They were incredible! Mike, Derrick, Prez and Keith had been jamming for over an hour and I loved every minute of it. Everything they played was terrific. Even when they screwed up they made it sound good. Mike was probably the best guitar player I'd ever seen performing live. Everything he did made the instrument seem an extension of his body and not an object being played. Prez really took off with the bass, too. Derrick was a drummer through and through, letting himself run wild. Keith's vocals had their own sound even though they were covering a lot of the music they were playing.
They invited us to join in and sing along. Pete, displaying another talent I really didn't know he had, took the lead in a few songs, giving Keith's voice a break and letting him concentrate on the hand-held percussion he used from time to time. I sing well enough, and I have a fairly good ear for harmony, so I sang some back-up vocals. I was worried I would embarrass myself, but I think I did okay. To my ear, we didn't sound as good as they did without us, but we had fun.
It wasn't long before the jam session came to an end. Our four friends started messing up, and then messed up on purpose. The next thing I knew, they were wrapped around each other. My boyfriend and I moved out of the studio and into the living room, giving them some privacy and finding us a little more space. I pulled Pete down to me and kissed him hard. He sighed and returned my kiss, relaxing into a comfortable embrace when we broke the kiss.
"Wow. It's eleven already," Pete commented. "I didn't realize we'd been playing that long."
"It was great, though. You sounded good."
"You sounded pretty good yourself." He looked at me for a moment. "What do you think about them?"
"They're cool. I like them a lot."
"You must," he replied, "if you felt comfortable enough to tell them about your problem." There was no hint of anger or judgment in his voice.
"It just... came out, Pete."
"Would you have told me eventually?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Will you ever tell me what happened with Curt?"
Pete noticeably stiffened and then relaxed a bit. "I don't know, Bri. Sometimes it feels like I just want to get it out and over with. Other times I just want to forget. I don't know if I can."
"It's okay, babe. You can tell me when you're ready."
"I don't know when that will be, Brian. If ever," he said in a whisper.
I forced him to meet my gaze. "Pete, I understand."
My boyfriend's arms tightened around me.
"You're the best, Bri. I really, really love you," he murmured into my ear.
"So are you, babe, and I love you, too."
I reached up to kiss him and he met me half-way. The feel of his soft lips on mine nearly overwhelmed my senses. Our kiss grew more passionate than the last one and we fell onto the couch. Our surroundings became insignificant as we shared our love for each other.
"Look at that. They look good together," said a low voice near us.
"Yeah, they do," another voice softly replied. "It sounds like they've had a real hard time, though. And Brian... can you believe he just told us he's bulimic and he hadn't even told Pete? I mean, he doesn't know us from Adam and he just put it out there."
I raised my head slightly and saw Keith and Prez standing over us but no longer looking at us.
"It was kind of weird," Keith agreed. "Maybe it was time for Pete to find out. You know how they say things happen for a reason? Maybe this all happened for a reason, too. Maybe he's supposed to meet Corey and Drew."
"Fate?" Preston asked.
"Could be," Keith said. "I still can't believe it. Brian is built like a brick shithouse. It doesn't add up."
I carefully climbed over Pete to stand. Keith and Prez looked sheepish as they realized I had heard what they said.
I motioned them into the kitchen, and once there Keith said, "Sorry, Brian."
"Nothing to be sorry for," I assured them both. "Like you said, things happen for a reason. This is one of those things." I shrugged.
"Maybe," Keith responded uncertainly.
"I believe it is," I said in rebuttal. "There have been too many things happen on this trip for it all to be coincidence. From the first night we camped out in Oregon to my brother's boyfriend getting bashed... and other incidents in between... it seems like I'm being led, but I don't know to where or who's holding the leash. Even meeting Mike and Derrick, and then you guys... I can't believe it's only coincidence."
"Do you believe in God, Brian?" Preston asked.
I nodded. "Yeah, I do. I don't go to church, but I believe. I have to after everything I've been through. Someone was looking out for me. I wouldn't be alive otherwise."
After a pause, Keith said, "We're going to head home, but we'll meet you guys here around ten tomorrow morning and we'll head out to the beach and then to my place from there. Dinner will be around six. Is that cool?"
I nodded. "Sounds good to me."
Prez said, "Mike and Derrick have gone to bed, so if you guys are going to stay, the guest room is open. Just lock up, okay?"
"Sure. Getting Pete to move at this point will be a challenge, though." I thought for a moment. "Are you guys like us? Committed?"
"Definitely," Keith confirmed as we moved toward the front door. "It's been... interesting. A lot has happened for us, too. We'll tell you about some of it tomorrow."
I saw Prez's expression fall just a bit at some painful memory. I intuitively understood that it might be too painful for him to go into.
"Only if you feel comfortable. Be careful driving home, guys."
"We will be," Prez affirmed. "It's been really good meeting you, Brian, and Pete, too. You guys have given me a lot to think about."
"Me, too," said Keith.
"Same for us." I offered them my hand and they both shook warmly. "See you tomorrow."
"G'night," Prez said as he closed the door behind him.
I locked the deadbolt and turned to rouse my boyfriend enough to get him into bed. He jerked awake when I touched him.
"What?" He asked abruptly.
"Nothing, babe. Keith and Prez left, and Mike and Derrick are in their bedroom. Are you ready?"
"Yeah, but I'm not sure I'm ready for sleep yet. That nap took the edge off."
"What do you want to do?" I inquired.
Pete stared at me with a smile crossing his mouth.
"I don't know, babe..."
"Brian, it's not like we make a lot of noise, and even if we do, Derrick and Mike won't care."
Pete's argument was breaking down my resistance, not that I was resisting all that much. I just didn't want to embarrass myself in front of Mike and Derrick.
"Come on, baby. It'll be fine," Pete reassured as he led me down the hall.
