I woke to the sound of the television to find Emily sitting on the carpet with a bowl of cereal and watching the TV.
“Oh no, Ms. Thing,” Keith said while wagging his finger. “You get that bowl back to the table.”
“You're not my dad,” she said as she petulantly stayed in place.
“I'll be your mommy dearest soon enough, sweetheart. Now move it,” Keith said and Emily huffed as she got up and carried her bowl to the table. Keith saw me awake and rolled his eyes before going back to the kitchen. I adjusted my gaze to look at Cole, but he slept on. A small line of drool ran from the corner of his mouth. I still found him beautiful, and my heart ached for him anew. I picked up my phone from the side table and saw we had plenty of time to get ready.
I ran my fingers through his hair as he slept. I enjoyed watching him slowly surface from his slumber, his mouth moving as he smacked his lips a little and then those hazel eyes opening and shining like new coins. He sighed.
“You're here,” he said.
“I'm here,” I confirmed.
He moved a hand to the side of my face and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he stroked my cheek and sighed. “I have to pee. Did I sleep all night?”
“Yeah. You conked out before nine,” I said.
“I'm sorry. I was wiped out,” he said with a grimace.
“You needed the rest. Go to the bathroom. I'll meet you in the kitchen.”
“Okay, babe,” he said quietly. I waited a full minute before he rolled out of bed and headed up the short hallway. I climbed from the bed and slipped my jeans on before entering the kitchen – Emily didn't need to be exposed to boys besides her brother in their underwear just yet.
“I'm making eggs Brodeur,” Keith said. “Hungry?”
“I think so,” I said and sat down at the table. “What are eggs Brodeur?”
“Well, it's my last name so when I make eggs, they’re my recipe,” he said with a little smile. “Just a little conceit, darling boy. How is Cole?”
“He looks tired. Did his dad sleep?”
“Fitfully,” he said with a frown. “I told him to call in today. He should let Cole stay home, too.” He glanced at the clock on the stove. “I have to get myself moving soon, though.”
“Can I help with the cooking?”
He smiled widely. “Come here, darling boy. Let me show you how to make magic on the range.”
His eggs weren't anything crazy, and even with my limited skills I caught on quickly. He patted my shoulder and ran off to get ready for work. I probably made too much food, but Cole's appetite was back and he was cheering up his sister, so I could see some resilience in him. His dad wandered out and kissed both his kids on their heads, poured a cup of coffee and sat down.
“Okay, I'm going to take mine to go,” Keith said and scooped up two slices of bread and stuffed some eggs between them. He looked at Cole's dad. “Morgan, stay home, please? Let his boyfriend take care of him for a day.”
“Have to run, see you tonight!” Keith said, placing a light kiss on his lips and then waving at us all before zipping to the door.
“Guy has too much energy,” Cole said with a grin.
“You're telling me,” his dad said with a yawn. “Miss Emily, are we ready to go to school?”
“It's too early,” she said petulantly.
“But are you ready?” her dad asked.
“Too early,” she repeated. He started to tease her and she giggled before he helped her from the table and sent her to go finish getting ready to go.
He stood and looked at us. “I'm staying home today. If you guys want to take a mental health day, it's fine with me,” he said, then headed over to finish getting dressed and take his daughter to school.
“Want me to stay?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to leave?”
I frowned. “No.”
“Then what are we talking about?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you being saucy with me?”
He narrowed his eyes back and leaned forward, so I copied him. Soon we were about an inch apart, giving each other slit-eyed stares that wouldn't have intimidated anyone.
“Uh. What are you guys doing?” his dad asked, reentering the room.
“I'm going to win,” Cole said.
“Not a chance,” I scoffed.
“Okay then, taking Emily to school. Be back in about an hour,” he said and headed out the door. We kept up the staring contest, which wasn't really a staring contest because we'd both blinked several times, and then he licked the tip of my nose and crowed victory. We put stuff in the sink, but figured we'd get to cleaning stuff later.
“So, you look better today,” I said.
“I was just tired yesterday. Stressed.” He shrugged.
“It's a lot of shit,” I said.
He frowned. “Well, I can handle it. I mean, I'm glad you were here yesterday, but it's not like I'm a baby or anything.”
I frowned back at him. “I didn't say you were. You're my boyfriend, though, and I want to take care of you. Protect you.”
“Drew, I can take care of myself,” he said, sounding irritated. “I'm not an emotional cripple or anything.”
“I didn't say you were,” I growled. “But the fact is – okay, look, truth?” I glared at him and he nodded dubiously. “In the last few months we've gone from not really knowing each other to you being the center of my life. Most important, best thing I have going on. When I say I want to protect you it's not because I think you're weak – it's because I love you and I want to be there for you.”
