I SIGHED as I closed my Nook. Talking with Jeff always got me worked up. I was excited, nervous, and beyond thrilled. My—well, our—plans, were finally coming together. In less than a month’s time, I’d be out of the house and headed to England to be with Jeff and start a whole new life. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out my Nook and the coffee shop next door allowed me limited access to the Internet while I was in my room. I’m certain my parents weren’t aware such a thing was even possible. The only reason they agreed to give me the reader in the first place was that it allowed me to use books they’d picked out, usually study materials. Being homeschooled, I got a lot of that. I couldn’t hold back the grin that spread across my face. Just a few short weeks, and I’d be out of here. I’d be eighteen and could go meet Jeff, the man who swore he’d love me and take care of me. Something I’d craved for the longest time.
I met Jeff about two weeks after my discovery in the coffee shop, and soon after that, I started hanging out in the Top and Bottom Boys chat room. It was certainly an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot talking with other guys my age. One afternoon, I was chatting with my friend Jared when I received a message from “JeffUK” asking if I wanted to chat. Not a name I recognized, but he said he’d read my profile and thought I sounded nice. I figured why not? It’s always good to have more friends.
JeffUK: What’s your name?
JeffUK: Hi, Scott. Nice to meet you. Do you have a picture?
HomeboyS: Just a minute.
I had taken a few pictures and transferred them to the Nook, where my parents wouldn’t find them. I took the one I thought looked best and sent it to Jeff.
JeffUK: Very nice! I love your eyes. They’re so blue.
Even though I knew he couldn’t see me, I smiled. It was nice to have someone like my picture. If I were honest, I never thought I was anything to write home about. I was seventeen, awkward as all heck, with an unruly mop of hair I couldn’t control. When I was a kid, I got sick, and as a result didn’t have much of a growth spurt, so I was only about five five. I definitely didn’t look seventeen, almost eighteen—more like fourteen. Going to high school would have been hell for me.
HomeboyS: Thanks. :)
From then on, whenever I was online, Jeff would find me. We had some great chats. Jeff told me all about life in England. He told me Manchester was a great place, a gay Mecca of sorts, and the way he described it really made me want to visit one day.
I always looked forward to our chats. If my parents were being difficult, Jeff was there with a “poor baby,” and then he’d say things that always made me laugh or smile, or both. And it worked both ways. One day he told me his boss was being a real bitch, and I sympathized with him, trying my best to make him feel better. It usually worked too. He told me once how much he valued our time together, and it made my heart swell with happiness. Jeff needed me. It pleased me so much that he felt able to share what he was going through.
The one time I’ll always remember was when his best friend got hit by a car. I could tell Jeff was devastated. He would get online after he’d been to the hospital to visit, and one time I spent at least an hour with him, trying to ease his pain. There wasn’t much I could say, I knew that, but Jeff told me later how really close he’d felt to me after that. It was around that time when he shocked the hell out of me. He asked me one day if I seriously wanted to visit. I said yes, of course, but I knew my parents would never allow it. He explained he’d like to buy me a plane ticket to come stay with him in England. I couldn’t believe my luck. Was he serious? He said if I wanted to live there, he would let me move into his place and he’d take care of me. Images flooded my mind of living with him, loving him, and being cared for by him. How could I say no?
JEFFUK: HEY, Scott! What’s going on?
HomeboyS: Nothing much. Just finished up my homework for the night. How are you?
JeffUK: Great! I get to talk to you, so that makes my night.
I could feel my face heating up. Jeff knew how to embarrass me in a good way.
JeffUK: You been thinking about our conversation?
HomeboyS: Oh yeah. I can’t wait to get there.
JeffUK: Me either. I want to share my life with you. It’ll be great. My apartment is only one bedroom. You can sleep on the couch, or you can crash with me.
JeffUK: Scott, it’s cool if you don’t want to sleep in the same bed. It’s not a requirement for living with me.
HomeboyS: Oh, no, it’s not that. I just never… uh… you know.
JeffUK: Are you telling me you’re a virgin?
I was embarrassed and couldn’t answer the question. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of hopeless geek and change his mind about inviting me to live with him. I needn’t have worried. Apparently Jeff wanted to put my mind at ease.