Once in the room, he shut the door behind us and immediately turned his attention to disrobing me. By the end of the night I was actually hoping. Mike and Derrick had heard us so they could be jealous.
"Hey guys," Prez said as he walked in. "How was your night?"
"Oh man, you missed it, Prez. We had a gay old time after you left. Didn't we guys?" Mike asked knowingly.
"Jealous?" I quipped calmly even though my face was roughly the shade of a fire truck.
Pete chuckled beside me as Mike openly appraised my boyfriend and then looked long and hard at Derrick.
With deviltry in his eyes, Mike said, "Yeah, I am."
"Oh, dude, you just earned a night on the couch," Derrick stated loudly. All six of us cracked up.
"Seriously, though, you guys were makin' some good noise in there," the brown-haired boy said appreciatively. "You woke us up and we had to go at it again."
"We weren't trying to be quiet," Pete explained, his face turning as red as mine must have been. "Sorry if we bothered you. We didn't think you would mind."
"Mind? Hell no!" Mike blurted. "It got me some more of this stud, so why would I mind?"
Through our laugh, Derrick said with a smile, "Okay, you earned your way back... as long as you behave."
Mike's face fell. "But that's no fun!"
Derrick chuckled again. "You are so bad."
Prez drawled, "Are you gonna sit here yappin' all day or are we gonna hit the beach?"
We piled into Prez's 4Runner with him and Keith and followed Derrick and Mike out to Russ' shop to pick up our gear, and then headed for Zuma.
I would have been content to stay dry, but Pete wouldn't let me. He forced me to go out and try again and again to ride the board in. I was certain that our companions were laughing at me every time I fell in the water. However, Pete's browbeating did steel my resolve to ride the damn board or drown trying. Mike, Derrick, Keith and Prez all offered their encouragement and suggestions as the day went on. I continued to improve with every ride and by the time everyone was ready to go, I was taking waves all the way in. If it weren't for the frustration of getting to the point where I could actually do it, I would have been happy with my progress. As it was, the frustration carried over even though I had succeeded in reaching my goal.
On the way back to Mike's place, Prez, Pete and Keith talked about the day. While I had relentlessly been punishing myself in the water, they had played Frisbee and tossed a football around, and then sat on the beach while Prez and Mike took turns playing Mike's guitar. I caught them watching me from time to time, and I could only imagine what they were saying.
"Brian, you're going to be sore tomorrow." Pete's words caught me by surprise.
"I said you're going to be sore tomorrow."
"That's nothing new," I commented.
"Hey Brian? You're only fifteen, right?" I nodded in response to Keith's question. "I know you said you worked out a lot while you lived with your friend, but why did you pick working out? Why not something like reading or an instrument or something?"
"It was pretty simple, really," I replied indifferently. "I knew Chris worked out a lot already, and I needed to find a distraction to keep my mind off Pete. Chris taught me what I needed to know, and as the pressure grew worse, I took it to an extreme."
"Do you still do that?" Prez asked. "Work out all the time?"
"It depends on what's going on. I like to work out four or five times a week which includes a run on most days. Sometimes I can do that, and sometimes other things get in the way. I've only had two workouts in the last couple weeks."
Keith inquired, "How much do you weigh?"
"Last I checked," I answered, "I was a little over five-seven and one-hundred-forty-eight pounds. In the last three-and-a-half years I gained seventy-five pounds and seven inches in height."
"Wow! That's a lot of weight!" Prez exclaimed.
"That's what happens when you work out every day. Of course, I was at five-foot and seventy pound when I was twelve, too."
"Still!" Preston sounded impressed.
"One thing to know about Brian," Pete commented, "is that when he sets his mind on something, he'll focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. You guys saw that today. He didn't come out of the water until he was satisfied."
"I came out of the water because I was getting tired..." I tried to explain.
"After five hours..." Pete inserted wryly.
Ignoring Pete, I continued, "...and I had ridden a few waves in without falling."
Pete snorted. "Let me ask you this, Bri: What time did we eat lunch?"
"I don't know. I didn't look at the time."
"Okay, fair enough, but what did you eat?"
Keith and Prez shared an amused glance. At first I was irritated, but then I thought about how Pete's interrogation would sound to them.
I leered at my boyfriend. "Not what I really wanted to have, I can tell you that."
Pete's eyes widened and he blushed as Prez and Keith recovered from their burst of laughter.
"Seriously, though, Pete's right. Once I have my mind engaged, it's really hard to pull me away. That's why... that's why we almost broke up after the first two months I was living with him.
"Oh, Brian, knock it off," chided Pete. "We didn't almost anything. It was an adjustment period for both of us."
"During which I treated you like shit."
"Brian, dammit, let it go! It's over!" Pete showed his anger clearly. "How many times do we have to go through this?"
"Sorry," I murmured as I shifted my gaze out the window.
Prez cleared his throat and Keith stirred uncomfortably in his seat. Pete started up some conversation with them for the remainder of the drive to Mike's, but I remained silent.
I couldn't help still feeling guilty about what happened during the previous winter months. I had abused Pete emotionally. I could remember how wrapped up in myself I was, and what I was doing. My whole goal had been to continue my life as I had been living it before moving. I concentrated on nothing but that. If anything else came along, it was incidental - of no real consequence. It wasn't until I provoked my coach into kicking me off the wrestling team that I came crashing painfully back into reality and realized what I had been doing.
"Bri, we're here."
I glanced up and saw that Pete was right. Sighing, I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door. Pete grabbed my shoulder, preventing me from climbing out. I didn't turn around.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you, Brian," he said.
"No, it's not okay," Pete insisted.
I shrugged and said, "I deserved it."
"Brian..." Pete's voice fell off in frustration as he released me.
I felt a wall between us. Whether or not Pete meant to, he had hit me where I was most vulnerable. He had treated my feelings as baseless and invalid. If there was anything that would close me off and shut me down, it was to tell me that what I felt was wrong.
