Copyright 2010 by Ernesto66. All persons, places, things and events mentioned within this file are fictional, and no inferences should be made regarding their relationship to reality by readers, regardless of how they are represented. The author is responsible for, but not liable for, errors in regard to continuity, geography, weather, the public record, contemporary events, hairstyles, language and his own bad judgment. This story includes descriptions of adult homosexual men in sexual situations. If you are not of legal age to read this, then don't. If you are of age but somehow offended by such material, what the fuck are you doing here?
This file is freely shared, and the author encourages its distribution, dependent on proper attribution to him and only him. The file remains his intellectual (!) property and its unattributed use anywhere outside its orginal forum will result in harsh words to the offending site's host, as if there's anything they'll do about it.
I gratefully thank, and dedicate this story to, authors around the world who inspired me by posting their work online, most especially the two known as Ardveche and Ricardo Cabeza. It was in trying to emulate their beautiful stories that I first sat down to start my own, and writing "Homecoming" went a long way toward helping me through the hardest period of my life.
Thanks as well to my husband David. I started "Homecoming" before I even knew him, and although he had no idea I was writing it (at work), with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chapter Six: True Confessions
Michael shut his eyes against the sun shining through the window and onto his face. No matter how much it hurt to look into it, nothing could compare to the other pain he was feeling. He put his hands up to his chest, pressed to the fabric of his shirt as if to hold something inside. He knew how queer he must look doing that.
And he realized he didn't care any more. Queer or not, he was hurting.
It sounded so fucking stupid, so simple-minded, like one of those terrible romance novels the girls were all carrying with them senior year. But it was true. It felt like his heart was broken. No, more like being pulled out of his chest, slowly, its muscles tearing apart on his broken ribs. It burned from down deep, to breathe or even just to swallow.
And it felt like the person he loved most in the world was the one doing this to him.
He wanted to hope everything would be over soon, that somehow there'd be an end to it and he could move on. Anything would be better than this torture. But in another part of his mind he knew exactly what was going to happen. No matter how many times he relived this moment over the years it never got any easier, and it never ended differently. He wanted it to, of course, but his punishment was to relive it again and again, knowing all along how it would come out. And wonder...
If it really hurt Billy as much as he said it did, what happened after? What did he do when he left the house, what did he tell his parents? Did he cry over it for months like Michael did? How had he spent the last twenty years?
And the last part of the dream... Did that really happen?
But that was still to come.
Now, it was afternoon, late June, 1984. Classes were over, summer was here. Hard to believe it had only been six months ago, that they'd sat at his desk and filled out applications for the fall. Opened letters from those schools spread across the desk. Seven rejections and three acceptances - one apiece from U of L and another for Michael from UK, all close to home. Pretty useless.
Eurythmics was playing on the turntable, loud enough to drown them out in case anyone walked in downstairs. They were facing each other across the room, both of them angry and hurt, voices shaking.
Michael was talking, hating the sound of his own voice - sure he was whining, pushing Billy further off with every word. "You don't know how much you mean to me." Another bullshit romantic cliche.
Billy laughed and threw his hands up. "I know exactly how much. You're the one who's leaving, not me."
"Don't put it like that. I have to get out of here."
"Mikey, please don't go. Don't. I'll go crazy without you."
"Come with me, then. I've got my car and we've got enough money saved up from our jobs to get started somewhere else. We're adults, that was the whole point of telling them, right? They can't make us-"
"You know I can't leave. They'd find me and drag me off to boot camp or Bible college or something. Don Shepherd always gets his way. Always. He never gives up. He grabbed me and told me this morning `Act like a man, Billy. That Shelton kid is no good, we know it's him that's responsible. Let go of the things that hold you back.' Look at my arm!"
The inside of his arm was purple from the elbow up to the sleeve of his t-shirt. "Jeez, Billy. That looks horrible."
"Not as horrible as I feel. Dad said... He said if I promise to never see you again, he and Mom will forget what happened... Pay for whatever school I want. If not then it's the academy, you know what that'd be like. And I told him... I said..."
"Don't cry, Billy, I know what you said. Come with me and I'll protect you from them. I don't want it to end like this. I want to be with you! For forever, I guess. At least for as long as we can stand each other. I mean, we've lasted seven years, right? I want you with me for the rest of my life. Please don't cry."
Billy wandered over to the window, was looking at the blue sky beyond the rooftops outside. "I can't... help it." Pause. "Things were s'posed to go better than this, Mikey. All I wanted was a friend, and you were..." His mouth twisted, so Michael never knew what his last kind words might have been. He choked them off and swallowed hard, wiped his eyes.
Billy glanced up, his voice still soft. "What're you looking at?"
Michael drank in what he saw. Knowing this was the end, the last really good moment they would ever have together. Golden lashes, fair skin, the lips he'd come to know so well, the tears running down his cheeks, all gold.
"You, man, in the window. In the sun you're like, beautiful."
"Shut up, I am not."
"You are too. It sounds faggy to say but you are so, so beautiful..." He tentatively put his hand on Billy's sleeve, then pulled him tight into a hug, as close as they used to be. "Please," Michael cried into Billy's shoulder. "Don't let me go by myself."
But Billy was lifeless in Michael's arms. He had to say it, what he'd been planning. Now. Anything to change all this.
Desperate, he blurted out "Look, I have to say something. I want you to know how I really feel, if it'll make a difference. I hope it does. I think I know now." Deep breath. "I'm in l-"
"Don't hate me."
"-with you. What?"
"I said, don't hate me." Billy pushed back to face Michael as he said the words. At least there was that. "I told him I'd do it."
Silence. The pain had been easing, their arguing actually starting to give Michael a faint hope that Billy could give in and the two of them run off and be happy together. Six words ripped all that away.
He repaid it by shoving Billy hard into the edge of the desk, scattering their papers. "What?" he wailed.
