TAYLOR HAD taken the news about Addy and Benny’s relationship surprisingly well. He admitted he’d never guessed his friend was bisexual, but told Benny that he and Addy were a perfect fit, and after he gave it some thought, Taylor admitted he should have seen the truth. He had seen Benny and Addy at camp together, the long walks and the quiet talks.
“Benny, can I ask a question?” Taylor wondered.
“Yeah, of course, Tay. Anything you want.”
“When we were talking about going to college, you started to tell me something about Addy. Do you remember?”
Oh yes, Benny remembered quite well. He had wanted to tell Taylor about his first kiss with Addy and how it was messing up his head, but he just couldn’t come out and tell Taylor he had enjoyed it and desperately wanted another one. He wasn’t ready for that at the time.
“Yeah, Tay, I remember. When we were at camp… Addy kissed me. It was the first time I’d ever been kissed by a guy, and I was freaking out. I needed to talk to someone, and it had to be you, but I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Benny could see the look of pity on his best friend’s face.
“Really, Benny? After everything we’ve been through, you couldn’t tell me this one thing that wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me? Hell, I told you I was gay when I was eleven years old!”
Benny put his head down, tears of shame pricking at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Tay. I messed up. Again.”
“Benny, you know how you’ve told me time and again that I was an idiot?”
Benny couldn’t speak, so he just nodded.
“Yeah, that’s you right now, my friend. Gay, bisexual, straight… do you honestly believe I’d judge you? Did you really think something awful would happen to our friendship?”
Benny nodded again.
“Seriously?” Taylor asked, the shock evident in his voice. “What would have happened? Tell me, Benny, what would have happened between us?”
“You’d have been upset with me because I’d have gotten way more boyfriends than you,” Benny said with a giggle.
“You’re an ass, Benny Peters!” Taylor collapsed into his own giggling fit.
“Honestly, Tay, I get lost in my head sometimes. I got so worried about what everyone else would think that I never bothered to consider what I thought. That day in the hospital? Addy had to ask me if I was ashamed of him. I couldn’t believe that I might have made him feel that way. That I could have disregarded him like other people had.” Benny’s eyes went wide with realization over the enormity of what could have happened.
Benny was a big guy, but now he felt small and frightened. Taylor put his arms around Benny, squeezed, and rocked him gently.
“Shhhh, Benny. It’s all right. You figured it out, and Addy understands. You’re trying to do right by him, but you also need to do it for you, whatever you decide.”
“Tay, I gotta tell you, I’ve never in my life met anyone like Addy before.” Benny sighed as he pictured Addy. “He’s so strong, and he cares so much. I’m so afraid that he’s going to get hurt by someone. I’ll be damned if that’s going to be me,” he spat.
“Do you love him?” Taylor asked.
Benny noticed the cautious tone in Taylor’s voice. He knew his friend was worried for him, and that made him smile.
“I think so,” Benny replied with a longing sigh. “I’ve never been in love, so I’m not really sure what it is. I know that I ache when I don’t see him; I hurt if I think he’s sad. There are times he gets this look on his face, like he knows all of the secrets of the universe, and I want to lock him away so the rest of the world can’t share in that look. It’s the one he gives me, and I want it just to stay all mine.”
Taylor chuckled. Benny looked at him and felt the blood rush to his face.
“Benny, you’re so corny and such a romantic. I can see why Addy wants you.” Taylor laughed, fluttering his eyelashes.
Benny arched an eyebrow, flexed, and teased, “Hey, all of this could have been yours!”
Taylor mocked a gag. “No thanks. Got what I want already. And I should be getting back home. I’m expecting him to call, and I want to get something to eat before he does. When are you guys leaving for camp?”
“We leave Friday afternoon. Addy’s been busy getting everything he needs together. He’s worried about forgetting something. I haven’t seen him in two days, and it makes my skin itch,” Benny admitted. “I asked him to drive up with me. I want to stop somewhere and talk with him.”
“And you only ‘think’ you love him? Dude, you are so far gone on that guy,” Taylor said, snickering.
“Yeah.” Benny sighed. “I truly am. He’s my boy, after all.”
“DAD?” ADDY called out, wandering through the house.
“I’m in the office, Adrian,” came the reply.
Addy stepped into his father’s office, finding him hunched over the desk. He grinned. He found his father in this same spot quite often.
“Whatcha doing?” he asked.
“Paying some bills. I swear we should just switch to the barter system,” Mr. Dean grumbled.
“Is it okay with you if I catch a ride with Benny up to camp instead of taking the bus? Benny said he wanted to talk with me while we drove.”
Putting his glasses down on the desk, Mr. Dean turned to face his son.
“Adrian, I’m not sure how comfortable I am about this.”
“Dad, please? It’s Benny,” Addy practically whined.
