Coercion Or Convenience, It Definitely Isn't Love Yet
“Dude, it will be okay,” Marcus urged as he followed Dylan through the door of Jake’s room into the busy hall of the hospital. “Give him a few days.”
Marcus seemed to think that Dylan was hurt and angry and needed to be calmed down like a petulant child. Okay, hurt he’d own up to, but he fully deserved Jake’s anger. The anger he directed at himself. Why was Marcus acting so surprised? Jake had every right in the world to ask him to leave. He understood his reasons and had no intentions of challenging him over it.
“You don’t have to follow me, Marc,” he shot back over his shoulder, taking a deep breath. “Stay with Jake. I’m okay, really. If he needs time, I can give it to him. If he wants me to keep away from him, I’m okay with that too, at least temporarily. We can decide how permanent once he’s out of here and a hundred percent.”
Marcus seemed unconvinced and kept trailing behind him. Past Carolyn and Pat who were speaking with Jake’s neurologist as they followed the boys’ progress with owlish eyes before turning back towards Jake’s room. Around several vital sign monitors parked against the wall and beyond the busy nurse’s station towards the bank of elevators.
“As long as you remember what Dr. Suarez said about him… about people waking up from comas. They have problems with memory and get confused easy. Jake isn’t really angry at you.”
Dylan almost laughed outright in self-mockery. There was nothing in Jake’s words that came across as confused. He sounded as if he knew exactly who Dylan was and hated him for being there. But Dylan was a big boy. He could swallow his pride and keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“I know he will have a lot to get used to once he wakes up, and the last thing he needs is my presence making it worse for him. I’ve already caused enough trouble, and no, that’s not self-pity, it’s fact. The least I can do is relieve him of having to think about our last fight and all the shit I put on him.”
“But Dylan…” After everything Dylan had done for Jake in the past ten days, Marcus felt awful that he was being chased off. It was such a conflict of feelings he’d been going through lately; anger at his best friend for hurting his cousin, immediately switching over to gratitude for Dylan’s part in the rescue and now feeling bad over Jake driving him away again.
They stopped by the elevator, and Dylan pushed the down button and waited for the lift to arrive. Marcus looked truly worried about him, and he tried to make it right. “I can’t believe that you’re out here with me when Jake just woke up from his coma. He’s the one who needs you, not me. So go back to him, Marcus, and make sure he’s alright. I’ll live.”
The elevator dinged to announce their floor, and the boys moved back a little as a man and his young daughter got out. Dylan stepped inside and pivoted on his foot, and the last thing he saw was Marcus staring at him in a woebegone fashion.
Back in his room, Jake was wondering where everyone disappeared to. He didn’t feel quite real, sort of woozy with his senses fading in and out. For some reason he couldn’t open his mouth at all and there was pain in his jaw when he tried to force it. Twinges skittered through his chest and stomach. Weight around his knee, his left hand was splinted and a sharp ache in his other arm too. He could smell disinfect, and the beeping of monitoring equipment sounded close to his ear. He definitely seemed to be in a hospital given all the stimuli. He vaguely suspected that he was hopped up on some good drugs.
Jake opened his eyes to a frugal, efficient and questionably sterile room and wanted to jump out of his skin. The IV line hooked to his arm was enough of a giveaway, not to mention that his chest was a mess of leads attached to any part of his bare anatomy that wasn’t covered by medical tape. There was another bandage encasing his shoulder and a fiberglass cast from his armpit to his hand. He didn’t want to look at why he couldn’t wiggle his fingers or move his left leg, knowing there was damage there too. He most definitely could not open his mouth, and his tongue felt wires attached to his teeth.
Two thoughts popped into his mind instantly. One, how was he going to play baseball with all these injuries? Despite the strong certainty that he had pain medication flowing into him, he could intuitively tell that they were fairly extensive.
Two, there was only one reason he could think of for needing to be in a hospital, and that was because his father must have pounded him. That’s right, he dimly remembered George and Tony showing up at the front door and forcing their way inside. His father angry that he’d sneaked away in May and at his mother for helping him. He began hitting him and calling him names, insisting he was sleeping with every man in sight.
No, only one man… Dylan… but he didn’t tell him that. Blearily he wondered if Tony helped beat him up too.
Dylan was here. No, he had been here but he wasn’t now. Jake had sent him away, hadn’t he? How strange the sight of him was, his bright blue eyes overjoyed to see him. Why would Jake waking up seem like the best thing that ever happened to him? Why was he even in his room, and why wasn’t Marcus furious with him? He had immediately run after Dylan when he told him to leave, acting worried about him. Nothing made sense.
Where was everyone?
Just last week—he thought it was last week—Dylan walked out of his life. No phone calls, no texts, no attempts to see him in all that time. Just that unpleasant encounter in the parking lot at the rec center causing Jake to decide to leave town. He didn’t want to run into him accidentally, and it wasn’t reasonable to expect Dylan to avoid the same places he hung out at with Marcus. Oh, that’s right, he’d told Marcus to make up with Dylan, so was that the answer? That was quick. It made him feel a little jealous that it only took a matter of hours for them to make it good between them again. What the hell!
Pat and Carolyn returned, chattering softly. Jake fuzzily remembered his mother had been there earlier, but he gave her another smile when she bent over to kiss his forehead. Both sisters had tears in their eyes, and Jake knew it was important but… Suddenly, he was too dizzy to figure it out. Hmm. He’d worry about it when he woke up. He was so tired again.
Marcus walked into the room to find Jake resting quietly and his mother and aunt looking at him for answers. “He saw Dylan and told him to leave. I had to talk to him and make sure he wasn’t upset.”
Both women gazed at Jake sadly. All Carolyn had heard about the split that there was a misunderstanding about some boy from Madera at their college, and they’d had a huge fight over it. Patricia and Marcus had been vague on the details, but she assumed harsh words had been said and Dylan had broken up with Jake.
Still, she felt no real anger towards the older boy. She recognized how transient many teen relationships were and knew Jake could be stubborn. Besides, that the person her youngest son adored was male took some getting used to. It was a hard enough concept to weed her way through for now without assigning blame. There were more important things to worry about, like Jake waking up. The animal Carolyn chose to focus her rage on would hopefully rot in prison for the rest of his life.
Patricia worried for both Jake and Dylan. Her heart went out to Dylan who, even though he was to blame initially, had proven his love by unselfishly spending every night at the hospital with the injured boy until he was nearly exhausted himself.
“Dr. Suarez says to try not to overwhelm Jake with questions and answers for today,” his mother cautioned. “There will be time enough tomorrow for learning details like the extent of his injuries and what will be required to fully heal. He suggested we stay as vague as possible unless it begins to upset him.”
Marcus nodded. It was a relief to put off any heavy discussion with Jake for another day, but sooner or later, he must make him understand how much the whole situation had changed in ten days. It wasn’t as if the fight over Tony was no longer important, but considering the scare since that terrible morning when they’d burst into the house to find Jake half-dead, it definitely wasn’t as relevant. He hoped he would forgive Dylan because with all he had done for Jake, he at least deserved his friendship. Marcus was also positive that Dylan loved his cousin and Jake loved him back whether they were willing to admit it or not.
Still coming out of his coma, Jake slept off and on all the rest of the day. When he was awake, his jaw made it difficult to talk. He didn’t feel like asking questions, and nobody pushed him to remember. Several of his doctors making their hospital rounds over the afternoon checked out his progress, but he didn’t have the strength to listen to them discuss him with his mother and aunt.
Except to use the restroom or eat, Marcus stayed with him in his room with a miserable look on his face. “What’s wrong?” Jake grimaced more than once through the wires. But Marcus just shook his head and smiled, telling him several times it was good he was finally awake. Jake didn’t exactly comprehend what was so ‘finally’ about it but he could see the worry.
