Now That You're Here - The College Years
Jason was over by the refreshment table, replaying over in his head what he had heard during the meeting, when Aiden approached him.
“I’m glad you made it back. I was wondering since I hadn’t heard from you.”
“Oh, I’m…um…sorry. I didn’t want to bother you, I guess. I know you said that I could call if I needed to talk, but I imagine you say that to everyone and then regret it when the phone rings,” Jason laughed nervously. “I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to some crazy guy moaning and groaning about how unfair life is.”
“Okay, first of all…you’re not crazy. You’re just trying to learn to deal with the bad hand that life dealt you. It’s not easy; I know from experience, remember? Besides, listening to people talk about their problems and fears is my job, and I take it very seriously. Secondly, I actually don’t say that to everybody. We have a 24 hour hotline service that we direct people to call if they need someone to listen between sessions. You’re the only one in the group that has my number aside from Gray and that’s because he’s been my best friend since college. Lastly, as sad as it is for me to admit this, I actually don’t have anything better to do. I’m between social lives right now.”
Jason wasn’t exactly sure what to make of what Aiden was saying, but his brain kept focusing on one specific admission. “Then why did you give me your number and tell me to call?”
“Truthfully? I’m not really sure,” Aiden admitted. “But in your best interest, I’m going to say it’s because you can’t be much older than I was when I was attacked. I know more than most what you’re feeling. I guess I feel drawn to you because of our similarities.”
“My best interest?”
“Well, since you are currently here in my group seeking help, it’s not appropriate to mention that I think you’re gorgeous and would like to get to know you better,” Aiden explained with a smile.
“Are you flirting with me?” Jason asked brazenly.
“As a matter of fact, I am. But don’t tell Grayson. He tends to be a wet blanket about these things,” Aiden teased. “Straight guys just don’t get it.”
“What don’t we get?” Grayson asked as he sidled up to Aiden. He extended his hand to Jason. “I saw you here last week, but didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Grayson, Aiden’s right hand man.”
“Jason,” Jason said as he shook Grayson’s hand.
“I was just telling Jason how happy I was that he decided to join us again. I’m also glad you decided to at least sit with us this time. Maybe next week you can share some of your story,” Aiden said with a smile.
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Jason admitted. “I’m still having a hard time talking about it to my family and friends. I doubt sharing it with a bunch of strangers is going to be easier.”
“Maybe not, but you’ll feel better after it’s over,” Aiden told him.
“But there’s no rush,” Grayson jumped in. “Everybody feels differently about the meetings. You don’t ever have to share. Just remember that we’re all here for you and want to help you regain your life. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork I have to finish up before heading home. It was nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Jason said as he watched Grayson walk away and then turned back to Aiden. “I should probably go. Steve’s waiting for me.”
“Steve again? Is he your boyfriend?”
“No, he’s just a friend,” Jason told him. “My…uh…my boyfriend goes to ASU so he’s only home on the weekends. We were there together, but then…”
“Oh my God, you’re the guy who was attacked on Arizona State’s campus a few weeks ago!” Aiden blurted out.
Jason blushed. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“I’m sorry,” Aiden said quickly. “That sounded horrible. I didn’t mean to just shout it out like that. I got my Bachelors from there and I’m in their online program working on my Master’s. I’m still in contact with several of the professors there as well as the Dean of Students. He called me right after it happened and suggested that I reach out to you. He knows my history and that I work with victims of violent crimes. Huh, I guess it really is a small world.”
“That’s Dr. Schultz, right? He came to see me in the hospital before I was released. He actually gave my mother your number and suggested that I call you, but I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone then.”
“Are you ready now?” Aiden asked, looking at Jason closely.
“I…I’m not sure. I know I have to, but I don’t know if I’m ready,” Jason admitted.
“Look, we can take it slow. You have my number. Call me. Sometime this week, pick up the phone and call. We’ll just talk, okay? It doesn’t necessarily have to be about the attack. We’ll just start talking and see how things go, okay? Think you can do that?”
Jason nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Good, then we can go from there. And remember, you can call me anytime you need to. I can tell by the dark circles under your eyes that you’re having trouble sleeping. I know how real the nightmares can be. If they get bad and you need to talk through them, call me. I really don’t mind.”
“But I don’t want to…”
“Wake me up? Don’t worry about it. I’m usually up pretty late most nights doing homework. I’m a night owl. I arranged my schedule so that I don’t have to start before noon.”
Jason looked at him skeptically, but didn’t push the issue. “Okay, I’ll call you if I need you.”
“No, you’re going to call me regardless, and call me in the middle of the night if you need me, remember?”
“Alright, then I’ll let you get out of here before Steve gives up and leaves you behind,” Aiden joked. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Yeah, um…thanks. I’ll call you.”
As soon as Jason was gone, Aiden went in search of Grayson. He found him in the office. “Hey, Jason’s the guy that was attacked on the ASU campus.”
“The one that Schultz called you about?”
“Yeah,” Aiden replied with a sigh. “And he’s got a boyfriend.”
“Aid, I thought we talked about this. Jason needs your help. He’s lost and looking for someone to help him through his recovery. Dating him is not an option,” Grayson pointed out.
“I know,” Aiden sighed. “That doesn’t mean that I wanted him to be spoken for. Although…after a violent crime, many relationships fall apart from the stress of recovery.”
