Now That You're Here - The College Years
Steve was sitting on the bench outside of the ice cream shop when Charlie showed up. The sight of her once again increased his heart rate. “Hey, there you are. How are you?”
“I’m good. I hope you weren’t waiting too long. I had some trouble getting out,” Charlie replied.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, um…why don’t we take a walk to the park? We can talk there.”
“You don’t want any ice cream? Their Rocky Road is to die for,” Steve moaned his approval.
“No, I’m good.”
They walked the short distance in relative silence, with Steve commenting on the weather just to have something to say. He could see that Charlie had something on her mind and he was starting to worry. When they finally sat down on a bench, Steve started speaking.
“I’m really sorry I pushed you into coming out tonight. I just…” He sighed. “I noticed you the first time you walked into the store and trust me, that doesn’t happen often. I knew I wanted to get to know you better, but I never meant to make you feel uncomfortable in any way.”
“Yeah, you kind of look like you’re about to face a firing squad. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Oh Steve, I’m sorry. I’m not upset. You didn’t push me into anything. I wanted to meet you tonight. I noticed you right away, too. Trust me, I like to read, but not enough to go into a bookstore three to four times a week,” Charlie laughed nervously.
“Okay, now I’m lost. You turned down my offer for dinner, told me your life is crazy right now and look kind of upset. What’s going on?” Steve pushed.
“Damn…I’m sorry. I’m just not used to this. The truth is that I’m not here to look after my grandmother. Not really. I actually relocated because I needed a new beginning and a better life than what I had in North Carolina.”
“Okay, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing.”
“It isn’t, but in my case it isn’t only about me. I also wanted a better life for my daughter.”
“Yes, my daughter. I was young and stupid. I got really drunk at a party one night and went too far with someone I barely knew. Next thing I know, my whole life changed. I didn’t even get to walk at my graduation because I was seven months pregnant and my mother thought it would be too embarrassing. All my plans for college went right out the window, too. Hell, my family is barely speaking to me. Thank God for my grandmother. She’s the only one who’s still kind of nice to me, but I can hear the disappointment in her voice when she talks to me. Shit, I’m sorry. I’m kind of rambling. I do that when I’m nervous.”
“Wow…I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. My life may not be what I imagined, but Abigail is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I wouldn’t trade her for anything.”
“Abigail. That’s a nice name.”
“I call her Abby. She’s almost six months old and absolutely amazing.” Charlie smiled lovingly as she thought about her daughter. “So as you can see, I have a lot more baggage than most eighteen year olds. It was nice of you to ask me out, though. I forgot how good it felt to be a carefree teenager again.”
“Wait…I’m a little confused. You still haven’t given me a reason for why we can’t have dinner.”
“I just…I just told you. I have a baby.”
“Okay, so we’ll have dinner on Abby’s feeding schedule. Babies eat their food out of a jar so where we go won’t matter, right?”
“You mean you still want to go out with me?” Charlie asked incredulously.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because…I have a baby.”
“Look, Charlie, maybe some guys are scared at the thought of dating a girl with a kid, but you’ll learn quickly that I’m not like those guys. In fact, one of my best friends has a daughter who is ten months old and I love her to death. I just had dinner with them. I have another friend that just adopted a ten year old…don’t ask, it’s a long story. The bottom line is that I’d really like to get to know you. You and Abby. Are you interested?” Steve held his breath waiting for an answer.
Charlie struggled to hold back her tears. “I don’t know about Abby, but I’m interested.”
“Then there’s nothing to worry about. Kids love me,” Steve assured her. “Just relax. We’ll take it slow and see how it goes, alright? You might hate me after the first date and want nothing to do with me.”
“I doubt that,” Charlie laughed as a few stray tears broke through.
“Hey, why the tears? I haven’t even shared my drama yet. That’ll probably have you bawling your eyes out,” Steve teased.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie whispered tearfully. “It’s just that everyone was so mean and judgmental back home. Girls stopped talking to me and started whispering behind my back, guys thought I was easy and wanted to get into my pants, and my family thinks I’m getting what I deserve for sinning.”
“What the hell? Are they all living in a 1950’s novel?”
“I’m from a small town in North Carolina. In some ways, they are still in the 50’s.”
“Well, welcome to Arizona, 2013. I think you’re going to like it here.”
“I already do,” she smiled at him.
“Okay, so it’s getting late and I’m sure little Abby keeps you very busy. You must be exhausted. How about if I walk you home and on the way we can make plans for our date tomorrow? I’m only working until two. How does a nice trip to the park and then dinner somewhere kid friendly sound? I’ll have you home in plenty of time to get Abby to bed.”
“You want our first date to include my daughter?”
“I do. Is that okay?”
Charlie beamed at him. “Yes, that’s very okay.”
“Alright then, it’s a date. Now let’s get you home.”
Once Steve had left Charlie at her grandmother’s house, he walked back to his car on cloud nine. He had a date. His first date in way too long. He grabbed his phone and called Dane.
“Hey, what’s up?” Dane answered on the third ring.
“I’ve got a date tomorrow,” Steve blurted out.
“Really? That’s great. Anyone I know?”
