Now That You're Here - The College Years
Christmas morning was better than Justin ever expected. Having a nine year old girl in the house really amped up the excitement. Sadly, she didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. Living with a drug addicted mother had killed any thoughts of magic, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know how to get into the holiday spirit. Her squeals of delight at every opened gift proved that Christmas past hadn’t put a damper on her fun.
Chris and Zander seemed really pleased with their gift, too. Brian and Justin had decided to give up their New Year’s Eve plans in favor of giving their guardians a special trip. Brian didn’t even argue too much when Justin insisted on springing for their plane tickets to San Francisco. They’d be leaving on the 29th and returning on January 2nd. They really needed the time away and Sophia was going to be very well taken care of while they were gone.
And as usual for the holiday, everyone started showing up at the Kinney/Morgan/Taylor house in the early afternoon. Matt was the first to arrive and Justin was ready to give him hell the minute he walked in.
“Where the hell have you been? You were supposed to be here yesterday, remember? And I don’t even get a phone call? Just a text saying that you were busy and would see me today? Really?”
Matt looked around the room for some kind of support, but everyone seemed to be purposely ignoring them. “Sorry. On Sunday my uncles somehow managed to talk my grandmother into moving to Sierra Vista. We all met at her condo yesterday to start packing before she could change her mind. I was gonna call you when I got home last night, but I was so exhausted, I passed out the minute my head hit the pillow. Forgive me?”
“Your grandmother actually agreed to move here?” Justin asked incredulously. He didn’t know the older woman that well, but he knew she was extremely stubborn when she wanted to be.
“Yep,” Matt gleamed. “She won’t move in with us, but she agreed to one of those assisted living apartments across town. My dad had arranged to buy one two weeks ago, but he needed her agreement to finish the sale. She’s going to be staying with us until she can move in. We put her stuff in a storage unit. Now do you forgive me?”
Justin laughed. “You know I do, dumb ass. But you could’ve called me at some point.”
“I know, it just felt so good to be with everyone, you know? My dad, my uncles, Mark,” Matt explained. He looked around to make sure no one was listening to them and then added. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when everyone finds out about me. I wanted to enjoy being with my family one more time in case it was the last time.”
“Oh Matt,” Justin said as he hugged his friend. “It won’t be the last time.”
“You don’t know that, but it’s okay. I’m setting myself up for the worst to happen. If it doesn’t, then that’s great, but I want to be prepared.”
“I’m sure it’ll all work out,” Justin assured him, hoping that he was right. He led Matt off to a private corner. “So how was your Christmas with David?”
“It was really nice,” Matt said with a smile. “Oh, and how would you and Brian like to go to New York with me? I figured we could leave on the 5th and stay a few days before heading back.”
“Go to New York with you?”
“Yeah, David gave me tickets to Phantom of the Opera for Christmas so that I can bring you guys with me. He’s sending the company jet to pick us up and we’re going to stay at his place in the city so it’s not going to cost too much. Please tell me you want to go.”
“Are you kidding? Of course I want to go,” Justin shrieked with excitement. “A Broadway show in New York…I can’t wait! You better have thanked that boyfriend of yours really, really well, or I will.”
“I took care of it, thanks,” Matt laughed.
Justin sobered quickly. “But this means you’re going to have to tell Brian, right? He’s not stupid. If we spend that much time with you and David, he’s going to figure something out,” Justin pointed out.
“I know. I’m going to tell him. I told you I’ve been thinking about coming out for a while now. I might as well start with Brian. Maybe when we get back, I can tell the rest. I don’t know. One minute I think I’m ready to tell them and then suddenly I can’t even imagine it,” Matt sighed. “I hate feeling so mixed up.”
“It’ll get easier, I promise. And if it helps…” Justin hesitated.
“If what helps?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything because I didn’t want to freak you out, but Chris and Zan know you’re gay.”
“What? You told them?!” Matt exclaimed.
“Okay, you’re obviously so nervous about coming out that you’re out of your mind, so I’ll forget that you just accused me of betraying your confidence,” Justin replied coolly.
“Shit, you’re right. I’m sorry. I know you would never do that,” Matt replied.
“You’re right. I wouldn’t. As it turns out, Zan saw you and David kissing outside the night we all saw that news clip about the Jacksons. He kind of asked me about it carefully, just in case I didn’t know, although he had already figured out that I did. He wanted me to tell you that both he and Chris are here if you ever need them.”
“That’s sweet of them. Of course I already knew that. Those two are amazing. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I thought about it, but you really were so touchy then. I didn’t want to scare you. Wouldn’t it just be easier to come out to everyone? I mean the gang, not your family. You know they’re all going to be cool about it.”
