Now That You're Here - The College Years
Justin looked around as Zan pulled into
his parents’ driveway. After all the years that the two families had no contact,
he never expected to find out that they lived just one town away from where he’d
grown up. The distance between them was figuratively much greater. The house was
large. Larger than Justin expected despite knowing that his aunt and uncle were
wealthy. Zan turned off the car but made no move to exit.
“Are you alright?” Justin asked after a few moments.
“What?” Zan asked as if he’d forgotten that he wasn’t alone. “Oh, yeah. Just a lot of memories. Let’s get this over with.”
Justin followed Zan up to the door and was surprised when his cousin rang the doorbell. An elderly lady answered, her face registering sheer joy at seeing Zander. She quickly opened the door and stepped outside.
“Alexander! My, look at you. How long as it been?”
Zander opened his arms and engulfed the frail looking woman, a huge smile on his face. “Mrs. Phillips! It’s so good to see you again. Don’t tell me you’re still cleaning up after the Morgan family.”
“Of course I am, although I must admit I’m only coming a few days a week now. Your mother hired someone to do the heavy stuff. Got to be too much for me. Especially after Sofia showed up.”
Before Mrs. Phillips could respond, the door opened and Zander came face to face with his mother for the first time in over seven years.
“Hello Alexander. It’s good to see you. You’re looking well,” Charlotte Morgan replied as she tentatively reached out to hug her estranged son.
“You’re looking well, too,” Zan offered.
Charlotte looked past her son and noticed they weren’t alone. “And who it this?”
“This is Justin. Aunt Jen and Uncle Craig’s son.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize…”
“You didn’t realize that I took him in and gave him a home when his parents were killed?” Zander said, interrupting whatever his mother was about to say.
“Zan,” Justin whispered from behind.
Charlotte cleared her throat and changed the subject quickly. “Well, come on in. No use standing out here on the front porch all day.” She turned and went inside without waiting for a reply.
“As cold as ever, I see,” Zander said allowed.
“Now Alexander, you have to cut your mother some slack. She just lost Kevin and this whole mess with Sofia really has her in a bad way,” Mrs. Phillips replied.
The old woman looked at him questioningly. “Surely they told you about Sofia.”
“Mrs. Phillips, I haven’t spoken to either of my parents in over seven years,” Zan explained.
“That can’t be right.”
“It’s true. When my mother called me the other day to tell me my father had died, it was the first time I’d spoken to her since the year after I graduated college.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Phillips sighed. “We’d better get inside.” And with that, the old lady walked inside, leaving Zander and Justin to follow.
“Wow, that was weird,” Justin said as soon as they were alone. “What do you think it all means?”
“I have no idea, but I’m going to go find out right now.”
Zander pushed away the memories that came flooding back, both good and bad, as he walked through the house in search of his mother. He found her in his father’s study, going through paperwork on his father’s desk.
“Alexander, would you be a dear and help me go through this mess? Your father wasn’t a very organized man.”
“In a little bit. Right now I want to know who Sofia is.”
Charlotte looked up, glanced over at Justin who was waiting by the door, then redirected her attention back to her son. “We’ll talk about it later. It’s family business.”
Zan looked over at Justin and then back to his mother. “Justin is family, remember?”
“It’s okay, Zan,” Justin said quickly. “I’ll just go outside and take a look around.”
Once Justin was gone, Zan focused back on his mother. “I can’t believe you said that. Not only is Justin family, but he dropped everything and put his life on hold to come here and pay his respects to a man who left him all alone as a ward of the state. He doesn’t deserve to be treated like a stranger.”
“Oh Alexander, stop being so melodramatic,” Charlotte replied.
Zander just shook his head. It was no use. His mother was never going to change. He turned the conversation back to the original topic. “Alright, so who’s Sofia?”
“Sofia is your father’s illegitimate child,” Charlotte explained emotionlessly.
“What?!” Zan exclaimed.
“Apparently your father had an affair with some Puerto Rican pole dancer about ten years ago. I guess he wasn’t much of a fan of condoms. Bastard’s lucky he didn’t bring home any diseases.”
“You mean…” Zan was speechless.
“Yes. You can imagine my surprise six months ago when Child Protective Services showed up claiming that Kevin had a daughter. It seems the pole dancer had a pretty bad drug habit. She overdosed; left behind her daughter and some papers naming your dad as the father.”
Zan couldn’t wrap his mind around what his mother was saying. “I’m assuming that Dad…”
“Had a paternity test? Of course he did. Turns out the dancing harlot was telling the truth. As soon as the results were in, your father had her taken out of the foster home and brought here.”
“So she’s here?”
