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Jason MH

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  1. "Come on, Darren, you have to admit that was a pretty awesome catch." "Yeah, it was okay." "Okay? That was way more than okay. That was some fancy footwork you did out there." Darren blushed, ducked his head, shrugged. He couldn't stop his eyes from glancing across the apartment at Brody when he said, "It's just football, Jeff." "Just football?" James mocked. "This is Texas. There's no such thing as just football." Jeff, another wide receiver, gave Darren a friendly smack on the shoulder. "Even if it's just football, D, you won us the game." "He's right," Brody announced as he rose from the couch, eliciting a playful groan from the twins at the sudden lack of contact, though neither turned away from the video game they were playing. "Stop being so humble for once, Darren. Soak up some praise and be proud." A slow smile spread across Darren's face as his cheeks flushed. "I guess you're right, Brody," he admitted. Lynette elbowed him and grinned, then whispered, "You're showing." Darren's blush flamed darker as it spread up to his ears and down across his neck. When he glanced at Jace sitting on the couch near his brothers, he felt the blood drain from his face. The smartest kid in school was staring at him with what could only be described as an irritated, troubled expression. James followed Darren's stare. As soon as he saw the look on Jace's face, he stood and walked over to their friend, leaned down, and began a hushed conversation with him. The Squad, along with Lara, Jenny, Zack and Zane, and a handful of friends, had packed into Brody's garage apartment for a simple Friday night of hanging out, snacks, fellowship, and video games. Though football season had ended months before, it was impossible to avoid discussing the game considering half of those in attendance were on the school's team. "It was a total Hail Mary pass that you caught," Lynette offered. "You won the game in the last few seconds." "Hey!" Mike interjected. "He wasn't the only one involved in that play." "There might have been a quarterback involved," Zack said without looking away from the television. "Though I doubt anyone remembers his name," Zane added, also not looking away from the video game. A hush fell over the room as everyone turned stunned gazes on the twins. They rarely insinuated themselves successfully into existing conversations, and even when they did, their input hardly ever qualified as relevant or appropriate. And jokes? They told them, sure, but the humor in them too often escaped everyone except the twins themselves. No one would ever accuse them of having rapier wit. After a heartbeat of surprised quiet, raucous laughter broke out around the large open space. Not understanding the cause of the levity, the twins shrugged and continued with their game. "You know Mike's the quarterback, right?" Jace asked his brothers. They glanced at him with dumbfounded expressions. Then as one they turned back to the game. "I do not believe we understood his position on the team," Zane remarked. Zack shook his head. "No, I do not think we were made aware of that." * * * * * "I'm shocked the twins are here," Jenny admitted to Lara as they rummaged through the ice chest looking for something to drink. Jace's sister smiled at her friend. "Dad." "Huh?" "Dad's not happy with Mom's overprotective attitude when it comes to Zack and Zane. He thinks she's smothering them and interfering with their development." "I meant Brody—" "I know. And Dad's not happy with that either. He thinks their relationship with your brother is good for the twins. The therapist and the doctor agree. He finally put his foot down about it." "But Helene—" "Can be a bitch," Lara whispered through a snicker, feeling like a bad girl for admitting how she felt. Jenny nodded as she glanced at her brother, the twins tucked into each side of him as they chatted and laughed. Yeah, she could see it was good for them. That much had been obvious the moment the twins started gravitating toward Brody. Nevertheless, she wondered how long Darryl would be able to keep Helene in check. That woman seemed to have a burr under her saddle when it came to Brody. Jenny suspected that, despite Darryl's efforts, the situation was going to blow up at some point. She just hoped Brody didn't get hurt when that happened. * * * * * Brody stood behind the couch watching the twins school James and Jace in the art of losing a video game battle. Nobody seemed capable of winning against them regardless of the game chosen. Of course, for several years video games had been their obsession, their mutually shared fixation. "Hey, Bro." The jock turned to find Lynette standing beside him. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her to him, half a grin alighting on his face. "You having fun?" Returning the hug, she leaned her head against his chest. "Always." James glanced over his shoulder, saw the embrace, and tried to give Brody a scowl. It looked more like a mischievous grin, though, and both Lynette and Brody stuck out their tongues at him in response. He smiled and turned back to losing another round of first-person shooter action. "Come here for a minute," the cheerleader whispered to the jock as she pulled Brody away from the digital carnage. She stopped them near the bathroom door and pulled him close enough that she could speak quietly without being overheard. "Prom weekend—" Brody stiffened and pulled back enough to frown at her. "Lynette, we've talked—" "Hush for a minute and let me finish," she interjected with a playful yet stern scowl. He shrugged and leaned in again. "I'm not pushing for you to go to the dance, though I wish you'd reconsider. What I want to say is, even if you're not going, I think you and Jace should make it a memorable weekend." "Every weekend with Jace is memorable," he said, a delirious kind of sugary happiness in his tone. The cheerleader smiled and shook her head. Yeah, she could believe that, and she was thrilled about it. If only everybody could be lucky enough to find the kind of love the two boys shared. "Don't be saccharine. What I'm getting at," she continued, "is that Trish and I were brainstorming the other day, trying to come up with ideas that would give you and Jace a weekend to remember, something to punctuate your senior year of high school the way prom does for most kids." "Okay..." "Didn't you mention one of your aunts has a cabin out in East Texas?" "Linda. Yeah." "Well... What if you and Jace skedaddled out there and spent the weekend together? The Squad could cover. Maybe say we're all spending the weekend camping or something. It'd be a weekend away for the two of you, out in nature and away from prying eyes." Brody leaned back again, his expression thoughtful and his eyes distant. Then his focus snapped back to Lynette. Through a casual smile he asked, "You and Trish came up with this idea?" "Well, not really. We just threw around ideas trying to come up with a good suggestion." "And this is what you came up with?" "No, not really. We never settled on an idea because the whole conversation petered out when Mrs. Kandeler started in on term paper updates." "Oh." "But that's not the point." She gave a little shake of her head to get herself back on track. "I thought about it afterward and realized there's no reason you two couldn't have a romantic weekend like everyone else, even if you don't go to prom. Then I remembered your aunt's cabin—or thought I remembered it anyway—and realized maybe that was the answer." Cocking his head to one side and scrutinizing her, Brody nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "And Trish helped come up with the idea?" "Sort of. We came up with several ideas but couldn't pin down a suggestion. I kind of ran with the ball after that and remembered Linda's cabin from last year, which brought us to this moment." Pulling her into a hug, Brody squeezed her tight as he whispered into her ear, "I think that's an awesome idea. A really awesome idea indeed. Thank you..." "Quit molesting my girlfriend," James barked with a playful smile. Mike smacked the back of his head. "Don't be jealous, silly." Leaning in a bit, he added in a whisper, "You should know better." "I do," his friend replied with a sidelong glance. James didn't feel a bit of jealousy. Not when it came to Brody and Lynette, that is. He knew his girlfriend loved him dearly. More importantly, he knew Brody's entire being was focused on Jace, blinded by love and chained by happiness. * * * * * Brody grabbed a bottle of water from the ice chest. When he stood, Mike, the team's quarterback, clapped him on the back. "I'm always thrilled to know we're hanging out at your place, man." With an envious glance around the garage apartment he added, "I wish my folks would give me something like this." "Get leukemia and see what your parents do for you," Trish remarked in a derisive tone. She wasn't terribly fond of Mike for reasons only she could explain. "Boo!" "Hiss!" "Do you have to be so nasty?" "What a bitch!" A round of vilifying responses circled the apartment, many of the guests looking at Trish as though they'd just realized an ogre hid in their midst. After scowling at her with disdain and shaking his head, the quarterback returned his attention to Brody, leaned in and quietly asked, "Is that really the reason they let you have this place?" Brody gave Mike a considering look. Then he shrugged. "Maybe. Honestly, it probably had something to do with it. They said it was to help me learn responsibility and to prepare me for adulthood." "Which sounds reasonable to me," James offered as he grabbed a root beer from the cooler. Mike nodded. "Sure. I can see that." "But," Jace began, "I wouldn't bet against Brody's childhood illness playing a major role in the decision." * * * * * Brody and Jace wandered about the garage apartment as they cleaned up what little mess remained from the party. Their friends weren't prone to leaving behind a disaster for others to handle. Only a few napkins and drink containers had been left behind, and only by mistake. "Bless her intrusive heart," Jace growled snidely. "Why do you hate her?" The nerd's eyes snapped to the jock's, searching for any hint of sarcasm. What he found was a sincere openness and curiosity. "It's not hate, Brody. I don't trust her." "Trish is a friend—" "And your ex—" "That was over long ago, and it hardly counts considering—" "I've heard it all before. You don't have to explain. I get it. It was new and different and you weren't as interested as she was." "Right. So stop calling regret jealousy and stop making her out to be a bad person—" "You trust too easily," Jace explained as he wrapped his arms around his boyfriend, the man he loved, the man he intended to marry and with whom he intended to spend the rest of his life. "You always see the good in people and ignore the bad." "Hardly," Brody responded as he dropped a chaste kiss on Jace's lips. "I saw the look you gave Darren. Actually, several looks." With wide eyes Jace asked, "What does that mean?" "If I ignored the bad, I wouldn't recognize how your reaction to him as being less than friendly." After huffing out an exasperated sigh Jace explained, "I'm sorry, but sometimes the puppy dog looks and longing glances and enamored stares get to me." "It's a crush, Jace, nothing more, and it won't amount to anything. You're it for me." "We're talking about Darren." "What about him?" "He's a corn-fed hunk with his blond hair and blue eyes and muscular build without an ounce of fat. I'm just this tall, skinny, plain guy—" "Your place in my heart is a guaranteed place. It's a haven where my feelings for you will never change." "But—" "Besides, stop insulting your looks. You're the hottest guy I know. I love the way you look. You're sexy and enticing and hot as hell and so totally handsome." "But—" "It's just you, Jace. You're all I want, all I need. You're the love of my life." With that, Brody claimed Jace's lips with his own, delivering a far more passionate kiss. The jock finally broke the kiss because he'd run out of oxygen. Both men stood panting. Brody gave a little half grin. "What?" Jace inquired. "You. Your eyes are glazed and unfocused, your mouth is hanging open... You look stoned." "It's your kisses, Brody! Jesus, you leave me breathless and blathering like the addlepated nincompoop. I lose my mind with you." "I'm okay with that." "I'm not." Brody looked slightly hurt. "No," Jace whispered, nuzzling his cheek against his boyfriend's, "that's not what I mean. It's just we were talking about prom weekend and what Lynette and Trish came up with, but I can't think clearly when you kiss me. I like it, trust me, but not when I need to think about something. Because I can't. Think, that is." "Okay." Brody took a relaxingly deep breath before adding, "So they suggested going to Linda's cabin for the weekend. Just you and me. The Squad can cover for us, say we're camping at the lake or something. Then we get the weekend to ourselves." "Mmmm..." Jace moaned. "I like the sound of that." "See! You were all suspicious when it's actually a good idea." "I'm only mistrustful because Trish is involved. She's more than a tad shady, don't you think?" "No." Jace shook his head. One thing about Brody that worried him was the jock's inability to see the true nature of people, always choosing instead to focus on the good traits and acting as though the bad traits didn't exist. He leaned back to meet his boyfriend's gaze. "Do you really think we can pull off a weekend like that?" "For you I could conquer the world. A weekend getaway ought to be a piece of cake in comparison." "Then let's do it." * * * * * Four Years Prior Ben couldn't stop tossing and turning. Ever since he'd realized the nature of his son's relationship with Jace, his mind wouldn't stop pondering Brody's happiness and, most importantly, his safety. Jace's as well, but it all started with Brody. Concluding he had to talk to Jayne Anne about it, he glanced at the alarm clock on his nightstand. Damn. Only a few minutes after one in the morning and he felt like he'd lost the whole night. "A penny for your thoughts." Ben startled, his head whipping around to look at the dark form cuddled up beside him. He could see his wife's eyes reflecting the meager light entering through the window. Sheepish and apologetic, he said quietly, "I'm sorry, baby doll. I hope I didn't wake you." "Waking me would require falling asleep. You made that endeavor an exercise in futility with all your exasperated sighs and mumbling and fidgeting and—" "Alright already," he laughed. "I get the point." Jayne Anne rolled over just enough to reach the bedside lamp. After clicking it on, she turned back to her husband, scooting up enough to rest her shoulder against the headboard. He shifted up in the bed enough to lean back into a slouched seated position, eyes staring ahead at the dark television and wall of family photos. She reached over and gently stroked his cheek. "Share your burden, honey." After a deep breath, he shrugged, shook his head, turned slightly to face her. "When you were Brody's age, do you remember what came along with liking a boy?" Jayne Anne's eyes widened as a humored grin spread across her face. "That's certainly not what I was expecting." "Please, baby doll, humor me. Tell me what you remember about the physical side of dating at that age." With a slight nod she answered, "Okay. Well... I guess I remember holding hands, hugging, kissing, little touches, looks, exploring, trying to figure out how things worked—" "Right. Trying to figure it out. Like sex?" "Oh, honey, that came later, but yeah, like everyone else that age I started making my way around the bases. It was a slow process. I wasn't interested in losing my virginity for the sake of losing it. But over time the kisses became passionate, the touches went from furtive to serious, the embraces grew longer and more intimate..." "And?" His face showed a profound interest, though not with a sexual hunger but rather with a worried consideration. "Honey, tell me where this is going. Why would my experience at that age suddenly vex you?" Ben's shoulders slumped and his face fell. His mouth opened and closed a few times, yet he remained silent. "It's not about me, is it?" she asked gently. "No." He shook his head for emphasis. "It's about Brody. And Jace." "Oh... In what way?" "Did you ever fear being caught with a boy? I mean fear that something really bad would happen if you were caught." "Of course not." "Did you ever worry someone would see you and hurt you because of who you were with?" "Oh..." "Did you ever think one or both of you could be physically attacked because of what you were doing? Because of who you were with?" Jayne Anne's mouth worked soundlessly as her eyes widened. Ben continued, "I'm worried, baby doll. I mean I'm really worried about them. Society's come a long way, but we live in Texas and bigotry and hate are very much alive and well." He turned more fully to look at his wife, his expression becoming pained and stressed. "They're at the age where kids explore their sexuality with someone else. They kiss and touch and embrace. Like you said, they start walking from first base to second to third. But straight people don't worry about getting caught. Nobody's going to bully them for it, nobody's going to beat them up for it, nobody's going to threaten them for it." He inhaled a stuttering breath, eyes glistening with fearful tears. "Nobody's going to hurt them for it, baby doll. And nobody would try to kill them for it." Her hand came up and covered her mouth as concern widened her eyes and knitted her brows. "Oh honey... Do you think... Would somebody... Surely not..." "I'm worried, Jayne Anne. I'd hope in this day and age it wouldn't happen, but we can't guarantee that, can we? We can't guarantee everyone who might see them would be progressive and understanding. We can't guarantee... Oh, baby doll, how do we protect our son when so many will see him as different, maybe as evil? How do we protect him from the hate as he tries to find himself? How do—" His wife waited, watching realization dawn in his eyes, watching her husband work through a fear she'd not considered but now shared. "What is it, Ben?" she asked sotto voce. He cupped her cheek and rubbed his thumb soothingly across her cheek. "What if we give them a safe place?" "They already have a safe place, honey. We never question what they do in his room—" "But in his room? Do you really think they feel safe enough there to explore with each other? With the threat of being caught, the threat of being heard, do you really think that room across the hall is a safe enough place for them?" Her face showed nothing but disappointment. Grasping his hand and holding it against her cheek, she asked, "What else can we provide, Ben? I don't know a place we can give them where they'd be protected from prying eyes, safe from discovery." "I do." His voice came out strong, confident, energized. "Where?" "The storage space above the garage." "It's a ratty, dusty, unfinished space." "It could be more." "What do you mean?" "What if we turned it into a garage apartment?" "Well... Oh my..." "What if we cleared it out, added a bathroom, maybe a kitchenette, painted and furnished it, made it a haven for the boys?" Nodding, a grain of interest growing into a thrilling pearl of satisfaction, she smiled, eyes crinkling. "It could be a safe place for them." "Right. It's above the rest of the house, thus no shared walls. The floor is the garage ceiling, so nobody below." "An inside and an outside entrance." "There'd have to be rules." "And an explanation." "What do you mean?" Jayne Anne gave her husband a patronizing look. "Honey, we can't tell them why we're doing it." "Why not?" "Talking about it needs to be their idea, when they're comfortable and sure and ready." "Oh... You're right." "I always am." He wrapped his arms around her and drew her in for a kiss, then she settled her face against his shoulder as he said, "I want our son to be safe." "Me, too, honey. I want him and Jace to figure out who they are individually and together." "Do you really think this is a good way to help with that?" "I think it's an excellent way to help with that." She kissed her husband then, an intimate and passionate kiss that left them both wide awake and gasping. Settling her forehead against his chin she added, "I'm so glad this was bothering you, honey." "I'm just glad you agree. And I'm glad we have a place we can provide." "And I'm glad you're such a good father." She met his gaze then, her eyes full of desire. "Now how'd you like to be a good husband by helping me burn a little energy." Ben waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I like the way you think." * * * * * "We think it'll help you learn responsibility and prepare you for adulthood." "Okay..." Brody said, his voice unsure and his eyes wide. "There will be rules," his mother added, squeezing her husband's hand as she saw her son's face light up as he realized the enormity of what they'd offered him. "Oh. Yeah. Of course." "You'll be responsible for most of the work," Ben explained. "You'll need to help move the junk stored up there. We'll go through it to identify what to get rid of and what to move elsewhere." Brody nodded yet remained silent. "We'll have contractors do the major stuff, but you'll have to paint, assemble or move furniture, move all your stuff up there." "Okay." A wordless moment passed before he asked, "Anything else?" "Rules," Jayne Anne reminded him. "Right. And they are...?" Ben squared his shoulders before saying, "No guests without permission and nobody's to be there unless you're there. Jace is the only exception to those rules. Otherwise... No parties without permission. You do your own laundry here in the house. You do all the cleaning. You do all the minor repairs. You tell us of any major issues. You keep your grades up. You do your chores. You treat it like you treat your room down here—don't tear it up or damage anything, though we understand accidents can happen. You keep the doors locked at all times." "Both of them?" "Yes," his mother answered, "because this is your private space. We'll respect that as much as possible, but there might be times when we have to go up there unannounced, though the house rule will be that we have to knock before coming inside." "Oh. Well, okay. Any other rules?" "No drinking or drugs." "Dad..." "I'm just saying, Brody. We trust you, otherwise we wouldn't be doing this, but you need to understand the rules. Because if you break them, we might ground you or take away privileges or, in the worst of cases, move you back downstairs." "Okay. No problem." When he realized they had nothing else to say on the matter, a beaming grin swept across his face as he asked, "When can we get started?" Jayne Anne bumped her husband's shoulder with her own, feeling her son's giddy energy and thrilled happiness as it filled the dining room. "Is today too early?" she asked with a smile. * * * * * Two Months Later "Here are the keys. There are locks on the inside and outside doors. Your mother and I have the other set." Brody accepted the keys graciously and respectfully. He was beside himself. He was going to have the garage apartment. All their work had turned it into a refuge, a safe place with no prying eyes and no chance of anyone barging in or overhearing. It meant he had to be responsible, dealing with chores and laundry like any adult, but it also meant he and Jace had a private haven where they could spend time together, be together, explore their growing relationship together. His mother said, "Remember the doors are to remain locked at all times." "No parties or guests without us knowing," his father added. "I remember the rules, Dad." He rolled his eyes for effect. Then: "But you said Jace—" "Is the exception," Jayne Anne clarified. Ben smirked playfully. "He's practically our adopted son already. Besides, you two are rarely apart." "And we trust him." "Okay." Brody took a deep breath. "So I can starting moving my stuff?" "It's all yours." Both parents laughed as he jumped up from the chair and ran to his room, pulling out his cell phone as he went. * * * * * "I can't believe how lucky you are," Jace remarked as he dropped onto the bed and sighed. "This is so awesome. I wish my parents would do something like this for me." "Well, my parents did it for both of us. Remember you're the exception to all the rules, so this is as much your place as it is mine." Brody slowly pushed Jace back on the bed and knelt over him. The jock leaned down and kissed his boyfriend with a passion that lit fires in both boys. Left breathless and gasping when they separated, Jace asked, "What's gotten into you tonight, jock boy?" Griding his crotch against his boyfriend's, making clear the kiss had affected both of them, Brody whispered against Jace's lips, "I want to christen our new space, nerd." Despite being called a nerd, Jace couldn't help but smile. Brody had called it their space, not just his. And it felt like that, too. Jace had helped as much as possible during the construction and painting and moving. He'd poured plenty of hours and sweat into the garage apartment. Of course, he'd been selfish in that endeavor, realizing early on what kind of opportunity it would provide them, what kind of secure space it would be once finished. Just what they needed to explore and grow their relationship. "What did you have in mind?" he murmured against Brody's lips. Sitting upright and stripping off his shirt in one fluid movement, Brody replied, "I want you to make love to me." Jace gasped, bit his lip, smiled. They'd been slow in their sexual exploits, making clear early on that they wanted their relationship to be based on more than sex. They wanted sex, sure, but they didn't want that to be the foundation of what they shared. Starting with kisses and light touches and cuddles, they'd escalated over time to discovering each other's body with hands and lips and tongues, then to hand jobs, then to blow jobs, then to rimming and fingering. But they hadn't taken the last step yet. They'd enjoyed their year of slowly expanding erotic pleasured as their feelings grew and solidified. Now, however, Brody sounded ready to take the next step. And Jace thought that was a really good idea. Running his hands up Brody's bare torso, enjoying the feel of the muscles moving beneath goosebump-pebbled skin, enjoying the sounds of his boyfriend's contented sighs as they gave way to needy and ragged breaths, enjoying the sight of the hot jock who wanted the nerd inside him, Jace leaned up and captured one of Brody's nipples with his teeth, sucking it into his mouth and working it with his tongue. Brody's moans and writhing fueled his desire. Releasing the nipple for a brief moment, Jace smiled up at Brody's wanting expression and said, "I think I'm ready, too." Brody captured Jace's lips in a fiery kiss as he unbuttoned his boyfriend's shirt. He couldn't wait for Jace to make him his own, to be inside him, to make love to him. And now they had a place where they felt safe to let the sexual side of their relationship grow to its full potential.
  2. Sitting in their English AP class, Trish leaned toward Lynette and whispered, "You know, if Brody and Jace really don't want to go to prom, they should still do something fun." "I totally agree." "Maybe we should make some suggestions." "Such as?" "Clubbing!" Lynette frowned. "But we do that all the time. And it's not very romantic when you're being crushed in a crowd." "You're right. Bad idea." "What about the lake?" "Which lake?" "Does it matter? Oh, forget that. It's romantic, sure, but not private. Especially on a weekend." "You're right," Trish admitted in a defeated tone. Then: "Oh! How about a camping trip?" "Jace and camping?" Both girls giggled quietly. Trish shook her head. "Not a pretty picture." Their expressions epitomized deep thought as Trish chewed on her pen and Lynette stared at the ceiling, each pondering ideas for the boys. "A road trip?" Lynette finally asked, her voice doubtful. "Could be. But road trips depend on the weather, you know? Besides, there has to be a destination, otherwise they're in the car all weekend and that's—Wait! I got it." Looking pleased as punch Trish offered, "Say they go rent a cabin somewhere, be out in the country like, have a relaxing weekend, just the two of them. It would be just as romantic as the prom if they went away for the weekend. You know, secluded, private, alone." Though Lynette's face beamed with excitement, Trish's features fell. Her shoulders sagged and she shook her head, negating her own suggestion. "No, I don't think so. That'd be too complicated. It'd look suspicious with them going by themselves. Plus the cost, making sure they didn't get caught... No, that would be a big mess, too hard to pull off. But there must be something..." Trish glanced at Lynette and realized the seed had been planted. Her friend's eyes were distant and thoughtful. Though she'd dismissed her own suggestion, she felt confident Lynette would give it due consideration and come up with a way to make it work. And that was precisely what Trish wanted. * * * * * "I still think you guys should go stag. Nobody'd think twice about it." "James, we've discussed this before," Jace said dryly before tossing a chicken nugget into his mouth. Lynette put her hand over her boyfriend's mouth when he started to protest. "Don't mind him." She passed a meaningful look from Brody to Darren before staring at James with a shut-the-hell-up-already stare. "You know how jocks can be." "Hey!" Darren complained. Brody eyed Lynette with offense belied by the grin he wore. Then he said, "We're not going to prom. We've talked about it and we've decided." "Sorry, guys," Jace added. Darren glanced at Brody, perhaps for a moment too long, then shrugged. "We'd really like you guys to go. We could all go as a group." Again he glanced at Brody. A chicken nugget sailed across the table and smacked him in the side of the head. Darren jerked around and met stern expressions from James and Lynette. "What?" Brody inquired. "Nothing," James replied too quickly before promptly redirecting the conversation. "Jace, do you have a few minutes after school to go over our physics assignment with me? I'm not sure I completely understood what Mr. Nielsen wanted." Jace nodded. "Sure." "Whiskey tango foxtrot, Darren?" Trish hissed across the table. His gaze snapped to hers. "What?" She used her eyes to gesture to Brody before giving a brief little shake of her head and scowling at the football jock. "You're being obvious." "Oh." * * * * * "Your mom is the reason I don't go over there much anymore." "I know," Jace replied through a frustrated grimace. "It just sucks. Lara likes you. The twins love you to death. Even Dad likes you." "It's no big deal." "Yes it is, Brody!" Jace said hotly. "It's a very big deal. She's so unfair. I don't get what her problem is." Brody spit mouthwash into the sink and rinsed it as he glanced through the bathroom door at Jace splayed out on the bed, gloriously naked, hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. He never tired of the visual. Despite Jace's opinion to the contrary, Brody thought his nerdy boyfriend was the hottest thing on two legs, lean and lithe with slight definition, little pink nipples, that delicious treasure trail that started at his belly button. Yeah, he didn't think there was anything about Jace that wasn't hot as hell. He shut off the bathroom light and wandered into the large open space that defined the garage apartment. His bed was tucked into one corner with windows on two sides. The outside door separated the bed from the small kitchenette. The inside door leading into the house stood beside the bathroom door, and beside that was a large closet with sliding doors. A small dining table and chairs rested next to the kitchenette. In the far corner was a living space with couch; coffee table; bookshelves stacked with works of fiction and knickknacks; and a short credenza with four lateral drawers, two on each side, each full of movies or linens or music or odds and ends. A large flat-screen television hung on the wall above the credenza with a stereo below it, Bose speakers hidden around the room for the full theater effect. Making his way to the bed, Brody shrugged as he settled beside Jace, one foot on the floor and the other leg curled against his boyfriend's hip. He rested a hand on the other boy's thigh, squeezed lightly, gave a sympathetic nod. "I don't know, Jace. I'd like to fix it, whatever it is, but I can't because I don't understand it. That's not the point—" "Yes it is!" "Hey," Brody said softly, rubbing his hand up and down Jace's leg, gentle squeezes punctuating the calming caress, "don't get worked up about it." With a stern scowl Jace asked, "Why don't you complain about it? You have every right to complain! Damn it, Brody, you need to learn how to complain like the rest of humanity." "What does it accomplish? Does complaining fix anything? Does it solve problems? Does it change minds or salve wounds or balm hurt emotions?" Jace rested a hand on Brody's leg, his fingers tracing patterns of goosebumps on the skin. "That's not the point," he growled. "I'm just not a complainer, Jace. Besides, would it really help? Your mom doesn't like me, that's a fact, and she won't change her mind based on whether or not I bitch and moan about it." "I know. It's just sometimes I wish you'd complain about something, especially this, so I'd know it bothered you as much as it does me." Brody leaned forward, pushing his legs out, slipping his body over Jace's and settling beside him, pulling his boyfriend against him and wrapping his arms around him. "Do you think she's figured us out and that's why she doesn't like me?" he pondered. Jace stiffened, a quiet gasp stealing his response. Then: "Oh hell, do you think?" "I asked first." Jace's breath whooshed out in a contemplative sigh tinged with worry. He gave the question some thought before saying, "I simply don't know, Brody. It's possible. Our friends figured it out, our brothers and sisters figured it out, so why not our parents?" "You think my parents know?" Jace nodded, realized Brody couldn't see it, added words to the gesture. "If I had to venture a guess, I'd say they have. But you know them better than I do..." The jock shrugged before rolling Jace over against him, wrapping his arms around the man he loved more than life itself. He kissed the top of his boyfriend's head. "If they know, they don't care." "I guess..." The boys fell silent then, each pondering questions for which they had no answers. Some vexed them, like the issue with Helene; some interested them, like the question of Brody's parents knowing about their relationship; and some hung with all the finality of a cliffhanger, like what to do about prom weekend, if anything. "So," Jace finally said as he rested his head on Brody's chest, running a hand to and fro with light caresses, not looking to provoke and entice so much as communicate and enjoy. "So," Brody responded. He was rubbing Jace's bare back, his fingers tracing the valley of his spine down to the top of his ass, tracing the cleft that started there, then tracing back up to the nape of his neck, tickling the fine hairs growing there, then palming great swaths of skin from shoulder to shoulder and down across his ribs until finally he settled back into that valley and started all over again. He loved the little shivers he elicited, how Jace's skin blossomed in goosebumps as his fingers passed by, how Jace's breath punctuated the caresses with little ragged outbursts and stuttering inhales. Yeah, he pretty much liked everything about Jace and he pretty much liked how Jace reacted to everything about Brody. "Darren." Jace said it like the name contained a persuasive debate, from premise to arguments to conclusion. Brody couldn't hide his knowing smirk, though Jace couldn't see it. "What about him?" "He has a crush on you." "So?" "So... Doesn't it bother you?" "No. It makes no difference. I still treat him the same and he treats me the same." "Those puppy dog eyes he gave you at lunch—" "He can bat his eyelashes at me all he wants, Jace, but it doesn't change how I feel about him or you. Everybody develops crushes. You can't control them." "But—" "You can't control them, Jace," he interrupted, giving his boyfriend a tight squeeze. "You can either let them be and work around them or you can let them interfere with life and possibly ruin important relationships. I go with the first option." Jace chuckled on an exhale, his breath tickling the trimmed hair on Brody's chest. "You never cease to amaze me, Mr. Windham." "I never cease to amaze myself, Mr. Langstrom." Jace smacked Brody's chest with his palm. "Asshole," he muttered playfully. After a snicker Brody said, "Don't worry about Darren, Jace. And don't worry about Trish either. You see threats where there are none. You spend too much time thinking and not enough time feeling. You're the man I love, the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. I only have eyes for you." Before Jace could respond, Brody rolled him onto his back and settled atop him, knees straddling his narrow hips, elbows beside his head, nose to nose. "What are you doing, jock boy?" "I'm going to enjoy some intimacy with my boyfriend, nerd." He dropped a passionate kiss on the other boy's lips. "Got a problem with that?" Jace shivered, eyes closed. He murmured, "No... No problem." Brody shimmied down a bit before sucking one of Jace's nipples while tweaking the other one with his fingers. Jace arched his back and moaned. "Oh hell no. I don't have a problem with that at all." "Always remember what I told you that first morning we woke up wrapped in each other's arms." He began dropping kisses all over Jace's chest before slowly working his way down the smooth bare torso toward the hardening prize that awaited his exploring mouth. "I love you, Brody Windham," Jace declared breathlessly as his boyfriend's lips suckled on that sweet spot near his hip. "I love you, Jace Langstrom, more than life itself." Brody didn't say anything else for quite a while after that because there just wasn't room enough in his mouth for words. * * * * * Five Years Prior Jace woke slowly, the first hints of dawn illuminating the room. The moment he reached consciousness his intellect came alive, as it always did, though on that particular morning it focused on a single thread of thought. A warm muscular body had him wrapped in strong arms, legs tangled together, warm humid breath tickling the nape of his neck, his body pressed back against another body that defined skin-to-skin contact from head to back to buttocks to ankles. Jace had never been that close to another human being. He allowed his body to report to his mind all the sensations he felt. He allowed his heart to report to his mind all the emotions he felt. Everything weaved together with that one thread of thought: Brody was holding him, had made it clear the night before that they shared something more than friendship, and Jace had never slept more peacefully in his life. "You're awake," a deep, resonant voice murmured into his hair, the words rumbling from Brody's chest into Jace's back, sending waves of giddy, nervous pleasure through his body. "Yeah. How'd you know?" He pulled tightly on Brody's arms, hugging himself with them. "I just do. It's like I'm in tune with you, I guess, or something like that." Brody's grip slackened, causing Jace to feel momentary panic. But those strong jock arms slowly rolled the nerd over so they rested facing each other. Before Jace could speak, Brody's hand slid over his shoulder, up his neck, across a cheek, the touch so gentle that it drew chills in its wake. Jace couldn't quite define the look on Brody's face. But he was pretty sure he liked it. He was pretty sure it answered a lot of questions. Nevertheless, in words barely whispered, he asked, "What's happening, Brody?" "I'm incapable of perspective when it comes to you." "What?" "You're so beautiful." Jace squirmed and blushed. He was just a skinny kid, tall and skinny and not very attractive. "You need to get your eyes checked." "No I don't, Jace. You're the most stunning creature on the planet. I've thought so for a long time." "But—" "But I didn't know how you felt. I didn't know... Shit, maybe this will clarify things." With that, Brody leaned forward and captured Jace's mouth, the kiss gentle yet full of promise, passionate yet not erotic. Jace moaned, his eyes wide with shock before fluttering shut. Then he yanked his head back in surprise. "Was that your tongue?" Brody ducked his head a little, looking sheepish. "Yeah." "Why would you do that?" The light of realization dawned in Brody's head. "That was your first kiss, wasn't it?" Jace's fair cheeks flamed crimson as he cringed in embarrassment. "Hey..." Brody cupped Jace's cheeks, holding him firmly enough to keep him from moving but gently enough to communicate his affection. "Look at me, Jace." The scrawny kid slowly opened his eyes. He knew he'd see pity in Brody's expression, if not disgust, so he looked elsewhere. Here they were, thirteen going on fourteen, and Jace had never been kissed. Never been touched, for that matter, except by family members or in platonic ways by friends. Nobody had ever touched him or kissed him or even looked at him the way Brody was doing. It scared him, left him reeling with inexperience and an abashed sense of self-deprecation. "Look at me, Jace." Such warmth in the words, such tenderness. He locked his eyes on Brody, unsure, afraid. "Don't think about it, Jace. Just feel. Feel with me. Feel my hands on your skin, feel my body next to yours." Jace's breathing slowed, his blush fading. "Good." Brody leaned forward again, slowly. "I'm going to kiss you again. Don't think about it, don't think about what I'm doing, don't think about how to respond. Just feel it, feel your way through." Jace gave a shaky nod, reluctant to speak, uncertain of appropriate words given his pounding heart and how hard it was to breathe and the overwhelming desire to touch Brody everywhere, to let the young jock have his way, consequences be damned. As their lips met the second time, Brody caressed Jace's cheek and angled his head for better access. He deepened the kiss the best he knew how, then he touched Jace's lips with his tongue. He exhaled into the other boy's gasp while sliding his tongue forward, tentative yet unrepentant. A fire came alive in both boys as Jace nervously touched his tongue to Brody's. The fire grew into a blaze when Brody began exploring Jace's mouth as Jace grew surer, letting his tongue dance a bit with the intruder. The blaze exploded into an inferno when Jace reached around Brody and drew him close, mashing their lips together as his tongue slid into Brody's mouth, drawn there by the sudden urge to penetrate, to touch, to taste, to expand the dance to its greatest extent. Only a minute or two passed before they broke apart, gasping, flushed, hearts pounding. Neither could release their grip on the other, hands holding firmly and eyes glazed. "That was..." "Beautiful," Brody said. "Wonderful." They stared at each other, a comfortable silence cloaking them, tiny movements of their fingers tracing lazy patterns on each other's skin. Without preamble Jace declared, "I'm too tall, too thin, too plain. You're... you're absolutely stunning." "You're beautiful, Jace. Don't ever think otherwise." "Why?" "Why what?" "Why would you say that?" "Because it's true. Don't think, Jace. Just stop it. Feel... Feel what I'm saying, how I'm touching you, how I'm looking at you. Don't think about the words, just feel the meaning, feel the moment." Brody kissed him again. It lacked the urgency of the second kiss but held a more powerful promise than the first. "I don't understand..." Jace mumbled when they separated. "Understand what?" "This. Whatever this is." Brody took a deep breath. He'd have to admit it at some point. So he did it when it seemed most appropriate. "I love you, Jace." Kiss. "I think I've loved you since I figured out love is a thing." Kiss. "I loved you before I understood what the feeling was." Kiss. "I love you." Kiss. "I'm in love with you and I love you and you're so beautiful to me and I love you." Kiss. When Brody pulled back, he saw the tears on Jace's cheeks, the shocked expression bordering on panic. "What's wrong?" Jace shuddered when Brody's knuckles stroked his cheek. "I've never... I've never understood my feelings for you. I've never understood why it's so hard to breathe and why my chest hurts and why it's hard to think." He shook his head, shrugged. "Stop trying to analyze everything, Jace," Brody chided. "Stop thinking so much and start feeling." "I do feel! God, I feel so much it's tearing me apart. I just..." "Just what?" "I just don't know." Brody tried to hide the hurt he felt. "It's okay if you don't feel the same way—" "No! No, Brody, that's not it at all. I... I..." Jace realized it would be easier to demonstrate rather than ruminate, so he grabbed Brody's face and pulled him forward, their noses mashing together as their lips met. Brody felt his soul burning and his toes curling and his heart hammering until fit to burst. He groaned, wrapped his arms around Jace, deepened the kiss in whatever way a thirteen-year-old boy could. Their bodies intertwined in a writhing mass of arms and legs and torsos and tongues and lips and desperate emotional overload. "I love you," Jace finally said, breathing the words against Brody's lips. "Believe me when I say I do. I've never been with anybody because I've always loved you. I'm just scared. I mean, you've been with—Wait a minute! I thought you liked girls." "I do. I like boys, too. I like boys more, in fact." Hugging Jace against him and kissing his forehead, he added, "I like you most. Love you, all of you, with all my heart." Jace murmured against Brody's neck, "Oh. But I... I guess I don't know about me." "It doesn't matter, Jace. I don't care who you like as long as you love me. That's all I care about." Jace hugged him close, tight. "I have no idea what I'm doing." "Neither do I. Not really." "Then what do we do?" "We figure it out together. Always together, Jace, you and me. Always..."
