I yanked open my dresser drawers and started throwing clothes into the suitcase.
“Man, what the fuck’s wrong with you?” Foster snarled from his bed. “Can’t you see I’m trying to have a little privacy with my girl?”
“You’ll have all the privacy you want in a few hours.”
“Yeah, well, we were in the middle of something.”
“Leave him alone, Foster,” Fawn spoke up. “Can’t you see he’s upset about something?”
“His queer boyfriend probably dumped him,” my ever-sensitive roommate grumbled. I fought down the growing urge to burst into tears and just kept packing. I will not cry in front of Foster. I will not give him that pleasure.
After a few minutes of heavy silence, Foster heaved a beleaguered sigh and jumped out of bed. “If you’re not leaving any time soon I might as well go take a piss.” He pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants and stomped out the door—or at least he tried to stomp. Barefoot stomping loses some of its effect.
“You okay?” Fawn asked after a few seconds.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I restrained myself from adding “especially with you.”
“That’s cool. I was just trying to help.” She was quiet for a few more seconds, but it was like she was incapable of remaining that way for long. “I know what it’s like to get hurt by a boy.”
“Who said I got hurt by a boy?” I snapped impatiently.
“Trust me, I know the signs well.” She sat up—keeping the sheet carefully pulled over her large breasts—opened the window, and lit up a cigarette. She inhaled deeply, held it in for a few seconds, and then slowly released the smoke towards the window. Technically, we aren’t allowed to smoke in the dorms, but I wasn’t in the mood to make an issue if it. “You just got your heart broken.”
I grabbed the first thing within reach—a coffee mug—and hurled it against the wall. The mug shattered into dozens of small pieces. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I managed to choke out through the tightness in my throat. I will not cry.
“Hey, I understand. You’re angry. I’ve been there. But you can’t run away.”
“Did I ask you? Besides, who said I’m running away?”
“I suppose you’re just packing for the fun of it?”
“I just need to get away.”
“You’re running away.”
“Fine, I’m running away. So what? How is that your business?”
“It’s not. I’m just saying...you can’t run away from it. You’re gonna hurt no matter where you are.” She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on her knees, watching me while I busily kept packing. “You’ll get over him eventually. Then someone else will come along. Maybe someone better.”
“Like Foster?” I scoffed.
She laughed. “Foster’s just keeping me occupied while I wait for that someone better. He’s not the marrying type, if you know what I mean, but he’s great in bed. He’ll do things most guys won’t.”
“You know, I really don’t want to talk about that.”
Just then, Foster returned, sparing me from all the gory details of their sex life. He gave me a dirty look. “Are you still here?”
“Six hours, Foster, then I’ll be gone. Think you can wait that long?”
“Where are you going?”
“That remains to be seen.”
He shrugged. “Whatever. Come on, Fawn. Let’s go get something to eat.”
Fawn dropped her cigarette into a beer can where it died with a fizzle, then grabbed her clothes from the floor next to the bed. She dressed under the sheets, and then, finally, the lovely couple made their exit, leaving me gratefully alone. My vow not to cry lasted all of thirty seconds before I was a sobbing heap on the floor. I’d pretty much cried myself out when I heard a key in the door. I cut off my tears with a hiccup and quickly wiped my teary face on my blanket. I was scrambling to my feet when Roy opened the door. A look of concern crossed his face as he took in my disheveled, red-eyed appearance.
“Jake, what’s wrong?” He stood awkwardly by the door. I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. “Is it Kody?” I nodded. “What happened? Did you find him?” Another head-shake. “Did you guys break up?” Much to my embarrassment, I once again burst into tears. “Oh jeez, Jake. I’m sorry.” He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, then suddenly charged across the room towards me. I involuntarily flinched as he reached me, but much to my amazement, he enveloped me in what had to be the gentlest hug I’d ever received.
He must have noticed the suitcase while my face was still pressed into his massive chest. “Why are you packing?” He released me so abruptly I stumbled back a few steps. At least I’d stopped crying from the shock. “You’re not leaving are you?” He sounded so horrified by the prospect that I felt bad that I’d not even thought about letting him know I was going home.
“I...I need to get away, Roy. I need some time to think away from everybody—well, away from him at least.”
“I might be back in a few days.”
“Then why are you packing everything?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my forehead. Roy was not as dumb as most people thought. “I just need to get away, Roy. Please try to understand.”
“But you’re my only friend here.”
