"She's gone?" Cathy asked me in the morning.
"Yeah, she took off yesterday, I guess," I said. I was worried for her. Janice had always had a little bit of a wild streak, but she'd never gone off the deep end like this.
"Did your parents call the police?"
"They filed a report, but Janice turned eighteen so, legally, they can't do much except try to find her and see if she's okay," I said, relaying what my father had said to my mother.
"Wasn't Janice grounded a few weeks ago? How can you be grounded at eighteen?" Cathy asked.
"My parents' rules still apply as long as you live at home," I said with a shrug. "They aren't bad rules, but if you break them, you still get consequences."
"Did she get along with your parents?" she asked.
"Mostly. Not as well as I do. Cal kind of gets along with everyone. He's always on the edge of getting in trouble, but doesn't actually go too far most of the time." I paused. "Janice, though, always went the extra mile."
Janice got pushed from my mind as the steady hum of my day brought me a litany of work to do. My English teacher assigned a reading project. Biology assigned a lab to be completed outdoors. To top it off, my social studies teacher assigned a project on our ancestry. Did they all get together and plan to drop this at once on us? Better yet, what moron sets themselves up to grade seven classes worth of projects?
I met B on the field after school before his practice started. "Did you get three projects today?" I asked.
"Yeah. We should do the social one together. It might be cool to know more about your family," he said.
"Didn't you get enough of my family over the weekend?" I teased.
"Not nearly enough," he said, looking at me meaningfully. "Oh. I wanted to tell you, before you distracted me with school talk." He paused. "They caught the guy that vandalized my car."
"Finally," I huffed. "Who was it? When did you find out?"
"I found out this morning," he said. "The police called and I went down with my parents. It's kind of weird. Remember that Judy girl I mentioned? She offered me M&Ms and I just kind of walked away from her?"
"Yeah. What about her?"
"Well, I guess she kind of has been stalking me. She's got all these pictures in her room and she's stolen my clothes," he said and then started laughing at my expression. "Just kidding. Her brother decided he'd get revenge on me for not dating her, but dating a guy - like I was trying to insult her or something. They got him on tape, so he's in all kinds of trouble now."
"Jerk," I stated and pushed him. "I was thinking I'd have to show this bitch what's what."
He giggled at me, kind of walking into me, asking if I was jealous. I was trying not to laugh at him and pushing him away, but not too hard. "Seriously, though, I'd like to knock that prick's teeth out. He scared you, I can't have that," I told him, trying to sound tough.
"I wasn't scared, really," he said in a conciliatory tone. "It just sucks to get confronted with other people's douchery, sometimes. People who think it's okay to do shit just because."
I nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
"J? Gotta steal your boy for practice," Zack said as he walked up to us. "I know you're all official and everything, but you have to share him."
I batted my eyes. "Is that an offer of a three way, Zack?"
"Wow," he said with wide eyes and looked at Brandon. "You didn't say he was that easy."
"What?" Brandon asked, bubbling with laughter and I fixed him with an amused look. "Are you talking about us, mister?"
The coach's whistle blew, bringing an end to our banter. I stayed to watch some of his practice, joined by Cathy and Ginnie partway through. They tried to double team me about B's particulars, but I wouldn't budge. Pervs.
"Ginnie," I said in a burst of evil inspiration. "Don't you have your own guy to lust over? Why do you need mine?"
"Tim," she said in a really, really weird tone. "God, I've never been so hot for someone. It's weird, too, because he's younger than me!" She looked back and forth between us seriously.
"Well," I said, glancing at Cathy and then back to Ginnie. "What's the problem? Why don't you have this boy eating out of your hand?"
She frowned. "His parents. They said I'm too old for him, but he's into me." She glanced at us in turn. "He's sneaking out Friday night. We're going to go for a walk."
I frowned and Cathy beat me to the punch. "That might not be a great idea, Ginnie. If his parents are against it...."
"No. We have something real. No other boy is...no, I'm doing this. He's mine." She stood and looked down on Cathy. "Tim wants to be with me. This is going to work and if you can't get behind me on this, I don't need to tell you anything else," she said pointedly, glancing at me and leaving.