“Yes, for a few more days anyhow.”
“What do you mean for a few more days? What happens in a few days?”
“I have no idea. I called Child Protective Services shortly after your father passed away. Sofia will stay here until the services are over and then someone will be picking her up.”
“You’re letting her go back into foster care?” Zan was horrified.
“Why would I let her stay here?” Charlotte asked calmly. “She’s your father’s child, not mine.”
“Mother, she’s my sister. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“She’s your half sister,” Charlotte corrected him as if that bit of information made any difference. “Certainly you can’t think that I would burden myself with the task of raising a child that my husband fathered with another woman while we were married.”
“You’re incredible, you know that? Although I don’t know why I’m surprised considering the way you left poor Justin in foster care after he lost his parents so tragically. Where’s Sofia? I want to meet her.”
“Our housekeeper took her shopping for something suitable to wear at the funeral. They should be back in an hour or so. While you’re waiting, why don’t you help me…”
“Are you out of your mind?” Zander asked, interrupting her. “I don’t even want to be in the same room as you right now. Not only did you not call me to tell me I had a sister, but you just stood there and told me that you want to let my sister go into foster care.”
“She’s your half sister.”
“Oh my God! I can’t even look at you. Justin and I will wait outside.”
Zander didn’t bother waiting for a response. He stormed out of the study and out the back door. He knew exactly where Justin would be. Sure enough, he found him sitting in the gazebo gazing at the elaborate fountain and pond his parents put in when he was nine. He remembered how old he was because as soon as it was installed, he was no longer allowed to play in the back yard. It was a beautiful setting and he knew that Justin’s artistic eye would draw him there. The blond never heard him approach.
“I can’t believe I’m even related to that woman!” Zan barked angrily, startling Justin.
“Hey, sit down. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, I always knew my mother was a bitch, but this? This is so unbelievable; I can’t even wrap my head around it.”
“Zan, why don’t you take a couple deep breaths and then tell me what happened?”
Zan did as Justin suggested and tried to take a few deep breaths, but it wasn’t helping him to calm down any. Not after what he’d just learned. “I found out who Sofia is.”
“Okay…” Justin waited for more.
“She’s my sister…well, technically she’s my half sister, but don’t tell my mother I said that. In my opinion, a sister is a sister.”
“Wait, you have a sister? How…when…”
“Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction, too. I feel like I’m stuck in some weird dream, and when I wake up, my father will be alive and I’ll be at home with Chris, waiting for you and Brian to finally come home for a weekend.”
“I’m really sorry that we haven’t been home sooner…but that’s not important right now. Tell me exactly what she told you.”
Zander spent the next few minutes telling Justin exactly what his mother had told him, as his mind spun over the news. He could see the shocked look on Justin’s face and knew the feeling well. He still couldn’t wrap his mind around his father having an affair. Ten years earlier, Zan was away from home at college. He tried to think back, to remember ever seeing any signs that his father was cheating, but nothing came to mind.
“So, what’s the next step? She can have my room. I’ll just move whatever I still have at home into Brian’s room.” Justin offered.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Zan, I know you. There’s no way you’re going to let your sister go back into the foster care system. You came here and took me in and I was only a distant cousin you hadn’t seen in sixteen years,” Justin pointed out.
“Yeah, but you were seventeen then. Almost an adult. We already had a seventeen year old at home. You were easy. Sofia’s like nine or something…and a girl. I don’t know what to do with a nine year old girl.”
“Brian was only fourteen when you took him in.”
“That was different. He was Chris’s brother. They knew each other. I don’t even know Sofia,” Zan reminded him.
“No, but do you really think you could leave her behind?”
Zan didn’t answer that. He didn’t have to. They both knew that there was no way he could ever turn his back on his sister. “I guess I’d better call Chris and let him know what’s happening. Sofia is out with the housekeeper right now. She should be back soon. We’ll wait outside. I’m not going back in there right now.”
“Whatever you want,” Justin replied. “Tell him to tell Brian I’ll call him later. I’ll go wait by the car so you can have some privacy.”
“Thanks Jus, for everything.”
“Hey, family’s got to stick together. I guess I have another cousin to add to the list, huh?”
“It appears you do.”
“Works for me.” Justin shot Zander a smile and then left him alone to call Chris.
Once Zan was alone, he called Chris and explained what was going on. Chris accepted the addition to the family as easily as Justin had, reminding Zander of one of the reasons why he loved the man in the first place. Once he was done with Chris, Zander called Maria, the case worker who helped him get custody of Justin. Maria wasn’t familiar with Sofia’s case, but assured Zander she would make the necessary calls and start working on gaining temporary custody for Zan until more permanent arrangements could be made. Zan apologized twice for calling her on a Sunday, but she blew the apology off. She just wished more people would be as loving and caring as Alexander Morgan was.
