My shoes beat out a steady rhythm for the outside world, while my ears were filled with the sound of the ocean crashing on a beach somewhere. I wasn't out to sprint, just trying to clear my head. Life isn't fair – I've heard that more than once and I know it's true. Unfair things happen every day. I was also beginning to realize I was allowed to be unhappy about something being unfair. I mean when unfair things happen to me, I'm unhappy, but it's a difference to be allowed to be unhappy about it. Like giving yourself permission to feel bad about something and saying that's okay.
I'm not missing out on the big three things – food, clothes and shelter. In many parts of the world that puts me out in front. My problem – well, my problem in this context – was that I didn't belong with my parents. They weren't big-time, headline news evil. They were low-key, subtle evil. I have always felt like I was constantly being tested by them, and failing. The disapproval, the control, the suspicion – the way they didn't even try to hide that they had a favorite child, and I wasn't it.
For as long as I can remember we've been congregants of the Little Country Church – which isn't little, isn't in the country and is less a church than it is a cult. But then I repeat myself. Hah. I crack myself up. The church life sucks. We spend a lot of time there on Sunday, and we get enrolled in bible study classes, but the hypocrisy is undisguised. The lead pastor drives a Lexus. The youth pastors are enthusiastic idiots who spout platitudes and haven't really nailed that whole double-speak thing the pastor does so well.
Ironically, the church is why I get away with so much – because my parents buy into the idea that church functions are safe, controlled affairs. In reality they are just run by people, people who fall asleep or trust too much that kids won't get up to crap or who just look the other way because they have their own side action going on.
I know what people say about me. I'm a slut. They're not wrong. I like sex, or what I can get of it. I'm not allowed to date, so it's covert shit at church camps, church dances and sleep-overs. I don't want to make it sound like there's some underground orgy circuit or that even all the kids in the church feel like I do. I guess professionals might call it 'acting out' with 'risky behavior', but in all honesty it was the best I could get. My only saving grace was that my parents couldn't afford to send me to the shitty church school.
I slowed as I arrived back at my house. It's not really a home. My deficits in life mostly come back to this – lack of emotional input, lack of value and a bleak environment that lacks nourishment for my soul. Or whatever passes for one. The house is gray, a single story ranch with no lawn decorations. We have no pets, because my mother thinks they are dirty. The lawn was reasonably neat, but everything on the outside was bland. With a sigh I walked to the side door that led to the kitchen – we didn't use the front door. My dad said the front door was for company and salespeople.
Inside the side door was a small mud-room type of area where I kicked off my shoes.
“Garret,” my mother said in her standard bland tone. “You didn't take the garbage out this morning.”
Ah, crap. “I'll do it now, Mom.”
“Today is garbage day. Now it will sit out there for a week,” she said, adding in a thread of guilt and two of disappointment to the blanket of reproach she was weaving.
“I'm sorry,” I said, though I wasn't. I yanked the bag out of the can.
“Don't forget a new bag,” she said in a resigned tone.
“Do I ever?” I asked under my breath. I tied it off, put the new bag in and dashed outside to toss the bag. I got back inside without her seeing I'd left the house in my socks, which would have been sin number four-hundred-twenty-seven for today.
I got a glass of water and headed toward my bedroom. The house was small, and even though there was a third bedroom, I was forced to share with my brother Tim, so my parents could have a craft room / office space. It really chafed on me, not least because Tim and I had a bunk bed to save what little space there was. I had no opportunity to sprawl out like kids do in movies where they get king-sized fucking beds and text forever on their new phones and Bose headphones. First world problems, but I reminded myself I'm allowed to be unhappy about it.
“Hey,” Tim grunted from the top bunk.
I nodded at him as I drank from my glass.
“I can't wait for school to start,” Tim said, looking down. “I'm so sick of this summer. Bible camp. Church retreat. Who needs all that Jesus?”
I felt the same way. “Not sure. Mr. Mattey told us to follow the money if you want to know why things are done a certain way. Whoever is profiting is why.” Mr. Mattey was a teacher in our old middle school. He was a lot of fun to talk to – cranky, and he seemed to enjoy questions that made him more cranky. Kind of missed the guy.
Tim took on a thoughtful expression, and I pulled off my sopping tee shirt and tossed it into my hamper, followed by socks and shorts.
“The church, then?” Tim asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. My feet were hot and kind of sweaty and left a damp outline of my foot on the wooden floor. I always thought it was kind of neat. A fleeting impression of where I'd been, gone forever moments later.
“Do they think annoying kids means they'll make money later? Kind of a bad model, right?” he asked.
He's a smart kid. “If you believe,” I said as I grabbed underwear from my drawer. “They think you'll stay and inflict this on your kids later.”
“I don't think I want kids,” Tim said.
I paused and looked up at him. “Yeah? Little young to think of kids, right?”
He shrugged. “After all that talk about saving yourself for marriage and what Christ expects of each of us, I'm kind of thinking...no. Not for me. Why do I have to live up to that? If Jesus wants more kids, why doesn't he come down and immaculate conception all the ones he wants?”
I laughed. “I don't know. Guy can't manage money either, so maybe he needs some kind of celestial Viagra to get things working.”
Tim swung his bare legs over the edge of the bed and let his feet dangle. “I don't like the idea,” he said seriously. “I don't want to have kids for someone else's reasons. If I don't want any, do I have to?”
I nodded. “I back your play. Just don't say that to mom and dad or they'll sell you into child marriage or something,” I said, only half-kidding.
His lips drew down to a thin line. “Yeah, I know.”
I went and showered. Truth be told, I couldn't wait for school to start either. It felt more like the real world was giving me a chance to integrate with it again. I'd have a chance to talk to people, not that I overdid that. It was tough to spend time with the normal people because of the church and how much of my time it took up. My experiences were different compared to the other kids, which sometimes makes it harder to fit in. Rumors fly around about the church, some even weirder than reality. It used to be kind of funny if a kid asked an off-the-wall question like if it was true we sacrificed animals or had ritual orgies. I always said yes about the orgies, no to being cruel to animals.
Trying to be normal was why I did sports. I like playing, and I'm even passably good, but it gave me a reason to not participate in some church things and spend more time with normal people.
My dad pounded on the bathroom door. “God can see you, Garrett!”
Jesus. “I'm just showering, Dad!” I replied.
“Not for twenty minutes!” he retorted.
Christ. I hadn't even jacked off. I shut the water off and toweled dry before heading back to my room.
Tim snickered. “Dad interrupt you?”
“Dad interrupt you?” I mimicked and screwed up my face. “No. They are so against it, I bet they don't even touch themselves,” I said bitterly.
“Ewww!” Tim said, laughing. I smiled a little. Then, of course, I took it farther and made up shit about them trying to have a baby without feeling any desire to touch each other. Tim said they probably put pillowcases over their heads and kept grunting that it was 'all for Jesus', and my God this kid makes me laugh.
We got called out to dinner, a solemn affair. I wasn't spoken to except for passing something and to be reminded it was my chore to clear the table. By contrast my parents engaged Tim about his excitement at going back to school and what classes he was looking forward to. The looks of dismay when he said science made me love my little bro so much.
“There is a lot science can't explain, not the way our heavenly father can,” my mother told him.
“They fill your head with such nonsense. Theories! I have a good mind to join the school board just to fight against some of the things they teach. Evolution? What garbage,” dear old dad said, cutting Tim off.
“Would you like it if they taught the flat earth model?” Tim asked, except the clever little runt sounded like he was trying to please my father. He's scary smart sometimes.
“Well, I think there's room for doubt about a round earth,” he said with less conviction.
“Do you really think God put dinosaur bones in the ground to challenge our faith?” Tim asked. I recognized his tactic. He absorbed so much it was scary. If he learned a new concept in science, he'd usually meet with the teacher to go over anything he didn't logically understand. He'd research a question on the school computer rather than let it go. He was curious about everything. He even managed to set up things like Instagram and get tagged in on various pictures and stuff. Tim was popular despite some people finding him tough to approach because of his brain.
But once Tim got something, he liked to drag it out in front of our parents and try to make them think – or defend their positions. Pastor always gave incomplete answers, according to Tim. My little brother lost his faith about the same time I did – which shows you how far ahead of the curve he is. I smiled to myself as he led my parents down a merry path that exposed their ignorance, but somehow didn't challenge them enough to get them angry.
And that was how the last few days of our summer vacation went – except I had soccer practice during the day. Dad worked as a janitor for a cleaning company and Mom worked down at Taco Shack as a shift leader. She claimed she didn't want to be a manager, but I think that boat had sailed a long time ago.
Our school year had started with just a two-day week before giving us Friday through Sunday off. What kind of scheduling is that, anyway? Trying to ease people out of their summer schedules? Or maybe it was a concession to teachers at the shock of having to deal with a bunch of assholes who didn't want to be there? I don't know. I wanted to be there, and I wasn't thrilled to get the long weekend right away.
Tim and I had flip phones for calls only, and it was so useless I forgot it at home more often than not. Plus it was embarrassing that they didn't trust us when so many kids who were clearly missing a whole strand of DNA got brand new ones all the time. It was for that reason that I was surprised when the damn thing rang – the fact that someone was calling and that I had remembered it, so I was surprised when the damned thing rang.
Glancing at the screen I noted it was Luther Talbot, a kid I knew from church. “Hey, Luth,” I said.
“Garret! What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked with enthusiasm.
“Uh, may have a few options,” I said, not wanting to commit to a bible study class or something with him. Luther was okay, and his family far more permissive than any I knew of in the church. They still paid lip-service to things like brain-washing their kids for Jesus, though. Honestly, I don't know why they go to this church.
“Well, cancel them,” he said authoritatively. He lowered his voice and said, “Sleep over. There's a party up in Highland Estates.”
Highland Estates was semi-rich-people territory. “And? What does that have to do with us?”
“We're going to crash it,” he said and giggled.
“You handing out flyers for church or something?” I asked, and Tim cocked his head at me. I rolled my eyes and mouthed 'Luther' to him. He nodded and let out a sigh as he looked back down at his math text.
“Hoping to get laid,” Luther said, drawing me back to his conversation. My jaw dropped.
“Luther! You think about sex? You better go pray!” I said, starting to laugh. His end of the line filled with his laughter. Tim was back to looking up at me in curiosity.
“Fuck you, Garrett. Just because you bag some all the time doesn't mean the rest of us don't want some. Besides, with you there, maybe I can get some wingman action. What do you think?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, can't hurt to try, right?”
I hung up and Tim was looking at me with curiosity. “What about sex?”
I shook my head. “Luther. He.” I paused and closed our bedroom door before continuing. “He wants me to stay over and go to a party with him. He thinks that equals him getting laid. It probably equals him throwing up behind a houseplant.”
Tim chuckled. “But you're going for you?”
“Well,” I said, dragging the word out and smiling.
“I can't wait until I get a life,” Tim grumped.
“Hey, at least the folks like you,” I told him.
“That's no picnic,” he retorted.
I sighed. “Yeah. I know.”
Tim looked at me thoughtfully. “Do you think the parents would be happier to know you got a girl pregnant or just happy you had sex with a girl?”
I paused and looked at him. “What are you talking about, Tim?”
He regarded me steadily, his face so like mine with his blond hair lighter than mine, but eyes that were every bit copies of my own dark ones.
“I think they'd try to make you get married,” he said, ignoring my question. “It fits their ideas of the world: procreation for the greater glory – you know the speech.”
He knows. He knows and he's not saying it. Tim is a little over a year younger than I am, just enough that it landed him two grades behind me. So while I was a Junior, he was a freshie. A frighteningly smart one who knew me inside and out.
I cleared my throat. “And what would you think?”
He shrugged. “I don't want to be an uncle, so I'm good with none of that happening.”
I let out a slow breath.
“I wish we'd had football practice today,” he said, the conversational equivalent of a hairpin turn. “The weight room is okay, but I like running the drills and stuff.”
“Conditioning will do a lot for your build,” I said, accepting his steering of the conversation. “Build up stamina.”
“Why didn't you play football?” he asked.
“Getting tackled looks like it hurts,” I said with a little grin. “Besides, I don't like the weightlifting much either.”
He nodded. “I don't want to be like Malik. His muscles have muscles and it makes him look like he got too much radiation.” He paused. “I wonder if his gonads look smaller because of all his muscles?”
I chuckled. “Gonads? You have Gordon for Biology, don't you.”
“Yep. He's all about the gonads,” he said and laughed. “Still, makes you think, right? If you start out with an average length and normal sized gonads, and then you lift weights so you look like a some freak-show bodybuilding reject, then doesn't it make sense that your junk looks smaller? I mean, there are no lifting programs for your cock and balls, right?”
I covered the lower part of my mouth to hide my smile. “I dunno. I saw this video once where this guy put his erection through the hole on one of those kettle bells. He was flexing his dick and lifting the weight.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really? You're screwing with me.”
I laughed. “I totally am.”
“You're a dick,” he said, laughing. “Imagine that. Weightlifting for cocks.” We both burst out laughing. It was the stupidest thing.
I talked to him about school and sports and just stuff in general, neither of us speaking about my sexuality – veiled or otherwise.
Getting permission to stay at the Talbots' house wasn't hard. My parents trusted other adults from the church by default. The Talbots had six kids, and Luther was number four. The oldest two had left home – one wasn't spoken of and the other went to some religious college that wasn't really a college and that was preparing her for a lifetime of making sandwiches for some douche bag. The Talbots had a larger house, but not by that much. Still, Luther had his own room, so it was big enough.
“I heard Nina Desautelle will be there,” Luther said once we were in his room.
“Oh?” I asked, perking up. Nina and I had fooled around plenty. Even though she wasn't in the church anymore I suddenly had prospects for a blowjob.
“Yeah, glad you agreed to sleep over now, huh?” Luther asked with a wicked grin. “How many times you nailed her, huh? You should just date her and get some on the steady.”
I smiled and snorted. This was how I had the school rep of being a slut. If I didn't challenge their assumptions, then that's what they would think and repeat. Some might wonder why I'd let a reputation like that...flower? Fester? Depends on your point of view. One reason – not the first, just one – was I liked sex. I liked being touched or desired. If people thought you were easy, then they could reasonably take their shot. Another reason was it kept some of the serious types away. The kinds that looked down on those that enjoyed sex or who they thought had sex indiscriminately. Serious people were about control, and they stuck their noses in the air and decided if others weren't as prudish as they were, then there was something morally wrong with them. I'm not saying there is nothing morally wrong with me, but of all the things, that isn't one. Of course the biggest reason was that if they all thought I was into banging girls, they'd never suspect me of wanting the guys.
And here's the thing. I know who I am. I know what I want. The reality is I can't. People talk sometimes about the statistics of adults who throw out their gay kids, and that's what I'd be – a statistic. I'd be the kid my parents never spoke about again. They'd change the locks, donate my stuff and pretend they'd never conceived me. I know they don't like me much, but I'm not prepared for outright hatred and being pushed out the door with no place to live or any way to take care of myself. I also think they suspect and that's why they don't like me.
So even if this 'reputation' gets back to my parents, it's not going to hurt me as much as the truth would. In fact it might help me.
“Lucky bastard,” Luther grumbled, smiling at me and shaking his head. Luther was an okay guy – average looks, decent personality, and not bat shit deep into the church. He believes, but I think it's because we were conditioned to, not because he's buying everything they're selling. My hypocrisy meter had turned me off to the church a few summers before.
“So how we getting there?” I asked, tossing my bag down at the foot of his bed.
“Mom thinks we're hitting the movies. She'll drop us downtown by Quigley's. I figure we can walk from there.”
“Who's having the party?”
“George Fredricks. His sister is so nice,” he said in a dreamy voice, and then ruined the innocent goofiness by pretending to throw his hips forward sexually. I laughed at him. We headed out to join his family for dinner – his mom was a terrible cook, so his dad cooked a lot. He wasn't that good, either. We ate the tough chicken, slimy pasta and mushy peas anyway. The guy cooked, after all. We got ready to go out and his mom started the way a lot of mothers do – mothers of straight boys.
“Look at you! The girls won't be able to stop staring!” She waved at her husband. “Bill! Look at the boys, would you?”
Luther rolled his eyes and whined for her to drop us off, but she kept it up. Eventually she went to get her keys and her husband sidled up to us.
“Boys. Don't forget that accidents make people, and neither of you is ready to support a family. Think with your brain as opposed to the other thing that people blame when they lose control,” he said, probably thinking himself very sage. For a guy with six kids he didn't seem to have a leg to stand on when it came to safe sex talks.
“Dad!” Luther said with a snort. “We're going to the movies, not an orgy!”
“And movie theaters are dark and things never happen in the last row, is that what you'll say next?” his father asked in a mild, understanding tone that drove me up the wall. He sounded like the pastor.
“No,” Luther said. “But I'm going to the movies with Garrett. Even if we both swung that way, I think kids are out of the question, Dad,” Luther told him, and his father's lips quivered in amusement – or anger, I guess.
“It's the curse of handsome young men,” his father said with a sigh. “Look at me! Six kids! I'm telling you, boys, be careful.”
Finally we got out of there. His mom didn't say much about the way we looked anymore, just telling Luther to use the ride-share account to get home. Yeah, my parents would shit a brick if they heard I'd ridden in a stranger's car.
Quigley's was closed, which was a shame. I could have used a hot drink to warm up with before hitting this party.
“So you going to find Nina when we get there?” Luther asked as we ambled up the sidewalk.
“Nah. I'll probably run into her, if she's there,” I said. “How about you? Looking for someone?”
He shrugged. “I'll have a good time, maybe a few beers even though they taste nasty. If I'm lucky maybe I'll get a make-out or something,” he said. “It sucks being the church kids in a public school.”
“Kind of sucks being the church kids, period,” I said with a chuckle.
“Not for you. Sometimes it seems like you've bagged half the girls at school, and half of their boyfriends,” Luther said with a snort.
“Wait, what now?” I asked, chuckling, but feeling nervous.