“I know…I’m just not sure if I’m ready to have everyone know yet. I feel like…if everyone knows, then I’ll…I mean I can’t…”
Justin knew exactly what Matt was thinking. “Matt, there’s no turning back. You know that, don’t you? I mean, whether you tell everyone or not is up to you, but you’ll never be happy trying to go back into the closet now that you’ve experienced what your life is supposed to be like.”
Matt sighed. “I know, and I don’t want to go back in the closet. I really don’t. Not when I have David. It’s just that…telling everyone is so huge, you know? I don’t know how to explain it. I just don’t think I’m ready for it yet.”
“Okay, that’s your choice. You have to do whatever feels right to you. Just remember that I’m here for you, no matter what.”
“I know that, and you have no idea how much that means to me,” Matt told him. “Now, where the hell is everybody? I thought I was running late.”
“Apparently not,” Justin laughed. “Steve and Eric are on their way now. Dane, Stacy and the baby are going to be by soon. Julia needed a nap after her morning excitement. Brian talked to Trent yesterday. He wasn’t sure if he could make it, and Zac…well, no one has heard from Zac since Sunday morning.”
“Why? What’s going on with Zac? Usually he’s attached to Jason’s hip.”
“That’s right, you don’t know. Jason and Zac broke up Saturday night.”
“That sucks, but I guess I’m not surprised,” Matt admitted. “Going through something like what Jason went through changes a person. Hopefully they’ll be able to work things out in the future. They were great together.”
“I hope so, but Brian’s really worried. Zac’s hanging out with Nicky again.”
“Are you kidding me? What the hell is wrong with him? Nicky is a loser. I don’t know why anyone would want to hang out with him. I’ll give him a call tomorrow and see if I can talk some sense into him.”
“Good, someone has to get through to him. He won’t listen to Brian and he wouldn’t even answer my calls,” Justin replied. “Just do me a favor and don’t say anything to Jason. He’ll only blame himself if he knows that Zac could be in trouble and it’s not his fault. Zac’s a big boy. He’s making his own decisions, regardless of how stupid they are.”
“I won’t say a word,” Matt promised. “Now where’s the food. I’m starving. My Christmas pig out was two days ago.”
Justin laughed as he watched his friend walk away. He couldn’t wait until Matt was out to everyone so the secrets would stop. It was getting harder and harder to keep lying to Brian every time Matt’s name was mentioned. His thoughts were interrupted when the doorbell rang.
“Who’s that? Nobody rings the bell on Christmas,” Brian said to the room.
“I’ll get it,” Jason headed towards the door. “It’s probably Aiden.”
Before Jason could get there, Aiden walked in, followed by Eric and Steve who called out. “Hey everybody! Merry Christmas! I explained to Aiden that nobody rings the bell on Christmas here.”
The room erupted in laughter.
Trent was sitting in the living room watching Kaleb play the Xbox he got for Christmas. The poor kid didn’t have much growing up so Trent had asked his mother to run out the day before and pick up a few things. The stores were crazy, but she went willingly. He knew it wasn’t going to take long for her to fall in love with the young boy. It sure hadn’t taken him long.
“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be heading over to Brian’s? It’s Christmas. That’s the tradition.”
Trent looked over at his mother, who had taken a seat alongside him. “I don’t know if I’m up for it this year. I think I’d rather Kaleb and I just hang here.”
“Is that because you haven’t told anyone about Kaleb?”
“How do you know I haven’t told anyone?”
“Because if you did, nothing would keep you away from your friends. Despite a few hours last month, you haven’t seen them since June. I know you’ve got to be missing them. If it’ll help, you can leave Kaleb here with your father and me.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Trent answered quickly. “He’s my son now. I can’t just pawn him off on you guys whenever I want to go somewhere. Besides, I love spending time with him. He’s an amazing kid.”
“Yeah, he is.”
Trent saw his mother looking at Kaleb with what could be considered grandmotherly love and smiled to himself. “I’m just not sure how everyone is going to take the news and I don’t want anything ruining Christmas for Kaleb after everything he’s been through.”
“Come on, hun. You know that everyone will be a little shocked, but they would never say or do something to make Kaleb feel bad. You have an amazing group of friends. I think today would be a perfect day to introduce them to your son.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Trent reluctantly agreed. “At least they’ll all be together so I don’t have to make the introductions over and over again.”
“Hey, Kaleb, finish up that game because we have to go somewhere.”
Kaleb immediately got up and turned off the game. “Might as well go now. I don’t know what I’m doing anyway.”
Trent laughed at his response. “I’ll tell you what. How about if we spend the rest of the night hanging out with my friends and then tomorrow I’ll sit with you and I’ll teach you what you need to know, okay?”
“Okay,” Kaleb exclaimed. “Do you think your friends are going to like me?”
