Now That You're Here - The College Years
The entire ride to Flagstaff was made in silence. Eric was lost in thought and Dane didn’t want to push for information. He was still a little unsure of what was happening. He knew that someone named Betty called, that Gracie was somehow involved, and that whatever happened had Eric sobbing in his arms, but that was about it. He tried to strike up a conversation when they first got on the road, but other than a grunt or two, Eric wasn’t interested. Dane decided to just let him have his space. He could be patient when he needed to be. It seemed to take forever before Eric pulled the SUV into the driveway of a modest sized home. There was a swing hanging on the front porch and blooming flower beds across the front yard. Whoever lived there, Dane assumed it might have been Betty, took good care of the place.
Without a word, Eric climbed out of the SUV and headed towards the porch. At the last minute he seemed to remember he wasn’t alone and turned to wait for Dane to join him. Once he had, Eric took the steps two at a time, knocked on the door and then walked inside without waiting for someone to answer. Dane barely had time to take in his surroundings before a small child came screeching into the front room.
“Daddy, you’re here!” Gracie held her arms out, knowing she was about to be picked up. “I missed you so much! You told me you weren’t coming to see me today.”
“I know, Peanut, but I missed you so much that I changed my mind,” Eric told her as he hugged her tight and gave her a kiss. He could feel his eyes begin to tear as he thought about how he was going to have to tell his precious little girl that her Papa was gone. “Hey, Peanut, there’s someone I want you to meet. This is Dane. He drove up with me today to keep me company. Can you say hello?”
Gracie looked over at the stranger standing before her and buried her head in her daddy’s neck. A soft hello could barely be heard.
“Hello, Gracie, it’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you,” Dane said as he tried to engage the little girl in conversation.
She pulled back and looked over at Dane. “You have?”
“Yep. For instance, I know that you’re four years old.”
“I am. What else do you know about me?”
“Let’s see. I know that your favorite color is pink and that you love spaghetti.”
“I do…I love pisghetti!” Gracie squealed. She put her hands on Eric’s cheeks and forced him to look at her. “Daddy, how does he know all that?”
“I don’t know, Peanut. Maybe he has special powers,” Eric offered with a smile.
“No,” Gracie giggled. “He doesn’t have special powers. You told him, didn’t you, Daddy?”
“Yeah, maybe I did.”
“You’re silly, Daddy. Can I get down? Mickey’s Playhouse is on!”
Eric put Gracie on the floor and watched her run away before noticing Betty standing there. He went to her immediately and took her in his arms. “I’m so sorry, Betty. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Thank you, Sweetheart. I am, too.” Betty hugged him tight and then pulled back and looked at him closely. “You look so tired. You didn’t have to jump right in the car. I’m alright here.”
“I’m fine, Betty. Just sad, really. And I didn’t come alone. This is Dane. He’s a friend of my brother’s.”
Dane stepped forward to shake Betty’s hand, trying not to feel slighted by being called Steve’s friend. Even before what happened between them a few hours earlier, he’d been thinking of Eric as a friend, not his friend’s brother. Had he been wrong? “Hi, Betty, it’s nice to meet you. I wish it was under better circumstances.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too. You boys come on in. You must be exhausted after such a long trip so early in the morning. Would you like some tea or something? I could make some breakfast? How does an omelet sound? Or maybe lunch. I have some turkey and roast beef in the fridge, and I have some rolls from the bakery down the street, Eric. You always liked their rolls.”
“Betty, we didn’t come here for you to wait on us. In fact, I came to help you. Now go sit down and relax. Dane and I are both fine right now. I’m going to go make sure that Gracie is settled in front of the TV and then I want to hear what happened, alright?”
“Um…yeah. Okay, although I don’t really know that much.”
“That’s okay. I’ll be right back.”
Once Eric was sure that Gracie was lost in the world of Mickey Mouse, he made his way back to the living room and sat down next to Betty. “Tell me what happened.”
“I don’t really know. I just got a call from the hospital saying that Cooper had been brought in unresponsive and that I’d better get there as soon as I could. I didn’t make it in time, though. He was already gone by the time I got there,” Betty said tearfully. “Oh Eric, what now? I don’t even know what to do first. I don’t know where he kept his important papers. I don’t even know if he had life insurance. And what about Gracie?”
“It’s okay, Betty. I’m here to help you,” Eric assured her.
“That’s so sweet of you, but I can’t ask that of you. Not after everything that’s happened. It wouldn’t be right.”
“You’re not asking. I’m offering. First thing I’ll do is go to his apartment and find what I can. I know where he used to keep his important papers. I’ll also look for the lease to his apartment so I can let the landlord know what happened. Don’t worry. We’ll figure everything out.”
“Oh Eric, you’re such a God send. I wouldn’t know what to do without you,” Betty cried. “I just wish…”
“I know, Betty. Me too. We’ll head over there now. No sense in putting off what needs to be done, right? Dane, could you do me a favor and go start the SUV? I’m just going to go let Gracie know I’m leaving for a while but that I’ll be back.”