“I don't understand why our church is against those kinds of things,” Luther went on as if I hadn't spoken. “I mean if anything they should be in favor. You can't get pregnant, so you don't run the risk of abortion. Who has fewer abortions than gay people?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, think about it. You want to grow your following, so the best way is to get people having babies. Gays don't help increase your numbers,” I said, trying to sound reasonable and academic.
“But God could just zap women pregnant, right? Like Mary?”
I laughed, thinking of Tim's comment a few days before about Jesus zapping babies into as many women as he wanted. “Imagine that story today. Joe the carpenter comes home from a long day and his wife says God made her pregnant. You think that flies today?”
He chewed his lower lip. “It's why my parents don't talk to Amanda, you know.”
“My oldest sister. The one they disowned.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling very small and as if he'd brushed up against my worst fear. “Your parents didn't like her being...a lesbian?”
“Not really. But when she started stealing and doing drugs, they cut her off.” Luther looked away for a minute. “I see her once in a while. She says she's clean, but my parents say all addicts say that. I don't know what to think about it.”
“Shit,” I muttered in sympathy.
“Do you think drugs make people gay?” he wondered aloud.
“No. I think they're just people.”
“But why would they choose to be gay, then? I mean, what's the point?”
I pursed my lips. “I don't think it's a choice.”
“Pastor is an idiot,” I stated flatly.
“You think?” he asked and laughed. “Last week he said something about Jesus unplugging his toilet. I swear, why does anyone listen anymore?”
“Got me swinging,” I replied, smiling at him.
“I guess that makes sense, though,” he said thoughtfully.
“What? What, Jesus unplugged his toilet?” I teased.
“Huh? No!” he said and laughed. “I mean about drugs and gay people. There are straight people who are druggies. The girls are all prostitutes, though.”
“All of them?”
“Sure. How else are they going to pay for it?” he asked in a reasonable tone. “You think they can, like, run a business and be addicted?”
“What about guys, then?”
“What about them?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, if straight women can be addicts – but not managing a business – what about straight men?”
“Oh. I guess they are prostitutes, too. Hey!” he said as if the most amazing thing just occurred to him. “Do you think women rent men for sex, too?”
I burst out laughing. “Why? You want to know where to get hired?”
“No!” he said, his face turning red in the moonlight. “Maybe.”
Highland Estates was a newer development whose main design feature was natural privacy fences in the form of tall hedges and other foliage between houses to create the illusion of privacy. George Fredricks's house was easy to find with all the cars parked outside. I don't know how people our age get away with stuff like this. I was just thankful I couldn't get in trouble for throwing a party.
No one challenged us at the door, so we went in and hunted around until we found a keg in a box of ice in the kitchen. I fumbled with the tap for a second, then filled red cups for Luther and me. Beer was better colder, especially if it was skunky beer. Initially we stayed together, but then we got separated somehow. I wasn't really paying attention to Luther, and I think he was off trying his luck with the ladies.
Luther is a little on the heavier side – and not with muscle – and it hurts him on the dating front. When someone looks past that I think they'll be pleasantly surprised. Guy doesn't have a mean bone in him. I had an easier time of it – I was tall for my age, nearly six foot, and slender. I had a baby set of abs because I ran more than I did crunches and stuff. My complexion cooperated more often than not. I didn't tan easily, but my golden blonde hair and warm brown eyes drew plenty of attention.
“Garrett? How did you end up here?”
Nina. I turned and spotted her – long dark hair, pretty upturned nose and hips that would probably only get wider as time went on.
“Hey, Neen,” I said. I quirked an eyebrow and waited for her inevitable response.
“Two syllables is too much for Garret French, huh?” she said with a little smile.
I shrugged and grinned at her. “What brings you to a party? How'd you get around your parents?”
She sighed and leaned against the wall. “Since the divorce they argue more than they pay attention to me. Unless they're using me to fight each other, that is.” She rolled her eyes. “If one says no, the other says yes out of spite. Mom will demand to know why I was here – if I get caught – and I'll say Dad gave me permission. Then they'll fight. It won't matter if it's true or not; they'll just see it as another opportunity to fight.”
“Damn, girl,” I said quietly. “I didn't know it was that bad.”
She sighed and said, “At least I don't have to go to that church anymore. Your family still go?”
I widened my eyes and sighed myself. “Yeah. Every Sunday at a minimum.”
“Still causing scandals with the lady-folk?” she asked with a grin.
“They cause scandals with me!” I protested, though I was smiling. “Why? You feeling scandalous?”
She rolled her eyes again. “Maybe with my boyfriend later, if he doesn't get too drunk.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You're dating? Who?”
I grunted. Sylvio was from an Italian family. He was about five-seven and the hairiest motherfucker I ever saw. I mean at sixteen this kid had hair poking out of his shirt. His legs looked like wild undergrowth – I wondered if he could find his prick in the nest of pubes that were bound to be present.
“You don't approve?” Nina asked, arching her eyebrows.
“Syl's okay,” I replied. “I just didn't know you were seeing anyone. I wouldn't have made a comment if I'd known.”
She chuckled. “A slut who respects a relationship. You're a real puzzle, Garrett.”
“Now, come on,” I said and pulling a sad face. She just laughed and pushed me, which caused me to laugh back at her. “So. How'd you and Syl get together?”
“I know this will sound weird to you, but he actually asked me out. I know, can you imagine?” she asked, teasing me.
“Aw, you know my folks won't let me date,” I told her.
“Doesn't stop you from stealing bases,” she replied tartly.
“Stealing sounds like I'm getting away with something,” I protested.
“If you're getting blowjobs you can at least buy a girl dinner, Garrett,” she replied drolly.
I scratched my head and pretended to think. “Didn't we go for burgers once?”
“You're a dick head,” she said, deadpan. “Why are you so damn cute if you're just a dick head?”
I grinned and she pushed me again.
I glanced past Nina's head and spotted Sylvio, who was looking a little cool to my presence. Probably my reputation crashing up against seeing me with his girl.
“Hey, Syl,” I replied and held my fist out. He bumped it and seemed to relax just a touch.
“Surprised to see you out here,” he said, testing the water.
Nina turned to face me. “Seriously. How did you get your parents to let you – oh, wait. Who are you with?”
I grinned at her quick thinking. “Luther Talbot.”
“Of course!” Nina said with a dramatic hand to her forehead. “If you want to do something, rope in the most permissive family in the stupid church!”
“Hey, now,” I said in mild protest. “Luther invited me. I'm not taking advantage of anything.”
“I'm sure you were ready to hang out with Luther, party or no, right?” she asked skeptically.
“To be fair, he might have been inviting me to a bible study,” I said, holding my hand out. “I had to ask what he had in mind before agreeing, right?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Fair. But when he said party, you jumped. Am I right?”
“Duh,” I said and she laughed with me.
“Some people are hanging on the deck,” Sylvio said to Nina. “Want to check it out?”
“Sure. See you, Garrett,” she said and Sylvio nodded. I found it a bit amusing that he was afraid I'd steal her away from him. I had no intentions of anything untoward, but I guess people thought I had some supernatural powers when it came to getting sex out of someone.
I floated through the evening, dumping the crappy beer as it warmed up and getting something mixed instead. People were funny when they got drunk, sometimes. There were some attempts to play games, and I watched a group play spin-the-bottle for a little while. I spotted Zack Rowan, and only singled him out in my mind because we were on the soccer team together. I didn't think of him as much of a party guy, and the alcohol seemed to be fucking him up. Ran into Kelly Fruzza and made out with her for a little while. I closed my eyes and thought of any of half-a-dozen guys at school while we tongue wrestled.
Later I bumped into Luther. We were both a little buzzed and decided we needed to pee. We headed upstairs and wandered around a little. The bathroom was huge, and there were people standing in there while others used the toilet. It was weird. Even through the buzz it was weird. I mean there were more people in the bathroom than in the hallway outside the bathroom. What is wrong with people? Oh, alcohol. Luther and I regrouped in the hallway, which was oddly empty compared to the bathroom.
“Fucking girls, man,” Luther said quietly. “I got shot down more than...more than....”
“Yeah. I know.”
Luther snorted. “Like you get shot down.”
“Hey, it happens,” I said.
Luther pressed his lips together. “You think it matters who gives you a blow job?”
“Um, kind of a wide-ranging question, Luth,” I said uncertainly. “I mean, I don't want someone to take their teeth out to give me a blowie, you know?”
His face contorted. “Not like that! I mean, I guess some people don't mind, but that wasn't what I was thinking.”
“Okay, well, I'm not a mind reader. What were you thinking?”
He shuffled his feet. “I was just thinking, like, if you were blindfolded and got a blow job would you even know if it was a guy or a girl?”
“Hmm. Like an experiment?” I asked.
“Right. Like, do you think you could tell the difference? And if you couldn't, then does it matter?”
I chuckled. “You're funny when you're buzzed.”
He grinned then chuckled a little. “Yeah. Weird thing, I know.”
I thought for a minute, not really wanting to reveal myself but also emboldened by the bit of drink I'd had. “Well, I guess if some dude had a beard that was tickling your balls, you'd know. Right?”
We both burst out in a fit of giggles.
“What if...what if,” Luther tried to say, but kept breaking down in giggles. “What if it's a bearded lady?”
We were reduced to giggling messes, leaning against the wall. “You mean like from a circus?” I asked.
“Or...or...someone who is taking hormone shots. You know? Transitioning?” He giggled some more.
“I don't know if it works like that,” I said, laughing less and wiping my eyes.
“Well, if they didn't have a beard, do you think it matters?”
What did I want to say? Despite the buzz, I was feeling a little clearer in the head – or thought I was. “I-”
My response was cut off by a shout from downstairs about police. Oh shit! The police were here!
“Luther, cops! We have to go!” I said, panic lacing through my buzz like a searchlight in the night sky.
He stirred into action beside me and we were jostled by people headed downstairs. My thoughts were a little mushed up, but something clicked and I grabbed Luther's arm. “Wait! The cops are already down there! We have to hide!” I hissed at him.
We stood still, looking around as chaos echoed from downstairs. I almost missed it when Luther said “There!”
I looked up, where he was pointing, and saw the thin rope hanging from the attic access. With no other options I could think of – and with time running out – I grabbed the little plastic handle and pulled down. The panel creaked on its springs and Luther grabbed the foldable stairs, pulling them down for us to climb quickly. I had to go back down and pull up, awkwardly working the stairs back into place as I ascended. I could hear the yelling downstairs and knew it was only a matter of time before they came upstairs.
I pulled the panel shut with a dull thump.
“The rope!” Luther exclaimed in a hushed tone.
“The rope?” And then I pictured how we'd gotten the panel down and it dangling in the full view of any cop to come up the stairs. I felt around the edge of the panel and found the knot that kept this rope from passing through and pulled back, not stopping until the handle on the other end banged into the panel. I tried to secure the rope so that it wouldn't slide back down, so at least it wouldn't be swinging in the hallway to attract attention.
A small light attracted my attention: Luther's phone. I crawled carefully over to him and he led me deeper into the attic by a set of louvers so we could have some fresh air, and I guess we might be able to see or hear something. Pulsing lights were bouncing off things outside, but we must have been angled too far away from the front of the house to see the actual lights. I could hear movement below, but it was faint.
“This totally sucks,” Luther said softly.
I grunted in agreement.
“I think we're okay up here, right?”
“Yeah. We just have to wait it out and hope we can get a ride home in time so your folks don't suspect anything,” I told him.
We sat in the dark, he having turned his phone screen off, and waited. It felt endless in the darkness, with practically no light coming in through the louvers. You had to get close and peep out between the slats to see the bouncing light at all. At least it wasn't too hot – it must have cooled off a little by this time of night. Seems like this party was a bad idea. I wondered how much trouble I'd be in if my parents found out. Maybe I should tell them I was there to meet a girl?
“I was hoping to find a girl tonight,” Luther said softly.
“Yeah. Figured,” I replied, my tone hushed as well.
We sat in silence for several minutes and my mind wandered off in the darkness – would we get away without our parents finding out? Would I have ended up in a worse spot if Nina hadn't had a date? For all I knew we'd have ended up in a bedroom. I wasn't sure about sleeping with a girl. You could close your eyes with a blow job and just enjoy it. You could even think of a guy from school. I guess maybe if I wasn't looking at her – it would feel good, right?
“So,” Luther said, his voice tremulous in the dark. “Do you think it would matter? Who the person was?”
“Person was what?” I asked, returning his whisper.
“You know. A blow job.”
“Oh. Well, no, I guess it doesn't matter that much,” I replied.
I heard him shift slightly. “If I do you, would you do me?”
I became far more aware, my senses on high alert at his words. “What...do you mean?” Was he offering to trade blow jobs? Was I actually about to have my first experience with a guy? I mean, not an ideal guy, but still, he had the right parts in the right places.
“If it was a secret, then yeah. I mean, I was hoping to lose that much of my virginity tonight. I can take one for the team if you will. Just...no one can know,” he said, his voice almost too low to hear.
I licked my lips. My nerves were making me feel jittery. My breath felt short and my palms broke out in sweat. Safe to say I was nervous. “Yeah. Okay.”
He shuffled forward and then a tentative hand brushed past my pant leg, then returned. He shifted again and I felt his hands slide up my jeans to my waist. There was a minute or two of some seriously unsexy fumbling to get my pants down a bit, enough that he could reach my hardon without trouble. It was insane if you stood back to think about it – cops raiding the party we were at, hiding in the attic and two buzzed kids turning toward mutual sex to ride the situation out. I'll say this – it was an effective distraction. He wasn't that good at sucking dick, but it felt damn good just the same. I warned him I was close, but he didn't pull off fast enough and I'm pretty sure I sprayed some on his face. He spluttered a bit, trying to stay quiet. My heart was hammering in my ears and I felt relaxed. Downstairs a few hollow thumps of people going up or down the stairs filtered through to my ears, but no one had thought to check the attic. I figured they'd caught enough people downstairs or had chased enough that they would mark it up as a success without checking every square inch.
“Now me?” he asked quietly, almost as if he were afraid I wouldn't hold up my end.
“Yeah,” I said, letting out a breath. I pulled my pants up and shifted around, engaging in the same hunting method Luther had in finding me. I found his belt and pulled it open, then undid the clasp and pulled the zipper down. I pulled on the sides of his jeans and he wiggled much as I had to get them down far enough. I got them down to about his knees, then yanked again to puddle them around his ankles.
It was odd giving head, especially having only been on the receiving end. I knew a few things, though, from the 'jobs that had been given to me. Luther, having had no experience, didn't last a full minute. I'd forgotten the first time could be kind of quick; I spit his spend out of my mouth and into the Fredricks's attic.
“Fuck,” he said wistfully. “That was fantastic.”
I grunted. It had been kind of cool. I wasn't a fan of the smell, but it had been damn exciting. I settled myself and got lost in a weird little glow. I just had sex with a guy. Not my dream guy, not even a guy I was particularly attracted to, but a guy none-the-less. I'd gotten and given. Holy shit, I've had a dick in my mouth. I rolled my tongue around trying to recapture the feel. The texture. It was like a finger, but not.
Wow. I think I liked it. Was Luther going to want to try again when he sobered up? Was I?
“We can't tell anyone about this. Ever.”
I let out a small breath. “I know.”
“It'd probably bounce off you – school slut and all. But me? I'd get torn apart. Please, Garrett,” he said, his whisper full of desperation.
“Why do you think I'd tell anyone, Luth? Why are you acting like I'd want people to give you shit?” I chose to leave out disputing what people would say about me. Let him believe it could bounce off me – less reason to say it if it's worthless to repeat.
“I just...I don't know. I don't want anyone to find out,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“Well, they won't,” I said firmly. We sat in silence for what felt like an eternity. The room lightened as he looked at his phone.
“It's been more than an hour. Should we chance it?”
Hmm. I looked between the slats of the vent. “I don't see lights flashing. I mean, they may have turned them off.”
I heard him shift. “You think we get down and see?”
I thought for a moment. “Let's go by the ladder and see what we can hear,” I suggested.
He agreed and we used the light from his screen to make our way back to the ladder. Sitting to either side we waited and listened for any sound from below. After a few minutes I pushed down a little on the panel and we heard voices. Not strong, so probably carrying from somewhere on the first floor.
“Yes, thank you, officer. I'm sorry you were called out for this,” I heard a female voice say. “Their parents will be home tomorrow, but as I say, I'll take them with me for tonight.”
The reply was less distinct. Then I heard, “Thank you, officer, and you as well.” Then the solid sound of a door closing.
“Okay. Maybe five minutes for the cop to go?” I asked aloud.
“Sometimes they sit in their cars for a long time, don't they? Like sometimes they sit on the side of the road after writing a ticket? What if they are still sitting out in their car, finishing a report or a donut?” Luther asked.
“Hmm. Let's go look out the vent and see if we can see the headlights,” I said. He grunted.
“I'll go.” He turned the phone screen on and used it to guide him over to where we had been. I almost warned him not to step in his own spend, but whatever. We waited in silence as I glanced back and forth between the line of light indicating the edges of the ceiling panel and Luther's outline on the other side of the room. I was getting antsy and thinking of calling him back over when he spoke.
“I hear a car. And lights. Must be the cop car,” he stage whispered. He made his way back over to me.
“Okay. So someone is here to deal with the Fredrickses,” I said. “We'll have to bail fast, 'cause that adult is already pissed and might call the cops just because we didn't get caught.”
“Shit,” Luther said quietly. “I didn't think about that. We jumping down?”
“I'll try to let it down quietly. If we jump and get a sprained ankle or something, then we're fucked,” I said. Of the two of us I think Luther was more likely to land awkwardly, but the point was still valid.