“I trust Mr. Peters. Really, I do. He’s a very levelheaded young man with an amazing sense of responsibility. What I’m worried about—well, to be honest, I’m worried about you. Are you sure you’re ready to handle a relationship? You’ve only been doing therapy seriously since last year. I just don’t want you to be hurt.”
“Dad,” Addy huffed, “Benny wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I believe that. But what if Mr. Peters wants to take it to a more physical relationship? Are you ready for that? After everything, do you really think—?”
Addy paused. He knew eventually Benny would want something more, and the thought made his stomach clench.
“Dad, Benny isn’t like that. He’d understand,” Addy replied weakly.
“Have you talked to him yet? Does he know what happened to you?”
Addy shook his head slowly. “Not everything.”
“Are you afraid of what he’ll say?”
“If you can’t be honest with him, then do you really think you have a future together? He needs to know what happened, and you’re the only one who can tell him. Do you want to be with him?”
“Yeah, Dad, I do. He makes me feel protected. Like when I’m with him nothing can hurt me. I’m his boy,” came the near-whispered reply.
EARLY FRIDAY afternoon Benny stopped at Addy’s house to give him a ride to the camp. Addy seemed excited about the idea of spending some alone time with him. For his part, Benny was a little nervous. He’d never told someone he loved them, not like this. It made his palms sweat to think about it. He’d showered twice that day, trying to make sure everything was perfect when they got to the spot he’d picked out.
As they drove through Green Bay, they chatted about so many things, and Benny learned quite a bit about Addy. He confided that he was trying to get his dad to allow him to attend public school for his upcoming senior year. Benny learned about their differing tastes in movies, sports, even their favorite colors. Finally, somewhere around Lena, Wisconsin, Addy drifted off to sleep. Benny stole glances while he drove; the peaceful look on Addy’s face made him smile.
They arrived in Florence, Wisconsin. Benny turned off the main highway and drove to the spot he’d found online. Called the Rustic Roads of Florence County, it was a thirty-two mile drive through some beautiful hardwood forests. Benny shook Addy, who sat up and wiped his eyes, trying to figure out where they were.
“Benny? Are we lost?”
“No, little man, we’re good. I wanted to take a ride with you. Is that cool?”
Addy smiled and nodded his agreement. The trip was spectacular. They saw several deer, many birds neither of them could identify, and Addy spotted a bear, the highlight for him. Benny pulled off the road and parked on the side of the trail. He turned to Addy, smiled, took Addy’s hand in his, and let his fingers ghost over the fair skin of Addy’s face.
“Got to tell you something, Addy,” he whispered softly. “When I was growing up, I was always driven to get good grades. My parents’ whole life revolved around my academic achievements.” He paused briefly. “When I was thirteen, I started to lift weights because I figured a strong mind should have a strong body to house it. The one thing, though, was that growing up, I wasn’t allowed to be me.”
Benny smiled. “Taylor was my only real friend, mostly because I just didn’t have time for anyone else.” His eyes met Addy’s. “Then last year you came into my life and showed me that while I have a healthy mind and a healthy body, I was missing something. A healthy heart.”
Benny reached up and slid his fingers over the back of Addy’s neck. “I never really realized how empty it was until after I met you. The day you kissed me made me realize I was lonely. I needed someone in my life who I could care for and who would care for me.”
He smiled as he thought of something. “My parents thought it was foolish of me to want to date when I needed good grades to get into a good school. Taylor and I are going to be going to the University of Vermont in Burlington next year after graduation. I think they’re kind of disappointed. I have the grades to get in a lot more prestigious school, but the university offers me a chance to help make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s important to me. We’re going to—”
“Benny? You’re rambling.” Addy chuckled.
Benny’s face tightened.
“Sorry. Just kinda nervous. What I wanted to say to you is, you mean a lot to me. I enjoy being around you. Being with you is the best part of the day for me. Holding you and kissing you? Oh God, that’s the greatest feeling in the history of, well, ever. I know I don’t always show it, but—” He paused, trying to will the words to come out.
“I love you too, Benny. Have for a long time, but I didn’t want to put any pressure on you. When you put your arms around me? It’s like being wrapped in a big blanket, I feel so warm and safe. When you look at me, it’s like you can see things there that no one else understands. It feels like home, Benny.”
Benny grinned and leaned in to Addy’s kiss.
“C’mon, I got something for us before we head out again.”
Benny scrambled out of the car and popped the trunk, then pulled out a blanket and an old-fashioned wicker picnic basket.
“I’ve never been on a picnic before,” Addy admitted, joy evident in his eyes.
“Me either. I wanted today to be special for you. Don’t expect much, though. I don’t cook,” Benny said, laughing.
He spread the blanket on the ground and motioned for Addy to sit. He opened the basket and took out two sub sandwiches with sliced veggie deli meat and Daiya cheese, some kettle chips, and two orange sodas.
