Betsy – never has a parent done more to foster the
love of reading that became the joy of writing.
Table of Contents
Books by Ashavan Doyon
LOOKED AT himself in the bathroom mirror. He’d managed to hide
it well, so far. The circles under his eyes didn’t look that
unusual for a college student. The redness in his eyes could just be
a lack of sleep. They weren’t, but they could have been. No one
would ask questions. They would see his blond hair, dark from the
wetness of the shower. They would see the blue in his eyes, never the
red. They would stare at his muscles, with lust or envy, that didn’t
matter. What mattered was what they wouldn’t see.
Steven leaned down,
ran the water, and splashed it against his face. He patted his face
dry and slung the towel over his shoulders. His breath came in
guarded near-gasps. Too much breath and he’d start sobbing
again, and all the effort of bringing his appearance under control
would be for nothing. Steven returned to his room, moving as quietly
as the institutional doors of the dormitory would allow him, and
stepped carefully through the darkness over the snoring form of his
friend, Tim, on the floor.
fellow rower had spent half the night in a desperate effort to
console Steven without really even knowing what had broken Steven
apart. Steven had vague recollections of alcohol the night before. Of
falling asleep after puking his guts out. Of desperately wanting
everything to end. Tim had stayed through it all. Would he still
have stayed if he knew? It could break up the team, and they’d
blame me. Right now I’m not even sure I care.
quickly, pausing only for a moment at the door. He squeezed his eyes
shut, his sightless gaze directed in the darkness at Tim. Steven felt
a quiver in his stomach, an uncertainty, gnawing at his insides. The
rhythm of his breathing stumbled, and it took all of his effort to
quell the sob that tried to emerge. If he sobbed now, it was over.
He’d be lost to the despair again.
He focused on his
breathing for a moment. Let himself regain that control. Then, with
great care, he shut the door, skipping downstairs as fast as he
could. The cold air stung his skin, and the light coat he’d
brought with him wasn’t enough. That was good. The sting was
his ally, his hope to focus on anything but the pain and uncertainty.
Steven ran for his
car, glad that he’d left it nearby. Once inside, in the closed
environment of the car, alone, it was hard for the temptation not to
hit. To cry again. To despair again.
Steven gulped and
sought out his wallet. He pulled a picture out—a young boy with
golden hair—and he kissed it. He wedged the photo into the seam
where two pieces of the dashboard met. He stroked the photo lightly,
as though he could brush the boy’s hair from his eyes. Then he
started the car and he drove. He quickly left behind the campus
buildings, speeding along a road he’d used too often the past
few days. He didn’t need the blue signs with their bold H
declaring the route to the hospital. He knew this road well.
It didn’t take
long. A sea of lights soon lit the sky nearby in a familiar glow.
Steven parked, replaced the photo in his wallet, and entered the
quiet, sterile halls. This route, too, he knew. He passed nurses and
doctors and security that ignored him when it was clear he knew his
way. Steven’s step faltered as he reached the door. Peeking in,
he could see Adrienne, already here, sitting primly next to her
brother. She was short and professionally dressed, her clothes
strictly business, but warmth radiated out from her all the same.
Perhaps it was the soft browns of her hair and eyes, or maybe the way
she held her brother’s bruised hand.
What right do I
have to disturb them? I barely know them. Steven swallowed. That
wasn’t really true. Maybe they’d only known each other
for a week, but it had been a week of her brother beaten, in
surgery—of her brother about to die. Of Steven being her only
support, because Aidan was falling apart just as badly. And yet
it’s still so awkward. He was about to turn around and walk
away when Adrienne looked up and smiled. She beckoned to him, and
when he didn’t enter, stood and came to the door.
“Yeah, sorry, Addy. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
She set a hand
lightly on his. “You’re not disturbing me. I can tell
what Aidan sees in you. Thanks for coming.” She glanced down
the hall. “Where’s Aidan?”
be by later,” Steven said, comforted that he managed to keep
his voice level. They hadn’t talked about it, but he knew Aidan
had planned a rigorous schedule of visits. “I had some time
before class, I thought... I’m sure you must be so tired. You
could get some sleep. I’ll sit with him for a while, if you
Adrienne gazed up at
him. He didn’t mean to tower over her, but he couldn’t
help it. She lacked her brother’s height, and even that was
just a shadow of Steven’s stature. “That sounds
wonderful. I could use a proper shower, at least.”
Steven smiled at the
petite woman. “Aidan wanted him to know there were people
concerned about him. I think he was reaching out to Michael’s
other friends. He said Michael wasn’t really comfortable with
the community on campus, so he was trying to get in touch with the
Steven’s arm. “Well, he knows you’re here. And
Aidan. And that means the world to him, Steven. I know it does.”
Steven managed a
half-hearted smile in return. “You should get some rest. I can
stay with him until you get back.”
back to Michael’s side and spoke quietly to him for a moment.
She squeezed his hand and slipped by. “He’s all yours for
a few hours,” she said. “You have the number at the hotel
if you need to call?”
Steven nodded and
watched as Adrienne walked slowly down the hall. When she was gone,
Steven moved next to the bed and sat down. The machines provided a
steady drone of beeps and wheezes. Michael lay in the bed unmoving.
Michael was an attractive young man, though it was hard to see that
through the gauze wrappings. Steven still knew. There had been a
glimmer of it in the beaten young man that he’d seen that first
night—the night they’d picked up Adrienne at the airport
to bring her to the hospital. Somehow, in that night of trauma,
Aidan’s closeness had gotten transferred to Steven. Not
transferred. Expanded. She associates me with him. And she trusts him
Aidan had a picture
next to his bed of Michael and Aidan together. That’s really
how Steven knew what Michael looked like. They’d looked happy.
Steven felt the stirrings of jealousy, even though he knew that
happiness had been an illusion. It was that sense of togetherness,
that sense of happiness however false it may have been that had
driven Steven to the hospital in the middle of the night. Michael was
the man that Aidan had never quite let go, the only other man Aidan
had ever dated. The one person who might, just maybe, understand what
it was that Steven was feeling.
