I've taken this road several times over the past few days, and though I'm new to the area, it's starting to look familiar. The curves in the highway are becoming recognizable, and I can judge how far we are from Springville entirely from landmarks.
Dad's quiet and has been since we left the house, giving me a chance to focus on the scenery. Not that I mind. Travis offered me a distraction from worrying about Donny, but now that I'm alone with my thoughts again I need to figure out what I'm going to say to him. The last time he saw me, I was angry at him, justifiably so, but how do I come back from that?
"Son, I have to admit, I'm a little confused," Dad says, breaking the silence.
He glances at me briefly then returns his attention to the road. "Why you're so eager to go see this guy."
"Dad..." I don't know where to begin. My emotions are complicated right now. "Do we have to talk about this?"
"Not if you're uncomfortable," Dad says neutrally. "I'm more curious than anything. I know you're going to be careful with him, but it seems a little odd you'd go see the guy who tried to rape you, especially only one day later."
I consider that for a second as I stare back out the window. The mountain Donny took me up looms over us, and I find my eyes seeking the overlook where everything happened. It's amazing how quickly your life can change, isn't it? Donny's probably going through more changes than he'd like at the moment, and all because of a couple of minutes spent up on that mountain. He doesn't need my anger on top of that.
"He may have fucked up, but he's better than that," I say, turning to sit straight in the passenger seat. I stare out at the road ahead of us. Even with the newfound familiarity with my surroundings, I still don't know what the end of that road will bring me, but that's the beauty of the future, isn't it? It gives an opportunity for change. "I doubt he'll ever do something like that again, either. He's only sixteen, Dad. People make mistakes, and deserve second chances. Isn't that what you taught me?"
"Yeah, I have. But there's some things which still make me uncomfortable, especially since this particular sixteen-year-old did something to my fifteen-year-old."
"He can't do anything to me now, I bet, even if he did want to. I don't know what's wrong with him, but he's in the hospital after a car accident. He's probably fairly injured."
"Good point, but I still worry about you."
"You don't have to, you know."
Dad raises his eyebrow and looks over at me, though his voice remains neutral. "I'm your father. It comes with the title."
I smile up at him and reply, "Eventually, letting go will come with the job, too."
Dad chuckles dryly and shakes his head helplessly. "I know. I think that's what scares me the most. Someday I won't be there to bail you out, and you'll have to struggle on your own."
"Never alone, Dad," I insist, reaching out and putting my casted hand on his arm gently. "I may not remember everything you ever say, and sometimes I may choose to ignore it because I think I know better, but you've taught me so much, and Mom did, too, which I'll remember forever."
"Clint..." Dad's voice is weak, and the car slows noticeably. A car honks at us and passes us on the left side, the young woman in the passenger seat flipping us off.
I continue, unable to stop the thoughts from coming. This needs to be said, and the other drivers aren't going to get to me. "Dad, the reason I managed to get out of that situation with Donny is because you taught me how to think on my own. I knew I had to get out, and I found a way. You've always taught me to keep a cool head when I have a problem, and I've had to use it more than once. You always encourage me and Angie, but you never do things for us we can't do on our own. I don't know how other kids survive without parents like you."
"Are you trying to make me crash?" Dad asks frantically.
"Then why are you trying to blind me?" Dad asks, turning toward me so I can see the moisture in his eyes. "All these fucking tears are your fault."
I grin and say, "Okay, I get it. You just don't want to take a compliment."
"Fuck it all," Dad says, putting on the brakes and signaling as he pulls onto the wide shoulder to our right. He puts the car in park and says, "Get out of the car." He then opens his own door and steps out of the vehicle, moving around to my side.
I open the door to join him and as soon as I stand, he wraps me in his arms and pulls me into the tightest hug of my life. Returning the gesture, my eyes start watering like his, and we cry out our emotions together for a minute as the cars pass us by.
And then he lets me go, and without any more words, he walks back to the driver seat and climbs in. I slide back into the car, and we both stare at the road ahead for a moment, letting the emotions settle and guide our thoughts forward.
But I have one more thought I can't keep contained, and so I offer it, smiling wide as I glance at Dad. "Dad, thank you for trusting me to live my own life. I hope you always will."
