I apologize to my readers for the long delay between chapters.

This chapter would not have happened without the help of Adam Phillips, author of Crosscurrents (http://www.nifty.org/nifty/gay/relationships/cross-currents/) and “ghost writer” for the remaining chapters of ISWB. Thank you also to Bill for his continued editing help.

Finally, as always, thank you to my partner. I'm a lucky, lucky man.

Chapter 12

I woke hours later still wrapped around Mary. As much as I had dreaded having to face her now that she knew, having her home for the summer and being here for me felt so good.

Thin morning light was filtering in through the curtains over the windows. Brian was gone. I wasn't sure if I had dreamed him being there the night before, and part of me wondered if the entire previous day had just been some horrible nightmare. I wanted it to be a dream. Of course, it wasn't.

I heard the door open a few moments later and Brian stumbled back into the room, looking more asleep than awake. I watched him through Mary's hair where I had mostly buried my face. He was more of a disheveled mess than was his norm, with his hair sticking up in a million different directions and his clothing wrinkled like an accordion.

He paused, after he shut the door, to pull his t-shirt off. I watched his body stretch to pull the shirt over his head. My breath caught as the muscles of his chest and arms were revealed; not over-built, just toned--long, lean and toned--like the rest of him. The curly, dark blond hair of his arms and legs stood out against his skin. There was a smattering of hair across his chest and a dark trail leading down from his navel.

A rush of pure, raw desire coursed through me, followed closely by a desperate need, not for physical intimacy, but for his presence. I loved him and I needed him in my life. It terrified me.
I shut my eyes as the waves of emotions threatened to overwhelm the tenuous control I had.

Brian slid back into bed behind me and the feel of his arms around me grounded me again. “Didn't mean to wake you. I just had to piss. Go back to sleep, Sam.”

I tried. That feeling that everything was right returned and I relaxed against him as I felt his breathing slow. Soon he was asleep, snoring quietly into the back of my head. Unfortunately, my brain wouldn't shut off. I was doing mental flip-flops between the beautiful woman I was holding and the amazing man who was holding me. Wave after wave of emotion surged and ebbed: love, desire, guilt, shame, and a primal need all hit me, and they were all aimed at both Brian and Mary. My mind was racing like a hopped up hamster on a wheel, and making almost as much forward progress. It was a measure of just how exhausted I was that even with all of that swirling around my brain, I managed to fall back to sleep.

I came to in a total panic around noon. The kind of emotional upheaval I'd been through hadn't done wonders for my dreams. As I tried to shake off the images, I felt Brian wrapped around me, offering comfort almost instantly. That was good, in a way, but feeling restrained by him had me almost as rattled as the nightmare. Not only that, I was rested enough that my fears were once again overwhelming my need for him. I pushed him away and retreated across the bed.

I curled up, resting against the headboard, and closed my eyes while I tried to get a handle on the hurricane of thoughts and emotions. I heard Brian sigh in frustration. His hurt registered with me, but I'd
had to push him away; it was all just too much. The bed dipped as he sat down next to me and waited for me to get a grip.

Finally, he said quietly, “We need to talk.”

I was pretty certain I wasn't going to want to hear what he was going to say, but I managed a small nod in the affirmative. I still couldn't look at him.

“Amy didn't just call our parents," he began. "She called everyone she could think of: the entire school phone list, the rectory at our parish, probably yours too; everyone she had a number for. The phone has been ringing since early yesterday morning. Mom and Dad disconnected everything but the answering machine. Your parents have been telling anyone who calls that you're here, and they aren't being very nice about it. I guess your dad told a couple of people that you were at your boyfriend's house.”

Brian paused to let what he said sink in.

Shit. I hadn't just gotten myself outed, I'd dragged Brian into it as well.

A wave of nausea hit as I realized exactly how much I had screwed things up for both of us.

I looked at him in horror. “Oh, no; Brian, I'm so sorry.”

He cut me off immediately.

“Stop it. You didn't do anything. K, you were a bastard for dodging me for so long, but I can't blame you totally. The rest of this shit isn't your fault.”

