A Sanitaria Springs Story

by Cynus

“Damon! What’s up pansy-picker?” As soon as I heard his voice over the phone, I couldn’t help but smile. There was nothing like hearing my cousin’s smart mouth to lighten my mood. Finn has a way with words like no one I’ve ever met, well, unless you include myself. I taught the boy everything he knows.

“Finn, you little pucker-monkey,” I said with a feigned growl as I scrolled down his Facebook feed, seeing the large number of pictures he had been posting recently. His pink Mohawk always made me laugh when I saw it, and it made me consider a change in my hairstyle, but I was pleased with my bleached white hair tipped in red. It looked particularly extreme against my chocolaty skin tone, and I loved it. “I was calling to congratulate your ass on finally bagging a cute boyfriend,” I said as I stopped my scrolling on a picture of Finn and Max together, with Finn kissing the blonde boy to his side on the cheek. The blonde boy was blushing furiously, but it was obvious he enjoyed the kiss. “That Max looks like he’s gonna do you fine.”

“Thanks, cuz,” Finn replied. “We gonna see your big mouth at Thanksgiving this year? Hey, while you’re at it why don’t you find yourself a boy to bring along as well? There’s bound to be someone in your new town that can handle you.”

“In Sanitaria Springs?” I asked as I scratched my head. Although I had already made a few gay friends, most notably Alec and Sasha, since moving to Sanitaria Springs with my parents, I had no thought that there were many gay men my age that were still unattached in such a small place. “Yeah, this town’s got a lot of gay in it, but I’m pretty sure that they all already came out and found boyfriends. There’s not a lot left to choose from.”

“You’re just not trying hard enough,” Finn said, and I could almost see him on the other end of the phone shaking his head at me. I made a note to punish him for his comment later, but I put it out of my mind as Finn turned the conversation to another matter that had been weighing heavily on my thoughts recently. “Hey, have you found your cat yet?”

“No.” I sighed and looked at the new pile of fliers I had intended to hang around town as soon as I was done with Finn. It had been three days since my cat, Miss Fuzzybutts, or Fuzz for short, had run away. Fuzz was an outdoor cat, and she had hated being stuck inside during our move. My parents and I thought we had taken the time necessary to acclimate her to her new surroundings, but the first time we let her outside she didn’t return. I had put some fliers out the day before, complete with a picture of Fuzz and my cell number, but as of that morning there hadn’t been any word on her.

“Well I hope you find her, it would be a sha….” Finn’s voice was cut off by a beeping in my ear, signaling that I had another call. The beeping subsided and Finn’s voice resumed, “…ou lost her for good.”

“Hey, Finn, I’m going to have to call you back,” I said quickly, “Got a call, and,” I pulled the phone away and looked down at the screen to see that I didn’t recognize the number, “It’s a stranger, so it might be someone calling about Fuzz.”

“Got it, see you at Thanksgiving,” Finn replied.

“Yep, see you then. Bye,” I said before switching to the other line. As the call clicked over I waited a second before saying, “Hello?”

A deep but hesitant male voice greeted me. “Hey, I found your cat. I can bring her by if you give me your address.”

“Wow! You found Fuzz? I was just talking about her, what a coincidence. Would you be able to come by right now?” I couldn’t believe my luck, but I was so excited I quickly gave him the address after he told me he could be anywhere in Sanitaria Springs within fifteen minutes. He hung up and I sent a quick text to Finn to let him know that Fuzz was okay before I got up and realized I still wasn’t wearing any pants.

I had gotten out of the shower only a few minutes before Finn had called me, and I was in only my red boxers and a long white T-Shirt. But first I had to dry my hair. That took up more time than I had thought it would, and by the time I went to my closet to select something to wear I heard a knock on the door and forgot all about my underdressed state at the excitement of getting Fuzz back. I rushed to the door and tore it open, smiling broadly.

The young man on my front porch was about my age and solidly built, at least twice my size in muscular bulk. He had at least six inches on me in height as well, but I didn’t get the impression that he was trying to intimidate me at all. If anything his eyes were downcast and guilty, and then he looked away completely as his white cheeks turned crimson. It was then that I remembered my predicament and glanced down to see that I had never managed to get any pants on.