He rubbed his face. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry! I guess I'm...first you punch Joe, then you stand between me and my grandfather and mom, then you're comforting me all night like I can't handle life and....”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Cole, if you just rolled with everything I'd worry more. I've been stressed pretty hard a few times in the past few months with the way my life has changed. I think I almost had a panic attack a few weeks ago. Sometimes it just feels like it's all caving in on me.”
He frowned. “A panic attack? Why didn't you call me?”
I pointed at him. “You see? I'm trying to do the same for you. So stop with the manly bullshit and remember I love you and that's my only motivation here. No judgment.”
He crossed his arms. “Why. Didn't. You. Call. Me?”
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I was feeling overwhelmed and stuck in my head. Brax stopped by, kind of broke me out of my loop. I called you and came over here for the first time.” I looked at him. “I got a little balance and I came to you. I was still worrying about falling so hard for you and not wanting this to be some short experiment or rebound on your part.”
He let out a little grunt. “Still.” Then he sighed. “Okay, I see your point. Maybe I'm being...a little sensitive.”
“You know what's really annoying though?” I asked him. He raised an eyebrow in response. “You're standing there in a tee shirt and underwear looking fine as fuck without showering or even combing your hair. Not only that, all you want to do is argue with me.”
He laughed at me and I grinned.
“Seriously. I'm arguing with a handicap. I had all this,” I said, waving a hand up and down to indicate his body, “as a distraction.”
“So wait, I'm confused. Did you want to win the argument or have me take my clothes off?” he asked.
I blinked. “Both? Can I have both? Cole!”
He rolled his eyes and started walking to his room. I chased after him and he ran and I tackled him onto his bed where we wrestled a little, ticking and laughing. We hugged and settled in together for a minute.
“So,” he said, his voice sounding playful. “How long have you thought I was cute? Huh?”
I leaned back and laughed. “What? Where did that come from?”
“You thought I forgot!” he said triumphantly. “But Alessia made a joke about telling me how long you thought I was, what was it? Stupid cute?”
I snorted. “When I said that she was talking about Haylee and why she'd stay with you if you were the jerk I thought you were back then,” I said. He frowned and I grinned, deflating his little ego balloon.
“You should be telling me you always thought I was cute, Drew. C'mon. How long?” he said, recovering and starting to tease.
I narrowed my eyes. “At least a few years I've thought you were cute, but not special. Now, cute and special. Special like I'm going to buy you a hockey helmet to wear in public.”
“Oh!” he groaned. “Really? You want to do me like that?”
“Well, what about you? How long have you liked me?”
“For like a year and a half,” he said without hesitation. “We were in gym class last year and our lockers were across the hall from each other, and I used to check you out when we changed out for class.”
My jaw dropped and he laughed, having gotten one on me. “Well, when I went to the locker room to talk to coach about my grade and you were just standing there by Brax in your underwear? I totally checked you out.”
He grinned. “Perv.”
I growled and we kissed a little. He let out a yawn eventually and I copied him, realizing I hadn't slept that well the night before from worry for him. Or more honestly from anger at the situation.
We slipped under the covers and dozed away the rest of the morning, and then we got up and showered before going to lunch with his dad. We talked a little bit about his grandparents, who were coming up from Florida.
“So, Nana and Pop will be here tonight, so I'll have to go to the airport to get them. Your mother was released this morning so Emily will be back home,” his dad said, filling us in.
“Not really home,” Cole grumbled.
“Well, it is for Emily. She doesn't understand, and worse mostly gets her information from mom.”
“So...what's going to happen, then?” Cole asked. There was a nervous edge to his voice and I looked at his father. I was afraid of what he'd say – adults can't predict the future any more than we can. I stopped looking to them for answers at some point.
“Well, it's hard to say. When parents divorce the woman nearly always wins custody of the children. Obviously with you, that's different. Emily is younger, and female. She could benefit from a female role-model, but I don't know how much your mother's recent actions will play into the judge's decision making.”
“Grandpa Mike seems like he's completely lost it. I mean he was gruff, and could be a jerk, but it seems like he's completely over the edge now,” Cole commented.
His dad sighed. “I won't get into all the history and the why of anything. Today he's fossilized in his thinking, although I'm pretty shocked he fought with police.” He put his hands together, interlocking his fingers. “Cole, your grandpa Mike has me worried. His behavior is erratic, he basically tried to kidnap you with your mother at the apartment, then he attacks policemen...the lawyer filed for a restraining order against him, but depending on how far gone he is, I'm not confident he'll obey it.”
