The wind blowing in off English Bay made the brisk fall evening even colder, but it wasn’t the breeze that chilled Vanessa Cosgrove to the bone. It was her first week on the job, caseworker with the Vancouver Department of Families, and it had been trial by fire. First, there had been two domestic violence cases in which she’d had to remove children from abusive homes and now this, a dead single mother and a teenage boy she had no idea what to do with. It wasn’t that she was unprepared, far from it—what troubled her was what the police found when they’d searched the home after the medics took the mother’s body to the morgue.
“What do you think, Joe?” asked Vanessa. They were standing on the front porch of the townhouse and she looked through the front window, glancing at her charge while she waited for Joe’s reply. The boy was inside speaking with a grief counselor now but Vanessa and Joe would have plenty of questions for him later.
“It’s damned irregular, that’s for sure,” said Officer Joe Redcorn of the Vancouver PD. “The names on the passports I found don’t match the mother’s ID or the boy’s school ID. The kid’s birth certificate says Bremerton, Washington, but when I asked him where he was born he said Toronto.”
“I’m the new guy here, Joe. What’s it mean, what’s your gut say?”
Joe turned and looked out over the water, let out a deep breath and shook his head before giving Vanessa an answer. “I think she snatched the kid,” he said. “I’ve seen it before: couple breaks up, he or she gets pissed about it and one of them runs off with the baby. The kid’s birth certificate names a father; I’ll run it up to my superiors, they’ll call the Mounties and from there someone will make a formal request to have the Americans run the names through their system.”
“That poor boy, Jesus, he’s only sixteen,” said Vanessa.
“My gut says Tracy Maxwell’s going to find out he’s been missing for a long time,” said Joe, letting out another sigh.
“What should I do with him in the meantime? I don’t want to place him in a home if we're going to have to tell him he’s…”
“I’ll take him with me if you sign off on it,” said Joe. “Shelly and I fostered a couple of kids a few years ago. Our license should still be active.”
“You’re a life saver, Joe.” Vanessa blew a sigh of relief.
“We better get in there and talk to him,” said Joe. “Gonna be a long night.”
“Thanks Dr. Harries,” said the coed as she picked up her essay.
“Anytime, Rachel,” he smiled in reply. “My door is always open.”
She gave him a dreamy smile before scampering out the door like a love-sick freshman. Ian rolled his eyes and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair. He’d recently turned thirty-five and as the hair at his temples began to gray he'd figured it would dampen some of his student’s libidos but if anything the flirting had gotten worse.
“Don’t they know you’re gay?” his office mate, Dr. Anna Douglas asked, giggling at his discomfort.
“Yes, I’ve made plenty of references to Gary but the students don’t seem to care.”
“You’re still young and handsome. They know they can’t have you so they see it as harmless flirtation,” said Anna.
“Happens to Griffin all the time.”
“How does he deal with it?”
“I don’t think he notices,” said Anna. “He’s still a kid; he probably thinks they’re just silly girls.”
“How’s he doing with…”
“The trial was hard on him and Royce’s death was worse but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my son over the past six months, he’s a pretty resilient kid.”
“Thank God for that,” said Ian.
“I thank Devyn.” Anna smiled. “I think he’s largely responsible for Griffy’s sunny outlook.”
“Yeah.” Ian smiled, remembering when he’d been that age, secretly dating Danny Martin.
“Oh, that reminds me, we just got his senior portraits, would you like to see?” she asked, ever the proud mother.
“Sure,” said Ian, rising from his desk and crossing over to Anna’s.
She grabbed her purse and fished out her wallet, then struggled to remove the photo from the protective plastic.
“This one’s my favorite,” she stated.
Ian took the picture and examined the dark haired boy with his bright green eyes and warm, friendly smile. He knew the boy was seventeen but he looked younger. It brought up painful thoughts of what might have been.
“Adorable,” said Ian, his shoulders sagging under the weight of his thoughts.
“What’s the matter?” asked Anna, reading his body language.
“Tracy,” said Ian. “His birthday was last month, he’s sixteen now.”
“I didn’t know,” said Anna, tucking the picture of her son back into her purse.
“His birthday’s hard for me. I usually don’t mention it.”
“I can’t imagine what that must be like for you,” said Anna. “With everything that’s happened to Griffin…at least Steven and I are able to protect him now.”
“Yeah.” Ian exhaled. “Anyway, Rachel was my last appointment of the day; it’s my turn to pick up Olive from day care so I’m going to cut out. See you around the Springs.”
Anna watched him go and then let out a sigh of relief. For all the hell her son had been through, at least she knew where he slept each night.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray…” Olive sang as they drove home.
Ian looked in the rearview mirror and couldn’t help smiling at his little girl. Her sunny attitude helped to chase away the gloom thinking about Tracy had brought up. She was six years old; Ian and Gary had adopted her when she was a baby. She was by no means a replacement for his son but Ian saw her as the chance to share the love he would have given his boy.
“What’s that, Daddy?” asked Olive, noting a strange car in their driveway.
The Whitmore-Harries family lived in a three bedroom Victorian in the tiny hamlet of Sanitaria Springs. It was immaculately maintained and provided a comfy, cozy place for the little family to rest their heads. Looking at the car, Ian couldn’t imagine why the police would be there.
“Ian Harries?” asked the officer. He’d climbed out of his cruiser when Ian's beige Volvo had pulled up alongside him.
“That’s right.” Ian nodded as he got Olive out of her car seat.
“I’m Deputy Hastings, Broome County Sheriff’s Department,” he said and offered Ian his hand. “Can we step inside for a moment?”
“What’s going on, officer?”
“We have some information about your son I’d like to discuss with you,” said Deputy Hastings.
“Come on, come on,” Ian muttered as he bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet. The plane had landed ten minutes ago but there was still no sign of Tracy.
“Relax,” said Gary, patting him on the back. “He’ll be out in a minute.”
“I know, I just…you know…”
“I know.” Gary smiled and gave his husband a quick hug.
It had been two weeks since Deputy Hastings showed up in their driveway with remarkable news: Ian’s son, Tracy, had been found alive and well in Vancouver, Canada. Ian couldn’t help shaking his head at that. He’d been in contact with the Vancouver police when Julie had first disappeared with their son. He’d searched the entire Pacific northwest, then the west coast, then the country. He’d spent years hoping and praying he’d find his boy and just when he was sure he’d never see Tracy again, Deputy Hastings came along.
Evidently Julie had settled in Vancouver around the time Tracy turned six. They’d been living under the surname Maxwell, and when she’d died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed heart condition, the VPD searched the home and found her and Tracy’s passports and his original birth certificate in a desk drawer. They’d reached out to the Bremerton PD where the detective who had handled the case when Tracy had first disappeared was now the chief of police.
Chief Duncan would never forget Ian Harries. He’d been a young seaman back from his last deployment in the Navy; he’d returned home to find his little boy missing. It broke the chief’s heart that he hadn’t been able to find the kid and reunite him with his dad. After getting the call from Vancouver, Chief Duncan personally drove up there to have a look at the kid while they ran his DNA and compared it to Ian’s, just to be sure. It had been a match.
“Come on, come on,” Ian repeated again.
Trace was seated relatively close to the front of the cabin but kept his seat until the last of the passenger’s disembarked, and even then he took his time pulling his jacket and messenger bag from the overhead compartment. He’d been dreading this moment since the Canadian authorities had put him on the plane that morning. He had butterflies in his stomach and they'd only got worse when he'd made his connection from New York City to Albany.
“Cheer up,” said the stewardess who’d looked after him on the flight. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can’t be that bad.”
“We’ll see,” said Trace, slipping the messenger bag strap over his shoulder and making his way towards the exit.
It was two weeks since his mother’s death and his life had become something he didn’t recognize—worse, something from an awful dream. Officer Redcorn and his wife had been kind to him, standing with him when he’d buried his mother, but the things they told him afterwards, about his life and who he was, were unthinkable. His mother had been everything to him. She’d taught him how to skate like all the other boys' dads, she’d coached his sixth-grade baseball team when none of the other dads would, she’d never once let him feel like he was missing out by not having a father.
She’d told him his father had left them for another man when he was just four years old, that he’d left them saying he never wanted to see them again. But Officer Redcorn had told him that wasn’t true. She’d told him he’d been born in Toronto but that wasn’t true either. Officer Redcorn had shown him his birth certificate. His name wasn’t even Tracy Maxwell; he was Tracy Harries, and he wasn’t even a Canadian—he was an American. It was all too much to wrap his head around.
Vanessa Cosgrove, from social services, had briefed him on his new family. He knew his dad was married to a man named Gary Whitmore and that they had an adopted daughter named Olivia, but he still wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel or what he was supposed to think when he met these strangers. He had no memory of his father, it was all so confusing.
Ian began to get nervous when the herd of passengers coming out of the jetway went from a throng to a trickle.
“Do you think he made his connection from New York? What if there was a problem with customs, or…” He was starting to panic.
“Ian, look.” Gary grabbed Ian and pointed over his shoulder.
Ian turned and there he stood. He was tall for sixteen, not quite six feet yet but close. His red hair was closely trimmed around the ears and neck but there was some length on top, enough that he had to brush it off his forehead from time to time. His eyes were large, an azure blue, and his porcelain skin practically glowed in contrast to the black polo and jacket he wore. Ian stared at him in disbelief for a moment, it was like a dream. His little boy was home.
“Hi,” said Trace shyly as his father approached him.
Ian threw his arms around his son’s neck and squeezed him tight. Trace was caught off guard by the gesture and was surprised to find himself hugging back. Ian didn’t want to let him go. He held the hug as long as he could, feeling his son’s warmth, taking in his smell, trying to hold back the tears as he thought of all he’d missed out on in the boy’s life.
“It’s you, it’s really you,” Ian sniffled as he pulled back and caressed Trace’s cheek before hugging him again.
“Um, yeah, I’m here,” said Trace, unsure what else to say.
“Uh hem,” Gary cleared his throat. He was beaming at Ian, drinking in his husband’s joy.
“Right,” said Ian, pulling back again. “Tracy, this is my husband, your step-dad, Gary Whitmore.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Tracy,” said Gary, spreading his arms to give the boy a welcoming hug.
“I prefer Trace,” he replied coldly and offered his hand instead. Hugging his father was one thing but he wasn’t about to hug the man who had broken up his family.
Gary put his arms down and shook the boy’s hand, noting how he'd put no effort into his grip. Trace’s face remained impassive but his eyes never left Gary’s. There was something about those eyes. Gary wouldn’t say Trace glared at him but there was something there, almost like a challenge.
“Alright, Trace it is,” said Gary, offering a smile that was met by nothing but the impassive expression on Trace’s smooth young face.
“Daddy, his hair is on fire.” Olive giggled.
“Hmpf,” said Trace, suppressing a giggle of his own.
“This sparkplug is your sister, Olivia. We call her Olive,” said Ian.
“How do you do, Olivia,” said Trace, formally.
Olive looked up at him then wiggled her finger at him, beckoning him to her level. Trace bent down and she put her arms around his neck, then kissed his cheek. She was giggling when she released him and Trace had to smile. She was only a little kid with blond curls and big brown eyes. None of this was her fault; he couldn’t take out his hurt and frustration on her.
After that they collected Trace’s suitcases from the baggage claim and then put them in the back of Gary’s SUV for the two hour drive to Sanitaria Springs. Trace sat in the backseat next to Olive in her car seat. Every time he looked at her she giggled at him and every time she giggled at him he smiled, he couldn’t help it.