Aiden gasped in horror. “Oh God, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“What the hell has gotten into you? I’ve known you for almost seven years and I’ve never seen you like this before. You’re breaking your own rules, you’ve been distracted and now this.”
“I know. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Ever since laying my eyes on Jason, I haven’t been able to think straight. I’ll be in the middle of something and bam, my mind wanders to him and those gorgeous brown eyes of his. Have you looked closely at them? They’re dark brown with little specks of gold in them. And those lips of his…so red and plump…they look so soft…”
“Oh Aid, what am I going to do with you.”
“I’m so screwed,” Aiden admitted softly. “I guess now’s as good a time as any to test my will power, huh? Because as long as he needs my help, I’ll have to keep my feelings to myself, no matter how hard it’s going to be.”
Zac pushed his chair back and sighed. “God, that was delicious.”
“Thanks,” Justin replied with a smile. “It’s the first time I’ve ever cooked a roast, but it was easy. I just threw everything into the crock pot before I left for classes this morning and by the time I got home it was ready.”
“My little Better Crocker,” Brian chuckled as he stood up from the table. “I’ll take care of the dishes.”
“Why don’t you let me do them?” Zac suggested as he stood up. “It’s the least I can do. You guys have me over here for dinner almost every night.”
“That doesn’t mean that you have to pay us back in slave labor. We’re already eating every night. One more dish doesn’t really matter,” Justin replied. “Besides, we like having you here. Without you, I’d be stuck here all alone with Brian while he watches his old movies.”
“Yeah,” Brian jumped in. “And I’d be stuck here watching Blondie color every night.”
Zac laughed. “Nice try, guys. I know you’d much rather be spending your time alone together. You just feel bad because you know how much I miss Jason, but it’s okay. I’ll survive.”
“Jason? Oh right, Jason. He’s your boyfriend, right? I almost forgot about him,” Justin teased.
“Oh that’s right,” Brian chimed in. “I forgot you were seeing someone.”
“Very funny. Look, I know that I’ve been pretty down the last couple of weeks. I miss Jason so much. But you don’t have to rearrange your life to fit me in. I’ll be fine. And it’s not like I’d be sitting all alone in my dorm room. I have a roommate, remember?”
“Yeah, but you can’t stand him, remember?” Brian pointed out. “Besides, we really do like having you here. There’s no need to worry about us. I’m still fucking Justin into the mattress every night. I just wait until you leave.”
“Brian!” Justin exclaimed in horror.
Zac couldn’t hold back his laughter. “Relax, Justin, I know Brian’s kidding.”
“Sure I am,” Brian laughed as he went into the kitchen.
“I swear, sometimes I just want to duct tape his mouth shut,” Justin said when Brian was out of earshot. He knew his face was a deep pink. Brian may have said what he did teasingly, but what he said wasn’t far off the mark, and he was sure Zac knew it. “So, how’s Jason doing? I haven’t talked to him in a few days.”
“Okay, I guess. He was going to that support group again tonight. I hate that he keeps shutting me out. I was going to drive down tonight, but he insisted that he wouldn’t be up for company afterwards and that it would be a waste when I could stay here and finish up any homework I have before the weekend.”
“I know it’s hard, but if he wants a little space, you have to give it to him. When Brian started therapy last year, it killed me to let him do it on his own, but it’s what he needed. He was emotionally exhausted after his sessions and I had to learn to let him be. Jason loves you. He’ll come to you when he needs you,” Justin assured him.
“I guess,” Zac sighed. “You know, it’s kind of ironic. We didn’t tell each other we loved each other until after the attack. You’d think that would have brought us closer together, but I’ve never felt so far away from him. Not even when we were living in different time zones.”
“It’ll get better. You’ve just got to be patient.”
“I know, that’s why I’m here and not half way to Sierra Vista. It’s just hard to be patient when I know he’s hurting.”
“I know, it’s hard for me, too. Last week I called him every day, but I could tell that he didn’t want to talk half the time. When I asked him about it, he said that he’s just distracted a lot and that it wasn’t personal. I get it. That’s why I haven’t talked to him since Monday. I called him for one of the guys in psych class. Apparently they had plans to work together on their final project and obviously they can’t do it now. Jason had forgotten but Craig wanted to touch base with him. He knew we were friends so I called Jason and passed Craig’s number along. He seemed to be in a good mood when we talked.”
“Yeah, he has his moments. We’re still talking every night. I just sometimes feel like he doesn’t want to, you know? I’m always the one calling him.”
“Then don’t be.” Justin laughed at the confused look on Zac’s face. “Don’t call him one night. See what happens? If he wants to talk to you, he’ll call. If he doesn’t, then you’ll be seen as the supportive boyfriend, giving him his space.”
Zac sighed again. “God, we’ve been talking every day for so long. I don’t know what to do if I don’t have him to talk to.”
“Trust me, you’ll survive. It’ll suck, but you’ll survive.”
“I guess so. This whole fucking thing sucks. I’d give anything to find the scumbag that did this to him and kill him.”
“Me too,” Brian added as he reentered the room. “Campus police say that the cops still have no leads on who did it.”
“You know, Brian…” Justin began.
“Don’t even go there, Blondie. As long as he’s on the loose, you’re not going anywhere on campus alone.”
Justin waited until Brian went back to the kitchen and turned to Zac. “He keeps treating me like a child. I’m not allowed to go anywhere alone, but he walks around by himself all the time. It’s hypocritical and makes me feel like the little woman.”