Once inside, Pete and I took a shower. Mike and Derrick were doing the same, while Keith and Prez would take one after they got home.
Pete washed my body gently, taking time to ensure I was clean, then I did the same for him, but my head wasn't into it. When I finished, I started to get out of the shower, but Pete again stopped me, wrapping his arm around me and turning me to face him.
"Brian, please. I'm sorry I yelled at you. I didn't mean to hurt you, okay?"
"I believe you," I replied, my tone flat.
"But you don't forgive me?" He asked, his voice expressing his uncertainty.
"Of course I do, Pete."
"Then... I don't understand," my boyfriend admitted. "What can I do, Bri? What can I do to make this better?"
"I don't know."
"What is really bothering you?" Pete asked, his voice growing firm.
"You really want to know?" I asked quietly, peering into his eyes
Pete nodded decisively.
"You told me that my feelings were wrong. You told me that what I feel doesn't matter and isn't real." My voice was small and plaintive.
He looked baffled. "What? How?"
"I can't help it! I still feel guilty about what happened," I said, my tone louder. He stared at me, his mouth hanging slightly open as I continued. "I'm trying to let it go, but it keeps coming up. Telling me it's over doesn't change how I feel. It makes me feel worse because I know you think I'm being stupid, and then I think I am being stupid, and then I feel even worse."
"The worse I feel the more I pull back. How can I just let it go when everything reminds me of how I shit on you? I hate what I did to you then. It does matter. It matters to me."
I was doing my best to keep the tears out of my eyes. I didn't want his pity. I wanted his understanding.
"I... I didn't know," he whispered, brushing my wet hair away from my eyes. "I didn't understand where you were at. But how long are you going to punish yourself for it? How long are you going to... to feel like you owe me something because of it?"
"Don't I?" I asked, my voice shrill.
"No, Brian," He said forcefully. "Nothing." He saw my expression and continued, "But if you can't accept that, then you can let it go, because that is what I want! That is what you owe me."
Pete wrapped me in his arms and pulled me into his body. I hugged him tightly as I thought about his words.
"I'm sorry I'm not what you expected, Pete. I'm still pretty fucked up inside."
"Brian, you are all that I expected; all that I wanted and more. We're all fucked up inside, but so what? We still love each other, right?"
I stroked the ring on my hand behind his back. "Yeah. We love each other more than ever."
We made it back out to the front room just as Mike and Derrick came out of their bedroom. Mike didn't look happy.
"Mom wants us home for dinner, guys. We're not going to be able to make it over tonight."
"That's okay, Mike," Keith said. "Meet at the beach tomorrow morning?"
"You bet. Ten?"
Keith and Prez nodded. "Sounds good."
"Thanks for letting us crash last night, guys," I said to Mike and Derrick.
"No problem. You guys could check out of the hotel and crash here while you're in town, you know," Mike offered.
"Thanks," Pete replied. "We'll think about it."
"Cool. See you tomorrow, then. Later, dudes."
"Later," Derrick added.
I waved to them and then followed Pete out to the car.
We followed Keith and Prez to their house. They lived not too far from where our hotel was. I held Pete's hand the whole way, squeezing it gently every so often. Pete squeezed me back every time.
Keith and Prez lived in a single-story ranch house. It was fairly large, but not pretentious. From the outside it looked well tended. A boy of twelve or thirteen was out front working on his bike near the garage. A Camry sat in the driveway next to him. Prez and Keith parked on the street in front of the house and we pulled up behind them. The kid looked our way and brushed off his hands as he walked toward us.
Before we got out, Pete asked, "Are we okay, Bri?"
"Yeah. I think I'm okay now. It... takes me a while to back out of that kind of thinking."
"If you don't want to do this, to tell the story again, you don't have to." Pete's concern was obvious. He didn't want to put me in an uncomfortable position.
"I know," I said softly. "But there has to be a reason Keith wants me to tell his family. He wouldn't have asked if he didn't think it was important. I'll be okay, as long as you're with me."
"I'll be there, Bri."
A glance at Keith and Prez revealed they were waiting for us. "Guess we should get out, huh?"
"Yeah. Bri, if you need to take a break or anything, let me know, all right?"
I smiled at Pete. "Sure will, babe. I love you."
"Love you too, Bri."
We got out of the car. I waited for Pete to come around to join me on the sidewalk before we joined the three other boys.
"John, this is Pete and Brian," Keith said by way of introduction. "We met them yesterday."
"The gay guys you told me about?" John queried, his tone inscrutable.
"John..." Keith growled, a threat in his voice.
"What? You guys are gay, right?" The boy asked us directly.
I glared at the kid, and he took an involuntary step back and gulped. Pete put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed, prompting me to look up at him. He half-grinned at the kid.
"Yes, John. We're gay," Pete said calmly.
"That wasn't very polite, John," Keith said disapprovingly. "You know better."
John swallowed again as I met his eyes once more. His courage returned and he continued to irritate me.
"What's your problem?" He asked me pointedly, his attitude turning belligerent.
"John!" Keith sounded really angry.
I stalked up to the kid, who was four inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than I was. I could sense Keith and Prez tense up as I approached the smaller boy. John stumbled backward until his back was against the hedge along the house's wall. I moved toward him until we were nose-to-nose and glared down on him.
In a deceptively mild tone I commented, "You should be careful of what you say and how you say it. Someone might take offense, and it could get ugly for you."
Keith and Prez were still uncertain of what I was about and shifted closer to us. The tension was thick. John tried to stand up to me, but he was shaking. I backed off a step and everyone relaxed. I held out my hand to John, who took it warily.
"I'm Brian. One more thing, John: don't provoke a fight with someone bigger then you unless you know without a doubt you can win, and then think again. It's better not to get into the situation in the first place, and the attitude you have doesn't help."
