by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 32: Friend and Relation

I walked, taking nothing with me but the clothes on my back, whatever money was in my wallet, and the keys to my Camaro (which still had a wheel raised onto the pavement from my rush to get to Charlie's). I didn't dare take the car with me because I had no doubts that my father really would call the police if I did. But I wasn't about to just hand the keys over to him that easily either. For a moment, I entertained the idea of ramming "his car" into a wall as revenge but felt immediately sick at the idea knowing how attached I had become to my Camaro.

So I walked as far as my legs would take me. I had no direction in mind at first. I half-hoped that someone would come and stop me, telling me everything was going to be okay. No one came. My mother was with my father. Charlie was with Travis; and Mrs. C… well, she's Mrs. C so that was more than enough to begin with.

Somewhere along the way, my feet took on a certain direction on their own. Perhaps I really did know where my legs were taking me but never truly pondered if it was serious. I wasn't going to The Spot because it no longer felt like my place. Where I was going to was a friend.

It might have taken hours. I don't really know anymore. It just felt like time moved at a completely different speed when I was depressed. A lot of my life flashed before me as I walked and I wondered how it all went to shit. I was a good guy. I knew it. Sure I had a lot of somewhat twisted ideas of other people but my thoughts never really translated into action. Although I often felt superior (that is to say perfect) to others, I had never in my life made anyone feel like they were below me (except for the whole gay thing, of course). I was brilliant and handsome and I knew it. Doesn't mean I ever went out of my way to make people feel ugly. I just found it painful to realize that despite not doing much harm to others, I somehow got dealt the shittiest cards.

It wasn't like I was innocent really. Innocence was taken away from me a long time ago.

I was momentarily brought out of my thoughts as a voice rang clear into the air.

"Hey guys, look who it is," a somewhat handsome and cocky looking guy said as I walked towards them. He was surrounded by several other guys his age. I recognized them all vaguely as belonging to our most hated rivals, the Westfield Basketball Varsity Team. "It's a Southmore fag in our territory."

The other six or seven guys around him started laughing. But their laughter quickly died away as I came closer.

"Hey dude," the same Westfield student who called me a fag said in a concerned voice. "You okay?"

I didn't answer him. Instead I just walked silently as my legs continued to take me to the place they wanted to go to. The Westfield crowd parted as I passed, giving me enough room like I was some corpse on a stretcher that was being brought out from the scene of the crime. I could feel their eyes following me and their whispers echoing in my footsteps.

I stopped finally when I reached the large pasty white building I had seen once before. I stared up into the building hoping he was home.

I walked towards the main entrance where a guard was hunched over on his chair. His posture was lazy as though he couldn't be bothered to stand up even if the building was on fire. It looked like he hadn't moved in the last century or so.

He was also reading a newspaper intently as though it demanded his full attention. It was on the comics section.

"Excuse me," I said.

He gave a non-committal grunt that sounded remarkably like indigestion.

"I was wondering if you could tell me what room Andrew Young lived in?"

To my great shock and horror, the guy managed to move one eye to look at me while keeping the other one peering onto the comics. "Name?" he asked.

"Uhh…" I said as I stared at his one crazy eye.

"You got a name?" he asked while still keeping his one eye on me.

"Of course I do," I said.

"Mind giving it to me then?" he said. "I don't have all day to sit here and listen to you."

"Derek," I said. "Derek Hampton."

He took one hand off the newspaper and opened a record book. He wrote my name on it all the while keeping his one eye fixed on me and the other on the newspaper. He closed the record book when he was done. "Unit 4-G," he replied as he finally returned his other eye back to the newspaper.

"Oh," I said. "Do you know if he's home?"

He turned both eyes to me this time in an irritated glare. "How should I know?" he asked.

"Oh," I said as he looked back down on the comics. Silly of me to ask a guard if the tenants in the building he's guarding were home or not. "Okay then," I said as I made tentative steps towards the main entrance. When the guard didn't budge, I continued my walk inside.

Thankfully there were elevators. After all my walking, I didn't think my legs could take several flights of stairs.