By the time Zander made his way to the front of the house, a blue Taurus was pulling up in the circular driveway. Zan could see a small child’s face peeking out of the window in the back. The woman behind the while got out and looked Zan over before smiling.
“You must be Alexander. I recognize you from all the pictures Mrs. Morgan has around the house. I’m Katherine, your parents’ housekeeper. I’m so sorry about your father.”
Zan was by the car in seconds. “Thank you. I’m assuming that the little girl in the back is Sofia. Can you introduce us? I’m dying to meet my sister, but I don’t want to startle her.”
“Of course. She’s such a precious little girl. She’s been through so much. I heard that she’s the one who found her mother’s body, the poor thing. Then she finally comes here and starts getting to know her father and he dies. It breaks my heart just thinking about it. I suggested to Mrs. Morgan that she seek some kind of counseling for her, but she said that Sofia wasn’t going to be staying here much longer. Do you know where she’s going next? All this jumping around isn’t good for her.”
“No, it isn’t. But it’s all over now. She’s going to be coming home with me to Arizona and then she’s not going anywhere until after she graduates college.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear it, although I’ll miss her terribly. I’ve pretty much been her nanny since she got here. We’ve gotten pretty close. Well, as close as we can considering the circumstances. She doesn’t really get too close to anyone. She keeps to herself most of the time. It’s so sad. She should be playing with dolls and having tea parties, but all she really does is read books and stare off into space. It’s a rare occasion when I hear her laugh, and usually she seems to catch herself and stop, as if laughing is somehow wrong,” Katherine shook her head sadly and then reached for the back door. “Let me introduce you two and let you get acquainted.”
“Thanks,” Zan replied softly. Just hearing about Sofia’s sadness broke his heart. He glanced up and saw Justin standing by the side of the house and smiled. Justin was giving him space and Zan appreciated that. His thoughts were interrupted when Sofia was suddenly standing before him. She was beautiful, with long dark hair in spiral curls cascading down her back, beautiful deep blue eyes surrounded by long lashes, and a nice olive complexion that screamed of her Puerto Rican heritage. Zan crouched down in front of the girl as Katherine made the introductions. “Hi Sofia. How are you?”
“Fine,” Sofia replied softly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner to meet you. I didn’t know I had a sister.”
“Yeah, I’m your big brother. Your father was my father, too,” Zander explained, wondering how much a nine year old could understand.
“Oh,” she said. “He’s dead. So is my mother.”
“I know, and I’m sorry you’re going through all of this. I bet you miss them both terribly.”
“I miss my mom a lot. My father…well, I didn’t really know him that well. Do you miss him?”
“A little bit, but I haven’t really spoken to him in a long time. So, did he tell you that you had a brother?”
“Not really. I don’t think he was really happy to meet me. Or Charlotte either. They fought a lot and I always heard my name when they did.”
“I don’t think it was about you. I’m sure he was happy to meet you. I know that I am,” Zan said, struggling not to show how upset he was over what he was hearing. Poor Sofia must have felt terrible thinking that she was the cause of all the fighting. Zan waved Justin over. “There’s someone else I think you’d like to meet. This is Justin. He’s our cousin. His mother and our father were brother and sister.”
While Justin shook Sofia’s hand and made small talk, Zan led Katherine away from listening ears. He had a few questions. “When you said that you’ve been her nanny, does that mean you did all the caring for her? Did my father ever spend any time with her?”
“Mr. Morgan was a busy man,” Katherine said as she avoided Zan’s eyes, her reaction speaking volumes. “I have to say though; she seems to be drawn to you. I think she spoke more to you in those few minutes than she does all day long around here.”
Zander looked over to where Sofia and Justin were standing. He could see that Sofia was looking intently at Justin, but she really wasn’t doing much of the talking. He was glad that she felt some sort of instant bond with him. It would make the transition much easier. He turned his attention back on Katherine. “Could you do me a favor and go pack a few of her things? I want to take her with me now. I’ll come by tomorrow for the rest of her things.”
“Thanks.” Zander left Katherine and went back to join Sofia and Justin. “Sofia, I was thinking that you could come with Justin and me now. We’re staying in a hotel not too far from here. Katherine went to pack a few of your things. I thought we could have a nice dinner and then maybe watch a movie. How does that sound?”
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Great. Why don’t you stay here with Justin while I go talk to Charlotte and let her know our plans?”
“Zan?” Justin inquired wordlessly.