I looked back up at him and grinned, unperturbed by the thought of being half-naked in front of the guy who looked so peaceful while he was holding Miss Fuzzybutts in his arms. She was purring gently and rubbing up against his arm while he stroked her absentmindedly. He still hadn’t returned his eyes to me and so I took the initiative and stepped out onto the porch, the cold November air biting into my flesh for a moment but I didn’t mind. I reached out for Fuzz, my arms brushing his as the cat untangled herself from him slowly. She resisted me slightly, not wanting to leave the warmth of the big guy’s arms. He looked at me in surprise as I cooed at Fuzz, and then chuckled as he let go and Fuzz finally decided to come to me instead.

“Would you like to come in for a minute? It’s cold out here, and I’d like to get some pants on,” I said as I took a step back up into the doorway. Fuzz felt the warmth inside the house and was suddenly fighting to get out of my arms so that she could get inside. I let her go and she disappeared quickly into the house. I took another step in and held the door open wide as I waited for him to enter. He was indecisive for a moment, shifting his weight from foot to foot as if he wasn’t sure which way he wanted to go, until finally he took a step inside. I closed the door and then stuck my hand out for him to shake. “Sorry man, I didn’t even get your name. I’m Damon by the way.”

“Billy,” He answered as he shook my hand and gave a half smile that didn’t touch his eyes. He glanced around the place nervously as I took a couple steps further away from him. I watched him while he wasn’t looking, curious as to the man behind the silent demeanor, but I didn’t want to push him to anything.

Which was why I was hesitant when I said, “I can’t afford much of a reward. Can I buy you coffee?”

He glanced at me in surprise, and he shook his head slightly as he began, “I don’t know…”

I cut him off with a raised hand and said with a grin, “Oh no, I get it. You don’t want to be seen around town with a half-naked black man who apparently knows nothing about New York in November. Let me go get some pants on and then we’ll talk about it.” Then I turned on my heel and walked out of the room, not willing to give him a chance to answer until I had given him time to think about it.

I headed straight to my room and made sure to take my time getting ready since I had to think about what was happening as well. I hadn’t had much chance to get to know people so far in Sanitaria Springs. Since I was already out of High School, having graduated in June, I didn’t have school as a potential place to make new friends. I wasn’t going to college, at least not yet, and I hadn’t managed to find a job in the time my family had been there. I had run into several people as I had gone about doing errands, and those I had met were nice, and I had made friends out of some of them, but I needed more. I was starving for human connection, and even though Billy seemed hesitant, I didn’t want to let an opportunity for a new friend pass me by.

I dressed warmly, making sure I had an extra layer on every part of my body. I hated the cold, despite having lived with it my whole life. My family loved New York, but I couldn’t wait until I was able to move further south, somewhere tropical. I had spent the summer with some cousins in Florida a few years earlier, and I had enjoyed every minute of it, even when the rains and the winds picked up. At least it wasn’t snow. It had snowed some in Sanitaria Springs already, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me from the plan I had of making a friend out of Billy. After all, that’s what snow boots are for, isn’t it?

As I walked back into the front room where Billy was busy studying my family portrait on the wall, I announced my presence by zipping up my outer coat. The zipper ripped loudly through the room, and caught Billy off guard as he glanced at me in surprise. Not wanting to let his surprise go to waste I grinned from ear to ear and announced, “Are you ready to go get that coffee?”

Billy’s eyes rested on mine for a moment before he slowly began to nod as he agreed, “Yeah. Sure… I’d like that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Even a town as small as Sanitaria Springs has a Starbucks, but I had always preferred smaller coffee shops over going to the mainstream places. I had found out my first week in Sanitaria Springs that I really only had one place to choose from if I was going to get something that matched my more eclectic tastes. Café Perk Me Up was the only shop in town to compete with the Starbucks, and was mainly frequented by kids from the local community college when they were at home from school. Since it was the middle of the week it was bound to be practically deserted now, and I thought it was the perfect place to get to know Billy better.