The hallway was noisy with the sounds of residents. I suppose I should have expected it. After all, it was a Sunday and most people would be home. I could hear the sound of radios, TVs and even kids-destroying-everything-in-their-paths reverberating through the walls.

I wondered if any of them experienced any of the problems I did or had. I wondered if any of the kids behind those walls had fathers like mine.

I stopped in front of the door that bore the combination 4-G. The brass lettering looked worn as though it hadn't been polished in many years. I could hear the faint sound of a television playing inside.

Tentatively, I knocked on the door. I didn't have to wait long before I heard footsteps coming and then the door swung open only to be replaced by another door that looked remarkably like my friend Andrew.

"Derek?" he asked as his large figure framed the doorway, nearly not fitting through it while standing straight.

"Hey, Andrew," I said tentatively as I stood there in front of him. I knew I wanted to see a friend and for whatever reason Andrew came as the one option I wanted. I suppose I wanted to see someone who wasn't involved in any way in all the drama that had been my life the past few weeks. I wanted someone who was neutral, someone who would not necessarily ask about the details. Someone who would just sit quietly, possibly fall asleep as we spoke. But the moment I stood there in front of him, I felt uncertain. I wasn't sure if I was as welcome as I hoped.

He stood there in front of me as though he was waiting for me to say anything else.

"Mind if I come in?" I asked, uncertain if I might have misjudged his words when he said I could always come to him if I needed someone to talk to.

"Uhm," Andrew lumbered. "Now's not really a good time," he said.

"Oh," I said, realizing that perhaps he was just being nice when he offered a hand of friendship.

"Andrew, babe, who is it?" came a voice from inside.

My eyes nearly bogged out when I heard those words. It wasn't so much the fact of what I potentially could have interrupted, or the fact that the voice didn't belong to Andrew's girlfriend Lily, or the fact that I didn't recognize the voice at all. It was primarily because of the realization that although the voice was somewhat effeminate, it definitely belonged to a guy. "Oh," I repeated as Andrew and I stared at each other.

Andrew stood there looking at me with an impassive face before sighing heavily. He stepped aside revealing a narrow hallway that led into the room. "Come in," he said.

"Uhm," I said, feeling doubly uncertain about the situation. "If I'm interrupting anything…"

"It's fine," he said in a voice that brooked no arguments. Actually, it sounded more like get in or I'll bend you into a pretzel.

"Okay," I said, feeling like I had no choice but to comply.

I walked into the hallway while Andrew closed the door behind us. He gestured with his hands to walk forward and follow the path that led to where the television seemed to be. Although the hallway was a bit dark, it led to a brightly lit living room with several couches, arranged comfortably around a widescreen television.

Someone was seated on the couch directly in front of the screen, his legs raised and crossed on a low coffee table. He was shaking his head left and right as though he was moving to the tune of the commercial playing on the screen.

He looked up at us as we entered. He had pointy features and a very slim build that was well toned but seemed to lack serious muscles. His sandy hair was sprawling all over the top as though a gerbil was about to peek out from between his locks. His small blue eyes immediately focused on me as his lips, which were wrapped seductively around a lollipop, broke into a grin. "Oooh, you brought a present for me!" he declared jovially.

"Cut it," Andrew said as he moved past me to what looked like a kitchen.

The guy on the sofa tilted his head to the side as his eyes roamed all over my body, stopping two or three times at a certain spot between my legs. "He's a little banged up but I'm sure I can think of a thing or two to do with him."

"Seriously," Andrew glared from behind the refrigerator door, "cut it. He's not your type."

"Oh," the guy said with a fake sigh. "Figures all the good looking guys are straight. But you know," he said as he suddenly stood up and bounced towards me like a little kid, "if you ever decide to experiment or something, I'm totally available."

"No, you're not," Andrew said as he glared once more from behind the refrigerator door.

"Oh, Tom won't mind," the effeminate guy said as he ran a finger down my well-built arms that incited shivers having absolutely nothing to do with eroticism. "He might even want to join us." His eyebrows undulated suggestively.

"Right," Andrew said as he came back to the living room with what looked like an ice pack in one hand and a small leather bag in the other. "Like you're not madly in love with him and would die if you ever did anything to jeopardize your relationship together."

