Thank you, to all those who put up with the delays and have sent encouraging words.
This is dedicated to J.
Brian came back to himself after the prayer service, at least most of him did. He was much more subdued than he had ever been. I still had no idea what their fight had been about, and Brian wouldn't talk about Tom at all. Every time he was mentioned Brian simply became very quiet and pulled back in on himself again. I learned to avoid talking about it with him. I was just glad to have him back in some way.
Life slowly returned to normal, or at least to a new version of normal. We picked our activities back up. Classes went on. The football season ended and another round of drama productions began without Tom. Life really does go on, I suppose. There was a jolt with every landmark that Tom missed, though. At the end of the year we left an empty chair for him on the stage at the junior ring ceremony.
Brian continued to party, but it was different now. He went to get drunk, not to have fun. He still went through women like most people go through Kleenex, and he still joked around and played the life of the party, but something in his eyes said it wasn't all in fun anymore.
I spent the summer between junior and senior year working as much as I could. I knew I would need the money for college. My parents had made it clear that they would not be paying for my college, and no matter how many scholarships I received, I would still need money for food and clothing. I tried to spend as much time as possible with Brian, though. He continued to slowly come back to himself, though he still wouldn't, or maybe couldn't, talk about Tom. Mary was home for the summer and that seemed to help. He was still partying too much and still taking crazy risks with his health. Keeping him in one piece at parties, and any other time, consumed my attention. I pushed aside all other thoughts to focus on getting Brian back into one piece. It was the perfect distraction from all the thoughts I didn't want to face.
* * * * * * *
Senior year launched with all the chaos of the previous three years rolled into one. Once again Brian and I were running a million miles an hour and once again we were in the drama production. I found myself “dating” again. It wasn't anything serious, at least in my eyes, and we really hadn't done anything physical, but it was nice to have someone to attend dances and such with. Amy was sweet and pretty. She was good company. She didn't hold a candle to Mary though, and if I'd been honest with myself, I would have said she didn't hold a candle to Brian. Of course, I wasn't being honest with myself. I told myself and her that I just didn't want anything serious right before we all left for different colleges.
Brian found himself a girlfriend too, and for once, she seemed likely to last longer than a week. He and Katie were a good match. She was pretty much his standard – blond, pretty, bright, intensely feminine in that helpless, “I broke my fingernail”, high maintenance way. That wasn't entirely fair. She was nice enough, I've just never had much tolerance for squealing women who act helpless. The positive side was that Brian was less likely to get in trouble when she was around, primarily because he was too busy herding her to get in much trouble. The child was drunk if she looked at a glass of beer and she required supervision. We got along well enough, I just tried to avoid her when possible. Okay, so I was jealous, but I wasn't admitting that to myself let alone anyone else.
* * * * * * *
We had just wrapped up rehearsal for our final high school production for the night. I finished putting the last of the props away and plopped next to Brian at the edge of the stage.
“So, are we going to have the cast party at your house again?” Brian asked.
I hesitated for a minute. My parents had behaved for the last one, but I was worried about pushing my luck with them. “I guess so. I don't know where else we could have it. I just worry about my parents putting in an appearance.”
“I know, but they usually behave when other people are around don't they?”
“Yeah, wouldn't want to tarnish their image as the perfect parents,” I couldn't swallow the edge of sarcasm in my voice.
Brian's hand came down on my shoulder. “Hey man, you know you are always welcome at my house if they're too much. My mom loves you.”
I shook my head. “No, it's fine. If I leave home, I lose my tuition. I'll only be there for a few more months anyway.”
“Just remember that you have a place at my house, anytime.”
“Thanks man. So, I suppose we should really formalize something about this party soon. With all these freshmen I'm betting that we'll have to soothe some parents before they'll let them come.”
“I actually already thought of that.” Brian had a big grin plastered on his face. The one that usually meant trouble.
“Uh oh. What did you do?”
“Nothing bad. I talked my mom into calling all the parents to let them know about the party as soon as we've got the details worked out.”
The sheepish look on his face told me there was more to the story than he was saying. “And she agreed to this? What's the catch?”
“Um, well, I kinda told her that in exchange, you and I would be servers for the big alumni dinner the weekend after.”
“You are such a shit,” I said and smacked him on the shoulder.
“Yep, but you love me anyway.”
I looked over at him sprawled at the edge of the stage, grinning like a maniac. I felt my chest contract at his words. I jumped up and started straightening the microphone wires that I'd already straightened. My heart was racing as I placed the neat loops on the hooks in the wings. The little voices in my head were trying to talk again, but I was doing my best not to hear them.