"I want us to be together too, but be realistic! Do you really picture us doing that? You'll end up in New York or Chicago and be a great artist and forget about me. I'm not talented like you and I can't do everything like you can! I'll never be anything, except stuck in Louisville for the rest of my life."
"Shut up, you asshole. I'll never forget you, or leave you behind - that's why I want you to come with me. I can't believe you told him yes. You were just now begging me to stay! Were you gonna sneak over here the rest of the summer and not tell them?"
"I wasn't 'begging' you, and what difference does it make what I said? You're leaving!"
"But if I stayed, you'd be glad to make me your little secret and us lie to everybody, so we could maybe get a half an hour together and do it like behind the dumpster at Walgreen's. What a life! God, doesn't anything mean anything to you at all?"
"What's the diff? With you gone I can tell him whatever I want. I'll say I kicked your ass and you left town in stitches. He'll buy me a freaking Porsche!"
"What are you talking about? Why are you so mad at me? I want you to-"
"It's not gonna happen, Mikey. You go ahead and go. I mean it, I'm not gonna hold you back. Goodbye." He headed for the door.
Tears began to fall, out of nowhere, so Mike ran his arm across his face and gasped "Stop! Don't go yet. Please." He held his hand out and Billy flinched, pulling back. He withdrew it.
"Don't be mad at me. I can't stay here and pretend nothing's wrong. If I thought I could sit down to dinner every night and my parents wouldn't act like I'd just shit on the table, I'd stay. But you should have seen them. My mom wouldn't even look at me! I can't imagine what school will be like in the fall if your parents pull you out. I feel like I don't have anyone in my whole life to turn to, except you. Please don't be like this." Who was begging now?
"Are you done? `Cause I have to go. I have to be at work at two."
"I can't believe-" Sure he could. This was what it always came to, wasn't it? This same scene, every time. Neither of them could ever bend, ever compromise. The end result was always him getting hurt, it seemed, never the other way around. Not that he wanted Billy hurt.
"Goddammit, Billy. God damn you! Shit. Shit! I can't believe this!" He dropped into the chair at his desk, defeated.
Yes, he could. How much simpler did he need it to be for him to understand?
"We're done. Go already."
"It's been real, Mikey. Hang tough. Be good or be good at it. And stay in touch - don't forget your friends. See ya around."
Like another stab into the wound already there, Michael heard his boyfriend say the same words - hatefully this time - that he'd said to him the first time they'd talked, all those years ago. But that hadn't been the end, then, had it? No.
It had been the very beginning of everything leading to this, though.
He listened to Billy pound down the stairs, then silence. The clock on Michael's bookshelf hummed softly and the sun still shone, burning his eyes and the tears running down his cheeks. He sat like that for a long time, waiting for the throbbing aches in his head and chest to subside. What he was really doing, of course, was listening for the back door to close or better yet slam. To punctuate the whole thing, put an undeniable end to it. But if he hadn't heard that by now he wasn't going to. Billy was probably standing in the driveway expecting Michael to follow him out and apologize, promise to stay and pretend their life was rainbows and kittens and My Little Pony.
Well fuck him. Fuck Billy to hell.
Before today those words would never have come to Michael. It chilled him to even think them. But that's exactly how he felt now. That asshole could stand out there until fucking doomsday for all he cared.
"Go. Coward," he whispered.
He leaned against the desk for a long time, tired of everything and finally not caring whether Billy was anywhere nearby or not. He wiped his face roughly and started to pull things out onto the bed as quickly as he could. His three suitcases, all his best clothes, checkbook, cash. Only what he absolutely needed. His foot hit the crumpled envelope on the carpet, where it had landed when Billy threw it back at him. He picked it up, smoothed it and laid it carefully on top of his dresser where his mom would find it. It said 'we' in a couple of places, but so what. Maybe knowing it was just him by himself now would make his parents feel worse. Probably not.
He looked around as he finished packing. He was leaving behind his drawing table, all his board games, a closet full of records and toys, almost all his books and magazines, the Star Wars posters he'd papered the room with. For a split second he thought back to the bus shelter in 1977 again and his heart ached anew.
He sniffed. It was past time to go. He turned on his heel.
The next part he could never be sure if he imagined. As crystal-clear as the rest of the dream always was, this was hazy, which almost made it worse. It could have been anything. A car passing, the house settling. Nothing. His mind.
He snapped the last suitcase shut, hoisted it off the bed and looked at his room one last time from the doorway. He was forgetting something, he knew it. Something important. It would come to him in an hour, halfway up 65, when it was too late. Nevermind. He awkwardly lugged the other two cases to the door.
He turned the corner and took one step down the stairs, hearing the back door latch click shut as he did.
Michael came to slowly, tears drying and making his eyelids stick as he blinked the dream away. It seemed brighter in the living room for some reason, but his brain might have been playing tricks on him. It wasn't morning already, he couldn't have slept all night...? No, wait.
He peered at the clock on the entertainment center and saw it was 4:30. He hadn't been out that long. The storm must have passed, the clouds thinning. On a clear day at this time of year it shouldn't start to get dark for another hour or more.
He lay back, dropping the pillow on the floor. Fuck if he didn't normally go months without remembering a single dream, then have two horribly vivid ones back to back like this. Stress was getting to him. Next he'd be sleepwalking.
He listened but couldn't hear anything from the rest of the house. Maybe Jeremy had taken up knitting and was sitting quietly somewhere upstairs, with the cat of course, making him a sweater. Maybe he'd run away again.
Quit it. He can do what he wants, when and where he wants, and that's just fine. Stop projecting your shit -
Michael nearly jumped out of his skin, not to mention dislocated his neck, at the sound. Craning his head around he saw Jeremy was sitting pretty much behind him, in the recliner opposite where he'd been before. The light from the lamps around the room reflected off his glasses. He was holding a mug of tea or something, and had made room in his lap for not only a big coffee-table book of some kind but the cat as well, and together they watched him sit up from his nap.
