Rescue, Reunion, Reflection, Reconciliation… or Not
The previous Thursday:
In Madera, a mobile telephone rang in a young man’s bedroom, early on a mild summer morning. He stirred beneath the sheets, his hand groping for the small cell, and he flipped the cover without checking the caller ID. “Hello?” he grumbled. A female voice spoke his name in a query. “Yes, but who is this?” He didn’t recognize the voice. He looked at the telephone number. Hell, he didn’t even recognize the area code.
“That’s not important,” she said. “I was wondering if you know someone by the name of Jake Nielsen.”
Ah, now she had his attention. Jake had gone missing in action weeks ago, and the last he heard, the boy’s father had been frantically searching for him. “Yes, we went to high school together.”
“Are you a friend of his?”
He chuckled darkly. “No, I wouldn’t say that, but why are you calling. Do you know where Jake is?”
There was a moment of silence before the mysterious woman answered in a cautious tone, “He’s staying with his aunt and uncle, the Walkers, here in Aleppo Park. He’s been here all summer.”
Family, she said. Jake was with family? The teenager was fairly sure that George Nielsen had checked out every possible relative, but still, this girl sounded sure of herself. “Why should I believe you?” he asked.
She gave a snort of laughter. “Oh, I can prove it. He’s around five-foot-ten, kind of cute with a dimple in his cheek, curly brown hair to his shoulders, green eyes. He plays baseball and will be a sophomore at Long Beach State next month.” She paused triumphantly. “He’s gay.”
My god, it was Jake. He could hardly hold his excitement in. But then again, someone calling up out of the blue with this kind of news, it made him wonder what her angle was. “Why do you care?”
She giggled again. “Let’s just say I have my own good reasons to get rid of Jake Nielsen.”
“Which are?” His request was met with silence, and he pressed the issue. “Look, if I’m going to tell his father where Jake is and take the time and expense to come down, I have to know you’re legit. What do you get out of this?”
The girl decided to stop playing her coy games and go for broke. “If I could make it happen I’d want Jake Nielsen to fucking disappear forever off the face of the earth for turning my boyfriend gay. So come down and collect him asap.”
That had been the first of several telephone calls between Kelsey and Tony… or Clarence.
Up until her telephone call north, Kelsey had an actual burst of conscience for all of two days. She regularly called Dylan’s sister who reported that he had made no efforts to reconcile, and her own boyfriend, Marcus, was furious with him for hurting his cousin. Maybe she wouldn’t need to resort to her little insurance policy. However, she knew that Jake was wily, and Kelsey decided she couldn’t take the chance if one boy or the other suddenly wanted to kiss and make up.
Using internet search engines and land line 411, Kelsey checked fruitlessly for Anthony Holcomb in Madera for a day and a half when it occurred to her to look up Clarence Holcomb, and bingo! There were two of them at the same address, and she figured father and son. On Thursday when she called it was just luck to get the right one on her first try. From that point, she and Tony talked frequently—he preferred Tony, but in deference to his grandfather, Clarence Senior, with whom he had lived in Long Beach while he went to school, he’d switched names at the university.
Recognizing a kindred spirit, he kept Kelsey informed of all his plans while she disclosed dreams of a Jake-less Aleppo Park, and he revealed his frustrations of spending his high school years living in the boy’s shadow. George was certainly grateful to finally know where his faggot son was after two months of searching, and he should’ve guessed he’d be with the Walker clan. George and Tony were going to take care of Jake quickly and thoroughly, and Tony even rewarded her with advance news of the surprise visit they planned on paying Jake over the weekend.
Dylan was still in bed on Saturday morning when his mother came to his bedroom door and knocked. “Honey, your friends are downstairs.”
He looked at the time and gasped. It was already nine o’clock? He couldn’t believe he’d overslept. He’d set the alarm for 7:30 but forgot to turn it on, and he bounced out of bed in a rush. Locating a clean pair of shorts and t-shirt, he made quick work of his bathroom routine and jogged down to meet everyone.
“What’s going on,” he asked. Noah, Sage and the other two boys looked a lot better this morning, kind of effervescent.
“Spencer got this great idea about seeing Jake,” Luis spoke up.
“It’s awesome,” Sage gushed about her twin. “It keeps Jake from suspecting anything so we can sneak you in.”
Spencer succeeded in looking embarrassed. “It’s not all that. But I hope going with you distracts him a little.”
“Going with me?” Dylan groaned silently. He was going to have to profusely apologize to Jake in front of an audience?
Noah astutely understood his dilemma. “Look Dylan, it’s like this. If you drive yourself over, Jake sees your SUV parked outside. Say he doesn’t want to talk to you, so he doesn’t answer the door. This way, you are going with us as a group. I already called Jake, and he’s expecting us. I told him we…” he indicated the others… “we’re dropping by to say goodbye. He still might refuse to speak to you, but at least you have an in.”
“We’re backup and moral support,” Sage insisted giving him beaming smile. She looked so much better today now that her eyes weren’t all red from crying.
Dylan shook his head and smiled. “Okay, I guess it makes sense. Let me go take a shower first. If I’m going to grovel to Jake, I should at least smell good doing it.”
Spencer winked at him with a flip of his long hair. “Yeah, good idea, Jake likes the way you smell.”
With a chuckle, Dylan went upstairs and met his sister coming tiredly out of her bedroom. She asked about the commotion downstairs, and he explained it quickly.
“Jake is leaving?” Erin asked in surprise. “Can I come to the Walkers’ and say goodbye with you?”
Dylan shrugged, hoping it wouldn’t be necessary for anyone to tell him goodbye. “I guess, but you should ask them if they can make room for you in a car.”
Erin was more than surprised about her brother’s friends; she was apprehensive. Kelsey had telephoned her every couple of days since the previous weekend, and Erin had dutifully reported how the gang acted like they were angry at Jake. Well, she assumed everyone was mad because they had all gone their separate ways. Kelsey liked that her old crowd had all turned their back on him, and Erin had struggled with her attitude. But not enough to stop passing information.
Now as she raced to get herself dressed she called Kelsey. Everyone was at her house. A mild buzz of warning told her to refrain from sharing that Jake was the reason why. Her lately-overwhelmed sense of right and wrong kicked in for the first time since that weekend at the ice rink, and she felt her disloyalty to him, Marcus and Dylan sting like bees. There was something about the short girl that Erin suddenly mistrusted. She knew she was eventually going to have to confess how she had been spying on her brother and his friends and wasn’t relishing it.
Spencer agreed to move over to Luis’s car with Dylan so Erin could ride with Sage and Noah. They were still in the Moore’s foyer, almost ready to leave when the doorbell rang. Kelsey was on the front porch. “Hi guys,” she called out joyfully, walking inside without invitation. “Long time, no see. What’s up?”
Everyone froze in indecision and the Caldwell siblings glared at her balefully. It was funny how, for someone who had been such a close friend of theirs for three years, nobody had been missing her at all.
Eager to dispense with the tension, Erin smiled at her and starting gibbering. “Hey Kelsey, we haven’t seen you in so long, but it’s nice of you to visit. Did you hear that Jake’s moving? We’re going over to see him and say goodbye.”
“Erin!” Sage’s voice was a low growl of displeasure, knowing this information at Kelsey’s fingertips was trouble. Tossing her head in aggravation, she walked back into the family room, followed by Noah, Spencer and Luis.
“Shut up, Erin,” Dylan said warningly, also unwilling to share any news with the trouble-maker.
“Don’t you tell me to shut up, you ass. Who made you my parent?”
He looked at his little sister scathingly and, between her mouth and the arrival of Kelsey, felt like he was one inch from getting up in everyone’s shit. “You have no idea what you’re running your mouth about, Erin, and it shows. Just shut the hell up.”
Erin felt thoroughly scolded and glowered at him angrily. “I’m telling Mom.”