“If you don’t want the lunch meat, you can take it off. I just didn’t want to assume—” Benny began.
“Benny, this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. It’s perfect, thank you.”
As they ate Benny could feel the box in his pocket digging into his leg. He wanted to give it to Addy at the right time and hoped it wouldn’t freak him out. He was nervous as hell, trying to guess what his boyfriend’s reaction would be.
After cleaning up the area and returning the basket to the trunk, Benny approached Addy, unable to look him directly in the face. He reached into his pocket and took out the small red box. He held it out, waiting for Addy to take it from his trembling hand.
“What is it?” Addy asked curiously, plucking the box from Benny.
“It’s for us,” Benny replied. “If you don’t like it, that’s cool. We can get something different or nothing at all.”
“I like it when you get all shy, Benny. It’s great to see someone as big as you can still be nervous.”
“It’s only you who makes me this way. No one else does. I think you’re a witch or something.” Benny chuckled.
Addy pulled the box open and stammered in an awed voice, “Oh my God, they’re beautiful.”
He pulled the two parts of the yin-yang pendants from the box. Polished silver and onyx pieces sparkled in the dim light.
“They’re engraved,” Benny mumbled.
Addy turned them over. The silver one had “Addy” etched into it, in a strong, bold font. The black one had “Benny” scribed onto its surface in an equally striking script.
“I got them so we could remember who we belong to. I’d like to wear the one with your name on it if that’s okay with you?”
Tears formed at the edges of Addy’s eyes.
“I don’t know what to say, Benny.” He sighed.
“I’m hoping you’ll say yes,” Benny replied.
“Oh heck yeah!” Addy cried ecstatically.
Benny opened the clasp on the thin sterling chain and put it around Addy’s neck, closing it reverentially once it was in place. Addy slipped his fingers around the pendant, drawing it to his lips and kissing it lightly before tucking it into his shirt. Addy then took the other pendant and did the same for Benny.
Benny looked down at Addy, cupped his chin, and pulled his face up to look into his eyes. “I love you, little man,” he finally got out.
“Love you too, Benny. A lot!”
Benny pulled Addy into him, wrapping the small frame in his arms and lifting him from the ground. Addy laid his head on Benny’s shoulder, running his fingers over the pendant adorning Benny’s chest.
“Quite the year, huh?” Addy whispered.
“Best year ever, you know? Best ever.”
Addy snatched a quick kiss from Benny before wriggling out of his arms.
“We should get going,” Addy said with a blush.
ADDY SAT in the car, worry creasing his brow. Not even an hour ago, he’d been so happy. Why was he so nervous now? His thoughts drifted back to his conversation with his dad. Would Benny still want him when he found out what had happened? Would he think Addy was too broken? Addy shivered. He tried to tell himself Benny would never be like that, but how could he know for sure?
“What’s up, little man? I can hear you thinking from over here.” Benny chuckled.
“Nothing, Benny. I’m okay.”
“Addy, c’mon. I can tell you’ve got something on your mind. I need to know what it is. I can’t help if you won’t let me.”
Addy took a deep breath.
“I’m afraid,” he admitted.
“Of what? Camp?”
“No… of losing you.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you think you’d lose me?”
“Benny.” Addy sighed. “I need to tell you some stuff. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s really not going to be nice.”
Addy saw Benny’s hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“It’s about what happened to you, isn’t it?” Benny managed to ask.
“Uh-huh. I want to tell you—if you want to know.”
“Yeah, I do. I hoped you’d tell me some day.”
“I was five the first time he hit me,” Addy began quietly. “I don’t remember what it was for. I think he said I forgot to feed the dog or something. When I told him I had, he slapped me across the face. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. I ran to my bedroom and cried for the longest time. He came in and told me that he was sorry, that he had done it out of his love for me.”
“What about your mom? Didn’t she say anything?”
“Mom was long gone by then. I’m pretty sure he had hit her too, and she just packed up and left.”
Addy saw Benny nod sharply. He could see his boyfriend was trying hard to contain his anger.
“It got worse after that. He’d hit me for no reason and laughed about it. If I cried, he’d tell me I needed to man up. One day, though, it all changed. I broke something—a plate, I think—and he just went nuts. He screamed at me about not being able to afford to feed me let alone try to buy new stuff. He pulled the lamp cord out of the wall and sliced off the wires. He started to hit me, whipping me with it. I was screaming, begging him to stop, but he just kept hitting me. When he finally did stop, my arms were covered in welts, and some of them were bleeding. He picked me up, took me into the bathroom, and cleaned them up. He explained again how he did it out of his love for me.”
Addy paused for a breath, glancing at Benny, who sat grimly staring at the road ahead.