Thankfully Billy didn’t seem to mind about my coffee choice, so we decided to ditch his pickup truck and climbed into my car and in seconds we were off to the Café. As I drove I asked him how long he had lived in Sanitaria Springs and upon finding out he had been born there I asked him what life had been like. He answered my questions politely, but there was a hesitancy attached to every word that left his mouth. I figured he was just shy, and by the time we reached the coffee shop I was resolved to break him out of his shell.

Of course, that meant doing things outside of my comfort zone, but as Finn could attest to, I was a master at making situations appropriately awkward when I needed to. As soon as we parked I rushed to get up to the coffee shop first so that I could hold the door open for him like a proper gentleman. As he approached me with a raised eyebrow I smiled disarmingly and bowed, extending my hand in a flourish toward the open door. “After you, Billy.”

He shook his head and there was the barest hint of a smile as he crossed the threshold and entered the establishment. That smile just about did me in. I hadn’t realized it before that moment, but there was something about the way his cheek dimpled when he smiled that set all the signals off in my brain that normally would have fired long before. I was attracted to Billy, and I would never have expected it. He wasn’t exactly the type I normally went for. I’ve never been into tall, broad, and quiet types but then again, I was also pretty open, and the way he seemed to take everything in slowly, quietly watching the world around him… That had me hooked so badly I couldn’t wait to be reeled in.

“What’s your poison, Billy?” I asked as joined him in front of the counter where he was looking up at the menu. The menu was written on a large chalkboard that hung behind the counter near the ceiling. It was written in several different colors of chalk, red for hot drinks, blue for cool drinks, white for specialty items and green for their baked goods. There was a distinct smell of pumpkin and spice that accompanied the fragrance of the coffee, and I knew from two earlier ventures to Café Perk Me Up that they were busy making fresh pumpkin pie in the kitchen.

“I’m not sure yet, what do you usually order?” Billy replied as his eyes scanned the menu with a glazed look.

I opened my mouth to respond when the swinging door to the kitchen burst open and we were hit with an even more powerful blast of the spicy aroma. Cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg tantalized my nostrils and made my mouth begin to water, but so did the gorgeous man behind the counter who was busy drying his hands on the small towel that was tucked into his apron. He was in his mid-twenties, was slim but not skinny, had long brown hair which he kept in a single braid, and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache which made him appear older than he was. Kyle Lamb owned Café Perk Me Up with his wife, Sonya, and I knew I would never have a chance with him, but that didn’t stop me from looking. I liked my men a little rough around the edges, and Kyle was certainly that type.

“Damon!” Kyle greeted me with a grin as he stepped up to the cash register. “I was beginning to think you had forgotten about me. Any luck at finding Lady Fuzzyass?”

“Lady Fuzzyass?” Billy mouthed with a glance in my direction. I shook my head at him and grinned before turning back to Kyle who was looking at me expectantly. This was it, the moment that I had been waiting for to throw Billy off balance and force him to think of me as something other than the guy whose cat he had found. For me that meant throwing something completely unexpected at him, and I knew just the thing.

I put a heavy lisp into my voice as I leaned toward Kyle and said, “Yes, Miss Fuzzybutts is safe and sound, so you can take the poster down, girl,” I winked at Kyle and he laughed as I stepped back and to pat Billy on the arm. “Billy here found her for me and brought her back safe and sound. Billy’s a real life saver.” As I made the claim I slapped Billy’s ass hard enough to make him take a stumbling step forward. The look that he gave me when he regained his balance was a priceless mix of alarm and embarrassment, but I paid it no heed as I stepped up to make my order. “Now listen here, darling, I need some something warm, something fruity, and something white and creamy. You know I like my coffee like I like my men.”

Kyle winked back at me and played along, sparing a glance at Billy who seemed even more off balance now than he had been when I spanked him. “And how is that, Damon?”

“With a long straw to suck on so that I can get every ounce of cream!” I said with a broad grin as I slapped my wallet down on the counter. Kyle laughed, despite having heard the joke several times already, but he knew I was trying to impress my company and so he laughed for my benefit. “I need a White-Chocolate Café Mocha with Raspberry. Hot and extra creamy. Topless.”

“A true gay man’s coffee order if I ever did hear one,” Kyle said with a shake of his head. He then turned to Billy and asked with a grin, “And what are we getting for you, Billy? A cat-saving hero like you deserves coffee on the house I think.”

