Excerpt from Reap the Whirlwind

Prologue

I opened the door and stepped into the well-appointed office, closing the door behind me. The room was intimately lit by incandescent table lamps instead of institutional fluorescent overhead lighting. An oriental design rug covered the floor, and two upholstered armchairs sat facing a massive dark-colored wooden desk. Glass-fronted oak bookcases lined the walls. Behind the desk sat a small man, slightly balding, wearing a dark brown, high quality suit, and glasses.
“Hello, Will,” he said, “It's been a while.”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Sit down, please,” he motioned toward the chairs and smiled encouragingly. I sat down on the closest one. “What's on your mind?” he prompted.
“You said when I was ready to talk to call you.”
“And you're ready to talk now?”
I nodded.
“Why now and not before?”
I shrugged.
“Just ready? Or did something happen that made you change your mind?”
“Something happened...”
He sat, waiting for me to elaborate.
“I don't even know where to begin,” I said. “So much has happened since I saw you last. I need to talk to someone. I feel like I'm going crazy.”
“Will,” he said softly, “you are not going crazy. Instead of starting at the end and working back, why don't we start at the beginning? Pretend we've never talked before. Tell me everything.”
The beginning. It seemed like so long ago now. Could it really have been only a few months? “That could take a while,” I said.
He shrugged and pushed a button on his intercom.
“Yes?” the receptionist answered.
“Linda, cancel the rest of my afternoon appointments, please.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered.
He looked up and smiled, his kind eyes radiating understanding. “Now we've got plenty of time,” he said to me.
I took a deep breath.

 
Chapter 1
Nothing can stay the same forever. We get in trouble in life when we think it can and will. Everything changes, or as King Solomon said in the Bible and The Byrds sang in the '60s, to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. It's not a particularly easy lesson to learn or a fun one for that matter. I learned it the summer between high school and college, and my life would never be the same.

 
We burst into the house, laughing and shoving each other playfully. We were both sweaty from playing basketball on the driveway. The black macadam drew heat like a magnet. For what must have been the millionth time I looked at Joey and thought about how different we were. We were a study in contrasts, a true testament to the old adage that opposites attract. We'd been best friends since we were toddlers, but we couldn't have been more different. Joey was tall, a little over six feet, and I was...well, short. If I wore my Airwalks with the thick soles I just managed to eke out five foot six. He had poker-straight pale blonde hair that he wore cut off bluntly just above his shoulders. Today he had pulled it back into a ponytail, but half of it had fallen down and was stuck now to his face. My black hair was so curly I had to keep it cut short or it sprung out into an afro. Joey had a year-round tan that darkened to a golden brown on the first day of summer. I had pale white skin that burned over and over, never tanned, turned an unflattering shade of red if you even looked at me funny, and broke into freckles across my nose at the first hint of sunlight. Joey had these huge puppy-dog brown eyes while mine were a deep blue.
Actually, my eyes are my favorite feature. They are so dark they are almost violet, and these incredibly long black lashes frame them. My other best friend, Laura, is always saying that she would kill to have my eyes.
The differences didn't end at the physical, however. Even our personalities were polar opposites. Joey was gregarious, while I was shy. He was caught up in popularity games, while I was content to hide in the background. Joey took everything at face value and rarely looked deeper, while I tended to be introspective, always looking for a deeper meaning.
Laura, Joey, and I were almost inseparable all through high school. We'd grown up in the same neighborhood and played together since we were old enough to walk. Everyone at school had called us the three musketeers.
Since we'd graduated though, things had started to change. We didn't see each other nearly as much as we used to. Laura had met Gabriel, or Gabe as he preferred, and they had started dating. Over the summer, they had grown closer and closer. I had been dating Beth on and off all through high school and I guess you could say things were semi-serious between us. Beth was from the neighborhood, too, and while she had never really been a part of our little clique she'd been around enough that when we had started dating no one was really surprised. She was a year younger than the rest of us, but she was always the most serious one in the bunch.
The latest blow to the three musketeers had taken place two weeks earlier when Joey and Laura started college at Pemberton University, a local school here in town. Both had been accepted at other schools, but picked Pemberton when I decided to take a year off to work before going to college. My main reasoning behind this decision was that I hated school and really couldn't see jumping right into more studying just as soon as I was finished with high school. Actually, my intense dislike of school had less to do with the academics -  I'd always gotten above average grades with very little effort -  and much more to do with the fact that I'd never done well in the complex social environment that was the public school system. So Joey and Laura had stayed in order to keep the musketeers intact. The only problem was I had hardly seen them since classes took up. Today was the first day Joey and I had really been able to spend together. I was surprised how much I missed him, and without thinking, I suddenly grabbed him in a tight hug.
“Dude!” he said, pushing me away roughly. “What the hell was that for?”
“Language!” my mother called from the next room.
Joey rolled his eyes, and I shrugged. “I dunno,” I answered, choosing to ignore my mother. “I guess I just miss you.”
“Yeah, well, I miss you, too, but you know I don't like all that touchy-feely stuff.”
That was another difference between Joey and me. I was from a very affectionate family, and I wasn't afraid to show my affection; Joey was very reserved emotionally, the typical macho man who never showed his feelings.
“Let's get something to drink,” he said as he headed for the kitchen, dribbling the ball as he went.
“Don't bounce the ball in the house,” Mom called.
I trailed after him, mentally kicking myself all the while.
“God! When are you going to get out of here?” he said as soon as we were in the kitchen. “It's like we're still twelve. You make enough at your job that you could get an apartment, especially if you had a roommate.”
“I would definitely need a roommate,” I told him. “I don't make that much. So that means it's pretty much out of the question.”
“Why?”
“Because I don't really know anybody.”
“Well, it just so happens that I do.”
My eyes lit up. “You?”
“No, not me, dumbass. You know every penny I make goes right to ye olde tuition fund.” I felt my face heating up and knew I was turning red. Thankfully, Joey had his back toward me as he hunted in the fridge for something cold. He came out with a carton of orange juice, grabbed two glasses out of cabinet, and proceeded to pour OJ all over the counter as he tried to get it in both glasses at once.
“Jeez, Joey, wreck the kitchen, why don't you,” I complained.
“You sound just like your mom,” Joey grumbled as he mopped up his mess with a towel. “Anyway, as I was saying, there's this guy at school, his name's Aidan, and he has this two-bedroom apartment so he's looking for a roommate. I told him I'd ask you.”
“Why'd he get a two bedroom if it's just him?”
“I don't know, Will, what difference does it make? Are you interested or not?”
“I don't even know this guy...what's his name? Adam?”
“Aidan. And I do know him. He's a really nice guy. I think you two would get along. Look, he just moved in and he's having a kind of housewarming party tonight. I'm supposed to go; why don't you go with me? That way you can meet him, see the apartment, see if you like him...the whole nine yards.”
He handed me my glass of OJ and started gulping his down.
“I won't know anyone there,” I protested.
“Yes, you will. Laura and Gabe will be there. Gabe knows him from last year; they had some classes together or something. There'll only be a couple other people there, so you don't have to worry about your terminal shyness.”
“I don't want to crash his party, especially if there aren't even that many people going.” I was getting weaker, and Joey knew it.
“He said I could bring a friend.” I hesitated, and he moved in for the kill. “There's going to be someone there I want you to meet besides Aidan.”
“Who?”
“Come and you'll find out.”
I played my last ace. “I'm supposed to go out with Beth tonight.”
“So cancel!” he yelled, throwing his hands up. “Come on, Will. You just said you missed me. Here's your chance to spend some time with me plus meet some new people and maybe find some new digs. Live a little. Bethie will get over it.”
I sighed and Joey grinned. He knew he'd won. Why he still got any pleasure from it was beyond me since he always won. You'd think he'd be used to it by now, the manipulative bastard.
“What should I wear?”
“Whatever you want. It's just a party, not a debutante ball.”
“A what?”
“Look it up.”
“Oh, so you don't know either.”
“Shut up.” He laughed and punched me in the arm.
“Ow!” I shoved him back, and soon we were wrestling around the kitchen, crashing into the table and knocking over a chair.
“No roughhousing inside!” Mom called.
We froze and looked at each other, then collapsed into a giggling heap on the floor...just like old times.
