Breaking Masks

by Dabeagle & Josh Aterovis


Chapter 1


“Welcome to Van Rensselaer University of New York.”

My stomach dropped as I read the sign. Suddenly, everything felt more real. You’re a long way from home, Jake, I thought to myself, about three hundred and fifty miles to be exact. Home was the Eastern Shore of Maryland, or at least it had been for sixteen of my last seventeen years. My new home was here at VRU in Albany, New York. A fresh start far away from my past had seemed like such a good idea last fall when Mom and I had visited the campus. Of course it had seemed like a good idea then! I’d been on drugs at the time. What was I thinking?

I forced my rising panic down and tried to look at least somewhat excited to be here. I had to put my happy face on for Mom. Not that it mattered. She was psychic, so she’d know how I really felt no matter what. That would be the downside of having a ‘Gifted’ parent. I glanced over at her, and she met my gaze for a moment before turning back to watch the road.

“It’s perfectly natural to be nervous,” she said.

“I’m not nervous,” I protested. “It’s just weird knowing I’m so far away from home and everyone I know.”

“It was your choice,” she reminded me.

“I know.”

“You’ll make friends.”

“I know.”

“And if you don’t like it, you can always transfer to somewhere closer.”

“I know, Mom. We had this conversation before we left.”

She winked at me with a grin. “Where do we go first?”

“Um, the dorms?”

“Why don’t you check the letter they sent you?” Why do moms always have to be so sensible?

Feeling like a complete dunce, I dug out the slightly crumpled letter I’d received in the mail a few weeks ago and scanned it quickly. “Yeah. It says that we’re supposed to go to my dorm building and see the RA there. They’ll show me to my room.”

“And orientation starts tomorrow?”

“That’s what it says. At ten.”

“What’s your dorm building?”

I glanced down at the paper, checking again even though I already knew the answer. “Mohawk.” All the dorms were named after local Indian tribes.

While Mom navigated through the campus following signs, I began to fret about meeting my roommate. I’d never shared a room with anyone before and I wasn’t looking forward to it. The letter the university had sent me also included the name and phone number for my roommate, Foster Williamson. I’d called him, and we’d talked for a total of five minutes, long enough for me to realize we were hopelessly mismatched. He’s a lacrosse jock. The only sport I enjoy is surfing. He spent four of the five minutes we talked telling me about his girlfriend and her apparently generous breasts. I’m gay and single. He’s rich. My mom is really going out on a limb to send me to college. He liked to party. Well...we were bound to have something in common sooner or later. The difference is, and this is an important distinction, I’m a recovering addict. That means parties are not the best option for me right now.

I wasn’t planning on outing myself to him right away. It was hard to judge how homophobic he may or may not be from our brief conversation, but I figured it was safer to get to know him a bit first. I thought it was pretty safe to say he was straight as an arrow judging by the way he went on and on about his girlfriend and how she was as horny as he was. I shuddered at the thought. I don’t care what straight people do when they’re alone, I just don’t want to think about it. I still couldn’t believe he’d actually told me he hoped I didn’t mind if she stayed over at our room often since she was going to VRU as well. I hadn’t told Mom any of this. When she’d asked how our chat went, I’d just given her a noncommittal “okay”.

We pulled into a parking spot near the dorm and climbed out of the car. I stretched my legs with a groan, grateful to be out of the cramped vehicle. We’d been driving for over six hours and we’d only stopped once.

“I guess we should wait to get your stuff until we see where your room is,” Mom said, looking up at the large stone and brick building that was my new home. I had to admit it was an impressive looking campus. Most of the buildings were at least partially built from stone, something we didn’t see much where I came from. Neat brick pathways connected all the buildings and everything was landscaped beautifully.

We set off for the main door, Mom with a purposeful stride and me trudging along despondently behind her. The small lobby area just inside the door was furnished with a slightly beat-up desk directly inside and an institutional style chair and couch in a small conversational area off to one side. A television was mounted in the corner, but it was turned off right now. Behind the desk sat a tall, rail-thin girl with shockingly red hair and a face-full of freckles. She was talking to a much shorter, slightly plump blonde girl about having her mattress replaced -- apparently the blonde girl thought hers looked a little unhealthy -- so we stood by patiently until they were finished. When the blonde girl was satisfied that cleaner bedding was on its way, the red-head turned her attention to us.

