A Survivor Story It’s been nearly five years since Aaron woke up in the hospital so broken, he couldn’t stand the sight of his own face. The flashbacks no longer dominate his life, but he’s still unable to find intimacy with his lover, Spencer Thomas. With time, patience, and the support of his family, his therapist, and his loving partner, Aaron has figured out how to live again. The problem is, Spencer hasn’t. His life has been on hold as he waits for the day he and Aaron can have a normal relationship. Hoping to move things forward for them both, he takes a job as a programmer in downtown Chicago, leaving Aaron alone. Reeling in the wake of Spencer’s absence, Aaron receives another shock when his attackers are caught. Now, he must testify and verbalize his worst nightmare. Publicly reliving his trauma without Spencer at his side destroys his precarious control. But he finds someone who can understand and empathize in Jordan, who watched his brother cut down in a school shooting. With Spencer gone and the DA knocking at his door, Aaron seeks solace in Jordan, and Spencer will have to risk everything to hold on to Aaron’s love.
SPENCER’S BLOOD froze by degrees, and he remained helpless as his boyfriend trembled against the dark blue squares printed on the sheets. His lips trailed a simple, indistinct pattern down Aaron’s neck, memorizing the tendons straining against his mouth. Insistent fingers in his hair encouraged him nearly as much as the soft vibrations issuing from his lover’s throat. He barely noticed the flickering lights from the movie they’d started to watch, his senses were so consumed with Aaron. Sliding down farther in his bed, still mostly tidy despite their writhing, Spencer kissed along Aaron’s chest, aching at the feeling of scarred skin beneath his lips. Even after almost five years, it still looked angry and painful. The scars were a constant, tangible reminder of Aaron’s pain, as if Spencer needed one. He could see it so clearly in Aaron’s tortured blue eyes each and every day. It had lessened over the years they’d been together but still made his heart hurt.
The nipple beneath his lips, pink and perfect, hardened as Aaron’s back arched, and his fingers tightened in Spencer’s hair. Spencer could feel Aaron’s slow, rhythmic breathing, which made his heart ache even more. Rather than the heated, excited panting he wanted to coax from Aaron, he got harsh, controlled breaths as Aaron struggled to keep his demons at bay. Aaron wanted to be intimate with Spencer, they’d talked at length about it, but in the heat of the moment, his fear overpowered his pleasure. Still they tried, and sometimes they got further than others. Spencer hoped tonight would be one of those times.
“That feels good,” Aaron signed, fueling his hope. “I love it when you touch me.”
Spencer’s eyes found Aaron’s. He wished he could believe that, but he had an idea what Aaron saw in his head when they touched, and it wasn’t him. It was those bastards who had tortured and raped him and his friend. Careful not to pin him down in any way, Spencer moved to the other nipple. There were so many rules he had to follow in order to be with Aaron, so many things he had to be careful of.
Aaron was worth each and every one.
Spencer’s love grew each day they were together, to the point he thought maybe his chest would burst from it. He’d never loved anyone like that. Heart pounding in his ears, Spencer lowered his lips to Aaron’s stomach. The muscles tensed under his kisses, and Aaron’s chest began to rise and fall rapidly. Glancing up, Spencer watched as Aaron squeezed his eyes closed. His hands slid from Spencer’s hair and fisted the blankets on either side of his hips. It killed Spencer to see the fear in Aaron’s tightened expression, but each tiny step took them closer to a place where they would both be free. God, he wanted Aaron to be free.
Aaron’s body shook as Spencer popped the button on his jeans, but he didn’t make a move to stop it. As if he were defusing a bomb, Spencer pulled the zipper down to reveal the white briefs hiding Aaron’s half-hard cock. Wanting Aaron to keep some feeling of control, he didn’t pull the jeans or briefs down but simply moved them to free Aaron’s lengthening shaft. Spencer didn’t want to scare Aaron or overwhelm him, so he ran his tongue lightly over the length of Aaron’s dick.
Spencer laid a comforting hand on Aaron’s stomach. It was their connection to each other, Aaron’s way to tell Spencer if he needed to stop. Spencer’s way of showing Aaron he would catch him when he fell. The head of Aaron’s cock slid between his lips, and his eyes closed, something he’d never been able to allow during sex before. Every other guy he’d been intimate with had been a virtual stranger, but Aaron knew him. Aaron saw into his soul. Releasing his hold on Aaron’s cock, still nestled in his mouth, he stroked his boyfriend’s lean thigh and wondered if Aaron had any idea how beautiful Spencer found him. The scars didn’t matter. Aaron’s body, his heart, and his soul were so fucking beautiful.
