The Many Faces of Kai

Chapter 9

By Dabeagle

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Lysander

October had been fun. I'd enjoyed Kai's soccer games and sitting in the stands with something hot to drink. Shell was actually kind of stable and spending more time with Kent. She wasn't bitching about him very much, which is kind of a new thing for her. Some people process life by bitching – makes the world more tolerable, I guess. Coping skill, I think they call it.

I guess my coping skill was filling my life with my friends to make up for my lack of a love life. As Shell did more with Kent, I spent more free time with Kai. The picture I got of him the night of the dance is...fire. Just complete fire. His mom had taken some pictures that made me wonder because...Kai looks good. He's cute, he's good looking, pick your adjective. That doesn't translate to the story those pictures told.

Those pictures told the viewer about a young man radiating from within a human shell, giving us a glimpse of the divinity inside all of us that others mistakenly thought was a god. They crossed the line from a picture to a work of art, regardless of the subject. In this case, though, he was the subject, and his mom had found that spark of divinity again and again. I won't lie and say some of them weren't just hot, not a single care given to any artistic value, but many of them were just...too close to perfection to be able to tell the difference.

So the picture I took of him...I could stare at him and see some of that divinity leaking out onto my screen. I printed it out and pinned it to my wall by my computer screen beside some of my favorite pictures of me, Shell, me and Shell, some old pics of me working on props or sets for school. It made my heart beat faster, looking at his expression. The light. The way it defined his features.

The temperature had dropped, and Kai wore his joggers more, and let me just say, gray sweatpant season is a glorious thing. I wasn't perving all the time, but I certainly didn't look away either. But something about Kai changed through October. He didn't say anything about his mom after that one time, but there were some odd things going on with him. I figured they all came back to his mom passing, but I don't really know.

I told him, because he'd asked, about why I'd been a little down. Truthfully I didn't think I was letting anything on to anyone that I wasn't a hundred percent – Shell didn't notice, but he did. So I told him about how hard it was to find anyone that was into me. He got mad. I mean his hands turned into fists and his face got a little red when I said someone tried something on me. He didn't say anything else, and I changed the subject, but I wondered about it sometimes. It made me think that whatever he's going through, there's a decent guy under the hurt; and that he was angry. I wondered how much of the time he masked that – if he were angry all the time.

November saw the beginning of auditions, and I convinced Kai to join me on the set crew. The wood shop teacher had us start out by inventorying the tools and making sure they had numbers on them to show they belonged to the school and could be tracked. We set up a check out station for tools and props while the casting stuff was going on. Then we got the first designs for the sets that would have to be built and that started the process of taking things we'd had from older shows and seeing what could be modified or salvaged for the new show.

Balancing my work schedule got a little harder, because Nancy didn't like my new availability, but I could live with it. Of course, life is never simple, and November brings its own special challenges. While I don't have a lot of great things to say about my mom, she has been there. She used to walk me to school when I was little and meet me at the bus a little later. She's never been really good with some adult things, and she has some personality issues, but I don't know anyone that doesn't.

Like Kai. I really like him, he's a good person and smart. I think we've kind of grown together a bit, but there's no denying he's moody and can be a little stand-offish. I know he has things going on, so I let it go, but I guess I'm just noting it's not that I don't see Kai for who he is. He's not that fleeting moment in a picture, not all the time – not even more than a second or two at a time, maybe. He has so many different sides, so many faces he wears.

But that bit of...magic or divinity, whatever you want to call it, it is in him.

So yeah, my mom, I accept her as a whole person. Same with my grandparents, who I do love, but don't have a lot in common with. My mom moved out for college, failed out of college and never went home. My grandparents have bailed her out when she got in too deep, but they just say it's what you do for family. I think that's called enabling, but it's not up to me to tell them what to do.