 
An hour later, I stood in my room with a towel around my waist as a puddle of water collected at my feet. I stared at the phone, wondering if there was any way I could avoid picking it up. I had been getting out of the shower when Mom called up that Beth was on the phone. I dreaded the inevitable confrontation when I broke off our date tonight...for the third time in a row.
As I said earlier, Beth is my on-again-off-again girlfriend - more off than on. Not because of Beth; she would have us engaged if she had her way. I was always the one who put things on hold, and Beth was always the one who talked me into going out again. I was content just to hang out with Joey and Laura. In fact, Beth was the only girl I had ever dated. Going to dances with Laura because she didn't have a date doesn't count. Laura says I have a problem with commitment and maybe I do, but I really think I've just watched too many romantic movies. I want that kind of romance where you light up when you hear their name and melt down when they walk into the room. That just wasn't there with Beth. We got along fine; she was comfortable - but there was just no…spark.
I sighed and knew I couldn't put it off any longer.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Well, it's about time,” my mother joked as she hung up. My parents loved Beth to no end.
“What happened? You fall down getting out of the shower?” Beth said.
“No, I guess I got lost in thought,” I said lamely.
“Oh? And you were thinking about me, of course,” she teased.
“Actually, yes.”
“Don't sound so excited.”
“Listen, Beth, about tonight...”
“No! Will!” she interrupted. “Don't do this to me again. Tonight was going to be special. You promised. Just you and me.”
“Something came up.” I was dying, and I knew it.
“Let me guess, it has something to do with Joey, right?”
“What does Joey have to do with anything?”
“Everything with you has something to do with Joey. Joey always comes first with you. When is it my turn? You treat me like you treat Laura.”
“What's that supposed to mean? What's wrong with how I treat Laura? She's one of my closest friends.”
“That's just it, Will.” She sighed. “Laura's your friend. But I'm supposed to be your girlfriend. And what's wrong with how you treat both of us is that anytime Joey wants to do something, we both get shoved aside. At least Laura has found someone who knows how to treat her.”
“Did she...did Laura tell you this?”
“She didn't have to. Look, Will, this obviously isn't working. You aren't committed to us. I think we should take a break until you figure out what you want.”
“Wait a minute; you're breaking up with me?”
“You can call it that. Just don't call me until you've figured things out. It's your move this time.”
“Figured things out? What's to figure out? What I want is that...that spark of chemistry. That feeling that everything is all right when you're with them, that you're finally home. Don't you want that?”
“Yes, Will, I do,” she said quietly, “but the thing is, I thought I had it - with you. I'm sorry you don't feel the same way. I hope you find it. I really do. Goodbye.”
“Beth...” I tried, but she'd already hung up.
I stood there with the phone in my hand for several minutes replaying my conversation with Beth in my head. She had said so much it took a while for it all to sink in, and when it did, I didn't know whether to be angry, laugh, or cry. Maybe all three would suffice.

 
The car horn sounded, letting me know that Joey had arrived to pick me up for the big shindig at Aidan's. I checked myself in the mirror and was somewhat surprised to see that I was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved dark blue pullover shirt and leather sandals. I didn't remember choosing that particular outfit, but then I had been kind of preoccupied with my thoughts since Beth's phone call. At any rate, it would do. At least the blue brought out my eyes.
“Hey,” I said as I slid into Joey's Jetta.
“Hey,” he gave me a close look, then threw the car into reverse and backed onto the road. “Ok, what's wrong?” he asked as soon as we were moving forward.
“What do you mean?” I tried for the dumb approach.
“Give it up, Will. We both know you're a terrible liar and I know you well enough to know when something is bothering you. Is it this whole apartment thing? 'Cause if it is, I'll back off. It's not that big a deal. Your parents are just a drag sometimes...”
“It's not that,” I cut him off. “Beth and I broke up tonight.”
“So? You guys break up like every other week. It's a tradition. You'll be dating again next week.”
“I don't think so. This time was different. She broke up with me.”
“Whoa!” He looked over at me to gauge my reaction.
“Look at the road, please,” I said automatically. Having driven with Joey before, I knew we needed all the help we could get.
“So, what happened?”
“I don't want to talk about it.”
“You? Mr. Let's-talk-about-our-feelings?”
“It's just...I need some time to think about stuff. She said some things that...I don't know. I just need to think about it.”
“She really upset you, huh?”
“Yeah.”
The rest of the short ride was spent in silence. The apartment building turned out to be a renovated turn-of-the-century brick warehouse down by the newly rejuvenated river district. It looked like it once served an industrial function of some sort. The renovation project had included installing an elevator that was cleverly designed to look like a grain lift, complete with a wrought iron gate. I was thankful for the elevator considering the building was four stories and Aidan's apartment was on the top floor.
We knocked, and after a moment, a young guy around our age opened the door. He had wavy dark blonde hair and the greenest eyes I had ever seen. I wondered if they were contacts. He was taller than I was, of course, but shorter than Joey, so that would put him at about five foot ten.
“Hey, you made it!” he said, breaking into a wide grin bordered by twin dimples.
“Aidan, this is my best friend, Will Keegan,” Joey said.
We shook hands as Aidan said, “Hi Will. I'm Aidan Scott. I've heard a lot about you.”
I forced a smile. “Well, you're ahead of me.”
He laughed and stepped back to allow us in. We entered a large and airy room with high ceilings and rough brick walls. Enormous floor-to-ceiling multi-paned windows with the original wavy glass still intact lined the outside wall. Sparse furnishings made the room look even larger: The overstuffed sofa and recliner's only company was a large entertainment center that housed a state-of-the-art system including a TV, VCR, CD player, and DVD player. The latest R&B dance groove blasted from the surround sound speakers. Laura and Gabe occupied the sofa, sitting so close a sheet of paper couldn't have slipped between them. A leggy blonde had draped herself over the recliner like a carefully positioned model in a La-Z-Boy commercial. Laura waved to acknowledge our arrival then went back to her conversation with the blonde.
“It's not much, but I guess it's home for now. At least for one year according to the lease,” Aidan said.
“Are you kidding? It's awesome,” I said sincerely. “This place must cost a fortune.”
“It's not that bad. You want to see the rest of the place?”
“Sure. You coming, Joey?”
“Nah. You go ahead. I'm gonna go say hi,” he said as he headed toward the living area.
I shrugged and turned toward Aidan.
“Now, for the grand tour,” he said. “On your right you will notice the lavishly furnished living area. If you turn to your left, you will enter the large and spacious kitchen complete with all the gourmet accoutrements one could ever desire. Julia Child, eat your heart out.”
I laughed since the kitchen was barely large enough for the both of us. A built-in table and the three chairs around it took up most of the space.
“Small, but functional,” I said helpfully.
Aidan narrowed his eyes. “Have you been talking to my real estate agent?”
I laughed again, and Aidan motioned me back into the living room.
“As we continue with the guided tour, we will now be going through the door just to the right of the kitchen door which, as you will see, leads to this marvelous hallway.” He switched now to a game show host voice. “Well, Will, what will it be? Door Number One? Or maybe you'd like to try Door Number Two? Or how about trying your luck with Door Number Three?”
Three doors opened off the hallway, one straight ahead, and one each on the left and right.
“Can I use a lifeline?” I ventured.
“Do I look like Regis?”
“Um…no…let's try for Door Number Two.”
“Oh, jeez, Will. I'm sorry, but you chose the bathroom. But we have some lovely parting gifts, don't we, Jimmy?” He dropped his voice an octave and boomed, “That's right, Aidan. We'll be sending Will home with a lifetime supply of Charmin. It's squeezably soft.”
I laughed so hard I snorted, which of course caused my face to begin to burn. I imagined I must have been pretty close to the color of a tomato. Aidan acted as if I hadn't just made a rude porcine noise and went on with his game show host shtick.
“But the game's not over yet. Try again, Will.”
“Door Number Three.”
“Excellent choice,” he said as he swung open the door, “and may I just say that is a lovely shade of red you are wearing. Very flattering.”
The room we walked into now was apparently Aidan's bedroom, and it was huge. It held a double bed, two dressers, a computer desk outfitted with a brand new computer, and an open closet full of clothes...and there was still room to spare.
“If you decide to be my roomie, your room will be across the hall,” Aidan said in his normal voice. He opened that door, and I stepped in expecting a copy of the room I had just seen. I was surprised to find it was half the size and stacked to the ceiling with boxes.