“It’s okay. I’ll be right back,” Zan assured him.
Zander watched Justin take Sofia’s hand and lead her over to a bench that sat in the middle of the driveway, surrounded by trees and beautiful flowers. Such a beautiful home filled with such ugliness inside. He shook off his thoughts and made his way inside. His mother was sitting in the living room this time, sipping tea.
“I’m taking Sofia with me,” he said without question.
“Alexander, I appreciate that you want to get to know her a bit, but it’s probably better if she stays here. It’s familiar and in another few days, she’s going to be uprooted again.”
“Wow Mother, that almost sounds like sympathy. But there’s no need to worry. She’s only going to be uprooted once more. Katherine went to pack on overnight bag, but I’ll be back tomorrow for the rest of her things. Child Protective Services is already arranging to have custody of Sofia granted to me. I will not let my sister be raised by strangers.”
“Oh and being raised by homosexuals is better? That girl deserves to be raised by a mother and father. She deserves to have a normal family, not two men who have no business raising children. She’ll be teased and ridiculed at school and become a social outcast. Do you really want that for your sister?”
“How dare you! My partner and I have spent the last 4 years raising his younger brother as well as helping Justin in the last sixteen months. They are both wonderful young men with bright futures ahead of them. We’re better able to raise children over people like you and Dad. I will be back tomorrow for the rest of Sofia’s things and then I will see you at the funeral, but other than that, you’re on your own. Now I remember exactly why I walked out of here seven years ago and never looked back!”
The rest of the afternoon and evening went better than Zander had hoped for. Sofia was still on the quiet side, but she laughed quite a few times when either he or Justin did something silly. They watched a few Disney movies that the hotel had on demand, and then munched on hot dogs and mac and cheese for dinner. By the time 8:00 rolled around, Sofia looked completely exhausted and mostly comfortable in their presence. Zander agreed to read her a book before bedtime and was surprised when she pulled out a worn out copy of Goodnight Moon. It had been his favorite as a child, too. The hotel was spacious and their suite had a separate bedroom. Zan planned on tucking Sofia into the huge king sized bed, after Justin agreed to share the queen sized pull out in the sitting area of the room. She insisted he sit back on the bed and rest against the head board and when he was settled, she climbed up into his lap and snuggled into his arms. Zan was almost overwhelmed by his feelings for his sister. Despite only knowing her for less than a day, he knew he’d do anything to protect the sweet, innocent child.
When the last page was read, Zan looked down and realized that Sofia had fallen asleep. He carefully climbed out of bed with her in his arms and then laid her down gently. He covered her up with the blankets and kissed her forehead before slipping out of the room. When he reached the sitting area, he found Justin sitting on the couch flipping through the TV channels. He looked up when he realized he wasn’t alone.
“Is she asleep?”
“Sound asleep,” Zan informed him as he dropped down in one of the chairs. “She is so sweet. My heart aches for her after all she’s been through.”
“I know, mine too. But look at it this way. All that is behind her now. She’s about to move in with two of the greatest parental figures on the planet. She couldn’t be any luckier.”
“You sure about that? I mean, you and Brian were older when you came to stay with Chris and me. Plus you were both gay. Do you think it’s a good idea for us to be taking in a nine year old girl? What if the kids at school tease her for living with two fags? What if she’d be better off with a new mom and dad?” Zan asked, voicing his concerns.
Justin stared at Zander in horror. “You did not just say that. Where did that even come…wait. What did your mother say to you?”
“Your mother, the Ice Queen. What did she say to you because I know this self doubt isn’t you.”
Zander sighed. “She said that Sofia deserves to have a normal family with a mother and father. That she’ll end up being ridiculed in school and become a social outcast.”
“That’s bullshit!” Justin exclaimed. “Don’t you let her get into your head. You saved Brian and me and you’ll save Sofia, too. What she deserves is a family that loves her and takes care of her. We’ll give her that. All of us. Between Chris, Brian, you and I, she’ll be the most loved little girl in the world. As for the kids in school, it’s 2012. Same sex parents are everywhere. No one’s going to ridicule her. They’ll be jealous of how cool her ‘parents’ are.”
Zander remained quiet while he thought about what Justin said. It was true that Sofia would be loved. He loved her already and he could tell Justin was falling for her, too. It wouldn’t take long for her to wrap Chris and Brian around her little finger as well. And he knew for a fact that there was a lesbian couple who lived a few blocks away raising a set of twins, probably right around Sofia’s age. He’d let his mother get to him, making himself doubt that he was doing the right thing. He thought he took away her power to get to him, but all it took was a few hateful words for her to gain it back. Well, he wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“You’re right. Sofia is a very lucky little girl to be moving into the Kinney/Morgan/Taylor household. Thanks for reminding me.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Justin replied with a bright smile. He was so excited to learn that he had a new cousin. Sofia was a sweetheart and he couldn’t wait to start spoiling her.