Every year for Thanksgiving my extended family descends on us for a day. Not because we have the biggest house or because my mom can cook – she can make a mean frozen meal. The real thing is the family is so spread out, and we're like a central point in a wagon wheel. My mom always thinks they're going to look down on us, so it's time to really clean the house for the year. So between work, school, building sets and trying to be there for Kai and listen to Shell's bitching, I'm cleaning our house.

In some ways I don't mind – it's fun to have a full house for a day, and the food is fantastic. On the other hand, it's a lot of work for people you don't see much, and to be honest, may not care a whole lot about. But...it's just one day. It takes three weeks to get ready for that one day, but now I start to sound like Shell.

But a special day does put me in mind of my friends, and most years Shell and I would get together later in the day and maybe watch a movie while we ate just one more slice of pie. She was already complaining – stressing really, but it sounded like complaining – about how she was going to Kent's after her own family dinner, but that Kent was meeting her dad, and she just knew the patriarchy was going to make her throw up.

So I was thinking I'd be alone for the evening, but then I wondered what Kai and his dad were doing. When I thought about it, it'd be their first holiday without Kai's mom, so what would that mean for 'family holidays' for them? One day after we'd wrapped up by turning in our tools, I was taking him home when I decided to ask about that.

“Uh. You know, I'm not sure what we're doing,” Kai said. I got the impression he hadn't even thought about the holiday or how things may change. Or maybe it was the opposite and he'd been thinking too much.

“Well, it got me thinking, because I could have a few slices of pie waiting for you if you want to hang after dinner,” I told him.

He smiled and shook his head. “Bad idea. My mom says...” he stumbled and then said, “my mom used to say I'm like a stray cat. You feed me and I'll never stop coming over.”

“Well, considering I haven't invited you over, because my mom is weird, I guess it's about time,” I replied.

“Um, yeah. Let me ask my dad what his plans are, but I'm sure I can go,” he replied.

We pulled up to the curb by his house. “You okay, Kai?”

He gave me a weak smile. “Yeah. It's just...you know. My mom. It hits me sometimes, and...look, I don't want to dump my crap on you. I have a therapist for that!”

I smiled. “I'm cheaper, and I'll always take your side, though.”

He chuckled and said good night, but it set me to wondering how much pain he was actually in. Was he numb a lot of the time, just to get by? Like a defense mechanism from his body to preserve himself? What if you get to the end of that defense? Seized by an odd idea I hollered at him as I climbed from the car and ran up to him. He stood on his walk, curious what my problem was I'm sure.

“Kai, just a thought I had...none of my business, maybe kind of stupid but...I can't imagine what goes on in your head and how this crap must tear you up.” I paused, trying to feel my way forward with the right things to say. “But if you...if things are bad, promise you'd call me. Don't do anything serious. Yeah?”

He looked at me in mild puzzlement for a moment and then his eyes got wider. “Uh. Yeah, sure. I mean...I'm not thinking about checking out or anything, if that's what you mean.”

I pressed my lips together and shifted my shoulders a bit side to side with nervous energy. “I'm just saying, if things get tough...my phone's on. Don't do anything stupid without me. Okay?”

He pressed his lips together and his eyes looked brighter, but probably just my imagination. “Yeah, bro. I will. Thanks.” He gave me a small wave and turned to go inside, and I walked back to my car with a weird energy inside me. I think I did the right thing. I think I said the right thing. I don't think he'd ever actually...check out, as he put it, but then again...I have no idea what it feels like to lose what he has. My dad was never there, I have no relationship to lose. No memories that hurt.

I kept an eye on him, but he didn't seem to be any worse off. Not that he'd been so bad before – I think I'm just a little in tune with him. Or, I dunno, maybe I'm imagining it all. Shell came over to help me one day, although I knew she really wasn't going to. More or less, she would just keep me from having to work, because my mom liked her bitching, because my mom also felt the world was unfair to her.

“But I mean, why does my dad think it's okay just to say these things?” Shell asked. She wasn't talking to me, specifically, but my mom jumped right in.

