Image by Paula Aparicio

Hard to Say

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


While I had been surrounded by people who loved me, inside I'd felt alone and adrift. Above me the clouds blocked most of the spring sun and lent a gloomy air to the day. A hand squeezed my shoulder and pulled me into a side-hug, and I couldn't muster the energy to return it. There wasn't a reason to stay any longer; the coffin had been lowered some time past. A line of people had each tossed a handful of dirt down on the lacquered surface, but I didn't know why. It almost seemed as if they were doing their part to bury her.

“She was such a strong lady,” Dylan said and squeezed me again. My friend, my pillar. Who'd have known that he'd become so important to me?

“She was,” I replied, my voice hoarse.

We lapsed into silence for which I was grateful. I had been afraid Dylan would pull up a funny anecdote, something my mom had done or said in an effort to make me laugh. I couldn't think of another time in my life when I'd wanted to laugh less than I did right then. And yet, with my swirling emotions, Dylan was here to anchor me yet again. I thought back to the way our relationship had changed last summer, how he had perpetuated a state of confusion in me that I had only recently been able to apply a name to.

“She never knew.” I coughed and tried to speak again, my throat dry from disuse. Keeping my gaze on her coffin I said, “She never knew who I was. She didn't know about you and me. Do you...think I should have told her?”

“Nate,” Dylan chided in a patient tone. “She knew who you were. Her knight, her defender, her loyal son. That lady was beyond proud of you. Trust me, she knew who you were.”

Tears pricked my eyes and I turned to Dylan, grabbing onto him and pushing my chin onto his shoulder. I held him tight, willing myself not to cry again. I was just so tired of weeping, so tired of this weight, so...tired.

Less than a year ago, in the summer, my life had been more than turned upside down. My mom had been at home recovering from a double mastectomy and weak from all the treatments she had to take. She'd never hidden the truth from me, that one day the cancer would likely come back, so I'd done what I could to be a good son and to let her know how much I loved her. My father, Frank, had made me realize what it truly meant to hate someone. It took my mom getting sick for me to wake up and see him for who he was: a small minded man whose ego demanded power over his wife and child. Outside his home he was a failure, but to my way of thinking that was no different when he was at home.

He'd berated my mother for the surgery that had cost her her breasts in the attempt to save her life. He was dismissive of her pain and inflicted more on her with his cutting comments. It felt like a bucket of water being thrown over me, and I saw my father for the first time as he really was.

My mother had wanted me out of the house and away from his influence. Even then, fresh from surgery, she was protecting me. My uncle Dale and my cousin Devyn came to pick me up. My father flew off the handle and ended up pulling a gun and shooting my mom. She had already been weak from the cancer and the surgery and her poor body just couldn't take the added stress of healing from the gunshot and recovering from the surgery as well. Soon, the cancer reared its head again. She'd said that tests had shown that it had been a possibility because cancer had been found in her lymph nodes. She said that was like a distribution network in the body and that once it was there, it could go everywhere else.

I'd watched helplessly for months as she struggled to stay alive. We'd moved in with my aunt and uncle and, of course, my cousin. Devyn was a bright spot for me, someone who opened my eyes to the world around me and, quite accidentally, made me question my sexuality. He'd been a steady hand to me ever since, the first person I went to with a question or a problem. He never complained, never told me it wasn't his job or responsibility. He just gave of himself without limit.

“You want to stay over with me and Cris tonight?” Dylan asked, pulling me from my thoughts.

I shook my head. “I'll be okay. I'm sure you guys have plans.”

“Actually, it was Cris's idea. He's worried about you, and, well, so am I. How about if we come stay with you, instead?”

I pulled back and wiped my eyes. In the distance Crispin Wolfe, Dylan's boyfriend, leaned against his small truck in dress clothes. He watched us, Dylan and me, as we stood graveside. The other cars had departed for a reception at my aunt and uncle's home. Mine, too, officially. With my father in jail and his charges being upgraded to manslaughter, my aunt and uncle had gotten legal custody of me quite recently.

“He's been good for you. You know that?” I asked as I watched Cris turn his head to look across the row upon row of granite markers.

“Yeah, I do know. He likes you, you know. Um, we both just want to be there for you.”

I nodded absently. I liked him as well. Cris had an easy manner to him that was inviting and we'd found many subjects to talk about. I texted with him nearly as much as I did with Dylan. I thought, though, it would be uncomfortable staying the night with both of them, even though I knew I was being selfish. I wanted comfort, physical comfort. Not sex, just Dylan's warm body next to me so I could hold onto him, and I couldn't picture getting that from them both. It felt wrong to even entertain the idea. Dylan had been so happy when they started dating a month or so ago; how would Cris feel if I asked to hold his boyfriend for a few nights? How would I feel instead, desperate for that comfort and seeing them spooning in their sleep?

I shook my head. “No. You guys should have some time together.” I held up a hand to forestall his response. “You only get weekends to bond with him, Dyl. Every weekend that you spend your time dealing with stuff outside your relationship, without that personal time, weakens your bond. I appreciate you being here for me, and him, too. He's a great guy and you deserve him. How about...maybe we just get together tomorrow, okay? You guys go do your thing tonight and...tomorrow will be better. Okay?”

Dylan looked at me uncertainly and I know he wanted to object to leaving me. I'd like to say I was certain that his objection was strictly due to concern for me and not because he was hoping to get laid by Cris, but that was neither true nor reasonable. If Dylan were still single I'd be asking him into my bed tonight just to help me through this, so how could I possibly blame him?

“All right, Nate. If that's what you want.”

I sighed and took one last look down at her casket. Then I turned and walked to the truck with Dylan for the ride home.


I wasn't really sure what the purpose of a reception was. People were talking; some were laughing which just felt wrong to me. I was surprised at the number of people who were there to support me outside of the ones I thought of as my family, and there were several that weren't related by blood.

Last summer I'd been invited to join the 'Found Family' for a camping trip. It had been a crazy experience, but I don't think I'd really bought into the idea that these people would consider me their family, that the fact of their invitation was proof of belonging. Yet, they had come for me. They had come from their homes and colleges; they had brought their children and turned out en masse to care for me.

The house was filled with people who knew my mother and a few relations, but the rest of them were the young men that I'd been camping with. Alec, the insane one, had stood by a campfire one night and talked about our bond as a family, and I'd doubted that, despite the fun I was having. But when word got around of my mother's passing, the calls started. Then the visits and the endless shoulders to cry on and arms to hug me. It was odd, in a way, that my mother's passing brought me a feeling of so much love.

I was feeling a little overwhelmed—that's how my emotions were running these days. Running on empty, too overwhelmed for too many moments. I went out on the tiny back porch at some point, just to get some air and to get away from the constant hum of conversation. I leaned on the railing and took deep breaths of the cool air and tried to find some calm. The door behind me opened and closed, and I turned slightly to see who had joined me. Instead of Devyn or Dylan as I might have expected, however, I was mildly surprised to find Sean Kelly, who looked at me apologetically.

“I'm sorry to disturb you, Nate. I wouldn't have, but Jamie...well, it doesn't matter.”

“Thank you, Sean. I appreciate all you guys coming out for me,” I said and turned my head back to look out into the yard. It was getting old telling people that I appreciated them. It was true, but losing some of its power from mere repetition.

“The hurt gets easier,” he said softly. “The pain is always there. It'll fade, but your memories won't. Neither will her love for you,” he said. I turned to look at him and his face was scarlet. “I know that probably sounds like a Hallmark card, but it's from my own experience.”

“You...your mom died?”

He nodded slowly. Somberly, he said, “She died from cancer, too. Pancreatic. I didn't even know who my father was.”

I snorted and turned my gaze away. “I wish I didn't know mine.”

He moved to the railing beside me, crossing his arms, turning around and leaned against the rail. “I understand. It isn't really the same thing except in the basics. I know what that part feels like. In fact,” he said with a slight cough. “Someone I love very, very much told me that...well, how you feel angry, then sad but the hardest times are when you don't feel anything at all.”

I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. “Yeah. I feel empty. I cried, I mean I've cried a lot. I miss her terribly. But I have moments where...just, nothing.” I looked at him. “You felt that...lack of emotion, too?”

“Yes,” he said softly and directed his gaze at me. “It made me wonder what kind of person I was that my emotions simply went dead. I guess, though, it's a defense mechanism of some kind. Something the mind does to push some of the sadness back enough to save the self, you know?”

I shook my head slowly. “Maybe. How did you get through it?”

“Jamie. Well, mostly Jamie.”

“Really?” I asked with a frown. “He doesn't strike me as...I don't know, the type.”

“I know,” he said with a tiny smile. “Jamie is more than he seems. But,” he said with a sigh, “he made it okay for me to cry. He climbed right into bed and...he, um, held me. I know that probably sounds weird....”

Thinking guiltily of Dylan and Cris I said, “You have no idea how not weird that sounds.”

I looked back out into the yard at the grass that was beginning to grow long and the abandoned tools from last year's garden that hadn't been put away. A pair of birds began to make a ruckus, flying around the top of a tree and diving past it repeatedly. Moments later a squirrel leapt from the top of the tree and onto the nearby power line. The birds continued to harass the squirrel, chirping and dive bombing him as he scuttled away.

“Listen, Nate. I know we don't really know each other well, but I want you to know I'm here if you want to talk. I understand, some, what you're going through. I don't know if I can actually...say anything that will help, but I'll be happy to listen.”

I sighed and looked over at him. Like all the Kirkwood boys, though his last name was Kelly, he was pale skinned with dark hair. Though he looked strikingly similar to Jamie, once he spoke you realized right away which person you were talking to. Jamie was brash and aggressive while Sean was quiet and thoughtful.

“Thanks, Sean. I, um,” I hesitated and licked my lips. “Thanks. I'm kind of surprised that the...uh, family all came.”

He glanced away toward the house and said, “You belong to us, Nate. Any one of them, even the old guys in college, would help you.”

I cleared my throat nervously. “Kind of funny,” I said. “They know me least.”

“They know you the way I do,” he said and turned his gaze back toward me. “We know you through Devyn and Griff. They tell the rest of us who you are, and that you're good and important. These guys...they'll always be there for you.”

I studied his face. “Why do you care about me, though? I mean, really? Just because Devyn says I'm worth it?”

“You mean me, personally?” he asked. In response to my nod he continued, “You and I have a lot in common. I think we're more similar than you know.”