I pushed down on the panel and listened again, but heard no sounds close by. I put more pressure on the panel and it tilted down, the springs sounding like alarm bells in my heightened state. I felt a trickle of sweat run down my back and realized I felt very hot all of a sudden. I listened again. There was some distant rustling, but I wasn't sure what the sounds were. Whatever it was, it wasn't close by. I glanced at Luther, his face now visible from the light streaming around the edge of the panel and he glanced at me with a question on his face.
So, he was looking to me. I took a breath and nodded. I slowly let the panel down, wincing as the spring made noise periodically. I was about to whisper to him that we would have to move fast if a loud noise was made when I lost my grip as gravity asserted its control on the heavy panel. The springs made loud noises as they flexed and the panel banged to a stop.
“Shit!” I hissed as Luther and I looked at each other in panic.
“What was that?” the female adult voice asked from downstairs.
“Go!” I said, and Luther and I both jumped down, one after the other, damn the possibility of a sprained ankle. The next few minutes were insane. By some miracle neither of us was injured, though the adrenaline of the situation might mask it until later I guess. I don't think I was thinking much anymore, just reacting. We barreled down the stairs and ran past a woman, who yelled at us to get out, and we did as she said – out the front door and into the night.
We ran like the wind. About a block later I started to slow, looking back over my shoulder, and then slowly coming to a stop. I gulped for breath, then glanced at Luther and started to laugh. He grinned and broke down laughing with me. I don't know why. Probably a nervous response. I felt undeniably alive in the moment, though.
We started to walk toward the center of town. “I better get us a ride,” Luther said, and pulled out his phone.
I felt pretty good, actually. We'd gotten away. Luther was a potential minefield with what had happened in the attic. I glanced at him and considered him from a fresh perspective. Luther was an okay guy. I'd never really had a problem with him. I can honestly say I'd never been attracted to him, but should I take a closer look? Was he a possibility of some kind?
“What?” he asked.
“What?” I replied.
“You're looking at me funny.”
“You look funny,” I retorted. Wow, I'm ready to be a dad, hell with what Tim has to say.
He got a worried expression on his face. “It's about what we did. Isn't it?”
I put my hands in my pockets and looked around. I felt a little tense, but maybe this was for the best. “Okay, may as well do this now. We're alone.”
His face crumpled. “Please. Please don't say anything. I just wanted...the girls barely look at me!”
I felt a flash of power go through me. For the tiniest fraction of a moment I knew, I knew I could force this. I could do a lot of the sexual things I wanted to, and on the regular, with Luther. Then the moment passed and I felt shame. At least I hadn't said anything.
“Luth, I'm not going to say anything. I don't know why you think I'd do that to you. When have I ever done something so fucked up?” I demanded.
“No, I know!” I said, growing angry. “Everyone will think it's okay if the school slut sucked a dick, but not Luther Talbot!” I took a step closer and he backed up a step. “Being gay at school wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to you, but fuck you for thinking I'd spread rumors about you, Luther.”
He pursed his lips and his eyes grew wet. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry I said that. We both know it's true, though. I wasn't kidding earlier – I've heard so many stories about you, it's insane. I know most aren't true, because I was around for a few of them. But Garrett...look at me, dude. Girls don't even see me. I'm a nobody and if something like that got out, I'd go from nobody to an outcast.”
I shook my head. “Luther, you're wrong. At most you might get a boyfriend,” I told him. “You already know your parents will be tolerant of a gay child – just not drugs or stealing. My parents? They would disown me and throw me out the door. No joke.”
He looked down and away from me. “I'm sorry, Garrett. I'm just scared.”
“That's the thing I don't get, Luth. I know we're not the best of friends, but when have I ever done something that vile to someone? Like ever?”
He nodded his head slowly and sniffled. “Yeah. You're right.” He glanced up at me. “It's just...I've never done anything. I mean like that or...you know.”
“Yeah. I know,” I said, trying to calm down.
He looked away. “You think less of me?”
“For doing what I also did? Please. And why should you care what I think? Or anyone else?” I asked. “Fuck, Luther. You claim to be a nobody, so that makes you free. You can do whatever you want and don't have to worry about whatever box someone tried to put you in. Be who you want, dude.”
He looked up at me with a pensive expression. “Yeah, I guess that makes some sense.”
We stood around uncomfortably until the ride-share got there. We stayed quiet on the way to his house, and let ourselves in. His parents had gone to bed – they were early risers. They also trusted Luther, likely because he didn't usually do things like what we'd done that night. We got into his room and got changed for bed. I stretched out on the sleeping bag provided for me while Luther settled into his single bed.
In the silence I allowed my thoughts to drift, and as they did I stumbled on the moment I'd felt powerful. I fantasized what it would be like to have some kind of sexual relationship where I was in total control – but my conscience wouldn't let me get very far. I started to feel guilty for fantasizing about it and my mind kept jumping to other things and derailing the thoughts. It was a little irritating trying to have a fantasy with my conscience messing it up.
Luther shifted on his bed. “Do you think...what happened...makes me gay?”
I snorted. “No.”
“But...it's what gay people do,” he said quietly.
“They also mow their lawns, take showers and do bills. Look, Luther, if you were gay I'd be fine with it. You like girls, you've always talked about girls. We had a little to drink, and you remember from health class? They said it lowers your inhibitions, right?”
“So you were horny, you struck out and all that was left was me. Obviously you trust me a little or you wouldn't have even opened your mouth.” I paused. “Um, so to speak.”
He let out a noise that may have been a chuckle, albeit an aborted one.
I thought for a minute about his questions, about some of the things he'd said all night. “Luther?”
“Do...you think you're gay?”
He was quiet for a moment. “No. I just can't seem to get anywhere with girls.”
I turned that over for a second. “Can I let you in on a...well, not a secret, but an observation?”
“Yeah. What am I doing wrong?”
“Honestly? Nothing. I know plenty of people find me attractive, but it's not like I earned that. It's the good fortune of genetics – an accident. Out of any of the...experiences I've had are just that. An experience. People don't like me, they just like how I look. If you want my advice, hang around people and don't try to get with anyone. Just let them get to know you. You're a decent guy and it'll bring you what you want, eventually.”
He shifted on his bed. “Aren't you doing that? I mean, why aren't you?”
I cleared my throat. “I'm not looking for anyone, Luth. I'm never going to fall in love, at least not until I'm on my own and don't have my parents' influence.”
He let out a breath. “Sorry.”
“Don't be. It's for the best.” It was getting serious in here. “So. I guess you feel...blown away?”
“Oh my God, you're a dick,” he groaned.
“A dick in-”
“No!” he said, giggling and rolling toward the edge of his bed to look down on me in the gloom. “Never speak of it again.”
“Well, not with a full mouth. That's rude.”
We both giggled away for a few minutes. Maybe we had some alcohol left in our systems, but I think it was more that we'd passed some bonding point and could be silly right now in the dark. Soon enough his breathing evened out and I was left alone with my thoughts, and of course they turned back on the evening. I wasn't lying to him. He's a decent guy and someone will see that. I think I just realized it tonight, but it took him being a little tipsy and a little brave. In the end it meant the same thing – no falling in love for me.
I had my crushes, off and on. I had a few guys I thought of when I had some alone time. I was even friendly with a few of them – but there was nothing to be had there. Not only were they straight, but even if they weren't I can't see how I could date anyone I went to school with. I'd want to see them. Talk to them. Do...more with them. I still needed a home – house, really. If I were gone, my parents could focus on Tim. Who knows what would happen then? He's smart – smarter than I am – but with both of them on him and focused on him, it would be...well, I don't know. The idea made me uneasy.
I couldn't imagine someone that would cause me to fall in love against my plans, against my will. When I tried to fantasize, my mind threw up roadblocks and questions that made it all but impossible to build a fantasy guy. I guess my subconscious knows best.
Saturday was my favorite day of the week. I didn't get to sleep in, but the one thing my church requires – community service – was the one thing I agreed with them on. I volunteered at a small animal rescue called Whiskers. We mostly had dogs and cats, but we also got a variety of smaller creatures like rats, hamsters and some birds. The dogs were my favorite and I spent most of the day tending to them – washing their bedding, taking them for some exercise and generally seeing to them. I liked this old mutt named Charlie who was the official greeter for the place. He was arthritic and probably the happiest being I'd ever met. He always had a tail wag for someone and I liked taking my break by sitting with him and stroking his coarse fur.
With the weather being nice there was a crew of us working on sorting the donated returnable bottles that we'd exchange for cash to help with the upkeep of all the animals that passed through the doors. It was smelly work and not my favorite job to do, but I liked that the animals would benefit. By the end of the day I was a smelly mess, but Charlie licked my hands in thanks anyway. It was worth it.
I rubbed Charlie's ears as I waited for my ride home. “You like that? You like ear rubs? You do, don't you?” I said to Charlie as he gave me a doggie grin and wagged his tail.
“Now don't you go sneaking him any treats,” Gretchen, the woman behind the counter, said to me. “Doctor says Charlie's got a weight problem, so have to go easy on the treats.”
“I bet the doctor is fat, huh Charlie? Right? Ear rubs!” I said, continuing to give him my attention.
“Who's this guy?”
I glanced up to see a guy my age with a woman who was likely his mother. He had wide shoulders and brown hair with warm brown eyes. His mouth was curved in pleasure as he looked down at Charlie.
“That's Charlie,” I said. “He's the official welcome dog of Whiskers.”
“Aww,” he said, squatting down. Charlie wagged his wag and grinned his grin, completely subjugating another human in his furry grip. “You're an old fella, aren't you?”
“Been here as long as I can remember,” I said. I looked up at Gretchen. “Any idea how old Charlie is?”
She looked down on us. “Ten to twelve, I think. He's in his golden years for sure.”
The woman stepped forward and started to talk to Gretchen about adopting a dog. I perked up and looked at the guy kneeling beside me. “You're adopting a dog?”
He looked up and smiled. “Yeah. You work here? Any suggestions?”
“Totally,” I said with a huge grin.
“I'm Sterling,” he said, holding his hand out.
I put my hand in his. “Garrett. Come on, meet Sampson.”
“Mom, come on. Garrett's going to guide us.”
I walked them through the area where the dogs lived and pointed out the system we used to determine if a dog was ready for adoption – sometimes they were sick, sometimes they had behavioral things to work out. Sometimes the card would let you know if they were good or bad with kids or other animals. Each line item had a red, yellow or green dot to indicate various things about them.
We worked our way down the kennels to a medium sized black and white mutt with an elegant face and soulful eyes.
“Meet Sampson,” I said. “He's a sweet boy and he's gone through a lot to get healthy and ready for a home,” I said. They seemed to like him and I took him out of the kennel for them to meet.
“Garrett! I have dinner on!”
I jumped and turned to see my mother looking at me angrily.
“Um. I have to go. Linda!” I called out to another volunteer. She looked up at me. “I have to go, and these folks are visiting with Sampson.”
She nodded and smiled, coming over to take over. “He's a good boy, hope you like him,” I said to Sterling and his mom. What an unusual, formal name.
“Thanks,” he said warmly. His mom nodded and smiled as well. Dogs bring smiles out in people. I turned toward my mother. Well, smiles out of normal people anyway.
The next week was sort of quiet. Rumors flew about the party that was busted up by the cops. I heard all sorts of things about how many tickets were issued, that the adult Fredrickses were being charged somehow even though they weren't at home. I guess a lot of people were in a world of shit. A few people had seen me there, but I claimed to have bailed before the cops got there. That was a mistake, as the next rumor to hit my ears was that I had called the cops. Jesus, people are pathetic.
Tim and I both threw ourselves into our respective sports – he on the freshman football team and me on varsity soccer. We had daily practices, and I loved working myself to the point of exhaustion. Unfortunately we didn't have practice on weekends, so Saturday night ended up being a 'clean the house until it begged for mercy' kind of thing, and Sunday was one of those marathon church days. Tim and I kept each other company.
I know siblings can kind of go either way – fighting all the time, but protective. Getting along, but not really caring. Tim and I got along for the most part, but I know I genuinely loved him. I was proud of his achievements and very conscious that he was the smarter of us. It wasn't just because my parents focused on him, nor was it just from his grades. He saw things differently than other people. He had a nuance to him that was supernatural, sometimes.
All that nonsense was pushed aside at the start of the second week. Monday we were at practice, working hard. Well, I was. I wasn't a great player, but I worked hard at it to try and be better. Whenever I was rotated off the field I generally watched practice, trying to pay attention to the better players, but I'd also noted we had some spectators sometimes. Parents here and there, but a guy and two girls would show up sometimes.
That Monday I found out that guy was Jerry Mason; I think I'd heard him called Jerry the Fairy. I hadn't paid much attention because it was a rumor, and he wasn't my type. It made me slightly curious, but he seemed angry all the time. The way I found out it was Jerry in the stands is more interesting, though. Brandon McCall, one of my teammates, went over to the bleachers and flat out kissed Jerry. I mean...it was hot. Zack Rowan yelled at them to get a room. They even cheered a little. A heckling one, but not malicious. Maybe because Brandon was an all right kind of guy? Hard to say. I did sidle up to Zack and bump his shoulder.
“Hey,” I said.
“Yo!” he said in a silly voice.
“So...you knew about this?” I asked, jutting my chin toward Brandon and Jerry.
“Brando came out to us a couple weeks ago.” He paused and frowned lightly. “Are you-”
“No!” I said, putting my hands up. “No problem with me. I'm just surprised, I guess. I never thought about it.”
“Neither did I, honestly. But it's all good. Jerry's really decent, and Brando really likes him,” Zack said. “We should all be so lucky, right?”
“Totally,” I said. “You've been friends a long time, right?”
“Like four or five years,” Zack confirmed.
“And...never knew? Never wondered?”
Zack took on a thoughtful expression. “I honestly never thought about it. I mean you'd think who we like would come up from time to time, but I never had a clue.” He snorted. “What does that say about me?”
I chuckled with him and wandered off as we broke up from practice. Wow. Brandon and Jerry. I felt a twinge of jealousy, just over what they were doing in public. It wasn't fair. Did I just not rate having the same things? If I believed in a God, I'd wonder why he was singling me out. I met Tim at the car, my mother there to pick us up, and rode home listening to her question Tim about everything under the sun while ignoring me. I actually felt bad for Tim. It can't be easy having all their hopes, dreams and delusions pinned to you.
“I have a game Thursday at home and an away game next Monday,” I said to my mom, breaking her grip on Tim for a second.
“Do you? I have your schedule at home somewhere,” she said absently. “And you have your game on Saturday afternoon, isn't that right Timothy?”
“Yeah. You're coming, right Garrett?”
Once home Tim and I took turns hitting the shower and eating bowls of soup for dinner. While eating we had our homework out, per house rules, and were talking here and there as we worked.
“Heard something happened at soccer practice?” Tim asked.
He stayed silent and I looked up at him. He was looking at me steadily. “What?”
“Who was it?”
“Brandon McCall and Jerry Mason.”
He studied my face for a minute. “It's not fair.”
I shrugged. “Life isn't fair.”
He stuck his tongue against the side of his cheek and I started to pick up my school stuff. “I think there's something wrong with me.”
I looked up at him, frozen. “Like what? Are you in pain or something?”
He shook his head. “Not like that.” He hesitated. “You know mom and dad have been pushing me at Eloise Stauffer, right?”
I sat back and crossed my arms. There had been a few arranged get-togethers over the summer with Eloise and her parents. Eloise had a cool name, but was about as backward as a person can be. “Sort of, yeah. What's going on?”
“I heard Mom talking. I think it was to Eliose's mom or dad. Did you know you can be married in this state at fourteen if your parents and a judge consent?” His lower lip was quivering.
I verified we were alone for the moment before saying anything. “They were talking marriage?” I asked, my jaw dropping.
He nodded. His eyes were huge and wet. “I don't want to, Garrett. I don't want any of this.”
I clenched my jaw. “Then you won't. I'll figure something out.”
He tilted his head. “I've been thinking about it. What could you possibly do?”
I sighed. “I guess if it comes to it, we'll run away. I won't abandon you to this. But why do you think that means something's wrong with you?”
“Well, why would they do this to me?” he asked.
I snorted. “Because you're smart. You'll probably do very well in life. Getting married keeps you close and dependent. They might be afraid you'll go so far in life as to leave them behind. The Stauffers are as backward as they come. They see getting their daughter with you as an upgrade – and they're right, by the way. You'd be a catch for any girl.”
Tim shook his head. “I don't want to be a catch for anyone. I just want to be left alone.”
I nodded my head slowly. “I hear you. That's what you want for now. I'll do everything I can to help you.”
He let out a deep breath and looked at me. “What about you?”
“What about me?” I asked, wondering what he meant.
“I want to be left alone, but you don't. Do you.” While phrased as a question, his tone was of a statement.
I shook my head. “Love isn't in the cards for me. Let's focus on what's in front of us.”
Tim sighed and nodded, though why that bothered him was beyond me.
I went through the week interested and jealous at seeing Brandon and Jerry starting their relationship. It puzzled me a little. They weren't the only out guys at school, so I'd seen couples before. Why were they bothering me so much? I tried to give that some thought, but all I really did was go in circles. I liked them both well enough and neither had done anything to me, but it stirred me up to have them so consistently around and seeing everything grow with them.
We had our first game. My parents had the Stauffers over for dinner the following night - Friday. I did my best to throw a wrench into their plans by flirting with Eloise and drawing her attention away from Tim. The adults kept contriving to put them together with small things like setting the table together or speaking about one of them and then trying to elicit an opinion from the other. I did my best to drag her attention from my little brother. Her parents relied on the church to get by, and they were only just making it. They lived in an old trailer on church property and did work for the church for a living, as far as I knew. It would be different if this was what Tim wanted – although I think I'd try and talk him out of it. Getting divorced is easy for some, but harder with these nutcases, and the last thing he needed was Eloise, barefoot and pregnant in their single-wide.
Later that night Tim got into his first big fight with my parents, and I got confirmation that Tim was right about what they were up to.
“They are so nice,” my mother said. “Tim, maybe you should think about having Eloise over for a movie. Wouldn't that be nice?”
