I pulled up to Bell's house on Monday morning and honked. I felt perkier than usual for a morning, let alone a Monday. I was sure part of it was the thrill of discovery - not just finding out I had a capacity to be attracted to guys, but the shock of how fast and fun that had become. I was far more at ease with Declan McClain in a weekend than I had been with my ex-girlfriend Maddy Olsen in the seven months that I'd dated her. That wasn't even mentioning the fun I had discovering Declan himself while he stayed with us this past weekend.
I honked again and the door popped open. Bell stepped out onto the small wooden porch that served as the entryway to his trailer. A shoe flew out after him and the door slammed. He grinned at me, picked up the shoe and plopped down to stuff his foot in it before trotting down to the car.
“Bell, what the hell was that?” I asked, putting the car in gear and heading for the main road.
“Only chance – are you sure you want to know?”
I gave him a skeptical look and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Go ahead.”
“Okay. So get this,” he said, holding his hands out like he was framing a shot. “I walk out into the living room to find my parents going at it.”
“Yeah. Brad and Angelina, my parents are not,” he laughed.
“So they threw your shoes at you for walking into the living room?”
“No. My mom threw my shoes at me because I told her she had a huge ass.”
“You...what?” I burst out laughing and he started giggling next to me.
“Well, I won't get into positions or anything, but what I got was a big 'ole unwanted view of her butt. I couldn't help myself.”
“Oh my God, Bell!” I said, and continued to laugh.
“Yeah, so,” he said between his giggles. “So she called me a few names and stuff, but she still hadn't moved. I mean, she's still there with her bare ass up in the air, you know?”
“Well, I did the logical thing and asked if she'd make me breakfast.”
“You...no you didn't!”
“Yep. That's when she started throwing shit.”
I laughed and shook my head. “How do you do it, man? With all that shit, you're the sanest guy I know.”
“It's because my best friend buys me breakfast. How about it, best friend?” he said, nudging me.
I glanced at him. “None of that actually happened, did it?”
“Well, I did ask her to make me breakfast. Plus, you have to admit the size of her ass is a fact.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Okay, I guess that's worth a shitty breakfast sandwich.”
“So what about you? I leave you alone for ten minutes and you took some guy home with you from Delia's party. You never did tell me how your gramps took your coming out.”
I pulled up to the drive through speaker and ordered a coffee for each of us and a sandwich for him. “I hope they spit in your food, man.”
“Ohhh. So Gramps didn't like it and there is a lot more to this story. Come on, Corb! Don't leave me hanging!”
“Yeah, I don't know,” I said. “Up until I picked you up this morning I thought I should talk about it, but now? After you described your mom's ass?”
“I didn't say anything about moles or cellulite,” he offered.
“You just did. And Bell? Fucking eww!”
“Yeah, I know. Still...we haven't talked and I have heard nothing but rumors.”
“What rumors?” I asked and then turned from him as I paid for the food and accepted the cups and bag from the lady at the window. Pulling away Bell spoke as he unwrapped the sandwich.
“Well, I told you I heard you took some kid home with you. Most folks think he was drunk, but now there's a rumor that Ryder Tipton tried to rape him – and Angie Taylor took a video on her phone of the cops picking him up at his house. Everyone is saying this kid — Katie McClain's brother? They're saying he's gay.”
“Shit.” I pulled over and dug my phone out. Thumbing through the contacts I found Declan's number and sent him a message. 'I'm hearing rumors. You okay?'
Bell looked at me in silence, the question plain on his face. I sighed and pulled back into traffic.
“I told you I thought shit wasn't good with Maddy before, right?”
“Well, yeah. Wait, is this before or after getting laid?”
“Both,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“So you fagged off?”
“Don't say shit like that!” I snapped.
“Shit, okay. Sorry,” Bell mumbled. “Um, but...?”
I sighed again and tried to gather my words. “Ryder drugged Declan, slipped him a roofie or something. Mom took him to the hospital and had him checked out while I was at work Saturday. I guess the cops were by and they were going to discuss things with Ryder.”
“Holy shit! I knew the guy was sleazy, but that's a whole new level of slime!”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“But...did something happen, then?”
“Corb. I'm being serious, man. Are you queer?”
“I...might be. Yeah.” This was a lot harder to say to Bell than I thought it would be. I had accepted it fairly readily myself, just because it felt so much more comfortable than I ever had been with Maddy. But I'd always been into girls before...hadn't I?
“Well...what does that mean, exactly?” The wrapper around his sandwich crinkled as he went back to his food and I sipped my coffee to stall.
“I kissed him,” I said, finally.
“Yeah? Did you like it?”
I glanced at Bell, who had cheese stuck to his lip, and nodded. “Yeah. It was...really good.”
“Wow. Uh, did he like it? This Declan guy?”
“Yeah, duh,” I rolled my eyes.
“Hey, Corb, I don't know if you're a good kisser! Why should I assume you laid a lip lock on some dude and he'd like it. So, wait,” he said and held up a hand. “Are you guys, like, dating now? Is he gay?”
“Why wouldn't he like it? I don't know what we're doing and yeah, he is.”
“Are you fucking with me?” he asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Is this revenge for talking about my mom's ass?”
“No, Bell,” I said while rolling my eyes. My phone buzzed and I glanced down at the screen. 'I'm okay. People are looking at me weird. Where are you?' I handed the phone to Bell. “Tell him in on my way and to meet me in the parking lot.”
Bell dutifully banged out the message and then sighed. “So that girl from the party? I called her.”
“You did?” I asked, surprised both that he'd actually called and that he was dropping the conversation about me so fast.
“Yeah,” he said glumly. “She wants to go to the movies.”
“So? Why do you sound like that's a problem?”
“Well, you know, since I called first that makes me desperate,” he said with a sigh. “She just wants to use me for my body.”
“Oh for...get over yourself!” I said with laugh and he joined me.
Minutes later I pulled into the parking lot and into my assigned space. As I climbed out I spotted Declan hurrying over to me.
“Hey, Dec,” I said.
“So this is the man, huh?” Bell said, coming around the side of the car. “You swept my buddy off his feet?”
“Dec, this is Bellamy. You can ignore him going forward,” I said. “He told me he's heard rumors. What's going on?”
“Uh,” he looked uncertainly at Bell and then focused his attention on me. “I'm officially out of the closet. I guess Ryder spread a rumor that...” he swallowed and glanced at Bell uncomfortably.
“It's okay, Dec, he's a friend. What did that asshole say?”
“He, uh, said it wasn't him that tried to...rape me. He said it was you and that...you took me home to finish.”
“That fucking...” I clenched my hands into fists and closed my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Um, yeah. So far,” he bobbed his head. “I haven't seen my friends yet so I don't know about that.”
“Okay. No harassment?”
“A few...words, you know. People being assholes. I can handle it.”
“Well, why don't I give you a ride home today, just to be safe. Okay?”
“Yeah. Well, maybe...no.”
Again he glanced at Bell before looking at me and saying, “Look, I'm kind of stressed to be out as it is. I don't know what I was hoping for, but I wouldn't have planned it this way. If people see me riding with you or whatever, they are going to say it's all true.”
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. “First, the police have Ryder, so he shouldn't be around to spread any more lies,” I said. “Second, your safety should be a priority over people who want to start rumors.”
“What about you, Corby?” he asked.
“What do you mean, what about me?”
“People are saying you...you know. That you and I...”
“Knocked boots?” Bell provided. “Hey, that's nothing. Let me tell you what I saw in my living room this morning.”
“Bell, shut up,” I said. I turned to face Declan and said firmly, “Look, things are going to get said and there is nothing we can do about it. I know that as soon as Maddy hears, she's going to start a whole bunch more shit. I can handle it. Besides,” I said, hesitating. “Well, point is, I can handle it.”
“Okay,” Declan said uncertainly. “I'm going to find my friends, see what the deal is. I'll text you later, okay?”
“Yeah. Do that,” I said. He turned slowly and walked back to the school and I watched him. He turned and looked back once, and I thought he blushed, before facing forward and increasing his pace to the rear doors of the school.
“He's pretty cool.”
I glanced at Bell and raised an eyebrow in question.
“He's facing some shit, but he was still more worried about you than he was himself.”
I glanced back at the doors he'd disappeared through. “Yeah. I'm worried about him enough for both of us.”
Bell and I separated for homeroom, but he'd been right about one thing – the rumor mill was going full tilt. There was everything from hands shielding mouths to make comments, to knowing grins and some coward hollering out 'fag!' amid a sea of tittering. I kept my head up and dropped into a chair in homeroom. The fact that I sat next to Nelson Hathaway, who was easily twice my mass, was strictly by chance.
“Corb,” he said, nodding to me.
He leaned forward and clasped his hands on the desk. “You heard the rumors?”
“Check in on Declan?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “He's going to text me after he sees his friends.” I glanced down and away before adding, “I guess he's had some verbal harassment. I don't know how bad, just that he said he could handle it.”
“Hmm. What are you thinking?”
I let out a breath. “I'm thinking I'm worried about him. He doesn't need this shit. No one does, of course, but this is kind of a shit storm.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Well, I think it's good you're looking out for him, today. But what about tomorrow?”
“What do you mean?” I asked slowly, knowing his comment wasn't to be taken literally.
He hunched a bit more. “I told you Katie McClain is friends with my Krista, right? Well, she's worried about her brother, which is natural. But what's worse is she thinks he's got a little crush going on you.” He leaned back and looked at me, measuring my reaction.
I looked around in mild confusion and spread my hands. “And?”