  3. Like all children with Asperger syndrome, Zack and Zane Langstrom didn't relate to people very well, if at all, but not for lack of trying. As a general rule, the fifteen-year-old identical twins liked people and were in fact gregarious; they just had no ability to react properly to social interactions, often overwhelming people with their rapid, erudite, pedantic speech and narrowly fixated interests, all without comprehending the verbal and non-verbal cues coming from other parties. Which of course made interactions awkward and often left people feeling uncomfortable and seeking retreat from the boys. Well, not awkward for the twins, who wanted to engage rather than retreat. But for other people? Yeah, pretty much awkward. For reasons people could only theorize, there was one person the twins were drawn to more than others, a person who somehow understood them, related to them, felt comfortable with them and unflinchingly spent time with them that seemed meaningful to everyone involved. That person was Brody Windham. "I'm always shocked when they cuddle up to you like that," Lara said to Brody. "Honestly, a little part of me is jealous—they're my brothers, for goodness sake—but the much larger part of me is thrilled they have someone they feel comfortable with." Brody sat in the middle of the Langstroms' couch with Zack and Zane stretched out on either side of him, their heads in his lap, both boys absorbed in their reading. Jace and his sister Lara sat on the loveseat. "They cuddle with him more than I do," Jace mumbled, not wanting his father to hear the remark. "Only when we're here," Brody assured him in a low voice. Though the twins didn't like physical contact with others, including their own parents and siblings, Brody was the exception. Zack and Zane were demonstrative with the jock in ways that ran counter to their usual self-enforced no-touching rule. Lara turned to her brother and gave him a mock scowl. "Everybody needs physical affection, Jace. Be happy for them." "I am, little sister," he groaned, rolling his eyes. "I'm just being facetiously jealous." "Look who I found waiting out—Brody Windham!" The name echoed around the room like a clap of thunder, sharp and edged and accusatory. Helene stood in the open front door, purse over her shoulder, one hand on the door knob and the other on the hip she'd thrown out for emphasis. Trish stood on the porch behind her staring wide-eyed into the room. Jace's mother glanced around before her fierce glare settled on Brody's stricken face. "I've told you repeatedly I don't want you around the twins when I'm not here. They have special needs. You're wholly unqualified—" "Helene!" That bark snapped seven pairs of eyes toward the hallway where Darryl stood, all six-and-a-half feet of him. Helene's husband was a trim man with a subdued approach to life, quiet and gentle. So when he raised his voice, it took everyone by surprise. "I'm here," he continued, not quite as loud yet a lot more perturbed. "Brody's doing nothing wrong." "Mrs. Langstrom—" Her eyes snapped back to Brody's. "This is my home—" "It's my home, too," Darryl interrupted, "and I said he could hang out with the kids until he and Jace head over to the Windhams' place." "You're working, sweetheart," Helene began, her eyes hardly spending a moment looking at her husband with affection before a tempestuously untrusting sneer returned to Brody, "so you can't be expected to—" "Helene!" he barked again. "I said it was okay." Again she glanced at Darryl. Then, as though he hadn't spoken, her voice cut through the silence. "Zane, Zack, go to your rooms." When they looked ready to protest she added, "Now!" The twins rolled off the couch as one, shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. "We hope to see you soon," Zane said to Brody, then Zack added, "We look forward to it." With those browbeaten declarations clearly said for all to hear, the boys walked around opposite ends of the couch and made their way down the hall to their rooms. Brody stood, looking meek and chastised. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Langstrom, Mr. Langstrom. I should go." "Mom, what's wrong with you?" Jace asked defensively, a not inconsiderable amount of venom in his tone. "Don't you start with me, young man." "Helene!" Darryl said, this time standing beside her. "What the hell's wrong with you? I was here, I said it was okay, end of discussion." "We're leaving," Jace announced. "You boys have a good evening," Darryl said over his shoulder, wincing at the hollowness of his words under the circumstances. When he gave his daughter a look, Lara got the hint and mumbled something about getting ready for a movie and dinner with her friends as she ambled down the hall. She didn't hide the confused anger in her expression when she glared at her mother. Darryl pulled Helene into the house and told Trish, "This isn't a good time." "I'm here to pick up Lara," she responded. "Fine." He waited for her to enter before pushing the door shut. "Make yourself comfortable." Then casting an unpleasant glare at Helene he continued, "I need to talk to my wife." She stiffly yanked her arm from his grasp and stormed across the living room into the kitchen. He stayed right on her heels. "Mind telling me what the hell that was about?" he inquired with a stern rebuke in his tone. "I've told him before—" "I was here, Helene. He wasn't breaking your rule." She dropped her purse and keys on the counter. "The twins have needs—" "Special needs. Yes, I'm their father, so I'm well aware of their needs. That doesn't explain your growing hostility toward Brody." "It's not hostility, Darryl, it's common sense. They need stability, someone they can rely on who won't hurt them." "Brody would never hurt those boys." He couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice even if he'd wanted to. The thought of Brody hurting Zack and Zane was too preposterous to contemplate. "He'll leave them," she argued, defiant. "What?" "When he graduates, he'll leave them behind. It'll hurt them." "He's going to UT Austin, not UCLA. He'll be in town regularly to visit his folks and his sister and his friends." "That's not the point." "Jace is going to the same school. Why not be mad at him? Why not deny him access to the twins unless you're there to chaperon?" "That's different." "No it's not! You treat that poor boy like a criminal for no reason, Helene. It's horrifying—" "He's going to hurt them, Darryl! You mark my words, he'll hurt our boys—" "What in blazes are you on about?" She ducked her face and shook her head, a slight tremor quaking her body. When she looked back at her husband, an ardent malice furrowed her brows and pursed her lips and squinted her eyes. "He was sick, Darryl! He almost died. What if he gets sick again? Jace is one thing, but Zack and Zane—" "Has Jayne Anne said something about Brody's health?" "What? No..." "Ben and I had drinks just last week. He says Brody's doing fine, fit as a fiddle, checkups every six months, still taking his meds, no sign of trouble." "That's not the point." "When was the last time you talked to Jayne Anne about this?" "I... Well..." He leaned in close to her, anger in his voice. "You've chased away your best friend because you resent her son—" "That's outrageous!" "Ben told me, said you and Jayne Anne haven't talked in months, explained that she's pretty upset about how you treat Brody." "I never—" "Care to tell me the truth? Why you resent him?" "He's going to hurt our boys. I already told you that." Darryl stood to his full height, his eyes never leaving his wife's face. Silence settled between them as they stared at one another. Finally he said, "You're alienating your own children because you have some unknown issue with Brody. You've alienated your best friend because you have some unknown problem with her son." Poking a finger in her face he told her, "You need to figure your shit out, Helene." He turned and took one step before swinging around. "And the next time I say something's okay, it's okay, end of discussion. Brody's good for the boys. Their doctor and their therapist said as much, said we should encourage and support that bond because it's essential for them. If you care one iota about your kids, you'll figure your shit out and stop being such a bitch to that boy. And you better do it before you make all your children hate you." As she watched her husband turn and walk away, Helene shook her head again, scowling. Couldn't he see it? Was he that blind? Brody was taking their boys away from them. First Jace, now the twins. If she didn't do something about it, he'd take Lara away as well. Somehow the Windham boy had developed a relationship with her boys that was stronger and more potent and deeper than anything she'd ever had with them. She didn't see it coming with Jace, so that took her by surprise. She tried to stop it with the twins, yet there it was anyway. Darryl had once hypothesized offhandedly that something about Brody's leukemia episode early in life had imparted to the young man an intangible quality that allowed him to relate to Zack and Zane as an equal whilst simultaneously allowing the twins to feel both understood and appreciated, something they rarely if ever felt with others. Regrettably, a relationship that should've been celebrated and promoted was instead a point of contention with their mother. It all boiled down to jealousy. She resented Brody's relationship with her sons—not just the twins but Jace as well—and she couldn't quite bring herself to be mature about it. All the while, Trish stood in the living room as close to the kitchen as she could be without Darryl and Helene seeing her. She'd overheard the entire argument. It made her feel deliciously giddy. * * * * * "Care to tell me why you're both so quiet?" Ben asked, letting his eyes sweep back and forth between Brody and Jace. Jayne Anne sat quietly and watched them, letting her husband lead the conversation. Neither boy was known for reticence, so when they arrived that afternoon looking forlorn and disconcerted when normally they'd be boisterous and roguish and engaging, both she and her husband knew right away what had happened. Or they suspected anyway. "It's nothing," Jace offered weakly. "I think we're both tired." "Yeah, just tired," Brody muttered, not taking his eyes off his plate. He hadn't eaten much, mostly just pushed his food around. Everyone at the table noticed because everyone at the table paid special attention to Brody's diet, not to mention everything else about him. "Might this have something to do with Helene?" Ben prompted. Brody and Jace glanced at each other, then like a scripted scene they both shrugged at the same time. "Brody," Jayne Anne started. "I don't know why she doesn't like him," Jace said abruptly, surprised by his own words. Brody shrugged again. "It's okay." "Not it's not," Jace argued through gritted teeth, shaking his head. "It's not okay at all." After giving her husband a look, Jayne Anne asked, "Are you not hungry, Brody?" "No." He wore his heart on his sleeve, his parents knew that, and he hated not knowing how to fix the problem with Helene. He was close to everyone in the Langstrom family except her. And that lack of closeness translated to strain and upset that he disliked, that constantly abraded him until he felt raw and wounded. He also felt threatened by it, fearful that it might someday cause his relationship with the twins to break or, worse, cause him to lose Jace. And that was the worst fear of all. "Why don't you boys go on up and I'll bake some cookies. That'll make movie night better, won't it?" For the first time that evening, Brody smiled, a weak attempt, but still a smile. "That would be nice," Jace responded for both of them. Ben and Jayne Anne watched the boys head up the inside staircase to the garage apartment. Then they looked at each other. "I'm going to kill that woman," she said under her breath. * * * * * Brody and Jace had watched three movies, consumed two dozen cookies fresh from the oven, and finally agreed around two in the morning that they needed sleep. After ensuring the garage apartment was secure for the night, Brody slipped out of his clothes and slid into bed beside the man of his dreams, wrapping Jace in his arms and pulling him snuggly against him. "Oh..." Jace moaned. "What?" Brody inquired, worried. "Just a memory." "What memory?" "Like this." "Pardon?" "We were like this, you the big spoon and me the little spoon with the moon shining in the window just like tonight." Brody inhaled sharply. "Oh..." "You scared me half to death that night." "I did?" "Yes, you did." "Why?" "I... I thought I'd hidden how I felt about you." Jace wriggled further against Brody, pulling his arms tighter around him. In a whisper he added, "And I didn't know you felt that way about me." "I almost kissed you before Mom knocked on my bedroom door." "I know. But I was working hard to convince myself that that was something else." * * * * * Five Years Prior They'd eaten dinner in a quiet very much unlike their usual selves. Ben and Jayne Anne and Jenny had cast curious glances at Jace and Brody throughout the meal, the three of them dumbfounded by the unusual dearth of interaction between the boys. No one said anything, though, because no one had a clue why the atmosphere felt so charged with tension. Brody and Jace had been inseparable since kindergarten with nary a day passing without them seeing each other, laughing and joking and talking and whispering and essentially lavishing each other with all the attention they had to give. An extended period of quiet with strained glances and wary words felt alien to everyone. But invariably every relationship hit a rough patch or two, thus the Windhams felt disinclined to interfere unless it all went sideways. Once they'd helped clear the table and clean the dishes, Brody and Jace excused themselves and headed back to Brody's room. "At least that hasn't changed," Ben remarked to Jayne Anne, who was busy herding Jenny toward her nightly bath. "Whatever it is," his wife said as she fussed at her ten-year-old daughter to get her behind in the bathroom, "I'm sure they'll work it out." "I hope so." * * * * * Brody and Jace watched television in self-effacing silence. Both had ensured a small measure of space between them as they sat on the bed, backs against the headboard. That few inches felt like a chasm, but the night's unwavering tension and unflinching quiet made it a schism of profound proportions. Jace felt certain he'd misunderstood that moment before dinner when he'd thought Brody intended to kiss him. He just knew he'd misread the signs. But what filled him with fear was the harsh truth of the event: Jace had let his mask slip, had erred when he let Brody see his feelings for that brief instant, had made a major mistake by opening himself to his friend after assuming his feelings were reciprocated. But everything since then had proved his impression wrong. They'd gingerly danced around each other, avoiding touches that usually came naturally and unconsciously, hardly speaking a word to each other when they'd normally be voluble, and casting their eyes far and wide in attempts to avoid the other's gaze when so much of their time was typically spent watching each other for the silent dispatches and inside jokes and bonding glances. How could he have been so stupid? It was Brody's look that threw him off. Jace could've sworn he saw affection and desire in Brody's expression, especially his eyes. Obviously he'd been wrong. And that left him pondering how to fix what he'd clearly broken. Because he'd obviously made Brody uncomfortable given the night's increasing tension. Brody had other worries on his mind. He knew Jace felt the same way. He'd seen it in his face, his eyes. As he'd leaned toward him, he'd watched Jace's eyes flutter shut, his lips part slightly, his cheeks flush. Then when Jace's eyes snapped open, as though he'd suddenly realized what was happening, his pupils had been dilated and there'd been so much emotion roiling in those emerald depths. Yet Brody had no clue how to take the next step. All he knew was that he had to be courageous. He had to take a chance. He had to make the choice to take the next step and let Jace make the final decision. But how? After several hours of subdued conversation and mindless television, Brody muttered something about being tired and Jace mumbled in a vaguely affirmative way that he too wanted to go to sleep. The boys tended to their nightly ablutions before undressing to their underwear—they'd long since become accustomed to sleeping together that way—and slipped into bed. A vast canyon of empty space separated them. Not even a wedge of light entered the room beneath the door. Brody rolled onto his side facing Jace and castigated himself for his lack of action. He just couldn't think of a way to address his newfound knowledge. Would leaning over and kissing Jace be too much? Would wrapping his best friends in his arms and snuggling up to him cause further tension? Would just admitting his feelings deepen the rift that seemed to grow between them? As he stared at Jace's prone form, watching just the barest hint of shadow upon shadow, a full moon slowly rose above the horizon. Its spotlight shone through the window to Brody's back and illuminated the room in subtle blue light. He couldn't be sure how long he stared at Jace, how long he vacillated between action and inaction, but Brody began doubting his own conclusions. He'd misunderstood Jace's reaction in that heated moment before dinner. He'd projected his own feelings onto his best friend, thereby misrepresenting Jace's actions in his memory as harboring meaning they lacked. He'd let hope blind him to truth that— He murmured, shifted a bit, then Jace rolled onto his side so he faced Brody. His eyes remained closed. Brody continued to breathe evenly and deeply, eyes wide. The moonlight from his back cast a shadow over part of Jace but left most of him clearly visible. Jace wondered if he'd ever have another chance to watch Brody sleep. He'd been doing it for years, waiting for his best friend to fall asleep and then letting his eyes consume every detail, every contour of his body, ever idiosyncrasy of his breathing, every twitch of his muscles, every movement of his eyes beneath shut lids. Well, if he'd ruined everything between them with that terrible mistake earlier, Jace figured he might as well get his fill before it ended. The wearying, physical ache he felt inside would no doubt burgeon into real heartache, a debilitating anguish that would take years to subside, but before that happened he intended to enjoy this one last night of watching the most beautiful man in the world as he slept. Brody watched as Jace's eyes opened. With the window behind him, he knew Jace couldn't see that his eyes were also open. Thus Brody stared in wonder as Jace's eyelids slowly parted, the barest reflection the only indication they'd done so. And then they opened fully, Jace's emerald eyes taking on the hue of verdant moonlight as he stared directly at Brody's silhouette. Jace couldn't make out any details save a few hints here and there, yet his breathing hitched and became ragged as he looked at the shadow shaped like his best friend. Hair lightly tousled. Strong jaw and proportional ear, moonlight sliding across his cheekbone. The strong neck and shoulders. The defined arm. The bare torso tapering to a slim waist. And the rest hidden beneath the sheet. He didn't know how long he allowed his eyes to wander up and down Brody's body, but mostly Jace's gaze meandered back to the darkness where Brody's eyes hid. He stared at that shadowy realm. And stared. And stared. As if of its own volition, Jace's hand began to move, slipping silently across the bed, moving toward his best friend. He didn't stop it. In fact, he willed it forward, quietly, secretly, wanting just this once to touch the man he loved so dearly. Touch him with affection and intimacy instead of friendliness. Brody watched Jace's hand approach, watch it move like a serpent as it slithered forward. When it rose from the bed and hovered in the air, Brody almost stopped breathing. Almost. He watched the hand begin moving again, toward his face, the fingers gently splayed, the moonlight illuminating the sparse hair on Jace's arm. And still those eyes watched him. So full of life. So full of affection that Brody could see. So full of love. Just before Jace's hand reached his cheek, it retreated. Brody watched it go with a pang of disappointment. Jace rolled onto his back, heaved a great yet quiet sigh, stared at the ceiling. He threw an arm over his eyes and let the other fall to the bed beside him. He'd chickened out. He'd lost his nerve. He'd crumbled beneath the weight of his own want, too afraid to act, too nervous to be strong, too lacking to make the choice. He'd been thwarted by his own shortcomings, once again letting his intellect rule his heart. Brody could feel the self-deprecation rolling off Jace in waves, the disgust, the dashed hopes. But his best friend's failure had reinvigorated Brody's resolve, had shown him he'd been right, had read the signs correctly. So it was time to act. Without hesitation Brody lifted his hand and moved it across the bed and let it come to rest on Jace's bare chest. His best friend's entire body jolted, he gasped, and he automatically lifted his hand and grabbed Brody's. Once he had it, though, he didn't know what to do with it. Brody was asleep. He'd moved his hand in his sleep. He didn't know he was touching Jace, lighting fires in Jace's body, sending Jace's emotions into overdrive, causing Jace's heart to race until it felt like it would leap from his chest and run away. He'd enjoy it, that's what he'd do. So Jace flattened Brody's hand on his chest and left his on top of it, holding it in place, fantasizing for a brief moment that it meant more than it did, wondering what it would be like to enjoy this amorous torment every night of his life. Brody closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling a peace spread through him the likes of which he'd never experienced before. Jace wanted him as much as he wanted Jace. This proved it. The jock slid forward so quickly Jace never knew what happened until it was over. Brody's muscular arm slid beneath his neck as the other slid over his torso. As Brody moved against Jace, he turned his best friend's body on his side and pulled him against Brody, strong arms wrapping around him and holding him tight. Jace gasped, the inhale sharp and loud. "Brody..." "Shhh..." Brody kissed his neck, sending a shocked wave of tremors through Jace's body, goosebumps spreading from the point of contact. "Just relax. We'll talk in the morning." "Brody..." The voice of fear, uncertainty, doubt. Brody knew Jace all too well, knew Jace spent too much time thinking and not enough time feeling. Perhaps that explained why the signals had remained so mixed, so unclear. Each time Brody thought he saw something, he dismissed it because he could never tell if what he saw came from Jace's head or heart, the source making a world of difference in what it meant. "Shhh... For once in your life stop thinking so much, Jace." "But—" "Shhh..." Another kiss, another chilled shiver, then Brody nuzzled his face against Jace's head until his lips rested just behind the other boy's ear. "Stop thinking. Relax and let it happen. Don't think about it." Jace opened his mouth to say something, to question, to protest. Then Brody's hand began gently caressing his chest as his other hand grabbed Jace's and held it tight. Warm, moist breath tickled his ear, his neck. Brody's face rubbed into his hair, his noise dropping light touches here and there. And the kisses. Ye gods the kisses! Brody's lips continued to touch first this place, then that place, and finally another place. "Relax, Jace." The words breathed into his ear and stoked a flame that threatened to burn Jace to cinders right there. "Stop thinking so much and start feeling. Feel me right here holding you. Feel me kissing you. Feel us together right here and right now. Just us, Jace. It's just us and we're gonna be okay." "Going to..." Brody snickered. "Asshole." Then he dropped a more passionate kiss on Jace's neck. Jace's mind went blank and fireworks went off in his head and his heart hammered and hammered and hammered and chills raced up and down his spine. It was wonderful. He pushed back against Brody and pulled his arms tighter, squeezed his hand harder. Then he whispered, "Is this a dream?" Brody kissed his neck again before answering, "If it is, I don't ever want to wake."
  4. "Boys, dinner!" Jayne Anne yelled up the stairs to the garage apartment where Brody and Jace spent so much of their time when they were at the house. As she turned back to the kitchen, she caught a glimpse of the knowing smirk on her fifteen-year-old daughter's face before the expression vanished. Jayne Anne didn't know if Jenny knew about the boys, but Brody and his sister had always been close. If her mother's intuition was worth its name, she'd guess Jenny knew more than her parents did. Which didn't strike Jayne Anne as a bad thing. If Brody still didn't feel comfortable telling Ben and Jayne Anne about his relationship with Jace, they'd have to work harder to make sure he understood they loved him unconditionally. She hoped he'd eventually feel safe enough to talk to them. Until then, at least he has his sister, she thought. With the sound of a herd of stampeding elephants, Brody and Jace stormed through the upstairs door and pounded down the stairs, light pushes and ample laughter punctuating the journey from the garage apartment to the house proper. They swept into the kitchen with the grace of a tsunami. "Boys," Ben mumbled, trying to make it a reprimand but failing as he choked back a snicker. Jayne Anne could only roll her eyes and turn away lest they see the grin on her face. Maybe they needed to learn better manners, be a touch more behaved, but she couldn't really fault them for their loud, boisterous ways. Just being boys... "Hey, Dad." "Hey, Ben." He gave them a stern look that crumbled into a smile. "Next time at least try to act civilized in the house." Both boys ducked their heads and nodded, though mostly they tried to hide their smiles. Brody leaned over and bumped Jenny with his elbow. She rolled her eyes at him before smacking him playfully on the shoulder. "You don't act older than me," she facetiously jibed. "Thank goodness," Jace mumbled. Then he stuck his tongue out at Jenny, a childish gesture she readily returned. Jayne Anne shook her head at the antics. At least they all got along. She settled into her chair as Ben started filling his plate with roast beef. Jenny hoarded the green beans while Brody hogged the mashed potatoes. "Salad?" Jayne Anne offered, holding the dish toward Jace. "It might be the only thing left once they get done." He took the proffered bowl and smiled. "Thanks. At least you know guests come first." "You haven't been a guest here for thirteen years, Mr. Langstrom," Ben mentioned, his tone playful. "True, but I'm the best you have under the circumstances. It's wise to keep up the practice, right?" Again Jayne Anne rolled her eyes and smiled. Dinner passed with light chatter, friendly discussion, jokes, laughter, comfort. Occasionally Ben and Jayne Anne would give each other a knowing look when the boys weren't watching. It had to do with Brody and Jace and their attempts to act platonic when it was obvious they were so much more. The light touches, the looks, the eagerness to help, the willingness to ensure happiness even in the small things, like fetching another drink for each other or dishing up a second portion instead of just passing the bowl. Ben wished both of them, Brody especially, would realize they had nothing to hide, no reason for a furtive relationship, at least in the Windham home. He couldn't guarantee no problems out in the big bad world, but he knew he loved his son and he loved Jace like another son and he had no problem with their relationship. At first he did, sure, and he sulked and skulked and stormed about angrily with all manner of upset in his head and heart. That lasted about three days before he stopped and chastised himself. He hadn't been angry about his son being in love with another boy; he'd been angry because he wanted grandchildren and he felt disappointed in Brody for not thinking of that first. How selfish he'd been. Which Jayne Anne pointed out when, after those three days, he went to her and brought up the subject, trying to sneak up on it in case she didn't know yet. But she knew. Of course she knew. She'd seen it years before in the way they acted, they way they looked at each other, they way they talked and touched, the affection and intimacy that went just a little bit beyond platonic yet worked hard not to go further. "I saw the look," she'd told her husband when he approached her about it. "The look?" he'd asked. "Probably six, seven years ago." "Really?" "Yes. They were sitting on the porch talking, they'd just arrived home from school, and I was standing in the kitchen. I heard voices and glanced out the window. When Jace turned away for a moment, Brody's face transformed. It's like he relaxed and the fire beneath came blazing to the surface." "What kind of look?" "One a mother recognizes in her children." "Meaning what, baby doll?" "It was love. Unadulterated, unflinching love, the kind of wildly tornadic love only teenagers have. It was beautiful to see." "Didn't it bother you?" "At first I suppose it did. I worried about his future, about hate and bigotry and intolerance. I worried about hardships he might face simply because of who he loved. Then I got over it." "How?" "By realizing it wasn't about me." "But didn't you ever wonder about grandkids?" "Is that why you've been pouting for the past few days?" "I wasn't pouting." "Oh, honey, you most certainly were. Walking around with your bottom lip jutting out is the only thing that could've made it more obvious." "Hell, I'm sorry. I just... I just suppose, after considering the flurry of concerns like you mentioned, I got hung up on having little Windhams running around and how this might put a dent in that dream." "Ever hear of adoption?" "Of course I have. It's just... I don't know... I was hoping—" "But it's not about us, Ben." He'd paused then, staring at her. A slow grin spread across his face. "No, it's not about us, is it?" "No. It's about our son finding happiness and loving someone who'll love him in return." "Yeah, you're right. I was being silly, I guess." "It comes with old age." "Hey, you're not much younger." "But I'm still not as old as you. That counts." "You have to wonder," Ben had said, turning serious again. "About what?" "How it got started? How they crossed that line?" "You mean how one of them figured out it might be worth the risk to say something about how they felt? How someone scrounged up enough courage to take a leap of faith?" "Precisely." "I wonder, too." * * * * * Five Years Prior Thirty minutes after her parents had bid the pair goodnight and left on their weekly date night, Trish closed her door ostensibly to protect her younger sister from the quiet music and school-related conversation coming from her room. She and Brody had spent the evening working to finish a project for their French class. Another hour or so and they'd be done. Brody lay with his feet stretched out, ankles crossed, his back against the headboard, a textbook open beside him and his laptop on his thighs. He typed in fits and starts, fingers flying over the keys until he paused to reference to the textbook or his notes, then back to typing. Trish stood with her back to the closed door watching her boyfriend. Well, semi-boyfriend she supposed, or perhaps pseudo-boyfriend. They'd been dating for two years yet hadn't done more than a little touchy-feely, some toe-curling kissing, a smattering of hugs, and lots of hand holding. Sure, they were only in the eighth grade, but she seriously thought two years was plenty of time to kick the relationship up several notches. Looking at Brody stretched out on the bed, she figured the time was right to force the issue. She had a feeling sex might just win him over to her way of thinking, might just help him put that silly infatuation with Jace behind him. If she only knew it was far more than an infatuation. Without making a sound, she unbuttoned her shirt and let it slide from her shoulders, revealing her young, pert breasts held in check by a lacy white bra. She approached the bed as she slipped out of her sandals and let her shorts fall to the floor, stepping out of them without missing a beat, leaving her in a pair of white panties that left very little to the imagination. Trish reached the bed and picked up Brody's laptop, setting it on the nightstand as he looked at her in shock. "Hey—" he began before his voice died on a quiet gasp. She swung one leg over him and used it to push the textbook and notes aside, then she climbed onto his lap and straddled him, lacing her fingers together behind his neck, doing her best to look sultry and irresistible. "What are... What are you doing?" Trish leaned down and kissed him, a slow, sensuous kiss, thought not passionate or erotic. A promise of things to come. "I've been thinking a lot about you, Brody. A lot about us." He stared wide-eyed, hands at his sides. She began grinding her pelvis into his crotch, subtle movements meant to cause a wee bit of friction, a little something to whet his appetite. "Trish..." "Shh..." She placed a finger over his lips. "You can't tell me you haven't thought about it, Brody, about me like this, about us. I think it's time, don't you?" "Time for what?" he asked, her finger causing his words to sound distorted. "For us to take our relationship to the next level," she purred as she ran her hands down his chest, unbuttoning his shirt along the way. She pushed it open and slid her hands over his bare torso, enjoying the feel of peaks and valleys built with young muscle. Up they moved until they reached his chest. She immediately stroked his nipples, eliciting a shiver and small moan from him. Oh yeah, she could work with that. Trish reached down and took his hands, placing them on her bare hips as she gyrated more forcefully, putting more pressure on his groin. "Trish, stop." Right back to those sensitive pebbles on his chest. He groaned and his head fell back against the headboard, goosebumps breaking out across his chest, his nipples erect and responsive. She leaned forward and kissed him again, this time with tongue and passion and intent. Brody didn't reciprocate. Instead he moaned into her mouth, but it sounded less wanton and more guttural, like a grumble. Her body jerked when he grabbed her wrists, wrenching her hands away from his body. Brody also bucked his hips slightly, causing her to shift down his legs, leaving her seated nearer his knees. "What the fuck, Trish?" he asked, sounding perturbed and dismayed. "Come on, baby—" "Don't! You know I hate pet names." "I know, Brody. I'm sorry. I just want to be with you." He shook his head, scowled, then unceremoniously dumped her off his lap onto the bed as he surged to his feet. "You're just going to throw it around like that, just offer it to anybody?" She huffed as she moved to a kneeling position and faced him. "You're not just anybody, Brody." "Losing your virginity's supposed to be special, Trish, not just an upgrade when you get tired of the status quo." "I know, baby—" "Stop that! I hate that shit!" "I'm sorry." "I want to wait and have sex when it's the right time with the right person—" "Are you saying I'm not—" "Not that you're the wrong person, Trish, but this is sure as fuck the wrong time and wrong reason." "But—" "I don't think I'm ready to take that step. I also don't think we're that close." "Of course we are," she whined. "No we're not, Trish. We've always been friends. This dating thing was new and different, but it's not what I want." "Brody—" "And I most certainly don't want to lose my virginity just for the sake of losing my virginity. I want it to mean something—" "It would mean something." She sounded petulant but couldn't stop, couldn't change. "Not like this. Not with you. I want it to be borne of love and a desire to take a relationship to the next level with a person I can spend the rest of my life with, which isn't you. I'm sorry, Trish, but this was never that kind of relationship. We should've never gotten involved like this." Brody was buttoning his shirt hastily yet successfully. He began gathering his things, pushing everything into his backpack haphazardly. "I'm sorry, Trish," he offered to her stunned silence, an endless gasp expressed in her features. "I'm not ready for that. I don't think I'll ever be ready for that with you. There's just no... no spark like that between us." Brody reached the door and turned back to face her. She still knelt on the bed, mouth agape, eyes wide, aghast and appalled and... well, what looked like anger flowing just below the surface. "I think we should go back to being friends and leave it at that." Trish couldn't believe what was happening. She was so stunned she couldn't respond, couldn't think of anything to say. Mostly she wanted to scream and wail and pound her fists and stomp her feet. She watched Brody slip out the door and disappear. And still she couldn't speak. But she could feel, and what she felt was a kind of rage she'd never felt before. Nobody had ever denied her what she wanted. Nobody. And she wanted Brody. * * * * * "Then you just walked out and left her there like that?" Brody shrugged, his face dropping until his chin rested on his chest. "Am I an asshole?" Jace shook his head, though he realized as he did it his best friend couldn't see it. "No, I'm not saying that at all. It's just..." He stared at Brody's profile, seeing the uncertainty in his expression despite the odd angle. "It's just that I didn't..." Brody's head came up and he met Jace's gaze. "Didn't what?" he inquired, his voice soft and quiet. "I didn't think anything could make you walk away from her." "Why not?" "You two seemed... close, I guess." "Everybody in The Squad is close." "Everybody in The Squad doesn't swap spit with everybody else in The Squad." "Oh. That's true." Again Brody's head dropped as his voice weakened to a meek shadow of its normal self. "She likes you." "Yeah. So?" "I thought you liked her." "I thought I did, too." Jace's head cocked slightly as he stared at Brody. "Meaning what?" "Meaning I don't know," he replied with a shrug before turning back to his best friend. "Meaning... meaning I thought I did, but I realized I didn't but by then I was stuck, or felt stuck, or thought I should continue dating her because everybody expected it, or whatever." He shrugged again, though by that point he didn't know why or what to say or... or really why he couldn't just tell Jace the truth. The boys gazed at each other, neither speaking and neither moving, both sitting on Brody's bed, backs against the headboard. They'd been watching television, waiting for dinner, and Brody regaled his best friend with the tale of terror from the previous night. Okay, tale of terror sounded harsher than it was, but it was close. He felt like Trish might've raped him if he hadn't left when he did. He'd thought about having sex with her. The thought neither terrified him nor titillated him. It just was, a thought that lacked compelling merit while having more than a few demerits, an idea that might someday become reality if he ever got his mind and heart off his best friend. Because in the end, it was always Jace Brody thought of when it came to sexual fantasies. Not that he only thought of Jace sexually. Far from it, in fact. Ever since he'd realized he had feelings for Jace that went beyond platonic, Brody had investigated and examined those feelings so he'd better understand them. What he realized was that he'd fallen in love with his best friend a few years ago, maybe in the fifth or sixth grade, though he hadn't realized what it was he felt or what it meant or why he felt it. But it came down to having these constant thoughts of growing old with Jace, sharing a home and a life with Jace, always going to Jace to share the good news and get support through the bad news, talking to Jace about the weather and sports and current headlines and what to plant in the garden this year and where to go on vacation next year and... Well, his thoughts about Jace tended toward the mundane, the pedestrian, the quotidian ups and downs of life with a partner. Then, when Trish first asked him out on a date in the library that day two years ago, Brody finally had his first sexual thought about Jace. He'd stared at him and considered what it would be like to sit in a dark movie theater holding his hand while they watched a movie, then maybe kissing him afterward when he said goodnight. He'd kissed Trish that night, a simple little peck, but when he arrived home he thought of kissing Jace and it was no simple little peck his mind conjured, which resulted in an even more passionate kiss for Trish several months later which made Brody think of even more passionate things to do with Jace. It ended up being a feedback loop, with each iteration leading to thoughts of Jace that had gone completely pornographic. Brody's feelings for Jace had intensified by orders of magnitude, thoughts of suburban bliss rapidly becoming thoughts of sexual escapades punctuated by suburban bliss. Or vice versa. Or whatever. "What are you thinking?" Jace's whisper hit Brody like an electric shock. He'd become so lost in his friend's emerald gaze, those eyes filling him with thoughts of what he felt and what he wanted and why he was too damned chicken to say anything—he feared losing his friend—that he'd nearly forgotten where he was and that he wasn't alone. But coming back to reality merely brought him back to those eyes, that gaze, the nearness of Jace's body settled right against his, the gentle caress of his breath against Brody's face, the faint taste of the air coming from Jace that made Brody want more. Before he knew what he was doing, he leaned toward Jace, a very slow movement, his eyes leaping up and down from eyes to lips and back again. He felt drawn forward, drawn toward fate, drawn toward destiny. When his gaze locked on Jace's, he saw his friend's eyes widen a bit, his pupils dilate, and he became aware of Jace's breathing, which had shallowed and accelerated and sounded somewhat ragged and rushed. A brief knock at the door had both young men whipping their heads in that direction. Just in time for Jayne Anne to push it open a bit. "Dinner's ready," she told them. "Be right there," Brody said. Or thought he said. It sounded less like words and more like letters written with smoke, light and airy and insubstantial. "Are you boys okay?" she asked, eyes narrowing. Jayne Anne was very much aware of the slight flush in their cheeks, the stunned expressions that reminded her of shock rather than surprise. "Yeah," Jace replied, his voice only a little more substantive than Brody's had been. "Okay." She sounded unsure, or maybe confused, or perhaps it was just curious. "Well, dinner's ready. Come on before it gets cold." They watched her turn and head down the hall. Then they looked at each other. Then they stood and followed her to the dining room. Though neither said a word before sitting down to eat, both of them separately pondered that moment, that profound interaction that held no sounds save breathing yet held as much emotion as the works of Shakespeare. They'd both felt it, they'd both felt that... that something... that spark. Unfortunately, Jace didn't understand it well enough to know how to respond to it. Brody, on the other hand, knew precisely what'd happened. Maybe it was his experience with Trish or maybe it was those formative years he'd gone through leukemia treatment and learned so much from educated adults when he should have been playing in sandboxes instead, but not matter where the understanding came from, he knew what that moment was and what it meant. That was a spark to ignite a fire to set ablaze the smoldering feelings that he now knew were reciprocated. He just had to figure out what to do with that knowledge. No matter what he decided, he wouldn't let the night slip by without taking action. He'd waited long enough. It was time to start living the dream.
  5. Jason MH

    The Ex

    Trish watched Brody and Jace enter the cafeteria together and shook her head. She just couldn't understand how other people didn't see what was so obvious to her. Well, most other people didn't see it. Brody's sister Jenny knew, but they were so close that they had no secrets from each other. And Trish thought Jace's sister Lara knew, or suspected, or something. As for the twins, Zane and Zack, Jace's brothers, it was hard to tell what they might or might not know because they were slightly autistic, making them awfully private except when around Brody and Jace. Which, now that she thought about it, meant they probably knew, or suspected, or something. "Why the long face?" Darren asked. Trish shot him a dismissive scowl but remained silent. The meathead followed her gaze, catching sight of Jace heading to the lunch line as Brody made his way to the table, dropping his backpack on the floor beside his chair before taking a seat. "Yo, what's up?" Brody tossed out as a greeting to everyone. "Yo," Darren grunted. "Hey, Bro," Lynette smiled. The nickname made Brody grin. Trish gave a demure smile before it turned coquettish. "Hi, Brody." He gave her a quick nod as he pulled his lunch out of his backpack and began spreading it out on the tabletop. A spinach salad with grilled chicken along with fruit, cheese and crackers, a protein bar, yogurt, and a bottle of water. The boy sure was serious about healthy eating. Darren threw a knowing smirk at Trish, which she tried to ignore but inwardly cringed away from. She might call Darren a meathead all the time, but the boy wasn't a dumb jock at all; in fact, he was too smart for his own good sometimes. Leaning forward a bit and dropping his voice to something just above a whisper, he growled, "Whiskey tango foxtrot?" Her face scrunched up with distaste and she gave a derisive huff. What the fuck indeed. He knew what the fuck. She'd had Brody for two years, though they'd been in the seventh and eighth grades and never did more than kiss, hold hands, cuddle, and a little heavy petting. She'd never been able to get him to take it to the next level. And she'd known all the while why he wouldn't. Because of Jace. "You need to be honest with yourself," Darren told her sotto voce before returning to his lunch. She wanted to be honest alright, to tell the truth, to let everyone know that Brody and Jace were boyfriends, that they were shacking up most nights in Brody's garage apartment mere feet from his parents without anyone being the wiser, that they were hiding their relationship from pretty much everybody, that all the stolen looks and touches and who knows what else were right there for all the world to see if they'd only pay attention. Trish was pretty sure that revelation wouldn't go over so well with some people, and it just might be enough to cause a break up, after which she could sweep in and help Brody pick up the pieces of his broken heart. "Don't," Lynette said to Trish, her voice stern. "Don't what?" Lynette didn't answer, but her expression was pure venom. She and Trish had been friends since kindergarten—well, they'd all been friends since kindergarten because they'd all grown up in the same neighborhood going to the same schools—but Lynette and Trish were the only two girls in the group of friends. They had a special camaraderie since they spent so much time around four guys. Her expression made it clear she knew what Trish was thinking and found it detestable. The six friends called themselves The Squad, though at one point in elementary school Darren's parents had called them The Sextuplets. That didn't last long because the kids soon learned about the word sex, thereby putting a whole new spin on the moniker. With the increasing addition of Brody's sister and Jace's siblings, The Squad fluctuated from six to ten members at any given time. The original friends would soon graduate, so the others would have to form their own group. James dropped into the chair beside Lynette, placing his tray in front of him, then leaned over and kissed his girlfriend. It was almost a chaste kiss. After making smooching noises and enamored faces at one another, he turned to Brody and asked jokingly, "Where's you're boyfriend?" "Getting lunch" was the response spoken around a mouthful of salad. Everybody in the The Squad knew about Jace and Brody and their secret relationship. They'd all spent so much time together that they'd seen it coming before the two boys realized how they felt about each other. That didn't mean calling them boyfriends was acceptable, but they often said it as a joke when others might hear. It added a facetious cloak to the truth, making it harder for others to see. Or so the thought went. The Squad was a strange bunch by high school standards. They had Darren, a varsity football player. Lynette was a cheerleader. James played baseball and dated Lynette. Trish was terribly popular because she had money and looks and wit without being a snob. Brody was a jock, though he played no team sports, and he was one of the best looking guys in the school. All of that bumped them up in the school's social strata, not quite landing them at the top—but it was close. And then there was Jace. He was a tall drink of water, but he was thin, almost lanky without being sinewy. He was a total nerd, destined to be valedictorian of their class. Despite that, he was quite popular because his friendship with three jocks made him friends with the various sports teams who turned to him for tutoring and help with class projects and the like. In a normal world bullies would target him, but nobody in the school would touch him because they'd find themselves beaten to a pulp by whichever sports team got to them first. Strangely enough, they had to credit Jace with pushing them into the school's popular ranking. With the support and respect of every sports team, not to mention his smarts and down-to-earth approach to people, he made intelligence approachable and friendly while bridging the gap between the geeks and the jocks. And all without trying since he never set out to be popular; that's just the way it worked. When Jace fell into the seat beside Brody, he bumped him with his elbow just enough to get his attention. They shared a look—that look which made Trish's teeth grind and her nerves fire all at once. "So how are you fine folks today?" he tossed out to the whole table, no specific target in mind. "Good," James mumbled around a mouthful of pizza. "Forgive my Neanderthal boyfriend for his bad manners," Lynette joked, giving James a stern yet affectionate look. "I'm used to it." Darren smirked before responding, "Yeah, maybe you are, Jace, but the rest of us don't want to see the masticated mess in his mouth." "Ooh, nice alliteration." Brody grinned appreciatively. "I'm more than a pretty face." Darren squared his shoulders and held his head high. That earned him a few mocking sneers and humored chuckles. "Who's going to prom?" Trish asked. She'd just had a brilliant idea. Cruel and vicious, sure, but brilliant nonetheless. "It's months away," James moaned. Lynette smacked his arm, then she leaned her head on his shoulder and purred, "I got my date." "Same here," James cooed as he rested his head on hers. Again they made smooching noises, pursing their lips and ogling each other with an adoration so sweet it dripped from their pores. Darren shrugged. "Don't know who with, but I'm going." "You should ask that girl in chemistry," Jace said. Brody agreed. "Oh, good idea. She's always giving you those shy flirtatious looks." "Is that what those looks are? Here I thought she had gas," Darren quipped. Laughter percolated around the table. "Do you not like her?" Jace inquired. "Not my type." "Huh." Jace shot a knowing look at Brody. "What about my friend Laina?" Trish asked. "She's nice, pretty—" "And a walking petri dish," James interjected. Jace frowned, shaking his head. "You know her reputation." "She's friendly," Trish said, her voice rising in defense, though she knew Laina was known for being easy. Very easy. Glancing at Brody, Darren asked, "How soon would I have to start antibiotics before touching her?" "Without kissing, today. With kissing, last month. Anything beyond kissing, there's no medicine strong enough." Quiet oohs and howls erupted around the table. "What about you guys?" Trish asked, aiming the question at Jace and Brody. Both boys looked at each other before shrugging. "Not really interested." "That's a lie, Brody, and you know it." "Look, Lynette, I might like to dance and I might like to hang out with my friends, but I'm not interested in causing a scene." "It's the twenty-first century, guys," James scolded, "and we're at a high school in Dallas, not exactly a hotbed of intolerance." Darren turned toward the two and quietly explained, "Besides, there are other gay couples going. It's not a problem. You two should go." "They're out," Jace clarified, as though that ended the discussion. "Then come out." Trish gave them a shrug and a look that made it seem like that decision was so obvious and so simple that they should have thought of it already. Brody and Jace glanced around the table, meeting the other four sets of eyes individually. Then they looked at each other. Finally, after a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, they turned back to their meals. Before packing his pie hole with more yogurt, Brody declared in a hushed tone that sounded a bit peeved and a bit upset and a lot dismissive, "We're not going to the prom." "Wait!" James waved his hand for silence. Then setting his gaze on Brody and Jace he said, "Why not find some dates, some girls who'll go as friends? You can still go and still avoid questions or whatever it is that's got you running scared." "Great idea!" Trish agreed. "I volunteer to go with one of you." Brody gave her a considering look while Lynette, Jace and Darren looked at her like she was an opportunistic predator. Which she was, but they needn't know that. Or at least she needn't confirm their suspicion. Then Brody shrugged again and mumbled, "We're not going." "Go as friends!" Darren said in a forceful whisper that seemed louder than a shout. Immediate agreements and support spread through the group. "Yeah, lots of guys go stag just to have fun and hang out." "You shouldn't miss your senior prom. You only get one chance." "We'll all be there. You need to be there with us." "Come on!' "You have to go!" Jace raised his voice just enough to cut through the cacophony. "We're not going. That's final." Trish looked like she wished they'd change their minds. "You guys have been inseparable best friends since... well, since forever. Nobody'd think twice if you went stag with each other." "Nobody'd think twice if they came out and admitted they're boyfriends madly in love with each other," Lynette moaned, shaking her head. "Yeah, nobody'd think twice," Trish agreed. She just wasn't sure she believed that. Not at all. And she intended to find a way to test that theory since it would probably mean she'd have another shot with Brody. * * * * * Seven Years Prior Brody sat in the library working on his summer reading. Well, that's what he told his mother he'd be doing anyway. And he'd intended to work on it. Except he couldn't stop watching Jace sitting right across the table, his nose in a book, his green semi-rimless rectangular glasses making his eyes pop like sparkling emeralds, his alabaster skin aglow from the indirect sunlight pouring in through the wall of windows, his brown hair mussed into a stylish mess. They'd been best friends for ten years, so Brody had a huge place in his heart occupied only by Jace. But he knew there was something else there, something nagging at the back of his mind, some little tease of a thing that kept flitting by his consciousness, grabbing his attention just long enough to say it was there without staying around long enough to be identified. Still, he was pretty sure he knew what that feeling was. Jace had caught him staring more than once. All he'd ever do is offer a shy little smile and duck his head, never maintaining eye contact. But that was enough to make Brody's stomach flutter and make his chest constrict until it was hard to breathe and make his whole body feel drugged and wobbly. None of which he understood, not one bit, except when he threw the L-word into the mix. "You're supposed to be reading," Jace whispered without looking up from his book. "I am," Brody responded mechanically, automatically. "No you're not." Brody sighed, a facile sound that carried with it so many unspoken things. Jace's head snapped up and their eyes met. This time it was Brody who looked away without understanding why. He'd suddenly felt exposed, as though Jace might see something he wasn't supposed to see. That's when Trish dropped into the seat beside him. "Howdy, y'all," she offered in her best Texas drawl. She didn't really have an accent—none of them did—but she sometimes tried to sound sexier by adding a little twang. "Hi, Trish," Jace greeted before looking at Brody for a moment more. He finally shook his head and returned to his reading. Trish turned her pretty face toward Brody, her flaxen hair elegantly falling around her pale skin and down to her shoulders, her deep brown eyes full of mirth and wonder, her lips rosy and full and moist. "Hey," Brody mumbled. Trish glanced at Jace then back to Brody. Something in her eyes seemed new, different. It made Brody a little uncomfortable and a little excited. A nervous energy filled his body. Speaking a little louder than necessary, Trish leaned forward and asked, "Brody, you think you might like to go see a movie with me tonight?" Jace's head snapped in her direction as Brody's eyes widened. She offered a sheepish little shrug and willed a blush into her cheeks, though that attempt at mind over matter failed as her face remained rouged only with makeup. Lowering her voice as she lowered her eyes, staring at the sexy jock boy through her eyelashes, she added just above a whisper, "I thought maybe afterward we could hang out at my house for a little bit, go for a walk or something." "Are you flirting with me?" Brody deadpanned, still trying to comprehend what the hell was happening. He'd known Trish as long as he'd known Jace, and though he thought her pretty, he'd never thought of her as anything other than a friend. "Yeah," she admitted, "though I'm doing a pretty bad job of it, I guess." Jace snorted and immediately tried to cover it by clearing his throat. Trish ignored it. Brody heard it but couldn't look away from Trish, still pondering the imponderable idea that she was flirting with him. Finally he shrugged, nodded, answered, "Yeah, okay, I'd like that." She moved so quickly he couldn't have avoided the kiss even if he'd tried. It was a chaste, sweet, strawberry-flavored peck on the lips, and it sent a tingle through Brody despite the confusion it engendered. "Be at my house by six," she whispered against his lips before tossing a sly smile in Jace's direction, something akin to a victorious bearing of teeth that Brody didn't see and Jace ignored. After that she left, a little swagger in her step and a little extra swing in her hips. Jace finally looked at Brody and caught the wistful expression on his best friend's face. Their gazes locked and Brody's expression saddened further, becoming kith and kin to defeated acceptance. "What's wrong?" Jace asked. "Nothing." Dismissive, resolute, quiet. "Trish just asked you out." "It's just a movie." "And to her house. Maybe for 'a walk or something.'" "It's nothing we haven't done a hundred times before." "Not like this you haven't." "I know." "I'd think you'd be happier about that." "Yeah, me too." Without taking his eyes off Jace, Brody gathered his things, sliding them into his backpack. Once he was ready to leave, he stood, pushed his chair in slowly and silently, then stood there meeting Jace's stare with his own. Brody wished Jace was different, was a little less asexual bookworm and a little more emotionally available. There were times when he thought there was something there, but then the moment would pass and Brody would realize it was just the comfortable closeness they shared after a decade of being best friends. Well, that or wishful thinking. Yet still he hoped, wished, dreamed. In a hushed voice toned with more emotion than he'd intended, Jace asked, "What, Brody?" A few moments of silence passed as they continued staring. In the end Brody just shrugged, shook his head, mumbled, "I'll see you later, Jace." He turned and was gone, leaving his best friend bewildered. For the briefest moment Jace had thought something was happening between them, something important, something that maybe indicated Brody felt something like what Jace felt. But clearly he'd been wrong. * * * * * "You two have been dating for a year. Is it serious?" Brody's expression made Jace think his best friend just smelled something bad. "I don't think so," Brody mumbled. "After a year I'd think you'd have a pretty good idea." "Maybe I'm not ready for a serious relationship yet." "Maybe you're not with the right person." Brody spun around, nearly falling off the bed as he looked at Jace. "Why do you say that?" Jace blinked repeatedly, reminding Brody of a deer caught in headlights. Jace had no idea what to say, how to respond. The remark had fallen out of his mouth without thought, his own wishes made manifest in words. But now Brody wanted him to explain it and he couldn't. How could he tell his best friend that he wanted to be the right person for him, wanted to see if they could have something special, something serious? How could he tell Brody that he was madly in love with him but was scared to death of destroying their friendship if he admitted it? Jace felt hollow when Brody was gone. He felt like he was drugged to uncontrollable happiness when Brody was around. If he went a day without hearing Brody's voice, it felt like a knife to his heart. And when he heard his voice, it lifted him to the heavens and made even the darkest of days bright and cheery. Every little touch, every little look, and Jace's spirit soared. When they spent the night together, something they'd been doing since that first week of kindergarten, Jace often spent hours lying beside Brody watching him sleep, letting his eyes caress every inch of exposed skin, wishing he could let his hands do the same, if not his lips. Brody often worried that Jace couldn't sleep well enough on his bed because he never seemed rested the next day; Jace could never admit he got very little sleep because of the time he spent admiring his best friend, dreaming of a life together, wishing for more than what they had, wondering if Brody had any feelings for him beyond the platonic. How could Jace admit any of that? Their bond was special and their friendship of the utmost importance. The very idea of admitting how he felt made him shudder with dread for the damage it might do to them. He didn't think Brody had a bigoted bone in his body, but that didn't mean he'd be comfortable with his best friend's unrequited love for him. "Hey," Brody said in a soft voice as he touched Jace's shoulder. He felt the powerful tremble that rocked his best friend's body. With eyes wide, Jace looked at Brody, mouth agape, something like panic taking over his features. "What?" His voice came out harsh and brusque. Brody immediately removed his hand. He guessed that answered the question of whether or not Jace felt something. If a mere touch caused him to flinch and get upset, Brody knew there was no hope for something more than what they had. But he'd settle for that. He'd take it and live with it and never question it. Because he needed Jace like he needed food and water and air. He loved Jace, he knew that, loved him so much it hurt. Even if he couldn't have those feelings returned, he couldn't live without Jace, just couldn't. Shrugging, looking apologetic, Brody said, "Never mind." And he turned back to the television, settling just an inch or so toward the edge of the bed to give Jace a little more room. * * * * * Brody walked Trish to her door. They'd had a nice evening, a tasty dinner followed by a quiet walk at White Rock Lake, feeding the ducks and geese in Sunset Bay. He'd spent the last week thinking about that exchange with Jace. Since then he'd given Jace more room, hoping not to spook him, hoping he was doing a good enough job hiding his feelings. He realized his dreams of a life with Jace were empty. That had left him pondering his relationship with Trish. Thus far they'd done little more than hold hands, hug, share an occasional kiss that was nothing more than a peck. He'd decided it was time to let thoughts of Jace fade so he could focus on what he already had in his hands. As Trish turned to say goodnight, Brody bracketed her face with both hands before he leaned down and kissed her. He put more passion in the kiss than he ever had before, letting his tongue slip out and gently lick across her lips. When she gasped, he let his tongue slip in inside her mouth. * * * * * He'd always thought his first kiss would be electric, mind-blowing, powerful and memorable. Though he felt terrible for it, Brody walked away from Trish's house that night a disappointed young man. He'd felt something, sure, a little jolt of energy and a little erotic interest. But it hadn't been anything like he imagined. Not even close.