JeffUK: If you are, it’s totally cool. I think someone is going to be getting a great gift one day.
I knew a smile was spreading across my face. He really did care for me. I knew I was in love with Jeff. I wanted to spend the rest of my life making him happy. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him.
HomeboyS: Yeah. I’ve never done anything. I’m not real popular in my neighborhood. Most of the guys assume I think I’m too good for them because I don’t go to public school. That’s not it at all, but I can’t make them understand.
There were other things they did, but I didn’t want to discuss those with Jeff.
JeffUK: Don’t worry about it. Four more weeks and you’ll be with me. I promise you, it’s going to be great for both of us. I love you, Scotty.
When I read those words, my heart soared. I’d waited so long to hear them from someone. Anyone. I wrapped my arms around myself and squeezed, imagining it was Jeff. That night, I went to sleep with a wide smile on my face.
AS THE weeks wore on, I became increasingly jittery. For the most part, my parents and I tolerated each other, but they expected me to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an architect like him. I didn’t want to do that. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that wasn’t it. The more I thought about it, the more having Jeff take care of me, and allowing me to take care of him, appealed to me. I wanted to clean for him, cook his meals, be there to love him when he wanted. Leaving the house held such terrors for me from the other guys in the neighborhood. Being so small, I was easy to pick on. I got pushed around on the rare times I did venture out. Even though I had turned eighteen nearly a month ago, I was still slight enough to be a prime target. Eventually, it became easier to stay at home, which suited my parents just fine. But not me. I was lonely. I wanted someone to put their arms around me and hold me close. I wanted what Jeff offered, a home and someone to love me. I think I would have done pretty much anything to have that.
TWO GREAT things happened four weeks later. The mail had my passport and an envelope from Jeff containing my one-way plane ticket to England, as well as everything I needed for obtaining a two-year visitor’s visa. Wow, there were so many steps, but I didn’t care. It would be worth it. I literally hugged the passport. This was really happening. I knew one thing in that moment: there was no way I was letting it out of my sight. I couldn’t risk my parents coming across it. From now on, where I went, my passport went. Without hesitation, I slipped it into the inner pocket of my jacket. It gave me a comforting feeling, knowing it was there. There wasn’t a return address on the envelope containing the ticket, but there was a note signed “With Love, Jeff.” When I saw the ticket was for a first-class seat, I was so giddy I could barely contain myself. And there was something else—a photo. It showed a young man with curly black hair and dark brown eyes, gazing soulfully at the camera. My heart beat faster as I turned it over. Yeah, there were the words: “So you’ll know what I look like at the airport when I meet you. Can’t wait.” Hurriedly, I turned it back over to gaze at Jeff. He was exactly as I’d pictured him. Opening the inner pocket of my jacket, I tucked the photo inside my passport. That giddy feeling persisted. By the end of the week, I’d be on a jet, getting away from this town and its small-minded inhabitants. Or so I thought. Seems my parents had other ideas.
“SCOTT, YOUR mother and I have arranged a date for you. You’ll be escorting Sarah to the debutantes’ ball this weekend,” my dad told me, puffing his chest out.
I huffed in exasperation. I was supposed to leave very late that Saturday, and there was no way I’d be taking her anywhere, especially when it would mess up my plans.
“Dad, I told you I don’t want to go with Sarah. I don’t know her. I don’t really want to know her. I’m not interested in girls.” I sucked a deep breath into my lungs before I blurted out, “I’m gay, Dad.”
The old saying about hearing a pin drop was never more appropriate. My father’s face went white and then the most shocking shade of red. He stalked across the room and invaded my space. His finger waggled in front of my face.
“I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. You are not queer. You will be taking Sarah to this dance, and we’re not discussing this any further. Is that understood?” His hot breath on my face reeked of alcohol.
I couldn’t stop myself from trembling. I hated it when my father got like this. Ever since I was a kid, he’d always bullied me into doing things his way. Nothing I did was ever good enough. Never once did I hear “You did well, I’m proud of you.” I wanted to say something, maybe finally stand up for myself. Instead, I lowered my eyes to the floor. “Yes, sir.”