I could hear my voice rising and I could feel my control escaping as I replied, “How can you say that? If I hadn't run away like a coward none of this would have happened. I should have talked to you. I shouldn't have gotten drunk at the party and I definitely shouldn't have used Amy to hide from you. If I wasn't whatever the hell I am...”

He grabbed my arms and gave me a shake. “I said
stop it, Sam. Just stop it. I'm the one that pushed the issue. Nobody made Amy jump off the deep end and try to take the whole town with her, and you sure as shit didn't make your parents the way they are.”

I looked into his eyes and said, “No, but there wouldn't have been an issue if it weren't for me.”

Brian shook his head and sighed. He looked as strained as I felt. He was silent for a while.

Then he said, quietly, “Yeah, there would."

He fell silent again. I had no idea what he was talking about.

Before I could ask he sighed again and continued. "That doesn't matter right now, though. The point is figuring out how we're gonna deal with it. Look, I've thought about this and talked about it with Mary. You know she still loves you. None of this makes any difference to her. She wants to get back together with you. She has always loved you, Sam, and I know you know that. She thinks you two should just make it clear that you're a couple and just not comment. That would stop most of it.”

I started to argue: "But I can't ask her to.."

Before I could get any farther, he cut me off. He sounded a little angry and a lot determined. “Don't even try to tell me that you don't want that. I know you love her and I know you love her that way. She doesn't care about the rest of it. So don't play martyr.”

His vehemence took me back for a minute. I said, quietly, “I'm not trying to play martyr. It just doesn't seem fair to her to be with her when I'm...when I'm...well, whatever I am.” I couldn't bring myself to say it outright. I may have stopped pretending the eight-hundred pound gorilla wasn't in the room, but that didn't mean I was ready to talk about it.

The set of his jaw told me he was unimpressed with my objection. He looked at me and said, “Why don't you let
her make that choice.”

I sighed. “I can't keep lying. Even if Mary and I figure things out--and that's a big if--I can't pretend anymore.”

Brian rolled his eyes. “It's no one else's business how you feel about me.”

“Maybe not," I said, "but you aren't a fluke.”

It was out of my mouth before I realized I'd said it. I could feel myself blushing; I had to break eye contact with Brian.

After a beat of silence, I heard his voice softly ask, “What do you mean?”

I was hoping that I might actually burst into flames, my face was so hot. Of course I didn't.

I owed him a response.

I owed him the truth.

I started to reply, but my voice caught, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “You're the only guy I ever felt that much for, but you aren't the only guy I ever noticed. I mostly ignore it. Usually it's a woman that I notice but not always.”

There was terrifying pause. The next words I heard from him were, “I know.”

It was said so quietly I almost missed it entirely. I looked at him in shock; just how obvious had I been?

He shook his head, laughing at my reaction. “I wasn't sure what I was seeing with you at first, so I started watching you pretty close. Don't worry about it. You aren't obvious, even with girls, but you get this big-eyed look when you like what you see.”

Why is it that giant sink holes never open up under you when you want them to? “Big-eyed look?” was all I managed to croak out.

“Yeah," he said, grinning. "That look little kids get when you plop cake in front of them and they aren't sure they can have any.”

I rested my forehead on my knees to hide my face. I could hear Brian chuckling at my reaction. “Oh, come on, it's not like you don't know when I'm checking out some girl.”

“This is a little different,” I mumbled into my knees.

We sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes. Brian finally broke it. “So, you up to going to church today? My mom wants the whole family to go together to the evening mass.”

I shrugged. “Up to it? Hell no, but I can't really hide in this room forever. Are you up for this? As long as I'm here you're going to have that whole guilt by association thing.”

“Don't you even
think about leaving; got it?" Once again, the intensity of his reaction shocked me. "I don't give a shit what a bunch of old church biddies think," he continued. "This whole fucking mess sucks, and no, I don't like dealing with it. But dammit, you aren't running away from me again.”

“Whoa, I'm not bailing," I replied. "I just don't want this biting you any more than it already has. That's all."