Aaron’s hand tightened on his, and he took Aaron’s cock deeper. The head pressed against the back of his throat, and he breathed deeply through his nose to try to take the pressure off his desperate need to gag. Sucking in air, he backed off and started again. The slide of Aaron’s cock over his lips made his own dick throb. He moved his hand up from Aaron’s thigh to the juncture between his legs. Stroking Aaron’s balls lightly with trembling fingers, he tightened his lips and sucked hard. The cock in his mouth was rock hard, and Aaron’s hips moved faintly, slowly pushing himself deeper into Spencer’s mouth. He’d never done that before.
That’s it baby, just like that.
The hand on Spencer’s squeezed rhythmically, and he looked up. Aaron’s body trembled, and his head rolled back and forth on the pillow. He looked like a child having a tantrum, only in extreme slow motion. Tears poured from the corners of his eyes. Spencer stopped bobbing his head and just held Aaron’s hand. Sweat beaded on Aaron’s forehead, though it wasn’t very warm in his room. A silent sob escaped Aaron, and Spencer let his wet dick fall against his stomach as their hands came apart.
“I can’t. It’s too much. I’m sorry,” Aaron signed, not even opening his eyes, trusting Spencer to be watching. Being very careful not to pin Aaron’s legs, Spencer laid his head on Aaron’s stomach. Spencer loved it when Aaron carded fingers through his shaggy curls, and he wasn’t disappointed. For several minutes they lay in total silence, Spencer stroking Aaron’s stomach with tender fingers. Then Aaron pushed on his shoulder so Spencer would look up.
“Can we finish with our hands?” Aaron’s face looked shy yet determined. Flushed but no longer trembling, he let his hand move down to Spencer’s face, stroking it lightly as he’d done with his hair. Spencer turned his face to the side and kissed Aaron’s palm as he nodded against it. It was more than he’d expected when Aaron stopped him. Usually Aaron hid under the covers, and Spencer went to the bathroom to jack off. Even jacking off side by side was better than that.
To Spencer’s surprise, Aaron lifted his hips and pushed his jeans and underwear off, leaving them in a tangled heap at the end of the bed. He’d seen Aaron naked only a handful of times over the last few years, and for him to strip completely in the middle of the afternoon was new. It gave him hope.
“I like that I excite you.” The rest of the sentence, even with the scars, went unsigned, but Spencer saw the words in Aaron’s eyes. Spencer kissed one of the harsh lines on Aaron’s chest in response and then rolled over to his bedside table to grab lube. He fumbled for just a moment, trying to wrap his fingers around the bottle without pulling his other arm from under Aaron’s nude body. Finally, after his fingers slid over the plastic for the third time, he caught the cap and jerked it out of the drawer. The shy grin on Aaron’s face illuminated the dimly lit room with the radiance of a warm summer’s day. Spencer watched Aaron’s bright eyes as he flipped the cap, only looking away to pool a bit of lube in Aaron’s palm. Aaron took the bottle and returned the favor. Then he snapped the bottle closed and tossed it toward the edge of the bed. A sharp pang of unsurprised disappointment roiled in his stomach when Aaron wrapped his hand around his own dick and stroked. Spencer understood; Aaron needed the control. The feeling went away as fast as it hit. At least they would get off together—that’s what really mattered.
It took a while, because Aaron had lost his erection in fear and panic. Spencer came first and then watched Aaron’s face for a long time, wishing desperately to touch his lover as Aaron lay with both his eyes and his expression closed. He had nearly decided to go into the bathroom and let Aaron finish in peace when Aaron started to jerk his hips up into his hand. His mouth fell open in silent sound, and Spencer felt Aaron’s harsh breath against his skin. Without warning, Spencer had arms full of Aaron, who had buried his face against Spencer’s shoulder. Spencer held tight as Aaron shuddered and climaxed against his stomach. His skin tingled under the warm, wet mess, and he tilted Aaron’s face up, kissing his forehead with a long, slow press of lips.
“I am trying,” Aaron signed, one hand still laced with the remnants of his orgasm.
Aaron looked exhausted but relaxed as he rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. The rise and fall of Aaron’s chest slowed as he caught his breath, and he didn’t say anything else. They lay side by side on Spencer’s bed, spunk cooling on their bellies, and reveled in Aaron’s victory against his fear.