“I, uh, haven't finished unpacking yet,” he said sheepishly. “I know this room is smaller, but I needed the extra space for my computer desk. And to make it fair you would only have to pay a third of the rent instead of half.”
“Are you sure you can afford that?” I asked automatically.
“Oh, money's not really a problem. That's not why I wanted a roommate. It's more for company. I'm from a big family, and it's weird going from that to living by myself. I thought I could offset the culture shock some by having someone else live here. I mean I have the extra room so it made sense. Not that I'm expecting you, or whoever moves in, to be my best bud or anything. I know you and Joey are really tight, but it'll just be nice having someone else here. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, there is a bonus to having the smaller room. Check this out.”
He shoved boxes aside until he had cleared a path to the window. I followed him and looked out. I had to give it to him; the view was spectacular. The window overlooked the river, the lights from the apartment building sparkling and dancing across its black surface. An iron fire escape just outside the window formed a sort of balcony that would be awesome on a summer night.
“I guess we should get back to the party before they think we ditched them,” Aidan said after a moment.
“Do you have a boat?” I asked him, still looking out the window. I was reluctant to leave the scene and even more reluctant to return to the group. I wasn't in a party mood even though Aidan's good humor had lifted my dark mood somewhat.
“No. I wish I did, but that's a little out of reach right now. Especially with rent and tuition.”
“Too bad,” I said. I pulled myself away from the window and followed Aidan back to the living area.
The music had moved on to something a little softer, and the mood seemed to be as mellow as the music. Laura and Gabe were still sitting closely on the couch with plenty of room for another person, but Joey had perched himself on the arm of the recliner. The leggy blonde was resting her hand rather possessively on his thigh.
“Hi, I'm Will,” I said pointedly, since no one seemed to be planning on introducing us anytime soon.
“Nice to meet you, Will. I'm Shelley,” she said. “I've heard a lot about you from Joe here,” she added, giving his leg a little squeeze to punctuate her pronouncement.
I lifted one eyebrow and tried to make eye contact with Joey, but he seemed to suddenly find the carpet pattern extremely fascinating.
“Joe seems to have been doing a lot more talking about me than to me, because I'm afraid I've never heard anything about you.”
For a moment, everyone froze; a very awkward silence followed. I forced a laugh in an attempt to undo the damage, and everyone smiled uncertainly. Joey was still busy trying not to look at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn't mean that the way it came out. I've had a bad day.”
“It's ok, I understand,” she said graciously. She had a rather pronounced southern drawl that I couldn't quite place. I guess she was pretty if you liked the type: long white-blonde hair, big blue eyes, pouty lips, and big boobs - she had the whole package.
Personally, I thought Laura was much prettier. Her father is black, and her mother is a full-blooded Cherokee. The results were quite stunning. Her flawless skin was the color of caramel, and her large almond-shaped eyes were a dark chocolate brown. She had high cheekbones and her jet-black hair hung almost to her waist. She and Gabe made a striking couple. Gabe was Hispanic and quite handsome. He was only a year older than Joey, Laura, and I, but he seemed much more sophisticated. Maybe that was just because I hadn't known him all his life as I had Joey and Laura. I didn't have any milk-shooting-from-the-nose memories about him. He seemed to be good for Laura; he complemented her in every way. He wore his straight black hair short and spiky, and his dark good looks matched hers perfectly.
“So you had a bad day?” Laura asked after a brief but loaded pause. Leave it to Laura to pick up the one thing that I didn't want to talk about.
I waved my hand dismissively. “I don't want to talk about it. So, Shelley, do you go to school with Joey...er, Joe?”
I ignored the looks on everyone's faces: the dirty look Laura shot me, the curious ones from Gabe and Aidan, and the uncomfortable expression on Joey's face. I kept my focus carefully on Shelley's pointy little face.
“Yes, we're both in Professor Strauss' American History class. That's where we met on the first day of school. He asked me out the next day, and we've been going out ever since. But it's only been two weeks, so I guess that's why you haven't heard of me,” she added quickly. She cast Joey a look that clearly said, “Help me out here!”, but he was still engrossed in plush pile.
Well, that explained why Joey had been so busy the last two weeks. I was surprised how hurt I was.
“Yeah, you're right,” I said with venom in my voice. “Two weeks is not really long enough for a best friend to tell someone they have a new girlfriend.” I stood up and almost had to sit back down as my knees buckled. “If you'll excuse me, I think I need some fresh air.”
“Will!” Laura said sharply.
“I'm...I'm sorry. I'm going to...go take a walk...or something,” I mumbled haltingly as I stumbled toward the door. Tears were threatening to spill over before I could make my escape. I paused at the door long enough to say, “I've had a bad day, really.”
I found my way out of the building and wandered into the back yard. The wooden bulkhead edging the river made a great seat. I had just about gotten myself under control when I felt someone come up behind me. I didn't have to look up to know it was Laura.
“Ok, that was appalling. What the hell was that all about?”
“I've had a bad day,” I repeated softly.
“So you keep saying. Wanna tell me about it?”
“No.”
“How 'bout you do it anyway.” She sat down next to me and swung her long legs out over the water.
“Beth and I broke up today.”
“So? You're always breaking up or getting back together. Call her tomorrow, and tell her you're sorry.”
“It's not like that this time. She broke up with me.”
“Oh...oh, my gosh.”
“Yeah, I got the feeling it was pretty permanent this time.”
“Will, I don't know how to say this tactfully...”
I snorted. “Since when have you been tactful?”
“Point made. Ok then, have it your way. Why are you so beat up about Beth dumping you for a change? You've dumped her enough times. You don't like being on the receiving end?”
“It's not that. Actually, I don't really care about Beth that much. She was comfortable, familiar...I mean we've been together for years...but...”
“A `but' is never a good sign, sweetie, and there was always a `but' with Beth.”
“Yeah.”
“So what's really bothering you?”
“Something she said. She said that I always put you and her second.”
“How did I get into this?”
“She said that I always put Joey first. Do you feel that way too?” I looked over at Laura for the first time. She was looking out over the river, the reflected light playing softly over her even features. For a moment she didn't answer. When she began to talk, I had to lean in closer to catch what she was saying.
“You never knew this,” she said. “I never told anyone really, but I've had a huge crush on you for the longest time.”
I opened my mouth, but she shook her head before I could speak. “Let me finish. I used to get so hurt whenever I would call you to do something and the answer was always `Joey and I are doing this' or `Joey and I are doing that.' It was even worse when it was `Joey and I might be doing this or that.' I wasn't even competition with a possibility. After awhile, I guess I just accepted the fact that Joey would always get top billing when it came to you, but I still wanted to be close to you, so I infiltrated your little club. We became the three musketeers, and we lived platonically ever after. All for one, right? As long as Joey was `the one.' I got over you eventually. Now I wouldn't trade your friendship for anything. Gabe knows I exist. He treats me right, and I love him. But to answer your question, yeah, I do feel as if I always came second to Joey.”
“Why...why didn't you ever say anything?”
“Like what? Hey, Will, I'm in love with you but you treat me like dirt? Hey, Will, why is Joey so great? What's wrong with me? Hey, Will, acknowledge that I exist, dammit? What was I supposed to say?” She swiped angrily at the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. I had only seen Laura cry a few times as long as I had known her. It unnerved me worse than anything she had said.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered, “I'm so sorry, Laura.”
“It's ancient history,” she said taking a deep breath. “I moved on. Like I said, Gabe is the greatest. I really do love him. Maybe I'm not as over you as I thought, but I am moving on.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Did you know Joey and Shelley were dating?” I said at last.
Laura sighed. “He still comes first doesn't he?”
“I didn't...it's just...”
“It's ok. I should be used to it by now. Yeah, I knew.”
“Why didn't he tell me?” I tried to keep the whine out of my voice, but I still came out sounding like a petulant five-year-old.
“Maybe because he knew this would happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“Will, every time Joey has ever had a girlfriend, you've been jealous. You do nothing but pick them apart and criticize their every move. Maybe Joey wanted a little grace period with Shelley before you started in on her.”
“I'm not jealous,” I said defensively.
“Oh, please, then what was that whole scene up there?”
“I was just surprised. I mean, you saw the way she was all over him. `Joe has told me all about you,'” I mocked.