"He's right, John," Keith affirmed. "Trust me, if he wanted to, Brian could wipe the floor with you."
"Maybe," the recalcitrant brat grunted.
"Before you do anything stupid and get the shit beat out of you, John, think about this: he scared Mike last night, and all Brian did was look at him."
John looked at Prez, who nodded in confirmation. The boy looked at me and dropped his eyes.
"Don't worry about it, John. Just be careful who you show the 'tude to. It can be dangerous."
Pete shook John's hand and John led him inside. Keith and Prez held back with me.
"I didn't mean to go off like that. I didn't mean... no, that's not true. I wanted to scare him."
"Oh, you scared him all right," Prez said. "You scared me too. I wasn't sure what you were going to do."
"John's just a kid," I replied. "There's a lot he doesn't get yet. I can see that. Bedsides, I wouldn't jump on him unless he attacked me first. I don't fight unless I'm provoked."
"What..." Keith started, "What made you that way? I mean, the way you handle yourself, it seems like you've done a lot of fighting."
I looked at my two new friends and considered my answer.
"I did fight a lot," I said with a sigh. "I had to fight to survive. But... most of what you see is show. Looking tough and talking tough keeps me out of a lot of battles. Don't think I don't know how to take care of myself, though, because I do."
They stared at me for a minute, and then Keith shook his head. "You are the strangest person, Brian. It's like you're a hard-ass, but you have a softer side, too. I don't understand how you got that way."
"I got that way because I had to be tough at school with all the abuse, but at home I could sometimes let my guard down. I..." I ran my hand through my hair. "I'm really insecure about a lot of things. The only thing I know for certain is what I can do with my hands and my body. I don't trust myself to be able to judge things well enough on my own, so I have to trust Pete."
Prez looked into my eyes. "You really lay it all out there, don't you?"
"Only if it's safe, and I feel safe with you guys." I pursed my lips for a moment of reflection. "I don't know why, but I do."
Keith, who had been thoughtfully chewing on his lip, said, "If I met you on the street, Brian, I'd go out of my way to steer clear of you. You look like you could be a serial killer. No offense intended."
"None taken. I looked into it, but the fringe benefits sucked."
It took them a minute, but they chuckled at my lame attempt at humor.
"Let's go in," Prez prompted. "I'm sure they're wondering what happened to us."
Keith and Prez preceded me in the door. The redhead was accosted by a dog of moderate size who jumped up onto him.
"No, Rush! Sit!" Prez bellowed. The dog obeyed instantly.
A man and a woman stood at the entrance to the kitchen. Keith walked over and kissed his mother on the cheek while Prez put the dog out into the back yard.
"Mom, Dad, this is Pete and Brian. I mentioned them last night. Pete, Brian, my mom and dad."
The father stepped forward and offered his hand to Pete with a smile.
"Jim Hundser. It's good to meet you."
"Pete Patterson. Likewise."
I said, "Brian Kellam. It's nice to meet you, sir."
"And you too," the man replied. This is my wife, Jennifer."
"Hello, Mrs. Hundser," I said. "You have a beautiful home and family."
"Why, thank you, Brian." She stepped up and kissed me on the cheek, causing me to blush, and then cast an askance smirk at Prez and Keith as if to say, 'That's how it's done.'
She greeted my boyfriend. "Pete, it's a pleasure."
"The pleasure is all mine," Pete assured her as he bowed over her hand and then kissed it.
"What is that smell?" Keith quipped.
Jennifer and Jim laughed at the obvious theatrics and welcomed us into their home. They led us into the living room and took seats on the love seat. Keith and Prez sat on the floor. Pete and I sat on the couch.
"Keith and Preston told us a little bit of what you told them," Jim said. "It sounds like both of you have been through the wringer."
"It hasn't always been easy, no," Pete replied cautiously. "Brian and I both had a bad time after we were split up. He... well, he and his parents didn't get along, and my mom and I had a... a falling out."
"Pete, Brian, I told them what I could remember of what you told us last night. I hope that's okay," Keith said apologetically.
I nodded. "It's fine. I still don't know what you expect me to do here, though. I mean, what is it you found so important that you want me to share it?"
Jim cleared his throat. "My son Drew, who isn't here at the moment, has a boyfriend that is bulimic. Corey feels like he's alone. By hearing how you deal with it, and how you overcame it, I'm hoping he'll draw some confidence for himself."
"I don't think what I had really qualifies. It isn't a classic case. What if what I say makes Corey feel worse?"
"Brian," Jennifer asked, "Do you still purge?"
I cast a quick glance at Pete who nodded, encouraging me to answer.
"Sometimes. But I eat well most of the time. I'm not really... It doesn't seem to be hurting me."
"It's not good for you, Brian," Jim stated. "You're depriving your body of the fuel it needs, and you're conditioning your body to that reflex. I would guess the reason you couldn't hold down food was because you had taught your body not to."
I shrugged. "You could be right. I don't know."
Jennifer smiled. "I'm sorry if it seems that we're interrogating you. Corey is very important to all of us, and we want to do anything we can to help him. That's why Keith asked you to come over, I think."
"I'll do what I can," I replied. "I just don't know if my experiences can help."
The front door opened. I heard and then saw two boys come into the house. They were close to my height, one a couple of inches shorter than the other. The smaller had rich blond hair and the darkest blue eyes I'd ever seen. The other boy had brown hair, brown eyes, and was strikingly handsome. Even though I felt myself staring at him, I couldn't tear my eyes away. He returned my gaze for a moment before his boyfriend put a possessive arm around his waist. The motion was enough to break me out of my trance.
Mr. Hundser said, "Hi boys. This is Pete and Brian..."
Without waiting for the completion of the introduction, the shorter boy advanced and offered his hand to me, a contentious smile on his face. I stood and shook.