  6. Jace lay with his head propped up on one arm as he lightly caressed his boyfriend's bare chest. He couldn't take his eyes off the beautiful body resting peacefully beside him. Brody's olive skin glowed with verve and vitality. He had a handsomely sculpted chest covered with well-trimmed black hair. His dark erect nipples were the size of quarters. Though broad of chest and shoulders, he didn't look too big or too square, just perfectly proportioned. His abs were hairless and defined without looking like a laundry tool, taught and sexy rather than ripped and artificial. A trimmed happy trail started at his navel and slowly widened until it met his equally trimmed pubes. With slim waist and hips, the hair and the V created by his obliques merely added to the impression that his entire body was built to draw eyes downward. Brody's forearms and legs sported a healthy but not excessive amount of black hair, as did his face, which he never shaved entirely but instead always left with the right amount of scruff. His head was covered with wavy, thick, lustrous black hair that he kept short and wore in a messy, just-out-of-bed style. He'd inherited most of his features from his father's Italian heritage, though his crystal blue eyes came out of nowhere considering his mother's were hazel and his father's were brown; Jace couldn't complain, though, since those eyes added a certain exotic mystique to Brody's overall appearance. He loved watching his boyfriend sleep. It often overwhelmed him with the sensuous impression of peaceful strength and sublime beauty. Not to mention he couldn't seem to get his fill of Brody, the visual, the touch, the ardor, all of it. Seeing him this way, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, breath deep and regular, made Jace shake his head time and again, pondering just what he'd done to deserve a man of such inner and outer perfection. Finally accepting he needed to wake Brody, somebody who slept like a rock—they joked constantly about his ability to sleep through the end of the world with nary a problem—Jace leaned down and gently kissed his boyfriend's chest, dropping light pecks atop the two hickeys with which he'd marked Brody the night before. I have to stop doing that, he admonished himself, because he can never take his shirt off with all the love bites I leave on him. But Jace knew he wouldn't stop, couldn't stop. He liked marking his territory. More than that, he liked putting his lips to Brody's skin and watching him writhe and listening to him moan, especially when he drew blood to the surface in those places that drove Brody nuts with erotic energy. His kisses continued up his boyfriend's chest to his neck, then his jaw, then his cheek, and finally his lips. His hand, meanwhile, kneaded and caressed Brody's chest, working closer to his nipple—Brody's nipples were one of his most sensitive spots. With their lips against each other, Jace finally pinched Brody's nipple and twisted it, not hard enough to hurt but definitely hard enough to send a jolt of electricity through his body. When Brody gasped, Jace slid his tongue into his mouth and deepened the kiss. "Mmmm..." Brody moaned as his arms came up to encircle Jace, pulling him down atop the larger boy and holding him close. Unfortunately, though he wished otherwise, Jace drew back before he'd had his fill. It was already later than they'd intended and Brody'd told him the night before that he absolutely couldn't be late for work. Not again anyway. Or at least not so soon after the last time he'd been late. "Hey..." Brody whined. "Work." "Don't wanna." "Want to." "Alright, Helene, thank you for the English lesson." "I can't help it if my mother's a staunch supporter of proper language use." Brody chuckled, shaking his head. Helene was a warm and generous and caring woman, but calling her a stickler for proper language use seemed a massive understatement. Thought not a grammar Nazi, the woman certainly didn't mind correcting lazy or improper English. "What time is it?" Brody asked as he stretched, a satisfied groan rumbling in his chest, making Jace smile. He loved the sound of his boyfriend's voice, deep and resonant, but he liked it even better when he heard and felt it through Brody's chest. The rumble was comforting, familiar, wanted. "Almost seven." "Too early." "You have to be there at eight." "Don't wanna." "Want to." "How about you do something more satisfying with that mouth?" "What did you have in mind?" "Another kiss. I can't get enough of those." Jace smirked and shook his head. "Why not?" "Morning breath." "You just had your tongue in my mouth trying to suck my soul out of me, and now you're complaining about morning breath?" "Not yours, silly. Mine. By some strange quirk of the universe, you never have morning breath. I, on the other hand, am not so lucky." "I wasn't complaining." "You never do." Jace dropped a chaste kiss on Brody's lips before slipping from beneath the covers. As he headed toward the bathroom, Brody never let his eyes wander away from the breathtaking naked man who'd just left his bed. A little taller than Brody's five ten, Jace stood maybe six feet and weighed ten pounds less. He was slim but not skinny, his muscles defined but not pronounced. Brody often thought of his boyfriend as having something a little smoother than a runner's build. Not sinewy at all, Jace was just... perfect. He had alabaster skin, so light and free of blemish that it appeared almost translucent. He was virtually hairless except for his head, his face, his pubes, his armpits, and his lower legs. Every bit of that hair was light brown with natural highlights, straight as a ruler, and felt like satin. But his eyes captivated Brody more than anything else: forest green flecked with gold, soulful, expressive, deep and mirthful and telling. Brody could get lost in those eyes. Hell, he often did. Even with his back to the open bathroom door and without a glance, Jace chuckled before calling over his shoulder, "It's not polite to stare." "Can't help it. I have the hottest boyfriend on the planet." "Please," Jace groaned as he flushed the toilet. As he grabbed his toothbrush and the toothpaste, preparing to dispatch the morning breath that he always thought was worse than it really was, he sneaked a peek through the doorway and found Brody with his arms behind his head, his eyes locked on Jace's every movement. "The truth is," he said, "I have the hottest boyfriend on the planet." And that was precisely how he felt. Brody was so unbelievably sexy. Jace couldn't understand how the hot exotic jock could ever find a lean bookish nerd attractive, but he didn't question it because he knew it was true. Brody proved it every day with both words and deeds. After rinsing, Jace returned to the bed and slipped under the covers, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend as he pulled him in for a passionate kiss. "Mmmm..." Brody moaned into his mouth. Jace accepted the offering with glee. When they parted, lips swollen and wet, pupils dilated, Jace smacked Brody on the chest and told him, "Time for you to get ready for work." "Don't wanna." Before Jace could correct him he added, "Don't want to." After a quick kiss, one less erotic than the last, Jace admitted, "I don't want you to go. So on that we're in agreement. But you said—" "I have to go. I know. That's what I said. Doesn't mean I want to go, only that I have to go." "Is Trish working today?" Brody frowned but still answered, "Yeah." "Then at least you'll have some fun." "Not as much fun as I could have with you," Brody announced before grabbing Jace and rolling over on top of him, settling his full weight on his boyfriend, claiming his mouth with a searing kiss. Then he leaped off the bed and walked to the bathroom. "It's not polite to stare," he called over his shoulder with as much mischief in his voice as he could muster. Which was quite a bit. Jace shrugged. He'd stare if he wanted to. Besides, who wouldn't want to stare at a hot naked jock ambling across the room, his ass bouncing just so, his broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist resting atop thick legs. Every muscle danced under taught skin, causing Jace's blood to flow south. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and began thinking about other things, like his plans for the day and Brody working with Trish and... Well, Brody working with Trish. That always killed his sexual excitement. "Stop thinking about it," Brody called from the shower. Jace could only chuckle. They knew each other so well. And Brody understood that Jace felt some measure of jealousy when it came to Trish. She'd been Brody's first girlfriend and his first kiss. Sure the big oaf of a jock liked boys and girls, but he liked boys better, which pleased Jace. But that didn't make it any less bothersome that Brody had been Trish's boyfriend for two years before Brody finally admitted how he felt about Jace. If I'd said something sooner, Jace thought. Maybe if I'd said something before he did, Trish wouldn't be an issue. He listened to Brody in the shower, humming amidst the spray of hot water, realizing he needn't worry so much about Trish because Brody loved him, he loved Brody, and by golly they were planning a future together. No matter what came before, he had Brody now, in this moment and, assuming everything went according to plan, he'd have him forevermore. And that suited Jace just fine. "It's silly to be jealous," Brody said as he stepped out of the shower and began toweling himself dry, his eyes never leaving Jace's intense gaze. "I'm not jealous." "It's something you're prone to." "Did you end that declarative with a preposition?" "Stop being Helene long enough to hear what I say rather than how I say it." Jace dropped his gaze for just a moment, long enough to shake his head at his own silliness. "You're right, you know. And I'm being daft for feeling threatened." "You don't feel threatened," Brody declared as he marched across the garage apartment, towel over his shoulder. "Then what do I feel?" Leaning over the love of his life, Brody let his lips rest against Jace's as he whispered, "You feel regret that you weren't my first kiss, regret that you weren't my first date, regret that you weren't the one I held and touched." "And?" "But you were, Jace." "No I wasn't," he responded with a bit too much venom. "Yes you were." Brody sat on the edge of the bed, his face still millimeters from Jace's. "I loved you before I settled for Trish. She was the next best option, Jace. I didn't think there was hope for me and you, so I settled. Now that I have what I wanted all along, you need to stop worrying about it. You're all I need and all I want and all I'll ever hope for." He dropped a passionate kiss on his boyfriend's lips before admitting, "And that was another prepositional ending, by the way." "Asshole." Jace couldn't keep the smile off his face or out of his voice. He felt more than silly for doubting Brody. Nothing could feel this perfect and destined without being real and meant. "By the way, you need to stop with the linguistic crap. That's your mom's thing, not yours." Brody stood and walked to the dresser. "She made it my thing. I can't help it." "You're such a nerd." He didn't turn to look at Jace as he put on a pair of boxer briefs. "I'm not a nerd." "Yes you are. You're a hot bookish nerd who turns me on all the time, the sexiest little bookish nerd in the world." Jace watched Brody as he opened the closet door and began browsing for something to wear. "If I'm a nerd then you're a jock." "I'm okay with being called a jock. But I'm not a dumb jock." "No, definitely not a dumb jock." Pulling on a pair of jeans without looking back Brody said, "Besides, I'm not just any jock. I'm your jock." "And if I were a nerd, I'd be your nerd." "You are a nerd. You're my nerd. And I love you without reservation." "I love you, too." Brody slipped a tee shirt over his head before turning around. The moment his eyes settled on Jace he smiled, ducked his head, shrugged, asked, "Whoda thunk it?" "Who would've thought it, you mean," Jace corrected without thought. "Right." Watching Brody approach the bed, Jace couldn't help but think he was the luckiest man alive to have such a fantastic man in love with him. "Who would have thought what?" Leaning down, Brody placed an affectionate kiss on Jace's lips before standing, his eyes locked on his boyfriend's. "Who would've thought it would be you and me?" "Forever." "Forever and ever." Jace shrugged, looking sheepish, then said, "You looked like you needed a friend." After placing another kiss on his boyfriend's lips, Brody walked to the door, pulled it open, paused, looked at Jace, admitted, "I did need a friend. I just didn't think he'd be the man of my dreams. But he's that and a whole lot more." Before Jace could respond, Brody said, "Gotta go to work. I'll see you later. I love you." And with that, he pulled the door closed, leaving Jace to his own thoughts, thoughts of meeting, thoughts of destiny, thoughts of loving a man so much it hurt. "You looked like you needed a friend," he muttered. "Who knew you'd be so much more than that?" * * * * * Thirteen Years Prior "Mom..." Jace whined. "Do I hafta?" "Have to," Helene Langstrom corrected her son. "It's 'do I have to,' and the answer is yes, young man." "But Mom..." "Do you want some cheese with your whine this morning?" she asked with half a grin and raised eyebrows. "Huh?" "Nothing, sweetheart. Just a silly joke." "I don't get it." "Of course you don't. Understanding comes with age." "What?" "I'm sorry, Jace, but what were we talking about?" "Uh..." "That's what I thought," she mumbled, biting back a chuckle. Helene made a sport of using confusion to redirect her son's sometimes prosaic grizzling. He wasn't a complainer by any stretch of the imagination, but like every other five-year-old on the planet, he sure knew the right tone of voice to use so everyone inside of five blocks could hear his displeasure. "Why don't you go on in and find a seat, honey?" "What if they don't like me, Mom? What if nobody likes me?" Jace whimpered, unshed tears welling in his beautiful green eyes. And there was the other problem with her son. Helene couldn't understand why he never felt sure of himself, why he always assumed no one would like him. For such a gregarious child, his lack of self-confidence sometimes worried her. Sometimes. "Don't be silly, Jace." Turning him toward the classroom and waving a hand around the half-full room, she continued, "See all those kids? They're in the same boat you're in right now. It's their first day, too. They've never been to school before. They probably don't know very many of their classmates." "Really?" he asked, his voice carrying a hint of awe and a hint of comfort. "Pardon me," a woman apologetically said as she sidled through the door while attempting not to bump the kneeling mother and her adorable son. "Of course," Helene responded automatically, gently pulling Jace out of the way as the other woman slipped by, her own son pulling her along in his wake. Oh that poor boy, she pondered as she watched them weave through the tables and chairs toward the spot by the windows the boy motioned toward, he looks positively frail. I wonder what's wrong with him. * * * * * Jayne Anne Windham allowed her son to pull her into the classroom. "Pardon me," she offered shyly as she and Brody attempted to get through the door without knocking over the woman kneeling there cajoling her son, clearly trying to get the cute youngster to boldly face his first day of kindergarten. Thankfully I don't have to face that, she thought. With all he's been through, Brody's so well socialized and so uncaring of his appearance. To him, the first day of school is just one more thing he has to face. Compared to everything that came before, he doesn't seem to think this will be a problem at all. But, as mother's are wont to do, Jayne Anne had to temper the approval she felt for her son's seeming lack of fear in the face of even the most daunting circumstances. Three years, most of which he spent in the hospital undergoing all manner of tests and treatments, years of overwhelming pain and anguish and suffering both from the leukemia and its cure, had left Brody a quiet, introspective, strong-willed boy with confidence to endure most anything, which was all well and good in his mother's mind. But the other side of the coin was that he seemed to shrink in on himself most of the time, spending more than a healthy share of his days inside his own head. In addition to and despite his lack of nervousness around people he didn't know—he'd spent most of his life dealing with an unending parade of people he didn't know in environments unfamiliar and frightening—he appeared for all intents and purposes to be a rather shy boy. Ben was right. He needs kindergarten so he's around other kids, has a chance to learn social interactions with his peers, realizes he's not alone regardless of what he's been through. Brody drew his mother forward, his stride sure and his path clear, expertly guiding her amongst the other children and through the maze of chairs and tables. He'd never been in a classroom before, but by golly he knew where he wanted to sit if he absolutely had to be there. As soon as he arrived at the seats adjacent to the wall of windows facing the beautiful courtyard with its trees and fountain and benches and flowers and ample sunshine, he spun on his heels and leaned toward his mother. "Do you think it's alright if I sit here, Mom?" he asked, his voice hushed and respectful. Yet more evidence of his ordeal, she knew, the quiet surety, the graciousness, the veneration for the feelings of others, the innate deference to proper social deportment. She hoped the genteel, well-behaved child leukemia had created indicated the young man he would someday become. "I'm sure it's fine, Brody," Jayne Anne replied. "And if the teacher has assigned seating in mind, he'll let you know when class gets started." "I hope he lets me sit here," he remarked in the staid manner she'd come to expect. No five-year-old should be so well-mannered, she thought, but he was basically raised by a bunch of doctors and nurses. He never had time to learn about being a child. All the children he grew up with were in the same position he was in—sick, fighting for life, living day in and day out with a bunch of medical personnel who, irrespective of their intentions, never stopped being learned adults no matter what the children needed. "Would you like me to ask him if you can stay in this seat?" After he settled into the chair, quietly pulling it forward so he settled comfortably against the table, he turned to her and whispered, "Would you please?" "Of course, honey. I'll do that on my way out, if that's alright." "Yes." "Did you bring all your supplies?" Brody hefted his backpack onto the tabletop and pulled it to him with an arm slung over its bulky form. "Yes. Right here." "Are you feeling okay?" Brody didn't quite understand what he'd been through, but he very much understood he'd been sick for a long time, for as long as he could remember in fact. He also knew he wasn't completely recovered yet, but his parents said every single day that he was getting better, growing into a strong boy. So when one of them asked if he was feeling okay, he gave it serious consideration, basically performing a full inventory of his body and mind, checking to see if anything felt worse than the day before. Finding nothing amiss save uncertainty about the whole kindergarten thing, he told her, "Yes, Mom. I'm fine." "Good." Jayne Anne squatted beside the tiny chair her son sat in, resting one arm atop the table, and quietly explained, "The school knows you've only been out of treatment for a few months. They've promised to be mindful of how you look and feel. But don't you dare hesitate to let them know if you don't feel good, you hear me, Mr. Man?" "Yes, Mom," he giggled. That nickname made him feel silly, always did, and he loved her for it. She hated that nickname. It popped into her head one day when she realized her child was more an adult than anyone his age, due entirely to his health and the time spent around adults who tried to be childlike yet failed miserably in the attempt, turning her little boy into a little person too formal and too intelligent and too out of touch with his age. But she used the moniker anyway; it always brought a smile to Brody's face. For whatever reason, it brightened his mood. She just couldn't find fault with anything that did that. "The nurse is supposed to meet you before lunch to help you take your medicine." "Oh Mom..." he whined. Or tried to. It always sounded forced to her ears, like an adult playing at being a child. She appreciated the effort, though, as if her son were gifting her with a taste of what they'd both missed during his first five years of life. With a silly scowl she scolded through a chuckle, "Don't you give me sass, Mr. Man." Again he snickered, blushing. God he looks so much better when he blushes. I'll be happy when his olive skin darkens back to its original tone. Jayne Anne leaned forward and dropped a kiss on his forehead before giving him a quick hug. "You be good, you hear me?" "Yes, Mom." "I'll be right outside the class when school is out. Don't wander." "I'll be okay." "I know you will. But I worry about you anyway." Brody ducked his head and turned away, suddenly feeling quite shy, maybe even embarrassed. He might not understand everything that'd happened to him in the past, but he fully understood it'd been pretty bad. He suspected he'd understand even more as he got older. He watched his mom stand. Just before she turned and walked away, she ruffled his black wavy hair. With a grin she realized she was terribly happy his hair had grown in before school started. She'd been so worried he'd go to school bald on top of still looking sickly and being thin enough to appear unhealthy. "Bye, kiddo." "Bye, Mom." * * * * * Helene had watched the other woman with her son, still wondering what might be wrong with him. He seemed normal, if not a bit subdued, and she knew the administrators wouldn't let a kid into class who had something contagious. "I guess I'll go," Jace lamented with melodramatic flair as he shuffled noisily into the classroom, eyes downcast, hands jammed into his pockets as his backpack wiggled from his jerky movements. She stood and stepped aside as other parents came and went. For reasons she couldn't quite fathom, she paused rather than leaving. Her unprovoked delay became all too comprehensible when, after a brief chat with the teacher, the mother of that poor sickly child scooted sideways into the hall as another set of parents wandered in with their precious daughter between them. "Excuse me," Helene said, placing a gentle hand on the woman's arm. Jayne Anne turned, setting an inquisitive gaze on the woman who'd stopped her. "Can I help you?" she asked, more out of curiosity than anything else. "I was... I was just wondering if your son is alright," Helene remarked, not so much asking a question as hesitantly fishing for answers. "Yes he is, thank you," Jayne Anne declared, straining to keep her face from scrunching up in a sour expression of disapproval. She'd tolerated far too much nosiness and furtive looks of worry and innuendos implying Brody might be dangerous to other children. At least in the hospital he'd been surrounded by others dealing with the same or similar health problems, but away from that safe environment she was discovering that too many adults who should know better spent far too much time digging into her family's personal business, as though hoping for a tasty tidbit of gossip. She started to turn away, fighting to keep from lashing out at yet one more idiot who used her son's illness as cause for stupidity. Thus she was pleasantly surprised when the woman asked quite gently and with a not inconsiderable amount of genuine concern in her voice, "And are you? Are you alright?" Looking back to the woman, Jayne Anne wondered only for a moment if a lie would be better than the truth. Then she told her, "As well as can be. When your son's been fighting leukemia for three years and he's still struggling to be a normal kid with a normal life, I suppose being alright is a subjective thing." She had no clue where that level of candor came from. Talk about too much information. Yet the woman again surprised her. "I can't imagine what you've been through and I can't imagine what your son has endured. I only asked because you look so stressed and tired—" "He looks worse." "Oh," Helene gasped, then giggled when Jayne Anne chuckled behind her hand. "Well, now that you've said it, I can agree, but I'm guessing he looks better than he did." "You have no idea." Finding an interesting level of courage and concern bubbling up inside her, Helene held her hand out and offered, "My name's Helene. Helene Langstrom." "Jayne Anne." She took the hand and shook it with friendly warmth. "Jayne Anne Windham." "That's Jace, my son," Helene admitted as she gestured into the classroom, "with the end-of-the-world posture." Both women snickered as they watched Jace walk right over to Brody. Well, maybe not walk so much as scoot and meander and shuffle. Brody's gaze had already been locked on Jace as he approached, and the women observed the two boys chat quietly before Jace dropped into the chair at the same table, never turning away from Brody as the boys talked and nodded and smiled. "My son's Brody. It looks like our boys are getting to know each other," Jayne Anne remarked. "Seems like a good idea. You look like you could use a break, maybe even a friend. Would you let me buy you a cup of coffee?" "That sounds wonderful, Helene. Thank you." The look of relief on Jayne Anne's face told Helene she'd been right all along. Though not as much as her son, obviously, this woman had still been through her own level of torment for years. "I'm parked right out front. Let me drive. I can bring you back to your car later." "That would be nice." * * * * * "Hi," Brody greeted as the other boy stopped and stared. After a moment of silence he added, "I'm Brody." "I'm Jace." The boys continued looking at each other as more silence spread between them. "Are you sick?" Jace suddenly blurted out, his cheeks immediately flushing. Brody let his head drop in disappointment. He'd been worried he might attract attention because of how he looked. He'd really been hoping to find a new friend or two. Well, to find a friend period since he didn't have any. He'd made lots of friends in the hospital, but Dallas was just too big for any them to live near enough to go to the same school. When this pale-skinned, brown-haired, green-eyed boy reached the table, Brody thought for a moment that maybe he was going to make a new friend after all. But then he'd asked about being sick. Of course he'd ask that. Most everybody did. Meeting the boy's gaze again Brody admitted, "I was. For a long time. I'm not now, but I'm not completely better." "Takes time, huh?" the kid asked. "A long time." He hadn't meant to let so much sadness leak into his voice, but there it was anyway. Oh well. "Can I sit here?" A momentary flash of hope exploded across Brody's features before he slipped back to his stoic demeanor. "Sure." Jace pulled the chair out and dropped into it like a sack of potatoes, not even removing his backpack first. When it hit the back of the chair, though, he remembered it, slid it from his shoulders, and pushed it onto the tabletop without too much care. "So what'd you have?" "When?" "When you were sick, silly. What'd do you have?" "Leukemia." "Luke who?" "Not Luke anybody. I had leukemia." "Leukemia..." Jace repeated, letting the word slowly move through his mouth as he tried out its flavor. "It's a kind of cancer," Brody offered, hoping that would clarify matters. At least as much as a child of five could clarify and another child of five could understand such matters. "What's cancer?" Brody shrugged. "Something bad." He didn't fully understand what it was, but he knew enough to know that much. "Huh..." Jace glanced over his shoulder, having thought he needed to wave to his mom to let her know he might actually survive his first day of kindergarten, but he turned his attention back to Brody the moment he realized his mother was yammering with some other lady out in the hall. "Is that your mom?" Brody asked. "Who?" "In the hall. Wearing the pretty flower dress." After another quick glance over his shoulder, Jace nodded. "Yeah." "She's talking to my mother." "Oh. That's neat." Jace turned in his seat and began rummaging in his backpack. Like he'd suddenly thought of something important, he swung back toward Brody and asked, "Maybe they'll be friends. So you and me can be friends. If you wanna be my friend. Do you? Wanna be my friend?" Brody almost giggled at the boy's nervous behavior. But he didn't. Because he wanted a friend. Needed one. Even if only one. "Yes, Jace, I'd like to be you friend and I'd like you to be my friend." "Okay." With that, Jace turned back to rummage in his backpack. * * * * * At two years old, Jenny, was a healthy, vivacious, rambunctious child. And a messy eater. Jayne Anne wiped a bit of dribble and a lot of food of her daughter's face before coaxing her to take another small spoonful, most of which would squeeze out of puckered lips. As a mother, rearing a child came naturally to her, yet Jayne Anne constantly felt pangs of guilt for wishing Brody had been a healthy child. She'd missed so much. And sometimes, though she'd never admit it, she wondered if having their daughter while Brody suffered was a selfish move by her and Ben. It had been an accident, sure, getting pregnant the furthest thing from both their minds. Yet it had happened, which left her sometimes wondering if they'd inadvertently been planning for the worst by having another child. She shook her head to dislodge and discard the errant thoughts. Then Jayne Anne glanced at Brody as he slowly devoured a bowl of sugary cereal. She preferred he eat healthy meals, but the doctors had made it clear he should be allowed to eat whatever he could and would eat, at least for several more months. It would help him add weight and it would help his stomach acclimate to a steady supply of solid foods. His diet during treatment had been horrific. Everything cooked, nothing raw like fruits or vegetables, plenty of starch, no citrus or spice, as little dairy as possible, and on the restrictions went. Mind you, that diet lasted a short while before he started having difficulty keeping anything down. Then came intravenous feeding coupled with whatever foods he consumed that didn't come back up. Bananas. Strangely enough, Dr. O'Neill had told them bananas would be Brody's best friend despite being uncooked. When asked why, he informed them in an embarrassed tone that bananas were the only food that tasted the same coming back up as they did when they went down. Now, of course, Brody hated bananas. Nobody could blame him. Aware of his mother's gaze but not meeting it, he asked, "Can Jace spend the night tonight?" Ben winked at his wife before turning to his son and asking, "Who's Jace?" He'd heard all week about Jace, so he damn well knew who the kid was. "I told you. He's my friend." "From where?" "I told you. He's my friend from school." "And you want him to spend the night?" "Yes." "After only one week?" "Yes." "Isn't that too soon?" "Is it?" "That's what I was asking." "I don't know. Is it?" "Maybe not. Is it safe?" "Is what safe?" "Jace spending the night." "Why wouldn't it be?" "Maybe he's dangerous." "Jace?" "Isn't that who we're talking about?" "But he's not dangerous." "How do you?" Finally looking up from his cereal and glaring at his father as though the man had suddenly turned senile, Brody sighed in a dramatically exasperated fashion before explaining, "He's just a kid, Dad, like me. He's not dangerous." "Are you sure?" That's when he caught the mischief in his father's eyes. "Come on, Dad..." he moaned. It sounded alien from his lips since Brody never complained. When he caught his wife's gaze, Ben realized she was smiling with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. "And what do you know about this?" he inquired, a smile blossoming on his face. "Remember the woman I told you about, Helene, the one I met the first day of kindergarten?" "Of course. It's only been five days, baby doll. I might not be a youngster anymore, but I'm not senile." "Yet," she jibed through a giggle. "We're the same age, woman!" he laughed. "Technically you're older." "By a few months. That hardly counts." "Excuse me." Both parents turned immediately toward Brody. He'd watched them engage in their silly antics time and again. And though he loved the levity and joy his parents often displayed with each other, their lighthearted banter and childish joking often bringing a smile to his face, he really wanted an answer to his question. "What is it, honey?" Jayne Anne asked. "Can Jace spend the night tonight?" Ben and Jayne Anne shared a look before both fell into fits of laughter. "You're so serious sometimes, kiddo," Ben told his son once he'd caught his breath. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd forgotten my question. I'll wait." "Of course we hadn't forgotten, sweetie," Jayne Anne assured him, ruffling his hair. She'd have to get out of that habit soon, but she was still enjoying the fact that it was growing back, so thick and black and lustrous. Getting her fingers into it was a personal joy she couldn't quite deny herself. At least not yet. "Are you sure?" "Sure of what, Brody?" Not sure what happened to the conversation, his son's unflinching seriousness had Ben worried. Just a little. Which came easily and naturally, all things considered. "That you hadn't forgotten." "Of course we're sure." "Sure of what?" "What?" "That's what I was asking." "I think your mother and I might have missed something." "What did you miss, Dad?" "Well... "I thought so." Dumbfounded, both parents stared at their son, attempting to figure out what just happened. Brody stared back, his expression blank. Until that mischievous sparkle showed up in his eyes. Just before the corners of his mouth started to twitch up into a grin. * * * * * Ben gave his wife a sidelong look, curiosity defining the thoughtful scowl on his face. "What?" she asked. He jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating the hall and the rooms beyond. Mostly indicating their son's room. "Have you ever heard him laugh like that?" Jayne Anne cocked her head, eyes slowly meandering about the room but seeing nothing. She had all her attention focused on the giddy chuckles and snickers and occasional uproarious laughter sneaking out beneath the closed bedroom door. Even as her eyes widened and she turned back to her husband, Ben nodded and admitted, "Me, either." Then he smiled. Sure, they'd heard Brody laugh, sometimes loudly and sometimes softly, but neither of them had ever heard the kind of wholesome, heartfelt, carefree laughter they heard that night as Brody and Jace hid away playing all manner of games and whispering and wrestling and... well, being kids. She snuggled against Ben, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "It's beautiful," she whispered. "Yeah," he breathed, "it sure as hell is."
  7. "Good morning, Mrs. Windham." "Good morning, Dr. Lareaux." "What brings you and Brody in this fine morning?" "Well... I know he's not quite two yet, but he seems to sleep more than he should." "Your mileage may vary on how much a child his age sleeps. There's no definitive rule about these things." "Oh, I'm sure you're right. It's just..." "Yes?" "Even when he's awake, he seems... well... I suppose he seems lethargic." "I see. Let me take a look at the little tyke. Anything else you've noticed?" "Actually... yes. For the last week or so he can't seem to get comfortable, and I'd swear he acts like it hurts to be touched." "Mmhmm... Interesting... Anything else?" "Well..." "Even the most minor thing can be important, Mrs. Windham. Don't be afraid to point out anything that concerns you, no matter how insignificant. If it's not important, we move on, but it just might be important. By the way, he looks somewhat pallid. Is that just from the stress of the morning—" "No, actually it's not. I've thought for a week or so that he seems pale. I thought maybe he was fighting something, what with the fevers and achy behavior and such." "Fevers?" "That's what I was going to mention. He's had a temperature off and on for a week or so." "I see... Anything else?" "There is something—" "Oh my." "Yes, that's what I was going to tell you." "Mrs. Windham, do you know where these bruises came from?" "That's what I wanted to tell you, Dr. Lareaux. I'm not certain. Some of them seem to be where I hold him and some—See those on his arms?" "Yes." "Those seem to be where he leans on the crib railing." "I see." "I know what you're thinking. Trust me, my husband and I spent about five minutes being livid with each other thinking the bruises were signs of... well... I'm sure you can guess what we thought." "Mmhmm..." "But that's not the case, I assure you. He just seems to bruise so easily—" "Mrs. Windham, I'd like to run a full blood test. Individually, these symptoms aren't troubling, but together they paint a picture worth some investigation." "Do you think it's serious?" "I won't lie to you, Mrs. Windham. They could indicate a significant problem. On the other hand, coincidence is the bane of medicine and these symptoms might just be a little of this and a little of that and none of the bad stuff. Let's run some tests to see what we can see." "Of course. You're right." * * * * * "Any news, Dr. Lareaux?" "Mrs. Windham, I think it would be wise to admit Brody to the hospital so we can run further tests while we begin treating some of these symptoms." "Admit him? To the hospital?" "Yes." "What... what did you find?" "His blood work is troubling, to tell the truth. He's anemic for one, which probably explains the bruising and fatigue. He's febrile—feverish—as you mentioned. His white cells appear... far too abundant. He's also cranky, as you mentioned, but that appears to be a symptom of rheumatism." "Rheumatism?" "Soreness of the muscles, bones or joints. Brody seems to hurt all over." "What... what aren't you telling me? I can see it in your face and hear it in your voice. There's something you're not telling me." "I don't want to cause undue concern, Mrs. Windham, so let's set aside conjecture for now until we know more." "Well... well..." "We should get him admitted, Mrs. Windham. I think it's important to run more tests in addition to treating the symptoms we can see at this time." "Yes, of course you're right." "Very good then. I'll have one of my nurses come in to finish up the paperwork and provide the hospital referral. Take him right next door to Baylor, to the outpatient admissions desk. I'll call ahead so they're ready for you. Dr. O'Neill will be taking over Brody's case." "Okay..." * * * * * Three Days Later "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, thank you so much for coming in so quickly." "We're worried about our son, Dr. O'Neill. You call, we come." "I understand, Mr. Windham. And I wish I could say your concern was misplaced." "Oh God, what is it?" "Mrs. Windham... Mr. Windham... Brody is showing all the signs and symptoms of leukemia." "Oh God!" "No!" "Please calm down. I know this is upsetting, but it appears we've caught it early thanks to your diligence." "What can we do?" "Can you treat him?" "First I need you to understand that we have more tests to run. It's important for us to identify the precise kind of leukemia and its various traits." "But can't you—" "Mrs. Windham, I promise we're moving as quickly as we can—" "No, that's not what I meant. I know you're doing everything..." "It's alright, honey. Calm down now and let's hear what the doctor has to say." "The truth is, Brody's symptoms and test results thus far indicate acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or A-L-L. He has persistent weakness and fatigue, malaise, chronic fever, and rheumatism. More importantly, he has leukocytosis, meaning too many white blood cells; normocytic anemia, meaning too few red blood cells; and thrombocytopenia, meaning a low platelet count." "What can we do?" "Please tell me this is treatable." "The immediate treatment is blood and platelet transfusions, as well as steroids and antibiotics. Concurrently we'll run further tests to determine the exact characteristics of the leukemia so we can implement an induction therapy regime that's—" "Induction therapy? What's that?" "I'm sorry. Sometimes I forget myself. Induction therapy is when we induce remission." "You mean chemo and the like?" "If appropriate, yes, along with other treatment options as applicable and needed." "My God..." * * * * * Two Days Later "Brody has precursor B-cell Ph1-negative acute lymphoblastic leukemia with L2 morphology." "What does that mean?" "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, I'm not going to gloss over the truth. Brody has a highly aggressive form of leukemia that requires an aggressive and prolonged treatment regimen." "How long?" "It could take two or three years to achieve complete remission." "Years? Did you say two or three years?" "Some patients make it in less time, but Brody's young and small and the leukemic cell population is quite high." "What stage?" "I beg your pardon?" "Well, doesn't cancer come in stages to tell the severity?" "Normally that's true. With ALL, though, there are no stages." "Why?" "Because it's highly aggressive. If you have it, it's already as bad as it can get." "Oh God..." "What does he need? What kind of treatment?" "He needs aggressive high-dose systemic chemotherapy, what we call multiagent remission induction therapy. You need to understand the treatment will be very hard on Brody. But induction therapy is only the beginning." "What?" "Tell us, please. Just tell us." "We'll start with remission induction therapy, which, as I said, is an aggressive treatment. He'll probably be in the hospital for a month or more. Assuming that treatment's successful, we'll immediately begin consolidation therapy." "Which is what?" "It's an even more aggressive form of chemotherapy. It's sometimes called the intensification phase of ALL treatment. Given Brody's age and weakening condition, he'll likely be hospitalized for most or all of that phase of his treatment." "Oh God... Is that all?" "I'm afraid not." "Afraid not? What else does he have to go through?" "Assuming consolidation therapy is successful, which will last probably six to nine months—" "Jesus..." "—he'll face up to thirty months of maintenance therapy. It's a less aggressive form of chemotherapy." "My God..." "But? You have something else to say." "It doesn't end there, does it?" "No, Mrs. Windham, it doesn't. Somewhere along the way, Brody will need intrathecal chemotherapy, either as prophylaxis or as treatment." "What's... what's intrathecal chemotherapy?" "That's where we introduce chemotherapy directly into the spine so the cerebrospinal fluid carries it up to the brain. This can help prevent leukemic spread into the central nervous system or help treat it if it already has." "Oh God..." "How long does that take?" "If we can perform the intrathecal therapy concurrently with his other treatments, it will add no time to the overall schedule. If we have to do it separately, it'll require another two to four months, assuming all goes well." "Jesus Christ..." "I can't emphasize enough the need to start treatment as soon as possible. ALL is highly aggressive, as I've explained, and any further delay will reduce the chances of success." "He could die, couldn't he? Is that what you're dancing around?" "Jayne Anne..." "I'm sorry, Ben, but I need to know!" "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, I understand this is overwhelming and seems to get worse with each minute that passes. Please know we'll do everything that can be done to make Brody well again." "You didn't answer the question." "The answer is yes, Brody's condition is critical, becoming more so with each passing minute. ALL is normally fatal if treatment is delayed too long. That's why I urge you to let us move forward immediately with the treatment regimen I've outlined." "Honey..." "It's okay, Jayne Anne, just let it out. That's it, just let it out." "How... How soon does he need to start treatment?" "Today." * * * * * Three Years Later "He's in complete remission." "That's wonderful!" "We can't thank you enough!" "We're not out of the woods just yet." "What?" "Why?" "Brody will need monitoring for the rest of his life in case the leukemia comes back." "How common is that?" "More common than we'd like, though not common enough for you to worry about it. You just need to be mindful of the possibility. Brody will need to be monitored for the rest of his life, and he'll spend at least the next few years taking medication." "What kind of medication?" "To start with, an immunosuppressant, a systemic steroid, and a prophylaxis antibiotic. In three to six months, assuming all goes well, we'll take him off the immunosupressant. Again if all goes well, three to six months after that we'll take him off the antibiotic." "What about the steroid?" "He may be on that for life, though we'll only know for sure each time he comes in for testing." "How often will that be necessary?" "Every month for the first year. So long as there are no signs of relapse, every six months after that." "For his whole life?" "I'm afraid so." "Oh God..." "It's possible, after a prolonged period in remission, that we could go to testing once a year, but it's not recommended except in the rarest of cases." "Well, we can always hope." "Yes, we can always hope." * * * * * Two Months Later "Honey, are you sure we should send him to kindergarten? All those kids with colds and flus and—" "Jayne Anne, we can't keep him in a bubble for the rest of his life." "Don't you think I know that?" "Jayne Anne..." "I'm sorry, Ben. I didn't mean to snap." "Yes you did. But I'm not taking it personally, baby doll. You've been through the ringer with Brody these past years while I worked. I can't rightly blame you for being upset, overprotective, short-tempered, angry, frustrated—" "Alright, you silly man! Cut it out already." "It's going to be fine, Jayne Anne." "But he still looks so sickly." "He's getting better." "Every day, I know. I see it. But what about the other kids..." "Do you want to try home schooling so he's ready to jump into the first grade next year?" "Of course not! He needs friends, he needs to socialize, he needs to learn alongside his peers— Oh you sneaky man. You just made me argue against my own point of view." "And did we learn anything?" "That my husband is a clever man who can always help me see the light." "So... Kindergarten?" "I suppose you're right. We can't keep him in a bubble for the rest of his life." "And he's getting better, stronger every day, looking healthier every day." "But you know how kids are, Ben. Looking like he does now, Brody'll be an outcast on his very first day." "I'm not saying it is, but even if that's true, it won't last forever. He's gaining weight, gaining color, looking better." "So you think being shunned will be temporary?" "Assuming anyone shuns him, Jayne Anne. Kids are resilient, so he'll survive either way." "And kids don't have the hang-ups adults have. Maybe it won't even matter to the other children." "Right, baby doll." "So maybe it won't be bad at all." "We can certainly hope as much."
  8. Brody and Jace have been inseparable best friends since the first day of kindergarten. By the time they reached high school, they were boyfriends hiding their love from pretty much everybody. They're full of hope and plans for a future together when graduation's just a few months distant. But lying about a weekend away leads to both families discovering their secret. All the choices that led them to that moment are complicated by a flurry of heat-of-the-moment choices made by both sets of parents. In the end, Brody and Jace make a few more choices that may just alter the future for everybody.