“See, there you go.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Laura hurried on, “Look, Will, I have a very serious question I need to ask you. I want you to be honest with me. Please, I've never asked anything of you. And I don't want you to answer until you can give me a one hundred percent sure answer.”
“Of course, Laura,” I said indignantly, “You know I would never lie to you.”
“Not on purpose, maybe.”
“What's that mean?”
“Never mind. Here's my question.” She took a deep breath. “Are you in love with Joey? I mean romantically - `in love' in love. Because if you are, you need to face it and deal with it and figure out what it means. You can't just keep on hurting everyone around you. You know I'll always love you no matter what.”
“Are you...are you asking if I'm gay?” I asked in amazement.
“Will?” We both turned toward the voice. It was Joey up by the parking lot. “Hey, Will? Laura? Are you guys out here?”
“We're down by the water,” Laura called back. She turned back to me, reached out, and touched my cheek for just the briefest moment. I almost didn't feel it. “Think about what I said, and remember I love you.”
She jumped up and ducked into the shadows as Joey approached.
“I, uh, didn't interrupt anything, did I?” he asked.
“No, we were finished,” I said slowly.
“So, uh...what did you think of the apartment?”
“It was great - airy and light with a great sense of the original integrity of the building. Great color schemes and tastefully decorated. Everything a guy could want,” I said sarcastically. “Why'd you come here, Joey? It wasn't to talk about the apartment. Or are you that eager to foist me off on Aidan?”
“Will, it's not like that, and you know it. Shelley thought I should go see...”
“And when were you going to tell me about her? Was I going to be invited to the wedding?”
“We've only been dating two weeks! I was going to tell you tonight. I told you there was someone I wanted you to meet. Do you think I'd be that stupid as to invite you to a party she was going to be at if I wasn't going to tell you about her? I would have told you sooner but…I guess I needed some time with her just to myself first.”
I looked out across the river. “We're growing apart,” I said softly. “Laura and Gabe, you and Shelley...me with nobody.”
“We're not growing apart, we're growing up. You're my best friend, Will, and you'll always be my best friend. Nothing will ever change that. But we're not fourteen anymore. We can't spend all our lives together. We're all going to have families and careers. It can't be just the three of us forever.”
“I don't want things to change.”
“Everything changes. If you don't change, then you're dead. Make the most of it. Now that Beth is out of the picture, date new people. Try some new things. Get out there and live. You can start by moving in with Aidan. He's a great guy; you won't find a better roommate. I think it would be good for you to be more independent.”
I sat for a few minutes thinking about everything that had happened today, especially what Joey had just said. Finally, I stood up, dusted the dirt off my bottom, and started for the building.
“Where're you going?” Joey asked, trotting to catch up.
“To see if that roommate position has been filled.”
 
Chapter 2
I lay awake in my bed that night, staring at the ceiling lit only by moonlight. I'd been awake for hours watching the minutes tick by on my alarm clock, unable to sleep. My mind refused to turn off. So much had happened today - too much for my brain to absorb so quickly. My mind replayed snippets of conversation from the day over and over, like a slide show on constant rotation.
Joey: “You should move out…”
Beth: “Joey always comes first…”
Shelley: “We've only been going out for two weeks…”
Laura: “Why wasn't I ever good enough for you…”
Joey: “We're growing up…things change…”
Things changed all right. I knew that logically. But I didn't have to like it. And I especially didn't have to like the way things were changing for me. Didn't I get any say in any of this?
There were two conversations that I wasn't sure what to think of. The first was with Aidan when I asked if he still wanted me to be his roommate. In my mind at least that had become not so certain after my horrible behavior, but he'd acted as if nothing had happened and had actually seemed pretty excited.
I knew my parents wouldn't be at all excited when I told them. They tended to be a little over-protective. I was an only child, and my father was a rather conservative pastor. Although I hardly ever saw him when I was growing up, his child-rearing philosophies tended to be a bit old fashioned and Mom was more than capable of carrying them out to the letter of the law. I could just imagine their reaction when I told them; “You're doing what? We don't even know this young man! Does he do drugs?”
And the truth was I really didn't know Aidan. But Joey had said he was a good guy, and I instinctively liked him. I generally trusted my instincts. He was funny, nice and he had seemed genuinely happy that I was moving in. We were supposed to start moving some time later that week. Now all I had to do was figure out how to tell my parents.
The other thing that I was very uncertain about was Laura's question down by the river and all that it implied. I'd been trying to avoid thinking about it all night, but my mind kept going back to it anyway. It was like having an ulcer in your mouth and even though it hurts, you just can't keep your tongue away from it. No matter how I tried to distract myself I always ended up in the same place - was I in love with Joey?
The idea was preposterous, the implication being that I might be gay. That, of course, was impossible. Right?
No one jumped to my defense; no one rushed to reassure me of my heterosexuality. It was just me and my thoughts, and they refused to leave me alone.
I'd practically been raised in the church. All my life I'd heard that homosexuality was wrong, that it was unnatural and against God's law. I couldn't be gay, I just couldn't! I worked at the church, my dad was the pastor, there was just no way I could be gay!
Then why wouldn't Laura's question stop haunting me?
Finally, in frustration I threw back the sheets and jumped out of bed. If I couldn't fall asleep, then I'd find something to physically distract myself. I turned on the light and rummaged through my closet until I found what I was looking for. I flipped through my old sketchbook until I came to a charcoal sketch that I had started for a painting but never finished. For some reason, it had been on my mind all night. It had started out as a school art project, but I had abandoned it in favor of another project I'd been working on at the time. Now seemed like a good time to come back to this one. We were supposed to have drawn a landscape that was symbolic of where we were in our lives at that time. I had sketched out the rough shape of a beach scene from one of my favorite places on earth, Assateague Island. The beautiful barrier island is home to small, shaggy wild ponies, imported Asian sika deer, and loads of other wildlife. It even boasts its own scenic lighthouse on the Virginia side of the island. The scene I had drawn was simple, though, just a small dune complete with dune fence and grass, and a wave breaking on the beach. Footprints disappeared into the distance.
I cleared off the top surface of the worktable and turned on the overhead adjustable lamp. I dropped the sketchbook into the pool of warm light created by the 100-watt incandescent bulb. The table was arranged under the wide double windows to catch as much natural light as possible, but natural light wasn't an option at two in the morning. I stared at the sketch for a few minutes. It may have represented where I was a few months ago, but it sure didn't represent where I was tonight. I picked up a stick of charcoal and started changing a few small details. I darkened the sky, starting at the top and slowly getting lighter as I neared the horizon. Then I made the grass look as if it were being blown violently in the wind. I lifted out a streak of lightning over the waves. The foreboding storm definitely matched my mood, I thought, but it still needed something. I sketched in a funnel cloud dropping down from the sky to touch down where the footprints and the horizon converged.
I sat back and looked at the drawing. It was almost perfect, but something was still missing. The storm suited my situation perfectly. I was beginning to feel like I was caught up in a tornado and everything in my life was veering out of control. With a sudden flash of inspiration, I knew what it needed. There was nothing affected by the storm, just an empty beach. It needed life. Now what kind of life? I thought of several ideas and discarded each almost as quickly as it came to me. The sturdy ponies were too tough to represent how I felt. The diminutive sika deer were too delicate and exotic. A bird was too free. I needed something inconsequential, something most people never thought twice about. I glanced over at the window and froze. Hanging on the windowpane was a small, bright green tree frog. It was the perfect touch.
I quickly added the little frog into the sketch, drawing him clinging tightly to a stalk of the coarse beach grass. With a contented sigh, I sat back and admired my work. I was happy with it, but I was still wide-awake. I decided the sketch would make a great painting and there was no better time than the present to get started. My painting supplies were already set out, so I began the tedious process of transferring the drawing onto watercolor paper. I carefully outlined my pencil drawing on tracing paper so that the end product looked like a coloring book outline. Then, using graphite transfer paper, I copied the lines I had traced onto the watercolor paper. A long process, but one that I felt necessary for a good, clean image with no eraser marks or mistakes on my finished painting. When that was done, I began the actual painting. By the time I was done, the sun was just starting to break over the horizon. I stepped back to admire it and had to admit that it was probably one of my best pieces ever. It had accomplished its purpose as well. I was completely exhausted. I cleaned my brushes and dropped into bed, where I fell asleep almost immediately.
