Now That You're Here - The College Years
Chris heard the front door being opened and closed over and over again. At first he just figured everyone was returning home and continued typing away on his laptop, but after hearing it over and over again, he decided to investigate. Even their house didn’t have that many occupants. He made his way to the kitchen and gasped in surprise as he saw what all the noise was about.
“What’s going on?”
Matt turned around looking guilty, like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Hey Chris, sorry if we bothered you. We’ll keep it down. Go back to your writing.”
“Nice try, Matt. Do you want to explain why there’s shopping bags all over the kitchen? I’m pretty sure we don’t need this much for one dinner and I sure as hell know that it all cost more than the forty dollars Zan gave you.”
“Chris, don’t be mad. David just wanted to do something nice for you and Zander for letting him stay here. He figured this would be the best way since you can’t really refuse it,” Matt explained nervously. He wasn’t opposed to the idea when David first suggested it, but as always, his boyfriend went overboard and bought way too much. Matt tried to stop him a few times, but there wasn’t any point. David on a mission was unstoppable. “I’m sorry. I tried to slow him down a little, but…”
“Where is he?”
“Um…” Matt hesitated. “Getting the rest of the bags.”
“The rest of the bags? There’s got to be like…thirty bags here already.”
“I know…I’m really sorry, Chris.”
Chris didn’t know what to say. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s a nice thing for him to do, but completely unnecessary. We opened up our home to him because dating you makes him one of us. He really didn’t have to do this. I mean, Zan and I aren’t starving or anything. We’ve just been too busy to get to the store.”
“Well…now you don’t have to go shopping for a while,” Matt pointed out.
“A while? From the looks of it, we won’t have to go shopping for months,” Chris laughed. “Any chance of you telling me how much the lunatic spent?”
Matt smiled as he thought back to the total of their purchases. “Not a chance.”
Just then, the lunatic in question returned struggling with an armful of bags. “Alright, babe, we only have five more in the…oh, um…hey, Chris.”
“There’s more?” Chris asked incredulously.
“Why don’t I just go grab them and give you two a few minutes alone?” Matt suggested before bolting out of the kitchen.
“Okay, I know you’re probably a little upset with me right now, but in my defence, I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been told that I tend to take things a little too far sometimes. I originally planned on just picking up a few extras that you needed as a way of saying thank you for giving me such a nice place to stay. I mean, you guys have been really busy and Matt and I had all this free time. It was really no big deal.”
“Well, that was a very nice thought. But how, exactly, did picking up a few extras turn into shopping for a month…or two.”
“I don’t know…it was fun. I live alone. I go shopping every couple of days and just buy what I need to hold me over until the next trip. It was fun shopping for such a big family. I don’t really know what everybody likes, but I figured that if I bought anything that you guys didn’t like, you could donate it to the local food bank so it goes to someone who needs it. Are you mad? I’m sorry I overstepped.”
“I’m not mad,” Chris assured him. “What you did was incredibly sweet but completely unnecessary. As I told Matt, dating him makes you one of us. You are welcome in this house anytime. You don’t have to repay us. I know our pantry was a little light, but it’s not like we can’t afford to feed our family. We’ve just been busy.”
“Oh, I know. I never meant to imply that you couldn’t afford to shop. I just wanted to help you out, that’s all. The way you always go out of your way to help everyone around you. Look, I know all about how you helped Brian, Justin, Sophia, Steve and Jason, giving them a safe place to live. I also know how you’ve always been there for everyone else if they needed advice or just someone to listen. You and Zander are wonderful guys who are always looking out for others. Consider this my contribution to the cause.”
“Wow, rich, good looking and a sweet talker. Matt found himself a good one,” Chris laughed. “I guess all I can say is thank you. It was completely unnecessary but totally appreciated. And don’t even think about doing something like this again, got it?”
“I got it,” David grinned. “Now, where the hell are we going to put all this stuff? I really didn’t mean to go so far overboard.”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
By the time Matt made it back to the kitchen with the rest of the bags, David and Chris were laughing like old friends. Matt smiled as he joined them in helping to put everything away. Zander showed up before they were finished. Once again David apologized for going crazy at the store and used his charm to smooth things over. After he promised to never do something like it again, Zander hugged him tight and thanked him for scratching shopping off his list of things to do…for the next month. It took a while to find a place for everything David bought, and it looked like they had enough paper products to last them through April, but eventually the kitchen was cleaned up and the four of them were able to sit down at the table and talk.
“Any word from your brother yet?” Zander asked Matt.
“No, not yet. I’m not holding out hope that I’ll hear from him anytime soon. I’m just glad he doesn’t hate me. I’ll wait as long as I have to.”
“Yeah, give him a little time and if you don’t hear anything, we can always fly to New York for a weekend and you can talk to him in person. I’ve found it’s always easier to force someone to talk to you when you’re in their face,” David laughed.
“I just might take you up on that. I loved being in New York.”
“Babe, just say the word and we can go anywhere you want. We could fly to Paris tonight if you wanted to. All I have to do is give Eddie enough time to get some rest first.”
“Will you stop calling him that,” Matt laughed. “And I don’t need to fly to Paris. I’m a regular guy with regular needs. If I want to go somewhere, it requires months of planning and saving up to afford it.”
“Not anymore. Now all it requires is a couple of hours’ notice.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being with someone like you,” Matt admitted.