“Nope. Her name is Charlie and she just moved here from North Carolina about a month ago. She’s been coming into the store a few times a week since she got here. She actually lives a few blocks away in the older development over on Oak Ave.”
“So…what does she look like? How old is she? Tell me everything!” Dane said excitedly. He was happy for his friend.
“Dude, relax. It’s only a first date,” Steve laughed.
“Yeah, but it’s your first date. Buddy, do you realize how long it’s been since you’ve dated anyone?”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“Tenth grade…Lisa Wallace…homecoming dance…”
“No, that can’t be right…can it?”
“Yes it can, my friend. It’s been three years since you’ve been on a date. Now tell me everything!”
“Wow, I’m such a loser,” Steve chuckled. “Okay, so she’s beautiful, with long brown hair and sparkling brown eyes with these tiny flecks of gold in them. She’s got these curves in all the right places that make me want to reach out and touch her. And her laugh…she’s got this innocent laugh that makes her seem more like thirteen than the eighteen that she is.”
“It sounds like you really have a thing for her.”
“I do. She’s perfect. Oh, and she’s a mom. Her daughter is almost six months old and her name is Abby. That’s why we met up tonight. She wanted to tell me about Abby, assuming that once I knew she had a kid, I wouldn’t want to date her. Once I assured her that I did, we set up a date for tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you want to date her? Dating a parent is tough,” Dane pointed out.
“What? How can you, of all people, say that?” Steve was shocked.
“It’s because I’m a parent that I can say that. Look, I appreciate that you don’t look at someone with a kid as un-datable. I just want to make sure you realize what you’re getting into. Single moms especially…they’re usually the ones that do most of the work when it comes to the care of their children. And if Charlie just moved here from the east coast, I doubt if she has any help from the father, which means it’s all on her. Trust me, I get tired just watching Sandy do all she does. On top of that, you have to think about what happens if you and the kid bond and then the relationship ends. You’d have no legal claims. If she wanted to be vindictive, she could keep you from ever seeing the kid again. Talk to your brother. He’ll tell you what it’s like.”
“My brother? How would Eric know?”
“He never told you about Gracie?”
“Wow, you really need to sit down and talk to Eric. Listen, I’m not saying you shouldn’t date her. Just think about the pros and cons first, okay? That’s all I’m asking.”
“Alright, I will. Thanks Dane.”
“Anytime, buddy. You working tomorrow?
“Yeah, until two.”
“Cool. Julia and I will stop by in the morning, maybe buy a book or two.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Later.” Steve put down his phone and thought about what Dane had said. Not about dating someone with a kid. He had no doubt that he wanted to see Charlie again. No, the information about Eric and Gracie is what was bothering him. He knew that his relationship with his brother wasn’t too great while they were living in different cities, but they had been living under the same roof for weeks and Eric never mentioned a serious past relationship or someone named Gracie. He and Eric were going to have to find the time for a serious discussion in the very near future.
Jason sighed as he rolled over…again. He had been tossing and turning all night, unable to sleep more than thirty minutes at a time. He had too much going on. Too many decisions to make and no clue where to start. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was only six in the morning. He got out of bed and grabbed his sweats. If he wasn’t going to be able to sleep, the least he could do was have breakfast on the table when Chris, Zan and Sophia woke up.
He had sausage simmering, cinnamon rolls in the oven and the makings of French toast ready when Chris stumbled into the kitchen.
“Something smells really good. Please tell me there’s coffee, too.”
Jason laughed. “Of course there’s coffee. I’ve lived here long enough to know about your coffee addiction. I wouldn’t dream of being in the kitchen in the morning and not making coffee.”
“That’s my boy,” Chris said as he grabbed Jason and hugged him tight. “I miss you around here.”
“Yeah, me too,” Zan said as he entered the room. “Are you ready to admit that you shouldn’t have gone back to Pittsburgh and come home yet?”
“Guys, it’s really sweet of you to offer, but I can’t just come back and sponge off you again. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Oh shut up,” Chris said as he shoved Jason gently. “You weren’t sponging off of us. We loved having you here and you were a big help to us.”
“Exactly. We probably should’ve been paying you for all you did around here. I don’t think we really appreciated how much you did until you were gone and suddenly the laundry started backing up and the house got a little messy. We were so wrapped up in our own lives, we didn’t see that we were dropping the ball. In fact, Sophia missed a birthday party she was invited to because nobody reminded us to take her.”
“It was no big deal. I was here every day. I figured I might as well do something around the house.”
“Well then, come on back and do something again. You need a place to stay, we need some help around the house…it’ll be more official. At least until you start getting your life back on track.”
“Speaking of which,” Chris interrupted. “What did you do about school?”
“I’m officially enrolled full time in ASU’s online program. I’m not ready to go back to campus yet, but I refuse to let that asshole ruin anything else for me,” Jason said proudly.
“That’s great, Jas. I’m glad,” Zan replied. “So, do we have ourselves a deal?”
“I know what you guys are up to,” Jason said.