I looked at Cathy and she stood, saying, "I better go after her."
I headed home and started to get organized for the projects I'd have to do. By evening a pall had settled over the house as no word of Janice's whereabouts come to light and true worry began to set in, hanging over all of us. The guys came over, and Amanda told them all Brandon was her boyfriend, which was cute. We hung out in my room, but after I'd told them about Janice, I really needed a distraction. I showed them how I was organizing to get the projects done and we agreed to meet up the following night to start on the projects. They weren't suddenly interested, but I think they liked how I laid things out. The idea of getting it done and over was also an appeal, I think.
In my heart, I hope a part of it was just to help keep me occupied.
The next few months kind of melded into each other. Cathy drifted in and out of my circle for a while as she and Malik fell into a pattern of breaking up one week and making up the next. Ginnie was largely on her own, chasing after Tim in an embarrassing display. I'm not sure whether he liked her or just the attention. I told Brandon I'd prefer if we just stayed in the make-out phase and he was agreeable. The fall wore on and the soccer season drew to a close. I watched a few games, going to support my friend and boyfriend. It was cool as I also sat with Seth, Malia and Amy. Amy and Zack were off to a good start and I liked them together. Malia and Seth were a cool contrast, he being a little quieter and artistic while she was vivacious and outgoing. I thought they brought a nice contrast and balance to their relationship.
As the end of the year drew close, there was still no word from Janice, and our family didn't really know how to handle that. I'd always thought we were the sort where almost anyone could fit, if they gave it a little effort. My parents were overjoyed at my crop of newish friends, and Brandon was the golden child in our home. Even though we felt the loss of Janice, it helped to have Brandon there as often as he was. Friday nights turned into, more or less, a regular sleep-over night at Zack's. Amanda demanded that we play games with her and the guys came over for a long Saturday of gaming at my house. Amanda was pleased, though she didn't participate as much as you might think.
Brandon and I spent more and more time together, and it never grew stale. We did get irritated with each other from time to time, but it never went more than a day at most. His parents liked that his grades were coming up with me as his boyfriend, given that I organized him, and though we didn't share classes, we shared the same teachers so the work was identical. They were also kind of weird. They wanted doors open, but then they avoided that open door like the plague. I used to tease B that I should go down on him just for the thrill of potentially being caught. He called me twisted, but he didn't say no to the idea, either.
Thanksgiving came and went, and then we were in the midst of Christmas and all that fake buying stuff for people crap. I was being a grump about it one night and Brandon squeezed me, demanding to know why I didn't like Christmas.
"Because I don't need a holiday to give you something," I said. "If I want to get you a shirt or a piece of jewelry or a game you've wanted, I don't need another reason. I give because I want to, because it makes you happy. Not because some day on the calendar says we give gifts."
"What about birthdays?" he asked, needling me.
"That's different," I argued. "That's celebrating the person, not just some arbitrary day."
"So you're saying no gifts on Christmas for you?" he teased.
"Just you. In bed. With a bow on your-"
"Ah! The parents might hear. You'll scar them," he said, laughing and covering my mouth.
I knew full well we were exchanging gifts anyway. I can rant all I want; it doesn't change a damn thing. Besides, he was having fun teasing me about buying Christmas gifts. Weirdo. In point of fact, we guys got together Christmas eve and played games half the night, then exchanged gifts just after midnight. I guess that was another of their traditions, now including me.
All the while there was a lingering hole in the fabric of our family where Janice should have been. It was hard not to wonder if she was okay and where she was. It would come to me at odd times, but because I felt so helpless, I threw myself into other things, and life went on - including Brandon and I getting stronger together.
At the end of January I got sick and missed a few days of school. It started on a Wednesday morning when I woke with a fever. It wavered through-out the next day and a half, and I was miserable. I was having trouble sleeping because my cough was so consistent. Once my fever broke, Brandon came over to sit with me while I watched movies. I was whiny, but he sat down and pulled me down nearly in his lap. I grumbled while he adjusted me so I was lying between his legs with the back of my head on his chest. He tugged the blanket over me and started to run his fingers through my hair, starting on my forehead. The gentle rhythm elicited a deep sigh from me, followed by a few coughs.
