“Slow down, Will,” my dad said firmly, but I ignored him. We’d gotten a late start this morning, and I was pissed off about that. Grand should be out of surgery, or almost out of surgery by now. It was maddening to be dicking around at the airport while he was being operated on, instead of being here, where he needed us. “Will,” he all but shouted, but then gave up as I tore down the hallway. I came skidding around a corner and almost ran into Stef.
“You will have us both admitted here if you are not more careful,” he said to me, smiling.
“Do we know anything yet?” I asked urgently. “How is he?”
“They started a little late,” Stef said. “I assume we will know something shortly.”
“It would have been nice if you would have waited for us,” Dad said, as he and Robbie caught up to me.
“They’re like those guards I outran in Paris,” I said to Stef, making him giggle.
“The guards who were fat and out of shape?” he asked.
“Whatever,” Dad said, irritated. “How is Dad?”
“We should find out shortly,” Stef said evenly. “He was in good spirits going in. You will find the others in the lounge.”
“Why aren’t you in there?” I asked.
“It is not always easy to look happy and relaxed when you are not happy and relaxed.”
“For the record,” I said, “you put on a pretty good act.” That made him smile. It was usually pretty easy to cajole Stef out of a bad mood, even when he was dealing with something as serious as this. He led us into the lounge, where I greeted Grandmaman and Frank, along with Uncle Ace, Aunt Cass, and Aunt Claire. Over in the corner, I spotted John. I headed straight over to him; I’d been so depressed lately, and he was probably one of the few people who could pull me out of my funk.
“Hey,” I said happily. He gave me a sour look. “What?”
“I heard you had fun in Rome.”
“I did have fun in Rome,” I responded. I didn’t get him. What was his deal?
“Found yourself a hot Italian dude,” he said bitterly.
“His name is Berto,” I said. “So?”
“Dude, you cannot act all freaked out and then just say never mind,” I stated firmly. “What’s the deal?”
“It’s just that you didn’t seem to wait too long after I was gone to replace me.”
“You were the one who didn’t want to be boyfriends,” I snapped. “You were the one who was all into us getting with other people.”
“I know that.”
“So how come when I do that, you get all pissy?” I didn’t get him.
“Just forget it, OK?” he demanded, a little too loudly. Our family members were looking at us, and I remembered that obligation we had to keep our relationship low drama.
I sat next to him and didn’t say anything. I tried to gauge his mood, to wait until he was mellower, but it was tough. I wondered if I wasn’t reading him as well because I didn’t love him as much, or if he was just more pissed off than normal. “It’s good to see you,” I finally said.
He gave me a dirty sideways look. “It’s good to see you too,” he said grudgingly. Our arrival seemed to have cheered everyone up, but then that novelty faded, and the mood changed again. The air was filled with anxiety.
Looking around the room, it was clear what a strong influence Grand had on all of our lives. Grandmaman and Frank looked stoic, but I could see the concern on their faces. For his kids – my dad, Claire, and Ace – he was their rock. My dad fought with Grand a lot, like both of them were trying to be the toughest alpha male in the room, but now, faced with Grand’s mortality, my dad seemed to shrink a couple of sizes. He looked like a kid who’d been dropped off at camp: lost and alone. Claire was seething with worry; she didn’t have the counter-irritant of conflicts with Grand like my dad did to help occupy her mind. But Ace was the worst of all, swinging between tears and anger, and pretty much any emotion in between. The biggest sufferer in the room, though, bore his burden in a much more reserved manner, oddly enough. Stef, who was normally so happy and effusive, stood apart from everyone, looking aloof and grim.
I left my bitchy ex-boyfriend and went over to see him. “I have a job for you.”
“For me?” he asked.
“I have a new guard. He’s cute, but he wears lame clothes. We need to take him shopping.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You actually want to go shopping?”
“I told you he’s cute,” I said, winking at him. “His name is Pat.”
“Wasn’t your last guard named Pat as well?”
“It seems that’s a job requirement,” I joked, getting a chuckle from him. I prattled on, trying to keep his mind off of the surgery that was going on not far from where we were standing.
“John does not seem happy to see you,” he observed.
“He’s jealous of Berto,” I said, shaking my head. “What’s the deal? He wants us to see other people, and then when I do, he freaks out.”
“There is nothing more dramatic than a teenaged gay couple,” he joked.
“No shit,” I agreed. “Darius said to tell you he was sorry he wasn’t here. He’s on his way to Claremont.” They already knew JJ had a skating competition and wouldn’t be here for a day or two.
“It is not a problem. And how was Bakersfield?”
“Ugly, but enlightening. Can you believe Darius did that?” I knew he could hear the hero-worship in my voice. “That was awesome.”