“That’s not true. You’re friends with Erin, and there’s Jen. Things are just getting started there. You don’t need me around for that. And then there’s always...Kody...”
“Erin’s your friend, not mine. And I do need you around for Jen. Who am I going to ask for advice? And Kody...well, he only put up with me because of you.” Now, he looked like he might cry at any minute. “You’re my best friend, Jake. I don’t want you to go.”
I dropped down on the bed next to the suitcase and thought about what Roy had said. I was his best friend? I’d barely been a friend to him at all. I’d more tolerated him than anything. Suddenly, I felt terribly guilty at the way I’d taken him for granted. He was always there, listening to my problems and watching out for me—truly being a friend. And what had I given him in return? Not much, and yet, he still thought I was a great friend.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to sound cheery, not an easy prospect in my current state of mind. “Hey, no matter what happens, we’ll stay friends. Got it? You can call me anytime, email me, and even come visit me in Maryland.”
“Really?” He still looked miserable, but not so much like he might cry. “I’ve never been to Maryland.”
“You’ll love it. We’ve got great beaches. I can teach you how to surf. And who knows, maybe I will come back after I have some time to think things over.”
He gave me a little smile. “I hope so.”
For the first time since I’d found out that Becca had told Kody the truth about me, I started to think that maybe I would come back. I’d made some great friends here: Erin, Roy, and Carlos. So what if things were over with Kody?
My heart broke all over again as I thought about being here without him. How could I go about my daily life—attend classes, eat meals, drink coffee—knowing he was so close but I couldn’t see him or touch him? That would be the purest form of torture. I’d made the right decision. I had to go home.
“Can I help you pack or something?” Roy asked, startling me out of my reverie. I’d practically forgotten he was even there.
Mom arrived five and a half hours later. She must have broken some kind of land speed record. I hadn’t been expecting her for another hour or two considering she was traveling during the brunt of rush hour.
She called as she was pulling into the lot, and knocked on the door a few minutes later. I barely had the door open before she’d enveloped me in a tight hug. I struggled not to break down again. I was starting to get one of those crying headaches. Mom pulled away and held me at arms’ length, looking me over carefully. Her eyes seemed to search mine. Then she nodded and turned towards Roy who was watching with large eyes. She inspected Roy the same way she had me, then crossed the room and gave him a hug as well. The sight was almost enough to make me laugh. The look on Roy’s face was priceless, but even better was how small my petite mother looked in Roy’s embrace.
“Roy, this is my mom, Judy,” I said as Mom stepped away from a bewildered Roy. “Mom, this is Roy. He’s a good friend.”
“He must be your protector.” She beamed warmly at him.
Roy got an aw-shucks look on his face and I swear he scuffed his toe on the floor. “Nice to meet ya,” he mumbled.
Mom reached out and touched his hand. “You have a pure soul, Roy. Thank you for looking out for Jake.”
“He’s been a good friend.”
Mom smiled again. “Good.” She turned to me. “Are you ready? We have a long drive back.”
“You don’t need to rest or anything?” I knew if I’d just driven almost six hours I wouldn’t be all that eager to jump back in a car right away.
“Nope, I’m running on a pot of coffee. There’ll be lots of pee breaks. I’m ready if you are.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m ready then.”
“I’ll help carry your stuff down, Jake,” Roy offered.
Even with Roy’s help—the boy was like a pack mule, we just kept piling it on him—it took us two trips to load everything into the car. Once the car was packed, I went back inside to say good-bye to Erin, Roy trailing behind me like a lost puppy. She’d gathered the whole group together to send me off. Carlos, Toshi, Miranda, and Alex were all there wearing identical mournful expressions.
“Guys, I’m just going home. This isn’t a funeral,” I joked. Carlos attempted a smile. No one else even bothered.
“Will you be coming back?” Toshi asked. That seemed to be the question of the day. I wished I had an answer.
I shrugged. “We’ll see.”
We all stood awkwardly for a few minutes. I was just hoping no one would start crying.
“Group hug!” Erin suddenly yelled out, and everyone moved together as if that was all we’d been waiting for.
“Jake? You ready?” My mother stuck her head in the door and broke the moment.
We broke apart and I quickly introduced everyone. We had a quick round of individual hugs and then Mom and I walked out to the car, Roy still straggling along behind me. I had a sudden mental image of him chasing the car down the road.
Mom climbed into the driver’s seat, and I turned to tell Roy good-bye one last time. I let out an “oof” as he crushed me against his chest in a bone-jarring bear hug.
“Bye, Jake,” he rumbled.
