Now That You're Here - The College Years
It had been two weeks since Chris was released from the hospital, and he was finally starting to feel like himself again. According to his doctor, the incision was healing nicely, and it was almost time to think about starting radiation. That was definitely something he wasn’t looking forward to, but his oncologist had assured him it was the best course of treatment for a cancer free future. Who was Chris to argue with that? He would do whatever it took to make sure he had many, many years left with his family. Not only for himself and Zander, but for poor Brian who completely freaked out when he learned about the cancer.
Chris knew his brother’s reaction was understandable. Brian lost his parents at 14 years old when they turned their backs on him for being gay. He didn’t need to lose anyone else. Chris smiled when he thought back to the day he was released from the hospital. Zander and Justin were very helpful and understanding of what Chris needed, but Brian had been completely overreacting to every little thing. The younger man went as far as holding a family meeting so he could tell them that they weren’t taking the cancer seriously and they all needed to “get their heads out of their asses”. Chris had been so amused he almost couldn’t keep a straight face. The only thing that kept him from laughing out loud was the fear he could see in Brian’s eyes. He was scared. He was afraid that his brother was going to die, and that thought caused Chris to hold it together as he assured his brother that he was, in fact taking his diagnosis seriously. He promised that he was just trying to make light of things to keep everyone’s spirits up during a tough time, but that he planned on doing everything that doctor told him so that he could get better quickly and get on with his life. A life he planned to have for a very, very long time.
It took almost a week before Brian settled down a bit, but as Chris started feeling like his old self again, things started to return to normal. He worried about Brian’s reaction once the radiation began, though. Chris had been warned by his oncologist that he would most likely experience some stomach issues and exhaustion while going through the treatment and he doubted his brother would handle it well. Zander walked into the room at that moment, pulling Chris from his thoughts.
“Hey Babe, how’re you feeling?” Zan asked as he walked into the living room and went right to his partner in search of a kiss.
“Bored out of my mind,” Chris laughed. “I don’t see why I’m not allowed to drive yet. The doctor said my incision was healing nicely. I doubt if a quick ride to the store would hurt me.”
Zander looked at Chris with a sad smile. “I know, Babe, but Dr. Conners was adamant that you wait for four weeks before getting behind the wheel.”
“Yeah, but by then I’ll be starting radiation and will probably be too sick to drive,” Chris sighed in frustration. “Whatever, it’s fine. What does your day look like? Does it feel good to be going back at work?”
Zan shot Chris a dirty look. He hadn’t wanted to return to work. He had been forced to. Zander wanted to stay at home and continue to take care of his partner, but said partner refused. He insisted that he’d be fine at home for a few hours, especially since Jason and Justin still hadn’t gotten jobs. Zander knew Chris was trying to get things back to normal, but he was still a little pissed off. “My day looks awful. I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you too, but I’m not going to apologize for insisting that you go back to work. It’s time. You love your job and you’ve already missed a lot. Plus, you’re probably going to be super annoying and overbearing again once the radiation starts. I think we both need a break before that happens.”
“Hey!” Zander exclaimed.
Chris chuckled. “Sorry, but you know you are. There’s no reason for you to sit here everyday and stare at me. I’m fine. I’m feeling better, I’m able to take care of myself, and I don’t need a babysitter.”
“I know, but…I was so scared of losing you. If I could, I’d spend every minute with you for the rest of our lives!”
“I know you were, Zan. I was scared, too. But I’m going to be just fine, and I really want life to get as back to normal as possible. We have two more weeks until the radiation starts, and I’d really like to spend those weeks just being us. You, me and all our extended family. Do you think we can do that?”
Zan sighed. “Of course we can. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…what did you call it? Be annoying and overbearing? You’re right. You’re going to be just fine, and life needs to return to normal. I can’t promise that I won’t return to my old ways once the radiation starts, but I think we could all use a couple weeks of normal.”
“Thanks,” Chris replied. “Now, can you please drive me to the store before you head out for the day? I want to pick up a few things that I need. This boredom has me so desperate to keep busy that I spent an hour on the internet this morning looking up recipes. I have a whole list of things I want to make.”
“What?” Zander feigned shock. “Mr. throw a bunch of ingredients into a pot and see what happens wants to actually follow recipes? Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Oh hush, Blondie! Just get in the car and get me out of here.” Chris laughed as he led the way out the door.
Dane glanced at the clock and groaned before grabbing his phone. Whoever was calling him at the crack of dawn better have a damn good reason for it. “What?”
“How did I not know that you’re not a morning person?” Eric teased. He knew calling the younger man before 8:00 am was risky, but he couldn’t help himself.
“You knew, you just obviously don’t care,” Dane growled. “What’s up? Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?”
Eric laughed. “Babe, it’s 7:30, not really the middle of the night.”
“Same thing. What’s up?” Dane stretched and rolled over, ready to fall back to sleep the minute they said goodbye.
“Nothing. I woke up and I…I just miss you.”