Billy’s complexion had paled and his eyes were conflicted when he looked at me, and my heart began to race as I wondered if I had gone too far. The silence extended for several agonizing seconds until suddenly Billy smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. He turned from me to Kyle and said with more confidence than I would have expected, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Kyle gave him an appraising look and said with a touch of awe, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a keeper, Damon. Two Topless Gay Mochas coming up!” He turned around, roaring with laughter as he set about making the drinks while I gestured toward one of the many tables in the deserted coffee shop. Billy nodded and led the way until he chose a cozy spot by one of the windows. He took the chair with the better view, leaving me the one closer to the nearby space heater. I wasn’t about to complain about that arrangement.

When we had both settled into our seats, the silence returned and I took the time to study his face. He seemed on edge, and my earlier worries about having pushed him too far were back, but then I realized that he was still there, and he had in fact participated in the tail end of my fun. I was about to question his silence when he turned to me with a question in his eyes, and words to match. “So, you’re gay?”

I studied him for a moment, trying to analyze the tone behind the words, but I just couldn’t read him. Either way, I wasn’t about to lie to a new friend, especially about something I was proud of. “Yes,” I answered clearly. I dropped my earlier playfulness and focused on the moment, wanting to get as clear of an answer as possible as I asked, “Is that a problem?”

Billy was silent again, but unlike other times, he held my gaze as he contemplated my question. When he finally did speak, his voice was unsteady, and his eyes were moist. “It used to be. Now…” he inhaled deeply, and then exhaled quickly as he shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

I wasn’t about to let the matter go at that, and to my surprise it seemed as if he didn’t want me to either. His eyes were almost pleading me to go on, but I hesitated for a moment to consider how to proceed. I didn’t want to push him away, and so I needed to choose my words carefully. Thankfully, Kyle showed up at just that moment with our paper cups and sleeves, filled with sweet smelling coffee and topped with loads of whipped cream. He told us to enjoy with a wink at me and a playful nudge of his elbow at Billy, which earned him a half grin, and then walked away.

Kyle had given me the confidence I needed, not because of his wink but because the smile that he had generated in Billy told me everything I needed to know. Those dimples… With a smile I took a sip of my coffee, and then licked the whipped cream from my lips as I winked at him. I was rewarded with another smile, and I knew the answer to my previous question. He didn’t have a problem with me being gay, but there was something still bothering him, and I had to find out what it was.

“Listen, Billy, I like you, I think I might even be attracted to you. Is that a problem?” I asked before taking another sip of my coffee, though my eyes never left his face as I watched his reaction to the question. His eyes widened a little, but then he smiled, but I wasn’t sure if it was voluntary or not.

“No, that isn’t a problem,” Billy said, taking a sip of his own coffee, but then he looked away again, and I didn’t know what to think about that. His eyes grew distant, and the moistness intensified, “It’s just that…”

My phone went off in my pocket, the sound of Pikachu charging up for an attack, indicating that I had received a text message. Billy stopped his sentence as I cursed, “Donkey-farting daughter of douchebauchery!” and reached to retrieve my phone so that I could silence it, but as I pulled it out of my pocket I paused as Billy burst out laughing. The moisture that had been in his eyes was now streaming down his face as his tremendous muscled bulk shook with waves of laughter. I watched his face with a grin, loving the way he looked when he laughed, and from the way his eyes lit up I assumed that I was witnessing something that hadn’t happened in a long time, and it was beautiful.

When the laughter finally subsided he looked at me with a full grin and said, “Hey, it’s okay. Go ahead and check your phone, I won’t be offended.”

I nodded and switched on my phone to see that I had received a message from Sasha. I hadn’t heard from either Alec or Sasha in a while, but I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw their numbers flash across my screen. I had met them independently, which was a funny thing considering that they were nearly inseparable. I had first met Sasha, and had instantly been attracted by his looks, but the moment I started flirting with him he told me he had a boyfriend and that was the end of that. Then I met Alec a day later at the gas station, and he had been giving the attendant some attitude, of course I had joined in the sass, and then afterward had asked Alec for his number. He gave it to me but then made it clear that he also had a boyfriend. When I had followed up by asking him if every single gay man in town was already attached the gas station attendant had told me quite clearly that it was definitely the case. I ran into Alec and Sasha together and had put it all together, but then we became friends. That had been over a month before, and we hadn’t gotten close yet, but I was fond of both of them.

