“But mom. It’s not fair that I have homework already.”
She shakes her head, and he can hear her sigh. “Daniel. We’ve been over this. You had some issues in math last year, so your teacher and I want to make sure you’re going to be ready this year.” She drops a plate of apple slices in front of him and turns back to the sink. “Now shush and do your division, and we can work on any problems that you have trouble with after...”
The front door practically explodes open and his brothers crowd through, dropping their batting gear on the couch. “Hi, mom!”
She smiles and drops another plate of apples on the table, across from Dan. “Welcome home. How was practice?”
His oldest brother, Will, strips off his shirt and puts his sweaty arms against the back of Dan’s neck. “Fine.”
Dan leans away and swats at him. “Ew! How are you still sweaty? Didn’t you get driven home?”
“Luke! Nuh uh. No bats and mitts on my couch.”
“But Will just d...”
“I don’t care. Put them by the door where they belong.”
Will laughs and wraps his arms around Dan, pulling him back against his chest. Dan flails uselessly against his grip. “I don’t know. I just sweat a lot.”
“Will! You had better not be getting Daniel’s shirt dirty. I am not doing laundry again tonight. You can sit and watch the machine, buddy.”
He releases Dan. “He’s fine. See?” He wipes at the back of Dan’s shirt as Dan swats at him again. “Totally clean.”
“Mom! You know I don’t like green apples.”
“They were out of red ones, Luke. You can eat them or you can go take your shower, now.”
He grumbles, but sits with a book across from Dan, nibbling at an apple slice. Will sits next to him, pulling out an algebra textbook, peering over the table at Dan’s worksheet. “Long division again?”
“Maybe. What’s it to you?”
“My math has letters in it.”
Luke sticks his tongue out at Will. “Your math has had letters in it for years.”
“Well, not years.”
“My math has shapes in it.”
“Yeah? What’s the formula for the volume of a sphere?”
His mom glances over at the table. “It sounds like you’re volunteering to look over both Luke’s and Dan’s work when they’re done, Will.”
He stands and pushes his chair back in. “I think I’m going to go shower. Right now.”
“Mom! He’s going to steal all the hot water.”
“Shush. There’s enough hot water for everyone.”
“Oh, yeah...” Will looks back, over his shoulder. “Mrs. Thompson wants to know if you can get us from practice next week, and if Andrew can hang out here for a bit afterward.”
“Will, honey. I...”
“Okay, great! I’ll let her know.”
He disappears up the stairs and his mother shakes her head.
Dan looks up from his homework as the front door opens, and his brothers crowd through, dropping their gear on the couch.
“Luke! Will! What did I say about bats?”
Will pulls off his shirt. “Move mine too, would you?”
Luke grumbles, and moves half of the gear, as his mother walks through the door, her arms full with bags of groceries. Behind her follows a boy that Dan has never met before.
“Mom! Will didn’t move his stuff!”
She puts the bags down on the kitchen table. “Will, put away these groceries for me. Luke, move Will’s gear for him.” She looks around the space. “Andrew, please make yourself at home, and sorry for the mess.”
“It’s cool.” He sits on the couch as Dan’s mother busies herself in the kitchen. Dan doesn’t even realize he’s been staring until Luke sits down next to him, startling him.
Luke grabs the sheet in front of him and reads out loud. “’101 Things I Did Over Summer Break’. Yeah, like you did that many things.”
Dan snatches the page back from it. “It’s a work in progress.”
Will finishes putting away the groceries and sits down next to Andrew on the couch and hands him a glass of water.
“Oh. Thanks. It’s pretty hot in here.”
“Yeah. Mom keeps the air conditioner on pretty low.”
She drops a plate of apple slices on the table and Luke grabs one. “When you pay the electricity bill, you can keep it as cool in the house as you’d like, mister.”
Andrew sets the glass of water on the coffee table, seemingly contemplative for a second, before pulling off his own shirt. Luke grabs the plate of apples and joins them in the living room. Dan follows him, his gaze fixating on Andrew before his mother dropping another plate of apples in front of him startles him back to reality, and he blushes. Somehow, it feels like he’s been caught doing something naughty, although he can’t exactly explain why.