Dane sighed. Eric had a way of making him feel so special with the smallest gestures. “I miss you, too. Tell me again why we’re still spending so much time apart now that Steve knows about us?”
Eric smiled. “I just think we need to take things slow.”
“And you think we can’t take things slow if we spend time together?”
“I think if we spend too much time together, taking things slow will go right out the window.” Eric didn’t really know exactly how Dane felt about him, but he knew how he felt about Dane.And because of those feelings, he just felt that keeping some distance between them would be good for a while. Steve knew about them, but nobody else in the group did. He actually felt bad about that, too. He knew that Dane was struggling to keep their relationship a secret from his friends, but…well, he didn’t really know why he felt that it would be better to keep things under wraps for a little while longer. He was probably being foolish, but he didn’t want to move too fast and risk their future together. He and Cooper loved really fast; so fast that Eric didn’t know he was an addict. That didn’t turn out too well. He was sure that if he asked a therapist, they would say that it was fear that had Eric keeping Dane at a distance. Fear of losing someone else he really cared about. It was probably something that he should consider doing, seeing a therapist, but he didn’t think therapy was right for him. The thought of talking to a stranger just made him feel uncomfortable. “It’s not like we never spend any time together. In fact, that’s why I called you so early on your day off. I was hoping you’d want to go for a morning hike with me. At the risk of sounding pathetic, with you being off today I didn’t want to chance not seeing you. I need to get to the restaurant by 11:00 this morning. I have a huge order coming in and my hardest worker isn’t going to be there to help me put everything away, but I have a couple hours to spare.”
That had Dane laughing. “Oh poor baby. Well at the risk of sounding pathetic, you actually will see me later. I switched my schedule with Tony. I knew you had a big order coming in and I didn’t want to stick you with it because I know Tony is a lazy ass and you’d be putting everything away by yourself. I’m working today and will be off tomorrow. I would have mentioned it earlier, but Tony didn’t respond to my text until really late last night.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” Eric replied. “So does that mean I can’t entice you to get out of bed for a hike with me?”
“No,” Dane groaned. “That means that now I get to spend a couple hours with you before I come home, get ready for work, and then spend the rest of the day with you.”
“I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes.” Eric disconnected the call and finished getting dressed. He knew he was screwed. His feelings for Dane seemed to be growing stronger day by day. He just hated the fear that his feelings were stirring up in him. Maybe he should consider talking to someone about what was going on in his head. His thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock at his door. “Come in.”
“Hey, I thought I heard you moving around in here. Do you have a minute?” Steve asked.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I know this is going to sound stupid, but I need a favor. You’re not going to Flagstaff this week, right? You’ll actually be around tomorrow night?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be around. I’m not sure if I’ll be seeing Dane or not. I just found out that he switched his day off from today to tomorrow, but I’ll be in the area. What do you need?”
“Oh, that could be even better. Charlie has a few of her friends flying in from North Carolina tomorrow. I offered to keep Abby overnight so that she can go out and have fun. But…well, I don’t really know what to do with an eleven-month-old. I thought maybe you could help me. I feel like this could be a good test to prove that I’m stepfather material, but I have no idea how to be a stepfather. Maybe you and Dane could hang out here with us? I’m not asking you to take care of Abby. Just to be here to tell me how to take care of her.”
Eric smiled at his brother. “Things are getting pretty serious between you and Charlie, huh?”
“Yeah. She’s great, and Abby is just the sweetest thing. When she gets so excited seeing me it just makes my heart melt. Charlie is such a good mother, and she got a raw deal when she was back in North Carolina. It broke her heart when just about everyone turned their backs on her. Stephanie and Tara were the only friends who didn’t judge her. That’s why I want her to be able to go out and have fun with them. They’re only staying for a couple of days, but at least they love her enough to come out. I don’t know how anyone could turn their back on her.”
“Don’t worry little brother. I will be here to help you tomorrow. And I’m sure Dane will be, too.” As Eric watched the relief on Steve’s face, he chuckled. “I have a question for you now.”
“Do you think I’m being ridiculous by keeping Dane and me a secret and taking things slow? At first, I was just asking for secrecy because I needed to talk to you about things first, but now that you know…I just don’t think I’m ready yet. And before you jump to conclusions like Dane has in the past, it has nothing to do with being into guys. I lived openly as a gay man in Flagstaff for two years. That doesn’t bother me.”
Steve had to think about his answer for a minute. He definitely thought his brother was being ridiculous. Dane had confided in him a few days before about his frustration. Apparently, Dane and Eric spent more time together before they started seeing each other, but now that they were together, Eric was trying to keep some distance between them. Dane was afraid the older man was losing interest, but Steve didn’t think that was the case. “I wouldn’t say ridiculous, but…”
“Look Eric, I don’t know exactly what’s going on with you two, but Dane mentioned that you guys spent a lot more time together before you started dating. I guess we’re both a little confused by that.”
