Now That You're Here - The College Years
By the time David parked his car in his designated parking space, the kid was sound asleep. He took a moment to really look him over and saw how young he looked when he wasn’t trying to be tough. It broke David’s heart to think that the poor kid had no one to turn to. Shaking off those thoughts, he looked around the area and sighed. Leaving El Paso at seven in the morning put him at the apartment complex just after noon. There was no way he was going to be able to get the kid inside without being seen. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing on the small playground the complex offered and several people were walking their dogs in the area. He’d just have to hope that whoever saw them had the decency to keep to themselves and not question why the kid was covered in cuts and bruises.
David got out of the car and went to the trunk, grabbing the bags he had there. Then he went over to the passenger side and opened the door, waking up the kid in the process.
“Sorry, we’re here. Can you get out yourself or do you need some help?”
“I’m fine,” the kid insisted, his soft moans and slow movements telling a different story. David had to give him some credit. He was determined to take care of himself.
Once they were inside, David dropped his bags and went right for the kitchen, hoping for a roll of paper towels or something that he could use to help clean the kid up a bit. The apartment came furnished, but he didn’t have any of the necessities yet, such as paper products and any type of first aid. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that there was indeed a roll of paper towels hanging in the holder. Not many, but enough to do the job until he could get what he really needed. He grabbed a few and folded them tightly, wet them a bit, and then went to find his charge. The kid had dropped down into one of the chairs in the small living room and leaned back, his eyes were closed.
“Hey, are you still with me? We need to get you cleaned up a bit. This is all I have until I can get to a store. I’m just moving in today,” David explained.
The kid opened his eyes. “That’s all I need.” He stood slowly, took the damp towels and then found his way to the bathroom.
David gave him his space to clean himself up. While he waited, he looked around the apartment. It wasn’t the greatest set-up, but it was good enough for what he needed. The furniture was clean, one of the bedrooms had a queen size bed, and the kitchen was big enough to prepare a meal. The most important feature was its proximity to the love of his life. He couldn’t wait to see Matt again, but first he needed to figure out what to do with the kid. As if on cue, the boy appeared from the bathroom.
“That looks a little better. How do you feel?” David asked.
“Like I got kicked in the ribs over and over again,” the kid replied sarcastically. “I should really get going.”
“Look, I appreciate the help, but I have to go.”
“Okay, again…where? Do you have anywhere to go?”
“There’s always somewhere to go.”
David was getting frustrated. He wasn’t going to just drop the kid off back in the middle of a bad neighborhood, especially when he was still having trouble walking due to the pain. “Okay, let’s try this. Do you have a safe place to stay? Where do you live?”
The kid sighed. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Depends on whether I find someone willing to let me stay the night. Look, I’ll be fine on my own. I just need a ride back to…”
“Back to where?” David exclaimed. “Kid, you’re what…15? 16? I can’t just drop you off in the street and let you fend for yourself.”
“Why not? My father did!” the kid yelled back.
David froze. He didn’t know how to respond to that. He could see the pain in the kid’s eyes as it washed over him. The reality of being forgotten by a parent is something that David knew he’d never have to experience. He couldn’t imagine what the kid had been through in his short life. “Alright, let’s sit down and talk, okay? I can’t just put you back on the street. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
“Do I have a choice?” The kid sighed again but resigned himself to an interrogation. He carefully lowered himself back into the chair.
David sighed in relief and sat down on the edge of the couch. “Let’s start out simple. What’s your name?”
“Oh…cool name. Where are you from?” David continued.
“I’m not from around here. Is that close by?”
David was getting frustrated. “Okay, can I get anything more than one-word answers?” he barked.
“What do you want to know? My father is the head of St. Joseph’s Hospital. He’s got money in the bank and thinks that makes him better than everyone else. About a year ago he decided that my behavior wasn’t proper decorum for the son of a man in his position, so he threw me out. I’ve been on my own ever since.”
