Just One Starfish

by Grasshopper

Midnight Blue
Chapter 9

Running on the track, Gabriel pushed it as hard as he could, not holding back until he felt the wall and burst through. Not an easy jog today, he pushed his body. The last lap, he ran full out. Dog had jogged the first few laps and then veered off to gulp water from the puddle under the faucet. Lying at the place he knew to be the finish line, Dog waited for his man to slow down.

"You're gonna get fat," Gabriel gasped in air, as he leaned sweaty hands on his knees to catch his breath. Stretching his long leg muscles out, he cooled down.

Today was his twenty-first birthday. He could go get drunker than hell all legal. Big deal. Heading toward the Jeep, he pulled off his dripping tank top and mopped his face. "Let's go get cleaned up and get Sam." She was taking him to IHOP for a blueberry pancake birthday breakfast.

Showered, Gabriel threw his books in the back seat and banged on Sam's door. The weather was cooling off, but the Arizona sun still felt warm, so he had exchanged his tank tops for long sleeved t-shirts. Today, he pulled on the new one Markie had sent him, pale blue with a streak of yellow splashed across the chest. Tucking it into his navy shorts, he was ready for those pancakes.

"God, I'd kill for hair like yours," Sam groaned, reaching over to run her fingers through his shiny black curls, still wet from the shower.

"I like your blonde hair," and continuing the thought, "I think, if I was into girls, blondes would be my choice."

"You really think you have a choice?" she asked curiously, "Like you can pick out who you're gonna like?"

"Sure, you walk in a club and you look around. Don't you single out the ones who make your dick jerk? I bet if you thought about it, they'd all have things about them in common."

"Well, my "dick" does not jerk, as you so eloquently put it, but yeah, I guess. So, what makes your 'other brain' jump?"

Gabriel thought for a second, "Hot ... good body ... killer smile."

"And that's what you'd base liking them on?"

"Who said anything about liking them? I'm not picking up somebody in a club to run happily through the meadow picking daisies. I just need a hour or two at best."

"You never want to be with someone forever?"

Gabriel snorted, "That's the girl in you talking. A guy like me? No! I've only seen that once and I can guarantee that I'll never have what Jordy and Dan have. I'm gonna swing by my mailbox and grab my mail, k?"

Pulling up in front of the GeoSci building, Gabriel left the Jeep running, jumped out and walked quickly up the walk. Sam watched him coming back, thinking, "God, does he not even know what he looks like?" She was actually used to people staring at him, men and women alike. He didn't even know it. It wasn't just the black curls, or the olive skin. His body was toned and tight such that a dime would bounce off him, all muscles that tightened as he moved. Not for the first time, Sam was happy they were good friends, but she damned the gods who had made him gay.

"Looks like you've got lots of birthday cards today."

"Yeah," he said, pleased that they had all remembered him. There were cards from Jordan and Dan, Markie and Griff, JD, Nikki and Bug, and Easy and Val. Easy had already called him first thing this morning, starting his day off with a big smile.

He wasn't going to look for what wasn't there. He was dead to those people and dead people don't get birthday cards. He wondered if his parents, if Dominic, even thought about him on October 24th. His heart hurt, but he kept a smile on his face.

There was a yellow note saying that he had three packages in the mail office. "Hold on, I'm gonna go get these."

Sam held the cards in her lap and laughed at the big Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle card from JD. She couldn't wait to meet that little boy.

Sifting through his mail, she saw a white card envelope. It just said Gabriel Parelli and #714 on the cover. Who could have sent this? She turned it over and over in her hands, her curiosity popping.

Gabriel came back, balancing three boxes, one from Markie, one from Val and one from Danny. He was grinning. "I gotta open these right now."

Ripping into Markie's, he found two new shirts, one green plaid flannel and one a heavy sky blue chambray, along with packs of his favorite Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Sam already knew she was gonna be snitching the flannel one when the weather turned colder.

Val sent him a new coffee mug with a big black dog that looked a lot like Dog sitting in the front seat of a Jeep. How did she find that? together with several bags of his favorite coffee from the diner on the beach.

Dan had gone on-line clothes shopping. Gabriel laughed, "Sam you have got to come home with me and meet my family. Danny will buy you anything you want as long as you let him pick it out. He's got the best taste and style." The box contained several new Cabella's Trail shorts and t-shirts, it looked like all the colors in the catalogue, in the earth tones that Danny said Gabriel needed to wear. There was a note enclosed, "Just because you hike in the mountains doesn't mean you can't look good". Gabriel laughed and shifted the Jeep in gear.

"Wait," Sam said. "You got another card."

Settling back in his seat, he turned toward Sam, "I thought I opened them all."

"Well, here's this one. It must be from someone you know here because it's just got your name, see?"

Gabriel took the card, glanced at his name, the #714 and ripped open the back tab. Pulling the card out, he saw a picture of a mountain trail. Flipping it open, he stared at the message:

Hi Gabriel ~
Happy Birthday! Thank you again for helping me. My mailbox is Larson Hall 411. See Ya !

He heard Sam asking who it was from. He just stared at the words. How did he know it was my birthday? How did he know where to send it? He saw those shining eyes, that flop of brown hair, that really cute smile. How did he find me? He handed the card to Sam and waited for her reaction.

"Oh, how sweet ! What a nice card and well, Gabriel !!!"


"He wants to see you. Look how he gave you his mailbox number. You've got no choice now. You have to at least thank him for the card."

"You don't thank people for cards," he mumbled.

"You do when they're asking you to."

"He's just a nice kid who has really good manners," he replied, not believing that for a minute.

"He's a really nice young man who is trying to get you to pay attention to him. He's not a little kid, as much as you want that to be true. I think it's really sweet."

"Well, I'm busy."