The half of Michael
that wasn’t bandaged was a gruesome mix of blue and purple and
black, bordered with sickly yellows. Here and there a pale bit of
skin betrayed the pasty color of Michael’s flesh. His face was
entirely bandaged, and there was an alarming bit of red-tinged
wetness near one eye. Steven gulped. It could just as easily have
Steven took a deep
breath. What am I even doing here? He glanced at the monitors
and then back at the skinny body on the bed, at the man still
struggling to breathe. Steven leaned back in the chair, and waited.
He’d considered bringing his homework, but right now there was
no chance he’d be able to concentrate on it. Instead Steven
focused his attention on Michael’s injuries.
There might have
been wiry muscle on the young man once. But Steven marveled at the
young man’s fragility. It was like someone had stretched the
mottled flesh tight over bone. There was no meat to Michael’s
body at all. Steven closed his eyes and whispered a prayer. Thank
God it wasn’t Aidan. Thank God it wasn’t me. Heaven help
this boy. Steven tried to look away. He couldn’t help
feeling guilty. The men who had done this had failed in an earlier
attempt to bash Aidan and Steven only to be chased away by Aidan’s
sheer bravado and force of personality. There was no way for Steven
to know they’d go searching for someone else. Why did he even
care anyway? Because Aidan loved this man once.
the injuries. Broken leg. Collapsed lung. Kidney damage. Michael had
been beaten half to death. Under the bandages was a face beaten
bloody, both eyes swollen shut. He’d had brain swelling and
they’d had to drill a hole in his head to relieve the pressure.
Steven looked at the oozing liquid by the eye. The doctor had
mentioned the possibility of infection, and the sickly yellow of the
fluid staining the bandages wasn’t encouraging. Whoever
Michael’s assailants had been, they’d clearly not meant
for him to recover.
Steven looked away.
It was meant to be Aidan. Or me. Meant to punish us for dating out
in the open.
keep his breath from hitching. The thought of Aidan like this was
more than he could bear. All he’d wanted was to take Aidan on a
date. Steven felt the panic coming on. He felt the rush and the
disorientation and the shortness in his breath. He felt the pressure
as his body tried to force him again to cry. He couldn’t help
the choked sob that erupted. His body trembled as he struggled to
control his breathing.
Michael’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
Steven closed his
eyes, trying to ignore the hand that was fumbling about the bed,
searching. He managed a deep breath, then set a hand over Michael’s.
The skinny young man stilled completely, and there was a sharp tick
in the beeping of the monitors as Michael’s heart raced.
The beeping didn’t
return to normal, but it did calm. The hand Steven had covered was
shaking even more than Steven’s.
“He left me.”
The beeping of the
monitors raced again, but Michael didn’t speak.
believes you loved him,” Steven said. “The way he... he
really loved you, you know that?”
wrapped around Steven’s and squeezed.
Steven’s hand again.
“Did you love
him?” asked Steven. He wasn’t sure what response he was
expecting, but the squeeze was unexpectedly strong.
Steven said, pulling his hand away. He shook it and cursed. “That
“To love him?”
“T-to lose... hurts to lose.”
To lose him.
Steven closed his eyes again. “You do understand.”
sought and found Steven’s, and the squeeze was hard.
Steven thought about
Michael’s answer for a moment and turned an angry glare on the
man. A useless glare, since Michael’s eyes were still covered
by bandages. “You knew.”
suspected,” Michael said.
someone. Someone else. Said you...” Michael choked and coughed,
taking several breaths before he continued. “He said... said
Hearing someone else say it, that Aidan had loved someone else, was
harder than he’d expected. That it was Sammy, one of his
closest friends, only made it worse. “I knew,” he
admitted. The words were soft, barely an exhalation, but Michael must
have heard, because the squeeze was reassuring somehow.
“I love him,”
said Steven. “I love him, and I’ve lost him.”
Steven choked on the words, tears coming again to his eyes. The flesh
of his cheeks was fire, the tears molten. “I can’t—”
Steven’s hand. It was sudden and surprisingly strong. “You
can. You will.”
“I wanted him
to love me.”
Steven managed a
brief hysterical laugh. “Close. Close to loving me? What good
is that? What good is anything? I lost him.”
“Yeah, I am.
Have been, I think, for a while. He’s so sexy. I think you know
that.” Steven paused. “He was always so confident. Out
and proud and not caring what anyone else thinks. He was so...”
“No. Not you.
Aidan. In love. S-someone else.” Michael’s words came out
in heaves, and when he finished he started coughing and the pressure
on Steven’s hand grew tight and painful.
Steven winced at the
grasp, but he watched carefully all the same. “You shouldn’t
answering laugh was clearly pained. “What you c-came to do. So
Aidan have been in love with me?”
again. “Was trying,” he gasped out, taking several
breaths afterward. “Wanted to set it aside. Couldn’t.”
Michael’s head shook and he was forced upright by the coughing.
“My fault. Told him... h-he had to...”
Steven pulled his
hand away. “You could have told him I was worth it! You could
have told him to try for the love that was just waiting for him!”
trembling from the force of his coughing fit, but he shook his head.
“Have to let him go. Think it’s easy”—Michael
swayed for a moment, as though dizzy—“easy for me? To
know I’ve lost him? L-loves me. Still. After what I did, he
still loves me. But I’ve lost him.” Michael gulped and
the gasping stutter of his breath made clear the pain he was in.
“Know how you feel. I do.” Michael gasped again and took
several more heaving breaths. “Important question. Is he
happy?” Michael collapsed awkwardly back against the pillows,
dropping his hand near the rail. Near Steven. It was palm up and
Steven grabbed hold
of the hand and held it, choking on a sob.