“He just wants you to be safe.”
“I know, and I understand that, but what about him? Why is it okay if he’s alone? I worry about him, too. Technically none of us are safe.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Zac agreed.
Justin looked towards the kitchen to make sure that Brian wasn’t coming and then lowered his voice. “Zac, can I ask you something? About Brian?”
“Sure, what’s up?” Zac asked curiously.
“I know that you and Brian were…close,” Justin began as he signaled Zac and moved them into the living room.
“Um…yeah…we had our moments. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“No, of course not. Brian and I discussed it when we first got together. I have no problem with your past,” Justin told him. “I was kind of wondering if you ever noticed that Brian is oblivious to his self worth.”
“His self worth? Justin, I may be a college student but you’re going to have to dumb it down a little for me.”
“And I can’t wait for Oz the Great and Powerful to hit the theaters. I heard they’re looking for a spring release date,” Justin replied.
“Huh?” Zac asked in confusion.
“Me neither,” Brian called as he grabbed the last of the dishes off the table. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Justin smiled at him and waited until his boyfriend was back in the kitchen. “Sorry about that. I don’t want him to hear us. Anyway, he and I were having a conversation the other day about the rapist and how I should never be alone on campus and when I suggested that he was beautiful and in just as much danger, if not more, he scoffed at me. He doesn’t see what the rest of the world sees.”
“You mean his stunning good looks?”
“Exactly. He called himself ordinary…said he was nothing spectacular.”
“Is he out of his mind? Hasn’t he ever looked in a mirror?” Zac asked incredulously.
“I know, that’s what I said. I’m kind of worried about him. He seemed so…I don’t know…weird I guess while we were talking about it. He would barely look me in the eye. I don’t know what to do, but I feel like I shouldn’t ignore it. Have you ever noticed anything?”
Zac took a moment to think about it. “Not really, but then again we’re just friends. Anything more was just…well, sex. Have you tried talking to Dane? They had more of a relationship.”
“No, I don’t really want to make a big deal of it, you know? If Brian finds out I’m talking to you about this, he’ll probably kill me, but I need to talk to someone. Usually I’d go to Jason or Matt, but they both have a lot going on right now. I just…I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I have no experience in these types of things,” Zac said. “Oh hey, why don’t you call Jason’s mom? She’s a professional. Maybe she can give you some ideas on what to do? You guys are close, right?”
“Yeah, maybe I’ll do that. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I’m worried about him, you know?”
“Yeah. I’m surprised that his therapist hasn’t picked up on this.”
“She might have. I don’t know what they talk about during their sessions. Brian and I don’t talk about it. I just want to do whatever I can to help.”
“Well you love him. I’m sure that goes a long way,” Zac said. “Sorry I could be more help, but you’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay, dishes are done,” Brian said as he joined Justin and Zac in the living room. “Movie?”
“I think I’m gonna bail. I have a little homework and I want to get it done before I head home tomorrow. Are you guys going home?”
“Yeah, we’re leaving after my morning class. We can’t make it next weekend so we definitely want to go tomorrow,” Brian told him.
“Cool, then I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Once Zac was gone, Justin and Brian changed into sweats and then curled up on the couch, ready to watch a movie. Justin was getting ready to hit the play button on the remote when Brian stopped him.
“You’re not really going to call Mrs. Meyers, are you?”
Justin froze in fear. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your little crusade to fix me,” Brian chuckled. He really wasn’t angry that Justin went behind his back and talked to Zac, but he didn’t want him to go any further. “Look, babe, I know I have a lot of issues. That’s why I’m still seeing Megan once a month. And believe it or not, she knows I have issues, too. I love you more than anyone else on this earth and I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need you to try and save the day. I’m fine, okay?”
“No buts,” Brian insisted. “Please, I’m asking you to leave it alone. I’m not mad that you talked to Zac behind my back, but I will be mad if you don’t drop it now.”
“Bri, I know you don’t want me to get involved in your personal business, but I love you, too and I hate sitting by and watching while you struggle with this stuff. You can’t tell me you’d sit back if I was the one struggling.”
“This is a perfect case of do as I say, not as I do.” Brian smiled at the look Justin gave him. “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t sit back if it was you, but that’s what I’m asking you to do. I may be struggling a little bit, but I’m not in distress. I’m not on the verge of a breakdown. I’m not in any danger. You just have to let it go. Alright?”
Justin sighed as he snuggled up against Brian. “I’ll try, but it’s not going to be easy. And I’m not going to stop telling you how beautiful and amazing you are. Maybe one of these days you’ll actually believe it.”
Brian kissed the top of Justin’s head. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we skip the movie and you can show me how amazing I am by letting me rock your world?”
Justin’s stomach dropped as his body immediately responded to his boyfriend’s charm. “Fine, but I’m not sure what the purpose will be. The bedroom is the only place on earth where you feel completely confident.”
“Exactly. My theory is that if we spend most of our time in bed, my confidence is bound to leak over into other areas of my life, right?”
Justin laughed. “You don’t have a theory. You’re just a sex fiend trying to get laid as often as possible.”
“Are you complaining?”
Justin pretended to think for a moment. “Not at all. Let’s go, beautiful. Last one there gives the first blow job.”
“Thanks a lot. Now I don’t know whether to run or take my time. It’s a win-win.”