"Jesus, you scared me. If I'd been more awake I'd have screamed like a little girl."
"Sorry. I tried to be as quiet as I could. You weren't sleeping very well. Did you have a nightmare?"
"No," he answered truthfully. "What I had was a very bad memory, but I'm okay now. Did I miss anything?"
"Nope. I mainly just wandered around and looked at stuff. This Kevin guy has really expensive taste, if I remember the catalogs my mom used to get to look at. He has designer sheets, and designer towels, and she-" he scratched Catherine under the chin- "has designer food bowls!"
"Yeah, that's Kevin all right. He can make like a regular guy's guy a lot of the time, but get him started and he'll spend the whole evening telling you all about Martha Stewart's washcloth filing system, or how to grow your own loofah sponges. At heart he's just a big quee- He's very discriminating, is the best way I can put it."
Jeremy waved him off. "I know what a big queen is, it's not like I've never seen Harvey Fierstein in anything. Anyway. But Kevin has a crapload of books, and a Mac in the office, and... and a lot of pictures of you hanging all over."
Michael rubbed his eyes and asked, "Pictures of me?"
"Yeah, in the bedroom and the craft room. Mostly of you and this one big guy who looks kind of like... Um, did you ever see 'Forty Year Old Virgin'?"
"He kind of looks like that guy Seth Rogen, only older."
Michael smiled. A sexy bear. "That's Kevin, and I'll tell him you said that, he'll be flattered."
"There were ones of you on a fancy bridge over like a canal, and some at a zoo, and one of you blowing candles out on a big cake he's holding. I couldn't tell what the cake was."
"Those are all from Indianapolis, he comes up to visit me every few months. I forgot he had any from my birthday. That was my thirty-fifth, in 2001, like the movie. You know. It was a little monolith, and he'd put toy monkeys all over it." Jeremy nodded. "The writing said 'May higher intelligence strike you this year.'"
Jeremy chuckled as Michael smiled. The inscription had gone right over Todd's head, as had the significance of one of the monkeys being painted so he was wearing a tiny Daniel Cremieux shirt. Kevin had known both things would, but they hadn't gone over Michael's. At the time he was pretty pissed off at the joke, but of course in the end his friend had been right. In another month he'd wised up and dumped Todd.
"I'm the worst friend ever. Kevin's been trying to get me down here for years and I kept putting him off, so he drove a hundred miles every time to come see me instead. I suck!"
"Don't be so hard on yourself. He's got your pictures up in his house, it's not like he can hate you."
"No, I suck. I do that to friends, treat them more like business acquaintences sometimes. I hate it and my dad did the exact same thing. There's so many shades of grey when you're older, Jeremy. It's not all black and white. Not everybody is either a friend or an enemy. Sometimes you do uncaring things to the people you like, and vice-versa."
The boy bumped his head back against the seat's cushion. "God, don't you think I know that? Don't talk to me like I'm a kid. I really appreciated it when you didn't do that before, so please don't start now. I get- I got enough of that from my parents."
Michael sat back, startled by the sudden flare in his voice. It was the same petulant tone he'd had out in the field that morning, the "You didn't go where I thought" voice. Must have touched a nerve, he thought. Good job.
"I'm sorry. I get used to talking certain ways, to certain people... Nevermind, it's not you. You're right, I'll try to keep my side of the conversation adult."
"Whatever." Jeremy closed the book. "Anyway, I also found something out on the deck. I saw it from the bathroom upstairs, so I snuck outside and looked at it." The cat jumped out of his lap and headed for the kitchen. Michael saw the big book was glossy pictures of Chicago. Was he still thinking of going, or sorry he hadn't?
"What- Oh, yeah, the hot tub. Is it nice?"
"It's pretty freaking nice. It's full of water and everything, and I turned it on for like a second to make sure it works. I'd like to go out and use it if that's okay. I've never been in one."
"Well, Kevin said he didn't mind if I used it. Which doesn't sound too bad after today..." He considered letting the kid go out and use it alone, but why waste having something luxurious right there and not using it himself? He'd been invited. Of course he was leery of the idea of being so close to the boy, and half-dressed in a tub at that, but what the hell, he was a damn adult. He didn't have any real reason to turn Jeremy down. That didn't mean he couldn't, but he didn't want to look like more of an asshole than he already did, for no better reason than not being able to control his hormones.
He stood up from the couch and stretched his legs, popping all his stiff joints. "There's bound to be some swim stuff-"
"I found a pile of trunks in the dresser in my room. I think there're ones that'll fit both of us."
"Why am I not surprised. Go ahead."
"Awesome." Jeremy loped up the stairs. At the top he came around the edge of the fireplace and looked down into the living room. The lamps below threw his shadow up into the crook of the ceiling, spooking the cat. "That was a little cold of me, Michael, I know you're just looking out, so I shouldn't blow up at you. We're still good, don't worry." He paused a long second, his eyes unreadable behind the glasses. "You were half-asleep anyway. Are you really all right?"
The boy turned and went on. This time he slammed the door closed, and his four-legged friend, too slow and shut out, came back to the edge of the balcony and sat there looking miffed.
"You try getting through the day I'm having in one piece, then come talk to me about it," Michael whispered.
Michael wandered out to the deck while he waited for Jeremy to get dressed, opening the sliding door and feeling the chill immediately seep into his skin. The snow had indeed stopped, but a low breeze scattered fallen flakes that hissed like sand at the beach. Lord, that water had better be good and warm already.
Light from the living room spilled outside, showing him the deck and the hot tub nestled into it just around the corner. Jeremy had brushed most of the fallen snow out of the way, so it wasn't hard to see what was there. How complicated could it be? He folded the padded cover over in half and pushed it aside. Steam rose off the water inside, warming his hands and filling his nose with the burning chemical smell of chlorine.