“For who?” Tim asked.
“Timothy!” my father chided. “She's a nice girl, from a family with faith. She might be a very good match for you.”
“Dad, he's thirteen,” I said, and he glared at me.
“And at fourteen he can take on responsibilities that you are still incapable of,” my father replied angrily.
“Such as?” I asked, trying to keep my tone bland.
“Tim has the intellect to go far. He could provide a stable home for Eloise and their children. She would take care of him and his home, and if Tim were to explore Theology, I'll bet he could succeed Pastor when he retires.” My father sounded so smug.
“I don't like Eloise,” Tim said. “We don't get along. Her parents smell.”
“Timothy, don't be so judgmental,” my mother said to him. “After you get to know Eloise, you may find you care for her quite a bit. Isn't she pretty?”
“She's dumb as a rock,” Tim replied. “They home school her. She has no idea about anything outside her trailer and the church.”
“You should be so lucky,” my father said darkly.
“Planning to keep her barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen?” I asked sarcastically.
My father stood to his full height, which was still a few inches short of my own, and said, “You're a bad influence on Timothy. I think you should move yourself onto the couch.”
My blood boiled with anger that they would try and separate us. “I think you're the bad influence. Who tries to marry a kid off at fourteen?”
The room got very still before my mother cleared her throat. “Married? That seems like a stretch, even for you, Garrett. Maybe you to should go to your room.”
Tim stood up and said, “She wants to have a girl so she can name her Mary.” He looked back and forth between them. “All my potential and you are telling me the best I can do is this dimbulb who has a very, extra special average name saved up for her first kid? That's what you're trying to tie me to.” Then he moved to comply and dragged me by my arm, then closed the door.
“Fuck. What now?” he asked me, a shiver in his voice.
I sighed. “Not sure.”
“Garrett!” he groaned, sounding aggravated. “You're supposed to know! Why do I have to figure all this out?”
“Tim, sorry I wasn't prepared for child-marriage!” I snorted. “Calm down. You don't turn fourteen until March. We have some time, and I'll figure it out.”
“I started looking already,” he said, throwing himself on his mattress. “To emancipate you have to be able to take care of yourself. How would I ever be able to do that?”
“Maybe we can find relatives?” I wondered aloud. “We don't know any. Maybe we need to start digging.”
“Yeah. Maybe,” he conceded.
What a situation. “Look, Tim, it'd be best if we did come up with contingencies. At the worst, we run. I promise I won't leave you in this mess.”
He looked at me steadily. “I know that, Garrett,” he said quietly. “I'm sorry to put all this pressure on you. I just don't know what to do. Everyone tells me I'm so smart; shouldn't I know what to do?”
I walked over to him and looked up at his face. “Tim. Being intelligent is a measure of your ability to learn – and you're plenty fucking intelligent. Wisdom might be what you call it when you measure what you have learned. You might be short on wisdom, just yet. Don't beat yourself up.”
He gave me a weak smile. “Maybe they got it wrong and you're the smart one.”
“Wise,” I said solemnly and nodded before we grinned a little at each other. Ah, fuck, Tim. I have to find a way out for us.
Saturday was bittersweet. Sampson was gone. I was sad because I liked seeing him, but it seems the guy and his mom I met the previous week had adopted him, so that was good. Sunday dragged, more so because my parents decided to sit with the Stauffers. Why were they so focused on Tim and getting him with someone they approved of? They were making decisions that were going to screw him for life, potentially.
We had an away game against Columbia over in Sanitaria Springs on Monday. The sky was looking threatening and the wind was dropping the temperature, so I'd worn my warm-up pants and windbreaker over my uniform. I listened to some music with Preston Davies, who loaned me an earbud for the ride out. Preston was a decent sort, running to skinny with coarse brown/blond hair. He's been seeing this chunky latina named Margarita Gomez for a while.
“You guys going to homecoming?” I asked.
He grinned. “Her mom's making her dress. I'm not allowed to see it, but I'm supposed to get a specific color shirt to match – her mom sent my mom a link or something so I don't screw it up.”
I grinned and rolled my eyes. “Sounds like a lot of work for a dance.”
“My girl likes to get dressed up and I like to show her off. What can I say?” he asked and chuckled.
“How long you guys been dating?” I asked.
“Um, almost a year,” he replied. “I never thought she'd say yes to my geeky ass, but there you go.”
“What about you? Got someone you're after?”
“Nah. Parents don't allow us to date, you know?”
“So weird. Whose parents do that? And how can they enforce it? If you wanted to, you'd be seeing some girl whenever you could.” He shifted a little closer. “Margarita has a friend, Claudia. I hear she might like you.”
I grinned. “Parents won't let me go to the dance, but if Claudia is lonely....”
He laughed. “I'll let her know you're available if she needs some vitamin D.”
“Hells yeah!” I replied enthusiastically and laughed with him. I wondered for a moment how Preston would feel about me if he found out I'd rather give a guy 'vitamin D' versus his girlfriend's friend? Pres didn't seem like the type to make a thing out of it – not that I knew of anyway. Who knows how people will really react until you put them in that situation?
We finally arrived and started heading over to the field. As we passed their football teams doing their workouts I did a double take when I saw the guy from Whiskers there – the one who adopted Sampson. I kind of wanted to run over and ask how the doggo was doing, but I didn't know my way around and didn't want to end up late for my own game. Besides, he looked like he was having an unpleasant discussion with another guy who had a walking cast on his foot.
The game was back and forth and pretty sloppily played. By the end of the first quarter I didn't care about the game anymore – I had to pee so badly I was seeing yellow. I was only walking normally – mostly – to try and save my dignity. If I asked to leave the field, coach wouldn't put me back in, so I was also fighting that in my head and trying to figure out where my limit was going to be. To compound it, it started to rain. Not just rain, pour. Not just pour – it was fucking biblical. It was like someone flipped a switch and the fifty-fifty chance of rain turned to 'are you fucking stupid? Of course it's going to rain.' Within a minute there was standing water on the field and we were soaked through. Time was called and we headed toward our respective benches, which didn't mean much since there was no awning over it.
Our coach slipped and slid his way toward midfield, holding a clipboard over his head, where the opposing coach met him with an official. I saw some hand waving as I covered my head with my windbreaker – for all the good it was doing. He slipped and slid back to us while I wondered where I could safely go and relieve myself, and then coach was hollering at us to get on the bus.
And I had to pee worse than ever.
“Coach? I need to use the bathroom. Bad.”
He grunted. “Porta-potty on the far side,” he said, pointing at the building behind him. I asked Preston to take my bag, and with a sigh took off jogging. The rain lightened and intensified in discernible waves as I crossed the soggy grass. Ahead I saw some people poking their heads out from under a canopy of come kind – though I have no idea what it was for. Should have put those canopies over the benches for the soccer teams. I finally reached the end of the building and turned the corner to find the portable toilets sitting in a row. The rain decided to get serious again and I darted into one of the smelly, plastic structures.
It was such heaven to take the pressure of my aching bladder. I think I let out a whimper of pleasure, no lie. My bladder felt kind of sore and I wondered if I'd gotten it all out – last thing I needed was to have this happen on the way home. Finally pulled my shorts back up, and a violent shiver went through me and my teeth chattered for a moment. Damn, I was getting cold! I stepped out and headed for the corner of the building when another heavy wave of rain thundered down.
Turning the corner I squinted through the rain just in time to see my bus pulling from the lot. I hollered and waved my arms, but the bus left the parking lot, rumbling for home. Fuck! I was wet, cold, had no phone and was stuck out in the open. What. The. Fuck. Now what?
I put my hands on my hips and looked up at the sky, then regretted it as rain went right into my open eyes. Deserved that.
“Hey.” A hand patted my shoulder and I turned to see the guy that adopted Sampson. “Hey man, you stuck or something?”
“Or something,” I growled. “I had to piss and my fucking bus left without me. My phone was in my bag, I'm cold, I'm wet, and I'm pissed off.”
“Ah. You have a number for someone? I can loan you my phone – under the cover, of course.”
“Oh! I- no, wait. I don't actually know anyone's number,” I said, my momentary excitement dwindling to feeling stupid.
“Damn. Um, how far is it?”
I looked over at him. “Probably about thirty minutes or so,” I said, wondering if my luck was about to turn.
He looked up at the sky as it grumbled and he shrugged. “Let's do it.”
“Seriously? I don't have gas money.”
“Hooked me up with Sampson. I owe ya.” He grinned and I smiled back.
“I'd totally owe you one, then. Thanks!”
We skittered across the parking lot – that was the only way to describe it. We were moving quickly, but also trying to jump over larger puddles – which was patently stupid, because I was soaked through. We finally got to his car, a modest Toyota. He grabbed a blanket from his trunk and tossed it to me to both sit on and warm myself.
He brushed his hair back off his brow and held his hand out. “Sterling Bennett, by the way. I don't know if you remember me. Garrett, right?”
Smiling I took his hand and shook it. I couldn't have avoided noticing his pecs in his soaked tee shirt. “Garrett French, and yeah – I remember. How's Sampson?”
Sterling's face took on a gorgeous smile and he said, “Settling in like he always lived there. I always wanted a dog, and he's super laid-back. If I watch a video or do crap on my phone, he loves just lying there with me. Awesome dog!”
I smiled and felt joy and peace with Sampson being one of the lucky ones. “He's a good boy. I'm glad you love him.”
“Yeah, he's been a real help lately,” he said, his voice trailing off. He shivered and started the car. “I'll turn on the heat once the engine warms up.”
“Cool. I really appreciate this. Honestly, I was really wondering what the fuck to do.”
He looked back at me and smiled. It wasn't gorgeous like a moment before, but I liked it on his face. “No problem.”
I smiled back and felt a little foolish, but that happened around guys like him sometimes. I think most of the guys at my school are average most of the time. I think I'm viewed as above average in looks, if not reputation. There's only a handful of guys that stand out to me, looks wise, and Sterling was looking better the longer I was around him. You could see he had some muscle to him, maybe an athlete of some kind, but he wasn't stacked like a lineman or something. He was just solid and yet he also looked soft. Oh, what the hell do I know?
“So, Sterling, huh? Never heard that name before.”
“English,” he said with a nod as we pulled out of the school lot. “My parents aren't English. My dad is a strange person. He's got a particular kind of religion that somehow makes sense to him, and giving me a name that stood out was part of it. Also Sterling means pure, like in terms of silver and whatnot.”
A particular kind of religion? “What did you mean about the religion?” I asked.
He glanced at me and back to the road. “The ignorant asshole, hypocritical, backwoods kind that don't tolerate no gay boys,” he said, letting a thick southern accent cover the last half of his sentence.
I raised my eyebrows.
He grinned. “Daddy doesn't like me being gay. Bible is against divorce, too, but he let himself off the hook on that one. Then he decided to try criticizing my...friend Jamie – to me, not to Jamie – and he said shit like he used to say to me about being a man and all that bullshit. We fought. He got remarried and cut me off from my step-sibs, but they seem to like me so they message me anyway.”
Man. This guy was gay? “Ah, shit, sorry to hear that. Your dad just cut you off?”
“Well,” he said, drawing the word out a little. “We had a few good fights over it first. Going after Jamie was the last straw. I figure he's my daddy so he's got a right to his opinion on me, but I don't take well to people hating on people I care about. I'm not sure if the idea to drop me came from him, his wife or his pastor – that sneaky fuck, I don't put anything past him.” He paused. “I think the whole thing had been a long time coming, though.”
“My parents are fans of that kind of religion,” I said with a sigh.
“Oh? Did I just offend the fuck out of you?” he asked with an eyebrow in the air.
I snorted. “Not hardly. I started to see through the bullshit curtains when I was about ten and I got into cars. Took me a while before it clicked – I can be slow,” I said, smiling at my self-deprecation. “But by the time I was twelve I noticed everyone else had old cars and pastor had himself a Mercedes.”
“He one of those – what do they call them, money gospel? No, prosperity gospel, right? Live right, pray right, get rich?”
“I don't know, actually,” I said with a shake of my head. “I stopped paying attention. Now my brother Tim is much smarter. He figured this shit out for himself at eleven.”
We rode in silence for a mile or so, just about through the town and headed for the highway on ramp. I spotted my bus ahead and pointed.
“Should we flag them down? Might save you a trip,” I said to him.
He glanced at me. “I'm good if you are.”
I smiled a little, involuntarily giving him a smile I'd use to flirt with. “I'm good.” I cleared my throat. “So, Sampson, awesome dog, yeah?” Idiot! We already covered that.
“Yeah, he's been a big help,” he said and sighed.
He grunted. “Drama. I'm an idiot. Nothing new.”
“Oh,” I said, as if that meant anything.
He glanced at me. “It was a guy.”
“Oh!” I replied. I waited and then realized he wasn't going to say anything, maybe because it was about a guy rather than a girl. Or maybe that's just me. “Um, was he your boyfriend? Bad break up?” I thought for a second while he chewed his lip. I should shut up, but I wanted to know more about him. With a flash of inspiration I thought about the boy with the walking cast. “Was it the guy you were kind of having a serious talk with earlier? I saw you when we got to the school.”
He looked at me, blushed and shook his head. “Yeah. Cast on his foot?”
He sighed. “Jamie Kirkwood. Bane of my existence.”
I chuckled. “He looked okay. He your ex?”
He sighed. “Manner of speaking,” he replied. He glanced at me, blushed a little again and looked back at the road. We passed my bus and hit the on ramp, accelerating out into the middle lane. I was about to apologize for pushing when he spoke up.
“I met Jamie at football camp with his brother, Sean. At first I thought he was kind of funny, but strange. He had no trouble with my sexuality – and to put that in context, I was caught admiring a teammate and they moved me into Jamie and Sean's bunk room. They both told me they had gay friends and relatives, so as long as I wasn't an asshole, we were good.”
I nodded, shifting in my seat to ease the strain of my neck so I could look at him while he spoke. I could also appreciate the glistening of his damp hair.
“The three of us – Me, Jamie and Sean – got on pretty well. I switched schools and played football with them. Dated a guy. Hung out with them all the time. It was good.”
“Sounds it,” I said wistfully.
“Last summer – last year – Jamie did this thing in the park. We were playing a pick up football game, and there's this guy with Down's who loves the school football team. He was watching us, and Jamie got this idea. He got everyone in on it so that this guy could run a play with us and score a touchdown. It was the most awesome thing you've ever seen, the way that guy's face lit up. Just at being included, but then when he scored? It was really special.”
“It sounds like it,” I said honestly. “I've seen some videos like that about the ball boy or something like that. That makes Jamie sound pretty great.”
Sterling rolled his eyes. “He's got his moments, no doubt. But seeing something like that...being around him when he did something so great for someone else and organized the other guys to make it happen...it was really....” He paused for a beat, two and then said, “It made me see him differently. Jamie does a lot of dipshit stuff, but he's a good, loyal friend who is a lot smarter than he gets credit for. When he did that...I kind of kissed the fuck out of him.”
“You what?” I asked in shock and broke out laughing.
Sterling grinned sheepishly and nodded his head. “Yep. I pinned him to a tree and and took my shot. And he let it happen.”
I stared at him wide eyed. “So he's gay, too?”
Sterling grimaced and shook his head. “He was having a little bumpy time with his girlfriend, Emily. He told me he was trying to work that out and not looking for something else.”
“Oh. So he's bi?”
“Somewhat,” he replied, glancing in the rear view and then checking over his shoulder before passing the slower moving car in front of us. “I think the best term for him is heteroflexible. Like, his main interest is the vag, but he's not really complaining about the D.”
“Huh. Takes all types, I guess,” I replied, not really sure what to say or think.
“Yeah,” he said absently.
“Hey, I hope I'm not being too nosy,” I said apologetically. “I'm just making conversation and stuff.”
Sterling glanced at me and smiled briefly. “Nah. I haven't talked about it much – except with Jamie, of course – because it's kind of weird. My ex is dating someone else, but we'd kind of drifted apart anyway. My other closest friend is Sean, Jamie's brother, so I've just kind of had it all banging around inside my skull.”
I put a few things together. “So your mom noticed you were bummed, and now you can tell Sampson all your secrets?”
He raised an eyebrow and smiled at me. “Got it in one.”
“Dogs rock,” I said, settling back into the seat.
“So yeah, it doesn't bother me to let some of this stuff out,” he said, and then kind of stopped.
“Um. So what happened?”
“You sure?” he asked, glancing back and forth between me and the road. “I mean, it's just drama.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said, shrugging but buzzing inside. “We still have twenty minutes, right? What did Jamie do?”
“What makes you think he did something?” he asked guardedly.
“Well, you said he did dipshit things. You guys looked kind of tense today. Obviously it can't be your fault, so it must be his,” I said and grinned as he looked over at me.
“I like your logic,” he said after a second and chuckled. “I can't dump all the blame on Jamie, but this latest one I can.”
“You said he was dating a girl – Emily? How does that work with you guys then?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Emily,” he said, confirming my memory, but he also kind of ground her name out. “She has this...thing. She likes to see her boyfriend with a guy.”
“With?” I asked dumbly.
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.
“Really?” I asked, bug-eyed.
“If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'.”
“Wha- wow. Um. So you and him...for her?”
“Some, yeah,” he said, sounding slightly guarded. “I mean at first he said he wanted to kiss me, too. It's his flexible side, you know? But now he had the girlfriend egging him on – and he knew I liked him.”
“What a dick,” I said softly.
“Well,” he replied, sounding contrite. “Not totally. We talked about it ahead of time and he really did try to be sensitive to the fact I was into him.” He took a deep breath. “But then it went from kissing to basically a porn show for her. I won't lie, I loved getting some of him. A part of me always dreamed he'd decide maybe I was enough for him – which was my mistake for even letting that thought have a breathe of air or space to live in.”
“I dunno,” I said. “Seems human. If you're getting affection from someone – I mean, was there affection? If we're saying sex and affection aren't the same thing?”