I watched his features relax a little. Damn, he was so beautiful. How could I have brought so much trouble his way? I looked into his eyes and said, "I'm sorry I was such an idiot. I'm sorry for this whole mess.”

I'd said it before, but it just came tumbling out. It was how I felt about the whole mess. But this time when Brian heard me say the words, his response wasn't the same. Not at all.

He searched my face for a minute. His own face seemed like an open book, and as he gazed into my eyes, I could see the impact that all this was having on him. From my standoffishness to my rant at the canyon to the disaster with Amy.

There was something else in his eyes, too, something I didn't recognize and couldn't understand. I was scared, and puzzled beyond words. Mystified. And guilty. The look on his face was completely unsettling, and the pain in his eyes as he looked into mine was unbearable. It hit me harder than it had ever hit me before just how much damage I had done to the friend who had stood by me through everything.

He looked exhausted, strained, and desperately hurt in a way that I had never seen before, and I didn't even fully understand. My rock had cracked, and it was my fault.

That realization hurt more than anything that had happened so far. I hadn't thought I could feel worse about my actions than I already did, but I was wrong. For those few moments, the emotions on his face were so raw they were ripping my heart out.

We were still staring at each other when the door opened and Mary came in carrying two plates of food. I glanced over at her, and when I looked back at Brian, all the emotion that had been there a moment before was gone, leaving me wondering if it had been there at all.

She handed us both our lunches and tried to start up a conversation but it wasn't working very well. There was a weird tension in the room; something had been about to happen, and it felt big, and its presence hung in the air. After Mary came in, whatever that something was had gone back into hiding, and all that was left in its place was awkwardness.

She finally gave up and left us alone. Once she was out of the room, we tried to make small talk, get things back to normal. Whatever "normal" might have been, given the crazy things we'd been through in the last 24 hours. It was impossible, though, to have casual conversation; I couldn't shake the feelings that had stirred up inside me from the look in his eyes, even though that look was gone now.

He finally did talk me into joining them at church that evening. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect. It wasn't my parish, but I had attended mass there so many times with Brian that everyone knew me. If Brian was right, everyone knew
about me now too, but what could I do? As I'd told him, I couldn't stay in this room forever

His entire family turned out to support us. Mary pointedly glued herself to my side and held my hand the entire time.

It wasn't that people were really saying much of anything. More the complete opposite; we were all ignored. Conspicuously ignored. No one would meet my eyes, and no one said hello. Nothing. We'd soon discover it was going to be like that for weeks: We kept showing up en masse and no one would comment. It was awful. Over time, it became less awkward, and eventually, some people would at least say hello to Brian's family.

Not that first evening, though. I was completely unnerved.

There was something else: Most of the guys from the football team attended that parish. I was frankly terrified to confront them.

Nothing was said while we were at church, but close to a dozen of those guys came over to the house after mass that first time. I didn't really want them to come over, but I didn't have any choice in the matter. Brian was a little leery too, but not as freaked as I was. They were his teammates, some of them from all the way back to grade school, so he knew them better than I did. In any case, while he was a little wary, I was filled with fear.

I didn't need to be.

When they first got there, things were a little tense. There was an awkward silence after everyone said hello. Hands went to pockets, feet shuffled, eyes got acquainted with the floor. Finally Mike broke the ice. He was the guy who had hosted the party, years before, that ended in Brian's trip to the hospital.

He said, "Okay, I know what that psycho bitch
thinks she saw, but what the fuck really happened?"

Brian jumped in quickly. "She just heard us arguing and misunderstood what we said, and she freaked."

Mike looked at me with uncertainty. He paused for a moment, then he asked, "Is any of it true?"

I took some deep breaths. I was scared spitless, but I wasn't going to lie.

"I...none of it's true about Brian," I said quietly, staring at the floor. Slowly, I looked back up at Mike, then over at Brian. I couldn't really read his expression, but seeing the care written all over his face gave me the courage to continue.

"He saw that...I mean, he figured out that I...I have feelings for him."

I couldn't continue. Staring at the floor again, I kept taking deep breaths to keep from losing it.