We all took a moment to look around the table at each other. “Okay. Well, I will be with him at school,” I said. “Teo has a car, so we can make sure he gets to and from school.”
His dad smiled softly at me. “I appreciate that. I don't think that's a good idea, Drew.”
Cole sighed. “Yeah. It just puts you in danger,” he said glumly.
“Well, what am I supposed to do? I can't just not see you.” I paused and looked at them both. “It makes sense that he has people around him to prevent a situation. I mean, is this guy even out of jail yet?”
“Bailed out,” his father confirmed. “He'll have to appear in court. In the meantime, he's free and angry – I have no doubt of that.”
“Okay so like I said, the more people around to help defend him, the better,” I said.
“What other option is there?” Cole asked his dad.
“Well, there aren't a lot of options. Keith and I are talking about moving, but a legal address for legal things is something of a requirement – and there will be legalities until Emily is eighteen at least. The main thing is the short term, to get through whatever this rage is your grandfather has going on.”
He covered his mouth for a moment and then said, “I think you should stay with Nana and Pop for a little while.”
“In Florida?” Cole said, alarmed.
“What? No!” I said immediately afterward.
His dad held his hands out. “Hang on, hang on.” He waited a beat to ensure we weren't speaking and then said, “You can't leave the state. That would complicate the custody process, and I'm reasonably sure I'm on the way to full custody with you. Nana and Pop have found a rental a few towns over, and you can safely stay there. We're arranging with the school to have you take your classes remotely due to the seriousness of this temporary threat.”
I looked at Cole. “I'll go with you. I'm living in an empty house as it is.”
“I don't think that's a good idea, either,” his dad said and we both looked at him. “Look. I appreciate how you guys feel about each other and I'm not casting any aspersions. You guys have been through a lot and stuck together, leaned on each other and that's fantastic. The problem is we're dealing with a couple of things – first is there’s no threat to you; the school isn't going to change their policies because you want to be a comfort. Secondly, my parents are taking on caring for a grandchild, and it's not fair to ask them to be responsible for you as well. Third...you guys won't be able to talk for a bit.”
“What?” we demanded, nearly in unison.
“Guys!” he said a bit louder and holding placating hands out. “Look. Your mom and I were the owners of the cell account for the family, okay? Not sure if you noticed your cell missing, but I turned it off and took the battery out because your mom turned on the GPS on it this morning. You can't have the phone right now.”
“Can't I get a new one? What about a pay as you go?”
“Maybe, but it's not the first priority. Your safety is because...son, if grandpa Mike takes you I have no idea what happens next. There are stories of people fleeing the country with their kids or moving somewhere and just changing their names. Your mother and grandfather are completely set against who you are, and who I am. They didn't used to be so bad, but the last few years there have been a lot of people echoing things that they want to hear, and they got closer and more involved with those people. I have no idea how far they will go.”
Cole looked at me and back to his father. “But I want to be with Drew.”
His father pressed his lips together, rolling them inward and took a long breath. His eyes were damp. “I know you do, Cole. Right now, though, you have to be safe, first.”
Anger rose up in me. Righteous, white hot. At the red-hatted grandpa Mike. At Laurie, Cole's mother. At the kind of people who want things their way, who interfere in other people's lives and relationships. I hated the way Cole's dad was trying to look sympathetic while telling me he was stashing Cole somewhere I couldn't see or speak to him. It changed nothing – this situation was taking Cole away from me.
“No,” I said, and I could feel the acid in my tone. “I don't care if I have to repeat the grade, I won't let you take him from me. Not now. Not after everything – just no.”
His look of sympathy didn't waver. “Drew, as much as I respect that you guys are a couple – and a good one – I'm his father and he's still my child. I have to do this for his safety and my sanity.”
“What about my sanity? You expect me to let him disappear and just sit here and smile about it?” I demanded.
“No,” he said in a sympathetic tone. “I don't expect you to smile. None of us are. I don't feel any better about it, because I can't see him either. I'm still laying things out, but I can't even call my parents with my own phone, because my wife can access my call logs. It's all happening very quickly, and we'll have to make some short-term sacrifices.”
I got up and walked around the table toward Cole, who nearly jumped from his seat and into my arms. Tears filled my eyes, hot and bitter and I made no effort to hold them back.
“Don't cry,” he said softly into my ear, but his breath was ragged as he also began to cry. My anger crested and faltered and a well of sadness swallowed my anger, my righteousness, and threatened to drown me with my own tears. I hadn't had Cole nearly long enough. I know everything breaks, everything created has to be broken, but I had wanted so badly to believe in Brax and the way he thinks – that our relationship could be like a house that needed maintenance and not demolition. This felt so final, and the thought plunged me further into despair and I clutched at him harder.
