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Jason MH

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  1. Jason MH

    Potential Isn't Immortal

    @CaJu: In the parking garage scene, Nate didn't even whisper those words, but instead breathed them out silently. That means Greg's not sure he heard them correctly; in fact, he's pretty sure he didn't. But as you can guess, he didn't mishear them. In the next chapter, he--and you--will learn precisely what they mean, and that'll steer Greg to an epiphany that leads directly to the events of his birthday bash. @Fae Briona: Egads! I hate it when that happens. I didn't think about prohibitions against Farid treating family until I posted this chapter, at which point it was too late to go back and alter everything that came before this. Like so much of what I write, I didn't write this for an audience but instead I wrote it to get it out of my head lest it percolate there ad nauseam. Hopefully that'll teach me to do more research in the future so as to avoid such mistakes. I agree about being understanding of Greg's motivations. Like so many, I suspect, I've dealt with unrequited love; it's never easy. As will become clear shortly after Greg's birthday bash, Farid had his reasons for being stern with his nephew, reasons beyond knowing Greg was acting within the framework of a heightened emotional state (which is always the worst time to make big decisions). @FanLit: I wholeheartedly agree! Even when the odds are against it, I've never believed hope withers and dies except under the most egregious circumstances--basically when irrefutable evidence kills it (and even then, we humans tend to err on the side of wishful thinking). But for Greg's character, with what he's been through and what he thinks he's facing, it's not so easy to believe hope lasts forever. Maybe he'll learn otherwise? Time will tell ...
  2. January 9, 2017 "G-Man?" he inquired, so full of surprised expectation. That voice ... It haunts my dreams and waking hours with equal fervor. I'd call him every single day just to hear him talk. Even if it means stagnating rather than advancing? I'm beginning to think so. "Yeah ... It's me, Nate. How are you?" I was breathless, wanting. Damn it! Get a grip, Greg. "I'm good." Hushed, a little breathy, anticipant yet nervous. "How are you?" "Hectic with the business ramping up for opening, but otherwise I'm surviving." "How soon will you be up and running?" "Early February, give or take. Dad's been a blessing." "I imagine. That's his thing." "What about you? How's the new gym going?" "Great! Busy, of course, but great. We should be opening the doors around the same time you do." "Really? Wow, you work fast. I'm impressed. I can't wait to see it." A momentary pause betrayed only by my mindfulness of such things, then he all but whispered, "You're always welcome, G-Man. You know that. Come by whenever you want." "Maybe I will," I told him, though I questioned if that was a good idea. "So," Nate began, "is everything okay? Are you okay?" Always that heartfelt concern for my wellbeing, always the worry that I might be in distress. Once again he touched me deeply. "Everything's fine," I told him, albeit not too enthusiastically and not too convincingly. "Good. I'm glad to hear that. Then to what do I owe the pleasure of this call?" I miss him so much. I want him so much. How can anyone live like this? Unrequited love sucks, doesn't it? It fucking stinks. "Listen, Nate, if you're not doing anything, I'm having my birthday bash on February third. Think you might be there?" "Of course!" he declared, obviously hurt that I'd implied he might not want to attend or worse, might not want to see me. "I wouldn't miss it, G-Man," he continued. "You know I wouldn't miss it." Then quietly, meekly, he said, "I guess I'm surprised you asked. I didn't think you wanted to see me anymore." Fuck! What have I done? I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves. Or trying to anyway. I just didn't feel the conviction my words connoted. "Nate ... Oh Nate. I know I hurt you, and for that I'll be eternally sorry." Sorry doesn't cover it. I feel like the worst human being in the history of human beings. "There's not a moment that goes by when I don't regret it." It's the single greatest regret of my life. How can I communicate that? "But please tell me you understand why I did what I did." I don't understand it anymore. Why should he? "Please tell me you don't think I'm being a hateful prick and turning my back on the love of my life just because it seemed like a good idea." Do you even know the reason you did it? Is it still a reason or just an excuse now because you already made a bad decision and you're trying to justify it after the fact? "No! You know I don't think that. Absolutely not." In a hushed tone he continued, "But I'm not sure of anything anymore. I don't agree with what you did or why you did it. I understand, G-Man, but I don't agree. And I think there are things we need to talk about." I interrupted, suddenly feeling rather pushy, no doubt empowered by self-loathing and the fact that I knew I'd made a major mistake. "Things we need to talk about ... Like your feelings?" After a long, quiet pause, I chose nonlinear thinking to get away from the uncomfortable turn the conversation had taken. "Have you noticed Mom and Dad lately?" "Yes!" he immediately replied. "Spending a lot of time together, aren't they? Like, I don't know, maybe a little something more going on there than we knew about?" "Precisely, dude! I have a sneaky suspicion our parents are feeling a little something extra for each other again." "Still, G-Man." "Huh?" "They're still feeling something extra for each other. I don't think they ever lacked for love. I just think maybe life got in the way, maybe Dad's career, maybe Mom's unwillingness to move to Seattle, maybe something else entirely." "You're right, Little Big Man. I misspoke. They've always been close, whether married or divorced. And they always talked to each other, long calls into the night, chitchats that went on and on and on. They tried saying it was about us, staying on the same page, blah blah blah, but did anybody really buy that?" "Do you think we should say something?" "Good question. We've always been in their business as much as they've been in ours, so they wouldn't think twice if we asked." "But would they admit it?" "Funny question coming from you, Nate. Would they? Would you?" He gasped. Fucking hell, dude! I slapped a hand over my face, appalled and horrified. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Nate. That was ... that was unbelievably rude. I just need to keep my mouth shut. Please forgive me." The phone offered nothing but dead air punctuated by his breathing. For several seconds I waited. Then quietly I asked, "You still there, Little Big Man?" "Yeah. Sorry. My mind wandered for a moment." He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. Even if I couldn't see him, the source of our seemingly psychic gift being body language and expressions and decades of experience interpreting each other, I could still get in his head by listening to what he said, what he didn't say, his tone, his breathing, even his silences. "Greg ..." It's in his voice. It's that need to go back to where we were, that announcement that he has something to say, that uneasy feeling he has with how I feel and what it means for him. "Don't say it, Nate." "But I—" "Was Richard right or wrong, Nate? Do you have feelings for me beyond the love we share as best friends and whatever else we've been, or is that all you feel? Do you have something to tell me about that, the question you keep avoiding, or will we dance around it like we have been so I'm left lonely, hurt, wondering, and thinking we really need to stay away from each other?" A deep hush fell over the conversation. Once again we found solace in listening to each other breathe. There's something very wrong here. Nate's never been at a loss for words around me, never been unable to express himself. I smell the stink of Richard all over this situation. After perhaps a minute of that, I decided to move away from what I was only just realizing was a bigger problem than I'd at first thought. "The birthday bash is at the Omni Hotel in Dallas. It'll be in the Trinity Ballroom. Same dress code as always." "The usual then, like we're going clubbing." "Yeah. The party gets started at eight that night, February third. Food, music, drinks ... everything's paid for, so just bring yourself and your plus-one—" Those words left a bad taste in my mouth. "—plan to have fun, no gifts, hotel rooms already reserved so you don't have to drive ... You know the drill." "I'll be there," he said with hope and interest. "Then I'll see you there, Nate." "But—" Don't push. I need to push. I need to figure out where the wall is and who built it. If he's going to keep running into it and it's going to keep causing me pain and angst and stress, by golly I'm going to push until the wall topples or I see no hope. "Nate?" "Yeah, G-Man?" "Potential isn't immortal." "What do you mean?" he asked in a very quiet and very subdued tone, one replete with worry. "Possibilities aren't forever. Not acting on them can end them." "I ... " "You keep saying you need to tell me something. Tell me, Nate. Right now. You have my undivided attention." Then in a near whisper I pleaded, "It's just us, Nate. Please tell me." "But it's not ... I don't know ... " "Is it between the shadow and the soul?" "What?" It wasn't spoken so much as breathed, a word caught on a shocked sigh. "Is that what you mumbled in the parking garage? It doesn't make sense to me, but I'd swear that's what you said." "Yeah, that's ... No, I mean ... That's not what ... It's just so ... You know I'm ..." Then he expelled a breath before falling silent. I listened to his inhales and exhales for thirty seconds or so, knowing his wheels were turning, knowing he was lost in his own head, suspecting the fog of Richard had shrouded his thoughts. "Carpe diem, dude, quam minimum credula postero." So quietly I thought it imagination he said, "I can't." I told him goodbye in a voice filled with sadness and regret, after which I ended the call. Pressing my hands together against my lips and nose as though in prayer, thumbs hooked under my chin, eyes closed, I mumbled to myself, "I need to talk to Uncle Farid." * * * * * January 13, 2017 "You know I can't discuss—" "Damn it to hell!" I shouted, leaning forward and grabbing the remote, pressing the button with an angry jab of my thumb. A soft, single tone sounded as the light above the door went dark. "Don't give me that doctor-patient confidentiality shit!" I growled with furious distaste. "We're off the record! I need you to stop being Doctor Farid Mansour and start being Uncle Farid!" The rage I felt colored my expression with dark fury, my heart pounding, blood rushing loudly in my ears. With a trembling hand I tossed the remote back on the table, then I slammed back on the couch and stared daggers at my uncle. "This isn't a professional visit anymore," I explained in a cooler tone, though cooler taking on dual meanings of less anger and more disdain. Not disdain for Uncle Farid, however, but instead disdain for the trappings of his office and why I couldn't allow professional ethics to stand in my way. He leaned back and regarded me with with a solemn gaze, lips pursed around the cigarette that drew patterns in the air with wisps and whorls of smoke. Then he squinted, considering me, measuring my resolve. "Please, Uncle Farid," I begged, my anger rapidly evaporating and leaving behind a painful need. "We're talking about Nate. You're his uncle as much as you are mine. I'm talking about your nephew. I don't give a flying fuck about any of this," I said with a wave around the room, "because I'm not asking you as a therapist, I'm asking you as family." Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and holding it absentmindedly, his Lebanese features without emotion, revealing nothing, he simply stared at me, an unflinching gaze that would've made the best poker player squirm in their seat. As the rigidity in my body vanished, I slumped, head hanging with a mournful shake. When I met his eyes again, unshed tears in my own misted my vision. "Please ... I'm talking about the other half of me. I'm talking about the part of my soul that resides in another body. Please, Uncle Farid ..." I watched closely as he tamped the dying nicotine stick in the ashtray, bludgeoning embers repeatedly until only dead ashes remained. I watched as he settled back in his chair, his jaw muscles clenching. I watched as he took a deep breath. I watched as he slowly exhaled. I watched his eyes never leave my desperate regard. "Fine—" "Thank fuck!" He grinned, pleasant and warm. "Sometimes I question the wisdom of treating family. The desire to aide and assist perhaps overshadows the complications that can arise, such as this case. The ethics and legal constraints can be intimidating when in fact they should be ignored." All I could do was watch him as he glanced around the room, as though checking for interlopers who might eavesdrop and tattle. Without prefacing his explanation he said, "Richard's evil was equaled only by his brilliance. If that could have been decoupled from the vile monster inhabiting his body, he would have made a brilliant psychiatrist. He demonstrated a profound understanding of the human psyche, a comprehension that made him as adept at manipulating children as he was at manipulating adults. In both cases, what he did had lasting effects, as you well know." Brushing imaginary lint from his slacks as he glanced down, he gave a little shake of his head. Then looking at me he added, "The simplest yet most effective method of seeding thoughts in another's mind is to engender a heightened emotional state." Frowning at me with avuncular love he said, "You know quite well that a heightened emotional state subordinates the intellect. When our feelings are inflamed, we do things we wouldn't normally do had we considered such actions with the colder eye of thought." "I know. I'm sorry. Fuck, I can't say that enough. I'm sorry. I made a—" Holding up a hand to forestall further rambling apologies or explanations, he told me, "I'm not chastising you, Greg. Although you acted rashly and without regard for the repercussions of your actions and with no consideration whatsoever for the pain and anguish you would cause, in hindsight I'm forced to admit that your actions have brought us to this place, a place we needed to discover but might not have found had you followed my counsel." Dumbfounded, I tried to ask "What?"or "Huh?" or "Pardon?" or something similar, but the only sound that escaped my mouth was a perplexed sigh. "The truth is," Uncle Farid continued, "Nate has impinged against a particularly robust mental block. Not too dissimilar to your own blind spot but certainly constructed of a vastly different mechanism, what you brought to light with your jejune theatrics is a problematic legacy of Richard's loathsome tinkering in his own son's mind." "How ..." My voice was breathless, quiet, near hopeless. After clearing my throat I asked in a slightly louder tone, "How do we fix it, Uncle Farid? Whatever it takes, tell me how to fix it?" He shook his head then, not dismissively and not negatively, but instead in a way that looked like surrender but spoke of frustration. "I simply don't know, Greg. The more I circle us around the issue, the harder it's become to determine what the construct hides or how to help Nate overcome the impediment." "But there has to be a way!" I declared. "Of course there is. And in time we'll discover it. But right now I can only describe it as a rather pernicious obstacle of Nate's own making, one built in response to repeated emotional upsets coupled with timely and persistent thought seeding." "He brainwashed him," I spat. "No more so than he did with you, albeit Nate's experience points to a vastly different approach and result than your blind spot. And again, it demonstrates the range of Richard's abilities in that regard." With a disgusted shake of his head he mumbled, "To put that level of expertise and skill to such use is offensive beyond words." "There has to be—" "Of course there is, Greg, of course there's a way. Richard had no vested interest in full-scale terraforming of Nate's mental landscape. That means he elicited this mental self-defense solely on the basis of the emotional upheaval necessary to create it." "But what does that mean?" "We can circle around the wall but we can't see what's behind it. Not without penetrating it, that is." He pulled another cigarette out of the pack and lit it, taking a deep inhale of the smoke he drew from it, eventually letting out a plume that drifted upward. With a concerned expression he elaborated, "I can definitely say that the key to unlocking the block has to do with you." I could only stare. He wasn't telling me anything I hadn't already discovered, yet it brought me no closer to helping Nate. Helping Nate? You? Talk about the blind leading the blind ... Shut up. "What do I do?" I finally asked. "I've tried talking to him. If he has something important to tell me as he's intimated, if he feels he has something to share with me that's paramount and compelling as is the impression I keep getting, he doesn't seem able to move past this ... this wall." "You told him not to contact you, did you not?" "Sure. One might argue that he's held his tongue at my behest, and therefore I'm in no position to question what's happening." Giving Uncle Farid a scoffing look, I continued, "But I'm not buying that. He keeps saying he needs to tell me something. I keep giving him chance after chance. Every single time he locks up, stammers and mutters and ultimately says nothing. It's the same response I get if I ask about his feelings." "Based on what he told you about Richard?" "Precisely. It's not even that I'm asking him to tell me he loves me—fuck, that would be awesome. No, I just ask about his feelings. It's like his mind grinds to a halt." "To some degree that's precisely what's happening. Based on what he told you and what he's told me, Richard's 'mental voodoo' as you called it had a specific focus with Nate: ensuring he didn't develop feelings for you or, if he did, ensuring such feelings would never see the light of day lest it destroy your existing relationship. Which means the wall is built specifically with you as the cornerstone. The fact that you played into that black purpose by doing what Richard predicted has complicated matters." "Fuck ..." I groaned. "Again, you needn't indulge in self-flagellation, Greg. We might never have known this problem existed had it not been for your self-indulgent yet thoughtless actions." "Just had to get that in, didn't you?" I asked with a smirk, glad for the brief levity. He smiled and nodded, though the expression quickly faded back to serious consideration. "If it has to do with me, if I'm the cornerstone as you say, why can't he punch through it when I ask him? Why can't I help him overcome Richard's tinkering?" "Because Richard was smarter than anyone believed." "So you're telling me, with all your expertise and skill, that we can't somehow break through this, that we can't help Nate?" "No, that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm simply stating a fact, Greg: Richard knew what he was doing and he was quite good at doing it, insidious and persistent and amoral. The man knew precisely how to read people and precisely how to use those observations to his advantage. Whatever he used against Nate, it's deeply personal and powerful and fundamental, so much so that months of therapy plus months of you asking have resulted in zero progress aside from identifying that there's a problem and understanding that you're in the middle of it." I leaned my elbows on my knees and dropped my face into my hands. "I don't know what to do. I just wish ..." "What, Greg? What do you wish?" Shaking my head with frustration I explained, "Wish isn't even what I meant. I hope Nate feels something powerful and wonderful and, being unable to contain it in wordless purgatory, will be forced to admit it to me before his heart bursts under the terrible pressure of it. I hope all the intimacy we've already shared, in addition to that moment in the parking garage, equals promise. I hope that he holds some measure of affection for me that goes beyond the relationship we've shared for decades." Following several moments of silence, he prompted, "And?" "It hurts, you know, this constant worry that what he wants to say is what I don't want to hear, that there's no hope for us, that he'll never feel the way I feel. Which is what I fear most and what I suspect he wants to say. Why worry about making me happy? If that's what he was going to do, just do it, get it over with. He knows how I feel, so there's no issue with possible rejection." "There's no indication—" Snapping my head up to glare at him I interrupted, "There's no indication of anything because he can't say it. He said Richard made him fear his feelings for me, whatever they may be, which means he'd be just as unable to say we can never be more than we've been as he is to say he's madly in love with me. Right?" When he didn't immediately respond, I asked with a bit more bite in my words, "Right, Uncle Farid?" With a sad nod he acquiesced. "Yes, you're right. If the mental block rests firmly on the premise of Nate's feelings for you, which is what I suspect, then it matters little what those feelings are. As you point out, he'd have as much difficulty expressing hate as he would love, let alone anything in between." I groaned as I dropped my face back into my hands. Then I sat back in resignation. "You sound scared." His lips pursed around his cigarette as he took a hit, his eyes never leaving mine. "I am! I'm scared. There, I admitted it." "Scared of what?" "Scared of what Nate might say, scared he might have feelings for me, scared that if that's true and we try it, the fantasy might be better than the reality and we might end up ruining whatever friendship we have left. Also I'm scared of the opposite, that he'll say there can never be anything between us, that his happiness lies along a different path, that he can't give me what I need and want, though he'd like me in his life, my happiness be damned." "He'd never say that." "I know," I huffed. "I know, Uncle Farid. But if he has feelings and it doesn't work, I'm scared he'd hate me if everything between us crumbled down around us. I couldn't deal with Nate hating me. I can't. I really can't imagine it." "Is that it? Is that all that scares you with this situation?" Dropping my head and sighing, I admitted, "No. That's not all." "What else?" he asked gently. With profound sadness I explained, "I'm scared for Nate. I'm scared we might not find the key to unlock yet another of Richard's constructs. I'm scared he might be stuck dealing with Richard's manipulations and machinations for a long time, that he'll live under the umbrella of that madman's brainwashing." After a deep breath I added, "He's coming to my birthday party. You probably already know that. I figure if he hasn't said what he needs to say before then, I'll corner him and push and prod and do whatever I can to force through the wall to the other side." "Under these conditions, force may not be the right approach." "I have to know. I have to make him admit whether or not there's something there, some small measure of hope to keep me waiting. I already know I can't walk away from him, but if there's nothing there, at least I'll know to keep my distance, to look elsewhere." He expelled a plume of smoke before commenting, "I'm surprised you invited him to your birthday party." I leaned my head back and stared at the ceiling, took a few deep breaths, then met his steady gaze. "I'm not." With a shrug I explained, "It's like I'm constantly jonesing for a fix. Every time I talk to him or see him, I get a fix, just a little one. It hurts, sure, because it reminds me of why I did what I did. But like all addicts—" "This is not comparable to addiction, Greg." "Isn't it? Because it sure feels that way to me. Every fix I get makes me jones for the next one. It's like I can't stick to my own conviction that being away from him is best for both of us. I just can't. I don't think I can survive without him in my life, even if only in a small way." Quietly, almost too quite for him to hear, I mumbled, "I just hope by the night of February third I can have a definitive answer, even if it's the one I fear most. I just hope ... I just hope we can both finally put our feet on the path that leads to happiness, even if that means a separate path for each of us." Uncle Farid pulled deeply on his cigarette and let out a slow, nebulous exhale. His eyes didn't waver, never left my pained gaze. Another toke on the nicotine stick and another cloud of smoke, yet he said nothing. Neither did I, in point of fact. Dropping my head and gasping, sighing, using my lungs to speak of despair, I added, "I'm full of so much dread and hope. The only problem is hope has a shorter shelf life." "Under the circumstances, I think it's time I talk to Gavin and Yvonne." "What?" "It may be time for a less therapeutic approach in favor of a more familial one." At first I didn't understand, but then it clicked. "Are you talking about an intervention?" "What one or two might miss, perhaps five can see. Somebody needs to identify the key to Nate's block. Five people trying to guide him to revelation and discovery might mean at least one of us stumbles upon it." "We can only hope ..." * * * * * January 18, 2017 Shuffling a few papers around as though busy, I glanced at Dad. His eyes seemed to be glued to the facilities paperwork in his hands, but his gaze frequently darted toward the garage door where Mom stood pulling on a coat and collecting her purse and keys and phone. "I'll be back in an hour or so," she reiterated, then out the door she went. "You," I started as I swatted the papers in his hands, startling him since his eyes had still been locked on the door to the garage, "have never been able to pull off fake innocence." "What?" he gasped. I think he tried for confusion or offense, but it came out sounding a lot like guilt. Waving the papers in my hand toward him, I had to laugh. "Nate and I have already discussed this situation. We're fully aware of the long calls, the frequent rendezvous, the secretive looks when you think no one will notice." My father's face turned beet red as he slowly lifted the papers in his hands in an attempt to hide behind them. "Stop it with the papers, Dad!" I could barely talk for the endless chuckle I was fighting. "We know, okay? We already know. It's so obvious. You two act like teenagers with a secret crush. Just stop it already." "What are you talking about?" "Don't, Dad. Just don't. Give us some credit." The papers dropped on the table as he lowered his head, a smile spreading across his face. Then he nodded as he looked at me. "I guess we've been caught." "Now that that's settled," I continued as I glanced at Gavin, "can we get back to work?" "Wait. That's it?" he asked. "What did you expect? So my mother and father are playing footsies under the table and giving each other come-hither looks and holding hands and who knows what else. We're thrilled! Nate and I are thrilled at the prospect you two might get back together. My point wasn't to throw water on the flames. All I intended was for you to know we know, so you can stop acting like it's a state secret." "We weren't hiding it," he declared. "We just didn't want to give false hope to anyone." "Just don't forget the rule." "What rule?" He looked rather confused, which entertained me. "No funny business in front of the children." His laugh was heartfelt and comfortable. "Thank you." "For what? Saying it's okay for my parents to be in love with each other? Don't mention it." After ducking his head and shrugging, he asked, "Time to get back to work?" "Yeah," I responded with a grin. Then: "How soon will we get to the punch list?" He paused for a moment before answering, "Another week, maybe two. It'll be before the end of the month." "So we're still on schedule?" "Absolutely!" "Good. That's good news. And thank you for staying on top of this stuff. If I had one more thing on my plate right now, I'd scream." "That's it? Just scream?" "Maybe I'd spit, too. Yeah, I'd scream and then I'd spit. How's that for living dangerously?" All he could do was chuckle and shake his head. "How about a beer?" I asked as I rose and headed toward the kitchen. "You keeping your mother's refrigerator stocked now?" he asked with a pointed look. "Of course! We're spending a lot of time here working and I'm not about to forgo chemical supplementation unless absolutely necessary." With a grin he said, "Sure, I'd love one." Once I'd fetched two dark ales from the fridge, I opened both, tossed the caps in the trash, then rejoined him in the dining room, the table covered with a scattering of papers and folders and pens, plus two cell phones and two tablet computers. After handing one to him, I dropped back into my seat. I took a long pull from the beer and let out a satisfied sigh after I swallowed. "Hits the spot," I mentioned. Setting the beer aside, I grabbed a stack of papers before realizing my father hadn't responded. I looked at him and saw a pensive, regretful man staring back at me. "What, Dad? What's wrong?" He gave a brief shake of his head before saying, "Nothing. Something. I'm not sure." Turning in my chair so I could fully face him, I sipped my beer before inquiring, "Is it the work? This new business thing?" "No," he replied without hesitation, waving away my worry. "Not that at all. In fact, that's a pretty awesome thing. I never expected I'd be working for my son, but I have to tell you, Greg, this is a fantastic opportunity for me." "Ever been a C-something-or-other-O before?" "Ha! No, never." "Well, now you can add that to your resume." He reached out and took my hand, said thoughtfully, "I'm hoping this is the last job I ever have. I'd like to retire from this job, you as my last boss." I squeezed his hand and smiled. "I'd like that as well." Then more seriously I asked, "So if it's not this—" I waved my hand over the mess on Mom's dining table. "—what is it?" His eyes grew distant and his expression became introspective. One thing I knew about my dad was that, unlike me, he spent little time in his own head. An extrovert by nature and very much not the kind of person who second-guessed himself, the man before me now must have something serious on his mind if he had to cast his sight inward. He squeezed my hand before letting go so he could grab his beer and take a drink. After he swallowed he explained, "I've often wondered if things might've worked out differently had I been around more while you were growing up." "Whoa, Dad, let's not do the hindsight thing—" "Now wait a minute, Greg. Let me finish." "Okay," I muttered. "I'm not looking back with regret and wondering what if. You know those words usually cause nothing but pain." "You got that right." "No, the point is I look back with some regrets, and I look forward with those regrets in mind, not wanting to make the same mistakes again, instead wanting to correct them when and if possible." "Meaning what?" "I missed a lot of your upbringing. Not all of it. We spent plenty of time together after I moved and even more together before that." "You were never an absentee father." "I know," he said gratefully, lightly patting my cheek with affection. "But I started living to work instead of working to live. It took me away from you, took me away from your mother. I missed so much of what you went through back then, you and Nate in fact. I think I could've been a better pseudo-adoptive father to him had I been here instead of there. And maybe I would've seen something about Richard—" "No. Don't do that. If there's one regret we all have that we can leave in the past, it's Richard. I'm trying to move beyond that, Dad, and Uncle Farid's helping a lot, but it's pointless and counterproductive to dig it up and rehash what might have been and what we might have done and what if and what if and what if. Please don't do that about Richard." "Of course. You're right, of course. I'm sorry. I guess the point I was doing a piss poor job of making is that being back here now, I hope I can do a better job, be a better man, maybe a better husband ..." "What?" I shouted. "Don't yell. It's uncivilized." "Don't give me that, father of mine. You're hinting at more than rekindling an old flame." Blushing, Dad ducked his head, nodded. "Yeah. Maybe. No promises, though. But your mother and I have been talking a lot over the last few years, more than ever in fact, and we've spent a lot of time realizing what we both walked away from because of stubbornness, though at the time we used other names for it. But yeah, we're closer than we have been in years, we're both feeling like we did when we first started dating, and we're interested in seeing if we can put things back together." I leaned forward and pulled him to me, hugging him hard. "That's awesome," I said, choking back tears. "That'd make us so happy, both Nate and I. We'd love for you two to get back together." When I sat back, I noticed Dad appraising me, studying me. "What? Do I have something on me?" I brushed randomly around my face hoping to snag whatever icky thing had caught my father's attention. "No," he said with a smile, though it was a sad smile. "Nothing like that." Scooting a little closer, he took my hands and held them as he said, "Greg, your mother and I and your aunt and uncle really want to help Nate get over whatever Richard did to him." "Dad—" "You need to be here Friday evening." "This Friday?" I was taken aback. "Yes. We'll all be here, including Nate. We want to sit down and talk to him." "Has Uncle Farid explained—" "Of course he has. And we know we're not therapists or psychiatrists, and we know we don't know him a fraction as well as you do, but we want to help." "If we can just find the key to unlocking what's in his mind ..." Dad's eyes grew sadder still as he gripped my hands tightly. "Your uncle said that, if we can find a way through whatever wall he's erected in his head, you'll get the answer to your question about what Nate feels." "I know," I sighed. "I want to make sure you're ready for the best and worst." "My heart's already breaking, Dad. The worst is that it breaks more." He released my hands and sat back, wiping a stray tear from his cheek. For my part, I was fighting the moisture in my eyes, restraining the emotional wreck that wanted to escape. Gavin nodded, thought not in agreement but instead in understanding. "I hear you. It's just that, for as long as we've known you were gay, we've always felt you and Nate were the happiest people we'd ever seen, the strongest and most loving couple we'd ever witnessed." "But it wasn't enough, Dad. It's so close yet it's not enough." "I understand. I just want you to be ready. You know what we hope—" "The same thing I hope, sure, but we need to help him first. Everything else is a secondary consideration." Turning back to the messy table and the work ahead, I mumbled under my breath, "Just remember hope doesn't last forever."
  3. December 23, 2016 "Dad!" I wrapped my arms around him and lifted him off the ground. Gavin stood about five eleven and weighed maybe a hundred seventy pounds, but in my excitement I manhandled him like a rag doll. "Put me down!" His deep, robust laughter rumbled through his body into mine as I held him against me. Chuckling, thrilled beyond words, I set him back on his feet without releasing him. I kissed his cheek, pressed my face against him, whispered, "I'm so glad to see you." A sense of barren heartache echoed in my voice. I hoped he missed it. When I let him go, however, his expression said otherwise. But he didn't comment, not then anyway, not in the middle of DFW International Airport with thousands of people meandering about the terminal in a crush of humanity. Instead he wrapped and arm around me as we turned toward baggage claim. "How've you been, Greg?" I snuggled him against my side and exclaimed, "Fine!" Uh, wanna tone down the enthusiasm so it doesn't come across like soap opera acting? His slight frown and minuscule nod, as though I'd shared some terrible news, seemed to echo my thoughts. Then he confirmed it by saying, "Insofar as 'fine' is concerned, you didn't sell it." Dropping my head as we jostled and bumped through a mass of people before splitting off toward the luggage carousels, I admitted, "Yeah ... Well ... I'm okay. Surviving, which is better than the alternative." His hand rubbed my back, the paternal love passing right through my heavy coat into my body. "Sometimes surviving's all we can do. But I'll let you in on a little secret: it's never enough." All I could offer by way of reply was a shrug before inquiring, "How about you?" "Moving back here is working wonders for my disposition. But, to be honest, I'd be better if my boys were happy." I wish people would stop assuming I can fix what's broken. * * * * * Dad sipped his red wine as the waiter took our plates away and unobtrusively left the check. I set my American Express atop the small tray and pushed it to the edge of the table. "That was delicious," he said. I nodded emphatically. "It's my favorite Greek restaurant. Authentic, traditional cuisine and a delicious assortment of wines." To emphasize the point, I toasted him with my wineglass before finishing its contents and setting it aside. "So you really think we can pull this off?" "Of course," I answered without hesitation. "You have the business acumen and I have the money and the technological know-how and the people and the contacts. I'll have clients lined up by the time we open our doors." Gavin chuckled. "Always the optimist," he beamed. An abrupt wave of sadness swept over me. I frowned, looked down at the empty table, then back to my father's eyes and said, "Mostly, but not always." His hand slid across the table and gripped mine, squeezing it, communicating much. "In other news," he added when he released his grip on me, "the office space is almost done—" "I've dealt with the tech installers, so the server room, lab, data center, phone system and wiring are up to spec. My people will start installing equipment on January third." "Excellent! I was scared you might leave that for me." "Only to watch you squirm in agony," I snickered. He kicked me under the table and muttered, "Asshole." "Greg?" Both Dad and I spun around to look behind us. Much to my surprise, Keigan had entered the restaurant without notice. "Hey, dude," I greeted as I stood and hugged him, planting a kiss on his cheek. He returned the welcome before releasing me. As I sat down, I kicked out a chair and said, "Join us." "Only for a minute. I came to pick up dinner." He settled into the chair. "Dad, this is Keigan, the friend I told you about who owns the burger joint. Keigan, this is Gavin, my father." The two men shook hands across the table and said brief hellos to each other. "I would've guessed either older brother or dad," Keigan said. Gavin puffed up like a parading peacock. "Older brother ... There's a compliment." "You don't look a day over sixty," I joked with my fifty-year-old father. He kicked me under the table. Again. "Hey!" I fussed melodramatically as I leaned down to rub my aching shin. "Clearly you two got your table manners from the same place." They glanced at each other before laughing. "Are we that much alike?" I asked my friend. Possibly because he'd been in Seattle for so long and I didn't spend as much time around him as I might otherwise have done, I never considered myself a reflection of my father. Everyone could tell I wasn't a reflection of my mother. "It's so obvious," Keigan said. "The wavy black hair, the glacial blue eyes, the blemish-free fair skin, the exotic Central European features—something softer than Russian but harder than British, that special place where genetics kicks out beautiful men without trying. He even has a similar build." Keigan waggled his eyebrows for effect. "Uh ... Okay," Dad mumbled, blushing. Suddenly something over my shoulder caught Keigan's eye and he smiled, though he took on that lustful gaze gay men sometimes get when their sight stumbles over a tasty example of the male gender. "Yum ..." he mumbled. "Gross! That's my dad you're talking about." "Not him," Keigan groaned while my father struggled against uproarious laughter. "Oh." I gave Dad a pitiful look and shrug, whispered, "His loss," then asked Keigan, "Fine. Who?" "The host seating people." After glancing back I said, "He's the owner." "Really? Hmmm ... Don't you think he's hot?" "If you're into the Greek daddy thing." "And you're not?" "Not really my type. Not that I have a type, at least that I'm aware of." I ignored the knowing looks both Keigan and Dad aimed in my direction. "So you're telling me you don't think he's all kinds of sexy?" Keigan asked. "No. Too burly. Too furry. I have no problem with body hair, don't get me wrong, but I'm not into getting rug burns from sex." The three of us bit off our laughter lest it get out of control. "I suppose ..." my friend muttered, eyes locked on the Greek restaurateur, "but he's pretty delicious." "So you're a daddy-and-his-boy kind of boy?" "No! I'm into equals. No dominant-submissive stuff, no daddy-son stuff, just equals." "Same here. But clearly you have eyes for the daddy type." "Not necessarily. I thought you were hot as hell the moment I saw you." I blushed and shrugged. He added, "I just like what I like and I think the guy's sexy." After winking at my dad I told Keigan in a breathy tone, "Would it make him hotter if I told you he has a nice dick, almost as big as mine, and he's versatile and really hot in bed?" Both men looked shocked, Gavin's mixed with straitlaced humor and Keigan's mixed with lubricious interest. "Does he really?" Keigan whispered overly loud. I couldn't hold back my chuckle. "How the hell should I know? I said he's not my type." He hit me, smacked me like I was a redheaded stepchild. The audacity of some people! Waving away any further outrage on his part, I told him, "I don't know anything about his sexual prowess or his ... ahem ... assets, but I do know he's gay, he's a really nice guy, he has the sexiest accent, and he's single." "Really?" Keigan couldn't help looking like a kid in a candy shop. Then his smile faded as he asked, "Or are you full of bullshit again?" "Still, K, not again. But no, I'm not kidding this time. All those things are true." Leaning close to him and speaking conspiratorially yet loud enough for Dad to hear, I added, "If you play your cards right, I'll introduce you to him. We've known each other for years; my company uses this restaurant for catering sometimes and for business lunches other times." Sitting back, I winked for effect. Grabbing my face and pulling me to him, he planted a sloppy kiss on my lips then responded, "You're on, Mr. Beaumont. I'll go grab my dinner and I'll be back. Then you can introduce me to ... Wait, what's his name?" "Yannis." "Yannis ..." he repeated, working the name around his mouth to discover its hidden flavors. "Right, Yannis. Okay, I'll be right back." He stood and turned, then immediately turned back and leaned toward my father. He quietly joked—at least I hope he was joking—"Not that I'm giving up on this daddy," to which he added a suggestive wink. Gavin melted into his chair, a massive blush exploding all over him. Once Keigan left the table on his way to the register, Dad gave me an interesting look, part curiosity and part confusion. "A close friend of yours?" he asked with a mischievous grin. "He's just a friend. A good friend, but just a friend." "Seems like a nice guy. Handsome, too." "Yeah, he's handsome." Leaning forward and dropping my voice to a muted level I added, "And he has a really hot body, all lean muscle in all the right places, plus he has a nice uncut cock." I licked my lips in as lascivious a manner as I could while biting back a laugh. "In case you're thinking about making him my stepfather." Dad's eyes widened in dismay as he scooted back, shaking his head and fighting a chuckle. "Ugh! That was completely unnecessary, Greg." "Unnecessary? Perhaps ... but it sure was fun." * * * * * December 31, 2016 When I stopped at the curb outside Kyle's old house, it had the deserted feel of a place long abandoned, though I knew they'd only moved out the day before, spending their final two nights at an airport hotel since all their worldly possessions had already been shipped to Florida in anticipation of their move. Nevertheless, it felt like a home with all the children gone. No, that's not it. It's bleaker than that, more barren, destitute even. It's like all the hope is gone, all the love. Maudlin thoughts wouldn't help me find Basketball Boy, so I shook them off as I allowed the car to creep slowly along the street. At the house Nate now occupied alone, a dark shape huddling against the garage caught my attention. It could've been a bag of trash, though I had my doubts. I parked at the end of the driveway and shut off the car. It was already obvious to me that I was looking at a person curled in on themselves as they sat on the ground and leaned back on the wall. There was no doubt in my mind who that person was. "Kyle?" My voice was gentle, calm. Standing a few feet from the loitering shape, my voice raised nothing but the slightest tremor, the movement of shadow in dark, hardly more corporeal than imagination. But I knew I startled him, even if only slightly. With my feet bracketing his, I knelt in front of him before reaching out and pushing back the hood of his sweatshirt. Kyle had his head resting on his arms which in turn rested on his knees. Everything he wore was dark, blue or black from the looks of it, and he was no more obvious than air. Unless somebody was looking for him. Like me. Gently running my fingers through his hair, his skin was cold yet he didn't shiver. In fact, he didn't move at all, not even looking up at the sound of my voice or the touch of my hand. I grabbed him under both arms and hauled him upright, saying, "Come on, Kyle. Let's get you someplace warm." He said nothing, his eyes vacant, his expression blank—not the blank expression I'd come to understand meant deep thought, but instead the plain expression of someone utterly lost. Basketball Boy allowed me to lead him to the car, settling him in the passenger seat and buckling the seatbelt before I got in the other side, started the vehicle, and drove away from the neighborhood we'd both once called home. * * * * * "No, not catatonic," I told Teresa over the phone, Kyle settled on the couch under a few warm blankets, a cold beer nearby if he wanted it. "He's just lost in his own head, emotionally bare I suspect." "How did he get out that far?" Shaking my head as I looked at the sixteen-year-old boy stretched out on my hotel suite's sofa, his eyes glazed and staring at the ceiling, I had no answer. "I really don't know. Walked maybe?" "In this weather? He'd freeze to death going all that way." "Cab? Uber? Hitchhiking?" "God, don't put that image in my head! Imagine what might've happened—" "Teresa," I interrupted firmly, "he's okay. He's here with me. I've covered him with blankets to help him get warm, he's resting on the couch, he's not bleeding, he has all his pieces and parts attached as far as I can tell ... I think it's something like shock, just this horrific feeling of abandonment." "You're right. Of course you're right. Thank God you found him! I can't thank you enough." "I couldn't have rested until I knew he was okay. I'm just grateful you called and told me he was missing. The moment you said it, I had an idea where I might find him." A disquieted sigh came through the phone, a mixture of frustration, worry, gratitude and relief, almost a motley moan. "We'll come get him," she insisted. "Don't be silly. You're way the hell out at DFW Airport. That's an hour away at best, then another hour back to your hotel." "I can't ask you to bring him out here. It's the same amount of time for you." "Let him stay here tonight. He'll get some sleep, I'll get him up early, I'll have him there first thing so he can pack and you guys can make your flight." "I couldn't ..." "I can. He'll be safe and warm and comfortable, plus he'll be where he needs to be in the morning without losing more sleep than necessary." A soft inhale and an understanding exhale came through loud and clear. "That's what he'd want, probably what he hoped for when he left," she mumbled. "I suspect as much." * * * * * By the time my call with his mother ended, Kyle had rolled onto his side, curled his hands together under his chin, his back pushed into the sofa, his expression still desperately empty, his eyes hollow and sightless. I sat next to him and stroked his hair, his cheek, his ear. "Kyle," I said softly. Without warning one of his hands came up and grabbed mine, pulling it down under his chin and gripping it like a lifeline. Then his eyes flicked up, met my gaze. And finally the tears started, no indication of them until the first one rolled down his nose. He pushed his head down so his mouth rested against my hand. His breath was hot, fevered, though not from ailment so much as emotional turmoil. He was sick only insofar as anyone is sick when they have to say goodbye to the person they love. Though I didn't share his feelings, I understood them perfectly well. "You found me," he whispered. "Of course I did." "How?" "Your mom called, told me you'd gone missing earlier in the day. She was scared out of her mind. You're staying at a hotel at one of the busiest airports in the world. Her imagination ran wild and provided all sorts of terrible scenarios to explain your absence." I leaned down and whispered in his ear, "You owe her a massive apology." He didn't laugh or smile, only squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, causing more tears to fall. "You have to take me back, don't you?" Basketball Boy's voice was so meek, so full of sorrow. It broke my heart to hear him like that. "No," I said quietly as I sat upright, my hand still in his iron grip. "You're staying here tonight. I'll take you back to the hotel tomorrow morning." "You'll leave me there ..." he grumbled. The accusation lacked venom but contained plenty of despair. "No, Kyle, I won't. I'll stay until you're on your way. I said I'd be there to say goodbye and I meant it." He kissed the back of my hand, a soft and sweet gesture. In response I squeezed his hands and pulled him to his feet. Wrapping an arm around him while he moaned, I started us toward the bedroom as I said, "It's time to get some sleep. We have an early morning tomorrow and you have a long, hectic day ahead." That elicited a disgruntled groan even as he let me lead him toward slumber. * * * * * After using a spare toothbrush to deal with oral hygiene, he moped toward the bed as he stripped off his sweatshirt, tossing it into a nearby chair. Then came the shirt, the shoes, the socks, the jeans. In only a pair of boxers, he slithered under the covers, pulling them up to his chin. "You're going to break some hearts in Florida," I told him before I rinsed with mouthwash. "Huh?" After spitting I explained, "You're an attractive young man, Kyle. Your body's responded really well to the workout regimen Nate and I put together for you." I glanced toward the bed in time to see him shrug. "Puberty and metabolism," he mumbled. "Teenagers!" I laughed. "Honestly, though, you've added muscle in all the right places. Your physique has filled out nicely. Have you noticed how defined you are now?" "Yeah." "You're going to be popular when you get there. Just keep up with the workout and diet like you have been." "I will," he said, a note of embarrassment in his voice. If he was a few years older and if my own emotions weren't bogged down in a hopeless case of unrequited love, I wouldn't hesitate with him, and not just because of how sexy he is and how attractive in an everyday way he is. I know him, know the person behind the hot image, and I like that person, love him even. "You're a special young man, Kyle," I admitted whilst undressing down to my boxer briefs, stowing my dirty clothes in the closet's hamper. Over my shoulder I added, "You're going to grow up into a special man. Anybody will be lucky to win your heart." All I got in response was a grunt, something between dismissive and abashed. Shutting the closet door, I stepped back into the bathroom to collect the used towels so I could pile them in the corner where the maid service would find them the following day. Every time my eyes glanced in the mirror, Basketball Boy's hungry stare was roving over my exposed skin—and even the skin not exposed. Maybe I should've worn shorts. "It's a survival trait, remember?" "What is?" "Being able to function around someone you're attracted to without calling attention to the fact that you're attracted to them. Trust me when I say every gay man worth the membership card knows being obvious around the wrong people is the quickest way to get hurt." "Why are you telling me that again?" "Because you've been eye fucking me since I started undressing." Under his breath he muttered, "But you're not the wrong people." "No," I agreed, "no I'm not." "Does it bother you?" "Not now. It did at one time, as I told you, but not now. Now it's just flattering, even a bit embarrassing." "Why embarrassing?" "A young, attractive guy like you giving me all those wanting looks and flirtations expressions? I'm twice your age, Kyle. I don't know what you see in someone my age." "It's not someone your age I see, it's you." I blushed ferociously as I slid into bed beside him, the covers resting near my waist. His eyes never left my body. Tell him no funny business. He's just getting his fill before his chance ends. No harm in that. Giving him a mischievous grin I asked, "Do you want me to leave the light on so you can look at me all night?" His blush was eloquent, speaking of fantasies both exotic and mundane. Typical teenage thoughts, of course, driven by self-discovery and hormones. After clicking off the bedside lamp, I settled back, hands behind my head, eyes staring at the dark ceiling, feeling good that I'd found him and feeling good about his future. He was a bright kid, adaptable, young. Young people love hard and fast, and first loves are the biggest, most memorable of our lives. Still, he had his whole life ahead of him to find the right man, to find his happiness. "Greg?" he ventured, not whispering but not speaking loudly either. "Hmm?" "Can I ... Can I come closer?" Not moving, I muttered, "Mm-hmm." At no time did I doubt we'd wind up in each other's arms for the night. Not for funny business, mind you, but there'd be no harm in letting him enjoy slumber's embrace in the arms of the man he loved and had to leave behind. For only one night, I couldn't deny him that small pleasure. He scooted closer, closer still, moving in small increments, perhaps frightened, obviously nervous. I could tell by the bed's motion and the sound that he was only a few inches from me, the last few inches a vast chasm of space between what he imagined and what was real. Finally deciding to help him along, I wrapped an arm around him, pulling him to me so his head rested on my chest, his body pressed up to my side. His sigh was profoundly beautiful. He'd sleep well, I knew. * * * * * January 1, 2017 When I woke in the morning not long before my phone alarm was set to sound, I was on my side and Kyle was nestled in against me, his face to my chest, his legs intertwined with mine, one arm slung over my ribs and the other holding my hand, my other arm wrapped around him. It was sweet. Innocent and sweet. Giving his hand a slight squeeze and nudging him a bit with my chest caused his head to snap up and his sleepy eyes to open. "You didn't try to take advantage of my innocence last night," I protested with mock indignation. The fiery blush that exploded in his cheeks rapidly spread down his neck and up to his ears. He immediately pressed his face against my chest to hide his reaction. I leaned forward and kissed the top of his head. "Come on. Time to get moving." * * * * * Both Gerald and Teresa assaulted Basketball Boy with stern scowls when we arrived at the hotel; Teresa even scolded him, albeit quietly, yet she wanted to say more than she did but refrained, likely because it involved confronting what Kyle hadn't told them yet, that longing to see your first love one more time before saying goodbye. For her part, MJ showered him with hugs and whispers and playful smacks, which elicited huge grins and giggles from both kids. At the airport outside the security checkpoint, beyond which I couldn't follow, MJ threw herself into my arms and held me as if her life depended on it. "I'm gonna miss you," she whimpered. I squeezed her tightly as I said, "I'll miss you too, sweetie. But we'll keep in touch, I promise. You have all my contact info, including all my social media accounts." She nodded against my neck. "You won't forget me, will you, MJ?" I asked facetiously. "God, no!" she cried. I hugged her tightly before setting her feet back on the ground. When I straightened and looked at her face, it felt like I was causing heartache left and right. She was near tears, for goodness sake! Wow ... I didn't realize she had it that bad. Wiping away a stray tear with my thumb, I quietly told her, "You call me anytime, MJ. You get in touch however you want whenever you want. You hear me?" She nodded, dejected, but said nothing. She was too close to crying to speak. When she spun around and shuffled away, I didn't feel too terrible for her. At thirteen, she'd meet so many new people and have so many new experiences in Orlando that she'd soon be telling her friends about the silly little crush she once had on some old neighbor guy, then she'd toss back her hair and give a sly smile to some cute boy across the way. I shook Gerald's hand, then he surprised me by pulling me into a bro hug. "Thank you," he mumbled quietly, "for everything you've done for my family." Taken aback by this sudden show of emotion on his part, the sudden closeness he demonstrated, I hugged him with equal fervor and replied, "You and your family have done just as much for me, Gerald." He released me and stepped back. I added, "Take care of them." "I will." Then he turned and joined Kyle's sister near the security line. Teresa's hug was potent and lasting. "You've been a blessing to us," she whispered in my ear. "I can't thank you enough. I just can't." "Thank you for the gift of your friendship. Thank you for raising two very precious and beautiful children. Thank you for letting me be a part of your world, even if only for a brief time." With tears in her eyes she said, "I assure you, Greg, we're just as grateful you've been a part of our world." She touched my cheek briefly, then surprised me with a quick peck at the corner of my mouth, her thumb gently stroking beneath my eye. The wetness she spread told me I was suffering as much emotion as the rest of them. Teresa glanced at her son, sullen and bereft and withdrawn, then glanced back at me and smiled sadly, giving a slight nod. And with that she joined her husband and daughter. Basketball Boy didn't move. He just stared at me. His mouth moved a few times, unspoken words dying before passing his lips. I closed the distance between us and pulled him into my arms. "I'll miss you something fierce," I mumbled, my voice threatening to break. "Oh God ..." he groaned as he clung to me, his grip tight and confining and desperate. He buried his face against my chest and sniffled. "I don't want to go," he cried quietly. Whispering into his ear I said, "We're never more than a phone call away from each other. We'll talk all the time, I'll come visit when I can, and Teresa and Gerald already said I can fly you back here for my birthday party on February third." "I don't wanna go ..." Bracketing his face with my hands, I pulled him away from me enough to see his face. He was so full of woe and sorrow and the kind of pain that comes from deep inside. "Have you come out to Teresa and Gerald?" His surprised shock faded quickly as he answered in a hushed tone, "No. Only MJ." "So you get to check out boys with your sister, huh?" Though brief, his smile shone bright before he ducked his head. "She brought it up. She said she's looking forward to it." I chuckled. What a wonderful relationship they had. What a fantastic deepening it would enjoy with this new shared secret, this new shared interest. "Why did you want to know about them?" he asked in a shaky voice. Wiping away his tears I leaned close and said, "I guess I can only give you a hug if they don't know." Confusion gave way to realization which gave way to pleasant surprise. Without preamble he released me and spun around, rushing over to his family, whispering quietly to them, mostly to his mother and stepfather, each of whom nodded sagely and with understanding, trying to look as though what he told them came as a surprise. At that they both failed miserably. Each hugged him quickly before letting him return to me. "They already knew," he grumbled. "Really?" Even I didn't believe the phony surprise in my voice. Through a subdued laugh he gave me as serious a smirk as he could while saying, "My little secret hasn't been much of a secret, huh?" "Not to the people who love you." Eyes wide and panic stricken, Basketball Boy seemed ready to die right there for the anguish he felt, the terrible loss he imagined. I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him against me again. "Youth rebounds and recovers quicker than youth realizes, Kyle, a trait of the young we adults can admire and envy but can't emulate or acquire. We lose it in the transition to maturity. Unfortunately. So don't be in too much of a hurry to grow up." He trembled in my arms with silent lamentation. I nuzzled near his ear as I said, "You'll meet all sorts of new people there, make all sorts of new friends. And one of the boys you meet will steal your heart. What you and I have is wonderful, but it can't be more than it is. That boy, that special young man you meet, will be able to give you more. I promise." Shaking his head, attempting to negate reality, he sniffled but said nothing. "Look at me, Kyle." He did. So woebegone, so distressed. It wouldn't be long before all of this seemed like a silly schoolboy crush to him, his first foray into the feelings he'd only recently admitted to himself and those around him. "You call me anytime, day or night, no matter what. If you want to talk, if you need to talk, if you just need a friendly voice or an understanding ear, you call me." He nodded in silence, tears on his cheeks. "We'll talk often, text, e-mail, social media, phone, whatever. And you'll be back in a month for my birthday, for the whole weekend. That's not long at all." "I know," he mumbled. Placing my hand over his heart, I fought back tears as I said, "You and me, Kyle, we'll always be connected right here, you hear me? What we have is special and it's powerful and it won't die if we care about it at all." He kept nodding but said nothing. No doubt words would cause a complete emotional breakdown. Cupping his cheeks in my hands, using my thumbs to wipe away the unending moisture there, I leaned down and kissed him. No tongue, no lust, no erotic intent, but instead I poured into the kiss all the love I felt for him, all the sorrow his absence would cause, all the unending strength of the bond we shared. I poured my soul into that kiss, into Basketball Boy, into Kyle Wakeham, the neighbor boy who'd turned my life upside-down, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, and through my lips I told him I wouldn't change a minute of what we'd had together. He nearly passed out, so overwhelmed was he by the unexpected intimacy of a kiss that held no sensual promise. His hands grasped my arms to steady himself as he leaned into me, his legs wobbling, his body trembling. When I broke the embrace, only a few moments had passed, but the rejuvenated life in his face made me think it had been a kiss that lasted hours, if not days. "I love you," I whispered. "Remember that." "I love you, too," he returned, his voice shaky and uncertain. I watched them wend their way through security. Kyle kept glancing back, making sure I was still there. Beyond security, inside the terminal proper, they turned left. Kyle's eyes remained locked on mine until he disappeared in the surging crowd of travelers. Only then did I turn and walk away, my tears flowing and my heart breaking and my mind wishing the past year had ended so very much unlike the reality I faced.
  4. Jason MH

