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It was in that very moment I realized that, even though I loved Pete with all my heart, I loved Chris too. I'd been deceiving myself, thinking that what I felt for Chris was nothing more than close fraternity, but my self-examination disproved that belief. It left me feeling frightened, confused, and more than a little anxious.
We boys headed into the house to find the adults bustling around in the kitchen in an attempt to be useful, but generally obstructing any real progress. Chris let out a bellow to warn everyone that he was ferrying Tony through the chaos, and the effect was like the parting of the Red Sea. Everyone moved out of the way, and an embarrassed Tony thanked them while he was carted into the back yard.
Pete ushered me after them, but I took an about face as the air grew thin and walked back out into the front yard. My boyfriend watched me leave, confusion plain on his face. I walked to his car without stopping and leaned against it, my hands on the roof and arms stiff. It felt as if I was on the verge of a panic attack and these feelings were going to push me over the edge. I forced myself to slow my breathing and concentrate on my heartbeat, willing it to slow to close to normal. The minutes passed while I stood there alone.
What the fuck am I doing?
I wondered. What is wrong with me? Why is Chris being with Tony such a huge deal? I should be happy for them, not out here feeling sorry for myself!
With concerted effort, I pushed myself upright and walked back to the house. After a short pause at the door, I opened it and walked quickly through the crowded kitchen and into the back yard. People I didn't recognize were congregating around the table while Pete was talking to Chris and Tony, who were sitting on the bench again. Mac and Pedro were listening to what Pete was saying as well. Their gaze turned to me as a group when I stepped out on the patio, each one of them conveying something different in their countenance.
"Sorry, guys, I said. I had to get some air."
"D-dude, you look... like you t-took a header off a r-r-rail or something," Tony said in his odd half-halting manner, a result of the beating he suffered. "You sure you're okay?"
"Not really, but I'll survive." Their continued examination forced me to continue. "Sometimes I get these panic attacks..."
Pete's head whipped around to glare at me, his expression concerned and angry at the same time.
"... and it takes a while for me to calm down. That's why I went back out front."
"Brian, why didn't you tell me you were having an attack?" My irked boyfriend demanded.
"Because I didn't want you to worry, and I knew I'd get through it," I replied. "It wasn't that bad."
"Brian, that is so much bullshit! Dammit!" Pete turned on his heel and walked inside the house, fuming.
"Seems like you pissed him off," Pedro said in the silence resulting from Pete's departure.
"Yeah, I did," I confirmed with a sigh.
"D-dude, d-do you trust Pete?" Tony asked me as he leaned forward, his intense gaze boring into my eyes.
"Of course," I answered.
"Then trust him
," Tony said, emphasizing each word.
I stared back at him, pondering his words for a moment. It didn't take long before I found his meaning. If I really trusted Pete, then I should be able to share with him my problems regardless of the situation. Pete was angrier with me because I didn't tell him I was having an attack more than that anything.
"No p-problem, dude," the young man said with a slight smile.
I returned to the house to search out my boyfriend. He hadn't gone far. He was in the kitchen with Kathlene and Mrs. Braden, helping to make the burgers. Pete glanced at me as I came in but then went back to his task. That spoke volumes to me and I felt my stomach drop out.
"You're right to be pissed at me, Pete," I said.
"Brian...," Kathlene warned.
I ignored her and continued, "I should have told you how I was feeling."
"Yeah, you should've," Pete said forcefully as he brutally mashed a burger into shape. The hole in my gut grew.
"Maybe we should step out," Jenny Braden said uncertainly.
"No, that's okay, you don't have to leave," Pete said casually, but he made no move to get up so we could speak more privately. It was as if he wanted to embarrass me in front of the women.
"Pete, there are so many memories down here that it can be really hard to remember things have changed. I had to depend on myself for so much over the time we were separated. Kathlene and Chris helped, but there was no way they could handle everything I had to throw at them, so I kept a lot to myself. Maybe that's why I almost died. And because of what we were talking about earlier with Tony and Chris I hid even more from them."
"That's a pretty shitty excuse for cutting me out like you have been, Brian," Pete grated caustically. "You're supposed to trust me!"
Pete slammed a glob of meat down on the platter and barked, "Kathlene, just... back off! This has nothing to do with you so stay out of it!"
He turned on his heel and walked out the front door without looking back. My gut wrenched as I watched him get in the car and pull away from the curb with a squeal of the tires. I stood at the screen door staring at the empty space where the Malibu had just been, not believing that he was gone.
"Brian?" Kathlene's voice came softly from behind me.
"He's gone," I responded to her unasked question. "I've lost him. Again," I whispered as despair filled the hole in my stomach.
"He'll be back, Brian," commented Tony's mother from the kitchen. "I think he has a reason to come back. He wouldn't be so upset if he didn't."
"Brian," asked Kathlene, "What's going on here?"
"I'm not sure," I said after a pause. "We've both had a hard time in the last day or so. A lot of bad things happened. So much hate..."
I allowed my voice to trail off while I stood transfixed, still staring at the vacant curb. I jumped when I felt an arm snake around my body and pull me close.
"Jenny's right, hon. Pete will be back," Kathlene said quietly. "Why don't you come help us with the burgers."
I let Kathlene pull me away from the door and washed my hands at her command. I picked up the hamburger that Pete had thrown after telling Kathlene to mind her own business. A grin slowly spread over my face as I remembered the stunned expression she had worn after Pete told her where to get off. A chuckle escaped a moment later and drew the attention of both women.
"What is it, Brian?" Kathlene asked.
"Nothing," I said, my grin widening.
"Out with it, boy," Kathlene demanded.