“So, is he?”
answer was the loss of his control. A surrender to the sobs that had
threatened all morning. Not a momentary loss but a complete one. He
dropped Michael’s hand and fell against the cushions of the
bed, hands tangling in his hair, pulling in a desperate effort to
distract himself physically from the turmoil that threatened within.
It was a battle he lost, and lost quickly. He sobbed desperately into
the hospital bed cushions, vaguely aware of a hand against his
He barely noticed
the nurse come in. The ubiquitous checking of vitals. All he saw
between sobs, through blurry eyes that were certainly puffy and red
again, were flashes of scrubs. Michael’s hand missing for a
moment. And then it was back, patting and stroking his shoulder as he
cried. Soft footsteps retreated. There was a click as the door
was wet. His breath came in stuttering gasps, in heaving, short
breaths. His breathing was as tortured in its way as Michael’s.
Steven closed his eyes and focused for a moment. I’m on the
water. Pull the oar. Pull. Breathe. Pull. Slowly his breathing
came under control. He could feel tears still flowing freely. Michael
moved the comforting hand from Steven’s shoulder to his chest.
Michael asked. His voice was raspy and raw.
Steven fought a
sudden surge that begged him to sob again, to cry again. Another tear
followed the trail of others down his cheek. “Yeah.”
speak for a long time after that. Hurting Steven had made Aidan sad.
Steven knew that—trusted it. But he’d still done it,
still dumped Steven for Sammy. You told him to do it. Told him if
he ever had a chance at Sammy that he should take it. It was what he
wanted. Steven let out a long breath. But Sammy was supposed
to be straight.
Michael patted him
on the shoulder, sought and found his hand, squeezed gently, and then
just held it. Slowly the grip got looser, and Michael’s breath
grew steady and slow. The beeping and wheezing of the machines
replaced the coughs and gasps that had accompanied Michael’s
efforts to talk.
Steven looked at the
man in the bed. Aidan loved you, Michael. Why?
Steven leaned back
in his chair, shifting uncomfortably. Aidan would come here
eventually, to see Michael. Steven had to wonder if anyone else had
really realized how affected Aidan still was by that love for
Michael. Because that was clearly what it was, love. Steven had
watched them together, had watched Aidan break down when there were
complications in Michael’s surgery.
Steven felt the
twist in his gut. The gurgle and tightness and anger. Aidan had loved
Michael, still loved Michael. So why aren’t they still
Steven knew, of
course, why Aidan said they’d broken up. But the care Aidan had
shown Michael since suggested the feelings were still deep. Aidan had
been upset and emotional, determined to help. Addy’s presence
was Aidan’s doing. No one else would have called her. Aidan had
made sure that she got called, had made sure Michael had family here
and his care didn’t wait until it was definitively life and
death. Aidan had fought the dean to get Michael’s care covered,
his tuition recovered. Aidan still had feelings for him. Strong
That was all Steven knew. It made him angry. Protective. This man
that Aidan loved so much, this man had broken Aidan’s heart.
Steven gulped. And Aidan broke mine.
Steven had to fight
tears again. All that careful work in the morning had been for
nothing. He knew that now. The rawness of his cheeks alone was enough
to tell anyone looking at him that he’d spent the morning in
tears. Maybe not the extent, but enough to know that he’d
broken down. Steven threw his head back and stared at the ceiling.
Why am I even here?
But he knew. Michael
was important to Aidan. And so Michael was important to Steven. Aidan
dumping him... it hadn’t changed that. “I love you,
Aidan.” Steven whispered the words, squeezing Michael’s
breathing stuttered for a moment, then returned to normal. Steven
watched the skinny young man’s bruised and beaten chest rise
and fall. So vulnerable. Steven carefully slid his hand out of
Michael’s and stood up. He should go to class. He should be
worried about his course work.
The beeping got
suddenly fast, Michael’s breathing frantic. His hand was
searching about the bed.
Sleep. I’m here,” Steven said, sitting back down and
grabbing hold of Michael’s hand in both of his.
Michael said. His chest rose as he clearly struggled to find air to
okay. I just have to take a piss. And maybe get some breakfast.
You’re not alone.”
Michael nodded. The
gesture was half-hearted and incomplete, but it was good enough.
Steven patted Michael’s hand and went down to the cafe.
This time of day
there weren’t many people in the cafe. Even with all the time
he’d spent with Michael, for most, the hour was still early.
The blinds in Michael’s room had been drawn against the lights
of the parking lot, but here wide windows exposed a dawn only
beginning. Steven stood dutifully in the brief line, ordered a
sandwich he knew couldn’t be too badly mangled—he’d
done his time in food service as a teen—and sat down to eat. He
felt an odd guilty twinge at sitting here and eating with Michael
alone in the room, but he pushed it aside. As an athlete, Steven
understood the need to eat on a fairly regular schedule.
Steven ate the
sandwich, enduring the overcooked eggs and burnt bits of ham, and
watched the sky slowly brighten. He’d always loved the sunrise.
It felt like a renewal, the line of sunlight slowly moving until he
could stare the sun in the face. Not that he could do it for very
long, but Steven loved to close his eyes and feel the sun. On any
other day it would make him feel alive. But not today.
Steven gulped. “Oh,
Aidan,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. He sat for a few
more moments, letting the sun slowly fill the cafeteria with light.
But it didn’t warm him. His soul, his heart, it’d been
ripped from his chest, and Steven barely felt anything. Duty, maybe.
To take care of Michael. Because Aidan had wanted it done.
Steven pulled his
coat tighter. Inside he should be hot, especially in the sunlight,
but the institutional chill of the hospital settled in his bones, and
Steven hugged his chest tight. Numbly, he stood and bussed his
cafeteria tray, then headed back up to Michael’s room.