“Hi, I’m Erin. I’m the RA. Are you a freshman?”

I thought that was a silly question considering only the freshmen were moving in this week. This was a special week of orientation designed to help us settle in and make new friends. Once again, I’d thought it sounded like a good idea at the time. Instead of saying any of that however, I just nodded my head.

“What’s your name?”

“Jake Sheridan. Er, Jacob Sheridan.”

“Hi Jake,” she said brightly, flashing me a glimpse of her pearly whites. She scanned down a clipboard on the desk in front of her, then rummaged through a stack of envelopes, selecting one from the pile. “You’re on the third floor. Follow me and I’ll show you your room.” She stood up to reveal that she was even taller than I’d first thought. I was only an inch away from six foot and she towered over me.

“The elevators are this way,” she said with a barely concealed smile. Mom and I followed her onto the elevator. “Oh, and no, I don’t play basketball and yes, my hair is naturally this color,” she said, finally breaking into a grin as the doors closed.

I couldn’t help laughing. “I wasn’t going to ask.”

“Yeah, but I could read it in your eyes,” she said teasingly. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked one or both of those questions. So where are you from?”


Her eyebrows shot up. Even they were red. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Yeah, I know.” Don’t remind me.

She smiled sympathetically. “I think you’ll like it here.” The doors opened and we exited into a long hall way. She went to the left, went down about four doors, and stopped in front of a door adorned with two paper stars bearing the names Jacob and Foster. She tapped the star with my name, “You can cross that out and write Jake under it if you want.” She pulled a key from the envelope, unlocked the door and pushed it open. “There ya go. Here’s your key.” She dropped the key into my palm and stepped back. “Your roommate isn’t here yet so you get choice of beds. If you need anything else, I’ll be at the desk downstairs.”

“Thanks,” I called to her retreating back.

“She seemed nice,” Mom said, stepping into the room.

I followed her in and looked around with slight horror. It looked more like a prison cell than a bedroom: cold white walls, small window, two bare twin beds, two dressers and two crappy looking desks. It was definitely less than welcoming. I kicked the bed and frowned.

“What were you expecting?” Mom said dryly. “The Ritz?”

“Let’s just bring my stuff in,” I grumbled and started back out the door.

We rode the elevator back down in silence. “Are the accommodations to your liking, sir?” Erin called with a cheeky grin as we stepped out into the lobby.

“I think I’d like a refund,” I told her and her she laughed, a loud braying sound not unlike a donkey. Sure, she could laugh. She probably had a room to herself, being an RA.

It took several trips to load all the stuff I’d brought into the room. Besides my clothes, which took several suitcases -- Hey, I’m a gay boy. What do you want? -- I also had a TV, my computer, and my entire CD collection. Mom insisted on helping me make the bed before she left, but once that was done, the inevitable teary goodbye couldn’t be avoided any longer. To her credit, she didn’t make too big a production out of it. After she left, I indulged in a few tears of my own as I put my clothes away. I knew it was ridiculous, but I couldn’t help feeling a little abandoned. I had plenty of experience feeling alone so you’d think I would be used to it, but some things you just never get used to.

Thankfully, I’d stopped sniveling by the time my door flew open with a bang, scaring the bejeezus out of me. I spun around to find a huge Neanderthal standing in the doorway holding a mini-refrigerator.

“Where should I put this?” he grunted.

I pointed wordlessly to what I had decided would be Foster’s side of the room. The Neanderthal carried the fridge across the room and deposited it carefully next to the desk. I was still staring at him with open-mouthed wonder and hoping fervently that this wasn’t Foster when we were joined by another arrival. This guy was slightly smaller than the appliance deliveryman, but looked like he was at about the same stage of evolution. His head was rather blockish and his face looked a little smashed in, as if he’d run into a brick wall and the brick wall had won. He was broad shouldered and stocky with a defined chest outlined by his tight t-shirt. His cut off sweatpants revealed muscular legs with a light dusting of dark hair. He dropped the cardboard box he was carrying onto the empty bed and ran a hand through his curly brown hair. He turned to face me and looked me up and down as if examining a biology project.

“Are you Jake?” he asked.

“Yeah. Foster?” I hoped my voice didn’t reveal how nervous I was.

