Chapter 4

The high energy sounds of ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba blast through the speakers as we fly down the highway. With the windows down, air blasts throughout the cabin of the car. “How’re you holding up?” I ask Declan.

“So far so good. I’m glad you chose to take the scenic route.”

Me too. The Appalachian Mountains are absolutely beautiful, the colors of early fall beginning to set in with the leaves. “We should be home in a few hours,” I say.

“Take your time. I have nowhere to be.”

Declan turns and looks out the window and I find myself glancing over at him every once in a while. I focus on driving, even though we’re on a completely straight road. But even something as simple as that I’m finding difficult. I don’t completely understand it, but there’s just something about Declan that I like.

Whenever I talk to him, whenever I’m around him, I just suddenly feel so…at ease. Like all my worries in life just fade away. Football, dad, school, dad, assignments, more dad, it all just goes away without any issue whenever he’s around. I…I just wonder why that is.

Declan stretches his arms above his head. “I think I’m going to take a short nap. Please don’t crash while I’m asleep. If I die, I will haunt you.”

“But what if I die too?”

“Then I’ll haunt your ghost for the rest of eternity.”

I laugh to myself as he settles into his seat. It’s not long before he’s completely asleep, snoring softly to himself. With the quiet sounds of ‘All The Things She Said” by t.A.T.u playing, the interior of the car feels incredibly calm. As we drive down the highway, I’m still glancing over at Declan.

The quiet serenity in his face and how his chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm, just seeing it makes me feel a lot calmer. A sudden ringing grabs my attention and I look down at my phone, finding the caller ID on the screen. As much as I want to ignore this, I know I need to pick up. She won’t stop unless I do.

Tapping the screen, I grip the steering wheel and brace myself. “Hello?”

“Hi, pumpkin. How are things?”

I roll my eyes and bite my tongue to keep myself from saying something I’ll likely regret. “Things are fine, Mom. How about you?”

“Oh I’m wonderful, pumpkin! My friends and I just went to this lovely fundraising event for children affected by multiple sclerosis! A very touching event. And some beautiful photos taken by photographers who were there!”

She really only cares about the photos. “That’s nice.”

“Your father has been talking a lot about you lately. Mostly about football. Is that going well?”

“I think so.”

“Oh good! Something for me to talk about with my girlfriends at our next banquet!” Woopty-fucking-do. “And are you returning home anytime soon?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh no reason! There’s just a fundraiser at Rebecca’s house tomorrow evening and I was thinking how wonderful it would be if my darling son were to make an appearance!”

Gag me with a spoon. “Um…”

“Ashley will be there as well! I know how close you two were when you both were in high school! Maybe something good can come out of it!”

Or Ashley and I can spend hours together shooting the shit and drinking cheap wine while I ask how her about her secret boyfriend that no one in her family knows about. “Actually, Mom, I’m heading back to Virginia now to drop off my friend. So I’m not-“

“Oh that’s perfect! I’ll get Samuel to tailor something nice for you! You’ll be the most handsome boy there!”

“Mom, I really-“

“I can even get him to make something that matches my outfit! Oh we’ll be the perfect picture of a mother and son! So many wonderful pictures of us will be taken! And we’ll get so many compliments as well! I can’t wait!”

She squeals loud enough to cause dogs to whine. “I don’t know if I can, Mom,” I say, finally able to get a word in. “I have classes and practice on Monday and I need to be able to get back on time. And…and you know how much Dad doesn’t like it when I miss practice!”

An excuse I honestly don’t even care about, but I really don’t want to go to this thing. “Oh you’ll have plenty of time to get back!” Mom says. “The event only lasts a few hours and if it comes to it, we can fly you back down and have your car shipped back to you! Simple as that!”

Dammit. There’s no way I’m getting out of this. “Okay, I’ll go. But you need to tell Dad about-“

She squeals again. “Splendid! Your outfit for tomorrow will be ready no later than sunset tonight! I’ll email you the details!” There’s noise from the other end of the line. “I need to go, pumpkin! My friends are here and we’re going shopping for tomorrow!”