“Fine,” he challenged. “Go find her.” She ran off in a huff, and he turned to Kelsey who was watching the exchange with round eyes. “What do you want?” he barked.
“You know that Jake is leaving?” Her mental files were going back over the last several days, but Kelsey didn’t recall mentioning to Erin that Jake’s dad and Tony were coming down to take him back to Madera, so how did she discover it?
Dylan looked bewildered. “Yeah, but who told you?”
“Who told you?” she returned, curious. Just how much had his sister said?
Dylan didn’t feel like playing games, so he didn’t answer her question. Instead, he inserted one of his own, mild disinterest warring with curiosity. “Kelsey, what are you doing here?”
Kelsey pouted at him. “Well, I thought that now that Jake wasn’t hanging around we could be friends again.”
It went against Dylan’s character to be deliberately rude, but he was on the verge of blurting out that, Jake or no Jake, she was a repugnant girl and he wanted nothing to do with her. Besides… “How do you know I’m not with Jake anymore?”
“Maybe a little birdie told me, Dylan,” she cooed happily. “Aleppo Park isn’t that big and good news travels fast. So I came over to celebrate you finally seeing him for what he really is.”
“Good news?” Kelsey was certainly misinformed, just like always. He thought she should at least have the decency to feel bad for his sake except that she wouldn’t know decency if it bit her. Kelsey only saw things in light of what was best for her.
“Of course it’s good news, Dylan.” She didn’t seem to notice the change in his voice or how carefully he was now listening to her, almost like a sentry on alert, and she continued blithely. “He’s a troublemaker. For instance, all that shit about you being gay. You weren’t gay before Jake came down here, and we both know you aren’t gay now. That is so preposterous.”
“Preposterous,” he repeated in a monotone. He absolutely did not agree with Kelsey, but to her ears it sounded that way.
“I’m glad you realized in time that you can’t possibly be in love with him. Think of how it would ruin your rep if people found out and thought you were fucking another man. You need to stop this shit. I mean, you’re sweet and understanding and all, but that doesn’t mean you’re gay.”
“And how did you figure that out?”
“Honestly, Dylan, I’ve known you for at least six years, and you’re straight. You and I went to Homecoming. You went out with my older sister, for god’s sake, so it just can’t be true. You can’t possibly have any kind of romantic feelings for that lame-ass poser, Jake Nielsen. You certainly don’t act like a fag.
“For instance, gay boys don’t care much who they sleep with as long as it’s another boy. They aren’t picky and most aren’t monogamous, yet you, Dylan, are just about the pickiest person I know as far as dating goes.”
“Really?” His voice was tight and he wondered how he could have been so blind to this girl’s spiteful bias all these months. Or maybe it was her jealousy that changed her so drastically. “Are you saying homosexuals are sluts? So Jake being gay makes him a slut or something?”
Dylan’s barely controlled, beneath-the-surface anger was totally lost on her. “I suppose it might,” Kelsey answered, carefully keeping the snide tone to herself. “Anything would be possible with Jake. Ever since we met him it’s been one mess after another. You know it’s his fault we don’t all hang together anymore.”
“I thought the reason was because you can’t be polite,” he said in a good imitation of a neutral voice. “You falsely accuse people of kicking you off boating trips and knock them down at ice rinks.”
Kelsey laughed lightly, caught between thinking Dylan was making a joke and wondering if he still believed some of the hurtful lies Jake had spread about her. She wrapped her arms around his waist. “Oh come on, Dylan, can’t you see that he makes stuff up?”
Dylan sighed, already tired of talking to this annoying girl. “Okay, name something he lied about.”
“Well, there’s all the shit about his dad,” she mentioned, happy to have an example close at hand. “See, when Jake showed up here in May he told Noah this hard-luck story about his dad. I never did hear the whole thing, but I mean, it was so skeevy. How his father hates him and he’s hiding from him, and fuck, like that’s such bullshit. Getting beaten up by his dad? What a creeper, you know?”
The blonde boy disengaged himself from her embrace and looked at her fully. “What do you mean by creeper? Jake did get beaten up.”
“Nuh-uh,” she defended, although they were just words, really. Kelsey didn’t have any idea if it was true or not. “Jake with all that fucked up shit about his dad hurting him, like why would he do that?”
“Because his father is an asshole, Kelsey. The beating was not a lie. Noah, Sage, Spencer—they all saw the bruises on him.”
Dylan felt a jagged stab of remorse slice through him. Up until the night before he had thought along those same lines, that Jake had made up the whole saga just to elicit sympathy from his friends or hide his own agenda. He wasn’t sure exactly what Kelsey was getting at but what he was imagining frightened him.
“Well, I guess I was wrong then,” she managed to say without looking the least bit sorry. “He still needs to learn a lesson.”
She sidled up closer to him and laid her hand on his arm. “Now let’s not talk about him,” she fussed. “I am happy today, probably for the first time all summer, and I don’t want anything to spoil my good mood.”
There was something in her voice that spoke of more than just eagerness to see Jake leave, and Dylan picked up on it immediately. The light shining off her face was blissful, calculating, almost evil. He got this weird twinge in his stomach.
“Why is it a good day?” he asked guardedly.
She reached over and ran her fingers up his arm, making Dylan shudder. “Someone is finally going to get what he deserves.”
Dylan smiled at her blandly, but he felt a foreboding. He had to ask even though he already knew the answer. “And who has inspired your ire? Anyone I know?”
“Well, I’m surprised you don’t know since…” Kelsey giggled. “Oh, but then you wouldn’t know… It’s Jake Nielsen. Damn, I wish I could be there.”
Dylan froze, every receptor attuned to this dark-haired girl with malice plainly written all over her face, and he threw off her hand. “Be where?”
“The Walkers’. Shit is going to hit the fan, and he’s in for a big surprise!”
Dylan stared at her in shock. “And?” He asked as in as sturdy a tone as he could manage.
“So I thought the reason his dad has been looking for him all summer was because Jake must have gotten into trouble. If you act like an ass you deserve what you get. So I heard about this guy named Tony, and they are supposed to come down today and drag him back to Madera.”
“But…” Dylan reeled in shock. How did Tony find out that Jake was in Aleppo Park and what did he have to do with the beating Jake received from his father?
“How did they know he was here?” The words were difficult to say.
“I called them,” Kelsey crowed triumphantly. “Or at least, I called Tony and told him. He was very grateful because nobody up there had any idea where he was. Tony said the family all denied knowing his whereabouts, so Marcus’ parents must have fibbed…”
A sick feeling began to settle in Dylan’s stomach. Who was ‘him’ and ‘they’? Jake’s father? Of all the conversations he’d ever had with Jake, two of the most vivid were the nights he’d spoken about his father’s homophobia and Tony’s violent reaction to being kissed. Sure there was a connection between the two of them because of the picture correspondence, but why would they team up? Jake had said nothing about them knowing each other. Were those two with Jake right now?
Kelsey was still speaking, “…somebody had to do something about him. Get Jake out of here so our lives can go back to normal just like before he arrived. So I called Jake’s friend… or former friend. I don’t think they like each other. Tony kept calling him a fag… so I guess…”
With that, Dylan’s certainty crystallized that he’d made the biggest mistake in his life in allowing Kelsey to get anywhere near his boyfriend. His own reprehensible behavior had left him defenseless against her craziness, and his anxiety level spiked through the roof.
“Fuck, Kelsey, what have you done?”
Surprised by the fear and frustration in his voice, Kelsey turned to gaze into Dylan’s face and he looked genuinely horrified at her actions. “I…”
“Damn it, did you tell Jake’s father that he was down here? He’s dangerous. There is a reason for Jake hiding out at his aunt and uncle’s all summer, and it isn’t because he made up some story. His dad is unstable enough to seriously hurt him.”