Brian came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. I couldn't stop the jolt of desire at his touch. I closed my eyes and tried to shut it down. I couldn't feel that way about my best friend. I couldn't feel that way about Mary's brother.
Brian leaned in and said quietly, “Let's get out of here. It's getting late, and we could both use some dinner.”
We piled into our respective cars, headed to Denny's. I drove with the windows down and let the cold air clear my head. By the time I reached the restaurant, I'd stuffed my feelings for Brian back into their shackles.
We sat in a booth in the back and stuffed our faces while we planned the party. I could pretend, at least for a time, that Brian was just my best friend.
* * * * * * *
The play went off to rave reviews. We really had done a good job and everyone was on a high for closing night. It was our best performance yet. We did the standard meet and greet with the audience, cleaned up and organized the caravan to go to my house.
The party was incredible. We were all still flying high from the performance. Things started to wind down around 3 am and Brian and I found spots for everyone to sleep. We didn't want anyone driving home that late. Brian and I headed into my room with our girlfriends. I gave Brian and Katie the bed and Amy and I took the floor. We turned off the lights and I started to drift off to sleep.
In the silence I could hear Brian and Katie kissing. They weren't being loud, but I couldn't seem to tune them out. It was like a dripping faucet, quiet but intensely irritating. Amy was lying next to me. Her breathing had already slowed to the soft, even pattern of sleep. I found myself staring at the dark ceiling trying to come up with something to distract myself from the intensifying sounds of passion coming from my bed. I was shocked when I hear the quiet rustle of clothing being dropped to the floor. Then I felt stupid. It wasn't like they hadn't been dating for months or anything. Brian just didn't talk about how far they'd gone. I'd always figured Katie for a bit of a prude.
The sounds continued for what felt like hours, but since I couldn't see the clock I have no idea how long it actually was. I was awake the entire time, getting more and more angry with each passing moment. I couldn't come up with a single good reason for my anger. It's not like I couldn't have let them know that they were keeping me up. And they really weren't being loud. A little voice in the back of my mind kept trying to tell me that I was jealous, but I wasn't listening to it. The sounds from my bed finally quieted as the first light of dawn came through my bedroom window. I heard their breathing slow and finally heard soft snores from Brian.
I finally mustered the courage to look over at the bed. Katie was mostly hidden under the blankets. Her head was lying on Brian's chest, her long blond hair covering his bare chest and arms. Brian's face was peaceful in sleep, his mouth open slightly and his dark blonde hair even more tousled than usual. It felt like someone had just grabbed something deep in my chest and twisted it. I laid back down and stared at the ceiling as the sunlight gradually got brighter. Eventually I heard the sounds of people waking in the next room, so I decided to head out and play the good host. I couldn't look at the bed as I snuck out. The sound of the door opening woke Brian.
“Hey, you up already?” he whispered.
I still couldn't look at him. “Um, yeah, I'm gonna go get pancakes started.” As I said this, I felt that place in my chest twist even further. Making pancakes the morning after the cast party was a tradition Brian and I had started.
What the hell was wrong with me?
“Wait up, I'll give you a hand.”
“Don't bother,” I said more gruffly than I intended and left the room. A few minutes later Brian emerged from my room looking bleary eyed and worried. I turned away from him and headed to the kitchen. He followed behind me. I knew I was being an ass, but I couldn't seem to stop.
“Hey Sam, you ok?”
“Yeah, just tired. Didn't get much sleep with you and Katie plying suck face.” Now why had I just said that?
Brian looked a little surprised and embarrassed. “Man, I'm sorry. We thought you two were asleep. Why didn't you say anything?”
I shrugged at him, “Don't worry about it. Let's get the pancakes started.” We started breakfast in silence. Sleepy cast mates wandered into the kitchen and began to chat while we dished up the food. Things were going okay until one of the girls asked me how I'd slept.
“Great, aside from the slurping noises,” I replied a bit too acerbically. She seemed shocked at my response and pulled back.
“Sorry, Sam. Not a morning person?”
“Not this morning. Sorry to bite your head off.” I turned to walk away and saw Brian right behind me. He looked really worried now.
“Sam, I'm so sorry”
I cut him off. “Don't worry about it Brian, I'm just tired and grumpy. I'll try to snap out of it.”
He moved to put his hand on my shoulder but I sidestepped him and went back to cooking. Brian took up his spot next to me. I could see him watching me out of the corner of my eye, but I wouldn't look at him. We continued to cook in silence. A few minutes later Katie and Amy emerged from my room. Katie made a beeline for Brian and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
Before I realized it the words were spilling out of my mouth, “What, didn't get enough last night?”