After a minute, I worked up the courage to look up at Brian and around at the other guys. I didn't see any hate or any anger. I sighed and went on.

"I was confused and scared. I freaked out and didn't want to face him because I thought he'd hate me. That's all. It wasn't about him or his feelings. He's just my friend. That's all he ever was."

Nobody said anything for a while. Finally Mike said, "I don't get it." He look puzzled. "I thought you were into Mary."

"I am," I said in frustration. "I don't know what the hell it means."

His eyes never left mine. We stood there staring at each other, unable to continue the conversation. I had no idea what he was thinking and couldn't say anything more since he was just standing there staring, not replying.

Tension had started to creep into the air. About the time I thought I might panic, one of the other guys, Steve, spoke up.

"Well, hey, variety is the spice of life and all, but shit...
Brian? C'mon, Sam, don't you have any better taste than that?"

The whole gathering exploded into laughter. Brian shot a scowl at Steve, but couldn't hold it, and ended up laughing himself. You could feel the collective relief wash over everyone there.

After that, the tension was pretty much gone. I still wanted to crawl into the ground, but it wasn't because of anything they were saying or doing; I just felt far too exposed.

The guys filled us in on what Amy had been saying and all the various rumors that had sprung up. It was comical, actually; according to the rumors, I had one hell of a wild sex life, involving just about everything but fowl. Seeing as I'd only ever made love to Meg, and since the only other person I'd ever done anything with--willingly anyway--was Amy, it was beyond ridiculous. Ironically, half the problem with Amy had been that she wanted to do more and I didn't.

The conversation devolved into a whole lot of smack talk pretty quickly. I tried to melt into the background as much as possible.

The guys' visit to Brian's turned out to be a good time, all things considered. I could tell Brian was relieved that things were okay, and glad that I'd told the guys what the deal was.

Eventually, it was time for them to go. On his way out, Mike paused at the door, turned to me, and said, "Sam...I think you can see we all have your backs here. What do you want people to know?"

It was another chance to try to make it go away. These guys would have trashed Amy's story and her entire reputation, to take care of Brian and me. To be honest, I considered it.

But I just couldn't do that to her. I didn't want her branded a liar; it was bad enough as it was, and while I hadn't cheated on her with Brian physically, I would have, given the chance, and heaven knew I wanted to.

I smiled at him, weakly. "Thanks, Mike. Look...if anyone asks, don't lie about me. But make it clear that Brian is straight."

He gazed at me intently and with compassion. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I'm sure."

"Okay. Man, you're a stand-up guy, Sam."

I didn't know about that. I just didn't want the damage to spread any farther. I figured it was all my fault anyway.

We said good-night to the guys. By the time our heads hit our beds, we were feeling a little better.

Brian's reputation survived. Nobody changed their opinion of him in the least. I'm not sure what people thought about me, but I didn't exactly try to find out. At least nobody hassled me.

As the days of summer went by, it became clear that Mary still loved me, just as Brian had said. I was definitely still in love with her; part of me wanted to pretend that we could go back to how it was before without any trouble. So she and I did get back together, or at least we tried. I tried to believe her when she told me that what I felt for Brian didn't change the way she felt about me, although I didn't really believe that after the disaster I'd created the Walkers still felt okay about me.

Still, it was clear that Mary really did think we could just pick up where we left off. I would have given anything to be able to.

Brian, for his part, kept encouraging me to give it a chance. At the time I didn't understand why he was so interested in pushing this scenario. In a way, I didn't need the encouragement. Nothing would have made me happier than to be able to cancel out the recent past and step back into those magical days where I loved Mary, I had my feelings for Brian more or less under control, and nobody was the wiser. So I tried.

But I couldn't get around the guilt.

Mary and Brian didn't look a lot alike. Mary was small; looking at her, a person might have called her delicate if she weren't so athletic. She had long, straight auburn hair, and looked just like her dad. Brian, on the other hand, looked like his mom. I loved his mom, but she was built like a linebacker. Brian inherited her curly hair and strong features. The only thing Brian and Mary had in common was their eyes and smiles. Those you could practically interchange.