“Trace, are you hungry, can we get you something to eat?” asked Ian, the question an excuse to turn in his seat and look at his boy.
“No, thank you, I ate on the plane.”
“It’ll take us a couple of hours to get home,” said Ian. “We’ll show you around town tomorrow and then Sunday we’re having some family and friends over for a little welcome home party.”
“Do we have much family?” Trace asked. He’d only ever had his mother. There had never been any grandparents, aunts or uncles, no cousins. He was curious what having family was like.
“Well, unfortunately my parents were killed in a car accident a few years ago and I’m an only child but Gary’s got a big family. His brother and sisters will be there with their kids. Our nephew, Logan, is about your age. You’ll be going to school with him and Gary teaches there if you need anything.”
“Oh,” said Trace neutrally.
“You must have so many questions,” said Ian.
“Yes,” Trace admitted, but he wasn’t ready, not yet. “But it was a long flight. I’m very tired.”
“Sure.” Ian smiled and patted his knee. “We’ve got all the time in the world to talk now.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Trace as he made himself comfortable in his seat.
Trace didn’t talk much on the ride home and anytime Ian asked him a question, Gary noticed the answers were very…diplomatic, polite but both vague and brief. He couldn’t really blame the kid; this had to be hard on him, but Gary hoped Ian’s feelings wouldn't be hurt. One of the things he loved most about Ian was his big heart, but having a big heart makes you vulnerable and Gary hoped Ian wouldn’t take it personally when Trace needed a little time to adjust.
Ian was ready to pick up where he’d left off when Trace had been a little boy. He wanted to take him camping, to ball games, teach him how to drive, build some real father son memories. Gary was a little more realistic. While they were both educators, Gary dealt with teenagers on a daily basis and he knew that even in the best of times they could be sullen and moody. He didn’t know exactly what to expect from his step-son but he knew this was a huge adjustment for Trace and he would need time to make himself comfortable in their home and in their family.
The two of them had talked about almost nothing but Trace since Deputy Hastings had left their home. Gary took a lot of joy from Ian’s excitement, and he was looking forward to getting to know Trace, too, but he had tried hard to temper Ian’s excitement, to keep him from being disappointed.
It was after nine when they finally pulled up to the little white Victorian on Brewster Lane. Ian helped Trace with his bags while Gary got a sleeping Olive out of her seat; it was well past her bedtime. They went in through the kitchen and Trace had a quick look around but he really was tried from the long flight and the drive from Albany, and he asked if he could go straight to bed.
“Why don’t you show Trace his room while I put Olive down?” Gary offered.
“Great idea,” said Ian.
“Goodnight, Trace. I’m glad you’re here,” said Gary.
“Thank you, goodnight,” said Trace.
Ian led Trace down the hall to the last room on the right. There was a full-size sleigh bed, nightstands and lamps, a desk and chest of drawers. The walls were painted a soft, robin’s-egg blue and the large window provided a view of a well-manicured backyard. Trace put his bags by the closet door and turned in a circle, taking in his new surroundings.
“This has always been a guest room so we never really decorated much,” said Ian. “We can paint, change the furniture, anything you want.”
“Thank you, it’s very nice. I’m sure I’ll be comfortable.”
“Would you like to stay up and chat a bit?”
“I would but not tonight. I’m very tired,” said Trace.
“Alright then,” said Ian. He hugged Trace and kissed him on the cheek. “The bathroom is right across the hall and we’re just down the hall if you need anything.”
“Thank you, I’ll be fine.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” said Ian, patting him on the cheek. “Goodnight.”
When Ian left and closed the door behind him, Trace stripped out of his clothes, draped them over the desk chair and put on shorts and a tee. He took his laptop from his messenger bag and placed it on the desk, then took a framed photograph and put it on his night stand. He got under the covers and started to cry when he looked at the picture. It had been taken just before his twelfth birthday, he was dressed in his baseball uniform, his mother was hugging him from behind and they were both beaming at the camera.
He was alone and scared in a strange new home. He missed her, was angry at her, was frustrated by all the emotions that threatened to consume him. He cried himself to sleep with the bedside lamp still burning brightly.
“Do you think I should take him an extra blanket?”
“He doesn’t know how drafty this house can get. What if he’s cold?”
“Then he’ll tell us.” Gary smiled and took his hand. “Come to bed.”
“But what if…”
“Ian, you’ve gotta relax. Give him some space. He’s sixteen,;if you get in his face, he’s going to resent you and pull away.”
“You’re right, I know you’re right, it’s just, my God, Gary, after all these years, he’s right down the hall. I just want to look at him.” Ian sighed.
“It’s a miracle, no doubt about it. But he’ll be there in the morning. Let him get some rest.”
“Ok, you’re right, I don’t want to come on too strong,” said Ian as he hugged his husband.
Sometime later, Olive woke up and got out of bed. She stuck her head out of her bedroom door and listened to make sure her daddies weren’t up and about, then crept down the hall to Trace’s room. She watched him sleep for a moment, his face bathed in the glow of the bedside lamp, and then poked his shoulder until his eyes fluttered open.
Trace was momentarily startled when he woke. It took him a second to remember where he was. He blinked his eyes a few times until they adjusted to the light and then they focused on Olive standing patiently beside his bed.
“Hi,” said Olive.
“Um, hi,” said Trace with a lame wave. He didn’t have much experience with children; he hadn’t been around little kids since he’d been one himself.
“I brought you this,” said Olive, producing a stuffed bear from behind her back.
“Is this your teddy bear?” he asked as she pushed the plush toy into his hands.
“No, it’s Tracy Bear,” she replied.
“He didn’t like that name at first, he said it was a girl’s name.” Olive giggled.
“Why do you think I go by Trace?” he smiled.
“I told him no it’s not a girl’s name it’s my big brothers name and then he said it was ok.”
“You named him after me?” Trace asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeap, daddy told me all about you when I was a little girl so I named him Tracy Bear. I brought him so you wouldn’t get lonely in your new room and you could sleep good.”
Trace was taken aback and studied the bear for a moment. He hadn’t expected to hear that from Olive. If his dad didn’t want him, why had he told his daughter about him?
“Thank you, that was very sweet.”
“Lay down,” Olive ordered with a yawn.
Trace obeyed her command and when he snuggled into his pillow she stood on her tiptoes and stretched to pull the blanket up around his shoulders. She tucked him in, pecked him on the cheek and said, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Olive turned out the light and scampered back to her room giggling. Trace put the stuffed bear on his nightstand next to his mom and chuckled at the situation. His little sister was quite a character.
Trace woke early the next morning, just after the 6am sunrise due to a face full of sunshine from the window. Despite being worn out from his travels he was unaccustomed to going to bed before ten. He climbed out of bed, stretched, then padded across the hall to use the restroom. He returned to his room and sat on his bed, listening to the quiet of the house.
His mother had been an artist, she set her own schedule and as such she and Trace made time to travel throughout Canada. One thing she’d taught him was, when you settled into a new city, you should go for a walk to get your bearings and scope out the lay of the land. He’d played baseball when he was younger but aside from the occasional pickup game of hockey, he wasn’t much of a jock, though he did like to run. He stripped off his pajamas, put on track pants, a sweatshirt, and laced up his sneakers. He quietly made his way to the front door, ready to explore his new hometown and see what it had to offer, when he spotted something in the living room.
He’d only given the house a cursory examination the night before and the living room had been dark. Now, with the light of the morning sun filtering through open blinds, his eyes were drawn to the mantle. Ian and Gary’s wedding picture was there, so was a portrait of Olive, and to his great surprise, one of his baby pictures.
Trace stepped up to the mantle and pulled the picture down to give it a closer look. He must have been three, maybe four, at the time it was taken. He had chubby cheeks and someone had dressed him in a little sailor suit. His mom had the same picture in one of her photo albums but he couldn’t quite remember the story behind the sailor suit.
A thought flashed through his head, if my dad never wanted to see me again, why did he keep this picture, why is it on the mantle with pictures of his new family? The question felt like a betrayal of his mother. No matter what anyone said, she’d loved him, of that he was certain, and if she’d taken him from his father it wasn’t without good reason. He probably just dug it out of a box and put it here yesterday to make me feel welcome.
Trace stepped outside and made a quick circuit of the neighborhood. It was quaint with its tree lined streets and eclectic mix of Victorian and Colonial style homes. After touring the neighborhood he made his way into town. There wasn’t much to see but as he jogged down Main Street his nose was lured to Café Perk Me Up by the heady aroma of fresh coffee.
The Pacific Northwest might be home to Starbucks but everyone who grew up there would tell you if you wanted real coffee you had to find a real coffee shop. Trace felt right at home when he walked into Café Perk Me Up and instantly sensed the vibe of the place. The furniture was a mishmash of comfortable, shabby-chic chairs. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in and just lose yourself in a cup and a good book. The staff seemed pretty funky, too.
“Good morning, what’s your poison, Red?” asked the flamboyant barista. He was a rail-thin black kid with a conservative haircut that had been bleached white, then dyed in the colors of the rainbow. His name tag read Damon. Trace saw guys like him all the time in Vancouver—finding one in Sanitaria Springs was oddly comforting.
“Large cappuccino, please,” Trace ordered.
“Oh, a serious order,” said Damon as he punched the information into the register.
“Most of the high school kids that come in here want something sweet. I can’t say that I blame them, my favorite’s the white mocha with raspberry.”
“Would you like a little coffee with your sugar?” Trace joked.
“Right?” Damon laughed. “What’s your name, hun?”
“Trace, that’s cool,” said Damon. He wrote the name on a paper cup then busied himself behind the counter making the drink. “You new in town? I’d remember you; that hair.”
“Just got in last night.” Trace smiled and brushed his bangs off his forehead.
“Moved from Vancouver, BC.”
“Good news for the girls at Columbia High.” Damon winked. “Or bad news for the girls in Vancouver. I guess it depends on which side you’re looking from.”
“Um, I think the girls in both towns would be disappointed,” said Trace. “I’m…”
“Playing for my team?”
“I think so.” Trace raised his eyes to Damon's hair and laughed.
“Right on,” said Damon, giving Trace a high-five. “You’ll love it here, it’s like gay heaven.”
“There’s a really active GSA at the high school, lots of nice gay kids. The community’s very supportive.”
“Wow, that’s good to know,” Trace admitted. He’d come out to his mom when he was thirteen and to all of his friends his freshman year but that was in Vancouver, a big, culturally diverse city. Sure, his dad was gay and married to a man but he didn’t know how his new community viewed them. Damon’s information was comforting.
“Alright Trace, here’s your large cap, that’ll be $4.50.
Trace pulled out his wallet, grabbed a few bills and swore, “Shit.”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s all Canadian,” said Trace, holding up a handful of multicolored bills.
“Boy, you are fresh off the boat.” Damon chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, this one’s on the house.”
“Are you sure?”
“Call it a welcome to the neighborhood.” Damon smiled.
“We don’t get many dazzling young urbanites like yourself in here. Come back and see us sometime,” said Damon.
“Count on it,” Trace replied as he turned towards the door.
“Oh my God, there you are,” Ian exclaimed, then breathed a sigh of relief as Trace walked through the kitchen door. For his part, Trace stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide like a deer caught in headlights.
“Relax, Ian,” said Gary, nodding at the cup in Trace’s hand. “He just went to get some coffee.”