My alarm went off less than an hour later. With a groan, I rolled over and turned it off. I wanted more than anything to just go back to sleep, but it was Sunday. The last thing I wanted to do right then was go to church, but when your dad is the pastor it's not exactly an option, at least not as long as I lived at home.
I dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom. Maybe I'd feel better after a shower. I turned the water on, and as I turned to get a towel, I caught my reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. There I was in all my glory, wearing only my boxers - short, skinny, and pale with a charcoal smudge across my nose and matching circles around my eyes. I looked like I was fourteen at the most, and a sick fourteen-year-old at that. I stuck my tongue out at myself and turned away from the disappointing reflection.
If I had thought the shower would make me feel better, I was wrong. And I didn't feel better after I ate breakfast, or after I drank three cups of coffee, which I hate and usually never drink, or even after I got to church. I somehow managed to get through the morning, although I'm pretty sure I dozed off a few times during the sermon. I was feeling pretty self-satisfied as I drove home, but it turned out to be the afternoon that I should have been worried about.
It never would have happened if I hadn't been so tired, if I'd had all my wits about me. But I was tired and I didn't have all my wits about me, and when Dad started in on me about leaving my room in a such a mess this morning I snapped.
“You won't have to worry about it after this week,” I said before I could stop myself.
“What's that supposed to mean?” he asked as Mom froze on her way out of the room.
I tried to think of a plausible lie, but I was so tired I just wasn't up to the effort. I always was a lousy liar anyway. “I'm moving out this week,” I mumbled finally.
Mom slowly turned around with an odd, fixed expression on her face. Meanwhile, Dad looked as if I'd kicked him.
“What did you say?” Mom asked in a falsely cheery voice, as if she must have misunderstood and thought that it was going to be a funny story to tell the deacon chairman's wife the next time she talked to her.
What could I say? Just kidding? It was too late to turn back now. I took a deep breath. “I'm moving out this week,” I said firmly.
For a long time no one spoke. I realized I was holding my breath and let it out in a loud whoosh.
“And where are you planning on living?” Dad said slowly.
“With a friend of Joey's, from college.”
“Do we know him?” Mom asked, then a panicked look crossed her face. “He is a boy, isn't he? Oh, Will, don't tell me you're moving in with a girl!”
“No, it's a boy, and you don't know him, but I met him last night and he seems like a really nice guy. He said I'll only have to pay a third of the rent, and it's a really nice apartment. It's down by the river in this renovated warehouse…” I faded out under Dad's disapproving glare.
“Will, I don't approve,” he said ominously.
Big surprise, I thought, but caught myself just in time from saying. “I'm eighteen,” I said instead, in what I hoped was a reasonable tone of voice. “It's time I moved out. If I'd gone to college I would have left already. At least I'll be in the same town.”
“What is this boy's name?” Mom asked.
“Aidan…” I realized I couldn't remember his last name. “Aidan…Aidan.” I finished lamely.
“Aidan Aidan?”
“No, Aidan something, I can't remember his last name,” I admitted sheepishly.
“You're not moving anywhere,” Dad said, as if that settled everything. I clenched my jaw and counted to ten.
“Actually, Dad, I am,” I said decisively. “Aidan is going to help me move later this week. I'll still be working at the church, so it's not like you'll never see me. It's just time for me to start growing up.”
Dad threw up his hands and stood up. “I think you're making a huge mistake. The real world is a different place from living here at home. If you do this, you're on your own. You want to grow up? Fine. But mark my word, you'll be back.” He stalked angrily out of the room.
Mom stared after him for a minute, then turned back to me. “Just know this will always be your home and you can come back whenever you want,” she said before rushing out after him.
Over my dead body, I thought. I would never give him the satisfaction of crawling back. I went upstairs to my room and slept for the rest of the afternoon. When I woke up that evening, I started packing. It kept my mind out of areas I wasn't ready for it to go and reinforced my decision. Putting things into boxes made it all seem more real. Everywhere I looked, though, something made my thoughts skitter right back to the forbidden place: a love note from Beth, one of Joey's t-shirts in my closet, a picture of Joey, Laura, and me with our arms thrown around each other's necks.
Joey called once, but I told Mom to tell him I was busy packing. When Laura called, I tried the same ploy, but I should have known she wouldn't be put off so easily. I'd barely had time to hang up before she appeared in my doorway.
“Hey,” she said softly as her eyes swept over the mess in my room. I had pulled everything out of my closet, and it sat in haphazard piles all around me.
“I'm busy,” I said, keeping my eyes carefully averted to avoid her probing look.
“So I see. You wouldn't talk to me on the phone and I know what that means. It means you're avoiding me. I figured I could corner you in your lair. You need a hand?”
“I've got it,” I said.
“Are you ok, Will?”
“I'm fine. I just have a lot to do.”
“Are you really ok? Look at me and tell me you're ok.”
“I said I was fine, didn't I?” I snapped, still not looking at her.
“I know what you said, but I also know you well enough to know when you are lying to me.”
“Everyone thinks they know me so well.”
“Not as well as I'd like. For someone who is so transparent with their emotions you do a pretty damn good job of keeping people away. What are you so scared of, Will?”
“I'm not scared of anything. Look, I've got a lot of packing to do. If you're not going to help, why don't you just go home? And standing in the door psychoanalyzing me is not helping. All you are doing is pissing me off.”
“I noticed. I'm sorry. I'm also sorry if what I said last night upset you. It just seemed like it needed to be said.”
I didn't answer, just kept on packing things into the box in front of me. She waited a few beats, then sighed and moved behind me to the bed.
“Wow, this is really good, Will,” she said after a moment. “Does it represent something or what?”
She had picked up the painting I had done the night before. “Sort of,” I said.
“It's beautiful and, I don't know, strangely disturbing somehow.”
“Gee, thanks.”
“No, it's a compliment. What's it mean?”
“It's my life right now; dark, stormy and out of control.”
“So you're the frog?”
“I guess you could say that.”
She suddenly went quiet. I sensed that her attention had shifted from the painting to something else. I heard the bed creak as she sat down on the edge. Still she didn't say a word. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore so I turned to see what she was doing. She was holding the picture of the three of us that I had found earlier.
“Do you remember when this was taken?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah, that's the summer we all went to Busch Gardens. We were what? Fourteen?”
“Yeah, that was the summer I realized that you'd never love me the way I wanted you to. You spent the whole vacation following Joey around like a puppy dog, and I followed you. I might as well have not even been there.”
And here we were back here again, come full circle. Why did everything have to be so complicated?
“What do you see?” she said, holding the picture out to me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Look at it.”
“I am…what am I looking for?”
“Look at us. What do you see?”
I looked closer. In the picture I was in the center with Joey on my right and Laura on my left. Joey's head was thrown back slightly as he laughed at some joke. His eyes were locked with the camera in a typical Joey expression of challenge. He was always challenging something. At first, I couldn't figure out what Laura was talking about. And then I saw it.
“You know now, don't you?” she whispered. I nodded. “You have to deal with it, Will, for your own sake.”
She handed me the photo, then stood up and left.
I sat looking at the picture for a long time before I turned the lights out and went to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, the image in the photo seemed to be burned into my retina; I could still see it on the inside of my eyelids. In it, Laura looked longingly at me, completely ignoring the camera. But all my attention was focused on Joey, a look of complete adoration in my eyes. Joey was the only one who seemed conscious of the camera, oblivious to everything else but his own posing. The rest of us lesser beings were too caught up in our objects of desire.

 
I avoided so much as even thinking about Laura and Joey for the rest of the week. It wasn't that hard. They were in school, and I was at work during the day and busy moving at night. Aidan came over several times in his beat-up Ford pick-up and, under Dad's disapproving gaze, we moved most of my stuff out by that Friday night. I drove the last few odds and ends over in my car.
Aidan threw open the door dramatically before I could even knock.
“Welcome home!” he said with a grin, complete with dimples.
I smiled back and pushed past him; the box was starting to get heavy. “I guess this is home now, huh?” I said and laughed. I couldn't believe how excited I was and a little nervous.
“Yep. Home is where the heart is or something like that,” he said as he followed me down the hall to my room.
“Does that mean my heart is here now?” We'd cleared out his remaining boxes during the week and replaced them with mine.