He pushed me into the leather-backed chair and sneered at me. “You’re going to take Sarah to this dance. She will have a good time. You’ll see to that.” Warm sprays of spit dotted my face as he cursed me. I simply nodded, hoping his rage would wear itself out eventually, as it usually did. “No son of mine will ever disgrace this family. So man up, meet my expectations, or get the hell out of this house.”
He shoved the chair away, knocking me against the desk, before he turned and strode from the room, a stream of obscenities trailing behind him. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around my legs, and sobbed. He knew very well I couldn’t go. No money. No job. And now, my plans to get out from under his thumb were ruined.
SATURDAY NIGHT arrived all too quickly. I tried to talk to my mother, but she was just as adamant as my father. She wouldn’t dare cross him, and I knew it. I pulled out my Nook, wanting to get in touch with Jeff, hoping he might know what I could do, but he wasn’t around. I was alone, and I hated it. I looked at myself in the mirror, my emotions all over the place. I wanted to hit something, to lash out, but I knew I wouldn’t. That rolling sensation in my stomach wouldn’t quit. As I picked up my jacket, I felt the comforting weight of my passport in the inner pocket. Only it wasn’t so comforting any more. I was about to give it all up. I was about to embark on a life that was a complete lie, just to keep my father happy.
This sucked. I mean, really sucked. I thought about my father’s expectations of me for the night, and the mere thought had me reaching for my Nook, shoving it into my jacket pocket. I figured I’d read in the hotel room, because no way was I going to have sex with Sarah. No freaking way.
As I prepared to leave, my parents met me at the door. My mother looked at me and rolled her eyes, an expression that always got me ready for her comments about what was wrong with me.
“Honestly, Scott, we paid good money for that tux. Do you really need to wear that jacket? You look like a street person,” she complained.
My father nodded sharply at me but said nothing. He pushed me out the door, following close behind me. A quick jerk of my arm turned me toward him. He thrust some money, a key card to a hotel room, and several condoms at me.
“The driver knows where the room is. Don’t disappoint me like you always do,” he hissed.
I stuffed everything in my pocket and got into the limousine Dad had rented. Mom came flying out the door before we pulled away, shoving a corsage into my hands. The hideous green carnation mocked my weakness. Never once had I stood up for myself. Not ever. As we drove past the airport, I heaved a sigh, knowing what would probably be my last chance for a different life was about to slip by me. I wondered if Jeff would be able to get his money back. Would he talk to me? Would he still love me, or would it turn to hatred? The plastic shell of the carnation crunched in my hand. I shook my head harshly. For goodness’ sake, I finally had a chance at freedom. I had a chance to be happy. Instinctively, I touched my jacket where my passport lay hidden from view, and all my anger from earlier surged through me. Hell, no. I did not want to lose this. And it was in that moment of clarity when I suddenly realized there was no way I was going to give it up.
“Stop the car,” I bellowed.
The driver hit the brakes, throwing me forward into the seat.
“I’ve changed my mind. Take me to the Philadelphia International Airport.”
The driver glanced at me through the rearview mirror, his eyebrows arched. I stared hard at him, unblinking. Finally he shrugged and headed off. Growing up in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, I had never been to the airport, but today there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me. When we arrived, I scrambled out of the car, handing the driver most of my money. I pulled my beat-up leather wallet from my pocket. Thank God. The plane ticket was still firmly lodged in one of the compartments.
I asked the driver for a paper and pen. He handed me a small, yellowed scrap of paper. My hands were jittery as I scrawled a quick note.
Mom and Dad,
I’m not going to the dance. In fact, I’m not going to school in the fall. I’ve been invited by a friend to come live in England, and I’ve decided this is where my heart is telling me I should be. I don’t know when I’ll be coming home. Or if. Take care of yourselves. Scott.
I handed the driver the note, asking him to please get it to my parents. After extracting a promise from him, I ran for the terminal. I would be cutting it close, but I wasn’t about to miss my best chance, maybe my only chance, at a new life. Jeff wanted me, and at that particular moment, it was the only thing that mattered.