  9. This story was inspired by the Kyle character. Strange, huh? Yeah, I know. Honestly, though, many moons ago I met a neighborhood boy who was fifteen, attractive, unusually mature, and clearly—even if he didn't know it yet—sexually confused. The real Kyle developed a huge crush on me which lasted years before his family moved to another state. No, I never responded to that crush despite his increasing attempts to engage me both emotionally and sexually. A few years ago I had one of those random thoughts about the past. It happened to be the real Kyle who popped into my head, which made me go looking to see if I could find him. No luck there, but the thought wouldn't go away, so eventually I started writing a story. All I knew at the time was that it would be based loosely on the truth—gay guy moves into new neighborhood, meets fifteen-year-old kid, kid develops crush on gay guy as he figures out his sexuality, blah blah blah. What I refused to do, however, was write a story that hinged entirely on an adult-minor titillation vibe. Thus the Greg character could never show interest in Kyle, though I had no issue with Greg finding the kid attractive since that's no more inappropriate than liking dark chocolate; it's just natural. But that left me wondering how meeting a boy of fifteen could have a significant effect on a mature gay man if it didn't result in the gay man developing feelings for the boy. So—some of you will be pleased with this—I created a character originally called The Dick. I never gave him a name and he was never more than a nebulous shadow from the past, a guy who was Greg's first love and who hurt Greg in major ways. Not physically, no, but emotionally. In that first iteration, Greg was fifteen when he fell in love with The Dick. Except that didn't really create a problem significant enough to make Kyle important. As you can probably guess, it required that The Dick be an adult when they met and Greg fell for him. Which still didn't solve the boredom issue I was facing. Somehow I needed The Dick to be so significant that Kyle's presence and attractiveness would cause a profound impact on Greg, forcing him to face something terrible and painful from his past. Well, unexpectedly The Dick needed a name. Richard, right? That was an easy leap to make, so I made it. But he needed more than a name. And it only took about ten seconds of thought to realize what could be in Greg's past that would make meeting Kyle a potent catalyst for change in a thirty-year-old man. Basically, Richard, who became The Fiend since The Dick had too much levity associated with it, grew organically from the story as it developed, slowly taking on this dark and ominous persona. Because he'd been mature when Greg was young, making him a predator came naturally, especially because I needed Greg's hurt from Richard to be life-altering and of significant consequence. From there, making him Nate's father was a no-brainer. How could I make Greg's experience with Richard substantial for both guys? It's one thing for a best friend to feel hurt and anger at his best friend's assault; it's a much better challenge to overcome if the assailant was his father. So Richard was a simple, natural progression for a character who originally remained a nameless presence in the past upon whom all blame could be heaped for Greg's dating issues. Well, it started out being simple dating issues, or at least a severe disinterest in dating, but as Richard took shape, so too did a darker past and deeper problems for Greg. And Nate, as well. And finally, I originally wrote five separate endings for this story. One is the ending you've read, with Nate and Greg happily together. Two of the other endings I discarded immediately: Greg and Keigan getting together, which was too trite and predictable; and Greg and Kyle getting together when Kyle was nineteen, which required some romantic interest when Kyle was a minor, a line I was unwilling to cross. The fourth ending was sad: Greg withdrew from Nate because he loved him too much but couldn't have him, and Nate tried fixing it while his relationship with Rita progressed, ultimately ending with Nate and Rita preparing to marry while Greg was a lonely, anguished mess. In the last chapter, Greg sees them across the store where Nate and Rita are building their wedding gift registry. Nate looks hopeful and waves toward Greg, but all Greg can do is turn away as he begins crying. Yeah, after what I put Greg through, I really didn't want to leave him like that even if it was believable. The fifth alternate ending had Greg meeting someone at a party hosted by Keigan and Yannis, but he makes clear he can't really get involved with anyone because of his feelings for Nate. Later, at Greg's birthday party, he runs into Nate for the first time in a year or more, and they finally begin reconciling and rebuilding their friendship. Both are single and at the end, Nate asks Greg out on a date. I rejected that one because I wanted to give them a happy ending, not just a hopeful one. Hopefully some of that is interesting to those of you who like seeing a bit of what's behind the curtain. Thank you so much for all of your support, interest, kindness and feedback! I've never written for an audience; decades of writing always happened simply because I like to write and I have to do it to get stories to stop bouncing around inside my head. Posting this here on GA has taught me a great deal about sharing with others that which has historically been a personal endeavor resulting in something else to store in digital limbo. Now, perhaps, some of those wrongfully imprisoned stories can be released for the enjoyment of others. Again, thank you sincerely and wholeheartedly! Cheers and best regards, - Jason
  10. February 5, 2019 For fuck's sake! I felt so nervous I thought I might fly apart at any minute. To make matters worse, Greg could tell. I could see it in his expressions and in his eyes. But I kept trying to chill, really I did. I kept trying to calm the fuck down before I preemptively ruined a good plan. That's the curse of being as close as the two of us: secrets were laughable myths because we were always in each other's head. It was nearly impossible to hide anything. And even if we successfully hid something, the fact that we were hiding something was so obvious that it created a tense worry that tainted everything else. What he picked up from me was a fluttery, queasy unease that threated to undo everything I had planned. I intended to throw out sixteen years of Richard's legacy and start—restart, maybe—a tradition of making Greg's birthday at least a little about him and not always about others. It was fucking time for his birthday to be about him, damn it, even if he couldn't see it yet. Well, hopefully his attitude would change after this evening. If so, good plan; if not, not so good plan. Of course his birthday fell on a fucking Wednesday. How convenient, right? Yeah, not so much. Still, I made him come home early, shower, and dress for a nice romantic dinner. I had to remind myself to breathe when he came downstairs. Brown slim-fit cords, brown leather work boots, a tight glacial-blue button-down shirt that made his eyes absolutely pop, and a brown-and-black scuba jacket. After reminding myself to breathe, I had to remind myself that I had dinner plans and other plans because what I really wanted to do was drag him right back upstairs, undress him, then spend all night exploring and being explored. Fuck! He was my undoing! Every time I looked at him I thought he was more beautiful than the time before. Every time he kissed me it was better than the time before. Every time we touched the heat was hotter than the time before. You know, it's weird, me being straight yet in love with a guy, especially a guy as hot as Greg. Everybody—and I do mean everybody—envies me when they see us holding hands, kissing, staring into each other's eyes like lovestruck idiots mooning over each other. But that wasn't the point. I was saying it's weird being in love with a guy. From time to time I see a hot woman and the thought shoots through my head that she'd probably be a good lay, maybe she'd make a nice girlfriend, possibly she'd be a good wife. You know the thoughts, the same kinds of thoughts everyone has, the fleeting ideas that race around in our gray matter when somebody attractive crosses our path. I mean, come on already, being in love doesn't mean I'm dead or blind. But just as quickly those thoughts would vanish. Not because I felt guilty, but instead because I felt more than satisfied. In a way, sometimes anyhow, I felt unworthy. Seriously, Greg's like the smartest, hottest, most caring guy on the planet. Maybe I'm biased, but I've thought of him that way since I met him at the impressionable age of ten. There I sat, my first day in a new school after moving halfway across the country, and I couldn't get more than a few words out of anybody. I was a skinny drink of water back then, not terribly tall for my age, kinda puny and uninteresting really, a nobody in a new school without a friend to talk to. Then he walked into the classroom, looked around, and headed straight for me. Oh but hell was he a good looking kid. Taller, better defined, absolutely looking like a child model at least a few years older than he was, his gaze locked on me, this breathtaking smile spread across his face, his eyes absolutely twinkled, and then he was standing right in front of me. With a flick of his hand toward the empty seat beside me, he quietly—shyly, I'd say, though for fuck's sake I couldn't understand why that guy needed to be shy around me or anybody else—he shyly asked if he could sit with me. Hell yes! But instead of saying it, I just kind of nodded, feeling my cheeks burn. Okay, I was thoroughly intimidated, like big time scared of this guy. He practically had an entourage. What ten-year-old kid has an entourage? Anyway, nearly every other kid came by to say hello and ask him about his summer and talk about all the stuff he might or might not be up to and what the fuck ever else they could think of. Obviously they just wanted to talk to him, be seen with him, and I could see why. He was so nice, so good looking, so frighteningly smart and absolutely kind. He remembered everybody's name, remembered all the personal details that let him ask questions about pets, brothers and sisters, family members, intended vacation destinations. Holy hell the kid was amazing. But through all that, he kept turning back to me, engaging me, and he made a point of introducing me to everybody he talked to. And in every moment of peace he got, he talked to me. I mean really talked to me, asking about me, learning about me, engaging me in conversation and drawing me out of my new-kid-scared-to-death shell. By the end of that first day it felt like we'd known each other forever. We laughed, joked, talked, learned about each other, and despite how obviously popular he was and how much the other kids spent most of their time vying for his time, the majority of his focus had been on me. All day long. I'd never felt so special and appreciated in my life. And to my amazement, he never stopped making me feel that way. I'd also never felt so connected to someone. Even on that first day, there was something about Greg that felt necessary to me. It was like he was a fucking piece of me that I'd unknowingly lost and suddenly rediscovered. By the time I went home that afternoon, I couldn't stop the thought running through my head telling me I couldn't wait to see him again the next day and I sure as hell hoped it hadn't all been a dream. Which, even if it's not clear, brings me back to his birthday. I took him to dinner at a nice restaurant, a romantic dinner at a little Italian bistro, practically a hole in the wall we'd stumbled upon years before. Like everybody he came in contact with, Greg became friends with the owners, an elderly couple. And any friend of Greg's... Of course they jumped at the chance to have us there for Greg's birthday, though I made them promise they wouldn't make a big deal out of it. "Don't even mention it," I'd told them. Yeah, the way Greg dealt with his birthday was yet another sign of Richard's longstanding impact on our lives. If my plan for the evening was good, he'd never see his birthday the same again; we'd reclaim it from Richard, make it Greg's again. And if my plan was bad... Well, best not to think negatively. Think happy thoughts, as Mom always said. After a beautiful candlelit dinner with wine and conversation and those fucking mind-boggling looks that made me weak in the knees, not to mention a healthy number of touches, we thanked the owners for a delicious meal and a wonderful time. I held his hand on the way out to the car. I couldn't help it. There I was, a womanizer who could have any woman I wanted—I'm not so stupid as to deny that my work in the gym gave me a pretty hot bod that brought me all sorts of attention, and not just from women. Anyway, there I was, a man who could probably get just about any woman I wanted, and yet the only thing I wanted was him, Greg, my G-Man. Strange that it was Richard's meddling in my head that made me realize what I was feeling. I knew from the day we met that Greg was important to me, special to me. He'd insinuated himself into my life and heart in ways I didn't fully understand. At least until Richard started poking at those feelings, trying to figure them out, trying to manipulate them so I'd never be comfortable with what I felt. In that sense I had to thank Richard. He made me look at what I was feeling, made me evaluate the emotions Greg elicited from me. Taking a close look made me realize I was in love with him. Which scared the hell out of me. Richard's brainwashing made me think those feelings would be nothing short of detrimental, the ruination of what was most important to me—my relationship with Greg. Not only that, but I was a straight kid, totally heterosexual, always fantasizing about soft curves and ample bosoms and painted lips and all that stuff. Despite all that, I discovered I was completely in love with my best friend. A guy! Fuck! So it took a while for me to get over that shit, the whole time finding my feelings for him kept growing and strengthening. G-Man was right when he wondered how many years we wasted in Richard's shadow. With his denial and my fear, we spent most of our lives madly in love with each other yet doing everything in our power to keep it secret, to keep it out of the light. We spent too long avoiding the most important thing in our lives. Then along came Kyle, upending the apple cart. I've thanked that kid time and again. He probably thinks I'm obsessive about gratitude, which I'm not. He just needs to understand he put us on the right path, helped us see we were broken yet capable of healing, helped us see what we'd always wanted was already right there in hour hands, just waiting to be noticed and nurtured, given a chance to grow. Fuck! Boy howdy did it grow. And I'm grateful for it. Anyway, we made it back to the car, hand in hand, and after we settled inside and buckled in, I took his hand again and kissed his palm before weaving our fingers together. Then I kissed the back of his hand. He could feel me shaking. If I could feel it, I sure as hell knew he could feel it. Again he gave me a look, inquisitive and concerned. Greg pulled our joined hands to his face so he could kiss my knuckles, one at a time, sweetly, his eyes never leaving mine. The sense of calm that overwhelmed me settled my nerves. For just a moment. "This is nice," he told me. "Dinner was yummy. Thank you, Nate." "Just want you to have a good evening, dude," I said. Then I pulled him to me and kissed him. It was a nice kiss, slow and passionate but not fiery and erotic. "Mmmm..." he groaned into my mouth as he wrapped a hand around the back of my neck and held me to him so our tongues could explore, a lazy wandering in known lands that always felt like a new discovery. When I broke the kiss to keep from suffocating, we leaned our foreheads together and shared our breath, noses touching. "I want to take you dancing," I said. "Where next?" he asked. "Home." He could tell by my tone I wasn't making a joke about the horizontal mambo. Though I admit the thought sent a bit too much blood to my groin. "Really?" Greg asked, suspicious. He was picking up on my nervousness again. Still. Whatever. Damn it! It was making the evening less enjoyable because it was making him worry. I could see it in his head, his expression and eyes and body language saying he felt uncertain because I was giving off this twitchy, secretive, anxious vibe foreshadowing something coming later in the evening. The fucking truth was that I did have something planned for later in the evening and it was making me twitchy, secretive and anxious. Hell, I was sweating like a nervous farm animal and having a hard time meeting his gaze because he read me too well when he looked in my eyes. Not that he wasn't reading me fine in every other way, but if I let him look in my eyes for too long, he'd know what was coming. And that I couldn't allow. I leaned back in the seat and started the car. Then I pulled our joined hands to my face and kissed his wrist, the back of his hand, his knuckles. "Come on, G-Man," I said, my voice regrettably tremulous and breathy, "let's go home." We tossed our jackets on the bar, along with keys, wallets, phones, whatever. Not once since I'd grabbed his hand and dragged him to the car had I allowed us to go even a second without being in contact with each other. He was still picking up my nervousness, that feeling that I was hiding something and was going to drop it on him later and was disquieted by all of it. Which made him feel about the same. It was a perfect example of why being so close to someone made it fucking hard as hell to pull off a surprise. I had to keep him out of my head to make it successful, which just made me look suspicious as hell, like I was trying to hide something. Which I was, goddammit! Still, he never doubted me. Worried, sure, but never doubted me. He knew I loved him more than life itself. He knew making him happy was the best way to make me happy. But since I was nervous and wouldn't tell him why or what caused it, he was nervous. So despite our best efforts to have a good evening, we'd arrived home with nerves pulled tight. Thank fuck I'd never have to pull off a secret like this ever again. I didn't think either of us would survive it. I dragged him to the living room. Keeping a grip on his hand, I used my foot to push the coffee table up against the sofa, giving us more room. I grabbed the remote and turned on the sound system. It was already set to do what I wanted, so I dropped the remote and turned back to Greg. The stereo kicked on and soft slow music filled the house. My music tastes were eclectic. Everybody expected the big muscular black man to listen to hip hop or rap. I liked neither. What I enjoyed was classical to country to pop to rock and alt and a lot of other stuff. What I liked most of all was stuff from the last forty years or so, mostly the mushy, kissy-kissy songs that were slow and meaningful. Nope, I'm definitely not a stereotype. Wrapping my arms around him, I pulled him to me and sighed as he embraced me, his arms sliding around my torso and squeezing me to him. As though we'd telepathically discussed it, we started to dance. "As much as we danced together all those years," I said, "we never did slow dances until two years ago at your birthday bash." "Yeah," he breathed against my ear as he leaned down enough to press his cheek against mine. "I wish we'd done it sooner." "Feels nice," I mumbled, my voice husky. What that man did to me with just a look amplified a thousandfold with a touch. With the music low and the tempo relaxed, an intimate sense of romance settled over us. Romance. I'd never experienced it with anyone other than Greg. The funny thing about that was the romance between us had always been there, even if we didn't know it. It was in the touches, the looks, the kisses, the hugs, the words. It was always there, right there all along. Stupid us, though, and stupid Richard. Despite the number of woman I'd been with over the years, not one had made me feel the way Greg made me feel. That sense of intimacy and romance was singular to the man I held in my arms. "I'm so glad Uncle Farid helped us move on from Richard's bullshit," I told him. He squeezed me, kissed my cheek, then his voice breathed into my ear as he whispered, "I can't imagine not having this, this right here, this thing with you that's got me all wrapped up and tied in knots and feeling like nothing can hurt me so long as we're together." I shivered, moaned even, but I couldn't let him sidetrack me. I had a plan. "This is everything I've ever wanted, G-Man. I wish I could explain what you do for me, how you make me feel, what kind of hope and light you bring to my world." "We're beyond Richard now, Little Big Man. We prevailed. We finally have what he tried to destroy." "Happiness. Love. Belonging." "All of it. I have all of it with you, Nate." He kissed my ear then my cheek before nuzzling against me again. We moved slowly as the song changed, still holding each other, no sexual tension involved, just love and romance and comfort. And nervousness. "I think..." "What, Nate?" Oh, he could tell my nerves just fired. But I had a plan, damn it, and I was going to fucking follow through with it. "I think," I began again, putting more strength in my soft tone so I didn't sound strangled and unsure, "there are a few more things we need to overcome." He leaned back a bit. I tightened my grip, not wanting him to slip away from me, not wanting to separate from him. Despite being a gym rat, I was smaller and weaker than Greg. He came by it naturally. If he wanted to push me away, if he wanted to break our embrace, he could do it. I knew he could and he knew he could. I hoped he'd feel my resolve to keep him close and acquiesce to my wishes. Aah... He did. Pulling us tight against each other, he nested his lips near my ear and whispered in a less sure voice, "What, Nate? What else do we need to overcome?" "I want to give you something for your birthday, G-Man." He flinched. That caused me to grip him tighter. I kept us moving, but his body became rigid, his movements stiff. "Dance with me, G-Man." "I am." Suddenly his voice sounded pained, uncomfortable. "Relax, Greg. Just relax. Hold me, let me lead, dance with me." Aside from the soft music, silence blanketed us, a shadowy cloak that enveloped us. "Richard took that away from you, G-Man." "He said he came to give me a birthday gift." He practically snarled. Or growled. Or something equally throaty and anguished. Yeah, Uncle Farid told me about this. We'd dealt with it in therapy, but he still pulled me aside and explained that what Richard did to Greg on his birthday had forever tainted his view of self-worth on the day that celebrated his coming into the world, a day that should celebrate his life but instead languished in the dark recesses of despair that Greg still carried with him. Just this one thing remained. We weren't done with therapy. No, not even close. But we'd accomplished so much, faced so many terrors and tribulations and torments from the past. We'd exorcised Richard from so many aspects of our lives. But there was this one thing Greg needed to face, to overcome. His birthday. Of all the rash and troubling decisions Richard ever made, permanently damaging someone's birthday, making it a horror rather than a holiday, was as vile an act as anyone could commit. And if I could get Greg to accept my birthday gift to him, it would take care of the second thing Richard left behind. I'd discussed my plan with Uncle Farid and Mom and Dad. Especially Dad. No matter how close Greg was to Mom, he and Dad had something else, some other level of relationship, some understanding of each other that made Gavin a better sounding board for my idea. He'd agreed, as had the others, that what I intended to give Greg on his birthday was the one thing he most wanted but would never ask for, mainly because he'd realized I was the stumbling stone to making it happen. My fear of loving him had created the biggest problem for us. He'd never push me before I was ready. He just didn't know I'd been ready for a while, biding my time until I could do what was necessary, wanted, and ultimately helpful. At least I hoped it would be helpful. It might be harmful if Greg can't get beyond his fear of receiving anything on his birthday. "I know, G-Man. I know what he said. And I know what it's done to you." "But I've—" "Accomplished a lot because of it. Nobody doubts that. Creating Silver Rain and having the annual birthday bash fundraiser has helped countless kids who would've been left without assistance otherwise. But that's not really the point." "Isn't it?" he asked in a perfunctory tone. "Don't be agitated, G-Man. Please just listen to me." I kissed his cheek and held him tighter, letting my strength and resolve and love flow into him. When I felt him relax against me, I pulled back enough to put us face to face, breathing in and out of each other. Then I kissed him, a soft kiss without heat but full of affection, a promissory note of things to come. "I want to give you something for your birthday," I repeated against his lips. "It's something you want. It's something I want. It's something we both want." "I... I'm not sure..." "Shhh... Just listen, G-Man. Hear my voice and my words, feel me hold you." He nodded, so slight that it would have passed unnoticed had our lips not been touching. "You've always been my strength, G-Man. You've always been the one I look up to, the man who always has the answers, the part of me I rely on when the rest of me stumbles and falls. "You're the light that lights my way when it's dark. You're my soft, warm overcoat when it's cold. You're the fire that heats my heart. You're the strength that holds back the world when it presses in on me. You're the balm that soothes and the voice that calms and the gentle touch that takes away the pain." I kissed him again, letting everything I felt flow through that kiss. He'd taught me that trick over the past few years, taught me better how to communicate through touch and, more importantly, how to let a kiss be more than a kiss, how to let a kiss be a communion of souls. When I pulled back, I saw the tear that streaked down his cheek, a single tear. Neither of us moved to wipe it away. "You're the first breath of spring that helps me bloom after winter's thaw. You're the sunshine breaking through the storm. You're the safe harbor I return to time and time and time again, always keeping me secure. "You're home to me, G-Man, the place I long for and the place I seek and the place I belong." I reached up and cupped his cheek, leaning back enough so we could see one another. "You're the answer to the questions I didn't understand before. Where am I going? Who am I? Where can I find happiness? Who completes me?" I kissed him. His glacial blue eyes remained locked on my gaze. "You're the life I've always wanted but feared to have. You're the love I've sought but couldn't find. You're the part of my soul born in another body." I disentangled our arms and took a tiny step back, just enough so I could kneel with his hands gripped in my own. His eyes widened. "G-Man... Greg... You're the family I've always wanted. You took me in and sheltered me, protected me, taught me, loved me, helped me. You came to me that first day of school and made me feel important and special, and you've made me feel that way every day since then." I reached into my pocket and pulled out the black velvet box. If he was aware of the movement, he didn't indicate it, his eyes never moving from mine. "The gift I want to give you is forever. The birthday gift I want to give you is my life for yours, all of me for all of you. I want to give you everything I have and everything I am." I flipped open the box and held it up so he could see it, still holding his hand. The ring was a lustrous platinum band, wide and heavy, with two dark lines separating the polished outer bands from the brushed, darker inner band. Three black diamonds punctuated the thick inner band. "You're my everything, G-Man, the love of my life and the fire in my soul and the only future I want. You've been my friend, my brother, my lover, my peace and my comfort and my hope. You made me a member of your family long ago in every way possible save one. For your birthday, I want to give you the last part of me. "Greg Beaumont, help me get rid of the last trace of Richard. Give me your name and let me be your husband for the rest of our lives, so we can build a family and a future together." His eyes were alight with a joy I'd never seen in him before, sparkling and twinkling despite the tears. "Greg Beaumont, for your birthday I'm giving you this ring and I'm giving you me." I took a deep breath, my nerves settling because I could already see the answer. "Greg Beaumont, would you do me the honor of marrying me and making me Nate Beaumont?" "Yes! Absolutely! Yes, Nate, yes yes yes!" He fell to his knees and pulled me to him, hugging me so tight I thought I'd suffocate. "Yes, Little Big Man. The answer is yes and I love you and I'll be the best husband the world's ever seen and we'll be the best parents for our kids and yes! Yes!" Eventually we separated, hugs and kisses galore later, and I was able to slip the ring on his finger. "Happy birthday, G-Man," I whispered into his ear as I held him. "You've made me the happiest man alive." THE END
  11. February 10, 2017 I squeezed his hand as I gave him a reassuring look, then we both returned our gazes to our therapist as Nate said, "We've discussed this in depth. We're confident in our decision." After exhaling a cloud of smoke, Uncle Farid glanced between us, from one to the other, his gaze considering and serious. Finally he smiled and shook his head. "Both of you remain mired in the aftermath of Richard's handiwork, though Greg's somewhat further along since meeting Kyle last year forced him to deal with what he'd been hiding from himself for so many years. For you, Nate, we've only recently stumbled upon this pseudo-phobia that's based on your feelings for Greg." He took another puff from his cigarette before tamping it in the ashtray. "Normally I'd emphasize the need for separate therapy sessions as it would allow us to freely delve into and discuss and address the issues you both face." Both Nate and I looked ready to interrupt, so Farid lifted a hand to forestall our argument. "However," he continued, "I'm nobody's fool. Greg's the catalyst for your healing, Nate, because without him you wouldn't know about or have the ability to face the fear Richard spent so much time engendering within you. It will probably assist us to have him here so you're consistently pushed to face that fear and empowered to overcome it, allowing us to inspect it, understand it, and ultimately dismantle it. "Besides," he added with a grin, "as long as it took the two of you to reach this place, with all you've faced and all you've fought, I'd be a fool to try to separate you." Jotting down a few notes on the pad in his lap, his eyes not on us, he asked, "Any preference on the day of the week? It'll be longer than your sessions have been in the past since we'll be dealing with both of you at the same time, individually and as a couple, so bear that in mind." I looked at the beautiful man beside me, our hands clasped with fingers intertwined, and we silently discussed the matter with a series of expressions that lasted no more than a few seconds. Back to Uncle Farid I answered, "Fridays. Can we still have mornings and just extend it?" He nodded as he wrote a little more. "I'll have Jan update the schedule and send a confirmation to both of you." When he finally looked up, his avuncular humor slid away as his therapist seriousness slipped into place. "With that settled, let's begin with you, Nate. From what you boys have told me already, it took a powerful sexual event with Greg to help you see beyond your fear and realize what you stood to lose if you let Richard win. Sex can be atavistic, a primal, instinctual coupling with no purpose save the coupling itself, which is where I believe you two started that night. But sex can also be transformative, even transcendent, when the strength of the event helps someone see beyond their own understanding, if not actually allowing them to overcome the limitations imposed by that understanding. Given that, tell me, Nate, why do you think the experience was profound enough to help you see beyond the fear and understand it was a construct built to hinder your happiness rather than protect it?" * * * * * March 14, 2017 We lay in post-orgasmic bliss, sweaty with chests heaving and muscles weak and wants sated and needs fulfilled. Nate's head rested on my chest as he drew lazy patterns on my torso with his fingertips. "I want you to make love to me." "What?" I coughed, clearing my throat since it suddenly felt constricted. "I told you before, G-Man, we're equals in this, all of me for all of you." "But I told you—" "You're not built for first-timers, I know. Which is irrelevant. I see what it does to you when I make love to you. I want you to make me feel the same thing." Propping himself up on his elbow so he could look me in the eye, he asked, "So what do we do to make that happen?" "Butt plugs," I responded. In for a penny and all. "Come again?" His eyebrows jumped up despite the trace of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "We'll start small, work our way up. It'll take a few days. You'll wear each to grow accustomed to it, then we'll step up a size." "What about—" I stopped his words with a kiss, slow and expressive of understanding and trust. When I released him, he looked so much more relaxed, not to mention a wee bit lustful and a whole lot happy. "Trust me, Little Big Man." "I do," he whispered before he captured my mouth with his. * * * * * March 18, 2017 Nate stormed into the house, his shirt flying across the room as he dropped his sweatpants and underwear, stepping out of them, leaving him naked except for his shoes and socks. "Look at it!" He was pointing at the impressive erection standing tall and firm in front of him. "Me like," I responded in a husky tone, my eyes glazing over. "It's been like this all day." Despite trying to sound perturbed, his lust-filled undertone said otherwise. Not to mention the pure want in his expression. "So you like the way that feels in your ass, huh?" He squirmed a bit, slight movements in his hips telling me he was using his muscles to work at the plug. Then in a breathy tone he whispered, "Yeah. It feels... really good." He had me pinned down on the couch before I could think of something to say. * * * * * March 21, 2017 "Thank you for dinner, G-Man. That was so good." "Happy birthday," I whispered against his lips before kissing him. When we came up for air, he tried for a stern gaze but accomplished something between humored and annoyed instead. "You shouldn't have bought me a new car, dude." "Yeah, I should have. You've mentioned a few times that you'd like to look at something new. Once I got you to admit what you were interested in, I took it from there." "But a car..." "It's just a car, Nate." He attempted an exasperated sigh, but it came out sounding pleased. Pressing my body against his so he could feel my interest and I could feel his, grinding against him, I kissed along his jaw until I reached his ear, then I whispered, "I have one more gift for you, Little Big Man." "No, G-Man, you've already—" "Can you feel my gift pressing against you?" I asked, my voice husky and full of want. "Oh fuck..." he moaned, thrusting his hips to press us together. "Tonight? Can we? Am I ready?" "Let's head upstairs and find out together." * * * * * "Holy fucking shit..." Nate said sotto voce against my lips, his forehead against mine, his body resting atop mine. I moved my hips just a little, which caused him to gasp. Though we'd both climaxed, I was still inside him and he was still feeling every bit of me. "I think you liked that," I told him before kissing him slowly, sensually, lovingly. "You have no idea," he groaned. "I've never had a hands-free orgasm before." He kissed me tenderly. "That was amazing, G-Man." The next kiss was a bit more needy, a bit more wanting. "Fucking hell, that was incredible." He gyrated his hips to move me inside him. His whole body trembled as he grabbed my face and proceeded to curl my toes with a soul-searing kiss. "Now I see why you seem to come apart when I make love to you. I'm gonna want to do that again." Another kiss. "And again." A deeper kiss. "And again." "Maybe later. Because now it's time for part two of this birthday gift." "Part two?" he asked, confused. "My turn," I growled as I captured his mouth with mine while I flipped us over. I intended to ride him until he couldn't remember his own name. Some immeasurable time later he lay beside me nearly incoherent, satiated beyond words, grasping me with needy hands and holding me close as he showered little kisses all over my face and neck. Just before he drifted into slumber, he whispered, "I love you so much, G-Man." "Happy birthday, Little Big Man," I breathed into his ear. "I love you more than words can convey." * * * * * May 25, 2017 "Have you two given much thought to marriage?" Mom asked. Though she was busy setting the table while Dad helped me in the kitchen, I could still see the mischievous twinkle in her eye. "We've talked about it," I replied, intentionally sounding dismissive, as though the subject had little weight. My father stared at me, clearly expecting more. When I remained silent, busy preparing dinner, he prompted, "And?" "Fine," I grumbled with a roll of my eyes, though they knew it was all theatrics. After a swig of beer I explained, "Yes, we've talked about it. Yes, it's something we want to do. No, we're not ready." Then I went back to cooking. Mom came up behind me and smacked me in the shoulder. "Ow!" I wailed. Overly dramatic, of course. Rubbing where she hit me I spun around and complained, "That hurt, mother of mine!" Dad hid his snicker by rummaging in the fridge for the fresh Parmesan cheese I needed. "Oh please, son of mine," she began, her tone letting me know I was close to real pain, "if I wanted to hurt you, you'd know it." She took a deep breath before adding, "Now that I have your attention, let's get back to the subject we were discussing." "Which was?" "Careful, Greg," Dad warned. "You're being brave or stupid considering how close she's standing to you." "Better listen to your father." "Okay. I surrender." I held up my hands to emphasize my point. Turning back to the stove lest I burn dinner, I told them, "Nate and I agree that we should continue our therapy and focus on getting better before we take a big step like that." "But you guys have known each other—" "For decades," I offered, completing my father's argument. "And you've lived—" "Together for three-quarters of that time." "I'll finish my own sentences, thank you very much," my mother snapped, though the humored grin on her face belied her tone. "Oops. My bad." She hit me again. "Ouch! Keep that up and I won't be able to finish dinner. We'll starve." "Starving will be the least of your worries," Dad chuckled as he grated the Parmesan cheese. "Gosh, you two are a tough crowd," I complained. Mom ignored my remark and said, "Marriage. Discuss." "We know our relationship is solid. We know we're closer than most married couples. We know there are no skeletons in the closet and no surprise personality traits and no hidden agendas and no need for getting to know each other. But it's more complicated than that. We're still dealing with therapy for what Richard did, so adding a new dynamic to our relationship is enough change for now. We want to make sure we're both better before we take the next step. So we need time. We don't want another surprise from that asshole to pop up and blow things apart. Let us deal with it in our own time, let us make sure we're healing and not regressing, let us make sure there's not another unpleasant surprise hidden in our heads, then we can feel confident about moving forward with marriage." I spun around and pulled Yvonne into my arms, hugging her tight. "Give us time, Mom. I promise it's as important to us as it is to you guys. We've all waited long enough for Nate and I to be happy together. We're happy now, we can be happier still, but let us move at our pace and let us decide when we're comfortable and let us be sure Richard's not still lurking in the shadows waiting to cause more damage." She rose on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek, hugging me tightly, and quietly said, "You've given me the answer I wanted to hear." Mom released me and set about finishing the table for dinner. Squeezing my shoulder, Dad said, "We're proud of you two, Greg, and we're really happy for you. We know you'll make the right decisions together and in your own time." "Speaking of time, when's he supposed to be here?" she inquired. "He's at the new gym, had a little extra work to do, but he's on his way. Should be here in fifteen minutes or so." "Excellent. It'll be nice to sit down and enjoy a family dinner with the whole family here." I caught the slight blush on Dad's cheeks after he heard Mom's words. She knew precisely what she was saying and how it would be interpreted, which gave me a little thrill for them. I was pretty sure our parents were getting close to patching up their relationship. * * * * * July 23, 2017 I gave Nate a considered look before asking in a hushed tone, "Have you thought about kids?" "Of course I have, G-Man. You know I have." Sure, I knew he had. I knew he'd thought about kids with a wife and a house and a white picket fence and all that jazz. I wasn't asking about that, though, wasn't asking about his ingrained response thanks to Richard. Quietly, shyly, almost in a whisper I clarified, "I mean with me." He lifted his head from my chest and settled it on the pillow beside me. Gently, his touch full of compassion, he pulled me over so I faced him. He grabbed one of my hands and held it as he settled the other on my cheek, letting his thumb caress my skin. "Of course I have, G-Man." His tone was subdued yet sure. "I've thought about it for a long time, long before we figured out our shit and wound up where we are now. I used to fantasize about it even though I was scared of the idea." "Really?" "Don't sound so surprised, dude. You might have been in denial, hiding how you felt from yourself, but I wasn't. I was just scared of what I felt. That doesn't mean it wasn't in my face all the time and that doesn't mean I wasn't letting my mind wander all the what-if paths." I rested an arm over his side and let my fingertips lightly trace patters on the skin of his back. "I've been thinking about it a lot, Nate." "Oh yeah?" His question held a hint of awe, a touch of wonder, a lot of interest, and plenty of hope. "Yeah." I couldn't help my dreamy quiet tone when I told him, "I've been thinking about it quite a bit. I've been thinking I'd like to have kids. With you. Build a family. With you. Live the dream with kids and pets and school and all the fun and torture that entails." Leaning my forehead against his, I let my words breathe against his lips when I finished, "With you." Nate released my hand and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me to him, my face settling against his chest. Squeezing me and rubbing my back even as I returned the embrace, he kissed the top of my head before saying, "That's my biggest dream, G-Man, now that I have you. I want to build a family with you, grow old with you, have kids and grandkids and maybe even great-grandkids." He kissed the top of my head again before rubbing his chin in my hair. There was a slight hitch in his voice, a hint of tears, when he added, "I want us to have kids, Greg. I want all of it. With you." * * * * * November 8, 2017 "So are you gay?" Kyle asked Nate. "It's complicated," I answered as I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked into the bedroom. "It really isn't," Nate said. "The answer is no, I'm not gay." "So you're bi?" "No." Wrapping an arm around me, he pulled me down onto his lap and held me tightly as he told Kyle, "I'm not gay or bi. I'm straight. I just happen to love a man, this wonderful, beautiful, one-of-a-kind man right here." He kissed my shoulder to alleviate any confusion about the man he spoke of. "Making him happy makes me happy, so here we are." Never one to silence his curiosity, Kyle asked, "So you're not attracted to any other men?" "Not at all. Not once have I seen a man who made me wonder what it would be like to be with him. Except this one. Just this one and no other. He's the only one for me." He slid out of the chair and settled me in it, stealing my breath with a kiss before saying, "Just this one, Kyle. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I need a shower." "Catch you later, man." "Good to talk to you again, Kyle." "Same here, Nate." Basketball Boy's eyes tracked Nate as he walked away. The effect was something like having a voyeuristic laptop, its field of vision limited only by how willing I was to move the computer and its attached camera. "You look healthy," I noted, glancing at his bare torso on the screen. "You're more defined and you have more muscle mass than you did when you were here for my birthday." Though we'd texted a few times, it had taken two months before he called and another month before we started regular video chats. Over the intervening months, our contacts grew in frequency and our conversations and interactions slowly returned to the comfortable intimacy we'd once enjoyed. I understood his distance and the time he needed to overcome his feelings for me. First loves that didn't work out never made life easy and never went away, but they could be managed and they could be turned into good memories and even better friendships. It just took time, which I gave to Kyle in whatever quantity he needed. "Still working out?" "Yeah, man." "Sticking to the diet?" He ducked his head, looking a little embarrassed. "It's okay," I told him. "You're young and your metabolism is turned up as far as it'll go. Just try to stick to it when you can. It'll help with adding muscle." "What happens when I think I have enough?" "We'll help you change your routine and diet from growth to maintenance. No big deal at all." "Thanks. You guys are too awesome for words." "Again, I'm glad someone recognizes my greatness." "I was mostly talking about Nate." "Asshole!" "No he's not," Nate shouted from the bathroom. "He's just being honest." "Asshole!" I shot back. After our laughter faded I asked Kyle, "So what's up, dude? You said you had something important to ask." If blushes were fire, Basketball Boy would have spontaneously combusted. His cheeks flamed red, the tips of his ears turned crimson, and his neck looked like a rapidly spreading burn making its way from his head to his chest. "Dude, calm down," I chuckled. "It can't be that bad." "No," he mumbled. "No, it's not bad. Just... Well, I mean..." "Spit it out, dude!" Nate shouted, still in the bathroom. "I thought you were taking a shower!" Kyle shouted back. "I'm getting there." When I glanced at the en suite, Nate had stripped and stood at the walk-in shower, hanging a fresh towel on the rack near the door. He caught my gaze and mouthed, "I love you." "I love you," I replied. Then my eyes wandered up and down his body, taking in every inch of his mouthwatering beauty. It made me lick my lips. "He's naked, isn't he?" "Huh?" I muttered, turning back to the screen. "Oh, yeah, he is. How'd you know?" "Come on, man, licking your lips, your eyes glaze over, you look like you're ready to leap from the chair and tackle him. Seemed kinda obvious." "Oh. Right. Suppose so." Resetting my thoughts and erasing the image of naked Nate standing there waiting for me to devour him, I looked at Kyle, whose blush had ebbed, and prompted, "So you had something to talk about." And the blush flared up again. "Right. Okay." He took a deep breath. "You... like... I don't know... You..." "What?" I laughed. This had to be good with the way he was acting. Another deep breath fortified him. "You like to suck dick, right?" The color drained from my face at the same time Nate burst into uproarious laughter from the shower. "Oh shit..." Kyle moaned. "That's embarrassing. I'm sorry." Shaking my head, waving a hand at him to dismiss the apology, I stuttered, "Well... Yeah, Kyle... I... Uh... Sure, yeah, you might say I like to suck dick." "He's really good at it, too!" Nate shouted. Kyle's laughter was loud and heartfelt. My blush was almost as pronounced as his had been. "Shut it, you!" I hollered toward the bathroom door, though I had to bite back a chuckle so as not to ruin the stern tone I used. Then back to the laptop: "Now let's be serious. I'm sure you have a point. Yes, I'm a gay man and yes, I like sucking dick. Why are we having this conversation?" "Can you teach me how?" "What?" Nate and I asked simultaneously. Basketball Boy's skin darkened and darkened and darkened. He had his eyes squeezed shut, his head down and shaking from side to side. "Fuck..." he mumbled. "How can he hear me over the shower?" "Bionic hearing." I rolled my eyes for effect. "I heard you roll your eyes," Nate announced. Kyle and I laughed some more. "Okay. You want to know about... well..." "Giving a blowjob." He said it quietly, like a secret. "He wants to know how to suck dick, G-Man. Give the kid a break and tell him all your secrets. Just wait, Kyle, he'll tell you how and you'll be an expert before you know it. You'll be blowing dicks like a pro and blowing minds like a Jedi master!" "Jesus Christ!" Kyle howled, his whole body trembling with laughter. "Nate, stop it, please!" I begged, though mostly the words came out jumbled and broken because I couldn't stop laughing despite feeling abashed. "He's a few clowns short of a circus, isn't he?" From the shower came a laugh-filled "I heard that, Kyle!" After the laughter died, I sat in silence for a few moments, holding up a finger to indicate to Kyle that he should give me a minute. My mind settled and the humor faded, which left me facing a quandary. Deciding a big brother should help his little brother, I let my concerns about the conversation slip away. "Are we talking about Mitch?" His cheeks flushed once again and he diverted his eyes, only for a moment thought. Then: "Yeah. I think. Maybe." "I didn't realize it was a hard question." "Yes, okay, yes, we're talking about Mitch." "Teach him everything you know, G-Man!" "Why?" Kyle asked. "Because he's the white wizard of gay sex, dude! Let Greg teach you how to work magic and your new boy toy won't know what hit him!" Again our laughter was slow to die, as was Basketball Boy's blush. After we caught our breath and calmed, I decided to get serious. Or at least a little serious. "Okay, here's the deal, Kyle. I'll answer all your questions, I'll give you all the pointers and instruction I can, I'll tell you everything I can think of, I'll share all my secrets, but you have to promise me three things." He squared his shoulders and gave me a determined look. "What three things?" "First, you listen and take to heart everything I say about safe sex. Second, no matter how embarrassed you are or how silly you think a question is, don't hesitate to ask me anything no matter how big or small. And third, we get to meet your—Is he your boyfriend now or are you just fuckbu—" "Boyfriend," he interrupted without hesitation. "Kissed?" The blush came back. "Yeah," he admitted quietly. "Anything else?" "Not really. A little touching. Nothing else. Not yet anyway." No hesitation that time either. "Okay. The third thing is we get to meet your boyfriend. Bring him over and let's have a video call so we can talk to him, take a look at him, see if I need to come down there and threaten him within an inch of his life if he hurts you, all that stuff big brothers do." Chuckling, he shook his head slightly before agreeing. "Okay. Sure on all three things. Besides, I already planned to have him here next time we do this because... well... I want you to meet him. I want to make sure you like him and I want to make sure he likes you." I grinned, happy and overjoyed and thrilled about this turn of events. "Okay," I began, "I'm glad we're on the same page. So let's get started. Got a banana?" * * * * * June 2, 2018 I hugged Kyle, the embrace tight enough to interfere with his breathing. But neither of us cared. He squeezed me with just as much fervor. "I'm so proud of you, Kyle," I whispered in his ear. "I'm so very, very proud of you." "Thank you," he said quietly. When we finally released each other, he stepped over to Nate and they shared a hug and whispered words. Meanwhile, I turned my attention to Mitch. When he put his hand out to shake, I stepped inside his arm and wrapped him up in a hug. "I think we can dispense with shaking hands and go right to hugs, don't you think?" I asked him. "Yeah," he agreed with a smile as he wrapped his arms around me. Mitch was a good looking kid—Hell, he was a young man, like Kyle, but they'd probably always be kids to me. I suppose I was feeling old. Anyway, he was a good looking young man, a few inches taller than Kyle, so probably standing about five ten or eleven, with light brown hair short on the sides and just long enough on top to fall across his forehead. He probably weighed a hundred sixty pounds, give or take, making him lean, perhaps rangy but probably more like a well defined runner. He had honey-colored eyes that sparkled with all manner of intelligence and mischief. And he was a real looker, a handsome young man with a dimple in his left cheek and a shallow cleft in his chin. We'd talked not long after Kyle started his sex education calls, meeting Mitch the first time as he sat nervously in Kyle's room looking like a deer caught in headlights. I never learned what Kyle had told him about me or our relationship, but he seemed intimidated by me. Not a few conversations with him were spent surreptitiously convincing him I was no competition for Kyle's affection, I didn't plan on killing Mitch unless he hurt Kyle, and I really wanted to be his good friend if he intended to be an important part of Basketball Boy's life. Over time he calmed and relaxed, our burgeoning friendship soon growing to a comfortable level, allowing us to joke with each other. Eventually Mitch even felt comfortable calling me separately, sidebar calls focused on things he wanted to know about Kyle, things he could do to make him happy, things Mitch would run by me to make sure Kyle would like his plans, and of course things Mitch wanted my approval for or things he wanted to check with me before addressing with Kyle. More and more he treated me like his boyfriend's protective big brother. I released Mitch and we chatted amicably as Kyle and Nate likewise chatted, but the Orlando afternoon grew warm and my stomach grew impatient, so eventually we said our goodbyes to Gerald and Teresa and MJ before herding Kyle and Mitch to the rental car. We'd promised to take them to lunch after graduation; I knew just the place to go. * * * * * "I can't believe Keigan owns this restaurant!" Kyle exclaimed after greeting our mutual friend from Dallas. Keigan wanted to stay and chat, but the restaurant was packed and he had work to do. "He and his husband just opened this place," Nate explained. "Yannis," I said in answer to Kyle's unspoken question. Well, unspoken with words but spoken clearly with his expression. "The guy from your birthday party?" "Yeah." "They own it together?" Mitch inquired. "They both started out with restaurants in Dallas, one Greek and the other a burger joint." "A really good burger joint," Kyle interjected. "After Greg introduced them," Nate told the boys, "they hit it off, started dating, eventually moved in together, and then married just last month." "With their combined restaurant expertise and Keigan's business acumen, they came up with a plan for places like this." I gestured around the rugged yet comfortable dining room in which we'd been seated. "Wow..." Kyle mumbled as he looked around. "Did they move here?" Nate looked at Mitch and answered, "No. But their business plan has them expanding outside of Texas. This is the first." "Orlando's a busy city with tourism, so it made sense." "I can see that." Basketball Boy nodded appreciatively. * * * * * "SMU?" I couldn't hide the grin on my face. Kyle had been considering the school, but I hadn't pushed for confirmation, instead allowing him time to consider his options. "Full scholarship," Mitch announced with pride. "Really?" "Yeah, Nate, for their engineering program." "Wow. I'm duly impressed, dude." "So am I," I agreed. Nate turned to Kyle's boyfriend and asked, "What about you? Where are you going?" "SMU," he answered, reaching over and joining hands with Kyle, the two sharing a beautiful moment full of loving expressions. "Engineering as well?" "No," he said to me, "I want to be a psychiatrist." He blushed then, looking down for a moment before meeting my gaze and adding, "I want to help kids. I want..." "Tell him, Mitch." Kyle's voice was nervous yet supportive, encouraging his boyfriend to say what he needed to say. "It's okay." "I know it's presumptuous, Greg, but... but I'd really like to get my degree and then work for a place like Silver Rain, if not Silver Rain itself, to help kids who maybe don't get the help they need elsewhere." Nate and I shared a look, silent communication passing between us. Then we both looked back at Mitch and I said, "When you get to Dallas and get settled, before school starts this autumn, how about you and I sit down and have a little chat, see what your passions are, your goals, your intentions toward Kyle—" I added that list with a humorous sternness in my voice. "—and then we can go from there." "Really?" the boys asked in unison. "Really." * * * * * September 29, 2018 "Hey, Mom." Nate picked her up and hugged her. As I embraced my father I said, "Good to see you, Dad." "You too, Greg." "Put me down, baby boy! Put me down!" She was giggling like a schoolgirl. Nate set her down gently. We swapped positions and I hugged Mom against me, nuzzling my face in her hair. "Good to see you, mother of mine." "Always good to see you, son of mine." She rested her cheek against my chest and held me tight, rubbing my back. When I released her, I noticed Nate and Dad in a whispered conversation. Lacking bionic hearing, I couldn't make out what was being said. Also lacking a nosy gene, I didn't ask about it either. "I hope you boys are hungry," Gavin began as we turned toward the dining room, "because we somehow managed to make way too much for four people." "Blame your father," Mom shot over her shoulder, smiling, her eyes twinkling when she looked at him. "You know Nate eats like ten times his own bodyweight each day, so it shouldn't be a problem." "Hey!" Since we were holding hands, he had to swing across his own torso to smack my arm. "You struck me!" I whined. "Mom, Dad, he hit me!" "They never grow up," she complained. "It's like they never moved out, too," Dad added. "Because they're constantly coming over to eat our food." "And drink our beer." "Our?" Nate interrupted. And then I saw it. Giving Nate's hand a squeeze to get his attention, I gave him a look that told him the shit just got real. I released his hand and stepped to where both Mom and Dad had stopped and turned around, both of them looking like fish out of water as their mouths opened and closed with nary a sound. Feeling Nate's watchful gaze as I moved, I reached down and grabbed Mom's hand. Her left hand. Pulling it to me, I gently held her fingers out so I could look at the ring she wore. The new ring. On her ring finger. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Nate saw it as well. "Do you two have something you need to tell us?" he asked them in his best strict father voice. "Well..." "We just..." "Stop," I said through a laugh. Surprisingly, they both slammed their mouths shut. "We know. Greg and I already know." "We've known all along." "With Dad's laundry folded neatly in the basket waiting to be put away." "With Dad's favorite beer in the fridge." "With the looks." "The touches." "The attempts to hide said looks and touches." "Not to mention the stolen kisses." "Alright! Alright!" She was giggling and smiling. "You caught us," Dad admitted. "Except..." "Except what, baby boy?" "The ring, Mom." My tone was condescending yet humored. "Set a date yet?" Nate asked. "Are we invited?" "I will not be a bridesmaid." "Don't look at me to be a maid of honor. Ain't happening." "Stop!" Dad growled, trying to stop his laughter. "You boys are a mess." "So when did this happen?" I asked, turning serious, releasing Mom's hand and stepping back. Nate immediately took my hand in his. They looked at each other, so much love in their eyes. I almost melted when they joined hands. "Today," he began. "This afternoon," she clarified. "I couldn't wait." "I didn't want him to." "We were going to tell you." "It's not a secret or anything." "And of course you'll both be in the wedding." "Like that wasn't going to happen," Dad scoffed. "Hey," Nate said to get everyone's attention, his gaze especially keen when he looked at Dad, "let's eat before it gets cold. You can tell us all about the proposal and the wedding." Glancing at me and smiling, he said, "We definitely want to hear everything."