But it didn't matter how different they looked. Every time I made love to Mary, I saw Brian. It wasn't that I didn't want her; I just couldn't be with her without feeling like he was in the room with us.

I couldn't tell her that, and I couldn't seem to move past it. When the three of us spent time together, which was often since we were all in the same house, it was as if there were four people in the room: Me, Mary, Brian, and my feelings for Brian. I felt guilty all the time.

My happily-ever-after plans originally had me going out of state for college with Mary, but when my parents kicked me out, I just didn't have the money. I had a scholarship to cover tuition and books, but nothing to cover a dorm room or food. Because I was only 17, I couldn't get any loans without my parents. There was no way I'd accept anything from Brian's parents, even though they offered; so I took my scholarship to the state university. That meant that Mary and I would be separated again.

I used that as an excuse to end the relationship at the end of the summer. I was miserable about it, but even when I was with her, I couldn't escape the guilt.

It was hell: I was in love with her and I was in love with her brother and I could hardly experience my love for her without feeling my love for her brother. I couldn't handle the shame I felt over that.

We fought like mad over it. All of us: She and I fought. Brian and I fought. I wouldn't budge, and I wouldn't talk about it, wouldn't own up to the real reason...even though we all knew it.

Brian's parents wouldn't let me move out until I turned 18. When I finally did in August, I was determined not to sponge off them any longer.

As school started, I found a house with a tiny basement apartment for rent close to the university. It was pretty spartan, but it was something I could manage if I got some other guys to split the rent with me. The house itself was a nice one with a large back yard. There was a garden, and there were several huge trees, a cherry tree and an almond tree and an apple tree. The whole yard was ringed in blackberry bushes. Looking at it gave me a peaceful feeling; I realized it might be a place where I could finally create a private space and get over the latest disaster my life had become. So once I'd gotten work, I found two other people on the job to move in and split the cost with me. They took the bedroom and I figured I'd sleep on an army cot in the living room. After I'd made all the arrangements, I told Brian's parents I was moving out. They begged me to stay with them, but I wanted to prove my father wrong.

Besides...it just hurt to be near Brian that much.

He was attending one of the other universities nearby. We weren't at the same school, but if I continued to live with the Walkers, I'd have to see him too much. Frankly, seeing him at all was seeing him too much. I needed him, and I was in love with him, but it was an impossible, impossibly screwed-up situation, and I was convinced it was all my fault and that there was nothing there for me but pain. It hurt too much to be near him. I reasoned that after I moved out I could avoid him.

And I did.

If I had been able to get out of my own head and heart--if I'd considered
his--I'd have realized what a terrible strategy this was.

School added a new set of difficulties to my life. I was working at a full time job doing AIDS work and at a part time job waiting tables, while going to school full time. It was the only way to pay the bills. I had to do it to stay financially afloat; on the other hand, I had to keep my grades up to keep my scholarship or I wouldn't be able to afford school at all. All of that added up to the fact that there just weren't enough hours in the day. I was exhausted and drained, and the only thing keeping me going was that I had to prove my father wrong.

Brian caught up with me late on one of those hellish days. I'd been avoiding his phone calls and contacts. I'd pretty much shut him out of my life. I had to.

It was a Friday night, and after the day I'd spent I just didn't have any reserves left. I'd dragged my beaten-down ass home, and when I got there, I saw him at my door, waiting for me.

The dread rose up in me and I thought about turning around and going somewhere else; anywhere else. But he'd seen me.

I began walking toward him. When I got to the door, I stopped and stood facing him. I was too tired to deal with this, but seeing him made me angry. I'd learned to make anger work for me; it was a defense against the searing pain I felt inside.

I sighed, and said, "Brian. What do you want?"

He folded his arms and stared me down, unsmiling, and said, "What the fuck do you
think I want?"

He paused, and the next words came out more brokenhearted than angry. "You promised you weren't going to bail on me again."

So began the hardest conversation I'd ever had with him.