“Yes you will, it just might take some time. Luckily we’ve got about sixty or seventy years for you to adjust.”
“Okay, on that mushy note, why don’t you two go into the other room and moon over each other while Zan and I start getting dinner ready? Everyone should be home soon and I’m sure they’ll be looking for food,” Chris suggested.
“Yeah, get out of here, you two,” Zan added. “You’re making us feel old with all that mushy stuff.”
“Oh please, don’t believe a word they say, David. These two are as mushy as we are. They’ve been making me sick for years now,” Matt laughed as he and David stood up.
“Get out!” Chris laughed.
“We’re going, we’re going,” Matt sighed teasingly as he took David’s hand and pulled him from the kitchen.
“They’re really perfect together,” Chris said once he and Zander were alone.
“Yeah, they are. It’s nice to see Matt so happy. I just hope it lasts for a while. I get the feeling that once his father finds out his son is gay, Matt’s days of being happy are going to be over for a while.”
“Me too, but I keep hoping for the best. At least he’s got David by his side. That will make it all easier on him.”
“I really hope it does.” Zander sighed. He wasn’t so sure David’s love was going to make it all better once the truth came out.
Steve drove home from his date with Charlie on cloud nine. They had a wonderful time and Abby was an absolute angel. Charlie insisted that she wasn’t always that even tempered, but the love that shone in her eyes every time she looked at the precious little girl told Steve that Charlie didn’t mind those uneven tempered moments one bit. He couldn’t wait until their next date.
As soon as Steve pulled into the condo parking lot and saw his brother’s SUV parked in one of their spots, all thoughts of Charlie and Abby were gone. His focus went right to Eric and the mysterious Gracie that Dane had told him about. He didn’t have a chance to confront his brother the night before, but he had every intention of getting the story tonight. He still couldn’t believe that he learned such an important part of Eric’s past from Dane. That should’ve been something he learned firsthand.
As he entered the condo, he could hear Eric on the phone and thought about eavesdropping, but decided against it and made his presence known immediately. Eric looked at him as he walked through the door.
“Alright buddy, listen. I have to go. Thanks again for letting me crash in your guest room next week. I should be there sometime on Tuesday. I’ll text you when I know what time.”
Steve waited patiently until Eric ended the called before initiating their conversation. “Hey, I think we need to talk.”
“Sure, what’s up?” Eric looked at his brother closely and noticed that something was bothering him. “Hey, is everything alright? The date didn’t go badly, did it?”
“No, the date was fine…good…it was great, actually.” Steve couldn’t help smiling.
“Awesome. I can’t wait to meet her. So, if the date went well, what’s up?”
“Eric, why didn’t you tell me about Gracie?” Steve blurted out.
“Yeah, why didn’t you tell me about her? I mean, I know she means a lot to you. I know that you’re going back to Flagstaff next week to see her. I just don’t understand why Dane knew about her and I didn’t.”
Eric sighed. “Look Steve, I know what you’re thinking and it has nothing to do with you or our relationship. The only reason I told Dane was because we were talking about him being able to support Julia and he was kind of complaining and then felt bad for doing it. I was just trying to let him know I understood.”
“That’s fine, but it doesn’t explain why the whole thing is such a secret to begin with. I didn’t even know you had a serious relationship, let alone one with a kid involved.”
“That’s because it’s in the past. It was before I moved back here and it’s off limits. I won’t talk about it.”
“Steve, I’m serious.”
Steve was getting frustrated. “Okay, fine, but what about Gracie? She’s not in the past. Not if she’s still in your life. Will you at least tell me about her?”
Eric smiled as he thought of his little girl. “She amazing. She’s three years old and the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. She calls me Daddy Eric. I was a part of her life for almost two years and luckily, after the break-up, I was still allowed to see her. It’s hard with her being so far away, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that Robert is giving me with the restaurant, so here I am.”
“Bro, it’s obvious that you love her. Why didn’t you tell me about her? This makes me kind of like an uncle. I’d love to meet her.”
“I know, I guess I just wasn’t ready to talk about her. Moving over five hours away from her was harder than I thought. I’ve considered telling Robert I can’t take the position and moving back at least a dozen times in the last few weeks. Especially when we’re on the phone and she asks when I’m going to take her to the park again. The whole situation sucks and it was just something I wanted to deal with on my own. Please don’t take it personally. I know things between us were strained when I moved away, but we’re good now, right? All that shit is in the past and we’re good again.”
“Yeah, we’re good again. I just didn’t like hearing about something so important from Dane, you know? It made me feel unimportant.”
“Unimportant? Are you kidding me? You are one of the most important people in my life. You and Gracie. I don’t know what I’d do without either one of you. I just hope I never have to find out with Gracie.”
“Do you think that’s a possibility? I know you don’t want to talk about the break-up, but how secure is your visitation with Gracie? Is her mother going to change her mind about letting you see her?”
“I have a legal document giving me visitation. We agreed to certain terms between us and had it notarized. I have no idea how that would hold up in a courtroom, but I refuse to think about it. I just have to hope it never comes to that. I kiss ass and jump through hoops to keep the peace. That’s all I can do.”
“Would you change things if you could?”
“What do you mean?”
Steve sighed. “If you could go back in time and not get involved with Gracie’s mother, would you do it knowing that there would be a break up and your time with Gracie could be taken away?”
