Just One Starfish

by Grasshopper

Midnight Blue
Chapter 7

Gabriel had fallen into a routine by the middle of October. He'd get up just as the sun was rising, run with Dog at the stadium track, shower and head for the Geo-Science buildings.

He had chosen ecologically damaged land areas as his specialty and spent as much time as possible out in the field learning how to improve these lands for future generations. He was either out gathering data with his professors or had his nose stuck in textbook. He left as little time as possible to think about his parents or about Dominic.

Gabriel worked around the duplexes for Mr. Krenney and had a part-time job organizing Professor Parrish's notes and typing them up. It gave him enough money to feed himself and Dog and buy the things he needed for class.

He talked to Easy every weekend and tried to reassure him that everything was going along fine. There was a shadow in his voice that Easy couldn't quite figure out, but when he told Jordan he was going to fly out and check on Gabriel, Jordan told him to wait. "He's grown now. Remember how it was when you were twenty? You didn't want people checking up on you. If he needs you, he'll say so. You have to trust him to know when he needs his family close."

Having reassured Easy, Jordan waited until he saw the taillights of his car and picked up his cell, punching in Gabriel's number. When Gabriel answered, Jordan asked outright, "Hey big guy, you okay?"

Gabriel laughed, "Sure, Jordy, why? Easy been talking to you?"

"He's just fretting like the old mother hen he can be. You know Ez."

"Yeah, I'm okay, really. Just been a little down thinking about my parents and my brother, Dominic. But, everything out here is good."

They talked for a bit about school and Dog and how the wheels were doing.

"I gotta tell ya, Jordy, that Jeep is the best thing you could have given me. It's been so many back roads and canyon trails. Thank you all again so much".

He asked Jordan to give his love to everyone and to tell JD that the Ninja Turtle Dog was doin' good. When Jordan clicked off, he had the same niggling feeling of unrest that Easy had talked about. There was just something in Gabriel's voice, something off. Had something happened to bring his parents and his brother back to the forefront of his mind? That was actually the first time Gabriel had ever mentioned his brother to Jordan. Dominic? "Dan," he called, striding toward the apartment side of the house, " Where are you? We need to talk."

Gabriel banged on the wall and yelled, "Hey, Sam, I gotta go pick up some sketch pads for tomorrow. Wanna ride with me down to McKennon's?"

"Dang, Gabriel. One day you're gonna knock the wall in and then what?"

"I guess then I can talk to you through the big hole without shouting," he grinned. "You coming? I'll treat you to spaghetti at Luigi's."

"Alrighty then, I'm already in the Jeep."

They got to Luigi's and Gabriel parked right out front under the bright street light. "Stay put, Dog. I'll bring you some of the meatballs."

Sitting at the little table by the front window so Gabriel could watch the Jeep, they ordered spaghetti and meatballs and big hunks of Italian bread to sop up the sauce. They plowed in and laughed as the sauce splattered all over their chins.

Leaning back in the booth groaning, her stomach too full to move, Sam asked, "Does your mom make good spaghetti?"

"She did," Gabriel said softly.

"Oh, I'm so sorry. Is she gone?" Sam felt terrible. Gabriel never said anything about his family and she had been so curious. Watching his face right now, she knew it was much more than that.

"She isn't dead, if that's what you mean, but she is gone .....gone from my heart." He began to rip the paper napkin up into little pieces, staring out the window into the gathering dark.

"Is your father gone too?" she asked gently, realizing what he was trying to say.

"Yes, they're both gone to the same place in hell made for people who throw away their children," he growled.

Sam leaned over to touch Gabriel's hands, to stop them from shredding the napkin bits. "Because you're gay?"

"Because I'm no longer their son," he sighed. "I stopped being their son the night they threw me out on the street."

"Oh, Gabriel, I'm so sorry. How horrible that must have been. Where did you go? What did you do? How old were you?"

He blinked rapidly. Sam meant well, but the questions were hurting too much. "It's a long story. One you don't ever want to hear. All I can say is I was one of the lucky ones. Someone found me, someone wonderful and I have a family now. A great family."

So, the shadows she saw in his eyes too often were caused by too much pain to bear. "I'm your family now too, Gabriel. I hope you know that."

A very weird sound penetrated the walls of the little restaurant. "Ouowwww! Ouowwwwwww! " Gabriel looked out the window and Dog was perched on the back seat, his muzzle lifted toward the sky. "Ouowwwww!"