The following few day seemed to fly by. As promised, Zander went to his mother’s on Monday to pack up the rest of Sofia’s things. She seemed more than willing to stay at the hotel with Justin and play, so Zan went on his own, choosing to shield the little girl from too much interaction with his mother. The poor little thing didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but Zan made sure to grab every one of them. Aside from confirming that he’d be present at the funeral home on Tuesday for his father’s service, Zan refused to even speak to his mother. He wanted nothing to do with her and only agreed to even attend the service because of Sofia. He wanted his sister to be able to say goodbye to the father she hardly knew.
His next stop was at CPS. He had forms to fill out regarding his custody of Sofia, but as promised, Maria came through for him and he was given permission to take his sister back to Arizona with him. There’s be a court hearing sometime in the upcoming months to make the guardianship legal, but Maria assured Zander that he wouldn’t even have to appear. It was only a formality.
Once that was all done, he called Justin to check on Sofia and then headed to the mall. He’d spoken to Katherine at length while he was at his mother’s house about what Sofia liked and disliked and what size clothes she wore. He found out that her favorite color was purple and she had a fondness for all the Disney Princesses, which he was informed was typical of many nine year old girls. He called Chris and told him the valuable information and then went crazy buying up everything he could find that was either purple or Disney Princess like. Some would say that he went a little overboard, but after everything that the girl had been through in the current year alone, she deserved to be a little spoiled. After a quick trip into Sears to pick up a large suitcase to bring all of his purchases home in, he made his way back to the hotel.
Justin had been searching online while he was gone and found an indoor amusement park not more than an hours’ drive from the hotel. Zan allowed Sofia to rummage through her new things, enjoying her squeals of delight, and then put everything away before they headed out for the evening.
Sofia wasn’t too thrilled with the park, choosing to stick close to either Zan or Justin rather than venture out with the other children, but she seemed to enjoy watching everyone around her. Zan made a mental note to start seeking a therapist as soon as they got home. He had no doubt that Sofia needed professional help. No one knew what she might have seen while she was still with her mother, but something told Zander that she’d seen more than any child should have.
Bedtime was a repeat of the night before. Sofia curled up on Zan’s lap while he read Goodnight Moon again, and she was sleeping before the last page had been read. As soon as he was back in the sitting room, Zander went to the mini bar and poured himself a drink.
“You want to talk about it?” Justin asked as he lowered the sound on the TV. Zan rarely drank anything stronger than wine. When Justin saw him grab a small bottle of scotch, he knew that he was upset.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just not looking forward to tomorrow,” Zan admitted.
“Burying your dad,” Justin said softly.
“Burying my father, facing my mother, facing God knows who else. I can just imagine all of my parents’ friends there judging me. Assuming that I’ve been a horrible son for never visiting my aging parents when the truth is they never deserved my visits. They don’t deserve the title of Mom and Dad because they never earned it. And it’s not like they even learned a lesson. I guess a part of me was always hoping that my disappearance would show them the error of their ways. That they’d be back here wishing they had done things differently during my childhood, but they’re still as clueless. My father had a chance to do things right a second time with Sofia, and he hardly ever saw her in the six months that she was with him. All I want to do is go home, hug Chris as tight as I can, and forget this horrible trip.”
“I know, but you have to remember what you got out of this trip. You have a beautiful little sister that is going to have a wonderful life now that she’s found you. That alone should be worth all the crap that you’ve been going through.”
“Yeah, it is,” Zan said with a smile as he thought of Sofia and how warm she was curled up in his lap. “I’d do it all again for her.”
“See? You always have to look on the bright side.”
“You know, sometimes it still amazes me that you walked away from your parents horrible death as unscarred as you are. They really did a great job raising you.”
“Yeah, they did. But I have a few scars lingering underneath the surface. I just don’t show them much. One day I’ll probably surprise you all and go completely postal. You’ll never even see it coming,” Justin laughed.
“I doubt it, but if you do, I’ll be right here for you.”
The day of the funeral went by rather quietly. Instead of focusing on his mother and what she was doing, Zan kept his focus on Sofia. She didn’t seem very sad over what was happening around her, she was just quiet, but that could be attributed to being surrounded by so many people. His father was a popular man and it seemed as if everyone in the Pittsburgh area showed up to pay their respects. Although it angered him slightly that no one knew the bastard that Kevin Morgan was, he was happy for all the people because it kept him out of the spotlight. He didn’t sit in the front pew with the family. He, Justin and Sofia stayed towards the back and got lost in the crowd. They did the same thing at the cemetery, where it was slightly harder to vanish because of the smaller crowd, but they still managed to keep their distance. A few of his father’s friends recognized him and approached him, offering their condolences, but his stand offish demeanor kept a lot of them away.