  12. February 6, 2017 He slid out of me slowly, the fires dwindling, the embers cooling, the heat dissipating. When at last he was no longer inside me, I only knew our joining had ended by the exquisite emptiness I felt. His gentle movement was full of so much care, so much affection, and I knew by the reappearance of that keen void within and the softness of his extraction that Nate would always be the only one, the only man capable of overcoming the panic that otherwise gripped me at the very thought of being penetrated. Which made what we'd done all the more bittersweet, since everything we'd gone through indicated Richard's legacy would be the end of our relationship and the death of whatever promise might have existed that we could be just a little bit more than we already were. His lips left mine and dropped feathery kisses along my jaw as our breathing slowed. Just as I started to run my hands from his hips up his torso, he lifted himself on one arm anchored by a hand beside my head. The movement showed every muscle taught and prominent, making him look like a dark Adonis, the epitome of masculine beauty painted in deep brown hues. Nate drew his hand from between us, the one he'd used on my cock. Holding it in front of his face, we both could see the evidence of my orgasm covering it. Look at his eyes. Holy fucking shit, look at his eyes. Again his pupils dilated and his eyes glazed as a wanton desire filled his expression, his cheeks darkening with a blush as he moved his hand to his mouth, licking each valley and suckling each peak and lapping every plain. I moaned. Bloody hell, I moaned and fought to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head as I watched him, both disbelief and burning lust fighting for prominence. What he was doing was so erotic, but more than that it was beautiful. Completely unaffected and not exaggerated in any way, I watched as he thoroughly and honestly enjoyed consuming my essence, tasting it and savoring it and leaving none of it unconsumed. I was just piecing myself back together after the most profound experience of my life, and suddenly he threatened to blow me apart again with nothing more than this lazy, desirous consumption. His gaze never wavered as he swallowed every last drop, leaving behind only his own saliva. Then he reached over the edge of the sofa and grabbed the tee shirt I'd dropped on the floor. With no hesitation and a not inconsiderable amount of patience and affection, he cleaned me from chin to ass. After that he cleaned himself before tossing aside the shirt. Nate slipped sideways and settled between me and the back of the sofa, facing me. I rolled on my side and leaned into him enough to capture his lips, slipping my tongue inside and basking in the mix of flavors—his and mine. He responded with a generous moan, chasing me as I broke the kiss and rested my head against the arm of the sofa. Our legs were a jumbled mess and our arms slipped around each other. He ducked his head slightly to rest his face against my chest. My breathing eventually calmed and my vision cleared. I kissed his head and sighed. "That was..." "Incredible. Mind-blowing. Beautiful—Fuck, G-Man, you were absolutely fucking beautiful. Watching you come apart like that was... just... wow. I've never seen anything that wonderful." "You did that, Little Big Man. You made me feel... everything I've ever dreamed of feeling." He kissed my chest but remained quiet. Rhetorically I mumbled, "I wonder if it could always be like that." Nate kissed my chest again before saying, "I hope so." I jerked back from him. "What?" Pushing his head into the back of the couch so he could see my face, he parroted, "What?" "Wasn't that..." "What? Wasn't that what?" The ache in my chest had come back since the hormones of a sexual frenzy had faded. Wonderful though it might have been, I had no delusions about what we'd just done. "Wasn't that... Weren't you just... Well, I thought that was a mercy fuck." The hurt in his eyes pained me deeply but didn't stop me from adding, "Wasn't that goodbye? After everything else, wasn't that a farewell?" His gasp was slight but significant, his expression dark and anguished, his voice disappointed yet stern when he replied, "Fuck, G-Man, what the hell? No, that's wasn't a pity fuck. God fucking damn it to fucking hell! Why would you think that?" When he struggled to get off the couch, I shackled him with my arms and legs and held him against me. "I'm sorry, Nate. I'm sorry. I just don't know what's going on... with us... with this between us. I don't know where we are anymore." He shook his head, a small movement, then he pressed his face against my chest again. "Fucking shit, G-Man, something wonderful and beautiful and overwhelming and potent just happened. We just shared something powerful and sacred. Why the flying fuck would you think it was a pity fuck, dude? That hurts." "I'm sorry. I just... I just don't know what's happening." Lifting his face to mine, he kissed me, tender and sweet, then whispered against my lips, "That was a singular phenomenon, Greg. That was a religious experience. It's like for a little while the fear vanished and I realized what I had and what I might lose. And seeing you... come apart like that, all the emotions, all the pleasure you felt that flowed right into me... Fuck, G-Man, I felt like the king of the world because I was making you feel that way, I was making you feel so good you came undone." "I'm sorry—" "Stop saying that! Stop apologizing!" "Why'd it happen, Nate? Why'd you do that?" A huff of warm moist breath hit my face, and I breathed it in like the last gasp of a dying man. "It just happened," he admitted, resting his forehead against mine. "I told you I've never been attracted to a guy, any guy, except you. I feel so connected to you and you're the most beautiful person I've ever known and I've been sexually turned on by you since I was a kid and you're the single greatest fantasy I have and your smell drives me crazy and with my face against your skin I just thought... Hell, I couldn't control myself. I thought I was going to lose you and I thought I couldn't hurt anything more than I already had, so I wanted it and I went for it because you overwhelm me and I'm not sorry I did it and I'd do it again—" I silenced him with a kiss, sliding my tongue into his open mouth and communing with him with intimacy and affection and love, but no lust. At least not right at that moment. After I came up for air I asked, "What do you want, Nate?" "What do you mean?" he mumbled, resting his cheek against mine. "Did you just want tonight? Or do you want more?" "More," he replied without hesitation. "Do you want forever?" "Only with you." Again no hesitation. "But it won't be easy, G-Man," he continued, meeting my gaze, "because I'm seriously fucked up right now. I'm already terrified because of what happened and thinking I'm going to lose you because this can't be real and I'm just—" Once more I captured his lips to kill his words. "You didn't know I was here, did you?" I asked when I finally broke the kiss. "Not before I saw your car in the garage. But I had to find you. Mom and Dad and I talked all day Saturday. They really helped me see I was fucking things up pretty badly." "We've both done a bang-up job of fucking things up, Nate." "Yeah, maybe, but this time I put the whammy on it in a big way. They asked if I could live with myself if I never saw you again. They asked if I thought I might ever find someone else who'd make me feel the way you do. They asked if this fear—it's so stupid, too, because you offered yourself to me and I ran away fearing I'd lose you if I accepted. Anyway, they asked if this fear would be easier to conquer with or without you by my side." He let out a sigh, one full of self-flagellating frustration. "They helped me understand I could deal with the fear, get past it, with Uncle Farid you know, but that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try to fix it. But I didn't know how." "Seems you did a pretty good job moving us in that direction." "But you know I'd never use sex as a tool. It just happened. I never would've considered doing it to get from point A to point B." "Did it work? Do you think it got us to point B?" "I think it got us over the obstacle long enough for me to see I was going to lose what mattered most if I didn't stop being a coward and start dealing with shit." "Hey," I whispered, caressing his cheek. "You are many things, Nate Sawyer, but a coward is not one of them." Deciding to lighten the mood somewhat, I took a play from Kyle's and Teresa's conversational handbook and tried a lateral jump. "So... you licked your hand clean, and I'm pretty sure you enjoyed it." His face scrunched up in embarrassment as he snickered. "I did enjoy it." "You hated it before, those two times. You'd run to the bathroom and spit it out, then rinse with mouthwash. But what you did earlier wasn't a show for my benefit. Trust me, I could tell. So what changed?" "You know, like every red-blooded boy—even the ones who deny it—I tasted mine when I was young and I tasted it again when I was older. It didn't disgust me but it didn't do anything for me either." "You said you enjoyed it though. Just now, I mean. With mine." "I told you before... you now, those two times when... well, I told you I didn't like it." With a sheepish grin he admitted in a hushed tone, "But I do. I have since the first time. I'd run to the bathroom, savor it, swallow it, then rinse and pretend like it was gross." "You just said it doesn't do anything for you." "I said mine doesn't do anything for me. And I have no interest in anyone else's. The thought of tasting or swallowing someone else's cum is a nonstarter. But yours... Well, I think it tastes better than mine. Which isn't the point. I like it because it's yours, it's part of you that you've given to me. I actually fantasize about it a lot, about tasting yours and swallowing it. I just couldn't admit it, couldn't let you know." "Why?" His voice took on a slight tremble when he answered, "The same reason I pretended like us messing around was stupid and silly and not going to lead anywhere." Nodding slowly, still stroking his cheek, I whispered, "Fear?" With a small shrug he answered, "Yeah, kind of... I was scared how I felt would be obvious, then the shit would hit the fan and everything would blow up—" "Like he told you it would." "Right. Like he said." Nate took a deep breath and huffed it out in frustration. "But it wasn't just that." "No?" "No. It wasn't all me, G-Man." I smashed my eyes shut and sighed. After a quick shake of my head I looked at him. "My blind spot?" His tone was apologetic yet caring when he said, "You acted like it was best friends getting off together, like it was no big deal, like it didn't mean anything. But I knew if it happened too much—hell, if it happened again after the second time—I wouldn't be able to hide how I felt. I knew you'd see it was a lot more than that to me." What kind of idiot had I been to build the blind spot, to perfect the act of self-deception as a means to deny what I didn't want to face? I'd hidden so much from myself, so many truths. But then it took on a life of its own, growing and spreading until its shadow fell over everything that mattered. Fucking Richard... "I'm sorry, Nate—" "Don't, G-Man. Don't apologize for what that fucktard did to us. He fucked with our heads and left us with this shitstorm blowing around in our brains." I leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "It was just bad timing then, don't you think? You wanted it but were scared of it and I wanted it but was blind to how I felt." He tucked his head under my chin, resting his cheek against my chest. "Everything was fucked up back then. It's all fucked up now, too, but in a different way." Wrapping my arms around him and hugging him close, I kissed the top of his head. "It's not fucked up now, Nate," I whispered, "but it's complicated and messy and imperfect." "We can fix it, though, right, G-Man? Don't you think we can fix it?" "I know we can, Little Big Man. Together we can do anything." * * * * * We'd made coffee, stoked the fire back to a warming blaze, pulled a blanket over our still naked forms, and snuggled together on the couch as we talked. "Uncle Farid taught me to be brutally honest with myself. That helped me realize my penchant for hooking up with women then walking away from them came from an inability to connect with them and the fact that I was constantly wondering if any of them could make me feel the way you do." "Rita—" "I thought you were getting together with Keigan. You'd been pulling away from me, slowly but noticeably. I know, I found out why later, but at the time I didn't know. I thought you were moving away from me so you could move toward Keigan. Rita was the luck of the draw, you might say. I realized if I lost you to Keigan, I'd be alone, really alone, so I needed to connect somehow to someone before that happened. "But I couldn't connect with them, G-Man. At first I didn't care because it was just meaningless sex, then I cared because I felt it was something I should do, then I fixated on it with Rita because I thought I was going to lose you." "Dude, you told Keigan how to find me." "I know. I was scared of anything happening between us and I wasn't sure about your feelings anymore since you'd hidden them away so well, but I wanted you to be happy. If it wasn't going to be with me, then I wanted to help you find someone who could make you feel that way." Shaking my head, dismayed at how much time and effort we'd wasted over the years because of The Fiend's pernicious tinkering in our heads, I huffed out a breath. "What?" Nate asked. I decided to put aside the unending anger and frustration over what I couldn't change and instead focused on us, the beautiful man in my arms who completed me because he contained part of my soul, the part I wasn't born with but was destined to discover. "When did you know?" I asked. "Know what?" "Huh. That question had a complete thought with it in my head." We both chuckled. "When did you know you had feelings for me?" He shrugged. "When Richard started messing with my head, I was about thirteen. The first time he brought up my feelings making you leave, he asked me if I felt more for you than friendship. I hadn't thought about it up until that point. I mean, I knew I had strong feelings for you but I always thought it was a mix of loving my best friend and hero worship." "Hero worship?" I squawked, my cheeks flaming. I actually shuddered at the thought. Nate gave me look that clearly said I was daft. "Come on, dude, you were the most popular guy in school, you were the best looking guy, you were always the hottest and friendliest and most charismatic guy around. Everybody wanted to be your friend, if not more." My blush crept down my neck and up into my ears. "Don't," he chastised me with an affectionate grin. "You know it's true." Waving away our tangent, he continued, "Anyway, Richard asked me if I had other feelings for you. I'd never thought about it before. I knew I loved you more than I'd ever loved anybody else because you were BMOC yet you never left me behind. You always kept me by your side no matter what. And regardless of who came along, you always made me feel like the most important person in your life." "You always have been," I mumbled. "I know." He gave me a quick kiss. "I know, G-Man. But when he asked how I felt, it made me stop and think about it for the first time. I started looking at how I felt and what I thought and began realizing there was something else there. "By the time I turned fourteen, I'd come to realize I was madly in love with you. Which totally fucking freaked me out because I also realized I was attracted to you sexually. It was like this total emotional thing that made you the center of my universe." "But you were straight..." "Yeah. I knew I only looked at girls, never looked at a guy for more than comparative purposes, so how screwed up was I to find I was actually fantasizing about my best friend, so in love with him that I wanted to spend my life with him? Well, I thought I was pretty well off my rocker, which Richard capitalized on by beating into my brain that I was straight and needed to find a woman and definitely shouldn't think of you as more than a friend lest I blow up our relationship and lose you forever." I bracketed his face with my hands and pulled him to me, planting a slow and fiery and loving kiss on his lips. Then leaning my forehead against his I whispered, "You'll never lose me, Nate. Never. The only thing that can take me away from you is death. Until that comes, you're stuck with me." "Darn," he grumbled through a growing smile. "That'll suck." "Yeah," I breathed against his lips, "it's gonna be miserable for us, but that's just how it's got to be." He kissed me before saying, "We'll just have to suffer, I guess." Nate leaned back a bit so he could meet my gaze. With curiosity in his voice he asked, "What about you?" "What about me?" "When did you realize how you felt about me?" "The day I met you." "What?" "Don't look so shocked. I didn't know what to call it at the time, but the moment I saw you sitting alone that day, something drew me to you. After spending about an hour with you, I knew you were going to be an important part of my life, though I couldn't have said why I thought that. By the end of the day, I couldn't imagine not knowing you and I couldn't imagine a future without you. And within a month I knew I needed you to stop the ache in my chest when we were apart and I needed you to create that giddy euphoria I felt when we were together. I constantly wanted to hear your voice, see your face, make you smile, know you were happy. "So by the time I was eleven, I knew I was in love with you. I also knew I loved you more than I thought I could ever love anybody. It was like you were a part of me that I hadn't known I was missing until we met." Scrunching up his face with a facetious scowl he complained, "But I was such a scrawny, insignificant kid who couldn't get a girl to look at me twice!" "You've always been beautiful to me, Nate," I quietly told him, stroking his cheek. "From the first day we met you've always been the most beautiful person in the world to me. By the time I came out I was desperate to touch you, to kiss you, to explore your body with my hands and lips and tongue. I wanted so badly for you to have sex with me. I also knew I could go my entire life without any of that so long as it kept you in my life." I shrugged. Then I grinned. "That you turned into a total fucking hottie is just icing on the cake, but my feelings would be the same even if that hadn't happened." "You're... you're just amazing, Mr. Beaumont." "So are you, Mr. Sawyer." * * * * * "Listen, G-Man, because I'm being serious. What happened... what we shared... that was powerful voodoo. No, I'm serious, dude! It's like something happened, like the fear in me isn't as strong as it was or something. It's like... I don't know how to say it... It's like that was the most intimate and potent experience of my life—I don't just mean that was the best orgasm I've ever experienced, which it was. But it was a lot more than the most satisfying sex I've ever had. It was a spiritual experience or something. What I felt was so profound and so potent—What? Why are you looking at me like that?" "Because you're telling me exactly what I've been thinking." "You felt it too, huh?" "Oh yeah. Couldn't you tell?" "Oh yeah. And..." "What?" "All I could think when you were coming undone was that I was so happy to see you like that and spending the rest of my life making you feel that way would... well, it would make me happy." Suddenly he began to blush, so he ducked his head, pressing a kiss against my chest. "What?" I asked. "What was that look for?" He mumbled something against my skin but I couldn't understand him. Pulling his face up so I could see him, I said, "Repeat that." "I want you to teach me." His voice was so soft, so meek. And very embarrassed. "Teach you what?" "Teach me how to make you feel good." "Oh, that's easy. I can teach you all about gay sex." "No, G-Man, I don't want to know about gay sex. I've never been attracted to a man, I've never looked at one and wondered what it would be like, nothing like that at all. I'm straight—" "I'm not challenging your heterosexuality, Nate." "I didn't say you were. I'm just telling you I don't need to know how to make every man feel good, because that's never going to happen; I only need to know how to make you feel good, because that's all I want to do." With a mischievous smirk I asked, "You mean teach you how to suck my dick, how to take me to the hilt?" He blushed and nodded. "Teach you how to rim me like a pro?" He ducked his without breaking eye contact. And nodded again. "Teach you how to use your fingers to make me whimper and whine until I explode?" He was holding back a chuckle even as his blush deepened, his dark skin growing progressively darker. Another nod. "Teach you where all my buttons are so you know how to play me like an instrument?" He nodded once more but remained silent. "Teach you how to bottom?" I doubt this part, which could be an issue. I'm versatile. Though, if what he did to me earlier is any indication, I might just become a pig bottom. For him anyway. His mouth worked a few times and his blush exploded. I could see it spreading down his neck. He surprised me when he nodded. "I'm not exactly built for first-timers, Nate." "I'm not asking for a first time." "What?" I nearly shouted the question. Vigorously shaking his head, he cupped my cheeks and stared into my eyes. "No, G-Man, that's not what I meant. I mean I'm not asking you to be my first like some kind of springboard to other experiences with other men. I'm not asking you to take my cherry so I can move on from there. I'm saying it's just part of what I want to give you, which is all of me, and you're going to be my first and only. I want us to be equal, all of me for all of you." "Just..." "What, G-Man?" "I won't lie to you, Nate. It's going to hurt at first. Like I said, I'm not built for first-timers." "But you'll help me through it, right? You'll do whatever you can to prepare me, and you'll teach me, and you'll take care of me, right?" "Of course! You know I will." "That means you're built just right for me," he said sotto voce before capturing my lips. * * * * * "When you had sex with guys," he interrupted, "do you remember—Fuck! Of course you remember. When you'd hook up with a guy, I always asked if you played pitcher or catcher." "Right. We always asked about each other's extracurricular activities. I don't know, it was like we were—Oh..." Nate watched me closely as I considered what he'd said. Giving him an inquisitive look, a sudden thought popped out of my mouth. "You were jealous." "I was. All the time. Couldn't help it." "As for pitching and catching, you wanted to know if I'd gotten over the panic attacks." "You were panicking?" So gentle a tone, so worried an expression. He looked quite worried. "I never told you. I should have." After a deep breath I continued, "I couldn't do it, Nate. I should've told you what trying to bottom did to me, how much fear it engendered, the blood rushing in my ears and the clammy sweat and the uncontrollable shaking and the blinding flashes of terror and... well, the panic. It was always so overwhelming. All I could think of was Richard and what he did to me. I didn't tell you because I thought I was pathetic to let something from so long ago control my sex life today. That's why I just told you I was scared of doing it." "How did you know you'd like it?" "Fingers and toys." "Toys?" His eyebrows climbed toward his scalp and his eyes widened. "Dildos, Nate." "You have dildos?" "Yes." Blushing profusely and dropping my face I admitted, "And if you must know, my favorite is the one that looks like yours." It was his turn to blush. "Maybe we'll get a chance to play with them together," he said hopefully. "But that sidetrack aside, the point was I always asked because you told me you were scared to try it. Also, after the first few times, I realized by your tone and expression that you were frustrated and disappointed sometimes when you'd tell me you topped, like that hadn't been your first choice." "I'm versatile. I like both. I just never got to bottom before tonight." "Right." He looked at me expectantly. "Isn't it obvious?" I asked him. "Isn't what obvious?" "The answer to the question swirling around in your head." "Why did it go so smoothly tonight?" "Yeah, that question." "What's the answer?" "I'd think it was obvious. I was scared before, sure, scared of having a panic attack in front of somebody who might not care or might try to push or might do something untoward, even if it was to freak out and leave me while I tried to get my shit together. "I didn't have that fear with you. And not just because I knew if I panicked that you'd take care of me. That wasn't it at all. I wasn't scared because I always knew there had to be someone who could get me through that barricade, who could help me overcome the phobic response I'd always had." "You thought it was me?" "I knew it was you, Nate. I think I've always known. There's no one I trust more, no one I care about more, no one else I'd want to help me experience that. Even if I wanted it before with someone else, it was a shallow want, not strong enough to push me." "You didn't even hesitate." "I'd never hesitate with you. If there's something I can't accomplish with you, it simply can't be done." * * * * * A bed of glowing coals stood in place of the blazing fire we'd rebuilt. We'd talked for hours, long enough to realize neither of us would get any sleep that night. "What did you mean when you said you needed to know?" "When?" "Earlier. When things were just starting to heat up—Oh, you asshole!" My hand leaped to my neck, cradling it as though I'd suffered a grievous wound. "You marked me, didn't you?" His grin blossomed into a full smile even as he turned away from me. A brief nod, slight and abashed, then he locked his eyes on me again. "Yeah. Sorry." "No you're not!" I accused with mock horror, though I was smiling as well. "Both sides?" I leaned first this way then that way so he could get a good look. Nate reached out, gently tracing beneath one ear with his fingertips and beneath the other with his knuckles, the touch light and affectionate. "Oops." "How bad?" "Well, one's not so bad." I waited. When he said nothing more, I prompted, "And the other?" "Uh... Yeah, you see... It's... Well, G-Man, the first one's pretty big and pretty dark." "And right below my ears! How can I hide that?" My outrage didn't sound convincing to me, so I knew it didn't fool him. Something about Nate marking me that way titillated and thrilled. Whatever disapproving looks I might receive from mindless prudes meant little to me. The reason I liked the idea was simple: Nate had claimed me as his, had marked his territory. The caveman in me found that idea pleasing, not to mention stimulating. Even as his chuckle burgeoned into a full laugh, a deep, throaty sound that was honest and resonant and pleasurable to hear, he cringed while replying, "It's winter, dude. Wear a scarf." I smacked him playfully, my palm against his bare chest making enough noise to sound like a fatal strike when in reality it caused him to laugh louder and harder. Shaking my head, I joined him. Eventually our raucous outburst slowed enough for us to catch our breath. Once I felt I had enough air to speak, I returned to the previous topic. "So, back to the question I asked. When everything was heating up between us, you said, 'I need this. I need to know.' What did you need to know?" His expression turned serious, contemplative. Nate took my hand and wove our fingers together, kissing my knuckles, the back of my hand, my wrist. "You don't have to—" Something akin to a determined look passed across his face, promptly replaced by adoration. "All I've wanted is for you to find your happiness, ever since we were kids that's all I've wanted. You've always brought such happiness to me despite the fact that we weren't what I wanted. "And we're so fucking happy together, G-Man. We have a great relationship, we love each other dearly, we'd do anything for each other. So I wondered... I mean, I thought, what if I'm the one? What if it's me that helps you get out of the past and into a future you deserve? What if I'm the guy who gives you your happily ever after? "We messed around twice before and it failed for various reasons, part of it sabotage on my part. So tonight, once things started to go that way, once I realized I wanted more than anything to have at least one time with you when maybe things could be perfect, I needed to know if we could do it, if we could be intimate despite the baggage, if we could have sex that was rich and satisfying and joyous and wonderful. I needed to know if it would be as awesome as the fantasies I've had since we were teenagers. I needed to know if I could spend the rest of my life with you and never need a woman to provide something that I wasn't getting." "Did you get your answers?" I asked in a hushed tone. For some reason I was fearful, though I knew I needn't be. His answer was emphatic. "Yes. Absolutely. Without room for doubt." He set his coffee cup on the table, took mine from me and put it with his, and finally stretched out on top of me. When our lips met it was like lightning and fire and the sun blazing bright. "What we shared tonight was only the tip of the iceberg. What we shared tonight was magical and fulfilling and more than I've ever shared with anyone before, more than I ever thought possible. You have a lot more to teach me and I have a lot more to experience, which means being with you is going to blow my mind and leave me reeling. Not only that, but being with you means being with the only person on this planet who completes me." Very softly he added, "Nobody can possibly compare to that." "I love you, Little Big Man." "I love you, G-Man." My eyes closed and my heart raced and my spirit soared when he leaned in for another kiss.
  13. February 6, 2001 Detective Weston chewed his cigar with gritted teeth. The madder he got the more he chewed, and the more he chewed the faster the cigar disappeared. He'd throw the occasional angry glance at District Attorney Landers, though it wasn't Landers that put a burr under his saddle. It was the damned FBI and their jurisdiction crap. "Don't worry," Landers said, not the least bit flustered as he slapped a roll of papers against his open palm. "This is bullshit!" Weston growled. Waving the thick stack of documents in the detective's direction, the finely suited district attorney smiled the smile of a predator. "Not anymore, it's not." The ding of the elevator's arrival had them both turning toward the sound. Nurses and doctors shuffled and meandered and consulted quietly in the hospital's intensive care unit, but neither man had eyes for anything other than the four incompetent assholes stepping out of the elevator. After glancing around, the group of interlopers spotted the two men and immediately headed in their direction. The woman leading the group was tall, lean, lithe, and Weston thought she might be pretty if she didn't look like she had a flagpole stuck up her ass. Her white blouse primly contained beneath a slim blue blazer buttoned snug beneath her less than ample bosom, her slacks too spacious to show her figure, FBI Special Agent Dempsey marched ahead with the safe assumption that her entourage would follow in her wake. Already waving her credentials as she prepared to stake a leading claim in the investigation of Richard Sawyer, her gaze met the unflinching stare of Dallas's District Attorney and she frowned, as though she'd just caught a whiff of something unpleasant. "DA Landers," she greeted with just a hint of disdain in her voice, "what a ... pleasant surprise." "Stow it, Dempsey," he replied, taking the step necessary to close the distance between them, stabbing her in the gut with the stiff roll of papers in his hand. He felt childish satisfaction when she huffed out a startled breath, her hands automatically wrapping around the documents as he released them. "What—" He didn't let her finish. "As of this morning—I'm sure you've been too busy primping and preparing a speech for this moment to keep up with such mundane minutia—the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas has issued an emergency restraining order against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Washington DC Metro Police halting any jurisdiction claims you might or might not make in matters pertaining to Doctor Richard Sawyer and his alleged crimes." The pleasure her shocked and outraged expression made him feel amplified his resolve; he'd always wanted to take this particular special agent down a notch or ten. "Furthermore, said District Court has also issued an emergency restraining order against the FBI and DC Metro halting any attempts to interfere, undermine, participate in or otherwise insinuate into the local investigation, arrest, charging and trying of Doctor Richard Sawyer. As you'll notice from the court orders in your hand, SAC Dempsey, the court took the bold initiative of staying its own orders and bumping the matter up to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for emergency review." Leaning forward enough to invade the FBI agent's personal space and thereby forcing her to lean away, he added with a growl, "That court remanded the matter back to the District Court with its full support of its decision. Therefore, Agent Dempsey—" He loved the flinch it caused to drop the Special from her title. "—the FBI and the capital's police are hereby ordered to get its nose out of our business until we've dealt with this matter." Dempsey huffed, nearly spat, then proclaimed, "This is absurd! We have interstate crimes involved, which clearly—" "Stow it, Miss High-and-Mighty," Weston barked. Waving his pudgy hand at her and her group he explained, "You ... people—" That word came out sounding like it really didn't apply. "—knew for three fucking months what he was capable of, what he'd already been up to in our esteemed nation's capital, and you told us fuck all shit about it. And now ... now we've got a boy who's already gone through seven hours of surgery just to keep him alive and keep him from making his injuries worse. His parents say he has more surgery coming. That boy—" He waved vaguely toward the ICU room behind him. "—will be shitting through a hole cut into his intestines for months, because the damage is so severe. His kidneys are so bruised there might be permanent damage, and even if there isn't, he'll be pissing blood for a good long while. His fucking eye socket is fractured." He punctuated that by tapping above his own eye. "He has a major concussion, lost more blood than a boy that size should contain, has two broken ribs and several permanent teeth that could fall out at any minute ... and his fucking windpipe is crushed to the point where they had to put a tube down his throat just so he could breathe. Fuck all, people, he won't be able to talk normally—if at all—for a good long while. His face is smashed to high heaven so he doesn't even look human anymore. He's beaten and battered from head to foot, like a damn stampede ground him underfoot." He couldn't continue. He just couldn't do it. He was so disgusted, so angry, so horrified by this case, and to think these assholes from the FBI and the DC Metro Police knew and didn't so much as offer a simple phone call to let them know they might want to keep an eye on the bastard. The short, heavyset cop huffed in derision and turned away. He couldn't even look at them anymore. "We were in the middle of investigating an increasing number of claims by former patients," Dempsey offered, though it sounded like an excuse even to her ears. "You could've warned us," the DA replied in a tone so devoid of emotion that its coldness sent a chill up the spine of everyone who heard it. "We have a teenager in there fighting for his life who will be permanently scarred both inside and out, a boy who's suffered a tragedy no human should suffer. No, maybe we couldn't have prevented it, but we'd feel a mite bit better about the situation if somebody in the know had reached out with a simple courtesy call. But you didn't," he went on with a scowl, his voice dropping, "and now we have a mighty big mess to deal with." "But interstate—" "No! You have the court orders in your hand, little miss. I suggest you read them, then I suggest you talk to your superiors, then I suggest you think long and hard about why we have a crime so heinous that the federal courts have granted us jurisdiction despite clear federal crimes." Stepping closer, he finished, "Ask yourself this, Miss S-A-C: Why would both the District and Circuit Courts agree that our case supersedes the DC and federal cases? And then ask yourself what you might have done differently to avoid this situation." He spun on his heels and walked a few steps before stopping and turning back. "By the way," he said to the stunned faces that stared back, "DC Metro and the FBI are hereby prohibited from having any interaction with the victim and the suspect, as well as any witnesses, friends, family members or others with direct or tangential connections to this case. You're also prohibited from visiting any related locations, issuing or serving any warrants, speaking to investigators or other law enforcement personnel involved in this matter ... You know what? Let's make it real simple, since you people are obviously dumber than a sack of wet hair. Stay away from this case in its entirety until I say otherwise." With a glower he said, "Don't try me on this, folks, because it'll take me the blink of an eye to be back in the District Court to have you arrested for federal witness tampering, contempt, obstruction, and anything else I come up with when I reach the courthouse. Trust me, this is Texas and we don't take kindly to people hurting our kids, and that includes the incompetent fools who knew this might happen but didn't think it important enough to mention it." "In a way, you're at least partially responsible for this bullshit," Detective Weston offered with as much disgust as he could muster. "It would be a real shame if somebody revealed to the public that this boy was savagely beaten and raped because the FBI and DC Metro Police knew what Sawyer was capable of but didn't want to share that information with anybody else. Oh, and his parents already have that information, but for now we've convinced them that it would be counterproductive to publicize it." The district attorney had an unpleasant smile on his face when he offered, "Of course, I'm not sure how much longer we can convince them to sit on that information. But I suppose we'll do our best ... for now." * * * * * February 8, 2001 The pain in his head kept him nauseated and disoriented, yet The Fiend swam up from sleep toward the light of wakefulness. Before he opened his eyes, however, he became aware of a presence, perhaps more than one. Although cognizant of his location—in a hospital—and aware that things had spiraled out of control, he felt confident he could minimize the damage from this debacle once his head cleared and he had sufficient time to formulate a sound plan. Assuming the other person or persons in the room were medical staff, he slowly opened his eyes, blinking and squinting. Though when he attempted to reach up and rub the sleep from his eyes, a sharp clank halted the movement after only a few inches. He yanked his hand a few times, feeling the sharp bite of metal against his wrist with each pull, so he glanced down. Then groaned and let his head fall back. Such a simple movement had caused a great deal more pain than he had anticipated. "Good afternoon, Doctor Sawyer." The voice was gravelly and rough, deep and throaty and ... somehow menacing. With his eyes still closed, he evaluated his options, understanding the implied sneer in his title indicated the person in the room was less likely to be a hospital employee and more likely someone with law enforcement. Richard understood the precariousness of his situation from that simple greeting alone. Thus he settled his mind and cleared his thoughts, letting loose his great intellect and human understanding with the intention of mitigating whatever fallout might be in store. Again opening his eyes, he attempted to reach up with his other arm only to be met with the same clank and halt that had stayed his previous attempt with his right arm. Handcuffs, he realized. He was cuffed to the hospital bed. The Fiend let his squinting eyes wander about the room until they fell upon a squat, overweight man in a rumpled suit and askew tie, a frumpy little Native American with messy hair and a chewed cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. Detective, he thought, then he let his eyes wander from the obvious policeman to the more dashing, taller, WASPish gentleman beside him, seated in a chair against the wall, one leg dangling over the knee of the other, hands clasped in his lap, for all the world looking as though prepared for an important business meeting. "Thirsty," he croaked. "You're on IV fluids, Doctor Sawyer. It seems you might've bumped your head and they're concerned about nausea and possible issues swallowing, so you'll have to be patient. The nurse'll be back to check on you shortly. Just as soon as we're done." That last sentence sounded ominous, threatening even, and The Fiend again reevaluated the situation. He could remember going to see The Boy, arriving at his house full of desire and need and a superior sense of accomplishment, knowing he would find Greg home alone and ripe for harvest. He also remembered the outrage at The Boy's denial based on the ludicrous emotional attachment the adolescent felt toward Richard's own son. More and more he regretted siring a child despite the reasons that made the decision sensible at the time. But more than all that, The Fiend remembered how quickly things fell apart, how his anger overrode his intellect, how he had decided taking by force what he had expected to be offered by choice had become the only path available to him. He remembered the shivering sense of guilty pleasure that accompanied overpowering The Boy and subduing him. And he remembered the primitive carnal satisfaction that came from taking and taking and taking. Then, much to his surprise, The Boy had somehow surprised him, knocked him aside long enough to attempt escape. And he remembered the television. Near the door. Moving too fast and intercepting his forward momentum and direction. Then nothing but bits and pieces. A little from the ambulance. A little from the hospital. Then a little more and a little more, all leading to the moment he now found himself in, handcuffed to a bed whilst facing down on obvious detective and one silent yet intimidating other who probably represented the District Attorney. His suit looked far too pristine and pressed and expensive to belong to a lowly cop. "Who are you?" The grin on the detective's face looked wrong, too sure, too forced, too angry. "My name's Detective Weston with the Dallas Police. And this—" He gestured to his left toward the man in the chair. "—is District Attorney Landers." Not an ADA, The Fiend thought. Clearly I need to up my game if the big man himself is here. "Is there a problem?" The Fiend asked innocently, making sure to include a hint of nervousness, a dash of curiosity, and more discomfort and pain than he actually felt. The detective scowled. "It's just a concussion, Doctor, so you can drop the act. You're only here because they wanted to keep you for observation, not because you're in mortal danger." Increasing his curiosity and mixing it with unease and confusion, Richard blinked repeatedly and settled on an expression of inquisitive discombobulation. "I'm sorry, detective. I'm not sure I know what's going on here, but I'm more than willing to help in whatever way I can." "How generous." District Attorney Landers let his words drip with disdain and incredulity, a viscous combination oozing with peril aimed right at The Fiend. Clank. Richard glanced down at his hand, securely cuffed to the bed's railing. How had he forgotten about the cuffs already? These two men and their aura of superior anger, not to mention the predatory gleam in the detective's eyes, had somehow unnerved him. "For the protection of all the other young boys in the state," the detective offered with snide distaste. "I beg your pardon?" The Fiend responded, meeting the policeman's gaze. Gesturing to the cuffs as he approached the bed, Weston explained, "The cuffs. They're there to protect the other young boys in the state." "I'm not sure I follow." "Let's cut the bullshit, Doctor. Why don't you shut your pie hole and listen. We haven't read you your rights yet, but I'm sure you know what they are and what they mean. We're not here to question you and we're not here for a confession." "We're here to make you squirm," the DA added, his voice low and smooth and all the more dangerous. A brief shake of his head made it hurt more, so The Fiend halted that the moment it started. Using that gesture to indicate confusion or lack of understanding seemed an unnecessary discomfort, as he was more than capable of manipulating these men without the benefit of non-verbal cues. "You seem to have me at a disadvantage—" "Like you had that young boy at a disadvantage?" came the sharp rebuke from the detective, eyes ablaze and lips mashed into a thin gash with the chewed cigar as its only interruption. "I don't think—" "As I said, Doctor, you might want to bite your tongue instead of letting it waggle. We're not interested in your mind games and your acting skills and whatever other tricks you have up your sleeve. We're just here to share a bit of information, then the two nice uniformed officers stationed outside your door are going to come in here, read you your rights, then babysit you until we can haul your ass downtown." Rising from the chair, Landers straightened his suit jacket, buttoned it, smoothed the front of it, squared his shoulders, then moved to join the detective standing astride the bed. His silence unnerved The Fiend, as though the man was enjoying a particularly captivating show instead of trying to intimidate a suspect. He exuded confidence, as did the cop. That did not bode well for Richard, and he knew it. Flipping through sheets of paper bound in a plan clasped folder, Weston shifted his cigar to the other corner of his mouth before saying, "You assaulted a young boy and raped him repeatedly—" "I never!" His voice increasingly tense and disgusted, the detective explained, "Your genitals were covered with his blood. Your fists, knees and the tips of your shoes were covered with his blood and his skin. You had his hair, skin and blood under your fingernails. He had your skin, blood and hair under his fingernails. Your pubic hair was found glued to his body by blood and semen. His rectum had—fucking hell—his rectum was covered with and full of your semen, and your pubic hair was found inside his rectum as well. The hospital's staff and attending physicians are ready to expertly testify as to the level of medical knowledge necessary to inflict the injuries suffered by your victim, including how those injuries are consistent with that knowledge being used to overpower someone." Falling silent, the detective glanced at the DA, who gave a small nod. Back to Richard the detective added, "And we found your fingerprints around his neck. They were perfectly matched to the strangulation bruises." "Fingerprints on skin?" "If we get to them quickly enough. And we did. In this case." "So much for do no harm," the DA growled. "Interesting enough, Doctor, the physical evidence against you is so irrefutable and incontrovertible that the victim's testimony is unnecessary for conviction. Which makes you wonder what he might have to say to add to our case." Richard grimaced. It looked like a flinch from pain in his head but it came from frustration, mostly aimed at himself. He had lost control, allowed primitive emotions to override his intellect, all because The Boy still loved his son and it so angered The Fiend that a child would deny him based on so pathetic a thing, as though love meant anything, counted for anything, when pleasures of the flesh were all that mattered. "By the way, Doctor, the FBI and the DC Metro Police are here. It appears they have some questions for you, in addition to some more bad news. But don't worry about them. We're holding them at bay for now so we can deal with this little matter first. Once we're done, we'll let them join the party." Both men, looking smug and satisfied, turned and walked toward the door. But before they reached it, the squat detective looked back. "One more thing, Doctor." The Fiend felt nauseated, and not because of the concussion. "We have forensic psychologists and psychiatrists on staff. They've already talked to your son and they've already made plans to talk to the young boy you viciously attacked. It seems, in addition to aggravated sexual battery on a minor, aggravated assault of a minor, forcible sodomy, and carnal knowledge of a minor, we'll be adding charges of coercion and enticement. What amazes me, Doctor, is that we've only been at this for a little more than three days. Makes you wonder what we'll come up with tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, or next week. Yeah, sure makes you wonder." With that, both men walked out the door as two uniformed police officers walked in, neither looking particular friendly. * * * * * April 11, 2001 "Your Honor, as you can see from the documentation submitted and the testimony provided, it behooves Child Protective Services to petition for the immediate termination of the father's parental rights. Though not physically abused, psychiatric investigation has discovered that the child has endured years of psychological and emotional abuse in addition to emotional neglect. In light of the father's incarceration and pending trials here in Dallas, in Washington DC and in federal court, we believe, in the child's longterm interests, a better home environment and familial setting will be best." "Where has he been staying since the father's arrest?" "With his best friend's family, Your Honor, as per his wishes and the wishes of the Beaumont family. This move was and is supported by testimony and evaluations as being the most appropriate environment for him." "The best friend was a victim of the father, was he not?" "Yes, Your Honor, in the criminal case pending here in Dallas." "Interesting. I see you've also petitioned this court to recognize Yvonne and Gavin Beaumont as his legal guardians, is that correct?" "Yes, Your Honor. Again, CPS believes this to be the best environment for him through the remainder of his adolescent years." "And what if the father's found innocent?" "The dispositions of those charges have no bearing on these proceedings, Your Honor. Our findings are separate from the criminal complaints." "Is there any intention of petitioning for an emancipation decree?" "No, Your Honor. That would not be in the child's best interests." "Very well. In light of the evidence and testimony, and in the boy's best interests, this court finds sufficient cause to terminate Richard Sawyer's parental rights and grant legal guardianship of Nathanial Sawyer to Yvonne and Gavin Beaumont, as per your petition, both orders effective immediately. In addition, I'm instructing Child Protective Services to continue monitoring the boy's wellbeing until such time as this court vacates its order or he reaches legal adulthood, whichever comes first, to include quarterly reports submitted to this court. It is so ordered." "Thank you, Your Honor." * * * * * August 9, 2003 "What do you mean we can't sue him? Why the hell not?" "Please, sir, calm down for a minute and let me explain." "You bet your bottom dollar you'll explain. He hurt our boy! He's gotta pay!" "Mr. Hamilton, please, take a seat." "Honey, sit down, please, and let him explain." "Fine. Explain." "There are two problems with trying to sue him in civil court. The first is that he hasn't been convicted for sexually assaulting your son. In a civil trial, you'll have to prove to the jury that he did it. Since the police have all the evidence and we can't get to it until they go to trial and reveal it, you'll have to rely on your son's testimony and only your son's testimony—" "What about all those other boys?" "You can't sue on their behalf and, without a conviction, their testimony would be irrelevant and inadmissible since it has nothing to do with your son's assault." "That boy in Texas, we can use him. He was convicted of that one, right?" "That came years after your son's assault. It doesn't help because it only shows Mr. Sawyer was capable of a crime much later in life and in another state. Besides, you can't force that kid to testify. He's still a minor and this isn't a criminal case." "Well that's a load of crap!" "Honey, please. Now, you said there were two problems." "Right. The first being you'd have to prove he did it without access to any evidence except your son's testimony. The second problem is that Mr. Sawyer, for whatever reason, put all his assets in a trust under his son's name." "What in hell does that mean?" "Honey, let him explain. Hush now, John." "What that means, Mr. Hamilton, is that, aside from his medical practice and the money necessary for living expenses, Mr. Sawyer sank all his other assets—houses, car, investments, savings—in a trust under his son's name. His parental rights were terminated years ago, so even he doesn't have access to the trust anymore. Everything's locked up waiting for his son to turn eighteen." "Then we'll sue the son!" "Honey! Absolutely not." "Why not? That's the asshole's stuff. Just because it's under the son's name, that doesn't mean we can't sue him." "Mr. Hamilton, his son is a victim of his father. You'd be suing a victim, and you'd be punishing a son for his father's crimes." "That's absurd. It's not even his money, it's his father's." "Not anymore. It belongs to his son and his father isn't involved, can't touch it, has no claims against it." "That's the craziest thing I ever heard. Of course we can sue him. It'd be like suing his estate." "No, Mr. Hamilton, it would be like suing his son, an adolescent who's also a victim. He had nothing to do with his father's activities. Taking him to court will be the fastest way to make yourself public enemy number one. Besides, you can't sue because Mr. Sawyer no longer owns the assets. The son can't even touch the assets for another year or so. Right now they're being managed by his legal guardians." "We'll sue them." "Honey! Now you're just being stupid." "Somebody has to pay!" "You're not looking for justice, are you, Mr. Hamilton?" "Of course I am!" "No, I don't think you are." "But somebody has to pay!" "Even if he's not convicted for any other crimes, he's been convicted of several crimes in Texas. He has almost a hundred fifty years of prison ahead of him without the possibility of parole." "That's not enough! He has to pay for what he did to our son! He has to pay!" * * * * * September 19, 2006 "They convicted him on all counts." Greg looked at Nate, his face blank. Nate stared back, unsure if feeling happy about the news made him a bad person. Both boys turned back to Yvonne. "But there's another trial," she added. "There's a federal case against him for transporting some of the boys over state lines." "How long did he get?" Greg asked, his voice devoid of emotion, his reaction distant and stoic. Shaking her head, again feeling anger and upset, especially seeing this cold detachment in her son, she shrugged, answered, "Almost two thousand years." "What?" Nate couldn't believe it. How was that possible? "I read that each molestation conviction is ninety-nine years, to be served consecutively, plus all the other charges with seventeen victims involved. Yeah, it came out near two thousand years." "Huh," Greg remarked. "The fucker got what he deserved, I guess." Yvonne watched her son and wondered if he'd ever be the same person he was before. Farid had said Greg was using some kind of self-deception to avoid the feelings and memories he didn't want to deal with, a potent kind of denial, and his mother felt it had somehow changed him. He wasn't unemotional or anything, but there was this strangeness to his reactions sometimes, as though he wasn't really seeing or reacting to the real world, at least not the world everyone else experienced. Very slowly, she saw Greg's hand slide across the table toward Nate, whose hand set aside his fork and slid toward Greg. Somewhere in the middle they joined hands. When both boys—Goodness, they were twenty already and she was still thinking of them as boys—when they looked at each other, there was such trust and love and affection in their eyes and expressions, and it seemed they each gained strength from the other. She loved her boys and she cherished the unique and powerful bond they shared. But still she worried for both of them. Somewhere deep inside where she seldom ventured, Yvonne feared that Richard wasn't done with her family. Not yet anyway. * * * * * March 24, 2008 "Did you hear?" Nate asked softly. He could see the answer in Greg's face when their eyes met. Nate rushed to him and wrapped him in his arms as Greg began crying, mumbling over and over, "Is it really over?" The news media had been carrying the story since it happened a few hours earlier. On his way to his federal trial, looking haggard and thin and dispirited, Richard had reached the courthouse and exited the FBI vehicle, surrounded by agents. In the underground parking garage, as they made their way toward the entrance, one of the armed guards approached them, apparently looking disinterested and casual. But when he was within ten feet of the group, he drew his weapon and opened fire, hitting The Fiend seven times before falling to the barrage of bullets the FBI agents sent in his direction. Both men died at the scene and two of the agents were wounded, though not critically. * * * * * Terrence Hamilton—Terry to his friends and family—was twelve years old when The Fiend decided the youngster was ready. The kid's torment lasted two years before Richard lost interest. Terry was Richard's youngest victim. He was also his first victim. Terry committed suicide two weeks before the guilty verdict was handed down in the second trial. That made him The Fiend's last victim as well. The guard who killed Richard that day was John Hamilton, Terry's father.