I tilted my head in confusion.

“I know you've struggled to figure out who you are. I've had that same struggle.”

I coughed and glanced around furtively. “'re bi?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “I've had sex with both genders and I'm dating a guy. The best guy.”

I looked at him in a new light. I'd never felt connected to the Kirkwoods because of the economic class differences. Even now Sean wore mourning clothes that probably cost more than half of my wardrobe put together. Yet here he was, on my ratty back porch, opening himself up to me—his pain at losing his mother, his confusion about whom he was attracted to and whom he loved. I glanced away and braced my hands on the railing.

“I...yeah. I'm kind of in that spot, too. Not dating, but I could have.”

“I see some of my struggles in you, and more. I had a dedicated person who loved me no matter what. When I finally opened my eyes to the possibility I could love him back, to...seize that kind of love for myself,” he said and paused, shaking his head. “It was tough. I know you've had someone similar, even if a bit more..lustful.”

I blushed and glanced at Sean who wore a gentle smile and said, “It's hard to say you don't really know who you are, especially when you thought you did. I keep learning more about myself and realizing how little I really knew.” He paused again and, in a dreamy voice, said, “How is it possible to be a mystery to ourselves?”

“I don't know. It's hard to think about, right now.”

“Well...I should probably go back inside. I don't want to monopolize your time, but,” he said and hesitated before placing a hand on my shoulder. “I just wanted to tell you I'm here for you if you want.”

My voice thick with emotion I said, “Thank you, Sean.”

He patted my shoulder, squeezed once and then let himself back in to the house. I blinked away the sting of tears and wiped my eyes. After a few breaths to steady myself I went back inside as well. Some people were starting to leave. I didn't know them all, especially the adults. I was startled by a tug on my shirt and I looked down to see a serious faced blond boy of about five. He was using a finger to tell me he wanted me closer and I knelt down to be at his level.

“Oh, I know you, don't I?” I asked, smiling at his serious face.

“I'm Linc,” he said proudly. “Daddy says your mommy went away.”

I nodded. “Yeah, she did.”

“My mommy went away, too,” he said. “Maybe they will see each other?”

I smiled at his serious expression. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Was your mommy nice?”

“She was the nicest lady ever,” I told him with a nod.

“There he is,” a voice said above us. I glanced up to see Chase Kirkwood, one of Linc's dads. He was squinting in amusement at his son and then shifted his gaze to address me. “Linc's been pretty restless overhearing everyone talk about your mom. Puts him in mind of his mommy. I was just thinking we should go home,” he said to me.

“We were just talking about our moms,” I said to him as I stood up. Chase stepped forward and gave me a light hug. “We're all here if you need us, Nate. You're not alone, okay?”

I nodded at his smiling face. He patted my cheek and took Linc by the hand, telling him they were going to go see grandma and grandpa. A few more people drifted for the front door, some stopping to offer condolences and hugs and promises to be there for me. Most of them were the family: Lucien, Alec and Sasha Kutsenko and a young boy they introduced as Micah. There were several Kirkwoods, Asher and Scott Ellis, Elliot Lindley, though his boyfriend Colby was absent. Ted Granger and Trent Davis, boyfriends who'd played football on the school team. Speaking of football, Boomer Bennett was there as well as a very uncomfortable looking Philip Ashmore. I recalled that Boomer and Philip had broken up fairly recently and I entertained the idea of getting Philip to stay the night. I know he'd been interested in me at one time and I might not have had to try very hard, but I felt an immediate and overwhelming guilt at the thought of manipulating his feelings for my benefit. That wasn't even considering how uncomfortable he clearly was and yet he still came to show his support for me. I felt lower than I had all day and that was saying something.

Dismissing the thought, I scanned the room before my gaze settled. Of course. He stood alone and somewhat awkwardly, yet he was appealing and sweet in his way. Nik Buchanan. He was originally Nicolai Antonescu, the same as his older brother who used to be Sasha Buchanan and was now Sasha Kutsenko and adopted by the Buchanan family. They had two dads and I wondered how that felt, how it might influence a person. I know that my own father had been rotten, but if he'd been gay would it have made any of my own journey easier? Perhaps the sexual part, but that wasn't certain. Nothing was.

Nik and I had history, to put it mildly. He was about my height, so about five foot five, and had dark brown hair that wasn't as long as his brother Sasha, but still fairly long. He had a pretty face and was a great kissing partner. We'd had some bumps because of my vacillation over just who I was attracted to and what that meant for me. The problem, I'd finally realized, was that I was effectively leading him on in all likelihood and it was going to ruin a perfectly good friendship. Not only that, I didn't want to cause trouble within the family.

So Nik and I had cooled it, especially after Erica and I had our fling. Nik was still friendly, but he was no longer making advances on me. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. There was a part of me that undeniably liked being chased. It made me feel like I was worth noticing, worth expending some effort...just worth it, I guess. I don't know if it nearly cost me Dylan; I was too afraid to ask. That would have been catastrophic. In some way it may have cost me Nik, but he was here and that meant something.

Perhaps noticing I was alone, or he simply noticed me noticing him, Nik approached me, his face solemn and his hands clasped before him. He was dressed in dark slacks and shoes, a white button up shirt and black tie. It was safe to say he was handsome and then perhaps a little more than that. He stood before me and began to speak in his vastly improved English, with an accent that made his words sound more interesting than they had any right to be.

“Hello, Nathan,” he said with an incline of his head. “I am sorry for your pain.”

“Hi, Niki,” I replied with a wan smile. “Thank you. It was, uh, nice of you to come. I'm....” I hesitated, wondering if this were the time or place. Making a snap decision that I might never say it otherwise I continued. “I was surprised that you'd set aside our...history. I appreciate it, though. It's nice to see you.”

He gave me a slight smile. “It is also good to be seeing you, Nathan. Our history, as you say, compels me to come, you see? I have been speaking very much about our history to brothers and I think I understand, now. I do not...what is the words?” he asked, while lifting a finger to tap his lower lip. “I am not holding a grudge? Is that right?”

I nodded and returned his slight smile. “Yes. And thank you for understanding.”

He gave me a sad look, then, and hesitated. “Nathan. Is it all right if I should give you a hug, now?”

“Please,” I said and lifted my arms in welcome. It felt good to have him hold me, someone who genuinely wanted to do so. No, that wasn't fair. Dylan wanted to soothe my pain as well. What was I thinking? It wasn't a competition, it was just a hug. Not only that, I'd been getting hugs like crazy for the past few days. Maybe it was just because it was Nik.

Breaking the embrace he looked at my face and nodded. Satisfied, perhaps, that the hug was truly acceptable.

“I was not sure I should come. I am glad I did, now. I have...missed you,” Nik said. Although his English had improved, he seemed to refrain from contractions, which made him sound quite formal. Mentally shaking myself I realized he was waiting for me to respond.

“I've missed you, too,” I said honestly. “I've wanted to tell you I was sorry for how I acted. It was...sometimes still is a confusing time for me. I hope you know I never intended to hurt you. Um, do you think you could ever forgive me?”

He shifted on his feet and I folded my hands in front of me, mimicking his stance.

“Forgiveness you ask from me, but I do not think there is something to forgive. Yes? You understand?”

“Well, it's just....”

“If this is important to you, if you want forgiveness from me, then do not worry. I am forgiving you, always.”

I blushed and looked away briefly. “I hope you do understand that it really was confusing and, like I said, I never set out to hurt you.”

“I did wonder,” he admitted. “How could I not? It was confusing time, yes, I am agreeing with you. I am glad to not be confused any more.”

“I'm still confused, some days,” I replied. With a start I said, “I'm sorry, you meant you weren't confused any more? Not me? Is that right?”

He smiled. “Yes. I am not confused any more.”

“Oh? Well, that's good, then,” I said, unsure if that were true or even what it meant. I'd always thought Nik was gay, what did he have to be confused about? Or was he just trying to say he knew I'd acted like an asshole, now?

I glanced around the room, taking in how empty it now was. I could hear voices in the kitchen and the dining room. A few adults and Griffin's tenor as he replied to someone. If Griffin was there, no doubt Devyn was close. Yet here, it was just Nik and I. Knowing that, I decided to ask what he'd meant.

“Do you mind if I ask, because I'm confused again...what are you not confused about anymore?”

The smile melted from Nik's face and he became solemn once more. “I am thinking...I think this is not the time. You understand?”

I made a show of looking around at the empty space around us. “I don't have anything else to do except sit alone in my room. Anything is better than missing my mom and being alone, Nik.”

His eyes flooded with compassion and his hands twitched as if he restrained them from making a move of some kind.

“Yes. Missing mothers and fathers is very hard. You are lucky. You have many, many people who will care for you and who will love you so you can feel better.” He fell silent then, like a radio whose power has been cut. With a jolt I remembered that he'd been adopted and his own parents...had they died? Did I know?

“Nik? Did you...lose your parents? I don't think I know....” I said, spreading my hands out helplessly and feeling, once more, like an ass for never even thinking to ask.

He nodded slowly. “Yes. Mamma and Papa have car crash. I was little boy. Orphanage was home for long times until I come to live with Alexander.” His English was deteriorating as he spoke about what must be painful memories. I put a hand on his shoulder and steered him to the couch where we both sat.

“Do you have good memories of your parents?”

“Yes,” he said with a sad smile. “In Romania people do not have a lot of moneys. We drive out into the country and we park by river or stream. We cook food on a fire, yes? You understand?”

“Yeah. You grilled,” I said, smiling in encouragement.

“Yes, we grill,” he said with a nod. “We play in the water. Is simple pleasure to be with family.” He looked away and smiled as he said, “When I was small, Papa tell me to catch fish. He gave me...stick? Fish stick?”

“A fishing pole?”

“That is,” he said, pointing at me. “Papa give to me fishing pole and tell to me 'catch fish, Niki'. Two tiny problem. One is no worm, you understand?”

I smiled at him. “He sent you fishing with no bait?”

“Yes! He was sneaky papa,” Nik said with a grin. “And for second thing, no fish in stream! He leave me there with stick in hand while he and mamma make kissy on the blanket.” He shook his head at the memory and I felt warmed by it.

“My mom used to talk to me all the time,” I said without meaning to. Nik looked at me in question and I felt compelled to continue. “She always told me that my dad was no good to talk to, so she talked to me. She told me about books and things she wanted to do. She'd ask me about things I wanted to do and...just, everything I guess. It wasn't anything...important, I guess, but she always made it feel like it was important.”