However, I was puzzled by the contents of the text which read: Come outside. Alec needs to talk to you. It’s urgent. I looked up and met Billy’s eyes, and then looked past him out the window to where Alec and Sasha were standing out by the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. There was another boy with them whom I hadn’t met before. He had light brown hair and red-rimmed glasses, and he was young. The boy was looking up at Alec with concern, and a bit of confusion. Sasha’s expression was blank as he stared down at his phone, and Alec was staring right at Billy, and glaring murderously.

“What’s going on?” Billy asked and then followed my gaze out the window, and then the blood drained from his face and his eyes snapped away from Alec’s and back to the table. All the happiness I had seen seconds before had evaporated, and he had a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the table. My eyes widened at the reaction, and I looked between Billy and Alec, completely confused. That was when I saw Sasha look up and wave me outside.

“Billy, stay here. I’ll be back in a minute,” I announced as I stood up. He looked up at me only briefly, and what I saw in his eyes was an emotion I had never expected to see in a man who appeared as strong as Billy. Fear. I laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze as I added, “I promise I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere, okay?”

I turned and walked toward the door, leaving my coffee on the table. As I passed by the front counter I stopped and whispered to Kyle, “Keep an eye on him. Something’s wrong. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Kyle nodded once, firmly, and I knew that he’d do as I asked. With that assurance in mind I walked outside to meet the trio of young men who were waiting for me. Sasha was the first to notice that I had come outside, and he attempted to smile but it was lost somewhere in his grim expression and never seemed to form completely, but there was the usual amount of compassion in his eyes as he greeted me. “Hey, Damon.”

“Hey Sasha,” I said with a forced grin. “How you all doin’?” I stopped walking when I was ten feet away from them and crossed my arms over my chest. It was freezing outside, and I wanted to wrap this up as soon as possible.

“We…” Sasha started, but was cut off almost immediately by Alec.

“You need to get out of here, Damon,” Alec said as he finally turned to face me. “That… guy,” Alec drew out the word as if he had been considering using a different one, “You’re with is bad news.”

“What!?” I exclaimed, glancing toward the window where Billy was still staring down at his coffee. He hadn’t moved since I had left, and at least that much was good to see. At least I’d have a chance to go back in there and talk to him once Alec was done spouting nonsense. “Billy? Are you sure we’re talking about the same person here?”

“Damon, Billy hurt Alec a…” Sasha started again, but this time Alec interrupted him with a glare and he shut his mouth completely.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with, Damon,” Alec growled through gritted teeth, “But Billy is the most homophobic, violent prick that ever lived in Sanitaria Springs. You’re in danger if you stay here.”

“I have seen nothing to indicate that,” I replied with my eyes narrowing. “Trust me, he’s fully aware of my orientation, and he hasn’t done anything to me except be kind. And he brought my cat back to me!”

Alec shook his head and turned away, waving his hand dismissively at me. “Whatever. If you want to risk it that’s on you, but watch your back. I’m not going to stand here and argue with you, but just don’t be alone with him. He’s fucked people up in the past, and he’ll do it again. You mark my words, Damon.”

Alec started walking away toward his car, and the younger boy glanced between him and me before rushing to follow, only Sasha remained, and he seemed torn between saying something more to me and following after his boyfriend. He opened his mouth to speak and Alec seemed to sense the movement, and he called over his shoulder, “Come on, Sasha. Damon doesn’t want our help.”

Sasha glanced over his shoulder at Alec but then turned back to me and said, “I agree with Alec that you need to be careful, but you’re a smart guy so I know you will be. Don’t…” Alec called Sasha’s name again and Sasha paused momentarily and closed his eyes, taking a deep calming breath before continuing. “Don’t let Alec get to you though. He and Billy Carlisle have history, bad history. Maybe you’re right and he’s changed, but you have to be careful, okay?”