“No,” she amended as if he were a child. “I didn’t talk to Jake’s dad. I talked to Tony, and he was delighted to tell him Jake’s been living at Marcus’. Nobody is going to hurt him, Dylan. They just want to take him back home. He needs to go away.”
Dylan exploded in white-hot fury so quickly it made Kelsey jump a foot, and her head whipped up in fear. Disgust poured off him. His hands were shaking, and the gray of his eyes had almost taken over the blue, it was so dark. He looked like he was having to hold himself back from hurting her, and instinctively, she tried to back up. But he wouldn’t let her; he grabbed her by the wrist and held fast.
He wanted to break Kelsey in half for every single thing she had ever done to Jake. The jealousy and envy that had poisoned her into blaming him for events that were never his fault. Wherever she got the idea that Dylan liked her as more than a casual date for a school dance he had no idea—maybe it was just her delusion. But no matter what the reason, her behavior had so quickly escalated from an argument on a beach through dangerous pranks at an ice rink into letting her resentment have free reign and putting Jake’s life at risk, he didn’t even know her any more. Maybe he never did.
“Stop making excuses for your appalling behavior. Jake’s dad is a psycho, Kelsey.”
This was not how she had imagined it, Kelsey wailed inwardly. Dylan wasn’t supposed to be repulsed by the lengths she’d go to in punishing Jake for poaching what was rightfully hers and making him think he was gay. He was supposed to fall into her arms, laughing and agreeing with her that he was unwanted and unnecessary. Since Jake was too stupid to learn the easy way, it was her job to make him see the light and get lost. Dylan was supposed to be grateful she had saved him from Jake and love her forever for it.
Kelsey looked at him blankly. Sharing space with his anger, apprehension was dawning as the meaning of her words sunk in, and he blamed her. There was no trust in Dylan’s eyes; in fact, he seemed far more worried about Jake and what was going on at the Walkers’ house. Like Jake was the special one who needed protection, not her. What she saw—what she finally took the time to really notice—shocked her. She was no longer what he wanted, maybe had never been. He was totally in love with Jake Nielsen.
“I just…” she babbled, scared, her eyes watering in misery. She couldn’t look at him. All was lost because Jake had won.
Noah had promised to be over in half an hour and hung up. Jake went back to his packing. The doorbell rang, and he strolled downstairs. Nonchalantly he unlocked the front door and stood back to open it.
Jake looked up at the familiar voice in shock. With an alarmed gasp it was as if the air was sucked out of his lungs and he was rendered speechless.
A big person blocked the sun, actually, two of them. The one in the front grabbed his collar.
His father had a triumphant scowl on his face as he drew himself up to his full height. His face was red with heat and exertion, and his hazel eyes snapped as he surveyed Jake from head to toe sardonically.
Behind him, Tony was hopping back and forth on his feet like a crazed child, giving away that he’d sat for far too long and drunk far too many cups of strong coffee on the trip down from Madera. Or maybe he was doing the pee-pee dance. His black hair had grown out and was a mess, and he was glancing nervously between Jake and George who pushed his way into the house and slammed the door behind them.
“Thought you could hide from me, eh?” his father sneered.
“N-no,” Jake stammered, knowing his father would see it for a lie. How did he find him? After nearly two and a half uneventful months in Aleppo Park, the last thing he expected was for his father to storm down to fetch him home. His eyes widened in fear realizing his predicament. George would be merciless, and he was by himself in the house. His only possible salvation was for Noah and the rest of his friends to show up quickly, but he had no idea what time it was. How many of the thirty minutes had passed since the telephone call?
George was looking around. “This is quite a cozy little game-plan you and your mother set up with Patricia. I should’ve come down here two months ago and checked it out myself instead of relying on that bitch’s say-so.”
Jake didn’t know whether he was referring to Aunt Pat or his mother. Either way he wouldn’t put up with him threatening. “You leave them alone,” he said fiercely.
That earned him his first smack, hard to the chest, and he heard his ribs rebel. It fucking hurt and Jake tried to double over in pain, but his father held the top of his shirt too firmly. He fought to prevent the emotion from showing on his face. Keep his father busy and try to stall, hoping he didn’t become too much of a punching bag before the cavalry arrived.
Tony was gawking at him as if he wasn’t expecting the violence, at least not so quickly, or maybe he thought Jake would lash out first and deserve it in some way. But then he didn’t know Jake’s dad. Tony looked like he was going to be sick and he moved a couple steps to the side away from them.
Leaning over Jake in a rage, George took stock of his son and saw the same weak-assed pansy he’d beaten and humiliated two months before. “I told you in May we weren’t finished, and by god, I meant it.”
Shaking him, he stared at Jake’s throat that was visible now that the neckline of the t-shirt was twisting in his hand as if he was expecting to find a mark, and the boy hoped there were no fading bruises left there by Dylan he would have to explain. Fortunately, nothing caught his eye.
This did not mean he didn’t automatically assume. “I’ll just bet you’ve kept your faggot ass busy this summer with all kinds of southern California surfer boys wanting to bury their dicks in it, haven’t you?”
“No, dad… honestly.” Jake shook his head, and it snapped backwards when George punched him in the mouth. He staggered back against the front door; he could feel his lips instantly swell and blood begin to drip onto his clothes. Stay on your feet, he told himself, knowing that as much as his father’s fists hurt, getting kicked would be much worse.
“You’re a filthy, cocksucking whore,” George raged.
He was coming at him again, moving adeptly across the tile. Jake tried to back away but his father was too close and waylaid him easily. The next cuff was to his ear and jaw, and a ringing pain bloomed as bones shifted. He saw bright flashes behind his eyes and sagged against the wood, struggling not to cry and give his father more reason to hit him. George grabbed him by his curly hair and yanked him up. Jake yelped in pain.
“Someone as soft and pretty as you,” his father jeered in contempt, “must have at least one boyfriend stashed somewhere.” Every other word was a slap here, a jab there. He struggled to pull away even if it meant leaving part of his scalp behind in his father’s hands. Between the abrasions and bruises, his body hurt so badly it was hard to think rationally. But he knew he had to keep a level head and just wait it out.
“How did you find me?” he croaked around his thickened tongue. George was so much stronger and bigger, it was like being held in a vice.
His father pulled a nasty smile. “You’ve made quite an impression on your little fan club down here,” he said sarcastically.
Jake went quiet in his hands. On the outside he appeared composed but inwardly he quailed. There was only one person he knew who hated him and held all the pieces to the puzzle, and that was Dylan. Betrayal? Oh please god, no, he thought, fighting back tears.
“What fan club?” he asked haltingly.
The man gave a harsh laugh, intrigued by the change in his son and the stricken look on his face. Was it the idea that he wasn’t liked in general that bothered Jake or some faggot kid who was less important to him than he imagined perhaps?
“Damn,” Tony spoke up for the first time, glaring at him. “You have the knack for making loyal friends everywhere you go.
“Who?” Jake grit out between clenched teeth, not sure he wanted to know. If it was Dylan, someone might as well take him out and put a hole in his head. But what other explanation was there? How could the person he loved most in the world turn so completely against him?
“Some bitch named Kelsey who hates you even more than we do.” And then Tony was stunned when Jake looked at him and gave him a dazzling smile, despite the blood and discoloration. It was enough for George to draw back his fist and really begin laying into the boy who had once been his best friend. Practically his only friend.
“Noah!” Dylan roared, moving quickly towards the family room, dragging the teary girl behind him. There was the sound of scurrying and Noah popped into view, followed by Sage and the rest of the men.
“There are problems at the Walkers’ with Jake, Tony and his dad,” Dylan exclaimed, giving them a quick rundown. “We need to move it.”
Already, he was whipping out his cell phone. He didn’t care if Jake yelled at him; he just wanted to know he was safe and give him fair warning if the other two weren’t at the house yet. Jake’s cell rang several times and then went to voicemail.