“Yes,” Nik replied with a nod. “Is talent for the mamma to do this.” He hesitated and then said, softly and carefully, “Sometimes...I speak to my mother. I think maybe she and Papa help me find Alexander. Help to find me fathers. Give me chance to have big family, so many brothers that I never feel alone any more.”

I glanced away and my fingers moved restlessly. “Did it work? Do you never feel alone?”

“Sometimes I am still lonely. Is not the same as alone. You understand?”

I shook my head but didn't turn to look at him until he placed the tips of his fingers on my knee to draw my attention.

“The family—our brothers—they are like angels. They watch and protect; help us to heal. That is what I say—what I mean,” he corrected, “when I say never alone. But lonely is here.” He held his hand over his heart.

I let out a breath as my emotions tumbled. Nik would be an easy solution for me. There was no question he still liked me and I did like Nik. I always had. The problem, before, was committing to a relationship. In some ways, despite the fact we'd made out and even jerked each other off, this conversation was the the closest we'd ever been. That was my fault, being wrapped up in myself and my own head. These things about Nik, his parents his life before he came here, I should have known. Asking him to comfort me would be unfair and cruel, even though a part of me deeply wanted him to stay with me that night and be my security blanket. I felt even lower, mere seconds later, as I realized I'd be using him again because he'd be a surrogate for Dylan.

“I have made you uncomfortable. I should go,” he said and stood up. I reached out and reached for his hand, but caught only his fingers. It was enough to get his attention and I tugged, pulling him back down to the seat beside me. He resisted my pull only a little which told me he didn't want to leave me but felt like he should. I glanced around the room, verifying that it was still empty. Licking my lips I turned my gaze toward Nik and realized, with a start, that I still had his hand in mine. I sighed and gathered my courage.

“None of this is your fault, Nikki,” I said, slipping into the diminutive. “Dylan tells me I'm dense, sometimes. Do you know what that means?”

“Particles close together? Like science class?”

“No, not that kind of dense. It's like I'm stupid sometimes.”

“No, not—”

“Hang on,” I said, cutting him off. He subsided and I took another deep breath. “I don't always think things through. Devyn, he's really good at being practical and making decisions. I try really hard to be like him, but the truth is that I'm not very good at it. I don't always realize what's happening around me, how other people feel or the consequences of my actions. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes, I am right here.”

“No,” I said with a smile. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

“ I am sorry.”

“That's okay,” I said and squeezed his fingers in mine. “I know we could have dated. I know I hurt you, but I wasn't trying to. I...was confused about who I was.”

“I understand and then I do not understand. You are always Nathan.”

I let out another deep breath. “Last year I thought I was straight. I'd always dated girls. I liked girls. I still do. Then...I saw something that made me wonder if that was all true. Then Dylan kissed me. Then I kissed you. Then....”

“Yes. In the water. I remember,” Nik said, a blush creeping across his pale skin.

“Yeah.” I nodded absently. “All I could think about was how so many people were suddenly interested in me. I'd never been...I don't know, so popular? My point is I didn't stop and think about how you, or anyone else, felt. I just took kisses and hugs and...” I shook my head as I trailed off.

“So you are like me?”

“Of course I do,” I said softly. “I'm saying I was mean and inconsiderate but I didn't do it on purpose. I'm dense, Niki,” I said while rapping my knuckles on my head. “I don't think, sometimes. I'm sorry I hurt you.”

He nodded his head slowly. “Lucien said this to me.”

I frowned at his non sequitur. “What?”

“I told you I was speaking about our history? I speak—spoke—to Lucien. He say to me, 'Nik, you cannot make someone be who they are not. You can't make...'” he trailed off as if he'd forgotten what he wanted to say, but then spoke suddenly, changing course abruptly. “Jamie has said to me, 'Nik, you must stop the kissing with Nate. Make him miss your kisses.' So, I stop. miss my kisses?”

I smiled at him. “Haven't you been listening to me? I was mean to you, even though I wasn't trying to be.”

“Yes, you were not trying to be mean. But that is not the question, Nathan. Do you miss kisses from me?” he asked again, searching my face.

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I miss the affection.”

“But you are love with me. Yes?”

I shook my head, feeling like shit. “I'm sorry, I'm not.”

“This is okay,” he said and let my hand go. Surprisingly he didn't stand to leave, but leaned back in the couch. “I speak many times with Sasha. I go 'boo-hoo, Nathan no love me back'.”

I reddened at the statement, feeling my despondency creep back in. Maybe he'd been right and this wasn't the time. I'd already apologized, why was he saying this? Did he feel the need to punish me? He certainly had the right. I'm sure he'd felt like I was playing with his feelings, but to do it now? Today? Could Nik ever be that cruel?

“But Sasha is saying to me, 'Nickolai, you are not in love with Nathan. You are horny.'”

I snorted and looked at Nik, who was blushing but smiling as well.

“I ask him what is horny. He explain and I tell him yes, this is true.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees and earnestly said, “I tell—told—him you are sweet and kind. But other things I say are about lips and face and butt.” He held a finger up. “I do not tell him about penis. You know penis is same in English and Romanian?”

I chuckled and put a hand up to my face in embarrassment. “Well, I'm glad you didn't tell him about my dick.”

“Yes, I think I agree,” he said. “But, Nathan, do you think it is possible one day we may love?”

I shook my head slowly. “I don't know, Nik. Right now, today, I don't feel like I have the energy to take care of someone. I don't think I can put in the work, right now, for a relationship.”

“You mean for Nik or for all people?” he asked, his voice laced with disappointment.

I looked up and met his gaze. “I mean for anyone, Nik. It would be cruel of me to ask you for love right now. It would be like using you, like before. Except this time I'd know I was doing it on purpose. I can't do that to you.”

He tilted his head. “But you are needing love now, this is true. Why should I be angry if you ask me for love?”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “You don't love me. I care about you and if I said that we should date then I would be doing it because I want someone to hold me, not because I'm...I'm screwing this all up.” I threw my hands up in frustration.

Nik moved on the couch and I looked away from him before looking back at him. I felt anxious and it was the last thing I needed to feel on top of everything else.

“Nathan. If you want hugs to feel better, I will feel good to give to you. I...want to kiss you. I want to make you feel better. This is not cruel because you need what I want to give you. You understand?”

He looked at me with curiosity. My stomach trembled and I almost just said yes to him and asked him to stay overnight so I could clutch him and not be alone. Ever since my mother began her final descent I'd had a hard time sleeping. My last really good, uninterrupted sleep had been when I'd curled around Dylan and fed off his love for me. But, for the first time in my life, I stopped to think about Nik's feelings. How much like a vampire could I be, to let him put his hope out there that I'd come around and we'd start a romantic relationship?

“Nik,” I said and paused to wet my lips. “This is very hard for me to say. For once in my relationship with you, I'm trying to think about you and not just me.” I lifted my gaze from the floor and studied his face. “I don't want to hurt you again. If I...if I say it's okay for you to hug or kiss me, then maybe you think I'll fall in love with you. But....” I hesitated, steeling my resolve. “I am so sad right now, so...tired that I know, even if I wanted to, I don't think I can give love to anyone right now. I'm not strong enough.”

He nodded slowly, but not with a sad expression as I might expect. Instead he wore a beautiful smile and he reached out to touch my hand, but not take it in his own. Just to place his over mine.

“I understand. This is okay. I will give to you so that you can be stronger.”

I looked at him in confusion. “Nik, didn't you—”

“Nathan!” he whispered fiercely. “I am here to help you pick up pieces, yes? Do not make more pieces! I understand you cannot love. I understand you may not ever love me. But, now, I can take care of you. You will not be lonely and this will make me happy.” He squeezed my hand. “You understand?”

My thoughts swirled and I couldn't make sense of them. Was Nik saying it was okay to take advantage of him? Wasn't that going to make things worse? Or was he just saying he would be a good friend, like Dylan, and be there for me? Was he saying that because we'd go into this honestly I wasn't taking advantage? Dylan hugged me and had done more. Would I turn this down if it were him? In all these thoughts a thread of exhaustion grew larger, overwhelming the tapestry of my emotions. I rolled my hand over and took his hand in mine.

“Okay, Nik.”

He smiled widely and pulled me to him, holding me close and I found he was right; I didn't feel so lonely. We stayed like that, my arms loosely around him while he stroked my back and snuggled me. My emotions settled a little and I gave myself to his embrace, not wanting to resist anymore. I didn't want to think—or over think—anymore. Nik said it was okay, he wanted to give me what I wanted. Maybe, for once, I should just be grateful.

“Nik? You want to stay over tonight?”

“Yes. I will do this for you.”

A part of me wondered how much of it was for me and how much was for him, but did it really matter? I knew Nik cared for me but even if he didn't, even if his only desire was to get into my pants...I wouldn't be lonely.

Eventually, Nik and I wandered into the dining room. My aunt and uncle were sitting at the table with two other couples. Through the door that led to the kitchen I could see Griffin and Devyn cleaning up and putting things away. They were teasing each other, Griffin verbally and Devyn with gestures and pointed looks. It was sort of amazing how they found a balance.

“Um, Uncle Dale? Aunt Alice? Is it okay if my friend Nik stays the night?”

My aunt turned her head quickly to my uncle who nodded his head. “Sure, Nate. That's fine.”

“Thank you,” I replied. My gaze darted to the kitchen where Devyn was staring at me through the open doorway. I felt a tightness in my chest as I knew he didn't approve, and as I thought that I got angry. Why should I deny myself some comfort if it wasn't going to hurt anyone? Nik may not be interested in anything but my body but, right now, I couldn't give more than my body anyway.

Instead of responding to his look, however, I walked Nik to the front door and asked him to come back after dinner, as long as his dads said it was okay to stay over. He departed and I climbed the stairs to my room. Originally, before my arrival, my room had just been storage space. It wasn't large enough for a full-sized bed and a dresser and that kind of stank. When my parents had been together my room had been larger with a full-sized bed, but the feeling in the house was oppressive. Here it was warm, mostly. Here I had Devyn and that thought brought my anger back with a flash that burned out almost immediately.

Through the deterioration of my life as I'd known it, Devyn had modeled an example of how to live. He was level-headed, loving, playful and supportive. I knew he'd want to talk about this new development with Nik and that it would be coming from a place of concern. But...I wanted someone to hold, tonight. I didn't want to be alone when my mind would wander in the darkness of my room.