“Up to?” Chris feigned innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh cut the crap. You guys know exactly what I’m talking about. Justin told you how unhappy I was in Pittsburgh so you’re trying to make me feel better by pretending that you need me here. I appreciate it, I really do. I just don’t know if moving back here will help or makes things worse for me.”
“Why would moving back make things worse for you?” Zan asked in confusion.
“Well, for one thing…I don’t know where things stand between Zac and me. I love him, but I don’t know if getting back together is a good idea and I know that’s what he wants. I also don’t know if we can just be friends at this point. It’s so screwed up right now.”
“Oh yeah, how did your talk go last night? When you brought David’s phone back and announced that you were going to bed, I figured you weren’t ready to talk about it.”
Jason sighed. “It went okay. It was hard talking to him without bringing up our past, but I thought it would be best if we held off for a while. I let him talk about Nicky for a bit. You know, Nicky may have been a scumbag, but Zac cared about him. He’s mourning right now on top of everything else. I don’t think anybody realizes that. He’s going to call me when he gets home today. He asked me if I would visit. I’ll ask Justin if I can borrow his car. Maybe we can talk a bit today.”
“I suggest taking things slow. You’ve both been through a lot lately. There’s no need to solve anything right away. You have time,” Zan told him. “Now, what’s the other thing?”
“The other thing?”
“Yeah, you said for one thing…that means there’s at least a second thing.”
“Oh, that,” Jason sighed. There was no way he was going to tell Chris and Zan about his feelings for Aiden. “It’s nothing I can really talk about. Just something I’m dealing with.”
“Well, we’re here if you need to talk. But regardless of that, I still think being here is the right place for you. Being miserable in Pittsburgh isn’t going to help your recovery. We have the space and we really could use your help around here.”
“I’ll have to talk to my parents. I don’t know if my mom…” Jason shrugged. “She kind of likes having me home.”
“Your mother just wants you to be happy, and she knows you haven’t been. I spoke with her the other day and she admitted that you’d probably be better off back here.”
Jason was shocked. “You talked to my mom?”
“I’ve talked to her a few times since you moved back.”
“I was only gone for two weeks…not even.”
“Jas, you’re part of this family, remember? We take care of our own. After the way you tried sneaking away, we were worried. Since you obviously weren’t going to pick up the phone and call Chris or me, I called your mom to check in. Be mad if you want, but I won’t apologize for caring,” Zan said.
“I’m not mad,” Jason told him. “I’m just surprised. I’m sorry I didn’t call. I talked to Justin every day. I guess I just figured…”
“Don’t even finish that thought,” Chris jumped in. “We love you, Jason. You’re part of this family because of who you are, not because of your connection with Justin. Not anymore. I’m hoping that you’ll pull your head out of your ass and realize that you belong here, but if you decide to go back to Pittsburgh, we expect to hear from you regularly, got it?”
“But it would just be easier if you stayed here,” Justin said from the doorway. “Sorry if I’m interrupting, but I’m starving and I could smell breakfast from downstairs. So, you’re staying, right?”
“Jus, maybe we shouldn’t pressure him,” Zan suggested.
“It’s okay, I’m used to Justin being pushy,” Jason laughed. “Can I think about it for a day or two? I just got back here and with worrying about Zac, I haven’t really had time to think.”
“There’s nothing to think about, really,” Justin said and then amended his reply after the look Zander gave him. “But go ahead. I won’t pressure you anymore. Just remember that Pittsburgh doesn’t have me.”
“I know, Jus. That’s just one of the reasons I was so unhappy back home. I love it here, but I just want to make sure I think things through before I make any more decisions.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Zan said. “Take all the time you need. You’ll always have a place in our home.”
Jason smiled. “Thanks. And, Jus, would you mind if I borrowed your car for a little while today? I told Zac I’d go see him when he got home from the hospital.”
“Of course. You can use my car whenever you want. Especially once I go back to school. You know, if you decide to stay here…where you belong.”
“Justin…” Zan warned.
“What? I’m just saying…um…what’s for breakfast?”
Everyone laughed and got busy getting breakfast on the table, the subject of whether Jason was staying in Pittsburgh temporarily on hold.
They had been on the trail for more than an hour when Matt suggested they find a place to sit down and have a snack. Apparently Mark was quick to comply because he threw himself down on the nearest flat surface. Matt dropped down next to him.
“Holy shit! I thought walking through the city all the time would keep me in shape, but apparently I was wrong.”
Matt laughed. “I don’t think strolling through the city streets can compare to hiking rough terrain. Luckily I have some decent trails not too far from my campus that keep me in shape.”
“Oh bite me,” Mark spat good naturedly. “Besides, I don’t stroll through the streets. I walk at a quick pace. I guess I’m going to have to find a gym before I get too soft.”
Matt looked over at his brother and smiled. “I don’t think you have to worry too much about getting soft. The men in our family don’t get soft. Granddad hasn’t exercised in years and he’s in great shape. Especially for his age.”
“You’re probably right, but I don’t want to take any chances. I’m going to have one of those cushy desk jobs one day. I can’t have my ass spreading.”
“I still can’t believe you’re changing your major. I thought Dad was going to have a stroke this morning when you told him you didn’t want to be a cop.”