I nodded and that seemed to satisfy Sasha as he turned and rushed after Alec. I shook my head as I watched them disappear, and then turned to look in the window to see that Billy was no longer at the table. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that he was trudging through the snow away from me. Kyle burst through the door to the coffee shop and I gave him an exasperated glare as I said, “You were supposed to be watching him!”

“He walked out while I was getting the pies out of the oven,” Kyle explained as I stood there staring at him. Then it was his turn to give me an exasperated stare as he gestured in Billy’s direction. “So what are you waiting for? Go after him!”

I didn’t have to be told twice, and I tore through the snow like a mountain lion. Thankfully with Billy having already forged a trail ahead of me I made easier going than he did, and I gained on him quickly. He had just rounded the corner from the coffee shop when I reached him and dashed in front of him. He wouldn’t even look at me, and his complexion was still pale while his eyes were frantic. He almost ran straight into me but I put my hands up in front of him and rooted myself on the ground, assuming a Tai Chi stance that I knew could stop a horse if properly positioned. Or, at least that’s what the legend said. In practice it works quite differently, especially when you’re standing on slippery snow and not solid ground, and the horse is a man twice your size determined to get past you, and you’re far from being as skilled as the Tai Chi master of legend. Instead, he fell into me, I attempted to stop him, he stumbled, we fell together, and I ended up landing on top of him as he spun around and landed on his back and I landed heavily on his chest.

He heaved and clutched at his chest as I realized that I had knocked the wind out of him, and I got off of him as quickly as I could while he caught his breath. When he finally had he looked up at me with a question in his eye as I gave him an embarrassed grin. He started to rise and I extended a hand out to him to help him, and he almost seemed surprised at himself when he took it and let me pull him up.

“Where the shit-flicking Jabberwocky did you think you were going?” I said as I poked him hard in the chest. “We haven’t finished our Topless Gays yet!”

He didn’t laugh, but he didn’t start walking away either. Instead, he gave me a look that spoke volumes. He was tormented, and I knew that there were demons inside him that were struggling for control. But he had also returned to the silence that he had been giving me before, and I realized that for the moment I would have to talk enough for the both of us.

And so I took a deep breath, and began talking. “Listen, I don’t know what happened between you and Alec. I don’t know anything, I’m new to Sanitaria Springs, and it’s different than Binghamton in a lot of ways. The people here are different, nicer in some ways actually, and in other ways they are more closed off. Or maybe that’s just my impression because I’m an outside here. I’m known for speaking my mind among my friends in Binghamton, and I’m not about to ease up on that reputation just because I have a fresh start here, so you’re going to have to bear the brunt of it right now.”

I had his attention. He looked me right in the eye as I spoke to him, and I knew that he was going to listen to everything I had to say. That was enough for me, enough to give me the courage to go on. “Billy, Alec made some accusations about you. He called you homophobic, and violent. Whatever you did in the past, even if it was terrible, I know you well enough now that the person standing in front of me is not that kind of man. You’re quiet, you’re a thinker; now, maybe you didn’t used to be, but that’s not relevant to the now. You’ve smiled and laughed with me, and I know that you’re a good person, and do you know what the greatest indicator of all is for me?” I grinned at him and winked as I said, “Miss Fuzzybutts likes you, and she doesn’t like homophobic violent assholes. So don’t you dare walk away from me, Billy Carlisle! At least, not until we go back and finish our coffee.” I winked at him again, and he stared back. I let the silence linger as I met his eyes, my own eyes twinkling with challenge, daring him to defy me my coffee time with him.

And then he smiled, and those dimples… My heart melted and I nodded, a tear coming to my eye which I wiped away quickly. I turned toward the coffee shop and started walking, and he fell into step beside me. We walked slowly back to the coffee shop and then inside, past a grinning Kyle and back to our seat by the window. Once we sat down I let him get comfortable before I said anything at all. As soon as I knew he wasn’t going anywhere, I asked about Alec.

“I can’t believe what I did to him…” Billy began. Even though he had been drinking coffee, his voice was dry and hollow. His eyes were distant and his pallor pale, and there was true anguish in his eyes. He took a swig of his coffee and then set it down in front of him, barely managing to get it on the table as he stepped back in time to some memory I knew nothing about.

