Hey everyone. RichardAdams again. I decided to make Chapter 12 a very long chapter, mostly because I couldn't stop a chapter like this in the middle and make you wait a few more days to see what happens. Now that school's almost over and things are winding down, I may be able to post more than two chapters a week (key word there is 'may,' but I'll work my hardest).
I'm also doing it to celebrate a dozen chapters! Thank you all again for the support! I love all my readers and I hope you love my story. Comments and emails are welcomed. Here's Chapter 12 of 'Am I...?'
The weeks pass and every day feels as bad as the one before. I haven't said a word to Leo and when I even look at him, all I want to do is scream 'I'm sorry.' I've managed to keep my grades up and I'm still working on college applications, but it's only managed to distract me a little from Leo.
It's the week before winter break and the ceremony for SCFA nominations is coming up. Every year, the ceremony is held just before Christmas, which kind of interferes with everyone's travel plans (not me though. My family stays home every year). Mom, Dad, and Ryan, who's home for winter break, are helping me to cope with the breakup, but it still hurts.
Mark and Shawn are helping to relay information about Leo to me, but they don't ever have very much to tell me. All they've said is that Leo seems incredibly depressed. He isn't talking much and seems sick most of the time. Maybe this breakup is as hard on him as it is on me...
It took a bit more time than I expected, but Brian tells me earlier in the week that he, Leo and I can go and talk to Danny this Saturday. He tells me that he'll come to pick me up early Saturday morning and we'll be taken to where Danny is being held. I'm nervous about seeing Danny, but I'm even more nervous about being with Leo most of the day.
Saturday morning. After I'm showered and dressed, I head downstairs and have a quick breakfast with Mom, Dad, and Ryan. "So you're going to talk to the guy that beat the shit out of your friend?" Ryan asks, a mouth full of cereal.
"Yeah. We're trying to work out a plea bargain so he can get a reduced sentence."
"Are you sure he feels remorse for what he did?" Mom asks me, the lawyer in her taking over. "If he doesn't, don't agree to the deal."
"I haven't talked to him, but Brian has," I say. "He said that he could see how terrible Danny feels about the whole thing and knows Danny made a mistake." I hear a car horn blare outside and I rise from the kitchen table and walk my dishes to the sink. "I'll be back later in the afternoon."
I head outside and find Brian standing on my front porch, cast and crutches gone. "Hey, you got the cast off!" I say.
He smiles up at me. "Yup. I got it off yesterday after school. My leg feels a little stiff, but otherwise, I'm fully healed. C'mon. We need to get to the penitentiary."
Brian leads me down the walkway and climbs into the driver's seat of his Ford Escape. I get in the passenger seat and we head off. "Are...we going to get Leo?" I ask.
"No. Last night, he said he wasn't feeling well and couldn't make it today. I know things between you two are still on thin ice, but I'm really going to need you to focus on Danny today. Shit, that was really insensitive. I know the breakup has been really hard on you, but I just sounded like I didn't care about it. Sorry Josh."
"It's okay. I know I need to push Leo out of my head for now. I promise I'm with you 100% on this."
We get to the penitentiary about forty-five minutes later. We park in the visitors area and as we're walking to the door, a woman that looks to be in her late-thirties wearing a black pantsuit is standing by the front door, waving her hand. "Brian!"
"Hi Michele," Brian says. He looks to me. "Josh, this is Michele. She's my lawyer."
"Nice to meet you Michele," I say. "Josh Rusden."
"You're the young man Brian's been talking about," she says. "It's nice to meet you as well. C'mon boys. We have a meeting to get to."
We walk inside the penitentiary and Michele instructs Brian and I to take a seat while she finishes filling out some paperwork. Brian and I take our seats and I look to him. "So how're you and Justin coming along?"
Tada! Instant redness in the face. "Um...we've hung out a few times in the last few weeks," he says. "Justin likes the same stuff I do, he's really nice, and is a fun and cool guy. I'm glad he's my...friend."
"Are you sure Justin's...just...a friend? Is there...any...other...news?"
Brian turns even redder and he snaps his head to me. "Okay, I can't keep it in anymore. I wanted to keep it a secret, but it's too hard not to tell anyone. Justin kissed me last night!"
"Nice!" I give Brian a quick, friendly hug. "How was it?"
"It was amazing! We went out to an arcade for a few hours, got some dinner there, and had a really good time. Afterword, we took a walk in a park not too far from the arcade. And when we stopped for a second, he grabbed me and pulled me into a kiss. Justin told me he had liked me since junior year and I told him I liked him too. God, it was the greatest night of my life..."
