Now That You're Here - The College Years
Steve sighed as he dropped down on the couch next to his brother. Everyone had finally gone home and the kitchen was clean once again. He looked over at Eric and smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank you? For what? I told you I love being in the kitchen. It was no big deal,” Eric assured him.
“Not that…well, not only that. I meant for everything. For letting me move in, for being so good to Dane, for being nice to my friends. I just…I really appreciate it.”
“Okay, first of all, your moving in here was a no-brainer. We’re family and family sticks together, regardless of what the ‘rents think. In Dane’s case, he’s a good kid who’s been through a lot. He just needs someone to give him a shot. Trust me, he’s going to work his ass off for me. As for being nice to your friends, I think we’re beyond that whole your friends’ and my friends’ thing, don’t you? We’re adults now. They’re our friends and they’re welcome at our condo anytime, got it?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Steve replied. “Oh, by the way, what did you tell Mom and Dad? Why do they think you’re not there for the holiday?”
“Bro, maybe we shouldn’t talk about them tonight. It’s been a nice day. I don’t want to ruin it.”
“Well, from the tone of your voice, I already know that whatever you said didn’t go over well. Just tell me what happened,” Steve insisted. “I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”
“Alright fine, but I don’t want any shit from you, okay? I’m a big boy too, and I can make my own decisions.”
“Never mind, I’m not discussing it with you.”
“Alright, alright, fine. I won’t give you any shit. Just tell me what they said.”
Eric held out his pinky and laughed when Steve sighed and held out his own. They hadn’t had a pinky promise since they were kids. “I swung by the house on Sunday to let them know that we were all moved in. Dad hit the roof when he found out that you were living with me. He said that you’d never learn your lesson if everyone kept babying you. He demanded that I kick you out. When I refused, he said I had to choose between the family and you. I told him it was an easy choice…that I chose you because you are my family. I barely heard his cries of how ungrateful I am as I walked out. He’s an ass, and that woman who stands by his side is even worse because she listens to every word he says. I say good riddance”
“Eric, I’m so sor…”
“Don’t even finish that sentence.”
“But this is all my fault.”
“It is? You made him an asshole? You caused his lack of love and compassion? This isn’t your fault, Steve. It’s his…theirs. I left home almost two years ago because I couldn’t live with them anymore. You’re probably the main reason I kept in contact with them in the first place. As long as I have you in my life, I’m good. Fuck them. End of discussion.”
“You know, a month ago I thought this was going to be a real shitty Christmas. Turns out that it was the best. I’m really glad you came back here.”
“Me too, little brother. Me too.”
“Please don’t do this,” Justin begged as he watched his friend packing his things. It had been two days since the Christmas fiasco when Zac had shown up stoned out of his mind and made a scene, and until that moment, Justin had thought his friend had put the incident behind him.
“Jus, I don’t have a choice. My being here is just making things harder on Zac, and I don’t want to do that. He’s been through enough,” Jason explained as he put the last of his things in his bag.
“He’s been through enough? Are you out of your mind? What about what you’ve been through?” Justin exclaimed.
“Justin, please try to understand…”
“Oh, I understand perfectly. You’re letting Zac’s inability to handle anything rule your life. It was only a month ago when you were so relieved that you didn’t have to leave Arizona. Now suddenly, you can’t wait to get out?”
“Jus, that’s not it. I just think it’s best if I go back to Pittsburgh.”
“What does Aiden say about this?”
“Um…I don’t know,” Jason admitted sheepishly.
“You haven’t told him?” Justin asked incredulously. “He’s your fucking therapist, for God’s sake. How do you pick up and move 2000 miles away without telling him.”
“Justin, it’s my life.”
“So that makes it okay for you to screw it up? And as your best friend, I’m supposed to just stand by and let you do it?”
Just then, the door opened and Zan walked in. “What is going on down here? I can hear you yelling all the way into the kitchen.”
“Zan, Jason thinks his being here is too much for poor, stupid Zac so he’s sneaking back to Pittsburgh to live with his parents!”
“I’m not sneaking!”
“Yes, you are! You haven’t said a word to anyone about leaving and we’ve all been around for the last few days. You could have easily said something instead of letting me come in here and find you packing!”
“If I had said anything, you would have tried to talk me out of it!”
“Of course I would have! You can’t just…”
“Justin, why don’t you give Jason and me a few minutes alone?” Zan suggested, cutting him off mid-sentence.
“No, I’m not leaving. You always send Brian and me out of the room every time something is going on and I’m not leaving this time. Jason has been my best friend my entire life and I’m not leaving here until he realizes how stupid he’s being and starts unpacking,” Justin insisted. “I can’t believe your parents are letting you run away from your problems. Your mother…oh my God! You haven’t told them, have you? They have no idea that you and Zac broke up or that Zac’s being an ass, do they?”
“Well, I didn’t want to ruin their Christmas by making them worry about me even more than they already do. Besides, they’re thrilled that I want to go home and visit over the winter break. I’ll talk to them about it once we’re home.”
“But you are home. This is your home.”