After a while, Aaron sat up and used Spencer’s discarded T-shirt to wipe the sweat and come from his abs. He tossed it on the floor and turned on the bed, still naked, to sit cross-legged next to Spencer. A warm breeze brushed across Spencer’s face from the open window. In the early stages of June, the rebirth of summer, he couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face.
“What?” Aaron asked as he picked at the bedclothes, only half looking at Spencer. Spencer grabbed his hand and held it for a moment before kissing it. Aaron smiled back finally, and traced the contours of Spencer’s face.
“That. Was. Awesome.,” Spencer whispered, and Aaron leaned closer.
“Yeah, it was,” he said before his mouth covered Spencer’s in a slow meeting of their lips, not sexual but comforting.
Unable to keep the excitement from his face, Spencer smiled into the kiss. Everything always seemed better after a good orgasm. Still high from being able to finally get off with Aaron, he let himself look forward just a bit to a future they could have together. The next day, Spencer would graduate college with his associate’s degree. He wished they’d been able to do it together, but taking only one or two classes a semester, Aaron had a while to go. Spencer had drawn it out an extra year, but he still managed to win the race.
Aaron still avoided group projects and speaking aloud in class whenever possible, but he’d managed to get through the coursework. Spencer remembered those first few classes together, and he doubted he’d ever forget sending Aaron to the ground in a panic that day in the quad. One simple touch and Aaron had fallen to pieces.
He’d come so damn far, just to be able to touch Spencer, and Spencer’s heart swelled with pride.
“I cannot believe I am graduating tomorrow.”
“Better you than me,” Aaron said, one eyebrow raised on his handsome face. Even with the scar running from his cheek to jawline, Aaron was still beautiful to Spencer. Of course, some bias existed there, but he didn’t think that had much to do with it. “I only go to give my mother something to do. It’s not like I’ll ever be able to hold down a job.” His haunted eyes met Spencer’s, and Spencer held his gaze.
“You are better every day.”
“Sure,” Aaron signed as a little more of the light left his eyes. It broke Spencer’s heart to watch, but he let it go. He knew to pick his battles with Aaron, and that one just wasn’t worth fighting. Maybe by the time Aaron graduated, he would be ready to do something with the degree. God, he’d made such amazing progress, even in just the time they’d been together. Almost as quickly as it had come, the darkness left Aaron’s face and he smirked.
“No distracting me. You promised me food after sex,” Aaron signed, and Spencer gently put a hand to the back of Aaron’s neck and drew him in for a slow, sweet kiss. Even a year ago, Aaron wouldn’t have been able to pull himself out of the mood. He would have let the darkness have him.
“I. Love. You.,” Spencer said aloud on the force of a breathless laugh. Aaron slid a finger along Spencer’s jaw. Time hadn’t changed the structure of Aaron’s face, but it had lessened the tightness and the bruises under his eyes.
“I love you too,” Aaron replied, and not for the first time since he’d fallen in love with Aaron, Spencer wished he could hear the sound of Aaron’s voice as he said it. Instead, he laced his fingers with Aaron’s and squeezed once before climbing off the bed.
“It is ninety degrees outside. You want a different shirt?” Spencer asked as Aaron pulled the long-sleeved T-shirt over his scarred chest. Automatically, it seemed, Aaron shook his head. Then he paused, the shirt just covering his nipples. Time hung heavy in the air as Spencer waited, but Aaron must have reached his level of accommodation for the day because he just shook his head again. That he thought about it, considered forgoing the sleeves, lightened Spencer’s heart.
They dressed side by side, with Spencer lamenting the loss as Aaron covered up his sweet, pale skin. Though he would probably never truly understand, Spencer had an idea what it must be like for Aaron to bare his body to anyone: a much more intense magnification of the feeling Spencer had when he had to talk aloud to someone who didn’t know him. So for him to do it at all—Spencer just didn’t have the words for what that meant to him.
He slid his phone into the pocket of his jeans, and they padded down to the kitchen, Spencer shirtless and barefoot and Aaron in a long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and socks.
“I wore a short-sleeved shirt in the backyard the other day when Allen and I went out to kick the ball around. He’s leaving for college at the end of the summer. We won’t have much more time,” Aaron told him, and Spencer nearly dropped the phone he’d been using to order wings over the Pizza Hut app. A twinge of jealousy flamed across his heart at the thought of Aaron being so open and free with someone else, even if it was Aaron’s brother. Those moments should be Spencer’s. He’d worked for them and cried for them. Then the flash was gone, and a dull heat slid up his neck at the thought he’d had it at all.