Grant did a good job of hiding his feelings as he told his story, but David wasn’t fooled. He could hear the slight catch in the kid’s voice when he spoke of being on his own. “And your mother?”
“She died when I was a baby. It’s just been my old man and me…and the many bimbos through the years that wanted to play ‘Mommy’ to me to get their hands on my father’s money. Trust me, I’m better off without him. I just need to steer clear of the assholes you chased away today. They’ve been out to get me ever since I stole one of Johnny’s tricks. If they played fair, I’d be fine, but they like to gang up on me,” Grant explained.
“Grant, you can’t live on the streets. It’s not safe. And selling yourself…do you…I mean…”
“I don’t have any choice!” Grant exclaimed as he jumped up, grabbing his ribs as the pain jolted through him. “I can see from your fancy car to the expensive threads that you don’t know what it’s like to have nothing. Believe me, if I had any other choice I wouldn’t be selling my ass, but I don’t.”
Now it was David’s turn to jump up from his seat. “You do now. Look, I don’t know how but we’re going to find a way to fix this. I’m not going to let you live on the street. For now, you’ll stay here in my spare room. Once I have a few days to think about what to do next, I’ll figure something out.”
“Look, I appreciate your concern, but I’m not your problem.”
“You’re not a problem. It’s no big deal. I have a spare room and you don’t seem like the type to eat too much. Just…let me help you out. I promise that it won’t be too terrible living with me,” David teased, hoping to convince the poor kid to stay.
Grant looked at him skeptically. “Why are you doing this?”
“Call it my innate desire to help people. My family teases me about it all the time. So, do we have a deal?”
Grant shrugged, exhaustion suddenly taking him over. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Good, now I have a few things I have to do. Why don’t you go lay down? You can take the room over there,” David suggested, pointing towards what he considered the spare room. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Oh, and is there anything you’re allergic to? I’m going to do some food shopping while I’m out.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
David watched Grant walk into the bedroom and shut the door before he visibly sighed to the empty room. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get the kid to stay, but there was no way he would be able to let him walk out without anywhere to go. He grabbed his keys and his phone and headed out, locking the door behind him. As soon as he got into his car, he called Matt.
“Hey, are you finally here?” Matt asked excitedly.
“Yep! I just
dropped my things at the apartment and I’m heading to the grocery store now. You
up for keeping me company?”
“Are you kidding? Get your ass over here. I can’t wait to see you!”
“I’ll be there in a few. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” David replied softly before disconnecting the call. Now he just had to find a way to tell his boyfriend that he took in a homeless, teenage prostitute. “It shouldn’t be too hard,” he chuckled to himself as he headed towards the love of his life.
Brian walked down the hall at warp speed. He knew he should probably wait for Justin and Sophia, but he couldn’t. He wanted to see his brother with his own eyes and make sure he was okay. He had trouble sleeping, the night mind kept thinking about Chris and how sick he was. It terrified him to think about losing the only real family he had left.
He found the room and made his way inside, only to be stopped dead in his tracks. Chris was the only occupant in the room, and he was lying in bed with his eyes shut, hooked up to all kinds of wires and tubes. The sight scared him so much that he jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“He’s fine, really,” Zander offered. “He’s just sleeping. He’s on a lot of pain killers right now.”
“Is that normal?”
“Of course it is. Having your body cut open stings a bit,” Zan teased. “Where are Justin and Sophia?”
“They’re around here somewhere. I heard Justin mention stopping at the gift shop, but I came right here.”
“Hey…buddy…” came a raspy voice.
Brian jumped once again as he turned to face his brother. “Um…hey, how are you feeling? Did we wake you? I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve been dozing on and off all morning. Come sit down, talk to me. How are things at home?”
“Everything’s fine. We’re all fine. It’s you we’re worried about,” Brian pointed out. “Zan said you’re in some pain?”
“Yeah, but nothing I can’t handle…with the help of some painkillers,” Chris chuckled. “How’s my little pumpkin?”
