Chapter One

 

 

I THINK she would’ve liked him. Maybe not at first, but I think my mom would’ve fallen in love with his smile just like I did. It’s kind of more of a smart-ass smirk than a smile, really. Quirked up on one side more than the other, it seems to say you’re the butt of a joke that only he knows. I always liked that smile, even when he wasn’t giving it to me. I must’ve been in love with him forever.

I’m not really a pushy person. She used to say that quiet strength was the best kind, so I sort of patterned myself that way. It’s how I got to be captain of the swim team and cocaptain of the wrestling team. When you’re quiet and steady, centered, people pay attention to you when you speak. She liked that best about me.

However, there was a mutiny brewing in my carefully quiet world, and its main organizer was none other than my friend, Rick Castalla, and his two coconspirators, Devin and JJ Gibson. I expected it out of the Gibson boys. They were trouble from day one, always starting a fight, always picking on the less popular kids who made it onto the team, and generally making my life as cocaptain a living hell. Rick had always had my back, at least until I started dating and living with Jason Strummer, boy of my fantasies. Somehow we’d become enemies over my choice of boyfriend, and I couldn’t figure out why. Well, okay, I could figure out where some of the hostility was coming from, but I hadn’t thought he’d had a grudge that deep against my boyfriend.

“I thought I asked you guys to help clean up tonight, Rick? I can’t do it all by my lonesome,” I said. It was a reasonable request. After two solid hours of grueling drills, sweaty workouts, and exhausting conditioning exercises, my arms were numb, and rolling up the practice mats and cleaning out the coolers seemed an insurmountable task.

As cocaptain, it was my responsibility to get the guys on a rotating system where a few of them and myself would stay after every practice and do what needed to be done so the morning gym classes wouldn’t have to spend time picking up our mess. Unfortunately, there were two nights a month where I was stuck with Rick, Devin, and JJ on cleanup duty. Between Rick and me, we could typically get Devin and JJ in line. Tonight, even Rick was fighting me.

Rick shifted from foot to foot before giving me this “screw you” look. “Man, I’m tired, sweaty, and in need of a shower. Ask some of the other guys to stay.”

“It’s your turn, Rick. Everyone stays after twice a month. You know that. If the four of us get on it, we can be done in forty-five minutes.” I didn’t see what the big deal was. I always stayed after.

“Why don’t you get that faggot boyfriend of yours to help? He’s always hanging around after practice waiting on you anyway,” Rick sneered.

I should’ve expected it. He’d been calling Jason that more and more lately. It was like he was trying to goad me into a fight. My hands balled into fists at my side. As always, her voice came to me. Strength means not having to show it off because someone made you angry, Tommy. Strength means holding back when all you want to do is lose your mind.

“Jason is not on this team. You are. And if you want to stay on it, Rick, I suggest you check your attitude, unless you want to discuss it in detail with Coach. We don’t have to be cool right now, but this isn’t negotiable.” Pulling rank on him was a dirty move, but I didn’t have any other choice. It was either that or brawl with him, and there was no way in hell I was risking getting grounded this weekend.

This was “the” weekend, me and Jason’s one month anniversary. It was Jason’s longest relationship, and he wanted to do something “outrageous.” His words, not mine. So Uncle Mark had agreed to let Jason and me head out to the lake for a weekend of camping. It was only twenty minutes away, but it satisfied Jason’s impulsive nature. How he’d managed to get the weekend off from his sucky job at Kmart, I didn’t know, but Jason was beyond pleased with himself.

Rick’s noise of frustration brought me out of my thoughts of the weekend. “Fuck you, Tommy.” Not in this life or any other.

 

 

I WAS sweat-covered and sore as hell when I pulled up in front of Kmart a few hours later. I hadn’t bothered going home because between practice, homework, and Jason’s shift getting over early because of payroll cuts, I wouldn’t have had time. The store was in the ghetto, so the fact that Jason worked there at all wasn’t something that made me happy, but the fact that they continuously kept him there on random, often late-night shifts made me even less happy. I hated when Jason took the bus home.

I glanced at the clock on my dashboard and let out a string of low curses. I was still early. I pulled down a parking lane and went ahead and parked. At 10:00 p.m. the lot was mostly empty except for a beat-up pickup truck, two other cars that looked like they had seen better days, and the employees’ cars toward the periphery of the lot that weren’t much better. After I put my Camaro in park, I climbed out and made my way across the blacktop to the automatic doors. I could at least go wander around until Jason’s shift was over or I found something to buy so I’d have an excuse to go through his line.

The store was mostly empty, aisles of merchandise in neat rows. Corporate America was nothing if not organized. Nothing appealed to me, though. It was all junk—organized junk, but junk nonetheless. Maybe I’d get a new CD. Then I remembered that Uncle Mark had installed a hookup for my iPod. Oh well. Soda and a bag of chips it is. I was starving anyway.

“Fuck you! I’m not leaving!”