“I think my friends are going to love you,” Trent replied honestly. He was sure that once the shock wore off, everyone would accept Kaleb into the fold, just like they did everyone else. “Thanks, Mom. We won’t be home late.”
“You boys have fun.”
Trent pulled up outside Brian’s house ten minutes later and cut the engine, but then he sat in the car and stared into space.
“T, is this where your friends are? Can we go in?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Trent lied.
“Are you worried about what everyone is going to say about me being here?”
“T, you really stink at lying,” Kaleb replied.
Trent laughed out loud. “Okay, look, I am kind of worried about what they’re going to say, but only because it’s a shock for me to show up with a 10 year old. I don’t want you to think it has anything to do with you.”
“T, I’m not a baby. I know it’s not normal for someone your age to adopt a kid. I get that. Maybe I should stay here.”
“You’re not staying in the car. I’m being ridiculous. Everything is going to be fine. Let’s go.”
They walked in the house and Trent smiled as Kaleb shrank back behind him. Despite his bravado in the car, he was nervous meeting new people. When he got to the living room and saw everyone standing around talking and laughing, he felt a pang of familiarity he hadn’t felt in a while. He was happy to be home.
“Hey, Trent!” Brian called out, noticing him first. “It’s about time you got here.”
Trent opened his arms and accepted the hugs that started coming. Everyone was there except for Zac, plus there were a few new faces. “Merry Christmas everyone.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Zander said. “It’s really good to see you. Are you back for good now?”
“Yep, I’m home for good now. And I didn’t come home empty handed.” Trent turned around and found Kaleb hovering in the doorway, almost unable to be seen. He took the boy’s hand and pulled him into the room. “This is Kaleb. He’s my son.”
The whole room went silent for a few moments before Zander broke the silence. “Hello, Kaleb, it’s very nice to meet you. I’m Alexander, but everyone calls me Zander, or Zan.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Kaleb replied softly.
“Hi, Kaleb, I’m Chris. How old are you?”
“Ten, wow, you’re around Sophia’s age. She lives here, too, but she’s upstairs playing with her new toys. How about if I take you upstairs and introduce you? It sometimes gets boring down here with the grown-ups…or at least that’s what Sophia says.” Chris laughed.
Kaleb looked back at Trent. “Can I go, T?”
“Of course you can. I’ll be right down here if you need me.”
As soon as they were gone, Zan turned to Trent and smiled. “That’s some souvenir.”
“I know, he’s amazing.”
“Okay, so how about you start at the beginning,” Steve suggested. “Explain to us how you went away to find yourself and came back with a kid.”
“And don’t forget to leave out the part where your phone broke so you obviously couldn’t tell us that you were getting a kid,” Brian added.
“Okay, I know. I should have said something, but I didn’t want to listen to anyone tell me I was making a mistake. I didn’t even tell my parents. They found out when we showed up at home on Sunday.”
“It’s okay, Trent,” Zander assured him. “I think everyone is just a little curious. How did you end up with Kaleb?”
“Well, as soon as I got to London, I met a guy who runs an organization that helps underprivileged countries. We hit it off and the next thing I know, I’m in Somalia. It was crazy. All those people, so poor and sick. It broke my heart. I was there for two days when I met Kaleb’s mother, Zenaida. She was amazing. Her poverty didn’t make her angry or depressed. She accepted it as the way things were and was able to smile and laugh and just be a good mom to her son. I helped out wherever I was needed. I distributed food and water to everyone in the village. I played with the children, read them books. I even started teaching a few of them how to read. It was such a humbling experience, you know? We take so much for granted when we should be thankful for everything we have. I grew close with so many families, but I really bonded with Zenaida and Kaleb. That’s where I spent most of my time.”
“It sounds like you did a lot of good for those people,” Chris observed as he returned. “It was a wonderful thing to do.”
“I got more out of my time there than I gave, trust me. Anyway, after about two months, Zenaida started getting very sick. The doctor there tried treating her, but nothing was working. They finally sent her to the nearest hospital, which was five hours away. The ride was horrible. She was really going downhill fast. Kaleb was devastated and clung to me almost the whole trip. It took three days for the doctors there to get her stable, but we knew almost immediately what was wrong. She was dying of AIDS. I won’t get into how she must have contracted it. Her story is too horrible to share. But because she didn’t know she had it, she was already beyond saving. You know, when the doctor told her she was going to die, she never once showed an ounce of self-pity. Her only concern was for her son. She was terrified of what was going to happen to Kaleb. She had no family. There was no one she trusted to raise her son and keep him safe. What was I supposed to do? Here was this amazing woman whose life was slowly slipping away and all she wanted was to know that her son would be okay. I promised her he would be. At the time I didn’t know how I was going to keep that promise, but I knew that I’d do anything to keep it. She got a little better after that and somehow managed to hang on for another few months, but she passed away right after Thanksgiving. By then I had spoken to Maxwell, the man who arranged for me to go to Somalia in the first place. He pulled a million strings and threw around some money, and here we are. You guys may not approve of what I did, but I don’t regret it for a second. Kaleb is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ll never regret bringing him home with me.” Brian stepped forward and hugged his friend tightly. When he pulled back, Trent looked at him closely. “What was that for?”