With a sigh I shrugged off my blazer and laid it across my bed. I grabbed the hanger I used for my suit, one that had a bar for the pants as well as thick wood to support the shape of the blazer. Tossing it on the bed I undid my pants and hung them, followed by the blazer. I loosened my tie and hung it around the hook before placing it all into the closet.

I sat down on the bed and glanced out the window as my fingers toyed with the buttons at the top of my shirt. I thought about how my father had ruined everything and, despite my despair, a flame of hatred burned through me for the man. I had no doubt that the dense part of me came from him. Could I ever hope to overcome that part of me? Or was I doomed to hurt others without thought?

I heard a short rap on my door and it swung open to reveal Devyn. I glanced at him and rubbed my face as thoughts of my father dissipated. The bed squeaked as he took a seat next to me, and the weight of his arm wrapping around my shoulders felt comforting. I leaned my head toward him and he met me in the middle, his head resting against mine.

I closed my eyes and a tear leaked from my eye, tracked down my face and then fell, perhaps on my shirt. For some reason I couldn't explain my mind felt that now was the time to safely fall apart, because Devyn was there. And so another tear fell and another and, before long, I couldn't see for all my tears. At some point Devyn began to hum as he rubbed my shoulder and rocked me side to side. I sniffled and wiped my face, but the tears were flowing freely.

I wished Devyn could speak. I wanted him to tell me that things would get better. I wanted him to say that one day this wouldn't hurt so much and that he was going to help me get there. If he could say it, then I could believe it. His hand slid along my shoulders as he slipped off the bed and moved around to kneel before me. I looked at him with eyes that couldn't focus, covered in water as they were. His palms settled on either side of my face and his thumbs stroked the tears away. I blinked a few times and my tears slowed and my vision began to clear.

He was looking at me with compassion. With a tilt of his head and the widening of his eyes I knew he was asking if I was better, for now.

“Yeah. I'm okay, Dev,” I said and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. He stood and resumed his seat on the bed. I heard the tapping of the stylus on his boogie board. He bumped me when he was done and I looked down at his handwritten message.

'What's going on with Nik?'

Well, that was direct. I sniffled. “He's going to stay over tonight. Dylan offered to let me stay with him but....”

He drew a question mark on his board.

“Crispin is staying over tonight with Dylan,” I said, my voice very low. “Last time I stayed with Dylan, just before they started to date, I was feeling really low and worried about my mom. I just...he let me hold him. It made me feel better, connected to him. But, with Cris there...” I hesitated and sighed. “Plus I figured I'd feel worse if I could see them cuddle and couldn't get that for myself. I know I need it right now, I need someone.”

He cleared his board and began to write again. 'With the history you have with Nik, that might not be very smart.'

I nodded. “I said something like that to Nik. He kept telling me that he wanted to give me comfort and if I wanted to take that from him, what was the problem?”

'You know why. He could get hurt.'

“I said that, too,” I told him a tad defensively. “I think, mostly, he just thinks I'm hot. If that's true...then he'll be happy just being in bed with me and I'll be happy...not being alone. I'm...I'm not sleeping well, Dev. Being alone at night mind won't stop. Besides, he knows I don't love him and he says he knows he isn't in love with me. He's just...horny.”

He tapped his stylus on the board a few times. 'I'm worried for you.'

I looked up at him, the concern etched into his face. “I know. Thank you, but I got this. At least for tonight.”

He sighed and nodded.


My eyes had adjusted to the faint light of the room some time ago. Rather than me holding Nik, he was on his side, leaning against me and breathing gently in his sleep. I'd had no illusions about what would happen after the lights went out and I had welcomed the distraction. Nik had whispered, in his adorable accent, several ways of saying how attractive he thought I was. His kisses had started gently and my tired mind gratefully ceased to actively think and allowed my body to simply respond.

The kisses had grown insistent and his hands roamed everywhere. With gleeful abandon he rubbed the skin of my chest and stomach, perhaps building up his nerve, before pushing past the waistband of my underwear. Surprisingly, rather that focus on my groin he ran his fingertips past the side of my hips and grabbed my butt cheeks, squeezing and kneading them in his hands.

He nibbled the inside of my thighs and then laid butterfly kisses along my leg, past the sensitive skin on the front of my hip, along the length of my torso and then he resumed kissing me, grinding his body into mine. My hands went on auto pilot, getting his body as naked as my own, and then I stroked the skin of his back and trailed my fingers up his neck and into his hair, holding him close as he pressed his mouth to mine. My other hand drifted down to cup his butt, to dig my fingers in the slight cleft beneath and pull him forcefully into me.

I lost myself in the intensity of his kisses, the heat of his hard dick pressed alongside mine and the firm, fleshy feel of the globe of his ass in my hand. My mind was blanked of any thought beyond the physical sensations Nik was generating in me. He'd turned around on the bed, kind of abruptly, but my mind still wasn't engaged enough to really wonder what he was doing. He was on his side, in a flash, and pulling on my hip, turning me toward him.

I reached out and placed a hand on his hip and quite suddenly and surprisingly, perhaps because of my lack of mental involvement, found his balls pressed to my lips. The scent was mostly unfamiliar, given my lack of experience. Yet, there was a certain bite to the scent that wasn't completely foreign. Any further thoughts were shorted out as he grabbed my erection and forcefully licked the underside.

He muttered something, a question maybe, but my mind was gone again. Without thinking I stuck my tongue out, wiggling it along the base of his dick, swirling in that space where the penis gives way to the sack. He spoke again, perhaps encouragement, and then his body shifted slightly and I was presented with his dick. I reached for it with my hand, fascinated as I pulled the skin down and revealed the slick head. He was uncircumcised, something I'd never seen in person. I moved the skin back and forth, stroking him and watching as the foreskin covered and uncovered the wet tip of his dick.

It stopped being so interesting when I'd felt the warm wetness of his mouth. I was reminded of when Dylan had blown me and of how I'd felt guilty for not returning the favor. Brushing the thought away, I aggressively put his dick in my mouth.

The pre-cum that coated the head of his dick felt very weird and not exactly good. It was thick and slimy, but I willed my mind to shut down and let my body get down to business. Using my hand to pull back the skin I pushed my head farther and began to suck and lick him, hoping that he was feeling as good as I was.

Pulling off me Nik began to pump my dick furiously. I fell onto my back, stroking him idly with one hand as he alternatively sucked my dick and then stroked me quickly. I erupted all over his hand, my toes curled in and my breath caught in my throat.

“Ah. God, Nik,” I whispered.

His strokes turned into long, languid pulls starting at the base of my dick and squeezing up, forcing the last of my spend to dribble over his hand and drip into a large pool in my pubic hair. Nik shifted again, moving to straddle me just below my dick. I glanced down, somewhat hazy, and he used some of my cum to lube his dick before he started stroking. His free hand roamed my stomach, rolled my balls in his fingers and basically went everywhere at once while he built to his own sticky end. His warm spunk exploded all over my dick and adding to the mess already on my pubes. It was interesting how warm it felt.

At last Nik had lain beside me, breathing heavily, and nuzzling me. “You are feeling okay, Nathan?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I feel good.”

“Yes,” Nik agreed. “You feel good.”

Shortly afterward, he'd fallen into a steady breathing that told me he was asleep. My mind, however, seemed to recover from the sex induced haze and began to turn things over anew. Should I have told my mother about my liquid sexuality? Was I taking advantage of Nik? Should I be okay that he just wanted to get off with me or was I responsible for how he might feel later? What about how I would feel later? Holy shit, I had just sucked a dick. Would I do it again?

My body had been too tired and too sated to be bothered with things like cleaning up or even moving. Instead, I'd lain still and thought while Nik cuddled next to me, breathing gently. Was he happy, now that he'd had me? Would his curiosity or lust be satisfied and now he'd have no more use for me? Or was this simply an attempt to win me over, a desperate, feverish desire to make me his? Or was Nik being entirely honest and doing this just to help me with no personal gain for himself? That one was murky and I sighed to myself. So many questions and no real answers.

Eventually my mouth felt parched. The faint taste of his pre-cum sat on my tongue and I decided I needed a drink. I climbed out of bed slowly so as not to disturb him. I pulled on my underwear and crept down to the kitchen where I filled a glass with water and leaned my butt against the sink as I sipped it. My ruminations on what tonight's events meant outside of having had sex were interrupted as my gaze fell on the coffee maker. There were two cups set beside it, obviously for my aunt and my mom as they had been almost since we moved in. Aunt Alice always had morning coffee with my mom and the memory of that clutched at my heart.

I glanced over at the door that led to the basement and her old room. I sipped my water as I debated going down the stairs and then, with no real reason why, I drained the glass and placed it in the sink before crossing the room and opening the door. It yawned away into darkness and I shivered. The shiver caused my abs to tighten and I felt the dried cum pulling on my pubes. I twisted around a little, trying to make it more comfortable, but gave up. Flicking on the light I descended the stairs and made my way to the room that had been set up for my mother as she'd fought her losing battle to stay alive.

The room smelled like no one had really lived there. The bed was made and small boxes littered the floor, perhaps evidence that my aunt or uncle had come down to pack away my mother's things. Probably my aunt. It hit me like a shot to the gut, seeing her things gone and I slowly sank to the floor, my legs splayed out to one side and my weight supported by my hip and one arm. I stayed crumpled like that as my mind ran in circles. I knew my mom was gone, so why was this hitting me the way it was? Was my acceptance of her being gone coming in waves? No, this wasn't acceptance. What, then, was it?

I sat and tried to think, feeling more and more lost.

“Nathan?” Soft steps padded down the stairs and rounded the corner. I glanced up as Nik appeared. He'd pulled on his long tee shirt that he'd initially changed into for bed. The tip of his penis poked out just below the bottom and I thought it was strange to note that. Then I thought it wasn't so strange since his penis looked so different from my own. I felt like I was, somehow, out of my own body...disconnected from the world and reality.

“Nathan? You are all right?” he asked as he closed the distance and squatted down next to me.

I looked up at him and said, “You're not circumcised.” I paused. “I'm not sure why I said that.”

He glanced down and pulled the shirt lower, hiding his body. A blush crept into his face. “I am thinking my penis is not why you are here. Can I help you?”

