Just as I am walking out of the grocery store, the bag in my right-hand rips. This starts a chain reaction that sends a bottle of Dr. Pepper skidding across the parking lot. An elderly woman blows through the stop sign in the pedestrian crossing and swerves to miss me. She drives right over the bottle. The pressure creates a mini-explosion which sends the soda shooting out of the bottle and right into my face. I’m standing there, one intact back in my other hand and a pile of groceries at my feet. Dr. Pepper all over me. I have to pick up Gracey in 15 minutes and I look like a drowned rat. There goes my good reputation with the soccer moms.
“Hey, Kevin, are you ok?” The voice comes from behind me. I already know who it is. Colin Stevenson is in my class and one of the last people I want to see in this condition.
I have carefully curated an image over the years. Everyone thinks I’m just a jerk who picks fights and tells lewd jokes. To 99% of the people in my life, I am the villain. Colin has been a particular target of mine for the last few years. I don’t know why, no, that’s not true, I do know why.
Colin has a stable life, a stable family, and close, caring friends. He is living the life that I want to live. More than that, he is the guy I’m attracted to. Last year I overheard two guys talking about their experiences with Colin. Their words hit me like a baseball bat. I have always known I’m gay but I’ve always been terrified to act on those feelings. It made sense that day, why I was so harsh to Colin. The fear of him knowing my secret.
“Kevin?” Colin says my name again and I realize that I never responded the first time.
“Oh yeah, hey Colin. What do you want?” I say, falling into my normal façade.
“You’re all wet and standing in the middle of the drive lane,” Colin points out to me. “Do you need help? I have some paper towels here if you want to clean up.”
“Um, no, no that’s ok, I have to go and pick my sister up.” I start to move but I feel a hand on my arm.
“At least let me give you an extra shirt that I have in the car,” Colin says, leading me further into the parking lot. “I’m parked close to your car; it will only take a second.”
I follow behind him as he makes his way to his truck.
He pulls a shirt out of his bag and turns to me. I am completely helpless, catatonic.
“Are you sure you’re, ok?” Colin says, the concern in his eyes is increasing.
“I have to pick my sister up, I’m going to be late,” I say again, I cannot find any other words.
“Do you want me to drive you or something?” Colin asks.
At this I snap out of it and grab the t-shirt roughly from him. “I said I’m fine.” I say turning away from him. I need to get out of here. I mumble a thanks as I wrench my door open and throw the remaining bag in the passenger seat.
I pull up to the field and jump out. Luckily practice is just ending. Perfect timing. I’m here in enough time to pick up Gracey but there is no time for the moms to congregate around me, shamelessly flirting. I was born with fantastic looks which have gotten me out of most trouble. Teachers, parents, and girls have always looked at me like a project. Something beautiful that they can fix. Instead of getting in trouble for all of the shitty things I do, I get hit on or nurtured.
“Gracey!” I say, focusing all of my attention on her as the girls run off the field. She slams into me for a hug, wrapping her small arms around my neck when I bend down and scoop her up. Trophy Wife #1 gives me an approving smile.
“You’re just a such a great brother Kevin,” she says to me.
Trophy Wife #2 agrees and they try to surround me in a pincer movement.
“That’s so nice of you ladies, now I have to get this one home for a bath.” I say, heading for my car with Gracey thrown over my shoulder. She is giggling like a maniac.
When we get home, I pull a half-thawed pizza out of the grocery bag and pop it in the oven. Gracey sits down at the table to work on homework while the pizza is cooking. I have no idea where her genes came from but at just 9 years old, she is a model child and student. She never gets in trouble, is kind to people, and never complains about anything. For a kid that has lived through so much, she is pretty well adjusted.
I pull out my school computer to work on my history essay when my school messenger dings.
Me: Don’t worry I won’t ruin your shirt. I’ll wash it tonight and return it tomorrow.
Colin: Oh, ok. I was just checking to make sure everything is alright.
I cannot understand why Colin is being nice to me. I’ve never given him a reason to think we might be friends.
Me: I said I was fine earlier; you don’t need to lose any sleep over it.
He reads my message but does not reply. I sit there staring at the screen, hoping he will reply. Nope, definitely not after I insulted him.