He tries his hardest to concentrate on his writing, but by the time Andrew’s mother comes by an hour later to pick him up, most of the page is still blank.
Dan isn’t sure what it is, but he somehow has come to look forward to evenings when his brothers come home, Andrew in tow, and they lounge around the couch while he tries to do homework at the kitchen table. The weeks where they’re dropped off, instead, somehow feel disappointing to him.
His brothers caught him staring, once, and teased him that he could join them if he’d take up baseball, mistaking his glances as a feeling of being left out. He found himself, strangely, considering the idea, even though he had never before had a real interest in sports.
He looks up from his paper -- math, this time -- as his brothers push their way through the door. He can feel his heart rate start to pick up as his mother follows after them, scolding them as usual. But when the door shuts behind her, and Luke ruffles his hair on his way to the bathroom, he’s left with a strange feeling of longing.
“No... no Andrew?”
“Nah. He’s sick this week.” Will pulls off his shirt and sits on the couch, looking at him. “Why? You want to take his place?” He pats the couch cushion next to him.
“It would be nice if you’d include Daniel, you know.” His mother doesn’t even turn to them, slicing apples by the kitchen sink.
“Aw, mom. We just talk about the game. He wouldn’t understand any of it anyway.”
She turns to him, knife in hand, looking more threatening than she probably intends. “Still. It’s not nice to exclude your brother. Andrew isn’t around this week, so why don’t you go play some Nintendo with Daniel?”
“That only plays two people at a time, now, mom.” Luke, returning from the bathroom, dries his hands on his shirt. “Will broke a controller last week.”
“And only one of you can shower at a time. Now go.”
Will sighs, but Luke grins at Dan. “Bet I can beat you, even if you play as Oddjob.”
Dan sets down his pencil, grabbing the plate of apples his mother sets in front of him. “You’re on.”
Will and Luke switch off between playing and showering, and neither of them manages to beat Dan. It isn’t until Will tackles him at just the right time that Luke manages to grab a kill.
“Aha. Take that, 007.”
“You’re going to break another controller. Get off of me.”
“Nah. I bet you like it.” He pushes Dan onto his front and sits on his back.
Luke laughs as Dan struggles under Will as their mother appears at the top of the stairs. “Stephanie’s here.”
Will practically leaps off his back as Luke snickers and Dan slowly sits up. “Catch you later, losers.”
Luke makes a kissy face at him and Will sticks his tongue out at them before bounding up the stairs.
Dan stares at the screen. “I guess.”
Luke stares at him for a second. “Hey. What’s wrong, man?”
He punches him, gently, in the arm. “Seriously.”
“How are you and Amanda?”
Luke laughs. “I see. You’re just feeling left out.” He throws his arm over Dan’s shoulders and pulls him closer, ruffling his hair. “I’m surprised you don’t have girls falling all over you, man. Maybe in middle school, when the hormones really start coming out, one of your many girl friends will become your girlfriend.” He chuckles. “Or maybe more than one of them.”
Dan pushes him away. “I don’t want girls falling all over me.”
“Not yet. But you will.” He ruffles his hair again and stands, stretching. “But if we’re not playing again, I should get some homework done.”
Dan nods, mutely, watching Luke ascend the stairs, his words sticking in his mind, for some reason.
Luke, pulling on his pajama pants, turns toward him. “Hm?”
“How do you know that you like someone?”
He stands there, thinking for a bit. “Someone specific? And like like? I don’t know. I guess you just feel differently around her.... like you find you enjoy spending time with her more, and you kind of start to anticipate seeing her. Maybe you go out of your way for her...”
“When did you start liking girls?”
Luke pulls on a shirt and sits on his own bed, looking at him. “I don’t know. I guess I was about your age when I started noticing them. Like, noticing them, anyway.” He shrugs. “Why? Has some lovely lady caught your eye?”