“No. Justin, it’s not. This is your home. I came out here to try and start a new life and look where it got me. I don’t belong here. Not anymore.”
“Do you really believe you belong there? Come on, Jas. Nothing is going to be the same back home. You pretty much gave up that world when you started dating Zac and planned to move out here. Who’s waiting at home for you? Did any of your friends even stick around after graduation, or have they all gone off to start their own lives? Hell, even Sean is gone. What do you plan to do? Go home, hide away in your room and give up on life?”
“Jus, I don’t think…” Zan began, but Justin wouldn’t let him continue.
“No, Zan, he has to hear this. Jason, running away isn’t going to solve your problems. I am so sorry for what happened. You have no idea how devastated I am that something so horrible happened to you, but it did. There’s nothing any of us can do to change that. Trust me, we would if we could. But you can’t give up your life and your dreams to hide away from the world. I won’t let you do that.”
“But I don’t know what else to do. Some days I think I’m finally starting to feel a little bit better, but then something happens and it’s like it happened yesterday. He ruined everything for me. My school year, my relationship, my life. And the worst part is that he’s still out there. He’s walking around like nothing ever happened while I’m here trying to get up the courage to go out to a restaurant or run to the store. It’s not fair. Why did he have to do this to me? Of all the people on that campus, why me?”
Justin reached out and grabbed Jason just as the sobbing started. His heart was breaking for his friend. He couldn’t begin to imagine the pain of such a brutal attack and he understood the desire to hide away from the world, but he wasn’t going to allow Jason to do it. He was going to do whatever it took to save his friend. The doorbell alerted them all to the time and the fact that the Meyer’s were there to pick Jason up.
“I’ll go get the door,” Zan offered.
Once they were alone, Justin looked Jason in the eye. “Tell me this is really what you want, and I won’t say another word. Tell me you really want to go back to Pittsburgh and leave us all behind and I will carry your bags to the car myself.”
“No, you won’t,” Jason laughed through his tears.
Justin laughed, too. “Okay, I won’t. But seriously, do you really want to go back? Don’t think about Zac. This has nothing to do with anyone but you. What do you want?”
“I think I really want to go back. I’m sorry, Jus. I don’t want to hurt you, but I’m sinking here. I feel like I’m drowning and I don’t know what else to do. I need to try and figure things out and I just thought that if I wasn’t here…you know? I grew up in Pittsburgh. I always felt safe there. I need to go back and see if I can feel that again. Please don’t hate me.”
“Like I could ever hate you,” Justin replied, his voice tight with emotion. “Well, if you’re sure that’s what you want, then I guess I can’t stop you. Just promise me that if you change your mind at any time, you’ll jump on the first plane out here. You know you’ll always be welcome.”
“I know. I promise that if I can’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll come back and try again.”
“God, I’m going to miss you so much.”
“Me too,” Jason said tearfully as he hugged his friend tight. “Please don’t give up on Zac. He’s really hurting right now and needs his friends more than ever.”
“Don’t worry. We’re going to find a way to get through to him. I promise.”
“Okay…well, I guess this is it then. I think I have all my stuff, but if I missed anything…”
“I’ll hold it hostage and make you come back for it,” Justin teased.
“Yeah, you probably would. I love you, Justin.”
“I love you, too.”
By the time Jason and Justin reached the living room with bags in tow, Brian and Chris, as well as the Meyers had been filled in on what was happening. They all seemed really shocked, but there was no talking Jason out of it. He was going to Pittsburgh.
It was a tearful goodbye for everyone involved. Jason had become part of the family and was going to be missed by everyone there. Even Sophia begged him to stay, which really pulled at everyone’s heart strings, but after insisting yet again that he had to leave, he disappeared through the front door, leaving the household sad and quiet.
“I think I’m going to go lay down for a while,” Justin said tearfully.
“I’ll go with you,” Brian offered.
“Um…I think I’d like to be alone for a while,” Justin admitted sadly. “Do you mind?”
Brian smiled softly and hugged Justin tight. “No, I don’t mind. Go lay down. Maybe I’ll give Trent a call, see what he and Kaleb are up to. We can take the kids to the park or something.”
“Yay!” Sophia yelled excitedly.
“I think she approves of your plan,” Justin chuckled as he dried his eyes.
“I figured she would. Go rest and call me if you need anything. Even if it’s just a kiss.”
“I will, thanks Bri.”
Once Justin was alone downstairs he started to cry. He knew it was stupid, but he really liked having Jason close by. As strange as it was, having Jason around was like having a part of his old life with him. After a year and a half of being in Arizona, he was settled and at home, but there would always be that part of him that missed his life in Pittsburgh. Jason represented that life and gave him something to hang on to. God knows when he’d see his old friend again. He felt he was entitled to a little bit of mourning. He grabbed the box of tissues, curled up in the center of his bed, and eventually fell asleep.
Brian waited until Justin was downstairs before turning to Chris and Zan. “I’m a little worried about him. He told me so many times that having Jason in Arizona made him feel like he had part of his old life with him. I think he’s going to take this pretty hard. I can’t believe Jason left. Fucking Zac.”
