CHAPTER 1: A FREAKIN’ DISASTER
THE lunch bell rings, and Caleb bolts from his seat. Once in the hall, he pulls his cell phone from his pocket and rereads the text message from his dad. Man, I’m in so much shit. He speeds his steps to his locker and prays Nico is there waiting for him. He rounds the corner and searches through the bustling, milling students. Nico isn’t there. Crap. He needs to find him, and quick. He jogs to his locker, spins the combination lock, and curses under his breath when it won’t open. He stresses and has to do it three times before he gets the damn locker open. Be easy, Caleb. It isn’t the end of the world. Who is he kidding? This is a freakin’ disaster.
The students who pass give him looks. By now, they know. Shit, where in hell is Nico?
“Hey,” Liam says casually as he finds Caleb at his locker.
Caleb returns a soft “Hey.”
“What’s going on, man?” he whispers.
Caleb doesn’t know what to say as he slams the locker door and turns to him. “What’d you hear?”
“They’re saying you kissed Nico.”
Caleb meets Liam’s questioning gaze. Short of Nico, Liam is his BFF. There’s no sense in lying to him. Thanks to Mr. Higgins, the word is already out. He nods once.
“Yeah? It’s true? You’re gay?”
Caleb takes a deep breath and releases a shuddering sigh. “Yeah.”
Caleb runs a nervous hand through his blond curls. “Yeah.”
Liam claps him on the back. “No shit. You could have told me, man.”
Caleb sighs again, a tremble on the air. “Sorry, man. I’ve never known how to tell anyone.”
Liam gives him a warm smile. “Yeah, you gotta feel totally awkward, bro. You gonna make practice today?”
This surprises Caleb. “You’re okay with it?”
“Fine, bro. To each his own, you know. And Nico’s a great guy.”
Caleb breathes a giant sigh of relief. “Thanks, man.”
“No problem. You gonna make practice today?” Liam asks again.
“Doubt it. The school called my dad. He’s picking me up after school.”
“That going to be a hassle? We got state finals on Saturday, and you’re our captain. We depend on you, Caleb.”
Caleb smiles a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. It’s going to be a serious hassle. “I’ll be okay for Saturday. Can you lead practice for me today?”
“No problem. Text me tonight when the sentencing is over. See you at our table at lunch?”
“Doubt it. I gotta find Nico.”
“Yeah, okay. Keep me posted.”
“Yeah, okay. Liam?”
Liam waves him off as he walks away.
That definitely went better than expected. Liam is always cool, though, and a good friend. The rest of the world? They usually suck.
Caleb worries about Nico. Nico isn’t good with confrontation. He is afraid most of the time. He is only safe when he’s with Caleb. He has to find Nico. Now. He jogs down the hall, making his way through the throng of students. A girl giggles and puts a hand over her mouth, then points at him. The girl next to her bursts out laughing. They know. This is a freakin’ disaster.
Caleb rounds another corner and doesn’t see Nico at his locker. Shit. Nico has phys ed right before lunch. He exits the building and makes his way to the gym. He checks down each row of lockers in the locker room and doesn’t see Nico. Damn it, where in hell is he!
“Nico, you in here?” he calls as he heads to the bathroom and shoves through the door.
There, squatted with his face buried in his arms, is Nico, in tears.
“Ah, shit,” Caleb says under his breath as he pulls Nico into his arms.
A strangled sob escapes Nico as he wraps his arms tightly around Caleb’s waist. “The school called my dad. He’s coming to get me after school.”
“I know. They called mine too.”
“My dad’s going to kill me, Caleb.”
Caleb winces at Nico’s words as he pets the curls he loves so much. Nico’s dad is dangerous. Nico’s dad is someone to be terrified of. “My dad will talk to him.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“The worst the school can do is suspend us.”
“No, I mean, what about us?”
Caleb lifts Nico’s chin with gentle fingertips. “What do you mean, what about us? We’re fine. Nothing’s going to happen to you and me.”
“You’re not going to break up with me?”
Pain sears Caleb’s heart. How could Nico even think such a thing? “Nicolò, baby, don’t even go there. I love you. Always have, always will. In a few months we’ll be off to college, and this will all be behind us.” He places a chaste kiss on Nico’s lips.
“’Kay.” Nico releases a long, shuddering sigh and squeezes Caleb’s waist before he pulls away. He rubs the tears from his eyes with the heels of his hands, then goes to a sink and rinses his face with cool water. “I’d die if I lost you, Caleb.”
Caleb cards his fingers through Nico’s curls. “Hush, nothing like that is ever going to happen. Everything will be okay.”
Nico turns the water off and reaches for a paper towel. “What’s your dad going to say?”
“He’ll think it’s bad news, but he’s easier than Mom is. Let’s get to lunch. You need something to eat.”
“’Kay. People are already talking.”
“I know. Mr. Higgins obviously couldn’t keep his big mouth shut. Liam asked me about it, and I told him the truth. He’s okay with it.”
Nico looks up at Caleb as Caleb leads him by the elbow from the bathroom. “He is?”
“Yeah, he’s fine with it.”
CALEB reads his dad’s text message one last time before the bell rings, ending his last period class. THE SCHOOL CALLED. BE ON THE FRONT STEPS AT 3. He doesn’t know what the school told his dad, and he doesn’t want to be the one to tell him. God, how could he be so stupid as to kiss Nico at school?