By mid-afternoon he did begin to get a strange feeling that a length of time had passed while he was asleep. Maybe it was the way the family whispered around him, but when he asked it was like a wall went up. Had he been more alert the secrecy would’ve made him angry. Everyone was focusing on how he felt and talking about him eating solid food again, maybe getting him up and moving around by the next morning. He felt like an invalid that had become a burden to his family. His mom had a job up in Fresno so why wasn’t she there? Oh, that’s right, it was the weekend. Or was it?
Then to completely throw his equilibrium into disarray, David and Adam bustled into his room as he pushed aside his liquid dinner in a cup of some kind of bland cream soup with pureed vegetables. Both acted hearty and relieved, and Jake had no way of knowing how excited they were to find him awake and relatively aware after days of unconsciousness.
David looked at Marcus and asked, “Where’s the Crazy Eights champ? Maybe Jake is feeling up to playing a round or two.”
Marcus mouthed, “Not now,” and looked decidedly anxious. Jake wondered why. Adam shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject.
Hmm. He kept drifting in and out. It was now nine o’clock and he looked at the people around his room. Cousin, aunt, mother, brothers, boyfriend. Dylan was here, right? Nope, no boyfriend… former boyfriend… ex-boyfriend.
Something nagged at Jake—Dylan’s eyes. Those beautiful cerulean irises edged in silver and how lit up they were as he stood across the bed from Marcus. His cousin was telling a joke. Dylan laughed. The first indication that someone besides Marcus was in the room with him, and he recognized Dylan through his laughter. He looked at him… how happy Dylan was. Happy because of him? But Dylan left and so did Marcus, leaving him alone in his hospital room. He told him to leave.
Jake must have dozed off before the end of visiting hours because the next thing he knew it was 10:30 and he was tired of resting. He wasn’t in pain, but he was certain now that he was getting regular medication through his IV. He turned on the television but nothing interested him so he settled for a cooking show on baking chicken with oranges. It made him hungry. When Shannon, the night assistant, came in after two he was still awake.
She was in her late twenties with long blonde hair in a ponytail. “Hey, Jake,” she said with a wink. “You’re looking good, hun. Where’s your better half?” She looked around curiously as if expecting another person to be hiding in the shadows.
His what? “I don’t know…”
She saw his puzzlement. Shannon, used to dealing with post-coma patients and their confusion, decided to help. “Dylan… you know. Tall, sexy guy with pretty eyes and blonde hair to die for, has been here every single night reading books to you?”
“He went home,” Jake managed to get out. Dylan read to him? Surely not. He mimed that it was just him.
"Well, he sure is a devoted boyfriend,” Shannon gushed with a big smile.
“Not my boyfriend,” he gasped out. He could still see Dylan’s angry face mocking him.
“I’m sorry. That’s what all the nurses heard.” She walked over to his IV stand and began adjusting a valve and pushing buttons. “He was a right mess when you were brought in, crying and all, so concerned over your injuries, especially the coma. The day crew said they had to shoo him out of the hospital every morning just to make him get some sleep. If you had been out much longer, we were going to set up a cot for him.”
He didn’t want to discuss Dylan, no matter how loyal and dedicated she made him sound… or maybe because of it. This was the first direct hint that it wasn’t Saturday anymore. “How long?” he croaked.
“How long have you been here?” Jake nodded, and Shannon pulled herself up to give him a sharp look, like maybe she shouldn’t be so free with the information. “Well, I…”
She felt sorry for him, and his begging eyes did her in. “Do you remember when you were admitted?”
Jake had to reflect. “Saturday… First weekend… August.”
“August fourth,” she supplied. “Today is the fourteenth… well, actually now it’s Wednesday, the fifteenth.”
Jake fell back against the pillows, stunned. He’d been out for ten days. Ten days? He remembered next to nothing, not even much about that Saturday. Since waking that morning, he had done a fairly thorough evaluation on his aches and pains and came to the conclusion that he was pretty badly banged up. His father had done this to him. His father had put him in the hospital. A big part of him hoped that George was dead.
What had Shannon said about Dylan—that he’d been there every night reading to him. Crying over him. That was not possible. Why would he bother to do that? Did it mean that Dylan wasn’t angry at him anymore? Who the hell cared! The way Marcus had run after him when he walked out was also a sign of a lot of changes in the past ten days he wasn’t aware of. Marcus had forgiven Dylan, but it didn’t mean he could.
Shannon suggested a mild sedative, and he agreed, even though he wasn’t tired. Being awake for several hours had helped to clear his mind, and now he could see how much his loved ones had been encouraging his avoidance by side-stepping his requests and changing the subject. It upset him, come to think of it. Jake was determined not to let them put him off, as much as they thought they were doing what was best for him. Tomorrow he would find out what was going on. Now that he knew the truth, he had a lot of questions that needed answers, and nobody was going to keep him in the dark.
Jake allowed his mother and aunt’s bustling around the next morning waiting for them to pull up chairs and launch into an explanation about his recent past, but all they did was make vague references to how much better he looked and how glad they were that he was improving. He had to wait for Marcus to arrive closer to lunch, and then for the nurses to take away his unpalatable meal concoction of thin mashed potatoes and fortified gravy. If he didn’t get something solid to bite into soon he was going to scream.
Carolyn and Pat walked out the door on their way to the cafeteria and he wanted to beg them to bring food back to him. Marcus sat down next to the bed trying to find something innocuous to talk about.
Jake was having none of it. Jake pointed to a pad and paper he had been using to communicate since talking was so tiring, and he scowled to show he meant business. Marcus handed him the items, and he wrote, ‘11 days here, you + Dylan friends, why?’
His cousin threw him a guilty look, and Jake demanded, “Tell me the truth.”
Marcus nodded as if expecting the cross-examination, but he was hesitant at first. “To start with, I don’t know the reasons yet why Dylan went ballistic on you over the yearbook. Noah says there is a legit story there. He doesn’t agree with how he handled it but it wasn’t all bullshit, okay?”
Jake was fairly sure of what was coming, and he felt the pressure on him to make this right with Dylan. While it helped to know his behavior wasn’t totally random, it didn’t make up for the way he had treated him. ‘Ask Noah?’ he wrote.
“You should probably get Dylan’s side of the story from him.” Jake’s face set in a stubborn scowl, and Marcus sighed in resignation. “If you don’t want to ask him, Noah will be glad tell you. Now that everyone else has listened to his side, they kind of understand why he freaked out.”
Jake started to tell Marcus he didn’t want to ask Dylan anything but shucked it off along with the annoyance that their friends seemed to be further up-to-date than he was. They had already chosen sides, meaning he was going to be the bad guy if he didn’t make a solid effort to forgive his ex. However, there was a lot more to Marcus' tale, and he suspected they didn’t have much time before the women returned.
Marcus took in Jake’s impatient look and continued. “So the morning we went out for breakfast and left you at the house, Noah says he called you and told you that he and the gang were going over to say goodbye.”
Jake nodded, remembering this tidbit for the first time even as Marcus brought it up. He didn’t take the time to write. “Noah called. Doorbell rang… thought Noah. Opened door to Dad, Tony.”
Marcus groaned. Even though they had been finding out information from Kelsey that made it beyond anyone’s control, the fact was that Noah, the twins, Luis and Dylan had arrived at the Walker home far later than they planned. Their delay in getting all the facts from her before dashing off to the Walkers’ had given George time to hurt Jake badly.
Jake was still talking. “Dad and Tony walked in. Angry at Moms.” Jake pantomimed both of them, meaning both Carolyn and Patricia. He pointed to himself. “Called me whore.” Marcus let out a grunt of anger. “Punched me over and over. Tony watched.” His voice was bitter.