The tub was octagonal, the top edge of its sloping sides just a couple of inches higher than the deck. It must have been eight or ten feet across, the biggest Michael thought he'd ever seen, molded to seat eight or even more. And very comfortably, he thought, sighing a cloud of breath and popping open the control panel on one side. Great, it looked like something out of 'The Next Generation,' a bunch of buttons with arty icons he couldn't make out set too far down into the surface. Which did what? Jacuzzi, more heat, massage... He dipped two fingers into the water; very warm but not boiling. He'd leave it to Jeremy. If the water was hot, what did it matter whether it was doing anything else?
He noticed a square of cloth sticking from under one corner of the cover, a reddish tropical print. He reached over and pulled a damp pair of long trunks, what he'd call jams, out from where they'd gotten caught inside. These would fit, he was sure. They looked small but if they were Kevin's they must stretch. They'd at least be close to the right size for him too.
Michael glanced back at the house - no sign of Jeremy, although Cat sat peering at him through the condensation on the door. Go ahead and change out here. He was already outside, why go back in. "Grow a pair, Shelton."
'Grow a pair' was just about his least favorite expression of all time, right up there with 'Back in the day,' and another one that Jason repeated endlessly at work. Michael hated it so much he only ever said it out loud to make himself do things he really couldn't stand to do.
So what's stopping you? Fuck it. Do it. Grow some.
Before he could think about it too much he jerked his shirt out of his waistband, pulling it and his sweater over his head in one motion. He laid them on top of the cover, starting a pile. Under his t-shirt his nipples immediately hardened up into BBs and gooseflesh broke out all over his torso like chicken pox. He undid his belt as quickly as his fingers would let him, then unlaced his hikers and pulled them off, socks too. He pushed his pants down and off, hopping around the deck and praying not to stub his toe and go headfirst into the tub. Then the t-shirt, then he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his boxers. Ugh.
One more second's hesitation and he shoved them down to his ankles and stepped over them. His dick and balls had shrunk so small there wasn't even enough of them left to dangle, so they poked out from him like three flesh-colored marbles. Totally naked and feeling exposed and klutzy, he grabbed the jams and slid them up his legs, where they stopped short at his thighs.
What the fuck?
He tried again and they'd only go up so far, to right under his sack. Were they tied? No. Oh, shit. He closed his eyes, remembering that Kevin sometimes mentioned his nephews, teenagers, staying at the house on weekends. These were theirs, or some small-waisted trick's, so they wouldn't ever fit Michael, not if he stood there holding them all night. Damn it, Jeremy would be down here any minute. He slid the jams back down, stepping over them and sticking both feet into the tub.
Ohhhh. The water was as hot as soup, and felt incredibly good against the cold. He squeaked down into one of the molded grooves, his ass conforming to the warm plastic on the bottom.
Good job, now to find out which one of these things-
"Dude, are you like naked under there?"
Michael, dismayed, twisted around in the tub, his fingers pressing all the buttons at the same time. Magically, he somehow hit the right combination and the jets all fired at once, humming like outboard motors and roiling the water.
Jeremy stood at the door wearing a pair of green trunks with a beach towel under his arm. He still had his glasses on. He pushed the cat back behind one bare foot and waited for an answer.
"Um, yeah. I could lie and say it's the manly thing to do while we're out here in the wilderness, but the truth is I found some shorts and they didn't fit so I had to drop them. I don't guess you brought any of the others with you?"
Jeremy smirked, pulled the door to and dropped his towel on top of Michael's pile of clothes. "I thought you were gonna go get 'em, so I left them upstairs." He walked over to the tub, dunked one toe in the water, then balanced on the back of one seat and jumped in, splashing Michael.
He shouted as he hit the water, throwing his head back and getting it wet as well. When he came back up his dark hair hung over his forehead and dripped down his glasses. "Oh crap that feels good!" He settled into his own groove opposite Michael's, bobbing on the current but finally sinking till just his head and shoulders were above the water. He slapped his hands on the surface a few times, getting Michael wet again and the deck as well.
"Don't-" he started. "Um... If it's not too parent-like of me to say. Don't do that. It'll freeze on the deck and somebody will fall. Put an eye out, puncture an eardrum, who knows."
Jeremy laughed one of his laughs, which turned into a gurgle as his knee bumped Michael's and for an second he though he also felt the kid's hand brush his leg. Michael tried to ignore the weird sensation that shot up his thigh.
The kid said "Getting settled, sorry."
Feeling the warm water curl around his dick and balls as they floated free, the waves from the jets kneading everything vigorously... Jeremy being so close, Michael was on his guard. He was too aware of what could happen if he let himself get too stimulated here. He'd already done his best to keep his gaze only on the kid's face, nowhere else, since he'd come out the door. It was easier now with everything important out of view but if it turned out to be too much for him he'd grab the towel and go hide inside. If. For now he willed himself to relax and let the tub do its work on his muscles.
Dead baby ducks, dead baby ducks, this is so not a turn-on at all...
"Sorry if it's weird me being naked under here. I can go get one of the suits-"
"Nevermind, man, I had a year of gym. I've seen plenty. God, this is awesome! I've never been in one of these before. It's like getting rubbed all over your body at once. What a great thing to come home to."
"This is true," Michael admitted. "I do envy Kevin. It would be great to have stuff like this, but it's hard to be be too jealous of him. He's so generous and he seems to get such a kick out of sharing his things. One more reason I feel bad about not coming until now."
"You know, my therapist says it's not healthy to hang on to things from the past you can't change." Jeremy peered at him through the mist rising between them. "Fact, if you're always crying your eyes out over stuff that's impossible to fix, that's using those things as a way to get out of doing the right thing in the future.