“Corb, people are saying you took advantage of him.”
“You know that's bullshit,” I snapped.
“I do,” he said, nodding. “But when you pulled him out of there a chain of events started. You stepped up to help, but I think the tide of shit is going to be big on this. I have a feeling Declan is going to have a bunch of assholes hounding him and he's going to need people who will step up, like you did.”
“Are you saying I shouldn't have stepped in?” I asked dubiously.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I'm saying if you hadn't done things, he'd have suffered from the rape in silence. Now that you did, there is a new set of circumstances. I think you did the right thing, but he's going to need some support to help him through what's coming. One of those things is the rumors about him getting raped, about you banging him...or dating him.”
I waited a beat and realized he was asking if it were true. “Nels...I like him. The situation is...hell. To be honest I was just trying to figure out how to get him through the day. I offered to take him home so he didn't have to risk the bus until these fucking barbarians find a new toy to chew on, but he's afraid people will call me gay, too.”
“Not the worst thing,” Nelson opined, “if it were true.”
I looked steadily back at him and said, “I like him, Nels.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay. Just keep this in mind. My cousin,” he said, twisting his lips as he said 'cousin', “took a liking to an underclassmen last year. He used him, messed him up.”
“I'm not looking to-”
He led up a hand, “Not saying you are. I'm just letting you know that you have some power, here, and to be careful with it...and him.”
I nodded slowly. “Your cousin is Lyle, right?”
His lips pursed and he said, “I prefer to not be reminded. If you have to talk about him in my presence, call him 'weapons-grade douche bag.'”
I grinned and his face softened. “If you need help with this, Corb, you let me know.”
“You going to help me sort out how I feel about this guy?” I snickered.
“I meant if someone gives him shit I'll be happy to throw it back,” he said, snorting. “I guess he could do worse, though.”
I nodded slowly and turned around as attendance started. It took only until I'd reached my first class to hear the rumors starting. At first they were just gossip – a new kid was out at school, so that was enough to get tongues wagging. It took only until second period for the darker things to reach me. By then, my phone started to get texts – Bell, keeping me posted. Maddy, accusing me of who knows what, and Declan, telling me his friends were all good.
I slumped in relief at that. We agreed to meet up at lunch and I got him to promise me that he'd let me know if anything more serious came up. As it happens, third period, I got a dose of Maddy and her friends, first.
“So,” she said nastily, dragging the word out. “That's why sex with you was so bad. I guess I don't feel like a boy's ass, do I, Corbin?” Her tone was mocking, dripping with scorn and her friends tittered as she spoke. People passing by quickly slowed down to listen or stopped entirely to make sure they heard the gossip.
“Well, your face does kind of look like an ass. I guess putting my dick there was pretty natural,” I said evenly. It took me a moment to realize I'd kind of admitted to liking ass. Fortunately, Maddy wasn't that quick on the uptake.
“It explains why it too you so long to try anything,” she said, sniffing. Her friends tittered again and the crowd wavered as some moved on for class and others took their place.
“I was waiting to find out if you had any diseases,” I replied. “Working the truck stop isn't good for a relationship, Maddy.”
Her eyes narrowed and her lips drew in, looking like she had found something sour in her mouth. “Well, you know what, Corbin? I figure a guy will be just as unhappy with your little dick as I was.”
I snorted. “A fire hydrant is too small for a slut like you,” I said and pushed past her and into the classroom.
“Hey, Maddy.” Bell's voice said from behind me. His tone held a leer in it. “I can see you're busy, so I'll just get your number from the bathroom wall, okay baby—ow!”
I turned as Bell danced into the room and away from a madly swinging Maddy. Laughter erupted in the room and Maddy drew up short, her face locked in anger.
“Why don't you go back to your boyfriend, Bellamy?” she snarled.
He glanced at me and I raised my hand, a finger extended as he smiled and closed the distance.
“No!” I said.
“Corby!” he said, slipping past my arm and hugging me.
I dropped my arm and tolerated Bell's idiocy with a frustrated sigh.
“Jesus, all boys are the same!” Maddy growled.
“Well, who told you to try them all?” I snapped. The classroom erupted in laughter and she began cussing me out. She was still doing so, lustily, when the bell rang and the teacher stepped into the room. After letting her know she'd need to see him after class, we took our seats. We had a few worksheets, nothing major, and then we were free to speak quietly. I gave Bell a pointed look.
“What's the big idea? Are you trying to give them more ammunition?”
“Corb,” he said, appearing pained. “Comedy is all about going over the top, man. She calls you my boyfriend, I treat you like my favorite boyfriend.”
“Favorite? Like you have more than one? No, don't answer that, you don't even have me.”
“But, Corb. You're a boy and you're my friend.”
“Shut it, Bell,” I said through clenched teeth.
He grinned. “Your boy is doing okay. I heard from Tony Menendez, he has gym with Declan. He said shit was pretty calm in class—couple names called but that's it.”
I nodded and spared a glance his way. “Thanks. Sounds like his day is going smoother than mine, but that's the way I want it. I can handle it.”
“Unless I'm the one hugging you,” Bell said and stuck his tongue out. I cracked a smile.
In fourth period some girl showed me the video of Ryder being led to the cop car. Apparently a local girl had taken it. She'd originally thought she'd get something to do with a drug bust on her phone, but instead she just got Ryder being led to the car.
“I heard his folks posted bail this morning,” one said.
“Nope, they're sending him to a home for sex offenders,” said another.
“I heard his parents left him in there to rot,” said a third.
They were decent theories, I guess, but I started to wonder about a few things. First, he wasn't in handcuffs so was he really under arrest? Second, what was he charged with, if anything? Third, if anyone wanted to make the attempted rape charge stick, they'd need a witness, right? Someone other than poor, drugged up Declan. So why hadn't the police spoken to me yet? Or was that yet to come? I shook my head and tried to block out the gossip and idle speculation and focused on the good news I'd heard about Dec.
At lunch I just gave Bell my wallet and he went to get food for the both of us. I spent my time looking for Declan, and found him with a knot of his friends. As soon as I saw him, seated and safe with his friends, the ends of my mouth turned up in a smile. As his head turned, searching, he spotted me. As he gained his feet his own unique smile spread slowly from one side of his face to the other.
“Hey,” he said, as we stood about a foot from each other.
“Hey. You okay?”
“I'm good,” he said, tucking his hands in his pockets and turning a little from side to side. His smile broadened, “I heard about Maddy—nice comeback.”
I shook my head, “The gossip in this school. You sure you're okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, blushing. “All my friends were cool. They, uh, have been asking about you all day. You, um, want to meet them?”
I glanced at the table of sophomores and a few heads looked back tentatively, ducking my gaze as I looked at them. In a sense this was Declan seeking acceptance, I think, wanting to introduce me to his friends. What, though, would he introduce me as?
“I was looking everywhere for you two,” Bell said, appearing at my side with two overloaded trays.
“Bell! How much did you fucking buy?”
“Um,” he said, glancing at me, “There was a sale?”
I frowned at him. He turned from me and greeted Declan, who was looking at him with amusement. “We sitting with the sophs today?”
“I just asked Corby to meet my friends,” Declan replied, again lapsing into shyness.
“Awesome, let's meet the fam,” Bell said and headed to the table.
I cleared my throat as I looked at Declan and my stomach felt a little wobbly. “Okay, so...before he gets to them, are you sure?”
“I'm sure I want them to meet you...” he said and began rocking on his feet. I locked my gaze to his and something in me melted at the site of his smile and I nodded.
His friends were okay, though I really didn't get to know them considering they'd never met Bell before, thus weren't immune to his idiocy. I swear, he's going to make a living renting himself out to kids parties or something. In retrospect, he did make a great distraction so that eyes weren't focused on Dec and me. Dec and I talked a little; first about Ryder and people in school, and then we drifted off into just nonsense. I liked that he was easy to talk to and I didn't feel like I had to work hard to keep things going.
Most of the rest of my day was spent arguing with him via text. I didn't like the idea of him walking home, there was just too many things that could go wrong—too many people that could make things go wrong. I also managed to spar with Maddy a few more times, but I was starting to enjoy that.
As it turns out, Declan is stubborn and got his way. I resisted the idea to follow him home as it just seemed too stalker-like, even though I was tempted. Instead I made him promise to text me when he got home and then I dropped Bell off at his house before heading to my apartment.
I sat at the kitchen table with my homework and a snack and worked until my dad got home. Mom works retail so her hours aren't very regular, but dad worked in an office and his hours were pretty normal.
“Hi, Dad,” I greeted him and then returned to my work.
“Hi, Corby,” he said. He sounded tired as he crossed the apartment and put his lunch container in the sink. I was startled when he put a hand on my shoulder and sat down with me. “How much homework do you have?”
“Most of it is reading,” I replied. “I did a couple of worksheets and now I just have to get this chapter done and answer the questions about it.”
He leaned back in the chair and undid his tie, pulling it around his neck and dropping it on the table. “You were always good like that, with your homework. I got so lucky with you for a child.”
I glanced up at him, feeling curious at his unprompted praise. “I guess I just got in the habit of doing my homework first, you know? I'm sure you guys must have trained me.”
“Yeah,” he said, and smiled wistfully. “When you started first grade we had little games and practice things for you to do. We told you they were homework and you had to do it because you were a big boy. That was fun.”
I leaned back in my chair and grinned. “I remember that. We always played games so I guess it never bothered me when I was told I had homework.”
He nodded for a moment, lost in memory. I was about to return to my reading when he said, “I'm sorry about this past weekend, Corbin.”