The call ends and I feel as if I’ve just run five miles. Before I can even get back to the music, my phone starts ringing again. Only this time, it’s the second half of the dastardly duo. And this one I despise even more. “Yes?” I say as I pick up.

“I just heard that you’re not at practice from one of your assistant coaches. Why the hell did you not listen to me when I said I wanted you practicing all weekend?”

Because you’re a complete jackass and I don’t want to deal with your bullshit anymore. “Mom asked me to come back home to attend an event with her. When I’m home I’ll get some practice in with one of the trainers at the house. She was very insistent about me going to the event with her.”

There’s silence from Dad’s end of the phone. “I hate those events your mother goes to. I’d rather put my hand in a spinning blender then deal with a bunch of pretentious assholes for a few hours.” Now there’s one thing he and I agree on. “But make no mistake. The minute you’re home, you’re training. You’re training and practicing during all the time you’re not at that stupid thing with your mother. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be monitoring your practice, so no slacking off. If you do, I’ll have you train even harder.”

The call ends and I resist the urge to throw my phone out the window. “That was…interesting.”

I look over and find Declan awake, his eyes trained on me. “How much did you hear?”

“Well…nearly all of it. Something like a cat being run over my a lawnmower woke me up and I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation.”

“Yeah, that was my mom. She’s…a handful most of the time.”

“And the rest of the time?”

“Not there. She likes to spend a lot of her time with her friends rather than being anywhere near my dad or myself. She only is around us when it benefits her.”

Declan sits up in his seat. “So that event she was talking about?”

“Some bullshit thing that I don’t want to go to and that she doesn’t even really care about. She just goes so she can impress people and make herself look like a great mother and person.”

“And that other voice was your dad?”

“The one and only. A prick is what I prefer to call him. He’s been trying to mold me into this perfect athlete for as long as I can remember. He always expects nothing less than the best. And if I ever do deliver less, he’ll make sure I pay for it.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been all bad, right? There must have been some happy memories. Holidays or vacations?”

I sadly shake my head. “Most of my vacations involved me being sent away to football training camps since I was old enough to throw a football. Holidays were boring and meaningless, my dad working and my mom away with her friends. I’ve celebrated my last six Christmases by myself.

“Birthdays are even worse. I would be given a credit card and told to get what I want and that was it. No blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, no friends over to celebrate, no unwrapping presents in front of my parents, nothing.”

I scoff to myself. “Yeah, I know. Poor little rich boy complaining that mommy and daddy didn’t love them enough. But…if I could throw away all the money and things my family has just for parents that actually loved and cared, I would do it in a heartbeat.

“A dad who actually taught me how to play football instead of some trainer. A mom who would actually show up to my games rather than having the family butler come in her place. Someone to help me with my homework instead of getting a tutor. A parent who was actually there and who actually wanted me to be around. Not someone who just…wanted me for appearances…”

A breath escapes me and I grip the steering wheel just a bit tighter. The cabin of the car is completely silent. “Man, I really want some more music,” I say. “How about a little more music?”

I pull up the app on my phone. “I never really thought about things like that…”

I glance over at Declan, who’s staring out the window. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve told you before how my family has never had too much to work with. Hell, you’ve seen where I live. I’ve always gone through life thinking how much better our lives would be if we had more money to work with. But hearing you tell me you’d trade all your money away just for an actual family made me realize I could have it so much worse.

“Yeah, my family may be dirt poor, but if having more money would change any of that then I don’t want a penny more. My dad can be a hardass at times, but I know it’s because he cares about me. And my brothers can be dicks, but that’s their way of showing affection. And…hell, when I came out to all of them, they could have thrown me out. Or worse.

“But the thought didn’t even cross their minds. So, yeah. If I had to choose between money and my family, my family would win hands down without question. I’m just…really lucky to have them.”