“That’s me,” he confirmed. “That’s Slug,” he added hooking a thumb in the direction of the Neanderthal. He grinned at me and a chill ran down my spine. I decided that I would continue to think of him as the Neanderthal and I would never speak the name “Slug” aloud. “We gotta go get the rest of my shit. Come on, Slug.”

Foster left, the Neanderthal trailing behind him like a trained Sasquatch. “That could have gone worse,” I mumbled under my breath. I decided to vacate the room before they returned. It had gone better than I had feared and there was no point pressing my luck. I thought about taking the elevator, but decided to take the stairs instead. There were probably other people moving in and they needed the elevator more than I did. I took the stairs two at a time, jumping the last few and landing with a satisfying thud at the bottom.

I wanted to ask Erin where a good coffee shop could be found, but she was busy welcoming an androgynous Asian student and I didn’t want to interrupt. I gave her a little wave as I passed on my way out the door. I wandered around campus for a while, trying to remember where things were from my whirlwind tour last year. I managed to find the building that housed student dining -- more by accident than design -- and once inside, just followed the smell of food to the actual cafeteria. I asked the guy at the door if there was a café or something on campus and he gave me directions to the campus bookstore. “It’s in the same building,” he told me.

After getting only slightly lost trying to follow his directions, I found the bookstore and the café, which had been given the sickly-sweet name Cool Beanz. Note the “z”, as if spelling it like that would lend it some sort of street cred. I almost turned around and walked away, but my caffeine withdrawal drew me in. I’d given up a lot of addictions but a guy needs at least one vice.

“Give me the strongest thing you’ve got,” I said, feeling like a gunslinger entering a saloon in a cheesy old Western. The girl behind the counter flashed me a grin and turned to the espresso machine. I waited impatiently, shifting from one foot to the other, while she filled my order. I paid for my drink and walked to a table inhaling the heavenly scent. I sat down and just cradled the elixir of the gods between my palms, content for the moment just to breathe in the intoxicating aroma.

“A fellow java aficionado, I see,” a voice said from the next table. I glanced up to find a very pretty dark-haired girl smiling at me over the top of her cup of coffee.

I smiled back. “More like a caffeine junkie,” I said.

She laughed. “You got me there too. I was about to warn you about the brew here, but if all you’re interested in is the caffeine buzz you should be fine.”

“Warn me?”

“They’re not known for their high quality beans here.”

I took a cautious sip and couldn’t keep my face from contorting in distaste. The bitter flavor sat on my tongue and mocked me. “Wow. You weren’t kidding.” I eyed her cup. “Why do you come here if you know they’re so bad?”

She lifted her cup as if to toast me. “Hot chocolate. They can pull that one off pretty well.”

“Where do you have to go to get a decent cup of coffee around here?”

“The Morning Rush is the place to go around here. It’s over on Central Avenue.”

“I, uh, don’t know where that is. I’m new here.”

“Maybe I can show you sometime,” she said with a little smile, tucking a curly tendril of hair behind her ear and leaning towards me. “Where are you from?”

I knew she was flirting, but I was having fun so I decided to play along. What harm could it do? “I’m from Maryland, and I’d love it if you could show me this place sometime. The sooner the better -- I don’t know how long I can survive on this swill.”

“Maryland, huh? A southern boy, then. That explains the accent.”

“I don’t have an accent!”

“Sure you do. My name’s Rebecca, by the way, Becca for short.”

“Jake—Jacob for long.”

She crinkled her nose at me. “Cute.”

“What? Me or my name?” I was flirting outrageously, but it was fun.


“Well, thankee, ma’am,” I said, using an exaggerated drawl.

She glanced at her watch. “I’m meeting friends for a movie in a few minutes,” she said as she dug into her purse, pulling out a pen and a small notepad. “But here’s my number.” She scribbled on the pad and ripped off the page, handing it to me along with the pad and pen. “And why don’t you give me yours?”

“I don’t know my phone number yet,” I told her.

“Just put your room number. I can find it out from that.”

I obliged and handed the pad and pen back to her.