"You should have seen your face!" I said, allowing my amusement to show. "I've never seen anyone look so surprised in all my life!"
"Well, I should say I was surprised. I never expected to be told off, much less by the only civilized child in this house," Kathlene said primly as she pointed at me with the spatula she was holding. "You watch yourself, young man. I'm not so old that I can't get Chris or Mac to hold you down for a good spanking!"
Her statement set me off big time. For the second time that day I was helpless with laughter, and I so desperately needed it. I was laughing so hard that I fell off the tall stool I'd been sitting on, landing hard on my right arm, but even the pain from the fall didn't lessen my mirth. I had managed to stand and lean against the wall for support when I noticed the women chuckling, as well as another voice. Turning toward it I spied Pete standing there with a small smile on his face. His presence sobered me immediately. I had no idea what to expect from him.
His smile remained intact as he spoke. "You know what really pisses me off, Brian? You're rubbing off on me. I was running away just like you did this morning.
"Kathlene, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. I don't know what got into me."
"Oh, I have a fair idea," she said with understanding and a meaningful glance in my direction. "I've felt the same way a time or two, and not just with Brian."
"Mrs. Braden..." Pete started.
"Just don't let there be a second time, young man," Jenny said pointedly.
Pete nodded and turned his attention back to me. "Brian, can we talk?"
I nodded and followed him dumbly, relieved that he wanted to be around me at all. He led me into the family room and sat on the couch. I sat facing him so I could see his face and every twitch of an expression. His gaze met mine and we sat for a few moments looking into each other's eyes.
We started speaking simultaneously.
"Pete, I'm so..."
"Go ahead Bri."
After another endless pause, Pete took initiative and spoke.
"Brian, I can see the fear in your eyes. I love you. I'm not going to leave you over something as small as this is, but I need to know that you trust me," he said seriously. "When you keep things from me it makes me feel like you don't. I need to know that when the chips are down you'll come to me. If you can't, or won't, then what we have between us is worthless."
Pete's gaze never left my eyes while he spoke, and I felt ensnared by him.
"I don't want you to protect me by keeping things from me because you don't want to worry me or burden me. Anything that affects how you act within our relationship, whether you tell me or not, affects me too. I'm committed to you. I hope you know that without a doubt by now. It's not fair for you to have to deal with everything on your own, and it's not fair to me if you keep me in the dark. Okay?"
"It's hard for me sometimes, Pete," I said quietly after a moment of silence. "I can't always figure out what it is that's bothering me or what I'm feeling. It takes me time to sort everything out. I can tell you what I'm thinking, but it might be wrong or just a piece of the whole picture. I don't want to say something that will cause us problems if what I'm saying isn't really what's bothering me."
"Bri, even if you don't
tell me, I know when something is bothering you. You don't hide it very well. I'd rather have some idea of what's going on than have to wonder if I did something to make you angry," Pete said earnestly.
"I need to know where we stand with each other," he continued. "It may seem to you that I'm secure in our relationship, but sometimes I'm scared that you'll leave me, too. I need reassurance that you still love me, and when you go off like you did today, or when you pull away, I start to wonder."
Pete stopped speaking and just watched me for a response. His admission surprised me. I thought I was the insecure one in our relationship but it seemed that we both had fears. I wasn't sure what to say. Dropping my eyes, I sat silently as I tried to nail down exactly what I was feeling.
"Brian, are we okay?" Pete asked. "Is there something wrong with us?"
"Yeah," I said in almost a whisper. "Me. I'm what's wrong."
"God damn it, Brian, don't you dare!" Pete rasped angrily. Don't you dare start that again! This is a `we' thing, not a `you' thing. You can't have a relationship with just one person. We have to work this out together!"
"But you're not the one whose got all these bullshit feelings!" I said harshly.
"No, but they affect me just as much as they do you!" Pete countered loudly. "What did I say? What affects you affects both of us. Didn't you hear me?"
"Yes, I heard you," I replied in kind as I met his eyes once more.
Kathlene poked her head around the corner to check on us. She watched us with a thoughtful gaze for a moment and then returned to the kitchen.
"Look," I said more calmly. "There are some things that I have to deal with; things that I keep to myself, and I know there are things you keep to yourself, too."
"Like how you really
feel about seeing your mom and dad again. Like all the worry you have when I go off the deep end. Like how much I piss you off all the time."
Pete stared hard into my eyes and then dropped his gaze. He sighed.
"You're right, Brian. I do the same thing you do. It just bothers me that you don't trust me enough to come to me, you know?"
A sudden flash of insight struck.
"Pete, there is no one I'd rather go to than you. I trust you with my life, and more importantly, my heart, but I can't be wholly dependent on you."
He raised his eyes again, a vaguely hostile expression on his face. I pressed forward.
"I have to be able to stand on my own two feet just like you do. We can't be everything to each other, Pete. If we were, then that would make us less than we are. I don't want
that. I wouldn't like that, and I don't think you would either. We wouldn't be the people we fell in love with. I'm not saying this right."
Pete dropped his gaze and sat back in the couch, his brow furrowed in thought. I'd tried to explain it as best I could. All I could hope for was that Pete would puzzle it out.
"I know this is hard for you, Pete, and I know it's going to take some time to digest. I... uh... I'll leave you alone so you can think. Please... please remember that I love you."
I stood slowly but Pete didn't move. I turned to walk away, but he caught my hand. I let him hold it for a moment, not looking back. He had to work this out for himself, just like I had to deal with the feelings I held for Chris. Pete squeezed my hand tightly to the point of pain and then released it.
"I love you too, Brian," he whispered. "With all my heart."
I walked away from him into the kitchen without a backward glance. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do because my instincts told me to sit down and hold him tight. Jenny Braden was the only person left in the kitchen when I came through.
