By Julien Gregg
"This is a nightmare," I said with a sigh as I stood with Leo in line to get my class schedule. Registration wasn't something I was having any fun with and Leo didn't look like he was having much more fun. We'd been in line for over an hour and it wasn't moving fast.
"Think we'll be here all day?" he asked, looking around at the crowd of students.
"Probably," I sighed again.
"Great way to spend a Friday," sighed Leo as he put his head down.
"The lines are moving again," said a familiar voice and turned to face Tyler Becket.
"Hey!" I said, smiling. "I was hoping I'd run into you here."
"Yeah," smiled Tyler. "I was actually looking for you. Took me a while but I found you."
"Tyler, this is my friend Leo," I said, introducing them. "Leo, this is Tyler Becket."
"Nice to meet you," said Tyler. "You guys been in line long?"
"Oh just an hour or so," I laughed. "Not real long when you think about it."
"Long enough to make me crazy," said Leo with a sigh that made Tyler laugh.
"Hey what are you doing tonight, Tommy?" Tyler asked.
"Working," I replied. "It's my last night at the restaurant."
"What time do you get off work?" he asked.
"Well that depends," I replied. "It's Friday so you never know what will happen."
"I'd like to hang out sometime soon," he said, glancing at Leo. "With both of you. New friends are always cool."
I smiled at him when he included Leo in the hanging out request. Leo's face brightened and that was enough reason to want to hug Tyler. Well that was one reason. I reminded myself that I had to be careful around Tyler Becket. He was just not touchable yet I found myself inviting him to Wendy's party on Sunday evening. That was my answer to his wanting to hang out. I told him that the entire gang would be there but it would be the last time the entire gang was together for a while.
"Sounds great," he said with a huge smile. "Just let me know where it is and what time to show up. Did you guys need me to bring anything?"
"Uh, no," I chuckled. "We've got all of that covered."
I wrote the address down for him and thought about the fact that he may learn about my sexuality at the party. Then I thought that if Loren had said that I was in the news he could have done his research and found out on his own. It didn't matter anyway. He'd find out sooner or later and maybe it would be better if he found out from me instead of someone who was trying to be rude about it.
He stayed and talked to us for a while as the line slowly inched forward. By the time I actually got all of my paperwork and dorm room key I was so hungry and tired I didn't even want to go to work. I was ready for the restaurant job to end and this was the final night that I would work there so I decided that taking a shower and getting myself in my car was the right thing to do.
Once I got there I was sorry I hadn't called off. The place was packed with people and all of the tables were full. Every stool at the bar had a person seated. There were orders waiting to be taken to various tables when I got there. It seemed like each table wanted a drink from the bar so I was running back and forth like an idiot all night long. The bus boys were on their job though. Every time a table emptied in my section they were up and on it. It was cleaned and set in a flash for the next party to sit and send me off running again.
By the time the restaurant closed I was dragging. I sat at the bar with a bottle of water in front of me counting my tips. I'd had a lucrative night and I thought about the fact that I'd miss the tips but my feet wouldn't be missing the hours I spent on them any time soon. The final tally of tips were more than my weekly paycheck from DH3 and I sighed as I traded one and five dollar bills for twenties after paying the bus boys the tip I'd decided to give them. They were all three happy as they walked away from me.
I finished my water and said my final goodbyes to the management. I got hugs from both of the cooks and told everyone else to head over to DH3 for coffee when they got a chance before heading out to my car. As soon as I got home I took my money up to my room and then sank into the tub to relax. It was nearly two in the morning and I was dead tired. I barely remember getting out of the tub and crawling into bed.
The next day it was a double shift at DH3. I'd told Dean that I wouldn't be able to do these kinds of shifts very often but he was in a bind so I volunteered. The day shift was fairly quiet and I got a chance to look over my paperwork for school while I cleaned the bar and coffee cups. The saucers went into the little dish washer.
Ben and Wendy came in around three and Leo and Nick followed shortly afterward. I served them each an iced coffee and they sat near the front windows as Loren and the other young man who had been with Tyler the night I'd met him, I guess his name was TK, came in. Loren smirked at me and the two started to talk quietly and laugh as they found a table. I walked over to wait on them but they ignored me for a good five minutes so I just walked away.
"What is this place like a 'no service' establishment?" Loren said loudly and I glared at him. I wasn't in the mood for his antics.
"I stood there for five minutes waiting to take your order," I called back. "You ignored me so if you want something you can come to the bar and order it."
"You're rude," he said. "Come over and take my order. After all that's your job right?"
I saw Ben get up as the other boy, TK, started to laugh. I just shook my head at him and went back to putting pastries in the glass case. I could feel Loren eyeing me but I wasn't playing his game. If he didn't straighten up I'd ask him to leave. Dean had told me it was completely within my power to refuse service to anyone and I was planning to exercise that right.
"I guess famous fags don't wait tables," said TK loud enough for everyone in the place to hear. Luckily my friends were the only other customers at the time.
"I didn't know that Loren was famous," I replied coldly, glaring at them. "I'm going to have to ask you guys to leave. I'm just too busy to serve you."
Now it was Loren who glared back at me. I didn't know what his problem with me was but I'd dealt with guys like him before. I'd deal with him again. For now though I just wanted him out of the coffee house. I didn't want trouble at work and I didn't want to have to call Dean in to deal with this. He was trusting me to run the place and I was going to keep that trust.
"What if we decide not to go?" asked Loren hatefully.
"Then we'll help you go," said Ben as he, Leo and Nick stood.
I just watched Loren and TK for a moment. Loren continued to glare at me but TK was trying to get him to leave. In the end TK just stood up and walked out leaving Loren to finish his staring match with me. I decided that I'd have to call Dean if he wouldn't leave. I didn't want to try force. I really hated guys like him.
"I'll talk to your manager about this," he finally said before turning to walk out. He knocked his chair over as he went.
"What an ass," said Wendy as she watched him join TK at the car parked in front of the coffee house.
"Yeah," I said as I walked around the bar to pick up his chair. "There's at least one in every five people."