“She’s fine. She has no idea how sick you really are so she’s not worried.”
“Bri, I’m not sick. I had cancer, but now it’s gone. A few rounds of radiation and chemo and I’ll be good as new. I promise.”
Before Brian could respond, Justin and Sophia came in and all talk about being sick was limited to boo boos and Band-Aids. It made for a happier little girl, but Brian couldn’t help feeling like he was the only one taking his brother’s illness seriously. He’d just have to wait a day or two until things settled down some and then have a long talk with his Chris.
Matt was sitting in the car alongside David, wondering what was bothering the man. Their reunion hug and kiss were typical of what they always shared after being apart for any length of time, but David seemed very quiet as he maneuvered the streets on their way to the supermarket. He wanted to give his boyfriend time, but he couldn’t stand the silence anymore.
“Babe, is everything alright?”
“Of course, why do you ask?” David replied, but even as he said the words, he knew Matt wasn’t going to believe him. He had been spending the car ride trying to decide the best way to tell his boyfriend that he had a teenage prostitute temporarily living with him. “There’s just something I have to tell you and I’m not sure where to begin.”
“In the past, I’ve always found the best place to start is at the beginning. Should I be worried?”
“No, not at all.” David took Matt’s hand and brought it to his lips, giving his boyfriend a quick, reassuring kiss. “This morning on my way into town, I took a wrong turn and ended up on the shady side of town. Once I realized where I was, I stopped at a red light to plug the apartment complex into my GPS. Before I was able to finish, I saw a kid being beaten up by a group of other kids.”
“And you got out to help!” Matt looked at David in horror. “Are you okay? Did something…”
“No, I’m fine. I promise. I got out of the car screaming and scared the little bastards away. Then I went over to help Grant, who was rolling around on the sidewalk in pain. I couldn’t leave him there,” David explained. “He’s just a kid.”
“So, you took him to the hospital?”
“Not exactly. He refused medical treatment. He said he was fine and didn’t need a doctor.”
“So you took him home, then?” Matt was starting to get a sinking feeling in his chest.
“Well, no…that’s the thing. He doesn’t really have a home. His mother died when he was a baby and his father kicked him out. He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
Matt knew what was coming. “He’s at your apartment, isn’t he?”
David looked over at Matt with a small smile. “Um, kind of.”
“Oh David, what am I going to do with you?” Matt sighed. “As much as you would like to, you can’t save everybody.”
“I know, but I might be able to save this one. I mean, maybe I can talk some sense into him and get him to seek some kind of help. Babe, he can’t be more than 15, 16 years old. I can’t just pretend I never met him and leave him to fend for himself. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“Babe, I could never be mad at you for trying to help someone in a tough situation. I just don’t want to see you get hurt if you can’t help…Grant, was it?”
“Yeah, Grant. You know, his father’s some big shot at a hospital in Tuscon and that asshole doesn’t even care that his son is selling his ass to survive. What is wrong with the human race?”
“I wish I knew,” Matt signed in response. “Well, let’s get to the store and get what you need. Your charge might be hungry. God knows the last time he had a decent meal.”
“I love you,” David replied. “Thanks for being the best boyfriend ever.”
Matt smiled. “You make it very easy.”
Eric sat on the couch with his head back, thinking about how the afternoon went. Donna had shown them five different houses that were in his price range and in decent neighborhoods, where he would feel comfortable raising a child. He should be happy, but there was a slight problem. He only really loved one of the houses. A spacious Cape Cod style on a small cul-de-sac in a very nice neighborhood. The problem was that it was three blocks from where he grew up. Three blocks away from his parents. Three blocks from the people who he vowed to keep at a distance ever since they hurt his brother by throwing him out for not being who they thought he should be. How was he supposed to put himself and Steve in that position?
“Hey, are you okay?” Dane asked has he entered the room. He had just put his daughter to bed, finally giving him the time to talk to Eric about the day. “Julia fell asleep the minute I laid her down. We finally have some time to ourselves. Now talk to me.”