“I know. I saw that big vein in his forehead start throbbing and I got ready to call 911,” Mark laughed. “Truthfully though, I actually changed my major last year. I was just too afraid to tell him. I’m sorry, but I refuse to live my life for him. I’m not going to go into a career that I don’t want, one that could get me killed, just to make him happy. No offense.”
“None taken. I know that being a cop is what he wants from us, but truthfully, I want to do it. I mean, I don’t want to be a beat cop all my life, but I have to start somewhere. I’d like to be a detective one day…maybe even go into the FBI. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but being a cop feels right for me, regardless of what he wants.”
“Then that’s what you have to do. I just want you to be happy, brother. That’s all that matters.”
“I’m glad you said that because there’s something that I need to tell you…that I want to tell you, but I don’t know how you’re going to react.”
“What’s up? You can tell me anything, Matt. You should know that. I’m not Dad.”
Matt took a deep breath, then another. Then he stood up and started pacing. He knew he finally had his chance, but he was scared to death that his brother was going to hate him. Or even worse, run back and tell everyone in the family and his life as he knew it would be over.
“Bro, you’re actually pale. What the hell is it?”
“I’m…um…I’ve been seeing someone…” he trailed off.
“Okay…and…oh shit, don’t tell me you knocked someone up. Bro, rule number one, always glove up before a game. Are you sure it’s yours?”
“No…it’s not that…I didn’t get anyone pregnant. I…uh…”
“I’m growing old here, bro. What is it?”
Matt closed his eyes, took one more deep breath and blurted it out. “I’m gay.”
“What?” It was Mark’s turn to go pale.
“I said I’m gay. This someone I’ve been seeing…his name is David. We’ve been together since Thanksgiving and I’m really crazy about him.”
“No…no, no, no…you’re not gay. You’re just…you’re not gay,” Mark insisted.
“Yeah, I am. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but it’s been really hard for me to accept, you know? I tried to deny my feelings and be who everybody expected me to be, but I just…can’t. I can’t stay in the closet because it’s what the family wants, you know? Just like you can’t be a cop for Dad.”
Marked jumped up from where he had been sitting and began pacing himself. “That’s not…you can’t compare the two…no, you’re fucking with me, right? Is this some kind of joke?”
Matt felt his heart sink as his brother did everything he could to deny what Matt had just told him. “It’s not a joke, Mark. I’m gay. I’ve known since I was twelve years old, I just never told anybody until recently.”
“I can’t do this right now,” Mark finally said as he started grabbing their things. “Let’s go.”
“Mark, can you just…”
“I said I can’t do this right now!” Mark yelled. Then he stopped and took a deep breath. “Let’s just…head back.”
“Can you at least look at me?” Matt pleaded as his whole body shook. “Mark?”
Mark sighed at the sadness in his brother’s voice, but didn’t look at him. “I can’t…let’s just go.”
Matt watched his brother walk away in horror as tears pooled in his eyes. He knew he never should have told Mark. He never should have told anyone. He should have stuck with his original plan and told David to take a hike before anything happened between them. Now his world was going to slowly crumble around him and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The awkward silence in the truck on the drive back nearly killed Matt. He had to keep forcing himself to slow down and stay close to the speed limit because all he wanted to do was get away. He was never as thankful as he was when he pulled onto their street and saw the house he grew up in come into view. He pulled up to the curb out front and left the engine running. There was no way he was going inside.
“What are you doing?” Mark asked, finally breaking his silence. It had been the first thing he had said since he heard the news.
“I’m going out.”
“Are you running to him?”
“Maybe, what the fuck do you care?” Matt’s bitterness was apparent.
“Damn it, Matt!”
“What? What the fuck do you care where I go and what I do? You made it perfectly clear that my sexuality repulses you. You should be glad I’m leaving.”
“Where the fuck did you get that?” Mark roared. “I never said anything like that.”
“No, you didn’t. You just said you couldn’t look at me and then refused to talk to me the whole way back. Hell, Mark, you haven’t spoken a word to me in almost two hours. I think it’s pretty clear how you feel.”
“Really? Is it that easy to read people’s feeling? Cause I’ve gotta tell you, it’s not that easy for me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been blindsided by your news today.”
“Well I’m sorry to have blindsided you,” Matt snapped. “I didn’t mean to make this hard on you. I mean, it’s been a wonderful experience for me, knowing that my family is probably going to disown me because of who I am.”
“You know what, Mark? I can’t do this right now. Could you please get out of the truck? I have to get out of here.”
Mark looked like he was going to say something, but then obviously changed his mind and climbed out of the truck. Matt pulled away as soon as his brother shut the door, finally allowing the tears he’d been holding back to fall. By the time he reached Chris and Zander’s, he was a blubbering mess. He quickly jumped out of the truck and went to the door, not bothering to knock. He walked into the living room, where Chris, Zan, Brian, Justin and David were sitting around talking and laughing, and just stood inside the doorway. David was out of his seat in an instant followed by Justin.
“Oh, babe, come here,” David said as he took Matt into his arms. “It’ll be okay.”