“Okay, we can’t blame Zac entirely. Jason’s going through a really rough time right now. Maybe he felt that going home would help him. Who knows, maybe it will,” Zan replied. “As for Justin, he’ll be okay. He just needs a little time to miss his friend.”
“I’m ready, Brian,” Sophia called out as she descended the stairs. “Can we go now?”
“Damn, she’s quick,” Brian laughed. “I haven’t even called Trent yet.”
After a quick call, Brian and Sophia were on their way. They picked up Trent and Kaleb and then headed to the park. Kaleb and Sophia ran right over to the swing set, leaving Trent and Brian to take a seat on a nearby bench.
“Thanks for calling me,” Trent said once they were settled. “Kaleb was getting a little restless just sitting around the house. I think he’s nervous about starting school next week. Schools over here aren’t anything like what he had in Somalia. It’s gonna be another world for him.”
“Poor kid. This all can’t be easy for him. It’s a good thing you went to Europe to find yourself instead of hanging around with us all summer. If it wasn’t for you…”
“I can’t even think about it,” Trent sighed. “Trust me, I wish I could’ve helped everyone there. If you could have seen the way they live. It’s horrifying. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“I can only imagine. You just have to remember that you helped as best you could. You spent months over there helping where you were needed and you saved Kaleb just when he needed you most.”
“I know, it’s just hard sometimes. But enough about that. What’s going on with Zac? Have you heard from him?”
“No,” Brian sighed. “And I don’t think I’m going to. After you left on Christmas, Zan called his parents and told them what was going on. They were already upset with him because he never came home for the holiday, but they just assumed he was with us. They didn’t even know that he and Jason broke up. When he finally strolled in his front door around 2:00 am, he was stoned out of his mind and they were sitting up waiting for him. He started a huge fight, packed some of his things and left. Nobody’s heard from him since. I left him a few messages, but I don’t even know if he’s getting them. His phone goes right to voicemail. I imagine he’s staying with Nicky. I can’t believe he’s being so stupid.”
“I guess a broken heart really does make a person do stupid things,” Trent pointed out.
“Oh come on. That’s a cop out, blaming a break up for what he’s doing. Couples break up all the time and they don’t turn to drugs.”
“That’s true, but some do. And you know how emotionally retarded he can be. Hell, he used to jump into your bed after every break up, remember? We all knew then that he wasn’t good at handling heartbreak. If you were single, he’d be there right now instead of Nicky’s bed.”
“So this is my fault?”
“Of course not. I’m just saying that he’s got some issues that he was never forced to deal with before. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. I just hope he figures out he’s fucking up and comes to his senses before he gets hurt.”
“Me too, buddy. Me too.”
“So what else is going on? I feel so out of the loop after being gone so long.”
They spent the next hour and a half talking about the last six months and everything that they had experienced during that time. By then the kids were getting hungry so they headed to the nearest pizza place and stuffed themselves full of grease and cheese. After that, they headed to the mall and the arcade. Through it all, Kaleb seemed a little subdued. Trent asked him numerous times, but he kept insisting that he was okay. When they finished with the video games, they decided to catch a movie before heading home. Trent stood in line for the popcorn while Brian took the kids to the bathroom. As he and Kaleb waited outside the ladies’ room for Sophia, Brian asked if he’d had a good time.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” Kaleb replied sadly.
“Are you sure? You don’t sound like it’s been great.”
“I guess I don’t, but it has been great.”
“Kaleb, if there’s something bothering you, you know you can talk to Trent, right? He loves you and he’ll be there for you.”
Kaleb sighed. “I know, I just don’t want to upset him.”
“Do you think what you have to say would upset him?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Okay, would you be willing to talk to me? Maybe I can help?” Kaleb just shrugged. “How about if we send Trent and Sophia in to find good seats and you and I can go talk somewhere? Does that sound okay?”
Kaleb shrugged again and then nodded. “Okay.”
As soon as Sophia came out, Brian headed towards the concession stand. Trent had just finishing paying and was trying to carry two buckets of popcorn and a cardboard box holding four drinks. Brian rushed over.
“Here, let me help you.”
They went into the theater and found good seats but as Sophia and Trent sat down, Brian put a hand on Kaleb’s shoulder.
“Trent, Kaleb and I are going to take a quick walk, okay?” He tried to give Trent a look so that he wouldn’t make an issue of it, but his friend was too focused on his son.
“Why? What wrong? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, it’s cool, T. We’ll just stay here,” Kaleb replied quickly.
“Kaleb, you can…” Brian began but Kaleb took a seat and immediately struck up a conversation with Sophia. Brian knew the opportunity was lost so he settled down in his seat and grabbed some popcorn.
“What was that all about?” Trent whispered in Brian’s ear.
“I don’t know. Something is bothering him and he doesn’t want to talk to you because he doesn’t want to upset you,” Brian explained. “I had him ready to talk to me, but he chickened out.”
“Shit, what do I do?”
“Just try sitting him down and talking to him. Let him know that nothing he says is going to upset you. It’ll be fine.”
“Damn, why didn’t you signal me or something?”
“I did, jackass,” Brian laughed. “You weren’t paying any attention to me.”