Luke laughs at this. “Man, okay, you got me. I’m secretly a big homo.” His expression grows serious as Dan, clearly looking uncomfortable, doesn’t respond. “Wait. You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Okay, lights out, you two.” Their mom, followed by their dad, breeze into the room for the usual bedtime routine.”
“Mom! Daniel is gay!”
“Luke! We don’t use language like that in this house. Also don’t insult your brother.”
“No. I mean he likes boys.” Dan turns red and pulls his sheets over his head, wishing he’d never brought up the topic. He isn’t sure how much he likes the new word, “gay”, but it doesn’t sound like it should be something bad.
There’s silence for a bit, before his father speaks. “Daniel? Is this true?”
He pulls the sheet down just enough so he can see. His parents, standing in the middle of the room, seem to be looking at him with a mixture of sadness and curiosity, which he takes as a good sign. His heartbeat racing, for some reason, all he can do is nod.
“Luke, go brush your teeth.”
“But mom! I already...”
“Go brush your teeth again.” She gives him a pointed look and he groans as he heads back to the bathroom.
His parents sit on his bed, and his mom brushes a stray strand of hair off of his forehead. “Daniel. My baby.”
His dad clears his throat. “Daniel. I want y... we want you to know that we love you, and we’ll always love you, and we just want you to be happy.” He looks at his mom, looking strangely weary. “But, uh. If you’re g... uh... if you like boys, it might be a good idea to, uh... it might not be the best idea to let people know that.”
He looks from his dad to his mom, confused now. “Why? Is it bad? Is something wrong with me?”
“Oh, baby, no. Nothing is wrong with you. You are perfect the way you are.”
“Ahem. It’s not something... bad, Daniel. But people won’t be so understanding.”
“The world is a bitter, dark place full of h...”
“I mean... other people may judge you. Badly.”
“But dad. Why...”
“Daniel.” He looks somehow more vulnerable than Dan’s ever seen him. “Please. Your mother and I will always be here for you. But we don’t want you to get hurt. Or to get, uh...”
“...to get sick.”
“Why would I get s...”
“Daniel. Please. We love you, and support you, but we ask that you keep this to yourself, if you can.”
Dan shrugs, feeling now like they’re making a bigger deal out of it than they should. “Okay.” Both of his parents seem to visibly relax at that.
Luke reappears in the doorway. “I brushed my teeth again.”
His mother laughs at that, almost hysterically, brushing past him on her way down the hallway. Luke looks after her, confused. “Is mom okay?”
“She’s fine, Luke. Now I don’t want to see you or Will teasing Daniel about this. Understood?”
“No buts. Also I don’t want you telling anyone else, either.”
“Luke. I’m serious.”
“Yeah, yeah. Love the baby brother. Can I go to sleep now?”
“Go to sleep. Both of you.” He heads to the door and pauses, looking back at Dan. “If you ever need to talk to someone, Daniel, please let us know.”
Then he’s gone, and Luke is yawning. “Geez. What a huge fuss over nothing.” He grabs a balled-up sock from the floor and throws it at Dan. “You’re weird, but we already knew that.”
Dan stares at the ceiling, his father’s words repeating in his mind, even after Luke has dozed off, feeling like he’s somehow become the family’s big, dirty secret.
“Where you going, faggot?”
How did they find out? Dan spins around, ready for a confrontation, just in time to see the resident tough guy, Derek, push some freshman-looking kid up against a locker, the front of the kid’s shirt bunched up threateningly in his fist.
“To my locker. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
“I bet you want to suck my cock, don’t you?”
The kid scoffs at that, which only seems to enrage Derek more. Dan is particularly hit by the fact that he isn’t denying that he’s gay. “You wish. I don’t go for meatheads.”
“Why you...” He raises a fist and the kid actually looks scared, now. Dan bites his lip, telling himself that he shouldn’t get involved, but then the kid looks at him, almost pleading, and he shakes off years of instinct.
“Hey! Derek!” He throws his arm over Derek’s shoulders. “How’ve you been, man? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
Derek grunts, clearly annoyed, and shrugs Dan’s arm off of him. “What do you want?”