I grunted. I would have said more but he was squeezing me so hard I was afraid my lungs might collapse. He released me and I gasped for air. Once I’d caught my breath, I patted him on the arm. “This isn’t good-bye, just see you later.”
“I hope you come back, Jake.”
He was once again looking like he might cry so I decided to keep things short and sweet. “We’ll stay in touch either way, Big Guy.”
He nodded, and I quickly jumped into the passenger seat. Mom started the car and pulled away. I glanced back, but Roy refrained from chasing us. He just stood there morosely watching us drive away.
“Poor guy,” Mom said, glancing in the rear-view mirror. “He seems more broken-hearted than you. Do you think he has a crush on you?”
“Mom, Roy is straight. He’s just never had a close friend.”
“Ah. He’s really going to miss you. I could feel his pain as soon as I walked into your room. His almost outweighed yours.”
A wave of guilt flowed over me. “I’ll miss him too.” As I said the words, I realized how true they were. I’d grown quite fond of the big lug—not to mention Erin, Carlos, and the rest.
As if she’d read my mind (and who knows, maybe she did), Mom turned to me and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. I need to get away to think, even if it just turns out to be for a few days.”
“Right, because I have nothing better to do than drive you back and forth between New York and Maryland.”
I flushed. “I’m sorry, Mom. Thanks for driving all the way up here to get me. I really do appreciate it.”
“I know you do, Kiddo.” She gave me a smile. “I’m just giving you a hard time. So how about if you tell me what this is all about anyway? This morning you were insisting all was well.”
“I thought it was. Then all hell broke loose.”
“Tell me about it?”
I turned my face away. “I don’t really feel like talking about it.”
“Come on, spill it. You’ll feel better after you do.”
“Okay. Later then?”
“Later. I think I’ll just take a nap now. Wake me up if you get tired and I’ll drive a while.”
She nodded, and I leaned my head against the window and shut my eyes. I wasn’t really tired and didn’t expect to fall asleep. I just wanted to avoid talking about Kody with my mother. I must have been more drained than I’d thought though, because at some point I really fell asleep.
I awoke with a start when we pulled into a rest stop. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. “Where are we?”
“Somewhere in New Jersey. It’s time for another pee break. You slept through the first one.”
“You left me in the car alone and asleep?” I was aghast.
Mom rolled her eyes. “You’re a little too big to kidnap, Jacob. I locked the doors. Now if you’ll excuse me, my bladder is about to burst.” She unbuckled her seat belt and slid out of the car. I realized I had to go too, so I jumped out behind her.
Back in the car, Mom gave me a look. I knew I couldn’t put her off any longer. With a sigh, I resigned myself to reliving the whole story.
Sure enough, her first words were, “So what happened?”
“I screwed up.”
“Could you be a little more specific?”
“I didn’t tell Kody everything about...about my past. I told him I was an addict, but I left out the part about Fenton Black.”
Mom’s face darkened. The very mention of his name made her furious—both at him and herself for not intervening sooner. “And he found out somehow?”
“There’s this girl—“
“It’s always a girl,” Mom muttered under her breath.
“Her name is Becca. I met her before I’d met anybody else at school. She seemed really nice at first, but it didn’t take me long to realize she was only interested in bagging a boyfriend. So I told her I wasn’t interested because I was gay. She didn’t buy it. She freaked out. A few weeks later she saw me at the Coop with Erin and assumed she was my girlfriend. There was a big scene that ended with me saying some pretty nasty things to Becca.”
“So this is a case of the woman scorned?”
“Something like that. After you called this morning, I got a funny feeling about Kody.”
“What kind of funny feeling?” That had certainly caught her attention. Mom lived with the hope that I’d develop some sort of psychic abilities. So far I’d disappointed her on that front. I was anything but disappointed. The Gifts, as she referred to them, seemed more like a curse than a gift to me.
“Nothing supernatural, Mother. I just had a feeling of dread.”
“It could have been precognition!”
“Or it could have been the power of suggestion. After all, you’d just called me up and practically insisted something was wrong.” That quieted her. “Either way, I tried to find Kody, but I couldn’t locate him anywhere. Then Roy told me he’d skipped out on his classes, so I went looking for him. I bumped into Becca on campus, although I doubt that was a coincidence. She wanted to gloat about how she’d found out about everything by doing an Internet search. Somehow, she’d found some articles that mentioned my involvement with Fenton. She gave them to Kody.”
“Stay in your lane,” I yelled as she started to drift towards a tractor-trailer on our left.