He nods, and smiles back at me, his now red eyes glinting with happiness. "I do, and you're right; it's time I learned to loosen my grip a little more. If you think visiting Donny is the right thing to do, I won't get in your way."
"Thanks, Dad," I reply, nodding appreciatively. Then I point down the road ahead of us and say, "Let's get going then. I don't want to miss visiting hours."
"You got it. Onward and upward."
I don't like hospitals. This past week has only reinforced that fact, considering how many times I've come to visit one recently, but this time is different. The last time I visited someone in the hospital, it was my mother, and she was dying. I feel a bit of that same pull on my emotions as I walk down the corridors toward Donny's room. Am I going to see someone else in a similar condition, or will he be all right?
When I reach his room, I hesitate at his door, wanting to turn around. My emotions toward Donny are complicated; he didn't respect me, but at the same time he treated me well before that. He needs friends, and I might be the only one willing to step up and do that for him. I've come this far; I have to go all the way. My Dad's words echo in my head. Onward and upward.
I knock, then I hear a muffled voice tell me to come in, and I open the door a crack and say, "Hey, can I come in?"
The light inside is dim, but it's enough for me to make out Donny struggling to sit up straighter, even though his leg is supported in front of him and makes it difficult for him to move. He blinks at the bright light of the hallway and says, "Clint?" His eyes widen and he recoils from me. "Clint! What are you doing here?"
I take a deep breath and step into the door, closing it behind me. A chair sits next to his bed, and I take it as I say, "I came to see you, dummy. I heard about the accident and knew I had to come check up on you."
"Are you here alone?" Donny asks cautiously.
"My Dad's in the waiting area. He drove me."
"Clint..." Donny says quietly, lowering his gaze and gripping his hospital gown tightly in both hands. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking."
"You weren't, and I forgive you, even though it wasn't okay."
Donny's face lights up slightly and he forces a smile to his lips as he meets my gaze again. "Does that mean you'd go out with me again?" he asks cautiously.
I smirk at that. This isn't a question I want to deal with right now. He may have earned my forgiveness, but trust is something else entirely. "Maybe, but not for a while. But I am willing to be your friend, if you'll have me."
His face falls again, and he returns my smirk. "You're the only one from school who's come by, so far. Of course, I've only been here for a day, and I'm going home in two, so maybe they just don't want to make the effort."
Donny sighs. "But I don't really believe that, and neither do you."
I shake my head. Knowing what I know about the maturity of kids my age, I don't have a great deal of faith in their ability to care. Still, they've proven me wrong often enough for me to believe there's hope, just not enough for it to be my default setting. "I wish I could. Some people see me as an optimist, but I try to be more realistic than anything, though I do approach situations with hope they'll turn out all right, and the tenacity to fix them if they don't."
"I don't know if I can do that."
He sinks back into a quiet stupor, and I decide to change the subject. I nod toward his leg and ask, "What happened, Donny?"
"I wish I could tell you," Donny replies, sighing dramatically.
"Why can't you tell me?" I ask. Then I realize there might be more to it, and I try and preempt Donny's resistance to telling me by adding, "Donny, this doesn't change anything for me, but did you drive off the road on your own, or did you lose control?"
"I wish I knew," he said, chuckling mirthlessly. He leans his head back and looks up, wincing at some pain before turning back toward me. "I know I was out of my mind last night. I was so scared when I saw Brent."
Donny shakes his head and explains, "Brent and I have a long history. I know how he feels about certain things, his opinion on gay people for one. He was the last person I wanted to run into up there while on a date with a guy."
"Didn't you think he'd have a chance of being up there? It seems a bit of an odd place to randomly run into someone you know."
"Yeah, we used to go there all the time, but as far as I knew, Brent had other plans last night. I don't even know how he ended up on a date there, or who the girl was."
I laugh at that, which earns me a concerned look from Donny. I wave away his concern with my right hand and say, "She's my twin sister, actually."
"Fuck..." Donny groans, closing his eyes. He sighs again as he opens them and says, "I'm sorry."
I reach out and pat his arm consolingly, then explain, "There's far worse people for me to end up in that situation with. She's the least of my worries. Besides, she chewed Brent out when he came back from chasing you."