“Shit,” he swore heatedly, looking up to see Noah on his own phone.
“Marcus!” Noah exclaimed in relief, pacing a few steps away, his hand in his hair. “Are you at home?”
The occupants of the hall watched Noah carefully. “Is Jake with you?” More silence and his face went white. “Marcus, you and your parents need to leave right now. Kelsey contacted Jake’s dad, and he and Tony are on their way down from Madera to get him. Dylan just tried to call Jake and he won’t pick up.”
Dylan saw Spencer get a knowing look on his face and pull out his own cell. He dialed, waited a few minutes and closed his mobile. “Jake isn’t answering my call either.” Dylan nodded in understanding; it wasn’t just him that Jake was avoiding.
Noah hung up after the brief but meaningful conversation. “Marcus and his parents went out for breakfast and left Jake by himself to pack. They were running out the door as we spoke.”
At that moment Mrs. Moore came towards them with Erin in tow, ready to scold Dylan for sassing his sister. However, looking into their mournful faces she knew something was terribly wrong right away and began asking questions. When she learned of the crisis and heard about the possibility of danger at the Walkers’ she gasped, “Let me call your father,” and ran for her own mobile.
Spencer looked at Kelsey with open hatred. Even without Dylan’s explanation he would’ve known she was involved. “If Jake’s dad has done something to him and Jake ends up injured or dead because of your fucking jealousy and big mouth…”
“I didn’t,” the short girl tried to say, shucking off responsibility as usual.
Sage shook her head and glared at her. “Shut up, Kelsey,” she spat. “I don’t have time to deal with your lies right now.”
Kelsey looked from one irate friend to the other until her gaze rested on Erin. Erin with the narrowed eyes and her arms crossed over her chest, looking thoroughly guilty, and her cheeks aflame in embarrassment over her part. Kelsey smirked. “I’m not the only one who is responsible. You did this too.”
Everyone looked at Erin who was crumbling in regret. She addressed Kelsey. “I never expected you to try to hurt Jake,” she said in a low, devastated voice. “You called Jake’s father and brought him down here?”
“Erin?” she asked again. “You…”
Mrs. Moore, who had returned from the other room, took the fighting in hand and talked over both girls. “We will get to the bottom of this later. Kelsey, go home.”
Luis looked at the scene and announced, “Joder, yo sabía que esta puta causaría problemas. Es hora de dejar de pie alrededor de hablar y encontrar alguna forma de ayudar a Jake.” Sage didn’t even have the will to scold him for speaking in Spanish.
Dylan got that one easily and smirked at Luis calling Kelsey a bitch, which she fully deserved, and volunteering his advice and help. Much to Kelsey’s mortification he translated fully, explaining that the boy expected problems from her and said it was time to stop standing around talking and find a way to help Jake.
“Thanks,” he told Luis. The rest of them nodded and smiled their appreciation too.
“So what about me?” Kelsey said to cries of dismay and scorn. She still didn’t seem recognize that her outlandish behavior could result in tragedy for Jake and, as far as his friends were concerned, she had become an outcast. Dylan was staring at her like he hated her, his eyes dark with rage, and she swallowed in fear.
Sage loomed over her and stared directly into her face, putting a heavy hand on her shoulder so she could tell Sage wasn’t joking around. “Just get in your fucking car and drive away. Do not call me. Ever. Again. Lose my number and the number of every person in this room. If you aren’t out of here in two minutes, I will personally make sure you can’t go anywhere.”
Kelsey turned on her heel and walked out the front door. She didn’t know it yet, but her problems were just beginning.
“Luis is right,” Spencer said. “We need to get over to the Walkers’.”
Noah added, “I told Marcus we would make sure Jake is okay. His dad said to be careful and not to go inside the house unless we have no choice. If George is there, he might be unbalanced, and Mr. Walker doesn’t know what he’ll do.”
It didn’t take Mrs. Moore longer than a few seconds to comprehend what the students had planned, and she begged them to reconsider and wait for an adult. She was going to refuse permission for Dylan to get involved until she saw the steely gleam in his eyes and realized he wouldn’t be denied. Failing her first preference, Mrs. Moore tried to make Dylan promise to call 911 if he suspected trouble. Dylan nodded but he wasn’t going to sit around and let Tony or Jake’s dad hurt him. He’d handle the situation as he saw fit when he arrived.
“Mom…?” It was Erin with a pleading look on her face.
“Absolutely not,” her mother said severely. “You are going to tell me what you did to help Kelsey, and I want the truth.”
The friends agreed to all ride together in Luis’ van to save time. He was driving fast, taking corners in such a way that Dylan had to constantly hold onto the safety strap on the ceiling. He feared they would be stopped by the police for speeding, and yet at the same time, he almost hoped they would be.
Noah apparently had the same thoughts. “Should we call 911?”
“And say what?” Luis rejoined, not taking his eyes off the road. “That we think two people are coming down from Madera to kidnap Jake and might be violent? We have no proof that he’s in any real danger, and nobody would listen to us.”
Sadly, they had to conclude Luis was right. Spencer looked at Dylan and asked him to repeat what Kelsey had told him, so he gave them as much of the story as he could piece together. According to Little Miss Trouble-Maker, George and Tony had planned to leave Madera first thing in the morning and surprise Jake and the Walkers by just showing up on their doorstep. Now that he’d had a while to digest this news, he didn’t see how they were going to manage it since there were only two of them. It sounded a little fantastical, not at all well-planned, but who knew what George had up his sleeve?
He would be determined to take his son and probably wouldn’t hesitate at anything, not even carrying him bodily from the house. And how did Clarence… uh, Tony… fit into this scheme other than be the kid who hated Jake and might act as additional muscle? It wasn’t as if Jake was a minor who could be compelled to leave. Dylan was more worried about threats and other devices that would make him compliant enough to spirit him away. With nobody there to protect him, Jake would be beaten, Dylan was sure of it.
“So Kelsey got Tony’s name from Erin?” Sage suggested gently.
“I think so,” Dylan nodded in anguish and scrubbed his hand across his eyes.
He wasn’t sure what part his little sister had played in this debacle, but he was nearly positive it was an innocent one. Erin liked Jake and was dating his cousin, so she had no reason to hurt either of them. She certainly wasn’t devious or malicious.
“Knowing Kelsey,” Spencer said angrily, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she tricked her into helping.”
That had to be what happened—it was the only thing that made sense. Dylan could read Erin like a book, and she would’ve lapped up the attention Kelsey bestowed upon her. The calculating older girl must have taken advantage of her assistance. He actually felt sorry for Erin, but that didn’t mitigate the circumstances. At the very least, she was going to catch it from their parents, but heaven help her if Kelsey’s actions resulted in Jake getting seriously hurt.
The kids in the vehicle went silent, each of them focusing on Jake alone with his father and Tony. He wasn’t small, but he would be no match for two taller men to manhandle, especially two men who were known for using their fists to settle differences. Noah tried to call Jake again and was unable to get through. They still hadn’t heard back from the Walkers, but they were on the other side of town.
Dylan was lost in his own self-accusatory mindset. This disaster was entirely his fault. While he couldn’t control Kelsey or have any kind of ESP over what Erin had been thinking, he intuitively knew the lion’s share of the blame fell on his shoulders for callously walking out on his boyfriend. It was through his sister that Kelsey had learned of their split and taken advantage of it. His own vocal and very public denunciation of Jake had given Erin enough information about Clarence to pass on to the little witch so she could make contact and alert him to his whereabouts. If not for his own insensitivity, Jake wouldn’t be leaving town and instead of packing, the two of them would be together or he’d be sharing breakfast with the Walkers.