Was that Jason?

“You don’t quit me, boy! Not ever! You are a minor, and if I have to drag your ass from this store, you’re going!”

I quickened my footsteps as my heart started to pound. Whatever was happening, it didn’t sound good.

“I’m not even living with you anymore!” It was Jason. I ran toward the sound of his voice, my arms pumping like a marathon runner. I tore around the corner, skidding to a halt in time to see an older guy built like a brick shithouse grab my boyfriend’s arm. He was my height but much thicker through the chest than I was. His dirty wifebeater was stretched over his stomach pouch, and his baggy blue jeans were off-brand.

The older man’s lips stretched out into a nasty grin. “You’ve been gone for longer before, boy. That doesn’t mean you’re not coming home. Your mother wants you home.”

“Get the hell off him!” I snapped. All those patient lectures on keeping my temper went right out the window. I charged toward them and jerked the guy off my boyfriend by his wifebeater. The shirt ripped, and he stumbled against me.

We lost our footing on the linoleum and crashed into one of the stands that was advertising some kind of brightly colored play set. The thing crashed to the floor, sending the boxes on it scattering. He righted himself at the same time I did and turned on me. His muddy brown eyes widened in surprise, and then a cocky look made his face even more frightening than it had been, filling it with rage.

He straightened and crossed his arms over his chest. “So you’re the one that has his dick in a knot. You’re the boy he’s been staying with?”

My hands balled into knots of anger at my sides. “Yeah. I’m his boyfriend. If you touch him again, I’m calling the cops.” I somehow managed to fumble in my pocket to get my cell phone and held it up to demonstrate. The guy actually laughed.

“And tell them what? That his father is demanding he come home? I could have your parents brought up on kidnapping charges.”

A chill went through me. “You’re the one.” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but there it was. He had hurt my boyfriend, raped my boyfriend. I lunged at him, completely intent on bashing his damn face in.

Jason moved to intercept me, wrapping his surprisingly strong arms around my middle and hauling me backward. “No! Tommy, let it go, let him go. He’s nothing.” His beautiful green eyes were filled with tears.

“You’re coming home, Jason. One way or another, you’re coming home.” There was a deadly promise in Jason’s stepfather’s voice, and I wanted nothing more than to beat the stupid ass senseless. Jason must’ve heard the threat too, because a stricken look passed over his face before it went completely blank. It was a chilling transformation. He let me go and turned back toward his stepfather.

His gait became slinky, and he took two steps forward. “Jonathan, I’m just having a bit of fun. Please, let me have fun a bit longer?” I nearly threw up. I looked back and forth between them, at a total loss of what to do.

Jonathan’s expression changed, becoming almost playful. “You will come home?”

“Of course, Jonathan. You know I can’t play with boys too long. It’s—” My boyfriend’s voice cracked. “It’s nothing to worry about. I’ve—” He swallowed. “I’ve got to finish up and clock out. I’ll call you and Mom tomorrow, okay?”

His stepdad cupped Jason’s cheek for a second. “All right. Be good.”

“A-always.”

Without another word, Jonathan turned and walked back down the way I’d come and disappeared around the corner. I breathed out. I hadn’t even realized I was holding my breath until that moment. Jason just stood there, frozen.

I wrapped my arms around him from behind. “Are you okay, baby?”

He gave a shuddering exhale and pulled away from me. “Fine. I need to clock out. Meet you at the car?”

“Jason, I don’t think—”

“I don’t really give a damn what you think! Just meet me at the fucking car!” he all but screamed in my direction before storming off toward the door by layaway marked Employees Only.

I felt like I’d just been slapped in the face. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that comforting Jason had never been an easy task. He took out his shit on me because he trusted me to handle it, like he trusted Kevin, his best friend, to handle it. I was finally in his head and his heart, and that was the only reason he was doing this to me. I gritted my teeth and went to the car.

 

 

SITTING in the darkened interior of my ride, I tried to remind myself that I loved Jason dearly and that I shouldn’t scream at him after what had just happened. He didn’t need it. He may have deserved it, but he certainly didn’t need it.

Uncle Mark and Uncle Charlie had told me over and over again that Jason was going to need some time and a whole hell of a lot of love and support if he was going to be able to get through the “adjustment period.” I hadn’t told Uncle Mark and Uncle Charlie exactly what had been going on with Jason and his stepdad, but they’d gleaned enough from Jason’s reactions over the past two weeks to piece together some of it. They thought Jason’s stepdad was a drunk or something, not someone particularly savory, but relatively harmless.

Dean, my cousin, had already said that if I wanted, he would kill Jason’s stepdad. He was a bit more observant than my uncles. I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t serious. Something about his tone had said that he’d seen something ugly before, known something like Jason had gone through, and wanted some type of retribution for it.

My passenger door opened, and Jason slid into the seat before putting his backpack in the floorboard.