“That was for being so awesome. I know what it’s like to have nowhere to go, remember? If it wasn’t for Chris and Zan, God knows what would’ve happened to me. You saved him when he had no one else to turn to. That’s pretty amazing in my book,” Brian replied, and then slapped his friend upside his head. “And that’s for not calling us and telling us what was going on. We’re your friends, dumb ass, we’re here for you no matter what, got it?”
“Okay, I got it,” Trent laughed as he rubbed his head. “It’s good to be home.”
After that, everyone took turns welcoming Trent home. Jason stayed back and watched the interaction between everyone.
“How come you’re not jumping in?” Aiden asked as he came up behind Jason.
“I’ll say hello later. I don’t know Trent that well. We met a few times when I was still visiting from Pittsburgh, but he’s been gone since June so we never really got to know each other,” he explained.
“Oh, I see. So, do you think Zac will show?”
Jason sighed. He had been worried about that for two days. He wasn’t sure how he felt at the thought of seeing his ex-boyfriend. He knew he made the right decision when he ended things between them. He couldn’t keep pushing Zac away when all he was trying to do was help. But since they broke up, Zac had been MIA. Brian spoke to him once, on Sunday morning, but since then no one had been able to reach him. Jason was starting to get a little worried. Part of him didn’t want Zac to show up, but part of him hoped that he did, just to confirm that he was okay.
“Truthfully, I have no idea what Zac’s plans are. He’s not taking anyone’s calls right now. I hope he’s okay.”
“I’m sure he’ll be okay. He just needs time.”
“I hope you’re right. So, you seemed kind of friendly with Eric. I take it you knew him before tonight?” Jason asked, changing the subject.
“Eric and I went to school together,” Aiden explained. “He was closer to Christian than to me, but we spent a lot of time together up until…well, after that, Eric came to visit a few times, but I wasn’t the best company so he eventually stopped coming by. I haven’t seen him since until we ran into each other on the front step. It’s a small world.”
“Yeah, it can be sometimes.”
“We’re going to get together for a beer sometime next week.”
“That’s good. I just met him yesterday for the first time. He just moved back into town the other day. He’s seems cool, though.”
“He was back in high school,” Aiden smiled at the memory. “He accepted Christian and me immediately and back then it wasn’t as accepted as it is today. He even stood up to a few bullies here and there. I’m glad we ran into each other again.”
Before Jason could reply, Zan appeared at their side. “Aiden, can I speak with you for a minute?”
“Sure,” Aiden replied. “I need to freshen up my drink anyway.”
Zan lead Aiden into the kitchen and then turned to him. “Okay, I want to do it, if you still want me.”
“Of course I still want you, although I was beginning to think you were going to turn me down. I planned on starting an actual search after the holidays.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. It was a tough decision. My bookstore is my life. It’s my first love; well, my second love…right behind Chris. I needed to make sure that I’d be okay handing the reigns over to someone else,” Zan explained.
“And you will be?”
“Yeah, I will be. Steve is going to take over for me. We haven’t discussed the details yet, but we’ll work it out. I’ve got this degree sitting in a box in the attic that I’ve never used. I always wanted to do some kind of counseling back in high school, but majoring in business in college intrigued me, so I decided to go that route instead. I’ve always loved reading. It seemed natural to just open a bookstore. Of course now, with online shopping and e-readers, my business is slowly going to deteriorate. I need to focus on the future.”
“Sounds like a good idea. As much as I hate to admit this to you, I never go anywhere without my Kindle and Amazon.com is my second home,” Aiden laughed. “So, when do you want to start? I’ll be back in the office tomorrow at noon. Do you want to come by and check it out? If you come by around three, I can give you a tour and then you can sit in on my group at four. See how I run things. Then we can talk salary and a starting date.”
“That sounds good. I’m really ready to jump right in and I know Steve is anxious to take over for me.”
“Great, then I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon,” Aiden said cheerfully. “And thanks for having me here tonight. I bought my parents a Christmas vacation for their 30th wedding anniversary and didn’t think about the fact that I would be alone for the holiday.”
“That sounds like a great gift, though. Where are they?”