“I know.” Eric sighed. “It’s just that when we were just friends, spending time together felt different, you know? It was just two friends hanging out. But now…we already spend four to five night a week together at work. If we spent all our off time together…we would be together all the time. What happens if…”
Eric’s hesitation, along with the faraway look in his eyes told Steve when he wasn’t saying. “What happens if you get too close and then you break up? Like you and Cooper?”
“I know it sounds stupid, but Cooper and I spent all of our time together. He was a bartender at the restaurant I was working at. When we started living together, we even started carpooling to work. We were always together and then one day…we just weren’t. It hurt, you know? Going from always being together to never seeing each other. We didn’t even see each other for Gracie. Betty became the go-between, so we didn’t have to see each other. It was awful. I told myself I would never put myself in that position again and here I am. Involved with someone I work with. It's not that I don’t want to spend time with him, I’m just…”
“Scared,” Steve finished for him. “Eric, you need to talk to Dane. He’s feeling like you’re losing interest in him.”
“Losing interest? Are you kidding me? I’m in love with him!” Eric exclaimed before he could catch himself. “I mean…shit.”
Steve was shocked. “You’re in love with him?”
“Fuck! I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have said anything. Can we just forget this conversation entirely?”
“Eric, are you really in love with him?”
“Yeah…I mean…” Eric paused and thought about his answer as a huge smile flashed across his face. “Yeah, I’m really in love with him. I’m guessing that he should have been the first person I actually told that to, huh?”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, probably.”
“I just want to take things slow, but it’s really hard to do that when all I want to do is spend every waking moment with him, you know? And I don’t even know how he feels about me. This could all be completely one sided. He’s nineteen years old. To him I might just be someone to pass time with while he’s going to school and figuring out what he wants in life. Nineteen, that’s so young.”
“I think you need to talk to him. He may be nineteen, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be serious about someone. I think it’s safe to say that with everything Dane has been through in the last couple years, he’s not some naive kid,” Steve pointed out. “Besides, not talking to him isn’t working. You’re driving yourself crazy, and I’m pretty sure you’re driving him crazy, too.”
“I know. I’m just feeling…completely fucked up,” Eric snorted humorlessly. “I guess I never realized how screwed up things were with Cooper until it was over, and now I can see the damage the relationship caused.”
“Have you considered going to therapy? Maybe talking to someone about everything would help you figure it out,” Steve suggested.
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know. Therapy is great for some people, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking to a stranger about how I feel.”
“What about talking to Zander?”
“Yeah, he’s working as a group counsellor at the center, remember? He’s got a degree in psychology and knows what he’s doing, but he’s not a stranger. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you. I’m actually going to the store now to meet him. Even though he’s not involved in the day-to-day stuff anymore, we still meet about once a month, so he knows what’s going on. Do you want me to talk to him for you? I know he’ll agree and then I’ll have him reach out to you. Okay?”
“Um…yeah. I guess. Can you do me a favor and not tell anyone about this conversation? I just want to figure things out before…I’m just not ready to talk to Dane about this yet.”
“Of course. I would never want to get between the two of you, and as much as I love Dane, you’re my brother. I’ll always be on your side. Just do me a favor and talk to him. You don’t have to tell him exactly how you’re feeling right now but let him know that you’re feeling something. I think he’s really starting to worry.”
“I will. I’m going over to pick him up
now. We’re going for a hike before work.”
“You have Dane getting up at 7:30 am to go hiking? Wow…I’m impressed. He doesn’t get out of bed early for anyone other than his daughter when he has to…and then it’s only when he has to!”
“Yeah, I know. He didn’t sound too happy when he answered the phone,” Eric grinned. “Should be an interesting hike.”
“Good luck!” Steve called over his shoulder as he walked away. He didn’t envy his brother. Dane was cranky when he was tired. Very cranky.
Zander smiled when he pulled into the bookstore parking lot and saw Steve’s car. He couldn’t have picked a better person to take over the helm for him. Steve cared about the store as if it was his own, giving Zander the piece of mind he needed to put his focus on the center, where it was needed. After shutting off his car, he grabbed the coffee and breakfast sandwiches he had picked up on the way in and headed for the door. It had become a ritual that one of them stopped at the diner down the road for the morning treat they shared. Last month is had been Steve’s turn, this time it was Zan’s.
As he approached the front of the building, Steve opened the door and held it for Zan to enter.
“I heard you pull up when I was in the back and figured you could use some help.” Steve grabbed the sandwich bag, leaving Zander to juggle the coffee holder. “I have everything laid out on the desk in the back, ready for your inspection Boss!”
“Oh shut-up,” Zander laughed. “It’s not an inspection. I just had to be able to keep my foot in the door. I trust you 100%, you know that, right? I just felt like I need to know what’s happening in my own business.”
Steve laughed. “I know, I just like teasing you. Now let’s eat first. I’m starving. And I have something I want to talk to you about before we get down to business.”
