Austin Greenfield shivered. The afternoon was cold and gray. A chill, misty rain swirled in the air. His arms, loaded down with bags of groceries, had already begun to ache. He walked quickly across the supermarket’s parking lot among vehicles beaded with silvery pearls of water, headed for the chrome-and-glass shelter of the bus stop. He was anxious to get home.
As he reached the lane that circled the outer perimeter of the parking lot, a white sedan pulled alongside him and stopped. The driver’s window slid down, revealing the square, bearded face of James Harper. A car salesman by trade, he was a tall man with the mass of a linebacker.
“Austin. I thought that was you. When did you get back?”
“Hey, Mr. Harper. I came in last night.” Inwardly, Austin cringed. There wasn’t even a hint of a smile on Harper’s face. Which was no surprise. The man hated Austin.
“Home for Christmas, I take it.”
“Yeah. Classes don’t start again until January tenth. I’ll have a nice long visit with the folks.” He looked up, praying that the bus would be barreling toward the stop at that very instant and give him an excuse to rush off. No such luck.
“Well, good for you. I just dropped off some packages at the post office. You look as if you need a lift.”
Damn! “Oh. Uh… I don’t want to take you out of your way.”
“Nonsense. I’m heading home now. And if you’ll remember, I live just down the street from your folks.”
Austin’s mind flashed forward to tomorrow morning’s headline: Visiting College Student Found Choked on Neighbor’s Boot. “Really, Mr. Harper, you don’t have to do that.”
“It’s not a problem, kid.”
“You know, the bus ride is actually kind of peaceful and—”
“Oh, for crying out loud! Get in the car already!”
“Yeah, okay.” Austin walked slowly around to the passenger side, making worried, plaintive eye contact with passing motorists in hopes of establishing plenty of witnesses who’d remember seeing him get into Harper’s car. He opened the door and slid into the bucket seat, placing the bags on the floor between his feet. Harper hit the gas as soon as the door shut, irritation etched into his face as deeply as the lines on his forehead.
Austin had been fourteen when he’d lost his virginity to Harper’s fifteen-year-old son, Dillon. That led to a series of trysts over the next five months, always on Saturday evenings when Harper and his wife played poker and blackjack at the Tunica casinos. Dillon and Austin’s couplings would have gone on longer had Harper not come home unexpectedly—after choking on an ice cube from one of the casino’s complimentary drinks—and caught them thrashing nakedly on the family room floor.
Austin still remembered how red Harper’s face had become, how the veins had popped in the man’s neck as he’d ranted and cursed, mostly at Austin. Tall, lanky Dillon had been a freshman on their high school’s basketball team, a rising star who was already catching the notice of local sports journalists and college scouts, as well as the fawning attention of girls on the cheer squads. Apparently gay sex threatened all of that in Harper’s mind, and he blamed Austin. Never mind that it was Dillon who had seduced Austin, who set up their weekly sessions, who called Austin at every spare chance throughout the week, keeping him on the phone for hours. Harper had sent Dillon off to some boarding school, and he made it a point to tell Austin’s folks everything. For the next four years, Harper had scowled whenever he saw the boy, the looks so fiery Austin could almost feel his dreadlocks singe.
Harper drove in silence, eyes locked straight ahead, his face settling into a statue-like blankness. The shiver sinking down Austin’s spine had nothing to do with the cold dampness of his clothes. He couldn’t fathom why the hell the man had offered him a ride. Did he want to give another stern lecture on how abominable and hell-bound gays were? Did he want to shovel on the guilt for “ruining” Dillon’s life? As a kid, Austin had not dared talk back to Harper out of the respect he carried for all adults. But he was nineteen now, an adult himself—boyish-looking and barely half Harper’s size, but an adult nonetheless. If Harper started dumping on him again, the man was going to get royally cussed out right in his own car.
Silence ensued for the entire fifteen-minute drive to their neighborhood. Harper turned his car into the driveway of Austin’s home and stopped. Austin quickly started gathering his bags.
“Well, Mr. Harper, I—”
“Just a minute.” Harper shifted the gear into park and shut off the engine.
Harper turned, his expression unexpectedly, unbelievably soft. “There’s something I want to say to you, Austin. I’ve been very angry with you for years, ever since I found out Dillon is… gay. It took a long time, but I finally realized I was heaping all my anxiety and shame about my son on you. Every time Dillon called and begged me to let him come home, every time he told me he would always be gay, every time he told me how much he cared for you, I got angry with you all over again, and I hated you for it. That was wrong. You were just a boy. I’m sorry for the way I treated you, and I apologize.”
Austin froze. Everything in him had been geared up to fight, and now all that energy had nowhere to go. He slumped in the seat as the tension drained out of him, stunned as much by the revelation that Dillon had been carrying romantic feelings for him (he had thought Dillon was just having fun with him) as by Harper’s out-of-the-blue apology.
“Thank you for that, Mr. Harper,” he said after a moment. “Can I ask… what brought you around?”
“Dillon did,” Harper answered without hesitation. “He cut himself off from me completely. He kept up a relationship with his mother as much as he could, but he wouldn’t even see her if I came along when she visited him at school. I realized we would both lose him if something didn’t change. Dillon couldn’t change, but I could.”
Austin stared as if a total stranger had suddenly materialized in the seat across from him. In his eyes, Harper had just gone from a wild, fuming homophobe to a middle-aged, balding, regretful father.
Harper winced and turned away, breaking the uncomfortable gaze between them. “Well, I guess I should get on home to the missus.”
“Okay.” Austin gathered his bags, opened the door and climbed out. He leaned down, peering back into the car. “How’s Dillon?”
“He’s fine,” said Harper, smiling finally. “He’s spending the holiday with his boyfriend’s family in Denver, but the two of them will be coming here for spring break.”
Austin felt a momentary twinge of envy, which was quickly overwhelmed by his gladness to hear Dillon had a man in his life. He smiled. “Tell him I said hello.”
Austin hovered in the open door another moment. “You and Mrs. Harper have a good Christmas.”
“Thanks. Same to you.”
Austin shut the door and waved as Harper backed the car out of the driveway, then drove off down the street. Austin pulled out his keys and let himself into the house, feeling as if he had just dropped down from another planet.