Steven had to give
the nurses credit. In the brief time Steven had been gone, they’d
managed to get Michael washed, change his bandages, and get him back
settled under fresh blankets.
said Steven, taking note of the tag that gave the man’s name as
left instructions before she left the hospital that if she was
unavailable I should update either you or Mr. Flemming.”
you, sir,” Steven said. The sir was automatic, it was a part of
how he’d grown up. “You tried her cell phone?”
it’s uncomfortable, Mr. Everett. But this is a serious injury.
She was concerned about missing anything important.”
How is he?”
Dr. Simmons looked
at Steven for a few moments before speaking. “His condition is
stabilizing. He’s going to cough, a lot. The lung that
collapsed is still very weak, and he needs to cough. That’s
important. Fluid will try to build up in his lungs. If it does,
Michael will get pneumonia.”
“So we should
just let him cough,” Steven said, arching an eyebrow and
wondering how to keep from soothing those coughs after having
witnessed Michael in pain.
Dr. Simmons nodded.
“I know it’s hard to watch. Trust me, the alternative is
worse.” He paused. “There are some encouraging things to
report. His arm injury isn’t severe and should heal fairly
quickly. The bruises will look worse before they get better, but
other than being sore, he weathered the abuse well.”
Steven closed his
eyes. It could have been any of us. “The leg?”
“The break is
in his lower leg,” Dr. Simmons said. “It was a clean
break and will heal more quickly than you probably expect, though he
should expect to be on crutches for about ten weeks while he
recovers. He’ll be in the hospital for most of that time, so
it’ll seem shorter for him. It’s a small mercy.”
more.” It wasn’t a question.
The doctor nodded.
“His cranial injuries were extremely severe, more so than we
initially thought. We are not certain he will regain vision in his
left eye.” Dr. Simmons made eye contact, an effort with
Steven’s height. “He protected his face fairly well. I
know the eye injury makes it not seem that way, but we could have
easily needed to do a total facial reconstruction.”
“So when the
swelling goes down—”
the eye, he’ll look much as he always did,” Dr. Simmons
replied. “His eye, even if he recovers, even if he can see with
it, it’s going to be cloudy. The iris color is no longer
consistent, and I don’t expect that it ever will be. It’s
likely even if the operation salvaged his vision that the result will
infection?” asked Steven softly.
serious. Setting aside the potential of further lost vision, because
of the proximity to the brain, if it spreads, it could cause lasting
“It means we
may have to remove the eye entirely to prevent worse injury. An
infection in the brain is life threatening, removal of the eye is
like to give those sorts of numbers. At this point? More likely than
not. I’ll need to speak to Ms. Rossier and ask her to sign some
papers. The medications he’s on make it impossible for him to
give informed consent.”
Steven nodded. “I’ll
tell her.” He hesitated. “Does Michael know?”
Dr. Simmons sighed.
“We talked to him about it, but it’s not clear how much
he understood. He’s still struggling to speak. It makes him
cough. He’s afraid to cough, which I understand, it’s
painful. The concern is, again, that the reluctance could result in
more serious injury. If he gets pneumonia, in his weakened state, it
could be fatal.”
Dr. Simmons turned
around and started to move away, then stopped. “Your visits
with Mr. Flemming have been helping, Mr. Everett. It’s
important not to neglect the psychological part of Michael’s
recovery. He needs to reestablish trust and normalcy. Having people
who foster those feelings around him is an important part of that.”
he trusts? Steven looked back in the room through the long narrow
window on the door. Was it vulnerability? Was that what Aidan saw
in Michael? Steven shook his head. No, Michael wasn’t
vulnerable, not this way. Not when Aidan fell for him. This is new.
Michael was on the
bed, his face turned away. Perhaps he could sense the sunlight now
that the blinds were up? Steven grunted. More likely, Michael had
understood more of the doctor’s news than the doc gave him
Steven opened the
door and stood in the doorway. “It’s Steven,” he
said. “I told you I’d be back.”
not coming, is he?” Michael managed to croak out. His voice was
steadier. Maybe they’d given him something for it?
planning to. When we left yesterday, I mean. There was a plan for him
to come. For us to come together,” Steven said. The last part
was spoken softly.
stay?” asked Michael.
“I was just
waiting for Addy to get back,” Steven said. “Why would
you want me to stay?”
to be alone. Aidan trusts you. B-biggest—” Michael began
to cough, and mindful of the doctor’s warning, Steven let him
keep coughing. Finally, hoarsely, Michael continued. “Can trust
you. Aidan trusts you.”
Steven sat down and
looked up at the ceiling. “I should hate you. I do, a little.”
Steven composed himself before he continued. “He trusted you.
He loved you. He wanted to give you everything.” Steven turned
an unforgiving gaze on Michael’s bandaged face. “And you
cheated on him.”
flopped to the side. “Regret it, now.”
not why I hate you, though.” Steven knew his anger was leaking
into his voice. “You betrayed him. He loved you and you
betrayed him. And he still loves you. And I’ll never have that.
But I know exactly how it feels. I know exactly why he does. Because
I still love him. And he left me for someone else. But I love him
Steven clutched his
temple, clutching his hair in tight fists. “How can Aidan still
love you? After what you did!”
“It was real.
It’s what h-he has fo—” Michael burst out coughing.
It took almost a minute for him to stop, and when he did he heaved in
great breaths, obviously struggling against the pain. “He has
it. With this other guy. That’s why.”
what he feels for Sammy, that it’s the same?”
numbly. “And I threw it away. B-biggest mistake of my life.
Didn’t want Aidan to feel this, what I feel when I see
him. Didn’t wan...” Michael fell back against the
“Then why? Why
did you do it?”
immediately that his question had been a mistake. Soft wracking sobs
had sparked a choking fit, and Michael was still trembling from the
sorry,” Steven said. “It hurts that much? Still?”
Michael searched out
Steven’s hand on the bed and once he’d found it, he
“I know how
that feels.” Steven let the tears fall. He was beyond caring if
someone noticed. “It hurts me, too.”