I stare at Declan as he looks out the window. With the silence back, I grab my phone and hit shuffle again on my playlist. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he says, looking back at me. “I didn’t mean anything by what I said. I was-“

“I know. I am lucky to have what I do have. But…I just sometimes wish I could take control of what I want instead of being told what to do.”

Declan nods and goes back to looking out the window. I quickly change gears and press the gas, flying down the highway as the sounds of The Backstreet Boys follow behind us.

----------------

“We’re getting close to Rockburg,” I say as we pass a road sign.

“Great,” Declan says, stretching his arms. “I’m starting to get cramps in the worst kinds of places.”

Despite the awkward conversation from earlier, this trip has been pretty enjoyable with Declan. Most of it was just shooting the shit and singing horribly, but it was still fun for the both of us. A small voice in my head kind of wishes that the trip were a bit longer or that I didn’t have to go back to school so soon.

As we drive down the highway, I start to notice that it’s taking a lot more of me pushing down the gas to maintain speed. All of a sudden, a loud pop fills the car and Declan and I both freeze. “What was that?” he asks.

“I…I’m not sure…”

I press down the gas pedal to the floor, but find we’re actually going slower. I throw on my hazard lights and pull off onto the side of the highway. Throwing the car into park, I climb out and make my way to the front. Opening the hood, I’m met by a large cloud of steam and a pathetic wheezing noise from the engine.

I wave the steam away and look over my engine. “That can’t be good…”

“Let me have a look.” Declan steps up next to me, leaning over the hood and looking everything over. “When was your last service?”

“A couple months ago. I haven’t even driven two thousand miles since then.

He takes a look at the battery and spark plugs. “Everything seems fine here. But I think it’s your cooling system. Mind if I get a closer look?”

“All yours.”

He digs his hand inside the hood of the car and looks around for a moment. His hand comes out with what looks to be the cap to the coolant tank. “Well, I think we found what the cause of the pop was. It looks like your coolant tank built up pressure and caused the cap to shoot off. That’s what all the steam was.”

“Do you know why it happened?”

He sets the cap on top of the radiator and digs once again. “Ah, here we go.” His hand comes out with what looks to be a tube. He gives the tube a little squeeze. “Even without me opening this up I can tell there’s a complete blockage in the tubing. That caused your engine to overheat and fail.”

I run a hand through my hair. “Fucking hell… Anything we can do here?”

“Not without tools. I wouldn’t be able to get to the blockage cleanly and I run the risk of causing more damage than fixing it.” He presses his finger to his chin. After a second, I practically see the light bulb go off above his head. “But I do know somebody who can.”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He walks off with his phone pressed against his ear. I just really hope he’s calling a magic fairy who can repair this thing and get us back. A man can only handle so much Ace of Base without wanting to murder somebody.

----------------

About forty-five minutes of sitting in the hot sun later and we’re still sitting on the side of the road. “Any news?” I ask Declan, wiping the sweat from my forehead.

“Should be here any minute now.” A sudden car horn grabs our attention. “And there it is.”

A large tow truck pulls off on the side of the road with us, coming to a stop behind the car. I can tell just by looking at it that this truck has been going for a very long time, based on the number of dents, scratches, and bits of rusted metal. But it isn’t showing a single sign of stopping anytime soon.

The driver’s side door opens up and a large man steps out, wearing grease stained coveralls with a patch on his chest reading ‘Arthur.’ He’s pretty tall, about my height, and just as broad as I am. He looks to be in his early fifties with grey at his temples and light brown on top of his head and a five o’clock shadow on his face.

He shuts the door and walks over. “Looks like you got a problem, buys,” he says in a gruff voice.

“You could say that,” Declan says, pushing himself off the side of the car.

He walks over to the man and the two greet each other with a firm hug. “Glad to have you back, Dec,” the man says.