The kid takes advantage of the distraction to scamper off, and Derek groans in frustration, pushing Dan against the wall and storming off. He looks around for any sign of the kid, but he seems to have vanished into the crowd.
Dan carries his lunch tray into the crowded cafeteria, looking for his usual group of friends. Instead, his eyes fall on the kid from earlier, sitting alone at a table in the corner. His curiosity getting the better of him, he heads over and sits down next to the kid, who doesn’t seem surprised to see him.
“Hi. I’m Dan.”
The kid nods, looking at him suspiciously. “Trent.”
“So... how ar...”
“Look. I appreciate your help this morning, but if you’re just going to make fun of me...”
“What? I’m not! I just wanted to... say hi.”
“Sure.” Trent turns back to his food and Dan looks at him, confused.
“Really! That’s it.”
There’s silence for a bit, and Dan clears his throat. “So, uh... are you gay?”
Trent turns to him, glaring at him in a way that isn’t exactly friendly. “People talk about you, you know.”
This doesn’t surprise him at all. “I’m sure they do.”
“They say you talk a lot, and that you’re friendly. But not in a good way.”
Dan laughs at this. “Well, that describes me pretty well, I think. And hey, you talk a lot yourself, mister Trent.”
“Whatever. And yes, I am.”
A tap on his shoulder grabs his attention, and he turns to see his friend Joanna standing behind him. “Dan! Were you not able to find us?”
“No, I just...”
Trent grabs his tray and stands. “Well, thank you for the company. But I should be going.”
Dan watches him go, then lets himself get dragged to his usual table by Joanna.
There are few times Dan wishes Luke wasn’t off at college, leaving him by himself in their bedroom. This, surprisingly, was one of them.
“Good night, Dan.” It normally drives him crazy that his mom still insists on tucking him in every night, but tonight, he’s somehow glad.
“What is it, honey?”
“I met someone at school today. He, uh... he’s gay.”
She sighs, as if she’s been expecting this, and sits on his bed. “Do you like him?”
“What? Mom, I barely know him. No. It’s that he’s just... he’s so cavalier about it.”
“Okay.” She looks at him, like she expects him to continue.
“Okay? Just okay?”
“Well, what do you want me to say, honey?”
“I don’t know. But I... I envy him. I wish I didn’t have to... pretend. I hate pretending that I like Joanna and that you just won’t let me date anyone. I hate having to lie. I hate that I feel like I have to keep this part of me secret.”
She’s silent, but a tear falls down her cheek, and somehow the sight of that calms him down.
“Mom? I... I just..”
“I know. And it’s unfair of us to...” She shrugs. “It’s just unfair. And you’re right.”
“I want to... I want to come out.”
She nods, wordlessly, looking like she’s about to say something before closing her mouth again.
“But I... I don’t want to break my promise to you and dad.”
She bursts out laughing at this and pulls him into a tight hug. “Oh, honey. Is that why you’ve been hiding all this time? Because you were worried about us?”
Dan frowns. “Well, you two made it pretty clear that you were worried about me, because of it, and that I shouldn’t tell anyone. And then you freaked out about it when Matthew Shephard was killed. So I just always assumed that...”
She releases him, putting her hands on his shoulders and looking into his eyes. “Dan. Your father and I love you, and we worry about you, sure, but that’s our job as your parents. We worry because we care, and because we know the world isn’t going to be as accepting as it should be. But, more than anything, we want you to be happy.” She pauses, seemingly contemplative. “But, honey. In two years you’re going to be in college, and it will be... less complicated for you.”
He shakes his head. “No. People like Trent are doing what they can, now, and I feel like I’m...”
“The guy at school, today. This guy was pushing him against a locker, because he was gay, and he just... gave no shits about it, you know? I... I want to be like that. I want to help stand up for people.”
She nods, looking at him, but she’s smiling now. “Okay. Okay.” She grabs his shoulders again. “I’m proud of you, honey.”
He nods as she kisses his forehead.
“Your father and I will always love and support you, Dan. I hope you know that.”