“Was it really that bad?” I asked, hoping to draw him back out of the silence. He looked up at me and blinked several times, before smirking at his thoughts and nodding slowly.

The distant look returned as he began recounting what had happened. Every word seemed drawn out like charges read against him, and he was punishing himself for each one. “We hazed him. We said he had embarrassed a captain of the football team and had to be punished. We stuffed a sock in his mouth and whipped him ‘til he puked…” He shook his head, and a single tear fell down his cheek. “I can’t believe I inflicted so much pain on someone, just because I was fucking scared of a gay kid on my team.”

He took another sip of his coffee, which he then followed by a longer gulp of the liquid. It seemed to calm him a little, and I decided that I would let him take the time he needed before he continued. I watched him as I sipped my own coffee slowly, trying to send him encouragement through my gaze, but I wasn’t even sure if he noticed me. His expression was pained and his eyes had a glazed look.

And then he spoke suddenly after several minutes, and it was in the quietest of whispers so that I barely heard it over the hum of the space heater behind me. “And then there was Seth…”

“Seth?” I echoed.

“We were kicked off the team for what we did to Alec, and of course we deserved it, but I didn’t see it that way,” Billy smiled at that, a sad smile at his own foolishness, but I understood and smiled back, encouraging him to go on. “I went out with a bunch of guys to try and buy some beer in an attempt to cool off. One of our friends was twenty-one, and he was willing to buy for us, so we went to the convenience store over on Third. I decided to stay outside, and while I was there, this little black-haired twelve-year-old, Seth, was walking toward the door. I was pacing, frustrated about what had happened and I bumped into him. He told me to watch where I was going, and I just snapped.”

Billy’s eyes widened and he shook his head with a bewildered expression as he continued, forcing the words out of him. “I threw him through the glass door to the convenience store, and then I just started punching him. I must have gotten at least ten solid punches in before they pulled me off of him…” He trailed off and took another big gulp of his coffee, and the expression on his face had me wondering if he was trying to get drunk off of the stuff. He shuddered and then looked up at me, as if he wasn’t sure how to continue.

“That’s rough…” I said, shuddering along with Billy as I thought about what Seth must have looked like after that. I was no stranger to fights, and had been in my fair share, and I knew what ten punches from a guy built like Billy could do to a kid. But despite all of that, I suspected that the man who sat across from me had changed and was now gentle and kind, and had put that past behind him, and so it was with compassion and not anger that I asked, “Was he all right?”

“Not really,” Billy sighed as he met my eyes again. There was darkness there; horrifying darkness that was eating at Billy’s soul, and it was hard to hold that gaze, but I did. “They took him to the hospital and he ended up making a full recovery, but he was out of action for a while. I didn’t really know what had happened to him at first, since I went to holding at the police station and then to court. Seth’s family was willing to consider an alternative punishment for me, rather than keeping me in jail. Man, I was so scared thinking about what they were going to do with me, and I was so relieved that they decided not to try me as an adult. I was seventeen then… I had really fucked up, but Seth’s family is awesome.” Billy paused, shaking his head in wonder before going on. “The court sent me to a boys’ home, a sort of juvenile detention center specifically geared toward rehabilitation. That was when things really started to turn around.”

“So, what was it about the boys’ home that made you change around?” I asked as I drank the last sip of my coffee. It had started to grow cold long before, but I didn’t care. The shop was warm and I was completely drawn into Billy’s story. Billy was opening up, and I could see in his tearful eyes that telling his side of the story was having a healing effect on him. The pain and darkness in his eyes seemed to begin draining away from him as he started talking about the boys’ home.

“There was another guy there, Jerome,” Billy said with a smirk at the memory, and he shook his head wistfully and sighed. “He was bigger than me, stronger than me, and had two gay younger brothers. When he found out what I was in for and learned about my past, he made me his personal ‘project’. He’d nag me every day, push me to the point of breaking, let me break and then put me back together. Bit by bit he tore down all of the prejudice, the hatred that I had built up. I don’t know what made him as wise as he was; he was in the home for theft and dealing, but he was a totally down to earth kind of guy. If it weren’t for Jerome I’d still be there, but there’s one thing he made me do that really outshone the rest of it.”