"That feels nice," I conceded.
"Shh," he said and kissed my hair before resuming his stroking. He had put on some stupid sci-fi show. He was such a nerd for that stuff. I closed my eyes, coughing occasionally, and relaxed under his touch. The show droned, and he felt warm and comforting behind me. His hand stroked rhythmically, his fingers dragging lightly across my scalp. In a way it's similar to the way he runs his fingers up my spine when he's winding me up. He knows I love that slow touch.
"Jerry," my mom said. "Why don't you have some soup?"
"Mom," I whined. "I just want to relax. B's trying to get me to fall asleep."
"Trying?" he asked, chuckling behind me. I looked around a little owlishly and coughed. He kissed my hair and said, "I'm not sure what you were doing between a few coughs and a whole lot of snoring, but I think that might have been sleep."
"I did not!" I protested weakly. I sat up, feeling groggy. I glanced out the window, which had been lit with an overcast day earlier, but now was full dark.
"Yes, you did," my mom said gently, with humor in her voice. Leave it to her to be amused. "Come on, sit up and I'll bring out the TV trays so you guys can eat out here. Then we can get some cough medicine into you so you can relax, okay?" She nodded at me as she walked out of the room.
My head felt stuffy. "I'm going to the bathroom," I said and navigated out of the room and down the hall. I blew my nose after peeing and washed my face in the sink. I looked into the mirror, my eyes looking dull and glassy. I felt a spike of misery just from feeling like crap for the last few days. I'd missed the Friday night sleep over because of it. Three days of school. I'd missed Brandon, though, most of all.
I wandered back out to the living room. The TV tables were set up and a bowl was on one, and beside that Brandon had a plate of leftovers. He loved my mother's cooking. I sat down beside him and pulled my feet up, leaning against him for a moment.
"I'm sorry I'm so crabby. I didn't want to fall asleep. I've missed you."
"I missed you, too, Babe," he said indulgently. "Better get that soup into you. After your meds we can cuddle up again."
"It has to suck for you. You don't have to stay," I said. It was the right thing to say, but the last thing I wanted.
"Didn't have to come over," he said quietly. "Wanted to."
I decided to shut up, which wasn't easy with muddled thoughts. I ate the soup as bidden and he cleared our plates. My mom must have given him the medicine to give to me, so I took it without complaint.
"My feet are cold," I grumbled. He put the TV trays aside and pulled me back into position, wrapping his legs around so his warm feet lay over my cold ones. I sighed and laid my head back. "Thank you."
"Anytime," he said and turned his nerdy sci-fi thing back on. I dozed against him most of the evening. Late that night he convinced me to take more of the ghastly meds my mom foisted on me and got me upstairs to bed.
I coughed. "Will you stay with me?" I asked.
"Yeah, already cleared it with the parents," he said.
I shuffled over to him and leaned against his chest. "You're the best boyfriend ever."
He chuckled. "Remember that the next time I piss you off."
"Come warm me up?" I asked.
"Brush your teeth, first," he chided me.
I groaned but allowed him to lead me back to the bathroom. Finally I stripped down and slipped under the covers, shivering. I whined that he wasn't fast enough as he tossed his clothes aside, and hit the light before sliding under the covers with me. He wrapped himself around me and I sighed as my body quickly warmed with his skin pressed snugly to me. It was an odd intimacy, being in bed with no possibility of sex. Instead it was just him giving me his body heat, his warm touch and the occasional kiss on my hair. I wasn't awake long, but I remember feeling very grateful to him.
One cold afternoon in February, B and I gave ourselves to each other for the first time. It didn't exactly go smoothly, but I thought we'd get better at it - there was no question we wanted to have another go at each other. Porn makes it look easier than it is, but there was some pleasure there to build on, for sure. We hadn't wanted to be a cliché and do it on Valentine's Day, like some people we knew were planning. In fact it was that discussion that led to us deciding to go for it, early. In retrospect, that might have been one reason it didn't go as smoothly as it could. It would be a while before we tried that again, though.