"I'm Corey, Drew's boyfriend." He squeezed my hand tightly, as if trying to intimidate me.
I examined the kid. He was cute too, and if his partner hadn't come in with him, I might have stared at him when he had walked into the room.
"I'm Brian, and this is my boyfriend, Pete." I returned his grip with a firm but not crunching shake.
Corey released me and shook with Pete as Drew walked up to us.
"Nice to meet you, Drew."
"Same here," he rejoined as we shook.
I noticed Corey watching me closely as we did. I felt like I had to say something to diffuse the tension between the two of us.
"Looks like you both got lucky."
"Huh?" Drew was confused, but Corey wasn't.
"Yeah, we did. Looks like you did, too." His smile was losing the hostile edge.
"You have no idea, Corey. I'm very happy."
The boy's smile was now warm. "So am I."
He pulled Drew to him and hugged him sideways.
"Did I miss something?" The taller boy asked his boyfriend.
"No," I answered before Corey could speak. "We know where everything stands now, that's all. Right, Corey?"
"I'm still lost," Drew complained.
"You aren't the only one," Pete mumbled. I ignored him.
A quick look around revealed that the only people who had followed the byplay were Jim and Jennifer. They seemed to be amused. Jenny patted her knees.
"Preston, would you help me in the kitchen, please?"
"Sure." He stood.
"Drew, Corey, set the table before you go anywhere. And don't make any plans for after dinner."
"Okay." Drew sounded a bit dejected like any teen that had been given a chore would.
Pete stood hugged me sideways. "I'm going to help in the kitchen, baby."
I nodded, and that left Mr. Hundser, Keith and me on our own.
"What do you do, Brian?" Keith's father asked.
"At the moment, not much," I replied. "I used to play football, wrestle and run track. I'm not sure what I'm going to do this year. It depends on Pete."
"Any plans for after school?" The man asked genially.
"Again, it depends on Pete. I'm holding a four-point, and his grades are good. We'll find a school that offers what we both want and apply. We'll be together no matter what, even if we go to a junior college."
Jim inquired, "How long have you been together?"
"This time we've been together since November."
"You split up before? Keith mentioned something about it..."
"It wasn't our choice. I'll explain it later."
"Fair enough," the man conceded. "Keith, why don't you show Brian around? I have some things I need to do before dinner."
Jim smiled and went down the hall.
"C'mon, Brian. I'll show you the garage."
Keith sounded so thrilled that it was funny. I had to laugh. He led me past the living room and took a left. The garage was typical with the exception of the amplifiers, guitars and drums that were scattered about. There was also a weight bench. I had a sudden yearning to do some lifting.
"I wish I'd brought some other clothes," I commented. "That bench is calling my name."
Keith chuckled. "Let me see if Drew has some shorts that will fit you. If not, I might."
"No, that's okay, Keith. I don't want to put you to any trouble."
"You sure?" He asked. "It's no trouble. You have about forty-five minutes before we eat."
"I'm sure," I confirmed. "That's hardly enough time to break a sweat."
He studied me for a moment. "Did you really... I don't understand how you could try to destroy your body like that, Brian. It's so foreign to me."
"I didn't set out to do it, Keith. It just... happened. I was pretty messed up after Pete left. And until I started having problems eating, my body was working great."
I lay on the bench and set my hands on the bar. Keith moved to spot me, but the weight was well within my capacity. He helped me lift it off the stanchion, watched me pump out fifteen reps and then helped me return the bar to its stand. I sat up and peered at Keith for a moment.
"I wasn't suicidal, although I did think about it briefly at one point. I was overwhelmed between my anger and pain." I shrugged. "Some people withdraw, some act out. I did both."
"You never said what your parents felt about your sexuality," Keith said. "Were they cool?"
"Not at first, but then I didn't really give them a chance," I replied. "My dad moved to Portland in February, and since then he's been really cool. He said he doesn't like it or understand it, but he can't deny that Pete and I are in love. My mom... she has a ways to go. Of course, she hasn't been living around Pete and me, either. We'll see what happens."
"Sorry to hear that. My parents have been great, once I told them. I hid it from them for a while, though."
"How did you meet Preston?" I asked curiously.
"He had just moved here and was riding around town on his bike. He got lost and asked me for directions." Keith smiled at the memory. "We've been together ever since. That was a year ago last month."
"Cool. What about his parents?"
His smile fell. "His dad is an asshole. I've never met him and I don't want to. He and his mom moved out here to get away from him. Then in October, his mom had a car accident. She died a few days later."
"Oh, man." I paused, noting the similarities with what happened to Pete. "That explains how he came to live here, then."
"Yeah," Keith sighed. "It really messed him up for a while. All I could do was be there for him."
I lay back down on the bench, and Keith helped me do another set. When I was done, I sat up again. Keith sat next to me.
"It still bothers him sometimes," Keith continued. "Certain things will remind him of her and he'll get so quiet and sad."
"One thing I've always said about what I went through is that I'd go through everything again if it meant being with Pete. I'm not certain I could say the same thing if I were in Prez's position."
"We've talked about that a couple times, too," Keith said. "He feels guilty because in order for us to have what we have, she had to die. It tears him up. It tears me up, too, because of what he's been through. I hate to see him sad like that."
"Pete's mom and dad, his bio parents, hate him. He's just a dirty fag in their book, and I turned him gay." I snorted. "Not that I care what they think, but I know the fact they're still together without him bothers him a lot. He feels like he doesn't matter and he was in the way of their happiness, even if they are two of the worst people I know."
"I haven't been through anything like you and Pete have, or Mike or Derrick or Prez even," Keith admitted. "I guess I'm really lucky."
"Yeah, you are. I'm not saying that to sound self-righteous or anything, just that you are so fortunate to have the parents and friends you have."