“For what?” I asked and took a sip of my drink.
“Your grandfather,” he replied and then shrugged. “I guess I can't blame you for not coming out to me, given the things I allow him to say.”
“Uh,” I said, smiling at him. “Dad, I didn't even know I could like guys. I still don't really know.”
He cleared his throat and placed his hands on the table and then folded one over the other. “I just want you to know my only concern is that you be safe and happy. No matter who you fall in love with, you'll always have my support.”
I reached out and touched his arm, wondering what set this off. “Dad, I appreciate that but...I already knew that.”
His gaze met my own and he said, his voice shaky, “You did?”
“Of course,” I replied. “You've never said a mean thing to me in my whole life. You've always taken me to games and practices and showed up for school plays and concerts even in the middle of the work day. Trust me, I've seen bad parents—I'm surprised Bell isn't more dysfunctional than he is, considering.”
He nodded and looked down at his hands. “I'm...relieved to hear you feel that way. I don't want our relationship to be like the one I have with my father.”
I let out a slow breath and asked, “Why is he like that?”
His lips twitched, whether with a stifled urge to speak or merely a tick, I don't know. “He was always someone who wanted to be in control as long as I can remember. Even before I knew what a control freak was, I knew my father always had to get his way.
“I think, when I was very young, I just thought that was how it was. As I got older and began to develop a mind of my own, I began to see him through a different lens. It wasn't always a fair view—I think being a teen is an important development step, but it's not the same as being an adult. I was lucky that I had your uncle to lead the way, but he paid a high price for it.”
“I can wait to be an adult,” I said, thinking of my pregnancy scare with Maddy.
“As well you should,” he said with a shake of his head. “It comes for all of us though, Corby. One day you'll move out and you'll have a string of girlfriends or boyfriends, maybe both. Your mom will nag you for grandchildren. Then one day you'll have a husband or wife, maybe only one marriage if you work hard at it and get some luck.”
He paused and looked down at his hands, refolding them. “I'll be here, like my father is now, waiting for my son to call and keep me in his life.”
“Dad, where is this coming from?” I asked in confusion.
He smiled, but there was no humor in it. “I worry, Corbin. My job isn't much and your mom has to work hard. We'd like a house, but something always comes up. I wanted to provide better for my family and no one reminds me of that more than my father. I wanted to give you more, I wanted to give your mother more.”
I got up and hugged him. He seemed surprised, but his arms were soon around me.
“You gave me everything I needed just like this, Dad. I always knew you loved me.”
He sniffled and trembled a bit, but he held me tight none-the-less. When his grip lessened and he began to pat my back awkwardly I let him go and resumed my seat.
He cleared his throat and said, “Your grandfather was a good provider, but he was harsh. Everything had to be up to his standards. I think it's good to have standards, but he was so harsh about it and I never wanted that for you. Just before I went to college, my mother died. She was an alcoholic who, frequently, would be passed out at home on the couch by the time I got in from school.
“After that, my father turned to the bible and religion. He studied it endlessly and began quoting scripture to me when we'd talk. He's been stuck like that since my mom died, just...a broken record.”
“Doesn't he know he's pushing people away?”
He sighed heavily. “Sometimes you do what you do because it's familiar, not because it's right.” He picked up his tie and patted my shoulder before going to his bedroom to change out of his work clothes. Meanwhile, I sat and thought about my jerk of a grandfather and how lucky I was that my dad had learned from his father's mistakes.
Later that evening, just after dinner, I was sitting out in the living room with my family watching TV and texting with Dec when the weird buzz-ding of our doorbell went off. We didn't usually get visitors—Bell lived too far to walk safely and he was my best friend. With a glance at my parents I curiously opened the door.
“Good evening. I'm sorry to disturb you. My name is Detective Hanratty, this is my partner Detective Silva. We're looking for Corbin Daniels.”
“Uh, that's me.”
“This about Declan?” my mom asked, joining me at the door.
“Yes, ma'am. We'd like to get your son's version of events.”
“Well, the last time I let cops in the house they turned out to be strippers,” my mother joked and I groaned inwardly. “But you guys look more serious. Want some coffee?”
“Thank you, ma'am,” said Hanratty as they both entered the apartment. We all gathered around the kitchen table and my mom poured cups of coffee for the cops. Her pot seemed to always be full and always be on—I'm pretty sure she was addicted to the stuff.
Detective Silva pulled out a small notebook while Detective Hanratty placed a recorder on the table.
“So,” Silva said, his tone warm and calming, “A complaint was filed about an attempted rape and we were told you had some information that may help us out. Can you tell us what happened?”
I launched into the story of Delia's party and how I'd gone with a friend who'd left early. I told them about running into Ryder in the kitchen and his come on and how creeped out I'd been. I proceeded to tell them how I'd looked for the bathroom and stumbled on Ryder attempting to rape Declan.
“So you witnessed the accused, Ryder Tipton, trying to anally penetrate the victim, Declan McClain? But he hadn't actually done so?”
“Well, no. Declan was waving his arms a little and saying 'no', but he seemed really out of it.”
“So he was clearly not consenting to sexual contact?”
“No. No way.”
They asked a few more questions and then clicked the recorder off.
“So...is Ryder going to get punished?” I asked.
The detectives glanced at each other and then Hanratty looked at me. “As you know, Declan McClain had a drug in his system. Upon executing a search warrant in conjunction with the questioning and subsequent arrest of Ryder Tipton, we found evidence of illegal drugs and...” he glanced at us uncomfortably before continuing, “we found evidence linking him to a pattern of behavior.”
I locked my hands on front of me, shaking. “Dec wasn't the first.”
“That appears to be the case. Look, son,” Silva said, “we got him. He can't get to your friend anymore. We're tracking down other possible victims but if you hear of anyone who should talk to us, here's my card. Call anytime.”
Shortly afterward the detectives left and I retreated to my room. I glanced down at Declan's texts, mindlessly happy chat for the most part, and realized how much almost got ripped away from him. I felt a wave of exhaustion hit me and I turned in but was unable to fall asleep. I kept seeing Ryder casually telling me he'd loosen Declan up for me as Dec struggled against his own drugged body. I felt rage and sadness and a wave of protective emotion for Declan. It took a while for sleep to claim me.
The rest of the week proceeded much the same as Monday had been, in some ways worse and in some ways better. Maddy continued to be nasty, but she was slowly finding other targets for her attention. There were a few opportunists who gave me some crap, but in general it had died down. I did, however, have an uneasy feeling that the stupidity of the masses could be easily stoked back up to annoying or even dangerous levels with a comment here or a shove there; it was like a lurking disease. Viral Idiotitis, maybe.
Declan continued to do as he pleased and seemed to enjoy my discomfiture. Many times, before I'd meet him for lunch, he'd have his head tucked in close with a friend of his, a dark haired lanky boy and then he'd sit up and smile at me as if I'd had nothing to do with the conversation he'd been having. In a way it was kind of cute, but in another it was very annoying.
I liked Declan and I was reasonably sure I wanted to be with him. If nothing else, I wanted to figure out what my feelings were, exactly, toward the idea of dating a boy. Was it a passing thing? Was it some weird sort of rebound thing? Was it strictly because I'd seen that Dec has a nice ass? Or was it the way he...and that is the problem right there. I was going round and round trying to figure out what to do and Declan seemed to be playing hard to get, now.
Yet, at odds with that, he was always happy to see me and saved the spot next to him for lunch. We talked about a variety of things and I found myself always engaged in whatever we talked about. We haven't kissed or attempted anything physical since that first night—not even hand-holding—yet that hadn't seemed to matter. I still smiled when I saw him and he became adorably awkward for a moment.
We texted pretty frequently, and about dumb things. The TV show we were watching, some dumb joke we'd heard or whatever—we had some truly nonsensical conversations.
Wednesday was a cause for concern and I knew it would be something I'd have to deal with sooner rather than later. Whispers started early, but as I approached the lunch line Bell sidled up to me and began speaking in a low tone, so as not to make a spectacle.
“So I saw Tony Menendez last period. Have you heard, yet?”
“Rumors. What did he say?”
“Jerry Pinman pantsed Declan in gym and slapped his ass in front of everybody. By the time coach got there, he'd quit, but plenty of people saw. I don't know what'll happen but Jerry's been talking about what a sweet ass Declan has.”
“Goddamn it,” I swore. “I'll kill that shit heel.”
Declan was embarrassed and didn't want to talk about it much, which I understood. I agreed to drop it—for now.
Thursday I got home from school and got changed for my shift at work. I grabbed an apple from the fridge and headed to the store, punching in right on time. My boss told me the first of the month was coming so he wanted Nelson and me to overstock the milk, bread and sugar since they always sold in force at that time.
Nelson and I decided to start with the milk and, after taking a count of what would fit versus what was simply needed, we began loading up a U-boat with crates of milk.
“So how's things?” Nelson asked.
“Good,” I replied. “You?”
Nelson rolled his eyes. “Krista's become Katie McClain's best friend, all of a sudden.”
“Why? That's a bad thing?”
Nelson's breath plumed in the cold dairy cooler as he lifted the milk crates two at a time and stacked them.
“It's your fault, actually.”
“Sorry?” I asked, pausing. Nelson stopped too and looked at me, his lips quirking into a smile.
“I guess Dec really dressed his sister down for outing him, so she's acting totally strange.”
“Like what?” I asked, glancing at our filled U-boat and starting to push it out of the cooler.
“Well, like he told her to butt out of his business, so she's trying not to piss him off more—but she's worried about the mess she made for him.”