Eric didn’t have to think twice. “I would never change anything that would take Gracie out of my life. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I will always be thankful to have her.”
“Well, what about if God forbid, she was taken away. Would you still feel that way?”
“Of course I would. Steve, what’s with all the questions?”
“I don’t know. Dane just had me thinking. Charlie…she has a daughter. Her name is Abby and she’s almost six months old. She is the sweetest thing ever, and I really like her mom. Dane was trying to warn me away from her. That’s how it came up about Gracie. He thought I knew the story and told me to talk to you about getting involved with a single mom. Do you think I should be worried? I mean, I don’t want to get close to Abby and then have her taken away if things don’t work out with Charlie and me…but I really like Charlie. What if she’s the one? Should I not date her just because she has a daughter? That doesn’t seem fair to any of us.”
“Look bro, you have to do what feels right in your heart. I can’t imagine not ever having known Gracie, but I was lucky. Dane’s right to a point. You could be setting yourself up for future heartache. Ex-boyfriends don’t have any rights when it comes to someone else’s children. Then again, it isn’t fair to any of you if you walk away before giving the relationship a shot. My suggestion is to talk to Charlie. Explain that you don’t want to scare her and aren’t trying to rush into anything, you just want to know where her head is at. Any parent that would take someone who is important to their child away from them sucks as a parent, you know? See what she says. All this worrying might be for nothing. It’s great that Dane’s trying to protect you. The bottom line is that you have to go in prepared. Only time will tell how it all works out.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks, Eric,” Steve replied. “So, do you have a picture of Gracie? I’d love to know what she looks like.”
“Are you kidding? Let me go grab my laptop. I hope you’re not tired! I’ve got hundreds of pictures of my little Peanut.”
Steve smiled as he watched his brother walk away. He’d never seen Eric happier than when he was talking about Gracie. It was a wonderful sight to see. He just hoped that Gracie’s mother never changed her mind about visitation. He had a feeling that losing Gracie would devastate his brother beyond repair, and that was something Steve never wanted to see.
By the time Jason knocked on his door, Aiden was a bundle of nerves. He knew he was going to have to give Jason a reason for why he was being an asshole and he wasn’t looking forward to it. He took a deep breath before putting a small smile on his face and opening the door.
“Hey, come on in. Can I get you something to drink?”
Jason walked in tentatively and looked around. He had only ever been to Aiden’s apartment once and it was only for a moment when Aiden needed to grab a jacket and he waited in the doorway. “No thanks. I’m good.”
“Alright then…um…I guess we should sit down.”
“Aiden, why do you look so nervous?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just…I wasn’t expecting to have this discussion with you,” Aiden admitted.
“What discussion? Aiden, I just want to know what happened. If you don’t want us to be friends, just say so. I just don’t like being blown off.”
“That’s not it.”
“Then what is it? We went from talking every day to barely more than a couple of text messages a week. What the hell happened?”
Aiden sighed. “Look Jas, I’m sorry about the way I’ve been acting lately. I’ve been an ass. It’s just that your moving away really freaked me out and I didn’t know how to handle it.”
“It freaked you out? Why? I know you were pissed but I thought we got past that. Why were you freaked out?”
Taking a deep breath, Aiden got up and started pacing. “It freaked me out because it wasn’t until you were gone that I realized the extent of my feelings for you.”
“Your feelings for me?”
“Yeah, and I know what you’re thinking. Not only is it unethical, but it’s creepy. I was doing so well maintaining our friendship and blocking out my attraction, but once the possibility of never seeing you again presented itself, I was floored. I had to take a look at how much you mean to me and it hasn’t been easy. That’s why I’ve been keeping my distance. I figured that if we kept contact to a minimum, I’d eventually stop thinking about you night and day.”
Jason sat there in shock listening to Aiden open up to him. The thought of Aiden, the man he’d been thinking about non-stop for months, feeling the same way as he did took his breath away. He didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m really sorry. I’ve never done this before. I’ve counseled so many people…so many men, and I’ve never had one unethical thought towards any of them, yet you…I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to help people. It’s why I do what I do, but with you it was different. I don’t know how things got so out of hand. Your moving to Pittsburgh was a blessing in disguise, really. I can’t counsel you. It’s not right. And I’ve been trying to move on. I’ve been trying not to think about you and all the time we’ve spent together. I thought that if I was able to turn off my feelings, we could go back to the way things used to be before I temporarily lost my mind.”
“I know. If you want to report me to the board, I’ll totally understand.”
“Report you? Why would I report you?” Jason asked incredulously.
“Because I’m scum. I’m worse than scum. You came to my group, to me, for help to you get through one of the worst times of your life and here I am lusting after you. I swear to you, I never meant for any of this to happen. I knew I was attracted at the beginning, but I never knew it would get so out of control.”
“If I knew it would turn out like this, I would’ve passed the group off to Grayson.”
“I should’ve done that. I should’ve just…”
“Stop rambling for a minute.”
“Sorry…I do that sometimes.”
“I’ve noticed. Look Aiden, I have no intention of reporting you to the board. I also don’t think you’re scum. I don’t think a person can help who they’re drawn to. Besides, I’m pretty sure lusting after your therapist isn’t exactly right, either.”
“I know but…wait…what?”