“Maybe you can…”
“Let it go for now. I’m sure you’ll get him to open up to you once you get him alone.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I’m always right. Now hush, the previews are starting.”
Trent settled down in his seat and tried to focus on the movie, but he knew there was no way he would be able to relax until he found out what was wrong with Kaleb. Once the movie was over, Brian dropped them off at home. Trent was so excited to see that his parents had gone out. The house was empty, giving him time to talk to Kaleb alone. He sat the boy down as soon as they got inside.
“Kaleb, I know something’s bothering you and I really need you to talk to me. I promise that whatever it is, we’ll work it out.”
“It’s no big deal, T. Really.”
“Well, I have an idea. How about if you tell me what it is, and I’ll decide if it’s a big deal or not?”
Kaleb sighed. “It’s kind of stupid. It’s just that…well…my mom’s birthday is tomorrow and I guess I just wish…” he wiped his eyes before continuing. “We always used to celebrate together, you know? And now she’s not here anymore.”
“Oh come here, buddy.” Trent pulled Kaleb into his arms and held the boy as he cried. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how awful it would be to lose his mother. For Kaleb, that loss was even worse because he didn’t have anyone else in his life. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do. You know that, right? If there was any way I could bring her back to you, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
“I know,” Kaleb said tearfully.
“But there’s no reason we can’t celebrate for her,” Trent suggested as his mind took hold of an idea.
“Look, I know she’s gone in body, but she’s not gone in spirit, right? She’s alive in your heart, and she’s alive in mine. Just because she can’t be with us, that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the amazing woman she was. Tomorrow we’ll go buy a cake…no, we’ll make a cake in honor of her and how much you love her. How does that sound?”
“We’ll make a cake?” Kaleb asked skeptically as he pulled away and dried his eyes. “Do you know how to make a cake?”
“No, but how hard can it be? And maybe we can invite Brian, Justin and Sophia over to celebrate with us? How does that sound?”
“Do you think your mom and dad would celebrate with us, too?”
“Of course they will. Maybe we can even cook some food and turn it into a real party. How does that sound?”
“I think Mom would really like that.”
“Okay then, I guess we have some planning to do.”
Trent got a pen and paper and sat down with Kaleb to plan the day. His heart was breaking on the inside for the little boy who lived through so much in such a short time. He was going to do everything in his power to take away the sadness as often as he could.
Jason finished putting his things away and then looked around his room. It had been months since he had been there, but it was exactly as he had left it. He tried to be more excited to be back in Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t. The cold air that hit him the second he walked out of the airport was as unwelcomed as the constant chattering his parents had been doing since they had left Arizona. The only highlight of the entire trip was the text messages he’d received from Justin. He was beginning to think that leaving was a huge mistake. A knock on his door pulled him from his thoughts.
“Honey, are you hungry?” Karen asked as she walked in without waiting for an invitation.
“No, Mom, I’m fine. Just a little tired. I think I’m going to lay down for a while.”
“Are you okay?” she asked as she walked over and felt Jason’s forehead. “You don’t feel warm.”
Jason pulled away quickly. “I’m fine, Mom! Please, don’t think you can start babying me again. I didn’t come back here to have my mommy take care of me. I’m a grown man; especially after what I’ve been through. I just want to be alone and get my head together, alright?”
“I’m sorry, honey…I just…”
“Can I just be alone? Please?”
The moment his mother was gone, Jason sank down on his bed and sighed. He didn’t mean to be an ass to his mother. He knew she meant well. He just didn’t want to be treated like a child anymore. Those days were long gone. He’d apologize later. At the moment he had a phone call to make. One that should have been made before he’d ever left Arizona, but he had been too scared to make it then. He got comfortable on the bed and then placed the call, almost hoping that he’d get voicemail. He didn’t.
“Hey, Jas, what’s going on?”
“Um…hey. There’s something that I need to tell you,” Jason hesitated. “Something that I should have told you before now.”
“Okay, that sounds ominous. What’s up?”
“I’m not in Arizona anymore,” Jason blurted out.
“You’re not in Arizona anymore? Okay…where are you? I know I said that you needed to start pushing yourself to leave the house more, but I didn’t mean to take a vacation,” Aiden laughed.
“I’m not on vacation. I’m in Pittsburgh…I moved back home.”
“Oh…um…okay. Well, if you think that’s for the best then good for you. I can get you a list of reputable therapists in the area. Just text me your email address and I’ll get them to you as soon as possible. Good luck with your recovery. I wish you nothing but the best. Take care.”
“What the fuck is that? After everything we’ve been through, you’re going to brush me off like I’m just one of your patients?”
“No, I poured my heart out to you, and not just in your damn group. I thought we were more than just therapist and patient.”
“Jason, you really need to stop…”
“I guess you’re a better therapist than I thought, because I actually believed that you cared about me and my recovery. I didn’t realize it was all an act.”
“You know what, Jason? Fuck you! Don’t you dare accuse me of not caring. If anything, I care too damn much. What do you want from me? You moved away! You packed up your shit, got on a plane and moved God knows how far away without even telling me and you accuse me of brushing you off? I thought we were more than therapist and patient, too, but apparently I was wrong. You couldn’t even bother to say goodbye! I wish you well, Jason. I really do, but that’s all I can give you right now.”