That was my life for a while, the new normal - and it was good. Homework with B at the least, with the guys at most. Nearly every evening with my boyfriend, regardless. Going over to Zack's on most Fridays, movies at my house on the odd Saturday. Brandon and I found a social club that did dancing and we tried that, but it was too formal for us. All that changed at the end of February when Janice came home.
Brandon and I were just walking in the house from school. As we passed the entry to the living room on our way to invade the fruit drawer we saw my parents sitting on the couch and a very large Janice sitting on the love seat.
"Jan!" I said, excited to see her. She struggled to her feet and I hugged her tenderly. "Holy crap! How far along are you?"
"Six months," she said hesitantly, her eyes flashing toward our parents. "I, uh...well...."
"I'm glad you're home," I told her. "You remember Brandon, right?"
"Of course. Nice to see you," she said, trying to be gracious.
"Okay, well," my mother said standing. "We still have a lot to talk about. First things first, why don't we get you off your feet, Jan?" she said and guided my sister up the stairs.
I looked at my mother as she ascended the steps and then looked at my father who looked ashen.
"What am I missing? Isn't this a good thing? Are you guys pissed she's pregnant?" I asked.
My dad looked up at me, perhaps a little dazed. "No. We're glad she's home and safe, but...leave your sister be for a while, okay? This baby...just let it be, Jeremiah."
Curious though I was, I recognized something was seriously wrong and I needed to mind my sister's space. B and I went to my room and organized our homework for the week. I don't think he really cared about being organized, he just humored me.
"One more year and then we can go to college, J," he said with a little grin. "Where will you go?"
I shrugged. "Wherever you do."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "Don't you have a major you want to pursue? What about computer design or the artistic things you mentioned?"
"I'm sure the school you need to go to for architecture will have classes I can take in any of those subjects. I'm guessing not every school with those subjects has an architecture major, though. So where you go, I'll follow."
He smiled and shook his head. "I should have known you'd already thought ahead."
"Let those gay college boys get a shot at you? I don't think so!" I said and laughed at his surprised expression. I cut him off by tackling him to my bed and making out with him a bit. I was pleased that my stomach still rolled and my heart still tripled its beat when we got down to business; it seemed like something like that should be consistent when you love someone like I love him.
Later that night I was in my room, reading for my biology test when Janice tottered into the room. "Hey, Jer. Busy?"
"Just school," I said and closed my book. "Come and sit," I invited, patting my bed. "You had us all worried. Why the hell did you scare us like that?"
"To the point, huh?" she asked as she sat gingerly. She let out a sigh and pushed a tangle of hair from her face. "I wanted to travel. I wanted to learn the stage craft. I even thought I might fall in with the musical crowd." She glanced at me. "You know I can't play a note or read a sheet, but I've always loved music."
I nodded my agreement.
She looked down and rubbed her hands. "In October we went to Iowa. We had crappy rooms in a motel. Flimsy doors, walls, everything was flimsy. Dirty. Stained. It was depressing. I was regretting following my idea to run away with the show when I got invited to party with the band, since the show they were going to do was canceled due to weather."
She looked at me and her eyes grew wet. "I...was having a good time, but then things got...I couldn't remember...."
"Oh, fuck," I said and slid over to her, hugging her as tears rolled down her cheeks. "Why didn't you come home, Jan? Why didn't you leave it all behind then?"
"I was ashamed," she said softly. "I'd run away, acting like I could take care of myself, but now I was in way over my head." She sniffled and I rubbed her back while she gathered herself. "I didn't realize I was pregnant for about a month. By then we were in Texas and I tried to get an abortion, but it's really hard there. I don't know who the father is. I don't know...I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to call mom and dad, so I worked and saved the money to come home. All I could do was hope they'd help me."
I stayed quiet for a moment. "Are they angry?"
She nodded slowly. "I think so. Underneath it all. But they are also afraid, I think. Maybe...disappointed I've screwed my life up."
I wasn't sure what to say, so I didn't speak. I just held her while she shook from her tangle of emotions.Next Chapter Previous Chapter