The next few weeks were tense as things slowly settled into a new normal. Things weren't really any different between myself, Teo and Alessia, but things with my mother were very up and down. She would yell at me, trying to enforce her old rules and I wasn't having any of it. I constantly questioned if I'd be able to keep it up, but my blood would boil every time she started her crap.
I wasn't spending any time at the Petrakises' house. I just didn't know how to be around my...father. Maybe it was a little ungrateful. I guess he could have made different choices after finding out my mother was pregnant. He'd kind of been there. The deception clouded everything though, like ash after a fire; it left everything coated in a layer of mistrust.
Halloween came and went. I wasn't really into the Halloween dance that year, so I skipped it. I got overtures from Alessia and Brax. Even Teo told me I should go, but I didn't feel like it.
In fact the only new thing was that Cole and I were working on the science labs together. The first few weeks we had met at the school library after his practice, but football games were officially over and now we had to make a choice.
“Well, my little sister will be at my house,” Cole said uncertainly. “My older sister is home now, from college. And my mother...she can be weird.”
“My mother is home, but she's weird all the time. We can go to my house if you want,” I offered. It felt weird to say that, since I'd never invited anyone to my home before. I mean, Alessia and Teo just kind of walked in, so they didn't count.
Cole fell silent for a moment and then nodded. “Okay. When?”
I thought. “The next lab is due Thursday, right? I have to work Wednesday, so tomorrow would be best. Does that work for you?”
Cole appeared to think again, and a slight blush accented his face. “Yeah. Haylee was talking about going with her to the Harvest Ball planning committee meeting, but I think I can get out of it.”
I looked at him for a minute. We had agreed to meet in the library Monday afternoon to plan. There were two labs due this week, and we'd put the finishing touches to the first, but we both had to leave – me for work, and he had chores at home, including watching his little sister while his older sister worked.
“Are you sure? I don't want to get you in trouble with your girl.” I mean, if he wanted to handle his relationship that way, that was his business. I'm not even sure why I brought it up. In fact, that thought felt so true, I started to pack my stuff up and not wait for his answer.
“I think we're going to break up,” he said quietly.
I paused. Cole had never said anything of a personal nature to me, and I was little stunned. I mean, yeah he'd been reluctant to ask me for help to start with – had his hand forced by the teacher – but we'd always kept things kind of light. I stopped picking up my things and looked at him.
“Are you all right?”
He leaned back and nodded. “Yeah. Of course.”
So, say something showing you're human and instantly close off. Got it. I pushed a folder into my bag.
“Drew did you ever...like, think about dating a girl?”
Okay, that was weird. “Not really.”
He looked over at me. “Didn't you ever want to fit in?”
I stilled my hands. “Yeah, a lot. My mother has something wrong with her – I don't even know what. She was paranoid and would freak out if I was at a birthday or something. It was embarrassing. Then, later, she wouldn't let me go anywhere – not unless it was with Allie and Teo. Even if I wanted to date, I couldn't have. Besides...I was under the radar, so not that many people know, or care, that I'm gay.”
He nodded slowly. “I got into a fight with my dad early this year,” he said slowly. I watched him as he worked through what he wanted to say. “He walked out on my mom – on the family. Did you know that?”
“I'd heard something like that,” I confirmed.
“Rumor mill,” he snorted. “Well, what people don't know is that he left my mom for...a man.”
“I'm sorry, Cole,” I said. Of course Alessia had filled me in, having gotten the information from Haylee, but he didn't need me to say something like that. “I'm not sure why the sex makes a difference. If he'd left for a woman, would it hurt less?”
He tilted his head and looked at me. “You know, he said something like that. While we were arguing, I mean.”
“Yeah. I mean. It feels like it should make a difference. He's with this guy and still trying to be a dad.”
“I guess...if it were a woman he'd left for, maybe she'd want her own family. You hear things like that,” I said, trying to reassure him. “You know, how people's dads walk off and start new families, like the kids they had before don't matter.”
His head twitched like he wasn't sure if he wanted to nod or shake it. He sat in silence and I wondered if I'd said the wrong thing.
“Cole? Are you okay?”
He finally did shake his head slowly. He looked up and said, “Don't you think it's wrong that he was married to my mom for so long? Had kids? He didn't just find out he's...gay now, right?”