"I'm really happy for you, Brian."
"I am too."
Michele gestures to us and we follow her and an officer down a long hallway. As we walk further down the brightly lit hallway, the stronger the sense of dread I'm feeling becomes. How could anyone stay in a place like this? I've been in here less than a minute and I want to run out of here.
We get to a door and the officer unlocks it. The door opens and sitting at a table wearing an orange jumpsuit with a man in a suit next to him is Danny. But he's not the Danny I saw a month ago. This Danny looks...broken. He looks like his spirit has been shattered into a million pieces and looks to be on the verge of death.
Danny looks up, the chain of the handcuffs on his hands rattling, and sees Brian and me standing there. "Brian...Josh..." he croaks.
Brian, Michele, and I take three seats across from Danny and the suited man, who I assume is Danny's lawyer. "So you've come in here with a witness to Brian's attack?" asks the suited man.
"Yes," says Michele. "Josh here will give us his side of the story of what he saw when Brian was attacked."
Everyone looks to me and I start to sweat. "Go ahead," says Brian.
It takes me a few minutes, but I recount every detail of Danny attacking Brian. With every word, I see Danny's face break a bit. By the time I finish, he almost looks to be in tears. "Thank you Josh," says Michele. "I'm sure we have all that recorded."
I remember Mom telling me when I was younger that during an investigation, statements are recorded on a camera and played back in court as evidence. "Ms. Ezra," says the man in the suit, talking to Michele. "May I please have a word with you in the hallway?"
"Of course," says Michele. She looks to Danny. "If you so much as touch my client, we'll have it recorded and file it as assault."
Danny nods a bit and Michele and the suited man head out into the hall, closing the door behind them. The air quickly becomes heavy and thick with just us three in here. "Hey Danny," says Brian.
"Hi..." he hoarsely says.
"I hope you don't mind, but I brought Josh with me. He kind of needed to say what he saw that day."
"It's okay," says Danny. "I know you guys want me to be locked up for a long time because of what I did. You hate me and hope I stay behind bars for the rest of my life."
"That's not true Danny," I say. "Brian's been worried about you since the day after you hurt him."
Danny lifts his head up and I see dark bags under his eyes and the whites are blood red. "R-Really?" Danny asks.
"Yeah," says Brian. "I know you've felt terrible about hurting me all this time, and it's not because you know you're going to be locked up. You feel genuinely horrible about what you did to me."
Danny's face relaxes and he lets out a large breath. "Thank you so much for understanding," says Danny. "I...don't even know why I hurt you. All I remember is seeing Josh and Leo running toward me, you slumped against a tree, and my hands covered in blood. My instinct took over and I just...ran away."
"I know Leo isn't here," I say, "but he said a few weeks ago that he thinks you're hiding something, something that made you attack Leo."
I notice Danny's face flash with fear. "Are you willing to talk about it?" Brian asks.
Danny nods slightly after a few seconds of silence. "It's...my dad. Ever since I was old enough to know what he was saying, he's filled my head with nothing but thoughts of how gay people are the devil's spawn and are the worst beings to have ever walked the earth."
I glance at Brian and see that his face is already becoming sad. "When I was four years old," Danny continues, "I was with my dad and he saw two guys holding hands. He called them faggots and wished they'd burn in hell. But as I got older, the worse it got.
"It escalated from small comments, to confrontations, to yelling at them, to even hurting them a little. And every time I saw it, it became burned into my brain. I started to see what he was doing as okay, even though deep down I knew it was wrong. I don't even have anything against gay people."
"Is that why you hurt Brian?" I ask.
Danny nods and his eyes start to gloss over. "It was the homophobic thoughts taking over that made me hurt Brian," he says. "My dad has been the cause of my homophobic tendencies and I've been too scared and stupid to see that what I was doing was wrong. It wasn't until I hurt Brian that I saw what I was doing."
"Danny," says Brian. "I can see the hurt and sadness that you've been keeping inside of you all these years. It's not pretty and it isn't good to keep it in you. I know you're upset. Just...let everything out. It's okay."
Danny's mouth clenches and his throat tightens. The first of the tears escapes and the screams come a second later. Danny buries his face in his hands and cry after cry erupts from his stomach. Brian gets up from his seat and walks around the table and puts his arm across Danny's back. Danny suddenly grabs Brian by the shirt and pulls him into a crushing hug (almost a hug because of the handcuffs). Brian returns the hug and Danny cries into Brian's stomach, years of pain lifting off his shoulders.