Brian looked shocked. Frankly, I was too. Where the hell was all of this coming from?
“What? Jealous, Sam?” Katie said with a giggle. I think she thought I was joking. I decided to try to play it off as a joke to ease the tension.
“Not at all my dear. Just surprised anyone's kissing Brian's ugly mug.”
Everyone around us seemed to accept that I was just teasing the two of them. The look on Brian's face told me he wasn't buying it though. I felt like I was going to lose it. I needed to get away from him fast.
“Hey Brian, why don't you go eat with Katie. We're almost done here anyway, and I'm not very good company right now.”
He looked at me hard for a moment. “Okay, but we'll talk later.”
I didn't like the sound of that, but nodded in agreement just to get him to leave. “I'm sorry, I just need some sleep. K?”
He obviously didn't believe me, but he went to sit with Katie. I kept myself busy in the kitchen until people started leaving. I said goodbye to everyone and went to eat my breakfast with Amy, Katie and Brian. They were staying to help me clean up. I sat at the table and stared down at my food.
“Sorry for earlier guys. I just couldn't get to sleep last night and it left me kind of cranky.”
“I'll say!” Katie said. Brian hushed her with a look.
“It's no big deal, Sam. I was just a little worried about you. You don't often bite people's heads off. We really must have bugged you.” Brian was looking so sincerely apologetic, I could feel my chest twist even tighter.
I looked back down at my plate and said, “It's okay, really. I'm just tired.”
I could tell he didn't believe me, but he let it drop. The girls started yammering about their plans for the day while I focused on my plate. Then Amy started talking to me about our plans for the school dance the following weekend. Well, actually she talked and I made non-committal grunts. I realized that Katie and Brian had gotten awfully quiet. I looked up at them and stopped dead. Katie was sitting in Brian's lap. She’d pushed open the button-up shirt he’d thrown on over his pajama pants and was running her hands over his chest while she kissed his neck. I could see 2 hickeys on his chest, one above his right nipple and one at the base of his right collarbone. I felt all the air exit my lungs like someone had just punched me. I came back to reality when Amy started shaking my arm.
“Hello in there... are you paying any attention at all to what I'm saying?”
I tore my eyes away from Brian's chest and found myself looking in his eyes. I knew he had caught everything. I panicked and mumbled something about cleaning up the back yard and ran outside. I was standing in several inches of snow in nothing but pajama pants and a shirt with no shoes on, frantically shoving soda cans in a trash bag when Brian caught up with me. He threw a jacket around my shoulders, yanked the bag out of my hands and hauled me up to face him. I refused to look at him. All I could do was stand there and shake. He finally wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into a hug.
“I'm sorry Sam. That was mean. I know how you feel about me. I shouldn't have let her do that.”
I gasped. “I don't, I mean I'm not..”
Brian pulled me to him more tightly. “Sam, I've known since Mike's party freshman year when you watched me all night.” I tried to interrupt him again, but he squeezed me even tighter. “Sam, stop it. Please, just listen to me. I know you love Mary, and I know you're in to Amy. I'm not saying you're gay, and I wouldn't care even if you were. I just said that I've known how you felt about me for four years and I'm still here.”
I stood there in his arms with my mind reeling. “How the hell did you know? Hell, I didn't even know.”
Brian started chuckling. “More like you didn't want to know.” He paused for a second and I could feel him shake his head, “I don't know, Sam, I just knew. It was something about the way you'd look at me sometimes. It was never there for very long. I thought I was imagining it at first, but after it happened a few times I knew I wasn't.”
He held me until I got myself under control. It felt so right. The voices in my head were throwing an all out party, and this time, I couldn't force them back into their cell. I let myself wrap my arms around him too. For that instant, I let myself feel all of it – all of the desire, the love, the comfort of his presence. Then reality smashed into me. He was still just my friend. I couldn't feel this for him. I started to pull away. Brian sensed the change.
“You're my best friend Sam. Just remember that I've always got your back.” He gave me one more squeeze and went inside. I stood there for a few minutes then headed back in myself. When I got inside Brian was aiming the girls out the door. He and I finished cleaning up the house in silence. I couldn't meet his eyes. When we were done he pulled me into another hug.
“Don't beat yourself up. Please. If you need to talk, I'm here.” With that, he left. I headed to my room to get some sleep. When I rolled over into my pillow I could smell Brian's scent lingering there. My brain felt like it had been put in a blender. I didn't know what to think or what to feel. I still didn't know what to do with the chorus of voiced that was now loose and happily swinging from the chandeliers in my brain. I finally drifted off into an exhausted and troubled sleep.