"What the ...?" Gabriel stared, then began to grin. "Dog thinks he's a coyote."

"I think he wants his meatballs," Sam laughed. She dropped in all her left over bread for him too. 'I don't know how that dog knew, but he made Gabriel smile,' she thought to herself.

McKenna's was a discount supply store, much cheaper than the college bookstore where a lot of the students bought their supplies. It was over on Delaney Drive in the mini-mall with the movie theatre. "What's playing," Sam asked as they drove into the parking lot.

"Jesus, they made a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes," Gabriel groaned. "The first one was bad enough. Why? You wanna go?"

"Lord, no. I can't watch that stuff. It gives me the total creeps."

"Good, let's go in McKenna's then I want to pick up some oil at the discount place down on the corner."

"Ugh, you big man, of course you do."

Stopping for coffee, it was late as they walked back to the Jeep. Gabriel heard Dog growling low in his throat as they approached the car. "What's wrong, boy?" Then, he heard loud voices coming from the darkest part of the lot.

"We don't want any trouble." That voice sounded familiar.

"Well. You've got it, like it or not. I've been watching you two. I think you need to be taught a lesson, especially Tonto here." Gabriel heard what could only be the sound of a baseball bat slapping in someone's hand.

Gabriel pushed Sam over to stand behind the Jeep and reached under the front seat.

Then he heard, "You can't do this. Leave us alone."

"They won't do nothin' to us, messin' with a rez kid. They don't care nothin' about you."

Moving around the Jeep, he stepped out into the light, the shotgun pumped and aimed in their direction. "Well, the police may not, but I do." He watched as one guy dropped a baseball bat quickly to the ground. "I think you fellas better move the fuck along. Don't you ever let me hear you even looked at these kids again or I'll find you and mess you up so bad even your Mama won't recognize you. Capisce!"

The assholes broke and ran. Gabriel let the shotgun go loose in his hand and pointed it toward the ground. He heard a little voice whisper, "I peed my pants."

Everyone came toward him, jabbering and thanking him for saving their lives. The pretty little strawberry blonde simply folded down onto the ground in a heap.

Suddenly, Gabriel knew who the voice belonged to. 'Lord Almighty', he groaned, 'Not the kid again'. He watched the boy walk toward him, God, he was cuter than Gabriel remembered. Brave too, his voice didn't even shake when he shouted at the creeps. "How many times do I have to save you, buddy boy? You shouldn't be out on the streets at night without an armed guard. I thought we established that!"

The kid just walked closer and said in an awed voice, "A gun ..... You have a gun," making it sound like he was drug dealer or something.

Gabriel replied, "I have a lot of things. But I seem to be spending all my time keeping you from getting murdered. Why is that?" He watched the kid glance over at the Jeep.

The kid answered with a smile on his face, "I don't have the faintest idea, but I'm really really glad you do."

Gabriel looked at the boy, and saw the gleam of expectation in his eyes. At war with his feelings, knowing this kid was not anyone he needed to tarnish, he snarled, "Will you please keep out into a lighted area and quit turning up in dark alleys and empty lots? I do have other stuff to do besides save your ...," he almost blurted out "cute little" ,gulped and ended with ....."sorry ass."

He watched the light dim in the kid's eyes. Damn! He hadn't meant to be harsh, but this bright shiny penny of a kid didn't need him anywhere around. His hand almost went out to touch the kid's face. To let him know that it wasn't him, it was Gabriel. Gabriel was the lost cause. He hated what he was seeing in the kid's eyes.

"Yes, yes," the kid answered, "Thank you for, you know, saving me, and, oh dear God, I puked on you, and then now this." His hands were flying wildly around, then he pointed to himself, "Brian, me, that's me, Brian."

Shit! Now he has a name. He's not just some kid. He's someone. Someone I seem to be linked to cosmically or something. "Okay, got that ..... Brian." Then, his better judgment and good sense bailed on him because he couldn't stop his hand. He reached out and tilted Brian's chin up so he could see in those pretty eyes. "Promise to be more careful. I won't always be here. One more time, I'm told, and your soul belongs to me." And, in a soft after thought, "Now that's a scary thought."

The dart of light in the boy's eyes told him he wasn't alone in the feelings he was having right now. "Not so much," Brian said, his voice full of hope.