“The next time he did it, he ripped my shirt off and whipped me on my chest and back.” Addy sniffled. “Oh God, Benny, I wanted to die, it hurt so bad. I started wearing long-sleeve shirts then because I didn’t want anyone to know. He told me that he would just tell them it was my fault, that I’d been bad. Then one night he came home drunk. He whipped me with the cord again, but this time that wasn’t enough. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Then he pressed it into my arm. I could smell my skin burning. I screamed until I went hoarse. He kept doing it, pushing it into my arms, my back and chest. I think I passed out because I don’t remember anything until the next morning.”
Addy looked over to Benny. He could see the tears rolling down his face. He reached out and touched Benny’s arm, surprised when he flinched. He wanted to stop, but he had to get it out while he could.
“A few weeks went by and everything was okay. He didn’t hit me or anything. He was actually pretty nice to me. He bought me some toys, told me he loved me, said that I was special. It was a couple of days later that I figured out what he wanted. It was pretty late. I was sleeping. He came into my room, drunk again, and grabbed me out of the bed. He told me he loved me but I had to prove I loved him too. That was the night he made me—do stuff to him. He kept telling me how much he loved me, and all I could think about was how sick I was going to get because of what he made me do. It went on most nights for almost a year and a half, Benny. Then Mrs. Churchill saw me having trouble sitting still one day and asked me what was wrong. I told her it was nothing, but she wouldn’t leave it alone. She sent me to the nurse, who made me take off my shirt. She saw everything, and they called the police. My dad got arrested and sent to prison. I got moved into the foster care system. They couldn’t find my mom, so a few months later they terminated their parental rights and sent me to live with the Deans, who adopted me about a year later.”
Addy lurched as Benny pulled the car to the side of the road. He got worried when his boyfriend threw open the driver’s door and stalked from the car. When Benny got to where Addy sat, he could see anger in his boyfriend’s eyes, and he got scared. Benny pulled the door open, reached in and unbuckled the seat belt, then pulled Addy from the car. Addy struggled to get away, panicking, thinking Benny meant to hurt him. Instead Benny lifted him up and held him tightly against his body, crushing him in an embrace. Tears were flowing down Benny’s face, and he was sobbing against Addy’s shoulder.
“I’m so goddamn proud of you, little man. You just don’t know. I don’t understand how anyone could do that to someone as sweet as you.”
Addy settled into the hug and stroked Benny’s back, rubbing light circles, trying to soothe him.
“I just wanted you to know what happened. I’m not sure when I’m going to be ready for… you know,” Addy mumbled, not looking Benny in the eye.
“Hey, look at me. I’m not ready for sex yet,” Benny explained. “What we have, right now, that’s good for me. We’ve each got too much going on in our lives to even think about adding sex into it. When it’s time, we’ll know, but for right now, I’m just happy I get to hold you and love you.”
“Thanks, Benny,” Addy whispered into his ear. “Thanks for that.”
After talking for a while longer, they got back into the car and continued on their way to Camp Care. Addy’s heart felt lighter, having told most of his secret to Benny. He could see Benny’s jaw working, though, and that worried him.
BENNY WAS seething. He couldn’t believe anyone could hurt a child, but to hurt his boy? He felt impotent rage, knowing there was nothing he could do to change the past. His only option was to make a better future for Addy. He metered his breathing, willing himself to calm down. To think logically. He didn’t want to scare the young man sitting next to him any more than he already had. On the contrary, he wanted nothing more than to keep him safe and happy.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” Benny asked quietly.
He saw Addy blink a few times, his brow furrowed and face scrunched like he was trying to actually see the future, before he answered.
“I don’t know,” he replied softly. “I’ve never really given it much thought. Before last year I never even thought I had a future. I was always so angry when I was growing up. I’d get into fights. I’d scream at my teachers. I’d throw tantrums in class. I was out of control. I don’t understand why the Deans put up with me. They tried so hard, but they just couldn’t seem to get through. Not like you guys did. I found that I love to paint. It makes everything hurt less. When I let go of some of the anger I had about what happened to me, I realized that the Deans are my real parents. The ones who loved me and comforted me. The ones who gave me a true family. The people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. They set up an art station in my room so that I could practice painting and proudly displayed my works. My relatives told me how much they liked my stuff. A few of them actually bought pieces from me to have in their houses. I thought that was pretty cool.”
“It just so happens,” Benny began, “that the University of Vermont, where Taylor and I will be going, has a great art program. You could come with us—if you wanted.”
“Seriously? You’d want me to come with you?” Addy gasped.
“I’d like you to be there. You’re my boy, right?”
Addy moved across the seat, lifted Benny’s arm, and laid his head on his boyfriend’s side, giving a happy sigh when Benny pulled him in close.
“I know it’s still a year away, but I hope you’ll think about it,” Benny murmured.
“Oh, I’m definitely going to think about it,” Addy stated emphatically.
Benny tightened his arm a little more and gave a happy smile. Life was going to be good for all his family.