“Uh, oh. Is everything alright with you?” Zander put the coffee down on the desk and looked at Steve.
“Oh yeah, everything’s fine. It’s about my brother. He needs some help,” Steve explained. “He’s got some…things from the past that have been really messing with his head and he needs to talk to someone. He doesn’t want to talk to a stranger, and I don’t know how to help him.”
“You mean, he’s looking for a therapist?”
“Kind of. He knows he needs to talk to someone. He just isn’t comfortable talking to someone he doesn’t know.”
“Are you sure he’ll be comfortable talking to me?”
“Yeah, I suggested it this morning…and like I said, he knows he needs someone to talk to. He would rather it be you,” Steve said. “I’m sure he’ll pay you.”
“I don’t care about being paid. I don’t want his money. It’s just unusual. Most of the time, people feel more comfortable talking to someone they don’t know. I think they fear being judged by a friend or family member. It doesn’t matter. If he wants me to help him, I will. Of course.”
“Thanks. You have his number, right? I told him I’d have you give him a call.”
“Yeah, I’ll call him once I get to the center and see what I can set up. Is he okay, though? I mean, is there anything I should know about?”
“No, he’s not suicidal or anything like that. He just…he went through a really rough couple of years while he was living in Flagstaff and I think he needs to work through it before he can really move on,” Steve told him.
“Alright, that’s really all I need to know. Don’t worry, I’ll help him.”
“Thanks, now let’s get down to business. I have last month’s numbers right here for you.” Steve handed over the monthly report and waited for Zander’s reaction.
“Steve, are these number correct?” Zan asked incredulously.
“Yes, they are,” Steve said proudly. “I triple checked them myself, although I kind of expected them.”
“Wow, this is amazing! I guess the addition of the internet cafe is a success. I haven’t seen numbers like this before. You’re doing an amazing job, Steve. I’m proud of you.”
Steve blushed at the praise. “Thanks Zan. I love working here and I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me. For a while there I really felt lost. Now I feel like I have a purpose, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been where you are. When I first moved out here, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. It was really scary. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and then went to school in Massachusetts. I had no idea what I was going to do in Arizona. I never would have come out here on my own. I just followed Chris because he needed to be close to Brian, even if he didn’t have contact with him at the time. Opening up this place gave me an identity. It allowed me to do what I loved to do and become the person I am now. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”
“Say goodbye?” Steve asked. “You’re not thinking of selling the store, are you?”
“I am, actually.”
Steve suddenly felt like the wind was knocked out of him. “I…didn’t realize that you wanted to sell the business.”
“I didn’t…until you came in and showed me that selling it to you would be leaving it in good hands. So what do you think? Are you ready to become a business owner?”
“What?” Steve had to have misheard. There’s no way Zander was suggesting what it sounded like he was suggesting. “Me?”
Zander laughed. “Steve, did you really think I was going to just let you run the place while I took all the profits? I have to say, when we made the plans to have you take over, my only concern was that I had something to fall back on in case working at the center didn’t pan out, but I love it there. It’s where I belong. And you obviously love it here. I think it’s where you belong. In fact, seeing these numbers just proves that this is where you belong. Now, I don’t have all the details worked out yet, but I’m thinking that we can set up a legal contract where you take ownership immediately and pay me a little each month out of the profits until you can either get a business loan to buy me out or pay off whatever purchase price we agree on. How does that sound?”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. So, what do you say?”
Steve jumped out of his seat and threw himself into Zander’s arms. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much for this. I…I can’t believe it.”
“No, thank you for giving me the ability to follow my other dream. I never would have had the guts to try it if I didn’t trust you to keep this place going. I don’t know exactly what’s next in my life, but I know that it’s not the bookstore anymore. I’m a little sad at the thought of leaving, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”
“I just can’t believe this. Are you really sure you want to sell? I love working here. I don’t mind running the place for you. I really don’t,” Steve assured him.
“I know, but it’s time for me to go. Besides, between you and me, now that Chris is hitting the bestseller’s list, his book advances alone are more than what I’ve been bringing in annually. I might just decide to be a stay-at-home house husband,” Zander laughed.
“Somehow I doubt that you’d ever do that, but I’d be a fool to try and talk you out of selling. Thank you again. For this, and so much more. I don’t know where I would have ended up after leaving Princeton if it wasn’t for you and Chris. I will never be able to repay either of you for having my back. I love you both.”
“We love you, too,” Zander replied, wiping at the dampness under his eyes. “Now enough of that. This meeting is over since the profits are all yours now. I have a friend who’s a lawyer. I will talk to him and see what he thinks the best approach to this is. Do me a favor and type up a simple earnings report for the last two fiscal years. We’ll use that when deciding on a price and working out a payment plan. Just know, that I will always be here if you need anything or have any questions. You’re still learning, and I have no problem teaching you until you’re ready to fly solo. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone if you have any questions, okay?”
“You got it, Boss.”
“Nope, not anymore. Just call me Zan.”