“Thanks, I’ll be in touch. We’ll do coffee.” She swept out of the café, leaving me with her number. I just got a girl’s phone number, I thought with amusement. Maybe there really is a first time for everything! I glanced down at the cooling cup of brown sludge in my hand and my stomach immediately began launching a revolt. “Don’t worry,” I told it. “I won’t force that on you.” I stood up and dumped the cup into the trash can on my way out. I returned to my room to find that Foster and the Neanderthal had finished moving his belongings in, but the dynamic duo was not currently in residence. I can’t say I was too disappointed. Just out of curiosity, I opened the fridge and found it packed with alcohol. Beer, vodka, rum...they practically had a fully stocked bar in there. I briefly wondered how on earth they had managed to buy it all since I knew Foster was underage, but then I remembered Slug and realized that no one would ever have the nerve to card him. For the scantest second, the alcohol seemed to call to me. It had been almost a year since I’d had any alcohol or drugs. I quickly put a cap on my temptation and shut the door. Walk away.

I went to my desk and pulled my CD player out from the desk drawer I’d placed it in earlier. I flipped quickly through my CD case until I found the one I was looking for and popped it in. I settled on the bed and slipped my headphones on and pressed play. The soothing sounds of a piano flowed over me, soon followed by the amazing voice of Norah Jones. No one who knew me would ever suspect I was a closet Norah fan, but there was just something about her music that could always calm me. And I needed calming at the moment. I could still see the bottles of booze wedged into the fridge. Don’t think about it! I managed to distract myself long enough to drift off to sleep, still fully clothed and on top of my blankets.

Then next thing I knew, I was waking up the next morning, feeling utterly grungy and badly in need of a shower. I must have been more worn out from my stressful day than I’d suspected, because I didn’t even wake up when Foster came back to the room. The proof that he had returned was evidenced by the lightly snoring lump under the blankets of his bed. I glanced over at the clock and sat up with a jolt.

“Shit!” It was already nine-thirty and I was supposed to be at orientation in half an hour. I leaped out of bed and blindly grabbed some clothes from my drawers before running off to the shower. I started to wake Foster up, but decided he was a big boy and could worry about making it to orientation on his own. I felt a little more human when I got out of the shower. I pulled on my jeans and finger-combed my wet hair. That would have to do for now. I ran a hand over my cheeks. I needed a shave, but I didn’t have time. I’d have to go for the scruffy look today. I yanked my T-shirt over my head and took off.

I was half-way across campus before I remembered I had no idea where I was going. I came to a sudden halt and looked around me. I noticed I was close to the Administration Building. If anyone would know where I was supposed to be, they would. I ran up the stone steps and pulled open the large wooden doors. The lobby inside was cool and austere, rather like a mausoleum -- not the warmest place I’d ever been. I went to the table they had set up for new students and asked for directions. The lady there told me how to find the lecture hall we were meeting in and I was once again on my way.

I burst out of the door, almost knocking some kid over. “Sorry,” I said distractedly, giving him a quick smile. He didn’t even look old enough to be a student here.

I rushed on to the auditorium and found that I’d arrived just in time. It looked like the whole freshman class had shown up and they hadn’t quite chosen a large enough room. I took a look around while I waited for the show to begin. If I’d thought the Admin building was a tad ascetic, this room was downright tacky. I don’t think it had been redecorated since the ‘70’s. A strange avocado green tile covered the floor and shiny, gold drapes hung at the windows. I took one of the few remaining seats and shifted in a vain attempt to get comfortable. Obviously, whoever had designed these seats had not had comfort in mind.

I was just about to abandon the seat for one of the poor shmoes standing in the back -- let them be uncomfortable -- when a balding man in a dark gray suit and maroon tie walked to the front of the room and cleared his throat. He looked like a career bureaucrat -- pasty complexion, a bit paunchy, and more than a bit nervous, as if he wasn’t used to addressing a large crowd. He began to drone on about the campus and what was expected of us as the newest additions to the VRU family. I stifled a yawn while scratching my chin and wishing I’d had time to shave that morning. Stubble is so itchy. Now he’d started in about maintaining a good working relationship with the surrounding community. Translation: don’t party too loudly and bother the neighbors.

I’d pretty much completely spaced out when several people near me raised their hands. I almost raised mine too, but realized just in time that we were indicating our majors. I hadn’t declared mine yet since I still had no clue what I wanted to do. I was taking general studies until I could make up my mind. Hopefully, that would be sometime before my senior year. I raised my hand at the appropriate time, then promptly zoned out again.