Danny cries for fifteen minutes straight, Brian hugging him the whole time. Danny finally releases Brian and wipes his soaked face dry. "Are you okay now?" Brian asks.
"Y-Yeah..." Danny quietly says. "Thanks."
Brian comes back around the table and sits back in his seat. Michelle and Danny's lawyer come back into the room a minute later. "We heard everything," says Michele. "Danny, I'm very sorry for all the abuse you've put up with over the years."
"It's okay," Danny replies.
"No it isn't," says Danny's lawyer. "Danny, you've been abused since you were a child. You need justice for that."
"I know this is going to sound crazy," says Brian, "but I want the charges against Danny dropped."
Every eye focuses on Brian. "What?" says Danny.
"I want the charges against you dropped. No prison, no lost life, nothing. Danny, I know you didn't mean to hurt me and the abuse you've suffered through the years caused you to have those homophobic feelings. So...I don't want you to be locked up because of it." He looks to Michele. "I want the charges dropped. And you can't do anything to change my mind."
Michele sighs to herself. "Well, you aren't the first person to have the charges dropped against someone, but you are the first in an instance like this one. It looks like I can't do a thing."
"Wait...you're not kidding?" Danny asks.
"Not in the least," says Brian. "Danny, you're not going to prison. You're free."
Danny cries once again, but through the tears, smiles. 'Thank you' after 'thank you' slides out of his mouth. "Now that we've cleared this up," says Danny's lawyer, "we need to discuss what we're going to do about your father, Danny."
Danny wipes his eyes again. "I don't care what you do with him Carl," he says (thank you! I finally know the guy's name!). "He doesn't even care about me anymore. When I called him after I was brought here to tell him I needed help, he told me to fuck off."
God, how could anyone be that horrible to their own child? "Does your dad do anything illegal?" asks Michele. "Like any drugs?"
"Are you kidding?" Danny says. "He has practically package after package of drugs in his room! I even think he uses our basement to store and sell drugs along with his day job."
Carl quickly writes that down on a sheet of paper. "We'll get a search warrant for your house to investigate your claim. As for your charges being dropped, we can get you out of here by the end of the day."
"Do you have anywhere to go?" I ask. "You probably don't want to go home to your father."
"My mom and dad divorced when I was younger. She still lives in the area and she and I are still pretty close, along with her boyfriend."
"Do you think she'd let you stay there?" asks Brian.
"She's been wanting me to get out of my dad's house for years and has always told me that there's always a bed open for me. I've just been too stubborn to relent and go with her." He looks to Carl. "Can I call my mom?"
"In a little while," he says. "We need to get a few more statements from you and then you can call her. Don't worry. It shouldn't take too long."
"Brian, you need to fill out some forms too," says Michele, "saying you understand that you are dropping the charges against Danny."
"Okay." Brian and I get up from our seats. "Good luck Danny."
"Thank you again Brian. You too Josh."
"You're welcome," I say. "By the way, I'm gay too."
Michele and Carl look at me with shocked faces, but Danny's stays exactly the same. "Is Brian your boyfriend?" he calmly asks.
"No, Justin Robinson is my boyfriend," says Brian.
"My captain?" says Danny. "Wow, didn't expect that. Congrats for both of you."
This Danny is so completely different form the Danny that we used to see at school. He's so...nice. "Thanks Danny," says Brian.
Michele leads us out the door, the hallway feeling a lot less desolate than when I first came here.
Brian tells me the next day that Danny has been released and is now a free man. Brian's parents were shocked when he told them that he dropped the charges against Danny, but relented when he told them about the abuse Danny had been suffering over the years.
I'm also told that the police came and arrested Danny father, who had been found with several dozen kilos of marijuana and cocaine, as well as over a thousand prescription pills. Along with the drugs were boxes and boxes of homophobic propaganda. No wonder Danny was the way he was.
Danny has moved in with his mom and her boyfriend, who have welcomed Danny with open arms. Danny tells both me and Brian that he will be coming back to school after winter break. The school board dismissed the expulsion charge against Danny when they heard about the abuse and thought the month in prison was punishment enough. Danny doesn't know how everyone will take him coming back, but he's willing to accept whatever happens to him.
It's the day before winter break starts and the ceremony for the SCFA is in two days, on Christmas Eve. Why, on all days, did they have to do it then? It's actually pretty wrong. The SCFA apologized for the timing of the ceremony, saying that all other days for the venue were booked. Oh well...
I'm sitting in history, reading a book, when I see my six foot seven coach standing in front of my desk. "You excited for tomorrow, Rusden?" Coach asks me.