“Yeah, that's nice of her—now. Where was her concern when—okay!” I said, putting up a hand. “I know, hindsight and all that.”
“Yep,” Nelson replied. “Anyway, she's trying to watch out for him without him knowing, so she has to be discreet.”
Parking the U-boat in front of the dairy cooler we started to put the milk on the shelf. “And?” I asked.
“Well, Krista knows you and I talk. Katie knows it, too, since Krista was telling her what happened last weekend while they were both at that cheer leading competition.”
“You mean,” I said as I puffed from moving the gallons of milk. “You were telling Krista that Dec was at my house?”
“Yep,” he said and then continued, “and that you guys were together.”
“Wait, what?” I asked, dropping a gallon whose top ruptured and milk fountained up. It wobbled for the slimmest of moments before tipping over and spreading a white pool on the floor. Growling I righted the container and glared at Nelson. “You told her what, now?”
Nelson turned to face me, his face relaxed. “I told her you were looking out for him and that, maybe, you guys were good for each other.”
“Why...” I put my hand on my forehead. “Why would you say that?”
“From our conversations, that's why. What's wrong?”
“I need to get a mop,” I said and walked away from him and into the backroom. He was right, of course, to ask what was wrong. What was wrong? I turned it over in my head and let some of my frustration boil to the surface, which was a bit of a surprise since I hadn't realized I was frustrated. I pushed the mop bucket out on the sales floor, it squeakily announcing my presence, and rejoined Nelson in front of the dairy cooler.
“Sorry, Corb,” he said with a grimace. “When we talked last, it seemed like you were headed to dating, you know?”
I sighed as I started to clean the mess. “No, I'm sorry. It's not your fault, Nels.”
He paused and put a gallon on the shelf. “Is everything going okay?”
I plopped the mop into the bucket and wrung it out. I stopped and looked up at him and said, “I'll be fucked if I know, Nels. It's almost like he's waiting for something or...something. We're talking about a lot of stuff, but not...us. I guess I'm not sure what do to about it. Plus there's that Jerry Pinman douche nozzle to deal with, somehow.”
He nodded and started to stack up the empty milk crates. Placing a hand on my shoulder he said, “You know, I know someone you could talk to that might help.”
I looked up at him curiously. “Help? How? Who?”
Dropping his arm and taking hold of the U-boat he said, “You remember me talking about my needle dick cousin?”
“Needle dick? Nice, Nels,” I said, chuckling.
He shrugged and grinned. “I prefer thistle dick, but so few people seem to know what a thistle is.”
I chuckled and started pushing the bucket to the backroom; he pushed the empty crates along beside me. “What happened to weapons grade douche bag?”
“It's a little unwieldy, even if it does get the point across. Anyway,” he said as we cleared the swinging doors into the backroom, “he was seeing this kid, Noel. He could probably tell you everything not to do, and point out some things you ought to be doing.”
I paused and looked at him as he parked the U-boat with its load of empty crates. “I'm not trying to abuse Declan, Nels. Why would you tell me to talk to someone who got taken advantage of?”
Nelson stopped and I did as well. Facing me he said, very seriously, “I think Lyle got away with it because no one had Noels' back. I could be wrong; I don't know the boy. If Dec has some good friends, maybe they are telling him to cool it. Noel and Lyle are the perfect example of a cautionary tale,” he said. He tilted his head at me in emphasis and then resumed our trek.
“I don't see how that applies to me, though.”
Nelson paused and, not looking at me, said, “Back when Lyle and I still got on okay, he had nice things to say about Noel. After a bit, he stopped saying nice things and I knew they were seeing each other. What I didn't know...well, what I suspect is that the age and grade difference gave Lyle and undeserved sense of being superior. I think that led to how he used Noel.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “I don't know this Noel kid. Why would he talk to me?”
Nelson looked at me seriously. “He seems like he's in a better place, now. I think, given the chance to help someone avoid making mistakes—mistakes that hurt him, even if you didn't intend to hurt someone—well, I think he'd welcome the chance.”
I paused and said, thoughtfully, “I'll think about it.”
We worked the rest of our shift amiably, steering away from heavier topics. I suppose it would be natural for an older sibling, like Declan's sister, to be trying to look out for him. I was a little annoyed that Nelson was feeding her information, but on the other hand I was sure Nels was saying positive things.
I clocked out and headed home to have dinner and get my homework done. Mom had cooked and she warmed a plate up for me while I spread my books out on the table.
“Good,” I replied. “I don't have a lot of homework, but my bag is a mess,” I replied as I weeded through the papers and notebooks I'd pulled out.
“How's Declan?” she asked, faking a casual tone and taking an exaggerated look at her fingernails.
I fixed her with a look. “Why? Do you miss him?”
She grinned at me. “You know what? I do. He's was cute!”
I cleared my throat. “Would you like me to get you a date or would his number be enough?”
Her eyebrow bounced in amusement. “Very good, Corby.”
I put my stacked notebooks back into my bag while my mother grabbed my plate from the microwave. “He's fine, by the way.”
“You looking out for him?”
“I try, but he's stubborn,” I said with a grunt.
“Well, stubborn about what?” she asked as I started to eat. As I chewed she started to sift through the forms from my bag, looking for anything that might be important.
“Everything,” I said, finally. “I wanted to drive him to and from school, but he says no. He thinks people will give me a hard time or something and he's driving me nuts.”
“Well,” she said, dropping the paper in her hand. “It sounds like he's got a spine, anyway. He can stand up for himself. Has anyone hassled him outside of school?”
“Not that he's told me,” I said, hedging. I didn't want to tell her about Jerry, for some reason. Besides, it had happened at school and not outside of it.
“Huh. Well have you guys talked about you guys getting together?”
I paused for a moment. “Not so much, no.”
“Well, that's a shame,” she said and levered herself up out of the chair. “I liked him. He was a lot nicer than that Maddy trash.”
“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully, as I wondered why he and I hadn't talked about us. I mean like a relationship us.
“You seem for this...thing,” I said. “Isn't it weird for you that I was dating a girl a week ago and now Dec is sort of in the picture?”
“I don't know, is it weird for you, Corby?”
I shrugged. “A little, I guess. I'm trying to figure it out.”
She leaned against the counter and smirked. “Well, it's like this Corb. When a boy likes a boy—”
“Stop!” I exclaimed, putting my hand up. “The talk you gave me about girls is probably holding me back as it is!”
She laughed, then half turned as if to go, but paused and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Corby, the whole point of being a good parent is letting you figure out what you feel instead of trying to tell you what you should feel. If you like Declan then that's great. If you end up liking some new girl, that's great, too. The important part is that you be happy and safe; happiness is all your dad and I ever wanted for you.”
Friday morning I woke up a little late and was hustling around the apartment to get ready on time. I waved a hand to my dad, who was distracted with a phone call that had him frowning a lot, and I dashed out the door. Ten minutes later I picked up Bell and we were on our way.
“So, Corb, I know you and I usually cuddle on your couch with a movie on Saturday nights,” Bell started and I snorted in laughter.
“Bell, you cuddle. I tolerate.”
“Details,” he sniffed and waived his hand. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I can cuddle tonight, but I have a date tomorrow with Ashley—”
I turned my head toward him. “Ashley? Ashley who?”
“Ashley...shit. I don't know her last name,” Bell said, shaking his head and frowning.
I burst out laughing. “Dude, you have a date and didn't get her last name? Classic!”
“It just hasn't come up!” he insisted, laughing with me. “Anyway, she was that chick I met at the party, right? So we're going out tomorrow.”
“That's great, Bell,” I said though my snickers.
“Hey, you want to bring your boy and make it a double date? That way if she won't cuddle, I can have you as back up.”
“Fuck you,” I said, laughing. “I won't be your second choice!”
“Corb!” he said, his voice stricken. “You know you're my main squeeze, bro!”
“Fuck that!” I said, continuing to laugh. Nobody makes me laugh like Bell.
After parking we climbed out of the car and, thinking of my conversation with Nelson, I asked Bell if he knew anyone named Noel.
“Noel Robideau,” he said, nodding his head. “He's in our grade.”
“He is?” I asked.
“Yup. He dated that guy...uh.” He paused, his face contorting as he tried to recall.
“Lyle?” I asked.
“Yes! Lyle Henderson.”
I thought for a moment but couldn't, for the life of me, think of what Noel looked like. “How do you know this guy and I don't?”
“I don't know him,” Bell clarified as he opened the door to the school. “I just know who he is.” He paused, “I heard Lyle was a real asshole to him.”
“Yeah,” I said as I passed through the doorway, “Nelson said as much.”
“Why you asking about Noel?”
I shrugged. “Things are kind of at a stop with Dec and, since he's a year behind me, Nelson said I might want to talk to Noel. Kind of, make sure I don't screw things up.”
“That's fucked up, Corb,” Bell said, coming to a sudden stop. “You'd never use someone like Lyle did to Noel. I heard a lot of stuff, man. Jerry Pinman has said all kinds of things.”
I turned to face him and said, “It's not how Nelson meant it, Bell. It actually made sense, after I thought about it—even though I took it the way you did, at first. Every time we go to lunch, Dec has about ten friends at his table, right?”
“So, if he's talking to them or getting advice, who knows what they're telling him, right? Someone might be saying, 'be careful, upperclassmen just want to fuck your ass.'”
Bell gave me a confused look. “But, don't you just want to fuck—don't hit me!” he said, laughing and skipping away from me as I tried to swat him.