    Not Even Close

    December 19, 2016 I found myself approaching Keigan's door a little before midnight. I knew he was home because he'd told me his schedule. Well, that and I saw his car in the lot. I'd pulled my shirt out of my slacks and started unbuttoning it before I reached his apartment. The cold air raised goosebumps on my exposed flesh. It felt good, that feeling, that sensation. My nipples, always hard, seemed to pebble into stone from the chill. Why are you doing this? It's a bad idea. You could ruin whatever promise there is here. I'm responsible for the greatest loss I've ever experienced and now, with Kyle moving away, I'm suffering another huge loss. I feel desolate. I need to feel something else, something better. I need to feel ... I rang the bell and waited, pulling my jacket closed over the open shirt beneath. After a minute the locks clicked and the door opened. Wearing nothing but a pair of pajama bottoms, looking like sexual candy waiting to be unwrapped and enjoyed, Keigan rubbed his eyes clear of sleep as he asked, "Hey, Greg. What's up? Is something wrong?" "Can I come in?" My voice was husky yet subdued, a whisper of anticipation. "Yeah ..." he muttered, pulling the door wider and gesturing me inside. As I passed him I pulled off my jacket and shirt in one move and tossed them toward the couch, though they landed on the floor instead. Then I swung around and stepped up behind him as he locked the door. He'd barely turned in my direction when I bracketed his face with my hands and captured his lips with my own, using my body to pin him to the door. Too shocked to respond and too unsure to participate, Keigan stood frozen in place. Turn up the volume. So I did. Still kissing him, I slipped one hand behind his head as the other slid down his neck to his chest. At the same time I pushed my crotch into his, slowly gyrating my hips, letting him feel my need, my desire. A sharp bite of his bottom lip followed by a soothing lick caused him to gasp and shiver. I exhaled as he inhaled, slow and sensuous. My tongue accepted the unspoken invitation of his parted lips by slipping into his mouth, touching gently as it delved deeper, exploring with increasing fervor when he responded in kind. I poured all my want and need into the kiss even as my hands began painting his bare torso with gentle touches, drawing a path of goosebumps as I traced my fingertips along the canvas of his warm skin. Finally reaching one of his nipples, I began lightly brushing it with my thumb. When he moaned into my mouth, a desirous yet desperate sound, I knew he'd make me feel. Keigan's hands gripped my shoulders. At first he pushed. But it was a weak move, his fingers trembling against me, his resolve waning. A second ragged moan rumbled from his mouth into mine as my fingers began gently pinching and caressing his nipple. His tongue slithered and tangled with my own inside his mouth. Tentative at first but with growing certainty, he pushed it past his lips into my mouth. His hands slid from my shoulders down to my chest, grabbing handfuls of muscle, rubbing, caressing, beginning a wanton exploration of my bare torso, touching everywhere, touching everything. My heart raced with anticipation. So did his, if the drumming I felt as I played with his nipple meant anything. I sucked his tongue fully into my mouth before snaring it with my teeth. I suckled it, teased it, massaged it with my tongue, then I allowed it to slide away as my teeth gently scraped it, my tongue chasing it with playful caresses and prurient licks. Pulling away from his face, I licked and kissed down to his neck. He threw his head back against the door, arched his spine. I attacked his throat, nibbling and sucking. He writhed beneath the onslaught, throwing his chest out to increase my access. Giving his nipple an especially vigorous pinch and twist caused his entire body to jolt. I slid my tongue up his throat, over his Adam's apple to his chin. He watched me with hungry eyes. A chill of excitement swept over me as he brushed his lips against mine, feather light at first, immediately followed by a sultry exchange of saliva as our tongues fenced with flick and thrust and parry. "Jesus Christ you can kiss ..." he groaned as I nibbled beneath his ear, an action that elicited a shiver and goosebumps. I knew I was drawing blood to the surface when I sucked the spot I'd nibbled. I couldn't help it. I needed to feel connected. I knew he'd help me. I intended to push all the right buttons to make it happen. When he groaned, the hint of rumbling words reaching my ears, I reclaimed his mouth and swallowed the next sound he made. And the one after that. Then finally the long moan he couldn't contain. Grinding my body against his, my cock against his, I ravished his mouth until only ragged moans and rapid breaths escaped his lips. His hands roamed freely, touching here, caressing there. One eventually ended up in my hair as the other worked a nipple. That should have elicited moans and bodily shaking and intense desire in me, but it didn't. Each of my actions felt mechanical, my reactions machinelike. Not that carnal want didn't play a role; it most certainly did. But overriding the physical sensations and primitive cravings was a robotic plan designed to make me feel that for which I most hungered. Releasing his mouth and withdrawing my tongue, I kissed and licked and nibbled my way down to his chest. I really wanted to get my mouth on one of those sinfully hot nipples he sported. And when I did, it was like lightning struck him. Keigan's back arched, he muttered and moaned—the word fuck was repeated a few times—and his hips thrust toward me looking for friction. Turn up the volume. As I gently clamped my teeth on his nipple and waggled my tongue against the captured toy, one of my hands circled around to his back as the other fell to his crotch. His moans grew needy, full of desire. He bucked and writhed the moment I gently bit the other nipple before sucking it into my mouth, caressing it with my tongue. When I was sure he was a wriggling mess of want and lust, I stood upright. That's when I felt the press of his lips against mine, the urgent push of his tongue into my mouth. I grabbed his head, held our mouths together. I was lost in the feeling of such profound mutual want, the feeling of another man who I knew and trusted, another man touching me with the same salacious designs I had. I separated our lips for just a moment, long enough for me to get one arm solidly behind his back and the other behind his knees, after which I lifted him into my arms. Before he could say anything, I had our mouths once again busy with other matters. "What are we doing?" he asked between urgent kisses as I carried him down the hall to the bedroom, his hands holding my unshaven face to his. "Just go with it," I murmured. "Should we be doing this?" "Yes," I answered gruffly, then I laid him gently atop the bed. Before he could react, I stripped him of his pajama bottoms. With the bedside lamp still alight, I had a clear view of him in his unclothed glory. "Fuck ..." I mumbled when I caught sight of his cock, hard and throbbing and leaking. "You're beautiful." And he was. Seeing him naked for the first time tripped all my switches. Not the biggest dick I'd seen, but certainly one of the more beautiful examples of manhood in my experience. Maybe seven-and-a-half inches long and thicker than average, certainly too thick for my fingers to touch when wrapped around it. And uncut ... "You're so fucking hot ..." I mumbled before I took him into my mouth, into my throat, swallowing around him as I worked to get my shoes, socks, pants and underwear removed. Not an easy feat when you can't move your head, but I managed. "Christ!" he shouted, hips bucking and back arching. His hands gripped the sides of my head as I slowly bobbed up and down, pushing him into my throat each time, swallowing, covering him with saliva. I need him wet. Using my tongue to caress and tickle, using my lips to stroke, hollowing my cheeks to add stimulation, using my throat to squeeze and massage, he was a writhing and bucking mess of nerves and desire and moans and groans by the time I'd freed myself of my clothes. I came off his dick and stood, readying myself to climb his body like Mount Everest. "Oh God ..." he groaned. I glanced up and realized he had a dazed, overwhelmed expression as his eyes devoured me. Ignoring the blush he caused, I slithered up his body like a leach, using my mouth to suck here, nibble there, lick everywhere. My hands glided along his smooth, muscular body, playing with each sensitive spot my mouth discovered, my fingers wet with the saliva I was leaving behind. As I worked each nipple with teeth and tongue and lips, Keigan moaned and pressed his chest into me as he pulled my head against himself. Then, as if to decapitate me, he pulled my head up until we were face to face. Before I could think of my next step, our lips pressed together, our tongues danced, our legs intertwined, our hard cocks rubbed. He wrapped his arms around me as I cupped his face, each of us holding us together in our own way. "I've wanted you since I first saw you," he groaned before turning his head so he could suck on my neck, first biting it, then licking it, and finally sucking gently enough not to draw blood to the surface. The feel of his skin against mine, his naked body against mine, pushed me toward a sexual frenzy. I needed him to make me feel, to push me past the biggest barrier Richard had erected. If my life was going to fall apart, damn it to hell I was going to overcome the most horrific phobia my assault caused. "You're so fucking sexy," he whispered in my ear. "Christ, Greg, this is a fantasy come true." I stopped any further words by claiming his mouth again, working the kissing magic Marc taught me. Keigan moaned into my mouth, a ragged, sensual sound full of want. Through the kiss I communicated everything I couldn't say, everything I was feeling but couldn't share with language. His response was to deepen it, to pull me tighter against him, to buck and gyrate his hips to increase friction between our cocks. "I've wanted this for so long," he mumbled as I began working my way back down his body. "Greg ..." he purred softly. The bedspread bunched in his fists while his eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth open and his breathing ragged. I'd learned all of his sweet spots on the way up, so I visited each one on the way back down, leaving him a squirming, incoherent mess by the time I took him in my mouth again. "Are we really doing this?" he muttered on an exhale, little more than breathy escaped words before he groaned, throwing his head back while I swallowed and swallowed. Wetter. I let saliva flow freely, not swallowing it. Bobbing up and down, I cupped his balls in one hand and gently rolled them. "God damn!" he exclaimed as I pushed him rapidly and repeatedly into my throat, focusing my muscles on the head. "I can't believe I waited this long ..." I mumbled when I came off his shaft, licking down its length, dribbling spit the whole way. And just before I started in on his balls, I pulled the packet of lube from my slacks, ripped it open, and worked it into my hole. I need to feel. The sensations made me shiver, though not entirely from pleasure. When I collected the precum pooled in my foreskin and running down my shaft, I added it to my already slick entrance, working it inside. Another tremble coursed through me and I thought, I can't do it. But I need to feel. This will get me beyond Richard's reach, help me overcome, help me feel. Keigan squirmed with pleasure as I moved from one ball to the next, showering each with gentle, careful attention. His legs trembled as I licked my way back up the underside of his shaft. I worked him into a bucking, writhing, sweating, unintelligible mess, his moans and groans interspersed with a word salad, his hands flailing or gripping the bedspread or holding my head in an attempt to slow down the onslaught of sensations. Leaving behind his slobbery wet cock, I worked my way back up until I straddled him, pushing his dick into my crack. Though the sensations were phenomenally wonderful, I was shaking noticeably. His glazed stare roamed my naked body until he saw my cock, throbbing and hard and bobbing between us, a pool forming on his abs from its constant leak. "Fuck you're big ..." he groaned. His hips started rotating, moving up and down, his thrusts meeting my own efforts. "Are you a bottom?" "Versatile," I breathed out before kissing him deeply. Is that true? You've never bottomed ... except when it was taken from you. I have fingers and toys. I enjoy them. This can't be different. Oh but it is when there's another person involved. Despite the increasing trembles wracking my body and the lightheaded feeling and the clammy sweat covering me, I knew I could do this, I could cross the barrier Richard had erected, I could feel. He won't get you over the hurdle. Throwing his head back as I stretched my spine to increase pressure between his cock and my ass, he mumbled gibberish for a moment before looking back, grabbing my face, drawing me in for a kiss full of rampant desire and unadulterated lust. "I've always fantasized about fucking a guy with a big cock," he murmured against my lips. "And any sex with you is at the top of my list." "I need to feel," I told him, "and I want you to make it happen." You can't do this. It'll never work. I'll make it work! I increased my movements to hide the constant earthquake rocking my body. Keigan ran his tongue across his lips before saying in a desperate tone, "I want to taste you." Even as I worked my hips to keep his cock sliding up and down my crack, playing catch and release against my entrance, I reached down and squeezed a sizable dribble of precum from my cock. Once I had it on my fingers, I wiped it across my lips before leaning down and kissing him. His moan reeked of ecstasy. He licked and sucked my lips while trying to maintain the kiss. It was raunchy and passionate and nasty and good. I was jarred by each catch of his head at my entrance. My body would jerk and my mind would panic. In response I'd move enough to slide him further along between my cheeks. With his precum and my saliva and the lube, there was a wet mess going on back there. I hoped it would be wet enough. "Condoms," he muttered with a vague gesture toward the nightstand. "No ... I need ..." "What? Tell me what you need." "I need to feel ... I need to feel you inside me ..." By then I was trembling so much that I was practically shaking the bed apart. Keigan could feel it, obvious by the concern weaved into his lecherous expression. My kisses had reached a fever pitch, desperate, though not with want but instead with fear, attempts to distract me from what I was trying to do. I'm teetering on a precipice here. And I'm rapidly losing my balance. I was pale, cold and clammy sweat covering my body. Every part of me shivered as if chilled. My breathing came in skips and jumps, hitching painfully, a raspy noise typifying ailment more than ecstasy. "Are you okay?" The husky voice I heard sounded far away, a question meant for someone else. I nearly screamed when he lodged his cock against my hole and began pushing, lightly at first but slowly increasing the pressure. Every muscle in my body went rigid, even my diaphragm such that my breathing halted. Violent tremors ripped through me, sending droplets of fright-filled sweat in every direction. My eyes slammed shut. Stop! Suddenly Keigan grabbed my face as he sat up. "Greg!" he shouted, though for me the sound was distant, at the other end of the tunnel in which I found myself. The man beneath me wants in but I can't let him. He'll hurt me. No he won't! He'll use me and abuse me and leave me a wrecked carcass, too damaged to give a man what he deserves, too dilapidated to satisfy or be satisfied, too derelict to be happy. My head lolled back, my position causing his cock to press harder against my hole, creating a feedback loop that further sent me in a downward spiral of terror fueled by the dark memories of a barbaric assault. What I wanted Keigan to make me feel had been forced on me long ago, so the attempt filled my mind with visions of blood and violence and the taking of innocence. I can neither take it from him nor give it to him. What have I become? "Stop! What's wrong?" Maybe the words were meant for me and maybe for someone else. I couldn't say. I've fallen, my balance failing me and the precipice becoming too small. I'm falling. What should have been a purely physical act of gratification has pushed me over the edge. I'm falling. I thought I knew what I was doing when I came here; clearly I didn't. I'm falling. A sound so alien that it seemed I was gargling with gravel erupted from my throat, a guttural wail so crude and visceral that it caused Keigan to grab my shoulders and shake me with furious strength as he yelled my name over and over again. My eyes snapped open. I cut off the noise emanating from my throat. When I looked down, his face was contorted with rabid fear and incomprehension. "Jesus, you're as pale as a sheet! And you're freezing! What the fuck is wrong? Greg! What's wrong?" I rolled off him onto my back, my breathing shallow and ragged and way too fast, my body trembling and sweating, my mind reeling. Leaning over me, cupping my face and gently stroking my cheek, Keigan's worry came through loud and clear. "What's wrong? Greg, are you okay? What the hell just happened? Talk to me!" I'm broken. I'll never be fixed. I'll never be normal. I can't even let a man fuck me. I'm broken. "Fuck!" It was time to tell him a tale, the story of my fifteenth birthday and all that preceded and followed it. "Fuck!" I exclaimed again, slamming my fist into the bed to punctuate my displeasure at this turn of events. * * * * * "Jesus ..." Keigan muttered as he swiped a hand over his face. "I mean ... Just ... Jesus ... I'm sorry that happened. I just ... just can't imagine. It's unbelievable that there are people like that in the world." "I wouldn't call him a person," I grunted. Sitting naked on the edge of the bed with my hands propped on my knees, not once had I shed a tear while recounting the story of Richard, the whole shebang, everything from start to finish. Keigan had settled against the headboard, his legs pulled up so he could rest his arms on his knees, his head on his arms. He'd stared throughout the telling, bewildered, disgusted, horrified, tearful, woeful, sympathetic. "Was it fear that stopped us tonight?" I glanced at him. He didn't look upset, only sorrowful for my suffering. "Yes. Plain and simple. I hoped I was free of Richard's longstanding legacy. Apparently I'm not." "Or I'm not the one?" "Huh?" I gave him an inquisitive stare. Then: "Oh. I get it. Maybe you're right. I guess it's a trust thing." Apologetically I added, "It's not like I don't trust you, K, so I don't get it. I don't understand what my problem is." In a clear attempt to change the subject, Keigan asked, "So you haven't bottomed since then?" "Not before and not after, and it wasn't by choice when it happened." "I know. I'm not saying that. But when you came here, that's what you wanted, right?" "Yeah." "How do you know you'll even like it?" "Fingers. And toys." "Oh. Right. Ever top?" "Every time I've had sex since then if it was more than oral." "Well, with the equipment you have, it would be hot if you were a total bottom, but it would also be a waste." I blushed profusely, ducked my head, squeezed my eyes shut with embarrassment. "See, that's it right there. That blush, that sheepish reaction." "What?" "No wonder I was willing to break my rule." Turning to look at him, I asked, "What the fuck are you talking about?" "You." "What about me?" He shook his head dismissively. "Nothing," he mumbled with a flutter of one hand. Then with distinct curiosity he asked, "So how did you know?" With an inquisitive glance I responded, "Know what?" "That I wouldn't turn you down, that I wouldn't put a stop to this before it started." Dropping my head, trying to hide the burning in my cheeks, I quietly answered, "I've seen the way you look at me." He bumped me with his foot. "But I told you I don't do one-night stands, I don't do hookups." "I know. But I've seen it. I couldn't have seen it a month or two ago, and certainly not before that—" "Blind spot?" "Yeah, blind spot. Anyway ... I couldn't have seen it before, but over the last month or two ... Well, I see the way you look at me every time you see me. Pure hunger and want. I didn't think you'd deny me. I assumed you'd bend your rule for me." "Bend it? Hell, Greg, that wasn't bending it, that was shattering it!" We laughed. "So why didn't you?" I asked, my voice soft with trepidation. He cocked his head slightly. "Why didn't I what?" "You know ... Why didn't you turn me down? Why didn't you stop me?" Keigan took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the exhale loud, perhaps too loud. Then he said, "You're oblivious." "What?" His words shocked me. Blind spot notwithstanding, I wasn't known for being oblivious. Willingly dense, sure, but not oblivious. "Look at you," he told me as he gestured toward me, waving his hand slowly up and down in my direction. "You're almost always the hottest guy in the room, you're a walking wet dream, sex on two legs, whatever you want to call yourself." "Hardly ..." I muttered. "Exactly!" When my dumbfounded gaze met his he explained, "You're unbelievably hot, yet you either don't know how hot you are or you don't care that you're drop-dead gorgeous, and that makes you even hotter." "I'll be gracious and say thank you, but know that flattery doesn't do a lot for me." "Greg, be serious and listen to me. I've never seen anybody so comfortably sexy and so physically perfect. From the first moment I saw you I've fantasized about you even though you're not really my type. I've never broken my rule about no-strings sex before, but I was willing to do it with you the moment I first laid eyes on you." "No strings, huh?" Why do you sound disappointed? You didn't come here for a marriage proposal. You came for carnal release from the prison Richard put you in, nothing but skin-on-skin sex to break the lock. "Hey." He bumped me with his foot again. "I like my strings. That's how I'm comfortable, that's how I'm happy. But I'd get attached to you. And you ... you wouldn't. It's a good thing it fell apart because I'd probably be hooked from the physical pleasures alone, not to mention from knowing my biggest fantasy had come true. Meanwhile you'd walk out, having overcome the obstacle you came here with, and I'd be left alone." I was appalled and it showed on my face when I stared at him. "Why, Keigan? Why do you say that?" You know why. He does, too. What's with the rhetorical questions? "It was a setup for pain for me, that's why. I'd be invested and you'd be gone. I've seen it coming, although I didn't think it would reach this stage." My voice was becoming strident, urgent, but like my expression, it was also becoming sorrowful and tinged with unfulfilled longing. "Why does it have to be that way? Why can't I be blown away by you? Why can't you and I be more than this?" My frantic gesture looked silly trying to encompass both of us and the bed and the room and things in general and the universe and whatever. Keigan grabbed my flailing hand and gripped it with both of his. As his expression softened with regret and understanding, he said, "I think we both know why, Greg." When I said nothing, he added, "Because I'm not the one for you." "So apathy is the conclusion?" "Apathy for everyone else, just not for him." In a lighter tone he continued, "Which is a damn shame, too." "Why do you say that?" "What you can do with your body, your mouth ... Jesus, Greg, where'd you learn to kiss like that? You literally took my breath away. It was like you were talking directly to my soul every time our lips met." I was blushing profusely and ducking my head, yet he kept going. "You expertly discovered every one of my sweet spots and knew exactly what to do with them. And I've never had anyone work my dick like you did. People pay good money for that kind of service!" "You're sounding grossly sycophantic." Admittedly my tone was meek and abashed. I was comfortable with my body and comfortable with my sexual skills, but I wasn't arrogant or haughty. I was just me. "But I'm right! Man, you'd make one hell of a rich rent boy." Yanking my hand from his, I smacked his arm as I turned away. "Fuck you ..." I mumbled, too embarrassed to say more. "It's a compliment. As fantasies go, you're the one that's better than the imagination ever conceived. Seriously, Greg, what's up with that? I thought you haven't had a lot of sex since ..." His tone became a touch more serious. "... well, since your assault." "I haven't been a monk. I just haven't bottomed. I'm observant; I pay attention to every reaction and sound and expression and every bit of somebody's body language. And maybe I haven't slept around every night for the past sixteen years, but I guarantee I learned from every man I've ever been with, even if it was learning what not to do. Flying fuck, K, I even learned from Richard no matter how unpleasant the experience was." A salacious grin accompanied his words as he said, "You definitely learned." I fell back on the bed and covered my face with my hands, rubbing my eyes and groaning. "I used you." The thought disgusted me, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. What have I become? "Not really," he said dryly. When I gave him a curious glance, he added in a softer tone, "You can't rape the willing." His admission was not so much sad but disappointed in himself, upset that he couldn't refrain from letting me have my way despite knowing I couldn't be what he sought. Misery. That's the name of the game I'm playing. A hot naked man beside me that I don't love and can't have full sex with because it terrifies me, a hot ex-best friend out there somewhere who I love more than words can describe but who doesn't love me the same way, and I'm scampering about looking for satisfaction where I can't get it and hoping for something I'll never have and trying to fix something that maybe can't be repaired. "I'm a fucking mess ..." I moaned. The bed stirred and the covers rustled, then Keigan nestled in beside me, his head on my chest. Tapping my sternum lightly he said, "You're not a mess, Greg. But you're definitely in love and you definitely have residual issues from what happened to you back then. I can't help you with the issues and only time or the object of your affection can help you with the love." He leaned up on his elbow and stared at me. I dropped my hands onto my abdomen and turned to meet his gaze. "We're friends, you and me," he began softly, and already I feared what he intended to say, "and I think that's all we'll ever be. I'm really interested in you physically, but other than that I've kind of come to the conclusion that you're out of my league." "K ..." My voice was charitable yet regretful. He used his free hand to cover my mouth so I couldn't speak. "Emotionally you're off-limits, Greg. I thought the physical attraction would be enough, a stopgap to get over that hurdle. But it's not. I like you as a friend—hell, I love you as a friend. If it was all physical with me, I'd jump your bones several times a day for the rest of my life. It's not all physical with me, though; I suspect it's not with you either. I want—No, not want, want's too weak a word. I need more, the emotional attachment, the undiluted love." He leaned down and kissed my forehead without uncovering my mouth. "I can't get that from you," he continued, "at least not while the ghost of your love for Nate haunts everything, casting shadows over every interaction, every feeling. And even if you were to overcome that love, I'm sorry to say you're really not my type for a longterm relationship and I'm not the type to do empty sex." His hand came off my mouth without warning just as his lips met mine in a soft, gentle, platonic kiss. "Not even for somebody as incredibly hot as you," he whispered against my lips. I shut my eyes and breathed deep. I came here because I needed to feel something. Now I do, only it's not what I expected to feel. Not even close ...
  5. December 16, 2016 "Then he told you?" Uncle Farid asked as he blew out a cloud of smoke, the cigarette dangling from his thin lips. "Yeah." "And what did you think about it?" "Richard conducted psychological warfare on him just like he did with me. That means it's in your area of expertise, not mine." After that declaration, I waited. Mutely, in fact, watching him as he watched me. Eventually, looking as though I'd farted in church, he asked, "That's it? That's the sum total of what you walked away with after Nate told you what Richard did?" "I'm not qualified to offer an expert opinion on the side-effects of Richard's mental voodoo on the man who once was my best friend." Waving a dismissive hand at me, he huffed in frustration before explaining, "I'm not asking for a psychological evaluation, Greg, as you well know. Dodging the issue doesn't help us deal with it. Your conversation with Nate has direct implications for your own treatment. So, can we dispense with the avoidance?" "Yeah," I mumbled. As I stared at him, I wondered where he thought he was going and why he thought he needed to go there. In exasperation I explained, "What I feel is a hollow sadness, a resigned acceptance of my fate, a profound disappointment, all of which you know already. So why are we focused on Nate instead of my depression and grief?" "Dealing with the former will help us deal with the latter." Then he stared, his implacable stoicism challenging my emotional havoc. After several moments in a silent standoff, I shrugged in defeat as I sighed. Then I moaned, "Fine." I rolled my eyes for his benefit, though he'd looked away by the time I did it. He tamped the spent cigarette in the ashtray as he inquired, "You intimated that Richard's efforts with Nate were focused on his feelings—" "There are none," I announced adamantly, now realizing the destination he'd had in mind all along, the one place I didn't want to go. "Are none what?" "Feelings." "What do you mean?" Leaning forward so I could prop my elbows on my knees, I clasped my hands together and bounced my thumbs against each other as I stared at them. Several times I took a deep breath as though ready to delve into a meaningful treatise regarding Nate's feelings toward me. In the end, however, all I could do was drop my head and explain, "He adroitly maneuvered around the question when I asked for an explanation. Maybe he thought he expertly avoided the issue, but he didn't; he only avoided answering it despite it hanging between us the whole time pleading for a response." After a deep inhale followed by a flustered sigh, Uncle Farid told me, "When you say 'there are none,' Greg, you sound very definitive." "I asked. He refused to answer, instead trying to divert my attention to something else entirely. By not answering, he answered well enough." "I don't think that's sufficient—" "In fact, Uncle Farid, it is sufficient. Sure, Richard messed with his head the same he did with mine. For that, I'm regretful beyond words and hopeful that you'll help him overcome whatever impacts and influences the doctor had on him. The last thing I want is for Nate to struggle in life because of what that asshole did to us. "But Nate and I have been inseparable for more than twenty years. If there's one thing he's demonstrated openly and repeatedly, it's that he's straight and—" "Did he explain to you the precise contents of Richard's manipulations?" Glancing up to meet Uncle Farid's solemn gaze, I nodded and said, "Yeah. So?" "Just as you've been unduly influenced to act on Richard's instructions, does it not stand to reason that perhaps Nate—" "I know where you're going," I interrupted, letting my head drop and hang sadly, eyes closed, "but I can't live my life based on what might be. What if are the two most painful words in the English language; I refuse to plan my future based on them. I can only act on what is. And isn't it just as likely that Nate's hesitation in answering is due to his own confusion?" "Confusion about what?" "Richard put those thoughts in his head, manipulated him based on his feelings and our friendship. Everything I know about Nate says he's straight, albeit terribly comfortable with any sexuality. Wouldn't it be likely that his inability to answer that simple question stems from the crap the asshole doctor put in his mind rather than what he really feels? I mean, Richard made him think there might be something there and now Nate's struggling with it because there's no substance, only suggestion." "You're assuming, though." "Maybe ... Perhaps ... It doesn't matter, not really. I gave Nate a chance to tell me if there was something, even if it was just hope. He backed away and refused to say anything, as though he didn't want to hurt my feelings with the truth. Which is what I suspect." "What are you saying?" he asked gently. "That was ten days ago. If he really had something important to tell me, if he really had feelings for me beyond what he felt as my best friend, why hasn't he called? Why hasn't he come to find me? He knows where I work, he knows he can catch me at Starbucks, at the gym, at Kyle's school and home. He knows my phone number. Even if it was just to tell me that there's nothing there, no reason left for me to hope, he could reach out to me. Again, if he really had something important to tell me, why more silence?" "You asked him to stay away, to give you time and space." "If he had something important to say, he wouldn't let that stop him. Neither would I. So I'll tell you why the silence. Our relationship really is over, and there never was any hope of something more than we had. All the feelings were one-sided. That's clear enough for me. "He admitted Richard messed with his head based on Nate's potential feelings for me, whatever they might be, and made him fear anything other than friendship. From everything I know and our encounter in the parking garage, I realize now there was never a threat of any such feelings on Nate's part. Richard threatened him for nothing. "That means it's over. Looking back I realize it was always going to leave me disappointed, wanting, hoping for more than he could give. There's nothing to go back to and there's nothing to fix, not if I'm ever going to get over him and find my own happiness." Finally sitting back and meeting Uncle Farid's unwavering stare, the resolve I felt belied by the single tear running down my cheek, I told him, "I think in the future we should treat the subject of Nate in a clinical sense at it relates to my ongoing therapy for the Richard event." Wiping the tear away with an annoyed swipe, I added, "It's time for me to move on." Uncle Farid leaned back in his chair and studied me with sympathy. But his eventual sigh was distinctly sorrowful. * * * * * December 19, 2016 "Why aren't we going to the hotel?" Keeping my eyes on the road I replied, "Your mom called and told me she needs to talk to us." "Us?" I glanced at a wide-eyed and worried Basketball Boy in the passenger seat and chuckled as I lightly smacked his arm and said, "Dude, relax. Yeah, she said us, but it's not the end of the world." The poor boy looked positively terrified. Somehow Kyle managed to sink into the seat, making himself smaller. "What's that about?" he muttered, more to himself than to me. "Relax," I said in a warm, joking tone, an attempt to bring levity to his sullen demeanor. "It's been a while since we pillaged a town and it's been even longer since we robbed a bank, so I can't imagine it's about anything villainous." The look he gave me was part accepting and part rejecting. Clearly, like teenagers everywhere, he could come up with all sorts of ways this would turn out badly. I can't say as I blame him. It's kind of weird. And she sounded so serious when she called. An inventory of everything Kyle and I had ever done together, ever said to each other, rapidly filed through my head for evaluation. I couldn't come up with anything untoward or problematic. Which left me back where I started: unworried yet curious. "Don't let your imagination run wild," I said as I turned onto the street where his house and our house nestled amongst a veritable laundry list of trees. I wonder where Nate is ... I thought, seeing the garage door closed and no sign of life around the home we once shared. Probably at work. Maybe he's out on a date. I shivered. Then I shook off the consideration, realizing that that part of my life was in the past. The parking garage conversation was more than two weeks into history. Whatever he might be up to, it was his business, not mine. After parking in the driveway, Kyle grabbed his gym and school bags. I followed him through the open garage into their house. "Come on in," Gerald called from the dining room. Like our house, the garage door opened into the kitchen, but from there the resemblance quickly died. Unlike so many developments, this neighborhood had had more than a handful of home designs available as it was built. Tastefully decorated with classic yet comfortable furniture, family photos adorning nearly every wall, warm color schemes throughout, their home felt like a place a family lived. Which was obvious given the game console in the living room, the basket of clothing sitting on the counter full of teen fashions, and the way Basketball Boy dropped his stuff on the bar as though it would magically make its way upstairs to his room. Which might be just how it works, though I doubt Teresa is that tolerant of such assumptions. "Don't expect me to pick up after you," she said as she came downstairs, thereby proving my supposition. "Mom ..." he whined with a roll of his eyes. "You heard me," she responded, though her tone was jovial. She pulled him into a hug as she asked, "You have a good day, honey?" "SSDD," he replied as he tried to squirm out of her grip. Oh yeah. Teenagers haven't changed since I was one. Public displays of affection by the parental units are verboten. A plain man, neither attractive nor unattractive, Gerald had made his way from the dining room, beer in hand. His blond hair and neatly trimmed blond mustache were just shy of being noteworthy, the color a little too dark and the texture a little too coarse to draw more than a cursory look. His face was rounded without being chubby, his ears a little too prominent, his smile a little too crooked. He always made me think of the guy in the office who no one remembered five minutes after they met him, the meek, shy, reserved guy who never went out to lunch or drinks, who was always the wallflower at company events and parties, the reliable yet forgotten guy who quietly did his work before slinking away without notice. But Gerald was anything but forgettable. What he lacked in looks he more than made up for with personality, wit, charm, charisma, and a gregarious nature. He was a social animal, good with names and faces and personal details, always cheerful and always friendly and always interested in what someone had to say. He personified the notion that strangers are friends you haven't met yet. The man would make one hell of a politician. He gripped my hand firmly as he welcomed me. "Good to see you again, Greg." "Always a pleasure, Gerald. How've you been?" "Great! How about yourself?" "Busy with work, but that's as unusual as breathing." As soon as he released my hand, Teresa stepped in and wrapped me in a hug, which I happily returned. "It's always a pleasure to see you, Greg," she whispered in my ear. "The pleasure's all mine." As she released me, she gripped my shoulders and held me at arm's length, her features taking on the look of a curious woman. "Kyle says you're working on starting your own business." I shot Basketball Boy a stern look that wouldn't fool anybody due to the smile on my face, then back to his mother I said, "Yeah. It's a secret." Here I threw a silly frown at Kyle. Back to Teresa and Gerald, who now had an inquisitive look on his face, I added, "But I'll probably be ready to start business in a month or two." "I don't think Kyle's mentioned it. What do you do exactly?" "Computers, networks, servers, all that fun stuff." Kyle's stepfather waved a hand in front of his face as though he smelled something foul. "You've already lost me," he joked. "He knows all about technology, more than anybody in school," Kyle chimed in, sounding a bit proud. That amused me. "It's a lucrative field, isn't it?" I nodded at Gerald as I explained, "It's highly specialized, so, yes, there's ample amounts of money involved." "Especially if you're good, right?" Kyle asked. "I think it works that way in any line of work," his mother said. "Where's MJ?" I'd seen neither hide nor hair of her. If she was in the house and she knew I was there, she'd be all over me. The fact that she wasn't told me she was probably not home. "Visiting some friends," Teresa told me. Her voice and expression communicated more than her words. They didn't want her here for this, whatever this is. Obviously it's more serious than I thought. Other than heightened curiosity, though, I couldn't muster any worry. Nothing in the months of my friendship with Kyle struck me as nefarious or bothersome. Waggling his empty bottle of Sol, Gerald asked, "Care for a beer, Greg?" "That sounds good." I added a grateful smile to emphasize my words. As he fetched two bottles from the refrigerator, Teresa pulled Kyle into the dining room and called over her shoulder, "You boys join us as soon as you have your fix." Once he'd opened the beers, Gerald handed one to me, then we both joined his wife and stepson at the dining room table. I took a seat next to Kyle—doing otherwise would've put me at the opposite end of the table like a recluse or a reject—and Gerald sat next to his wife. After taking a sip of beer, he took his wife's hand. He leveled an apologetic yet serious look at Basketball Boy. "You remember what we've been discussing about Orlando?" he asked. Kyle's expression wilted from inquisitive to frustrated anger. "No!" he yelled. "You said it might not happen." I schooled my features and remained silent, already fearing what this might mean. "Honey," Teresa softly began, "you know—" "No!" he yelled again. Gerald couldn't muster a harsh expression, instead settling on distressed sympathy, yet his voice conveyed a no-nonsense sincerity. "Kyle, it's my job. You knew this was possible." Maybe it was the stunned curiosity on my face that prompted Gerald to tell me, "I've been promoted." "The big project in Orlando ..." I mumbled, my hand coming to rest on Kyle's shoulder. He flinched but otherwise didn't react. Teresa nodded as her husband's subdued voice filled the room. "It's a big step up for us. I've been managing this project all along, from the beginning. Now they've offered me a promotion to move down there and manage the team once they're ready." "When? Tell me when!" Kyle trembled beneath my firm grip. I rubbed my thumb back and forth across his shoulder trying to calm him, comfort him. She couldn't hide the hurt she felt on her son's behalf as she said, "The first of the year." Kyle jumped up so abruptly that his chair tumbled over backward, a dull thud against the plush carpet. Just as I spun in his direction he shouted, "I don't want to go to Orlando! I have friends here! I have school here! I have—" His words froze as his eyes locked on mine. Then back to his parents: "I don't want to go to Orlando!" Teenager tantrums are still a thing, I guess. Before anyone could speak, Kyle huffed and spun away, stomping across the living room to the stairway, more a fitful jog than a mad stalk. The three of us watched him go. Like a heard of stampeding elephants, his progress up the stairs and down the hall was marked by deep, robust bangs where each of his vehement footfalls landed. After setting the spilled chair upright, slowly turning back to the two people still at the table with me, what met my gaze were a couple of sorrowful yet hopeful looks. "I'm sorry," Teresa mumbled with a shake of her head. Why does this hurt so much? Gerald took a sip of his beer, eyes cast toward the table, lips pressed tightly together in a frown. Then, meeting my pained gaze, he offered a little shrug before saying, "It'll be better for all of us. It's good money, good responsibility, a big leg up in the company." He's apologizing without apologizing. Throw him a bone already. Leaning my head to the side, I tried to sound supportive and understanding despite what I felt. "That's how life works sometimes. He'll understand when he's older, when he has his own job to deal with, his own responsibilities." After a deep breath I added, "It's life." I stood, lifted the untouched beer to my lips and guzzled down the entire bottle, set it quietly atop the table, then looked at Teresa. Pointing up I asked in a solemn and hushed voice, "Where?" "The door at the end of the hall," Gerald answered automatically, appreciation gleaming in his eyes. Teresa gave a supportive nod but remained silent. Kyle's door was shut, so I gently tapped it with my knuckle. "Leave me alone!" "It's me." A momentary pause, a painful silence, then he said, "It's open," his muffled voice carrying anger and anguish to my ears. Slipping inside and pulling the door shut, I ignored the typical teenager's room in which I stood, with the video game consoles and the television and the stereo and the desk and chair and dresser and clothes strewn about and shoes scattered hither and yon. What I didn't ignore was the unmade bed, for upon it sat a stone-faced yet misty-eyed sixteen-year-old boy whose world was crashing down around him. Or so he thought. "Talk to me, Kyle," I said, worry clear in my tone. Worry for him or for me? I didn't have an answer for that. Even as I waited for a response, I made my way across the room and dropped onto the bed beside the youngster who looked mad despite the unshed tears in his eyes. His defiant posture slipped away as his shoulders sank and his head fell. He didn't sob or sniffle or shudder, and he didn't weep or shout. Still, I knew he wanted to do all those things; the look on his face as he'd stared at me said as much. Reaching over, I picked up one of his hands, intertwined our fingers, pulled his hand onto my leg and wrapped it with my other one. Then I quietly said, "Talk to me, Kyle." It was the hands that pushed him over the edge, I think. It began with a lone tear and an angry huff, and finally he growled, "Why the fuck does this have to happen now?" Then he crumbled. His weeping was silent, eyes red as his tears flowed freely, a solemn lamentation. I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him against me. All I could do was hold him. I couldn't fix what he thought of as broken. What we think of as broken. You feel it, too, don't you? After several moments of tense silence, he stuttered, "We're ... we're leaving ..." "I know," I exhaled. After a deep, ragged breath, he said bitterly, "We're ... moving ..." With that he seemed to shrink into himself as his tears fell. There was as much anger as sadness in them. Fucking hell ... Who comforts the comforter? Don't lose it, Greg. This isn't about you. I strengthened my hold on him, pressing him against me. "Not for two weeks." To my own ears it sounded like an empty platitude, a banal, shallow remark with no meaning, inadequate words meant to placate while accomplishing nothing of the sort. It took several deep breaths and several long moments before he could speak. When he finally did, I felt my heart break a little more than it already was. "Two weeks," he spat, then added, "They're taking me away from you in two weeks." I knew why I was hurting so much. I'd already lost Nate. And now I was going to lose Kyle as well. "When did you first find out?" He replied angrily yet without venom, "They've been talking about it for a few weeks." He never said anything. Why didn't he tell me before now? At least that it was a possibility out there beyond the horizon somewhere? Denial. You know a thing or two about that, don't you, Greg? My hand slid from his back to his shoulder. I pushed gently, turning him toward me while moving us apart. I scooted away far enough to pull one leg up onto the bed and around behind him. Then I slowly pushed his legs up with my other one even as I pulled him to me. Gently I leaned back, taking him with me, keeping him pressed against me as I lay us both down. Once we were settled, Kyle's shaking form resting atop my own, I kept rubbing his back and stroking his hair and holding him close. I kissed the top of his head but said nothing. We lay like that for ten minutes as he silently cried angry tears against me, occasionally giving slight shakes of his head as if negating some proposition, from time to time huffing out a disgusted breath. Eventually he turned his face and rested his cheek against my chest. Basketball Boy stared at the wall without seeing anything. He needed to talk this through, but starting that process was his responsibility. I didn't want to lead him. He sighed once, twice, three times, then he nestled his head under my chin and his face against my chest, his breath gliding between the buttons of my shirt and caressing my skin. "I don't want to go," he mumbled softly. Still stroking his back and his hair, still holding him close, I said, "You have to." "I can stay here with you." "That's not really an option." "I don't want to leave you!" "Sometimes we don't have a choice. Sometimes we have to do what's expected even if it's not what we want." "I don't want to leave you," he repeated in a whisper. "Don't they have telephone service in Florida? And Internet access?" "Huh?" he muttered as he lifted his head to look at me. "Kyle, you're not going to the moon. Florida's halfway across the country and it's just another state, not another planet. No, we won't see each other every day, at least not in person, but we can call and text and e-mail and video chat." "But ..." "And I can always go down there to visit you. I'm not tethered to Texas, dude. There's nothing that could stop me from going to Orlando to visit one my closest friends." Dropping his head back to my chest, his tears stopped but his cheeks wetted, he shrugged as he muttered angrily, "It won't be the same." "Of course it won't be the same, silly, but it's better than loosing touch with each other, isn't it?" "Well, yeah, of course it is," he replied, making it sound like I was rather daft for mentioning it. He squirmed a bit to get comfortable, still settled between my legs and atop my torso, bunches of my shirt gripped in his fists, his nose touching my chest as he pressed his face against me. Under any other circumstances, our positions could be sexual, intimate, the prelude to something interesting or special. But not this time, not under these circumstances. So quietly I almost didn't hear him, he whispered, "I don't want to live without you." It was less a whisper and more a breath of despair. After kissing his head again, I said, "You won't be living without me. We'll be in touch all the time and we'll see each other as often as possible." "But ..." His voice tapered off into the abyss of silent contemplation. "What?" I whispered into his hair. "I love you." He was so quiet, so nervous. I gave him a squeeze as I mumbled, "I know. I love you, too." "I mean—" "I know what you mean. I don't love you that way, but I do love you, Kyle." After a deep breath I added, "Maybe this is for the best." When he stiffened I held him in place and continued, "Being away from me might help you get over what you feel. You'll realize there are other guys out there, other guys around your age, other guys who aren't carrying the kind of baggage I have, and soon enough you'll have a boyfriend that you're madly in love with and can't live without, and you'll laugh at yourself for thinking you couldn't survive without me." "I doubt it," he muttered with a subtle shake of his head. Silence blanketed the room, cloaking us with wordless despair, unspoken desperation, mute distress. Slowly his breathing became regular, deepened, fell into the rhythm of sleep. I rubbed his back, gently ran my fingers over and through his short hair, stared at the ceiling, wondered how much more I might lose. Little more than an hour later a light knock came at the door, quiet, unobtrusive. Not wanting to wake him, I looked that way and waited. The knock came again, as inconsequential as a dream. When at last no answer came, the knob turned and the door opened slowly, just a crack, just enough for a pair of blue eyes to peek through and meet my gaze. Teresa pushed the door open enough to step inside, Gerald standing behind her, gratitude written all over his face. He leaned against the wall as his wife tiptoed across the room to the bed. She leaned down, pushed a few stray locks of her son's hair aside, kissed his forehead. When she stood up, the affection with which her eyes showered me made me shudder and blush. Without hesitation she leaned down and kissed my forehead as well, cupping my cheek and rubbing gently with her thumb. Standing upright, she whispered, "Thank you. And I'm sorry." In renewed silence she turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her. Hours passed as I held Kyle, as he slept, as thoughts whirled around in my head accompanied by tumultuous emotions. Feelings of loss both past and future. Feelings of growing loneliness. Feelings of aches that might never be soothed. Feelings of suffering. Feelings of need. Feelings of love that would never be returned and feelings of love that could never be. When Kyle wriggled in his sleep and began to roll over, I gently guided him off me and onto the bed, pulling my arm from beneath him lest I be trapped for the night. As I turned to leave, I thought better of it and looked back at the sleeping teenager. I didn't hesitate when I leaned down and kissed his cheek, smoothed his hair, whispered into his ear, "Goodnight, Basketball Boy. Sweet dreams ..." * * * * * "This'll be hard on him," Gerald said in a hushed tone. "Kids have a mental plasticity and emotional elasticity that we adults often lack, something we sadly lose as we mature." Both he and his wife looked at me, then they both smiled. "You're right," Teresa said. "It's just hard to remember that when you see them hurting like this." "He'll be okay," I reassured them, though I was trying to reassure myself as well. "I'm sorry we dropped this on you." "It's no problem, Gerald. I appreciate knowing." "I appreciate you being their for Kyle," he replied as he ducked his head and smiled. "Sometimes I'm not sure how to relate to him." "That's true for all adults and teenagers," Teresa said, rubbing his back. When she walked me out to the driveway to say goodbye, she hugged me tightly, thanked me again, then added, "I know this will be hard on you, Greg." "It's life," I whispered, then I climbed into my car and shut the door. * * * * * After watching Teresa give a brief wave before disappearing into the house, the garage door lowering quietly in her wake, I pulled out of their driveway and slowly drove down the street, eventually passing the house. With the garage door shut I couldn't tell if Nate was home or not, though it was near midnight. If he was home, he'd have seen my car three doors down. Moving like a stalking cat, my car rolled quietly along the street, passing the driveway I'd once called my own, passing the house I'd once called home. Suddenly feeling like a stalker, I accelerated out of the neighborhood. At the stop sign, I banged my palm against the steering wheel as I shouted, "Fuck!" Then I repeated myself over and over. I held it in check for Kyle. I didn't want to make his trauma more severe by adding my own to his. But it feels like my life is falling apart. First Nate, now Kyle. Who's next? "I need to feel connected," I muttered. I need to feel alive. I need to feel wanted. I need to feel something real. I need to feel connected. I need to feel ... Turning the car away from the hotel, away from rest, away from refuge, instead I drove toward an apartment complex not too far away, an apartment complex with a beautiful courtyard and a first-floor apartment and a restaurateur who happened to be exceptionally hot. I needed to feel something with another human, desperately needed the connection, and I knew Keigan could help me. But will he? The odds are in my favor.