"I'm more nervous than excited," I say.
"Well, don't be. The entire team and myself will be there to support you. You're the first guy from Franklin High School in the last fifteen years to be nominated by the SCFA. You should be proud."
"I know, Coach. But I'm still really bummed..."
Coach sighs loudly. "About Leo?" he says so only I can hear. I nod a little. Leo and I haven't spoken in almost a month and it's really fucking sucked.
There's a sudden clapping sound, causing me and everyone else in the room to jump a bit. I see Coach holding his hands together. "Class! Rusden here has been nominated by the SCFA for Running Back of the Year and isn't proud enough of himself! Please teach him otherwise!"
A large round of applause comes from all my classmates and I can't help but smile. "Thank you! Wish Rusden luck at the award ceremony!"
The bell rings, announcing the start of winter break, and students start packing up. As they leave, they give me words of encouragement. Eventually, only Coach and I are left in the room. "Thanks for that Coach," I say. "It really meant a lot."
"No problem, Rusden. Even if you don't win, everyone at this school is incredibly proud of you."
"Thanks Coach. I'll see you Friday at the ceremony."
I head out to the parking lot and find Mark and Shawn standing by my car. "Hey Josh," they both say when they see me.
"Hey," I reply.
"So the ceremony's Friday, isn't it?" says Shawn.
"Yup. I'm really nervous for it though."
"Hey, I would be too if I were nominated," says Mark. "But neither Shawn nor I are nominated. You are. And we're both proud of you."
I smile at my friends. "Thanks guys. That's really cool of you."
I look past Mark and Shawn and see Brian and Justin walking toward us. "Hey guys," I say. "How is the happy couple?"
Justin's face turns instantly red. Yeah, Mark and Shawn know about Brian and Justin, the only other people besides me and Leo (who Brian told alone). "We're doing great," says Brian.
"Yeah, we are," says Justin. "I just wish I could kiss him here, but I'm still not ready to..."
"Come out?" I finish.
"Yeah. I'm just glad Brian here understands that."
Brian smiles up at him. "I need to get out of here," I say. "I have to get ready for the SCFA ceremony this Friday."
"Good luck with that by the way," says Brian. "It's awesome how you might be named the best running back in Southern California."
I smile. "Thanks. See you guys later!"
I hop in my car and turn the ignition and start to head out. But as I'm driving to the entrance to the lot, I see Leo's black motorcycle, with Leo standing next to it. As much as I want to stop and at least say hi to him, I swallow my feelings and continue out. I look in the rearview mirror and see Leo, looking after me as I drive away.
Christmas Eve and while I should be sitting in the living room watching 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' with homemade pie like we do every year, I'm dressing into my suit for the ceremony. I wasn't the only one that was pissed about the date of the ceremony. Mom went into a twenty-minute rant about how the SCFA board members are 'a bunch of ignorant assholes.' It was very funny to watch, let alone hear.
Once we're all dressed, Dad and Ryan both in suits and Mom in a black evening gown, we head over to the ceremony venue. The SCFA goes out every year, but this year they're really stepped it up. The ceremony is in L.A. and even booked one of The Four Seasons hotels. One word: DAMN...
We get to the hotel about fifty minutes later and Dad hands the keys to his car to one of the valets. As we walk in, I see numerous other teenage boys and their families in similar attire of suits and nice dresses (on the moms and sisters, not the boys). We follow everyone else into the main room and find dozens, if not hundreds, of tables set up along with a large main stage.
A woman escorts me and my family to a table near the front of the room. I guess nominees get the best seats in the house. As I sit down, I look around the room and see much of the team seated in the middle of the room, Mark and Shawn making weird faces at me as I look to them. I send them a quick text.
'You guys are dicks.'
Mom, Dad, Ryan, and I are given plates of appetizers and as we're eating, the lighting dims and a man in a tuxedo walks out on stage. A round of applause is given to him as he makes his way to the podium. "Good evening everyone," he says into the microphone provided. "Welcome to The Southern California Football Association Awards Ceremony. I'm the director of the SCFA: James Abelson."
We all give him another round of applause. "Thank you for coming on such an inconvenient evening. I sincerely apologize for the timing of the ceremony. But I hope you all can understand. Tonight, we are here to commemorate the best football players in Southern California. How about a hand for all the nominees and players here tonight?"
