If anyone had ever told Jeremy how eventful his life would get after he moved to Port Alvin and opened his bakery, there is no way he would have believed them. Nothing extraordinary ever happened to him and he didn’t exactly mind it. He knew very well that his life, up to that point, had been very quiet and run-of-the-mill - some might even call it boring - but that was pretty much how he liked it.
He was a quiet kid for as long as he could remember. His mom would often tell stories of how different he and his younger sister were. While Emily was loud and restless as a kid, Jeremy was well-behaved and as quiet as a mouse.
“You could leave him in his room with his books and drawings and go out, and he wouldn’t move an inch! He’d be content to sit there for hours, reading and coloring,” Zara would say, always happy to share memories involving her children.
Even when he grew up and started school, and later high school, the boy remained quite introverted and shy - perhaps even more than before. Once he realized he was gay, he didn’t dare tell people about it and felt he needed to keep it a secret at all costs. The very thought of someone finding out he liked boys and outing him to the entire school or his parents - he wasn’t sure which was worse! - scared him to the bones. He even chose to hide some of his hobbies and interests - like baking - from his schoolmates, thinking he would expose himself. When they talked about video games in school, he made sure to only mention the fighting or racing games he was playing - those that his friends generally considered suitable for guys. On the other hand, games like cooking simulators, The Sims or home design games remained a guilty pleasure - to be enjoyed in private but never talked about.
Despite all this, Jeremy never really lacked friends. Throughout his entire childhood and adolescence, he always had at least one or two people he could count on. It was as if he had some kind of a friendly, peaceful aura around him that attracted people to him and made them want to be his friends.
One of such cases occurred when he was thirteen and went to a summer camp organized by his dad. On the very first day, a lively, black-haired boy named Alex approached him and introduced himself, looking for a pair. Before Jeremy could even realize what was happening, he had made a new friend! And now, ten years later, that same guy was his boyfriend.
It was sometimes difficult for the young baker to process how much his life had been changing lately. Not only did he have his own business, but also his first serious relationship - not counting the stint with his friend Natalie, which he was still ashamed of.
On top of all that, the last few weeks felt like one ordeal after another, to the point that he was feeling stressed out and genuinely concerned about his future. And as if the fire in his bakery wasn’t enough, his mother had returned.
The woman who just a few days prior had scorned him for coming out to her as gay, was now standing at the entrance to his bakery, looking utterly miserable and tired. Did she even sleep last night? - Jeremy wondered as he noticed her bloodshot eyes and messy hair, but he said nothing. Unsure of what to say to her, he stayed silent until Zara finally spoke, seeming to be on the verge of tears.
“Sweetie pie,” she half-whispered, looking at him pleadingly, “let me look at you.”
Hesitantly, the woman approached him and eyed him from head to toe before wrapping him into a hug, weeping as tears streamed down her face. It was so sudden that it startled Jeremy, but he didn’t react. His shoulders tense, the boy kept his arms firmly at his sides, unwilling to return the hug. A moment later, Zara let go and stepped back.
“I- I’m sorry, I just… I had to come and see you,” she said gently. “Are you ok, love?”
“I am,” Jeremy nodded, biting his lip. He realized why she was there. “So, I guess you heard about the fire?”
“Yes! Oh, I was worried sick! How did-”
“Was it Emily?” the boy asked, interrupting her.
“Yes, she told me on the phone. But don’t get mad at your sister. I could tell something was bothering her and I pressed until she told me what it was.”
“I’m not mad at her,” Jeremy replied, arranging the chairs around the tables - more to stay busy than because there was anything wrong with how they were.
“Darling, I… I have something I’d like to say. Would you listen to your stupid mother for a moment?” Zara asked.
Jeremy pushed the final chair under the table and stopped, looking over at his mom. Even though he was upset with her, he didn't want to torture her. It was best to let her speak her mind. He nodded silently and she continued.
“I’m so sorry for how I behaved. I regret every word I said that day, you have to know that. When Emily told me about the fire last night, I thought I’d have a heart attack. I wanted to call and come right away. If she hadn’t convinced me otherwise, I would have. I just wanted to see with my own eyes that my baby was safe! I couldn’t care less if you like boys or girls or whatever, as long as you’re safe and sound,” Zara explained, her hands trembling. “If I could go back and change things, I would in a heartbeat. I never would’ve left. You and Emily are everything to me.”
Jeremy looked at her with a strange mixture of sympathy and affection, her words hitting him hard. He wanted to believe her, pretend everything was fine between them and they could be a normal mother and son once again, but the pain of her rejection was still fresh in his mind and heart. He couldn't forget how much it hurt when she left that day, disappointed that she had a gay son. It was still too soon.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that, mom. I’m ok, see?”
Zara let out a brief chuckle as she wiped her tears with a paper tissue. “I see. You’re my handsome boy, you know that?”