“Sorry. This just gets me so steamed! What did Kody say?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I couldn’t find him anywhere. No one has seen him all day. He’s avoiding me.”
Mom stared at me in disbelief until I pointed frantically at the road. She was quiet a few more moments before she let loose on me.
“Are you trying to tell me that I drove all the way up here from Maryland and you don’t even know if he’s upset or not?”
“Mom, wouldn’t you be upset if you just learned that your boyfriend used to be a whore for drugs? And even worse, he kept that from you?”
“Jake, you can’t project your feelings onto other people. You should have at least talked to him before you ran off.”
I turned towards the window and stared out at the lights of whatever town we were passing. “Maybe I didn’t want to talk to him.”
“Why on earth not?”
“I didn’t want to see the disgust in his eyes.”
“You don’t know that he’s disgusted.”
“I couldn’t stand it, Mom.”
She was quiet for a minute. “You really care about Kody, don’t you?”
“I...” A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek. “I think I love him.”
“Then don’t you think you at least owe him the chance to work this out—assuming there even is anything to work out?”
I didn’t answer, but my mind was working overtime. She dropped the subject and we didn’t talk much for the rest of the drive. I dozed a bit, but mostly, I thought about what she’s said. When we got home, I went straight to my bedroom and dropped into bed. Mercifully, sleep claimed me quickly.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.” Someone dropped heavily onto the bed next to me.
I blinked awake to find Killian staring down at me with a crooked little half-smile. I frowned. “What are you doing here?”
His eyebrows rose. “Is that any way to greet your best friend who you haven’t seen for a month?”
I pushed myself into a sitting position and gave him a hug. Then I pushed away and studied him. “Mom called you, didn’t she?”
He grinned. “Yep. She said she had to go meet with an important client and she wanted someone to be here when you woke up.”
I rolled my eyes. “As if I need a babysitter. And, of course, you decided to wake me up.”
“Of course. So what are you doing home? Your mom wouldn’t tell me. She said you could fill me in.”
“Aha! That’s the real reason you woke me up. You just wanted to satisfy your curiosity.”
He shrugged, not even bothering to deny it. Killian was notoriously inquisitive, which is probably why he got into the PI business to start with. “So tell me what happened. Have you been crying? Your eyes are all puffy.”
“I just woke up! Jeez. You really know how to make a boy feel special.”
“Oh, stop fishing for compliments. You know you’re hot as hell, even first thing in the morning when you’ve slept in your clothes. You stink, by the way.” I stuck my tongue out at him. He tackled me and started tickling. We wrestled around for a few minutes before I let him pin me. “Just tell me what happened, already,” he panted.
I sighed and gave in. We settled in next to each other on the bed, our backs propped up against the headboard and our legs crossed casually over one another’s. Since it had been a while since we’d talked, I had to give him more background than Mom had needed. I started all the way back with meeting Kody for the first time and brought him up to the present, leaving nothing out. Telling it all took a while, especially since Killian asked so many questions. I started to feel like I was a witness in one of his cases. When I was finished I felt like I needed a nap again. At least I’d gotten through it without crying this time.
Killian stared at me for a few seconds after I’d finished. “So, let me get this straight. You just ran off without even talking to him?”
“Argh!” I shoved him away and crawled to the foot of the bed. “You sound like my mother.”
“Well, I mean, really, Jake. Don’t you think you owed him that, at least?”
“I don’t know what I owe him. All I know is that I didn’t want to see him look at me with disgust.” He opened his mouth, but I rushed on to cut him off before he could say it. “And yes, I know that I don’t know for sure he’d be disgusted, but even if he wasn’t, I kept the truth from him. He probably hates me now. At the very least, it’s probably over between us. Who would want to date someone who used to be a whore? He probably never wants to see me again.” I flopped back onto the bed and stared dejectedly up at the ceiling.
“Why don’t you let him speak for himself? I’ve never heard someone use the word ‘probably’ so many times in one self-pitying speech.”
I sat up and stared at him with my mouth agape, feeling like he’d slapped me.
“Don’t look at me like that. You’re acting like a little kid, running from these bogey monsters that only exist in your head instead of facing your problems head on like an adult. And your mom is just as bad, rushing up there to rescue you. At least I can understand where she’s coming from. She feels all this guilt over not being there when you needed her so now she’s overcompensating. What’s your excuse?”
I felt my face heating up with anger. “If all you’re going to do is sit there and judge me then you can leave,” I snapped.