"You're a chickenshit."

"Well, yeah," he admitted, "that too." He could never explain to Sam why he would never be good enough for Brian. Why even talking to him would be wrong. He shoved the Jeep back in to gear and they headed for IHOP. Gabriel had a feeling that his birthday breakfast was going to be a long lecture about Gabriel contacting Brian.

"How did he know it was my birthday? How did he know my mailbox number? Maybe he's some kind of whackjob."

"You don't believe that."

No, he didn't. He knew what kind of boy Brian was. He'd seen it in his eyes, heard it in his voice. He was the same kind of boy Gabriel had been years ago. He had exactly what had been taken from Gabriel, expectation and hope.

"I can't get any closer to him, Sam. I can't."

Sam watched Gabriel. He wasn't being mean. It wasn't in Gabriel to be mean or uncaring. He truly thought he shouldn't contact Brian. "Can you tell me why you feel like this?"

"I," Gabriel stumbled over the words, "I had some trouble in my past. I can't tell you about it, Sammy. I'm just not ..... it's ........ I can't be what any nice boy wants."

"You mean after you left your parent's?" she asked softly.

Gabriel held the blueberry syrup pitcher, staring intently at a drip of syrup that was running down the side. Just the way his eyes didn't reach up to find Sam's let her know that she was right. Something bad had happened in the time he had been on his own; too young to be out on the street. "Oh, Gabriel," she said gently, taking the pitcher and setting it down on the table, "But that's so long ago. You said yourself you have a great adopted family now."

"You can't understand, Sam. Stuff like that changes you. A kid like Brian is looking for happy and tenderness. I don't have those to give. I could never be what he wants."

"It looks to me like you've thought about Brian more than you want to admit. Doesn't that tell you anything?"

"Yeah, it tells me to leave him the fuck alone. I don't do dates and flowers and favorite songs and all that shit. My life belongs to me. I don't have room for some kid who wants to mess it all up."

Sam sighed. Gabriel was way in over his head already. He just doesn't know it yet. It looked like it was up to her.

Gabriel spent as much time as he could down at the shelter just talking to the kids, playing a little b-ball and letting them let off steam. Most of them were just like he was, kicked out for one reason or another, and some had run from the abuse. He heard over and over, 'There's only so long you can stand it; only so much you can take'.

Easy's visit was what Mark Sloan had needed to kick off a campaign for local donations. Many of the kids were helping paint the old walls with a supply sent over from a local hardware store. Mark had written up several grant applications and was waiting to hear back. Things were looking up for the shelter and it made Gabriel feel good to be part of it.

One of his favorite times now was meeting some of the kids at the shelter for supper on Wednesday nights. They'd watch a DVD and relax enough to let him in just a little. They'd learned enough about him to know he'd never contact their parents without their consent, so they were comfortable.

"Gabriel?" Barry asked late one Wednesday, after they'd watched Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick straight through. "Why did you have to leave home?" All the kids had been dying to ask, but didn't want to make Gabriel angry. He was someone they looked up to and didn't want him to leave.

Sighing, Gabriel tried to put it into words. "I didn't leave. I would have stayed there happily. I loved my parents and my big brother Dominic so much. I thought they loved me too."

"So, they kicked you out?" one of the girls asked.

"Yeah, one minute I was with my friend and the next my father had me by the back of my shirt throwing me out the back door."

"Were you doing drugs?"

Gabriel shook his head, "Nah, nothing as bad as that. I was jerking off my friend in my bedroom when my mother opened the door."

"Oh. You gay, Gabriel?"

"Yeah, I didn't think my parents would do what they did. I was scared to tell them but I never thought they'd throw me away like I was garbage."

"What did you do? Where did you go?"

He looked at the expectant faces. They were just like he'd been those years ago. In a small way, he was being kind of like Easy. He was holding their hands without grabbing their arms. They could let go anytime they needed to. He knew they wanted truths and that's what he'd give them as far as he could.

"I waited til real late and crawled back into my room to get the three hundred dollars I had saved up. I grabbed my letter jacket and my ball cap and left. I wanted so much to see my brother Dominic before I left, but he wasn't home that night. I just went to the bus station and bought a ticket on the next bus out. It took me to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina."

"What did you do when you got there?" They were so full of questions. "Did ya live in shelter or somethin', like us?"

"Yes," he said softly, "Someone great found me and took me to the Center. He saved my life." There was no point in telling them anything that happened in-between. No point at all.

Between his classes, the shelter, keeping the duplex yards cleaned up and typing up the professor's notes way into the night, Gabriel wasn't getting out into the desert or up into the mountains to walk off his demons. He was missing his hikes with Dog in the silence and calm of the desert air.

"I'm gonna help you mow after class tomorrow," Sam told him as they shared a cheese and pepperoni pizza Thursday night.

"Why? Must mean you want something."

"I want to go hiking on Saturday and it's the only way you'll be done."

"I've got all of Professor Parrish's notes to ........."

"Gabriel!! Why did you come to Arizona? To hike! So, let's do it. I'll help you type on Sunday."

God, he wanted to get out there so badly. "Okay, sure, but I have to be back by dinner to get some work done."

"Great! Okay! Fine! One thing, I'm gonna have to meet you at the trailhead cause I have to ride with Professor Albritton to help him carry the samples to the site. What time you want to meet?"

Gabriel frowned, "But that'll cut off the best time of the day, Sam."

"Nah, he likes to get out there way early. You just say the time and I'll be there."

"Be there by six. That way we can see the sun come up. Sure you can do that?"

"Yeah, I'll be there by six."

"You're not there, and we're going without you, right Dog?"

'And now,' Sam thought, 'I've got a lot of details to take care of before six o'clock next Saturday morning'.

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