I shrugged, but tried to give him a sympathetic look. “I don't know, Cole. I feel like I always knew I liked guys more. Teo told me he didn't really know until he was about fourteen. He says some people take longer, and that some people were forced to hide because of their families or other society-like pressures.”
I widened my eyes and shrugged. “Like, maybe their parents were super religious and wouldn't have accepted them. Maybe they had a lot of shame put on them, so they tried to fit in – for too long. Teo says a lot of gay kids commit suicide when people reject them just for being who they are.”
He looked down into his lap. “Shit,” he said quietly.
“I mean, I don't know your dad, Cole. I'm not trying to say any of this relates to him, you know? I just...what did you, you know, argue about?” I asked, trying to help him, but feeling like I was prying.
For a long time I didn't think he'd answer, which would have been all right. He seemed to want to talk to me, though, so I hoped I could help him out.
“I asked him why he had kids. Why he stayed with mom. Why he got married, if he knew he was gay,” Cole said quietly.
“And?” I gently prompted.
After another lengthy delay, he said, “His parents gave him home treatments to stop him from looking at other boys. Ice baths at night before he went to bed. Other stuff that sounds too crazy to believe. He said...he pushed it down as far as he could, but he'd always been unhappy. Unhappy not being able to live as himself. He told me he loved mom, but not in the way she deserved.” He cleared his throat. “I guess his parents changed a lot when his sister came out. I didn't even know I had a lesbian aunt out there.”
I sighed. Adults are fucked up. “Look, I don't know if this helps you, Cole – but adults fuck things up about as much as we do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, my mom had an affair. I'm, like, her bastard love-child. That's why she treated me like she did – like I was going to go out and impregnate every girl I met and leave them to raise a kid on their own – like she felt after my father got her pregnant.”
He blushed slightly and looked back down at his hands. “So you think I should forgive my dad?”
I sighed. “I don't know, Cole. I'm still having trouble dealing with what I think of the whole situation, and I'm not going to tell you what you should think or feel.”
He snorted and looked away. “You're the only one.”
After a moment I asked, “What does Brax think?”
He turned his gaze back to me. “He thinks my dad is trying to be honest with me, and it's not easy for him either. He said he thinks I should try to forgive him and fix what I can.”
I nodded my head. “Well, not the worst advice, but he doesn't have to live with this. You do.”
“Yeah,” he said, and started to pick up his things. “I just figured since his folks were divorcing, he'd have some...ideas, I guess.”
I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder. “Unless I totally misjudged Brax, he picked the advice that would let you heal fastest. If you forgive your dad, you can take comfort from him and it gives you some support. That sounds like a totally Brax thing to do.”
Cole shouldered his bag and faced me. “Yeah. Puts me at odds with my mom, though. She says he betrayed her, and I can't help but feel bad for her, too. It's like if I forgive him so I can move past this, I betray her, too.”
I nodded in sympathy. “You can't control other people's feelings. What happens between you and your dad doesn't have to be something your mom knows about. I...well, like I said, adults fuck things up too. Don't worry so much about their feelings. Worry about yours – someone has to.”
His fingers fiddled with the strap on his bag. “I don't fight with him all the time. I go to see him and sometimes it's like he never left. We do stuff. We talk. He and Keith even got a larger apartment so us kids could stay over sometimes, but mom hasn't really allowed it.”
“I hear about that sometimes. Parents using their kids to fight about the divorce,” I said quietly. “It's hard enough having the family break up – for everything to change. Change is weird.”
He bobbed his head. “Um, see you tomorrow? I can walk with you after school.”
“Teo might give us a ride, but yeah. Later, Cole.”
We parted and I made my way to work. The shift was going uneventfully until Brax showed up. He greeted me and I smiled. “What can I get for you?”
“I applied online. I'm supposed to speak to the manager, I guess,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “Mom said I had to get a job now that football is over. Gas, car insurance. You know,” he said and rolled his eyes. “Be responsible.”
I grinned. “I'll get Theresa for you.”
I found her in her broom-closet of an office, angrily fingering her keyboard. I mean that literally – one finger on each hand stabbing down as if the keyboard had said something rude and had to be punished.
“Theresa? There is an applicant at the front desk to see you.”
“Oh?” She glanced at the clock. “Crap. It's later than I thought. Happens all the time, you know. You get older, lose track of everything.”
“Um. You should hire this one.”
She stood up. “Oh? Why is that?”
“He's a reliable person, good character, and I can go behind his back to his girlfriend if he makes any problems. She'll kick his ass.”