“There’s really nothing to talk about,” Eric said as he reached out and took Dane’s hand, pulling the younger man down alongside of him. “All the houses she showed us were nice. I just have to pick one. I’m thinking maybe the one over in the Logan section. That one was pretty nice. And Riverside is a good school district.”
“True, but not as nice as the one Gracie would go to if you lived in Fawn Lakes,” Dane pointed out.
Eric sighed. “I know, but how can I live three blocks away from them after what they did to Steve? I don’t want to take the chance of running into them whenever I walk out the door.”
“I know it would be awkward, but you and I both know that Fawn Lakes is a great neighborhood and it’s in the best school district. Isn’t that what you want for your daughter?”
“Yeah, but maybe if I hold out a little longer something else will turn up. Donna said she was going to keep looking.”
“How long can you really hold out, though? I don’t have anything to compare it to, but Betty looked exhausted when we were there. She's not well and she’s grieving the loss of her only child. You really need to make whatever arrangements you need to make and get Gracie here so the poor woman can get some rest,” Dane replied.
“I know.” Eric fell silent.
“Look, talk to Steve. You need to tell him what’s going on at some point anyway, so talk to him and see what he thinks. If he doesn’t mind, then you don’t have anything to worry about. I mean, those other houses were nice and all, but the place on Lakewood Drive was amazing and perfect for you guys. I’d hate to see you give it up because your parents are jerks. No offense.”
“None taken, now come here,” Eric said as he pulled Dane into his arms. “Enough talking.”
“Sounds good to me.” All thoughts about houses and parents were suddenly forgotten as Eric devoured Dane.
Steve pulled his car up to the curb and killed the engine with a sigh. When he decided to stop by Dane’s house and try to get some answers out of his friend regarding his brother, he hadn’t expected to find his brother there. Enough was enough, it was high time that his brother was honest with him and told him what was going on.
He got out of the car and headed up to the door, knocking lightly and then walking inside. He probably should have rung the bell and waited for Dane to answer. The days of walking into each other’s houses unannounced ended with high school, but he knew that Dane’s parents and Sandy were all out of town and he was kind of hoping to slip in quietly and possibly overhear a conversation that would shed some light on the whatever it was that Eric wasn’t telling him. He paused in the entryway, heard some music playing softly from the living room, and headed in that direction. He walked through the doorway and stopped dead in his tracks. Eric was sitting on the couch with Dane straddling his lap, and they were locked in a heated kiss.
“What the fuck is going on here?!”
Dane heard Steve’s voice and jumped up, nearly falling over the coffee table in an attempt to get away from Eric. “Steve, what are you doing here? How did you get in?”
“The fucking door was unlocked!” Steve spat. “What the fuck were you doing to my brother?”
Eric stood up and sighed. He glanced over at Dane and would have laughed at the way the younger man was staring in sheer horror if he wasn’t worried about the anger and confusion on his brother's face. “Steve, relax. I can explain.”
“Um, I think I’ll go check on Julia. Babe, I’ll be in the other room if you need me.”
Steve waited until Dane was gone before turning to his brother. “Babe? What the fuck? What the hell is going on? You’ve been so distant lately, refusing to talk to me and then I come in here and find you in a lip lock with one of my best friends? A guy?”
“Why don’t you sit down and let me explain,” Eric suggested. “I’m sorry, I should have told you everything sooner.”
“Told me what?”
“That I’m into guys…I guess,” Eric said softly.
“You guess? What the hell does that mean?” Steve prodded.
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m bisexual? Look, seriously, just sit down and I’ll explain everything. But you need to relax. I’m not going to open up to you with you standing there scowling at me.”
Steve wanted to protest, but he didn’t want Eric to refuse to talk to him and send him away. He took a deep breath and sat down in the nearest chair. “I’m listening.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been honest with you about this before,” Eric replied. “I didn’t mean for you to find out this way, though. I just didn’t know what to say.”