Declan gestures over to me. “Dad, this is Ash Williams. He’s a friend of mine and goes to Duke. He volunteered to give me a ride home and his car broke down.”

Oh so this is Declan’s dad. I suddenly feel an urge to run and hide. Mr. Roth walks over to me and holds out a calloused hand. “Nice to meet you, Ash.”

I take his hand in a firm shake. “You as well, sir.”

“Nice grip you got there, son.” I nod my thanks and Mr. Roth looks under the hood of the car. “What seems to be the problem here, boys?”

“Tubing block from the coolant tank to the engine,” Declan says. “Caused the engine to overheat and lose power.”

Mr. Roth hums to himself. “You try to get it out?”

“Can’t be done without tools or else I could sever the line. And that would only make things worse.”

“Well, let’s get it hooked to the back of the truck and we’ll haul it back to the shop. We’ll see what we can do back there.”

Once my car is attached to the truck, we climb in the cabin and head off. With Mr. Roth in the car, I can think of absolutely nothing to say. “Ash,” Declan says, “Dad and my brothers are big Duke fans. My mom went there when she was younger. Dad, Ash is the starting quarterback for the Blue Devils.”

“You’re that Ash Williams?!” Mr. Roth says. “Well shit, son! My boys and I have been watching you win game after game since you started all those years ago.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s always nice to meet fans of the Blue Devils.”

Mr. Roth rattles question after question for me and I’m more than happy to answer him. He’s an intimidating man, but he’s really a very nice guy. Before long, we cross over into Rockburg. It’s pretty easy to tell by how incredibly damaged the road is. “Gotta get that pothole fixed,” Mr. Roth says.

“Which one?” I ask, holding on to the ‘oh shit’ bar for dear life.

“All of them!”

Can’t argue with him there. I just hope my car’s suspension isn’t getting destroyed. Thankfully, Mr. Roth pulls into a very beat down metal garage, bringing in the truck and my car before finally coming to a stop. Mr. Roth honks the horn of the truck before stepping out. “Boys! Front and center!”

Declan and I climb out of the car ourselves to hear tools falling to the floor. A moment later, three men in coveralls come running from the back of the garage to where we’re standing. They come to a stop in a line in front of Mr. Roth. “What’s up, Pop?” the tallest of the three says. “Hey, Dec.”

The other two say their greetings to Declan as well (well, one of them nods a greeting). “Boys, we have a car that needs immediate work,” Mr. Roth says. “A 1970 Pontiac GTO. Near perfect condition.” The three men all look they’re about ready to piss themselves. “There’s a blockage in the tubing leading to the coolant tank and that’s caused the engine to fail.”

“You want us to get the blockage out without causing any additional damage to the car?” the shortest of the three asks.

“You got it. Any time estimate?”

“With all three of us working on it, we’ll get her finished in less than two hours.”

“Perfect. Hop to it.”

The three rush to work and I’m left with Declan and Mr. Roth. “Well that was easy,” I say. “How much is this going to cost?”

Mr. Roth gazes up at the ceiling for a moment. “I’d say around $150. It would be less if it weren’t such a bitch to get the blockage out. That’s not too much is it?”

I reach into my pocket and grab my wallet, finishing out two Benjamin’s and handing them to Mr. Roth. “You can keep the change.” Mr. Roth and Declan stare blankly at the money in Mr. Roth’s hand before looking at me and back at the money. I sheepishly scratch the back of my head. “My family is kind of…well off…”

Mr. Roth puts the money in his pocket. “As long as it isn’t drug money, I don’t care where it comes from. Dec, how’s about you take Ash here next door to the house and make him comfortable? I’m sure he’s had a long drive from Duke.”

“What about me?” Declan asks. “I’m tired too.”

“You I’m not concerned about. And Ash is a guest. Now chop to it.”

He playfully rubs the top of Declan’s head and heads off to join the other three with my car. “C’mon,” Declan says, fixing his hair. “It’s much quieter at home.”