"How long did Brent chase me?" Donny asks. I can't decipher the emotion behind the question, but his eagerness for the answer is palpable.
"A minute? Maybe two?" I say, shrugging. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I try to add a little humor with a smile. "I wasn't really focused on that. I was trying to get my pants back on."
Donny groans again and pounds the hospital bed with his right fist. "I'm such an idiot."
No. You were an idiot. You know better now, and that shit's not going to fly with me today. "Donny, stop," I say, taking his hand and giving it a firm squeeze. "None of this hating yourself shit, 'kay?"
He turns toward me, scowling, and I release his hand. He looks down at it for a moment, then back up at my eyes. "I ruined my chances with you, outed myself, screwed up my relationship with my best friend, broke my leg, totaled my car, and all for what? Because I couldn't take no for an answer. What the fuck is smart about that? I ruined my life in one day."
I take his hand again, regretting ever letting go of it. "Dude, it's not going to be that bad."
I struggle to find something constructive to say, and blurt out the first thing which comes to mind. "You don't have to worry about coming out, now. No more pressure. That's one good thing, right?"
"Everyone knows?" Donny asks, his eyes wide as the blood drains from his face.
"Yeah," I say, wincing. "They found out somehow."
"Who told them? I know you wouldn't..." he pauses and stares at me, his voice becoming a whisper. "Right, Clint?"
"It wasn't me. Angie didn't either."
Donny breathes a sigh of relief but cuts it short as he looks up at me, his scowl returning. "Brent? Why the fuck..." he gasps and then coughs before his tone becomes one of despair. "Why would Brent do that to me?"
"Who said it was Brent?" I ask, hoping to keep Donny engaged.
Thankfully, this time my words make his despair lessen as he looks at me, as if considering other options for the first time. A furious scowl spreads across his face, and he tears his hand away from me to smash it down hard into the hospital bed. "That little bitch!"
"I fucking know, now," Donny spits out, staring at the wall as if imagining it was his worst enemy. "There's no way Brent would out me to the school. I know him, and that's not his style. He's a hothead, but spreading rumors really is not his thing. His sister on the other hand..." His hands clench into fists and a low, visceral growl escapes his lips. "She hates me, she hates Brent, and if he told his parents what happened, which he might have... I bet it was her. She must have overheard them."
"Who's his sister?" I ask, though I have a sinking suspicion who she is already.
"I don't know if you know her. Her name's Sheila? Sheila Niven?"
"Fucking hell!" I yell looking away and staring at the same wall as Donny, imagining I see Sheila there, taunting me. "That bitch gets around, doesn't she?"
Donny snorts derisively. "So you have met her."
"Yeah." I shake my head and sigh. This situation can't get much worse from here. "I had no idea she was Brent's sister. They don't really look alike."
Donny nods. "Adopted, just like Brent. She came to them as a foster child when she was seven. She came from a really nasty home, and she has worse anger issues than Brent. She also hates males, but gay people are the worst. Her real dad and his boyfriend fucked her up really bad. I don't know everything they did, 'cause Brent only gave me the cliffnotes, but she doesn't know how to handle things without anger."
"Well, whoever told, whether her or someone else, the whole school knows," I say, then fight to bring an encouraging smile to my face, though it only comes in half-heartedly, "but that doesn't have to mean your life is over."
"The football team will hate me."
"You won't be playing football anymore this season with that leg," I point out.
"You're right..." Donny says, groaning. Well shit. Clearly I said the wrong thing. Am I ever going to get the hang of this whole consolation thing?
"But that doesn't mean your life is ruined either," I say hastily. I bite my lip and then add, "I guess that didn't help, did it?"
"I don't know how I'm going to face them all," Donny replies bitterly.
"I'll face them with you," I say, nodding forcefully. "You can sit with me at lunch if you want. You have at least one friend who will always be there for you."
"But who won't date me," Donny says, turning back to face me. He's smiling slightly though when he adds, "I still think you're pretty awesome."
"Must be the painkillers talking," I say, laughing. I keep the smile on my face though my eyes grow more serious. "Donny, maybe someday, but let's focus on getting you back on your feet instead, okay?"