The airport was fairly quiet. A few stragglers waited to board flights, but late as it was, there wasn’t much traffic. I handed my ticket over at the counter, feeling a last nervous twinge, and got my boarding card. I had no idea how long security took or what it entailed, so it was a surprise to find myself in an imaging booth being scanned. I even had to take off my shoes. When they’d finally finished with me, I rushed through to the gate and boarded the plane. Settling into the red-cushioned seat, I gazed out the window, wondering if they’d miss me. Trying to decide if I cared. The plane began taxiing down the runway, and in a few moments, we were airborne. I watched the ground move farther away before settling back in my comfortable seat and closing my eyes. I was finally free.
I TRIED not to panic, but an iron fist squeezed my heart. I’d been sitting alone in the airport for over an hour, and hadn’t seen the man who had brought me all the way here.
Where the hell is Jeff?
When we landed, I was tired, but I couldn’t wait to see him. To have him hold me in his arms—finally. All through the long night’s journey, I’d imagined how our first meeting would go. I lost count of how many times I gazed at Jeff’s photo, dozing off for short spells only to wake up and stare at him over and over again.
The sun was just rising as we came in to land, and I looked down at the airport as we circled. Manchester Airport. Oh my God… it was huge! The announcement said we would shortly be landing at Terminal Two. The area surrounding the airport consisted of little pockets of houses interspersed with green fields, the first rays of the sun stretching out over them. In the distance rose taller structures that must have been the city center. As our wheels hit the tarmac, the airport building loomed larger, and my heart started pounding. Not long now.
I was one of the first off the plane. Watching the passengers around me grab their bags from the overhead luggage compartments suddenly brought home to me the situation I was now in. I had no luggage. Hardly any money, since I’d given virtually all of it to the limo driver. Clothes? The stuff on my back. But I pushed all these thoughts aside as I walked briskly through the airport, bypassing the lines of people waiting at the baggage carousel. Pushing through the door, I scanned the waiting crowd, eagerly searching for that face which was now burned into my brain.
He wasn’t there.
I looked again, thinking maybe he’d stepped away from the barrier for a second. No, he definitely wasn’t there. I found a nearby empty seat and sat down, looking around feverishly, my hands twisting nervously in my lap. Even if I’d had his number, I couldn’t phone him. My cell was sitting on the table beside my bed back in the US. Desperately, I tried to log into the chat room with my Nook, only to find I’d need a credit card to access the Internet, and I didn’t have one. A quick glance at my watch shocked the hell out of me—I literally had no idea what time it was. I was still on US time. Quickly, I searched for a clock, and when I caught sight of the LED clock by the information desk, I couldn’t believe it. I’d been sitting there for two hours. Two freaking hours. I really had to pee, but I was afraid to walk away. I wanted a soda badly, and maybe something to eat. I wanted Jeff. I put my head in my hands. Jeff, please, where are you? I could admit it to myself: I was scared. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes, and I wiped them away savagely. Get a grip, Scott.
“Excuse me, but are you all right?”
The voice was low and firm. I lifted my head and saw a man, possibly in his late twenties, looking at me anxiously, deep brown eyes filled with concern. Swiftly, I straightened, wiping my face.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I assured him, pasting on a fake bright smile. No way was I about to discuss my personal affairs with a complete stranger. I met his gaze, hoping I could bluff him.
No such luck.
Those brown eyes narrowed. “Sorry, mate, but I’m not buying it.”
It was difficult to follow what he was saying. His accent was kind of flat, and the words sounded funny. Well, funny peculiar to my ears.
“I think you’re in trouble.” His expression softened. “Want to talk about it? Maybe I can help.”
I shook my head vigorously. What I wanted was for Jeff to turn up like he’d promised and take me home. The thought of Jeff brought fresh tears to my eyes. I couldn’t hold them back any more. I couldn’t help but think maybe even being back home would be better than this.
“Where are your parents?” he asked.
I huffed a quick breath before almost looking him in the eyes. “I’m eighteen,” I sighed.
He put his hands up. “Sorry. You just look so much younger. I thought you might be lost.”