The audience claps again, but I feel I should stay out of this one. "The young, talented nominees here tonight are the best group of young men the SCFA has seen in the last thirty years. They've shown skill, hard work, and passion unlike any other nominee before them and we are very proud of all of them and they should be proud of themselves. Without further ado, I hereby announce the SCFA Awards Ceremony has officially begun!"
Time quickly goes by and the ceremony is actually enjoyable. There are some jokes, several speeches, and award after award is given out. Most schools schools have four or five nominees in every category. But Franklin High School only has one: me. It's pretty nerve-racking knowing I'm representing my school, but it's also cool to know I have my school's support.
The ceremony schedule says the award for Running Back of the Year isn't going to be given out until close to the end of the ceremony. I don't mind waiting. What I do mind is how freaking hot it is in here! It feels like it's ninety degrees and it looks like I'm not the only one who's suffering. Everyone I see has sweat on their foreheads and noses and I think a few people look like they're about to pass out. But at least the food we're being served is good so if someone passes out, they'll pass out with a full stomach.
As the ceremony goes on, I look around and see a few of the other nominees, all of whom I've competed against on the field in the past. They're all nice guys and great athletes, so I won't feel bad if I lose to them.
Finally, after almost two and a half hours in sweltering heat, Mr. Abelson walks onto the stage. "Our next award is for Running Back of the Year, a very coveted award."
Here we go...
I sit up a bit and pay full attention to Mr. Abelson. "We had a very tough decision this year trying to decide who to choose to be the recipient of this award. All the nominees were so identical in stats and scores that we couldn't just rely on that. So we also relied on how well the nominees conducted themselves, both on and off the field.
"We felt that the best player for this award was someone that was a great sportsman, cared more about the team than themselves, was willing to do anything to help someone in need, and showed great passion and love for football."
My heart is beating a mile a minute and I'm sweating bullets. "This young man displayed all of these traits and more. And the winner for Running Back of the Year goes to..."
Mr. Abelson reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out an envelope. He breaks the seal and opens the envelope and reads it over and smiles. "From Franklin High School. Josh Rusden."
Did I hear that right? Because right now I can't hear anything. All I can see are people applauding and Mom, Dad, and Ryan out of their seats. The sound comes back, and it's deafening. There's a loud roar from the crowd cheering and clapping. There's suddenly a hand on my shoulder and I see Ryan by my side. "You won, little bro!" he yells over the crowd.
He pulls me out of my seat and I see Ryan's right. Mr. Abelson is smiling down at me, gesturing me to the stage. Mom and Dad pull me into a quick, tight hug, and push me to the stage. My mouth quickly turns to a grin and I walk up the stairs and onto the stage.
A woman in a nice dress hands me a trophy and I see the inscription.
'Josh Rusden. Running Back of the Year. A fantastic player, a selfless man.'
"Josh here has exemplified the traits and talents every running back needs on the field," Mr. Abelson continues. "But he also showed how every person should act off the field. When he saw a fellow classmate being assaulted, Josh and another student scared the attacker away and Josh tended to the student's wounds. That selflessness pushed Josh over the top and that's why he has won this award today."
Mr. Abelson steps aside and I walk behind the podium and look out at the crowd. I see my family beaming at me with giant grins. I see my team, every single one of them on their feet, Coach towering over all of them. "Uh..." I say into the mic. "I don't have a speech ready...mostly because I didn't think I was going to win..."
That gets a small laugh from the crowd. "First off, I'd like to say thank you to my family: Mom, Dad, my brother Ryan, who put up with all my practices over the years and taught me the lessons I still know today that have shaped who I am. I want to thank my teammates, who have helped push me to do my best in every game, no matter how tough our opponent was.
"I want to thank all the other nominees here tonight, who are fantastic athletes and even better people. They made me work my hardest to try and outplay them and helped me reach this stage. I really want to thank my coach and mentor Coach Tony Coddler helped give me the drive and filled me with passion since I first joined my team three years ago and helped me to reach new heights.
"Thanks to my high school that's given me support at every game and up until now. My closest friends who gave me a slap on the back when I felt I wasn't good enough: Mark, Shawn, Justin, Brian, they've all helped me in some way, shape, or form and I can't thank them enough.
"My friend Brian was the one I saved from a bashing early in November. Brian's gay and seeing him hurt really struck home for me because..."
I stop mid-sentence, leaving the room confused. I scan the crowd, seeing the faces of Mom, Dad, Ryan, Shawn, Mark, and Coach. All of them say the same thing: If you're ready, you can...
I take a deep breath and smile to myself. I lean back into the microphone and say my next sentence with confidence. "It really struck home for me because I'm gay too."