“We are all very proud of him,” Stef acknowledged. Before he could expand on that, my Uncle Jack came out in his scrubs. We all jumped up and mobbed the poor man.
“He’s doing just fine,” Jack said, directing his comments to Stefan. “The surgery went very well.”
“So he is alright?” Stef said.
“He’s going to be,” Jack said. We all let out a collective sigh of relief as Jack regaled us with more details than most of us understood. He’d said Grand would be fine, and that was enough for me. I felt my whole mood, my whole outlook on life brighten immeasurably.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry if I was a little bitch,” John said. “This was freaking me out.”
“I’ve been hanging out with JJ,” I joked. “I’m used to it.” Then we laughed together, and at least on the surface, things seemed good between us.
August 4, 2000
“I’ll watch out for Kristin for you when she gets back,” Zach said to me with a leer. As usual, the little shit was trying to piss me off. Normally, I would have just blown him off, but saying goodbye to everyone was really ripping my emotions to shreds.
“I know you will,” I said to him in deadly earnest, shocking the shit out of him.
“Maybe after I tell her you fucked me, she’ll feel sorry for me and go out with me,” he said, pouring it on.
I grabbed his shirt lapels and used them to slam him against the wall. “Here’s what you’re going to do, asshole. When she comes back, you’re going to watch out for her and make sure she’s alright, and you’re not going to tell her shit about us.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “I’ll tell her whatever I want.”
“Go ahead, then,” I replied smugly. “That will be the stupidest decision you ever made.”
“Why? You planning to kick my ass? Look at this,” he said, flexing his bicep. “You can’t hurt me.”
“No? What if I tell the guys on the football team that you go nuts when another guy sticks his dick in your ass? I wonder how much playing time you’ll get. I’m sure all the colleges will be looking to draft you.”
“Fuck you,” he repeated, but this time with more malice.
“So do we understand each other?” I demanded.
“I understand you,” he said, and shook himself free. He stalked off in a huff; the only positive thing to happen to me. From there, I had to re-immerse myself in saying goodbye. It took us another half an hour to finally extract ourselves and hit the road.
“God, that was awful,” Darius said as we pulled away from Wally and Clara’s house. We’d had a majorly tearful parting, one that was so intense I couldn’t even give him shit for being an insensitive bastard. None of us responded to him; in fact, none of us said anything until we were on Interstate 70 heading west.
“Did you put that suitcase in the back?” Ella asked.
“I did,” I answered; glad to focus on something besides my departing vision of Wally with tears running down his cheeks. “If I didn’t, it’s a little late now though, isn’t it?”
The day went along smoothly enough once we worked our way out of our bad moods. We paused in Indianapolis to see the speedway, and then stayed in downtown St. Louis. Now that I had money, I sprung for a suite that overlooked the riverfront and the Arch. Darius kept ranting about how green everything was this time of year, and that evening we had a massive thunderstorm, as if to remind him of the price we paid for that greenery.
August 5, 2000
“This is one sweet ride,” Pat said as we pulled into the hospital. My dad had told him to use his Ferrari today, and I had to admit he was right.
“No shit. Even you can probably get laid driving this car,” I told him.
“I have no problem getting laid,” he said to me sternly. I just laughed at him.
“If that were true, you wouldn’t be so uptight.” He pulled up and dropped me off at the entrance, then went to guard the car. Evidently it was more important than I was. I wandered up to Grand’s floor and found him in his room, receiving visitors.
He saw me and gave me a big smile, which for him was about as effusive as it got. “Will! Good to see you!” he said enthusiastically. I know he loves me, but he wasn’t usually that glad to see me. “This is my grandson Will,” he said to the crowd in his room.
“Hey, Grand,” I said, giving him a kiss on each cheek in the French fashion. He introduced me to his visitors individually, all of whom were faculty members at Stanford, but my arrival evidently signaled that they should be leaving. I waited until they were all gone and out of earshot before teasing him. “You just acted happy to see me so they’d all leave.”
“The sentiment is genuine, but your arrival was convenient,” he said.
“So how are you feeling today?” I asked. He still looked a little dazed, but nothing like yesterday, when he’d been in a big fog.
“I’m feeling like getting the hell out of here,” he groused. I laughed.
“You can’t go home until Uncle Jack says so. Aren’t you glad you were nice to him when he was dating Aunt Claire?” The stories Jack had told us about those times had been entertaining, but the respect and love he felt for JP had been just as apparent.
“That was one of my wiser moves.” He adjusted himself in his bed. “I wanted to talk to you, actually.”
“Did I do something wrong?” I was worried he’d give me shit about Rome, or bitch at me for not getting along with John.