For his part, Cole was crushing me. I wanted it. I felt the pain anchoring me, the shortness of breath a reminder that we hadn't yet parted and my sorrow hadn't yet killed me. Yes, it may seem dramatic on the outside, but to me...Cole really was the center of my life and the happiest thing I had.
“I'll find a way to contact you,” he said in my ear.
I pulled back, tears coming down my face. “You have to be safe. I can't take it if you're not safe, Cole.”
He stroked the side of my face and we were a spectacle in the middle of the diner. We went to wait in the car while his dad finished up in the diner, and all we could do was to sit in the back seat and hold each other, stroke each other's hair and promise to be strong even though we were at our weakest.
“I love you,” I told him. “Think about that every day. I love you and I want you back. I want you safe.”
He held me and said, “This is such bullshit. I finally have you and someone wants to ruin it. I'll find a way. I can't be without you, not completely.” He sniffled. “This hurts so much.”
To those not going through it, I'm sure we looked like overly-dramatic teenagers who needed to get a grip and realize that life goes on. Fuck those people. I'd have other losses in my life, but not this one – not him. I needed him.
We went back to the apartment so I could get my things. I picked up my bag and put my old clothes inside and turned to face Cole, who was standing behind me with his shirt off.
“Take off your shirt,” he said.
I looked at him in confusion as I reached for the hem of my shirt. “Now? With the door open and your dad in the living room?”
He gave me a half smile. “Trade. Your shirt smells like you.”
I understood, finally, and pulled my shirt off and swapped with him. His scent filled my nose as I pulled the shirt on and I smiled at him. “Great idea.”
“I have those sometimes,” he said quietly. We stayed together until it was time for them to head to the airport, and they dropped me at my house. Cole and I kissed desperately, and not enough, before it was over and he was gone. My heart ached as if we had been separated for weeks and not just a few minutes.
I skipped dinner with the Petrakises, even though I had to tell Teo and Alessia what had happened. I was despondent, and the next few days I skipped both work and school. A hollow area opened up behind my eyes and in my chest, and the longer I went without hearing from Cole, the more I missed him. Somewhere I realized this wasn't healthy, but I couldn't bring myself to care.
I wanted to languish in bed, but Teo roused me out to help with cleaning out the garage so the contractor could start converting it into my bedroom. I didn't really care about it, but I supposed it was better than moping – or so Teo and Alessia told me. I considered walking to the apartment where Keith and Cole's dad lived, but I wasn't sure I'd be civil, and that would undermine my goal of speaking to Cole. I thought it was bullshit to hide him away. I'd rather fight his grandfather and mother head on.
Sunday was especially irritating, as Brax, Teo and Alessia came over to try and cheer me up or perform some kind of intervention; instead it only reminded me of Cole's absence. I had been afraid of him being a short term thing, of him only experimenting with me and not committing. I'd given my whole heart and held nothing back for myself. As a tactical move, falling in love ranks right down there with too-long supply lines, disease outbreaks and not letting the camp follower whores raise morale.
Cole was my Waterloo.
“I don't understand something,” Brax said Sunday night, though I didn't really process it. “How come he couldn't get him a pay-as-you-go phone? I mean, it would be off their network so his whack-a-mole mom couldn't see. What's up with that?”
Teo grunted. “My guess?” he said quietly. “He loves his son so much he didn't think he could stop himself from calling him and giving away how he was doing it. He needed time to get a new number, and maybe wasn't even thinking about that yet.” Teo looked up at us. “Maybe talking to him now, after he's had time to think, would be a good idea?”
I decided he was right and walked over to talk to Cole's dad. He told me things were pretty bad with him and his soon-to-be ex and her father, and he didn't want to risk Cole. Complete isolation was his current thinking, but he'd be glad to pass a message to Cole when he was able to. I argued with him, and he dug in. The argument got heated and he slammed the door in my face.
I didn't go to school Monday or Tuesday. Mr. Petrakis came over to try and strong-arm me into moving, but it's hard to fight someone that won't fight back. Alessia came over Tuesday after school and sat on the edge of my bed. She started stroking my forehead and letting her fingernails trace through my hair and along my scalp. It was the first thing I had found soothing in days and it troubled me. I felt guilty for taking some kind of pleasure when I still didn't have Cole.
“I'm worried about you,” she said quietly.
I swallowed, but made no other reply.
“For as long as I can remember it's been me and my brothers against the world. Remember when we used to build a wall of snow and have snow fights with everyone in the neighborhood?” she asked.
I let out a deep breath.
“We'd make a pile of snow and just bury people if they got too close. Remember?”