“Sure, no problem,” Dane replied as he caught the keys that Eric threw at him. As he made his way outside and started the SUV, his mind raced with different scenarios. It was obvious that this guy Cooper was Betty’s son and Gracie’s father, but how did Eric fit in to all of this? Was Eric dating Gracie’s mother? Maybe, but that didn’t explain how he ended up being so close to Betty. Maybe Eric and Cooper had been friends? But then why wouldn’t Gracie call him Uncle Eric instead of Daddy? Close friends of a child’s parents usually became aunts and uncles not daddies. He was so confused.
A few minutes later, Eric came out of the house and hopped into the driver’s seat. He put the SUV into gear and then looked over at Dane. “I’m sure you have a million questions but I’d appreciate it if you could hang on to them for now while I deal with this. I’ll explain everything later.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Eric. There’s no rush. I’m here to help you, not make things more stressful.”
“Thanks, Dane, I really appreciate it.”
The ride to Cooper’s apartment didn’t take long. Dane wasn’t really surprised to realize that Eric had a key to the front door on his own keychain. What did surprise him was the way Eric paused and took a deep breath before going inside. The apartment was fairly clean, Dane noticed, with a few personal belongings and some toys scattered around the small living room.
“He usually kept his papers in his bedroom closet. I’ll be right back,” Eric said before disappearing down a short hallway.
Dane started looking around the small space, for lack of something to do, and noticed a fireplace with a mantel full of pictures. Curiosity taking over, Dane walked over and started searching the faces in the frames. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he found the answer to several of his questions staring back at him. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there when suddenly Eric reappeared carrying a large box.
“I think this is everything we need for right now. Are you ready to get out of here?”
“She calls you Daddy because you were her daddy. You were one of her daddies.”
“What?” Eric asked in confusion.
“I was so confused. I didn’t know how you knew Cooper if he was Gracie’s father. When you first told me about Gracie, I had just assumed that you had been involved with her mother, but you weren’t, were you? You were in love with her father.”
“All morning while we were in the car, I kept thinking about last night and what happened between us and I was thinking that I somehow took advantage of you. I mean, we were drunk and I somehow ended up in bed with a straight guy. I figured I somehow took advantage of you while you were under the influence of too much alcohol.”
“Dane, how could you have taken advantage of me when I was the one who kissed you?”
“I don’t know!” Dane exclaimed and then quickly calmed himself down. “I don’t know. I just thought…I don’t know what I thought.”
“Look Dane, I promised you I’d explain everything to you later, and I will. I just don’t have the energy to do it right now, alright?”
Dane looked closely at Eric and noticed for the first time how hard the day had been on him so far. Another glance at the mantel told him why. “You still love him.”
Eric snorted. “I don’t know what I feel for him right now. Anger, sadness, pity…but not love. Any love I had for him died the day he chose drugs over me. The day he told me that drugs weren’t his problem, I was. Now we really should get back to Betty’s house. She’s not in the best of health and she just lost her only son. I wanna keep an eye on her.”
“Seriously, Dane, not now.”
Dane sighed, but knew he shouldn’t push anymore. Despite his insistence to the contrary, he knew that Eric still loved the man who had just passed away and as much as he wanted to deny it, he was in mourning. Dane didn’t want to add to the man’s grief. They’d talk when Eric was ready. “I’m sorry. Let’s go.”
Dane spent the next few hours playing with Gracie while Eric and Betty dealt with Cooper’s death. The little girl was an absolute delight and made Dane anxious for when his own daughter started talking in full sentences and having true conversations. He had called Sandy earlier to tell her about what had happened, making sure to keep certain details to himself, and she assured him that his absence would be fine. She was always so understanding when it came to him and his last minute change of plans. He vowed to get her to go away for a few days over the summer and have some fun while he didn’t have classes. She deserved a break.
His phone call to Steve was a little more difficult. Eric had asked him to call and tell Steve that he had to leave town for a few days. Of course that left Steve with a million questions, especially since he had seen Dane’s car in the parking lot of the condo and knew they were together. Dane had explained that a very good friend of Eric’s had passed away, but that still didn’t explain why Dane was with him. Dane had a feeling that Steve was going to be pushing for answers as soon as Eric got home. The final call was to Robert. Dane had explained that a friend of Eric’s had passed away unexpectedly and that they were both in Flagstaff. Robert was immediately sympathetic. The restaurant owner offered his condolences and told Dane to call if Eric needed anything. He promised to keep a closer eye on the restaurant and the sous chef while they were gone.
Watching Gracie and Eric together was a wonderful thing. The love that Eric had for his daughter was just as strong as the love Dane felt for Julia despite the fact that there was no blood ties. And it was obvious to anyone with eyes that Gracie adored Eric. It explained why Eric seemed so sad a lot of the time. He was truly missing his little girl.