“Was it the first time Allen had seen your arms?” Spencer set the phone on the counter and focused on Aaron rather than his own childish mental rant. It was the first time he’d even heard of Aaron wearing something that didn’t cover him completely. The scars on his face he couldn’t do much about during the summer, but his arms and legs he kept hidden. Spencer had teased him that very first summer about heat stroke, and the broken, tortured look he’d received in response ensured he’d never broached the subject again.
“I’m sure he’d seen them at some point over the last five years, but that was the first time I’d ever let my freak flag fly like that.” Aaron smiled halfheartedly at his own joke, and Spencer frowned at him.
“You. Are. Not. A. Freak.,” he said with more anger than he’d intended. Aaron stroked his arm lightly.
“I know. He was fine with it. He didn’t stare like I thought he would. It was nice to feel the sun on my skin.” Aaron look startled when Spencer cradled his face between two warm palms.
“You. Amaze. Me.,” he said simply and captured Aaron’s mouth in a tender kiss.
“I won’t be pole dancing anytime soon,” Aaron said, making Spencer laugh and defusing the emotional tension between them. Spencer picked up the phone again with one hand and grabbed the front of Aaron’s T-shirt with the other, pulling him to the rec room so they could order their food.
I LOVE him, Aaron thought as he watched Spencer sign the receipt for their dinner. I want to be better for him.
The sweet, spicy smell of honey barbeque wings drifted up from the boxes he carried into the small breakfast nook in the kitchen. Sometimes they still ate in the rec room when Aaron came over, but usually they moved to the kitchen because Aaron felt more comfortable there. His mother drilled that into his head all his life. Food stays in the kitchen.
I don’t want him to have to keep paying for dinner or stay trapped in the house because I can’t function. Aaron used to hate that Spencer always paid. Dinners and even the few movies they went to that had closed captioning, Spencer pulled out a card long before Aaron had a chance to think. It reminded him he couldn’t hold down a job. But when he’d brought it up in a session, Dr. Thomas advised him to choose his battles carefully. What Spencer chose to spend his money on was Spencer’s choice, not his. Aaron found that funny since it was actually Dr. Thomas’s money anyway, but finally he let it go. One day Spencer would get sick of all his shit and leave anyway. That thought made Aaron’s heart ache. Spencer saved his life. Had Spencer not entered his world and brought Dr. Thomas, he had no doubt he’d have found the courage to end his life. It might have taken another year or two, but another year or two of the insanity would have taken its toll.
“Hey., I. Know. That. Look…. What. Ever. It. Is., Let. It. Go.,” Spencer murmured in his ear as he took the boxes from Aaron’s numb hands and set them on the table. He went to get paper plates and plastic utensils while Spencer grabbed a couple of cans of pop from the refrigerator.
“I can’t help but think that one day you’ll get sick of my issues and leave,” Aaron signed when Spencer came back to the table. “I can’t have sex. Hell, I can’t even get a blow job without freaking out. I sure as hell can’t give one, and—” Aaron’s rant was abruptly cut off when Spencer grabbed both his hands and held them tight.
“Stop. Please.,” Spencer said, and Aaron’s throat closed around the thickness in Spencer’s voice, the mist in his eyes. “You. Do. Not. Know. What. My. Life. Was. Like. Before. You. Were. In. It…. I. Would. Not. Give. That. Up., Not. For. Anything.” A smile crept across his face, and he let go of Aaron’s hands. “You. Are. Stuck. With. Me.”
“Thank God,” Aaron murmured and sat with his hands folded in his lap. The terrible burning fear in his stomach didn’t allow room for food, even though he’d joked earlier about Spencer feeding him after sex. Rather than commenting, Spencer simply dropped half a dozen wings onto his plate and then another half dozen on his own. For so long, Spencer had dealt with his eccentricities. He knew Aaron better than anyone, maybe even Aaron’s mother.
“Did you make a decision about tomorrow?” Spencer’s fingers, glazed with sticky-looking wing sauce, made the signs effortlessly, and Aaron wondered if he’d ever be that proficient. To avoid answering the question, Aaron picked up a wing from his plate and shoved the end in his mouth. The butterflies declared war on his stomach, and after a moment, he put the rest of the bit of chicken back down. He had made a decision, but even though he still had an entire day to prepare himself, the thought terrified him.