If they got through this and if Jake would let him, he was going to spend the rest of his life making it up to him. He didn’t care how many times he had to say ‘I’m sorry’ to prove his love and beg forgiveness, it would be worth it. Every day if necessary with hearts and flowers and anything Jake desired. If he didn’t want him around, he’d find a way to make himself invaluable to him and keep reminding him that they were meant to be together. There was nothing that could separate them, and he would make his boyfriend believe it too.
Nothing could separate them except… He just hoped it was some quirk that made Jake not answer his cell phone—maybe he couldn’t hear it. Maybe George and Tony would have car trouble and be late arriving. He almost hoped Jake had already left Aleppo Park to get him out of harm’s way. But deep inside he doubted all these possibilities. He knew whatever was going down at the Walkers’ would result in Jake getting hurt, and it had become a race against time.
“Hurry, Luis,” Dylan said nervously. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Luis put his foot to the floorboard and the car lurched forward.
“Faggot. Cocksucker. Sissy boy. Abomination.”
Jake was in a world of hurt. He felt like this had been going on for hours. His father’s last punch had been right to the solar plexus, and his breath left his body with a whoosh. Even though he had seen it coming beforehand, he was unable to shy away from the blow so he tried to tighten his abs. He was so weakened by the pummeling all he could do was mildly brace for it. He thought he was going to collapse from the pain, maybe partly hoping to, but he knew he had to stay conscious. It was the only way out of this mess. He was afraid if he blacked out he would never wake up.
Tony eyed the situation warily. With the exception of that one taunt, he had not spoken or moved in the last ten minutes. Jake was getting his ass handed to him by his father, and this wasn’t what he’d signed up for. He thought they were going to intimidate him a little, maybe his father would hit him once or twice to make a point and then they would use the rope they’d left on the front porch to tie him up and take him back to Madera. But George had just started hitting Jake over and over, and now he was swearing and screaming at him in a hideous rage, and his son could no longer even stay on his feet.
With what Tony had learned from Kelsey and her hints about ‘turning her boyfriend gay’ he didn’t have to use many brain cells to determine that Jake had been in a relationship over the summer. George wasn’t taking it easy on him at all, but Tony was positive he hadn’t fully let loose yet, and that was a scary thought. Tony had the power in his hands to destroy Jake. All he had to do was repeat her words to George but, looking at the hatred in his face, he was almost afraid to use it. True, the old man’s bigotry was legendary around town, but all he was seeing in front of him was a vengeful, rabid, out-of-control adult kicking and slapping around a scared, overwhelmed teenager half his size. Even if Tony didn’t personally touch Jake, he was guilty by association for his injuries.
All Tony had ever wanted was to be loved and admired and in his mind, the way to achieve it was to be part of the popular crowd in school. Yet, it had always been beyond his grasp as he stood on the fringes and looked at other students lord their way around West Madera High with an aplomb he envied. And then, miraculously, he found Jake Nielsen, new sophomore on campus but with a quality that made it plain he would be accepted into the inner circle if he put out the effort.
Jake was cute and intelligent, a genuine guy without a mean bone in his body who was pleasant to be around, and he was a jock to boot. The other students made him welcome and started asking him to their social functions, but even as Jake’s star began to rise, he never left Tony behind. They remained close, and Tony got invited places because he was Jake’s friend.
Oddly enough, Jake acted like the popularity wasn’t important. Maybe that was why Tony was so angry at him. Jake had an easy in with every clique but he never pushed for it, seeing it for the shallow goal it was. He went to class, he played baseball and hung out with two or three trusted friends. He didn’t seek student council office or go out for Prom or Homecoming king. As far as Tony knew, Jake never even dated and didn’t talk about sex or girls. He didn’t throw his weight around and make fun of the less fortunate students.
Up until May of their senior year, despite spending so much time together, Tony was unaware that he was the light of Jake’s world and would’ve been appalled to discover that he was gay. Willing to give anything to have a sliver of the influence his friend wielded, he couldn’t appreciate why Jake had it made in the shade to be a big man about campus and turned his back on it.
And then came that awful baseball celebration where Jake kissed him on the patio, and Tony freaked out. It had been Tony that time aiming the kicks and blows at the smaller boy, and when he was finished, so was Jake—socially. Tony made sure everyone knew he was a fag who had gotten drunk and attacked him, and he’d dealt with the Nielsen boy as needed.
Tony would have thought he’d be popular around school from outing Jake, but it wasn’t to be. The baseball team lost what should’ve been their championship year, mostly because Jake’s beating broke the team’s morale and robbed the players of focus. There were many people who felt sorry for him once the dust cleared; after all, he was a very nice kid who was quiet and minded his own business, and did it truly matter if he was gay? And about that kiss… They only had Tony’s word that it happened; nobody else witnessed it, and Jake wasn’t talking. Teenagers knew how stupid, irresponsible behavior went along with getting wasted and extended some charity towards him, even if he wasn’t aware of it. Tony tried to destroy Jake, but the person he really destroyed was himself.
He knew this. He knew that Jake’s star was a bit dimmed but it never totally went out because Jake was a fighter. He raised his chin and went on with his life courageously despite the harassment. He graduated from high school with honors, heading for Long Beach State on a baseball scholarship, and he turned his back on every student who had made the last couple of months of high school hell for him. Including Tony.
If he wanted to get back at his former friend, even considering what he’d already done to him, here was his chance. But to be honest, Tony now thought that retaliation was overrated, especially with Jake moaning broken and bloody on the floor, practically unconscious and shielding the vulnerable parts of his body as best he could. If Jake ended up dying…
“Mr. Nielsen,” he screamed, running to George just as the man drew back his foot to kick Jake in the stomach. Tony grabbed his arm and tried to pull him away. “Mr. Nielsen, stop. You’re going to kill him. You’re going to kill Jake.”
By some measure of grace or just plain luck, the Walkers and Luis’ car full of friends arrived at the same time on the cul de sac. There was an unfamiliar Chevy van with a license plate frame from a Madera car dealership parked at an odd angle at the curb. Doors popped open at once, and Marcus startled a bit at the sight of a haggard, very distressed Dylan following Noah off the street. However, there was no time to question his presence except for a slight, encouraging nod of thanks for his help. They would need every man. Avery lifted his finger to his lips to indicate quiet as they advanced on the house, leaving his wife and Sage in the driveway. Patricia was already dialing 911 before they stepped foot on the lawn.
From inside came a shouted plea by an unfamiliar male voice demanding that someone stop, he was killing Jake. That was it; there was no time to lose, no time to question their own safety. They took off at a dead run to the door, not even caring that they practically knocked it off its hinges to get through it. A beefy man vaguely resembling Jake was kneeling over an unconscious figure on the foyer floor, his hands around his throat, while a tall, dark-haired boy was ineffectually pulling at the man’s arm to drag him away. They both jumped up at the sound of the door crashing into the wall. Avery, Noah and Marcus charged George and managed to subdue him quickly. Luis and Spencer ran to grab Tony, and Dylan went immediately to Jake.
What he saw broke his heart. “Oh, baby,” he whispered, dropping down next to the shattered boy and pushing bloody hair out of his eyes.
Jake’s face was a mask of seeping cuts, swelling flesh and slitted eyes, and his curls were streaked with red. Given the shallow, wheezy breaths and the way he shuddered with each intake of air, Dylan was fairly sure his ribs were fractured. Finger-shaped bruises surrounded his delicate neck. Another huge, dark contusion covered his mid-section from one side to the other that might mean internal bleeding. Several fingers were crushed on one hand, and his other arm was positioned at such an unnatural angle there was no doubt it was broken. His legs also bore lacerations and bruises. It didn’t take a genius to see that Jake had been thoroughly worked over by the man fighting to get free on the other side of the room.