When bedtime rolled around, Gracie started showing signs of a temper tantrum until Eric offered to lay down with her and tell her a story to help her fall asleep. With the two of them gone, Dane found himself alone with Betty. He wasn’t sure what to say, but he felt like he had to do something about the silence between them.
“Betty, is there anything I can do for you?”
“That’s sweet of you, Dane. Thank you. Would you mind putting on the kettle for some tea?”
“Not at all. I’ll be right back.”
Dane went into the kitchen to fill the tea kettle and jumped when he turned and found Betty behind him. “How long have you and Eric been together?”
“What? Oh, Eric and I aren’t together. I’m a friend of his brother,” Dane replied as he put the kettle on the stove and turned it on.
“I know that’s what he said when he introduced you, but I’m not buying it. I saw your reaction to the introduction and the way you’ve been watching him all day. You’re more than just Steve’s friend.”
“Really, Betty, we’re not…I mean, we’re just friends. He helped me out when I needed it, giving me a job in the restaurant so we’ve gotten close, but that’s it.”
“I see,” Betty said with a smirk on her face. “And you just happened to be at his condo when I called him at five in the morning?”
Dane felt himself blush. “We had been hanging out after work and had a few drinks. I just crashed there instead of driving under the influence.”
“You don’t have to hide from me, you know. I was always very accepting of Cooper. Despite my catholic upbringing, I believe that love is love, regardless of gender.”
“I’m not hiding, Betty. I’m openly gay. There’s just nothing going on between Eric and me. He…I didn’t even know…this is…”
“Betty, what are you doing?” Eric asked from the doorway. His tone sounded angry, but the smile on his face said that he was only playing.
“I’m snooping. What does it look like I’m doing? It’s the only way to find out what’s going on in your life. You never tell me anything.”
“That’s not true. I tell you everything that’s going on in my life. My life is just too boring to entertain you right now,” Eric laughed. “Now let’s get that tea made. I’d love to sit down and have a cup with you, but then Dane and I have need to have a private conversation.”
“Uh oh, that doesn’t sound good,” Betty said. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, really. There’s just a few questions that Dane has.”
Betty looked over at Dane. “What did he do?”
“Um…nothing. He just…it’s no big deal. We can just talk later.”
The look Betty threw at Eric made him hang his head. “He didn’t know about Cooper. When I told him about Gracie, he just assumed that I had been dating Gracie’s mother.”
“Why would he assume that?” Betty asked before realization set in. “Sweetheart, you told me that you were going to be honest with everyone from now on.”
“I know. I just wasn’t sure if there was a point, you know? Coop and I were over and since he was the only one, I just figured I’d wait to see what happened.”
“But he’s not the only one now, is he?”
Eric looked over at Dane and then back to Betty. “No, he’s not.”
Dane was confused again. Coop was the only what? And how did Betty even know all this? How was it possible that this woman, Cooper’s mother, knew Eric better than his own family did? And why was Eric hiding?
“Okay, you two, I’ve decided that I don’t want any tea. I need to try and get some rest. It’s been a long day and the rest of the family is going to be arriving tomorrow. I need to have all my wits about me to deal with that lot. Dane, thanks for all your help today. It was very sweet of you to stop whatever you were doing to come here and help Eric,” Betty said as she walked over and hugged Dane tight.
“And as for you, sweetheart, talk to him. It’s about time you talked to someone.”
As soon as Betty was gone, Eric turned off the stove and took Dane’s hand. He led the younger man through the house and into the guest room. When the door was shut, the two of them were plunged into almost total darkness. Eric let go of Dane’s hand and walked over to the nightstand, turning on the small bedside lamp.
“Any chance you’re too tired to talk right now?” Eric asked hopefully.
“Look,” Dane began. “I know you’ve had a really horrible day and I don’t want to make it any harder on you. I’m just so confused. Can you give me a condensed version? Something that can stop all the questions that have been running through my head since somewhere around the middle of the night?”
“Alright, but can we at least get comfortable in bed?” Eric asked and then paused. “You don’t mind sharing a bed, do you? It’s the only free bedroom, but I could sleep on the couch if it would make you more comfortable.”
“Really, Eric? After last night, I don’t think sharing a bed will be a problem.”
“I know, sorry. I’m just a little nervous, I guess. I don’t want to just presume. Last night I had a whole lot of liquid courage.”
“It’s fine, Eric. Let’s just get into bed and start talking. You’re not the only one who didn’t get much sleep last night, remember?”
“Oh, I remember. Not much of a chance of forgetting last night anytime soon.” Eric chuckled when he saw Dane look away. “Are you blushing?”
“Oh shut up,” Dane laughed as he quickly stripped down to his boxer-briefs and climbed into bed.
Eric watched him until he was completely covered and then stripped off his own clothes and joined him. They each laid on their sides, facing each other, their heads propped up on the hands. A mirror image of each other.