“I’ll be there.”
Spencer looked as if all his dreams had come true—the light in his eyes would be worth spending a few hours with Dr. Thomas and probably his mother, surrounded by thousands of people. He would lose himself in a sea of humanity with Spencer on the stage shaking hands with the president of the college. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck every time he imagined the scene. Jesus, he wouldn’t even go to his own graduation, but for Spencer….
“Are you going to stay tonight, or…?” Spencer looked hopeful, but that pushed just a bit too far beyond his boundaries. He’d need one of the pills he’d hidden in the back of an unused junk drawer in his room, one his mother would have no reason to look in. He’d put them there when Dr. Thomas took him off them completely. There were just a few left, and he only used them when he really needed them—like when he needed to sleep the night before Spencer’s graduation or to keep him from freaking out completely in front of thousands of people who would stare at him.
It must be how animals felt at the zoo. But he had just agreed to go, so he’d suck it up and be a man.
He had to.
“ARE YOU okay?” his mother asked for the thirty-second time since coming to wake him that morning. He’d kept a running tally in his head to distract his brain from taking those next few steps. Dr. Thomas had taught him long ago to visualize the coming situation and see himself getting through it. He saw several different things when he dared to imagine the graduation in his mind. First, he saw someone bumping him and him going down, disrupting one of the most important days in Spencer’s life. Second, he saw the man with the scar coming out of the crowd and grabbing him. Third, he saw the man who had cut Juliette’s throat pulling Spencer’s head back by his beautiful curls, the graceful arc of his neck twitching as the blade slid across it.
Aaron made it to the bathroom in his room just in time to throw up.
“You don’t have to do this, honey. He will understand,” his mother said from the bathroom door with a towel clutched in her hand. The black terry cloth, a stark contrast to her white knuckles, scraped against his skin as she handed it to him.
“He puts up with so much shit just to be with me, Mom. The least I can do is go to his damn graduation,” he muttered and wet one end of the hand towel. The cold water helped to calm the roiling snakes in his stomach, which had apparently eaten all the butterflies.
“Aaron, Spencer loves you. If you don’t go to his graduation, he will understand.” She took the towel from him and threw it into the hamper next to the door. Aaron sagged against the sink, braced by hands gripping the sides of the small counter. He had to go, but more than that, he wanted to go. They had fought side by side for a couple of years through battalions of professors and bombardments of homework so Spencer could triumph and win the war. No way would he miss Spencer’s victory dance.
Aaron nodded at the painting above the sink, and his mother took that as her cue to leave. With no room for argument, she had informed him at dinner last night that she would be standing beside him, watching Spencer graduate. Dr. Thomas had suspected as much and made sure to pick up four tickets for the event, one for himself, one for Aaron, one for Aaron’s mother, Michelle, and one for Spencer’s Aunt Nell. In the three years they’d been dating, Aaron had managed to avoid meeting Aunt Nell. More than just fear of meeting new people, Aaron was terrified Nell wouldn’t like him, and the woman held a place of reverence in Spencer’s life.
His mother didn’t say anything when he came down half an hour later in a long-sleeved white button-up and dress pants. A tie hung at the back of his closet, bequeathed to him by the Aaron who used to stand up in front of a room and debate in it. There were days, maybe even like this one, when he wondered what that Aaron would be doing now. Surely he’d be away at college, drinking and partying with his friends, about to graduate himself. He would have no idea of the horrors that happen when you don’t protect yourself every minute of every day. That Aaron would be normal. That Aaron would be able to give Spencer the kind of relationship he deserved.
That Aaron wouldn’t have looked twice at Spencer, the voice in the back of his head, the dark one that shocked him with its veracity, said in unwanted venomous observation. Aaron had been beautiful before the attack, with flawless skin, bright blue eyes, and stylish black hair. That Aaron could have had anyone. He wouldn’t have picked the deaf kid. You’re only with him because you’re fucked up. God, he hated that voice. He hated the way it needled into his consciousness when he was hurt or afraid. He hated the awful things it said. Mostly, he hated that he wondered if it was right. Aaron saw the contrast in old pictures. Old Aaron and new Aaron. Pictures of his father from college showed him the man Aaron would have grown into. Would that Aaron have loved Spencer? Would they ever have even met? He refused to believe that “everything happens for a reason” shit. It was all just a matter of circumstance.