Steven stroked the
fingers of Michael’s hand. “I was pretending to be
straight,” Steven said, the words coming slowly. They were
soft, and spoken as much to himself as to Michael. “Up until a
couple weeks ago. All my life, pretending.” Steven shimmied in
the chair, trying to find a comfortable spot. “Until I met
Aidan, I was content, you know? Just to look. Tried to pretend it was
Steven sighed. “I
spent all my time with the crew team. We were a team. Sure,
girlfriends came and went. Sometimes one of us would bring a friend
into the group. But when Sammy started including Aidan, none of us
knew what to do. I mean, this guy was... he’s really gay.”
Michael choked on a
laugh and squeezed at Steven’s fingers.
wear top hats, ascots, honest-to-God rose-colored glasses.”
Steven hung his head. “I teased him about it the first time I
met him. Picked on his vest. He gave me this look, utterly confident,
and corrected me. Told me they were called waistcoats. I asked him
why he was dressed like a fag. He... he gave me this look, so fierce
it was like it freakin’ burned. I’ll never forget it. He
said, ‘I am a fag, why shouldn’t I dress like one?’
And then he looked me up and down like I was a piece of meat. And he
smiled a little and walked away. I’m six foot eight, and Aidan
was completely unafraid.”
Steven looked at the
ceiling. “Sammy reamed me for calling Aidan a fag and went
after him. But that final look... I’d been looked at like that
by girls my whole life and it had made me feel good, sure. But it
never turned me on. When Aidan looked at me that way, even though I
knew it was just done to get a rise out of me, I got all hot. I felt
sexy. I blushed and everyone thought I was embarrassed, but I was so
deeply through his nose, closing his eyes, and then let the breath
out slow. “I knew I was different. I knew I found boys
attractive. I always did. But I tried so hard to pretend it was
normal. I mean, girls know which girls are attractive, right? As soon
as I was old enough, I found myself a girlfriend. That was easy. Even
at fifteen I was the boy all the girls lusted after. So I let one
take me home and the things she did... I felt so good and I came, so
I had to be straight right? But I didn’t feel anything for her.
I thought it must just be that girl.” Steven gulped.
another girl,” Michael said.
another.” Steven sighed. “Sex felt good. I mean, it’s
just friction, right? But I still didn’t feel anything for
them. So I kept looking. Trying to find the right kind of girl.”
Steven covered his face with his hands, pulling his hand from
Michael’s tentative grasp. “There wasn’t a right
type of girl, but I kept looking for one.”
“He made you
doubt,” Michael said.
never seen anything so sexy. To challenge me like that, all alone and
he’s such a tiny little guy, you know? But there he was, barely
over five feet tall and glaring up at me. And then to give me the
once-over on top of it? I started having dreams. The kind I’d
tried to ignore in high school. Dreams about him.”
“You found a
How did he know
that? “Yeah. A different one. She was a hot, Latin girl and
she did things with her hips during sex that...” Steven gulped.
“But I still didn’t feel anything for her, nothing real.”
Steven stood up.
“Then I found out that Aidan was attracted to me. For real.
That it wasn’t just making a point or trying to make me
uncomfortable. Stupid fucking game of truth or dare.” Steven
paced across the room. “Suddenly I could tease him. I could
flirt with him. Because of the game, no one questioned it. And Aidan
thought I was just teasing!” Steven laughed a little
hysterically. “I gave him so many opportunities. And yeah,
maybe I backed off a few times when he... I mean, I was so scared.”
Steven banged his
head against the wall. “By this time, I was with Sarah. I liked
Sarah. I was trying a new kind of different. Hoping if I got to know
and like the girl that it would make a difference. So I stayed with
Sarah. I made sure she felt good. I made sure she felt wanted. It
made a difference. But not a good difference. Every time, I felt so
guilty after.” Steven rested his forehead against the wall. “I
made more obvious hints. I was so confused. I just wanted to know. I
was distracted all the time. I would see Aidan and I’d want...
just want. But Aidan wouldn’t.”
something stupid.” There was amusement in Michael’s
voice, and it came through despite the raw, hoarse delivery.
“I got blown
by a guy at a party. Had to get myself drunk first. I didn’t
want him, I just wanted to know. I needed to know. It was one of the
closeted lit geeks. And it felt so good, better than I ever had with
a girl, but”—Steven banged his head into the wall
again—“it made me even more confused. I felt so dirty.”
cheating,” Michael said. He cursed, shifting as he adjusted the
bed so he was half upright.
“No. Not on
Sarah. You were d-dreaming about him. Teasing him.”
Michael grunted and continued. “You fell for him a long time
ago. You knew who you wanted. It was cheating.”
fisting his hands to try to stop the shaking. “I was with
Sarah,” he said weakly.
your h-heart?” asked Michael.
Steven cried against
the wall, holding a quivering fist against his mouth.
“Know how you
feel,” Michael said. “Lost him, too.”
Steven spun around
and glared at Michael. “But you cheated on him!”
m-makes it easier?”
“Why? You had
him. He was with you and he loved you. Why would you—”
know,” Michael croaked. “If it was just him. Or if I was
gay. Wasn’t... I was high. It was easy not to see how much he’d
hurt. How much I’d hurt.”
Steven stared at
Michael. He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat.
Aidan’s so gay, you know, f-flamboyant.” Michael sighed.
“I took him home. For the holidays. Just a friend. That’s
what I said. But Addy knew. As soon as she saw, she knew.”
proud of that?” Michael sighed. “There was a guy. Sold me
weed. S-sometimes other things. Bryant. He was more like me. He was a
skater. We had more in common. He told me he’d gotten some good
shit. Offered me some. We were under the street. Late, in the passage
to south campus. It was dark. Just a glow at the ends of the tunnel.
Never tried serious shit before. But he was offering and I was messed
up. He blew the smoke into my mouth. Kissed me. I was so high. Never
flown like that before.”
another hit and passed me the pipe. God, Steven. Ever wanted to be
happy? I was so fucking happy. I felt so good. I barely noticed he’d
stripped me bare. I’d wanted to kiss him. So I’d know.