Eric took a deep breath. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“You can start by telling me why you’re hiding in the closet,” Dane suggested. “With your brother being who he is, and almost his entire circle of friends being gay, how come you never told anyone you were gay?”
“Because I’m not…or I wasn’t. I don’t know, Dane. It’s kind of fucked up. All my life I never questioned my sexuality. Not even once. All the girls I dated through high school and college; I was attracted to every one of them.”
“So then you’re bi-sexual?”
“That’s the thing. I never thought I was bi-sexual, either. I’d never been attracted to a guy in my life until I met Cooper. Never…not even a celebrity crush.”
“I know. You can imagine my surprise when I met him and was instantly drawn to him. I didn’t even know he was gay at the time. I had only been living here for a couple of weeks and I was in desperate need of a job. I went to a restaurant not too far from here because I heard they were hiring. Cooper was a bartender there. That first night, I woke up out of a sound sleep to thoughts of his gorgeous blue eyes and broad chest. It scared the crap out of me. I considered calling Steve, or even Chris and Zan since they were such a big part of my brother’s life. I just wanted someone to explain what was happening. I couldn’t be attracted to a guy. Not because I didn’t want to be gay, but because I wasn’t gay. Could you imagine suddenly being attracted to a woman? I mean really attracted? It messes with your head and goes against everything you thought you knew about yourself.”
“That must have been horrible for you.”
“It was…for about two weeks. Until the night I decided to sit at the bar after my shift and have a few drinks. It was Cooper’s night off so I figured I was safe, but he showed up while I was on my third shot. By midnight, I was drunk and Cooper was helping me home. One thing led to another and we were together from that moment on. Things were good between us. Really, really good. I fell in love quickly, thought he did, too. We were living together within a month. Gracie and I hit it off right from the start and I thought my life was perfect for a little while. I planned on telling everyone, but I just wasn’t sure what to say. I still didn’t feel gay, if that makes any sense. It wasn’t men, it was just Cooper.”
“I get that, but that doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell anyone that you were involved with someone. Whether he was a man or a woman, you were living with someone, in a serious relationship. Eric, you were playing Daddy to a little girl. Don’t you think your family would’ve liked to know that?”
“I know, but my relationship with my parents was so rocky and Steve…I don’t know. We drifted apart when I left home. I would’ve told them eventually, but then things started going downhill for us. Cooper’s drug use, which only seemed recreational at the beginning, started getting out of control. We used to have these horrible fights that usually ended up with me having a black eye and Coop apologizing and promising never to do it again.”
“He used to hit you?!” Dane exclaimed.
“Yeah…sometimes. It wasn’t like I was a battered woman or anything. It only happened during our really bad fights when he was high as a kite,” Eric explained.
“Oh my God, do you hear yourself? You’re making excuses for him.”
“He was an addict, Dane. Half the time he didn’t know what he was doing. I tried to get him some help, but he always refused. I threatened to leave a few times, but he knew I never would. Not without Gracie and he’d never let me take her with me. I had no legal claim. She was his daughter, not mine.”
“Where’s Gracie’s mother?”
“She’s dead. Ironically, he lost her to a drug overdose soon after Gracie was born. He was openly bi-sexual and Tracy was the love of his life. Losing her was what caused Cooper to start doing drugs in the first place.”
“So what finally made you leave?”
“I just couldn’t take it anymore. Last November I ended up in the hospital after one of our fights. A minor concussion and a few stitches, nothing debilitating, but I had had enough. I told him that he needed to get help or I was leaving him. He told me that he didn’t need help. That he was fine before me and he’d be fine after me. He said that I was his problem. Not drugs. Of all the times he had hit me, those words hurt the worst. I moved out two days later.”
“It’s fine. A week after I moved out, Robert called me and asked me to move back to Sierra Vista and help him open the restaurant. I jumped at the chance. I had been sleeping in my buddy Tyler’s guest room but I really didn’t have anything keeping me here except Gracie. Betty had known what was going on in my relationship. As much as she loved her son, she was very aware of his problems. She had convinced Cooper that keeping me from Gracie would only hurt Gracie so she began playing mediator between us and we came up with a visitation schedule that worked for both of us. Betty was the go between so we didn’t have to see each other. I spent as much time as I could with Gracie up until I moved and then started seeing her as often as I could. By then Coop was completely out of control, so Betty had her most of the time. When I came back in January, right before the restaurant opened up, Betty looked so tired. I found out that Gracie was practically living here. I hired someone to help take care of my little peanut, without Coop knowing, and life went on. And that’s it. That’s the whole sordid mess.”
“Wow, Eric, I’m so sorry. This must be so hard for you.”
“Yes and no. My heart is breaking to know that he’s really gone. A part of me kept hoping that he’d wake up one day and realize that he was slowly killing himself. Yet the other part said goodbye to him a long time ago. Cooper…the real Cooper died last year when he put me in the hospital and didn’t even care that he did.”