Zander left the shop feeling lighter than he had in weeks. He had been tossing the idea of selling around for a while, but he wasn’t sure if it was the right time. Then Chris was diagnosed with cancer, and it reminded Zander how fleeting life can be. Leaving the shop to work in the center gave him such purpose. He spent his days feeling like he was making a difference in the lives of the people he worked with; and as much as he loved the bookstore, it couldn’t compete. Now all he had to do was share his decision with his partner. He didn’t think Chris would mind him selling to Steve, but he feared he was going to get some backlash for not talking about it first. Oh well, he’d worry about that if and when the time came. He started his car, turned up the radio and headed to the center to begin his day.
David was waiting by the curb for passenger pick-up when he saw his parents walk through the door. His father was wheeling a very large suitcase and his mother was carrying an overnight back. It seemed like a lot of stuff considering that when his mother suggested they fly to Arizona to see where he was spending his summer, she said it was going to be a quick overnight trip. He took a deep breath, asked the man upstairs for patience, and jumped out of the car.
“Hey Mom, Dad. Over here.”
Theresa saw her son first and ran over to him. “Oh honey, it’s so good to see you!” she exclaimed as she hugged her son. “Have you lost more weight?”
“Mother, what is it with you and Deanna? Every time I see either of you, I’m told I look too skinny. I eat just fine, take good care of myself, and go to my yearly check-ups. Stop worrying so much.”
“Hey, go easy on your mother. With all of you kids grown and out on your own, she has nothing to keep her busy other than worrying about you,” Donald laughed as he extended his hand. “How’re you doing, son?”
“I’m good, Dad. How was the flight?”
“It was actually a little bumpy. We hit some bad weather over Louisiana, but you know Edward. He’s a pro.”
“Yes he is,” David agreed. “Here, let me take your suitcase. This seems like a lot for one night.”
“Oh honey, I was thinking about it and one night just didn’t seem like enough time with you and Matt, so we’re staying until Sunday,” Theresa said as she handed the overnight bag to David. “Surprise!”
“But…it’s only Monday,” David replied.
The ride to the hotel was strained. At least it was on his side. His parents didn’t seem to notice the tension in their son caused by their extended stay. He was glad about that. He loved his parents dearly and he didn’t want them to feel unwanted. He just didn’t know what he was going to do with them for six days…in Arizona. Six days! He finally arrived at the hotel and dropped them off at the door with a promise to see them that evening for dinner. As soon as he drove away, he called the one person who always cheered him up. He should be out of his interview.
“Hey Babe, did you get your parents all settled in at the hotel?” Matt asked as soon as he answered the phone.
“They’re staying until Sunday!” David exclaimed.
“What? I thought it was an overnight trip.”
“That’s what she said. She said it was going to be an overnight stay, but apparently one night isn’t enough for them. They’re here until FUCKING SUNDAY!”
Matt held back a chuckle. He had a feeling his boyfriend wouldn’t appreciate the humor in the situation. “Babe, it’ll be fine.”
“Will it? And how do you suggest I should explain to Donald and Theresa Jackson that I have a teenage hustler living with me?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I didn’t think about that. Well, what were you planning on doing when you thought that they were staying for one night?”
“I was going to give Grant $100 to disappear for a few hours, swing by to give my parents the ten-cent tour and that would be that. We would go out to a nice restaurant; I’d drop them at their hotel, and they’d be on their way the next morning. How do I hide a hustler for six days?” David could hear the panic in his voice, and he hated it. He was 24 years old. He shouldn’t still be afraid of his parents.
“Well, maybe don’t tell your parents that he’s a hustler. Just tell them he’s a friend of yours that is staying with you for a few days. Or better yet, he’s the little brother of a friend of yours and he needed a place to stay while their house is being remodeled.”
“This is all Dylan’s fault!” David barked.
“Um…how is it Dylan’s fault?”
“He’s the one that’s supposed to keep an eye on them. He should have known they were planning on staying longer and warned me.” David explained. “Wait, he had to know. They always tell him what they’re up to. I got to go. I’ll call you in a bit. Love you.” David didn’t even wait for a reply as he disconnected the call and dialed his brother’s number.
“Hey Davey, what’s going on?” Dylan answered cheerfully.
“Don’t you 'hey Davey' me! Why didn’t you warn me that they were planning on staying until Sunday? I just talked to you two days ago and you said it was overnight!”
“Now, now; settle down little brother,” Dylan smiled.
“Don’t tell me to settle down! What am I supposed to do with them for six days? Do you have any idea what my life is like right now?”
“No, actually I don’t. Because you never tell me what’s going on in your life,” Dylan shot back. “Bro, it’s only a few days. What could be so bad that having our parents there would be a problem?”
“What could be so bad? I’m living with a hustler! How do you think I should explain that?” David spat.
Dylan was stunned. He had to have misheard his brother. “I’m sorry, you’re what? Did you just say you’re living with a hustler? Why would you be living with a hustler?”