Gabriel heard the other boy saying something and turned to look at him. God, where were all these cute boys coming from? The long thick black hair, the dark eyes, the sharp bone structure, this kid was a beauty. Shit ! Were they together? Was he Brian's .....?

One of the girls kissed Gabriel and they all poured thanks on him until he couldn't listen anymore. Knowing way more about Brian than he wanted to, he knew they needed to get back to campus before the last bus run. Sighing, he offered, "Climb in back and I'll take you back to school. You could be attacked by a roaming band of wild monkeys if I leave you alone here," he gave Brian a look, "With this kid, you can never be too sure."

All the while, Sam had been watching the back and forth between Gabriel and this adorable boy named Brian. She could almost see the charges of electricity flying through the air. It was as if Brian was offering Gabriel something, but Gabriel had put up some kind of force field. There was much more to this than met the eye. Gabriel was totally fighting any interest in this boy. Sam smiled.

The kids climbed in the back and Dog fell in love at first sight. He leaped over and flopped across Brian's lap. He looked up with lovesick eyes. "Does he bite or anything?" Brian asked Gabriel.

Gabriel glanced back, surprised at Dog's reaction to the kid, "Oh yeah, bite him, Dog!" and laughed when Dog slurped his big wet tongue across Brian's face.

Sam turned around from her front seat and introduced herself. "I'm Sam. Guys like that always slime around in dark places. Report them if they bother you again." She looked over at Gabriel and saw him glance in the rearview mirror over and over. Yeah, this was getting very interesting.

Gabriel watched Brian constantly pushing that fall of brown hair up out of his eyes only to have it blow right back down seconds later. Much smaller than Gabriel, he guessed maybe five eight or nine to Gabriel's six three, Brian just had this glow, this aura of nice. The only nice boy like this that Gabriel had ever known was Mitch and Mitch had left before they had ever gotten very close. That never would have lasted once Gabriel told him the truth. Nice boys can't handle ugly truth. It's way out of their zone. Brian would be the same way, so there was no sense in even letting him into Gabriel's life in the smallest way, but he kept glancing in the mirror and arguing with himself. He watched Dog snuffling around all over Brian and yelled at himself when he wanted to do the same thing.

The other kids thanked him again and waited on the sidewalk. Gabriel watched Brian trying to say what was in his head. "Thank you again, I'll try not to get in trouble again, um ......"

Brian wanted to know his name. He should cut and run. He wanted to. Everything was much simpler that way. He looked at Brian, all big eyes and hope, his hand still on Dog's head. He felt Sam poke him in the leg with her finger. She made a face like 'for God's sake' and Gabriel stepped over the line he had drawn for himself. "Gabriel," he sighed, "My name is Gabriel."

He held Brian's eyes for a long second and then jerked the Jeep in gear and headed for the corner.

He could feel Sam staring at him, but he wouldn't look at her. This went on for several blocks until finally he growled, "What?"

"Nothing," she purred.

"Oh, yeah, like you're not thinking anything, right?"

"Don't go getting all huffy on me just because you saw something you liked, but you're too damn scared to do anything about it."

"It's nothing like that."

"Okay, then tell me what it is like. I've known you over two months now and watched you bury yourself in books and cactus. I know you've got 40 miles of bad past chained to you, but Gabriel, he's adorable. How could he hurt you?"

"You don't even know he's gay."

"Honey, if you had crooked your little finger, he would have been in your arms, so don't give me that. I'm surprised there wasn't a power surge in the mini-mall."

"Shut up!"

"You shut up. What's stopping you, Gabriel? You can't change your past, but you can change the way you live with it."

They rode the rest of the way home in silence. Sam hoped she hadn't gone too far. When they pulled into the slot in front of the duplex, she put her hand softly on Gabriel's knee. "I just want you to be happy."

"I know that, Sammy. It's just ...................." He had no words to explain how he felt.

"Okay, I won't say anything else, but Gabriel, you've got so much to offer someone. Don't close yourself away, okay?"

At 1:37 a.m. Gabriel hadn't even considered sleep. He'd tried studying for his minerals and fossil fuels exam, but he couldn't keep his mind on the words. After eating half a jar of chunky Jif peanut butter with a fork, he threw the jar across the room and watched Dog lick up the globs that had spread across the rug.

'Frustrated much, Parelli?' he groaned. Knowing only one way of easing the tension that was strangling him, he pulled his clothes back on and headed out the door. He saw Sam's lights go on as he revved up the engine and took off toward Rodeo Road. The voice inside his head yelled, "This isn't the way, idiot!" but he wanted to prove to himself just how uncaring he really was.