But I thought, what Aidan wanted to do was fuck. Could I fuck a guy?
I had to know. So I fucked him. Oh, God, I fucked him so hard. He was
b-bloody, but I was so high, and I kept fucking him.” Michael
began to cough again and took several long breaths.
was happy,” whispered Michael. “Knew I could have sex
with Aidan. Knew I was gay. Knew it felt right. And I knew, I was so
s-sure, I loved Aidan. Didn’t feel anything for Bryant.”
Steven looked at
Michael. “How’d he find out?”
bragged. Told everyone that we’d been fucking for months. Aidan
confronted me. Asked if I’d had sex with Bryant. Tried to
t-tell him. Just the once. Swore. Told him it didn’t mean
Steven returned to
his chair and sat. He held Michael’s hand and squeezed it. “But
it meant something to Aidan.”
“Fought. Day after day. S-so angry. I just wanted the anger to
stop. I loved him, I wanted to finally... I could have shown him! The
way he wanted!”
trust you,” Steven said.
blame Aidan for that. I went b-back to Bryant. Meant to curse him
out. Didn’t. We smoked. And I fucked him again. I knew I
couldn’t go back to Aidan. Not after...” Michael started
coughing again, and this time the fit lasted minutes.
Steven rubbed his
thumb against the back of Michael’s hand. It was the most he
dared do after the doctor’s warning about the need to cough.
Finally Michael fell back against the pillows, breathing in short
Michael’s hand and sat there with him, watching his chest move.
Michael didn’t try to say anything else. He squeezed Steven’s
After a while
Adrienne returned. Steven reviewed everything the doctor had told
him, making sure to do it in the room with Michael listening. Then
Adrienne asked for a moment alone with Michael to talk about it.
Steven waited in the
lounge for a while. Classes were waiting for him, but all Steven
could think about was Aidan. So instead he sat, and he sipped his
coffee. And he waited.
Steven glanced up
from his coffee. “Is he okay?”
asking to talk to you. Privately.” Adrienne looked at him
oddly. “He says it’s helping him.”
Steven stood. “I
don’t want to intru—”
fine. I need to call in to work. They’ll want an update. It
could be a while, if you don’t mind sitting with him.”
Steven gulped. “All
Adrienne smiled and
patted his arm. “Aidan is coming today?”
classes, I think,” Steven said. “I’m sure he’ll
be here a little later.”
Steven forced a
smile and returned to Michael’s side. The chair groaned under
b-back,” whispered Michael.
“He wanted you
what he wanted,” Steven said.
“I do love
him,” Michael said. “I did then. Never d-dreamed I could
fuck up so badly.”
“You were with
Sarah,” prompted Michael.
back to me?” asked Steven.
Michael nodded. He
was still taking deep, wheezing breaths. He must need a break from
With Sarah. I’d gotten blown by Andrew—”
the one. Sarah didn’t take it well. No better than Aidan took
you and Bryant. She broke it off that night. I had a meet the next
morning so I was on the river. Sammy had gotten drunk, too. Whole
team was pissed as hell at us, but we still managed a victory. I’d
just gotten blown by a guy. I was confused and lost. And Aidan
wouldn’t answer my texts.” Steven glanced at Michael. If
it wasn’t for the irregular beeping of the monitors he could be
asleep. “So I suggested we have the victory party in Sammy’s
Michael offered his
hand, and Steven took it. “Thanks,” Steven said, rubbing
his thumb into Michael’s palm. “Aidan told me he had
feelings for Sammy. Not that I didn’t know. Everyone knew.
Everyone but Sammy. But he said he’d help me with my
confusion.” Steven gulped. “I’m not confused
anymore. Not about that.”
Sammy jealous,” Michael said.
he... he fought me. Told me Aidan was his.” Steven touched his
cheek. The bruising around his eye was already fading. That was a
small mercy. “Aidan doesn’t know, but I won. I won the
fight. And I told him...” Steven choked on a sob. “I told
him that Aidan needed him. It’s what Aidan wanted.” Tears
welled at the corners of Steven’s eyes. “It’s what
Steven’s hand. “It w-was. You did the right thing,
Michael squeezed harder.
STEVEN SAT NERVOUSLY
in the waiting room. His coffee wasn’t hot enough and it wasn’t
strong enough. Steven stood up and paced, taking slow sips of coffee
and never letting his glance stray from the entry for long. Sammy was
with Aidan, in with Michael. They’re together. He’d
never thought about what it would be like. To see them like that.
Sammy showing affection. Sammy’s hand on Aidan’s waist.
Steven took another
sip, realized the cup was empty, and tossed it in the trash without
another glance. His eyes were fixed on the glimpse of hallway. What
are they talking about? Will Michael tell him that we’ve
talked? What we’ve talked about? Tears welled in his eyes
and Steven struggled to keep them from overflowing. Just now he did
not want Aidan to see that. Maybe he should.
trembled. My Aidan... Oh, God. He knew the emotion was written
across his face. He fought the tears. If he could at least keep those
under control. Please let me keep those under control.
It hurt. Just to see
them together hurt. But this. Sammy’s hand was on Aidan’s
back. God, Sammy’s trying. It was what Aidan wanted. It
was what Aidan needed. He swallowed against the dryness in his
throat. Step by step Steven walked over. He had to focus. If he
didn’t he might fall down.
Steven couldn’t help that it came out as a demand. He could
barely keep from trembling. They mustn’t see it. Steven
swallowed again, looking into Aidan’s eyes, and he cupped a
hand against Aidan’s cheek. For a moment he was sure he would
lose the tight reins he held on his control. For a moment he thought
Aidan might see his pain.