“Are you okay?” I asked, reaching over to take his hand. He pulled away from me, his face going from blank to brittle in about three seconds.

“Just drive.” He sat back in the seat and started to tremble.

I sighed. “You gotta close the door first, babe.” I was scared to touch him, afraid he was going to break into a million pieces if I tried. He reached out, gripped the handle, and upchucked all over the door.

“Jesus!” I said, unbuckling my seat belt and opening my door at the same time. I rolled myself out of the car and ran around to the other side. “Baby, baby, look at me.” He heaved again as I reached his side of the car. Luckily, most of the vomit hit the blacktop this time.

He let out one shuddering sob. “I’m sorry.” His pretty green eyes were filled to the brim with misery. “I’m so sorry.”

“Shhh, honey, no need to apologize.” I know I was supposed to be his hero or whatever, but the smell of his puke was about to make me hurl. I never dealt well with body fluids. I was barely able to handle Christian’s, my other cousin, and he was still a baby. “Jason, I love you.”

Jason was often a chameleon, changing moods and personas like most people changed clothes. There were very few people who Jason fractured in front of. I wasn’t proud to say that I was one of them, but it was an honor in a lot of ways. He was finally starting to trust me. But God, it killed me to see him so broken.

“You’ve got to protect your family, your friends, and the weak, Tommy.” She used to say that all the time. I felt the weight of my obligation to Jason heavily in that moment. I needed to make him safe, had promised him he would be safe with me. I, of all people, couldn’t be a liar to him.

“I’m goin’ to make it better, J. I promise.” I repeated the words I said to him when he had nightmares sleeping next to me, when I held him all weekend long.

Jason wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You can’t.”

“I can, baby. I will. Please, let me tell someone.” I just knew Uncle Mark and Uncle Charlie would help if they knew. I knew Jason had forbidden Kevin, his best friend, from telling anyone, but this was a new situation. My uncles didn’t count. They would get him the help he needed. I knew they would.

“No. Please, just take me home, Tommy. Please.” Jason closed his eyes and seemed to shrink into my passenger seat. Fuck. I knew the stony expression that was threatening to come over his face. That was Jason’s I’m-not-dealing-with-reality-and-I-care-but-I-say-I-don’t look. I sighed again in frustration.

The worst part about having a boyfriend like Jason was that he thought he was a freaking island or something. He never let me actually help. I could deal with the aftermath of his emotional wreckage, and I could put a bandage on whatever wound he brought to my attention, but I could never fight the bad guy, never fix the problem. I could just clean up the mess afterward. I should’ve been used to that by now. I should’ve been prepared for my life as the continual observer, but it still sucked. Just like when my mom was dying, I was helpless to do anything but wait and hope we’d make it through another day.

We used napkins from my glove box to wipe off the side of the door, and I tried not to gag too much. Jason apologized over and over again as we cleaned, and I told him continuously that it was okay and I wasn’t mad or anything. I tossed the dirty papers into a nearby trash can before returning to my Camaro. Exhaustion made my shoulders slump and my movements slow as I sat in the driver’s seat for the second time that night.

I cranked the engine and backed out of the space. We had a twenty-minute ride back to my house, and I imagined the smell of puke wasn’t going to dissipate in the time it took to get there. I glanced over at Jason as I pulled out onto the main road and hopped on the highway.

He was beautiful as usual, a little paler, but still just as beautiful despite his sickness. Brown hair that had just a bit of a wave to it was cut long enough to run your hands through, and his eyes, even though I couldn’t see them in the dim light of the interior of my car, were a deep jungle green, mysterious and unpredictable. He had a smaller build than me, thinner, with muscles defined more by natural fitness than any diet regimen or workout. He used to be on the basketball team, but he’d quit some time back. I think he only did it for popularity’s sake anyway, because he was definitely not into most sports.

Most people never saw past his pretty smile. They saw him as they wanted to see him, a beautiful, catty statue of high school perfection. I saw more. I’d always seen more. I just didn’t know what the extra bit was until I’d asked him out and we’d started dating again. Most people who knew about the first time we’d “dated”—“hooked up” would’ve been a more accurate phrase—thought I was crazy for going out with him. It had ended badly. He’d posted a video to my mom’s blog that had included me practicing my oral exam skills with him after a football game. Needless to say, we didn’t speak for a while. But that was behind us.

Jason does “pretty” very well, and he fools everyone into thinking he doesn’t know how to do anything else. What people don’t see is the sharp wit, killer sense of humor, and sweetness that is tinged with just a bit of a bite to give it real flavor. He wasn’t easy to figure out but would tell you exactly what was on his mind whenever he thought you needed to hear it, and I was fascinated with him from the beginning. Those qualities had made me fall head over ass in love with him, and I’ve been in love with him ever since. However, when I’d signed up to be his boyfriend, I hadn’t counted on him coming with more emotional scars than a starving refugee from a war-torn country. I was starting to crack, and I just couldn’t let him realize it.