Jason smiled. “Aid, you’re not the only one attracted here. Let me tell you, it scared the shit out of me when I realized that I had feelings for you that I shouldn’t have been having. Not only because I was with Zac, but also because I was just brutally attacked and the thought of being with someone…anyone…terrified me. Yet despite that, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about you all the time. When I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic, you were the first person I thought of, and not for your words of wisdom. I wanted you to hold me in your arms and make everything okay.”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m so screwed up and my life is a mess right now. I just know that I don’t want you out of my life. You’re not my therapist anymore. There’s nothing unethical about us being friends and seeing where things go, is there?”
“But what about Pittsburgh?”
“I’m not going back.”
“Okay, well what about Zac?”
“I don’t know. We’re trying to work on being friends at the moment. He knows that for right now, we’re not getting back together. I have to be honest, though. I still love him. I can’t say we won’t get back together again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I just know that I really like you and would like to get to know you better without any ethical complications. How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds absolutely terrifying. I’m in.”
“Good…but…um…you know that I’m not ready for…I mean, sometimes even kissing is hard for me.”
“I know, first hand, remember? I don’t have any expectations. I’m just happy that everything is out in the open. We’ll take it day by day and see where we end up. I’m just glad you’re back.”
“Me too. Now, I’ve got to get going. I have a lot to do to arrange my move back to Arizona. Can I call you later?”
“You can call me whenever you want. I promise to always answer.”
“Thanks Aiden.” Jason walked over and placed a soft kiss on Aiden’s startled lips. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
Aiden watched Jason walk out of his apartment with a mixture of joy and fear. He couldn’t wait to see what happened between them in the days to come, but he also knew that as long as Zac was still part of the equation, there was a chance of a broken heart. He just had to hope for the best, because walking away wasn’t an option. Not anymore.
The big day finally arrived. Eric was on the road by seven in the morning to begin his five hour drive. He couldn’t wait to see his little girl. He had missed her so much in the last four weeks and still wondered if moving back to Sierra Vista was the right thing to do. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get used to only seeing Gracie once a month. The ride seemed to take forever, but he finally reached Tyler’s place around noon. Using the spare key that his friend had given him for emergencies, he went inside and dropped his overnight bag in the guest room. Tyler wouldn’t be home from work until after six. Eric planned on preparing him an extravagant meal as a thank you for giving him a place to crash. After taking a peek at what Ty had in his kitchen, Eric wrote a list of things he needed to buy and then headed out. When he finally reached the park, it was just after one and Gracie was already there. She was playing by the jungle gym but stopped what she was doing the second she spotted him.
“Daddy Eric!” she squealed as she got up and raced to him, throwing her little loving arms around Eric as hard as she could.
“How’s my Peanut?” Eric asked as he picked her up and hugged her tight. His eyes were suddenly blurry with tears. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I missed you too, Daddy. I haven’t seen you in a forever. How come?”
Eric kissed her on the head and then pulled back and looked into her deep blue eyes. “Because I moved kind of far away. I got a really good job, but it’s not close by. We talked about this, remember?”
“But why did you have to get a job far away? Aren’t there any jobs here? I don’t like you far away,” Gracie pouted.
“I know, Peanut. I don’t like it either. But I’m here now. We’re going to spend the whole afternoon together. How does that sound?”
“It sounds great! Wanna watch me go down the slide?” Gracie wiggled out of his arms, ready to run. The sadness of his move was temporarily forgotten.
Eric watched Gracie run over to the slide with a huge smile on his face. Just seeing his little girl again made him happier than he’d been in weeks.
“She misses you like crazy.”
The voice behind him startled him out of his trance. He turned around and smiled at Gracie’s grandmother. “Hey, Betty. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ignore you.”
“It’s okay. Nothing else matters to you when she’s around. I understand. I know you miss her like crazy, too.”
“More than I even thought possible. If this opportunity wasn’t so huge…”
“I know, sweetheart. I know,” Betty laid a comforting hand on Eric’s arm. “So how are things going? How’s Sierra Vista?”
“It’s good. Things are going well. The restaurant opens next week so I’ve been running around like a crazy person, but I love it. I have the entire staff hired and I think I lucked out. I think we’re going to make a good team.”
“I’m sure you will. How are things with your brother? What’s his name again?”
“Steve, things are good with him. I love that we’re close again and he’s an awesome roommate. Life is almost perfect. I just wish…” Eric paused as he watched Gracie go down the slide. “Great job, Peanut.”
“Wanna see me do it again, Daddy?”
“Absolutely.” Eric turned back to Betty. “I hate that I’m so far away. It’s killing me. Hearing her voice every night on the phone and not being able to give her a kiss, or tickle her, or tuck her into bed. A part of me wants to pack my things and come back.”
“But you can’t do that. I know how hard it is for you, sweetheart, but you can’t pass up this opportunity. God gave it to you for a reason. You just have to hang in there and follow his plan. It’ll all work out in the end.”
“You keep telling me that, but sometimes plans are made to be broken,” Eric chuckled sadly.
“It’ll get a little easier in time.”
“I don’t want it to get easier. I don’t want my life to adjust to not having her near me. I really wish…” Eric didn’t finish the thought.
Eric stayed silent for a moment as he watched Gracie make friends with a little boy about her age. “Has it gotten any better?”
Betty sighed. “No. If anything, I think it’s gotten worse. I don’t know what to do anymore. Sometimes I think that it’s my fault. I’m an enabler. If I had just…”
“Don’t even finish that sentence, Betty. It’s not your fault. Drug addiction is just that…an addiction. It’s no one’s fault, really. At least you’re there for Gracie. You look tired, though. Are you doing too much?”