I reached out with my free hand and pulled him toward me, toppling us both over onto the hard floor; just thin carpeting over the concrete basement floor. I held him close and refused to think anymore about anything but the warmth of his body. He didn't try to speak, but only did his best to return the hug.

The tempest in my mind continued to swirl with feelings of loss for my mother, questions in my mind about what else I should have said or done with her while there had still been time. I wondered what all this might mean with Nik and how it might end up. Would I fall in love? Would he? Or was I just cute enough to have sex with and that would be all? How did I feel about that?

On the last I wasn't really sure. Sex with Erica had shown me a difference. I didn't feel badly that Nik and I had hooked up. After all, it wasn't like he was a stranger or we'd done something wrong. No, my heart was full of the implications of what might happen later, the uncertainty of the future. I had no idea what I wanted beyond this moment where he allowed me to hold him and take comfort from his proximity. Was he using me for sex? Was I using him back? Was it more than that? I couldn't think, I didn't know.

At last I took a shuddering breath and told him we should go back to bed. I followed him up the stairs, not bothering to analyze why I was watching his butt move in front of me as I followed him up the stairs. I switched off the light and we both went back to the bedroom and stripped our clothing away. He lay on his side and I spooned him, wrapping him in my arms and sighing deeply.

His hand played over the skin of my clasped hands. “Are you feeling all right, Nathan?”

I squeezed him. “Right now, yes. This is what I need.”

“I...I am glad. I am needing this, too.”

His breathing grew regular as I forced myself to focus on the warmth of his skin, the scent of his body and the way he willingly molded himself to me. With those feelings, my mind let go and I finally slept. And I slept well.

In the morning I woke up feeling too warm and comfortable to move. If Nik had moved in the night it hadn't been by much and I nestled a little closer and then lay still, just dozing lightly. I woke again as Nik turned in my loose embrace, eventually looking right at me. He lifted a hand, causing the blanket to uncover me a little past my shoulder. He brought his fingers up and ran them through my hair and smiled as he watched his fingers.

It was a tender moment and I sighed. There was something to be said for that kind of attention and affection.

He let his hand drift down to my cheek and he leaned in to peck my lips. “From all your sports, you have the beautiful body,” he said while moving his hand from my face to my chest. I was certain I began to blush.

“Stop,” I said, smiling a little at him and rolling onto my back. He continued to explore my chest and I sighed.

“Are you feeling okay today, Nathan?” he asked.

“Yes. I slept really well, thank you. It's been a while since I did that. How did you sleep?”

“I had very sweet dreams,” he said. “Better morning, I think.”

I turned my head and smiled at him. “Oh? Please don't compliment me any more; I feel a little embarrassed.”

He tilted his head. “I do not understand why. You are sweet and kind. I think you are most handsome American boy of all the American boys I have seen. You do not like me to say this?”

I gave him an embarrassed smile. “I'm just me, Nik. I'm glad you like me and I'm even more glad you like something about me that isn't strictly about how I look. I guess...maybe...I don't know.”

I shrugged and stretched, snapping back in surprise as Nik cupped my balls.

“For now,” he said with a sly smile. “This belong to me, yes? No boyfriend, maybe some time, but not now. like from last night?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah. I liked last night,” I told him. I wasn't totally sold on the slimy feel of pre-cum, but everything else had been okay. Even the dick sucking after the pre-cum had worn off.

“Then I give such to you. I like very much, too. My only ask is to not share with other person. Is okay?”

“Nik, I hope you're not...I mean....”

“No,” he said softly. “I am not in love. Sasha is right, I am the horny. But would be lie to say not...a little sweet to you? Is that right?”

As odd as it was to have a conversation with someone's hand on my balls, I said to him, “I know you're sweet on me, Nik. I like you, too. I...I just don't want to make a mess of things. I can't be in a relationship right now, I know I can't. It wouldn't be fair to either of us.”

“I not ask for such,” he said softly. “Only say to you I give you affections. I....”

I sighed. “I understand, I think. We can be friends with benefits until one of us starts dating or, um, unless we decide to date. No one else unless we tell the other. Right?”

“Yes. Is okay?”

I thought about it for a moment. I didn't want to give up the affection, and Nik seemed to be okay with the idea. I wouldn't mind some no-strings sex or cuddles to take my mind off of heavier subjects. I just hoped Nik wasn't secretly hoping sex would turn into love and a relationship because...well, I just couldn't know what I'd feel like next week, let alone a month or two from now.

“Okay. But Nik...I just don't want to hurt you, okay?”

“Yes. I understand. Now, I have affection to give.” So saying he pulled the covers back. His subtle manipulation of my nuts had gotten a rise out of my dick and he wasted no time moving down to apply his mouth and my dick finished hardening right up. He repeated his maneuvers from the previous night, jerking me to a finish. Then using my own cum to lube himself he sprayed his seed all over my dick. It seemed to get him off to do that.

He breathed heavily and looked down on me with a hungry expression. “Your wonderful. I see many boys in Romania, many in schools and on computer. But you...are most beautiful boy.”

I blushed again, uncomfortable with his adoration. “Come on, Nik....”

“Is true. But more important, you are the sweet too. You tell me you not want to hurt me and that makes my heart feel large, yes? I understand you are good, decent...not just sexy.” He grinned and I flashed an embarrassed smile. My ego wouldn't suffer, hanging around Nik. “I am excited to touch next time. Is Sunday, Papa's say to be home by eleven. School tomorrow. Maybe I come again next Friday night?”

“Sure,” I said and smiled back at him. His own smile grew wider and he leaned down for another quick peck before climbing off of me.

“Is ten seventeen, I go home quick, now. Have good day,” he said and paused to lay a hand to my cheek. “Call me if need to talk. I listen, yes?” He looked down on me with a tender look that sent off a warning bell in the back of my mind. “I can listen for you.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, and he pulled his clothes on and, with a final glance at me—still on my back with two loads, one from each of us drying on my pubes—he left. I debated getting up and idly scratched my chest while thinking about the look he'd given me. It certainly looked like someone who didn't think I was just kind and sweet. Was Nik playing a long game with me? Giving me affection and sex to build a bridge for later, hoping it would turn into something more?

While I was adamant about not starting a relationship, I did have to stop and search my feelings about how I did feel about Nik and if I could really blame him if he was hoping for more later. I was a little uncomfortable that he was so into me physically, but only because he was unashamed to tell me how much he liked my body. I liked that he found non-physical things about me attractive as well, and that sent me to thinking about Nik's own qualities.

He undoubtedly cared for me, no matter what he said. He was kind and respectful yesterday and, while I had fully expected some sex the previous night, I was reminded of how he'd found me in my mother's old room and had been content to let me hold him and for him to return it. I wasn't certain but I didn't think he got hard or even tried anything. His attentions had been all about me and giving me what I needed, and that was something to put on the positive side of the ledger.

I'm not sure why I counted the sex as both good and bad. I mean, I'd certainly enjoyed it and was glad for the pleasure and the chance to not think. But I felt it could also be dangerous in the end if Nik was equating sex with love. Could it be that we were both decent guys and he was just horny enough for me that it wouldn't mean more to him? Considering how long he'd liked me, I wasn't sure. While it was true I liked Nik, both as a person and in bed, and that I found him attractive, I'd always hesitated to actually date him openly.

Why was that? My phone buzzed, interrupting my thought. Checking it I found a text from Dylan. 'Up for some food? Cris wants to take us out.'

I smiled at that and replied, 'Let me ask first. And I have to shower.'

I got up and pulled on shorts and a tee before heading downstairs. The drying cum was uncomfortable, pulling on my hairs and I pulled the front of my shirt down to hide my poorly thought out clothing. The cool semi-liquid was beginning to ooze and, I'm sure, would make my shorts wet.

My aunt was in the living room so I stopped on the stairs and sat down to hide my problem. “Aunt Alice? Dylan and Cris want to take me out to eat. Is it okay if I go?”

She looked up from her book and smiled softly at me. “Sure, Nate. Uh, did you sleep well last night? I thought I heard some moving around.”

I blushed and said, “I got up sometime in the night for a drink and I ended up going down to Mom's room. Um, her old room.” I paused and then asked, “I thought I saw some of her stuff packed up already.”

She nodded slowly and in a sympathetic tone said, “Yes, I started to box some things up. We have a furnace down there and the plumbing is exposed. We have people come to fix things sometimes and I'd hate to leave anything open to temptation.”

I frowned slightly. “But the furnace is fine. Why does it have to be now?”

“Well, I'm trying to plan ahead. What if the furnace has a problem next week? I would hate for things that belonged to your mother to be lost that way.”

I nodded slowly. “Can I help?”

“Of course you can, sweetheart. Why don't you go out with your friends for now? We can do it later.”

I nodded. “Okay.” I retreated upstairs and took a shower. As I scrubbed myself my mind wandered back to my musing about Nik and if I liked him. I knew that I did, of course. He was attractive, intelligent—I mean, he speaks two languages and that's one more than I do! He's definitely sexual and I like that. I wonder if he's like that because he couldn't be open in his old country? I never asked him and it seemed like I should have. I know he'd made allusions to people calling him bad or being gay as bad, so maybe that was some of it. But, back on track, why had I never dated Nik? Was it really because I was so self centered as to be wanting other people to pay attention to me rather than one devoted person? How much of a dense ass was I, anyway?

I could easily add that he was kind and compassionate just from the way he was treating me, but of course he was getting something out of it that he wanted as well. I just wasn't sure and I knew I could go back and forth about it all day. I did like him, though and maybe I should give that more thought when I was back on my feet. I also couldn't forget how he'd spoken about losing his parents, and I felt that gave us something important, even intimate, in common.

Satisfied with my thoughts and with my cleanliness, I dried off and headed back to my room. I texted Dylan that I could go and I just had to dress. He replied that they'd be over shortly. Minding the fact it had been a little cool the day before I pulled on jeans and a long sleeve tee before grabbing my hoodie. After pulling on socks, I headed downstairs and pulled my shoes from the pile at the door.

“There he is,” my uncle said conversationally. “Sleep well? You look rested.”

I sat down to tie my shoes. “Yeah, actually. I slept really well.”

“I'm glad. I thought I heard some noises and thought you couldn't sleep again,” he said, a curious look on his face. “But I can see the bags under your eyes are a little less. That's good.”