After the line went dead, Jason stared at the phone for a few moments before the enormity of what happened hit him. He’d hurt Aiden. By packing up and leaving Arizona without saying goodbye, he had hurt the last person he’d ever want to hurt. He just couldn’t stop hurting the people around him. How had his life turned so horribly wrong in such a short period of time? He couldn’t think about it anymore. He couldn’t think about anything anymore. After making a quick phone call, knowing he’d get voicemail the second time around, he left a message, curled up in his bed and waited for sleep to take him away from it all.
“Hey, Aid, everyone is here. Are you ready…Aid? Are you okay?” Gray asked as he noticed the faraway look on his friend’s face. “What happened?”
“Huh? Oh…um…nothing. I’m okay. Could you do me a favor and take the group? I don’t think I can do it right now.”
“Aiden, what’s going on? You look like hell and you’ve never passed on a group session.”
“I just need to be alone right now. Would you mind taking care of things? I’ve got to get out of here,” Aiden insisted as he got up from his desk.
“Of course I’ll take care of things, but…”
“Thanks, Gray. I’ll call you.”
And with that, Aiden grabbed his cell phone and his bag and took off, not wanting to give Grayson time to stop him. He needed to be alone for a while. He needed to think. As soon as he got to his car, he started it up and headed out. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he wasn’t too surprised when he ended up at the cemetery. In the years since Christian died, every time things got hard, he went to the cemetery. Some people would probably call him crazy, but he always felt closest to Christian when he was sitting at the grave site, staring at his name engraved in stone. It was pretty late so there was no one else around as he made his way to Christian.
As soon as he reached his destination, he sat down and allowed himself to think. He knew that working with Jason was a bad idea. He knew the moment he saw him and felt such a strong reaction to the younger man that getting involved beyond a group session was wrong, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He hadn’t experienced such a strong reaction to anyone since he’d met Christian back in high school. He’d thought that the attack had somehow prevented him from ever feeling that kind of connection with another human being. Even the few times he’d managed to get close to someone, it wasn’t the same. It was more forced than anything else. So against his better judgment, he allowed himself to get closer to the troubled young man, and where did it get him?
He had been fooling himself, thinking that their connection was two sided. In the time that they had known each other, Aiden had actually believed that the strong attraction was shared. All it took was having Jason pack up and move away without even telling Aiden he was leaving to really put things in prospective.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, Chris. He’s troubled, trying to deal with his attack and juggle a floundering relationship and all I could think about was how much I wanted him. How alive I felt when he was around. What the hell is wrong with me? I should be thankful that he moved away. Now I can’t do something that could ruin my career and my life.”
But he wasn’t thankful. His heart was aching from the knowledge that he wasn’t going to see Jason again. He wasn’t going to look up during his Thursday night group and see his gorgeous face looking back at him. He wasn’t going to get any more middle of the night calls that ended with them sharing one of Leona’s amazing pies. His association with Jason was over and that thought tore at his heartstrings.
“You know, Chris…some days I feel like my life is right where it should be. And then there are the days that I miss you like crazy. I still don’t understand why you were taken from me.”
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed while he sat at Christian’s grave, but he was surprised to find Grayson leaning against his car as he made his way back.
“What are you doing here?”
“Making sure you’re alright. I could tell by the look on your face that you were really upset and I know you always come here when something is bothering you. It wasn’t too hard to figure out where you went. When you didn’t answer the 20 calls and text messages I sent, I decided to come and see you in person. Are you okay?”
“Yeah…no…I don’t know. I’m sorry, I left my phone in the car. Otherwise I would’ve at least let you know that I’m okay.”
“But you’re not okay.”
“I’m physically okay…that’s all I got right now.”
“Aid, talk to me.”
“I can’t. Not right now. I just have some things to work out in my head. I appreciate your concern, though.”
“That’s it? I appreciate your concern is all you got?”
“Gray, please don’t give me a hard time about this. I really just need to be alone right now.”
“This is about Jason, isn’t it” When Aiden didn’t answer, Grayson let out a few unflattering words regarding the troubled young man.
“Gray, stop it. What I’m going through right now is not Jason’s fault. I’m the fool for letting things get so far out of control. He was just looking for someone to help him. It’s not his fault that I wanted more. But there’s no reason to worry anymore. Jason moved back to Pittsburgh with his parents. He won’t be showing up at the center anymore. Life can go back to normal.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, Aid.”
“No, you’re not. You wanted him gone the moment you realized that I was attracted to him, but thanks for the insincere apology. I know your heart was in the right place. Now get the hell out of here. I need to wallow a little while longer before I’ll be ready to move on.”
“Are you sure? I can hang for a while if you need me.”
“No, I’m good. Thanks for being such a good friend, though. I really don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” Grayson said as he hugged his friend. “Call if you need anything.”
“I will,” Aiden promised.