  6. November 25, 2016 Aunt Jan greeted me with a hug, a kiss to my cheek, another hug, stern silence, and the look: lips mashed together in a frown, eyes narrowed, forehead wrinkled, gaze unwaveringly formidable. Uh-oh. When she held me at arm's length and appraised me, her eyes boring into mine, the look of grim determination she started with slowly melted into loving sympathy. Cupping my cheek she whispered, "You look sad and tired, my darling." My mouth opened but I had no words. So I closed it and shrugged. She pulled me down and kissed my cheek again, then she whispered, "I know you're hurting, Greg. The rest of us are, too. This breaks our hearts." Leaning back and speaking in a firmer tone she added, "Your uncle's ready when you are." Then she patted my cheek a few times before walking back to the reception desk. Squaring my shoulders and breathing deeply, I marched to Uncle Farid's office door, opened it, stepped inside, closed it behind me, and took inventory of the room. If my uncle's stern scowl meant anything, it was that Nate's therapy sessions came earlier in the week than my Friday morning visits. Or, um, I don't know, maybe he called Mom and cried his heart out, maybe he called Uncle Farid or Aunt Jan and wept until his soul was empty, maybe he called Dad and asked how things could possibly have gone so wrong, or any of a number of other options. Oh. Sure. Could be. "Take a seat, Greg," Uncle Farid barked with a gesture toward the sofa. As I settled in for harsh treatment, he came around the desk and deposited his usual bounty near the chair he always used. Cigarettes and lighter here, pad and pens there, recording remote in his hand. He dropped into the chair with all the ceremony of a plane crash. Then he hit the remote, causing the usual three chimes to sound and the light above the door to illuminate. He tossed the remote onto the coffee table before dragging his pen and pad of paper into his lap. Without preamble he said, "It's approximately nine in the morning on November twenty-fifth of two thousand sixteen. This is the usual Friday session for Greg Beaumont." So far all he's given me is a dirty look and instructions to sit down. No greeting, no banter, not even a smack to the head. "Outside voice, please." Despite my worries, he sounded normal. A tad gruff maybe, a touch sad, but he'd put on his therapy hat and that was that. "Sorry," I mumbled. He waved away my automatic apology and turned slightly, setting his serious expression on me like hounds on a fox. "Anything in particular you feel like discussing today, Greg?" Does he sound snide? "Anything at all on your mind that seems pressing and important?" Nope, not snide. That's snark! "Anything I should know about before we get started?" He's loaded for bear. Dropping my head as I gave a slight shrug, I shook my head as I said, "I suppose we might as well talk about the elephant in the room." "And what elephant might that be?" I chuckled. I couldn't believe it, but his facetiousness coupled with that unwavering glare tickled me. While he lit a cigarette I explained, "Look, Uncle Farid, I suspect you've already met with Nate this week. I suspect you've talked to Mom and I know you've talked to Dad. So the elephant is that I did what was necessary—" "Ah! Necessary. Necessary ..." He practically savored the word the second time, as though checking to see if it still tasted the same. "Now there's a funny thing in this context, Greg. Since the twenty-eighth of last month, when you revealed Richard's role in building your blind spot, we've repeatedly discussed how necessary it is for you to calm down lest you make any rash decisions, how necessary it is for you to take time for objective evaluation and consideration of what you're going through and how you might respond to it, how necessary it is for you to pause instead of taking sudden action, how necessary it is for you to understand you're not thinking clearly because you're overwhelmed at the moment. "You've been on a downward spiral since you met Kyle. We agitated that by digging through your blind spot and exhuming everything you buried there since you were thirteen, but most notably since you were fifteen. You're dealing with memories that are traumatic and hurtful. You're flooded with related emotions, both past and present, but you're unable to correctly process and act on your feelings because they're deluging you whilst you're already beneath the surface of everything else. Added to all of that is learning of Nate's guilt and remorse about what happened to you. And you rediscovered your love for him when you dismantled your blind spot well ahead of schedule—" "But—" "You weren't ready for that level of revelation, Greg, nor that level of psychological and emotional upheaval. You just weren't. Immersion therapy is one thing, drowning is something altogether different. But instead of working through the process with me so we could address what lay hidden in that dark realm, you kept digging and digging. And though I warned you of the necessary nature of calming down, waiting, not leaping before looking, what I've heard this week—starting with a late phone call Sunday night, young man—has left me wondering if you're really here for assistance and guidance, or for some other reason I can't fathom." I was flabbergasted. And hurt. Not because Uncle Farid's words pained me, but because they dredged up the truth from some abyssal plane deep within my mind. Tough love indeed ... "I'm sorry," I said, though I knew when I said it what his response would be. "I'm hardly the one most deserving of an apology, though you dragged the entire family into this mess with your unjust, selfish, injurious theatrics." "The whole family?" "Yes, the whole family. First I receive a call from Gavin—maybe you don't remember, but your father is my wife's brother and therefore my brother-in-law—he calls me late Sunday night to ask me what kind of hell I unleashed inside you. Next, Jan received a call from Yvonne, at which point we started a conference call. Without violating doctor-patient confidentiality, I had to reassure them that this was not the end of the world despite my own doubts in that regard. Thankfully Nate spent the night at Yvonne's, so he had someone to help him get through what was a traumatic and life-altering evening. All of which means the entire family was involved. Is involved." "Fuck ..." The word startled me only because it slipped out of an otherwise silent yet open mouth. Mine, if you were wondering. After blowing out a cloud of smoke, Uncle Farid's countenance softened yet again, his avuncular love shining through as his tone became familial. "So let's talk about the elephant in the room, Greg. We love you dearly and we love Nate dearly; you're both family. Therefore we want to fix what you broke." "But I don't!" "I beg your pardon?" I wiped a stray tear away. "I don't want to fix it. Fixing it just puts me back in the same situation, puts Nate back in the same situation, neither of us completely happy and neither of us willing to leave the other to find our happiness." He shook his head slowly, frowning. "Is that the truth or is that a defense of your decision?" After a frustrated huff, I bowed my head for a moment to collect my thoughts. Then: "Let me see if I can explain this." I paused to take a few deep breaths before I met his gaze and said, "His absence unnerves me, makes me want to see him desperately. Which is true right after he walks out the door, let alone if I haven't seen him all day. It's a constant need to be with him, the need to be in his presence, the almost painful feeling of missing him even when he's coming back soon. Especially when I know the love that causes those feelings will never be returned, that eventually I'll see him off to another life without me while I wallow in misery and self-pity and wonder why I waited so long to get the hell out of the situation." Uncle Farid exhaled a stream of smoke, eyes squinting at me through the fog. But he didn't say anything, just stared, considering, waiting. "Regardless of that," I continued, "I never feel happier than when I'm around him. Even sitting in complete silence, so long as he's with me I feel as though all is right with the world. His presence gives me a sense of completeness and serenity that I've never experienced with anyone else." After I huffed out a frustrated breath I added, "The physical attraction is stronger than ever, but at least I understand lust." "Is it lust? Or is it something else?" "I ... I know what you're asking. It's lust, at least to some small degree. But the emotional and intellectual responses are altogether different, unsettling at best in their severity and confusing and arresting at worst for their unpredictable and unrelenting nature. He's all I think about, all I want, but that feeling's not shared and it's not productive. Fuck, Uncle Farid, has anyone ever felt anything like this?" He nodded. "How do they cope? How do they fix it?" "It's not something that needs to be repaired, Greg." "I disagree. Clearly something's wrong if I ache at his absence and shiver at his presence and think of him all the time. No one's ever evoked all these feelings in me. No one! And it's been there since we were kids, growing stronger day after day." Flustered, I threw my hands up as I declared, "Then he went and got hot! That didn't help at all!" Ignoring my uncle's amused expression and shaking my head, I sighed as I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap. "All of this troubles me to a great degree. How will I ever find the right man to live a life with if I spend all my time seeking Nate's company? How will I know I've met the guy who'll build a future with me if all my mental processes spend their time focused on my best friend? How will I know I've fallen in love if I can't see beyond the emotions Nate engenders?" Again I sighed, a sound heavy with confusion. "How can any of you expect me to go back to that when it means sacrificing the promise of happiness?" "Why do you think reconciling with Nate means you'd have to sacrifice potential happiness?" "If I'm around him, it feeds the love I feel for him, makes it stronger. It already overrides everything in my head and heart. There's no hope of finding the right man as long as I'm hung up on Nate, and since Nate will never feel the same way—" "Did he tell you that when you discussed your departure?" "I didn't discuss it!" Then my eyes widened at what he'd just done. "Fuck ..." I muttered. "You didn't give Nate a chance to talk about this with you. You took away his choice in the matter." "It was my choice! It's my life!" I hated the words even as they exited my mouth. I hated them because I knew they were selfish and uncaring and wrong. "Again you're letting emotions rule your intellect. It's not just your life or your choice. You broke a relationship without considering the other party. You didn't give him a chance to help you, to discuss this, to find a way together to solve the problems you see. Instead, you decimated two lives without letting the other half of you be there for you like he's always been, like you've both always been for each other." "I did it because I love him." My voice came out weak, unconvincing. "But it's not altruistic, Greg, at least not entirely. You destroyed his most important relationship, took away the man he loves more than anyone else in the world, and you didn't offer him an opportunity to respond, to tell you how he felt about your revelation, to react after thoughtful consideration, to defend his most cherished possession. You dropped two emotional bombshells on him at once, then you marched out as if the discussion had ended, when in fact what you did was start a conversation." Leaning forward and piercing me with his steady gaze he asked, "Did you stop and ask yourself how this would affect him?" "Of course I did! I knew it would upset him, but he'd see I'm setting him free and I'm doing what's necessary for my own happiness." "Did you know he was too upset and shaken to sleep Sunday night, yet he still pulled himself together Monday morning so he could attend his meeting at the new gym site?" I shook my head and gave a little shrug. And I felt like a selfish prick. "Did you know he overheard your discussion with Rita and he wasn't sure if it was good or bad, though he thought you handled it well, and only after he saw how she shunned you all night and how she gave you glowers and frowns and rude stares did he realize the conversation had been forcefully negative on her part, that she was essentially attacking you to separate you from him, and he couldn't stand it that he didn't defend you and support you when it happened?" "He heard that? Oh, of course he did. Bionic hearing ..." "He thought you handled it quite well. He also thought if it had been a real issue, you would discuss it with him and that would be the end of her involvement in his life. Except he didn't know what you had planned for the evening, only that you were distancing yourself from him and that you clearly had no intention of dealing with her or the overall situation." "Huh ..." "Did you know he's heartbroken? Did you know he wants to give you what you asked for while also being dedicated to reconciling with you and repairing what you tore apart?" "Aren't you breaking confidentiality—" "All of this was discussed with the family on the phone that night. There was no doctor-patient confidentiality involved." "Oh." "The point being, Greg, you never considered his feelings, you never considered how this would affect him. You drove your emotional bulldozer right over every word he uttered, not stopping for a moment to consider he might have something to say about all this. "You did it because you didn't listen to my recommendations, you didn't listen to my counsel. I told you you were in no condition to make reasonable, sound decisions due to an emotional and psychological overload. You're making decisions based on out-of-control emotions rather than facts. You're making decisions in the shadow of all we've unearthed from your blind spot, all the memories we've dredged up, all the pain and sorrow and anguish we've exhumed. You're integrating those memories into your thoughts and considerations regardless of their validity and applicability. You're facing all this in a short amount of time, measured in just a few months, not years. You're better, Greg, but you're not healed." "How can anyone ever heal from something like this?" "Honestly? They can't. A trauma of this severity is like a spinal cord injury that renders you a paraplegic. By healing we mean learning to cope, learning to accept, learning what deserves weight and what doesn't. What happened to you will always be with you, but it is possible to mitigate the effects, to reduce the impact it has on your feelings and your thinking and your everyday life. But you're not there yet." "But I'm getting better!" "Yes, you certainly are getting better. But what happened requires more than a few months of therapy. The manipulations alone require a year or more to address, to separate the lies from the facts so you can identify and establish a new equilibrium in life that doesn't rely on and isn't crippled by those influences. Add to that the trauma itself, the fears and pains and memories. Yes, the progress you've made is great, I assure you, but there's a lot of work yet to be done." "Why do you keep reminding me of that?" "You were an impressionable teenager. Clever, yes, you've always been clever. Smart? You are definitely smart, as you were back then. But you were just a teenager. Do you really believe a thirteen-year-old boy can stay ahead of an accomplished and dedicated child predator who's almost three times your age and has a doctorate and has successfully avoided detection despite the number of boys he'd already assaulted? Seventeen other boys before you took years to break through the mental barriers he created in them, the manipulations and the fear and the embarrassment and the deceptions, all of which he planted in them and nurtured until he had them under his control. What makes you think you had any hope of faring better than those other boys?" I shrugged. Feeling rather daft for having assumed any superiority over Richard, which now seemed a fool's folly at best, a shrug was the only response I could offer. As he tamped his dead cigarette in the ashtray, he said, "Now tell me why you did this terrible thing to Nate and your relationship with him." "I needed to get away from him—" "No, Greg. Tell me the truth. Tell me why you did this thing." "I can't be happy—" "More excuses. Tell me the truth, Greg." I was angry, though not specifically at his approach or questions or disinterest in my answers. "Why do you think I did it? You won't listen to my reasons. You tell me why I did it if you're so goddamn smart." "Because you're hiding from the love you feel for Nate." "No! I'm not hiding." "You hid it from yourself for years. Now you're hiding from it by running away." "No!" "How long are you going to run away from this, Greg?" "I'm not!" "How long are you going to let Richard control you?" "He's not! He's not controlling me! He's not!" "Part of your own justification for this course of action was something Richard put in your head, was it not?" "That's ... But ..." "You said the only reason Richard's sexual assault on you was so violent was because you redeclared your love for Nate and used it to deny Richard his conquest. You said you built your blind spot to hide your love for Nate; you built a mental mechanism for self-deception which subsequently took on a life of its own and hobbled your perceptions and emotions and thoughts for fifteen years, a psychological construct Richard taught you to build. You've shunned relationships while hiding from the one that mattered most, all because of what Richard did to you." My body trembled but I couldn't stop it. My breathing was ragged. And yet I didn't cry. Not one tear. The pain I felt was easily overwhelmed by anger at Richard and, more importantly, anger at myself. "You knew he was manipulating you," he continued, "but you let him do it because you thought your friendship with Nate was in danger. Richard offered to help you avoid that danger, so you let him mess around in your head. And now you're making decisions based on what he put there, what he deceived you and manipulated you into believing. Now you're acting on his instructions just as he hoped." "No!" "How long are you going to let Richard use your own love against you? How long are you going to let him use your love as a weapon against Nate? How long will you let Richard control you? How long, Greg?" He reached over and grabbed my hand, which startled me, and he held it firmly in his warm and soft and familial and loving grip. Then quietly he asked, "How much more will you let Richard take from you? How long will you let him win?" All I could do was stare, mouth agape, eyes wide. Was I letting Richard win? Was I letting The Fiend run and ruin my life now fifteen years after his arrest? Was the evil doctor going to plague me for the rest of my life, control me, influence my every thought and deed? When would I stop living according to his manipulations and start living for myself? Running my free hand down my face I mumbled, "Fuck, Uncle Farid, it's like he's still in my head. I need to evict him." "The road to recovery begins with admitting you have a problem," he said gently, squeezing my hand as he did. * * * * * December 7, 2016 Bundling myself in a scarf and knee-length leather jacket and driving gloves, I grabbed my satchel, slung the strap over my shoulder, then marched out of my office. I've done enough work to last until spring. Yeah, but you'll be back in the morning anyway. True that. With a few nods and waves and quiet words with some of my employees and a few of the other executives, I made my way to the stairs and headed down twelve floors to the underground parking garage. The world outside was cold and blustery; so, too, was the multistory concrete cave filled with automobiles. Thank fuck my car has heated seats. Nate leaned against my car, hands crammed in his jacket pockets, a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and his collar pulled up for extra insulation. "Here I thought we had security to keep the lowborn away from the nobles," I joked. His head jerked up at the sound of my voice. The sad countenance he'd used while considering his shoes evaporated in favor of that smile, that wonderful, warm, brilliant, just-for-me smile. And it went all the way up to his eyes. Grabbing his crotch and giving it a tug, he shot back, "Yo, dawg, I gotcha lowborn right here." I shook my head despite the grin on my face. "You've never been able to pull off the thug thing." He looked sheepish when he said, "Yeah, I know. I feel like I'm disappointing my peeps." He looked tired. The skin beneath his eyes was puffy and dark, he face haggard. It felt like looking into a tinted mirror. "Are you okay, Nate?" I asked, suddenly concerned by his abrupt appearance, wanting to reach out and touch him, to reassure him and myself. "Is something wrong?" "No. I'm fine," he said with a bit too much enthusiasm. Overcompensating, of course. Then with less enthusiasm he added, "Not fine, not really, but you know what I mean." "I'm sorry," I said softly, sympathy for the pain I'd caused overriding my resolve to stay the course. With a dismissive shake of his head he responded, "It is what it is, G-Man." "Why are you here? You promised—" "I know," he interrupted. He gave a little shrug, ducking his head between his shoulders. His eyes became sad. "But I wanted to see you," he practically whispered. "Nate ..." "But that's not all, G-Man. I promise. Even though it's true, I also came because I need to talk to you." He's beautiful ... He blushed, a shy little grin on his face. Bloody hell! Is he in my head? Wait! He's never picked up on this before. Just as my mouth began to open, a question on the tip of my tongue, he said, "I'm having a hard time not going crazy thinking about what you told me. About Richard, what he did to you, why he got so violent on your birthday. I never realized that's why he hurt you so much, because of how you felt. About me ..." "It's in the past." "Not all of it ..." Cocking my head, I asked, "Meaning what precisely?" I don't need him to remind me of how I feel. I'm well aware of it. "He hurt you because you love me. He did that because you were true to your feelings." Nate looked down, leaving me staring at the top of his head, and he took several deep steadying breaths. Then he looked up, shrugged, offered, "I want to apologize for my silence." "Huh?" "That night at home when you told me how you felt ... I clammed up and didn't say anything. I was thinking about all the things I wanted to say, all the things I was feeling, how much I was hurting, how much you were hurting while telling me why you felt like you needed to leave ... Well, a lot was going through my head." "It's okay, Nate. I understand. It doesn't make you an insensitive prick. Yeah, it bothered me. A lot. But I understand, I really do." "That's not all, though, G-Man. That's the problem. I've never let you shut me down, you know that, and I could've pushed my way through your jeremiad and made you listen. You know it's true, I can see it in your face. But that's not why I didn't say anything ..." His words had tapered off, weak and disquieted. After a few moments of silence I asked, "What was it, Nate? What happened?" My own voice came out fragile, wanting yet frightened. I'm not sure I want to hear this. Maybe it's another emotional hit below the belt. He took a deep inhale before explaining, "When you told me on the phone that night about what Richard did because you love me, about the assault and the blind spot and all that, it occurred to me I needed to tell you something. When I shut up that night and let you walk out, regardless of all the crap I was feeling and thinking, the reason I couldn't talk was because Richard spent two years telling me this very thing was going to happen." "What? What thing? What was going to happen?" "That you'd leave me, that you'd tell me you loved me and then you'd leave me. He said you'd do it because you could never be what I needed and I could never be what you needed, and he said you'd know you had to leave before our friendship blew itself apart." Fuck me running. Richard was right about that, I guess. "No! Don't do that, G-Man. Don't give credence to anything that asshole said. He made us doubt the truth and made us believe the lies, he messed with our heads and our friendship—" "Fuck ..." I lacked the strength to say more, the word dying on my lips. "You said he weaponized your love for me, used it against you. Well, he messed with my head just like he did yours, using our friendship and my feelings for you as a weapon against me, making me fear ever feeling more than friendship for you, making me fear you'd leave me if you ever thought I did." "Then ... But ... Okay ... Fine then, Nate, so he fucked our minds over." "But that's just it, G-Man." "What?" "That's why I couldn't speak that night. I heard everything you said, but what was happening in my head was a replay of all the times he described that very scenario. All I could think was that he was right, that somehow my feelings had fucked it all up and you were leaving because of it." "What feelings?" I barely heard my own voice, such a frail thing, as though speaking too loud might shatter the moment, might break the spell of disclosure. His eyes dropped toward the ground as he scuffed a foot back and forth. And he shrugged again. With a bit more volume I asked, "What feelings, Nate?" When he lifted his gaze to mine, confusion and fear stared back at me. "Rita told me she loved me. That night, you know." "I heard." Fuck, Greg, you sound like a jealous freak. Stop already! "She'd known me for what, like six weeks, and she was already declaring her love? It was desperate, right? Isn't that how it sounded to you?" "It doesn't matter what I think about that." "Yes it does! It always matters to me what you think. Nothing's changed in that regard, dude." He was right. Why should current circumstances keep me from expressing my opinion? "Like you, I thought it was an act of desperation, far too quick to be likely and timed too conveniently to be anything other than a way to get what she wanted." He bobbed his head a few times as he said, "Right. Exactly. So anyway ... She said that and I thought it was too soon. Sure, there's love at first sight and all, but this wasn't it. And the timing was all wrong, convenient even just like you said, especially given your conversation with her earlier that evening." With a frustrated scowl I said, "I don't really want to talk about Rita." "What I'm saying is I realized when she said it that the words were meaningless coming from her. Had it been true, maybe it would've felt nice, but even so it wasn't the same. It didn't make me feel good like it always does with you. With you it was never a game, it was always real, it always meant something—" "Means ..." "What?" "Means something, Nate. Present tense." He took a step forward, placing him much closer to me. "I know," he whispered. I stared for several moments, trying to retreat from what I was feeling, trying to retreat from Nate. "I came here because I wanted to see you, Greg," he said softly, "but I also came to say I'm sorry for how I acted that night. I'm ashamed of my silence. You laid yourself wide open and I got stuck in my own head." He looked so chagrined and repentant. I want to wrap him in my arms and comfort him, hold him and rock him and whisper in his ear that it's okay, he's okay, we're okay. But we're not and I can't. When he cocked his head, his eyes slightly misted and his cheeks slightly flushed, I thought he looked so handsome, so inviting, so very much the Nate I loved. Damn it, he's too damn much for me to handle. I don't know how much more of this I can stand. Then, without thinking, I stepped forward and pulled him into a hug, the embrace tight and familiar and welcome. "There's nothing to forgive. I understand. More than fifteen years later and he's still fucking up our lives." My best friend's arms wrapped around me as he settled his head on my shoulder, his face pressed against my scarf-wrapped neck. For a minute or more we held each other in silence. I want this so much ... I released him slowly, reluctantly. He backed up a step and met my eyes. I want to kiss him. And touch him. Nate's blush flared, his skin darkening, and he dropped his eyes just as he licked his lips. As his face lowered slightly and he looked at me through his lashes, he bit his bottom lip. Before I could stop myself I asked, "Are you receiving me, Little Big Man?" "Five by five, G-Man." Like my question, his reply was automatic. Somehow he'd fixed his ESP if he was suddenly picking up the thoughts that once zoomed right by his mental antenna. Or ... "How long, Nate? How long have you been able to see it?" His shocked expression gave way to remorse as he answered, "I don't know. A long time maybe, though maybe not until recently. Since we were, like, thirteen or something like that. Then I guess I deceived myself into thinking it wasn't really there, maybe never had been." "Because he manipulated you ..." I mumbled. Wiping a hand down his face, he nodded, an almost imperceptible movement. Then he admitted, "Yeah. Maybe because I was worried Richard might've been right." "This can't go on," I said, shaking my head. "It has to end. Twenty years ago it started; fifteen-plus-change years ago it came to a head. Here we are still walking in his shadow, still struggling against his manipulations, still fighting through his machinations." Already shaking his head, he leaned forward and claimed my gloved hands. His gaze grabbed mine and wouldn't let go. "Greg. This is real simple, so listen carefully and don't smear memories of Richard all over my words so you can dismiss them." I wanted to pull my hands away, only as a statement of my intent, but I couldn't. I couldn't look away from his eyes, either. At that moment Nate had me under his spell. "You're in love with me. There's nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Please don't use it as a wedge to tear us apart. That only serves to hurt both of us unnecessarily. And it's exactly what Richard wanted." He stepped closer, yet I couldn't retreat, couldn't move at all. When next he spoke, I could feel his warm breath as it tickled my face. "You took a piece of me when you left, G-Man, a big piece. Don't risk breaking my heart or yours just because you're scared. Please come home and let's figure this out the way we always have, together, side by side." Lost. I was lost in his gaze, in the depths of his dark brown eyes that never failed to make me feel like I was the only other person on the planet. I was lost in the love that spread from him to me, passing through his hands into mine, drifting with his words into my soul. I was lost in the moment, lost in the feelings I couldn't control, lost in a desire decades old that had intensified yet never satisfied. I was lost, and Nate made it worse. I leaned close enough to kiss him, though I didn't. His eyes fluttered briefly, his inhale stuttered as if in anticipation, his face rose slightly to compensate for the inches I had over him. "Tell me about your feelings," I whispered against his parted lips, the touches light, barely there, his body twitching slightly in response, his eyes closing. He mumbled something, less a mumble and more the exhale of words accompanied by the movement of his lips. I wasn't sure I heard him correctly, but before I could ask him to repeat what he said, his eyes snapped open as he took a step back, looking down, looking away, looking anywhere but at me. "Uh ... Well ... I don't ..." When he met my gaze, the misery he felt clouded whatever he was feeling, though confusion and defiance were evident. Disappointment coursed through my veins with every beat of my heart. Disappointment and ... resignation. "I have to go," I groaned, pulling my hands from his and brushing by him as I hit the button to unlock my car. Two brief chirps and two quick flashes of the lights announced it was ready for business. "Wait!" he called as he spun around. "Wait, Greg! Please!" With the door open, I turned toward him and said, "You said it best just a few minutes ago: 'Don't give credence to anything that asshole said. He made us doubt the truth and made us believe the lies, he messed with our heads and our friendship.'" My voice dropped to something anguished and sorrowful when I added, "Don't let Richard control you, Nate. Don't give him any more victories." "There's one more thing I need to tell you." The desperation in his voice and the dying hope in his features did nothing to stop me, nor did the obvious tremors in his hands. I considered listening. I considered letting him say whatever else he felt he needed to share. But a big part of me felt such disappointment and hurt. So instead of hearing his last important tidbit, I said, "Please respect my wishes, Nate. Please." After that I dropped into the car without waiting for a response. "Is that really what you want?" I heard him mutter sadly before the door slammed shut.
  7. November 21, 2016 I'm somebody's big spoon. I'm holding a man against me, my arms wrapped around him, his arms holding mine, my face nestled in his hair as I breathe his essence, no space between us anywhere from head to foot, legs intertwined and flesh pressed against flesh. It feels perfect. It feels necessary. It feels magical. This is what I want to wake up to every day for the rest of my life. When I floated up out of sleep with a warm muscular body nestled against me, I wanted to drift back into slumber, I wanted to stay there, I wanted to forget. But I couldn't. Slowly, hoping not to wake Keigan, I extricated myself and slid out of bed. With just enough light from the courtyard filtering through the blinds, I began slinking about the bedroom, retrieving my clothes so I could tiptoe out to the living room to get dressed. "Are you going to be okay?" croaked a sleepy voice from the darkness. "Fuck!" I nearly shouted, swinging around to face the bed, my arms wrapped around a bundle of discarded apparel. Click. The bedside lamp turned on and my eyes stung from the sudden assault. Squinting and blinking like me, Keigan sat up and eased to the edge of the bed, the covers sloughing off to reveal a body built for sin. "Sorry," he said with a shrug, his voice clearer and tinged with a note of humor. "You scared the daylights out of me," I told him as my heart settled back into a normal rhythm. Damn, boy, look at him. Just look at him. He's a hot mess in the morning. He's hot all the time. But don't you wanna just jump back into bed and jump his bones? That's premium manflesh right there, dude. The visual gave me another reason to climb back between the covers. I'd have to drag him under with me, but I didn't think that would be a problem given the way he kept eyeballing me. I was only wearing boxer briefs, after all. "And yes," I continued as I watched his eyes devour every bit of exposed skin, not to mention the parts that were covered, "I'll be okay." "Want to talk about it?" he asked as he rubbed sleep from his eyes. Eyes that are spending an increasing amount of time admiring my underwear. "Eventually, yes, but not right now. And thank you for last night, K. I was a wreck, I know, and I don't even remember how I got here, but clearly some part of my brain knew what I needed." "That's what friends are for, Greg, helping us when we're down. If a friend's only there for the good times, they're not really a friend." "Yeah, I know." "You're welcome, by the way." He hasn't met my gaze since right after he turned on the light. I think he's forgotten I have eyes. I had things to do, though, and a pity fuck wasn't something I could deal with, assuming the hot boy with whom I'd slept would even consider it. Oh, he'd do more than consider it. You see it every time he looks at you. But he said— Forget what he said. Just look at how he acts. He might have a rule about hookups and one-night stands, but he'd be happy to break it with you. We talked briefly while I dressed. Mostly he wanted to know what had happened and mostly I didn't want to talk about it. In the end we agreed to table the discussion for another time. I knew Nate had an early meeting with the contractors at his second gym site, a gathering he couldn't miss, thus I had to get busy while my window of opportunity was open. Bidding Keigan goodbye with gratitude, a hug and a quick kiss, I left him as he prepared to head to the gym while I made my way home. Home. Yes it was home, but only because Nate lived there. For as long as I've known him, I always considered home to be where Nate was. But not now, not anymore. Shaking my head to discard my cheerless thoughts, I set about the business of the day. I'd taken the week off for Thanksgiving, though that had been an excuse rather than a reason. My morning would be spent not on travel or family visits but instead on collecting what I could of my life and relocating the lot of it to the hotel suite I was using as a temporary refuge. * * * * * By quarter of eleven that morning, I was packing the car with the third and final load. I was only taking clothes, shoes and coats; toiletries; my laptop and tablet and accoutrements; sheets and blankets and towels, though I couldn't say why; and other necessities, yet I still needed three trips using a sports sedan. With my back to the driveway and lacking Nate's bionic hearing, not to mention being very distracted by errant thoughts and emotions, I had no idea Malinda had walked up behind me until she asked in a curious tone, "Are you moving out, Greg?" "Fuck!" I shouted as I slammed my head on the trunk lid, nearly leaping out of my skin. Then I spun around to find my neighbor trying to hide her smile as she bit back a laugh. "Oh go ahead," I told her. Her shoulders trembling as she chuckled, the beautiful woman from across the street smiled her bright smile as her eyes crinkled with mirth. All I could do was rub the back of my head and smirk with good humor. "I'm so sorry! I thought you heard me. I'm not exactly quiet carrying this thing around." She rubbed her hand up and down her very pregnant belly as she swayed it side to side to make sure I understood the burden to which she referred. I took a step forward and placed a hand on her belly, another at the small of her back, then I leaned down and whispered loud enough for her to hear, "And how's my little Gregory this morning? Is your mother taking care of you?" Malinda snickered and playfully slapped my shoulder. "Stop it, you. We don't even know if it's a boy. Even if it is, who says we'll name him after you?" "Who else would you name him after?" I asked with sarcastic outrage, standing upright so I could hug her. "Right. Of course," she said as she rolled her eyes, her arm around my back. "What was I thinking?" "Clearly you weren't." "Jackass." "At least I'll be a jackass with a baby named after me." She giggled again, gave another eye roll, then turned serious. "I noticed you earlier but didn't catch you before you left the first time. And I missed you the second time because I can't get too far from the bathroom these days. So here on the third trip I made a point of peeing before coming over." Nodding her head toward the mostly full trunk of my car before casting an inquisitive gaze in my direction, she asked, "Are you moving out?" With a shrug that was either disappointed or dismissive or disgruntled or any of a long list of feelings that equated to dissatisfied and distraught, I dropped my head a bit and answered, "Yeah. I'm moving." "Why?" she cried, shock clear in her features and her voice. I'm not the only one feeling dissatisfied and distraught today. Turning a bit so I could look at her more fully, I took her hands and held them between us, casting my gaze at them for a moment before looking at her. I shrugged again, not sure how to answer, not wanting to air my dirty laundry with the rest of the neighbors. Pulling one of her hands from mine, she cupped my cheek as she cocked her head. Real worry crept into her eyes. "Did something happen between you and Nate?" Fuck! Couldn't she have assumed something else, like my job relocated me or Nate can't sleep with my opera practice lasting all night or I can't stay because my best friend has explosive flatulence? I mean really, to assume something happened between us ... Indeed! "Hey ..." she said softly, her thumb gently wiping a tear from my cheek. I'm crying? What the fuck! When did that start? A sniffle came first, then a choked sob, then more tears. I refuse to have a breakdown right here. I'm running out of time as is. I have to get moving before Nate comes home. I reached up and grasped her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze, then told her, "Listen, Malinda, I have a lot going on right now and ... and I can't stay here." I used my sleeve to wipe tears from my cheeks before adding, "It's all me, though, all me. Moving on is the best thing I can do right now. It's best for both of us." I had no more words. I couldn't come up with any and I suspected whatever I said would cause my weeping to become a total scene. Nate would come home and find me curled into the fetal position on the garage floor covered with slobber and snot and gallons of saltwater. The mess wasn't an issue, but I couldn't face Nate and had no intention of getting caught by him so soon after what I'd done. Malinda gazed at me with loving concern, her own eyes misting. "Damn it ..." she mumbled, releasing my hands so she could wipe her own cheeks when her tears finally broke loose. "I'm so emotional these days. Hormones be damned!" I chuckled through my sorrow, wiping more tears from my eyes. "Don't laugh at me, mister! Just wait until you get knocked up by some hot studmuffin. Then we'll see if you're more sympathetic." "Honey," I began as I rubbed her shoulder affectionately, "you didn't do too well in biology class, did you?" "I am a biologist!" "I know. They used to make people learn stuff before getting that degree, but it looks like now they just hand'em out willy-nilly." Her laugh was delightful and necessary. For both of us, methinks. Once she caught her breath, she frowned, the expression full of compassion, and said, "I don't want you to leave, Greg." Steeling myself against another bout of public lamentation, I explained, "I'm not going far. And I have your numbers and you have mine. I'm not abandoning you." "It's not me I think you're abandoning." That shut me up right quick. "That was tacky," she admitted, looking dismayed at her own forwardness. With a gesture toward the car she said, "I should let you get back to it, I suppose. I just wanted to catch you before you left." I wrapped her in my arms and hugged her close but not tight, not wanting to crush my namesake before he was born. In her ear I murmured, "I'll be around, Malinda. We'll keep in touch and I'll make sure we see each other regularly. You'll hardly notice I'm gone." "I'll hold you to that, mister." "Besides, I have to be around to make sure you correctly name your son. I can't have another Jethro or Beavis or Gomer running around." "Television shows aren't the only source of names in the world." "Hey! I'll have you know a prerequisite for the gay membership card is the ability to drop pop culture references into any conversation with little or no warning." She trembled in my arms as she laughed. Once she released me she smiled, stood on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek, whispered, "You are a great many things, Greg Beaumont, but a stereotype is not one of them." Then she stepped back and added, "Make sure we see you soon." After that I watched her turn and walk toward her house. Before she got halfway down the driveway she stopped and looked back. "I hope you're not giving up something you'll never find elsewhere." My mouth dropped open but I had no reply. Which was a good thing because she added, "I'm really worried that's precisely what you're doing, walking away from something rich and full and rare. I hope I'm wrong." With that she spun around and purposefully marched toward her home. * * * * * November 22, 2016 "I left a note explaining that we'll handle the bills just like we have been, nothing changes, and he can reach me if there's an emergency that I need to know about. But otherwise it's his house now; I'm just carrying my share of the financial load until we figure out where we go from here." Mom stared at me as though she didn't know me. Then she proved it by asking, "Who in the hell are you? I don't even know you." Uh-oh. Cussing. That's a bad sign from Mom. Huddled on her couch wrapped in a blanket against the coldness I felt despite the blaze in the fireplace and the heater blowing, I could only shake my head. There were no answers, no flippant remarks. She stood and made her way to the fireplace, standing on the hearth and rubbing her hands together toward the fire. One thing Yvonne hated was being cold, and she thought it was cold if the temperature dropped much below boiling. I watched as she shook her head, several times looking over her shoulder as if to say something before turning back to the flames and shaking her head some more. "Mom ..." I sounded pathetic, needy, whining. "What do you expect me to say?" she snapped as she spun around to face me. My face was puffy from crying, something I'd done quite a bit of in the two days since I'd ended my friendship—no, it was so much more than that—ended my relationship with Nate. I wept at the drop of a hat, every thought somehow bringing me around to what I'd sacrificed. It still felt like I'd cut off my own limb, although I suspected that wouldn't have hurt as much. "You took away his choice, Greg." Her voice was firm, adamant, no-nonsense, just like I remembered from childhood. "But—" "No!" she barked, waving her hand to silence my rebuttal. "Right now you listen. That's what you did to Nate, isn't it? Talked at him rather than with him? You marched right in there with your prepared speech and you ran roughshod over everything he tried to say, making sure you said your piece before walking out on your other half. Yes, I see the shock on your face. He's your soulmate, Greg, whether it's sexual or not. He's the half of you you weren't born with, the lost half you discovered at age ten. And you did this!" She was definitely shouting. "You say you did this out of love, for love, because of love, but you were selfish, son of mine, pure and simple. Sure, in some small way you acted in Nate's best interests based on your assumptions about what those interests are, but ultimately you did this for yourself." "That's not true!" I wailed. "It is true, Greg! If it wasn't true, you'd have discussed this with him rather than informing him of your decision. And informing him without warning at that! Ugh!" She turned back to the fire and huffed, sighed, spat out a disgusted breath, take your pick. Her head shook back and forth like a slow pendulum, a small part disagreement and a big part disappointment. Perhaps even a bit of disgust in there, too. "What have I done?" I moaned. Turning back toward me, her hardened expression communicating upset and annoyance, but also sympathy and hurt. A few times her mouth opened, but she closed it without uttering a sound. Suddenly her features softened. After a sigh that reeked of resignation, she made her way back to the couch and dropped down beside me. Running her knuckles along my cheek she whispered, "I never thought I'd see the day, but you've really screwed the pooch this time, Captain Chaos." My head dropped and the tears began anew. Or perhaps they simply continued. It felt as though I hadn't stopped crying in days. You haven't. Oh. Right. True that. Mom grabbed her glass of wine and settled back, tucking her slipper-clad feet beneath her, pulling an afghan over her legs as she sipped her drink and regarded me. "It's not just a friendship, Greg. It's a relationship. It goes far beyond friendship and brotherhood. What you two have is rare and precious. I'm shocked—perplexed and flabbergasted—that you did this, as much that you did it to yourself as that you did it to Nate. I never thought you could purposefully hurt him like this." "It's not just about him, Mom." "I know. But it's not just about you, either." "I know." "Nate has been good for you. You have been good for Nate. This relationship is important to both of you no matter where it might go in the future." "But I have no future as long as I'm around him! Don't you understand that? I'll always be the best friend who's pining away for him while he's finding his happiness with some woman who he'll love like he can't love me." "Is that what you really think?" "Of course! Because it's true ..." I dropped my face into my hands and let my tears flow. What else could I do? "Has he tried to contact you, see you? Since this debacle?" "Yeah. He called yesterday and today." "Did you talk to him?" "No. The first time I hung up on him and the second time I rejected the call." "Gregory Alan Beaumont! Did I raise you to be an uncouth heathen? No, sir, I most certainly did not." "I'm sorry ..." "I'm not the one you need to apologize to, and I'm certainly not the person you need to speak with." "I can't, Mom. I just can't." "Why? Why can't you talk to him? You two have lived for decades without this being a problem. You've been in love with him for almost as long as you've known him, maybe just as long. Why is it suddenly a catastrophe?" "Because he needs his freedom so he can move on!" "What nonsense is that?" "He told me that! He said he was only with me because he needed to make up for what he thought he did back then, and he said he wouldn't leave me until I was fixed enough to go find my own happiness. Now I've given us both what he wanted, what he needed." When silence caused me to lift my face from my hands and glance at her, she looked rattled by that disclosure. Unusual for my mother, she couldn't seem to find the right thing to say. "I need it too, Mom! I'll never be able to invest emotionally in someone else so long as I'm around him." "Why do you need to invest emotionally in someone else when you have everything you need right there in the person you already love?" "Haven't you been listening? He'll never love me like I love him! He's straight and I'm not! I'm in love with him and he wants to be in love with a woman, some woman, any woman! Fuck, Mom, I'm gonna die alone and miserable if I don't get away from him and get my heart set in a different direction." I sighed, looked at her, and sucked in a sharp breath when I realized she was smiling at me with a knowing look on her face. "What?" Is petulant the only tone I have anymore? Damn ... She leaned forward, grasped my head, pulled me to her and kissed my forehead. Then she released me. "I want both my boys to be happy. But it'll never happen like this." "What's that supposed to mean?" She grabbed my hands and held them. Compassionate tears filled her eyes. "You need to talk to Nate before this kills you both." * * * * * November 23, 2016 "What're you doing for Thanksgiving?" Kyle asked as we pulled into his driveway. "Nothing." His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before his surprised expression gave way to a sympathetic look. "Aren't you going to see your mom?" The words were reverent, his tone gentle. "No," I answered abruptly. Then realizing I almost snapped at him, I added, "I don't want to ... well ..." "Run into Nate?" This kid never ceases to amaze me with his observational and deductive skills. "Yeah," I muttered, letting my gaze wander from his concerned eyes to the world outside the car. I nearly jumped when his hand settled on my shoulder, drawing my attention back to Basketball Boy's blue eyes. "You could always join us. I don't think anyone would mind. Especially not MJ." The last he added with much eyebrow waggling. We chuckled, a comfortable, necessary thing. "No, I don't want to impose. Besides, I think I'd really like to just have a day to ... I don't know what, maybe just escape from everything for a bit, be a recluse, whatever." His hand tightened as he whispered, "Maybe I could spend it with you." "No, Kyle," I began as I took his hand and squeezed it before letting it go. "I wouldn't be good company, you should spend it with your family, and really I think I need some alone time." Looking disappointed yet understanding, he nodded. Basketball Boy then grabbed his gym bag before opening the door and climbing out. Just before closing it, he turned back and leaned into the car to say, "When I said I could spend it with you, I was talking about spending it with family." Then he was gone. "That boy never ceases to amaze me," I mumbled while watching him walk away. * * * * * He answered on the first ring. "Greg?" "Can you talk?" I asked, horrified by the agitation in my voice despite feeling it justified. "Yeah, dude, I can talk," he replied softly. "How are you, G-Man?" I'd lit the fire of my annoyance and stoked the flames to a roar before dialing the phone, yet Nate's obvious care and concern made the blaze waver. Maybe I shouldn't have called. Maybe I'm being an asshole. What am I doing? The sound of his voice called to me, beckoned to my soul in a way only he could. But I had to remain strong, keep my resolve. "I'm fine. Honestly, dude, I'm just as surprised I called. And I wish I hadn't had to, but here's the thing, Nate: you have to stop this." "Stop what?" I couldn't respond, hearing his voice having caused a synaptic overload and an emotional yearning so potent I thought I might explode from it. "Greg, stop what? What is it, G-Man?" "Stop calling. Stop trying to contact me. You have to stop, Nate. How am I supposed to get over you when you constantly reach out and remind me of what I'm trying to overcome? I'm pathetic, I know, but I can't make any progress if you're still in my life." "Greg, you listen and listen well. Don't ever call yourself pathetic!" Despite the obvious sniffle he muffled with his hand and the clear hitch in his voice, he made sure I heard him loud and clear. "That is complete bullshit, dude. I won't put up with it." Wiping a stray tear from my eye, no response came to me. I'd hurt him, with good intentions but still, and here he was defending me from myself, always protective, always loving, always supportive. I have to get away from him. This is why! "I don't know how long you struggled with telling me how you feel," he continued, "but I can't imagine it was easy to finally do it. You were probably scared I'd react poorly or that I'd do something foolish to keep you with me. And you're right, I suppose. But at least I understand that part of what happened the other night. But, Greg, I'm having a hard time with this distance thing." "You don't—" "Understand. Yeah, maybe that's true. Maybe I don't fully appreciate your struggle with fighting your feelings for me while trying to have feelings for someone else, anyone else. I grant you that. But that doesn't make this easy for me, G-Man. I love you! Goddammit, Greg, I love you! This hurts! Do you hear me? This hurts like a motherfucker! I've never known this kind of hurt before." "I'm sorry ..." "It's okay. I understand even if I don't want to accept. But it still hurts, G-Man, a lot. Still, I'm trying. I'm not doing a good job but I'm trying. I think you're wrong about a lot of things, this being one of them, but I'm trying to respect your wishes." "Thank you." My voice was soft and yearning. I wanted to listen to his voice all day. "We still need to talk about things." Straightening my spine as if preparing to defend myself, I asked, "Like what?" "You made a major decision that affects both of us but you didn't discuss it with me." "I—" "I know. You thought you were doing what was necessary. But you made a lot of assumptions, some of them pretty bad, and you never let me talk, never listened to me, never heard my side of things and weighed my desires alongside your own. When have we ever done that to each other? When have we ever unilaterally made decisions this big? Decisions that affect both of us, I mean." "Nate, I'm not going—" "Tell me when." "I have to do this alone, Nate, don't you get that? How can you help me get over my love for you? How can you help me move on? Can you help me get over my love for you so maybe I can be happy with someone else? No, all you can do is focus on finding a wife and having a family—" "Assumptions." "But you said—" "I know what I said. If you'd let me talk the other night, you'd know I said quite a few things meant to push you into getting better, into making progress, into seeing Uncle Farid again and working through the issues and memories and emotions you'd been ignoring for too long. It was all tearing you apart, G-Man! I could see it! Does that make me bad for using whatever ammunition I had available to spur you into acting? No, of course not." "I didn't call to rehash this." "Rehash it? We never hashed it the first time, dude! You talked all over me then stormed out." "I'm not going—" "No matter what you think, G-Man, no matter what you assume, ask yourself something." I was growing frustrated, having lost control of what I thought would be a simple conversation, and Nate was proving that giving him up would be so much harder than I thought. If only he'd stop caring, stop trying to make me understand, stop trying to keep me in his life. "Ask myself what?" I asked. "No matter what you thought I was looking for, who did I come home to every night? Who did I cuddle with on the couch? Who did I kiss and hug and spend my days with? Who have I spent more than twenty years with, by his side, through thick and thin, no matter what? I don't need an answer, G-Man. I just want you to think about the answer." "That's different," I mumbled, though I wasn't sure why I said it. I didn't think it, didn't feel it, didn't believe it. He had a valid point, one that encapsulated more than two decades of a profound relationship, a singular relationship that I knew I'd never duplicate. And perhaps a relationship I hadn't fully understood or appreciated. "Don't dismiss me," he whispered, his heart in his voice, "and don't dismiss what I'm telling you. Please ..." Silence stretched between us, neither breaking it. Instead we sat and listened to each other breathe. It was the most comforting comfortable silence I'd ever shared. I tried to imagine where he was, what he was wearing, what he had planned for the rest of the day, how he'd spend his evening— Rita! After a deep inhale, I began, "So, Nate ..." "Yeah, G-Man." His voice was smooth like silk, refreshed, potent. He got as much from that silence as I did. Amazing ... "What happened to Rita?" He snorted, a derisive sound. "She moved on." "By choice?" "By necessity." "I'm ..." I'm what, sorry to hear that? I'm not. Sorry it didn't work out between them? Nope. Sorry she's been sent packing with nothing, not even a souvenir? Not even close. Sorry he's alone? Yeah, that's it that right there. "I know what you were going to say. It's not your fault. She wasn't the one," he said, though he sounded anything but sad about her departure. Not so much elated as relieved, which struck me as odd. "No, that wasn't it. I just ..." "It's okay," he whispered. I could almost feel his breath on my ear. When he realized I had no response with which to fill the silence, he gently asked, "So ... are we good, G-Man?" "I ... I don't think ..." Nate chuckled softly before coming to my rescue. "I know. I know things are different right now. I don't like it but that's how it is. I wasn't asking in general, though. I meant are we good on the reason you called." Nodding my head as though that helped with telephone calls, I replied, "Yeah, we're good, Little Big Man. Just ... Please, Nate, give me space. I need space and I need time." "I know that's what you said." His voice was somber, sad, and a little defiant. Something about the words he used struck me as requiring attention, but instead my mind had already leaped to another train of thought. "And Nate ...?" "Yeah. I'm here, G-Man." Hopeful. He sounds hopeful. Just talking to him makes me feel the same way despite my frustration and my need for this separation. "I didn't get to say it the other night, but I want you to know that, despite what's happened and despite our paths diverging, you were the best friend a man could ever have." "Are, Greg," he immediately said, firm and sure. "We're not were; we're an are." "Nate—" "Maybe things are different right now, maybe we both need to learn a few things about ourselves that we can't figure out when we're together, but I believe with all my heart that this isn't permanent. You hear me, G-Man? What we have is special and it's important and it's worth fighting for, and when all this shit blows over I believe it'll be better than it was." My mouth hung open as I pressed the phone to my ear. There were no words. It's wishful thinking, that's all. If it helps with space and time, let him believe what he wants. But I want to believe it, too. Desperately. You didn't come this far to turn around now. Fuck! "Can I ask you a question, G-Man? I've been wondering about something." His question snapped me back to reality with the threat of whiplash. We'd never danced around each other before, never asked permission to ask a question. Not even over the phone. Is that a sign of the damage I've done? Did I break something so severely it can never be fixed? Isn't that what you wanted? I'm not sure anymore ... After a hesitant breath I answered, "Sure, Nate. Anything you want." "Maybe it's none of my business—" We've never thought that with each other! Never! Damn it! "—but ... well ... when did you ... you know ... when did—" "When did I fall in love with you?" I told him that the other night, but under the circumstances I wouldn't have been surprised if he missed it. I'd essentially overwhelmed his emotions, so who knows what he heard and what he didn't. "No. You told me. You said you think it might've been when we met, though at that age you weren't sure. But you said it's been since we were kids." "Yeah. Since I was twelve, or that's when I realized what I was feeling anyway ... So what did you want to ask?" He inhaled slowly, as if siphoning strength from the atmosphere. "Did you ever talk to Richard about it? About how you felt about me, I mean." The sharp intake of breath I heard was my own gasp. "I'm sorry, G-Man." And he sounded very apologetic. "Never mind. Forget I asked." What's the harm in answering? He deserves answers, a hell of a lot of them in fact, so why be melodramatic? You're right. Of course you're right. "No. It's okay, Nate. I'm just not used to talking about Richard, at least not yet. Sometimes it still surprises me to hear his name bandied about so freely." After another deep breath I continued, "And yeah, I talked to him about it. Really, though, he talked to me about it. You know I never went looking for adult guidance." A muffled laugh came through before he could stop it. Then he said, "Oh, I know." "But, yeah, he approached me about it. I guess he figured it out." "You didn't tell him?" "The only people I ever told were Mom and Dad." "Oh. Okay." "Was that it? Just did Richard know? Or did I talk to him about it?" "Well, do you remember when that was? When you talked to him about it?" "Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, not long after I came out to you and my parents." This time the sharp intake of breath came to my ears through the phone. "What? What, Nate?" "Fuck ..." he mumbled. "What, Nate? Damn it, what?" "When Richard talked to you about it ... Was ... Was it the night you were crying in his room? Late at night, after we'd fallen asleep in the living room?" The phone trembled against my ear, my knuckles whitening as I clenched the device lest I throw it across the room. My breathing hitched, shallowed, accelerated. "Greg," he began softly, "did he try to use it against you? Did he ... did he somehow weaponize it?" I sniffled, eyes closed and seeing red, tears streaking my cheeks. When I gasped, it stuttered and broke with a sob, then a sniff and painful sigh. "Stop, G-Man! Whatever it is, stop! It's okay! Forget I asked!" "It's why he attacked me, Nate! It's why his sexual assault turned into an onslaught of savagery! It's why he brutalized me so badly! And you want to know what else?" I was shouting but couldn't stop. I was angry but didn't know why. "He taught me to build the blind spot so I could hide it from myself! He taught me how to hide my love for you so it wouldn't hurt us, so it wouldn't chase you away, so it wouldn't end our friendship. He taught me, Nate, that motherfucker taught me to scramble my own brain so I could get rid of my love for you! But when he came over to take my virginity and I denied him because I was in love with you, he was furious. His response was to beat me senseless and violate me over and over again." Nate gasped, possibly even sobbed, but I couldn't stop my tirade. I felt out of control, almost as if I was watching myself from a distance, watching this hurt, angry, lonely, powerless man sitting in a hotel suite as his anguish and sorrow spilled out as wrathful memories. "So did Richard weaponize my love for you? You fucking bet your bottom dollar he did! And he did it over and over again for years, using it to keep me from telling you, using it to mess with my mind, using it to control me and eventually as a reason to pulverize me as he raped me. Fuck!" I hung up the phone and threw the cell across the room. The last sensible part of me felt disappointment when, instead of breaking asunder against the far wall, it instead landed softly and slid down the pillow until it came to rest—safely, of course!--on the bedspread. Leaning back and wrapping my hands around my head, I wailed and wept. "Why'd I let him drag me into that conversation? Why?" As I slumped in the chair and cried, my phone rang and rang and rang.
  8. Jason MH