“I’m not…I mean, he’s living with me. It’s a long story.”
“Well lucky for you, I have plenty of time. Sorry Davey, but I’m gonna need an explanation.”
David sighed and gave his brother the condensed version of how Grant ended up being his roommate. “So now what?”
“I think you just need to be honest with them. You know, one of the things I admire most about our parents is the fact that they didn’t let their money turn them into snobs. I’m sure they’ll understand that you’re just helping someone out.”
“Yeah, maybe. I just didn’t want them to know.”
“So, what’s the plan for your roommate? You said he’s been with you for two weeks? What’s next? Are you taking him back to El Paso with you?” Dylan asked.
“No…I don’t think so. I haven’t really thought that far ahead, you know? At the time, all I could think about was keeping him safe. And now…what can I do with him? He’s too young to get a job and support himself. What he needs is to go back to school and make something of himself, but I won’t be here when school starts. I thought about calling social services, but then he could end up in a group home and he’ll never make it there. He’ll run away and end up back on the streets.” David had spent the last two weeks trying to decide what he should do with the kid, but he still had no idea.
“Have you thought about trying to get in touch with his dad?” Dylan suggested.
“Why would I do that? That asshole left him to live on the street!” David exclaimed.
“Maybe there’s more to the story? Look, I’m not trying to defend the guy. He’s obviously a shitty father. I’m just saying there could be more to the story that this kid isn’t telling you. Do you know where the father is? How to get a hold of him?”
“I guess,” David admitted. “Grant said his father runs a hospital in Tucson. It shouldn’t be too hard to get in touch with him.”
“Why don’t you do that? Talk to the man. If he really wants nothing to do with his son, then he’ll tell you to fuck off and then you’ll know. But what if he’s been worried about the boy?”
David had to admit that his brother had a point. He’d been so worried about the kid, he never really considered that he was being lied to. “Maybe. I’ll think about it. I just wouldn’t want to make things worse. Anyway, none of this helps me when it comes to Mom and Dad.”
“Look, I’m sorry if you were blindsided. I didn’t find out they were staying the week until I talked to Mom this morning, and to be honest, I just assumed that she already talked to you about it. You know them, they aren’t usually the spontaneous type.”
“I know, which is probably why I freaked out so bad. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have blamed you. But going forward, if something like this happens again…”
“I will call you immediately and let you know,” Dylan promised.
“Thanks. I’d better go. I’ve got some decisions to make.”
“Yes you do, little brother. Keep me posted. I’m anxious to hear how this plays out.”
David said his goodbye as he pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex. He really was on the fence when it came to finding Grant’s father, but before he did that, he needed to work on a backup plan just in case things didn’t go well. It had been over two weeks since he came to Grant’s rescue. He needed to start thinking of a long-term plan that didn’t involve him raising a teenage hustler.
Matt was sitting in his room thinking about David’s dilemma, when there was a soft knock on his door. “Come in.”
Mark walked into his brother’s room with a smile on his face. “Hey kid, whatcha up to?”
“I really hate when you call me kid. I’m nineteen now. Not exactly a kid,” Matt reminded him for the hundredth time. “I’m just waiting for David to call me. His parents are in from Florida so we’re all having dinner.”
“Oh, dinner with the in-laws. That sounds like fun,” Mark teased.
Matt jumped off his bed and rushed to close his door. “Will you keep your voice down? What if mom or dad heard you?”
“Relax, dude, they’re both in the garage. Mom’s book club is organizing a clothing drive in the neighborhood, so they’re going through all those boxes that they’ve been saving since we were kids. Wow, you’re jumpy.”
“Ya think? You know as well as I do that if either one of them found out that David is more than just a friend from school, I’d be screwed,” Matt reminded him. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought you went out with your buddies last night. Shouldn’t you still be sleeping off a hangover?”
“Nah, I don’t drink like that anymore. I’ve matured in the last couple of years. It’s not worth feeling like death the next day. I was actually hoping I could get you to come to the mall with me. I’m going away this weekend and I need to pick up a few things. You know how much I hate shopping. I figured it would be more bearable if you were will me.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m meeting Daniel in New York and we’re going to drive to the Jersey Shore. He’s been seeing some girl whose parents have a house there and she keeps telling him how great it is. She’s a twin and according to Daniel, the girls are always together. He figured if he brought me, I could distract the sister so that he could get a little alone time with her,” Mark explained.
“Okay, that’s weird.”
“Maybe, but I’ve been wanting to go to the Jersey Shore ever since I moved to NYU, so I figured why not? It’s a free trip,” Mark laughed. “So, do you have time to go with me? I promise not to keep you out too late.”
“Yeah, I’ll go. Let’s just take separate vehicles. This way I can head over to David’s when we’re done.”
“Cool, I just have to grab my wallet and then I’m heading out. I’ll meet you at the food court.”