Declan leads me outside and I see the sun is beginning to set. He takes me to the familiar small house and we step inside. As much as it pains me to say it, the inside is in a similar state as the outside. Much of the furniture is ratty and very old and there’s a stale smell in the air from old paint and wood.

But while the house is very old and clearly in desperate need to a makeover, I can tell this is definitely a home. “Take a seat anywhere you like,” Declan says, heading into the kitchen. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Um…I’m okay. Thanks though.”

I walk into the living room and carefully set myself on the couch. As soon as I take a seat, a small puff of dust flies from the cushions. I wave the dust out of my face, coughing lightly. “Sorry,” Declan says, walking in with two bottles of water. “We haven’t really had any time to clean all of this up.”

He takes a seat on the couch as well and hands me a bottle of water. “Just so you don’t need to get up if you get thirsty.”

He takes a sip from his bottle. “So were those other three guys in the garage your brothers?” I ask.

“Yeah, Emmett, Colby, and Brock. Emmett was the tallest of the three of them while Brock was the shortest. Colby is the quiet one.”

“And they all work for your dad?”

“They do. They all still live here as well. They’d all have their own apartments by now if they were able to afford them. But we all still love it here and being around our dad.”

“And where does your mom fall into the mix?”

A moment later, I see Declan’s face fall a bit. “She…passed away a long time ago. It’s just been the five of us ever since.”

“Shit. I-I’m sorry to have brought it up.”

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago anyway. We’ve all moved on even though all of us really miss her. Hell, my dad never remarried after my mom died. I don’t think there was anyone else for him besides her. I just wish it were different.”

“In what way?”

“That he try to live for himself instead of trying to help all of his kids. He’s done so much for all of us and sacrificed a lot just to try and get us by. He deserves to be happy just like the rest of us.”

I find myself looking down at the bottle of water in my hand. Struggling to get by. It’s something I’ve never had to do for even a moment in my life. A buzz from my pocket pulls me out of my thoughts and I grab my phone.

‘You should have been back by now. Where are you?’

Give me a fucking break. I roll my eyes and type out a response.

‘Car broke down. Getting it fixed.’

He replies.

‘I’ll send a car to get you. You have a training session in an hour and you’re not going to be late.’

Gee thanks for doing that for me, jackass. I quickly glance over at Declan and an idea pops into my head.

‘Cancel it. I was asked to stay for dinner at a friend’s and I accepted. You know Mom wouldn’t like it if I turned down an offer like that. It would be in poor taste and would make the family look bad if word got out.’

There’s no reply for a few moments until my phone vibrates.

‘Your mother would chap my ass if I told you to come home after getting an offer for dinner. Much as I hate it, stay for the food. But you’re coming straight home once it’s finished.’

Thank God. I switch over to another app and run my fingers over the screen. “What are you doing?” Declan asks.

“You’ll see in a little while. But I think you and your family will be happy with what I’m setting up.”

He raises an eyebrow at me before drinking from his bottle and standing up. “As long as it doesn’t involve the police, go for it. I’m going to run to the bathroom.”

He leaves the room and I keep going at it with my phone. I just hope they like the options I’ve chosen.

----------------

A little later, the rest of Declan’s family steps inside, all of them looking tired and covered in sweat and grease. “Hot as balls in that garage,” Emmett says, running the back of his arm over his brow.

“Did you get the car finished?” Declan asks.

“Runs like a dream,” Mr. Roth says. “You’ve got a hell of a beauty there, Ash.”

“Thank you, sir. I take a lot of pride in being able to have a car like that.”

“So now that that’s settled, does anyone have any ideas for dinner?” Brock asks. “I’m starving.”

“I can check the fridge to try and find something I can put together,” Declan says.

There’s a knock at the door and I stand up. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve decided to thank you all for helping to get my car done so quickly.”