“Uh, yeah.” Trace blushed. “I got up early and went for a jog. I found this really cool coffee shop so I grabbed a cup.”
“Your mom was like that,” said Ian, remembering. “When we moved to Groton and then Bremerton, first thing she did was go for a walk.”
“To get the lay of the land?”
“That’s right,” Ian smiled.
“She taught me to do that whenever I found myself in a new place,” said Trace.
“Would you like some breakfast?” asked Gary.
“Yes, please,” Trace replied politely.
“Hi,” said Olive, as he took a seat at the table.
“Hi,” Trace replied. For some reason that made Olive giggle, which made Trace grin.
Ian had panicked when he’d woken up and found Trace’s room empty. He was afraid the boy had decided that living with his father was too much to take and had run away. It was an irrational fear; after all, his things were still in his room, and he hadn’t even taken his jacket.
Ian and Gary had a friend who lived around the block, Russ Freeman, a child psychiatrist who had given them some advice on what to expect from Trace. He’d also given Ian some advice about himself; he’d warned him to resist the urge to over-parent his son. Ian had been separated from Trace for many years, and it was natural to want to smoother him, but at the same time it would drive a wedge between them. Trace was at an age where boys want to be independent and spread their wings a little. He’d resent helicopter parenting.
Russ had also warned Ian about speaking ill of Julie. Yes, she’d done him wrong and yes, she’d harmed the boy by robbing him of his father, but at the same time, she was his mother. Trace loved her and if Ian trashed her, Trace would resent that, too. It was a tough pill to swallow. Ian was furious at his ex for stealing his child, robbing him of all those years; it hurt him beyond measure. He’d forgotten about his resentment for the briefest of moments while reminiscing about her walk-abouts, but he was glad Trace didn’t press for more information, and he managed to let the topic drop.
Gary placed a plate of toast and scrambled eggs in front of Trace and it was accepted politely. Gary noticed the same thing he’d noticed the day before—Trace was polite and respectful when speaking to him but there wasn’t the barest sign of warmth, just the impassive face and the cold, challenging eyes. He warmed up a little when Ian took his seat and everyone had a good laugh as Trace told the story of how he’d gotten his free coffee.
After breakfast, Trace showered and dressed, and then the guys took him to the bank to exchange his Canadian dollars and set up a bank account for him. Julie’s estate wasn’t complicated but it was substantial and Trace was the beneficiary listed on her life insurance policy. Ian had engaged a Canadian attorney to liquidate her remaining assets and all the money was, per his mother's will, divided into two accounts: Trace’s college fund and a savings account he would be allowed to draw a limited allowance from each month.
Once they finished at the bank, they took Trace to Verizon to upgrade his phone and put him on their family account. After that they enjoyed a leisurely lunch before all going over to the high school so Trace could look around.
“So, you teach here?” asked Trace.
“Gym, and I coach basketball,” said Gary.
“Hmpf, I’ve never played basketball,” said Trace dismissively.
“There’s a very vibrant gay community here. I’m sure you’ll fit right in,” said Ian.
“Yeah, the guy at the coffee shop was telling me…wait, they told you?” Trace exclaimed.
“I don’t know how it works in Canada but I think social services wanted to make sure you’d be safe and comfortable in our home before they sent you,” said Ian.
“They had no right.” Trace sighed and shook his head.
“There’s no reason to be upset,” Ian started. “Obviously we’re gay, we don’t…”
“It wasn’t their place; they should have left that up to me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ian, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“It's fine,” said Trace, shrugging off the gesture.
There were an awkward few moments of silence. Then, “I know, why don’t we drive in to Binghamton?” asked Gary. “We can show Trace where you work, he can check out the university a bit, and then we can grab some dinner?”
“That’s a great idea,” said Ian.
“Fine.” Trace agreed.
The rest of the day passed quietly. Trace asked polite questions about the university and his father’s job as a professor of English literature, but he avoided anything personal. After dinner they drove back to Sanitaria Springs where Trace whiled away the evening in his room reading or listening to his iPod. He was dreading the party the next day.
“Griffy, are you ready yet?” asked Anna as she stepped into her son’s room with his laundry basket.
“Just putting on the finishing touches,” said Griffin. He was standing in front of the mirror making sure his short brown hair had that properly disheveled look.
“I don’t know how it takes so long to style such short hair.”
“Mom, I haven’t been working on my hair all this time.” He rolled his eyes.
“No, I had to pick out an outfit too.”
“Of course.” Anna chuckled. “Anyway, I folded your laundry for you.”
“Mom, you didn’t have to do that…”
“I needed the dryer and I didn’t want to throw your things on the laundry room floor.”
“Sorry, I put that last load in and then I went out with Devyn and…”
“Speaking of Devyn,” said Anna, picking up a pair of white briefs from the laundry basket. They were too small to be Griffin’s, nor were they a brand he wore.
“Um, I, uh…” Griffin’s mouth flopped up and down like a fish out of water.
“Don’t deny it. I’m not stupid, Griffin.”
“I-I-I.” He began to sweat and raised his hand to cover his gaping mouth.
“I’m also not angry with you.”
“You’re not?” he asked with a raised eye brow, slowly lowering his hand.
“Your father and I spoke to you and Devyn about taking this step in your relationship. I think we made our point clear, yes?”
“We trust you and we trust Devyn. Just promise me you boys are being careful and respectful of each other’s feelings.”
“Of course we are, mom. We love each other.”
“I know.” She kissed his cheek. “But try and be discreet,” she said, twirling the little briefs on her finger.
“Hey,” said Griffin, snatching his boyfriend’s underpants from his mother. “You’re lucky me and Dev aren’t Robin and Lu, they broke the table in Lu’s kitchen while they…”
“Uh huh, sure,” said Anna. Her son giggled at her disbelief. “Hurry up and finish getting ready. We’re already late.”
“Knock, knock,” said Ian, sticking his head in Trace’s room.”
“Hey,” he replied as he tied his shoes.
“Are you about ready?”
“I think so,” said Trace as he stood and tucked in his shirt.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about. Everyone here is family…”
“His family,” said Trace.
“Yes, Gary’s family is our family.” Ian smiled.
“You’re gonna like this,” said Ian, putting his arm around Trace and guiding him out to the backyard.
Ian couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was Trace in a difficult situation but he was naturally shy around adults. He hated being the center of attention and the gathered family and friends practically fell over themselves too fawn over him. Even though he had to admit they were very kind, genuine and welcoming, the situation still made him acutely uncomfortable.
Once he’d met and been hugged, kissed, poked and prodded by nearly everyone, he excused himself so he might mingle. It was more an excuse to get a moment to himself to catch his breath and that’s when he caught site of a boy he hadn’t met yet.
He was bent over tying his shoe, his cute butt swaying along with his movements. When he stood, Trace noted his light brown hair, pretty blue eyes and baby face. He was hot. Trace judged him to be close to his own age and in another place in time he would have approached him, said hello and tried to be charming enough to get his number. At the very least the boy would have ended up in his spank bank but considering the people surrounding him, he figured the kid was one of Gary’s relatives and he didn’t want to like any of them.
“Hey,” said Ian, dropping his hand down on Trace’s shoulder.
“Jesus,” Trace exclaimed and nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Sorry, did I startle you?” Ian chuckled.
“Yeah,” said Trace, catching his breath.
“Come on, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Sure enough, his dad took him straight up to the boy he’d been watching. He was even cuter when he smiled and hugged Ian warmly.
“Hi, Uncle Ian.”
“Hey, Logan, this is Trace. Trace, this is our nephew, Logan.”
“Hello,” said Trace, offering Logan the same weak handshake he’d offered his step-dad.
“It’s so cool to meet you, Trace,” said Logan.
“Yeah, uh, thanks.”
“Trace, Logan’s going to be at the high school with you. Why don’t I go check on the meat and let you guys get acquainted?”
“So,” said Logan once they were alone.
“So,” Trace replied.
“You’re pretty tall, Uncle Gary recruit you for the basketball team yet?”
“I don’t play basketball.”
“Oh yeah, you’re Canadian, hockey, right?”
“Something like that,” said Trace.
“Ok,” said Logan, unsure what more to say. People usually warmed to him pretty quickly but his step-cousin seemed to be going out of his way to be standoffish. “Maybe we could…”
“Would you excuse me please? I need to use the restroom.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” said Logan.
Trace went inside and splashed some water on his face. He wanted to go to his room and hide but he knew he’d be missed. Instead, he went back outside, saw Logan by the BBQ with some other kids, and went the opposite direction where he found a quiet spot to sit by himself.
He hadn’t been sitting there long when another boy approached. He was talking on the phone and Trace assumed he was another cute step cousin. Short, with brown hair and green eyes. Trace started to wonder if the kids in Gary’s family had won the genetic lottery. They all seemed to be good looking.
The boy sat in the folding chair next to him and Trace thought about getting up and finding another quiet spot but as he looked around he realized it was impossible. Instead, he kept his seat and listened to the boy’s side of the phone conversation.
“I’m not sure, Der,” said the boy. “I haven’t even met the guest of honor yet. Do I need to pick up Dev or did he…Oh, ok. Yeah, I’ll see you then.”
“Sorry for just plopping down in your space,” said the boy as he pressed the end button. “I couldn’t hear anywhere else.”
“No problem,” said Trace. “Was it important?”
“My friends get together and watch movies on Sunday’s,” the boy explained. “I wanted to find out whether or not I needed to pick up my boyfriend. He wasn’t answering texts so I called my friend.”
“Why not call your boyfriend?” asked Trace, momentarily forgetting his mission to dislike anything that had to do with Gary.
“That would be a great idea, but Dev’s mute. Turns out he left his phone in his car.” The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Anyway, I’m Griffin Douglas, What’s your name?”
“Trace Max…Harries, Trace Harries.”
“Oh, so you’re the guest of honor.” Griffin smiled.
“You must be one of Gary’s nephews?”
“No, my mom works with your dad.”
“Oh.” Trace smiled. That was another story. He didn’t have any grudges to hold against his father’s coworkers; he could like Griffin.
“This must be pretty crazy for you, huh?”
“You can say that again.” Trace sighed.
“Well, I don’t know your dad very well but my parents like him a lot. I don’t really know much about Coach Whitmore, either. I never had him for Gym and I don’t play basketball.”
“I’d never have guessed.” Trace grinned and looked Griffin up and down. He couldn’t have been more than 5’8” and that was pushing it.
“Shut up.” Griffin giggled and gave Trace a playful shove.
“So you’ve got a mute boyfriend?”
“That’s my Devyn.” Griffin beamed.
“Everyone keeps telling me there are a lot of gay kids here, and that I'll fit right in.”
“Sure you will, we’re a friendly group and what they say is true. There are tons of us,” Griffin exclaimed. “I was kind of shocked when I first moved here from California, this being such a small town and all.”
“Oh, a fellow westerner,” said Trace. “I’m from Vancouver.”
“Take off you hoser!”
“What?” Trace laughed.
“Isn’t that a Canadian expression?”
“Yeah, but it’s usually only used by Canadian hillbillies,” Trace snickered.
“They have hillbillies in Canada?”
“Yeah, eh,” said Trace, using another Canadianism to see if Griffin would pick up on it.
“Ah ha, so you guys do say stuff like eh, and hoser.”
“Not really, I just wanted to throw that out there for you.”
“Thanks.” Griffin chuckled.
“So where did you get your education in Canadian culture?”
“Oh God, so a few weeks ago my buddy, Jamie, made us watch this old movie called Strange Brew…”
“I should have known.” Trace laughed.