"Did you get everything worked out?" She asked.
"No, we didn't," I replied with a sigh. "It's going to take some time. We both have a lot to think about."
The woman observed me for a moment as I stood waiting for a response. When I sensed none was coming, I took a step toward the back door.
"You and Tony have a lot in common," she said conversationally as she cleaned the counter. "You both hold back a part of yourself that others will never see or touch because of what's happened to you in the past. What Tony hasn't learned yet, and I think that you have yet to learn it as well, is that holding back so much of yourself from the one you love is a form of betrayal."
Her words hit me with a physical impact. I had to grab the counter to keep my balance as my head swam. After all the betrayal I'd suffered, I was doing the same thing to Pete? Tony's mother continued while ignoring, or perhaps not noticing the effect her words were having on me.
"By hiding that part of yourself, you'll never be fully committed to the relationship, and unless you're committed to the relationship, it won't survive."
"Are you telling me that I should tell Pete everything even if it will kill him?" I asked quietly, fear blooming in my gut.
Mrs. Braden glanced at me for a moment and then went back to cleaning.
"No; that would be silly. Everyone has secrets and for good reason. What I am
saying is that you can't have your feet on both sides of the tracks. Either you are in the relationship or you're not. Holding back part of yourself just in case things don't work out dooms the relationship to failure."
A chill ran down my spine. What Jenny said frightened me. It terrified me. The thought that I would lose Pete was unbearable. Without waiting or wanting to hear more, I walked out through the back door where the party was in full swing.
Mac and Pedro were standing in the middle of the yard in a fighting stance. Broad smiles creased both their faces in spite of Mac's efforts to appear angry. Pedro reached out and lightly slapped Mac on the cheek and dodged a counterblow from the larger boy.
"You're cruising for it, bro. Don't do nothin' you'll regret," Mac drawled as Pedro took a step back, placing himself just out the large black youth's reach.
"There's nothing to
regret," Pedro said through a grin "You ain't hit me, and you won't. You're not fast enough. Muy lento, caracol
Mac took a step forward and reached for Pedro, but the smaller young man ducked just in time and managed to slap Mac's other cheek. Rather than simply take it, Mac continued forward forcing Pedro into a retreat. Soon Mac was chasing his adopted brother outright, but he stood no chance of catching Pedro in a footrace.
"Yeah, you better run!" Mac boomed as Pedro darted through the side gate.
"Too slow!" Came Pedro's reply from the other side of the house.
Mac locked the gate with a self-satisfied grunt. He nodded as he passed me, a slight smile still on his lips. I picked up a soda and walked to the corner of the yard. A quick count showed thirteen people were in attendance, and I knew most of them. I caught Chris' eye for a moment, but he continued his conversation with a man who could only be Chen's partner, Juan. The discussion was animated and ended with Chris coming out on the losing end of the argument. It was amusing watching the teen-aged behemoth sit with Tony and pout for a short while.
I continued to observe the interaction taking place in front of me. The adults were tending to the food aspect of the party while the teens sat around and laughed. Chris caught my eye again and held his gaze for a moment. I smiled at him in what I hoped was a reassuring way but his suddenly stormy expression told me I wasn't successful. Tony followed Chris' line of sight and saw me standing in the yard on my own. The recovering boy motioned me over toward them and I nodded but I stayed put. I wasn't ready to rejoin the group, and I was afraid that the close proximity of Chris would set me off again.
By the time I finished my soda, the first burgers and sausages were coming off the grill. Chris loaded up several for himself and Tony before rejoining his boyfriend on the bench. Mac and Pedro quickly polished off what was remaining of the first offering from the barbeque. Near silence fell as the brothers began to shovel large amounts of food into their maw.
I felt like everyone was staring at me when I loaded my plate from the next wave to come off the grill. Kathlene was talking quietly to Mrs. Braden, and Mr. Braden looked like he was listening to them. It felt like I had done something wrong. It was Tony's party, and here I was making a big issue out of nothing... but it wasn't nothing to me. Why should they really care? Tony had almost died, for Christ's sake. This was a celebration of his life, not a wake for me and my problems
Chris caught my eyes again, his glance asking me what was wrong. I tried very hard not to meet his gaze. Tony sat next to him and sloppily shoveled food into his mouth. He truly was pig when it came to eating, more than even Chris or me. There was a far-away look in his eyes at the same time. He'd glance at me every once in a while, but it was as if he looked through me and not at me. Mac and Pedro were talking to Juan and Chen about something. The whole scene made me nervous. It seemed like they were waiting for me to blow my top again, or something worse.
Pete made an appearance when I was half-way done with my meal. His facial expression was carefully neutral, and his stiff body language reflected his inner turmoil. He went straight to the table and filled his plate before returning to the house to eat his food alone. I watched him go with a troubled, guilt-ridden heart. What I saw on my plate was suddenly unappetizing. Rather than reveal how badly I was feeling by disposing of my unfinished supper, I sat where I was, watching everyone and no one at the same time.
Somehow I found my sanctuary inside my mind. I let my thoughts drift, not really paying attention to where they wandered. One thing kept coming to the forefront: I was afraid. I was afraid of being abandoned by those I loved. Chris' love for Tony was taking him away from me, and I had set in motion the events that made it happen. If I hadn't spoken to Tony on that cold day in February, he would have given up on Chris and things would be as they had been. The thought that I was being selfish and unreasonable entered into my consciousness, and I knew it to be true. Logically it all made sense, but my emotions were not governed by logic. Emotions and logic had little to do with one another when I was involved.