Justin agreed so together they walked hand in hand to the bedroom. Justin didn’t like Brian’s insistence that he back off, but he would do it. He just hoped that Megan would eventually be able to get through to Brian. He hoped that one day Brian would be able to see all the wonderful things that everyone else sees when they look at him. And Justin hoped that Jack and Joan Kinney rotted in hell for what they did to their children.
Dane was lying on his bed in the dark enjoying the peace and quiet. He felt a minor stirring in his bladder but didn’t dare move for fear of waking up Julia, who was sleeping alongside of him. She had woken up soon after she had fallen asleep and Sandy wasn’t home. She had gone out for a girls’ night out, leaving Dane in charge of his daughter. He didn’t mind. He loved spending time with his precious little girl. He just hated when he didn’t know why she was crying. He walked her all through the house, trying not to lose his cool at his mother’s constant interference and then finally decided to take her into his bedroom to hide out. He loved his mother and was thankful for all her help, but he didn’t like when she tried to take charge of Julia as if he was incompetent. He wasn’t. He was a very capable father, much to his amazement. He wasn’t sure he would be, considering that he was only eighteen and the baby of his family. He had no experience when it came to caring for a baby, but he learned quickly thanks to his daughter’s mother and was now very proud of himself. She had finally fallen back to sleep about twenty minutes earlier, but he’d been afraid to move her. As he lay there thinking about whatever popped into his head, his phone rang, startling him out of his thoughts. He reached for it quickly, not wanting to wake Julia.
“Hello?” he whispered.
“Hey, Michael, hang on for a second.” Moving carefully so he didn’t disturb Julia, Dane climbed out of bed and went to the other side of the room, throwing himself down on his old beanbag chair. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Are you busy? You sound funny.”
“No, I was just lying here thinking. Julia was asleep next to me so I was trying not to wake her,” Dane explained. “How are you?”
“I’m not sure. That depends on what your plans are for the weekend.”
“My plans? I don’t really have any. I was hoping to see you for a little bit, but otherwise I was just planning on spending some time with my daughter and studying. Why, what’s going on?”
“Maddie and I got into a huge fight earlier. She’s pissed at me because I refuse to take a family vacation this year during winter break. Of course, she doesn’t know that I’m planning on moving out. I left before things got too heated and went to my parents’ house for dinner. When I got back, I found a note from her. She took the kids to her parents’ house in Sedona for the weekend. She won’t be back until Sunday night. I was hoping you’d spend the weekend with me.”
Dane smiled. “You want to spend the weekend with me?”
“Yeah, I thought it would be nice to wake up next to you.”
“That sounds great. At our hotel?”
“No, I thought you could come here,” Michael said. When he sensed Dane’s hesitation, he continued. “We have an apartment over the garage that we use when we have out of town family visiting; a detached garage. I figured we’d stay there. I’m not that much of an ass. I would never bring you into mine and Maddie’s bed.”
“Oh, okay. Well, that sounds great, except I wouldn’t be able to come until sometime tomorrow afternoon. Sandy’s out with the girls and won’t be home until tomorrow. I’ve got Julia with me. I could ask my mother to watch her, but I hate doing that.”
Michael didn’t hesitate. “Bring her with you.”
“Bring Julia with you. We have a portable crib in the apartment from when my nieces and nephews were young. Just pack up some baby food and diapers and whatever else you’ll need for her and you’ll be set.”
Dane was skeptical. “Are you sure? I somehow doubt that having a baby with us was what you had in mind when called me.”
“Of course I’m sure,” Michael replied honestly. “All I want to do is spend time with you. I don’t mind having to share you with Julia. I love children. I have two of my own, remember?”
“I know but…”
“It’ll be fine, I promise. Just send Sandy a text with the address and tell her to come by here when she’s done tomorrow.” When he still heard hesitation on the other end of the line, a sudden thought popped into his head. “Unless you don’t want to spend the weekend with me.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that…well; Sandy doesn’t know that I’m seeing anyone. It would be kind of weird if I just took Julia to some stranger’s house, don’t you think?”
“But I’m not a stranger. Dane, we’ve been seeing each other for almost two months. How come she doesn’t know about me? Does anyone know about me?” Michael asked hesitantly.
“No,” Dane admitted softly. “Well, Chris knows about you…which means that he told Zan. I told you I talked to him the last time you blew me off, but no one else knows.”
“I see,” Michael whispered. “You know, how about if we forget the invitation and I’ll see you on Monday.”
“No, really. It’s okay. I’ve got a lot of things to do around here, anyway.”
“What the hell was I supposed to say to everyone?” Dane yelled, but he quickly lowered his voice so he didn’t wake Julia up. “Hey, I’ve got this really hot professor. We started out just sleeping together, but I think I’m falling in love with him. Oh, he’s also married with two children and I’ve become a home wrecker. Wanna catch a movie?”
“No…seriously, Michael. What was I supposed to tell everyone? Our relationship is supposed to be a secret, remember? How many people have you told about me?”
“None, but that’s different. No one knows I’m gay,” Michael replied in his defense. “I just thought you’d tell your closest friends; or at least the mother of your child.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Dane sighed. “I’ve been really happy the last couple of months and I didn’t want anyone ruining that. The last thing I wanted was to listen to everyone telling me how wrong it was for us to be together.”
Michael was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m always so worried about things on my end that I forget the awkward position our relationship puts you in.”