“Well, you know. She’s a very energetic little girl and I’m no spring chicken anymore. I’m tired at night, that’s for sure. When she finally goes to bed, I have to say, I’m a little relieved.”
“But not every night, right? I mean, you don’t have her full time now, do you?” Eric could tell by the guilty look on Betty’s face that she was going to evade the question. “God Damn it!”
“I’m sorry, Betty. I’m just so mad. I didn’t realize how bad it was going to get when I moved. At least when I was around, I could help you out. Why don’t you look into hiring someone to help out a few hours every day? I’ll pay for it. Like a part time nanny or something.”
“I don’t know about that. I don’t think I like the idea of a stranger taking care of Gracie.”
“I know, but we’ll do some research, find someone that comes highly recommended. Run extensive background checks…and you’ll be around. It’ll just take some of the work load off you.”
Eric knew when the subject was dropped. “Well, why don’t you go home and rest for a while? Maybe take a nap. I’ve got things here. I’ll call you later tonight, bring her home right before bed. Maybe even tuck her in if the coast is clear.”
“Are you sure? I would think you’d want to spend some time with your friends while you’re here, too.”
“I’m positive. I’m here to see Gracie. No one else matters.”
“Okay, then I’ll take you up on your offer. This old lady could use the break. Have a fun afternoon, and don’t spend another minute worrying about me. I’m just fine.”
“I’ll always worry about you, Betty. You’re part of my family.”
“Oh sweetheart, come here.”
Eric allowed the older woman to take him in her arms and tried not to notice the weight loss that she’d sustained since his move. He wondered if she had been taking care of herself like she was supposed to. The woman had had a mild heart attack the year before and although the doctor’s assured him that she would be fine, the stress of taking care of a small child every day couldn’t be good for her. He chastised himself for not thinking things through and making better arrangements before he moved and vowed to arrange for child care before he headed back to Sierra Vista.
“Now enough of that,” Betty said as she pulled away. “Go have fun with my granddaughter and call me later.”
“Thanks Betty…for everything.”
Eric watched Betty walk away for a moment before turning back to Gracie. He had seven hours to spend with his little girl and he planned on making the most of it.
As it turned out, finding someone to help Betty take care of Gracie wasn’t as hard as Eric thought it would be. Tyler’s sister had two children of her own and was looking to find a way to make some extra money without having to put her kid in daycare. After a quick phone call, Lisa put dinner on the table for her husband and kids and then headed over to see Tyler and Eric and meet Gracie. Just as Eric thought, Gracie loved Lisa and showed no signs of shyness around here. Eric and Lisa discussed pay and came up with a tentative agreement. Eric called Betty and a meeting was scheduled for the following morning before he headed back.
When Eric finally brought Gracie back to her grandmother, the little girl was worn out. Eric had taken her on a shopping spree which included some new clothes. He was glad that he had picked out a new pair of pajamas, too. It allowed him to give her a bath before taking her home so that when she fell asleep in the car, which she did, he was able to put her right to bed. He tucked her in, kissed her goodnight and watched her sleep for over ten minutes before forcing himself to walk away. He found Betty in the kitchen, fixing a cup of tea.
“She didn’t move when I laid her down.”
“The poor dear is exhausted,” Betty smiled happily. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No thanks. I’m going to head back to Tyler’s. Gracie’s not the only one who’s exhausted. I’ll see you tomorrow at the park again. I’m sure Gracie is going to love Ashley and Preston. I think Ashley is Gracie’s age and Preston is five. I’m not sure, but this is going to be a good thing for Gracie. It’ll give her other children to play with and give you a break. You’re okay with this, right?”
“I’m sure it’ll all work out. If you trust this Lisa, I know I can, too.”
“Yeah you can. Just remember, you’re paying her salary. I’ll send you the money so it comes from your account. My name has to stay out of this completely or it’s not going to work.”
“Eric, maybe I can…”
“Betty, it’s fine. Really. I want to do this, but we both know that if it comes out that I’m involved…”
“I know. I won’t say a word, but if it becomes too much for you, let me know. I don’t want to cause you any hardship.”
“I’m good. The payments on my condo are low and Steve insists on paying half, so I can afford this. I promise. Now I’m going to get out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Goodnight sweetheart. And thanks again. I had the most relaxing evening.”
“Good, I’m glad. See you later.”
The following morning went better than Eric had hoped for. Lisa won Betty over immediately and plans were made for Lisa to pick Gracie up the following morning for their first day together. Eric enjoyed watching Gracie bond with her new friends and when it was finally time for him to say goodbye, it took everything in his power not to cry right alongside Gracie.
“But why do you have to go, Daddy?”
“Because I have to get back to work, Peanut. But I’ll call you tonight and you can tell me all about your day. And tomorrow Lisa is going to pick you up so you can go play with Ashley and Preston, remember?”
“But I don’t…wanna play…wif them…I want my Daddy,” the little girl cried.
Eric’s heart was breaking and the thought of having to leave the little girl while she was so upset was tearing him up inside, but he had to be at the restaurant later that night. He had a million things to do before the opening and he had arranged to have the entire staff in for an informal meeting before they opened. As it was, he was going to be running late and have to go right to the restaurant when he got back. “Baby, please don’t cry. I promise that I’ll see you soon.”