“It's about control. You're still his little girl – why am I telling you this? You're smart! You know!” My mother flopped onto the couch and sucked on her electric dildo – I mean vape. “I know all about it. A woman my age? Every man thinks he knows better than you. He'll tell that boy how he wants you treated, and that boy is just going to stand there and nod his head!”

“Yup. If he's smart,” I said.

“What?” my mother demanded.

“What's he going to say, Mom? No? Then the guy won't let Shell go out of their house without a chastity belt or something.”

“Controlling,” my mother said, pointing at me. “It should be Shell's choice what she does.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Just a shame her dad doesn't like to hear her talking about sucking dick. I can't imagine what he'd say if-”

“Andy! Who told you to talk?” Shell asked, cutting me off.

Really, Lysander!” my mother added. “You don't talk about things like that with Shell, do you? Really?”

I bubbled with laughter. “All of you think she's so innocent, but she brings it up!”

“Liar,” Shell said, smiling.

Sticking my tongue in my cheek I asked, “Still have that video of Vin saved to your phone? I'm sure my mom would love to see it.”

“Quit picking on her,” my mom stated.

“I'm not,” I said, laughing. “Did you tell mom all about Kent?”

“She was just filling me in about Thanksgiving plans when you walked in,” my mom said and then looked at Shell. “He must be something if you're not coming over this year.”

Shell sighed. “He's probably the nicest guy I've dated. He's smart, he pays attention...and he came out of nowhere. We didn't even really talk that much, and all of a sudden here he is.”

“Well. I think you should still stop by. I'd like to meet him.” My mother lowered her voice. “At least you're dating.”

“Oh!” Shell said brightly. “You mean you haven't met Kai?”

My mother's head whipped around so hard I thought I heard the bolts in her neck creak. “Kai? Who is Kai?”

I rolled my eyes. “A friend.”

“A kind of cute friend,” Shell needled.

“He's straight, and you had a shot, but you got Kent, so relax.”

She snorted.

“Hey,” My mom said. “Why haven't you been at Shell's much? Doesn't her dad need you?”

I decided to put this into terms my mom would get. “Yeah, well. You know how you always talk about these places that don't respect you? He disrespected me, so I don't help him anymore.”

“What? I don't-”

“He's right,” Shell said, jumping in. “I don't blame him. It's the patriarchy.”

“Oh,” my mother said, though her tone probably meant she was confused but didn't want Shell to know. Eventually we wandered into my room and left my mother to her TV show.

“I need to do something to get even with your brother,” I said to Shell. “I haven't forgotten about his little recording. Not that Kai lets me.”

“It's nice that he's so mature about it,” Shell said. “I told my mom Huey's been trying to watch me change and that he tried to look at me in the shower. He's been getting a lot of talking to.”

I laughed. “Your dad probably thinks it's normal.”

“Gross. Even if he did, my mom's pissed, so Huey's not getting any comfort at home.”

I drove her home, but I still wished I had some master plan to get even with Huey, even if it worked out that Kai was my friend now. I mean...maybe without that hand grenade of embarrassment Kai and I never would have gone past him turning me down? Not really worth thinking about, I guess.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

People started arriving around noon, and everyone had a few dishes to contribute. My mom did the turkey, and we had a few pies – store bought – and the other items were filled out by the various family members. It was nice, and the food was good, but it was also a little awkward and boring. I only saw them maybe once or twice a year, and after the questions about how school was going and some comment about my height or asking about college plans, there wasn't much else for them to talk to me about.

I'd try asking about their jobs but I think they like talking about those as much as I enjoy the ever popular 'how's school going?' They'd talk about diets and medications and how some neighbor's dog kept shitting on their lawn and when they found out who, God help 'em. I don't know. I just don't fit with them, I guess. I texted Shell a few times, telling her not to get so overwhelmed she blew Kent in front of his parents, and she sent me back a bunch of emojis – I have no idea what she was trying to say. Then I texted Kai, wondering how he was handling the day.