I tried to smile, but I don’t think it came out very well. “I get that a lot.” I was really fighting the urge to cry. The guy would think I was a real basket case. I swallowed hard.
“Okay, that’s enough.” His voice dropped even lower. “You can’t stay here. Come with me.”
I dragged my sleeve across my eyes and nose and stood up. For some inexplicable reason, I found myself doing what he said. I couldn’t help myself. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“What have you done to be sorry for?” he asked me, looking perplexed.
“You don’t even know me.” I snuffled. “I’m a mess, but you’re still being so nice about it.”
“That’s enough of that,” he said, hand stretched toward me. “Come on, let’s go.”
“W-where are we going?” I stammered.
He looked around, and his eyes lit up.
“There’s a café just over there. Why don’t we go sit inside, I’ll get you something to eat and drink, and you can tell me everything.”
Something in the tone of his voice made me think he wasn’t about to take no for an answer. And to be honest? I didn’t want to say no. My stomach grumbled loudly, and he laughed. Yeah, that sounded like a good idea. I sneaked a peek at the café. It was public, so he’d be less likely to try anything funny, not that I thought he would. And he was definitely growing on me. I didn’t have a clue why he affected me the way he did, but I somehow knew I could trust him. I nodded tearfully, and he grasped my arm. He glanced around. “Where’s your luggage?”
I gestured to myself. “No luggage, just me.” I tried to smile, but the situation was still too raw. A flicker of surprise flashed across his face, and then it was gone. He gave me a lopsided grin.
“I can’t wait to hear this.” He held out his hand. “The name’s Ben Winters, by the way.”
I took it, his fingers folding around mine in a warm but firm clasp. “Scott Keating.”
He kept his grip on my arm, and then put his other hand on my lower back. That grin flashed again. “Okay, Scott, let’s go get a seat.”
“Um…I really need to use the bathroom first.”
Ben laughed and showed me where the restrooms were. God, it was such a relief. When I came back out, I was surprised to find Ben waiting for me.
“Feel better now?” he asked, a knowing grin on his face.
I felt myself getting warm. “Oh, God yes.”
He guided me to the café, never once taking his eyes from me. When I stole a glance, he gave me a wide smile, and the way my face was heating up, I was certain I was blushing. We found a table in the relatively busy restaurant. He told me to sit, and I did so immediately. He patted me on the shoulder and smiled broadly. “Good boy. I’m going to grab us something to eat. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I felt a shiver run through me when he told me I was a good boy. When Jeff hadn’t appeared, I’d been in a complete panic. I had no money, no idea where the heck I was, or what I would do. Then Ben found and comforted me. I wasn’t sure why, but I started to feel like maybe the world wouldn’t fall apart. Being around Ben seemed to make everything a little better. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but the way he carried himself and spoke demanded respect. He kept glancing at me, and that made me think he actually cared. I was grateful Ben had showed up when he had. It went a long way toward calming me down.
SCOTT MUST have really needed a drink. The Coke disappeared in seconds.
I chuckled. “Would you like another?” I pointed to his empty glass. His chin dipped once, then twice.
“If that’s okay,” he murmured in a subdued tone.
I got up from the table, went to the till, bought another can of Coke, and brought it back to place it in front of him. Scott didn’t touch the chicken sandwich, but the crisps had disappeared in no time at all.
“I take it you like crisps?” I snickered.
He cocked his head, and it was such an adorable look of confusion, I had to bite back my laugh. “Crisps?”
I kept forgetting. “Chips,” I amended as understanding dawned on his face. I shook my head. “The US and the UK, two countries separated by the same language.”
He giggled. “You talk funny.” The sound of his laughter was in such stark contrast to his tearful opening words, I had to smile.
“I talk funny? Coming from a Yank, that’s bloody hilarious.” My words had the desired effect. Scott burst into a peal of delighted laughter, and I joined in. “I take it you’ve never heard a Mancunian accent before?”
Scott’s lips contorted as he tried to frame the word. “Man-mancunian? What’s that mean?”
“Someone who comes from Manchester,” I explained. He sat back with several anxious glances toward the door of the café. There was definitely a story here. I waited until his eyes met mine. I spoke calmly, hoping to keep him calm too. “Okay. Tell me how you ended up in Manchester, Scott.”