Betty walked over and patted Eric on the back. “I know it’s hard, but you’re going to just have to walk away. Otherwise you’ll never leave. It’s okay. I’ve got her.”
So as hard as it was, Eric gave Gracie one final kiss and then handed her to Betty and walked away. As he got in the SUV, he wiped away his tears and started the engine. Against his better judgment, he looked over at Gracie one final time and saw her crying on her grandmother’s shoulder as she waved goodbye. The lump in his throat grew as he waved back and then pulled out of the parking spot. He didn’t know how he was going to go another few weeks before seeing her again. The five hour drive back to Sierra Vista seemed to take twice as long with a heavy heart, but thanks to light traffic, Eric made it to the restaurant just as everyone started pulling into the parking lot. Putting aside his broken heart, he got out of the SUV and put on his work face. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it to the best of his ability. Within minutes, everyone was inside and looking towards Eric for guidance.
“Alright, everyone, we have an opening to get ready for. Let’s get to work.”
Justin dropped down on the couch with a sigh. “You know, we were only home for a month, but I feel like we’ve been gone forever. The amount of dust around this place was horrible.”
“I know. The bathroom was kind of gross, too. I scrubbed everything before I took a shower. A lot of dirt can build up in four weeks,” Brian replied. “So, how’re you doing?”
“What do you mean, how am I doing? I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because you miss everyone? I could tell how upset you were when we were driving away.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Liar,” Brian teased. “Now…are you alright?”
Justin sighed. “I guess so. I just hate being so far away from everyone. And now Matt’s back in El Paso, which sucks even more because when we do make a trip back home, he’s not there. I really enjoyed being with everyone for the last month.”
“I know you did, but the spring semester will go by quickly and then we’ll have all summer to be with everyone,” Brian pointed out. “Besides, at least you know Jason is back with Chris and Zan now. It would’ve been worse if he stayed in Pittsburgh.”
“I know, you’re right. I guess I just need to wallow for a little while. I’m good though. It’s going to be weird now that both Jason and Zac are gone.”
“Well at least Zac’s home with his parents and not in prison. I talked to him last night and he said that the prosecutor agreed to reduce the charges to simple possession because of his cooperation in the case. He’s going to end up with two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service. He spoke to his advisor at ASU and enrolled in a couple online classes so that he didn’t lose the entire semester. He’ll be back here with us next fall.”
“Good, and hopefully Jason will be back here, too. I know he wants to come back. I just wish they would find the creep that attacked him so he’d feel safer coming back.”
“He seems to be doing better, though. Maybe by August he’ll be ready to re-enter the world.”
“I hope so,” Just said. “You’re right, though. He does seem better. I think something is going on with him, though. I didn’t really get a chance to talk to him since he had to fly back to Pittsburgh to get his things and say goodbye to his parents. I don’t know, maybe I’m imaging things, but he seems…different? Almost happy? Has Zac said anything to you about what’s going on with them?”
“Not really. All he said was that they talked and agreed to be friends for right now. I’m pretty sure that was Jason’s idea and not Zac’s, but he seems to have accepted it. Maybe enough time has passed that it’s just getting easier on Jason. Is he going back to the center for his meetings?”
“No, and that seems kind of weird. He made an appointment with some shrink that Aiden recommended. I don’t know why he’s not just going to the group meetings. I know they really helped him before he left.”
“Maybe he just felt that one on one sessions would be better for him. I’m sure he has his reasons. I’m just glad he seems to be doing better. I wouldn’t question it.”
“I’m not going to question anything. It’s nice to see him smiling again. I hope it lasts.”
“Me, too,” Brian said. “Now, how about if we go to bed. It’s getting kind of late.”
“Late? Bri, it’s only 8:30.”
“Yes it is, but my plans for you tonight are going to take several hours.”
Justin blushed at Brian’s suggestive tone. “Oh, well then, we’d better get to bed. I’m going to jump in the shower, you lock up and meet me in the bedroom.”
“How about if we lock up together and I’ll join you in the shower. You might need help with those hard to reach places.”
“You get the lights and I’ll lock the door.”
Three hours later, Brian and Justin were lying in each other’s arms when the phone rang. Justin jumped up quickly and turned on the light as he reached for his phone. Late night phone calls were hardly ever good news. Jason’s name was on the screen.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“They got him,” Jason said softly.
“Got who?” Justin asked in confusion.
“They got the guy that attacked me.”
“Oh my God, Jason…”
“I know. I just got off the phone with the detective that has been handling the case. He told me that someone from the courts would be in touch with me, but that he wanted me to know as soon as possible. He’s been really nice to me. I can’t believe it’s finally over.”
“That’s awesome. What happened? How did they catch him?”
“He was attacking someone else…on campus again. Luckily one of the security guards heard a noise and went to investigate and found them.”
“No, things hadn’t gotten that far when they were found. Thank God. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone…except maybe that scumbag.”
“Oh good. Who is it? Do you know?”
“He wouldn’t give me a name. He just said that is was someone employed by ASU. Apparently while they were questioning him, he confessed to attacking me. That’s all I know right now, but I’m sure the rumor mill will be swirling around on campus when you get there tomorrow. If you hear anything, please let me know.”
“Of course,” Justin assured him. “I’m really happy for you, Jas. Now maybe you can come back to campus in the fall.”