Bell and I went our separate ways, and I didn't see him again until we were in line for lunch. He sidled up to me and said, in a very strange voice, “For a hamburger today I will gladly point out Noel to you today instead of next Tuesday.”
I just looked at him with, I'm sure, a confused look on my face.
“Corb. Lunch and I'll point out Noel. I already saw him with his boyfriend.”
“Why do I have to buy your lunch in order for you to help me out?”
“Because then I'm not mooching off you,” he replied and smiled. His smile was a little uncertain, though, and I didn't know what that meant.
“You don't have to trade me, I'd buy lunch anyway,” I said, turning to shuffle forward in the line. He touched my arm and I glanced at him.
“Let a guy have a little self-respect, huh? I don't like asking you.”
“What's the matter with you?” I asked.
He didn't answer, though, and just moved over to the doorway where I'd emerge with our lunch. I thought about that as I waited my turn, the whole exchange tumbling around in my head. I knew Bell didn't have money—his folks were absolute shit. They couldn't even be bothered to fill out the forms for free lunch for Bell. They lived close to town, if you drove, but otherwise the walk was pretty far and not near a business where Bell could get a job.
He'd tried a few times, but those twisty country roads you have to take to get to his trailer park have no lights and no sidewalks. Walking them is pretty dangerous, especially at night. Bell was also about the most loyal friend I could ask for, so I didn't have a problem covering him. Although, I did wonder how he was going to afford the movies Saturday. And how he was getting there. Shit, was that why he'd asked me to double with him?
Emerging with our food I scowled at him. “You better not send me to the wrong guy, Bell.”
“Hey! Honest trade,” he said with a trace of his old grin. “A hamburger and I point you to Noel Robideau. That's the deal.”
“There better not be two Noel Robideau's,” I growled as I handed him a tray.
He grinned at me and pointed to a table with two boys eating lunch and talking to each other. I made my way over and studied them as I did, just to see if I recognized either. One was blond with a nice smile and, as I got closer, brown eyes. He didn't look like anyone I'd ever seen. The other guy, though, looked familiar—I may have even had a few classes with him. He had light brown hair and dark green eyes and was raptly listening to the other guy.
I cleared my throat. “Um, Noel?”
They both turned to look at me, the blond falling silent. The other one, with the light brown hair, answered.
“My name is Corbin Daniels and I was hoping to talk to you for a minute.”
They exchanged glances and then the blond asked, “Talk about what?”
I glanced down at the table and back up at them. “Mind if I sit? I feel a little stupid standing here.”
They glanced at each other again, and once more the blond took charge and nodded to me. I sat and glanced at them both before focusing on Noel.
“You know Nelson Salisbury?”
“I...do.” Noel frowned slightly and glanced at his boyfriend.
“What is this about?” the blond asked and I glanced at him and paused.
The blond was acting like a gatekeeper or a protector. It didn't take a genius to figure the dynamic, here. It figured that Noel had been hurt badly by his relationship with Lyle. If I wanted to talk to him, I should negotiate with his boyfriend.
Focusing on the blond I said, “Nels is a friend of mine and he told me Noel might be able to give me some advice about a relationship problem I'm having.”
They glanced at each other again and Noel slowly faced me. “What makes you—or he—think I can help?”
“Well, it's like this,” I said and explained about how I met Declan, how we'd spent some time together—without going into descriptive detail—and the current situation. Wrapping up I said, “So my situation isn't like yours was and it won't be, but...maybe you have some idea what's going on. I've never dated someone in a lower grade and...” I shrugged.
Noel sat back and appeared to be deep in thought. Some of that thought must have been close to the surface because his emotions would rear up, periodically, and manifest in his expression. His boyfriend reached out and took his hand, but remained silent.
Noel turned to his boyfriend and said, “He's the one Leigh's been talking about.”
“Yeah, sounds that way,” the boyfriend replied.
“I'm sorry, who is Leigh?”
The blond answered, turning to face me but keeping Noel's hand in his. “He's my cousin, Leighton Monroe. He's friends with Declan McClain.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Kind of a skinny guy, dark hair, blue eyes?”
“Add smart mouth and you've got Leigh,” Noel said. With a deep sigh he said, “Look, your situation isn't like mine was. I don't know what you want from Declan, and frankly being friends with my ex's cousin doesn't make me want to trust you. The only reason I'm not just telling you to leave is I heard about Declan's story and your part in it.”
I bristled inside, but held my tone even. “Nelson hates his cousin for what he did to you. He's also been nothing but supportive to me while I try to figure this out.” I held a hand up to forestall a reply and said, “This isn't really about Nels or Lyle, though. I care about Dec. If I wanted to just have sex, I could have done it already. I didn't. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on and Dec isn't exactly being clear.”
They looked at each other again and, this time, the boyfriend responded to me. “Leigh was pretty upset when he found out how poorly Noel, here, was treated. As far as he's concerned, Noel is amazing.”
Noel scoffed but this boyfriend simply gave him a crooked smile and resumed. “He is amazing, but more to the point, Leigh had a crush on him and Noel let him down easy—but Leigh really took Noel's past to heart and he's learned from it. I think he's trying to protect Declan.”
“Okay, I can understand that,” I said, nodding. But, as I turned that idea over a new one occurred to me and caused me to snap my jaw shut.
“What?” Noel asked, leaning forward suddenly. “Don't pretend it was nothing, either.”
I pursed my lips and folded my hands together on the table. Looking from one to the other I spoke slowly as the idea solidified in my head. “Look, you don't know me and obviously don't trust me. Given your experience,” I nodded to Noel, “ I don't blame you. If half of what Jerry Pinman opens his fat gob about is factual, then I'm impressed you're strong enough to have a boyfriend again.”
Mentioning Jerry made them both tighten their posture, but I moved forward deciding to gamble on them being decent guys.
“Like I said, I can understand Leigh wanting to protect a friend when he knows someone...someone he cares about, and what they went through. I get not wanting to let that happen to someone else. But...what if Leigh has his eye on Declan?”
The boyfriend's face split wide in a grin. “Leigh has his eye on everyone, for at least a few minutes,” he said before laughing. Noel chuckled, but settled down reasonably quickly.
“What Chris means,” he said, nodding to his boyfriend, “is that Leigh would have already made his interest known to whomever it might be. Honestly, he's been interested in so many people, I couldn't say if Declan was ever on his list or not.”
“When you say people...” I said, trailing off expectantly.
“Human about covers it,” Chris replied, chuckling. “But, now that you mention it, I don't think there is anything there. In fact, I seem to recall...what was it Leigh was saying the other day?”
“I don't know. I block him out, sometimes,” Noel said, and shrugged. There was a smile playing about his lips and Chris pushed him, eliciting a wider smile. The smile changed him from a grumpy, standoffish kind of guy to a...well, he was pleasant to look at.
Chris turned toward me again and said, “I'm pretty sure Leigh was telling him that you had to commit or something, first. Like, actually tell Dec you wanted to date. Otherwise, maybe you're just trying to experiment and...I think Dec kind of likes you. At least, I think that's what he said.”
“It is,” Noel said, soberly. Leaning forward he said, “Look. Declan seems like a nice kid, what I know of him. You seem okay. What do you really want me to say to you?”
I sighed. “Honestly? I don't know. I'm not Lyle Henderson and I don't want to be. I just...” I shook my head. “I want to see where this is going and I wondered, from the perspective of the younger...half, what can I...what did you want?”
Noel leaned back and chewed his lip for a moment. He glanced at Chris and then back at me. He reached, slowly, and took Chris's hand.
“When Lyle asked me out, I was excited because it was an older guy. A senior. I didn't listen when some people warned me what could happen. I shut my friends out, sure I was making the right decision.” He paused and closed his eyes. “I wanted,” he said, his voice dropping and becoming difficult to hear. “I wanted what I have, now. I wanted the romance and the kindness.” He paused again, sniffling and opening his eyes, now damp. He glanced at Chris, whose other hand settled on top of Noel's, sandwiching it.
“I wanted hand holding and cuddling and someone I could talk to. I didn't want someone who'd take every first time away from me and leave me with nothing but bad memories of how sex and intimacy were supposed to work.
Turning his gaze to me he said, “I don't know if that helps you at all. Treat him right is the best I can say, but never forget...” he leaned forward, “you have power over him. You're older, stronger and he's going need to feel equal.”
I nodded slowly. “I think I understand. Thank you. I...I'm sorry I upset you.”
“You didn't,” Noel said, wiping his eyes with his free hand. “Lyle doesn't own me, anymore. It still hurts, but that's on me. I hope you and Declan work out better.”
I stood slowly and, on impulse, said, “Hey, Noel, if I need someone to talk to about this...can I call you? Or you, Chris?”
Chris smiled widely and looked at Noel, whose expression I couldn't read.
“Yeah. You can call,” Noel said.
I pulled out my phone and texted Chris at the number he recited to me and he sent me back their numbers and, after thanking them again, I headed on to my afternoon classes and wondering how to work all this out with Declan.
Dec was texting me the rest of the day. He wanted to know what happened to me at lunch and I only told him I'd made a couple of new friends, but left it at that. We chatted, but he kept circling back to ask about these new friends and I found myself reluctant to say who they'd been. Also I was enjoying teasing him by not saying anything; it felt like payback for him being so squirrely the last week or so. As I walked to my car after school I wondered if telling him I'd spoken to Noel would elicit any kind of reaction from him; would it mean anything to him? And if so, what? He must have heard the things Pinman was saying and, of course, Leigh was his friend so...
“Compadre!” Bell exclaimed and threw his arm over my shoulders. “How did your chat with Noel go?”