It was all Jeremy could do at that moment not to start crying. He looked at the sandstone-colored tiles covering the floor of his bakery when his mother spoke again.
“Do you think you can forgive me?”
The young man drew a chair and sat down, his mom following suit a few moments later. Even though there was only a table dividing them, the distance between them felt much bigger.
“I would like to,” Jeremy finally spoke, trying to find the right words to express his doubts. “But you hurt me so much. And now you say you’re sorry, but maybe it’s only because you got scared. How do I know you won’t change your mind again?”
“I won't. You’re my baby and that will never change,” Zara said, letting out a deep sigh. After a brief silence, she spoke again. “I’ve been a bad mother, haven’t I, darling?”
It was only then that Jeremy got the strength to look up, his eyes locking onto his mother’s.
“I haven’t even forgiven myself, yet I’m asking you to forgive me,” she continued, chuckling without a trace of humor. “I left you as if you were a stranger to me. Alex was there for you, wasn’t he?” she asked gently.
Jeremy’s pale lips curled into a small smile as he thought of all the support he received from his boyfriend. Having Alex there made things so much easier to bear.
“Yes, he was.”
“I’ll have to thank him for taking care of you - if he’ll ever talk to me,” she said as she stood up, picking up her purse from the table. “Emily said she’d drop by to see you one of these days. She misses you a lot.”
“I miss her too, I can’t wait to see her again. But she’s doing great in college,” the boy replied, a proper smile lighting up his pretty face. His sister was one of his favorite people.
“Yes, she is. She’s going to be a brilliant teacher soon!” Zara confirmed proudly. “Before I go, can I… see what happened here? If you want to show me?”
“Of course,” Jeremy said, getting up and leading his mother to the kitchen. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. And no one was hurt.”
“Darling, you know I don’t have a lot of money saved, but whatever I have, it’s yours.”
“Thanks,” he replied as he opened the door, showing his mom the charred room, the stench of smoke still strong in the air. “Let’s hope I don’t need it.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad,” Alex said after Jeremy told him all about his mom’s visit the previous day.
The couple was sitting on the floor of Jeremy’s bedroom, their backs leaning on the bed. Even though they were trying to play Mortal Kombat, they didn't seem to be really focused on it - especially Alex, as Jeremy was beginning to notice.
“With the way she left things with you when you came out to her… I’m surprised she came to apologize. It’s a good sign, right?”
“I guess,” Jeremy replied. “It’s going to take more than a simple ‘I’m sorry’ to make things right. But still, I’m glad she apologized. Makes me feel like there’s some hope at least.”
“Of course. At least she’s trying, right?” Alex said, unusually quiet. Jeremy turned for a brief moment, glancing at his boyfriend. Why did he look so scared, the baker wondered.
With a rapid press of several buttons on his controller, Jeremy executed the final move to beat Alex in the match, bringing the final score to seven-zero for the baker. He exited the game and turned to face his boyfriend, his feet pressing against Alex’s thigh.
“Hey,” Jeremy spoke gently, drawing Alex’s attention.
Even though they haven’t been dating for a long time, he was getting rather good at guessing Alex’s moods and sensing when something was bothering the guy - and at that moment, it was clear to Jeremy that something was up. Not only was Alex playing horribly - he seemed weird from the moment he showed up.
“Do you not want to play anymore?” Alex asked, still holding the controller and pressing the buttons absentmindedly.
“Well, I lost count of how many fatalities I had against you. Seems like it’s not your day, huh?” the blond guy raised his eyebrows. “Is there something wrong? Something about my mom?”
“No, why would you think that?”
“Because you’ve been acting strange today. I can tell something’s on your mind. Wanna tell me what?”
Jeremy looked at him, hoping for some sort of explanation, but Alex looked down, avoiding his gaze. With every passing second, the blond guy was more and more certain that something was troubling Alex. Scooting even closer, he took him by the hand and squeezed, hoping to encourage him to open up. Finally, whatever invisible barrier that seemed to be holding Alex's thoughts and feelings inside gave in, and he let out the breath he was holding.
“Yeah, ok,” the black-haired boy lifted his head, staring blankly at the screen in front of him. “I guess there’s something I wanted to tell you, but it’s got nothing to do with your mom. It’s about me.”
“What’s going on? You’re not sick, are you?” Jeremy was scared for a moment. For as long as he’d known Alex, he’d never seen him that serious or anxious.
“No, nothing like that,” Alex replied, meeting his boyfriend’s gaze. “I should’ve told you this from the start, but I didn’t… Remember how I told you I took a break from college? Well, that wasn’t exactly true. I had to drop out. I was gonna finish the last semester abroad, but I spent all the money my parents gave me… on gambling.”