“Well, maybe,” Marcus said doubtfully because he wasn’t there during that part and didn’t know Jake’s side of it. “In the end, Tony was trying to pull him off you. That’s when we showed up, and he was screaming that your father was going to kill you. Which he would have if…” Marcus ducked his head.
“If?” Jake urged. He knew they were getting to the thorny part of it now.
Marcus let out with a heavy sigh and steepled his fingers against his lips, thinking for awhile. “You asked, so don’t get mad when I tell you this, but Dylan is why you’re still here. He saved you, Jake.”
Haltingly but determined to make his cousin face the truth, Marcus disclosed the events of that Saturday morning. The way the group had conspired to sneak Dylan over to the house to try to dissuade him from moving to Venice and Kelsey’s sudden appearance at the Moores’. How suspicious her teasing little nuggets of information made him until at last he wrung the whole truth from her. Marcus made it brief but factual, and Jake found himself believing it against his will.
“Not only did he go after Kelsey and lead the charge to rescue you from your dad,” Marcus concluded, “but he did a damned good job of first aid and taking care of your injuries until the paramedics arrived. Everyone says he should switch majors and go into pre-med. Dylan would make a first-class doctor.”
Jake wrote fast: ‘So gratitude is 4 supposedly saving my life?’
“There is no ‘supposedly’ about it, Jake,” Marcus sputtered angrily. “Kelsey told him everything about her contact with Tony and how he and George were driving down to Aleppo Park that day. He put two and two together to realize that you were in grave danger. When we broke into the house your father was trying to choke you.”
‘How can you act like what he did is nothing?’
“I’m not pretending it didn’t happen or agreeing he was right,” Marcus exclaimed. “I’m moving past it.”
Jake set his face angrily and scrawled, ‘Moving past it? You were there that day in your backyard. You heard what he said to me. He DUMPED me, Marc. He was brutal to me at camp the following week.’
“Can’t you be willing to admit he made a mistake the same way Dylan knows he did?” Marcus pleaded. “Call it extenuating circumstances, but he’s more than made up for it. I talked to him every day he came to visit you. He cares about you, Jake.”
“He doesn’t give a shit about what happens to me. He just feels guilty.” Jake felt like chucking his pad of paper at his cousin for being so gullible.
Marcus fixed Jake with blazing eyes. “I’m going to give you a pass on that statement because I know you’ve been out of it… sick… whatever. But if you can honestly believe that to be true after everything he’s done, then you are just as much of a douche as he was. Maybe more. You didn’t see him the day your dad beat you up.”
He began tearing up. “When I ran into the house and saw all that blood and Uncle George with his hands around your neck and you not moving, I thought you were already dead. We pulled him off you, but then everyone kind of froze in panic. Not Dylan—he got to work. He checked your breathing, and he knew what to do and what to leave alone for the EMTs. He was scared and wanted to rip George’s head off, but he kept to his task. Seeing to your welfare was the most vital part.
“Then we get to the hospital and Sage comes over and tells me what Dylan did to Kelsey and how he knows he was out of line with you. So I, you know, I think… I think I at least owe him a word of thanks for being smart and putting it all together to alert us that you were in trouble. And you know what he said? He told me not to thank him because it was his fault you were injured. You shouldn’t have been there alone in the first place. His stupidity and big mouth put you at Uncle George’s mercy because if he hadn’t accused you of all that stuff he would’ve been with you. How that bullshit got back to Kelsey and she used it to tell Tony where your father could find you. Even yesterday when you kicked him out of here, he understood and said he deserved it.
Marcus stared at him, wanting him to at least make an effort to listen to the truth. “For the past ten days he’s spent most of his time here with you. Mom, Aunt Carolyn and I would come to see you in the morning, and he would be asleep in a chair, and we could tell he’d been here all night. He’d leave and grab a couple hours sleep and be right back here.”
Jake shrugged in embattled confusion, and Marcus could see him fighting his fear with hope. He wanted to think that all was not lost. “It’s totally up to you, Jake, whether you want to trust Dylan enough to get back together, but at least have the decency to cut him some slack. I know he didn’t act like it that last week, but he still cares about you, I know he does.”
Peripherally, Jake thought this was more or less the truth too. Again as if in a dream state, recollections abruptly came back of late night visits and being read to by a warm, familiar voice, just like the nurse had said. A man held his hand tenderly and cried over him, brokenly begging for forgiveness for fucking up and swearing that he loved him. When he woke up Dylan had looked so happy standing next to his bed… and so crushed when Jake told him to go home.
However even if he was sure the last was real, couldn’t the first part be a coma-induced dream because he wanted it to be true? With only Marcus’ short justification making a dent in the details from the past ten days, Jake didn’t know how to reconcile the two Dylans. One shouting at him angrily without giving him a chance to defend himself and leaving his heart in the dust, the other grieving that his callous actions were liable for his father finding and injuring him. If he had been ready to exonerate Dylan, Marcus enlightenment was a good start. But no matter how much his cousin pushed him, he wasn’t.
Suddenly he was tired again, as if the least little amount of exertion exhausted him, and it was frustrating. He knew it would take time to recover from the coma, but he wanted to stop being the sick kid everyone worried over. He was supposed to be getting ready to begin his sophomore year of college and he was trapped in a hospital bed.
Jake forced himself to relax. What Dylan had done for him should have been reassuring but it added to his disorientation. He’d lost so many days in that room, never to get them back. The real villains were Tony and his dad. He wondered if he’d ever remember the events clearly and decided maybe he didn’t want to. Settling back under the blankets, he found a comfortable position. By the time Carolyn and Patricia returned he was asleep again.
Two days later he was ready for discharge. His physicians had made him fully aware of his limitations, and he struggled hourly not to become disillusioned by the extent of them. His chances of playing baseball for the Dirtbags were doubtful unless he was willing to undergo extensive rehabilitation, and even then there were no guarantees. The crushed wrist and fingers and an arm pinned in three places could seriously compromise the power in his swing and make throwing a ball cumbersome. It wasn’t just the torn muscles in his shoulder; the repaired tendon in his knee would most likely give him problems for the rest of his life. The question of whether the university would extend a scholarship to an injured player after this upcoming season was a problem he would have to face once he ended rehabilitation. A physiotherapist had already been around twice to exercise his knee, and he expected the rest to be equally unpleasant.
As for the rest, his ribs were mending, the bruises were nearly gone and his incisions were mostly a dull ache. He could expect to live with his jaw wired shut for another two weeks at least, and that was going to be the worst of all because he could barely talk and had to drink every meal. Given what he knew about his injuries, he was indeed lucky he wasn’t dead or still comatose. Walking was stiff and painful and the use of crutches impossible. He could hobble between rooms, for instance, but for longer distances he would have to be resigned to using a wheelchair. Already, Pat had transformed a first floor den over to make him a bedroom so he wouldn’t have to worry about the stairs.
Jake arrived home to excited fanfare from the whole family including his brothers who wanted to throw him a welcome home celebration. The twins showed up with Luis and Noah in tow, and Jake felt a little overwhelmed. As much as he tried to enjoy it, the experience of being home after so long made the party felt surreal. Add to that was the fact that he couldn’t eat pizza like the rest of the revelers and had to stick to liquefied foods he could drink through a straw.
And Dylan wasn’t there. His absence felt funny.
Reclining on the couch with his friends around him Jake held court. Every couple of minutes Sage would get teary-eyed, and Spencer complained how surfing wasn’t the same without him. It felt like they were all waiting for the other person to open the conversation, and it was very wearing on him.
Finally he looked at Noah. “Tell me about Dylan.”