“It was so stupid,” Griffin rolled his eyes, “but funny. My friends and I talked like that for about a week. Drove everyone nuts.”
“I’ll bet,” said Trace. “You know the plot is lifted from Hamlet, right?”
“What?” Griffin exclaimed.
“Think about it, the two idiots are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the girl pretends to be crazy after her father’s murder by his brother who marries her mother. The whole thing is set in Elsinore Brewery, you know, like Elsinore Castle?”
“I’ll be damned, you’re right!”
Gary and Ian were tending to the BBQ. They’d just put on a fresh batch of hamburger patties when Gary spotted Trace sitting with Griffin. Not only were Gary and Ian friendly with Griffin’s parents, everyone at school knew Griffin.
“Ian, check it out,” said Gary, nodding in the direction of the two boys.
Ian turned and smiled at the sight he beheld. Trace and Griffin appeared to be having an animated discussion. Their lips were moving rapidly and were interrupted by bouts of laughter.
“He’s happy,” said Ian.
“Looks like it.” Gary winked at his husband.
“Oh, quick, don’t look,” said Ian as he turned back to the grill. The boys had stood up and began walking in the direction of the BBQ. Ian didn’t want to get caught staring lest Trace feel they were spying on him.
“Hey, uh, dad, do you know Griffin?” asked Trace.
“Sure, his mom’s my office buddy.” Ian smiled. “Glad you could come today, Griffin.”
“Thanks, Dr. Harries.”
“Griffin’s going over to a friend’s house to hang out and watch a movie; can I go?”
“Gee, Trace, we’ve got all this company and…” Ian began.
“Whose house is it, Griffin?” Gary interrupted.
“Robin Kirkwood’s,” Griffin supplied.
“Trace has met everyone, people are going to start heading home soon, why not let him go?” asked Gary.
Just as everyone at school knew Griffin Douglas, they also knew Robin Kirkwood. The boys they hung out with were well-regarded by the faculty and they made up the core of the gay community Ian and Gary had told Trace he’d fit into.
“Do you guys need a ride?” asked Ian.
“No, Robin’s house is only a few blocks away. We can walk,” said Griffin.
“Alright, it’s a school night so home by nine,” said Ian.
“Thanks, Dad,” said Trace.
He gave Ian a hug but quickly pulled away when he realized what he’d done. He’d been caught up in his excitement to hang out with Griffin and meet his friends.
It was a quick walk to the Kirkwood home and Trace and Griffin spent their time chatting like a pair of gossipy housewives. Griffin filled him in on all his friends and Trace was happy to be out of the house. Each step they took made him feel that much further from his problems. He needed answers from Ian but he wasn’t ready to ask questions and the effort it took to keep his distance from Gary was exhausting. The one bright spot at home was Olive but she was six and there was only so much they could talk about.
Trace resolved to be himself at school and with the friends he hoped to make. They didn’t know everything he was dealing with and when he was with them he could put that all aside and just be normal, one of the guys. Trace shook all of those thoughts from his head when they strode up to a stately white colonial and Griffin knocked on the glossy black door.
A gorgeous boy with black hair and the bluest eyes answered. He looked Griffin up and down curiously then stepped past the boys to look up and down the street.
“What did you do now?”
“What?” Griffin raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t see your car anywhere, I assume you’re grounded.”
“Shut up, Robin.” Griffin laughed. “I rode over to Trace’s house with my parents. He doesn’t live far so we walked over here. Speaking of which, Trace Harries meet Robin Kirkwood.”
“Nice to meet you, Trace,” said Robin. “You new in town?”
“His dad’s my mom’s officemate. Remember I told you I was…” Griffin started.
“Oh, right,” Robin exclaimed. “Coach Whitmore’s kid.”
“Step-kid,” Trace corrected with a hint of annoyance in his voice but he let it go. He couldn’t blame kids from school for associating him with Gary. He was their coach, and they didn’t know Trace's father.
“Trace is one of us so I thought he should meet the fam,” said Griffin.
“You didn’t teach him the secret handshake yet, right? You know you’re not supposed to welcome new members until we vote on them,” said Robin.
“Uh, what?” asked Trace.
“He’s joking.” Griffin rolled his eyes. “Don’t let the good looks fool you; he’s the biggest dofus at Columbia High.”
“I’d object but he’s not wrong.” Robin grinned and invited them into his home.
Robin led the guys down to his basement and though Griffin had prepared him, Trace was still surprised by what he saw. The large room was crowded with boys, each one cuter then the next, and they were all gay. There were a few gay kids at Trace’s old school, and he felt comfortable among his classmates, but the basement gathering was larger than any GSA meeting he’d ever been too.
“Hey, guys,” Griffin greeted.
There was a round of hellos and a blond kid, even shorter than Griffin, walked up and kissed him. Trace correctly assumed him to be Devyn.
“Trace, you met Robin, that’s Lucien Kutsenko, Austin Hamilton, Derek Pellegrini, Philip Ashmore, Boomer…”
“Sterling,” Philip corrected.
“… Bennett, Robin’s brothers Jamie and Sean, Asher Ellis, Elliot Lindley, Colby Stewart, and Jake Thayer,” said Griffin without skipping a beat. “And of course my Devyn.”
“Awww, his Devyn,” Jake teased.
“Duh.” Jake laughed.
Jamie was standing on the other side of the room having just gotten a soda from the mini-fridge hidden behind the bar. Trace walked up to him and got right in his face.
“Whoa, what the…” Jamie started.
“So you’re the one that made everybody watch that stupid movie,” Trace hissed. “Do you know how offensive that is?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Jamie.
“We don’t joke about hoser’s,” said Trace, poking his finger in Jamie’s chest. “My entire grade four class was murdered by hoser’s on a field trip.”
“What?” Jamie’s eyes went wide.
“I only survived because I was able to beat them off with my hockey stick but bottom line, you mock the hoser’s again, and I’ll kill you.”
The room was dead quiet as Jamie stared wide eyed at Trace. Trace tried to keep a straight face but the look on Jamie’s was priceless. He started laughing and Griffin followed, then everyone laughed as they realized it was a joke.
“Sorry, he made me rehearse that on the way over,” said Trace, nodding at Griffin.
“Shit.” Jamie exhaled. “I thought I was about to get my ass kicked in my own basement.”
“Sorry.” Trace smiled and clapped him on the back.
“No worries, now I can get you back.” Jamie grinned.
“Grab a seat, Trace,” said Robin, “we were just about to put on a movie.”
Trace looked around for a place in the crowd when Jake smiled and patted the space between him and the boy Trace thought he remembered being introduced as Colby. Jake had short sandy blond hair, brown eyes and a chiseled face. His jeans were loose and he wore a hooded sweatshirt but the Columbia High Soccer logo on it suggested there was a nice body underneath. Trace was happy to spend his evening next to a cute blond with such a ready smile.
“So, you guys are really all gay?” asked Trace as Robin and Lucien played tug-o-war with the remote. It was so overwhelming meeting the group this way that it was an obligatory question.
“Nah,” said Jamie, lying down on the carpet. “I’m straight but my girlfriend didn’t want to come. She said ‘Why ruin a perfectly good sausage fest?'”
“He’s only mostly straight.” Sean grinned and nudged his brother with his shoulder. “Mostly straight means slightly gay.”
Trace noted that Jamie’s cheeks were burning a deep crimson.
“Don’t pick on your brother,” said Asher, slapping Sean upside the head.
Jamie smiled up at Asher and Asher winked at him in return. There was a story there but since no one else commented Trace figured it wasn’t a good time to ask questions.
“Well, he did take a boy to the homecoming dance.” Philip smiled.
“Seriously?” asked Trace.
“Emily couldn’t go and I’m a football hero,” said Jamie. “I couldn’t go stag.”
“Then I stole his date.” Sterling laughed, put his arms around Philip and snuggled him close.
“He wasn’t going to put out anyway.” Jamie shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s awesome.” Trace laughed. He instantly liked Jamie, the guy had a witty rejoinder for everything and he’d had the balls, being straight, to take a gay guy to a school dance. To Trace’s way of thinking that was pretty cool.
“So what’s your story, Trace?” asked Lucien.
“Um, well, I just moved here to live with my dad.”
“Where’s your mom?” Lucien followed.
“She uh, well, she died a couple weeks ago,” said Trace, hanging his head.
“Shit,” Lucien exclaimed. “I’m so sorry, I…”
“It’s ok,” said Trace. “I don’t really want to talk about it but it’s a logical question. You didn’t know.”
“Still I…” Lucien started.
“He’ll be beating himself up about it all night now.” Robin grinned. Lucien elbowed him in the stomach.
“Really, it’s ok,” said Trace.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” said Austin. “It’s a really personal thing and we just met you. But if you ever do want to talk about it, you’re not alone.”
“No?” asked Trace.
“I lost my mom a couple of years go,” said Austin.
“Me too,” said Sean.
“All of you guys?” asked Trace looking from Sean to Jamie to Robin.
“Oh, no,” said Robin understanding the confusion on Trace’s face. “Sean’s…”
“Only mostly a Kirkwood.” Jamie grinned and nudged Sean with his shoulder. “He’s slightly a Kelly.”
The two nearly identical boys, Jamie and Sean, who Trace had assumed were twins, giggled at each other like a couple of little kids then bumped fists.
“It’s a long story,” said Robin.
“What do you think of the town so far?” asked Elliot.
“It seems ok. I found a neat little coffee shop on Main Street so I think I’ll survive,” said Trace.
“Oh, Café Perk Me Up,” said Colby.
“Yeah, that’s the place,” said Trace.
“Did the weirdo wait on you?” asked Jake.
“Thayer, be nice,” said Derek.
“He is weird,” Jake protested, a bit of a whine in his voice.
“Um, a guy name Damon waited on me. Tall, rainbow hair,” said Trace.
“That’s him, the rainbow warrior,” said Jake.
“He’s perfectly nice,” said Robin, “Just…”
“Weird?” Jake grinned.
“Eccentric,” Robin finished.
“Doesn’t that mean weird?” asked Jake.
“You just don’t like him because the last time we went there he called you a ‘cutie-pie,’ and pinched your cheek in front of all those girls from school.” Colby giggled.
Jake blushed profusely at the memory and Trace held back the urge to say, “He’s right, you are a cutie-pie.” He gave him a friendly pat on the back instead and was rewarded with Jake’s winning smile.
“Do you know your schedule yet?” Devyn signed and Griffin translated.
“No, I guess I’ll find out tomorrow,” said Trace.
“What grade are you in?” asked Lucien.
“Uh, in Canada I’m in grade 11. I’m not sure what it is here.”
“Eleventh grade.” Robin winked.
“Oh, that’s one mystery solved.” Trace chortled.
“You’ll probably have some classes with Austin, Derek, Philip and Jake,” said Lucien.
“Yeah, we’re all Junior’s,” said Derek. “Robin, Lu, Elliot, Colby, Griff and Dev are seniors and the rest are our wittle sophomores.”
“I’ll give you little.” Jamie sat up and grinned wickedly as he grabbed his zipper.
“Don’t,” said Austin. He grinned just as wickedly and rested his arm on his boyfriends shoulder. “You’ll lose.”
“Yeah, Jamie, keep your pants on.” Robin rolled his eyes. “Don’t shame the family.”
“Give me a little credit, Robbie. I wasn’t really going to pull them down. I don’t want the new guy to think I’m a perv. We just met.”