I chatted with him as I waited for my ride, but I also thought that my aunt and uncle weren't completely in the dark about the goings on in my room the previous night. That was sort of embarrassing. A honk outside alerted me to Dylan's arrival so I said goodbye and rushed out to meet my friends.

Dylan was standing with the door open and the seat tilted forward and I climbed into the back. As Dylan took his seat, Cris looked over the seat to me and asked how I was.

“Good,” I said. “I slept really well for once.”

“Really?” Dylan asked. Cris put the truck in gear and we pulled away, but Dylan had twisted around in his seat to look at me. “You do look better. Did you sleep in Devyn's room?”

“What? No!” I replied in shock. “Why would you ask that?”

“Relax,” Dylan said with a laugh. “I wasn't implying you were getting it on with your hot cousin. Just that you've been so tired-looking and...I know you used to sleep like a rock at my house but you told me you hadn't slept well since you'd last stayed over. I just figured it was a natural assumption that you slept with”

“Well, I couldn't very well sleep with you, could I?” I asked, trying to get him away from him sniffing at the truth. “I think Cris would complain.”

“I think Cris would be fine if you slept between us, actually,” Dylan teased and Cris colored.

“He thinks I'm perving on you,” Cris told me. “We actually tease each other using you as a punch line.”

“Um, thanks?” I looked at them both and they were laughing. I shook my head and smiled.

Cris pulled into a space and we climbed out of the truck and walked into Cafe Perk Me Up. Seth McAllister was working behind the counter, and he smiled at us and asked what we'd like.

“Seth! Less flirting, more working!” teased an unknown person somewhere in the back.

Seth turned and replied, “Gray! When I asked what they'd like, I wasn't the one on the menu. You were!”

We laughed as Seth turned back toward us and we placed our order. “I'll bring your order out as soon as I can get Gray to stop texting his boyfriend,” Seth snickered.

We took a seat in a booth. Dylan and Cris started up with their easy banter and pulled me in. In no time they had me laughing and my troubles felt very far away indeed. Shortly Seth arrived with a tray and began setting out our drinks and food. As he did so the other boy, presumably Gray, called out from the counter.

“Seth! Really? I'm going to tell Foster!”

“I'm delivering food, not myself!” Seth laughed.

“Is there a market for that?” Dylan asked with a wicked grin.

“Don't ask him that! His jaw—” Whatever he was going to say suddenly cut off in laughter as Seth blushed and turned to face the counter and his laughing friend.

“First, we're at work. And second, do you take that dirty mind home to your mother?”

Just like that the bottom fell out of my mood. Dylan and Cris looked at me, their faces suddenly guarded. I looked out the window and thought about how many times my mother had told me to go out with my friends while she was sick. Even though I stayed home with her frequently, she always told me to go be with my friends. I sniffed.

“Enjoy your food,” Seth said, not seeing the change at the table. I didn't reply. Instead I looked out the window at the street and the light traffic. I was thinking how she had been so tired and in such pain and yet she'd wanted me to be with people that made losing her easier to bear. All the happiness of my night with Nik and my time out with Dylan and Cris evaporated like rain on a hot sidewalk.

Dimly I heard voices, but I didn't pay enough attention to understand their words. I was lost in the memory of my mother encouraging me to not be beside her as her health declined. I'd asked her why only once and she'd been very frank, painfully so.

“When I die, my love, you're going to need good people. Sometimes we think that the world is a cruel place when people we love are taken from us or when bad things befall those we care for. The truth is that the world isn't bad or good; it's indifferent. The world goes on with or without us. To me, what makes life worth living is the people we meet along the way. Baby,” she'd said with a wistful smile. “You have made a wonderful friend in Dylan and you couldn't ask for a better role model than Devyn. You need to fill your life with good people. Collect them the way others collect baseball cards or stamps—but don't lock them away. They aren't for pulling down off of a shelf and looking at once in a while. They are meant to be enjoyed. Savor them, my love. Cultivate them and let them make your world better.”

I felt an arm on my shoulder and turned to see Dylan had slid into the booth next to me and was looking very concerned.

“Nate, you checked out. Are you okay?”

I wiped my eyes and shook my head. “No. I'm not okay. But I'm with you guys and so...I'm better.”

Dylan looked at Cris and then back to me. “I'm not sure I understand.”

I nodded. “I know. It's hard to say it the right way. It's's something my mom said. She told me you were a wonderful friend and that...people like you make my life better.” Silently I thought, 'So, no, I'm not okay. I'll be better, though. Eventually.'

I don't think Dylan knew what to say and so he didn't reply, except to squeeze my shoulder.

“Can we talk about something else, please?” I asked softly.

“Sure, Nate,” Dylan replied. “Um, you know, Cris can tell you all about how things are with his new friend, Simon Mazjanis.” Dylan smiled in a positively wicked fashion as he looked across the table at Cris, who rolled his eyes.

“Simon isn't a bad guy, don't get the wrong idea,” Cris said as he dragged a fry through a puddle of ketchup. “He's just kind of queeny.”

I glanced at Dylan who was shaking with silent laughter. Turning back to Cris I asked, “What do you mean, queeny?”

Cris shifted in his chair and then took a bite of his sandwich. Dylan reached for his plate and pushed mine toward me. I wasn't very hungry, but I took a bite anyway. The sandwich fired off my taste buds and my stomach gurgled—I guess I was hungry after all.

“He was kind of mad at me at first, honestly,” Cris said. “He was kind of punishing me for my dad firing his dad.”

“That's kind of a douche move,” I said.

“Yeah, wasn't cool, really. In hindsight, I should have picked a private place to talk to him.”

“Where were you?” I asked and Dylan snickered.

“In the hallway,” Cris said dourly. “He started shrieking about how my dad was a homophobe and how wrong it was that he'd fired his dad. Honestly, it felt like he went on forever.”

A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. “What did you do?”

He shrugged. “I let him go off for a minute or so, kind of wishing I could fall in a hole in the floor, you know? Then he was going for this big, dramatic exit and I said, 'I know it was wrong, Simon. I told my dad it was wrong to punish your dad for supporting his gay son.'”

Impressed, I smiled widely. “What did he say to that?”

“Actually,” Cris said, eating another fry. “He seemed offended, at first. Like I'd outed him...which maybe I had. I mean, it seems like everyone assumes he is, but I know he is, you know? Anyway, before he could get started again I told him I was gay, too.”

I leaned back heavily in the seat and looked at Cris with awe. “Really? Right there in the hallway with all those people?”

“Yep,” Dylan jumped in. “Isn't he amazing?”

I glanced at Dylan who was looking at Cris with admiration. I had to admit, considering he hadn't been out long, he'd sure decided he wasn't going back.

“Good for you, Cris,” I said, nodding at him. “That took balls, honestly.”

He colored under the praise, but smiled as well. “Anyway. Simon calmed down and got kind of flustered. He found me after school and interrogated me. It was kind of weird, but after that he's been all sorts of nice and trying to be friends.”

“Well, that's cool, right?” I asked, looking back and forth between them.

“Mostly, yeah. He sort of thought I wanted to ask him out, so there was some awkwardness and confusion. But we finally showed each other pictures of our boyfriends and we ended up talking a lot. He's actually a pretty nice guy even though we don't have much in common. I'm into sports and he isn't. It limits our conversation, some, but I think we're both happy to have someone that sees something important to us in the same way. So, we'll try to be friends.”

“That's really cool, Cris,” I said. I took another bite of my sandwich and wasn't really surprised that my yo-yo like mood swings had me back up, for the moment. It put me in mind of Nik again and I wondered if I should ask Dylan for advice. If I did, though, would he be mad since he'd been interested in dating me before? Or was that all done with now that he was dating Cris and appeared quite happy? Had he, I suddenly wondered, not liked Nik? Viewed him as a rival?

“You're right,” Cris said with a sigh. “You can actually see the smoke when he's thinking.”

Dylan covered his mouth to stifle a giggle and I looked back and forth between them with some confusion.


“Um, I was telling Cris how I can always tell when you're deep in thought. I'm guessing Cris just got to see your expression firsthand.”

I looked back and forth between them. Settling my gaze on Dylan, I asked, “Why am I the subject of so much talk between you guys?”

Dylan blinked and the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “Because you're my best friend. Who else should I tell him about? Adam?”

I shook my head and chuckled at the thought of how much Dylan would love talking about his junkie older brother.

“So what were you thinking about? Your mom?” Dylan asked gently.

I shook my head. “No. I was just...I was thinking about how dense I am. I can't stop thinking about it and I'm wondering if I'm making another mistake because I'm so dumb,” I told him in a dejected tone.

“I don't think you're dumb,” Cris said around a bite of food. Swallowing he pointed at me with his sandwich and said, “You own the mistakes you make and try to learn from them. You're ahead of, like, half the country.”

I shook my head and frowned. “What are you talking about? And doesn't that just mean I screw up a lot?”

“Everyone screws up,” Dylan said with a shrug. “Not everyone got saddled with a handicap like your father, though.”

“Yeah,” I agreed glumly. I hesitated and glanced at each of them before admitting, “I think he passed it on to me.”

“Um, no. Where is this coming from, anyway?” Dylan asked.

I sighed and popped a fry in my mouth. “It's been on my mind. I don't seem to understand what I'm doing a lot of the time. You know, saying dumb things like you forgave me for—”

“You were parroting your father, but you never followed through on any of it,” Dylan said firmly.

I bobbed my head. “Still, words can hurt and I was too dense to see it.” I paused and shook my head. “I fooled around with a lot of people, hurt some feelings.” Closing my eyes I said softly, “Like yours, maybe.”

Dylan cleared his throat. “I did hope you'd see me in a different light, but I realized you were enjoying the attention and might not settle down very quickly.”

Keeping my eyes closed I asked, “Did that almost cost me you?”

Cris started to laugh and I opened my eyes to look at him. With a grin he said, “I knew Dylan loved you from the get go. Ever since we started dating he's always been pretty candid about everything he thinks. You're in no danger of losing him; never were, in fact.”

Dylan bumped me and with a little smile he said, “I told you I told Cris all about you. I let you slide 'cause you're cute.”

I shook my head and smiled back at him. “Thanks for not giving up on me.”

Dylan rolled his eyes. “As if. Now why are you thinking about all this now?”

I blew out a breath and looked down at my hands. My fingers were restless and I started to shred the paper napkin in my hand as I spoke. “I saw Nik at the reception yesterday. I started to think about how selfish I must have been, kissing you and kissing him and whoever else was willing. I figured I must have been pretty oblivious or just plain mean to do that to people.”