"My glasses are fogging up." He took them off, folded them and laid them to one side. After a moment he spoke up again. "Dude, seriously, are you okay? You have a really weird look on your face."
"I'm just drifting." Michael admitted, "Your therapist is a bright guy-"
"Girl. She's like fifty, though."
"Girl. If she's that-" He stopped. If she's that good, then why are you running away from home? "If she's that good, maybe I need a therapist too. As it is I just hit my bartender up for advice. At ten dollars an hour Calvin's cheaper, and I bet a lot cuter."
They fell quiet. Except for the rustle of leaves and snow skating across the ground there was no other sound but the white noise rumbling from under the water in the tub. Every once in a while the wind would break through the bubble of warmth around them and cool their skin, making them sink lower. Mostly they floated, gently, buoyed by the jets beneath them.
The muscles in Michael's back and legs seemed to slowly lose whatever weight they had, become soft enough to melt in the hot water. For the first time he noticed that behind them the sun had begun to set, silhouetting the house and painting the sky with yellow and pink where the light hit the few clouds left from this morning. The triangle of glass wall in front of them, reflecting the sky, was a wintery twilight blue, as were the banks of snow all around the house.
"This is really beautiful out here," Michael said, startled by the wonder in his voice. Startled? Had something happened that he'd missed?
For the first time all day - in months really, maybe years - he realized he might actually be at peace. This must surely be what that felt like. The absence of any drama. No planning or thinking, no moving. Just... Accepting. Ready for whatever happened next.
And when he thought back, he hadn't missed anything.
Jeremy was looking at him sideways. "Yeah, it is. But, um, it was pretty beautiful when we got here, you know. What, uh-"
"I wasn't seeing it. I was taking inventory. The house and everything is impressive, but this, this is beautiful."
Without blinking Michael slowly looked around and took a mental snapshot of everything he could see: the sky, bare trees, snow, house. Finally (squinting, trying not to be obvious about it) Jeremy's face, framed by all the rest. Somber, hurting, trusting, but capable of that laughter.
"I haven't smoked pot in twenty years but this is how I remember it feeling. I really feel good. I feel... light." He closed his eyes and saw the picture he'd just taken floating in front of him in the darkness. He thought that no matter what else happened that weekend, the rest of his life he'd do his best to hold onto it.
There was more.
He became aware that he could feel, physically feel, the knot in his chest, the one he'd described to Jeremy at the mall. It was untying itself, gradually releasing everything it was holding back inside. As it left him that pressure dissolved into the water and air, where he'd never see it again. But there was more to it than just letting go, more... He regarded the feeling with some awe as he tried to puzzle it out. He knew, instinctively, that the knot coming undone would leave something behind it. What? A space, to be filled by something else.
And he wanted to be filled, but he didn't know by what, only that the emptiness he was left with had its own dangers. Something more had to come, something had to be let in and allowed to live there. But what? Again he didn't know. It would come to him when he was ready.
Michael gladly embraced his feelings. At that moment he was the closest he could ever imagine himself to being ecstatic. It was thrilling to realize it was happening to him, at the same time... It was kind of frightening. Like being visited by an angel or something.
Michael luxuriated in his trance, but in one more minute he had to will himself to wake up and come back to Earth. It wasn't easy.
Get real, he thought. So you feel good. You're not in heaven but a hot tub. This isn't paradise, it's southern Indiana. And again, that is no angel sitting there.
He sat up and cleared his throat. Jeremy looked like he might be expecting yet another ramble from him. "Thanks for asking. About me looking weird, to backtrack. I know I sounded high but I'm okay. I am all right." It really was as simple as that.
Michael touched his own eyebrow, about where Jeremy had hit the restroom wall. "How's your forehead doing?"
"It's good, man. Hurts a little when I stop to think about it."
"Then I won't make you think about it. You know what we haven't done. I put Truth or Dare on hold, but I'm ready to play now if you still want. This water is like some kind of serum, it would be too much effort to lie. You can ask me anything."
Jeremy's face brightened and he sat up straighter, sloshing the water. "Great! But here's what. I was thinking. You have to be completely honest, no crap, and if you get a dare you have to do what they say. Have to! Swear."
"Swear? Is this middle school? Let's pinky swear," Michael joked. "Fine, I swear. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. You named the game, so I think you should go first."
The boy grinned. "Okay. Truth or Dare?"
"Not so fast, bud, I meant you should get the first one. This was your idea, remember?"
"Oh." He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, let's go."
"Isn't this fun already? I wish I'd started playing years ago."
"Ha ha. Are you gonna start?"
"Jeremy, would you like a Truth, or a Dare?"
Michael pretended to think a second. "I actually let you off easy with this one a while ago, so I'll ask it now. Truth. Why..." He let the moment stretch out, teasing. "Mmm, no, I meant How. As in, how old are you exactly?"
"God, is that all? I'm eighteen. I thought you were gonna ask me something severe. Eighteen. You probably thought I was younger. I've always been kind of small for my age."
"Fair enough." So whatever he'd been thinking about all this time, at least it had been legal to. Probably, he guessed. Without having a book of statutes there to consult. Like that made any difference - he'd still been thinking it.
"I'm not cutting school or anything, if that's what you're wondering."
"Something like that. Your turn."
Jeremy rubbed his hands together in front of him, like Snidely Whiplash. "Ha ha, let me see. You were ready to torture me, so what can I do to you?"
Michael stopped him. "Wait, before we go any further we should clarify the rules."
Jeremy wilted. "Oh, man!"
"In life there are always rules." Michael counted off on his fingers. "No life-threatening Dares, and nothing that will harm Kevin's valuable household goods. And if you get a Truth where the answer's hurtful somehow, you can refuse."
"Live with it. Anything you'd like to add to the list?"