"Am I that obvious?" the guy asked, turning a curious and innocent smile towards Andrew.

"You only say it what… ten times a day now? I suppose it was better than when you kept playing all those love songs nonstop."

"True," the guy said as his eyes got misty and he seemed to be lost in another time and place. "Speaking of which!" he suddenly yelled. "I have to meet him at the coffee shop!"

"You do," Andrew said as he extended the leather bag in his left hand towards the unknown guy. "You should go."

"Uhhh," the guy said with a smile and batting eyelashes. "My Andrew is always so thoughtful."

"I am not your Andrew," Andrew said with a glare. I couldn't tell if he was serious or not.

"Of course you're not, babe," the guy said as he put the leather bag under his arms and started walking towards the door. "See you later, hot stuff!" he said as he waved a hand back towards us and disappeared towards the door without looking back. I wasn't sure if he was referring to me or Andrew. Probably me.

"Here," Andrew said as gave me the ice pack. "That's for whatever happened to your face."

"Thanks," I said as I put the ice pack against the bruises Charlie had given me. Admittedly, despite all my training in basketball I had forgotten the basics of warm and cold compress to attend to wounds. "I don't suppose that was your brother?"

"No," Andrew said with a heavy sigh. "My roommate. He's a sophomore student taking up a degree in Theater Arts. His personality can be a bit vocal and… strong. Sorry about that. I know you're a bit sensitive regarding certain people's behaviors."

It surprised me that Andrew would apologize for having a roommate that seemed like he was a woman trapped in a man's body. He looked uncomfortable and I didn't want him to feel that way, especially in his own place. "It's fine, really. No big deal."

Andrew raised a questioning eyebrow as though he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"No, really," I said, offering him a smile. At least, I think it was. "So, where's your family? I thought you lived here with your folks."

"Nah," Andrew said. "My folks live in Oklahoma. But they wanted to send me to a really good school. They heard good things about Southmore when I was really young so they sent me here. Said they didn't want me to get an education not worth a hill of beans."

"Not worth a hill of beans?" I laughed. "Your folks sound like farmers."

"There's nothing wrong with farmers," Andrew said seriously as he looked me right in the eyes.

"Oh! I didn't mean…" I stuttered.

He smiled which told me he didn't really take offense. "Yes, my parents are farmers. They aren't hillbillies if that's what you're thinking. They lived in the city when they were young, in this very apartment actually. They still own it but they've just been renting out their old room. My mom's sister, my aunt, actually lives down the hall with her family. She didn't move to the countryside when my father decided to start an agri-business. Used to live with her when I was little. She still checks up on me everyday though."

There was a pause in the conversation as Andrew stared at me. "But of course," he continued, "you didn't come here to talk about me. Do you want to talk about what happened to you?"

"Not really," I said as I looked down, trying to avoid his eyes. "I was actually just, kinda hoping that you'd let me crash here for a day or two."

He looked at me intently for a few moments while his eyes flickered every few seconds towards the wounds on my face. I knew all kinds of questions and speculations were probably popping up in his head as to why I'd want to spend the night there instead of my house or someone else's house. When he remained quiet for so long, I figured I had once again misjudged the invite.

"But if you can't accommodate me, it's fine," I said with just a bit of sadness in my voice that I couldn't keep out. "Maybe… maybe I should just go," I said as I made to stand up and leave. "Thanks for the ice."

"And where would you go?" Andrew said as he looked up at me standing there in his living room.

"I… I haven't really thought about that…" I said, having nothing else to say.

"I see…" Andrew said, staring at me again as if he was trying to see beyond the wounds on my face.

"I should go," I said as I took several steps towards the exit.

"You can stay," Andrew said at last. "The couch will be free once my roommate heads to bed. I only have one bed in my room and it's nowhere close to fitting both of us. And unless you want to sleep in my roommate's bed…" he raised the tone of the last few words as a question.

"The couch is fine."

"Figured," Andrew said and I could have sworn he was smirking. "If you're staying here for a day or two, what exactly are your plans?"