Going to the door, I find a pizza guy on the other side of the door. I quickly sign and take the pizzas from him, holding the half dozen boxes out to the family. “I hope you all like pepperoni and mushrooms. That’s my favorite.”

The boxes are taken from my hands and thrown onto the kitchen table before being quickly opened. “I would stay away from those boxes for a few minutes,” Declan says, standing up next to me. “Coming between my brothers and food means you risk losing a finger or three.”

The three brothers each take a box for themselves and filter into the living room before chowing down. “I think I’ll just start with one,” Mr. Roth says, going to the boxes himself.

Declan and I follow him and we join the other three brothers. “Thanks for doing this,” Emmett says, his mouth full of pizza. “We had to skip lunch today to get a job finished for a client.”

“No problem. It’s the least I can do after you guys managed to get my car back in order.”

“We should be the ones paying you back,” Brock says. “You got our baby brother back here in one piece.”

“I’m not a baby…” Declan mumbles, taking a bite of pizza.

I look over at Colby and find him nod at me once before going back to his food. “Don’t mind him,” Mr. Roth says. “Colby here has never been much of a talker. He’s actually considered mute.”

Colby glances at his father before looking at me and nodding in agreement. “Interesting,” I say. “I’ve never known someone who was mute before.”

“Not much different from someone who speaks,” Emmett says. “Colby is pretty expressive, so there really isn’t a language barrier between us.”

“So you don’t speak period?” I ask Colby.

He shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a phone and types away at it before handing it to me.

“I try to speak sometimes, but the words never seem to come out. I haven’t spoken a word in more than fifteen years.”

I hand the phone back to him. “Well don’t force yourself. My roommate in my freshman year was deaf and he and I got along pretty well even though I couldn’t really talk with him.”

Colby nods again and swallows half a slice of pizza in one bite. Brock grabs the remote to the television and flips it on, immediately finding a sports channel. “And here are some highlights from last night’s game between Duke and Virginia Tech,” the announcer says.

Clips from the game begin playing on the screen. “Wish I could have been at the game,” Declan says. “It would have been awesome to see you play in person, Ash.”

“Wait,” Brock says. “You’re a football player?”

“Ash Williams,” I say. “Starting quarterback for the Blue Devils.”

The room becomes dead quiet as the three brothers stare at me, their jaws unhinged. “Dad!” Emmett says. “Why didn’t you tell us that the car belonged to THE Ash Williams?!”

“Because shit like that doesn’t matter,” Mr. Roth says, taking a sip of water. “And if I told you, you wouldn’t have focused on the job as much.”

“Dude, we’ve been watching you play since you first started,” Brock says. “You’re a hell of a player.”

“Yeah, really,” Emmett follows up. “I still remember when you managed to throw that sixty yard pass last season against Kentucky. Shit, the neighbors thought someone was dying at the house.”

Colby bumps his chest twice with his fist and nods once. I feel like that’s a compliment, so I nod back at him. “Okay, boys,” Mr. Roth says. “Ash is a guest in our house. You embarrass me by acting like a bunch of crazy sons of bitches, you’re out on the lawn for the night.”

All of his sons mumble several ‘yes sirs’ (well, not Colby) and go back to their food. I glance over at Mr. Roth and he nods once at me before looking back at the TV. Even though he’s more restrained than his sons, I can see a twinkle of excitement in his eyes.

Once the pizza is all finished, Mr. Roth sends his three eldest to clean up the kitchen while Declan goes for a shower, leaving just the two of us alone. “Thanks for bringing Dec home from North Carolina,” he says to me, nursing a beer he fished out of the fridge.

“You’re welcome, sir. It was the least I could do after not making more of an effort to try and contact Declan after three years.”

“Three years? You two have known each other that long?”

“Well, sort of. He and I met one night a long time ago and we didn’t meet again until a couple days ago. I would have tried to reach out to him sooner if my dad didn’t go all Nazi on my ass. He made it damn near impossible for me to do anything other than football.”