Steven fixed his
eyes on Sammy’s. He didn’t speak. He moved the hand from
Aidan’s cheek and gently pulled Aidan against his chest. Steven
mouthed the words so Aidan wouldn’t hear. “It better be
affirmative nod, almost invisible, didn’t make Steven feel any
better. Steven didn’t say anything else. He just treasured the
feel of Aidan’s body against his chest, the way he’d done
so often in their time together. The way he’d wanted to be able
to do forever. Steven felt the tremors building. Soon he’d not
be able to hide them from anyone. Already he suspected Aidan had
noticed. His lips fixed in a tight line, Steven released Aidan and
He closed the door
to Michael’s room behind him and managed two steps into the
room before the full force of the emotions hit him. It was like a
blow to the gut, and Steven reached for the support of the wall to
hold himself up. He had one hand spread against the wall as if he
could suck the strength out of the wall through his palm, the other
covering his mouth to stifle the sound of the choked wail that he
couldn’t keep in.
Steven let out a
series of stifled sobs and then stumbled the rest of the way to the
bed, shaking uncontrollably. When he finally reached it, he sought
out Michael’s hand and clutched it.
seen them to-together,” Michael said.
You can’t hide that from him.”
Steven pulled himself along the bed until he was close enough to
tumble into the chair. “He can’t know how bad... he can’t
know how he hurt me.”
“He n-needs to
be open to Sammy’s advances,” Michael said.
he wouldn’t. He’d be worried about me.”
enough,” Michael agreed. There was remorse there, perhaps even
tenderness. “It gets easier.”
hurts, and I’ve h-had a long time.”
Steven squeezed his
eyes tightly closed. “Thank you.”
honest?” asked Michael.
you.” Michael said. “You p-put him first. It takes a
special... He was lucky to have you.”
Steven sat quietly
in the chair. It was only a few minutes before Adrienne walked in.
She paused at the door before walking quietly over to Steven, her
high heels clicking against the hospital floor. “I’m
sorry,” she said.
Aidan.” Steven didn’t look up.
“Yeah, he was
with his roommate.”
boyfriend,” Steven said. He couldn’t help that it sounded
“He was really
into you, Steven. What I saw the last few days, it was—”
over.” Steven met Adrienne’s eyes. “He left me,
Addy. I told him if Sammy ever gave him a chance, he had to take it.”
Steven raked a hand back through his hair. At least that way, it
wouldn’t seem so obvious that it was shaking. “He was in
love with Sammy. Has been for months. Since they met, I think.”
Steven laughed, and it wasn’t a happy sound. “Sammy makes
him feel safe and protected.” Steven looked away. “He was
in love. It doesn’t matter what it was that made Aidan love
Sammy. I was never going to be enough.”
talking was helping both of you. Is it?” she asked.
Michael answered. “I didn’t dump Aidan, Addy. He dumped
me. Deserved it.” Michael took a few steadying breaths. “Good
to t-talk about it.”
shouldn’t be getting upset.”
“Please. Not a
“I can go,”
Steven said softly, moving to stand up.
Steven’s hand tight. “Want you t-to stay.”
Steven glanced at
Michael. “You’re sure?”
Michael chuckled. “I
know. Black and blue boy isn’t exactly your best p-prospect for
Steven fell back
into the chair. He mouthed the words to Adrienne. “Is it okay?”
She nodded. “All
right, you two. I’m going back to the hotel to sleep. I have a
feeling you are talking about things I’d rather not hear.”
want to hear about your brother’s s-sex life?” asked
back at him. “Not really, no.”
have to leave tonight,” Steven said, his eyes darting between
Adrienne and Michael. “I skipped class to be here today. It’ll
be fine, it’s one day and if I tell my professor I was here,
I’m sure... they’re good about that stuff, you know? But
I still have to be ready.”
“I’ll be late, but I can come back tonight. I just need a
few hours.” She stepped up to the bed. “Mika,” she
said, waiting for a moment until she had his attention, “I’ll
be back, okay? Steven may have to leave before I get back. Will you
be all right?”
“Fine.” He turned away, and the last bit seemed bitter.
“Not a kid.”
Adrienne stepped past Steven to brush Michael’s cheek, what
wasn’t bandaged, with the backs of her fingers. Then she
stepped away, waggled her fingers in a wave to Steven and left,
closing the door behind her.
They were both quiet
for a while once she was gone. Finally Michael spoke. “You
really skipped classes all day to t-talk to me?”
aren’t really the best place to be breaking down crying all
“I broke down,
too!” Michael said.
not a contest.” Steven leaned his head back, eyes closed.
that I understand.”
Steven kept his eyes
closed. He tried to imagine himself on the water. The calm. Pull.
Breathe. Pull. He had missed the steadying beat of the oars this
morning. Had Tim covered for him? Had Sammy? He didn’t know and
he felt... He didn’t care, and that worried him.
everything, doesn’t he?” asked Michael. “Like you
h-had him and now you don’t know what to do. He was just a part
of your life, not the whole thing, but it feels that way.”
“But you had
“I had drugs.
G-good drugs. Bryant was just convenient.”
try to blame the drugs on Aidan.”
with me. From h-home. Aidan hated it.” Michael sighed. “Only
time I felt good without being high, I was with him.”
Steven looked at
him. It wasn’t hard to see the signs. “You still get
worse?” asked Steven. There were marks on Michael’s
better. Sometimes I’m n-not sure.”
Steven shook his
head. “How could you want that, man?”
happiness. The pain would just be gone for a while. I could fly so
f-fucking high...” Michael breathed in. It was slow and deep
and his hands shook as his chest rose. Michael let the breath out
slow. He reached the hand tangled in tubes over to the marked bit of
flesh inside the elbow. “They’re old.” Michael’s
voice was soft. “Older than you think.”
He expected me to
look. “But you still get high.”
once. Just weed. Little brother found my stash.” Steven looked
away. “Scared me half to death. Felt like a shit for bringing
the stuff in the house.”
didn’t. Alcoholic. Beat me and Mom. Addy, he liked pretty. I
l-like to think...” Michael began to shake. The beeping of the
monitor grew insistent. “I want to think he didn’t touch.