“I’m not judging you. I’m trying to help you. I know you’ve been through a lot of shit, and I’m sorry, but you can’t keep using that as an excuse to avoid life. You’ve got to move on and start living, and that means letting someone—maybe Kody—love you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you’re afraid to let him get close.”
“I am not!”
“Then why did you run away when he wanted to be intimate?”
“I...I didn’t run away.”
“You did. You told me yourself. And then you ran away again at the first sign of trouble, this time away from the whole school—heck, the whole state.”
“I...You don’t understand.”
“Don’t I? Maybe I understand too well. I’ve been there, Jake. You’re afraid of getting hurt again so you avoid letting people get too close. You’re trying to put everything on Kody, but the truth is you’re using this as an excuse to get away. He was getting too close and you were feeling things for him that scared you. If it wasn’t this, it would have been something else.”
I looked away. “Fine. Maybe you’re right. I am scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared. After all you’ve been through you’d be crazy not to be scared. You just can’t let it control you. Do you really want to be alone for the rest of your life?”
I shook my head no.
“Then sooner or later you’re going to have to take a risk and open up your heart to someone.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Do you love Kody?”
I nodded shakily.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Yes. I love Kody.”
“Then you have to take that chance. Every relationship is a risk, Jake. Some work out and some don’t. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but you can’t be paralyzed by the fear of what might happen.”
“But what if—”
“What if he’s your soul mate and you live happily ever after?”
I thought about what he’d said for a few minutes while Killian waited patiently. “So you think I should go back and hope he’ll give me another chance?” I asked finally.
“I think you should give your relationship another chance.”
“What if he doesn’t want to give me another chance?”
“Will you quit with the what-ifs already? You’re like Mr. Worst Case Scenario. Try looking on the bright side for a change.”
“I haven’t seen many bright sides in my life. I don’t know if I’d recognize one if it bit me in the ass.”
Killian’s eyes softened. “I know, sweetie. That’s why you have me, to point them out for you so you don’t miss them.”
I gave him a small smile. “You know, you’re right.”
“I usually am,” he said with a grin. “What am I right about this time?”
“I was scared to...to be intimate with Kody, but not for the reason you think—or at least not totally.”
Killian looked surprised. “Then why were you scared?”
“Maybe it was partially what you said about not letting him get too close, but it was also because—” I took a deep breath. “I haven’t been with anyone since Fenton.”
Killian gave me a bewildered look. “I know. So?”
“So? That was two years ago.”
“I’d think that would make you want to do it more.”
“Of course I wanted to. It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m just scared.”
“Scared of what, exactly?”
“I haven’t dated anyone since...well...ever really. You were the first guy I ever fell for, and as we both know, nothing came of that except our friendship. When Mom and I moved to California, I got into drugs and had a lot of sex, but it was just physical. None of it meant anything. Then we moved back here and everything happened with Fenton. After that, I was just concentrating on getting over my addictions. I didn’t feel much like sex. After everything I’ve been through, let’s just say anonymous sex had lost its allure. Since I wasn’t seeing anyone, it wasn’t really an issue until I met Kody. Then when things started happening...” I played with the sheets for a few seconds while Killian waited for me to go on. “I’ve never had sex with someone I genuinely cared about.”
Killian blinked in shock. “Oh wow. Jake...I didn’t realize...”
“It’s not something you brag about, you know?”
“So, in a way, it’s almost like you’re a virgin too.”
I made a face. “I wish. I’m going into this with a lot of baggage.”
“Who doesn’t have baggage these days?”
“Don’t you think you might be idealizing Kody a little? He sounds like he’s been through his share of crap, too.”
“Nothing like I have.”
“You can’t compare stuff like that. If he’s willing to take you as you are, with all your baggage, then what are you waiting for?”
“How do I know if he’s willing?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“Go back to school.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
“You’ll go back?”
“Yes, I’ll go back.”
“And you’ll give what you and Kody have another shot?”
I hesitated. “I’ll do my best.”
Killian pulled me against him in a tight hug. “That’s all anyone can expect,” he whispered, then released me. “It won’t be easy, but I know you can do it.”
“I wish I was as confident.”
“You—” The doorbell cut him off.
I looked down at my rumpled clothes. “Ugh. I’m not fit for public view. Can you get that? I’m going to take a shower.”
“Sure. No problem.”
I scuttled into the bathroom, shut the door, then yanked it back open for one last instruction. “Oh, and if it’s for me, I’m not home.”