When the final reading was over and everyone started heading towards their cars, a hand on his arm forced Zan to turn around where he came face to face with his mother.
“You’re coming back to the house, right?”
“Sorry Mother, we have a plane to catch,” Zander replied, refusing to feel guilty for the lie. He could make the time to go back to the house. Their plane wasn’t for seven more hours. But there was no way he was going to spend any more time around people he had no desire to speak to.
“But what about…”
“Mother, why don’t we just stop this right here and now? You haven’t cared to speak to me in the last seven years and I’ve been more than okay with that. We’re not going to suddenly bond over the loss of that selfish bastard. I’m going back to Arizona and getting on with my life. I suggest you do the same here.”
Zan turned away from his mother and headed towards the car, where Justin had taken Sofia moments earlier to shield her from any more family drama. He grabbed Sofia and picked her up, hugging her tightly. She squealed with delight and hugged him back even tighter. “What do you say we head over to the Funplex? We have a few hours until we have to be at the airport and I believe you owe me a Pacman rematch.”
Justin saw the look in Zan’s eyes and knew he was trying not to let on how much it hurt walking away at that moment. “You’re on, but I don’t see why you feel the need for a rematch. I’m just going to kick your as…butt again,” Justin laughed as he remembered last minute to curb his language. Being around a nine year old was going to be tough for awhile.
“We’ll just see about that,” Zan replied. He turned his attention on Sofia. “You ready, Freddy?”
“My name’s not Freddy,” Sofia laughed.
“It’s not? Are you sure?”
“Then what’s your name?”
“Sofia Morgan Reyes,” she offered with a giggle.
“Well then, Sofia Morgan Reyes, are you ready to go?”
“Yep! Let’s get out of here!”
That was Zander’s thought, too.
Chris was finishing up the final touches on Sofia’s bedroom. While Brian was still home for the weekend, he had helped move all of Justin’s things out and prep the room for painting. He’d offered to miss a day of school so that he could do more, but Chris refused to let him. School was too important and the room wasn’t so big that Chris couldn’t do it on his own. Although now, two days later and with his back aching in so many places, he wished he had a teenager around to help. He just put down the paintbrush for the last time when the doorbell rang. Startled, because ever since the boys left for college, unexpected visitors were a rarity, he went to answer it.
“Steve? What are you doing here?” Chris asked in complete shocked as he looked at his visitor.
“Hey, Brian’s not here is he?”
“No, he’s back at school. Aren’t you supposed to be in New Jersey? Wait, come in.” Chris opened the door wide and let Steve come in, his mind spinning with so many questions. He knew that Brian and Steve had gotten into a fight the week before, and Brian spent all weekend trying to get a hold of him, but Steve wouldn’t return his calls or texts. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really. I’m sorry to just show up here unannounced, but I didn’t know where else to go,” Steve said softly, his despair evident in his face.
“You’re always welcome here, Steve. You’re part of the family. Now why don’t we sit down and you can tell me what’s going on?” Chris led Steve into the living room and sat down, anxiously awaiting Steve’s reason for being in Arizona.
“I dropped out of school.”
“You what?!” Chris exclaimed.
“Yeah, that’s kind of what my father said, too. Right before he kicked me out.”
“Wait…okay. Hang on a minute. Let’s start with school. Why did you drop out? I know Brian mentioned that you were having a hard time settling in, but in time I’m sure it would’ve gotten easier for you,” Chris said.
“I don’t know. Maybe…but that doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t want to be there. I don’t even know if I want to go to college. It’s not for everyone, you know.”
“No, it’s not. But Steve, you’re a genius, man. You could breeze through four years without even breaking a sweat. And let’s face it, the real world isn’t easy. Having an education will help you find a good job and live comfortably.”
“I know…I know all of that. I just really don’t want to go. And no offense to you or anyone else, but it’s my life and as an adult, I have the right to make my own decisions.”
“Yes, you do. But you can’t blame those who care about you for being concerned. We all just want what’s best for you,” Brian told him.
“I know, but I have to do what feels right for me. I can’t spend my life making other people happy if it’s going to make me miserable, you know? That would almost be like saying that you have to be straight even though everything inside is telling you not to be, just because it would make other people happy. Right now everything inside of me is telling me that school just isn’t in the cards right now. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never go. I just need some time to figure things out. Please, tell me you understand that,” Steve pleaded.