  14. February 4, 2017 Something kith and kin to anguished resignation gripped me, and in response lethargy settled in, a weariness of soul and mind and heart that, coupled with the hurt, left me barren and fatigued. Jaded. That's it. I feel jaded, just worn down and beaten and careworn with life. This must be what a haggard heart feels like, as though the death of hope is a toxin, spreading from its source and killing everything in its path. Yeah, that's it. A part of me died this morning and the rest of me is following it to the grave. Kyle and I dragged our still tired selves, along with our bags, into the house. After weeping into the Omni's nice bed linens for half an hour, I'd realized I might intercept Nate at the house, might catch him there and stop him from running away from his fear, perhaps helping him face it and conquer it. Right. I thought I'd be the knight in shining armor riding in to vanquish The Fiend and thereby save the day. Uh huh ... But it only took the garage door rising a little for me to realize his car wasn't there. That was when what little hope I had left crumbled and I began feeling numb. Sure, the unbearable pain was still there, the ridiculous amount of disappointment still churned inside me, but it all began feeling like someone else's heartache. It's called denial. You're very good at that, remember? Denying it would only carry me so far, I knew, but it would keep me running long enough not to spoil the rest of Kyle's visit. Well, not spoil it anymore than I already had. We trudged inside under the dark cloud of my torment. "He's not messy, is he?" "Nate?" I asked, though I couldn't imagine anyone else he'd ask about under the circumstances. Our rushed travel from the Omni to the house was borne of the hope that we'd find Nate there, giving us a chance to talk, hopefully to fix what seemed so terribly broken. I couldn't have lied to Kyle about what happened even if I'd wanted to, thus he knew the truth and why I'd been in such a funk all morning. Basketball Boy nodded, glancing at me. "No. Neither of us are, in point of fact. Thankfully we both share a common sense of domestic decorum, thus—" I gestured elegantly like a real estate agent showing off a property to prospective buyers. "—all neat and tidy, though cleanly lived in rather than pristine, which would be like living in a museum." I grimaced for effect. "Mom constantly reminds us to pick up after ourselves, to clean our rooms, to put our dirty dishes where they belong, all that stuff." "Of course she does. You're kids. Procreation is a messy business from start to finish." He chuckled, shaking his head. "You can take your stuff up to the guest room." "We're not going back to the other hotel?" How could I explain it? Running hither and yon trying to locate him wasn't a consideration. Since he wasn't at the house, I had no hope of reconciling with Nate, no hope of finding him now that I realized he didn't want to be found. If he'd wanted me to find him, I'd have discovered him at home. His absence spoke volumes. So staying at the house made sense to me. I needed to start packing. It behooved me to skedaddle just as Nate had, but I'd have to make mine permanent and quick, meaning I needed to get the rest of my stuff out of the house as quickly as possible. That meant going back to the hotel I'd been living in was counterproductive. "No," I responded, offering what I hoped was a dismissive shrug. Kyle knew the score, though, and his frightening ability to observe and analyze and deduce meant he saw right through the pretense. "You think he'll come back here?" His voice held a boatload of doubt with a teaspoon of promise. Another shrug. It was quickly becoming my go-to response. "Probably not. But I have things I need to do here. So ... here we stay." "Okay." He turned and headed up the stairs, his backpack swinging from one shoulder. Shunning the creeping ache in my chest and avoiding the scampering thoughts in my head, I tossed my bag and jacket on the bar and grabbed a beer from the fridge, guzzled it, grabbed another, drank half that one, then fetched the weed from the coat closet and wandered into the living room, dropping onto the couch like so much dead weight. "It's nine in the morning, man." "So?" I replied defensively, glancing at Kyle as he rounded the bottom of the staircase and approached me. "Isn't it a bit early to drink beer?" "No." I thought about leaving it at that, but for the sake of education I said, "Unless you're an alcoholic, that is. Besides, the silliness about only drinking between certain times of the day is meddlesome religion that somehow slithered its way into law." "Religion and government should never mix," he intoned, as though speaking to a child. "True that. Thus—" I waggled the half-empty bottle at him, gulped what remained, stood, and went to the kitchen for another one. Then over my shoulder: "—I don't adhere to that nonsense. If drinking in the morning was good enough for the Romans ..." "But the Roman Empire fell." "And so did I," I mumbled, grabbing another ale from the refrigerator. When I turned around, he'd already made himself comfortable on the couch. "Want one?" He glanced at me, gave it a moment of thought, then answered, "Not right now." "Want something for breakfast?" "That I'd definitely take." "Coming right up, sir." After a quick swallow of beer, I set about the business of morning nourishment. * * * * * Before she had time to get more than the first syllable of hello out of her mouth, I interrupted, "Mom, is Nate there?" I couldn't say what possessed me to call. A few too many beers? A couple of joints? Depression? Pain? A profound sense of loss? Overwhelming melancholy? Any of a number of other anguished emotional responses I was suffering? Something else entirely? Again, I couldn't say. "Listen, son of mine, give him some time and some space. You should know a little something about needing that." Ouch. Getting the smackdown from my own mother hurt like hell under the circumstances. Nothing like a deserved dose of tit for tat to amplify the symptoms of heartache. "I need to see him. I need to talk to him." I didn't sound desperate, I wasn't on the verge of tears. But no one could deny the emptiness in my voice that welled from deep within me. It gushed out in my words and my expressions and my breathing and every little thing I did. "Greg, you will not come over here and you will not bother him and you will not push him, do you hear me? And stop calling him, too." The last she added with exasperation. I huffed, not angrily so much as disgustedly. Hadn't I said pretty much the same to Nate when he kept trying to contact me after I walked out? Why did it hurt so much more when the tables were turned? Dropping my head, a deep sigh escaping my lips, I admitted defeat. "You're right. I'm being stupid and hypocritical." "You're being a selfish ass is what you're being." "Fuck, Mom, do you have to make it hurt more?" "To make sure you get the point? Probably." I sighed again. "You're right." "All I can recommend is that you step back, focus on other things, try to keep your mind occupied elsewhere. What happens will happen in its own sweet time." "Then tell me one thing." "What's that, honey?" "Is he okay? I mean, is he going to be alright?" It was her turn to sigh. Then: "Only time will tell." * * * * * "That was totally awesome!" Kyle declared, holding the joint out for me to take. "Mars Attacks! is only funny when accompanied by mind-altering accoutrements. Otherwise it's kind of tedious and silly." "Man, it was silly alright." I shook my head, deciding it was a moot point to explain my use of the word had been vastly different from his. Too emotionally drained to care and too physically tired to say more than necessities, I let it go. After tamping the roach in the ashtray, I stood and stretched. "Hitting the sack?" he asked. "Yeah. It's been a long day." Basketball Boy slowly pushed himself upright from the sofa, arched his back and stretched, groaned in a way that was pure physical satisfaction, then turned to me and said, "I guess I'm gonna head on up as well." Placing a hand on his arm to halt him, I waited for him to meet my gaze again. "Thanks, Kyle. For helping me with the furniture upstairs. For helping me move all that crap downstairs. For coming here for the weekend. For everything." "It's all good," he replied, a slight blush creeping into his cheeks, a small shrug in one shoulder. Forget it. You can give him a lesson on courtesy and graciousness later. My hand moved from his arm to his neck, gave him a slight squeeze. "No, really, Kyle, thank you. This weekend didn't turn out anything like I expected. You've been a real friend—I mean you've been a real brother to me despite all the shit. I've really enjoyed your company, your help, your support. I just wanted you to know." To my pleasant surprise, he closed the gap between us and pulled me into a hug. I hadn't realized how much I needed someone to touch me, to hold me, to make me feel like I wasn't alone. He anchored me as I temporarily lost myself in a maelstrom of emotions. That simple embrace was just the medicine I needed to get through the night. We cleaned what little mess we'd made, beer bottles in the recycle bin, weed back in the coat closet, candles extinguished. Then we both headed up to bed since he had an early flight the following morning. I stood in the doorway of Nate's bedroom pondering the wisdom of sleeping in his bed. Since Kyle had helped me dismantle mine as a prelude to my permanent exile from this phase of my life, the only other option was the couch. Nate's bed won. Dropping my clothes in a pile on the floor, I slid beneath the covers and snuggled into his pillows. And I inhaled deeply, finding myself surrounded by his smell. Yeah, I can deal with this. For just one night maybe it'll feel like the dream is real instead of dead. Maybe for just one night ... * * * * * February 5, 2017 "Remember I'm coming down there in a few weeks. You interested in hanging out and going to lunch with me and a bunch of people you don't know?" I punctuated the question with a quirky grin. Kyle met my gaze in the middle of the DFW airport terminal and drew in a deep breath. Then quietly yet confidently he replied, "I don't think that's a good idea." It felt like a punch in the gut. Suddenly I had a hard time catching my breath. The mountainous pain in my chest, thus far held in check with denial, suddenly grew too large to contain. I found it difficult to focus on the face in front of me. "What?" I felt sure I said it, but Basketball Boy just stared, his expression blank. So I tried again, putting a bit more force into my diaphragm's attempt to push air out of my lungs and through my vocal cords. "What ... what do you mean?" A look of loving sympathy spread across his face as he closed the small distance between us, his voice becoming quieter, more intimate. "I think maybe it would be good for me to have some time ... away ... from you, I mean." Yes, this hurts. I can't believe how much it hurts. "Why?" The question was little more than an exhale. You know the answer already. You kinda knew this was coming, too. His head tilted slightly to one side, almost like one does when dealing with a child who just can't seem to grasp a simple concept, though I knew he didn't mean it in a condescending way. "I need to get over you, Greg. I thought a month away helped, but coming back here and seeing you made it all explode like it'd just been waiting for a little air from you to blaze just as hot as it was when I left." "Fuck ..." I moaned. I couldn't argue with his logic. I could definitely sympathize with the emotional truth of it. Resting his hand on my arm, giving a small squeeze, he said, "We'll still talk, but not as frequently, at least not for the next little while. I think it's best if I'm away from you for a bit." "How long?" My voice was breathy. I felt like I was going to start crying. Again. "I don't know," he admitted, and that was the best and most honest answer he could've given. Dropping my head, taking a deep breath to fortify my nerves, I nodded slightly. "I understand. Better than most, I guess." Meeting his gaze again I told him, "I just wish it didn't have to be this way." His eyes glistened with unshed tears and his breathing tripped a little here and stumbled a little there. It was obvious to me he was fighting himself on this decision, his intellect saying it was the right play while his emotions screamed foul. Cupping his face, sliding my thumb across his cheek beneath his eye, I said, "Believe me, Kyle, I completely understand." "I don't want to lose you," he mumbled, "but I can't live like this either." My arms snaked around him and pulled him into me, nestling his face against my chest, rubbing his back and letting him draw some measure of strength and reassurance from me. He automatically wrapped his arms around me and held on for dear life. "It's the most adult decision you can make," I admitted. "I wish it wasn't necessary, but I truly do understand and I really think it'll help you." "I wish it didn't hurt so much," he mumbled against me before sniffling. I had no response to that. It would hurt, that much was true. It was necessary, that was equally true. It also sucked big time, which was as true as anything could be. We held each other in silence as thousands of travelers flowed around us like water around a stone. For many minutes we stood like that, unmoved by the world rushing to and fro as we focused on each other, on the moment, on the feelings. "I'm sorry your birthday weekend turned into shit." "It's all good." "I'm really sorry I told you this on your actual birthday. I feel like I just kicked your puppy." Again I shrugged. The gesture already felt mechanical, automatic. "It is what it is, Kyle." I made the words sound dismissive or disinterested or something like that. I felt nothing of the sort. "This isn't the end of us." "Of course not," I huffed. "We'll talk, I promise." "It's up to you, Kyle. I'll do anything I can for you, you know that. Whatever distance or time you need, it's all up to you." His response was quiet and profound. "Please wait for me." Finally he had to go, get through security, find his gate and board his plane. We hugged fiercely, struggled to let go, said goodbye many times more than necessary, and watched as the gulf between us grew. I could only hope it wouldn't grow into a distance too vast to overcome. Once he'd disappeared into the secure area, I headed to the house. Throughout the commute I felt like I'd left some part of me behind, perhaps a critical part now that I'd lost Nate. * * * * * Hours passed, all day in fact, considering I last saw Kyle around eight in the morning and had arrived home little more than an hour later and— No, I didn't arrive home. I arrived at the house, which isn't my home anymore. Oh, right. True that. Needless to say, I accomplished much, all of it marked with sweat and not a few tears. Despite the beer and weed I'd indulged in throughout the day, I still felt wired and rushed and pretty much like I was coked out of my mind. A big part of that, no doubt, came from the emotional urges that pulled me in too many directions. Call him, don't call him, leave it all behind, stay and try to fix it, hope for the best, there is no hope, all things end, this doesn't have to end, and on it went. That alone stretched me to the breaking point. At a quarter of eleven that night, the feverish activity of packing and cleaning and preparing to relocate ground to a halt while I mentally inventoried the furniture carefully disassembled and placed near the bedroom door, the luggage and boxes full of my life's remnants that I hadn't taken with me the first time I left, and the boxes and various other containers and bags already stacked and piled in the dining room downstairs. "Not much more," I mumbled to the empty house. Almost everything in the master suite and anything Nate didn't use would go with me. In the final analysis, it wasn't much at all, though it seemed otherwise when trying to pack and prepare all of it in one weekend. This time I'm leaving nothing behind. This part of my life is over. A little more packing tomorrow, then I'll call some movers and have everything put in storage until I figure out where to go from here. With a fire blazing in the living room and in the master suite—I could no longer call it my room—plus the heater cranked to take the edge off the winter chill, all the physical activity, including running up and down the stairs with various loads of stuff, left me sweaty and feeling gritty. Finally pausing near the sofa, I shed everything but my underwear, intending to take a shower before crashing. When I turned to grab my overnight bag from the bar where I'd unceremoniously dumped it that morning—what felt like another lifetime ago—I tried to avoid looking at the various photos on the walls. I'd already packed the portion of them that I wanted to keep. Well, I wanted to keep them all since most of them portrayed the last twenty-one years I'd shared with Nate, but I knew he'd want them as well, so it behooved me to take a selection of them while not taking everything with significance. Damn it, they're all significant! You know what I mean. Even as I tried not to look at it, one photo drew my gaze nonetheless. It was the large glass print of Nate and I when we vacationed on the Spanish island of Ibiza. A local photographer discovered us on the beach as we frolicked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with nary a concern. The camera had caught us in a moment of intense levity, me holding Nate in my arms as I prepared to carry him into the water, both our faces aglow with gleeful eyes and mirthful expressions and laughing smiles that seemed to indicate limitless potential and a bottomless reservoir of love. It'd always been my favorite image. When my blind spot was in full force, the picture simply reminded me of the greatest relationship I'd ever have and of the greatest man I'd ever know. Once the blind spot fell, the picture became a symbol of hope because it looked so much like a couple powerfully in love and always in the throes of joy and abandon so long as they were together. Like a venerated religious artifact to the faithful masses, I carefully and reverentially took the image from the wall and held it before me, letting light from the kitchen fall on it and through it and over it. Beautifully printed on blemish-free glass, it was breathtaking and heartbreaking and moving and touching and so many other things. I was functioning on less sleep than I required, more emotional turmoil than I could handle, little food, too much booze and too much pot, and an overabundance of time spent in my own head. To say I was wiped out would be to understate matters. Though I needed to shower and hit the sack—I intended to rise early so I could hopefully finish my task and leave before Nate came home—I decided to lie on the couch for a few moments, just a minute or two, just long enough to rest my creaky bones and tender muscles and tortured heart. Hugging the picture to my chest, I settled on the sofa and closed my eyes. Just for a minute or two ... * * * * * "You look so tired and beaten, G-Man." I didn't wake to the sound of the garage door rising, the car entering and parking, the kitchen door opening, or both it and the garage door closing. I didn't wake to the sound of keys and wallet and jacket and cell phone laid quietly on the bar. I didn't wake to the sound of footsteps moving from the kitchen's tile to the dining room's hardwood to the living room's carpet. I didn't wake when a body settled on the couch where I slept, hips nudging against my waist. I didn't wake when steady careful hands slid the glass photograph from under my arms and set it silently on the coffee table. No, none of that woke me. "What have I done?" Sadness can be consuming, taking from us so many different things, be it our sanity, our hope, our peace, our comfort, our health, our anything. Including our rest. Which was why I slept through the noises and activities that should've elicited consciousness. I'd been sleepwalking since I read that letter at the Omni, a heartbroken somnambulist stumbling and mumbling through life, trying to look normal whilst feeling dark and pained and unaware and disinterested. So it didn't surprise me that sadness made sleep a deeper and vaguer world, troubled and fitful and not the least bit restful, truly a little death to add to the bigger one I was suffering. "Why's all your stuff ... Oh fuck." What pulled me inexorably and reluctantly from the depths of uneasy and haunted slumber was the hand against my face, the thumb stroking my cheek, the touch as light as a zephyr. The undeniable gentleness and warmth of that hand drew me up from the abyss. "I've really messed up, haven't I?" Physical touch had always been my language of choice, a way to express emotions—especially love. That I'd taught Nate how to speak the same way didn't surprise me; that I needed him to speak to me in that way made my sense of loss all the worse. He was the only other person on the planet fluent in my mother tongue. "I know we've always been able to fix what's broken, but I don't know if this can be fixed." As I climbed upward from the chasm, the soft words that didn't register in my mind as words so much as inaudible whisperings meant for someone else's ears began taking shape. Coupled with the emotion and care hidden in the soft susurrus, the touch began telling me things I refused to accept, thus I refused to open my eyes, refused to acknowledge consciousness, refused to indicate my wakefulness. Instead, I kept my eyes closed, tried to keep my breathing regular, and plotted my quickest escape. "You're so fucking beautiful. You've always been so beautiful." Even in sleep, my semi-eidetic mind recorded any words and numbers my senses absorbed. This oft times left me wondering where certain tidbits came from, having overheard a telephone conversation or television program or radio show while I slept. But not in that moment, not while I struggled to look like slumber incarnate even as the hand on my face and the whisperings in my ear beckoned to me. "I know you're awake. Please just listen to me, G-Man." My eyes fluttered open, the light from the kitchen—which I accidentally left on—stinging enough to make me squeeze them shut for a moment before trying again. The sight that filled my vision when finally I could see was Nate sitting on the edge of the sofa, his face weary and distressed, his eyes bloodshot and hollow. He wore the same clothes he'd worn to the party Friday evening, except they looked slept in, wrinkled and rumpled and untidy. Only a peripheral observation caught that his beautiful seafoam shirt hung unbuttoned and open and dangling from one shoulder, as though he began undressing on the way in from the garage. Under different circumstances I'd have let my eyes consume every inch of exposed skin, let my imagination toy with all the things I wanted to do to that bare muscular torso. But such flights of fancy had no place in our new world, probably never again. When I met his gaze, he stared back with such a profound sense of loss and love that it immediately brought me to tears. "What time ..." I muttered. "Almost midnight," he answered softly. "Happy birthday, G-Man," he added in a tone that oozed sadness and regret. "I almost missed it. And I really messed up your weekend. I'm sorry." Too much ... I can't do this. It's too much. "Shhh ... It's okay, Greg. You're the strongest man I know. You can do anything." I pushed myself up on my elbows, meaning to crawl off the couch and get the hell out of the house. I never intended to be there when he came home. I didn't want the unpleasantness, the discomfort, the awkward silence, the painful reminder of what we lost to The Fiend. Or, rather, what we stupidly sacrificed to him. "I'll leave," I croaked, hoarse with sleep and emotion. "I'll finish ..." I glanced around trying to understand how much more work I had left. "I'll finish some other time," I mumbled in surrender. Nate's hand slid from my face to my chest, fingers splayed. His touch felt like fire burning against my bare skin, such affectionate tenderness as he stopped my rickety movement. "No," he responded in a hushed tone. His eyes never left mine, such kindness and sorrow mixed in them. "You look like shit. Have you even slept since the other night? Have you eaten? Fuck, what have I done?" "I look like shit because I feel like shit," I mumbled. "Sleep's hard to come by and not restful when I find it. I don't have much of an appetite. As for what you've done, I suppose it's what you thought you had to do and I'm in no position to question or comment on that." A single tear escaped his control and made its way slowly down his cheek. I could see his muscles dance as he dispatched it with a dismissive rub. I pushed forward or up or sideways, which I couldn't tell. I only knew that I meant to get off the couch and out of the house. "You need to stay. I need to talk to you." When he gently pushed against my chest, I fell back, listless and dispirited. I had neither the energy nor the inclination to argue the point. There was a deep thrumming ache in the center of my being that seemed to pulse throughout my entire body with every heartbeat, until even my bones felt tired and sore. If he wanted to shoot off more painfully barbed rejections, I was in no condition to force my way out of the line of fire. And to be brutally honest with myself, I had no interest in dissuading him from trying. I might never see him or talk to him again after I moved the last of my things out of the house, thus the selfish part of me knew I would tolerate whatever dashed hopes and immortal wounds this chat might cause just so I could have one last moment with the other half of my soul. I settled back on the sofa. Nate shrugged his shirt off the one shoulder it dangled from before reaching down and grabbing my hand, placing it flat against his chest, right over his heart, pressing his own hand against it to hold it in place. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to capture and contain the tears welling there. I failed miserably. Wetness spread from my eyes down my cheeks, down the sides of my face, down my neck. "Don't cry. Oh my precious Greg, please don't cry!" He leaned down and kissed the tears from my cheeks, from my closed eyelids, his thumb lightly stroking my face while he squeezed my hand and held it against him. Then he gently kissed my lips, a slow joining that had no pressure or lust or desire in it, just comfort and love. "Please don't cry, G-Man," he whispered against my face. His hand slid down along my neck to my chest, coming to rest over my erratically pounding heart, his fingers lightly massaging my fevered skin. "It hurts me so much to see you cry. It hurts even worse to know I made it happen. Please, G-Man, please don't cry." Nate let his lips brush against mine again, only the slightest touch, as light as air yet heavy with emotion. I shivered, almost jerked away, almost turned my face to avoid what must surely be goodbye. I'd had quite enough pain in the last few months and I couldn't take more, especially not from him. Sitting upright, still holding my hand to his chest, pressing it tight against him, he admitted in a hushed tone, "I'm a coward. I ran when I should've stayed. But instead I ran because I was overwhelmed with fear. I took the coward's way out instead of manning up and facing you like you faced me." There was such misery in his eyes, such sorrow. How much more pain would we accept from a dead man? I wondered. How much more can Richard hurt us from the grave? "I don't know how to fix what's broken," he continued. "I don't know how to move beyond this fear of losing you. I don't know what to do." As he spoke, I was only vaguely aware of his hand over my heart. His fingers began gently and slowly moving in tiny circles and patterns against my bare skin, raising goosebumps and chills. He seemed so lost that I doubted he was aware of it. "You had the balls to face me and tell me when you were leaving. You cared enough and were man enough to look me in the eyes and say why you thought you had to leave and to explain the feelings and thoughts that made you reach that conclusion. "Me? I wrote you a Dear John letter and went slinking out while you slept. Now tell me that's not cowardice." "Fear is a powerful motivator, Nate." My voice was shaky, uncertain, stinking of emotional decay and dead hope and gangrenous wounds that would never heal. "Don't make excuses for me, G-Man," he whispered. Then somewhat louder he continued, "Please don't do that, don't try to make me feel better for doing what I did. It was selfish and it was hurtful and it spit in your face while mocking everything we've ever felt for each other, everything we've ever shared, everything we've ever faced together. You showed courage and honored our relationship and demonstrated unflinching love, but I insulted you and I insulted us and in the dead of night I ran like a scared child so no one would see me fleeing in panic. And why was I fleeing? Because that's what Richard taught me to do." The last he spat with disgust, some of it aimed at himself. Nate released my hand so he could wipe the tears from his face. As my hand came to rest against his bare skin, it began a slow slide downward, a soft stroke over his nipple and around his pectorals, gently coming to rest just above and to the right of his navel. I glanced down at it, as if it belonged to someone else, and I ordered my eyes back to his when I flattened my hand against his hot skin and started gliding my thumb back and forth over the ridges of his muscles. "Mom said she thought Richard's damage had been the greatest on your fifteenth birthday, but after all this she said he'd left a bomb that didn't go off until fifteen years later, a bomb that inflicted more damage than anything he could've done physically. She cried, G-Man, literally cried and said she didn't think it was possible but she hated him more now than she ever had. She cursed him and swore she'd spit on his grave if she ever cared to visit it. "And that's the point, isn't it? He's been dead for more than ten years yet we're still wallowing in the muck he left behind, still empowering him by soiling ourselves with the shit he threw at us years and years ago." Dropping his face and shaking his head, he whispered, "You were right, what you said while we were dancing. We've wasted a lot of years and we've let him take so much from us. We're the only ones who can stop him from hurting us anymore. Only I couldn't see it, or maybe I was too scared to see it. I ran because he taught me to fear what we could be, taught me to fear what I felt for you, taught me to fear until all I knew was fear." His whole hand had started moving. The caress was light and minor, but I felt it, especially when he'd barely graze my nipple, a button wired directly to my libido and my cock. Highly erogenous zones, he never quite touched it with pressure enough to elicit anything more than a minor shudder, a tremor so low on the Richter scale as to be ignored by all. Except me. After a deep, unsteady breath, his eyes leaped to mine but then immediately dropped to hungrily take in my bare torso. Then they jumped to his hand, which stilled, before returning to my face. Unshed tears glistened in the deep pools of his dark brown eyes and a kind of horrified sorrow at self-inflicted wounds showed clearly in his expression. "My only true emotional bond, outside of family, is with you. That's why I never connected with any of those women. Deep down inside I didn't want to and didn't think I needed to, deep down inside I couldn't. I already had the connection that mattered most, the connection I always wanted and never had to look for because it came to me." In a hushed voice he added, "You came to me, G-Man. That first day of school you came to me." I didn't know where this was going. Was it goodbye? Was it a way to excuse running out on me that night? Was it an attempt to walk himself through understanding why we could never be together? Was it something else? I honestly didn't know. When his tongue sneaked out to wet his dry lips, my eyes snapped to the motion, then my teeth clamped down on my bottom lip as my gaze climbed back to his. In time to see his eyes move to my eyes from my lips. Which made me lick my lips as a kind of test. He glanced down at my tongue until it disappeared. Unbeknownst to him, at least as far as I could tell, his hand had once again started massaging my chest, lazy caresses with his fingers and slow swipes with his palm. Because he sat facing the kitchen, thus the light, I realized his pupils were dilated and he had an unusually provocative look about him. In a voice low and lazy he explained, "See, Greg, I was so scared of losing you that night because I'd admitted how I felt. So after an hour or two, when you changed positions, I woke up enough to panic. And then I ran. I was scared of losing you so I abandoned you." My hand slid up his torso of its own volition, or perhaps with a little help from me, and slowly caressed his chest, not to elicit arousal but to offer comfort. "Nate ..." "I'm tired of being scared, Greg. I'm tired of living in fear. Mom said I could either let Richard win or I could take action to stop him. She said I was the one handing him his last victory, on a silver platter no less, so it was all up to me." My mouth opened a few times, closing silently because I didn't know what to say. Then I realized we were reliving Friday night, the dancing and kissing, the admissions, and in the end, the heartache. Though it pained me to do so, I quietly told him, "I can't do this anymore, Nate. You know how I feel. You say you feel the same and then leave me a letter that cuts me a thousand times. This is killing me. If you really know how I feel about you, then you know what I want. If you want the same thing ..." I shrugged, at a loss for words. "I want it, too," he whispered huskily, his dark eyes soft and troubled. "But it scares the shit out of me. If I screw this up, I lose you forever. Like I told you, I don't think I can survive that." Dropping his head again, a lone tear falling into oblivion, he shrugged then moaned, "I don't know what to do." Nate lifted his face and his eyes held such love, such hurt, such conflict, yet still he reached out and ran the backs of his fingers down my cheek. I shut my eyes and turned into the touch. Waves of fiery heat and gentle warmth spread from his hand on my cheek and his hand on my chest, emotional turmoil made manifest by the physical want and hurtful regret he seemed to pour into me through his touch. Sliding my hand from his chest to beneath his arm and grabbing his shoulder with the other, I gripped him and pulled him toward me, wanting nothing more than to wrap my arms around him and hold him, probably for the last time. He nestled his face against my neck while sliding his legs up and tangling them with mine. I could feel a tear or two as they fell on my skin. He shook, breathed heavily, and did his best to wrap me in his arms and hold me close. "I don't want to lose you," he murmured, his lips tickling my throat, his breath warm and moist against my skin. "So where does that leave us?" My voice was husky yet uncertain. His head pivoted slightly and his shoulders rose and fell. So that's it, I guess. We've come full circle. The thought made me squeeze him tighter, spreading my legs so he could settle between then. I turned my head slightly so his would fit more comfortably against me. Which placed his lips just below my ear. Nate inhaled deeply, exhaled, inhaled slower and deeper as he pressed his face against my skin. We've been here before. It didn't end well. He took me by surprise when he licked at that spot just below my ear, the one he'd discovered the first time we messed around with each other, when we'd gone slow in an exploratory introduction to each other's body. I felt certain he remembered where my buttons were and how they worked. When his tongue swirled and teased the tender flesh, fire shot through my body, causing my hips to buck and my cock to harden. I might have moaned, too. Yeah, that was definitely a moan. His teeth nipped the moist skin, catching it lightly, and a blaze roared to life inside me. "What are you doing?" I groaned, turning my head further to increase his access and grinding my crotch into his. He's hard. Fucking hell. I gasped and cried out when he began sucking blood to the surface, right there in that spot, right there where it lit a fire that shot down to my cock, spreading from there to every part of my body, every intimate and erogenous part that suddenly felt very much aware. "Nate ..." He kept sucking—I was going to have one hell of a hickey, and it'd be impossible to hide—his tongue flicking against the skin and his teeth nipping lightly. Everything he did sent tendrils of flame through my body. I can't breathe. I can't think. Oh hell, am I making those desperate noises, those whimpers? My fingers clawed at Nate's back, trying to pull him into me even as I anchored myself to him, not wanting to lose myself in this, not wanting to make it more than goodbye sex, a pity fuck, a moment of weakness that'd end too soon, whatever. More oxygen. I need more oxygen. I'm gonna pass out. With a wet pop he came off my neck. He actually fucking growled, the rumble passing from his body into mine, shaking me to my core. When he blew gently against the wet, tender flesh, I shivered, moaned, lost my mind. "Nate ... Why ... Fuck ..." His weight lifted, vanished, though I was kind of maybe sort of aware of activity on the couch, my body possibly vaguely perhaps registering slight movement and bounces passing from the cushions into my back. Then a quick yank near my waist and cool air shocked me when it hit my exposed crotch. He just took my underwear off me. What the fuck is happening? Still struggling to breathe, my eyes fluttered open in time to see his face above mine, his expression soulful and wanting and ... something else. Lust, sure, but something else was there, some kind of determination or purpose. I grabbed his head and pulled him to me. Unlike all the times before when I'd kissed him, I didn't hold back on this one. My tongue dove into his mouth and I opened myself to him, let the kiss fill with all my needs and wants and feelings, let it say what needed to be said. His strength failed under the onslaught and he collapsed on top of me. Everywhere his skin touched mine, more fires started, more heat, more flames, more passion. Gripping the back of his head with a near painful hold, my other hand slid down his back, feeling the muscles ripple and flex. Just when I reached his ass, hoping to slide my hand beneath the fabric, his knees buckled and an explosion went off in my crotch as I simultaneously grabbed a handful of bare flesh and a fiery bar of pure heat landed against my cock. "Fuck ..." I groaned. He's naked. He stripped while I was incoherent. Fuck me running, what's gotten into him? I ground myself against him as he reciprocated, moaning into my mouth as our tongues danced and dueled. Nate wrenched himself away from my mouth, his face hovering just above mine. We breathed from each other, stared at each other, panting and looking. "You were in denial before," he whispered. "And I was scared shitless. We never had a chance those two times." "What about ... what about now?" He grinned, a cocky grin that couldn't hide his nervousness or his love or his desire. Or his fear. His dark eyes smoldered despite the nerves and apprehension, clear and desirous and intent. His mouth opened a few times but no words came forth. Obviously he didn't have an answer. Instead of putting too much thought into it, he dropped to my left, the side of my neck he hadn't already ravaged, his lips landing on the skin just below my ear. Fuck yeah he remembers where all my buttons are. "Nate ... Aaah ..." His teeth grabbed a bit of flesh, held it snug, his tongue lapping at my skin. Then his lips sucked at the tender spot and once again fires burned bright, flames flashing through me. I writhed and bucked and felt my whole body heat up until I began sweating with feverish intensity. Unlike the first time, he released me quickly, no doubt still leaving a hickey, albeit a smaller, less angry mark. But still ... he'd marked me. Again. As I struggled to breathe, light kisses rained down on my nose, my cheeks, my forehead, my eyelids, my lips. Then he was gone, settling between my legs, spreading them so he could sit back on his haunches, his dark brown eyes devouring me from top to bottom. "Nate, why?" I bit my lip, not sure why I asked or why it mattered. If I could have him just this once, this one time with a clear mind so I could feel both emotionally and physically, wouldn't that be worth it? Wouldn't that be the best goodbye? "I've never thought a man attractive ... except you," he whispered with too much awe to keep me from blushing. Profusely. "I need this. I need to know." "Know what?" My voice was breathy, hushed, throaty. Rather than answering, he leaned forward and kissed me, brief and potent, then began licking and kissing and nibbling along my body. My head feel back and I moaned, enjoying his exploration. He expertly hit each nipple only briefly, knowing that was a sure way to push me over the edge. Groans and moans and shivers erupted from me almost continuously, not just from the pleasure of his mouth, tongue and teeth, but also from the overwhelming emotions I felt knowing this time was different, this time we both knew damn well what we felt, this time we both knew ... that maybe it was the last time we could be together. Not wanting to move too quickly, I reached down and grabbed Nate, pulling him up to me so we could trade kisses while our hands roamed and wandered. Though the skin we felt wasn't foreign, the moment was, alive with what hadn't existed the first two times we'd done this. Thigh to thigh and chest to chest, we writhed against each other. More fire, more heat. He grunted when I moved my hips so I could push my cock against his. The shiver that went through him made me tremble. "Fuck ..." he groaned when I snaked a hand between us and gripped us both together. He jerked into my hand and gasped. Two hot velvet rods slick with sweat and precum slid through my fist. My arm slid from between us, leaving Nate writhing and pressing in his search for friction. I grabbed his thighs and gave a tug. When his head snapped up, his eyes not quite so clear and a great deal less uncertain, I nodded in answer to his silent question before giving his thighs another tug. I wanted it. So badly. His hands went to the arm of the sofa and pushed, lifting his upper body as he slid his hips forward, graceful and smooth. Once he knelt across my chest, looking down with anticipation and worry, I ran my hands up his bare torso as I gazed longingly at his cock. Although not as large as mine, it was big and thick and uncut, the foreskin pulled back just enough to show the dripping tip, the covered head swollen. It was straight and dark and thick and long and beautiful and Nate's ... Fuck yes, it was Nate's, and that's all that really mattered. I have a dildo that size. And the same color, too. It's my favorite. Just a coincidence, I'm sure. His head fell back as he grabbed my hands, guiding them across his taught skin and trembling muscles. One he stopped over a nipple and the other he drew up to his face, rubbing against it with feline intensity. Heat radiated off him, especially his crotch, and his smell—that heavenly and intoxicating smell—mixed with a muskiness that made me shiver. I could spend the rest of my life with that smell and never miss another scent. When I pinched his nipple, his body shook and his hips bucked forward. I captured the head of his cock with my lips during the unexpected thrust. Closing my lips around it, I sucked, swirling my tongue around the head and into the foreskin, probing and massaging. And I was quite aware of the warm fluid that spread onto my tongue when I applied pressure against his slit. I'd never forget that taste, nor would I ever enjoy another quite as much. "Fuck ... Greg ..." Did he just whimper? Holy fucking hell but was that the sexiest sound in the world. Well, at least at this moment. I'd really like to see if I can get him to make some other sounds, see if maybe something might sound even sexier. Not the best position for sucking dick, lying back on the couch, I did my best anyway, curling myself forward, head off the armrest, taking more of him into my mouth. He was too thick and too rigid and my angle too shallow for me to get more than half of him inside before the helmeted head ran into the top of my throat. I'd never get him in further like this, though I really wanted all of him. Instead of impaling my brain on his shaft, I let my tongue do some of the work my throat couldn't by wiggling and pressing it against the underside. Just because I could, I swallowed repeatedly around the head. Nate collapsed, shaking as with palsy, groaning next to my ear, his hands saving him from going over the end of the couch. Which would've been funny but highly disappointing. I grabbed the base of his cock, using my own spit to lube it as it extended the reach of my mouth, both working in concert. He groaned again, a broken, hitched sound that came in sequence with his body's spasms. Then a major disappointment when Nate gently slid backward, pulling himself from my mouth. His ragged breathing was deep and desperate against my head, his tremors beautiful. I tried to keep stroking with my hand but he moved back again, out of my reach. Before I could complain, he muttered a "fuck" under his breath, then he captured my mouth with his. Even as we kissed, he slid further down, stretching his body out again, his cock leaving a trail of my spit and his fluid. He settled between my legs again and slid away from my lips. Kissing and nibbling and licking, he made a direct line from my face to my cock. "Nate ..." I groaned. He didn't have a lot of experience with that particular activity, all of it learned from me the two times we'd messed around with each other. But I wasn't worried about that. No, I was concerned I was too wired to survive too much attention there. Besides, I wanted to know. I had to know. If he could take me to the one place I'd never been able to visit since Richard. Only Nate had been able to rim me without pushing me toward panic and only Nate had been able to finger me without causing terror. But I wasn't so stupid as to assume that those two accomplishments equated to achieving the unmentionable. He bobbed a few times, struggling with my size, grazing me once with his teeth, emitting a light gag when he pushed down too far and too fast. Even if he puked on me, though, the idea of what he was doing was enough to push me toward orgasm, let alone the feeling of it. Gently grabbing his head and pulling him up, he faced me long enough for me to beg, "Please ..." He looked as surprised as I felt, but I echoed, "Please ... Nate ..." "Are you sure?" he whispered, reverent and respectful, even a bit unsure. "Please ..." If we failed, it wouldn't do any more harm to us than we'd already done, so I had to know, we had to try. And though I wasn't religious, I prayed to every god I'd ever studied from every religion ever mentioned in every history class I ever took, asking each and every one of them to grant me this one thing. Nate took me into his mouth again, working me as best he could. I felt his tremors, his worry. But I also felt his finger probing my hole, rubbing in gentle circles, slight pressure causing more fires erupting inside me. Yet he didn't try to penetrate me. Instead he focused on fanning the flames with touches and teases. My legs shook, both nerves and want, both fear and love. I dropped my head back and moaned as he worked my cock in his mouth, inexpertly yes, but still the best I'd ever had because it was him, it was Nate, and this time we knew what the fuck we were doing, though maybe not why. Don't question it. Just let it happen. Enjoy it in case it's farewell. When he hummed around my cock at the same time he worked directly against my hole, I bucked and whimpered, melting in the heat. He came off my cock with a wet plop, then licked down the shaft to my balls, giving them only cursory treatment as I begged and writhed. At that point I didn't care about anything else other than the possibility that he could do something for me that no one had been able to do before. At least not forcefully. Nate's strong hands settled beneath my thighs and lifted them, more his strength than my participation. Nerves began firing off, some of fear, some of desire, some of primitive want, and some of anticipation. "Nate ... Please ..." I reached down and grabbed behind my knees, pulling my legs back to ease his access. Why am I begging so much? Um, because it's Nate. And because maybe, just maybe, he can do this for you. Yeah, those were two very good reasons to beg. He'd never done anything anal before we hooked up those two times. He'd never considered it. But I think maybe he had thought about it, at least now I think that given what I know about his feelings. Because he never blinked when I walked him through rimming and fingering me those two times, never even looked askance at the idea. No, Nate had followed my instructions and guidance without hesitation. I think he enjoyed the activities as much as he enjoyed what it did to me. There'd been an innate pleasure in his approach, and an inherent desire to bring pleasure, though I hadn't recognized it at the time. Damn blind spot! Damn Richard! Without pause, his tongue traced down from my balls and began swirling around and teasing my opening, fanning the fire within me to a heightened blaze, sending heat along my nerves until every part of me felt the flames. He kept probing then backing off, probing then backing off, each time using a little more pressure. And he never released my cock, stroking it with a firm grip but not enough speed to make me orgasm. Yeah, he remembers what I like. I was thrusting toward him, trying to get more of his tongue into me, trying to move his hand faster. "Nate, please!" A hoarse whisper. Maybe I meant whimper, but whatever. And so he went at me, bombarding my hole with a jackhammer of tongue jabs, his hand twisting around the head of my cock, this thumb inside my foreskin as he swiped and circled the tip. "Nate ... Fuck ..." I approached the edge without realizing it, pressure building, body shaking, head lolled back and mouth agape and mind clouded and Nate working me like a master musician works an instrument. He was pushing all the right buttons and I was going to fall. A few errant white explosions fired off behind my closed eyelids. It was enough to make me realize he had to stop, he had to stop right then or it would end before it began, I'd tip over the edge before I knew. I dropped my legs enough to wrap them around his head, enough to pull him forward, away, off, to make him stop. "Oh fuck ..." he muttered, his hands resting on my legs, feeling my tremors, seeing the lost look on my face, my struggle to breathe, the shuddering back and forth of my head, my eyes squeezed shut. "I'll stop. I'm sorry." "No," I groaned. He misunderstood the signals. Even as I tried to claw my way back to sanity, even as I tried to control my breathing so I didn't hyperventilate, I told him, "Too close. Too much. Please, Nate, I need you ... I need you in me. Please make me feel." One arm fell, dangling off the side of the couch, gesturing vaguely toward the floor. "Lube," I mumbled. Then: "Jeans. Pocket." "I need a condom." "No. Please no. I need to feel you, Nate, please." "But—" "Please. I trust you, Nate. Please do this for me. I want you inside me, all of you, start to finish." Slight movement at the end of the couch didn't draw me back fast enough, didn't interest me. Rustling on the floor beside the couch didn't seem important. Then came the crinkling of the lube packet, the tearing of plastic. That very much interested me. I glanced down to meet Nate's gaze, his dark brown eyes gentle and attentive and thoughtful and concerned. "Are you sure?" he said quietly. "Yeah." I didn't sound so sure, so I tried again. "Yes. Please, Nate, please make love to me." The glow that erupted in his features looked of divine origin, the lust in his eyes diminished only insofar as love filled them. "I'll try to make you feel good, G-Man." His voice trembled, probably with nervousness as much as worry. This could blow up in our faces. Quickly. "I'm burning up, Nate. Please ... Too much too quickly. Please, I don't know how long I can hold on ..." With such soft strength that it felt like love, he slipped his hands under my legs, prompting me to lift them. I grabbed them again, pulling them back, exposing myself to him, granting him access to the most intimate part of me. The coolness of the lube caused me to jerk a little as he spread it across my hole, working it around and over, then he pushed a slick finger against me, the pressure slight and growing until it slipped inside. My head feel back and my hips bucked. There might have been a sound coming from my throat, although I wasn't sure. Nate worked me open, in and out, twisting, helping me relax. He murmured quietly, knowing his voice would help, knowing his voice might make all the difference in the world. "Relax for me, G-Man. I'll take care of you." Then two fingers followed by soft kisses to the insides of my thighs, my ass. "Open up for me, Greg. That's it, relax and open for me." His fingers sank inside until they could sink no further, at which point he began scissoring and curling them, stretching me and touching my most sacred places, hitting the buttons no one else could touch. Fire. A lot more fire, flames flickering and spreading, racing from his penetration to every corner of my body. A wildfire blazing out of control. Nate quickly located my prostate, drumming his fingers against it, then stroking it, them drumming against it again. I jerked and shook, trembled and shivered, sweat drenching me, and every touch was a new burst of flames, every stroke lighting a new match. Fireworks. White fireworks behind my clenched eyelids. My brain sizzling in the heat, thought burning away. Hot. I'm too hot. I can't breathe. It's too hot to breathe. A third finger. More drumming, more stroking, more stretching. "Please ..." I couldn't tell if I said it, so I tried again, forcing air out of my lungs and through my vocal cords, yet still a broken blast of breath carried nothing more than a whimper. "Please ..." I finally said. Everything was on fire, every part of me, and it was flowing from Nate's hand into my ass and out from there, spreading, wild, uncontrolled, consuming. "Too much ... Not enough ... Fuck ..." Moving my head from side to side didn't find any cooler air, didn't find a way to breathe that didn't include heat and fire and more fireworks exploding inside my head. Then it eased away, his fingers eased out, the fires dimmed, maintained, didn't grow. And the fireworks stopped. A light kiss, gentle and loving. "Talk to me, G-Man." His face was blurry, hanging in the air above me, concerned yet very much wanting to give me what I wanted, very much full of love. And fear. I wrapped my arms around him, trembling and limp arms with no strength, barely able to interpret the fuzzy commands from my befuddled brain. "Please, Nate." I couldn't stop shaking, and I felt a tear streak down the side of my face into my ear. I didn't care. "Please," I pleaded, rocking forward enough to kiss him, a quick peck since I hadn't the strength or control to do more. "Shhh. I gotcha, G-Man," he whispered against my lips before kissing me, deep and passionate and oh so very tender. His body moved a tiny fraction and I felt him, there, against me, large and fiery hot against my hole where I burned brighter and faster and out of control, my heart hammering in the heat and my body trembling. "Relax," he whispered into my ear, his breath cool and moist against the flames of my being. My fingers dug into his back and he applied pressure, a slow and increasing pressure, each little bit fanning the flames and sending sparks on the wind of my soul to start yet more fires, to burn me, to send me over the edge ablaze and drenched in the fuel of my downfall. Nate pushed a little more, his lips dropping kisses light as snow along my ears and cheeks and eyelids and forehead and, finally, lips. Then he popped in and a strangled whimpering stuttering cry was ripped from me and I held on tighter and dug into his back deeper and pulled him closer and wrapped my legs to force him deeper and fire so much fire and I was going to die a fiery death of glory as he pushed slowly into me. "Breathe, G-Man, please just breathe," he whispered against my lips, then against my ear, then against my face and my neck and everywhere his lips traveled he told me to breathe and relax and he pushed in and in and deeper and the fires blazed and the heat increased and I shuddered and trembled and shivered and moaned and cried out to him stop give me more deeper I can't do it please oh please I'm going to burn and he set me afire and kept pushing and kept penetrating so very slowly until the friction burns burst into flames and more white fireworks exploded behind my eyelids and I knew I'd surely die. Inch by inch he penetrated, gyrating his hips carefully to help me feel him everywhere inside, and deeper and deeper he went into my body, and every inch made more fires and every gyration fanned the flames and every touch and every kiss and every bit more of him inside me felt hotter and more dangerous and all I could see were specks of white like so much snow filling my vision from a fusillade of fireworks. "Full ..." I mumbled. "So full ... Please, Nate. Please make love to me." I tightened my grip around his back and thought he'd stop breathing from the pressure and if he moved even a little I'd explode apart from the fire and the heat and the unending fireworks in my head. So I wrapped my legs tighter around his waist and pulled him in further because I needed it and I'd die in the flames a happy man and I couldn't feel anything except him and the heat and the pleasure that was so overwhelming. He eased out slowly, raking the embers of his penetration into pyres of joy and blazes of feeling and then he slowly pushed back in all the way and so deep he was at the very core of me where the fire burned so bright because he was there and I was there and this was the man I needed and wanted and he could make me feel and I knew I could never get enough and I was burning and burning burning burning. Nate's body undulated with serpentine precision and he was in and out and in and out at an increasing pace and I was too hot and couldn't breathe and moved my face looking for air only to find the scorch of his lips and tongue and his lungs filling mine and I begged and writhed and bucked and the fireworks exploded until there was nothing but fireworks to see. His size and angle were perfect, striking a spark each time he penetrated and retreated as he rubbed against my prostate and hit the nerves that started fires and increased the friction as his bare cock touched me inside where no one had been since Richard hurt me so much and I needed him there always and forever to keep me lit and burning. As his body rippled with each stroke in and out, his washboard abs slithered along my cock, pressing it between us. Too much. I can't hold on. I'm lost in this. I've never felt such absolute pleasure before and I'm going to burn up the first time and it was worth it. "Stay with me, G-Man." More kisses, my face burning where he touched. "Stay right here, G-Man, and we'll feel together." He pistoned in and out, deep and deeper and deepest, and the blaze was too big and too out of control and too hot and I only saw fireworks. "Too much ... Oh fucking hell ... Nate!" I couldn't hold on anymore. He was too sweaty or I was too weak or I'd already become lost in all of it and blinded by the smoke from the fires that kept burning and I was so hot and he wasn't fucking me hard and fast but making love to me with a tempo that was beyond perfect and beyond sensual and beyond loving and his kisses never ended and his whisperings kept blowing oxygen on the flames. My hands slipped from his back, settling on his hips simply because that's where they fell. I couldn't use him as my anchor anymore because I couldn't hold on anymore. It was too much. I was going to fall over the edge because it was too much and the fires were too hot and all of me was burning. I couldn't tell him it was too much, I couldn't tell him it was perfect, I couldn't tell him anything because the fireworks had overwhelmed my brain and my synapses had overheated and I was lost in the fire and no words could do justice or make sense or form or ... That was when he reached between us and grabbed my cock firmly around the head, twisting and stroking, using my foreskin in concert with his grip to light a new fire with the fuel I was leaking and an explosion started right there beneath his hand at the same time another started inside me as he slid deep and gyrated and another started where his lips met mine and his tongue slid into my mouth and the explosions spread and joined and the fires made them greater than they should be and every part of felt like it would fly apart at any minute. "I'm gonna ..." "In me ..." I managed to say, the one thing I needed to say because I needed him there with me and I needed us together. "I'm cumming ..." he moaned into my mouth as he pushed deep inside me, his body trembling, his hips bucking, his breath hitching and stuttering. I exploded into a million pieces as he throbbed inside and the wet heat with which he filled me ignited the last fire and started the last explosion and white blinded me as my brain filled with featureless fireworks and pleasure sent my atoms scattering across the universe and my skin burned away and my ass burned and my cock burned and in that moment I felt the greatest love I'd ever felt as Nate settled atop me and whispered, "I gotcha, G-Man. I gotcha." As my mind shattered and my body expanded to fill the voids beyond the reach of thought and the fires raged and the explosions overwhelmed my mind and I shook and gasped and wept and felt for the first time like I was really alive, he held me, wrapped me in his strong arms, still inside me and still fanning the flames. From a land far in the distance an awestruck voice whispered against my trembling lips, "I love you so fucking much."