Once Grayson was gone, Aiden got in his car and checked his phone. Sure enough, there were several missed calls and text messages from Grayson. And one missed call from Jason. He saw that there was a voicemail waiting and knew who it was from. Grayson didn’t believe in voicemail and refused to leave messages on them. He decided to wait until he got home before listening to what Jason had to say. He knew he had been hard on the guy. Jason had no obligation to Aiden. He was allowed to do whatever he wanted with his life without answering to anyone, especially him. He was going to have to call Jason back and apologize. It was the least he could do.
As soon as he got back to his apartment, Aiden stripped down and took a shower. He was still feeling down and hoped that a shower and some junk food would make him feel better. Once he was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, he looked through his pile of takeout menus. Nothing really appealed to him so he just grabbed an apple and sat down in the living room. He turned on the TV, but couldn’t seem to find anything worth watching. Finally out of excuses, he grabbed his phone and dialed his voicemail. Jason’s voice came through the speaker.
“Hey, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I’m doing these days. All I do know is that I keep hurting the people around me and I wish I could just stop. Moving back to Pittsburgh seemed like a really good idea when I thought of it, but now I’m not so sure. Justin’s upset with me, you’re upset with me, Zac is in his own world and doesn’t even know I’m gone, and I miss everyone so much that it’s hard to breathe. Please don’t hate me, Aiden. I don’t think I can get through this without you.”
And then the line went dead. Aiden sat there for about ten minutes, trying to decide what he should do. His reaction to Jason’s move told him that he needed to put a lot of space between them. It told him that his feelings for the younger man were inappropriate and that it would be best for them to go their separate ways now, before he got himself in any deeper. If he was smart, he’d just let the message, and Jason, go. But he wasn’t smart. Not when it came to Jason and his gorgeous eyes and vulnerable smile. He held his breath while he waited for Jason to answer.
“Hey, I’m glad you called. Aiden, I’m so sorry. I should have talked to you before I did anything. I was just afraid that you’d try talking me out of it and I really thought this was the best move for me. Of course now that I’m here, I’m more miserable than I was in Arizona and everyone is mad at me, which just makes it all worse. Please tell me that you don’t hate me. I need you so much right now.”
“No really, Aiden. I need you. You’re the only one who understands me. You’re the only one who knows what I’ve been through and doesn’t think I’m going crazy.”
“I know that I’m asking a lot of you after the way I just…”
“JAS!” Aiden exclaimed, finally putting an end to Jason’s rambling. “Will you let me talk for a minute?”
“Um…yeah…sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. It’s all okay. I never should have reacted the way I did earlier. You have a right to do whatever you think is best for you. I’m not in a position to tell you what to do and I’m sorry for the way I reacted earlier. Of course I’m here for you. I told you I would help you get through this mess, and I meant it.”
“I’m really sorry, Aiden. It was wrong of me to just pick up and move away like I did. I didn’t tell anyone, not even Justin because I knew everyone would try to stop me. That should’ve been my first clue that I was making a mistake.”
“Look Jason, maybe the move will end up being the best thing for you,” Aiden offered. “Maybe being back in your childhood home will help you feel safe again.”
“I doubt it. I’ve only been here for a few hours and I’m miserable. My mother’s treating me like I’m a child and I miss everyone.”
“Give it time. It’s a big adjustment to suddenly be back in the house you grew up in. I’m sure that you’ll be fine. And I’ll get you that list of therapists tomorrow so you can continue with your therapy.”
“But…I thought that…what about you? I feel comfortable talking to you.”
“I’m glad you do, and you can still talk to me, it just won’t be in an official capacity. Jas, I can’t be your therapist when you live what, 2000 miles away? That wouldn’t be very productive.”
“Relax, Jas, we may not be therapist and patient, but we are friends. I’m just a phone call away whenever you need me, okay?”
“Yeah…okay,” Jason finally agreed.
“Okay, good. Now I have to go. Gray’s waiting for me. Try to get some sleep. It’s been a long day for you and you sound exhausted. Don’t forget to text me your email address so I can send you that list.”
“Oh…okay. I guess I’ll just talk to you later.”
“Cool, we’ll talk soon.”
Aiden ended the call before he could say or do anything stupid, like tell Jason how much he cared, or how much he was going to miss him. Or how he suddenly had the urge to explore Pittsburgh. He grabbed the remote and began flipping channels again, but he was too restless to sit still. After thirty minutes of aggravation, he decided to get dressed and get out for a while. He thought about calling Grayson, but he wasn’t up for a lecture. Instead, he just went to the bar on the corner of his block. It was the perfect place to get away when things got tough. The staff knew him by name and always made him feel welcome and since it was within walking distance, he didn’t have to worry about driving home.
It was a rare occasion when Aiden drank anything more than a beer or two, but after the day he had, beer alone wasn’t going to cut it.
“Hey, Aiden, how’re you doing tonight? The usual?”
“Hey, Derek, how’s it going? Give me a Coors Light and a shot of Jack, please.”
“A shot of Jack? Is everything alright, pal? You’ve been coming in here for like four years and I don’t think I’ve ever served you anything stronger than a beer.”
“Yeah, I’m good. It’s just been a really shitty day.”