The next day as Ben and I scoured the stores for cook out food Dean called my cell phone. I sighed as I looked at the number. I decided that if he was angry with me I'd have to tell him I couldn't work under those conditions. There were plenty of other jobs in Storyville and if I couldn't find one maybe I'd just take the year off and concentrate on my first year of college.
"Hello Dean," I said when I opened the phone and put it to my ear.
"Tommy, I just got a call from a customer that said you refused to serve him," said Dean's voice. "Now after hearing his name I already know what happened. I just wanted to call and let you know that he tried to get you into trouble. Now I've wrote his name down and left it on a piece of paper taped beside the register. He's no longer allowed to come into the coffee house. I've told him that but I wanted to tell you so that if he does come in you can just call the police."
"I'm sorry that it had to come to this," I replied, thinking that if he'd just acted like a human everything would have been fine. He could have left whatever problem he had with me outside of the coffee house.
"Don't be sorry," he said. "I want the college crowd in the coffee house but I don't want the college asses."
Well he'd hit that one on the head. They definitely were asses. I was just glad that I didn't have to deal with him anymore. After that call Ben and I discussed Loren a bit. Ben told me that he didn't know him but he recognized his type. He believed that Loren was just a homophobic bastard. I didn't know why but I suspected there was a lot more to it than mere homophobia.
We headed back to the house with the backseat and trunk of my car crammed with food. We'd also bought paper plates and a few towers of cups. I remembered the last party Wendy had thrown and they'd run out of plates and cups about midway through. Her parents weren't thrilled when their actual dishes had to be used to serve the guests.
"You are such a sweet heart," gushed Wendy's mother as we piled the paper plates and cups on her kitchen table. "I was actually starting to worry about the amount of people coming. Wendy only says that it's going to be a few friends but I remember every year that it's always a mass."
"Well this should keep you going for a while," I said as I helped her sort through the bags while Ben carried some stuff outside to Mitch.
"Just put that over on the table," said Mitch as Ben and I carried more plates of raw meat out to the backyard for him to grill. This was the preparation for Wendy's annual end of summer pool party only this time it was also a farewell party. They'd all be going to their different schools the morning next day.
"Hey, Tommy," called Wendy as she eyed Ben with a huge grin. I knew I'd lost my helper as soon as I looked over at him and saw that cocky grin on his face that came every time that he looked at Wendy.
I continued to unload my car as Ben and Wendy playfully set up the tables on the other side of the pool. I felt a momentary twinge of jealousy as I watched them. I really missed having someone to act like that with. I pushed that feeling aside and headed back to my car to get the last of the chips and soda thinking that Steve was a complete assholes.
I'd been told that Steve would likely be at this party and I knew I'd have to deal with him if I wanted to say goodbye to my friends. I was thinking of exactly how I'd have liked to deal with Steve Sutton when Leo walked up the sidewalk to help me with the soda. I smiled at him as he grabbed the case of cans just before I dropped the bags in my other arm.
"Hey you," I said. "Thanks."
"Yeah," he replied with a smile of his own. "Looked like you were having a bit of trouble, Tommy."
"I was getting there," I laughed as we headed back around the side of the house to the side gate. "Glad you came."
"Thanks," he said. "I'm still a little surprised that Wendy invited me."
"Why?" I asked. "We're all friends. Remember?"
"Got it," he sighed, but he did smile after that.
Once all of the party supplies were carried back to the tables and put together Ben grabbed me and we headed off to grab some lunch. The party wasn't supposed to happen for four more hours and we were both hungry. Leo went along with us and Ben didn't even look at me strange. I was shocked that Wendy wasn't coming along but Ben had said that he wanted to spend as much time with him as possible that day. He and Wendy were leaving for Chicago to start the semester the next day.
"So you both got registered all right then?" Ben asked once we were seated at the restaurant. The waitress had just brought drinks and was now taking our lunch order back to the kitchen.
"Oh yeah," I said. "It was a thin slice of pure hell but it's all done."
"Any classes together?" he asked, looking from to Leo and back.
"Actually we have several of the same classes but only two of them at the same time," Leo said. "Both are computer courses."
"Now why doesn't that surprise me?" chuckled Ben. "You're both pretty snappy on those computers."
"Yeah," said Leo with a genuine smile. I'd had a talk with him about opening up a bit around Ben and Wendy. It seemed to have paid off.
"We have registration as soon as we get to Chicago," said Ben. "Wendy can't wait. I'm not really all that thrilled about standing in line for hours though."
"I won't lie to you about it," I said. "The lines at Storyville U were awful. I'm surprised that neither of us suffered heat stroke while we waited."
Over Philly cheese steaks and steak fries with onions we talked about the party. I think it was hard for either of us to talk about more than registration with the knowledge that as of tomorrow we would be living in separate cities. We talked about everyone that we thought would be at the party. Doug and Frank had both been invited even though we'd seen very little of them over the summer. Doug had been working with his father in Cedar Rapids while Frank had been in Carbondale taking summer classes. Mark and Rick would both be there as well. They'd been gone all summer on vacation with Mark's father. Maria had opted not to go with them for vacation because she wanted to spend time with her husband. That meant that the whole original gang would be there other than Peter and Marcie. Both of them had already left for college.
"Oh and I invited Tyler Becket," I informed Ben. "We saw him at registration and he asked to hang out so I just invited him to the party."
"Who is this again?" Ben asked, looking from me to Leo and back.
"I met him at DH3," I replied.
"Well the more the merrier," he said with a shrug. "I'm sure Wendy won't mind."
By the time we got back to Wendy's several people were already there helping her parents set up the back yard. Doug came over to give me a high five and pat on the back when we got out of the car. He looked at Leo and hesitated for just a second before shaking his hand. Mark and Rick were there as well. Mark was trying to talk Mitch into letting him grill the food while Rick was talking to Wendy and another girl who'd gone to school with us. I didn't see Tyler so far but I was sure he'd get there eventually.
"Tommy," called Ben from across the yard. "Help me move these benches to the other side of the pool. If everyone that Wendy invited shows up they'll need places to sit near the food."
I ran over and we moved the six iron benches that usually sat near the end of the yard in the flower garden back near the long patio table. Then we helped carry out chairs from inside the house for the same reason. Once done we got in a quick game of catch with Mark and Rick while Doug talked to Ben about football. Ben's football scholarship was something Doug was excited about.