So he did. This boy, Clarence, who turned out to be Tony, was harassing Dylan’s friends. Jake didn’t know he was a student there simply because Tony was living off-campus with his grandparents and he wanted to float under the radar. As he’d confessed to the police, it was he who saw Jake and Miguel being affectionate on campus and came up with the plan to photograph them kissing and mail the pictures to George as a way to get back at his former friend. The thrill of outing Jake to his parents spurred him into using his anonymity to further intimidate other boys in the gay community. That was the start of his three week crime spree until he was confronted by another student. Dylan, while not a target, was spooked enough by the fallout that when he saw the same kid in Jake’s high school yearbook he panicked and lashed out at him.
Sage looked inquiringly at Jake. “Did you know Tony was Clarence?”
Jake shook his head. “Afterwards,” he said as clearly as he could. “Tony… middle name.”
Jake could see light dawning for all of them.
“But you still didn’t know he took your picture?” Noah asked.
He shrugged sheepishly. Even after discovering the proof of Tony at Long Beach State, it never occurred to Jake that he was the one who sent the photos to his father. That made him feel kind of foolish, but then all Dylan had done that day in his back yard was yell a lot without explaining his accusations.
Being on the other end of the vindictive boy’s shenanigans, he could now better comprehend Dylan’s anger and anxiety. How unnerved he would have been seeing Clarence’s photo in his yearbooks. Why he might have jumped to conclusions and assumed that Jake played a part in the deception rather than being a fellow victim. It didn’t get Dylan off the hook for his blatant overreaction, but it made more sense.
Jake’s ironic misfortune was to be in the same category as those others tormented by his former classmate, but he had certainly suffered more than anyone else. Maybe it was because he was the only one involved whose parents had received photos of their son kissing another man. Tony had targeted him specifically because of George so his brush-up against the resulting bigotry was much more damaging. It wasn’t Dylan’s fault that his father was abusive any more than knowing Tony made it Jake’s.
All of his friends sat around him staring and waiting for him to make a choice. The big question was where did the past three weeks leave them? He missed Dylan, but forgiving him fully would take time—if he chose to. Jake hated grudges and didn’t want to hold one against him. Especially since the rest of the crew desperately wanted them all to be friends again.
The next morning Jake was slowly limping his way out of his bedroom to the living room when Avery offered his shoulder for support and guided him to the couch. It was slow going with sore ribs and casted bones. Pat helped him shift around to prop up his knee and covered him with an afghan.
Jake was trying to be positive and not let himself get overwhelmed by the restraints of his new life, but how was he ever going to get around, especially when he went back to college. Navigating between classes when he could barely walk, taking notes in lecture hall with his writing arm in a cast; it was enough to make him wonder if he should request a medical waiver and put off school for a semester. He didn’t even have a place to live yet.
Pat turned to him once he was finally comfortable. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Dylan, but I wanted to wait until you came home from the hospital.”
Jake smirked and wrote. ‘Are you going to jump on the bandwagon and tell me I should forgive him too?’
Pat laughed. “I suppose so. I was here that first day when we found you with your father. He was so scared for you, Jake. It was heartbreaking, and I could almost read his mind—you were going to die before he could tell you how sorry he was.”
“Marcus and Noah said that,” Jake admitted with half a sigh. Was everyone going to side with Dylan?
He felt ganged up on and wanted to do the right thing but didn’t know what it was anymore. Jake wondered if he was just being oversensitive like his friends seemed to think. ‘U think I forget his actions, pardon him?’ he wrote.
“I think you should let him explain and apologize as a first step.” Wisely, Pat grasped that reconciliation would only take place in stops and starts. She knew Jake and Dylan still loved each other, but neither was willing to own up to it out loud. Friendship first, and the rest would fall into place.
“Three weeks ago he made a huge error in judgment,” she said. “Dylan saw something that made him question your commitment and instead of finding out the truth he flipped out over it. He realizes it isn’t your fault now, and it’s been eating at him ever since trying to fix it. I also think the strife between you places a lot of unfair pressure on your mutual friends. Noah, Marcus… they want to be around both of you, but it feels awkward for them when you two can’t get along.”
Patricia had wrapped the whole situation in a neat, tidy ribbon that sounded like the truth. He disliked feeling pressured into something he wasn’t ready for, but maybe if Dylan made amends. “So what do you intend to do about it?” she finished.
“What should I do?” Jake returned. She gave him a glance that would’ve been mocking except that she was taking his recent hospital emergency into consideration. “I know… talk to him.”
After receiving the text message inviting him over, Dylan was there in a flash. He walked into the family room, a thin manila envelope in hand, not surprised to find both Carolyn and Pat there as well. His tried to hide the hungry look on his face, but he had eyes only for Jake.
“You look much better than you did on Wednesday,” Dylan said fervently. “How do you feel?”
Jake shrugged and then winced when it pulled at the torn muscle. “Getting back slowly.”
“Right…” Dylan nodded and clasped his hands together, suddenly embarrassed by everyone staring at him. As if coming to a decision, he stood up a little straighter and approached Jake. “Let me get this out of the way first.”
He took a seat on the rug in front of the couch so his head was level with Jake’s and he could look right in his eyes. “Jake, I was such an ass about the way I acted over Clarence's picture. You have no idea how much I have wanted to kick myself ever since. I know I can never make it up but I was cruel to you, and I am so sorry. Really, really sorry. I treated you like you were hiding information from me when I now understand you didn’t even know what I was talking about. I should have explained myself better without getting angry. You didn’t deserve what I did or said.”
It might have been like a well-rehearsed speech, but as far as apologies went, it rated right up there on the heart-felt scale. In it, Jake could see a little of the kind, thoughtful man he had loved so much and, truthfully, hoped Dylan could be again. Maybe in time, but that would mean giving Dylan a chance to prove he was really sorry. Floundering around in ill-will towards him wasn’t worth it, and Jake found himself a little overwhelmed.
He tried to take several deep breaths to calm down. The problem was, deep breaths were hard with the wires and bands holding his jaws together. Any kind of strong emotion, particularly when he thought he was going to cry, clogged his nose. Jake would find himself struggling against panic attacks triggered by his inability to breath. After forcing himself to relax for half a minute, he was able to respond without choking up. Jake didn’t know it, but the necessity of focusing on his own reactions made him come across as rather cold and austere.
“Thank you.” There was so much more to say but he didn’t know how.
“Can we be friends again?” Dylan asked hopefully.He was a bit puzzled by the inconsistency of Jake’s accepting gaze compared to his severe tone. Wasn’t this what he’d been invited over for?
Friends? Jake sighed, wondering if Dylan still didn’t totally believe in his innocence. He acted like he did, but so much had happened in the past two weeks. Even if they spent days redundantly nitpicking over the argument and their fears, of motives and the wounded feelings from the aftermath, it would not change the fact that Dylan had hurt him acutely and trust had been lost between them.
Dylan’s suspicion had been deep enough to carry him through an entire week of breaking off all communication with Jake. His lack of faith in him made Jake so distressed he sought solace in leaving town. They had broken up, for god’s sake, and both of them would now have to proceed slowly if there was any real change for the better. They needed time if belief in each other was to be rebuilt.
Jake put out his hand. “Friends.”
Dylan took that delicate hand with the rigid fiberglass support crossing it and shook it gently.
His heart was breaking again. Had it come to the point where their relationship had dwindled to handshakes instead of kisses? Give him time, his inner voice warned. This was his own fault for acting so stupid and scared that July morning when he could have just as easily asked a few questions and showed some confidence in his boyfriend instead of getting a wild hair up his ass and imagining all sorts of crazy suspicions. At least Jake was willing to extend the olive branch and renew their friendship, which was damned more than he deserved.
He brought out the folder he carried and looked right at Jake. “If you don’t mind, I would like to propose an idea for our return to Long Beach State. If you could let me have the floor…”
“You do have the floor.” Jake couldn’t help but giggle, seeing as how Dylan was sitting on it. Getting the super-serious milieu of the apology out of the way, allowing them to be in the same room without harsh words and hurt feelings was like a huge weight lifting off his shoulders. If it made him act a little dippy, so what?