“He hates me,” Matt cried. “He wouldn’t even look at me. I never should’ve told him. I never should’ve told anyone. I should’ve just done what everyone wanted me to do. Then everything would be fine right now.”
“Define fine,” David said as he pulled back and looked into his boyfriend’s face. “Would it be fine to be stuck in the closet? Never being able to be who you truly are? Would it be fine to live your life never having a real connection with anyone? Would it be fine without…me?”
Matt fought to pull himself together. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt David’s feelings. “No…of course not…but what am I going to do? My own brother hates me. And once he tells my father, the rest of my family will hate me, too.”
“Is he going to tell your father? Did he say that?” Zander asked as he got up and walked over to the distraught young man.
“No, he didn’t say it. He didn’t say much of anything,” Matt told him.
“Okay, why don’t you sit down and tell us exactly what happened? Maybe it’s not a bad as you think,” Brian suggested.
Matt nodded and pulled away from David. He took a seat on the couch and started thinking back to the moment he told his brother he was gay. Mark was definitely upset, but he did seem to calm down during the ride back home. He told everyone what transpired between them.
“Matt, I don’t think it’s as bad as you think it is. Maybe Mark just needs time. It’s a big shock to take in,” Zan said.
“Yeah, look how Danny took my news?” David pointed out. “He didn’t talk to me for a month, remember?”
“I don’t know…he just seemed so mad.”
“I think he’s probably more hurt,” David suggested. “That’s what Danny said. Finding out such an important secret about someone he thought he knew better than anyone hurt. He felt that I should have told him as soon as I knew. He also felt that he should’ve known somehow. It made him feel like a bad brother for not realizing it on his own. Just give him time. Hopefully it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“I agree, but you know we’re here for you if you need it,” Zander assured him.
“I know, thanks,” Matt said. “I don’t know what I’ll do if he tells my parents and they disown me. I’ll have to drop out of school and…I don’t know. Start stripping to pay the rent? I have five hundred dollars in the bank and my only source of income is them. I’ll be screwed.”
“No you won’t, trust me. There’s no way I’d let you drop out of school,” David said.
“Babe, I couldn’t take…”
“If you even try to finish that sentence, I’m heading back to El Paso today. I know you don’t want to take my money, and I respect the hell out of you for that, but if your parents disown you, there’s no way I’m going to let you drop out of school and ruin your life. I have more money than I could ever spend in my lifetime and I haven’t even started pulling in a yearly salary yet. I’m not going to sit back and let the man I love fall on his face. It’s just not happening.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Zan said. “Let’s just wait and see what happens before we start making any long range plans.”
“Um…guys…I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as you think,” Justin spoke up.
“What makes you say that?” Matt looked confused but hopeful.
“Well, don’t be mad but I sent Mark a text, calling him an asshole.”
“You did?” Matt chucked. “Thanks for sticking up for me. What did he say?”
“His response was I know, tell him I’m sorry and we’ll talk soon.”
“Oh thank God,” Matt sighed in relief. “Maybe he doesn’t completely hate my guts.”
“Doesn’t sound like it to me. How about if we put it all away for now and wait and see what happens? No point in jumping to conclusions until you talk to Mark and find out how he really feels,” Zan said. “Instead, we can discuss dinner. I have to go down to the center for my afternoon group, but I haven’t gone food shopping in a while so there’s not much here. Tell me what you guys want and I’ll stop at the store on the way home.”
“I’ve got it, Babe. You don’t have to stop,” Chris replied.
“No, you’ve got a deadline coming up in two days and you’re still three chapters behind. You stay here and write. Brian and Justin said they’d get Sophia off the bus and take her to the park so you can have some peace for a while. I can go to the store.”
“How about if Matt and I go shopping? Just tell us what you need and we can take care of it. We don’t have anything to do right now, Matt needs something to get his mind off of his brother, and it’s the least I can do for you since I’m staying in your house,” David offered.
“You don’t have to do anything for us. You’re welcome here anytime…especially after what you did for Zac. But I will take you up on your offer. Thank you. I’m usually emotionally drained after a group session. I’d rather not have to stop. Okay, what does everybody want?”
After a quick discussion on what to have for dinner, Zander wrote a quick list, insisted that David and Matt take his money, and then rushed out the door. Chris said a quick goodbye and went to his room to work on his next chapter, and Brian and Justin went to meet the bus. David and Matt were finally alone.
“Babe, I’m so sorry for what happened today. I was really hoping that Mark would take the news better than Danny. I know how much it hurts to have someone react like he did.”
“Yeah, it kind of really sucked,” Matt said softly. “It’s easy to say to put it away for now, but I can’t help thinking about the look on Mark’s face when he realized I wasn’t joking. He was really upset.”
“I know, but by the sound of the text, I don’t think he hates you. Trust me, that’s the important part. I was convinced that Danny hated me and was never going to talk to me again. Once I knew he just needed time, I felt so much better. I know not thinking about it isn’t an option, but try to push it into the back of your mind for now. There’s no point in stressing over something that you have no control over. Hopefully Mark will reach out to you later today and not leave you hanging for long.”
“I hope so. He’s scheduled to fly back to New York tomorrow. I don’t want him going back without talking to me first.”