As the party moved along I talked to just about all of the members of our "old gang" one on one. Mark told me that he was excited to be going to Iowa State while Rick expressed a few reservations about the school. Of course Jeremy would be staying in Storyville but he wasn't going to be attending Storyville U. Instead he'd be at the community college so that he could be home with his brother most of the time.
When it was time to eat I sat with Nick, Wendy and Ben. Everyone else just kind of crowded around us. Leo was generally accepted from most of the group. Jeremy still didn't say much of anything to him. Jeremy wasn't a talker though. I did notice that throughout the party Ben and Nick stayed close to me. I could virtually go nowhere without them at my hip. When Steve showed up with Vince and Maria they stuck close to me even more.
"Tommy, I wanted to talk to you," said Steve as he came straight over to where we were standing. Ben, Nick and Leo stepped in front of me.
"I think you've said all you're going to say to Tommy, Steve," said Nick, shocking the hell out of me.
"Nick . . ."
"No, Steve," he said. "Leave him alone."
I watched Steve's face fall as he turned to walk away from us. For a split second I felt sorry for him. Maybe it was having almost the whole gang around again but for a moment it was like he'd never hurt me. I wanted to run up to him and throw my arms around him. It was only a moment though. I didn't back slide at all. It took one more look from him to remind me that he wasn't my boyfriend anymore and I was happy, finally, without him.
I didn't have any trouble with Steve again that night. Even when I went to talk with Vince and hug Maria he stayed quiet and pretended to watch Nick and Wendy in the pool. Leo and Ben had walked over with me and Vince patted Ben on the back to congratulate him on his scholarship. I did see Steve snap to attention and look at me when I told Maria that I'd be moving into the dorm next week. When she asked why I didn't even look at Steve. I just told her that too many memories plagued me at the house and I wanted a fresh start.
Ben and I stayed to help clean up the party when everyone started to leave. I hadn't seen Tyler even once but there were so many people there I had no idea if he'd even been there. With Ben talking a mile a minute about our past together I didn't have much time to worry about Tyler. Nick came over to help but he was strangely very quiet.
"And we'll have to email each other practically every day," Ben said.
"Well we do have to study, Ben," I laughed. "But I'll email as often as I can."
"Just don't replace me as your best friend, Tommy," he said as he stood still and looked at me hard. I could see the fear in his eyes as he looked at me.
"You know I'd never even try to do that," I said with as much conviction as I could muster. Ben was the best friend anyone could ever ask for.
"Just so we understand that we're always going to be best friends," he said, turning back to the clean up.
I stood there for a second and just looked at him. I couldn't believe that he'd even think I would find another best friend. It was crazy. Besides this wouldn't be the first time that we'd lived away from each other. I'd remained his best friend the entire time he was in Maine. Chicago wasn't that far away from Storyville. He knew that as well as I did. If either of us needed the other we weren't far enough away that it would be a problem.
"Hey tuff guy," Wendy said as she came over to say goodnight when we were done cleaning. "Got a hug for your mall buddy?"
"Oh get over here," I said with a smile as I took her into my arms and held her tight. "I'm gonna miss you, Wendy."
"Me too," she said. "But I'll call you at least twice a week."
"All right," I replied. "Love you."
"Mean it," she replied as I let go of her.
I let her have a moment with Ben as Leo and I made our way to my car. He asked how I was doing as we sat there waiting for Ben. I told him that I'd be fine as we watched Nick drive off without even saying a word to any of us. I thought that was odd but there wasn't much I could do about it. Ben and Wendy would be driving to Chicago, but Nick would be taking a flight to California the next day. I knew when that flight left so I planned to get up early to head him off. He wasn't leaving Storyville without saying goodbye to me.
"Let's hit it," said Ben as he got in the car. Wendy waived at us one more time before we drove off.
"Nick left without saying goodbye," I informed him as we drove.
"Yeah he's been really quiet since yesterday," replied Ben. "I guess he doesn't handle goodbyes well."
"I'm going to gank him in the morning before his flight," I said as we pulled up in front of Leo's foster home.
"Night guys," he said as he climbed out of the back seat. "Tommy I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sure thing," I said as we watched him go. We stayed put until he went inside.
As we drove away from Leo's a tense silence began to build between us for only the second time in our entire friendship. There was so much I wanted to say to him and I'm sure he had plenty to say to me. I was really worried about his thinking that I might replace him as my best friend. I couldn't believe he would even think I could.
"Ben you know how much you mean to me right?" I asked, deciding to break our silence.
"If I mean half as much to you as you mean to me, Tommy, we should have been lovers," he said, shocking me into silence. "You have to know, Tommy. That time you told me that you had a crush on me I was so happy to hear it. Even though I knew I wasn't gay I had a little crush on you too. I kind of still do."
I was so shocked that I didn't even realize that we'd pulled up in my driveway. I did have the presence of mind to turn off the engine before I stared at him. Where had that come from? I couldn't even process it long enough to respond at that point. I loved Ben with all of my heart but it wasn't that kind of love. The crush he talked about had ended once we'd had our talk in Florida as kids. To hear that he had a crush on me now was almost the strangest thing that had ever happened to me in my life.
"Say something, Tommy," he said finally. He was staring at me with a nervous expression.
"I don't know what to say to that," I admitted. "I love you, Ben. I really do but you have to understand that it's not . . ."
"I know it's not like that," he cut me off. "I just wanted you to know how important you are to me; how important our friendship is to me."
"I do know," I said. "Ben I would never want any other best friend. You have nothing to worry about."
We talked for a while longer and I finally got him to believe that I really wouldn't try to replace him. We were both in tears by the time he left to go home and get what little sleep he could before he and Wendy were to leave for Chicago. I sat there for a moment and just watched as he walked through the gate and into my back yard to get to his own.
I went into the house and stood in the living room for a moment. It was real now. Ben was really leaving. I wondered how it was going to feel to not be able to just walk into Tom and Shirley's front door and find him there. How strange was it going to be when I had to call him and know that he wasn't just across the yard from me?