Pat raised an eyebrow. “At least someone is taking his pain medication,” she chuckled.
Carolyn gave Jake a severe look tempered with love. “This is important Jake. Stop acting like an idiot.”
Dylan tried to hide a grin, happy to see Jake feeling well enough, secure enough to be silly again, but Carolyn was right.
“With your mother’s approval, I made some telephone calls after you went into the hospital, Jake, with the hopes that you would come out of your coma in time to start college.” Jake shot his mother a look of surprise, and Dylan shuddered, thinking of his baby still unconscious.
“At the time, there weren’t any guarantees you’d be well enough to attend but it couldn’t wait. The fact is, you are going to need help at school—a lot of it, in every possible way. You can’t drive. You can’t walk long distances, and, with your casted arm, writing will also be a challenge. Until you get the wires removed from your jaw, you can’t even talk or eat normally.”
Jake sat there and every reminder of what he could no longer do felt like another nail on the coffin of his sophomore year of school, but he forced himself to keep listening.
Dylan cleared his throat. “After getting some ideas from the university, I went to see the administration of several departments there. Housing for one, Disabled Student Services for another… also nutrition. They gave me a lot of helpful advice which I shared with your mom.”
Another confused glance between mother and son, but so far he was following. It did make sense in a way that plans would have to be carefully constructed around his health for his fall semester attendance, but it didn’t explain why his mom was relying so much on a person she barely knew. Nor why Dylan was turning pale and acting so skittish. Oh, now he was biting his lip, and the look on his face was that of a man going to the gallows.
“Um… Jake, I'm glad you agreed to be my friend again,” Dylan stated, unable to look directly at him. He took a deep breath. “Otherwise, this upcoming semester would have been very awkward. I went ahead, under the suggestion of your mom, to sign us up to share a two-man dorm in Parkside Commons.”
Jake’s head was on a swivel. This was almost too much to absorb. After a fight that led to the two of them breaking up, his mother and aunt had given permission for Dylan to take the lead in planning his sophomore year. Then his recently prejudiced parent was letting his boyfriend, okay, former boyfriend, ex-boyfriend… move in with him into a dorm? Surely it must be the end of the world.
Carolyn jumped in as if on cue. “It makes perfect sense, honey. You can live on-campus which is a lot more convenient than trying to commute from an apartment. There are shuttles and Dylan said he would see to it you got to class. Disabled Services came up with some great ideas for note-taking until your arm is out of a cast and you can write normally…”
“Just as friends,” Dylan hurriedly interjected, blushing. “No strings attached, I promise.”
They had talked about this when they were together, but Dylan wanted Jake to be perfectly clear. This was more of a business arrangement than anything else. As much as he adored Jake and would’ve loved to step right back in to the level of intimacy they had shared, he certainly didn’t merit Jake’s love nor expect it. He knew it would probably never happen— the other boy was now calling the shots, and he probably would prefer to stay friends. The last thing Dylan wanted was to scare him into believing sex would be expected.
Dylan did have an ulterior motive for helping Jake. Some of it was out of a sense of duty. He was partly responsible for the injuries that had been inflicted on the other boy, and that would carry through into taking care of him. Some was to keep him close because he couldn’t bear to lose him even if it was his entire fault. If Jake chose to accept the proposal, Dylan figured the next five months of hiding his desire from him would be excruciating, but it was better than losing him altogether.
Jake could almost see his chilly resolve. He had an inescapable feeling that Dylan had guilted himself into making these arrangements and it was his biggest reason for volunteering to live together. But it was as much as he should’ve anticipated. Forgiveness didn’t equal the ability to rewind three weeks to before they had ever argued or pretend they could go back. If there was even a way back. At this point Jake didn’t know what to think.
He knew Dylan to be an upfront guy, and he had gone to a lot of trouble to set this up. Dorm rooms shouldn’t even be available so close to the start of term, so how did he finagle that? Jake’s belief that he was becoming a burden to all loomed larger than ever.
“I don’t know,” he managed slowly.
Aunt Pat looked at the two of them and wanted to smack both upside the head. Their hearts were in their faces, and if they couldn’t see what was painfully written there, maybe they just needed time for it to be revealed. Nonetheless, love would be rekindled only if they spent it together getting to know each other again.
“Jake, think about it,” she urged. “There is no other option. Dylan just happened to talk to the housing administrator the very same day that a room was released, and you two shot to the top of the list based on your needs. Do you really think you could live in an apartment and get to classes, both of you with different schedules, if you aren’t on-campus?
“And that only takes into account circumstances if you were living with each other outside of the dorms. Do you have any friends from last year you could share an apartment with who would accommodate your current health issues—your lack of mobility, for one? Anyone else willing to drive you to your therapy and doctor appointments and help you with homework? I don’t think so.”
They had it all planned out, and Jake felt bombarded by arrangements made for him in which he had no say-so. No choice either, from what Patricia had hinted. He started to protest, hating that he had to talk around his wires, and realized it was useless. Yes, he and Dylan would share a dorm for the semester, and if it was as impersonal and duty-bound as he suspected, he could always move out in the spring. In the end, all he could do was shrug and let Dylan go on.
Dylan did go on. Disabled Services had a small recording device that Jake would be able to take to his lectures that could be plugged into a computer and provide printable study notes for tests. He had also purchased a sturdy blender to turn any food Jake desired into a puree so he didn’t have to rely on milkshakes, soups and hot cereals for the next couple of weeks. Carolyn had located a neurologist and an orthopedist close to the college to follow up on Dylan’s medical appointments, and rehabilitation was being decided upon between the physiotherapist and the Sports Medicine department at State.
“You have it all figured out for me,” Jake said darkly. He was putting so much imposition on the people he cared about, and he hated it. Dylan would quickly tire of taking care of a near-invalid, and then where would he be? Yet, this was what they had decided, and he had no alternative.
Dylan, misinterpreting Jake’s self-pity for disgust, said, “I’m sorry, but I tried to do the best I could. Let’s get through the semester and see what happens. By then you should be mostly back to normal. At least you’ll be out of the wheelchair and eating solid food again.”
“Okay,” Jake agreed sadly. Life was probably never going to be ‘back to normal’ for him. Nobody else had any real idea how dearly his father’s homophobia and violence had cost him. Possibly being unable to play baseball and thereby losing his scholarship was just the tip of the iceberg. His entire life had been swept away, his dreams, even his heart.
If it weren’t for his father and Tony, he would certainly still have Dylan. But Dylan no longer loved him.
On Wednesday they left for the university. Jake, of course, couldn’t drive his truck, so he rode with Dylan, and their gear almost didn’t fit in the SUV. It was also one of the most uncomfortable trips they had ever made together, neither of them able to get past their disquiet and talk about anything other than trivialities.
Except for one subject.
“Where is Erin?” Jake asked in a casual manner. He had been surprised not to find Marcus hanging out with Dylan’s sister at all over the weekend. Before he had entered the hospital they had been very close but in the four days since discharge, his cousin hadn’t even mentioned her name.
Dylan looked very uneasy. “She and Marcus broke up.”
Seeing Jake’s confusion, he went on. “My sister told Kelsey about our fight and all about Tony. Kelsey used the information to track down your father. Erin is in a lot of trouble with my parents, and she had to go downtown to talk to detectives.”