“But…” Sterling started.
“He’ll figure it out later.” Jamie laughed, cutting off his friend.
“Hey,” said Robin. “I just realized, we might have a good hockey team this year. We’ve got a real Canadian!”
“Not all Canadian’s play hockey you know,” said Trace.
“But do you play hockey?” Robin grinned.
“Maybe a little.” Trace chuckled.
“Awesome, finally, something to do this winter! We can go to hockey games,” Robin exclaimed.
“I didn’t say I was joining any team,” said Trace.
“I wouldn’t,” said Jake. “They totally suck.”
There were murmurs of agreement around the room. After that, Lucien picked out a movie on Netflix, Robin turned out the lights and the conversation died down as everyone got sucked into the action on screen.
Everyone told Trace he’d fit in at Columbia High, that they had a really strong gay community, and his new friends instantly made him feel a part of it. Back home his friends had been supportive, great even, about his being gay, but when they had movie nights like this he always felt like the odd man out. Here the only odd thing about him was that he didn’t have a boyfriend, but as Jake fell asleep and leaned against his shoulder, Trace held out the hope maybe that could change somewhere down the road.
All around him the couples snuggled close, Griffin and Devyn made out and some of the others fell asleep like Jake. When the movie ended Robin hit the lights and everyone groaned as their eyes adjusted. They yawned and stretched their limbs and started getting ready to go home.
“Hey Austin, would you mind giving Trace a ride home?” asked Griffin. “Devyn’s going to give me a ride.”
“More like Devyn’s going to ride you.” Derek snickered and Griffin blushed.
“It’s ok, I can walk,” said Trace.
“Don’t be silly, it’s dark out,” said Austin. “I’m dropping off Derek and Ash, one more’s no problem.”
“Ok, thanks.” Trace smiled.
“Anyway,” said Derek, turning the attention back to Griffin. “I thought you were too good to be seen in Dev’s car?”
'What?' Devyn signed with a raised eyebrow.
“I never said any such thing,” said Griffin, putting his arm around his boyfriend’s shoulders and drawing him close. “My only problem with Dev’s car was having to push it the last time we drove out to the ruins to make out.”
“Going somewhere closer to home this time?” Austin teased.
“Maybe,” said Griffin, grinning at Lucien.
“Oh fuck no! You perv’s stay out of my bus,” Lucien exclaimed.
“Come on, Lu, it’s the shag’n wagon,” Griffin teased. “We have to break it in!”
“Way too late,” Robin said, smiling widely.
“No, bad,” said Lucien, “Bad, bad, bad!” talking as if Griffin were a wayward puppy that piddled on the rug, as he smacked him with a pillow and shot his boyfriend an evil look.
Devyn started signing and Griff struggled to translate through his giggles, “Can we use your kitchen table then?”
Lucien rounded on Robin and repeatedly slapped his shoulder, saying, “You’re grounded!”
Once everyone stopped laughing Trace followed the boys upstairs and hopped in Austin’s truck.
“Alright, since you live closest I’ll drop you off first, Trace, then…”
“Would you mind dropping me off last?” asked Trace.
“Oh, trying to get some alone time with my boyfriend huh?” asked Derek.
“No, oh, no, no, I…” Trace spluttered.
“Relax dude, I was kidding,” said Derek.
“Oh, sorry. I, uh, I’m just not in any rush to go home.”
“Are…” Derek started.
“It’s alright, I gotcha,” said Austin, knowingly. “Ash, you’re up first.”
They dropped Asher off and then drove over to Derek’s apartment. Trace waited in the truck while the couple spent a few minutes enjoying a goodnight make out. All too soon Austin pulled up in front of the white Victorian on Brewster Lane. Trace stared at the house for a moment, the lights were on in the living room and he knew his dad and Gary were probably waiting up for him.
“It’ll get better,” said Austin.
“Huh?” said Trace.
“When I first moved in with my aunt and uncle it was pretty rough,” said Austin. “But it got better.”
“At least they never abandoned you because they didn’t want you anymore.” Trace sighed.
“I don’t know anything about your dad but I know what that’s like,” said Austin. “I never knew my dad, he left us before I was even born. Fuck, for all I know he left fifty bucks on the nightstand and never saw my mom again. But back to your situation, I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if he didn’t care about you. Coach Whitmore’s a good guy and I can’t picture him being married to someone that didn’t give a shit about his kid.”
“You think so?”
“Look Trace, when I first moved here, my aunt, oh my God, she acted like she didn’t want anything to do with me. She was so hostile my cousin had to threaten to leave with me if she kicked me out.”
“But you know what I figured out?”
Trace looked at him with rapt attention and shook his head.
“Even when she was being a bitch, she loved me. She didn’t keep me because Chase made her. Deep inside she couldn’t throw family out on the street. It’s been rough and we still have tough times but she’s gotten a lot better. Now when she’s being shitty I just have to remind her that she likes me.” Austin grinned.
“Dad and Gary are ok, I guess. It’s just so frustrating and confusing and, when all my life…”
“I know,” Austin patted his shoulder.
“About what I said, can that stay between you and me?”
“I won’t even tell Derek,” said Austin, crossing his heart.
“I appreciate it,” said Trace as he hoped out of the truck.
“See you at school tomorrow. You can catch a ride home with me if you want; Der has soccer practice.”
“Great, thanks.” Trace smiled and then turned towards the house. He blew out a sigh and walked up the front steps.
“Hey kiddo,” said Ian when Trace walked in the door. Ian and Gary were sitting in the living room. Olive was in bed and they were enjoying the quiet.
“Did you have a good time?” asked Ian as he rose from his chair.
“It was ok.”
“Make any new friends?”
“Yeah, actually,” said Trace, a hint of a smile playing across his face. “Griffin was cool and his friends were pretty incredible.”
“I thought so,” said Gary. “That’s a really nice group of boys.”
“Yeah,” Trace acknowledged. “I’m pretty tired; can I go to my room?”
“Sure,” said Ian, though he was a little disappointed. He was desperate for Trace to open up to him. He was looking forward to a long talk with his son but he understood it had to be on Trace’s terms.
“I’ll get you enrolled tomorrow morning but I have coaching duties after school so unless you want to catch the bus you’ll have to wait for me to finish up,” said Gary.
“Its fine, one of my friends offered to give me a ride home.”
“I told you, nice boys.” Gary smiled.
“Right, goodnight,” said Trace as he disappeared down the hall and into his room.
The next morning Trace dressed in jeans, a white undershirt, a navy blue polo, and a pair of comfortable brown loafers. He spent some time in front of the mirror fussing over his hair and making sure it looked just so. He didn’t normally go to such lengths to get ready but he was starting a new school and wanted to make a good impression on his classmates. He’d also enjoyed his time in Robin’s basement and wanted to look nice in the hopes a certain boy might take notice.
He ran his fingers through his fiery red hair one last time, brushed the wrinkles out of his shirt and then headed to the kitchen for breakfast. He had a cup of coffee and some toast and when Gary said it was time to leave, he grabbed his jacket and messenger bag.
“Have a good day,” said Ian. He hugged his son and let the embrace linger for a moment before sending him on his way.
“Thanks, Dad,” said Trace, and then he followed Gary out to his SUV.
It was a quiet ride. Trace had nothing to say to Gary and busied himself looking out the window at the passing scenery. It was late fall, almost Halloween, and he enjoyed the bright red, yellow, and orange hues the leaves had taken on. Raised in the Pacific northwest with its sprawling evergreen forests, autumn in New York was a vivid contrast.
Though Trace hadn’t warmed up to him, Gary assumed his quiet was the result of nerves. Starting a new school was always daunting, especially coming in once the school year was underway. He was glad his step-son had found a friend in Griffin Douglas and some of his buddies. He hoped Trace continued to gravitate towards that group of students which was so well regarded by the faculty.
“Here we are,” said Gary as he pulled into the teacher’s lot. “It won’t take long to get you enrolled. Once we…”
He stopped in mid-sentence when Trace opened his door and hopped out. Gary wasn’t blind or a fool. He could tell Trace had some problems with him; after all, he’d lost his mother only to be reunited with the father he’d never known who was married to another man. Trace was gay himself but that didn’t mean it was easy to see his dad with a man. Additionally it had only been a few days. Gary was content to put up with the cold shoulder for now in the hopes that Trace would warm to him eventually.
Gary came around the car and as soon as Trace saw him he stalked off towards the administration office. They’d given him a full tour of Columbia High on Saturday but it hadn’t all been committed to memory, and he was forced to slow down so that Gary could lead him. When they reached the office the secretaries fussed and fawned over him because he was Coach Whitmore’s boy. Trace rolled his eyes to himself and as soon as he was given his schedule he made for the door with a curt, “Thank you.”
“Hey, have a good day, ok?” said Gary, catching him at the door and placing a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Come by my office if you need anything.”
“Uh huh,” said Trace, and then he slipped from Gary’s grasp and disappeared into the hustle and bustle of the morning rush of students.
“He seems…” Wanda, the school secretary started.
“He’ll be ok,” said Gary. “He just needs to get his bearings.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Wanda offered him a grandmotherly smile.
I hope so, Gary thought to himself.
When Trace walked into his first class of the day, English, he was glad to find an open seat next to Philip. They hadn’t talked much on Sunday but it was comforting to see a familiar face. Philip made polite conversation with him until the bell rang but had to stop there. Mrs. Irwin was all business and didn’t tolerate chit-chat while she was talking. Philip didn’t want his new friend to incur her wrath on his first day.
Trace saw Jake in third period but there were no open seats near him and they only managed a brief, “Hi,” before class started. Trace wasn’t sure but he thought he caught Jake stealing the occasional glance at him but as often as he kept looking, Jake might have caught Trace checking him out, too. As it was their eyes met near the end of class and both of them blushed before Mr. Overstreet drew their attention back to the dry-erase board.
“How’s your first day going?” asked Jake when the bell rang.
“So far so good,” said Trace. “Philip’s in my first class and the teachers seem ok.”
“Cool, where are you headed next?”
“French III, you?”
“Algebra II.” Jake sighed. “Its way on the other side of the building so I’ve gotta run but maybe I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Trace. He watched Jake walk down the hall until he turned the corner, then Trace set out in search of his next class.
French was a breeze for Trace. With Canada having two national languages, he was used to reading signs in French and when he’d begun to study the language in middle school he took to it like a duck to water. It was a good thing, too, as he spent more time thinking about Jake Thayer then listening to Madame Beaumont.
There was something about Jake that drew Trace in. Sure, he was incredibly cute with his golden hair and big doe eyes but it was more than the pretty face that caught Trace’s eye. He didn’t know Jake well, they’d only spoken briefly, but Trace’s thought’s drifted to Jake falling asleep on him in the Kirkwood’s basement every time his mind had a chance to wander.
Trace had lunch after French and once he collected his tray he began the immortal task facing all new kids, finding a place to sit in a cafeteria full of strangers. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his attention to see his cousin, no, Gary’s nephew, Logan, waving him over. Um, no, thought Trace, particularly when he looked beyond Logan and found Griffin, Devyn, Lucien, Robin, Austin and Derek, with the added bonus of an empty seat next to Jake. He walked right past Logan and his friends without so much as a polite, “Hello.”
“Who is that?” asked Seth when he saw the red headed boy Logan was waving at.
“That would be Tracy,” said Logan.
“Tracy as in your cousin Tracy?” asked Seth.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Wow,” said Grayson.