“It’s okay. It’s just…I want everyone to know about you…about us. I hate that my closest friends don’t know that there’s someone important in my life. I just really don’t want the lectures about how what we’re doing is wrong and that we should end it before anyone gets hurt, and I know that’s exactly what they’d say. Hell, it’s what I’d tell them if one of them was in our situation.”
“I know, I’d probably tell my friends the same thing,” Michael chuckled humorlessly. “Well, it’s almost over. Christmas is in less than three weeks. I’ll be telling Maddie soon after that. My plan is to spend New Year's with you. All I can think about is kissing you when the ball drops.”
“New Year's? Don’t you think that’s a little soon?”
“Soon? I’ve been waiting for months to be able to be with you.”
“I know, I just meant a little soon after Christmas. I kind of thought you’d wait until the end of the girls’ winter break. You know, so they can enjoy their vacation.”
“I thought about it, but then I realized that maybe doing it during their vacation would be better. I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to tell them or how they’re going to take it. At least if they were on vacation they wouldn’t have to try and sit through a class while their minds are elsewhere. Well, Shana’s mind. I’m pretty sure Courtney won’t be as affected. She’s only five,” Michael said. “Christmas is on a Tuesday. I plan on moving out that weekend.”
“Michael…” Dane began.
When Dane didn’t finish his thought, Michael prodded. “What's on your mind?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t do this right now. I mean, we’ve been managing for two months now and it hasn’t been that bad.”
“It hasn’t been that bad? You broke up with me because we don’t spend enough time together. The only thing that got you to reconsider is my promise to leave Maddie. Now you’re saying that it hasn’t been that bad?”
“Yeah, I mean…I don’t know what I mean.”
“Look, Dane, I know you feel bad about my leaving Maddie and the girls, but it’s something I have to do. Being with you might have made me realize it a little sooner than if you hadn’t walked into my classroom back in September, but it’s not what’s ending my marriage. Being gay is what’s ending my marriage. I never should have allowed myself to be bullied into marrying Maddie in the first place, and although I’ll never regret it because it added Courtney and Shana to my life, our marriage is nothing but a huge lie. I deserve better than to spend my life in a sham of a marriage and Maddie sure as hell deserves someone better than me. Maybe after this, she can find someone who loves her the way she was meant to be loved.” Michael’s voice cracked.
Dane spoke up. “I’m sure she will. You did.”
Michael smiled to himself. “I did, didn’t I? I love you, too.”
“Hey, hang on a second. I’ll be right back.”
Michael listened to silence for a few moments while he thought about what he had said to Dane. It was true. Maddie was a great woman and she deserved to find someone who could love her the way she needs to be loved. As scared as he was thinking about actually telling her it was over, he knew it was the right thing to do for everybody involved.
“Okay, how about this?” Dane said when he returned. “I’m going to put Julia back in her crib and my mother is going to listen for her for awhile. She’ll probably sleep through the night anyway. I’ll head over and hang for a couple of hours, but then come back here to sleep. Tomorrow when Sandy gets home, I’ll come over and spend the rest of the weekend with you. Right after I tell her all about the guy I’m in love with.”
“That sounds just about perfect.”
“Cool. I’ll see you soon. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Dane hung up the phone and looked over at his sleeping daughter with a smile. After everything that happened to him in the last couple of years, he never imagined himself being as happy as he was. Thank God his father had forgotten his wallet on that horrible day. He shuttered to think about how he had almost missed ever knowing Julia and Michael. Life was good.
He couldn’t breathe. Someone was sitting on his chest. There was pain everywhere and as hard as he was struggling, he couldn’t break free. He tried to scream, but there was a hand covering his mouth, making it impossible to make a sound. He was going to die, if not at the hands of his attacker, then from his rapidly beating heart and the lack of oxygen. Everything was going gray around him as his life flashed before his eyes and then…
Jason woke with a start, gasping for breath. It took him a moment to get his bearings and realize that he was safe and sound in Chris and Zan’s house. He was drenched in sweat and he was shaking so hard his teeth were chattering. It had felt so real. He kept telling himself that it was a dream, but it had felt so real. It was like living through his attack all over again. He climbed out of bed and went to the bathroom, barely adjusting the water in the shower before stripping down and jumping in. The warm water helped to clear his fuzzy mind as he grabbed the soap and began to scrub away the sweat and lingering fear.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there before the water turned cold and he had to get out. He wrapped himself in a towel and went back to his room. After drying off and dressing in clean sweats, he curled back up on his bed and glanced at the clock. It was only three in the morning. He still had hours to go until the rest of the world woke up. Hours until he could have some kind of human contact to help chase away his overwhelming fear. He knew he could wake up Zan, but he didn’t want to do that. Between Sophia and the bookstore, the older man worked hard every day. He deserved to get a good night sleep.
He could call Zac. He was home for the weekend and only a few blocks away. He knew his boyfriend wouldn’t think twice about taking his call in the middle of the night. He’d probably head right over since he didn’t appear to be too happy about getting sent home to sleep a few hours earlier. But he didn’t want to call Zac. He couldn’t explain why, but talking to Zac about anything related to the attack just made him feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t anything that Zac had done. He’d been nothing but supportive since the beginning. Jason wasn’t sure what it was that made him pull away from the guy he loved, but whatever the reason, it prevented him from placing the call.