    Chapters 7-8

    Chapter 7 Pulling onto Allen Camp Road, leaving Perenson's behind, I hardly touch the gas before braking at Main Street—FM 727 outside King's Hope proper and colloquially named Potisesse Path from the north end of town to the state highway. A smattering of vehicles traverses the north-south road, typical small-town fare such as pickups hauling trailers, pickups with hay in the beds, pickups with dogs in the beds, pickups with livestock feed in the bed, and pickups squeaking their rusty complaints about having to move. One or two cars sneak in amongst the pickups. My eyes automatically scan left where Mr. Hat walked around the corner of the convenience store. That direction would take him south along Main Street toward the center of town. Though I won't see him, I let my gaze wander with futile hope they might catch a glimpse of a strangely dressed man winding his way along the sidewalks toward Town Square. Normal foot traffic and vehicles move through the scene, but not Mr. Hat. When the light changes, I turn right and head for home. Hitting the radio button, I throw some entertainment into the three-mile drive back to State Highway 49 and the mile-long drive from there to my private lane. Shreveport's KDAQ offers up Sonny Fortune's "Five Four Trane." The jazz created from his incomparable saxophone playing offers the perfect stimulus to get me in the mood to finish William's adventure and earthshaking discovery, so I crank up the volume. My fingers play the rhythm on the steering wheel as my head bops from side to side. At the intersection of SH 49 and FM 727, with Sonny Fortune blaring inside the car, I turn left and head west. It takes a few minutes to cover the mile that separates me from Carr Beholden's entrance. The small private drive runs from the highway to the lakeside hotel-turned-residence. My brick mailbox sits ten feet from the state's blacktop ribbon, the expanded opening of my crushed-stone driveway giving the postal worker a chance to get off the highway while delivering mail. There I turn right toward the lake, pausing briefly for the gate to open. This small private lane stretches beneath trees and along undergrowth that transport me to a different world. Driving the mile from SH 49 to the house represents a joy not suited for the claustrophobic. As sylvan as the rutted carriageway that birthed it, the road of crushed stone has a width barely sufficient to accommodate two vehicles if both drive mostly in brush on either side, a hazardously yet delightfully narrow path, more a tunnel than a road. Thick foliage and branches reach out as forest sentinels try to capture invaders attempting this brief journey to isolation. The magical path winds over hills and through East Texas woodlands until it abruptly opens to a majestic view of Lake Potisesse tucked behind the wood-and-stone edifice I call home and which carries the name Carr Beholden. * * * * * Following the decision to move to the vicinity in 2010 after Beth's accident, obtainable housing didn't exist. Available purchases included some farms tucked away in the hills and forest, along with a few derelict businesses scattered throughout the area. Surprisingly, a few homes on small lots were on the market. In addition, King's Hope has an apartment complex in town. The diligent searcher could even locate an isolated plot of open land where one might build something from scratch. But when it came to my wants and requirements, King's Hope offered little. Too many of the existing options lacked size and room for expansion, already had occupants, huddled amidst surrounding farms with bellowing cows and busy tractors, or sat in town where I had no desire to establish a home. My search came up empty, so I spread the word through my parents about what I wanted to buy in the area: a private home, secluded would be nice, something larger than three bedrooms if possible, price not an issue, not in King's Hope proper if you please. The speed of light can't compete with the speed at which news spreads in a small town. Deprive people of phones and internet access and you'll still receive word of your big announcement almost simultaneously as you tell the first person. Making the situation more interesting, tell a diminutive community that two of its residents have a famous son with a lot of money, and then tell them that said son wishes to establish a permanent address in their cozy hamlet. Before you know it, that little colony of civilization explodes with a thunderous susurration generated by every pair of able lips gabbing the news into the nearest ear, whether or not that ear can hear. Just think of this exciting opportunity! Just think of it, why don't you. It could boost the local reputation. It could bring jobs and—far more important than work—it could bring money into the town. It would be a claim to fame that might finally one-up that village of vicious vipers over yonder—here there is much pointing in the direction of whichever little nearby town this little town wishes to knock down a peg or two. And of course in this case, despite their sincere love for the rustic life they so enjoy, the residents of King's Hope had one other reason to make my announcement a community crusade: to steal a big-name writer from the clutches of Dallas, that urban den of iniquity. Talk about needing to get knocked down a peg or two. The search burst to life. Everybody knew somebody and everybody's somebody had a place to sell or knew of a place for sale or could steal a place to sell you, please pay no attention to the police tape thank you very much. Two days after engaging Mom and Dad, thereby engaging the whole town, I received a message from Dick Weston, my publishing rep at Penguin. He informed me that an attorney in King's Hope had contacted the company hoping to reach me. Most people in the modern world contact me via my web site. Those messages first go to Brody, my literary agent, who—probably with help—sifts through the riffraff and forwards to me the legitimate notes. Despite the volume, I spend time each day acknowledging fans and placating critics. Always the steadfast e-mail bulwark, Brody spends his share of time filtering out stalkers and whackos and aspiring authors wanting me to read their manuscripts and any other rubbish that arrives. He also reroutes legal, publishing and other matters best left to experts. Despite more immediate satisfaction offered by electronic avenues now employed by many writers, some people continue to utilize the more archaic route of contacting an author through their publisher. The attorney from King's Hope chose that method. I presumed the contact related to my search for real estate, so I told Dick to forward my contact details to the gentleman. * * * * * The next morning I received a call from one Clement Doubleday, Esquire, attorney at law, senior partner at the esteemed and revered respectability of Doubleday and Associates, law firm, offices not far from Town Square right here in King's Hope, Texas, located on McCreary Way next door to the bank, licensed and in good standing with the State Bar of Texas with staff attorneys certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, at your service. He sounded older than me but not decrepit, perhaps late 50s or early 60s, with a refined southern accent either nurtured from years of education and the need for civility in his work, or affected for the job and dropped for a syrupy twang the moment he left the office. Either way, his resonant, silky voice appealed to me. It would serve him well in his line of work. With a grin I asked, "How can I help you, Mr. Doubleday?" "Please call me Clement, Mr. Crichton, and perhaps it is I who can help you." "Call me Dave. And how can you help me, Clement?" "I understand you might presently be seeking property in the vicinity of King's Hope, Texas, property upon which you hope to establish your residence and make your abode. Am I informed correctly, Dave?" "Yes." "Before I continue, if I may save us both from wasting time better spent on more promising endeavors, may I take a moment to confirm your predilections and qualifications?" "Sure." A sound came through the phone—the rustling of a sheet of paper. I had the impression he held a neatly bulleted list entitled "David A. Crichton's King's Hope Home Search Constraints." I stifled a laugh. "Let me see now. You intend to move to King's Hope—to be closer to your parents, a rationale of the finest caliber if I do say so myself. You intend to live in King's Hope, to make the town your home. You are seeking a private residence, not a shared space or business opportunity. You prefer some measure of privacy and seclusion as opposed to something in town, something not crowded by neighbors if you will. You seek a property of reasonable size, not just measured in land but also the home itself, to wit something larger than three bedrooms if available. You as yet have placed no financial limitations on the purchase, though reasonable men would not assume a limitless budget." I chuckled in amazement and confirmation. "Did I say something funny, Dave?" "No, of course not. You listed the legal representation of precisely what I mentioned to my parents. When I asked them to spread the word, I hadn't realized how accurately and expeditiously the word would spread." "King's Hope is a small town, Dave, and in small towns news travels fast. And here at Doubleday and Associates we pride ourselves on accuracy of information." "Yes, of course. I've been a city boy my whole life, so forgive me if I offended you by finding humor in it." "No offense at all!" he said with honesty, the smile in his voice pouring through the phone in a torrent. He seemed pleased to know I felt enchanted by the expediency with which the news traveled and the precision it maintained. He continued, "But back to the question at hand, if we could. Are these indeed your search parameters, Dave?" "A resounding yes, Clement." Talking to this chap had become more fun than I ever thought possible when conversing with a lawyer, Lydia notwithstanding. Clement Doubleday's genteel yet affable nature oozed warmth. Once more a whisper came through the phone—a sheet of paper returned to its right and proper place. "Very good then. Fantastic, in fact!" He sounded positively elated, perhaps because he saw an opportunity to make a profit or perhaps he loved to be correctly informed. Take your pick. "Dave, I'm contacting you because our esteemed law office, right here in King's Hope, may have just the thing you want. Shall I tell you about it?" "Yes, please do." "Are you familiar with Lake Potisesse?" "Sure." "Fine. That's a fine thing. Now Dave—" By that time in the conversation I pictured him an older gentleman, reed thin, white as paper, perfect silver hair exquisitely trimmed and combed back smooth with military precision, a fine three-piece classic-cut suit of dusky color snug on his frame with tailored seams, a bright white shirt pressed and starched just so, a handsome yet conservative silk tie with an inoffensive and subdued pattern of dark colors. I could see him sitting in an office paneled in dark wood and filled with antique furniture, his posture resolute yet comfortable, his buttocks resting on an overly-large chair made of supple dark leather, his mahogany desk leviathan and imposing and obsessively ordered to neatness, a file in front of him holding my contact details along with the property information he wished to share. I stuck with that image because it tickled me. Old fashion small-town lawyer looks according to the archetype. "—the property I want to discuss with you is over twelve hundred acres located on the shore of Lake Potisesse, surrounded by fine second-growth woods. The land is accessed from a small private lane extending from State Highway 49, and the acreage and structures rest in the northwestern corner of the King's Hope town limits." "I see," I offered into his momentary pause. I wanted him to know he continued enjoying my attention and I had not yet decided this property didn't interest me. "Our firm, right here in the heart of King's Hope where my great-grandfather put down roots and set to work back in 1843, is in possession of this parcel of land and its associated structures. The property, most notably the main building, is called Carr Beholden, the late estate and prior business venture of the dear departed Carr family." The name rang a bell. I knew little about King's Hope's history, but I knew one of the town's streets carried the name Carr Avenue. During my initial and failed attempt to locate property in the area, I had driven every street, rural route and dirt road that didn't have a chain or a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign blocking ingress and egress, staring and taking measure of and noting. I came up with zilch. "I recognize the name Carr," I admitted. "That's delightful to hear, Dave. Are you familiar with King's Hope's fine history then?" I almost stammered, feeling caught, but stayed my voice and said stoically, "No, not thoroughly, albeit sufficient to know the Carr name has deep roots there." "That's it exactly, Dave, deep roots indeed. Dabney Carr, the son of Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson's nephew, arrived in Texas in 1840, though Texas was not yet a state at that time—I'm sure you already know that, Dave, so my apologies. I should say rather that Dabney Carr arrived in our area in 1840. "Now he was in the money as the sole heir of a generous fortune, unrelated to Thomas Jefferson I should point out, yet Dabney was dissatisfied with his life in Virginia and found the trials of the expanding frontier both exhilarating and financially viable. In 1837 or thereabouts, he packed up his fortune and spent two years roaming the Wild West looking for opportunities. He made his way to our western neighbor, Jefferson, at the behest of its founders, Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley. They felt Dabney Carr would lend a certain air of legitimacy to the new town named after his great-uncle—that would be Thomas Jefferson, as I previously mentioned. But Alley and Urquhart wanted more than the legitimacy Carr's presence might bestow upon Jefferson; they also wanted to tap his wealth as means to buttress and grow the area. "Dabney Carr arrived in Jefferson in 1840, as I said, and that was eight years before it became an official city. Being pleased with the surroundings and the rough-and-tumble of establishing a new town, he proceeded to invest time and money into the developme—" "While I'm fascinated with this, Clement," I interrupted, "and am now hooked on learning more about the history of the area, I have a busy day ahead. Would it be possible to discuss the property itself?" He never skipped a beat, maintaining a professional detachment coupled with pride in his—and the area's—heritage. "I do sometimes become garrulous when I let my passions get the best of me, Dave. My apologies for wandering off course." "No need to apologize. I enjoy both your knowledge of the area's history and your obvious pleasure in sharing what you know, but my schedule is hectic and I want to hear about the lakeside acreage." "Of course, Dave." I sensed a brief change of gears as he shifted back to the matter at hand. "The property in question is called Carr Beholden, as I mentioned, and though that officially refers to the main building, what once was a lakeside hotel for waterway workers and travelers, most King's Hope citizens use the name to refer to the entire patch of land. "The property consists of 1,239 acres of prime East Texas second-growth woodlands north of Texas's right-of-way surrounding the state highway—that's State Highway 49, mind you. The land stretches along the shores of Lake Potisesse for about three-quarters of a mile and meanders back from there through the gentle hills and woods until it abuts the state's property. "The nearest neighbor is to the east about a mile—that would be Abner Dougherty's place—and the next nearest neighbor is to the northwest on the obverse side of the lake—that would be the Nacimiento home. "There are four structures on the Carr property: the longshoremen's cabin, the stables and carriage house in the woods behind the main edifice, the boathouse on the lake, and of course the hotel itself, Carr Beholden, two floors with a basement and an attic. "The shoreline has two piers, one at the boathouse and the main tender's pier near the old hotel. "I must disclose, Dave, the property has been derelict for approximately thirty years following the death of Walter Carr, the last of the Carr family. The buildings and piers have fallen into a state of disrepair." "I don't understand," I interjected, very much paying attention. I feared I had wasted ten minutes hearing about a property that for decades no one had purchased—for one or more reasons. "If a lakeside house is deserted and the land not used, why has it remained on the market for three decades? You understand how that sounds." "Naturally it raises questions and misgivings, Dave." The smile in his voice told of glee in his eyes, this moment defining the essence of our conversation. Hook, line and sinker. Despite agitation regarding secluded lakeside property no one seemed to want, now thirty years snubbed and no doubt ramshackle from three decades of dereliction, the attorney's unfailing confidence intrigued me, as did the sense that he now had me right where he wanted me. There's something to this story. He continued, "You must understand that when Walter Carr passed on in 1976, he took the Carr name with him. But he did not take the Carr fortune. He made provisions in his will to ensure his intentions for Carr Beholden remained enforced until such time as either the estate funds dried up, leading to an auction or sale of convenience, or until the estate's requirements for sale were satisfied and the deed changed hands lawfully, whichever came first, barring of course eminent domain or other government meddling. "As lifetime legal counsel for King's Hope's Carr family, not to mention a sizable portion of King's Hope's other residents, including the Kings themselves, Doubleday and Associates serves as executor of Walter Carr's will and guardians-post-obit of the Carr estate. You, Dave, represent the first opportunity to sell the property right and clear under the auspices of Walter Carr's last will and testament." Both suspicion and excitement bubbled inside me. How incongruous, bequeathing to oblivion an impressive estate unless its sale fits within the confines of willed specifications that ultimately left it empty for more than thirty years. I had never heard of such a thing, though admittedly I don't spend a great deal of time rummaging through wills and estate plans looking for anomalous dispositions. "You're good." My admiration carried through the phone along with the smile on my face. "Clement, you have my undivided attention." He chuckled warmly. "You're a clever man, Dave. As an accomplished author who specializes in exploring the unorthodox aspects of humanity and how ordinary people respond to extraordinary circumstances, I did indeed suspect you might be intrigued by the irregular—Dare I say eccentric?—criterion of this sale. And I am most intrigued to realize you so adroitly saw through my pretense." I laughed contentedly. This smart man enchanted me. He did his homework and knew me and my work, yet not too conspicuous about being smart and doing his homework, instead making it just a day's work. I found him likable, even for an attorney. "Your secret is safe with me," I offered through my chuckle, "and next time I'm in King's Hope or you're in Dallas, or at a time and place of mutual convenience, Clement, please let me buy you a drink." "I will graciously accept that drink, Dave." "So tell me why it's taken thirty years to find a potential buyer for Carr Beholden." He cleared his throat and replied, "Walter Carr, great-great-grandson of Dabney Carr and sole remaining heir to the Carr estate and fortune, followed in the footsteps of his father, Dabney Jefferson Carr Jr., by willing that should it not pass by inheritance to a rightful heir from the King's Hope Carr family, Carr Beholden and its related land and structures should stand in abeyance until such time as the imperatives of sale could be met or the estate funds could no longer pay the guardian-post-obit. These are the edicts of conveyance by sale fettered by the will. "First, the sale must result in Carr Beholden remaining noncommercial property. "Second, the sale must be to a King's Hope resident and not as, to or for a resident-by-proxy arrangement. "Third, Carr Beholden in toto, including acreage and structures, must be sold intact and whole. "Fourth, the purchaser of Carr Beholden must in good faith plan to live on the property and in the residence "Fifth, Carr Beholden itself, the structure, must not be razed by the purchaser unless the building cannot be salvaged and repaired. "Sixth, assuming the structure remains standing pursuant to item five, the purchaser must agree to restore Carr Beholden should it fall into disrepair, and must in good faith affirm to maintain the building and grounds. "And finally seventh, the purchaser must provide for similar bequeathal and disposition of Carr Beholden in toto." "Wow." "I agree, Dave. Walter Carr and his father before him, who converted the hotel to a home, seemed intent on ensuring consistency for the property, most notably Carr Beholden itself and less specifically the status of the outbuildings and land, aside from keeping it intact." "But I'm not a resident of King's Hope yet. Is that not a deal breaker?" "I cannot argue against the former but I respectfully disagree on the latter. You do intend to move to and live in King's Hope, do you not?" "Of course. Yes." "Becoming a citizen of our delightful hamlet need not be any more onerous than ensuring the process is underway in a legal sense before a sale is finalized. As executor of the estate and guardian-post-obit of the property, our firm concludes jurisprudence allows us to interpret the will in a manner consistent with that methodology. You needn't provide anything more complicated than an updated driver license or a change of address duly filed with the United States Postal Service, after which we would judge the spirit of the requirement satisfied." My suspicions blossomed into a bouquet. Something more than the will seemed afoot in this deal, and I didn't know if I wanted to participate. "Over the course of thirty-plus years you never saw a prior opportunity to do that?" "That is a judicious observation and legitimate question. And of course the answer is no. Carr Beholden was a cornerstone in the foundation upon which King's Hope was built; therefore it behooves us, the town leaders and remaining Founding Families, to ensure the Carr legacy is respected. Subsequently, we here at Doubleday and Associates are compelled to adhere to Walter Carr's will and are compelled to respect the spirit of the Carr legacy while upholding the interests of King's Hope." "Meaning what exactly?" "Meaning, Dave, Carr Beholden was meant to be yours." "Not in the literal sense, of course; that would be silly. You mean in the metaphorical sense." "I meant what I said. Carr Beholden was meant to be yours." Realizing the weirdness of his statement whilst simultaneously realizing the bizarre nature of the situation, I said bluntly, "It's too strange, Clement." "Might I point out that we are not committing some great crime or savagely violating Walter Carr's mandate. Your parents are citizens in good standing, they are neighbors and friends within the King's Hope community, and they clearly say you are moving here. Similarly, you assure me you are moving here. And should we conclude this transaction, you will be legally bound to live here in accordance with the obligations from Walter Carr's will, which will be part and parcel of any contract on the property." "I see." My initial apprehension already had cooled from boil to simmer because one of the will's major stipulations mandated the buyer had to live on the property, so working a little legal footwork on the citizenship requirement based on my parents being citizens hardly seemed noteworthy. As for the property being meant for me, I took that as metaphorical, an admission that I represented the first real and secure opportunity to sell an expensive property that had legal prerequisites limiting potential buyers. So I continued after a breath or two, "I'm assuming you have paperwork, photos, the typical realty package that will give me an overview of the property?" He responded with clear enthusiasm, "I most certainly do. Can I then presume, Dave, you intend to consider Carr Beholden?" "Sure, Clement, that's a safe presumption. Given the limited information in my possession—lot size and some building synopses—I can't promise more than consideration, but this is a viable option on the table right now." "Very good, Dave. Fine. Fine. I'm glad to hear it. And given the somewhat—as I said—eccentric legal bindings on the property from the will, shall I also send along that information, possibly for review by your attorney? You do have an attorney, do you not?" I chuckled anew. He ribbed me, the snarky condescension delivered in a paternal way that carried with it a humorous advertisement: If you don't have an attorney already, or if you do and want to upgrade, I'm right here, already in business and in residence in your new hometown, so think about it. "Yes, that's a wise move. Let me give you my attorney's information so you can contact her directly. Got a pen?" * * * * * Clement Doubleday, Esquire, attorney at law, so on and so forth ad infinitum, seemed eager to provide a realty package and the legal information regarding Carr Beholden. He contacted Lydia Hagerup within minutes of finishing our phone call, and the following day overnight packets arrived for both of us. Lydia expressed the barest amusement with the sale parameters outlined in Walter Carr's will, what she called "postmortem assignation." She explained that similar byzantine provisos, though often more torturous, were not just frequent with larger estates, but they often served as posthumous catalysts for the most egregious family wars and will disputes imaginable. "In fact," she confessed, "within the sanctums of the legal profession, many attorneys admit the more convoluted examples serve as post obitum mail bombs designed by the recently departed and their legal counsel as means to inflict as much injury as possible in a family that deserves a share of misery." Which of course made me laugh. Though the realty package included photos, history, background on the area and similar marketing material, it failed to give a true impression of Carr Beholden, a large part of which stemmed from the property's disuse for three decades plus change. Clement left me with the impression that the whole purchase, should it take place, represented a fixer-upper opportunity at best. After discussing it with Lydia, whose legal advice boiled down to "it wouldn't hurt to take a look," I shared the information with Rogélio Dias, my friend who has a successful career as an architectural and interior designer. Our close friendship began in college. If Carr Beholden embodied a fixer-upper ordeal, I would want Rogélio involved. Following a look through the real estate information and the pictures, he offered his sage advice: "It wouldn't hurt to take a look." It wouldn't hurt to take a look had been my response. I expected more from them. So as retribution for noncommittal guidance when I needed them most, I dragged them along a few weeks later to view the property with Clement Doubleday. Carr Beholden remained the unknown quantity, other options shuffled off the table after evaluation and rejection. Laying eyes on this property became the next logical step. Little more than seven months after Beth died, the nip in the air of a cool October day invigorated my impression that the time had come to move. The idea had taken shape a few months before and had become real only a month before, but already it represented the right path for my life. Following Clement's directions and winding from State Highway 49 through the woods toward the lakeside retreat, the impression of untended and overgrown wilderness that condensed around our car did little to dissuade me that seeing the property felt right, that relocating made sense. If Carr Beholden disappointed in every way and joined the other options brushed from the table of opportunity, seeking a place and assessing options still felt timely and appropriate, a wiping away of the old to make room for the new. Clement stood in the clearing at the end of the private lane looking precisely as I imagined him, though a touch shorter than envisioned during our initial phone conversation. Perhaps five eight in height, in his sixties, not so much reed thin as average with no extra baggage, his skin pale with age yet highlighted with the rouges of a biting north wind, he had perfectly cut and combed hair the color of nickel. Beneath the long navy overcoat he wore a tailored charcoal three-piece suit with a classic cut, a white shirt so bright it looked unnatural, and a nondescript silk tie simultaneously stylish and inoffensive. He waved as our car rounded the final bend in the driveway. We stopped not too far from him and the three of us stepped out into the brutal lake wind. "Clement," I greeted while shaking his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you in person." Then turning toward Lydia on my left: "This is Lydia Hagerup, whom I believe you've spoken with before." I waited for them to shake hands and exchange brief pleasantries, then I turned right toward Rogélio and added, "And this is Rogélio Dias, my design guy I told you about." They too exchanged handshakes and pleasantries. With a sweep of his arm covering the woods around us and the lake beside us and the large structure to his back, Clement offered, "Lydia, Dave, Rogélio, welcome to Carr Beholden." He provided a tour, though the outside portion we conducted at a speedy clip given the chilly drizzle that had begun falling and the gusty north wind bringing across the lake a violent slap of discomfort. We briefly viewed the longshoremen's cabin, glanced through the woods toward the stables and carriage house, and quickly looked through lakeside brambles and reeds toward the boathouse. When finally we made our way into Carr Beholden itself, I feared imminent structural collapse, but the large rough-hewn granite-and-wood framing held. We gingerly made our way from musty room to musty room. We walked the upstairs area after navigating the main stairway that appeared ready to creak, cave and crumple, swallowing the four of us in the process. Due to that possibility we didn't tour the garret or the widow's walks on the roof after seeing the access stairwells had become rickety and partially disengaged from the walls, one having bowed down, sagging beneath its own weight. To call the building dilapidated would represent an understatement of historic proportions. The interior's state of moldering disrepair resembled bomb damage more than age, and abundant varieties of decay and forest critters had invaded. Sitting empty and without upkeep for thirty-something years definitely equated to a disaster. The woods had overgrown everything except the hotel, the antebellum structure seemed on the verge of falling down, more than half the main pier had already dissolved into the water and the other half looked friable, and broken windows and doors left the interior almost as bitter and uncomfortable as outside. Thankfully the building dated from a time when they constructed things to last. The old hotel's appearance belied a sturdy frame that undoubtedly would withstand another century or two if shown a bit of care and maintenance. And it certainly offered enough bounteous space for any ideas I might have, including moving my parents in as they grew older and less able to live separately. They hated that idea when I gave it as my reason for wanting something larger than a bungalow, but they understood the love involved in my plan. I remember considering at the time, They think they'll live forever and will never need any charity or assistance. Everyone wishes the same as far I'm concerned, but wishing for a thing doesn't make it so. Clement reiterated the twenty-room hotel-turned-private home offered approximately 30,000 square feet from basement to attic, not including porches, patios and balconies, or the outbuildings—which, he added, had essentially imploded over the decades of disuse anyway. "That's a lot of space, Dave," Rogélio said. "And I mean a lot of space." "True. Probably too much. I'm sure someone will reiterate that," I replied with a smirk-marked roll of my eyes toward Lydia. She mocked me back with an affected look of insulted shock. I continued, "But it's better to have too much than too little. Besides, these past few months I've thought diligently about what I want. The space won't go unused." "You can finally have a proper library," Rogélio offered with a smile and a congenial pat on my shoulder, still looking around and mentally calculating the possibilities. "A gym to keep you buff, a real master suite, a wine cellar... Plenty of possibilities and potential, my friend." Lydia pointed out, "Given the work needed to make it livable—let me correct myself—given the work needed to make it accessible, necessary before you can begin to make it livable... Let me say the price seems high. Not prohibitive, not if you're intent, but seemingly disproportionate." "The house isn't the only thing that needs work, either," Rogélio added. He turned and glanced back at the door through which we had entered, as though surveying the property around the hotel, then he explained, "You'll have to do something with the other buildings, the piers, the private road, the overgrown trails if you intend to use them, the plant growth around this building if you neglect the rest... A lot of work, and work doesn't come without cost." As he stopped talking, he let his eyes roam carefully through the dimly lit interior where we stood, the original main entrance for the hotel that became a large combination sitting/living room when the Carrs converted it to their home. The spark in his eyes came from mental fires burning with ferocity, measuring, planning, seeing not what existed but instead what could exist. Out-of-pocket expenses to acquire the land and buildings came to almost six million dollars, not including extraneous costs such as taxes. That represented a steal in my favor if measured against acreage and square feet, but it became highway robbery against my person when measured against the work needed to make the place inhabitable. Unable to deem it a business investment with future revenue over the horizon, with "flipping" it disallowed by the will as Clement pointed out, sane people must see the purchase price as the first large chunk of change burned atop the homestead pyre that would require several million more—at minimum—before you could warm you feet at the hearth. At least according to my plans. I had more than enough funds, yes, but wealth had not transformed me into a spendthrift. Sensibility demanded an assessment of the property on its inclusive merits, which meant visiting, for seeing a place in person allows us to see a place's potential. And though originally I felt this property offered too much land and too much square footage and too many obligations relative to cost, standing in the tumbledown disarray and having a sense of the location and size of the lot had convinced me of the promise Carr Beholden offered. I had already decided I would purchase the property. I loved it: the land, the buildings—dangerously disused—the lake, the whole of it. Threatening to bombard us with falling beams and dropping staircases, it still felt like home. So many possibilities, such a delightful setting, so far removed from the ghosts I wished to escape. Lydia and Rogélio looked woozy, but neither crumbled. Perhaps a bit of fear seeped into both of them, for the house did give the sense of impending doom—swallowed by the floor and spit into the basement below, attacked by an invading army of forest denizens, sheer inability to reopen the door and reach the outside world. Structural failure represented the beginning of the threats. No one spoke for a minute. My two friends and counselors awaited my response. Everyone had said their respective pieces and thereby lobbed the conversational ball into my court. And I waited for my mind to stop rambling ideas about what this place could become. Finally slowing my breathing and allowing my heartbeat to normalize, I wiped away the envious look on my face and replaced it with one of dispassion, logical evaluation rather than emotional desire, and I asked Clement, "How much wiggle room on the price?" Everything's negotiable, Dad always reminds, and never buy without haggling. "There is a great deal of work to do before it's livable, Dave," Clement offered in response. "The structures, the grounds, the utilities. You no doubt have surmised that the initial cost is only the beginning. King's Hope's Founding Families and we here at Doubleday and Associates feel it equitable and reasonable to apply the remaining Carr estate funds to the purchase price to offset incurred financial liabilities by the purchaser." "Meaning what?" "Meaning if you intend to buy Carr Beholden, we can reduce the price to just over three million dollars." "That's cutting it in half. That can't be possible." "I assure you, Dave, it's possible. We have been rather sagacious in our management of the Carr funds and have extended them for decades. We take our responsibilities quite seriously, you understand. Thus, minus legal fees, almost three million dollars remain in the Carr trust. Though not equipoising the assumed burden, it will help reduce the load of the sale's hefty price tag and the work to follow." "What about other Carrs? The King's Hope Carrs ended with Walter. You've told me that before. But surely there are other Carrs who might have some claim to that money." Lydia replied before Clement could open his mouth, "On the contrary, distant relations are secondary concerns in such a matter. The most apt source for a valid will contestation would come from local relatives, those with a vested interest in the estate and a potential claim against it. As I understand it, there are no such family members." Gesturing toward Lydia Clement added, "My lovely and estimable confrère is right. Walter Carr was generations removed from the country's Jefferson and Carr dynasties. He had no children. No Carrs or Jeffersons closely related to him lived in the area. It's doubtful remote relations knew about him, forgotten a hundred years prior along with the entire Dabney Carr lineage. No legal maneuvering after that much time could justify probate consideration of the will. The idea would have been laughed at by lawyers and judges alike had it been suggested, and the most avaricious ambulance chaser would have been embarrassed to entertain such a thought." Looking directly at me my attorney said, "I concur." She paused for a heartbeat then turned to Clement and continued, "Prudence requires that we see the financial records and a copy of the will with related documents." Then back to me she added, "Assuming the will is solid, no familial claims can be made. Capital the Carr estate still has is subject to Walter Carr's last wishes and by proxy the management decisions of the Doubleday law firm." She paused for the blink of an eye and switched mental gears. A smile crossed her lips as she offered, "If it pans out and that sum can be applied to the sale price of this property—" She grabbed my shoulders with both hands, turned me full toward her, and looked me clearly in the face. "—you, my dear friend, find yourself twice unexpectedly gifted." "Not that you have to pinch pennies," Rogélio joked as he patted me on the shoulder before squeezing the back of my neck in a strong show of support and affection, "but I do think this qualifies as a major point in favor of the purchase." Tension broken, we laughed and agreed and silently wondered about the quirky reality in which we found ourselves. Afterward I spent more time exploring the old place, always with one or more of the others. None of us wished to become an accidental death or dismemberment, though Clement teasingly assured us the property had full insurance coverage come what may. That afternoon, following lunch at the Main Street Diner in King's Hope, we sat in an office paneled with dark wood and filled with antique furniture, Clement Doubleday's posture resolute yet comfortable, his buttocks resting on an overly-large chair made of supple dark leather, his mahogany desk leviathan and imposing and obsessively ordered to neatness, a file in front of him holding contracts, statements and letters of intent. And I put the foot of my signature on the first few steps toward acquisition. Though we would take the remaining contracts and paperwork to Dallas for thorough review, processing them as quickly as possible, the overwhelming oddity and excitement of the situation struck me fully as I wrote a deposit check and handed it across the desk to a smiling attorney whose gentle and wise features never betrayed more than sincere pleasure at handling enjoyable business with good people. On the way to the car later I mumbled, "I just purchased Carr Beholden." Rogélio smiled and responded, "I can't wait to start drawing." He looked positively giddy, nearly as excited as I felt. * * * * * By the middle of December 2010 we had completed the legal paperwork, I had paid the entire purchase price, my official move to King's Hope had manifested by a temporary relocation from Dallas to the King's Hope Bed and Breakfast at the end of Rural Route 121 near the bayou, and work on Carr Beholden had begun. I held the title free and clear, though subject to the contractual provisions willed by the Carrs. Locals needing work found themselves engaged with initial clean-up of the grounds to make room for real work. Contractors made the longshoremen's cabin livable so I could reside there while the remainder of the work continued. Living in the small structure meant living on my new property, a major step toward living in Carr Beholden. First we shored up the edifice itself by gutting the interior and adding framing, reinforcing the foundation and building with structural supplements, and fixing the prominent risks, such as sagging porch roofs and the staircases to the garret and widow's walks, stairwells ready to consume anyone attempting to climb above the second floor. It took four months of constant work to complete initial repairs. Rogélio Dias visited often. I hired him officially, never once thinking of asking for a favor of this magnitude. As a success in architectural and interior design with named projects around the globe, his endless supply of contacts became people I knew by first name. In addition, his unquenchable thirst for perfection and his obvious love affair with the old antebellum structure and its potential resulted in an impressive restoration plan for the outside and a magical transformation for the inside. Because King's Hope rests in Texas and Texas gets more than a few tornadoes, not to mention other kinds of severe weather, we decided some of the basement's generous space would make a nice storm shelter. We added it to the plan. No one thinks King's Hope rates inclusion on anyone's list of potential terrorism targets, but the purchase took place in a post-9/11 world and, as the crow flies, Carr Beholden lies fifty miles from Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport. Also, the house's isolated and remote location engendered worry for potential criminal misconduct, although no one thinks of State Highway 49 as a major thoroughfare. Nevertheless, the property's seclusion did raise concerns about potential break-ins and thefts and other unsavory activity that would go unnoticed by people in the area. So we agreed to make the storm shelter part of an overall panic room and safety shelter. We added it to the plan. "In the intelligence community" as he puts it, because he can't discuss his real work or mention what organization he works for, Devin Rallo has been my dear friend for nearly a decade. He has provided more than a friendship's worth of reference material for my books. When he proposed a self-contained digital system for home management and security, I offered him a paid consulting gig to manage its design. His idea included perimeter and home cameras, infrared and thermostatic sensors, motion sensors, electronic window and door locks, and a plethora of cool gadgets more associated with a government office complex than a home. But he based some of his ideas on my childhood fantasies. Presented with the opportunity to make some of those youthful dreams a reality, we added it to the plan. During structural work and interior work, as the dead Carr Beholden stepped aside for the resurrected Carr Beholden, contractors made an unexpected discovery, though after seeing it I found it neither strange nor surprising. From top to bottom, the hotel contained hidden passages, including underground tunnels from the main building to each of the outbuildings. Somehow the whole of what we found struck me as both nefarious and innocent. So I called Clement Doubleday. * * * * * "I've been expecting this call, Dave." "I hoped as much. So what can you tell me, Clement?" "The use for the tunnels was twofold: to allow the Carrs and possibly their kith to move about unseen if the need arose, and also to aid in moving items of interest that might draw the attentions of would-be robbers, hijackers and others engaged in skullduggery of one kind or another." "'Items of interest.' Meaning what?" "Since the hotel formed the major entry and exit for King's Hope back in the day, and since King's Hope served as the rest stop for shipments moving toward Jefferson, which was known as the 'Riverport to the Southwest' during the 1800s, the Carrs quietly offered secure movement and temporary storage of goods that might make a moored vessel a target. That included gold, cash, jewels, arms, tobacco, and the occasional person wishing to move about with some measure of impunity." "Interesting..." None of it sounded terrible. None of it surprised me. "In time," Clement offered, "the tunnels enjoyed a new and more admirable use—as part of the Underground Railroad, literally and figuratively. Slaves could be moved into and out of the hotel sans notice, and the waterway made Carr Beholden a strategic station on the network. The Carrs never owned slaves; they paid their help regardless of ethnicity and social status. They already had the tunnels in place and their relationship with colored folks was in good standing, so they were recruited and gladly helped, the existing tunnels and passages making it simpler." "Now that makes for a good tale, Clement." "You know, Dave, your career as an accomplished author makes me appreciate our nondisclosure agreements apropos the house," he said with a joshing tone. "I'm not here to sully anyone's name, and the Carrs have been good to me. Besides, I write fiction, not truth. And I relish privacy. Mine and everyone else's." He laughed, a little relieved but mostly a happy laugh. "One of the many things I like about you, Dave," he finally said. "Thanks. I'm glad I have a few good traits. Now tell me about the secret passages if you can." "A not too dissimilar explanation from the tunnels. The passages could be used for the same purposes of course. They also allowed the Carrs to move people through the hotel should they be endangered, sometimes good people and sometimes not. I've said the Carrs had many business endeavors, not all of them honorable I do admit, and unsavory characters sometimes found themselves caught in the hotel. The passages enabled furtive movement and unseen ingress and egress. If the Carrs felt a person deserved protection, they had ways to make it happen. "The Carrs may have used both the tunnels and passages for reasons they did not share with Doubleday and Associates. Our history as their legal counsel goes back to the 1840s, and that relationship was close. But people never tell all their secrets, and they never tell them all at once, and they absolutely never tell them all to the same person. I doubt my predecessors knew the whole truth of what happened out there, though I do not fear we could hear anything to make us regret our relationship, personal and professional, with the Carr family." "You said something earlier I want to go back to if you don't mind. About the nondisclosure agreements. I understand their use from my point of view—when it comes to discussing the Carrs and their personal and business endeavors. What I'm curious about is the attorney-client privilege and how that applies to what you can and can't tell me. I meant it when I told you I'm interested in sitting down with you sometime to hear more of the history of Carr Beholden and of King's Hope, yet as an attorney I would think your hands are tied in a way I'll never experience." He took a deep breath, not loud or exasperated, not histrionic or affected, but brief and intentional, and in that sound and in that moment, perhaps for the first time consciously, I realized Clement Doubleday was a secretive man and that he knew more than he would ever tell. That sound explained he knew more of Carr Beholden's secrets than he had revealed, probably more than he would ever reveal. In fact, he knew some secrets I would forever hate knowing should I come to possess them. "The nondisclosure agreements cover quite a bit, Dave," he replied, "but yes, I'm constrained by different principles, some pressed upon me by law, some pressed upon me by individual clients. There are many things I can never disclose. Carr Beholden is a special case, however, because the Carrs, most notably Walter and his father Dabney Jr., knew the site could land in the hands of a stranger. They included addendums to their letters of retention that provide the legal framework I need to skirt their attorney-client privilege in order to answer your questions about the property, hence the nondisclosure agreements. "That is to say they knew they couldn't hide the passages and tunnels and whatnot after they were gone, and they smartly deduced that not providing a means to convey some answers would result in conjecture or release, neither of which would do anyone any good, not even the repute of men long dead. So with forethought bordering on prescience, a sound anticipatory move, both men redefined the Carr family's relationship with Doubleday and Associates in such a way that would allow us to reveal information otherwise strictly protected." "That makes perfect sense, Clement. It was a curiosity for me. Lydia has from time to time mentioned how throwing a blizzard of snow over the facts to hide the truth sometimes slips into a violation of privilege, so I wondered about you given our somewhat unique relationship. I appreciate you taking the take to talk to me about it." "It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Dave. I'm glad I could be of some help." "You certainly have been. Thanks for answering my questions about the tunnels and passages." "Don't hesitate to call if you have other inquiries." "I will do that. Thanks, Clement. Goodbye." "Bye now." As I hung up the phone, I found myself going back to his statement: the Carrs "knew they couldn't hide the passages and tunnels and whatnot after they were gone." Throughout the remainder of Carr Beholden's rejuvenation and ever since, I have wondered about whatnot. * * * * * After finding the tunnels and passages, Rogélio and I made changes to Carr Beholden's storm/emergency shelter, and we also played fast and loose with some of the internal layout from the basement to the second floor and to the outbuildings. The rejuvenated longshoremen's cabin proved an enjoyable temporary abode, sizable for its original barracks-like structure used to house several dockworkers at the same time. Rustic and charming, sitting at the edge of the clearing beside the main house, it offered a beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding woods. It also provided a front-row seat for observing and managing the incessant activity around, on and in the old hotel and grounds. After two months of preparation and moving and after living in the bed and breakfast for two months, I lived in the cabin for another 14 months. Eighteen months following the deposit check, Carr Beholden passed inspection and received the coveted word from everyone involved—finished. We rebuilt the boathouse, replaced both piers, and swept away the imploded stables-cum-carriage house and erected a woodland cabin. We also added a five-car garage and storage extension to the main building. Following constant construction, noise, mess and wait, I felt overjoyed when time came to appreciate my new home as a resident instead of a spectator. Finally I could just live for a while. Though the exterior resembles its humble beginnings save the added windows and doors, not to mention the modern sunroom hanging off the east end of the structure, no one can confuse the interior with the original hotel or the adapted Carr estate it later become. That pleases me. Subsequent to everything it witnessed as a hotel and then as the last stronghold for a once powerful and wealthy dynasty, Carr Beholden's tastefully modernized antebellum exterior shelters a spacious contemporary home on the inside. And it is my home. * * * * * Chapter 8 The narrow drive leading from State Highway 49 to the hotel erupts unexpectedly into an idyllic wide-open vista. Lake Potisesse leaps into view behind the structure itself. Anyone making the journey from the main road to this spot feels transported to a different world. Sure, trees surround the highway, but they rest far enough from the thoroughfare to make it open, unobstructed. My private road, on the other hand, creates a magical aura that metamorphoses a jaunt through East Texas woods into a carriage ride through Sherwood Forest. Bandits riding into the path on horseback wearing Renaissance clothing and brandishing bows and arrows would seem an impeccable fit. Shadowy woodlands of pine, cypress, various oaks, sugar maple, and hickory speed by near passing cars, Ents protecting their flocks and slowing passers-by wending the narrow path too hastily. Branches reach in strangling holds on traffic. Foliage threatens to blanket travelers in overpowering embraces should they not tread carefully along the sacred route. One cannot deny the hush of trees marching peacefully over rolling hills while making that spellbinding mile-long drive to the hotel. Traveling from civilization's highway to my remote sanctuary is accented by a sudden change from 1500s forest to 1800s haven. The entrance opens abruptly into the space surrounding Carr Beholden, a gaping mouth spilling its mobile contents onto a plate of crushed stone. A bend in the road surrounded by trees hides the spot until the last moment. Cars tumble into the open around the house and face a life-size Asher Durand painting. The commodious wood-and-stone structure blends perfectly with the sylvan landscape, extending with equal calm toward the open shoreline. Lake Potisesse's 2,100 acres stretch out before it, a welcoming bath prepared by dutiful attendants. Enough space cleared next to the screened-in porch on the west side of the structure accommodates several dozen cars if militaristically parked. To the left—to the north—the wooden tongue of the pier sticks out in front of the house and into the water; it beseeches swimmers and sunbathers to enjoy its company. City life can't compete with the splendor of my new home and its location. I park the Lexus in the garage next to the old Chevy Blazer, a large canopy of foliage near the back of the house blanketing the area in dappled light. Taking a deep breath as though leaving the vehicle means stepping into some toxic environment where one must survive with the air already in the lungs, I shut off the car and get out, grabbing the two twelve-packs and bag from the back seat before making my way to the kitchen door. The Blazer catches my attention when I pause on the steps to find the right key. More than ten years old, its once cherry red carapace faded by sunlight bleaching and time's inexorable ability to wear things down, the stalwart SUV remains a necessity. King's Hope has a bounty of named streets near the center of town, but outside that enclave of concrete rests a menagerie of rural routes, farm-to-market roads, county roads and dirt lanes, most of which receive minimal care. They have an unkind tendency to hammer an automobile's solidity and suspension. So I keep the Blazer for navigating those less civilized paths and use the IS 350 for those times when I drive on modern—not to mention maintained—throughways. A zephyr hits me with the unforgiving heat and discomfort of a blast furnace. It rustles through the trees and past the house as it moves toward the lake. With it comes overbearing humidity, a cloak of sodden cottony air that sticks to my skin and makes my clothes do the same. Jostling my load so I can reach the keys in my pocket forces me to pause for a few seconds. Beads of sweat begin taking shape on my forehead. Despite the lack of comfort, I glance out the open garage door and take in the forested surroundings. Regardless of the pastoral location, this place has grown on me, has become home. Perhaps the time has come to sell the old house in Dallas. That shell overflows with ghosts. I haven't returned to it for a few years. Renters occupy it; the same lovely family who first rented it still maintains their life in its embrace. Despite their residency however, it sits dead and derelict in my mind. Four years have passed since Beth died. Keeping the house feels saccharine. The rental income amounts to inconsequential pocket change, the associated expenses nothing more than tedious details to manage now and then. Yes, the time has come to discard the old homestead. I make a mental note to call my attorney so she can get the process started on my behalf, though I make an addendum to the note to tell her I'll finance a purchase by the current renters if they wish to buy it. They've been too reliable and too responsible for me to kick them to the curb with a FOR SALE sign. Keys grappled with and subdued, the kitchen door unlocks and opens. A quick hit to the wall control closes the garage door. With the two twelve-packs of beer and a supply of confections pulling my arms in unnatural ways, I step inside. A most welcome rush of cool air embraces me. The Lexus said the outside temperature had climbed to over a hundred degrees, though the day remains moderately young. I kick the door shut behind me and make my way to the kitchen island. Momentary struggling doesn't lead to dropped goodies, a satisfactory performance for someone who never learned to juggle. Each twelve-pack yields its contents to the refrigerator, one bottle even making it into the freezer where it can cool off more quickly. Immediate consumption of alcohol glares blazingly bright in my mind despite knowing I'll indulge in far too many processed desserts. Grabbing the bag of sugary goodies, I dump it on the island countertop. With clear view of the sweets spread out, I chastise myself for going overboard preparing for my end-of-book fix. But going overboard is immaterial since at least I'm prepared. A package of Hostess Chocolate CupCakes held greedily in my hand, I sweep the remaining confections—a not too inconsiderable mass—into a pile that I heave in handfuls into a wicker basket pulled from beneath the counter. After locking the garage door, shedding my tee shirt and tossing it on the island, and kicking off my shoes into a pile next to one of the stools, the affront to diabetics everywhere goes with me down the hall to the sunroom. With sugar coma-inducing afters and computer within easy reach, that familiar cozy spot in the northeast corner welcomes me. A quick glance outside gives an unimpeded view of the eastern end of the lake and the woodlands around the house. This part of the original wraparound porch faces east, the screened-in portion west, and the open deck north where it has an unobstructed view of the lake. The sun already moves over the other end of the house and doesn't hit my cloister. Avoiding undue heating from the simmering onslaught outside strikes me as important. Given the plethora of trees, direct sunlight doesn't infiltrate the sunroom from noon onward; the screened-in porch enjoys that honor throughout the morning. The open section of the northern deck never receives unwelcome sunlight except indirectly in the late afternoon before the sun falls behind thick foliage. Three walls of floor-to-ceiling glass leave me stupefied by the sunroom's coolness. It has rheostat control of the window tint, but it remains unused because the dappled morning sunshine never unpleasantly heats the room. Air conditioning and four ceiling fans do a fine job handling what little warmth the windows allow inside. Stretching my legs on the couch provides a convenient and natural platform for the laptop. Even as it settles warmly on my shorts, panic seizes me. I have naught to slake my thirst! The laptop goes back on the table. A quick jog to the kitchen allows me to fetch a large glass of ice water. By the time I reach the hall, the glass has returned to its empty state, the whole of its contents guzzled. I hadn't realized how hot and thirsty I had become. So I spin around, make another full glass, and finally head back to the sunroom where I make myself comfortable, this time after an inventory confirms no immediate needs. The laptop hums. The battery meter shows a filled charge, so I unplug it. Exercising rechargeable batteries now constitutes a habit as unconscious as breathing. The word processor makes short work of opening the manuscript for Compassion in Annihilation's Caress. Jumping to the end of the document, I grab the chocolate goodies from the table and open the package with much crinkling of cellophane, retrieve one of the cholesterol-increasing cupcakes, and take an ambitious bite from it before putting it to rest on top of the other one. Gosh, and all that in preparation for completing a single book. Vices be damned! my mind shouts in response. Were it not for my bizarre habits, I wonder if my writing in its various forms would've remained unpublished. My curiosity in such matters generally impels me to wonder what Shakespeare did to get through his mental unloading. * * * * * Rereading the last few pages of the novel regains my position in the story. The unwitting and unheroic rogue William has discovered the nature of the alien visitors invading his world. He rests on the verge of realizing a great truth—they masquerade as the gods our species has worshiped throughout history. In fact, as he will discover, the mental images projected by them as their names resemble in disconcerting ways the names of humankind's major deities past and present. William will find this dubiously convenient and will determine it's covertly Machiavellian. He'll also discover the aliens exist in a place disparate from his universe yet attached to the infinitesimal corner of the cosmos he inhabits. Thought is as intelligible to them as is space and time and life itself. On rare occasions, humans tap into that bizarre plain where these living deities reside. The experience often translates in a person's feeble mind as precognition and retrocognition, prophecy, visions, and spiritual experiences. For the most engulfed, such visits lead to manifestations in humanity's world, things such as healing, clairsentience, levitation, telekinesis, clairvoyance, astral projection, telepathy and—the religious will shudder to think—mediumship. In the aliens' reality, they view other realities as worlds they can see and visit, and death is such a world. Despite the aliens' semi-incorporeal life, their tangible half deals heavy-handedly with the physical realm, colonizing worlds, wiping out civilizations, consuming natural resources and subjugating native inhabitants until they too can be consumed. And for this they have specific reasons, unusual reasons in fact. William needs to discover those reasons before he feels vindicated for killing his wife and causing his children to desert him, and most notably before his unintentional heroism can manifest. My fingers rest easily on the keyboard and find the rhythm to complete the story. William will make his discovery. He and those around him will experience a great realization about the nature of life, of humanity, and of religion. The aliens will offer an ultimatum to mankind, a choice between discarding the ways of the past in order to reach the future, or seeing their destruction insured. An armada of diaphanous ships will surround Earth, vessels impervious to the weapons of that time, crafts invisible to human technology and bearing unimaginable power—at least unimaginable by anyone alive since William's wife had imagined it. Hysteria will grip every corner of the globe. Mass suicides will occur across a spectrum of faiths. The Hobson's choice will be unavoidable. People will either drop to their knees and beg for mercy from aliens who demand their worship, or they'll suffer catastrophic annihilation that will last forever. William will understand this all-or-nothing option really boils down to a nothing-or-nothing option, since the final outcome remains the same no matter what his people do. Because, in the end, the aliens intend to destroy his world by one of two means—consumption or obliteration. My protagonist will finally regret the murder of his wife as he realizes the futility of the act. The children he lost because of it will fall prey to the influence of the invaders. His total manipulation at the hands of the alien incursion will make him the tool the aliens use to annihilate his species. He will finish by weeping beneath the knowledge of the aliens' true identities and why they do what they do. And there it will end... sort of, with the whisper of a hinted question that might mean the fight continues. * * * * * Tappety-tappety-tappety. Fingers flying on autopilot controlled by stream-of-consciousness command, approximately 45 minutes pass before I brake in a state of anxious discovery. Both cupcakes have vanished and the glass of water has emptied. "I need more fuel. William's in danger of petering out before his time." Laptop returns to table. Discarded confection packaging and water glass return to the kitchen. The sun drifts toward the western horizon and light outside slowly dims, although hours remain before sunset. The deception comes from trees blocking sunshine from the west side of the house. The darkened hallway gratifies me as I amble along; the murky transit fits the mood of my tale. The wasteful plastic container from the cupcakes drops in the trash. I guzzle a refill of water, giggle about the instant replay, and prepare another helping to take to the sunroom. "What's missing?" I glance around the kitchen as though I misplaced something, the feeling clear that something is amiss. "Beer!" Inside the freezer my first planned alcoholic conquest has frozen to its core. Thankfully the bottle of Modelo Negra didn't explode during that process. No harm or foul since those in the refrigerator have cooled. I put the frozen bottle on the counter beside the fridge, retrieve one that hasn't transformed into a solid, grab one of the Mrs. Baird's Fruity Apple Pies from the basket, then saunter—perhaps I skip a little—to the sunroom. I feel good, the book advances rapidly, I have the wherewithal to get 'er done, and besides, William would not be happy if I left him in limbo for too long. The man's a maniac. I have to deal with him right now. More importantly, it could force Brody to contact me and solicit the manuscript if he doesn't receive it tomorrow morning. As firsts go, I have no desire to experience that one. Delivering it a day late doesn't worry me of course, but I have no wish to incite unnecessary concern for my agent by missing the late deadline. * * * * * Ensconced on the sofa, feverish work alternates heavy loads of writing with bathroom breaks, refill visits to the kitchen, and get-away-for-a-minute-and-stretch breaks. Meanwhile, the sun continues its never-ending journey toward nightfall. When at last the damnable fire hangs its summer heat below the horizon, vermilion to the west and indigo to the east drape both ends of the sky with curtains woven by a setting star. A magenta weave joins the two extremes in that place directly above where diametric realms merge. Only in passing do I appreciate the spectacular show. Shame on me. With barely a glance at nature's presentation and murmuring something about how pretty it looks, the story unfolding before me holds my unwavering attention. I should've enjoyed a bit of time letting the vista enrapture me and allowing my eyes to take their fill of a sky riven by vivid pigments drawn from light and dark. But neither did wishes become horses nor beggars ride, and wanting to stop doesn't mean I can stop. Unfinished work remains, William's adventure rushes headlong toward its powerful climax, and my deadline grows closer. So with absent dismissal the feast beyond the windows passes without appreciation. My eyes and heart will hunger anew. I enter a trance when writing that often means losing touch with the splendor surrounding the house. The nearer I come to the end of a manuscript, the more fixated I grow until becoming unaware save for the most violative disruptions. I wonder how much life I've missed in that near-unconscious place I travel to when my fingers and mind decide to spin a yarn. Tracking the hours during such episodes doesn't occur. Consciously, the creative process takes over. Words spill from my brain and translate through my hands into digital form. Beer and water mix in constant drinks, and the beverages wash down enough sweets to induce acute diabetic shock in the healthiest of people. * * * * * In the blackness of night, without knowledge of the precise hour it occurred, William's journey draws to a close and completes his transition from nescient primitive to flummoxed yet informed hominid facing the dissolution of what he knows, a lonely person standing at the edge of oblivion trying to disavow the blood on his hands. Sunset came and went hours before. Somewhat drunk and terribly high on an unbelievable quantity of sugar, my mind and body can't decide whether to plummet to the ground or run laps around the house. The basket of confections in the kitchen lacks half its original load. Ten empty beer bottles sit atop the kitchen island, one half-consumed sits on the table in the sunroom, and a thawed yet undrinkable ale sits on the counter, leaving one lonely survivor in the fridge to mark the end of a plundered twelve-pack. Finding dinner thankfully doesn't require driving. But the idea of eating elicits vehement complaint from my stomach. Given how much junk food I already stuffed down my gullet, my tummy threatens to rebel should my mouth attempt to chew or swallow more calories.