“Do you want something to eat before we go?” his mother asked, but he shook his head almost violently. Allen sat at the table next to Anthony, shoveling down pancakes. Their father was already working in his converted office upstairs. Even without Aaron’s night terrors, Anthony would continue to sleep in the basement once Allen went off to college, so John Downing decided to turn Allen’s old bedroom into an office.
“I think I have a protein shake in there if you want it,” Anthony said with a careless toss of his head toward the refrigerator. It was the first time Anthony had said anything at the table in days, and their mother looked relieved. His long black hair fell into his face as he ate. At some point over the last year, Anthony had dyed it to match Aaron’s. Aaron should know what that was about, but he didn’t. Instead, he decided to give the snakes in his stomach something to focus on besides his gut and went to retrieve the protein shake.
Before he really had time to pull himself together, it was time to leave.
“I just need to grab something out of my room. I’ll be right out,” Aaron called as he ran up the stairs. The bedroom door knocked into the stopper as he threw it open. Kicking his discarded pajama pants out of the way, he jogged over to the dresser and pulled out the drawer he never used. The pills were in the back, tucked into an old pair of socks, completely out of place among batteries, broken pencils, and randomly multiplying electronic cords. He pulled out the bottle and opened it with shaking hands.
“You haven’t needed those for a while,” Allen said as he leaned against the doorframe and watched Aaron drop a tranquilizer into his palm. His eyes met Allen’s for a long moment before he hid the rest of the pills back in the drawer and stalked past into the bathroom. He took a little paper cup from the stack next to the faucet, filled it with lukewarm water from the tap, and knocked back the pill.
“Look,” Aaron said as he wiped excess water from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “I just need something to get me through today without freaking out completely and fucking up Spencer’s day. You remember how bad it can get. I’m going to be surrounded by people touching me and bumping into me. I can’t… I just… I need to keep myself under control.”
“No, it’s a good idea. I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” Allen said as he took a step into the room. Aaron sat on the bed and waited for the edge on his nerves to dull. The navy comforter, wadded up at the end of his bed, was soft under his clenching fists. He smoothed it and then clenched it again, avoiding Allen’s eyes until his brother spoke. “In fact, it actually makes me feel better about you going.”
“Thanks. I don’t know why I wanted to hide it from Mom. It’s not like she won’t be able to tell.” Aaron shrugged and rubbed his sweaty palms on his dress pants. The room would soon start to take on that fuzzy feeling he used to associate with the drugs. The prescription was a little out of date, but according to the research he’d done in his online support group, they’d just be a little less potent. He hadn’t risked taking two but decided to grab another one and put it in his pocket in case he needed it later.
Five minutes later, he climbed into the car next to his mother.
“You brought the tickets?” he asked, and she nodded. He’d gotten the tickets from Spencer the night before so they could drive separately from Spencer’s family, just in case. Everything in his life consisted of that single phrase “just in case”—just in case Aaron had a meltdown, just in case he couldn’t control it, just in case his mother needed to get him out—pick one.
The drive to the college flew by. It had never seemed that short when he had to get to class, but in no time, it seemed, they were pulling into the parking lot. The sheer number of cars already overflowing the lot made the breath solidify in Aaron’s lungs. It felt thick around him, clogging the windows, pressing him back against the seat. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the floaty feeling in his head. With a quiet sigh, he palmed the pill in his pocket, brought it to his mouth so his mother couldn’t see, and then swallowed it dry. Since she was preoccupied with finding a parking space, he didn’t think she saw, but it wouldn’t have mattered at that point. If he wanted to get out of the car, he needed all the help he could get.
Once she put the car in park, she hunted in her bag for a minute. Then she grabbed her bottle of water and took a long swallow. She handed him a second bottle without a word. Either she’d always planned to give it to him or she knew about the pill. It shouldn’t have surprised him—she always knew. Then she retied the little ribbon on the collar of her sweater. Finally, she pulled her hair out of its clip and brushed it before reseating the little piece of plastic. He didn’t know if she stalled for her sanity or for his. When she could find nothing else to distract her from the impending disaster, she looked over at him.
“Do you want to wait here for a while or try to meet up with Spencer before it starts?” she asked, her voice even more understanding than normal, which was a feat in and of itself. He didn’t know how she could be more understanding. He’d have put himself in a sack and drowned himself in a river by now.