“So what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you said that it wasn’t men that you were attracted to, just Cooper. So what happened last night? I wasn’t stupid enough to think that last night was the start of a relationship, but I am a guy. Doesn’t that kind of change the whole it’s just Cooper dynamic?”
“Yeah, it does, you little shit,” Eric laughed humorlessly. “You changed everything months ago and didn’t even know you were doing it.”
“Ever since the night you stayed and helped me unpack the kitchen at the condo, I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind. Suddenly Cooper wasn’t the only guy I was attracted to.”
“You’re…attracted to me?”
Eric grabbed Dane’s free hand and put it on his hard cock, letting him feel his reaction. “That’s just from being in the same bed as you.”
“So last night…”
“You didn’t take advantage of me. If anything, I took advantage of you. I plied you with alcohol and then took you to bed on purpose.”
“Wait…wait…this can’t be happening” Dane said softly. “This has to be some kind of dream or something. I feel like I’m going to wake up any minute and be home in my bed.”
“Why is that?”
“Because this can’t be real. My childhood crush can’t be lying here beside me telling me he’s attracted to me. Things like that just don’t happen to me,” Dane replied.
“Childhood crush, huh?”
“Oh Eric, you have no idea. Ever since I was twelve and realized that I like guys, I had the biggest crush on you. I never told anyone. I was afraid that if Steve found out, he’d be mad and never invite me over to his house again, but I have about twenty notebooks boxed up in my attic where I doodled your name over and over again. I even have some very wrinkled pictures of you that I used to keep under my pillow. Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed. Why am I still talking?”
Eric laughed out loud. “Dane, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. I think it’s sweet. I can’t say that I had a crush on you back then. I’m seven years older than you. That would’ve been creepy. I can say that I’ve always liked you the most out of all Steve’s friends, though. And now…I really like you the most. So this crush…is it gone?”
Dane looked at Eric and smiled. “My crush isn’t gone. I think it just matured a bit.”
“That sounds very promising,” Eric grinned. “So, I need to spend the next few days dealing with the mess Coop left behind. Any chance you’d be willing to talk some more and see where things go between us once we get back to Sierra Vista?”
“Yeah, I think I’d like that,” Dane said.
“I’m not really ready to come out just yet. I have a lot to work out before I go public. Are you okay with that?”
“Eric, you have to do what feels right for you. I’ll be by your side for as long as it takes. Even if it’s just as a friend.”
“Thanks, Dane, although I’m hoping it’s going to be as more than just a friend.”
Eric leaned in and kissed Dane softly, but pulled back before it could go any further. “Thanks for being here for me.”
“You’re welcome. And I’m really sorry for your loss. I know now how much you loved him. I’m sure he really loved you too. The addiction was just too strong for him to fight.”
“I’d like to think so.”
Dane reached out and pulled Eric into his arms, offering him comfort in his most innocent way. Eric allowed himself to be held and drifted off to sleep almost instantly.
It had been a long week and Zander was
so thankful it was Friday. He was ready to go home and enjoy a nice, noisy
weekend at home now that everyone was out of school for the summer. He loved
having the gang around again and was looking forward to the barbeque they were
having the following night. The only downfall was Chris. He had been in a weird
mood all week and it was starting to really worry him. He had asked Chris a few
times what was going on, but Chris just assured him that he was fine. A small
part of Zan wondered if he should be worried after what happened the last time
something was bothering Chris, but he decided to give his partner the benefit of
the doubt and a little more time to work out whatever was going on in his head.
A glance at the clock told him that is was almost time to go home. The center closed up early on Fridays and Zan offered to lock up so that Aiden and Grayson could go out for a few drinks. Aiden had been pretty down since Jason had told him that he just wanted to be friends. Zan figured that a trip to the bar with his best friend was just what he needed. He sat at his desk until five o’clock came and then he was out of his chair. He couldn’t wait to get home.
Thirty minutes later, Zander was walking into the house with a huge smile on his face. He expected to hear some kind of noise, but the house was strangely silent. Brian’s jeep was gone so he figured that he and Justin had taken Sophia out for a while. They usually did that when they were around on such a nice day, but that didn’t explain where Chris was. His SUV was parked right where it always was which meant he had to be around somewhere. He decided to change into a pair of shorts before going in search of his partner and yelped when he walked into the bedroom and found Chris lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
“You scared the crap out of me,” Zan laughed as he clutched his chest. “I figured you’d be taking advantage of the quiet and getting some writing done. Are you hungry? I can go start dinner. I’m assuming that the boys have Sophia out somewhere. Is Jason with them? Who’s going to be eating at home?”
“Zan, we need to talk,” Chris said softly as he sat up.
“Um…okay. Do we need to do it now, or can it wait until after dinner? I um…shit,” Zan stopped and took a deep breath. “Babe, should I be worried? The last time you said that to me…”
“Oh God no,” Chris replied quickly. “I’m sorry, babe. It’s nothing like that. I mean…I’m not…I haven’t done anything like that. I’d never hurt you like that again.”