Finally, we were dismissed and I joined the throng of kids moving towards the room’s only exit. What a waste of a perfectly good hour, I thought to myself. I went back to my room only to find Foster and the Neanderthal already there. Apparently, they hadn’t even gone to orientation. They were huddled around Foster’s computer drooling over some website that featured scantily clad women with surgically enhanced assets. They each had a can of beer in hand and it wasn’t even noon yet. I had a feeling it was going to be a long semester.

“Hey, Jake,” Foster greeted me. At least he was friendly.

“Hi Foster,” I responded.

“Want one?” he offered, raising his can of Natural Light in my direction.

“No, thanks,” I said as politely as I could manage. I’d get into the fact that I was in recovery at a later date.

“You gonna hang out for a while?”

“Uh, no, I, uh, have to go get my textbooks,” I said with a sudden burst of genius.

“Oh yeah, I need to do that too sometime,” he said, turning back to the computer screen. I’d been dismissed. I got the impression that he’d already forgotten I was even there. I found my list of required books and left the room. I wondered if I’d ever be able to just relax in my room without the dubious honor of their company. I suspected their combined IQ would be roughly equal to that of your average sea cucumber.

I found my way back to the building that housed the bookstore and Cool Beanz. The bookstore was surprisingly large. Besides books, they also sold just about everything you could possibly imagine emblazed with the school logo and mascot, the Van Rensselaer Red Roosters. When I first heard what the mascot was here, I thought it was pretty lame. After seeing the T-shirts they didn’t advertise on the website, however, I’d changed my mind. The general shirt featured a large cartoon of the red rooster with the caption, “How big is your...?” The first time I saw one, it only took me a few seconds to get the joke. They had shirts for all the sports. For crew, there’s a cartoon of the rooster rowing and the caption reads, “Stroke...” For swimming, it’s a dripping rooster and “Wet...” My favorite, however, was for the equestrian team. Yep. A rooster on horseback... “Riding...” I wanted to buy one even though I’ve never been on a horse.

I tore myself away from the shirts and found the textbook section, but quickly realized I should have preordered my books. It seemed like everything I needed was already sold out. Or maybe I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I couldn’t believe every single book was gone. I looked around but the only people who seemed to be working were behind the counter and they were busy with other customers. The place was crowded with freshmen, most of them with their parents who must have stayed until after orientation. I decided to come back later in the afternoon when, hopefully, it wouldn’t be quite as hectic.

I wandered aimlessly around campus for a little while, familiarizing myself with the layout until my growling stomach reminded me that it was lunch time. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and come to think of it, I’d skipped dinner the night before too. No wonder I was so hungry. I went to the cafeteria and the guy at the door swiped my meal card. I grabbed a tray and wandered around checking out the various offerings. The food didn’t look too bad, but I ended up with a couple slices of cheese pizza and a cup of coffee. I sat at a table by myself and took a wary sip of the coffee. Thankfully, it was more palatable than the crap from Cool Beanz, but still nothing special. At least it was drinkable. A few minutes later, I was surprised when someone sat down next to me. I looked up to find Becca.

“Hi Jake,” she said brightly.

“Hi Becca.”

“Do you mind if I join you for lunch?”

“Not at all.” I glanced down at her lunch, which consisted of a small cup of fruit salad and a bottle of spring water. “You call that lunch?”

She giggled and motioned to a tall, model thin blonde with prominent cheekbones and an outfit straight from the pages of a fashion magazine. “That’s my friend Adrienne. You don’t mind if she sits with us, do you?”

What could I do except nod? I watched in fascination as the blonde made her way across the room towards us. I was afraid she’d throw a hip out before she got to the table she swung her hips so much. She looked like she was strutting down a runway. As she sat down across from me, Becca made introductions. We shook hands and I noticed that Adrienne’s lunch was a tiny plate of lettuce with a small mound of cottage cheese in the center. How had I ended up at the anorexic table?

We made small talk while everyone ate, or while I ate and they poked at their fruit and lettuce and pretended to eat. I learned that Becca and Adrienne were both from Schenectady and majoring in elementary education. For the life of me, I couldn’t picture Adrienne in a classroom full of five year olds.

After we’d finished with our lunches, Adrienne and Becca announced that they were off to get manicures. “Why don’t I call you later and maybe I can show you how to find The Morning Rush?” Becca suggested before they left. I agreed and watched the two of them swish their way towards the door.