“I plan on it,” Jason said. “Now I’d better let you go. I’m sorry to call so late. I just couldn’t wait to tell you the good news.”
“You don’t have to apologize. You can call me anytime. You know that.”
“Thanks, Jus. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Okay, have a good night.”
“I will now.”
Once the line went dead, Justin put down the phone and looked at Brian. “Thank God.”
“I heard most of what Jason was saying. He doesn’t know the name?”
“No, but he’s an ASU employee. I’m so glad things can go back to normal on campus now, although I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as safe as I used to.”
“No, I don’t think I will either. We all got a taste of how scary life can be. I think I’ll always be looking over my shoulder, but at least we know that there’s one less scumbag on the streets now.”
“Yeah, and every little bit helps.”
Justin leaned over and kissed Brian softly before turning off the light and finding his way back into his boyfriend’s arms. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Brian replied and he held Justin tightly and drifted off into a peaceful sleep.
Jason disconnected the call and immediately called the second person on his list. He refused to think about the significance of the order in which he called to share his news. He had spent the last week back in Pittsburgh, talking to both Aiden and Zac on the phone each day and not thinking about his current predicament. Zac answered on the second ring.
“Hey, what’s wrong? We just said good night an hour ago.”
“They caught him, Zac. They caught the asshole that raped me.”
“J, that’s awesome!” Zac exclaimed. “Oh my God, how did they catch him? Are they sure it’s him? Who called you? It’s almost midnight.”
Jason laughed at Zac’s excitement. “Yes, they’re sure it’s him. He was attacking someone else on the ASU campus and security found them…luckily before he got too far. The detective on the case called me unofficially to let me know. He confessed to my attack. After all this time, it’s finally over.”
“Oh, J, I’m so happy for you. I’m so happy for everybody, actually. I know Brian and Justin were still a little nervous about going back to classes.”
“I know, which is why I called them first. Classes start tomorrow. Now they can relax a little bit and maybe Brian will let Justin go somewhere by himself,” Jason laughed.
“I wouldn’t count on that. Brian is really overprotective when it comes to Justin.”
“Yeah, he really is,” Jason agreed. “Wow, I still can’t believe it’s finally over. I feel like celebrating.”
“Do you want to?”
“Want to what? Celebrate?”
“Yeah…I mean, I’m sure you’re not going to be able to sleep anytime soon. Wanna get out of the house? We could go to the diner and grab something to eat,” Zac suggested.
Jason’s mind immediately went back to the all the nights he and Aiden sat in the diner and talked their way through one of his panic attacks. Would it feel odd to be there with Zac? He really could go for a piece of Leona’s pie. “Yeah, that sounds good. I guess I’ll drive.”
“That’s probably a good idea. I was told no driving until the sling is gone. I hate being stuck at home, but I don’t go back for my follow-up until the end of the week.”
“It’s no big deal. Justin told me that I can use his car whenever I need to. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be there.”
A short time later, the two of them walked into the diner. Leona was there and spotted Jason immediately.
“Honey, where the heck have you been? I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“Hey, Leona, how are you? I’ve been in Pittsburgh with my family, but I’m back now. It’s nice to know I was missed,” Jason replied.
“Of course you were missed, honey. Not too much to look at around here. Gotta rely on my boys to brighten up the place. Have a seat at your table and I’ll be right with you.”
Jason walked over to the table in the back knowing that Zac was looking at him in confusion. Jason had never told him about all the nights that he had relied on Aiden to ease his anger and fear. He prepared himself for the questions that were sure to come.
“I take it you’ve been here before,” Zac said as soon as they were seated.
“Yeah, Aiden used to bring me here when I was having a bad night. A piece of Leona’s pie always made everything better,” Jason chuckled.
Before anything else was said, Leona came rushing over with a huge smile on her face. “It’s great seeing you again, honey. Who’s this handsome devil you brought with you tonight?”
“Leona, this is Zac. Zac, this beautiful woman is Leona. The best baker in all the world.”
“Oh, now knock that off, you. As bad as Aiden, I swear,” Leona laughed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Zac. What can I get you boys tonight?”
“What’s on the menu?” Jason asked.
“Well, you’re in luck, honey. My cherry pie is as fresh as can be.”
“Oh thank God,” Jason sighed before looking at Zac. “Z, this woman makes a cherry pie to die for. A little bit of vanilla ice cream on the side and it’s perfection.”
Zac smiled at the woman. “I guess you can make it two.”
“Coming right up.”
As soon as Leona was gone, Zac focused on Jason. “So, you come here a lot with Aiden?”
“Well…not necessarily a lot. There were just some nights when the dreams were so real. Aiden brought me here to help me forget for a while.”
“I see…and does he bring all of his group patients out for pie?”
“You guys have gotten pretty close, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess. We’re friends. I’m not seeing him on a professional level anymore. I actually have an appointment with a new therapist on Thursday.”
“That’s good. Look, J, I know we’re not getting back together right now, but I kind of got the feeling that a future between us isn’t off the table for good. Was I wrong?”
“No, you’re not wrong. I love you, Z. I’m just kind of screwed up right now and need to focus on myself. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I can’t promise you anything right now, but who knows what’s going to happen down the line.”
“Okay…and did Aiden get the same speech?”
“I knew there was something going on,” Zac said softly. “I just had this bad feeling, long before you broke things off. Is that why you did it? Is that why you dumped me a few days before Christmas?”