“I’m sure you’ll hear from him before he heads back to New York. Now how about if we head to the store? It’s already after three.”
“You’re up to something. You were so eager to volunteer to go shopping and you took Zan’s forty bucks way too easy. What are you planning?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” Matt laughed. “What are you up to?”
“Fine, you caught me. Let’s take a quick look around and see what Chris and Zan have here. If they’ve been too busy to go food shopping, they probably need a lot of stuff. There are seven people currently staying here, not including your presence. Forty bucks will barely buy enough for dinner. I want to go food shopping for them. And before you say anything, it’s the least I can do. They welcomed me into their home without a second thought and even though I could easily afford a hotel, staying here is really nice. I like your friends a lot and being included feels great. It’s almost like being with my own family. I just want to do something for them, you know?”
Matt smiled at his boyfriend. “You are the sweetest man on earth, you know that? The world is a better place with people like you always looking out for others.”
“Babe, I’m just going food shopping, not ending world hunger.”
“You’re not just going food shopping. You’re helping someone in need, whether it’s money or your time. I am so glad you were so pushy and forced your way into my life. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve you, but I’m glad I have you.”
“Even after what happened with Mark today?”
“Yeah, even after. I don’t know if Mark will come around or not, but I do know that you make me happy. I can’t spend my life hiding in the closet. Not if it would keep me from feeling like I feel when I’m with you.”
“I love you,” David said as he pulled Matt in for a soft kiss. “Now let’s make a quick list and get out of here. We’re on a mission.”
Jason laughed off his nervousness as he walked up the walkway to Zac’s front door. He wasn’t sure why he was so nervous seeing Zac again. They had a nice conversation the night before, the animosity of the Christmas meeting completely gone. He knocked on the door and waited just a few moments before Zac’s mother appeared wearing a huge smile.
“Jason, I’m so happy to see you.”
“Hi, Liz, how are you?” Jason replied as he allowed the woman to pull him into a tight hug.
“I’m so much better now that Zac is home,” Liz said. “Come on in. How are things going? I was surprised when Zander told me that you moved back to Pittsburgh. I guess the saying ‘there’s no place like home” is true.”
“I don’t know about that. I thought moving back with my parents would help, but I think it just made everything worse. I was more miserable there than I was here,” Jason chuckled.
“Oh, you poor thing. Does that mean you’re moving back? I know Chris and Zander missed you terribly. We’ve spoken a few times regarding Zac. Zander mentioned what a big help you were to them.”
“I’m not really sure what I’m going to do. I have a lot to think about. When I left here, I did it without thinking things through. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”
“That sounds like a good idea. You have to do what’s best for you and sometimes that’s not easy. Take your time and consider every possibility before making any decisions. You have so many people who care about you. Things will get easier regardless of where you decide to live. Good luck.”
“Alright, I’ve kept you hostage long enough. I know you didn’t come to see me. I’m sure Zac is not so impatiently waiting to see you. Unless he drifted off to sleep again. He’s on some pretty heavy pain meds so don’t be surprised if he’s sleeping.”
“Before I go up, how’s he really doing?”
“He’s as well as can be expected, I guess. The doctors assured us that he’ll recover almost 100%, although he might have some lingering side effects, such as slightly diminished mobility. We won’t know for sure until he’s healed and ready for physical therapy, but after hearing that he could have died if the bullet had been any farther to the right, I think we’ll all take diminished mobility.”
“Yeah, I bet. How about mentally? He seemed really sad last night when I talked to him.”
“He is,” Liz admitted. “I am, too. You know, I knew Nicky. Obviously from years ago when he and Zac first met. The poor kid used to come over a lot after school. When I offered him dinner, you would have thought I offered him a million dollars. I don’t think his mother ever cooked him a meal in her life. He was such a sweet kid back then. It’s hard for me to imagine that poor, neglected boy being gone, let alone the reason my son almost died. I’ve decided to forgive him for his sins and mourn him as the boy I knew, not the man he had become. Zac is alive. That’s what matters most.”
“That’s really nice of you, Liz. I know the whole gang hates Nicky, but I feel bad for him. After what Zac told me, it sounds like the guy never really had a chance to make something of himself. How can we blame him for being exactly who his parents raised him to be?”
“We can’t,” Liz agreed. “And it’s not his fault Zac got mixed up in it all. I raised my son to know right from wrong. He made the choice to get involved in that mess. He could have easily walked away the moment he realized how screwed up Nicky was.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have ended things with him. I knew how upset he would be. I didn’t know he’d end up where he did, but if I had just let things be, none of this would’ve happened.”
“Jason, you can’t blame yourself for this. I’m sure your reasons for breaking things off with Zac were valid. My son just needs to learn how to handle disappointment in his life. He’s eighteen years old, he needs to grow up. I am glad you agreed to come and see him, though. I think it’ll be good for both of you.”
“Thanks Liz, everyone keeps telling me it’s not my fault, but that’s hard to believe, you know? I didn’t break up with him because I stopped caring.”