“I need to make some guy friends and soon,” I muttered to myself, “preferably gay.” The university had a gay/straight alliance that met on campus, but meetings wouldn’t start for another few weeks. Despite Becca’s overtures, I was feeling very lonely. I had no illusions about her interest in me. She thought I was hot and she wanted a trophy boyfriend. Once I came out to her, she seemed like the type that would drop me so fast you’d think I was a dog turd.

With a sigh, I gathered up the girls’ trash, which they’d considerately left sitting on the table, and threw it away with mine. Now, how to spend the rest of my day? I decided to go check out some of the planned activities Baldy had talked about this morning.

I managed to waste a few more hours playing mindless games before I figured I couldn’t take it any more. I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to become friends with and I was getting sweaty. I’m of the opinion that there’s only one time when it’s okay to be sweaty, and this wasn’t it. I decided to head back to my room and risk another encounter with Foster and his sidekick.

I opened the door hesitantly, but was immediately relieved to find it vacant. Two empty beer cans sat on Foster’s desk, a testament to their former occupancy. I turned my computer on and signed on to Instant Messenger. My friends names appeared in my buddy list and a pang of homesickness washed over me in a wave of longing. I chatted with my friends from home, telling them all about VRU and trying to make it sound like things were going better than they were. I talked for a couple hours before everyone left to go eat. I decided it was a good time for me to do the same, so I returned to the cafeteria. I ate alone this time and wasn’t all that bothered by the fact. When I got back to the room this time, Foster was there -- alone for a change.

“Hey Jake,” he welcomed me. “Want a beer? I was just getting ready to get one.”

“No thanks.”

“Want something harder? I’ve got Smirnoff, Bacardi, Jim Bean...”

“No, I’m fine,” I said quickly, cutting him off. “Actually, I don’t drink.”

He blinked stupidly at me, as if I’d just told him I was an alien from Uranus. “You don’t drink?” he repeated.


“At all?”


“Are you, like, religious or something?”

I laughed. “No, nothing like that.”

“So you don’t mind if I drink?”

“As long as you don’t get us in trouble for having it in the room, I guess I don’t care.”

“But why don’t you drink?”

There was going to be no avoiding this one. Foster was as tenacious as a pit bull. “I’m a recovering addict,” I told him bluntly.

He blinked at me again. “But you’re just a kid.”

“There’s an age limit on alcoholism?” I asked, making an effort to keep my tone light. It wasn’t his fault he’s a moron.

“I guess not.” He pondered that for a minute, then said, “Wow, I guess that’s pretty cool that you stopped then. Are you sure it won’t bother you to have it in here?”

Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. I smiled at him and tried not to remember the way the alcohol had called to me the night before. “No, it doesn’t bother me, but thanks for asking.”

I grabbed a novel off my desk and settled onto the bed. It was one I’d read before, a Faye Kellerman mystery, but it was worth a second read and anything was better than conversing with Foster. I was just starting the fourth chapter when the phone rang, sending me about a foot into the air. Foster scooped up the receiver and grunted a greeting.

“It’s for you,” he said, holding the phone in my direction.

I took it from him and said hello.

“Hey Jake, it’s Becca,” she chirped. “You still up for coffee?”

“I’m always up for coffee,” I told her, setting the book aside.

“Great! Meet me in front of the Admin building in like ten minutes.”

“Okay. See you in ten.” I hung up and jumped off the bed.

“You got a hot date?” Foster asked with a grin.

“Something like that,” I said as I peeled off my shirt and pulled on a fresh one.

“She sounded hot on the phone,” he commented.

I decided that was best left alone. I pulled on my shoes, said bye, and jogged down the stairs to meet Becca. She was waiting for me when I got there. She kept up a constant stream of chatter as we walked, most of which I blocked out in the interest of my mental health. Luckily, The Morning Rush was only a few blocks off campus. It was a rather plain storefront from the outside, large plate-glass windows were set flush with the brick wall and a neon sign in the shape of a coffee mug hung above the door. Someone had made an effort to spruce it up a bit by adding awnings, but it was kind of like putting lipstick on a pig. A sign in one window declared this to be The Morning Rush. We pushed open the door and the rejuvenating scent of java hooked itself into my nostrils, reeling me in like the catch-of-the-day. I almost forgot about Becca as I made a beeline for the counter. A petite blonde who looked to be in her late thirties was taking orders. Her nametag read “Marla.”