“Not at all. It just seems to me that as I sit here, old and decrepit, that it is awfully selfish of me to ask you to confine yourself to spending the rest of your summer with me.”
“I don’t think you asked me to do that,” I replied firmly. “I think I volunteered.”
“I don’t want you to feel obligated to be by my bedside at every waking moment.”
“Plus if I did that, it would really be irritating,” I joked.
“There is that possibility,” he allowed.
“I’ll be here, but not all the time. That make you happy?”
“As much as is possible while I am in the hospital, that makes me happy.”
“I’m going to steal Stef for an afternoon and make him go shopping.”
“Making Stef shop is hardly a challenge,” he joked.
“My guard needs new clothes.”
“Ah yes,” he said. “Pat, the handsome redhead.”
“He’s nice enough to look at, or at least he would be if he didn’t dress like a dork.”
“You have my permission to exhaust yourselves shopping.” He paused, and I knew he was going to give me some serious shit. I could just tell. “I’m thinking that while you’re out, you may want to pick up some new G-strings. I understand the ones you have don’t seem to stay on.”
“Alright,” I said, getting all officious. “Here’s an ethical dilemma. Is it wrong to strip for charity?”
“If the stripper is not quite 14, I think there is an element of ‘wrongness’ to it.”
“How old would the stripper have to be to avoid this ‘wrongness’?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, dodging the question.
“Well, when you come up with a hard and fast rule, based on solid evidence, I’ll gladly follow it,” I joked.
I stayed with him for a couple of hours and had a blast. The best part was lunch, when I got to make fun of the food he had to eat. I finally left him so he could get some rest, and then rode back to Escorial with Pat. I wandered into the kitchen to get some food of my own, and found my dad and Stef there, talking about business.
“The investment team has run the numbers on this well,” Dad said. “It has enough potential to merit the risks.”
“We could use some more oil in our portfolios,” Stef said thoughtfully. “Still, whenever you drill offshore, there are additional risks.”
“You’re drilling offshore?” I demanded, interrupting them.
“Yes,” Dad said. “It’s a good investment.”
“You’re going to invest in wells that could pollute the same waters you surf in?” I demanded. This was a big deal to me, and to most surfers. You didn’t fuck with the ocean.
“Somebody has to invest in them. Are we supposed to ignore a good opportunity just because there’s a slight chance a well could pollute the ocean?”
“How slight is the chance?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but the record of this particular drilling company is spotless.” I noticed that Stef just watched us, digesting our discussion and saying nothing.
“And you call yourself a surfer,” I said with a sneer, really pissing him off.
“You’re making accusations based on nothing. If we didn’t invest in this well, other people would.”
“How many lung surgeons own stock in RJ Reynolds?” I asked him. That was enough to make Stef giggle.
“So now you’re going to tell us how to invest money?” he demanded. I’d gotten him a little too pissed off. Stef picked up on that and intervened.
“Perhaps we can make sure that the money in your trusts is not invested in these offshore drilling ventures,” he said to me. “Would that be acceptable?”
“Thank you, Stef,” I said, then turned to Dad. “Polluter.” He rolled his eyes at me and sighed in frustration, but I’d made him think about it. I knew that he was probably right, and that the wells were probably safe, but you just didn’t mess with your own world like that.
“So are you and John getting along now?” he asked, giving me shit.
“We’re doing fine,” I said. I could be that dismissive with him, but Stef looked at me, and he deserved a more detailed response. “It’s kind of weird. There’s a distance there. We still, uh, spend time together, but it’s nothing too intense.” I knew I was blushing furiously. I was trying to tell them we weren’t fucking, without using those words. They got it.
“I think that is a wise decision,” Stef said, “but I am wondering why. If it is wrong of me to ask, please disregard the question.”
“It just doesn’t feel right,” I said. We’d been together last night, in a 69 position, and his hand had grazed over my hole. Instead of feeling lightning bolts, like I wanted him to fuck me, I felt myself close up, an internal sign that I didn’t want him to. He seemed a little miffed about it, probably because I told him that I’d let Berto fuck me, but I wasn’t going to give it up to him just so he’d be able to check me off some list, and that’s what it felt like.
“Then you are right not to do it,” he said.
“How’s your new guard working out?” Dad asked.
“Fine, but he gets pissed off at me when I grab his dick,” I said, just to freak him out. It worked.
“You are not allowed to molest the guards,” Dad said. He sounded like he was quoting regulations, and his tone cracked me up. I saw Stef trying not to laugh, and he succeeded, especially after Dad gave him a really dirty look.
“He was telling people that he was babysitting me. I told him every time he did that, I was going to grab his dick.” Their reactions were hilarious. Stef started laughing, while my dad got more pissed.