With his knowledge of first aid, Dylan couldn’t sit there and do nothing, but it took all of his self-restraint not to launch himself in rage at George and Tony and give them the same treatment they had given Jake. How could they do this to someone like his baby? He was a gentle, sweet kid who had never hurt anyone, not even Dylan himself who deserved it more than any person in the room. All he wanted was to love without fear and be loved in safety and not have to worry every day that something he had no choice over would bring this kind of pain. It wasn’t right that Jake’s abusive father was standing up, not even a mark on him, and Jake was a mass of bleeding abrasions, broken bones and black and blue skin.
“Towels, I need towels,” he commanded, fighting to keep his panic under control. He had followed the ABC method of establishing criteria, and luckily Jake was relatively stable. Dylan was close to overwhelmed by the damage done to his body, almost to the point of being afraid to touch him, because he feared causing more harm through his lack of experience. But blood was pooling underneath Jake from somewhere, and he had to identify the source and try to stop it. One part of him wanted to gather him up in his arms and sob; the other fought for focus and took charge and he let it give him strength. He would deal with his anguish later. He would make sure George and Tony paid for this.
Sage had followed the men indoors, and now she flew into action, aided by directions from Avery. She procured towels from the upstairs linen cabinet, as Dylan gently checked Jake’s injuries. The blood seemed to be coming from a gash in his shoulder where the skin peeled back to the bone, and he showed Sage how to use the folded towel and press to staunch the bleeding. All the while his fingers skimmed Jake looking for more injuries. He was worried over his unconscious state but also saw it as a blessing considering how much pain he’d be in if awake. He kept talking to him.
“It’s okay, baby, we’re here. We have you, and everything is going to be alright. Nobody can hurt you now.”
Sage looked at him with tear-bright eyes and forced a tiny, wretched smile. She could feel Dylan’s guilt and torment, and even though her heart was breaking for Jake, it was doing the same for Dylan. If her hands hadn’t been so busy holding the absorbent cotton against Jake’s wounds, she would’ve given him a comforting hug.
The ruckus had brought out the neighbors, and Mr. Moore arrived too. They took charge of George who was still struggling to get away and yelling about his faggot son needing to learn respect and discipline. “He’s a cocksucking sissy.”
“Shut up, you stupid old man,” Tony shouted before bursting into tears. “You weren’t supposed to hurt him.” Nobody paid attention to him. Nobody thought it important to be gentle with them either.
The saddened and shocked friends, now freed of their duties as deputies, pushed in around the trio on the floor, and Dylan had to firmly tell them to stand back and give Jake air. In the distance they could hear approaching sirens. Patricia rushed into the house and began bawling when she saw Jake lying so bloody and still. Marcus was so hysterical he could barely stand up and was being held tightly against his father’s broad chest for support.
The police arrived to take the two Madera men into custody with Tony protesting loudly that he didn’t do anything wrong and had, in fact, tried to keep George from hurting Jake. As far as law enforcement was concerned, they still had to investigate and ruled out nothing at this stage. Tony, however, was unable to keep his thoughts to himself and began to share a wealth of detailed information on how he came to be in Aleppo Park. The officers had to hurry and read him his Miranda rights because he had no intention of invoking his right to silence or waiting for an attorney; he wanted to explain his side now to all listeners. He not only thoroughly incriminated himself but also George and Kelsey, and a squad car was dispatched to pick her up for questioning.
The paramedics arrived on the heels of the police, and Dylan was frantically trying to listen in on their medical jargon and follow their procedures as they worked on Jake. He watched one tech cut his bloody t-shirt away and attach EKG leads to his chest and start an IV in his hand. Temporary splints on an ankle, his arm and the other hand. An oxygen cannula was fit into his nose as another paramedic slipped a cervical collar around his neck. All the time, they were in contact with the hospital emergency room sending back stats and getting orders for treatment.
At the same time, since Dylan seemed to know more about the situation than anyone else he was being forced to give a witness statement to a police detective asking questions about Jake’s past troubles with his father and Kelsey’s part in the crime. The whole story about Clarence… er, Tony’s behavior at Long Beach State came out, meaning more inquiries. Dylan’s eyes kept darting back and forth, knowing he should pay attention to the officer but afraid that Jake was going to be hustled off to the hospital under his nose.
Much to Dylan’s surprise, Patricia walked up right at that moment and put a soft arm around his shoulder, taking in the name on the policeman’s badge. “Mr. Thurber, do you think we could continue this questioning at the hospital. The EMT’s are nearly ready to transport Jake to Samaritan, and I’m sure his boyfriend would like to be there.”
The detective nodded and closed his notebook. “That can be done. We’ll meet you there in a half-hour.”
Dylan turned and gave Pat a tearful hug. “Thanks.” He could hardly believe he was being accepted and forgiven so quickly.
She tugged on a lock of blonde bangs. “I know you love him, Dylan, and he loves you. Don’t let him down again.”
“I won’t,” he whispered, meaning it sincerely.
Handcuffed and being held by two officers as they waited for a secure squad car to take him off to jail, Tony was watching Dylan as if trying to remember where he’d seen him before. “Hey, I think I know you.”
Dylan, maybe in gratitude because Tony was trying to help Jake in the end, decided not to prolong the torture. “Yeah, you’re Clarence from Long Beach State. I’m the one who got in your face about taking pictures and harassing gay couples on campus. You’re probably also the one who sent the incriminating photos to Jake’s dad that got him in so much trouble.”
Tony gave him an unhappy ‘it’s a small world’ scowl. “So what are you doing here?”
“Well, first of all, I live here in Aleppo Park,” Dylan stated fiercely, staring directly in his eyes as if in challenge. I’m an old friend of Marcus’, Jake’s cousin. More importantly, Jake is my boyfriend.”
Oh, the one Tony had purposely been protecting Jake over. It definitely was a small world. However, old habits die hard. “So what, that means you’re a fag?” He didn’t see the sardonic grin that one policeman passed to the other over his stupidity or the way his partner shook his head in amusement back.
“Yeah,” said Dylan. “I guess it does.”
Dylan rode to the hospital with the Walkers, listening in while Patricia hesitantly phoned her sister. Carolyn was at first unable to comprehend what would drive her husband into such a fanatical rage that he could nearly kill their son, but she had to believe it. Frightened by the description of his wounds and sickened by the violence, she hoped the legal system dealt with him severely. She immediately began to make arrangements to get to Orange County on the earliest flight out of Fresno she could manage. She asked Pat to call David and Adam, and by the time the family arrived at Samaritan, Carolyn had already made arrangements for Pat and Avery to temporarily take authority for Jake’s medical treatment.
The only information available at first was that, yes, Jake had been transported by ambulance and was currently being assessed. Paperwork was shoved at his aunt and uncle as well as questions about allergies, but nobody was allowed to see him. The triage staff had stabilized him as best they could, performing numerous tests and x-rays. Pat and Avery were finally apprised of the situation by the surgeon who ran through an extensive list of injuries from broken bones to internal injuries. They clutched each other and gave their permission for treatment, and then he was hustled off to surgery. They were told to expect a long wait.
Forever after, Dylan would remember the horrible hours spent in the waiting room hoping for word of Jake. The rest of the crew showed up almost immediately, followed by some of Marcus’ college friends and neighbors of the Walkers. Even a few of the day camp counselors found out and dropped by to give their best wishes. Dylan huddled in desolation at the end of the row, afraid to look at Marcus who, now that the crisis was over, ignored him and talked quietly to Noah and Spencer.
He saw Sage stand up from her seat next to Noah, walk around to perch on the edge of a table by Marc and whisper in his ear. Peripherally, he caught a few sharp glances from him and a pleading look from her in Dylan’s direction. A few minutes later, Marcus approached him and gingerly sat down.