“I don't think you have a mean bone in ya,” Cris said.

I glanced up at each of them and then resumed shredding. “I guess I was too dense, then, to realize what I was doing. Not totally, though. Devyn tried to tell me that someone would get hurt, but I didn't listen. I kind of hit a frenzy when Erica stuck her tongue in my ear and offered to go all the way with me. Um. I just...”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Nate,” Dylan said. “Besides, you learned something about yourself, so it wasn't a total loss. You know?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, maybe. But, um. So, I said Nik was there?”

I waited for some kind of response and when I heard nothing I looked up. Dylan was looking at me with concern written on his face. “Did you sleep with Nik last night, Nate? Is that what this is about?”

A tear welled in my eye and I nodded and began to speak quickly. “We had a really nice talk at the reception. He lost his parents, too, back in Romania. He...I wanted to hold someone, Dylan. I haven't been sleeping and he said he would and he said...he said....”

Dylan closed his eyes and muttered slightly. “What did he say, Nate?”

“You're mad at me,” I whispered and looked down at my shredded napkin.

“No, no, Nate, I'm not. I promise. I just...why don't you finish telling me what you want to say?”

I looked up at him and then dropped my gaze again. He placed a finger under my chin and lifted my face so that I was looking at him.

“I promise I'm not mad, Nate. Whatever it is, please stop looking so ashamed. You haven't murdered anyone. Please, go on.”

I sniffled and nodded, at which point he removed his finger. “Um. I explained to him how I felt bad that I'd been dense and hadn't meant to hurt him. I just...” I threw my hands up in misery. “Other people seem to understand things and I just don't get it right away, you know? Everyone else could see I was going to end up hurting someone, but not me!”

Cris cleared his throat. “Um, Nate, I think if I had been in your spot, I might have made the same mistake. I think a lot of people would. I can't imagine having a bunch of people competing for my affections, but you had that. How do you deal with something like that? I sure don't know.”

I pursed my lips and decided to press on. “Anyway, I told him I didn't mean to hurt him and explained about how it was a confusing time for me. The upshot was he wanted to know why I'd never dated him. I didn't really have a good answer. But we talked more and then...he ended up asking if I missed his kisses.”

“And what did you say?” Dylan asked.

I looked at him shamefaced and began spitting words out quickly, again. “I said I did. I was being selfish, Dyl. I wanted him to stay. But he said he wanted to give me affection, so how could I feel bad about accepting something he wanted to give me?”

Cris was nodding his head. “I get it. You must be worried you're leading him on. But, I don't know...are you up for dating right now?”

“That's just it!” I exclaimed. “I told him I can't! I told him I'm such a mess right now that I can't get into a relationship. He doesn't seem to care and I don't know if it's because he's just horny and wants me or if he's playing a long game to try and date later or if he really cares and is going to go with a friends with benefits's a mess.”

Cris and Dylan looked at each other and then Dylan placed his hand on my arm. “Did you bring any of that up to him?”

I nodded. “Yeah. He said he wasn't in love with me, just horny. But...he asked that we be exclusive, right now. He...we, um, had sex last night.”

Dylan frowned and I cowered, afraid he'd be disappointed with me.

“Please, don't be mad, “ I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. “I knew it would happen. I even wanted it. I could stop thinking about...everything, then. He was really nice when I got up and went to my mom's room in the middle of the night and...I just...I think he's in love with me even though I'm not in love with him. I think...I don't want...please, Dylan, don't be mad at me.”

“I'm not, Nate, I promise,” he said absently and reached out to rub my back a few times before resting his hand on my shoulder. “I have no idea why you're so worried I'd be angry—”

“Because!” I exclaimed. “Devyn is leaving after this summer! All I have left is you and Hannah!”

Cris rapped his knuckles on the table. “I'm here too, bud. Plus you had lots of guys there for you the past few weeks. Do you not know them well or something?”

I nodded at Cris and said, “I barely know most of them, even though they did come through for me,” I admitted. “But really, day-to-day, it's you three. That's all. And Hannah is pretty disconnected right now, you know?”

“Yeah," Dylan said, “She was good for a few days there a couple of weeks ago, but you're right. She's gotten distant. That really sucks, I kind of thought she might want to date you, too.”

I shook my head. “I think something happened to her, Dyl. I mean, what she told us? I don't think it was the whole story. She's afraid to be alone with a guy. Like, school hallways where things are crowded or public things seem to be okay, but outside of I think that fuck Josh Ridley did something more to her.”

“Wow. I...well, I hadn't thought of that.”

“That's why I don't want you to be mad at me. I don't have much left, Dyl.” I glanced at Cris and nodded at him, just so he knew I'd heard and hadn't forgotten.

“I promise I'm not mad at you, Nate. I know you must be feeling pretty raw and...I'm not mad. I am worried, though. You seem like you're thinking this through, but I'm afraid Nik's feelings for you might...well, it might get messy despite your best intentions.”

Dylan placed a hand on my forearm and said, “Nate, you're a really sweet guy. I'm proud of you, really.”

I looked up. “You are? But why?”

“Three months ago, you wouldn't be asking these questions. I'm glad you realize there is a chance for some heartache here. I hope it doesn't come to pass, but I think it's a good thing you're growing as a person. Let's face it,” he said with a chuckle, “You can't get by on cute forever.”

I smiled at him and then chuckled a little. I wiped my eyes and felt relief that Dylan wasn't angry with me.

“I'm relieved you're not mad at me,” I said.

“Well,” he said, dragging the word out. “I'd have been happier if you'd come with me last night.” He glanced at Cris and then back at me. “We'd have made it work. But it didn't happen and this thing with Nik...well, I don't know what'll happen. If you ask me, I think Nik has had the hots for you since you guys came back from camp—not that I blame him. Is he horny? No doubt. Does he love you? I think if he hasn't fallen for you, he will.”

I shook my head, but Dylan continued.

“I'm serious, Nate. He seems to be totally turned on by you. If you were a jerk, maybe he'd back away...but you aren't. I think he's probably going to stick close to you, now that you let him in. Maybe...I don't know, maybe it's a good thing, Nate.”

I glanced at him. “You really think so?”

Dylan scrunched his mouth off to one side. “You need rest and, I have to admit, you look more rested than you did yesterday. In a way, he's right as well. If he wants to give you affection and it's something you need then there isn't much harm, for now. Eventually, I guess, you'll have to find a balance.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah. You're probably right.”

We fell silent as we finished off our food, but for some reason every little thing I felt I'd done wrong since forever was nagging me. I don't know why I felt such a need to confess or wallow in all the things I felt I'd done wrong, but the thoughts and guilt just wouldn't stop coming.

“Um.” I looked back down at my hands, my shredded napkin on the table. “Dyl, you said you talked to Cris about everything, right? Everything about us?”

“Yeah, of course.” Dylan paused and said, “I'm not ashamed of anything I've done and even if I were, I hope I've learned from it. I'm certainly not going to hide it from Crispy.”

I glanced at Cris and then at Dylan. “I don't know why I'm thinking of all this stuff. Regrets, maybe. Guilt. I don't know. But...I feel bad after...that night. I'm sorry I didn't return the, um, favor.”

Dylan's face slowly spread into a wide smile and he glanced at Cris and began to chuckle. Patting my arm he said, “Don't worry about it. Not only did it take you a few beers to get into the right place, I hit a triple off Cris so it's all good.”

I glanced at Cris, who was drinking through his straw and blushing. I smiled a little and laughed lightly. Suddenly I frowned as a thought occurred to me. “Hey, I thought you needed the beer muscles, not me!”

“Huh?” Dylan asked, mystified. “Not me. You were always kind of..I don't know, more open to the idea after a few beers.”

I shook my head and leaned back in my seat. “Nope. We had a few beers at the going away party for Adam.” I paused and glanced at Cris. “The one where he didn't stay away. That's when Dylan, here, kissed me.”

Cris was nodding. “I know. Dylan did tell me, though, that it seemed like you needed a few beers to be comfortable with fooling around.”

I shook my head. “I thought it was him. I just went along with it.”

“Jesus,” Dylan said, smacking his forehead. “I had to drink all that crappy beer and didn't need to?”

“I know. I thought maybe you were an alcoholic or something,” I said with a snicker.

He shook his head and smiled at me.

“Nate? Baseball playoffs are on, want to catch a few innings?” Cris asked.

“Oh, come on!” Dylan groaned. “Sports again? Didn't we watch basketball last night?”

“That was hockey,” Cris said dryly.

“Well, they said net a bunch of times. I thought basketball had a net.”

“It does,” I said with a nod. “But you don't play basketball on ice.”

“Christ,” Dylan said with a shake of his head. “If we have to watch sports then you have to make your nachos.” Dylan pointed at Cris who was nodding his head.

“Can do, just have to stop at the store. Um, but you like baseball, what's with the resistance?”

“I like watching you play. Why would I care about strangers?” Dylan replied with a shrug as he polished off his food.

“He just thinks you're cute, so he puts up with it,” I said with a nod and wink to Cris. “I know. He did it to me, too.”

“I did not!” Dylan said, completely undermining the denial with his laughter.


After the game and some really good nachos, Cris dropped me off on his way home. I was really impressed with him and it made me feel better about my own failings with Dylan that he'd found such a great guy. I knew I didn't have to worry if they'd take care of each other or cheat or anything like that. It was a relief.

Entering the house I kicked my shoes off and added them to the pile by the door. My uncle Dale was in his easy chair with some sporting event on. It was his traditional spot on weekends and the sport didn't seem to matter, even snooze-fests like golf.

“Hi, Nate. Have fun with your friends?”

“Yeah, uncle Dale, I did. I needed it, I think,” I replied as I sat down on the couch. “What are you watching?”

“I actually don't know,” he said in a speculative tone. “I fell asleep with the TV on, just came to when you opened the door. What the hell am I watching?”

“Looks like women's basketball,” I said.

“Yeah, I think you're right. They have a bit more jiggle than the average NBA player,” he said with a chuckle. We watched the game for a few minutes and I was surprised how good the teams appeared to be. When the commercial hit I got up and went to get a glass of water and asked my uncle if he wanted a new beer.

“No, thanks, Nate,” he said. “Alice would yell at me for making you my waiter, anyway. You trying to get me in trouble?”

I chuckled. “No, sir.”