Matt smiled as his brother left his room. He still thought it was weird that his brother and David’s brother had become such good friends, but he was used to it now. It also gave him a glimpse into Daniel’s life, showing him that David wasn’t the only one who was over the top in their family. He was beginning to think it was a Jackson trait. He made a quick trip to the bathroom before changing into something a little more respectable for dinner and grabbing his wallet. He ran down the stairs and just reached the front door when his father called out to him.
“Yeah Dad, what’s up?” he asked as he turned around and faced his father.
“Where are you off to? I was hoping that you and your brother could help your mom and I clean the garage. I didn’t realize how unorganized it was in there until we went looking for the clothes your mother wants to donate.”
“Sorry, I’m meeting Mark at the mall for a bit then I’m going out with a friend.”
“Friend? Which friend? Not David again?”
“What’s wrong with David?” Matt asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with him. It’s just…I don’t know. There’s something about him that makes me feel uneasy. And you’ve been spending a lot of time with him. Where are your other friends? I would have thought that being home from school for the summer, you’d want to catch up with the friends you left behind.”
Uneasy? What was that supposed to mean? Could his father somehow know that David was gay? He definitely didn’t want to ask. “I haven’t been spending a lot of time with David. We just…we’ve all been hanging out. Come on, Dad. College is tough. I want to spend the few months I have away from that place just having fun. I’m actually going to be hanging out with Steve tonight. He’s got a girlfriend now and he wants me to get to know her better. She’s bringing a friend of hers.” He didn’t know where the lie came from, or why he even said it. He just needed to say something. He didn’t want his father to know that he was going to be with David again. “Can I go now? Mark is waiting for me.”
“Yeah, get out of here. Have fun tonight.”
Matt practically ran to his truck, his heart racing from the conversation he just had with his father. Was the older man beginning to suspect something? What would happen if he did? He was going to have to be more careful when he told his parents what he was doing. He was a grown man. He didn’t have to tell his parents everything.
Aiden was sitting at his desk, but his mind definitely wasn’t on the fundraising proposal he was supposed to be working on. Instead it was on his friendship with Grayson. It had been over two weeks since the fight they had regarding Derek, and although they had called a truce for the benefit of the center, things between them did not go back to normal. He missed his friend and was still confused as to why Grayson couldn’t just be happy that he found someone that he actually felt something for. Someone who isn’t completely off limits, like Jason had been. The ringing phone pulled him from his thoughts.
“The Christian Young Center, this is Aiden, how can I help you?”
“Hi Aiden, this is David Jackson. Do you remember me? We met a few times at Chris and Zander’s house.”
“Yeah, I remember. You’re dating Matt, right?” Aiden responded as he thought back to all the people he had met. “How are you? Is everything okay?”
“I’m good, but I actually have a situation and I don’t know who else to talk to about it. Zander suggested I reach out to you. Are you busy tomorrow morning? I could swing by the center. I only need about an hour of your time, if that.” David explained.
“Tomorrow…let me check my calendar,” Aiden grabbed his planner. “I have a meeting at 10:00 am. It should be over by 11:00. Do you want to come by around 11:30? I have a group session at 1:00 but I’m all yours until then.”
“Perfect. Thanks, I’ll see you then.”
Aiden hung up the phone feeling a little confused. He remembered David Jackson well. He was a stunning man with a great sense of humor and a heart of gold. Zan had told him about the time David went to the store for him and Chris to pick up a few things for dinner and came home with enough food and paper products to last almost two months and wouldn’t take more than the $40 they had given him and Matt to run the errand. And strangely enough, later in the week, Zander had gone into the kitchen and found $40 sitting on the counter. He guessed being a member of the Jackson family allowed him to be generous when he wanted.
That didn’t explain why he was reaching out to the center, though. He sounded like there was something bothering him. Aiden wrote David’s name on the planner and put it aside. No point in dwelling on it. He’d find out what was going on soon enough. As he tried to get his mind back on the proposal in front of him, Grayson appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, you got a minute?”
“Sure,” Aiden replied.
“Two things. One, I’m a little worried about Billy. He’s the new guy from my Wednesday night group. He seems to be pulling away a little and I don’t know why. I’m beginning to think I’m not the right person to get through to him. What do you have going on Wednesday? Do you think you could sit in, see what you think?”
“Of course. Do we have a file on him yet? How new is he?” The center ran their group sessions for anyone who walked through the door, but when Zander started working there, he suggested they start keeping files for their group participants as well as their one on ones, so they could keep track of who’s who and make it easier if someone had to fill in.
“He’s been coming in for the last four weeks, but he’s never offered up much personal information. I just have this.” Grayson walked in and handed over a file. “It’s really only the notes I’ve made from observation. He hasn’t even shared yet, so I don’t know why he’s here.”
“So what makes you think he’s pulling away?”