“Compadre? Aren't you taking German?”
“Ja vol!” he said.
“What's got you so excited?”
“You first. How'd your meet and greet go?”
We climbed in the car and I started to back out. “It was cool,” I said. We queued up with the other cars waiting to exit the lot. Bell nudged me and I raised an eyebrow at him.
I chuckled. “I liked them both, actually. After meeting Noel and seeing the...bond he and Chris have—”
“His boyfriend,” I clarified. “You can tell they are close. Noel was pretty cautious but I got a good vibe from him.” I frowned. “Actually, after meeting him I really, really hate Jerry Pinman. Someone needs to kick his ass, pronto.”
We finally got to the head of the line and moved through the intersection and I pointed the car in the direction of Bell's home.
“Corb, you trying to get rid of me?” he said, taking a hurt tone.
“Aren't we hanging out tonight?”
“Oh! Right, I was thinking about Noel and Pinman; got distracted there.”
Once we got turned around I remembered that Bell had insisted I go first about our chat and his excitement. “So, what had you all wound up?”
Bell grinned and said, “This is going to sound corny, but you know you're the best friend ever, right?”
I looked at him in amusement.
“I'm serious. Out of the whole fucking school, you're my only friend.”
I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. “Uh, Bell, you have—”
“No, Corb. I don't.” I glanced at him as I drove and he flashed me a weak smile. “I talk to a lot of folks; I know a lot of folks. I'm friendly with them, but none of them are my friend, not really. That's important, you know?”
I glanced back and forth between the road and Bells' face, wondering if he was pranking me again. But, no, he was being very sincere.
“Yeah, man. It's important.”
He nodded. “That's why I wanted to know if you liked Noel before I talked to you. I mean, I was pretty sure, but still.”
“Why does it matter if I liked Noel?”
“Dude...that date I have tomorrow?”
“With that chick, um, Ashley?”
“Yeah. Um. Ashley is a guy.”
It took me a beat and then a double take. “Ashley is a guy? You're going on a date with a guy?”
His eyes narrowed and a sickly smile winked on and off his face so quickly it might never have been there at all.
“I don't get it. You're gay?”
He nodded slowly. I pulled into the complex parking lot and into a space. Shutting off the car I turned to face Bell and held my hands out. “I had no idea. What's up with that?”
“I...well, it's like this, Corb,” he said. He rubbed his hands on his jeans and wet his lips before continuing, “If you have something important, you don't risk it unless you're completely sure you won't lose it. I know you're a good guy, you've shown me in a lot of little ways that no one else ever did.”
“Like what?” I asked, confused.
“Like never calling me trailer trash, for instance.”
“I've called you that, Bell,” I said, my tone deadpan.
“Yeah,” he agreed and a weak smile took hold. “But you didn't mean it. Not like others do. Um, you never leave me behind – rides to school, parties, dates. Who does that except someone that actually, you know, gives a shit?”
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable again, like I did at lunch with his statements about letting him keep some honor or dignity or something.
“Bell...it's no big deal.”
He shook his head. “Maybe not for you. But, I don't see you doing that for anyone else, either.”
“Duh! That's because you're my friend!” I said, laughing.
“That's what I mean!” he exclaimed and threw his hands up in the air. “You're a real friend, not like...Facebook friends. Being a friend actually means something to you. It means something to me, too.” His voice trailed off and he glanced away, looking out the window.
“I just couldn't risk it, Corb,” he interjected. “It's not that I thought you'd reject me, not really. But...the idea was pretty scary. I mean,” he said, turning to face me. “I guess I'd understand if you were pissed about that, me being chicken. But I hope you understand, too...you're all I got, man.”
“I'm not mad,” I said, shaking my head. “But I have to ask, what with this thing coming up between me and Dec...did you, you know...like me?”
“Aww, Corb,” he said, his voice taking on a playful tone. He punched me lightly and said, “You'll always be number one in my beat-off parade.”
I snapped my gaze to him and my mouth dropped open. He, the bastard, laughed.
“Dude! I can honestly say you're family. All my affection is strictly brotherly.”
I lifted an eyebrow.
“Okay, okay, mostly brotherly.”
“Are we talking incest here?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Bell asked, a devilish grin on his face.
“No. Whatever you're about to say, keep it to yourself. Twisted bastard.”
He just laughed, but it was the kind filled with relief. Like I would, what, reject him? I really hoped he didn't think that about me.
Entering my apartment we toed off our sneakers by the door and hung up our bags up in my room. Other than some studying to do this weekend I had no homework so I grabbed a snack for us and we stretched out on the couch and turned on the TV. Some court TV show was on and Bell and I were making fun of the people and messing with our phones and generally screwing around, but even then my mind was wandering. I had Declan on the brain.
I let my phone fall on my chest and stared at the ceiling and did some serious thinking about who I was. Was Bell being completely honest when it came to coming out to me? I thought about Maddy—and any other girl I'd dated—and tried to compare how I felt about them with how I felt about Dec. It's true that my feelings for Declan had snuck up on me and I wrestled with the idea that he'd just been a warm, receptive body in my bed. That wasn't strictly true, even though it must have played a part.
I could recall the tight feeling in my chest each time I'd discovered I'd liked a girl, the nervous excitement of asking her out and the way I felt for a little while as we'd date. Those things always faded and the relationship drifted away. With Maddy, it had been more premeditated—I had a solid idea she'd put out and she wasn't bad looking. Unfortunately, she wasn't a nice person and we really weren't all that compatible.
Declan had a lot of qualities I liked beyond the physical things we'd done. He was a funny guy and could carry a conversation with me. He had the ability to be cute without trying very hard and I enjoyed just spending time with him. Whenever we were hanging out, it was cool. And Bell...
I glanced over at Bell, who was texting and watching the screen. I tried to picture him in Dec's clothes, but it did nothing for me; he was my friend, my best friend but not...I liked Dec. I thought of Noel and Chris and felt a twitch in my belly, more for Noel. But was that pity or actual attraction? I was just so confused.
That was the state of us both when my parents arrived home. Dad was early and I hadn't looked at Mom's schedule to see when she'd be home, but they were both unexpected.
“Hi,” I called out from the couch and waved.
My parents greeted me and my mother, after shedding her work clothes for more casual attire, leaned against the couch and nudged Bell. “Hey.”
“Hi,” he said, smiling back at her.
“You're different today. You get laid or something?”
“Pretty close!” he said enthusiastically and sat up.
“Oh? It's about time. It's not with Corby, is it? I'll be pissed if he doesn't bring Declan around for a visit.”
“Nice, Mom,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I'll just let Dec know he can stop by and see you anytime.”
“Well, then I can tell him to ask you out so you'll quit moping.” Turning from me she smiled down at Bell. “So, you luscious tramp, who is it?”
“Name's Ashley. Goes to North Ridge Catholic.”
“Oh? You got a repressed one?”
My head snapped up and my eyes narrowed.
“I'm sure going to find out!” Bell cackled and my mother joined him. I looked back and forth between them, thoughts percolating in my mind. My mother turned her gaze toward me, too casually and smirked.
“Just putting everything together, Corby?”
“Seriously?” I said, looking at each of them in turn. “You told my mom before me? You wound me, Bell.”
“Now, it's not all his fault,” my mother said, waving her hand dismissively. “I tricked him.”
Bell grinned bashfully and said, “We were out at the mall—before you had your license. I was, um, checking this guy out and your mom leaned and and said I had good taste.” He shrugged and said, “Busted.”
“Jeez. I must be thick to never have figured it out, I guess.”
“Well, your mother is always two steps ahead of you, Corby,” she said, leaning in and pointing at me. “Don't you forget it.”
“Oh, ha,” I replied with a snort.
“They'll be here in thirty minutes. What do you want me to do?” my father asked, coming back into the room.
“Well, there's chicken defrosted in the fridge. I can start that if you want to chop up the onions and peppers,” she said, starting for the kitchen. I popped up and trailed them across the room.
“Who's coming over?”
“Your Uncle Ray and your cousin, Grayson.”
“Oh. Kind of out of the blue,” I remarked.
“Yes,” my father said, frowning. He began to chop the vegetables with fervor.
Placing the knife down flat, my father turned and leaned against the counter. “Your grandfather is under the impression that Ray will 'straighten out' the problems over here. 'Lead us to the light' were his words.”
“Ray?” my mother asked, snorting. “He couldn't lead lemmings off a cliff.”
“I'm Ray Daniels and I'm gonna save your soul! Can I get an amen?” Bell said in his best tent revival voice.
“Ray Anderson, actually,” my father replied, chuckling. “Ray is my half-brother from a previous marriage.”
“What happened to his mom?” I asked.
“Divorced.” My dad raised a mocking finger at me, as he turned to resume mutilating the vegetables. “But it's not a sin because your grandfather is born again so, toss all that shit out.”
“Mmm,” Bell said, inhaling deeply. “I just love the smell of hypocrisy in the...um...afternoon.”
“Wait, though,” I said, speaking slowly as I thought it through. “Does that mean his name should really be Daniels, then?”
“Nope, she came into the marriage with him. When they divorced, somehow, Ray was left behind. At least, that's what I remember,” my father said, his voice trailing off as he seemed to slide into thought.
We set about helping my folks get ready for our holy intervention. I honestly don't know why my dad was putting up with it, but I decided not to ask. After our talk the previous day, he clearly felt he had some shortcomings and I didn't want to look like I was ganging up on him. Soon the house was filled with the four of us moving around and the smell of good cooking filled the air. Forty-five minutes later, our guests knocked on the door.