Chris heard the desperation in Steve’s voice and knew the younger man needed someone on his side. “I do understand. I don’t necessarily agree with you just dropping out, but I understand feeling confused about your direction in life. Trust me, deciding to seek a career as an author instead of getting a nine to five job wasn’t an easy choice to make, but I had Zan on my side. That made it so much easier.”
“Thanks Chris. I really appreciate it. I just wish my father could be as understanding.”
“Steve, I’m sure it’s hard for him to sit back and watch you make what he considers to be a bad choice. I know I wasn’t happy back when Brian questioned whether he wanted to go to college. I’m sure he’ll come around,” Chris offered, hoping he was right. Steve’s father was a good guy, but he could be a stubborn asshole sometimes; especially if he felt strongly about something.
“I really hope so, but while I’m waiting, I kind of don’t have anywhere to go,” Steve said, looking expectantly at Chris.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know you always have somewhere to go. I mean come on, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Chris chuckled.
Steve looked sheepish. “Well I kind of thought I did, but you can never be too sure. Thanks Chris, I owe you big.”
“Remember that after tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is when our house is going to be invaded by a nine year old girl. All the testosterone in the house is about to be affected…not to mention the quiet.”
Chris laughed at Steve’s confusion, and then he explained all about Sofia. “So, you still want to stay here?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I do. I love kids. I can’t believe Zan has a sister he never knew about. His parents should’ve told him.”
“I know, although even his father was in the dark until six months ago. I don’t know. It appears that his family is even more fucked up that I originally thought. Regardless, he knows now and she’s about to become part of the Kinney/Morgan/Taylor household. Should be fun.”
“You guys are awesome, you know that?”
“What do you mean?” Chris asked in confusion.
“I mean that you guys keep coming to everyone’s rescue, no questions asked,” Steve replied. “You’re like superheroes.”
Chris laughed. “No we’re not. We’re just helping out our family, that’s all.”
“Oh yeah? Well what about me?”
“I told you, you’re part of our family. And I’m sure that your father will come around in a day or so, but you’re welcome here until he does…as long as you do me a favor in return.”
“Anything you need. You know that.”
“Call my brother. He spent his whole weekend moping around waiting for you to return his calls and text messages.”
Steve smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, I will. Sorry about that. I just didn’t want to tell anyone what was going on until I did what I needed to do.”
“You know, he’s pretty upset about things right now. He feels like your friendship isn’t as important to you and it is to him. He considers you his best friend and feels like he can tell you anything.”
“I consider him my best friend, too. I guess I’m just not very good at sharing my own personal stuff, you know? But that doesn’t mean that if I really needed someone, he wouldn’t be the first person I run to,” Steve assured him. “Justin’s in Pittsburgh, right? Maybe I’ll drive up to Arizona State and talk to him face to face.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. But before you go, could you help me with Sofia’s room? I was just checking my paint job, making sure I didn’t miss anything. I could use some help moving everything in.”
“You got it, Chris. And thanks again for everything; for listening and for giving me a place to crash. I’ve got a lot of money in my saving account and I’ll start looking for a job right away so I can pay you rent.”
“I got an idea. Instead of paying rent, because we wouldn’t take your money anyway, why don’t you talk to Zan about working down at the store? I know that Stacy is getting married in a few weeks and her future husband was just offered a huge promotion, but it’s in California. I’m sure Zan’s going to need some help, especially while we adjust to living with a nine year old. I may work from home a lot, but when I’m here, I’m still working. I devote at least eight hours a day to my writing. I can’t lose that time or I’ll start falling behind on my deadlines. I can get her ready for school if Zan wants to go in early, but he’s going to have to be here for her in the afternoon. Unless we have the bus drop her off at the store. Shit, we never had to deal with this before. Brian was fourteen when he came here. He was able to take care of himself. Damn,” Chris said as he started to panic.
“Relax Chris, you guys will find a way to make it work, and I’m here for anything you need. I’ll talk to Zan as soon as I can. Maybe working at the bookstore would be good for me now. I could help you guys out and it would give me time to think about things.” Steve thought about for a moment and smiled. “Thanks Chris, that’s a really good idea.”
“Yeah, I have them now and then. Okay, so before my panic turns into full blown fear, let’s get this room ready to go. They’ll be home before we know it.”
“Alright, let’s do it,” Steve replied enthusiastically. After talking to Chris, he was feeling much better about his current circumstances. He really hoped that his father came around soon, but regardless of whether he did or not, he still had family around that supported him. That was all anyone really needed.