“Must have been. Well, I know you’re not driving, so a shot of Jack it is,” Derek chuckled as he grabbed the bottle and poured the shot.
Once the bartender was gone, Aiden downed his shot and almost choked as the liquid burned going down. It had been at least two years since he’d had a night of drinking shots and getting drunk. It had been back when Grayson had been dumped by the woman he had planned to marry. His friend had been devastated so they had gone to Hooters, at Gray’s request of course, and gotten drunk out of their minds. The hangover had lasted the entire day and made them both promise to never drink like that again. And he had honored that promise right up until that moment, when he signaled Derek for another shot. He’d gladly deal with the hangover in the morning, as long as he could get Jason out of his mind for the night.
Of course, when the next morning rolled around and the pounding in his head woke him up out of a dead sleep, he had changed his mind. The groan he let out before he even opened his eyes was inhuman, even to his own ears. The pounding started again, and it took Aiden a moment to realize that it was coming from the front door. He finally managed to open his eyes and the sharp pain that followed from the sunlight streaming through the window pulled another groan for him.
“Hey, are you going to answer the door? I’m trying to sleep here.”
The sound of the voice coming from behind him caused Aiden to jump out of bed in fear. He stared at the bartender from the night before in horror. “What are you doing here?”
Derek laughed. “I knew you were too drunk to remember, but you insisted that you’d never forget.”
“What? What the hell happened?”
“Really? Not a single flash of memory? You really know how to hurt a guy’s feelings,” Derek said as he threw back the covers and stood, unashamed of his nudity. “Is it alright if I take a shower while you go stop the pounding on the door?”
Aiden shook his head to try and clear it, which was the wrong move. Pain exploded behind his eyes. The pounded on the door started again.
“Dude, you want me to get that?”
“What? No…just…go take a shower…or whatever.” Aiden started towards the door and then realized that he didn’t have any clothes on. Too hung over to care about his appearance, he pulled on his robe from the back of his bedroom door. The pounding started again. “I’m coming!”
When he finally opened the front door, Grayson stood there looking completely put together and extremely annoyed. “What the fuck have you been doing? I’ve been calling you for hours. We were supposed to be on the road an hour ago. We have that seminar in Scottsdale, remember?”
“Fuck…no…I’m sorry. I just…um…”
“Are you alright? You look like hell,” Grayson pointed out as he looked Aiden up and down. “And who the hell is in your shower?”
“Gray, I can’t do this right now. Could you, fuck…”
“Aid, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Can you call Mr. Dresher and tell him…I don’t know…that I came down with food poisoning or something? There’s no way I can do the seminar today.”
“I already did,” Gray replied. “Well, not food poisoning. I told him that you had the flu. I had to tell him something when I couldn’t reach you. Now, are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“I will, but not right now. Could you just…give me some time? I just need to be alone right now. I can’t…just come back later. Much later. Like for dinner. I promise I’ll tell you everything.”
Grayson looked deeply into his eyes and saw pain and confusion there. His concern for his friend jumped up a few notches. “I’ll be back at five. You’d better be ready to talk.”
Once Grayson was gone, Aiden groaned and headed back into the bedroom. Derek was standing there drying off, his clothes in a folded pile on the bed. “Hey, you okay?”
“Not really. How the fuck did this…I’m assuming we…shit.”
“Yeah, we did. And it was amazing, although the fact that you don’t remember makes it slightly less amazing.”
“How did this happen?”
“Well, you were really wasted and still hanging at the bar when I was closing. I was worried about you walking alone so I offered to walk you home. When we got here, you couldn’t even get your key in the lock. I helped you inside and as soon as the door closed behind us, you pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. Now, I guess I really should have said no. You were drunk out of your mind and I was stone cold sober, but I just couldn’t. I’ve been lusting after you for years. Since you never even gave me a second thought except for when your glass was empty, I figured it was my only chance. Sorry.”
“Oh God,” Aiden groaned. “I think you should probably get dressed and go now.”
“I guess you’re pissed, huh?” Derek asked as he started getting dressed.
“Yeah, but I’m pissed at myself, not you. I’m sorry, Derek. I didn’t know that you…noticed me beyond just a customer at the bar, but I’m not available.”
“Shit, you have a boyfriend?”
“No…I’m not emotionally available. I can’t…I don’t date.”
“Is it because of what happened to you?”
“What? How did you…did I say something last night when we…”
“Relax, I know who you are. I grew up around here. I was two years ahead of you in school. The attack…well, it was big news around here. Your name was kept out of the papers because of your age, but I still had contacts at school. My little sister was in Christian’s English class.”
“Oh…well, yeah. I guess I just…”
“Shit, this wasn’t the first time you…”
“No,” Aiden was quick to reply. “I mean, it doesn’t happen often, but it has…can we not talk about this?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. About everything. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of the situation. You just seemed really into it and I guess I just thought…I don’t know. It wasn’t like you were completely out of it. You were in control the entire time. In fact, I don’t usually bottom for guys, especially if I’m not in a relationship, but you insisted on being on top. You seemed to know what you were doing. Anyway, I am sorry. I hope you won’t stop coming into the bar. I don’t want things to be weird between us. We can just forget about last night and pretend it didn’t happen. Well, I’ll forget…you’ve already forgotten.”