I was shocked out of my thoughts of Ben's leaving when Nick walked through my front door. There were tears streaming down his face as he stood there and looked at me. I didn't know what to say. Then he put his arms out to me. I walked over and accepted his embrace. Nothing could have prepared me for what he did next. I expected him to hug me when he put his arms out. Instead I felt his lips on mine and then his tongue was running across my bottom lip. I was so stunned that I opened my mouth and gave him access. It was odd at first but then I just decided to let go. I put my arms around him and pulled him closer as our kiss got deeper. When he drew back he looked at me with shocked eyes.
"I'm sorry, Tommy," he said. "I just had to."
With that he turned and walked out of the house and all I could do was stand there and watch him go. Nick Andrews had kissed me.
"I still can't believe that you're moving in here when you own a house," said Brian as he helped me carry box after box up from the trailer I was pulling with my car. It was full to overflowing with boxes. My back seat was full of boxes. I was starting to wonder where my room mate would put his things once mine were all moved in.
"I told you," I said, lugging a box up to the third floor behind him. "Fresh start."
"I hear you," he replied. "That's kind of why I'm here this year instead of in Chicago."
"But I thought you said that you were here at Rhaven last year," I huffed as we tackled the stairs.
"Well yeah," he said. "That's right. I just don't really want to be in school in Chicago with everything that happened."
"What exactly happened?" I asked.
"I'll tell you about it soon," he replied as we finally made it to my door. "I want to wait until Ian is with us."
The elevator was out of order and there was no one in the RA's room so we lugged over eighty boxes up three flights of stairs. It took us until well after noon to get it all up there and I was contemplating putting it all away when Brian suggested that we take a break for lunch. My stomach growled in agreement with him and we both laughed. I locked the door and followed him down the stairs. We walked across the street to a place called The Campus Diner.
"What time does Ian get here?" I asked as we sat at a table near the back.
"He should be getting here any time now," replied Brian.
A waitress came over and took our orders and then we were alone again. We talked about nothing in particular and we didn't mention Nick Andrews. For that I was thankful. I'd told Brian what had happened. Not knowing Nick or any of my friends any better than he knew me made it difficult for him to see how strange and crazy it was for Nick to kiss me. He understood that I'd always believed Nick to be straight and that Nick had always said he was so I was shocked that he'd kissed me. There just wasn't much Brian could say about it.
The other person who would be going to school with me that I could talk to was Leo. He knew Nick pretty well but he was straight and I got the distinct impression that he wasn't exactly cool with homosexuality. I think he was just happy to have a friend. Either way it wouldn't have been the right thing to do. I couldn't discuss it with him. That left Jeremy. Jeremy would still be in Storyville taking classes at the community college and taking care of his brother. But Jeremy had his hands full there. I had no business telling him things about a boy he considered to be his brother. No there really wasn't anyone I could talk to about Nick. I missed Ben.
"So you have all of your stuff moved into the dorm?" Brian asked once the food was served.
"Yeah," I replied. "Got the new computer this morning so that was a good thing."
"I saw the box on your bed," he said. "Any word on your room mate?"
"Nope," I replied, thinking that I'd have to hear something soon. Classes were set to start on Monday.
"I'm sure he's probably moving in right now," he said. "He'll probably be strange and quiet."
"God no!" I gasped "I don't want him to be quiet and moody. I at least want to be able to get along with him."
"Well I'm sure you will," he said quickly. "College is a place where most people set aside their petty differences and start acting more like adults."
"You sound just like an advertisement for the dorms," I laughed.
"Really," he chuckled, trying to get himself under control. "I'm sure the two of you will get along just fine, Tommy."
"I'm not really all that worried about it," I said truthfully. "If we don't get along I'll just deal with it."
"Come on," he said, looking at me as he cocked his head to the side. "I've read the interviews, Tommy. I know that you can handle anyone."
I nearly choked on my burger when he mentioned the interviews. I couldn't believe I'd sat for any of those interviews. Who did I think I was? Getting stoned by a congregation didn't make me a celebrity. I'd told myself at the time that the interviews could help someone who was in a bad place but who was I kidding? Those interviews only made sure that everyone I ever met would already know something about me. Could I live with that?
"Why the dark look?" he asked when I hadn't said anything for a few minutes. "Those interviews were great, Tommy. To be honest I don't know how I'd have gotten through any of that. What you did was awesome."
"Awesome?" I asked, cocking my own head this time. "Brian, someone bombed our lockers. We never found out who that was. That person is still out there probably biding their time and laying plans for their next assassination attempt."
"Assassination?" he chocked. "Tommy, no one is going to try to hurt you at Storyville University. You'll have plenty of friends to watch your back."
"I had plenty of friends to watch my back in high school too," I pointed out. "All of this happened with those friends around. What's to stop anyone from trying to pick me off in college?"
"How dramatic," he laughed. "Calm down, Tommy. I'm sure that whoever it was that bombed your locker in high school is probably either already in jail for doing something else or too scared to even confront you now."
We paid the check and headed back to the dorm. Brian went to his room to wait for Ian. I still didn't know how they'd managed to make sure that they were room mates. I had to put my stuff away and meet my own room mate. I just hoped he wasn't a bible thumping Baptist. I'd had quite enough of those in my time. I knew it was too much to ask that he be gay and friendly so I decided to settle for friendly.
I hung up most of my clothes in the closet on the left side of the room and made sure that I only put anything in the bottom three drawers of the six drawer chest that stood next to the door. I stored my computer under the bed for the moment until I decided what to do about the solitary desk that stood against the windowed wall between the two beds. I was just getting into the third box of stuff when my room mate walked through the door. He was carrying a huge suitcase and computer notebook case. He grinned at me as he came in.
"Hey," he said. "I'm Greg."
"Tommy," I replied, smiling at him.
He was tall with broad shoulders and a flat stomach. His sandy hair was cut short and parted to the left. His amber brown eyes sparkled with excitement as he stood there. He was dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and tan cargo shorts. On his feet were a pair of worn deck shoes. He just kept smiling at me.
"I chose this bed over here," I said, pointing to the bed with all of my boxes stacked on it. "We can switch if you want."