“Sage says you’re the one who learned about Jake’s dad first off and organized them to go save him,” Marcus said softly, staring at the floor. “So thanks for doing that. If you hadn’t dragged the information from Kelsey, Jake might be dead…”
“Please don’t, Marcus,” Dylan begged, his face scrunched up in sorrow. “George and Tony wouldn’t have even been down here if it wasn’t for me. Because of my big mouth last weekend, Kelsey found out names she shouldn’t have ever learned, and Jake was left alone today at your house so he could pack. I’m no hero. I’m the asshole who dumped your cousin because of my own pride and as a result he got beaten to a pulp. Believe me, I feel like shit about it.”
“Well, that’s all good and well,” Marcus argued, looking at him thoughtfully, “but if you don’t mind, I’m going to be grateful that you recognized the danger in time to save his life. We can come back to this hating each other place after Jake gets out of the hospital, okay?”
Dylan looked shocked as if he didn’t believe Marcus was serious. All he saw was the typical goof he’d grown up with, no hard feelings and looking like he honestly wanted to get along. Dylan couldn’t help a smile at that. “Okay, we’ll make a date for two weeks from today to resume hostilities.”
The heavy automatic glass doors of the ER slid open and two tall men in their mid-twenties looking like hazel-eyed versions of Jake, complete with curly hair, strode through and made a beeline for Pat and Avery. Their faces were tense and angry, and after hugs from the family they immediately asked for updates. Three hours after arrival, and nobody was any the wiser. Quick introductions were made between them and Jake’s friends, and Adam and David went to badger the staff for information on their little brother.
They came back, disappointed and sat down across from Dylan. “Aunt Pat says you’re Jake’s boyfriend?” Adam asked cautiously.
Dylan looked embarrassed. “I hope I am. I haven’t treated him very well this past week, so that’s up to him.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much, Dylan,” David said soothingly. “Jake has a very forgiving nature. Although honestly, if you hurt him again, Adam and I might have to break your face.”
Dylan glanced at the brothers quickly and saw them grinning at him, and he tried to smile back. As much as he deserved it, the way Jake’s family was circling the wagons around him protectively felt weird. Maybe because he had no brothers, and he remembered what Jake had told him about his siblings that long ago afternoon on the yacht.
Time stretched out. Dylan was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. His parents came by to drop his Honda off so he’d have a way to get home, and Luis had to leave for work. He took Noah with him so he could bring back his own vehicle. Carolyn phoned that she had landed at John Wayne Airport and was renting a car. Six hours had passed without any word, and tension was rising.
Noah arrived back at the hospital at the same time Carolyn showed up and within seconds a doctor appeared calling for Jake’s family. Carolyn and her two older sons and all three Walkers got up, and Pat reached back and pulled Dylan to his feet to follow them. They went to an adjacent conference room where the doctor began to tell them just how much damage Jake’s body had sustained. By the time he finished they sat there stunned.
Everything would heal, but it would be slow. Jake’s broken jaw was wired shut, six ribs taped but fortunately, no brittle edges had punctured anything vital. Dislocated right shoulder, the same arm broken in three places that had to be pinned, and the wrist on the other side fractured as well as three fingers splinted. Left knee with severe tendon damage, right ankle sprained. They had repaired internal bleeding and removed his spleen. Jake was still unconscious, but it wasn’t a concern as yet. The consulting neurologist thought it might be his protective reaction against the trauma. It would also take at least a week before his face looked human again. The large tear in his shoulder had taken fifty stitches alone to close.
“Doctor,” Carolyn ventured. “Jake plays baseball at Long Beach State. He’s on scholarship there.”
He looked troubled at that. “I can’t say for sure. I’ve seen miracles, of course, from time to time but it's still too early to tell. A lot depends on the patient and how determined he is. He would need a lot of stamina and a very positive attitude. Rehabilitation of course. We can set up an appointment for your son to have follow-up with a good orthopedist who specializes in sports medicine. For certain, I don’t believe he’ll be fit to play this season, but with proper conditioning, well, we must wait and see."
Marcus looked at Dylan and whispered, “What did all that medical-speak mean?”
Dylan cleared his throat around the lump and blinked several times. “It means he doesn’t think Jake will ever be able to play college-level baseball again.”
“Oh,” Marcus answered in a small voice. “Damn!”
Life seemed to hang in a balance that didn’t exist before Saturday morning. Dylan didn’t like hospitals any better than the next guy, but everything on the outside became meaningless and too mundane to care about. Inside was filled with a frozen hush, but it was more vivid than any other part of his life. He made the decision from the very first that he was going to spend every available moment there as long as he was allowed. He was almost afraid to leave because so much lately seemed to turn on a whim of fate. He had almost lost Jake because of his own selfishness, and he was the heart of his future. Within those medical walls lay what mattered most to him.
That first afternoon he met Carolyn formally as the staff was getting Jake situated in the ICU. She was nice to him and they talked a lot about Jake. She wanted to know how they met, and even though she was a little standoffish at first he could tell she was trying to accept the idea of him and her son together. Dylan didn’t say it but he wasn’t even sure if they were still together or not. He decided to play it by ear until Jake got well enough to either forgive him or…
Dylan was finally allowed a short visit alone with him two hours after he was moved to his room in intensive care. The surgeon hadn’t sugar-coated one single thing about his condition. Jake’s face was black and blue, his beautiful green eyes covered in medicated gauze to battle the severe pressure from the swelling. Splinted shoulder and hand, casted arm; his taped chest was wired to the monitors as oxygen flowed into his lungs. A large bandage covered his abdomen. There were tubes everywhere and his IV bags carried antibiotics and steroids. Holding his undamaged hand, Dylan put his head down on the bed and cried. It only helped a little.
He found himself talking to Jake about everything he’d been doing for the past week since their fight. The kids at the pool who bothered him so much because Dylan didn’t want to lifeguard, he wanted time to sit down with him and try to explain why he’d been such a selfish jerk who took his fears out on his boyfriend when none of it was Jake’s fault. What he really meant to say that afternoon he’d yelled at him in the parking lot, and how he wanted to bite his tongue off afterwards. He even told him about the boring day camp luncheon and how much his coach appreciated him and of the award Jake would be receiving in the mail.
He went back out to the ICU waiting room. He couldn’t see Jake all that much because, face it, there were three Nielsen family members and three Walkers who all had dibs on him more than he did. His mother phoned and asked how Jake was doing, and upon hearing Dylan’s exhausted voice insisted he come home for at least a shower and meal. He would have refused to leave but he knew he needed to reserve his strength for later—that Jake would need him. Dylan grabbed thirty seconds to walk into his room and stroke his hair, telling him he’d be back after dinner.
He let his family feed him and try to cheer him up. Erin was a mess of shame and remorse, but he couldn’t pity her. If only she had come to him and told him what Kelsey wanted, maybe saving Jake wouldn’t have been necessary. His boy wouldn’t be lying in a hospital trying to recover from horrendous injuries, pumped up on painkillers and oblivious to the world. He saw how Kelsey had played Erin and knew that his former date’s spite was the root cause, but in the end it all came back to him. Dylan was the reason Jake had gotten hurt, and no matter how people tried to rationalize it away, he would forever blame himself.
Dylan finally let his mother persuade him to lie down for awhile. He fell asleep for three hours, waking up at 8:30, and insisting on going back to the hospital. Jake’s hospital room was empty of family members, and he figured they had to be just as worn out as he was. He settled in the chair next to Jake’s bed. Silently, he held his hand, watching his chest rise and fall with his breathing because that proved life was there. Just being in the intimacy of the quiet, single room was relaxing, and it felt good to share his strength with Jake through his touch. It was the only real thing he could do, and Dylan needed the encouragement that everything could be alright again. Even though he wasn’t normally a praying kind of guy, his lips moved asking for Jake to get well.
When Jake’s nurse came by at 10:30 to take vitals, she was surprised to find him asleep sitting up and still holding his hand, and she tucked a blanket around him and let him be. With the kind of injuries Jake had sustained, it was a holistic approach that patients did better with their loved ones around, so she had no plan to force Dylan out. The whole ICU staff knew the story of the gay kid who had been beaten by his homophobic dad to within an inch of his life. This must be the boyfriend.