“Z, Aiden had nothing to do with the break up. I told you, I just thought it would be best for both of us if we weren’t spending all of our time trying to be who the other wanted us to be. Aiden was never anything more than a therapist to me.”
“Yes…no…truthfully? I don’t know. To be honest with you, I do feel something for him. I don’t know what, but there’s something there.”
“Z, listen to me. I don’t know what’s happening. There is absolutely nothing going on between Aiden and me. There has never been anything between us. We just have these feelings…but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if anything will ever happen between us, but he knows how I feel about you. He knows that I love you and that at times I long for us to be back together. We’re just going to take things day by day and work on our friendship and see what happens. Just like I’m doing with you. That’s all I can tell you right now. I’m so sorry.”
“Isn’t there something unethical about a therapist dating one of his patients? He should be reported.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong. Aiden hasn’t been my therapist since I moved back to Pittsburgh and it wasn’t like he made a pass at me. I confronted him when I flew out last week and forced him to tell me why he hadn’t been returning my phone calls. He was trying to keep his distance because he felt bad about his feelings for me. He even told me he wouldn’t hold it against me if I wanted to report him.”
“Zac! How can you say that? He’s been wonderful to me, helping me through the worst experience in my life. How can you even think about reporting him?”
“He what? Developed feelings for me that he kept to himself? Distanced himself from me as soon as he realized how deep those feelings went? He really didn’t do anything wrong, Z.”
Leona suddenly appeared at the table with their pie. “Here you go, you two. Enjoy.” She looked closely at Jason, obviously having picked up on their heated discussion.
“Thanks, Leona, I’m sure we will.” Jason waited until the older woman walked away before refocusing on Zac. “Look I’m sorry I agreed to come here. I should have known that Aiden would come up in conversation and I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I’m sorry that I got so upset…I just…thinking about you with him…”
“Don’t think about it. I’m not with him. We’re just friends.”
“Yeah, but that’s all we are, too. And I know we’re still broken up, but I’ve been hoping that you’d come to your senses and realize that you can’t live without me.” Zac chuckled softly, trying to lighten the mood. He didn’t want their night to end on a bad note.
“I can’t live without you,” Jason said softly. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back together again, but those weeks we weren’t talking were horrible for me. I don’t ever want you out of my life. Aside from Justin, you’re my best friend. I don’t ever want that to change.”
“I’m sorry I was such an ass to you.”
“You don’t have to keep apologizing for what happened. It’s in the past. Let’s just move forward. That asshole is off the streets, I’m living in Arizona again, and you’re sitting across the table from me. Life is good.”
Zac took Jason’s hand and smiled. “Yeah, life is good.”
Daniel knocked on the door and waited a few moments before the door opened and he came face to face with the person he was looking for. “You must be Mark. You and your brother look like you could be twins.”
“Um…I know. I'm sorry, you are…?”
“Sorry, I’m Daniel. I’m David’s brother. Can I come in? I think we need to talk,” Daniel explained.
“David? Who’s Dav…oh…him. Um…yeah, I guess you can come in.”
Daniel entered the room and looked around the small space. Having money meant that Daniel never had to live in such small quarters while in college. He was thankful for that.
“So, I guess Matt sent you here?”
“No, actually Matt has no idea that I’m here. David and I decided that our meeting might be a good idea. I know exactly what you’re going through right now and I thought that I might be able to help.”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable talking to someone I don’t even know.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to talk. You can just listen.”
Then Daniel spent the next hour telling Mark all about David’s coming out and his reaction to the news. He explained how he felt betrayed, like his own brother didn’t care enough to share his biggest secret with him and how he felt stupid for not knowing that the person he was closest to was going through such a momentous life event. He even told Mark what an ass he was by shutting out his brother, and most of his family, while he dealt with his feelings.
Mark sat there and listened while the stranger in front of him pretty much explained every thought he’d been having himself ever since Matt told him that he was gay. It was as if his own thoughts were being shoved in his face. When he listened to the pain Daniel’s reaction caused David, Mark started to feel even worse than he already did. The last thing he ever wanted to do was hurt his brother. He just wasn’t sure how to process what was happening. Everything was about to change, especially when his father found out. There was no way his father was going to accept a gay son. It just wasn’t going to happen. And then what?
“Look, Mark, I know it’s really none of my business, but I like Matt. He’s a really great guy and I hate that he’s hurting right now. I know how hard it is to accept that your brother isn’t the person you thought he was. But just remember, he’s dealing with the possibility of losing his family, his parents, over something that he can’t change. He needs as many people on his side as he can get. It would be really great if you could be one of those people.”
“I…um…I guess I better give him a call.”
Daniel smiled. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. And listen, I don’t live too far from here. If you ever want to talk, give me a call.” Daniel pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to Mark. “We can go grab a beer or something.”
“Yeah…okay. Thanks, Daniel. Really. I guess I needed someone to give me a push.”
“Not a problem. I’ve been told I’m really good at pushy,” Daniel laughed. “See ya later.”
Mark waited until Daniel was gone before grabbing his cell phone. He wanted to talk to Matt as soon as he could. He’d been an ass long enough. His brother answered on the second.
“Hey, Mark. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry I was such an ass. You’re my brother and I love you, man. Nothing is ever going to change that.”
And with those three sentences, everything was right again between the brothers.
End of part 22
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