At the early age of fourteen, bright and charming Ray Peterson found out something that would drastically influence the further course of his life. It came from his older girlfriend Melissa, whom he'd been dating for a little over eight months back then. She told him the following things in rapid succession:
'Ray, I'm pregnant…'
'Yes, the baby's yours.'
'I know this is sudden, but I can't take care of it...'
'I want you to take care of it...'
'I told you, my father would never accept it...'
'Figure that out for yourself.'
'No, it's a boy.'
After the baby was born, Ray spent the majority of his time at home, with his grandma. She was a woman of the old and grumpy variety, always limiting conversation to a maximum of three words per sentence, two sentences per hour. The arrival of a new mouth to feed wasn't anything she had been waiting for. When Ray had crossed the threshold with the newborn in his arms – confused, desperate - grandma kept quiet for over three weeks, not even sparing him a glance. The feeding and cleaning and not sleeping had all been very scary, alien concepts. He tried contacting his parents, but to no avail.
And then the truth sunk in and Ray finally broke down, piece by piece, until there was barely anything left of the bright and confident young guy everyone once thought they knew so well.
Some of his friends found it in their heart to pay his miserable home a visit. They were mostly girls, telling him how sorry they felt or gushing over the little baby. His best mate Sam bought him a present. He was particularly optimistic about the situation, stating multiple times that 'everything would be alright'. That Ray would be able to 'figure it out somehow'. By himself. Alone.
Not towards Sam, nor towards the girls did Ray feel anything particular. Nothing but numbness, a heart-wrenching void that grew wider and more painful every day. He'd lost his freedom, his future, and that knowledge froze him to the bone.
Ray was convinced he would keep on feeling empty for the rest of his life. That is, until the day Thomas Miller suddenly decided to come over. Thomas was a co-member of the basketball team, Ray's senior by one year. They had never really had a proper conversation until that day. The visit came as a total surprise.
'Thomas', Ray greeted upon opening the door.
The older boy nodded mutely, peering grumpily past Ray's shoulder inside the room. 'Can I come in?' he asked coolly.
Ray stepped aside to let his teammate pass, a little puzzled over the boy's distant behaviour. If he was there against his will, why'd he even bothered to come in the first place?
'Please have a seat. Would you like something to drink?'
'I'm fine', Thomas said, walking over to the crib. He bent down, staring at the little bump under the blankets, rising and falling with every intake of breath.
'He got a name?'
Ray tried smiling, feeling the tension make a mess of his gut. It was unnerving, having to introduce the little boy. Melissa hadn't wanted a party, hadn't wanted to send any cards to their friends. She'd resumed school right after delivering and hadn't talked to him since.
'His name is Mason. Do you want to hold him?'
Little Mason chose that exact moment to start crying. Soft little sobs that broke Ray's heart time and time again. 'Hush', he said, hoisting the little bundle up in his arms. The baby wailed softly.
'He just ate, like, fifteen minutes ago', Ray said, laughing nervously. 'So that can't be it.'
Thomas was staring, a hard look in his eyes. It seemed as if he felt a strong aversion to the whole situation. It was rude, and Ray should have been mad, but he couldn't help thinking maybe the boy was right to be disgusted. Couldn't help the feeling of defeat crawling its way up his throat.
Ten minutes of broken sobbing later, Mason was back in his crib, sleeping soundly. Ray had taken a seat next to Thomas on the couch. He'd made a cup of tea that was now resting on the coffee table, untouched. Outside the sky had started to drip, rain tapping a steady rhythm to the windows, the pavement, the street, drowning the world in a cold mess of dirty water. Washing things away.
'His eyes are blue', Thomas spoke abruptly, breaking the silence. Ray hunched his shoulders. They had yet to fully broaden, but he was already well on the way.
The baby's eyes were hard to ignore. Two tiny blue puddles of melted beauty. 'A lot of babies have blue eyes and blonde hair', he said. 'Sam told me.'
'How did you and Melissa get to know each other?' Thomas asked, ignoring Ray's comment. 'When did you first meet?'
'That… must have been Christmas. December last year.'
'That's like, what? Ten months?'
'Ten and a half.' Ray swallowed the thick lump in his throat.
'And when,' Thomas said, practically gritting his teeth, 'did you first have sex?'
Ray sucked in a deep and deliberate gust of air, balling his hands into fists because really, it hurt.
'I, um', he said. 'I don't think that's any of your business. Melissa and I have always-'
'Fuck you, Ray!'
Ray's eyes flew wide open. He hadn't seen that outburst coming, hardly even knew the older boy currently seated in his living room. The shock sent a bright flush across his cheeks. 'Don't', he breathed, 'Don't swear. You don't have the right to talk to me like that.'
'Are you an idiot?' Thomas yelled, 'Huh?! Taking care of a damn kid when it's got absolutely nothing to do with you!'
'You don't know that', Ray mumbled, barely audible even to himself.
'It's clear as daylight you stupid fuck!'
Thomas rose to his feet, face burning with anger. He was clenching his fists so hard the knuckles turned white. Ray was afraid the older boy would break his grandma's precious furniture, but didn't dare open his mouth. Couldn't say anything. Why in the world did the guy even care?
'How could you be so fucking dumb', Thomas continued, 'Fuck. Taking in someone else's baby at fifteen, what the fuck do you think you're doing?'
'Thomas…' Ray held up both hands in an attempt to calm the boy down, agree with him, whatever was needed to restore the peace. 'I, let's just... Lets talk about this calmly. There's no need for you to freak out. This is my problem. I… I'll take care of it, so, you can just…'
'Look at you', Thomas all but spat, big creases marring his forehead. 'You brought this upon yourself.'
'It's all your fault.'
Ray swallowed, then smiled a little in defeat. He felt touched. This boy he barely knew was expressing so many different things. He couldn't for the life of him fathom why, but that didn't make it any less… special. And for the first time in weeks, he felt a bit less empty.
'From all the guys on the team, you are the only one who came to see me.'
Thomas made a bitter sound. 'It's not like- like I had a choice. Everyone was talking…'
'I know', Ray tried smiling again, eyes heavy with tears. 'Thank you for caring. Thank you so much.'
