By Julien Gregg
"Life is just too hard now, Tommy," sobbed Leo as we sat on my back porch when I got home from work. He'd been sitting on the front porch when I pulled into the driveway, and even in the dark I could see that he'd been crying. I didn't even bother to go inside and change. I just led him to the back of the house and sat on the porch. This was his response when I asked him what was wrong.
"I thought life was getting better for you now," I said stupidly. I was well aware that life without your parents isn't easy. Leo and Noah had been taken from their parents, and since then they'd been living in a foster home. I was even aware of the fact that it was next to a miracle that they'd been placed in the same foster home.
"It would be better if I could just stop thinking about what my family has done," he said. "I'm not just talking about what my parents did to me and Noah. My God, Tommy, my grandfather tried to kill you and you're still sitting here with me."
"Leo, that was your grandfather," I said quickly. "It wasn't you, and it has nothing to do with our friendship. Yes we got off to a bad start, but we're past that now. You and I are getting to be pretty good friends. I'm happy to count you as a friend."
"But it's causing trouble with your other friends," he said. "I know that Ben doesn't like me. I even heard him and Wendy talking the other day. She even said she wished that I wouldn't come around anymore."
That made me angry. I couldn't believe that Wendy could be so cruel. I mean, I know that she had no reason to like Leo, but to say that she wished he wouldn't come around anymore was just too much. I knew that Leo had never been to Wendy or Ben's houses, so they'd had to have been at my house when it was said. That just made me more angry. They were my friends, yes, but that didn't give them the right to dictate who else I was friends with.
"Don't let what Wendy or Ben say or think about you get you upset, Leo," I said. "They don't get to choose who I'm friends with besides them. I am your friend, and it doesn't matter who doesn't like it. You and I put the past behind us. That was good enough for me, so it has to be good enough for them. Let me deal with my other friends."
"But Tommy, I don't have any other friends," he said. "You're the only person in town that will talk to me at all besides Noah."
"That'll change, though," I vowed. "We'll be starting school soon, Leo. There'll be a lot of new people for us both to meet and befriend. You'll see. You'll have lots of friends when those new people get to know you the way I have."
"Tommy how do you do it?" he asked, looking at me hard. "I mean, your locker was bombed, my grandfather led almost an entire congregation to your front door to kill you, and you're still unfazed."
"I'm not unfazed," I replied, thinking about my long talks with my therapist. "No, I'm not unfazed at all. But you know what? I wouldn't change anything that's happened. I know that sounds stupid, but I really wouldn't. All of that stuff just made me who I am today. I actually like the person that I am today, Leo. Sooner or later, you're going to see that you're a good person, too. Then you'll find that life isn't so hard after all."
"It sounds so easy when you say it," he sighed. "You just don't know how hard all of this is for me."
He was right about that. I didn't know how hard any of it was for him. I was thankful that I had one of the greatest mothers in the world. Now that she was gone my support system was more than I could have ever asked for. Tom and Shirley were the best people in my life at that time. Ben and Wendy were my best friends, and though I was angry with them for what Leo had overheard them saying about him coming around, I loved them like they were my siblings.
"Just remember this, Leo," I said, thinking hard as I talked. "No matter what happens in the next few months, you have me as your friend. Whenever you need me, I'll make sure that I can be there. If I can't be there, then we'll work something out. Don't ever think you're alone. I'll be with you for as long as you'll let me."
He looked at me for a long moment, and I did my best to look him in the eye. It was hard with all of the sadness and pain I could see in them, but I held on. I wanted him to know that I really was his friend. The past was the past, and there was nothing we could do to change any of it. What we had to deal with was the present and future, and I was going to make sure that I stayed by Leo's side for as much of the present and future as I could.
"Thanks, Tommy," he said finally. "I'm sorry for unloading on you like this."
"Don't be sorry, Leo," I said quickly. "Don't ever be sorry for needed a friend to talk to. There are times when I need friends to talk to, too."
"I should get going," he said with another sigh.
"Why don't you come inside and wash your face," I suggested. "You can have a cup of coffee or something before you go. Settle your nerves a bit. I don't think you want Noah to see you like this."
I got up after that and went inside. Leo followed me, and I ushered him into the half bathroom off the kitchen just as Andy came into the kitchen. He just watched Leo for a second and then looked at me. I wasn't sure what his expression meant. It wasn't one I was accustomed to seeing on his face. Was he for or against Leo being around? I didn't want to deal with it if he wasn't, at least not yet. What I wanted was to sit down and relax. It had been a long night at work.
"Is he going to be all right?" Andy asked as I sat down at the table.
"I think so," I replied warily. "Is there coffee?"
"You work in a coffee house and you come home and want coffee?" he chuckled.
"Not for me," I said. "Leo needs something to pep him up a bit before he goes back to his house."
"I'll make a pot," he said. "Won't take but a minute."
"Thanks, Andy," I sighed as I ran my fingers through my hair.
"It wasn't bad really," I admitted. "We were just really busy."
"Want something to eat?"
"I ate too much pastry at work," I said, shaking my head. "What I want is tea."