I glanced at her from the side of my eye, but she was looking toward my window and running her fingers through my hair in a ceaseless rhythm.
“It was different, then. We were always together. We rode the same bus to school. You were at our house so much it was like having another brother.” She paused and looked down at me. “Which wasn't always a good thing. My God! Teo could be such an asshole!”
I snorted and she smiled down at me. “I never knew you could love someone so much, Drew. I know you've always had our backs, and us yours. But it was always kind of a given. No big deal. It was just one of those facts like the sun will be out the next day.”
I turned my head and looked up at her.
“But you've changed a lot since school started. The shit with your mom. Then the shit with our dad. The continuing shit with our dad. At what someone might think would be the worst possible time for you to focus, this random guy that we've known of for years but never really knew comes in and takes your heart away. Now you don't know who you are without him.”
In a scratchy voice I said, “I love him.”
“I know. I know you do,” she said with a sad smile. “This can't go on, though. The world is still happening out there. Christmas is coming. The house is going to be put up for sale and that garage is already starting to look like it won't be a garage much longer. Then this house will be sold and you'll be under my thumb – I mean roof – full time.” She leaned down and kissed my forehead. “I know you're hurting. I know you miss him. We all miss him for you – though Brax is admittedly getting a double dose for losing you and Cole at the same time. But Drew...you have to get up. You have to eat and most of all, you have to shower. You smell. Worse, you need to find a way to see Cole and this isn't going to get it done.”
“He said he'd contact me,” I said quietly. “I just don't know why he hasn't.”
“You can't get any answers lying here. Go clean up. Come over and have dinner. Maybe we can form a plan.”
I teared up and wiped my eyes. “Okay.”
I dragged myself to the shower and once the spray hit me I started to feel better, but I again felt guilty for feeling better. Shouldn't I feel terrible without him close? Accessible? I wasn't sure. I washed thoroughly and cleaned my hair twice. After toweling off I went to my room to dress, but Alessia was still sitting in my room, tapping away on her phone.
“Reporting success to Brax?” I asked quietly.
“He can't wait to see you at school tomorrow,” she said.
I grunted and slipped underwear on under my towel, then finished getting dressed. After finger combing my hair I followed her over to her house and Teo gave me a hug that nearly moved me to tears. Then Mrs. Petrakis did, and I did cry. Jesus, I'm such a weakling. Mr. Petrakis clapped me on the shoulder, and we had dinner. Teo and Alessia dragged me up to his room and we sat down on the floor.
“Okay. We need a plan to find Cole,” Alessia said. “Where do we start?”
“His father. You think?” Teo asked me.
I sighed. “I can ask him. I think he believes Cole is safest in complete isolation, so it might be a dead end. At least that's what he said to me Sunday. We argued about it, got loud, and he slammed the door in my face. So maybe I won't talk to him.” We talked some more, but it was largely pointless. All it did was frustrate me and make me feel helpless. The next morning Brax met us in the parking lot and gave me a bone-breaking hug.
“Lemme go. Nerd,” I said to him, smiling.
“We have a plan yet?” he asked as he let me go, but slung his arm across my shoulders. “I vote we take out the adults so Cole's safe. Any takers?”
“Sounds good to me,” I said with a sigh. He patted my back and we broke up to head to class.
I glanced up at Mr. Rockwell.
“Come up here, would you?”
I stood and walked to the front of the class just as the bell rang. Everyone was busy bailing out of the classroom as I stood next to my favorite teacher by his desk.
“You've been missing quite a bit. I looked at your record and this is an unprecedented amount of time for you to miss. Is everything all right, Drew?” His face was filled with concern and I felt guilty for making him worry.
“Some things at home,” I said quietly.
“Can I call someone for you? I have friends in DCFS.” He looked at me steadily.
“No, sir, it's not that kind of problem. See...my boyfriend's family is going through a bad breakup, and there's a fear that his mother might try to kidnap him, so his father has him somewhere and I don't have any contact with him.”
“I see,” he said quietly. “You know, Mr. Chambers, teachers aren't supposed to have favorite students. It's silly because we're only human. The idea of course is that we don't treat a student favorably compared to the rest,” he said, taking out a book of hall passes and starting to write on it. “But you are one of my all time favorite students, Drew,” he said handing me a pass.
Emotions began to rise up inside me. “Thank you, sir.”
“Mr. Thomas isn't as much my favorite. Trouble at home can certainly make one do odd things in class. He's a good boy, though.” He looked up at me. “He's been doing his homework online. He has responded to his school email.”
I stared at him.
He smiled. “I think you'll find the computer lab empty this period. Scoot, Drewbie-doobie-doo.”