Scott’s eyes immediately dropped to the table as he fiddled with the empty crisp packet.
“I… I don’t want to talk about that now.”
He wasn’t getting out of it that easily.
“Scott.” I deliberately kept my voice low and even. I saw him straighten in his seat as my tone took effect. Reluctantly, he raised his head. I nodded reassuringly. “Good lad. Now talk to me.”
Slowly at first, but less hesitant as he grew more relaxed, Scott related how he’d met this Jeff online in a chat room and their subsequent meetings. I began to get a feel for this shy young man. He was awfully naive, for one thing. My mind was reeling as he told me about Jeff’s invitation to come visit him in Manchester. Christ, did no one teach American kids about safety online? This Jeff could be a bloody pervert, for all Scott knew.
“Do you have a picture of Jeff?” I tried to keep my tone nonchalant, but all sorts of alarm bells were ringing loudly in my head. Scott eagerly handed over the clearly precious photo, and I examined the young man. A number of questions immediately came to mind. This Jeff looked too young to be able to afford a first-class air ticket to the UK, unless he came from money. There was always that point to consider, I supposed. But as Scott related more of their conversations, my stomach clenched. I had a very bad feeling about this. There was no way I was going to say anything, of course. Not that Scott would’ve believed me. No, to deal with this I would require some help. And I knew exactly who to turn to.
“Scott, you need somewhere to stay, and I might be able to help you.”
He opened his eyes wide. “But… what about Jeff?”
“We’ll make sure you have a decent Wi-Fi signal so you can get in touch with him, all right? And I’m sure he’ll try to contact you. It must be something pretty serious to have prevented him from being here. But that still leaves you needing somewhere to stay.”
I could tell he was weakening. Either that, or he was simply too exhausted to argue the point.
“Okay,” he said at last with a sigh.
I beamed at him. “Great. I just have to make a phone call,” I told him. “I won’t be long.” He nodded, sipping his second Coke slowly. I left him at the table with a quick glance around. The café had emptied steadily. It was a quiet Sunday morning, and there had only been a few flights coming in. But now things got busier as the flow of people through the airport increased. Reassured he would be safe for the moment, I exited the café, got out my phone, and dialed the direct number for the office at the club where I worked. From my vantage point, I could still see Scott in the café, but he wouldn’t be able to hear my conversation.
“Why are you ringing in on your day off, Ben?” Leo Hart’s tone was plainly amused. “I thought you were taking your sister to the airport.”
“Job done.” I had to keep this short. I didn’t want to leave Scott on his own for too long. There was always the possibility that this Jeff character would turn up. Not that I expected him to look like that photo, not for one single second. I already had my suspicions about Jeff, and I hoped to God I was wrong.
“Listen, Leo, I need your help.” It was at moments like this I was grateful to have a boss like Leo. The man always listened to me, and he gave sound advice.
“Tell me.” Brisk and to the point as usual. Rapidly, I outlined what had happened, hinting briefly at my suspicions. I told him I wanted to bring Scott to the club. It was the only safe place I could think of. The thought of this Jeff lurking around the airport gave me the willies.
“What state is this boy in right now?” Leo asked. I glanced through the window of the café. Scott was leaning back in his chair, his chin almost touching his chest, his eyes closed.
“Exhausted, by the look of him,” I replied. Maybe going to the club now wasn’t such a hot idea. “Yeah, I might need to rethink this.”
“I have a suggestion. Take him to the MacDonald hotel by Piccadilly railway station. I’ll ring ahead and book him into a room. He can get some sleep now, and in the morning when he’s more rested, we can talk.”
I wasn’t totally convinced this was such a good idea. “Leo, I know he said he was eighteen, but I don’t think he should be left on his own right now. He’s in a vulnerable state, he’s alone in a foreign country, and the bloke he thought would be here to take care of him is nowhere to be seen. He might not come out and say it, but I’ll bet he’s a bit scared. And leaving him alone all night in a strange hotel? That won’t help matters.” There was a moment or two of silence as Leo took in what I’d sa