“I’ll have one of everything,” I gushed.

“That’s my kind of customer,” someone yelled from a semi-open door behind the counter.

Marla grinned. “That would be Max, the manager. Is this your first time here?”

“Yeah, I’m starting at VRU.”

“You should try the double cappuccino with whipped cream,” she suggested with a welcoming smile.

Before I could say a word, Becca sidled up to the counter and eyed Marla disdainfully, placing her hand possessively on my arm. “We’ll have two espressos, but thanks for the recommendation,” she said condescendingly. I flinched away from her touch, but she just dug her fingers in tighter.

Marla’s eyes narrowed, but she simply turned and prepared the drinks for us without comment. She handed us the cups and Becca led me to a corner table closest to the front window.

“You didn’t have to be so rude to her,” I said, as we sat. “She was just being nice.”

“She obviously saw us come in together and she still threw herself at you.” she said. “She wasn’t even subtle about it.”

Like you are, I thought. “She didn’t throw herself at me. She made a recommendation. Besides, it’s not like we’re dating,” I said out loud.

“True,” she said with a little smirk. The word “yet” hung in the air as if she’d spoken it aloud. She batted her eyes and leaned forward, resting one elbow on the table and stretching her shirt tight across her breasts. That ain’t gonna work on me, sister.

I took a sip from the cup in my hand and almost groaned in delight. She’d been right about this place, at least. The espresso was perfect. I closed my eyes and savored the flavor.

“You really take your coffee seriously,” Becca said, interrupting my moment. She sounded a little peeved, probably because the espresso had taken her place as the center of my attention. This chick was merrily tap-dancing on my last nerve.

I opened my eyes and gave her a level look. “I gave up drugs and alcohol. This is my last bad habit. Let me enjoy this one in peace, huh?”

She pouted a bit, but allowed me to finish my drink in relative silence. It was well after dark when we left the coffee shop. As we made our way back towards campus down the still busy street, I thought about how romantic this walk would be with the right person. Unfortunately, Becca was not the right person, and she chose that moment to remind me of that fact.

“This was a nice date,” she said suddenly. My first thought was: That was a date? It was followed quickly by: And if so, was she on the same date I was?

“It wasn’t a date,” I said sharply.

She batted her eyes at me again and I considered clawing them out. “You mean you don’t want to date me?” What fantasy world was this girl living in?

“No, I really don’t,” I answered truthfully.

She spun around to face me and stopped walking. “Why not?” Great, now she sounded hurt.

“I don’t think we’d be very compatible.” It’s very hard to enunciate when you’re speaking through clenched teeth.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“But why not?”

“Because I’m gay!” I snapped.

Her eyes darkened with anger. “Look, if you don’t want to date me, just say so. You don’t have to make up some stupid story about being gay.”

I almost laughed in her face. “I already said I didn’t want to date you.”

“Arg!!” She spun on her heel and stormed away. I stood watching her for a moment, before continuing on my way. One good thing had come out of this little excursion -- I now knew where to find good coffee.

“That was fast,” Foster said as I let myself back into our room. “Strike out?”

I considered that for a moment. “No, I found a really good coffee shop.”

He looked confused at that, but just shook his head and went back to his computer. I changed for bed and crawled under the covers where I read myself to sleep.

I woke up the next morning and lay staring at the ceiling, wishing classes had started already. That would at least give me something with which to fill my time. I sat up and looked over to where Foster was still asleep. The sheets had twisted around his body while he slept and he was exposed from the waist up. It could have been worse, I thought to myself. He’s not really my type, but he’s not that bad to look at either.

I climbed out of bed, picked out an outfit and took a leisurely shower. I actually had time to shave. It’s not like I had to be anywhere. The campus was eerily quiet. It was still pretty empty without any of the upper classmen, and the freshmen were still in bed for the most part. My inner alarm clock never really allowed me to sleep in, so I was up long before most teenagers willingly chose to get up.

I was checking my email when my coffee craving kicked into high gear. I grabbed my wallet and headed towards The Morning Rush. It was actually around nine, so the real morning rush was pretty much over. In fact, as I pushed open the door, there was only one other person here, and he was working behind the counter. The guy looked up as I entered and promptly dropped his cup of coffee on the floor.