"Tea we have," he laughed. "Hot or cold?"
"Hot," I replied.
Andy was setting the cup of hot tea in front of me as Leo came out of the bathroom and sat down at the table to my right. Without a word, Andy got him a cup of coffee. The cream and sugar was already on the table. Leo silently added a bit of each to his cup and stirred. He looked tired and drawn, but I could see that washing his face had helped a bit. He didn't have tear stains on his face now, but his eyes were still a little red.
"Thank," he said, glancing at Andy as he stirred his cup.
"No problem," replied Andy. "I've got some stuff to do, so I'll leave you guys alone."
I watched him walk out of the kitchen as an idea popped into my head. Leo had never spent the night at my house before, but if he was still feeling low and didn't want Noah to see him that way I thought he should just spend the night. The hard thing would be getting him to agree. He'd come a long way in accepting the fact that homosexuality didn't make a person different, but that was a far cry from spending the night in the same house as one. I decided to extend the offer any way.
"Leo, if you want you can just stay here tonight," I said. "We have extra rooms and beds."
He was silent for a moment, staring into his coffee cup as he considered my offer. I hoped that he was considering the offer itself and not a way to politely decline. He was worried about Noah seeing him upset, and I thought that if he slept on it that wouldn't happen. I really was trying to be his friend.
"Thanks, Tommy," he said after another moment of silence. "I just need to call the house and let them know. I might need to get clothes."
"We have clothes that will fit you," I said. "Don't worry about anything. Extra toothbrushes are in the upstairs bathroom, too."
"All right," he said, getting up from the table. "I'll just call the house. What time do you think I'll get home tomorrow?"
"That will be up to you," I said, remembering that Ben was coming over some time tomorrow morning. "Ben will be here probably around eleven. You can stay as long as you like. I'll deal with Ben."
"Don't send your best friend away just because I'm here, Tommy," he said quickly.
"I wasn't going to," I replied. "I said I'd deal with him."
"Oh, right," he said quietly. "I'll just call the house."
He went to the phone and called his foster father as I got the cups and saucers off the table and rinsed them in the sink. I loaded them into the dishwasher and then went back to the table to get the cream and sugar. I put the cream in the fridge and put the lid back on the sugar bowl and put it in the cabinet. He was just getting off the phone when I sat back down at the table.
"That's taken care of," he said. "Thanks again, Tommy."
"No thanks necessary, Leo," I said. "If you want, we can watch some television or I can show you were you'll be sleeping."
"Television," he said after a moment of thought.
We sat in the living room with Andy and watched television for nearly an hour. There was nothing serious on, so we didn't get too involved. Andy talked about Gage and how far along the "get Gage to move in" plan he was. Leo said nothing during this discussion, but he did pay attention. Andy asked about my job at the restaurant, and I told him that they'd closed early. It was a good thing that I got hired at DH3 when I did. Andy agreed with that sentiment.
By eleven we were all dropping, so I shows Leo where the towels and extra toothbrushes were and then showed him to my old room. I'd moved into my mother's room, so my room was open again. He was all set, so I went to my own bathroom and brushed my teeth. I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Thoughts of Ben, Leo, Wendy, Nick or any of my friends were gone from my head.
The next morning, showers were taken and Leo and I were seated at the kitchen table with breakfast in front of us when Ben came in through the side door of the house. He had a concert ticket in his hand as he sat across from me at the table with a sigh. He barely glanced at Leo.
"Monty can't go to the concert, so he gave his ticket back," he said in a rush.
"Well good morning to you, too, Ben," I said, reaching for the ticket. I already had a thought in mind about who could use the ticket. Ben, Wendy and Nick would just have to get over it.
"Oh," he said with a smile. "Morning, Tommy." He let his eyes slide sideways to glance at Leo before saying, "Leo."
Leo just smiled at him uncertainly, and I sighed. Something had to be done about this, and I thought that the sooner it was dealt with the better. I would have said something there and then, but I didn't want to embarrass Leo or make him uncomfortable. I didn't want to spend my morning berating my best friend, either.
"What's on your agenda today?" I asked instead.
"Well I was thinking that you and I could go to the lake today," he said. "Wendy is off with her mother to shop for stuff to take away to school, so it'd be just the two of us again."
"Leo's hanging out with me today for a bit," I said, glancing at Leo long enough to see the dark look on his face. "But after that I'm free. You're welcome to hang with us for a while."
"Oh, well I guess I can go rustle up Nick and hit the arcade for a while," he said, ignoring my invitation to hang out with me and Leo.
"I'll be free at one, Ben," I said in a not so friendly tone. "I think you and I need to have a talk, so I'd appreciate it if you would come back at one."
"OK," he said slowly, eyeing me. "I'll be back at one. Have fun guys."
I watched him get up and leave before I sighed again. This was going to be even worse than I thought. Now he was angry, and I wasn't exactly thrilled either. Something was going to give, and it was going to give fast. There were six days left before Ben and Wendy would leave for Chicago, and I wanted those six days to be happy ones.