I was almost unaware when the adults moved back into the house. The insects were coming out, and Chen was complaining about them. Mr. Braden fired up the bug zapper, but it wasn't enough to keep the bugs at bay. The Braden's home was on the deeper forest side of the undeveloped land, and it was better for insect breeding.
I took note of Kathlene giving me an odd stare as she walked past, following Mrs. Braden into the dining area. I could hear Juan, Chen and Mr. Braden continuing some conversation about business that I had lost track of. Really, I had no idea what they were talking about. I only picked up a word or two here and there. What was getting to me was seeing Chris and Tony tied up with each other. I was jealous of Tony because he had the big, dumb ox and I didn't. At one time I had, sort of, but I still felt like he was taking Chris away from me. It was stupid. I knew that much, but then the problem with logic and emotions was present center stage. I didn't even see Tony get up and hobble toward me.
The idea shifted in my head. It wasn't like Tony was taking him: it was that Chris seemed to be leaving me behind. The worst part was I couldn't figure out why. I needed to know that I was important enough to the people around me that they would stick with me, no matter what came my way. Too many important people in my life had abandoned me when I needed them most, and it was reflex to pull away and protect myself.
"B-Brian! Snap out of it, d-dude."
I always kept a piece of me apart from everyone else, even with Pete. Mrs. Braden said that was a betrayal. If I didn't hold back just a little bit, I'd be betraying myself by letting down my defenses completely. If I did hold back, then I'd be betraying Pete. What was I supposed to do? Who was I to betray: the person who was my life or my own soul?
I blinked and Tony suddenly leapt into focus, sitting in a chair right in front of me, his expression unreadable.
"I'm awake, Tony. I was thinking."
I glanced around and saw those who were still on the patio looking at us. It was only Mac and Pedro, but it made me uncomfortable.
"Yeah, whatever," Tony said dismissively. "What's g-goin' on with you? You seem like you've... gone away and left the b-b-baggage b-behind."
I studied the young man in front of me, forcing myself to meet the piercing gaze Tony had leveled on me. After several seconds of strain I sighed and dropped my eyes for an instant before meeting his gaze again.
"Can we talk? Alone?" I asked softly.
If Tony was surprised at my request he did not show it. Chris' boyfriend nodded. I stood and helped him hobble into the house, passing the other brothers as we went. Chris and Tony exchanged unspoken words before we went inside and walked to the stairs leading down to Tony's room. Once inside, Tony sat on the bed with a bounce, propelled by the weight of his casts. I was too nervous and began fidgeting.
"You got the floor, dude." The injured boy said as he eyed me with curiosity. His play on words was not lost to me.
The desire to run was nearly overwhelming, but I knew I couldn't do that. Gathering my courage was difficult. I somehow managed it. When I spoke it was in a soft voice that sounded weak to my ears.
"I... You have to know something. It might help you to understand where I'm at or it might not. I have to trust you with this because you could destroy my relationship with Pete with what I'm going to say."
Tony cocked his head and frowned while I continued.
"I...uh... didn't tell you the whole truth earlier when we were talking out front."
Tony's expression went flat. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, but his eyes had a strange glow to them. It made me even more nervous. I knew from the past that I couldn't fool him with words. He'd see through that in a heartbeat, and I did not like being in that position. I had to be honest with him, or he'd pull me apart just like I'd do to anybody else.
"Everything I said out there is the truth, Tony, but there's more to it."
"I will never
do anything to hurt you or Chris or your relationship. I swear it!"
The young man seemed unfazed by my statement so I continued on.
"Do you remember when I asked you if you knew what I was losing?"
His eyes narrowed while his head nodded a couple of times. His odd haircut and sloppy manner of dress might hide what lurked in his skull, but I knew it was there. I looked away. I didn't want to see his reaction to what I was going to say.
"I don't know how to put this... so I'll just say it," I stammered a little as I started. "I didn't realize it until we were freshmen. I fell in love with Chris, and I still love him."
I waited for a response, and then I continued when I heard none.
"You were right when you said I couldn't lose what I never had, and maybe that's why it's hard to see you and Chris together."
I finally looked up and met Tony's gaze. His expression was curiously neutral. His eyes, though, held a different kind of intensity. Tony didn't blink. I couldn't tell if he was afraid or angry or both. It didn't matter anyway. I knew I had to tell him the truth, and not for his benefit.
"You have what I wanted and could never have and I'm jealous of that, Tony. And I know it's wrong. That's what I'm fighting, and that's why I feel so fucked up inside."
Again I waited for a reaction and none was forthcoming. His eyes were guarded. I couldn't tell what he was thinking.
"I love Pete, Tony. I love him more than I do myself. I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize your relationship with Chris. I love and respect him - and you - too much to even consider doing that, even if I didn't have Pete."
Another pause produced another silence. I felt deflated, having hoped for a response that never came.
"I... ah... I'm really happy that you're home, Tony. I'm glad that you and Chris have found each other. What I felt... feel, it doesn't really matter. It shouldn't
matter. You guys deserve to be happy with each other, and that is what I want you to have."
I stepped forward, completely prepared for Tony to hit me and I was willing to accept whatever he wanted to give me. However, he just followed me with his eyes. When I was close enough I hugged him lightly and only for a second, trying to put as much emotion into the quick contact as I could. His body tensed as I embraced him. I backed away quickly, no longer meeting his eyes as tears filled mine.
"Thank you for making Chris happy, Tony," I said through a catch in my throat. "I hope he does the same for you. I'll always love Chris, and I'll always love you."
He simply stared into my eyes. I sadly turned away from him, opened the door and walked out.
"Brian, st-stop," came the command from my injured friend as I reached the top of the stairs.
I heard Tony stumping to the door and waited.