Gabriel saw him leaning against the wall of an old vacant building. The kid couldn't have been more than sixteen, all arms and legs and long tangled hair. Pulling up beside him, Gabriel heard the old familiar words spoken in a tired voice devoid of any feeling. "Blowjob, Mister? Only five bucks. I'll suck your brains right out your dick! C'mon, Mister, I'm the best!"

Leaning over, Gabriel pushed open the Jeep door, shoving Dog into the back seat. The kid had sadness written all over his face, and resignation. It was Gabriel's face just five years ago. Different state, same pain. How can parents let their kids go so easily?

"Pull in right here, Mister. It's dark down this alley."

Gabriel closed his eyes and let the boy undo his shorts. He felt a hand reach in and grab him. Suddenly, it was him doing this to some old fart that had to buy sex on the street. The roles had reversed and here he was asking this kid to do what he had been forced to do just a few years back.

As the kid's warm mouth started to take him in, Gabriel realized what he was doing. Reaching down, he sighed, "Stop, kid. It's okay. I don't need you to do this after all."

The kid jumped back and his face took on a look of fear. "You a cop?"

"No, I just changed my mind."

"You gonna stiff me?" the kid began to get angry. "I need the money, asshole. I coulda missed a rich guy while I was back here fuckin' around with you."

"You didn't miss a rich guy, kid. You hungry?"


"I said are you hungry? There's an all night Denny's down the street. I'm suddenly very hungry. Wanna come?"

"You fuckin' with me?" Distrust plain on his face.

"Nah, I just changed my mind, is all."

The kid's name was Barry and he came from an small town in Nevada. He ran away from an abusive father and a mother who just let it happen. He slept in an abandoned factory with a bunch of other kids and got warm clothes and food from the shelter over on Gandy Drive.

"You were like me?" he asked. "But you're in college and you drive expensive wheels."

"I was lucky," Gabriel smiled, his mind filled with the laughing faces of his adopted family.

"Well, I got nobody. I ain't so lucky."

Gabriel's life changed sitting at a table at an all night Denny's restaurant. As he listened to the boy talk, he saw himself in those eyes. He remembered how he'd felt when the policeman had dragged him into Easy's office at the Center. How he'd seen this huge black man looking him over and wanted to run and hide. The shame of what he had been doing overwhelmed him. His parents hated him, his brother hated him, his life was over and yet this man was talking to him like he was okay, like he wasn't dirty.

He'd expected Easy to forget about him the next day, but the man hadn't. Easy had kept on him until Gabriel gave up; not because he had to, but because he wanted to so much. He wanted the love and caring that he was being offered. He fought and fought until he lost. In losing, he won.

He remembered something Easy had said and he repeated the words to Barry. "Everyone's not bad. Your parents may have screwed you over, but they can't take away your pride. That's for you to do all by yourself." He saw the tears slip down the boy's face. Here was another good kid.

"That shelter? Over on Gandy? Can't you stay there?"

"It's really crowded. They need lots more help and lots more space. I guess a lot of people throw their kids away."

Gabriel pulled out his cell phone. He looked up at the wall clock and read 4:26. That would make it 7:26 at home. Pressing #1, he heard two rings and an already concerned voice say, "Gabriel? What is it? God, it's what? Four over there? What's wrong?"

"Hey," he smiled into the phone, "It's okay. I'm fine."

"God, you scared me. What's up?" Gabriel could hear the fear receding out of Easy's voice. "Hold on a sec ...........It's okay, Val, he's okay. Now what's going on? I know you didn't call at four in the morning to say 'Hey'."

"I'm sitting here in Denny's eating cheese fries with Barry. He sleeps in an abandoned factory with a bunch of other kids and the shelter they go to for help needs help as much as they do. I've been having flashbacks to another time and another kid...."

"I bet you have," Easy sighed. "What's the name of this shelter? Do they have government funding? Where do they get their donations? How do they handle .......?"

"Whoa, hold your horses, big guy. I have no idea. I just knew you'd help."

Easy leaned against the kitchen counter, looking over at Val. He smiled. "I'm coming out there. We'll see what's what. It's about time I checked everything out anyway."

"You don't need to do that," Gabriel said, wanting to be ignored.