"Are you sure you're only fifteen?" Asked Keith. "You seem older."
"I grew up fast. I had to."
"Yeah, I guess you did." Keith admitted.
"Don't feel guilty or anything, Keith, because we had it hard. I wouldn't wish what Pete and I had to go through to get back together on anyone. Help me with a third set?"
As I lay down to finish up the last of my reps, Keith asked, "Is it worth it?"
I paused halfway down and met his eyes. "Is Prez worth it?"
He nodded sharply. "Yeah. I'd go through hell for him."
"You answered your own question, Keith."
I pumped out the remaining fifteen reps, needing Keith's help on the last two only. He spotted me perfectly, helping me just enough so I could push the bar. When I was done Keith helped me return the bar to the stanchion. The door opened, admitting Prez and Pete to join us.
"What are you two talking about?" Prez inquired in a accusatorial tone.
"We were deciding if you two were worth it," I answered.
Pete sat next to me while Prez sidled up to Keith and threw an arm around his waist.
"And what did you decide?" Pete asked sweetly.
"The jury's still out," I said indifferently.
"Let's see if I can sway the jury's opinion then," Prez whispered as he turned Keith toward him.
They kissed gently, and then with growing passion. Pete turned me so he could do the same. I resisted at first, but then surrendered to him, allowing myself to sink into his arms. When he pulled away I followed him until my head was resting against his chest.
The door opened again.
I heard Drew's voice ask, "What's up?"
"They're makin' out. What does it look like? Want to join them?"
I opened my eyes. Corey was smirking at Drew, who was looking at his brother, trying to decide. Drew looked at his boyfriend and whispered, "I love you, Cor."
They embraced tightly. "I love you too, Drew."
The innocence of their love pierced me. Tears formed in my eyes and I thought of all the trials they would never go through. Even Keith and Preston, who had lost his mom, were blessed in that their love had been intact throughout their relationship. I knew without a doubt that I was going to lose it at some point and cry like a baby. I was right on the cusp as it was, so it wasn't going to take much to push me over the edge. A sigh of resignation passed my lips.
I whispered unsteadily, "I'm not looking forward to this, Pete."
"You'll be fine, baby," Pete assured me softly. "I'll be right there with you, okay?"
I saw the others watching me curiously. Corey and Drew seemed somewhat confused at the change in my attitude. When they looked back, I smiled, though I didn't feel like it, and pushed away from Pete so I could stand. The urge to go for a run was strong, but I curbed the desire.
The door flew open again. John yelled, "Dinner's ready," and then walked out.
Corey grimaced, prompting Drew to whisper in his ear. The boy nodded but still didn't appear happy. I could relate. I didn't feel like eating either. We followed Corey and his boyfriend to the dinner table where John and his parents already sat. It was crowded with an extra place set on the side opposite Pete, John and me. I almost laughed when John made sure Pete was in the middle between us, and that was not lost on Prez or Keith. It seemed that I'd made an impression on the youngest Hundser child.
Once everyone had dished their food, I was alarmed to note that Corey and I had taken the same kinds and amount of food for our meal, a fact that was not missed by the adults. Drew kept trying to feed his boyfriend bites of chicken, and occasionally Corey would take them, but more often than not, he refused.
"Brian, aren't you hungry?" Pete asked pointedly.
"My stomach's upset. Kind of nervous." My answer didn't make Pete happy and drew Jennifer's attention.
"Brian, are you sick?" She asked.
"No," I protested. "I'm okay, really."
I didn't let Pete finish, as I all but shouted, "I said I'm fine!"
Silence. I looked around the table but could meet no one's gaze.
"Excuse me," I mumbled as I left the table, heading straight for the bathroom.
I locked the door behind me and sat on the toilet, cradling my head in my hands. I was shaking because I was so furious with myself I could spit. The more I thought about my outburst the angrier I became. My breathing and heartbeat increased to the point I knew I was having a panic attack, and all because I was nervous about telling a story I'd told to countless others before. Tears of frustration ran down my cheeks and soaked my shirt.
What the fuck is my problem?
Forcing myself to breathe deeply and slowly, I managed to avoid the worst of the anxiety attack, but my brain was still running rampant.
"Brian?" Pete called from outside the door.
"Just a minute."
I fought for calm and won, stopping the tears by willpower. Washing my face in cold water seemed to help clear my head, not to mention hiding the tear stains on my face and shirt.
"Brian, let me in."
I opened the door and faced my boyfriend.
"No need, babe," I said quietly. "I'm fine, like I said."
"Then what was all that about?" Pete asked seriously. "Why did you snap at me?"
"Sometimes I get tired of people constantly asking me if I'm okay," I explained. "It's like no one trusts me to let them know when something is bothering me."
Pete frowned slightly. "You don't exactly have a good track record of doing that, Brian."
"I'm working on it," I commented, my voice soft "Let's go back out. I owe them an apology. And I owe you one, too." I embraced my boyfriend, and he returned the gesture. "I'm sorry. Guess I still don't have control of my brain."
"It's okay, Bri," Pete whispered. "That makes two of us."
I smiled, gave him a peck on the lips, and then led him to the table where John, Corey and Drew were cleaning off the table. When everyone was there, I cleared my throat.
"I owe all of you an apology," I began, meeting each person's eyes around the table. "I still have a long way to go to get control of my emotions sometimes. I won't make an excuse."
I met everyone's eyes again. Mr. and Mrs. Hundser stared back contemplatively. Preston appeared thoughtful and Keith was trying not to watch his boyfriend.
"Well," Jim said after a moment's pause, "it happens to the best of us, Brian. Nothing to worry about."
"Still, I apologize for making you all feel uncomfortable." I would not let myself off the hook that easily.
"That's enough, Brian," Jennifer chided. "Does anyone want some ice cream before we move into the living room?"