"Um, yeah. Then you can ask follow-up questions for Truths. And... And, if you refuse to answer one, your opponent gets an override. He can make you answer whether you want to or not."
"Fine, you get one follow-up per Truth, and one override per game. Go ahead, I want a Truth. Let's see what you've got."
"That's easy. Truth. Why are you going to Louisville?"
Michael shook his head and smiled ruefully. He'd asked for it, and sure enough it hadn't taken long. Jeremy pointed at him with a wet finger. "You said you'd laughed and cried, and a bunch of other stuff I didn't really get, so why'd you take the trouble to drive a hundred miles in such a state? And in the middle of the storm of the century."
"That's really personal, Jeremy. And I could ask you kind of the same thing."
The kid crossed his arms over his chest. "So go ahead. That's the name of the game."
"It's a long story and I think I could call it hurtful, at least it hurt me. But I won't. If you really want to know, then listen up."
About an hour later Michael leaned back in the tub, drained. It was out of him, complete and unabridged, the whole story he'd never even told Kevin. Jeremy had sat through it wide-eyed, laughing or saying "Wow" once or twice but otherwise giving him the spotlight. For something he'd held so close for so many years he had to admit it felt terrific to let it fly.
He'd started with that life-changing day in the rain almost thirty years ago. Seeing 'Star Wars' and meeting Billy, then how he and Billy had become closer over the months and years, how even their parents had become friends, arranging picnics and sleepovers, ha ha, their plans for college and the future, and of course how it all ultimately ended.
He didn't spare any of the gory details. The weekend after King's Island, 1980, when they'd finally admitted that what they had could be the real thing, that it was time to quit jerking each other off in the restroom at school and go steady (that expression got one of Jeremy's laughs). Everything they'd had to deal with senior year, when some non-AP shithead lied and started the rumor he'd seen them holding hands at the movies. Finally, the cause of the unbroken silence between himself and his parents that the phone call last night put an end to... and the one with Billy he'd now never be able to unbreak.
If Michael felt wrung out by the telling, Jeremy looked like he'd just seen an "Old Yeller" and "Terms of Endearment" double feature. His eyes were hooded and watery, but that could have been from him not wearing his glasses all this time or from the steam wreathing their heads, take your pick. Michael really had no idea how it had made the kid feel; he hadn't said a word since the story ended.
Frankly after all that talking Michael'd had enough of the hot tub.
"That's pretty much everything. I had to leave Indianapolis this morning or maybe not even make it. For all I know it's still snowing up there. There wasn't any way I was going to miss the funeral. I keep thinking I owe it to Billy to make the effort." He glanced up at Jeremy. The kid was leaning, one elbow on the side of the tub, staring past him out into the darkness surrounding them. Still quiet.
Michael playfully waved his hand in front of the boy's face. "How about us going back inside? I'm gonna be wrinkled like a prune the rest of the night."
Jeremy focused on him. "Huh? Sure, man. Me too. I'll, uh, bring you a towel." He hoisted himself up out of the water right then, giving Michael only a second to avert his eyes from his long pale limbs. When Michael looked again he'd wrapped his towel around his middle and was headed inside. Miss Catherine met him at the door and he absent-mindedly bent and petted her as he crossed the living room.
Michael straightened up, satisfied, popping the bones in his neck and arms. He actually did feel lighter, as if the story had been a physical weight holding him down and releasing it meant he could walk upright from here on. He was sure he'd done the right thing by telling it in such detail and opening up to the kid so completely. It remained to be seen what the results would be. He was a little sorry that Kevin wasn't going to be the first to hear it now, and hoped he'd be able to retell it later without leaving anything out.
The doorway darkened and slid open, and Michael looked over just in time to catch the thick towel Jeremy tossed to him. He held it over himself as he clambered out of the tub, wrapping it tight around his waist.
"Shit, this effing air is colder than ever!"
He turned and shut off the power, punching buttons randomly as quickly as he could, until the jets stopped making their noise. In the silence he hoisted the cover back in place, grabbed his pile of clothes, and ducked in the door. Jeremy stood aside and slid it shut after him.
Michael waited in the middle of the room, for the warmth of the fire they'd left burning to thaw his bones. The boy walked over to stand before the hearth, his arms crossed in front of him and shivering. Jeremy's skin was white even in the firelight, and Michael couldn't help but notice that unlike the last time he'd seen him with no clothes on, now he looked smaller without them. Michael wanted to make the gesture of putting his hands on the kid's shoulders, or his arm around- But it would surely be misinterpreted. Or, you know, interpreted. Which did he actually mean?
He was very aware of being naked under his towel as he stood there, and Jeremy almost so under his own.
After another minute or two the heat from the flames began to feel like too much. The water clinging to his balls and ankles tickled him in both spots as it evaporated. Everything seemed to be slowly returning to normal size. He inched over toward the hall, away from the boy.
"God, I feel twenty years younger. That was like a really good sauna. We used to go to my friend Pat's pool parties in summer and sit out until after dark, then run in the house to get dressed, then that was always worse because when we went inside the air conditioning was on." Jeremy looked at him. He'd made it to the hall doorway. "I don't know where I was going with that."
Without uncrossing his arms, the boy said "I have a follow-up question."
Mmm. "I thought you were being awfully quiet. That's the first peep out of you in half an hour. Go ahead, shoot."
"Well, are you, um... Are you still, I mean, are you..."
"You can say the word, it's no big-"
"You're gay then." It came out in a rush.
Michael smiled. He knew that couldn't have been easy for the kid to say to a stranger, so he tried to answer him like he would a friend - an adult friend - who'd said the same thing.
"Yeah I am, Jeremy. I date guys, only guys, and I always have. I'm out to everyone who knows me, all my friends and co-workers. It's no big thing to most of them, and the ones it is a big deal to, we don't talk about it. Anybody who mentions their families, though, gets to hear about mine. My boyfriends and friends like Kevin. I won't hide from anyone."