“Just tell me the truth. Tell me why your whole life has been a secret,” Steve urged.
“It’s not that simple,” Eric began. “I wasn’t born gay. I didn’t spend my whole life trying to hide who I was. None of my ex-girlfriends were beards that I used to hide who I was. I was drawn to every one of them. I cared for every one of them. I even considered marrying one of them, remember? It wasn’t until I met Cooper…” Eric drifted off as memories of the older man flashed in his mind.
“Cooper? Who’s Cooper?” Steve asked.
“Cooper is Gracie’s father…was Gracie’s father. I know you just automatically thought that Gracie came into my life through her mother, but it was her father I was in love with. To be honest, I don’t even know what happened. From the moment I laid eyes on him…it was like nothing I ever felt before. Can you imagine what that was like? Looking into a person’s eyes for the first time and suddenly questioning everything you ever knew, or thought you knew about yourself? I tried to fight it; not because I think there’s anything wrong with being gay of course. I tried to fight it because I didn’t think that was who I was. There was no fighting it, though. Not with feelings that strong. So, Cooper and I began a whirlwind relationship. I suddenly found myself living with him and becoming a second father to Gracie. Her mother had passed away when she was a baby, so it had just been the two of them until I showed up. And life was good for a while, but Cooper was an addict. I didn’t know it in the beginning, but after a while things started to get bad. Really bad, so I eventually left him. I had to get away. Then Robert offered me the job here and I jumped at the chance to start over. Cooper agreed to let me still see Gracie, his mother Betty became a buffer between us and life went on. I wasn’t trying to hide it all from you, but I didn’t know what to think at that point. Even while I was with him, I didn’t feel “gay”. We would go to the bars or clubs, and I could see him ogling other men, but I never found myself attracted to any of them. It was just Cooper.”
Steve tried to take in what his brother was saying. “So what about Dane? Are you just using him?”
“No, I would never use Dane, but that’s why I became even more confused,” Eric chuckled. “It all started on the night we moved into the condo. You went to the store and Dane stayed with me to help me unpack. We were in the kitchen talking and suddenly all I wanted to do was pull him close and kiss him. It scared the crap out of me, actually.”
“The night we moved in? You guys have been…”
“No!,” Eric stopped him. “No, that was the night I realized I was attracted to him. Believe me, I tried to fight that attraction, too. I mean, Dane’s a great guy, but he’s so young…and one of your best friends. I didn’t want to be drawn to him. It’s just that as time went on, the pull became stronger and stronger. I eventually got to the point that I couldn’t ignore it any longer, so a few weeks back I decided to take a chance and see what happened. It was the night before we disappeared to Flagstaff.”
“Your friend that passed away?” Steve asked tentatively.
“It was Cooper. Betty called around five in the morning and told me he was gone. Dane had stayed the night, saw how devastated I was and refused to let me go alone. I went there to help Betty with all the arrangements. She’s not well and just lost her only son. I couldn’t let her go through that alone. And Gracie…someone had to try to explain to a four year old why her father was never coming back. It was awful. I don’t know how I would have made it through the week if I didn’t have Dane there with me. He never left my side, never complained, just did whatever he could to make it easier for all three of us.”
“Eric, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. If I had known what you’ve been going through…”
“No, don’t apologize. You didn’t know because I didn’t tell you and I’m sorry about that. It’s just that when I moved away, while I was gone, we just weren’t that close, you know? And I was just so confused. Then when I came back…I guess I just wanted to get settled and get my life back on track. I planned on telling you eventually. I planned on telling you everything. I guess my only excuse is that my relationship with Cooper really messed me up. What started out so amazing turned so dark and ugly. I guess I was ashamed to tell anyone.”
“Dark and ugly?” Steve was confused.