At the sight of Jake’s widening eyes, he added, “No charges will be filed against her because she didn’t have any part in Tony, George or Kelsey’s plans. All she did was pass on information. I’m not making excuses for her. Sometimes, I get so angry at her I’d like to wring her neck. When I think of what might have happened because of her and Kelsey…”
Dylan swallowed hard. “Anyway, not to minimize her involvement, but I doubt she realized what she was doing. She was just, you know, a girl who liked having an older, more popular girl pay attention to her. But when Marcus found out that the information she supplied brought George down here to hurt you, he said he couldn’t forgive her for it.”
The news put Jake into low spirits for the rest of the drive. It all went back to that fight, that damn fight over a ridiculous yearbook picture, and look how many lives were being ruined because of it. Jake liked Erin and it upset him a lot that she had gotten caught up in Kelsey’s web. Not that he really felt sorry for Tony or Kelsey, but if only…
He had been shocked but not surprised when Noah told him how Kelsey was involved. It wasn’t that nobody thought she was capable of that kind of deception; it was the scope of her malevolence in which she believed violence was a feasible solution to her problem- getting rid of Jake- no matter how much it hurt him.
Kelsey was now out on bail, unwilling to accept responsibility for any of her deeds and unable to see that doing a deal with the prosecutors was in her best interests. Regardless, she was going to cost her parents a pretty penny in fines and representation by her attorneys, but they were falling in line with her and bemoaning how their daughter was too young to know any better and was being unfairly persecuted. It was too bad for her cell phone records proved she contacted Tony first and that her long list of grievances showed hatred and bias against Jake from the get-go.
The family had also informed Jake of the legal ramifications facing George and Tony. In fact, Jake had to consent to the proposal by the DA that Tony be allowed to plea-bargain his charges down to a misdemeanor level if he would agree to plead guilty. As for George—well, even though it was still early in the legal process, the case against him was as close to airtight as you could get. As long as nobody fucked it up on technicalities, it looked like he was going away to prison for the rest of his life where he would be somewhat of a marked man for beating up on his gay teenage son.
Once the boys arrived at their dorm they discovered they had been assigned a second-floor room, and Parkside’s resident advisor sent them over to housing department to hash it out. Dylan didn’t care if there was an elevator, on busy mornings when the place emptied out and students were hustling to class, no one would be willing to accommodate Jake’s wheelchair. Once Dylan threatened to get the admin involved, they were easily switched, but his new roommate couldn’t help but be impressed with his tenacity for his sake.
Dylan helped Jake with the rest of his entrance paperwork. They picked up their class schedules for the semester and went to see their counselors about exchanging course times. He would be in water polo practice most afternoons, so Dylan came up with the smart idea of leaving a three-hour block of time open on Friday mornings, the day many of the teachers did not schedule class, for rehab and doctor appointments. Jake sighed dejectedly. So many complications.
Dylan helped Jake get his textbooks squared away, checked on the list of welcome back orientation and activities meetings to choose from, and then they went to Parkside to see to their new residence.
The dorm was an eleven by sixteen room with two single beds in it, dressers and a small study area. It had a large closet but not much in the way of storage space or living area. Jake brought his bigger, better-quality microwave; Dylan had a compact fridge large enough for sodas and snacks. The bathroom was shared with two boys from the room next door. Across the way were two friends of Dylan’s, Nick and his boyfriend, Zander. Jake was introduced, and they seemed like a friendly couple.
Zander and Nick helped them unload the SUV and they got moved in. Or rather Dylan moved them—Jake tired easily and was unable to do much beyond supervise. Dylan insisted on first unpacking for Jake who could only sit and give him instructions on where to put his belongings. He kept rolling is chair out of the way, and not once did Dylan complain. Jake felt bad when he was completely settled and Dylan hadn’t lifted a finger to fix up his own space yet. He just smiled and said it could wait, seeming to enjoy waiting on him. Jake let it go without grumbling… much.
Clean sheets on the beds, it was almost ten before they finished, almost too tired to move. Jake was ready to nod off. “Will you need help undressing?” came softly in his ear. He jerked awake.
Dylan colored slightly. “Sorry, Jake, I didn’t realize you were almost asleep.” He indicated his bed. “Can you take care of yourself or do you need my help?”
Jake shook his head, annoyed once again at his disability. “Thanks, I’m fine.” To prove it, he lifted up from his wheelchair and limped to his dresser and newly folded clothing, looking for clean briefs and a t-shirt. He headed off for the bathroom.
Dylan sighed sadly. Jake had been formal with him all day. He rarely smiled and only spoke when addressed, but his jaw was probably sore from the wires that had changed his life so much. Dylan had reminded him to take his pain meds, but Jake shook his head and said he was trying to wean himself from them in time for the start of class the following week. He would not be able to concentrate if he was drugged up, and what was the purpose of returning to school if he flunked out?
Dylan had wanted this time together to be so much better than it was proving to be. But he brought this on himself. Damn his stupid mouth! Damn that seizure of inexplicable temper and suspicion that came out of nowhere! Even though it was his own fault, his heart still ached for the what-if’s. The loss of them weighed on him as he considered what he’d given up… probably forever.
Had there been no fight over Tony, and no homophobic father charging down from Madera, they would’ve shared an apartment off-campus. Dylan had enough money in his bank account that he could’ve splurged on a good-sized bed the two of them to sleep and make love in every night. Even now the memories of the few times they shared their bodies with each other made Dylan’s cock twitch, and he had force himself to calm down so his hard-on didn’t alarm Jake.
When the sophomore came back to their room, Dylan quickly excused himself to take care of his nightly business, returning to find Jake already in bed, staring at the ceiling. Dylan switched off the light and climbed in under his covers across the room and turned on his side to face him.
“Can we please talk?”
Jake could plainly hear Dylan’s unhappiness in his voice and knew it was his fault. He knew he had been tense and moody all day, not outwardly complaining about delays or complications but showing displeasure all the same. He hated being babysat by Dylan and judging himself as the nuisance he knew he was. So maybe Dylan was right and they needed a conversation to clear the air.
He grunted consent, and Dylan went on plaintively. “You probably hate this arrangement. I wish I could do something to make you more comfortable. Just put up with me until the end of the semester, and then you can move out if you like.”
“It’s not that,” Jake said, realizing he was acting ungrateful. “I’m tired, Dylan. Better tomorrow.”
Dylan thought for a few minutes. “I worry because we’re barely friends anymore, and with days like today when you act so distant…” He couldn’t go on.
“It isn’t my fault,” Jake rasped out, offended because it sounded like Dylan was blaming him.
“No, it’s not,” Dylan agreed softly. “It’s mine.”
He wondered if the taboo subject of the fight was behind Jake’s behavior. Even after all this time they had never really discussed it other than his apology the week before at the Walkers’. At the time they had more important details to discuss about going back to college.
“I’m sure Noah and Spencer probably told you about last year and what happened with all my friends and those pictures, but I wanted you to hear it from me.” He talked about the problems Tony had caused, being present when the couple was publicly exposed by his photography and his confrontation with the kid from Madera. “I was angry and worried when I saw him with you in that picture. I knew almost right away I had made a mistake but when I should have come to you to apologize I just kept attacking you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jake mumbled tiredly, making an effort to talk clearly through the hardware in his mouth. “So long ago, no going back.”
He wished they could. He wanted to stop seeing visions of Dylan’s angry face every time he tried to remember the intimacy they shared. Instead of feeling kisses against his lips, his senses filled up with vengeful, angry words. How were they going to share a dorm room for at least the next five months with this heavy weight hanging over their heads?
Dylan lay in bed a long time until he finally heard soft rhythm of Jake’s breathing that indicated he was asleep. For some inexplicable reason he was hard as a rock. Maybe because it had been a week since he got off, and he pushed his boxers down to the middle of his thighs and reached for his cock. Sliding his fingers through the slippery precum and beginning to jack himself with a practiced hand, he allowed his mind to drift to that morning in the mountains when he woke Jake up with a blowjob.