"Why d-didn't you ever make a move on C-Chris?" The boy asked curiously.
"I had Pete," I answered without turning around. "He was out there somewhere, and I thought Chris wasn't like us- gay, I mean. I tried to hide it from him as much as I could, but I think he knew. When I figured out he might be, it was too late."
"That's why you ran me d-down in February?" Tony queried.
"Yeah," I confirmed his suspicion. "I had a good idea of how he felt even if he didn't. You know how he is. It takes a sledge to knock anything into him."
"N-nothing happened between you?"
I turned and faced my friend. There was a light in his eyes that, coupled with his expression, told me our friendship was on the line. He watched me as I descended the steps again to stand in front of him.
Without flinching from his gaze I said, "I promised Chris I wouldn't come onto him the first week I went to live there, and I kept that promise. The only thing we shared was a kiss... before I went up to live with Pete. You have my word on that!"
Tony's eyes narrowed and pinned me in place. He was assessing the veracity of my statements, so, as difficult as it was, I met his intense gaze with one of my own. Whether Tony was satisfied or not, he broke the lengthening silence.
"Does Chris know?"
I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I don't think he understands how I really feel, and I won't tell him. It would only make him feel guilty and get in the way of your relationship with him."
"Have you told Pete?"
"No," I declared emphatically.
"You don't trust him," Tony accused flatly.
"No," I refuted, "I don't trust myself. I can't. I've done way too much stupid shit to really trust myself, so I have to trust Pete. That doesn't mean I need to tell him everything. There's no point, anyway. All it would do is hurt him and us without gaining anything."
The teen-aged genius nodded his head as if it was the answer he expected to hear.
"So w-what are you going to d-do?" He asked.
I sighed. "I'm going to go so you don't feel uncomfortable. It's not right otherwise. This is your party and I don't want to ruin it any more than I already have."
"Can't r-run away from everything, d-dude. It doesn't g-go away: It waits f-for y-you to come back. Sometimes, it'll c-come... come and f-find you!" Tony said in nearly a growl.
I looked at him for a second. It didn't seem like he was talking to me. Tony was looking in my direction, but not really at me. I got the impression he was speaking to both of us.
His good hand came up and ran through his hair. I saw the scar where the tube had been inserted in the scalp to relieve pressure and drain fluids. Impotent rage rose in my chest as I saw more proof of the brutality visited on the boy.
"It'll chase y-you, Brian... and you don't know... w-hat it'll do when it g-gets you," he whispered.
Tony regained his focus, his expression changing to one of puzzlement.
"W-What?" He asked.
"Y-you look like somebody p-pissed in your wh-wheaties or something."
I hadn't realized that my expression had changed to a scowl until Tony mentioned it. The anger I felt dissolved into a helpless despair. The tears that had just dried were replaced by new tears as I shook my head.
"D-dude, you okay?" Tony asked, genuine concern in his voice.
"I gotta be. I don't have a choice," I said, my weak smile fading as I continued. "I feel so fucking helpless, Tony. First my mom, and then... I'm sorry, but seeing you like this is just fucking wrong. This shouldn't have happened to you! You should be out shredding right now, not stuck in here listening to my problems!"
"It's cool, dude," Tony said in a placating manner. "I'm fucking torqued too, but there's nothing we c-can do about it. You can't c-control your mom, and I couldn't st-stop those b-bastards from doing... what they did to me."
"So how do you deal with your anger, Tony?" I asked earnestly. "I don't know what to do with it, and everything I've tried has fucked up my life."
"I just d-deal with it. You c-can't run or it'll eat you up." Tony again seemed to drift away into his mind for a moment before continuing. "Y-you should know that after everything you've b-been through."
"Yeah, I know, but it still doesn't tell me what to do with it."
"You see a sh-shrink, right? Ask him."
I nodded. Tony's tone told me he didn't know what to tell me and he could tell that his answer didn't make me feel any better. I felt even worse when I realized the conversation had drifted away from the reason I had asked Tony to speak with me in the first place.
"Um, Tony? Where does all this leave us?" I asked hesitantly.
"In my room, dude."
"What d-do you want me to do? T-tell you to get the fuck out?" Tony asked curiously with some sarcasm.
"I don't... I don't know," I said, my feelings of helplessness coming through loud and clear.
I sighed heavily, uncertain of what to say. Tony watched me for a moment, a look of supreme concentration dominating his expression.
"Brian, are you my friend?"
"I'd like to be... but after what I just told you..."
"I know you love Chris," he said quietly, almost without any breath.
He looked at me for a moment. His eyes were different: shaded against something I couldn't see in the first place. I didn't like it.
"I-I've known since I met the big guy, but not how much or exactly why, I guess. He loves you, too, and he talks about you all the t-time." An annoyed look passed Tony's face as he continued, his concentration unabated. "If I told you to go away, it would hurt C-Chris."
Tony stopped. His one good arm slapped his good leg angrily.
"Shit! I h-hate this god d-damn st-st-stuttering!" Tony exclaimed in frustration.
The outburst should have startled me. It was the first time I'd heard Tony comment on his head injuries but I was thinking about what he'd said. Tony's words kept my attention as he continued in a rush, his eyes forcing me to look at him.
"B-Brian," he said in continued ire, but it seemed as though he angry at himself and not me. "It's too easy to j-just walk away, b-but it ain't all that easy. Chris... mom, they gave me something I d-didn't know I r-really needed... as much as I do."
His last words came out in a strange rush. At the same time, Tony began to unconsciously finger a small, grey pendent hanging around his neck. I suddenly realized it was not the first one I'd seen.
"Dude, y-you stopped me from r-r-running away that d-day. I owe you... Brian. B-Big time! Y-You love Chris, so what. I can live with it, d-dude."