A knock on the door startles both of us, and we stare at the door wide-eyed as it opens. A tall and slightly bulky young woman stands in the doorway, her face bearing many of the same features as Donny's, but softer and rounder, with peaceful eyes and a kind smile on her face. She's carrying a bouquet of colorful, flowers with a card attached.
"Hey, am I interrupting anything?" The woman asks sweetly.
Donny's face lights up immediately as he locks eyes with the woman. "Jess! What are you doing here?"
"My little brother is in the hospital, and you ask me why I'm here?" Jess answers, moving around to the other side of the hospital bed, and leans in to kiss Donny on the cheek. "I flew down last night. I don't have classes this week because of a teacher's conference, so I was free anyway. Who's this?" She looks up and smiles at me, and I instantly feel the warmth of her personality radiating from her.
"This is Clint, my..." Donny glances at me as he searches for the right word. "My friend. Clint, this is Jess, my older sister."
Jess looks at me, a serious expression on her face as she says. "He used to call me his big sister, but then I got fat and he started feeling guilty."
"Wha-" Donny protests, and Jess drops the seriousness. Her laughter lights up the dim room and makes me smile. I can see where Donny gets his easy-going personality from.
Jess turns back to Donny and hands him the flowers. "I'm just giving you shit, little bro. Here."
"You brought me flowers?" Donny asks, giving Jess a weird look.
Jess shakes her head and grins. "No."
"Um..." Donny begins awkwardly, then raises the flowers and asks, "then what are these?"
Jess smiles and tenderly smooths back Donny's hair as he stares at the flowers in his lap. She reaches out with her other hand and gently touches the petals of a pale blue flower in the middle of the bouquet. "A nurse handed these to me at the desk when I checked in. She said someone dropped them off for you, and she hadn't had a chance to deliver them yet. I told them I'd bring them up to you."
"Who would send me flowers?"
"Mom and Dad? Grandma?" Jess shrugs her shoulders and points at the card nestled within the blossoms. "I didn't look at the card. The envelope is sealed."
"Huh..." Donny says quietly, taking the envelope in his hand and staring at it. I wonder what's going through his head, because I can see the gears turning, but then he nods slightly and looks up at his sister. "Well, Mom and Dad were here an hour ago. I told them to go home and sleep tonight, and they finally listened. Grandma called, so I don't think she'd send flowers."
"Maybe it's from someone at school?" I suggest, earning a skeptical look from Donny.
"Do you really think someone at school would send me flowers? You told me they know what happened."
"Doesn't mean they're all jerks," I reply, shrugging. "Why don't you just open the envelope and find out?"
"Sounds reasonable to me," Jess says, nodding. Then her face contorts in confusion as she looks between me and Donny. "Wait a second, why would people knowing what happened stop them from sending flowers? You were in a car accident. That typically brings people to give you sympathy."
Donny looks at me for support, and I can see the fear in his eyes. He almost outed himself completely on accident, and he still might have to. His eyes plead for me to save him from that fate, but I know better on this one. A woman as kind as Jess who clearly loves her brother is the first person Donny should have told.
I look away from Donny and up to Jess and say, "You'll have to ask Donny on that one."
Donny hangs his head as Jess tilts her head to the side, her eyes filling with concern with each passing second. "It's only a matter of time..." Donny mumbles. He meets her eyes again, his voice trembling as he says, "Jess, I'm... I'm gay."
Jess immediately strokes the side of her brother's face, smiling sweetly. "Aww, little bro, you know that kind of stuff doesn't bother me. Does that mean Clint is...?" She looks at me as she lets the question trail off.
This one I feel I can answer, and without hesitation I say, "I'm gay, but I'm not his boyfriend, if that's what you're asking."
Jess nods and her smile widens. "It was." She turns her attention back to her brother and asks. "How long have you known?"
Donny breathes out a long sigh of relief. He glances at me for a moment, and I give him a supportive grin and a nod. "A few years at least. I've kept it a secret for so long, though, I can't tell you the exact time I realized it. I denied it and kept denying it up until I accidentally outed myself."
Jess nods slowly as she processes the answer, and I take the opportunity to glance at the clock on the wall and realize how late it's getting. Before they continue their conversation, I figure it's time I get out of there and let them have this time together. "Donny, I think I better get going. You two sound like you have a lot of catching up to do, and I don't want to intrude."