"I know that. I'll let you know what airline and times as soon as I can go on-line and get a ticket. Oh, and tell Barry hello. Talk back in a few."

Gabriel smiled. 'Now, that's what fathers do', he thought. 'They don't throw you out. They help'. God, he was lucky.

Gabriel drove Barry over to the factory and let him out. "You'll be around where I can find you?" he asked.

"Yeah, check at the shelter. Thanks, man, for the food and for, well you know."

"Yeah, I do know. See ya, Barry."

"See ya, Gabriel." Barry watched the Jeep drive away. 'Jesus, what just happened'? He walked into the old factory for the first time ever with a slight smile on his face.

Gabriel visited the Tucson Youth Shelter early the next morning before he went to the airport to pick Easy up after a night on the red eye. He took Easy straight over to meet the Director, Mark Sloan, and left him there to run to class.

"That's a great kid you've got there," Mark commented. "He was so excited when he told me his dad was coming to meet me and help with the shelter. I welcome any help you can give us. I have to admit that I googled The Wrightsville Youth Center and read all the commendations you've received and government grants you've worked out."

Easy was still stuck back on the words "he told me his dad was coming". He grinned. "Yeah, he's a great kid, all right. Let's see what we can do to get you in line for as much funding as you need to expand and really help these kids."

As Easy walked along with Mark towards his office, he thought to himself, 'I was one of these kids. Gabriel was too. What goes around, comes around, if you're lucky'.

Sitting in Gabriel's apartment, introduced to Dog and Sam, Easy was content. "You've got everything going along pretty good. I'm proud of you, Gabriel."

"You should be, Mr. Langley," Sam smiled, "Gabriel tries so hard to be a hard-ass, but he just can't make it." She smiled innocently at her friend. "Now, if he'd just let down his force field and go find a certain boy that keeps popping up in his life, he'd feel a lot better."

"Sam, shut up! Easy doesn't care about ............"

"Oh, yes he does," Easy laughed. "You being stupid about some guy, Gabriel?" He said it to Gabriel, but looked over at Sam expectantly.

Sam laughed, "There's this really sweet boy named Brian that just keeps appearing in his life and he has to be SuperGabriel and literally save him from bad guys. The kid has huge brown eyes like Dog and I can tell you right now that the entire state of Arizona would have a power outage if these two ever umm, smiled at the same time."

After Sam left, hugging Easy goodbye with promises to come to the beach and visit next summer, Easy looked over at Gabriel. "You want to talk about anything?"

"Nah, she's just full of bull."

"I doubt it. You do what feels right, but don't let your past hold you back from the future, okay?"

Easy reached into his duffle and took out a manila envelope. Handing it to Gabriel, he explained, "I know your birthday isn't til next week, but JD had a fit that his present would get lost in the mail, so I brought it."

Gabriel opened the clasp and pulled out a picture. Amazed at how much time and effort JD had put into it, he saw the beach house with the ocean in the background. There, sitting on the thinking log were Markie, Griff, Easy and Val. JD, Nikki and Bug were all standing on the porch waving and Jordan and Danny were sitting on their swing, Jordan's arm slung around Dan's shoulders as always. Each person had the right color hair and skin and was dressed just like they would be if Gabriel was standing right there on the sand. Even Fiddle and Shoo were lying beside the log.

"JD said for you to see the empty space beside his Pops. That's where you're supposed to be. He couldn't draw you cause he couldn't see you, but he will when you come home. Oh, and he said Michelangelo Leonardo Donatello Raphael will be in there too."

"Here that, Dog, you don't know what happy is until you meet the munchkin."

They talked way into the night before Easy's flight. Gabriel broke down and told Easy about going to his parent's house on his way out.

"Why didn't you tell me? I'd have gone with you."

"I know," Gabriel sighed, "I just hoped that something had changed. It hadn't. What hurt the most was that Dominic doesn't care either."

"How do you know that?"

"My father."

"And you have reason to believe him because .......? Have you ever tried to talk to Dominic?"

"I can't. As long as I don't hear it in his voice, I can believe a little that he doesn't hate me."

"Oh, Gabriel, think about calling him, will you? You may be surprised."

The next morning at the airport, as Gabriel watched Easy go up the escalator and on to the security gates, he smiled. Easy always made him feel good, like he was worthy of being trusted. He smiled at the twenty dollar bills he felt in his pocket. "Do something fun," Easy had said.

'Yeah, I just might,' he murmured softly.

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