“The first few weeks he would sit in the circle and really listen to what the others had to say, but last week he just seemed, I don’t know. Distracted? Maybe he was just having a bad day. I wasn’t going to say anything yet, but I was just in my office planning my sessions for this week when I thought about him. Call it a gut feeling, but I think he really needs help, and I don’t know if I’m the person to give it to him. Nothing I’ve said in the last four weeks has gotten him to feel comfortable enough to open up. Maybe it’s me. Maybe he just doesn’t feel a connection to me.”
“Well, don’t beat yourself up. You know that happens sometimes,” Aiden offered.
“Not with you? Everyone seems to open up to you right away. You’re like the ‘Queer Whisperer’ or something,” Gray laughed.
“The Queer Whisperer?” Aiden laughed too. “If you say so. Don’t worry. We’ll get him to talk. I’ll sit in on your session and then try to talk to him afterwards. What else you got?”
“An apology,” Gray hesitated.
“Yeah, I was an asshole to you. I should have been happy that you found someone that you’re interested in, someone appropriate…”
“You mean someone who’s not in crisis, with a boyfriend?” Aiden chuckled.
“Well…yeah,” Grayson smiled. “Seriously though, I think maybe you were right. As long as I was spending all my time watching over you, I didn’t have to take a look at my life and see how empty it is. I have no right to question you jumping into the sack with Derek when I’m out banging a different chick almost every weekend. You know, in the last few years I have met some really sweet girls, but I never allowed myself to stay in touch with them. I usually run from them the fastest. Why do you think that is?”
“Truthfully? Do you want my opinion as your best friend or as a psychologist?”
“Give me both.”
“Well, as your friend I think you’re just a man-whore who loves the thrill of anonymous sex.”
“Ouch, that hurts, man,” Gray laughed. “What about as a psychologist?”
“As a trained professional, I think it comes from being raised by a single dad who had a serious drinking problem and absolutely no respect for women. Think about it Gray, your dad spent most of his life being mad at your mother for walking out on you guys. Do you know what he said to me the first time I met him?”
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Gray admitted. He knew his father was a difficult man. Especially when he was drinking, which was most of the time. As hard as Gray tried to get his father to get help, the older man refused to admit there was a problem.
“He told me I should be thankful that I’m gay. That women are only good for one thing, a good fuck and if sucking dick makes me happy then I won’t ever have the headache of women in my life.”
“Shit, man. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Grayson was horrified.
“Why are you apologizing? Look, I didn’t take offense. There are a lot of people who don’t like gay people. He accepted me right away, that’s all that mattered to me. But with an attitude like that, is it any wonder that you prefer to jump from woman to woman without having a relationship? I have to say, I’ve been hoping that it was a phase that you would grow out of, but maybe you need a little push. Why don’t you try dating someone? You know, take them out to dinner, see a movie, and then drop them off at home. No sex.”
“No, no sex. If you like the girl, you just go out and have fun. Then, you go out with her again. Then again. See a pattern here? Get to know a girl and just have fun. Obviously, your mother had some issues that nobody knows about, but not all women are like that. I love you, man. I don’t want to see you throw your life away by jumping around from bed to bed. You need to find a girl who loves you and wants to spend the rest of her life with you so I can be an uncle!”
“Asshole! Have your own kids!”
“Um…that’s going to be a little hard. Nobody I date has ovaries.”
“Oh come on, gay people are having babies all the time these days. You and Derek could figure it out. There’s surrogacy and adoption…”
“Okay, we’re getting off track here. First of all, Derek and I have only been dating for a few weeks. We are a million miles away from discussing a future together. And second, we are talking about you and your whoring ways. Really Gray, think about what I said. I don’t want to see you end up alone. You deserve more than that.”
“Thanks Buddy. So what are you working on?”
“I’m just finishing up this fundraising proposal. I have to get it to the township by the end of the week if I want it to be considered for the next quarter.”
“How badly do we need it? Are we broke yet?” Gray was afraid to ask.
“No, not yet. And we’re still pulling in some money from the fundraiser Chris did for us, but the way our finances go, we’re never going to be more than what we are now, and I don’t want that. I want to be able to expand the center so we can help more people. Do you know, I was over on Washington Ave the other night and was propositioned by a hustler that couldn’t have been more the 16 years old? I couldn’t believe it. He was a child.”
“So, what did you do?”
“What do you think I did?”
“Gave him all the cash you had in your wallet and tried to talk him into getting help?” Grayson didn’t even need a response. He knew his friend very well.
“I know it falls on deaf ears, but I have to try. Do you remember being sixteen? I can’t even imagine how awful it must be to have to sell your ass to eat, but that’s what happens when kids are thrown out of their house for being gay. We need more funding so we can help these people.”
“I know we do. You keep working on the proposal. You’re better at that stuff. I’ll try to think of other options. We’ll figure something out,” Grayson assured him.
Once Aiden was alone again, he threw himself back into the proposal. Life wasn’t perfect, but at least he and Grayson were good again. Now he just needed to figure out the next step in his plan for the Christian Young Center.
End of part 29
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