The air becomes thick and a quiet murmur goes throughout the room, everyone whispering to each other. But that doesn't faze me. "Yeah. I'm gay. I've known I was gay for a while now and it hasn't changed me at all. Yeah, I may like guys instead of girls, but does that make me any less of a football player? Any less of a person?
"No. It doesn't. I may be gay, but I know I'm still a great running back. I may be gay, but I still have a loving family, great friends, and a boyfriend I love with all my heart. If you want to take this award away from me because I'm gay, then you can have it back. I'm not going to change who I am just so I can have the title of 'Running Back of the Year.'
"Whoever thinks I'm a bad person for being gay, you can take your opinion and shove it up your ass. I know who I am and I love who I am. If being gay is wrong, then I don't want to be right. Thank you everyone, and thank you for this award."
I take a step back and look out at everyone. There's one loud clap, then another, soon the entire room is applauding again, even louder than when I was first called to the stage. I look around and when I expect to see at least one face filled with contempt, they aren't there.
I smile again and step back to the mic. "Thank you again. Now if you excuse me, there's a guy I need to talk to..."
I hop off the stage and quickly walk over to my family. "Dad, I..."
He holds his car keys and valet ticket in front of my face. "We'll take a taxi home," he says.
I grin and take the keys from his hand. I hug him, Mom, and Ryan tightly before running toward the door, where most of my team stands. They part down the middle, opening my path to the door. Mark and Shawn are on both sides of the opening. As I run past them, I feel two hands on my back.
"Go get him back."
"Good luck Josh."
I run through the hotel and make it outside. I hand the ticket to the valet and Dad's car is here in less than a minute. I give the valet a handsome tip and hop in the driver's seat, place my trophy in the passenger seat and drive toward my destination.
Another forty-five minute drive later, I pull up to Leo's house. It's almost midnight now and it looks like all the lights are off. I park Dad's car and slowly climb out of the car, the air cold enough for me to see my breath. I originally wanted to ring the doorbell, but I don't want to wake up Leo's parents. So I make my way around the house and walk into the backyard.
I've been over here enough times to memorize where Leo's room is. I look up and see the window to Leo's room with the blinds and curtains closed. If he's asleep, then I came over here for nothing. And this can't wait until tomorrow.
I look around, trying to find something to throw at Leo's window with (I know that happens in almost every romantic comedy, but I'm kind of desperate right now). There isn't a single rock here. Damn you Mr. Trigon and your love of lawn care...
I can't even find a freaking acorn here! Hell, I'd throw my shoe or even my phone, but Leo's window would probably shatter. I'm just about to resort to the front door, when I remember something. I rush back to the front of the house and to Dad's car and go to the trunk. Please be in here, please be in here, please be in here...
Inside the trunk is exactly what I'm looking for: my guitar. I asked Dad to take it into the repair shop to get it restrung, and he did, but he forgot he left it in here. Thank you for your forgetfulness, Dad!
I grab my guitar, close the trunk, and run back to the backyard. Leo's window remains untouched, just how I left it. I strap my guitar on and look up at Leo's window. A pick would be great right now, but I've played this song enough times using my fingers. My fingers dance over the strings, filling the night with a smooth melody. I just hope Leo can hear it.
With a deep breath, I start to sing.
'Hey there Delilah, what's it like in New York City? I'm a thousand miles away but girl, tonight you look so pretty. Yes you do. Times Square can't sing as bright as you. I swear it's true...'
'Hey there Delilah, don't you worry about the distance. I'm right here if you get lonely, give this song another listen. Close your eyes. Listen to my voice, it's my disguise. I'm by your side...'
'Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. What you do to me...'
Man, 'Hey There Delilah' gets me every time. I'm tearing up and I'm barely through the song.
'Hey there Delilah, I know times are getting hard. But just believe me, girl, somehow I'll pay the bills with this guitar. We'll have it good. We'll have the life we knew we would. My word is good...'
'Hey there Delilah, I've got so much left to say. If every simple song I wrote would take your breath away. I'd write it all. Even more in love with me you'd fall. We'd have it all...'
'Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me.'
The first of the tears drip, but I keep playing and singing.
'A thousand miles seems pretty far, but they've got planes and trains and cars. I'd walk with you if I have no other way. Our friends would all make fun of us, but we'll just laugh along because we know that none of them have felt this way. Delilah I can promise you that by the time we get through that the world will never be the same. And you're to blame...'
"Hey there Delilah, you be good and don't you miss me. Two more years and you'll be done with school and I'll be making history like I do. You'll know it's all because of you. We can do whatever we want to. Hey there Delilah, here's to you. This one's for you...'
'Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. Oh it's what you do to me. What you do to me...'
I play a few more notes and end with a final strum. The tears fall from my eyes in a slow, steady stream. "You do realize that song is more of a breakup song right?"
My eyes snap open and I see Leo standing next to me in a t-shirt and jeans and a sad look on his face. "L-Leo..." I say.
"Hi Josh. It's been a little while, hasn't it?"
I wipe my eyes and face dry. "Um...a bit, yeah."
"I didn't know you could sing so well."
"I've been able to sing since I was younger. My mom says it's natural talent, I say it's coincidence. I don't like to tell people I can sing, otherwise people will start asking me to sing at random times."
Leo and I stand in awkward silence, neither of us able to keep a gaze on each other for more than a few seconds. "Um...what's with the suit?" Leo asks.
"Oh, the SCFA awards ceremony was tonight. I kind of...ducked out early so I could come here."
"How was it?"
"Well...I guess I'm Southern California's Running Back of the Year."
Leo smiles a little. "That's great, Josh. Congrats..."
"Thanks." We go back to standing in silence again, my gaze falling to the grass. "Leo...I really want to..."
"No...I need to explain," says Leo. "I need to tell you why I broke up with you. What I did was such a dick move and I haven't been able to sleep without feeling guilty about that note."
"No! It's not okay!" he yells. "I dumped you in the worst possible way and ripped your heart out of your chest! How could you think that was okay for me to do?!"
"Because I know you see me as your rapist!" Leo's breath stops short and he stares at me with horrified eyes. "Yes Leo. I know you were raped..." His tears spill out even before I can see them well up. But he doesn't cry. He just lets the tears flow. "Do you want to sit down somewhere?"
Leo nods and I follow him to the front of the house and onto the front steps. Leo takes a seat on the top step and I place my guitar behind him and sit down next to him. "My parents told you, didn't they?" Leo asks.
"Yeah. They told me how much your rape hurt you psychologically. Had we not had sex, I wouldn't have brought up those horrible memories..."
"No, Josh. It wasn't you. I forcibly pushed those memories into my head when I tried so hard to forget them. What we did was...amazing. You were passionate, gentle, and loving. My rape was...terrifying..."
"Do you want to talk about it? Maybe that can help you forget again."
Leo takes a few breaths, all of them long and deep. "My parents told you the reason we moved here, right?" I nod. "Well, before we moved here, I...had a boyfriend."
Jealousy starts to build inside me. "A boyfriend?" I ask. "I'm not your first boyfriend? I thought you said you never dated anyone before."
"I lied. I'm sorry I did, but I had to lie to try to forget Jeremy, my last boyfriend. Jeremy was a year older than me and we met in February of this year, when I was still living in Maryland. He was pretty similar to you, a football player, gorgeous, amazing personality."
"Did you love him?"
"I thought I did. We really liked each other, but both he and I were still in the closet at the time, so we kept our relationship a secret. We never did anything more than kiss, but it was nice. When I told Jeremy that I was moving here and had to breakup with him, he...didn't take it very well."
"What do you mean?"
Leo glances at me and I can see a huge amount of pain behind his dark blue eyes. He looks back to the ground. "Jeremy kind of...snapped...when I told him we were breaking up. He suddenly became a lot...angrier and more violent. He wasn't the guy I first met."
"He didn't want to lose you," I say.
Leo nods. "He called me countless times, left me hundreds of text messages, begging me not to leave him. I told him that he would find someone great for him, but it wouldn't be me. And then...on April 27th, I was raped."
The pieces finally come together. "Jeremy raped you, didn't he?"
Leo nods again and more tears slide down his cheeks. "I was walking home from my job late at night, down a dark bike path, when someone grabbed me from behind and pulled me into the bushes. Even though it was dark, I could tell it was Jeremy.
"He looked furious and when I tried to fight back, he punched me in the face almost a dozen times. I wanted to scream for help, but when the fists stopped, he put a knife against my throat and told me that if I even made a sound, he'd slice my neck open. I felt so helpless, so powerless, so vulnerable, but I could only let him do what he was going to do."
Leo wipes his nose with the back of his hand and I scoot a little closer to him. "Jeremy raped me for almost thirty minutes, during that whole time there wasn't a single person that came up or down the bike path. It was the most excruciating thing I've ever felt, but I knew I couldn't scream in pain, otherwise I would've been killed.