“I hope so; the rest of you is here. But sometimes I get the impression that your heart is somewhere else.”
I looked up sharply, but he was busy opening up one of my boxes. We spent the next hour or so unpacking enough of my stuff so I could at least sleep there that night.
“Hey, Will?” Aidan asked hesitantly after a while.
Something in his voice made me put down the box I was poking in and give him my full attention. A slightly concerned expression clouded his green eyes. “Yeah?” I asked carefully.
“I have something I need to tell you and I guess I should have said something sooner, like before you moved in and all, but…”
“Please tell me it's just that you wear colored contact lenses,” I said with a forced smile.
“Huh?” Now he just looked confused.
“It's just that your eyes are so green…oh never mind…”
“My eyes? They're natural.” He still seemed confused as if he couldn't figure out how we had started talking about his eyes. “Look, can we maybe sit down to talk?”
Oh no, you never had to sit down to talk about something good. My feeling of unease heightened. What was he going to tell me? Was he from a mob family? Was that why he could afford this apartment? He had said he was from a big family. I sat down heavily on the bed.
Aidan looked around uncomfortably. “Uh, I was thinking of more like the living room.”
“Oh,” I said weakly and followed him down the hall. I sat on the couch, and Aidan sat on the chair closest to me. He blinked at me for several minutes, then stood up and began to pace. I was getting more and more nervous with every second that passed.
“I don't know how to say this,” he said finally, “so I'm just going to say it and let happen whatever happens. Will…I'm gay.” He stopped pacing and looked at me anxiously. I waited for the punch line. When it became apparent that it wasn't coming, I stood up and walked to the windows.
“Did Laura set you up for this?” I asked with my back to him.
“What? Laura? What does she have to do with this?”
“Did she?”
“No, she doesn't even know.”
“Does Joey know?”
“No, no one down here knows yet. You're the first person I've told since I moved. Well, my cousin knows, but he doesn't live in town and he's still in high school. I only told you because, well…I thought you should know since we're going to be living together and all.”
“You should have told me before,” I said. I was desperately trying to stay calm, but my delicate façade was dangerously close to crumbling. I couldn't believe this was happening right now, when I was so confused about myself. I had avoided thinking about it all week, and now here I was slapped upside the head with the same issue from a direction I'd never even suspected. My head was reeling.
“I know I should have told you earlier, and I'm really sorry. You've got to believe me; it's really hard to tell people. But it's not going to change anything, right? I mean I'm not going to hit on you or anything, and I don't dress in women's clothing or anything. I'm still the same person I was before; it's just now you know a little more about me.”
“A little more than I wanted to know,” I snapped. Immediately I regretted it. I could see the hurt written all over his face. “I'm sorry, Aidan.” I sighed. “I didn't mean that. It just…it just caught me by surprise. You must be regretting that you even asked me to move in. The first time you meet me I act like a jerk and storm out like some spoiled brat, and now, my first night here, I freak out because you try to be honest with me.”
He gave me a lopsided grin, a weak shadow of his usual luminous grins but more than I could have managed in his place. “Hey, you were having a bad day that first night, remember? And as far as tonight goes, well...I would have to go through something like this with whoever moved in, and I have to say that you've handled it better than most of the people I've told.”
I sat back down, “I thought you said I was the only person you've told besides your cousin.”
“Down here. Back home I came out to pretty much everyone at one time. I didn't know that it's better to come out gradually. Most people didn't take it very well, and I didn't have a support system built up yet so it was pretty rough. The people who would have supported me were too shocked to be much comfort when I needed it. That was what made up my mind to transfer down here. I would have never got through the rest of last year if it hadn't been for my Aunt Meg. She was my rock through everything.”
“What happened?”
“Well, some people just stopped having anything to do with me, but those were the best-case scenarios. Others felt it was their duty to go out of their way to tell me how they felt about alternative lifestyles. But my cousin that lives down here, he's Aunt Meg's son, is gay and he's been pretty much accepted since he came out, so I thought that maybe this would be a better area for me. I was already looking at Pemberton; that just cemented the decision. Does it bother you?”
“That you're gay?” I thought a moment. “No, it doesn't really bother me,” I said, and I meant it. “It just adds to something I was already dealing with.”
“You want to explain that?”
“No, not really. Not yet anyway. I've still got a lot to figure out.”
He gave me a suspicious look but didn't push the issue. “Well, if you change your mind I'm here for you.”
“So, uh…how did you know?” I asked, partly to divert his attention back to himself and partly because I honestly wanted to know.
“Actually, my cousin helped me. He figured out he was gay about a year ago, and he just seemed to have everything together. He has a boyfriend that he's crazy about and who's crazy about him, and he's two years younger than I am. When I came down for Thanksgiving and saw them together, I saw how happy they were, and I realized that I desperately wanted that, too. I'd had a few girlfriends, but it just never felt right. So I asked him the same thing you just asked me. He may be younger than me, but the kid's really sharp. He said, `Either you are or you aren't. You just know. You either like girls or you like guys.' When you boil it down like that it was pretty obvious, for me, anyway.”
I nodded thoughtfully. I didn't like where I was going with that train of thought. He said something else, but I didn't catch it since I was so lost in my own thoughts. I realized he was waiting for me to say something.
“Huh?” I said wittily.
“I said, `Do you want to see a picture of my cousin and his boyfriend.' You know, you actually remind me an awful lot of his boyfriend.”
“Sure,” I said absently.
Aidan went back to his room and came back out a minute later with a small, framed photo, which he handed to me. I looked down and felt my mouth drop open.
“That's Asher!” I gasped.


Chapter 3

“You know Asher?” Aidan said in surprise.
“You know Asher?” I repeated in equal surprise.
“He's dating my cousin Killian!”
“Asher's my cousin!” I was dumbfounded.
“Whoa! What are the chances? That's freaky.”
“No kidding. I didn't even know Asher is gay.”
“You didn't? He's not like a closet case or anything; he's really open about it. Their whole school knows. I can't believe you didn't see it on TV.”
“TV? Why would it be on TV? Do they televise coming out parties now? Is there a GAY TV - All Gay All Day?”
Aidan laughed. “Not that I know of, although it wouldn't surprise me. You don't recognize Killian?”
“Should I?” I asked as I took a closer look at the photo. At first glance, all I had been able to see was Asher and, as Aidan had already said, there was a strong family resemblance between Asher and me. We both had inherited that same curly dark-brown, almost black hair and fair skin that blushes too easily. And we both have those same eternally rosy cheeks that Asher had once told me made him feel like one of Raphael's angels. Now that I looked again, I realized that there were two other people in the picture posing in front of a Christmas tree. Aidan was one of them and the other one I assumed to be Killian. He had lightly curling blonde hair and was very cute. It was hard to tell in the picture, but it looked like he might have eyes almost as blue as mine. I looked closely, but I still didn't recognize him.
“I don't think I know him.”
“To hear him and Asher tell it, you'd think he was some kind of minor celebrity around here. I've caught bits and pieces of the story, but I don't know if I've ever heard the whole thing. From what I've gathered, Killian's friend, Seth, was murdered, and Killian investigated it.”
“Oh, wait - I think I do remember that now. Didn't the murderer end up killing a bunch of other people, too? But then Killian caught him or something.”
“Yeah, he was on the national news and was like some kind of hero or something.”
“I remember now, but I didn't know Asher was involved.”
“Involved? He was almost killed. Man, you guys don't talk much do you?”
“Actually, no. My dad and Asher's mom are brother and sister, but they were never particularly close, so I only really see them on big holidays and at family reunions. Besides, I'm probably not the first person Asher would rush to tell that he's gay.”
“Why's that?”
“My dad's a preacher and a pretty conservative one at that. Asher and I used to be pretty tight when we were little, but Dad can be kind of overbearing at times, so we're not the most popular branch of the family tree.”
“Oh, does this have something to do with the problem you mentioned earlier?”
“No…well, yeah, I guess it does in a way.”
“Is it going to cause more problems for you to live with me?”
“Not as far as I'm concerned. Now as for my dad…well, what he doesn't know won't hurt me, right?”
Aidan grinned, “Gotcha! So tell me some more about yourself, any brothers or sisters? What do you do? How come you're not in school like Laura and Joey?”