He was quiet for a moment and I wasn't sure if he was offended in some way or turning over what I said.
“I think affection can be separate from sex, but I think it can be part of sex, too.” He paused and looked at me. “This is a weird conversation, but I like the perspective.”
I gave him a small smile. This guy was really cool. We could talk about big things, real things – things that mattered.
“I think affection and sex are different things,” he said. “Affection is the cuddling, the talking, the soft touches after sex. Follow me?”
Willingly. “Yeah, totally.”
“And there was some affection there. We care about each other. I'm not ashamed to admit I loved him, and I think he loves me in that not-completely-straight way of his.”
“That sounds complicated,” I said, not sure if it were the right opinion to voice.
He nodded. “Anyway. I told Jamie I was going to look for a boyfriend, and that he had to let me go. That we couldn't do any more of this thing because I couldn't manage trying to give myself to a relationship and do this thing with him.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. I don't think your boyfriend would like that, either,” I joked.
“Right?” he replied and laughed. Then he sighed. “I thought we understood each other and things were okay.”
“But it wasn't?” I ventured.
He grimaced. “Yes and no. The situation was more fluid than I realized. I was fooling myself.” He glanced at me and blushed. “This must be so weird for you.”
I shrugged, probably blushing myself. “It's not your everyday break up story, but whatever.”
He drove in silence for a minute and I was wondering how to get him talking again when he suddenly continued in a rushed cadence. “So yeah, I fell in love for a while. Starting expecting more and not getting it. Then his girlfriend dropped the big one – she actually wanted to watch us fuck and I drew a line. I said she was stupid. Jamie took exception to me saying that to her and we kind of fought about it. What makes it even weirder is when you know he wasn't actually all that into the idea of us fucking.”
I stared at him for a second and his face went really, really red.
“Sorry,” he said quietly.
I had to mentally shake images of Sterling naked from my mind and try to focus. “That's fucked up, Sterling. I mean, people do what they want, but at some point you stopped wanting what was going on.”
He bit his lower lip for a second and glanced at me, then back at the road. “I never wanted to share. I just kind of did it because I could have him, for a while. Not to keep, but something was better than nothing was my thought. Now?” he sighed. “Now I just feel stupid and a little used, even by myself.”
I nodded in sympathy, but wasn't really sure what to say.
“So. Um, tell me something stupid you did on an epic scale? Make me feel better?” he asked, chuckling.
I was paralyzed for a moment, and a thrill raced through me. I didn't see this guy at school, my parents didn't know him and he didn't know anyone I knew. I could talk to him, really talk. About these big things, things that mattered.
“Well, I did have this thing recently,” I said nervously. I glanced at him and he glanced back, curiosity on his face. “Um. House party. Went with a guy from church. His family is the most permissive I know of and he found out about this party and invited me to sleep over,” I blurted.
“Yeah? What happened at the party?”
I cleared my throat. “Oh, you know. Cops showed up. We hid out in the attic, drunk. Traded blow jobs. Went home. The usual.”
He guffawed and looked at me with amusement. “Dude. When you have a night out you go balls out, huh?”
I let out a nervous laugh.
“You repressed church boys. Girls were too uptight at this party, huh?”
I almost choked, but managed to squeak out, “Sort of.”
He glanced at me and then back to the road, then repeated the move again. I think he was looking for something in my expression.
“So...is the other guy making issues for you?”
I blinked. Interesting direction for him to come from. He almost sounded protective. “Um, no. He doesn't want anyone to know. I don't really, either. I mean I really don't. My parents would disown me and I'd be homeless before you could say amen.”
We rode in silence for a mile or so. He put his blinker on for my exit. “So. You're gay and your parents would literally throw you away.”
It rose in my throat to deny it. I'd always let rumor handle things for me, but this was more direct. I couldn't tell him to just listen to school gossip to know I was a straight fellow looking to get some action where I could. As much as it scared me, I didn't want to. We'd shared some awkward, personal things on this car ride and I didn't want to be the one to lie. It was as if the car were a confessional and the ultimate sin would be to be fake.
“Yes,” I said, my voice a hoarse whisper. I cleared my throat and more forcefully said, “Yes.”
He sighed as he turned toward town. “Does anyone else know?”
I swallowed. “My little brother has me figured.”
“Will he say anything?”
I shook my head. “We're tight.”
He nodded. A minute later he turned into the parking lot for my school. I was warm and grateful for his help, despite the nerves that were full of tension through out my body.
“I was lucky,” he said, looking at his steering wheel. “I had my mom. Still have my mom. I don't know if my dad will ever come around, but I can't wait. I have to live – kind of the conclusion I've come to.” He looked up at me with an intense, compassionate expression – one so strong I stopped breathing. “No one deserves what you're going through. If you want someone to talk to – look, I know it sounds small. But even being able to tell someone that you like another guy is a huge thing when you have nothing. I'll be that guy for you.”
I tried to form words, but my chest was abuzz with the shivers and my nerves managed to dial up their weirdness a few notches – which was impressive. I felt short of breath and my voice was a small squeak – no words actually coming out of my mouth.
His brows drew down, but not in anger or frustration. Concern. “Are you okay, Garrett?”
I gasped and then nodded. “I'm...I'm okay,” I managed.
He pushed his lips together and then rolled his lips in, which was oddly endearing right that second. I swear if he bites his lip, I won't be responsible for my actions.
“What's your number?”
“My number?” I asked dumbly.
“Phone? Look, I don't want to force this, but you are a genuinely nice guy. I'm not trying to date you or anything-”
“Why not?” Fuck. My mouth has never been so out of my control.
He blushed and then bit his lip, and holy fucking shit. Sterling just hit me. I mean, all that he was – this nice guy, this hurt guy, this compassionate guy, this really attractive guy was reaching out to me. Me, the school slut. Me from the crazy religious family – but he understood that.
“Why don't we talk for a bit. Let me be there for you and see how we...look, the interest is there, okay? You're in a bad spot. Let's take it slow.”
The interest is there. “Um. I only have a flip phone. Texting is really slow.”
“I don't want to pressure you. I'm just offering-”
“Yeah.” I looked up at him. “Yes.” Fuck, my heart is shaking.
He smiled gently. At me. “Okay, then.”
I gave him my number and he blushed. I probably did too. “My bus should be here soon,” I said, unbuckling my belt. My seatbelt.
“Be safe. Let me know you're okay.”
I swallowed. “I will.”
“Garrett. It'll be all right.”
I believed him.
Things happened around me the next few weeks, but little of it registered outside Sterling and our texts. He vented about his situation, and I listened – read – and wished I could do more than I was. I created an Instagram account I could use from school and got some pictures of Sterling at home with Sampson and images of his friends. I found images of Jamie and his brother Sean. There were images of Jamie and his girlfriend and Sean with his boyfriend. Football stuff. Other guys. I always came back to Sterling's pictures. Him on his bed in sweats and a tee shirt, Sampson making his doggie grin to the camera. A short video where he held up Sampson's front legs and danced with him to some stupid music.
His images told me a story. His story. It was like a brief history of Sterling Bennett with all the things in his life. I mean, maybe it wasn't everything – likely not – but there was a lot. His mom shared his brown hair and eyes, though hers looked wise. I guess she must have seen a lot to have earned the look, and I wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Probably a bit of both. There was a short video of his mom asking him if she was doing the social internets thing right and he was laughing and telling her to stop as she danced and sang something I didn't recognize. It made me laugh to see it and wish I'd have been there.
I spent some time looking at Jamie Kirkwood, the boy who'd created such turmoil in Sterling. He and I looked nothing alike – he had dark hair where mine was a golden brown. He had bright blue eyes compared to my own brown ones. He looked like he was in good shape, and I felt okay on that score. A lot of the poses were silly. Some were of sports or group shots. There were generally a lot of guys in them, but I noted a pretty girl who was often with an arm around Jamie's waist and his arm in turn around her. This must be Emily, I decided. With green eyes and light brown hair that contrasted nicely with her lighter skin tone, she was a very pretty girl.
My first thought was that she didn't look like a pervert. Then I leaned back and had to really think. I didn't like her because of the position she had put Sterling in. It wasn't entirely her fault, but she was the prime mover in this whole sorry thing. Was it so strange that she wanted to see two guys have sex? Not really. When one of the guys was her boyfriend? Well, odd. Right? Where did Jamie come down on that? Had he been excited to get to kiss Sterling, since that's what Sterling had said to me? Something more had happened, though Sterling hadn't gone into details. It had stopped short of them fucking, so probably some oral.
Had Jamie been okay with it? Had he known at some point that Sterling was becoming emotionally invested? Given how Sterling was spending his time with Sampson these days, he was probably starved for attention and affection. I mean, boyfriend kind of affection. I could do that, even if it was from afar. Speaking to him. Sending him messages, letting him know I was thinking about him – that was a kind of affection.
He'd made a mistake with Jamie. I didn't want him to ever feel as if he'd made a mistake with me, too. Those were the heavy thoughts his pictures inspired, but there were baser, more exciting feelings, too. He looked so cute with Sampson, and honestly, seeing him cuddle with the little furball was sexy in its own way. Dogs are great judges of character. Then there were the other pictures. The ones where he had on a sleeveless tee or no shirt at all. He wasn't cut, but he was muscled – and I so wanted to lie on top of him and feel all that pressed to me.
Damn. We exchanged most of our messages through email during school hours, and I got to the computer lab at least a few times a day.
I told him about daily developments. Brandon and Jerry were a thing – not that they weren't after that kiss, but Sterling didn't know that. There was a dance coming up – another one I'd miss – and he said he was skipping his homecoming dance, too. He asked about my soccer schedule and my parents.
The parents hadn't changed, so it wasn't any better or worse. He started to tease me that there were no pictures of me on my Instagram, so I tried to figure out how to get some there. My phone had a camera, but it wasn't very good and I'd eat data like mad to send it to an account for me to upload.
I'm forgetting what you look like, he texted, adding a crying emoji.
Ugh. This guy. I explained about the phone and that I was working on something while also being excited he wanted pictures of me. Mostly, though, we talked. He told me about his ex, Phil, and how things had started and ended. He talked a bit about Jamie and how they were more-or-less not speaking for now. He figured it would be good for them to cool down, but he was happy Sean had approached him.
He told me about an old crush he'd reconnected with, Chris Licardi, and how they were friends, now. He told me about other guys and their boyfriends and it was the most liberating thing I'd ever felt. How different would my life be without the crushing weight of my parents and their religion? What about Tim? How would his life be different? Most of all I loved how open and honest he was with me, and I felt like I could return that. Our messages were fearless.
About a week and a half after Sterling gave me a ride home, Tim closed the door to our room with a strange expression on his face.
“What's up?” I asked, setting my phone aside.
He frowned. “I have a stalker.”
“You what now?” I asked, sitting up.
“Girl named Ginnie. She started talking to me and asking questions about you, so I figured she was after you,” he said, explaining the situation clinically.
I looked up at the ceiling. “Not sure I know a Ginnie,” I said.
“Well, she switched to asking questions about me,” Tim said, leaning against the wall.
I looked at him. “What kind of questions?”
“Like the if I was dating anyone and if I was looking for a girlfriend kind of questions,” he said. I studied his face for a minute.
“It's not the first time someone thought you were cute. You're my brother, so you know....” I smiled at him and the corners of his mouth twitched.
“She asked me to the homecoming dance,” he said.
“Wow. She moves fast. What did you say?”
He shrugged. “I didn't say anything yet. She was too busy telling me how she liked some of my stuff on Insta and stuff like that. Girl has been digitally stalking me.”
I thought about how I was essentially doing that with Sterling. “Well, so she likes you. I think hitting up your stuff online is pretty common. Where's your head on this?”
He shrugged and looked away. “Doesn't matter. We aren't allowed to go to dances.”
I watched him. “Do you want to go?”
He looked at me. “No.” He hesitated. “I think I'm fucked up, Garrett.”
I slid forward, putting my feet on the floor and looking hard at my little brother. “There is nothing – nothing – fucked up about you. What you feel is what you feel and no one has the right to say it's wrong.” I looked at him steadily and he let out a long breath. “Now, how do you feel about this situation?”
He pursed his lips briefly and then said, “I like someone talking to me that likes me, but I don't want to be with anyone. And I mean that – anyone. I like the idea of hanging with someone, but that leads to other stuff and...I just don't feel any of that.”
“Okay, that's not fucked up, Timmy.”
He frowned. “Don't call me that. And shouldn't I want to...you know, have sex and stuff? Shouldn't I be thinking about it?”
“Who says?” I demanded.
He drew his brows together but stayed silent. I stood up and looked at him.
“You're you, Tim. The only you the world has. How you feel towards people is how you feel. If you don't see anyone that gives you sexual thoughts, then that's how it is. It's how you are. I don't see the problem,” I told him.
His breath hitched. “But everyone likes someone like that, don't they?”
I smiled at him. “Tim, there are a million reasons why you feel like you do right now. Might be part where you are in puberty. Might be this is just it – you're asexual. It might be there just isn't anyone you've connected with that makes you feel like that. Maybe it's because you have so much pressure from the parents that the idea of a relationship just makes you shut down. Could be anything, Tim. None of that equals you being fucked up in any way.”
He swallowed and nodded his head after a moment. “So, you. You've been kind of different lately.”
Surprised by his sudden shift I raised an eyebrow. “We're talking about me, now?”
“Beats talking about Ginnie. I have to tell her my parents won't let me go, but she seems pretty into me from what I can tell.”
“Why shouldn't she be?” I asked, grinning at his slight discomfort with the idea. “You need me to hit on her?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Not yet. I'll let you know.”
I grinned back at him.
Just as I went to sit back down on my bed Tim said, “What's his name?” I hit my head on the upper bunk's support board since I jumped in surprise. I looked up at him, rubbing the back of my head more from embarrassment than pain.
I frowned. “What?”
He took a step forward. “We're not at school. No parents. It's me.” He paused to let that sink in. “What's his name?”
I squinted my eyes. “You're scary smart – do you know that?”
He sported a half grin. “His name?”
I pursed my lips. As soon as I opened my mouth, the bubble would burst. Sterling wouldn't just be mine anymore, and no longer a secret. My secret. Where were my secrets safer than with Tim?
“Sterling Bennett,” I said, then added, “You don't know him.”
He moved closer and leaned back against the dresser. “How'd you meet him?”
I cleared my throat unnecessarily, “Our second game was at Sanitaria Springs. The rain-out?”
He tilted his head and waited.
“Well, I had to – I missed the bus,” I said, then rushed forward. “Porta-potty, heavy rain, aching bladder. Sterling gave me a ride home.”
“You got in a car with a complete stranger?” he asked in shock.
“Not complete,” I grumbled. “He and his mom had been at Whiskers the Saturday before. They adopted Sampson – one of the dogs.”
Tim smiled a little. “So you think he's good because he likes dogs?”
“It's a rule,” I said breezily.
“So what's so special about this guy?”
I tilted my head and regarded my brother. We weren't like other siblings. At least, I didn't think so. Some might think it odd to share as much as we do, and maybe if we had a wider friend group and social circle, we wouldn't share as much. We were each other's best friend, though.
“Dogs, first. Leading indicator I think is what you call that,” I said to him. “Helped me out by driving me all the way home when I was stuck out there with no phone and not knowing anyone's phone numbers. We talked in the car on the way home and...I don't know. It was pretty intense, the talk we had. His ex, which clued me in he was gay. He admitted his own mistakes in his latest relationship, and I think that's important – but really, I was able to say it to him. It was incredibly freeing.”
“Say it?” Tim asked softly.
I nodded, and just as softly said, “Yeah. It.”
He tilted his head. “It, Garrett? What it?” Jesus, this kid better never be a lawyer, because he can pull things out of me like no one. We understood what I was, but now he wanted me to say it. Well, who else would I tell?
“I'm gay, Tim.”
He smiled gently and nodded. “Yeah. You are.”
I swallowed, then nodded at him. “Yeah.”
He moved over and sat down beside me. “So tell me all about this Sterling guy.”
“Are you serious?” Luther whispered to me.
“Yeah. Why?” I asked.
He glanced around at us as if people were actually interested in what we were saying to each other. Looking at me seriously he said, “I have nudes on there.”
I rolled my eyes and leaned forward. “Luth, it was dark, but I've been around you when you were naked before.”
“Shhh!” His eyes bugged out. It was funny, but I didn't laugh. Mostly. I just wanted to borrow his phone to take a few pictures of myself for Sterling.
I held up my hand. “I promise not to look, okay?” I paused. “Wait, why do you have nudes? Who are you sending them to?”
He blushed, and I do mean blushed. He did the furtive thing again and then said, his tone very low, “You know Eloise Stauffer? From church?”
I widened my eyes in shock.
He nodded grimly, but also with something else I couldn't identify. “Her parents won't get her a phone, but she has an old iPod with wifi. We've been sending snaps to each other.”
I managed to get my jaw to unlock. “Um. How long has this been going on?”
He shifted on his feet. “A couple of days. She wants to have a baby. I figure that means she wants to have-” He looked around again, and it was becoming comical, “-sex. But I figure if I use a condom, I can get around that, right?”
Wow. I looped an arm around Luther's shoulders and guided him off to a quiet spot outside the building. He came willingly enough, and since he would be walking home he was in no rush. Once we had a quiet spot to ourselves I faced Luther with a serious expression.
“Luth, I have to tell you this is a bad idea.”
His eyes grew wide. “You? You're going to say I shouldn't have sex?” He looked around at having said 'sex' out loud, as if his parents or the pastor might have overheard.
“I'm not against sex, Luth, let's be serious,” I said with a grin. “But I feel like I need you to hear this. Okay?”
He frowned a little, but seemed a little calmer. “Okay. What?”
“My parents and the Stauffers have been trying to get Tim and Eloise together.”
He pursed his lips. “I know.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You know?”
He nodded. “Eloise says she doesn't like Tim, and she says Tim doesn't like her.”