"No, that's fine," he replied, coming the rest of the way into the room and putting his suitcase on the other bed. "You just look very familiar."
"I get that a lot," I lied, thinking that I knew where he thought he'd seen me before. I wanted to avoid it as long as possible.
"So where are you from?" he asked as he sat down his notebook case.
"Right here in Storyville," I said, spreading my arms wide. "Decided that living at home wasn't such a good idea."
"Wow," he said. "I'd have loved to stay home but I drove all the way down here from Detroit."
"Long commute," I laughed. He laughed with me. I decided that Greg would be all right.
"These rooms even have bathrooms," he said with a whistle as he opened the door at the end of his bed. "Hey there's a shower in here!"
"Yeah, welcome to Storyville University," I laughed.
For the next few hours I put my stuff away as he put his away. He helped me put my shelves on the wall over my bed and then I started to put my books on the shelves as he looked at the desk. That one desk thing was going to hurt us. I could see that. We both had notebooks so that wouldn't be a problem. However if we ever decided to write anything at the same time we were in for it. I decided we'd deal and went back to putting my books on the shelves.
I didn't see Brian for the rest of the day. I imagined that Ian had arrived and the pair were having a night in. Greg and I talked about high school while we ate sub sandwiches from the deli across the street. I learned that he was the youngest of four boys. All of his brothers played football. Greg had played for a while but didn't love the game as much as his siblings. His father was a detective in Detroit and his mother was a preschool teacher. He talked about Christmas parties with his large family and how small portions could be with six people not counting visiting relatives at the table.
"There were always tons of presents from Mom and Dad," he said with a grin as he caught a piece of falling lettuce with his napkin. "Of course with the one gift deal from each of the relatives we made out like bandits."
"Sounds like it," I said with a sad smile. All his talk about family holidays only reminded me that most of my family was gone now. I had Brian now but he would likely want to spend his holidays with Ian's family.
"One time," he chuckled, "my oldest brother, Danny, got it in his head that it would be so cool if we dressed our greyhound as Rudolph. He coated the dog's nose with Mom's brand new tube of red lipstick and pranced the dog around the living room. When Mom found out what it was on the dog's nose, Danny got his hide warmed up but good!"
"My mother used to hide little gifts in the tree," I said, returning to those years in my head and basking in her excited smile as she watched me on the hunt. "She'd let me begin my hunt for those little gifts on Christmas Eve. If I hadn't found them by New Year's Day then the tree came down and she'd stack the little boxes away and give them to me later. We always had warm pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream on that night. Mom would stack the little boxes in the center of the table and after pie we'd tear into them."
"That sounds great," he said with a huge smile. "I thought you said you had a brother though. You talk like it was just you and your mom at Christmas."
"It was," I said, sitting up straighter in the bed. "I didn't meet Brian until this summer."
"I think you're going to have to explain this to me," he said with a laugh. "I'm confused."
"My mother was my father's second wife," I explained. "I'd seen a picture of Brian when I was a kid but we never met until this summer."
"That crazy," he said. "I couldn't imagine life without my brothers."
"Well I'm hoping that Brian and I get that close soon," I said, looking around at the empty food boxes on the bed.
"Well maybe you will," he said. "You did say that he goes to this school right?"
"Yeah," I laughed. "He helped me carry my stuff up from my car earlier and then we had lunch. He went to his room afterward to wait for his . . . Ian."
"His Ian?" laughed Greg. "What's that like his boyfriend or something?"
I'd slipped on that one. Talking to Greg had seemed so comfortable that I almost outed my brother. In fact I think I actually did. I didn't know what to say to that I was worried that he'd be some kind of bigot and call my brother a freak. If he did that then what would he say when he found out that I was gay?
"Look," he said, "don't get so nervous, Tommy. My older brother is gay. I'm cool with it."
"Good," I replied. "I didn't want to have to fight and argue with you already."
"You too?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"Yeah," I replied. "I'm gay all right."
"Wait a minute!" he gasped. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he put something together. "I know where I've seen you before! Marty, my brother, came home one day last year with this magazine in his hand. He wouldn't shut up about it until everyone at the table read the article. Your picture was . . ."
"You read the article about Reverend Hartman and his congregation," I said slowly. This is what I'd been dreading.
"Yeah!" he said. "Did they really try to stone you to death?"
And that began the talk of the night. I told him all about what had happened to Steve and I when we tangled with the good Reverend. I explained that Leo Hartman was the one who tried to warn us about it and that seemed to blow Greg's mind. He said that he couldn't believe that someone who'd been raised in that environment had tried to warn us. I explained that Leo and I were never really friends until recently and even told him about Leo's attitude and how he tried to get us in trouble every chance he got.
"And you're friends?"
"Yeah, we're friends," I replied. "Leo had a messed up life and he was reacting to it. Now he's better and we're friends."
"So when do I get to meet Steve?" he asked. "The articles talked about him but he never gave an interview."
"Steve and I are not friends anymore," I replied, looking away. "All of that was just too much for our relationship to survive."
"That sucks," he said quietly. "Sorry to hear that."
"Thanks," I replied, but that really ended our discussion.
For the rest of the night I studied the material that the syllabus for my computer class called for. As I studied I noticed that the college computer courses were a lot different than the ones I'd taken in high school. There was a lot more to cover and what I was studying was a lot more advanced than what I was used to. I didn't think I would have any difficulty with the material or the actually assignments but it was sure different. I finished up around nine and decided to call it a night. Greg wanted to go out and have fun but I was actually tired.
The next morning I was up at five and Greg was just sitting up in his bed when I came out of the bathroom after my shower. He asked what I was doing up so early and I told him that I always got up that early to either work out or run. When I mentioned running he perked up. He asked that I give him ten minutes to shower and get ready and then he'd join me on my run.
We ran all over the campus. In all it was at least ten miles and I was happy to see that Greg kept up with me very well. We were both breathing a bit harder when we returned to take turns in the bathroom for another shower. We were laughing and talking so fast that I barely noticed the note on the door when we got to the room. Greg took it down and read it before handing it to me. It was from Brian. Evidently he'd come looking for me while I was on my run. He asked that I meet up with him and Ian for lunch. I invited Greg to come along. Brian and Ian were waiting for us at The Campus Diner and we quickly joined them at their table. I introduced Greg and then we gave the waitress our drink order.