Tony paused again and looked directly at me. Whatever place he had been in was gone, replaced with the here and now. A slow smile started to creep across his face. I saw part of what Chris found so appealing. Tony was handsome, and he hid it well.
"Y-You know, this whole b-brother thing... it's all g-good and real, Brian. I'll take c-care of him for you. You mean t-too much t-to him... and t-to me."
Tony's genuine smile brought more tears to my eyes. I closed the few steps between us and hugged Tony once again. The strength of his return embrace surprised and gratified me.
I lost control for an instant and a sob escaped before I could regain mastery of my emotions. Tony's arm tightened around me when he realized I had slipped and held me for a moment as I recovered.
I softly said, "Thank you, Tony," allowing the great relief I felt to flood my voice.
"'S okay, Brian. It's all g-good," my friend whispered into my ear.
"Tony? Are you down there?" Jenny called. "You're neglecting your guests!"
"Sorry, mom. Had... to get something straight."
"Well, hurry up."
"'Kay. Be right up."
Tony released me and with an apologetic glance said, "Busted."
"Yeah, guess so," I agreed as I backed away a bit. "What will you tell Chris?"
"That we had some st-stuff to straighten out, just like I t-told mom. What are you going to tell P-Pete?"
"Probably the same thing," I said with a slight sigh. "Uh, Tony? Thanks for hearing me out."
Tony eyed me critically for a moment.
"B-Brian, it took `nads to t-tell me what you did. I know you told... me for your own reasons, but I a-appreciate you... letting me know how things are."
I smiled and helped Tony to his feet.
"I had to. I had to keep things on the level between us or I would have lost it."
"Tony!" Came Jenny's cross voice.
"Comin'! Help me out here, bro?" Tony asked with a gleam in his eye.
"You bet, bro."
I aided Tony as he made his way up the stairs and out to the patio. Chris cast a curious glance at us as we emerged. I grinned and saw the large young man sigh in relief when he saw it was genuine. I glanced around the yard in search of Pete but didn't see him. Worry once again entered my mind, but I was quickly distracted by the ongoing conversation debating the merits of which weightlifting exercises yielded the best results.
Weary of allowing my brooding dominate my mood, I waded into the affair with guns blazing. In no time I was involved in a raucous discussion with all four of my friends vociferously defending their opinions. We moved from specific exercises to lifting for bulk or endurance and how to find a balance between the two, and then to football.
"Hey Brian, you going to play ball this year?" Pedro asked.
"I don't know, Pedro," I replied, "I'm not sure I want to take that much time away from Pete. I'd feel weird if I did that. It's not fair to him."
"He'll understand, Bri," Chris rumbled from behind his boyfriend.
"I know he would. I just wonder..."
I left my statement unfinished as I thought back to the conversation I'd had with Pete earlier that evening. If we were to be individuals within our relationship then I should go out for football if I wanted to. Was I doing myself a disservice by not
going out for the team? Another thought drifted through my mind: was I using that conversation as an excuse to do what I wanted without any consideration for Pete?
"What are you thinking, Brian?" Chris asked.
I wished Pete would come out so I could talk to him. I had a hunch that his sudden withdrawal from the party was not due to what I had said to him, but rather due to the implications my words had in his ears. Much of what we spoke about went directly to the heart of our relationship and the dependence we had on each other. It was like I had hit the foundation of our union with a wrecking ball and now I was waiting to see if it shattered.
"Brian?" Chris brought me back to reality.
I stood abruptly and said, "I have to go find Pete."
"Are you okay, Brian?" Chris asked with concern.
I answered distractedly, "I'm fine. I just figured something out and I gotta talk to Pete about it."
I turned for the house, taking the few steps to the kitchen door at a rapid pace. Just as I was ready to open the door, a meaty hand fell on my shoulder. I twisted out from under it on reflex and turned to face Chris' anxious expression.
"Brian, what's going on with you?" He asked worriedly. "You've been freaked out all day. I want to know what's wrong."
"Chris, I have to talk to Pete. Something I said earlier to him... I need to tell him what I meant."
The large young man eyed me for a moment and then said, "You and I are going to talk before you leave, Brian. You're hiding something and I want to know what it is."
I swallowed hard. That was a conversation I couldn't have.
"Whatever, Chris. I gotta go!"
He nodded once and went back to his seat next to Tony. Again I was the focus of attention for all four boys. I swallowed again and hurried inside.
The adults watched me dart through the kitchen and into the living room. Jenny Braden said something about running in the house. I was so intent on my destination that I didn't acknowledge her.
Pete was lying on the couch on his side facing the wall. I sat quietly in the seat across from him, placed my elbows on my knees and rested my chin in my steepled hands. Pete's six-foot frame was curled up as much as possible and he was holding one of the throw pillows to his chest. A shudder ran through him as I watched. He raised his arm and wiped at his eye before returning it to its original position. His breathing was not smooth: it was irregular and varying in depth. He was not sleeping.
I sat there for a time and watched him, finding the words that I was going to use to ensure there would be no misunderstandings. I knew without a doubt that I loved this boy with every fiber of my being and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but if that meant losing who I was in the process then that would be impossible.
Pete rolled over onto his back. I could see light reflecting off the wet tracks left by tears that had fallen down his face from his red, puffy eyes. Again he wiped at his eyes and then laid his arm over them as if to block out the world. New tears appeared from under his arm and ran down the side of his face. My heart was breaking. Tears formed in my own eyes. I made no effort to hide them. As quietly as I could I knelt down in front of the couch in a attempt not to disturb Pete, but an unexpected sob betrayed me. Pete lowered his arm and looked at me. The fear and agony in his countenance matched my own.