“Derek, I’m really sorry about this. I was having such a bad day yesterday and I just wanted to forget. In fact, that was the point of going to the bar. I wasn’t looking to hook up with anyone and I certainly wasn’t out to be a dick. I appreciate you being so cool about this.”
“Hey, that’s what bartenders are for,” Derek teased. “Okay, I’m out of here. I guess I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah, you will, but probably not for a while. I don’t even want to think about alcohol right now,” Aiden chuckled and then held his head as the throbbing intensified. “All I can’t think about is crawling back into bed.”
“May I suggest two aspirin and a tall glass of water before you go? The aspirin will help with the headache and the water will help hydrate you.”
“Thanks. I think I’ll do that. And thanks for getting me home safe.”
“I don’t know about safe,” Derek said.
“Trust me; there are worse ways to end a night than in bed with a hot bartender.” Aiden shivered at the thought.
“That is true. Okay, hope you feel better. I’ll see myself out.”
Once Derek was gone, Aiden went to the kitchen, took two aspirin, and drank down a glass of water. He went to the bathroom, emptied his bladder, and brushed his teeth. Then he climbed into bed and fell asleep the minute his head hit the pillow.
The next time he woke, the first thing he noticed was that his head wasn’t pounding any longer. He stretched and got ready to roll out of bed when pounding on the front door startled him. Feeling a sense of déjà vu he glanced over to the clock on his nightstand and was shocked to see it was a little after five. Knowing he was going to have to face his pissed off friend; he threw on his robe and went to the door.
“Alright Aid, enough is enough. You need to tell me what’s going on. I’ve been calling you for almost an hour and then I come over here to find that you’re not even out of bed yet? What the fuck?”
“I’m sorry. Give me ten minutes to take a shower and get dressed. We’ll order in some food and we’ll talk, okay?”
“Just tell me this. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m good. It hasn’t been the best 24 hours of my life, but I’m okay. Make yourself comfortable. Grab the takeout menus and decide what you want. Preferably something that’s easy on the stomach.”
“Look, you go hop into the shower. I’ll run over to the diner and pick up some soup and sandwiches. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great. Thanks, buddy. I’ll be human again by the time you get back,” Aiden promised.
“Just don’t disappear again, alright? I’ve been really worried about you.”
“I’m sorry, Gray. I didn’t mean to worry you. I promise, I’ll be right here waiting for you when you get back.”
Gray looked at him closely, almost as if he didn’t believe it, but then nodded and walked out the door. Aiden walked into the kitchen and downed another glass of water before heading into the bedroom. He took his shower, enjoying the feel of the hot water beating down on his back. The best thing about his place was the water pressure. It bordered on painful and he loved it. Once he was out, he ran his fingers through his hair, threw on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt and then went into the living room to wait for Grayson. He had grabbed his cell phone off the coffee table and was surprised to see all the missed calls and messages he had. Most of them were from Gray, but there was also one from Zander, two from his mother, and one from Jason. Jason’s missed called came in just after three in the morning, which meant only one thing. Jason was having a bad night and reached out to his friend, only to find him unavailable.
The guilt over not taking the call began eating at him immediately. He dialed his voicemail and listened to each message. Zander was just confirming their Monday morning meeting. His mother wanted to know if he was coming to Sunday night dinner. She arranged them once a month to make sure the family stayed involved in each other’s lives. It was Jason’s call that broke his heart. The poor guy was having trouble adapting to his move. He had woken up out of a dead sleep in a panic and in his confusion and fear, didn’t recognize his surroundings at first. Hearing the pain and fear in his voice pulled at Aiden’s heartstrings. He deleted the message and went to call, but stopped himself before he could hit send. Maybe it was good that he didn’t answer the phone. Maybe it was the only way to put some space between them. He had received the text message with Jason’s email address. Maybe it would be better if he just sent the list of therapists and tried to put some much needed distance between them.
His attraction to one of his patients was too strong. He had tried to ignore it, but their connection was so powerful and despite the fact that it was platonic on Jason’s end, Aiden’s end kept him awake at night. Aiden’s end had him getting drunk at the bar and bringing home the bartender. No, it was best if they had a little distance between them. It was best for everyone.
When Grayson returned, Aiden was grateful to see him. He needed the distraction almost as much as he needed the food. They ate first and then Aiden spilled his guts. He told his friend how deep his feelings for Jason had gotten, how Jason seemed oblivious to those feelings, how Jason just packed up and moved away without telling him, and how that move caused the drunken night and the hook up he had no memory of.
Of course Grayson was concerned for his friend, but he didn’t judge him, which was exactly what Aiden needed. They talked for a little while longer and then they put the subject to rest. Jason was gone and Aiden’s feelings would fade. That was all that mattered. Once they were done talking, Gray put on the TV and flipped through the channels until he found something worth watching. It was the perfect end to a horrible day and Aiden thanked his lucky stars that he had Grayson in his life.
End of part 18
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