"So you're the room mate," said Brian as the waitress walked away. "You know Tommy was worried sick that you'd be some bible thumping redneck."
"Oh really?" Greg asked, cocking an eyebrow at me.
"No not really," I said, kicking Brian under the table. He had the gall to wince and call out.
"Well I do go to Church now and then," said Greg. "But we're no bible thumping family. I don't even own a bible."
"And your neck doesn't seem to be red either," said Ian, helping Brian out with a devilish grin on his face.
"Well you should have seen it in May," laughed Greg. "I usually burn before I tan and the sun was nothing of not brutal last Spring."
"Can we stop talking about Greg's neck?" I asked, trying to suppress my own laughter as the others at the table snickered.
"Sure," said Greg. "There are a lot of other parts of me that . . ."
"Uh, I don't think you want to get into that discussion with a table of homosexuals," said Brian. Then I did laugh.
Lunch went over without a hitch. Greg Epkar was a hit with my brother and Ian. When we got back to our room Leo was waiting at the door. I quickly introduced Greg to Leo and then invited Leo into the room. He was so excited about his own room mate that he only gave Greg a nod. He bounced into the room and collapsed on my bed.
"His name is Thad Johnson and he's an ass from hell!" Leo said of his room mate. "He's a football player from Missouri and he's read all of the articles about my grandfather and you."
"Ouch," I said, wincing. "So he thinks you're gay?"
"No," said Leo, shaking his head. "He knows I'm not gay. He said he's gay and he doesn't like homophobic assholes or something like that. Tommy, I don't think I can live with this guy!"
I almost laughed at that. In the end I told Leo that I would invite him and his room mate over to the house for a cook out that I hadn't planned until that very moment. I'd have to call the house and make sure that Gage and Andy were up for it. Then Greg was asking about my pool while Leo continued to look distraught. I chuckled to myself. My life at Storyville University was off to a strange start.
Our first week of school was nothing too complicated for me. Leo, Brian and I had a lot of the same classes. Our majors were the same so we decided that we'd study together. The only class that Gregg and I shared was English 101. We also shared that class with Thad Johnson. The football player from Missouri was tall and muscular. His blond hair was shaved into a flat top and his blue eyes looked hard and almost cold. His face split into a huge grin when he saw me though. He almost made a spectacle but thankfully Gregg stopped him. Thad told me that I was like a celebrity where he came from. He said that all of the gay boys at his high school knew my name and face and they'd be so jealous when they heard that he'd met me. To be honest he made me slightly uncomfortable. When the class ended and Leo met me as we were leaving Thad looked at me like I was crazy.
"You hang out with this guy?" Thad asked with wide eyes.
"Yeah," I said flatly. "Leo's my friend. Isn't he your room mate?"
"Well yeah but . . ."
"Well then you guys should be pretty good friends by now," I said, cutting him off. "I mean you've been sharing a room for a week now."
"But . . ."
"Oh did he tell you that you're invited to my house for a cook out this Saturday?" I asked, cutting him off again.
"No . . ."
"Well you are," I said, cutting him off for the third time. "Bring your trunks. We'll swim."
With that I walked off with Leo to our computer class leaving Thad to stare at us with his mouth hanging open. We connected with Brian and Gregg outside the computer lab and I told them all about Thad being in my English class and what had happened at the end of class when Leo showed up. Gregg thought it was hilarious. We were all still laughing as we entered the class and sat at our stations. Gregg was still standing at the door as if he didn't care that he didn't have another class for at least an hour.
I didn't see Tyler until Friday evening when I finally went back to work at DH3. Unfortunately he was there with Steve so I ignored them when I came in and went straight to the back room to put on my apron and clock in. Dean was back there doing paperwork when I came in. He smiled at me as I came in the door.
"So how's school so far?" he asked, turning off his computer.
"Nothing too big to worry about there," I said. "I seem to have a confused fan though. He's kind of strange."
"What do you mean?" he asked, and I found myself telling him all about Leo's dilemma with Thad and Thad's apparent idol complex where I was concerned. We were both laughing as we went back out to the counter.
"That's funny," he said. "Listen could you work Sunday? I need to be home for David and the boys if it's possible."
"Sure," I said. "Just not Saturday. I'm having a cook out to celebrate surviving the first week of school. Why don't you come?"
"I'll see what David says," he replied. "If we can get Jamie or Drake to babysit we should be able to get there for a while."
David was Dean's lover. I'd met him a hand full of times since I'd started working at the coffee house. They had infant triplet boys that were awesome and cute. I didn't know the story of how this came about but I didn't think it was a good idea to ask too many questions. From what I knew of Jamie, Drake and Dean they didn't do well with personal questions of any kind.
"Hey Tommy," said Tyler as he came up to the counter. I didn't see Steve anywhere. "Let me explain about Steve."
"You don't have to explain anything," I said. "It isn't like I can tell you who to be friends with."
"That's just it," he said, sitting down on a stool in front of me. "We were assigned to each other in one of my classes. I think he's a real jerk most of the time. He said he had to be somewhere when you came in."
"I'm sure he did," I said a little louder than I'd intended.
"What is it between you two?" Tyler asked. I didn't really want to answer that question but avoidance would have gotten me nowhere.
"We hate each other," I said, reaching for the dirty coffee mugs to keep myself busy.
"Why?" he asked as I started to wash the mugs.
"It's complicated," I replied. "Look, could we not talk about Steve Sutton?"
"Sure," he said with a smile. "We could talk about anything else you want."
I thought about what I'd like to talk about with him. I didn't really know what to say. I felt guilty for not telling him the truth about me and Steve. I really didn't like the fact that I was hiding that I'm gay. Hiding wasn't my style anymore. I'd told Gregg as quickly as I could. Hell I'd told have the people in my classes that I was gay when they'd asked. But Tyler hadn't exactly asked that question. I mean he'd asked what was going on between me and Steve but that wasn't the same. Of course I knew it was the same thing as asking if I was gay. I just had to tell him somehow.