“I know you didn’t, Jason. And I’m sure that deep down inside, Zac knows that, too. You know, when I was in college, one of the girls on the cheerleading team suffered through a similar attack while she was home for winter break. When she came back to the campus, she tried to pretend that nothing had changed. She jumped right back into her old life as if nothing had happened. By spring break she was dead. She swallowed a bottle of pills and left a note telling everyone that she just couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t be the same happy, bubbly girl who always had a smile on her face and a kind word for those around her. The pressure of being who everyone expects you to be no matter how you feel inside is huge, and no one should ever have to feel like they have to hide what they're feeling from those around them. I warned Zac that things between the two of you would probably change, but he didn’t want to believe me. It’s not his fault, it’s not your fault…it just is what it is. Now secretly, I hope that one day you’ll be able to work things out. I think you’re an amazing young man and my son was lucky to have found you. But my main concern is for you and your well-being. You’ve been dealt a real tough hand in life and my prayers are that you’re able to put it all in the past and get your life back.”
Jason wiped away a stray tears as he smiled at Liz. “Thank you for that. I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks blaming myself for what Zac was going through even though everyone assured me it wasn’t my fault. Maybe hearing it from Zac’s mother will help me to let go of the responsibility.”
“I hope it does, because you’re shouldering a responsibility that you have no business shouldering. The blame lays entirely at Zac’s feet,” Liz promised. “Now go on up and see my son. See if you can put a smile on his face.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Somehow I think just seeing you will do that. Let me know if he needs anything.”
Jason went upstairs and tapped lightly on Zac’s door before pushing it open and walking inside. He gasped at the sight of Zac, laying propped up against his pillow with his shoulder bandaged up and his arm in a sling. His face was way too pale and his skin was bruised all around the bandaged area. Jason’s eyes once again started tearing up. Zac’s eyes had been closed, but they slowly opened at the sound of Jason’s gasp.
“Hey, you’re here,” Zac's raspy voice broke the silence in the room. “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Uh…nothing…I just…nothing’s wrong. How are you feeling?”
“Better than I look, apparently,” Zac laughed carefully. “Relax, I’m fine. I’ve just had a rough couple of days. Come on in and sit down.”
Jason walked over to the bed and leaned down, planting a kiss on Zac’s cheek. “You’re such a bad liar. I can see how much it hurts. Are you due for more pain meds?”
“Not yet, but I’m really okay. Yes, it hurts, but not so bad that I want to scream or anything. Besides, if I take a pain pill, I’ll fall asleep and you just got here.”
“I can wait if you need to nap…or come back later. You don’t have to…”
“J, I’m fine. I swear. Now sit down and relax, would you?”
“I’m sorry. I guess I just didn’t think about how you’d look. I’m so used to you looking like a million bucks. Seeing you looking so…pale and…injured. It kind of threw me.”
“It’s really not as bad as it seems. I’m alive, that’s the important thing.”
“Yes it is.” Jason gestured to the bed. “Is it alright if I sit here, or would it be better if I dragged over a chair?”
“Here is good…unless you’re planning on jumping up and down. Then a chair would be better,” Zac teased.
“I think I can sit still.” Jason sat down carefully on the side of the bed and took Zac’s hand in his. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. How are you doing? Are you still having nightmares?”
“Yeah, although not as much as I was. I probably need to get back into therapy, but I just couldn’t bring myself to find someone new in Pittsburgh. I really liked my group here.”
“Then you should move back here. You know, for therapy. Not because I like the thought of you living just a few blocks away.”
“No, not because of that,” Jason laughed. “Look Zac, we probably need to talk, huh?”
“Yeah, probably. I’m so sorry for the way I reacted to our break up. I never should’ve treated you like I did. It wasn’t fair. I was just so hurt that I wanted to hurt you back.”
“Did you think I wasn’t already hurting? It broke my heart to end things between us. I spent the first few days lying in bed, crying on and off. I missed you so much it took everything in my power not to call you and tell you I’d changed my mind.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“Because I really felt like it was the right thing to do. Z, I was making you miserable. The constant hot and cold routine, pulling you close and then pushing you away, it was making you so unhappy. I thought that if I let you go, you’d be able to be happy again.”
“But I wasn’t happy. Yeah, I hated being pushed away from you constantly, but at least I still had some hope then. That night…when you broke up with me…I felt so hopeless. I felt like my whole world ended the moment I walked out of that house. I went to Nicky because I felt like I had nothing else. Not that it was your fault…it was entirely my own fault, but that’s how I felt. I was happier when you were giving me the hot and cold routine because at least I had the hot to help me through the cold. Without you I had nothing.”
“I’m so sorry, Z. I never meant for any of this to happen. I was only trying to get through each day as best as I could.”
“I know, and I’m sorry for whatever I did to make it harder on you. I love you so much. My focus should’ve been on what you wanted and needed, not what I was going through.”
“No, that wouldn’t have been fair, either. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong in this situation. We’re both victims of what that asshole did. I think we both need to find a way to get through each day. I’m sorry for not expressing that earlier. I swear that our break up had nothing to do with how I feel about you. I love you, ya big dope. Being away from you didn’t change that.”
“But you don’t want to get back together, do you?” Zac asked sadly, already knowing the answer.