The way Jake was already semi-erect from his dreams but how quickly he had become aroused after just a few strokes of Dylan’s fingers. The warm satin skin expanding as his dick filled and lengthened and the slightly sweaty-salt flavor of it when Dylan took him in his mouth. The perfection of the spongy cock head against his tongue. Drawing drops of sweet precum from the slit like nectar, and the way Jake’s hips began to subconsciously rock in his sleep. He knew the exact minute Jake awoke because he heard his cries of surprise and rapture. His boy had cum almost immediately.
With the sweet reminiscence spurring him on, Dylan felt his own strong orgasm grab hold tightly. His body jerked again and again, shooting strings of semen onto his bare chest as he tried to muffle his moans. Minutes later he used his t-shirt to clean himself off, rolled over and went to sleep.
Monday was the first day of class, and it established a routine that the boys would use until Jake was more self-sufficient. Dylan arose first to shower and dress. Before leaving for the dining hall to get them breakfast, he woke Jake up and waited around until he was positive he wouldn’t fall back to snoozing. He didn’t begrudge not being able to sleep in, but with Jake, this took some getting used to. He missed the independence he no longer had at his disposal.
Returning with their meals to find his roommate in the shower, he put Jake’s food through the blender. It looked nasty, but for the boy who couldn’t chew and was thoroughly repulsed by the idea of anything liquid at this point, it was heaven. Eggs and bacon or sausage with hashbrowns, even toast mixed with a little milk to make a semi-soft concoction that could be sipped through a large straw. It beat out watery hot cereal any day of the week. Jake had been nearly starving by the time Dylan thought of it.
Off to class for Jake, who had the misfortune to begin his week with a lecture in Advanced Chemistry at 8:30. Dylan would drive him to the science building and pushed him up the slope from the parking lot before setting him loose to wheel to class on his own. An hour and half later they would reverse the process and dash back to the dorm where Jake turned the electronic lecture notes into written pages he could put in a binder and study for tests.
Dylan’s first class, Kinematics, didn’t begin until 10:30, a half-hour after Jake’s ended, so it worked out perfectly for both of them. They had just enough time following for lunch, and then Jake spent ninety minutes in English while Dylan did the same in Fluid Mechanics.
The rest of their week was much the same with additional lessons in their chosen courses of study. Jake was taking two of the same classes Dylan had studied the previous year, and one- a Physics electricity and magnetism course was with the same professor. Dylan pointed out important points he should study for the exams and helped him with organizing his class work whenever possible.
They relaxed into their schedules through the first weeks and began rebuilding their friendship. It wasn’t easy at first. Jake was always looking for places where he thought Dylan was overextending himself out altruistic guilt. Dylan didn’t for one second believe that Jake could ever completely forgive him for what he’d done. If they both hadn’t been so worried about stepping on each other’s toes and bringing up ghosts of intimacy past, they might have sat down to a deep conversation to clear the air. But they were of the mind of an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality and let it lie.
For Dylan, it was an unnerving experience in the early days to return to Long Beach State. It was the scene of the crime, so to speak, as far as the Clarence situation went and every once in awhile Jake saw an odd expression pass over his face, followed by a shudder. Mostly outside a classroom or the common buildings or on a particular sidewalk; a memory might pop up suddenly. Dylan would talk about how he came across certain friends in the midst of panic attacks or, standing next to a bulletin board, specific photos that made an impact. It brought home to Jake exactly how much trouble the photography caused as well as made him wonder why he didn’t know about it at the time. He certainly had no qualms about his first year at the school, and being back on campus and openly gay was not a source of anxiety for him.
Dylan had water polo practice nearly every afternoon. Early in the term when he was still tethered to the wheelchair, if Jake didn’t have class, he had to promise to stay in their dorm room because Dylan fussed over him like his mother, worrying that he couldn’t manage on his own. Or Jake went to the library to study or sat in the dining hall with his friends. They had both met each other’s from the previous year, and Jake found himself part of a growing group of gay students around the college.
Weekends were filled with water polo meets and tournaments. On the first Friday afternoon in September, Adam dropped by the college to pick him up and take him to UC-Irvine where Dylan’s team played against the water polo squads of two other universities. Noah and Marcus attended school there, and they had a fun but short reunion. Jake finally got to see Dylan in a Speedo, actually a lot of hot players in Speedos, and it was hard to prevent the tenting in his shorts. Fortunately he sweet-talked his dick into behaving while he and his best friends cheered for Long Beach against Redlands and Chapman U. He bunked at Adam’s apartment, and while Jake loved his brothers, sleeping on their couches every weekend while Dylan was gone with his team left a lot to be desired.
He and Dylan were sitting on the outside patio of the dining hall on a beautiful September afternoon when he heard his named being called. Looking up he saw a handsome Hispanic man a couple inches shorter than himself with a lithe build, shaggy black hair, dark, kohl-rimmed eyes and a huge grin on his bronze face striding towards him. It was Jake’s ex-boyfriend, Miguel.
Locking the wheels on his chair, Jake struggled to stand up as the dancer stopped right in front of him and stared at him up and down anxiously. “Stay put, beautiful,” Miguel gasped in concern. “I’d ask how your summer went, but judging by the looks of you, I’d say not good. What happened?”
Jake shrugged with an abashed smile. “Painful encounter with my dad,” he joked, reaching for Miguel and clasping him in a tight hug. “Good to see you.”
Dylan stood on the other side of the table and watched the exchange as Jake in pantomimes and short sentences explained the pictures and how they tipped off his father. Even though the black-haired boy seemed to know about George, the more Jake spoke the angrier he became, and he reacted with horror once he learned that he was responsible for the broken bones and other injuries.
Miguel threw Jake a provocative glance. “You still look beautiful, beautiful.” He kissed him on the cheek.
Dylan cleared his throat noisily and received a guilty smile from his blushing friend who made quick introductions. “Miguel, this is my roommate, Dylan.” That earned the blonde a deep, scrutinizing stare and a frown, but Miguel held out his fist and to be polite Dylan brushed knuckles with him.
Much to Dylan’s dismay, Miguel pulled up a seat and sat down, draping his arm over Jake’s shoulders. “So when are you going to have all this stuff off you?” He flicked the cast on Jake’s arm in fun and rolled his eyes flirtatiously. “We should go out once you can walk and all.”
“Hmm, well I don’t…” Jake hedged, feeling dismay begin to gnaw at his stomach.
Miguel didn’t seem to perceive either Jake’s lack of enthusiasm or Dylan’s complete silence and went on in quiet sincerity as if they were the only people on the patio. He leaned closer, nuzzling his nose in Jake’s curls as he whispered into his ear. “We never should have broken up last spring, you know.” He took Jake’s casted hand in his, stroking his fingers.
“Miguel, I’m not…”
Jake squirmed as if sitting on pins and needles. He tried to withdraw his hand unobtrusively, not wanting to hurt Miguel’s feelings. Or Dylan’s either, for that matter. From his vantage point, Jake could see him off to the side. The junior was glaring down at his lap, his mouth set in an angry line and battling not to give in to his desire to mouth off and tell Miguel to leave Jake alone. It suddenly occurred to him that Dylan’s irritation might be masking jealousy, then dismissed it right away.
Purposely moving on to trivialities to stop Miguel’s embarrassing invitations, Jake began collecting his trash right after he and Dylan finished their food. “We need to run,” he told Miguel, preparing to beat a hasty retreat. Dylan hadn’t said more than two words to them the whole time, and Jake felt bad for him. He knew he’d been rude.
As Dylan maneuvered the wheelchair over some uneven cement on their way back to the dorm he asked, “Did you want to go out with him?”
Jake, who had stopped thinking of Miguel as soon as they left the dining patio, jerked his head up. “With who?”