“Okay…okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go there, but I know something’s been bothering you all week and when you said we needed to talk it reminded me of…never mind. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. Anyway, what’s going on? Obviously something is bothering you. I’ve been trying to be patient and give you time to come to me, but I know something is wrong. Do you want to talk now or wait until after dinner?”
“Let’s talk now. I sent everyone away. Jason is out with Zac and Brian and Justin took Sophia out for dinner and a movie.”
“Okay, now I’m starting to worry again. Let me just get out of these clothes and then we can talk.”
Chris waited anxiously until Zander had changed and sat down beside him. “I…um. Wow, this is hard.”
Zander could see how pale Chris was and really started to worry. He took Chris’s hand in his. “Babe, you’re starting to scare me. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“I…um. I have cancer,” Chris said softly.
Zander felt his entire body turn cold. “What?”
“I have cancer. Testicular cancer.”
“What do you mean? How do you…I don’t understand.”
“I found a lump while I was in the shower last weekend. I called the doctor and was seen first thing Monday morning. I figured I was overreacting and wanted him to tell me I was fine. He didn’t,” Chris chuckled humorlessly. “He ran blood work and sent me for an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed that there was definitely something there and my blood work shows elevated tumor markers. They’re pretty sure it’s cancer, they just aren’t sure what kind just yet. They won’t know that until after the surgery.”
“Oh God,” Zan gasped as he stood up and began pacing. “Okay…when do they want to do the surgery?”
“As soon as possible. I have an appointment with an oncologist next Thursday. I’ll know more then.”
“Okay…this is…it’s okay. Um…testicular cancer is treatable, right? I mean, it’s curable. I remember reading somewhere that it’s one of the easiest forms of cancer to treat.”
“Zan, come here.”
“Who’s the doctor you’re going to see? You know, Jules' boyfriend works at the hospital. I can call them and see if the guy’s any good. And you need a second opinion. Doctors are always making mistakes. I’m sure this is just some kind of mix up,” Zan rambled on as he continued to pace.
“Damn it, tomorrow is Saturday. I’m sure most doctors are closed for the weekend…but they have answering services, right? If we call them…offer to double their fee…triple it if we have to, maybe someone would be willing to open up for a couple of hours tomorrow,” Zan continued. “I have to call Aiden. He can take over my groups next week. I don’t have that much going on. I’ll take the week and off and we can…oh God.”
Chris finally stood up and went to Zan, taking him in his arms. “Shhh…it’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.”
“But Chris…it’s cancer. Oh God, I can’t even…how can you be so calm?” Zan cried.
“I’m calm because I have to be. I can’t let myself get all worked up before we actually know anything. Besides, I spent most of Monday crying my eyes out,” Chris chuckled.
Zan pulled back and looked at his partner in horror. “Oh my God, I’m a horrible person. Here I am breaking down when you’re the one that’s got…I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright, babe. I’d be a mess if you were the one who was sick. We just have to relax and wait to see what happens. I’ve been doing a lot of research and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fine. Things might be tough for the next couple of months, but I’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, you will…I know you will,” Zan said, wondering who he was trying to reassure. He pulled Chris to him and hugged him tight. “You have to be okay because I love you and there’s no way I can live without you.”
“Don’t you worry. I love you too, and I’m not going anywhere,” Chris promised. He just hoped it was a promise that he’d be able to keep.
After cuddling up in bed for an hour just talking about their plans for the following week, Chris and Zan made their way to the kitchen to throw something together for dinner. Since it was only the two of them, and neither one of them was really hungry, they settled on a grilled chicken salad. When they were done eating, they curled up together on the couch and watched some TV. Zander was having a tough time concentrating, but he didn’t let on to Chris. He was already ashamed of his earlier reaction to the news and wanted to put on a brave face from that point on. He’d wait until he was alone to allow the tears that he was holding back to fall.
They agreed to have a family meeting once everyone was home and Sophia was in bed. Chris didn’t want to try and hide what was happening from them. Not something that was as important as cancer. He hated knowing that he was going to upset them, but they had a right to know. Telling Sophia was a different story. They were going to hold off telling her until the last possible second.
It was after ten when everyone was finally home. Brian and Justin had gotten home around eight. Sophia was worn out so Chris helped her get ready for bed. She was asleep before her head even hit the pillow. Chris took a few moments to watch her sleep and thought about how much the little girl captured his heart in the seven months since she arrived in Arizona. He would do anything for her, just as he would his own child. When he made his way back downstairs, Brian and Justin were snuggled up on the loveseat. Chris and Zan had agreed that Jason needed to be a part of their conversation since he was currently living in the house with them. When he arrived a short time later, Zan told them that they needed to have a family meeting.
“I’ll just go to my room, then,” Jason offered. He wanted to give them their privacy.
“Hey, you’re not going anywhere. You’re a part of this family, too,” Zan said with a smile.