His mind flashed to Aiden. He had made Jason promise to call if he needed to. He had assured Jason that he kept late nights. Was it possible that he was still awake? Jason didn’t want to disturb him, but hadn’t he insisted that it wouldn’t be a problem? Jason climbed from his bed and went to the dresser, digging in the top drawer until he found the card Aiden had given him. Without giving it anymore thought, he grabbed his phone and dialed the number, his heart racing as he waited to hear the other man’s voice.
“Hey,” Jason's voice was raspy and barely audible. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hey. It’s Jason. I’m sorry to call so late.”
“It’s okay,” Aiden assured him quickly. “I told you to call anytime. I’d ask how you are but considering it’s the middle of the night, I’m assuming you’re not doing so well.”
“No…it’s these dreams…”
“They seem pretty real, don’t they?” Aiden finished for him. “Do you want to talk about it? Tell me about the dream?”
“Um…no…I don’t think…” Jason trailed off.
Aiden could hear the desperation in Jason’s voice and wished he could do something to end his suffering, but experience taught him that victims need time to heal. All he could do was offer a shoulder to cry on when needed. “Do you want to go grab a cup of coffee? I can swing by and pick you up.”
“Um…I don’t know. I don’t really like…I mean…it’s hard for me too…”
“Hey,” Aiden said, stopping Jason from his rambling. “There’s a diner not too far from the center. It’s got a great table back in the corner that gives you a view of the entire place, including the door. It’s also almost empty at this time of day so it’s not like there will be a crowd.”
Jason chuckled humorlessly. “Wow, how do you know what I’m thinking before I even say it?”
“I was in your place before, remember? I grew up a few blocks away from the center. I spent many, many sleepless nights in that diner. Unfortunately I spent them in there alone because I didn’t have someone like me on my side. So, shall I pick you up?”
Jason only hesitated a moment. “Yeah, okay. I’ll…uh…I’ll text you my address. I’m staying in a development called Fawn Lakes. Do you know where it is?”
“Yeah, I’ve been there before. Text me the address and I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Alright. Thanks Aiden.”
“No need to thank me. I want to help,” Aiden assured him. “See you soon.”
Jason sent Aiden the address and then considered getting dressed before changing his mind. At three in the morning, he doubted he’d be criticized for being in sweats. Instead he fixed his hair and threw on his sneakers before heading into the kitchen. He scribbled a quick note to whoever woke up first, letting them know that he needed to get out but that he was fine and would be back soon. Then he went outside and waited for Aiden. He was starting to feel a little foolish for dragging a practical stranger out of bed in the middle of the night, but it was too late to change his mind. Aiden had to be at least halfway there. He’d just have to find a way to thank Aiden for being there and make sure he never allowed himself to use his number again. He needed to put his life back together and dragging others into his drama wasn’t the way to do it. He’d find a way to get past the attack on his own. Aiden had done it. He’d find a way to do it, too.
The ride to the diner was made in almost complete silence. Jason didn’t know what to say and Aiden seemed to want to give him some space. As soon as they walked through the door, a loud mouth waitress called out to them from behind the counter.
“Hey, Aiden honey, how’re you doing? Go ahead and take your booth. I’ll be with you boys in a minute.”
“Thanks, Leona,” Aiden called back as he led Jason to the corner booth. He slid in on the left side, giving Jason the side with the view of the door.
“Come here often?” Jason teased as he took his seat.
“I told you I don’t sleep much at night. I also told you I used to come here a lot after the attack. I was alone so the staff took pity on me. Leona’s my favorite. Works five or six nights a week and has been since before we were born. She was like a gift from God for me when I first started coming in here,” Aiden explained.
“Does she know…?”
“About what happened to me? Yeah, she does. After coming in a few weeks in a row, she made the mistake of asking me what I was doing lurking around the neighborhood in the middle of the night. I had a complete breakdown and told her everything as I cried on her shoulder. We bonded immediately after that. She’s like a second mother to me. I keep asking her to marry me, but she refuses.”
“I told you, boy, no way in hell I’m going to saddle myself with someone who likes the pretty boys more than me,” Leona said as she approached the table with a smile and a pot of coffee. “Who you got here?”
“Leona, this is Jason. He’s a new friend of mine,” Aiden said. “Jason, this beautiful woman is Leona Phillips. The best waitress in Arizona.”
“Beautiful, my ass. I’m old enough to be your grandma,” Leona spat affectionately. “Nice to meet you, Jason. Watch out for this one. He’s a silver tongued devil. Now, what can I get for you boys?”
“What did you whip up tonight?” Aiden asked before turning to Jason. “You hungry?”
“Not really,” Jason replied softly.
“It was kind of busy tonight so I only made it as far as cherry,” Leona answered.
“Alright, bring us an extra large piece and two forks,” Aiden said as he flipped over his coffee cup. He waited until Leona filled both their cups and left to get their order before focusing his attention back on Jason. “Leona is an amazing baker. She plays around in the kitchen during the slow hours. She makes the best pies. You have to try her cherry pie. If I was forced to choose, I’d have to say it’s my favorite.”
“She seems really great,” Jason said.
“She is. I make it a point to come in at least once or twice a week after her shift starts to say hello. She’s been a lifesaver to me through the years.”
“Will she…um…know about me? I mean, do you bring other people here often?” Jason asked tentatively.