“They are sunning themselves on the beach in Barbados,” Aiden laughed. “They’re in their fifties and never really traveled outside of Disney vacations when I was little. I felt it was time and knew they would never do something like this on their own. Of course I think I might have created monsters. Last time I spoke with them, my mother was talking about going to Italy in the spring.”
Zan laughed, too. “Good for them. Chris and I were in Italy last spring and it was heaven. And for the record, you’re welcome here anytime. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, our friends are around here a lot.”
Before Aiden could respond, loud voices came through the door startling both me.
“What is that?” Aiden asked as he looked towards the door.
“Shit!” was Zan’s only reply as he headed towards the living room with Aiden close behind him.
“I’ve been coming here for almost five years and now I’m suddenly not welcome? Because of him?” Zac’s voice dripped with venom. “That’s bullshit! He dumped me, not the other way around. He’s the one that shouldn’t be here.”
“Zac,” Chris began, trying to defuse the situation. “No one said that you’re not welcome here.”
“Fuck that!” Brian exclaimed. “You’re not welcome here. Not when you’re high as a kite. Please tell me you didn’t drive here.”
“No, I didn’t drive here. I got a ride, and I’m not high.”
“The fuck you aren’t,” Brian spat. “Don’t fucking lie to me. You’re stoned out of your mind. Why are you doing this? Why are you risking your life playing with that shit?”
“Oh, what the fuck do you care? You hooked up with Blondie over there and suddenly no one else mattered.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes it is. Everyone knows it, I’m just the only one with the balls to say it.”
Zan could see the pain on Brian’s face and knew the accusation hurt. He decided it was time to intervene. “Zac, why don’t I give you a ride home? We can all talk about this tomorrow.”
“No, it’s fine. Nicky’s in the car waiting for me. I just wanted to stop by and wish my friends a Merry Christmas. Who knew I didn’t have any.”
And with that, Zac walked away leaving everyone in his wake in stunned silence.
Dane spotted the car as soon as he turned the corner and had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He pulled up at the curb and turned to Sandy.
“Sand, why don’t you take the baby and go inside? I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Sandy picked up on Dane’s unease as he jumped out of the car and reached into the back seat for their daughter. She grabbed the diaper bag and got out just as Dane reached her. “Dane, what’s wrong? Do you know whose car that is?” She asked as she took Julia.
“It’s no one. No one important, anyway. Just please take Julia inside. I’ll be right behind you,” Dane promised.
Sandy looked at him closely for a moment and then followed his wishes and headed for the house. Dane sighed and then approached the battered car, ready for a fight.
“Hey Nicky, what are you doing here? Trying to lower the property value of the neighborhood?” he spat as soon as he was close enough to the open window.
“Well, if it isn’t Dane Sommers. What are you doing here? Looking for another bottle of pills to swallow?”
Before Dane could respond, the front door slammed, pulling his attention away from Nicky and towards Zac, who was making his way to the car. “Zac, what the hell are you doing?”
“Getting the fuck out of here,” Zac retorted, his face a mixture of anger and pain.
“Dude, please tell me you’re not hanging out with this piece of trash,” Dane said as he quickly approached his friend. He took a good look at Zac’s face and gasped. “You’re fucking high!”
“What’s it to you? God, I’m so sick of everyone’s holier than thou routine. So what if I decided to have a little fun? I’m a big boy and I can do whatever the fuck I want. I don’t have to answer to anyone. Not anymore!”
“What?” Dane asked, taken aback. “What the hell has gotten into you?”
“Nothing, get the fuck out of my way. I’ve got to get out of here,” Zac mumbled as he tried to push past Dane, but obviously Dane had other plans.
“Zac, come on. Don’t do this. Look, I don’t know what happened inside, but if you don’t want to go back in there, that’s fine. I’ll give you a ride wherever you want to go. We can go…well it’s Christmas so almost everything is closed, but I’m sure there’s a restaurant or two that’s open. We can grab something to eat and talk.”
“Hey Zac, come on. We’ve got to get going,” Nicky called from inside the car.
“Sorry, Dane, I gotta go.”
“Zac, wait,” Dane said on deaf ears. He stood by and watched helplessly while his friend jumped in the car and disappeared. He sighed and then headed into the house, unsurprised that everyone was standing around talking about Zac. “What the hell is wrong with him?”
“I…um…I’m not feeling too good. I think I need to go lie down,” Jason stammered before heading down towards his room.
Justin turned to follow him, but Aiden stopped him. “Let me go talk to him.”
Justin wanted to object, but Zan’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Go ahead, Aiden. Try to convince him that this is not his fault.”
As soon as Aiden was gone, Dane asked again. “What the hell is wrong with him?”
“Zac and Jason broke up over the weekend. Zac’s not taking it very well,” Steve explained, keeping his eyes mostly on Brian, who had been pacing ever since Zac walked out. “I take it you tried talking to him?”