I didn't answer him because my eyes were drawn instead to a photograph on one of the shelves lining the living room. There were several photos there but one stood out among the rest for me. It looked like a rather old photo of a pudgy little kid in a suit sitting next to and being hugged by a pudgy big woman who could have easily passed as his mother. Both were smiling happily into the camera as though nothing could ever ruin that moment. Despite not being given permission, I took the photo off the shelf to have a better look at it.

If there was one thing you should know about me by now that would be my memories of events that had happened (given of course that I could remember them) were always crystal clear. I immediately recognized the two people in the photograph.

"Who's this?" I asked Andrew as I turned the photo towards him.

"That," he said while a small smile grew on his lips as though he was remembering, "is me."

"You?" I asked with large eyes. "You're big, fat, and ugly?"

"Excuse me?" Andrew said with a challenging eyebrow.

"I mean…" I stuttered quickly as Andrew's eyes remained fixed on me. "It's… it's what Charlie and I used to call you. I mean not you. I mean him," I said indicating the kid in the photo. "Who I guess is you after all." I looked nervously at Andrew, worried that I would have to sleep in an alley that night.

To my great surprise, Andrew laughed. There was no mistaking it. He was laughing. It kinda freaked me out really. "I suppose I deserved that. After all, I did kick sand all over Charlie the first time we ever met."

"Yeah," I said remembering the day so long ago when I first met Charlie at a sandbox. I found it weird that I also met Andrew for the first time the very same day without ever realizing it. He was that bully who caused me to come to Charlie's defense that fateful day. "Did you actually ever get your second serving of ice cream that day?"

"Huh?" he asked with a confused brow. "Oh, yes. Yes, I did. But not before getting a very, very, very long lecture about not bullying others and being nice to other people, especially those who were smaller than me. I think…" he paused as though he was choosing his words carefully. "I think that day really changed who I was."

"I guess so," I said as I replaced Andrew's picture back onto the shelf. "I would never in my wildest dreams have ever thought of you as that kid that picked on Charlie so long ago."

"Funny how we all change with time, isn't it?" Andrew asked.

"No," I said somberly, as I remembered all the changes I had gone through. "Not really."

Andrew gave me a piercing stare as though he was seeing me and not seeing me at the same time. "I suppose not."

We didn't talk much after that. We watched TV for the rest of the day. Well, at least I stared at it. I was still mulling over everything that had happened in my life. I wondered what Charlie was doing at that very moment. I wondered if he was thinking about me the way I was thinking about him. Most of all I wondered if he was happy.

Andrew cooked dinner for us. His roommate (whose name I discovered was Mark) called at some point saying he wouldn't be home and not to worry. I happened to have answered the phone as Andrew was stirring some kind of sauce and I wanted to do something useful. When Mark discovered that I was staying over, he said I could have his bed for the night. "The walls are soundproof," he had said.

He then gave me a warning not to be shocked if I found myself naked and tied to the bedposts when I woke up.

Dinner was quiet. I asked him where his girlfriend Lily was. She was apparently spending the weekend out of the city with her family. After that, we mostly just ate. I figured a lot of things were quiet with Andrew. He really did deserve the fond title of the gentle giant among us basketball players. I found his presence and the peace that came with it somewhat soothing. It just felt like my life had become one big drama show and I needed that intermission which only Andrew could provide.

I stayed on the couch despite Mark's offer to stay in his bed. First of all, I didn't know him well enough to take his bed. Second, I didn't know him well enough to know what may have stained his bed. Third, I didn't know if I really would find myself naked and tied to the bedposts when I woke up.

I spent several hours lying awake that night just staring into the ceiling. It seemed that despite Andrew's often silent demeanor when he was awake, he was a monster when he was asleep. His snores echoed loudly and disturbingly into the living room despite the closed door of his bedroom. I wondered if that was why Mark said his room was soundproof. Despite my curiosity, I didn't have the courage to explore Mark's bed.