“No, the only person I’ve ever brought here is Grayson. I told you, I don’t make it a habit of extending my services outside of the center. It’s easier that way. I come into contact with a lot of people. I’d love to be there for all of them, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. I have over twenty people who come in for my Thursday night meetings alone. I do three different meetings a week and I also do regular seminars at various locations throughout the state. That’s an awful lot of people to have my phone number for emergencies. Add in the people I counsel privately and I would never have a moment to myself. There are several 24 hour services throughout the state that a person can call if they need someone to talk to between meetings. As far as she knows, you’re just a friend. Well, she might be jumping to conclusions and assume we’re on a date. She’s been harassing me for years to get out there and meet someone. Nosey old busybody.” Aiden said the last part louder as he saw Leona approaching with their pie.
“Watch it, young man. You’re not too old for a smack upside the head,” Leona teased.
“You’d never do that to me,” Aiden replied confidently. “You love me too much to risk hurting me.”
Leona looked at Jason. “See? Silver tongued. You boys holler if you need anything else. I’ll be in the back finishing up the pies.”
Aiden smiled as he watched her walk away. “She really is amazing.”
Jason watched as Aiden grabbed his fork and took a bite of the pie, his eyes rolling as he hummed his approval. Deciding he had to know what he was experiencing, Jason grabbed his own fork and took a bite. “Wow, that really is good.”
“I told you,” Aiden said smugly.
They talked about school and their professors while they shared their pie. Aiden told Jason what professors he should seek out for future classes and what professors to avoid. When the pie was gone and they’d been sitting there for almost a half hour, Aiden turned the subject to Jason’s attack.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“You already know the details, don’t you? I’m sure Dr. Schultz told you what happened,” Jason snapped.
“No, actually Dr. Schultz just told me that you were attacked on campus. I don’t know any of the details, but I sense you don’t want to talk about them.”
“I’m sorry. You’re being really great coming out in the middle of the night to help me. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I’m just so tired of thinking about it, you know? In my dream…it was like it was happening all over again. It felt so real.”
“It’s okay. I know how it feels to relive it over and over again. To be perfectly honest with you, I still have the occasional nightmare, although it’s very rare and usually when I’m really stressed over something. Luckily I don’t have the same reaction to them now. I promise it’ll get better. It just takes time,” Aiden said. “But I won’t push you to talk about it tonight if you’re not up to it. What would you like to talk about?”
“Can we talk about you?” Jason asked. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I know you’re the psychologist and your life is none of my business. I’m just curious. You seem so together. I can’t imagine ever feeling like that again.”
“Trust me, it’ll happen. It just takes time. It took me about six months before I could talk about it without breaking down and a couple years before I could sleep through the night without waking up in a panic, but not everyone follows the same time frame. Each case is different. Each attack is different. Mine was…well, it was pretty bad.”
Jason could see a change in Aiden and suddenly felt bad for asking him to relive such a horrible experience. “Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to talk about it. Forget I asked.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m fine. It’s still hard to think about, but I don’t mind talking about it if it can help someone else. Honestly,” Aiden told him. “It was during the spring of my junior year in high school and life was going pretty well. I had a 4.0 GPA and was working on deciding what schools I wanted to apply to. I had come out to my parents’ right after Christmas and they were wonderful. I was seeing someone and he was out and proud so it gave me the courage to be out, too. It was good. We were good. Christian was so great. We were planning on going to the same school and living together. I guess maybe we were a little naive in thinking that we were going to live happily ever after, but that’s what we believed.”
Jason could see the sadness in Aiden’s eyes and reached out to take his hand. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Anyway, obviously Christian and I were going to the junior prom together. We were out at school and never had any issues so we figured we’d be safe. I guess we were wrong. During the dance, we got separated. I think Christian had to go to the bathroom or something. I don’t really remember. All I do remember is that one of the football jocks came to me and told me that I needed to go outside. He said that Christian was in trouble. I followed him out, never once thinking that I was in danger. The jock led me to the back of the building where his buddies had Christian on the ground and they were kicking him over and over again. The sounds he was making…I still hear them sometimes. I tried to get to him, but I was grabbed from behind by a couple of guys and then they started in on me. I can remember feeling their fists and their feet as they threw every derogatory word at us. The pain…I didn’t think it could get any worse, but then it did. I had already been beaten pretty badly when I heard one of them say…hold him down. I wanna have some fun. He’ll probably love it…I wasn’t sure what he was talking about until I was forced on my stomach and felt my pants being ripped off. The pain was excruciating. I’m not sure how many of them…took turns. It’s all a big blur. I just know that headlights appeared out of nowhere and scared them away. I dragged myself over to where Christian was and started screaming for help. Whoever caused the headlights heard my screams and found us. He went and got help, but it was too late for Christian. He died in my arms before the paramedics got there.”
“Oh my God, Aiden,” Jason said as he tightened his grip on Aiden’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“You know, earlier that day I had felt this weird sense that something bad was going to happen. I couldn’t explain it, but for some reason I didn’t want to go that night. I told Christian that and he laughed at me and insisted that we go. I was really angry at him for awhile afterwards. Like it was his fault that we got attacked and he died. Then I started feeling guilty for being angry, but it’s a common feeling among survivors. Anyway, my injuries were pretty bad. I had some internal bleeding and had to be taken right into surgery. I would’ve missed Christian’s funeral if his parents hadn’t cared enough to delay it a couple of days. As it was, my parents had to sign a release to get me out of the hospital in time. Christian’s parents have a lot of money. They paid for a nurse to bring me to the cemetery and then stay with me at my house until I was well enough to be without round the clock medical care. I’ll never be able to thank them for that. Here they were, burying their only child and they were worried about me.”