"None for me, thanks," Corey responded an instant before I did.
Everyone else took a bowl of varying size. There was small talk as they ate their dessert. Pete fed me a couple of spoonfuls out of his bowl, and I had to admit it tasted delicious, but did nothing for my nervous stomach.
When everyone was done, we left the table and moved into the living room. Prez and Keith took the love seat across from us and Drew and Corey sat at their feet. The parents sat on the couch to our right with John. Pete settled on the floor near the couch and I sat leaning against him. He squeezed me gently, knowing I needed the emotional support for what was about to transpire. An expectant hush settled over all of us as I gathered my courage to do what I promised.
I began slowly. "Keith and Prez asked us over for dinner, but they also asked us over to tell you about our lives, and what we've been through."
John grimaced as I began to tell the familiar story while Corey and Drew shared an intrigued glance. I told the Hundsers of our life, with Pete adding his bits here and there. Everyone was quiet as I spoke. I found myself looking around the room, especially at Drew, Corey, Jim, and Jennifer Hundser, trying to gauge their reaction. While John sat in bored consternation, the rest of the family seemed interested. Their reactions changed as I started explaining what had happened during my inadvertent self-starvation.
"With wrestling, I had to keep my weight down to make my division. The problem was that I was growing too, and I had no more body fat to lose. When my weight wouldn't go down, I started eating less. About the same time, the school found out I was over-doing my exercise regimen and convinced Kathlene to put me on a restricted routine. I cut back my food even more since I wasn't burning the same number of calories."
Corey stared at me, his attention unwavering. I forced myself to meet and keep his gaze while Pete tightened his embrace.
"In the spring, around mid-March, I began to have trouble keeping down what little food I was eating. I changed my diet to all bland foods, fruit and veggies, but it didn't help. By the end of April, I was eating once a day, maybe twice. It got to the point where I knew it wasn't going to stay down, so I began to purge before my body could do it for me."
Corey blinked. Drew wrapped an arm around his boyfriend, but the boy didn't seem to notice. The only thing in his world at that moment was what I was saying.
"I went to bed one night, planning to get up early and go for a run. When the alarm sounded, I could barely raise my arm to turn it off. When I tried to sit up, I got so dizzy that I fell back on the bed. My brother found me, and I woke up in the ICU several days later."
I couldn't read what Corey was thinking. I felt that I wasn't doing enough to make him think, so I finished with one more thought.
"The doctors told me that if I'd somehow managed to keep going for three more days, I would be dead right now. And this all started because I thought I was too heavy."
I stood and took off my shirt to do something I rarely did: I struck a pose, flexing my muscles.
Looking directly at Corey, I asked, "Do I look like I'm too heavy?"
"Hell no!" He replied. "You look awesome!"
"You're wrong, Corey," I corrected him. "I'm too big. I need to lose about ten pounds."
Pete jerked. I had never told him I thought I was too big.
"No you don't!" Corey sputtered against the various denials from others in the room. "You're perfect!"
"If you're telling me I'm perfect, then you're telling me not to believe what I feel about my body size and my weight. Think about that. Maybe you shouldn't trust your feelings either. Maybe you need to realize, like I did, that you can't trust your own judgment when it comes to your body. I know I can't. I was three fucking days from dying, Corey, because I wouldn't listen to my brother or my foster mom- or the school even- and it almost killed me.
"Think about it, okay? I've just met you, and I really like who you are. I'd hate to lose you as a friend. It would kill me if I did, and if it will do that to me, what do you think it would do to Drew and everyone else you love?"
"I wouldn't let myself get sick like that," Corey muttered.
"You already have, Cor," Drew reminded him. "Remember collapsing on the tennis court?"
"Corey," I started with a sigh, "do you think I planned on ending up in the hospital? I didn't, but I still ended up there. I would be dead now if they hadn't found me."
The boy looked annoyed. "I heard you the first time," he said petulantly.
Drew turned to fully look at Corey, his expression one of surprise. I stared at Corey myself for a moment, and then shook my head.
"Sorry, Corey," I mumbled, realizing that it must seem that I was attacking him. "I can be intense sometimes."
"It's okay, Brian," Corey replied, his voice quiet.
An awkward silence filled the room. Everyone was uncomfortable with how the conversation had ended, and I think Drew was bearing the brunt of it.
Corey stood, but Keith stopped him by saying, "Corey, we didn't ask Brian to share this with you to make you feel bad. We thought... if you met someone who's been there and heard what he had to say, it might help somehow."
Corey nodded and then walked toward Drew's room. His boyfriend followed, but not before casting a worried glance toward his brother and parents. After they disappeared I put on my shirt, sighed heavily and sat, leaning hard into Pete.
"Brian, thank you," Mrs. Hundser said. "I know it's not easy to talk about something so intensely personal as this."
I waved her off. "If I can help Corey, then it's worth it. I'd hate to see anyone go through what I did."
"I don't get it." The youngest Hundser was obviously confused, and we turned our attention to him. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Do what, John?" It was my turn to be confused.
"Why do you guys starve yourselves?" he asked. "It's not like either of you are fat."
"It's... I look in the mirror and I see someone who is too heavy."
"But how?" The kid asked stubbornly. "How can you look at your body, with all the muscles, and see fat?" He sat back in the couch and crossed his arms, his expression stormy.
I stepped out on a limb. "John, what do you see when you look in the mirror?"
"Well, duh!" The boy was obviously disgusted. "I see my face."
"What does it look like?" I queried in a calm voice.
"I don't understand."
"How do you think you look, John? What about your appearance do you like or dislike?"
Prez shifted. A quick glance told me he realized where I was headed with this line of questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Hundser were listening very closely as well. I wondered what they were thinking.
"I don't know," he muttered. "I guess I look okay."