Greetings were stiff. My uncle was a hypocrite, just like Gramp. He was supposed to be religious but he, too, had been divorced. The depth of his insincerity, though, really came to light once we'd all sat down for dinner.
“So, Don, you got the call from Dad this morning?” Ray asked my dad. The rest of us passed serving dishes around and listened as the meaning for his visit unfolded.
“Well, I'm just here to say I was here, okay? The old man rides my ass as much as he does yours and I couldn't care less that Corbin fagged off.”
I glared at Ray, who was oblivious to me.
“Frankly, I avoid the guy and pay him lip service when I have to talk to him. I tell him I go to church, date nice Christian women and Jesus saves, hallelujah, amen and pass the peas, please.” Ray leaned back and drummed his fingers as he looked at his younger brother who chewed with casual disinterest.
“Dad,” Grayson said and then waited for his father to turn his head slightly in acknowledgment that he'd spoken. “I don't like it when you use that term. Stop it, please.”
An insincere smile crossed Ray's face and he turned back toward my dad. “Grayson's got himself a boyfriend, too. Looks like it's in the genes or something, Don.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Old man hasn't seen my ex or his grandson since the divorce so he doesn't know. I certainly don't want to hear it from him so what say we not tell the old fucker, eh?”
“Well, you could do that, Ray,” my mother said. “But wouldn't it be more fun to invite him to the wedding?”
Ray was already shaking his head. “I don't want to antagonize him. After everything I've dealt with from him, I'm just trying to stay in the will. You know?”
I glanced at Grayson who seemed as uncomfortable as I felt at his father's naked greed. I felt bad for him, even though we saw one another rarely. So far he seemed like a nice kid with a dick for a dad.
“Know what I get when my folks die?” Bell asked. “A trailer full of beer bottles and cigarette butts. I'm hoping that, between the bottle returns and the aluminum value when I scrap the trailer—if they even own it—I can get some therapy. Or some really good meds. Aw, screw it.” He laughed and dropped a hand on my shoulder, “How about we spend it on hookers and blow? Or maybe one hooker and some pop-rocks?”
Grayson snorted and I began to laugh. Slowly the room dissolved into laughter, except my uncle Ray—and I think that is the last time I'll ever acknowledge being related in any way to the guy.
Ray glanced at his watch. “Well, next time I get stuck on the phone with the old man, I'll tell him we talked. Meantime, do you guys mind keeping Gray tonight? I have a date in about thirty minutes,” he said, sliding his chair back and standing.
“Wait, what?” Gray asked. “Dad! I haven't seen you in months!”
Sparing a glance at his son he said, “And we'll hang out tomorrow, buddy. Tonight, daddy has a hot date.” He looked down at my dad, who seemed primed to tell Ray 'no', and maybe he should have—but I opened my mouth first.
“Cool. I'm looking forward to hanging with you, Gray,” I said. Grayson turned his attention to me and a puzzled look crossed his features.
“Great! I'll call tomorrow before you drop him off, okay?” Ray said, looking at his phone and then exiting the apartment.
“Well, that settles it,” my mother said, taking a bite of food and chewing as she glanced at all of us. “Don, you got the only decent genes your father ever passed on.”
Grayson looked a little lost and I felt sorry for him. Ray was a dickhead at best, and even though I didn't know Grayson well, my heart went out to him. “So you have a boyfriend?” I asked.
He turned his gaze to mine, trying to keep his features neutral but also assessing me, no doubt.
“Have a picture?” I asked as I fished my phone out. “I'm trying to date this guy, Declan. Here he is.” I handed my phone over with a picture of a smiling Declan on the screen.
The corner of Gray's mouth turned up and, as he returned the phone, he said, “He's nice looking.”
“Do you have a picture of your boyfriend?”
“Um, yeah,” he said and pulled his own phone out. “Here's a Vine he made of him playing basketball.” With that he handed me his phone and I watched the short video—a Vine is only six seconds— of a guy of average height with thick chestnut hair throwing up a decent shot.
“Can't really see him,” I remarked as I handed it back. “Looks like the camera was more on the shot and, at six seconds, not a lot to see.”
“Yeah, true,” he said and frowned down at his phone. He sent a text and then put his phone on the table.
“I feel left out,” Bell moaned. At my inquisitive look he shrugged and said, “I don't have a picture of Ashley. Well, ahem...not any I can share here. Hit me up later.”
“Jesus,” my father muttered as he covered his mouth. “Is this what the boudoir photo has become?”
“I know,” my mom said with a grin. “It's the fall of Western society.” Turning to Bell she said, “Find me a PG one. I want to see this repressed Catholic boy.”
“You're gay, too?” Grayson asked Bell, finding his voice.
“Yeah. Told my best friend today, too.”
“How'd he take it?” Gray asked.
“I was a little hurt my mother figured it out first,” I said dryly.
Gray looked at us uncertainly. “So...huh?”
“Bell's a conundrum.”
“Yep! Safety first, that's my motto.” Bell smiled widely and I smacked my forehead while the rest of the table chuckled at his antics. I swear, in some ways, he was more likely to have been my mother's child than I was.
“So, no offense Gray, but I don't like Ray,” I said to my dad.
He chewed in silence for a few moments, swallowed and said, “Well, I don't blame you. Grayson...you haven't seen him in months? Really?”
Gray's phone buzzed, but he turned toward my dad and said, “Yeah. I haven't seen him much since the divorce. Mom says he's busy with work and...you know.” He glanced down at his phone, perhaps embarrassed. Tapping it, he turned the screen and slid it across to me.
“That's Logan. I just asked him to take a selfie.”
I glanced down and Bell looked over my shoulder. Looking up from the screen was a pleasant face with an easy smile and bare shoulders.
“He's cute,” I said, glancing back to Gray.
“Nice ass,” Bell commented.
“What?” Gray and I asked in unison. Bell pointed on the screen and I looked again.
“There's a mirror behind him. He's got a nice butt.”
Sure enough, there it was. Blushing I slid the phone back to Grayson. “I, um, guess he just got out of the shower. Or something.”
“Tell him I give him a nine point three. I could go higher if he flexes,” Bell commented before continuing his meal. Gray, taking his phone back, looked down at the image and blushed harder. A smile, though, was trying to spread on his face. He texted and then resumed his meal as well.
“Well, I'm glad your dad left you with us. I'm even happier he decided to leave early,” my mother said and then cackled.
“It's still his dad, dear,” my dad chided her, gently.
“It's okay,” Grayson said with a sigh. “I guess I kind of knew the sort of guy he is. For a little while I thought that...” he wet his lips and glanced around at us. “I guess I thought maybe he left because I'd come out.”
“I'd have thrown you a damn party,” my mom said with a snort.
“Hey! I didn't get a party!” Bell complained.
“That's because it was a secret!” my mom said, whispering the last word. A ripple of laughter went around the table.
“I didn't get one, either,” I said.
“Just washing your guys used underwear doesn't constitute coming out. It constitutes some kind of sex, maybe, but not coming out.”
I dropped my fork and stared at her. “What?”
“Yeah, what?” Bell asked, grinning widely.
“I'm curious,” my mother said, tapping her fork on her plate and smiling devilishly. “Did you loan him underwear to go home in or did he have to go commando?”
I stared at her. She didn't blink, but her lips curled. Damn it. “I loaned him a pair.”
“Corb, you only loan when you get them back,” she said.
“Mom!” I exclaimed. “How do you think I'm going to lure him on a date? I'm just going to mention I'd like my underwear back and maybe he could trade them to me at the movies. Isn't it obvious?”
She burst out laughing and I waited for her to stop.
“Seriously, though. Not really cool, Mom.”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” she said with a sigh. “It's in my contract, though.”
The table fell into silence, at least until Grayson walked into my mom's trap. “Contract?”
My mother smiled brightly, “Yep. A parent has unlimited rights to embarrass their children. Don't worry, you're in my house. I'll get you, too, cutie pie.”
Grayson just stared back, wide-eyed.
After dinner my dad settled in front of the TV and we guys retreated to my room. I flipped on the game console and we took turns playing, texting on our phones and just kind of bullshitting. I wanted to get to know Grayson and I was intensely curious since he had a boyfriend. I mean, does dating work differently with two guys rather than a guy and girl? Do you do the same things? Did he have any wisdom he could pass on to me that might help with this situation with Declan I found myself floundering in?
“So, how long you been dating your boyfriend?” I asked.
“About six months,” Gray replied as he leaned over to one side, tilting as he tried to edge his character on screen over with his body language.
“What do you guys...you know, do?”
“I bet it has something to do with that fine butt,” Bell snickered.
“That's cheating!” Gray groaned as his character died and Bell lifted his fists in victory.
“Bell, chill,” I said. Turning my attention back to Gray I changed tacks to a question with less of a double meaning. “Did he ask you out first or did you? How'd you know he was into you?”
Gray set down his controller and gave me an odd look. “Haven't you asked...what was his name? Dillon?”
“Declan, sorry. You haven't asked him out?”
“Uh, no. It's kind of...” I sighed and rocked my head from side to side. “See, I broke up with a girl recently. Declan ended up staying over by chance and, well, stuff happened. Kind of threw me for a loop. Still trying to get a handle on everything, you know?”
“Totally,” Gray said and pushed himself off the floor and stretched. “From Logan's end—that's my boyfriend—he dated girls for the longest time. Then, several months ago, he started dating my best friend, Seth, and they kind of invited me to join them.”
“Three way? Can we make popcorn?” Bell asked.
“Shut it, Bell,” I said firmly and nodded at Gray to go on.