She grinned at me, showing her tobacco stained teeth. “I like the way you think. He a friend of yours?”
“Well, he's off to a good start, then. Let me go meet him.”
Theresa went out to interview him and I dawdled, trying to see how it was going. I was reasonably sure he'd get the job.
“New hire?” Molly asked, sidling up beside me.
“Hope so. I told Theresa he'd work out,” I told Molly.
She smiled a little. “He's cute. We have a history of that, you know.”
I raised an eyebrow at her and wondered if this college girl was about to hit on me.
“We had a guy that worked here a few years ago. This girl came in and took a picture of him working and posted it to a board about hot guys at work.” She grinned. “He was pretty popular for a while.”
“That's weird,” I told her.
“Eh. Austin handled it gracefully. I miss him.” She shrugged lightly and went back to the drive-through window. I scooped up some fries to eat on my break, and then turned back to watch Brax get interviewed. Theresa stood up and I slipped from behind the counter to join them. “Okay if I take my break?”
She turned to look at me and rolled her eyes. “He got the job! Take your break! Lazy bum,” she said, giving me a small grin.
I smiled at Brax. “Grats on the job.”
“Thanks for recommending me,” he grinned in return. I plopped down across from him and placed the fries between us.
“Have some,” I invited. He grabbed us some ketchup and I asked about the interview. He said it wasn't anything interesting, just general questions.
“Cole said you guys are almost done with the labs for the week?” Brax asked.
“Yeah. We did one today and he's coming over tomorrow to finish the other one.”
“I appreciate you helping out my boy,” Brax said with a serious expression. “Home life is rough right now.”
I leaned back. “He mentioned. Hey, how did you become friends with Cole anyway? Seems like an unlikely friendship.”
He leaned back and his lip curled in amusement. “So three weeks before school starts I show up to football camp. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm a Gatorade guy. I drink my water, but I need my Gatorade. So who forgets his Gatorade? This guy,” he said, hooking his thumb at himself. “Who gave me one? Cole. Who showed up the next day with extra just in case my dumb ass forgot it again? Cole.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You guys bonded over sports drinks?”
He leaned forward and placed his forearms on the table. “Drew, why do people think there has to be some big dramatic thing to start a friendship? He was nice to me, showed me some consideration. I gave it back to him. We spent time together because of it and he's my boy. Hell, what about you and me?”
“How we met? You mean when your dumb ass didn't have a pen?” I grinned at him.
“Only I get to call me a dumb ass, dumb ass,” he replied, snickering. “Still, neither of us saved each other in war. It was a pen. Then I started dating Alessia, you looked out for me – for her, but make no mistake, for me too. I play football, I'm a jock – but I'm not an idiot, either.”
I frowned. “I thought we agreed you're a dumb ass?”
“I'll dumb ass you,” he said shaking his fist at me. “So I know you were saying before how you didn't think much of Cole. Changed your mind?”
I tilted my head to one side. “He's not as bad as he used to be. I think he's warming up to me a little. He talked to me today about his dad and stuff.”
“Yeah. Parents divorcing is bad enough, but you start adding the complications of parents dating and shit – it's nuts. I feel for him, I do. My dad cheated, but he didn't even move in – it was like a casual, constant hook up. A fuck buddy.”
I frowned. “He threw everything away for a hook up?”
“Pretty much. We used to get along, but you don't pull that shit on my mom.”
“Wow. I'm sorry, Brax.” I hesitated, thinking about my philosophy that everything breaks, everything is made to be broken in the end. I guess his old life was broken, but it was so a new one could be formed.
He shrugged. “I miss my old life, friends, house and shit. But I'm doing okay. I still talk to my old friends, I have some new friends and a firecracker on my arm. I'm going to make it.”
I chuckled at his description of Alessia.
“Now, you skipped out on going to the Halloween dance with us. I know you had shit in your life, but that's over now. Right?”
I pursed my lips. “Did Alessia explain things to you?”
“How you and I will be brothers-in-law one day? She did.”
I smiled at him. “Well, you know it's kind of an on-going thing then, rather than being over.”
“I don't see why you can't come to the Fall Ball then. Everyone should have a chance to get dressed up and slow dance, bruh.”
I rolled my eyes. “You and Alessia can do that. You don't need me for that.”
“Still. You should come hang with your friends.”
I tilted my head from side to side. “I'll think about it. Or is this another bet between you and Allie?”