Thomas stood still, unmoving, and looked down at his junior. The boy that scored three goals during last year's local championship. The boy with the big white smile.
'You were always so…' he swallowed hard. 'So fucking bright.'
Ray let out a trembling breath, feeling like falling asleep right there and not waking up for a long time. Bright, yes. He'd managed to get a beautiful girlfriend at fourteen, after all. Even if that had turned out to be more of a curse than an actual blessing.
Cooking for a two-year old is not an easy job. Little Mason was especially picky when it came to his vegetables. As a consequence, Ray spent most lunch times convincing his child that yes, carrots, peas and cabbages were indeed extremely, extremely delicious. That day was carrot day.
'Please open your mouth, sweetheart.'
The little blonde turned away, lips pressed together in a thin line.
'It's so yummy! Look at daddy, daddy loves it.' Ray took a big bite for emphasis, mm-ing exaggeratedly. 'Carrots are good for you. They keep your skin healthy. Look, daddy's got very healthy skin.'
There was a short knock at the door, startling them both.
'Who the fuck…' Ray put down his fork. 'If it's that salesperson again, daddy's going to give him a piece of mind.' Little Mason just eyed him curiously, blue orbs wide with expectation.
'It's me, open the fuck up', came a voice from the other side of the door. Ray jumped, fumbling with the lock. 'Thomas?'
His friend stepped inside, looking grumpy as always.
Ray beamed. 'What are you doing here? I didn't expect to see you.'
'I came to wish you good luck. Isn't your job interview today?'
The other boy grimaced: 'Of course I remember, dumbass. You've been going on about it since forever.'
Ray knew that wasn't true. He'd only mentioned the interview once, casually, during dinner two weeks ago.
'I've got to be there in about an hour but Mason doesn't want to eat his food, again.' He threw the kid at the table a warning glare.
'You gonna drop him off at your grandma's place?'
Ray sighed, attempting to rub the worry off his forehead. 'I've got no other choice. It's not like she's got anything better to do.'
He walked back to the table, picking up the abandoned fork. 'Look, Mason. Carrots. Delicious.'
'How long will you be gone?' Thomas asked.
Ray shrugged, trying to pry his kid's mouth open. 'One hour. Two, maybe– sweetheart, if you're going to keep struggling, daddy's going to hate you.'
The little boy froze, eyes instantly filling with tears. There was that moment in which no one really knew what to say, and then:
'Oh, ah, darling, please don't cry. Please, I'm sorr-'
'What's for dinner?' Thomas calmly peered into a steaming pot.
'You're not getting any!'
'Come on. If you give me a plate I'll watch Mason.'
Ray paused his pleading, turning to his friend. 'What?'
'Two hours, gotta be at school in the afternoon for a test.'
Ray's eyes flew to the tattered clock on the wall, then back to Thomas. 'Oh my God, you're skipping!'
'Who the fuck cares?'
Finally Mason ceased his cries, uttering a soft 'Daddy', and then, 'Fomas', as he wiped the wetness off his cheeks.
'Yes, Mason', Ray beamed, grabbing a tissue to clean the boy's nose. 'Uncle Thomas is gonna take care of you. Say 'Thank you uncle Thomas.''
'Sank you', Mason muttered. 'Fomas.'
Ray smacked a kiss on top of the toddler's head and made a beeline for the bathroom. He was out in under ten minutes, all dressed and shaved and looking spotless.
'How do I look?' he asked.
Thomas was sitting at the table, feeding the boy his carrots one by one. 'Like a prick.'
Ray laughed and kneeled down beside them, placing a hand on his friend's jean-clad knee. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. 'You don't know how much this means, Thomas.'
'Oh I know. That's why I do it, so I can say you owe me later.'
Ray squeezed harder, a warm tinkle in his gut. Thomas was still there, even after all of his other friends had long stopped coming over. If only he could show how much it meant.
'I'll be back soon, I promise.'
'Have you got everything?'
'What about your scarf, have you got it?'
'It's too hot for a scarf. I'll die.'
'You're right, I'm sorry. I'm too excited.'
Ray ran a shaky hand through his thick brown hair, gripping the strands. He felt pathetic, needing the reassurance of his six-year-old son to be able to breathe. At moments like these, he wished he had someone by his side. If only Thomas were - no. He resolutely banned that thought from his mind. Thomas had other things to do besides worrying over the pathetic excuse for a father Ray was.
Father and son boarded the tram together, Ray's fingernails reduced to stumps by the time they reached their stop.
'Be good to the others', he said, dropping his boy off at the gates. 'Don't bully other kids, no one deserves to be bullied. And if you see kids bullying, tell your teacher.'
'Dad, why are you crying?'
'Promise you'll behave.'
He let the six-year-old put his arms around him. That little blonde head looked so fragile, it made him want to cover the child in bubble wrap and take it back home.
'I love you daddy', a small voice muttered against his jacket. Oh my God, Ray thought, knowing he was on the verge of breaking down. 'Love you too, Mason. Have a nice day.'
When he'd finally managed to tear his eyes away from the looming elementary school building, Ray made haste to be at the office in time. He was currently doing a three-weeks internship for an office job. The course was a once in a lifetime opportunity and even though his boss was friendly and easy-going, Ray didn't want to slack off. This was the time to prove himself.
So he walked into the building, greeted his colleagues – the women who were always fawning over him, the men who couldn't help patronizing him – and entered his office, sat down at his desk, browsed through his schedule, answered some phone calls, categorized some files... Ray kept up a strong front, however by the time the clock's pointers indicated the ten hour mark he'd reached his breaking point. He excused himself under the pretense of a coffee break and left for the nearly empty hallway.
Beep – Beep – Bee- 'Yes?'
'Thomas, it's Ray.'
'Are you free at the moment?'
There was a pause. 'Gimme a second.'
Scratching noises, Thomas covering the receiver with his hand, a few muttered words, and silence, presumably Thomas walking to a place where they could talk in peace.
'What's up?' The man said finally.
'Well, nothing much. It's just that Mason's spending his first day at his new school and I'm freaking out, kinda.'