  15. February 3, 2017 By half past eight the party had blossomed into a crowd of at least a thousand people, some dancing, some dining, some lounging, some browsing the various displays, many fellowshipping, most drinking a social lubricant of one kind or another. With Nate's fingers still threaded with mine, I walked with him and Kyle and the rest of my VIP group to the small stage. That's where I left them nursing their drinks so I could grab the microphone and join the DJ on the dais. I bumped him with my shoulder. Gabriel smiled, nodded. I smiled. Then I nodded. It was time. The music slowly faded, Gabriel blushing as he watched me watch him. For one of the metroplex's most popular and in-demand DJs who also happened to be one helluva sexy man, he forever tickled me with his shy flirtations. When the speakers fell silent, the constant murmur of voices in the ballroom began to die away, faces turning, eyes seeking. I suddenly felt self-conscious despite having done this every year since I turned eighteen. Though back then the size of the crowd didn't reach such intimidating proportions. Oh how the party had grown over the years. "Your attention, please!" I thumped the microphone a few times, the drumming bass reverberating through the ballroom. Considering most were already staring at me, I felt a bit silly, but I wanted to ensure I had everyone's full attention. After the last voice hushed and the last pair of eyes fell upon me, I stepped around the DJ equipment and stood at the edge of the stage. "In years past my speeches at this annual event have been full of levity and anecdotes coupled with examples of what Silver Rain accomplished in the prior twelve months and what we planned to accomplish in the year ahead. I hope you'll bear with me this time around as I do something a little different." My words sound shaky. Fuck, this is going to be more difficult than I imagined. My eyes sought Nate's face and, upon discovering it, the support and love pouring from him washed over me. He was definitely in my head again and he was definitely aware I was embarking on a new path, even if he didn't know what direction that path would lead. I gave him a slight nod and a grateful smile to acknowledge his support and to thank him for it. A wave of supportive voices washed across the ballroom to fill the unexpected pause, heads nodding, faces rapt and attentive. Without prompting, the lights dimmed, the two large projection screens on the wall behind me came to life, and a warm spotlight wrapped me in its glow. I knew the screens in the adjoining ballroom would likewise come to life, showing the same things shown behind me with the added benefit of a picture-in-picture video of my speech. Glancing at my friends and family standing at the front of the crowd, scanning each face as they watched me expectantly, I drew strength from them, from the knowledge that, though they didn't know what I intended to say, they would understand better than the thousand or more arrayed behind them. Then I let my eyes wander the crowd, meeting gazes briefly, trying to make my words personal to each and every person in attendance. "I was always close to my grandparents. Never you mind that having only one grandchild limited their options a bit." Chuckles erupted across the crowd. "Admittedly, only three were alive by the time I was old enough to understand who they were and to retain memories of them. "Time, however, eventually takes everything from us. One by one my remaining grandparents passed away until only my paternal grandfather remained. With his health failing, I spent as much time with him as I could, having grown fond of the wrinkled, lively, unrepentant old codger." Titters and snickers followed that description. "Well, as oft happens with rambunctious children, in the summer of my eighth year I broke my leg during a rather dangerous playground adventure. There might have been aliens involved. Or pirates. Maybe both." More chuckling, knowing nods and smiles abounded. "Thankfully Grandpa stepped up to the plate to help since I needed assistance and my parents had work." As I spoke, the screens behind me showed a slowly changing menagerie of photographs of my grandparents, eventually narrowing to focus on Grandma and Grandpa Beaumont, then finally to just Grandpa Beaumont. Some of the photos came from his life before me and some came from his life after my birth, showing us often huddled together in gleeful laughter or embarking on some grand adventure or snuggled together on his sofa, photo albums spread across our laps, my face showing rapt attention as I fell under his spell once again, engrossed in his latest tale. "Since my adventuring was seriously curtailed by a full-leg cast and crutches, I spent that first week doing nothing but sitting and listening to his stories. Oh let me tell you, friends of mine, my grandfather had all sorts of stories, like tales of battle from foreign wars and tales of a world vastly different from the one in which I was growing up and tales of family many generations removed." I swallowed a lump in my throat. "And, of course, tales of love." I cleared my throat a few times, blinked repeatedly, smiled. "My grandmother, Grandpa Beaumont's wife, died before I was born, so I only knew her through his stories, through my parents and my aunt and uncle, and through the wondrous photo albums Grandpa would inevitably use as visual aids while his words weaved the tapestry of yet another enthralling narrative. Even at the ripe old age of eight, I never doubted the profound love that had existed between Grandma and Grandpa Beaumont, a love evident in the photos as much as in the tears he shed and the hitch in his voice and the emotion that infused every word when he'd tell me about their life together. "So imagine my surprise when, during that week of broken-legged incarceration, Grandpa sat me down and pulled out a photo album I'd never seen before. He'd struggled as he dug through his closet, pulling down mounds of debris and detritus from the top shelf until he found what looked to my young eyes to be an ancient, leather-bound artifact from time immemorial. "With a reverence I'd never witnessed before, Grandpa settled beside me on that old couch of his and slowly opened the album with a respect that bordered on religious awe. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close. His voice full of emotions I'd never heard from him before, he told me a story, punctuating it with the pictures, old and faded and few of them in color. "'You know I loved your grandma,' he said, 'and I loved her with all my heart. But I'm not long for this world, Greg, so I want to tell you about my first love. I think it's important for you to know.' Hoarse with affection and anguish and regret, he then shared a story about another man, a young man he'd grown up with, a young man he'd fallen in love with, a young man he'd lost to the quest for a normal life." Wiping my eyes, I glanced back at the screens to see a few of the grainy images showing Grandpa Beaumont and Sonny Dowden, mostly together but sometimes separately. Back to the respectfully silent crowd I continued, "His name was Sonny, though Grandpa called him Silver because his eyes were steel gray. He and Grandpa grew up together. Their friendship was deep and incontrovertible. But it was more than friendship. Grandpa Beaumont and Sonny grew closer and closer until they both realized they were in love with each other. Back then, as you can imagine, such a thing was absolutely intolerable and considered unnatural, if not downright evil. So they hid their feelings and their relationship. "As the boys grew older, my great-grandparents approached their son to let him know it was time to put away childish things. They made it abundantly clear that his role in the family empire could blow away like so many autumn leaves if he didn't turn his back on what they clearly saw as an immoral way of life. To Grandpa's surprise, his parents knew about Sonny and tolerated it only because they expected it to go away on its own. But when it didn't, they threatened to ostracize their own son and cut him off from the family fortune just to ensure they weren't embarrassed by what they called moral bankruptcy. "Young and impressionable and desperate to retain the wealth and prestige of his family, Grandpa decided he couldn't be that man. So he told Sonny it was over, everything between them. He ordered Sonny never to contact him, never to try and see him, to forget that he existed. And he told—no, threatened is the right word—threatened Sonny by saying that, should he ever tell anyone about what they'd shared, the full power of the Beaumont dynasty would sweep down and crush him like a bug. Then he simply walked away and set about being the normal heterosexual the world expected him to be." Again I wiped my eyes, but I refused to cry. This story wasn't about catharsis; it was about something far more important. "Leaving behind his heartbroken love, Grandpa forged ahead with filling the role that had been laid out for him on the day he was born. He met a girl and married, had two children, took over the family businesses, lived the life every normal man should live. Yet always in the back of his mind he wondered, regretted, worried, loved." Gesturing to the photo of Grandma and Grandpa on display behind me, I continued, "My grandparents lived a life full of love and family, a life full of happiness and contentment. And Grandpa, true to the pledge he made to his parents and to himself, never acted on the longing he had to find Sonny, to find his Silver. He hid those feelings deep inside and denied them. "But when Grandma died, his own parents long gone from this world, Grandpa realized he had the wherewithal to locate Sonny without betraying anyone. He therefore set the full power of his wealth and industry upon the task of locating his first love, if for no other reason than to satisfy his need to say goodbye in the way he'd denied himself when he angrily snuffed out the relationship and walked away from the boy who owned his heart." Both screens switched to a simple gravestone showing Sonny Dowden's name along with the dates of his birth and death, no other inscription evident, the stone cracked and chipped and neglected. "What he found broke his heart. Sonny had lamented the loss of his soul mate, had never tried to connect with anyone else, had shriveled into a lifeless husk of his former self. Within a year of Grandpa leaving him, Silver had become a recluse, depressed and anguished and beyond comfort." I wiped a stray tear from my cheek. "Sonny killed himself less than twelve months after losing his first love." Sniffles and shuffling abounded, though no one looked away from the screens. "Grandpa told me that day, nestled against him on that old worn sofa, dumbfounded by the terrible thing he was saying—my parents raised me to be blind to all but the heart of a person—that he wouldn't trade a minute of the life he'd chosen, but he still regretted not living the life he could've had, the life he'd left behind. "I couldn't understand how something so terrible could happen. And I especially couldn't understand the loss Grandpa had suffered, both when he walked away from Sonny and when he eventually found him again. More than any of that, though, I couldn't understand why no one was there to help Sonny, to talk him down from the ledge his life had become, to offer a shoulder or an ear or a compassionate word of support; I couldn't understand how anyone could be left so desolate and alone that taking their own life merited nothing more than a brief mention in the local newspaper and a featureless and emotionless headstone above a nondescript grave." With a sad shake of my head I told the crowd, "Wrapping his warm wrinkled hands around mine, his cheeks stained by tears a lifetime in the making, Grandpa Beaumont said to me, 'His parents knew. Like mine, they'd figured it out on their own. They kicked him out of the house and told him he wasn't their son anymore, and they didn't mind spreading the news around so everyone would hate him.' "'And me? His tears were all I remembered from the day I left him, that heartbroken expression marring his beautiful face and the endless, silent tears falling like so much silver rain from those beautiful yet hurt gray eyes.' Snuggling me closer, sniffling, he added, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you who to be or how to think or what to feel.' Squeezing my hands tightly, kissing me atop the head, he said, 'Who you are and what you think and how you feel are already inside you, Greg. Don't ever let anyone take that away from you.'" Tapping the side of my head with my index finger, I explained, "Even back then my family was aware of the strange quirk of memory I possess that allows me to remember every word I see and hear. At the time my grandfather told me that tale, I didn't fully appreciate its implications or meaning. Sure, I understood the words just fine and I understood the emotions even better since I felt them through and through, but what he was really telling me didn't register until later. Much later ..." The screens behind me slowly shifted to brighter colors, brighter photos, all from the years following Grandpa's death. A few of the images showed me alone or me with Mom or Dad, but those quickly changed tone when Nate appeared. Every picture after that told the same story: Nate and I were inseparable. "I didn't know—well, I didn't understand, anyway—that I was gay until I was eleven or twelve. I came out when I was thirteen. And by fourteen I'd gone back to that old photo album of Grandpa's, I'd gone back to the story he told me about Sonny. And I was left wondering what he'd seen in me years earlier, what he'd understood about me that I myself hadn't understood." After a deep breath I said, "He passed away not long after he told me that story. While I didn't understand it at the time, he'd left a rather sizable trust fund for me, his only grandchild, and with it he'd left a note scrawled in his shaky handwriting that simply said, 'Use it to make life better.' What struck me about that was that he didn't say use it to make my life better, he didn't say use it to make my family's life better. No. I'd come to understand later that perhaps he'd known me better than my whole family, because he'd said use it to make life better. "Let's jump ahead seven years, if you don't mind ... When I turned fifteen, something happened that forever altered the way I viewed my birthday." Again the screens changed. Now they showed a hospital room with a damaged and broken adolescent boy connected to tubes and monitors, surrounded by family and friends. "For my fifteenth birthday, a man decided to come to my home and assault me, both physically and sexually." I ignored the gasps, the sniffs, the murmured words of shock and horror. "Once he lost control, he focused solely on the damage he could inflict and the gratification he could draw from the experience. He spent hours inflicting catastrophic trauma to my body, but he'd spent years leading up to that day harming my mind, which in the scheme of things was the greater damage." The pictures slowly progressed to my release from the hospital. Then they moved on to later years, moments at home, moments at school, moments with family, almost always moments with Nate. "I've never been one to focus on the acquisition of material possessions, mind you, but by the time I turned sixteen I just wanted to ignore my birthday altogether, pretend it was just another day, no less important than a dreary Monday or a dreamy Saturday." Photos from my childhood slowly changed to images of other children, their smiling faces as they dined, as they talked around a fire, as they played, as they read, as they hugged. "By the time I turned seventeen, however, my birthday had taken on greater depth. Not for selfish reasons, I mean, but rather because my birthday had been forever altered and I could either embrace the tension and make of it something meaningful, or I could wallow in misery and pout away the day for the rest of my life. "You have to understand my fifteenth birthday made me realize that Texas didn't offer a great deal of support for non-heterosexual children. I was horrified to see I was basically growing up in a world not too dissimilar to the one that had taken Grandpa away from Sonny, the world that had thought it completely acceptable to browbeat a man into betraying his love and belittling another until he took his own life solely on the basis of who he loved. As Mom and Dad explained to me at the time, Texas isn't exactly known to be inclusive or understanding or progressive in thought. That was something I decided I could maybe change, even if only a little bit." The screens faded to a logo, silver clouds parting, silver drops of rain falling, sun peeking through the clouds, the hint of a rainbow resting atop an invisible horizon. "Grandpa Beaumont's trust fund wasn't accessible to me until I turned eighteen. At seventeen I didn't fully grasp the amount of money available to me, but I did grasp that I could make life better with it, better for those less fortunate, better for those growing up in a world still inexcusably hostile toward them because they were born different from the majority. "Working with my father, who by the way is the most brilliant businessman I've ever known—" I gave him a heartfelt smile and nod as supportive applause rippled across the room. "—the first thing I did on my eighteenth birthday was split off a sizable chunk of my trust fund to establish Silver Rain, a non-profit foundation focused exclusively on helping non-heterosexual children and their families." The screen began showing images of hospitals, courtrooms, comfortable beds and warm dining rooms, all interspersed with children ranging in age from maybe twelve to eighteen, in addition to adults helping those children. "Silver Rain provides shelter to runaways, legal services, fostering and adoptive services, health care, financial assistance, funding, therapy, individual and family counseling, job training and placement services, and a host of other types of assistance to kids rejected by family, rejected by friends, rejected by society. With a massive volunteer workforce as well as full-time staff, Silver Rain has expanded throughout Texas and has helped thousands of children reconnect with their families, find jobs and housing, receive medical care, enjoy shelter when they couldn't go home, and the list goes on ... "Planned throughout my seventeenth year, my eighteenth birthday also started a tradition. Rather than celebrating my birthday as a day about me, I chose to use it as a day about Silver Rain and the kids we help, the families we heal, the lives we save." Gesturing around the vast ballroom as the lights slowly brightened, I continued, "Everything you see here has been donated or paid for by sponsors, from the ballrooms to the coffee bar and alcohol bars to the hors d'oeuvres if you feel peckish and the dinner next door—" I gestured to my right. "—in the Dallas Ballroom if you feel famished to DJ Gabriel Gustavo—" I gestured to the delectable Latino on my left. "—who's offering his time and equipment and vast music library—" A gratefully robust round of applause erupted as he bowed repeatedly toward the crowd. "—and on it goes. Plus, of course, our various sponsors who donated all the wonderful prizes you could win with each raffle ticket you purchase. And all the money we make tonight goes directly to Silver Rain, to help fund the work we've been doing since two thousand four." I took a deep breath, bracing myself. "In the intervening years since I founded Silver Rain and began the Birthday Bash tradition, I regrettably hid from my own tragedy. Basically, I was caught in the shadow of my assailant, which therefore meant I hid from a great deal of life. Silver Rain still had my full financial backing as well as whatever leadership it needed plus my fundraising efforts, but I stepped back and allowed others to carry the load of managing operations and planning growth, retaining final approval for myself but otherwise using distance to shield myself from memories of torment and tragedy. "With the help of family and friends, though, I've spent the last year overcoming an evil man's influence and the hurt he so readily inflicted. And in the process of dealing with the pain from my own history, I've rediscovered promise in the future and fanned the flames of passion with which I created Silver Rain." I continued speaking over the near constant applause and cheers, "So this year I'm proud to announce I'm moving back into the full leadership role for Silver Rain. One of our first endeavors is to begin expanding outside Texas with the goal of becoming a national force to help the children society too often ignores ... or worse. "In addition, I've spent many months preparing an expansion of our services. Silver Rain Technologies will open its doors in the coming week. It's a not-for-profit private business venture that will pump all profits into the Silver Rain foundation. We'll offer a wealth of technology services to paying customers, but more importantly we'll offer internships, job training and employment opportunities to the kids we help at Silver Rain while providing a continuous revenue stream to enable us to expand our work and help more kids." The applause was thunderous, making me blush while taking a small bow. Then I waited for the noise to settle. "Everything you eat and drink tonight is free with a raffle ticket. The music you dance to and enjoy is free thanks to Gabriel. The hotel room you might stay in if you're too lubricated or tired is free. The only cost to you was the admission fee, which purchased one raffle ticket for each person paid for, plus any additional raffle tickets you purchase during the night. Again, all those proceeds go directly to Silver Rain with no overhead deducted. And, as always, I'll make a matching donation equal to tonight's total, so for every thousand-dollar raffle ticket you buy, two thousand dollars goes directly to Silver Rain to help children who might otherwise have no help at all." Waving away the applause and gesturing around the ballroom, gesturing to the various displays and the various drink stations and food offerings, I announced, "Tonight is about enjoying yourselves while helping those who don't always have the help they need and deserve. Tonight is about helping kids heal, helping them discover who they are, helping them survive, helping them find jobs, helping them learn, helping them move on to higher education, helping them find family and friends, helping them have a warm bed and a warm meal when they're unwelcome everywhere else, and most importantly, helping them realize there's nothing wrong with them. Tonight is about preventing another tragedy like Sonny's. "So buy as many raffle tickets as your purse or wallet will allow, or pull out your checkbook and write a big number on it to donate. In either case, know that that money is going to a worthwhile cause. Enjoy the evening with fellowship and good food and yummy drinks. Enjoy learning more about Silver Rain at the kiosks scattered throughout the ballrooms. Most of all, enjoy the feeling that comes with knowing you're doing a good deed." I gave Gabriel a nod and slowly the music began building in volume as the screens behind me faded to black. Looking at the crowd, I smiled before enthusiastically shouting, "Welcome to the fourteenth annual Silver Rain Birthday Bash!" Applause and cheers and whistles crescendoed to a deafening roar as I blushed, a single tear streaking down my cheek. * * * * * February 4, 2017 Hours seemed like days. Not that I found it tedious to shake all those hands, to accept all those checks, to receive all the gushing gratitude and support. No, that wasn't it at all. Nothing compared to the passion I had for Silver Rain and the work we did, work I'd not neglected for years but instead avoided as I left it in the hands of those more capable. My affliction had been not willful ignorance but denial, my own charity pushed into the recesses of my blind spot where it wouldn't make me face the truth of why I'd created it. I'd remained one of its biggest benefactors and I'd never stopped offering guidance and leadership and I'd never considered letting the yearly fundraising party fall by the wayside and I've never balked at my figurehead duties. Despite all that, I'd avoided too much involvement and too much thought. And that really hurt in hindsight. Just something else Richard almost took from me. But at the end of the night, after prizes were raffled and meals eaten and dances danced—I danced with so many people that my feet actually hurt, including Kyle, who knew how to cut the rug—I still had a plan and a purpose that was a kind of selfish selflessness. I wanted to win Nate's heart, needed it with all my being, but of equal import was my hope that I could help him step out of Richard's shadow. By one in the morning the crowd had dwindled until only small pockets of people huddled here and there. Often playing at clubs that didn't close until four in the morning, Gabriel was still going strong. He'd stripped off his sweatshirt and finished the night in a skin-tight tank top—no one complained about that, by the way—but otherwise he looked fresh and ready to party until sunrise. The bastard! After having Trey escort Kyle up to his room—the poor kid had had a seriously long day, what with getting up for school that morning before catching a flight from Florida to Texas that afternoon followed by spending hours at a huge charity gala, not to mention any emotional drain he'd suffered—I had my other employees and volunteers start gently prodding the stragglers to move on or accept one of the available rooms. I didn't care where they went so long as they went away. Keigan and Yannis left around midnight, Malinda and Brandon a short time later, and Mom, Dad, Uncle Farid and Aunt Jan had trickled out the door shortly after the raffle at eleven. Clearly age negatively affects party time. How very unfortunate. Throughout the evening, as had always been the case during these events, Nate supported me as much as he could. Sometimes that meant showing up with a drink, sometimes just a hand on the small of my back, sometimes a hug, sometimes just a smile from nearby, that smile he never gave to anyone else. But I refused to let him get bogged down with me, always thanking him profusely with words or a look or am embrace before sending him off to dance, to eat, to drink, to visit, to enjoy himself. No matter the goings on in our relationship, I knew he'd be there when the time came. And the time had finally come. I made my way across the nearly empty ballroom. Nate leaned against the coffee bar. As if he could feel my gaze, he turned slowly in my direction. The smile that bloomed on his face when our eyes met was the one he only gave to me, gleaming and warm and honest and full of affection. I was ten years old the first time I saw that smile; it took my breath away. It was no less devastating twenty-one years later. "Hey, you," he greeted as I approached. "Hey, yourself." "Busy night?" "Yeah." "Was it a good one?" "The best one yet." His smile was breathtaking, heartfelt. "I'm glad to hear it." Reaching out, I took his hand in mine. "Let's make it a better one. Dance with me, Nate." His pause was so slight as to be inconsequential, the flicker of fear in his eyes so brief as to be imagined. Then he squared his shoulders, nodded. I motioned to Trey, who immediately jogged over to me. "Time to wrap it up," I told him. "Sure thing, boss." "Asshole." I grinned, shook my head. "Whatever you say, boss." I gave him a light smack on the shoulder and said, "Go on, you bonehead. Tell everybody they have my sincere thanks. I'll give them an update as soon as I can." He grinned. "Did we do good?" "Yeah, Trey, we did indeed." "I'll let'em know, boss." His grin widened at my scowl. Then he glanced at Nate before returning his gaze to me. Leaning in close, he whispered in my ear, "All my hopes." He spun on his heels and marched away. I shrugged at Nate's inquisitive look. And I focused on keeping my mind and expression blank. The last thing I needed was him getting in my head, reading my intentions and using them to smack headlong into Richard's vile mental wall. That time would come. Even as people were gently herded toward the exits, I motioned to Gabriel, a simple and brief spin of my index finger in the air. He ducked his head and smiled, nodded confirmation. Dragging him by his hand, I pulled Nate to dance area. "Dude, we haven't danced together since our club days." "What, like five or six years ago the last time?" He shrugged, pensive with a hint of longing. "Something like that." "This'll be different, Nate." "How so?" When the quick tempo of some random pop song rapidly dwindled and the air settled quiet and expectant, Nate's eyes narrowed a bit, watching me closely, curiosity and a tinge of apprehension in his expression. The electronica intro for "I Am You" by Depeche Mode, one of Nate's favorite songs, slowly filled the emptiness the quiet revealed. Little did he know Gabriel's playlist for this private dance party consisted of a specific selection of Nate's favorite songs, songs with meaning, songs that would speak to the heart of him while providing the intimate tempos I needed. I stepped close to him, lifted his hand and held it over my heart, wrapped my other arm around the small of his back and pulled him close. Snugging him against me, his apprehension quickly growing into fear, I leaned down enough to whisper in his ear. "Don't think. Just feel." He shivered as my breath caressed his skin, my lips grazing his ear. Lights around the ballroom dimmed, leaving a warm glow above the dance area while the rest fell away into darkness. "Don't think, Nate. Just feel with me." He stiffened against me but didn't push away. With my lips still at his ear, I wrapped my arm tighter around him, pressing his hand against my chest, and I began leading us, gentle sways and turns. Because we both loved to dance, this was no shuffling, stumbling, knee-knocking debacle, but instead it was a resonance of two bodies moving as one, sinuous and leonine and graceful and elegant, yet not a hint of pretension or show. The hand that had been draped by his side, dangling uselessly, slowly rose, coming to rest on my arm, his grip like velvet-clad iron. Shivers and trembles moved from his body to mine; I absorbed them like venom drawn from a wound. "When you left, I thought you'd forget me." His voice was hardly a whisper, "No, Little Big Man. No. I knew the first time we met that I'd never be able to forget you." My words were nothing but air breathed into his ear, lips caressing the meaning against his skin. He leaned into my voice without thinking, goosebumps erupting on his neck, the slightest tremor vibrating him from head to toe. "You don't have to fear losing me, Nate. Never again. I'll never leave your side, you hear me?" He nodded, such a slight movement. "Leaving was foolish. I was an idiot, not seeing clearly. It was a mistake that won't happen again." Pressing my lips to his ear I added, "There's nothing to fear anymore because I'm not going anywhere." Nestling my cheek against his, my breath undulating across his ear, my parted lips pressed against his skin and settled there, I inhaled his scent and felt dizzy from it, intoxicated. In silence I kept us moving, body to body, sensuous movements easing us through the dimness. When the electronica began to fade, the cymbal and drum and electric guitar of "Enigma" by Trapt slowly replaced it, the transition as smooth as gentle waves washing ashore, the boundary between one and the other blurred where they met. Nate pulled his head back. I responded, meeting his gaze, our faces close enough to taste each other's breath. A suspicious look quickly passed before he smiled. "You?" he asked, gesturing skyward with his head. "For you," I replied sotto voce. "You're a sneaky bastard, G-Man." "I do what I can." There was that smile again, the one meant just for me. It came coupled with a look of profound gratitude. Then to the slightly faster beat I moved us, holding him close, letting silence settle between us, letting our bodies speak to each other without words. We stared, eyes locked. In his I could see Nate struggling against Richard. To help the better man win the fight, I leaned forward the scant distance it took and kissed him, capturing his lips with mine and pouring from my soul into his soul every bit of love and strength I had, every bit of hope and promise, every bit of me for him. Though he staggered, swayed, I held him upright, held him against me. His body shook and I held him. His grip tightened and I held him. I held him through the kiss, a powerful telling of my feelings directly into the heart of him. I kissed him with a potency and furor the likes of which I'd never used in a kiss before. I kissed him like my life depended on it. Eventually I came up for air. Nate went limp against me, hitched breathing ragged and desperate. He dropped his face against my shoulder with a slow shake of his head. I knew he could feel my heart hammering beneath his hand, still held against my chest between us. I knew he could hear my rapid breathing. I knew he could feel my love washing over him in waves, carried to the shores of his soul by the strength of my embrace. But mostly I knew he could feel my resolve, my desire to push us out of Richard's shadow. "Why?" he murmured against me. The hitch in his voice told me was near tears. "Why did you do that, G-Man?" Turning my head slightly, I settled my lips against his ear once again and spoke softly. "Feel with me, Nate. Don't think. Just feel." "I don't know ... I don't know what I'm supposed to feel." "Feel how much I love you. Feel how much you mean to me. Feel how much I need you in my life." "I don't ... I'm not sure ... " "Just feel, Nate. Don't think about it. I'm right here and I love you and I'm not going anywhere. Just feel with me ..." I held him and danced with him, keeping us as close as two bodies can be while dressed, keeping him secure in my hold as he felt the strength of my heartbeat against his hand. As the song slowly began to fade, the drums and cymbals and electric guitars were replaced by the piano of "All of Me" by John Legend. Nate shook his head against me, a broken chuckle muffled by my shoulder. Then he sniffed. I kept us moving, always moving. When John Legend's piano gave way to the piano of "My Immortal" by Evanescence, his body shook against me. Then he moaned, "Oh fuck ..." "Nate?" "What?" he muttered. He sounded like he was reaching an emotional edge, a precipice where he could either jump or retreat. I needed to push him more. For in the end, he either had to jump or hope had to die. "Look at me, Nate." The moment he lifted his head from my shoulder, the song piercing our hearts and minds and souls, I gazed into his wounded eyes, the eyes of a man haunted by the past and frightened of the future. "Just feel, Nate. Stop thinking and just feel with me." Against his lips I whispered, "I love you." I kissed him again. I made it the most meaningful yet, so much of me passing through my lips into him. He juddered bodily, his grip on my arm a stranglehold. He'd probably leave bruises if he kept at it. I didn't care. Nate pressed forward enough to let me know he was feeling, not thinking. He'd participated in each kiss to an increasing degree, but he'd never chased as I retreated. I pressed forward, opening my very being and pouring it into him. That's when he moaned, a throaty, quiet groan that came from someplace deep. Brushing my tongue across his bottom lip caused him to gasp, which was what I wanted. I slipped my tongue into his mouth, tentative, sliding it across his lips and teeth until I met his tongue. That's when he jerked away, pushing with both arms, shaking his head. Strong though he was, I was bigger and stronger, albeit not enough to win an endless struggle with him. Knowing time was of the essence, I released his hand and grabbed his shoulder as I pulled with the arm around his waist. "No!" he shouted. "I need to find—" I didn't let him finish that shit. That was Richard thinking. I wanted Nate feeling. Slamming my lips against his and kissing him with passion and love and lust and everything I felt for him, with all my strength I turned us and backed him against the wall, pinning him with my body and pulling him against me with my arms. Since his mouth had already been open, I slid my tongue in with ease and began chasing his, dueling, penetrating and retreating, tasting. Nate's mouth was hot velvet, slick and sweet, his breath a drug I inhaled greedily. His shudder was potent, his moan more so. I swallowed the sound and pressed my body harder against his. It wasn't a sexual move, though it could've been; on the contrary, it was a communication tool, my promise to him that I'd see this through. Nate writhed and pushed, but he never turned his head away and he never hit me. If he had, he knew it would've ended the night right then. After Richard and my fifteenth birthday, violence was the one button I had that could override everything else. Pulling away from his mouth, leaving him gasping and dazed and the fight in him weak and impotent, I growled, "Tell me what you feel, Nate! Tell me! Don't think, just feel! Tell me!" His head shaking was ferocious, eyes squeezed shut. "I can't! I don't know!" Wrapping a hand behind his neck, I pulled his face to mine even as I leaned forward to capture his mouth yet again. He could've bit my tongue. He could've turned his head. He could've pushed me away. He could've done a million things, but instead he moaned as my tongue wrestled with his, as my lips bruised his, as we inhaled and exhaled into each other. The song gently transitioned to "Iris" by The Goo Goo Dolls. I was vaguely aware of his body stiffening when the music became clear enough to recognize. Gentling the kiss, morphing from passion to love, I slid both hands up to his face and bracketed him, cupping his cheeks with light touches, deepening the kiss emotionally while I shallowed its lust, my fingers massaging and caressing. Relaxing, backing away, slowing down, I broke the kiss with an ease that made it difficult to know when it ended. Then I kissed him repeatedly, lightly, affectionately, lovingly, each a moment frozen in time. "I love you, Nate Sawyer, I love you so much it hurts, like a great weight on my chest and a knife in my heart and a need so powerful only one man can satisfy it. I love you so very much, Nate." His eyes were closed, his cheeks flushed, his lips swollen and luscious and wet, his breathing ragged and rapid and barely controlled. I leaned my forehead against his, sharing breaths, my hands slowly moving down to his shoulders. When he reached up and gripped my upper arms, I worried the push would come next. "Stop letting him win." I whispered against his lips before kissing him. "He's controlled us for too long." Another kiss, my hands on his chest, caressing, meandering back to his shoulders. "How many years have we wasted in his shadow?" Another kiss, slow and purposeful, one hand on his chest, another rubbing the back of his neck. "It's time to come into the light, Little Big Man." Another kiss. "Do you want to stay safely alone or do you want to take a risk for happiness?" Another kiss. "Where we go from here is totally up to you, Nate." Another kiss. "It's time to leave Richard in the past." Another kiss, soft and easy. "I love you." Another kiss. Once more resting my forehead against his, I tried to catch my breath, deep inhales and powerful exhales. His sniffles and hitched breathing let me know about the tears. I gently wiped them from his cheeks, running my thumbs between our faces, keeping my forehead pressed to his. Nate shivered, breathing hard, eyes still squeezed shut. Occasionally he shook his head from side to side, tiny movements almost overlooked, as if negating a proposition. Or clearing his head. "Don't let him keep taking everything away from us, Nate. Hasn't he taken enough already? Hasn't he hurt us enough already? How much more will you sacrifice to him before you realize he's gone and never coming back and the only harm he can do to us now is what we inflict on ourselves in his name?" That broke him. He clung to me like a drowning man holding a life preserver, his body wracked with sobs. Dropping his head to my shoulder, Nate wept and shook and silently poured out his anguish and sorrow and regret. Hugging him to me, I held him tightly, closely, rubbing his back and whispering to him that I loved him, I was there for him, I'd never leave him, I loved him more than life itself, he could count on me, and on I went. His weight against me was welcome as he drew strength from me. "Please ..." he moaned against me. "Please what?" I whispered against his ear. "Don't ever leave me." "I'll never leave you again. I was a fool to do what I did. I was a fool to hurt you that way." "I never fully understood what I was feeling or what I had until it was almost ripped away twice. I can't do this without you" "Do what?" "Live ... Be happy ... Love ... I need you, G-Man. Fuck, I need you so much it hurts." "I'm right here, Nate. I'm not going anywhere. I love you." He stood upright, leaning back against the wall, his face to the ceiling, eyes closed, cheeks stained by tears. His hands still gripped my arms, a solid but not tight hold. As "Iris" fell to silence, giving way to the orchestral sound of "Everything" by Lifehouse, his grip tightened for just a moment, lips quivering. Gently cupping his face, I tilted his head down so we were eye to eye despite his being closed, then I kissed him, a light touch, just a hint of pressure. Soft trembles passed over him. "Feel with me, Nate. Don't think, just feel. Forget everything he ever told you, forget what he taught you to believe about you and me and us." Another gentle kiss. "Just feel with me, Nate. Come out of his shadow and feel with me." Another kiss, a promise for days to come. In a whisper against his lips I repeated, "Just feel with me, Nate. Don't think about it, just feel how much I love you and feel how much I want to be with you and feel with me ..." The lightest pressure against my mouth as he leaned forward a breath, a hair, less than a millimeter. But I felt it. Despite our tears and anguish and the torments of history still plaguing us and the pain of so many years wasted and the near irreparable harm his father did to us for his own gleefully sick wants, Nate moved just enough to touch his lips to mine. "Tell me, Nate. Don't think about, Little Big Man. Just feel it. Tell me what it is you feel." He inhaled, ragged and pained. Then so quietly I almost didn't hear it, he said, "I love you. I've loved you for so long I almost don't remember not loving you." "I love you, too." When his lips touched mine the second time, he moved but I didn't. It was his kiss. My stomach flipped and churned with that indescribable joy that comes only from being kissed by someone who holds my heart, someone I love. Anyone who's ever been kissed by someone they love would know the feeling. And he was a damn good kisser, soft and gentle yet firm and unflinching. So much passion, so much emotion. He sampled me with tentative pressure. And I nearly fainted when his tongue teased my lips, getting me to open and accept. He tasted of the beer he'd had earlier, and spices from the dinner he'd had in the ballroom next door, and a taste that I knew was all him, all Nate. I nearly crumbled beneath the weight of the moment, so intoxicated did I feel, so elated, so hopeful. Our tongues caressed and entwined and lavished, exploring, touching, communing. When he finally pulled away, his eyes slowly opening, it left me breathless. And wanting more. Nate pulled my face down to lean our foreheads together. My hands slowly explored downward until they wrapped around his waist, my fingers softly kneading and touching and caressing, drawing forth faint shivers. "I don't know what to do," he whispered. "Don't think about it, Nate. Just feel. What do you feel you should do." Again he inhaled a stuttering breath before exhaling. I sucked in his breath like it was the only air left in the world. "I don't know," he murmured. "I'm scared. I don't want to lose you. I've almost lost you twice. I couldn't handle it again, Greg. Not again. Never again. I don't think I could take it." "Hey hey hey ... You're not going to lose me, Nate. I'm never leaving your side as long as you want me there. I'm not going anywhere. I love you, Little Big Man." The song faded slowly until it was joined by the introductory guitar of "Say" by John Mayer. "Fuck, dude," he started with quick shake of his head against mine and an almost silent snicker, "did you do that?" "The music?" "Yeah." It was a word caught on a breath. I nodded my head against his. "Yeah." "You did good, G-Man. All the right ones." "I did it for you, Nate. I'd do anything for you." "I know." He turned his head enough to rest his cheek against mine. The inches I had on him meant I was looking over his head and his cheek was more against my jaw than anything else. I slowly dropped my head to equalize the experience. "Where do we go from here?" he asked. "Upstairs to get some sleep. It's been a long night." "And emotional," he snorted, though it was weak. "Yeah ... It's definitely been emotional." I had no intention of trying anything sexual with him, at least not yet. I felt what I'd accomplished thus far was precarious and needed gentle support and nurturing so it didn't blow up on us. Everything else would come if I could get us out of Richard's shadow. At least I finally knew how he felt. And that made me the happiest man on the planet despite the obstacles we still needed to overcome. Like the day I brought him home from the shared session with Uncle Farid, I helped Nate collect his jacket before supporting him to the elevator, up to the suite, into the bedroom. I undressed him and settled him under the covers, then I quickly undressed and joined him, wrapping my body around him, holding him close, kissing his head and ear and neck, snuggling us together until it became impossible to tell where one of us ended and the other began. Quietly, only the sound of breathing piercing the dark, I held him and listened until he fell asleep. Then I closed my eyes and drifted into slumber hoping we'd finally moved beyond the shadow of The Fiend. * * * * * Several hours later my cell woke me. A new text message. Groggily and bleary-eyed, I rolled slightly and reached toward the nightstand. Too much silence. The clock showed just after seven in the morning. At least I'd had five hours of sleep, five hours of the most blissful yet fitful sleep of my life, filled with thoughts and dreams of Nate and where we were and where we were going and what it would take to get both of us out of Richard's shadow and into the light of a new life. Something's changed, something's different. Something's wrong. As my hand hovered over the edge of the bed, a foreboding sense of unease blanketed me, cloaked me with the impression that something was amiss. My eyes briefly scanned the half of the room I could see without turning my head. Where are his clothes? Lifting the phone and glancing at the screen, Kyle had sent me a message, no doubt letting me know he was awake. Well, out of bed anyway, since awake might come later after the night we had. I sent one back saying I was just waking up and would get back to him once I reached lucidity. Assuming that was an attainable goal. What's that piece of paper that was under my phone? Slowly, afraid of what I'd see, I glanced over my shoulder. The bed's empty. My hand made a slow move toward that side of the bed, afraid of what it would discover, afraid of the truth I already knew, afraid of what it meant. The sheets are cold. So is the pillow. He's been gone for some time. "Nate?" I quietly called, my voice hoarse with sleep and reticent to force a confrontation with the facts I couldn't deny. No sound of the television, no sound of the coffee maker, no sound of dishes, no rustling as someone moves on the couch, no soft footsteps as a sleepy man approaches the door to see if I'm really awake. Only the cold echo of my own weak voice reached my ears. The paper. It wasn't there last night. Look at the mother fucking paper! Shivers wracked my body, not from cold but from fear, a dread that reached inside me and gripped my heart and squeezed it until I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't move. That's his handwriting, clean and neat and masculine. As if it might burn me, only my fingertips brushed the piece of hotel stationery, moving it in tiny sliding increments until it rested near me, near the bed, near revelation. Why? Why would this happen? Afraid it might sting, maybe bite, certainly hurt, I trapped the corner of the paper between my fingers and dragged it off the nightstand. Despite resting my arm on the bed and looking down at the note and its pristine writing, it shook and rattled and blurred. Greg, Please forgive me for writing this in a letter. I should've said it to you in person, but I knew I wouldn't get through it if I tried. You fog my mind and cloud my senses and roil my emotions into a storm. You're worth more than gibberish, hence the note. I want to say that I'm sorry, sorry for everything. Part of me wants to say I wish we'd never met, that way Richard would never have seen you and he'd never have screwed up our lives to severely. But we both know it would be a lie because meeting you was the greatest event in my life. I just wish a different man had sired me. Things would be so different now. I always knew I'd break your heart. Somehow I always knew. For years I wasn't sure about how you felt, but still I just knew I'd break your heart. If I could make you happy, it would fulfill every desire I've had since we were kids. It's just that I don't know who I am anymore and you merit better than sitting around hoping I eventually figure out my shit. I don't know if I can be the man you want, the man you think I am, the man you deserve, and it would be selfish hubris to expect you to wait for me. What a pisser it would be if you did that only to find I can't be that man. There's so much fear in me that it feels like I'm strangling. All of it is a fear of losing you. But if I try to be what you want, if I try to be that man, I might fail. If I fail, it'll hurt you beyond repair and you'll walk away without a backward glance. It nearly killed me when I almost lost you to Richard. It felt like part of me died when you walked out of our house after telling me we couldn't be friends anymore. I'm sorry, Greg, but I wouldn't survive a third time. It's easier this way. Maybe it doesn't feel like it—it sure as hell doesn't feel like it to me—but we both know this is easier. This is better for both of us. I hope you find what you're looking for, and I say that with all sincerity instead of the spite and anger with which so many others say it. My hope is genuine and heartfelt. You deserve happiness, more than any other person on the planet, and I really hope you find it one day. You've been my life for so long that I don't know how to live without you, but I'll figure it out because that's what's best for you. I wouldn't change a moment of what we've had together except, maybe, to wish I didn't feel this way anymore. Maybe then I could be the man you want me to be. I love you, G-Man. And I'm sorry. Nate The writing blurred and blurred and blurred, but I could see well enough to notice the first tear as it landed on the trembling paper. My hand opened and the letter slid off the bed and drifted to the floor. I rolled over and dropped into the space he'd occupied, burying my face in his pillow. And then I broke beneath the weight of it as tears came hot and heavy and sobs choked me. But his scent still lingered. There was at least that.