“Whoa, slow down!” I laughed. “I can only answer one question at a time. I'm an only child, a spoiled brat if you listen to Laura and Joey. I work at the church as I guess what you'd call a secretary, but I really do just about anything and everything that you can imagine. And before you ask, no, it's not what I want to do with the rest of my life. That's the thing: I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I know my dad wants me to be involved with the church, but I don't know what I want. That's the main reason I haven't gone to college. I decided to wait a year, and hopefully I'll figure something out between now and then.”
“What about a girlfriend? Didn't Joey mention you had a girlfriend? Becky or something?”
“Beth and we broke up. That was part of the reason I was having such a bad day last Saturday.”
“So you were heartbroken?”
“Not exactly.”
“So you broke up with her?”
“No, she broke up with me.”
“I see, said the blind man.”
I laughed. “It's complicated. It's just as well that she broke it off; I would have just let things drag on forever. At least now it's over and done with. See, I didn't feel the same way for her as she apparently felt for me. She wanted more from me than I felt like I could give her, and I don't think I ever would have been able to. It's hard to explain. There just wasn't…it wasn't…I just didn't feel anything with Beth.”
“I understand what you're saying. I went through the same thing.” He seemed to realize what he was saying at the same time I did. He rushed on, “Not that it means anything as far as, you know, you or anything. I was just saying that for me...” He trailed off into an uncomfortable silence. I rushed to fill it.
“So tell me about you.” I didn't want to lose our growing rapport, but I did want to get the attention off of me. This seemed like a safe enough topic.
“Well, I come from a pretty big family. There're six of us altogether and I'm the oldest. My dad died three years ago from cancer, so it's just been our mom and us since then.”
“I'm sorry.”
“Yeah, well, it was rough, especially at first. My mom had to go back to work, and I had to help a lot with my brothers and sister. I have one sister who is only two years younger than I am so she helped ,too, but with four boys under twelve, it was still a lot of work. Then, last year, my Aunt Meg moved in with us and that freed me up to be able to go to college. That was about the same time I started realizing I was gay, so when things got ugly up there I was able to just pick up and transfer down here. Like I said, though, Aunt Meg was a huge support for me when I was coming out. I don't think I could have made it without her. She'd already gone through the whole gay thing with Killian, you know, learning about what it meant and coming to terms with it and all, so she was really supportive of me and helped my mom a lot, too.”
“So are you planning on coming out down here?”
“Eventually, when I'm ready. Not right now. I'd rather people got to know me for who I am rather than through a preconception of what a stereotypical gay guy is supposed to be like. Not that I'm lying either, though. If someone comes right out and asks me, I'll be honest.”
I nodded. I was ashamed to admit how relieved I was that he wasn't going to don rainbow t-shirts and announce his sexual orientation to the entire Eastern Shore. “So, uh, what are you majoring in?”
“I just changed my major to psychology, so we'll see how that goes. I was doing criminal justice and some psych courses are part of that, and I really found them interesting so I switched over.”
“Ok, wait, I'm confused about something.”
“What's that?”
“Well, earlier you said that your mom had to go back to work to support the family but - I don't mean to be rude - I was under the impression that money wasn't an object. I mean with the rent and all this…” I trailed off as I gestured around the apartment.
“Oh, yeah, I guess that would be confusing. If it was up to my mom and me to pay for my college, I'd be living at home and going to a local school still. But thank God for rich relatives,” he laughed. “My grandmother on Dad's side is stinking loaded. We only see her once a year at Christmas cuz she lives in Belgium or something like that. Dad was her only son, and we're her only grandchildren, so she is paying for all of us to go to college. She has trust funds set up in case she kicks the bucket.”
“Must be nice!”
“Yeah, I guess it is, now that you mention it. It's funny the things you take for granted. I don't even think about it. It's just something I've always known. God knows, she reminds us of it every time we see her.”
“You don't sound like you like her very much.”
He thought for a moment, then slowly said, “I'm grateful to her for what she's doing for me. I mean I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her, but I always get the impression that she does it out of a sense of duty rather than any real affection. So no, I don't really like her. She's always treated us like the poor relatives. I guess Dad was kind of a disappointment becoming a professor at a small college instead of some jet-setting socialite. You know, she didn't even come to Dad's funeral. She just sent flowers. Can you believe that?”
“No. Even with my family's strained relations, I think we'd still show up for a family member's funeral.”
“You'd think. My dad was like her in a lot of ways, except he didn't have the money to throw around. He was always distant, as if he didn't know how to show affection. I don't know what his dad was like. He never talked about him, and he was dead long before I was born. My mom was very affectionate, though, so I guess that made up for it.”
“My family's always been pretty affectionate.” I looked down at the photo I was still holding and noticed that Asher and Killian were holding hands. “They look really happy together,” I said almost without thought. I was surprised to hear a wistful note in my voice.
“They are,” Aidan said matter-of-factly. He either hadn't noticed my tone of voice or had chosen to ignore it. Either way I was grateful. “I've never seen any two people be more completely in love. Hey, I have an idea! Why don't we invite them over this weekend? I promised them I would once I got settled in, and now that you're here its even better!”
“Sounds good! But don't tell them who your new roommate is, I want to surprise Asher.”
Aidan laughed. “I love it! I'll call them now.”
He flipped through an address book he kept by the phone and dialed the phone. After a brief conversation, he hung up and turned toward me, a huge smile lighting up his face. “It's all set. Asher was there, as usual, so they talked it over and got permission. They're coming over tomorrow night around six and spending the night.”
“Cool! Our first slumber party!”
We both laughed as I thought how much I was going to enjoy living here.
The next day passed by in a flurry of activity as Aidan and I actually went about setting up house. For two guys on their own for the first time we had a surprising amount of stuff. Most of mine consisted of my art supplies, and most of Aidan's was either hi-fi or weight equipment. The weights at least explained Aidan's physique, which was nicely toned, to say the least.
We chose a large section of the living room closest to the huge windows to be my studio. We placed Aidan's in-home gym next to me so we could talk while I painted and he worked out. Setting up all my crap just the way I wanted it took up a large chunk of the afternoon, but Aidan seemed content to watch me while he did sit-ups, push-ups, and reps or whatever you call them. I'm not really up on my exercise lingo since as Garfield - the cat, not the president  - once said: My idea of exercise is a good brisk sit. Actually, I like to roller blade, too, but that just about sums up the extent of my physical exertion.
Aidan seemed fascinated by all my paraphernalia, occasionally asking what something was and what I did with it. The last thing I pulled out of its protective cover was the painting I had completed last Saturday night. I was very self-conscious about my artwork; for the most part only Joey and Laura had seen much of my work. My parents had seen some, enough to know I had talent, so they'd sent me to a few art classes when I was younger. They seemed to think of my interest in art as a phase that I would outgrow - like my rock collection or my chemistry set.
“You did that?” Aidan exclaimed when I pulled out the painting.
“Yeah,” I said shyly. “You didn't think all this was just for show, did you?”
“No, but…I mean that's really good, Will. You're really talented.”
I felt a blush begin to creep up my neck. “Thanks,” I mumbled.
“You just do this as a hobby?”
“Yeah.”
“Have you ever sold anything?”
“Are you kidding? I'm not good enough to sell this stuff. I've never even had any real art classes, just school stuff and some kiddie classes.”
“Who says you have to have art classes? Haven't you ever heard of natural talent? If your other stuff is this good, then you're a heck of a lot better than a lot of people I've seen showing in galleries.”
“You know art?”
“Some. Like I was telling you last night, my dad was a bit of a snob. He made sure us kids were exposed to `culture.' Most of the stuff he dragged us to see was modern crap that looked like something my youngest brother did the day before in Pre-K. Worse, one time he took us to see a toilet. I'm not kidding. It was just a regular toilet that the guy had bought at your average hardware store and stuck in the middle of the museum. And it was art. What a joke. But some of the stuff I fell in love with: the old Masters, the Impressionists, and the surrealistic stuff.”
“At least you had the opportunity to see that stuff. The Eastern Shore's idea of culture is the Delmarva Chicken Festival. I envy you for that.”
“Well, I envy you for your talent. I love art, but I can't even draw a straight line.”
“I guess that makes us even then, huh? We can agree to envy each other.”
Aidan laughed, then asked, “Do you have any more paintings here?”
“Um…I think I left most of them at home…well, Mom and Dad's because I didn't know what I'd do with them here.”