'He seemed fine this morning, but I can't be sure. Kids these days…'
'It can't be that bad.'
'It's primary school. Those days were torture.'
Thomas gave one of his trademark sighs. 'Mason will be fine', he said. 'He's a bright kid, he'll make friends.'
'I don't know. What if they start asking questions? About his mother? Kids his age like to talk about their mothers, right? Besides, I'll have to go talk to his teacher one of these days, what if she doesn't like the way I do things? What if she doesn't treat Mason right because she thinks I'm a bad influe-'
'For God's sake, Ray.' Thomas' voice boomed through the receiver. 'Stop acting like an idiot, Mason will be fine. The kid's got more of a backbone than you.'
Ray scowled, squeezing his phone. 'You don't have to say it like that.'
'It's not my fault you're being pathetic.'
Ray hung up and stomped back to his desk. That stupid jackass, talking like he knew what any of this meant. Thomas was probably out with his preppy friends having fun. The new semester didn't start until October, right? Stupid law students and their stupid long summer holidays.
At four o' clock exactly Ray went to pick up Mason at the school gates. He drowned his little son in kisses and questions and listened to the boy's excited babbling. They went home and Ray prepared Mason's favourite, fries with sausages and salad. After a quick bath and a brush of teeth, Mason was put to bed and Ray collapsed on the couch, dead tired. His eyelids felt too thick and his head hurt.
The little blonde had been full of praise for his teachers and classmates, he'd even liked most of the lessons. But Ray knew first hand how cruel children could be when they discovered something 'wasn't normal'. Well, he knew teenagers could.
There was the customary knock at the door and the sound of the handle being pushed down. Ray used his last strength to heave himself off the couch, wobbling over to the entrance.
'Thomas', he said, rubbing his tired eyes. 'What are you doing here?'
'Let me in', Thomas muttered. 'There's a draught out here.'
'No need to check up on me, I'm fine.'
'Don't be an idiot.'
Thomas pushed past his friend into the little apartment. He glanced down at the old carpet, up at the splotches of dark on the walls where moisture had seeped through, and further up as if peering through the ceiling. Faint music could be heard from the residents upstairs.
'This shit hole looks uglier every time I visit.'
Ray closed the wooden door with a little more force than necessary, crossing one arm over the other. 'If you've come to cheer me up, might as well shut your trap.'
Thomas fell quiet. There was in fact a trace of worry on his face. Just for that Ray decided to fetch the guy some drinks.
'So how's life?' he asked, plopping down in his now cramped seat. 'How are you doing? What are the plans? Any plans for the new semester?'
Thomas gave an uncomfortable caugh, realizing fully well from Ray's tone that the question had been a sarcastic one. 'Got some plans, yeah', he said. 'I'm doing alright.'
Of course he was doing alright. He was a top tier law student, whereas for Ray time had stood still at fourteen and he was still there, stuck in a crappy little apartment with a six-year-old snoring in the other room.
'You gonna specialize this year, Thomas?'
'Yeah. I'm thinking Civil Rights. Civil suits me best.'
'Civil? With your lack of empathy? I always thought you'd go into finance, be a mean jerk for mone-'
'How are you managing the bills?'
Ray snapped his mouth shut, eyeing the other guy sharply. 'All's fine, don't worry about it.'
'Hmn, how's the job?'
'You'e doing something extra on Wednesdays, right? Where's Mason staying during that time?'
Ray glared. 'How do you even know about that?'
'I saw the form on your table couple a weeks ago.'
'It's none of your business.'
'He's not staying with his grandma', Thomas said, 'I contacted her. Old hag said she's got nothing to do with it.'
Ray jumped, eyes widening in disbelief. 'What the fuck do you mean you contacted her? Are you nuts?'
'What about Mason?'
'None of your fucking business!'
'Ray!' Thomas snapped, as Ray wrenched out of the cramped couch and rose to his feet.
'I'm making another cup of coffee.'
'That's not what I asked, damn it.'
'Bugger off, Thomas. Mason stays with a friend from school sometimes. Or I take him with me.'
'To the fitness centre?' Incredulousness.
'He doesn't mind.'
'Whether Mason minds is not the point here, Ray. It's the fact that you have to drag your six-year-old to the damn fitness centre!'
Ray was grateful for the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. How come only five minutes ago he'd been the one throwing punches, and now the roles were already reversed? That just wasn't fair.
'Don't sweat it, Thomas, we're fine. We have been for the past six years and I'm sure you've better things to do than to bother with my petty problems. As you so eloquently stated this morning, I'm being an idiot. You can leave me alone now.'
'Are you surprised?'
'No. No I'm not. You're shouldering a burden that shouldn't even-'
'Shut the fuck up, Thomas.'
'It's the truth.'
'It's not!' Rage. 'Mason is my son now and I'm taking care of him! Forever!'
The last statement had sounded violent, a tad hysterical even, but Ray didn't give two shits right then. He'd talked to Melissa, he'd talked to her parents, he'd talked to the guy that was, presumably, the number one candidate to be Mason's real father, and all they'd done was reject the boy. Laugh in Ray's face, push them both away. Well, he'd show them. He'd show Mason deserved to be adored and spoiled like any other kid, and that he was the one prepared to give it his all. Thomas couldn't judge them, no one could.
In his rage he'd punched a crack in the plastic filter of his ancient coffee machine. The water had started leaking out onto the counter. He was still fumbling with rags and tissues when Thomas snuck in behind him, hands jammed deep inside the pockets of his fancy trousers.
'I've still got a month 'till classes start', he said. 'I could look after Mason until then.'
Ray huffed in annoyance. 'Stop acting like you care, I've got it under control.'
'Fuck, Thomas, for the hundredth fucking-'
Then Thomas was at his back, warm and solid, one hand on Ray's arm, the other slung around his waist. 'You're such a pain', he muttered. 'Are you really going to make me say it?'
'What the…' Thomas' breath was on Ray's shoulder, his hair against Ray's ear, and the younger man had trouble breathing evenly. He knew his frantic reaction wasn't a coincidence, similar stuff had happened before. Thomas unknowingly turned him into a blushing mess, but then again, was that a bad thing?