  16. February 3, 2017 "Are you avoiding looking at me?" His cheeks flaming crimson, his eyes continued meandering about the room, deftly avoiding where I stood. "No, man," Kyle mumbled. "I can't count the number of times you saw me in nothing but a towel at the gym. Why are you being weird all of a sudden?" Basketball Boy waved a hand in my general direction and expelled a disgusted breath. "Fuck, dude," I chuckled. "Did you become a prude in Florida?" Casting a stern gaze at me, he huffed derisively before announcing in a mocking tone, "It's a survival trait, man. Isn't that what you told me?" I grinned and shook my head. "Come on, don't be silly. You're like a pendulum swinging way in the opposite direction." "So?" he challenged. "Listen, Kyle, what you don't look at is just as important as what you do look at." "Huh?" His confused expression tickled me, but at least he was finally looking at me, if only for a brief moment. Oh to be young again, when the world is new and gay social etiquette is a quagmire ready to snare every unsuspecting and unprepared queen. "Hey," I began with a beaming grin as he turned away again, "you have to find the middle ground. Unless you're sure it's safe to flirt, treat everybody the same. If you're attracted to someone, don't stare obsessively but don't avoid looking at them either. Both actions are obvious and telling." When he turned around, he didn't look uncomfortable, only curious. "Really?" "Yeah, really." "Huh ..." Shaking my head and biting back yet another bit of laughter, I toted clothes to the bathroom where I intended to dress. "I'll be in Orlando in a few weeks," I announced nonchalantly. "Really?" he repeated, his eyes finally meeting mine with more purpose and less insecurity, enthusiasm in his voice. He licked his lips as his eyes made a quick circuit of my towel-clad body. I almost laughed. Again. "Yeah. I'm traveling to all the locations where I had employees so I can take them out to a nice lunch and say goodbye to them properly. I mention it because, if you're interested, you're welcome to come to lunch with us while I'm down there." "Wow ..." he muttered with curiosity. "How many ex-employees do you have?" "Maybe a thousand." "What?" "Dude, don't shout. I'm across the room, not the state." "But a thousand?" "Right. Less than one thousand one but more than nine hundred ninety-nine. Give or take a decimal." What's the big deal with a thousand? "Asshole," he sneered with nothing but humor behind the words. As his face calmed into something less expressive, he asked, "How many locations?" "Uh ... Counting Dallas?" He nodded. "Eighteen." "Isn't that expensive? I mean, come on, man, you flew me out here for the weekend just to attend your birthday party. Now you tell me you're flying all over the country just to say goodbye to ex-employees?" His face slowly morphed from a sly inquisitive stare to that infamous blank expression, the one that meant consideration, thought, observation, analysis. Then his eyes narrowed as he quietly asked, "You're rich, aren't you?" The heat of my blush flamed across my cheeks. Lowering my face, I looked away, shrugging. I'd almost forgotten how smart he is. And observant. When I looked back, his expressionless gaze met my own. Almost as if reciting a dictionary entry he explained, "Your car ... You told me you bought it with cash. And your house ... You bought it the day you looked at it, and you admitted you don't have house payments—at the time I didn't think about it. Your hotel room—no, fuck the room shit, I meant your hotel suite ... You've said you're not really worried about the cost even though you're still paying your part of the house bills. And this party ..." He gestured vaguely around the room, no doubt meaning to encompass the hotel and the ballrooms downstairs and anything else associated with the event. "You got me a really nice hotel room—shit, I mean suite, and yours is even bigger; you have a ballroom—" "Two." "What?" "Two ballrooms." "Damn it! Fine. You have two ballrooms and food and drinks, you even said you have rooms reserved for anyone who has too much to drink or gets too tired to drive home." Of course he's been cataloging everything, filing it away for later. The kid's mind is scary sometimes. Shaking my head, I wandered over and dropped onto the bed beside him. Head ducked, cheeks red, I shyly glanced at him before saying, "There's something I need to tell you, Kyle." "Okay ..." Turning a little so I could face him, I admitted, "You're going to find out at the birthday party anyway, but I think it's important that I tell you personally rather than as part of a crowd." He shifted a bit so he could face me, his eyes never leaving mine. "I work because I love technology, but I don't actually have to work. My grandfather left me a large amount of money when he died." With the same impassive tone one might use when saying grass is green or rain is wet, he observed, "But you don't act rich." I laughed. "I'm not sure how rich people are supposed to act. Still, I'll take that as a compliment." "You don't live in a huge house, own a bunch of cars, have a lot of stuff. And you don't flaunt it!" "Then that was a generous compliment. Thank you! But seriously, Kyle, I'm a pretty simple guy when it comes to stuff. I have a car I like, a house I like, I have the music and books and movies I like. What else do I need?" "How much are you worth?" Before I could react, he immediately corrected himself. "Oh fuck! I'm sorry. It's none of my business. I'm sorry!" Standing, he wandered to the door then back to the bed, a bundle of embarrassed nerves. Back to the door and back to the bed then back to the door, all while I remained silent. Eventually he returned and stopped beside me. "But you seem so normal," he deadpanned. Again I laughed. He joined me, shaking his head at his own statement. Kyle plopped down on the bed beside me, bumped me with his shoulder, said, "You're never what I expect you to be, man." "I hope that's a good thing," I quipped as I stood and walked to the bathroom, deciding it was time to get dressed. "Yeah, of course it is. You just ... I don't know, man, you're ... I mean ... Fuck! I don't know what I mean. You're just the coolest guy ever. When I think I have you figured out, you spring something on me and make me realize you're even cooler than I thought." I tossed a shy grin over my shoulder. "Thank you. I'm glad somebody recognizes my greatness." "Fuck you!" he said through a chuckle. It took all my intellect to stop myself from tossing back something like "In your dreams" or "Not now, I need to get dressed." My usual flippancy died at the hands of common sense and affection, knowing any such comment would not only kill our levity, but it would also make light of his feelings even though I'd never dream of doing such a thing. In time we'd reach that place, but we weren't there yet. After slipping a pair of boxer briefs on under the towel, I yanked it off and finished drying. Then I applied some deodorant. Once I'd stepped into a pair of slim jeans, I stood upright, pulling the jeans up to my waist before zipping and buttoning them. Glancing into the bedroom I found Basketball Boy staring at me with that patented blank expression. Fuck, dude, does he ever stop? "I need to tell you something." His wistful yet determined tone made me ask gently, "What about?" "Nate." This is the conversation I meant to start. Why's he ahead of me? Realizing that, irrespective of what he had to say, I'd have to wade into the dangerous waters of his emotions by telling him what I hoped to accomplish this weekend, at this very party no less, I walked back to the bed and sank down beside him, wrapping an arm around him. I leaned my head against his, took a deep breath. "It's obvious." Surprised, I asked, "What is?" "I can see it in your face. I can hear it in your voice. Ever since you picked me up at the airport you've been so ..." "What, Kyle?" I prompted quietly, hushed, respectful. "You've been so full of hope." Blinking several times, unsure of a proper response, I waited rather than offering some banal sentiment or meaningless interrogative. He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. And though I felt no tension in his shoulders and saw no pain in his body language, I knew they were there, lurking just below the surface, swimming in the dappled light of revelation and disclosure. "It felt really good," he continued, "when I saw you waiting for me just outside security. You couldn't hide how happy you were to see me. But there was something else. I knew it had to be Nate." "Kyle—" "I told my mom." I sat upright and looked at him. "Told her what?" He blushed, such a cute thing on him because he rarely did it, though he seemed to do it a lot around me. Ducking his head and finding it left him inches from my bare chest with his eyes aimed right at my nipple, he lifted his face to meet my gaze, his blush deepening. "I was depressed. She said it was more than just moving. She already knew, but you know how she is, asking in a way to get you to admit it without her having to ask directly." "What are we talking about?" "How I feel about you." His voice was barely a whisper. I remained silent. He had a point that I didn't see coming, so I had to wait for him to make it. After a deep breath he said, "I told her how I feel. About you. She said she knew. She said she understood why it couldn't amount to anything. She said you'd still be one of my best friends for life, like the big brother I never had. I agreed. Then I told her about how you feel about Nate. I know I shouldn't have, it's not my business, but I was hurting and frustrated and I needed her to understand why moving made it worse, like I was losing my chance because I wouldn't be around. That's when she said something that really made me stop and think." "What did she say?" My voice was low, reverential, supportive. I rubbed my hand across his back to let him know I was listening, I was there for him. Basketball Boy squared his shoulders and met my stare directly. "She told me to put myself in your shoes. She said I should consider if your feelings for Nate are as strong as mine are for you. She asked me what I'd want you to do if you love him that much. She asked me how I thought you should proceed. She asked me what was more important, wanting you to wait for me or wanting you to be happy. She reminded me that you've known Nate longer than I've been alive and your feelings for him have been around all that time." He looked away for a moment, glancing about the room, then his eyes met mine when he said, "And she told me she'd thought you two were a couple from the moment you moved in." "You—" "Yeah, same as me. I remember. Because it seemed so natural and obvious, the way you guys are with each other, the bond you share, the way you're always taking care of each other, the affection, the trust. It's everything a relationship is supposed to be, but it's not quite there yet, right? I thought so." He shrugged, looked apologetic. "She left it at that. It gave me a lot to think about. In the end I realized you're already a couple in my mind. You always have been. I still fell in love with you like a silly schoolboy; I couldn't help it. But I realize what you feel for Nate is as important as what I feel for you. How can I resent you for that? How can I resent him? How could I want to take that away from you if I love you? Does it hurt? Sure, but that's my problem, not yours." His blue eyes were bashful and misty, but they were also unflinching. I pulled him to me and hugged him tight, resting my chin on his head. "You never cease to amaze me, Kyle. My life is so much richer with you in it." His arms wrapped around me as he rested his cheek against my chest. With a little nod he said, "I know. You're just lucky to have me, snookums." Our laughter was rich and pleasant and honest. After he pulled away, still looking at me, I stood and walked back to the bathroom. "I'm going to try to win Nate's heart tonight. I'll never be able to live with myself if I don't give it my best shot." Glancing over my shoulder at him, I asked, "Know what I mean?" Resigned yet not upset or unhappy, he nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean, cupcake." "I needed to tell you. I want you to understand. I don't intend it to hurt you, Kyle, please believe me. But I couldn't live with myself if I acted before you knew." His sigh was eloquent yet subdued. "I wish things were different. I wish I was a few years older and we had a chance. We have to play the cards we're dealt, though, don't we?." He stood and walked to me, pulled me into a brief yet sincere hug, mumbled against my chest, "It doesn't change what I feel, but I hope it works out for you, Greg. I really do." When he pulled my face toward him, I didn't hesitate. He dropped a chaste yet loving kiss on my lips before turning and going back to the bed. "Thank you," I breathed, my voice hoarse and full of emotion. Shaking my head, in awe of this kid, I told him with more strength in my tone, "Thank you. You're amazing. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise." As I headed back to the bathroom, I added through an ear-to-ear grin, "And cut it out with the pet names. That's totally uncalled for!" "Okay, honeybunny." * * * * * We migrated to Basketball Boy's suite next to mine so he could take a shower and get ready. When he meandered out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel, I had to admit he was looking better than ever. He was really going to break some hearts down in Florida. And I hoped he was going to win the heart of some boy worthy of what Kyle had to offer, which I kept discovering was far more than most sixteen-year-old boys. As he approached his bed, I stood and put out a hand, lightly touching his chest to stop him. "Wait a minute." Turning and looking at me in surprise, he shrugged a silent question. I retrieved a velvet pouch from my pocket. Reaching inside it with my fingertips, I pulled out a wide, leather-strapped bracelet with a heavy silver bar connected by strings of leather looped through eyelets. The metal was hammered such that it looked like silver raindrops in motion each time the angle of the light scintillated across its surface. "What is that?" he whispered, eyes locked on the jewelry. First I showed him the back. It had his full name and the date engraved there, plus the event: Silver Rain Birthday Bash. Beneath that the inscription read, "For Kyle, my brother, with love." A nearly silent broken gasp escaped his lips. Pulling his right arm toward me, I wrapped the bracelet around his wrist and tightened the buckle to ensure it wouldn't fall off. Once I felt certain it was secure, I released his arm, allowing him to inspect it. "It's beautiful ..." he muttered, fingers lightly tracing the silver and caressing the thick leather. "God, it's so ... so awesome." His eyes came up and locked on mine, a question swimming in their blue depths. "It's my birthday gift to you, Kyle. It's also a key to the party. It'll get you in the door and it'll get you anything you want to eat or drink. Except alcohol, which you can only have if I'm with you." His eyes fell back to the bracelet, his fingers still touching, feeling. "It's your birthday," he pointed out as his eyes met mine. "You're not supposed to give other people gifts for your own birthday ..." "That's what I do, Kyle. You'll understand more at the party." I gave him a quick peck on the lips and a light hug. "What's Silver Rain?" he inquired as I turned to walk away. "Wait a minute! Isn't that—" "At the party ..." I replied over my shoulder. "Okay." Stopping at the bedroom door of his suite, I turned back to him and explained, "I have to head downstairs. As soon as you're ready, come find me. We're in the Trinity Ballroom on the third floor. You can't miss it. Just follow the signs for the Silver Rain Birthday Bash." "Okay ..." he muttered again, smiling. * * * * * Greeting arrivals as I offered last-minute instructions to the folks manning the ballroom foyer while they registered guests and verified invitations and processed raffle entries and checked coats and purses, I glanced up in time to see someone step out of an elevator and head in my direction. The sight that met my eyes overwhelmed my senses. My breathing hitched then stopped with a gasp, my eyes grew wide trying to drink in the sight of him, my heart hammered in my chest, my stomach did all sorts of flips and tumbles, my mind went blank save for one thought: Nate. He wore a fitted seafoam button-down shirt with faint chocolate brown marbling that made it look earthy and iridescent, the top three buttons left open and showing just the right amount of the perfect chest beneath; faded jeans that fit like a glove, accentuating every muscle as he moved; dark brown low-heeled boots; and a thigh-length brown leather coat with a zipped-in black hoodie. He looked ... perfect. Self-control seeped from my bones as my knees trembled, every part of me wanting to run to him, draw him into my arms, do unspeakable and intimate and affectionate things to him. But mostly to just hug him, kiss him, be thankful he came. As soon as his eyes landed on me, Nate tossed a half-smile my way, his cheeks darkening a touch as blood rushed to his face. And all the while his eyes twinkled, those deep brown pools of bottomless emotion and thought, those earthy windows into the soul of the man who was the other half of me. Fuck me running, he's beautiful ... His blush immediately deepened and he ducked his head. Oh yeah, he was tuned into my broadcast. I had to be mindful of that lest he perceive some measure of my plot before I had time to enact it. Glancing over my shoulder at Trey, one of my employees, I reached out and waggled my fingers as my mouth opened. But before I could say anything, a black velvet bag was gently laid in my palm. Blushing slightly, letting his face fall before looking at me, the five-eleven cute blond kid with the football player's body and luscious hazel eyes quietly said, "For Mr. Sawyer, boss." My eyes snapped to Trey's, both humor and gratitude in my expression. Under my breath I told him with a chuckle, "Thank you. And stop calling me boss, Trey. The name's Greg." A mischievous smirk appeared on his face as if by magic, playfulness dancing in his eyes. "Sure thing, boss. Whatever you say, boss." Fighting off another chuckle, I spun around just as Nate reached me. I stepped forward and pulled him into a hug, kissing his cheek before breathing in his ear, "I'm so glad you made it, Little Big Man, I'm so glad you're here." He trembled bodily, a shiver that translated through the embrace right into my very being. I squeezed him tighter even as he turned his face into my neck and replied, "I'm happy to be here, G-Man. And I'm really happy to see you." We held each other, oblivious to the activity around us. I inhaled his scent and felt dizzied by it. His face pressed against my neck. If I don't get a move on, I'll stand here all night holding him, never letting him go, staying like this until they sweep away the ashes of my bones. Following another deep inhale to secure that smell in my senses, I slowly released him and pulled back. Nate's eyes were wondrously bright and so very emotional. I cupped his cheek and said in a breathy tone, "Let's get your coat checked." He nodded, mumbled, "Yeah," didn't move and didn't take his eyes off me. I stretched my arm across his shoulders and turned him around, pulling him against me, then I moved us to where we needed to be. Nate pulled his phone out of his jacket and slipped it into his jeans, shrugged off his jacket and handed it to Karry, another employee. She was the first person available to take it from him. Her fleshy cheeks flushed a bit when she looked at Nate, at me, back to Nate, then back to me. She retrieved a check receipt, separated the stub, handed that to my best friend as she took the jacket from him, and said, "I'll take care of it, Nate." Then to both of us: "You two have a wonderful evening." Stepping away from the ballroom entrance to a secluded spot behind the coat and purse check area, I gently turned Nate so his back was against the wall. "Roll up your right sleeve," I told him. Without hesitation he unbuttoned his cuff and rolled the shirt up a few times, revealing his deliciously vascular forearm, muscles obvious with each move, his dark skin smooth and vibrant. Lifting the velvet bag and reaching inside with my fingers, I pulled out another bracelet, exactly like the one I'd given Kyle. "Read the inscription," I said, flipping it over and handing it to him. He took it from me slowly, reverently. Like Kyle's, Nate's bracelet had his name and the date plus the name of the event on the underside of the silver bar. Beneath that, again like Basketball Boy's, was a personal inscription, a heartfelt expression: "For Nate, the man who possesses part of my soul, with all my love." Under that was a paraphrased quote from the seventeenth sonnet of Cien sonetos de amor: "It is your eyes that close when I fall asleep." Yeah, I had to work quickly to have that added before the party, but a man in love is a man driven to great feats in need. Nate's hands trembled so briefly and so slightly that it might have passed unnoticed had I not watched carefully. Rising like the morning sun, his gaze lifted to meet my own at a speed recognizable only in increments. When his mouth opened and closed, also slowly, I reached out and took the bracelet from him, then I took his right hand and pulled it forward enough so I could put it on his wrist, loosening the buckles just enough to give it a snug, secure fit. I stepped forward, pinning his hand between us, holding it against my heart so he could feel the hammer that pounded there. Again quoting the sonnet he originally quoted to me, I crushed his hand against my body and held it firmly as I said, "Your hand upon my chest is my hand." His inhale stuttered. A variety of emotions cascaded across his features, his eyes communicating thoughts and feelings in a waterfall of activity. Yet he said nothing. "Don't think, Nate. Feel." I leaned forward just enough to kiss him, not a passionate or erotic kiss but rather an intimate and loving one, a kiss that lasted several seconds during which his other hand gripped my arm with increasing pressure. "Don't think about it, Nate," I said against his lips, my voice low and husky. "Just feel." Then I kissed him again, brief yet full of my soul. He trembled, his grip on me almost painful, but his other hand remained flat and pressed against my chest above a thundering heart that threatened to shake me apart. And there his fingers curled just a bit, as if gripping the beating center of me, as if holding it, as if communing with it. I backed up, still holding his hand, weaving my fingers through his and holding him tight. "I don't want you to think about any of it tonight, Nate," I whispered. "Tonight, Little Big Man, all you need to do is feel. That's all that matters," I added, reaching out and touching his chest above his heart. "Just feel it here and don't worry about the thoughts that try to get in the way." His eyes were soulful, his lips quivering, his heart pounding. Shaking his head, he mumbled, "I don't know what to do with you." "Just feel. The rest will follow." In a lighter tone I said, "Come on." I cocked my head toward the doors to the ballroom. "Mom and Dad and the rest of the gang are here. Let's go get a drink and see if we can find them." "Okay," he breathed, a worded sigh. He gripped my hand like a lifeline as I turned and pulled him in my wake. * * * * * "He's only allowed alcohol if I'm here to approve it." The bartender grinned and nodded before giving Kyle a conspiratorial wink. Though it made Kyle feel like he had an ally if he aimed to misbehave, it was for show since they'd never server a minor unless they knew someone else was taking the blame. Turning my attention to Basketball Boy, I asked, "On that note, want a beer?" "What's that Chinese one we had that time?" "Tsingtao." Back to the pretty bartender he asked, "You have that one?" "Sure, sweetie." She fetched the beer, opened it and handed it to him. "Thanks," he said before taking a sip, immediately closing his eyes and adding an appreciative moan. All very dramatic, of course. The bartender smiled and snickered before embarking on other duties. At a quarter past eight, the ballroom already held nine hundred people or more by my estimate, and more trickled in at a steady rate. Thankfully we stood at the VIP bar, tucked away and hidden from the masses, secluded between the two ballrooms yet accessible via the open doors as long as you had a bracelet to get you by the gatekeepers. "Obviously," Keigan began with a gesture encompassing the ballroom and the rapidly growing crowd, "there are things I don't know about you." His jesting tone belied his serious expression. "Like you speaking Spanish, it must be stuff that never came up before." "Touché." His grin was radiant, his dimples on full display. Yannis touched my arm with affection as he said, "For my part, I'm honored to be invited, Greg. I never knew you were the man behind Silver Rain." "Neither did we," Malinda added, snuggling up to Brandon as means to alleviate any ambiguity in her use of the inclusive "we." Kyle's expression of realization swung in my direction, his mouth already open. Cutting him off I explained sheepishly, "You might say I've been hiding from it for a while, but thanks to some timely intervention—" I offered an appreciative look to Uncle Farid, Aunt Jan, Mom and Dad whilst simultaneously squeezing Nate against my side. "—I'm getting back on track. Better than that, even." "What do you mean?" Brandon inquired. "All will be explained later," I told them in a tone that asked them to drop it for the time being. "Right now," I continued, slipping my arm from Nate's shoulders and taking his hand in mine as I put my lips against his ear, "can I talk to you for a minute?" His shiver delighted me. His squeeze of my hand delighted me. His nod and simple "Of course" delighted me. Though not a bit of it was out of the ordinary for us. Which pleased me. For if I hoped to step us from what we were to what we could be, I needed to be damn sure we were back to being what we were previously before trying to move forward from there. "Pardon us," he said to the group with raised eyebrows and a humorous look of curious interest. Smiles and nods sent us on our way. * * * * * Unless we left the ballroom area altogether, the most private place I could find was at the end of the VIP bar behind a screen of plants that hid boxes of drinks and glasses and napkins and other necessities for the alcohol trade. Despite our proximity to the ballroom doors and the small group at the bar, the spot offered enough privacy to suit my immediate needs. "What's up, G-Man?" Taking both of Nate's hands in mine, I dropped my head for a moment and breathed deeply, then I looked into those beautiful dark brown eyes and opened the windows to my soul, hoping he was receiving me five by five. "I want to come home, Nate." His gasp was quiet yet evident. His eyes widened a bit, his eyebrows rising, and though his mouth dropped open a wee bit, I could still see his pleased grin. "Please ..." he whispered, squeezing my hands. Nervous yet hopeful, he met my gaze without blinking. Stepping closer, I released his hands and grabbed his waist, letting my fingers trace tiny patterns. His hands immediately mirrored my own, resting lightly just above my hips, his fingers gripping me through my shirt, slowly kneading my skin. I couldn't tell if he even knew he was doing it. "I can't live without you." His words pierced me to the core, brought unshed tears to my eyes. I couldn't look away, for the same emotions stared back at me from his face. "I need to make sure you want me to come back." "Of course, G-Man! I never wanted you to leave." "Does knowing how I feel change that?" His cheeks darkened with a blush. He blinked, his eyes glancing away briefly before returning to mine. Confusion and turmoil collided in his expression. No doubt the vestiges of Richard. Well, we'd see about that. Pulling him closer until we were pressed together, I looked down into his eyes and whispered, "I have to know, Nate." When I let my lips brush against his, he shivered, his eyes fluttered closed for just a second, his hands tightened on my waist. And he pulled me toward him, as though I'd left room. But when his eyes popped open again, I could see it, that unremitting fear. I was ready, though. Resting my lips against his, letting us share our breaths with each other, once again he trembled, his grip strengthened, his eyelids twitched and lowered, his breathing shallowed and became rapid. "Don't think, Nate," I whispered against his lips, letting him feel the words more than hear them. "Just feel. Feel with me, Nate. Stop thinking about it and just feel with me." I brushed my lips against his before asking, "Do you still want me to come home despite how I feel?" "Yes ..." he moaned, leaning into me that single millimeter it took to bring our lips together. It wasn't a kiss so much as a touch, a promise, an agreement that we had things to say that were worth hearing. "I've sacrificed too much by not having you in my life," I said. "Even if it means suffering alone for the rest of my days, I can't live without you, I can't give you up, I can't continue betraying what we have." Although he'd been quite tactile throughout the evening, as we often were, Nate again leaned forward the hair's width needed to brush his lips against mine. His eyes closed and his breathing ragged, I wondered if he even knew what he was doing. Then he smiled against my lips. Though his face still looked like emotional turmoil and though his body shook with trembles and fear and nervousness, the smile struck me as incongruous yet meaningful. "I don't know what's going to happen, Greg, but you need to come home," he mumbled. "Please ..." I cupped his cheek with the palm of my hand, rubbing a thumb just beneath his eye. "It's time for my speech," I told him quietly, "but we're not done, Little Big Man. In fact, save the last dance for me." Then I kissed him, a real, passionate, intimate, powerful kiss. I poured my soul into it, into Nate, into the man I so dearly loved. When I realized I intended to slip my tongue into his mouth, I backed off, dropping smaller kisses on his lips, wrapping my arm around him and holding him up as his legs shook and his knees buckled. Turning slightly so I could rub my cheek against his and move my lips to his ear, I whispered, "Save the last dance for me, Nate. It'll be special, I promise." I stepped back and looked at him, his wits lost and his mind racing and his body wanting and his heart telling his intellect to go fuck itself and his tongue tracing his lips to capture the last bit of my taste. When his eyes popped open, though, I could see the shadow of Richard darkening the moment, I could see the fear, I could see the desire to escape, to deny. So I grabbed his hand and dragged him with me. "You've never missed the speech, and you really don't want to miss it this year. Things are changing."
  17. January 20, 2017 Uncle Farid had prepared us, at least insofar as we could be prepared, by telling us to act normal, don't circle like sharks, try to direct the discussion toward Nate's feelings about Greg, be observant, be conversational rather than confrontational, don't pounce but don't be afraid of tough love, see what happens. For me, however, he had different instructions: be a catalyst and a comfort, but otherwise don't participate since we'd already seen how Nate reacted when I pushed him. With such a simple role, why did I feel so nervous? * * * * * After dinner we settled in Mom's living room, Nate by my side on the love seat just like old times, shoulder touching shoulder and thigh touching thigh; Mom, Dad and Aunt Jan on the sofa; and Uncle Farid in the wingback chair near Aunt Jan. A warm blaze in the fireplace provided warmth and light as everyone sipped their adult beverage of choice. "Fuck, dude, I've missed your cooking!" Nate enthused, throwing an appreciative grin in my direction as he rubbed his washboard abs like a bloated belly, looking rather sated in the process. "I've missed cooking," I admitted, then dropped my head and mumbled, "especially for you." Without thought, like we'd slipped back into the comfortable embrace of our relationship, he reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezing it. And not letting go. Unconsciously I flipped mine over and intertwined our fingers, letting the combined weight rest on my thigh. Leaning toward me he quietly said, "Come home, G-Man." Heat steadily spread from the contact, starting in my hand and traveling up my arm and filling my body. While we'd always been affectionate, touching and kissing and cuddling, I had to admit it wasn't innocent anymore, at least not to me, not since I'd dismantled my blind spot and rediscovered the greatest love of my life. "I'm thinking about it," I responded quietly. What? Since when? Since now. His smell was overpowering, that heady mix of musk and light sweat and pheromones and a hint of soap and man and him. Throughout dinner I'd repeatedly caught myself leaning or turning toward him and inhaling deeply, slowly, not obviously but still intentionally. Fuck, Greg! This is precisely why you moved away from him. You can't think when you're around him. Like Uncle Farid said, your emotions overwhelm your intellect. I really didn't care. Since the debacle that was my grand escape from Nate's orbit, I'd realized some important things. Like I couldn't live without him in my life. Like I was always desperate to hear his voice, to see him, to feel him. Like I needed Nate like I needed air. Like I was willing to make some sacrifices. Like I'd rather die an old bachelor than look for happiness without Nate. "Have you lost weight?" He glanced at Yvonne and shrugged through an abashed grin. "A little." Well, doesn't that make me feel wonderful. Not! "I think Greg has, too," Aunt Jan remarked. Crap on a cracker, people! Giving me a once-over, as though someone seated can be accurately surveyed, concern invaded his features when he asked, "Have you?" It was my turn to shrug. "A little. Just stress. You know, work, the new business ..." Despite my mouth working for a second or two, my words faded, the real reason left unsaid. Even as he blushed, the look he gave me was so full of understanding and compassion that I knew what he intended to say before he leaned over and whispered, "Five by five, G-Man." Then he squeezed my hand. Yeah, he knows. "You look tired," he mumbled, worried. My whole body shivered when his thumb began tracing lazy patterns on the side of my hand. The hand he was holding. Holding tightly. Lost in his unyielding gaze, those intense dark brown eyes so full of emotion and depth, again my mouth worked a few times before I shrugged, forcing myself to look away, mumbling, "Just stress." He squeezed my hand again. A jolt of electricity bolted from the contact and raced through me. "Are you seeing anyone, Nate?" Gavin asked. It was one of those moments when time slows, a second that stretches into an eternity. The question hung in the air where Dad had tossed it. Nate glanced at me before looking down at our hands, still intertwined, still resting on my thigh. He glanced at me again, something akin to fear in his features. Then his fingers stretched open and he pulled his hand from mine. With an awkward clearing of his throat, he used the same hand I'd been holding to reach across himself and fetch his beer, causing him to lean slightly away from me, adding a smidgen of distance between us that suddenly felt as vast as the Grand Canyon. With ale in hand, he settled it atop his thigh, essentially an obstacle meant to hinder any other such hand holding. "No," he muttered, a twitching shrug playing along his shoulders. Louder he repeated, "No, I'm not seeing anyone right now. I haven't met anyone who interests me. Besides, I'm too busy getting the second gym ready to open." A surreptitious glance at me, peripherally yet obvious, then: "Maybe when things calm down a bit." I couldn't hide the hurt I felt, though I turned away from him in an attempt to shield him from it, reaching for my own beer and taking a sip. Before my fifteenth birthday, he and I had been as tactile and affectionate as early teen boys could be, albeit with more enthusiasm and fewer limits than most. But after the catastrophe of that assault, I'd woken in the hospital with Nate by my side, holding my hand in both of his, tears streaking his cheeks as he watched me. From that point forward, we became unflinchingly tactile and unapologetically affectionate. Hugs, kisses, touches, embraces, holding hands, holding each other in slumber ... None of it was verboten, none of it avoided. And we didn't care who saw or what they thought. Such intimacy simply threaded its way into our relationship, forever altering the substance of our souls. It was like the threat of losing me broke something loose inside both of us, more so in him than me since I was already so smitten that any contact with him was welcome. But that bloody encounter definitely changed things between us, giving us a newfound freedom to show love and closeness in ways most male friends would never consider. Which makes one wonder, does it not? It was a new depth of bonding created by shared trauma. That's all. That's what you said when the blind spot was in full force. What do you say now? Under different circumstances I'd have an answer, but at that moment I had none, at least none that accurately fit the evidence. Unless you account for Richard and his tinkering. Yeah, unless I accounted for that. Pinning Nate to the spot with a direct glare that wasn't so much unkind as unflinching, Mom asked, "I'm sorry. I think I just realized what was said. Did you ask Greg to move back home?" He glanced at me quickly before meeting her gaze. His cheeks darkened beneath a blush. "Yeah." Waving his hand in my general direction he added, "I know. He said we can't be friends anymore. But I think—" Another glance at me, this one hopeful. "—I hope maybe that's changed." "He told you how he felt, didn't he?" Aunt Jan inquired. Nate dropped his head. "Yeah," he mumbled. "If you were in his shoes, what would you do?" He looked at Yvonne, head tilted, considering. "I understand why he did it. I don't agree with it." Another hopeful glance at me, then: "I believe with all my heart that we can find happiness without sacrificing each other in the process." "If you were madly in love with somebody who wasn't in love with you, if you'd spent more than half your life with unrequited love, wouldn't you consider getting away from that person so you could hopefully find someone who could love you back?" Defiance flared in his eyes when he looked at Uncle Farid. "I do lo—" Nate began in a near shout before his mouth slammed shut, his face dropping so he could stare at the beer in his hand. Quietly he muttered, "It's just ... You know ..." Then he shrugged. The knowing look that passed around the room held weight. "Do you think Greg deserves to be happy, Nate?" Dad asked gently, probing. "We are happy!" Dark eyes glistening but cheeks still dry, Nate guzzled the rest of his beer. It's doubtful anyone else heard the sigh that followed. Slowly, as though sneaking up on a rabid skunk, I slid my hand over, pushed the beer bottle into his other hand, then intertwined our fingers again, squeezing. He looked down, looked at my face, looked down again, then squeezed my hand in return. Again a knowing look made a quick circuit around the room. In a voice so full of love it could sooth the crankiest of babies and so full of maternal instinct it could reap the truth from a field of adolescent lies, her eyes misted with adoration and upset, Mom asked in a tone barely above a whisper, "How do you feel about Greg?" "I—" "Right now, Nate, without thinking about the answer, tell me how you feel about him. No, don't think, don't consider, just say it." Her expression softened such that it brought tears to my eyes. "Tell me, Nate. Just tell me, baby boy." She hasn't called him that since we were kids. He's only a month younger than me, but she always called him her baby boy. The impact on Nate was immediate and potent. His voice cracked, tears welled, lips trembled. Interspersed with glances at me, each longer than the last, he answered, "I miss him. It's a constant pain because I miss him so much. It's like I can't breathe sometimes because the pain in my chest is too much. There's this massive hole in my life that only he can fill. Every moment of every day I want to see him, I want to hear his voice, hear his laughter." Staring into my eyes he continued, "I want to feel his arms around me, his hand in mine." He punctuated that by squeezing my hand. "He says he doesn't want me around because he loves me too much, but I can't stand it, Mom! I can't stand it at all. I miss him so much. It's hard to sleep, it's hard to eat, it's hard to focus." His gaze filled with a sorrow too meaningful to do anything other than punch me in the gut. He said, "I want him to be happy so I should stay away like he asked. But I need him, Mom, I need him. I feel so empty ... I feel so bad ... all the time so bad ... But I want him to be happy ..." "Do you think you could make Greg happy?" My mother's voice was soft, gentle. "Of course I—" His teeth clacked with the force he used to cut off his own words. Eyes squinted with frustration and nostrils flaring, Nate let his gaze wander about the room, face to face. Quietly he said, "Not the way he needs. I need to find a woman I can build a family with, have a home with, a woman who I can love and who will love me. At best he'll always be just a friend. Because he's too good for me and I can't be what he needs." You could've heard a pin drop on the plush carpet. Not even a single breath sounded in the room. Holy fucking shit, he's essentially quoting Richard. Sounds familiar. You've been known to do that when screwing up your life and the lives of those around you. I could only stare as tears tracked down Nate's cheeks. His breathing was ragged, brutal and desperate and so full of need. "Hey ..." I mumbled, using my thumb to caress his hand. When he looked at me, tears stained both cheeks. His inflamed eyes had glazed over, so lost, so lonely, so full of pain and fear. My heart broke as his mouth opened, closed, opened, then an agonized groan escaped his lips as his expression crashed into utter torment. Yanking my hand from his, I wrapped my arm around him and pulled him to me and nestled his head against my neck, then felt utter despair when he began to cry. Body shaken by sobs and breathing stuttered with weeping, he slowly let his arms encircle my frame as he shuddered and sniffled. "I got you," I whispered in his ear. "I got you, Nate. I'm right here, dude. I'll take care of you." We both shook with the force of his broken inhale. With his face against my neck, he sniffed once, twice, three times— "I love you, Nate," I whispered in his ear, causing him to shiver. —then he inhaled deeply, a slow draw of air through his nose accompanied by the press of his face further against me, against my bare skin. His hands gripped my sweatshirt in fistfuls, he pulled me tighter against him, and he inhaled again, slow and ... sensual. Sending a chill up and down my spine, his lips pressed against my throat, quivering, needy, wanting. "Greg ... I ... I ..." he moaned against my neck, the vibration causing my eyes to close and my breathing to momentarily stop. I held him tighter, having no clue what the fuck was happening. After that migraine-inducing diatribe about finding a woman, then this ... this unmistakably erotic embrace with his lips lightly working my skin and his breathing intent on taking in my scent and his arms struggling to keep me against him and— As if lightning struck, Nate released me. More like pushed me away, his eyes wide and his skin flushed. Jumping to his feet, all he said on his way to the door was "I have to go." Standing, intending to follow him out, at least walk him to his car, hopefully delve deeper into what just happened, I offered, "I'll go with you." "No!" he snapped, swinging around as he pulled his coat from the closet by the front door. Tears streaming down his cheeks, confusion running rampant throughout his features, frustration and anger and ... something like desire fighting to be known. Then unadulterated fear surfaced, washing away anything else he felt, roiling like pure terror in his eyes. "No," he repeated through gritted teeth. As I took a step both Uncle Farid and Dad stood, holding their hands out to stop me, to restrain me if necessary, though both together couldn't accomplish that task if I pushed. Aunt Jan and Mom simply stared, dumbfounded and wounded and hurting on Nate's behalf. And mine. "Nate," Uncle Farid began, turning toward the door, "if you walk away now, like this, imagine how you'll feel in a week. In six weeks. In six months. Is that really where you want to go? Is that really where you'll find happiness?" For an unimaginably short yet interminably long time, Nate stared, first at the others, then at me. He looked so wounded, so unbelievably sad, so desperate to connect to something he couldn't quite reach. My heart broke for him. Without another word he left. I fell back to the love seat and let my tears flow, stunned, a blinding pain in my chest and a vast emptiness in my soul. * * * * * "He's repeating nearly verbatim the same response he's given each time—" "He's quoting Richard!" I interrupted Uncle Farid's words. Why is my voice raised? I'm almost shouting. Fuck, Greg, they heard it as well as you did. I ran a hand down my face, my palm coming away moist with a stray tear or two. All I could do was shake my head. "Rote memorization." "I beg your pardon?" Dad appeared unsure of Uncle Farid's meaning aside from the definition of the words involved. With a sad frown my father's brother-in-law expounded, "If Richard repeatedly evoked emotional turmoil in Nate followed by the mantra with which he wanted to seed his son's thoughts, intellectual filters would fail to intercept it, even if Nate knew the information to be invalid. Assuming Nate's account of the time involved is accurate, over the course of a few years Richard was able to ingrain in his son the precise response he wanted him to think and feel." "Just like me ..." I groaned, horrified at the seemingly unending impact Richard continued to have in our lives. The Fiend definitely earned his name. Aunt Jan sunk into the sofa with a defeated expression and a sad little sigh. "He looked panic-stricken even as he said it." "Oh heaven help me ..." Uncle Farid muttered with a shake of his head. "What?" Mom snapped. "It was fear." "Of what?" I asked. "Of losing you." "Oh fuck ..." "Right. Oh fuck indeed. Richard used fear with Nate, the same as he did with you, except he used a mirror image of the approach." "What does that mean?" Gavin asked worriedly. Uncle Farid glanced at dad and explained, "In Greg's case, Richard used his love of Nate as a weapon, convincing Greg that Nate could never feel the same and that, if he discovered Greg's feelings, it would rip them away from each other. Knowing he couldn't convince Greg that his feelings were wrong, he instead convinced him to hide those feelings lest they engender ruin. "In Nate's case, however, likely because Nate himself was unsure of his feelings and Richard cared little to determine the truth, he convinced Nate through fear that, were he to develop feelings for Greg, it would devastate their relationship. Utilizing fear, he planted the seed and nurtured the idea in his son that feelings for Greg could never happen without destroying what they had. "Clearly it was the best weapon to use against both boys, the threat of losing each other. And in Nate's case, losing Greg reinforced it, made it stronger, validated its existence. That's why it's so powerful. He almost lost Greg once before due to Richard's assault. He almost lost him again when Greg decided to walk away from their relationship. Both served to cement this paranoid psychosis in place." "So any hint of how he feels about Greg makes it rear its ugly head because he fears it means losing him." Nodding to his brother-in-law, the psychiatrist answered, "Irrespective of what he feels, that is the unfortunate truth." "We're still missing something, aren't we?" Aunt Jan asked. "Isn't there supposed to be some kind of key to help unlock his feelings so he can move on with the truth rather than sheltering beneath Richard's lies?" I sounded frustrated, flustered. Maybe a little pissed. Mostly depressed. "Indeed," my uncle agreed sadly, "we still seem to be missing something important." "You said it was related to Greg. Could it be how he reacts to him?" I answered my mother's question: "No. If it was just me, I'd've already pushed him through to the other side. But no matter how hard I try, we always hit the wall and screech to a halt." But that moment ... that moment while his head was tucked into my neck, shielded from their view. There was something in that moment, something important. It was ... intimate, longing. He was crying. That's all. No. I don't think so. I just don't know what it means. * * * * * February 1, 2017 Keigan sipped his coffee and continued staring at me. "Kyle's flying in Friday afternoon. I'll pick him up at the airport and take him straight to the Omni." Though sounding tired, I accomplished my goal of using a voice that didn't waver, didn't hitch. It had actually sounded almost ... normal. "Is he staying there all weekend?" "What?" I glanced at him. "No, not at the Omni." "Then shouldn't you take his bags to the hotel where you're staying so they're not sitting around all evening?" "Huh? Oh, no. It's possible—probable even—that we'll stay at the Omni after the party. No sense in cutting short the fun so I can be a designated driver. I figure we'll spend the night there and migrate to the other hotel on Saturday." Nodding, he agreed, "Okay. That makes sense." "I do occasionally make sense, K." I rolled my eyes for effect, though both it and my words lacked energy, not to mention interest. He smiled, his dimples on full display. "Yannis and I are looking forward to your big bash." "Good," I muttered. "Yeah, we're thinking about showing up nude to see what kind of reaction we get." "Sounds good." "It'll be fun to dance with it all hanging out, don't you think?" I shrugged. "Maybe. Yeah, I suppose so." "Sex right there with all your guests watching will be absolutely thrilling." "Huh?" "You're not listening, Greg." "Sure I am." "Trust me when I say you're not." Finally lifting my gaze from the latte I kept spinning in a circle, I met his worried gaze. "You said, and I quote, 'we're thinking about showing up nude to see what kind of reaction we get.'" "Huh ... And what else?" "'It'll be fun to dance with it all hanging out.'" "And then?" "'Sex right there with all your guests watching will be absolutely thrilling.'" "Jesus, Greg, do you remember everything you hear?" I tapped the side of my head with my index finger. "My own mental tape recorder, as ..." I inhaled sharply. "... as Nate always said." "Everything?" Keigan's eyes were wide with interest, his face overflowing with curiosity. "Only words and numbers, K. Everything I read, see and hear, but only words and numbers. Everything else ... not so much." "That's impressive." I gave a dismissive shrug. "It is what it is." After taking a sip from my latte, my attention returned to spinning the cup on the tabletop and watching the invisible patterns it traced there. He sighed. "You're pretty shook up still." "Pardon?" "For the last week and a half you've been in a funk, a pretty serious one." "Yeah, I know." "No progress yet?" "Nope. He acts as normal as he can, but it's there, lurking in the background, this shadowy specter that we can't deal with and he can't see beyond." "You said he was pretty upset after the ambush." "It wasn't an ambush," I groaned, sounding petulant. "What would you call it?" "It was a ... Well obviously ... I mean seriously, K, anyone could see ... Ah fuck it. Isn't an intervention an ambush by definition? Yeah, I thought so. Thus, as you so wisely pointed out, it was an ambush." Dropping my head in my hands, I moaned, "Fucking hell ..." "You caught him by surprise. Honestly, from what you've told me, it sounded like a good plan." "Since nothing else had worked. And now our brilliant approach, after failing miserably, accomplished what therapy and asking couldn't do." "Send him running?" "Hurt him, K. I think we hurt him." "Do you think that's what it is? Or was he forced to think about things, maybe moping around now with the knowledge that things upstairs are a bit of a mess?" I huffed, exaggerated yet necessary, a sound filled with incomprehension and worry and a low, thrumming, abyssal ache. "Until we can get him to face this thing, I guess we'll never know." Never know? Who are you trying to kid here? There was that moment. Don't you think that might have forced him to deal with the wall in a direct manner? He wasn't exactly stuttering and muttering when he was sniffing your neck and working his lips against your skin. He was crying! Fuck, how hard is that to understand? Quietly bouncing the empty paper cup on the table, I shook my head, trying to understand why that encounter in the parking garage felt relevant, just as relevant as the kiss on the bed and the moment at Mom's during the disastrous intervention. For some reason I couldn't fathom, my mind kept circling those events like they should mean something. Feeling baffled and tormented and feckless, if not a bit impotent, a noise of disgust erupted from my mouth before I mumbled, "Between the shadow and the soul my ass ..." "What did you say?" Keigan stared at me with keen interest. "Just nonsense." "What did you say?" "It's gibberish, garbled communications if you will." "Greg, repeat what you said." He looked rather occupied with my senseless rambling. "I misunderstood something Nate said once. I kept thinking it was important, but it's meaningless because I didn't hear him correctly." When his hand grabbed mine and stilled its nervous bouncing, I jerked my head up and met a steady, serious, inquisitive gaze. "Tell me what you said," he instructed, enunciating each word clearly. Pulling my hand from his and waving it in the air with surrender, I said, "I asked him about his feelings. I got the usual. I pushed in close, almost kissed him, asked him one more time about his feelings. Everything about him indicated he wanted me to kiss him, the tremble, the fluttering eyes that closed, the parted lips, the expectant breathing, all of it. Instead of aborted sentences amounting to nothing, though, he said something, more like breathed the words out because he didn't actually say it. I don't think I heard him correctly. But fine, you want to know, so I could've sworn he said 'between the shadow and the soul.' How's that for hokum?" Keigan's expression slowly shifted from curiosity to consideration. He settled back in his chair as he asked, "Do you read poetry, Greg?" "Sometimes." "Do you speak Spanish?" "Uh ... No." "Does Nate?" Growing disinterested in the random nature of his questions, I inquired, "What does that matter? What does any of this matter?" Leaning forward again and grabbing both my hands, holding them gently yet firmly, he met my gaze with a comforting look as he responded, "Just trust me on this, Greg. Please." After a deep breath I acquiesced. "Fine," I moaned, again sounding petulant. "Good. Does he speak Spanish?" "Yeah. Or he did. He took four years of it in school. I'm not sure how much he's used it since then." "Does he read poetry?" "Yes, no question there. Nate loves poetry." Releasing his grip on my hands and settling back, Keigan had the look of a man pleased with a recent discovery. He closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. Then he chuckled, briefly shaking his head. "What, K? What's with the twenty questions?" "Greg," he began, meeting my gaze, "have you ever heard of Pablo Neruda?" He began typing madly on his cell phone. "Uh ... I don't believe so. Is he someone I should know?" Smiling, his dimples looking cute and obvious, he explained, "Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet. I believe he died back in the seventies." He waved away his own sidebar with hurried intent. "One of his works is Cien sonetos de amor. We studied it at UCLA for advanced Spanish." "Wait. You speak Spanish?" "Yes, if you must know." "Why didn't I know that?" "It never came up before." "Huh ..." I stared at him for a few seconds. Then: "Huh! Well, that's awfully damn cool." "Greg, listen to me." His voice had taken on a note of urgency, as if sharing the winning lottery numbers, his eyes filled with thrill as he read his phone. "Cien sonetos de amor translates to 100 Love Sonnets. It was a book Neruda wrote." "Full of love sonnets ..." I mumbled, suddenly feeling Keigan had important information to share. "Right. It happens to be a favorite of mine. I've read it repeatedly, at least once a year for several years." Again waving away his unnecessary prattling, he explained, "One of the sonnets in the book, the seventeenth sonnet—well, technically Sonnet Seventeen—goes like this:" Looking down at his phone, he read, his Spanish accent perfect, "'No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio / o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego / te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras / secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.'" My eyes had glazed over. "Okay, sure, that's nice. Now that useless information will forever be stuck in my head simply because you said it. But since I don't speak Spanish, do you mind giving me the English version?" His smile beamed and his eyes sparkled. "In English, Mr. Beaumont, the first stanza of Sonnet Seventeen goes something like this:" Again he looked at his phone. I suspected he was translating on the fly. "'I don't love you as if you were a rose of salt / topaz or arrow of carnations that propagate fire / I love you as one loves certain dark things / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.'" Keigan's phone hit the table as he grabbed my trembling hands. "The sonnet gets even better, Greg, especially if Nate said that to make a point." I could only stare, mouth agape, eyes wide, body shivering. "Greg ..." he said softly as he moved around the table to sit next to me, still holding my shaking hands. "Greg, look at me." My eyes snapped to his, having focused on nothing in the middle of nowhere, or at least the empty space he'd just vacated. He leaned closer, his voice hushed. "Greg, you told me he locks up when you ask about his feelings. You told me no matter who pushes or how they ask, he locks up, can't talk, speaks garbled sentence fragments. You told me you were losing hope because you didn't know what's hiding behind his inability to talk about it." "Yeah ..." It came out on a breath, like a word-flavored sigh. "Greg, what did you do to make him mumble this to you?" "I ... I was going to kiss him. I couldn't help myself. I was going to kiss him, but I stopped at the last second, my lips against his, and I asked about his feelings, breathing into his mouth, the movement of my lips brushing against his. I was going to kiss him ..." Then I yanked my hands from his and covered my mouth with them. The pieces were falling into place. The kiss on the bed left him breathless, senseless. It took more than a few seconds for him to recover. The moment at Mom's house. I held him close, hugged him to me, tucked his face into my neck, told him I loved him. The next thing I knew he was responding, but not like a man weeping but instead like a man with hunger who just found the meal he wanted. The meeting in the parking garage when I almost kissed him, and in response his eyes fluttered closed, he tilted his head just so, his lips parted with anticipation. He shivered bodily when my lips touched his. The time in his bedroom when I was helping him get dressed for a date with Rita and I got sidetracked and intoxicated by his smell, leaning into him and nuzzling his neck as I inhaled deeply and repeatedly, lost in the essence of him. He blushed, caressed my skin with intimate movements of his fingers, stumbled through admitting it was flattering and hot the way I responded to him. "Oh fuck ..." "What, Greg? What is it?" Keigan looked positively buoyant and giddy, a kid in a candy store. He was practically bouncing in his seat. "It's me ..." "What's you?" "The key." "What key? Wait, you mean—" "The key to unlock Nate's cell, the cell Richard built in his head to trap him with his own feelings." Looking confused, he sat back, scowled, scrunched his eyebrows together, crinkled his forehead. "But you've tried. Right?" "Yeah ..." I was breathless, dazed, thrilled. And wary. I didn't want to jump to conclusions, but the evidence sure seemed to support my hypothesis. "Yeah, I've tried before. I've tried asking. But I don't think it's the asking that helps." Grabbing his hands and holding them tightly I explained, "Words can only convey so much. I think eliciting a heightened emotional state overrides the mess Richard made in his intellect, which is what he targeted. I think the key is making Nate feel what I feel, showing him I love him, not telling him. I think the key isn't about me, it is me, especially when I let him feel what I feel not by saying but by doing." Smacking myself in the forehead, I shook my head despite the huge smile on my face. "It's my love for Nate, my desire to be with him ... I think that's what helps him. That's why he crumbled momentarily in the parking garage, why he's always been responsive to my kisses and touches. Even if Nate couldn't say what he felt, he showed it the moment I was intimate with him. He's shown it every single time. I just didn't realize what I was seeing." I grabbed Keigan's face and pulled him to me, planting a big sloppy kiss on his lips before resting my forehead against his. "Thank you," I whispered. "Thank you so much, Keigan. Thank you." "You introduced me to Yannis, which is really going well by the way, so let's call it even," he joked. I kissed him again. "Awesome. Still ... Thank you!" If I'm wrong, nothing changes and hope moves closer to death. But if I'm right ... * * * * * February 3, 2017 I made my way around the maze that is DFW International Airport as I hunted for a place to park so I could get into the terminal before Kyle meandered out of the secure area and, finding me absent, decided I'd abandoned him. Once parked, I paused momentarily, considering my options, then I grabbed my phone and dialed. It rang only once before I heard his voice. "G-Man?" "Yeah, Nate, it's me. I've been worried about you." He sighed. "I'm sorry." "Don't be. It's all good, Little Big Man. All I care about is that you're okay." "But I—" "Nate?" "Yeah?" "Just promise me you'll be at the Omni tonight." "Are you sure you want me there? I mean, after—" "Nate?" "Yeah?" "There's no one I want to see more than you. Please promise me you'll be there." I could hear the grin in his voice as he said in a lighter, happier tone, "I'll be there, G-Man." My steps bounced and my smile never faltered as I entered the airport. A profound sense of hope permeated my soul.
  18. 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."
  19. 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.
  20. 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 ...
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
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