  9. April 26, 1999 "I'd like to talk with you. Before you start on your homework." Nate's forward progress ground to a halt, one foot in the hallway and one in the living room. He preferred to scurry into his room as quickly as possible when he got home from school. The less time he had to deal with Richard, the better his evening would be. The youngster had already started thinking of his father as Richard since the man was nowhere near being a father and wasn't even in the same universe as being a dad. Sometimes he even thought of him as a roommate, a virtual stranger who just happened to live in the same house. The Fiend stood near the sofa, gesturing vaguely for his son to take a seat. He could see suspicion in Nate's eyes. That did not bother the doctor, but the hesitation did. Nevertheless he allowed his features to soften into an approximation of gentle warmth, his posture to slouch so as to give him a relaxed and friendly appearance. "Please," he said gently. Nate dropped his backpack and shuffled into the living room, thinking this wasn't going to be good. Unless he had an audience, Richard didn't really talk much to his son, and he certainly didn't make an effort to start a conversation. Unless it was about Greg. He thinks I'm too young and too stupid to notice, Nate thought, and he thinks I don't catch on to his little chats and interrogations about Greg. But I get it. I'm not dumb even if he thinks I am. Richard waited for his son to take a seat. He felt displeasure when Nate sat at the end of the sofa opposite where The Fiend stood. And that the child alighted on the edge of the cushion as if ready to make a fast escape further irritated the doctor. Everything about the brat irritates me, The Fiend considered. He knew it to be true, that Nate's very existence chafed and chapped, scraped and scratched, poked and prodded, and otherwise irked the good doctor until he felt every nerve tingling with the desire to throttle the thirteen-year-old boy. Drawing a deep breath, relaxing through the exhale, letting stress flow out and way, The Fiend plastered on a fake smile, the daunting one he used when sharing particularly painful or unpleasant news. He knew his son would welcome it as warm and understanding despite Richard knowing its foundation snarled and gnashed with biting indifference. When his father settled on the arm of the loveseat, Nate realized it was less a resting position than a perch, something like a bird of prey might use while it looked for something to kill and eat. And that's precisely how he thought of his sperm donor, like he was some kind of shadow creature stalking the dark recesses of the earth and consuming the unwary and causing pain to everyone he encountered. I don't really know if that's true, but he gives me the creeps. This fake person everyone sees and this cold, heartless thing meant just for me. The way he acts around Greg when he thinks I won't notice. Sometimes the way he looks at other boys, rarely but sometimes. He might've given birth to me, but he isn't a father. I'm not even sure he's human. "What are you scowling at?" The Fiend asked with feigned curiosity when all he felt was annoyance. "Nothing," Nate replied automatically. With frigid calculation The Fiend considered his son, measured him, evaluated his tone and nonverbal cues. Then he gently said, "If something's bothering you, Nate, you can talk to me about it." "Homework," the boy replied, a slight tremble in his voice. Which pleased Richard. Not wanting to communicate his disdain for this encounter, the doctor relaxed his shoulders slightly and lowered his gaze a bit, meeting his son's eyes and offering a slight smile, something sympathetic and reassuring. Deciding the cause of Nate's sour expression mattered little to his purpose, The Fiend promptly shifted his focus to this part of his plan. He had spoken with The Boy just a few days prior, helping Greg understand his feelings for Nate would ultimately cause pain and anguish and the destruction of their friendship. But The Fiend knew the obstacle he faced in his quest to conquer and possess The Boy stemmed not just from the object of his desire, but also from his own son. Thus it behooved Richard to attack the problem at both points of origin. The Boy had already been handled; now he would deal with Nate. "I know we don't talk like we should," The Fiend said apologetically, even abashedly. "That's my fault. I guess I'm not very good at this fatherhood thing. I spend too much time with work and patients and rounds and..." Dropping his head with a bitter shake for effect he muttered, "And the most important thing I should be doing I ignore because I'm too busy." Nate didn't say a word. Warmth from Richard? Didn't happen. Apologies? Nope. Self-deprecation? Absolutely not. So this sudden familial bonding and sorrowful soliloquy just didn't jive with his son. "You and Greg seem rather close," The Fiend said without transitional preamble, his tone inquisitive and measured, yet also neutral. Nate's reply came without thought: "He's my best friend." "Is that all?" "What?" Where's this coming from, the youngster thought, and what's he up to? "I asked if being best friends is all there is between you two." "Yeah. We're best buds. We click, you know, so we're close." His son only hesitated for a fraction of a second, yet Richard caught it. Practiced at the study of human nonverbal communication and as observant as any top predator, the doctor had no intention of allowing even a hint of diversion to beset his plan now that he had it reassembled and reestablished as the de facto path forward for all parties. Being keenly aware of his son's thoughts and emotions throughout this conversation was a prerequisite to the success of both this tactic and the overall strategy. "You think he likes you." "What? No. I mean yeah. He likes me. I'm his best friend." Nate was flustered. Was he doing this right? Was he playing Richard's game according to whatever twisted rules the doctor had? He didn't know. He didn't even know what game they were playing. But he strongly suspected he wasn't going to like the outcome. "You know what I mean, Nate," The Fiend prodded in an understanding way, as though aware his son might be uncomfortable with the intended topic of conversation. "Greg came out to you like he did with everyone else. You know he's gay. Do you think he likes you as more than a friend?" Did he? Is that what Nate thought? If he was honest, yeah, it was. He couldn't really say why, but he had the impression that maybe Greg had feelings for him above and beyond friendship. It was the little things, like touches and looks; but it was also something else, something intangible, something hidden. Still, Nate didn't know if Greg was aware of it. Hell, he didn't even know if he was imaging it. Was it wishful thinking? If Greg was interested in him, he wouldn't wind up with some other boy, which would mean Nate wouldn't lose his best friend. But it was more than that, wasn't it? Didn't Nate think it felt good to believe Greg liked him as more than just a friend? Didn't he think it made his stomach all tickly and his head all buzzy and his face all warm when he thought about it, really thought about what it would mean if Greg liked him like that? And he was closer to Greg than he'd ever been to anyone else in his life. An admittedly short life at thirteen, sure, but still... Nate always thought being the favorite friend of the biggest, best looking dude in school was a claim to fame, yet he also thought it was something else, something better, something special. Because he felt special, because Greg made him feel that way, and Nate liked the way Greg made him feel, and the doctor's son wondered if maybe he wasn't a little bit gay too, since he liked Greg a lot, maybe more than just as a friend, though in the interest of full disclosure Nate didn't have a lot of experience with feelings beyond friendship because he was this thin, scrawny, ordinary looking black kid. Mostly he had friends because kids wanted to be Greg's friend, everybody was drawn to him, all the girls wanted to date him and all the boys wanted to be him—or at least pick up some of the castoffs he left in his wake. But Nate was special, he knew he was, because Greg chose him. When he was the new kid in school fresh from D.C. and he had no friends and nobody to talk to and nobody to hang out with, Greg came to him, approached him and befriend him and made him feel like a million bucks. From that point on Nate didn't need for friends because he had Greg and Greg always had an entourage of casual friends and acquaintances and wannabe friends. By proxy Nate had all those things too. Most importantly, though, he had Greg, and that always felt like it was more than enough, like he was a best friend and he was a brother and he was... well, something else, something better, something sacred. "I guess I don't understand," Nate said, though he was pretty sure he understood Richard's point just fine. Does Greg like Nate? Yeah, Nate kinda thought so even if he couldn't say for sure. The Fiend knew his son was lying, albeit not a significant lie so much as a deception, perhaps even self-deception. Richard doubted it, however. He suspected somewhere deep inside, where Nate himself might not yet see it, his son harbored some measure of belief that his best friend felt more than friendship toward him. Rising from his perch and settling on the couch nearer his son, using the move to communicate friendly concern and support, The Fiend turned slightly and gave an impression of openness and honesty and—he hated to think it, yet he did—even of love. Using all his strength to keep accusation out of his voice, the doctor explained cordially, "Listen, kiddo, I know you're young, but you're not that young anymore. You're at the age where feelings start to pop up that you haven't had before, feelings that are pretty doggone strong and awfully confusing." Resting his hand on Nate's shoulder and giving a gentle squeeze he added, "I'm dancing around something here because it means the difference between having Greg as your friend and having him walk away from you forever." Nate's eyes bulged and his body convulsed with sudden panic. "What?" he gasped. "Why? He wouldn't... Why?" The Fiend cocked his head slightly and grimaced with superficial compassion. "Son, that's what I'm trying to help you with, what I'm trying to figure out. But I'm doing a damned terrible job at it, aren't I?" He added a self-deprecating snicker to emphasize his apparent failure, every bit of it mechanical and plotted. God, what's he up to? Nate wondered. And what if he's right? What if he knows something I don't? I'm not real sure of who's feeling what, so maybe Richard's aware of something I've missed. All I know is I can't lose Greg. That's not acceptable. Not at all. "I... Well..." Nate stammered, trying to organize his thoughts. Then: "I guess, yeah, I mean I suppose I think maybe he likes me as more than a friend. But I don't know! I'm not sure anyway." Despite the urge to wrap his hands around his son's throat and squeeze until the pitiful creature stopped stuttering and learned to speak like an adult, The Fiend gently rubbed Nate's shoulder as he told him, "I understand. Trust me, son, it wasn't that long ago that I was your age and going through the same thing. Emotions are kind of new for you, at least these emotions, and it's not always easy to understand what other people are feeling." "But what do you mean Greg might walk away from our friendship? Why would you say that?" Nate was close to whining and begging at once, but he couldn't help it. Richard's words had put a screeching fear in him that was driving up the volume of panic in his voice. "Calm down, Nate. I'm trying to help you." I doubt that, the youngster thought automatically, although he realized he wasn't so sure about that this time. Richard was hitting some pretty sensitive buttons and all sorts of alarm bells were going off in the kid's head. If Richard knew something important, damn it, Nate needed to know it. "What I need to know," The Fiend began, "is if maybe you have some similar feelings for Greg, like something more than friendship maybe, something you might not even be sure of but that makes you wonder what you might actually feel for your best friend." Nate shrugged, a bit in confusion and a bit in dismay. "I'm not really sure. You know, I guess everything's all messed up right now. It's hard to tell sometimes what's going on in my own head." The Fiend offered a chuckle and half a grin, something warm and relaxed, something unnatural on his countenance. "I hear you, kiddo. Been there and done that, I assure you." "What about Greg leaving? What do my feelings have to do with that? Why would it matter if I did or didn't like him... like him like that, I mean, as more than a friend?" "Oh, Nate..." Shaking his head and restraining his features so his sneer remained hidden, The Fiend said, "You know Greg sometimes talks to me about... well, about stuff he's confused about or stuff that requires an adult's guidance." Nate knew they sometimes talked, though he doubted it was all Richard was making it out to be. Greg was awfully smart, the smartest guy Nate had ever met, and one thing his best friend didn't seem to need was adult guidance. Or if he did, Nate would bet a million bucks that he'd ask his mom or his dad first, or maybe his uncle or his aunt. Who'd want to turn to Richard for advice? Not anyone who knows him, that's for damn sure. Still... With something so important to be lost if he fucked this up, Nate didn't think he could afford to disregard the doctor's words. At least not before he'd heard them anyway. "Yeah," the boy said, "I've noticed." After a deep breath, as if to fortify his resolve but really meant to increase his satisfaction, The Fiend told his son, "Recently... recently Greg's been worried about something, something between the two of you." "What? Why wouldn't he talk to me about it? What is it?" "He doesn't want to embarrass you if he's wrong, so he hasn't talked to you about it. Right now he's just trying to figure out if he's right and, if so, what to do about it. But he's pretty sure how he feels about it. He's adamant that if he's right, it'll tear your friendship apart." I refuse to cry, Nate thought. I won't let him bully me with this bullshit. I know Greg better than he does. "You're lying!" the youngster almost shouted. "You don't know anything about Greg or our friendship. You're lying and I don't believe you!" The Fiend felt a delicious warmth spread through him at his son's anger and defiance. And his obvious pain. He needed his son emotionally and psychologically off balance. Such a state would render him more susceptible to suggestion. To drive a wedge between the two boys and to inflict suffering on them both, one he would comfort and one he would not, Richard adhered to the new plan he had concocted in response to The Boy's surprising ability to circumvent each trap and sidestep each snare The Fiend carefully placed in his path. "Calm down, Nate. I'm trying to help you. Maybe I'm stumbling through this, but at least I'm trying. I don't want to see you get hurt." "Then tell me! Tell me why you say he'd walk away from our friendship." "Greg's worried you might be in love with him, or at least that you have feelings for him beyond friendship." Nate gasped. He wasn't sure what he thought about that. For that matter, he wasn't sure what he thought about Greg beyond friendship. He just wasn't experienced enough with all these teenager feelings. Enjoying the look of utter despair and confusion on his son's face, basking in the glow of discomfort and fear, The Fiend continued, "Greg's the tallest, best built, best looking guy in your class, maybe even in your school. He's good looking, he's smart, he's charming and charismatic, he's physically superior in every way, he's popular, he's clever and witty. And he's your best friend, closer to you than anyone else. It would be completely normal if you felt a little something more for him than friendship." Leaning down to speak more conspiratorially, The Fiend added, "But he doesn't feel that way about you. He's worried that those kinds of feelings would destroy your friendship. He loves you, sure, but only as a friend. So he's worried you might love him too much, as more than a friend, and it scares him because he knows it would ruin your friendship, it would change it until it was different, wrong." "I don't need him to love me! I don't need to love him like that! He's my friend. That's what matters." "Is it? Is it really, Nate? Are you not the least bit interested in him?" "No. He's my friend!" The Fiend could see the unshed tears welling in his son's eyes. He could also see the confusion and deception. Whether or not Nate realized it himself, he felt some measure of attraction for Greg. In the vulgar colloquialism it might well be a bromance Nate felt, or perhaps even a bit of hero worship. In a perfect world The Fiend knew it would be one of those but nothing else, not pansexual or demisexual or bisexual attraction. Yet he could not rely on perfection in an imperfect world; therefore he had to make his own perfect destiny come to pass by controlling the situation. "Here's the problem, Nate. Greg's scared that you might feel more for him that just friendship. But he doesn't feel that way about you. And he knows that if you want more from him than he can give, it'll tear apart your friendship. "He'll leave. If he ever thinks you feel that way about him, he'll leave because you're too close, because he thinks you love him too much. He'll say he feels that way because he doesn't want to embarrass you, he'll say he loves you too much and he has to get away from you, but what he's really saying is that he can't give you what you want and he can't hurt you so he has to get away from you. He doesn't want you to feel bad, so he'll say he feels that way and then he'll leave you." Doubt. The Fiend could feel it emanating from Nate in waves, building until it crashed and washed over everything his son thought and felt. Richard cared not a bit if Nate believed him; he cared only that Nate heard him, for the wellspring of the kid's emotions and thoughts would be tainted by a toxic tide of Richard's making. "What's your problem?" Nate shouted. "What the fuck is your problem? What are you trying to accomplish?" "I'm trying to protect you, Nate. I'm trying to keep you from being hurt." "Bullshit! You don't care about me." "That's where you're wrong. You're my son and I love you. I don't want to see you heartbroken and cast aside by someone like Greg when it can be prevented." "He'd never throw me aside." Nate was crying and he couldn't help it. He wasn't sure what Richard was up to, but he was sure that it hurt, that it worried him, that it made him question everything he held most dear. And that was causing panic and pain, anger and anguish. "Greg knows he can't be something other than a friend for you. He'd never be interested in that, but if you want that and he finds out, it'll break his heart because it'll tear apart your friendship. That's why you need to focus on finding a woman you can build a family with, have a home with, a woman who can satisfy you and make you happy. You need to find yourself a woman and don't give a second thought to Greg." "He wouldn't leave me..." Nate whined through sniffles and aborted sobs, tears streaking his cheeks. "Why would he ever think about leaving me?" Restraining his features so his triumphant sneer remained hidden, The Fiend said, "Greg's better than you. A lot better. Better looking, smarter, better body, taller, friendlier, more outgoing and more interesting. Greg's better than you, Nate, and if he thinks you're too interested in him, he'd have to move on because he won't string you along but he can't love you like that." Yanking away from the doctor, Nate grimaced, choked back a disgusted laugh, said, "You're lying!" He wiped his nose on his sleeve before adding, "I know you're lying. Greg doesn't think he's better than me. He'd never think that!" Why is he hurting me like this? Nate wondered. What's his goal? What the fuck's all this about? "You know I'm right," Richard told him. "Just look at yourself. Your friends are a byproduct of your friendship with him. And now that he's out of the closet, he's an interesting oddity and the most popular gay kid. But you? You're the sidekick." Sometimes Nate felt like he got sloppy seconds from Greg, it's true, but he never resented his best friend. Why would he be upset about any of that when Greg showered him with all his attention and love and friendship, focused on him all the time, spent all his time with him? No, it wasn't charity and it wasn't pity. Nate knew that deep inside, felt it in his heart, saw it whenever he looked in his friend's eyes. Richard was wrong. Wasn't he? "You straggle along in his wake hoping for a smile, a touch, a word, and it's pathetic. He'll never love you, Nate. Never. At best you'll always be just a friend. Because he's too good for you. He could never love someone like you." The Fiend almost shivered in delight. His son's face contorted with pain and worry and doubt and sorrow. His tears were like ambrosia scenting the air with victory. The more emotional turmoil Richard could cause, the more his words could seep into Nate's thoughts and feelings without notice. "Greg's gay, Nate. He'll never be happy with anyone who isn't also gay. He won't want somebody to try it out with him. He won't want somebody who isn't sure. One thing I know about you is that you don't know what in the hell you want. "You could never satisfy someone like Greg. You could never make him happy, not truly happy. That's because it's not in your nature to be happy with a man, not truly happy anyway. You might experiment, you might think otherwise, but you'll only ever be happy with a woman. And that's why you can never be what Greg needs or wants. That's why he'll never love you." "Why would you say that? Why are you doing this?" "One of these days he'll leave you. He'll leave you because he can't give you what you want. He'll leave you because you're wrong for each other. He'll leave you because he doesn't want to disappoint you. He'll leave you, Nate, and when he does you'll remember I warned you. You'll remember what I said. And you'll realize I was right all along." Nate jumped up from the couch and ran to his room, weeping openly and harshly, his backpack forgotten where he'd dropped it. Once in his bedroom, he slammed the door, leaped atop the bed, dropped his face into his hands, and cried without shame. The whole bed shook with his muffled sobs, his pillow dampened with his tears. "He can't leave me..." he muttered through sniffles and hitched breaths and mournful groans. "I can't lose him... He can't leave me..." The Fiend knew a single conversation did not a victory make, thus he would revisit these topics with Nate time and again, forcing a new truth to take root in his son's psyche, a truth of Richard's making. He did not know what the future held for the two boys, but The Fiend knew The Boy had vexed and thwarted him, and such was unacceptable. The doctor knew of his superiority to those around him, especially to a child like The Boy. To have his unfailing plan repeatedly desecrated by one so young required a punishment that would last no matter the outcome of this particular hunt. And so the predator would lay the groundwork for misery and mistrust and misunderstanding between the boys, his gift to them for their meddling and their foiling and their foolishness. For in the final analysis, knowing he would have no further use for The Boy once his appetite was sated, The Fiend wished to leave him not just used and discarded, but also unhappy and unanchored. As for his own son, the doctor wished nothing but disappointment.
  10. November 20, 2016 When I heard Nate pull into the driveway and the garage door start rising, utter panic overtook my hectic mood. "Fuck!" He's home early. Pushing boxes and suitcases into corners or back into the large closet, I made the room as presentable as it could be with most of my stuff packed and ready to move. Which of course meant it wasn't presentable at all. Anybody with two brain cells to rub together could look at it and arrive at the same question: Where are you going? I pulled the bedroom door shut and headed downstairs. Just as I hit the landing and turned into the living room, Nate walked into the kitchen, pushed the door shut, then headed directly for me. "Me and Rita want to take you out tonight for drinks and a few games of pool. We haven't done that in a while, you and me." "Rita and I, you illiterate troglodyte." He hit me. Nate hit me. Not for the first time, either. I wondered if any government agency had responsibility for investigating reports of best friend abuse. "As I was saying, you're going to Ships Lounge with us tonight. We'll have a few drinks, play some pool, have a good time." "All the way to Lower Greenville? On a Sunday night?" "Sure. Why not?" "What brought this on?" Not that I minded, but it seemed sudden. "Rita and I thought it would be nice. You've been super busy with work and we haven't been able to get together in a week or so." Then with an emotional overtone in his voice and near desperation on his face he continued, "I want to spend time with my best friend. I don't know if you feel the same—" "Of course I do!" And how painful it was to admit when I knew what the night held. "—but there's been so much distance lately. I feel like you're slowly slipping away from me, G-Man. It's killing me, it really is. So I thought it'd be nice to go out, shoot some pool, have a few drinks, spend some time together." "With Rita..." I muttered, not pleased with the addition, not if Nate meant what he said. "I thought it would be nice if you and Rita got to know each other better. I don't know if she's the one, Greg, but anybody who's trying for the part needs my best friend's approval. If they don't win you over, they don't win me." All I could do was stare. When my mouth opened, I had no idea what it intended to say, so I shut it in silence. Nate's bewildered expression slowly contorted into a frown. Shaking his head he quietly said, "Fuck, dude. I'm sorry. I just thought..." It didn't matter how this turn of events made me feel, so I shrugged. "...and I assumed," he continued. "I fucked up. Here I tell you you're so important to me and turn around and make you the odd man out. What the hell is wrong with me?" Perhaps it was a mistake, a slip as it were, but the blade in my chest merely strengthened my resolve, reinforced the belief that I was doing the right thing. Thus I elected to indulge in nonlinear thinking and asked, "What about meeting the contractors in the morning at the new gym?" Startled, he started to speak then stopped, then started and stopped, then finally shifted mental gears and replied, "I have to be there early. I can't skip because they'll all be there to kick off the renovation and rebuild. But that doesn't mean I can't go out tonight and spend some time with my man." "And woman," I added, though it came out more sneering than I'd intended. Looking sheepish he said, "I can cancel with her if you want. It can just be us." "It's fine. Really." It came out dismissive, even hurt, and I didn't know why. I was walking away from him, leaving him behind so he could move on. Why did this breach of best friend etiquette bother me so? From my perspective, it sure looked like he was moving on. With a shrug I told him, "It's all good." My tone couldn't have convinced me that water was wet, so I knew it didn't convince Nate of anything. Looking dejected and admonished, even disappointed in himself, he mumbled, "Cool." "Do I have time for a shower?" He sniffed twice in my direction before saying, "For all our sakes, yes." "Asshole! You work in a gym all day and you imply I stink?" This time I hit him. "Ouch! You struck me!" "Wimp," I called as I followed him up the stairs.. * * * * * Fresh from the shower and facing my own reflection, I set the towel near the sink before I ran my fingers through my damp hair whilst staring into the eyes of the man in the mirror. I asked him, "If I don't let him go, will I spend the rest of my life clinging to the edifice of the past?" With a nod toward my own reflection I continued voicing my thoughts: "That man there, the man fresh from the shower, could he be happy—I mean really happy— if he can ever figure out how to let go of this? I don't mean forget—" I barked a dismissive laugh. "—because he'll never be able to forget this. But can he set it aside and eventually let it go enough to seriously entertain other options?" Resting my palms on the countertop and leaning forward I asked, "Can you ever let this go? Can you move on? Is that even a realistic goal?" Pushing myself upright, I grabbed deodorant from the medicine cabinet and began applying it. "That man staring back at me," I said to the mirror, "the man who looks like he could be on top of the world if things were different, do you think he's doing the right thing? If he did nothing, do you think he could happy? Well, happy in love rather than happy with the man he loves?" After putting the deodorant back in the cabinet, I again ran my hands through my damp hair, my eyes locked on my mirror image. "Is happily ever after always just out of reach? Am I throwing away the closest I can get to it? Or am I finding the path to it with this move?" My voice stern yet shaky I told him, "You have to let this go. It was never meant to be." Turning away from the man in the mirror I said, "I wonder if this sacrifice will be too much to bear." * * * * * Just as I reached the kitchen, intending to grab a bit of Dutch courage, I heard a car door slam shut, the sound amplified as it ricocheted through the garage. I peeked through the peephole in the kitchen door and saw Rita walking up the driveway. Rita Guzman, twenty-five years old from Puerto Rico, was a hot little Hispanic number, maybe five six with a slim yet curvy physique, her black hair wavy and hanging between her shoulders, her cheekbones high and her nose perfect and her eyes black pools of sensuous depth. Dressed in low black heels, slim-fit faded jeans, a silky blouse of gray-tone tartan, and a leather biker's jacket, her small purse slung over one shoulder, she was a study in exotic beauty. Not my type, but if you're into that kind of thing... Before she could knock I opened the door. "Hi, Rita. Come on in." "Thanks, Greg," she responded with that silky voice of hers, just a trace of a Spanish accent adding an air of mystery. She can probably talk a man into an orgasm with that voice. Well, a straight man anyway. She walked through the living room to the bar where she set her purse down before turning to look at me. Never taking her eyes off me, she removed her jacket and laid it beside her small bag. "You're looking quite lovely this evening." The barest hint of a blush colored her cheeks as she smiled. "Thank you. And you're looking stylish as usual." Then she asked, "Is Nate not home yet?" "He's still in the shower." Rolling my eyes, I shrugged and added, "Sometimes it's like he forgets we actually have to pay for all the water we use." She gave a little titter, a bubbly sound that was light and refreshing. "Thanks for inviting me along tonight," I said, resentment playing softly in my tone. She gave a quick little puzzled expression before explaining, "I think all of this was Nate's idea. He called me earlier and asked if I'd like to go. I told him of course I would." She gave a mischievous smile before explaining, "Pool was a favorite pastime back home. With all my brothers, it was the only sport where I could beat them." "So you're a pool shark?" Waving away the assumption she said, "Good grief no. But I do enjoy the game and I've been known to win here and there." "Especially against your brothers?" She giggled as she nodded. "Well, neither Nate nor I are known for our elite skills around a pool table. We love the game, don't get me wrong, but we've always just played for fun. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we always have fun while we're at it." Nodding, a soft smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, she told me, "That's the way to play. I only do better because I was the youngest, so the only way I had spending money was to win it from my brothers." Our laughter mingled. I walked around the bar into the kitchen and proceeded to fetch a beer from the fridge. I still had time to guzzle one or six before Nate was ready. "Would you like one?" I offered. "No, but thank you for offering," she said demurely, adding, "I'll have my share around the pool table." Upending the bottle, I swallowed half the contents before pausing. "You and Nate have been friends for a long time." "Decades," I supplied automatically. "Then you know he's straight, right?" "What?" I snapped, my brow furrowed and mouth grimaced. Looking apologetic, as if sharing a bad prognosis with a patient's family, she sighed before telling me, "Nate. He's not like you, Greg. He's straight." With a full-blown scowl on my face I gruffly asked, "What the hell are you on about?" Her hands lifted in surrender, Rita gave a meek expression before replying, "It's obvious. To me, anyway. I just thought you'd already know it's an exercise in futility." "I beg your pardon?" "You haven't told him and he hasn't seen it for himself. Seems like a pretty big secret to keep from your best friend." Frowning, trying not to scowl and failing miserably, I said, "I'm afraid I don't follow." "Don't you? You're so good at hiding it; it's almost impossible to see. Maybe you've even hidden it from yourself." You have no idea how true that is... or was, rather. With nothing more ominous than a stern considering look I said, "You lost me." If she's fishing, I won't bite; but if she's meddling, biting might be the least I do. "I'm not trying to cause trouble, Greg. I'm really not." She looked sincere and sounded sincere, but she was stepping on my last nerve anyway. "Then, if you would please, get to the point, one of which I assume you have." Holding her hands up in surrender again, Rita told me, "You two are so close. He loves you dearly. It's always Greg this and Greg that and Greg says and Greg does. And you two are psychic or something with the way you're in each other's heads." "That's from more than twenty years of friendship so close that few can achieve it." "Precisely. And yet you've hidden this from him." "What is the 'this' to which you refer?" "Are you in love with him?" I guzzled the rest of my beer, dropped the empty bottle in the recycle bin, fetched another, opened it, and guzzled half of that one. Then I looked at her and said, "Not to be rude or anything, Rita, but my relationship with Nate isn't a topic for conjecture or discussion by the great unwashed." "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to meddle—" "It sure looks that way from where I'm standing." "Really I'm not." She still looked and sounded sincere. "I was just thinking maybe you were holding out hope, maybe you didn't already know." "Know what?" "He's not like you." "Not like me," I spat, "like it's a disease or a defect." "That's not what I meant," she growled dismissively. I always knew I didn't like this woman. Now I'm figuring out why. How has Nate not seen this side of her? She's an uncultured swine! What we see depends on what we look for. Standing to my full height and looking down at her with as much venom as I could muster, I asked, "Do you think you've known him long enough to tell me something I don't know? You think you're such an expert now that mere weeks of exposure make your knowledge superior to what I've accumulated over decades? Do you even consider your words before you say them?" Her mouth worked a few times, though she produced no sound. "Thanks for your input, Rita." Then I guzzled the rest of the second beer before dropping the bottle in the recycle bin. Once that bit of housekeeping was done, I headed toward the stairs. "Don't you want to know how I know?" she inquired as I passed her. Halting abruptly and swinging toward her, I barked, "What is it you think you know? In the six weeks that you've been around, what great discovery have you made that makes you feel justified in sticking your nose and mouth into a relationship that's been around almost as long as you've been alive? What insight have six weeks granted that suddenly allows you to sit in judgment?" Stunned but not chagrined, she squared her shoulders before telling me, "I'm interested in Nate. It behooves me to pay attention, be observant, learn as much about him as I can." "So you can weigh his pros and cons in your quest for a mate." Fuck, I sound like a snide brat. Under the circumstances, you can't say anything to Nate about this conversation. It'll just be the rantings of someone crazy from unrequited love. "A vulgar yet accurate description." Her voice was cold and sharp. "Which, of course, means I've seen the looks, the touches, the wanting smiles, the wistful frowns, everything—" "This conversation is over, Rita. Period." Then I turned and walked toward the stairway, willing myself not to march, not to stomp, not to flee, and certainly not to kick her ass into next week. Instead I walked normally, as though I had all the time in the world, as though I belonged and she was the outsider. Which I knew would only be true for a few more hours. "Aren't you ready yet?" I hollered up the stairs when I reached the landing. As he hit the top step Nate whined, "Are we there yet?" "Don't make me pull this car over before we even get on the road!" "He touched me!" "I gotta pee!" "I told you to go before we left." "Sorry, pa!" "God, do you two ever quit?" Rita asked with a giggle as Nate stepped into the living room. "Not until they pry my sense of humor from my cold, dead hands!" Nate and I said in unison. She chuckled, though she had a moody gaze settled on me. * * * * * Nate and Rita circled the pool table in a choreographed dance of laughs and plays and conversation. She was full of small touches and meaningful looks and light kisses; but Nate was aloof, veering away when she approached, gently pushing her aside when she invaded his space, smiling disinterestedly when she dropped a peck on his cheek or caressed his arm or back. And almost each time it happened, his eyes would dart to mine halfway across the pool hall. Maybe he heard our conversation. Bionic hearing and all... Maybe. But it only makes a difference for him, not you. She only stood five and a half, about six inches short than Nate, but what a potent combination they made even without a lot of touchy-feely or eyelash batting. His gym build ripped to high heaven wrapped in chocolate-colored skin and her voluptuous Latin beauty kept toned with yoga and aerobics gave me mental movies of pornographic proportions. And every time one starts playing I feel a small part of me die. How's that for killer entertainment... Nate looked unabashedly divine, so beautiful and masculine and godlike. His jeans hugged in all the right places without advertising him as a manwhore. His shirt pulled tight across his chest before tapering rapidly to his waist without being so gaudy as to exclaim he was full of himself, which he most certainly wasn't. As I waited in the booth for a chance to flag down my best friend, a waitress noticed me and headed in my direction. As she arrived I waved her off, adding, "I'm good, thanks." She smiled and nodded before wending her way amongst the tables and booths toward her next destination. Just then Nate glanced up from studying the ball placement. When he realized I was looking at him, he gave me that beautiful, memorable, affectionate smile that was always meant just for me. I'd never seen him offer it to anyone else. While I had his attention I gestured for him to come join me. He motioned that he only had a few minutes left to the pool game. I nodded in return. It was at that moment that Rita stepped behind him and bumped his ass with her hip. I was too far away to notice if she'd been playful or had fleshly intentions on her mind. As far as I knew they hadn't had sex yet. He'll die from withdrawal if that doesn't change soon. Ugh. Please don't. That's the last visual I need in my head right now. Nate smirked and rolled his eyes, all for my benefit, which meant I wasn't sure if he was being playful or had fleshly intentions. Clearly this is bothering you more than you know. Oh, I know all right. I know perfectly well. The fact that she's around at all is part of the reason I have to do what I'm about to do. After a few more plays, Nate and Rita moving about the table with efficiency and sport, my best friend made his final shot, after which he looked a little disappointed. Then he whispered something to Rita, racked his cue, and wandered in my direction. Masculine perfection. Unadulterated testosterone at its finest. Sex on two legs. A body built for sin. Soulful eyes. Phenomenal body. Handsome face. I could go on but I'm just making myself hard and miserable. Nate approached confidently, a smile playing at his lips, and my stress skyrocketed. If I don't get this done and over with soon, I'll be in the bathroom tossing my cookies. Assuming you make it to the bathroom before erupting. True that. When I reached for my warm beer, still mostly full, my hand trembled, causing the bottle to clatter against the tabletop. I glanced at Nate to distract myself from my body's wicked betrayal. His eyes sucked me in, made me lose myself in his gaze. He looked equal parts happy and concerned. Yet as I stared at him, his expression soured, a frown creeping in to replace the easy smile, heartfelt worry contorting his beautiful face. I looked away, at the table, at my beer, anywhere. He's in my head again. He's reading me like a book. He knows something bad's coming. Yeah, well, it is and that's that. Since I wasn't watching him anymore, I startled as he dropped into the booth opposite me. I nearly spilled my beer. That would've been alcohol abuse. Good thing it didn't happen. "What is it, G-Man? Are you okay?" His genuine, loving concern washed over me and flooded through me. It felt like boiling water, scalding my soul. My heart hammered so painfully that the veins on the back of my hand pulsed. "Greg. What's wrong, dude? You look terrible." If I don't get control of my body, this'll be over before it begins. I gave a little shake of my head and told him, "I'm okay. No, not okay. Really not okay. It's just... I mean... Fuck!" Get a grip or get lost, Greg! After huffing out a breath I explained, "I just need to talk to you, Nate. But it can't be here." "Where do we need to go? Just tell me and we'll go." "Home. We need to go home. Now. I'm sorry if it's too early. This thing with you and Rita tonight took me by surprise, but we really need to go home so we can talk." Unshed tears glistened in my eyes, so I blinked them away. Or tried. My body kept twitching and shaking, so I tensed my muscles to stop it. Or attempted to. My voice had grown hoarse, so I cleared it to sound normal. Or that was the plan anyway. And through it all Nate was picking up on everything I was feeling. "What's up, guys? Looks like a funeral over here," Rita chimed in playfully as she dropped onto the bench beside Nate, nestling against him and glowering at me as though I'd ruined her evening. Which I had in a way, though this evening was never about her. Shaken loose from the silent yet fevered communion between us, Nate's stunned gaze broke free of my stare and turned toward the petite, beautiful Latina sitting beside him. When she returned his look, confusion replaced the flippancy that'd been there just a second before. Placing his hand on her shoulder and gently pushing her out of the booth, he looked back to me even as he said, "Please, Rita. We have to go. Now." The last he practically hissed, though I wondered if he knew it. * * * * * Dread squirmed and crawled and wriggled all over me, causing me to shift against the loveseat's armrest. I feared what I was about to do. Nate sat against the end of the sofa nearest my location, his face pallid and his eyes serious. He'd spent no niceties on ejecting Rita from the car and from the neighborhood once we'd arrived home, waving away her protestations and complaints, grumbling at her requests for him to call, to schedule a date, to acknowledge her. When the hottie with a body rushed to him, kissed him sloppily and greedily, then whispered loud enough for our neighbors to hear that she loved him, he pushed her away and walked into the house behind me, saying not a word. More and more I suspected he'd overheard my talk with her before we left. I can't imagine it had endeared her to him if he did. "It's really important and I need you to listen." He tried to say something but I intercepted it by adding, "Please let me get this out, Nate, okay?" He looked perplexed, but more than that he looked terrified. He was definitely picking up his usual signals from me and didn't like what he was receiving. I'm sweating like a nervous farm animal. It was cold and clammy, a viscous fluid breaking out over the entire surface of my body. I could feel it beading on my forehead, running down my back and chest and ribs, trickling through my hair. That's not sweat. It's called abject fear. Just wait until it's joined by its friend, unmitigated heartache. You ready for that? It's what you intend to create with this plan of yours. Are you ready? Huh? Taking a deep steadying breath, locking my eyes on Nate's, fortifying my resolve with whatever reserves I had available, I explained, "I was a fool for not realizing how I held you back." I gestured for him to let me continue without interruption, though I suspected he'd interrupt eventually. "You were suffering from guilt and remorse and you wouldn't leave me because of it." "That's not true!" "It kind of is, though, isn't it? Didn't you choose to stay with me all this time at least in part because you felt like what Richard did was something you might've prevented? Guilt does funny things to people, Nate. Can you honestly say it didn't play a role here?" He looked mortified. And offended. "No," he gasped. "I'm with you because I love you, G-Man. There's never been another reason, not even a little one or part of one." "Be that as it may, spending your life with me has kept you from the things you want, from the things that'll make you happy." "I'm happy with you!" "You said, and I quote: 'Despite the fact that you think I'm a playboy who only wants to dip his wick and move on, I'd actually like to meet a nice girl, get to know her, settle down and get married, have kids, the white picket fence, a dog and a cat and a mortgage, a lawn to mow, maybe a pool to swim in, his-and-her cars, and eventually teenagers who hate me and without whom I couldn't survive and with whom I'll go nuts and about whom I'll worry myself gray. But before I can get there, I gotta make up for what I did, and that means I gotta make sure you get your shit together and find your own goddamn happiness!'" "Fucking tape recorder..." he mumbled. "Did I misunderstand your words, Nate? Did I mishear what you said?" He shook his head, his eyes misty and hurt. "I only wanted to push—" "'I'm fucking thirty years old and still living with my best friend because I love him too damn much to leave him on his own.' You said that, too. Did I not get the gist?" Nate's mouth opened and closed a few times. He was shocked, anguished, obviously cognizant of where I was going with this conversation. "The point is, Little Big Man, I've done nothing but hold you back, cause you pain, keep you from the happiness and fulfillment you deserve." Tears welled in my eyes and my chest felt like it would explode. I'd never felt such anguish before. My world was crumbling down around me and I was driving the wrecking ball, and that made it so much worse. "Whatever this is," he said, his voice hitching as he gestured between us, "it can't be that bad. We can fix it. We're stronger than whatever the problem is. Please..." His voice was tortured and sad. A lone tear streaked down his cheek and I wanted to wipe it away, hold him, take away the pain. "I'm... I'm sorry, Nate," I stuttered. He could see I was struggling to maintain control. That made it practically unbearable for him. "I should have done this a long time ago. I just didn't realize the harm I was doing to you—" "Life with you doesn't hurt me!" "You've stuck by me this whole time, been my constant companion, but in the process you've sacrificed too much. The things you want I can't give you but you stay anyway. What you're looking for can't be found with me but you stay anyway. The future you dream of has nothing to do with me but you stay anyway. And all because I made mistakes and you placed the blame on yourself. Just hear me out... Please..." I was on the verge of losing it whilst trying to keep him in check so I could finish what I'd set out to do. The sense of impending doom he was feeling cranked up his anxiety until he was full of pain, a generous amount of which he was catching from me, the rest of which I was causing with intent. I could see it in his eyes, in his face, that desire, nay, the need to jump up and wrap me in his arms and help make it all better. Ignoring the occasional tear that escaped my failing control and the growing collection of moisture in Nate's eyes, I told him, "I know what you've given up for me. You've made it clear—" "But I didn't mean—" "Yes you did, Nate. In the heat of the moment you meant what you said. And it took those disclosures to make me realize I've been selfish. But that stops now." "Don't, G-Man..." His voice wavered, hitched, grew throaty with emotion. He was trembling. "Even as I got better, even as I overcame what's held me down for so long, I felt worse. Not because of Richard and what happened back then, but because of what I've allowed to happen since then, what I've taken from you, what I accepted as though you owed me something." "You never..." The sadness I felt couldn't be hidden. And that meant Nate was experiencing it as though it were his own. He was attuned to me at that moment and I feared he might already know what was coming. Fighting back the urge to take my best friend in my arms and hold him and kiss him and comfort him and tell him it'd all been a misunderstanding, fighting back the anguish of seeing him hurt like this, I pushed forward. "You have to let me go, Nate, and I have to let you go." Choking back a sob I added, "We can't be friends anymore—" He looked at me, eyes pleading, lips trembling, face a ghastly caricature of the man I loved so dearly. Stop! Can't you see you're hurting him? I've been hurting him for most of his life, only I didn't realize it. He can't take this. Neither can you. Stop it! Stop it before it goes too far! Stop it before you hurt him anymore than you already have! This is the last hurt I'll ever give him. This is the hurt that sets him free. Perceptions dimmed and distorted by emotions too powerful and tears too heavy, I couldn't accurately define the look on his face, though I was reading all his other signals just fine. Like me, he felt like his heart was breaking asunder. Rather than let him stew on what I'd already said, I started to surge ahead with what had to be done. "What are you talking about?" he bellowed before my mouth opened. "What the hell do you mean I have to let you go and you have to let me go? What the fuck do you mean we can't be friends anymore? Bullshit, Greg! That's utter bullshit. I can't begin to imagine life without you, G-Man." Throwing his hands up he added, "This is complete bullshit." Good. Anger. It'll help him right now. I tried to speak, tried to finish what I'd intended to say, but my heart was hurting so much and my soul was burning and my mind was caving beneath the cry to halt this abomination before it went too far. Choking back tears and sobs, his voice lowering to a growl of emotion, he pleaded, "Tell me you don't mean this, Greg. Please tell me this isn't happening." After a desperate inhale he cried, "Please, Greg, say something." My insides were twisted in knots. I had to tell him. I had to admit what I'd hidden from him since the day we met, what I'd built the blind spot to hide from myself. I had to admit what was in my heart. Steeling myself for the final wound I had to inflict, I took a deep breath. Then: "You don't understand, Nate. It's more complicated than you realize. You've told me what you need but I haven't told you what I need." Before he could interrupt I explained, "I need to find my own happiness—" "But we have—" "—and I can't do it when I'm around you. I can't have the life I want because I'm too wound up in you. I can't find a man I'll spend the rest of my life with because I can't see around my relationship with you. My world revolves around you. My heart is tied up in you. I've given my soul to you. "I'm not blaming you for anything, Nate, so stop thinking that. I'm telling you I need to find someone for me and I can't do it because you take up all my emotional bandwidth without even trying." Fuck! Cutting off my own leg would hurt less than this. What the hell was I thinking? Get through it. You're too far in to back out now. Just get it over with already. I could barely meet his gaze anymore, so pained was he; and I could scarcely watch his tears, each welling before spilling down his cheeks, a testament to silent affliction. My own tears overflowed in a constant stream of anguish, so I blinked and wiped and blinked and wiped, yet they stained my cheeks anyway. "I have to give up the greatest thing that's ever happened to me if you're ever going to be truly happy. And I have to be away from you if I'm ever going to move on." "Don't cry! Please don't cry! We can figure this out. We can conquer anything—" "Not this, Nate. Not this..." "What am I missing? Tell me what it is so I can fix it." "You can't fix it. Only I can. And I can only fix it by being away from you." "What can be so terrible?" "I'm in love with you, damn it!" I growled through my own hurt. "I've been in love with you since we were kids. You're the only man I've ever loved like this, the man who fills my dreams and my fantasies and my heart and my head. And the more I'm around you the more potent it becomes, the more overpowering. It's so deep a well now I doubt I can ever drain it, but I sure as fuck know I can't get started as long as we're friends. "I think I fell in love with you the moment we met, though I was too young to understand it. But it's been there all along, this want and need, this fire that burns brighter with each passing day." I was close to sobbing but I didn't care. I'd found my stride and intended to finish the course. Nate, for his part, stared in stunned silence. "You've always filled my vision, Nate, always filled my heart. I can't be happy with anyone else because you're the only one I want. I feel like if you don't start loving me back the way I love you, I'll fly apart and cease to exist. I've wanted you for more than twenty years. But I can't have you, can I? You were never mine to begin with, so all I've done is make myself miserable and lonely by staying with the man I can't get over as long as I'm with him. I can never find the man of my dreams because I already found him and he doesn't want me." I slammed back against the loveseat in an attempt to stop the weeping from taking control. Nate was a blurry shape across from me, hidden behind my endless tears. I knew he was reeling but I was losing touch with him, so lost in my own despair and so pained by this sacrifice that I barely knew my own name. "I don't want you to be unhappy anymore, Nate. But that's all I give you, isn't it? You've told me what you want in life and why you have to give up those dreams for me. And all the while I love you more than any human should be capable, more than any human can contain. Yet there it is, this profound love to spend the rest of my life with you, to love you and be loved by you. Only neither of us can live like that, not anymore. It kills me that I'm in love with someone who can never return it, can never feel the same for me. So I hide it, even from myself for a long while, but it's there and it's alive and it hurts like fucking hell all the time and I can't do this anymore." Pushing myself off the loveseat and leaning one hand on the armrest to keep me from collapsing right there, I quietly told the man I was leaving behind, "I'm going now. I'm sorry about all this. I'm sorry I dumped this shit on you. I'm sorry I ruined your date to do it. I don't blame you if you're pissed. I don't blame you for anything you're feeling right now. But you needed to know. You needed to know none of it was ever your fault. You needed to know there was never a problem with you. "I'm sorry for whatever suffering I've caused you. But it's over now, Nate. I'm letting you go and I'm hoping it means you can finally move on with your life, fulfill your dreams, build the family and home you most desire." Exposed and vulnerable and wishing I'd never approached this threshold, what I'd dreaded all along I finally said: "I hope you're going to be okay. I hope in time you can forgive me. I hope in time you can forget me. I know you're pissed at me right now and I understand that. Fuck, I'm pissed at me, too. "Maybe... Maybe at some point down the road our paths will cross again and we can enjoy some measure of friendship. I hope that's the case because I don't know how I'll live without you. But I have to try, Nate, I just have to." Standing upright I added in a weak and tremulous voice, "Please let me go, Little Big Man. Please let me go and let me try to find my way, let me try to get over you so I can maybe find some measure of what I've wanted all along with some other man." After an aborted sob I said, "Take care of yourself, Nate, and remember I'll always love you." Through my bottomless reservoir of tears I tried to focus on his face, to see what he was feeling, to see a reason for his silent gaze. What I saw struck me as an incongruous amalgam of strangely incompatible emotions, something kith and kin to shocked surprise coupled with unbridled heartache. Of course, my heart was breaking and my soul was dying and my mind was reeling, so I doubted my own assumptions about what he might be feeling. After all, I'd dropped a bomb in his lap, so I had to expect him to be flabbergasted, too overwhelmed to expose single, identifiable emotions. If my internal turmoil meant anything, Nate's insides were in chaos. No matter what he was feeling, though, I couldn't understand his failure to say something, his inability to communicate. Did he suddenly find me pitiable? Pathetic? Disgusting? Was he so appalled by my disclosure, my declaration, that he couldn't talk to me? More than anything else that'd been said or felt, it was his silence that hurt the most. So I turned and walked away. * * * * * By the time I entered the garage, I was a stumbling, sobbing, incoherent emotional wreck, falling into my car, starting it, and driving away in a storm cloud of emotions. He was devastated. It was so obvious. I took something important away from him and threw an unwanted surprise in its place. What else could he feel? "I just slammed the door in the face of the man I love with my entire being... I'll never replace him..." I'll never get over his tears, his anguish. I did that. I caused that pain. I hurt him and it's killing me inside to know I hurt him. Driving away from the home we once shared, away from Nate, away from the only life I'd ever known and ever wanted, away from all that was sacred and cherished, nausea roiled inside me, the burn rising in my throat. Hoarse sobs wracked my body. I had to pull over. I couldn't see, I couldn't think, I was going to lose my lunch, and I was a menace to myself and others. Once on the side of the road, I barely had time to get out of the car and into the weeds before I crashed to my knees and retched. Convulsions gripped me and I spewed beer and bile and what little solid matter remained from the day. "What have I done?" I wailed. Then I convulsed and retched again. And again. And again. * * * * * Sitting in my car on the side of the road, I realized Richard had been right. My love for Nate destroyed us, took away what mattered most. It had to happen, sure, but still... Richard was right. But his dark prognostication meant little when compared to the present he gave me. For once he did something good, something light, something that helped me. All these years I've been on borrowed time and didn't realize it. That's one thing Richard gave me—over two decades of wonderful friendship and love with Nate. Even though it couldn't last, it was The Fiend's only meaningful gift. "So this is how a new life starts, huh?" I mumbled. "And all I can see in my mind's eye is Nate sitting there with tears running down his cheeks." I did that. I caused that pain. "At least it's the last pain I'll cause him." With that I finally started the car and pulled back onto the road. * * * * * Somehow I found myself wandering through a beautiful courtyard, around a building, and to a specific door. How I'd arrived there I couldn't say. Why I'd arrived there I didn't know. When Keigan opened his door I was barely standing. Weak and overwhelmed, the moment I saw his face I began weeping again, not loud wailing but instead quiet sobbing, the lamentation of the damned. "Please..." I begged, though I had no clue what I wanted or needed. Thankfully Keigan knew. After leading me to his bedroom, he helped me strip down to my underwear before settling me in bed. He then climbed in behind me, wrapped me in his arms, nuzzled his face against my neck, and said nothing. I cried myself to sleep.
  11. Jason MH