Jason sighed. “No, I don’t think getting back together would be a good idea right now. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad, I’m just…sad. I really miss how great things were between us, you know?”
“I do know. I miss it, too…but let’s face it, those days are over. Our carefree lives together ended the day I was attacked. I really, really hope that I can be that happy again one day, but right now I can’t even imagine it. And as much as I love you, I really need to find a way to accept my new world on my own. Please tell me you understand that.”
“I do,” Zac whispered. “It just really sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. But I’d like for us to be friends. Do you think we can do that? Would it be too hard for you to be a friend?”
“It probably won’t be easy, but if that’s my only option, I’ll take it. I can’t even imagine not having you in my life.”
“I’m sorry, Z.”
“Please stop apologizing. None of this is your fault. We’ll just take things one day at a time. All you have to do is move back to Arizona so we can work on that friendship,” Zac smirked.
“You’re as bad as Justin. I’ll tell you what I told him, I need to think about it. I don’t want to rush into anything again. It didn’t work out so well the first time. It feels really good to be back here, but I’ve been so preoccupied worrying about you that I haven’t had time to weigh my options. I need a day or two to work things out in my head before I decide where to live. When I make my decision, you’ll be one of the first to know, okay?”
“Fine, I’ll drop it for now, but just know that I’m going to put up a huge fight if you try and go back to Pittsburgh.”
“I’d expect nothing less,” Jason laughed.
After that, Jason and Zac slipped easily into friendship mode and spent the next two hours laughing and sharing stories about their childhood, the stress of the last few weeks gone from the room. It wasn’t until Liz appeared with some pills and some clean gauze that Jason realized how much time had passed.
“I’d better get going.”
“You don’t have to go. I just have to change his bandage a few times a day. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
“No, it’s alright. I have somewhere I have to go,” Jason said as he stood up and looked down at Zac. “You take it easy and get some rest, alright?”
“Call me later?”
“Absolutely.” Jason leaned down and kissed Zac, this time on the lips. It felt good. “Later.”
Jason’s next stop was even harder than the first. If he had thought he was nervous when he reached Zac’s house, then what he was feeling when he pulled up outside the center bordered on terrified. He had to sit in the car for ten minutes just to get his breathing under control. He contemplated popping another Xanax, but decided against it. Nobody knew that he had gone to his doctor while he was in Pittsburgh and walked away with a handful of prescriptions and he wanted to keep it that way. Walking in high on Xanax would surely let the cat out of the bag. He wished he could blame his nervousness on being out in public, but that wasn’t the case. The center was one of the few places he felt completely comfortable. No, his fears came from seeing Aiden again. The man was obviously trying to put a lot of space between them by not returning phone calls and hardly responding to text messages, but Jason needed to see him. If moving back to Arizona was even going to be an option, he needed to speak to Aiden first. They needed to talk and clear the air and apparently the only way to do that was in person.
Taking one more deep breath, Jason got out of the car and headed towards the doors. Thanks to Zander, Jason knew that Aiden would be in his office all afternoon working on a huge fundraiser he was trying to organize. Sure enough, that’s where Jason found him moments later. He was sitting at his desk with his head down, lost in his work. Jason took a moment to watch him, surprised by how much he had missed his friend. Shaking off those thoughts, he knocked lightly on the open door and walked into the office with a smile on his face.
“Jason!” Aiden exclaimed as he jumped out of his chair. “What are you doing here?”
“So, I guess you’re not happy to see me?” Jason teased.
“What? No…I’m just surprised. Zander never mentioned that you were back in town.”
“It was a last minute thing. He didn’t know I was here until he got home last night and found me in his living room,” Jason explained. “So, how have you been?”
“Um…okay, I guess. Been pretty busy lately.”
“I figured as much since you haven’t returned any of my calls and barely acknowledge my text messages.”
Aiden had the decency to look chastised. “Yeah, sorry about that. I just had a lot going on.”
“So you weren’t just blowing me off? Cause I’ve got to tell you, that’s the way it felt to me.”
“What the hell, Aiden? I know I fucked up not telling you I was leaving, but I’ve apologized for that and I thought you forgave me. Did I do something wrong? Did I piss you off again somehow?”
“No, of course not,” Aiden insisted.
“Then why the silent treatment? You don’t strike me as an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of guy.”
“Out of mind…yeah right,” Aiden huffed.
“What does that mean?”
“Look Jas, I really don’t have time to do this right now. I have to get this proposal done by five when my potential donor comes in for our meeting.”
“That’s fine,” Jason said. “I’ll be back at six and we can talk then.”
“Seven work better for you? Eight? I have all night. I don’t sleep much anyway. How about nine?”
“Alright, fine…but not here. Come to my place tonight. I should be home by seven.”
“Thank you. I’ll be there.” Jason smiled and turned to go, but stopped before he reached the door. He turned back around and waited until Aiden’s eyes met his. “For the record, it’s really good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too,” Aiden admitted softly.
Jason smiled and left before anything else could be said. A quick glance at his watch told him he had over three hours before he had to be at Aiden’s place. It was going to be a very long afternoon.
End of part 21
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