“You have to respect him, and his body.”
“I do respect his body,” I told my dad. “He’s freakin’ hot.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he snapped.
“How many times has this happened?” Stef asked.
“He said he was babysitting me once, and I grabbed his dick once. Seems to work, if you ask me.”
Stef started laughing again. “Maybe he will say that he is babysitting me too,” he said, with his slutty look.
“You’re not helping,” Dad snapped at him. Eventually he saw the humor in it, and I decided to stop torturing them and go work on someone else. If only Darius were here; he made the best target when I was in one of these mischievous moods.
August 6, 2000
“Dude, I thought this would be so sweet, driving across the country, but this is boring as fuck,” Darius said. He was sitting up front with me while Kristin and Ella took a nap. We’d stayed last night in Lincoln, Nebraska, and we’d spent the whole day driving across a boring and bland landscape, filled by miles and miles and acres and acres of farms.
“No shit,” I agreed. “I-80 has to be the most boring fucking highway in the world.”
“Where are we?” he asked.
“We just left North Platte,” I told him.
“Does it get better?” he asked as he pulled out the road atlas. He studied it and shook his head ruefully. “Nope.”
“What about the mountains?” I asked.
“Alright, we cross the Rockies after we get to Cheyenne, and then it’s all mountainous until we get to Salt Lake City.”
“That sounds good,” I said, trying to keep a positive attitude.
“Yeah, but at Salt Lake City we go from the salt flats into the Nevada desert. It’s boring as fuck again until we get to Reno.”
“Guess we’ll get there pretty fast then,” I said. The speed limit was 75 here in Nebraska. I guess even the residents here didn’t want to dick around.
“What the fuck is that?” Darius asked, gesturing at the road ahead. There was a guy on the shoulder of the road, sitting on what looked like a duffel bag.
“Hitchhiker,” I said dismissively.
“Doesn’t have his thumb out,” Darius noted. I slowed down to 70 as we approached the guy. He looked pretty young, maybe a year or two older than me, and he was one big guy. He didn’t look like the typical dirtbag you’d expect to find hitchhiking. Right after we drove past him, Darius seemed to have some sort of epiphany. “Stop!” he yelled, waking Ella and Kristin up.
“Dude, I’m not stopping for some hitchhiker,” I said, even as I slowed to 60 mph.
“I know that guy. Turn around,” he said.
“You know that guy?”
“Yeah. Now fucking turn around,” he demanded, all pissed off.
“Fine,” I said. There was a place in the median where the cops must turn around, so I took it, and sped back the other way. “Who is it?”
“Cole, I think his last name is Weber. He plays hockey with you. Won’t you feel like a douchebag for not stopping?” he asked, being a smart ass.
“What’s he doing on the side of the road in this heat?” Kristin asked, now awake. It was hot and humid: in a word, miserable.
“I don’t know. I think he’s from around here,” Darius said as we passed him again, going the other way. I turned around and started heading west again, toward the guy. “He got into a shitload of trouble his first semester, and Stef pretty much adopted him.”
“He’s cute, that makes sense,” Ella joked. We pulled up to the guy and stopped. He hadn’t been looking at us, he’d been looking down, but when the red Chevy pulled up right in front of him, he moved his head up slowly and just stared at us in amazement.
Darius jumped out of the car. “Cole, right?”
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“I’m Darius Schluter,” he said confidently. “You know my parents, and my grandfather.” Cole was a big boy, with big, round features that split into a big grin when he realized who he was talking to. “What the fuck are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“I grew up not too far from here,” he said. “Came to see my family. Visit didn’t go too well.”
“Hop in,” I said, leaning across Darius’ seat so Cole could see me clearly. Darius helped him put his bag in the back, which was almost a miracle since it was so jammed with our shit, then he sat in back and let Cole sit in front.
“I’m sorry. I probably don’t smell too good,” he apologized. He did kind of smell like BO, but not too badly.
“I’m Gathan, Gathan Hayes,” I said. I introduced him to Kristin and Ella.
“Your name sounds familiar,” he said.
“I’m going to Stanford this fall. I play hockey,” I told him.
“That’s it!” Cole said, slapping his head. “You’re the new guy on D.”
“Yeah. You play D too?”
“Yep,” he said. He didn’t say anything after that as we just drove along, which was kind of weird.
“So, wanna ride along to California with us?” I asked him.
“I need to go to Denver,” he said. “You can drop me in Cheyenne and I’ll take the bus down there.”
“You said this road was boring,” Kristin said. “Why don’t we take Cole to Denver?”
“I thought you were sleeping.”
“You thought wrong,” she said.
“Denver it is,” I said, and took I-76 southwest, toward the Mile High city.