He chuckled. “No bet this time.”
Brax left and I finished up my shift. I got home quickly enough, to find my mother more alert and watching TV.
“I'm going to take a shower.” I heard a spring in her recliner boing as she put the footrest down. I set my feet and squared my shoulders as she darted out of the living room, then skidded to a stop, surprised to have found me there.
Her eyes narrowed. “Where's your paycheck and stub? You didn't give it to me Friday.”
“I tore up the pay stub, and the cash is mine. I earned it.”
“You live in my house!”
“Do I? Or does it belong to my father? Whose name is on the deed? Who pays the mortgage? Does he pay for the groceries you have delivered? Does he do all this so you can sit in the living room and do nothing?”
The sound of her hand hitting my cheek in echoed in the room.
I glared at her. “Do that again, and you'll regret it.” My anger was bubbling, ready to boil over. I was ready to reach out and hit her back. She stepped back, the reached down to pick up a shoe from the pile beside the door and flung it at me. Then she grabbed another. I picked the shoe up and winged it at as hard as I could – I kept returning each one she threw at me. At some point I started to scream at her, saying all the things I had bottled up for years.
It was ugly. And stupid. She finally retreated to the living room, screaming how I was ungrateful. I went upstairs and angrily undressed for my shower. My gaze fell upon the book I'd read for English. Mr. Rockland had been right – I really liked the book, so much so I'd blasted through it and was on my way through the book for the second time. With that thought I started to calm and thought I should ask him for more book recommendations.
I climbed into the shower to wash off the burger stink, letting the last of my anger go down the drain with the wastewater. I turned over what Brax had said about little things leading to people making larger relationships. I suppose that was true, really. You see things like that in movies or read about them in books, how a chance encounter leads to marriage or larceny, depending on the story.
Brax and I started talking because he'd needed a pen, and I was next to him by the seating chart. He's smart, and he may have cultivated me since I was friends with the girl he was so enamored with, but I don't think he'd have stuck with me if he didn't like me.
I smiled to myself thinking of Cole, joylessly offering his extra Gatorade to Brax. Then making sure to have an extra just for Brax, probably while not smiling or anything. I guess there was more to him than I realized, and maybe his stand-offishness had more to do with the crap at home than with school or the people around him – or me, for that matter.
I toweled off and headed back to my room, only to find a mess. It was obvious someone had gone through my things, but when I saw my wallet lying open on the floor, I knew without a doubt. I opened it to confirm, and my money was gone.
“You bitch!” I snarled. I pulled on sweat pants and thundered down the stairs. “Give me my money!” I yelled as my feet hit the ground floor. I swept into the living room to find her standing from her recliner, nasty look on her face.
“It's mine!” she snapped.
“The hell it is,” I told her and advanced, looking for where she might have stashed my cash.
“This is my house and you will follow my rules and respect me!” She revealed a hidden belt, something she'd had tucked into the chair with her.
What happened next is hard to relate. Even though things had been tense at home, and I'd largely ignored her, this was intolerable. I'd had to fight to be able to get a job just to get out of the house, and she had been taking my paycheck for the entire time. She said I'd squander it, and I had to beg for it so I could go to school events with Alessia and Teo or the movies or anything else. But something had broken inside me the day I'd found out what sort of deception had been laid upon me. There was a fight. There was a lot of screaming. I felt the stinging slap of the belt a few times before I got it away from her. She clawed at me and I shoved her, and sent her tumbling back into her recliner.
She looked at me with naked disdain, and made melodramatic statements about knowing I'd turn on her one day. I forced my hands into the pockets of her house dress and she fought me, but I got my hands on my money. She pulled my hair and slapped me in the face, and I finally slapped her back. She burst out in tears and flew into a larger rage, which I hadn't thought possible. She began picking up objects in the room and throwing them at me.
The ruckus on the inside must have been audible outside. I was shocked to feel large arms grab me and turn me away from my mother, and a mans' voice booming at her to stop, to just stop for Christ's sake!
“Let me go!” I hollered.
“Just chill, buddy,” Teo said in my ear. I struggled and he let me go, giving me a gentle push toward the living room doorway. I turned and he stood in front of me.
“Olivia! Calm down!” Mr. Petrakis was holding his hands out to his sides and blocking my mother from seeing me.
“She stole my paycheck from me!” I said loudly.