He said he and his dad cooked together and made a small meal. I told him I was really needing him to come over that afternoon and save me from my relations. I'll be honest, I was trying to pre-empt him from trying to beg off. I know it makes me a real shithead, since he might have been really bummed, but I wanted to cheer him up, and I wanted some damn normalcy for my Thanksgiving, too. My traditions of watching a movie with a friend – yes, mostly Shell – needed to happen. A lot of my time with Kai was spent with a specific purpose – a project, the set building for example. I wanted just hang out time with Kai.

Around four I headed over to get him. His dad greeted me and wished me a happy Thanksgiving. “Kai says your relations are boring you?” he asked with a chuckle.

“I don't see them often. My mom and me, we're kind of the black sheep of the family. They all come to our house, because we're kind of in the middle of all of them. So...good food, awkward company – at least for me. So yeah, need Kai to help me out,” I told him with a grin.

“It'll be good for him,” his dad said. No idea what he means.

“Lys, hey,” Kai said entering the room. He looked nice in khakis and a nice sweater.

“You don't have to dress up if you just want to be comfortable,” I told him.

“You dressed up,” he pointed out.

“I'll be home, I can change. Why don't you bring something you can chill in? You'll want to be comfortable for a movie.”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, okay,” he said and headed back to his room. I followed him, telling him about all my tedious conversations with my relatives. He grabbed a tee shirt and some loose flannel pajama pants and then we headed out into the kitchen.

“We made pies. I'm going to bring one over, okay?” Kai asked me, putting plastic wrap over the top of a pie.

“You bake?” I asked and let my eyes go wide. “Marry me?”

He laughed, and I pretended to beg him as we headed out to the car and took the short ride back to my house. “By the way. Shell told my mom about you, a little, and tried to make it seem like there was something between us. Just in case my mom acts weird. I tried to put the brakes on it, but Shell had already opened her mouth.”

“Wait. Am I walking into one of these situations where I'm supposed to be your fake boyfriend? How am I supposed to act?” he asked.

“What? No!” I paused. “At least I don't think so?”

“Lys!” he started to laugh. “I'm feeling like I'm getting set up here.”

“I'm just trying to warn you,” I said as we got out of the car. “Shell was being Shell, and I tried to pick on her about the whole blowjob thing and she tried to throw me under the mom bus about you; probably was going to bring up the video her brother took. But I should have let that happen – you'll probably bring it up in front of my mom anyway.”

“Yeah. I want your mom to know that you said-”

“Shut it, Kai!”

He laughed. I loved his face when he laughed.

“Just wait. One of these days you'll have something I can hold over your head,” I warned him.

We walked into my house, and it took folks a second to realize there was someone new. I had thought some of them would have gotten going while I was out to get Kai, but it seems they'd hung around. There seemed to be some red faces and pressed lips, so I think some argument or disagreement had broken out while I was gone, but I sure wasn't going to ask about it. Number one, it probably had nothing to do with me. Number two, it probably had something to do with something my mother did or said. But number three, really number one, I was there to spend time with Kai and I didn't need their drama.

“Who's your friend?” my grandpa asked from his spot at the head of the table.

I glanced at Kai and whispered, “You're not my fake boyfriend. Just remember that.” I turned to the family. “This is my friend, Kai Lucio. Soccer star, can nail two boards together – his future is limitless.”

“Hi,” Kai said, sounding a little amused.

“Come on over. Do I see a pie there?” my grandmother asked with a smile.

“Yep. Apple. My dad and I baked a few,” Kai replied, moving to the table and setting the pie down.

“Oh? I have to try a slice – I think I can fit one more sliver in,” my grandpa said. “Come on, pull up a chair.”

I reluctantly pulled a folding chair over to sit by Kai, who was next to my grandmother. Sometimes older people, maybe because people don't think of them as threatening, have a charm about them. My grandparents started in on Kai, asking gentle questions about my soccer statements and the 'nailing two boards together' comment. Kai was pleasant. He made a couple of mild jokes at my expense, but it was all kind of...normal.