Not the dark thoughts. Not now.
“I….” The fuzzy feeling began to settle over Aaron’s brain, stronger and more powerfully after the second pill.
“Is it kicking in?” She always knew.
“Let’s try and find Spencer, then. Can you text him and see where he is?”
It took Aaron a minute to be able to focus enough to text Spencer, who responded that he and his father were next to the statue where he and Aaron first met. He ran a hand through his short black hair, gelled artfully into place by Allen for the occasion, and rested his head against the headrest in his mother’s new Sentra.
“Want me to drive over to the quad? Then we won’t have to get out of the car, and we’d have a front row seat,” his mother said in a conspiratorial whisper. His bubble of laughter turned quickly into a sob, and a tear fell before he could stop it. With a concentrated effort, he sucked one long breath in and let it out, and then another. When he no longer felt like he would suffocate in the stagnant air of his mother’s shiny red car, he turned his head in her direction.
“Yep, let’s do it,” he whispered back, and she smiled. Moving slowly not to startle him, she gave him a tender kiss on the forehead.
“Let’s go watch your boyfriend graduate. It won’t be too much longer before we’re hiding out in the living room, eating popcorn and watching a movie while the rest of your class graduates.”
She squeezed his knee, and he forced a smile, thankful she understood how he could never stand up on the stage and do it himself, and even more thankful that she wouldn’t be disappointed when he didn’t.
They climbed out of the car, and Michelle walked a little bit in front of Aaron to shield him from the milling crowd. He got jostled, but a combination of determination and medication helped him through until they could see the statue looming ahead. Spencer stood on one of the square foundation pieces looking above the crowd for Aaron. He always looked out for Aaron, and it warmed Aaron’s soul.
“Hey.,” Spencer called as soon as their eyes met over his mother’s shoulder. He hopped down from his perch and landed just a few feet in front of Aaron, who smiled. Moving with deliberate slowness, Spencer bridged the gap between them and touched Aaron’s face. The rest of the waiting crowd melted away, and for an instant, only the two of them existed. Then Aaron was bumped from behind, and the tranquility of that perfect moment vanished in diluted panic while Spencer wrapped him tighter in his arms.
“Okay?” he whispered against Aaron’s cheek. Aaron’s hands shook against Spencer’s back, but he murmured against the warm skin of Spencer’s throat that he was fine, though he forgot Spencer couldn’t hear him. For just a second, he considered telling Spencer about the drugs in his system but then decided against it. He didn’t want his boyfriend to worry as he stood on the stage for that monumental accomplishment. Instead, he simply clung to Spencer for just a moment too long.
“Dad., I. Think. You. Should. Take. Aaron. And. His. Mom. To. Find. Nell.,” Spencer said without letting go of Aaron. Out of the corner of his eye, Aaron saw a look between them, so full of meaning it could have spilled over and pooled on the perfectly swept sidewalk. He couldn’t make himself worry about it right then. Spencer let a long kiss linger on Aaron’s forehead before he relinquished his hold. Positioning Aaron between them, Michelle and Dr. Thomas fought the growing crowd, a swell of humanity which surrounded and nearly swallowed them.
Senses dulled, Aaron still picked out random faces in the crowd, searching for the bridge of a nose, the sneer on a mouth, the curve of an ear, anything that seemed too familiar. Even five years later, Aaron still looked for even just the memory of them around every corner. Thankfully, he never found them, but he looked nonetheless.
Dr. Thomas led them over to the wide, open quad where what looked like a million white folding chairs had been set up in anticipation of proud family and friends. The front rows of chairs were nearly full, save for a few near the end of the row, where a woman sat alone. Dr. Thomas headed up the aisle toward her just as she turned to scan the crowd. When her eyes landed on the good doctor, she smiled. Aaron waited for everyone else to file into the row and then sat beside them.
So far, so good.
“Aaron, this is my sister-in-law, Nell. Nell, this is Spencer’s boyfriend, Aaron,” Dr. Thomas barked over the din of the milling crowd. Nell leaned forward, and Aaron noticed she had the same eyes as Spencer, bright, hazel, and brimming with kindness. Without attempting to touch Aaron, she merely studied him for a moment.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Aaron. I have to say, Spencer’s description of you was dead on,” she said with a small smile playing around her lips. Aaron tried not to think of what kind of horrors Spencer had described, but she simply said, “You are adorable.”