"Will you be that way with your parents?"
"That's two. But if you want to know, yes I intend to be that way with them. It's not like they don't already know." Michael considered something a second. "And not that you asked, it's got nothing to do with anything, but for the record I'm also negative. Growing up the last twenty-five years, I know where people's minds can go when they hear that. Especially in close quarters."
Jeremy watched from across the room, the fire behind him and obscuring his features. He shrugged. "My mind didn't. It's cool. But okay." He seemed to think over what he'd say next. "You know, I assumed you were lying to that guy in the bathroom."
"Yeah, I figured. My mother used to say 'When you assume, you make an ass-'"
"Mine too. But I didn't know! I really do appreciate what you did, I mean you saved my life. I just wanted to say I feel bad about..." His voice quavered. "Assuming you wouldn't have the balls to tell someone that, so you must've been just messing with his head. I'm sorry."
Michael waved him off. "It's past, that's all right. You didn't know me. You don't really know me now, for that matter." He took a deep breath and looked at the entertainment center clock. "I'm going to change into... something, and come back down. I can't believe it's only six o'clock."
Jeremy seemed relieved the heavy stuff was over for the moment. "I'm getting hungry. Can I get something to eat? And I should feed the cat. I'd like to go on playing the game, if you don't mind. This has been fun."
"You have a weird definition of fun. But go ahead, there's a buttload of food in the fridge."
Michael continued around the corner and up the stairs. In his bedroom closet he found two white terrycloth robes, so thick and soft they felt like mink to his wrinkled fingertips. He shrugged into one and threw the other over the chest at the foot of his bed. He dropped the towel from his waist and dug in his stuff until he found a clean pair of boxers and put them on. He was tying the belt on his robe when he noticed his phone in the middle of the bed. He picked it up and flipped it open, saw a new message was waiting for him. Kevin.
He walked out to the edge of the landing and looked down. "Jeremy?"
"Yeah?" From the kitchen.
"I'm gonna call Kevin, so I'll be a second. Could you please fix me a sandwich or something, and a Coke?"
"Sure. I'm having roast beef."
"Sounds good, thanks." He went back to sit on the chest and dial Kevin's number.
"Michael! I was wondering what on earth you've been up to all this time. Burnt my house down or something, was my guess."
"It's 'or something,' mother, don't worry. I am returning your call, so it's all still here."
"If I'd been your mother, let me tell you, you'd have a lot more troubles than you do now. Wait, what does 'or something' mean exactly? Don't tell me you stumbled and fell into the hot tub. Or did you fall face-first into something else? Michael, tell me you didn't!"
His face flushed. "No, for fuck's sake, Kevin. Have some faith. I had a nap and we've just been playing Truth or Dare."
In the hot tub. Oh, and I was naked. Trust me now?
"Are we talking Miss Purdy's fourth-period recess Truth or Dare, or party-at-Madonna's-house down-and-dirty Truth or Dare?"
"There was nothing dirty about it. It did get kind of intense, though. I told him all about Billy. I'm sorry, I'll tell you the whole thing again later, I promise. And he told me he was eighteen. That's all. There haven't even been any dares yet."
Michael carried his towel across the landing to the bathroom where he threw it over the shower wall to dry. The bathroom smelled damp and soapy. He tried not to think about the last time he'd seen the shower.
"So he's legal, at least. Thoughtful of you to find that out." Michael's ears burned to hear his own thought put into words. "That doesn't sound like much of a game, to me. Are you sure you haven't been playing Pin the Tail on-"
Michael kept his voice down but shot into the phone "Shut up! We've only played one round so far. So it's 'or something,' period. Happy?" He stopped to look at himself in the mirror, his hair and eyes. Had it really only been that morning he'd done the same thing, a hundred miles away? He was a mess again, what a surprise.
He turned and stalked back down the hall.
"Delirious," Kevin replied. Oh, and the reason I called you. I'm not at the store, we unexpectedly closed at five. After Angelique finally showed up, not an hour later I got a call to shut the place down. I'm not complaining. Little darling was regaling us with stories of what exactly you do when there's a foot of snow and you can't take your Shih Tzu outside to do her business. A hint: It involved walking her vigorously around the apartment, ten days' worth of recycled newspapers, and then tragically a Bissell Upright Steam Cleaner."
"Do you know how hard it is to make the people who drink that coffee sick? No one was sorry to leave. But anyway I'm at Ramon's, and they're saying all the bridges are so bad I plan to stay the night here." The three river bridges being the only possible way from Louisville to Indiana or vice versa, unless you had a boat, a train or wings.
"Ramon is your new lovah, I take it?"
"Yes, he's on his way home with dinner. You're going to love him, then hate me because I got to him first. We'll make passionate love all night, and I'll see you tomorrow when the roads are cleared."
"Congratulations, I was wondering how to start my new diet, and now you've put me off food for another six hours. Jeremy-"
"Yes, how is our houseguest? I mean, if you're honestly just making snow angels up there, and nothing more..."
Michael stepped away from the edge of the landing balcony in case the boy was within earshot below, toward his bedroom door. "Listen, queen, there's nothing going on here that you yourself haven't done sometime, somewhere, and I really appreciate you giving us a place for the night and I love you dearly but please butt the fuck out of my life for tonight!"
There was silence from the other end of the line. He was beginning to think they'd been cut off or Kevin had hung up when he heard a quiet "All right, you know best what's going on up there, not me."
"Know best?" Michael laughed humorlessly and sat down on the bed hard enough to make its springs squeak. "I admit there have been more times than I can count that you were right and not me, but this isn't one of them, and you're killing my hot tub buzz."
Kevin measured his words. "Really. And is that where you were playing Truth or Dare?"
Michael kept his mouth shut. "Good, less for me to testify to at your trial. If you couldn't tell, I was teasing you before. So what am I to think now?"