My mom was being a little quiet and twirling her wine glass by the stem – turning it on the table like she was winding something. There was a little residual tension around the room, but I was able to ignore it and focus on Kai and my grandparents.

“This pie is heavenly,” my grandmother commented. “You make sure you pass my compliments – and the thanks of my taste buds – to your dad, won't you?”

“Oh, I will, sure. Thanks,” Kai replied.

“Excellent pie,” my grandpa agreed. “Lysander, you should learn this skill quickly. Baking is a science, so you should be great at this.”

Kai looked at me. “Are you that good at science?”

“Well, he's always been pretty good with numbers. Measuring and cutting. He's had some skill and interest in woodwork since he was little,” my grandpa said. “I still have some shelving he helped me build.”

“I think I was six, and you did all the work,” I said with a smile.

People started to get up to leave. Coats and platters were retrieved, goodbyes were said, and promises to keep in touch were made with no intention of fulfillment. It was down to just my mom and her parents, myself and Kai within about twenty minutes. My grandfather cleared his throat and leaned forward, clasping his hands together and resting his forearms on the table.

“Kai, I'm going to apologize for saying this in front of you, but there was some family business brought up tonight before your arrival and it caused a bit of percussive discussion. But with Lysander turning eighteen soon, and frankly because I think he has a right to know, I need to speak about it. If you're at all uncomfortable I won't be offended if you choose to excuse yourself.”

My grandfather turned his gaze to me. “Andy...it's funny, you know, the ways we shorten the names of those around us. Probably some from convenience, others as a term of endearment. When you were really little, your grandmother called you Sandy once and you frowned, so she dropped that one like a hot potato!”

I smiled and let out an amused breath. “I think she's told me that one before. Andy's fine. Lysander is a lot to say, and usually I'm in trouble when someone says that – or they don't know me yet.”

“True, true,” he said with a nod. “Let me get down to it. Your grandmother and I aren't getting any younger. We wanted to do this while we both had minds of our own, considering how our bodies are slowly pointing out their age to us.” He leaned forward a bit. “Sometimes the body is very unsubtle about how it reminds you.”

“Are you okay?” I asked, frowning in concern.

“Oh you know, nothing immediate. I have my blood pressure and your grandmother has her diabetes. We have things under control for now, but...time comes for everyone.” He placed his clasped hands on the table. “So on your eighteenth birthday, you'll be given access to a school fund. Your grandmother and I have always been frugal.” He held a hand up. “Not cheap. I've always felt there is a difference. Cheap is stopping at a fast food chain to take a bunch of napkins on your way to a family picnic rather than get a package at the store.”

Kai chuckled and I smiled, glancing at Kai and then back to my grandfather.

“But us being frugal has helped in many ways. When our children ran into trouble in life, which is inevitable, we were usually in a position to help them in some way.” He smiled at me, the fond look of a person who loves you but wasn't saddled with the problems of raising you. “I don't know what you dream of or what will make you happy in life, Andy. I don't know if work will be your passion, if you'll find a balance between home and profession, or if you'll be a person who values people or experiences above any profession. What your grandmother and I want, though, is to give you a boost into finding out. So, when you start school, I don't want you to think about using this money in the best possible way – it's not a math test. I want you to use it in an attempt to find out what's going to make you happy.”

“You'll make money in life,” my grandmother chimed in. “What we're giving you, you'll have again one day. So yes, an opportunity but we don't want you to stress about making sure you use it to achieve any notion you have of what we might expect. We want you to use it to find what makes you happy so you can try to do that.”

I glanced at my mom and and at Kai before looking back to them. “I don't know what...I mean, thank you, of course. I never thought about your will or you...passing away. You've always been there.”