“That was so great of them. They sound like wonderful people. How horrible it must have been for them to lose their only child,” Jason said.
“It was. The Young’s were devastated after Chris died. They would come and visit me regularly, but you could tell that they were emotionally empty inside. I felt so bad for them, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I was still so wrapped up in my own grief and pain, you know?”
“How are they now? Are you still in contact with them?”
“Actually, they’re okay now. Christian’s father got home after work one night and found his wife unconscious on the floor next to an empty bottle of pills that her doctor had prescribed to help her sleep. They had to pump her stomach. It was a wake-up call for both of them. They sought out therapy and eventually learned how to live without their son. Since then they have become gay rights advocates and spend most of their time and a lot of their money helping to promote acceptance. They’re actually the founders of the center. They opened it right after I graduated from ASU. I’ve been running it for them ever since. They pop in from time to time, but they trust me to do what needs to be done. We started out small, but we’re going every year and I’m very excited about where the future will take us.
“The Christian Young Center.” Jason remembered the sign.
“That was their idea, but I’m sure Christian would be proud of what they’ve done since his death. They help so many people and it gave them a purpose in life. I’m proud just being a part of it.”
“Wow Aiden, that’s some story.”
“It is. It’s also proof that you can and will overcome what happened to you and move on. I won’t say that my life is perfect. It’s not. I haven’t had a real relationship since Chris. Any time I even begin to get close to someone, I imagine losing them and I don’t want to even bother. Gray thinks I just haven’t met the right guy yet. He says that once I do, my feelings for them will outweigh my fear of losing them. I hope he’s right, but we’ll see.”
“And the assholes that did this to you?”
“Two of them are still in jail. Every time they go up for parole, the Young’s and I contact the court and fight for them to stay behind bars where they belong. The others have all been released. I’m not really sure how the verdicts came down and how each one was charged. I was a minor and really messed up back then so I didn’t have to testify. My parents wouldn’t let me go to the trial. As far as I know, they somehow pieced their stories together and concluded that the two still in jail were the only ones responsible for killing Chris, which is why they’re still in there. The other charges weren’t as severe. Apparently you can beat and rape a fag, you just can’t kill them.”
Jason wasn’t surprised by the bitterness in Aiden’s voice. He was surprised to find that he was still holding Aiden’s hand, but he didn’t pull away. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” Aiden said as he pulled himself back to the present. “So anyway, that’s my story. One of these days it’s going to be your turn.”
“I know,” Jason sighed, knowing a topic change when he heard one. “I know I have to talk about it, and I will. Just not now, alright?”
They sat there for quite awhile longer, until the sun started coming up and the diner started filling up.
“I’d better get you home,” Aiden said.
“I’m so sorry I kept you out so late. I’m sorry I dragged you out at all.”
“Hey, no apologizing. I told you I want to help and I meant it. Besides, I never need much of a push to come in and enjoy Leona’s pie,” Aiden chuckled before turning serious. “We can do this every night if you need to. You’re what, nineteen?”
“Not for another few months,” Jason admitted.
“You’re so young, just like I was. It’s harder I think, when something like this happens to someone who hasn’t even lived their life yet. Let me help you through this.”
Jason looked at Aiden closely before replying. “Can I ask you something?”
“Is there any chance that you’re determined to help me because you feel like saving me could help make up for not being able to save Christian?”
“I…uh…” Aiden paused as he thought about what Jason had asked. “Wow, you’re pretty good. Truthfully, I never thought about it, but that could be a part of it. I guess I’ll have to do a little soul searching and figure it out.”
“Okay, one more question…how much of your desire to help is based on your attraction to me?”
“Probably about 60/40.” Aiden laughed at the shocked look on Jason’s face. “Relax, I was teasing you. I’m a psychologist and I’m dedicating my life to helping victims of violent crimes. I want to help you because I think you need my help. Actually, if I was just trying to get into your pants, I wouldn’t be offering my help because it’s not really ethical to sleep with someone you’re counseling, even if it’s not in an official capacity.”
“Oh…um…okay,” Jason stammered, suddenly feeling foolish. He was sure after the comment Aiden made at the last meeting, that the older man was attracted to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…I wasn’t implying that…”
“Jason, there’s no need to be embarrassed. I am attracted to you. I made that clear at the meeting, remember? In fact, I’m very attracted to you. I just wanted you to know that my attraction to you caused me to notice you, but I want to help you because I think I can. Besides, you have a boyfriend at ASU, right?”
“Um…yeah…yeah, I do. Zac. He’s really great. He’s been so supportive through this,” Jason told him.
“Good, it’s good to have people to support you,” Aiden said. “But can I ask you something?”
“Any chance that you’re attracted to me, too?” Aiden asked boldly.
“Maybe,” Jason replied shyly.
“Just curious,” Aiden smiled as he signaled to Leona, who had just come out of the back. “Can we have our check?”
“I’ll meet you at the register, honey,” Leona called back.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Jason made it home before anyone woke up and threw out his note before making it down to his room. His mind was racing with everything he had learned in his time with Aiden and he worried that he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, but he worried for nothing. He was asleep the second his head hit the pillow with a small smile on his face.
End of part 13
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