Jeremy found himself staring at Alex, unsure of how to react - should he laugh or be concerned? Out of all the reasons he could’ve imagined for Alex’s subdued behavior that day, that was among the least likely ones.
“You’re kidding, right?” he finally asked, but Alex only shook his head. “Oh. Well, how did that happen? I mean, do you-”
“Have a gambling problem?” Alex finished his boyfriend’s sentence. “At the time, it was all too much for me, I think. I was in a new country, a different continent, with all this money in my hands and nothing to do. Classes wouldn’t start for a few more weeks and I needed to kill some time. I was having fun. Back in high school, I used to bet on soccer matches with some guys from school. It was our thing, you know? A hobby. But back then we only had our pocket money to lose, so I never got into too much debt. This… this was something totally different. I ended up stuck in Paris; I didn’t even have enough money for a plane ticket back.”
“Alex, I… I don't even know what to say. I'm guessing that didn’t go over well with your parents?”
“Yeah, right,” Alex snorted. “They were pissed. And for good reason. Dad paid for my ticket back, got me a job at the car wash, took away my car… He’s even checking my bank account to make sure I don’t spend any more money. I agreed to everything. Otherwise, they would’ve sent me to rehab.”
Stunned, Jeremy sat next to his boyfriend and listened as words seemed to spill out of Alex’s mouth. It was a lot to take in.
“Wow, was that necessary? I mean, is it really that serious that you need professional help?”
Alex merely shrugged.
“Do you know why I decided to tell you this only now? Because of my sister. She found me at the bookie’s last night, where I was about to bet on some games. I wanted to make enough money to help you with the repairs.”
“Oh, Alex…” Jeremy sighed, looking at his boyfriend with worry. The last thing he wanted was to burden someone else with his problems, let alone get them in trouble. “You don’t ever have to-”
“That’s not all,” Alex continued, taking his phone and tapping on it. He then handed it to Jeremy, showing him the screen. “I also downloaded this stupid app. I haven’t actually gambled on it, but I can’t say I haven’t been tempted.”
“Ohh. That's…” the blond guy shook his head, struggling to find the right words to say. “I just wish you told me something sooner. You don’t have to hide this stuff from me, ok?”
“I wanted to, Jer, and I knew I should’ve, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t want you to think less of me,” Alex admitted. “You’re basically perfect - you’re amazing, sweet and kind, you have your own place and your own business. And me? I dropped out of college, still living with my parents and working at a car wash.”
“Alex, stop. I’m definitely not perfect - and my life is not perfect. I think we’ve all seen that by now,” Jeremy let out a soft chuckle. “And you’re not eighty. You have plenty of time to finish college and find another job. I hate it when you talk like that. I don’t want you putting yourself down. I just wish you didn’t hide things from me.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex said, looking up pleadingly at his boyfriend. “I’m sorry for lying and not telling you this sooner. I know you’ve got your plate full, what with the fire and your mom… The last thing I wanted was for you to worry about me too, but I couldn’t lie to you anymore. Can you forgive me?”
As Jeremy looked at the other guy’s crestfallen expression, he realized he wouldn’t be able to stay mad at him for long. After all, he understood better than anyone how it was to feel like you have to hide something from people closest to you. If it wasn’t for Alex, he probably would have still be pretending Natalie was his girlfriend just to appease his mom.
“I’m not happy about it,” the blond guy shook his head, “and I’m mad at you. Not for gambling, but for not telling me the truth. But I understand why you did it. But from now on, we tell each other stuff, ok? If you have a problem, tell me, whether it’s big or small.”
“Deal,” Alex said, offering his hand for Jeremy to shake.
“Deal,” Jeremy replied as they shook on it.
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a blur, with the two guys having lunch and playing a few rounds of Super Smash Bros. This time, however, Alex managed to snag a victory four out of six times. Never a sore loser, Jeremy took the losses in stride, especially after seeing that Alex’s mood had slightly improved - likely as a result of sharing the burden with his boyfriend.
Still, when the time came for the guys to part ways, Jeremy stopped Alex, needing to get another thing off his chest.
“Alex, before you go…”
“Yeah, what’s up?” the black-haired guy asked, stopping in front of the bakery door. Jeremy stood in front of him, taking him by the arm.
“With everything you told me today… I’m still worried about you. Will you please call a clinic and schedule a meeting with a counsellor? For me?”
“Alright,” Alex replied with no hesitation.
“Really? That easy?” Jeremy asked, surprised that he managed to convince him so quickly.
“Yeah, really. I guess, on some level, I knew I should’ve done it a while ago but I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to pretend that it wasn’t as serious as my parents thought, that I didn’t have a problem. But… Do you think you could come with me? Just the first time.”
“Like you even have to ask,” Jeremy said, taking Alex’s hand and lacing their fingers together. “Of course I’ll come with you.”