaning up the mess on the floor. A small girl seated next to her mom seemed to have spilled her juice box.
“Alex, what’s the matter?” Trisha asked, looking alarmed.
“You have smoke coming from the kitchen, did you not notice it?” Alex said, almost shouting. “Where’s Jeremy?”
“He’s out,” the girl replied, dropping her mop and rushing to the door on the right. “Oh, no…”
All of a sudden, the fire alarm rang out as the entire bakery started filling with smoke. Everyone scrambled to pick up their things and started rushing for the door, trying to get out as soon as possible.
Alex urged Trisha out and pressed his phone to his ear, calling the fire department as he looked at the bakery with concern.
“Appleton Bakery... Yeah, on the Promenade,” he explained.
Once he hung up, Trisha approached him, her face pale as if completely drained of blood.
“I-I’m sorry, I was just so busy…” the poor girl stammered, nervously wringing her hands. “I forgot to check on the stove...”
“Hey, what’s done is done. The fire department should be here any moment now,” Alex said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
The crowd had started to gather as sirens wailed and a fire truck arrived. In a matter of seconds, firefighters filed out of the vehicle, ordering everyone to get back as they rushed into the building.
Alex could do nothing but stand by and helplessly watch with Trisha as the scene unfolded. He wondered how Jeremy would react when he returned and saw all the commotion. It would be the last thing he’d expect.
“Where’s Jeremy?” Alex asked again, feeling bad for the guy. Life sure had a way of kicking someone when they were down. The worst thing was that Jeremy didn’t deserve any of it. He was sweet and kind, the type of guy who always thinks before he speaks. Alex believed that if anyone deserved a big fat dose of karma biting his ass, it was himself.
“He’s on a supply run, but he should be back soon,” the girl explained.
“I should call him and let him know. I don’t want him coming back to this,” Alex decided, dialing Jeremy’s number. It was a good while until the guy finally picked up, sounding distracted. There was noise and voices in the distance.
“Hey, can you talk? You sound busy?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, I’m at the parking lot, just finished shopping. I’m about to head back to the bakery. What’s up?”
“Baby, I… I have some news,” Alex hesitated, still deciding how best to break the news. After everything the guy went through recently, the last thing Alex wanted was to make him even more miserable. “But promise me you won’t panic, ok?”
“Umm, that’s exactly what people say before giving you a reason to panic,” Jeremy replied, sounding uncertain. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
“Ok, here it goes. There was an… accident at the bakery, seems like a fire broke out in the kitchen, but the fire department is-”
“WHAT?! Please tell me that’s not true,” Jeremy exclaimed, panic rising in his voice.
“Hey, remember what I asked you? Please, calm down. They got it under control, it doesn’t look like it’s anything serious,” Alex said, merely guessing, just to keep Jeremy calm.
“I’m coming right over!”
“Jer, please, just drive carefully, ok? Things are under control here.”
“Ok… Thank you, Alex,” Jeremy replied quietly before hanging up.
The next several minutes were tense as Alex waited for Jeremy to show up. It wasn’t until he saw the familiar blond guy running down the street that he breathed a sigh of relief, rushing over to meet him.
“You’re here!” Alex ran to him, enveloping him in a strong hug, almost lifting the boy’s skinny frame from the ground. As he breathed in, he could feel a mixture of Jeremy’s perfume and a pleasant aroma of sweet, delicious pastry. It was a scent he had gotten accustomed to and wished he could smell every morning as he woke up.
As they separated, the baker gave Alex a sad look and a brief “hey” before his gaze wandered off toward the bakery. A fire truck and a group of firemen were in front of it, while several curious passersby stood further away, observing the action.
Alex briefly squeezed Jeremy’s hand for support, glancing at the boy’s glistening blue eyes. He wished he could somehow fix everything, but he didn’t know how. All he could do for the moment was stay by Jeremy’s side. It’s always easier to deal with problems when you have someone to be there for you, that much Alex knew. All the way through school, Niall, Richie and he always had each other’s back no matter what. Whether it was love problems, school or family, they always helped and supported each other. That kind of bond was very important to him and now he has found it again with Jeremy, although their feelings were deeper than just friendship.
Together, the two guys went over and approached the firemen.
“Are you the owner?” one of them said, looking at Jeremy.
“Yes. What happened?”
“Seems like someone left the stove unattended. You were lucky, though, the fire was contained to the kitchen and we caught it quickly. You’ll need to replace some stuff and repaint the walls, but other than that, there wasn’t much damage,” the man explained.
After the fire brigade was finished and gave Jeremy permission to enter and survey the scene for himself, Alex followed him inside, not wanting to let him go in alone.
The smell of smoke immediately attacked their nostrils, making them cough. The two guys braced themselves and went straight for the kitchen. As they entered the room, Jeremy just stood at the door, letting the scene around him sink in - the charred walls, burnt kitchen cabinets and overpowering stench. Alex stood behind him, placing a comforting arm over his tense shoulders.
They stood in silence for a few moments, after which Alex could hear Jeremy let out the breath he was holding. After the initial shock wore off, the bakery owner stepped further inside. Alex followed, realizing they were lucky, all things considering. The damage wasn’t extensive and was confined to the kitchen, but the most important thing was that no one was hurt.
“Well, this looks…” Jeremy stuttered, unable to finish the sentence.
“Hey, it could’ve been much worse,” Alex jumped in, trying to find the silver lining. “At least we’re all ok, and that counts for something, right?”
“You’re right, of course,” the blond guy nodded, observing his ruined property with sadness, but he did not sound convinced at all.
Alex looked at Jeremy’s face, seeing only sorrow, and knew he had to do something about it. Taking him by the hand, he led him out of the kitchen and into the apartment above.
“We’ll paint the walls over, get new kitchen elements and have this place up and running again in no time,” Alex said as they climbed the stairs and entered Jeremy’s bedroom. “This is just a minor setback, alright?”
He didn’t get a response, though. Instead, he could feel the other boy start trembling and sobbing in his arms as they sat on the bed. Alex felt his own eyes fill with tears, his heart breaking as he watched the boy he loved fall apart right there next to him.
“It’s ok,” Alex whispered, squeezing Jeremy gently and letting the boy’s head lean against his chest. “It’s gonna be ok…”