My grandfather nodded. “We've been lucky enough to have a lot of time with our children and grandchildren. We've left a legacy that's not as rich as the Kennedys', but we're happy with the people we have loved.” He smiled. “Maybe you would make a trip down in the spring to visit. I have to fix the cupboards.” He leaned in, glanced at my grandmother and back to me. “She keeps getting pissed about it, but I can't do it without my lead helper.”

I smiled back. “Yeah, of course.”

“Bring the baker,” my grandmother said suddenly, looking at Kai. “Then we can have pie after the cupboards are,” she glanced at my grandfather, “finally fixed.”

He leaned back in his chair. “She thinks I'm delaying to annoy her. I just need an assistant is all.”

“He's not fooling me,” she said and looked at me. “First he tells you about money for school, then he asks you to come visit? Blackmail. Your grandfather is sneaky, but obvious.”

“Hey!” he protested.

“I know,” I said, teasing. “He can't just ask, can he?”

“You know him,” my grandmother said, nodding sagely.

“You raise your son like this?” my grandfather asked my mother, trying to sound indignant.

“Dad, I think we should really talk about that-” she glanced at me and then back to him, “thing we disagreed about.”

“You can say it. It's not dirty,” my grandmother said and looked at me. “Our lawyer is going to be the executor of our will. Our kids are too busy and have families to be tied up with that.”

“But Mom-”

“No, no,” my grandfather interrupted. “It's done. We thought it through, it's our choice in the end, and we made what we think is the best decision. Let it go.”

I'm not really sure why my mom didn't like that, but it wasn't my business to get in the middle of it. Besides, my grandparents are perfectly capable of telling my mom 'no' when they need to. They did get up to leave shortly after. I hugged them both, and they said a warm goodbye to Kai and my mom before heading out. I helped my mom clear up a little, but she eventually just said it was good enough until the morning, so I retreated to my room with Kai, some leftover pie and drinks – raspberry iced tea for Kai, of course.

“Didn't know you liked this,” he said, opening the top of his drink.

“It's okay, I guess,” I said, setting the pie tin and a tub of Cool Whip on the desk. “I'm going to get changed.” I tossed my button up aside and threw my khakis into my hamper before pulling on a tee shirt and thin pajama pants. I was tired of being 'dressed up', even though it was nice to do sometimes. I always felt a little like I was in a role, rather than being myself. As I'd changed, so had Kai, and I turned on my monitor so we could stream something.

“This is a tradition for me,” I told him. “Usually, Shell eats too much and burps while she tries not to fall asleep. I expect this will be better for everyone involved. What kind of movie are you in the mood for?”

“Hmm,” he said, flopping to one side of my bed with his drink. “Something funny.”

I flipped through the offerings, and Kai made a choice from the stuff on screen. I hit play and cut two slices, bring the plates and tub of whipped cream with me to the bed. We settled in and watched the mindless fun on the screen, laughing too loud sometimes and jostling each other. My mom came in and said it was getting late so please calm the fuck down. That made it a different kind of funny because we were trying to hold it in and make the other laugh, so you know...good times.

We watched two movies and then lay back, feeling bloated from all the food and just being comfortable. My phone buzzed from wherever I'd left it. Shell had probably sent me a few messages, but I wasn't interested in saving her from Kent – especially when she seems to want him to catch her.

“Your grandparents seemed nice,” Kai said quietly.

“They are,” I replied. “I don't see them that much, but they've always been good people. My mom isn't always very responsible, so they've helped us out over the years. Power bill or car payment when my mom loses another job or something. I used to spend some school breaks and a few weeks in the summer with them when I was younger.”

Kai shifted a little. “I want to say something, but...I kind of don't see a way to say one thing without bringing up something else.”

I raised an eyebrow and glanced at him. He was on his back, legs crossed at the ankle and looking at me.

“You know you can say anything to me, bro,” I replied.

“First...it doesn't sound sincere with the 'bro' at the end.”