“What was that?” I asked as I leaned forward, eager to hear what he had to say next.

He smiled as he looked at me then, and I felt his happiness about the memory that he relayed to me. “Jerome made me write a letter to the kid that I beat up, Seth. He made me apologize, in writing. Seth wrote back, and he told me…” Billy stopped talking as his voice broke and the tears started flowing down his cheeks. He took a deep breath and looked out the window to the snow that had begun to fall, carpeting the world in fresh white fluff before turning back to me. His next words were choked out as he went on, “Seth told me that he forgave me… He told me that he knew that the only reason people hurt others is because they themselves are hurting and suddenly… Suddenly it all made sense.”

I couldn’t have gotten out of my chair any quicker, and I wrapped my arms around Billy and pulled him into me, and I was surprised when he hugged me back. He clung to me, for nearly a minute as he sobbed into my shoulder, and I let him. I felt his need and I rubbed his back as I held him until he had finally calmed down and let me go. I returned to my chair and he grinned at me. It was an embarrassed grin as he wiped his eyes with his fingers but when he was done he was glowing.

“You must think I’m such a loser, crying like this. Man, I barely met you today and now I’m telling you my life story and crying like a baby…” Billy said with a mirthless laugh. His grin faded as his voice lowered to almost a whisper. “I used to be so strong. I used to never cry…”

“Billy,” I said, bringing his eyes back to mine. “Being in touch with your emotions is strength, repressing them is not. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.” I reached across the table and grabbed his hand, giving it a squeeze. I was about to let go when he caught my hand and held it fast. I glanced down at our hands and smiled, and then asked, “So, what made sense?”

The smile on Billy’s face widened as he continued. “Jerome had said something before I got that letter from Seth. He had said that most homophobes are that way because they don’t want to admit something to themselves. I hadn’t thought it was important until Seth said what he did.”

I grinned from ear to ear and squeezed his hand again as I asked, “And what do you think about it now?”

He grinned back and I realized that he was still holding my hand, and if anything his grip had tightened.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I pulled up to the curb and parked my car before looking up at the house and grinning. It was good to be back in Binghamton. I hadn’t had as many chances to return to my hometown as I would have liked, but seeing Finn eagerly watching me out the window was enough for me to realize that I needed to make more time to come back and visit.

Reaching over to the passenger seat, I retrieved the pumpkin pie I had purchased from Café Perk Me Up so that I could bring it up for Thanksgiving, and couldn’t help but sniff it as I pulled it close to my face so that I could maneuver it past the steering wheel. That fresh pumpkin scent almost made me cut a slice then and there, but I held back and got out of the car, only to find Finn and an attractive young blonde boy waiting for me.

“Damon!” Finn said as he wrapped me in a hug that almost made me drop the pie. I hugged him back with my open arm and then reached around to close my car door. Once it was shut, Finn released me and then indicated the blonde boy to his right and said, “Damon, this is…”

“Max,” I finished for him, then handed the pie to Finn and said, “Here, hold this.” Then I looked to Max’s extended hand and ignored it as I wrapped him in a big hug that pulled him from the ground. When I put him down he was blushing so much with his pale skin that I would have thought he was sunburnt. “I don’t shake hands with Finn’s boyfriends. I know he has good tastes, so we’re brothers now, got it?”

Max nodded and I looked at him expectantly. He somehow managed to blush even deeper as he stammered, “G-got it…” I nodded, satisfied with the response and then wrapped by arm around him as we walked toward the house.

Finn fell in line beside me and asked with a confused look, “So, where’s the boyfriend? You said that you were…”

“I said that I had someone joining us,” I said quickly, cutting him off. I looked in the direction of the Interstate, toward my new home in Sanitaria Springs and the soft, quiet, tormented soul whom I was starting to call my own. “He’ll be joining us when he’s done with his family’s Thanksgiving, which should be wrapping up pretty soon, and then he’ll be on his way, but we’re not boyfriends. He’s not ready for that yet, but when he is, you’ll be the first to know, Finn. But you’ll like him.”

“Oh? What makes you so sure?”

I grinned at him and gripped his neck and jostled him a little, causing his bright pink Mohawk to shake about. “You’ve always had a thing for strays, haven’t you?”