“Excuse me,” he said and disappeared through the door behind the counter. He emerged a second later with a mop and began to clean up the spill. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t figure out why. He was kind of cute actually. He was short -- he looked to be around five foot five -- and slim. His dark hair was cut short and did this cute little flip thing in the front. He wore a tight fitting VRU shirt that showed off his toned upper body. I would have pegged him for high school student if not for the shirt.

Finally, he had the coffee cleaned up and he approached the counter. He was looking everywhere but at me. This was one high-strung kid. Maybe he’d been drinking too much of his own product. “So, uh, do I place my order with you?”, I asked after a moment. His gray eyes snapped to my face and he blushed as I smiled. Hmm, unless my gaydar detector was malfunctioning I thought I might be picking up some signals here.

“Um, yeah,” he managed after a long pause.

“Someone recommended the double cappuccino with whipped cream last night. I’ll take one of those.”

He gulped visibly and turned away. He grabbed a glass mug which he promptly dropped. Poor kid -- he was an absolute wreck. He fumbled with the cappuccino machine for a few seconds before he got it working. He capped it off with extra whipped cream and brought it back over to me, still avoiding my eyes. He was looking quite pale.

“Um, you ok?” I asked as he set the cup down and snatched his hands away like he thought I was going to grab him.

“Yeah, um, sure, everything’s Jake,” he said. I blinked in surprise. Did he know my name somehow? He still wasn’t looking at me so I figured it was just an expression.

“Cute.” I pulled a five from my pocket to pay him. He rang me up, sliding my change across the counter to avoid contact with my hand.

I took my drink and retreated to the same table I’d sat at the night before. I was not having good luck meeting new people so far. My roommate was a brainless hunk of jock-flesh, Becca had turned out to be a monster bitch, and the first gay guy I meet is scared to even look at me. Or maybe he wasn’t even gay; maybe he’s just super shy. Then again, if he was that shy, maybe a coffee shop wasn’t the best choice in jobs.

I sat staring out the window while sipping my cappuccino -- it was as good as promised, if not better -- and feeling sorry for myself. The door burst open triggering a bell and interfering in my pity party. Two women bustled in, one was Marla from last night and the other a much larger woman with dark hair.

“Kody with a ‘K’, you can go, we’re back,” the larger woman called. So the kid was named Kody. Cute name. Cute kid. Just then, the large woman noticed me and flashed me a bright smile. The two women had reached the counter by now and were busily tying on aprons. Kody came out of the office looking like a timid wild animal that would run at the slightest provocation. “Kody, go on, get out of here!” the larger woman said.

“Sure you don’t need anything else done?” he asked.

“I’m married and you aren’t her type,” Marla quipped. The bigger woman swatted at her while they both cackled. They continued to talk, but in lowered voices now so I couldn’t hear them. My thoughts slipped away again into the realm of self-pity. Watching Marla and her friend play around made me feel even more alone.

“Did it live up to the recommendation?” someone asked me, snapping me out of my thoughts.

“Sorry?” I asked, looking up to find Kody with a “K” standing in front of me looking as if he might bolt at any second.

“Your coffee, is it ok?” he asked, pointing to my glass mug.

“Oh, yeah. It’s great. Much better than that place on campus. Bitter, bitter stuff over there,” I said with a shiver.

“Ok, good. Well, see you.” He began to edge towards the door.

“Kody!” the large woman behind the counter called, and started giggling. The kid flushed bright red and turned around as if it pained him to do so. What the hell was going on? He slowly walked to a small table in the center of the room, snatched something off of it, turned his back to me for a second, then walked back to my table.

“Um, they are hiring here, if you’re interested,” he mumbled handing me a sheet of paper.

“Excuse me?” I asked, not quite sure I was following. I glanced down at the paper and saw it was an application. Marla and the other woman were giggling behind the counter and I realized what was going on. They’d set the kid up to give me an application. He was probably dying right now. I looked up to find he’d flushed an even deeper shade of crimson, if that was possible. “A job, huh? Thanks.” The words had barely left my mouth before he was out the door.

I watched him go and thought about what a weird experience that had been. Another day, another cute kid running away from me. And he was awful cute, in a shy, awkward way. I looked back down at the application. I didn’t want a job right now, I wanted to settle into my classes first, but it might not be a bad idea later. I would probably need some spending money. I folded up the application and slipped it into my pocket. I finished off the last of my coffee and stood up. I left a tip on the table next to my mug and walked out.

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