I wondered what I was supposed to do. I wondered what my mom was doing. I had called her earlier using Andrew's landline. Well, technically I called Charlie's place. I wanted to tell them where I was. I discovered that my mom was there looking for me. She scolded me for a good fifteen minutes continuously for not heading over to Charlie's when she told me to do so. When I finally did get a word in, I told her where I was and the reasons I didn't want to go to Charlie's. I think she understood that somewhat. At least, she didn't ask me to come home. When I asked her when I should come home, she said she didn't know. She was staying over at Mrs. C's while my father seemed to have developed some interest in living alone in our house.

I could just imagine him stripping my room bare and burning all my stuff in the backyard as the fire danced in his eyes and his maniacal laughter echoed into the night.

So as I lay there on Andrew's couch, I wondered where I was supposed to go. I couldn't stay there forever. Andrew and Mark's apartment seemed spacious but I didn't want to intrude. Besides, there were only two rooms and I didn't want to make the living room my room.

I didn't want to go over to Charlie's either, even if my mom was staying there. All the wounds I had given him felt so fresh. I didn't think me being there would have been good for him.

I wondered if my mom would eventually get a place of her own. She probably could. I'm guessing she had the money for it. Yet, that time if it ever came would probably be a long way away still.

And just like that, the answer came to my mind. One person might have understood me. One person might have sympathized with my problems. The only problem was he's never met me.

I didn't have much to go on except the few words my father said to me when I was eleven. He probably did not really mean for me to find out but nonetheless, it gave me a name and a place to work with. I moved out of the couch to look at the clock. It was past nine but that really wasn't too late, right? I suppose I could have waited for morning to come but somehow I needed to know the answer already. It seemed totally crazy, actually. But I had done so many crazy things that I figured what was one more.

I looked through the white pages beside the phone. I didn't know if his name was listed but I had to try. I was somewhat disappointed when there were fourteen people registered with the same name as him, all living in California. I mean how was that even possible?

I figured I had to try. So building up my courage, I lifted the phone and dialed the first number. It wasn't promising when the guy who answered yelled about not having any idea who I was before dropping the line. The second one turned out to have been deceased but thankfully wasn't the one I was looking for. The third was a grumpy old guy who started complaining about his sex life with his wife so I quickly dropped that call.

I was going to wait until the morning if the seventh number I dialed was a bust also. The guy who answered on the other line had a young voice, like my age or younger but certainly not an adult's. That didn't boost my confidence.

"Hello?" he said.

"Hi. Sorry to call so late but I was wondering if Chase Andrews was there?" I said with some weariness, having already said that line several times already.

"Yeah, just a moment," the guy said distractedly. I could hear some kind of sound in the background like a blender or something. I heard him put down the phone, calling out for Chase.

I then heard two people talking like someone lecturing someone else before I heard the phone move and then a different voice come on. "Hello?"

I froze. Although I didn't know why, I somehow knew that the voice that spoke belonged to the person I was looking for.

"Hello?" the guy asked again.

"Hi," I said tentatively.

"Hi," he said, "may I know who this is?"

"Uhm… you don't know me," I said then slapped my hand to my forehead. Duh!

"Okay," he said sounding amused. "So why don't you tell me who you are so I get to know you?"

"Oh," I said. "Uhm, it's a little complicated…"

"Okay," the guy said. "Is this some kind of a joke?" he laughed as though he was the type who frequently received prank calls. "Cause I do have stuff to do and I have a very limited time allotted for fun."

"Oh," I said. "It's just… I…"

"You what?" he asked still sounding amused.

"Your sister," I said.

"My sister?" he asked suddenly sounding serious. "Are you calling about her? Did something happen?"

"No!" I said startled at the panic that replaced his amused voice. "She's fine. More or less anyway."

"Who is this?" he demanded.

I sighed heavily into the phone. "Sorry. I really don't know what I was thinking. Maybe it was a bad idea to call." The guy I was talking to on the line sounded so happy when he first started talking. Did I have the really have the right to inject myself – and my problems – into his life? "I'm just… I'm sorry." I was about to put down the phone when I heard the other voice on the line speak again.

"Derek," the guy said like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Derek, is that you?"

I put the phone back against my ear to listen to him calling my name. "Yes, uncle," I said. "It's me."

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