“Say, listen, Nate,” he said as I sat down with my glass. “I want to get this said. Your aunt Alice and I weren't teenagers so long ago that we don't know what...things sound like. I just want you to know that we support you, no matter who you are. Okay?”

My eyes felt wet again and I nodded. “Thank you. I'm still figuring that out, actually.”

“Well, there's no rush. It's your life, after all.”

The game came back on and we watched for a while. Devyn came home and greeted everyone. Shortly thereafter Aunt Alice came through the front door with a few bags and fussed over me for a minute and then went to set out leftovers from all the food people had brought us. We ate together and while it was somewhat quiet, it had the feel I'd come to expect with family meals. There was some teasing, some questions about everyone's days, and it was a good time.

Later that evening I got changed for bed and walked across the hall to see Devyn. He was sitting on his bed, changed for the evening as well, and he smiled as I entered the room and patted the bed beside him.

“Did you hang out with Griffin today?” I asked as I took a seat.

He nodded and wrote on his boogie board, 'We went to see Philip and try to smooth things over with him.'

“How'd that go?”

He held his hand out flat and tilted it from side to side.

“He looked uncomfortable yesterday. It was nice that he showed up, though, especially with Boomer here.”

Devyn nodded an affirmative. He gave me a speculative look and wrote, 'So, Nik, huh?'

My face fell and I looked away, sure he was not happy with me. I don't know why, because he'd known Nik was staying, but I felt it nevertheless. I heard the stylus on his boogie board and then he patted my shoulder and I looked up, knowing he couldn't simply say what he needed to without me looking at him. He had the board facing me and I read it.

'You slept well.'

I cleared my throat. “Yeah. I did.”

He turned the board back and wrote some more before turning it to me to read again. 'I've heard you in the night. Getting up and down. You've looked very tired.'

I nodded. “I am. I haven't slept well since...well, I told you that.” I rubbed my hands on my pants as he wrote again.

'I'm worried for you, Nate. I know I'm not your dad or anything but I've tried to watch out for you and I think that having sex right now is asking for trouble.'

I blushed a bit, wondering how everyone seemed to know. I looked down at my hands as I wrung them, feeling much as I had when speaking to Dylan. I'd wanted very much to acknowledge Devyn and what he'd done for me and now seemed like the time. I simply couldn't look at him as I did. So as my fingers tried to knot themselves and my guts felt like they actually did, I told him.

“Um, I know what you've done for me. I know you barely knew me and I didn't know you a little less than a year ago. Since then you've become...become....” I wiped my face and he tried to turn me toward him but I pushed his hand away.

“I have to say this,” I told him, my words thick. I cleared my throat and tried to continue, “You've become my role model. Every day I try to be more like you. Every day I...fall amazingly short. I know I'm lucky to have you, Devyn. I know I don't deserve the things I've been given and maybe I'm a little selfish, even, for being mad at the world and wanting my mom back when I'm so...stupid.

“But I can't help that I'm already dreading you leaving this fall. Dylan has a boyfriend and, lucky me again! He lives far enough away that I can have Dylan to myself during the week. Hannah...well, she has her stuff to deal with. I know...” I hesitated, my gaze darting from my hands and around the room. “I know I can't do a relationship right now. For once in my stupid life I thought about someone else and I told Nik that. He...doesn't care. I thought, maybe, he just wanted sex with me and that would be that. I didn't mind the idea, at least I could shut my mind down and just feel.

“But he said something this morning...he gave me a look. I know last night meant more to him. I know he...I'm pretty sure he's in love with me. I was honest,” I said, my gaze flitting from my hands to his concerned expression. “I told him I wasn't in love with him. He's trying to play it cool. I've been thinking about it all day. But, Dev...” I looked up at him with tears in my eyes.

“Last night I felt wanted. Last night I finally was able to sleep. I...I didn't need the sex, I didn't. I liked it, I didn't say no. But I didn't have to have it. I just...I can't sleep alone.”

I sat in miserable silence while his stylus tapped along his boogie board. I started wishing I'd learned more sign so I could talk to him, or rather so we could talk to each other. Just one more thing I should have done and hadn't.

He cleared his throat to get my attention and handed me the board. With a shaking hand I took it from him and read.

'I hate not being able to talk to you. I'm sorry you've gotten this idea in your head of who you are. I don't think you're stupid; I think you're a blessing. I'm not religious, I don't even know if I believe in any deity, but I know you were a gift. I love having you in my life and that won't change when I go to college, I promise. I don't want to lose you, either.'

I looked up and he held his hand out for the board. I gave it back and then he erased it and started writing again. My mind was consumed by his words. How could any of that be true? I hadn't listened when he'd advised me about my dating excesses before; I'd been coming to him to solve my problems and to try and learn better ways to think. How could he think that was a blessing?

He handed me the board again and I read. 'You make me feel important and wise, coming to me for advice. Read that again. I know you went through a confusing time and you handled it as well as anyone could have, considering. I'm...sorry about your mom. I really liked her. I promise to share mine with you.'

I handed back the board and said, “But I didn't listen to you about any of my dating. I didn't take your advice.”

He held up a finger, wagging it, and went back to writing. I had even less time to consider as he handed it back to me again.

'I'm glad you were honest with Nik. You're right, but you aren't responsible for his feelings. You could say no to his advances—normally, you probably would, like before. Right now you're vulnerable. He makes you feel valued. He gives you comfort. That's okay, if you keep your head. Your value isn't defined by what anyone thinks, even me.'

“But I want you to like me. To be proud of me,” I said, returning the tablet. He smiled and held his finger up as he resumed writing. Shortly he handed it back.

'You don't have to take my advice every time I give it. Your job is to consider it and weigh it and take what you need from it. I don't know it all, and I don't claim to. The way you're handling this is very mature and shows progress. I love you but I also like you as a person. I'm also very proud of you. I love telling people you're my cousin and all about your math skills and your sports accomplishments.'


He nodded and wiped the board, returning it to me shortly.

'My dad hasn't always been the guy you know now. He loves that you watch sports with him and he likes going to watch you play. You're giving him something I can't. You're a true blessing.'

My eyes welled up again and, of course, we hugged. I clutched at him and bawled like a baby, but my body was feeling free. A weight had lifted, knowing both Dylan and Devyn were still there for me. Not only that, but that they felt I was there for them.

Devyn rubbed my back and then leaned away, looking at me. I sniffled and wiped my eyes. “I'm okay,” I told him. He tilted his chin down and looked at me as if over glasses.

“Seriously, Dev. I'm fine.”

He nodded and wrote more on his boogie board and handed it to me. I wiped my eyes again to clear them and read.

'How would you feel about me actually being able to speak to you?'

I looked up at him. “I'd love it. But, what, you mean like one of those robot voice things?”

He shook his head and wrote some more. Returning the tablet, I read, 'No. There is a new surgery that this doctor pioneered in Cincinnati. They use the lining of your cheek and then use a laser on them to harden them up so they can vibrate. It's still kind of experimental, but they've had some success with it. I wanted to ask your opinion.'

My eyes went wide. “Me? What's there to decide? I'd love to be able to hear you talk to me!”

He smiled and wrote some more, pausing to shake his hand. I'd imagine his finger muscles were cramping from all the writing. He handed the tablet back and I read, 'Any operation can be dangerous, of course. This is surgery on the neck. That's always tricky. Griffin doesn't want me to do it, mostly, but he has a few reasons why he does want me to go through with it. I want your thoughts.'

I stared at him and then pursed my lips. “Okay, sort of stream of consciousness here, but first I'd love to hear you talk, like I said. I'd love not waiting to know what you want to say by having Griffin interpret or having you write or text. I guess, though, there are some practical and less selfish reasons.”

He lifted an eyebrow and rolled his hand in a 'go on' motion.

“Well, what if you were in a fire or trapped? You can't wing a boogie board through the flames to tell people where you are. What if you were in any number of dangerous situations, like a car wreck? On the other hand,” I said and frowning as I did so, “the idea of you taking a risk like that is more than a little scary. I'm not even sure I want to know the odds, because it doesn't matter. I wouldn't want to risk you for anything.”

He smiled and scratched on his board. 'The surgery has a very high success rate so far. I think they pay even more attention to these things because everyone is watching, you know? Experimental? Could lead to it becoming a standard practice which means money. Plus...I could call you from school.'

I smiled at him weakly. “I'm not worth that kind of risk, Dev.”

He grabbed my jaw and made me look at him. He stared at me, eyes locked to mine. I started to wiggle back but he gripped harder and continued to stare fiercely.

“Dev, that hurts,” I said. He shook his head and continued to stare. And then I noticed one tear sliding from his left eye. Then one from his right barreled down, beating the first one to his chin. He slackened his grip and held a finger up to me to hold me in place. I brought a hand up to my chin and rubbed as he wrote furiously, sloppily.

'Don't you ever say that again. Next to Griffin, you're the person I couldn't live without. You're a huge part of my life, a good, kind, decent, sweet kid. Nik doesn't know how lucky he really is.'

I pursed my lips in embarrassment, yet I was warmed by his words. Jesus, I was such a wimp. When did I get so needy?

He tapped my shoulder and I read, 'Bedtime. I'm brushing.'

I nodded. “Yeah, me too.”

We walked to the bathroom and commenced washing up for bed. I bid him goodnight and walked into my room, feeling awake and knowing I'd be dead tired in the morning. If only it were a weekend or a vacation, then Nik might be here. I reached for my light, but ran into Dev's arm.


He held up the board. 'My bed is larger. Come sleep with me.'

I blushed. “Dev, I'm not a little—”

He grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the room, flipping my light off as he closed the door. He marched me to his room and I, shamefaced, climbed in with him.

“You don't—”

He put a finger over my mouth and then pulled it back and wagged it back and forth. He hit the light and the bed creaked as he climbed in. He lay on his back and pulled me up to his side. Tentatively I placed a hand on his chest and eased my head onto his shoulder.

“Thank you, Devyn. For everything.”

He squeezed me once in reply. I yawned. Minutes later my eyes fluttered closed and I slept. And I slept well. Very, very well.

~The End~

Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed my story. ICYMI I'm hearing from just a few of my readers about what they think, what they thought was funny or what pissed them off in a story. I pay money to host my site and post stories that you are reading. So, now that you've read, please don't assume someone else will say what they thought, go to my message board and leave a note, even as a guest. I did my job, reader, please do yours.