"Just okay?" I pressed. "What don't you like? Your nose? Your eyes? Your mouth?" He glared at me. "Come on, John, what is it that makes you say you look 'just okay?'"
His voice carried some heat. "My eyes are too narrow. I don't like the color. My nose is crooked. My lips are fat. Happy?" He sat deeper in the couch, pouting.
"John, when I look at you, I see a good looking guy who is only going to get better looking as you get older. Your eyes are nice just like they are. They're expressive and I can see a girl falling all over you because of them. So how can you look in the mirror and see all that when I can't?"
"Because it's the truth!"
"And me being fat isn't true?"
"No..." John stared at me, comprehension dawning in his eyes.
"It's all about what we see in ourselves, John. Corey sees himself as a chubby little kid because that's what he is in his mind, and has been since he can remember. I still feel I need to lose weight because I grew up under pressure to do that. It's not something that can just be put aside. It's part of who we are as people."
John thought about it for a moment before replying, "That's really weird."
"But it's the truth," I asserted. "I've learned that I can't trust what I see in the mirror to tell me about my weight. I have to accept that as a part of who I am, just like you have to accept that your eyes are brown. You could wear contacts and I could wear bigger clothes to hide my weight, but underneath nothing changes."
"I'll think about it," John said pensively.
"Brian and I should be going now," Pete said quietly. "We've taken up your entire evening, and it seems as though we'll be in the way if we stay." The muffled sounds of a heated discussion came down the hall from Drew's room.
"Yes, that would probably be best," Mrs. Hundser sighed. "I want to thank you again, Brian. You've given us all something to think about."
"I'm sorry I couldn't do more," I said softly.
"You did plenty, Brian," Jim assured me. "You made us remember what is really important right now, and you have Drew and Corey talking about it again. That's important, too."
"I hope we'll see you again before you leave the area," Jennifer said with a smile.
"That would be nice," Pete affirmed, returning her smile.
Keith and Preston saw us out of the house. Keith shook my hand soberly when we reached the Malibu.
"Thank you, Brian."
"You're welcome, Keith. I hope some good comes out of it."
"I think it will," Prez commented while putting his arm around Keith's waist. "Corey's important to all of us, especially Drew. I'm sure they're arguing about it now, but Keith and I will make sure he understands."
"He's a good kid," Keith added. "He'll see it."
"Are you going to the beach tomorrow?" Pete asked them.
"Yep," Prez chirped. "I need some air. I love the smell of the ocean."
"Me too," I said wistfully. "I miss it, living in Portland."
"I grew up in Texas, as if you couldn't tell," Prez said, accentuating his drawl with a grin. "We didn't get to the beach much."
"I spent some time there when I was living with Chris and Kathlene. It was a good place to think- that is, when I wanted to think," I finished in a wry voice.
Prez nodded sympathetically. "I can relate."
"Well, we're going to head back," Pete said. "Your family has a lot to talk about, and I think Brian and I need some alone time, too."
He hugged me sideways. I relaxed and let my arm snake around his waist.
"Okay. See you tomorrow at Zuma?" Keith asked.
"Yeah," I confirmed. "Ten?"
"Yup. See you guys then."
"Good night, guys."
"Night," we chorused.
Our friends stood arm in arm as we got in the car and pulled away. I held Pete's hand as we drove back. He was quiet, asking me if I was feeling all right but saying little else. Once at the hotel, Pete led me to the room by the hand. We passed a middle-aged couple on the way. I stared at the man we passed but did not otherwise react to his overtly hostile air, feeling curiously indifferent to his attitude.
Once in the room, Pete turned to face me and kissed me hard, leading me to the bed as he did. He took my breath away. We fell backward on the bed, Pete pulling me on top of him and wrapping completely around me. It took us no time to surrender to the feelings rising from our hearts, and we fell asleep in each other's arms. We awoke again in the middle of the night, made love, and again in the morning with the rising of the sun. The depth of my love for Pete grew with every encounter. I could not imagine going through this life without him.
I awoke to the smell of bacon. Pete had ordered us breakfast and had just received it, clad only in his boxers, from the room service clerk. Stretching mightily, I groaned in pleasure as various body parts reported with pops and snaps.
A bright smile crossed Pete's face, lighting up my world.
"Good morning, baby. How did you sleep?"
"No dreams, except when you woke me up," I replied, returning his smile with a shy grin. "You can keep me up any time." I made a show of sniffing the air. "That smells really good."
"I'm glad to hear you're hungry." He said it in such a way as to make me take pause before responding.
"I don't want to fight, babe. It's not as bad as people seem to think- I mean, I'm not as bad as it seems. Really."
"I believe you, Bri. It still bothers me, though."
"Try not to worry, Pete. I promise I'll tell you if I think I'm getting in trouble again. Okay? I know what to look for, now. I won't ever get to that place again."
"But you still make yourself throw up," my boyfriend stated, his tone neutral.
"Sometimes," I admitted in a small voice. "No very often. Do we have to talk about this now? I promise... we'll talk about it later if you want to. Okay? Right now I want you to sit by me and eat breakfast. Please?"
Pete studied me for a second, shook his head and smiled again.
"I love you, baby. Don't forget that, okay? I'm here for you."
I rose from the bed and embraced Pete tightly. "That's the only thing in the world I know for sure, babe. I love you, too."
The food wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. As we ate, I thought about what had happened in the relatively short time we'd been on the road. It seemed like meeting Jeremy, Patrick and his family in Florence was a lifetime ago, and then Kerry... We had met her only ten days before. The time we spent in the Bay Area was full of tension, and I couldn't help but feel stressed now that Pete knew about my eating issues. I felt I might never be able to relax again.
I saw Pete smiling at me. I saw in him the unconditional love and acceptance he had always given to me, and I knew that no matter what happened, I would have someone on my side, to be there for me and help me. I had only to look at him to know I would never be alone.
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