    Doomsday Clock

    November 4, 2016 "I'm glad we had that session," I told Nate as I loaded dishes into the dishwasher. "I guess I'd been struggling with that for quite a while." Giving him a compassionate look I explained, "Like I said, I've never blamed you. But I can see how you would've felt guilty anyway. In your shoes I'd've felt the same." He smiled over his shoulder as he put leftovers in the fridge. "It's all good now, G-Man. Working through it with Uncle Farid has helped, and finally coming clean to you about it really took a weight off my shoulders." "I'm glad. I really don't want you burdened with it. You've always been my hero. You saved me that day, Nate. Remember that. There's no reason for you to feel bad about any of it." On his way back to the dining room he stopped and leaned his head on my shoulder, kissed my cheek, then whispered in my ear, "Your forgiveness helps, even if you think there's no reason for it. But what you just said helps most. Thank you." Then he nuzzled my neck before walking away. Frozen. I stood frozen with one hand in soapy water and the other holding a wet plate above the sink. My eyes misted and my heart hammered and my breath stuttered. Then just as quickly I went back to what I was doing, hoping the hitch in my giddy-up had gone unnoticed. Coming back with more dirty dishes Nate said, "Now that you're getting better, now that you're seeing things clearly again, it means a lot knowing you feel that way. I still needed to get it off my chest, but at least I'm not worried about your response being the product of hiding the truth from yourself." Leaning against me from behind he again whispered in my ear, "And I'm really happy you're getting better, G-Man. Nothing could make me happier." Another peck on the cheek and he was gone again, picking up the last of the food from the table. Focusing on the work at hand, I kept quiet. What am I supposed to say? Gosh, thanks Nate, glad you want me to be better. I see you've taken it as a sign to move on and my heart's breaking and I have to leave you because I'll never get over you while I'm around you and you'll always struggle with finding your own happiness so long as you're focused on me. Somehow that doesn't sound like the proper response. "The twinkle's back in your eye." My head whipped around only to find him bent over the table wiping up a few crumbs, his back to me. "What are you talking about?" My voice was distant, like it came from some other place, and I barely got the question out above a whisper. Turning to face me, his expression puzzled, he answered, "Just... I'm not sure. Maybe it sounds silly, but there was something... some light in your eyes back when we were kids, from the time we met until not long after you came out, and it was like this blaze of life and joyous emotion and... and something. But it disappeared years ago." With a shrug he added, "But it's back. I guess it's been back a few weeks maybe." "Huh..." I mumbled as I returned to the dishes. I wonder why he's never been able to see it. He sees everything else in my head, he reads me like a book, and yet he's never been able to see that. Why? Standing beside me rinsing the rag he'd used on the table, Nate nudged me with his elbow before asking, "Is something wrong?" "What? No. Nothing's wrong." Just focus on the dishes. Leaning his hip against the counter so he could face me, his expression the very definition of thought and study, he pursed his lips but said nothing. Finally he quietly sighed then explained, "Yeah... Something's wrong. You've been distant lately, increasingly distant in fact, and you're constantly rushing off so we don't spend much time together anymore." With the expression of someone who feels a hurt they can't identify or fix he inquired, "Did I wrong you in some way? Did I hurt you?" Play it cool. This won't last forever. Just do what you have to do as quickly as possible so you can— "What are you in a hurry to do?" he asked quietly. "The dishes." My voice was flippant to my own ears but I couldn't stop. I had to keep him out of my head. "I have to catch up on some work. So that means I need to hurry with the dishes." Nate huffed, his breath cascading over my skin with the force of wishful thinking. Until that moment I'd been able to ignore his smell, but being caressed by his exhale pushed all the right buttons. As I inhaled his breath, I also inhaled the scent I longed to bottle and carry with me every moment of every day. "Please talk to me, Greg." Fuck. He's so worried right now, scared even. I can't let that go on if I can help it. After quickly drying my hands, I turned slowly to face him, schooling my features and blanking my thoughts, since with Nate that's what would betray me. "You didn't do anything wrong. Quite the opposite." I reached up and cupped his cheeks, gently sliding my thumbs over his beautiful brown skin. "You've always done everything right. You're such a perfect friend to me that it scares me how much I love you." I gave him a quick kiss before turning back to my task. But I saw the look on his face, the one that said he was confused and hurt. "You'd tell me, wouldn't you? If something was wrong between us you'd tell me, right?" His voice was soft and thoughtful, full of emotions, one of which was doubt. Which makes sense because even thinking the question a month ago would've been laughable, a preposterous notion, a silliness that needn't be given voice. But things have changed. "Of course I would." And I will. Just not yet. Not until everything's in place. With a quick peck on his cheek I added, "Of course I'd tell you, Nate. You know I would." "You need to tell me something, something important, is that it?" "You know me, Little Big Man. My mouth engages long before my brain, so when I have something important to tell you, it'll fall out of my mouth of its own accord." "Hmmm..." he muttered. Then he shrugged before stepping around me. When he reached the stairs he said, "I'm gonna take a shower. I'll be back down shortly. Save me a beer or ten." As soon as he'd climbed the stairs far enough to disappear, my head dropped and I sighed, disgusted with myself and sorry for Nate and worried for what lay ahead and what I had to leave behind. * * * * * When Nate came down the stairs, he had on a loose pair of sweats hanging from his hips and a tight long-sleeve tee that hugged his broad chest and clearly showed his nipples. Otherwise it dangled freely over his tight abs and narrow waist. Heaven help me, can't he wear something else? Like, I don't know, a full-length kaftan ten sizes too big? Stopping in front of the fireplace, the flames silhouetting him beautifully, he paused, lifted his arms, did a slow circle, then dropped his arms as he joked, "You looked hungry." "Smartass," I muttered. He turned sideways and smacked his delicious bubble butt. "Not sure it's one of the smart kids but it sure is a popular one." Then he winked. He's driving me nuts. "You're already crazy, G-Man. You can't blame that on me." Then he let out a puerile laugh. My focus returned to the tablet and the work messages I was perusing as means to get him out of my head before that became a problem. "What's got you so serious?" he asked on his way to the kitchen. "Work. Catching up on crap." "Sounds fun." "I came up with a different word that starts with an F and has a U in it." Pulling a cold beer from the refrigerator he spun toward me and announced, "Speaking of fun, I'm taking Rita out later this week. I'm thinking I might take her to that Greek restaurant we like so much." My hands froze, my breathing stopped, my eyes lost focus, my mind went blank. Well, not so much blank as chaotic. Obviously I rebooted when Nate landed on the couch and plopped down with his head in my lap. He didn't spill a single drop of beer despite the kamikaze maneuver. I'm gonna be sick. Damn it all to hell I can't even breathe. And I'm shaking. He's gonna notice. I can't do this. I can't sit here with his head in my lap pretending everything's normal when he's gibbering about a girl and what they plan to do on their next date while I'm burning up inside with this inferno of emotion that I can't talk about and can't share and can't get rid of and can't expect to be returned. Standing abruptly not a second after he landed, in the process nearly dumping him on the floor, I grabbed my beer and headed toward the stairs. "G-Man, wait. G-Man! Damn it, Greg, what the fuck!" On the bottom step I paused long enough to look at him. "Please tell me what the hell is wrong. This is killing me." He was on the verge of tears, although he was also pissed and confused. Mostly, though, it was hurt I saw on his face. With a dismissive shrug meant more to stop me from shaking I mumbled, "I'm tired. I need to take a shower then I'm going to bed. Goodnight, Nate." I didn't wait for a response. His lost, agonized expression said quite enough. * * * * * November 5, 2016 "How'd you sleep last night?" "With my eyes shut." Keigan kicked me under the table. Not too hard, though, so I couldn't file an abuse claim since there'd be no bruise to prove it. "Hey!" I said with false offense. "I answered your question, didn't I?" He kicked me again. Mustering faux offense I asked, "Listen up, you crafty bastard, if you're going to practice your field goal, might I suggest you not mistake any of my body parts for the pigskin?" He tried to scowl through a chuckle, tried being the operative word. "If you're done being a smartass, Mr. Beaumont, I was asking if you've been sleeping alright. Lately you've looked... haggard." "Just working a lot," I told him, trying not to sound defensive and dismissive, both of which I felt in great quantity. He studied me for a moment before saying, "I'm not buying what you're selling." "Nothing more complicated than that," I assured him, though it sounded like empty justification. Because it was. But then I realized I had no reason to pretend all was well in my world. More importantly, what hope I had of something with Keigan would die an early death if I nurtured it with dishonesty. As my shoulders sagged and my head dropped, I let out a little sigh. "No, that's not it. And I'm sorry I wasn't being honest. I don't know why I was avoiding the truth." "You can talk to me. You know that, don't you?" "Yeah. That's just it. I know that but I didn't want to talk about it. Like not talking about it meant it was happening to someone else." "But it's not." "No, sir, definitely not." After a sip from my latte I set the cup on the table and began rotating it between my fingers, my eyes locked on the lazy patters it drew invisibly on the tabletop. "I'm going to move soon." "What?" He was as surprised as I thought he'd be. "Didn't you move into that house earlier this year?" "April." "What happened? Bad plumbing, bad wiring, bad neighbors, something else?" I snorted before saying, "Nothing so pedestrian as house problems. And the neighbors are awesome." After a deep breath I explained, "It's an emotional thing. Both the problem and the topic, if that makes sense." Keigan looked confused but said nothing. "Here's the deal," I said in a conspirative tone as I leaned forward a bit, meeting his gaze. "You know Nate, my best friend. He lives with me. It's our house, right?" He nodded. "We've been friends for more than twenty years." With a slight shake of my head I added with a frown, "I've recently concluded that, in his best interests, I need to move." "What, are you like a serial killer or something? Is he unsafe in your presence?" He was only half joking. "Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid." "Finally realizing you can't control yourself around his hotness?" he asked facetiously. Maybe it was the stricken look on my face, or the plethora of other emotions that shot through my expression, but Keigan leaned forward a tad and asked, "What is it, Greg? What's happened between the two of you?" "It's just that... well... I think I've been holding him back from life. We have a serious history and we've faced some major demons together, and I think he feels compelled to stay by my side out of a wrongheaded sense of responsibility and guilt. Except he'll never be able to find happiness, find a spouse, have kids, whatever, so long as he's with me. So I've decided to move out, set him free as it were." "He's straight?" He sounded surprised. Or at least perplexed. "Huh?" "Nothing," he said a bit too quickly. He flirted with Nate the first time he met him. Maybe the question was fantasy-based. I mean, looking at Nate, who wouldn't entertain some fantasies? Keigan gazed at me studiously, frowning, eyes squinted in thought. Finally he prompted, "And what else?" "Huh?" "You repeat yourself." "So I do. But I still don't know that I caught your meaning." "There's something else, right? I mean, everything you said sounds selfless and all, so kudos to you for your self-sacrificing ways and your willingness to put your lifelong best friend's needs ahead of your own. But you're not showing all your cards, are you?" "Well... That's... I mean there's... But wait. What?" Leaning forward a bit more so we huddled together over the table, in a hushed tone he inquired, "What's your other reason for moving?" Then his eyes widened and his mouth formed that perfect O of surprised discovery. "Shit..." he mumbled, "I knew it." "What? Knew what?" "All this time I've picked up on something but couldn't figure out what it was. I wasn't sure if it was big or small, but now I know." "Know what, K? Damn it, what do you think you know?" I was panicked, afraid he knew and afraid of what he'd say and afraid of what it meant for us if he was right. Keigan sat back a little as he sagely nodded. A knowing smirk slowly spread across his face, but not an entirely happy one. Some small piece of it looked like hope dashed. I huffed, more in frustration than anything else. He reached across the table with his tanned, vascular, strong hand and stilled my fidgeting—and therefore the cup by proxy—before he wrapped his fingers around my hand and squeezed. "From the moment we met, there's been something in the back of my mind," he told me, "something I couldn't put my finger on. Not a bad thing, I thought, just something about you that I should recognize, I should know. Every once in a while I'd get a glimpse of something that reinforced the idea that there was this nebulous thing out there, this mysterious something." With a chuckle he added, "I just figured it out, and it seems so obvious now." "What?" I asked, desperate and a little annoyed. Leaning forward again he quietly continued, "The thing is, Greg, you hide it well. Shit, you hide it so damn well I'm surprised you know it's there." "Will you quit beating around the bush and tell me what the fuck you're talking about?" "You're in love." Maybe it was just me or maybe time really stopped at that moment. I couldn't have said if I breathed or if Keigan blinked or if a car drove by outside Starbucks or if the world ended. Then time started again and I flinched. Squeezing my hand firmly as he shook his head, again sitting back a little to better scrutinize me, he said, "This whole time and I didn't see it. You've been trying really hard to keep it hidden." "Nonsense." Goodness gracious, was that peevish noise my voice? Egads! "Listen, Greg, the cat's out of the bag now. Rather than dance around the hissing creature at your feet whilst trying to explain why you're moving and emotionally drained and physically wiped out without acknowledging the truth, why not grab the damn feline, admit it's yours, and talk to me like a real friend, with honesty and sincerity?" All I could do was stare, mouth agape and eyes wide. I guess he's smarter than I thought. And observant. And pushy. Don't forget pushy. "Fine..." I muttered with a shake of my head. "What's the point, right?" "You're in love." "Yes." "With Nate." "Yes." "For how long?" "Maybe as long as I've known him. Close to that anyway. Twenty years, give or take." "Have you told him?" "Absolutely not!" "Chill, Greg. Tell me why that's a bad idea." "Because he's already sacrificed so much for me. He's already spent so much of his life by my side. If he knows this, it'll be one more thing he'll try to do for me." Fuck... Did I just quote Richard as justification for leaving Nate? Is that bastard's manipulation still running around inside my head? Whoa, dude, that ain't good. With a doubtful frown he said, "People don't just go gay because their best friend loves them. If telling him caused something to happen between you two, it's because that's what he wants, not because he feels obligated." Wiping my free hand down my face, I sighed, the sound of it bordering on disgust with self coupled with frustration with self. Richard's still in my head. Why the fuck is that shit going on? No kidding. I mean seriously, what the hell, dude? "Yeah, that sounds stupid when I say it aloud." Then with more conviction I added, "But that's not the point. The issue is Nate needs to find his happiness and telling him will confuse the issue. He's recently met a girl, maybe the one and maybe not, but he needs to find out without my feelings clouding the issue more than they already have." "But you're leaving him because of your feelings, right?" Damn it! Caught again. "Well... Uh..." "We've come this far. Don't back out on me now." "Fine. Yes. Being around him just makes it worse. Seeing him dating this girl makes it hurt more than anything ever has. Knowing he'll never be what I want him to be fills me with disappointment. Knowing he'll eventually move on fills me with dread. It's like my heart's breaking a little every day, like some piece of me dies every day. I have to get away from the situation." "How do you know he can't be what you want him to be? Have you given him the chance?" "He's straight." Keigan's mouth worked a few times before closing. His expression was thoughtful, if a bit amused. With a neutral tone he asked, "Are you sure?" "Yes!" I replied defensively. A slight shake of his head looked a lot like frustration. Then he said, "It's your decision, of course, but it sounds to me like you're putting the cart before the horse. You haven't told him, meaning you don't know what the result would be despite your assumptions. Sounds like you're running away." "I'm not running away." "Actually, Greg, you are." "What do you want me to say?" "The truth." Deflated and defeated, I told him, "I can't move on with my own life while I'm around him. I can't get over this love I've had most of my life so long as we're this close. I need to get away from him so I can get away from what I feel." "Are you planning to end your friendship with him?" "It's the only choice I have." "I'm not sure about that. Of course I don't know all the details either, so take that with a grain of salt." "Noted." "Is there room in your heart for more than one person?" "Of course. Wait. How do you mean that?" "Can't you love more than one person at a time?" "Well... Like, I love both my parents, my aunt and uncle, Nate, my friend Kyle... But wait! That's different. We're not talking being in love, we're talking love." "Being in love with someone is just a different depth and intensity of love, but it's still love." "You're not asking for academic reasons, are you?" "No. I was being totally selfish. And silly." "Why silly?" "Because being in love with someone is too potent to spread around too much. It's rare that anyone can pull it off completely with more than one person at a time. Not impossible, mind you, but rare." "You're thinking about us." "Guilty as charged. I'm just trying to determine if I can be objective about this situation while having a vested interest in the outcome." "Can you?" "I doubt it." Keigan released my hand and sat back, sipping his coffee as he stared at me. It was a considering stare, a thoughtful stare. Finally, pursing his lips, he set his coffee down and asked, "Any idea when the great Beaumont exodus will take place?" "The twentieth," I said without hesitation. "I'm looking at apartments but am probably going to go with a hotel for the immediate future, that way I'm not rushed." Shrugging in defeated acceptance I reiterated, "So the twentieth." "In just a few weeks?" he asked in surprise. "Yeah. The clock's ticking." * * * * * November 11, 2016 "We had to take some stupid test," Kyle groaned as we walked into the house. I tossed my keys, wallet, cellphone, and cigarette pack on the bar, though I kept my gym bad with me. "Your mom said it was some standardized thing." Tapping the hard pack nonchalantly he said, "Yeah." I caught his eye as he glanced at the box then back at me. "What?" I asked, "You think you're the only one who uses that trick?" He snickered. "Nah, man, was just curious. I figured either you carry your smokes the same way I do or you picked up a nicotine habit while I wasn't looking." "So back to the test. Was it the STAAR test?" "No. It was some kind of advanced placement test." "No wonder it came at an odd time of the year." "Yeah. It took half the day, we had to take it, but we don't get graded on it. Total waste of time." "On your birthday? That's way harsh, dude." "It is what it is, man." He leaned back against the bar and shrugged his shoulders. "Where's Nate?" "Work. Once he finishes at the current gym, he'll go to the new location he bought so he can get an idea of what he needs to do to open it." Shaking his head and looking amazed he said, "That's just... Wow. It's so cool his business is good enough to open a second gym." "He's good at what he does, both as a personal trainer and as a businessman." There was more affection and appreciation in my voice than I'd intended. I was okay with that. "But the new one will need a lot of work before it's ready. It won't open for months." "Huh..." he nodded. Pointing at the refrigerator I told him, "You're welcome to have a beer or something else while you wait. I'll only be a minute. I just need to change clothes." "Cool." When I reached the bottom of the stairs I added, "Only one beer if you go that route. We have all evening and I don't want to take you to your birthday dinner while you're slurring your words and stumbling about drunkenly." "Come on, man," he whined facetiously, "you know drink's not my thing." "I hear you," I chuckled as I climbed the stairs. * * * * * "I would've skipped school to go to MJ's recital. I love watching her dance. Hell, man, I love my little sister." "She idolizes you." Kyle blushed and ducked his head, shrugging his shoulders as he softly responded, "I think maybe she idolizes you more." There's actually a wee bit of jealousy in Basketball Boy's voice. I absolutely must not snicker. I snickered. His head popped up and he asked, "What's funny?" "MJ's cute as a button and full of way too much energy. Like a pixie she flits about bringing light and joy to whomever she encounters, her blond curls bouncing and her green eyes twinkling. She's definitely all teenager and all girl. Which, as you know, isn't my type, Kyle." "Two mountains and a molehill not to your liking?" Laugher erupted from me like hot lava. I had to muffle myself with a fist so I didn't make a scene. When I finally caught my breath, trying to sound stern despite my stupid grin, I said, "Fucking hell, Kyle, that's the best—or worst—metaphor I've ever heard. Really bad but really funny." He'd dropped his head as his shoulders shook from quiet laughter. "Don't use it in polite company, dude," I said through a humored smile. "Besides," I added as I waved my hand up and down in front of my torso, "I don't believe you see two mountains and molehill, so clearly that combination isn't to your liking either." "But you're..." he began as he gestured frantically toward me. "I'm not..." Then his fiery blush exploded in his cheeks and spread. I couldn't help but snigger. Feeling caught, realizing why I snickered, he chuckled at himself as he shook his head, self-deprecation evident when he admitted, "I know. Still... I'm just a kid with..." He gestured vaguely between us above the restaurant table. "I mean..." His blush reached his ears and vanished beneath his collar. "Shit..." Restraining my laughter lest it become something loud and obnoxious, all I could do was shake my head and watch his embarrassment grow. Poor guy. He still can't say it, whatever it is he's feeling. Be it a crush or love or something else entirely, he's scared of saying it or doesn't know what to call it or is mortified by it, none of which would be unusual. The first time's always the hardest. Deciding to help him out of the conversational quagmire he'd dropped himself into, I decided to borrow a play from his and his mother's book by changing the subject. Radically. "You're sixteen today. Feel older?" Like a deer caught in headlights he startled, eyes a bit wide, then he laughed. "Hell no." "Feel smarter, more mature?" "Nope." "Sixteen wasn't a big deal for me either," I told him. "The ones that count are eighteen and twenty-one, and every birthday that ends with zero." He gave me a confused look. "Zero? I don't get it." "I think the zeros represent milestones. At twenty I wasn't a teenager anymore and was finally a real adult. At thirty I realized I wasn't a spring chicken anymore and, though not old, it was time to think mature thoughts and get serious about the things I want to accomplish in life. At forty I'll probably realize something else, like that my youth is officially behind me and physically my peak is past. At fifty it'll be something like half my life is over. At sixty, maybe that retirement is looming and it's time to slow down because I'm unable to do the things I used to do. At seventy I'll probably realize I need to plan for a future when I can't live on my own anymore, when I need someone there with me to make sure I'm okay. At eighty it'll probably be that I can't remember where the bathroom is or if I ate breakfast. At ninety I think something like I'll realize I can't realize anything anymore." He laughed, that wonderful, genuine, deep laugh of his. I joined him, but mostly I just wanted to listen to him make that sound. It meant I'd pulled him out of his head for a moment, gave him a reprieve from the teenage angst and emotional turmoil he'd been going through lately. No thanks to you. Hey, look here. I messed up, sure, and I own that, but he's dealing with teenager stuff that has nothing to do with me. That's nature. Oh. Yeah, I guess you're right. "Seriously," I continued, "I only know about twenty and thirty, but they both came with these life-defining realizations, so I suspect it's a pattern with the zeros." "What about ten? Did you realize anything when you turned ten?" The first significant memory from when I was ten involved meeting Nate and the profound impact that encounter had on me. Maybe it was the beginning of love that I felt then, or maybe it was just an attraction that would later grow into love. Either way, I was already ten when that happened. "Maybe, but I don't know what. Maybe that I wasn't a 'little kid' anymore, what with a two-digit age and all. Probably not really anything now that I think about it. Generally at ten you don't entertain esoteric thoughts." "Hmmm..." After retrieving my credit card from the table and slipping it into my wallet, I enjoyed the end of my Sapporo before chasing it with the last of the sake. "I never knew there was Japanese beer," Kyle mentioned absently, staring at the black-labeled bottle on the table. When I set the empty sake bowl back on the table he added, "Or rice wine. Who knew that was a thing?" "If you're going to drink sake, make sure it's genshu. It's the strongest. As for the rest, I'm sort of a food and drink snob. Stick with me long enough and you'll know which beer to pair with which kind of food, which alcohol or wine to pair with which meal, and where to go for the best sushi." He gave a little amused laugh, then his smile bloomed. "Never had it before. None of it. And other than that green stuff—" "Wasabi." "Right. That stuff. Other than that, everything was awesome." "Ready to head home and burn one?" "Yes! That's sounds good." * * * * * "Thanks for dinner." "You're welcome. And again, happy birthday!" "Thank you." Leaning back on the couch and turning to me he went on, "Thank you for dinner and thank you for a nice evening. But also thank you for introducing me to Japanese food. I'm so stuffed I might explode." "You're welcome on all counts. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. I know I did." A brief silence ensued while he took a hit from the joint I'd rolled. Handing it back he he turned to me and said, "It was nice. I mean tonight. It was..." He gave a little shrug. "It was just nice." Graciousness notwithstanding, I had no idea how to respond to that. You know what he's saying. Yes, and I know what he's feeling, too. And that's the problem. It wasn't meant to be a romantic dinner for two. It was a birthday dinner for a friend. Teenagers! Still staring into my eyes he asked, "Why aren't you with someone?" I couldn't hide the surprise that leaped to my face. At least the fear the question elicited remained cloaked by shock. Nerves quickly forced me to break eye contact. Though we talked about anything that came to mind, I had drawn an imaginary line in the sand and tried to avoid discussing romantic entanglements. It seemed an unnecessary way to rub salt in Basketball Boy's open emotional wound of unrequited love. Or crush. Or whatever he was feeling. Apparently he decided your line in the sand was a challenge. Yes, and he did so by once again going for nonlinear thinking. Or in the layman's parlance, he blindsided me. Sneaky bastard. Meeting his gaze again I asked, "Do you mean in a relationship?" Yes, I was stalling. Why would he go there if it bothers him? What's he up to? "Sure, yeah, in a relationship. Why aren't you dating?" "Who says I'm not?" "I have eyes." But of course he does. Duh! Spending so much time with Kyle makes it obvious I'm not hooking up at the gay clubs or being courted by potential suitors. The boy does pay attention, that much is true. "I've been out recently. Not often, but a little." Fuck, dude, he's going to know you're stalling, trying to delay and divert. He's not stupid. He huffed in disappointment and looked away, maybe at the wall or the blank television or the empty fireplace or some other fascinating sight. Damn it, Greg, at least respect his interest as a sign of a good friend. Don't dismiss him. Fuck, you hate it when people do that to you. True that. After taking a good hit from the joint and handing it back to him, I leaned back, took a drink of beer, then settled into the corner of the couch. Finally I explained, "Before you say I'm avoiding the issue, I'm not. It's complicated but not impossible to talk about." He immediately faced me again as I went on. "You know I've gone out a few times with Keigan. It's nothing serious. We're friends hanging out like friends do. Other than that, I don't really have the emotional bandwidth to offer to someone at the moment." "What do you mean?" I exhaled a little too loudly before answering, "You might say my heart's tied up in someone that will never feel the same way about me. Until I move beyond that, I'd be using someone if I tried to date seriously." "But you're a really hot guy and you're really nice and you really care about people. Finding the right person shouldn't be that hard for you." Once again I looked away. I needed a clear mind to have this conversation. Eventually I looked back to accept the joint from him. "If you're talking about just sex, that's fine and not a problem for me. But I can only tolerate that a little because I want something more. Unfortunately for me, my heart bet itself on somebody who's not in the race. Which leaves me a spectator until my heart gets its shit together. It wouldn't be fair to me or the other guy to try anything right now. Eventually, though, what I feel will change and I'll be in a position to date with intent rather than for a lay." "What do you want?" "What do you mean?" I asked as I tamped the roach in the ashtray. After swallowing the last of his beer Kyle explained, "In a relationship. In another man. What are you looking for? What do you want?" "Something real. Something lifelong. Happily every after, if you will. I want someone to be there with me every step of the way. Someone to call husband who will call me husband. Someone to help me feel better when I'm sick. Someone I can take care of when they're sick. Someone who'll watch the sunset with me. Someone who wants more than sex and more than things. Someone to take vacations with and someone to sit around and read with and someone who'll get stoned with me and giggle at my stupid sense of humor and stand around in the dark and enjoy the night and each other's company and cuddle with me and show me in all the little ways that I matter while I show him in the all the little ways that he matters. Someone who'll never leave me. Someone who loves me with their whole heart the way I love them. Someone who knows my every secret and doesn't care if I'm not perfect and accepts my mistakes as just that and would rescue me if I was in danger and would be my hero—" I stopped. Immediately. What am I doing? He continued gazing at me, only interest evident on his face. As though—I hoped—he hadn't correlated what I said with anyone in particular. In a soft and wistful tone he offered, "There must be plenty of guys out there who're looking for the same things." "Maybe. Probably. I guess they'll keep passing me by until my heart gets its shit together." "I'm not so sure," he whispered. * * * * * I'd let Kyle drink a few beers in addition to the one he drank before dinner. He remained surprisingly sober, although he was definitely stoned. By the time eleven o'clock rolled around, he was as glassy-eyed and giggly as I'd seen him. As I walked him to the garage so he could head home, he stopped and spun on his heels. At first I feared he'd try to put the moves on me, given how close we stood. But he didn't. "It was Nate's dad," he said pensively. All I could do was stare and blink. "The doctor who hurt you," he explained, as though I needed the qualification. Holding a hand up to stop him, I took a moment to ponder this turn of events. But obviously Basketball Boy didn't understand hand signals. "At Fat Daddy's that day you worked the phoenix tattoo something fierce when he mentioned his dad. And he made it clear by the way he said 'father' that he was disgusted by the man." "You are so fucking observant that it scares me," I muttered before I knew what was coming out of my mouth. Kyle smirked and shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah," I told him, figuring in for a penny, in for a pound, "it was Nate's dad. Richard. The doctor. He—" Shut up! If he got that far with deductive reasoning, what's the next step based on what you've already told him? But it was too late. He closed his eyes and wagged his head with a grim look on his face. He'd obviously just realized something very important. When he met my gaze again he said in a hushed, wistful tone, "It's Nate. That's who you were in love with as a kid. That's why his dad was so mad." With a sigh he added, "And you're still in love with him." "Since before you were born..." I muttered under my breath. He wiped a hand down his face. It wasn't betrayal I saw there, but rather disappointment. And hurt. "It's not just my age and what happened on your fifteenth birthday that stand in the way." His statement was declarative, not interrogative, not even inquisitive. What do I do with that? Tell the truth. After I sighed I admitted, "You're right. Right now my heart's taken even though it's for naught. Until I can overcome that obstacle..." I shrugged. Then, taking a play from his own book, I yanked the wheel hard to turn the conversation in another direction by blurting, "I'm moving out soon." "What?" he nearly shouted. Shit. You've done it now. Might as well finish what you started. "I can't stay here. For precisely the reason you've just expertly inferred. If I don't get out of here, how I feel will only get stronger. So probably in little more than a week, as soon as I have everything together, I'll be moving. "It won't change our friendship, Kyle," I rushed to add when I saw panic rising in his features. "We'll still be going to the gym and hanging out like we have been. I'll just have to drive over and pick you up, that's all. No big deal, I promise." His mouth opened and closed a few times, so I grabbed him and pulled him into a hug as I added, "Just chill, dude. I'm not dying and I'm not leaving the state. Hell, I'm not even leaving the neighborhood. I'm going to rent a hotel suite in the Sheraton at Preston and Park, so just down the road from here. From there I'll look at the available options and figure out where to go. This changes nothing between us, you hear me? Our friendship is strong enough to survive a little extra distance." When I released him and stepped back he looked better. He just needed reassurance. Don't we all... * * * * * November 18, 2016 "Please tell me what's going on," Nate said from my bedroom door. I glanced at him before answering, "Nothing." I added a shrug for emphasis. Walking to the bed and dropping down beside me he asked, "Did I do something wrong? Did I hurt you?" The panic in his voice made me set the tablet aside, push the folders out of the way, and pull him closer so we faced each other. Looking him directly in the eye I said, "I promise you didn't do anything wrong and you didn't hurt me." He had to see the honesty and had to know what I said was true. It was also a lie of omission, but I'd deal with that fact if it became relevant. Nate wasn't satisfied, though. His face showed that clearly. He knew something was amiss. I'd been distancing myself from him as much as possible without being mean, but he'd noticed all the little changes. Not as much time spent together, nowhere near the usual touches and hugs and kisses, no cuddling anymore. Yeah, things had changed. Cupping his cheeks, I kissed him, not just a peck but an emotional kiss that communicated far more than I could with words. Then: "Listen to me, Little Big Man. Look into my eyes and hear me well. You did nothing wrong, nothing at all, and you didn't hurt me." Unshed tears in his eyes and not inconsiderable anguish in his features told me I'd been far too clumsy, far too evident. I'd already hurt him, greatly by the looks of it. But I knew I'd have to hurt him one more time in a big way before he could move on. Just two more days and it would all be over. "I know something's wrong, G-Man. I see it and I feel it and every bone in my body knows it. I just can't figure out what it is. I feel like I'm losing you. I don't even know what I'd do if that happened. I don't think I could survive without you. If something's wrong, tell me so I can fix it." My voice hoarse as I fought back tears, I pulled him to me, forehead to forehead, sharing breath. "Believe me when I say there's nothing for you to fix. It's all me. I have a lot going on with work—let me finish--but more importantly I'm making huge progress in therapy. I'm facing things that are big and difficult but not impossible." "Let me help. We always help each other. Just talk to me." "I will, Nate, in time. For now I need to deal with it." "I'm scared. I'm hurt. I'm angry at myself for not knowing how to fix this. I'm desperate to put things right." "I love you. If there's nothing else you take away from this conversation, take that. I love you, Nate Sawyer. You have been and always will be the most important person in my world. I can't imagine loving anyone as much as I love you." "I've never doubted that for a minute. But still..." "I love you, Nate." Placing my hand on his bare chest above his heart while wrapping the other behind his head to hold him close, I said, "You feel it here all the time, right here. I love you. For now that's what I can give you. And I hope it's enough." Before he could reply, I kissed him again, this one potent but not sexual, intimate but not carnal, emotional but not arousing. It lasted a minute or ten minutes or an hour or a day, I couldn't tell, and when it ended I didn't think Nate could say either. He looked bewildered and hopeful even with dazed eyes and slack mouth. I'd left so much unsaid except in the kiss, which had communicated my heart and soul to the man I loved more than life itself and that I'd soon set free. Very soon.
  12. Jason MH