'Make you say what, Thomas?' he asked, carefully turning around. The arms came to rest on his hips, a hot weight that for some reason made Ray feel lighter. Thomas stared down, eyes dark.
'That you're working too hard.' His voice was clear, his expression more open than it had been in a long time. 'You're wearing yourself down every day, hardly earning enough to pay the rent for this crappy piece of shit apartment. You're running around like a madman, and for what? I know you love the kid, Ray, but this is too much. You could be studying right now. You could be having a life.'
Ray shook his head, slowly, breathing in through his nose. 'You know that's not how it is.'
'You're fooling yourself.'
'You don't really believe that.'
The two looked each other in the eye, Thomas' broad shoulders a safe haven, his warm chest an invitation to curl up against. Ray blinked once, twice, waiting for the moment in which Thomas would move and he could lean in, too. Surround himself with the other's warmth he knew he'd been craving ever since that first day, the day Thomas had stood at his door unexpectedly.
But there was movement in the living room and a sleepy-looking Mason walked in barefoot, snot and tears dripping from his little nose.
Ray scooped the boy up while his best friend walked out of the room, waving them both a silent goodbye.
Ray was waiting in Thomas' car, fidgeting nervously as the four o' clock bell sounded and the school gates were opened by a sour-looking janitor.
'This is it!' he cried excitedly. 'My boy's first graduation!'
'It's only primary school', Thomas said, passive as always- when he wasn't busy being an ass. In reality he was just about as excited as Ray was.
'There he is', Ray said and threw the car door open: 'Mason!'
Mason was with a group of friends, now all sending curious glances at the rapidly approaching man wearing his best jacket for the occasion. Thomas followed more calmly, hands jammed in the pockets of his black dress pants. He'd just returned from court, true- but it would be a lie to say that was the reason he'd put on his finest suit.
'Mason, congrats on graduating!' Ray seized his son into a tight hug the twelve-year-old awkwardly returned, and ruffled the boy's dark blonde hair.
'Thomas and I are here to take you out to dinner as a celebration! Is there something you wanna eat? Chinese, Indian, steak with fries? You name it!'
Mason's friends were still eyeing Ray, undeniably trying to figure out if Mason had ever mentioned an older brother. Thomas took a step closer to his friend. He'd never been able to cope with the stares, even though they were rarely directed at him.
'Um, dad', Mason said. 'I can't.'
'I can't come with you. I have plans. With my friends.'
Ray's face fell at a speed that would have been comical, if not for the devastation that sounded through his voice right after: 'Oh.'
'It's not too far from here', one of the girls in the little group said shyly. 'Pizzeria Roberto around the corner.'
Thomas then jumped in, flashing the kids his business smile before he turned to Mason: 'Don't be home too late, we'll be waiting for you', and dragging Ray back by the arm.
The twelve-year-old nodded as he watched his father step into Thomas' car, doors falling shut with a bang.
'Stop sulking, you look pathetic. '
'Shut the fuck up, Thomas. Pass me a beer.'
They were sitting on a leather couch in Ray and Mason's two-bedroom apartment. It was a nice enough place, located close to the city centre in a fairly decent neighbourhood. The walls were clean and cream-coloured, the door was a nice, sturdy piece of wood and the windows could actually be opened!
'It's normal for kids to grow more distant over the years', Thomas said, munching on a dry sausage. 'He's growing up.'
'He's doing it too fast.'
'Hush, you idiot.'
'Stop calling me that.'
'Stop crying, dammit.'
'I can't help it!' Ray wiped the snot off his face and grabbed another tissue. Thomas muttered something about the sheer disgustingness of it all, but wrapped an arm around his best friend's shoulders anyway. For Ray to cry that shamelessly in front of him, he didn't know if he should cheer or be fed up.
'He'll come around.'
'He's been so cold to me lately. He hardly ever looks me in the eye anymore.'
'Did anything happen at school?'
'No, I don't think so. I talked to his teacher, she said he's got plenty of friends.'
'I don't know.'
Thomas started gently stroking Ray's hair, sinking his fingers into the thick brown strands. His friend curled up against him, subtly, almost secretly. Thomas had to fight the heat off his cheeks, try his best not to grow too desperate. Ray was easy. Ray was cute. Ray was helpless and maybe what Thomas had was a hero complex – one that had lasted for over thirteen years already – but he wasn't too sure of it anymore. Not when the younger man sniffled against his crisp white shirt, giggling shyly right after, and Thomas felt the hotness explode inside his abdomen.
'I know I'm the one who's supposed to love him unconditionally and be there for him, but sometimes I'm scared he'll leave me behind and I'll be the one in need. I feel lonely sometimes.'
'No, you don't. People like you. You're successful.'
'You're being overly dramatic.'
'I know', Ray said, waving his free arm around. 'I'm pathetic and a drama queen, everybody know. I'm sure Mason knows it too. He must think I'm such a poor excuse for a parent.'
''That's why I tried dating Hillary. Remember Hillary?'
'The blonde chick with the legs. Of course I remember Hillary.'
'She was more than blonde and legs.'
Thomas gave a careless shrug. 'The legs stood out, that's the one thing I remember. And that Mason couldn't stand her.'
Ray shifted, running a hand down his face. 'I still don't understand. He was eight, how could he not like her?'
'He told her to leave you alone or something like that, right?'
'She was devastated.'
Ray looked Thomas in the eye. They burst out laughing simultaneously, even though nothing about it was even remotely funny. It wasn't.
As they both shook with mirth, Ray felt the growing urge to drag Thomas' arm – casually draped across his shoulder – down around him. He didn't know when exactly things had changed, but at some point they'd started growing more conscious of each other. And the more years had passed, the more that feeling had expanded. Ray could now honestly admit that if it hadn't endangered everything they'd built up together over the years, he would claim Thomas' mouth right there and then and never let go.
Two hours later, Mason arrived. He slammed the door and threw his jacket over the shoe rack. Ray came shooting out of the kitchen, all smiles.
'Did you guys have fun?'
Mason eyed his father wearily, not really looking him in the face, and shrugged. 'It was okay.'
'Thomas was thinking we could rent a movie or something.'