Eric looked down at his hands, unable to make eye contact with his brother. He didn’t want anyone to know what happened; it was bad enough that Dane knew, but he felt he needed to tell the whole story so that Steve understood his reasons for hiding. “The drug use got really bad. And sometimes we would fight. I don’t think Cooper ever meant to hurt me, but sometimes…”
“It’s fine,” Eric assured him. “It wasn’t all the time and usually it wasn’t that bad. A slap here and there. He rarely used his fists. The first time he sent me to the hospital, I left. But you can understand why I don’t really like to talk about the past, right? I just don’t want to get into it with anyone.”
Steve got up from the chair he had been sitting in and quickly sat down alongside his brother. “That must have been awful for you. I wish you had called me. I would have been there for you. But I guess I can kind of understand why you didn’t. I’ve read enough psych books thanks to Zander to know that people in abusive relationships usually keep things to themselves.”
“It’s embarrassing. Especially because I’m not some little weakling. I wasn’t a tiny woman being abused by her much larger husband. I shouldn’t have stayed after that first slap. I should have fought back. I should have done something,” Eric insisted.
“Why didn’t you?”
Eric chuckled humorlessly. “Because I was in love with him. I was so in love with him that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. And then there was Gracie. She’s the best thing to ever happen to me and I was afraid that if I left, I’d never see her again. And Cooper knew that. He knew he could get away with just about anything because I was in no position to leave him. Not until that last night…back in November. I remember lying in the ER and just knowing that I was done. I couldn’t stay and be his punching bag any longer. I think Cooper knew it to. When I told him I was leaving, he told me to go. And he never once refused to let me see our daughter. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I really am sorry for what you went through,” Steve said again. “So, you and Dane…”
“Yeah, so me and Dane. Are you mad?”
Steve thought about that for a moment. “No, not mad. Shocked as Hell, but not mad. I guess you guys are getting serious then?”
“I am,” Eric admitted. “But we’re taking things slow. I don’t want to rush into anything until I’m sure we are both ready for it. I come with a lot of baggage. I don’t know if I’m what he needs.”
“Trust me, Brother. Dane could do a lot worse.” Steve laughed. "And has! Now I’m going to go find Dane. I think I owe him an apology. I’ve been giving him a hard time and it’s not my place. If you two weren’t ready to share what was going on, I had no right to push.”
Eric stood up and hugged his brother tight. “No more secrets, I promise,” he whispered in Steve’s ear.
Dane had peeked in on Julia, who was sound asleep, and then went to his room to give Steve and Eric some privacy, but it was killing him. He had been pacing back and forth, wondering what was happening and hoping everything was going okay. He knew why Steve was upset. Walking in and finding his straight brother kissing another guy had to be a shock. And it wasn’t just kissing. He and Eric had been devouring each other. Why hadn’t he locked the damn door.
“Hey,” Steve said softly from the doorway.
“Steve, I am so sorry,” Dane exclaimed. “I wanted to tell you so many times, but Eric just wasn’t ready. And I should have just told him we couldn’t do anything until he was ready, but I just couldn’t stay away from him. Please tell me you don’t hate me.”
Steve laughed at the sheer panic on his friend’s face. “Relax, Dane, I don’t hate you. Eric explained everything, and I understand. He just wasn’t ready to open up to me and although I’m sad that our relationship wasn’t close enough that he could tell me anything, I can’t blame him for it. When he moved away, neither one of us tried to maintain our close relationship. That’s on me too.”
“So, you’re not mad that we’re dating, either?” Dane held his breath while he waited for an answer.
“No, I’m not mad. It’s a little weird for me, but I’ll get used to it. After everything he’s been through, I’m actually glad he has you. I know you would never intentionally hurt him.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Dane smiled. “I really like him. I mean, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, but I just…I really like him.”
“Good, I’m glad. Now I’m going to get out of here and leave you two alone.” Steve turned towards the door to make his escape and came face to face with his brother.
“Before you go, there’s one more thing we need to talk about, but Dane can be in on this conversation too. How would you feel about moving?”
End of Chapter 28
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