“Thanks,” Jason blushed.
“Okay, so what’s going on?” Brian asked. They hadn’t had a family meeting in a very long time.
“I have cancer,” Chris blurted out.
The room was suddenly quiet as everyone absorbed the news. The shocked looks on their faces told Chris that his news was the last thing anyone expected to hear. “Testicular cancer. I really don’t know much more than that. I have an appointment with an oncologist on Thursday, but Dr. Reynolds said that they’re going to want to do surgery as soon as possible.”
When Brian and Justin remained quiet, Jason jumped in. “I’m assuming they’ve done blood work. Were your tumor markers elevated? How about an ultrasound?”
Chris seemed surprised before answering. “My markers were slightly elevated and the ultrasound definitely showed something. He said they wouldn’t know more until after the surgery.”
“Yeah, once they do the surgery they can tell if it’s been contained to the affected testicle or if it has spread. Stage one means it’s been contained, stage two or greater means it has spread. Hopefully it was caught early enough, before it spread so you don’t have to go through Chemo.”
“How do you know all this?” Zan asked. Brian and Justin were still quiet.
“My dad had it a few years ago. I was scared when I heard the word cancer so I did a bunch of research. Turns out that although cancer is still cancer, testicular cancer has the best chance for full recovery,” Jason explained. “Listen guys, if you want me to move out while you’re going through this, I’ll understand.”
“Didn’t I just get done telling you that you’re part of this family? We don’t want you going anywhere.”
“Just checking,” Jason smiled. “Then remember that I’m here for whatever you guys need. I’ll help around the house more and help out with Sophia. I was going to start looking for a job, but I’ll wait until we know more so that I can be here for you both.”
“Thanks, buddy. I really appreciate that,” Chris told Jason before turning to Brian and Justin. “Do you two have any questions? You’re awfully quiet.”
“Um…I’m good. Just shocked, I guess. I’m sorry, Chris. This must be hard on you. Of course, if you need anything, Brian and I are both here for you, too. I’m sure everything will be fine,” Justin replied.
“Thanks, Jus. Brian?”
Brian seemed to pull himself out of thoughts. “I’m good. I’ve got some things to do.”
Without waiting for a reply, Brian got up and left the room, leaving the others behind to watch him go.
“Do you think I should go after him?” Chris asked, his concern evident on his face.
“I wouldn’t,” Zan said. “You know Brian, he needs to be alone with his thoughts before he shares them. He’ll be back.”
Chris just nodded, but his eyes were still glued to the doorway that Brian had disappeared through. He thought about how scared he was after the accident when he feared losing his brother. It was one of the worst times in his life. Now here he was, putting Brian through the same thing. He hated knowing that he was causing pain to those around him. “I think I’m going to go to bed.”
“Babe, are you alright?” Zan asked.
“Never better,” Chris replied bitterly before getting up and walking away.
As soon as Chris was gone, Justin focused on his cousin. “How are you doing?”
“Yeah, you. This can’t be easy for you, either,” Justin pointed out.
“No, it’s not. I don’t think it’s completely penetrated yet, you know? I just found out a few hours ago,” Zan told him.
“A few hours ago? But Chris already had blood work and an ultrasound done.”
“Yeah, he did. He found the lump last weekend and never said anything to me until today. I want to ring his neck, but I figured that this probably wasn’t a good time to do it. I’m pissed that he kept me in the dark.”
“He was probably hoping that it was nothing and didn’t want to upset you until he was sure he had to,” Jason offered.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s it, but it doesn’t let him off the hook. You don’t keep secrets in a relationship, especially ones of this magnitude,” Zan sighed. “I’m going to go down and check on him. Jus, I know you’ll wait up for Brian to come home. Let me know if he needs anything. I’m worried about how he’s going to handle this.”
“Don’t worry, you just take care of Chris. I’ve got Brian, and if I’m not enough, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks…both of you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
When Zan was gone, Jason turned to Justin. “How are you doing?”
“I don’t know. I remember when your dad had his cancer and how quickly he recovered. He didn’t even have to do chemo, right?”
“No, he had stage one. It hadn’t spread anywhere so they just monitored him after the surgery and he was fine.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself, but I’m kind of freaking out a bit, you know? I lost both my parents two years ago. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
“But I’m fine. Please don’t say anything to anyone. Chris is Zander’s partner and Brian’s brother. They’re the priority. I don’t want either of them worrying about me and you know they will.”
“Yeah, they would,” Jason agreed. “But I’m here for you. If you need a shoulder to cry on, just say the word, alright? It’ll be our little secret.”
“Thanks Jas, I may take you up on that.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Jason smiled. He was worried about the family he had grown to love like his own. Cancer was such an ugly disease and even though testicular cancer was highly curable, there were always risks involved. The fact that Chris had slightly elevated tumor markers was an indicator that he was probably beyond stage one. He feared that they were all in for a rough ride. He was glad that he moved back to Arizona in January. This way he could be there for the entire family, just like they were there for him.