“Yeah, not that it did any good. He’s stoned!” Dane exclaimed.
“Fuck this!” Brian yelled before storming out of the room.
“Okay, everyone has to settle down,” Chris said, jumping in to take charge. “Trent, why don’t you go upstairs and check on the kids. I don’t know if they heard the yelling and with Kaleb being in a strange place, he might be a little worried.”
“Good idea,” Trent said as he headed for the stairs.
“Justin, I know Aiden is taking care of Jason, but why don’t you pop your head in and see how things are going. I’m going to go try talking to my brother. See if I can get him to settle down a bit. Zan, why don’t you…”
“Yeah, I’m on it. Everyone else just sit back and relax. I feel terrible that our holiday celebration is becoming a really bad soap opera.”
“No, you guys go do what you have to do. The rest of us can get out of your hair. Taking care of this mess is more important. If anybody wants to, we can all go back to our place. I don’t have enough food for an army like the Morgan/Kinney household, but I can whip something up,” Eric offered.
After a quick discussion, it was decided that Trent and Kaleb, Dane, Sandy and Julia, and Steve and Eric would all go back to Eric’s condo and hang out for a while. Of course, Sophia didn’t like the thought of her new friend leaving and started pouting as her eyes filled with tears.
“Zan, I don’t want to overstep, but she’s more than welcome to come with us. I’m sure Kaleb would like to hang with her some more and I can drop her back off before heading home,” Trent offered quietly.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to impose.”
“Really? Come on Zan, how long have I known you? I spent most of my teen years here with you. Taking your sister out for a few hours would never be an imposition,” Trent assured him.
“Well, as long as you’re sure, that would be great. I need to focus on what to do about Zac. It would be easier if I didn’t have Sophia moping under my feet.” Zan turned towards his sister and smiled. “Go get some shoes on, sweetie. You’re going to go to Steve’s house with Kaleb and Trent, okay?”
“Yes!” Sophia shrieked as she bolted upstairs for her shoes.
Once everyone was gone and Zander was alone in the living room, he reached for his phone. He had a call that he had to make and he wasn’t looking forward to it. He found the number in his phone and hit the call button, almost hoping that no one would answer. He wasn’t so lucky when a female voice greeted him.
“Hi, Liz, it’s Zander. I think Zac’s in trouble.”
By the time Chris made it down to the basement, Brian had resumed his pacing but had added mumbling to the mix. “Hey, you’re going to wear a hole in the rug.”
“Not now, Chris. I’m not in the mood for jokes,” Brian growled.
“I know, buddy. I’m sorry. It’s going to be okay, though. Zac’s just dealing with a broken heart right now. We all do stupid things when that happens. Look how messed up I was when Zan left,” Chris pointed out.
“That’s not the same thing. You didn’t push everyone away and start doing drugs. How could he hook up with that loser?”
“Nicky? Isn’t that the guy who…”
“Yes, he’s the one who was expelled from school for dealing drugs. The only reason he’s not in jail is because he cut a deal and ratted out his supplier. It was all over the local news.”
“I didn’t realize you guys knew him.”
“We do, kind of. I mean, it’s not a very big school. Everyone knows everyone to a point. But Zac, he dated him for a few weeks back in ninth grade. Ever since then he always runs back to him when things get fucked up in his life. He even reached out to him last spring when he and Jason were having their issues, but I was able to get him to see how stupid that was. I told him that if Jason found out, he’d dump him for sure. It worked then, but I don’t have the same kind of leverage this time. What are we going to do?”
“I hate to say this little brother, but other than reaching out to him often and being there for him if he needs you, there’s not a lot you can do.”
“So we’re supposed to just sit back and let him get in deep with that scumbag? Do nothing to help him?”
“Well, not nothing. Zander is probably on the phone with Zac’s parents right now. Maybe they’ll have a better chance of reaching him.”
“You called his parents?” Brian asked incredulously.
“What choice did we have? Look, Bri, you know that Zan and I are always here for you and your friends. Anyone can come to us at any time and we’re ready to help, you know that. But this? After seeing that wild look in his eyes? I don’t know exactly what he’s on, but he was stoned out of his mind. With all the drug related deaths around here lately, there’s no way I’m taking a chance in hopes that he comes around,” Chris replied. “His parents need to know he’s in trouble.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. He may never speak to us again, but at least he’ll be alive.”
“Exactly. Now why don’t you come upstairs with me? Everyone headed over to Eric and Steve’s place. Steve said that you’re welcome to head over if you want, or that he’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I don’t think I’m up for going out tonight. Curling up with Justin sounds like the perfect end to this horrible day. Some Merry Christmas.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get him through it all,” Chris assured his brother, hoping that he’d be able to keep his promise. The truth was that Zac was an adult and if he fell in too deep with this Nicky guy, things could end up going from bad to worse. He just hoped that Zac’s parents were able to help their son before that happened.