I raised the other eyebrow. Apparently she'd picked up on Tim's reluctance. “And you know she only wants to get pregnant so she can name a girl Mary?”
“Right. But I can use a condom, right?” he asked, his tone sounding unsure.
I tilted my head to one side. “The girl thinks she wants to be pregnant, Luth. I don't know what she'd do to make that happen. Plus you should know, her parents were talking about getting my parents to let her and Tim get married when he hits fourteen.”
“Married!” He gasped. “But I want her! She's the only girl showing any interest in me, Garrett!”
I let out a slow breath and felt bad for Luther as I regarded him steadily. “Luther, you're going to do what you want – but listen to what I'm saying. She's not wanting you in particular. Once she has what she wants, she'll drop you – but that won't be the end for you. You'll be a father, Luth. Are you ready for that?”
He frowned. “What about the condom? Are you even listening to me?”
“What if she pokes a hole in it? What if she says she doesn't want to use it? What if she gets pregnant and you're the dad, Luth? What then?” I asked gently.
He looked down with a sad expression. “I just want to get laid like everyone else. Like you.”
Oh, man. “Luther.”
He looked up slowly.
I let out a deep breath. “I'm going to tell you a secret, okay? I'm seriously trusting you.”
He frowned. “Why? I mean, we know each other, but we're not really close.”
I shrugged. “You're a good guy. Maybe we're not close, but if I can help you, shouldn't I? Should I watch you walk into something for the wrong reasons, knowing this other person thinks you're disposable? Because you're not. And if you go through with this and get treated like trash, will you still be a decent guy? Will you still be Luther?”
He suddenly looked troubled. He frowned and looked away from me for a minute. “My parents don't like you.”
Okay, non-sequitur. “Any reason why?”
He looked back up at me and studied my face. “They don't like your parents. They say that you have to let kids have some freedom otherwise they explode once they are away from all the control. They think you're like a time-bomb.”
Huh. Maybe I was, in a sense.
“Okay. I guess I can see the logic. What do you think?”
He sighed and looked away. “I think you're my ticket into parties and meeting other people because of your reputation. I think you don't really like me, but you hang out with me if it's not inconvenient.”
Ouch. I actually flinched. “Okay. Um. I'm sorry. I...think I can see why you'd think that.” After a moment of consideration I said, “Actually, I understand exactly why you'd think that. It's how I treated you.”
He looked back at me with a tense expression that gradually gave way to mild surprise. “You're not going to deny it?”
I sighed. “Look, Luth, I really don't like the church or the pastor. If you call and invite me to a bible study or something, I'm not going to want to go. That make sense?”
He shrugged and nodded all at once.
“I do think you're a decent guy. I guess, given what you think, I can understand why you'd use me.”
“Use you?” he said, his tone fiery.
“Well, yeah. To get into parties? You just said that.”
He paused, his mouth open. “Um. Yeah. Okay. I guess I didn't think real hard on that one. But now you're trying to say you're my friend?”
I shrugged. “I'm not your enemy. We get along okay. We talked about some pretty important stuff, I think. We, you know.” I cleared my throat and his eyes went wide.
“Yeah, I know,” he said quickly.
“So,” I said firmly, “we're more than acquaintances. If you don't like me, fine. We can call it a day and walk away. Honestly, Luth, I'm trying to do right by you, here.”
He frowned again. “What if I said I think you're trying to hang onto her for your brother? What would you say?”
“I would say I'm trying to protect my brother from her, her parents and my parents,” I said honestly. “He doesn't want to be a father either. I want Tim to be free to make his own choices, not have them made for him by our parents – stuff that affects him for the rest of his life. That's what a pregnancy would do.”
He chewed that over for a minute. “So what's this secret?”
I tilted my head. “I get by a lot on rumor.”
“Like on all the sex talk. Most of it is rumor. Very little of anything actually ever happened.”
He stared at me for a moment and then his eyes got huge. “You mean...but why? To be popular?”
I shook my head. “It's a rumor that helps me. Think about it. My parents won't let me date or go to school dances or anything. But people think I'm still in the game.” I took a deep breath. “And it makes them think I'm straight.”
Luther stared at me. “No, it doesn't. I told you, the rumors say you've been with girls and guys.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I let it stand. But it's not true.”
He studied me again. “Well, how many have you actually been with?”
I swallowed. “Two.”
His eyes got huge. “Two?”
I nodded. “Most of the sex stuff that flies around is rumor. Some guys are getting it on the regular, but most is just crap. Luther, let someone get to know you. It'll be real, then.”
“I'm not looking for real,” he said with a snort.
“Are you looking to get tied to one person for the rest of your life? Are you looking to change diapers and have her parents and yours tell you how to raise a kid? Because you know abortion is off the table, right?”
He frowned again and then suddenly something seemed to strike him. “Wait. You said it lets them think you're straight?”
I blushed and shrugged nervously. “Didn't miss that, huh?”
He stared at me. “Did I make you...?”
I chuckled. “No. I was before.”
“You were?” he demanded. “Are you trying to turn me then?”'
I frowned. “No! That's not how any of this works, Luther!”
“Well, why? Why did you tell me this?” he asked, sounding lost.
I put a hand on his shoulder, and he didn't try to shake it off. “Because I think you are my friend, and I've not seen it all along. So I'm treating you like one. That information...that would really hurt me, Luth. My parents....”
He looked down and softly said, “I didn't want to know this.”
I stayed silent. I was trusting to his better nature and my heart hammered. I never should have said anything, the risk was too great – but it was done.
“I have to go home,” Luther said quietly.
“Okay,” I said, barely choking the word out.
He looked up at me and solemnly said, “I won't tell anyone.”
I held out my hand. “Friends?”
He stared at me for a second and started to shake his head. My heart dropped, and then he was shaking my hand. “Friends.”
Then he left, and I had to get to soccer practice. I had mixed feelings about talking to Luther, but it was out there, now. It could hurt me. What was I thinking? And shit! I hadn't gotten to use his phone!
I had been hoping to talk to Luther the next day, but our schedules are different from day to day and I didn't see him. I wasn't awful worried about him saying anything about me, but I was still a little nervous. I'd told Tim the night before about the situation and he seemed to relax. There was a decent chance Eloise would find a taker to make her pregnant before it caused a real problem for Tim.
I rode the bus next to Preston again. I entertained the idea of asking to borrow his phone, but held off. One enormous risk this week was enough. Instead he handed me an earbud and shared his music with me again. The ride wasn't very long, and the day was beautiful. We got off the bus and the wind tousled my hair and I looked up to feel the sun on my face. Nice weather is a real gift.
“Who's that?” Preston asked and bumped me.
I opened my eyes and looked where he was pointing. A couple of guys were standing together and one had a camera pointed at us. Then he lowered the camera and I saw it was Sterling.
“A friend of mine,” I told Preston. “I'll catch up!” I trotted over to where Sterling stood and he was smiling back at me.
“Hey, Garrett,” he said.
“Hey, you,” I said, feeling my grin grow wider. “What are you doing here?”
He lifted the camera. “Making sure I can remember what you look like. You're no help.”
I rolled my eyes and blushed. “Flip phone, no wifi. Still working on it.”
We stared at each other, stupid smiles on for a moment before one of the guys with Sterling cleared his throat.
“Oh, um, this is Sean Kirkwood and his boyfriend, Asher Ellis,” Sterling said, waving toward his companions.
I waved hesitantly. “Hi. Garrett French,” I said.
“We know,” Sean replied with a grin.
“Boomer won't shut up about you,” Asher added, causing Sterling to hip check him.
“Boomer?” I asked.
Sterling blushed. “Football nickname.”
“I hear it was sexual. The nickname.” Sean looked at his fingernails. “Just saying.”
“Why are you choosing now to be evil?” Sterling asked with a chuckle. He looked back to me and said, “It was from football.”
“My little brother, Tim, plays football,” I said, not knowing what else to say. He was talking about me? And wasn't Sean his sort-of-ex's brother?
“We all played football,” Sean said. “Well, Ash got us water, but Boomer and I played until this year. Jamie's not guilting anyone into playing with his injury.”
I glanced at them and asked, “Injury?”
“Screwed his knee up playing football in the park. Gopher hole,” Sean said. “So now we get to come watch a soccer game instead.”
I looked at Sterling with wider eyes. “You came for my game?”
He dropped his chin a little. “I came for you. That game is just convenient.”
“Um. Wow. I.”
“You broke him, Boomer,” Asher stage whispered and I blushed harder.
“Borrowed a camera. Hope you give me plenty of pictures to take,” Sterling said, ignoring Ash.
I tried to control my smile, but this was too darned awesome. “Well, I'll try. See you after the game?”
“Hell, yeah,” Sterling said with that gorgeous smile he'd first given me when I'd mentioned Sampson to him. Except now it was for me.
I felt self-conscious as I walked over to my team bench. I imagined him watching me go, maybe watching my butt as I did. I may have wondered if I were emphasizing my butt as I walked and had to force myself to stop. If I'd been doing that. Which I hadn't. I don't think.
My God. What if he was staring at my butt?
I joined my team for warm-ups and then sat down next to Preston while our starters headed onto the field.
“Your friend work for a school paper or something?” Pres asked.
“Don't think so. He's just bored and decided to come watch my game, practice with the camera,” I said, but felt hollow for uttering the words. I'd only just told Luther yesterday and I had felt so liberated, and yet was still fearful. If they threw me out, I'd have to be given somewhere to live since I was still a kid, right?
The worry and fear and pressure of it all welled up suddenly and burst inside me. I was tired of the fear. Tired of being 'not worthy' in my parents' eyes. Tired of letting rumor define me over truth, at least to others. And how true was I to myself, hiding behind that wall of rumors? I turned and spotted Sterling in the short set of stands, talking to Sean and Asher. Was he worth going through this for? No. I barely knew him.
I was worth it, though.
“Pres?” I said, turning back and looking at him.
“Yeah?” he asked, taking his attention from the field.
“That guy? He's not my friend. I'm hoping he's going to be my boyfriend.”
Pres looked at me for a minute and then raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
I cleared a sudden, not-actually-there lump in my throat and nodded. “Yeah.”
He turned and looked at the group behind us and then back at me. He studied my face for a moment, enough that I began to sweat.
“Is it a secret?”
“Only to my parents,” I said.
The corner of his mouth curled up a little. “Good for you.”
I let out a breath then slowly took another.
“So I guess the rumors about you getting dick and pussy are true, huh?” he said, looking back to the game.
I nearly had a stroke. “Um, no, not so much.”
He glanced at me and then went back to the game. I don't know what he thought, but I was disappointed my rumor shield was coming back to bite me. I didn't feel panicked, though because Pres didn't really seem to care. Eventually I got on the field and tried to focus on the game and not be conscious of Sterling in the stands. Last thing I wanted to do was screw up in front of him – so of course I did. Fell flat on my face once. Oh well.
After the game the team slowly made their way back to the bus, but I dawdled to talk to Sterling. He was showing me all the pictures he'd taken of me – at least the ones he hadn't deleted already because they had been out of focus or had some other defect.
“Want me to take one of you guys?” Sean asked.
I glanced at my bus, only a few stragglers left to get on. I'd been living on the edge, and it was stupid but I nodded at Sean anyway. He fiddled with the camera and Sterling moved up beside me.
“So. I'd like to see you more.”
I looked at him. “Well. My parents-”
“I think I can get by with the super religious. I'll even pretend to believe if you think it it would help.”
I closed my mouth and blushed. Then smiled.
I looked over, having forgotten about Sean.
“French! Let's go!” Coach yelled from the bus.
“Shit!” I muttered. I looked regretfully at Sterling. “I have to go.”
“Think about it?” he asked, closing the gap between us.
I jumped. “Yeah, I'll call you. Text. Tonight.” I turned and jogged to the bus, and wondered the entire way if he was staring at my butt. I looked back over my shoulder as I boarded the bus and saw them gathered around the camera, looking at the screen. I flopped down on the seat next to Pres. He was fiddling with his phone, and then he handed me an ear bud. I felt, right then, that everything would be okay.
I heard the folding door close, and then a tap on the glass, and it opened again. I glanced up and saw Sterling standing at the front of the bus. He scanned until he saw me and grinned.
“Following you back.” Then he was gone.
I flushed and looked at Pres, who merely cocked an eyebrow before saying, “I guess he likes you back.”
I wiggled my eyebrows and laughed lightly. “Maybe, yeah.”
He had the music down low and started asking me how I met him, and then compared it to how he met his girl, Margarita. It dawned on me as we talked that this was a first for me – a feeling of belonging like I'd never really been able to conceive of. Pres was treating his long-term relationship with Margarita as equal to my fresh, still trying to figure it out relationship with Sterling.
Once we got to the school I spotted Sterling's car right away. I had to call my mom to come pick me up, so I'd have a few minutes even if I called right then. I said goodbye to Pres and walked over, watching as all three of them popped their doors open. I hitched my bag and met them at the front of the car.
“So,” Sterling said. “How do we do this?”
“Well, my parents are a little out there, as I told you,” I said, unsure if he was talking about showing up right now. “I have to call her to come pick me up.”
He moved his lips around in a silly way. “I'm guessing it would be a bad thing for me to bring you home?”
I nodded. “They would lose their shit completely.”
He frowned. “So how do we get together, then? I liked seeing you today, but waiting until your next game sucks.”
I winced and said, “Well, you said something about pretending to believe,” I said, a plan forming.
“Yeah. I did it for years. Why?”
I frowned. “I could ask if you could come over because you were interested in our church. I'm just not sure how – oh, I can say you adopted Sampson and we say nothing about you giving me a ride home before. I'm totally forbidden from getting in cars of people my parents don't know and haven't approved of.”
He grinned widely. “Okay! Should I wait to hear from you? Pack an overnight bag for Sunday? Plan to meet you before services? What?”
I was short of breath thinking about him sleeping over. “Um, let me ask.”
It was funny – since I was talking to Sterling, I practically forgot the other two were there.
“Your parents are really strict, huh?” Asher asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. It's a weird place to grow up.” I cleared my throat. “You guys been together long?”
Asher smiled and looked at Sean. Sean said to me, “Sometimes it feels like forever.”
“Jerk,” Ash said and pushed him, which made Sean smile and lean into Ash, who kept calling him names while allowing Sean to lean on him.
Reluctantly I pulled out my phone and called home to tell my mother the bus had dropped me back at school. She had a general idea of when I'd be back and I couldn't afford to mess it up – not this close to spending more time with Sterling. Sean said they were going to walk around the school a bit and look around, leaving me with Sterling. We both leaned against the trunk of his car, side-by-side.
“So,” he said, looking over at me and smiling gently. “I think you should know you've been on my mind every day.”
I smiled at him playfully. “Is that so? I've barely thought about you at all.”
“Really? 'Cause someone has been on your Instagram, liking all my pictures.”
“Wow. I better change the password,” I said. I laughed at his expression, and then he joined me. “I think my favorite is you and Sampson in your room. Or I assume it's your room.”
“Yeah, the one in bed, right? I love getting into comfy clothes and hanging out with my fur buddy,” Sterling said with a chuckle. “So let me ask you, Garrett. What's the plan here, huh?”
“Plan? What do you mean?”
“Okay, let me lay a few things out for you,” he said, pushing away from the car, and then placing his hands on the either side of me, trapping me against the trunk. “I like you. We've talked a lot, texted, and I want more. What do you want?”
Wow. I've had people tell me they find me attractive, even acted on it, but...this felt different. Very, very different. He already knew me and he wanted more.
“More sounds about right,” I said quietly.
“Good,” he said with authority. “So if we're on the same page, tell me what I need to do to see you more.”
“Church is the big thing. It'd be different if your folks went to our church, then my parents would trust that you guys were okay. As it is, I don't go to school dances or even rate a real phone.” I paused and licked my lips. “At some point, this is all going to go sideways. At some point they will find out, and I'm scared. And excited. Trapped and more free than I can remember.”
He narrowed his eyes a little and looked at me as if I were prey. “I want to kiss you. Badly.”
I opened my phone and looked at the time. I looked back up to him. “You've got about five minutes.”
“Sounded like yes to me,” he said, and then it was on. He kissed aggressively and I returned it. It was nothing like kissing a girl. It was tender, in spots, and his lips were soft, no doubt – but the energy was way different. He was attempting to dominate me, and I was challenging that at every turn. It was combat of a sort, and no matter which way it went I wasn't losing. His body was so solid. He didn't feel cut underneath his tee shirt – instead he felt sort of bulky, but soft. Prime for cuddling.
He leaned back eventually, and his lips were swollen. I can only imagine mine were a mirror to his. “I'm going to tell my friends you're mine. My boyfriend. You good with that?”
I dipped my head and smiled before looking him in the eye. “I'm good with that.”
“Picture. I need to show the world what I've got,” he said, and held up his phone with our faces pressed side by side. Could this be mine? Could I actually fall in love?
My mother was quieter than usual when she picked me up. I didn't say much to try and break that mood; I was too busy thinking about the best way to get Sterling invited to join us for church. Maybe I could work my way toward something like an overnight. Of course, what I'd said to him was correct – this would go sideways at some point. Something would happen. I was okay with that. I just wanted a little bit of happy before everything came down around me.
It happened sooner than I could have imagined. When I got home I was thinking I'd take a shower and work up my courage, but instead I discovered my clothes were out in the living room, stacked in a corner.
“Mom?” I asked, turning toward her only to find my father moving to step beside her. His face was set in a look of grim determination. He tossed a few pages of paper down on the coffee table.
“Go ahead. Look at them before you start to deny anything.” He stared at me and I set my bag down before picking up the pages. Dread had already crawled up my spine, but I was actually clueless about what he could have printed out. I glanced at him and then looked down at the first page. My blood ran cold as I read the text messages Sterling and I had been exchanging. I scanned down the page and then just let them fall from my hands.
I looked up at them, and the shiver of fear stopped and instead a void opened up in my chest. “So. How long have you known? Is this why you hate me?”