“What?” Logan replied with a raised eyebrow.
“He’s cute!” Seth and Gray replied in unison.
“Yeah, he’s cute I guess but kind of a dick,” said Logan as Trace walked by without paying him any mind. Watching him walk by Logan said, “See what I mean?”
“Well, he's still pretty,” said Gray, his eyes following Trace, lingering on his backside as he passed.
“Oh, I'm not enough for you anymore?” asked Logan, putting his arm around Grayson’s shoulders.
“Nothing wrong with looking,” Seth replied. “I know Foster doesn't mind.”
“Maybe,” said Logan, rolling his eyes, “but your eyes weren’t burning a hole in his jeans. My boyfriend, though...”
“I’ve gotta stop walking up in the middle of conversations,” said their friend Jordan as he took a seat.
“Don’t mind them, they’re just ogling my cousin,” said Logan, rolling his eyes.
“Well, at least they’re keeping it in the family.” Jordan laughed and slapped his friend on the back.
“Good thing you told him up front, Logan,” said Seth with a chuckle. “Now no one has to get blackmailed or snowballed.”
“In my defense that was all Tyler,” said Jordan.
“Right!” Logan, Seth and Gray replied in unison, then broke into a fit of giggles.
“It was so embarrassing! My mom was twirling them on her finger.” Griffin snorted as Trace approached. Trace couldn’t help noticing Devyn was turning so red he almost felt compelled to give him the Heimlich Maneuver.
“Hey guys, mind if I join you?” asked Trace.
“Who do you think we were saving the seat for?” Derek replied, patting the chair between him and Jake.
“Thanks,” said Trace. “So what was your mom twirling?”
“Dev’s undies.” Griffin laughed while Devyn hid his face.
“Numb nuts number one,” said Robin, nodding at Devyn, “got so scared when Griff’s parents came home unexpectedly while they were boning that he forgot to put his underwear back on before his pants.”
“No way.” Trace laughed.
“Then, numb nuts number two over here,” said Robin, nodding at Griffin, “threw them in the laundry with his clothes and forgot about them until his mom found them in the dryer.”
“Oh my God,” said Trace. “No wonder you’re so red, Devyn, that would be so embarrassing.”
Devyn sat up and gestured at Trace, and you didn’t need to know sign language to understand he was glad someone shared his feelings on the matter. Trace couldn’t help noticing that Griffin seemed pretty calm, even entertained by the story.
“Honestly, the one time we have sex…” Griffin started.
“Bullshit,” the boys around the table exclaimed as one.
“Ok, ok, second time.” Griffin giggled.
“Trace, don’t believe a word he says,” said Lucien. “They’re horrible sex fiends. You wouldn’t believe what they did to my bus!”
“Your bus?” Trace raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I’ve got an old VW van and these two,” said Lu, glaring at Griffin and Devyn, “used it like a cheap motel!”
“Oh, is that what you guys were talking about the other night?” asked Trace. “There was something about a kitchen table, too?”
“Bah,” Lu exclaimed. Now it was his turn to blush while his friends laughed.
“I’ll fill you in later,” said Austin.
After that, Trace answered a few questions about how his day was going and what classes he had next. He was happy to learn that he’d see Austin, Derek and Jake in some of his afternoon classes. As Jake’s knee occasionally bumped him under the table, Trace felt really happy he’d be seeing him again that afternoon.
“So what’s the deal with Jake Thayer?” asked Trace.
It was after school and he was glad to have Austin driving him home rather than having to wait around for Gary or worse, ride the bus.
“I knew it,” Austin exclaimed and slapped his hand on the wheel.
“What?” Trace jumped.
“You like him!”
“Oh, I hardly know him,” Trace protested.
“I knew you liked him. Derek said I was crazy but I saw you checking him out and trying not to get caught.” Austin giggled.
“Well, he’s kinda cute,” Trace muttered in admission.
“Sure, Thayer’s real cute,” Austin agreed. “Would you believe he used to be fat?”
“What? No way!”
“Last year no one knew who he was,” said Austin. “He was this quiet chubby guy who kept to himself, didn’t hassle anyone, he just got kind of ignored. This year starts and Derek’s telling us about this new kid he met at soccer practice, and bam, there’s Jake.”
“That’s kind of mean, you guy’s ignored him because he was fat?” Trace was shocked his new friends had been so shallow, they seemed so nice.
“No, no, it wasn’t like that,” said Austin. “He went out of his way to be obscure. Der says there were some problems with Jake and his mom, like she used to keep him doped up on ADHD meds when he didn’t even have it.”
“I think the phrase you’re looking for is, totally fucked up,” said Austin.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Trace agreed.
“Don’t tell him I told you that, thinking about it now, that’s his business, and it wasn’t my place to say anything,” said Austin.
“Deal, but go on,” said Trace.
“Anyway, he went out of his way to stay in the shadows, and then he shows up at soccer practice a new man. Not just all the weight he lost but he’s really outgoing, wants to do or try everything.”
“Cool.” Trace smiled.
“Yeah, you could do way worse than Jake,” said Austin.
“I just said he was cute, that’s all.”
“Uh huh,” said Austin, a knowing grin playing across his face. “We could go watch them practice tomorrow.”
“Really?” Trace asked excitedly. “Er, I mean sure, if you want.”
“You like him, admit it.” Austin laughed.
“I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers.” Trace blushed.
“What?” Austin laughed, looking bewildered.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s a Canadian thing.” Trace giggled. “Anyway, what’s this broken table business?”
“Oh God, so you heard Lu busting Giff's and Dev’s balls for the shag’n wagon incident, well, you’ll never believe what Lu and Robin did to that table,” Austin began.
By the time Austin pulled up in front of the white Victorian, his story was over and Trace was laughing so hard he was nearly in tears.
Trace was talkative at dinner that night, not from any desire to communicate with his dad or Gary but to keep them at bay. He figured if he told them all about his first day he’d be able to avoid questions from them. It was a weird position to be in and the bottom line was he just didn’t know how to behave around them without asking questions he wasn’t ready to ask yet. When dinner was finished he retired to his room to do his homework, then read for a while before Ian came in to say goodnight and found him asleep.
Trace had a good time in school the next day. He found the kids to be pretty nice and he really enjoyed getting to know the new friends he was making. When class got out that afternoon he met Austin at his truck and the two of them drove to the back side of the school where the soccer team was running a scrimmage.
It was late October and though the evenings had turned chilly it was still warm enough in the late afternoon for the team to play shirts versus skins. Trace spotted Derek right away but couldn’t find Jake until someone passed him the ball and he nearly scored a goal. He was only wearing a pair of blue knee socks and black soccer shorts that hung low on his hips, the waistband of his underwear sticking up seductively. His body looked lean and toned with broad shoulders and a torso that tapered down to a narrow waist. He was definitely, at least physically, Trace’s type.
“Are you sure he used to be fat?” Trace asked incredulously.
“Hard to believe, huh?” Austin replied.
“He’s so cute,” Trace exclaimed.
“I knew you liked him,” said Austin with a satisfied grin.
“Yeah, well, maybe,” Trace admitted.
“You should ask him out.”
“Just come right out and ask him?” Trace exclaimed. “I hardly know him.”
“What better way to get to know him than by taking him out?”
“What if he says no?” Trace asked shyly.
“Why would he?”
“I don’t know. What if he doesn’t like redheads?”
“Oh, if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t.”
“He told Derek he thinks you’re cute.”
“Yeah, I told Der you liked him after I dropped you off yesterday so Der asked Jake what he thought of you in 5th period. He texted me before he went to practice.”
“You told Derek?”
“I tell Derek everything, well, most things. You didn’t say it was a secret so I didn’t think you’d mind,” said Austin.
“I…no, I guess I don’t,” Trace admitted.
“Derek didn’t tell him you liked him, they were just talking and when he asked Jake what he thought of you he said you were cute.”
“I guess that’s a good thing,” said Trace. “Where do you go on dates around here?”
“Keep it casual. Movies are lame for dates, how are you supposed to get to know someone in a theater?”
“Maybe we can go out for coffee?”
“Sure, just not CPMU.” Austin giggled.
“Yeah, it might be best to go to that Starbucks instead,” said Trace, though he would have loved to have seen the look on Jake’s face when Damon called him a cutie pie and pinched his cheek. Trace thought Jake was probably adorable when he blushed.
When the coach’s whistle blew, Derek and Jake joined Austin and Trace on the bleachers.
“Brought you to watch him drool over his boyfriend huh?” asked Jake, nodding at topless Derek.
“Only chance I get to do this,” said Austin, reaching out to twist Derek’s nipple.
“You little shit,” Derek exclaimed and chased after his boyfriend.
“They’re such dorks.” Jake shook his head and took the seat next to Trace. He grabbed a towel from his gym back and quickly dried the sweat from his body as the wind picked up, then put his practice jersey back on. “So, how are you doing?”
“It’s kind of funny. Back home everyone took themselves so seriously. I thought I was just immature because I’m such a goof. It's nice to know I’m not alone.” Trace smiled at Austin and Derek running around the parking lot.
“Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of fun with those guys,” said Jake. “It just take’s getting used to.”
The boys sat in awkward silence for a moment before Trace found the courage to make his next move.
“So, uh…” Jake started.
“Would you go out with me?” Trace blurted out.
“I mean if you don’t want to…” said Trace, looking down at his feet.
“No, I mean yes; that would be great. I’m just surprised is all.”
“I don’t know if anyone told you but I used to be pretty chunky,” said Jake.
“Um, yeah, someone mentioned it.”
“I guess I’m just not used to being thin yet. The old me would never have gotten asked out by a guy like you.”
“You know, cute and stuff.” Jake blushed as his fidgeted in his seat.
“I think you’re cute too,” said Trace, his cheeks reddening.
“So what should we do for our date?”
“I’m not sure, I’ve never been on a date before,” said Jake with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Could we maybe go out for coffee this weekend?” Trace asked hopefully.
“I’ve got some stuff to do Saturday. How about Sunday evening?”
“Ok, that would be great.”
“Coffee sounds good just as long as we don’t go to…”
“We’ll go to Starbucks,” Trace interrupted with a giggle.
“Thanks.” Jake smiled.
“Though I have to agree with Damon, you are a cutie pie.” Trace blushed.
Jake flashed him a shy smile. “I gotta go shower, see you tomorrow,” he said. He took off towards the gym with a happy grin on his face.
“Where’s Derek?” asked Trace when he walked up to the truck and found Austin alone.
“He had to go shower,” said Austin. “He told me to run you home and then come back for him so we can go and…”
“I get it,” said Trace, holding up his hands.
“Hey, Griff and Dev aren’t the only ones with needs.” Austin winked.
Trace laughed and the boys climbed into the truck before Austin asked, “So, how did it go with Jake?”
“We’re going out for coffee Sunday.” Trace smiled happily.
“Aw, that’s great,” said Austin. “You guys would make a cute couple.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, I can totally see it,” said Austin.
The boys talked for a few minutes and then Austin pulled over in front of Trace’s house as a familiar face walked up the street. Austin honked his horn and Sean stepped up to the passenger window.
“Hey guys,” said Sean.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” asked Austin.
“I was in the neighborhood…” Sean started.
“You live in the neighborhood.” Austin said, grinning.
“So does my boyfriend; I was walking Asher home,” said Sean.
“Yeah, speaking of boyfriends, I gotta go back for Derek,” said Austin as Trace hopped out. “See you guys.”