It just happened. They’re always so careful at school, but he’d been kissing Nico for almost six years and wasn’t thinking. It just seems natural to kiss him when they part to go their separate ways to class. Of all people, Mr. Higgins, the peevish algebra teacher, had to be the one to see them. All they did was peck lips. It wasn’t even a full-on snog. Mr. Higgins acted as if they were caught in flagrante delicto. He scolded them heartily, then rushed off to the headmaster’s office. Caleb isn’t sure whom he’s angrier with, himself or Mr. Higgins. Shit, what a freakin’ disaster.
This is the first time in his near-eighteen-year existence he’s ever been in trouble. He suddenly has a horrible thought. A suspension would get him kicked off the swim team. He’s worked hard to become captain of the team, swimming every afternoon after school for three hours. Three hours every day that he could have spent alone with Nico. Three more hours each day that Nico could have been safe. Fear and anxiety claw at his heart, and his mind reels with rising fear. This is a freakin’ disaster.
The bell rings, and he flies from his seat. He finds Nico at his locker this time. He’s pale, and his eyes are swollen from crying. “You okay?”
Nico nods. “Nasty comments, but nothing else.”
Students stare at them as they pass. Some make snide remarks.
“Come on, let’s get this over with,” Caleb says softly.
Caleb emerges on the front steps of the school first and looks for his dad’s car. He doesn’t see it, but he does see Mr. Caro striding toward the school, his fury large in the air around him. Students automatically move out of his way as he passes them. Caleb slinks back through the double doors. “Your dad’s coming up the walk.”
Nico nods once and straightens up. Caleb admires him. As terrified as Nico is of his dad, he refuses to show his fear. Nico begins to push through the double doors, and Mr. Caro opens them first. Nico is face-to-face with his dad. Mr. Caro shoots Caleb a scathing look, then turns to Nico and says something in Italian that sounds vicious. He grabs little Nico by the upper arm and all but drags him down the hall toward the headmaster’s office. Caleb wants to run after him. His heart tears in two as he turns back to the double doors. What a freakin’ disaster.
Caleb’s dad frowns at him through the window as he reaches the building, and Caleb steps through the double doors. Mr. Deering acknowledges Caleb with a curt nod and gestures to a cement bench beneath the trees across the lawn. The air between them is uncomfortably thick with tension as they sit, and all Caleb wants to do is crawl into a hole and die. His heart aches. His dad is rarely disappointed in him and hardly ever angry with him. Like, never. He nails Caleb with a determined look before asking what happened.
Caleb doesn’t know what to say. He’s thought about this conversation a million times since he was twelve and could never work it out in his mind. He can’t say it. He just can’t. He can’t bear to disappoint the father he loves more than anything in the world. He wipes his sweaty palms on his jeaned thighs and looks away, mortified.
Mr. Deering leans toward him. “Caleb? They called me and said you were in trouble for… for messing around with another boy. Were you? Messing around with another boy?”
Caleb clears his throat before answering with a nearly inaudible, “Yes.”
His dad sighs deeply.
To Caleb it sounds like all the disappointment in the world is in that sigh. A traitorous tear escapes Caleb’s eye, and he wipes it away with a vicious hand. “Did you tell Mom?”
“I wanted to speak to you first.”
After surgery and a year of chemotherapy, his mom was now officially cancer-free. It had been a year from hell for her. For all of them. Now is not the time to find out her nearly perfect, straight-A son is going more than steady with his best friend. “Yeah, okay.” He doesn’t know what else to say.
Mr. Deering leans forward, elbows on his knees, and scrubs his face with his hands. “You kissed another boy?”
“Yes.” The word is unequivocal.
“You weren’t just screwing around? I used to do crazy shit when I was a kid, so I understand.” Mr. Deering’s voice holds the gravity of the district attorney he is.
Caleb can’t look at the anger in his dad’s eyes as he wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans again. “No.” He swallows hard. I’m not ready to tell him, he thinks painfully. I’m just not ready.
The double doors open, and Caleb looks across the lawn. Nico walks unsteadily down the steps as Mr. Caro glowers at him.
Caleb sees the ugly, blossoming bruise on Nico’s cheek, and his anger soars. Caleb knows Nico’s dad has hit him. Again. He looks at the giant, brooding man who towers over Nico as they pass, and he wants to punch Mr. Caro.
A flicker of a smile crosses Nico’s lips before he mouths “I’m okay.” Mr. Caro catches him and slaps the back of his head, then pushes him toward the car.
Caleb sees the fleeting surprise that crosses his dad’s face at the sight of Nico’s dad just before knowledge and understanding fill his eyes.
Mr. Caro stops walking when he sees Caleb’s dad rise from the bench. Mr. Deering walks up to him and extends a hand. “Angelo, good to see you.”
Mr. Caro shakes his hand. “The same, Michael. I’m sorry for my Nico’s trouble. I will teach him a lesson.”
Empathy fills Mr. Deering’s eyes when he sees Nico’s cheek. He places a comforting hand on Nico’s shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Don’t, Angelo. He did nothing wrong.”
This comment surprises Caleb, but he has no time to think about it because Mr. Caro says, “You take care of your Caleb. I will take care of my Nico.” It sounds like an order. He shoves Nico toward the car and follows him down the walk.
Mr. Deering holds a hand out to Caleb, an uncharacteristic move for his professionally stolid father. Caleb rises from the bench quickly, and his dad puts a comforting hand on the nape of his neck and guides him to the car.
Caleb glances at Nico and sees the ancient fear on his face. He wants to run to him, to save him from what is surely in store for him.