I wasn't going to stand there and see my resolve give way, but the emotions were too overwhelming. I couldn't speak. I stood there, staring at him.

"You always do this," he finally said, his voice rising. "You always pull away when things get rough. Dammit, none of this is your fault, and nobody wants you to just crawl off and disappear out of our lives. High school is over, you don't have to deal with any of that shit; and you don't have to deal with your parents. You don't have to be alone, and I'm pretty fuckin tired of you bailing on me. After all we've been through together, why the fuck don't you trust me?"

He kept talking, and every phrase was getting more intense. As he spoke, he got closer, until he was in my face and his pointing, accusing finger was on my chest. Over and over again, he kept coming back to the accusing question, "Why don't you trust me?"

The words were slashing deep into me. I was afraid that if I didn't keep my head clear I'd end up reaching for him, pulling him into me and bawling on his shoulder.

When I was able to speak, I opened my mouth and lost it.

"Please, Brian..
please...would you just leave me alone? Just go away! I can't...Brian, I...don't you get how much this hurts? Don't you understand how much it's killing me to need you like this, to want you like this, and to know I can't ever...I can't ever...that I don't have any right? I just...Don't you get it? It hurts, it hurts so bad and so much...I just can't do this anymore."

My breath was coming in heavy gasps, but I couldn't stop.

"My life has been a living hell for as long as I can remember. But
you: You came in and made it incredible. From my very first day of high school. You made me so happy, you and Mary, and for the first time in my life I felt like things would be okay. And I...I fell in love with you both. I couldn't help it. I was so scared and confused, but as long as Mary was around I could focus on her and still have my best friend. And as long as you didn't know, I could be okay.

"When she left it got worse. My mind was all about you, my heart was all about you. You have no idea how much I love you, how much I
need you. It's pure torture to be around you. When you smile at me, I want to die inside because I know I'll never ever have what I want with you...what I need with you, Brian."

He was staring at me, open-mouthed, speechless.

I continued. "And I had to try to shut that all down over and over again, so many times every day, because your friendship is the most important thing in my life, and I thought you'd run screaming in the other direction if I had done or said anything that told you how I really felt. But you knew. And you didn't run.”

"And then on one drunk night I lose control and blurt it all out to you...and look at everything that happened!"

I took several deep breaths. "And you still didn't run. And it made me love you even more. And I still can't have you the way I need you.”

I paused in my ranting long enough to notice the stricken look on his face.

"I need some time, Brian. Please, give me some time to get over you."

I couldn't say anything else. I was totally defeated, totally wasted, totally out of energy. I gazed into his eyes, trying to recover my composure as my breathing slowed.

He met my gaze for awhile, but eventually lowered his eyes and stared at the ground, and said, "But don't you know that..." He paused, then he looked back up at me and said, "I'm sorry. I...I didn't realize how much you...I didn't understand how bad...it just hurt me, Sam, and it seemed like you were pushing away the people who had the most to give you. And pushing away our friendship."

I said, "Just give me time, Brian. I
don't want to lose you, but I need some space to get my head on right."

He stared at me silently for a few minutes. After a while, he began to smile just a little. "Well, that may be expecting a little too much, because your head's kind of weird."

I couldn't help but smile back. Okay, I laughed.

"I'll give you the space you need," he said. "But Sam, I told you a long time ago I had your back. I'm here if you need me. All you have to do is call. As far as I'm concerned, you're still my best friend and nothing changes that. Not even any of this."

I nodded.

"I'll go now," he said. "You look like you need some sleep."

"I'll sleep after I study," I said.

He frowned. "You don't look good; you're working too hard."

"I don't have any other choice."

He sighed and said, "Take care, Sam. And don't forget what I said." Then he turned, walked back to his car, and drove off.

That conversation began my life without Brian. He was true to his word; he did give me space. It didn't help. The feelings didn't resolve; the hurt didn't go away; the love continued to wound me.

So I threw myself into my work and my schooling. I avoided him, avoided my feelings, avoided everything I had known. I kept myself so busy and so tired that I didn't have the time to reflect on it.