'No, that's okay.' Mason started taking off his shoes. It was a second-hand pair he'd gotten from one of his friends. Ray had a brand new box waiting on the kitchen table.
'Come on, Mason. We'll have some family time. I'll even let you sip my beer.'
'I said I'm fine.'
Ray frowned at the cold tone in his son's voice. On further inspection, the boy didn't look all that happy. 'Mason, are you alright?'
Mason shrugged, dragging at his laces until they nearly snapped. He swung his shoes in the direction of the rack and stomped into the living room. Thomas was lounging on the couch, gnawing on a carrot Ray had been peeling in the kitchen two minutes prior. Ray was starting to get really worried.
'Mason, why don't you tell us what's on your mind?'
The boy said nothing and turned away instead, stomping towards his room.
'Mason', Thomas said. 'Don't ignore your father.'
The door fell shut with a bang. Ray's hands started shaking.
'Don't cry', Thomas ordered softly, rising to his feet. He walked to the little room at the end of the hall and knocked, twice. When there came no answer, he pushed down the handle.
Mason lay on his bed, curled up against the wall. He didn't move when the mattress dipped in.
'I can't, I'm staying the night. Ray already gave me a toothbrush.'
Mason sighed. 'Not funny, Thomas.'
'Your father's had a rough day. Show him some mercy.'
The young boy shifted so that his face was buried in the cushions, taking a deep, smothered breath: 'I don't want to talk to him.'
'Just tell him what's on your mind. He'll understand.'
'He won't this time.'
Thomas fell quiet because just then, Mason had sounded very odd. It was a tone he'd never before heard out of a child's mouth, and it sent a nasty chill down his spine.
'I'll go get your father', he muttered, walking back out the door.
Ray sat hunched on the table, knees drawn up to his chest. The image struck Thomas as bittersweet. In some ways, there wasn't too much difference between the boy sulking on his bed and the young father angsting in an uncomfortable position on too of the table. Look at him, he thought, feeling a nearly unbearable weight press on his chest. No matter how much responsibility, deep inside Ray was barely an adult himself. He ushered the pitiful man into his son's room and closed the door behind them, sighing deeply.
As Thomas sank back against the wall, bits and pieces of Ray's conversation with Mason came floating through.
'Tell me what this is about, Mason. Please. You've been acting strangely for weeks and I feel so powerless. Because you don't confide in me … I want to be able to talk to you… '
'It's not important … '
'Of course it is! I can't stand seeing you so miserable all the time ... '
'Just stop, leave me alone ... '
'When you're down, I'm down, too … '
'You don't even want … '
'Why would I not … '
'You don't want me ...'
'What are you saying ...'
'I've heard. They've told me … '
'What? What did they tell you, Mason? Please. I don't understand … '
'You're too young to be a father ...'
'What … '
'You hate it. Admit it, you hate me. You never even wanted-'
'Don't you ever say that again! Don't you dare believe the lies people tell you!'
There was yelling. They both cried. Ray swore. How long have you been having these thoughts? God, Mason, tell me… they hugged each other tightly, made promises. When the apartment eventually became silent again and Ray left the room on his tiptoes, his eyes were red and his nose was snotty and he got pulled into a hug, fresh sobs getting muffled against soft fabric.
'Where did- did I go wrong?'
'He thinks I don't love him.'
Thomas ruffled the younger man's hair, a little roughly, as if to avoid any more brittleness. 'It's an identity crisis. The boy misses his mother, sees you struggling every day… cut him some slack.'
'I know… I should have… should have remarried. Should have found myself a nice wife.'
'Shut the fuck up, Ray.'
Ray kept on sobbing. They fell asleep on the couch together and woke up again in the earliest hours of the morning.
Ray leant over Thomas' broad form, watching the other man's body rise and fall evenly. He kissed a closed eye, and when that eye opened, kissed Thomas' mouth.
'Stop it', Thomas muttered, distracted by Ray's eager tongue sliding over his jaw, teasing what little stubble had started to grow. He put his hands against the man's chest, lifting him off, but Ray wound himself around Thomas' waist.
'Don't make me stop. I want this.'
'Get a grip, Ray. You're not a kid anymore.'
'That's not what this is about.'
'Yes it is.'
Ray howled, like an animal in pain, clutching Thomas' shoulders, his upper arms, his chest – 'Just… just don't-'
'I'm not going anywhere you crazy shit. Now stop acting like a dog in heat and cool the fuck down.'
Thomas sounded troubled, calm but lost. Ray immediately felt ashamed. He slid off the couch and fled into the kitchen. When he returned with two cold beers, his best friend had recovered. A serious lawyer, still wearing his dress shirt and tie.
'I'm sorry', Ray said, placing the beers on the table and taking a seat on the other end of the couch.
'Don't apologize. And don't act like we're strangers all of a sudden.'
Ray slid a bit closer and Thomas pulled him in, keeping a firm grip.
'Ray', he said quiely. 'I'm not…'
Ray didn't say anything, he just felt miserable about the whole situation. Then he thought about Mason sleeping in the room next door and felt sick.
'I'm going to talk to him tomorrow', he said. 'I'm going to say how much I love him and then we're going to visit his mother. Doesn't matter if she's free or not, I'm gonna have the three of us talking. We'll see how things go from there.'
Thomas hummed. 'I'll take the both of you out next weekend. To an amusement park, or the swimming pool, whatever Mason wants. Let him bring a friend or two. We'll celebrate properly.'
Ray wiped his dirty cheeks, trying to smile but not quite succeeding. 'He'll definitely be excited. He's always loved these trips with the three of us together.'
Thomas nodded solemnly. 'Sure.'
Thomas barged in, dropping the shopping bag and his car keys on the kitchen table. 'Where's Mason?'
Ray rinsed his hands under the tap, wiped them on his apron and put the broom back in the closet. He heaved a deep sigh and plopped down on one of the kitchen chairs, making it screech against the tiled floor.
'He's at Simon's, some kid he got to know through his painting class.'
'Hmn', Thomas said. 'Painting? Sounds innocent enough. You think the Simon kid's a good influence?' He took his own chair, leaning his elbow on the table. That day Thomas was wearing an expensive-looking grey shirt and fitting black pants, most probably in an attempt to impress an earlier business partner. Ray tried to ignore the way the gorgeous fabric moved against his chest and arms. He shrugged.