Mr. Roth is about to say something else when there’s a loud noise further in the house. A few moments later, Declan storms back into the living room, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. “The goddamn water heater broke again! The water in the shower is colder than a witch’s tit!”

I immediately feel heat rise in my face. My eyes quickly rake over Declan’s body and I have to force myself not to have my jaw hit the floor. I saw him shirtless at his performance at school, but not this close. He’s even more fit than he was three years ago, his body having even more tight muscle than before.

Not to mention the various tattoos covering his smooth skin, it’s enough to grab anyone’s attention. And that’s exactly what he’s doing at the moment. “Shit on a stick,” Mr. Roth says next to me. “I just tried to repair it too. Boys, one of you-“ He looks at his three other sons, who have moved from the kitchen to the living room furniture and are all fast asleep. “Well that’s great…”

“S-Should we try to wake them?” I ask, trying to regain my composure that I somehow lost from looking at Declan.

“Nah, they’re useless after they’ve fallen asleep. Would do more harm than good. I can try and take a look at it for myself.”

He stands up and I quickly follow. “I can help you, sir.”

“I can’t ask that, son. You’re our guest and-“

“Really, I don’t mind. I uh…need a bit of fresh air too. So I’m happy to help.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Well, I won’t turn down your offer if you’re so insistent. Dec, keep an eye on the water.” Declan turns and heads back down the hallway and I watch his back as he goes, the muscles under his skin flexing as he walks. “C’mon, son. Ain’t got all night.”

Shaking my head out, I follow Mr. Roth out the front door and around to the back of the house. In the small backyard, an old, rusty water heater sits. Mr. Roth gets on his knees and looks it over while I stand there. “You dating my youngest, boy?” he asks, not looking back at me.

The question shocks me to the core and I stand in complete silence for a moment. “N-No, sir!” I stammer. “Declan and I are just friends! I’m also straight.”

“You know you can’t bullshit a bulshitter, son. I noticed how you were looking at Dec when he was in a towel. You turned about as red as a fire hydrant. Hand me that wrench next to me.”

I quickly hand him the tool in question. “S-Sir, I assure you I have no feelings for your son,” I say as I step back. “He’s only a friend. And I know for a fact that I’m straight.”

Mr. Roth sighs quietly and gives the water heater a few bangs. “If you say so. But if it ever comes to it, don’t ever lead him on or hurt him in any way. You’ll have to deal with the rest of the Roth men. And my three other sons aren’t nearly as nice as I am.”

He grabs a screwdriver and continues working on the heater while I’m left there with very little to say. “U-Um…you’ve all mentioned your wife went to Duke. I would love to be able to meet her.”

Mr. Roth stays silent, but I see his body go stiff for a second. “I’m sorry, son. You won’t be able to get that chance. My wife passed away about fifteen years ago in a car accident.”

I let the words sink in for a moment. “I-I’m very sorry for your loss, sir,” I quietly say.

“Thank you, son. Hit my boys pretty hard when their mother died. Hit me hard too. But I think I’ve managed well enough on my own.”

“I think you’ve done a fantastic job with all of them, sir.”

Mr. Roth glances over his shoulder at me and chuckles lightly. “Trust me. I’ve done some stupid shit starting out. It was hard at first trying to be a single dad to four growing boys. Hell I had to have Emmett and Brock take up part time jobs while they were in high school to help pay the bills. Kind of pathetic to have to have your kids help you when you’re supposed to take care of them.”

He holds his hand out and I hand him another tool. “But even though it was hard, I tried to do my very best for them and made sure I did what Diana would have wanted for them. Went to their school events, helped with homework even though I’m shit at school, tucked them in at night, made dinner, all that jazz.”

“You’re a great father, Mr. Roth. I can tell by looking at your sons.”

He shakes his head a bit. “Not the best father. I almost lost Declan a few years ago because I made him feel like he couldn’t tell me something important.”