Trace and Sean waved as Austin drove off, and then the two of them found themselves alone.
“Well, I guess I’ll head home then.” Sean sighed.
Trace hardly knew him but he was an intuitive person and sensed Sean was a little down. Trace looked up at his house; he wasn’t in the mood to be home just yet.
“Are you in a rush?”
“My dad and Gary will be home soon, I just…You wanna get some coffee?”
“Yeah, ok,” said Sean.
“Great,” said Trace as they set off in the direction of Café Perk Me Up. “So where is your twin?”
“Jamie went over to Emily’s after we got out of football practice. Emily, that’s his girlfriend,” Sean explained.
“And Asher, he was the dark haired kid next to you and Jamie at the movie night thing, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“He seemed nice.”
“He’s great, I’m the fuck up.” Sean sighed.
“I, uh,” said Trace at a loss for words.
“You don’t have to say anything,” said Sean.
“Did you guys have a fight or something?”
“No, it’s just, relationships are tricky, you know?”
“Sure, I get it,” said Trace.
“Anyway, how are you doing with everything, you know, your mom and stuff?” asked Sean.
“I’m ok when I’m at school and I don’t have to think about her,” said Trace.
“But at home, I don’t know, it’s weird.”
“Talk to me man, I’ve been in your shoes,” said Sean as they arrived at the café.
“Well, maybe, let’s get a table first,” said Trace.
“Hey guys,” Sean exclaimed when they walked into the café and he found three of his classmates sitting by the door.
“Hi Sean, oh, hi Trace,” said Logan, when he saw his cousin walk in behind him.
“You guys know each other?” asked Sean.
“He’s my…” Logan began.
“We’re…” Trace started.
“Oh yeah, Whitmore,” said Sean. He slapped his forehead as it dawned on him. “You guys are family.”
“Uh, something like that,” said Trace.
“Logan, introduce us,” said Grayson with a wry grin.
“Right, Trace, this is my boyfriend, Grayson Anderson and my best friend, Seth McAllister.”
“Boyfriend?” asked Trace.
“That’s right,” said Gray as he Logan’s hand and smiled up at Trace. “Seth has his own.”
“Whoa,” said Trace.
“Got a problem with it?” Logan replied defensively.
“No, I’m just surprised is all,” said Trace.
“Yeah, well, if you talked to me I would have told you,” said Logan, testily.
“Logan…” Gray started, continuing to hold his hand and placing the other on Logan’s shoulder.
“You guys want to join us?” Seth asked, trying to cover the awkward situation.
“No,” said Trace bluntly.
“Oh, ok,” said Seth, his face showing a hint of disappointment.
“Sean and I came in to talk,” said Trace, making his tone more conciliatory. “Maybe some other time?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Seth, the smile returning to his face.
“Come on, Sean,” said Trace, leading him over to the counter to place their order.
“Hey, what’s with you?” asked Seth when Trace and Sean stepped away.
“What?” Logan replied.
“That wasn’t like you, you were pretty short with him,” said Seth.
“Yeah, defensive, too,” Gray added.
“I told you, he’s kind of a dick. I wasn’t going to sit here and have him judge us,” said Logan, squeezing his boyfriends hand.
“It didn’t seem like he was judging, he was probably just surprised,” said Seth.
“It’s hard to tell, he’s got such a chip on his shoulder when it comes to me,” said Logan. “Didn’t you notice how, I don’t know, cold he was, talking to me?”
“It was a little frosty,” Seth agreed.
“What have I ever done to him?”
“Oh, I think I get it,” said Gray.
“Care to enlighten us?” asked Logan.
“Well, he’s your uncle’s step-kid, right?”
“Ok, well, when my mom dates a guy, sometimes it’s hard for me to warm up to them. Maybe Trace is having problems adjusting to your uncle?”
“So what’s that have to do with me?”
“Logan, come on, think about it,” said Gray, while smiling indulgently. “You're more than a pretty face.”
“Hey Red, back to see us already?” asked Damon.
“Yeah, Sean and I need a little after school pick me up.” Trace smiled.
Damon looked from Trace to Sean and a knowing smile played across his face.
“Boy, you didn’t waste any time disappointing the girls at Columbia High, did you?”
“Oh, no.” Trace laughed. “Sean’s just a friend.”
“That’s a good place to start,” said Damon, wiggling his eyebrows at the two boys.
“I’ve already got a boyfriend,” said Sean.
“Damn, tough luck, Red. The cute ones are always taken,” said Damon.
“Not all of them.” Trace grinned knowingly.
“Someone’s got his eye on somebody,” said Damon.
“Yeah, that cappuccino machine,” said Trace.
“Oh, yeah, I work here don’t I?” Damon laughed.
“Could have fooled me,” said the shop owner as he walked by with a tray full of clean mugs.
“Is that any way to talk to your employee of the month, Kyle?” Damon retorted.
“Ha!” Kyle snorted.
“Whatever.” Damon laughed. “So what can I get you guys?”
“Large cap,” said Trace.
“Um, what’s good?” asked Sean, looking between Damon and Trace. “I’m not much of a coffee drinker.”
“Get a white mocha, it’s sweet, you’ll like it,” said Damon, giving Trace a knowing wink.
“Yeah, that sound’s good,” Sean agreed.
“Ok, that’ll be $9.50,” said Damon. “And no trying to pay with Monopoly money in order to get free drinks this time.”
“Hey, I went to the bank,” said Trace, handing him a ten. “You can even keep the change.”
“Oh, big tipper.” Damon laughed.
The guys took their drinks and found a quiet table in the back by a large window. There weren’t many people in the shop but if he was going to open up to Sean, Trace thought it was best they have a little privacy.
“I see what Jake meant about that guy,” said Sean.
“Damon? He’s harmless,” said Trace.
“Sure, a little weird though.”
“What gave that away,” said Trace, running a hand through his hair for emphasis. They both laughed.
“So, what was that all about?”
“I think Damon messes with everyone who comes in…”
“Not that, I mean you and Logan,” said Sean nodding towards the exit as Logan and his companions walked out. “There seemed to be some tension.”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” said Trace as he toyed with the sleeve on his coffee cup.
“What’s up? I know you guys just met, but he’s your family…”
“He’s your dad’s husband. What’s the difference?”
“There shouldn’t be one, it’s just, it makes me…I don’t know.” Trace sighed. “How do you get along with your stepmom?”
“Great, Evelyn treats me just like she does my brothers.”
“And you like her?”
“No, I love her. She’s been very good to me,” said Sean.
“I guess my situation is different.” Trace shrugged.
“What’s your situation, you haven’t really said.”
Trace looked out the window for a moment and took a sip of his coffee. He hardly knew Sean but he needed to talk to someone, and why not open up to someone who had been down the same road before?
“My dad left us for Gary when I was four. Until last week I hadn’t seen him in twelve years. How am I supposed to live in a house with the man who broke up my parent’s marriage and took my father from me?” asked Trace, his tone hinting at the emotions that were bubbling under his calm façade.
“Whoa, I didn’t know that,” said Sean.
“Yeah,” said Trace as he returned to playing with his coffee cup.
“I can sort of relate though. When I first came here I expected Evelyn to hate me because my mom was the other woman,” said Sean.
“Really?” Trace exclaimed, looking up from his coffee and into Sean’s blue eyes.
“My dad and Evelyn were having problems. He and my mom, it just kind of happened. I grew up in Boston and didn’t meet my dad until my mom got sick with cancer and had to go into hospice care.” Sean sighed.
“I’m sorry about your mom but doesn’t it make you mad that he never visited you, never had anything to do with you?”
“It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know about me. Mom never told him.”
“She said it was because he already had a family, she didn’t want to cause problems for them over a mistake and that she wanted me to herself.” Sean shrugged his shoulders.
“Doesn’t that make you mad?”
“It didn’t when I was a kid but after I came here it upset me. I was losing my mom, scared to be in a new home with strangers and I expected them to hate me. But, instead of rejection, I found a father who loves me, a stepmother who treats me like one of her own and brothers that, well, you saw what Jamie and Robin are like; I adore them,” said Sean.
“My dad never knew about me but I know him well enough now, I think. If he had, he’d have been part of my life. He wouldn’t have abandoned me. I guess what I’m getting at is, are you sure he left you? You know…”
“The cops in Vancouver told me he’d been looking for me for years but I don’t know. I doubt it. How am I supposed to reconcile what they told me with what my mom told me all my life?”
“I don’t know,” Sean admitted. “Does it make sense to you?”
“He seems pretty happy I’m here now.” Trace sighed.
“And Coach Whitmore?”
“I don’t know…no, that’s not fair,” said Trace. “He seems happy too but how am I supposed to like him when he broke up my parents?”
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“All I know is…”
“What your mom told you, yeah, I get that. Ok, how do I put this?” said Sean, scratching his head. “Did you choose to be gay?”
“What? No, of course not,” said Trace.
“Neither did your dad.”
“Well, no, of course he didn’t.”
“See what I’m getting at?”
“Um, no, not exactly,” said Trace.
“Ok, see, I’m new to this gay stuff, in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m bi. I’d been kind of curious and I love Ash but I’m still struggling with it.”
“The point is, I’m struggling with it so I can kind of relate to your dad. It was what, sixteen years ago? It was a different world then, maybe he didn’t feel safe or comfortable coming out. He married your mom but realized he was lying to himself trying to be straight. Maybe Coach had nothing to do with it? Maybe your dad just had to be himself? Yeah, I can see that,” said Sean, though the way he said it, he could have been talking about himself.
“Doesn’t change the fact that he left me.”
“You said the police told you that wasn’t true.”
“Yeah.” Trace sighed.
“I can’t tell you what to do, Trace, but I think you need to have a talk with your dad.”
“I know, I just, I don’t want to hate my mom,” said Trace, choking out the words.
“You don’t have to hate her,” said Sean, patting his hand. “I’m sure she loved you, but, you owe it to your dad to give him a fair shake; Coach too.”
“I guess it’s just easy not to like him because I want to believe it’s all his fault.”
“I don’t know what happened between your parents but stuff like this, it’s never any one person’s fault. Regardless of what role Coach played in all of this, you shouldn’t take it out on Logan. He hasn’t done anything to you.”
“I know,” Trace admitted. “I do feel kind of shitty about that.”
“So, fix it, be nice to him.” Sean smiled. “He’s a nice guy, and so is his boyfriend and friend; you’d like them.”
“His boyfriend.” Trace smiled at that, remembering. “Yeah, I’ll work on it.”
“Cool,” said Sean, looking at his watch. “I’ve gotta get home for dinner. Talk to your dad, Trace.”
“Thanks, Sean, you know, for…”
“Don’t mention it,” said Sean as he got up and walked out.
After Sean left, Trace stayed to finish his coffee and think about their discussion. Maybe he was being too hard on Gary. How could he blame the man for something that happened so long ago? Not to mention, Gary had been so welcoming, he didn’t seem like the type of guy who would make a father give up his son. Of course, Trace realized that if Gary and his dad were innocent in all of this, then his mom had lied to him virtually all his life. It was an uncomfortable realization, a tough pill to swallow.
It would have been so much easier if he could remember his dad. When he looked back on his life his mom was ever-present. She’d been the one to patch up his booboo’s, too chase away the monster that lived in his closet, to take care of him when he was sick. They were good memories, comforting memories, but what would they mean to him if they were all based on a lie? If he could remember his dad, something about their relationship when he’d been a little boy, maybe, just maybe it would make things easier.