My parents exchanged frowns before looking back toward me. My father said, “Pastor will come over tomorrow night. He has some resources to help you get better.” He paused and then looked disappointed. “You do want that, don't you? To be normal?”
I could honestly say I felt dead inside. “What's normal?” I asked lifelessly. “Whatever pastor says? Whatever you say?” I paused. “Is that why? You hate me because I'm not normal?”
“You want to be normal, though, don't you?” my mother asked, fluttering a hand across her chest.
I just stared at her. She looked back, faintly concerned. Faintly. That's all she could muster.
“Would you have liked me if I were normal?” I asked, insisting.
“What is all this about not liking you?” my father demanded. “We're trying to talk to you about being a perverted deviant! What does this have to do with whether we like you?”
I should be angry. Maybe I should feel disbelief that they didn't even deem it an issue that they like me or not, let alone love me. Can you really do one without the other?
I let out a laugh that had no humor to it, nor any life. “You never actually did like me, did you? This is just the excuse. It's always Tim. He's so smart. He needs this. Tim should have that. How was your day, Tim? How did you do on that test, Tim?”
“Are you serious? We catch you in homosexual-”
“Yes! You caught me! I'm a homosexual, may you somehow manage to overcome the shame!” I screamed. Disappointment, mental fatigue and a lifetime of never being enough just crushed my guts. Still, I wasn't angry. I felt like I was drowning.
They both stood still as if I'd struck them.
“So. What now?” I asked listlessly. “You're throwing me away? Going to give me to the pastor to break?”
“Garrett,” my father said, his tone shaky but more or less calm. “You've always been an...average child. Tim is by far the smartest – he's going to go far!”
“Exactly!” my mother jumped in. “He has no limit. He's the future of our family. He might even succeed the pastor!”
“What's going on?” Tim asked. I turned to see him with a towel around his waist and his hair soaked. He strode across the room, his face a mask of anger.
“Tim! You'll catch a cold! Go get-”
“What. The Fuck. Is going on?” he demanded, enunciating his words and glaring at my parents like I never knew he could.
“No!” he said, raising his voice at them for possibly the first time. I know my mouth was hanging open as I stared at him. His face was red and it was spreading to his chest. “What the hell are you two idiots up to?”
“Tim,” my mother said with a hurt voice, not much more than a whisper. I suddenly realized that Tim had a power over my parents that he may not even be aware of. They'd just said he was their future – the future of the family, one I wasn't a part of. They thought the highest he could reach – his unlimited potential – was to succeed their pastor. How shortsighted. Such a lack of vision.
He shook his head, and his gaze fell on my clothes. Without looking at them he asked, “What is this?”
My father cleared his throat. “We're dealing with a problem. Garrett will no longer trouble you in your room. Pastor knows people who can help him. Go get dressed while we finish our discussion.”
Tim slowly lifted his gaze and looked at my parents. “Discussion? You mean you're ripping my brother away from me. The only person that listens to me. The only one that cares what I think.”
“Oh, Tim, sweetie,” my mother simpered, and my father's face fell.
“Son,” he said, the contempt he had for me gone from his voice as he dealt with Tim. “This is all for the best. You'll see! Pastor will-”
“I don't care what pastor thinks,” Tim snapped, and my mother halted her tentative advance. “You guys have always treated Garrett like shit.”
“Tim,” my father said, his tone edging toward warning.
Tim glared at him. “Like shit, Dad. Complete shit, like all he was good for was wiping off the bottom of your shoe. He's my brother. I love him more than both of you put together. If he goes, I go.”
“Tim!” my mother exclaimed, clutching imaginary pearls. “You have so much potential! You are so smart, so-”
“I don't care!” he screamed. “I won't let you take him from me!”
There was a deafening silence, and then my father slowly said, “Timothy. Garrett is sick, son. He's always lagged behind you, but maybe we know why, now. Pastor will know what to do.”
Tim shook his head. “He's not sick. He's gay. You know what science calls being gay? A normal variation of human sexuality. Normal. There is even evidence to show it's genetic.”
“Science!” my father scoffed.
“Yeah. Provable facts.”
“Facts. I don't know,” my mother said.
“Also, my brother never lagged behind. I'm not in competition with him. I'm sick of trying to live up to your dreams, and I sure as hell don't want to be a pastor here or anywhere else.” Tears were tracking slowly down his face, tears of rage. Pride in him swelled from somewhere deep in my chest. “While you guys were content to be cheerleaders and pretending like me being smart had something to do with you, my brother supported me. When I didn't understand something, he helped me. I may be smarter than all of you, but he's smarter than both of you combined!”
My father looked at my mother and nodded in what was meant as a sage way. “I see. Garrett has poisoned you. For all your intelligence, you can't see what he's done for so long. I'm only sorry we didn't realize sooner.”
Tim turned to look at me. “Let's go. I'll get dressed.”
I nodded at him, still struck by his courage.
“Tim!” my mother wailed.
“Tim! This has gone far enough!” my father said, aiming for gruff, but also chuckling uncomfortably.
Tim turned to look at them and waited. My parents looked at each other and then my mother took a step forward. “Pastor-”
“No, Mom. No more pastor. No more Little Country Church where the guy who preaches how you should give him money drives a Mercedes to services and a Cadillac for errands. No more hypocrisy. No more...anything.” Tim took a deep breath. “If you do any of this – call pastor, force us to go to church, try to get rid of Garrett – I'll leave. You'll never see me again. I'll disown you. I will never – never – speak to you again. Do you understand me? Never.”
My father put his hands in his pockets and took a confident step forward, and then stopped when Tim growled, “Never.”
My mother raised her hands and clasped them before her face, her expression one of pain. “Tim, we wanted to do what was right.”
“Then you should have loved him, Mom,” he said, tears coming harder. “You should have loved him.”
I looped my arm around his shoulders, and he leaned on me as I walked us back to our room. With the door closed I hugged him harder than I thought my muscles could squeeze.
“What did I ever do to deserve you?” I asked him softly.
He shrugged. “You loved me.”
“Always have, little brother. Always will.”
He sniffled and wiped his face as I relaxed my grip. I realized I was shaking. On unsteady knees I sat on the edge of my bed while Tim pulled on sweatpants and a tee shirt for bed. He sat down beside me gingerly, and I pulled him close again.
Quietly he asked, “Do you think it will be enough?”
“I don't know, buddy,” I said quietly. “They are adults and they usually hold all the cards. I think they value you too much to risk anything right now. Who really knows? Pastor still has a sway over them. It won't be simple. Whatever happens, I want you to know how much I appreciate what you just did.”
I felt his hot tears as they fell on my leg. “We have to stay together. Promise me?” he asked, turning his face to look at me. “Promise you won't leave me behind.”
“Never, buddy,” I said confidently, even though I wasn't sure how I was going to manage this. I held Tim until the exhaustion from our confrontation with our parents had him drooping. After he was in bed I went back to the living room to get some clothes. I still needed a shower. My parents were sitting at the kitchen table, but I let them be as I went to my piles of folded clothes and began to gather them up.
I stood with my stuff and turned to find my mother standing in the doorway. My father was still at the table, head down and his hands on his head. I wasn't going to say anything, but my mother took a few tentative steps toward me, wringing her hands.
“I've never heard him so angry,” she said quietly.
I stood still and waited her out.
She looked at me with an expression that was a little lost. “Is...if we keep pastor away...will you talk to him? He's...he is....”
“He's your son,” I said quietly. “He's also my brother. Despite all the things you guys did wrong, we ended up bonded really well.” I paused. “This is a tipping point, Mom. You can choose to stick with what you think you know and lose your children – even though you both only care about one of them. Or, you can choose something else.” I looked at her but couldn't muster any sympathy. “I don't think you can do it. I know it's too late for us, and I don't even care anymore. So I wasn't as good as Tim, so I didn't deserve any time or love, I guess. Tim? He's a good person in spite of you. If he's really so important, then you'd better change – or I'm sure he'll follow through.”
She covered her mouth for a moment and then said, “He's so young. He'll get over it in a few days. Maybe. Things always go back to normal.”
I snorted. “You know what? Nothing is normal. We just can't stay in pain twenty-four seven. We do what we have to do, but make no mistake – either of you,” I said, noting my father watching balefully from the kitchen. “We remember. It's never been okay, and it's never been normal.”
I started to walk away and then paused before exiting the room. “I'm going to take a shower. This weekend I'm going to see my boyfriend. I'm not asking. I'm going to get a job. When I'm eighteen, I'll leave and you won't have to see me again.” I paused and looked at them both. “But you keep squeezing Tim, and he'll leave you behind, too.”
I went to my room and put my clothes away, then took a needed shower. I climbed into bed and set my phone to charge. I settled flat on my back and wondered about the many ways this could play out. The many bad ways this could play out. My parents had always followed pastor as far as I could recall. The only thing they really loved in life, though, was Tim. If what he said tonight had no effect, then I needed a plan B. I wouldn't miss my parents, but how would we live? How could I take care of Tim? I could drop out of school and get a full time job, but we'd be on the run – who'd hire me full-time without proper identification and whatnot?
What if it didn't get that far? What if they'd called pastor already and they had some of those goons show up to kidnap me and force me into some fake therapy to try and change me? I got back up and locked our door, not that it would do much. Stretching back out I found I just couldn't sleep. Tim was the most amazing person, the best little brother I could ever have asked for. No matter what happened, I'd do the right thing by him.
I woke in the morning and realized I was still in my own bed. I glanced at my clock and a wave of exhaustion rolled through my body. It was six-thirty and I had to get up, but I'd only gotten perhaps two hours of sleep after all the drama of the night before. I rolled out of bed and glanced into the top bunk, where Tim lay snoring softly. I decided to hit the bathroom and then wake him up. Let him have a few more minutes of peace before whatever was going to happen does.
After washing my face, brushing and all that I poked my head into the house proper. My father was sitting at the table in his robe and turned his head toward me. He waved me toward him and I approached cautiously – I was not in a position to defend myself or run in just a pair of shorts. I glanced around the small room and then placed my hands on the back of a chair, electing not to sit down.
“I don't know how we got here,” he said quietly. He wasn't looking at me, so it was hard to tell if he was speaking to me or just musing out loud. “You were a hard birth. I don't know if you knew that. You almost didn't make it. Your mother got sick while she was pregnant with you.” He glanced around the table, but didn't look at me. “You started slow. You needed some special help. The church – Pastor was new, then – they offered to help.”
I stayed silent, not sure where he was going.
“They helped with getting you therapy. You walked late. Talked late. We thought you might be one of those kids that would live with us forever.” He coughed lightly. “Then your mom got pregnant with Tim. We hadn't been trying to conceive, and we worried about what kind of a child he might be. If we could handle it. This was going on while you were still a baby.” He sighed. “Life was hard. And then we had two babies, only the second pregnancy had none of the problems of the first. Timothy was born healthy, and he walked and talked ahead of schedule. We were so relieved.”
“Is that when you decided I wasn't worth it anymore?” I asked, my voice not much more than a whisper.
He cocked his head in my direction. “We're people of few means. When you have so little, choosing to place it where it will do the most good seems...logical.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “Heartless, but whatever lets you sleep at night.”
He frowned. “It's a harsh truth. We made our choices. We never used to care very much about politics, sexual deviancy – we just wanted a break. We were so exhausted, and the church spoke to us. At first we left behind what didn't mean much to us. But later...they were right about so many other things.”
“I'm screwed up in a lot of ways, but that's not one of them,” I said. “I have to get ready for school and get Tim up. Was there a point to this?”
He looked up at me and for the first time in years I didn't see an uncaring ogre. I saw a tired, broken, small man.
“Only this. If doing what we thought was right has brought us to this point, then we were wrong. We don't like it. We aren't happy and we don't know what to do about it. For the first time since your mother was pregnant with you and so sick, we don't know what to do.” He let out a heavy sigh.
I pursed my lips. “I won't feel badly for either of you. But for Tim's sake,” I said quietly, and he looked up at me with hope. I sighed, swallowing the hateful things I wanted to say – to finish breaking him. “I won't speak ill of you or Mom – I won't encourage what happened last night. I'm done with church rules, though, and so is Tim. You may have a chance with him.”
He nodded and let out a ragged breath. “Yes. That is the best way to go.”
I left him then, turning my back in more ways than one, and went to wake my brother to get ready for school.
Luther met me as I got off the bus at school. “Hi,” he said quietly.
“Hey, Luth,” I replied and then waited. It seemed obvious to me he had something to say.
He glanced away and then back at me. “I'm sorry. I...I'm just sorry.”
“For what?” I asked, fear crawling up my spine and wondering what he'd done.
“For the other day. I shouldn't have judged you like that. I'm straight, but I shouldn't have acted the way I did to you. I promise, I accept who you are. Um.” His face was red, but I felt nothing but relief – I didn't need another crisis.
“All good, Luth. Thanks,” I said and held my fist out for him. He closed his hand and bumped my knuckles, then with a nod he turned away, only to pause.
He looked over his shoulder. “Do you still need my phone?”
I grinned. “He showed up at my game yesterday. We took a couple selfies.”
“Oh,” he said, but I couldn't work out what his tone meant. “Okay. See you.”
The school day went smoothly, and when it was over I called Sterling.
“Hey!” he said happily. “I was getting nervous. You didn't reach out last night.”
“Yeah, we had a little bit of a crisis last night.” I explained about the text messages and how things had ended up.
“Wow. So you think that's how it will go? Like you can date and go out when you want?”
“I don't know,” I said honestly. “I was mad when I said it, and I think they're in shock about Tim. It'll probably take some time for it all to shake out.”
“Okay, yeah. What can I do?”
I smiled. “How about you meet me at Whiskers tomorrow at two? I get done then and maybe we can hang out?”
“Hell, yes!” he enthused. “I'll see you then!”
Soccer practice flew by, and then it was time to go back to the house. My mother picked me up, but after I closed the door we just sat in the parking lot.
“I...wanted to talk. Before we go home.”
I was instantly on alert. “What did you do?”
She looked at me in puzzlement. “Do?”
“Is Tim all right?” I reached for my phone. “Did you call your pastor or something?”
She frowned the special frown of disapproval she kept for me. “Tim has a scrimmage. He's not at home. Pastor has nothing to do with this,” she said before slowly relaxing her frown and looking away from me. She took a deep breath as I stopped looking for my phone.
“If Tim's all right, what is there to say?” I asked quietly.
She turned toward me. “Garrett...last night you caused a lot of trouble.”
“Oh, fuck you,” I muttered.
Her eyes went wide and she stared at me.
“You heard me,” I said sullenly. “You ignored me my whole life. You tried to force all this crazy on us. You pushed Tim to a breaking point where he's afraid of whatever stupid idea you two have next. He heard you talking about marrying him off. You two are the problem.”
She pursed her lips and turned to look out of the windshield. She worked her jaw for a moment and then said, “It's easy to point fingers. Pastor provided direction. We didn't have to worry if we were doing the right things or not. It's a comfort.”
“You traded away thinking for yourself for comfort? You traded your first child away for comfort?” I asked in disbelief.
She frowned again. “We didn't trade you. It was such a blessing when Tim was so...normal.” She glanced at me. “You were difficult. It's not your fault, you didn't do it, but it was hard. Now you've turned Tim against us.”
“Or,” I said, getting angry. “Or maybe you're wrong? Have you even considered that perhaps you made a huge mistake, and your children can see it, but you can't?”
She looked at me with a trace of uncertainty. She put the car in gear and stayed quiet on the way back to the house. I went in and showered then sat on my bed to assess my homework. I was still organizing when I heard yelling. I leapt from the bed and ran out into the living room, where Tim was standing in his football pants, cleats and a tee shirt. He was screaming at our mother and I have no idea what he was saying. He'd gone a little ragged and our mother was covering her mouth and had tears standing in her eyes.
I went to Tim and put a hand on his shoulder. He let out a last volley of unintelligible noise and turned to face me. His face was red, his eyes were wet and his body was shaking.
“Come on. Let's get you a shower and you can chill with me,” I said, putting my arm around his shoulders and steering him toward the bathroom. I had no idea what my mother had said to trigger Tim, but now didn't seem to be the time to ask. He covered his nose with his hands like a tent and took a few breaths as we walked. I got him in the bathroom and grabbed his towel from the rack and put it on the bar of the shower.
I looked at him and his face was still flushed, but his lips were pursed in anger.
“Get cleaned up, yeah? I'll see you in our room.”
I stopped, waiting for him. His chest heaved a few times and then he suddenly collapsed, puking into the toilet.
“Aw, fuck, Timmy,” I said gently and flushed the toilet. I grabbed a washcloth and wet it in the sink before kneeling down beside him and putting the folded cloth on his forehead.
“I hate them,” he whispered.
“I know,” I said softly. He threw up again, more of a dry heave than anything else. “Want to rinse your mouth out?”
He paused for a full minute, hiccuped, and then nodded. I helped him to his feet and to the sink, though he probably didn't need me to. He rinsed his mouth out and spit several times before brushing his teeth. I just waited. He toed off his cleats, which were already undone. After rinsing his mouth again he braced his hands on the sink.
“I hate them, Garrett,” he repeated softly.
I waited a beat. “What for, now?”
His jaw tightened, and his grip on the sink turned his knuckles white. I placed a hand over his and waited. A tear formed, but didn't fall. He sniffed.
“She said you turned me against her, and wanted to know if you'd...if you'd...molested me.” He looked at me, eyes filled with unshed tears. “I swear to God, Garrett, I wanted to kill her.”
My heart broke for him and for me. That my parents could think me such a monster. That I could ever, ever hurt Tim.
“It's okay, Timmy,” I said gently.
“Don't call me that. I'm not six,” he said with a sniffle.
“It's okay for your big brother to treat you like you're six when you're hurting,” I said, teasing a little.
He let out a fluttering sigh. “What do we do?”