'I'm just glad he's found someone to rely on. He's been a bit down ever since we got those test results.'
'Is he doing alright in school?'
'It's hard on him. School's really starting to get serious now and I think the difference is showing. All dyslectic kids get special treatment on tests and exams, but you know Mason. He hates to be the exception all the time.'
Thomas hummed in agreement, proceeding to open his bag. 'I remember eleventh grade being kinda tough.'
'Nothing was ever tough for you. You were a freaking prodigy.'
'If you say so.'
'Did you bring the booze?' Ray grabbed the plastic shopping bag and took a peek inside.
'I brought a bottle of wine, to celebrate your promotion.'
They drank, mostly in silence, and that was what bothered Thomas most. Mason hadn't been the only one moping. Ray had been shouldering his son's problems at school, as well as the stress at work and the burden of his household. To top it all off, there was Melissa acting like a bitch. The troubles had been building up for many months, but Ray had insisted it was his own business. Being the nice and understanding friend he was, Thomas had chosen to back off and leave the guy some space, to work things out. Ray was a capable man. However he had the annoying habit of taking too much on his plate, making things more complicated than they should be, and consequently became a grumbling pain in the ass.
As a close friend and confidant, Thomas humbly requested Ray let off some steam, or leave things be altogether. In his opinion, there was no use worrying over stuff that wasn't worth Ray's time and energy because, honestly, Melissa should just get over herself and go die in a pit already. Being the blatant idiot Ray was, he still did worry. And it always managed to make Thomas restless.
He took a sip, keeping the red liquid on his tongue while he watched Ray play with the stem of his already empty glass. Watched how those long fingers danced. How the nails, short and clean, clinked against the smooth surface.
Thomas knew he could feel those fingers on his skin anytime, but that was not an option. It wasn't his place. And even though he more than anyone-
Thomas' eyes focused on Ray's face. His friend was studying him calmly, seemingly carelessly, but his grip around the stem had tightened. Thomas put his own glass down and frowned, since that was what he did best. Act sternly. Scold Ray and pick up the pieces afterwards, feeling guilty. Feeling hurt. Feeling so…
'Yes. You keep me out of things. Everything that's important, you just tell me it's none of my business.'
'And you know damn well why I'm acting this way.'
Thomas paused at that, statement hanging in the air while Ray glared, squeezing his wine glass.
'Because,' Thomas said eventually, 'you're being difficult. All I want to do is help.'
Ray scoffed: 'Just tell yourself that, why don't you? Makes all of this a lot easier.'
'Don't Ray me! That's what you always do, belittle me and blow me off. You treat me like a child!'
'Because you act like one.'
'Maybe I do but that doesn't change the fact that I WANT YOU!'
Thomas made a very ugly face. 'Don't do this, Ray. I'm warning you.'
'You're giving warnings now?' Ray slammed a hand down on the table. 'What will you do if I'm bad? Spank me?'
'What will you do, Thomas?'
Thomas fell silent, staring down at his lap and not saying anything. He felt tired and angry, and so…
'I know what I feel', Ray said. 'I know this is what I need, what I've wanted all along. How many women have I had? How many of them have stayed? And how many times have I dragged myself to the door only to find you standing there waiting for me like an idiot?'
'Because I'm your friend. That's what friends do.'
'No it's not, you denying son of a bitch.'
'Speak for yourself.'
Ray all but threw his glass away and grabbed Thomas by the collar. He drew their faces close together.
'Now you listen to me, Thomas. You think you know what love is? It's got nothing to do with romance. Romance is dead after you've cleaned the tenth diaper. Real love is being able to meet a person and connect. Form a bond that's more precious than anything and tolerate each other for the remainder of the time.' He shook Thomas' collar for emphasis, to make sure the other man understood.
'After me and Mason settled down I tried to move on. I searched for a nice girl, to bring some harmony into this family, but it never worked. I couldn't sleep around either. Because to take someone's body and not their soul, that struck me as the most horrible thing a man can do. You know why, Thomas? Why I feel that way?' He blinked. 'It's because... because I think our souls connected long ago!'
Thomas stared at the grown man in front of him, whose bottom lip had started trembling like an angry child's. Ray pushed off of his friend's chest and glared. He actually stomped his foot, but only just once.
'I just want to stay with you like this,' he said. 'Always. Thomas.'
And Thomas just sat there and did what he does best: open his arms to the other man and let him vent, all the while feeling confused, bewildered, and so…
Well, in love.
That new kid had entered the club and Thomas, almost fourteen at the time, wasn't too happy about it. Why in the world had coach allowed a shrimp to join the main team? They didn't need an amateur slowing them down.
He observed the guy – Raymond – from a distance, watching as the kid entered the hall in his P.E. uniform. Raymond was tall for his age, with messy brown hair and an open face. The first thing that sprung to Thomas' mind was 'bright'. Bright like a ray of sunshine.
When Raymond Peterson caught a ball and started dribbling, Thomas crossed one arm over the other and concentrated on the boy's play. His movements were smooth and controlled. There was creativity in his tricks, and when another guy caught Ray's ball and dribbled off in the opposite direction, Thomas almost found himself regretting it.
'The new kid's pretty good, eh?' his mate Philip asked, coming up from behind. Thomas nodded and strolled over to the benches where he started his ten laps warm-up.
When three months of training had passed, and during a match against a rival school Ray was thrown to the floor by a big bully from the other team, Thomas threw the younger guy's arm over his shoulder and dragged him out of the hall, away from the loud cheering and boo-ing. Ray kept making a pained face, holding his head with one hand.
'I'm fine', he insisted all the way to the locker rooms, 'It's just a bump.'
'Go lie down', Thomas said while spreading out his sweater over one of the wooden benches. Ray clumsily obliged, mumbling a thank you. He looked worse than he had a few minutes prior, and Thomas was starting to worry.
'Should I call someone? To check on your head?'
'It's hurting', Ray groaned, 'Hurts. But I'm fine.'