Neither of us moved. Neither of us said a word. Neither of us could look away. His eyes were locked on mine and mine to his. Our very souls were crying out, craving the comfort that a single touch could bring.
Jenny Braden's voice intruded into the silence. "Brian, are you and... oh... sorry."
Still we did not move. Still we could not look away. I was held captive by his gaze, and he by mine. Time passed with excruciating torpidity.
Something gave way inside of Pete. I saw him break. Tears flooded his eyes. His mouth moved, silently forming my name. I nodded in response, uncertain what he wanted, and unwilling to encroach upon him if that was not what he desired. My love crawled off the couch and knelt before me. His gaze met mine once more through his tears.
"Brian," Pete breathed. "Brian, please don't leave me. Please? I'll die if you do!"
"Oh, God, Pete..."
I closed the distance between us and took him into my arms, holding him to me fiercely. Pete leaned into my body with a sob, his weight causing me to lose my balance. We fell to the floor, but I never once let my hold on him loosen. My suffering boyfriend buried his head in my shoulder and began to cry. It took no time at all before I joined him.
"Brian, Pete, I really hate to interrupt you, but I'm going home," Kathlene said from the kitchen.
Pete and I had cried ourselves out and fell asleep on the floor with our arms around each other. I had a monumental sinus headache that was turning into a migraine with alarming rapidity. Pete snuffled loudly as a moan escaped me.
"Bri, are you all right?" He asked.
"I got a headache," I said quietly. "A bad one."
"We better get you home, then."
Pete pulled away from me after kissing me on the forehead. I glanced toward the kitchen and saw the Bradens and the brothers watching us. Juan and Chen could be seen behind everyone as well. Tony was smiling slightly, and when he caught my eye he nodded. I returned his smile even though it killed my head to do so. Now completely embarrassed, I managed to roll over and push myself up on all fours.
Pete stood next to me, ready to help me stand. I reached up for his hand and raised myself to the kneeling position. My head began to pound immediately and I felt myself waver a bit. Pete's arm was under me in an instant followed by Chris immediately after.
"I'm gonna puke," I mumbled.
"Outside?" Pete asked.
"Outside," Chris answered.
Without waiting any longer, they lifted me to my feet and through the door Mac had opened ahead of us. We made it to the same spot I'd been earlier that day when I spewed. I growled loudly when I was done.
"Easy, Bri." Chris and Pete said at the same time.
For some reason that struck me as funny and I tried to laugh. A glance over my shoulder revealed Kathlene and the boys watching me from the porch before another heave took me.
When I felt able to move again I struggled to my feet. My headache had receded enough that I could stand on my own. Chris and Pete stood at either side, ready to catch me should I fall again.
"I need my pills," I groaned.
"Okay, baby," Pete said softly. "Let's get in the car and I'll take you home."
My boyfriend and my best friend helped me walk to the car and got me into the passenger seat without me falling. As I turned in the seat, I heard Tony stumping toward us. When I looked at him I was surprised to see an expression of compassion behind his smile.
"Sorry I ruined your bash, Tony," I said guiltily.
"Nah, you d-didn't. It's all cool. Listen- I t-t-talked with Chen and Juan. They want us... to come over to their place tomorrow for some ch-chill time."
"What did your mom and dad say, Tony," Chris asked.
Tony grinned. "Juan p-put his ass up as c-c-collateral. I g-gotta... get out of here for a while, d-dude. It'll be an over-nighter."
I looked at Pete and found a neutral expression. Tony followed my gaze and addressed my boyfriend.
"Pete? What d-do `ya say?"
It was easy to tell that Pete wasn't certain what to think about the situation. He'd been hit hard by the realization that he had not come to terms with everything inside of him as he thought he had. His eyes met mine. I tried to make it clear it was his decision, but a quick glance between Chris and me cemented the decision for him.
"Sweet!" Tony said enthusiastically. "We'll c-call you in the m-m-morning and set it up."
"Okay," Pete said as he rounded the car to the driver's side. "We'll talk to you then."
Tony didn't seem to notice Pete's dour demeanor, but I certainly did. I knew that we would spend hours talking or it would end up being a cold night for both of us.
The Malibu came to life with a throaty rumble. Chris and Tony stepped back as Pete put the car into gear. Tony waved as we pulled away. The ride back to the Forn house was silent. Pete was deep in thought the entire way and he missed the turn that would take us to our destination, but after a moment it became apparent that it was not an accident. Our route wound through the streets and I was surprised when I realized where Pete was taking us.
He pulled us into the empty parking lot and shut off the car. I sat patiently while Pete struggled with what to do next, lost in my own thoughts of the past. Some short time later, Pete stepped out of the car and began walking toward a gate. My headache was no better than it had been, but I knew I needed to follow him.
I didn't try to catch up to Pete. Instead I followed at a short distance, allowing him the choice of my company. There was no doubt in my mind of where he was heading in any case.
Pete turned right just inside the chain-link fence, the gravel under his feet crunching loudly in the still night air, echoing off the wall to fill the parking area. My footsteps joined his for but a moment. Pete stopped exactly where I knew he would and began to look around. I came up on him and stopped at five yards distance. He glanced at me for an instant and then continued his observations of our surroundings.
My head was pounding, but that was nothing compared to the pounding of my heart. What purpose did Pete have in coming to this place? Was it to end what had started here so many years ago?
"This is where it happened, isn't it?" Pete asked rhetorically, knowing full well that it was. "This is where my life changed forever."
"And mine," I added quietly as I stepped closer.
Pete fell silent once again as he walked up to the brick wall that nearly enclosed us, secluding us from the spaces beyond and the parking area. He laid his hand on the rough surface, feeling the texture as though for the first time.