I rolled my eyes and smiled, looking back at him. “You can say anything to me, Kai. Better?”

“Better,” he said, smirking a little. “So, your grandparents. I never knew the ones on my dad's side – they died when I was a baby. The ones on my mom's side were...hard people.”

“Hard?”

He nodded, turning his head to look up at the ceiling. “Judgmental. Their way was the right way. I didn't see them much, but I always felt a little uncomfortable around them. I was kind of reminded about that when I was listening to your grandparents – or actually, it made me think about how different my grandparents were compared to yours.”

“Interesting that we both only knew one set of our grandparents. I never met anyone on my dad's side.” I paused. “Actually, never met my dad. He kind of bugged out when he found out my mom was pregnant, to hear her tell it. I mean...I guess the idea of a lifetime with her might freak anyone out, right?”

“He could have been there for you, though,” Kai pointed out.

“Yeah. But then who knows who I'd be?” I grinned. “But hey, if you want I can share my grandparents with you. They already invited you over, but you see how my grandmother says my grandfather was blackmailing me? But she wants to use you for baking, so I think they kind of are on the same wavelength.”

Kai chuckled. “Yeah, they were funny. I'd be down to visit.” He shifted again, and I glanced back, meeting his gaze. “But...I don't speak to my mom's parents. They disowned us all.”

I frowned. “That's fucked up.”

Kai took a breath and licked his lips. “When your grandparents started talking about...you know, planning for when they won't be around anymore, it got to me a little.”

I shifted into more of a sitting position, resting my back against the headboard. “I'm sorry. I didn't even think of that.”

He mimicked me, sitting against the headboard and shook his head. “Nah. I mean, you run into that a lot more than you might think. Actually, it made me think of you and how you're going to feel when that happens. Maybe not the same as a parent, maybe it is – I'm told grief is one of those things everyone deals with their own way.” He took a breath. “I...I'm the one that found my m-mom.”

“Found...oh shit. Oh...Kai I'm-” What do you say? Is there any right thing?

He waved his hand. “It's not...not really the point. I, uh, do you have your phone?”

“Uh, yeah, somewhere,” I said, confused at the conversation and glancing around. I spotted my phone on the desk and hopped off the bed to grab it. I returned and settled in next to Kai, and he opened his phone up and showed me a page he had open – his pictures.

“I keep this set to private,” he said, his voice very low. Solemn. “After she died I...long story, but I kicked everyone I knew and set it all to private. Deleted all the old comments. But. I haven't been able to really look at any of the pictures since then.”

Erased all the comments? Unfriended everyone? His grandparents disowned him? It honestly made me wonder if he had some horrible role to play in his mom's death for a heartbeat.

“Kai...that all sounds really concerning. I mean, I respect you telling me your stuff when you want. I don't have a right. But I want you to know that sounds sketchy. Unfriending everyone. Getting disowned. It makes me really worried about what happened.”

He sighed and looked down at his lap. He took a breath. “I guess I owe-”

“No.” I cut him off and covered his hand with mine for just a moment before I yanked it back. “Sorry. I just...no. You don't owe me at all. I have no right-”

“No, really,” he said, returning the favor and cutting me off. “You do.” He looked up at me. “It's okay. You can put your hand back.”

I looked at him for a moment and then carefully covered his hand with mine.

He swallowed. “My mom...we were really close. Me, my dad, my mom. We were just...we had a world all our own. But...you never know everything about anyone. I mean I guess you can't, no matter how close. And my mom...my mom, she...” He lifted his hand to his face and pinched the top of his nose and sniffed hard. “She cheated on my dad.”

“Oh no,” I said softly, squeezing his hand. His hand flexed, pulling my fingertips into his grip.

“But it got worse. So...so much worse.”

I waited quietly, moving my thumb on the back of his hand.

“She cheated with...a woman.”

I was confused for a moment. I mean...cheating is cheating, did the who matter that much? I guess it'd hurt more if it were a friend or relative.