'You've been saying that for a while now.' Thomas frowned, silently debating over his next action. Meanwhile Ray had started rambling like a drunkard:
'Thomas', he said, 'Thomas, you played good. You… Without your defense, we'd be losing for sure…!'
'What the hell are you babbling about', Thomas muttered, feeling Ray's forehead. He stroked the boy's hair back carefully and tried to hold the other's shifting gaze. Raymond looked disoriented, too much so for it to be a normal reaction.
'I was on a roll just now but I blew it', he muttered, smiling shyly. 'Messed up.'
'That guy practically ran you over. You didn't blow anything.'
Raymond stared at Thomas' hair, then at his mouth, then whispered an almost inaudible: 'Oh…'
Thomas' frown deepened: 'Raymond, are you alright?'
'Call me Ray, please', Ray answered, 'I really love basketball.'
'Uhm. I've… noticed?'
'Noticed? How could you ever notice me?'
Thomas grimaced at the boy's incoherent babbling: 'What?'
Ray propped himself up on his elbows, then fell back down and almost tumbled off the bench. Thomas started worrying for real when he saw the younger boy's eyes turn in their sockets.
'Raymo- Ray. Ray!'
'You're so cool, Thomas…'
Thomas stormed over to his locker, fidgeting with the key: 'I'm calling an ambulance, alright?' He thought he heard a muffled 'Fine' and turned his head right in time to see Ray's lump of a body slide off the bench.
'Fuck', the boy swore as he landed on his right side with a painful thud. 'Hurts…'
'What hurts?' Thomas was crouching down now, panic rushing through his veins.
'My eyes? No… my side…?'
'Dammit, uh, hang in there. Please don't fall asleep.'
Ray's eyes slid closed, a thin white line still visible under his lashes. They were long lashes, and they were trembling every few seconds. Thomas called an ambulance and heaved the boy's head into his lap. He held onto him until the medics arrived.
Turned out Ray had suffered a light concussion, nothing serious, but serious enough to keep him at home for the following two weeks. When he returned to training, he told everyone the doctor had said to keep it calm, not to run around too much, and that the events from the last match were still a little hazy. He remembered bumping his head, and that was it.
Thomas and Ray's next talk wouldn't find place until a year later, when Thomas knocked on Ray's door all angry and upset and nearly killed him for his lack of common sense. For his good-will and naivety where reason was needed. And for the fact that he was throwing his life away - a life Thomas had started to cherish ever since that day on the cold locker room floor. Maybe even before that.
Ray, on the other hand, would believe that harsh talk in his grandmother's living room to be their first real encounter. That, and the long stares he sometimes sent his grumpy senior, wondering what the guy was thinking. Figuring his bright, impulsive self would never fit well with the other's cool and distant personality.
He kept on believing that for a very, very long time. Until his heart convinced him otherwise.
After having looked right and left, Mason carefully crossed the street and walked the few extra meters to his front door. Lately, with final exams coming up, he didn't have much free time left. His part-time job consisted of stocking goods and checking small deliveries. It was easy money and the people were nice, but going back and forth by bus each day was incredibly time-consuming. He survived, though. His dad had told him many times not to bother with the extra money, but Mason felt obliged. He always casually put half his payckeck on the kitchen table, together with a stupid note that forbade his dad from handing it back. For the music lessons. For art class. For the extra books adapted to his dyslexia. For the money he spent texting friends, for clothes, food, presents, his laptop, and the countless other things he knew his father spent a fortune on. Not to mention the money Ray was saving up for when Mason finished high school. Handing over some of his earnings, Mason thought, was the least he could do. Not as some kind of pay-you-back, but as a support. They were a family, after all.
Mason took the stairs two at a time. It was a Thursday, his father's evening off, so he wasn't surprised to find the door unlocked. He placed his shoes neatly on the shoe rack, hollering a cheerful: 'Dad I'm home', before proceeding to the living room.
As Mason slid the door open, his eyes were instantly drawn to the moving pair on the couch, which made him stop dead in his tracks. It wasn't so much a shock as it was a surprise - pleasant or unpleasant, Mason couldn't tell - but they all froze simultaneously; Mason with his hand on the doorknob, Ray with his hand in Thomas' hair, and Thomas with one hand on Ray's chest, the other down his pants.
Mason saw the expression on his father's face change from confusion to shock, to denial, to plain devastation. Thomas just looked embarrassed, and Mason felt like he'd messed up big time. Because his father might've been head over heels for Thomas, but the fact was that he kept their relationship strictly behind closed doors. Not so much for the sake of the world or appearances, but for Mason.
Mason could still vividly remember the hours and hours he'd spent with his father watching romance movies, talking about mommies and daddies and love and why daddy did the cooking and the cleaning instead of mommy, but actually it should have been a mommy and not a daddy. And then there was Thomas, daddy's best friend. Thomas went along with it, all out of respect for Ray no doubt, since he wasn't the type to make things unnecessarily difficult. He didn't touch his lover when the boy was around and only ever stayed the night when Mason was with a friend. Mason tried to occasionally spend the night elsewhere.
It was a difficult situation, needlessly so, and Mason often found himself getting frustrated. He more than supported his father's choice- hell, he applauded it. He no longer needed a woman in his life, didn't need his father to remarry for his sake. For Mason, Ray had always been enough. And Thomas and Ray together, well, that was just plain awesome.
Mason made a show of studying the floor while both men struggled away from each other, assuming a more natural sitting position. 'You're back', his father said, a little hoarsely. 'That's wonderful.'
Mason tried a smile and walked over to the table where he put down the greasy paper packages, purchased at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks down. 'I'm sorry', he said. 'I figured you'd be hungry…'
'I am!' Ray all but shouted, completely ignoring the used pots and pans on the table, as well as Thomas' sceptical glare.
'Hi Mason', Thomas said, lips curling into an easy smile.
'How was your day?'
'Same as usual. Yours?'
'Boring as fuck.' They both turned to Ray, who didn't in the slightest react to the provocation. He just took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, a deep furrow marring his forehead. It broke Mason's heart, to witness his father's internal struggle.
'Dad', he spoke as calmly and soothingly as possible. 'Don't get too worked up. It's fine.'