I stand and start to turn, but Donny catches my arm before I can take a step away. I turn back to him and he lets go, but smiles at me appreciatively. "Clint, from now on, you don't ever have to worry about intruding. I'm sorry I was such a dick."
"I told you, I forgive you."
"I mean about the whole 'not being friends at school' thing. I'm not ever going to forget this, and you're a bright point in all the darkness surrounding me right now. We're definitely friends, and I'm going to treat you with respect from now on."
I give him a quick pat on the shoulder to show my appreciation, but I know if I press the topic any further, I'm going to lose control of my emotions. They're already thick in this room, and I've had an emotionally draining day already. No need to risk draining myself further. "Rest well, Donny. Do you know when you'll be back at school?"
Donny seems just as grateful for the change in conversation as I am. "A week to two weeks at the earliest. I'll probably be on crutches at first, though they're talking about fitting me with a walking boot."
"Cool. Text me when you find out more, and I'll do what I can to help."
I turn to Jess and nod politely. "It was nice meeting you, Jess."
She rewards me with her warm smile. "You too, Clint."
I step out into the hallway, closing the door softly behind me. That didn't go exactly as I'd expected it to; it went better, really. Maybe hospitals don't have to be scary. Not all tragedies have to end badly, after all. Sometimes they bring people together. It's a lesson I need to refresh every now and then.
With renewed vigor, I walk back to the waiting room and see Dad sitting with a stack of magazines next to him. Most of them are old issues of National Geographic, but the one in his hand is an issue of Cosmopolitan. After all the years I've known him, my dad can still surprise me.
And he has no shame. He doesn't try to hide the magazine, he just sets it to the side and stands up, stretching and yawning before asking, "Ready to go?"
"Yeah," I reply, eyeing the magazine for a moment before looking back at him. I'm not going to make a deal out of it. Dad can read whatever he wants to. "But I have to make a phone call while we go. Hope you don't mind my lack of conversation for a few minutes?"
"Not at all, as long as you can talk and walk at the same time."
I nod and pull my phone out of my pocket, quickly navigating my way to the contact I need. Dad starts walking down the hall toward the elevator, and I fall into step behind him, hitting the call button and putting the phone up to my ear. It only rings twice before he answers, and before he can even say hello, I say his name.
"Clint, what's up? Why didn't you just text me?"
"I'm walking, and I only have one good hand, remember?" I reply, rolling my eyes at the question. "Anyway, I just spoke with Donny, and I think I have the answer to both your problem and his."
"Okay, what's up?"
I grin at his eagerness. When it comes to friends, I really lucked out finding Travis. I can tell we're going to have a long and fruitful friendship ahead of us. "It's time we gave the student body something else to talk about. I need your help, though."
"What do you need?"
The elevator opens in front of us, and I concentrate on walking safely inside while Dad presses the down arrow. As the doors close after us I look up at Dad and ask, "Dad, can you take me shopping sometime this week?"
Dad considers the question for a moment then replies, "It might not be until Thursday or Friday. Will that work?"
I return to my phone conversation, nodding to answer Dad's question. "Travis, will you come shopping with me this week?"
"Yeah," he replies before I can tell him the days. He must have heard my Dad's answer as he adds, "Friday would work better for me."
"Excellent. Friday is perfect," I say, looking up at Dad and giving him the best thumbs up I can manage with my cast before returning my attention to Travis. "Do you think you could work in a sleepover on Sunday night, too?"
I try not to laugh at the excitement in his voice. He nearly squeaked the word, and I shake my head in wonder. "Yep. I'd love to have you over."
"I'll try as hard as I can," Travis replies quickly. "It's the first time I've ever been invited to a sleepover, so I don't know what my grandparents will say, but I'll beg them and do extra chores if I have to."
"You're awesome Travis! Don't ever forget it. Talk to you at school."
We say our goodbyes, and I end the call before looking at my Dad who's wearing an amused grin. "What's all this about?" He asks.
"You'll find out soon enough," I reply, returning his grin. "You trust me, right?"
"As long as you don't get arrested, or put in the hospital, and you also keep your grades up..." He sighs and nods. "Do whatever you need to do, but don't make me regret it... please?"
"Will do, Dad. And trust me - this plan is foolproof."