    The Fix

    October 28, 2016 "That Hippocratic hypocrite! I didn't think that vile inhuman bastard could sink lower than he already had, but again I find myself appalled by the depths of his calculating malevolence." Uncle Farid had shed his professional façade and settled into his uncle-protecting-his-family persona. Anger colored his caramel skin until it darkened like a burn as he pursed his thin lips and squinted his eyes, smashing his spent cigarette in the ashtray with violent abandon. Leaning forward, elbows on my knees, I rested my face in my hands. "Yeah. He made me think my feelings for Nate would end our friendship, so I let him teach me how to hide from my own feelings, how to deceive myself." "And he did it to get Nate out of the equation," he spat in disgust even as he subdued his anger and settled back into his therapist role with a wrathful shake of his head. "Clearly. He probably figured my love for Nate would stop me from giving him what he desperately wanted, that I wouldn't be able to betray what I felt for my best friend just to let Richard have his way." "Which is precisely what happened." "And look at the hell it wrought! He took it anyway, forcefully and brutally. In return I've spent too many years completely unaware of my best friend's pain and suffering, selfishly thinking it was all about me. I've set myself up repeatedly for aborted relationships with scrapings from the boot of humanity. I let a predator convince me my feelings were bad, that they'd cause me more pain than the pain of letting them go, that whatever heartache I felt by building the blind spot was nothing compared to the heartache I'd feel if I ever admitted my feelings." "You didn't know what he was back then." "You're right. I didn't. But I should've been smart enough to know he was lying, smart enough to know he was wrong about his son. And I should've trusted Nate more, trusted our bond, trusted our love for each other, trusted the strength of our relationship. Most of all I should've trusted him and should've known he'd never leave me because of something so silly as being in love with him." I vehemently ejected a disgusted breath, sneering at my own failures, my own self-indulgent pity party. Possibly the world's longest pity party. Shut your pie hole! "You should tell him. Not only about what Richard did but about your feelings." "That was a long time ago." "Are the feelings still there?" I huffed out a frustrated sigh. I considered telling a lie or two, maybe a dozen. I thought about pretending what I felt wasn't real. But the truth is always the easiest thing to remember, thus it's usually the best response. "Stronger than ever," I admitted. "Just because I hid them from myself doesn't mean they died. Just the opposite really... They continued to feed on Nate's unending presence in my life, on his unflinching love for me and his beauty and... Well, the feelings are still there, yeah, and they're so big and powerful I don't know if they'll ever go away." "Why should they?" "Because I have to let him go." Uncle Farid couldn't hide the shock on his face or in his voice. "Why would you say that?" "All I've given Nate is suffering and anguish, years and years of guilt and remorse that he weathered alone while I whimpered and complained and repeated 'oh woe is me' ad nauseam." "Without referencing disclosures from Nate's therapy, I've known him for twenty years, he's part of our family, and you can't convince me that he's ever resented you, that he's ever felt you took advantage of him in any way. What you suffered is a massive load to bear, especially because it happened when you were an adolescent. Nate understands that. He loves you too much to even ponder blaming you for whatever shortfalls might or might not exist in his life." Sitting forward and piercing me with a stern gaze he added, "I don't believe you're giving him enough credit and I don't believe you're looking at this in the right way, Greg, and you're certainly not giving yourself enough credit. Nate didn't weather anything alone, I assure you, because he's relied on you just as much as you've relied on him." "You don't understand!" "Then help me to understand." Expelling a rather large amount of frustrated air, I sank back into the couch, fidgeting, casting my gaze about, wondering if this conversation was worth anything. But you know it is. Uncle Farid's helped tremendously over the past months. If you hope to dump all the baggage you've been carrying for so long, you need to trust him. Turning back to him I explained, "My love for Nate is destructive. If it hadn't been there, Richard wouldn't have done what he did on my fifteenth birthday." "You can't know that." "Maybe he would've pushed, maybe he would've gone through with the assault, but what set off the violence was me telling him I couldn't betray my love of Nate by jumping in bed with the first man to come along." "Hadn't you already built your blind spot and pushed your love for Nate into it, essentially hidden it from yourself?" "I'd learned how to do it, yes, and I'd started the process Richard taught me, but you don't know how much I loved Nate back then. I had a hard time letting go enough to hide it from myself. It wasn't in my face all the time by then, so I'd made some progress. But when Richard showed up that day and put the moves on me, when he really got serious about taking what he wanted while pretending like it was a caring, loving, mutual thing, this massive burst of emotions came out of me and I yelled at him that I'd never betray my love for his son, especially not with his son's father. As you can imagine that didn't go over well with the evil doctor. In the end my declaration of love for Nate caused Richard to snap." "I doubt that's true, Greg. I suspect Richard had every intention of sexually assaulting you that day." "But it wouldn't have been violent." "I repeat: you can't know that." "That's how it looks from my point of view. He was going to rape me if I didn't give it to him. I accept that. But the brutality of what happened only happened because I didn't get rid of the love that Richard hated. Refusing him on the basis of that love pushed him over the edge. "And now... Well, now that love is back in full force, stronger than ever, and I'll never be able to get beyond it so long as I'm around Nate. Our friendship strengthens it, his presence feeds it. As long as I'm around him I'll never be able to move on." "The first thing you need to do once you've calmed and looked at this with more objective eyes is to tell Nate how you feel. You've hidden it from him for too long." "It wouldn't make any difference." "It would help you." "I mean it wouldn't make any difference with Nate." "It might and it might not. That would be up to Nate." "He's straight." "Your relationship with Nate is rare. I'm not sure sexual norms apply." I gave a derisive snort. "It doesn't matter if they do or don't." "Why is that?" "My love for Nate hurt before my fifteenth birthday because it consumed me and had no outlet. Then it hurt me on my fifteenth birthday because it was the antithesis of Richard's want. So I hid it and it hurt me over the intervening years by blinding me to so many critical truths, including Nate's own anguish. And it's hurting me now because, like before, it's unrequited, it never rests, it grows because it's constantly fed, and I can never be truly happy so long as it's alive because the only thing that can satisfy it is something I can never have. The only way forward for both of us is for this love to go away." Almost under my breath I added, "And there's only one way to achieve that..." "If a man believes he'll die tomorrow, he'll usually find a way to make it happen." "What's that supposed to mean?" "A self-fulfilling prophecy. You're convinced your love for Nate will damage your friendship and hurt the two of you, so you're concocting a way to cause the harm yourself as a means to escape the love. That's an unhealthy way to cope with this situation. I believe you'd see that if you'd give yourself time to move beyond this heightened emotional state you're currently experiencing. At the moment you're not seeing things clearly." "Yes I am!" I shouted, slamming my fist on the coffee table for emphasis. "I've been a burden to Nate for most of his life. And what have I given him in return for his unflinching friendship and love? More worry, more pain, more suffering, more loneliness. He's sacrificed a lot for me. He shouldn't have to keep doing that. "And what did I get in return? Feelings for my best friend that have grown to overwhelming proportions. I'll never get him out of my system so long as I'm around him. Fuck, that just makes it worse, being around him. As things are now I'll forever be the lonely fool with a heart overflowing with unrequited love who keeps his best friend tethered to a life he doesn't want." "I want you to take time to think about this, Greg. Don't rush to judgment or act rashly. Right now you're agitated and emotional, having relived the birth of your blind spot as well as the recent revelation of Nate's suffering as well as months of therapy wherein we've dredged up a great many uncomfortable memories and experiences. Add to all that the dismantling of your blind spot which brought to light some very potent feelings for the man who's most important in your life, not to mention the presence of Kyle who has acted as both catalyst and nidus. To put it bluntly, your emotional plate is overflowing. You need time to relax and quiet the turmoil inside, then a clearer mind can prevail and you'll be better able to evaluate appropriate actions." I nodded, an accepting grimace on my face. But I already had a plan to fix what I saw as broken. And I was convinced it was the only option available that would help me get over Nate while giving my best friend the freedom he needed to find his happiness. Uncle Farid doesn't need to know that, though. At least not yet. * * * * * November 2, 2016 I left work early. Going to the office had proved an error in thinking, for thinking was what I couldn't do. Well, about work anyway. My mind had laser focus on Nate, on Kyle, on Keigan. But mostly on Nate and my plan for helping him move forward with his life whilst helping me get over my love for him. By lunchtime my boss mentioned that I seemed under the weather and might perhaps need to go home for some rest. I gave him my patented if-you-think-it's-best shrug, mumbled something about hoping to feel better the next day, packed my things and shuffled out to my car. I didn't remember the drive home. Clearly I made it safely without killing anyone along the way. Or so I hoped. As I pulled into the driveway watching the garage door rise, Teresa, Kyle's mom, walked out to their mailbox with MJ in tow. She spotted me immediately and, mail in hand, headed my way. MJ, twirling about in that lighter-than-air way she did when she danced, burst into a run when she saw me. Beating her mother to me with seconds to spare, the darling girl threw herself into my arms and gave me a giant hug as she said, nay, cooed, "Greg! I'm so glad to see you!" I hugged her affectionately before setting her dainty feet back on the ground. For a twelve year old, dancing kept her lean and lithe and far more graceful than any kid her age ought to be. "Did I tell you we're going to Oklahoma for a dance competition?" She practically glowed with pride. "I placed second in state and now I get to go to regionals. Isn't that awesome?" "Sure is, MJ. When are you going?" "Two weeks. Can you go? Can you go see me dance?" She was a ball of twitching nervous energy. And gushing girl hormones, what with the batting eyelashes and coquettish looks and sly smiles. "We'll have to see," I told her. "I've been really busy with work. I tell you what," I added as I dropped to one knee and placed a hand on her shoulder, "why don't I get your mom to send me the info and I'll check with my boss to see if we can work it into the schedule." You make your own schedule, you bonehead. True, but I'm all out of energy right now and I don't want to commit given... Well, other plans. Even as her grin bloomed into a full, eye-popping smile, I tempered her enthusiasm by explaining, "I can't make any promises, you realize, but I'll try my best." She threw her arms around me and squeezed tight enough to pop my head off my neck. "Thank you!" she whispered into my ear. "I hope you can go!" Teresa patted her on the shoulder and said, "Quit molesting the neighbors. You have homework to do." When MJ released me and turned to go inside, the blush coloring her face was of biblical proportions. I bit my bottom lip to keep from smiling as she rolled her eyes at her mother and gave a typical teenager "parents are so embarrassing" look. Teresa handed her the mail and added, "Take that with you, please." Bouncing as she skipped across the intervening lawns, MJ did as she was told, pausing long enough on their sidewalk to turn back and give me a shy little wave. I waved back, of course, as did her mother. Teresa turned to me and I immediately shook her hand. But before I could say anything she told me, "She has a crush on you." My cheeks flamed beneath the punishment of a massive blush. I ducked my head and grinned. "Uh, well, I kind of figured it out." "I guess you have that effect on both my kids." Fuck, Greg, cut it out with the guppy impersonation! With my eyes wide as saucers, my eyebrows climbing toward the back of my head and all the blood draining from my face, having my mouth opening and closing aimlessly didn't seem like the only problem requiring attention. She giggled, sweet and tinkling like her daughter's giggle, and she patted my arm. "If I wasn't madly in love with my husband, I'd give my kids a run for their money." Despite the slow rate at which I sucked in air, it made a hell of a lot of noise, more like a dying gasp than anything else. Teresa's grin widened and her eyes twinkled. With a small shake of her head she told me, "Breathe, Greg. In and out, in and out." "What... I... Just... Huh?" Her laugh was melodious and tender. Resting her hand on my shoulder and squeezing gently, she leaned close and said, "It's okay, Greg." Then she stepped back, keeping her eyes on me as I tried to outwit a pending panic attack. I don't have panic attacks. There's always a first time. With a not inconsiderable amount of mischief in her eyes Teresa casually tossed out, "It's okay if you don't want to go to Oklahoma. I know it's not exactly the entertainment capital of the world, but there's no need to freak about it." Being mercurial must be in her genes. "But... What?" "We're talking about a dance recital in Oklahoma." Scrambling to bypass the crush comments whilst catching up with this latest in a long line of conversational detours, I mumbled something like "No, it's fine." With a bit more strength I said in a surer voice, "If I can work it out I'd love to go. I enjoyed the last one. Plus I want MJ to know she has support. Even if we're not dating," I added with a wink and a grin. Teresa smiled, her eyes capturing and magnifying the expression. She had the same blue eyes Kyle had. Gerald, her husband, had the beautiful emerald eyes MJ sported. "You were a hit when you joined us last time," she declared through an impish grin. "I'd never actually seen a school of piranha-like teenage girls before." "Don't laugh! It wasn't funny on the inside of that mob. I thought they'd tear my limbs off." "Don't be so melodramatic, Greg," she said with devilry in her tone. "It was your clothes they wanted to tear off, not your limbs, silly." After we laughed at the memory, for me only funny in hindsight, she asked in a friendly way, "So how have you been?" I do so love her voice and accent, the gentile southern belle washed free of any hint of twang, leaving behind friendly warmth. I could sit and listen to her all day. "Busy with work, as I said, but otherwise good. How about you?" Did I imagine that bit about her kids and crushes? Just go with the flow. "Dance has been keeping us running a lot lately. That and Gerald's job has him traveling quite a bit. He's spending a good deal of time in Orlando working a huge project there. It's a long-term thing, so he'll be at it a while." "Sounds hectic." "Yes, but that keeps me out of trouble." We both snickered. "I hear you. I can't imagine the trouble I'd be in if work didn't keep piling it on me." "How's Nate?" Wait. Are we just going to pretend she didn't say that stuff earlier? Be thankful. Move on, please. "He's staying out of trouble. Surprising, I know. Right now he's looking at the possibility of opening a second gym." "Really? Impressive." "I know, right? It's preliminary at the moment, of course. He has a potential location but he has to look at costs for renovations, repairs, equipment, so on and so forth. If it looks promising, he'll get serious and he'll get busy." "Is he still seeing that lovely young lady? What was her name? Rita, wasn't it?" Can we skip this part of the conversation please? Pretty please? I know, right? The crushes discussion would be less uncomfortable than this. "Good memory. And yes, they're still dating." Which breaks my heart. "I don't know that it's serious yet but he deserves to find someone special so he can settle down." True but painful. "Only time will tell." And all the while it's killing me. Jealousy is unbecoming, Greg. Heartache is not jealousy. Disappointment is not jealousy. I'm not jealous! Somebody's cranky. "They look good together, don't you think?" she asked. "They make a very handsome couple." I'd rather not think about it, thank you very much. I'm not sure she's good enough for him. But that's the problem, isn't it? You're selfish. You can't have him and you don't want anyone else to have him. I want him to be happy. I want him to find the right girl. You need to let go. Go. That's the word right there. Yeah... Go. Teresa kept her gaze locked on mine. I noticed her expression slowly changed from amiable interest to something maternal, a look I'd seen on my own mother's face from time to time. Then she glanced over her shoulder toward their house before turning that more serious expression on me in full force. "A mother learns her child's moods. She learns his tones of voice, his expressions, his body language. She also recognizes things, like looks and sighs and words left unspoken." Oh shit... It felt like the Mojave blew through my mouth, so dry did it become, my tongue having difficulty not sticking to everything it touched, my lips nearly tearing skin from each other as they parted. "MJ has a crush on you but knows it can't go anywhere. You're just the hot neighbor guy she can brag about to her friends, especially if she can hug you and talk to you while they stare in jealous awe. But Kyle..." I felt like I needed to say something. What, I didn't know, so my mouth hung open uselessly, making me look like a guppy on dry land. Again. So I snapped it shut until I could find a better use for it. "The thing about Kyle is he's always been a private boy, emotive when appropriate, but pretty much private. So I didn't catch on at first. Once I recognized it, though, it was so obvious. I realized it'd been there for a few months." Even as my mind whirred and buzzed and clicked in a cacophony of useless activity—if you can't show results, show effort—my stomach roiled and churned, my breathing suddenly felt labored, and sweat began painting my palms. Oh, I see. Take the water from my mouth and send it to my hands. That's helpful! "I told him without revealing what I suspected that sometimes we have feelings for people even though it can't work. Too many differences, different sexuality, impermanence, age issues, the list goes on, you know what I mean." More and more I was feeling in control again, able to manage my body. My eyebrows migrated south. My eyes narrowed to a normal size. My mouth stayed shut. But I didn't dare speak. I didn't feel comfortable trying. As usual with Teresa, she had me off balance. Way off balance. "Since Kyle started spending time with you—I mean you specifically, Greg—his grades have improved, his attendance has improved, his attitude has improved, he's getting into a lot less trouble—" "I'm sure the inappropriate activity tapered off a great deal simply because he spends so much time hanging around our place," I interrupted with a nod toward the house. "You know where he is and we don't provide that many opportunities for nefarious shenanigans" Her smile deepened and her eyes crinkled at the corners. "Good point," she admitted, "and for the same reason he's not spending anywhere near as much time with that lot of friends that did nothing but drag him down. "More importantly," she continued, finding her stride, "he seems to have discovered himself. No, I can see it in your face. You know something. I don't want you to tell me. Hopefully he'll come to me in time. I'm just glad he has someone to confide in, someone to talk to, someone who can help him find himself and his way in life. "But in the last few days I noticed something. A mother knows the look of heartbreak, Greg. It's the look she fears seeing on her child's face, so she knows it when she sees it. And when it appears abruptly on a face that's been full of delight and happiness and—well, let's say deeper feelings—it makes a mother pause and seriously consider what she can do to fix the problem. "I'll tell you honestly," Teresa continued with a slight tease in her voice, "my first reaction is to hunt down and kill whoever hurt my boy." "But..." "But I'm no fool—" No, you certainly are not a fool. "—and I understand the circumstances are probably a lot more complex than I assume. At least until I think about it, and then I realize the circumstances are... not unique, no, but uncommon and delicate. Am I reading the situation correctly?" "Yeah." I nodded. "The way I see it, I have a heartbroken son who misses his friend for whom he feels deeply. Sure, you still go to the gym together, but that's it and he's back home and in his room and not talking. I think you know my son needs more. You should know I understand my son is probably asking—maybe not directly, but asking nonetheless—for more than you can give, and you're right to feel that way, but he still needs more than he's getting right now. By his own choice, I know, but it's all the same. "When you pick up Kyle at school this afternoon, I don't want you to take him to the gym. Instead I'd prefer you bring him back here and take him into your house and sit down with him and have a heart to heart. You're the only one who can fix what's broken. I know you want to and I know Kyle hasn't given you the chance. So I'm asking you to make the chance and don't let him squirm away until you've said your piece and made him see the light." "Wow..." I mumbled. Really it was less a mumble and more an exhale flavored with a few letters. Everything in my head had jumbled together. Though I heard and understood her words and felt a great deal of gratitude for how she felt and how she handled it, a laundry list of thoughts and emotions careened about inside my mind—terror, confusion, fear, panic, concern, appreciation, hope. She gently squeezed my arm and gave me a congenial smile before she said, "I'm a mother, Greg. I pay attention to my kids. Kyle's been happier since he met you than he's been in a long time. I think some of that was loneliness, not because he didn't have friends but because he didn't have any he could relate to as well as he relates to you. I also think some of that was longing. Maybe some of it was something else altogether, something he didn't even know was there. What I'm saying is the relationship he has with you has done so much to help him mature and rediscover his better self, and he needs that relationship put back together as much as possible." I gave her an understanding smile. "Kyle's a good friend. Maybe I was like him when I moved here, looking for something but not knowing what. It seems we've each brought the other some healing and some good influence. So thank you for sharing that." "I see how Kyle's responded to his relationship with you. And I've been remiss in not thanking you before now for being there for him and helping him in whatever way you have. As long as my son is happy and healthy and safe and taking care of himself, I'm grateful. So... Thank you, Greg, for everything you've done for Kyle, even if you didn't know you were doing it. "Oh, and ask him about his birthday." I gave my head a brief shake to demonstrate my lack of understanding. "I'm sorry? I don't think I follow. What about his birthday?" A heartwarming smile spread across her face. "You know it's coming up, right?" "November eleventh." "Right!" she gushed happily. "MJ's regional dance recital is the same day. Oh, don't frown. I'll explain to her that you can't make it because of existing obligations. Assuming you'll help me, that is. "Gerald and I won't be around for Kyle's birthday since we're taking MJ to Oklahoma City. Kyle has some standardized test he has to take at school and shouldn't miss, meaning he can't go. That means he'll be by himself on his birthday. If you're not busy and feel up to it, I was wondering if you'd take him to dinner, to a movie, whatever. Just do something with him if you can. Anything would be better than him spending it alone." "Oh. Well... Sure, I don't think that would be a problem." Again she smiled as she said, "Thank you. Again. I'll let MJ down as easy as I can and neither of us has to lie when we say you have things going on that day and can't make it. She'll be disappointed but she'll get over it." "The elasticity of teenage emotions..." I muttered with a bit of longing. Oh to be that young again, able to bounce back so quickly. It's something we lose with age. Glancing at her watch, she shifted mental gears before adding, "I have to go. Gerald will need some lunch soon before he heads to some big work meeting." She gave my arm another gentle squeeze before bidding me goodbye. I stared after her absolutely dumbfounded by the totality of the conversation. But with Teresa that was normal. Before she'd taken more than a few steps, she paused and looked over her shoulder. "One more thing, Greg. While I hope your talk with Kyle this afternoon can smooth out whatever speed bump you hit, and I have faith in you in that regard, I also hope you can overcome whatever it is that's on your mind right now. I might not know you well enough to be able to see what it is, but I'm not blind and I can certainly see something's bothering you." With a final, sympathetic smile, she left me standing there utterly confounded. And surprisingly hopeful. * * * * * "Why aren't we at the gym?" Kyle asked in a dejected tone. He'd looked dispirited since our conversation about his flirting. Today was no different. Shutting off the car and opening my door I told him, "I need to do something here first." I need to try to fix what I broke. "It might take a few minutes." Longer, I'm sure, but let's not split hairs. "You might as well come inside rather than sit here in the garage." Don't make me drag your ass into the house. "I'll just go home," he pouted. Well, it appears there's a fifteen-year-old kid in there after all. I guess it took an emotional blow to bring it out of him. "Don't be silly," I said in a bantering tone. "Just come inside while I take care of this." Basketball Boy huffed, making an energetic exhale sound like frustration personified, but then he got out of the car and headed into the house. Of course he left me scrambling to catch up, but beggars can't be choosers. Pushing the kitchen door shut I noticed he was leaning against the bar, eyes vacant, face slack and disinterested. He had his arms crossed, a defensive posture, and he acted like he didn't see me, as though he were looking right through me. In four quick strides I was in front of him. Before he could react I pulled him to me and wrapped my arms around him, hugging him with all the affection I had in me, holding him as he struggled and pushed, holding him as he tried to slip out of my grip. "I'm not trying to hurt you," I murmured into his ear as he flailed and fought, "and I wasn't trying to break your heart. I didn't mean to hurt you, Kyle. I never want to hurt you. I love you, you know, just not in the way you want me to, and I brought you here so I could help you understand that what you're feeling is real and legitimate and powerful, but what you hope for can't be. Please give me a chance, Kyle. Please let me explain. I love you and I want you to understand. Please..." I continued holding him as he finally stopped battling the embrace, as he breathed heavily and breathed heavily and finally sighed as though the world had ended. Then his hands slowly made their way around me, his arms encircling me, his face falling against my chest. And that's when he began to cry. "I'm sorry," he mumbled against me, his body shuddering from quiet sobs. "I'm so sorry. I'm such an asshole. I don't know why I've been such a dick. I'm sorry. I don't want you out of my life. I just don't know what to do... I just feel... It's too much..." At that point his emotions won and he began to cry in earnest, his body wracked by sobs and his tears soaking my shirt and his breathing ragged and chaotic. I held him. Stroked his hair. Rubbed his back. Kept him tight against me as his teenage angst and heartache boiled over. I broke his heart before I realized what I was doing. Now it's time to fix that as best I can. It's time to tell him. And what if it doesn't make a difference? What if he's still demoralized by all this and resents you for not returning his affection? Telling him is the biggest gun in your arsenal. If it doesn't fix it... Well, I guess I'll cross that bridge if I come to it. Perhaps a few minutes or perhaps a few days passed. It was hard to tell. No matter how long it took, Kyle's outburst slowly faded, his weeping subsided. I rocked him gently until I was sure he'd regained his composure. Finally I grasped his face and pushed him back far enough so we could look each other in the eye. "Will you stay long enough to hear me out?" He sniffled, nodded, uttered a weak "Yeah." I kissed his forehead. "Let's go sit down." Without waiting for a response, I took his hand and pulled him in my wake toward the couch. Once there I turned him around and settled him on the sofa. His puffy red eyes stayed locked on my face. At least until I wrapped my arms around my torso, grabbed the hems of my sweatshirt and tee, and lifted both over my head in one fluid motion, tossing them on the coffee table behind me without taking my eyes off Basketball Boy. He's not sure where to look. Poor kid, I know what a crush like this feels like. And he looks damn near panicked, like he's not sure what this means. Leaning down and taking his right hand, I turned his palm toward me before placing it on the phoenix tattoo. Gently so I didn't scare him yet firmly so he didn't get the idea that he was free to let his hand roam about, I moved his fingers a little until they came to rest on the scar the tattoo hid. Slowly I guided his fingers in small lazy circles so he could feel the scar and the smooth skin around it, then back to the scar. The sudden blush in his cheeks told me he was struggling with the intimacy of this action. His hand rested on bare skin just in front of my left hip, his fingers perhaps two inches below my navel and midway between it and my hip. His palm had flatted against my lower abs and Apollo's belt. Despite the obvious erotic reaction this elicited, Kyle's eyes strayed only from my face to his hand and back again, and he never tried to move his hand from where I held it. I slowly settled beside him, still keeping his hand in place, his fingers on the scar. Once I was comfortable, I moved his fingers back and forth over the scar to reiterate what I wanted him to feel. Then I let go of his hand and waited, watching him closely. Basketball Boy's eyes dropped to his hand as his fingers made tiny movements over the tattoo and scar. Then his eyes met mine as he pulled his hand away. "It's a scar," I said. "To be more precise, it's a colostomy scar. From a sigmoid colostomy." "What's a colostomy?" "It's where they have to cut a hole into your large intestine and attach a bag to collect waste." A slightly confused look accompanied a muttered "Waste...?" "Shit, Kyle. Literally shit. The colostomy redirects it from your rectum—from your ass—to the colostomy bag. It means you're shitting through this hole in your abdomen into an attached bag." "What... Why?" "I don't know all the reasons people get them; I only know why I had one. But to understand that, I need to tell you a story." "Okay." "Before now I wouldn't have told you what I'm going to tell you. For that matter, before now I couldn't have told you. I couldn't have told anyone, couldn't have talked about it with anyone." His face showed concern but he said nothing. "This story's about a man, a doctor, who was a little older than I am now. Back then I was your age. This man was attracted to me. To be honest, I was attracted to him as well, only it wasn't anything more than just thinking he was good looking and maybe could be something more if circumstances were different." "Different than what?" "I was in love with someone else. Only this man didn't care. He was a child predator. We didn't know it at the time..." I shook my head slightly with thoughts of what if, the two most painful words in the English language. Then I continued, "Apparently he'd been sexually assaulting boys for many years. He was methodical and smart, so he got away with it for a while. And he wasn't greedy. Over many years he assaulted eighteen boys. That might sound like a lot but it's really not for a dedicated predator. "I was clever and smart and observant. I thought I could use him to distract me from what I really wanted. More importantly, I thought I could use him to make someone else jealous, use him to get the boy I loved so much to finally notice me and realize he had to act if he had any hope of having me. "I thought I was clever enough to stay one step ahead of the doctor, to keep him at arm's length. I just didn't know who I was dealing with... what I was dealing with. The doctor spent years trying to get me to offer him what he wanted, or at least to a place where he could take it without me making it too difficult." "What did he want?" As soon as the question popped out of his mouth, Kyle's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open, only to snap closed before he said in disgust, "Oh... Fuck." "Right. That's pretty much what he wanted." "No... No! I didn't—" "I know you didn't mean it that way. But it's still true. He spent years grooming me to be his next toy. Obviously he had some secret formula that he used to determine when a boy was ready. His victims ranged in age from twelve to sixteen." I could feel tears welling in my eyes and I could tell Kyle could see them. He became apprehensive, pained through empathy. After a shaky inhale: "Anyway, he spent years trying to make me malleable, trying to bend me to his will so I'd happily offer him whatever he wanted. From the time I was ten until my fifteenth birthday he worked on me, flirted with me, exposed his body to me and eventually started exposing everything else to me, including his masturbation and porn habits. "On my fifteenth birthday he decided I was ready. I'd claimed sick so I could skip school—" "Did Nate skip with you?" "No." Wistfully I added, "I wanted him to spend the day with me. Nothing would've made me happier. It would've been the best birthday gift I could've had." Realizing what I was close to admitting I explained in a more thoughtful tone, "But if we both claimed sick on the same day, Mom and Nate's 'father'—" His head cocked briefly, only slightly, but I figured he must have heard the quotes around that word. "—would've known we were up to something. Unless we wanted to get into major trouble, there was no way we could skip on the same day. Eventually we did—often I might add, repercussions be damned—but not that day." Mindful but uncaring of the hoarseness overtaking my voice and the wetness on my cheeks and the increasingly ragged breathing shuddering my chest, I pressed on. "Apparently the doctor learned I was playing hooky under the auspices of illness. He scheduled a hospital day, closed his office, and came looking for me." I cried, though I didn't wail or sob. And I had no interest in touching the phoenix tattoo and the scar it hid. For me it was lamentation and anger, clean of guilt and potent enough to push my mind down paths I'd abandoned long ago. I'm pushing through this, damn it. For the first time in a long time I'm pushing through this, except this time I'm in control, not him. Kyle looked concerned, perhaps even wondering if he should offer a hug, a touch, support of some kind. "Please don't," I said in response to his silent question. "Just let me do this." He nodded, still worried, still nervous, but also understanding. After a deep inhale I continued, "He arrived right after Mom left, caught me alone at home and tried to seduce me. It didn't go well for either of us. When he first tried to put the moves on me, he was sweet and attentive. I declined. I said I wanted my first time to be special. He said it would be, he'd make sure." Realizing my hands were shaking, I clutched them together in my lap, though they fidgeted and writhed of their own accord. Kyle noticed but said and did nothing. "I declined again. He tried to convince me he'd shower me with physical pleasures I never knew existed. He told me as a doctor he could pleasure a body to the point of madness. He 'shyly' bragged that he was an accomplished lover who treated intimacy as an 'opportunity to bring his partner to hitherto unimagined heights of ecstasy.' His words, not mine. "I was getting pissed and frustrated that he wouldn't give up, wouldn't leave me alone, so I admitted I was too in love with N—with someone else and I couldn't betray that love with a bit of empty sex. I told him I'd tried to get over that love but it just hadn't worked, not yet anyway, and I couldn't give him what he wanted, just couldn't." Even though my breathing was ragged and hitching, I told him, "He was so angry... so angry about who I was in love with that he became violent, enraged. He told me he'd warned me that my love for this person would hurt me, would leave me broken and damaged and forever scarred, would break my heart and my body." A sniffle, a stifled sob. "He screamed and yelled, told me he'd warned me I'd come to regret that love, told me I was a foolish little boy with foolish little emotions that meant nothing in the real world, told me I was just a child playing childish games and that he'd show me what being a man really meant. It's about control, he said, about taking what we want." My shoulders shook with a chill from the cold I felt in these memories, cold from the frigid monster that dwelled in them. "This man... this man, though, he had a temper." More to myself I mumbled, "Wish I'd known about it before he showed up." Then louder: "When he didn't get his way he... he had a really bad temper. I think he was used to winning, used to getting what he wanted, used to never being denied. The more he pushed and the more I said no, the madder he became." I wiped my cheeks, my eyes, swift, angry movements, furious that someone could do such a thing, could leave in their wake so much damage, so much hurt. It could be overcome, I knew that, but why should I have to spend years trying to surmount such a treacherous tragedy? What did I ever do to deserve the seemingly unending turmoil and suffering? "With unrepentant fury he skipped the seduction and... and went right to... to raping me. But I wasn't a little kid, so first... first he had to subdue me. He did that with his fists and feet—there was a good dose of choking thrown in as well. By that age I was almost as tall as he was but I was twenty pounds lighter than him." I stifled a sob, sniffed, then added, "I was just a kid... just a kid who didn't know a lot about fighting and he was... a doctor who knew everything about the human body... including how to conquer it." I will not break beneath this thing. I will not break beneath this thing. I will not break... Sniffling, shaking my head in defiance, angrily wiping tears from my face, I told Basketball Boy, "I didn't see the first punch coming. He hit... punched me in... in the celiac plexus." "The what?" Placing a shaking fist against my own torso to show him where it was I replied, "The celiac plexus. People call it... call it the solar plexus. It's a nerve bundle right here. If you hit it... if someone hits it hard enough... you can't breathe... and the pain... the pain is unbelievable. He hit me there first... hit me hard... and I buckled. While I was... on the ground... he kicked and punched. But not randomly. He knew... he knew exactly where to hit me. "By the time he was done... he'd broken two of my ribs, put a... a hairline fracture in my left eye socket, crushed my... my windpipe—it took a month before... I could talk normally. He... he beat me so badly that both eyes... both eyes were swollen shut, a few teeth were loose, my face... was bruised and battered and cut and swollen into... a grotesque caricature of myself. My lips were split and bleeding and grossly enlarged. My body had a... a scattered collection of bruises and abrasions and lacerations. Both kidneys were bruised—I pissed... pissed blood for a while. I had a major concussion. And I lost a lot of blood... an unhealthy amount of blood... because he'd... he'd..." It was obvious Kyle felt conflicted. He could see my struggle, could see my pain, but he could also see and feel the rage I'd rekindled, the rage that gave me strength and helped me direct all the negative emotions and memories toward the correct target. Despite the tremble in my shoulders and the hitch in my voice and the tears that flowed and flowed and flowed, I refused to stop. "He took it from me, Kyle." I shook my head and exhaled loudly. "Your first time... it's supposed to be special... magical... discovery shared with someone who's... who's just as eager to make the dream real. It's carnal exploration with someone you trust. It's supposed... supposed to be beautiful, making a special memory that you'll always look back on... with fondness. That's not what happened." I sat back against the armrest and breathed deeply. After several breaths I said, "He'd taken... He'd taken what he was after. In fact he... he took it... three times." Basketball Boy reached out and claimed my hand. It was so automatic and so necessary that I gripped him like a lifeline, my tear-clouded vision settling on that small gesture and finding strength in it. After a deep steadying breath I looked at him and explained, "The first time I was unconscious from the choking. That was a blessing for all the damage he did. The second time I was in and out, mostly out, because he kept beating me, choking me. And the pain... the pain was overwhelming. Not just... not just from the beating... Then the third time... the third time I was awake. He wanted me to be awake that time. He wanted to see me struggle and suffer. He waited for me to be awake, then he started to pummel me while he was... was... was busy." Despite the sorrow and loss, despite the tears and gentle sobs, I knew I was practically snarling, baring my teeth, growling the words out of my throat. But I couldn't stop. I wouldn't. "Given my size by then... despite the damage he'd already done to me... I took him by surprise. I used my legs to... to flip him over me... over me and off the bed. I guess he hit the nightstand... maybe with his head... because he was stunned. Just for a moment or two... but it was time enough. "After that... after that I struggled toward the door. Everything hurt. I couldn't see. I had no balance. Every breath felt like getting shot. But he was up... too fast... he was right there... right there trying to stop me. "Unfortunately for him I had one... one trick up my sleeve. Or at least one trick on the dresser. It was a large flat-screen television—I don't remember the size. As he scrambled off the floor... he tried to intercept me... I grabbed the television with both hands... I swung it full circle around me. I couldn't see him but I could hear him. All I could do... all I could do was hope he was... was close enough for me to hit him." After an angry huff I said, "Oh yeah, he was close enough. He stepped right into the swing." "Jesus..." Kyle whispered as he wiped a stray tear from his cheek. "Yeah... So... Batter up as they say. I knocked his motherfucking ass out. Knocked him out cold," I said defiantly. "The impact sent him flying over the bed and into the far wall where he fell in a heap. Apparently I'd hit him so hard... he didn't wake up until he was in cuffs... shackled to a gurney... on his way to the hospital. "And you want to know what pissed me off the most? I'd ruined a perfectly good television while I was at it." I gave a little chuckle, more perfunctory than real. Kyle shook his head, not in disagreement but in comprehension. Gallows humor can offend but it can also ease pain when wielded by the wounded. "Then I crumpled. My legs gave out, my head gave out, my body gave out. I fell right there in my bedroom doorway. I must've passed out for an hour or so. When I woke I couldn't stand, I was almost too weak to move—I was still bleeding, though I didn't know it. So I crawled. More like slithered on my belly, pulling myself along with my hands and pushing with my feet. It felt like it took forever to get down the hall to the living room where I'd left my cellphone. Once I got there, I dialed the only person I could think of, the only person I knew would save me. Maybe the only person I wanted to see before I died... if it came to that. And I felt like it might be coming to that. "Which brings us to the colostomy. You see, he'd done so much damage—maybe he didn't use lube and he definitely didn't prepare me at all, probably to teach me a lesson, and he was rather gifted in the genital department—he'd done so much damage I needed emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and to stitch up a number of large rips and tears both inside and out. In order for that to heal I had to have a colostomy. For two months. Because they had to do multiple surgeries to repair the damage he'd done. Then after two months the colostomy was reversed and removed, leaving this rather unpleasant scar." I looked down at the phoenix tattoo. Releasing Kyle's hand I absently touched the scar, just for a moment, just as a reminder. Back to Kyle I said, "I was horrified by the scar and wanted some way to cover it. Mom and Dad suggested a tattoo. We spent months considering options until I finally settled on the phoenix. We found a really good artist who took my story and created this one-of-a-kind artwork. He also suggested we add the Italian script that flows away from the tattoo along the iliac furrow—well, what's called the Apollo's belt." "What does the script say?" Kyle was hushed, respectful, even dazed to some extent. Tears stood in his concerned eyes. "It's from Dante's Inferno. I don't speak Italian but I memorized it anyway. But what you want is the translation." Following the writing with my hand I spoke the English words as Kyle's eyes traced the Italian: "'Even thus by the great sages 'tis confessed / The phoenix dies, and then is born again, / When it approaches its five-hundredth year; / On herb or grain it feeds not in its life, / But only on tears of incense and amomum, / And nard and myrrh are its last winding-sheet.'" "You thought your experience was like the phoenix?" "Metaphorically, yes. The experience was horrific, traumatizing, and it changed my life in ways I never imagined. It wounded my mind and my heart and my body. But I knew eventually I'd be reborn in a sense, I'd heal and I'd move on from all of it." "And you were fifteen..." He shook his head, flabbergasted by the terror but also by the realization. "So when you met me..." "It all came crashing down. No, don't take that wrong. It came crashing down in a necessary way. Since I'd already admitted to myself that you're attractive, when I learned your age this whole deluge of memories and fears came tumbling out of the rubble in my head. Soon enough I was seeing you as me and me as the man who did this to me. So it basically drove me nuts and broke my heart and sent me begging for help from people who could offer it." "You're seeing someone then, right?" "Yes. My uncle is a renowned psychiatrist and therapist. He tried to help me back when it happened but I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to forget it happened, pretend like the world was perfect. Which just fucked me up even more." "You were scared of me?" "Still am to a small extent. Not because I fear you physically or even emotionally, but because our situation reminds me of what happened back then and makes me fear I'm the bad guy and you're going to be hurt. I'd never let that happen and I'm working through it, but there you have it." He leaned back, looking shell shocked yet contemplative, a strange mix on any face. "I wasn't trying to hurt you when we talked the other day, Kyle." I turned a bit so I could wrap an arm around him and pull him against me. "You just have to understand that even if I didn't have the moral compunction to say we can't be more than friends because of your age, what happened to me practically demands that I say it. Any other response would probably tear me apart mentally and emotionally. I'd never survive it as me." "I'm sorry," he whispered as he settled his head against my shoulder. "You've no reason to apologize." "I just wish I could make it better." "I know you do. And I appreciate it." Turning more toward him I said, "And I know you have strong feelings for me. Maybe it's just a strong crush, maybe it's something more, but I know it's pretty overpowering." He opened his mouth to say something, his face alight with chagrined defiance, but I continued, "What you're feeling is real and it's powerful. Because it's your first, you don't have any experience with how to handle it or manage your responses to it. And then I come along and hurt you—unintentionally, sure, but still—I hurt you when I thought I was helping, but that's because I didn't know what you were feeling." "How did you figure it out?" he said almost inaudibly. "It was obvious by the way you reacted. But it was also obvious by how you've been acting. I was just a little late seeing it." A soft sigh escaped his lips before he asked, "What happens now?" "Aren't we friends?" "Yes," he answered as though nothing could be more obvious. "I'd like us to continue being friends. I know that might not be easy for you given what you feel. I'd understand if you needed to walk away. But I'd rather you didn't. I'd rather you stay in my life." Bit of a double standard there, don't you think? This is different. How so? It just is. "I don't want us to stop being friends," he told me. "Good. Then we're agreed. Our friendship keeps growing. And life goes on. I know that doesn't help you with what you're feeling, but I think in time it'll fade. You'll meet someone who grabs your attention and your emotions and I'll be just a fond memory." You're such a hypocrite! "You'll never be just a memory." "Considering I'm fifteen years your senior, I suspect I'll be a memory for you at some point, even if we're both old and decrepit by then." With another burgeoning blush and a duck of his head he stammered, "I... Well... Yeah, you know..." I bit my cheek to keep from laughing. Being tongue-tied wasn't something Basketball Boy experienced too often. It was entertaining to see. "What I mean is I hope I'm still around when you're decrepit. I hope..." Then he shook his head slightly and added in a more lighthearted tone, "I mean I hope I'm still around when you're more decrepit than you already are, old man." And he smiled, that beautiful, sincere, heartwarming smile, crooked teeth and all. I punched his arm lightly with my free hand and replied, "Better watch it, kiddo. This old man can kick your ass all over the neighborhood. Won't that be an embarrassing story to tell your friends..." We both laughed. It was wonderful. The pain and confusion from the past few days rolled away and left behind the relationship I was only just beginning to realize meant so much to me. Once we'd settled into a comfortable silence I told him, "Your mom told me they'll be gone to MJ's dance recital on your birthday." "Yeah..." He shrugged. He tried for dismissive but I could see it bothered him. "How about if you hang out with me? Maybe I'll take you to dinner, maybe we can have a little herbal refreshment, maybe I'll let you have a birthday beer or two... It'll be just the two of us, you know, and we can have fun, keep your mind off having your family away on your birthday." And maybe keep my mind off the next big thing I have to fix, the harder thing to fix, the one that'll hurt to fix. It's the fix that'll be painful. Like setting a bone. Necessary, acute, hopefully brief. His face had brightened throughout my offer, his smile growing, his eyes twinkling. "I'd like that," he responded with a nod. "Yeah, that sounds nice." "Be sure to tell your mom you have a babysitter for the evening. And I charge a hundred an hour for high-maintenance delinquents." He bumped me with his shoulder as he muttered, "Asshole."
  13. Jason MH