"Listen," I said quickly. "I'm having a cook out at the house this Saturday. Now the last time I invited you to a party you didn't make it. I'd really like it if you came to this one."
"At your house?" he asked.
"Yeah," I replied. "We'll all be there around eleven."
"Then I'll see you on Saturday," he said with a smile before he walked away from the counter and out the front doors.
That was it. There'd be no way he wouldn't know I was gay if he showed up at that cook out. I almost panicked when I thought of it that way. Then I thought that if I was ever going to find the balls to tell him that I was gay this would be the best way to do it. So I put it out of my mind and got back to work. We were pretty busy that day and lots of the college crowd came through the doors. Drake came in about an hour after I arrived to help me out and I was so happy that he came.
"Tables are all full," he said as he came back with a tray full of empty glasses.
"Yeah, the counter just emptied about a minute ago," I said as four more people came in. I'd been watching to make sure that Loren wasn't among the groups that came through the door and so far he hadn't. However TK was among this crowd. I sighed when he looked at me and shook my head.
"Bad blood between you and that one?" Drake asked, noticing everything as always.
"You could say that," I replied. "The thing is I don't know why."
"You don't know him?"
"Only well enough to tell you that he's trouble," I replied. "He and his friend, Loren, were the ones who . . ."
"Oh," he said, cutting me off. "Dean told me about those two. You want me to tell him to get out?"
"Let's just see if he starts any trouble," I said after only a second of thought.
"Sure thing," he said. "I better get over there and get their order."
"Later," I said as more people came to the counter.
This went on for what seemed like forever and then I saw TK's group getting up to leave. Drake came back up with their empty mugs and his tip. He smiled at me as he got another round of coffees for another table. TK hadn't said a word out of line it seemed. I sighed with relief and went back to waiting on my customers. Before I even knew it my shift was over and Drake was thanking me for my service. He was always doing things like that and making me laugh.
I got back to the dorm just as Gregg was coming in and he held his nose when I came in the door. I laughed at him for a few minutes before throwing my hands up and grabbing something to sleep in. Then I headed in and got in the shower. Once I was clean and smelling good again Gregg decided to have one of our talks.
"Ran in to Steve Sutton tonight," he said. "That boy is hurting bad."
"Oh?" I said, plopping down on my bed and reaching for my English text.
"No studying until we talk about this, Tommy," he said. "Every time I say something you don't like you bury your nose in a book. Now listen."
"Ok, fine," I sighed, putting the book aside. "What's got Steve Sutton's heart aching now?"
"You," he replied and I gawked at him like he was crazy.
"Now tell me why I'm supposed to care," I said coldly. "Steve Sutton broke my heart and made it next to impossible for me to live. So why in Hell should I give a good God damn about any of this?"
"OK," he said through a sigh. "I get it. You're still hurt. I don't know this guy that well but he was talking to anyone who would listen about how much he loves you and how stupid he was to do what he did. Tommy, what exactly did he do?"
I didn't want to talk about Steve Sutton but Gregg had that look on his face that told me that he wouldn't rest until he knew the whole story. I wanted to punch that look right off his face. I couldn't believe any of it was happening. Steve Sutton didn't have the right to be hurt by what he'd done to me. He didn't have the right to love me anymore. I was finally getting to the point where thinking of him didn't rip my heart out and tear it to shreds before my eyes and he was pulling this shit?
"I'll tell you what he did," I said through clenched teeth. "We went through the most horrifying experience together. We survived it and he couldn't handle it. He left one day without a word. Since then any time we see each other we fight. I hate him with all of my heart, Gregg. I don't give a fuck if he's hurting. You tell him that now he knows how it felt."
"I'd say that's more than hurt talking there, Tommy," he said slowly, watching me closely. "I'd say that was pure unbridled hatred."
"Well then you'd be right," I hissed, grabbing my English text and opening it to no certain page.
Gregg let it go after that and after a while I actually did get some studying done. I amazed myself at how easy it was to just put Steve out of my mind and focus on English. I hated English more than any other subject but I studied until my eyes hurt. I studied it so much that I was sure that I'd pass the exam with flying colors. I'd never thrown myself into studying English that hard since right after my mother died. I didn't say another word to Gregg that night. I waited until after he'd showered and come back to his bed before I went and stepped under the hot spray. I went to bed that night without saying another word at all.
The next morning I was up and out of there before Gregg even woke up. I headed to the grocery store with Brian and Ian to get last minute things for the cook out before heading over to the house. I was sure to bring along all of my laundry and though I was a little embarrassed about my behavior from the previous night and avoiding Gregg, I brought along his laundry as well. Andy thanked me profusely. I assured him that this would most likely become a weekly event; the laundry, not the cook out. Andy just shook his head and sighed. I'm the one who washed and dried both my own and Gregg's clothes. Andy didn't have to lift a finger.
We were setting up everything when Gregg arrived with Leo. Gregg avoided me for about twenty minutes and then I cornered him in the dining room. He refused to look at me for a few minutes and I had to wonder if maybe he thought less of me because of my anger and hatred for Steve. It didn't seem fair that he'd be put out by me when Steve was the one who had walked out. Steve was the one who had quit and left me to pick up the pieces. How else was I supposed to feel about him?
"Tommy," he said quietly after we stood there for a few minutes in silence with me looking at him while he looked at the floor. "I'm sorry."
That floored me. I'd been prepared to apologize to him for my own anger. Here he was apologizing to me for whatever reason. I didn't know what to think of that. I knew I had to choose my words very carefully but now I wasn't sure as to why I had to be careful at all. Just what was it that he felt he needed to apologize for?
"What are you sorry for?" I asked. "Gregg, I'm the one who flipped out on you. I'm sorry for that. I truly am. I just can't talk about Steve Sutton and keep a clear head just yet. You were right, Gregg. I am still hurt by what he did to me. You were right about me being angry and hating him for it. Gregg, he nearly destroyed me when he left. But that has nothing to do with you and I'm sorry for giving you the silent treatment."
"So you're not mad at me then?" he asked with a confused look on his face.
"Mad at you?" I gasped. "No I'm not mad at you. I was ashamed of myself, Gregg. I shouldn't have acted that way."