Justin knocked lightly on the door and then walked in. Jason was backed up against the wall on his bed, his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around his legs. Aiden was sitting in the computer chair, talking quietly to him.
“Hey, I don’t want to interrupt. I just wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“Well let’s see. I drove my ex-boyfriend to drugs because I was too busy worrying about my own problems,” Jason snapped.
“That’s not true,” Aiden insisted. “If he’s doing drugs, that’s on him. Couples break up every day, all over the world. They don’t all turn to drugs to get through it. Whatever he’s getting himself into, it’s not your fault.”
“Yeah, Jas, it’s his problem, not yours. If anyone is to blame, then maybe it’s me. Before I moved here, he used to run to Brian when he was upset. He can’t do that now.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s not your fault,” Jason said.
“And it’s not yours. Come on, Jas, let’s lay blame where it belongs. The only one who is to blame in this scenario is Zac. He’s old enough to know better.”
Jason sighed. “I know, I just can’t believe…did you see the way he looked at me? Like I was something on the bottom of his shoe. How could he look at me like that? Why can’t he see that our break up is just as hard on me as it is on him, but it was something I had to do?”
“He can’t see it because he’s hurting right now. He’ll come around,” Aiden offered weakly. He wasn’t sure if he really believed what he said, but his main concern was calming Jason down. “But even if he doesn’t, it’s not your fault.”
“Aiden’s right, Jas,” Justin added. “Zac is a big boy and knows right from wrong. You’re not responsible for the stupid things he does.”
“It’s really nice of you guys to try and make me feel better, but the bottom line is that this is my fault. If I hadn’t broken up with him, he wouldn’t be out getting high. Now, would you two mind leaving me alone. It’s been a rough day. I’m exhausted and my parents’ flight is landing really early tomorrow so I’m not going to be able to sleep in. I’m going to bed.” Jason didn’t wait for a response. He just slid down on the bed and turned his back towards Justin and Aiden, hoping they’d take the hint. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the mumbled good nights and then the sound of his door opening and closing. He waited a few moments until he was sure they were gone and then reached for his phone. Just like he expected, it went right to voicemail. He waited for the beep and then spoke from the heart.
“Hey, Z, it’s me. I am so sorry…for a lot of things, actually but right now I’m apologizing for what happened here tonight. You’re right, you have more of a right to be here than I do. You’ve known these people for years and I’m just a visitor. It won’t happen again, though. My parents are flying in tomorrow for Christmas and I’m going to make sure I’m with them when they leave. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to face ASU again and without that, there’s nothing for me here. Not anymore. For the record, I love you with all my heart. This break up was never about my feelings for you. It was about wanting to give you the freedom to live your life without being dragged down by me and my baggage. Just do me a favor? Please don’t continue down the road you’re headed. You have so many people around you that care about you. Let them help you through this rough time, not drugs. You’re so much better than that. Take care of yourself, Z. Love you.”
Once that was done, he got out of bed and started packing his things. He wasn’t sure how he was going to tell everyone he was leaving. It wasn’t really what he wanted, but he believed what he had said in his message to Zac. He didn’t belong there anymore. He was beginning to wonder if he really belonged anywhere anymore, but he wasn’t going to stay in Arizona and make things harder on Zac. He cared too much for that. He just hoped that once he was gone, Zac would come to his senses and get off the destructive path he seemed to have found. Otherwise his rapist managed to destroy two lives on the night of the attack, not just one.
It didn’t take long for Eric to whip up some snacks for everyone once they got back to the condo. Being a chef meant keeping a stocked kitchen at all times. Whether it was snacks for a small group or a five course meal, he was always prepared. He was just finishing up when Dane walked in.
“Hey, need any help?”
“You could grab those two platters over there and bring them out to everyone,” Eric replied with a smile.
“Damn, Eric, how did you manage to throw all of this together without any notice?” Dane asked in awe.
“There’s a list of must-haves that everyone should keep on hand for last minute guests. I’ll go over it with you one of these days. I’m never without,” Eric explained.
“I can’t wait for my education to begin, oh wise one,” Dane teased.
Eric laughed. “Grab those platters and get the hell out of here.”
Dane was grinning as he took the platters out to everyone. Last Christmas everyone was still keeping a close eye on him because of his ridiculous suicide attempt. This year, despite the drama and his concern over Zac, he was really having a Merry Christmas. Soon after he set the platters down, his phone rang with Michael’s ring tone. He excused himself and went out on the small balcony for some privacy before answering.
“Hey baby, Merry Christmas. How was your day?”