“Drew...fuck, man,” Teo said and I looked at him, wondering what his problem was. He pointed at my body so I looked down. My chest was scratched and I became aware of a burning sensation on my back – likely where I'd absorbed a blow from her belt.
“Olivia! You cannot do this! He is your son!” Mr. Petrakis said, his tone exasperated and pleading.
“Yours too, or did you forget?” I snapped.
Teo's eyes went a little wider. “Look who grew a set,” he said quietly.
“Andrew, we can talk after. Go upstairs. Teo, take him.”
My mother wailed, albeit quieter than she had been. I turned grudgingly as Teo placed a gentle hand on my shoulder to steer me from the room. We climbed the steps to my room, and I restlessly began to pick up the things my mother had gone through as he sat on my bed.
“Did the fight start up here?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I was in the shower and she ransacked my room to steal my pay.” I glanced at him. “She started when I got home, telling me how I hadn't paid her last week, basically.”
He shook his head. “Glad you stood up to her. She's kind of crazy, Drew.”
I sighed in frustration. “Yeah, I know.”
“Glad you stood up for yourself, though. Looks like you paid for it.”
“I'm fine,” I said and sniffed.
“Want to come next door for a while? They could be downstairs for a long time,” he said quietly.
I thought about it for a minute, but rejected the idea. “I don't think that's fair to your mom. It's like rubbing this whole thing in her face. I'm sure she feels disrespected by me coming and going in your house.”
“Well, I think that should be something we talk with her about,” he said, leaning back. “You're family, and none of this is your fault. She should be mad at Dad, and maybe your mom, but she shouldn't take it out on you.”
I sighed. “I don't think it's that simple.” Now that I wasn't engaged in fighting and had calmed down, I didn't like the way I was dressed. I pulled on a tee shirt, but I'm not a fan of not wearing underwear, so I went to the bathroom to put some on before putting my sweatpants back on. Back in my room Teo was looking at me with interest.
“You're different,” he said. It was a statement, and I nodded my head.
“Everything is different. I thought everything at home was broken before, but I'm beginning to wonder if it was just the first sign that the wheels were going to come off everything. Sort of like the check engine light in the car – that's the warning, but then you get to the mechanic and find out the whole thing is going to grind to a halt or something. I don't know. What do I know about cars?”
“Sounded legit to me,” Teo said with a chuckle.
I sighed and sat down in my chair, rubbing my face. “This is fucked, Teo.”
He made a little grunt. “It's been a bad few weeks, that's true.”
I dropped my hands to my lap and pressed my palms together. “You're back with Hector?”
“Not really. We went out a few times. I wanted to be out of the house, Hector wanted to try and fix things.” He shrugged. “He gets points for trying.”
“I guess he must like you to make the effort, right?”
He grunted. “He likes the way I look.”
“Has to start somewhere, right?”
He tilted his head side to side. “We'll see. I told him there's a game store I want to hit up. They have card games every Saturday morning and I'm thinking I want to go check it out. We'll see if he comes with me.”
I frowned lightly. “Isn't it okay if you guys have separate interests?”
“Some, sure,” he said. “But so far all we have in common is being gay and smoking hot.” He curled his lips in amusement.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I guess I can see that. I guess you can't have sex all the time.”
“I am not that easy,” he said with a snort.
“In my experience?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “A little staring at you goes a long way.”
He flopped back. “I am never going to live that down, am I?”
“I'm not telling people I kissed my brother,” I said with a little laugh.
We hung out and chatted for about an hour before Mr. Petrakis – my father – came upstairs. He gave us a tired smile. “Boys,” he said acknowledging us. “Teo, why don't you head home and let Andrew and I have a word, eh? Thank you for your help.”
Teo patted my shoulder and headed out of the room. Mr. Petrakis took a seat in my desk chair and I sat on the edge of the bed. I was nervous, considering this was my first interaction with him since everyone found out the truth of things.
He gave me a wan smile. “Everything is poof,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. He dropped his hands to his lap and then laced his fingers together. “I'm sure you have mixed feelings about all of this. I did the best I could, Andrew. I'm sorry you've suffered so much. I thought it was...the best I could do,” he repeated, finishing quietly.
Softly I said, “Cheating on your wife wasn't your best. Moving your mistress and her bastard in next door to you wasn't your best. Leaving me with a mentally unstable woman wasn't your best. Honestly, Mr. Petrakis, if that is your best...maybe you should keep it to yourself.”