    Third Interlude - I Can Teach You

    @Sweetlion: Yes, unfortunately Richard's impact on Greg and Nate (and therefore the story) is more heinous and widespread than just the assault, although that was tragic enough. This interlude doesn't conclude Richard's manipulation of the boys. There are at least two more interludes, although the last one is the feel-good part of those flashbacks. (Try imagining a feel-good scene with Richard...) I say "at least two more interludes" because I removed one thinking it unnecessary, but now I'm vacillating between leaving it out and including it. I'll make a final decision about that when I reach the appropriate part of the story. (It's the interlude that focuses on Greg waking up in the hospital.) @Marty: Don't fret, my friend. Keigan didn't have a role to play in the last few chapters, but he's back in Chapter 19. His part in this tale is still as important as ever (being the third vertex of the romance triangle that has Greg at its center). And to titillate your interest in his character, he and Greg have a scene a few chapters after that in which they'll "see" more of each other than they have thus far. But let me muddy the waters of salacious expectation by pointing out that things in this tale don't always unfold according to ordinary expectations. Oh, I'm sure some will be happy to know Teresa's back in Chapter 18 and she's still a force of nature! Also in the next chapter: Greg tells Kyle what happened to him on his fifteenth birthday, so you'll finally hear his side of the story. It's not a pleasant tale, although I've worked hard to (hopefully) avoid sharing something offensive. And thank you for your comments! Although I can't respond to all of them (part and parcel of living and working on a ranch where livestock come before writing), I'm always thrilled and enlightened by what people have to say. The conjecture is entertaining and thought-provoking. Though I write for the sake of writing and never have written for an audience, I'm thankful this tale is already complete because sometimes you folks make guesses or voice opinions that easily could have swayed the direction of the story because it's stuff I never considered.
  14. April 23, 1999 The Fiend had never before felt such rage, such utterly omnipresent and incredibly manifold anger, a profound wrath the likes of which he never believed himself capable. Emotions, he knew, were the folly of the weak, directionless chemical responses that, unless controlled, served no purpose save to befuddle and bedevil and bewitch, an infliction of the weak. But Richard was strong, thus he smothered his emotions, subjugated them, allowing only the useful to serve his purposes whilst crushing the useless beneath his iron will. And yet! Little more than a year prior he had felt untouchable. He had successfully manipulated The Boy's mother into questioning her own intuitive distrust of the doctor. He had successfully manipulated The Boy's father into accepting a seed of trust from which would grow respect and support for The Fiend's presence in The Boy's life. He had successfully—No! That was where he made his mistake, where he let assumption prevail behind the fog of his own unchecked desire. For two years The Fiend had manipulated The Boy, a slow, creeping, divine series of maneuvers that brought the lad under his influence and, eventually, his control. There the doctor sat, smug in his accomplishments while The Boy played video games with Nate, letting himself assume his way was the only path forward for the then twelve-year-old child. Richard had assumed The Boy's burgeoning sexual appetite and emotional interest had both been directed toward the doctor himself, toward The Fiend. And yet! Perhaps distracted by his growing lust for The Boy or perhaps blinded by assumptions of his own noetic superiority, The Fiend had underestimated The Boy's intellectual capacity and therefore had misunderstood The Boy. That had been Richard's failing. For shortly after that birthday party, shortly after his victory over The Boy's parents, The Fiend began noticing something else in Greg, something different, something contradictory to what was expected and something in conflict with the The Fiend's unadulterated want. Had Richard not set about intensifying his manipulation and seduction of The Boy, he would have missed the indicators that eventually seemed to glare at him with mocking disdain. For the constant presence, the bashful glances, the needful talks and simple touches and subtle flirtations had been, much to The Fiend's chagrin, not indications of his having taken The Boy under his control but instead of The Boy's own attempts to distract himself from what he most desired yet felt he could not have. And even that was an assumption, for Richard could only guess at Greg's reasons. Emotions! Blasted emotions! It was so obvious within a few months of The Boy's twelfth birthday that Richard was not receiving undiluted attention and interest from Greg. On the contrary, he was being treated as a tool by Greg, utilized by The Boy for reasons Richard could not fathom save that they revolved around an emotional response Nate was eliciting in him. Was the doctor an object toyed with in hopes of engendering jealousy in Nate? Was The Fiend but a distraction to keep The Boy from focusing on his unwavering love for his best friend? Was Richard nothing more than an available, interested, acceptable runner-up in the quest to win The Boy's heart and, therefore, his body? Was Greg using him as a decoy to ensure others did not comprehend the true target of his desire? Or was it something altogether different? Richard could only guess, for he had learned that Greg was a clever child, an intelligent child, and his ways and motives were shrouded and cloaked and secret. But his own son! And he had missed it for years before becoming privy to The Boy's best kept secret and, to the Fiend's great surprise, Greg's masterful ability to hide his feelings and deflect curious attention and mask truths under believable affectations. "He's in love with my son!" Richard growled. "Of all the offenses against what must be, the bastard has been hiding his love in plain sight, using me to keep eyes from realizing the true desires of his heart. Damn him!" But it was not The Boy whom he wished to damn; it was his own son. The scrawny-bodied, pedestrian-featured, unassuming, mediocre personality-bearing cretin! Had he for a moment thought he could get away with it, The Fiend would murder the fruit of his loins and bury the carcass where no one would ever discover it. Each time he looked at Nate he felt the strongest desire to wrap his strong hands around the skinny boy's throat and squeeze until his limbs stopped flailing and his eyes stopped bulging and his chest stopped heaving. And all because he had misread the clues, assumed control where he had none, and ignored useless emotions to his own detriment. Emotions! Useless! The Boy had outwitted him even when Richard felt certain his plan was foolproof. The Boy had demonstrated a level of cleverness and resourcefulness Richard would not have thought possible for one so young. The Boy had defeated his insuperable plan. The Boy had won without recognizing the battle in which he was engaged. And yet! He had no intention of allowing sophomoric emotions to cripple his march to victory. Even as The Fiend pondered the mistakes he had made that brought him to this wretched predicament, he planned and plotted, and he set his not inconsiderable intellect upon the path to a solution. And quick enough to temper the ire that saturated his thoughts, the resolution came to him. He approached Yvonne to speak to her about Greg's feelings for Nate, hoping to persuade her to help him end the potential "in Greg's own best interests." She already knew! That vile, contemptible woman knew before he did. Greg told her when he came out to her. And she approved, delighted in it, supported it and hoped it would either flourish to the betterment of both boys or eventually subside without negatively affecting the unprecedentedly close bond Greg and Nate shared. The wretched wench! The Fiend had wanted desperately to elicit a negative response to the disclosure, to manipulate The Boy's mother such that she would support Richard's efforts to drive a wedge betwixt the boys so that these misguided feelings might be put to better use as The Fiend saw fit. Left to rely on his own cleverness to right this dastardly injustice, Richard arrived at an agreeable and even vindictive conclusion that would swing the balance back in his favor while simultaneously wounding The Boy so he would need comfort. Which, of course, The Fiend would be all too happy to provide. And if his plan caused some small measure of anguish for that execrable abomination born of Richard's superior genetics, all the better. * * * * * Nate and The Boy had settled before the television to indulge their puerile want for late movies, late chats, late bedtimes. As always happened when Greg spent the weekend with his son, The Fiend indulged his fantasies and allowed his eyes to wander, to caress, to undress, but only when he knew his son would not witness. And as they were wont to do, the boys eventually fell asleep in the living room, a prosaic habit which The Fiend tolerated only for its immediate and eventual benefits. Having left Nate and The Boy to their evening, Richard had settled in his room, the door open, dressed only in a pair of loose-fitting sweats. His own television showed some mindless entertainment which The Fiend ignored as he listened for the slightest indication of movement from the other end of the house. Though he would normally put on porn and maybe begin a session of slow masturbation in an effort to catch The Boy's eyes, he had more important matters to which to attend. Physical pleasures could wait, he knew, for it was imperative that he tip the scales in a more satisfactory direction. To do so, he simply needed The Boy to wake and wander to the bathroom or bedroom. Then it came. A stifled yawn, the shifting of a bedspread carelessly tossed over the back of a couch, the shuffle of feet upon a carpeted floor, the whisper of denim as legs sleepily moved together carrying a young tired body from the living room into the hall. Not to appear too fanatical, The Fiend slipped from bed silently and made his way to the door, unseen and unheard, waiting. Down the hall the bathroom door closed. So he waited. When he heard the toilet flush followed by water flowing into the sink, he stepped into the doorway of his room and paused, looking beleaguered and only vaguely aware of his surroundings, a man just wakened and in need of closing his bedroom door so that he might slip into a restful slumber for the night. Hand propped on the door, head hanging, a fake yawn stretching his face, The Fiend waited. The bathroom door opened quietly and out walked The Boy, rubbing his eyes and yawning, confused at first but soon realizing he should head back to the living room. He would never leave Nate there alone; both would retire to the bedroom or neither would. Greg glanced up, quick motion at the end of the hall grabbing his attention. Sleepy eyes squinted into the dim light coming from Richard's room. It was just Nate's dad, he saw, obviously just out of bed and trying to shut his door so he could crash. With a limp wave from an arm too tired to do more, Greg mumbled, "G'night, Richard." "Greg," The Fiend responded with surprise, though he felt no such thing, then he stifled another fake yawn, mumbling through the end of it, "Hang on a minute." Greg stopped and turned, still rubbing his eyes, his jaw working at his yawn's leftover tightness. A few blinks later, he stared at Richard and waited. I hope he hurries, he thought. I'm tired and I gotta get back to the living room before Nate wakes up. I don't want him thinking I left him there. Straightening to his full six feet, his narrow waist and broad chest silhouetted by light from the television behind him, The Fiend "absentmindedly" rubbed a hand up his washboard abs and over his left pec. Dropping his hand lazily and blinking blearily he asked, "You got a minute?" "Uh... Yeah, I suppose," Greg responded. He wasn't sure what Richard wanted. It was awfully late for a chat and he was awfully tired. And he wanted to get back to Nate. But... "I want to talk to you about something. Come on in here," Richard said, gesturing toward the bedroom behind him. Greg shuffled forward, an almost imperceptible shrug playing along his shoulders. "Okay," he mumbled. Once The Boy entered his domain, The Fiend pushed the door shut silently, put a hand on Greg's shoulder and led him into the room. Richard then turned slightly and sat on the edge of the bed. Still feigning lethargy and sleepiness, he patted the blanket beside him and muttered, "Hop up here a second, kiddo." Feeling more awake due to curiosity and worry, Greg did as asked, spinning around and dropping onto the bed beside Richard. Sliding close enough to be improper but not enough to loom, The Fiend slid a bare arm around The Boy's shoulders, allowing himself only the blink of an eye to indulge, his hand caressing sensuously across the rumpled shirt as he felt the broad shoulders, the developing musculature, the definition indicative of the splendid physique to come. Even as he snugged Greg against him in a less-than-fatherly way that was still not quite inappropriate, Richard imagined that it would be only another year or two when this fine specimen of young flesh would be ready for his enjoyment. Perhaps a hungry smirk played at his lips, but he subdued it quickly and put on instead the look of concern he needed for this conversation. "I know you want to get back out there to Nate, so I'll be quick, I promise," Richard said with a disarming grin, one that served only to hide the ravenous maw of a predator. "Okay," Greg muttered with uncertainty. Leaning down enough so he could speak in a conspiratorial tone, The Fiend began, "Listen, I think there's something we should talk about. It's kind of serious, kind of important." Through an inquisitive expression the youngster ducked his head a bit and responded, "Oh. Uh... Okay, Richard. Did I do something wrong?" Offering a light chuckle while hugging The Boy closer to him in a show of disarming humor, the less-than-good doctor assured him, "No. You did nothing wrong. You're not in any trouble." A look of relief spread across Greg's features. But the respite he felt was fleeting. Again speaking in a hushed tone meant to engender trust and comfort whilst also keeping the conversation private from his son's unbelievably sensitive ears, Richard said, "I'd like to talk to you about Nate." The Boy's shoulders stiffened for only a moment before his young mind instructed his body to relax. But it happened and The Fiend felt it. "What about him?" Greg asked, his tone neutral. "Listen," Richard started, "kids your age start feeling things for other people. You kind of explore your emotions as they react to those around you. Maybe you develop a crush, maybe you develop sexual feelings, but eventually you feel something stronger, something powerful, and it can seem like your whole world revolves around that feeling and the person who gives it life." The Boy's shoulders trembled slightly. The Fiend knew he was striking close to home. "Okay..." Greg mumbled. He wasn't at all sure where this conversation was going, but if it was about Nate and about strong feelings, he was pretty sure he knew what Richard wanted to talk about. And it scared him, in case he was wrong about being accepted as gay and being in love with Nate. He'd only told his mom, sharing with her how overwhelming it all was. He'd told her that maybe he'd fallen in love with Nate the moment they met, even though they'd only been ten. He wasn't sure what was too young for love. He only knew he'd been attracted to Nate the moment he met him. He just hadn't known what it was he was feeling, but as he got older it became glaringly obvious he was head-over-heels for his best friend. It wasn't physical, at least not in the sense of lust as his thirteen-year-old mind understood it. Whatever he'd felt for Nate years ago had grown and flourished and, now at thirteen, it was overwhelming. And though he thought Nate was a pretty cute guy with a nice trim body and a handsome face, and though he loved the contrast of his own fair skin coupled with Nate's dark tone, and though he could get lost in his best friend's dark brown eyes, and though he fantasized about kissing his full lips and running his hands over his close-cropped hair, Greg knew what he felt was a whole lot more than physical attraction. It'd always been more than that, but it'd taken Greg a few years to figure out he was in love with his best friend, attracted to his personality and intellect first, his body second. "You know as a doctor I have to be pretty observant," The Fiend continued, eliciting a small nod from The Boy. "And I like to think I'm not so old that I don't recognize a first love when I see it." Greg yanked back and spun his head to stare at Richard's face. "What?" he gasped. "Hey, it's okay, Greg. Don't freak out on me, kiddo. We're not talking about anything wrong here, okay?" Settling back into place Greg mumbled, "Okay," but he wasn't at all sure it was okay. He'd worked hard to keep his feelings hidden, even playing a dangerous game with Richard to redirect attention from Nate while trying to elicit jealousy from his best friend, the true target of these potent feelings. And he'd thought he'd been pretty damn smart about it, keeping people in the dark about his feelings for his best friend. At least until he told his Mom, but that was different. Maybe I haven't been as smart about it as I thought, the boy considered. Again using a comforting and friendly tone The Fiend explained, "What I was saying is that I'm not so old and blind that I haven't seen the way you look at Nate, especially when you think he's not looking. I've seen the way you look when he disappears around the corner, like your life just ended. I've heard the way you talk to him, intimately and secretly, like there's nobody else in the world who could understand you." Giving Greg another amiable hug Richard added, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with what you're feeling, Greg. It's perfectly natural and normal. And a first love is always the most powerful, the longest lasting, the most meaningful. But it's also the one most fraught with peril." With a sidelong look at the doctor Greg asked, "What does that mean? Why?" "You haven't learned to figure out who's an appropriate object of affection and who's not. Well, we never really learn that all too well, but what I'm saying is your first love is the one that sneaks up on you and hits you like a truck and leaves your head spinning because you've never felt anything like it before. But that also means it blinds you to important stuff." "Like what?" "In this case?" The Fiend gave a sympathetic frown, as though he expected to cause pain—which was precisely what he intended to do, but The Boy need not know that. Then: "I know you love Nate, Greg. I know it's so strong that you can't fight it—" "God, Richard, it's like dying every day when he's gone and like being reborn every day when he arrives. When he's around I can barely contain the joy and nervousness, but when he's not around I feel like my heart's being ripped out. Sometimes it's hard to breathe just because he's there and sometimes it's hard to breathe because he's not there. My chest hurts then feels great then hurts then feels great. And I don't even think about sex—" A humored scowl from Richard caused Greg's words to die an early death. He amended, "Okay, I think about it." "A lot?" The Fiend prompted. "Yeah," Greg mumbled in an embarrassed tone, then went on, "But what I meant was that with Nate it was always something else first and thoughts of sex came much later. It was always something else. I didn't even know about sex until this thing was already inside me. Now that thoughts of sex are in the mix, it's overwhelming!" "That's what I'm trying to warn you about, Greg," The Fiend offered with serious worry in his voice. "He'll break your heart." "What? No... He wouldn't... Do you think...? Why?" "If you haven't noticed, Nate will do anything you ask even if he knows he shouldn't. If you tell him you love him, he'll feel obligated to try to give you what you want. He'd rather spend the rest of his life miserable with you than be happy without you." "I don't understand." "You're the best thing that's ever happened to Nate. He's desperate to keep you in his life. If he thinks being your boyfriend is the only way to accomplish that, he'll do it. But he's not like us, Greg." "What do you mean he's not like us?" "Nate has no interest in other guys. He's as straight as a man can be. He'll never love you the way you love him even though he'd act like it to make you happy and keep you in his life. In the end, though, you'll both be miserable until finally it all shatters apart. That's when you'll realize he's been playing a role for you and that what you think you had with him has been nothing but lies. It'll break your heart and it'll destroy your friendship." "He'd never hurt me," Greg gasped, tears streaking down his cheeks. He'd never before considered what it might be like if Nate hurt him, if something bad happened to their friendship. God, the idea that they might not always be friends hurt as much as his broken leg did when he was eight. Worse even! "He wouldn't hurt you intentionally," The Fiend said, "at least not at first. He'd try his best to be what you want him to be, and the attempt would make him miserable, and in the end he'd lash out, hurt you purposefully, do everything he could to drive you away so he could live the life he wants, so he could be really happy with a woman. Because that's what he wants, Greg, a woman. He'll never want you the way you want him to want you. It's just not in him to be what you need. He won't understand that kind of love, not one bit, but he'll try because it's you. And in the end he'll hate you." "Why?" Greg cried out, his chest heaving, his shoulders trembling, his lips twitching with the anguish he was fighting to contain. Why does it have to be this way? he thought. Why does it have to be so hard? Why does it have to hurt so much? Why is love such a vicious thing? "He'll hate you because you took away his chance at happiness simply by loving him, which he'll try to return. He'll hate you because he sacrificed so much trying to be what you want him to be. He'll hate you because he'll see you as selfish. He'll hate you because you didn't walk away when you could have. He'll hate you because it'll destroy the friendship he cherishes most. "Yes," The Fiend said apologetically, again hugging Greg's weeping form close, "he'll hate you in the end simply because you loved him." "So what do I do? I can't stand feeling this way. It's too much. He's all I ever think about." The Boy's tears flowed freely, staining his cheeks with lamentation and wetting his shirt with anguish. The Fiend relished it, thrived on it, wished for more so long as it drove a wedge between his son and They Boy, so long as it destroyed The Boy's hope for meaningful love with Nate and pushed him back toward The Fiend, toward the man who would have him no matter what. Being in love with his son failed to worry The Fiend. It was the emotional bond that might interfere with his conquest of The Boy that worried him. Richard was not adverse to taking by force that which he wanted, but he would only use subtle force until he had engendered in his prey desire too potent to resist. If he had to do battle with The Boy's first love, he would most assuredly never get him to willingly submit his body, or at least to submit his body without violence. And The Fiend preferred to avoid violence as bruising the forbidden fruit made it less palatable. "You have to learn how to hide those feelings from yourself, how to deny them so you stop feeling them and seeing them and thinking about them." "How?" Greg sounded desperate, and that's exactly what he was. He'd never been more desperate in his life. He couldn't lose Nate. He just couldn't. And if sacrificing this wonderful and terrible thing called love would save his friendship and keep Nate from hating him, he'd do it, he'd suffer the pain and the loss, he'd give up what he wanted most in life, he'd try to find some new happiness. But he couldn't lose Nate, he couldn't make Nate hate him. Hiding his triumphant smirk The Fiend replied, "I can teach you. It's a form of self-deception that's sometimes used in trauma cases to escape the pain and bad memories." "Sounds like brainwashing," Greg sniffled. "In a sense it is, only it's you brainwashing yourself. You decide what you want the world to be like and you convince yourself that's the way it is. You deny what you think and feel until it's hidden so deep you can't see it anymore." "Like a mental blind spot?" "Yes. Exactly. A blind spot is an apt description." "And you can help me do that? Build a mental blind spot? You can help me hide my love for Nate so deep it won't affect me? You can help me save my friendship with him and keep him from hating me?" "Of course. It takes time, though, Greg. It's not a quick fix. But with enough practice and effort, you'll be surprised at how soon you can set those feelings aside so you can move on." "How come you know how to do that?" "What, help people get rid of the part of their life they don't want to remember?" "Yeah." "In my practice I sometimes have to treat kids who've been through some kind of trauma, maybe like a car accident where they've lost their parents or an illness that leaves them crippled or an assault that leaves them scarred both inside and out. Part of treating them physically means being attuned to their mental wellbeing as well." "So you help them get rid of the bad stuff in their heads?" "In a sense. And it's not so much getting rid of it as learning to hide it from themselves, learning to use self-deception to remove the sting from those constant mental pains." "I just..." "What?" "I just wish things were different. He's all I think about. I've never wanted something so much in my life. I'm tied in knots all the time, I can't stand to be away from him, I'm desperate to hear his voice and see his face and feel his touch. I don't know how I could ever find someone else who makes me feel that way." Gently wiping away some of Greg's endless tears, wishing he could taste them for the triumph they were, Richard told The Boy, "Once you've built your blind spot, I think you'll start to notice there are other options." "Like what?" "Like other people who feel the same for you, other people who can give you what you're looking for, other people who want to take care of you and make you feel good and be for you what Nate can never be. And maybe you'll even notice that someone's been trying to catch your eye for years, someone close, someone who can give you as much of Nate as you can get without having the real thing." "Someone like you?" "Yeah, maybe someone like me." Greg didn't know if he could ever feel that way about Richard, feel the same depth and potency and purity of love that he felt for Nate. But he didn't need to fall in love with Richard; he just needed the doctor to distract him while he learned to build his blind spot, learned to hide his love for Nate in a place where it could never hurt his best friend or do harm to their friendship. Maybe it was wrong to think in terms of using Richard's obvious interest for personal gain, but Greg couldn't lose Nate, he just couldn't, and he was willing to do almost anything to keep that from happening.
  15. Jason MH


    October 28, 2016 While I sat at the butterfly machine, my chest burning with each rep, sweat climbing down my body and rappelling from my hair, Kyle stood to the side and slightly behind my position. Using that particular machine didn't require a spotter, so it left Basketball Boy loitering nearby waiting for me to finish. Working toward the end of the last set, the sensation of being watched settled over me. It's a gym, dude. You can't help but do a little people watching. Of course. I do the same thing. But I also like to know who's looking. Without missing a beat of my workout, my eyes lazily wandered the vast room, glancing hither and yon, touching briefly on each face—and not a few bodies—as I searched for my observer. Without finding one directly, I set my eyes to meander about the wall of mirrors opposite my position, again a leisure perusal of the faces—and again several bodies—reflected there. And then I nearly choked. Fuck me running! Look at his eyes. They're full of hunger and desire. He looks like a tiger ready to pounce. Kyle was locked on my reflection, oblivious to everything else. The well-ventilated white tee I wore was soaked, translucent and clinging to my skin, and I could see his gaze devouring every inch of what it showed. Fat lot of good wearing a shirt did... I thought when I realized the motions of the machine had bunched the flimsy covering in the center of my torso, leaving most of me exposed from shoulders to waistband. Even as I watched, his eyes darted to the side, directly at me, where he could see my bare muscles straining and sweating, pumped with effort and twitching like a coked-up gogo boy. Just as quickly his regard jumped back to the mirror, enjoying a salacious and slow perusal up my bare calves and over my knees and along my thighs until they vanished into the shadows of my shorts, up to my waist where sweat trickled into the damp waistband, then to my abs flexing with each breath, up to my chest where my nipples stood out like two sweaty glass cutters and my pecs swelled and rippled with each rep, then up to my shoulders stretched taught in the machine's embrace. Everywhere his eyes moved I felt the caress of want, the tingle of lust. My body shivered as I realized how brazenly he let his eyes consume me. Then the climb of his stare reached my eyes. The flush of embarrassment exploded all over his face and set his ears alight when he realized I was watching him watch me. Grabbing his water bottle and taking a swig, he tossed his towel over his shoulder and muttered something about heading to the showers as he stumbled by me. When at last my routine ended, I slumped on the machine's bench, head down, breathing deeply but not heavily. And then I mumbled, "It's time." * * * * * "A while back you said somebody came along and made you question things, made you reevaluate your life as you knew it. You said they even made you reconsider your relationship with Traci. You were talking about me, weren't you?" Kyle's mouth worked for a moment before he nodded, then aloud he said, "Uh, yeah. You know, successful gay man with a nice house and nice car who isn't a freak. I guess I just meant I finally had an example that showed me I was okay, I was normal." I gave a considering nod before I told him, "It's a survival trait, you know." The joint was halfway to his mouth when it froze. "Huh?" "Whether gay or straight or other, learning to function normally around someone you're attracted to is a survival trait." With a gesture to the joint, still frozen in place, I added, "You gonna do something with that?" Shaken loose from his mental logjam, he murmured a quick "Uh-huh" before taking a deep hit. His eyes never left mine. As he handed the weed back to me, that marvelous decoy slipped into place, a blank expression devoid of emotion and thought. He's thinking hard, dude. Now that I know the tell, it's as blatant as a two-bit whore at Sunday church. Finally, as though he'd just remembered I'd spoken, he gave a quick shake of his head and told me, "I guess I'm not following you, man." His face puts the lie to that statement. One thing Basketball Boy hasn't mastered is deception. Yeah, he needs to hone his skills in that area. He's young. He has time. Exhaling a cloud of smoke as I tamped the roach in the ashtray I said, "Discussing this before you came out to me would've pushed you to admit something you clearly weren't ready to admit. So I've let it slide. But today at the gym, dude, you were over the top." Defensive and flustered, he pushed himself against the sofa's armrest, away from me, and tried to dodge the bullet. "What are you talking about?" False bravado and false denial competed in his voice. "Calm down, dude," I said, waving with surrender. "It's not a big deal. You're not offending me. But you have to learn to dampen your enthusiasm when you flirt because it's really obvious." "Who's flirting?" he nearly shouted. This isn't going like I'd hoped. "Listen, Kyle," I offered in a light, jovial tone with nothing but friendship behind it, "you've been flirting with me for two months. It's flattering. It really is. But you have to know we're friends, you and I, and right now there's no chance of anything more." He jerked as if to get up, his blush radioactive and spreading down his chest like a nuclear mudslide. I caught his arm halfway to standing and pulled him back down, gently of course, and settled him beside me where I could wrap an arm around his shoulders. Not only did I want him to feel my comfort with his feelings, but I also wanted him to feel my love for him, my desire to grow our friendship, my intention to help him learn how to function without getting killed. I also want to keep a hold on him so he doesn't run away. Because, damn it, this conversation has to happen. For all his squirming, he's not really trying very hard to get away from me. Uh, you think the goosebumps and shivers indicate anything? Oh. Um... Yeah, I suppose his involuntary reactions are saying something loud and clear. Even though he made a show of trying to pull away, Kyle still managed to settle himself tighter against me, maneuvering himself so more of his bare torso rested against mine. Don't get any bright ideas, kiddo! Leaning toward him and speaking in a conspiratorial tone I asked, "Do you like me, Kyle?" He huffed before replying, "Well duh! Yeah, I like you." "You know what I'm asking." "You're my friend." He was almost whining with discomfort. I felt bad for him. "But there's more, isn't there?" "What're you talking about?" "The way you look at me and my body, the way you look at me when you think I don't notice, the way you touch me, the way you draw attention to yourself—especially your body—when you're around me. I'm not new to the game, Kyle, and I'm not angry or upset either." He writhed a bit, trying to lean away, then settled against me again, his ears suddenly aflame like his face and neck and chest. I wonder if blushing too hard is a health risk. If so, I need to call 911 right now. "You're just coming to terms with your real self, your real feelings," I told him, "and I'm sort of your mentor and guide and example. Which is awesome!" I gave him a friendly shake. "In the process, though, maybe you've found a target for the feelings you've been hiding, the feelings that are just now seeing the light. Which is perfectly natural. There's nothing wrong with what you're feeling, I promise you that. And you're not hurting my feelings or offending me or anything bad like that. But you have to know, Kyle, we're just friends." With a sudden burst of energy he snapped around and glowered. "Because I'm a kid?" he shouted. "Because I'm not," I said soothingly. His anger deflated as I continued, "You're an attractive young man, Kyle, with a sexy body and a great personality and a lot to offer a guy. But you're fifteen going on sixteen in the next few weeks while I'm thirty going on thirty-one in a few months. We're worlds apart when it comes to romance, the biggest reason being my history and issues. "But," I quickly added as he began to speak, no doubt to dismiss the idea that my past was a reason not to pursue something, "it's more than that. The age difference is meaningless. It's the age that matters. If I met someone in their seventies and was attracted to them, I'd have no problem with it. I don't care how many years there are separating two people as long as the feelings are real and mutual. "You're still a kid, though, with plenty of time to figure out who you are and what you like and what you want. You're probably attracted to me because you're already emotionally attached to me through our friendship. Plus I'm the first openly gay guy you've spent much time around, one who's accepting and honest and willing to help you find your lot in life." "Yeah, it can't have anything to do with the fact that you're hot as fuck and nice as hell and the kindest, warmest, smartest, most understanding man on the planet." As soon as he realized what he'd said, his mouth slammed shut with an audible clack that was loud enough to make me worry he might've broken a few teeth. Flustered and frustrated and dying under the onslaught of his raging blush and embarrassment, Kyle turned aware from me and expelled an overly dramatic sigh. "Thank you. That was a generous compliment. But it's also beside the point. "Though you're very mature for your age, you're not completely mature no matter how you feel. That means you're being unduly influenced by me simply because I'm older and available and we have an emotional connection and you spend a great deal of time with me and you've put me on this pedestal as an example of what you can be." His face swung back in my direction, staring, that blank expression on his face, so I knew he was weighing my words. There was something else, some fleeting impression I knew I should grasp and weigh, but instead I kept talking. "More important than any of that is that you're only fifteen. No, let me finish. When I was your age, somebody a little older than I am now took advantage of me, used my emotions against me, used his experience and maturity and intellect to manipulate me, and when it was all said and done he'd put me in the hospital for months." "Phoenix..." he muttered. "Yeah, the phoenix tattoo. Which at some point, as long as you still want me as a friend, I'll tell you about so you understand what happened and why my relationship with you has been up and down sometimes. But that's a story for another time. "What I'm telling you is that I've been in your shoes, been the young kid who thinks an older man is attractive. The result was a stellar catastrophe at best. So even if nothing else I said mattered, the fact is I could never take advantage of you like that. It's wrong—it was wrong when it was done to me and it's wrong now if I do it to you. "So hopefully you understand why this can't be," I continued with a gesture between us. "And, while flattering, it'd probably be best if the flirting stopped, too." Then I smirked. "Or at least toned down a notch or three." "But... Well... I think I'm... Well, I'm pretty sure..." Then his mouth slammed shut. Again. Basketball Boy stared, placid and emotionless, a stoic boy of fifteen years who was good looking and sexy and coming into his sexuality and clearly attracted to me, and suddenly I knew what I'd missed before. His emotional investment in me ran deeper than I'd realized, deeper than I'd expected. Hidden behind my blind spot until recently, what Kyle was feeling had only become apparent to me in the last few weeks. Unfortunately I hadn't understood until that moment. Pain and disappointment flashed across his visage so quickly that most others would've missed it, but I studied him and watched him and never let the smallest thing about him go unnoticed. Including the shocking sight of unshed tears in his eyes. I feel like I just kicked his puppy. No, worse than that. Much worse. I hurt him. He stood abruptly, brushing off my hand as I tried to slow him, then he headed toward the kitchen. He grabbed his shirt and pulled it on, not realizing he had it on backward. Grabbing his coat and slamming his arms through the sleeves, he reached the door to the garage and I hoped he'd turn and look at me, say something to me, give some indication that things would eventually be okay. Without a glance or a word Basketball Boy stormed out of the house. I was worried he'd maybe stormed out of my life as well, something I didn't think I could handle. Leaning back on the couch I let out a forceful sigh, wiping one hand over my face, only then realizing I had tears in my eyes. So this is what it feels like when you rip out the heart of someone you care about, when you spit on the fact that you're their first love. Can I ever look at myself in the mirror again without seeing a monster? "I should've handled that differently." After another deep breath I added, "Fuck..." * * * * * "What are you doing tonight?" "Going out with Rita." "Rita? Again? Did she slip you a mickey? Maybe more than one?" Nate scowled from his bedroom. I stood in the doorway watching him try on clothes. Various clothes. Various clothes in various combinations. A pile of rejected options on the bed kept growing closer to the ceiling. "She didn't slip me a mickey, you douche!" More clothes tossed on the bed, more hangers cleared so he could consider more options. Each time he stepped out of the walk-in closet, he had something different in his hands or on his body, whether shirt or pants, or both, and each time he'd huff in frustration before pitching the offending fashion across the room onto the bed. Where, by the size of the pile, I'd guess the majority of his closet had already been discarded. "So she's not drugging you. Odd. Are you Nate Sawyer or a pod person who took his place?" A plaid flannel shirt flew across the room and hit me in the face. I could've intercepted it had I not been so utterly enthralled with this person before me. He looks like my best friend and he sounds like him, and clearly he has a key to the house and knows which room to ransack, but the Nate I know doesn't see the same woman twice. Never. Never ever. You know what that means. But I'm not ready for that. Not at all. I pulled the shirt from my face and found him rummaging through his closet again—or still—with yet more clothes on the bed. "Have you really gone through all the women in the DFW metroplex? Is that why you have to see the same one again?" Another shirt, this one intercepted before it hit me. "Asshole," he muttered. He must really be distracted if I can't goad him into lively banter. Distracted? Or stressed? "As the resident gay man, do you think you could help me find something to wear instead of standing there berating me?" Hands propped on his hips, wearing nothing but white Garofali briefs, he glowered with a mix of frustration and panic. Mostly panic. Still, given how hot Nate was, seeing him that way was like seeing a wet dream made flesh. The briefs hugged every contour of his body, leaving nothing to the imagination, and the white fabric appeared almost translucent over his brown skin. If I didn't already know I have to give him up, I'd be all over him, his intolerable straightness be damned. "Uh-oh. I can see it in your face, Nate. You want to impress this woman with more than your lackluster personality and narcissism." He deflated. Nate Sawyer, a god amongst men, actually deflated before my eyes. His shoulders slumped, he sighed, then his head dropped to stare at the floor. "Please, Greg." Oh no... I'm not ready for this, especially if he's this stressed about a fourth date. "Oh bloody hell," I mumbled. "Time to earn the best friend label." "And the gay one," he mumbled with a vague gesture toward the pile of clothes on the bed. "My little boy's all grown up," I joked as I walked to him. "You're actually smitten. I didn't think it was possible." I didn't think it'd hurt this much either. He huffed again. Or perhaps it was a vigorous sigh. It can be difficult to tell them apart. "Not smitten," he mumbled, "just fond of her. And hopeful." I put my hands on his shoulders and said, "Look at me." He did. I continued, "Well, I bet she's something special. Of course I'll help. I'm your best friend and I won't let you down." With that I pushed him back so he stood in front of the window and out of the way. I then browsed the meager remains of the closet. It looked like he'd nearly emptied it in his desperation. "First, change your underwear," I mentioned distractedly without looking at him. "Why?" Over my shoulder I explained, "Though the stark white looks divine against your dark skin and the cut makes you more of a sex god than you already are—something I didn't think possible, by the way—you should know there's a wee tear in the left leg of what you're wearing." He glanced down, located the tear, stuck his finger through it, then looked back to me with unmitigated terror in his eyes. "I'm gonna fuck this up, Greg." Fucking hell... This is worse than I thought. If I'd had any doubts before, I lost them then. Nate always demonstrated confidence and surety. Especially when it came to women, though perhaps that stemmed from knowing he'd never see the same one twice. He's already been on three dates with the woman. That's a record. No shit. His longest relationship was eight hours long, and all of that happened in one night. So the dozen or so hours he's spent with Rita spread over three days across two weeks is a record for him. Yeah, and he's already admitted they haven't had sex yet. Which, for Nate, is like not breathing, especially considering he hasn't seen anyone else since he met her. I'm really not ready for this. Suck it up, Greg. Do your duty. "The day you fuck something up with a woman is the day I go straight. Look, you might've torn those just pulling them out of the drawer, so don't freak out." I walked over to the dresser, pushed around the mess he'd made in his underwear drawer, and found what I wanted. Tossing him a pair of black Gregg Homme Menz boxer briefs I ordered, "Put those on." He pushed the others off and slipped on the pair I'd found, arranging himself appropriately before holding his arms out and looking at me expectantly. "Turn around." So he did. "Ok." He turned back toward me. I gave the front the same once-over I gave the back. Nodding approvingly I said, "Those look really hot on you. They show off your assets, meager though they are." He's anything but! Finally he smirked. With real humor. His body relaxed a bit as well. "Fuck you," he teased with a grin. "Not now, sweetcheeks, I'm trying to get my homeboy ready for a date." I'd rather be doing anything else, like getting a root canal maybe. He snickered. "Now..." I turned back to the closet disaster he'd created. "Where are the new jeans you just— Ah, never mind. I found them." I tossed them to him over my shoulder. "Put them on." He slipped into the jeans and fastened them. The faded blue complemented his chocolate skin and they hugged his muscular physique without being gaudily erogenous. Giving him a questioning look I asked, "Trying to say 'I want you to ride me cowgirl style' or 'I want to see what we can be'?" There was a momentary flash of something across his face, an expression that flew by too quickly to recognize. Before I could consider what I might have seen he was back to worried, stressed, grateful, obnoxious. Okay, I just added the last one but Nate would appreciate the sentiment. "I want to see what we can be." He couldn't hide that megawatt smile and the twinkle in his eyes. If I needed any more evidence that my life is over, that digging up the past has done nothing but set me up for a broken heart, this is it. "Oh my heavens! Someone's tamed the beast. I never thought I'd see the day." My tone sounded fake and my smile felt like plastic. But like the thoughts running through my head, Nate was completely out of touch. Which just made the situation worse. "Shut up." But there was no venom, only a profound hope and happiness that came through loud and clear. And gratitude. "Right. Back to business. Where is... Never mind." I walked to him holding a long-sleeve V-neck pullover marbled in grays. It would hug his torso without looking too showy. The mostly dark colors would absorb more light and make it seem less revealing. "Put that on." He did. And looked heavenly. Hot enough to eat. I stepped behind him and turned him toward the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door. "Look at the man in the mirror. He's not just phenomenally hot and unquestionably handsome and dashingly dressed thanks to his best friend—" He smirked, then smiled. "—but he's also the best man the world has ever seen. He's more than his packaging, though that's pretty damn fine. If she's at all smart, she'll recognize it doesn't get better than this." Realizing I was on the verge of tears, I let my hands drop and turned away from the mirror, away from Nate, away from the pain I was feeling. I stepped to the side as I said, "Black socks and the black Kenneth Cole ankle boots and a black belt. Then you're all set." He spun, grabbed me and pulled me into an affectionate hug. And that's when it hit me, something I'd been around for more than two decades but that I'd denied until the blind spot came tumbling down. There was a smell. It was him, Nate, his individual and unique smell. And smells, more than anything else, represented my greatest weakness when it came to men. Without hesitation I took an unnecessarily appreciative and long inhale through my nose. It intoxicated me, flowing directly to the most primal parts of my brain and body, lighting a fire in my chest and filling my thoughts with nothing but him. More. My eyes closed involuntarily. Nothing could've stopped me when I lowered my head and turned so that my lips and nose rested against his neck. Then I inhaled a second time, slower and deeper, a shuddering breath drawing his essence into me as much as my lungs would allow. He smells like Nate, like Man, like Sex, like Lo— Stow that shit! Yessir. Fuck me running, though, it's all man and musk and a hint of nervous sweat and the faintest whiff of soap and gallons of pheromones that pour out of him. I've never smelled his smell like this before, never let myself smell it, never let it register. It's inebriating, a distinctive scent that's wonderful and frustrating and overpowering and subtle and divine and devilish and pure carnal lust and a million other things I can't describe. When his hands settled against my bare shoulders, my brain snapped to attention. I jerked upright and stepped back quickly enough to cause a stumble. Eyes wide and cheeks flush with horror at what I'd done, body trembling with the deepest desire I'd ever felt and heart hammering with emotions so strong I thought they'd split me apart, I whispered, "I'm sorry." When I looked up, he had his head cocked slightly to the side, his face communicating something akin to confusion. Is he confused by my apology or by what I did? Still holding me at arm's length, his fingers moving every so slightly against my skin, he huffed out a brief sigh before saying, "Don't be sorry. That was... Well, that was sexy as fuck and totally flattering." The blush on his face said even more. Then, as if nothing had happened, he pulled me back into his arms and whispered into my neck, "Thank you, G-Man. I really like this girl. I want to do things right and I totally lost my mind with this getting dressed thing. Thank you." You're not the only one who lost his mind. What was I thinking? I squeezed him and held him while he drew strength from the embrace. With a deep breath and a brief tightening of his arms around me, he exhaled slowly and confidently before letting me go. With a nod and smile, he grabbed the right socks and boots, then sat in his desk chair to put them on. While he did that I headed out of the room. "Wear the knee-length leather coat. It'll work best with the overall theme of the evening." I stopped midway down the hall and spun around. He was standing in the middle of his room staring at me. From that distance he couldn't see the unshed tears in my eyes. In the worst country-bumpkin accent I could muster, I added, "Be sure you tell her if she intends to court my boy, she'll have to come meet daddy soon. Them's the rules." His relaxed, heartfelt laughter was music to my ears. I turned and headed to my room, wiping away tears as I went. * * * * * "Thank you for letting me move your session to this evening, Greg," Uncle Farid said. "You're welcome. Hey, I completely understand about attending professional seminars and what that can do to your schedule. But are you sure you don't want to postpone? You're probably tired." "A little," he agreed, but waving away my concern he continued, "but not enough to cancel on you. I'll be in bed early this evening and that will fix me up nicely." I gave a small shrug. Have it your way. After lighting a cigarette he explained, "I want to enlighten you about some of the coping mechanisms people use following a traumatic event, especially children. Assuming no cerebral damage, people implement their own solutions, whether consciously or unconsciously, and they can include amnesia, split personalities—I hate that term but use it because people understand it—various personality and psychological disorders, forgetting, and so on. Psychiatrists use various treatments to address and overcome these mechanisms, including regression therapy and hypnosis, standard counseling, and pharmaceuticals. "Another coping mechanism that trauma sufferers sometimes use is denial. More specifically in your case, they use self-deception to deny the things they don't want to face. This isn't the same as forgetting since the memories and knowledge still exist in their original form and can be accessed if sought. Instead, the patient builds a process by which they deny the validity of what they want to avoid, deny its existence or deny its nature or deny some other facet of it. The appropriate response to this coping mechanism is general counseling, helping the patient work through the cause of their denial, face the reality of what they're denying and then dealing with its impact, and readjusting their world view and approach to life such that they begin dealing with reality as it exists instead of as they wish it to be." Leaning forward a bit through the cloud of smoke he exhaled he added, "Working through the trauma and memories and repercussions is significant, but so is dismantling the denial mechanism until the person is back to normal. Without doing so, they wind up with a resonant form of cognitive dissonance—" "What's that?" "Essentially, cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two opposing views. Since the views are mutually exclusive, the person either has to modify a view so it can coexist with the other, drop one of the views, or strive to keep both views valid and active without breaking beneath the inherent conflict that exists between them. "In your case, the harmful resonance finally surfaced when you met Kyle. You began projecting, you began suffering beneath the weight of reality from which you'd hidden for so long, and you began to see what you'd been hiding behind your blind spot since you were fifteen." "Thirteen," I unconsciously interjected. Uncle Farid cocked his head and gave me a curious stare. "I beg your pardon?" "I started building it when I was thirteen, not too long after I came out to everybody." The look of undeniable realization spread across his features as he nodded sagely, scribbling on his notepad. "Mmmm..." he mumbled, still writing, before refocusing on me. "That's a very important bit of information, Greg." "I figured as much." Standing, he walked to the corner and dragged a full-length mirror from behind a large plant, some kind of miniature palm or something. He wheeled the mirror over to the coffee table and aligned it just opposite from where I was sitting. Suddenly I was looking at myself sitting there. And suddenly I felt silly for it. "Another approach we sometimes use in cases such as this is called third-person objective reflection introspection therapy. That's a rather pretentious description for a simple concept, so I call it—in this case, anyway, since you're male—the man in the mirror." "I'm guessing it's sometimes the woman in the mirror?" "Of course," he smirked, "and sometimes it's even the unaware or the undeclared in the mirror, for those not certain of their gender or uncomfortable with the binary gender system. All of which is beside the point." He slipped back into his chair, just to the side of the mirror, pulled his pen and paper back into his lap, then tamped his withering cigarette in the ashtray until it died. Back to me he said, "The purpose of this kind of therapy is to urge you to be objective about what is by nature a very subjective discussion. That's impossible, of course, but the exercise does in fact produce some useful results for both the therapist and the patient." Rubbing my palms on my jeans I asked, "So, uh, how does this work?" "Quite simple really. I want you to sit right where you are and face the mirror. Look at your reflection and only your reflection. Once you begin talking, keep everything you say in reference to the man in the mirror. Don't tell me about you, just tell me about him." He gestured to the mirror for emphasis. It felt a bit silly, the whole idea, but I'd play along. "Okay. I get it, I suppose." "Good. Remember only to tell me about the man in the mirror, not you." "Right." "Because this is the first time we've tried this exercise, I'll jump around a little, help you get comfortable with this approach. If either of us feels something warrants further scrutiny, we'll dig deeper as needed. Understand?" "Yeah." "Very well then." After clearing his throat he asked, "Does the man in the mirror remember Richard's trial?" Damn it to hell... "Outside voice, please." "Oops. Right. Sorry about that. I—Sorry! He thought 'damn it to hell.'" "I'll speak to him later about his language during therapy. But does he remember Richard's trial?" "Yes. Definitely. Both of them, though the D.C. trial he remembers only from news stories." "What does he remember most about them?" I was shaking and I was nervous and my palms were clammy, but I had no desire to touch the phoenix tattoo or its hidden scar. "He thinks for a very long time Richard showed that he thought only of himself, taking savage satisfaction in the harm he did to his prey, often leaving teenage boys psychologically crippled and emotionally vacuous. He thinks seeing him on trial was the least satisfaction he could get out of the whole mess." "What else does he remember from the trials?" "He's not proud of it, but he found out he was the first to walk away from Richard with physical scars in addition to the injuries he inflicted to my—his, sorry—his psyche. Out of nearly twenty boys, being the only one with that claim to fame didn't make him feel special. "He never met the other victims, those from the trial in D.C., but he read enough and heard enough that he made some assumptions, drew some conclusions, whatever..." I ducked my head and blushed before looking back at the mirror. "At the time he pompously decided that those who would obviously never recover were pitiful creatures, not strong enough to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, move forward with their lives. Of course, at the time the man in the mirror was fueled almost entirely by rage, and rage is more useful than despair. But it's also not as long lived." Frowning at my reflection, giving a small shake of my head, I added, "He's embarrassed about that, about thinking some of the other survivors were pathetic. The worst ones were the straight boys—mostly young men by that point. They'd had the most taken from them, had the most damage done to who they were meant to be. He looks back now and sees them with sympathy. Despite what Richard did to me—him, rather, at least he's gay and didn't walk away with his sense of self broken in two. Close to it, sure, but not broken." "Before he started therapy again, the man in the mirror, how did he feel? After he met Kyle?" Without hesitation I answered, "Inside where no one could see he was a writhing mass of fear and doubt, afraid his world was crumbling because it all started to come back, he could see it every time he looked at Kyle and at himself in the mirror. He felt like he was breaking but he felt like he could push it all behind his blind spot and make it better. "But meeting Kyle somehow pointed a brief light right into the middle of the blind spot. Just for a second, mind you, but it was there. And he saw some of what huddled in the darkness, some of what he'd pushed into the shadows. It contradicted his view of life but it was there." "Is that what made him decide to come back to therapy?" "No. That was a part of it but that wasn't all of it." "What else was there?" "His mother's tough love showed him he'd been living in denial and abject fear for fifteen years, projecting his horror and trepidation onto every aspect of his life. Kyle's persistent presence, which dragged things out of his mental blind spot that he'd thought long buried. His growing realization that he refused to see or deal with what happened and what followed. His worries about where his life might lead if he finally shed all the pain he wore cloaked around him. His years of lonely misery and the possibility that it might shift to profound satisfaction and happiness if he could ultimately get past the biggest obstacle—himself. His heartfelt desire to live a fulfilled and loving life in a meaningful relationship, which he couldn't do with the way he was living. His worries about the shadows of the past and the light they diminish in the present." "Why does he think his years have been lonely misery?" "He realized his life, as he was living it, would lead him to a lonely death, an end shared only with what remaining family and friends he had. Other than that, though, there wouldn't be anyone who'd spent years by his side, who would know his thoughts as easily as he himself would, who would understand his longing and sorrow as they did their own, who would weep at his passing because he'd been their other half and they his. "Well, there'd be nobody for me except Nate, but he's not mine to keep." "Do you want to keep Nate?" I didn't even realize we'd moved from the man in the mirror to me. I didn't even realize what I was admitting. "Yes. Absolutely. But I can't have him." "He'll always be your best friend. I can't imagine anything could change that. Are you afraid you'll lose that?" "I want more." "With Nate?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because I love him more than I did back then." "Look at me, Greg." I turned slowly, away from the mirror, toward Uncle Farid. Concern was written all over his face, his usual mask of remote objectiveness torn asunder by realization. But just as quickly the look vanished, replaced once again by the clinician, the warm, gentle, loving uncle who also happened to be a renowned psychiatrist and widely respected therapist. "You're making progress, Greg, sometimes in small steps and sometimes in giant leaps, but what you've just said... I mean, you're intimating... Well, let's be clear: You've made further inroads into your blind spot than you've previously told me, haven't you?" I dropped my face, looking for anything of interest on the coffee table, the carpeted floor, my writhing and twisting hands in my lap, my shoes, anywhere other than Uncle Farid's direct, penetrating gaze. "Look at me, Greg." When I didn't meet his eyes he added, "Please." So I did. Then he asked, "You've made further inroads into your blind spot than you've revealed, haven't you?" Shaken by the need to be honest, knowing this man couldn't help me if I lied, realizing what I'd been discovering over the past months played a significant role in my present and future, I nodded, quick and simple. "You remember why you built your blind spot." It wasn't a question. "It would seem now we can discuss your fifth romantic interest. Or more accurately, your first." Dumbstruck, all I could do was stare at my uncle. Somehow he knew my secret, somehow he knew what had caused me to create the blind spot so many years before. Finally willing my voice into action I asked in a whisper, "How did you know?" Uncle Farid gave me a compassionate, loving gaze. "Your mother told me shortly after you told her. When you were thirteen." "Shit..." "While we're discussing it, shall we also discuss the conversation you had with Richard that caused you to start building the blind spot?" "You can't know that! I've never told anybody." "In a way you did, though. Actually, you and Nate told me together. All I had to do was piece together what he said in your shared session and what you've said before and after that. Together you both provided the pieces that put the puzzle together. "So tell me, Greg, what did you discuss with Richard that night when Nate heard you crying? Why did that conversation cause you to start building your blind spot two years before Richard assaulted you? And why was your first love—your love for Nate—the first thing you hid with the blind spot?"

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