“Um. Educate them, I guess. Did mom say anything about taking you away or sending me away?”
He shook his head. “She just doesn't get why I'm so mad. She's looking for reasons why I'm on your side and not hers.” He snorted softly. “She thinks this is about sides.”
“Get cleaned up, okay? You smell like a French whore,” I teased, an old insult from our playground days.
His lips twitched. “You were supposed to be the whore. Now, what, just gay I guess. The horror!” he said, waving his hands in mock panic. “I'm pretty rank, though. Let me shower,” he said and pulled off his sweaty shirt.
I exited the room and went out to the kitchen. I glared at my mother, who was sitting at the table with my father and their breakfast table. It was really just a glorified nightstand with two chairs.
“You have to stop,” I said to her. “You made him so upset he threw up.”
She looked up and concern flashed across her face. “I'll get the thermometer,” she said, starting to stand.
“June,” my father said, his voice calm as he looked at me. “It's not that kind of sick.”
“What other kind is there?” she asked nervously and looked at me. “What have you done?”
I tightened my jaw and counted to ten. This was about Tim.
“Tim is the single most important person in the world to me. I'm pretty damn important to him. You just asked him if I did the most disgusting, sick betrayal of him by molesting him? You thought that was the smart thing to do?”
She looked a little lost and waved her hands aimlessly. “It makes sense. He was fine yesterday, but with all this coming out – it made sense.”
I shook my head. “You don't listen at all, do you? You just insulted the fuck out of him, never mind me – and I know you don't care if you hurt me. But you just hurt Tim – a lot. I don't care what you say about me anymore, but I'm done letting you do anything else to hurt Tim.”
She looked at me helplessly and then looked to my father. My father looked up at me with a look I don't think I'd ever seen on his face, at least not directed toward me.
“Go get Tim calm. I'll call you for dinner,” he said quietly.
My gut reaction was to tell him where he could get off, too. Instead I reminded myself that Tim was the priority and I nodded curtly before heading back to my room. Tim came in fifteen minutes later and got changed.
“Homework for the weekend?” I asked.
“Short essay for English,” he said quietly. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you what she said.”
I sighed. “Tim, I'm never going to have a relationship with our parents. I'm okay with that. What's important now is you. They can't hurt me anymore, but what she said hurt you.” I took a deep breath. “Tim, you have to remember that you know me. If what they say doesn't line up with what you know, then let it go. They are going to hate on me. I can handle that. I can't handle them hurting you.”
“How am I supposed to just listen to that?” he asked sadly.
“Tell them to stop or ignore them. We need to be able to put on headphones and block them out,” I mused.
Tim sat at the small desk we shared for homework. “Did anything good happen today?” he asked morosely.
“To me? Yeah,” I said with a grin.
He perked up a little. “Yeah, What? Oh, let me guess, this Sterling guy. Right?”
“You're too smart,” I told him. “He's going to meet me after my volunteering is over tomorrow and we're going to hang out.”
“He sounds like a really nice guy. Kind of nice he goes out of his way to see you.”
“Yeah. Feels good to have someone value me like that. Feels weird.”
He snorted. “I told Ginnie my parents said she's too old for me to go to the dance with,” he said quietly.
“Yeah? How'd she take it?”
He shrugged. “She wants me to sneak out and go for a walk with her. She claims she loves me.”
“You're quite lovable,” I told him.
“Shut up,” he said with a little smile.
“Really. She probably wants to accidentally drop her purse and suck your dick while she's down there,” I teased.
“Dude!” he said with a giggling snort and covered his face.
“People will want to. I'm just saying, Tim,” I continued to tease.
“Ugh. I don't know.” He looked up at me. “I'm not sure about letting someone do that to me.”
“Then say no. It's your body.”
He sighed. “But then she might spread rumors.”
“Sure. Then you say you didn't want your dick to go where so many have gone before,” I said with a chuckle and he snorted and started to laugh. “You think she's just up to something? Or do you think she really likes you?”
He sighed and shrugged. “I don't know. She seems to just want to be around me all the time. She's at my football practices and games. Hey. I have one Sunday afternoon. Will you come?”
“Hell yeah,” I said with a grin. “Now, do you like this Ginnie girl?”
He shrugged again. “I guess the attention is nice.”
“Boys! Dinner!” my father called out.
He looked toward the door apprehensively.
“We got this,” I told him.
He stood. “Hey. So, maybe Sterling can watch my game with you?”
God damn. I do not deserve this kid. “Yeah. I think he might like that.”
Dinner was a quiet affair. Dad asked us both questions about our days, which was kind of a rarity. My mom was largely quiet. I had a feeling my father was coming around to the new reality faster than my mother was. I still worried they'd get their pastor involved or try and commit us to marriage or pray-away-the-gay programs respectively.
After the dishes were done my father offhandedly asked if I had my regular volunteer time at the shelter the next day.
I mentally gritted my teeth and said, “Yes. But I'm going to hang out with...my boyfriend after that.”
He looked at me for a moment with an unreadable expression. “Garrett, you know the rules. I need to meet his mother, first.”
I worked my jaw for a moment, not sure what to say. “He's picking me up. I can get you her phone number.”
He let out a slow breath. “All right. I want to talk to her before any of this happens. Things may be different, but we have rules for a reason.” He paused. “This one stays.”
I cleared my throat and nodded. “Okay.”
I brought a change of clothes with me since there is a chance for me to get kind of smelly with all the animals, but they took pity on me having a date afterward and had me do more administrative work rather than physical. Mainly I got to hang out at the front desk with Charlie, the greeter dog. At twenty minutes to two Sterling walked in with Sampson on his leash. Charlie lumbered to his feet to perform his duties and I kind of forgot about Sterling while I cooed over Sampson.
“Hello, Sampson! Hello, hello! Who's a happy boy, huh? Hi!” I said to the little mutt, who capered around under the attention.
“Hey,” he said with a smile as I stood up from catching up with Sampson.
“Hey there,” I said with a grin. “I'll be done soon. You're early!”
“Yeah. Little restless at home. Your dad called this morning, had a chat with my mom.” He looked at me closely. “I guess things went okay. She said I was good to go to pick you up.”
“I'm shocked,” I said honestly. “But things have been really upside down for the last two days, so maybe things are changing.”
A few minutes later I headed out with Sterling and Sampson. Sterling was dressed in a preppy-casual way with a button up blue shirt with white vertical stripes, khaki shorts and sneakers. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal his forearms, which were muscled nicely with very fine, pale hair on his skin, which still held some of his summer tan.
He drove us out to a walking path where people were out jogging, riding bikes and walking their dogs. We took Sampson out and he wiggled with excitement at all the activity. Oh, and Sterling held my hand as we walked. That was going to take some getting used to. I liked it, probably more than the simple act deserved. We didn't talk much, which was nice because I was kind of lost in the moment.
Later we went to his house to meet with his mother. I wasn't sure what the plan was, but I intended to just go along with whatever he had decided on. Their home was cozy and tidy, except for his room, which was just as messy as my own. We'd taken our shoes off at the door and were padding around on the thick carpeting as he gave me the tour, which included shoving me against a wall, grinning like he knew something I didn't, and then a pretty aggressive bit of kissing. He pulled back and gave me that sly look again, then we finished our tour of his house by ending up in the kitchen. All of a sudden Sterling and I were cooking spaghetti and meatballs together.
“I had no idea you could cook,” I told him.
“Why? Jock can't cook?” he teased.
“Then I couldn't cook, either!” I snorted.
He slipped in behind me and hugged me. I let myself lean into it as I watched the pasta churn in the boiling water.
“So. What do you think of my mom?”
I hummed. “Very nice. I was a little nervous to meet her so quickly, but I thought it went well. What do you think?”
“I knew she'd like you.”
“Oh?” I asked and turned, with some difficulty, to face him. He slipped his hands from my waist to the counter, pinning me much as he had to his car previously.
He smiled that special smile. “I have missed out on dating some great guys. Chris Licardi, who I went to school with, was just bad timing. I missed a couple others, then dated this slender guy for a little while. He was named Philip. Little tightly wound. We broke up once or twice, hooked up a little after, but it wasn't a good relationship.”
I frowned a little. “Why wasn't it a good relationship?” The answer had to wait as the burner hissed behind me from water bubbling over. We worked together to get the pasta drained, add sauce and take the meatballs from the oven to add. The meatballs had to cool a few minutes so before we called his mom out to join us, I looked to him to answer me.
“Well, it was a philosophical thing, but it was also the way it was handled.” He explained about Philip not liking that Sterling had noticed guys while they were out. Apparently Philip had been very dramatic. “I just think you're always going to notice people – it doesn't mean you do or say anything. It's like any of a million things that happen in a day – you see it, you might like it in the moment, and then it's over. You may not even remember in twenty minutes.”
“Okay, I can see what you're saying,” I said. “But to be clear, it will make me jealous if you're drooling over someone else.” I was curious what he'd say to that.
“I get that,” he conceded. “I promise, I'll be drooling over you.”
“My point, going back to the beginning, was that I didn't want to miss out on you,” he said in a tone that was utterly unremarkable, as if he'd just said what the weather was. Having that extended focus aimed at me was new, and I wasn't sure what to do with that yet, so I moved on.
“Hey, I was meaning to ask – Sean, the guy that was with you the other day – isn't that Jamie's brother? How is that working out?”
“Ugh. Yeah, Sean is his brother,” he said with a sigh and a bit of a grimace. “Sean says he's not taking sides, even though he doesn't know the details. He says he knew something strange was going on, and Jamie can be pissy about it all he wants. Until someone explains things to him, he's going to assume whatever I did wasn't that bad.”
I tilted my head. “I'm not sure I'd be so forgiving about my own brother in that situation.”
He shrugged. “Sean knows me. He also knows Emily, Jamie's girl.”
I shook my head. “I don't understand why Jamie is upset.”
He moved to my side, leaning against the counter and pushing our shoulders together. “I did it because I was single, lonely and he said he wanted to kiss me. Like, he was interested in that, too. Then when we did more, he was still into it, but it was more about her. I squashed down the weird feelings and didn't even tell him. I told him I loved him, and I lied to myself a little. I should never have allowed myself to entertain the idea I could somehow end up with him for myself.”
I raised an eyebrow, surprised at his candidness.
“I know, it's weird. But I'm not hiding anything. I feel a little – okay a lot – stupid, but I don't want any of this to come back later and hurt what I'm trying to build with you. I may screw something else up with you, but it won't be because I didn't come clean about things I've said or done.”
I cleared my throat and tentatively took his hand. “Okay. I think that's a good place for us both to start.”
“When this latest thing came up, though...he didn't want to. You could see the reluctance in his body language, in his tone of voice...and I didn't want that for him or me. I don't want that kind of experience where I'm involved to be about someone watching like a creeper for their own kicks. You know?” He looked at me earnestly.
“Yeah, I think I do, actually,” I replied. “So you think he'd have done that? Just for her?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I think me balking actually made him feel like he was off the hook, but he still thinks he has to defend his girl if someone says she's got a stupid idea.”
I nodded slowly. “Um. That it?”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
“Do you still love him?” I asked quietly.
“I think I always will, a little. For who he can be, sometimes. But being able to look at it all in perspective – to step back and look at the whole thing, not just the last few months – I can see where me being lonely, being around couples who were doing their own thing and maybe feeling down on myself, led me to a place where I was willing to accept the affection I could get. Like, maybe I wasn't sure if I deserved more.”
“How did you reach that conclusion?” I asked, frowning.
“Well, like I said, I kept missing out. Misfiring. Philip could be a learning experience, I guess, but maybe I wasn't as sensitive to his feelings as I could have been. And Jamie, well...at first it seemed like there was a clear understanding, but things went farther than anyone planned. I don't entirely blame Jamie or even Emily. I played my part and it was a mess in the end. Emotions get involved and this latest...request from her was one too far.” He shrugged. “I thought maybe I was just not destined for anything like a real relationship, a real love.”
His mom entered the kitchen. “Oh, look at you guys, holding hands – and you cooked! Can I have some?” she asked in a teasing voice. I had to consciously relax my hand, which had gripped his in fear at his mother entering the room unexpectedly. She wasn't my mom, but damn – I reacted like she was.
“Yep! I'll get bowls and parm,” he said. I gave the pasta a good stir to make sure everything was coated with sauce, and we were soon at their dining room table.
“So, Garrett! Sterling says we met you at the animal shelter?” she asked.
“Um, yeah. I volunteer there on Saturdays. I was talking to Sterling about the dogs and took him back to meet Sampson.” At his name Sampson whined a little and belly-crawled a little closer to the table in hopes of a meatball.
“So I have you to thank for this furball, huh?” she asked teasingly, smiling down at Sampson, who gave her his best doggie smile.
“I think Sampson did the work,” I told her.
“Your father called this morning and we had a nice talk,” she said. I looked at Sterling quickly and then back to her.
“Um. I'm not sure what to say.”
She smiled a bit. “Some parents don't take their gay children well. It's abhorrent. Sterling has told me a little about the beliefs in your home, so I was expecting something uncomfortable this morning. But,” she said, smiling in a reassuring manner, “it was a pleasant conversation. He said he meets the parents of kids before his kids get in cars or go to other people's homes – and I think that's great, to be honest. I did that more when Sterling was younger, but the principle is the same – to make sure that your kids are safe.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I said quietly.
“Garrett,” she said softly and I looked up at her. “He didn't fool me. I know it wasn't just about your safety. You're safe here.” She patted my hand and then looked at Sterling. “You never told me how cute Garrett is. I feel like you deceived me.”
“Actually, I told you exactly how cute he is, and I provided photographic evidence,” Sterling countered.
“Argh,” I said as my face heated up and I looked down, hand on my forehead.
“I won't tell him what you said about his butt,” she stage whispered.
“Mom!” Sterling said, sounding scandalized. I looked up at him with some surprise and he grinned that sly grin. “I haven't even gotten to tell him what I think of his butt.”
“I feel so-” I looked at his mom, “-deceived you said? Deceived. You weren't going to tell me you talked to your mom about me until we sat down to dinner with her?” I asked, shaking my head.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said, starting to laugh. “You've got this all wrong! You have no idea how much my mom is like a dog with a bone when she wants information!”
“Oh, please!” she said with a pretty laugh. “You've been bragging about him for the last two weeks. Garrett's so cute! Garrett's got such a nice smile! Garrett's butt is-”
“Okay! I surrender!” he said, red faced and laughing hard. I was torn between being embarrassed as fuck and laughing at the situation.
She smiled gently at me, a total switch from the way she'd been while teasing us. “I think the whole thing between you both is so romantic. The way you met, the car ride when you missed your bus, driving to your games just to get a few minutes with you.” She sighed. “I hope you love every minute of it, Garrett. It's rare.”
I blushed, and then things moved to topics other than our relationship. Once I relaxed a little, it was actually kind of nice. After a few bowls of food we cleaned up and went to settle on the couch. Sterling was flipping through movie choices and I was sitting beside him.
“Hmm. Something's not right,” he said quietly, almost under his breath.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He put his arm around my shoulders. “Hmm. Better. Not quite right.”
I twisted my lips in a sort-of-smile and scooted over to cuddle in beside him.
“Ah. That's what it was,” he said, smiling down at me.
I rested my hand on his knee and looked up at him. “So. You had some baggage you were honest about.”
“Yeah? After what your parents have been doing, what could you possibly tell me that would be weird?” he asked.
“Well, I was in the closet at school and kind of let rumor work to my advantage.”
“In what way?” he asked.
I put my head on his chest and let my fingers stroke his skin. “Most people at school think I'm a slut. Mostly straight, but there are rumors that I sleep with both sexes.”
“Huh. So...how did these rumors get started?”
“A girl. We fooled around. Word just kind of spread from there. Next thing you know people are asking if I slept with this girl or got blown by that one and I just let it take on a life of its own. In the closet in plain sight.”
He chuckled. “Okay, probably good to know that. I assume I'll be meeting your friends some time anyway.”
I nodded. “The few I have. Tim, my brother, is the most important one I have. He already likes you.”
“Good. I can't wait to meet him,” he said quietly and ran his fingers through my hair.
“He has a football game tomorrow. He asked me to invite you,” I said.
“I can't wait.”
I sighed contentedly and stayed that way through a movie. Lying with him was something I'd sorely lacked in my life, and in any of my escapades with others. Affection is a separate thing from sex, and now I understood the difference. Feeling him beside me, inhaling his scent and casually touching the skin of his knee or his firm chest wasn't sexual – or not completely. It was showing him affection, the same as it was to cook with him or to confess the things we'd done to become who we now were.
Later we kissed a little. He was still aggressive in that department and it was fun to give that back to him. Hot. Perfect.
Things went on from there. It's one of those annoying facts that no matter what's going on for anyone – groups or individuals – life goes on. It went on while things were crappy at home for me, and it went on with the uneasy truce that was holding in our modest house. Tim started sneaking out to take walks with his stalker. She seemed genuinely into him and he was still processing what that meant to him. Our parents were oblivious to this. I don't know if Tim will want something physical from someone at some point, but he's becoming strong enough that he won't do it if he doesn't want to. I hope he's able to develop the ability to have a meaningful relationship, whatever form that takes for him.
My direction would always include him, and in many ways his direction would always include me. I got a job at a convenience store in town and bought a pay-as-you-go smart phone so I could stay in better contact with my boyfriend. Saturday had become our day. He'd meet me at Whiskers, and we'd spend the rest of the day and evening together. His mom was super welcoming to me, and we spent plenty of time with Sampson, who seemed very happy in his new home.
I never thought falling in love would be in the cards for me, but maybe it was about more than playing the cards I'd been dealt. Maybe it was about reshuffling the deck and changing my outcome – because only I can do that. So yes, I've fallen in love with a decent guy. For the first time touching someone isn't all about me and maintaining a reputation that screens me from scrutiny and hides my same sex attractions. It changes things, and he's changed me.
Never going to fall in love? Well, I guess now it's never say never.