"I'm sorry, Tommy," said Leo, and that made me even more angry.
"Leo, you have nothing to be sorry for," I replied. "Ben does, and I'll make damn sure he understands that at one o'clock. Now I know I said you could stay as long as you liked today, but I think it's high time I have this little talk with Ben. I don't think he'll want to spend too much time with me after I'm finished, so if you'd like I can call you when I get back. I'm off today, so we could go do something."
"All right," he said. "I'd like that."
"Now how would you like to go see Skyler Thomas this weekend?" I asked, holding up the ticket.
"I don't have money for a room," he said quickly, but I saw his eyes light up at the thought of going to the concert.
"That's already taken care of," I replied. "You can share the room with me and Nick if you like, or you can take Monty's place in the room that he would have been sharing with Seth."
"I don't know Seth at all," he said quickly.
"Well then you'll bunk with me and Nick," I said. "And don't worry about Nick. I'll take care of him, too."
"You don't have to do that, Tommy," he said. "Nick and I get along fine."
"Well then that's even better," I said. I was happy that at least one of my friends was getting along with Leo.
"Thanks, Tommy," he said. "Who would've thought that I'd go see Skyler Thomas on my birthday?"
I nearly choked. I'd had no idea that Saturday was Leo's birthday. I'd just given him a kick ass birthday present without even knowing. There could have been no better gift out there that I could find for him I suppose. He was smiling from ear to ear. I realized that this meant that I really needed to have that talk with Ben. I didn't want anything happening that would spoil Leo's birthday.
We hung out for a few hours before he finally decided to go home and tell his brother and foster parents that he'd be in Chicago for his birthday. I had some time before Ben was supposed to come back, so I decided to do some packing. Six days and then it would be time to start moving into the dorm, an I wanted to be ready for it. I had nearly everything I wanted to take packed when Ben knocked on my bedroom door.
"Moving?" he asked, looking around the room when he came in.
"Just getting stuff packed for the dorm," I replied. "Have a seat." I indicated the bed, and he sat down.
"You're mad at me, aren't you?" he asked.
"I'm not mad," I said. "I just want to know something."
"Is this about Leo?"
"Yes, it is," I replied. "I gave him that ticket you brought over, and he'll be going with us to Chicago for the concert. You need to know that Saturday is Leo's eighteenth birthday, Ben. I know you and Wendy don't like him, but could you please be nice to him this weekend?"
"Wow," he said. "It isn't that Wendy and I don't like him, Tommy. It's just that we can't help remembering the way he used to be, and . . ."
"And people change, Ben," I said. "Leo helped us all when that stuff was going on. He's my friend, and even if you and Wendy don't like it, I would appreciate it if you two would stop trying to make him feel unwanted all the time."
"We don't try to make him feel unwanted," he protested.
"No, well he heard you and Wendy talking the other day when he was standing on the porch, Ben," I said. "He heard you guys say that you wished he'd just stop coming around."
"He heard us?" Ben asked, looking guilty. I nodded, hoping for some kind of plausible explanation for why my friends were being assholes. "Tommy he didn't hear all of it, then. There was more to it than that. I swear to God I didn't mean that I didn't want him to come back to your house or anything like that."
"If I remember correctly, he said it was Wendy that said he should just stop coming around," I said.
"She did say that, but it's not because we don't like the guy," he said. "I mean, we don't even know him that well. All we know about him is that he started out as an ass in highschool and then changed for whatever reason. We don't trust him, Tommy. But we didn't mean that we didn't want him around you. You have to pick your own friends. What we said was that if he was going to act all scared of us then he shouldn't come around us anymore."
"Did either of you ever stop to think that maybe he acts afraid of you because you haven't shown him any kindness at all?" I asked. "Ben that guy stuck his neck out to warn me when he knew that something bad was going to happen. He didn't know exactly what it was, but he knew it would be bad. He tried to warn me. Does that sound like someone who wanted me hurt?"
"We don't dispute that, Tommy," he said. "We're grateful to him for trying to stop what happened. It was out of his control and we know that. All I'm saying is that we don't know him. Tommy, ever time I've tried to be nice to him he freezes up like I'm going to hit him or something."
"Well that's what he thinks," I said, but I wasn't so sure I understood why Ben and I were arguing anymore. If it really was just a misunderstanding, then that could be cleared up.
"Then help us make him see things another way," he said. "Make him understand that we don't hate him. We don't have any problem with him hanging out with us, but could he at least act like he's part of the group? Tommy when either of us start to talk, Leo clams up."
"Well there's no reason for us to fight about this," I said with a sigh. "If all of this is just Leo misunderstanding things, then we can work that out. I don't want to fight with you."
"I don't want to fight with you, either," he said. "And I'm not out to get Leo."
We changed the subject after that. We talked about the concert and the trip we'd be taking to get there. Brian wasn't actually in Storyville yet, so he already had a place to stay in Chicago. For us, our hotel rooms were booked and paid for. We were taking two cars, and I had the tickets to get us in. In two days we'd be in Chicago to see Skyler Thomas.
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