“I.” He shuddered. “I struggled with the...the gay part for a while. Blamed the idea of being gay for what happened next.”

That didn't make much sense to me, but I guess it's what he went through. I stayed quiet, wondering how this affected how he saw me.

“See. We lived in a small town. The kind where people wear clothes with the name of their church on them the way other people wear Nike or Adidas shirts.”

My stomach shifted at the thought. Now I thought I knew more about why he'd struggled and what may be coming next. “You don't have to, Kai.”

He nodded. “I know. You're not making me.” He looked up at me and his eyes were a little wet. Not crying, but definitely emotional. “I just. I wasn't going to, but it's all kind of tied together, and I don't know how to say one thing without telling the rest of it. And I told you one thing, so...I guess I need to finish. You good with that?”

“Of course I am, bro.” I smiled. “Kai. Just so you know it wasn't fake.”

He smiled and wiped at his face. He cleared his throat. “When word got out in town about the affair.” He paused. “People started saying really nasty shit about my mom, like it was their job. And then they'd say things to me about her. They mailed things to our house. They'd get on my picture account and just say the worst, meanest shit they could.” He looked at me and pressed his lips together briefly. “I got mad at my mom. I blamed her. For what other people were saying and doing. Then...my grandparents disowned us.” He paused again. “For what she did. Then she...I guess it was too much.”

Oh fuck. Fuck, no.

“I came home from school early. Some kids had...well, it was shitty at school.” I sniffled. “I wasn't even looking for her. I was just mad and sad and...just beat down.” He swiped at his face again. “She was in her room. It must have been...a while.” He pressed his lips together tightly. “She was cold. That's how I knew.”

I shifted closer to him and moved my hand from his hand to pushing behind his neck so I could get it around his shoulders. “Kai...I'm so sorry.”

He lifted his hand and dropped it and a tear ran from his eye. “I was so mad at her. I never even thought about how other people were making the choice to trash me and my family. I...I turned on my own mother. I could have – should have – been there for her.”

I sniffed and put my forehead to the side of his. “Your mother knew who you were. I think you'd have worked through it, but everyone needs time. I get why you feel like you do. I understand. But you would have worked through it, eventually. I know you would have.”

“How can you know that?” he asked, his voice tiny.

“Because you did it for me.” I leaned back, feeling awkward having shown him that much physical affection. “You learned from it. You could have jumped right in with other people and treated me pretty badly. Instead...you grew. You were mature.”

“I was so pissed at you,” he said, letting out an unhappy laugh and wiping his eyes. “I didn't want the attention, and for someone to think I was gay after my mom....”

“But you still worked through that. You were...the guy your mom brought out in her pictures. That's inside you.”

He nodded, his face screwing up like he might cry again, and then he waved his hand. “I told you that because I wanted to...maybe you should take time to appreciate your grandparents. Spend some time with them. And I... thought maybe. I don't know.” He woke his phone and looked at the screen. “I sent you a request. I thought maybe...you'd like to meet my mom.”

It took me a heartbeat. “Your pictures?” I picked up my phone; there was a waiting invitation, a friend request so I could see what he'd held away from everyone else.

For the next little while we looked at his pictures, side by side. His mom had been really pretty, and there were family pictures, pictures of Kai, pictures of his mom and dad. Family trips – his whole life opened up before me. I could see why how he'd felt after his mom's affair had eaten him up – it was clear this was a family that was tight and loving. I guess, maybe, he'd felt like the pain had come from nowhere, and he'd blamed the wrong person.

We talked a bit more. He told me how he'd struggled because he'd felt like his mom had betrayed the family, and he told me about how his dad had reacted. The whole sad story told me so much about Kai and his dad, how he'd learned and changed and regretted the person he'd been and how he'd reacted. I think more than anything in the world he'd want to tell his mom how sorry he was and how much he loved her.

People. We cause pain. We give pain. Somewhere, some time we have to learn there are better ways.




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