After dinner, I do a load of laundry and Gracey takes a bath. I collapse on my bed. Between morning football practices, school, and parenting my little sister, I am exhausted. During football season I also have to take a break from working so there is the stress that my savings from working all summer will dwindle down to nothing. Fingers-crossed that Gracey doesn’t grown any in the next 4 months. I cannot afford any extra expenses.
On our way to school the next day, my car breaks down. Just another chain in the reaction that is my life. As I’m sitting there worrying about how I’m going to walk Gracey to school and get to football practice on time, a truck pulls up. I would recognize ginger head anywhere. It’s Colin. Again. I silently ask the universe to send me a break before Gracey and I get out of the car.
Colin has a satisfied smirk on his face as I walk up to the window.
“Don’t say a word,” I say.
Colin throws his hands up in surrender, “I just thought you might need a ride, I know practice starts soon. Who’s your friend?”
“My sister Gracey,” I say, opening the passenger door of the truck before helping Gracey inside. “I need to drop her off at school before practice. One of her teachers comes in early during football season so I can get her to school safely and get to practice on time.”
I know I’ve said too much and Gracey shoots me a warning glance. We made a pact a while ago to not mention the absence of our parents to anyone. If the authorities get involved, they will put us in foster care. The chances of us getting placed in the same foster home are slim to none. We only need to make it a couple more months until I turn 18. My mom has agreed to make me Gracey’s guardian when I’m 18 so I can make sure she stays safe.
“Wow, the almighty super villain Kevin has a soft spot?” Colin says, chuckling to himself. I am definitely not amused. Before I can verbally lash out Colin adds, “I can help you look at your car after school. I’ve worked on a couple of older cars so I know a few things.”
I nod but don’t say anything, not with Gracey in the car.
After I get her into the school, I head back outside. I don’t expect Colin to be there. To my surprise he is there, right where I left him, waiting for me.
“I figured you would leave,” I say, looking out the side window.
“I thought about it and you definitely deserve to be left but I’m just not that kind of guy,” Colin says, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. His hands are large and covered in freckles. When he turns his gleaming green eyes on me, my stomach drops.
“What are you doing out this early anyway?” I ask.
“Just trying to get some surfing in before the end of the season,” he says.
That’s when I notice for the first time that he has a wet suit on with a long-sleeved t-shirt over it.
“You surf?” I ask him. We live on the coast so I know a lot of people do but Colin never struck me as the athletic type. Certainly not athletic enough to get up at 5am to go surfing before school.
“Yeah, a little bit, do you?” he asks.
“Not nearly as much as I would like to,” I say, my eyes drifting off out the window again.
“You dead set on football practice?” He says, giving me a mischievous look, “I got extra gear with me.”
“Oh man, I’m so down!” I say enthusiastically. After the past 24 hours, I definitely need a break. I shoot off a quick text to my friend Brian who also plays football. I tell him that Gracey is sick and that I have to miss practice and school. “I cleared my schedule.” I add, resting my head against the headrest.
“Well in that case, let’s get breakfast first,” Colin says and makes a U-turn. He heads to the next town over so we are less likely to be seen by any parents or teachers.
I take over the radio on the drive and we discover we have similar tastes in music. This leads to more and more conversation and before I know it, we have eaten breakfast and are parked at the beach.
Colin hands me his extra wet suit which I doubt will fit me since I’m several inches taller than him and much bulkier.
“Relax,” he says, eyeing my frame, “That’s Seth Reynolds’ suit, if anything it will be comically big on you. Seth is our classmate and Colin’s best friend. He’s also massively tall and muscular.
I take my shirt and jeans off and drop them in the seat before climbing out and sliding into the wet suit. I make sure to do it when Colin is watching. I have to see his reaction to my body. To my satisfaction, he visibly colors and then abruptly turns away. There is that drop in my stomach again, weird. He takes his shirt off so I steal a glance at him. The freckles on his hands and face cover his entire body. His back is broader than I expected and his chest is smooth and muscular. I force myself to look away before he catches me watching.
We each take a couple of runs before paddling back out into the deep and sitting on our boards to catch our breaths. Colin looks like he’s thinking hard about something. Before I can stop myself, I say, “what are you thinking right now?”
My question snaps him out of his thoughts. It takes him a couple of beats before he answers my question with a question, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“You first,” I reply.
“I was thinking if someone had told me yesterday, I would be out here with you having a good time, I would have laughed in their face,” he says, a small grin on his face.