“Next time you go by there, pick them up; I'd really like to see them. This is really good; it's kind of different. It reminds me of some stuff I saw one time at this show by some guy who was being called the next big thing. That was actually how they billed the showing. Maybe that could be you, Will. You could be the next big thing!”
I felt a blush coming on again. I really hated having both fair skin and a predisposition to blushing.
“You don't like getting compliments or talking about yourself, do you?” Aidan asked, noticing my discomfort.
“No, not really. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Why?”
“I dunno. I guess I feel like I don't deserve the compliments, like they aren't true.”
“But you have to know how talented you are,” he persisted.
“You're just saying that to be nice. I mean what else could you say, man, Will, that sucks?”
“I wouldn't say I liked it if I didn't. First thing you need to know about me is I'm always straight…well, bad choice of words, but you know what I mean.”
I laughed as he grinned at me.
“Just accept the compliments for what they are and say thank you,” he went on.
“That's easy for you to say, you're confident and outgoing.”
“And you have low self-esteem.”
“Thank you for your diagnosis, Dr. Scott, but I could have told you that.”
“Why do you think you have low self-esteem? I mean you're cute, talented, funny…”
“Do you think we could continue this session at another time,” I interrupted loudly as I felt my face blaze with color. “Killian and Asher will be here in an hour, and we still have shit all over the place.”
“Hmm…aggression, change of subject…the subject is exhibiting signs of classic avoidance,” he said in a phony Freudian accent.
“I'll show you avoidance,” I growled playfully as I tackled him. We rolled into a laughing heap on the floor where we wrestled for several minutes. I wrestled with Joey all the time, but I was no match for Aidan; he had me outweighed and out-muscled. There was really no contest, but I suspected that he was giving me a lot more openings than I would have ever gotten if this were a serious fight.
We were so caught up in our wrestling match that we didn't even hear the knocking or the door swinging open. The first we knew of our visitors was when someone called, “Hello? Aidan?”
Aidan let go of me so quickly that my head bounced off the hardwood floor. “Ugh,” I grunted and stayed still while I waited for the stars to stop spinning. Aidan scrambled to his feet above me. His shirt was pulled halfway over his head, and he hastily tugged it back into place. For the first time I saw him blush for a change. I heard giggles from the door, but from my spot on the floor I couldn't see who it was.
“Are we interrupting something?” the same voice asked.
“No, I mean…uh…we were just playing around,” Aidan stammered. It was the first time I had seen him really flustered, and I was definitely enjoying seeing the usually unflappable Aidan come unflapped. Uncharacteristically, I decided to push things a little farther. I ran my hand up his leg to his thigh. Aidan yelped and danced away to a safer distance and glared at me.
“We have guests, darling,” he said deliberately, then turned back toward the door. “Come on in, Asher and Killian.”
At the mention of Asher's name I sat bolt upright. Asher's mouth dropped open, and a very satisfied grin spread across Aidan's face. The boy I assumed to be Killian just looked confused as he looked from Aidan to Asher to me. His eyes grew wide as he looked back and forth from me to Asher.
“Will?” Asher gasped.
“Uh, hi, Asher. Long time no see, cuz,” I said as I turned what I could only guess to be approximately the same color as a stop sign.
“Cuz? As in cousin?” Killian asked, his blue eyes bright with amusement. I had to say one thing for Asher; he had good taste in his men.
“Yeah, this is my cousin Will. What are you doing here?” he asked me.
“I live here.”
“You're Aidan's roommate?” Killian asked.
“Surprise.”
He looked from me to Aidan. “And you two are…”
“No!” I gasped. Aidan started laughing.
“But when we walked in you two were…”
“We were wrestling! That's all. Right, Aidan?”
He laughed for another minute before he managed to choke out, “That's what I tried to tell them from the beginning, before you decided to feel me up.”
“I didn't…I was just…I'm not…” I sputtered.
Aidan was bent double laughing, while Killian and Asher still stood uncertainly in the doorway. Aidan waved them in as I pulled myself up off the floor and attempted to salvage what little dignity I still had left.
“You should have seen your face!” Aidan crowed.
I chose to ignore him. “Just put your stuff over here by the wall for now,” I said, playing the host. “The couch opens up into a bed so you can share that. Sorry about all the boxes; we weren't expecting you to be here this early.”
“Obviously,” Killian said with a grin. “We'll help you clean up.”
Aidan managed to stop laughing in time to help straighten up the living room and carry the empty boxes out to the dumpster. By the time we were done, Killian had visibly relaxed, but Asher still seemed tense. Then I remembered that Asher didn't know that I knew he was gay. He must have been worried about what I would think if I figured it out. As soon as I saw a chance to speak to him privately, I sat down next to him. Killian and Aidan were busy hooking up my N64, arguing about which wire connected where.
“Asher,” I said quietly, “I know about you and Killian, and it's ok. I'm cool with it.”
Relief flooded his eyes, “What about Uncle Lowell?”
“Dad doesn't know, and he won't find out from me,” I assured him. “I just found out last night. While we're on the subject, Dad doesn't know that Aidan is gay either, and I'd like to keep it that way.”
“Well, you don't have to worry about me telling him. It's not like I talk to him anyway. No offense but I usually try to avoid Uncle Lowell at family reunions. I always feel guilty around him. Not for anything in particular…just guilty in general.”
I laughed. “Yeah, he does have that effect on people.”
Killian wandered over and peered closely at both of us.
“Quit that!” Asher said testily.
“It's just that you guys look so much alike it's freaky. The only difference is that Will's eyes are blue.”
“Stand up,” I ordered Asher as I stood up myself. He complied, and Killian laughed.
“Ok, so there's also about six inches of difference.”
“Seven,” Asher said smugly, “I grew an inch.” I stuck my tongue out at him, showing that what I lacked in height I made up for in maturity.
“I didn't think anyone could be cuter than you, Ashke, but I think you might have some competition with Will on the scene.”
Once again, I blushed as Asher punched Killian in the arm. Then he punched me in mine.
“Hey! What did I do?” I yelled.
“I dunno, but I'm sure you deserved it for some reason.”
“The 64's hooked up,” Aidan called, and Asher darted to his side; he was quite the video game addict. I turned to Killian.
“You just called Asher Ashke. Is that just a nickname or are you a Mercedes Lackey fan, too?”
“You know Mercedes Lackey?”
“Oh yeah, we had coffee just last week.”
“You know what I meant; you've read her books?”
“Yeah, she's one of my favorite authors.”
“Me, too! I just discovered her a few months ago, but I think I've read everything she's written. I started calling Asher Ashke after reading the Last Herald Mage Trilogy - the ones with Vanyel?”
“I've read them. In fact, I haven't unpacked them yet, but I own a bunch of the Valdemar series.”
“Wow, that's so cool.”
“What's cool?” Aidan yelled from his spot in front of the TV.
“None of your business, Mr. Nosy!” I called back.
“How about me? Will you tell me?” Asher piped up.
“Yeah, I'll tell you. Killian and I are both Mercedes Lackey fans.”
“You'll tell him but not me?” Aidan pretended to pout.
“He's family,” I shot back.
“Aidan's my family,” Killian said protectively.
“Not another Lackey fan,” Asher moaned over the friendly banter.
“What's wrong with Mercedes Lackey?” Aidan said defensively.
“Not you, too?”
“You really don't like her?” I asked.
“She's ok; I just didn't get as excited about her as Killian. I like mysteries better than fantasy.”
“Did you read many of them?” I persisted.
“No, he only read one! And it was the middle of one of the trilogies, so he didn't even know what was going on,” Killian inserted indignantly.
“You didn't give them a chance,” Aidan said. “There's mystery, action, romance…everything you want in a good book.”
“Jeez, what is this? A meeting of the official Mercedes Lackey Fan Club?”
“She has one, you know,” I pointed out, and we all laughed.
The playful bickering went on all night. It was as if we'd all been friends forever. We played Clue and a marathon game of Monopoly that Killian eventually won in the wee hours of the morning. Asher was looking very droopy by then, and I knew I was just as tired, so I suggested we all hit the sack. Aidan and I helped Asher and Killian make up the sofa bed, then we retired to our respective rooms.
Maybe change doesn't have to be so bad after all, I thought as I undressed. Who needs Joey and Laura when you have friends like Aidan, Asher, and Killian?

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