"It was innocent, I swear to you. I know how it must sound." He lowered his head into one hand, barely hanging on to the phone with the other. He knew how it sounded. Fucking absurd.
Over the line he heard "As a matter of fact I myself haven't done what you're doing right now. Not sometime, somewhere, nor ever."
"Okay, okay, if you-"
"I never pick up strays. No matter how good your intentions, they're always dangerous." Michael gaped at what he'd said. The goddamn nerve.
Kevin went on. "I have had hundreds of conversations on the phone with you, Michael, since before Tinky-Winky came out of the closet. So I know all your different voices. All of them. I know the one that says 'I need a drink,' and the one that says 'I could tear Jason's head off.' Even when that's not what's actually coming from your lips.
"The voice I know best is the one I've been hearing today. I hear it from you every few months or so, and if you've been paying attention I'm sure you've heard it from me, once or twice. I can tell you what it says, but I think you know already."
Michael helplessly said "No. Keep it to yourself. You may-" He caught himself before he started blubbering into the phone. "You're wrong. I have to go."
He pressed the cut-off button, just catching Kevin's "Mi-"
He dropped the phone on the goddamn ten-thousand-count Egyptian virgin cotton overstuffed duvet, with the classic Westfuckingham paisley pattern and ruffles, stylishly turned back at one corner of his host's bed.
Really, was anything on earth out of Kevin's reach?
He rose, still expecting the cell to ring.
He'd been read again, not that there'd ever been a single thing he'd ever tried to keep from Kevin or dreamed his friend couldn't see for himself. All his voices. Shit shit shit! The last "Shit" he said out loud, and then-
Without knowing exactly why, Michael suddenly sensed he wasn't alone.
He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, certain that Jeremy was standing behind him on the landing. If so then how much had he-
It could just as well be the cat. Or your guilty conscience. What does it matter?
He realized he knew what he wanted to do, and he had to do it right then, before he could think about it any more. He got up, facing away from the door, and untied the belt on his robe. He pawed through his clothes - again - until he came to another set of boxers at the bottom. He took a deep breath and dropped the robe to the floor, then shoved down the boxers he had on. He was aware of how he must look from behind, exposing his butt and probably his balls and asshole too, the lower he bent over, but he took his time. He pulled the old pair from around his ankles, tossed them in the corner and straightened up. Okay, so payback, possibly. Of a kind. Fair's fair.
Naked, he turned around to face the open doorway.
Deep breath out. Well, it was a relief, really.
Jeremy stood there in front of him, holding a bamboo tray with a sandwich and Coke on it. Just like Michael'd asked for. He was still wearing the bath towel around his waist and another, what looked like a dish towel from the kitchen, over his shoulder.
"I'm, uh, I'm not very good at m-making anything, but it's hard to screw up a roast beef sandwich so I hope it's okay," the boy stammered. He shifted from one foot to the other.
Michael kept his voice level. It wasn't difficult, he really did feel surprisingly calm. "Kevin and I were talking about the weather. He's upset with me, and me him. He won't make it home tonight." He unrolled the new boxers and held them in front of himself. At chest height, though, not low enough to cover anything important. "Those others bunch up, I should toss them. I thought I'd wear these instead."
"Whatever. I heard some of what you were saying." Jeremy's brow furrowed and he looked down toward the floor. "I hope I'm not being a lot of trouble for you, Mr. Shelton. Or your friend." Michael started to correct him about his name. "No, I know I'm a handful, my old man says it all the time.
"The truth is-" He juggled the tray, finally walking over and setting it on the bed. "It's been really easy talking to you today, and you always seemed interested in what I was saying."
Closer, Jeremy stood shoulder to shoulder with Michael, and was meeting his gaze the best he could. He'd put his glasses back on and those brilliant blue eyes stayed on Michael's as he spoke.
"I wish I hadn't had to leave town in the first place, but at the same time if I hadn't I would have missed all this." He glanced around, gesturing with his hand palm up. "Sheila - my therapist - says the journey can be as meaningful as reaching your destination. Actually she calls it the 'process,' but." He took a breath. "My point was... I don't know what my point was."
"No?" Michael asked. He waited.
"Oh, I know what it was. Depending on how you look at it, when I left Louisville I wasn't running away from there, actually I was running toward right here. I needed help, and I think I might have found it. Or it found me. Like in the back seat ganking the french fries." Michael laughed once and Jeremy echoed him. "I'm a pain in the ass and I don't think I deserve your help, so I'm grateful.
"Does that make sense? I'm happy I'm here. I'm very sorry you lost your friend but that's how things happen sometimes, right? Isn't it?" Michael nodded. "Life is really pretty freaking complicated." He looked embarrassed at having made the little speech.
Then without warning he grabbed Michael around his middle and pull him into a tight hug, squeezing the air out of his lungs. Michael returned it, torn between laughing and crying, burying his nose in the boy's bleach-smelling hair. For the moment he could ignore that they were wearing next to nothing and concentrate on their shared happiness.
"Ah, you're absolutely right, it's pretty fucking complicated. You have no idea. And I'm happy you're here too. You're not the only one who needed help, you know. But you've heard all that already."
He released Jeremy, liking that he was first to let go. He quickly pulled on the boxers and grabbed his robe. He wiped his runny nose on the back of one sleeve, Kevin be damned.
"God, that was way too serious for me. Are we, uh... Are we still playing the game? We didn't get very far, only two questions."
"Sure. I've got my tray in the living room, so we can go whenever you're ready." The boy started for the door.
"No, I meant let's go ahead and play now." Jeremy stopped and looked back at him, his half-dry hair flopped over one eye. He gave Michael a crooked smile.
The younger man, in the towel and wet trunks, said "Up here? Okay."
The older man in the boxers returned the smile, and said "So Truth or Dare?"