"It seems like it was yesterday and forever ago," Pete said softly. "So much has happened since then. Too much."
My boyfriend looked at me directly for the first time since we had left the Braden's house. His face was troubled.
"How do you let things go, Brian? How can you forget all the pain and anger? How do you move on?"
You're asking the wrong person, Pete. I don't do any of that very well."
"But you've dealt with what happened, or you are dealing with it..." Pete turned back to the wall. "I never have."
"Sure you have," I rebutted. "You've told me about how Kevin and Jason listened to you when you needed it, how Jason helped you to realize what was happening to you..."
He waved my comments away. "That was in the moment." He dropped his gaze to the gravel before leaning against the wall and resting his forehead against his arm. "My mother... she hurt me. So did Curt. They hurt me bad, Bri."
I closed the final distance between us, but just as I tried to put my arm around him, he turned and slid down the wall to sit in the gravel, exactly where he'd sat the day he told me he was in love with me. His tears matched those he shed on that day years before when we were children, before our lives had been torn asunder. In spite of the pain it caused, I knelt before him. Pete did not meet my eyes.
"Sometimes," he continued, "sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd been able to have sex with her?"
"Sometimes I wish that none of this had happened," he said in a whisper.
My stomach turned over. I barely fought off a heave.
"Sometimes I wish that my mom and dad still loved me and that we were a family again. Sometimes I wish that..." His voice trailed off.
I swallowed hard and asked, "Wish what, Pete?"
After a moment, he said, "Sometimes I wish I was straight."
Vertigo struck me. It felt as though there were an earthquake and I couldn't gain my balance. I fell to the side landing heavily on my elbow, the sharp gravel drawing blood. I couldn't look at Pete. I was afraid he would see what his words were doing to me.
"P-Pete? What are you saying?" I asked tremulously.
He continued as if I hadn't spoken.
"If I was straight, none of this would have happened. My family would be together and I wouldn't have been... abused."
I closed my eyes in an attempt to regain my faculties that had been scattered by Pete's confession. Pete stared off into nothing as he continued, his voice sounding very much like a scared little boy.
"Curt hated me. Mother... One time he made me cook dinner, and I put too much pepper in by accident. The lid popped off, you know? He kept hitting me..."
"Pete, you don't have to..."
"Sometimes he'd come back after work and be drunk. He'd walk in the door and start beating on me..."
I listened to his words in disbelief. He'd never told me any of this before. I had no idea that he'd been physically abused. His eyes were haunted, flat in the glow of the street lamps.
"I found this place in the back of my closet. Someone had made a hidden door to a place between the walls. After I found it I hid there until Mother got home. I thought she'd protect me from him... and she did. For a while. Then she started drinking with Curt.
"Sometimes I'd just stay in my hole from the time I got home until they went to bed or passed out. They never missed me, really, but the things they said... the things they were going to do to me..."
I closed my eyes again, trying to ward off the pain I knew he must be carrying.
"You know what really sucks?"
I opened my eyes and saw him glaring at me in anger. My heart sank.
"What really sucks is I had to go through all that shit. I had to go through all that shit to get a chance to be happy. I had to go through all that shit to get you."
His expression contorted into one of fury and his voice rose.
"I hate them! I hate every fucking one of them! I want to kill them! I want to do to them what they did to me!"
I leapt to his side and tried to pull Pete into my arms, but he fought me off and stood again to glower down at me. His voice changed to an icy cold growl that sent shivers through my body.
"I want them to suffer. I want them to feel the pain that I felt. I want them to die!"
At that moment, and for the first time since I'd met him, I was afraid of Pete. I'd never seen him act this way or wish harm on anyone. I stood and slowly backed away.
"You can't mean that, Pete," I said breathlessly.
"You're goddamn right I mean it!" He roared. "They don't deserve to live after what they did to me! Curt needs to go to hell, and I'm ready to help him get there!"
"And that bitch of a mother, she deserves to follow him!"
"Stop, Pete... please... don't let them do this to you..."
"And my father? He's just as bad. He deserves whatever he gets!"
I launched myself at him in frustrated desperation, planted my hands on his chest and pushed hard, causing Pete to stumble backwards and land on his ass in the gravel. He scrambled to his feet and came right back at me. I attempted to ward him off in my disbelief but he found his way through my defenses easily. A fist struck me in the gut and another connected with my jaw, knocking me to the ground. I had seen neither of them coming.
"Get up! Get up! I'm just starting!"
I shook my head to clear it. Rage had blinded Pete to what he was doing. Tears fell from my eyes as I struggled to my feet. The moment I was upright he came at me again. I made no attempt to defend myself. Pain exploded as he connected with my face again, knocking me back to the gravel. It took me a moment to get my bearings after landing. When I could move I rolled over and fought my way to my knees, breathing hard. Tears of sadness flooded my face.
"Come on!" Pete bellowed from behind me, still lost in his cloud of fury.
I made an attempt to stand but stumbled to the side, landing on my knees.
I tried again and managed to stand with my back toward him. I slowly turned, ready and willing to take whatever he thought I deserved. The instant I faced him, he rushed at me again. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see it coming because I knew I would fight back, and I didn't want to hurt Pete.
Nothing came. I opened my eyes a moment later to see Pete standing in front of me with his fist cocked back and ready, his mouth moving noiselessly and his expression one of horror. He fell to his knees and crawled toward me, his outstretched arm beseeching my forgiveness. It was an instant decision. There was no hesitation. I knelt in front of him and hugged him tightly as he began to cry. My own tears began to soak Pete's shirt as I held him close, staining it pink as the blood was washed from my face.
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