“Hey baby,” Michael replied softly. Obviously trying not to be heard. “I’m sorry, I really don’t have time to talk right now. Are you free tomorrow morning? Maybe we can grab breakfast? There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Baby, I really can’t do this right now. Can you please…”
“No, you can’t call me up when you’re obviously upset about something and then expect me to wait until tomorrow. Now what’s going on?”
Michael hesitated and then let out a long sigh. “Maddie’s pregnant.”
“What?!” Dane exclaimed. “Please tell me that she’s been sleeping around and there’s no way you’re the father.”
“She claims that I am.”
“But you said…you told me that your marriage was over. That it had been over for months. If she’s claiming that you’re the father that means…”
“Oh my God,” Dane moaned as the pain and betrayal washed over him.
“Dane, look, I know what this looks like, but let me explain,” Michael pleaded.
“Explain? Explain what? That you’ve been lying to me for months? That you’ve been getting your rocks off with me and still sleeping with your wife? My God, were you really ever going to leave her, or has this all been a game to you?”
“Baby,” Michael tried again to no avail.
“Don’t call me that! Don’t ever call me that again!” Dane screamed. “In fact, don’t ever call me again. We’re through.”
Dane ended the call and burst into tears. Sandy had been right. Michael never had any intention of leaving his wife. It had all been a big lie so that he could have the best of both worlds. A homosexual relationship without ever leaving the closet. And he’d been an idiot to ever believe a word the man said. He was so lost in thought that he never heard the door open and jumped when a hand touched his shoulder.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Eric said softly. “Are you alright?”
“No, not really,” Dane admitted as he tried to reign in his emotions. “Did everyone hear me? Do they all know what’s going on?”
“No, no one heard you. I don’t even know what’s going on. I came looking for you to ask you a question and found you out here upset. The kids are keeping everyone else entertained,” Eric assured him. “I’d like to know what happened. I’d like to help if I can. This is the second time that you’ve been upset after getting a phone call. Do you want to talk about it?”
Dane didn’t want to talk about it. He really didn’t, but he could see the concern in Eric’s face and knew that he would. “I’m sure you heard that I was seeing someone, right? One of my professors? A married professor?”
Eric smiled sheepishly. “I might have heard something to that effect.”
“How could I have been so stupid? I actually believed him when he told me that he loved me. I actually believed it when he told me that his marriage had been over since long before we met and that he was going to leave his wife right after the holidays.”
“His wife is pregnant.”
“Well, what’s he planning on doing about it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t give him a chance to tell me. It doesn’t really matter, does it? I mean, he’s been lying to me since the beginning. He’s been sleeping with his wife the whole time we were together. I put up with a lot from him, but not anymore. It’s over.” Dane’s voice broke on his words as he felt his tears building again. He sighed as Eric pulled him into a tight hug.
“I’m so sorry, Dane. Men really suck sometimes, you know? But it’s better that you found out now, before things got any more complicated. Besides, you have big things coming up in your future, remember? You don’t have time to play games with a closeted jackass.”
Eric’s words had their desired effect as Dane started giggling. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I heard my new boss is a hard ass.”
“No, you heard wrong. I’ve got a hard ass,” Eric teased.
“Really? I’ve never noticed before. I’ll have to check it out one of these days.”
“Anytime, buddy. I’m not shy.”
Steve appeared suddenly looking confused. “Hey, what’s going on out here? Is everything okay? Dane, is something wrong?”
Eric jumped in before Dane could respond. “No, everything’s fine. I was just going over some things that Dane needs to know before we start working together.”
“Well then get in here. You’re missing all the fun. Kaleb is telling us about the time Trent passed out at the sight of blood.”
“We’re right behind you,” Eric promised. He waited until his brother was gone and turned back to Dane. “I guess we’d better go join the others. We’re meeting at the restaurant tomorrow, right?”
“I’ll be there at noon.”
“Good. I think the best thing for you right now is a distraction.”
“You’re probably right,” Dane agreed. “Can you do me a favor and not tell anyone about Michael? I’m going to have to tell them eventually, but I want a day or two to deal with it on my own before hearing I-told-you-so from everyone.”
“You got it. Just remember, I’m here if you need anything. Even if it’s just to talk.”
“Thanks, Eric, I appreciate it.”
“Guys, come on,” Steve called out from inside the condo.
“He’s an impatient little shit, isn’t he?” Eric laughed.
“Yeah, he really is.”
“I heard that!”
Dane laughed out loud as he followed Eric inside. His life might currently be a mess, but at least he had his friends to get him through it. One day Michael would be a distant memory, but until then, he planned on keeping busy and not allowing himself time to dwell on what an idiot he had been to ever believe Michael in the first place.
End of part 17
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