But...” Michael coughed and began to choke. “Fucking
bastard. Glad he didn’t come.”
anyone that. Not even Aidan. Needed it. Medicating my life.”
Steven stood up and
sat on the edge of the bed. “Can I see?”
“You want to?”
asked Michael. “F-fuck, man, ain’t pretty.” But he
offered Steven the arm all the same.
Closer it was easier
to see that the marks were old. But not that old. Steven felt the
bruised, beaten flesh of Michael’s arm. It was turning a
spectacular dark purple. They were trying to kill you Michael, and
you’re trying to kill yourself. “You can’t
stop, can you?”
Michael sniffed. “I
“But you keep
you can just quit. Just like that—easy. But when you have a
cure. Something that makes... the pain stops. It stops. N-not just a
little bit. It’s gone. You think it makes me feel good to know
I have to fucking stick a needle in my arm to be happy?”
“Then why do
you try to stop?”
Michael chuckled at
that. His laughing grew a little hysterical, and he kept at it for a
while. Then he pressed a button and the back of the bed raised until
he was sitting nearly straight up. His breathing was heavy and
labored and almost wet as he rasped and wheezed and then seized
But Michael kept
exploring, moving from bicep to forearm and then settling a palm
against Steven’s chest. “You’re b-big.”
Aidan was l-lucky.”
lucky with you,” replied Steven.
Michael smiled a
little, his fingers flexing against Steven’s chest. Finally he
dropped his hand and leaned back. “That felt good. Thank you.”
why I wanted to stop.”
Steven shook his
head. “I don’t get you.”
“Touch me. Same as I d-did you. Go ahead.”
bruised, I’ll hur—”
glass. Been beat before,” said Michael. “Please.”
Steven set a massive
hand on Michael’s chest. Michael’s throat flashed as he
swallowed. His skin was hot and sweaty, and his chest rose and fell
and Steven’s fingers tingled from the touch. “Drugs,
they’re selfish. Feel good, yeah. In your own world, so happy.
Everything fire and heat and f-fuckin’ rainbows. But can’t
feel this.” Michael covered Steven’s hand with his own
and let out a little exhalation that might have been a moan. He was
trembling. “You feel it? More than just you touching me. More
than me touching you. It’s something... something...
sh-shared.” Michael’s breath was suddenly heavy and he
dropped his hand and pressed a button to lower the elevated bed. His
chest pulled away from Steven’s touch.
Michael said, his breath still heaving, “they make it so I
can’t fucking feel that.”
Bryant?” Steven asked.
last. We didn’t t-touch. Wouldn’t kiss. Not after that
first time. Just fucked. Was always reluctant to let Aidan kiss. So
Steven looked at the
door. “The dean told Aidan you propositioned those guys.”
brave. Not high. Just brave. The brunet had blue eyes. Love blue
eyes. Thought I’d t-take a chance.”
them for sex?”
Michael bolted upright and then immediately collapsed, coughing.
help it. He reached out and pulled the coughing body into his and
held Michael against him as Michael choked and sputtered. Michael’s
breath, when he wasn’t coughing, had gotten raspy and wet and
his body quaked in Steven’s hands. Finally the choking
subsided. Michael’s hands fell, loosely wrapped against
With Michael against
him, Steven could feel every breath, every shudder. “You okay?”
f-fucking like that!” hissed Michael.
“What was it
“Asked him out
for drinks. Gave him a look. Was a sexy look. Won’t d-deny
that.” Michael trembled. “All I wanted was this.”
His hand tightened on Steven’s waist. Michael laughed
hysterically, sobbing at the same time.
“They beat you
for that?” asked Steven.
Steven started to
pull away and Michael cried out. “No, p-please!”
“What do you
want?” asked Steven.
shook as he pulled them closer. “Hold me?”
HELP. Somehow Steven had expected it to, without realizing what
routine meant. More than the uncomfortable questions from Tim, it
meant being near Sammy. While the whole crew team was close, none of
them were as close as Steven had been to Tim and Sammy. And now there
was this strained distance with both of them.
Tim meant well, of
course. There was no faulting Tim for being concerned, not after he’d
witnessed the immediate aftermath of Steven’s loss. Maybe Aidan
had known Tim would simply comfort and not ask questions. Maybe that
was why Aidan had called Tim to be there when it was so clear that
Steven couldn’t be trusted to be alone. But now Tim was done
comforting. Now Tim was asking all the uncomfortable questions that
made Steven think. And thinking was just what Steven didn’t
want to do.
Sammy was worse. He
acted like there was nothing wrong. He was happy, and if he was
nervous to be near Steven after spending a night with Aidan, he
wasn’t showing it.
Did you sleep
with him? Of course you did. And that was all it took to send his
brain to that dangerous place filled with pictures of Sammy’s
charcoal hands touching Aidan’s pale skin.
Classes were worse.
There was no concentration; he was filling a desk and absolutely no
more than that. His professors noted his presence, and from that
standpoint being in class served its purpose. Steven tried to pay
attention. He tried to take notes. He wasn’t convinced that any
of his notes were remotely coherent, but he took them all the same.
When Sarah called
him just before lunch, he knew it was important, had to be important.
When Sarah had found out about his interest in men it had been in the
worst way possible—with Andrew Tuttleman’s mouth over his
cock. Sure he’d wanted it to be Aidan’s, and when Sarah
found that out things had only gotten worse between them. He could
hardly expect the scant time since to have healed that wound.
Even knowing it had
to be important hadn’t prepared him for her message. He’d
run as fast as he could to the dining hall, but all he’d found
was sorority girls with smug expressions congratulating each other.
The hall was buzzing with the details. They were spreading like
wildfire, and it didn’t take long for someone to show him a
picture, a picture shared already over a hundred times. Aidan in his
customary waistcoat covered quite nearly from head to toe with dining