His answer cheered Dylan somewhat. If Jake couldn’t even remember speaking to Miguel five minutes after leaving his side, there really wasn’t anything to worry over. “Nobody,” he said with a smile. “Nobody.”
A few weeks later Dylan accompanied Jake back to the southern Orange County courthouse for a preliminary hearing against Kelsey. Yes, the dumb girl actually thought she had a chance at getting off without a trial, and both Jake and Dylan had to bring evidence against her. There was no jury, simply testifying before the judge but for the uninitiated it was taxing. Both boys could think of a hundred other things they’d rather be doing.
Dylan didn’t notice how he subconsciously moved closer to Jake, as if protecting him, when Kelsey appeared in the hall outside the courtroom flanked by her parents and attorney, and he turned his back on her before she could say anything. Jake’s appearance in court in a wheelchair, hampered by broken arms and his jaw wired shut did not look good for her, and the die was cast when Dylan firmly but assuredly explained her confession to him on that long-ago Saturday morning. The gavel came down, Kelsey was ordered over for trial and she burst into angry tears at the injustice. They didn’t even begin to compare to the rage Dylan directed back at her when she caught his eye.
She tried to talk to him as she left the courtroom. “Hey, Dylan.”
Jake had not been allowed to hear his testimony, and now Dylan was looking for him. He whirled on her. “Don’t, Kelsey,” he warned her, barely holding on to his temper. “You and I have nothing left to say to each other.”
Her face clouded up. “I wanted to apologize for making you mad…”
“Save it,” he snarled. “I don’t want to listen to your over-possessive lame-ass excuses and your immaturity.
“You are unbelievable!” he went on. “One stupid high school dance between us and you treat it like we’re engaged or something. Pushing and pushing me right into a corner. You knew I was gay, but you refused to believe it. Did you see Jake? Do you see how he has to live? That’s what his father did to him because of you. He actually looks good compared to last month when he was in the hospital… covered black and blue in bruises… we weren’t even sure he would ever wake up again. You did that to him, Kelsey. You did, and I will never forgive you for it.”
“But Dylan…” He stared at her and put a hand up to halt her whining, unable to process how a supposedly decent human being of reasonable intelligence could not only help plan something so heinous but completely talk herself out of its accountability. Giving her a withering look, he turned on his heel and marched away to find Jake.
By the end of September Jake was as healed as much as the short-term was going to give him. There was no sign that his coma had caused any permanent damage. His casts were removed from both his arms and he was no longer had to use the wheelchair to get around, although he still walked with a limp that was very noticeable when he was overtired.
Best of all, the wires holding his fractured jaw together were gone. One of the happiest days in Jake’s recent memory had to be the day he visited his oral surgeon for the final time to have the arch support and last of the rubber bands removed. For a while chewing was painful, but he relished the privilege of biting into solid food and savoring it slowly, enjoying the firm feeling on his palate and tongue. And talking! No more mumbling or using pads of paper to express himself. It felt like he’d been reborn.
Maybe it was his courthouse confrontation with Kelsey or Jake not having to lean on medical equipment anymore, but Dylan began to unwind a bit as the two passed into their second month of school. He still insisted on taking him to class at times, but it was just as easy for Jake to catch a shuttle to and from the lecture halls and the dorm. In his mind this was almost like having his Dylan back, someone who would do anything for him but would also step back to give him the liberty he needed. He was unselfish in the extreme, and Jake took special care not to abuse his offered time and assistance.
In him he glimpsed the man whom he vaguely remembered haunting the medical halls while he was in his coma, the man who had valiantly not complained as he dismissed him from his room. It felt like forever since they could do more than prowl around like wounded shadows now that they had worked out the tangles from their fight. But Jake wanted to be so much more than friends.
The boys had been back at the university for over seven weeks, and they decided to spend a few days at home in Aleppo Park. Following a water polo match in San Diego that Friday afternoon the team had made an immediate trip back to the university, so it was a bye weekend for Dylan. After so long away, they were eager to visit family and Jake needed to swap out for different clothing now that autumn was upon them and he didn’t have to try to force his casted arms through sleeves. Even so, it was a pleasant day outside, not so hot to run the air conditioning but warm enough to make the SUV stuffy with the windows rolled up. They were enjoying the wind in their hair and singing to tunes on the stereo system.
“You know,” Dylan called over the noise, “now that you’re all healed up, there’s nothing stopping you from getting your truck and taking it back up to school with you. As long as you have the insurance and registration info current, if you buy a parking sticker you won’t have to rely on me for transportation.”
“I suppose so,” Jake answered reluctantly. Truth be told, he enjoyed riding around with Dylan. He wondered if he was getting tired of playing chauffeur, not that they had much off-campus travel anymore. With the casts and wires removed, Jake’s visits with his doctors were few and far between. On second thought, maybe Jake was being selfish.
Dylan watched him get quiet out of the corner of his eye and suddenly felt stupid. Maybe Jake couldn’t afford to register his truck up at State. On-campus parking was rather pricey and he was a scholarship student.
“I mean, I don’t mind you riding with me,” Dylan said quickly. “I just thought if you wanted your own vehicle it would be handier to take it back with you.”
Jake nodded, unsure what prompted Dylan to reverse himself. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”
They arrived in town an hour later and Dylan dropped Jake off. Aunt Pat made a big deal out of his arrival, and not only was he thrilled to have a couple days home, especially with his aunt’s cooking, Jake was also glad for a place to do laundry that he didn’t have to pay for. Still, it felt weird to not be together nearly 24/7. Dylan didn’t call him all of Saturday, and by that night, Jake was kicking around the house in a forlorn mood.
“What’s wrong, Jake?” Patricia asked him as she carried an armload of his laundry into the family room. He jumped up to take it from her.
“Nothing,” he muttered. How did he explain that he missed Dylan? Did he miss Dylan?
“Oh, it’s something alright,” she chattered with a smile on her face. “Come on, Jacobaby, you can tell your old aunt what’s on your mind. That’s what I’m here for.”
He picked at a piece of lint that had dropped from his clean clothing and played with it for a minute. “I don’t know what to do about Dylan. Half the time I don’t even know if we’re really friends. I mean, for the long-term like he is with Noah and Marcus.” He told her all about recent events at college, his suggestion that he take his truck back to Long Beach and being ignored all day.
“And where are your hands?” she asked when he finished.
“Your hands. I assume you have hands too. Instead of waiting for him to, why don’t you call him?”
Jake looked at her as if she’d lost her mind, and she considered him carefully. “Has it ever occurred to you that he might be at his house right now thinking the same thing about you? Except that Dylan has more to lose. He’s the one who hurt you, and he may be judging the strength of your friendship by how willing you are to spend time with him. If you don’t call, he won’t; he’ll assume you don’t want to be buddies, and eventually that will be the end of it.”
Jake stared at his aunt, horrified. Never see Dylan again?
“You two are such children,” she scolded. “While I understand what he did was terrible, at some point you need to let bygones be bygones and forget it. Otherwise, your fight is going to rear its ugly head and keep coming between you. If you want his friendship, then treat him the way you want to be treated. Stop playing games.”
Jake texted Dylan immediately, and a few minutes later received a call from him. In the background he could hear the throb of a bass beat and the sort of loud laughter and garbled conversation you find in a room full of people.
“It’s my father’s forty-fifth birthday,” Dylan told him, shouting over the ruckus, “and my mother threw him a big surprise party. Sorry I didn’t call, but it’s been crazy here.”
“No, that’s alright,” Jake answered, relieved to have a solid reason behind being ditched besides his supposed disregard. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Which was the truth because the next day when Jake went out to start his truck, the engine wouldn’t turn over. Jake didn’t have time to see about a new battery and he ended up riding back to school with Dylan anyway. It was like fate had spoken.
(To be continued...)