I immediately know what he’s talking about. He gives the water heater another kick and it slowly hums to life and he gets back to his feet. “Declan nearly took his own life because he was too afraid to tell me and his brothers he was gay. It still hurts me to this day that I almost lost one of my boys, that I wasn’t there to protect him.”

Mr. Roth wipes his face with his arm. “I’m just lucky my son had someone there to stop him from-“

He stops short and freezes where he stands. He slowly turns to me and I see surprise in his face. “Declan…he mentioned a boy named Ash stopped him from jumping. T-That can’t be you, can it?”

I glance down at the dirt and scratch the back of my head. “It…it was, sir. That’s how I met Declan.”

Mr. Roth rushes at me and crushes me in a powerful bear hug that forces nearly all the wind out of me. We stand there for a few moments, Mr. Roth not saying a thing has he tightly holds me. He lets out a shaky breath and lets me go and I see unshed tears in his eyes.

He wipes them away quickly. “You…have no idea how grateful I am to you, Ash…”

“I’m sure anyone else would have done the same thing, sir.”

“But they didn’t. You did. You saved my son from doing the worst thing possible. If I had lost him, I’m not sure I would be here to be able to thank you for saving him.” He clasps my shoulder. “Thank you so much, Ash.”

The window next to us opens and Declan sticks his head out. “Hey, the water’s good now.” Mr. Roth and I quickly step away from each other. Declan looks between us. “Um…am I interrupting something?”

“Ash had a fly on his shoulder,” Mr. Roth quickly says. I swatted it.”

I nod in agreement and Declan raises his eyebrow. “Okay…? Anyway, the three stooges are down for the count. Ash, Dad got my stuff out of your car so you’re all set to go.”

A twinge of disappointment hits me, but I manage to keep it hidden. “Sounds good.” I hold my hand out to Mr. Roth. “Thank you so much for fixing my car, sir.”

“My pleasure, son. You’re welcome here anytime.” He and I head to the front of the house and find Declan there waiting for us, fully dressed. “I’ll let you two say your goodbyes.”

He heads inside and I’m left with Declan. “Was my dad giving you a hard time?” he asks.

“Not at all. He’s a really great guy.” I pull out my phone and check the time, finding it’s already after eleven and a few unanswered texts from Dad. “Shit, I need to get going.” I put my phone back away. “I had a good time with you and your family tonight.”

“Yeah, we all did too.” We both stand there awkwardly for a few seconds. “Um…is it okay if I text you sometime? Or even call?”

“Absolutely. This time, I won’t let my dad take my phone away. So you can call or text at anytime.”

He smiles up at me and I feel myself returning it. “Well I’ll look forward to it,” he says. “Now get out of here. I’m sure you need to get home to see your parents.”

Not in the least. “Hope to hear from you soon,” I say.

We exchange a wave and I head for my car. As I’m about to pull away from the curb, I wave at Declan one more time and head off, watching him disappear from my rear view mirror. As I’m driving out of Rockburg, my phone starts ringing. I don’t even have to pick it up to know who it is.

I tap the screen and put it on speaker. “I’m driving to the house now,” I say. “The dinner ran a little long.”

“Then you better get here in the next fifteen minutes. I have the trainers here for a session and they’re getting paid by the hour.”

Is he serious? “Dad, I’ve been in a car all day and I’m exhausted. Don’t you think it’s-?“

“I don’t care how fucking exhausted you are, Ash. You’re training when you get back. I’m not going to have you slacking off just because you’re back in Pleasant Hill. That performance yesterday was shit and you’re not getting a break until I say so. Understand?”

It takes all of my willpower not to throw my phone out the window. But I bite my tongue instead. “Yes, sir.”

I hang up before I do or say anything stupid. I think back over the evening and remember Declan’s family, how close they all were and how there was nothing but compassion and love there. But where I’m heading, I’ll be lucky if I even get so much as a hello.

 

RichardAdams

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