Jake’s injuries began to improve. Bones were knitting, incisions and cuts healing, the swelling going down as bruises changed from purple to red and green to yellow. There were no signs of infection to cause concern. In the doctors’ experiences, this was how a young, healthy body assigned its arsenal of natural defenses to do its job, but to everyone else it was impressive how he seemed to be getting better from one day to the next.
If only Jake would wake up.
The neurologist said he was in a coma. Dylan knew what that was, and if there was ever a time he felt anxiety, it was with that four-letter word. Jake had developed a slight swelling of the brain within hours after surgery which the staff was keeping an eye on but that was the thing with coma. It was unpredictable. He could come out of it any day. At least that was the idea. Some people never did.
You could see the anxiety in everyone’s faces as they confronted this new dread. As strange as it seemed, the people who loved Jake bonded over his tragedy. His new friends drifted through the corridors to visit him, leaning on each other with whispered hopes and tears as they were introduced to his family. The Caldwells, O’Briens and Moores joined neighbors to bring in food or insist on them getting out for awhile for some exercise or sleep. Each new doctor who appeared brought new fear into the room. They all tried to stay positive, but the days passed, and Jake slept on.
Like the Walkers and the Nielsens, Dylan was at the hospital almost all the time. He slept on couches in the waiting room or sometimes even in his SUV in the parking lot. As an interesting side effect, Marcus, apparently content over the amount of time and attention he was giving his cousin, walked up to him on the fourth day and said they were cool. Even if Jake remained stubborn after he woke up and refused to forgive him they would remain friends. Dylan was so appreciative he nearly cried.
Carolyn got a leave of absence from her job and had moved in with the Walkers, and Adam and David took turns driving down from their homes and spending all day at the hospital. They all accepted Dylan, although the brothers weren’t sure how to treat him at first. The friendship opened up when Dylan brought in a deck of cards and found out they enjoyed Crazy Eights which they played when they couldn’t be with Jake. Noah, Luis and the twins participated when they were around, but Marcus and David cheated and argued over it. At least it passed the time.
Tony and George remained in jail even though Tony’s father and grandfather had appeared in court for him. It was plain he had no idea what he’d signed up for when he agreed to help George, although the college stalking story proved he wasn’t the All-America wholesome boy-got-tricked-into-crime he tried to pretend to be. The DA told him if he didn’t want to spend the next ten years in prison he was going to have to accept a deal and plead guilty to a variety of charges pertaining to false imprisonment and stalking. The added hate crimes charge was a possibility, but in exchange for turning state’s evidence and testifying against Jake’s dad he would get a shortened sentence in the county jail.
The prosecutor wasn’t even offering George a plea bargain; he was going to be indicted for a variety of crimes including attempted murder. There were enough witnesses, not only in Aleppo Park where the crime took place but in Madera where he’d been overheard threatening Jake, that it would be nearly impossible for him to beat the rap. Kelsey had also fallen under the gavel with a bunch of conspiracy allegations that would probably get knocked down to misdemeanors, but she was facing house arrest, fines and domestic violence classes.
Dylan, finding the night staff of the hospital very welcoming, changed his whole routine so he could visit Jake after dark. Sometimes they watched tv together, although Jake really wasn’t seeing anything. Dylan knew comatose patients often were aware of their surroundings, so he told Jake repeatedly that he was sorry and he loved him, hoping he would hear him subconsciously. Dylan also read to him, sometimes novels, sometimes his sophomore year textbooks, as boring as they were. The nurses seemed to know better how he was doing than the doctors, and they told him he was improving. Eight days after the beating, the nurses sought Dylan out as he was checking in for the night and said that Jake was showing signs of waking up.
Day nine went by, and the Walkers and Jake’s mom stayed longer hours because nobody wanted to miss the moment Jake came out of his coma. He seemed to be semi-conscious at times or he would move restlessly under the blankets. By now there was only a little puffiness in his face and the skin color was evening out. Stitches were dissolving and the sprained ankle should be as good as new, although they had no way to test that theory. The only good part about Jake being unaware for nine days was that he didn’t have to deal with the pain. Dylan felt like everyone was holding their breath.
Day ten arrived, and Dylan left early for the hospital. He was just getting ready to back out of his driveway when he received a text from Marcus to inform him that Jake had been awake for about fifteen minutes. He was definitely emerging from the coma. His neurologist had already warned the visitors about what to expect, including confusion and memory loss. Dylan didn’t care as long as Jake really did wake up and didn’t forget the last two and a half months completely. That would suck… not ever meeting, for them to be complete strangers, but maybe if he got lucky, the fight never happened for Jake.
The staff was relaxing their visitation regulations for Jake’s family, so Marcus and Pat were present when Dylan popped into the room. Jake’s eyes were closed and he looked like he was reclining in bed, conscious, but Dylan wasn’t fooled. This was the way he’d looked for the past day and a half. He pulled out a paperback and began to read.
An hour later and Carolyn showed up. Pat suggested the boys get some food and they went to the cafeteria. They started shooting the breeze, and one thing led to another. An hour went by before they knew it, and they made their way upstairs.
They found a doctor and several nurses around Jake’s bed with the two women smiling happily from the other side of the room out of the way. Jake had woken up for ten minutes, gone back under for five and been awake ever since. He was talking to the doctor in slow, slurry sentences and answering questions. With a beckon to the ladies to follow him, the physician stepped out of the room. Dylan stayed put with his boyfriend and Marcus. It was the happiest he’d felt for days.
Marcus was talking to him about generally nonsensical stuff while Dylan simply listened. He enjoyed watched Jake who was slowly following his cousin with his eyes but otherwise was completely still. Then Marcus told Jake a story about a man who had recently come in to the auto shop where he sometimes worked. It was pretty humorous with several punch lines. Dylan let out with a loud laugh, and the effect was electric on Jake.
Green eyes quickly tracked across from one side of the bed to the other until they found Dylan. The blonde boy lit up in a huge grin of relief seeing him conscious and responsive. Maybe this whole nightmare would be over soon.
Seeing Dylan shocked Jake, especially with how friendly Marcus was acting towards him. Weren’t they enemies because of him? That had to be right. He was still living mostly in dreams and thoughts, not totally in the present, so it wasn’t surprising that he thought it was still the day he was going to leave Aleppo Park. Oh yeah, he’d been packing to move to David’s, again, because of Dylan. His memories seemed to be rather blurry, and he didn’t exactly know where he was. He felt discomfort in various places in his body and thought he might be in a hospital, and that was a panicky concept. But it brought back the scary memory of his father and Tony at his house. After remembering opening the front door it was a blank.
But watching Dylan next to his bed, even with a goofy grin on his face and heartfelt relief shining out of his eyes, triggered a memory so strong it almost made him gasp. That awful Saturday which, to him, was just a week ago when Dylan found the yearbooks and attacked him verbally over Tony’s picture in them. Dylan was the man, who had, in the course of half an hour, smashed his world over some stupid argument he never explained. Frankly, Jake didn’t care anymore what his reasons were. He was the same man who had ignored his pleas on his cell phone and who sneered at him in the parking lot. The one he had tried to pretend he’d never met because Dylan had turned Jake’s heart inside out and stomped on it.
In the real world he recognized Marcus face and voice. He also recognized Dylan’s but it didn’t bring him joy. As much as he loved him, his eyes refused to believe what he was seeing. Dylan didn’t love him back. Why was he here?
For the first time in a week and a half Jake was able to talk. Not clearly because of the wires holding his jaw together, but enough to be understood. He looked straight at Dylan and part of him wanted to break in grief. The other part felt dead.
“Dylan, please get out and leave me alone.”
(To be continued...)