“Well, the short version is that Seth ended up falling for someone else and Logan and I are exclusive, now. From my end?” Gray said and shifted over to sit on the bed. “Logan's the reason I know I'm gay. He's bi, but I'm totally can't-fake-straight-gay.”
I sat down on the other end of the bed, completely focused on his story.
“Anyway. Logan is a really good person, he's always helping other people and he's very competitive. I did everything I could to make friends and get him to notice me, but it really didn't work out until Seth happened to me.”
I shook my head. “Well, I was hoping your experience would help me, but it doesn't sound like it.”
“Can I ask...why you haven't asked him out?”
I sighed and leaned back against the wall. “One, he's a year behind me. Two, I'm just accepting that I'm maybe, kind of, bisexual.”
“I get it,” Gray said, turning toward me. “Logan dealt with the same thing. You're farther along that he was, though. Now, it's all good of course.”
“Thing is...I'm trying to look out for him. I tried to give him rides home and he just...I don't know. He's playing hard to get or something.”
“Hard to get? I thought your mom said...or was she just jerking your chain? I love her sense of humor, by the way. Reminds me of my mom.”
“That is kind of weird, Corb,” Bell commented, pausing the single player game he'd started. “Why get all freaky with you in bed and then pull back. He doesn't seem embarrassed or anything.”
I shook my head slowly. “I think it comes back to Noel, somehow.”
“That makes no sense,” Bell said and went back to his game.
“Who's Noel?” Gray asked.
“Guy at school,” I said absently while turning over this new train of thought. “He was a soph last year and dated a senior that used him. Screwed him up pretty good.”
“He's a nice guy. I met him and his boyfriend today. You know,” I said, continuing to follow my train of thought. “Noel and Chris said that one of Dec's friends is named Leigh, and Leigh is Chris's cousin and protective over Noel.” I glanced up and said aloud, “I wonder if he's advising Declan to be cautious because of what happened to Noel?”
I thought some more, turning over my conversation with Noel and Chris. “Yeah...yeah, Chris said something about Leigh telling Dec that I had to commit or something.”
“Maybe he wants to know you're really interested and not just...experimenting?” Gray offered.
“Well, I am,” I replied. “Interested, I mean.” Turning my gaze to Gray. “The problem is that I don't know how bi I really am. I want to find out and I want to do that with Dec, but I don't know if that's enough.”
“Well, sounds like you should tell him that, then,” Gray said.
I slept poorly, tossing and turning over possible conversations and outcomes with Declan. I knew, at least, that Grayson was right and I needed to sit down and talk to Declan and try to work this out. It was maddening to have had him so close to me and to, now, be struggling with my feelings of wanting him near. At six I simply gave up and started my day. I showered and started breakfast and, by seven, the rest of the house was waking up to the smell of coffee, eggs and the sound of me dropping the occasional pan.
“Aw, Corb,” Bell said while yawning. “You're going to make someone a great wife, someday.”
“Eat before I spit in your food,” I told him.
“Why are we up so early?” Grayson asked, his eyes still heavy with sleep.
“You can go get in my bed if you want, Gray,” I told him. “I'm going out. Bell, want me to drop you at home?”
Bell chewed his toast for a moment and then said, “You're finally going to talk to Declan, aren't you?”
“Can I watch?”
“I said no.”
“But—okay, no, I get it,” he said, grinning and holding his hands up in surrender. Grayson ate and actually did disappear back into my room. Bell, on the other hand, got dressed and I dropped him off and proceeded to Declan's home. I pulled up just a hair after eight-thirty, and drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. Was it too early? Should I go around the block a few times and hold off until nine or so?
As I waffled the front door to the McClain home opened and a middle aged man emerged in an unbelted robe wearing just shorts, a tee and his slippers. He bent to retrieve the newspaper and then spotted me watching him. Well, guess it would be even weirder if I went around the block now.
Taking a deep breath I climbed out of the car and greeted him. “Good morning, Mr. McClain.”
“Morning,” he said. He took a glance down at the page one headline and then back at me. “You're here for...?”
“Dec. Um, Declan, sir.”
“Uh huh.” He paused and glanced back at the house and then back to me. “Well, I'm guessing we should wake him up, then.”
“Oh!” I said, stepping around the car. “I don't want to be an inconvenience, sir.”
He regarded me with a look of speculative amusement. “Well, I'm guessing if a teenager shows up at my door before noon, let alone nine, he must have something he needs to say. Come on in.”
He waved me toward the door with his paper and then began walking, sure I'd follow. I hesitated for only a moment, then fell in behind him.
Their home was very nice. Although it was narrow in the fashion of houses commonly known as 'Sears Homes', it had nice hardwood floors and had been tastefully decorated. Mr. McClain waved me to a chair in the living room and he went upstairs to wake his son. I waited impatiently, eager to have this talk over and yet nervous about how many different ways it could go.
Minutes later I heard water running as Mr. McClain descended the stairs. He poked his head in the living room and told me Declan would be right down, and then headed off deeper into the house. I had just started to retake my seat when Declan bounded down the stairs and stopped, partway down, and looked into the living room. I straightened up as a smile bloomed on his face and he finished coming down the stairs and joined me in the living room.
Even though he was moving with energy, sleep lines were on his face and he was still dressed for bed—loose fleece pants and a tee shirt. He smiled widely and greeted me, “Hi! This is a huge surprise!”
As I opened my mouth to reply, his breath hit me—minty clean. My response morphed instantly from an explanation to a question. “Did you brush your teeth?”
His smile crushed onto on side of his face and he turned side to side. “Maybe.”
I finally smiled and relaxed; plainly he was as nervous as I was. I shifted on my feet and let go of my smile, ready to get down to the reason for my visit.
“I'm sorry to wake you on a Saturday,” I began.
“That's okay!” he said, his eyes locked on me.
“My cousin came over last night and I kind of talked to him about...you. You see, he has a boyfriend and...” I trailed off and let my hands flap uselessly. “I was trying to explain this situation.”
“What did he say?” Declan asked, his voice low and earnest. He edged the tiniest bit closer to me.
“Well,” I said, and cleared my throat. “He said it sounded like we needed to talk.”
“Yeah?” he replied, and closed the distance again. We were only a few feet apart and talk had stopped as we simply looked at each other. There were other guys like Declan, guys that looked like him. Girls too, I'm sure. He didn't do things so differently than others, but when he did it was special because it was him. Even that silly smile, that slowly spreads from one side of his face to the other. Just looking at him, I was feeling calm and jittery all in one.
Yet, he was waiting. Staring and waiting for me to talk—of course he be looking at me the way I was looking at him? Could he be feeling the same way I was? These questions raced laps in my head, leaving me spinning and unable to do more than simply return his gaze.
“So...” he said, his voice small. “What do we talk about?”
I cleared my throat again and said, “Um, us?”
“Us?” he asked, his smile spreading anew.
I reached a hand out tentatively and his own hand slipped into mine. “Yeah. Us,” I said, more firmly.
“Declan?” We jumped as a female voice interrupted the moment. He looked over his shoulder and I looked past him to see a middle aged woman, Mrs. McClain, in her robe and slippers. “I'm going to get changed. We'll be leaving in about thirty minutes. Hello!” she added, greeting me.
“We're leaving already?” he asked. “It's early! And Corby just got here.”
“Well, since you're awake, I'm going to set a bomb off and wake your sister. If we go see your grandma early, we can go out afterward.”
Declan turned back to face me, his smile completely gone. “We go to visit my grandma on Saturday's. She's in a retirement complex, one of those assisted living places.”
“Oh,” I said and smiled at him. “That's a really good thing to do. Can I come with you? Oh, I mean,” I said, peering around Declan to his mother and blushing, “I mean, if it wouldn't be intruding.”
Declan's eyes widened in surprise and, I think, so did his mom's. She smiled and said, “I think it would be nice if you joined us.”
“What do you think?” I asked Declan as he turned to face me.
“I think I like that,” he said, his smile warm and then he was in my arms, pressed tightly to me and I was holding him. His mother smiled and turned away, heading upstairs and we were alone once more.
Declan had his head pressed to my chest and he spoke, electing not to take a step back. “So, is this what that 'us' talk was about?”
“Yeah, partly,” I said. The warmth of him pressed to me was nearly overloading me. I knew, however, that I needed to speak to him and to be honest.
“Declan, I want to try this. I just, you know, never had a relationship with a guy.”
“Me either,” he giggled.
“Dec,” I said, squeezing him. “Be serious.”
“I am!” he said and then coughed. “Okay, I know. But, we're going to date exclusively, right? We're going to figure it out together? Not just a date night to experiment or anything?”
I leaned back and pried Declan so that I could look in his eyes. “Dec. I don't know where it will go. I honestly want to find out with you, but you have to be okay with that, too. You have to know that I'm trying to figure it out, and I like you enough that I want to do that. But, you know, you have to be okay with that.
“And, yeah, exclusive dating. I don't believe in running around or anything.”
“I just want to be clear. You're not dating me just to...only to fool around, right? You actually like me?”
I barked out a laugh. “Yeah. I genuinely like you.”
“Leigh told me that was really important, and he makes sense. I just wanted you to say it.”
“I wish I'd have known!” I said, shaking him. “This would have been so much easier!”
“I had to know, though,” he said, his grin fading. “He told me about his friend...”
“Noel. I know. That's not me; that won't be us.”
He glanced behind him to ensure we were, at present, alone. Then, facing me with his beautiful grin in place he said, “Well, did I waste my time brushing my teeth or...?”