Ray's face clearly showed he disagreed, but he bit the comment down and instead asked: 'Are you sure?'
'Of course I am!' Mason almost felt victorious. 'You and Thomas can take your time, I'm going to my room.'
'I'll, uhm, come and bring you some food in a minute.'
'No need. I'll do it myself.'
He hastily scooped up an already used fork and one of the aluminum boxes. The most important thing was to get out of there and not bother them any further. As Mason was about to lunge for his bedroom door, he heard Thomas thank him, in that soft voice that meant he was trying to sound sincere. The boy couldn't help but smile at the clear relief on both men's faces.
As soon as he'd shut the bedroom door behind him, Mason fished his phone out of his back pocket and jumped on the bed.
Beep – Beep – Bee- 'Yeah?'
'Simon, hi, it's me.'
'Mason', Simon greeted happily, 'How's it going?'
'I just barged in on my dad's private time with Thomas.'
There was a silence on the other end, and then a careful: 'You mean…?'
'Wow. Was he upset?'
'A bit, yeah. More than a bit, probably.'
The other boy sighed, likely making an agitated hand gesture. 'Your father's such a worry wart. And for what? He's the best. So is Thomas. It's such a shame...'
Mason ran a hand through his hair, gripping the curly ends. So blond and so different from Ray's dark head.
He knew his father's problems as well as his were far from being solved, which resulted in four men, Simon included, being worried sick. Knowing he was the main cause of it all made Mason want to puke out his own guts then self-destruct. First and foremost however, he wanted to save his dad from any more trouble. That, regretfully, often meant keeping secrets.
'Simon', Mason said, in a worried, slightly placating tone, but the other boy quickly interrupted: 'I know, you don't have to tell me over and over. I understand.'
Mason let out a small chuckle, rolling over so his nose was pressed into the sheets. 'I'm sorry', he said. 'I know you shouldn't have to deal with this in the first place-' he conveniently covered Simon's unhappy grunt with a cough – 'but I just don't have the heart to tell him yet. He'll think, you know... That it's his fault.'
'Why are you ranting?' Simon grumbled, no malice in his voice whatsoever. 'I've told you a thousand times already, it's fine.'
'But you're my boyfriend', Mason insisted, blushing a little at how whiny he sounded. 'You're precious and I know he likes you a lot. Just-' he swallowed a thick lump of regret, 'he'd be devastated. Think something stupid, that he's failed as a father or something. He's always making up these doom scenarios where he's responsible for every little thing that happens to me. I made him go through the whole guilt thing once already. A second time would just…'
'Hey', Simon shushed, 'Hey, I know, it's all good. I would never blame your dad, not in a million years. Everything he does just breathes 'love you Mason!''
Mason chuckled into the speaker, feeling all giddy for a sappy reason he'd rather ignore but well, it was hard reasoning away certain feelings when they were pounding through your chest like a freaking sledge hammer.
'I love you.'
'What was that?' Simon shouted, like an old geezer with bad hearing. Mason laughed and reached for the box of Chinese food on his nightstand. 'Did I tell you what happened with my mother yesterday?' he asked, scooping up a forkful of noodles.
Simon hummed, going with the change of subject.
'First she talked for half an hour about Frank and the kids, then asked if I didn't want to spend the holidays with them.'
'What'd you say?'
'Uhm, no. Obviously.'
'She still in your father's face about the loan?'
'Dad won't tell but I'm pretty sure that's the case, yeah. Hence the sudden invitation.' Simon didn't speak for a while, just waited for Mason to vent, something he always needed after a date with his mother.
'I mean, she's married with three kids of her own, I don't get why else she would want to drag me in except for the money. Whatever she and dad try to palm off on me about 'shared responsibilities' and 'past mistakes', I won't just buy that shit and follow Melissa home like the obedient little kid she wants me to be. I'm nineteen, I know what I need. And it's not Melissa. Dad's got enough to deal with without her breathing down his neck. It's not fair. Its- ugh. That woman, sometimes it's hard to believe it's her blood I've got running through my veins and not dad's. And you know, the thing is, whenever I bring that up dad scolds me. Like I'm the one at fault for saying the truth. I'm not. She forced him to take me, then a convenient nineteen years later wants to talk about responsibility? You'd think most people would show a little restraint, but in that woman's case it's-'
'Now shut it, Mason,' Simon interrupted lightly, 'before you start saying things you'll regret.'
Mason sucked in a deep breath, waiting for the sudden rush of adrenaline to go down. 'Fuck', he muttered, blinking furiously. 'I'm such a loser. It's just… fuck. I miss you so bad.'
The warm sound of laughter rumbled through his ear, his head, his whole body. 'Go ask your dad for a hug,' Simon answered, 'I'll swing by sometime tomorrow.'
They exchanged silly goodbyes for over five minutes and eventually hung up on each other. Mason grabbed the abandoned box of food and started stuffing his face. The taste was mild on his tongue, and soothing for some reason.
He smiled as he heard Thomas and Ray stumble around in the other room. They were speaking in hushed voices no doubt, trying to figure out what to do next. Truth be told, Mason didn't know either. Maybe if they talked about it seriously, Mason would be able to tell the truth about him and Simon and clear that misunderstanding up for good. He was sure he'd be able to talk his dad out of any disillusions the man might have, even if it probably would take a while. And there was Thomas to keep Ray in check.
It was something Mason had often secretly been jealous of, the ability Thomas had to just wipe the worry off his father's face, while Mason could only do the opposite. That way he still sometimes compared himself to the older man and felt left out. But Thomas knew. He was smart, he understood the signs and reacted to them in a way that never failed to reassure Mason.
So his father had given up everything, spent his whole life trying to make sure Mason grew up happily and without too much worry. Now the boy would make sure to try and do the same, or at least let his father have some of that lost time back. The time he missed out on when he quit everything to take care of a baby he wasn't even sure was his.
That was all Mason wanted, for his dad to have that little bit of freedom back. Thomas would be the one to grant them that wish.
a/n: Again dedicated to the lovely, lovely PalindromeIsntOne and to all the single mothers and fathers out there. Please cherish your parents!