Brian sat at the river for more than two hours before he finally made the decision. He wasn’t sure if it was the right decision, but he knew that it was something he had to do. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it before dialing the number that he knew by heart, but hadn’t used in five years. His heart was beating out of his chest as he put the phone to his ear and waited for someone to answer.
Brian couldn’t find his voice.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Bri…Brian, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Oh my…Brian…you sound so…old,” Joan sighed.
“It’s been five years, Mom. I’m not a child anymore. I’m a man,” Brian replied dryly.
“Yeah, I guess you are,” Joan said sadly. “It’s really great to hear your voice, but I’m sure this isn’t a social call. Do you need something?”
“No…not really. It’s just…it’s Chris.”
“Chris? Is he alright?”
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “He’s sick, Mom. He has cancer.”
“Oh my God, no” Joan cried.
“I don’t even know why I called. It’s not like you care. I mean, you threw us both away. You made it obvious that we don’t matter to you.”
“That’s not true, Brian. You’re my babies. I didn’t want…it wasn’t me. Your father…he wasn’t a well man. He was sick and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to stand up to him, but I wasn’t strong enough,” Joan explained.
“How can you say that? You stood by him, let him do whatever he wanted to do to us. You were our mother. You were supposed to protect us,” Brian sobbed. He wasn’t sure exactly when the crying started. “Why didn’t you protect us?”
“I was afraid, Brian. I was afraid that if I said too much, if I stood up to him, he would be harder on you and your brother. He was horrible to Christopher. So horrible. I tried to leave once, when your brother was a little boy, but he wouldn’t let me. He said that if I left, he would drag me to court and take Chris away from me. I was so young, and I didn’t have any money. I didn’t even have a job. I was afraid he would win, and then what? So I stayed and did the best I could to keep his focus on me and not your brother. It was one of the reasons I didn’t have any more children until you came along. By then he had mellowed and I thought that things would be different. He promised me it would be different, and it was. He went easier on you. He didn’t hit you so much. I really thought it was going to be better the second time around, and then you…”
Brian knew exactly what she was going to say. “And then I what, Mom? And then I had to go and be gay like Chris? Then I had to be who I was born to be?”
“And then you had to go and let him find out! My God, Brian; you had to know how he would react. I kept what happened between him and Chris from you, but you had to know that someone like him would…I prayed every day that you wouldn’t end up like your brother. I prayed that I didn’t have to go through losing another son, but then you brought that young man here. Why would you do that? I just don’t understand.”
“I don’t know,” Brian replied softly as he tried drying his tears. “I don’t know. I guess I was just so tired of hiding. I thought that if you and dad found out, I wouldn’t have to hide anymore. I never knew about Chris and I guess deep down inside I never thought my own parents would kick me out for being different than them.”
“I was so scared for you that night. I was so afraid he was going to kill you. I did what I could to distract him and then I gave you your brother’s phone number so that I knew someone would take care of you.”
“But you were supposed to take care of me! Why didn’t you take care of me?”
“I was too weak. I am so sorry, baby. So, so sorry.”
Brian heard Joan’s soft sobs and started crying all over again. As much as he hated to admit it, he missed his mother. Not his father, but his mother.
“Baby, can I…do you think I could…maybe see you? It’s been so long. And your brother…how sick is he? Is he…I can’t even say it.”
“He’s not dying, if that’s what you were asking. He just found out. He has an appointment with an oncologist next week. He just told us and all I could think was that if he got sick…he’s the only family I have left.”
“That’s not true, baby. You have me. You’ll always have me if you need me.”
“What about Dad?”
“He’s gone, baby. He can’t hurt you and Christopher anymore.”
“Gone? What do you mean by gone?”
“He passed away two years ago. Drank himself to death. I thought about calling your brother and letting him know, but I figured he wouldn’t care. I figured that neither one of you would care. So instead I sat in this house, afraid to sell it and move away in the off chance that one of you boys would try and reach out to me. I prayed every night that I would see my boys again one day. Have my prayers been answered, Brian? Am I finally going to see my boys again?”
Brian wasn’t sure what he wanted at that moment. Part of him, the part that placed the call wanted to see his mother as soon as possible. But the other part still held so much anger and resentment towards her. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he had to confess to Chris so that they could decide together what the next step should be. “I’ve got to go, Mom. I’m sorry I don’t have any answers for you right now. I’ll call you.”
And then he ended the call. He just wished he could end his thoughts as easily. He sat there for another twenty minutes and then went to the jeep and headed home. He had sent a text message to Justin earlier, letting him know that he was okay, but knowing the blond like he did told Brian that Justin was still worried about him. He would go home, take comfort in his boyfriend’s arms, and try to find a way to tell his brother what he had done. He just hoped that calling his mother didn’t put too much added stress on Chris. Not when he had enough stress trying to deal with having cancer and what that meant for his future.
End of part 24
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