"When Jeremy finished, he zipped up his pants and spat on me. He didn't say another word and left me alone in the bushes, bleeding and scared out of my mind. I didn't move for another hour out of fear he would come back and finish me off. When I did move again, I reached for my cell phone and called the police. They were there in less than four minutes, some of the longest minutes of my life.
"At the hospital, I was afraid of people touching me. Even the word 'rape' made me cry and people trying to talk to me ended up with me screaming at them to go away. There were piles of evidence against Jeremy, including my statement, Jeremy's DNA underneath my fingernails, and semen in..."
Leo stops short, taking a few seconds to breathe. "The trial was pretty short and when I saw Jeremy again, all I wanted to do was tackle him and beat the living shit out of him. He may have looked sorry for what he did, but I didn't care. He deserved the thirty-year sentence he got. But what he said when they were taking him away is permanently stuck in my head."
"What did he say?" I ask, my voice weak.
"'I'm so sorry Leo. I love you so much...'"
Leo lets out a few sobs that he was holding in him. "So do you see me as Jeremy now?" I ask.
Leo snaps his head to me. "No! No, I don't! Josh, after I was raped, I swore that I wouldn't get too close to another guy again. But when I saw you on the first day of school, you managed to break down the barriers I put up just by looking at me. I knew you weren't Jeremy and you had a heart of gold."
I smile a bit, but the smile fades. "Well, what happened after we had sex?" I ask. "I saw a tear fall down your cheek as I was falling asleep."
Leo's wet eyes stare right at me. "Josh, that was a tear of joy. I knew I just made love with a guy that loved me and that I loved more than anything in the world. I couldn't hold in my emotions and a tear slipped out."
Relief floods my entire body. "But when I woke up, you were gone and you left that note for me."
Leo grabs my hand and puts it in his. "When I woke up and saw you sleeping next to me, I felt like the happiest person in the world. But as soon as I saw you, my barriers came back, telling me not to trust you. They told me that you would only hurt me if I stayed with you, and I was stupid enough to believe it.
"I got out of bed and quickly threw on my clothes. My heart told me to stay, but my body and brain were telling me to get the hell out. I don't even remember writing that note for you but as soon as I got home on my motorcycle, I broke out crying, knowing I just made the biggest mistake of my life.
"I wanted to talk to you so badly the next day, but when you didn't show up to school, I knew I hurt you deeply. And when I saw you on Wednesday, my barriers told me to be afraid and to treat you like you were Jeremy. And...I did."
My tears fall with Leo's, the water dripping from both of our eyes onto our hands. "The four weeks we weren't talking were the worst," Leo continues. "I wanted to talk to you, apologize to you, but I knew my barriers would do all the talking for me and I'd just scream at you again. It hurt so much not having you talk to me, but I knew it was my own fault.
"When I heard you playing that song, something in me just...clicked. All the barriers I put up a second time shattered. The same feeling I had when I first saw you came back to me. And when I came down into the backyard and saw you there with your guitar, it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It told me that you weren't Jeremy, but someone a million times better that cares about me so much..."
Leo lets out a few more sobs and I reach around him and pull him into a tight hug. He hugs me right back. "I'm so sorry Josh," he cries into my shoulder. "I'm so sorry for all the pain I've caused you."
"It's okay, Leo. You only did what you did because you were scared and confused. I still love you as much as I did before."
"I love you too, Josh. So much..."
I look at Leo and he looks at me, causing us both to smile at the same time. Leo leans in and I do the same. The kiss is soft and loving and it feels wonderful. If I'm dreaming, please don't wake me up...
As I reunite with Leo, I feel something cold land on my cheek. Then something else cold lands on my hand. I open my eyes to see small, white flakes falling from the black sky. It's snowing...it's actually snowing. "Wow..." is all I can say.
I look to my left and see Leo smiling at the falling snow. "You get snow here?" he asks.
"It's incredibly rare, it never sticks and it wouldn't last very long, but yeah, it can snow here. I've never seen it outside the mountains though..."
Leo and I stare at the snow, peacefulness washing over both of us. I look down at my watch and see both hands pointed at the twelve. "It looks like it's a Christmas miracle," I say.
I look at Leo and bring my arm around his back and pull him close to me. He nuzzles himself against me, his body heat warm and comforting. "Merry Christmas, Leo."
He looks up at me and his tears fall again. "Merry Christmas, Josh. You're the best present that's ever been given to me."
I let the tears flow again too. "I love you, Leo."
"I love you, Josh."
Leo and I kiss, letting the cold Southern California snow cover us, washing away all the sadness, sorrow, and regret of the last month.