“Same,” I concur, before adding, “I really don’t know why I’m being so nice to you. I’m kind of a dick normally, aren’t I?”
“That’s not a question I need to answer,” Colin counters.
“Yeah, I guess you are right,” I say. “Can I ask you another question?”
Colin eyes me then says, “you can ask me anything, but I may not answer. I don’t exactly trust you.”
“Fair enough,” I reply. I have a strong urge to say something ignorant, “do your parents know you’re gay?” Not at all what I was planning on asking but now that it’s out there I let it sit.
“Do your parents know you are?”
“I’m not gay,” I start but the look on Colin’s face tells me that there is no point in arguing.
“Is that why you are so mean to people? Trying to keep them distracted from the fact that you’re gay?” Colin says quietly.
I paddle away to catch the next wave; I am suddenly full of rage.
When I get to the shore, Colin is right behind me. He leaps off of his board and makes his way to me.
“I’m sorry Kevin,” he says. He puts his hand on my arm again like yesterday. He looks right into my eyes and says, “I really am sorry, you just pick on me so much and I never understood why until you asked me if my parents know I’m gay. I realized you must be gay too. It’s ok to talk to me about anything you want to, I will not say anything to anyone else.”
At this I take off towards his truck in earnest. I’m determined to get my dry clothes on and start walking back to town if I have to. I never wanted to get into this conversation and certainly not with Colin. He jogs up behind me, easily keeping pace with me.
“Unlock your truck so I can get my clothes,” I say, not turning to look at him.
“Kevin,” he says putting his hand on my shoulder. I turn around instinctively to throw a punch at him but he blocks it and wraps his arms around me to prevent me from trying to hit him again.
“Get off of me Colin! You don’t know anything about me!” I scream, garnering some looks from early morning beachcombers. “Just let me go.”
He releases me and steps back, ready to dodge another punch. All of the fight leaves me, suddenly my body feels cold, freezing cold. I sink down onto the pavement, my back against the tire. My head is tilted back and my eyes are closed.
I can feel Colin sink down next to me. He gingerly puts his arm around my shoulders and tears spring to my eyes. I have no idea what to do with this. Human touch. I realize bitterly that this is the first human touch I have experienced in years aside from hugging my sister. I roll my head to the side to look at him, we are painfully close.
Colin reaches for my hand, his hand is steady and he’s looking me directly in the eye while he does it, like I’m some unpredictable animal that might attack at any moment. “You are not in this alone, you should never have felt that you were in this alone.” He gives my hand and shoulder a squeeze.
I let go now, the tears spilling over my eyelashes and down my cheeks. He rubs my shoulder and makes gentle shushing sounds like one makes to a baby to get them to calm down. Once I have gathered myself, Colin helps me change my clothes and loads me back in the truck.
“Kevin, I am here now, like it or not. Punch me if you want to or push me away but I’m not going to let you go through this alone.” I weakly nod as we drive back towards my house.
Colin helps me upstairs and into bed. I feel like I was hit by a Mack truck, there is nothing I can do but sleep.
I wake up much later and leap out of bed, trying to get my bearings and check the time. Shit Gracey, I have to pick her up from school. I don’t have a car. Shit. It’s 3:30, she has been out of school for 15 minutes. Oh no, I hope they don’t try to call my mom. If they do call her I desperately hope she doesn’t answer.
I grab my keys and phone and race out of my room only to hear talking downstairs. It’s Colin and Gracey. I slow as I walk down the stairs and listen. They are having fun, like they are playing a game.
“Kevin! Gracey says and rushes into my arms. Colin said you got sick are you ok?” she says, concern in her eyes.
“Sorry to make you panic but I thought you could use the sleep and the help. I fixed your car, it was just a spark plug, then I picked Gracey up from school. I knew what time they get out because my little brother goes to the same school,” Colin offers as explanation.
I must have looked like a deer in the headlights because they both cocked their heads to the side and stared at me like I might bolt at any minute.
“Colin made dinner,” Gracey says, taking my hand, “we were just waiting for you to wake up.”
The table is set for three people. There is a huge bowl of spaghetti, garlic bread and a salad. I start to tear up again and Colin puts his arm around me, patting my chest. “We are in this together,” he says giving me a warm look. We sit down at the table. Gracey and I settling in to our first homecooked meal in as long as I can remember.