Michelle laughed, but Aaron just sat there staring at her before the manners his mother tried to etch into his soul kicked in and he thanked her. The second pill made him slow and groggy but stable as he waited for the ceremony to start. Dr. Thomas had sat on the far side of Nell, leaving her to sit by Aaron’s mother, with Aaron on the other side.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
Aaron’s head jerked around to his left, where an elderly woman, oxygen tank attached to an ancient walker, stood next to an even more ancient-looking man. Even through the drugs, his heart slammed against his ribs, and he found himself unable to speak. Aaron looked helplessly at his mother, who took charge as she always did.
“Henry, would you come sit next to Aaron and let these nice people have those seats next to Nell?”
Dr. Thomas stood quickly. To her credit, Nell didn’t even look curious when he stepped in front of her, and then Michelle, and then Aaron to take the vacant seat. The old woman and her husband backed up and walked around the front row of seats to come up the aisle from their right and sit next to Nell. Aaron was so stupid. Of course the graduation would be pretty much standing room only. That was why Nell had saved them seats to begin with. He couldn’t believe he’d taken the seat on the end to sit next to a stranger. What the fuck was wrong with him?
Neither his mother nor Dr. Thomas said anything else about it, and the women resumed their chat about some actress and her soon-to-be ex-husband. Aaron tuned them out and watched the seats in front of theirs fill up while Dr. Thomas played with his phone. Since he didn’t have any reason to talk, he simply sat, feeling the sun beating on his face. It took another half an hour for them to start the ceremony with the English department and their alphabetical list of graduates.
Two hundred and fifty-six students later, Aaron’s eyes drooped, and his brain slogged through the alphabet. He couldn’t remember if McDonald came before or after Marshall and just didn’t fucking care. If the kid behind him didn’t stop kicking the back of his goddamned chair, he was going to turn around and give him the scare of his life. Hey, kid, you know how I got this scar? By kicking the back of some guy’s chair. He didn’t, but he seriously considered it. As if his mother had someone how heard his thoughts, she put a hand on his leg.
“They’re getting close. Look.”
He followed her gaze and saw Spencer queued up next to the stage, waiting for his turn. He looked uncomfortable in the cap and gown, especially since it covered his shirt, tie, and dress pants, in the unseasonable early June warmth. Aaron watched him swipe his sleeve across his forehead. He looked as uncomfortable as Aaron felt. The next guy went up as they called someone named Taylor. Then another, and then another, until finally, finally Aaron heard the name for which he’d been waiting hours.
“Spencer Thomas,” a disembodied voice read over the shoddy speaker, and Aaron sat up sharply in his seat. A woman Aaron didn’t know tapped Spencer on the shoulder as he stood in line on the side of the stage and pointed up the stairs. He stumbled up the first step but caught himself on the railing. Aaron could imagine that his legs were numb from fear and anticipation, much as Aaron’s would have been. By the time Spencer reached the stage, all appearances of fear were gone. His back was straight, his head held high, and a wan smile replaced the nervous biting of his bottom lip. After striding those last few steps to where the dean stood with the piece of paper that probably cost ten bucks to make but would mean the world to Spencer’s future, Spencer held his hand out to take it. He shook the dean’s hand, moved toward the other side of the stage, and it was over. After hours of panic, drugs, and a tightness in his stomach Aaron didn’t think he’d ever quite get rid of, the entire event lasted less than ninety seconds.
But Spencer wasn’t the only one who had reason to be proud. Aaron had lasted the day, bested his fear, and watched one of the most important people in his life fulfill his dream. As Spencer walked down the stairs on the side of the stage farthest from them, he turned and looked straight at Aaron. How he’d found him in the crowd, Aaron had no idea, but he smiled—that secretive, beautiful smile he kept just for Aaron—and Aaron knew they’d just crossed another milestone.
I can’t say how much I liked this book even as it hurt reading it every step of the way.
Read the full review at
Aaron and Spencer are two of the most gut-wrenching books I’ve ever read, but I’m better for reading them.
I have read and loved so much of J.P. Barnaby’s writing, but to me Aaron and Spencer are the highlight of her fabulous body of work.
Spencer is, simply put, an emotionally articulate and gripping novel...
Using words and actions to paint an excruciating picture of learning to do what has to be done, regardless of the personal consequences, Ms Barnaby writes an exquisite novel of pain, love, and healing.
With beautifully flawed characters, both main and supporting, it’s a book about being human and being family.
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