Trace swallowed the last of his coffee with a gulp, waved good bye to Damon and headed home. It was time to talk to his dad. He needed answers and he finally felt ready to ask his question. The tricky part would be getting some time alone.
“So, how was everyone’s day?” asked Ian at dinner that night.
“I got to plant flowers at Aunt Ivy’s.” Olive smiled.
“Did you now?” Ian retorted.
“They’re so pretty,” said Olive.
“That reminds me, Ivy asked us to come over for brunch on Sunday,” said Gary. It had been his turn to pick Olive up from his sister-in-law’s day care.
“Sound’s good. What do you think, Trace?” asked Ian, trying to bring him into the family conversation.
“Yeah, uh, sure,” he replied. “Which one is Ivy?”
“Logan’s mom,” said Gary. “You met her and my brother Richard at the BBQ.”
“Right, there were just so many people it’s hard to keep track of them all.”
“No problem,” Gary smiled. “It’ll take time to get used to all the new faces.”
“How was your day, son?” asked Ian.
“It was good, um, I kind of have a date Sunday evening.” Trace blushed.
“Really?” Ian exclaimed.
“Just a guy I met; we’re going out for coffee.”
“That sound’s nice; what’s his name?” asked Gary.
Trace’s first instinct was to say none of your business but the conversation he’d had with Sean was still fresh in his mind. He needed to give Gary the benefit of the doubt, at least until he talked to his dad.
“Anyone we know?” asked Ian, looking to Gary.
“Sure, Jake was in my gym class when he was a freshman; nice kid,” said Gary.
“Well, isn’t that nice.” Ian smiled. “I’m so glad you’re making friends and settling in.”
“Yeah, um, about that,” said Trace, nervously rubbing his palms on his jeans, “I was wondering if maybe you and I could spend a little time alone? I kinda wanted to talk to you about a few things.”
“Really?” asked Ian. It was what he wanted but the way things had been going he figured Tracy needed more time.
“If you don’t mind,” said Trace, looking down at his plate.
“Not at all, that would be great,” Ian exclaimed. “My last class is at noon tomorrow, why don’t I pick you up after school and we can go for a drive or something?”
“Ok, sure,” said Trace.
As the conversation died down and everyone returned to their meals, Olive started to giggle at Trace every time she looked at him.
“What’s so funny? Have I got spinach in my teeth?” asked Trace.
“Nope.” Olive giggled.
“Do I need to blow my nose?” Trace whispered and wiped his nose with his napkin.
“Nope.” Olive giggled and held her hand up to cover her mouth.
“Hmm, then what is it?”
“Tracy’s got a boyfriend,” said Olive in a sing song voice.
“Not yet, it’s just a date,” Trace winked at her.
“You love him, you want to marry him,” Olive teased.
“Oh yeah, how do you know?” Trace grinned. “Maybe you have a boyfriend at daycare.”
“Nah uh,” said Olive.
“Olive’s got a boyfriend,” Trace teased.
As the kids teased back and forth, Ian and Gary traded knowing smiles. They were starting to feel like a family.
School passed by in a blur the next day. Trace’s mind was too preoccupied with the pending conversation with his dad to pay attention to anything the teachers tried to teach that day. About the only thing he could remember was Jake. Trace had been quiet at lunch and while the other guys chatted around them, and then Jake’s hand had slipped under the table and held Trace’s. He was smiling at the memory when the final bell of the day rang.
Trace gathered up his things, made a quick stop by his locker and then found his dad’s beige Volvo waiting for him in the parking lot.
“Hi,” said Ian, as Trace hopped into the passenger seat.
“Ok I guess,” said Trace while Ian pulled out of the parking lot. “So, where are we going?”
“I’ve got a place I want to show you.”
They drove out of town on a road that ringed Sanitaria Springs until Ian turned off on a dirt road. They were only five minutes from school but when Ian parked the car, Trace found himself atop a small hill looking down on the town below. Fall colors were out in full force that day and with the sun shining down on the yellow, red and orange leaves, Sanitaria Springs looked like something from a postcard. It was beautiful.
“Nice view, huh?” asked Ian as they got out of the car.
“It’s beautiful. What is this place?” asked Trace, noticing a concrete foundation and a few dilapidated walls.
“Back in the old days Sanitaria Springs was called Osborne's Hollow. They renamed it in honor of the sanitarium that stood here in the 1800’s,” Ian explained.
“Oh,” said Trace. He continued to enjoy the view while he tried to organize his thoughts.
“So, you wanted to talk?”
“I thought you…”
“I mean, I do and I don’t. If that makes sense.” Trace sighed.
“Tracy, I’m your dad, you can talk to me about anything,” said Ian, gently placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Ok,” Trace exhaled, ran a hand over his face and then proceeded, “I need to know what happened with you and mom.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Why…why did you leave us?”
“Oh.” Ian sighed. “Trace, you have to understand, sixteen years ago, it was a different world.”
“Yeah, but what’s that got to do with our family?”
“Growing up I always knew I was gay but society back then, it wasn’t as accepting. I was stupid and thought if I tried to like girls maybe I could fix myself. I’d secretly been dating this boy named Danny and when he moved away I thought I’d 'cure' myself if I dated a girl. That’s when I met Julie.”
“Did it work?”
“Um, have you met your stepdad?” Ian grinned.
“Duh, sorry, stupid question.” Trace rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. “What happened?”
“Your mom and I dated and since that was going so well we tried taking our relationship to the next level, but sex with a woman, it just wasn’t for me. I was going to break it off with her but before I could she got pregnant with you.”
“Oh,” said Trace, looking down at his feet.
“Hey, that was a wonderful surprise,” said Ian. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a child and when your mom got pregnant with you, Trace, I was so happy.”
“Really?” he asked dubiously.
“From the moment she told me I looked forward to being your dad. I canceled my college plans and joined the navy to support us and for a while we were happy.”
“Your mother and I both loved you but that wasn’t enough to make us love each other. I felt like I was living a lie and making us both miserable.”
“Is that when you met him?”
“Him? Him who?”
“What? No, Trace I didn’t meet Gary until I got out of the service and went to college,” Ian explained.
“But mom said…” he trailed off, his head dropping as he shuffled nervously on his feet.
“Said what?” Ian prompted.
“She told me you left us for another man. That you never wanted to see us again.” Trace sniffled and dabbed at his eyes.
“Oh, Trace,” said Ian, pulling him into a hug. “There was no other man. I didn’t even know Gary then. I just couldn’t go on pretending to be someone I wasn’t.”
“Then why did you leave me?”
“Honey, I didn’t leave you. Your mom and I got a divorce and the judge granted me joint custody. I was assigned to the USS Maine back then and when I left for deployment your mom was supposed to take care of you. When I got back, you guys were gone.”
“No,” Trace whined.
“I’m sorry, son, but that’s what happened,” said Ian softly and pulling him into another hug.
Ian felt Trace shudder in his arms as the boy's tears fell on his neck.
“It’s alright,” said Ian, rubbing his hand soothingly up and down Trace’s back.
“Why would she do that? Why would she take me away from you?”
“I don’t know, son, I don’t know,” Ian sighed.
“I missed you. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t need a dad but there were times...I missed you so much,” Trace sobbed.
“I missed you too, Trace, I never stopped looking for you, ever.”
“How could she do that to me? I was just a little boy for fuck's sake,” said Trace, his body shuddering with another round of sobs.
Ian held the boy until he started to pull himself together. He looked at his sons tear-stained cheeks, saw the sadness in his eyes and felt his anger towards his ex-wife churning in his stomach. She’d hurt him but not only him—she’d hurt their child. It took every ounce of strength he had not to rip the woman’s memory to shreds.
“Trace, I don’t know why your mom did what she did. Now that she’s gone I guess we’ll never know but, I don’t want you to hate her,” said Ian.
“But she stole me and she…”
“I know, son, I know,” said Ian. “I don’t know why she did it but looking at you, at the man she raised you to be, I know she loved you very much. I don’t want any of this, any of what’s happened, to tarnish the good memories you have of her, ok?”
“Ok,” said Trace, wiping his eyes on Ian’s shoulder.
Ian held his son for a moment longer, thinking of all the times he’d missed out on holding his boy over the years. In that moment his anger passed, what was done was in the past. Trace was there now, in the present, and Ian vowed to make up the time he’d lost with his child.
“Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” said Trace. “It’s a lot to digest but I’m ok.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask?”
“Yeah, but not now,” said Trace. “I think this is enough for one day.”
“Fair enough,” said Ian. “Let’s go home.”
Trace was quiet in the car. He had the answers he wanted and though he was furious at his mother, he still loved her. His dad was right, she’d done something terrible but though they’d never know why, the one thing he did know was she’d loved him; his memories were the proof.
“Hey guys,” said Gary, when Ian and Trace walked in the door. “We were beginning to wonder when you’d get home, weren’t we Olive?”
“Uh huh,” said Olive, her eyes glued to the TV.
Trace didn’t say a word. He walked right up to Gary and put his arms around him, hugging him tight. Gary’s eyes felt like they were going to pop out in surprise as he instinctively returned the boy’s embrace.
“Hey, it’s ok,” said Gary as he felt Trace shudder in his arms.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” said Trace.
“It’s alright, Trace. It’s ok,” Gary soothed him.
“Daddy, why is Tracy crying?” asked Olive.
“He’s ok, honey,” said Ian. “He just had a tough day.”
Over the next couple of days, Trace found peace in his new home. Life was so much easier when he didn’t waste half his time hating his stepdad or finding ways to avoid his father. He and Ian talked a lot; they shared stories from the time they spent apart, they laughed and cried together. The whole process was cathartic for Trace who began to feel like he was part of Ian and Gary’s family.
Trace woke up Sunday morning excited for his date that evening but there was one other thing to do first. The family piled into the car and headed across town for brunch at Uncle Richard and Aunt Ivy’s.
When they arrived at Gary’s brother’s house, Trace helped his dad get the dishes he’d prepared out of the car and followed him into the kitchen. Aunt Ivy was just starting to cook when they walked in.
“Hi guys,” Ivy beamed.
“Hey, sis,” said Gary, kissing her on the cheek. “Where is everyone?”
“Richard’s down in the basement screwing around with that TV and Logan’s out back shooting baskets,” she explained.
Trace’s ears twitched at Logan’s name. Not only had Trace been pretty shitty to his stepdad but also to anyone who bore the Whitmore name. Logan had made two attempts to befriend him, or at least be nice to him, and Trace had rebuffed both. It was time to make amends.
Logan’s house had a long driveway that led to the garage which shared a back wall with the fence. Logan had a basketball hoop over the garage and Trace found him there with his ball. Trace watched him for a moment taking in the sight of Logan with his chestnut hair, athletic body and long legs. Quit it perv, he’s your cousin. Besides, you’ve got a date later, Trace scolded himself.
“Hi,” said Trace.
Logan whipped around, startled, “Oh. What do you want?”
“I, well, I’ve never played basketball before. I heard you’re pretty good.”
“So, think you could teach me?”
“Why would you want me to teach you? You don’t even like me,” said Logan.
“Look, I know I was a dick before. I don’t have any excuse—not one worth a crap, anyway. If you could forgive me, we’re cousins now, and I’d like us to be friends,” said Trace.
Logan studied Trace for a moment. For once the red headed boy wasn’t glaring at him, in fact, the way he was standing there, his body language was almost apologetic.
“Ok, so baskets are worth two points each,” Logan started as he passed the ball to his cousin.