"Believe me you have every right to feel the way you feel," he said. "If I'd gone through what the two of you went through only to be abandoned I'd feel pretty much the same way if not worse."
"So we're not mad at each other," I said, turning slightly away. "That's good. Now can we get this place set up?"
"Sure," he said, and then we were both laughing.
After that it was just putting loads of laundry into the washer and dryer and making potato salad while Brian made cole slaw. Andy would man the grill and there was plenty of meat for the grill. Corn on the cob was boiling on the stove in the kitchen while Ian worked on baked beans. The food would be ready in plenty of time. The others would be arriving soon as well. The cook out was about to begin. I was just putting the last load of laundry into the dryer when I heard Thad Johnson's voice outside.
"Sure I recognize you!" he was saying to Andy. "You're the guy in the admission office. I saw you checking me out."
"I assure you that he was not checking you out," came the voice of Gage. I decided it was time for me to be outside. I turned on the dryer and headed out the side door.
"Thad," I said as I came off the side porch and onto the deck. "Glad you could make it."
"Tommy," he said, grinning from ear to ear again. "This guy . . ."
"Is a dear friend of mine," I cut him off. It seemed that I was always cutting him off. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't upset him or his lover."
"Oh they're together," he said, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes they're together," I replied. "Now if you would help Leo move that table . . ."
"He's here?" he gasped, brows raising higher.
"Thad if you're going to be rude to all of my friends maybe you should leave," I said.
It was clear that this guy was socially retarded and I knew that Jeremy and Thomas would be showing up soon. If he made even one crack about Thomas I'd probably have to kill him. I felt very sorry for Leo having to room with this guy. I wondered what his teammates thought of him. I didn't know many on the football team other than Phillip. He and Dustin would be showing up some time along with Keith and his date, whoever that would be. I could never keep up with Keith's "friends". They never seemed to be around long.
"I wasn't going to be rude to Leo," he said. "I owe him an apology. The boy hasn't been staying in our room all week long so I haven't really talked to him."
"Really?" I asked, cocking my head to the left and looking at him hard.
"Yeah," he said with another of his huge grins. "Swear."
"Well now's your chance," I said, seeing Leo coming up behind him. "He's coming this way now."
"Tommy, we forgot to bring the plates," Leo said as he got to us. He stopped short when Thad turned around.
"I'll go and get some in a little bit," I said before Thad could say anything.
"Oh," said Leo, looking from me to Thad and back. "Uh, Gregg said he'd drive me if . . ."
"Don't sweat it, Leo," said Thad. "I'll drive you. I'll even pay for the plates. How many do we need?"
"Ok," said Leo slowly. He had that worried look in his eyes again and I thought about telling Thad not to bother. Then the two of them walked off toward the front yard and I was left staring after them. I just hoped that Thad wouldn't be a jerk. If he upset Leo I didn't know what I'd do to him.
"What's got you looking like you want to rip someone's head off?" Gregg asked as he walked up to me.
"Thad and Leo," I said, nodding at the pair as they walked off. Thad was putting his arm across Leo's shoulders. I couldn't help noticing that Thad was at least a head taller than Leo.
"Is this a bad thing?" Gregg asked. "If it is I could always stop them."
"I think we'll just let this one play out and see what happens," I replied.
"If you're sure," he said slowly, still watching Thad and Leo.
"I'm sure," I said, turning around. "Let's make sure Andy isn't burning the food."
That was the end of that. Gregg went off to help Andy while I went inside to check on Brian and Ian. They were in the kitchen watching the food on the stove and having a grand time of it. They were giggling like idiots when I came into the house. Before I could say anything to them the front door opened and Jeremy and Thomas came into the house. Thomas was wearing his favorite Storyville High t-shirt and I noticed that he was carrying his sketch book. Thomas was an awesome artist in spite of being a victim of down's yyndrome.
"Hey, Tommy," said Jeremy as he came in.
"Hi there guys," I said with a huge smile.
Everyone began to arrive just as Thad and Leo returned with the plates. They were laughing so I decided not to even ask how it went. Dustin and Phillip showed up right behind them and I was shocked to see David and Dean pull up behind Dustin's truck. We all hit the back yard just as Brian brought the food from the kitchen out to the deck. Everyone grabbed plates and sat around the long table talking and eating. Dustin told me that he and Phillip were thinking of moving again so I offered them the apartment over the garage. He said he'd get back to me on that later.
Thomas showed me his artwork and I was surprised when Thad came over to look. He was very patient and caring with Thomas and he even made sure to point out the different colors in the art and compliment him on his work. He didn't touch him or even come close enough for Thomas to think he'd invaded his personal space. Later Thad told me that he had a cousin with autism. That explained how he knew what to do with Thomas. There were sides to Thad Johnson that I would just have to get to know.
Tyler showed up just as everyone was getting finished with their food. He informed me that he'd found a job and had to start that morning. He apologized for being late and I made him a plate. I didn't get to spend much time with him at first. We were all talking while he was eating. Thad was talking about the magazine's interview with me and I saw that Tyler was paying close attention to what he was saying. It was obvious from what Thad was talking about that Tyler should now know that I'm gay. I didn't look over at him after that was out. I just answered Thad's questions for a while until one by one my friends decided to head to the pool.
Tyler got up to put his plate in the waste can before coming over to sit next to me. I'd been watching Thomas draw in his sketchbook while he tried to explain to me that he would color each part of the sketch later when he and Jeremy went back to Mike's. They were still living there even after Mike and Sharon's divorce. Tyler watched us for a moment until Thomas grew aggravated with his drawing and got up and went to the pool side to get Jeremy's attention.
"His drawings are great," Tyler said, breaking the silence between us.
"Yeah they are," I agreed. "He gets aggravated from time to time with his limitations. I guess I would get aggravated myself."
"Oh I know I would," said Tyler.
"So you know about me now," I said, deciding to just get it over with.
"That you're gay?" he asked. I nodded. "I already knew that, Tommy. I read the same magazine interviews as Thad."
"But I thought that you didn't know," I said with a smile stretching across my face.
"I just figured out that you didn't know that I'm gay," he said, blowing my mind.
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