Brian glanced at the clock again and sighed when he saw it was only 6:30. The days dragged with Justin being gone. It was only Tuesday. They had seen each other on Sunday. It had only been two days, yet it felt like weeks since he kissed his blond. He really needed to get a hobby. Zac and Jason had offered to keep him company, but they had been invited to a poetry reading by someone in Zac’s creative writing class and Brian insisted they go. No need for all three of them to sit around bored out of their minds. He was just contemplating finding something to make for dinner when there was a knock at the door. Assuming Zac and Jason ignored his insistence that they go ahead with their plans, he opened the door and was surprised to find Steve standing on the other side.
“What are you doing here?” he asked dumbly.
“It’s good to see you, too. Can I come in?” Steve chuckled.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. Since you haven’t been returning my calls or texts, I really didn’t expect to see you here at my door. What’s going on? Is everything alright?”
“Define alright?” Steve laughed. “Let’s see, I dropped out of school, got kicked out of my house, and now I’m living with your brother and Zan. What do you think?”
“What? You dropped out of school? Your dad kicked you out? You’re living with Chris and Zan? Hold on, it hasn’t been that long since we talked.”
“True, but it’s been a long few days. I guess I should start at the beginning.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea,” Brian agreed.
Steve and Brian spent the next two hours talking; really talking about everything that not only Steve’s been going through, but about the issues Brian has been having since moving away from home. It was a great evening and they two of them felt closer than ever by the time everything was out in the open.
“Just do me a favor and stop keeping things from me, alright? I promise that your problems are just as important as mine. Having great parents and a great childhood doesn’t make you any less deserving of personal issues.”
“Yeah, I get it. Besides, I think my dad has changed the dynamic now. I get that he’s upset about school, but kicking me out of the house? What an asshole,” Steve stated.
“Yeah, but I guess he’s just worried about you,” Brian offered.
“I know and I get that, but he still shouldn’t have kicked me out. I’ve never given him a reason to treat me like this. I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I’m not a thief or a hoodlum. I’m a good kid who just needs a little time to figure things out. I’ve never refused him anything. I think I deserve that time.”
“Hey, you don’t need to convince me. I’m on your side. Maybe he just needs a few days to calm down.”
Before either of them could say more, there was a knock at the door. Brian smiled. “And that would be Jason and Zac making sure I’m not sitting here feeling sorry for myself.”
“Well, I guess that my secret will be out sooner than I thought.”
“We don’t have to tell them. We’ll just say that you took a few days off because you’ve been working too hard,” Brian suggested.
“No, I don’t want to lie. I might as well tell the truth and get it over with,” Steve sighed.
And then Steve spent the next twenty minutes explaining to his friends why he decided to drop out of school and go home. Once the story was told though, the four friends ordered a couple of pizzas and hung out like in the old days. Time went by quickly and soon Zac and Jason were saying goodbye because they had early classes. Once they were alone again, Brian turned to Steve.
“Do you want me to blow off classes tomorrow? I only have three of them and I haven’t missed any yet.”
“No, but thanks for offering. I think I’m going to head back. I never unpacked my car and got settled at your house. I think I’ll go home in the morning and try talking to my father again. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go settle in at Casa Kinney/Morgan/Taylor.”
“Okay, but I’m here if you need me. And I’ll be home Friday afternoon. Justin and I talked. He won’t be back in Arizona until late tomorrow afternoon. He’s not going to bother driving all the way up here for a day. He’s just going to stay there and help get Sofia settled so I’m going to meet him at the house.”
“Wow, so it’s going to be pretty crazy around there this weekend with everyone home. Maybe I should just…”
“Don’t even finish that thought. It’s your house, too. At least for the moment. It’ll be fine. There’s room for everyone. In fact, Chris was just saying that he was going to fix up the basement so that Justin and I would have our own space when we go home. I think they were afraid that we wouldn’t go home much if we had separate rooms, even though we started sharing a bed there months ago. So we’ll just work on fixing up the basement and you can have my room. Sofia has Justin’s room. Everyone has a place of their own. See?”
“Alright, if you’re sure. I don’t want to force you out of your room.”
“You’re not. I promise. Now I’m going to jump in the shower and then do a little reading for history before going to bed. Thanks for driving up here, buddy. I’ve been really worried about you the last few days.”
“Sorry about that. I just needed to work a few things out. I promise not to disappear again.”
“You’d better not. Come here.”
Brian hugged Steve tightly and said goodnight before going to his room. He was so happy that Steve showed up and that things between them were back to normal. Now all he needed was to have Justin in his arms again and life would be back to normal.
End of part 2
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